I’ve got an excellent quartet of releases for you to consider this week. Check it out.
Most Messed Up by The Old 97’s: These alt-country veterans have always been able to combine the rowdy with the romantic as well as anyone in their genre. Their newest definitely concentrates on the rowdy part. Some might miss the slower stuff, and nobody loves a good tear-in-their-beer weeper than me, but still I find Most Messed Up to be exhilarating. Check out the defiantly self-referential anthem “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive” in the link for a taste:
“Moving To The Left” by Woods: It’s always both a kick and a bit frustrating when you find out about a cool band who’s actually been around a while. Woods have five albums in their rear-view, but this gently psychedelic rambler was the first thing I’d heard by them. Let’s just say I want to hear more. Love the instrumental break with the prancing guitar licks and the Ringo Starr-ish drum fills. Check out the YouTube link, then look up their new album With Light And Love.
“Let There Be Lonely” by The Secret Sisters: I got a chance to review the Sisters’ new album, Put Your Needle Down, for American Songwriter, and I was pleasantly surprised at how they’d branched out from the Everly Sisters niche they so winningly carved out in their debut. On this beautifully somber ballad, which they wrote for the ABC drama Nashville, their aching harmonies reveal why, when heartbreak comes, it’s best to wallow in it rather than avoiding it; “It’s the only way out of here,” they sing. The SoundCloud link is below.
Everyday Robots by Damon Albarn: The former Blur frontman and mastermind of Gorillaz is far too peripatetic a musical wanderer to ever release a conventional singer-songwriter album. Nor would we want him to. The offbeat rhythms and ingenious productions lend the downcast melodies and deadpan vocals surprising depth, making for an album that works as both lovely ambiance and the kind of thing you pick apart. “The History Of A Cheating Heart,” one of the more straightforward tracks on the album and perhaps the most melancholic and pretty, can be found in the link below.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. My new book, Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs, comes out in June and is available for pre-order now.)
For a guy who has remained stunningly controversy-free throughout his career, perhaps the most turbulent time in Bruce Springsteen’s career, at least with respect to his relationship with his established fans, came when he decided to disband The E Street Band and to record new music (and tour) with fresh collaborators. Human Touch, one of two albums released simultaneously in 1992, was somewhat of a letdown, but not because the “Other” band was lacking. The whole thing just seemed then like a grind at the time, and time hasn’t been kind to either the blunt-instrument production or, with a few exceptions, to Springsteen’s songwriting on the album. Here is a song-by-song review.
14. “Real Man”- The answer to the question of whether it was possible for Springsteen to write and record a lousy song. I can’t tell if the more egregious sin here is the reference to Rambo about seven years after he was culturally relevant (apparently those 57 channels were all tuned to the all-Stallone channel) or the horrendous keyboard riff (played by David Sancious in a less-than-inspired reunion) which sounds like a rehash from Dirk Diggler’s solo album. Let’s just forget this ever happened.
13. “All Or Nothing At All”- One of several tracks with dense production and scream-singing that borders on the grating.
12. “The Long Goodbye”- It has one really solid couplet: “Well I went to leave twenty years ago/Since then I guess I been packin’ kinda slow.” Other than that, well, just because a CD affords you some extra space, doesn’t mean you need to fill it.
11. “Gloria’s Eyes”- Zero melody to be found here, just a droning guitar riff and Springsteen’s monotone vocal. The lyrics are pedestrian as well.
10. “Roll Of The Dice”- Sometimes you just can’t win, especially with nitpicky listeners like myself. When Bruce attempted to dip back into a more classic Springsteen sound, as he does here with Roy Bittan’s see-sawing piano chords, it comes off more like Bob Seger (or at least a song that Seger might have handled better.) At least there’s a tune in here, for which Bittan, who co-wrote, deserves some credit.
9. “Man’s Job”- It’s catchy, which propels it above a lot of the stuff here, and even though the refrain sounds sexist, it’s really not. (He’s essentially saying that the girl belongs with someone with maturity, which the narrator thinks he possesses.) That said, even with legends Sam Moore and Bobby King on board, the whole soul testifying thing was way overdone on this album in general and on this song in particular.
8. “Pony Boy”- I’ve always found it charming. What can I say? I’m a sucker for rock stars singing to their kids.
7. “Cross My Heart”- Springsteen borrowed the title and some of the lyrics from blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson on this brooding track. It’s one of the more well-modulated musical efforts on the album and the lyrics are unfussy and focused. Nothing revelatory, but still enjoyable.
6. “Human Touch”- I think there’s a more modest and effective song, something akin to “Two Hearts” or “Tougher Than The Rest”, lurking within the lyrics. That’s what I try to find when I listen and I usually can, though it can be tough with all the needless screaming, unsubtle guitar solos, and pointless false endings. You can hear all the effort, which is something you can say about a lot of the album, and which isn’t a good thing.
5. “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On)”- It may not be the most incisive social commentary (and it sure sounds dated now that 57 channels is often the basic package.) Again, I think the setting betrays it somewhat. The whole Johnny Cash-meets-Elvis thing isn’t quite the right feel, but a Nebraska-type acoustic rave-up would have highlighted the hokey yet endearing humor. Even as it is, though, it still makes me chuckle.
4. “Soul Driver”- The metallic production deadens the impact somewhat, but this track delivers the soulful emotion that Springsteen clearly wanted to maintain throughout the album. Moore and Sancious are integrated much more artfully here as well, and there’s also an effectively downcast melody in place.
