I never understood the attraction of the Great American Songbook, even when rockers like Linda Ronstadt and Rod Stewart were recording the old standards. Why sing torch songs and dusty show tunes when there was so much great new music to choose from?
But I’m beginning to warm up to this intergenerational nostalgia, if that’s what it is, thanks to Lady Gaga and Bob Dylan. Gaga has famously teamed up with Tony Bennett, while Dylan has announced a Frank Sinatra homage album. As he has throughout his career, Bob continues to surprise.
Tony and Gaga are literally “Cheek to Cheek” in their recording sessions and the concerts and TV appearances promoting their album of that name. What a difference from Sinatra, who handled his partners remotely when he made “’Duets” in 1993. People like Aretha Franklin, Carly Simon and Bono delivered canned recordings that were merged with Sinatra’s cuts in the studio—a kind of musical PhotoShop.
Bob Dylan did not participate in “Duets,” but he did sing at Sinatra’s 80th birthday party concert in 1995. The other stars all did Sinatra standards (Hootie and the Blowfish, for example, performed “The Lady Is a Tramp”). Not Dylan. He sang his own moody “Restless Farewell,” from the 1964 folk album “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” A novel choice, perhaps, but Sinatra seemed game. At least, he applauds at the end of the YouTube video.
So until now, we’ve never heard Dylan cover a Sinatra song. But that’s about to change. Last week, Dylan announced that his next album would consist entirely of tunes that Frank made famous. “Not from The Onion,” one friend deadpanned when he shared this improbable news on Facebook.
It’s hard to find two more radically different voices than Sinatra’s and Dylan’s—silk vs. gravel. But the sample cut Dylan posted at his website, “Full Moon and Empty Arms,” was strangely effective. Dylan maintains he’s “uncovering,” rather than covering, these songs, stripping them of layers of production values and retrofitting them for his voice and his band. Well, OK then.
“Shadows in the Night” is due out Feb. 3, hard on the heels of “The Basement Tapes Complete,” a six-CD set of all the recordings Dylan and the Band made in Woodstock, NY, in 1966-67. This newly issued collection, which Rolling Stone hailed as a masterpiece, was never intended for release. The guys were just fooling around and recording demos—like “Quinn the Eskimo” and “Too Much of Nothing”—for other artists.
A separate compilation, “Lost on the River,” features artists including Elvis Costello performing songs they’ve written based on Dylan’s unused lyrics from the Basement Tapes sessions. Cuts I’ve heard are impressive. As my friend Jim says, Dylan’s discards are better than 99% of the music that’s out there.
So, is it the Basement Tapes or the Sinatra album that’s nostalgic? Do we pine for the Big Band era or the Band? I guess the answer is just to take whatever Dylan chooses to give us with gratitude.