Shadows In The Night :  Another Side of Bob Dylan (corrected)

Though Bob Dylan pays tribute here to Frank Sinatra who recorded for Columbia, Capitol and Reprise (which he founded), the record label is a Blue Note facsimile. The cover art also draws from a Blue Note: a blue tinted variant of Freddie Hubbard’s album Hub Tones (BST-ST84115). The back cover is a photo of a tuxedoed Dylan perusing with a masked woman an unidentifiable Sun 45rpm single.

Contrasting the fanciful, cryptic artwork are arguably Dylan’s most direct, sincere vocal performances on record.

He began as a young man sounding old and world-weary. On Blonde on Blonde he moved on to what in retrospect sounds like a Cassius Clay (Mohammed Ali) lilt and then on Nashville Skyline into his crooner phase that he later abandoned.

More recently, particularly in concert, while he’s sounded as if the voice has little but a croak left to give, this record demonstrates that that is yet another Dylan put-on.

Here, while he’s clearly a singing 73 year old, his voice is full-bodied and he holds notes well beyond what you might be expecting. He’s pitch perfect, even on the most difficult modulations and on the melancholic finale “That Lucky Old Sun” he hits the high notes with little audible strain and unimaginable gusto. But more importantly he gets to the core of every lyric. Bob’s cartoonish Christmas album this is not !.

Last year I visited engineer Al Schmitt at Capitol, walking in on a mix of “Young at Heart”—a song not included here. I promised Al I wouldn’t write about what I heard or the project and I didn’t but he told me then about the recording. On the way out of Capitol I saw Dylan walking just past me wearing that familiar broad brimmed gray hat. As I exited the building Dylan and a body guard were leaving the parking lot. The body guard looked back at me watching me with a concerned look as I took out my cellphone to make a call. What could be the cause for concern? Frankly, I though if Dylan had walked along Hollywood Boulevard how many tourists at this point in time would even recognize him or worse, know who he is?

The record was produced live in Capitol’s Studio B the way Frank used to record but instead of lush Gordon Jenkins string orchestrations Bob used his touring band of Tony Garnier on bass, Donny Herron on pedal steel, Charlie Sexton and Stu Kimball on guitars and George G. Receli on drums augmented on three tracks with horns.

The musicians not wearing headphones stood in a semi-circle around Bob with no isolation and plenty of microphone leakage. Schmitt assured me that there were no mix or pitch fixes.

Bob homed in on Where Are You? (Capitol SW 855), recorded and released in 1957—Sinatra’s first in stereo and his first Capitol release without Nelson Riddle’s orchestrations. Frank was 42.

From that album Dylan covers “I’m a Fool to Want You” (the opener here and a song for which Sinatra shares songwriting credits), “Where Are You?”, “The Night We Called It a Day”, and “Autumn Leaves”.

Also covered are “Stay With Me” from the movie “The Cardinal— a prayerful plea:

Though I grope and I blunder and I'm weak and I'm wrong,
Though the road buckles under where I walk, walk along.
Till I find to my wonder every path leads to Thee
All that I can do is pray, stay with me
Stay with me

Dylan sings this with not often heard vulnerability and sincerity. But that’s only a warm up to a version of “Autumn Leaves” that should silence skeptics. Dylan’s version of this seasonal metaphor is alone worth the price of admission and it more than makes up for the album’s sole misstep, a mildly C&W version of “Some Enchanted Evening” that starts side two (on vinyl) with if not a thud, then a mild clunk .

But that’s the only mistake on what can conceptually be thought of as Dylan’s version of Willie Nelson’s Stardust. If you like that album you will this too. Hearing Dylan cover “Full Moon and Empty Arms”, which borrows the melody from Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, backed by pedal steel is would seem to violate too many accepted musical norms to work, but it does.

That this album was performed live in the studio with Dylan singing in front of his touring musicians adds luster and drama to the proceedings wherein fans can hear and feel embedded in the performances Dylan’s life experiences expressed as only an older man and not a youngster playing one can.

Now about the sound: with Al Schmitt at the board in Capitol’s more intimate Studio B, and with it all recorded live to 192/24 bit resolution (and perhaps as a “safety” to analog tape?) you would expect superb sound and you get it, though it’s under an odd cloud that I can’t explain.

The album inner sleeve credits Doug Sax as mastering engineer yet the vinyl version’s inner groove area has the familiar “RJ/STERLING” stamp. Why would Dylan not have Sax cut the lacquers? It couldn’t be the money. So I emailed Doug and he responded cryptically that he didn’t master the record and that the credit was a mistake. “Talk to Calbi” he told me. So I checked in with Greg. He too was unwilling to talk about it but he too said he didn’t master it!

