I saw this movie for the first time in 2009 and loved it. I understand the criticisms, why it’s a frustrating movie to watch from the traditional perspective that demands a coherent narrative, but I think it’s clear early on that we’re dealing with a fractured storyline that works partly as mimetic representation of the past and partly as prophetic vision of the future. In other words, Masked And Anonymous is a Dylan song in film format, or, a movie contrived to be viewed like a Dylan song. It’s entertaining enough, quite funny in places, and fascinating enough for the Dylan fan to watch a man play-act a version of himself that will surely live on into infamy. Thus it exists as a late career document, valuable for the mere fact of Dylan’s presence, and future analysts will have a field day scouring his every nuance for evidence of genius. Four of the fourteen songs on this album are performed by Dylan, though they are live ‘covers’ of his own material. Apparently he re-recorded eight of his own songs specifically for this soundtrack but only four ended up on the album.
And indeed, Masked And Anonymous as I have it here, is more soundtrack than Dylan covers album per se, but given that ten out of the fourteen tracks are Dylan covers, I’m going to include it on my blog. I’ve been hesitant about reviewing this for a long time, owing to the presence of Dylan, and perhaps also because as a soundtrack it’s such a random, unsatisfying collection of songs, with only two or three standout tracks. In fact two of these songs (Shirley Caesar and The Dixie Hummingbirds) didn’t even appear in the movie (according to the liner notes, but I’ve read otherwise). In theory, to review this as a soundtrack, one would need to reference the movie in order to understand why these songs were chosen and what they add to the film, but that’s beyond my scope here. I think part of the point of the global view presented here—after all, we have artists from Japan, Sweden, Italy, Turkey and the US—is to prop up that haphazard mix of cultures presented in the revolutionary no man’s land border town scenario of the film. So I’m only interested in reviewing these songs as “Dylan covers” and no more. Have it Bumstead…
The Magokoro Brothers – My Back Pages (1995)… The Magokoro Brothers are a Japanese rock band with only a handful of albums to their name from the 90s and 00s. Preceded by a monologue from the film about being “humble before God,” the song starts up with a warm sound, a Kooperish organ tone, and suddenly a Magokoro brother fills the song with his speedy multi-syllabic nihongo. As someone who lived in Japan for a long time, and familiar with the language, I have to say, to my ear, the singing on so many Japanese rock/indie rock outfits sounds the same. The song is only recognisable in the chorus, “I was so much younger then…” It’s cool to hear Dylan in Japanese of course, but this doesn’t exactly reach out and grab you by the ears.
Shirley Caesar – Gotta Serve Somebody (2003)… Caesar’s been with us since 1938, was a qualified pastor of a church in Raleigh, North Carolina, and has been singing and recording gospel rock since 1969. Her cover of this Slow Train Coming song first appeared on her 1980 album Rejoice. I suspect this version is not the same as the one appearing on Caesar’s 1980 album, but was recorded for the 2003 Dylan covers album Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan (CD only release). It sounds like a fresh modern production. We’d only just heard Etta James covering this on the 2001 Dylan covers album May Your Song Always Be Sung Again. That version was more straightforward than this one, though I think I preferred it. Caesar’s version has more of that fire and brimstone, preachin’ from the pulpit, southern Baptist kind of energy, with funky squirts of organ, and noodling bits of guitar, an insistent bass/drum rhythm, and backing choir interjecting things like “Come on!” and “Serve somebody!” between Caesar’s gravelly belting.
Bob Dylan – Down In The Flood… this Basement Tapes track (“Crash On The Levee”) was revived by Dylan for the Neverending Tour in 1995 and played for a decade hence it’s appearance on this 2003 release. The apocalyptic theme of the song—a flood of possibly biblical proportions—fits into the theme of the movie of course. This version is a thick heavy live rocker, Dylan’s voice so ragged and the thrashy music so loud that it’s impossible to make out any lyrics except for maybe the chorus. I’m assuming this is recorded live, hence the noisy mix, quite heavy, quite unlike the Basement Tapes version, strong bass, a lot more energy, almost sounding like it belongs to the grungy 90s. Clinton Heylin declares this song rather special. I’m not hearing it myself. Certainly not much of a memorable tune, on this version at least, which exists mainly to rock out.
