Record reviews

Bob Dylan

Album: “Tempest” (Columbia)

Grade: A

“Tempest” is no doubt the best album you’ll ever hear from a 71-year-old.

If that sounds like damning Bob Dylan with faint praise, rest assured this is one of the best discs you’ll hear by anyone this year, at any age. Rather, the point is made to marvel at the vitality of a man who’s been making albums for 50 years and still manages to be relevant.

Dylan has led his fans, and the entire music community, on many journeys over a half century, even a few dead ends. After a detour with 2009’s largely unsatisfying “Together Through Life,” the new “Tempest” continues the improbable late-career renaissance of America’s greatest living songwriter.

The title cut is the centerpiece, a Celtic-flavored telling of the Titanic story, both historically accurate and fanciful. Its 45 verses — no chorus, no bridge — even references Leonardo DiCaprio. The cinematic look at all manners of behavior in the face of impending doom stretches on for 14 minutes. A watchman who missed the trouble ahead is an indelible, recurring character.

“Tempest” is not even the first epic on the record. “Tin Angel” is an old-fashioned murder ballad, a bloody tale of a tragic love triangle that advances on a rubbery and ominous bass line by Tony Garnier, Dylan’s bass player for more than 20 years and 2,000 concerts.

That bass line is an example of the musical signature of the disc — arrangements that create momentum through repetition. On “Long and Wasted Years,” it’s a descending guitar lick. The hook on “Narrow Way” rocks hard. The pedestrian blues of “Early Roman Kings” shows that approach doesn’t work every time but, otherwise, the effect is mesmerizing and directs attention straight to the lyrics. Dylan’s voice is a guttural growl now — that’s no secret, but he knows how to enunciate and sing. None of the words pass by unnoticed.

There’s plenty to be engrossed by. Serious study would take a New Yorker-length article, when one song alone has more verses than most modern albums. Dylan shows quite a violent streak, with one song’s key line being, “I pay in blood, but not my own.” The lovely tribute to John Lennon begins with his murder.

Yet the parsing of lyrical clues to discern what Dylan is thinking is a fool’s errand. Better just to enjoy the story-telling and hidden delights. A phrase such as “you’re like a time bomb in my heart” sneaks up and detonates. Dylan’s humor is sly and often overlooked, like on this couplet: “Last night I heard you talking in your sleep, saying things you shouldn’t say. Oh, baby, you just might have to go to jail someday.”

Dylan is an American musicologist, and the variety of styles on “Tempest” adds to the enjoyment. The opening “Duquesne Whistle” swings. “Soon After Midnight” is a love song led by pedal steel guitar. “Pay in Blood” mixes the pedal steel with a soulful back beat, and “Roll on John” has a stately, weary gait that matches the subject matter.

Decades ago, Dylan’s characters, allusions and turns of phrases were the subject of academic study. That this inscrutable lyricist can continue to amaze, amuse, befuddle and bedazzle past retirement age is something to behold.

Nobody makes discs like this anymore.

David Bauder, Associated Press

ZZ Top

Album: “La Futura” (Universal Republic)

Grade: B

With its distortion-heavy slabs of gritty blues-rock and title en espanol, ZZ Top’s first full-length album in nearly a decade easily could fit in the band’s catalog somewhere pre-1983, before “Eliminator” boldly embraced synthesizers and made the “little ol’ band from Texas” unlikely MTV personalities.

To help evoke their less- polished ’70s heyday for “La Futura,” the band enlisted superproducer Rick Rubin, who has an unparalleled reputation for reorienting artists (Johnny Cash, Metallica) who have lost their way a bit. ZZ Top’s last several albums were unfocused, with the band striking aimlessly between the rough-hewn riffs that broke them beyond the Lone Star State and the high-gloss production that shot them to stardom.

“La Futura” is a back-to- basics set of swaggering rock jams (“Chartreuse,” “Big Shiny Nine”) and barroom blues shuffles (“Heartache in Blue”) delivered as always with plenty of the Texans’ trademark humor and double entendre.

Like all worthy ZZ Top records, it’s Billy Gibbons’ signature guitar sound that bolsters “La Futura” (rumor has it he uses a peso as a pick) and makes it a welcome return to form.

—Christopher Weber, Associated Press

Mark Knopfler

Album: “Privateering” (Mercury/Universal)

Grade: B

Mark Knopfler, the British guitarist best known as the frontman to Dire Straits, returns with his seventh solo record, the subtle “Privateering,” which is a moody and entrancing musical travelogue spread over two discs.

Employing world-class musicians, such as Tim O’Brien on mandolin, the 63-year-old Knopfler uses his increasingly world-weary voice to spin tales of gamblers, lovers and seafarers from across the globe over the 20 original tracks.

O’Brien is just one of several guests who add layers to the sound not typically heard in popular music, including whistle flute, pedal steel, harmonica, fiddle and accordion. Along the way, Knopfler delves into country, blues, Celtic folk and rock, melding the different styles into a cohesive whole.

—Scott Bauer, Associated Press


Album: “Undisputed” (United Music Media Group)

Grade: D

It’s been awhile since DMX made headlines in terms of music. Instead, over the last few years, the once-great lyricist has been reduced to a tabloid target due to his many arrests, his drug issues and his disturbing appearances on reality TV.

“Undisputed,” his first album of new material since 2006, likely won’t change that. The rapper lacks the magic found on his previous efforts. His seventh release offers more misses than hits, and it seems as if the 41-year-old is past his prime.

DMX’s trademark growls, barks and ad-libs are found throughout the album. And for the most part, he still raps about his struggles overcoming his own self-inflicted mistakes as he prays for guidance.

But “I Don’t Dance,” the first single that features hip-hop newcomer Machine Gun Kelly, is one of the album’s most lackluster pieces of work — by DMX’s standards. And there are more songs that sound just as bad. The veteran rapper’s once- powerful words are now hard to digest — on some songs he even mumbles — throughout most of his 17-track album.

The production on “Undisputed” is respectable with Swizz Beatz, J.R. Rotem, Dame Grease and Tronzilla laying down the tracks. But their efforts don’t help the overall quality.

Surprisingly, the most enjoyable songs aren’t the hard-core ones. Instead, it’s the R&B- flavored “Cold World” and “No Love” — two songs that feature singer Andreena Mill — that stand out.

—Jonathan Landrum Jr.

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