May Your Song Always Be Sung: The Songs of Bob Dylan, Various Artists, 1997

This is the first of three German-curated compilations of Dylan covers put out by Bertelsmann Music Group. The roster on all three compilations is diverse and interesting and draws from all over the spectrum, while many of the artists are virtual unknowns, to me at least. But their Dylan covers are often inspired and performed with professionalism and genuine love of the material. There’s usually a few non-English language covers, and quite a variety of styles, and while this first effort isn’t the best of the three, it’s still better than the other various artist comps I’ve reviewed for this site by some distance. The styles may not always be to my taste, but it’s rarely boring. There is a liner notes insert that comes with the record but for some reason the designer imposed trendy horrible dark graphics all over the text making most of it impossible to read.

This is 1997, so at least two things have changed: (1) Dylan’s fanbase must have shifted slightly since the 80s, and with the release that year of the well-received Time Out Of Mind a new and burgeoning popularity for late period Dylan was just beginning. (2) Recording quality has improved, or at least re-mastering techniques are getting better, hence we’re beginning to witness a higher fidelity in some of these covers.

My modus operandi for these reviews has been to consider each song in light of Dylan’s original and critique it based on how well the performance strives to reach (or better) the energy-impact of the original, or, in the case where the artist takes the song in a completely new direction, whether that means a flamenco or reggae version, or an ironic comedy version, to consider how well that is achieved, or how enjoyable the result is from my own subjective position. This double 10” album starts off well, and has some nice scattered moments, but it devolves into standard rock clichés too often for my tastes. Slippin’ into the groove…

Michael Hedges – All Along The Watchtower (1985)… Hedges was an American singer-songwriter who passed at the young age of 44 in 1997. Here we’ve got a warm acoustic guitar strummed with lots of bass, a nice full dynamic range, and an earnest vocal with a crisp edge that doesn’t quite appeal to my aesthetic tastes. The recording is crystal clear, and I love the strummy guitar sound, knocks on the fretboard & all, but there’s something a touch ‘cold’ about the performance. Too serious?

Jose Feliciano – Masters Of War (1966)… Feliciano is a singer-songwriter from Puerto Rico, born 1945. The same aesthetic continues into this song, with acoustic guitar, nice EQ, with added military beat on the snare drum. But note—this is 1966, and you can hear that in Feliciano’s vocal which treats the lyric with reverence. There’s a distant jazzy trumpet blatting militarily in the background and the snare becomes more insistent. This is not quite as affecting as Eddie Vedder’s amazing version on The 30th Anniversary Concert but it’s definitely one of the best covers of this song I’ve heard. The drumming keeps things interesting, although something about Feliciano’s hard sharp voice and the rat-a-tat snare drum hold the melody at bay, thus rendering the tune, again, a touch ‘cold’.

Bobby Bare – Blowin’ In The Wind (1965)… American country singer-songwriter born 1935. As if to counter the pointed seriousness of the first two songs, now we have warm bouncy walkin’ bass mid-60s country pop. This almost feels like a version I know from my childhood. Competently executed. It’s easy to like, but just as easy to forget.

Phil Carmen – Chimes Of Freedom (1996)… Carmen, though born in Canada was a Swiss pop-singer born in 1953. This song featured on his CD-only Dylan covers album Bob Dylan’s Dream in 1996. After having just been listening to Springsteen’s satisfying cover of this on United Artists For The Poet recently, I find this version a bit weak, with too much of a smooth backing keyboard tone, boomy bass, and Carmen’s pretty, but ineffectual vocal, sounding like one of those gormless 60s folk hippies. He’s “nice” but he’s in ‘defensive’ mode and while I know he’s recorded whole albums of Dylan covers he’d have been better off covering shoegaze or something. This is just mawkish.

