Surely we can all agree that boomer nostalgia is one of the more painful forms of nostalgia to be subjected to, if for no other reason than that it usually comes hitched to self-righteous scolding about the current generation’s (whichever that may be) shiftlessness and fecklessness. They’re not entirely without a point though. They had Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” and we have John Mayer’s “Waiting on the World to Change,” the most mealy-mouthed, half-assed excuse for an apology on behalf of a generation, and which just so happened to be buoyed by a melody lifted directly from Curtis Mayfield. They had Bob Dylan, and we throw around the phrase “the next Dylan” so haphazardly that it threatens to delegitimize Dylan’s well-earned reputation. Nonetheless, no matter how legitimate their gripes may be, the wistfulness of the youth of the ‘60s remains nearly intolerable.
Because of this opinion, it might be fair to assume I wasn’t ready to give The Village: A Celebration of the Music of Greenwich Village a fair shake. That’s a reasonable charge. Most of the recognizable names that contributed covers to this album generally don’t inspire high hopes in this reviewer (John Oates, Bruce Hornsby, and Sixpence None the Richer, to name but a few). But I was prepared to withhold judgment, and I’m glad I did, because there is a respectable amount of above-average contributions to this compilation.
Presumably, the purpose of this compilation is to celebrate a generation of folk musicians who developed an artistic community in coffeehouses and bars on the lower west side of Manhattan, and perhaps to introduce these tunes to a younger generation. Yet the makers of The Village were clearly not feeling particularly adventurous when they gathered this material together. For starters, five of the thirteen tracks featured here are Bob Dylan covers, and not terribly obscure ones at that. The record opens with Rickie Lee Jones take on “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” and closes with Rocco DeLuca’s version of “The Ballad of Hollis Brown.” Incidentally, these are two of the best covers on The Village. Rickie Lee Jones doesn’t radically re-imagine her choice, but she does successfully retain the original’s chaotic playfulness. On the other end of the album, DeLuca is equally reverential, managing to capture the creaky menace of Dylan’s tale of poverty and murder. Lucinda Williams, seemingly instinctually, turns “Positively 4th Street” into something far more stark and world-weary than Dylan’s sprightly, if bitter, original.
The other Dylan covers don’t fare as well. The Duhks forego the righteous anger of “It’s Alright Ma I’m Only Bleeding,” in favor of Joss Stone-style over-singing and vamping. Shelby Lynne turns in a simple, passable version of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” slowing the song down to a lazy, rudimentary strum. In fact, that choice is symptomatic of the general problem with The Village. By and large, the covers are overly respectful, turning songs that were reputed to spurn quiet, personal revolutions into bland, adult contemporary ballads. Hell, Sixpence None the Richer seem to summon the darkest clouds on their version of the traditional “Wayfaring Stranger.” When the band that sings “Kiss Me” turns in one of the moodier performances on your compilation, that’s a surefire sign that you’ve played it too safe. Still, even if the curators of this disc choose to keep the proceedings fairly tame (and tacitly acknowledge that the notoriety of this supposed movement is nearly entirely attributable to Bob Dylan), they demonstrate a clear respect for the material. That’s got to count for something.