Dylan continues to ramble, sometimes intelligibly

November 03, 1992|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

Last month, Columbia Records brought a couple dozen rock superstars to Madison Square Garden to celebrate Bob Dylan's 30th year as a recording artist. It made for a marvelous tribute to Dylan's songwriting, what with the likes of Eric Clapton, Tom Petty, George Harrison and Neil Young offering interpretations of his best-known work.

Granted, Dylan's own performance left many of his fans scratching their heads (or covering their ears), but that was almost beside the point. After all, he made his greatest mark not as a singer but as a writer, right?

So how does Dylan himself celebrate his 30 years as a recording artist? As perversely as possible, of course. Because instead of offering afew gems of his own, everything he sings on "Good As I Been to You" (Columbia 53200) was written by someone else, making the album a showcase for Dylan's singing style.

Oh, joy.

In fairness, it could be argued that "Good As I Been to You," in record stores today, is an attempt to bring the pop icon's career full circle. Like his 1962 debut album, "Bob Dylan," the new album was recorded without a band, relying on Dylan's guitar (and occasional harmonica) for accompaniment. Moreover, both albums draw heavily from traditional sources -- particularly folk ballads and country blues.

But where "Bob Dylan" labored to bring a contemporary focus to such songs as "Man of Constant Sorrow" or "Pretty Peggy-O," "Good As I Been" seems an exercise in obscurantism. Unlike its predecessor, which provided notes on each song's origins, "Good As I Been" offers no clues to Dylan's sources; in fact, the closest it comes to including a writer's credit is in noting that "All songs [are] traditional, arranged by Bob Dylan, ASCAP, except "Hard Times," "Tomorrow Night" and "You're Gonna Quit Me," [which are] public domain."

As such, few of the 13 songs collected here will be readily recognizable to most listeners. Among the best-known are "Froggie Went a-Courtin'," "Hard Times," an older variant on "Frankie and Johnny" called "Frankie and Albert," and "Sittin' on Top of the World," which younger listeners may associate with Cream, though Dylan's performance is more in the style of the Mississippi Sheiks' 1930 original.

Others, though, may stump even folk-song scholars. Take "Canadee-I-O," for instance. Rather than give us a version of Ephraim Braley's lumberjack standard, Dylan digs back to the 19th century forecastle ditty that likely inspired Braley. A nice piece of research, sure, but to what end?

That's not to say the album is without its merits. Dylan's guitar work is strong and sure, with some flashy flat-picking on the Scots ballad "Blackjack Davey" and some great blues playing on "Sittin' on Top of the World."

But anyone who had a hard time dealing with the way Dylan croaked out "Like a Rolling Stone" on David Letterman's 10th anniversary special will have an even harder time with his mush-mouthed rendition of "Hard Times," much less his mumbled delivery of the Australian colonial lament "Jim Jones." A comeback this ain't.

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