Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International
[Rating: 4 stars]
To paraphrase a certain musical genius, the world don’t need any more Dylan covers. Or does it? Bob Dylan’s songs are some of the most covered of all time – see The 30th Anniversary Concert and the I’m Not There soundtrack, for starters. Or just stick your head into any coffee shop down the block – you’re bound to hear someone singing “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” or about 300 others. Covering Dylan songs is an art unto itself – Peter, Paul and Mary popularized it in 1963, galvanizing the civil rights movement with “Blowin’ In The Wind,” and The Byrds perfected it in 1965, altering the course of rock history by inventing “folk-rock.”
Now Amnesty International is looking to corner the market on Dylan covers with Chimes Of Freedom, a virtual Woodstock of performers all trying on Dylan’s trademark persona, and seeing the world through his eyes. In truth, we love to hear his songs reinvented, more so than any Beatles or Stones song. Just listen to how Diana Krall nails the wistful, repeating melody on “Simple Twist Of Fate,” and what a female makeover adds to the song. Cut half the roster on Chimes and you’ve got an amazing lineup of Dylan’s peers and admirers – with masterful songwriters like Jackson Browne, Sting, Elvis Costello, Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams, and old vets like Pete Seeger, Kris Kristofferson and Joan Baez tipping their hat. Then there’s modern rock royalty like My Morning Jacket, who take to “You’re A Big Girl Now” like they took to “Goin’ To Acapulco” on I’m Not There, and newcomers like The Belle Brigade and Carolina Chocolate Drops. And then there are the head scratchers, or the Judases, to some – pop oddities like Ke$ha and Miley Cyrus, and aggressive rock bands sure to bewilder baby boomers, like My Chemical Romance and Rise Against. Half the people can be part right all of the time, but all of the people can’t be all right all of the time. Bob Dylan said that.
So what works? Dierks Bentley and Steve Earle shine on their respective remakes (“Senor” and “One More Cup Of Coffee”). You’d think the lyrics and the song “License To Kill” belonged to Costello – it’s never sounded better. Betty LaVette turns up the heat on “Most Of The Time,” underlining the niggling romantic contradictions contained in the pay-off line (“Most of the time, I don’t even notice that that mutha is gone,” she ad-libs). Band Of Skulls do “It Ain’t Me Babe” as a beautiful man/woman duet. Carolina Chocolate Drops turn “Political World” into a swampy, back porch reverie that Dylan would probably love, and Brett Dennen hams it up vocally on a rootsy “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” It’s nice to hear Sinead O’Connor again (she and Bob have quite the interesting history), and she attacks “Property Of Jesus” in classic, “Mandinka”-era Sinead mode. Elsewhere, Queens Of The Stone Age surprise with their pitch perfect mastery of the vintage Dylan blues band strut on “Outlaw Blues.” Ziggy Marley turns “Blowin’ In The Wind” into something Bob Marley could sing, and Oren Lavie makes “Fourth Time Around” shimmer like old school Radiohead. Cage The Elephant do a tender, 60’s Brit-rock- sounding “Hattie Carroll,” revealing another side to this punk pop outfit. Gaslight Anthem do a good job of turning the psychedelic-religious lyrics of “Changing Of The Guards” into rock and roll gold, while Smashing Pumpkins acolytes Silversun Pickups find the beating emo heart of “Not Dark Yet.” Natasha Bedingfield’s capably soulful rendition of “Ring Them Bells” shows that Dylan could have had a lot of hit songs, had he written them for other artists to sing.
So who drops the ball? Sugarland, for starters, with their shrill, live plastic soul version of “Tonight I’ll be Staying Here With You.” The Avett Brothers being digitally shoe-horned into a duet with Johnny Cash and Dylan (“One Too Many Mornings”) is either a really cool idea, or cognitively dissonant, depending on your perspective. Miley Cyrus plays up the country on “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” sounding like a teenage Sheryl Crow. With an arrangement this nice, it’s hard to hate. Ke$ha does her one better; sounding like she’s drunk and singing to herself in some alley on a mournful “Don’t Think Twice.” Perhaps the most vital song on the album is “With God On Our Side,” which Somali-born musician K’nann peppers with freestyle raps, and plays with the lyrics – a Dylanesque nod to the power of words.
You’d have to be obsessive to know all of these songs, and maybe, for those born in the digital age, delving into the albums they came from is a thing of the past. But if just one Miley Cyrus fan buys this album and gets turned on to a world of songwriting greatness – well, that’d be like an act of charity in and of itself.