Wallflowers: Jakob Dylan’s Blues … Björk: Selma Sings

Wallflowers: Jakob Dylan’s Blues

Jakob Dylan said something telling near the end of the Wallflowers’ performance at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 3. “I think you guys have been very patient,” he told the crowd. “Thank you very much.”

Opening for the Who in its currently reinvigorated state has got to be unnerving, especially given that Mr. Dylan’s band served as a last-minute substitute for Jimmy Page and the Black Crows’ Led Zeppelin revue. But, from where I was sitting, the half-capacity Garden crowd didn’t seem particularly intolerant. They seemed to be enjoying the Wallflowers’ set, which relied heavily on the band’s last CD , Bringing Down The Horse . That album sold more than 4 million copies, license enough for Mr. Dylan to behave as if he belonged on that stage. But instead of treating the Garden gig as an opportunity to steal some thunder from a bunch of venerated rock ‘n’ roll geezers, Mr. Dylan seemed to have convinced himself that the Wallflowers were testing the audience’s patience.

On the Wallflowers’ third album, Breach (Interscope), Mr. Dylan grapples with the issues that obviously fuel this potentially self-defeating self-consciousness, and it represents a move forward in his songwriting. But though Mr. Dylan has finally dragged what’s spooking him into the light of day, he never quite manages to conquer it. Breach sounds like it’s entangled in the crushing grasp of some gigantic psychic octopus. Whenever it sounds like it’s about to break free of its weightiness, some dark tentacles lash out to pull it back into the inky darkness. As Mr. Dylan sings on “I’ve Been Delivered”: “Nothing’s hard as / Getting free from places / I’ve already been.”

Some of those tentacles seemed to be connected to the expectations that come along with being the pretty-boy son of Bob Dylan, a subject that Mr. Dylan deals with pretty explicitly on the song “Hand Me Down.” “You feel good and you look like you should / But you won’t ever make us proud,” he sings, only to conclude later on in the track: “Now look at you / With your worn-out shoes / Living proof evolution is through / We’re stuck with you / This revolution is doomed.”

Mr. Dylan sneaks plenty of self-lacerating observations like those onto Breach , which makes the lyrics a good read–but rock ‘n’ roll, especially the traditional kind that Mr. Dylan practices, is built on redemptive moments, and Breach suffers from a lack of them. Given the album title’s Shakespearean reference and lyrics such as “Let me in, let me drown or learn how to swim / Just don’t leave me at the window” (from “Sleepwalker”), Mr. Dylan is sending the message that he’s in it for the long haul. But there’s no goose-pimply moment on Breach when Mr. Dylan brushes back the skeptics and defines just who he is, the way that Bruce Springsteen–another guy who suffered from comparisons to Dylan père –did when he sang, “Mister, I ain’t a boy / No, I’m a man / And I believe in the promised land” on his similarly bleak album, Darkness on the Edge of Town .

The closest Mr. Dylan comes to such a moment of conviction can be found on “I’ve Been Delivered.” At one point in the song, he describes being 10 miles out at sea and waving back at the shore “Like a little boy up on a pony / In a show / ‘Cause I can’t fix / Something this complex / Anymore than I can build a rose.” But by the end of the song, he proclaims: “I’ve been the bull / I’ve been the whip / I just pulled down the matador / So now, turn on your lights / ‘Cause I’m coming home / I’ve been delivered for the first time.”

If he’s not quite convincing, the music’s partially to blame. “I’ve Been Delivered” just totters along, buoyed by what sounds like a synthesized calliope. But like the Garden performance, it’s ultimately too self-conscious to achieve the emotional heat it needs. And that is true for a lot of the album. Wallflowers fans expecting the freewheeling exuberance of “One Headlight” or “Sixth Avenue Heartache” from the last album will find a much denser, contained album that takes many listens to plant its hooks. In some respects, it’s like a funhouse ride, where little musical effects–like the ghostly percussion on “Sleepwalker”–suddenly present themselves on the soundscape, then just as quickly sink back into the aural murk, which was produced by Mr. Dylan’s manager, Andrew Slater, and Michael Penn (brother of Sean, husband of Aimee Mann). Mr. Dylan’s smoky scotch-on-the-rocks voice remains a thing of beauty, though, and it complements the Wallflowers’ guitar, bass and organ sound, which hasn’t changed much from the last album. There are moments, however–such as on the back-to-back tracks “Witness” and “Some Flowers Bloom Dead”–when Mr. Dylan seems to have been listening to a lot of Warren Zevon, circa Sentimental Hygiene .

