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At an age when most people are content merely to recall their glory days, Bob Dylan is busy creating some new ones.
On his latest release, the 65-year-old musical legend wears his "grizzled bluesman" persona like a weathered layer of leather, and it fits like a glove.
Long gone is the Woody Guthrie-inspired troubador of Dylan's early days. So are the rock and roll barnstormer fans remember from the Sixties and Seventies and the idiosyncratic jack-of-all-trades style that marked the singer's work over the last two decades. The Dylan of today takes his cue from the pre-rock blues and rockabilly of the Forties and Fifties, as well as the crooners of the Twenties and Thirties, telling his shaggy dog parables against a timeless backdrop of Americana.
On Modern Times, his new, ironically-titled album, the mood and groove hinted at on two previous acclaimed "roots" albums - Time Out of Mind and Love & Theft - are fully realized by Dylan and his crack touring band as they enter a timeless roadside honky tonk and get down to business.
Sounding positively revitalized, Dylan and his band jump on the songs hard, establishing barn burning grooves on "Thunder on the Mountain," "Rollin' and Tumblin'" and "Someday Baby" that would have folks like the late Stevie Ray Vaughn sit up and take notice.
While no danger to Frank Sinatra's vocals, Dylan's are as melodic as those on great Eighties album Oh Mercy, and his voice barely suggests the hoarse phlegmatic croak that has regularly plagued him in recent years. In fact, on crooners like "Beyond the Horizon" and "Spirit on the Water," which recall the lazy style of late Dylan friend Tiny Tim, Dylan's voice becomes an impressive intrument, nuanced and precise.
But staying on key wasn't what made Dylan a legend - it was his earthshaking songwriting and groundbreaking attitude that turned youth culture on its axis way back when. Every once in a while, he reminds us that he can still pull a classic Dylan out of his sleeve that stands with his best. "Workingman's Blues #2" is a rabble-rousing critique of society that follows the narrative tradition Dylan etched in stone with songs like "Desolation Row" and "Like a Rolling Stone," songs that set him apart from any other singer-songwriter before or after. The new song's plaintive, mournful story of farmers out of work and its lean ensemble balladry are ample proof that Dylan still cares about his music. It's an emphatic "take that" to anyone who saw his foray into roots music as a facile excuse to stop writing material that challenges and provokes.
Along with the rest of this careening, funny, mysterious album, the song is a confirmation of a line in opening track "Thunder on the Mountain." Against a wicked beat, Dylan proclaims that it "feels like my soul is beginning to expand." Listeners to Modern Times will feel it, too.
The Complete Reprise Sessions
Like Nick Drake or Jeff Buckley, Gram Parsons is frozen in time - a beautiful 25-year-old troubadour with immense talent who will never age or get fat. Parsons almost single-handedly taught rockers that country music was cool, and every subsequent picker from the Eagles and Poco to the Jayhawks, Ryan Adams and Lucinda Williams would be at square one if not for his influence.
By the time he died from a rock and roll lifestyle in 1973, Parsons had left a huge blueprint for the as-yet non-existent country rock movement - first with the Byrds on 1968's seminal Sweetheart of the Rodeo, then as founder of the Flying Burrito Brothers, and most importantly with his two solo albums.
The Complete Reprise Sessions - featuring both albums as well as a bonus CD of alternate versions of many of the songs - is full of the purest music the world of rock and roll had seen until Parsons' emergence. Parsons' bittersweet ballads, steely melancholy and natural rock instincts sound like they could have been recorded yesterday. His unaffected, twangy vocals blend perfectly with the incomparable accompiment of his "discovery" - a young Emmylou Harris.
Listeners will get lost in the mystical world of heartache, regret and beauty that Parsons creates in songs like "She," the exquisite "Hickory Wind" and "Grievous." If Parsons had lived longer, he might have undergone as many stylistic changes as Dylan. But with these two classic albums, Parsons will stay forever young, the eternal "cosmic cowboy."
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