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Reviewed by Una Persson
The soundtrack is a different story. Bottom line: It’s a tribute album, a collection of cover versions of a specific artist's songs, in this case mostly straightforward readings of some of Dylan’s finest (as well as some of his most obscure) tunes by a veritable Who’s Who of indie rock: Sonic Youth, Cat Power, Yo La Tengo, the Hold Steady, Antony & the Johnsons, Eddie Vedder, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, Stephen Malkmus, Iron & Wine, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O, Sufjan Stephens, the Black Keys, Jeff Tweedy, Mark Lanegan, John Doe, Tom Verlaine.
Tribute albums have a way of being mere curios, only good for a listen or two, but with the end result of sending you leaping for the nearest copy of the original (and maybe that’s their M.O. in the first place). They also have a way of seeming more fun for the performers than for the listeners. Let’s face it, the novelty factor is pretty high on tribute albums (a theremin-driven version of a Clash tune here, a bluegrass version of an AC/DC tune there, orchestral Metallica), and novelty is not what most fans are looking for (at least past a couple of curiosity-driven listens, at least).
I’m Not There avoids that fate by treating the material the only way it really can and should be treated: with respect. Honest, open, straight readings of the material – while not sacrificing any of the individual performer’s own unique qualities – on a firm bedrock of a warm, inviting, almost traditional sonic quality allows the beauty of the songs (not the artists) to shine through. Some of this should be attributed to the Million Dollar Bashers, the unofficial house band for the album that includes Steve Shelley on drums, John Medeski on piano, and Tom Verlaine on guitar, along with other notable musicians, who back no fewer than six of the songs. The highly musical Calexico does the same for another five tunes. Simply put, both bands raise the bar to the level they need to be for these songs.
It’s not all great, of course. Eddie Vedder’s blustery reading of “All Along the Watchtower” is overdone. Jack Johnson’s medley is forgettable. Two tunes from Stephen Malkmus is at least one tune too many. Antony & the Johnson’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” is a snore-fest. And so on. It’s 34 tunes; like Dylan’s own catalog, there are bound to be a few clunkers.
Of special note, however, is the inclusion of the original Dylan & the Band version of “I’m Not There,” part of the Basement Tapes recordings, but not included on the official The Basement Tapes release. It closes the two-disc set (much like Sonic Youth’s version almost opens the set, if it weren’t for the Vedder abomination). It’s been available on bootleg Basement Tapes collections for decades, of course, but this is the first time it’s seen the light of day on a wide and authorized release. It’s considered by some (such as music critic, author and confirmed Dylanologist Greil Marcus) as Dylan’s best song from that era. Dylan himself never re-recorded it, and has never performed it live. For some, this song alone is worth the price of admission.