[11 October 2006]
What to do with another album of Bob Dylan covers? Especially one as garishly packaged as this? I mean, the whole thing is red red RED and covered in hearts, one of which fills in for the ‘o’ in “Love”. Well, don’t let the sugar-sweet candy coating keep you from what’s inside, because the music is pretty good and the singing is excellent. Maria Muldaur really does have the perfect bluesy voice for these songs. That voice alone is enough to make you shrug off the fact that you’ve heard at least a couple of these songs too many times. With any cover album this is probably the biggest obstacle a singer faces, but Heart of Mine manages to deliver a fairly consistent stream of pleasures, and even a few surprises. Even hardcore Dylan fans haven’t heard many of these songs interpreted to death, and it would be foolish to ignore the fact that Dylan fans will make up a major chunk of the audience for this record.
Norah Jones did the title track, albeit not on one of her own mega-selling albums so you might not’ve heard it, and while I’ll still say hers is the definitive rendition, Muldaur’s is probably just as good. Really, “Heart of Mine” never impressed me as done by the writer himself, but hey, this is why we have covers (sometimes whole albums of ‘em). Occasionally a cover illuminates the song in ways the original didn’t, and this is true even for songs that were done almost perfectly in the first place. Most of the time, though, covers stick pretty closely to the originals. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially in the case of Maria Muldaur’s performances here, because although the music is standard-issue rootsy blues stuff, with the occasional hint of country (in the case of “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” it’s full immersion), this is definitely a singer’s album. The voice makes up for the pleasant but unexceptional (and relatively unimportant) musical backing several times over.
In her liner notes, Muldaur writes that this album was at least partly born out of her desire to record “Moonlight”, the splendid little crooner number off Love and Theft that would’ve sounded right at home on Self Portrait, and I mean that as a compliment. Muldaur’s love of this song is apparent from her performance, which is very likely the one cut here that will go down as definitive. Rather than tinker with the arrangement, she stays musically close to the original while turning in a tour-de-force vocal performance, playing with the phrasing and taking the melody all over the place. And Dylan’s original line, “For whom does the bell toll for, love”, loses its second “for” and gains grammatical respectability in these sultry new surroundings.
“Moonlight” is the most recent song here, and “Make You Feel My Love” (which Muldaur calls “the ultimate love ballad of all time”) is the only other song from the past 25 years on this disc. The latter isn’t bad, in fact it’s far better than what Billy Joel and Garth Brooks did to it, but their renditions made this song a much too obvious pick. This is probably just quibbling, though, because it could’ve been a lot worse. After all, Muldaur appeared in No Direction Home, that Martin Scorsese documentary that, good as it was, ignored almost 40 years of Dylan’s career to concentrate on the well-worn ‘60s stuff. It wouldn’t have been too much of a surprise if she had succumbed, as so many have, to recording a safe album of his ‘60s tunes. Instead, only four of these tracks come from that decade, and none of them are from the period covered in the Scorsese film. This makes sense, though, because Dylan’s pen produced far more “love songs” starting in the late ‘60s. Of these, “Lay Lady Lay” (as “Lay Baby Lay”) and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” are serviceable performances, but they don’t approach Dylan’s own renditions, which I suppose they don’t have to.
The songs from the ‘70s are a bit riskier, and well worth it. Muldaur discovers the blues song hiding in the Desire outtake “Golden Loom”, and makes the very unpredictable decision to cover the autobiographical “Wedding Song”. Dylan’s original guitar-voice-harmonica performance becomes a full-band number here, complete with an excellent violin part from Richard Greene. “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” was done better by Madeleine Peyroux a couple years back, but Muldaur’s performance is different, bluesy (surprise, surprise) rather than jazzy in its feel. (Neither of their versions sounds anything like Dylan’s.)
Heart of Mine has momentum of sorts, although it’s only on the giddy closer, the ubiquitous “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”, that the tempo really picks up. It’s the only truly joyful performance here, even though “On a Night Like This” and some of the others have joy in their lyrics. This may be the disc’s biggest drawback. Bob Dylan’s love songs, for Muldaur, are full of an easy-going sort of love, not the kind that just swallows you when you aren’t looking. A bit more jubilation, a bit more energy, would’ve helped this fine album move up a notch, given it more variation and provided a more well-rounded portrayal of love, as well as a more well-rounded portrayal of Dylan’s love songs. Imagine Maria Muldaur singing, I dunno, “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” or “If I Don’t Be There by Morning” (or “New Pony”—now that would be gritty!) in place of some of the ho-hum stuff here, and Heart of Mine becomes a different album, hopefully one not bathed in third-grade hearts.