Wednesday 10 June 2015

Album Review: "Shadows in the Night" by Bob Dylan

"Fools give you reasons; wise men never try."
(Rodgers & Hammerstein)

The album cover

The official release date of Bob Dylan's double-album Blonde On Blonde was May, 1966. Dylan turned 25 that month. The album marked the peak of his rock 'n' roll career. It was the third of a brilliant trilogy (which includes Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited) released in 1965-1966. Blonde On Blonde is cram-full of great songs: including "Visions of Johanna", "I Want You", "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again", and "Just Like a Woman". Dylan was operating at that time at such a white-hot level of creativity that he seemed able to toss off songs on demand - often completing lyrics in the studio, whilst the session musicians sat around playing cards and patiently waiting for the finished song (viz. "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands").

May, 1966 was also something of a peak for Frank Sinatra (who was 50 years old then). Reprise Records released his album Strangers in the Night. It proved to be Sinatra's most commercially successful album. And its title song became a #1 hit in the U.K. But Frank hated the song. He called it "a piece of shit" and "the worst fucking song that I have ever heard." That probably explains the infamous "doo-be-doo-be-doo" coda at the end of the track - a subtle knock, perhaps, at the song's trite lyrics. Other rather cheesy singles were to follow: "Somethin' Stupid" (with daughter Nancy), and "My Way" - written expressly for Frank by Paul Anka (and another song, apparently, that Sinatra really didn't like).

For the rock 'n' roll generation - unaware of Sinatra's long run of superb concept albums for Capitol Records in the 1950s - the stuff he was putting out in the mid-60s seemed decidedly un-hip. Sinatra, meanwhile, wasn't shy about telling the press that he hated rock 'n' roll. He was rumoured to be "in" with the Mob, and he was hanging out regularly with the notorious Rat Pack at the Sands casino in Las Vegas. Bob Dylan was the ultra-hip "spokesman for his generation"; and Sinatra seemed to have become an "over-the-hill" crooner - putting out lame music for the over-30 crowd.

So when it was announced by Columbia Records in early 2014 that Bob Dylan's next album was going to consist of nothing but Sinatra covers, many boomers did a double-take. They were unfamiliar, probably, with Frank's vast catalogue of recordings done of songs from the "Great American Songbook". They were likely thinking of "My Way" and "New York, New York", and wondering, perhaps, exactly how Dylan was going to negotiate his way around this sort of trite, sentimental, and bombastic material. Surely, many were thinking, this album was going to be a disaster.

Um ... not the album cover! (artwork by Todd Alcott)

But Dylan, even in the early-60s, had always been open to the vast landscape of American popular music. Granted, he had positioned himself back than as a fellow-traveler in the folk music scene - Woody Guthrie was his mentor, and his songs seemed steeped in progressive politics. But before Woody, Bob was into Elvis and Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. So it made sense that when he wanted to escape the straightjacket that had been imposed on him by the "spokesman for his generation" tag, he would give his music a rock 'n' roll base.

Dylan was listening to country and western, blues, country blues, western swing, and jazz. He was even listening to a fair amount of commercial pop stuff - although he found the lyrics of the typical "Tin Pan Alley" song trite and inauthentic. Indeed, it was Dylan's approach to songwriting that became the new model - and it was beginning to make the long-standing pop-song factories in New York City obsolete. But he was still soaking up everything on offer under the vast umbrella of American popular music. This is clear if you're familiar with Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour; or if you grasp the underlying intention that animates recent albums of his, like "Love and Theft".

And this continuing interest in the panoply of American popular music has emerged spasmodically during his career. The much-maligned Self Portrait (1970), for example, seemed a half-hearted attempt to incorporate country, blues, tin-pan alley pop, and cover-songs into a unified vision. But he let the project get away from him; the production was pretty dreadful; and Dylan himself doomed the enterprise by his steadfast refusal to justify or explain - by willfully neglecting to put the work in its proper context. In the early 90s, he also did two albums full of traditional folk material: Good As I Been To You (1992) and World Gone Wrong (1993). Many fans have been so mesmerized by Dylan's brilliance as a songwriter, that they often balk at any work that has him relying on traditional songs, or merely doing covers of other songwriters - especially when he eschews any opportunity to explain what it is he's up to. So, doing a complete album of standards, as an homage to Frank Sinatra, is really not that strange a move for him.

