April 06, 2020

Bob Dylan returns with ‘Modern Times,’ a contemporary classic

Editor’s Note: In Sound Advice, rock columnist Emily Burnham, former British music writer Adam Corrigan and a revolving stable of NEWS writers review new albums from across the musical spectrum.

“Modern Times” (Columbia) – Bob Dylan

Many reviews of a new Bob Dylan album start off with something like “it’s his best since fill-in-the-blank.” Usually it’s the best since “Blood on the Tracks,” as if he’d spent the decades since that 1975 masterwork twiddling his thumbs.

But with “Modern Times,” Dylan’s latest and his 31st studio album, that simply won’t work. It’s his best since his last album, 2001’s “Love and Theft,” which was, in turn, the best since 1997’s “Time Out of Mind.” He’s been on a roll for nearly 10 years, and to top it off, “Modern Times” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, proving that he’s as relevant as ever.

“Time Out of Mind” was wistful and reflective, “Love and Theft” was fun and off-the-cuff, but “Modern Times” strikes a chord somewhere in between. Leadoff track “Thunder on the Mountain” comes out swinging, adopting a rollicking gallop thanks to his crack touring band. Zingers like “Gonna raise me an army, some tough sons of bitches/I’ll recruit my army from the orphanages” and “I got the pork chops, she got the pie/she ain’t no angel and neither am I” set a gleefully apocalyptic tone for the rest of the album.

There’s plenty of sweetness here, too: “Spirit on the Water” shuffles and swings, an ode to a nameless woman who has been occupying Dylan’s mind, while “Beyond the Horizon” twists and turns through the hope that love remains constant.

But it’s the mystical poetry of songs like “When the Deal Goes Down” and “Workingman’s Blues” that really shine here. Dylan’s subtly funky take on the traditional blues number “The Levee’s Gonna Break” is easily readable as an ode to his beloved New Orleans, and the closing song “Ain’t Talkin'” is downright foreboding, though as always, tempered with a dark humor. Like the previous two albums, “Modern Times” is literate, funny and bittersweet, and also like those albums, it’s a contemporary classic. – EMILY BURNHAM

Duets: An American Classic (RPM Records/Columbia) – Tony Bennett

Tony Bennett has a knack for creating modern nostalgia. Listening to “Duets: An American Classic” will leave you remembering those celebrity TV shows of yore – Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Judy Garland – where the host sang with a host of guests and had a ball doing it.

One can picture the inimitable Bennett dressed to the nines as he weaves his charm into 19 classics, most of them previous hits for him such as “The Good Life,” “Smile” and “Because of You.” He brings 18 singers along with him for the ride: Bono, Michael Buble, Elvis Costello, Celine Dion, the Dixie Chicks, Billy Joel, Elton John, Juanes, Diana Krall, k.d. lang, John Legend, Paul McCartney, Tim McGraw, George Michael, Sting, Barbra Streisand, James Taylor and Stevie Wonder. Among the guest instrumentalists is jazz trumpeter Chris Botti.

Half of the fun in listening to “Duets” is in figuring out which performer is singing with Bennett. Sometimes Bennett gives it away, but there were a few surprises. The biggest one for me was Bono, who, quite simply, has a sweet voice. Paul McCartney also fooled me, while Billy Joel made me wish he would sing again like this. Then there was Diana Krall, who I think may be the closest female equivalent of Bennett there is. She and Bennett did that jazz thing they do so well that you’d never guess Bennett turned 80 in August.

The foot-tapping, fun numbers are with the Dixie Chicks (think the Andrews Sisters), Elvis Costello, James Taylor, Elton John and John Legend.

The songs that will give you goose bumps are with k.d. lang and Barbra Streisand. Lang, a longtime collaborator with Bennett, gets the sole honor of being the only guest to sing the opening of her duet. As for Streisand, the harmony between her and Bennett is electric. Their performance is a blend of voices so perfect you can hardly believe what you are hearing.

So what about that 19th song? It is a duet of sorts, just Bennett and jazz pianist Bill Charlap.

The song?

It could be but one: “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” – JANINE PINEO

“Smile … It Confuses People” (RCA) – Sandi Thom

Sandi Thom caused quite a little storm of controversy earlier this year, when the then-unknown Scottish singer-songwriter performed a string of 21 online gigs from her apartment in London. Accusations flew that Thom was not the independent starving artist she seemed, and that the whole MySpace-driven event was masterminded by shadowy backers.

Regardless, all the publicity has catapulted Thom from unknown to proud owner of a major-label deal, a hit single and a hit album. Now, instead of performing to thousands from her basement, she’s performing to tens of thousands at festivals and on television.

All of which is a little surprising, since said album, “Smile … It Confuses People,” simply isn’t terribly strong. Built around an obvious love of Joni Mitchell and Janis Joplin, “Smile” ploughs a fairly predictable furrow, wrapping Thom’s only occasionally effective voice in acoustic guitars, punctuated with simple percussion.

Sometimes it works well enough, such as on the opener “When Horsepower Meant What It Said,” where Thom cuts loose a little and injects some needed swing to the proceedings. The big hit single – “I Wish I Was A Punk Rocker (With Flowers In My Hair)” – is, however, only mediocre, a vocal-percussion confection in which Thom curses her luck at not being born in more interesting times. It will stay with you but you’ll wish it wouldn’t.

Much of the rest of “Smile … ” generally dull and, worst of all, sometimes offensive in its inoffensiveness. Just take a listen to the relentlessly MOR “What If I’m Right,” or the dreary folk-lite of “Sunset Borderline.” Or perhaps don’t.

Eventually, whether Thom is a manufactured phenomenon is unimportant. Over the years, some of the greatest music has been “manufactured.” The crime that “Smile … ” commits is being tedious. – ADAM CORRIGAN

“Falling Away” (Columbia) – Crossfade

The second album by the Columbia, S.C.-based heavy metal-modern rock band has been two years in the making and although it doesn’t measure up to the self-titled debut, this 11-track production won’t be a big disappointment to fans.

In other words, it’s not your typical sophomore slump, but there are things to be disappointed by. The major change is the quartet becoming a trio due to the exits of drummer Brian Geiger and vocalist Tony Byroads, and the entrance of drummer James Branham.

A lesser one is a slightly more acoustic approach for these hard rockers, without sacrificing the oomph of their Nickelback/Hoobastank/Breaking Benjamin-style sound. This likely results from less songs written for lead singer-guitarist Ed Sloan’s electric guitar. The likely preference for many Crossfade fans would be less radio-friendly, ballad-flavored tracks and more with the power riffs this group rode to prominence on songs like “So Far Away” and “Cold” featuring forceful chords by Sloan and bassist Mitch James. – ANDREW NEFF

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