Women and Country is Jakob Dylan's strongest showing since the Wallflowers' 1996 breakthrough, Bringing Down the Horse.
The common denominator -- aside from the singer-songwriter himself? Fort Worth-bred producer T Bone Burnett, who seems uniquely qualified to elicit superb performances from this son of Dylan, having previously overseen the underrated folk-rock-influenced Horse.
This 11-song collection also benefits from a not-so-secret weapon: the addition of Neko Case and Kelly Hogan on harmony vocals for many of the record's best tracks, such as Everybody's Hurting.
The pair's tasteful contributions serve to elevate the already sturdy material; Women and Country wraps its listeners in a very specific, almost tangible mood from the opening notes of lead-off tune Nothing But the Whole Wide World.
Although much of Dylan's full band and solo catalog in the years since Horse have found him working against his wonderfully creased, enticingly gloomy voice, including ill-advised detours into generic pop-rock, Women and Country allows the 40-year-old to embrace the grit and grain to powerful effect. That newly rediscovered confidence gives Women and Country an energy that much of Dylan's work in recent years has sorely lacked.
Aided by the album's pervasive country-noir style (grizzled iconoclast Tom Waits would feel right at home on Lend a Hand and We Don't Live Here Anymore) and enabled by the crack, Burnett-assembled band -- among others, Jay Bellerose on drums, Marc Ribot on guitar and Greg Leisz manning the pedal steel -- Dylan relishes the smolder of Down on Our Own Shield and the exquisite lament They've Trapped Us Boys.
Case and Hogan are used sparingly, but their appearance also highlights Dylan's newfound penchant for collaboration. (Dylan's vocals also turn up on the forthcoming Court Yard Hounds debut; he appeared at the group's inaugural performance during this year's South by Southwest.) His solo debut, 2008's Seeing Things, was produced by Rick Rubin and relied on a grab-bag backing band. The result was a haphazard disc that landed with a thud.
No such stumbles here -- Women and Country rewards the time spent with its moody, melancholy compositions. Most importantly, the record recasts Dylan as an artist most compelling when playing to his considerable strengths, with just a little help from his friends.
Download this: They've Trapped Us Boys
Preston Jones is the Star-Telegram pop music critic, 817-390-7713