Steven Keene – Never Say Goodbye (1997)… born in 1957, Keene is a singer-songwriter from Brooklyn, NY. Here we have a lesser number from Planet Waves, with impressive honky tonk piano, a stabbing electric guitar chord keeping rhythm, and a slightly buried murky vocal that’s hard to catch. Gotta confess, despite having played Planet Waves lots of times, this song never left much of an impression on me, and as a consequence I’m not really digging this version either. The extra distortion on the guitar is a nice touch, and the screechy harmonica, but the whole thing comes across like a noisy bar band, a very good one, but alas, it’s forgettable.

(At the end of each side we hear a mid-60s interviewer asking Bob Dylan some inane question and Dylan replying by slapping the questions back at the interviewer’s face.) 

Zimmermen – Series Of Dreams (1997)… not to be confused with the Zimmermen hailing from 1980s Australia, this Zimmerman band from Oxford UK put out a CD-only Dylan covers album called The Dungeon Tapes in 1996. “Series of Dreams” was an Oh Mercy out-take released on Dylan’s first Bootleg Series collection. Here we have a smooth ‘modern’ ambient feel, not at all dissimilar to Lanois’s production on Oh Mercy, just bass and drums to begin with, while an eerie keyboard tone winds about backstage, until a few guitar notes come echoing out of the mix, very nicely. The vocal is low, nasal and slightly gruff. Meanwhile the guitars start shining, filling in more colours, and then finally we get to a chorus, and the song explodes, softly, into boomy noise, high-pitched but distant female backing voices. The lyric becomes buried in the mix, then that all drops away to bass and drums, but with more guitar. i.e. this mix/structure is a template that I’ve heard a thousand times, but it’s nice. My only complaint would be that the singer is so low and gruff that his articulation sounds muffled and I can’t really discern the lyrics at all.

Thomas Helmig – Memphis Blues Again (1991)… born in 1964 Helmig has been a Danish popstar and producer since the 80s. This is appropriately New Orleans-esque, with piano, loud bass, funky rhythm, but it’s a touch too smooth. Helmig has a good (rough) voice, and you can hear his enthusiasm for his material loud and clear. That said, it’s so middle-of-the-road likeable, you could paint a dotted white line through it and ask each musician to politely stick to his side. Anyone who’s read a few of my reviews will know that standard run-of-the-mill rock bores my britches off. It’s all so average and commonplace, and this does nothing to transcend the original.

Jeff Healey Band – When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky (1989)… originally from Canada, the Jeff Healey band began in the 1980s, though Healey died in 2008. The rock is on the rise now, with Jeff Healey, another light-rasp of a voice cruising this Empire Burlesque pop-rocker. Problem here is that Healey covers Dylan’s mediocre 80s rock sound with his own mediocre 80s rock sound, and it all seems pointless. Healey shoots off some dazzling solos but he’s got no heart for art, no penchant for experimentation, just another fancy electric guitar noodler. His voice is average. Beer chuggin’ rock. The best part of the song is the chorus, with a female backing singer adding a frisson to the song that doesn’t exist in any of the choruses. Again, it’s enjoyable, but meh.

Jimmy Barnes – Seven Days (1979)… Barnes, born 1956 is still considered the most successful Australian rock act to date. I remember Barnes echoing out of university dormitories and feeling utterly nonplussed with his tiresome grunge chords and his screechy heavy metal voice. Live, all of these rock acts probably sound great (although do they? I saw Kiss play live in Melbourne in 1997, sooo boring). Anyway, Ron Wood covered this in the same year as Barnes, and I much prefer his version over Barnes’s histrionics. Don’t get me wrong—when he’s wrenched free from this big heavy noisy driving rock sound, he’s got a great voice, but otherwise this lacks imagination. You enjoy it, but then forget it instantly.

Carlene Carter – Trust Yourself (1985)… American country singer, born 1955, choosing a song from Empire Burlesque. This is where things start to get more interesting for me, because I don’t know this Dylan material too well, and I’ll be heading back to Empire Burlesque to listen again. By this stage (1997) most folks covering Dylan are still mining his 60s material, much of this compilation included, but that starts to change once we enter the new millennium. When this starts up, it almost sounds fresh, owing to a big mid-80s reverberant drum sound, and processed vocals, but really, the whole thing sounds so “processed” you can almost see the conveyor belt. Carter has a graunchy strong vocal, and this is certainly catchy, but it’s such a product of its times. No artistry, no sense of what the lyric might be saying, though given that Dylan already set the template so horribly with his own production, you can forgive Carter’s band for their futile attempt to improve it.

