ROCK / Records: Bob went a mumblin' and Keef went a riffin': Andy Gill on retro-folk, retro-blues and retro-raunch from Bob Dylan, John Lee Hooker, Rainer, Keef and Izzy Stradlin

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The Independent Culture
BOB DYLAN

Good as I Been to You

(Columbia 472710-2)

PRESUMABLY intended to resonate in a commercially satisfying way with the 30th anniversary celebrations of Dylan's debut album, Good as I Been to You finds His Bobness back where he began, wheezing out solo acoustic versions of old folk songs - 'Diamond Joe', 'Frankie and Albert', 'Froggie Went A Courtin' ' . . . 'Froggie Went A Courtin' '?

Nobody, so the famous advertising rubric ran, sings Dylan like Dylan; but, conversely, run- ins with albums like Down in the Groove and Self Portrait have taught us that, on his day, nobody screws up non-Dylan songs like Dylan. So it proves here: these cover versions are worse than most of those on Self Portrait, perfunctorily recorded and rattled out in highly erratic fashion. Some, such as his croon through Lonnie Johnson's 'Tomorrow Night', are unintentionally hilarious; elsewhere, Dylan's reedy little whine is quite inadequate to the task on a sea shanty such as 'Jim Jones', which requires a more stentorian, bearded delivery.

Indeed, Dylan hasn't sung this badly in quite some time - he sounds diffident, apathetic, even more nasally challenged than usual. Perhaps he has a cold. Or perhaps he believes his voice has now acquired the necessary 'grain' to interpret such well-seasoned material, like his early mentors in the American folk scene. Does he now believe he can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell? The answer may be more obvious than that, however - it may simply be a case of the rigours of Dylan's Never-Ending Tour not allowing him enough time to sit down and write a decent song. There are two or three passable tracks here - the traditional 'Black Jack Davy', Stephen Foster's 'Hard Times', Blind Boy Fuller's 'Step It Up and Go' - but in Bob's folkie heyday they would have been the filler cuts between his own corrosive protest songs. Good As I Been To You sounds like the free CD given away to boost the sales of the accompanying proper album. So where's the proper album?

JOHN LEE HOOKER

Boom Boom

(Point Blank VPBCD 12)

RAINER

Worried Spirits

(Demon FIENDCD 723)

MOVING away from the guest- laden formula of The Healer and Mr Lucky, John Lee Hooker reverts to something like style with Boom Boom, interspersing routine band boogies with a series of solo cuts showcasing his more intimate, predatory solo approach. There are a few guests to hand on some tracks, but they're less stellar, more generic - Robert Cray, John Hammond Jr, Albert Collins, Charlie Musselwhite and the Fabulous Thunderbirds' Jimmie Vaughan - and they're confined to strictly supporting roles.

The overall result is much slower and more introspective than recent albums, both on a furiously intense slow band blues like 'Trick Bag' and solo meditations like 'Hittin' the Bottle Again' and 'Sugar Mama', where the cavernous vibrato of his electric guitar adds an extra rhythm to the celebrated Hook foot-stomp. As a result, the album's closer to the organic, extempore blues of Lightnin' Hopkins than to his recent records, which were to a large extent much slicker than is usual with Hooker. Here, the only slick moment is the title-track, a swaggering version lacking the compact force of the 1961 original. It'll doubtless put jeans on bums, though.

The Czech-American guitarist Rainer Ptacek offers blues of a rather more austere kind on his belated follow-up to 1985's classic Rainer and Das Combo; accompanied only by his old National steel guitar, he applies the methods of Robert Johnson or Skip James to modern times, exhibiting a dedication to the archaic that renders the usual questions of white-boy blues authenticity quite meaningless. There's a link with Chris Whitley's evocative Big Sky Country from last year, but Rainer's nervy, David Byrne-esque vocals and raw slide-guitar style aren't draped in an ambient production, remaining instead as stark and bare as classic delta blues. A collaboration with a well-known Texan bearded boogie trio (who may not be named for contractual reasons) is apparently on the cards for next year, but it's unlikely to have the potent simplicity of Worried Spirits.

KEITH RICHARDS

Main Offender

(Virgin America CDVUS 59)

THE no-nonsense crisp thump of the drums, the patented raunch of the guitar, the understated keyboard shadings . . . Main Offender is a bit like hearing a Stones demo, except where you expect to hear Jagger, there's this weatherbeaten croak of a voice which sounds, in places, like Robert Palmer with a dry throat. It's another Keef solo offering, which means we get the riff, the whole riff, and nothing but the riff. And while there are indeed several decent riffs, with neat chord sequences, in evidence here, few of them are developed beyond the most rudimentary level. When they are, as on 'Will But You Won't', the development is textural rather than structural: the song still doesn't extend beyond the riff, it just gains weight and momentum as it progresses.

Coming so hard on the heels of Ronnie Wood's latest solo album, Main Offender offers the odd sensation of the Stones disintegrating into constituent parts, like some barmy deconstructionist exercise illustrating the mysterious transparency of the sum of their separate parts: there's the slide guitar, here's the peerless rhythm guitars. Indeed, if you were to take these two albums and squeeze them together with Mick's next solo offering, you might be able to condense them down to a half-way decent Stones record.

IZZY STRADLIN

Izzy Stradlin and the Ju Ju Hounds

(Geffen GED 24490)

WHEN HE left Guns N' Roses, Izzy Stradlin was apparently invited to join The Black Crowes, but chose to set out on his own instead. While the first decision was undoubtedly correct - there's a far greater variety and imagination on the two sides of this solo debut than on all eight sides of GN'R's Use Your Illusion, and far less pomposity and hysteria - the second seems more questionable since, in essence, Izzy Stradlin and the Ju Ju Hounds is just a less effective version of the Crowes' early Seventies retro-raunch. Ronnie Wood, too, chips in on one of his own songs, but it's just another throwaway, the kind of thing that couldn't even make it to Ron's own album.

Apart from an ill-judged thrash-metal version of Toots & The Maytals' rambunctious reggae classic 'Pressure Drop', and the occasional punk-metal trifle like 'Bucket O' Trouble', Stradlin exhibits a deft way with the era's essential musical elements, particularly when attempting a mandolin-tinged country variation on the Bo Diddley rhythm in 'Time Gone By', or summoning up a gloriously wasted stew of slide guitar, mandolin and piano for the album's finale, 'Come On Now Inside'. But whatever the record's qualities, it's difficult to see any but the most dedicated GN'R fans bothering to investigate it.

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