By their nature, multi-artist collections tend to be uneven affairs. But two new ones are the exception to the rule, primarily I suspect because they both come from atypical record labels that dedicate themselves to releasing quality music rather than to reaching the masses.
The first of these packages is Red House’s Nod to Bob 2: An Artists’ Tribute to Bob Dylan on his 70th Birthday, a 16-track follow-up to a collection released 10 years ago for Dylan’s 60th. (That CD was the best-selling album in the label’s history.) The new package spans Bob’s entire catalog, with readings of everything from “Not Dark Yet,” from 1997’s Time Out of Mind (performed by Jimmy LaFave) all the way back to “House of the Rising Sun,” from 1962’s Bob Dylan (delivered here by Guy Davis). No, Dylan didn’t write the latter tune, but the liner notes point out that it might still be little known if he hadn’t recorded it and the Animals hadn’t learned it from his version.
The collection is yet another reminder of just how exhaustive Dylan’s catalog is. There are well-known greats here, such as “Just Like a Woman” (covered by John Gorka), “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” (sung by Ray Bonneville), and “Buckets of Rain” (a killer version by Danny Schmidt) but also obscurities like Oh Mercy’s “What Good Am I?” (The Pines nail it) that will make you want to pull out your old Dylan albums and check out what you missed. These recordings will also make you want to investigate the artists here, most of whom manage to convey the spirit of the originals while also bringing fresh ideas to the material.
The other noteworthy new package comes from Canada’s Stony Plain label. Titled 35 Years of Stony Plain, it includes 41 tracks on two CDs plus a DVD with 10 compelling music videos and interviews with Stony Plain’s cofounders.
As the interviews make clear and the music proves, this is a label that has given low priority to commercial appeal and paid no attention whatsoever to musical boundaries; instead, it has signed artists solely because they seemed to have something special to say. The performers here are all over the musical map—from Steve Earle, Ian Tyson, Asleep at the Wheel, and Emmylou Harris to King Biscuit Boy, Duke Robillard, Long John Baldrey, and Ellen McIlwaine. All that most of them have in common is an ability to make you sit up, take notice, tap your foot, and smile. And with the three-disc collection going for less than 20 bucks on Amazon, this is a lot of smiles for the money.