Swing Fever with Rod Stewart and Jools Holland

Swing Fever by Rod Stewart with Jools Holland

Swing Fever by Rod Stewart with Jools Holland

How should you rate the importance of any new album release (to the extent any album has any importance at all in this benighted era)? Will it lead to riots in the streets, protests at the barricades, or a new musical trend that sweeps the world? Will it inspire a popular new haircut or a new clothing fashion? Will it break all-time records in sales?

Swing Fever by Rod Stewart with Jools Holland and his big band, it’s safe to say, will do none of those things, and it won’t do plenty of others besides. But if you happen to be open to it, it just might be the most exhilarating thing that gets between your ears in 2024.

Rod Stewart needs no introduction, and in any case I’m not the man to give him one, as I’ve never been a special fan (though nothing against him, you understand). What you need to know is—based on this album and associated performances—he appears to be the most energetic 79 year-old this side of Moses. If you don’t believe me (or even if you do), you might watch the clip below of the ensemble’s take on “Pennies from Heaven.”

Jools Holland came to relative fame as the keyboardist with the British pop group Squeeze (more decades ago than even I would care to count) but in more recent epochs he’s been a mainstay on British television, hosting the essential live music show in that part of the world, providing both up-and-comers and old fogies with a place to get their music in front of the public. In many cases he accompanies them with his own big band, elevating their game considerably. It’s a band he also tours and makes records with, and that’s no small thing to pull off in this day and age.

Rod’s made five “Great American Songbook” albums in the past 20 years, and I’ve heard quite a bit of those tracks on my local Easy Listening station, and, while they’ve never been offensive, they have also never much grabbed me. I tend to agree with a view I recall Bob Dylan expressing, to the effect that rock singers are better off not getting in front of enormous string-filled orchestras to do those kinds of songs, but ought instead to do it their own way. Of-course it makes sense that he would say that, given that he took on that kind of material with his own small guitar-based combo and created a unique new treasure out of it.

However, even Bob (in his sacred wisdom) added some horns when he took a stab at a few up-tempo tracks on his final “American Songbook” opus, Triplicate. When you want to swing, it’s good to have something extra.

The proof, in the end, is in the performance, and there is zero audible incongruity in Rod Stewart’s singing in front of Jools Holland’s big band. But then why would there be? Swing is an indispensable antecedent to rock & roll, and indeed a lot of these tunes are much closer to rock & roll than the stuff you’d be liable to hear in a big stadium with monumental guitar chords, synthesizers and a huge light show.

Rod and Jools clearly know all that, and they further illustrate the connectivity between all these musical threads by including songs that rarely wear the swing label, like “Frankie And Johnny” and “Tennessee Waltz,” that latter taken at an exuberant clip.

Exuberance is the order of the day here, with a healthy portion of pure joy, and on first hearing the early teaser “Pennies from Heaven” I was reminded of that King of Exuberance from days gone by, Louis Prima. Rod’s voice with this material isn’t a million miles from his, after all, and not many other people could pull off such a blasting take on such a sweet song. With the album’s release, it became clear that Louis Prima’s spirit had been a primary presence in the studio, with the second track being Prima’s own song, “Oh Marie.”

Stewart and Holland fittingly don’t mess with “Oh Marie” at all, except to pour even more gas on the fire bequeathed by Louis. And if a curmudgeon were to criticize this album, they’d probably say the arrangements are “too busy.” But it’s the very lust and abandon of the playing that transmits the ecstasy here, and so I believe it is well placed.

* * *

Coming across one of the interviews Rod and Jools were doing on the back of this release, I witnessed one talk show presenter actually ask them if the songs were cover versions or originals. To their credit they gave a straight answer instead of falling over in laughter. But it hit me that some people just haven’t heard this music at all. If you’re my age or younger (born in the Summer of Love) you might not have much encountered this stuff unless your parents had good taste and a record collection to match, and even then you would likely have rated it uncool. Much younger than that, and most people would have had even less exposure to it. I got interested in music from this era only in adulthood, just through following one connection or another, in a process otherwise known as the grace of God. It was overwhelming and has ever since been a source of immeasurable pleasure. I can’t imagine still being confined to the post-50’s pop and rock I grew up with (albeit that I continue to love that too).