3. “Real World”- Bittan again is listed as co-writer here, and, probably not coincidentally, this is one of the tunes on the album that stands up well to repeated listens. Springsteen’s lyrics sound like therapy-based discoveries at times, but he pulls out an excellent chorus and a fiery bridge that propel this one a long way.
2. “With Every Wish”- The music, featuring evocative trumpet work from film-score whiz Mark Isham, is quite lovely, a respite from all of the heavy-handed electric tracks. The lyrics feel like autobiography with the names, places, and events changed to protect the innocent. Although it’s doubtful that he ever went catfishing in the creeks of Jersey or romanced a town beauty named Doreen, the restlessness and self-destructive tendencies seem like qualities with which Bruce was intimately familiar. The end result is a complex, relatable man made up of equal parts well-earned wariness and measured hope, which is a point we all usually reach somewhere along the line. Proof that his songwriting pen was still potent even on this disappointing release.
1. “I Wish I Were Blind”- It took a genre exercise, in this case an homage to the kind of weeper made famous by Roy Orbison, the kind in which the world crashes all around you when you see the one you love in the arms of another, to unlock the brilliant songwriter and performing artist that lay somewhat dormant on the rest of Human Touch. The appearance of The Righteous Brothers’ Bobby Hatfield singing heartbreak harmonies is the one guest appearance on the disc that appears completely seamless, and Springsteen solos with a purpose in the breaks. Most of all, this is a song that can stand alongside Orbison classics like “Crying” or “Running Scared” and not take a backseat, and there’s not much higher praise than that.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. My new book, Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs, arrives on June 16. Pre-orders are available now.)
It’s quite amazing that Bruce Springsteen had achieved such success for the first decade or so of his recording career while eschewing, for the most part, the one topic most common in popular music: Relationships. That all changed in 1987 when he gave a deep-dish treatise on the subject matter with Tunnel Of Love. Springsteen grounded most of the E Street Band for the project to streamline his sound and put more emphasis on his lyrics, which dissected adult romance with equal parts deep emotion and searing candor. It’s so well-written that, depending on where your mind and heart are at, you might find it either a paean to love or a testament to why it just isn’t worth the pain. Here is a song-by-song review.
12. “All That Heaven Will Allow”- The Boss must have sensed that an album of complete doom and gloom would have turned off the romantics in the audience. That’s why changes of pace like this endearingly sweet ode to romantic faith are so crucial to the overall success of the album, even if on its own it can’t compare with some of the darker narratives.
11. “Two Faces”- Springsteen intentionally references the old Lou Christie hit “Two Faces Have I” with the lyrics and even turns in a little Farfisa solo to enhance the 60’s feel. But, as is often the case with this album, there is something lurking underneath the cool exterior. In this case, it’s the narrator’s admission of inconsistent behavior towards his girl that borders on a split personality.
10. “Spare Parts”- Bruce was looking for a kind of back-porch immediacy in the recording, which he achieves with the help of guest player James Wood on harmonica. The story falls somewhere between parable and cautionary tale, and although it’s not the most subtle piece of songwriting Springsteen has ever produced, it still manages to pull you in.
9. “When You’re Alone”- Some might consider this a minor track, and maybe it is considering the heady company it keeps on this album, but there’s a vulnerability to it that I really enjoy. Springsteen gives a tender vocal performance of lyrics that are unshowy but affecting. Having E Streeters Clarence Clemons, Nils Lofgren, and Patti Scialfa on backing vocals makes any bouts of loneliness the narrator might suffer much easier to bear.
8. “Ain’t Got You”- By putting this song right up front as the opener, Springsteen is bestowing upon it a level of importance that clues in the audience to listen closely. He then opens up about the benefits of stardom, a stunning bit of honesty for this champion of the common man. Yet even this modern-day King Farouk can’t buy himself love. It’s interesting that, when you take this song on its own, it’s pretty benign. When you consider all that follows it, turbulent undertones bubble to the surface.
7. “Walk Like A Man”- Again, we’ve got Springsteen writing with insight about the father-son relationship. And again, the music is unobtrusive, just an excuse to let Bruce tell his story. One of the great things about Springsteen’s body of work is that you can follow it through the years and spot the progression of different storylines and common themes. In this case, where there once was bitterness and raw emotions between the son and his Dad, now there is understanding and acceptance. Even if some of the old wounds still sting a bit, the happy occasion of the wedding soothes them almost into nonexistence.
6. “Valentine’s Day”- Probably the most enigmatic track on the album, and all the more intriguing because of it. Set to a loping pace and accompaniment that sounds like a moonlit night, the song sends Springsteen out on the highway where he’s been so many times before, but he barely notices his surroundings this time. Instead, he gets lost in contemplation about the joy of fatherhood, the fear of isolation, and his dreams of death, all of which eventually reinforce his commitment to getting home to his “lonely valentine.” In its acknowledgement of the darkness and embrace of the light, it’s the perfect closing track.
5. “Tunnel Of Love”- The title track is an expert example of metaphor in songwriting. This ride is exciting, dark, scary, funny, and extremely confusing, and Springsteen intimates that people should expect no less when they dive headlong into a relationship. With help from Roy Bittan’s shimmering synthesizers and Nils Lofgren’s wailing guitar, the music also niftily conjures a romantic ride that runs the risk of careening wildly out of control. “It ought to be easy,” the man says. It’s not easy, but it certainly ain’t dull.
