INSTA-REVIEW: I’m Not There Soundtrack



BY ED KING ROCK SNOB You all know more about this I’m Not There pseudo-bio-flick that Todd Haynes, I believe, has had in the works for a number of years. Buskirk knows everything there is to know about this film, I’d bet. I’ve been looking forward to it. I love Dylan, I love many of Haynes’ films, and I like the concept of having various actors play Dylan at various points in his life: Cate Blanchett, Richard Gere, Tom Arnold, Charles Grodin…So Phawker drops this soundtrack album on us, and what’s a poor boy to do but blow off an evening with a Minute-by-Minute Review? Why don’t you turn on your love light and listen along with my thoughts as commentary? I’m not there, but if you’re lucky it may seem like I am.

Disc 1

1. “All Along the Watchtower” – Million Dollar Bashers, Eddie Vedder: What’s this, a Ricky Martin song? Oh, here’s Vedder, adding his one-dimensional, well-intentioned yarl to something that sounds as canned as a recent Santana album. Where’s Rob Thomas when you need him to throw down vocals on a backing track like this? Jeez, listen to the hand-cupping-the-ear harmony on the “two riders were approaching…” line, which he then has the bad taste to repeat a few more times with that cheesy harmony. All the while, pointless guitar solos howl, trying in vain to stand out from the mess of horns, Hammond organ, and lord knows what other muck.

2. “I’m Not There” – Sonic Youth: Is it integrity or mediocrity that keeps Sonic Youth sounding like a 1000-run pressing indie rock band on a self-financed label whenever they try to sing a simple song? This might as well be Galaxie 500’s first indie release, or a debut release by any of 50,000 bands that have followed in their wake. And I mean this as a relative compliment.

3. “Goin’ to Acapulco” – Calexico, Jim James:
Yeah, the Jimmy Webb arrangement model…so cool, so hip, and so affordable when picking through used record bins. Good background music, but not too inspiring for writing these Minute-by-Minute reviews. Let’s break it up, boys…

4. “Tombstone Blues” – Richie Havens: Meh. All I can think about his how Havens wraps his thumb around the neck.

5. “Ballad of a Thin Man” – Stephen Malkmus, Million Dollar Bashers: Low expectations here. Unless I can let it wash over me, I usually find the original hard to listen to with all my attention. Malkmus can’t get away from the Dylan arrangement and phrasing, and although I like Malkmus, he’s no Dylan. Sorry, folks, I’ve got to hit SKIP.

6. “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” – Cat Power: What’s this, one of those tolerable Natalie Merchant tracks? How many negroes were called into service to make this recording more authentic? What’s the setting for that stock Steve Cropper Tasty Guitar Lick again? Actually, this went from being “enjoyable for a Cat Power recording” to unbearably overblown with the addition of the 7th or 8th layer of stock textures: Memphis horns, Steve Cropper-style guitar, two sets of organ fills, three sets of backing vocal parts… Natalie Merchant showed more restraint. The Blues Brothers showed more restraint.

7. “Pressing On” – John Doe: I’m afraid of what’s coming as I listen to this Jackson Browne-style piano intro. I see…Doe sings well and with passion, and the gospel backing singers give it all they’ve got. As the song builds, however, Doe starts to reach the threshold of Layered Authenticity Gimmicks, don’t you think? I’ll have to give that exact point at which one too many tasty guitar licks or Hammond organ fills is too much, but although I got all I could get out of this song a couple of minutes ago, I’ll press on. OK, finally over.

8. “Fourth Time Around” – Yo La Tengo: These guys, in their mellow Fakebook mode, are masters of the art of staying out of the way of a great song. So with a feint voice and a simple arrangement, they make this song work like a charm. I’m going to shut up and simply get into the music for the next couple of minutes…

9. “Dark Eyes” – Calexico, Iron & Wine: Well, this is a nice change of pace. I sense it’s going to go on much longer than I’d like. Calixico is like The Band of the Urban Outfitters set, no? Let’s move along, boys…

10. “Highway 61 Revisited” – Million Dollar Bashers, Karen O: What is this, Halloween? Why so closely ape the original arrangement and then throw in an occasional “Monster Mash” voice? She and these Million Dollar Bashers, whoever the hell they are, perform this track with all the enthusiasm of a sweet publishing deal and a freshly bought Fake Book. This really sucks. How the mighty have fallen that Dylan once felt the need to shame Donovan on film and now he’s signing off on a crap cover like this?

11. “One More Cup of Coffee” – Calexico, Roger McGuinn: McGuinn’s always struck me as perhaps the first person in rock who needed a wedgie, and this performance confirms that the wedgie is still long overdue. He became religious, or got back to his Christianity, at some point, right? Was that the day he realized he’d achieved what he achieved in The Byrds thanks to not only the grace of God but the stronger supporting voices of his original bandmates? This reminds me, I was in a record store tonight and I was shocked to see a Best of Leo Sayer CD. “Who would have thought that Leo Sayer warrented transfer to CD” I thought to myself, “and who would buy this CD?” I have similar thoughts about those who would purchase a solo Roger McGuinn recording.

12. “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” – Mason Jennings: This
is fine and performed with taste and a feel for the song. It’s a relief not to hear a track here without the addition of Al Kooper-style noodling, muddy horns, and backing vocals.

13. “Billy 1” – Los Lobos: These guys are real pros in the best sense of the word. This has a great, easy feel, like a well-worn catcher’s mitt, like something Doug Sahm would have done, like something Dylan himself would dig.

14. “Simple Twist of Fate” – Jeff Tweedy: A little heavy in the loafers, but, not unexpectedly, not bad. Good to hear the nod to the blues violin, an instrument that always promises to completely work but rarely does. Couldn’t someone have written a rest into that violinist’s sheet music?