And ever since then, it’s been a thing of joy to hear this music continue to be revived and rediscovered. It’s a reassurance that maybe the good stuff really does ultimately rise to the top. It kind of redeems the whole human race. It actually puts a smile on my face.

Why, it’s almost like being in love.

Swing Fever by Rod Stewart with Jools Holland is released on the Warner Records label

Frank Sinatra’s Come Swing with Me!: A Revelation in Mono

vinyl LP Frank Sinatra Come Swing with Me

vinyl LP Frank Sinatra Come Swing with Me

Who says there’s any such thing as settled science? And it’s where science and art meet that we find ourselves, in a collision of controversies where we may ultimately prove that no fact is ever too old to be upended.

In other words, I came across, in a local thrift store, a monophonic LP edition of Frank Sinatra’s Come Swing with Me—as opposed to the stereophonic version I was familiar with—and reality will never be the same. The album is one from Sinatra’s golden era at Capitol Records; it’s arranged and conducted by Billy May, and was released in 1961. Sinatra never put out mere random collections of songs, least of all at Capitol Records, where he effectively invented the notion of concept records, beginning with Songs for Young Lovers in 1954. Come Swing with Me, then, has a marked approach. It is self-evidently a swinging record, with a positive and energetic mood, featuring a lot of songs that Frank had recorded in his younger days with Columbia Records, now given the full treatment with his more mature, aged-in-a-whiskey-cask voice. Billy May also supplies instrumentation and arrangements that are quite novel and distinctive. There are no strings on the album; there is only brass and rhythm, and a LOT of brass: eight trumpets, four French horns, tuba, six trombones, and two bass trombones.

According to Will Friedwald in his authoritative Sinatra! The Song is You, Frank had heard and liked Billy May’s Big Fat Brass instrumental album, and it was his idea to take a similar approach with Come Swing with Me. (Friedwald also notes that May, being overstretched by other projects, actually called on fellow musician/arranger Heinie Beau to write seven of the twelve charts, albeit in the Billy May style. He assuredly succeeded because there’s no telling the difference.)

Another novel aspect was the rather dramatic use of stereo separation. So, there is something of a call and answer effect, with some horn sections or subsections coming entirely from the left speaker and some entirely from the right. The intention was … well, I assume it was to create for the listener a sense of being front and center of a stage where the musicians were performing, some to the left and some to the right. It adds dynamism, as they say. But here’s the thing: for yours truly, it has always been kind of annoying. Although I can recognize that Come Swing with Me is a unique album, with great material, peerless singing and witty, vivacious arrangements, I just have not listened to it nearly as often as the comparable Come Dance with Me or Come with Fly with Me albums. The bleating of some horns from the left and the blaring of others from the right has always struck me as a distraction, and the album just sounded kind of harsh to my ears (which is not a word that comes easily to me when characterizing any Frank Sinatra recording). And to be clear, what I’m describing is the experience of listening to the regular old CD edition of the album, on a fairly regular stereo system; so, not any hi-falutin’ hi-fi room, and not any esoteric remastering of the album—your mileage may vary in those respects.

Back to the thrift store: Vinyl records are usually 50 cents at this place, but they had a half-price sale, so it was a quarter per platter. Someone had recently donated a raft of Sinatra LPs, in relatively rough condition, but at 25 cents each, it was hard to turn down any of them. I mean, you never know. And the truth of that maxim has never been more soundly vindicated.

I believe it wasn’t until I was back home that I noticed the Come Swing with Me LP was a mono edition. You can tell with these old album covers when they write “High Fidelity” and other praise upon it but don’t explicitly say “stereo.” Stereo was something to advertise back then. So, obviously in 1961 they were still pressing records in mono—even when originally recorded in stereo—for the many folks who still had monophonic turntables. (Indeed, in my benighted childhood I was limited to a mono record player even in the 1980s … but please don’t get me started on that.)