Shadows in the Night is Bob Dylan's 36th. studio album. It was released by Columbia on February 3, 2015 - but had been a long time coming. One of its tracks, "Full Moon and Empty Arms", was made available as a free-stream way back in May, 2014. The title of the album, of course, is a nod to Strangers in the Night - it puts the Sinatra connection up front, without being obvious about it. These are not Sinatra songs, after all; they are pop standards made familiar through Frank's recorded versions - and his versions often became definitive ones. 

Dylan has also been smart in not selecting any songs for this album that are completely identified with Sinatra in the public mind. He picked personal favourites, rather than obvious hits. Most of these tracks are versions of songs that Sinatra recorded in the late 1950s - four of them, for example, come from Frank's 1957 album Where Are You? There is a judicious mix of familiar songs (that might entice the uninitiated) - "Autumn Leaves", "Some Enchanted Evening", "What'll I Do", and "That Lucky Old Sun" - and more obscure material, obscure that is to those unfamiliar with Sinatra's albums of that period. But all of the songs feature strong melodies; and most of the lyrics sit comfortably with Dylan's attitude and concerns. 

"Ol' Blue Eyes"?
Dylan recorded Shadows in the Night in Studio B at the Capitol Records studios in Los Angeles - the very place that Sinatra often did his own recordings. Dylan prepared for the recording of each track by listening carefully - over and over - to the Sinatra original. He was trying to discern Sinatra's intention with each song. He would then attempt to get the track done in only two or three takes - to keep the music fresh. He worked diligently at making the song his own. Dylan described the process of transmuting Sinatra in this way:

"When you start doing these songs, Frank's got to be on your mind. Because he is the mountain. That’s the mountain you have to climb, even if you only get part of the way there. ... He had this ability to get inside of the song in a sort of conversational way. Frank sang to you — not at you. I never wanted to be a singer that sings at somebody. I’ve always wanted to sing to somebody. ... Certainly nobody worshipped Sinatra in the '60s like they did in the '40s. But he never went away — all those other things that we thought were here to stay, they did go away. But he never did."

By the end of the recording sessions, they had 23 songs in the can. But only 10 have been released on Shadows in the Night. I think it is safe to assume - given the critical success of the project - that another album will be released from these tracks. Here's Dylan again, talking about the recording process:

“I've wanted to do something like this for a long time but was never brave enough to approach 30-piece complicated arrangements and refine them down for a 5-piece band. That's the key to all these performances. We knew these songs extremely well. It was all done live. Maybe one or two takes. No overdubbing. No vocal booths. No headphones. No separate tracking, and, for the most part, mixed as it was recorded. I don't see myself as covering these songs in any way. They've been covered enough. Buried, as a matter a fact. What me and my band are basically doing is uncovering them. Lifting them out of the grave and bringing them into the light of day.”

Dylan's touring band - the combo featured on "Shadows in the Night"

Shadows in the Night has ten tracks, and it clocks in at 35:23. Dylan is accompanied throughout the album by his touring band: Donnie Herron on pedal steel guitar, Charlie Sexton and Stu Kimball on guitar, Tony Garnier on bass, and George Receli on percussion. On three of the tracks there are horns added: Andrew Martin, Francisco Torres and Alan Kaplan on trombone; Daniel Fornero and Larry Hall on trumpet; and Dylan Hart and Joseph Meyer on french horn. The album was produced by Bob Dylan (aka "Jack Frost") and it was recorded and mixed by Al Schmitt.

It all begins with "I'm a Fool to Want You". It's an appropriate choice for the lead-off track, because this is the one song on the album that was co-written by Sinatra. It also happens to be one of the strongest vocal performances of the entire set. It's quite a shock, actually, to hear His Bobness in such (relatively) fine voice. In recent years his voice has often seemed almost completely shot. So when I heard this opening track for the first time I was amazed. He presents the song with care - hits every note spot on, and delivers the lyric with his usual attention to nuance and phrasing. Although there is a certain frailty to the voice, it is characterized by a rich baritone. The lyrics are fully enunciated; and he sounds totally committed and fully engaged. His personality shines through.

