This is the second collection of Bob Dylan covers put out on the German BMG label, and it’s fair to say these are some of the best various artists collections of Dylan covers around. Best, because they’re a great mix of the new, old and unknown, often exclusive to the release, and they’re performed by people who seem to care about the music. I’m not sure why anyone thought it was a good idea to put this out as a vinyl box of 10 x 7” singles though. It’s a bit of pain to play through. Like, most of us don’t own a home jukebox, and from what I can tell, most record players worth their salt these days don’t have an instant “45” switch to change the speed, nor that old system for stacking 45s on the spindle. So that leaves you jumping up to play the song again (not a bad thing) or changing sides every 3~4 minutes (annoying). What it does mean is that the collection certainly won’t get overplayed round my house. Normally, I spend a few days with each of these records, spin them at least 5~10 times before writing them up, but this got played through only once through before I attacked the keyboard. Here’s the result…
Etta James – Gotta Serve Somebody (2000)… James’s version of this Slow Train Coming classic appears on Etta James’s album Matriarch of the Blues. James (1938-2012) had been recording soul RnB since 1961. Dylan’s original is possibly the greatest song of his gospel trilogy and Etta James rises to the challenge. It starts with the rev of a V8 engine before the brass section belts into action, squally electric guitar, solid beat, and James’s strong, confident vocal. The mix is fantastic. People use to make jokes about how Michael Jackson was slowly turning himself into Elizabeth Taylor, and I’ve sometimes thought, in some inexplicable way, Dylan’s voice was turning into that of an aged black woman. Listen to Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens. Does Shelton sound more like Dylan or does Dylan sound more like Shelton? An impossible question to answer. Back to Etta James—at 62 she doesn’t share Dylan’s croak, but she’s capable of throwing her voice around in a way that suits the temper of the song perfectly. It’s loud and brash and every bit as good as the original, if not better. This is quality Dylan coverism, professional, perfectly executed.
Articolo 31 – Come Una Pietra Scalciata (Like A Rolling Stone) (1998)… described in the box as “spaghetti funk” but on Discogs as “Italian hip-hop,” Articolo 31 recorded their “Like A Rolling Stone” for the 1998 album Nessuno. This version also appears on the Masked And Anonymous soundtrack. Articolo 31 sample music from the original at the beginning of the song, but thereafter it become virtually unrecognisable, apart from a faint familiar piano motif playing behind the hip-hop beat. We get “Like A Rolling Stone” rapped in Italian, then when the chorus comes, it’s Dylan, sampled, singing “How does it feel?” while a female chorus respond in Italian, and it sounds great. It’s quite catchy, and though I can’t follow the Italian rapping, it’s cool to hear someone mixing the Bard up like this—first time I’ve ever heard someone do that with Dylan. The rapping is fast, and the only time the melody really arrives is on the chorus. Props to Articolo 31 for the invention and the scratching and other effects, and for having fun with the song. I wouldn’t want to listen to a whole album of this, but a single track on a compilation works.
Patti Smith – Wicked Messenger (1996)… American punk songstress Smith recorded this for her 1996 album Gone Again. Speaking of “messengers,” it was Smith who sang on behalf of Dylan for his Nobel Prize acceptance this year (2017). There, her version of “A Hard Rain…” was spectacular, whereas her “Wicked Messenger” is virtually unrecognisable from the original. It’s heavy, alternative, with loud bruising guitars and a slow industrial beat, and gets kinda punk in the middle, with Smith thrashing her voice harshly, to the point where I can’t really make out any of the words. The drumming speeds up, gets louder, the guitars streak strange metallic lines through the song, and it begins to remind me of Michael Wiehe, the Swedish Dylan cover professional, with his industrial punk effort from 1982. Nonetheless, this is tuneless and … just not my thing. I think it’s great someone’s taken Dylan this far out into alternative rock, but generally I prefer a semblance of tune among my noise, and a lyrically discernible vocal.