4. “Tougher Than The Rest”- Here is another example of Springsteen shifting towards a more upbeat message without betraying the overall thematic bent of the album. His narrator here may be tough, but that toughness is borne out of heartaches suffered and lessons learned. There is also no promise of a happy ending, just a commitment to the attempt. Max Weinberg’s steadfast drumming reflects the intentions of the narrator, while Springsteen delivers the vocal with controlled intensity. You get the feeling that this would have been a hit of Bruce had pushed it in that direction.
3. “One Step Up”- The car won’t start, the birds won’t sing, and it’s all your fault. OK, it’s not that simple, because the narrator here seems willing to accept that he’s part of the endless cycle of fighting and recrimination that is slowly swallowing this couple whole. And instead of digging in his heels and trying to save the relationship, the dude heads off to a bar and starts scouting the local talent. But before he crosses the Rubicon of adultery, he indulges in an idealized memory/dream of his relationship that will never be again and probably never was to start. At that point, Patty Scialfa comes aboard for some ghostly backing vocals that are meant to haunt and not to soothe. The lyrics are pure country, the arrangement is elegant adult contemporary, and the sum total is irresistibly heartbreaking.
2. “Cautious Man”- When you inspect this brooder, you realize that nothing much happens action-wise. To onlookers, there probably seem to be only glad tidings in the turn of events that leads Bill Horton to marriage and stability. But Springsteen gives us his inner monologue, which the character never reveals to anyone, let alone his new bride. Those hidden thoughts reveal a man unable to stand the prosperity into which he stumbled, steered by the torment inside him toward destroying this redemptive love. Springsteen spares us the bitter end, but he does his job so well that we know that one of Billy’s moonlight rides will lead him right into oblivion. This is one of those sublime album tracks by Bruce that the casual fan might now know and should immediately seek out to hear a songwriting master class.
1. “Brilliant Disguise”- Springsteen managed to earn one of his biggest pop hits with one of his bleakest sets of lyrics. This was achieved in part by the tightness of the music and the melancholy grandeur of the melody, Bruce soaring into Orbisonian territory while Weinberg brings the timpani down on his head. Neither of the protagonists in this relationship are showing all their cards, but these games elevate to the point that the subterfuge overwhelms all the genuine feelings that might have brought them together in the first place. As they continually deceive each other and themselves, their love turns into something sinister and destructive. Hey, this isn’t for the faint of heart, but the punch of the recording combined with the sting of the lyrics makes this, pound-for-pound, one of Springsteen’s most powerful efforts.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. My new book, Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs, arrives in June and is available now at all major online booksellers.)
Got a nice quartet of touts for you today. See what you think, and remember to send in some of your favorites as well.
The Double EP: A Sea Of Split Peas by Courtney Barnett
I’ve been grooving to “Avant Gardner” for a while now, and it’s so out-of-the-box brilliant that it seemed like it had one-hit-wonder written over it. Color me pleasantly surprised to find that the rest of Barnett’s songs, collected on a pair of EP’s, deliver just as nicely. She actually shows great versatility on this collection, proving just as able to handle the slice-of-life deadpan of “Avant” as the dreamy balladry of “Anonymous Club.” Can’t wait for the first album proper. Check out the ramshackle, Wes Anderson-directing-a-tennis-match video for “Avant Gardner” in the link.
Songs by John Fullbright
There’s a reason that singer-songwriters never go out of style. When it’s done right, as on Fullbright’s upcoming album Songs, due out May 27, it’s pretty irresistible. Fullbright got some Grammy love for his debut album and I have a feeling that this new one is going to break him to a wider audience than just the Americana crowd. His lyrics are never less than insightful and the stark, well-considered arrangements always seem to cast them in just the right light. The whole album is lovely. The YouTube link below to the moving “When You’re Here” is just a taste for you.
Benji by Sun Kil Moon
Again, this was a case of a single song leading me to an album that I now really love. The song is “Ben’s My Friend,” Mark Kozelek’s (the man behind Sun Kil Moon) wryly affecting tale of a trip to a Postal Service concert that cuts much deeper than that description could ever suggest. The rest of the album has the same kind of nifty mix of the trivial and the serious, as musings on the deaths of loved ones, acquaintances, and strangers elegantly share the same space with Panera Bread and Led Zeppelin movies. This one’s been out since February, so don’t waste any time picking it up. A YouTube clip of “Ben’s My Friend” below.
“Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding” by Jesse Winchester
Who said the Touts all have to be new stuff? It is one of the sadder aspects of human nature that it takes an artist’s death sometimes to make us aware of their work again. Winchester passed away last week, and I got the chance to write about this song in American Songwriter. Suffice it to say that it is a beauty, but that’s par for the course for this performer who shied from the limelight even as his peers and contemporaries sung his praises. Check out the link to a gorgeous performance of “Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding” below, only be prepared for it to floor you like it does Elvis Costello in the clip. Then look up the rest of Winchester’s wonderful catalog.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. Remember that you can pre-order my new book, Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs, now, and it will be released in June.)
So you thought the covers of Time and Newsweek were big, huh? Born In The U.S.A. brought levels of superstardom to Bruce Springsteen not only unbeknownst to him but also rarely achieved by any popular music artists before or since. Springsteen managed to update his sound and court MTV without sacrificing his critical credibility or songwriting integrity. The result was an album that is one of rock music’s last great consensus moments and deserved every last bit of its popularity. Here is a song-by-song review.
