Darling, down and down I go, round and round I go
In a spin, loving the spin that I’m in
Under that old black magic called love
A few months from this time of writing, Bob Dylan will be performing at a big music event in California, sharing the bill with his contemporaries–and fellow septuagenarians–the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney. No doubt the Stones will be singing “Satisfaction” and “Paint it Black,” and no doubt McCartney will be singing “Yesterday” and “Band on the Run.” And no doubt Bob Dylan will be singing … well, “Autumn Leaves,” “All or Nothing at All,” and “That Old Black Magic.” You have to pause a moment to contemplate how wonderfully absurd and amazing that actually is. In his most recent shows, more than a third of the titles in his set list have been what we might call these “Sinatra” songs, and of the “Bob Dylan” songs in the show most have been from the past decade and a half or so, with only 3 dating back to the 1960s or 70s. And although some concert attendees have been heard griping (and when has that not been true at a Dylan show?), the most notable fact is that he’s actually been getting away with it in quite fine style. Dylan is conspicuously deriving great joy from singing the standards and puts his whole body and spirit into the effort. Singing these gorgeous old tunes (from songwriters he had some significant role in putting out of business) seems undeniably to be making his own heart feel young. Continue reading Bob Dylan – Fallen Angels (and Rising Prayers)→
It is (in the sense of those things these days) Bob Dylan’s hot new single: “Melancholy Mood.” The song is best known from its recording by Harry James and his Orchestra, with brand new boy singer Frank Sinatra, in 1939. It was the B-side of “From the Bottom of My Heart.” Neither side charted, though both are masterful and lovely records and show the promise of the Sinatra to come. Bob Dylan’s version is embedded below here via YouTube, with a little more on the song and his own quite lovely take on it coming under that.
Comparing Dylan’s to the Harry James/Frank Sinatra side (also on YouTube at the moment) reveals that it is the very same arrangement, as adapted by his five piece guitar-based band. You would think that someone like Dylan would do it as a song, rather than in the style of a big band, where the singer comes in only after the band has gone through the tune already—but you would think wrong. Where Harry James played his trumpet, we have beautiful solo guitar, and on it goes to about the one minute and seven second mark (just as on the James side) and then Bob Dylan steps to the microphone—the most grizzled boy singer you’d ever want to see—and caresses the lyric the rest of the way.
That has been the modus operandi of Dylan on these “Sinatra covers;” that is, to take one of Sinatra’s original recordings (in a lot of cases there were multiple Sinatra versions to pick from) and to simply try to recreate the arrangement with the five piece combo (and occasional extra). In so doing, and in each case, they come up with something beautiful of their own. Dylan’s singing, of-course, is always his own.
And as with his previous interpretations of these old popular songs, Dylan brings resonances to “Melancholy Mood” beyond the boy/girl love theme that would have been the given way of hearing it before. This song, from a lonely soul, even has something to say along those lines, which sounds so right in Dylan’s gentle and aged voice:
But love is a whimsy
And as flimsy as lace
And my arms embrace an empty space
The singer’s soul is “stranded high and dry”—all he can see is “grief and gloom / till the crack of doom.” Still, he prays for release from his melancholy mood, and in Bob’s voice it seems to me this has less the sense of a boy praying for his girl to come back and more the sense of the creature praying to his Creator for an infinitely greater kind of release.
Dylan’s gift to these songs is to show just how deep they can go, without changing a note or a word.
Bob Dylan’s forthcoming album, from which “Melancholy Mood” is taken, is titled Fallen Angels, and is to be released on May 20th. The full track listing is as follows:
1. Young At Heart
2. Maybe You’ll Be There
3. Polka Dots and Moonbeams
4. All The Way
7. All Or Nothing At All
8. On A Little Street In Singapore
9. It Had To Be You
10. Melancholy Mood
11. That Old Black Magic
12. Come Rain Or Come Shine
And to all that I can only say: Golly! It’s a great time to be alive.
