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Positively Four-Star

By Carlo Wolff Bob Dylan

Modern Times (Columbia)

Meet the new Bob Dylan, the first and still the best. The latest version is gregarious, user-friendly, comfortable with new formats—and, as usual, iconic and enigmatic. Dylan is giving interviews and embracing new technology; the iTunes spot for Modern Times is hip and sexy and swinging, like the record itself. This fall, he’s even going to be on Broadway, in The Times They Are A-Changin,’ another Twyla Tharp collaboration (didn’t she just do one featuring Billy Joel?). Dylan countercultural? Hardly. But he’s still intractably trendy and provocative. His new album, ambiguous title and all, proves it.

Modern Times, his 31st album, is very good, so good it’s a pleasure to spin again and again. It’s not as dramatic as Time out of Mind, his 1997 “comeback,” or as oracular as Love and Theft, the disc that cemented his reputation once again. But it’s more natural than either. It’s topical and elusive, referencing everything from 9/11 to Tommy Tucker to the Five Satins to Alicia Keys; even the economy comes into Dylan’s focus, on “Workingman’s Blues,” and Katrina rears her horrifying head (obliquely, or course) in “When the Levee Breaks,” one of the toughest rockers.

At times, Dylan’s in love: “I’ve been sittin’ down studyin’ the art of love/I think it will fit me like a glove,” he confesses in “Thunder on the Mountain,” the surging rocker that launches the album and sets its multifaceted agenda. At the same time, he can be misogynistic: “Someday Baby,” the coiled rocker at the center of the album, features lyrics as spiteful and stinging as the music.

Not only is Dylan’s writing sharp, he’s singing relatively on-key (think Nashville Skyline an octave deeper), and his band may be the best he’s ever worked with. Leave it to Dylan to assemble a country-rock combo with brushwork-heavy jazz drumming, so the music swings like mad but is soft; move over, Dire Straits. Dylan says it’s the best band he’s ever worked with (the groups on Highway 61 and Bringing It All Back Home weren’t bad, and there was that gang he worked with called the Band). Their playng is certainly the most sinuous.

The tunes are fine, indeed: “Someday Baby,” despite its political incorrectness, is as sexy as “Highway 61,” and “Ain’t Talkin’,” the slowly whirling closer, is fabulously connotative, as if to reconfirm Dylan’s ability to say something even when he claims he’s mute (the guy’s a fabulous kidder). “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” Dylan’s freshly apocalyptic rewrite of the old Muddy Waters tune, rocks like a train, and “Beyond the Horizon,” a ballad in the Leon Redbone vein, is downright dainty.

Are there conclusions to draw from this? No, as usual. Modern Times doesn’t seem to be the completion of a trilogy because Time out of Mind and Love and Theft are more thematic. Modern Times, which covers all sorts of terrain, is an album that stands quite well on its own, resonating fresh and penetrating deeply. And it’s a distinct pleasure to listen to. May Dylan record more such triumphantly musical albums with this group, his personal “cowboy band.”

Spitfire

Self Help (Goodfellow)

Not challenging. Not avant-garde. Not intimidating. Not poised. Not heavy. Not soulful. Not smart. Not uplifting. Not articulate. Not dynamic. Not indemnifying. Not astute. Not eclectic. Not enlightening. Not lightning. Not evocative. Not ballistic. Not divine. Not roguish. Not reassuring. Not resonant. Not reproachful. Not liberating. Not cutworm. Not breathless. Not imperious. Not tantric. Not prescient. Not scary. Not funny. Not a fire-eater. Not a lady-killer. Not self. Not help. Not good driving music. Not good.

—Bill Ketzer

Arnold Steinhardt

American Journey (Naxos)

As the founding first violinist of the Guarneri Quartet, Arnold Steinhardt has championed a repertory that mixes the standards with the new and unusual. As a soloist, he has leaned even more toward the latter, and his latest CD, American Journey, skillfully and shrewdly brings together the music of eight native composers even as it travels among a variety of musical stylings, wrapping up with a Latin beat.

Robert Russell Bennett’s “Hexapoda” enjoyed its most widespread exposure through Jascha Heifetz’s 1945 recording, which has continued to slip in and out of the catalogue ever since. Steinhardt has the advantage of far better recorded sound, and his performance—with his brother Victor at the piano, as is true for most of this disc—brings a warmer, more intimate feeling to the piece that Heifetz’s stylish but steely version. Subtitled “Five Studies in Jitteroptera,” the 1940 attempts the potentially embarrassing task of fusing classical and swing. In this case, Bennett leavens the piece with enough wit to keep it from taking itself too seriously.

It’s a nice contrast to Lukas Foss’ “Three American Pieces,” a lyrical suite written when the still-living composer was 22, and rather different in style from what Foss later would write. Leonard Bernstein was almost the same age when he penned his Violin Sonata, but the Bernsteinian gestures of harmony and rhythm already are in place, not to mention some taxing demands on the performers that are easily fulfilled.

Henry T. Burleigh’s works for violin have all but disappeared from recital programs, but his four-movement “Southland Sketches” provide a compelling argument for returning them. Classical in approach, they incorporate spirituals, hymn tunes and other musical vernacular, deftly woven into a more formalized context.

The Latin segment begins with Victor Steinhardt’s own “Tango,” a surprisingly haunting work that explores the titular rhythm as it eases through a cheerful moment into a soft finale characterized by a couple of downward glissandos.

Pianist (and longtime friend and associate) Lincoln Mayorga takes over the keyboard for his own “Bluefields: A West Hollywood Rumba for Arnold.” It’s a short, cheerful work that recalls the spirit of “Hexapoda.” Dave Grusin takes over as pianist for his own “Three Latin-American Dances,” which also adds cellist Amanda Forsyth. Busy but lighthearted pieces, they conclude the disc—and the journey—with pizzazz. This is a charming disc that offers excellent alternatives to the standard violin encore fare.

—B.A. Nilsson


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