NYCD: The Blog

Wednesday, September 20, 2006


Ten years ago, if anyone told you that Bob Dylan's next three albums would all hit the Top Ten and inspire some of the most fawning reviews of his career, you'd have laughed and told him to go listen to Under The Red Sky, right? I mean, who ever heard of having an artistic and commercial resurgence when you're in your 60s, after a good 20 years of total irrelevance? Classical composers or jazz musicians, maybe. But a rocker?

I tried to think of anyone in pop music history who did what Dylan has done over the last few years. Brian Wilson? A lot of people love Smile, but the vast majority of it was written when he was in his 20s. Paul McCartney? Two words for you -- Driving Rain. (That's one of his recent crappy records, in case you'd already forgotten it.) Neil Young? Don't count him out yet, but bold experiments like Greendale or Living With War don't quite hit the mark. David Bowie? Give him an "A" for effort, but most of us don't listen to much of his post-1983 work. The Stones and the Who? Glorified oldies acts, although the Stones' latest, A Bigger Bang, was probably their best since Some Girls. Still, given what they put out in the '80s and '90s, that's not saying a lot.

In the end, the only guy I could think of who came close to doing what Dylan's been doing at such an advanced age is Frank Sinatra. Ol' Blue Eyes' career had been spotty since the mid '60s, when he would record great collaborations with the likes of Duke Ellington and Antonio Carlos Jobim in between failed stabs at Top 40 acceptance. After briefly retiring in the early '70s, he came back with Ol' Blue Eyes Is Back, an overblown soft-rock album, followed by one of the worst records of his career, Some Nice Things I've Missed, in which he does horrible covers of hits like "Bad Bad Leroy Brown" and "Sweet Caroline." For the rest of the '70s, Sinatra seemed lost. Eric Carmen and Barry Manilow songs started popping up in his concerts. One of his only studio sessions in the late '70s produced a disco version of "Night And Day" backed with a lame Paul Anka tune.

So it was, to say the least, a shock when the triple album Trilogy was unleashed in 1980, and even more of a shock when it became his best selling album in 15 years, going gold and even spinning off a Top 40 hit with "New York, New York." It's not only one of his most popular songs, but a career-defining performance. The technical skill is still all there, and the bravado and swagger of the vocal is still a thrill to hear even after thousands of Yankees games. Although I could live without hearing drunken Yankees fans singing it off-key while staggering to the subway.

Trilogy wasn't all brilliant. It had its share of rotten M.O.R. covers ("Song Sung Blue," anyone?), and the disc-long suite written and conducted by Gordon Jenkins is without a doubt the most bizarre thing Sinatra ever recorded, and one of the most unlistenable. But what made people buy the record was the disc of standards featuring new arrangements by Billy May and featuring a big, swinging band. It was the first time Sinatra had gone back to the Great American Songbook in over a decade, and while his pipes were a little shaky at times, he used it to his advantage, as on a heartbreaking version of "My Shining Hour." And on the swingers, like "Street Of Dreams" and a ferocious "The Song Is You," he sounds positively defiant, as if he's beating back time and infirmity on sheer will. Going back to what he knew best breathed new life into Sinatra as a performer, and that first album of Trilogy makes the whole megillah worthwhile.

The album's followup, 1981's She Shot Me Down, was a lot darker -- Sinatra's version of Time Out Of Mind, if you want to make comparisons -- and it didn't sell nearly as well as Trilogy. But to my ears, it's one of the greatest albums of his career. Harkening back to the "saloon song" albums like In The Wee Small Hours and Only The Lonely, it's all lovelorn ballads, with dark, string-heavy arrangements by Gordon Jenkins. Rather than going with standards, Sinatra chose to record mostly new compositions, and for the most part he chose well. The standout is "A Long Night," in which he outdoes even his classic ballads of the '50s by taking all the age and wisdom and experience he's stored up over the years and putting it into his vocal. It's positively chilling.

