(As published in the Times of Acadiana unless otherwise noted...)
Danielson: Ships (Secretly Canadian)—At his most obtuse, Daniel Smith, the leader of the Danielson Familie and its various offshoots, makes music that can fairly be described as “anti-rock.” Whereas most singers, for instance, even limited ones, strive to sing “well,” Smith emotes in a grating falsetto. Whereas most rock acts work variations on the 4/4 time signature, Smith assays a herky-jerk complexity that makes progressive rock sound punk simple. Ships lists thirty-seven contributors (Sufjan Stevens and Steve Albini the most notable) and sounds the way a Jackson Pollock painting looks: big, messy, and madly methodical when not methodically mad. Whether its songs can be said to express anything besides the thrill of unfettered creation (some would say self-indulgence) is hard to say, as the lyrics, when they’re decipherable at all, are often as abstractly impressionistic as the joyful noise in which they’re imbedded. Rating: Three-and-a-half trout mask replicas out of five.
Delaney and Bonnie: Home (Stax)—Hardly anyone remembers Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett anymore, but in the late ’60s and early ’70s they constituted the best of many possible worlds. A real-life married couple, their duets made up in sincerity what their voices lacked in natural and technical ability. Blue-eyed soul singers, they supplied a sweet complement not only to Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell but also to George Jones and Tammy Wynette. Three years and several strong if under-appreciated albums after opening for Blind Faith, they were divorced, and, despite intermittent solo bright spots, they never recaptured the musical magic of the youth they’d shared. Thanks, however, to the enterprising reissue department at Stax Records, that youth is once again available in all its debut exuberance. Recorded in 1969 with the cream of the Stax session-musician crop, Home captures Delaney and Bonnie when the bloom was still on the rose of their romance, talent, and creative energies. Unlike the Buckingham-Nicks version of Fleetwood Mac that would go multi-platinum half-a-decade later, the Bramletts did not take the vicissitudes of “free love” as a given, so a very real innocence sweetens their music. And, unlike so many reissues, the bonus cuts, especially “All We Really Want to Do,” improve rather than merely lengthen the original. Rating: Four-and-a-half marriages made in heaven out of five.
Dixie Chicks: Taking the Long Way (Open Wide/Columbia)—Natalie Maines’ voice is still too scrawny, but she’s getting better at using it, the harmonies help, and overall the seriousness foisted upon these talented women by Maines’ foot-in-mouth political pronouncements has been as good for their music as it has been disastrous for their U.S. concert bookings. I found the humor of their early hits and videos forced, as if they were so afraid of being dismissed as dumb blondes and brunettes that they had to make it obvious they were only kidding. Now that they have nothing left to lose, they’re free to write, play, and sing whatever they want, how ever they want. The result: they’re winning a Culture Battle even if they’re losing the Culture War and sounding refreshingly content and relaxed in the process. Sean Hannity can keep Martina McBride (and, God help us, Lee Greenwood); since when does being conservative mean you have to look a gift Chick in the beak? Rating: Four poultries in motion out of five.
Dragonforce: Inhuman Rampage (Roadrunner)—I can’t actually recommend this caterwaul and doggerel, but I can say that if you’ve ever wondered what Journey, Yes, or Rush would sound like with screaming guitars and heart-attack drums, Dragonforce provides an answer.
Bob Dylan: Modern Times (Columbia)—“Time Out of Mind was me getting back in and fighting my way out of the corner,” Dylan recently told Rolling Stone. “But by the time I made Love and Theft, I was out of the corner. On this record … I’m way gone from the corner.” In other words, if Love and Theft felt looser than the carefully recorded Time Out of Mind, Modern Times feels downright unfettered. It is, in fact, his most natural-sounding album since Blonde on Blonde, its terrain crisscrossed with wandering-boot-heel footprints from every highway, byway, and blazed trail of his musical odyssey. The fermentation of blues, country, folk, rock and roll, and gospel is lazily intoxicating, while the lyrics—both borrowed and new—tap an undiluted stream of romantic and religious consciousness that has built to a torrent by the time the album climaxes with “Ain’t Talkin’.” As Dylan fans know, however, what really makes or breaks a Dylan album, even more than the material or the production, is the voice, and the voice this time is so relaxed in its conversationally craggy tenderness that anyone who’s been around the block a few times will hear it speaking for him. I’d say “for him or her,” but, from Alicia Keys in “Thunder on the Mountain” to the unnamed “young lazy slut” in “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” women both elusive and all too accessible stoke the flames of Dylan’s various narrators, flames that are simultaneously passionate and purgatorial. So maybe, now as always, males will be more sympathetic. I’m one. Rating: Five smoke rings of his mind out of five.