12. “I’m Goin’ Down”- Springsteen likely figured this piece of good-timey fluff would be fun filler; little did he know that it would end up being a sixth hit single. Momentum is a funny thing, because it’s still just good-timey fluff, Top 40 status and all.
11. “Darlington County”- On a few of these songs, Bruce managed to marry the pop touch he demonstrated on The River with the social concerns he detailed on Nebraska. This one certainly has a lighter touch, with its cowbells and chirping organ, but it’s still notable that these two clowns are out of work and one of them ends up in the pokey. The lyrical details are almost as fun as Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt’s “sha-la-la” harmonies.
10. “My Hometown”- I’ve always felt that this closing ballad is a bit lumbering in its execution; the music only really starts gliding at the end with the lovely duet between Roy Bittan on synths and Danny Federici on organ. And Springsteen’s lyrics are sometimes less than elegant, although you can forgive them as being apropos to the humility of the narrator. What is impressive is the way Bruce humanizes the story of the town’s deterioration by telling it from the perspective of a father desperate to raise his family and protect his child.
9. “Working On The Highway”- It began as a Nebraska tune with dark undertones called “Child Bride.” It evolved into something much less controversial but also much easier to embrace. It makes sense that the rhythm should channel Eddie Cochran, because the narrator certainly has the “Summertime Blues” and then some. His ill-advised advances on a young girl with a protective family lead him into a cell, probably right next to Wayne from the similarly-toned “Darlington County.” Still, it turns out to be a lateral move, since he just goes from one road gang to another. That narrator has enough intrigue to carry this one a few notches higher than your typical 60’s throwback.
8. “I’m On Fire”- The simplicity and directness of the musical approach works in its favor, since it conveys the single-mindedness of the narrator’s pursuit. Again, the synthesizer is well-deployed, this time as a kind of angst-ridden contrast to the steadiness of the boom-chicka beat. Springsteen’s vocal is brilliantly understated here; had he emoted his desire it might have sank the whole song. Instead, he comes off as a man desperate to try to control the burn, lest it consume him.
7. “Downbound Train”- If you’re wondering what a fully-realized electric Nebraska album might have sounded like, this is probably a good place to start. Even with the heft of the drums and the crunch of the guitar, the mood of creeping menace suggested by the lyrics is expertly sustained. Even the synthesizer is in perfect place, mimicking the lonely whistle that drives the narrator to insanity. And I do think it’s that severe, because that final scene where his dream practically mocks him is as harrowing as any Springsteen has produced.
6. “Cover Me”- Born In The U.S.A. doesn’t happen without Jon Landau’s sage advice to Springsteen on song selection and the direction the record should take. He stood firmly in the corner of this sure shot even when Bruce wanted to leave it off the album or give it away to Donna Summer. What Landau heard was the thrust of the rhythm, the anguish of Springsteen’s guitar solos, and the overall urgency of the track. There isn’t an ounce of flab on this thing, and if Bruce needed proof that a song could be a ringing success without taking on the world’s problems or probing some deep psychological mystery, he certainly got it here.
5. “Glory Days”- You have such a good time when listening that it’s easy to overlook the craft in the songwriting and the subtle tug of melancholy at its core. The band plays to the rafters in an effort to drown that melancholy out, or at least get everybody to sing along to it. But it’s there nonetheless, lurking in the former baseball star still living off high-school exploits, the former beauty dealing with a divorce, and in the narrator himself, drowning both his sorrows and his awareness of his fast-approaching obsolescence. Side note: Bruce comes off a bit deranged in the last scene of the video. Blame Graig Nettles, I guess.
4. “No Surrender”- Even the most jaded among us would be hard-pressed not to raise our fists in assent with this chill-inducer. People who want to call out the song for being naive are missing the point. Springsteen is well aware of the pitfalls that await us all as life progresses; he just isn’t willing to give up his zest for the good things when they’re still within reach. It may be the most uplifting variant on a theme that Bruce had been harping on for years. And that line about three-minute records? Well, this record is a little longer than that, but it sure teaches a hell of a lot about perseverance and spirit.
3. “Dancing In The Dark”- Again, Landau comes up big here, forcing Springsteen to write another song for the album (when he’d already written about 70) that puts a human face on the working class symbol/superstar. The autobiography cuts pretty deep, as Bruce hints at feeling like a failure and a fraud, desperate to make an impact on the world. Of course, that insecurity just endeared him to all of us even more. The synthetic nature of the music has aged better than probably anyone thought possible at the time of its release, probably because it well suits a narrator trying to real hard to fit in as he ages. Bottom line is this one worthily wears the crown of being Springsteen’s biggest chart success.
2. “Bobby Jean”- Even the glockenspiel sounds a little wistful in this winning meditation on time’s effect on friendship. Maybe Steven Van Zandt’s foray into a solo career was the impetus, but Springsteen goes beyond specific inspirations into territory that anyone who’s ever watched a childhood friendship begin to strain can understand. His vocal hits home because the emotion of it is clearly authentic, emotion driven home by those yearning chord changes and Clarence Clemons’ final word of a sax solo. The narrator’s eventual acceptance of his friend’s departure and his heartfelt well-wishes, well, if they don’t work your heartstrings, you’re a mannequin, my friend.
