Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!
Oh Mercy characteristically pops up in lists of later Dylan records deemed decent. Sure, everything he produces is briefly heralded as a return to form – if, that is, he has written any of the songs, which takes away anything really recent – but a couple of listens and most are back down in the crate alongside Shot of Love and Planet Waves. But Oh Mercy has stuck, at least with me, arguably hindered no little by the typically crickets and crayfish production of Daniel Lanois. So, then, guess, how old is it? Ten, fifteen years? Nope. Thirty years. As in, THIRTY YEARS!!! How can that be, it’s half a life, well half mine, but, there you have it, it is.
Back in 1989, Dylan needed a boost. His previous couple of records had hit the critical buffers, his career never quite regaining status after the ill-received evangelical triad starting a decade before. But, courtesy Lanois, this time there seemed a connection between the songs, all fashioned within the same micro-climate of haze and shimmer, rather than a hodgepodge of diversity, cobbled together with whomsoever was at hand. Whilst the songs may have arisen in different times and places, demos sent to and then refined with Lanois for attention came out coated as broadly uniform. A much narrower selection of musicians contributed to that constancy of palette, largely drawn from the Lafayette diaspora of funk, the Neville Brothers band, and zydeco, Rockin’ Dopsie. Here is a wonderful interview with Daniel Lanois, describing the process of recording, courtesy our friends at Aquarium Drunkard.
It wasn’t massive, by comparison with earlier Dylan standards, but it got to a respectable #30 in the Billboard chart, and by the end of the year, it hit most of the best-of-’89 polls. The perhaps more loyal (forgiving?) UK market gave him a number 6 in their chart. With time and familiarity, Oh Mercy has increased in stature, helped along, no doubt, by the number of cover versions of most of the songs. It is one of the last Dylan albums where you can look down the list of titles and be fairly confident of knowing the tune, if not necessarily the version. Which, for this piece, could be both a blessing and a curse, pleasing both those seeking iteration of their taste with a personal favorite, and those vinylhounds forever seeking some new.
Bettye Lavette – Political World (Bob Dylan cover)
“Keith Richards featuring Bettye Lavette,” as the clip is keen to promote, is more than a little unfair, given this version of “Political World” comes from Lavette’s 2018 album Things Have Changed, entirely given over to Dylan covers. True, Richards is the featured guitar in this, two economical solos which detract from the plod of the narrative, however expertly skanked by the all star rhythm section. It’s OK, but still a low water mark on the record, which continues Ms. Lavette’s remarkable renaissance. She has far too much range for this near monotone, or, if not, certainly way more than evident here. Bob did it better.
Totta Näslund – Where Teardrops Fall (Bob Dylan cover)
I tried to avoid posting this. Not on account of quality, it’s fine – more to see if there were anything a bit less, um, Dylanesque. My search revealed, at least on YouTube, the enduring main YT Dylan issue, that of myriad self-posted howlin’ n’ strummin’ bedroom troubadours, the snapshot stills all of middle elderly grey whiskers with open mouths, caught mid-yelp and more than enough to scare any viewer. (Go look! Any Dylan song.) This seems all else there is, a nice enough interpretation, as if sung by a younger Dylan through a Tom Waits lens of smoky barroom jazz-blues. So who Totta? A now deceased Swedish rock star, of a decided left-slanted political bent and devoted to Dylan. A not unusual combination, worldwide, people-centric politics and Bob.
R.L. Burnside – Everything Is Broken (Bob Dylan cover)
I love this and the album it comes from, Tangled Up in Blues, a (this ain’t no) tribute to Dylan through the talents of as many existing blues legends as could be mustered, with similar excursions devoted to Led Zeppelin and to the Rolling Stones. I see it and feel it as a slap in the face for all those songs and styles filched from the blues. Recommended. R.L. Burnside lived a life steeped in the blues, tutored by Mississippi Fred McDowell, and was, by marriage, a cousin of Muddy Waters. Just about 70 before he could take up music full time, he came under the patronage of Jon Spencer (Blues Explosion) and then the Beastie Boys. He died in 2005. The Black Keys continue to cite his influence, and he has sired a veritable menagerie of guitar slingers active in the current blues scene.
Sarah Jarosz – Ring Them Bells (Bob Dylan cover)
Whilst Jarosz had covered this on her 2011 album, Follow Me Down, with banjo, fiddle, cello, dobro and steel augmentation, it is this solo session that really nails it. Just her guitar, a solid underpinning to her lonesome lament of a voice. A prodigious talent, still only 28, she has been playing since her teens, her first record coming out a decade ago. Live, solo or with her own band, or within the trio I’m With Her (alongside Sara Watkins and Aiofe O’Donovan), she guarantees joy. This song packs the most covers on Oh Mercy, several by female artists, but this is the only one that really soars.
