There was a time when covering Bob Dylan was downright easy. The Byrds, Jimi Hendrix, the Turtles, and even William Shatner put their distinctive spins on the legend's tunes. Those times, however, have a-changed. Witness this 2-CD soundtrack to the current Todd Haynes film. Even though it assembles a who's who of alternative artists, including a house backing band that features Television's Tom Verlaine, Sonic Youth's Steve Shelley and Lee Ranaldo, organist John Medeski, and Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, only a few of the 34 tracks here succeed. Mostly, it seems the artists don't know what to do with Dylan. Either they treat him too reverentially, playing the songs in the same tempo and style as the originals (Karen O's version of "Highway 61 Revisited"). Or they discover nothing new in songs that were near-perfect — and covered thusly — in the past (see Eddie Vedder's dull take on "All Along the Watchtower").
It isn't just a case of the new kids not "getting" it: Roger McGuinn's Calexicoed cover of "One More Cup of Coffee" is flaccid and overwrought, while Richie Havens doesn't sound any more interesting than he did in the '60s. That said, a few tracks are pretty stunning. Much like Cate Blanchett, who offers the best take on Dylan in the film, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Yo La Tengo's Georgia Hubley reconfigure Dylan's persona, offering delicate, beatific versions of "Just Like a Woman" and "Fourth Time Around" respectively. Steve Malkmus turns Dylan's shaggy-dog love song "Can't Leave Her Behind" into a lost Pavement track, and Antony & the Johnsons add an incomprehensible amount of pathos to "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." But Bob's old pal Ramblin' Jack Elliott has the last word, stripping "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" down to its essence, playing it in his indelible blues style. It seems that the best covers are the ones that sound the least like Dylan songs.