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Album review: Mixing ‘golden voice’ songs with Dylan

It almost seems like a hacky sketch from an old episode of “Mad TV” or something: Bob Dylan doing an album of Frank Sinatra covers. Simple premise, simple execution — guy who is seen by many as having one of the worst voices in pop music recording an album of covers by a guy who was seen as having one of the best.

It’s a hacky idea because things aren’t really like that. Bob Dylan has always been a better vocalist than his reputation might suggest. Sure, in his youth, it was nasal and whiny. Now that he’s 73, it’s a ragged neigh. But he’s always known how to sound like Bob Dylan better than anyone, and his range is underrated.

Let’s be honest, though: a golden voice is something Bob Dylan has never really been accused of having, especially not at this stage in his life. So the announcement of “Shadows in the Night” was met with plenty of raised eyebrows, and for good reason. The surprise, however, is that it’s not the work of some out-of-touch icon who no one could say “no” to when he pitched the idea of doing a Sinatra covers album. It’s not full of frog croaks and wheezing. As it turns out, Dylan doing an album like this works.

The key might be that he’s not trying to out-Sinatra Sinatra. There’s no point in that for most singers, and Dylan smartly uses the tools he has and pulls the arrangements way back to suit him.

Take something like “Why Try to Change Me Now,” which was done by Sinatra as a bright, string-laden ballad full of drama and tremulous vocal vibrato. As Dylan and his backing band present it, it’s a mournful, resigned dirge backed by little more than a weepy steel guitar and some strummed jazz chords. Where Sinatra sang the song with a Popeye-esque, I-yam-what-I-yam attitude, Dylan sings it with a shrug of the shoulders and no small measure of set-in-my-ways grumpiness.

This approach is basically repeated with each of the album’s tracks. Dylan knows he’s not going to match Ol’ Blue Eyes pound for pound, so he doesn’t even try. That’s not to say that the arrangements and vocals are night-and-day different — “Some Enchanted Evening,” for instance, is done in the same key as Sinatra’s version, and Dylan’s cadence is virtually identical to Sinatra’s. But the feel is altered. The swooping Disney strings of Sinatra’s version aren’t something Dylan chose to replicate, and so what could’ve been a nightmare of schmaltz becomes something warmer, something less nightclub and more nighttime.

It’s fairly impressive that what could have been an old man with tumbleweeds in his throat singing his father’s music in his late career is instead a lovely homage to a great singer and some great compositions. While it might not make much sense to put “Shadows in the Night” on over something by Sinatra himself from his prime, it’s not an embarrassment by any stretch, and the vocal performance — while reliably cracked and dusty — is probably better than any Dylan’s given in a long time, perhaps even decades. And that in and of itself proves that Bob Dylan still has pleasant surprises to offer, even this late in the game.

Artist: Bob Dylan

Album: “Shadows in the Night”

Recorded at: Capitol Studios, Los Angeles, CA

Produced by: Jack Frost

Website: bobdylan.com

Personnel: Bob Dylan (vocals), numerous others

LISTEN to "Stay with Me" by clicking here.

Tony Bennett reviews music for the News Tribune. He can be reached at tonybennettreviews@gmail.com.

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