Though Bob Dylan moved away from his role as a ‘protest singer’ long ago — we saw Another Side by his fourth album — his name will forever be associated with social activism. The international human rights organization Amnesty International rose out of the same turbulent era as Dylan, forming in 1961, the year Dylan recorded his first album. Fitting, then, that in celebration of their 50th birthday, Amnesty would call on artists to contribute their Dylan covers to the massive four disc set Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International.
Tribute albums don’t always live up to their promise. Using one or two ‘big name’ artists in order to entice consumers to open their wallets and pay for a collection of bar-band tracks, for example. Sometimes the hodgepodge of artists makes the album sound muddled. Often, the artists have taken little time to bang off a cover, and the lack of polish shows.
Chimes manages to avoid all of these mistakes, instead soaring above the standard tribute fare to create an album that truly honors Dylan and Amnesty’s storied legacies. The collection features over 70 unheard tracks by artists from a number of different genres, young and old, all working pro-bono. They make their care and respect for both the cause and the songs evident in the performances – no afterthoughts here. Carefully mixed, many by the legendary Bob Clearmountain, and sequenced, it sounds like a unified album, a huge challenge considering the diversity of the artists.
The set moves from highlight to highlight, too many to mention them all here. British singer-songwriter Charlie Winston shows why he’s big in France (honest folks!) with his simultaneously contemplative and rocking take on “This Wheel’s on Fire,” which features a nice, George Harrison-style slide guitar solo. Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello appears as his alter-ego The Nightwatchman, lending his impossibly deep voice to “Blind Willie McTell,” arguably Dylan’s best song. Kentuckian indie rockers Cage The Elephant (we’ve definitely run out of cool-sounding band names) contribute a superb whispered and moody version of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.”
The two biggest surprises in the set come from two young women normally associated with the world of pop. Ke$ha’s spare and atmospheric “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” puts her voice front and center. Stepping away from her busy, Auto-Tuned dance-pop, she shines, highlighting the regret inherent in the lyric. At only 19, Miley Cyrus shows that her voice has a remarkable depth and maturity on “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.”
Sure, some tracks miss the mark and some bands fail to rise above expectations. Silversun Pickups’ “Not Dark Yet” sounds just as long and boring as any other of their songs. If you don’t have a high opinion of Dave Matthews Band, their live version of “All Along The Watchtower” won’t convert you to the cause. And Mariachi El Bronx’s take on “Love Sick” strips the song of the vulnerability that made the original great.
Overall, however, Chime’s positives far outweigh the negatives. We haven’t even mentioned Steve Earle, The Gaslight Anthem, My Morning Jacket or many of the other artists who contribute fantastic covers to the set. Whereas many large collections could use significant editing, you would be unable to get this set below three and a half discs without provoking a heated discussion. A fitting tribute to 50 years of recording and activism from one man and one organization.
Released today (January 24th) you can find more information about the album or just purchase it (you won’t regret it) here.