Willie Nile gives Dylan a garage rock makeover on ‘Positively Bob’
Punk and garage rock has always lived and died by its anti-authoritarian streak. So it’s no surprise that many punk and garage rockers are drawn to a seemingly unlikely source; Bob Dylan. Dylan is, after all, the guy who decided to debut his new electric sound at one of the world’s most venerable acoustic folk festivals and no-showed his own Nobel Prize ceremony. Rocker Willie Nile obviously agrees, as he’s just released an album full of garaged-up Dylan covers titled Positively Bob: Willie Nile Sings Bob Dylan.
In many ways, Nile is a kindred spirit to Dylan, an artist whose independent streak has kept his following to cult status despite having shared a stage with the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Ringo Starr. So it’s no surprise that Nile’s choice of Dylan songs to cover tend toward the more strident and and acerbic songs. Certainly any rocked up version of Dylan is going to include “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35” as well as “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and these songs shine naturally behind Nile’s crunchy guitar arrangements and his Dylan-esque raspy drawl.
But it’s in the other choices that Willie Nile makes Positively Bob stand out from the dozen or so albums of Dylan covers that flood the shelves every year. Dylan’s gentle early signature song “Blowin’ in the Wind” gets an electric guitar makeover and a Ramones-style bop that works well. Album opener “The Times They Are a Changin” also goes electric, but with a more Cheap Trick inspired anthemic pop feel.
Nile doesn’t completely remake every tune on Positively Bob. “I Want You” gets a fairly straight up treatment. “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” hews closely to Dylan’s own DIY Basement Tapes rendition.
The album’s true standout, though, is “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” There’s a certain undercurrent of impending apocalyptic doom that threads Dylan’s version. Nile just takes that undercurrent and brings it to the forefront. When he gets to the verse “Where black is the color, where none is the number. And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it. And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it. Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’. But I’ll know my song well before I start singin”, each line is delivered with just a bit more edge that slowly but persistently hammers the song’s message home.
If there’s any artist in the world who didn’t need yet another tribute album, it’s Bob Dylan. But Willie Nile has brought such a unique take to the source material and such an endearing earnestness to the project that Positively Bob never feels like a rehash. Instead, it feels like an important member of rock and roll’s underground history putting all of his influence cards on the table for the world to see. If Dylan’s fame brings even a few new people to the underrated catalog of Willie Nile, then it’s an album that was worth making. For fans of Nile, this is an easy buy. It’s Willie Nile in his finest form.
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