The Dylan Curse

From whence came Jeffrey Halford? His PR sheet is slight, and he has almost zero presence on the Web. He looks real fresh-faced, a fact at odds with his music, which bespeaks many years of hard experience, a world-weariness you don't usually encounter from songwriters until they get deep into being grown-ups and realize that life is often a pretty grave pain in the ass after all.

Halford is an artist who emerges fully formed on Hunkapapa, his second album. It teems with refined musical instincts often masquerading as anarchic racket and lyrics brimming with dark-hued images and wizened metaphors worthy of Studs Terkel. He sings of American heroes and roustabouts; B.B. King, Al Green, Crazy Horse and Satchel Paige share the same terrain as hobos, oil miners and Halford himself, in search of America much in the manner of Kerouac and Cassady in On the Road, Fonda and Hopper in Easy Rider, and Bruce Springsteen in Nebraska.

In this respect, I must place a curse on poor young Halford's head and pose the dreaded Dylan analogy; not just any Dylan analogy, mind you, but a Highway 61 Revisited-era Dylan analogy, with all the tenderness and pissed-off-ness and poetically harsh guitar-and-drums cacophony coming together as great rock & roll that implies.

Let me also assert that Jeffrey Halford is one mean sumbitch of a guitar player. His slide work soars and dodges and makes unexpected turns in all the right places, betraying a pop sense that would seem at odds with the hard-blues roots of the method if he didn't bring these disparate worlds together so seamlessly. You will hum these tunes. His rhythmic sense is impeccable; his playful syncopations suggest an apparent familiarity with West African jujuman Ali Farka Toure. As for his vocals, I'll hammer the kid with another Zimmerman whammy: his nasal, oddly pitchy style is an Ode to Bob, but when coupled with Halford's unique style, it comes off as subconscious tribute rather than blatant imitation.

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In summation, today I am here to prematurely place Jeffrey Halford up on a pedestal with such fogies as Dave Alvin, John Fogerty, Randy Newman, Alejandro Escovedo, John Prine—and Bob Dylan—in the pantheon of great American singer/songwriters, all apparently before he's seen the first gray hairs appear in his soul patch.

When the BANGLES re-formed last summer, I celebrated. Perhaps the most fully realized of all jangle-pop groups to emerge from LA's so-called '80s "Paisley Underground," the goily-goils got killed off by tremendous and unexpected commercial success right as they seemed to reach their creative apex (gallivanting about with Prince and selling fuckzillions of records does have a way of decimating street cred and breeding arrogance/creative complacency in any artist, really). Yet, contrary to the opinions of their many detractors, the Bangles were always more than jiggling, high-gloss cheesecake pinups like the Go-Go's. These gals could sing, play, and write; most of all, these gals could rock. In concert, I've seen the same group that proffered such sweet, folk-rock fare as "Manic Monday" and "Walk Like an Egyptian" tear into a song with all the muscle of Mott the Hoople—and have the good taste to do so on covers by the Rutles, no less.

Yet let us not ignore the Bangles' well-known harmonic wonderfulness: as pop beauty and sophistication have nearly vanished from the airwaves in the past 10 years or so, those old Bangles hits sound fresher 'n' purtier than ever. Echoes of the Mamas & Papas, Simon & Garfunkel, and the Lovin' Spoonful reverberated in that gorgeous blending of voices and those velveteen arrangements; who among us can find fault with those qualities while listening to critics hail Kid Rock (instead of Jeffrey Halford) as the New Dylan. The Bangles appear at the Taste of Newport fete on Saturday night; I say welcome back, but I also wanna know when the new album they keep promising will appear.

Jeffrey Halford and the Healers perform at the Blue Cafe, 210 Promenade, Long Beach, (562) 983-7111. Fri., 10 p.m. $8. 21+; The Bangles play at the 13th annual Taste of Newport, Newport Center Drive at Fashion Island, Newport Beach, (949) 729-4400. Sat., 9 p.m. Admission, $15. All ages.

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