Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan was a compilation a few years back in which dozens of artists covered Dylan tunes. The quality was understandably scattered—not everyone can do the Good Lord Dylan justice—but the most successful covers (K’Naan’s “With God on Our Side” or Diana Krall’s “Simple Twist of Fate”) sounded personal and real, present in a way that made Bad Religion’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” stand out; it just sounded like Bad Religion steamrolling Dylan. Years later, Ruby Amanfu took the stage at Dylan Fest and covered “Not Dark Yet” with members of Norah Jones’s touring band. That experience—the presentness of that moment—stuck with Amanfu and sparked the idea for Standing Still, her new LP comprised of stripped-down, soulful, wind-beaten covers spanning genres and generations.
Even if you’ve never heard of Ruby Amanfu, odds are you’ve heard her work. It was her voice—haunting, reed-thin, emotive—on Jack’s White “Love Interruption”. She’s been nominated for a Grammy, performed on The Sing Off, written for Kelly Clarkson, and collaborated with the likes of Ben Folds and Jakob Dylan, not to mention her work as one half of Sam and Ruby. Amanfu is prolific in a way modern artists rarely are. She doesn’t plaster her name on everything she touches in a desperate attempt to become a Brand™. She’s an old-mold collaborator, the consummate artist who cares above all about making great music. And with Standing Still she’s made some of the best of her career.
The ambitious song choices alone would cause alarm for an artist with less experience, less soul, less ability to inhabit a composition. She takes on not only Dylan but Wilco and Irma Thomas—even Kanye West, reinventing his “Streetlights” into a soulful blues number. Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s “Where You Going?” plays with the same tonal palette as “Love Interruption”, and there’s something about Amanfu’s voice settling like a warm blanket over keyboard and gentle percussion that feels wide open yet intimate, like she’s singing in an auditorium to an audience of one. This talent is on full display in “Cathedrals”, a cover of Jump, Little Children’s minor ’90s hit that serves as the emotional apex of Standing Still. The band plays with incredible restraint, more or less disappearing to leave Amanfu’s voice echoing through the marble hallways and vaulted ceilings of churches and museums as she scours the world searching for something unnameable and elusive. In an album of great moments, it’s easily the greatest.
In fact, the only arguable misstep here is the song that sparked the idea for the album. “Not Dark Yet” is a slow-burning, insular meditation on mortality written by an aging Dylan at a low point in his career. When Dylan sings it, his voice descends at the end of nearly every line, punctuating the inevitably of death. Amanfu tries to make her mark by going big instead, adding gospel inflections and rage-against-the-dying-of-the-light vocals, but the content doesn’t lend itself to this context; there’s nothing soaring or hopeful or triumphant about “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there”. Even the syntactic structure of that sentence places the emphasis on the impending darkness rather than the current dusk.
Standing Still was recorded live in just five days, with none of the overdubs or Auto-Tune endemic to modern music. It bleeds organic warmth, the kind sorely lacking from today’s high-fructose musical fare. You hear the space between Amanfu’s notes, between the judicious guitar chords and feather-light keyboard strokes. Her performance is incredible, but like all her work, this is a collaboration. Mountains of credit are owed to the band, and credit too goes to the producers—Mark Howard, Austin Scaggs, and Patrick Carney—who worked with seasoned restraint to make a record that resonates, vibrating with presence long after it stops playing.