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Love and theft / Bob Dylan (Columbia 504364 2)

Even at 60 years old, Dylan merits attention with his new album. With his protest songs, he was the man who made so many of us listen to lyrics properly. Many were able to go the electric route with him, but with his Nashville albums, he could lose many of us with his more obscure imagery, especially when others same to make better records of his songs. It was a real pleasure to rediscover him with the Street legal album in 1978. He lost me again in his Christian period, although I managed to cherish "90 miles an hour down a dead end street" in the interim.

A friend lends me the new CD "Love and theft" and I experience the Street legal pleasure all over again. As before, I listened to the music on 2 levels: the "do I like it?" level and, if so, what is Dylan saying?

I like it. It’s musically pleasing. 57 minutes of 12, well produced tracks. Dylan seems to be re-visiting past Delta blues influences (which gave the title to his Highway 61 album) and jazz foxtrots. He introduces a theme with the title of the second track, "Mississippi" – a classic Dylan "Rolling stone" electric feel, but with Hammond organ subdued in favour of electric rhythm guitar, with upward bass runs and a mandolin on the break. Reflective lyrics tell us he stayed there a day too long. However, via Mississippi he gives us the 12-bar blues shuffle of "Lonesome day blues" with his Howlin’ Wolf vocals. There is the Son House Death letter slide guitar feel in "Honest with me" with straight ahead, Talking Heads War zone drums. The slow shuffle of "Cry a while" materialises into a Wolf "Down in the bottom" section, then reverts to the shuffle. The lyrics don’t linger. Neither do they "Summer days" – an upbeat, Western swing 12 bar blues with Joe Turner references – all good listening.

Tracks 4,6,8 and 10 are foxtrots, where he sounds like Leon Redbone and none the worse for that. 3 of them are in the non-rock/pop key of B flat and they sound a little samey. "Bye and bye" has a Hammond organ; "Floater" is a faster foxtrot with a violin and what sounds like a steel guitar (although not credited as such), and a tasteful bom bom ba ba bom guitar riff. "Moonlight" also has the uncredited steel guitar. "Po’ boy" is a pretty song with a joke about coming Freddy or not. As with the blues tracks, these are enjoyable but undemanding.

And what’s left? The upbeat opener is "Tweedle dee & tweedle dum" – a fade in and a Latin feel. I might have worked a bit harder at Dylan’s imagery if there had been a lyric sheet on the minimalist insert. Apart from the afore-mentioned "Mississippi" there are 2 stand out tracks. "High water (for Charley Patton)" is an atmospheric piece which includes a banjo. It draws the listener to pay attention to the words. Subject matter is the Delta floods which have inspired Bessie Smith ("Backwater blues") John Lee Hooker ("Tupelo") and Randy Newman ("Louisiana 1927") as well as Charley Patton and others. Dylan name checks names that are redolent of the Blues – Clarksdale, Vicksburg, Joe Turner and Kansas City (but I’m not sure why). He quotes from Robert Johnson’s "Dust my broom" and the folk song "The cuckoo is a pretty bird"; Charles Darwin gets a mention too. "Sugar baby" has another fade in, with accordion and no drums, and Ry Cooder sounding acoustic guitar tuning with a bass C. There is an Old man river feel, with a syncopated bass run in the middle 8, accentuated by a pause at the end. A truly engaging song. This CD is worth buying for these 3 songs and the blues and jazz are never less than enjoyable. 7 out of 10 Bob.

First published in Leisure, November 2001, 26-27

Copyright © John Scott Cree 2003

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