I guess I've bought enough compilations, covers albums, soundtracks, and tribute albums to realize the roster of talents is usually more interesting and inspired than the results. I admit I was curious when I saw the list of artists covering Dylan songs for the soundtrack of the "biopic" I'm Not There and that's usually enough to get me to buy. When it's not, a cameo or contribution by Mark Lanegan almost certainly is yet somehow I resisted the urge until now. I've been a slow learner, but having been burned enough times made me reluctant to investigate this compilation/soundtrack.
Everyone has covered Dylan. There are scores of bland Dylan covers because just about everyone has tried it at least once. It's the "easiest" thing in the world to do. No one questions the quality of the songs, but there exists a sizable listening audience out there who recognizes Dylan as a songwriter yet they have trouble getting past the man's voice. One gets the feeling that a lot of artists think they can have a hit if they mix Dylan's lyrical mastery with their more "ear-friendly" sound. Some artists have had extraordinary success with Dylan covers. There are some people who think Jimi Hendrix wrote "All Along The Watchtower." Others think at the very least he's recorded the definitive version of the song.
For every hit, like Hendrix, there are countless misses. Over the years I've developed an appreciation for Dylan's ability to interpret his own work, so I'm not as eager to embrace other artists' vision for his songs. Rather than comparing each cover to the original, I decided to approach I'm Not There differently. I saw this set as an opportunity to sample some artists I knew by name but whose music I'd never heard because of the wide range of artists involved in the project. Rather than viewing this as a collection of Dylan covers, I approached this as a jukebox.
The only Los Lobos song I've ever heard was "La Bamba" from when I was a kid. They've done critically acclaimed work since then, but I've never investigated any of it. I read the occasional review praising their albums, but they never seemed to fit well with what I was listening to at a particular moment so I never felt a surge of motivation to take a gamble. Their cover of "Billy 1" is one of the high points on the record. I can't compare it to the Dylan original, but I like what LL have done here. There are a couple of LL compilations out there, so this might be the nudge I need to see what they're all about when they're doing their own songs.
Cat Power is another artist I know by name but had never heard before. I'm seriously considering her further because I love what she did with "Stuck Inside of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again." It's one of my favorite Dylan songs and Chan Marshall plays this one straight. She doesn't reinvent the song, instead finding a way to shine within the basic constructs of the song. Marshall injects a little bit more R&B into the song than Dylan's original, and it works extremely well. Although I like Dylan's versions of his own songs, he sometimes (intentionally or otherwise) fails to capitalize on his melodies. Marshall's performance brings the melody into sharper, catchier focus. I like what she's done here she just might have forced me to head to Amazon.
I've meant to check out Iron & Wine for awhile because I'm old enough to remember when Sub Pop was a major player on the music scene and even lived in Seattle when it was happening. Samuel Beam, the architect of I&W, has a coffeehouse voice and on his cover of "Dark Eyes" he's supplemented that with some Middle Eastern-tinged sounds, giving a the track a dark, psychedelic ambiance. I'm curious as to whether this is representative of what Beam does on record. If so, count me in.
I'm kind of embarrassed to admit I don't know Stephen Malkmus or Pavement, but I got three chances to hear him on I'm Not There. Neither "Maggie's Farm" nor "Can't Leave Her Behind" have inspired me to rectify this, but I wasn't completely turned off. I love Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man," but Malkmus' is only okay. These tracks don't stand out compared to others on this set. Maybe if I knew him before coming to the album I'd feel differently. I'll give him a grade of incomplete.
I'm not quite sure what to make of Sufjan Stevens' "Ring Them Bells." It's a bit of a swirling mess of swelling horns and simple Americana, yet there's something deeply appealing about it. I tend to prefer the more languid, understated parts of the song. Stevens' voice is very pleasing to me and, like Cat Power on "Stuck Inside…," he has strengthened the song's melody. I'm putting him down as a definite maybe for further research.
I had never heard of The Hold Steady before I listened to their version of "Please Crawl Out Your Window." The seeds of Bruce Sprinsgteen's "Santa Ana" can be heard in Dylan's original but they become even more obvious with THS' arrangement, particularly Craig Finn's vocal.
Of course, I had heard of some of the artists on this set and some of those known (to me) quantities turn in great performances. The aforementioned Lanegan turns in a dark, intense, menacing version of "Man In The Long Black Coat." If anyone is going to pick up the mantle of Johnny Cash, Lanegan is it. Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy doesn't stray far from the original on his fine, if unremarkable, performance of "Simple Twist of Fate." Roger McGuinn and The Byrds may not have ever made it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame were it not for their perfect covers of Dylan songs. With "One More Cup of Coffee," McGuinn proves he's not lost his touch. He may have a more intuitive feel for Dylan's music than anyone besides the man himself. The Black Keys take "The Wicked Messenger" and make it their own. Dylan fans won't easily recognize the tune and BK fans might not be able to tell it from one of the band's originals.
Taken in parts, I'm Not There has introduced me to some artists I didn't know before and made me eager to change that. It's also provided me with new renditions of songs I already liked. On that level, it's a strong addition to my CD library. Taken as a whole, the greatest achievement of the soundtrack may be the way it reveres the songs without becoming another tired artifact of Dylan worship. I'm Not There is highly recommended.