Should rock critics re-visit the Wallflowers? I heard “6th Avenue Heartache” from their sophomore release, Bringing Down the Horse playing while shopping at a local-chain grocery store the other day and couldn’t help but feel how it seemed slightly unjustified that Jakob Dylan and company had been relegated to the soft rock playlist for midday shopping. Not that the Wallflowers recorded anything spectacular or particularly memorable in their surprisingly-lengthy career. If anything, the four-piece have played it safe, towed an MOR sound to maintain a tepid popularity. Oh, and they also happened to be blessed with a songwriter who was next of kin to possibly the greatest American folk-lyricist of modern times, one Robert Zimmerman (Bob Dylan), in case you haven’t been paying attention in the last twenty years.
Still, through the heavy, big-label production, there exist some respectable, working-man songs in the Wallflowers’ catalog that lean more on the American followers of Jakob’s father (Petty, Springsteen) than Dad himself. It was with this in mind that I approached Jakob’s Dylan’s first solo attempt, Seeing Things, with tempered enthusiasm. Unfortunately, the solo debut was too contrasting from previous work by Jakob Dylan. Avoiding big production and instrumentation, Seeing Things was an earnest, yet monochromatic acoustic set that, while garnering favorable reviews, did little to augment Dylan’s status as a songwriter to be reckoned with.
Now at 40, Jakob Dylan prepares to release his second solo album, Women + Country, with production help from T-Bone Burnett and some heavy vocal contribution from Neko Case. Equipped with a hip, nostalgic Americana meets Urban Outfitters album cover, Dylan, with his cast of supporters, seems to be vying for something more than a Starbucks-approved soundtrack. Dylan wants to earn some good, ole respect.
He definitely picked the right people to do so. Neko Case appears on six of the album’s eleven songs and while her vocals are never at the forefront, they are a nice addition to the warm, organic, and roots-y production of Burnett. Opener “Nothing But the Whole Wide World” is a simple, hopeful number that is mostly carried by Dylan and Case’s vocals interactions. On “Everybody’s Hurting” Case’s robust twang comes reeling across fiddle and somber horns as she and Dylan paint Steinbeck imagery over the well-crafted assembly of instruments.
When Neko isn’t present, Dylan is accompanied by singer/songwriter and permanent fixture in Case’s backing band, Kelly Hogan, who is just as effective. “Truth for a Truth” is a catchy tune full of classic T-Bone production with low-end electric guitar and pedal steels warbling along. Dylan sings of a “make it or break it” moment in a relationship with eagerness as Hogan appears on the chorus to add that subtle, but effective, fullness to the track’s mood.
Where Women + Country mostly suffers is from Dylan’s lack of edge. Over the weeping fiddles, creaking shakes and pounds of the percussion, and howling pedal steel, Dylan’s gentle baritone and choirboy-like delivery often fails to compliment the production. This is most obvious when Dylan finds himself on his own. “Smile When You Call Me That” is a simple love tune that falters from a pedestrian delivery and saccharine lyrics. “Lend a Hand” is better with its Tom Waits-esque, drunken trumpet lines and tin-can percussion but unfortunately Dylan is too nice to let loose and the perfect production is mostly for naught. Sure, it’s a ridiculous thing to complain about, but when making a moody, mid-tempo Americana record about hardship, loss and regret, it helps to have a little gruff to your pipes, weathered by cigarettes and/or cheap whiskey. Or at least add an eerie quiver or a bit of ‘tude. Take John Lee Hooker, Johnny Cash, Howlin’ Wolf, or the guy sitting behind the production board on this very album, T-Bone Burnett.
Alas, it’s a small grievance for an otherwise solidly-produced album full of emotive tunes that walk a balance between folk and pop music while thematically tackling a conflicted spirituality, poverty, love and the profane shortcomings of life in back-country America. It’s hard to believe Dylan knows anything about any of this other than what he’s read, but that shouldn’t prevent one from enjoying this respectable foray into the more pop-oriented sides of folk-driven Americana. Is it enough to advance Dylan’s reputation as a decent, but otherwise unremarkable songwriter? Probably not, but with Women + Country at least we know he is genuinely trying.