My first impressions of this were off-putting. The sound seemed soupy, the harmonized singing seemed awfully mid-60s grey sky English countryside dreary. The first reference point is Peter, Paul & Mary. It’s inevitable that they’ll be compared to their far more famous American counterparts, and that’s fair enough. All Music Guide compares them very unfavourably, but after playing this for a couple of weeks I wholly beg to differ. Here’s why: I took a listen to a few Peter, Paul & Mary songs on iTunes, and yes, they are sharper, probably slightly more in key, but these two supposed advantages are also their undoing. You take a listen and they totally lack soul. It’s not all that dissimilar to what Linda Mason was doing—trying to sing Dylan too perfectly, too concerned with precision and enunciation, when a true Dylan emulator knows that the best Dylan cover albums are rough and ready. You need to have a little swing and soul in your voice, not this nerdy folk perfection.
Now, before I get too carried away, The Silkie aren’t exactly James Brown either, but there’s something touching about their less precise, wavering, tentative performance, something a touch more authentic. Seems The Silkie were a bunch of socially conscious university student-geeks travelling around dull pre-colour TV Britain in their Capri and earning petty cash from playing Dylan and the Beatles. But spend a little time with this record and it starts to grow on you. There are all sorts of nuances that you pick up on and I also like the way they have three singers who take turns leading different tracks, Silvie, Mike and Ivor. Mike and Ivor also play guitar, while fourth member Kev plays double bass. The guitar playing is delicate and resonant. The only thing that lets the whole project down a bit is the soupy sound. What I mean by that is that there’s just a tad too much reverb or echo left in the mix so that the sound wave is not well focused. It gives them a slightly wetter sound, compared to the dryer sound of Peter, Paul & Mary. The problem mostly exists on the first track, after which things seem to get a little cleaner. Yo, time to drop the needle, Alan.
The Times They Are A-Changin’…should not have been the opening song here. The times might have been changing but kicking off with this doesn’t do them any favours. It’s played on a guitar strummed like clockwork and all three voices sing the whole song together. Between the voices and guitar the whole thing merges into a slight dirge. Their folk-style of harmonizing, is both reverent and plaintive, leaving you desiring crispness.
Dylan’s Dream (sic)…doesn’t exactly bring the crispness, but I love this version. Dorinda Duncan also covered this. Silvie sings lead here while the blokes do an oooh background harmony. She sings it so well, in fact, that I may actually prefer this to Dylan’s version, because the minor chord vocal toning suits the lyrics and melody beautifully. It’s quite a sad sounding song, but the tune is exquisite and the harmonizing really adds impact to the lyrics. Silvie’s voice is nowhere near as strong as Dorinda’s but her light style is more my cup of tea than Dorinda’s overt niceness.
When The Ship Comes In…Mike sings lead here with Silvie and Ivor harmonizing. “And the words that are used for to get the ship confused / Will not be understood as they’re spoken.” It’s nice to hear these lyrics sung with a degree of passion that is so different to Dylan’s. I mean it’s not Dylan obviously, but you can imagine this version existing in a parallel universe, rather than a fake plastic imitation universe. This version has also really grown on me recently. The guitar is arpeggio-style throughout.
Boots Of Spanish Leather…opens with a pretty guitar melody, and here we have…um, I don’t know if it’s Mike or Ivor on lead vocal. This is delicate, but wait, this is great…I’d forgotten this song has two parts, two voices, the girl who’s leaving on a ship for Spain and the boyfriend who’ll be left behind. So we have Silvie singing what in Dylan’s version is the boy’s part and Mike (or Ivor) singing the girl’s part. Hearing this version has revitalized this song in my mind for some reason. The melody is affecting. They often join to sing together the chorus parts. Love it.
Blowin’ In The Wind…strummed guitar opening, sounds great. It’s hard to listen to this though, the three-part harmony and not feel like puking. It’s too nice. It’s not their fault…well, it is their fault, along with anybody who made this song the huge anthem it became. I remember having to sing this at school assemblies for years and never quite understanding what it was really about. Too many hippy-whiffy questions. Now I hear it in the same way I hear Yellow Submarine. Like some kind of Puff the Magic Dragon kids’ song.
Long Time Gone…is sung by Mike. There’s this tiny faint ping-pong thing done on the guitar at the end of every four bars which is really effective. This was covered by at least two of the 60s artists I’ve reviewed for this blog so far. Odetta’s version was great. But this is not bad either. Dylan’s version is only commercially available on the Witmark Demos boxset from 2010.
It Ain’t Me Babe…starts off with an oooooh harmonizing. Here we must have Ivor on lead vocal while the other two continue those background oohs. Can’t say I’m too fussed on this version. This is one that needs a satirical tone in the voice to convey the bitterness in the lyrics. Now, if you take a song like this and do something unique with it, fine. But here, the Silkie sing it very nicely and blandly, thus missing the point of the song. That’s not to say it’s not enjoyable, but only pleasantly so. It lacks substance.
Tomorrow Is A Long Time…now this is more the kind of sentiment that the Silkie do well. “I can’t see my reflection in the water / I can’t speak the sounds that show no pain / I can’t hear the echoes of my footsteps / Or can’t remember my own name.” This works here, as it does for most of the singers who covered it in the sixties.
Black Crow Blues…great to hear them choosing a previously uncovered Dylan song from Another Side Of. Mike’s lead vocal is mildly amusing; he’s putting on a slight Dylan affectation here, this being a straight forward twelve bar blues, but his voice is a little too non-descript. Having said that, I love hearing this and I love how the other two singers pick up on a lyric and repeat it in the background while Mike sings. Works for me.
Love Minus Zero/No Limit…is sung by Silvie and Mike together, though Mike’s voice is more dominant in the mix. I can’t get over how having heard these tunes over and over again, instead of getting sick of them, they just get better. The tune of this song is magnificent. Dylan’s poetics were starting to get a little more symbolic by Bringing It All Back Home. “My love she’s like some raven at my window with a broken wing.” I enjoyed this version.
Girl From The North Country…as I’ve said before, I find the tune and lyrics of this song really special. I particularly like Hugues Aufray’s cover. I’m not sure Mike’s vocals are doing the song full justice; he’s a little flat in places which steals some of the sincerity out of his vocal performance. The harmonizing is affecting though.
Mr. Tambourine Man…argh, I’m starting to hate most people’s covers of this song. Nobody even comes close to Dylan’s fantastic performance. This is bland, folky, pointless, and they don’t really sound like they’re tuned in to what the lyrics are about. There’s a reason for that. The more poetic of Dylan songs require a real dedication, a real sincere belief in the words to make them work. Instead, it sounds like The Silkie are simply ‘reeling’ the verses off instead of “skipping reels of rhyme.” The problem is similar to Blowin’ In The Wind—the song became such a standard that I get the feeling artists think they can rely on the super catchy melody alone to get by. I disagree with that. ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ is its lyrics far more than its tune, and if you can’t get that right, you ought not to have bothered.
The four members of The Silkie met at Hull University. They were signed by Brian Epstein of Beatles-founding fame. Three of them ended up dropping out of uni as their singing career took off. In 1965 they had top ten success in America with their cover of the Beatles ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’. Their timing was good because it coincided with the release of Help! which contained the original. In fact the Beatles even contributed to The Silkie’s version. An album by the same title contains many of the Dylan covers listed above plus others, and seems to be their only remaining release in the CD era.