You don't hear much about these records anymore. Trilogy, even though its three LPs have been condensed into two CDs, still sports a prohibitive $30 list price. She Shot Me Down has been out of print for years and now fetches $50-100 on Amazon and eBay, when you can find it. But they're proof that age doesn't always equal irrelevance and declining powers. Just ask Bob Dylan.


Blogger Michael in New York said...

Johnny Cash. Roy Orbison. (But only for an album and a half, or half an album.)Half the old blues guys we "discovered" when they were in the Eighties.

11:54 AM  
Blogger Michael in New York said...

Why does my signature always get doubled like that?

11:54 AM  
Blogger NYCD Online said...

Please note that I did say POP musicians, although I should've said pop/rock. Country and blues are much less youth-oriented and hence are friendlier to the aged, both commercially and creatively. And Orbison was only 52 when he died, so does he really count?

7:31 PM  
Blogger Michael in New York said...

So it turns out I own "She Shot Me Down" -- with the tracks spread out over two CDs of the massive Sinatra Reprise boxed set you kindly sold me years ago. I've heard all the tracks and probably even played it in order once or twice, but since it's so awkward to access, I haven't really lived with it. (If Reprise had sold a set of all the albums and put the bonus stuff elsewhere, things would be different. Note to record companies: keep the albums intact. Only real geeks want recordings in the order they were recorded and those one in a thousand can always re-order it. Why make us suffer?) So tonight I pulled out my binder filled with Sinatra albums (and boy, were binders a mistake -- I ruined Sinatra and half my cast albums by trying to convert) and then I played it. Good, good stuff -- though a notch below September of My Years (despite that album's inherent drama queen air thanks to Gordon Jenkins). Mind you, Don Costa is the spoiler here -- the first song has a dorky arrangement by him and the one I think he wrote or co-wrote (I Loved Her) has not aged well --- "She was crepe suzette/ I was pie" is not a couplet that pleases. But he was in terrific voice, gruff, wise, snapping down on the ends of lines and all those hard, hard "S's". (How the hell do you write "s" out?
1. Good Thing Going -- okay
2. Hey Look, No Cryin' -- very good
3. Thanks For The Memory -- are these the original lyrics? If so, the Bob Hope rendition is BIZARRE. Very intriguing.
4. Long Night -- great, great, dark stuff. Could have gone on any of his classic dark albums.
5. Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)-- one good image, but Sinatra milks it for all it's worth.
6. Monday Morning Quarterback -- ditto; one good idea but Sinatra makes the most of it.
7. South -- To A Warmer Place -- at first I thought it was a bit randy. Good.
8. I Loved Her -- awful lyrics; Sinatra makes it bearable.
9. The Gal That Got Away/It Never Entered My Mind -- spine-tingling, what a finale.
Definitely a marvelous Lion in Winter album -- and this is 16 years after his LAST Lion in Winter album, September of My Years (which I play every September -- by the time I'm really old, I'll start weeping like a baby after the first few notes). The only thing holding him back was the material, which means the first part of the Trilogy still gets the edge. But thanks for reminding me about this under-appreciated album. Now about those Thommy Dorsey sides....

7:38 PM  
Blogger NYCD Online said...

It's funny, as we were playing SSMD yesterday, I thought the same thing as you -- some of the material is a notch below his usual standards, but his singing is so powerful, and Jenkins' arrangements so compelling, that it hardly matters. It was Jenkins who wrote "I Loved Her," BTW. Costa wrote "Monday Morning Quarterback" and did the rather cheesy arrangement for "Good Thing Going," which wound up as the single. The lyrics for "Thanks For The Memory" were re-written for this project by the original lyricist, whose name escapes me, and it's got what's probably my favorite line on the album -- "We had our bed of roses but forgot that roses die." Genius.

7:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Trilogy brought back the spark in Sinatra's comeback. However the record buying public were still in the ( Debbie Boone ) mentality.

The talent in these old guys never disappears, the buying public jsut doesn't seek it out.

example: Dylan's next will not be a success as this current one.

2:20 PM  

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