Here’s yet another Dylan covers album you’ll find scant report on in cyberspace, unless you’ve stumbled on this blog, that is (or dug deeper than my quick rummage through Google). Outlaw Blues, named after a number on Bringing It All Back Home, is the first “alternative” collection of Dylan songs, performed by a bunch of noiseniks such as Sonic Youth, Poster Children and the Boo Radleys. Though it ranges from fairly faithful renditions through to ‘creative’ re-envisionings of Dylan songs, for the most part the songs and melodies are kept intact. It opens with the compilation’s most anarchic number, “Sitting On A Barbed Wire Fence,” after which things settle down into a loud indie rock groove. All of it has far more energy and guts and willful craze than anything we heard on the Michael Gray-curated compilation from 1989, The Songs Of Bob Dylan. This ain’t named “Outlaw Blues” for no no-good reason though and I daresay many of these artists have more in common with Dylan than Judy Collins, Rod Stewart or Bonnie Raitt. Looking through the artists here, this album actually offers a pretty good snapshot of the state of alternative rock when it began to rear up as the 80s drew to a close. Kick it Bumstead…
Thurston, Kim and Epic – Sitting On A Barbed Wire Fence… was an outtake from the Highway 61 album with lyrics that seem to border on nonsense: “I paid fifteen million dollars, twelve hundred and seventy-two cents / I paid one thousand two hundred twenty-seven dollars and fifty-five cents / See my hound dog bite a rabbit / And my football’s sittin’ on a barbed-wire fence,” shouts Thurston Moore, distorted voice plugged through a maelstrom of feedback and random guitar noise. The song fades in and you’re immediately assaulted with what sounds like someone dragging lots of barbed wire across a field of blackboard. Moore sings in a punky kind of voice too, all sneer and contempt. The stuttering rhythm remains the same throughout, meaning the only sense of melody rests on the blues-structured vocal. In one foul swoop, the three musicians smear the whole of The Songs Of Bob Dylan on the floor with their punk spirit. Very cool, and actually not that hard to listen to. Some Iggy Pop-like screaming takes the song out…
The Bluebirds – Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues… are a sort of country blues band who are still around nowadays, releasing albums, though it appears they’re probably not known far beyond their own state. There’s a really fuzzy guitar sound, a really cool deep bass line humming below the mix, and a vocal that plays it fairly straight with Dylan’s lyric: “I don’t have the strength to get up and take another shot / And my best friend the doctor won’t even tell me what it is I got.” They do a nice noodly line in organ too. Once again, this is better, or at least on a par with the best of the Michael Gray compilation. The singer sounds impassioned enough, a touch of gravel in his voice, a few punkish gargled-out lyrics, and yelps, and their instrumental break is suitably soaring and wild. The overall aesthetic is a muffled kind of grunge sound, which is pretty damn nice. Clearly my ears are far more attuned to this sort of thing than say Axton freakin’ Hoyt.
Lee Ranaldo – Mama You’ve Been On My Mind… is brilliant. Ranaldo sings it really nicely, while playing a lovely acoustic guitar, but…all is not normal in the house of Lee. All through the song, there’s a screeching, feedbacking guitar which actually sounds a lot like an elephant in pain, or mooing cows run through a distortion pedal. It’s kept just behind the main melody so as not to interfere with the song-proper, yet it somehow makes the song funny and bizarre at the same time. “I’d just be curious to know if you can see yourself as clear as someone who has had you on his mind.” Great stuff.
Anastasia Screamed – Tombstone Blues… this band were an alternative act who only made two albums back in the very early 90s. The pace is really fast, and the band play it really straight, with a powerful bass line and endlessly bashed snare drum. True to say they don’t really bring anything new to the song, other than play a really cool, loud rocking version, but because this is right up there as one of my favourite Dylan songs, I’m not about to denigrate it, because once again, it’s head and shoulders above most of the drivel I’ve reviewed on this Dylan covers blog. And they add the word “motherfucker” after one of the verses. Sly. At one point the singer reaches deep into his soul/throat and wrenches out a very Cobain-esque whine. Towards the end they start messing it up too, throwing spanners into their electric guitars and making a right gorgeous noise of it.
