Of all the Dylan cover albums I’ve reviewed so far, few have been definite keepers. This is one that I will keep. This album makes me laugh. But more than that it makes me sing along and jump about. It’s so irreverent I’m sure Dylan would have loved it himself. Hugo Montenegro is an American arranger and conductor who did a heap of arranging and conducting in the fifties and sixties. Where the likes of the Golden Gate Strings and the Fontana Concert Orchestra rearrange Dylan songs in instrumental sections, Montenegro does the same with vocals. Thus what you have here is not entirely dissimilar to an orchestral arrangement but it’s infinitely more melodic and just plain good fun. That doesn’t mean it always hits the spot though and I think overall, the more limpid numbers swamp the truly great numbers. But there’s enough stylistic variety here to keep it pretty interesting from start to finish.
Some tracks are clearly more funny or exciting than others – some border too close to a kind of sentimental choralism that lacks the edge of the better tracks, but you’d have to be a prat not to enjoy the good-natured humour of it all. At the very least this would have been a great party album in the seventies, though I remember reading somewhere that it didn’t sell too well – maybe it was that truly awful cover art. It sort of reminds me of what the Mike Flowers Pops were doing with songs in the 90s – a fairly short-lived affair. I’d love to know how this was received by the hip cognoscenti in 1970. To them I may well be committing some kind of sacrilege by singing its praises but you have to admire the sheer audacity of a dude who deliberately records Dylan songs that mean something by turning them as far against the grain as they’ll go. So yes, on Dawn of Dylan, Hugo Montenegro takes the dark out of the nighttime and turns the daytime black. Un-rock ‘n’ roll out a review already Bumstead…
Like A Rolling Stone…is perhaps the best cover I’ve reviewed of this song yet, only because it’s so far from Dylan’s version that it makes no effort to say anything at all. It opens with all manner of fiddly string sounds and the vocals come straight in. There’s a main vocal bloke with a backing choir who echo many of the words, particularly in the chorus. There’s a big tuba breakdown between chorus and verse that recalls Sgt Pepper’s. There’s no liner notes here so I don’t even know who the singer is. I love how the deep voice dude sings this – like he sort of forces the words into his own rhythm which is quite similar to Dylan’s style but with subtle differences. The chorus is great here. “How does it feel?” he sings, and the backing choir shout an answering “How does it feel?” It sound very sixties with that wet/dry drum beat. This was a brilliant track to open the album with. It sets the bar high.
The Times They Are A-Changin’…perhaps they should have kept the pace up after that last track, but instead they choose a slower more poignant sounding number. The singers sing a line and the tuba or trombone answers them. Basically what I dig so much about this album is how the vocal parts keep changing, from song to song, but also within songs. Overall this one is a little ‘nice’ though. I mean, it sounds like a Disney movie. (I realize I’ve totally overused that simile with many of these Dylan cover album commentaries, but I can’t think of a better one. Perhaps it suggests the sheer ubiquity of the America-as-Disneyland image of an era gone by.) This gets a little high and stringy towards the end. Bit of a letdown after such a promising start.
Blowin’ In The Wind…opens with a loud cello and violin flourish, shimmery violins, light rock beat and then a…er…happy family choir, like you can just picture some suburban sit-com glee club with the girls on one side of the stage and the boys on the other, singing back and forth to each other. There’s a neat little Spanish guitar passage in between the vocal lines. The only problem with this is the parts where it gets very Disney sounding. Then we get a passionate female soul vocal (sounds like proto-Cyndi Lauper) while the whole choir croon an operatic “The answer my friend is blowing in the wind / The answer is blowing in the wind,” before fading out. One other thing I like here, which we also saw on The Hollies’ Words And Music By Bob Dylan is where they deviate from the tune every now and then, albeit always within the framework of the original.
She Belongs To Me…opens with some beautifully delicate guitar work. This has distinct male and female parts singing simultaneously – my guess is two or three singers of each sex. Then that dude with the deep voice sings solo. The guitar work here is great – really complicated passages of Spanish style guitar mixed with snippets of electric guitar. Again, whenever there’s an instrumental break for some reason, old Montenegro can’t help letting it all get a bit sappy. That’s the only problem here – a little too much reliance on orchestral strings where he might have made better use of percussion say, or a brass section.