Cowboy Junkies – If You Gotta Go, Go Now (1992)… the Cowboy Junkies released this on 7” single in 1992 and made it available on the Japanese CD release of their album of the same year, Black Eyed Man. Nothing like the Cowboy Junkies I’m familiar with, this is honky tonk rock and roll, overlaced with Margo Timmins’s silky soft vocal, a nice contrast. The sound is good, though it’s a strange choice for the band. I could have thought of several dozen Dylan songs that would suit her voice more than one that leans on Dylan’s acerbic wit. I like her voice a lot, but not with a lyric like this.
Elvis Presley – Tomorrow Is A Long Time (1966)… also available on The Songs Of Bob Dylan compilation from 1989, and originally released on his 1966 album Spinout. The instrumentation here is really nice, a skewered acoustic guitar sound, some harpsichord on rhythm, and a sleepy bass, all playing second fiddle to Presley’s nuanced, delicate vocal. Presley, who I’ve never really spent any musical time with, does this song full justice, and he makes it sound effortless. Furthermore, he has quite the range, given how high he goes to sing it. I might normally dismiss something like this as a lame muzakky cover, but Elvis transcends the lyric, makes it emotionally moving, almost fragile. I can’t remember who among all the artists to grace these blog pages have covered this song, but right now I’m confident that none have owned it the way Elvis owns it.
Barbara Gosza – Just Like A Woman (1995)… Gosza (1965-2011) was a Czech-born singer who was raised in Chicago. Her cover of this song first appeared on her 1995 album Ceremonies. Sax squirts out an introduction, which is a nice touch, piano, bass, drums and Gosza’s sweetly weathered voice, almost as soft as Margot Timmons. It’s nice to hear saxophone mixed into the theme, but there’s something a bit middle of the road light radio rock about this. Musically, it sounds like a karaoke version, and Gosza’s voice is not so impressive that it adds anything special to the song, though when she gets to the chorus, the song almost achieves lift-off. The sax snazzes out, and Gosza changes the melody slightly. She also changes some of the adverbs, such as “I break just like a little girl,” which leads one to wonder about the level of irony operating here. Not bad.
Nina Simone – Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues (1969)… recorded for her 1969 album To Love Somebody. So we had Nina Simone on United Artists For The Poet doing a soporific jazzy “Just Like A Woman.” Likewise, this is slowed down to half-speed, but at least this time, the vocals are fully audible, and I’m far more in awe of Simone’s way with the words this time around. The music is kept very minimal, a twinkle of piano, a stone-skipping beat, a few pearly drops of electric guitar. Once again, though, I’m not sure the lyric really suits this arrangement. Like, if I try to concentrate solely on the words, I find myself getting easily distracted, because the lyric demands a certain kind of urgency, not this mellow laid-back approach. That said, it’s still a pleasurable listen.
King Candy – Simple Twist Of Fate (1993)… the German band King Candy recorded this for their 1993 album Candid Classics. My first thoughts on hearing this was “Lou Reed.” The lead singer here half-speaks the song in a voice pitched perfectly between Reed and Steve Kilbey of the Church. The melody, on treated guitar, sounds a bit wet, echo/reverb, then the chorus comes and the noise levels rise, and never lets up after that, and things become more histrionic. The voice is miked too closely in my opinion, so that we don’t quite get enough distance between singer and lyric, and things blur slightly, thus defeating the otherwise poignant lyric.
Heartland – T.V. Talkin’ Song (1998)… this song, from Under The Red Sky, was recorded by this German band for a four-track CD EP of Dylan covers, Your Mind Is Your Temple in 1998. The first thing to note is that the production here is a vast improvement over Dylan’s version. We get a finely rendered guitar sound, fiddly and exacting, a thin minimalist rock sound, and a whine-gravel vocal, mixed just a bit low, so that the words play second fiddle to the guitar-work, which is what really shines here. It sounds fantastic, though it’s not a song I have much recall of. I do know it never sounded this good. The guitarist owns the song, but the melody is a bit weak, and the lyric slightly dull. Good effort though.
