Love him or simply respect him (because nobody should hate him), Bob Dylan is a unique and talented individual. There’s a reason people still go to see him perform despite his raspy, nearly incomprehensible voice. His style, though generally simplistic and straightforward, isn't necessarily easy to imitate, and “A Tribute to Bob Dylan in the '80s: Volume One” proves it. This album, featuring covers of Dylan songs from—you guessed it—the 1980s, struggles without any outstanding tracks to anchor the collection. While each track refreshes a Dylan classic, there are few that are truly innovative.
Dylan's work from the '80s was criticized for moving away from the overtly political folk songs that defined his years before. Despite the change of subject, Dylan’s music flourished, and these artists know how to work with their rich source material respectfully—often to a fault. ‘Jokerman’ is covered by Built to Spill, who throw up a thumping drum track and a wall of slightly fuzzy guitar. Dylan’s appeal has always been his poetic, magnetic lyrics. Built to Spill make the mistake that several other artists on this album also do: they obscure the lyrics. Instead of a mellow story, the cover quickly becomes a repetitive karaoke song. Blitzen Trapper continues their recent streak of odd releases with a funky cover of ‘Unbelievable’ that makes the original Dylan song too bizarre for general consumption. These are just two covers of many that fail to successfully “update” the originals.
Despite this mediocrity, the album does have some standout tracks. Reggie Watts provides an absolutely incredible cover of ‘Brownsville Girl’ complete with sexy falsetto and backing synth. (Take note, ladies and gentleman. This is how you cover a song.) Later, Ivan and Alyosha take the rich harmonies and upbeat tempo of ‘You Changed My Life’ and give it a modern pop spin. Glen Hansard, who many wouldn’t hesitate to call one of the better singer-songwriters of the modern generation, covers ‘Pressing On’ in the emotional, heart-wrenching way that only a screaming Glen Hansard can.
This is an album at war with itself. Half of the artists were willing to go out on a limb by hacking up and remaking these lesser-known Dylan songs. But the other half simply resorts to the almost lazy “karaoke cover,” only adding in an instrument or two and singing the song exactly the way we expected. For a typical cover album, that technique is passable. For Bob Dylan, it simply isn’t enough.
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