Directed by Frank Sinatra himself, and sponsored by the good people of Bulova and Chesterfield, it’s surely one of the classiest Christmas specials ever to go out over the airwaves: twenty-five minutes of unassuming Yuletide excellence. And it’s currently available via YouTube (and embedded below). Continue reading Frank Sinatra’s 1957 Christmas Special (with Bing Crosby)→
There’s a communal feeling about most Christmas music. Maybe this is because we generally hear the songs in the company of others, whether it’s as we’re elbowing our way down the aisles of the department store or perhaps singing along with them in church. I think that the most special thing about Frank Sinatra’s A Jolly Christmas (Capitol Records, 1957) may well be how a very particular mood is created, quite different to that of the run-of-the-mill Christmas album. It is not so much a mood of lonesomeness (although Sinatra was well-skilled with evocation in that area) but a more nuanced and less inherently-sad sense of simply being alone at Christmas. Not miserable, and not necessarily overjoyed either, but simply contemplating and appreciating the season apart from the crowds and the relatives.
In the course of his long career Sinatra recorded plenty of Christmas music, from the sides with Axel Stordahl in the 1940s on Columbia (some very lovely stuff) to The Sinatra Family Wish You a Merry Christmas on Reprise in 1968 (predictably kind of cheesy). And these Christmas tracks get repackaged and resold over and over again. However, A Jolly Christmas is, to my mind, quite distinct. In 1957 when he went in to record it (during July in Los Angeles), Sinatra was truly at the peak of his artistic powers. Not only was his vocal ability (both the quality of his voice and his sense of how to use it) the best it had ever been or would ever be, but he was also at a peak of good taste. My theory is that Sinatra always personally had good taste, but later in his career he came to believe that his potential audience did not, and he dumbed things down at times in an effort to woo them. At this time, however, in the mid-1950s, Sinatra had a clear idea of what he wanted to do, musically-speaking, and what he was capable of, and he was able to work with arrangers and musicians of great excellence and taste themselves, and together they were able to put out records of a very high standard that in turn reached an appreciative and welcoming audience. All of these factors would never come together simultaneously again, and this is why Sinatra’s albums for Capitol Records in the 1950s stand as his greatest, and indeed as some of the most perfect examples of refined popular music that exist.
To put it in context, A Jolly Christmas was bookended by A Swingin’ Affair! (a sterling Nelson Riddle set) and Come Fly With Me (a masterpiece with Billy May). And released in exactly the same month (September of 1957) was Where Are You?, one of Sinatra’s great sets of lovelorn ballads, this one arranged by Gordon Jenkins, who likewise is the arranger for A Jolly Christmas. Jenkins had his strengths and weaknesses as an arranger, but there’s no doubting that his particular style is crucial in making A Jolly Christmas the unique kind of Christmas record that it is. Continue reading A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra→
Frank Sinatra passed away on May 14th, 1998. I recall thinking at the time that with Sinatra gone, all bets were off—anything might now happen in this sad old world. (And I think the record would show that my fears in that respect have been proved entirely correct.) Continue reading Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours→
If you’re ever visiting New York City (or indeed if you live in the area) and are looking for a truly only-in-New-York thing to do, you could most certainly do no better than to check Andy Statman’s concert schedule and see if you can catch him at his home base of Charles Street, in the West Village, where his trio plays informal gigs in the basement of a humble synagogue. Andy Statman plays clarinet and mandolin; in fact, that’s exactly how he was described to me when I first heard of him, and naturally (me being me) I pictured in my mind’s eye a man playing a clarinet and a mandolin at the same time, and I thought to myself, “That’s pretty amazing.” Continue reading Andy Statman at Charles Street→
I’ve long harbored the sense that it’s a bit farcical of yours truly to “review” a new Bob Dylan album; being as much of a fan as I obviously am, my enthusiasms tend to run over: I get carried away (especially absent any humorless editor to beat me down). Why pretend to offer an unbiased review? On the other hand, everyone has his or her own biases, declared or no. A review is most useful or interesting to a reader to the degree that the reader either shares those biases or at least appreciates their presence.
However, the special way in which it is impossible for me to pretend to offer a coldly objective review of Bob Dylan’s Shadows In The Night is this: I happen to know that he recorded this album for me. That has to affect things on some level. You see, while I like to think that I have eclectic taste in music, a quick glance at the CDs on my shelves or the gigabytes on my external hard drive would reveal that the music I’ve collected from two particular artists far exceeds the music I’ve collected from any other. Although I’m not into making lists of favorites—top ten favorite female singers, top ten favorite country songs, blah blah blah—there’s no necessity to sit back and wonder who my two all-time favorite musical artists are. They are Frank Sinatra and Bob Dylan. Continue reading (Review) Bob Dylan – Shadows In The Night→
Well, once, in an interview, Dylan Thomas said of himself (as a younger poet):
I wrote endless imitations, though I never thought them to be imitations, but rather wonderfully original things, like eggs laid by tigers.
