Today Amnesty International releases Chimes Of Freedom, a really, really huge compilation of bob Dylan covers by artists both canonized and obscure. Trying to analyze such a huge undertaking can only be done in one way: Mathematically.
Amount of music in this collection: 73 songs on four CDs, totaling 313 minutes and 24 seconds. (You get three additional songs if you buy it digitally, for an additional eight minutes’ worth of music.)
Number of songs by Pazz and Jop winners: Five: Adele (2011 singles poll); Elvis Costello (1978 and 1982 albums poll); Pete Townshend (The Who, 1971 albums poll); Lucinda Williams (1993 albums poll); Dylan himself (1975, 1997, and 2001 albums poll).
Most ass-kicking: probably Lucinda’s alt.slowjam cover of “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven,” but Adele brings the heat with her live “Make You Feel My Love.”
Least ass-kicking: Townshend’s wobbly “Corrina, Corrina,” which sounds like he just woke up, but not in a good way.
Number of songs by dead people: One. (Johnny Cash, accompanied by the Avett Brothers, leads things off with a slow bluegrass version of “One Too Many Mornings.”)
Number of songs lasting longer than seven minutes: Five.
Longest: The Belle Brigade’s 6/8 time indie-folk take on “No Time to Think,” which to be fair has a ton of verses.
Number of songs lasting less than three minutes: 10.
Best: Carolina Chocolate Drops ripping “Political World” a new one.
Weirdest: Daniel Bedingfield doing a James Blake/Tom Waits version of “Man in the Long Black Coat.”
Most insufferable: Sting’s “Girl From the North Country,” which sounds exactly the way you think it does.
Album most represented: The Times They Are A-Changin’ and Bringing It All Back Home, with seven songs represented from each. In an upset, there are only two covers from Highway 61 Revisited; somewhat surprisingly, no one covered anything from “Love and Theft” or Modern Times. In a non-upset, Saved and Under the Red Sky are both unrepresented on this set. (Also it’s not exactly surprising that no one covers “Neighborhood Bully,” given that a full-on celebration of Israeli policies wouldn’t seem to fit with Amnesty International’s mission.)
Three most surprisingly good Bob Dylan impressions, in order: 1. Mick Hucknall grinding it out on “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” (the problem was never with Mick’s voice, was it?); 2. Marianne Faithfull, “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down”; 3. Maroon 5, “I Shall Be Released.”
Most unfortunately devoted to the original material: Lenny Kravitz doing (wait for it) “Rainy Day Women #12 & #45.” Same trombone, same drums, same approach, same everything.
Songs you never need to hear even once in your life because they will make you bleed at the eyes and ears: Only a couple, but Pete Seeger’s declamatory cover of “Forever Young,” backed by a children’s chorus called the Rivertown Kids, up there. I love Seeger and everything he stands for, but this is why the word “nadir” exists.
Miley Cyrus feat. Johnzo West, “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”
Strange and unusual tracks: My Chemical Romance reducing the super-long “Desolation Row” to 3:01 of glam-slam; Taj Mahal grumbling through “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” to an upscale blues bounce; Sinéad O’Connor unleashing her still-powerful voice on “Property of Jesus”; Tom Morello, Oren Lavie, and Kris Kristofferson vying for honors for who can out-non-sing each other (three-way tie for last); Eric Burdon giving himself a hernia on “Gotta Serve Somebody;” Patti Smith doing a straight reading of “Drifter’s Escape.”
Weirdest A&R trend: A whole bunch of the type of neo-emo-post-punk-style bands that always have a new album on sale at Target for $9.99: Rise Against, Cage the Elephant, Silversun Pickups, The Airborne Toxic Event, Silverstein, Jack’s Mannequin, etc. Most acquit themselves pretty well.
Five satisfying efforts: Raphael Saadiq’s choogling “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”; Evan Rachel Wood doing a sweet-voiced supper-club croon on “I’d Have You Anytime”; a bloody take on “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)” by bro-down country dude Dierks Bentley; Creaky-voiced Steve Earle and Lucia Micarelli collaborating on the spooky “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)”; and (yes) the version of “Like a Rolling Stone” with Seal singing and Jeff Beck playing guitar.
Five radical farsighted tracks that serve as a reminder of just how cool tribute collections like this can be: Mexican alt.chanteuse Ximena Sariñana reverse-engineering an electronic mansion out of “I Want You”; State Radio, which I thought was a jam band, turning the early anti-war nugget “John Brown” into a Deep Purple-gone-beatnik anthem; K’naan blowing up “With God on Our Side” by inserting his own poetic anti-war lyrics in 6/8 time before getting around to some of Dylan’s (kind of a gutsy move, but absolutely the kind of thing the young Dylan would have done without batting an eye); Miley Cyrus with a straight-up countrypolitan touch on “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” (her voice is gaining confidence, and with it some real depth and soul); Mariachi El Bronx throwing it down on “Love Sick,” strings and horns and the whole thing.
Maybe the best thing on the whole set: Ke$ha doing a mostly a cappella version of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” (there are some drones and cellos in the mix, but they’re afterthoughts here). Okay, let’s be honest, I’ve never had even a bit of use for Ke$ha. I don’t trust her; I don’t find her especially amusing; I haven’t enjoyed anything she’s done until now. But here she is seemingly pulling every line out of her soul, voice cracking and wailing and whispering, and actually sounding like she’s completely in tears by the end. As a singer, she’s still not that great an actress, so I think it’s all an act—albeit a bold one, a brave one, a fascinating one, a total revelation.
Ke$ha, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”
Ten covers that should have been included but for some reason have never been recorded, proving that someone should pay me to curate compilations like this from now on:
Cee Lo Green, “Ballad of a Thin Man”
Judas Priest, “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest”
Tanya Stephens, “Sweetheart Like You”
Das Racist, “Motorpsycho Nitemare”
Nickelback, “Blood in My Eyes”
Bon Iver, “Ain’t Talkin'”
Nicki Minaj f/Anthony Hamilton, “Please Mrs. Henry”
Los Tigres del Norte, “Watered-Down Love”
Erykah Badu, “Talkin’ World War III Blues”
Boris, “Idiot Wind”