Bob Dylan - Fallen Angels, Dylan Celebrates His 75th Birthday With His Second Set Of Standards; Plus Great Tributes From Amnesty International and Ralph McTell

Photo courtesy of Bob Dylan

Back in the seventies, when we were playing Blood on the Tracks, if anyone had suggested that one day I'd be writing about Bob Dylan singing "Some Enchanted Evening", I'd have said, "Hell no!" One of the great things about music is it's ability to bring joy when you least expect it. Last week, Bob Dylan celebrated his 75th birthday and released his thirty-seventh studio album, Fallen Angels, his second straight release of standards. During his storied career, Dylan has repeatedly enjoyed confounding expectations, and he has certainly done so as a septuagenarian by singing selections from the Great American Songbook. It seemed crazy at first, to have arguably our greatest living songwriter record an album of songs he did not write.

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However, Shadows in the Night, released in 2015, is a perfectly executed mood album. It's simple arrangements consisting mostly of pedal steel guitar, upright bass, and drums back some of the best vocals that Dylan has ever done. That, combined with genius song selection (reportedly by Dylan himself), set up a kind of low key wistful emotionalism that sounds like a great late night album, no matter when you listen.

"I'm a Fool to Want You", establishes the tone right there in track one, setting you up for songs like "Autumn Leaves", "Some Enchanted Evening", and "What'll I Do". Irving Berlin's "What'll I Do" perfectly encapsulates the feeling of this record, and it quite nicely sets up "That Lucky Old Sun" to conclude the record.

Telling Rolling Stone Magazine that he was not just covering the American classics, Dylan said, "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."

Often regarded as Dylan's Frank Sinatra tribute, Shadows in the Night wasn't quite, even though it did summon the ghost of old Blue Eyes. Dylan went to the sacred site of the Capitol Record Recording Studios in Hollywood that was where so many of the classic Sinatra sides were recorded. To prepare for his sessions, Dylan listened to Sinatra's versions of these songs. When Dylan went into the studio, he says it was not his intention to necessarily tribute Sinatra or sing them Frank's way, but to sing them his own way, and that he did quite well.

Photo courtesy of Capitol Records

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One year later, Dylan returned to the Capitol Studios to record and everything that made Shadows in the Night a great record continued on Fallen Angels with two differences. First, most importantly, the song selections include lots of love songs and the resulting mood of the album is happy. With Dylan celebrating number seventy-five, there could not be a better opening track than "Young At Heart".
Don't you know that it's worth every treasure on earth
To be young at heart.
For as rich as you are, it's much better by far
To be young at heart.
And if you should survive to 105,
Look at all you'll derive out of being alive!
And here is the best part, you have a head start
If you are among the very young at heart.
The real strength of both these albums is the mellow, simple arrangement of pedal steel, bass, and drums, like on "All the Way". There have been hundreds of standards albums and they mostly fall into two camps; one uses orchestral arrangements similar to Sinatra, while the other arranges these songs for jazz band (examples would be Ray Charles or Tony Bennett). I don't think I have ever heard standards arranged quite the way that Dylan has done, and the results are satisfying in the extreme. Both albums were produced by Jack Frost, a pseudonym Dylan uses when he is producing himself.

The second difference in Fallen Angels is that some other instruments are added without changing the basic character of the record. There is a good deal of very mellow electric guitar, acoustic guitar (picked, not strummed), some violin, and some very mellow horns that blend quite nicely with the pedal steel. All of the tracks on Fallen Angels are good, but after a few spins I am particularly partial to "Young At Heart", "All the Way", "Skylark", "All Or Nothing At All", and "It Had To Be You"

Both these records are a producer's triumph, and the fact that Dylan served as both performer and producer is a feat that cannot be overestimated. There was a time back in the '70s, let's say around the time of Rolling Thunder or Planet Waves, that even as accomplished as Dylan was the idea of him recording an album of standards would have been laughable. The vocal performances on Shadows in the Night and Fallen Angels are unmistakably Dylan, but at the same time they're both serious and seriously good. In addition to the vocal performance and the production achievement, there is one more ingredient that needs mention. I absolutely love Dylan's touring band and the instrumental performances on these records.

Note: I would love for readers to be able to hear these songs as you read. Unlike the other albums that I've covered of late, these tracks are not available to stream on YouTube. If you subscribe to streaming services, you may stream Shadows in the Night on Spotify and if you are a member of Prime you may stream Fallen Angels on Amazon (which seems to have exclusive streaming rights).

