The Mike Batt Orchestra, Portrait Of Bob Dylan, 1971

The instrumental orchestral Dylan cover album – it’s a complete genre on its own. The Mike Batt take on Dylan is most similar to The Sound Symposium or The Golden Gate Strings – orchestral rock. Batt is a British singer/songwriter as well as arranger and producer, and if you care to take a gander at his home page, have a gawk at the guy. He’s even more creepily evil-looking than Andrew Lloyd Webber.

The English do things differently to the Americans – the American orchestral versions of Dylan are usually populist, designed to be immediately enjoyable and therefore to sell product. The English tend to be more experimental in their approach. The problem with this is that the results are a mixed bag. How do you like your Dylan orchestral instrumental sir? Expectations-met or spanner-in-the-works? Like The Fontana Concert Orchestra, Mike Batt goes in for messing with the structures of Dylan songs in order to make them ‘interesting,’ but really only succeeds in making an irritating mess. Batt’s take on Dylan is all flamboyant stomping through the tunes, taking loopy swirls and stumbly detours along the way as if you were watching a geriatric ballet.

I have to commend Batt for trying to be original in some way, but it just sounds too try-hard to me, like he’ll use an Aeolian wind harp and a guitarpsichord if he thinks it’ll get him noticed. Okay, time to administer your distal digit-ends to the alphanumeric push-button input device Bumstead…

This Wheel’s On Fire… is actually a pretty cool opener, sounds like blaxploitation music. Lots of horns, funky bass at the opening, all building up to a short crescendo before a brief moment of silence and then we get the chorus with see-sawing strings. Again this stops, a punctuation mark of silence for the second verse section. It all sounds very much like a rip-off of Curtis Mayfield. Some pretty wild guitar work as the song fades out. Bit weird actually. Too stop-starty to really enjoy. Just as the song seems to get going it stops as if everyone’s putting down their instruments to pick up different ones.

Country Pie… again uses quite a funky electric guitar, which gets wiped out by violins and flutes, and oh, big pause, everything stops, takes off again and … stops. Song must be about one minute long.

Mr. Tambourine Man… opens with a weird bass sound, eerie symphonic strings, then a strange plonky piano piece before the main melody starts up which sounds too forced, loud electric guitar, shimmering strings, and … stop. I’m starting to hate Mike Batt and his ‘meaningful’ stops. It’s like imagine if. Every sentence I wrote was. Like this. And just as you got the hang of. Yeah, you get the drift. This is a pretty noisy version. It’s really weird actually. Like the instruments are so disparate, nothing sort of ‘goes’ together. It’s like a bright green and bright blue checked shirt. The drums are used to interesting effect, an echoey timbral effect. But the violins and electric guitar playing in ‘harmony’ sound like chalk and cheese. The melody is screwed up just enough that every time you think you might be getting into a groove, they change the whole dynamic. Unsatisfying.

If Not For You… is a slightly slowed down version, and again, everything is PUNCtuATed really aggressively, the tune played alternately on (what might be) harp and woodwind. There is quite a decent amount of space in between the instruments, but by this stage you start to realize what Batt’s all about – creating dissonance out of instruments that wouldn’t normally go together, and to have the musicians play their parts like it’s a children’s melody, in loud bright primary colours. This sticks fairly close to the melody with just enough violent changes to drive you batty.

Just Like A Woman… played on acoustic rhythm guitar, with another of those paint-by-number melodies played on electric guitar, but the weird disjunction of sounds tends to steal all the emotion out of the song. Batt’s all intent on creating some kind of sound-sculptural child’s art version of Dylan. The recording quality is all pretty good. Every time the strings or woodwind play the melody the drummer comes along and bashes seven shades of shock value into the tune. Bizarre.

I Shall Be Released… opens delicately on what sounds like harp, or probably some keyboard effect, with a lightly plucked guitar, and then all the instruments join in, strings, electric guitar, drums, bass, but again, it’s all so syncopation-heavy you just want to hurl a remote control at the turntable and add-your-own-sound-effect. It seems to me Batt’s been listening to the others – the Fontana Concert Orchestra and the Golden Gate Strings – and said to himself, “I’ll show them.” And he’s gone and made a very blotchy, wholly unsatisfying listen. It’s interesting at the micro level, I’ll grant him that, but the pieces never gel into anything with form.

