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Now Hear This

Reviews of recent releases by Bob Dylan, Jadakiss, Dierks Bentley and Wilco.


Bob Dylan, “Together Through Life” (Sony)
No, that grumbling moan you hear is not a drunken Muppet theatrically dying, it's the original genius of rock songwriting, the legend himself, Mr. Bobby Dylan. At 67, he's still busy with an international touring schedule while releasing another weary, bluesy rock album with hard living etched so deeply into the grooves that your CD might start sweating the blood of the land.

Surrounded by talented musicians held largely in check, Dylan's albums tend to rise or fall these days on the strength of lyrical content and production: The lyrics here, mostly co-written with Robert Hunter of Grateful Dead fame, are more pedestrian than expected. It's a shame because the rich Southern music is generous and roomy; Heartbreaker Mike Campbell's searing guitar leads the way and the Tex-Mex feel of songs featuring the accordion of David Hidalgo (Los Lobos) are a welcome change-up. Dylan's half-spoken vocals, for all their ugliness, provide character — like a less expressive version of sinister Tom Waits. But the songs are what matter, and the memorable numbers are few: “I Feel A Change Coming On” rides a relaxed, almost Motown groove, while closer “It's All Good” is another keeper, sarcastically playing with a distinctly modern phrase that is essentially a vague euphemism for “whatever.” Exactly the word that comes to mind too often here.  HHHII — Brent Baldwin

Bob Dylan performs with Willie Nelson and John Cougar Mellencamp at the Harbor in Norfolk on Saturday, July 25, starting at 5:30 p.m. Tickets are $67.50.

Jadakiss, “The Last Kiss” (Roc-a-Fella)
Five years can be a lifetime in hip-hop, where trends rise and fade in a matter of months. Jadakiss — aka gruff-voiced Jason Phillips — released his platinum-selling second album, “Kiss of Death,” back in 2004, when George W. Bush was starting his second term, and at times the rapper's long-awaited follow-up nods to sounds from the first half of the decade. The cameos are plentiful and generally impressive, the beats suitably insistent if not especially innovative, and Jadakiss' flow is rhythmically aggressive even if he doesn't have much new to say. “Who's Real” is a gratingly nonsensical nursery rhyme rap, and closer “Letter to B.I.G.” is hip-hop navel-gazing. But Jada effortlessly sells the hard knocks of “Smokin' Gun” and poses a litany of thought-provoking theoreticals on “What If.” He sounds best on bangers like the “Grind Hard” and the slinky “Stress Ya,” which cribs from Men Without Hats. Title notwithstanding, “The Last Kiss” is no retirement album, but a mostly effective comeback.  HHHII — Stephen M. Deusner

Dierks Bentley, “Feel That Fire” (Capitol Nashville)
Phoenix country crooner Dierks Bentley writes country-rock songs — or is that rock-country songs? — about loving and leaving. His third album of new material, which follows a premature greatest-hits package, sounds like he's already far gone: “You can't rest a minute when you're living life on the run,” he sings on the overreaching, overrocking “Life on the Run,” and he sounds so unvested that he might as well as have left the building. His voice, usually so deep and dependable, can't find a foothold in uninspired songs like the saccharine “Beautiful World” or “I Wanna Make You Close Your Eyes,” which could be a creepy stalker anthem. “Better Believer” sounds convincingly fervent, and “I Can't Forget Her” could be a Chris Isaak cover, but Bentley seems unable or unwilling to elevate the solid songwriting of previous albums “Modern Day Drifter” and “Long Trip Alone.” Bentley typically thrives when he's blurring the lines between Nashville country and L.A. rock, but here he just doesn't feel that fire.  HHIII — Stephen M. Deusner

CORRECTIONS: This version corrects Bentley's place of origin and the names of two previous albums. It also clarifies that this is his third album of new material.

DVD: Wilco, “Ashes of American Flags” (Nonesuch)
No band within the amalgam of rock, country and folk has ever surpassed the songwriting heights achieved by the Band in the late '60s and early '70s — but on occasion Wilco comes close to picking up the torch. This road documentary was shot on the fly during the band's 2008 tour by directors Christoph Green and Brendan Canty (the drummer from Fugazi), who do a nice job of capturing the band's intimate live energy. Performances are interspersed with bleary, bus-eye views of the changing South, where cities are hollow and ghostly and small town America has been “Wal-Martized” (in bassist John Stirratt's words) into increasingly bland and dismal strip malls.

The group is shot performing at five quintessentially American venues — Cain's Ballroom in Tulsa, Okla., Tipitina's in New Orleans (where a three-piece horn section joins from the balcony), the Mobile Civic Center in Mobile, Ala., the legendary Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn., and the 9:30 Club in Washington.

Close-up shots swarm Jeff Tweedy's hoarse, soulful singing, Nels Cline's controlled chaos guitar, and Glenn Koche's emotive drumming, while intimate interviews (too brief and infrequent) help create a rough portrait of six talented 40-something musicians battling the ravages of age, creaky joints and aching necks as they bring their three-hour set to the masses. Tweedy speaks about the representational power of music to speak visually and this documentary does an admirable job accommodating him in distinctly American images — but perhaps the real buying point: flat out amazing sound, an audiophile's dream if I ever did hear one. HHHHI — Brent Baldwin


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