Spirea-X – It Ain’t Me Babe… Spirea-X was formed by Jim Beattie after he left Primal Scream in the late 80s. They only put out one album. Here we have another weird number. There’s a shimmering vocal-on-ice in the background going “ahhhhhhh” which reminds me of …I dunno…Godley and Crème? The lead singer here is female, while the music is rather harshly recorded acoustic guitar being strummed loudly. The aesthetic is quite 80s as there’s a touch too much reverb in the mix. The voice, Judith Boyle, is smooth and low, like an indie Sade say, or Georgia Hubley out of Yo La Tengo, or a slightly less flat Nico. She doesn’t get too worked up though, and while this song is cool because it changes Dylan into something quite different as well as sounding very different to everyone else on this record, it’s the least interesting one so far, sort of drifting by without too much fanfare.
The Poster Children – Isis… is an American alternative rock band, precursor in sound to bands like Built To Spill and The Dismemberment Plan, to my ears. Their lead singer has that same kind of indie-American-accented yelp voice, and here he does a brilliant job. The music is all bass and rhythm, with rapid-fire guitar licks played low in the background, like Red Hot Chili Peppers crossed with Siamese Dream. At the end of each verse, the singer shouts out the lyrics. You can always hear him quite clearly because they keep the music hard and heavy but softly recorded during the verses, while in the short instrumental breaks all hell breaks loose for five seconds of anarchy. There’s a lot of lyrics in this strange narrative of a song. Every time I hear those words “on the fifth day of May” though, I can’t help thinking of the opening line from Horton Hears A Who – “On the fifth day of May / In the Jungle of Nool…”. Anyway great rockin’ version.
Thin White Rope – Outlaw Blues… is another American hard rock band prominent in the late 80s and early 90s. Drums are prominent here, while we get a sort of country-grunge vocal, powerful beat. Meanwhile guitars start up adding fuzzy noise while a piano provides some neat trills, making the thing start to sound more musical as it progresses. “I got my dark sunglasses / I got for good luck my black tooth.” The pace here is fast and then we get some freewheelin’ harmonica blowing out the end of the song.
The Original Sins – Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window… American garage punk band from around the same period as Thin White Rope, though they lasted later into the 90s. By this song, however, I’m starting to get my usual kind of exhaustion creeping up on me—which is to say this sounds too much like an amalgamation of everyone else on this LP. This is noisy, and the vocalist is more buried, a raspy voice that annoys me. I don’t like this kind of music where the mix fails to separate instruments. This doesn’t sound ‘alternative’ at all but like a mainstream country band doing hard rock, and while it’s very faithful to the original, it fails to ignite, except for a decent organ fill throughout the song.
The Cuckoos – This Wheel’s On Fire… not to be confused with the late 00s Australian band of the same name, but otherwise, I’ve no idea who this outfit are. Here we get a grungy, rocking rhythm, but I’m guessing these last couple of bands are stuck down the end of the LP because they are too generic, too much of a dull cross between alt-rock and mainstream rock with no defining features, no gimmick, a derivative vocal, and a competent but basic rock sound. Once again, they play it so straight they could bore a hole through one of my ears and come out the other. There’s a slight touch of funk in the bass, but like The Original Sins, the sound is all mixed together in a blanket aesthetic that fails to explode like “this wheel.”
The Boo Radleys – One Of Must Know (Sooner Or Later)… English band from the shoegaze era (~1990) whose first few EPs I owned and loved, though I failed to click with their debut album and took no further interest, despite their albums in the 90s garnering great reviews. Although I’m familiar with the Radleys’s sound, I found this version to be a bit wishy washy. It’s acoustic guitar for the verses, and a bruising mean dark sound for the chorus. The thing about the Boo Radleys at this stage of their career is that their vocalist was always mixed way down, and here he just sounds weak and ineffective. They utilize the soft-loud-soft aesthetic here, switching back to lovely acoustic guitar and spindly steel notes, but their ‘loud’ part is somehow quashed, too bass-heavy, poorly recorded or mixed, and gets too messy, almost bordering on unlistenable. The singer doesn’t really handle the lyrics all that well either. “Sooner or later / One of must know that I really did try to get close to you.” It’s a very strange version, and good on them for trying to craft something different, but I have to judge it as a fail. This is a long version. It goes into a weird noise at the end then cuts off suddenly. A bit annoying.
Basically, the album is great right up until The Original Sins and then it turns dull, repetitive, the songs merely churning out rockist versions of Dylan songs without much love. The best tracks by far were those by Sonic Youth members. The people who put this out, followed it up with Outlaw Blues 2 in 1993.