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Back when the likes of Seals & Crofts were gunking up the airwaves with their brand of boring navel-gaze, music scribes occasionally bestowed the coveted “new Dylan” tag on cherry-picked winners. In the golden age of the singer-songwriter, that meant artists whose confessional poetry rose above the level of Rod McKuen’s and managed, somehow, to touch the hem of Bob’s leopard-skin pill-box hat. Or something like that. Bruce Springsteen was a new Dylan. So were Warren Zevon, Steve Forbert, and the criminally overlooked Tonio K.
The Boss hit the big time, of course, but as a marketing device, “new Dylan” turned out to be pretty much the musical equivalent of a cyanide capsule. Even the best of the bunch got scant airplay, and the whole thing reached its hyperironic nadir when a band fronted by former 10,000 Maniac James Reilley took the phrase for its name andas everyone involved surely expectedquickly proceeded to go nowhere. Hardy har har.
Dylan acolyte Dan Bern has heard that one before, and he thinks it’s pretty funny, too. And why wouldn’t he? He’s less a new Dylan, after all, than a nü Dylan. Bern is a first-rate joke-teller, but his songs, like his nasally voice, can be bracing, whiny, and overwrought. Sometimes, he doesn’t seem all that far from those post-grunge self-obsessives whose girlfriends got out while the getting was good and whose parents wish they’d skipped the Marshall stack and sent a tuition check to the local military school instead. As even a cursory listen to his half-dozen long-players attests, Bern’s favorite topics are clearly (a) himself and (b) girls.
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Plus, on the evidence of the New Mexico-based singer-songwriter’s fine new CD, Fleeting Days, Bern has a decent shot at shifting a few units, tooat least among the parents of those privileged, wannabe-bad kids otherwise known as nü-metalheads. Sandwiched between a choice cut from, say, the new Lucinda Williams disc and a little vintage Elvis Costello, any song from Fleeting Days would make for the perfect adult-album-alternative segue.
My first call-in request would be for disc-opener “Baby Bye Bye.” Over classic-rock chord changes imported from the outskirts of Springsteen’s “Promised Land,” Bern showcases his gift for solipsism, bypassing grand themes such as faith and redemption in favor of a little free-associative tale about a CD he likesthe one the artist’s “producer thinks he never should’ve made”and how he hates to get up in the morning. For good measure, he even throws in some sexually frank relationship angst: “New girl on top of me/Will this work out?” Bern wonders aloud to no one in particular before finishing the rhyme by retreating “to the kitchen/To sort it all out.”
If the simmering “Closer to You” is any indication, though, Bern’s relationship prospects don’t look so hot. Unlike the scattershot “Baby Bye Bye,” the track is darkly, almost maniacally focused. It’s a moody slow-burner, seven swirling minutes of bad vibes and unrequited lust wherein Bernleft to his own devices because his girlfriend has fallen asleepputs on a Miles Davis record and proceeds to drink himself into a sinister stupor. As keyboardist Wil Masisak’s retrofied organ fills and guitarist Eben Grace’s jangling minor keys ebb and flow behind him, Bern morphs slowly into one paranoid drunk: “I seen what happens to the boys who love you,” he allows over the song’s surging bridge. “Gonna move carefully, real, real carefully.” The words are prosaic, sure, but as Bern spits out each one of them, you couldn’t imagine the mannish boys of Korn sounding any creepier. That’s particularly true when the sotto voce male chorus kicks in toward the end of the track and then hums somberly beneath the extended fade. It’s a deft touch, and one that’s guaranteed to give you the willies.
Elsewhere, though, Bern tries to play nice with his significant others. On “Chain Around My Neck,” he points the finger of blame at himself, setting some occasionally brutal self-analysis to a foot-stompin’ country beat and a melody that recalls the Hee Haw classic “Doom, Despair, and Agony on Me.” “I Need You” is similarly plaintive, a country-pop tune that’s half Marshall Tucker, half Marshall Crenshaw. And two of the disc’s best songs are named for the women they adore: Set to a clunky but catchy rhythm, “Eva” borrows an idea from erstwhile new Dylan Freedy Johnston, with Bern casting himself as Adam in a version of the Fall that begins in a church on Hollywood Boulevard. And all 2 minutes, 34 seconds of the frenetic pop-rocker “Jane” are goofy-clever, with Bern waking up every morning with the titular woman’s name on his lips and contemplatingin phrasing that recalls Buddy Holly’s hiccupping yelps”learning how to read in Braille/To have you at my fingertips.”
Of course, Mr. Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 himself once said that all his albums are comedy records, a cryptic remark that Bern sometimes takes literally. None of his long-players would be complete without a track or two that sound like Steve Martin outtakes, and Fleeting Days is no exception. “Graceland,” for instance, is pure back-of-the-album filler, a careening, gospel-inflected rant that opens with lyrics snatched from Paul Simon, moves to a withering impersonation of Marc Cohn (of “Walking in Memphis” infamy), and then proceeds to take potshots at Waffle House, cheese grits, and even the King himself, whose Tennessee palace means a lot less to Bern than Okemah. (“That’s Woody Guthrie’s home,” as Bern helpfully shouts.) And though it’s too prissy for its own damn good, “Soul” also cracks wise, with Bern updating some of the pithy tenets of Bokononism, the useful little religion based entirely on lies that figures in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.
Still, missteps like those are relatively few on Fleeting Days, which is easily the most consistent disc Bern has yet made. Will Clear Channel come calling? We shall see. In an earlier era, Bern would certainly have mopped the floor with both Seals & Crofts. On that, as Fred Durst might say, we should all be in agreeance. CP