Joan Osborne – Man in the Long Black Coat (Bob Dylan cover)
A tough call, this one, a personal favorite song however or whoever. And much as I want it to be Steve Gibbons‘ version, a perennial in his career from long before his Dylan Project covers band, Joanie pips him at the post. This song is so etched in Dylan tropes, and it’s been covered by voices as disparate as Mark Lanegan or John Butler (Diesel Park West). But most of those voices sound too Bob; the song cries out for a female voice. From her breakthrough 1995 release Relish, Osborne’s voice is noticeably smokier than it has since become, a perfect fit for a somehow more organic take on the bayous than Lanois had originally offered.
Roddy Hart & Gemma Hayes – Most of the Time (Bob Dylan cover)
Roddy Hart is a name you would only probably know if a Scot. He’s been a staple on Glasgosw’s Celtic Connections stages, the yearly festival of musics of the Celtic diaspora that spans weeks over January into February in that chilly city. As well as his own career as a singer, he has a couple of radio shows, and in 2011 he curated a show for that festival, Forever Young, devoted to Bob and to commemorate his 70th birthday. This included, amongst others, Irish folkie Gemma Hayes. Gelling so well, the two then made an EP together, from which this comes. The arrangement is already a tad dated, but it is the voices that make this shine, especially Hayes’ phrasing, the hold she pulls on the word most being exquisite.
Solomon Burke – What Good Am I? (Bob Dylan cover)
Burke has one of those voices, one of the voices, and one sorely missed. But if that ain’t enough, this rollicking take imbues way more soul than the boy from Duluth could ever hope for. Come 2000, most folk had dismissed Burke as a yesterday man, a full caffeine class act, true, but of the past. So when Joe Henry produced 2002’s Don’t Give Up on Me, it packed one mighty jolt. Don Was took over for the next album, giving a little more gloss than on the earlier album, sometimes detracting from Burke’s magisterial delivery. Here they seem almost at counter points, but the one-time Wonder Boy Preacher wins through.
The Waterboys – Disease of Conceit (Bob Dylan cover)
A partial throwback, lyrically and musically, to the Christian triad of albums earlier in Dylan’s career, the gospel of Dylan’s original is maxed up to the full tabernacle in this glorious live rendition. Mike Scott has never been shy of his influence to Dylan, his voice carrying gentler echoes of the same style, his songwriting often clearly indebted. This comes from my favorite incarnation of the ever-evolving Waterboys, the Room to Roam band, full on folk influences with added brass, the latter resplendent in this, casting a mournful pall over combined piano and organ. And Anto Thistlethwaite’s sax solo is just wonderful.
Chris Smither – What Was It You Wanted (Bob Dylan cover)
Already one of the lower key songs on the album, “What Was It You Wanted” finds room to go lower in Chris Smither’s hands. Smither strips back all the production haze, making his voice, a tapping foot, and his guitar the only embellishment, give or take a smidgen of heavily echoed indeterminate. Like coming across a trapper at his cabin, suddenly visible as the mist arises, suddenly audible as the wind drops to nothing, a vision unbeholden and unexpected. Poverty in splendor. Smither has been doing this forever, a troubadour on the fringes who, somehow, keeps on keeping on. In over 50 years of recording he has a wealth of recorded material, both his own songs and myriad masterclass covers.
Nico Wayne Toussaint feat. Gala – Shooting Star (Bob Dylan cover)
An odd one this, Toussaint being a French blues harp virtuoso, and clearly struggling, as the song starts, with the rudimentary Dylan style harmonica he feels bound to start off with. Once that’s out the way, however, and once the perfectly reasonable female vocal is done and dusted, then is it this cover comes to life, albeit briefly. He seems to be big in the francophone world and has a number of awards, plaudits comparing him to James Cotton, whose material ovens the body of his work. Gala, and I’m guessing here, would be the Italian singer, now domiciled in Brooklyn, usually more in association with dance music, being also a prominent LGBT icon in Europe.
An interesting mix, if with nothing much to frighten the horses, Dylan now easing into his slow and bluesy style of writing, attracting mainly artists from the blues, country and folk fields to pick up any covers gauntlet. No thrash-punk or ska, no synth duos. I was surprised I could find so little reggae, Dylan often converting well, or jazz. Hopefully, your comments may open up these fields?