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Bob Dylan In The 80s: Volume One

April 2, 2014

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For many, the title of this album is synonymous with the decade when Dylan sucked.  I come to this from a different angle – the 80s are the decade I discovered Dylan and he became my musical hero – my number one musical icon.  As that decade began I had just turned 21.  I had dropped out of college and was living in 24 by 7 party – my lost weekend.  By decade’s end I would be married, a father and climbing the corporate ladder.  Dylan would be my musical companion.

The first Dylan album I ever bought was 1978’s Street Legal in Anchorage Alaska and I bought it on the day it came out.  From that point to this day I have purchased every subsequent Dylan album on release Tuesday (except for one Dylan and the Dead).  I had discovered Dylan in my freshman year of college – actual he was revealed to me by my music mentor Paul.  Paul introduced me to the mid-60s through mid-70s greatest hits.  But I soon went my own way with fresh material (80s Dylan).

Dylan began the decade with his most blatantly born again gospel album Saved.  It was rock and roll heresy.  Over time it would earn the distinction of being one of Dylan’s worst albums.  I  genuinely loved that album then and still to this day (it had true passion).  He ended the decade with his so-called comeback – the Daniel Lanois produced Oh Mercy (I loved that one too). In between there were 7 more and I have to be honest there were some hits and misses (amazingly some of his best material of the era went unreleased until much later).  Steven Hyden of Grantland brilliantly explains all this better than I ever could in his album review.

A highlight of the 80s Dylan, for me, was his ramshackle performance at Live Aid with Keith Richards and Ron Wood of the Stones.

Bob Dylan in the 80s is the brainchild of a couple of indie-rock producers who are fans enough to know there was gold in those 80s albums and want to show them to us via some of their favorite contemporary artists.  For more of the back story see the official album’s website.

I recognized about half the artist on the album, but there only a few that I have actually listened to in the past.  Like any great tribute album there are loyal covers (Craig Finn’s “Sweetheart Like You”) and completely reinvented covers (Reggie Watts’ “Brownsville Girl).  All are inspired and non-ironic.  A tribute album should reveal diamonds in the rough from the source artist (Deer Tick’s “Night After Night”  an obscurity from  Hearts of Fire soundtrack) and turn you on to new talent (Hannah Cohen’s “Covenant Woman”).  There needs to be some curve balls (an instrumental “Every Grain of Sand”).  Bob Dylan In The 80s: Volume One delivers on it all.

“Got My Mind Made Up” Langhorne Slim & The Law – These guys managed to find a hidden gem in what I have always considered one Bob’s worst LPs Knocked Out Loaded.  I have never heard of this band (a recurring theme on this album).   They sound like a cross between Arcade Fire and Mumford And Sons.  Going back to the original song – it makes more sense now having heard this cover.   Looks like I may have been wrong about this Knocked Out Loaded. 

“Jokerman” Built To Spill – I have heard of this band, but never have heard them.  This is a faithful cover (less the hint of the original’s reggae) without sounding like Bob.  This song is from the great album Infidels.  What an album that was – Sly and Robbie as your rhythm section and Mark Knopfler as musical director (a confident enough guitarist to bring ex-Stone Mick Taylor in on the session).

“Brownsville Girl” Reggie Watts – no idea who this guy is, but he has a very soulful voice over a percolating contemporary R&B beat.  Very different take on the best song on the otherwise (I used to think) dreadful Knocked Out Loaded.

“Sweetheart Like You” Craig Finn – this if my favorite track on this album (I am a huge Hold Steady fan) and this is one of my favorite Dylan songs (also from Infidels).  Finn, like Dylan, has unique voice and phrasing – a distant heir to the throne. This song includes my favorite Dylan lyric of all time:

“Steal a little and they throw you in jail
Steal a lot and they make you king”

“You Change My Life” Ivan & Alyosha – This is the first rarity on the album – a cut from Bootleg Vol 3.  No idea who these guys are but they cover this song perfectly.

