Monday, April 10, 2017

LIZ SMITH: Musical Monday

by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

Musical Monday: Bob Dylan ... Betty Buckley ... "Big Little Lies" and Shawn Mendes.

“BEING NOTICED can be a burden. Jesus got himself crucified because he got himself noticed. So I disappear a lot,” said Bob Dylan.

I love when people compare themselves in some way to Jesus, or use a Hitler analogy as an attack. It rarely works.

However, I am not here to decipher what Dylan meant. Go through a collection of the singer/songwriter’s thoughts on ... anything, and you’ll find him at odds with himself over and over again.

He’s lived long enough, achieved enough (including that recent Nobel Prize) to have the right to be contrary. Also, he’s an artist, so right there, a mass of contradictions.

What brings me to muse on Dylan today is his latest album, “Triplicate.” I read about it last week’s issue of Rolling Stone, written up by Mikal Gilmore.
Now, Dylan’s been off my musical radar for years. He came to annoy me with his indistinct manner of singing. Time moved on, I stuck with his early work, confined a great deal to “Blonde on Blonde” and then the famous 1967 “Greatest Hits” album. That was my Dylan, the singer whose work was part of the collective cultural revolution of the era.
Of course, I knew he went on and on, to other great success, and fans remained fanatically loyal. I just didn’t pay much attention. (I’d go crazy watching him at awards shows, garbling his lyrics, in an aging voice; one that was never exactly a crystal clear instrument to begin with.)

Bob and Frank.
So it came as a great surprise to me to read in Mr. Gilmore’s review of “Triplicate” that it was the third album in a row Dylan had released, singing songs performed and made famous by ... Frank Sinatra! I had no idea. The previous two were 2015’s “Shadow’s In The Night” and last year’s “Fallen Angels.”

The review was so well written, so comprehensive in its understanding of what Dylan had been doing, it made me curious. Curious enough to go to my favorite modern technology, YouTube, to find some of the Dylan/Sinatra tunes.

So what did I find? Not Sinatra, obviously. But Dylan’s renditions of “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plans,” “September of My Years,” “How Deep Is The Ocean,” “All Or Nothing At All” and dozens more standards are moving, fascinating homage; and sung in a clearer stronger voice than I’d heard in years. Not young, still gravelly, still Dylan, but respecting the lyrics.
In a way, it all reminded me of Billie Holiday’s final years, which culminated with the epic “Lady in Satin.” Holiday’s voice was gone, but the emotion and careful phrasing were never more potent. It helped that Holiday (like Dylan) had an unmistakable but never “big” sound — voices always a little rough, not soaring. When voices like these decline, they can actually become more valuable for conveying intimacy.
Dylan’s doesn’t hit or float seamlessly over every note. But the meaning is there, a “majestic darkness” as reviewer Mikal Gilmore puts it.

Now, how much time could I actually spend with Dylan as Sinatra? Being a huge admirer of Old Blue Eyes, especially his Capitol years, probably not much. But there’s artistry, love, nostalgia and respect in what Dylan is doing now. And, as Bob is now 75, why would anyone be surprised that he might want to lay down his versions of the music he grew up with?
(I’ve come to learn numbers of his fans loathe the Sinatra albums as the last resort of aging singers — do the Great Songbooks and redeem yourself with those who never “got” you at the peak. Perhaps some artists do. I don’t think Dylan is one of them.)

To sum up — I’m glad I was initially struck by the Sinatra-esque illustration of Dylan by Roberto Parada that accompanied the review. I noticed that first. Then I read. And you know what — one actually does learn something new, every single day.
Roberto Parada
MORE MUSIC NOTES:

... Broadway and cabaret legend Betty Buckley has just released a live double album, “Story Songs.” Buckley, eclectic to the max, has performed these numbers in recent appearances in Manhattan, across the country and all over the world. She ranges from Gershwin and Kurt Weill to Emmylou Harris, Stephen Bruton, Sting, Radiohead, Peter Gabriel and the recently departed Leonard Cohen. I haven’t heard this album, but having seen Buckley not long ago onstage, I know the magic she weaves. “Story Songs” is from Palmetto Records and is available now.
... HBO’s “Big Little Lies” wasn’t just a critical and ratings smash, and it wasn’t just a show that fans are barraging the network, the stars and producers to offer a season two. (The director says no, Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon say yes!) It is also a show that has spawned the Number One soundtrack on iTunes and was holding strong at Number Three among albums (bested there only by Miranda Lambert’s “The Weight of These Wings” and Ed Sheeran’s “Deluxe.”) ABKCO has released the record, which includes on the track list: “Victim of Love” (Charles Bradley) ... ”How’s The World Treating You” (Daniel Agee) ... ”You Can’t Always Get What You Want” (Ituana) ... ”Cold Little Heart” (Michael Kiwanuka) ... ”Don’t” (Zoe Kravitz), and something by Martha Wainwright that even with the nicely relaxed policy of our editors, I just can't print. But I think more than a few of  you know it!  
Oh, and the original Broadway score of “Hamilton” is still riding high at Number Seven on the albums chart.

Sings, too.
... AND NOW, because the weather here in New York continues so chilly, dreary and unpredictable, let’s end with something hot. I do mean 18-year-old pop sensation Shawn Mendes. He is one of those young people who began his career posting videos online, soon attracting a record label and a string of hits and masses of hysterical fans.

(The internet has become the Schwab’s Drug Store of our time — Lana Turner wasn’t really discovered at Schwab’s but thousands of young women sat and consumed thousands of high caloric sundae’s waiting for somebody to say “Who IS that girl? — sign her up!”)

Anyway, Shawn has added a New York City date to his “Illuminate” tour which kicks off later this month. On August 16th he’ll play at Brooklyn’s famous Barclay’s Center. He’ll tour North America, Australia, New Zealand and Asia. I hope Brooklyn is braced!

As I did with Mr. Dylan, I thought it only fair to check out Mr. Mendes on YouTube. He is very pretty, it seems he can really sing (although it’s not a hugely distinctive sound as yet) and in interviews appears sweet.
Perhaps a la Bob Dylan, when Shawn is 75 he’ll be doing homage albums to Justin Timberlake, Prince, Coldplay, Michael Jackson, Eminem, Usher, Bruno Mars and Drake? We shall see.

Oh, don’t be such a downer — maybe we shall see? I take great comfort in that episode of “The Golden Girls” where Dorothy, Blanche and Rose promise to have their heads frozen after they die. 

I mean, I'd still be able to hear music, and more importantly, read.

Contact Liz here.