Rita Chiarelli – Highway 61 Revisited (1993)… has apparently been dubbed “the goddess of Canadian blues.” Her cover of this song first appeared on her 1992 album Road Rockets. Chiarelli is the Canadian female counterpart to Australia’s Jimmy Barnes. She’s a belter, and her band pour a tonne of energy into the song, pumping along at a galloping pace, but again we’ve got gated drums, heavy bass, metronomic precision, lots of gnarly (clichéd) fretwork and exuberant vocal. Her voice has a touch of the Bonnie Tyler about it, but where Tyler really gets into your mind, Chiarelli just skirts around the edges. More loud rock and roll, all blunt edges, no subtlety whatsoever. Pointless.

Nilsson – Subterranean Homesick Blues (1974)… now this is interesting. American singer-songwriter Nilsson needs no introduction, but this was recorded for an album of covers he made with John Lennon in 1974 called Pussycats. Interesting because in 2006, a favourite band of mine, The Walkmen (replete with Dylanesque vocalist Hamilton Leithauser) covered the whole of Pussycats and released their own version, and I once wrote a comparative review of the original, Nilsson’s and The Walkmen’s versions, for the now defunct online journal The Stylus. So here I am, hearing it again ten years later, enjoying it too. Some pretty weird stuttering guitar effects, intense drumming, a low growly sound beneath the train-like speed of the rhythm section. The vocal is echoey, blurring into the noisy rendition. It’s kind of weird and cool, with sax blatting like an electric guitar, shouty vocals. Certainly more ‘alternative’ and interesting than all the rock clichés above. This is weird-good. The only thing letting it down is that the lyric is relegated to a second tier ‘effect’.

The Sports – Ballad Of A Thin Man (1981)… The Sports were an Australian rock group working from 1976 to 1981. In their last year they released a 10” of covers of Donovan and Dylan songs, which included this one. They have a clean eighties sound, kind of Dire Straits-like, or The Church, but spare, and with a weak odd vocal that really lets the song down. Not surprising that The Sports never left much of a legacy. The vocal is way too weak to sing this lyric. He’s kind of gurgly, weak-kneed, watery. Awful, just awful. Some nice guitar work, with some kind of effect pedal that creates cool sounds, but the drums are gated. Like most of the songs here, it’s likeable for the melody, but throwaway, no conviction in the lyric at all. C’mon, Mr Jones, will somebody get me out of here?

The Hooters – All I Really Want To Do (1994)… weird – I remember the Hooters very clearly from the eighties, although I was sure they were another Aussie rock group. Wrong Alan. They hail from Philadelphia, forming in 1980, and recorded this song for a live release in 1994. Interesting rhythmical opening—big cartoony drum sound, some repetitive mechanical effect, but I just remembered now—the violin, the fiddle—that’s what gave the Hooters their edge. Musically this is unusual , nothing like I’ve heard anyone do with this song before. There might even be a banjo playing the main theme, and a swirly organ tone. The Hooters do a nice line in sounding like a sixties band vocally. This has caught my interest despite me often protesting that no one should cover this song. It’s too Dylan. You can’t better Dylan’s singing of this song, and unless you mimic him, you can’t even come close, and the Hooters merely do an okay ‘pop’ job of it. 

Jennifer Warnes – Sign On The Window (1979)… famous for working with Leonard Cohen, and in her own right as a singer-songwriter, Warnes was born in 1947. Her cover of this New Morning song first appeared on her 1979 album Shot Through The Heart. Here we have strong voice over top of piano, and I’d be happy if it stays that way, but sure enough, after 30 seconds, bass and drums join. But this is a fairly powerful cover, sung well by Warnes, Nice melody, “catch rainbow trout … that must be what it’s all about.” One of the better tracks so far.

