Tuesday, April 25, 2017

making Sinatra grate, again

Mikal Gilmore is a good critic over all, a fine writer with a literate style. He is very much a fan of the musicians he praises, and I've read him at times where he displays a reasonable skepticism at some of his heroes' less appealing efforts.Above all else, Gilmore's rock and roll writing is vital because he's a writer who never stopped believing that music had the power to change the way people see the world and that music, as well, could inspire, empower and embolden generations to create a more perfect union. Even when I feel that all that is lost to us now, that music, even when it was routinely superb during a period in the Sixties, was always about parties getting paid their due (and more), Gilmore could convince me, for a moment, that cynicism was a callow response to world events that didn't behave according to my own private timetable. 

But there is the habit of seeing everything particular artists do as evidence of genius when in   fact what is served is dried out , sered, mannered, lifeless as a stain. Sinatra and Dylan, though, are two seemingly fault-free icons of Americana that Gilmore , like more than a few old guard reviewers, go into a bubble of a kind and create their very own mythology, a home made dialectic. In this case it's the convenient narrative that Sinatra and Dylan represent the thesis and antithesis of American pop music, and that what's happening with Triplicate amounts to a fabled synthesis. Gilmore gets disconcertingly close to aping Greil Marcuse's worst habit, which is to treat a trilogy of albums as a Major Historical/Cultural Event. In making such claims against a word limit, it is necessary to exclude practically everything and everyone else in the historical record.His four star review is premised on the assumption that one thinks Dylan's performance of this material is arguably good on considers other than technical skill. One can make such an argument, of course, but I don't find them especially convincing. Willie Nelson has a reedy, nasally voice, but he does have range and color and a demonstrated mastery of his abilities as a vocalist; his renditions of old standards ala "Over the Rainbow" or "Blue Skies" work rather well and are effectively reimagined, as that atrocious phrase goes.We can push this even a bit further by remembering Elvis Costello's moving and too-brief reading of my "My Funny Valentine", choice ballad one would associate with the soaring and splinter texture of Tony Bennett's off hand croon, or the rich tone poems that Mel Torme turns his vocal performances into. 

Costello style, at the time noted for being nasal, untrained, bellowing, only occasionally tuneful in straight forward line readings, demonstrates on "My Funny Valentine" that he , like Nelson, could shore up is supposed limitations and turn them into virtues that could make the performance memorable; while we can continue on  and on that Costello's rendition doesn't come near to achieving the definitive version Bennett imprinted upon the culture, that would be to miss the point of interpretation. Costello's version is his own, his vocal apparatus had richer registers to use to approach the delicacy  of the melody and simple poetry of the lyric, the result being, I think, being that great songs are written for great  vocalist. The  further point is that Costello's voice had the technical qualities to make his version worth a listen or ten.  

"Redefined "is perhaps the better word. Sinatra's songs were written for Sinatra's voice, or voices similar in color,nuance, range, and regardless of what style you wish to cast the material in--soul, reggae, country, folk, blues--the requirements for voice remain the same. Dylan's appeal as a vocalist was that he wrote his own songs and that those songs fit the limited apparatus he had. His original material, and the songs by others (early on) he selected to perform fit his voice, his rage, his tone, which he was able to manipulate in effective ways. I am quite a bit more reductionist in my opinion of Dylan's attempts to interpret the great American songbook. I think it's awful stuff, a grating and embarrassing display. That said, I am also willing to admit my view reveals my limits more, perhaps, than they do anyone else's.

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