Bob DylanModern Times
Bob Dylan is not your grandfather. Your grandfather has never heard of Alicia Keys, while Dylan revels in playfully and absurdly fawning over her (on the titanic opener "Thunder on the Mountain"). Your grandfather is beyond being coerced by young women, while Dylan is not beyond noting how "some young lazy slut has charmed away my brains" (on the rambling "Rollin' and Tumblin'"). Your grandfather probably retired approximately 45 years into his career; Dylan just released his third consecutive album of immaculately craggy tunes.
With each passing album--starting with 1997's dark and introspective Time Out of Mind--Dylan is making a monumental case that his latter years will stand toe-to-toe with his '60s and '70s output. Serving as an appropriate companion piece to 2001's Love and Theft, Modern Times may be the strongest of the three. Dylan's voice--always a stupidly contentious point among lovers and haters of his music (the matter-of-fact delivery has always served his purpose and lyrics)--is tremendously commanding as he bounces from rocker to ballad, nearly song for song.
Although it may be called Modern Times, and there may be a scorching blues ditty called "The Levee's Gonna Break," Dylan (as usual) avoids being directly topical. The way he effortlessly places the weepy dirge "When the Deal Goes Down" alongside the twang of "Someday Baby" suggests a master at work. Modern times? Sure, but Robert Zimmerman has nicely nestled into the canon that Bob Dylan was created to embrace.
Grizzly BearYellow House
With a name like Grizzly Bear, you'd expect the first notes of Yellow House to growl, claw and tear. Instead, what seeps through the speakers in the first song, "Easier," are woodwinds, piano and then quietly plucked guitar. A banjo accents the melody; the drums shuffle along, and the calmly plucked bassline combined with the vocals all make this more reminiscent of a different species, namely the Andrew Bird.
The vocal harmonies on "Knife" show a more surf-pop side to Grizzly Bear, but then "Central and Remote" burrows back into the contemplative and ambient nature of the band--the hushed vocals at the beginning give rise to a grandiose chorus of voices, as eerie noises swirl around the drums.
There is something windy and something terrifying about these songs. Maybe it's the banjo, or the far-away-sounding piano, or the gleeful, elfin voices, but the Yellow House seems to be deep in the forest as imagined by Nathaniel Hawthorne or the Brothers Grimm--wild and tantalizingly uncivilized. As "Little Brother" segues into "Plans," bird noises and chants echo around electronic noises. Whistling in "Plans" turns into horns, and in "Marla," a waltz originally written by singer/songwriter/guitarist Edward Droste's aunt in the 1930s, sad strings and messy drums get chased away by the chorus of "On a Neck, on a Spit."
In "Colorado," the last song on the album, just when you think the pulsing electronic beat and the repeated chants of "Colorado" and "what now?" will leave you stranded on a mountaintop in the cold, in come the woodwinds to lead you back to the house.
Tom PettyHighway Companion
Goodness knows, Tom Petty has written lots of perfect pop songs during his 30-odd-year career in rock. But none are better than "Saving Grace," which kicks off his second solo album in sardonic style.
If you can't guess it from the title, the new CD is concerned with literal tales of being on the road, but it's also a metaphor for life's changes. Check out Petty's tired though eloquent depositions on the cycles of time ("Square One"), how age creeps up on us ("Flirting With Time") and making amends for years-old indiscretions ("Down South").
But "Saving Grace" is an instant classic. Against a crawling kingsnake blues progression laid down by Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell and a rock-solid 4/4 beat (drumming by Petty), Petty sings of moving through life at an ever-increasing speed, like a ghostly witness to our weakest tendencies to turn journeys into escapes.
Produced by Jeff Lynne, with assistance from Campbell and Petty, Highway Companion sounds as if you've lived with it all your life, just as most of Petty's best albums do. Roots rock and power pop rule the day, although there are a few pleasant surprises, such as the jazzy electric piano (again played by Petty) on the haunting "Night Driver" and the Byrds-like guitar during suburban party tune "Big Weekend."
Although most of Petty's trips on this album take place in automobiles, the gorgeous closing track, "The Golden Rose," finds its "broken man" protagonist setting off to sea, dreaming of a lost love. Some musicians affect a premature world-weariness as a songwriting tool, but Petty has earned the lines on his face.