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There's something maddeningly yet at the same time endearingly unpredictable about Bryan Ferry. During Roxy Music's first coming (1972-76) and at the time of his solo albums, I thought he was one of the most individual vocalists of all, and thought his astonishing half-sung, half-declaimed style with that pronounced vibrato at the end of each line (think Marc Bolan, think Mungo Jerry's Ray Dorset, but in a different style) magnificent. Since then, for me he's churned out a few limp solo albums which make watching wallpaper dry thrilling by comparison.
Thank goodness 'Dylanesque' is one of his most entertaining solo albums for a long time. Forget the bland 'Boys And Girls' (did it REALLY top the UK album chart in 1985, heaven help us?) and the tedious, almost unlistenable 'Mamouna'. This mercifully is streets ahead of both, and several of the others. I adore Dylan as well, 75% of the time, and find that there's something mesmerising about the spirit of much of his output that compensates for his vocal shortcomings. Several other acts have recorded albums of their versions of Dylan songs, from Joan Baez and the Hollies, to McGuinness Flint and - now - Byron Ferrari. And the latter does it pretty well.
If you remember his first solo hit, 'A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall', a magnificent 'Virginia Plain'-like romp, don't expect anything too similar. The suave 20-something declaimer is now an equally suave yet more mellow 60-something crooner, and there's no denying that his vocal cords do sound somewhat frailer with age. But he still delivers the goods.
The 11 songs, a mixture of Dylan's well-known and more obscure numbers, were recorded in a week, with Ferry backed by his touring band. The first 'Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues', pits that increasingly gentle voice on one of Dylan's more impenetrable lyrics ('and she takes your voice and leaves you howling at the moon') against a sturdy backdrop of rhythm and lead guitar and a steady beat on the drums, punctuated with harmonica that sounds a lot more spot-on than Dylan's often rather wild vamping.
'A Simple Twist Of Fate' transforms the laid-back original (check out 'Blood On The Tracks') into a brisk country-rock reading. The whole guitar, keyboard and harmonica sound is wonderful, and after a few listens, this one hit me as one of the best tracks on the album.
Thanks to Adele, 'Make You Feel My Love' (which was originally heard on 'Time Out Of Mind', 1997) is probably the most broadcast Dylan song of the 21st century so far. This respectful version with stately piano and keyboards sounding like strings is magnificent. Here I will readily admit that the writer's own version has been rather left at the starting gate by both cover versions.
In 1963, 'The Times They Are A-Changin'' was seen as one of the most topical songs of the day. Has the message dated since then? Well, yes and no. But Ferry transforms the raw waltz-time of the original into a mid-tempo rocker with a tuneful guitar pitting itself against a silvery organ, and in doing so gives it a new lease of life. Much the same goes for 'All I Really Wanna Do', a snappy up-tempo reading. In the hands of others, this was always one of Dylan's more poppy, even catchy numbers.
Perversely, 'Knockin On Heaven's Door', one of Dylan's shortest recordings at a pinch over two minutes, is the longest track here at over six. I've heard some great cover versions of this song, and some truly dreadful ones (please, let's forget Gabrielle's utterly dreadful 'Rise' and, forgive me folks, that excruciating Guns'n'Roses butchery - 'Knockin' On Heaven's Doa-wo'). Ferry follows much the same tempo as the original version from 'Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid', with the band, guitars, keyboards and backing singers filling out the sound well yet with restraint.
Some very tasteful piano introduces 'Positively 4th Street'. Whereas the original was a barely restrained put-down ('You've got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend - When I was down you just stood there grinning'), Ferry's retread is a wistful paean of regret, even sadness. Easy listening? Well, I suppose so, but easy listening with class, in spades. I particularly love the dark strings which take the song towards its conclusion.
Nobody for me can ever do 'If Not For You' better than George Harrison, but this almost country-rock shuffle is certainly no disgrace. However it's eclipsed by a belting version of 'Baby Let Me Follow You Down', on which the guitars and drums canter along at quite a fast pace, with the croon and harmonica keeping up nicely.
After that, it's good to hear another of the less-remembered songs, 'Gates Of Eden', a lengthy song about nightmarish visions of corruption and decay. The eerie guitar complements the doomy lyrics well, though the tinkling piano acts as something of a sweetener.
It's almost impossible to hear 'All Along The Watchtower' without thinking of Hendrix's version. On the closing track, Chris Spedding's guitar pays homage to Jimi and lets rip after the last verse into the fadeout, while the apocalyptic lyrics are delivered with just that little hint of necessary menace.
If you loved the singer's earlier work and later came close to losing faith with him altogether, as I did, a listen to this will almost certainly restore your faith. Ferry has always surrounded himself with good musicians, but it takes decent songs to bring out the best in him and rekindle the enthusiasm. While the overall impression is of a fairly relaxed trawl through selected highlights of Zimmerman's back catalogue, it wipes the carpet with several of his other solo albums. It's not flawless, and at only 42 minutes a little on the short side. Even so, it's one of those albums I happily come back to again and again, as opposed to the kind of record I play once, put on the shelf and then reach for a few years later to try and remind myself if it was any good in the first place.
[Revised version of the review I originally posted on ciao]
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues
2 Simple Twist Of Fate
3 Make You Feel My Love
4 The Times They Are A-Changin'
5 All I Really Want To Do
6 Knockin' On Heaven's Door
7 Positively 4th Street
8 If Not For You
9 Baby, Let Me Follow You Down
10 Gates Of Eden
11 All Along The Watchtowe