Dylan Sings! Take Two

“As we floated over the floor/ There were questions but my heart knew all the answers/ And perhaps a few things more/ Now in a cottage built of lilacs and laughter/ I know the meaning of the words "Ever after/" And I'll always see polka dots and moonbeams/ When I kiss the pug-nosed dream.”

Pug-nosed dream? Did anyone ever imagine seeing Bob Dylan’s name next to a cover of “Polka Dots and Moonbeams”?

On first listen to the LP of Fallen Angels, a resistor in the power supply of my turntable fried out. While it’s quickly been repaired, it did make me wonder about ghosts in machines? Or maybe it was what I was playing? After several listens to Fallen Angels questions began to nag. Has the old man finally flipped his wig? Or after a lifetime of writing songs, is the creative giant who wrote “The Times They Are a Changin’” (and many other classics) now revisiting the Great American Songbook because its contents are, without question, some of the other greatest songs ever written? Or maybe it’s as simple as the once hard-bitten truth teller has now become a sentimental old man?

However you slice it, whatever is true, Bob Dylan has now made another minimalist recording of tunes heretofore associated more with Frank Sinatra than anyone of his generation. Very well recorded by Al Schmitt and featuring the talents of Dylan’s road band led by guitarist Charlie Sexton and bassist Tony Garnier, Fallen Angels is the second vocal record Dylan’s cut in a row after last year’s Shadows in the Night. That it’s another “singers record” which is always a dodgy term when talking about Bob’s ravaged vocal chords, may signal the end of his producing original material. Or more likely, it was something he wanted to do and it means just that. Whim has always been a large factor in his creative modus operandi.

Other than the fact that it’s Bob Dylan and not Sinatra that we are talking about here, what makes this collection—which can rightly be seen as a curio—so fascinating is that his epic wreck of a voice somehow lends a pathos to these tunes that puts the whole project over. When he tries and nearly fails to push his voice into the high note at the end of the line, “It had to be yoooooouuuuu,” it tugs at the heartstrings in a way that the song’s composers Isham Jones and Gus Kahn would not have disputed.

When he eases into a tune as well known as the Jimmy Van Heusen/Sammy Cahn classic, “All The Way,” which has been covered by everyone from Celine Dion to Ray Price (with ultra memorable versions by Billie Holiday and Jimmy Scott), he takes it at a slow waltz tempo, lingering on each line, using the correct male pronoun “he” and wringing every ounce of emotion out of his cragged, stuffy-nosed crooning. Is he in tune all the time? No. Are there moments as in “All The Way” where you are afraid he’s simply going to grind to a halt mid-verse? Absolutely. But then he rallies, shoulders the heavy weight of his damaged pipes and somehow manages to take flight on the final, “alllllll the waaaaaaaayyyyy.” Again, it’s weird and wonderful in a way that’s almost beyond the power of words to capture.

Stylistically, much of Fallen Angels plays like small combo pop jazz from the 1920’s with a decidedly creaky Americana edge. It’s also reminiscent of Dylan’s radio shows, which are encyclopedic looks at American music in all its varied guises. Every tune on Fallen Angels is led by a simple single note electric guitar from Sexton or Stu Kimball. Donnie Herron adds subdued pedal steel guitar to the background of almost every number.

Some of these versions, “All or Nothing at All,” for example, have the flavor of Jimmie Rodgers who’s always been a Dylan favorite. A very brief rendition of the languid and vaguely exotic sounding, “On a Little Street in Singapore,” perhaps this set’s most obscure number, is very effective. Only in “It Had To Be You,” an alluring melody that begs for a singer with a full, sweet voice, does Dylan teeter on the edge of making a mistake. The slow tempos of this set are broken only by an uptempo, “That Old Black Magic” which jumps out with a jaunty strut, complete with flashes of fancy stickwork from George Recile. Oddly after all the ballads, this bit of sass doesn’t quite work. A program of standards needs a wow finish and here Dylan doesn’t disappoint, pulling out all vocal stops he’s got left in, “Come Rain or Come Shine,” always a show stopper for Judy Garland among many other singers.

To answer the obvious: Is he cruising? Killing time by knocking off these cheap-to-produce records? Well, sure in a way, yes. But the point is: the man marches on. Are these great Dylan records? The equal of Blonde on Blonde let’s say? Of course not. The question makes no sense. This is Dylan at 75 and at that age, any Dylan record is a great Dylan record. Clearly, being a fan helps out when listening to the project like this. And while the idea of another vocal record of standards will raise some eyebrows and inspire the haters, hats off to the man for his chutzpah and courage.

The point here is that Fallen Angels is the sound of Dylan having his cake and eating it too. He genuinely knows the history of this material. Once he set out to create a new music, one that deliberately or not, would make Sinatra and his ilk seem dated if not obsolete. Needless to say, he succeeded. Yet now, late in life, with his own style, in his own way, he’s come around to the charms of these timeless classics. It’s not every savvy old pro that can call his beloved “pug-nosed” and sell a line about “lilacs and laughter.” Next up: Take three? For a sample of Fallen Angels, click the link below.