While Jakob Dylan may possess a surname and lineage of rock and roll royalty, after more than two decades of fronting The Wallflowers and his recent, well-received transition to modern troubadour, journalistsmyself includedreally should be able to review his new record, Women and Country, without feeling compelled to mention his famous father. (And maybe the next time around Ill manage to avoid the temptation all together.)
Dylans first solo effort, 2008s Seeing Things, offered a fine collection of acoustic arrangements that intimately showcased his songwriting in a minimalist context. On Women and Country, Dylan aimed to take that same traditional sound and expand upon it. I knew going into this record I wanted to hear something full and vibrant, says Dylan. I wanted for it to be as big and beautiful sounding as it could with instrumentation. To achieve this sound, Dylan enlisted legendary producer T-Bone Burnett to take the production reigns and indie goddess Neko Case, along with Kelly Hogan, to provide backing vocals.
Women and Country begins close to where Seeing Things left off. Nothing But the Whole Wide World and Down on Our Own Shield are straightforward, almost old-timey, folk songs, but Dylan and Burnett add a new dimension and drive with more prominent percussion behind Dylans acoustic strumming. Case and Hogans diverse vocals provide the lushness and texture that complete these songs. At times, their voices drift in and out like a soft breeze through a window, and at other moments, they meet Dylans vocals in the forefront, providing a gentle sweetness to match his earthy, straining tone.
By the records third track, Dylan puts Seeing Things squarely behind him and begins to embark on entirely new territory. The grim and nearly danceable Lend a Hand features seedy and demonic horns that would fit perfectly in a Tom Waits song. The bittersweet Smile When You Call Me That walks a tightrope between pop song and country ballad, with Dylan trying to reconcile a relationship steeped in dysfunction. I’m drunk and you’re insane/I can’t quit and you won’t change/Ain’t no half-hearted Romeo/Why do you treat me so?/Like our loves a joke/And its too much to laugh/Well, cant you at least smile/When you call me that?
But Dylan is at his very best on Women and Country when he uses dark, rural imagery to convey the idea that what men hold most dearnotions of country, home, and identity, as well as possessions and even womenis at stake and in imminent danger. Left turn off a county road/Weathervane is to the north/In the shade of sycamore/Is the house where you were born, opens Dylan on We Dont Live Here Anymore, a foreboding song that pounds along and features haunting backing vocals on the chorus by Case and Hogan. Everybodys Hurting, with a somber fiddle and beautiful harmonies, continues on in this vein of what might be dubbed Bleak Americana, carrying on that long tradition of depicting the plight of the downtrodden. Weve hunted these hills dry/Weve long outlasted the winter and our last woodpile/Only one things certain/Thats everybody, everybodys hurting.
Women and Country owes a great deal to the rich traditions of country, blues, and folk, but Dylan does more than simply reproduce these genres. He borrows from them in order to voice his own observations in a language that speaks to all of us. By looking back, Jakob Dylan has taken a great leap forward as an artist.