Those tiger eggs might not be so well known, but A Child’s Christmas in Wales most certainly is; it has traveled around the world many times over, and is one of the most beloved of all literary evocations of Christmastime. In it, a man of uncertain age tells some small children gathered at his side of what Christmas was like when he was a boy … and in so doing captures the most wonderful kind of magic that human memory can make, bringing to life an idealized Yuletide landscape, fashioned with the kind of reckless joy of language and humanity that defined Dylan Thomas. It is at once so very particular to a seaside town in Wales and so amazingly universal (which explains its perpetual popularity). Continue reading Cerys Matthews – A Child’s Christmas, Poems and Tiger Eggs→
Last night Bob Dylan played the first of a series of five concerts at New York City’s Beacon Theatre, the final stand of his current tour.
I thought I’d probably seen my last Robert A. Zimmerman performance a few years ago. I’ve seen him live quite a bit over the years, and that last show was a good one, and for a variety of reasons I just felt it best to leave it at that. (One also has the impression that Dylan really enjoys playing to the new faces in the crowds, rather than old fogeys like moi.) However, through the intervention of a very kind friend, myself and the missus found ourselves last night once again breathing the same air as Bob and his five superb sidemen: Tony Garnier, George Recile, Stu Kimball, Charlie Sexton and Donnie Herron. Continue reading Bob Dylan Live at the Beacon Theatre, New York→
“Death Comes Creeping” is a song which originated as a Negro spiritual and has had many incarnations over the eons. One version of it is actually titled “Soon One Morning,” with verses including these:
Soon one morning
Death comes a-creeping in the room
Soon one morning
Death comes a-creeping in the room
Soon one morning
Death comes a-creeping in the room
Oh my Lord, oh my Lord what shall I do
You may call your father
Your father will be no use
Call your father
Your father will be no use
Call your father
Your father will be no use
Oh my Lord, oh my Lord what shall I do
Mentioning to my better half this morning that actress Elaine Stritch had just died, she asked, as people do in these situations, how old she had been. (The day before someone dies, no one cares how old they are, but, once they kick the bucket, it’s an important fact for us to obtain.) I said that the paper reported she was eighty-nine years-old, but that this had surprised me: I would’ve thought she must be at least one hundred and twenty, because when I watched her on TV many decades ago she already seemed older than the Devil, at least to my eight-year-old eyes. But my wife hadn’t seen her on TV back then. I, unlike she, was residing in Ireland when Elaine Stritch starred in a sitcom called “Two’s Company” on a British television network, which we picked up over the airwaves. The series was likely rebroadcast in the U.S. somewhere at some point but apparently had not become terribly well known.
The media is full of those paying articulate tribute to Stritch as a legend of Broadway and the stage, but I can’t do that, having never seen her perform live. I do have a lot of respect for those who pour their chief energies and talent into live performances that exist in the moment and live on only in the memories (and reviews) of those who saw them. Elaine Stritch did some other screen work (recently a role on a show I’ve never seen named “30 Rock”) but all I really know her from is this English sitcom, and, while I was not writing reviews back then, I guess her presence and performance was sufficient so that I always remembered her name and her face. Continue reading Elaine Stritch and “Two’s Company”→
When some Scotsmen, already distillers of Scotch, decided in 1999 to begin distilling a gin, they had the good sense not to name it something like MacAlastair’s or MacFarlane’s. I think this counts as a case of mind over matter: no matter what the gin tasted like, with a name that evoked Scotland and Scotch whisky, it would simply not taste right. Instead they christened it Hendrick’s, a name seemingly well chosen for its lack of a very obvious national character. It sounds like a name from the British Isles, to be sure, but from where within them, precisely? It stands fairly solidly on its own, a fate that the distillers may well wish for their gin. Continue reading Hendrick’s Gin→
Charlie Daniels and Bob Dylan have more in common than some might think. Don’t take it from me, though, take it from Bob Dylan in these extracts from his memoir Chronicles, where he’s talking about how much he enjoyed having Charlie Daniels around during recording sessions for Nashville Skyline, New Morning and Self Portrait.