So, let’s get to it: I cleaned the dust as best I could from this 60 year-old vinyl record, and put it on. It looked rather worn, but it played well enough, with little noise and no skips. I always find that miraculous, when it occurs with these old records that have clearly not been kept in archival conditions. But more miraculous to my ears was the absence of all that tooting and bleating from one speaker to another. The album just sounded right. Where before there was harshness to my ears, now all was soft and relatively salve-like. Strong and muscular, to be sure, but smooth. In fact, I marveled that had I not known that the album was all brass and no strings, I probably wouldn’t have cottoned on to that fact. It was all arranged and played so well; there was nothing to jar the listener from just enjoying it.

I was taken to such an extent with how wonderful it sounded, compared to the stereo-separated version, that I thought this must have been the original that Frank approved, and later they jiggered it with the new-fangled effects. But history reports this is not so. Sinatra was apparently as excited by the chance to use the stereo in this dramatic way as anyone. It surprises me in particular because I thought Frank was not fond of overbearing or showboating musical distractions from his voice; yet, to me, that’s exactly the ill effect that is achieved by the excessive stereo separation.

Well, what can you say? Can we dig up Sinatra and Billy May and bawl them out? They were human, after all. Actually, I don’t think they’re making humans anymore the way those guys were made, and it’s our loss.

So it seems I’m commending to you, dear reader, something which you may well find impossible to acquire. (You’re welcome.) I don’t know that Come Swing with Me was ever officially issued in CD or any digital format in mono. (With Sinatra it’s a bit hard to keep track of all global releases.) You might find a “vinyl rip” of the mono LP in the dark webs, but of-course we at THE CINCH REVIEW do not advocate lawlessness. Just be assured that if you do come across this mono LP (Capitol W 1594) in your local thrift store, secondhand shop or elsewhere, it’s likely to be well worth the 25 cents to you, and perhaps considerably more.

Frank’s not putting out much new stuff these days. Come Swing with Me, in mono, is unquestionably the best new album I’ve heard all year.

For the record, the track list is:

(Side One) Day by Day
Sentimental Journey
Almost Like Being In Love
Five Minutes More
American Beauty Rose
Yes Indeed!
(Side Two) On The Sunny Side of The Street
Don’t Take Your Love From Me
That Old Black Magic
Paper Doll
I’ve Heard That Song Before

They’re all total winners. Despite the fact that Sinatra at this time was running out his contract with Capitol and extremely eager to move on to his own new label (Reprise), his singing here is pure dynamite. For the ages.

Frank Sinatra Come Swing with Me

“Jesus” Is Not Bad At All

The movie Jesus Revolution continues a pattern of Christian-oriented films that have far exceeded box office expectations. We in the CINCH REVIEW household don’t often go out to the theater to see movies these days, as merely being pummeled by the previews has been a near-fatal experience in the past, but having been charmed by a few things we heard about this film we made an exception. (Deviously, we lurked in the hallway outside the theater proper, peeking in to see when the previews had ended. For the record, they went on for 25 whole minutes.)

The film was assuredly a pleasant surprise. This story of a Christian revival bursting out amongst hippies in southern California as the 1960s bled into the 1970s is told with a light touch, intelligence and sensitivity by the filmmakers. Jesus Revolution is very light indeed on theology or preaching, to the point where I think that viewers need not be believing Christians to appreciate it. On a certain level, it works as a more general story of people who are lost, damaged and on the edge of a precipice coming together and finding reason for hope and achieving some real redemption through their sharing of love and of mercy.

An interesting aspect of the film is how it seemed to me to successfully convey—without being at all didactic—the distinction between faith in God and faith in religious leaders. The leaders are portrayed as flawed men, making them as such pretty normal, but their failings don’t succeed in discrediting the goodness of God. Putting one’s faith in the perfection of any minister, pastor or priest is naturally only going to lead to disillusionment; this may be a danger that appears obvious, but that doesn’t prevent it from occurring continually.

