Bob Dylan
Time Out of Mind

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.

Since the recording of Steel Guitar Jazz, the jazz elements of Emmons's playing have been heard sporadically, perhaps no more persuasively than in the Seventies when he recorded with fiddler Buddy Spicher and the late jazz guitarist Lennie Breau. Even today when you listen to Emmons's steel guitar on the new Manhattan Transfer album or in the Everly Brothers road band, it's clear that his virtuosity is too wide-ranging for strict allegiance to country music.

-- Frank-John Hadley

David Wilcox
Turning Point

What does one of the contemporary folk scene's leading male voices do when he's run out of things to say? If he's David Wilcox and this album is any indication, he simply turns up the guitars and hopes no one notices. Sporting a hipper hairdo than he's had in years, Wilcox opens the disc with the electric guitar-driven near-bravado of "Show Me the Key." But while the ditty is hummable, the lyrics quickly drift into the touchy-feely netherworld where his muse has been spending way too much time of late. "Glory," in which Wilcox makes a tongue-in-cheek case for the superfluity of living longer than 33 years (the age at which Christ is said to have died), is a lighter confection, but the songwriter reverses his position in the tune's final verse.

Wilcox has dealt with most of the disc's other subjects on previous recordings, and to greater effect. "Right Now" threatens to take off into the humorously noirish territory currently staked out by Squirrel Nut Zippers, but Wilcox's decision to play the narrative straight kills all the fun. "Waffle House" also opens promisingly, but by the end of its first chorus Wilcox has turned it into an angst-ridden investigation into the psychosocial ramifications of his favorite late-night eatery. His singing, which calls to mind James Taylor with a stick of butter in his drawers, doesn't help matters much either.

He still has a poet's eye for imagery, however: In "Spin" he lays the atmosphere on so thick you can practically see the tattoos on the steely-eyed carny who swipes a glance at the "summer legs" of Wilcox's date. But too often Wilcox fairly trips over his erudition; he sounds as if he's trying to pass an essay test without knowing any of the questions. If only his significant other had really run off with that carnival lecher -- at least then Wilcox would have had something interesting to write about.

-- John Jesitus

Howard Shore
Cop Land Soundtrack

On-screen, Cop Land is a drab police drama most notable for performances by Robert De Niro and a doughy Sly Stallone. Take the acting, camerawork, dialogue, and gunshots away, however, and you are left with an impressive original score by Howard Shore, the composer who scores David Cronenberg's films, most recently Crash. (Another of his recent scores was for Al Pacino's Looking for Richard, which died at the box office despite a soundtrack whose dark choral and orchestral splendors far surpass John Williams's recent work.)

Cop Land's score is essentially orchestral, but, appropriately for the film's New Jersey setting, Shore makes it sound industrial and evil by emphasizing the brass and unpitched percussion, with low strings offering only occasional respite. Shore adds unsettling synthesized or sampled sounds reminiscent of haunted oil rigs and screeching metal. Bagpipes make brief appearances, but more for percussion than for melody. Shore further disorients the listener by playing spatial tricks with his odd sounds -- hiding them in the resonating distance one moment, moving them front and center the next. In the end, one remembers this score not for themes you can whistle in the shower (there is a repeating brass fanfare that disturbs because of its unwillingness to commit to a major or minor key) but for its metallic and oppressive atmosphere, which is like a bad dream from which you cannot awaken. Shore has taken a feeling and made a valid and freestanding artwork out of it. Most movies should have it so good. Most movies should be so good.

-- Raymond Tuttle

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Frank-John Hadley
John Jesitus
Michael Roberts
Contact: Michael Roberts
Raymond Tuttle