This is called Dylan Vibrations because it’s part of a series – the ‘Vibrations’ series, put out by a British collective called John Schroeder Productions. Schroeder is only the man who fronts up the money though. There’s something like sixteen different musicians here and a singer called Chris. We don’t even learn Chris’s last name. Is it any good? What is it even? I don’t know really. It’s not a band – more likely a bunch of studio musicians who got together to record their favourite Dylan songs. The first couple of times I listened to it, I thought it sounded weak, insipid and a bit strange. It’s part instrumental and part vocal. The vocalist is always our man Chris who sounds like a guy who auditioned for a vocal role in Pink Floyd and got turned down. But after spending a little time with Chris I found that he began to grow on me. An obscure reference point to be sure, but his voice reminds me a lot of Bill Fay. Bill Fay was a chap who put out a couple of albums around 1970/71, and then enjoyed a brief comeback when Uncut magazine promoted his reissues in 2005. I started off only intending to play this a few times but I got hooked and ended up playing it a lot more than that. I think it’s good; the musicianship is superb. In terms of picks we get a few previously uncovered gems here such as ‘To Ramona’ and ‘Queen Jane Approximately’ from the earlier sixties, a couple from Nashville Skyline and one from New Morning.
There’s one small anomaly that I don’t quite get though – this sentence from the back sleeve: “We felt it necessary to withhold the atmosphere of the original interpretation where possible and much credit is due to Lew Warburton, our arranger in this respect.” Now does that make any sense to you? Why would they want to withhold the atmosphere of the original interpretation? Why would that be necessary? Sorry guys, I don’t follow. Oh but see those spirograph patterns on the front cover? They’re embossed, ribbed, on both front and back sleeve. If you have a fetish for album covers this’ll set your fingers tingling. Over to Schroeder to set the ears alight…
Blowin’ In The Wind…is an instrumental and wa-hey if this isn’t by far the best instrumental version of this I’ve heard so far. It’s a pretty straight up affair, but there’s enough different instruments all contributing to the sound to make it sound sumptuous and totally endearing. We got beautifully captured acoustic and electric guitars, we got flutes, harmonicas, tambourines and we got the main theme played on … uh, organ, I think. Midway through the song, they change key, and sustain it in a different register for a few bars before dropping back to the main theme. Yep, this kicks all those lame ass orchestral versions’ butts.
A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall…opens with alternating piano chords mixed with notes on the electric guitar, and introduces ‘Chris,’ our vocalist, who sort of sings this in a ‘singing’ voice, um, by which I mean he really sings it unlike Dylan’s more half-spoken half-sung style. It’s quite jaunty with neat little electric guitar notes being stabbed into the spaces between lyric lines. Rhythm is solid. Chris manages to sustain his voice in the right mode throughout the whole song without ever sounding like he’s losing it. He’s got one of those dry sort of weathered voices that doesn’t really have an ironic dimension to it – he’s doing this quite seriously, like say, an earnest singer in a bar band. The tones are more sixties sounding than seventies, and the whole thing is covered in a very straight way, but it really is a very good version. Works for me.
It Ain’t Me, Babe…a bit slower, with piano, harmonica and electric guitar, tambourine bopped on the beat – another instrumental. Let me think here – what this is, compared to all the sixties instrumental albums, is an instrumental kept strictly within the rock/beat mode, so there’s no awful strings, no ventures into orchestral territory, no brass swinging be-bop gospel violins – it’s just straightahead quality rock, although it could probably do with a little more improv attitude and less muso studio perfectionism. Like, the main melody is played on flute or oboe and electric guitar. Things heat up a little for the chorus. Very respectable.
To Ramona…now if only this had been a vocal version, but it’s not – another instrumental. A clockwork strum on the acoustic guitar with the main melody being picked out on electric guitar, while glocks and oboes, vibraphones and flutes cover the main chord structure. It’s great to hear this tune being covered, but I’d have liked to hear it with vocals. It’s perhaps a little lowkey, a little ‘nice’ where they might have tried to rock out a little, I don’t know, anything to make it more interesting, to make it worth everyone’s while, instead of keeping it so true to form. I only say that because I always think of this song as being so integral to its lyrics, and without the lyrics, it sort of falls a bit flat, leaving you wondering … why bother?