The Grateful Dead – It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue (1981)… from what I can tell the Grateful Dead were covering this song as far back as 1970, though it seems to be available on a wide range of Grateful Dead releases. Here it’s played live as a mid-tempo guitar/bass/drums sensitive rocker. The mix ain’t great, thus we get volume variance, and weird pacing, as the song slows and regains its tempo, and the vocal is dull as lead. If this is Jerry Garcia, then he’s surely got the most non-descript voice in all of rock and roll. This version meanders and wafts, gets loud and annoying, then drops away, as though a wind just blew through the stadium. The guitarists own the song, should’ve kept it as an instrumental in my opinion, and in fact the instrumental break is long and entertaining, bent notes, the guitarist constructing some kind of edifice with his imagination, then just as soon, Garcia destroys the song with his flat featureless over-loud vocal. This doesn’t move me at all.
Sophie Zelmani – Most Of The Time… (2001) Swedish singer-songwriter Zelmani was born in 1972. A demo version of this song appeared on a CD single she released in 2000. I’m a big fan of this Oh Mercy track and I’m enamoured of Zelmani’s effort. She keeps it quite close to the original, her voice is low and confessional, pulling at the pathos of the song, which isn’t hard given the song’s bruised melancholia of a tune. There is something deeply affecting about this song, like, we can all relate to the lyric, at given moments of our lives. Zelmani has a ‘pretty’ voice, quite feminine, and the musicianship is sympathetic to her singing style, with a lovely atmospheric feel, different to what Daniel Lanois does with Dylan’s, but not a million miles away. Easily the best track on the record so far.
Los Lobos – On A Night Like This (2003)… American Chicano rock band formed in 1973, most famous for their cover of “La Bamba.” From what I can tell, their cover of this Planet Waves song is exclusive to this release. Weirdly, this song is not listed on the songs page of the Bob Dylan website. Los Lobos keep it close to the original, with concertina windily filling in the background, a full busy soundscape, switch to Spanish in the lyric, a busy reading of the song, with trilling piano, then a tempo change, and the whole beat gets re-routed into a dance, like a wedding party, thumping beat, sax or tuba or some such blaring brass leading the song to its end. Good stuff.
Bob Dylan – Diamond Joe… a completely different version to the one appearing on Good As I Been To You with different lyrics. It launches into crystal clear tap-beat, loud banjo, warm bass, familiar tune, is nicely recorded, Dylan in good voice here. It’s a victim of loudness wars but still, this is a crisp, deep, plangent recording. It’s short. The Diamond Joe character in this song doesn’t sound like even half the asshole he was in the 1992 version.
Articolo 31 – Come Una Pietra Scalciata (Like A Rolling Stone) (1998)… Articolo 31 recorded this version of “Like A Rolling Stone” for the 1998 album Nessuno. This version also appears on the May Your Song Always Be Sung Again compilation from 2001. Big loud punchy electronic drum beat, intro from “Like A Rolling Stone,” some tinkly sounds, and Italian rapping, then Dylan comes yelling out of the mix, “How does it feel?” and the rest of the chorus, interspersed by a female chorus responding to him. We’ve got scratching, stuttered rhythms, but really, I’m only listening for the chorus which is fun and catchy. I have nothing new to say about this. I don’t listen to hip-hop let alone shiny bouncy Italian hip-hop that cuts up Dylan and turns him inside out. I quite like this, but it’s night club music as far as I can tell.
Sertab – One More Cup Of Coffee (2003)… Sertab is a Turkish singer born 1964. She released this song as a b-side to her 2003 Eurovision song winner, “Every Way That I Can.” I like this version a lot. We’ve got strings, and then Sertab’s high pitched voice, some kind of tympanic drum sound, and those klezmer vocals warbling away like Dylan on the original. This is full of heightened drama owing to the orchestral backing, but it’s melodic and a little overblown; I like it a lot. It really stands out on the album. The strings swoop and soar in unison, the kettle drums keep things sounding vaguely exotic, as does the tone of Sertab’s voice/accent. Nice. A strange electronic vocal fades the song out.
Francesco De Gregori – Non Dirle Che Non E’ Cosi’ (If You See Her, Say Hello) (1997)… this Italian dude was born in 1951 and has released more than 25 album since 1970. This is a 1997 recording, but this Blood On The Tracks song also appears on De Gregori’s 2015 album entirely dedicated to Bob Dylan covers, De Gregori Canta Bob Dylan. Here we have the sound of acoustic and electric guitars and, maybe harpsichord, a crisp clear ringing tone, a touch of reverb, but De Gregori has a much finer voice than the other Italian to do a full Dylan cover album, Schipa Jr.’s Dylaniato. It’s hard to comment on the emotional aspect of the song when you don’t understand the language it’s being sung in, but I do like De Gregori’s voice, slightly low, a hint of whiskey, his phrasing is good, and the song is loose enough so that there’s none of that ‘pop formula’ aspect of keeping the lyric within a tight rhythmic structure. On the downside, this is a little too ‘clean’ and classy for my tastes.