“Night After Night” Deer Tick – Another band I have heard of/never heard.  Here is the first track I am unfamiliar with – it comes from a a movie soundtrack (Hearts of Fire).  A legendary bad movie starring Bob that I (even as a major fan) have not even seen (a toast to how bad it was).  Deer Tick gives this song a nice south-of-the-border feel and makes me want to hunt down the original soundtrack.

“Dark Eyes”  Dawn Landes & Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – This comes from the other great Dylan 80s album Empire Burlesque.  This is the kind of cover that makes me want to find more out about Dawn Landes. They turn the song into a beautiful folksong/lullaby.

“Waiting To Get Beat” – Tea Leaf Green – Here is another unknown song to me. Turns out it is an outtake from Empire Burlesque. Never heard of Tea Leaf Green, but this cut has a Vampire Weekend feel.  Hats off to this collection that they found a true bootleg cut like this.

“Wiggle Wiggle” Aaron Freeman and Slash – This one kind breaks the rules by coming from 1990’s Under the Read Sky. People tend to forget that Bob has a sense of humor and is capable of moments of silliness.  This song is silly – but who cares – a great artist deserves (and should) have moments of silliness.  No idea who Aaron Freeman is (just Googled him – he is the guy from Ween).

“Congratulations” Elvis Perkins – A Traveling Wilburys’ song.  I have been enjoying the Another Self Portrait collection this past year and this performance by Perkins could be right out of that set – classic Nashville Bob voice.  Rivals “Sweetheart” as my favorite track on the album.

“Covenant Woman” Hannah Cohen – This song, from Saved, is one of my favorite Dylan songs.  The original is sung with great passion and this song was my explanation of Dylan’s born again Christian period: there must be a woman behind it.  Cohen (never heard of her) does a great job, but I always struggle when a male point-of-view love song (and vice versa) is sung by the wrong sex.  It does make want to check out Cohen as she has a lovely voice and this is cool spooky arrangement.

“Every Grain of Sand” Marco Benevento – This song has some of Dylan’s most beautiful lyrics from the album Shot of Love – so naturally this album covers it as an instrumental.  I have a very vivid memory of waiting outside The Wax Museum (a since lost classic Minneapolis record store) waiting for the store to open on release Tuesday so I could pick this LP up.  Best song on the album was not on the album until the CD release years later (the B-side “Groom Still Waiting at the Alter”).

“Series of Dreams” Yellowbirds – another rarity from Bootleg Vol 3.  I am not familiar with Yellowbird.  This cut sounds fantastic.  Kind of cross between Springsteen’s spacey synth stuff (e.g. Philadelphia), Bon Iver and George Harrison.  This is exactly the kind of cut you want on a tribute album – highlight a rarity and turns you on to a new artist.

“Unbelievable” Blitzen Trapper – Another cut from Under the Red Sky. These guys do a very nice job – Dylanesque, yet original.

“When The Night Comes Falling” Lucius – Yet another great song from Empire Burlesque. I don’t know Lucius – but the band does a great job turning this song into a pop song.  Sounds more like a Prince cover than a Dylan cover ( a bonus in my mind).

“Pressing On” Glen Hansard – I can’t tell you how much I loved Saved when it came out – it was pure gospel – but Dylan was so passionate on it I could not help but dig it.  This cover from that album is the most faithful cover on the album.

“Death Is Not The End” Carl Broemel – Down In the Groove is finally represented on this album. Another unknown artist to me – again no idea who Carl Broemel is.  But man does he knock it out of the park – a gorgeous cover – sounds like how you would expect Jeff Buckley (in his folk mood) would cover the song.

Well that is a wrap.  The more I listen to this album the more I love it.  It highlights some of decently known Dylan’s songs and some true rarities.  It shines the light on artists I have never heard of and makes me want to explore their stuff.  As I have said several times in this post – exactly what you want from a tribute album.  But most of all this is a sentimental journey for me through the first third of my “career” as a Dylan fan.  Highly recommend – Dylan fan or not.

 

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