After the release of 2008's Seeing Things, his roots-directed solo debut album after 16 years worth of alert pop recordings with The Wallflowers, Jakob Dylan beat a Newsweek interviewer to the draw by forecasting the headline that would sum up the critical response to the then-new work: "Dylan goes acoustic."
That was a play, of course, on the "Dylan goes electric" banners that flourished when the singer's father, folk icon Bob Dylan, turned to rock 'n' roll in the mid-'60s.
For the younger Dylan, who turned 40 over the winter, the generational transformation perhaps wasn't as earth-shattering. Seeing Things stripped Dylan's songs down to rustic essentials (rustic when compared to the sheen that kept gathering on each successive Wallflowers album) while maintaining an earthy pop sensibility.
Women + Country, Dylan's second and newest solo venture, only slightly varies the formula. It switches out one star producer (Rick Rubin, who designed Seeing Things' sparse sound) for T Bone Burnett (who oversaw the Wallflowers' breakout album, 1996's Bringing Down the Horse). With Burnett comes the usual gang of creative rogues, including guitarists Marc Ribot and Greg Leisz. They enhance the country side of Dylan's newest sound by way of a plaintive prairie ambience that permeates the Mark Knopfler-like Yonder Come the Blues.
Burnett also brings in the rhythm section of bassist Dennis Crouch and drummer Jay Bellerose. Much as they did on the Burnett-produced Robert Plant/Alison Krauss pot of gold Raising Sand, the pair give new Dylan tunes like Down on Your Own Shield and Truth for a Truth a solemn but ghostly groove.
Finally, there are the women of Women + Country — specifically, Americana duchess Neko Case and her longtime co-hort Kelly Hogan (for crying out loud, won't somebody give the ultra-fab Hogan another stab at an album of her own?). Though they sing backup on eight of the album's eleven songs, their contributions are muted. Their harmonies are sweet enough on Everybody's Hurting and especially Holy Rollers for Love, but these world-class voices are left with little to do here but add polite color to the music.
And the songs? They're fine. They always are. Dylan's narratives are succinct and, at times, deliciously blunt, as in the confessions of a "broke, uneducated clown like me" on Smile When You Call Me That. "I'm drunk and you're insane," Dylan sings. The recriminations are never obstacles, though. The search for love on Women + Country, parched and ghostly as it becomes, never ceases.
Jakob Dylan and Three Legs featuring Neko Case and Kelly Hogan perform at 6:45 p.m. April 12 at the Kentucky Theatre, 214 East Main Street, for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour ($20, (859) 252-8888, www.woodsongs.com) and at 8 p.m. April 13 at the Brown Theatre in Louisville ($27.50, 1-800-775-7777, www.kentuckycenter.org).