Bob Dylan 88 224.
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As Bob Dylan and Neil Young - two venerable giants of the modern rock era - head toward the wane of their careers, their affinity for the first-take, back-to-basics ethos is looming larger. For Dylan, it means looking back to the master pre-rock roadhouse bluesmen like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf for inspiration, and for Young it means looking no further than his own garage.
Not that they ever were pop stars per se, but there was a time when melody, arrangement and composition played a huge role in the music of both artists. Those attributes don't hold much weight in the worlds of blues and punk, which Dylan's Together Through Life and Young's Fork in the Road partake of, respectively. But neither are less rich because of it - in fact, the ragged stomp invoked by both albums is aided by the rawness.
Together Through Life is not all that different from Dylan's other acclaimed albums of the '00s. Recorded with his touring band, with guest appearances by Mike Lynch of The Heartbreakers on guitar and Los Lobos's David Hildago on accordion - which adds a nice Doug Sahm Tex-Mex flavor to some songs - the album is bare-boned and taut.
Dylan's croaky voice is at its most ravaged as he spits out lyrics mostly cowritten with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. It's a mixed bag of humorous carnal imagery and desolate drifter in a world-gone-wrong allusions, propelled on tracks like "It's All Good" and the bossa nova-tinged "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'" by a rollicking R&B backing.
"I Feel A Change Comin' On" almost has a gospel feel to it, and along with the pre-WWII lilt of the regretful "Life is Hard" and the gentle "This Dream of You," provides a contrast to the cold, angry highway tales depicted in most tunes.
On Together Through Life, Dylan has metamorphosed completely into the ageless bar back room burner, the kind of bard he probably set out to be in the first place. It's engaging, but after a number of self-produced albums in the same vein, it would be interesting to see what another collaboration with Daniel Lanois would sound like.
NEIL YOUNG is nothing if not ambitious - at least lyrically. Fork in the Road is a loose concept album based on his project to convert his '59 Lincoln Continental into an eco-friendly automobile and drive cross-country.
The songs are full of mobile imagery, and like his 2006 album Living With War, Fork in the Road is observing life at a particular historical juncture - in this case, the worldwide economic bust.
Kudos for the concept; it's just the execution that's lacking. Garage band Neil is just about the best Neil there is, but in this case, the music is just too ragged and monotonous - Young doesn't even seem to be trying to come up with inventive chord progressions, preferring to alternatively fall back on well-worn variations of his own invention - '60s trash rock ("Fuel Line"), '90s grunge ("Johnny Magic") and bluesy R&B (the title song).
Whereas Dylan, in his grand gruffness, sounds almost stately in revisiting the blues, the Young of Fork in the Road is an older man trying to play a younger man's game - and forgetting how get past "go." It's not bad, but it's far from good. It seems like Young has arrived at a career-defining fork in the road but can't figure out which road to take, so he's stuck in neutral.