15. “Man in the Long Black Coat” – Mark Lanegan: I sense the need for a serious application of Mandom to get through this one… Sure enough, Lanegan sounds like he needs to step into a dark alley with Nick Cave and see who walks out with his deep voice intact.

Disc 2

1. “As I Went Out One Morning” – Mira Billotte: I’m going to say a horrible and possibly untrue thing, but not ever hearing of or seeing Mira Billotte, I’m going to venture a guess that she’s really good looking in an earthy yet progressive way. You know why I say this? Because this has all the <em>blah</em> of a Joan Baez recording. I was looking forward to seeing this movie, but what’s the point of it going to be, that Dylan’s presence in his own music and life can’t be approximated? Just about every artist on this soundtrack has checked his or her personality at the door. Dylan was all about personality. How can so many people cover Dylan songs and hide who <em>they</em> are?

2. “Can’t Leave Her Behind” – Stephen Malkmus, Lee Ranaldo: Malkmus is comfortable in his skin. As a result, this track works. I’ve been thinking about what Dylan <em>means</em>, man, as I listen to this stuff, and I think his main message was be who you are, sing my songs like they’re your songs. I’m not sure that enough artists on this album got that memo.

3.”Ring Them Bells” – Sufjan Stevens: The musical arrangement is pretty cool, in a Last Waltz kind of way, but could Stevens be any more tender? I’m afraid Cat Stevens is going to declare a fatwah on his wussy ass, just to show the world that he’s forsaken the mantle of Rock’s Tender Poet once and for all. And what’s with those <strong>Return to Forever</strong> segments? The last one sounds like it will never end, or like Steve Howe’s going to come out and play “The Clap”.

4. “Just Like a Woman” – Calexico, Charlotte Gainsbourg: Oh my god, this is worse than I’d imagined. Can’t sensitive, intellectual guys be satisfied dreaming they’re screwing beautiful French actresses without sticking a mic in front of their mouths or thinking they have to appreciate the results of their recordings? Godawful.

5. Mama You’ve Been on My Mind/A Fraction of Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie – Jack Johnson: This guy is so down to earth and unassumingly decent that he’s nearly good. If he were my coworker and I went out to see him play at a local club and he performed this decently I wouldn’t have trouble looking him in the eye the next morning and telling him I liked his show the previous night.

6. “I Wanna Be Your Lover”, Yo La Tengo: Ira Kaplan’s voice does not reek sexuality, so despite the lively play of the band behind him, he sounds like…Ira Kaplan. Shoulda been a flexi-disk release.

7. “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”, Glen Hansard and Marketa Iglova: Here’s a song that’s hard to screw up – even The Byrds made it work during their country phase. This duo does a fine, spirited version that easily passes the “eye contact at work the next day” test.

8. “Can I Please Crawl Out Your Window”, The Hold Steady: Springsteen wasn’t available?

9. “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”, Ramblin Jack Elliot: Two of Tom Thumbs’ Up for the intro alone. Elliot’s vocals do not disappoint. Short of Keith Richards regaining a few brain cells, Mick Jagger giving half a damn, and the clock turning back to 1968, this is a well-needed Stonesy take on Dylan’s Stones-friendly songwriting.

10. “Wicked Messenger”, The Black Keys: This is one of my favorite underrated Dylan songs, which often profits from cover versions, such as the smokin’ version on the first Faces album, with Rod Stewart and Ron Wood threatening to shred our home stereo speakers. This version here by The Black Keys isn’t a bad start, but I ain’t got time to sit through rock ‘n roll without a bass, or at least a third band member. Less is supposed to be more, but I can’t get past the gimmickry.

11. “Cold Irons Bound”, Tom Verlaine: Man, if Verlaine keeps releasing these atmospheric spy novel tracks every half dozen years we’re eventually going to mark points off for the brilliance of side one of Marquee Moon.

12. “The Times They Are A-Changin”, Mason Jennings: Who is this guy, and is he looking for a job at my office? Once again, a no-frills approach is welcome relief from the muck that is much of this soundtrack.

13. “Maggie’s Farm”, Stephen Malkmus: Diggin’ the boogie riffs! This is a Dylan song that I always thought got more credit than it deserved for reasons beyond its gleeful jamming. For some reason it’s a rallying cry at political rallies, right? To me it’s all about the boogie, and Malkmus and company boogie on down appropriately.

14. “When the Ship Comes In”, Marcus Carl Franklin: Taking a page from the Mason Jennings approach, another fine open-mic night approach.

15. “Moonshiner”, Bob Forrest: The intro promises yet another sincere, boring take on a boring Dylan song. So it goes…

16. “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)” – Calexico, Willie Nelson: Must have missed this one. Let me guess: by the second verse Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass-style horns enter the mix!
16. "Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)" - Calexico, Willie Nelson: Before this track was posted I wrote, "Must have missed this one. Let me guess: by the second verse Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass-style horns enter the mix!" Sure enough this is the case. That said, this is as fine and easy on the ears as anything I've heard from Willie Nelson. Someday Rick Rubin's going to have a feast on this guy's remains.

17. "Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door" - Antony and the Johnsons: Initially I wrote, "Thank god I didn't hear this one on the stream! There should be a moratorium on any artist ever covering this relative novelty track, by Dylan standards, again." I stand by that statement. I'm listening to it now, and I must summon a hanging wedgie for Antony. I may have to give myself a hanging wedgie if I listen to another minute of this self-important crap. Go sniff some roses or watch the sunset if you need this much beauty in your life. Some people need to tune into the Soap network. 18. "I’m Not There" - The Band, Bob Dylan: These guys sound familiar... [youtube]VyWgzUGOliw[/youtube]

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