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MUSIC REVIEWS: Bob Dylan, Dave Matthews Band, Avett Brothers

- - Monday, September 10, 2012

Tempest

Bob Dylan

Columbia

★★★★

At 71 years old, Bob Dylan has an old man's growl instead of a young man's croon. He rasps, rattles and rumbles his way through "Tempest," his 35th album.

Even in his younger days, Mr. Dylan wasn't praised for his crystalline voice. He was praised for his delivery, and "Tempest" is delivered with swagger, its 10 songs weaving a smart, confident path through many of the genres that dominated the first half of the 20th century. Instead of folk, it focuses on a mix of vintage country, Depression-era swing and rockabilly, with Mr. Dylan's primordial croak at the forefront of every track.

The music suits his voice well. He channels Louis Armstrong on "Duquesne Whistle," a song caught halfway between ragtime and rock 'n' roll, and evokes Tom Waits on the haunting "Scarlet Town." During the longer tunes — the bluesy rave-up "Narrow Way," the murder ballad "Tin Angel" and the 14-minute title track — he mixes an old-school storytelling approach with enough internal rhymes, puns and biting couplets to make a rapper jealous.

Calling this Mr. Dylan's best album in a decade sounds like low praise because his recent work — particularly 2009's "Christmas in the Heart," where he wheezed his way through "Little Drummer Boy" with all the bored, boozy attention of a shopping mall Santa Claus — rarely left an impact. "Tempest" is diverse and direct, though, with songs that bring new insight to familiar themes such as love and death. Released 50 years after his self-titled debut, it's a battle cry from an artist who isn't ready to lay down his guns just yet.

Away From the World

Dave Matthews Band

RCA

★★★

On 2009's "Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King," the Dave Matthews Band mourned the loss of saxophonist LeRoi Moore by getting back to its roots. The guys had been reinventing themselves for nearly a decade, starting with the contemporary pop makeover of 2001's "Everyday," and it was time to return to a more comfortable sound. "GrooGrux King" was a touching tribute to the band's fallen friend, not to mention its best album in years.

On "Away From the World," the Dave Matthews Band remains in its comfort zone, even hiring Steve Lillywhite — the producer of its first three albums — to oversee this batch of funky pop/rockers, elastic jams and acoustic ballads. There is a familiarity to these songs, to the way each song is rooted in deep-seated grooves and cathartic choruses, to the way Dave Matthews pushes his voice into the stratosphere while the band creates a polyphonic rumble far below. The material offers enough adventure to keep things from sounding stale, and the songs sound better with each listen.

On "Sweet," Mr. Matthews sings a soft, summery lullaby to his child, accompanying himself with a single ukulele until the final minute, when the full band enters the song at a cool, casual lope. It's a perfect moment, and it sums up what makes this album so good: The guys know when to lie low and when to pile things high, a lesson that few jam bands ever learn.

The Carpenter

Avett Brothers

American

★★★

In the months leading up to this album's release, singer Scott Avett listed Soundgarden and Nirvana as key influences, promising that "The Carpenter" would be louder than the band's early work. That may be so, but the best moments on this folk-rock record arrive whenever the guys turn off their amps and pick up their acoustic instruments.

"Winter in My Heart" is a slow-moving ballad about heartbreak on the Fourth of July, set to a soundtrack of vocal harmonies and sweeping strings. "Live and Die" picks up the tempo, delivering a pop song disguised as a bluegrass hoedown, and "Down With the Shine" finds the boys riding an easygoing groove built upon the banjo and accordion.

With Rick Rubin acting as producer, you would expect the rock songs to have more oomph. They don't. They are too clean, too polished for a band that built its reputation on loud, ragged roots music.

The band's unplugged songs have enough down-home grit to keep this ship afloat. Whenever the guys play to their strengths, there is nothing but smooth sailing.