Ah, expectations. They can damn a promising young rock band faster than you can say “his famous father.” Yet, the Wallflowers, with reluctant leader Jakob (son of Bob) Dylan enjoyed a measure of success in the mid-1990s. Along with Hootie and the Blowfish and the Gin Blossoms, the ‘Flowers led the way for a pop-conscious roots-rock resurgence via the alternative charts, and made at least one great record along the way.
The first album is a harmless if good-natured affair. That it met with commercial and critical indifference is less owed to its pleasant rock songs than to Dylan’s strict (some would say irrational, but whatever) refusal to publicize himself as bandleader. The stylistic debt to his father isn’t all that readily apparent, anyway, but songs like “Sugarfoot,” “Sidewalk Annie” and the nine- minute “Honeybee” are at least listenable.
The band was dropped by its label after the debut’s failure. So did Jakob Dylan plaster his famous last name all over anything Wallflowers-related and hope for the best? Nope. Bringing Down the Horse is a charming, low-key affair whose innate qualities—politely inventive music, intelligent-sensitive lyrics, fine production (by )—carried the day. The driving “One Headlight,” the delicate “Three Marlenas” and the Springsteen-channeling slide guitar perfection of “6th Avenue Heartache” are all worthy of the Top 40 chart action they gained. Still, the Wallflowers lacked a certain bite, and many critics shrugged at their success. Congratulations, Jake: your band is the Dire Straits of the Alternative Nation.
(Breach) is decidedly different in tone. “Do you think you were the only one / That’s been let down?” Dylan is in a post-breakup fury, but it surprisingly suits his band. Gone are the laid-back E Street aesthetics; instead, he offers a straight diet of bitter relationship-on-the- rocks diatribes like “Some Flowers Bloom Dead,” “Murder 101” and the glorious, irony-laced opener, “Letters From the Wasteland.” Throughout this wonderful album, Dylan asserts a frustration and eloquent disappointment that wouldn’t sound out of place on, say, Blood on the Tracks. A stirring effort.
Red Letter Days practically turns (Breach) ‘s frown upside down. Minus longtime Wallflowers guitarist Michael Ward, “When You’re on Top,” “Here in Pleasantville” and “How Good It Can Get” depict a man content with his life. Although little varies from Wallflowers formula here—except for the chugging, near- rap of “Everybody Out of the Water”—the album does contain some nice touches. Ben Peeler’s guest lap steel on “Three Ways” is particularly compelling, but for the most part, this one just falls flat.
Rebel, Sweetheart is a marked improvement. The laid-back aesthetics are dispatched as Brendan O’Brien’s production gives urgency to such compelling tracks as “The Passenger” and “Back to California.” The best song here echoes (Breach)‘s bitterness. “God Says Nothing Back” is a spooky mid-tempo ballad that recalls Tunnel of Love-era Springsteen. “Seems like the world’s gone underground,” Dylan sings with resignation; melancholy is still the Wallflowers’ best mood. (The Dual Disc version features a DVD side with five live in-the-studio songs, plus concert footage and a bizarre interview with comedian Jon Lovitz: “Are you depressed? Would Prozac make these songs into ‘Two Headlights’ and ‘Sixth Avenue Heartache’ into, you know, ‘I Love New York’?”)