Evan Rachel Wood and Ke$ha are among the improbable interpreters who score in a 76-song Dylan tribute
If the Oscar nominations didn’t give artistic purists enough reasons to howl this week, there was the release of Miley Cyrus’ music video for her version of Bob Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make You Lonesome When You Go,” which arguably elicited even more banshee-like shrieking throughout the land than “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” being put up for best picture.
Cyrus’ recording is but one of 76 songs on the longest version of a new charity compilation set, “Chimes of Freedom – The Songs of Bob Dylan (Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International).” You won't have a more entertaining experience this year – either by reading through the sometimes eyebrow-raising track list, or actually slogging through the whole five-and-a-half-hour affair.
Joan Baez and the artist formerly known as Hannah, on the same disc? Ke$ha and Pete Seeger… together again? Maroon 5 and Billy Bragg, brethren in protest-song revival? There should be a Grammy category for best achievement in cojones, created just for this collection's compilers.
If anything, the set could have used more such irreverent surprises, since selections do inevitably err on the side of safety over the course of four CDs. The upside is that only two tracks stick out as unlistenable amid the 76.
Do be forewarned that Joe Perry’s eight-minute version of “Man of Peace” is not an instrumental. (Suffice it to say there’s a reason Perry handed vocals to someone else in the Joe Perry Project as well as Aerosmith.) As for Maroon 5 being inexplicably paired with “I Shall Be Released,” rest assured that no one will ever accuse Adam Levine of having moves like Zimmy.
Some numbers that sound promising on paper fizzle, like Sinead O’Connor’s “Property of Jesus.” If it seems like having pop’s most defensive singer cover Dylan’s most defensive song is a natural, that’s before you hear the bleating tone she adopts for the whole thing.
While a good handful of the more eclectic singer/material matchups are intriguing — Mexican-American singer Ximena Sarinara doing “I Want You” in flat tones against an electronic pulse, for instance, or indie band Cage the Elephant half-whispering “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” in low-fi/shoegazing mode — the results don’t often merit more than one curious listen.
But the bigger risks occasionally pay off. The finest track, Mariachi El Bronx’s “Love Sick,” somehow manages to add Mexican-style horn, string, and conga flourishes to Dylan’s bitter late-period ballad without having it remotely come off as a joke.
Also a far better idea than it sounds: A piano jazz recasting of “I’d Have You Anytime” — by Evan Rachel Wood, of all people. It’s almost in a league with Diana Krall’s similarly subdued but more depressed take on “Simple Twist of Fate.”
In the same quiet-storm vein, Adele's "Make You Feel My Love" is a knockout, even if she's already released similar versions of Dylan's most-recorded post-'70s song on almost a half-dozen different studio or live collections.
Judicious cherrypickers should further reach up into the branches for Dierks Bentley’s bluegrass take on “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)”; punk remakes of “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” and “Song to Woody” (!) by, respectively, Rise Against, Bad Religion, and Silverstein; a spirited Flogging Molly version of “The Times They Are A-Changin’” that makes the song’s implicit Irishness explicit at last; soul great Bettye Lavette, making “Most of the Time” sound every bit as world-weary as you could hope; and the Belle Brigade, making something beautiful and poppy out of “No Time to Think” in the same way the Byrds used to do with Bob in the ‘60s.
And Miley and Ke$ha? They both acquit themselves, however much you might suspect that Cyrus is enunciating the word “Rimbaud” for the first time, or however much you dread the prospect of the “Tik Tok” queen going a cappella. (If you’re not into her version of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” that’s the only composition that gets covered twice, with Ke$ha’s nearly instrument-free take being immediately followed by the Kronos Quartet’s all-strings version – a nice touch.)
The whole thing is available digitally for a bargain-basement $19.99, as a good a per-song price as you’re likely to find for anything not in the public domain. It all goes to a worthy titular cause, which is one more reason to take a chance and make up your own mind whether the Silversun Pickups best Bryan Ferry or Sting at the art of flogging Bob.
It’s a measure of Dylan’s vast catalog, of course, that even with 75 compositions represented, the hardcore will find some critical omission to be bummed about. I, for one, am sad to think we’ll have to wait till “Chimes of Freedom II” to find a forward-thinking interpreter brave enough to tackle “Wiggle, Wiggle.”