Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!
When it was first released in 1978, Bob Dylan’s Street Legal got a bum rap. One culprit was the sound. Dylan always preferred recording with the whole band playing at once, and whereas with the right producer a wonderful spontaneity could emerge (think “Like a Rolling Stone”), here it just created a muddy mess. Reviews were scathing. Robert Christgau called it “horrendous” and Jon Pareles noted that “Dylan still needs a producer.” Even Rolling Stone – Dylan champions since way back – labeled it “dead air, or close to it.”
A remaster in the CD era has since redeemed it somewhat and helped push it its proper place in the Dylan pantheon. In the wake of albums like Empire Burlesque – really, all of the ’80s – the big band sound is no longer shocking, and not even bad. It’s no Blonde on Blonde, but a solid B-level effort with a number of gems. “Señor” and “Changing of the Guards” stand among his best songs of the ’70s (though they really fit in better with the late-’70s/early-’80s period than they do with the decade that led up to them). “New Pony” is a fun big-band blues jam, and “Where Are You Tonight” features a wonderfully emotive vocal.
So, just as we did with Empire Burlesque, we’re going to celebrate this underrated Dylan album through covers. If the big-band-and-choir sound wasn’t your thing, you’ll be pleased to know these covers have neither. Beyond that, though, they show the range this album offers for interpreting artists, from stomping garage rock to pensive singer-songwriter strumming. Enjoy.
Patti Smith – Changing of the Guards
When Dylan recorded this, he famously didn’t tell the backing singers the lyrics, so they had to try to echo his lines as he sang them (and you can hear the occasional flub where they didn’t catch him). Smith avoids this problem by doing away with backing singers entirely, and most of the production too, paring it down to a sashaying folk-rock tune. One of Bob’s best tunes of the ’70s finally got the cover it deserved.
The Dead Weather – New Pony
Jack White is a huge Dylan fan who has gotten to play with him a couple times. So when he picked a Dylan song to cover with his band the Dead Weather, of course he went for a deep cut. It works perfectly with their thundering goth-garage, Allison Mosshart’s vocals soaring over the guys’ gritty background hollers.
The Belle Brigade – No Time To Think
The massive Amnesty International Dylan tribute Chimes of Freedom featured mostly really-famous people singing really-famous songs. Maroon 5 sang “I Shall Be Released,” Seal and Jeff Beck sang “Like a Rolling Stone,” etc. One of the few exceptions was L.A. sibling duo the Belle Brigade, who do a pretty version of this deep cut. Though one small critique: the original didn’t need to be eight minutes, and this cover doesn’t either.
Aske Jacoby Trio – Baby Stop Crying
Because of the prominent saxophone line, most covers of the song land squarely in the smooth-jazz realm. Copenhagen guitarist Aske Jacoby gets bonus points because he can both do it in that realm, with a lot of horn solos, and in this live trio version without any sax at all.
Maggie Holland – Is Your Love In Vain
This may be the most covered song on the album, for obvious reasons: it’s simple, it’s pretty, it’s a love song (sort of). Female-led covers are the best, because they put a feminist twist on maybe-sexist (or maybe-just-bad) lines like “can you cook and sew, make flowers grow.” And the best of those comes from British singer Maggie Holland, who with only some acoustic guitar power chords delivers a powerful performance. The voice quickly previewing each line near the end can be a little unnerving, but I prefer to think of it like Pete Seeger, who would say each of his song’s lines first so that everyone could sing along.
Calexico – Senor (Tales Of Yankee Power)
Willie Nelson joined with Calexico for a wonderful Tex-Mex cover of this on the I’m Not There soundtrack. This version, though, is just Calexico, performed live around the same time. Singer Joey Burns has a more overtly tuneful voice than Willie, which makes this a nice companion piece.
Eleanor Friedberger – True Love Tends To Forget
Former Fiery Furnaces singer Eleanor Friedberger performed this live on her first solo tour, and eventually released a concert recording on a free digital EP. Why she picked this song is a mystery, but we’re glad she did. Frankly, this is a better cover than the song probably deserves.
Julie Felix – We Better Talk This Over
In her long career as a folk singer, Julie Felix has covered many of the obvious Dylan songs: “Chimes of Freedom,” “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” “I Shall Be Released,” etc. On her 1980 album Colours in the Rain, though, she took on a couple less-expected songs: Bob’s Christian-era “Man Gave Names to All the Animals,” and this. Both were less than two years old, and on this one she strips away some of the ’80s excess to add a little tenderness.
Stumpzian – Where Are You Tonight
There are plenty of decent lite-radio style covers of this song, perfectly adequate singing over a lightly synthesized backing track. The sort of pretty, inoffensive background music. But the version we picked is not pretty, and it could offend certain purists. It’s spoken word, like a Beat poet taking on a song Bob wrote long after the Beats peaked. Though, in a way, 1978 Bob might have appreciated this – just a few years earlier, Allen Ginsberg was along for his Rolling Thunder tour.
Buy the original ‘Street Legal’ on Amazon.