Music Reviews: The Latest From Bob Dylan, Diana Krall, Butch Walker and More.

PHOTO: Diana Krall performs at Massey Hall, Jan. 12, 2014, in Toronto.
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This week Bob Dylan releases an unusual tribute to Frank Sinatra, Diana Krall puts her jazzy spin on some pop classics, Butch Walker shifts gears into soft, singer-songwriter fare, long-running Australian band the Church release their latest, garage-rock/punk revivalist Ty Segall delivers a blistering live album and Guided By Voices leader Robert Pollard unveils his new band Ricked Wicky. If you are in a mellow mood or like to rock out there is plenty for you to enjoy in this week’s batch of releases.

PHOTO: Bob Dylan - Shadows In The Night
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Bob Dylan’s “Shadows In The Night” ***1/2

The idea of Bob Dylan doing a Sinatra tribute actually sounds cartoonishly bad on paper. The results, however, don’t disappoint. This album isn’t earth-shaking or a Dylan classic, but it does provide a more enjoyable listen than his last record, “Tempest.”

The sticking point that has always caused issues is Dylan’s voice. Considering Frank Sinatra was known for his pitch-perfect delivery, one imagines this album would find Dylan croaking his way through these standards. This isn’t the case. It sounds like he actually made sure he was in the best vocal shape he could be for this record, adopting a tone similar to the one he used on classics like “Lay Lady Lay” and “Knocking On Heaven’s Door.” His vocal tone sounds infinitely better than it did on the main single from “Tempest,” “Duquesne Whistle,” where he seemed lost in his own rasp. Throughout “Shadows In The Night,” he’s able to maneuver some of the most challenging melodies he has approached in years.

If you are looking for Dylan’s version of “I’ve Got The World On A String” or “Come Fly With Me,” you won’t find it. He makes sure to attack songs from Sinatra’s catalog that maintain a darker tone. Considering this record is coated in gothic darkness, Dylan is able to give some of these songs new context. The idea of Dylan singing “Some Enchanted Evening,” seems at first comical, but after one listen, it totally makes sense.

Would Frank Sinatra dig this record? It is hard to tell. Dylan’s readings are often vastly different from Frank’s. While this isn’t a bizarre kitsch-fest like his 2009 holiday offering “Christmas In The Heart,” it’s still quite a strange offering. But it has enough of that dark energy that fueled “Love Sick,” from “Time Out Of Mind” to carry it beyond novelty status. If this kind of retro-revisionism catches on, I can’t wait to hear Tom Waits deliver a collection of songs made famous by Perry Como.

Focus Tracks:

“Autumn Leaves” Rarely has this song about the Fall season and approaching Winter sounded quite so sad and downtrodden. Dylan’s reading sounds like something recorded in the back room of a saloon at 2 AM.

“What’ll I Do” Again Dylan gravitates towards the darker, slower bluesier numbers from Sinatra’s catalog and this particularly sad reading is punctuated by some gentle country touches. This sounds like last call where the audience is three-sheets-to-the-wind.

“The Night We Called It A Day” Somehow Dylan’s reading of this really drives home the semi-paradoxical pun in the title, while a horn section quietly plays, adding depth to the track’s arrangement.

PHOTO: Diana Krall - Wallflower
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Diana Krall’s “Wallflower” (Deluxe Edition) ***1/2

Diana Krall’s latest finds her once again stretching beyond jazz and covering an impressive collection of covers. Her song selection here is remarkably sharp, featuring a variety ranging from The Mamas & The Papas’ “California Dreamin’” to Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over.” Along the way, she covers the Beatles (“In My Life”), Elton John (“Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word”) and the Carpenters (“Superstar.) She brings along Michael Bublé to do a nice reading of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again, Naturally,” Bryan Adams helps her cover Randy Newman and the deluxe edition finds her covering Georgie Fame’s “Yeh Yeah” with the man himself.