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Celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of both the career of Bob Dylan and the organization Amnesty International, the four CD collection of Dylan covers, Chimes of Freedom, was released in 2012. With the proceeds going to Amnesty International, this enormous set is still available at the seemingly impossible price of $9 U.S. on Amazon. The 76 songs clock in at 5 hours and about 20 minutes and include artists such as Johnny Cash, Pete Townshend, Bettye LaVette, Diana Krall, Ziggy Marley, My Morning Jacket, Sting, and Mark Knopfler. And that's just a few from disc one. Check out any of the above links for the complete tracklist.

All of the performances on Chimes of Freedom were recorded specifically for this project or were previously unreleased. Which is why they used a live version of Adele performing "Make You Feel My Love". Adele's studio original was one of my favorite tracks on her first album, 19. That song is a perfect example of Dylan's songwriting prowess even later in his career, most folks don't even know that the song is his. Pop fans may know it by Kelly Clarkson or Adele. Country listeners know it as a Garth Brooks song. Both Brooks and Trisha Yearwood have had their share of success with the song. Rock fans may have heard it by Bryan Ferry. Billy Joel was first out of the box, calling it "To Make You Feel My Love", which preceded Dylan's own version from his Time Out of Mind album (1997). Listening now to all these versions I'm struck by how similar they all sound, regardless of genre. That's some powerful songwriting. Many more diverse artists have recorded "Make You Feel My Love", making it a modern standard. Just for fun here is Neil Diamond.

The pleasures of this set are far too numerous to list them all here, so I'll just mention a couple. Diana Krall does what sounds like an ultra personal version of a "Simple Twist of Fate" This selection from Dylan's Blood on the Tracks takes Krall so far afield of her comfort zone of jazz and pop that it feels like we're hearing a whole new dimension to her talent.

So many people have sung "Blowin' In The Wind" that this song is the very definition of iconic. Most singers of this venerable tune sing the melody as Dylan did. Here, Ziggy Marley alters the melody ever so slightly and in so doing shines a bright light on lyrics that we have long taken for granted; Marley gets us to hear them again for the first time. That would be an accomplishment with any cover tune, but to do it with "Blowin' In The Wind", that's quite amazing indeed. It's pretty clear that Ziggy inherited more from his father than just his name.

There's no real formula or science to what makes a good cover version. There are plenty of bad ones, but we know and treasure the good ones when we hear them. Chimes of Freedom has a much higher batting average than most.

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About this time, five years ago, British folkie Ralph McTell released the EP Don't Think Twice It's Alright: A Tribute to Bob Dylan on his 70th Birthday. Demonstrating that he is more than his 1974 single "Streets Of London", McTell applies his friendly voice and acoustic guitar to six well chosen Dylan compositions.

Track 1 - The download-only EP begins with "Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright", a song which Dylan released in 1963 as part of his The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan LP. Peter, Paul, and Mary had a top ten hit with it that same year. In 1965, the song again reached high on the pop chart; listeners were more likely to identify the artist, The Wonder Who?, than they were the song's author. The Wonder Who? was a pseudonym for the Four Seasons and the lead vocal falsetto was like nothing ever heard on a Dylan record. Many, many artists have covered the tune over the years, but I think, none better than Ralph McTell.

Track 2 - "Gates of Eden" comes from Dylan's 1964 LP Bringing It All Back Home.

Track 3 - McTell did a fine version of "Girl From The North Country" which was Dylan's duet with Johnny Cash from his album Nashville Skyline (1969).

Track 4 - "To Ramona" was from Dylan's 1964 album Another Side of Bob Dylan.

Track 5 - "I Want You" came from Dylan's brilliant double album Blonde on Blonde from 1966.

Track 6 - McTell dropped back to 1964 for "One Too Many Mornings" from The Times They Are A-Changin'.

In all, this is a most enjoyable set all drawn from Dylan's most prolific period.

Note: If you buy or stream this EP, you will find that tracks 2, 3, and 4 are misnamed on Amazon, iTunes, Spotify, YouTube, etc.). Track 2 (labelled "Ramona") is "Gates of Eden", track 3 ("Gates of Eden") is "Girl From the North Country" and track 4 (Girl From The North Country Fair) is "To Ramona". My track list above is correct. If you click the above links to listen to track 2, 3, or 4, disregard the incorrect name of the track on YouTube, the song you will hear is the one you clicked. It's crazy that this has not been corrected in the five years that this EP has been available, even though instructions to this effect are given on the Ralph McTell website.

Thanks Rob S. from Potomac, MD, for suggesting the Ralph McTell EP.

Photo courtesy of Rolling Stone

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