Periodic Pyrotechnics: The Masked & Anonymous Soundtrack

I don’t know if it’s hip anymore (or again, or whatever) to like Bob Dylan, but I’ve been an unapologetic fan for ages. I even considered taking in his latest movie after seeing his embarrassing performance in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Though the universally negative reviews kept me from seeing Masked & Anonymous in the theater, I had heard that at least the soundtrack was good (as was the soundtrack to PG&BTK), so I decided to give it a listen. Here’s my review, track by track.

1. My Back Pages (performed by the Magokoro Brothers): An interesting Japanese take on a Dylan staple. At first listen, this seems like a throwaway novelty from a variety act, but after listening to it a few times I really appreciated it. It sounds great and works well. The only negative thing about this track (but it’s a big negative) is the annoying and embarrassingly stilted preaching (imploring the listener to ask himself, “ARE YOU HUMBLE BEFORE GOD?”) that begins the track. Every time I begin this album, I have to mute my CD player for about 20 seconds. I’ll never be able to use this track on a mix disc. (Aside: it’s amazing how many syllables it takes, in Japanese, to get out the words “But I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now.” The syncopation adds to this version’s charm.)

2. Gotta Serve Somebody (performed by Shirley Caesar): A compelling gospel version, performed with passion and flourish. This is one of Dylan’s few religious songs that I actually like (another is “Every Grain of Sand“), and this interpretation smoothes out some of the edges. While Dylan’s rasp sounds more like a warning against serving the devil, the beautiful voice on this version feels like a more positive opportunity to serve the Lord, if that sort of thing interests you. (Aside: whenever someone covers this song, I always wonder how they’ll handle the line: “You may call me Bobby, you may call me Zimmy.” This version handles it well and actually improves upon the original verse, I think.)

3. Down In The Flood (performed by Bob Dylan): A good example of how Dylan can reinvent himself and reinterpret his own songs. He takes this old chestnut and polishes it up with his current sound. This track would fit comfortably on either Time Out of Mind or “Love and Theft”. In my humble opinion, this version improves on the version released on Greatest Hits, Vol. 2, but it’s not as good as the version on The Basement Tapes (where it’s titled “Crash on the Levee”).

4. It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue (performed by The Grateful Dead): Such a pretty song, it’s hard to ruin. But The Grateful Dead give it a shot anyway. This isn’t meant as a criticism of the Dead in general. It’s just that the vocals fall flat throughout most of this track. That said, it still sounds okay. It might cause you to cringe a couple times, but I don’t think you’ll feel the need to skip ahead.

5. Most Of The Time (performed by Sophie Zelmani): An interesting take. It’s quiet and slow, and the spoken-word feeling of most of it gets a little old (though the same might be said for Dylan’s own version), but when she starts singing she adds some emotional weight to it. This song grew on me, I must admit.

6. On A Night Like This (performed by Los Lobos): A fun, dual-language version of a fun song. Alternating verses between English and Spanish works well on an album with so many non-English tracks.

7. Diamond Joe (performed by Bob Dylan): A fun, up-tempo rendition of a traditional bluegrassy number. This song will quickly have you singing along. (Note: this is a completely different song than the traditional “Diamond Joe” on Good As I Been to You).

8. Come Una Pietra Scalciata (Like A Rolling Stone) (performed by Articolo 31): An Italian rap. I don’t know what the hell the lyrics to this song are, but I’m pretty darn sure they’re not the lyrics to “Like a Rolling Stone” (the fact that this is the only song on the album for which Dylan shares writing credits seems to give credence to this hunch). Basically, there’s a hint of the organ from that song sampled in the background of the rap, and the verses are separated by a sample of the chorus from the version Dylan recorded for Highway 61 Revisited (which is itself broken up by Italian echoes). This song has yet to grow on me, but I’m not excluding the possibility that it might eventually.

9. One More Cup Of Coffee (performed by Sertab): An English-language version with a Middle-Eastern flair. Like a few other songs on Desire, the original version of this song already had a Middle-Eastern feel, but this version makes that feeling more explicit. The Turkish vocalist has a beautiful voice, but I actually would have liked to hear her sing the song in her native language, since her inflections are already halfway there.

10. Non Dirle Che Non E’ Cosi’ (If You See Her, Say Hello) (performed by Francesco De Gregori): A beautiful Italian version of one of my favorite Dylan songs. The music for this track sounds like it was lifted directly from Dylan’s recording on Blood on the Tracks (sort of like Italian karaoke), which is a good thing. I also like the fact that the vocalist sings the song straight, without embellishments or gimmicks. It sounds beautiful, even if you can’t understand the lyrics.

11. Dixie (performed by Bob Dylan): Just plain silly. This sounds like Dylan was secretly recorded goofing off backstage.

12. Senor (Tales Of Yankee Power) (performed by Jerry Garcia): A fine effort on a forgettable (in my opinion) song. Garcia’s performance on this collection is better than The Grateful Dead’s, though his song choice is worse. This mediocre song has never really done it for me, but if you like the song you’ll like this version.

13. Cold Irons Bound (performed by Bob Dylan): Another new version of a song previously released by Dylan. This one’s not as successful as the version of “Down in the Flood” on this album, though perhaps this is only because the original version of this song was recorded too recently. He seems to not have anything new to add to the song, save flashes of music (the auditory version of periodic pyrotechnics on stage) that occur throughout the song. Cruising along at the same pace as the original, to the same infectious beat, these intrusive crashes of sound become quite distracting fairly early in the song. Other than that variation, this track sounds too much like the one on Time Out of Mind to warrant a new version, in my opinion.

14. City Of Gold (performed by The Dixie Hummingbirds): Ugh. Ick. Ack. Dylan was wise to never record (or at least release) this song himself, but he would have been wise to have left it in the vault and disallowed anyone else to record it either. (Disclaimer: I actually have never had the stomach to make it to the end of this song, so it’s possible that something extraordinary might happen in the middle of the song that makes the recording worthwhile. The unlikelihood of this possibility has kept me from holding out enough hope to give it a chance of happening.)

So, would I recommend this album? Yes, but with reservations and only for the Dylan fanatic who feels the need to complete his collection. And even that completist is going to be disappointed with much of the album. That said, if you’re looking for a few solid tracks to beef up an eclectic Dylan mix for a friend, this album is worth a look if you find it on sale.