Cover Stories: Bob Dylan

It’s time to revive a feature I haven’t done in a while…in fact, besides the Christmas-themed edition a few months ago, there’s only been one Cover Stories post in this blog’s history (on a few terrific covers of Bonnie Raitt’s heartbreaking classic “I Can’t Make You Love Me”). This post is a little different from that one (and may indicate a shift in direction regarding this feature in general, but we’ll see), in that it focuses on an artist, rather than a song. Which artist? Oh, just a little-known singer/songwriter. You probably haven’t heard of him. His name is Bob Dylan.

Despite Dylan being probably one of the most legendary musicians of all time, I have to admit I’ve never quite taken to his music…or at least, his original versions…at first listen. However, thanks to the numerous times his songs have been covered, I’ve really come to appreciate his songcraft…the man is an absolutely brilliant songwriter. And through those covers, I’ve been able to appreciate Bob Dylan a lot more. For all those who decry covers, they can really do wonders in helping build a bridge from the old to the new. I’m sure I would have come to my senses sooner or later regarding Dylan’s incredible body of work (which I know I’ve only scratched the surface of) regardless, but hearing other artists’ stellar takes on his songs certainly helped speed up the process.

Two of the first Dylan covers I ended up falling in love with were songs that on initial listen, I wasn’t aware were covers in the first place: Adele’s passionate “Make You Feel My Love,” and Madeleine Peyroux’s gorgeous, nuanced reading of “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.” I discovered pretty quickly that these two recordings weren’t Adele or Madeleine originals but rather tributes to Bob Dylan, but when I first came across them, I wasn’t aware of their origin, being the young, less experienced music listener I was then. Both these covers do a beautiful job of honoring the source material while putting their own stamp on the song…Adele imbues “Make You Feel My Love” with her now-trademark raw vocal power, but keeps the proceedings bracingly intimate, backed by little more than a piano and a string ensemble. It’s a beautifully emotional performance. You’ve likely heard Adele’s studio recording of the song by now (and if you haven’t, you’ve possibly been living under the largest of rocks, and should remedy that immediately), so here’s the music video of the song, a departure from traditional song video clips in that it consists of Adele actually singing the song live, rather than lip-syncing to the recording. (The effect is quite powerful.)

Meanwhile, Madeleine Peyroux (a fine jazz-fueled vocalist whose work has taken a very nice singer/songwriter-oriented turn as of late) brings things down even more with her version of “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.” Her phrasing is captivating here, and the result is a song that rides the balance between heartbreak and acceptance wonderfully. It’s a bit slower than Dylan’s original, but that brings out some of the nuances in the song in the best ways.

Another Bob Dylan cover I heard around that time was a version of “Lay Lady Lay” by Norwegian musician Magnet and Irish singer/songwriter Gemma Hayes, that ended up appearing on the soundtrack to “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” I hadn’t heard this cover in a few years, before I listened to it once again just now prior to embedding it in this post, but I still really enjoy it. The vocals are very fragile and almost nonchalant in a way, but the track as a whole creates an intoxicating atmosphere that really plays to the song’s strengths, I think.

Jazz vocalist Kate McGarry, an innovative and engaging interpreter, covered “The Times They Are A-Changin'” on her 2008 album “If Less Is More…Then Nothing Is Everything.” (I finally got around to putting the song in my iTunes library a day or two ago. No idea why it took that long, to be honest.) Her percussive, almost frenzied take on the song brings out its urgency (and for me, highlights just how applicable it can be to today’s cultural climate, despite the fact that Bob Dylan wrote it for another era of change altogether) wonderfully. I couldn’t find a way to embed the studio version, but here’s a stellar live performance of the song by Kate and her trio. It’s first up in a 3-song set here:

Finally, there’s a recent charity project that has added many fine Dylan covers to the musical landscape: Amnesty International’s 50th anniversary compilation, “Chimes of Freedom,” featuring a large host of artists singing songs from Bob Dylan’s sizable catalog, and in many cases paying tribute to an undeniable influence. Much like Amnesty International’s last high-profile tribute collection, “Instant Karma” (which took on the songs of John Lennon), there’s quite a few unexpected gems to be found here…particularly in the case of two much-maligned pop-artists.

Ke$ha is one of my least favorite artists by a long shot, and she’s the last person I would expect to do well with a Bob Dylan cover…and that’s why her version of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” shocked me so much. It’s heartstoppingly raw, and hearing the usually AutoTuned-to-death Ke$ha in such a naked, stark setting certainly catches you off-guard. (Reportedly, the vocal was recorded on Ke$ha’s laptop without any professional recording equipment, in a demo-type setting, and rather than re-recording it, they ended up using that first take, feeling it was more powerful that way. You can even hear her crying in some parts.) Singing a cappella for a good chunk of the song, and accompanied only by soft, almost ominous strings for the balance of it, Ke$ha has quite honestly never sounded better. In this cover, she relies on the undertone of sadness and heartbreak inherent in the song (something that Dylan’s original only touched on), and the result is almost spine-tingling. It’s a cover that certainly has the potential to be polarizing, but I for one was thoroughly impressed. The imperfections, the flaws, the unpolished nature of it only make the song better, I think, rather than worse. If only Ke$ha would stick to this kind of music. (Unfortunately, with how well she’s doing currently, I doubt she will…it’s sad what it takes to be a successful female pop artist nowadays.)

The other cover that surprised me? Another take on “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” by none other than Miley Cyrus. Her vocals have never struck me as particularly strong in the past, but as demonstrated on this song, she really shines in an acoustic setting. The studio recording is very nice, but really caught my ear was her performance of the song on “Ellen,” accompanied by only a guitar. I’ve never seen her actually dig deep into the meaning of a song as much as she does here, and it’s a wonderfully refreshing change of pace. She acquits herself exceptionally well, and much like Ke$ha, it would be much better for her artistically to stay in this setting (and also much like Ke$ha, she likely won’t).

Three other standouts from the album? Ximena Sariñana’s subtly haunting but beautifully uplifting version of “I Want You” (I love how she really brings out the longing in the song), Diana Krall’s spare, piano-driven take on “Simple Twist of Fate,” and Oren Lavie’s deliciously atmospheric reading of “4th Time Around.” I hadn’t heard of any of these songs before these 3 fine artists took them on, but now I’m quite curious to hear Dylan’s originals. (See how covers do good?) Hear them all for yourself here, then be sure to check out the rest of the compilation on your favorite musical outlet, and support Amnesty International while you’re doing so…it’s a great organization. (Note: I could only find a truncated version of Oren’s cover to embed. However, it’s a great way to get acquainted with his cover, and if you want the whole thing, then you can go buy it…a course of action which I highly recommend.)

Whew, that’s a lot of Bob Dylan covers (and that’s not even the smallest part of the tip of the iceberg). I’m sure there’s quite a few more great ones out there. If you have any recommendations, feel free to share in the comments. Thanks for reading and listening!

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