After “Some Flowers…,” which is the sixth track on the 11-song album, Breach starts to flicker. “Mourning Train” and especially “Up From Under” sound like Springsteen knockoffs, as does the title and some of the lyrics of the New Wave-y “Murder 101.” But Elvis Costello’s spirited backing vocals help the song transcend its lyrical limitations.

Next comes the sluggish “Birdcage,” which really should have been tossed in favor of “Babybird,” the hidden track that appears at the end of the album. But I can probably guess why Mr. Dylan decided to “hide” the song: He wrote it for his three children, and it feels more like a present to have it semi-secreted in some wrapping paper made of digital code. “Babybird” is a simple, lovely song, set to a music-box-like piano accompaniment. It’s not a rock ‘n’ roll song, but it’s the one moment on Breach where Mr. Dylan shrugs off the weighty mantle of his cultural dowry and gazes at his future. “And when all my days are through / And I fly these hills no longer / I’ll lay beneath the stars / And I’ll watch you flying over,” Mr. Dylan sings. And, for the first time, he sounds delivered.

– Frank DiGiacomo

Björk: Selma Sings

Björk is bjack after a three-year absence from the pop-music marketplace with an impeccable, somewhat modest album–it’s just seven tracks, a little over 32 minutes long–called Selmasongs . It’s her finest record since … well, since her last one,

Homogenic , in 1997.

The new album, with tracks produced either by Björk herself or by Björk and Mark Bell (of the electronica group LFO), has a beautiful sound that marries a full orchestra (led by Los Angeles-based arranger Vincent Mendoza) with real and electronic drums, sampled beats and more found noises than you’re likely to come across on an old Eno record. It’s a continuation of the sonic territory Björk mapped out for herself on Homogenic –on which she laid the Icelandic String Quartet over dirty beats–only Selmasongs is lusher.

Selmasongs is a soundtrack of sorts for the new Lars von Trier movie Dancer in the Dark , which stars Björk as Selma. The album is meant to translate the longings of Björk’s character, an introverted factory worker who finds solace in music as she goes blind, into something beautiful and lasting. That may explain why this album has fewer moments of harshness or dissonance than Homogenic and Post (1995). That is not to say that Selmasongs is necessarily better or worse than those two albums; but Björk is a little sweeter on Selmasongs , a little more tender than she has been, probably in an effort to counteract Mr. von Trier’s fetish for bleakness.

Do you know the great Björk ballad, from Post , called “Possibly Maybe”? It is a mesmerizing torch song that makes the feeling of heartbreak terrifyingly alive again for the receptive listener–”I suck my tongue in remembrance of you,” she sings at one point in the song–and yet, in an interview, she once said she was ashamed of herself for having written “Possibly Maybe” because there was no hope in it. That same sensibility, with its distrust of despair as a source for art, keeps Selmasongs aloft, keeps it from falling into that gray Scandinavian bleakness. There is nothing gray about Björk; she is all wildness and bright colors. She specializes in expressing extremes of emotion–and for her that means not only anger, despair, longing and lust, but joy. She doesn’t shy away from joy. In fact, a joyous “Clatter! Crash! Clack!” are the first words you’ll hear on Selmasongs . You may be a little embarrassed to hear this kind of thing, but Björk is not embarrassed about singing it. Björk is never embarrassed. She just goes for it. You either go along with her, or you take the disk out of your Walkman and toss it in the river.

The star of any Björk album is the voice. Björk Gudmundsdottir, 34, has been a singing star in her hometown of Reykjavik, Iceland, since she was a girl, and she can do anything with her voice (and does). But unlike Mariah Carey and Celine Dion and the other divas of VH1, she is not all that interested in “wowing” people or in singing in a manner that could too easily be called beautiful. Björk lets you hear the effort. She whispers and stutters and lets the lyrics catch in her throat. You hear her breathe; you might hear her scream. Notes swoop impossibly, and then she throws in a spoken word.