I felt I had a lot in common with Charlie. The kind of phrases he’d use, his sense of humor, his relationship to work, his tolerance for certain things. Felt like we had dreamed the same dream with all the same distant places. A lot of his recollections seemed to coincide with mine. Charlie would fiddle with stuff and make sense of it. … When Charlie was around, something good would usually come out of the sessions. … Years earlier Charlie had a band in his hometown called The Jaguars who had made a few surf rockabilly records, and although I hadn’t made any records in my hometown, I had a band too, about the same time. I felt our early histories were somewhat similar. Charlie eventually struck it big. After hearing the Allman Brothers and the side-winding Lynyrd Skynyrd, he’d find his groove and prove himself with his own brand of dynamics, coming up with a new form of hillbilly boogie that was pure genius. Atomic fueled—with surrealistic double fiddle playing and great tunes like “Devil Went Down to Georgia” …
Tribute albums, or albums dedicated to the songs of one particular songwriter, come and go, and probably no living musician has had more such albums made in his or her name than Bob Dylan. This new one, however, called Bob Dylan in the 80s (Volume 1), seems unusually pure in its fundamental motivation. It does not purport to contain the best ever Bob Dylan songs and certainly not the most popular ones. It does not feature artists who are household names, and no one could be expecting it to sell in enormous quantities. Its clear motive instead is to lift up songs from Bob Dylan’s most maligned and least hip decade. There was no perennial critical favorite like Blonde on Blonde from Dylan in the 1980s, no classic of heartache like Blood on the Tracks, no universally lauded return-to-form like Time Out of Mind, and no chart-topper like Modern Times. There was Saved, to start out with, and Under the Red Sky to end with. Both albums (though more the former than the latter) have their advocates, but when they arrived they seemed to disappear promptly into deep pools of opprobrium. And the albums in between generally didn’t do a whole lot better in terms of popular or critical reception. Bob Dylan in the 80s (Volume 1), then, seeks to help people listen freshly to some of the lesser-known work of America’s most remarkable living songwriter, and enjoy aspects of it that they might not know about or might have missed. In this, and in just being fun, it succeeds. Continue reading Bob Dylan in the 80s (Volume 1) – Various Artists→
Oh, indeed, we are still very much on our Welsh kick, and with St. David’s Day fast approaching, who knows what may be in store?
This, however, is something very special which recently came to our attention. In 1957, some coal miners from the Welsh village of Rhosllannerchrugog—Welsh is such delightful language!—made a one-off recording, which has now been restored and remastered and re-released by “Moochin About” records. From the official write-up:
When the singing miners of Rhos Male Voice Choir came to London to make this record in St. Mark’s Church, St. John’s Wood, some of them wore bandages. The previous night there had been an accident—fortunately a minor one—in the colliery where they work. Others carried the scars of a more distant date. All of them carried tragic memories of the Gresford pit disaster which shocked the nation in 1934 and resulted in the loss of 266 lives.
Eilen Jewell is a singing gem from Boise, Idaho, and around 2005 she struck gold by combining her talents with guitarist Jerry G. Miller, bassist Johnny Sciascia and drummer Jason Beek in Massachusetts, and they’ve since been supplying the world with a well-poised balance of country and swing music with jazzy-torchy stylings, and a little bit of whatever else feels right mixed in. With Jewell writing the songs and providing the onstage patter in a trademark little black dress, they make for a sure-footed combo (one which has been around the world at this point) and they played to a sold-out crowd at the City Winery in New York City last night.
