The artist credit is a bit of a fib, really, considering that His Bobness sings on only four of this double-CD's 29 tracks, and that on two of those four he's sharing verses with various of the old-lag rockers come to Madison Square Garden to celebrate . . . what, exactly?
The thing which deserves celebration, Dylan's compositional gift, is only incidentally lauded here, as an impressive parade of artists from different genres offers interpretations of Bobsongs. Since the anniversary in question is that of Dylan's first recording for CBS, what we're primarily asked to feel grateful for is the composer's 30-year association with a record company. And since few of us hold shares in that company, why should we be bothered which label was the recipient of his genius? Considerations such as these add to the stench of corporatism surrounding the project. Count, for instance, the number of guests who happen to reside on that same record label. We are at least spared the speech by a company bigwig which, I am informed, was roundly booed.
Which is not to say this package is entirely bereft of redeeming qualities. There are several reasons to be cheerful, not least the first-time pairing of Neil Young with Booker T & the MGs, which opens the second disc with 'Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues' and a scorching 'All Along The Watchtower'. Virtually all of the highlights, apart from Johnny Winter's slide-guitar version of 'Highway 61 Revisited', are on the second disc: Dylan's own 'It's Alright, Ma'; George Harrison's Buddy Holly-esque pop reading of 'Absolutely Sweet Marie'; The O'Jays' gospel workout on 'Emotionally Yours'; and, best of the lot, Eric Clapton's blues revision of 'Don't Think Twice, It's All Right'. These are the artists who have applied themselves seriously to the honour at hand. But too much of the concert, as presented here, is simply dashed-off versions by such as Tracy Chapman, John Mellencamp and Richie Havens.
THE LEVELLERS - Levellers (China WOLCD 1034)
Nobody ever accused the Levellers of bloated corporatism, though their simplistic separatist approach recently resulted in a spectacular Spartist own-goal in a music paper. The battle between the band and the music press continues here in '100 Years Of Solitude', in which they utilise a bizarrely foreshortened political 'logic' which casts a catch-all disaffected Us against an infinitely culpable Them, affording little room for manoeuvre between these poles. 'Warning' opens the album with a siren, then quick-marches into crusty folk-rock graced, if that is the correct word, by the annoying whine of violin; the song, which is about roadblocked crusty convoys, rather overstates its case with lines like 'Final end solution / Road block'. Elsewhere, 'Dirty Davey' co-opts the style and spirit of Irish Republican songs to tell the story of a doomed dosser who eventually hangs himself in jail - one of several losers' stories presented as (ill-judged) mythopoeic celebration rather than cautionary tale. Throughout, songs like 'The Likes Of You And I' present their all-too-common complaints as revelations; and the Levellers appear content to cater to an audience which wishes to remain forever at that moment of revelation.
ULTRAMARINE - United Kingdoms (Blanco Y Negro 4509-93425-2)
In its relaxed peregrinations, United Kingdoms bears a resemblance to Caravan's In The Land Of Grey And Pink, not least because that group's one-time windman Jimmy Hastings is deputised to decorate their gentle strain of ambient-house with sympathetic flute and sax work.
Robert Wyatt is also on hand, adding scat-singing on various tracks - his vocales sculpted via sampler into more instrumental contributions - and doing lead vocals on the sardonic 'Happy Land' and antique protest song 'Kingdom'. This last is a splendid piece of work, with the feel of medieval house music, of a distinctly below-the-salt sort. 'Hooter' is moodier, dusky of atmosphere, in the spirit of Gray's Elegy, while the snappy 'Dizzy Fox' is taken at a sprightly clip. 'The Badger' is more of an exercise in pastoral-house, a sort of gentle English idyll which puts a subtle one-line sample of violin to more effective use than the Levellers manage with an entire albumful of sawing, fiddling bombast.
GUMBO - Dropping Soulful H2 O On The Fiber (Chrysalis CTCD 37)
Despite its adoption of a rustic-afrocentric New Man rap manner similar to Arrested Development's style, and its production by AD's Speech, Gumbo's debut album fatally lacks the presiding intelligence of that group's work. Where Speech offers instructional vignettes and well-crafted parables, Gumbo seem stuck at the parrot stage, where trite slavery complaints and dull positive- thinking slogans serve as the rickety axioms of a group philosophy. Since their main rapper Fulani Faluke is only 17, this is perhaps not too surprising; but there's an embarrassing slip of the New Man mask on the track 'I Know You're A Virgin', when one of the trio's male rappers asks, 'Is your mind warm yet, ready to except (sic) what I've gots to give which is a well-endowed brother . . .' Sounds like someone doth protest a wee bit too much.