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Willie Nile, “Positively Bob” (River House)
There are some analogies between Willie Nile and Bob Dylan, like their early career moves to Greenwich Village, extended layoffs (Dylan’s motorcycle accident, Nile’s record company torments) and decades of excellent songwriting.
“Positively Bob” took shape after a tribute concert for Dylan’s 75th birthday where Nile’s performances of “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” ‘’A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and others were not only clear winners with the audience but also rekindled his appreciation for the Nobel Prize winner’s oeuvre.
Sticking mostly to material from the 1960s, Nile puts a rollicking stamp on two of Dylan’s most famous protest songs, “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and “Blowin’ In the Wind,” which sandwich a galloping take on “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” and form an energetic opening threesome.
“Subterranean Homesick Blues” acquires a rockabilly identity and a rendering of “Abandoned Love,” another of those legendary tunes Dylan kept in the vaults for years, brings some well-deserved attention to a rarely versioned classic originally meant for 1976’s “Desire.”
The album is subtitled “Willie Nile Sings Bob Dylan” and strong accompaniment comes from guitarists Matt Hogan and James Maddock (himself a singer-songwriter worth discovering), bassist Johnny Pisano and Spin Doctors’ drummer Aaron Comess, among others.
There are plenty of details in Dylan’ songs even from 50 years ago or more which translate well as current affairs and Nile’s interpretations make skillful use of that timelessness.
Nile is too good and sincere to merely imitate Dylan and pays his highest compliment by performing the 10 songs as if they were his. Listen to Nile’s other albums and find the proof.
Sam Baker, “Land of Doubt” (Blue Limestone)
If Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize re-ignited the debate on what separates popular music from poetry, Sam Baker is here to complicate things further.
Baker makes elegant, original music. Nothing he does could be mistaken for anyone else’s work.
Baker’s career emerged from a remarkable life story. In 1986 he was on a train in Peru when a bomb set by terrorists exploded. Baker suffered brain damage, hearing loss and a hand injury that forced him to teach himself to play guitar left-handed.
The simple grace of his craft, on full display in his fifth release, “Land of Doubt,” emerged from that tragedy.
With a sound both soaring and sad, the Texas-based Baker sings in a raspy talk-whisper that makes you stop what you’re doing, sit down and listen. The words emerge in sharp relief from a soundscape of restrained guitar, piano, strings and muted trumpet. (AP)
Baker has mostly veered away from the story-portraits of earlier albums and toward songs about heartbreak and loss. There are hints of bitterness, and if there is hope to be found, it lies in the majesty of the music.
A song called “The Feast of Saint Valentine,” for example, dwells on a “wish you well” card that hints at a recent breakup. Impossibly sad, it’s delivered against an ascending backdrop that could be the soundtrack of mountains. Somehow, it lifts the spirit.
The effect, utterly evocative, may or may not qualify as poetry. But it is certainly poetic. (AP)
By Pablo Gorondi