Friday, November 09, 2007

Against My Better Judgement

I haven't been buying a lot of CDs lately for obvious reasons, but I had a little bit of extra change in my pocket today so I decided to succumb to temptation and buy myself a record. I have to admit that buying CDs is probably my biggest vice, having supplanted comic books a long time ago (I buy many books as well, but it's not quite the same thing in terms of volume and consumption). Going into the CD store for the first time in quite a while and limiting myself to just one purchase was a difficult proposition, but after considerable deliberation I decided upon the recently released original soundtrack disc accompanying Todd Haynes' new Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There. I felt like a bit of a lazy post-boomer nostalgia fetishist, but the lineup of musicians involved was simply too much to resist, even with the almost certain knowledge that it was bound to disappoint at least as much as it would thrill. That is after all the nature of these kinds of all star-studded tribute compilations.

But still, even knowing better as I do, I still defy any reader out there to easily turn away from any compilation promising new music from a cast of characters as wide and varied as Sonic Youth, Steven Malkmus, Cat Power, Yo La Tengo, Tom Verlaine, Jeff Tweedy . . . Los Lobos, Willie Nelson, Richie Havens, Ramblin' Jack Elliott . . . man, you see the problem? There are 34 tracks spread across two CDs, and only a couple obvious clunkers evident from the label -- who invited Jack Johnson? But it's hard even to hate Johnson when he's wedged between Charlotte Gainsbourg and Yo La Tengo.

As I mentioned these type of tribute discs are always disappointing in one way or another, even though it's a rare tribute that doesn't manage at least a few notable interpretations. This set succeeds partly by overwhelming the listener with sheer mass: did I mention there are 34 tracks? Some disappoint, some thrill, some are neither here nor there, and some sound exactly as you would expect them to. As much as I hate to recommend such an obviously flawed set, the fact is that despite its flaws it's still pretty damn neat.

First of all, the disc gets all a lot of points for going out of its way to dig deep into the Dylan catalog, deeper than any comparable sets have ever ventured in the past. Sure, all the obvious suspects can be found here, and in many cases their ubiquity serves to stymie even the best intentions of their interpreters. I don't particularly hate Eddie Vedder, and I even have a few Pearl Jam albums (although, truth be told, I don't listen to them very often), but could there be anything more obvious than Vedder singing "All Along the Watchtower"? They don't even really make a pretense of trying to slip in the new life into this overplayed FM dinosaur rock staple, hewing fairly closely to Jimi Hendrix's arrangement (but then, even Dylan has played Hendrix's arrangement). Likewise, if I never hear another cover of "The Times They Are A Changin'" it will probably be too soon, likewise "Knocking On Heaven's Door". I'd be willing to bet even money that even Dylan regrets writing these songs at this point. But, these are probably unavoidable lapses (and, to be fair, Antony & The Johnsons' reading of "Knocking On Heaven's Door" is unlike any I've heard before). It's hard to be mad at a set that digs as deep as Empire Burlesque ("Dark Eyes", by Iron & Wine) and Saved ("Pressing On", performed by X's John Doe). A number of lesser-known tracks from Biograph and the first installment of The Bootleg Series -- not to mention the legendary Basement Tapes -- appear throughout. I consider myself a fairly well-versed Dylan listener, yet I will readily admit that there were quite a few surprises on here for me. (Not all of them good, but your mileage may vary.) The catalog is voluminous enough that they could release albums like this at a fair clip and not come close to tapping the well of original Dylan compositions for many, many years.

There are a few tracks off of John Wesley Harding, probably my least favorite Dylan album from the classic. Nothing much off Nashville Skyline. The biggest deficiency would have to be the lack of material from Dylan's late period renaissance -- the trilogy of excellent albums he's recorded the last decade, beginning with 1997's Time Out Of Mind. Tom Verlaine, of all people, tackles "Cold Irons Bound", but that's it (if ever a track was made for a Tom Waits cover, it that one -- but Waits is MIA). I haven't seen the movie yet so I don't know how much if at all these interpretations are a part of the film, and I don't know whether the artists in question had any choice as to what songs they would be interpreting. Some of the choices are inspired, and a few of them seemed to be the type of dead-on readings that could only have been inspired by a deep love of the sometimes very obscure source material -- but that's just a guess.

Some of them also fall flat. Far be it from me to gainsay Richie Havens, but he just doesn't know what the hell to do with "Tombstone Blues". For all I know it may be his all-time favorite Bob Dylan song, but the fact that he can sing a line like "The sun's not yellow, / It's chicken" with a resolutely soulful straight face tells me that he has absolutely no business singing it in the first place. Karen O's reading of "Highway 61 Revisited" really doesn't do anything but remind the listener of how good PJ Harvey's interpretation of that same song is -- and I like Karen O, but it's one of s few tracks that show a dogged lack of imagination on the part of the interpreters. Karen O, as well as Vedder, Verlaine and Stephen Malkmus, are backed by an All-Star pickup-group called the Million-Dollar Bashers. The fact that this group is composed of the likes of John Medeski, Lee Ranaldo, Steve Shelley and Tom Verlaine should not serve to distract you from the fact that it's still essentially a karaoke band. Sometimes that works, as on Malkmus' performance of "Ballad of a Thin Man", which does a pretty good job of turning Dylan's warped narrative into the best late-era Pavement B-side you've never heard. Malkmus himself is a distinctive enough performer that you don't really mind the band's overly literal arrangements: he'd still sound like Stephen Malkmus if he were backing the JB's or singing a track for the Chemical Brothers. But Vedder just comes off as lazy -- a grunge Sinatra in all his insouciance -- and Karen O is overwhelmed by her material, rudderless in comparatively calm seas.

Still, there's more than enough to love here. Yo La Tengo's version of "Fourth Time Around" is quite simply perfect. Cat Power seems to be having so much fun with "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again" the you easily forgive the familiar arrangement. Jeff Tweedy delivers a characteristically melancholic reading of "Simple Twist of Fate". Willie Nelson singing "Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)" may be almost as obvious as Vedder singing "All Along the Watchtower", but that doesn't make it any less satisfying.

If I were king, I think I would probably put a ban on any kind of encomium for living artists until at least 50 years after their death. People have been praising Bob Dylan for over 40 years now and as a result the man is now the embodiment of insufferability. I like Bob Dylan, and I even quite like his later-era albums, but gnomic ponderousness is a particularly unflattering mood for any man to adopt. I blame all the rock journalists who have been calling him a genius since 1963. Better that he should have lived a long and productive life in relative obscurity then we should be made to suffer through these aggrandizing monuments to boomer self-importance, existing as they often do outside any continuum of genuine aesthetic consideration. Still, for all that this is still a pretty irresistible package, and if we must have bloated celebrity tributes to living artists who hardly need to have their heads in deflated any more than they already are, I guess this is as good a model is any to follow.

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