The new Dylans
Three singer-songwriters who may or may not have a passing resemblance to a certain man named Bob, along with a local who deserves mention in the same breath
One of the biggest conundrums faced by modern commerce is this: Complex ideas must be reduced to telegraphic simplicity. In order to cut through the background noise emanating from other media, so you can reach that target audience, you need to cut to the chase.
Consider the prospect of how a large record company can convince people to listen to a new male singer-songwriter it has signed. If its marketing department tries to enumerate all the wonderfully idiosyncratic virtues that differentiate said acoustic-guitar-slinging gent from the rest of the pack, most people will tune out rather quickly.
Give them a short meme that instantly puts an artist into context, and the audience is all ears. For singer-songwriters, there is a simple two-word incantation: “new Dylan.”
The new-Dylan meme remains potent; it’s been around since the early 1960s, when a man named Robert Zimmerman, formerly of Hibbing, Minn., showed up in New York’s Greenwich Village and appropriated as his surname the first name of a Welsh poet who’d expired on the sidewalk in front of the West Village’s White Horse Tavern after uttering the immortal line, “I’ve drunk 18 straight whiskies—I think that’s the record.”
It’s easy to forget just how influential Bob Dylan was, and still is. Dylan didn’t just pick up a guitar and write intricately detailed, hypnotically addictive songs that seemed to capture the turbulent zeitgeist of the 1960s. That day in late July of 1965, when Dylan showed up with an electric band, mortifying purists at the Newport Folk Festival, is still viewed as one of the crucial turning points in pop-music history.
Dylan changed the sound and focus of rock; his music influenced the Beatles’ shift toward introspection, which came into full flower on their albums Rubber Soul and Revolver, along with Brian Wilson’s stellar Beach Boys masterpiece Pet Sounds. Even soul singers, country acts and Las Vegas entertainers have covered Dylan’s songs, and the songwriter’s influence continues to resonate through rock and pop music to the present.
So, it’s no surprise that record companies, looking for a convenient big gun to blast a new artist into the public’s consciousness, still evoke Dylan. Consider the cover of Pete Yorn’s new album, Day I Forgot, released earlier this year by Dylan’s longtime label, Columbia. The bold, red type on a white field; the off-center, black-and-white photo of the denim-jacket-clad singer with the hint of a guitar under his arm; and even the old circa-1950s/early-1960s Columbia logo on the front cover all work overtime to convey one message: Yorn is a new Dylan.
The music, unfortunately, is a great deal closer to suburban, post-Weezer guitar pop than to anything Dylan ever took on the road. Consider “Burrito,” with these opening lines: “It’s a 7-Eleven / Do you wanna take a walk outside / If you want a burrito / You can have another bite of mine.” Not exactly “All Along the Watchtower,” is it? Of course, Dylan is best known for his antiwar songs, and Yorn seems to have one of those, too. It’s called “Man in Uniform”: “Man in uniform told me he wants to get out / Didn’t see it coming head in from the west.”
Nope, “Masters of War” it ain’t.
OK, to be fair, Yorn is a straight-up pop-rock singer (kind of like what Eddie Vedder might sound like if he fronted a power-pop band), whose previous album, the pretty good Musicforthemorningafter, came designed to look like a Gap-commercial version of Bruce Springsteen, perhaps to play up the singer’s New Jersey roots. At least the label didn’t riff off of Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet.
Nevertheless, packaging should communicate something essential about an artist, and when conscious design cues are appropriated expressly to evoke another, better-known artist’s oeuvre, it becomes a problem when the new artist’s music has so little to do with the box it comes in. And when the box stuffed full of Valencias and navels is clearly marked “Granny Smith,” no one should be surprised when apple fans scrinch their faces like they just sucked a lemon.
The cover of on and on, the newest offering from Jack Johnson, doesn’t have any overt Dylan cues. Instead, it looks more like a something an obscure French progressive-rock troupe with ties to a flying-saucer cult might come up with: an enigmatic figure in silhouette fingering a guitar amid fauna, set against a washed-out aqua background. But the album title does kinda rhyme with Blonde on Blonde, and Johnson’s slacker demeanor bears a distinct resemblance to a number of ultra-laid-back new Dylans from the past, including Donovan and a bunch of nondescript staples of 1970s soft-rock radio.
