With his second post-millennium album in just two years, Mark Knopfler has already equaled his meager (non-soundtrack) output for the '90s. And while he isn't reinventing himself, The Ragpicker's Dream is a pleasant, classy, often inspired effort whose unassuming charms are best appreciated after repeated listenings. The memorable riffage that fueled Dire Straits' most radio-friendly material has been discarded for a more pastoral approach, making this a perfect album for a rainy Sunday morning. Like his Notting Hillbillies side project, it isn't entirely unplugged, yet there is an emphasis on acoustic accompaniment to its predominantly ballad slant. Instead of leaving space for traditional soloing, Knopfler weaves his snake-like guitar between the words. This infuses a tense, edgy quality in even the most bucolic tracks, resulting in the crackling but still low-boil atmospherics of "Hill Farmer's Blues" and "Fare Thee Well Northumberland." "Marbletown" is an unaccompanied folk/blues that sounds as if Knopfler was born and raised in the Mississippi backwoods. He taps into the patented insistent lazy, shuffling groove on the spooky "You Don't Know You're Born." It's the most Straits-like track here featuring an extended, winding, yet subtle solo. "Coyote," a mid-tempo sizzler -- lyrically based on the Road Runner cartoons -- is propelled by a walking bass figure and Knopfler's homey, lived-in, talk-sung vocals. Again, the guitar pyrotechnics are interspersed throughout the verses with overdubbed sounds employed to provide ambiance and mood. The authentic honky tonk swing of "Daddy's Gone to Knoxville" could have come off a Wayne Hancock album, and the "King of the Road" melody from "Quality Shoe" is a tribute to Roger Miller. As an homage to the American roots music he's always admired and a desire to retreat further from the stadium rock of his Straits days, The Ragpicker's Dream is a restrained success, at least on its own terms. It may not please some of Knopfler's old "Money for Nothing" fans, but at this stage, he's obviously not trying to.
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AllMusic Review by Hal Horowitz