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The Major Lift

By Erik Hage

From “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” to John Wesley Harding to The Basement Tapes to the more recent Modern Times, Bob Dylan has given us enough American mythopoetic fodder to fill sepia-toned volumes and keep cultural critics searching for aphorisms for the rest of their natural lives. Now, in his late 60s, he seems to have found yet more purchase in the great border towns of his kaleidoscopic imagination. 2006’s Modern Times was a set of polished Americana noir, troubled and spooky and driven by Dylan’s flattened, devastated rasp. (It’s the prophetic voice of an otherworldly crone, warning you away from deep, dark trouble.)

Together Through Life is more murky, more loose, careening at times like an old train: on the blues-boogeying “It’s All Good,” for example, wherein Dylan takes that canned phrase, spinning it out to show that, from the bedrooms to the halls of politics, it’s in fact not good at all, while the band slide along in a trancelike gutbucket drive that calls to mind John Lee Hooker. The album also drums up incantations of the Chess Records of Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, and Howlin’ Wolf, cursing it with a touch of Dylan’s new- millennium nightshade, particularly on “My Wife’s Hometown,” which manages to tease you with Dixon’s “I Just Wanna Make Love to You” while fulfilling its own black agenda. (“I just wanna say that hell’s my wife’s hometown.”) David Hildago (Los Lobos) lathers accordion everywhere on this album, and guitarist Mike Campbell (Tom Petty) plays it dirty and subtle.

Nevertheless, it’s wrong to compare Dylan to the blues masters or summon up obvious terms like “bayou” or “Tex-Mex.” The Americana that Dylan is plying away at lately is from an America of his own devising, not only the archaic, fantastical one lodged in his imagination but the literal America that he helped create. That was Dylan singing “Only a Pawn in Their Game” at 1963 civil-rights rally. That was Dylan who changed the face of popular music, leading the Beatles, Van Morrison and others into lyrical impressionism. That was Dylan rubbing shoulders with Johnny Cash. Together Through Life is the next, next, next chapter in Dylan’s America, and we’re all stakeholders. This is Dylan’s America and, as he tells it, “beyond here lies nothing but the mountains of the night.” Here lies his best work of the new millennium, spun out in a ramshackle session that is rich as hell.

To turn away from American mythology to Brit pop, Peter Doherty, known on these shores mostly for besotted behavior, has managed to be one of the more interesting English songwriters in recent years, first with the Libertines and later with Babyshambles. For Grace/Wastelands, he turns to burnished tones—sometimes acoustic, sometimes clip-clopping, controlled little Ray Davies rockers. The whole thing reeks of a good kind of Englishness, with producer Stephen Street (The Smiths, Blur) bringing in way-underrated guitarist Graham Coxon (Blur) as ballast. The result is an album of many shades, most of them very appealing: the frosty acoustic tones of “Lady Don’t Fall Backwards,” the wannabe Blur anthem “Last of the English Roses,” the dramatic euro-vamping of “A Little Death Around the Eyes,” the tea-in-the-parlor overtones of “Salome.” Coxon’s steady hand and bristling accents are the perfect foil to Doherty’s beautiful, calculated carelessness, and the seductive textures and strong songwriting on this album keep me coming back to it.

The Disciplines shouldn’t be talked about in terms of American or British mythology, for their world is simply the world of melodically potent, guitar-charged rock. I like the Disciplines in the same way that I like the Gentlemen. This is palette-cleansing, hard-charging rock strafed with guitar artillery, and the band itself are an interesting amalgam, featuring Ken Stringfellow, who co-leads Northwestern power-poppers the Posies, but who has also had a lucrative career as a Guy Friday of sorts, helping Alex Chilton resurrect Big Star and becoming a valuable utility player on R.E.M. tours. Stringfellow, who now makes his home in France, is backed up here by a band of Norwegians from the Scandinavian synth-rock band Briskeby. On Smoking Kills, though, they crank up the guitars, and with the exception of the lighter-raising anthem “Oslo,” this is a tough, tough rock album. The songs that really hit the sweet spot here are “Yours for the Taking,” with Stringfellow’s harpie howl delightfully underpinned by slashing and chopping guitar; the Kurt Weill-meets-glam rock thunder of “Best Mistake”; and the wailing peaks and sparkling valleys of “There’s a Law.” If you like loud guitars and have ears, I strongly recommend this.

I hate to end on a clinker, but Michelle Shocked long ago learned what the zen masters taught: Most problems are problems of the ego. Here was a potentially vital career that was severely undercut by the artist’s own sense of grandiloquence long ago. After the surprising success of the lo-fi Texas Campfire Tapes, Shocked released the fine, rootsy album that rightfully brought her to larger acclaim, Short Sharp Shocked, in 1988. Having a trilogy in mind (best leave those to Tolkien and Cormac McCarthy), she followed up with the unconvincing Texas swing set Captain Swing, and then had to be talked down off the ledge when she wanted to appear in blackface on the cover of her next album, Arkansas Traveler, which nonetheless featured guests such as Levon Helm, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, and Uncle Tupelo (among others). In the wake of that album, she sued her record company, stating that her 13th Amendment right (um, prohibiting slavery) had been violated. She has stuck around though, releasing several, low-profile albums, and her new one, Soul of My Soul, seems like an act of relative humility. But you’ll encounter polished, toothless roots-rock with less-than-inspiring songwriting. There are lots of obvious political and love platitudes, but this is an album that ultimately seems full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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