Johnson, a former Hawaiian surfer champion, may be the anti-Dylan in that he’s so completely underpowered, so thoroughly marinated in last summer’s bong juice that he functions as an effective counterpoint to Dylan’s palpable sense of urgency. In fact, the unraveling sense of torpor conveyed by on and on (from The Moonshine Conspiracy/Universal), with its “let’s get baked and break out the guitars” mood of underachiever groove (along with a few occasional limp reggae beats in homage to Jah), constitutes a staggering achievement of sorts. It’s like hearing an all-night litany of Hotel California and Jackson Browne albums through a rag soaked silly with petroleum ether.
I kind of like it.
Why mention Johnson? Because, out of the many guitar-schlepping lads on the scene, he’s really starting to connect with the listening public and because he’s not the first guy you could accuse of making an entire album from which, upon concluding play, the listener may be hard pressed to recall one single melody. But the overall resonance cannot be denied.
If I recall, Dylan made a few of those, too.
From a marketing standpoint, singer-songwriters are considered “adult,” as in, “Let’s aim for that 25-54 demographic, the Starbucks crowd.” The success of Norah Jones last year proved that adults still do buy records on occasion, and Jones’ breakthrough record, Come Away With Me, was released by Blue Note, the jazz division of Capitol-EMI.
So, it’s little wonder that Jesse Harris, who wrote “Don’t Know Why” and four other songs on Jones’ hit record, has a record deal. The Secret Sun, the debut of Harris and the Ferdinandos, was just released by Blue Thumb, a former 1970s Los Angeles indie label now being revived as an eclectic-music imprint by Verve, the jazz division of Universal Music.
The cover of Harris’ album, with its Smith-Corona all-caps typeface reversed out of a photo of the bespectacled singer sitting in an alley, may be more aesthetically akin to late-1970s CBGB than to singer-songwriter, but it does evoke gritty New York like so many Dylan album covers did.
The music, however, is elegant and urbane, much in the way that Dylan’s and that of another period songwriter, Paul Simon, could be. Harris, on occasion, sounds a lot like Simon circa his underrated One Trick Pony. And the music, with its languid crawl of acoustic guitars threaded with sometimes abrasive electric-ax work (featuring Lounge Lizard Tony Scherr) set against sparse drumming and percussion, grows stronger with repeated plays, the earmark of a worthy record. Jones even sings on one track, “What Makes You.” But this one’s all Harris’ show.
At some point, one of the big labels is going to swoop down on local singer-songwriter Jackie Greene. If it’s one with a heritage to draw from, like Columbia, Greene may have to implore its art department to back off from any too-obvious Highway 61 Revisited cues.
Still, with Greene’s melodies consciously evoking Dylan as they do, along with Greene and his band’s active participation in Dig Music’s just-released live Dylan-cover album, Positively 12th & K, it’s a temptation that may be pretty hard to resist. Compared with the three major-label songwriters above, well, Greene had better make sure A.J. Weberman doesn’t start going through his garbage.
How does Greene’s Dig Music album from last year, Gone Wanderin’, stack up when compared with what the other artists mentioned are offering? For starters, his album cover is more early-1960s Elektra than Columbia; think Tom Rush or Koerner, Ray and Glover. Second, none of the above has on his records a song as utterly infectious as the title track on Greene’s album. The two tracks that follow, “Tell Me Mama, Tell Me Right” and “Travelin’ Song,” continue the strong beginning.
If there’s a real difference to be found, it’s in the style hopping that begins, starting with track four. “Mexican Girl” may have some fine electric guitar parts, but it’s not one of Greene’s strongest tunes. “Down in the Valley Woe” exudes a bluesy, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” vibe; “Cry Yourself Dry” sounds like the kind of barroom belter that Bonnie Raitt could have a good time with; and “By the Side of the Road Dressed to Kill” is a decent stab at Band-era Bob. Then comes “Freeport Boulevard,” a piano-driven blues shuffle; “Judgement Day,” which isn’t dissimilar from the title cut; “Gracie,” a sweet, finger-picked acoustic number; “Maria, Maria (It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie),” an uptempo bluegrass-flavored tune; and “The Ballad of Sleepy John,” a downtempo track. The album closes with a cover of “Messin’ With the Kid,” backed by Mick Martin and the Blues Rockers.
The only real problem may be with the sequencing, as the album fails to sustain a unified mood (compare it with Johnson’s on and on, which crawls into the brownie pan and stays there), and the corollary mastering, which should provide continuity through the genre hopping (compare Greene’s disc to Harris’ The Secret Sun, which jumps around stylistically but still flows nicely).
Nevertheless, Gone Wanderin’ is quite an achievement. Greene is the most compelling musical talent to come out of this area in years, and there’s no doubt that soon he’ll be pitched by some New York- or Los Angeles-based label as a certain Minnesota native’s heir apparent.
That should be quite interesting to watch.