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Bob Dylan's Red Sky shows smoother sailing ahead

UNDER THE RED SKY

Bob Dylan.

CBS Records.

By CHRIS WANJEK

MAYBE IT WAS the Traveling Wilburys. Maybe it was producers Don and David Was of Was Not Was. Whatever it was, Bob Dylan is now making good albums again.

On the past two Wilburys albums, Dylan has shown a lighter side -- writing fun, foot-tapping songs characteristic of his earlier career. And on last year's Oh Mercy, Dylan returned to his haunting, self-revealing writing style, reminiscent of Blood on the Tracks from 1975. His new album, Under the Red Sky, is a combination of both styles. Dylan leans heavily on that Wilburys' silliness, but also captures some more serious moments.

As a result, the story-songs are back: "TV Talkin' Song" is a fast-paced ramble about London's Hyde Park. An argument about the dangers of television leads to a riot. So Dylan leaves the scene and watches it later on the evening news.

The blues are back: "10,000 Men" and "Cat's in the Well" are two hard-hitting blues songs with Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan trading Texas-style guitar solos.

The silly rhymes are back: "Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, rattle and shake/Wiggle like a big fat snake," from the song "Wiggle, Wiggle," sounds like a drunken favorite from Dylan's 1967 Basement Tapes. Dylan goes on in the song to boldly rhyme "blue" and "you," as well as "rear" and "here."

You won't get a good quote off of this album unless you like, "The cat's in the well and the horse is going bumpety bump/Back Alley Sally is doing the American jump."

But the album does have some deeper moments. "God Knows" is the high point of the album. The late Stevie Ray Vaughan's guitar intro -- perhaps the last work he ever recorded -- is a testimony of his greatness. And Al Kooper returns from a two-decade absence to play on three tracks. Kooper's whirling organ became a trademark of many Dylan songs like "Ballad of the Thin Man" and "Like a Rolling Stone."

Other musicians on the album aren't as interesting. George Harrison has some fun on slide guitar, but Elton John, David Crosby, and Slash of Guns 'n Roses prove to be merely adequate.

Overall, the silliness of Under the Red Sky is the perfect complement to the much darker Oh Mercy. With all of the nursery-school rhymes and fairy-tale lyrics, you may think that Dylan has finally gone insane. But after yodeling on "All I Really Want To Do" in 1964, Dylan probably isn't concerned too much with sanity.

Like Oh Mercy, the new album is very short -- only 35 minutes long. This truly is silly, and you may feel cheated. Dylan has made two solo albums and one Traveling Wilburys album in less than one year; he should have waited until he had more material before he released this album.

But after a troublesome decade, the middle-aged Dylan has returned in 1989 and 1990 with the wit and creativity of his earlier career. It will be interesting indeed to see where Dylan goes from here.