Let’s get the obvious out of the way right at the start. Bob Dylan is not a very good singer from a technical standpoint so, if you are looking for your standards to be smooth and sophisticated, then move on (but you are going to be missing something really good).
The Great American Songbook has been performed by a wide swath of singers over the years. At one end are the likes of Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams, Tony Bennett and Rosemary Clooney, all singers with style along with a definite grasp on the fine techniques of singing.
On the other end are artists like Louis Armstrong, Jimmy Durante, Leon Redbone and Rod Stewart, all singers who, at first glance, have no business singing the music of Porter, Gershwin and Kern but, when put on record, were able to put their own style on the songs whether technically adept or not.
Put Bob Dylan in that latter category. His new album, Fallen Angels, is a continuation of his exploration of the songs of the twenties through the fifties, most of which were originally recorded by Mr. Sinatra, that started last year with Shadows in the Night.
Fallen Angels keeps everything that was right about the first set. Dylan once again performs over a small group of excellent musicians who evoke a small jazz band of the thirties. There’s no huge horn sections and string crescendos filling the tracks, just three or four instruments and Dylan’s voice.
Plus, there is a fine selection of songs, one that’s even better than Shadows in the Night. Shadows had a couple of selections that didn’t really fit into the spirit of what Dylan was trying to do, namely Autumn Leaves and Some Enchanted Evening. This time, Dylan has chosen twelve perfect examples of that American songbook with just a couple that are on the edge of over-recorded (That Old Black Magic, It Had to Be You) mixed with some beauties that rarely make it to the overabundance of standards albums (Polka Dots and Moonbeams, Nevertheless, Melancholy Mood).
On Shadows, Dylan avoided the best known of the Sinatra catalog but, here, he did not shy away. The album opening Young at Heart and the late-50’s hit All the Way use arrangements that remind the listener of the Sinatra originals but with a guitar line replacing the string section.
As far as Dylan’s voice, it is in great shape for what it is. While there a couple of slips and a bit of roughness, it doesn’t really matter. His voice makes you believe that he really feels the music and cares about what he is singing. So many standards singers are able to hit every note while presenting absolutely no emotional value (we’re looking at you Jerry Vale and, to a great extent, Rod Stewart). Dylan connects with the songs and, if you overlook his sometimes rough technical delivery, there are tracks that are truly things of beauty.
Plus, for the first time in years, there isn’t an unintelligible word on either of his latest sets. For years, people have complained about slurring and mumbled lyrics. There is none of that here.
Do yourself a favor. Put your preconceived notion of how standards SHOULD be sung and give Fallen Angels a try. It might be one of the great musical revelations of your year.
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