Wednesday, January 9

I'm Not There OST - By Joe Gilson

When the bio-pic Walk The Line about the life of Johnny Cash came out, I was essentially bombarded by friends telling me I needed to see the movie. They knew I was and am a huge Johnny Cash fan, and they clearly meant well when they told me I needed to see it. I finally did relent and see the movie and came away entirely disappointed. There was tangible shock and frustration on their faces when I told them I was merely lukewarm about it, and I had to explain to them the main reason: There is only one Johnny Cash. I don’t care how good Joaquin Phoenix was as an actor. He wasn’t Johnny Cash.

That is the problem with doing tributes and homages to legends like Johnny Cash and, here, Bob Dylan. These two artists are so much bigger than themselves and the soundtrack to the new Dylan bio-pic I’m Not There proves that. It seems as though all of the artists on this tribute are playing it safe. Genre-breaking artists like Stephen Malkmus and Sufjan Stevens still do virtually nothing to do anything more than just replay the songs. What this record proves more than anything else is the breadth of Bob Dylan’s influence on artists of every genre and generation.

When listening to a lot of records, we can sit there and say “Oh, there is a Bob Dylan influence” and the influence isn’t tangible, it isn’t right in your face. When the artists cover Dylan himself though, many times the influence becomes so obvious it is nearly palpable. For example, Cat Power’s song on this record literally sounds like she is singing a karaoke version of one of Bob Dylan’s most beloved album cuts, and Mason Jennings doesn’t even sound like he is doing a karaoke version of “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” it sounds like he put his name on Dylan’s recording. Even Stephen “don’t call me Pavement” Malkmus sounds far too derivative on “Maggie’s Farm.” I challenge anyone to actually tell me they believe that Eddie Vedder brings anything to the table on his version of “All Along The Watchtower,” and Jeff Tweedy’s version of “Simple Twist of Fate” sounds way too much like it would fit in perfectly on a Wilco record.

As I said, most artists do not change much at all except for adding some of their own vocal
touches and a few instrumental flourishes, like the intro to Sufjan Stevens’ cover of “Ring Them Bells,” and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot’s guitar intro to “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” is an outstanding moment of the record. For the most part, the changes, however, are vocal. It is in the sense, strangely, that many of the improvements are made. It is no secret that Bob Dylan was not the greatest singer in the world, but he had a certain delivery that was so endearing. It is only when the covering artist can match or surpass Dylan’s original emotion that the song improves, such as Glen Hansard’s take on “You Ain’t Goin Nowhere,” one of the absolute highlights on the album. Mark Lanegan also adds a level of sadness on his cover of “Man In The Long Black Coat” that I have never heard Bob Dylan approach.

More so than any of the other bands on the record, The Hold Steady and the Black Keys deserve credit for actually adding heavy guitars (gasp!) and their own style to their covers. These two artists highlight the underlying issue I really have with the record. The producers had virtually NO BALLS in picking the artists they wanted on it. Everyone on it is so influenced and enamored with Bob Dylan that they sound scared to death of changing anything in a song. I mean, Richie Havens? Willie Nelson? I respect them a lot but, seriously, who the fuck cares anymore?

When Bob Dylan finally dies, I would like to see another tribute album of covers done for him. That way, artists may not be so seemingly afraid to really change his music. I get this image of Dylan sitting there lording over these tracks making sure everyone stays true to his original tone and maybe all these artists had the same image, and that it why it is so…..blah.
I am left looking at this album as a conundrum. It seems as though the producers couldn’t decide if they wanted to make this an album for collectors or an album for those trying to get into Bob Dylan. The relative drabness of the covers would suggest it is for newcomers but I think it is the opposite. People that love Bob Dylan’s deep cuts like the ones on this record (not even a sniff of "Like A Rolling Stone" or "Rainy Day Women") would be deeply offended by anyone changing Bob Dylan’s sound. So that is who this album is for. Serious collectors who can just say they own it.
Covers are supposed to bring things out of the original song we never heard before. They can make a decent original sound incredible or make a great original sound like garbage, but at least they change the song. On I’m Not There, the best original Dylan songs end up being the best covers. So, really, what’s the point?

Best Tracks:
Glen Hansard, Sufjan Stevens, The Hold Steady, Ramblin Jack Elliot
Worst: Eddie Vedder, Cat Power, Karen O
Rating: 5 out of 10

-By Joe Gilson

1 comment:

Paul Tsikitas said...

In defense of I'm Not There, it's not a tribute album, but a soundtrack. A lot of these songs aren't used in the film, but the ones that are, even if the band changed or adapted to their style, it wouldn't make sense in the grand scheme of what the movie was doing. I realize I'm commenting on this way after you wrote this, but I just recently watched I'm Not There and see why bands kept true to Dylan. Anyway, since when has it been known that on tribute albums, artists totally tweak the original songs intent? As far as I'm concerned, I'm glad some of these bands didn't change much because what's great about Dylan is that he transcends a whole slew of influences to other artists that have nothing in common. Everyone from Richie Havens to Thurston Mooore. And that's a huge difference in style.

The main problem is that it's 30 some tracks. Cut a few here or there and keep what was used in the film.

Did I mention that I'm in love with anything Charlotte Gainsbourg does?