Krall chooses to cover not just one, but two Eagles songs, tackling both “Desperado” and “I Can’t Tell You Why.” If there is one complaint about this record it is that Krall and her producer David Foster keep things a little too sedate. If the version of “Yeh Yeh” proves anything, it is that Krall can handle an upbeat tempo shift. Her reading of “Superstar” for instance lacks the exciting rev-up that made both the Carpenters’ and Sonic Youth’s readings so exciting. Krall’s version is a tad too slow and it stops the song’s momentum in its tracks.

But in all, “Wallflower” shows Krall to be still at the top of her genre, able to attack classic standards and pop-standards with the same kind of skill. Her voice is smoky and alluring and most of these arrangements bring out something special in the material. As always it would have been nice to hear Krall approach some originals, but she has rarely done that in her career. In that regard, 2004’s “The Girl In The Other Room” still stands as a career high-point. But this album offers up a strong collection of covers overall.

Focus Tracks:

“Don’t Dream It’s Over” This Crowded House classic has been covered countless times and still stands as a mainstream testament to the true song-writing genius of Neil Finn. Krall’s reading is extremely delicate and serene, anchored by some flowing piano-playing. Amazingly, for as many renditions of this song I have heard, I have never heard anyone take a lot of chances with its arrangement. While Krall puts her own spin on the song, it is still a pretty straight-forward reading, even keeping the integrity of the organ solo part. Maybe no one takes chances with this song’s arrangement because it is perfect in the first place. Why mess with something that works?

“Alone Again (Naturally)” (Featuring Michael Bublé) There’s something both off-putting and refreshing in hearing Krall and Bublé turn Gilbert O’Sullivan’s ode to love, loss, death and momentary suicidal contemplation into a sorrow-filled duet. They give the song the right level of gravity. In fact their crystal-clear reading of the song’s lyrics highlight the track’s intense darkness.

“Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word” Krall gives new life to this gem from the peak of Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s songwriting partnership. She is perfectly suited to sing this song.

PHOTO: Butch Walker - Afraid Of Ghosts
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Butch Walker’s “Afraid Of Ghosts” ***

As a producer, Butch Walker is known for in-your-face rock-flavored pop, having worked with everyone from P!nk, to Fallout Boy, to Train. As a performer himself, the former Marvelous 3 front-man has usually not impressed, balancing somewhere between forgettable and sugary pop rock. All of that changes a bit, though with “Afraid Of Ghosts.” Interestingly, Walker has chosen not to produce the album himself, passing those duties off to Ryan Adams. It seems like he’s taken Adams’ association strongly, since this album plays like Walker’s slightly watered-down response to Adams’ “Love Is Hell” and “Ashes & Fire.” This change is a remarkable one for Walker, even if it doesn’t feel like it is authentically his.

Still, for as produced as Walker’s records usually are, there is something refreshing about the fact that he sticks to a simple, somewhat quiet structure here and that you can hear the hum and every creak of the studio. Song-wise, only a few of these songs that really resonate past the first play, but that being said, Walker has come up with a somewhat compelling record nonetheless. By shamelessly borrowing from Adams (with Adams’ help) he has opened up a whole new world for himself. Sure, there are elements of “21+” that are reminiscent of the Shins’ “New Slang” and “I Love You” brings to mind Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill.” While Walker does not have the presence of Adams, he’s still able to suddenly capture a likable alt-country folky energy somewhat decently. While this album is not a complete game-changer, it still offers a bit of a surprise.

Focus Tracks:

“Afraid Of Ghosts” If you are familiar with most of Walker’s other work, the sudden shift of this album is a bit of a shock, but this opening title track sets off the mood quite well. Again, it really sounds like something from Adams’ songbook. It’s an effectively whispered dose of storytelling folk-rock.

“Still Drunk” This is a song about being hung-over and lost in New York. Like any anthem to drunkenness, this has moments of oversharing when Walker sings, “I used to write her dirty letters./ Sometimes she’d write back to me. / We had sex on the brick wall of the public library for all to see.” He then continues by singing “I’m still drunk. / I can say that with a straight face.” This is actually more likely an ode to being hung over in the aftermath of a failed relationship than it is about alcohol.

“Autumn Leaves” With a propulsion similar to R.E.M.’s “Driver 8,” this is an effectively moody dose of alt-country narrative.