That is all I know, but I also know this: the vinyl comes with the CD version so I compared the vinyl to the CD because that’s part of my job description.

The CD was produced at among the lowest levels I’ve heard from a CD, but especially since the “loudness wars”. I suspect RJ cut lacquers either from the CD or from the 44.1K/24 bit file HDTracks is selling.

Why a 192/24 bit recording was mastered at 44.1k will remain a mystery because no one with whom I spoke was willing to talk.

So, when I compared the CD with the LP (which I purchased so I was not about to pay for yet another version from HDTracks), what did I hear?

I started with the LP and played it repeatedly both for the review and just for pleasure (it’s a record you can repeatedly return to) before listening to the CD. The record was pressed at United. My mistake as I originally wrote "Rainbo" because the circled "U" was smaller than usual and clearly the plating was better than usual from United because the STERLING stamp was so cleanly etched. My copy was very well pressed. It was quiet, flat and concentric. I have no complaints there and if United consistently presses at this level on 180 grams it will cause for celebration.

The recording quality is gorgeous and the record produced a vibrantly three-dimensional and tonally vivid picture with instruments and Dylan’s voice all standing out in 3D relief with the sensation of the studio wall behind.

When I switched to the CD I found that tonally it was virtually identical to the record (which speaks to the lacquer cut being done “flat” and the transparency of my front end) but the CD was spatially flat with everything lying against the speakers. There was less air and space, but more importantly, there was clearly less detail to be heard—particularly from Dylan’s voice.

I’d become acclimated to his breaths and changing vocal textures and to the places were his voice occasionally broke, which added drama and meaning. These were smoothed over. The pedal steel transients were smoothed over as well, robbing the backing tracks of some of their potency.

So either the LP was cut from 24 bits or the “improved” LP sonics are “vinyl artifacts” otherwise known as “additive distortions”. Guess what? I don’t care what produced a far more enjoyable and detailed listening experience on vinyl. Cutting to lacquer simply added another layer of mastering to the production or perhaps it was 24 versus 16 bits. Whichever it was I don’t care. I’ll always return to the vinyl version, even if occasional sibilants were slightly more smeared on vinyl—which was the only audible artifact I could do without—but there were fewer than five across both sides of the records and they were very mild and passed quickly.

Another side of Bob Dylan.

Music Direct Buy It Now

Barretter's picture

Nice review but you get "lay" wrong as much as the Bobster did. The images on the CD weren't "laying" against the speakers, they were "lying". "Lay" in the present tense is a transitive verb : chickens "lay" eggs. It can't be used intransitively. It's unfortunate that "lay" is the past tense of "lie", but there we are! Thus endeth the lesson.

Michael Fremer's picture
You are hired! No money.
Prancing Horse's picture

Hey Fremey:

You like Breakfast?

I hope so 'cause you might have a little egg on your face.

The entire album you are discussing here was recorded to a CD-R...yep...a CD-R.

The LP sounding "better" is your unrelenting bias. It is really comical.

Here is the story direct:

Bruce Botnick (PonoMusic)

"Recently there have been some enquiries regarding Bob Dylan’s new album Shadows In The Night, as to why it is at 44/24 instead of a higher resolution. We spoke with the recording engineer and he said that during the session they ran a CD recorder of a live Stereo mix and gave the discs to Bob Dylan at the end of each session for him to review what they had recorded. Bob Dylan listened to the discs over and over again and decided that he was happy with the sound and didn’t want any remixes, so that’s what the mastering engineer used to assemble the album and then master through a analog console. The CD’s, which were at 44.1/16, became 44.1/24 bit in the mastering process, and basically all that was done to them was to level the songs. There are 192/24 masters but Bob Dylan made the artistic decision to go with the CD’s because he liked the performances.

In the music business we have a truism, “you can’t beat the demo.” Years ago at the end of a session I did a rough mix to audio cassette of a song and gave it to the producer, he loved the mix, and when I tried to duplicate the mix at full resolution I couldn’t match the moment. The rough mix made to audiocassette became the master and that became a #1 record. We always want to make the very best sounding recordings and mixes we can, but sometimes lightning only strikes once and if you are lucky you capture it. So what Bob Dylan did can be understood as lightning striking and he realizing that the performance was more important than a remix at 192/24.

Function over Form.

As we get more into Provenance, we will have more to tell as I know how important this discussion on compression is and assure you that music producers are aware that this is a big issue and are working towards using compression and limiting as a enhancement and not as route to loudness.

Do remember that God invented the volume control and if what you are playing is at a lower level and you want to hear it louder, just turn it up.