Lay, Lady, Lay…is one of the best songs here. Warm vocal choir “ooohing” before a lead male vocal sings the main part. His voice is not as distinct as the guy with the deep voice, but not to worry, because he doesn’t get to sing much before the choir join him or sing against him. The harmonizing choir sound great here – it reminds me a lot of Mercury Rev where they used those ethereal choirs to wondrous effect on their 1998 masterpiece, Deserter’s Songs. In fact there are parts of this tune where I’m starting to think the Rev might’ve ripped this off. It’s almost spooky in places, but what makes it work is the different vocal parts, different leads, different combinations of vocals all crossing paths with each other. The All Music Guide calls this track utterly ridiculous because they’re doing it ‘straight-faced.’ This comment seems true, but I don’t see that it needs to be a criticism if it sounds good or evokes something. Anyway, I’m not sure it is all that straight-faced. The sheer ridiculousness is enough of a hint that you can sense Montenegro’s having a right old laugh, and the tongue-in-cheek straight-facedness (hey, how’s that for an oxymoron?) only makes it funnier.
It Ain’t Me Babe…opens with piano and a plaintive male vocal. A fiddly little guitar part. This sounds more like a sixties rock band, until the soaring choir join in that is, and here they really soar. Holding back at first. Awful instrumental break, but it’s short and the piano joins in again. I feel I can almost recognize the male vocal but I can’t quite place it. “But it aint me babe” he sings, and the choir: “It aint me babe, no, no no” with a rapidly rising pitch. This isn’t such a great version though.
The Mighty Quinn…is much better. Opens with the choir chorus of course, and we’ve heard something similar before on The Brothers and Sisters album. This is more upbeat than that slower version. This is more church choir. I mean, sometimes it reminds me of The Polyphonic Spree. They sound like a band of cult singers. It’s easy to picture them standing around on a tiered stage in white robes, mouths wide open, one arm raised towards the roof. But the rock elements keep this interesting and really enjoyable. ‘The Mighty Quinn’ must have been a huge hit when it came out in 1968 because it seems that every one to do a Dylan covers album has covered it since.
Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright…is another of my favourites here. Again, lots of really cool Spanish guitar, and actually that guitar is one of the key features of the whole album. What I love is when Mr. Deep-voice gets to the end of the chorus and sings, “Don’t think twice, it’s alright” with about ten other deep-voiced dudes and yeah, it does sound like the Ray Conniff Singers, only, like, a comedy version. You can’t do this with a Dylan song and expect to be taken seriously surely? Again, there’s an injudicious use of orchestral strings.
Mr. Tambourine Man…opens with some wild wah-wah on a keyboard that makes this sound positively contemporary. Until the vocals join in, and here we’re back to that happy family glee club choir-style they used for ‘Blowin’ In The Wind.’ This is quite rock in its main vocal/rhythm styling, with um, an angelic choir harmonizing in the background. They’re doing this one quite straight though, as if Montenegro’s starting to run out of ideas. I do love the weird wah-wah synth thing though. It sounds totally revivable. I suppose this fits under the category of …is it Space-Age Pop? It is…it is. There’s a great website on the net that discusses all that kind of music and they have Hugo Montenegro in there too. Check it out if you feel so inclined > www.spaceagepop.com
My Back Pages…is a bit light and airy although very pretty. This song has grown on me a lot more though owing to this cover, dare I say it. It’s very delicate, like a soft pillowy way to go out.
Hmm. I’ve been way over the top in my opening paragraphs on this. I had originally read it as taking the mickey in a huge way but after a few more dedicated listens I’m not so sure anymore. The problem is that you’ve really only got about three standout tracks (Like A Rolling Stone, Don’t Think Twice, and Lay, Lady, Lay), then you’ve got a lot of average string-laden space age pop with too much reliance on that eerie Disney dream choir thing. It doesn’t quite shift about as much as I’d like it to. The difference is this: close listening reveals a lack of ideas; it works much better as a kind of background thing. If I have to end this review by putting it down, I’m going to blame it on the cover art, the weakness of which belies Hugo Montenegro’s artless ambition. At the end of the day, this album was too easy for him.
So yeah, Montenegro’s biggest hit was his revised version of a Morricone tune for the soundtrack to the Serge Leone flick, The Good, The Bad & The Ugly. Seems he did a lot of soundtrack work in the sixties. Hugo was born in 1925 and died in 1981 at 56, making him 45 at the time he worked on Dawn Of Dylan. He led bands and stuff from a young age. He was a pioneer in his use of the Moog synth by utilizing various ‘futuristic’ sounds in his recordings, which is why his stuff gets filed under the Space Age Pop genre.