1. “Born In The U.S.A.”- Let us not, in our haste to praise Springsteen’s brilliant lyrics and their complex mixture of unabashed patriotism and necessary skepticism, overlook the live-wire potency of the recording. Sometimes, when people get too caught up in comparing live versions of his songs, I want to blast this song out at them to remind them that none of that debate even exists had not Bruce’s skill as a record-maker set the template for any concert performances. A magic take captured the soaring sorrow of the main riff, Max Weinberg’s cathartic rolls, and Springsteen’s colossal vocal all at once. Add in those lyrics, all the more searing for being so accurate in their portrayal of a man who gave everything for his country and received betrayal and disillusion in return, and it’s so all-encompassing that it makes sense both as a Fourth of July anthem and as an unforgiving critique.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. Don’t forget that my new book Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs, will be released in June and is available for pre-order now at all major online booksellers.)
The legend behind Nebraska looms so large that it would overwhelm a lesser album. Bruce Springsteen recorded the 1982 album alone on a dinky four-track and then eventually released those demos when subsequent efforts to record the songs with the E Street Band failed to capture the same sparse magic. Yet all that would have been forgotten had not the songs and recordings been so uniformly haunting. Stricken by poverty, joblessness, class resentment, and boredom, Springsteen’s cast of characters go winging out into the country, sometimes thoughtfully, sometimes violently, and together they reveal what happens when that “runaway American Dream” actually runs away. Here is a song-by-song review.
10. “Used Cars”- Nebraska is pretty evenly mixed between the story songs, where Springsteen inhabits or comments on other characters, and autobiographical musings. “Used Cars” falls in the latter category, as Springsteen looks back at the strange mixture of pride and shame attached to his father’s purchase of a “brand new used car.” The reminiscence is mostly good-natured, but the refrain demonstrates the lingering resentment of the boy inside the placid exterior of the man.
9. “Reason To Believe”- Springsteen brings up several blunt examples of admirable/foolish faith throughout the song, and then shakes his head in wonder at it all in the refrains. Since this is the closing song on the album, the subtext here is that, given the nine more nuanced and therefore infinitely more painful stories in the songs that preceded this one on this album, it’s truly a miracle that people can even get up in the morning let alone find a way to believe.
8. “Mansion On The Hill”- The main selling point of this song is the counterintuitive way in which Springsteen delivers it. He could have easily turned this song around into a kind of rant about the haves and have-nots; instead, he delivers it like a reverie, like a hymn even. Time passes, fortunes ebb and wane for those outside the walls, the boy looking up grows up into a man, and yet, for the mansion and its denizens, their idyllic world never seems to change. By going it at in this fashion, Springsteen makes “Mansion On The Hill” somehow soothing and scathing all at once.
7. “Open All Night”- In a lot of ways, the narrator here is just as dangerous as some of the more obvious malcontents on the album; he even shares some of the same complaints as the hair-trigger from “State Trooper.” Yet Springsteen’s one-man appropriation of 50’s rock keeps this on the lighter side, as do references to Bob’s Big Boy, Texaco road maps, and New Jersey as a “lunar landscape.” You get the feeling that this crackpot never quite got back home to his long-lost Wanda, because a desolate highway in the wee hours is really where he belongs.
6. “Nebraska”- Talk about a statement of purpose: The album opener and title track is a first-person account of an actual serial killer. Some people might take issue with Bruce toying with the facts and putting his own words (or, in one spot, Flannery O’Connor’s) in Charles Starkweather’s mouth. This isn’t a documentary, so I can excuse him on those counts. The names and the dates are immaterial anyway, because the song is more concerned with depicting the kind of lonerism that society sometimes breeds in those who are a little left of center, and how that can get blown up into something of monstrous proportions. This song would have been worthy just for its fearlessness; luckily, it’s well-executed too.
5. “Johnny 99”- What keeps Nebraska from being an unrelenting slog through old folk melodies and trudging tempos is Springsteen’s ability to change things up even while sticking with the unplugged theme. “Johnny 99” might be another hard-luck tale of the slippery slope from poverty to crime, but Bruce gives it a jolt of energy and fire with rapid-fire strumming, breathless harmonica, and passionate vocals. The real tragedy of “Johnny 99” is how inevitable it all seems, how this downward spiral seemed preordained the second the auto worker formerly known as Ralph lost his job. Hearing a song like this, you can understand Bruce’s decision to let Nebraska be; how could any amount of electric instruments make this track any more electric than it already is?
4. “My Father’s House”- The tendency is to read this song as being utterly sad, since the narrator’s dream that he might somehow reconcile through time and distance with his estranged father shatters right in his face. Yet I think there is some sort of resolution in that final verse, some acceptance gained in the fact that the son knows that the chasm will remain, maybe even, to utilize an overused term, some closure. In any case, this one is just as beautiful and fragile as the relationship it depicts.
3. “State Trooper”- As musically simple a song as is there is on the album, maybe even in Springsteen’s whole catalog, and yet it’s also as potent as anything he’s ever done. There was just some magic in the take he recorded, the way he coiled up all of the narrator’s tension into that passionless drone for the majority of the song and then uncorked it in those hair-raising, needle-slamming screams toward the end. It’s the perfect embodiment of the human powder keg telling the story; heaven help the police officer who crosses his path.
2. “Atlantic City”- Again, a little cleverness in the recording goes a long way. The intent strumming of the acoustic is contrasted by the mandolin, which evokes nostalgia for the more romantic version of the titular city that doesn’t make it into this bleak picture. In past songs like “Meeting Across The River” or “Incident On 57th Street”, characters made fateful decisions about going ahead with shady activities. The difference in “Atlantic City” is that it feels like this guy has been forced into this life choice by his crushing lot in life. Springsteen’s background howling sounds like the ghostly cries of all the others blinded by the city’s glitz and glamour into a head-on collision with a darker fate.
