It doesn’t require a great voice like Joan Osborne’s to do justice to Bob Dylan’s songs. But it does call for a clear vision in choosing the material as well as an equally lucid concept of how to arrange and play it. Songs of Bob Dylan is a mixed bag precisely because the combination of motivation and inspiration at the heart of the album isn’t completely in focus.
The challenge of interpreting any song of the Nobel Laureate’s is almost equal to the attraction it presents. Certainly, “Tangled Up in Blue,” one of three culls from the landmarks Blood On The Tracks album, is a brave choice, but Osborne displays a reticence to fully engage the number, a sign of timidity or unwillingness to penetrate far beyond the surface of the song. Joan and her accompanists don’t scratch too deeply on “Rainy Day Woman #12& 35,” either: the same glossy sheen they apply too often elsewhere on this album leaves their interpretative intentions vague.
There is, however, a clear inability to grasp the humor in that tune, a shortfall that also afflicts “Highway 61 Revisited.” By the time “Quinn The Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)” appears, it’s it becomes obvious the whimsical, often surreal products of this author’s imagination are beyond Joan Osborne’s grasp. In contrast, the relative simplicity of “Buckets of Rain,” allows the woman to hear herself in the song: it’s as if Dylan captured one of her own life experiences, truly the mark of a great song (writer). The Grammy-nominated singer on “One of Us” would’ve done better to select more tunes like “Tryin’ to Get To Heaven” because such compositions foster a distinct emotional connection.
Such logic only goes so far if the surroundings aren’t adjusted accordingly though. Again, the latter cut thrives on the uncomplicated, straightforward contrast between Keith Cotton’s piano and Jack Petruzelli’s subdued electric guitar; as Osborne’s co-producers and primary collaborators here, they would’ve done better to more often abide by the ‘less is more’ premise. Case in point on that front is “Dark Eyes:” one of the greatest latter-day Dylan compositions becomes the standout track on Songs of Bob Dylan because keyboards simultaneously frame Osborne’s voice and supply a backdrop for it. Joan sounds like she fully grasps the multiple points of view in the lyrics.
The quietly finger-picked acoustic guitar there becomes both metaphor and model for the attention to detail the man’s lyrics require. And so too is the combination piano and acoustic guitar on “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go; ” the sole additional instrument of cello (played so delicately by Yair Evnine) suggests that a much more compact corps of accompanists would benefit this album as much as a more discerning selection of songs. Antoine Silverman reaffirms that impression with the jaunty feel his fiddle injects into “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere:” his playing clearly elevates Joan Osborne because, on the breaks when the band falls away and she sings alone, her voice rings loud and clear like virtually nowhere else on the album. Except perhaps on the closing cut, “Ring Them Bells.” where her voice catches ever-so-slightly, filling with feeling as Cotton’s piano playing simultaneously grows increasingly impassioned. If only there were more such straightforward, stirring moments on Songs of Bob Dylan.