Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Women + Country - Jakob Dylan

Women + Country

Jakob Dylan
Columbia/Sony Records.

SCQ Rating: 67%

Seeing Things wasn’t just a surprise favourite for me in 2008, it was the return of a ghost I’d kept as company years earlier, one I abandoned after the MOR blandness known as Rebel, Sweetheart. More than a folk record, Seeing Things wiped the board clean – no more band, no more radio-play anxiety – and by sounding entirely timeless, those ten stripped-back songs presented Jakob Dylan as the heir to a genre he’d spent the past decade running from. It wasn’t a masterpiece – hell, it didn’t need to be – but Seeing Things was a poignant display of Dylan’s best strength: intimate storytelling that dabbled in light and shade, family and nation.

In that respect, Women + Country may seem like a predictable follow-up, with Dylan’s protagonist still doubling between famished farmer and everyman soldier, but it isn’t. Trading Rick Rubin’s minimalist approach for T Bone Burnett’s arsenal of session-players, this sophomore solo effort boldly announces itself as an almanac of last century’s Americana, with ancient stabs of ragged rhythm guitar (‘Standing Eight Count’) and brass-stomping Louisiana blues (‘Lend a Hand’). Although no one would question his impressive contributions to the Wallflowers’ break-out Bringing Down the Horse, Burnett seems oblivious to the subtleties of Dylan’s recent direction and what made Seeing Things tick. Dylan’s voice hasn’t thinned, he’s simply found more effective ways of deepening his lyrics through intonation, and some of Burnett’s heavy-handed arrangements smother that intimacy. A jaunty saloon-esque piano may lend promise to ‘They’ve Trapped Us Boys’ but its two-note bass strut – as if prepped for early Johnny Cash - challenges Dylan’s rasp. When wielded sympathetically, however, Burnett’s embellishments create a lush backdrop for ‘Nothing But the Whole Wide World’ or weary-eyed country on ‘Truth For a Truth’.

It isn’t just the haphazard arrangements shaping this disc’s destiny. As the origin of Women + Country goes, Burnett tested Dylan to write ten songs in the vein of ‘Nothing But the Whole Wide World’, a previously recorded track for Glen Campbell. Now if there’s one aspect to songwriting you shouldn’t rush, it’s probably the song-structure underlying all the bells and whistles, right? Well, that emphasis on speed-writing accounts for some of Women + Country’s sketch-like moments. Although much of the record’s second-half tends to drag, the hollowing-out point is reached on ‘Smile When You Call Me That’; an exhausted, middle-of-the-road country song that makes a convincing caricature of Dylan and Co. as a burnt-out bar-band. Never has Dylan written a song so similar to an Uncle Kracker tune.

For all the tricks up its sleeve (Neko Case, where are you?), Women + Country has surprisingly little to say. That isn’t to imply it’s at all unlistenable or aggravating. In my books, a change in direction is always commendable and the partnership of Dylan and Burnett has certainly crafted a singular statement – swampier, mustier even, than Seeing Things. But this serves better as an Americana fix than as a good Jakob Dylan album, in no small part because the production outshines the songs.

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