Mar 302012

Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!

Millions of words, if not tens of millions, have been written about Bob Dylan‘s Blonde on Blonde since its 1966 release – how “the quintessential New York hipster” (as Al Kooper called him) met the cream of the Nashville session musician crop and the alchemy that resulted; how the album, Dylan’s third in fourteen months, saw him at the pinnacle of his songwriting powers, marrying surreal imagery to wrenching emotion with lyrics that can truly be called poetry; how critics from that day to this recognize it as less an album than a great artistic achievement of the 20th century; how it inspired so many who heard it (to name just one, Robyn Hitchcock called “Visions of Johanna” “the reason I started writing songs” on his all-Dylan cover album Robyn Sings). So, rather than dwell on all the stories surrounding the songs, let’s move right on to hearing those songs again for the first time, thanks to the (re)creative abilities of the following fourteen performers. (Thanks as well to reader JoeLer for suggesting that Blonde on Blonde receive the Cover Me Full Album treatment.)

Merry Clayton – Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 (Bob Dylan cover)

“Rainy Day Women” gives little indication of what’s to follow; the drunken Salvation Army-esque band whoops it up behind Dylan as he rattles off a list of times when they’ll stone you. It’s a children’s song for grownups, and arguably the weakest on the album – but on the other hand, it got to number two on the charts, so there’s no accounting for taste. Except to say that Merry Clayton, best known for her performance on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” does a great version of it, giving it a funky sound that draws attention away from the lyrics and gives her great voice room to work. De-emphasizing Dylan’s words is not the usual way to improve his songs, but here it’s the perfect way.

GT & the Bandits – Pledging My Time (Bob Dylan cover)

GT & the Bandits, a blues-rock band from Florida, give the Chicago blues-based “Pledging My Time” a double shot of groove, making it both slicker and more raucous than Dylan’s original – and without a single note from a harmonica. If the Blonde on Blonde “Pledging My Time” is a glass of cheap wine, the Bandits’ version is a can of cold beer.

Marianne Faithfull – Visions of Johanna (Bob Dylan cover)

In the early ’70s, Marianne Faithfull‘s life, let alone her career, was as low as it could get. Her relationship with Mick Jagger was over, she lost custody of her son, her mother attempted suicide, she was living on the streets, addicted to heroin and cocaine, and was in the process of losing her angelic voice to drug use and severe laryngitis. To top it off, the few songs she did record were shelved, as no label was interested in releasing them. It wasn’t until the mid-80s, when Rich Kid Blues came out, that the general public got to hear Faithfull’s take on one of Dylan’s greatest songs, “Visions of Johanna.” She sounds like she’s a step or two away from the grave, wrapped in a blanket of pain, wishing that whatever threads are holding her up would just go ahead and snap. Dylan covers don’t come any more chilling than this.

Clarence Bucaro – One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later) (Bob Dylan cover)

Blues on Blonde on Blonde was a 2003 album featuring contemporary bluesmen covering most of Dylan’s album in a variety of styles. One style was New Orleans jazz, as performed by Clarence Bucaro; his free and mellow take brings out the romance in “One of Us Must Know,” while at the same time making it seem like a perfect fit for the opening credits of a Woody Allen movie.

Cliff Eberhardt – I Want You (Bob Dylan cover)

Another selection from a Dylan tribute, this appeared originally on A Nod to Bob, featuring a collection of artists on the Red House label saluting Bob for turning 60. Cliff Eberhardt turns “I Want You,” one of Dylan’s jauntier numbers, into an expression of mournful desire, giving it a gravitas that makes it a whole new song.

North Mississippi Allstars – Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again (Bob Dylan cover)

The North Mississippi Allstars applied their country-blues sound to Dylan on last year’s Keys to the Kingdom, featuring this cover of “Stuck Inside of Mobile.” They give it a steady rolling sound, trading off Dylan’s sly teasing for weathered, implacable determination.

Beck – Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat (Bob Dylan cover)

War Child Presents Heroes was a 2009 charity album with a neat premise; have artists pick a song they wrote, then pick a younger artist to cover it. Dylan selected Beck to cover “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” and from the opening whipcrack – that’s right, a whipcrack – it’s clear he made an inspired choice. Beck slams a jet engine into the twelve-bar bluesmobile, giving the song a whole different roaring power, and throws in random screams, cacophonous guitars, and a murder of crows; five’ll get you ten that there’s a kitchen sink buried somewhere deep in the mix.

Jeff Buckley – Just Like a Woman (Bob Dylan cover)

“Just Like a Woman” is probably the most covered song on Blonde on Blonde, and one of the most covered songs of the Dylan catalog. There has been a great deal of debate about it – are the lyrics misogynistic? tender? about Edie Sedgwick? – but the artists who approach it seem less interested in debating its meaning than in losing themselves in the beauty of the song’s melody and evoking the many emotions present in the words. Jeff Buckley certainly does so in his cover, conjuring up all kinds of studio magic with one guitar and one divine voice.