1. “Highway Patrolman”- Joe Roberts is the one guy in all of the story songs on Nebraska who, at least until the climax of this staggeringly great track, acts rationally; so why do you get the feeling that his fate is somehow worse than all the rest? It’s because Springsteen shows that there is always collateral damage when someone gets fed up with their place in life and goes off half-cocked into the night for some futile act of violence. In this case, the family members suffer because of Frankie’s impetuous, hot-headed behavior; his brother betrays his own ideals to cover for him. Not only does Springsteen manage to generate incredible suspense in a song that moves at a deliberate tempo, but he also achieves the amazing feat of writing a folk song that is both timeless and very much an accurate depiction of its time.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. Don’t forget that you can pre-order my new book Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs now at all major online booksellers; it will be released in June. Check out the links below for all my books and e-books.)
So I thought I’d try something new to keep the site a little more active day-to-day and to send some recommendations along to my loyal readers. Between writing this blog, writing for American Songwriter, and taking on various other writing projects like my books, I’m pretty much listening to music all day, often bouncing around various sites in search of something new. In addition, I get sent stuff by nice people all the time, some of whom have really cool music to offer that doesn’t fit into my usual routine of writing about classic artists. So I thought I’d use this space every Tuesday to send a handful of links along so that you might check them out too.
I grant you that not everything I mention may be brand new; sometimes I’ll hear something flipping channels on Sirius in the car and look it up to find it’s been out a while. Yet I know that a lot of stuff falls through the cracks, so I’ll mention it anyway. So let’s try this out today with five songs or albums that I’ve heard recently that deserve your attention in this ever-crowded music world, and let’s see if we can’t make this a weekly deal.
“Red Ropes” by Nicole Atkins: When I saw that name, I immediately thought I’d be hearing another alt-country type. But Atkins is much harder to classify, which is a good thing. Her album Slow Phaser, which came out earlier this year, is full of shape-shifting tracks for the more adventurous listener, and it’s highlighted by “Red Ropes”, a dark, moody, yet catchy track featuring knotty lyrics and Atkins’ fetching slow-burn vocals. Check out the SoundCloud link below, then look for Slow Phaser if you like what you hear:
“Johnny And Mary” by Todd Terje featuring Bryan Ferry: Terje is one of these producer/auteur types that are becoming more prevalent on the indie scene; his new album, It’s Album Time, is getting raves. I haven’t had the chance to listen to the whole thing yet, but I have heard this cover of an old Robert Palmer ballad, and it’s a stunner. Terje’s shimmering electronics are in the mold of 80’s weepers like “Drive” and “Take My Breath Away,” while Ferry breaks hearts with his emotional re-telling of the titular lovers’ deteriorating relationship. The SoundCloud link:
“Passing Out Pieces” by Mac DeMarco: DeMarco’s new album features a lot of unassuming, mellow songs that sneak up on you with their offhand depth the more you pay attention. By contrast, this single demands your attention with a keyboard hook that wryly comments on DeMarco’s lyrics about the myriad slights he suffers each day and the effect they’re having on him. One of my favorite songs of the year thus far, and you can check it out in the link below.
Looking Into You: A Tribute To Jackson Browne by Various Artists: Tribute albums are a dicey business sometimes, but it helps when you’ve got an artist like Browne who not only has the hits, but also the deep album cuts which are worthy of reexamination. A combination of big names and relative newcomers take a crack at his work on this double-CD, and there’s not really a misfire in the bunch. The link below is to the YouTube page for Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa’s gorgeous take on the Latin love song “Linda Paloma,” but I would really recommend splurging on the whole package.
RoseAnn Fino (self-titled album): Fino’s debut album gets an immediately credibility boost from producer Aaron Hurwitz, who worked with The Band. Her songs feature some lovely melodies and lyrics that use finely-observed details to hint at the emotions beneath. Fino’s voice is quirky enough to keep things interesting as well, with a little bit of Kathleen Edwards and a dash of Lucinda Williams. Several standout tracks dot the album, available now on Woodstock Records, including “Seventies Trousers” and “Boxed Wine”, the latter included in the YouTube link below.
There you go, readers. And let’s make this an interactive thing, too; send along in the comments stuff you’ve been hearing that I might like. Quid pro quo, as Hannibal Lecter once said. Hope you enjoyed this, and I look forward to doing it again.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For books and e-books based on material which originated on this site, check out the links below.)
It’s called The River, but it could have been subtitled Or How Bruce Springsteen Learned to Stop Worrying about Thematic Unity and Love the Pop Song. OK, that’s probably an oversimplification, but it is true that Springsteen used the space afforded him by the 1980 double-album to throw everything he had at the audience. (Or so we thought at the time; little did we know that he still had about 371 songs lying around in the vaults.) The River includes just about everything except, amazingly, not one true clunker in the 20-song pack, and several songs on the album stand among Springsteen’s very best compositions. Here is a song-by-song review.
20. “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)”- It is to The River’s everlasting credit that its weakest track is this blast of pure fun. It’s admittedly a little slight, maybe even hewing to novelty song territory, but there’s as much a place in the world for a song connecting department store clumsiness and wanton lust as there is for “The River.”
