Music

Bob Dylan: Shadows in the Night

Bob Dylan doesn’t try to compete with Sinatra -- he knows better than that. Shadows in the Night is clearly an act of love and honor.


Bob Dylan

Shadows in the Night

Label: Columbia
US Release Date: 2015-02-03
UK Release Date: 2015-02-02
Amazon
iTunes

The whole idea of the gravel-throated Bob Dylan singing material Frank Sinatra covered seems absurd. Dylan is well-known for having a terrible voice, Sinatra for having a great one -- indeed, Sinatra’s first studio album back in 1946 was called The Voice. However, Dylan manages to successfully cover Sinatra on his newest album, Shadows in the Night, by using a method made famous by the Chairman of the Board. Sinatra always said he never sang a bad song; you could never go wrong by sticking to good material, rather than choosing styles and tunes that were popular at the moment.

Dylan does the same. You won’t find Sinatra’s award-winning cuts, his biggest hits, or even any of his signature songs here. Several of the ten songs on Shadows in the Night are better known through being sung by other vocalists. However, the songs share a certain brilliant quality of emotive excellence that allows Dylan to dig deeply into their sumptuousness.

The Voice of a Generation doesn’t try to compete with Sinatra -- he knows better than that. If you are looking for renditions from the Great American Songbook sung with a beautiful vibrato, there are many other discs out there that can serve that function. In contrast to that type, Dylan croons softly. He shows those who bestowed titles on him because of his influence during the '60s mistook relevance for his love of song. He’s always displayed his reverence for the music that preceded him. After all, isn’t that the very essence of a folk artist? From there he went back to rock, his first love, and then to country, then to blues, and finally gospel. Going back to pop makes perfect sense in this regard.

The 73-year-old Dylan’s voice bears the scars of age. He uses this to his advantage and offers versions of love songs associated with a younger person to give an old man’s perspective. Dylan turns the jazz standard “The Night We Called It a Day” into a nostalgic look at a long-ended affair. The references to the past (“There was a moon out in space”; “I heard the song of the spheres”; “I hadn’t the heart left to pray”) are recollected with affection more than regret because of the amount of time that has gone by. The pain has mellowed. The singer recollects the past with a sweet memory of the love as well as its aftermath. Looking back sweetly on a love that ended in pain is one of the few benefits of aging.

As is reflecting upon one’s first discovery of love; Dylan offers a gentle take on the Oscar Hammerstein II/Richard Rodger’s “Some Enchanted Evening”. The song conveys the rush one finds when true romance hits. Dylan’s voice may wobble and even tread off-key, but this only reinforces the notion of how one gets knocked off-kilter by unexpected feelings. “Who can explain it / who can tell you why / fools give you reasons /wise men never try," Dylan unpretentiously sings. He celebrates the mystery of love even after all these years.

Ol’ Blue Eyes was known for working with musical arrangers such as Nelson Riddle and Gordon Jenkins, who used whole orchestras to create a lush background for the great man’s voice. Dylan’s accompanied by a small acoustic combo whose muted instrumentals compliment the smaller range of his voice and showcase his phrasing and expressions. There are no featured instrumental solos. Dylan does not attempt vocal gymnastics. Dylan and company did not use modern recording techniques. Instead, the singing and playing work together to create a sound that evokes a mythical tradition where these tunes just hang in the air. This connects disparate material such as the happy work song “That Lucky Old Sun” and the slow, sad ballad “I Was a Fool to Want You”. They come from a time before and are offered in a similar style that suggests a shared sense of history.

Dylan has coyly said he’s not covering these Sinatra songs, he’s uncovering them from the weight of all those who have added their dross to the originals. There’s no sarcasm, cynicism or irony on this disc; no hipster coolness, no vocal embellishments. Shadows in the Night is clearly an act of love and honor.

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If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

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White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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