I'm Not There: Original Soundtrack
(Columbia/Sony Music Soundtrax)
First Appeared in The Music Box, November 2007, Volume 14, #11
Written by John Metzger
Thu November 15, 2007, 06:55 AM CST
In determining the soundtrack to Iím Not There, his biopic about Bob Dylan, film maker Todd Haynes was posed with a rather interesting problem. To put it simply, Dylanís canon has been sliced and diced into so many different configurations over the years ó including the brand new, comprehensive, three-disc set Dylan that was compiled by Legacy ó that it wouldnít necessarily be marketable to assemble yet another retrospective. The solution Haynes settled upon was to invite the indie rock community as well as a handful of veteran performers to take a stab at reinterpreting the songs he wanted to utilize in his film. The result is a 34-track collection that stands on its own accord as a fascinating, if not always successful, tribute to the legendary bard.
For years, fans, admirers, and general detractors have argued about Dylanís capability as a vocalist, and the bulk of Iím Not There: Original Soundtrack provides plenty of ammunition for those who think heís a better singer than he often is credited for being. Considering that the alterations to the backing instrumental tracks are mostly superficial ó Jim James and Calexico simply scuff up The Bandís soulful embrace of Goiní to Acapulco, while Mason Jennings delivers The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll and The Times They Are A-Changiní in a ridiculously straightforward fashion ó the unimaginative arrangements donít make these cuts pale in comparison to Dylanís own recordings.
Rather, sung with a complete emotional detachment ó which long has been a troubling aspect of indie rock ó the material on Iím Not There: Original Soundtrack falters because the projectís participants lack the conviction to make them work. Itís not enough simply to regurgitate the words that Dylan wrote, nor it is sufficient to dress them in weird, symphonic ó and ultimately stuffy ó arrangements, as Sufjan Stevens did with his labored reading of Ring Them Bells. Instead, Dylanís poems must be internalized, processed, and understood so that the nuances of his tangled metaphors make some kind of sense.
For all of the spookiness that The Million Dollar Bashers ó a loosely knit collective that features Televisionís Tom Verlaine and Sonic Youthís Lee Ranaldo as well as organist John Medeski, guitarist Smokey Hormel, drummer Steve Shelley, and bass player Tony Garnier ó brings to Ballad of a Thin Man, Stephen Malkmusí unexpressive vocals completely undercut the songís urgency. For a moment, it does seem as if the collaborative effort will work, largely because the music keeps everything moving along nicely. However, as verse after verse spews forth from his lips, Malkmus increasingly finds himself lost in the lyrics, and the result inevitably turns what could have been a transcendent experience into a rote exercise. Elsewhere, the various artistsí approaches oscillate from Yo La Tengoís airy, Donovan-esque interpretation of Fourth Time Around to Charlotte Gainsbourgís breathy rendition of Just Like a Woman to Karen Oís approximation of Patti Smith on Highway 61 Revisited. Not surprisingly, none of them really succeeds in imparting the same level of significance that Dylan so effortlessly has managed to achieve over the years.
This, however, does not mean that Iím Not There: Original Soundtrack is an outing that must be avoided. In fact, quite the opposite is true, though its best moments largely come from the old-timers who have grown around and into Dylanís compositions. John Doe, for example, is well suited for tackling Pressing On, and his world-weary vocals settle quite comfortably into the warmth that emanates from the songís resplendent, gospel-soul core. Likewise, Richie Havens ó who certainly isnít a stranger to reinterpreting Dylanís work ó pulls back the layers of Tombstone Blues to reveal that an Everly Brothers-style folk tune is lurking beneath its surface. As for Roger McGuinn and Willie Nelson, on One More Cup of Coffee and SeŮor (Tales of Yankee Power) respectively, they each provide the wisdom that is necessary for mutating Calexicoís adventurous support into something more than just window dressing.
Still, even among the serviceable selections, there are some positively brilliant moments: Yo La Tengo puts a Stones-y spin on I Wanna Be Your Lover that is simple but effective. The Hold Steady transforms Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window? into a Springsteen-ian anthem. Tom Verlaine leads The Million Dollar Bashers deep inside the murky darkness of Cold Irons Bound. Rambliní Jack Elliott and Loudon Wainwright III unite for an intoxicating trip through Just Like Tom Thumbís Blues, and the way in which Cat Power conjures music that yearningly returns Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again to its home is wonderfully inspired.
In the end, however, Dylan is the one who has the last laugh. Countering the urban grit, with which Sonic Youth slathers the title track to Iím Not There: Original Soundtrack, is a long, lost recording of the song that Dylan made with The Band back in 1967. Like a ghostly whisper from the past, it crawls hauntingly out of nowhere, carrying an air of realism with it that is missing from most of the material on the set. Dylan sounds ragged, tired, and tormented, like heís praying for salvation that he knows wonít ever come. Yet thereís also a sense that he has moved on for a reason and that he has no interest in looking in the rearview mirror. As his voice slips alongside Garth Hudsonís luminescent organ accompaniment, the music acts as a prism that not only reveals Dylanís multifaceted personality but also allows him to disappear completely inside his work. Itís from this vantage point that he magnifies the hairline fractures in the collectionís construction, which inevitably explains why everyone sounds so daunted by his presence.
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box