If you’re a woman putting out an album of Dylan covers, you can’t do any better than Emma Swift’s Blonde on the Tracks. It’s just as irresistible contentwise as it is titlewise, and it’s streaming at Bandcamp.
As Dylan cover albums go, the gold standard is Mary Lee’s Corvette’s live version of Blood on the Tracks. Until that record came out in 2002, The Byrds Play Dylan was the benchmark for smartly arranged rock versions of songs by the guy who would eventually give us Murder Most Foul. Swift’s record is a mix of both. Take the first track, Queen Jane Approximately. Swift gives the vocals both country twang and hash-oil mist, leaving no doubt what this song’s about. The mix of acoustic and twelve-string guitars behind her is a throwback to the Byrds but with more balanced, digital 21st century production.
The rest of the record is a mix of classics and obscurities. Swift really goes deep into the lyrics in a skeletal but wickedly nuanced take of I Contain Multitudes: recognizing how well this weatherbeaten late-period song is suited to a woman’s voice was a genius move.
It would have been just as brilliant if Swift had put a brass section on the big Frankenstein piano hook in Sooner or Later One of Us Must Know. She doesn’t – in fact, she takes it out completely, going for a spare, hazy atmosphere, which is a letdown, Mining iconic songs like this can be a minefield and in this case it blows up in her face – although the pedal steel is a welcome touch.
Likewise, the wide-angle tremolo guitar and organ really help Swift nail every ounce of angst in Simple Twist of Fate, one of those Blood on the Tracks songs that deserved production this intuitive. Her cover of Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands is one of the great WTF moments in rock history, right up there with Carol Lipnik’s symphonic Spanish-language version of Freebird. For what it’s worth, this is an improvement on the original: Swift bails just short of the twelve minute mark and actually manages to give the lyrics some wistfulness.
She goes for counterintuitive again with The Man in Me, the closest thing to genuine Blonde on Blonde here. Lyrically, it’s a throwaway, but the band elevate it beyond the schlockiness of the original. With tasty acoustic/electric contrasts, they’re just as inspired in Going Going Gone, and Swift has fun with a couple of big Patsy Cline-style upward swoops.
She winds up the album with another Blood on the Tracks number, You’re a Big Girl Now: the vocals are an improvement but the flangey faux-70s guitars are not. Dylan fans are going to pick this to death far beyond anything on this page: and every single one of them’s going to want to hear it.