19. “Crush On You”- Springsteen’s attempt at a Stones-style rocker would have been better if he’d gone all the way into the gutter; it’s hard to imagine Jagger sizing up a would-be conquest with something as chaste as “I got a crush on you.” Nonetheless, the abandon of the performance is undeniable. Let’s hope they got it one take, or maybe Bruce must have gotten some larynx-shredding advice from Brian Johnson of AC/DC somewhere along the line.
18. “Ramrod”- The roller-rink organ and Springsteen’s Elvis drawl bring smiles, while the automobile innuendo of the lyrics brings blushes. (All that’s missing is talk of crank shafts.) I’ve never been able to tell if Bruce intended this to be more funny than sexy, because it definitely is, which is fine as well.
17. “Cadillac Ranch”- It may seem like I’m being hard on the good-timey, up-tempo tracks on the album, but I genuinely enjoy them all. Some of them just have a little more spark (like “Hungry Heart” and “Sherry Darling.”) Nonetheless, you can crank this one up in your own vehicle, speed along to Max Weinberg’s humming beat, and make your destination with at least 15 minutes to spare.
16. “Drive All Night”- This sounds like a song that Otis Redding might have taken a whack at back in the day, albeit with Springsteenian touches in the lyrics like “fallen angels” and all-night drives. Though Bruce doesn’t have Redding’s vocal chops, he acquits himself well enough, aided and abetted by fine instrumental support from the band as they adroitly handle the after-hours vibe.
15. “I Wanna Marry You”- Garry Tallent provides the slow-dance bass line and Danny Federici delivers the Italian wedding organ. All that’s left is for Bruce to state his case to his intended on this sweet charmer that has more than a little doo-wop in its DNA.
14. “Fade Away”- Somewhat maligned as the unfortunate choice for the album’s second single, a role it was ill-suited to play, this song deserves a second listen. I think Springsteen actually comes off better here in terms of his soul emoting than he does on “Drive All Night,” which probably enjoys a better reputation. “Fade Away” wasn’t commanding enough for radio, but, as an album track, it’s more than fine.
13. “Out In The Street”- Blessed with a wonderful chorus and some killer instrumental hooks, this is the one that might have been the right choice to follow up “Hungry Heart” and solidify Springsteen’s chart status. Whereas Darkness On The Edge Of Town features protagonists hopelessly trapped by their professions, this is one of several songs on The River where people find a way to rise above the drudgery of their work routine. A song that works best in large groups.
12. “I’m A Rocker”- Crammed with more pop culture references than a Family Guy marathon, it highlights Springsteen’s winningly hambone sense of humor, an underrated part of his allure which had been underutilized, on record anyway, since his first two albums. But this one rocks too hard to be just a lark, as Max Weinberg provides the thunder and Roy Bittan, doubling on organ here, adds the color.
11. “Two Hearts”- One of the distinguishing characteristics of the album is the prevalence of Steven Van Zandt’s backing vocals, and this is the song where his presence is most acutely felt. His harmonies aren’t neat or polite, but they are wild and passionate, and that’s what this song, which promotes the benefits of company over misery, requires. Give credit to the band here as well, as they tackle this thing at a whiplash pace without ever getting disheveled.
10. “Jackson Cage”- Tight, tough, and truthful, this crackerjack track is part character sketch, part desperate plea from a kindred soul. One of the things that Springsteen displayed on this album was his ability to economize his themes and obsessions. In this case, the subject matter is the deadening effect of small-town life, so subtle and insidious that it eventually tricks you into being an accomplice in your own imprisonment. It takes just verses and refrains to Bruce to nail every nuance.
9. “The Ties That Bind”- Springsteen and Van Zandt’s love for 60’s pop music is evident here, as their guitars chime and interweave like the latter-day Searchers. The only difference is that The Searchers didn’t have access to King Curtis to add a little soul, while Bruce and Steve had Clarence. A great power-pop opener that smacks the audience awake and sets the tone for the thrilling ride to come.
8. “Point Blank”- The elegant melancholy of Roy Bittan’s piano work here is quite effective, setting the tone on this moody change of pace all the way to its tragic conclusion. The music builds the drama in concert with the lyrics, which begin with childhood prayers and end up in a figurative homicide. Springsteen knows how to structure things just so; in this case, the final stanza is the gut punch, as the narrator contrasts a memory/reverie of better times with the girl’s current sorry state in the elongating shadows.
7. “Wreck On The Highway”- Tear-jerkers about death via vehicular accident were a staple of early rock and roll; think melodramatic quasi-novelties like “Leader Of The Pack” or “Last Kiss.” “Wreck On The Highway” doesn’t manipulate with some ornate back story, and the crash it describes ends up being all the more terrifying for not having a moral or a lesson attached to it. The randomness of cruel fate is something that could keep anyone awake at nights when confronted with it first-hand, even with the warm glass of milk that is Danny Federici’s organ on hand to soothe and reassure.
6. “Sherry Darling”- It sounds like there were about 313 inebriated visitors in the studio for the recording of the song, but Springsteen holds it all together with the pure force of his personality. He also gets off a nifty little surf guitar solo on top of that. Anyone who’s ever had a miserable in-law can sympathize with Bruce’s addled narrator and live vicariously through his hilarious insults. Barely-organized, wonderful chaos.