Gary Burton – I Want You (1966)… American jazz vibraphonist Burton recorded two Blonde on Blonde covers for his 1966 album Tennessee Firebird including this instrumental version, which is the best jazz cover of a Dylan song I’ve heard to date. There was Dylan Jazz of course by The Gene Norman Group, also 1966, and Rob van Dyke Plays Bob Dylan (1970), but both of those treated Dylan as muzak, jazz for dummies. Burton’s version is a little more experimental, what sounds like two saxophones entwining in and out of each other, which is inventively mimetic, given the lyrical refrain they’re playing. It’s a really nice clean sound, the melody is intact, easily discernible, and even the bassist gets a little solo. i.e. this actually sounds like jazz, albeit on the easy listening side of the spectrum. A voice scats faintly after the bass solo, in time with the bass, until the song fades out. Something different–always appreciated. I’m sure Dylan’s been covered by jazzers dozens of times, but very rarely on a full covers album, and certainly none released on vinyl.
Steve Young – Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right (1978)… American outlaw country artist Steve Young (1942-2016) recorded this for his 1978 album No Place To Fall. This is played as fiddly acoustic arpeggios, in fine folk style, although Young’s loud country rasp is slightly at odds with the quiet delicate guitar melody. Pedal steel interludes swoop in and out of the mix after a minute, and once the drum starts up, the song becomes positively country rock with the emphasis firmly on country. Young sings it with conviction, yet apart from the inspired vocal, it still sounds very mainstream, a little unadventurous, standard country fare, pleasant but ultimately dull.
Ann Christy – Walk Out In The Rain (1978)… Ann Christy was a popular singer from Belgium who died in 1984 at the tender age of 38 from womb cancer. Bob Dylan apparently wrote two songs for her, this being one of them, and never released it himself, though may have recorded an outtake for the Street Legal sessions. Christy released this live version on 7” single in 1978. This is made exquisite by virtue of Christy’s quite unique voice, a sweet/sharp thing with a slight country twang and a hint of the Bjork squeal. The lyric invites a lover to leave, albeit not without a large dose of lovelorn pathos. Instrumentation is soft-rock plus saxophone—nothing to get excited about, but the drama is heightened owing to Christy’s performance. Short and sweet.
Odetta – Paths Of Victory (1964)… before folk artist Odetta released her own complete album of Dylan covers, Odetta Sings Dylan, she recorded “Paths Of Victory” for her 1964 album Odetta Sings Of Many Things. Instrumentation here is pretty cool—I can’t quite say what’s playing the main melody—sounds like a double bass being bowed. And what sounds like someone tapping a guitar body, and then there’s Odetta’s bold voice with her weird mix of pitches, high and low and all points in between. Sounding quite jazzy owing to the minimalist backing, I dig this a lot. I’m not such a fan of Odetta’s voice or style, but this is utterly unique, and sounds unlike anything on her own Dylan covers album.
Melanie – Sign On The Window (1971)… American singer-songwriter with a zillion albums under her belt recorded this New Morning song for her 1971 album Good Book. I first heard Melanie do Dylan on the 1978 compilation It Ain’t Me Babe and it was surely one of the best versions of “Lay, Lady, Lay” I’d ever heard, not to mention one of the best Dylan covers I’ve ever heard full stop. Also worth noting that Jennifer Warnes covered this song in 1979, a version we heard on the first May Your Song Always Be Sung compilation from 1997. I’m quite a fan of Melanie’s voice, though the recording quality of this song seems a bit weak, faint signs of distortion in the mix owing to her loud unrestrained vocal. Some neat fast strumming, then banjo, a real country feel, fiddle, some interesting juxtapositions, but it’s over too quickly. Much preferred over Warnes’s version.