Mighty Quinn… a swirly flute or oboe, a strummed guitar, a punchy distorted electric guitar, brass section, funky bass, and. Everything. Sort. Of. Does. This. Stop. Start thing as if it somehow makes it ‘art.’ When the musicians do finally lock into a groove it sounds great, but for all of five seconds before something comes blasting out of the speakers or the song stops so the bassist can do a short solo, then a contrapuntal, jagged antiphonal counterpointing between the strings, brass, and woodwind sections as they play the main chorus.

Nashville Skyline Rag… opens with a low end single note melody, until the thing picks up with a very jaunty fast barnyard kind of plucked thing, a melody on what sounds like ocarina, violins swooping all over the piece, lots of warbles, and underneath it all that bluegrass guitar part. This is actually the best piece on the whole album so far. It sounds like Hanna Barbera cartoon music but at least it sort of works in harmony with itself. It’s actually quite funny in places. Nice. Best track here.

Love Minus Zero – No Limit… wobbly flute part, very slow, plucked guitar part, keyboards or wind instruments shimmering in the background, with piccolo. It’s a little too slow for me, bit too lullaby in places, except for the ear-piercingly loud notes on the electric guitar at the high end, and some strange vroomy sound at the end. Truly awful.

Blowing In The Wind… is all plucks and strums and strings, clouds flying through the sky, birds, wind in the trees, and again, this sounds like the kind of music some well off country house couple might put on in the nursery to help baby sleep. Wood block tocks. The strings do capture the chorus melody really nicely, but it sounds like Paul McCartney at his most simperingly faux-naïve.

Lay Lady Lay… something like a bassoon groans in the background, flutes and what-have-you carry the melody. The lower tones make this sound more interesting. It doesn’t try to soar, in fact, keeps its nose close to the ground, snuffles along. But again the melody is played in that simple-step songbook-for-beginners style. Not too bad.

The Times They Are A’Changin’… is back to the airy flutes and strings, bird warbles, dozy dell dulcimers and it’s so slow, I can barely hear the melody. The drumbeat is really low and clear, almost dub-heavy, but the endless strings floating away over top of everything ruin that effect. The melody becomes a bit clearer toward the end, on electric guitar. It’s a nice ‘open’ sound but again, the parts are all so wildly juxtaposed that you kind of get lost in the noisiness of it all and lose the tune.

Click once to expand, again to magnify

What a weird old album this is. I will say that the production is quite good, but sometimes it sounds like every instrument has been pushed right up front in the mix so that each musician is competing against every other musician for airtime. And then you get these out of sync time signatures and it all becomes … not cluttered time-wise, but cluttered instrument-wise. Anyway, I’m rambling. Not my kind of music. Let’s just leave it at that.

Notes

Mike Batt started his artistic career at age 18. According to his own website he’s one of “Britain’s best known songwriter/composers.” He made four gold albums of  Wombles music and foisted a lot of very un-rock’n’roll muzak on the world. Not content to make a horrible orchestral mash out of Dylan he also went to town on the Elton John, Rolling Stones, Cat Stevens, George Harrison and Simon & Garfunkel catalogues in 1971/72. One can only imagine he must’ve been the most hated man in Britain by the mid 70s.

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About Alan Bumstead Vinyl Reviews

Alan Bumstead is a music fanatic who humbly adds confusion to the world with a string of album reviews written during real-time-listening in a stream-of-consciousness style, then edited for spelling, punctuation, flow and grammar. Apart from an additional introductory paragraph, the writing is improvised in time with the music. There is no re-writing. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- In his book Moving To Higher Ground Wynton Marsalis says, "Because jazz musicians improvise under the pressure of time, what's inside comes out pure. It's like being pressed to answer a question before you have a chance to get your lie straight. The first thought is usually the truth." I like to think that's what Alan Bumstead's all about.
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