Queen Jane Approximately…another solid rock version, and Chris is brought back in to the fold. He sings it well, really, he does, although he’s still not a patch on Dylan. It’s his voice – it’s just a little too nondescript, poor chap. I feel mean saying that because he’s clearly doing a great job, but if you wanna really stand out from Dylan you need some extra X factor that our man Chris doesn’t quite have. However, he doesn’t miss a beat here, and the instrumentation, while not quite reaching Highway 61 Revisited levels of wild mercurialism, is still totally cool with decent blasts on the harmonica, great drumming, sweet little snippets of fretwork, and some pretty neat backing on jazzy piano. “Oh won’t you / Come see me / Queen Jane.” This wins. It gets the vibe just right.
I Want You…is another very jaunty instrumental version, with a very bouncy piano part and awesomely noisy harmonica designed to keep it perfectly within the Blonde On Blonde vibe. It seems louder than where we left off on Side One but that could be because everyone’s sort of banging / blowing / thumping their instruments much harder rather than any change in recording levels. There’s a brilliant jazzy piano neo-solo in the middle, the harmonica adds noise, the beat sounds spot on. Could’ve been even better with vocals, but overall, very nice.
Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You…what’s this – Nashville Skyline song with Chris singing the lyrics. You know, I’m going to make a very bold claim here and say that this is way cooler than Dylan’s version, mainly because they make it sound like 1966 Dylan rather than 1969. There’s no pedal steel guitars, no awful Dylan-as-crooner vocals – they treat it as though it’s a great sixties pop song that’s never been heard before. The pianist is brilliant here, always knowing when to throw in some great rollin’ solos and when to let off.
I Threw It All Away…comes across as a bit of a letdown after that last great performance. It’s not quite a country version, but it’s a sweetened muzak rendition played without any of the pizzazz of earlier songs. Perfectly competent of course, and quite sumptuous in its rich array of sounds, but probably would have worked better with vocals.
If Not For You…really love this song from New Morning – the one that George Harrison recorded on his 1971 album All Things Must Pass. They even do a sort of George Harrison slide guitar thing, albeit simplified. When the chorus part comes on the music becomes a bit muzakky – I blame the flautist and oboist – well no I don’t, I blame John Schroeder for giving the pied pipers too much free rein. This is where you sort of wish they’d recorded the whole album with a vocalist.
Watching The River Flow…is one I really don’t know. Only got released on Dylan’s Greatest Hits Volume II. In that sense it’s cool that I’m getting to hear it in this context. Chris’s vocal is great here, and this time round (like Mike on The Silkie’s cover of ‘Black Crow Blues’) Chris mimics Dylan’s vocal style but does a great job of it. He doesn’t overdo it – he manages to make it sound natural. The electric guitar parts, the boogie woogie piano, the tambourine on the beat, all add up to totally danceable rock’n’roll number. “It doesn’t matter which way the wind is blowin’ / As long as it does I’ll just sit here and watch the river flow.” Yeah, trippin’ man.
Okay. Critique time. The album leaves me feeling unsatisfied. Despite my enjoyment of it, I find it a little too easy to listen to. And the track selection – here it seems completely random. Like, Dylan’s catalogue is already pretty big by 1971 so it would make sense to choose songs that cohered into some unified whole like Dylan Gospel, for example. So, even though it’s a very competent run through, it lacks any edge that might make it stand head and shoulders above the rest. Making it half vocal and half instrumental wasn’t a good decision as far as I’m concerned because it weakens the impact. On the plus side however, this is truly the first full Dylan covers album where the songs have been played in a similar enough vein to Dylan to be enjoyable for the rock fan as opposed to some other non-Dylan audience that we’ve had with the majority of the sixties cover albums. I suppose Hugues Aufray’s effort from 1965 was the closest to Dylan so far, except that Aufray Chante Dylan was all in French so for the non-French speaker, it doesn’t quite count.
As I said above, John Schroeder produces this Vibrations series and pulls together a big bunch of English musicians including Rick Wakeman (of Yes fame) on keys, which explains why the piano was so good. Rick also played on Piano Vibrations and there’s another in the series called Latin Vibrations. The back sleeve says “Vibe 2” so one might reasonably assume that this is #2 in the series. Seems they all use that same corny spirograph pattern on the cover with equally lame sunset shots. I won’t list the musicians here, but the only famous name among them is the aforementioned piano player. According to John Schroeder, who wrote the back sleeve notes, “we have endeavoured to maintain our highest standard of stereo reproduction to enhance your enjoyment further.” Gee thanks John. Funny to think there was a time when ‘stereo’ was still a technology new enough to warrant mentioning. It reminds me of early CDs when all CDs had a code on the back – AAD, ADD, or DDD – to tell you about the quality of the source tapes.