PHOTO: The Church - Further/Deeper
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The Church’s “Further/Deeper” ****

The Church is one of Australia’s most successful and accomplished bands. It seems a shame that in the States after a 35-year career, the average person is probably only familiar with their 1988 hit, “Under The Milky Way.” A listen to the band’s 21st album, “Further/Deeper” should convince fans that their discography is worth more in-depth exploration. Anchored by longtime front-man Steve Kilbey, this album showcases some slow-burning post-punk/post-new-wave psychedelia. Like Echo & The Bunneymen’s Ian McCulloch, Kilbey’s often deadpan approach can lead to his work being falsely under-rated. Listen to this album, closely. It’s a dense, sonically adventurous record that holds up both as a background mood-setter and upon closer inspection.

This is also the band’s first album to feature former Powderfinger member Ian Haug, who replaces the band’s longtime guitarist Marty Wilson-Piper somewhat seamlessly. This album definitely possesses an expansive prog-rock soul, as the songs shape-shift and morph as mood-pieces. Roughly half of the album’s 12 tracks clock in around the six-minute mark or above. The album is also filled with exciting smaller moments, like for instance the ethereal piano-break that serves as the center-section of “Love Philtre.” There’s a quiet classical-like sense of focus here, with the aim on careful sonic craft. While this brand of workmanship has gone out of style at the moment on pop radio, it still provides a rewarding listen. This record is quite strong.

There are fleeting moments of brightness, but much of this album is cast in a rather dark shadow, as if foreshadowing dark events to come. On “Globe Spinning,” for instance, Kilbey lifts his voice from his typical tone into a tortured shout at the track’s apex, all amidst a growing dissonance.

If “Further/Deeper” proves anything, it is that 21 albums in, the music of the Church still sounds vital and challenging. They sound just as hungry and exciting as they did three decades ago.

Focus Tracks:

“Old Coast Road” This album in general leans more towards murky material, but this is one of the bright bits of tuneful sunniness and it deserves to get some airplay. This song has a sweeping quality as well, which gives it the same kind of heft as the darker tracks.

“Laurel Canyon” This is another brighter moment, which is given a strong back-bone by a glorious, heavily reverbed guitar-line. With this song, the Church are musically able summon images of idealized California optimism, even if there are still bits of shade hiding just beneath the surface.

“Lightning White” This is a pummeling, well-built track thick with an unsettled undercurrent. This brings to mind the best of eighties alternative bands coupled with a post-grunge wariness. There is poetic beauty in every aspect of this ominous workout. The backwards guitar solo is an excellent touch.

PHOTO: Ty Segall Band - Live In San Francisco
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Ty Segall Band’s “Live In San Francisco” ****

“Hi, everybody!” Ty Segall begins this live show with this innocent greeting bringing to mind Archie Bell & The Drells introducing “Tighten Up.” If you’ve heard Ty Segall before, however, you know that his music is chaotic, garage-tinged punk at its most unhinged, so immediately after that friendly greeting all bets are pretty much off.

Segall obviously grew up worshiping the “Nuggets” boxed sets and the garage rock of the past, but he also obviously lives in a post-Nirvana, post-Melvins and post Black Sabbath world, where muscle and sludgy angst rule in equal measure.

“Live In San Francisco” is a wonderfully amazing joyride through Segall’s discography. He’s extremely prolific, having released over ten albums with various acts since 2008. Most of this set’s source material comes from the album, “Slaughterhouse” from 2012. In the studio-form all these tracks are raw beyond belief. In the live setting, they singe with powerful electricity. In person, they might actually melt your skin. You can feel the bass causing the bass drum to vibrate as it plays by itself at the beginning of “Wave Goodbye.” “Death” comes forth like an angry, pummeling march towards the inevitable as Segall screams and yells as if possessed by some unearthly demon.

Even the reading of “Feel” from last year’s excellent, but noticeably toned-down album, “Manipulator” seems set out to destroy. This is a remarkably destructive-sounding collection packed with venom. In contrast with what sometimes passes as “rock” these days, this assaulting approach feels downright liberating. If you go see Ty Segall live, he’s not going to hold back.