Kiki Veneno Con Juan Perro – Memphis Blues Again (1995)… Spanish flamenco star Kiki Veneno recorded this Blonde on Blonde track in Latin style with Spanish musician Juan Perro (an alias) for his 1995 album Esta Muy Bien Eso Del Carino. So, accordingly we get some impressive guitar work, a boldly thumping backbeat, and Veneno’s Latin lyric, all in glorious hi-fidelity. Very different to the original, musically, enjoyable. Veneno has a touch of the rough in his voice, but there’s no tackiness here, no keyboards. We get a set of authentic tones, some great drumming, a staccato kind of arrangement. The only time I really recognise the lyric though is on the chorus—the rest sounds like the way Schipa Jr. sounded—a lot of syllables being made to fit into a very short space.
Gerd Koster – Muse Feife Inne Wind (Blowin’ In The Wind) (1995)… German singer and actor Koster was more famous for his covers of Tom Waits songs sung in a local dialect. Apparently even Germans struggled to understand it. He first released this song on CD single in 1995. He’s got what I would describe as a cranky voice, which, along with the upbeat rhythm, the crowd cheers, and hard German syllables, makes it hard not to hear this as mildly comical. Maybe a beer-drinking version? Swing your stein along with the tune and join in for the chorus? It sounds throwaway, light entertainment, eccentric. The audience join in with their hands on more than one occasion.
Stone Country – Million Dollar Bash (1968)… psychedelic folk country band Stone Country included member Steve Young, (also appearing on this compilation as solo artist). This Basement Tapes track was originally the b-side to “Wheels On Fire” on the a-side of a 7” single released in 1968. This is borderline wacky. It’s like they’ve tried to replicate the Basement Tapes’s sense of party atmosphere & Band/Dylan camaraderie, replete with squeals of delight and laughter, bottles clinking, and absurdly blurted out vocal. It is quite enjoyable though, even if it’s false, by which I mean, you can copy the mechanics of a song, but you can’t authentically copy the background party.
The Vacels – Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window (1965)… sixties garage rock act The Vacels from Long Island NY released this non-album Dylan single as a 7” in 1965. It’s rough and ready, raw in the vocal, with madly squealing brass in the background. It sounds of a piece with the decade, and normally I might enjoy something like this, but the vocal leaves a lot to be desired—more shouted than sung, the lyric is a bit painful to listen to. That said, there is something slightly apposite about the song title being belted out like trash. Otherwise this is an opportunistic piece of long-haired junk-Dylan.
Kenny Wayne Shepherd – Everything Is Broken (1997)… American blues rock singer-songwriter Shepherd recorded this for his 1997 album Trouble Is… under the name the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band. We got a lot of this kind of sound on the first May Your Song compilation—a loud aggressive rock thing, though this is different again. A driving energetic rhythmic section, with a neat off-kilter guitar sound, and a standard bluesy male vocal. It sounds pretty good. although once again, I find a discrepancy between the style and the lyric. Imagine how good this could have been if the rhythm were somehow “broken”? What if guitar strings kept popping through the song? The drum kit collapse at song end? Performed in a loud rockist way, the phrase “everything is broken” as it follows a litany of failures, doesn’t quite have the same gravitas as when Dylan sings it.
Harry Belafonte – Midnight Special (1962)… apparently never before released version of “Midnight Special” – not a Dylan cover of course, but with Dylan on harmonica. Thus a rare item and no minor coup for this compilation. The song sounds great, especially for 1962, and Dylan’s harmonica work is fantastic, subtle, evocative, locomotive-like. A quick tickety-boo and cymbals rhythm section. Dylan’s mouth organ work here is very impressive, really imaginative, always changing it around, fast, chugging, blended one minute, centre stage the next. Furthermore, I had no idea Harry Belafonte sounded so…cool, so warm and normal and everyman. If pressed to guess, I would have thought his voice was more along the lines of Tom Jones.
The first thing—if this review piques your curiosity, don’t be a vinyl purist—get this on CD, or look it up on a streaming service. Playing 10 x 45 speed 7” records is not my idea of a fun way to listen to any album. In any case, I definitely enjoyed this a lot more than the first one in the series, while Vol. 3 would improve on the formula ten-fold. Go HERE to see the full list of Dylan cover albums released on vinyl.