Since, as said, the film is overall very light on theology, a seriously religious person might even question its value. Is it really a Christian movie, anyway? Where is Jesus, other than in the distorted shadow of the hippie preacher Lonnie Frisbee? Well, maybe he can be found. As the movie progresses, there are turns in the plot which hinge on changes of heart, and on small instances of forgiveness. They are small, that is, in the context of the wide world, but I think that prayerful believers learn that there are no more transformative miracles than those which come about in a true change of heart or in an act of genuine forgiveness. If Jesus lives (and that is what Christians believe) than this is surely where he manifests himself.

Kelsey Grammer delivers what seems a very heartfelt performance as Pastor Chuck Smith, and Jonathan Roumie is excellent as the volatile Lonnie Frisbee. Joel Courtney stars as the young Greg Laurie, struggling to get beyond a shattered upbringing, and Anna Grace Barlow stars as his girlfriend. Portraying high school age kids, a lot of the younger actors seem a little, well, old, but, after all, one must leave one’s disbelief at the door.

In case anyone would get the wrong idea, yours truly is not proposing that Jesus Revolution is filmmaking on the level of The Searchers or Rear Window or anything like that. It is a nice movie, made with deftness, humor and a good heart.

These days, it seems to me, that’s saying a hell of a lot.

The Philosophy of Modern Song – Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan’s new book, The Philosophy of Modern Song, gives us his take on 66 different songs, delivered by means of a variety of quasi-poetic riffs and short essays. And that’s certainly what it is: his take. This is an intensely personal collection of writings. Dylan’s always been known for being guarded (although I think that theme’s been overdone at times). It is striking, however, that he seems here at his most relaxed and open, just writing about songs and what they mean to him, in addition to following some of the tangents they proffer.

The stream-of-consciousness pieces toss out images, characters and scenarios that the songs evoke for Bob, and these are quite rich and far reaching (as great songs can be when they work in our soul). The prose essays generally make for spirited good reading, with amusing and sometimes ornery digressions from the topic of the song in question. On occasion, however, there are lines that are jarringly boilerplate in nature.

Bob Dylan is clearly a consummate fan of popular music, and other brands as well. That was revealed for anyone who needed to know it years back when he hosted the delightfully contrived radio show, “Theme Time Radio Hour,” putting a hundred odd episodes in posterity’s can. Doubtless the commentary he came up with for the records he played then led to the idea for this book (and indeed a number of the people involved with the production and packaging of the book are former collaborators on “Theme Time Radio”).

Later, he recorded those Sinatra songbook albums: five LPs worth of popular songs from the pre-rock’n’roll era, put down with breathtaking passion and a stunning level of artistry.

Dylan can in fact be presumed to have the kind of gargantuan music collection—accompanied by books about his favorite performers—that, after he kicks the bucket, will cause his next-of-kin to curse him as they have to haul it out to the sidewalk for the Sanitation Department to pick up. He’s obviously one of those people who can listen to music in the morning, the afternoon, the evening and the deep dark night. As music fans ourselves, we can relate to that. Songs, records, favorite performers: they’re with us through bad times and good, through our childhood, stormy adolescence, love affairs and heartbreaks, successes and setbacks, the dreams realized, and the ones hopelessly lost. Many of the same recordings sound subtly different to us as the years and decades pass; this is due, perhaps, not only to the loss of frequencies in our hearing, but also our ever-deepening appreciation, through life experience, of what those songs were and are about.

Dylan, naturally, is the same. “The Philosophy of Modern Song”? (Not even “a” philosophy, mind you, but the philosophy.) The portentous title is a diversion and a gag, very typical of Bob. I would suggest that a more accurate (but somewhat less amusing) title would be, “The Joy I Have Found in Music”—by Bobby Zimmerman. He could have written this book if he’d never become Bob Dylan (although he is very unlikely to have found a publisher). It is not an attempt to offer a definitive or objective take on anything. It is not some deeply researched and scrupulously footnoted tome that would be part of a college curriculum on popular music (not that those can particularly be trusted either). It certainly is a love letter to the music that has meant so much to him.