The amazing thing is that if you’ve ever seen or heard Segall interviewed, he comes off as extremely mild-mannered and stable. I strongly suggest you dig up an excellent interview he did with comedian Marc Maron last year for Maron’s “WTF” podcast. Segall is obviously someone who saves all his manic energy for the stage and it pays off.

For all the prognosticators who are routinely stating that “rock is dead,” this should be exhibit A to the contrary. “Live In San Francisco” delivers blood-curdling, speaker blowing, mind-bending fun. It obviously captures the rawness of this live set directly from the board.

Focus Tracks:

“I Bought My Eyes” This psychedelic standout from the “Slaughterhouse” album is just as strong and aggressive here. Strangely this track seems akin to the heavy “British Invasion” era garage rock that was bubbling just under the surface in the sixties.

“Thank God For The Sinners” This bluesy opener to Segall’s 2012 album “Twins” is given even more heft here. In a way, Segall’s approach makes Jack White seem polished and tame in comparison.

“The Hill” Also originally from the “Twins” album, this song starts with a psychedelic a capella part that brings to mind the Monkees’ “Porpoise Song,” before it launches into a full-on, assaulting bit of hardcore rock. The track is powerful, deafening and thrilling in equal measure. This is some truly exciting stuff.

Ricked Wicky’s “I Sell The Circus” ****

After the breakup of his legendary lo-fi outfit Guided By Voices on the heels of a very prolific late-period return, Robert Pollard has chosen to form a new band called Ricked Wicky. If you loved GBV, I have excellent news for you. This record sounds very much like one of that band’s more produced records while maintaining Pollard’s off-beat songwriting style. Always delivering songs by the shovel-load, Pollard seems destined to maintain his status as one of indie rock’s most accomplished writers. These 15 songs whizz by in under 36 minutes. Considering GBV was for a long time Pollard and a rotating backing band before the original lineup re-cemented back in 2012, and the fact that this record is on “GBV Records,” it seems a shame that this isn’t technically a Guided By Voices record, especially considering it shows some remarkable focus on Pollard’s part.

Admittedly, as inspiring a writer as he can be, some of his albums can be a bit of a ramshackle mess. This isn’t one of those records. It showcases the kind of intensity found on last year’s excellent “Motivational Jumpsuit.” Also, many of these songs are remarkably fully-formed by Pollard’s standards, even if they still possess ridiculously hilarious names like “Uranus Flies” and “Death Metal Kid.”

It helps that this set-up, featuring guitarist Nick Mitchell, bassist Todd Tobias and drummer Kevin March is among the tightest that Pollard has ever fronted. It is hard to imagine GBV attacking something as intricately woven as the instrumental piece, “Tomorrow.”

“I Sell The Circus” in effect holds Pollard’s Guided By Voices work in high regard, while still building upon it quite effectively. Like his solo work, this album by Ricked Wicky shows both nods to the past and steps towards a future. He’s still one of indie-rock’s best and most enigmatic writers to emerge in the last thirty years.

Focus Tracks:

“Frenzy Of Blame” Like the pop-driven highpoints of the GBV classic “Bee Thousand,” this mere two-minute exercise still manages to make a strong impression within a very short time-span. The guitar riff and chorus coordination bring to mind previous classics like “Game Of Pricks” and “I Am A Scientist.”

“Cow Headed Moon” This is a sweeping ballad with a waltz-driven drive, bringing to mind R.E.M.’s more experimental years.

“The Important Girl” Brevity has always been Pollard’s friend and at 1:38, this song makes the most of a jaunty rhythm and some charging guitar work. Could it have gone on for another minute or so? Of course, but part of me finds it satisfying that Pollard delivers these tracks others would consider mere sketches and declares them to be done. His songs leave you wanting more. They don’t needlessly linger.

Next week we’ll review the highly anticipated soundtrack to the movie “Fifty Shades Of Grey,” Father John Misty’s latest and more.

Missed last week's? Get the latest from Ne-Yo, the Dodos, Jamie Cullum and more.

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