At last we arrive at the most famous and most popular of all the sixties covers albums, and apart from the Byrds Play Dylan, possibly the most well known Dylan cover album of all time. It’s certainly one of the most polished. Firstly, in 1968 Baez is already a famous star in her own right, as were the likes of Odetta and Eddy but unlike Aufray, Duncan and Mason, she wasn’t trying to kickstart a career on the coattails of Bob Dylan. Secondly, she’s already a close mate of Dylan’s and as evidenced by the selection on Any Day Now she’s had what seems like unprecedented access to Dylan songs that no one else would have for at least one more year until The Basement Tapes was leaked as Great White Wonder in 1969.
So the selection here draws on three main sources—Basement Tapes recordings, Dylan’s pre-1967 work, both recorded and unrecorded, and four songs taken from John Wesley Harding. In that sense Baez’s cover album was also fresh because it didn’t simply draw on all of the same material as previous efforts (although I suppose you could argue that Linda Mason, being the first, was the ‘freshest’ of them all). And finally Any Day Now was the first double LP of Dylan covers.
This is my only experience with Joan Baez. She’s got a strong voice, no doubting that, but it’s such a pure, perfectly lovely folk voice that it took me quite a while to get over the shock of hearing Dylan songs done like this. So what separates Joan Baez from Dorinda Duncan, her closest of kin among these albums in terms of style? Good question Alan. Not a lot really: quality of voice tone would be one—Duncan often veers off into a higher (read: ghastly) pitch. Baez mostly spares us that—she’s obviously far more in tune with her audience. Instrumentation would be another. Where Duncan’s backing was all light guitar and tap-tap rimshot, the instrumentation here seems to change from song to song to keep things interesting – 18 musicians credited on the inner sleeve, but no mention of what anyone’s playing. However, there’s no denying that the central feature of every song here is Baez’s voice. For me, an acquired taste, and I would say there are times it works well, especially on slower poignant numbers. On more upbeat numbers, of course it still works, but it just becomes a voice, any voice. What I’m listening for here in this review then is moments where Baez brings something special to the song through her quite clever voice modulations, where she captures the emotion of the song in a way that Dylan didn’t.
Love Minus Zero/No Limit…not sure about this as an opener. It’s a little ‘nice’ and I’m going to be harsh on Baez here every time she makes me feel like I’ve tuned into Granny.fm. There’s a sitar-like (a ‘resonator’ guitar) sound on this track which is a nice post-Sgt. Pepper touch I suppose, but coupled with Baez’s pretty warble it reeks a little of peace, flowers and glossy perfection.
North Country Blues…so yes, instrumentation makes a difference and this has that sitar sound going on too but here it works because there’s a deeply resonant bass and a violin, all working to create a brooding, haunted atmosphere to the song. Baez draws the notes out in long deep wavers, in that old Irish ballad kind of way. A lot of lyrics, all about a woman left with three children after her miner husband leaves her to find work elsewhere when the local mine gets shut down. And if truth be told, this song from dry-as-cardboard The Time’s They Are A’Changin’ never really made much an impression on me so I’ve quite enjoyed this version, which sort of brings it to life.
You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere…plaintive vocals, bouncy bass line and violins, Baez turns this into a radio-friendly pop-folk song, “Wooweee, ride me high / Tomorrow’s the day my man’s gonna come / Oh, oh, are we gonna fly / Down in the easy chair.” A pleasant rendition of this catchy melody, I like it, although it doesn’t really add anything to the great version from The Basement Tapes.
Drifter’s Escape…is really good. Baez lets her voice get more desperate here and drawn out, stepping back from the mike a little. Instrumentation is great, with the resonator guitar again adding neat little touches all through the song. And this one too, hearing it by Baez makes it really stand out for me, although I’ve always liked Dylan’s version, Baez captures some of the tune brilliantly in her vocal performance. She sort of ‘throws’ her voice into this one in a way that does wonders for the melody.
I Pity The Poor Immigrant…and I guess I can say the same about this one. I’m possibly reacting to the pleasure of hearing someone finally covering new Dylan songs other than ‘All I Really Want To Do’ and ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’. This has a nice background pedal steel on it. Probably this version is a little ‘lite’ though. Baez’s voice gets a little high in places, a little grandma.fm. I like her much better when she er… ‘rocks out’ rather than plays the pretty folk singer with the perfect voice.
Tears Of Rage…from The Basement Tapes again, is sung a cappella and is quite a standout track here for that fact. She’s got an incredible voice and you can really hear that here. “We carried you in our arms / On Independence Day / And now you’d throw us all aside yes / And put us on our way.” The chorus is amazing, “Tears of rage / Tears of grief…/…Come to me now, you know / We’re so low / And life is brief.” It’s hard to imagine just from reading these words how well she manages to stretch them with her powerful vibrato, her voice riding the edge of the emotion, and especially the way she manages to make a word like ‘brief’ last five seconds. Amazing.
Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands…wow, what a cool song to cover and to do it well too. Her voice rises here, becomes beautiful, but it’s the mystical-sounding lyrics that make her voice and the meaning of the words sound like vocal quicksilver. There’s a quiet acoustic strum and a simple beat, but running behind it all is a sweetly piercing organ sound. “My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums, should I leave them by your gate.” Given that Baez and Dylan had gotten jiggy at some stage, this is quite some song for her to take on. It’s one of those songs that could just go on for hours and you wouldn’t complain. I much prefer Dylan’s version of course, but truly Baez turns out an admirable performance here, just because the strength of her voice is so well suited to holding those long sustained notes. I mean she’s right up there with Thom Yorke as one of those people who could sing the phone book and make it sound impressive.
Love Is Just A Four-Letter Word…written by Dylan but only ever recorded by Baez who recorded it three more times after this first version which was released as the single from Any Day Now. Again, the main instrumentation here is that sitar thingy. The mood mixes an upbeat pop rhythm with sad lyrics about a woman who’s become so cynical, love has lost all meaning. Very nice, but in a good way.
I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine…for some reason misses the tune, doesn’t connect with me at all, which is to say Dylan’s version is so much better that this has no impact on me. I don’t know why but I just can’t hear the tune in the same way. There’s a piano break in the middle of this. Again, there’s a lightly crying pedal steel hovering somewhere just beyond the Baez vocal.
The Walls Of Redwing…Dylan’s version wouldn’t be released until The Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3, but Baez with Nashville session musicians providing a mournful pedal steel backing, draws out the melody brilliantly. Dylan’s version is one of those dry dreary things from memory, but Baez totally brings it to life. Apparently about a school where problem boys were sent and treated badly, although it’s been said that Dylan has used a fair degree of creative license to add drama. With its story-like lyrics and ballad-type melody, it has a real old-time Irish folk tune feel about it. This is great though.
Dear Landlord…and at last we get some more souped up backing—sounds like a full band here, with a slight rock feel. Baez lets loose on her soprano here too, really throwing her voice into the lyrics almost in the same way Dylan did on those awesome blues numbers he recorded for his debut album. It’s a tie between this and ‘Drifter’s Escape’ for my personal favourite.
One Too Many Mornings…a kind of pop-country version, a single organ tone here, a shimmering violin quartet there, a pedal steel sliding about here, the tune picked out quietly on an electric guitar; this is more fuller in a modern sense. The music is all very easy listening and Baez’s voice makes this all very nice and pleasant = not a standout for me.
I Shall Be Released…but not by Dylan until 1975 on Greatest Hits Vol. 2. I love this song. Who couldn’t? “Any day now / Any way now / I shall be released.” Love the chorus, when several other voices join in. Absolutely love the version by The Band on Music From Big Pink, which for me is the definitive version and had only just been released a few months before Any Day Now. Keith Hudson does a cool cover of this too. Something about the melody on this track is timeless and I like it so much I couldn’t really say anything bad about anyone’s cover. This is great.
Boots Of Spanish Leather…has a very upbeat peppy kind of acoustic strum and blues bassline, while Baez twirls her voice around, through and into all the beautiful little parts of the tune. She’s almost showing off here, really utilizing the full range of what she can do with her voice, changing from low to high and back again for the boy/girl parts, always moving smoothly from one to the other, liquid-like. Such a great tune and the pedal steel dude adds some really neat touches. Yep, this is a totally winning version. I like how she can take an already good Dylan tune and somehow enhance it, enliven it, make it shine.
Walkin’ Down The Line…yet another superb choice of song to cover. This is fiddly, faster, an insistent strum, with a strong country feel, and an acrobatic vocal. Fiddle players add a lot to the song, and there’s a mandolin in there too. Amazingly, I don’t think I’ve heard a single harmonica on this album. That must’ve been one of the imperatives at the sessions—No Harmonicas Were Abused During The Making Of This Album. “I believe I’ve got the walking blues.” She really does some cool stuff with her voice here too, and then there’s a bit of wild farmyard jam towards the end, as more instruments join the mix. Great stuff.
Restless Farewell…as one of those songs Dylan never recorded himself, it seems to have been a really popular choice for sixties artists to cover. This is really quiet, instrumentation is really spare; mostly we just have Baez’s rather high pitched voice wavering prettily over the empty space…oh, and then we start to get a fuller backing sound for the chorus. This is a little bit Granny.fm too in places, but hey, last song, and the tune sort of invites the warbly high-pitched vibrato thing. And if I may be allowed to use such a heavy-handed word to finish this review off, poignant.
So yes, this is really a very professional sounding Dylan covers album. The whole thing was recorded in Nashville with session musicians, some of whom had already worked with Dylan. Baez kind of slamdunks the competition completely with her amazingly confident vocal performances. If I have one criticism, it’s that she doesn’t let loose often enough.
Baez was born in 1941, same year as Dylan, meaning she also turned 70 this year (2011), although I didn’t see her gracing the cover of any rock magazines back in January. Her first album came out in 1960, a collection of covers. It wasn’t until 1965 before she would start adding other instruments to her sound, which up until then had just been voice and guitar. She’s released over 30 albums, and apparently still tours and performs, thereby giving Dylan a run for his money. Perhaps Dylan should knock out an album of Baez covers before he croaks? Or should that be–while he still can croak, before his voice gives out completely?