Bob Dylan Love and Theft

The critical book on Bob Dylan goes something like this: He releases a lot of crap but occasionally surprises folks with a masterful effort. With Love and Theft, the cycle, however tenuous, is broken. The new disc is not a masterstroke. And it's certainly not crap. Furthermore, it's Dylan's first new studio effort since '97's Time Out of Mind, which was widely lauded for its brilliance, thus further messing with the crap/masterstroke continuum.

Whereas Dylan was especially brooding and bitter on Time out of Mind, he's tapping into a broader vein of emotion this time out. He is, at turns, wistful, playful, exuberant, rambunctious, bawdy and romantic, with a noted de-emphasis on vitriol and seething autobiography. Hell, sometimes he's almost cuddly. You'd be hard-pressed to find a sweeter, more nostalgic Dylan song than the lovable-loser ode, Po' Boy. Poor boy/ Never say die/ Things will be all right bye and bye, Dylan sings over a buoyant rhythm and old-timey melody reminiscent of Tom Waits.

Throughout, Love and Theft relies on various roots styles: rockabilly (Summer Days), breezy swing driven by acoustic guitars (Bye and Bye, Floater, Moonlight), rough-and-tumble shuffles (Lonesome Day Blues, Cry a While) and mountain music (High Water). A couple of epic folk ballads — Mississippi and Sugar Baby — best evoke classic Dylan.

A backing quintet, highlighted by Charlie Sexton's diverse guitar work, provides just the right blend of deft touch and grit.

Love and Theft is burdened by only one central problem: Dylan's voice. It's too far gone, to the point that it's foreboding. Most listeners will have to get past this ravaged, rangeless croak in order to appreciate the album's otherwise considerable charms. But do so, and it'll be worth it. (Columbia)

—Eric Snider

Macy Gray The Id

When she burst on the scene in '99, an earthy soulstress channeling late-era Billie Holiday, Macy Gray had on her side the element of surprise — as well as a killer lead single in I Try. Neither of these advantages is in Gray's corner with The Id. She wrestled more control for this outing — co-producing and writing nearly all the lyrics — and it's clear she aimed to deliver an ambitious, genre-bending effort. What results is a classic case of overreach. When Gray strips it back to the kind of flowing R&B that made her mark in the first place, The Id works extremely well. It's during moments of wanton experimentalism that the album trips up. A kiddie choir clutters Hey Young World Part 2; Oblivion is an ear-sore, a slice of mock cabaret with a beat that accelerates a la Zorba the Greek. The disc could've used more songs like Gimme All Your Lovin' or I Will Kill You, which lopes along on a lazy funk groove, punched up by intermittent horn-section riffs. It's amazing what a gun to the head can do/ my baby loves me now as hard as he can, Gray sings in a tale that's at turns funny and harrowing. My methods may be suspect/ But you got to get love however you can. Much to her credit, Gray has penned lyrics of personal liberation (and sometimes recklessness) that veer markedly away from R&B convention. Her little-girl rasp, though, has lost some of its exotic charm, and at times sounds supremely affected, even downright squirrelly. In such a safe, market-conscious music world, it's tough to fault Macy Gray for her iconoclasm, but in bowing to those instincts she's made an album that's more off-putting than inviting. (Epic)

—Eric Snider

Tabitha's Secret Don't Play With Matches

Before there was Matchbox Twenty, there was Tabitha's Secret, an Orlando band featuring one Rob Thomas. Much has been made of these sessions, recorded before Thomas left the group and took a bunch of their songs with him; they've been independently released, litigated, cease-and-desisted and fought over. Apparently, the compromise entailed amputating all of the cuts that went on to become M20 hits, save a bare-bones version of 3 AM. Also apparent is that none of the ado matters. Tabitha's Secret, at its best, was a mediocre, slightly hippie-fied college-rock band dressing acoustic three-chord progressions up with keyboard flourishes and Thomas' shamelessly overwrought vocal histrionics. Sure, he screwed his co-writers, and they deserve a bit of the cha-ching generated by some of the biggest tunes off Yourself or Someone Like You. So just give 'em a cut; don't make 'em put out this dreck three years after the fact. Nobody outside of Central Florida cares, and Don't Play With Matches, from the angst of And Around through the angst of Dear Joan to the angst of Dizzy, sounds exactly like what it is — a collection of simple, half-baked pop-rock tunes from a local band that was obviously all about the major-label deal, but never got one. Of course, Matchbox Twenty never should have never seen the light of day either, so this disc may well please those fans who found Mad Season a bit too, er, ambitious. (Pyramid, www.pyramidrecords.com)

—Scott Harrell

James Blood Ulmer Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions

Although guitarist/vocalist James Blood Ulmer has long been associated with the jazz avant-garde, there's always been a deep wellspring of blues in his music. So it seems wholly appropriate that he would sojourn to the legendary Sun Studios to cut a collection of blues standards by the likes of Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. Ulmer and his seven-piece band (including producer and guitarist Vernon Reid) don't exactly skronk up the blues but definitely give these songs a semi-twisted, parallel-universe treatment, highlighted by Ulmer's tremulous, guttural vocals and jittery guitar work. (Label M, www.labelm.com)

—Eric Snider

Lucy Kaplansky Every Single Day

Whether performing one of her own songs or covering a Louvin Brothers classic, Lucy Kaplansky strikes a nerve. Her singing is restrained yet undeniably potent, as are the deceivingly simple lyrics to which she provides meaning. Wrapped around Kaplansky's tender vocals is the standard bass-drum-keyboard lineup highlighted by a balmy blend of guitars courtesy of ace Larry Campbell. A handful of folk luminaries take turns supplying background vocals, including Richard Shindell, who along with Dar Williams joined Kaplansky for the triumphant 2000 Cry Cry Cry project. Back on her own again, Kaplansky follows her collaborative success with an equally strong solo effort. (Red House, lucykaplansky.com)

—Wade Tatangelo

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