Covering Bob Dylan means wading into crowded waters. Many covers of his songs—by artists ranging from the Byrds and Peter, Paul, and Mary to Manfred Mann and the Band—have become famous in their own right, and there are hundreds if not thousands of others, including a fair number of single- and multi-artist tribute CDs. And no wonder: Dylan’s catalog overflows with amazing songs. It’s hard to imagine that any fan who’s also a musician wouldn’t want to take a crack at a few of them at some point.
Not all of these performers manage to remain true to the songwriter’s intent while also adding something new; but Australian singer Emma Swift, who now lives in Nashville, has a home run on her hands with Blonde on the Tracks, which she devotes entirely to Dylan compositions. Her just-right phrasing brings out the emotion in his extraordinary lyrics; at the same time, Swift’s tender, melodious vocals—which variously recall Shawn Colvin (who has also covered Dylan) and a folky variation on Juliana Hatfield—help the material to seem fresh.
So does the understated, complementary backup from a band that includes Swift’s multitalented partner, the British musician Robyn Hitchcock, on guitar; Thayer Serrano on pedal steel; Jon Estes on bass; Jon Radford on drums and percussion; and Wilco’s Patrick Sansone, who produced and plays guitar, keyboards, bass, and percussion.
Most of the songs on Blonde on the Tracks have been previously covered, but a few have been interpreted only rarely; and Swift apparently has the distinction of being the first to tackle “I Contain Multitudes,” from Dylan’s 2020 latest album, the superb Rough & Rowdy Ways. That song aside, all of the material comes from the songwriter’s fertile mid-1960s to mid-1970s period. The set includes “Queen Jane Approximately,” from Highway 61 Revisited; “The Man in Me,” from New Morning; “Going Going Gone,” from Planet Waves; and four tracks from the albums referenced in Swift’s clever CD title: “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” and “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” from Blonde on Blonde and “Simple Twist of Fate” and “You’re a Big Girl Now,” from Blood on the Tracks.
According to Swift, she began making these recordings during a period of depression and writer’s block; she found solace in this music, which she clearly loves and admires. Her covers certainly convey that affection, but more importantly, they evidence a deep understanding of the material.
Her lighter-than-air, leisurely paced rendition of “I Contain Multitudes” lets you ponder every well-chosen word. That’s also true of her reading of the epic “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” which Dylan has indicated he wrote for his first wife. “Going Going Gone,” from a relatively uncelebrated album, emerges as a notable track. A reading of “Queen Jane Approximately” is folk-rock ear candy while “Simple Twist of Fate” and an organ-spiced “You’re a Big Girl Now” evoke the anguish that accompanies a love relationship’s disintegration.
The beautifully delivered “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later),” meanwhile, is arguably even moodier and more ominous than Dylan’s rock version. (When Swift sings “I didn’t know you were saying goodbye for good,” note the five-second pause that she inserts before the last two words.)
The late Jimmy LaFave will probably always rank as my favorite Dylan interpreter, but on the terrific Blonde on the Tracks, Swift gives him a run for his money at times. I’m already hoping for a Volume Two.
Rachel Brooke, The Loneliness in Me. I don’t know how Rachel Brooke got her start, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that a producer, booking agent, or record label executive listened to her distinctive vocal work for only a couple of minutes before jumping at the chance to work with her.
Like the early Johnny Cash, she has an ability to deliver performances that are commercial and accessible while avoiding the antiseptic syrup that spills over much of mainstream Nashville’s output. A press release compares her to such artists as Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette, but a better reference point for her vocals might be Skeeter Davis. In any case, Brooke numbers like “It Ain’t Over Till You’re Crying,” “Picture on the Wall,” and “Great Mistake” limn a state of romantic desperation that’s at least as intense as what Davis describes in her 1962 hit, “The End of the World.”
Brooke wrote all of the material on this excellent latest album, her first solo effort since 2012, mostly in collaboration with her husband Brooks Robin; she also plays acoustic guitar and banjo, and the album features backup that includes drums, electric guitar, pedal steel, bass, fiddle, keyboards, and multiple singers.
Little Richard, The Second Coming and Lifetime Friend. The Omnivore label has followed up the recently reissued The Rill Thing and King of Rock and Roll with two more albums from Little Richard’s vaults. Both include new liner notes and bonus tracks.
The Second Coming, which dates from 1972, attempts what the title suggests by reuniting Richard with original producer Bumps Blackwell and some of the musicians who appear on his classic early hits. Richard wrote or co-wrote eight of the songs (several with Blackwell), and there are also a couple by Quincy Jones. While nothing here quite measures up to early gems like “Lucille” and “Rip It Up,” sax-spiced numbers like “Mockingbird Sally” capture their energy and a bit of their magic.
Lifetime Friend, the other reissue, first appeared in 1986 when it constituted Little Richard’s first album in well over a decade to not be dominated by oldies covers or religious content. It is a bit less successful than The Second Coming, largely because of dated-sounding production and relatively weak material. But Richard sings well and still has his trademark whoops and hollers down pat here, especially on the lead-off track, “Great Gosh A’mighty,” a fine hard-rocking number by Richard and Billy Preston that in a recut version became the theme for the movie Down and Out in Beverly Hills.
Jordan Tice, Motivational Speakeasy. This acoustic folk set is the latest solo outing from Nashville-area-based Jordan Tice, who is best known for his work with a progressive string band called Hawktail. It offers a reminder of how much you can accomplish with just a guitar, a compelling voice, and a batch of appealing songs.
On standouts like “Matter of Time” and “Walkin’,” Tice melds consummate fingerstyle guitar work and sweet, mellow vocals with clever, deceptively simple-sounding lyrics that convey a love of language. The album recalls the instrumental work of Leo Kottke and John Fahey, as well as 1960s folk albums by artists like John Hartford (a named influence), David Bromberg (for whom Tice has recently opened shows), and Patrick Sky.