Various Artists, "Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International"
Genres of pop music include rock, country, dance -- and Bob Dylan covers. From the high (the "I'm Not There" soundtrack) to the low ("Million Dollar Bash: Missouri Salutes Bob Dylan"), albums of Dylan covers -- never mind the individual songs interpreted in innumerable styles by countless artists on their own records -- have become a pop music cliché. But clichés are clichés because they strike a chord and demand repetition. Most of Dylan's songs possess a timeless mystery, a songwriter's gift that keeps on giving to performers of every stripe.
That's exactly what's gathered for this ambitious collection, a jaw-dropping roster from a wide array of genres -- 73 tracks (76 online) featuring 80 artists -- redoing the Dylan catalog as a four-disc set to raise funds for the international human rights organization.
Amnesty has a lengthy history in raising awareness of its cause through pop music concerts and recording collaborations. The last one, "Instant Karma: The Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur," was a successful two-disc set of John Lennon covers. Two discs were the goal with this one, too, but nearly every performer asked to contribute said yes. The songs piled up, a box set was born.
It's a lot to ask of consumers, but the price is right: $24.99 physically, $19.99 digitally. (Starbucks will offer a two-CD version for $14.95.) The tracks will be available individually from online retailers, giving fans the option of cherry-picking through the mountain of material.
Which is the best plan of action. There are several paths up the slope, depending on your tastes and your willingness to be surprised. Some of the highlights:
• Four tracks into the first disc, Chicago's Rise Against is the first to bring new energy to the assignment. The socially conscious pop-punk band slams through the "Ballad of Hollis Brown," barking the paranoid lyrics over juggernaut guitar chords and a hellacious hard-rock stomp. Omnipresent Chicago everyman Tom Morello immediately follows, growling through "Blind Willie McTell" with a lumbering shuffle and a deep voice as if he was told this was a Leonard Cohen tribute.
• My Morning Jacket's Jim James tackled "Goin' to Acapulco" on the soundtrack to Todd Haynes' film "I'm Not There." His reading of "You're a Big Girl Now" here is practically a solo outing, his voice and guitar backed by occasional atmospherics from steel guitar and organ, and is just as lonesome and satisfying.
• To hear a woman sing "Lay Lady Lay" is one thing; to hear Beninese singer Angelique Kidjo do so with verve, rhythm and a choir is spectacular. The gender switch continues with Carly Simon singing "Just Like a Woman," with fewer fireworks but greater emotional wisdom. Later, Mexican actress-singer Ximena Sarinana cools down "I Want You" to an indie-pop subtlety without subtracting its desire.
• Sinead O'Connor might be nuts -- she wrote Dylan a love letter last year before her on-again, off-again quickie Vegas marriage -- but she really nails "Property of Jesus," wailing through the "Shot of Love" song with a slight distortion adding edge to her already sword-sharp voice.
• Is it shocking to see "Glee" star Darren Criss on the set? Certainly. Is it equally shocking how well he acquits himself, singing "New Morning" with semi-authentic grit? You bet. Of the many incongruent pop bookings in this collection, Criss fairs the best.
• Amazingly, no one really goes for the Dylan vocal imitation except Simply Red singer Mick Hucknall. The 51-year-old British soul star comes on like a creamy Rod Stewart during "One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)," but he lightly wheezes the end of many lines ("When I saw you say goodbye to your friends...") on an inclined pitch as if doing parody. It's amusing, but it doesn't detract from what's ultimately a soulful, studied reading by this redhead of the "Blonde on Blonde" track. (Another soulful shot of love: Bettye LaVette's eventually fiery, bleeped turn on "Most of the Time.")
• Others worth piecing together in a playlist: the Gaslight Anthem's hard-driving "Changing of the Guards," the Silversun Pickups' "Not Dark Yet," Sting's strange but alluring "Girl From the North Country," Queens of the Stone Age's dirty "Outlaw Blues," Bryan Ferry's "Bob Dylan's Dream," Cage the Elephant's creepy "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," the lively bluegrass of the Carolina Chocolate Drops on "Political World" and the fresh life Michael Franti breathes into "Subterranean Homesick Blues."
There are missteps, most of them from the country corner -- Miley Cyrus reaching for her dad's mantle on a stiff run through "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go," Sugarland's shrill concert performance of "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You," the unnerving digital injection of the Avett Brothers into Johnny Cash's "One Too Many Mornings" -- plus the pairing of Seal & Jeff Beck for "Like a Rolling Stone" stands still, and Ke$ha's warbling-in-the-shower version of "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" is bee-zarre.