Emma Swift - Blonde on the Tracks (vinyl lp import)
At this late stage, covering Bob Dylan is fraught with issues. Attempting to improve, or reinvent his music is the challenge. Since so many have done it with great success, any new act trying to get a piece of the action is sure to invite comparisons to The Band, Jimi Hendrix and hundreds of others that have thrown their hats into Dylan’s ring, all attempting to recreate/reinterpret/replicate his music in their own image.
Nashville by way of Australia musician Emma Swift hasn’t released many of her own compositions but gives it a go, apparently trying to find inspiration in Dylan’s music to motivate her songwriting. Much of the difficulty is choosing material out of the hundreds of choices available from Dylan’s rich and profound catalog. Just a glance at the track list shows Swift has dug deep for selections recognizable to many but not overly covered before. Kudo’s for her being the first to take a crack at 2020’s “I Contain Multitudes” (making a creative video for it too), and even attempting “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” which, at its extended length of over eleven minutes, hasn’t spawned a lot of notable covers, especially from women (props to Joan Baez for her terrific 1968 one though).
Swift’s sweet, innocent, usually mellifluous voice lends itself towards ballads, which is what she sticks with here. From the heartbreaking “You’re a Big Girl Now” to a sparse, delicate “Simple Twist of Fate” and a chiming “Queen Jane Approximately” (with full-blown Byrds guitar solo courtesy of producer/multi-instrumentalist Patrick Sansone), Swift finds a honeyed musical spot in tunes that revolve around Dylan’s often pointed lyrics. For better or worse, Swift and Sansone buff off much of the darker edge that Dylan applies even to softer material like Planet Waves’ “Going, Going, Gone.” Perhaps “Sad Eyed Lady…” wasn’t the best choice since her performance tends to drag without the insistent instrumentation of the original. But her feminist take on “The Man in Me” effectively maintains the male gender of the narrator as the smoother vocals enhance Dylan’s melody.
Sansone keeps the classy instrumental backing (the legendary Robyn Hitchcock on acoustic guitar is an inspired choice) stripped down, but creates a full sound for Swift to sing over. Even though there’s little definitive here–Swift and Sansone’s approach to these Dylan chestnuts is more toned down than you might expect or anticipate– it’s a generally successful, instantly likeable meeting of voice, production and of course songs.