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Bob Dylan 

Modern Times (Columbia)

Bob Dylan has outlasted fellow music icons the Beatles, the Byrds, and Johnny Cash (all of whom he influenced, btw), amassing an oeuvre equaling and often surpassing theirs in trans-generational influence. Yet, he's also done some dire crap. Disagree? Consider these four words: Dylan and the Dead. While Dylan has produced such seminal work as Blonde on Blonde, there've been albums — Self Portrait, Down in the Groove, At Budokan — where it truly seemed Dylan's muse either deserted or betrayed him (and us). There've been times that many wrote him off as "past it," but then Dylan pulled that rabbit out of the hat.

Recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in American "roots" music. Dylan's latest, Modern Times, could be his reaction to that, his chance to show how an "old master" gets it done. Shades of the blues and classic American songwriters — Hoagy Carmichael, Johnny Mercer — permeate this album. Many of these 10 originals sound as if they could've been written 50 or 60 years ago, yet never seem retro or nostalgic. Some songs are rendered in a reflective, intimate ballad style evoking Ray Charles and Willie Nelson ("Workingman's Blues #2"), others in the transitional acoustic-to-electric, rhythmic manner of blues pioneers Lonnie Johnson and John Lee Hooker ("Someday Baby"). Dylan is in very fine voice (though a little overly nasal sometimes) — and while lesser performers over-emote to convince the listener of their earnestness and "authenticity," he sings with tender, unassuming composure. His band plays with flair but with similarly sublime restraint. And Dylan still turns a phrase like few others can: "I wanna wring your neck/ when all else fails/ I make it a matter of self-respect." Two thumbs up. — Mark Keresman


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