The Box Tops – I Shall Be Released (1969)… was released as a 7” single in 1969 and it appeared on their last album of the sixties, Dimensions, from the same year. The Box Tops were the first pop band of the genius Alex Chilton before he went on to form Big Star. Chilton doesn’t quite sound like his Big Star self here, more sweet 60s pop vocal than power pop weirdo. The sound quality is pretty good, and the musicianship sweet, soft, clear mix of tones, cymbal, piano, harmonised vocal. If anything, it comes too close to the Band’s version without being as good, which is what lets it down. They go for the same dual vocal melody as The Band, but then lose the wondrous keyboard tone that makes the original so good.

Dream Syndicate – Blind Willie McTell (1983)… this Los Angeles band formed in 1981 by Steve Wynn who must have been quite the Dylan fan because in 2011 he released a vinyl-only album of Dylan covers, which I’ll be reviewing for this blog in due course. Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell” first showed up on The Bootleg Series Vol.1-3 in 1991. I like this version. It’s just electric guitar played with Wynn’s odd muppety vocal. At least it was, before the drums began bashing, and the guitar got louder and louder. There’s something slightly ‘raw’ about this that I like. It sounds like a late 70s/early 80s indie band from Australia. “Take it away Chris,” says Steve, and Chris gives us a wild organ solo. Wynn’s vocal rides cleanly outside of the mix. The second instrumental break is phenomenal, really screechy, noisy, anarchic without sounding like an 80s virtuoso nerd. This is cool. They sound like a cross between the Church, the Hoodoo Gurus and the Violent Femmes. They’re not quite individual enough to really stand out, but still, this is ‘alternative’ rock and I’m enjoying it. Unpretentious, hard and mean, and unhinged. Good stuff.

Gotthard – Mighty Quinn (1995)… Gotthard as a band name sounds weirdly suggestive. They’re a Swedish hard rock act active since 1992 and still going hard in 2017. Their cover of “Mighty Quinn” first appeared on their 1996 album G. Sure enough, when this kicks in it sounds like Quiet Riot or some other trashy 80s hair metal band, a huge rock metal sound, a screechy hoarse metal vocal. You can just picture the band with painted long straggly hair and gauche make-up. Perhaps unsurprisingly, “Mighty Quinn” suits this kind of treatment, especially the double tracked vocal chorus. It’s noisy and the guitars are louder and more forward in the mix. Then we get a chorus sans guitars, which is a heavy metal cliché, and yes, while it all sounds like it was made to measure, at least Gotthard got there first. I can’t help wanting to laugh. Enjoy it, then bin it.

Leningrad Cowboys – Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door (1994)… the Cowboys first began life as a joke band apparently, in Finland in 1986, and released this Dylan cover on their 1994 album Happy Together. This opens with slow trilling keyboard tones, ethereal angelic vocals, a single guitar chug, and while I’ve professed many times to hating this song, so far I don’t mind this version. There’s even a deep male choir at one point, vibraphone, brass, no hurry to get anywhere, quite experimental, and yeah…cool. I like it. You can hear the humour in this, and if anything it harks back to Hugo Montenegro’s effort from 1970, but with bonus effects, more eclectic, a bit OTT, but in a good way, then we get a soaring power chord electric guitar solo, and you can’t help but smile. This is great. A great way to end this record. It’s like a death knell to all the clichés we’ve heard on this compilation; all the bloated earnest rock clichés and self-importance being laid to waste by a Finnish joke band, who simultaneously manage to make “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” hilarious and affecting at the same time. Beautiful.

So, overall, I wasn’t feeling the burn for this compilation as much as I thought I would. It’s like a clearing out of the attic, making way for the new millennium. I can’t speak for Volume Two in this series, because it’s a set of 10 x 7” records, which is a pain to play through, but by 2003, the BMG group who put these compilations out had perfected it. Go HERE to see a full list of Dylan cover albums released on vinyl.

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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