The set ranged from the title track of their first album, “Boundary County,” to new and as yet unreleased songs like “Rio Grande.” Eilen Jewell had the crowd fairly transfixed and charmed, and guitarist Jerry G. Miller had a sizeable fan section of his own in the house. Indeed, seeing the group live made it clear to what degree Eilen the singer and Jerry, her guitarist, are a symbiotic double-act: Jewell’s singing voice evokes words like smoky, languid, even laconic, and benefits greatly from the counterpoint of Miller’s rockabilly-esque colorings on the guitar, keeping the music chugging down the track and occasionally spitting fire. None of the tunes are overly-long, and knowing the value of brevity is just one of the many elements of good taste that Jewell and her band bring to their work. Continue reading Eilen Jewell at the City Winery in New York City→
The new Justin Bieber single is titled “Confident.” It’s just over four minutes long. But it’s not; not really. It’s about a minute long and the rest sounds like it’s been copied and pasted. And even in that single minute of original music, there is something less than nothing going on. Bieber isn’t singing so much as just whining and grunting. (For what it’s worth the video—embedded below—is largely an exercise in copy and pasting too.) It’s remarkable that for a pop star at his level that this is the best thing that could be concocted for him at a crucial juncture of his career, or indeed at any juncture at all.
No, I’m not a hater of Justin Bieber. The kind of records he’s been making have never been my bag, but I like pop-music, and if he was putting out good stuff he would deserve applause for it. Right now I feel bad for him. He’s nineteen years old, and has been on the celebrity treadmill for six years; i.e., since he was thirteen years old. At this point he likely doesn’t know up from down. He’s getting into trouble with the law, there’s drugs around, there’s crazy driving, and some people have him on a death watch. He’s at the point in a child star’s career when the child has abruptly become an “adult” and everything’s up for grabs, and there might be nothing left of him in a couple of years, even if he’s still alive. He’s clearly not nearly as smart as his contemporary Miley Cyrus (and even she is not quite as smart as she thinks she is) and he appears to be just careening into chaos right now, with poor guidance from whoever he takes guidance from. Continue reading Justin Bieber – “Confident”→
In honor of the 50th anniversary of the release of Bob Dylan’s album The Times They Are A-Changin’ (and wilful perversity always being our first instinct), here’s a review of the short-lived Broadway musical of the same name, originally published on November 11th, 2006.
Crimson/Red—the first 100% new album under the moniker of Prefab Sprout since 2001’s The Gunman & Other Stories—is a remarkable record, if less than perfect. It is remarkable first for its very best tracks, a great song always being a remarkable phenomenon, and not something we have any right to expect will simply spring into being on a regular basis. The album Crimson/Red is remarkable secondly for its genesis, as Paddy McAloon (the singer and songwriter of Prefab Sprout) has faced a variety of challenges over the last decade in recording and releasing new music. However, he has not been completely inactive.
Out of a condition of temporary blindness caused by detached retinas came the inspiration for I Trawl the Megahertz, the one official Paddy McAloon “solo” album to date, built around the title track, a twenty-two minute instrumental and spoken word piece. The album is a both sophisticated and soulful work and was finished and released in 2003.
In 2006 the classic 1985 Prefab Sprout album, Steve McQueen, was remastered and McAloon was prevailed upon to record some acoustic reinterpretations of the material to package with it. Instead of one man and his guitar, however, it turned out to be one man and his multilayered guitars and vocals, and is quite a stunning work itself. Soon after this McAloon was afflicted by severe tinnitus (noises in the ear) which not only made music impossible for some time but reportedly all but drove him around the bend. To this day he can’t risk playing with a live band, being obliged to carefully control the volume of the music he listens to.
In 2009, his manager persuaded him to dig out the tape of an incomplete Prefab Sprout album from 1992, called Let’s Change the World with Music. It was basically an extremely elaborate home demo, using virtually all electronically-simulated sounds, which had been presented to the record company with a view to recording it as a full-fledged album. It was passed on at the time for confusing reasons (allegedly including the many references to God and such-like in the lyrics, in songs which evoked the transcendent power of music). The songs held up—indeed many are among the best of McAloon’s career—and it was decided to spruce the demo up with some modern techniques and release it. It got a terrific critical reception, if not much chart action. (And other than the wretched “loudness” of the CD mastering, this writer would have no hesitation rating it as one of the greatest pop albums of the last forty years.)
In the wake of this, but without a conventional record contract, McAloon was offered a deal by a group of investors to record a brand new album. He set about doing it, but apparently got bogged down in a complex project which he was finding impossible to complete to the standard he desired. A call from the investment group late last year lit a fire under him, and he started fresh, grabbing a collection of songs from his voluminous archive (he writes daily) that he felt he could play easily on a guitar and augment with other sounds in his home studio. So, at long last, we have Crimson/Red, labeled as a Prefab Sprout album, but in actuality another very elaborate one man show by Paddy McAloon.
