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He's here

Music | I'm Not There soundtrack gives reason to explore the singer-songwriter's opus

Issue: "Signs and wonders," Jan. 26, 2008

Unlike the Bob Dylan biopic of the same name for which it serves as a soundtrack, the two-disc album I'm Not There (Columbia/Sony Music Soundtrax) seems like the work of people who actually like and sometimes understand Bob Dylan. The performances-often by musicians who weren't born when the music was first recorded-are faithful enough to the spirit of Dylan's originals to whet the curiosity of the uninitiated.

It is, in fact, this very fidelity that may have the album striking longtime Dylan fans as superfluous. Cat Power's "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again," Mark Lanegan's "Man in the Long Black Coat," and Stephen Malkmus' "Ballad of a Thin Man" stick so close to Dylan's versions that they feel more "accurate" than exploratory. And others, such as Karen O's "Highway 61 Revisited" and Hold Steady's "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window" suffer in comparison to the more imaginative reinterpretations (available elsewhere) of PJ Harvey and Transvision Vamp, to name just two.

Still, there are reasons for diehard collectors to investigate this collection. Besides showcasing two previously unreleased Dylan songs ("Can't Leave Her Behind," which Dylan performed in his 1966 documentary Eat the Document and which Stephen Malkmus performs here, and the album's title track, an outtake from Dylan's 1967 Basement Tapes recordings with the Band), it includes several impressive transformations, most notably Sufjan Stevens' of "Ring Them Bells" from an ominously simple hymn into a baroque proclamation with intimations of apocalypse.

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As for John Doe's rendition of "Pressing On," which Rolling Stone overrated as the 52nd-best song of 2007, it might at least entice the more stubborn secularists in Dylan's audience to investigate 1980's Saved, where Dylan performs it better.

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