September 13, 2006


Modern Times

Yes, the times certainly are a changin'. Especially when you see Bob Dylan, once at the forefront of counterculture, playing tracks from his new album for a bright, glamorized iTunes commercial. Yet, Dylan's 44th album, Modern Times, while highly produced and promoted, retains much of the poet's early charm.

Like Bruce Springsteen's new album The Seeger Sessions, Modern Times travels the vast borders of the genre Americana. His raspy, rather old sounding (cut him a little slack, he's 65) voice, still croons socially aware lyrics, particularly "The Levee's Gonna Break," a Memphis Minnie blues cover with chilling allusions to Hurricane Katrina.

Dylan's shattering voice is backed by, as he said himself in Rolling Stone, "

. . . the best band I've ever been in, I've ever had, man for man." It is this exceptional instrumental arrangement that platforms Dylan on the album's most moving track, "Workingman's Blue's II," a slow ballad which evokes the venerable songwriter we all know so well. While you may mistake tracks such as these for the Bob of the '70s, he brings you to the present on this album. Who would have thought Dylan would be name dropping Alicia Keys in a track, "Thunder on the Mountain?" These really are modern times.

Fiona Apple

At times, we find it hard to believe that Fiona Apple exists. The singer/songwriter seems to have too much talent, fame, beauty and intellect to not be some kind of contrived media persona. Seeing a picture of Fiona Apple is the real clincher though — how can anyone that beautiful, with her tall willowy frame and her crystal blue eyes, also be so musically noteworthy?

When, however, you start to scratch away at this image of Fiona Apple, who was born and raised New York, and really listen to her music, you will find that her allure is built upon her idiosyncrasies. Apple's debut album Tidal, which she released in 1996 when she was only 18, revealed her talent for creating interesting musical tension, particularly through the contradictions in her vocal delivery and lyrics. Her voice could be likened to that of an angel with a sore throat; it is mostly dense and sweet, but like a secret card trick, will occasionally roll up into an exhilarated breathy aria. The true power of Apple's voice, though, is her amazing ability to show an unbelievable breadth of emotion in every syllable that she sings.

In fact, Apple's true talent lies in how emotionally raw her music feels. Like most music, most of Apple's lyrics document the extreme highs and lows of romantic relationships. But unlike most romantically confessional work, there is always a sublime combination of wit and vividness in her lyrics, so rarely found in contemporary music.

Although Apple is not as prolific as many other artists, all three of her albums are musical gems. The most commercially successful and consumer friendly album is Tidal and if you are a new listener, you should begin with that. When the Pawn . . ., Apple's 1999 release, has some similar elements to Tidal but is more lyrically avant-garde. Extraordinary Machine, released this year, is a real departure both musically and lyrically, because it is extremely experimental. If pressed, our real suggestion would be to listen to all three albums, and let Apple become one of your favorites.

James Hunter

Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, Friday 8 p.m. Move over Sam Cooke, Ray Charles and Van Morrison — the new king of soul has arrived. Well, maybe just rest your bluesy bones for a while and give James Hunter, with his new album People Gonna Talk, a moment in the spotlight. Garnering appraise for his smooth soul shaking voice and 60s retro-pop tempos, Hunter produces timeless songs on this U.S. debut.

While the album has inertia of its own, his live performances are said to project on an entirely different plane, just as those of the aforementioned late-greats. And it is always intriguing to see a British man sing four-decade-old southern R&B. So for those of you nostalgic for those jukebox days, Hunter's performance of People Gonna Talk should make you twist and shout.

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