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Album Reviews: Modern Times by Bob DylanIn an interview last year on 60 Minutes, Bob Dylan admitted that he didn't believe he was still capable of the songwriting magic that was so abundantly in evidence throughout the early stages of his career. So there is one person, at least, who doesn't buy into the buzz that his latest trifecta -- Time Out of Mind, Love & Theft, and the new Modern Times -- rivals any stretch from his discography. This is another case of Dylan knowing best, but that doesn't really denigrate the new material. His magical period, after all, resulted in some of the greatest albums and most definitive songs in American history, whereas Modern Times "settles" for being a great album instead of one of the greatest albums. In doing so, it provides a welcome service: an injection of grizzled vitality and authentic personality into the busy musical smorgasbord of fall 2006.
Aside from some topical concerns on "Workingman's Blues #2" and "The Levee's Gonna Break" (albeit less than the title would suggest), Modern Times is an album decidedly not living in modern times. Dylan recently expressed his distaste for the sound of albums in the CD and digital music era, and he's attempted to remedy the problem by sitting behind the boards himself (as his alias Jack Frost). He can't change the facts of technology, but the production does sound crisp and warmly old-time as it shuffles along.
He begins with the rollicking "Thunder on the Mountain," a flawless, hip-shaking rocker that wears its feisty libido proudly on its sleeve. Dylan is rightfully celebrated for his lyrics, but his phrasing is also paramount; like his old buddy Johnny Cash, he can twist the maximum effect from simple lines that lesser performers would let fall by the wayside (one obvious example from the back catalog: "How does it feel?")
"Spirit on the Water" is sweet and chipper, and provides the gentlest of the many memorable riffs on the album. "You think I'm over the hill," he sings with his unmistakable pinch, "You think I'm past my prime / Let me see what you got / We can have a whoppin' good time." Pretty straightforward, aside from the mention -- a verse earlier -- about being exiled from paradise ("I killed a man back there").
"Thunder on the Mountain," "Rollin' and Tumblin'" and "Someday Baby" are all among the liveliest Dylan songs in a long while, bluesy and bawdy. "When The Deal Goes Down" and "Nettie Moore" stand on the other end of the spectrum, settling down around Dylan's well-worn rasp and his hitchhiking style of storytelling, where he picks up bits and pieces from an encyclopedic knowledge of bygone folk and blues artists. Once put through the Dylan filter, the borrowed fragments wind up sounding like the rest of Modern Times: compelling, charming, and very much alive. - Adam McKibbin, The Red Alert
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