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Bob Dylan
Time Out of Mind
(Columbia)

There's a federal statute prohibiting anyone who doesn't admire Bob Dylan from becoming a rock critic, so it's no surprise that I'm crazy about a great many of his recordings. Highway 61 Revisited and The Basement Tapes are my favorites, followed by Bringing It All Back Home, Blonde on Blonde, Bob Dylan, and The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan -- and I also consider Before the Flood, Blood on the Tracks, and Desire to be worthy efforts. But the last Dylan disc I came within spitting distance of actually enjoying was Empire Burlesque, an oddball, scattershot mess of a platter that came out in 1985 -- which, as you math wizards out there no doubt realize, was a dozen years ago. Since then Dylan has released a handful of records, but the majority of them have been either casual throwaways (like Down in the Groove) or spare flashbacks to his folkie past (World Gone Wrong).

That Time Out of Mind is something else -- Dylan's first album of new, original material since 1989's Oh Mercy -- explains why the arbiters of pop music have embraced it so passionately. But to put it kindly, most of these reviewers are grading on the curve. Musically, Mind is as safe as safe can be -- a collection of bluesy lopes that sound like variations of Bobby's mid-Sixties stylings that were left out in the sun too long.

Producer Daniel Lanois, who also helmed Oh Mercy, gives everything a laconic feel that matches up nicely with Dylan's don't-rush-me vocalizing, but the result can't help being a bit underwhelming. On "'Til I Fell in Love with You," for example, Dylan sings some fiery lines ("Well, my nerves are exploding/ And my body's tense"), but he does so with all the bravado of a man on his fourth Quaalude of the afternoon. Elsewhere, Dylan settles for obvious, empty rhymes -- on "Million Miles," he matches up "You took the silver/You took the gold" with "You left me standing/Out in the cold" -- or mutters dour declarations like an old man impatiently waiting for the Grim Reaper to come a-knockin'. Given Dylan's health problems, you'd think that such fatalism would add depth to the tunes, but hearing him concede, "I just don't see why I should even care" on "Not Dark Yet" is more pathetic than moving. He sounds tired, used up, ready for a couple of months in a recliner. He occasionally rouses himself, and when he does, as on the voodoo number "Cold Irons Bound," he's capable of grabbing and holding your attention as he did in the old days. But for all its ambitiousness, the CD's sixteen-minute closer, "Highlands," doesn't stack up to the poetic epics Dylan made at his peak; the occasional glimmers of humor go sour amid confessions such as "Feel like I'm driftin'/ Driftin' from the scene."

The echoes of glories past that reverberate through the recording may be enough to satisfy cultists, and I confess that I was glad to hear his gruff, nasal whine again, even if on songs that imply he doesn't give a damn any more. But for anyone who wants to know why this old coot is so revered, his latest doesn't offer many explanations. My advice to novices? Leave Time Out of Mind in the rack and pick up some of the records Dylan made when he was a young, loquacious, smarty-alecky pain in the ass. Then you'll understand.

-- Michael Roberts

Buddy Emmons
Amazing Steel Guitar:The Buddy Emmons Collection
(Razor & Tie)

In 1963 the great Nashville pedal steel guitarist Buddy Emmons blurred the boundary between jazz and country with an MCA record titled Steel Guitar Jazz. At long last it's available on CD, supplemented by five jazz-slanted singles he cut a decade earlier. A seasoned C&W musician by the age of eighteen (having toured with honky-tonkers Ernest Tubb and Ray Price), Emmons reels off streams of notes on "Raisin' the Dickens" that thrillingly evidence his fascination with bebop. His string pulling on "Four Wheel Drive" (produced by the legendary Owen Bradley) is an even more convincing foray into modern jazz, although his twangy tone keeps him true to his country roots. "Silver Bell" shows his affinity for swinging string-jazz a la Bob Wills, while "Blue Wind" captures the deep sincerity of his blues phrasing without losing any of its Hawaiian flavor.

Emmons claims he was unhappy with the sound of his pedal steel on Steel Guitar Jazz. He's too hard on himself; he makes a favorable impression when swimming the jazz waters. He also displays good instrumental control and plenty of intensity when handling standards like "Indiana" or interpreting "Oleo" from the songbook of tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins. Only "Gonna Build a Mountain" sounds jumbled, and that's largely owing to the oil-and-water mix of his pedal steel with the piano of one Bobby Scott. At no time, really, does Emmons seem the least bit intimidated by being in the studio with legendary string bassist Art Davis (a favorite of Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane) or hyperalert drummer Charlie Persip (who had been working with Red Garland and Eric Dolphy). And, to these ears, Emmons's creative jazz fire burns brighter than that of saxophonist Jerome Richardson, a Quincy Jones sideman who contributes the occasional solo.

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