Some other highlights of the set are: "The Night We Called It a Day", "Where Are you?" and "Why Try To Change Me Now". The latter song sounds particularly apt for the infamously curmudgeonly performer: "Why can't I be more conventional," he sings. "Don't you remember," he adds, "I was always your clown."

Of the familiar material, he does creditable - if not very exciting - versions of "Autumn Leaves", "What'll I Do", and "Some Enchanting Evening". The latter choice seems rather preposterous - I cannot help thinking of the bombastic version from the South Pacific film, which featured the Metropolitan Opera star Giorgio Tozzi dubbing in his bass-baritone voice for actor Rosanno Brazzi. But, strangely enough, Dylan's understated approach brings the focus back to the meaning of the song, rather than the pyrotechnics of the vocal delivery. In the middle-eight, he offers this lyrical gem from this Rodgers and Hammerstein song: "Fools give you reasons; wise men never try." Doesn't that sound like Bob himself?

The album closes with another familiar song - "That Lucky Old Sun". This was a big hit for Frankie Laine in 1949; but was also a hit, incredibly, for Vaughan Munroe, Frank Sinatra, and Louis Armstrong - all in the same year. I know it best from the Armstrong version - which features a rather cheesy arrangement, with strings and ethereal chorus. The contrast in the lyric between the weary hardship of the narrator and the indifference of the natural world has an authentic ring to it and provides a  stoical conclusion to this rather pensive album.

When I reviewed Dylan's last album, Tempest, I was quite scathing about its shoddy production - done by Dylan himself, under his familiar pseudonym, Jack Frost. I'm happy to note that this time around he has done a thoughtful job in presenting his vocal performances in the very best light. For starters, he has avoided lush, elaborate orchestral arrangements - the mistake that Neil Young made on Storytone. Frank Sinatra could hold his own with orchestral backing by Nelson Riddle, Billie May, or Gordon Jenkins. But that won't work with the likes of Neil Young and Bob Dylan. And Dylan recognizes that. Instead, he uses a small-combo approach - actually it's his own touring band. The sound is dominated by the pedal-steel-guitar-work of Donnie Herron and the upright bass playing of Tony Garnier. The care Dylan brings to the production is also shown by his occasional use of solo instruments - which is very rare for him. He also adds some subtle but effective horn arrangements on the first two tracks, and also the last. The slightly expanded soundscape helps to bookend the set.

Although the laid-back and simple arrangements work - they certainly present Dylan's vocals in the best-possible way for this sort of material - there is a definite lack of variety in the musical accompaniment.  The slow and stately pace of the mid-tempo groove can also get overly lugubrious. The funereal tempo of "Autumn Leaves", for example, robs the piece of any sense of forward momentum. The track, in fact, threatens to come to a complete stop. And while Dylan's vocal performances are surprisingly effective in this unfamiliar style, there is no getting away from the fact that his weak vocal range betrays him at times - as he strains to reach for a high note, or ducks one altogether. And he sometimes breaks the long, arching sweep of a lyrical line, into staccato bits and pieces - a common error of inexperienced singers trying to do American Songbook standards.

But, of course, Bob is not Frank Sinatra; and he's not Ella Fitzgerald. If you really want these songs done to their utmost perfection go listen to them. This album is for Dylan fans - well, Dylan fans who like this sort of music. Shadows in the Night will probably not convince people who are indifferent to the man to hitch now to his wagon. But it might introduce a portion of his fans to the beauty of these pop standards. And that can only be a good thing. I've listened to this album over and over for the last few months. I recommend it.

Shadows in the Night debuted at number one on the UK Albums Chart, selling 22,031 in its first week. At the age of 73, Bob Dylan is the oldest male solo artist to chart at number one in the UK. Dylan also holds the record for the longest span between number-one albums -  49 years, having first topped the chart with The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan back in 1965. Good to see him succeed with a project that was certainly a huge risk. And wonderful to see him so fully-committed to doing a job just right.

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