The Amnesty International collection of eighty different cover versions of Bob Dylan songs, Chimes of Freedom, won’t be officially released until January 24th, but it has in effect hit the streets already. I haven’t gone out of my way personally to listen to much of it (all in due time) but I have heard two tracks: the artist known as Ke$ha singing “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” and the artist formerly known as Hannah Montana (i.e. Miley Cyrus) singing “You’re Gonna Make Lonesome When You Go.”
I can’t say that I’m very familiar with the body of musical work produced to date by these ladies, so in a way that’s good: I hear these performances strictly on their merits. They’re both interesting in their way.
Ke$ha’s take on “Don’t Think Twice” [at right] is, in terms of the arrangement, slow and mournful. In terms of the vocal performance, I guess you could say that it is truly lachrymose, because she is actually crying while singing. The story apparently is that she had just gone through a romantic break-up when she recorded this song, and the lyric brought all of those raw emotions to the surface. OK. Restraint is not a quality that is much in vogue among singers these days, as far as my (admittedly limited) knowledge tells me. More restraint would have been better here. Yet, if you could remove some of the $obs and $niffles from Ke$ha’s recording, it’s not a bad rendition at all. What’s interesting about it is how down and gloomy it is. It brings out some of the bleaker aspects of the lyric.
It ain’t no use in turnin’ on your light, babe
That light I never knowed
An’ it ain’t no use in turnin’ on your light, babe
I’m on the dark side of the road
It’s something of significance to say that you are on the dark side of the road, and that no light can reach you. It’s a long way from the Carter Family’s “Keep on the Sunny Side,” which Bob would have known. When Ke$ha sings it, it really does sound like she’s unreachable. The refrain of “don’t think twice, it’s alright,” which was always poignant in this song because of its ironic offhandedness, becomes all-but-impossible-to-believe in this performance. It’s obviously not alright here. Nothing’s right. But it is perhaps cathartic in some way for Ke$ha, and for those listeners who connect with it. There’s something to that. The song stands up, no que$tion.
As for Miley Cyrus and “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” (from 1974’s Blood on the Tracks) : there’s no great drama to this performance, but that’s not a bad thing. It’s a conventional and highly competent kind of soft-country recording. It’s one of Dylan’s most slyly lyrical lyrics, and Ms. Cyrus really does just fine with it. Hearing someone else sing it, with no particular affectation, just brings out how sharp and great the lyric really is.
Yer gonna make me wonder what I’m doin’
Stayin’ far behind without you
Yer gonna make me wonder what I’m sayin’
Yer gonna make me give myself a good talkin’ to
I’ll look for you in old Honolulu
San Francisco, Ashtabula
Yer gonna have to leave me now, I know
But I’ll see you in the sky above
In the tall grass, in the ones I love
Yer gonna make me lonesome when you go
These are all such great lines. So perfectly balanced between wit, heartbreak, and poetry. And the innocent, bouncing pace, which Miley Cyrus doesn’t much alter, is another counterpoint to the profound things going on between the lines. A great song. In fact, more than most Dylan songs, it really should qualify as a standard, although I don’t know that it gets recorded all that much. Maybe Miley will change all that.
If the rest of the Amnesty collection is as interesting as these two, it will be pretty good stuff.