04 January, 2008

The Many Faces of R. Zimmerman

Where do Karen O, Eddie Vedder, The Hold Steady, and Jack Johnson come together? In a soundtrack tribute to arguably the greatest singer-songwriter in history: Bob Dylan. I haven't seen I'm Not There, because I'm of the belief that Cate Blanchett is androgynous enough as a woman, and also because I've recently been spending all of my extra money on music and not on other activities. A hermit's life is fine, as long as I have a new album or two for my little playlist parties.

In all honesty (my sarcasm has beem placed on a back-burner), I wasn't too interested in watching another movie about Bob Dylan after wasting a couple hours of my life on No Direction Home. This 2005 Scorsese documentary held a lot of potential, but it ended with disastrous anticlimax and left me feeling little affection for the man behind the music. I wasn't even paying attention to all the I'm Not There hype recently, until I heard the song "As I Went Out One Morning" performed by Mira Billotte. This song's pretty damn sexy, with overwhelming 1970's bass pumping up the melodic - almost European - folk guitar. Billotte herself owns a voice which has depth and echo. Where Dylan has an unholy wail, Billotte has an entrancing almost fantastic vocal quality. Drama is the key (can anyone say Joan Baez?).

I was pretty thrown by this song, and I decided that I needed to pay attention to the rest of the album, which - it turns out - is good. It's a bit of an inconsistent collection, which leads me to wonder if the film is also disorienting and jumbled. Still, I don't mind being a little disoriented when there are so many finely crafted songs being expressed in new ways by so many talented artists. With thirty-seven songs (including bonus tracks), this album is stuffed with sounds both popular and more arcane. For a hardcore Dylan fan, this may be a bit frustrating, as there does not seem to be a solid time-line or plan for the song arrangement. I don't really care. I am neither a hardcore Dylan fan, nor an obsessed soundtrack enthusiast who requires that her tracks be played in the order they appear in the film.

I'm very happy to hear songs as inspired as the "All Along The Watchtower" cover by Eddie Vedder and the Million Dollar Bashers, and the title song by Sonic Youth. These two songs are only the beginning, and they are followed by many more explorations in rock-star homage. "Ring Them Bells" by Sufjan Stevens combines the notable whisperings of one fifty-state folk-singer with guitars reminiscent of the Grateful Dead (regular Dylan collaborators). "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?" by the Hold Steady is a solid chunk of American rock 'n roll, deserving of a dusty juke-box on the road of any Kerouac-inspired cross-country trip. Then there's "Maggie's Farm" by Stephen Malkmus and those Million Dollar Bashers. Where Dylan's original shuffles along a dusty road with lyrical highs and lows, the Malkmus cover is more spirited and powerfully rebellious. The cover is obviously the product of a generation whose rock 'n' roll is more ironic than life-changing, and I like this fact.

Throughout the album, various artists capture the ideas and beauty of Dylan songs, but do not relinquish their personal artistic spirit in the process. It's refreshing to hear Antony & The Johnsons inspired by Bob Dylan and not Antony & the Johnsons pretending to be Bob Dylan. Too often, tribute albums rehash music that has already been played so well and with such inherent meaning that the covers are superfluous. On the I'm Not There soundtrack, the artists maintain their greatness and originality - which was affected by Dylan's music in the first place - and celebrate the sound with soul and ingenuity.

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