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September 05, 2006

Modern Times: First week's listening

Right. It’s been over a week since Bob Dylan’s Modern Times was released. I was going to do a review on the day it came out, just to be flashy, but I didn’t have the time. Now I’ve had a better listen anyway.

1. Thunder on the Mountain
2. Spirit on the Water
3. Rollin’ and Tumblin’
4. When the Deal Goes Down
5. Someday Baby
6. Workingman’s Blues
7. Beyond the Horizon
8. Nettie Moore
9. The Levee’s Gonna Break
10. Ain’t Talkin’

Can’t be bothered to put the times for you, but it’s 63 minutes over 10 tracks, so.
This album is not a terrible disappointment. Neither is it overwhelming. As suspected, style-wise it is very close to his last two albums, in that the sound is Roots Rock & Roll all the way. People are already saying that this is the third installment of a trilogy with Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft. Dylan himself says that if anything, the trilogy starts with Love and Theft.

Modern Times opens in a, how shall I put it, grandiose way, as if to say “My last album was a masterpiece, it’s been 5 years, I’m back, look at me!”. To great relief it very quickly calms to a rolling blues jam session. Talking about about Alicia Keys in the first verse didn’t impress me at all. “Have more taste”, I think to myself. Other than that, the lyrics are up to Love and Theft standard on Thunder on the Mountain, and it’s actually a better opener than Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum.

On first listen the stand-out tracks are Spirit on the Water and Workingman’s Blues #2. This remains true. I’ve heard that an early reviewer remarked that there were “at least 3 masterpieces” on Modern Times”. These two, with the addition of Nettie Moore must be what he’s talking about, no others could be called masterpieces.

Spirit on the Water comes in just like Mississippi does on Love and Theft, a slow number after a brisk opener, and as soon as Dylan’s voice comes in, you know it’s going to be a classic love song. They share similar themes:
“All my powers of expression, I thought so sublime, Could never do you justice, in reason or rhyme”
“when you’re with me, I’m a thousand times happier than I could ever say.”

One thing to notice about this album, it’s much more piano driven than Love and Theft or Time out of Mind. Gone is Hammond man Augie Meyers, truly worthy of Al Cooper’s mantle. I don’t know why Dylan has made this decision, perhaps he now wants to recall artists from before the electric organ was around. Though “Spirit on the Water” is a stormer, it’s certainly not helped him throughout the album.

The intro lead guitar on Rollin’ and Tumblin’ actually hurts my ears. Though Dylan, once again, redeems himself by churning out a decent song by the end of it, the lead guitar track is never attractive. Apart from that, I think the levels are a bit awry on this one. It’s self produced, maybe that was an off day, maybe the engineer was out to lunch. It’s a sure rip straight from Muddy Waters in title, music and lyrics; it’s essentially a glorified cover, except Muddy Water’s song felt somehow more natural. God, that guitar track, what was he thinking?

Lyrically, the album pretty similar to Love and Theft,but with considerably less literary and other references (how could it fail on that score?). One I notice is “I sleep in the kitchen with my feet in the hall” which is an excerpt from an old folk song called Take a Whiff on Me, “I got a woman, six feet tall, sleepin’ in the kitchen with her feet in the hall”. Elsewhere, stories within stories abound. On the gorgeous ballad Working Man’s Blues #2, it starts out quite political, about low wages and “competition” in the veign of North Country Blues or Union Sundown, then two thirds in he infuses some love-centred lyrics, then slips in and out of the two stories. He mentions the “place I love best”, which I assume to be a reference to Minnesota. It certainly fits with the blue-collar imagery of the song. The rythym guitar on this track, all on-beat muted and choppy is a the centrepiece of what is a rare example of this band reaching the heights of the 2001 touring band. Overall, they’re nowhere near as interesting. The double-bass playing is fine (oh! just happens to be the only one who appeared on Love and Theft) but I yearn terribly for Meyers and Campbell and Sexton.

The title and first line of the chorus of “Nettie Moore” is apparantly a rip-off of a 40s song. If the title of Love and Theft expressed his love for Roots and the admition that on that album he was stealing a lot, the title of this album must be piss-take. Modern it is not. Nettie Moore is a soft song, minimalist percussion, and perhaps his finest vocal and lyrical performance on the album. Here lies the funniest quip on the album, “I’m in a cowboy band”, and a menacing “before you call me any dirty names, you better think twice” and “when I’m through with you, you’ll learn to keep your buisiness straight” reminiscent of his “I’m not quite as cool or forgiving as I sound” on Floater, that was lifted from an obscure Japanese book about a former Yakuza boss.

The drums are mainly done with brushes on this album. It’s certainly rocks less than Love and Theft. I hate to think he was losing any energy. I was thinking the other day, and a friend pointed out that Dylan is still only 65, 10 off of expected age. There’s a possible one or two albums left in him if he decides to do it. I’d be very surprised if he decided to change styles now. For some reason I really thought Love and Theft was going to be his last album. I’m glad it’s not. This is certainly worth having.
It’s three and a half stars out of five, a 7 out of 10. No more. It’s a more consistant album than Time out of Mind (Time out of Mind had way too many of what I would call “average blues-rock, and an awful closer), but then again has nothing to compete with Not Dark Yet (even the casual listener has noticed that until the overdone Make You Feel My Love, every odd numbered track is excellent, and every even numbered track is average) . As for Love and Theft, comparing these two in terms of quality is madness.

Your standouts are:
Spirit on the Water
Workingman’s Blues #2
Nettie Moore
Ain’t Talkin’

Your average Blues-Rocker are:
Rollin’ and Tumblin’
The Levee Gonna Break
Someday Baby

Your over-sentimental pap is:
When the Deal goes Down

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