Blonde On The Tracks
Tiny Ghost / Bandcamp
There are plenty of reasons to perform and record a cover – or an album of cover versions. You might think the original artist is under-valued in some way or that the song seemingly went missing. You might not have any songs of your own, or might think your own don’t measure up. You might want to pay tribute to the artist – even if, or entirely because, they are utterly adored. You might just want to show that you’re a fan: Of the song/s and artist/s in question – and more than that, just a fan of music. Through making a cover version you make your own way in. You take apart the song and rebuild it. No tower of Lego looks the same way twice. It’s true of songs. You can rebuild them to resemble the original, but even if you’re holding it down and you have the baking paper and tracing pencil steady you are going to put your touch on it.
There are plenty of reasons to perform and record a cover – or an album of cover versions. But to put it simply, the chance to put your touch on it sums it up entirely I think.
It feels like the correct thing to say with regard to Emma Swift’s selection of Bob Dylan tunes. But everything I said in that opening para stands too I reckon. Swift is paying tribute to the man and his songs and the ideas in them, she’s covering them to cover for no new songs of her own (this Dylan project is a tonic for writer’s block). She’s a fan. And there are the songs. In her voice. With her touch. Rebuilt. Resembling the originals. But different. Drawing their own line.
And though many people have covered Dylan and many have done full albums of covers I think Swift’s is the best album-length covers-set I’ve heard. It contains multitudes! (Actually!) There’s her voice for a start, honeyed and soulful and with sadness and wisdom in its timbre. But here she seems to understand how crucial Dylan’s voice is to his songs, his phrasing being the key. For all the jokes and lazy shots people take about him not being able to sing in key he is one of the most important and influential singers of post-war music. We all know the ferocious rep as a songwriter. And that’s something no one can deny. Because the numbers don’t lie. But he’s a beast of a singer, even before his late-stage growl. And if nothing else he gave license for people to sing if they felt strongly enough about their work. That influence alone endures. And its allowed for some of the most interesting and idiosyncratic of songwriters to take shape and grace the stage. But nobody phrases like Dylan. So the cleaned-up and ‘tidied’ cover versions of his tunes might appease those that have turned their ears off to his crooned-bleats but they don’t capture the correct moods.
Swift does though. She has something perfect about her approach here Apart from her own talent I put it down to deep study. To fandom. To passion for this project. The Australian-born, Nashville-based singer and songwriter started this album in 2017. It’s been gnawing away at her. She’s been chomping back at it.
The end-result is a stunner. It is all things on all levels. It is for Dylan fans. And Swift fans. If they were ever mutually exclusive – and they can be – they’re now forever linked. It will please the pickiest of Dylan anoraks (if for no other reason than Swift’s pluck at covering the brand-spanking I Contain Multitudes). It will please those clowns that think ol’ Bob can’t sing. And to every point in the middle and along the way this album oozes charm and adds surprises. It plays it straight but is never dull.
The band sits back and lets the songs do the work. Swift is front and centre not just serving the lyrics up but selling them anew.
Robyn Hitchcock and Pat Sansone (The Autumn Defense, Wilco) handle the guitars. Dream team. They weave and wind and make for a pleasing middle-spot between Dylan’s original arrangements and some of The Byrds’ finest takes (Queen Jane Approximately). Sansone is on triple-duty as engineer/producer, keyboardist and guitarist. He is a wonderful colourist. He paints the shadows of the songs.
There’s a country lilt to One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later), there’s wistful wisdom in this rendition of Simple Twist of Fate. It’s almost reportage. Nearly journalism as much as it any flavour of song or genre of music.
And then Sad Eyed Lady of The Lowlands, the album centrepiece, is 12-minutes of the most perfect straight-bat, night-watchman, steeled and steely determination. (On the subject of steel, Thayer Serrano’s pedal steel is one of the subtle surprises on this album, its use and placement exquisite).
Rhythm section Jon Estes (bass) and Jon Radford (drums, percussion) never get in the same car as overplaying. They take turns at the wheel of understatement. They are there in the dependable sense. Always. We feel them as much as hear them.
The inclusion of The Man In Me and Going Going Gone (the former swimming through a river of organ, the latter doing its dance between licks and curls of subdued blues guitar and supper-club piano) again speak to Swift’s fandom. These are shining highlights from criminally underrated/ignored/forgotten albums from the feet-finding country-croon reinvention of the early 70s, as Dylan enjoyed being a dad, making music on the side, keeping the world where he wanted it.
The closer – You’re A Big Girl Now – is not only one of my favourite Dylan songs, it feels like the perfect victory lap for this album. Swift hasn’t changed any of the narration angles. She’s sung of The Man in Me, she’s owned the multitudes of the brand new Whitman-referencing Dylan, she’s embodied the Sad Eyed Lady, her own lowlands being metaphorical, the medication being the songs her to pull her along. And then she all but sings You’re A Big Girl Now not only as herself but to herself.
Well earned it is too.
I have been playing this record on a loop.
One of my favourite boring-white-guy things to do is just riff around Dylan’s brilliance; hang on his words whether it’s him singing them or someone else saying them. But this set of tunes sees the real arrival of Emma Swift as artist. In much the way we felt and heard that when Sinead O’Connor covered Prince’s. Nothing Compares 2 U. In the way that Swift’s earliest heroes – Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt – made their careers from the building blocks of so many songs written by other people.
Emma Swift has not only knocked it out of the park with her vocal performance. She’s been the lighting director – directing a special lightening for these versions in fact.
I listen to this and marvel. Yes, the songs were there. They were always there. But an actor can but stand on their mark. The right light needs to shine to make it all feel worthwhile.
Blonde On The Tracks will have its own worth for some while.
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