Album Review: Jakob Dylan – Women + Country

by Dakin Hardwick on April 8, 2010

In 2007, a strange and unexpected musical collaboration was released. It was the brain child of legendary producer T-Bone Burnett who decided that a full album collaboration between Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and modern day bluegrass icon Alison Krauss would be a brilliant idea. The album, Raising Sand,  came out, and it was a moody collection of covers and originals that was both a critical and commercial success. It was a rare album that nearly everyone enjoyed, and was also the first album released on a independent label to win the Grammy for Album of the Year.

Fast forward three years, and a rather suspicious record gets released. Jakob Dylan, son of Bob and vocalist of 90’s buzz bin two-hit wonder act The Wallflowers, releases a record called Women + Country, featuring production by T-Bone Burnett and vocals by Alt.Country Super Heroine Neko Case. It all feels, I don’t know, impure? I was curious about this record, but also a bit skeptical.  So, when I got an offer to review the record for this site, I decided to take it upon myself.

The CD comes in the mail, and it’s a physical CD, with a cover and a tray and the whole nine yards. I open it up to peruse the linear notes, and we have full lyrics and session musician credit for each track. I know this seems a little prehistoric, but it feels really good to have this info.

Then I start comparing the session musicians with the ones that recorded on the Raising Sand sessions. Marc Ribot is on guitar, Jay Bellrose on drums, Dennis Crouch on bass, and Greg Leisz on pedal steel. It’s a great group of musicians, and they are all the same as on both records! I am almost about annoyed by the fact that I looked ahead.

So, I put the album on. First track, “Nothing But The Whole Wide World,” comes on. Just an acoustic guitar, very subtle percussion, and Dylan’s familiar smooth rasp comes in. Slowly the track builds up with pedal steel and harmony vocals (provided by Case and her vocal partner Kelly Hogan), and the track continues to pick up, manages to keep the sparse darkness of the track in gear. The mix is really fascinating. All of the instruments and harmony vocals have a rich layer of reverb hovering over the mix, but Dylan’s voice remains as dry as can be.

At this point, I feel that I can distance this record from Raising Sand. This is a dark country album, but it’s definitely its own body of work. After a second sparse and slow track, we get song three, “Lend A Hand.” This song is the track that the album should have opened with if we were to look at it as a completely new work. Ribot’s session work is the strongest that I have heard since his work on Tom Wait’s Rain Dogs. The arrangement is practically deranged carnival music, inspired by Tom Waits as well as some of the more eccentric work of Squirrel Nut Zippers.

The middle of the record retains this feel, but never actually gets boring. The drums are brilliant, using virtually no cymbals, just a gentle throb of the bass drum and a few snare flourishes. That’s the beauty of any T-Bone production, though, he knows how to do a lot with very little.

I could easily do a track-by-track dissection of this record, but I am going to spare you, the loyal reader, of such things. I will instead tell you that it’s a very good record, but it is also not very immediate. There are no truly up-tempo numbers, where most tracks range from slow and sad to really slow and sad. Even when the horns kick in, which do a few times, or on tracks like “They’ve Trapped Us Boys,” where the goal is to lean towards the bluegrass, things still stay very somber. Instead of using Case & Hogan as duet partners, they stay in the background, appearing coming in out of nowhere like angels trying to help the record keep it’s ground.

Even the lyrics on this record are very impressive. He has inherited (researched?) his father’s gift for metaphor, but never tries to duplicate him. He also comes off very sincere. The lyrical themes are all pretty common for the genre in which he is paying tribute to (American Roots Music), primarily focusing on lost love and economic strife. I seriously doubt that anyone would have expected that the “One Headlight” dude would release a contender for album of the year, especially with a country music record, but unlike other 90’s cut-out bin kings and queens to go country, like Hootie & The Blowfish’s Darius Rucker, Jessica Simpson, or Michelle Branch, this one feels very pure. Highly recommended!

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Matthew McLaughlin Malyon April 9, 2010 at 4:54 pm

Thanks for this review! It’s a bid of an oddity, I’d say–a review that actually concerns itself with Jakob Dylan’s music, songwriting, and artistry (not, shall we say, his lineage). And it’s all the more meaningful since you started your task with an admitted skepticism.

You’re right–it’s an excellent album. It’s a slow-grower, but it’s dead on. The songwriting is a model for the craft . . . Jakob Dylan’s continuing artistic growth is clearly evident.

(And I wouldn’t be surprised to see 3 – 5 of these songs being covered by a number of artists within the next decade.)

Thanks again!

Matthew McLaughlin Malyon

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