Björk is not a machine. She sometimes seems to be the ultimate human being. She’s down in the muck of emotions and behavior and experience with the rest of us schlubs, not above it all.

She may not be a diva, but she is a show-off. On the Selmasongs track “107 Steps,” she pulls off the closest thing to a singer doing the telephone book by making her way through a song that has lyrics consisting almost entirely of numbers. In Björk’s interpretation (meant to get across a blind person’s memorized steps from one place to another), “31” is tentative, “32” is sad and “38” is puzzled; “51” brings with it a moment of hope, and the light comes in more fully with “65”; but “68” is interrogative and “69” is a mixture of anger and confusion, with the creeping sense that this life is maybe not worth the pain. Don’t worry, though–by “79” we’re feeling those desires again … only to have melancholy “86” usher in a new regime of uncertainty.

A stand-out song here is “I’ve Seen It All,” a tearjerker duet sung with Thom Yorke of Radiohead. “What about China?” sings Björk. “Have you seen the Great Wall?” “All walls are great,” replies Mr. Yorke, “if the roof doesn’t fall.” Alongside these two distinctive voices, you’ve got swishing electronic beats, swirling violins and a booming electric bass stumbling around in the basement.

“New World,” a major-key ballad that ends Selmasongs , is such a powerful example of its genre–the hopeful movie ballad–that it should make Phil Collins and Andrew Lloyd Webber ashamed of themselves. Along the way, there is the Hollywood fun of “In the Musicals”–which gives us Björk at her Björky best–and the slightly menacing “Scatterheart.” (On both of those tracks, she goes quietly up into her lovely clear falsetto voice for phrases here and there, only to come inevitably back down to her earthy chest voice.) The simple conclusion: Selmasongs is a marvelous production of a great singer-songwriter putting on a damned good sonic show.

–Jim Windolf

Too Long Between Go-Betweens

More than a decade has elapsed since Australia’s the Go-Betweens put out an album of original material. But whatever it was that enabled the band’s principals, Robert Forster and Grant McLennan, to churn out gem after indie-rock gem in the 80’s has not gone on walkabout.

The new album is called Friends of Rachel Worth (Jetset) and, surprisingly, it is neither overly ambitious nor excessively nostalgic. It is just damn good.

The shiny guitar’s still there. Porcelain acoustic guitar lines à la Yo La Tengo sit atop plush power chords à la Pavement (pumped through an amp borrowed from the latter band’s leader, Steve Malkmus, I’m told). And for filigree, there’s accordion, fiddle and exquisite synthesizer sounds programmed by Sam Coombes of Quasi.

Every one of the 10 tracks on Rachel Worth follows the same primordial pop-song structure: verse-chorus-verse-chorus-verse. Sometimes there’s a bridge; sometimes not. Almost every song lasts four fastidious minutes. The longest is five and the shortest, three.

Take “Spirit” (3:59), one of the Go-Betweens’ most satisfying love songs since their last album of original material, 1987’s Tallulah . An acoustic guitar and bass plink out one of the oldest, simplest lines in rock music. Mr. Forster’s Australian twang peeks through the holes in his deadpan impression of a Yank as he sings: “I’ve got tickets to the best show in town / If you wanna come on down and listen.” If it went on like this, “Spirit” would be the best Hootie & the Blowfish song ever. But just as things are about to get insipid, Messrs. McLennan and Forster jolt the song with some idiosyncratic old-school chords. As an electric guitar fills out the song’s acoustic skeleton, Mr. Forster sings: “I’ll keep you guessing.” Then it’s back to the original line.

Or take “Orpheus Beach.” It begins in spooky discord: The bass drone takes the lead over an electric guitar–then a cymbal roll, just for effect. Mr. Forster doesn’t even try to mask his accent now as he sings such slightly grotesque lyrics as “The eerie sound of blade on lake / Cracks my skin and I fill with ache.” It’s beautiful even as it borders on unlistenable. “I don’t need this blood,” Mr. Forster sings. Then an angelic chord quells the cacophony and the band sings in chorus: “Time to believe.” And the Go-Betweens make you believe that a band can take the decade off and still come up with an appealing album of sophisticated yet unpretentious pop.

–Ian Blecher