Outlaw Blues 2 is a somewhat tamer affair than its predecessor, Outlaw Blues. The only artist to appear on both compilations is Lee Ranaldo, but where his earlier effort illustrated a desire to mess Dylan up, here he sounds relatively reverential. For the most part, these bands attempt more thoughtful renditions of Dylan songs, a little more mainstream AOR than the noisy rock we heard on Volume One. I much prefer that first collection, but this is not without its merits too. There’s not much to add here…band info included under each song entry. Ready your guns, Bumstead…
Dodgy – Rainy Day Women No. 12 And 35… we begin with a British band who released albums throughout the 90s then disappeared for a decade, only to release a new album in 2012. Dodgy’s version opens with a piercing harmonica and a rhythm that suggests a faithful rendition of this loose number. Nigel Clark does a great job of singing this in his own tossed off leery vocal style while the others provide yelled out backing vocals. The music is suitably drunken sounding but it’s Clark’s vocals that make the song work – his voice is the tonal equivalent of two fingers to the establishment. One of the best versions of this song I’ve heard.
Chuck Prophet & The Creatures Of Habit – Abandoned Love… Prophet on the other hand has an earnest country voice, and while it’s cool he’s covered a song I’m not so familiar with, after the brilliance of Dodgy’s great opening number, this suddenly sounds too much like Tom Petty to me. The guitar solo in the middle is pretty good – a pointillist delicate fiddly electric thing that sounds great. Prophet was first a member of American band Green On Red in the 80s, before recording under his own name thereafter. There’s a female vocalist here too, the singer of his support band and they sing the parts to each other but it’s not a patch on the wondrousness of the Will Oldham/Dawn McCarthy collaborations, Black Francis and Kim Deal, or say Stuart Staples with any of his female co-singers. The music otherwise is pretty standard rock.
Henry Kaiser’s Obsequious Cheeselog – Tombstone Blues… San Franciscan Henry Kaiser teamed up with the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir to form the Obsequious Cheeselog. Seems they primarily covered Hendrix but I guess they veered off to do this version of “Tombstone Blues.” The first thing I thought on hearing Kaiser’s bizarre muppet-chicken voice was Vic Chesnutt on helium. I assumed for the first few spins that he was taking the piss: “They’ve got some hungry heffers there and they’ll really make a mess out of you.” Kaiser’s fond of changing the odd word here and there, which, coupled with his squeaky farmyard voice, sounds like a bad joke. Having said that, it’s one of the most unique singing voices I’ve ever heard—except that Kaiser doesn’t really sing so much as speak-sing the words. The instrumentation in between verses is equally skronky-wonky. After hearing this ten or twelve times I still can’t decide whether I like it or not. Like it or not, you can’t ignore it. By changing the words, such as “I’m going back to old Virginia / I do believe I’ve had enough / Tarnation / I’ve had enough!” he squelps and you half want to strangle him. Weird but definitely interesting.
Christine Collister – You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome… originally from the Isle of Man, Collister had been a part of the Richard Thompson band in the 80s but went on to release a bunch of solo albums in the 90s. Musically this sounds straight out of the 80s too, soft rock, a programmed kind of bass rhythm; it sounds like Sade. Her singing voice is a fine thing, a touch of husk, a touch of male depth but with that rich female outer soul edge. Having said that, it all sounds like cocktail hotel jazz to my ears, studio musicians with perfect funk fills in miniature, sheeny keyboards. Not bad, and nicely slotted in for contrast I guess, but not really my kind of thing.
Calamity Jane – Mr. Jones (sic)… were an American all girl country band from the 80s. Their “Mr. Jones” kicks off with a clean fuzz guitar sound, drums slow at first, but soon ratcheting up the speed until the rhythm and guitar lead are practically racing each other with stormy thrashes and squalls. I’m starting to think this is an instrumental because we’re at least two minutes into it and no vocals. No. There are no vocals. I couldn’t quite catch the tune there either. Very weird, but er…good on ‘em for being bold enough to jettison the lyrics. Otherwise kind of forgettable.
