Tuesday, May 27, 2014


There's an argument around that everybody lost their way in the 80's, at least part of the decade. It certainly sucked for The Rolling Stones, for the most part. Van Morrison couldn't find his focus. Elvis Costello made what he still considers his worst album, Goodbye Cruel World. Joni Mitchell released confusing mainstream rock albums. And Neil Young takes the cake with his string of releases, including Trans, Old Ways, Landing On Water, Everybody's Rockin', largely painful.

Then there's the always-enigmatic Dylan. The decade started with his so-called Christian phase, one of his most reviled periods, and ended with the sputtering Under The Red Sky, leading into a period of writer's block. There are fans of certain albums, especially '83's Infidels and '89's Oh Mercy, but I rarely have a hankering to hear Empire Burlesque or Knocked Out Loaded. However, like all things Dylan, something is happening here, you don't know what it is...

This album, made for charity, attempts to prove there was plenty of high-quality material by the bard in the 80's, if you look closer. A gang of younger, alternative artists digs deep for the best cuts from so-so albums, or digs a tune out of the Bootleg series of out-takes, and even reclaims one from a weird soundtrack. Veteran indie rockers Built To Spill handle the most famous number, Jokerman, which is a pretty easy choice. A tougher job goes to Craig Finn of The Hold Steady, who puts his typical urgency into Sweetheart Like You from the same album. The out-there choice is by Deer Tick, tackling the obscure Night After Night from the Hearts Of Fire soundtrack, a gawd-awful movie in which Dylan had a terrible role. It's too much of stretch, never good, then or now.

Mostly though the reinterpretations work. The unheralded Hannah Cohen does a soft reading of Covenant Woman from Saved, which could make some reach for that misunderstood collection. Dawn Landes and Bonnie "Prince" Billy do a similar good thing to Dark Eyes from Empire Burlesque. And Glen Hansard has no trouble making the case for Pressing On, another of the numbers labelled gospel, but better thought of as spiritual. So, mission accomplished, it's hard to argue the premise that Dylan did indeed write lots of fine songs in the 80's after hearing these 17. Still, I think it was pretty easy. Try it with Neil Young next.

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