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Music Review: Bob Dylan--Modern Times

Music Review
Bob Dylan--Modern Times
New release from revered folk artist is only half a classic
by Kodi McKinney, DJ at U92

There are very few things more cliche than a music critic who loves Bob Dylan.
For that reason, I'm not going to use this as an opportunity to rehash all of the myriad ups and downs of Dylan's long and well-chronicled career. This is actually a compliment to his newest effort, the hour-long Modern Times, which is strong enough to stand entirely on its own even at its weaker moments.
One especially encouraging quality of the album is, believe it or not, Dylan's singing. That famously scratchy and nasal voice Dylan has takes some getting used to, but he definitely makes good use of what he has. Throughout Modern Times, Dylan's vocals are quite expressive and sound like a cross between Louis Armstrong and his equally distinctive trumpet, with an added hint of Willie Nelson. You still probably won't think much of his sound if you're expecting Josh Groban-style smoothness, but Dylan has clearly made the most of his abrasive tone.
In fact, every instrument on the album sounds rich and full, which Dylan can also take full credit for. He actually produced the album himself (under the pseudonym Jack Frost), and the end result sounds more crisp than many rock and pop records on shelves right now. His backing band has plenty of room to breathe in the mix, and it shows; some of the freshest sounds on the record come not from Dylan himself, but from his underexposed guitar players.
But like any great folk artist, Dylan's primary instrument is found in the songs he writes. And that's where Modern Times falls short of greatness: half of the songs are downright forgettable. "Spirit On The Water," in particular, sounds very schmaltzy and seems to drag on for years; "Beyond The Horizon" isn't much better. I couldn't get excited about the album until "When The Deal Goes Down," a perfectly crafted song in every respect that suffers only from the sleepy-sounding drummer. That song's lone weak point is repeated all over the place by everyone except Dylan himself. You can almost picture Dylan singing the drippier songs with all the conviction he has within him, while his rhythm section just rolls their eyes.
Dylan's lyrics, however, are typically exceptional even when his arrangements aren't. A good example is the aforementioned "Spirit," which has some of the most rewarding lyrics on the record if you can get past the actual music. The only deviation in this respect is found in the thudding second line of "Nettie Moore": "Something's out of whack." By far the worst song on the album, it's hard to decide whether the lyric itself is bad or if the painful arrangement just makes it seem that way.
Despite half of Modern Times being kind of annoying, the other half is absolutely incredible. "When The Deal Goes Down" signals a quality jump that doesn't subside until after the phenomenal "Workingman's Blues #2," and the album closes impressively with the timely boogie of "The Levee's Gonna Break" and the downright haunting "Ain't Talkin'". This is worth picking up just for these four songs and "Someday Baby," but be prepared to hit the skip button on the others unless you really love Dylan's lyrics. This is the most frustrating thing about Modern Times; if the song arrangements were on par with the lyrics from beginning to end, it would be an instant classic. In reality, it's only halfway there.
Rating: 3 out of 5

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