Bob Dylan – Dixie… this song is an American traditional, though generally credited to Daniel Decatur Emmett, and it dates back to the years of blackface minstrelsy. Part of the folk tradition, Dylan gives it a solid treatment, roaring, “Look away! Look away! Dixieland” in the chorus. The lyric seems to be sung from the point of view of someone who’s moved up north and is pining for home in the southern states, recalling all the things he loves.
Jerry Garcia – Senor (Tales Of Yankee Power)…the only listed version of this song I can find information on is one on a bootleg LP from 1983 featuring Jerry Garcia and Bob Dylan together. But this version has a copyright date of 1991. Some guitar twiddling leads us into the song, which is slow, laden with a spooky chorus providing wordless harmony, but man, I hope this isn’t too much sacrilege, and I am a fan of both Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, but it has to be said that Jerry Garcia is the most boring singer I’ve ever heard. His voice is just…nothing. His singing isn’t particularly good, it has no resonance of any kind, completely unmemorable, it’s like he landed the job by default. Thankfully the bulk of this cover version is carried in the guitar soloing, and the quite pretty harmonising of the backing band. Live though this may be, he fails to articulate over the sound of the band, such that we’re left with only a vague mysterious quality, a dry deserty kind of feel, and some shimmering organ. I like this song, and I don’t mind this cover—the feel is right, the mix of instruments works, but Garcia’s singing adds nothing to the song, almost negates its good qualities.
Bob Dylan – Cold Iron Bounds… in which the Dylan-persona feels like he’s been swallowed by the universe and left twenty miles out of town shackled in cold irons after catching a glimpse of a former lover who’s locked him out of her life. Apparently the studio version on Time Out of Mind was one of the most ‘live’ tracks on the album. I’m a big fan of this song partly because the sound of the song, the instrumentation, somehow conjures up the title quite beautifully. I was hoping to enjoy this live version. It stumbles in with fiddly guitar work, tumbling drums, and then the slow build of tension as Dylan garbles inarticulately through the first two verses. His voice seems to have deteriorated dramatically between 1997 and 2003. It’s pretty froggy on this track, which unfortunately seems to lose the momentum of the studio version, it’s rather more jagged and ragged, and inconsistent somehow, probably just a byproduct of the live recording. But it never quite takes off, seems to stall, and Dylan’s ruptured voice doesn’t really capture the earlier glory. One can’t help thinking, no wonder she doesn’t wasn’t to see you again.
The Dixie Hummingbirds – City Of Gold… another song not listed on the Bob Dylan website’s official list of Dylan songs, nor one that actually appears in the film, but written by Dylan and performed during his gospel period between 1980 and 1981. The American gospel group, Dixie Hummingbirds, date as far back as 1928 (!) but recorded this for their 2003 album Diamond Jubilation. One assumes they have an evolving line-up. “City of Gold” of course refers to some biblical endgame, prize for the faithful, though it may amount to nothing more than the concept of ‘hope’. With no original to compare it to, I can only regard it on its own merits. Gospel tones abound, deep male voices, crooning about a city, and they sound like they’ve been blinded by the beauty of this vision. The vocal arrangement is clever and detailed, pedal steel guitar runs through parts of the song, and it really is a multi-part thing; at the end of each verse, the key changes and the song seems to head off on a new tangent, but then doesn’t really. Shimmering mercury organ soars through large parts of the song. It’s got a big pop beat, but to be honest, I’m not convinced this transcends its subject matter, and I don’t particularly care if I never hear it again, or rather, it would probably sound a whole lot better in context of the album for which it was recorded.
Well, I’m glad that’s over. I’ve never much cared for soundtrack albums. Generally I don’t see them as existing as artistic statements separate from the movie (though there are exceptions, yes) and it’s not like I’m going to listen to a soundtrack and replay the movie in my mind. In any case, this feels really scrappy for some reason, just a bizarre collection of covers that have nothing to do with each other, and for the most part aren’t terribly memorable. The women beat the men hands down here: best cover versions were the Turkish singer Sertab’s version of “One More Cup Of Coffee,” Shirley Caesar’s “Gotta Serve Somebody,” and Sophie Zelmani’s “Most Of The Time.” Go HERE to see a full list of Dylan cover albums released on vinyl.