Triplicate—a three-CD, 30-song set—represents Bob Dylan’s third exploration of the Great American Songbook, following 2014’s Shadows in the Night and 2016’s Fallen Angels. Like those albums, it was produced by Jack Frost (aka Robert Zimmerman, Blind Boy Grunt, and you know who). Like its predecessors, also, it focuses on songs that have been recorded by Frank Sinatra.
These, in other words, are the sort of compositions that Dylan once disparaged, the mainstream pop songs that issued from Tin Pan Alley and Broadway before rock and roll—and especially Dylan himself—rewrote the rulebook. They are tunes we all know, if only via parents or grandparents: “September of My Years,” “That Old Feeling,” “How Deep Is the Ocean,” “As Time Goes By,” and the like. They come from pop songwriting giants like Rodgers and Hammerstein, Irving Berlin, and Hoagy Carmichael.
What made Dylan turn to music that he once spoke of with disdain? Well, to paraphrase him, he was so much younger then, he’s older than that now. And today, he rightly recognizes the brilliance of this material. Unlike, say, some of the tracks on the original Self Portrait, nothing here seems tossed off; these songs mean a lot to him, and he approaches them with great respect.
While he couldn’t be a bigger admirer of Sinatra’s style, he doesn’t attempt to copy it; on the contrary, Dylan stakes out completely different territory. He has never been a fan of modern recording techniques, and for his latest albums, at least, he is wise to eschew them. As on Shadows in the Night and Fallen Angels, he performs live in the studio with a superb quintet and a sparingly used horn section. There are no Nelson Riddle-style orchestrations, nor are there overdubs. And, while Dylan’s nuanced, limited-range vocals often sound stunning in their way, the last thing you’d call them is “polished.” He favors emotional impact over perfection and makes you hear every familiar line in a fresh way. “My voice cracking here and there wouldn’t bother me,” he said in a fascinating recent interview with journalist Bill Flanagan. “Bum notes or wrong chords would bother me more…My voice cracking…doesn’t hurt the overall effect.” He’s right.
There are some relatively light moments here, such as on “Trade Winds,” “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plans,” and “Braggin’” (the latter the only song on Triplicate that Sinatra never recorded). But the pervasive mood is wistful. These are mostly songs about love lost, longing, aging, the passage of time, and regret. Dylan consistently conveys the feeling that seems missing in some earlier versions of these songs, either because those versions are overly familiar or because performers viewed them as light fare for background listening. That’s clearly not how Dylan approaches them on this album, which consistently manages to be as powerful as it is melancholic.
A final note. Each of Triplicate’s CDs runs just 32 minutes, so why not put them on two discs rather than three? Flanagan asked Dylan that question, to which the singer replied that three is “the number of completion. It’s a lucky number, and it’s symbolic of light. As far as the 32 minutes, that’s about the limit to the number of minutes in a long-playing record where the sound is most powerful, 15 minutes to a side. My records were always overloaded on both sides…so these CDs to me represent the LPs that I should have been making.”
I confess I have almost no idea what he’s talking about here, but I don’t really care whether this music is on two CDs or three. I’m just glad to have it.
Peter Rowan, My Aloha!. Peter Rowan first came to my attention about 40 years ago, when he performed with Jerry Garcia’s Old & in the Way, whose eponymous debut album included his “Midnight Moonlight,” “Land of the Navajo,” and “Panama Red” (the latter also recorded by New Riders of the Purple Sage). Since then, he has built a fine catalog that draws on at least as many influences as Ry Cooder’s—country, rock, bluegrass, folk, and more. Nothing he has recorded to date, however, prepared me for the tour de force that is My Aloha! Recorded in Honolulu with a small ensemble, the album delivers 11 Rowan originals that prominently feature ukuleles, slide guitar, mandolin, and the singer’s gorgeous, elastic vocals. Jimmie Rodgers and Mother Maybelle Carter—who as the liner notes point out, both played Hawaiian steel guitars—would have loved it, and so, I suspect, will you. It’s only April, but I think it’s safe to say this will wind up being remembered as one of the three or four best new folk/Americana albums of 2017.
Steve Krase, Should’ve Seen It Coming. Steve Krase is Houston-based, but he has at least one foot in Chicago blues throughout this soulful album. The artist, best known as the harmonica player for singer Trudy Lynn (who guests on three tracks here), recorded most of the CD live in the studio over just two nights, and the results sound party-ready. Highlights include “Crazy for My Baby,” which Krase says adds the influence of Little Walter and Willie Dixon to the Charlie Musselwhite version; a rollicking rendition of “Wee Willie” Wayne’s 1961 classic “Travelin’ Mood,” and Clarence “Frogman” Henry’s “Troubles, Troubles,” which incorporates a smile-inducing lyric and lively boogie-woogie piano.
James Talley, Tryin’ Like the Devil (Special 40th Anniversary Reissue). Albums that get reissued decades after they first appeared tend to have been big sellers in their original release; the anniversary editions pile on all sorts of bonus material to entice the fans to upgrade their copies. Here, the situation is different. Despite critical acclaim, James Talley’s second album sold rather poorly when it debuted in 1976; now it’s back—with zero bonus material other than expanded liner notes—in the hope that listeners will finally discover what they missed the first time around. I’m old enough to have received a review copy of Tryin’ Like the Devil when it first appeared. I wondered then why it didn’t draw a wide audience, and I’m still wondering. Talley’s country-tinged folk songs benefit from his intimate vocals and well-constructed, economical lyrics that conjure up an individual’s plight or mood. Typically affecting is “Give My Love to Marie,” which begins, ”I’m a black-lung miner from East Tennessee / I raised my family on coal dust and beans / But the old black-lung’s got me, no life left in me / Set my lantern in the window / Give my love to Marie.”