Various Artists: Paupers, Peasants, Princes and Kings

Various Artists
Paupers, Peasants, Princes and Kings: The Songs of Bob Dylan
Dog House

Everybody’s wearing a disguise

To hide what they’ve got left behind their eyes.

But me, I can’t cover what I am

Wherever the children go, I’ll follow them.

– “Abandoned Love” (Bob Dylan)

…In which a wholly uneventful collection of Bob Dylan songs by performers who are not now and will never be Bob Dylan causes a PopMatters writer to think — just a little — about the nature of recorded cover versions, collections thereof, and risible liner notes…

It seems that most if not all compilations of cover versions come from one of two occasionally overlapping motivations. Either they’re looking to raise money for a cause, such as the various releases in support of the charities Shelter and War Child. Or they’re looking to raise the profile of lesser bands or a label. Paupers, Peasants, Princes and Kings – The Songs of Bob Dylan is not trying to help children affected by war, or campaigning against homelessness.

Great covers bands such as Cracker, the Manic Street Preachers and the Wedding Present have a powerful personality that pervades everything they touch. From the Weddoes’ take on the theme from Cheers through the Manics’ “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” all the way to Cracker’s “White Riot”, the combination of personality and song choice make the experience a success for all involved. Few of the bands on Dog House Records’ Dylan compilation have anything like the personality it takes to become a great cover band.

Some of them, however, do have the sense to come in out of the rain. There are several ways to approach a cover version. You can look to subvert the song and make yourself look clever. Or you can approach it with love and respect, or a sense of fun. There is precious little fun on Paupers, Peasants, Princes and Kings.

Bands with the arrogance to try to subvert Dylan, but without the means to succeed, include Panama Jerk, Say Anything, Gatsby’s American Dream, and Read Yellow. PJ’s assault on “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We’ve Never Met)” is so self-satisfied and awful that I’m not even going to give them the oxygen of publicity by mentioning who the two musicians involved are, or what they do in their day jobs. Gatsby’s American Dream are probably attempting to deconstruct “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”, but really who cares? The main point here is that they do at least manage to convey a little of Dylan’s original casual contempt in their authentic punk rawk anger. Whereas Say Anything’s show-punk “The Man in Me” is completely without merit.

For their part, Read Yellow offer up an atrocious “If Not for You”, read in the style of At the Drive In on their worst day. Which is convenient, because Jim Ward, guitarist from At the Drive In, is on hand on to show them how to do Dylan. His “Lay Lady Lady” is decidely non-noisy. Indeed, it’s driven on wheels of steel guitar and sung in a style that echoes the original. Unfortunately, it’s just nice. Not great. Similarly, Rachael Cantu’s “I Threw It All Away” is perfectly sweet, but barely hints at the strength of her more indie-grrl original material.

While neither the Back to Earth Approach’s unshaven “My Back Pages” or the Casual Lean’s mildly epic “Sara” would have you reaching to turn your radio off, they certainly wouldn’t have you keen to remember the bands’ names either. Still, that makes their contributions considerably more successful than Brooklyn-based the Honorary Title’s “Simple Twist of Fate”, which is a pleasant stroll through familiar territory spoiled by singer Jarrod Gorbel’s overly mannered vocals — most especially when he tries to out-Dylan the original on the over-emphasis of certain key syllables.

Subversion and respect: the most successful performances on Paupers, Peasants, Princes and Kings come from these camps. First, Minnesota rapper P.O.S glides effortlessly through a number that takes its cue — and little else — from “All Along the Watchtower”, scoring one for subversion. Equalizing immediately, Limbeck’s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” is relaxed country rock, pitched perfect for a day on the river, with beer. And then David Moore, the one-time singer of a band called Chamberlain, comes along to net the winner with a simply beautiful take on “Abandoned Love”, a relative rarity that dates from Dylan’s glorious Blood on the Tracks period. Moore’s voice is hardly unique, in particular it recalls that of English folk singer Mike Hart, but it’s outstanding in this context; rich with the reach and emotion that typified the original. All in all, it’s an exceptional performance.

It’s a shame that none of these bands came to this project with a sense of fun. There’s nothing here that approaches the perfection of covers such as the Groovy Little Numbers’ “Windy” or the Siddeleys’ “Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)”. But there are four or five recordings worth adding to your iPod. There is one supreme performance. And there are a couple of unanswered questions.

First, who is Trevor Kelley and why is he writing such preposterous liner notes?

And finally, what happened to track number ten?

RATING 5 / 10