The Yardbirds – Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine) (Bob Dylan cover)

The Yardbirds recorded several sessions with the BBC; this cover of “Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way” comes from their first one with Jimmy Page on lead guitar. The great groovy group (the announcer wouldn’t say it if wasn’t true) give a performance that hews quite closely to the original, right down to the use of the harmonica. It may hold few surprises, but it’s still a good, energetic performance.

The Don Olsen Gang – Temporary Like Achilles (Bob Dylan cover)

Yet another cover that comes from a Dylan tribute album, in this case Bob Dylan Uncovered, and yet another band that chooses to give their cover a New Orleans jazz sound. What is it about Dylan’s songs that sees them so at home in Dixieland? In the case of “Temporary Like Achilles,” it’s got a weary, tawdry feel, but with trills of vitality still bubbling up within, and the Don Olsen Gang’s performance fits the song to a T.

Jason and the Scorchers – Absolutely Sweet Marie (Bob Dylan cover)

Nashville not only hosted Dylan when he recorded “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” they also birthed Jason and the Scorchers, a trailblazing cowpunk band if there ever was one. Considered too country for rock and too rock for country, it took years before their sound found the greater acceptance it always deserved. On their 1983 EP Fervor, they took what was already an upbeat poppy number and made it into something more, with a hard twang and more kick to it than a jug of moonshine.

The Young Relics – 4th Time Around (Bob Dylan cover)

Dylan gleefully stole the melody of the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” for this song; “I was very paranoid about that,” Lennon admitted years later, though not so paranoid that he didn’t have trouble borrowing from Dylan before or after (think of the chorus to “I Want You” finding a new home at the end of side one of Abbey Road). Anyway, an Austin band called the Young Relics do Lennon the favor of changing the melody almost entirely, not to mention changing approaches from one verse to the next – sometimes it’s pulled along by a caffeinated guitar, and sometimes it’s caught up in a swirl of keyboards. Either way, it’s a fresh take on “4th Time Around,” and a good one besides.

Big Foot Chester – Obviously 5 Believers (Bob Dylan cover)

One fine Austin band deserves another. Led by vocalist/harmonica player Walter Daniels, Big Foot Chester take on “Obviously 5 Believers,” which was a hard-driving song to begin with, and put the hammer down on it. Dylan’s focus here is not on the meaning of the words, but on their sound and their feel; Big Foot Chester see that, then raise it.

Joan Baez – Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands (Bob Dylan cover)

“This is the best song I’ve ever written,” Dylan said shortly after recording “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” his sidelong closer to Blonde on Blonde. Seeing as how Joan Baez is not only one of Dylan’s greatest interpreters, but also one of the most significant people in his life, it seems appropriate to give her the last word here. She covered “Sad-Eyed Lady” on 1968’s Any Day Now (a double album recorded in Nashville – sound familiar?), along with fifteen other Dylan songs, and her performance is just as captivating and spellbinding as Dylan’s. The song’s virtually impenetrable lyrics are still a matter of debate, but Baez’s expression of them radiates a deep level of understanding, and both her beautiful soprano and the control she exhibited over it may have never been better than they were here.

Blonde on Blonde can be found on iTunes, on Amazon, on Bob Dylan’s website, and in your music collection (or at least it should be).

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  9 Responses to “Full Albums: Bob Dylan’s ‘Blonde on Blonde’”

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  1. […] Blonde on Blonde – Eleanor Rigby (The Beatles cover) Named, of course, after the Dylan LP, Blonde on Blonde was prog before prog was cool. Their 1969 debut album Contrasts recasts […]

  2. […] for reasons somewhat mysterious, her solo efforts – which are, for the most part, incredible covers – never moved her the 20 feet forward into the spotlight. Although the original is another […]

  3. […] Albums selections we’ve done for Bob have been undisputed classics: Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding. Empire Burlesque is the opposite. Bob reportedly asked his producer to make […]

  4. […] and Kooper went on to work together on Dylan’s 1966 masterpiece Blonde on Blonde, along with several subsequent Dylan albums. The Highway 61 sessions also cultivated a legendary […]

  5. […] is usually in the critical running for his best, vying with the earlier Blonde on Blonde (covered here). (Of course, whenever a new Dylan record is released, it is compulsory to be proclaimed as a […]

  6. […] we should Full Album-ify next. We’d already done most of the super-famous classics – Blonde on Blonde, Blood on the Tracks, etc. – so the options were more the gems adored by those in the know: […]

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