Graded on a Curve:
The Wallflowers,
Bringing Down the Horse

On the subject of The Wallflowers: I resisted Bob Dylan’s fortunate son and his band for a long, long time. I distrusted Jakob Dylan, scion of privilege and owner of one set of amazing cheekbones, the way I do all scions of privilege, and I continued to do so until the night I saw him live in Woodstock, where he was joined for a song or two by the great Garth Hudson, formerly of the Band, on accordion. And wham, I was sold.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no fan boy of Jakob Dylan or the Wallflowers, but they’ve released some great pop songs over the years, most of them (in my humble opinion) on 1996’s sophomore release, the punningly titled Bringing Down the Horse. Produced by T-Bone Burnett, the album went quadruple platinum—and this despite the defection of lead guitarist Tobi Miller at the beginning of the sessions, which led Dylan to bring in a bevy of guitarists to fill in, including Mike Campbell of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers—and spawned four hits, two of which I happen to love heart and soul.

I call the LP an example of Pop Americana, and Dylan himself has described how, despite the LP’s roots lite feel, he “wasn’t interested in making a throwback album from the ’60s or ’70s.” And this is obvious from opening cut, radio smash “One Headlight,” on. As for the LP’s mood, Dylan has said, “Every song, fortunately or unfortunately is about feeling massively defeated, because that’s what I was living.” Hey, join the club.

Say what you will about Dylan, and the boost he got from being the offspring of the most famous folk-rocker of the 20th Century, he has a natural facility for writing catchy melodies, and if one compares his work to that of his old man during the same period, Bob’s carpet rat beats him hands down. Sure, you occasionally detect echoes of his dad; the title “Three Marlenas” sounds like a tune off Blonde on Blonde, and the song boasts the same circus organ sound that helped make “Like a Rolling Stone” so famous. That said, its primary debt is to the Velvet Underground. In any case, it’s both lovely and moving; if its chorus doesn’t win you over, you lack a heart, my friend. As for “6th Avenue Heartache,” it positively soars, thanks in part to Mike Campbell’s slide guitar and Rami Jaffee’s organ, but mostly because of the way the band piles vocal upon vocal until you swoon.

“One Headlight” was a giant hit but I’ve never been thrilled by it, despite Jaffee’s mesmerizing organ work and one rock solid drum beat. Sure, the chorus is as catching as Ebola, but I prefer the slow and lovely “I Wish I Felt Nothing,” which features some beautiful pedal steel guitar by Leo LeBlanc and more great organ work by Jaffee. This is as close to real Americana as the Wallflowers get, although the mule-kicking “God Don’t Make Lonely Girls” also deviates from the LP’s pop feel, thanks again to LeBlanc’s brilliant pedal steel work and sheer propulsion. This is hard rock, and fetching hard rock at that, and I like it better than the hit single “The Difference,” which is also fast paced and boasts a catchy chorus but almost sounds like new wave to my ears. And if there’s one thing in this world I like less than turnips, it’s new wave.

“Angel on My Bike” is best forgotten despite its excellent chorus, ditto the so-so rock of “Laughing Out Loud” despite its cool guitar work, but “Bleeders” is a solid pop tune with an explosive chorus, and it’s worth noting that all of the songs that hit the charts on Bringing Down the Horse are on Side One, which is disappointing when one considers that Dylan and Company had oodles of time to write two, not just one, sides’ worth of solid songs, not having released an LP since 1992. “Invisible City” off Side Two, for example, is flat-out dull. But all is not lost. Side Two does boast “God Don’t Make Lonely Girls” and “I Wish I Felt Nothing,” as well as the stripped-down “Josephine,” on which the combination of Dylan’s vocals and Jaffee’s organ is a borderline winning one. And the song’s shift in tempo is as welcome as the excellent electric guitar work at the song’s end.

As none other than Donald Trump proves, nepotism makes the world go ‘round, but unlike Julian Lennon, whose work doesn’t mean jack shit to me, Jakob Dylan took his famous name and made something of it by dint of sheer talent. “Three Marlenas” and “6th Avenue Heartache” will always make me happy, as will “God Don’t Make Lonely Girls” and “I Wish I Felt Nothing.” Need I add he also puts on a great live show? No, our boy Jakob is more than a renowned last name and a set of fabulous cheekbones. He knows what he’s doing and he does it well, and holding his famous father against him is unfair. No, it’s more than unfair. It’s bunk.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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