Thursday, September 30, 2010

Baez Covers Dylan With A Voice And Presentation That (Mostly) Improves On The Source Material!

The Good: Great songs, Great voice, Some beautiful performances
The Bad: Some musical mismatches, Nothing not available elsewhere
The Basics: A compilation that resurrects Baez's early covers of Bob Dylan-written tracks offers satisfaction to anyone who likes folk-rock music!

I've periodically go on a Bob Dylan kick. Some time ago, I came to realize that for all the songs I had heard covered that were Dylan tracks, I knew very few of his songs as presented by the artist himself. Indeed, growing up as a child of a lover of folk-rock music I heard surprisingly little of Bob Dylan's original songs as presented by him. Instead, most of the songs I heard that were Dylan tracks were probably the coversongs performed by Joan Baez. It is for people like me - or anyone who wants a woman's take on Dylan's lyrics - that the Baez Sings Dylan compilation was made for!

With twenty tracks totaling over seventy-three minutes of music, Baez Sings Dylan is a collection of songs written by Bob Dylan that Joan Baez covers. These tracks are culled from four Joan Baez albums from the 1960s and there is nothing that is unique to this album that fans of Joan Baez who have her early works would not already have. Instead, this album seems to be marketed to fans of the works of Bob Dylan who want to hear what Baez did with his work. As a result, there is nothing extraordinary or audacious that is presented from the lens of perspective - like some of the recent live covers Baez has produced. Instead, this is vintage "Baez does Dylan" work that is compiled for fans of Dylan.

That is not to say the album is in any way bad! Truth be told, my experiences with Baez albums thus far has only been with her collection Ring Them Bells (click here for that review!). On that album, there were a few live covers of Dylan tracks. Here, many of the songs are well-produced classics that define Joan Baez as a folk-rock star of some talent and emotive ability.

For those unfamiliar with Joan Baez, her history with Dylan is well-documented in the liner notes to the album, Baez Sings Dylan presents Joan Baez as an American folk singer with a beautiful alto voice and a pair of lungs on her that is able to hold notes like few artists before or sings. So, for example, on the album's first track, "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" illustrates wonderfully her ability to sing melodically long notes that are mournful and sustained. She has an impressive voice that is able to articulate high, low, fast and slower tempo. She illustrates this range on this album over the many tracks.

On "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," Baez presents one of the most impressive explorations of her tonal range as she lifts into soprano territory and then plunges to lower notes without ever sounding atonal. Instead, she is magnificent with an effortless quality that seems to allow her to transcend the notes to make musical expression that is truly emotive.

Nowhere is her ability to emote more clear than on "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." Baez sings the song with a rousing sense of determination and anger borne of love when she climaxes with "You just kinda wasted my precious time" ("Don't Think Twice, It's All Right") that easily holds its own against Dylan's masterful version.

But there are several tracks where Joan Baez covers Dylan's original tracks in a way that he strong feminine vocal presence enhances the lyrics and music. So, for example, on "It Ain't Me Babe," Baez sings the song with a real sucker punch. She opens sweetly, singing the opening stanza with a portrayal of feminine innocence listing off all the qualities that her lover wants from her. And then, when the listener is drawn in with her charm and flirtatious wit, she bellows "It ain't me babe / It ain't me you're looking for" ("It Ain't Me Babe")! Her version seems strangely less cruel than Dylan's original or as the lyrics might belie. Instead, she is a woman harassed by a guy who just wants, wants, wants and this is the necessary shove-off. That is something Dylan could not pull off in his original!

There are tracks I have not heard Dylan perform (I'm still picking up his older albums to review), but Baez makes some of those songs interesting. So, for example, she sings "I Pity The Poor Immigrant" as a story-song that resonates as a working-class folk lament and it stands up well without any comparison. It's just a decent song performed well by a strong performer.

It is worth noting that most of the tracks are musically understated. Indeed, Baez does what I've not heard Dylan do on any of his albums when she performs "Tears Of Rage" a cappella. It's amazing to hear Baez present a song with the only instrument being her voice. She has a beautiful and compelling voice and she sings the track with a haunting sense of defiance that perfectly expresses the emotions behind the lyrics. It's a beautiful and stunning presentation and she does it wonderfully!

On most tracks, Baez is accompanied by a simple guitar, which she plays (and quite well). As a result, there is a musical starkness to many of the tracks that accents Baez's vocal talents and emphasizes the message of the lyrics she is singing. This works out quite well for Baez, but it does leave the listener somewhat unimpressed by the instrumental accompaniment on the album. Baez does mix it up fairly well, though, with such things as a chorus joining her for "I Shall Be Released."

This is not to say Baez always gets it right. With "Love Is Just A Four Letter Word, " Baez presents a song that is sad with an emotionally-broken narrator as an upbeat guitar-strumming ironic ditty and it just sounds terrible to the ear and heart. Instead of being wrenching and truly embodying loss, it comes across as hokey and dated. That is an exception to the rule, but one of the tracks I was most looking forward to hearing - "One Too Many Mornings" - is similarly brutalized on this album.

But for the most part, this is a solid album of well-written Bob Dylan tracks featuring Baez's unique sound and some of her own style and flair added in.

For other strong female artists, please check out my reviews of:
One Cell In The Sea - A Fine Frenzy
Left Of The Middle - Natalie Imbruglia
The Honesty Room - Dar Williams


For other music reviews, please check out my index page!

© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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