P. J. Harvey – Highway 61 Revisited… Harvey needs no introduction, having released one of 2011’s most unanimously popular albums, Let England Shake. But back in the early 90s she was something of a weird riot grrl, voice all distorted, and full of punk oomph energy as though she’s singing while being punched in the guts. The music is hard core clattering drums mixed with angular shards of grungy guitar. The lyrics are spat out as if she’s in total disgust with the song itself. This is very cool though, it’s so punkish, in a Patti Smith way I guess. Each verse is sung like she’s bleeding to death, or um, taking a particularly painful crap. It sounds nothing at all like Dylan’s version, the only way you can tell is from the lyrics, and only those ones that are sung ‘cleanly’ enough to be discernable. This was wild.
Lee Ranaldo – Visions Of Johanna… member of Sonic Youth who was also heard singing “Mama You’ve Been On My Mind” on the first Outlaw Blues collection. Here he plays it pretty straight by comparison. A slightly murky sound on the bass, a faintly squealing organ, and jangling electric guitars with a touch of distortion, but kept at bay by the vocal which is mostly up front in the mix. There’s not much to get excited about here though. Firstly, this is the great “Visions Of Johanna,” which to my ears is sort of being ruined by what sounds like a fairly half-assed cover and not a patch on Joan Baez’s version from 1968. It’s neither here nor there, and Ranaldo’s singing is nowhere near strong or interesting enough to render any of the song’s mystery effectively. The rhythm section is all a bit blurred. He follows Dylan’s singing style closely enough, which is a mistake because he has a non-descript voice and apparently very little interest in performing it with any real emotion or the guts of interpretation. A bit of a yawn-fest given that it goes for ages. I should use some of my free typing time to rant a bit about the ethos behind knowing how to cover Dylan and do it well. Well – re-read my writeup on P.J. Harvey, Henry Kaiser and Dodgy’s versions and that pretty much sums up what I’m looking for in a cover. Either something very different to Dylan but as equally compelling, or at least as good as Dylan with the original spirit kept fully intact, or, something just plain weird.
Moose – Positively 4th St. … Moose began life in the British ‘shoegaze’ scene of the early 90s, and were a band I was quite fond of back then, but hearing this hasn’t won me back. Here they use a crisp strong acoustic guitar strum with squiggly electric notes floating around – in fact there’s quite a weird 3D quality to the song, and when the drummer joins, the song’s pop nature becomes fully audible, but Russell Yates’s vocals are kind of weak and don’t really suit Dylan-mode at all. It’s too ‘nice’ and while it has a lovely melodic sound, it finishes without any kind of resonance at all.
Strangelove – Motor Psycho Nightmare… were an alternative British rock band who released three albums in the 90s. At first I found this kind of too non-descript. The music is a very light psychedelic swirl of echoing guitar lines while the vocalist is close mic’ed, and when he sings “I’m a clean cut kid and I’ve been to college too” he sounds exactly like a clean cut kid who has been to college, whereas Dylan snarls satire at top volume when he sings the same lines. The problem with this is that you soon get tired of Patrick Duff’s whisper-in-your-ear vocal style – it seems like a cheaty way of singing the song and his voice is too smooth such that the word-play is washed over and blanded out. However I will say that in terms of vocals and music, the two do go together really well. The band sound like a lightened version of early Verve, but it’s an odd choice of song for them—the humour seems lost.
Magnapop – Every Grain Of Sand… from Atlanta, Georgia, the punky Magnapop were first active in the 90s, took a long break and reconvened in 2005. They use a violin, which coupled with the intricate, tiny dirty guitar sound gives this a tight indie pop feel. The violin is probably the best thing about the song, but I’ve really grown to love the tune and lyrics to this pretty great track from Shot Of Love. Linda Hopper isn’t the greatest of singers, a slightly bored indie voice without any particular edge; she was never going to make them popular beyond a cult following. But the violinist, yes, let’s keep him or her and the guitarist and ditch everyone else. A nice song, performed well, with a good sound, and yet, it totally fails to grab your attention.
So the Outlaw Blues compilations ended here. I doubt they sold well. There’s not enough to get too excited about, and they sound kind of pointless, like a rather random collection of Dylan covers taken and assembled without much commonality other than the name behind their authorship. It’s always interesting hearing these compilations of course, if you know the songs well enough, and great when people really mess about with them, but otherwise you’ve got some average Dylan covers that add nuttin’ much to nobody.