Most of us will never get to sit down and have a conversation with Bob Dylan about music, or anything else, but much of what is in this book evokes those conversations we may have with longtime friends and fellow musical aficionados, oddball or otherwise. We share favorites, we trade takes, we make some statements that are serious, and others that are for laughs. We recall details and trivia that we read somewhere in a book that’s no longer in print, or that we heard someone say on the radio who-knows-how-many years ago. We share some of how a record affects us, where we were when we first heard it, why this version of the song is so much better than someone else’s version—what it all may mean. We argue and BS and laugh and come out of it all a little bit expanded, somehow.

Along the way, we might feel moved to jump on top of the couch and forcefully advocate for something we know no one else will agree with, just because we feel called in the moment to do so.

“Perry Como lived in every moment of every song he sang […] When he stood and sang, he owned the song and he shared it and we believed every word.” (page 13)

Other times we’ll slip in something deep and meaningful to ourselves—then quickly move on lest we choke up.

“The greatest of the prayer songs is ‘The Lord’s Prayer.’ None of these songs come even close.” (page 184)

And other subjects will come and go and we’ll take them on with our pearls of wisdom and one-liners.

“People keep talking about making America great again. Maybe they should start with the movies.” (page 317)

We might get passionate and genuinely angry.

“But divorce lawyers don’t care about familial bonds […] They destroy families. How many of them are at least tangentially responsible for teen suicides and serial killers?” (page 118) Then we sip our drink, light a cigarette, and propose our ingenious solution to the entire problem of divorces and broken families: polygamy! For both sexes.

Then a record comes on—“Your Cheatin’ Heart”—and we go back to the music, and to contemplating just why this particular record is so damn good.

“The song seems slower than it is because Hank doesn’t let the band lead him. The tension between the chug of the near-polka rhythm and the sadness in Hank’s voice drives it home.” (page 166)

I think that you could approach this book just as that kind of conversation with Bob, where he is speaking to you as his intimate friend. Sometimes he’s being serious, and sometimes he’s winding you up. Except here you’re only getting his side of the conversation. You can feel free to interject your responses and/or objections. Bob won’t hear you, but he’ll be glad you bought the book.

Absent the photos and other paraphernalia, this would be a lightweight tome, and I imagine some critics will dismiss the content as lightweight too. Still, some very lovely things can weigh very little: a butterfly, a snowflake, a fine cigar. For those who appreciate it, there’s plenty to enjoy in this very personal little book by Bob, and all the more if one doesn’t squint painfully at it and take it all too seriously. The breathless declarations by the publisher along the lines that it is “a momentous artistic achievement” may be doing it a disservice in that respect, but so goes the never-ending hype machine.

Dylan does know a lot of stuff about music, of-course, and so there are some genuinely revelatory moments. And, unlike most of us, he actually has met and been friendly with quite a few of the artists he writes about here. It’s notable, however, that he never leans on that personal experience in the text. There’s no: “as Frank Sinatra confided to me when he had me over for dinner,” or: “I have it on good authority from Johnny Cash himself …”. He limits himself to the evidence of the songs and recordings themselves, and what is, generally speaking, the public record.

Will anyone learn “the philosophy of modern song” by reading this book? Well, taken as a whole, you probably would soak up some of whatever that is, because it’s surely in between the lines here somewhere. But I also think it’s the same thing you’d soak up by just listening to the truly great popular music of the past one hundred years: living with it, learning of it, crying with it, moving to it, and treasuring it as the dear and faithful friend it can surely be through time.

That’s what Bob Dylan did.

Bob Dylan – Fallen Angels (and Rising Prayers)

FALLEN ANGELS by Bob Dylan Review

Review of FALLEN ANGELS by Bob Dylan

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)”

Bob Dylan, “Melancholy Mood”

Bob Dylan "Melancholy Mood"

Bob Dylan "Melancholy Mood"
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.

“Melancholy Mood” was written by Vick Knight and Walter Schumann.

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
5. Skylark
6. Nevertheless
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.