The best tracks on it should make any listener very glad for whatever meandering set of circumstances led to McAloon completing and releasing something. The bouncy melody and wryly-humorous metaphor of “The Old Magician” is all counterpoint for an exquisitely poignant meditation on old age, decay and, yes, death. A mid-song harmonica-break (electronic though it is) provides perhaps the most cathartic few seconds of music on the entire record.
The old magician takes the stage
With sleight of hand he’ll disengage
As dignified as you’ll allow
He’ll take his last, his final bow
He’s lost all his illusions now
“List of Impossible Things” is a song the likes of which only McAloon can write, reminiscent of his classic “Nightingales” in its gentle lyrical plea for wonder at the amazing unlikeliness of all which we (ordinarily) dismiss as ordinary. Musically, on an album where McAloon was deliberately trying to stay simple, this provides the most interesting, memorable and provocative melody.
Crazy the mystic’s song
But what if they’re right all along?
Trust what you cannot know
And pray till your prayers make it so
I also have to say that this track reminds me a bit of “Love and Hard Times,” by Paul Simon from his most recent album, in that it sounds to me like a songwriter stretching the envelope of what he can do. And succeeding as well.
“Billy” is a soaring pop gem, and one which sounds like it must have come to McAloon in a dream; it’s a thrilling, exuberant tune, lifting a paean to music, to love and to musical instruments found lying in the snow. McAloon’s singing has never been more marvelous and beautiful.
Let your feelings show, let your feelings show
Trumpets come, trumpets go
It’s amazing what gets left out in the snow
“Let your feelings show” is the takeaway from the trumpet-playing protagonist in the song: that’s how you play great music, and maybe how you find real love too.
And the songs that work best on Crimson/Red are the ones with great feeling, because they lead you to forget to question the facsimile instrumental sounds that populate the album. With the relative success of Let’s Change the World with Music, McAloon was likely and rightly emboldened to believe he had everything he needed to make great music within the confines of his home studio, with his computer, his sound modules, his voice, his songs and little else. He could create a sound-scape where “fake” sounds would be acceptable, within the world of a single album. It works swimmingly on Let’s Change the World with Music, but I’d suggest one reason it does is because every song on that album comes from a place of depth and passion. It does not work quite as well, I think, on every song on this new album. What I think of as the lighter numbers—e.g. “The Best Jewel Thief in the World” and “Devil Came A Calling”—are well crafted and clever pop songs, but the records that have here been made of them lack a whole lot in the way of oomph. McAloon has always written light songs, in addition to the more profound ones, and has made fine records of them in other contexts. Take the last “real” Prefab Sprout album, The Gunman. “Farmyard Cat” is a ridiculous piece from out of the clear blue sky, a chamber music hoedown done seemingly for the sheer hell of it. And it works. It’s an invigorating snatch of pure joy. But it has real string players, real viola, violins and cello. Would it have worked if it were just Paddy and synthesized strings? I really don’t think so. Likewise, “Cornfield Ablaze,” from the same album: no masterpiece, by any means, but a good, enjoyable, pounding kind of pop tune, where the real bass, drums and guitars punch out the passion that the song is trying to convey. All electronic, I’m afraid it would’ve just sounded limp.
So I’ve been returning to Crimson/Red again and again for its best tracks, but not so much for others that it seems to me could make fine records if only recorded with real musicians and instruments. That’s not going to happen, of-course, and the last thing I’d want to do is offer even an iota of discouragement to McAloon with regard to further recording; on the contrary, I’d like him to record and release as much as he humanly can. I would merely suggest, based on this album, that the more emotive tunes, the ones that touch those heart-catching mysteries, are the ones which are ultimately going to fare best in the context of electronically-simulated instruments. They better invite the suspension-of-disbelief that brings the listener gladly along.
(A note on sound quality: I purchased the vinyl long-playing record, which sounds very nice. It came with a CD included, which suffers from a degree of loudness—i.e. excessive dynamic range compression—as so many CDs of the past decade or so tragically do. More on that here if you’re interested.)