Bob Dylan, "Shadows in the Night" (Columbia)
Bob Dylan has never called "Shadows in the Night" a Frank Sinatra tribute album. The idea seems nuts: one of the last century's greatest songwriters challenging perhaps its greatest voice, on Sinatra's turf. No wonder it was the butt of jokes before anyone heard a note.
The fact remains that each of the 10 standards here, written between 1923 and 1963, was recorded by Sinatra. Some, like "Some Enchanted Evening" or "That Lucky Old Sun," are fairly well known, others more obscure. Dylan closed his last few concerts with one of them, "Stay With Me."
The precise, and even more intimidating, comparison is Sinatra's superb 1955 concept disc, "In the Wee Small Hours." For these are all songs that come to mind when the night gets long, when missed opportunities, regrets and lost loves come to mind. They're the songs you'd expect the 73-year-old man sitting at the end of the bar to request. Here they are performed in muted fashion, not with an orchestra, but with Dylan's band, supplemented by a mournful pedal steel guitar and the occasional subtle horn.
The hushed arrangements put even more emphasis on a voice that, let's face it, was never considered classic even before being ravaged by age. The remarkable thing is that he pulls it off, with crooning you've heard from Dylan before. Unlike his holiday album from a few years back, where his croak played like unintentional comedy at times, he works hard to do justice to the songs and setting. Don't toss your Sinatra discs aside. By the time Dylan reaches for the last line in album closer, "That Lucky Old Sun," you're rooting for him to nail it. He does.
The disc is consistent with Dylan's later-period emphasis on classic American songcraft and material that evokes mortality. It is very specific in its appeal. Yet when it's time to turn down the lights and pick up a tumbler, you could do far worse.