These cruddy Dylan orchestral cover albums just never end. Here’s the last one of the sixties, and strangely, it seems to take a little bit of all of the others and mix them in the blender. This shoves rock, piano and orchestral strings up against jazzy rhythms to form one incongruous jumble. Usually these styles are all mixed together as the song moves through different moods. This flexibility is addressed on the back sleeve blurb: “The group’s outstanding professionalism is manifest in their ability to change style, feeling and instrumentation … to truly reflect the composer’s point of view.” (Is that an elevator I can hear arriving?)
It’s a wholly unsatisfying listen leaving me with no choice but to throw ‘muzak’ all through this review and make sure it sticks. As I’ve often said, the one redeeming feature of sixties muzak is the neat sixties technology, and that holds here too. Not too polished and nothing digital, but the fact is that these weak instrumental Dylan cover albums are wearing my enthusiasm for this project thin. Unless they’re new, unique, really inventive and hip in some way, I’m going to have to get more vicious. I’m coming for you EMI’s Strings for Pleasure (1974) and you too Mike Batt (1971).
I’m in a despondent mood because I had high hopes for this one. It was the blurb on the back sleeve. Always the blurb blabbing on about how Dylan is so great his songs can stand for their sheer melodic chops alone. I mean, of course his tunes can stand on their own, but give us some heavy metal versions, not this easy-listening pap. So I’m disappointed because The Sound Symposium’s effort is way too banal. Probably no lamer than the Fontana Concert Orchestra, the Golden Gate Strings or Glen Campbell, but those chaps beat the ‘Posium to the punch. There’s no excuse for rehashing trash, chaps. What rhymes with John Cusack? Muzak. Say it again. Muzak. What is it good for? Absolutely nothin’!
Mighty Quinn…opens with violins, before an easy-on-the-ears conservative rock beat kicks in and electric guitar plays the melody. Then the brass starts up playing the chorus. ‘Mighty Quinn’ seems to be the new favourite Dylan cover suddenly. Nearly all of the ‘68 or ‘69 cover albums have included it. This has a pretty neat graunchy sax sound playing off against a fuzzy electric guitar in the chorus that sounds great. For the most part this sounds like a sixties rock band with brass rather than the other way round. It’s not bad, but quite short.
Mr. Tambourine Man…electric guitar plays the little opening melody, rock beat starts, and brass plays the chorus melody before violins sweep in and play counterpoint to the trumpets. The little electric guitar part is nice, and on the second verse, a clarinet plays the chorus with some high squealy notes. The musicianship is all quite good—it’s the limp rock beat that make this sound like muzak. Guitars strum away in the background, everything stops for the electric guitar, then piano and electric guitar take it away. The whole thing is quite jazzy in a catchy easy-listening way. I don’t like the violin part at all. That’s mainly what ruins it. Pleasant enough, or just dull, take your pick.
It Ain’t Me, Babe…flute opens this, while acoustic guitars are delicately plucked, a tuba plays part of the rhythm, the flute floats back in and the orchestra opens up for the chorus. I’ve heard much better covers of this by other instrumental groups. Next is a heavily reverbed twangy guitar reminiscent of Duane Eddy. By about here it all starts to sound a bit samey—the lite rock, orchestra-lite effect.
Love Is Just A Four Letter Word…written by Dylan and made famous by Joan Baez on Any Day Now. I’ve quite enjoyed getting to know the melody of this through The Sound Symposium’s cover. I think this may even be almost as good as Baez’s original. There’s a flute offset against a distorted lead guitar, violins and violas supporting the chorus and a cool trombone playing a neat little fill before the verse parts start up. It’s kind of repetitive, but then that’s par for the course on most of the instrumental cover albums. This would be one of my favourites here I guess.
The Times They Are A-Changin’…so looking back through all my reviews I see that I’ve never enjoyed anyone’s cover of this song. And this one is truly awful. It’s really light and fluffy for one. Secondly, I can’t even hear the melody. It’s violiny and brassy, but in a too nice way and sounds nothing like the original at all. Okay, now I can hear it. The chorus is all high on violin while a light tap tap tap keeps rhythm. Organ bells too. Boring.
Maggie’s Farm…first cover of this song in these hallowed Dylan cover pages and it’s kinda cool. Organ plays melody. Harmonica joins in, really frilly, strong on the vibrato technique thing. Main feature of this song is the fast rock beat, electric guitar stabs mix in between the one note organ riff. Love the harmonica here. If I’m not mistaken they’ve turned this into a train song with that rhythm and the harmonica parts. A strange thing though, and this could be my record, but the sound drops out about two thirds of the way through, and then comes back. The main rhythm just continues for the last half of the song, but it’s quite nice, if a little muzakky.
I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight…violins and pedal steel guitar, slow beat. Main theme is played on trumpet or trombone with support from electric guitar. Piano takes over for the second verse. Melody is played quite straight, and I would say that’s the bane of the whole album – there’s very little improvisation here. There’s a lone viola doing a wonderful job of keeping this interesting, but for the most part the structural arrangements aren’t very experimental and the melodies rarely veer off track.
Mama, You’ve Been On My Mind…is super soft. Very light beat, horrid easy listening phrasings makes this a trashy number except for the bridge between chorus and verse performed with a few notes from the electric guitar, but that’s all. For the most part violins take over and the whole thing sounds like a department store of the seventies. Which floor, madam? This song wouldn’t be released until The Bootleg Series Vols. 1-3, so kudos to the Symps for choosing something different, even if it’s awful.
I Threw It All Away…is the first of two Nashville Skyline tracks, not a favourite Dylan album of mine—not bad, but apart from two or three tracks I found most of it unmemorable. Enjoyable each time I put it on, but it’s light and inconsequential. This version is at least interesting. Piano and organ heighten the mood. Nice tune.
I Shall Be Released…is also a bit too muzakky. It’s quite bland compared to most others’ covers of it. It starts off nice and just gets nicer with strings and piano, big bass drum thumps, a regular-as-clockwork beat and a wholly unadventurous electric guitar part, with syrupy strings sweeping hither thither. Can’t deny that the song is a great tune though. I think the problem is that by this deep into the album, it all gets a bit samey, the songs start running together and the formulation of strings, guitar, piano, organ and brass all becomes a bit predictable.
Blowin’ In The Wind…’s only redeeming feature is that for the first minute at least, I can’t even recognize the tune, it’s so slow, until the violin sections play the chorus, just once mind you, and then it’s back to the sap. This is a whole field of maple trees tapped and left to dribble their sappy saccharine contents all down their trunks. I can’t even hear the melody in this. All I hear is trite string muzak.
Peggy Day…is another from Nashville Skyline with a neat little country melody that doesn’t sound much different from the original. Brass parts play the melody along with electric guitar, pedal steel, and … oh yes, the violinists couldn’t restrain themselves. Kind of funky because of the numerous changes taking place, but even Dylan’s version borders on muzak does it not?
…Well, I’m glad that’s over. Two or three half-decent numbers. The rest, drivel.
This is the third album by The Sound Symposium. They’d already unleashed their anodyne inanity on the Paul Simon catalogue in 1968 and a selection of contemporary artists only a few months before Bob Dylan Interpreted came out in late 1969. This was recorded in New York, arranged and conducted by Paul Harris. Apparently the first two albums were met with “tremendous success.” Hoick.