5. “The Price You Pay”- One of those Springsteen arrangements where the music seems to crescendo over and over again to exhilarating effect. Here Bruce sings not only the steadfast main melody but also the ghostly high harmonies, embodying resilience and anguish all at once. This is one of the vaguer sets of lyrics in the man’s catalog. The little parables sprinkled seem to parallel the lengths to which we all go to make an honest stand, as the man once said, but the title suggests that there are always consequences involved. Springsteen doesn’t want to leave us on a downer though, which is why his narrator makes the defiant gesture at the end and tears down the symbolic scoreboard counting the fallen. Enigmatic yet enthralling.
4. “Hungry Heart”- From Max’s opening drum roll, you’re pretty much hooked on this one, right? Give credit to Jon Landau for seeing the worth in the song and preventing Bruce from giving it away to The Ramones (not the last time he would serve this role as the Mariano Rivera of saving would-be Springsteen hits from nearly getting away.) Leave some praise for Turtles Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan for bringing just the right 60’s dream-pop vibe with their backing vocals. But ultimately Springsteen earned this first big chart success himself with a song that encourages us to sing along with that unstoppable refrain so that we can all be lonely together.
3. “Stolen Car”- Springsteen the rocker, Springsteen the folkie, and Springsteen the live performer all get way more press than Springsteen the studio craftsman, which is a shame, if you ask me. “Stolen Car” conjures haunted desolation mainly through Bruce’s distant electric strumming, Roy Bittan’s evocative piano fills, and Danny Federici’s spectral organ. Again, economy in the writing: There is much more between the lines than what is actually revealed about this deteriorating relationship. Think of this as the same guy from “Darkness On The Edge Of Town,” only here he is in the process of losing his wife. Bruce makes this part of his downward spiral harrowing yet beautiful.
2. “Independence Day”- Just two years after the forceful demon-exorcising of “Adam Raised A Cain”, Springsteen was much more willing to see both sides of the father-son coin. His narrator is getting out, make no doubt about it, but he’s far more ready to show understanding than to lay blame. All of this is mirrored by the tenderness of the music, featuring one of Clarence Clemons’ most poignant saxophone solos. There might be some sort of physical independence in the offing, but it’s doubtful, based on the tone of this classic, that the son will ever get completely clear of his father’s looming shadow.
1. “The River”- Springsteen’s ability to get inside his hardscrabble characters had already been well-established by this point, but he nails it on another level here. The title track works both as social commentary and as an individual story of two people whose lives change in an instant from brimming with youthful possibilities to the cold shower of responsibility. Springsteen bravely describes the honest reaction of his narrator, who can’t see forward to potential happiness with his new family, only backward to dreams that misled him into believing in life’s promise. No one has ever written this resonant, American slice-of-life stuff better than Springsteen (off the top of my head only John Prine gives him a run for his money), and “The River” is a standout even in that rarefied air.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me @JimBeviglia. For books and e-books based on material which originated on this site, check out the links below.)
The Born To Run afterglow wasn’t supposed to be like this. Instead of running victory laps after that unmitigated triumph, Bruce Springsteen had to fight for control of his career and even for the right to enter the studio to record his music. He used the three years it took to clear things up wisely, taking the time to write ten tough, unsparing songs that looked hard at what happens when youthful dreams are replaced with family pressures, dead-end jobs, and all the other stultifying trappings of reality. The resulting album, 1978’s Darkness On The Edge Of Town, as musically tough as it is thematically sound, proved there was an exciting path forward for Springsteen from the street sagas of the first three albums. Here is a song-by-song review:
10. “Something In The Night”- I definitely like the last verse, when things get quiet and Springsteen sings his lyrics with a little more clarity and purpose to Max Weinberg’s lonely but insistent drum beat. At times, his vocals here are a bit overdone (“think at all” comes out as “they-ahhhh,” for example) and the music meanders also. Still, there’s something interesting in the kind of unspecific enemy lurking throughout the song.
9. “Streets Of Fire”- This one is more an exercise in attitude than an attempt at profundity, which is fine every now and then. Born To Run’s lyrical acrobatics are nowhere in sight here, as the lyrics, while worded simply, wander all over the place, from paranoia to defiance and back again. That suits well the uneven emotional state of the narrator. Lyrics aside though, the catharsis of the band crashing in following the woozy opening is definitely the highlight.
8. “Candy’s Room”- Darkness may have been a departure away from Born To Run, but it wasn’t a 180-degree turn. One thing the two have in common is Springsteen’s fearlessness in trying different things, which displays itself in this song in the odd arrangement with its mumbled opening verses followed by the suddenly frenzied pace. Although this somewhat overwhelms any concerns about Candy, it makes for a great demonstration of the E Street Band’s ability to handle whatever Bruce throws at them.
7. “Adam Raised A Cain”- What do you do when you wake up one morning and realized you’ve slipped into a life that’s exactly the same as the one possessed by the guy down the hall who’s always on your case? You primal scream your way through this blistering track, that’s what. The first and perhaps the most searing example of Springsteen’s examination of the father/son dynamic, it features some Biblical by way of Steinbeck allusions and some of the E Street Band’s fiercest music, Springsteen’s guitar leading the attack. Future songs about the same subject matter from Bruce would leaven the approach a little, but the raw anger and hurt of this one can’t be denied.
6. “Factory”- No doubt, the life of gang-fighting and carousing ’till all hours of the night was a blast, but sooner or later Springsteen’s protagonists had to get a job. To reflect this sobering development, Bruce knew he needed a style of music more contemplative. So while it’s not exactly a Nashville Skyline transformation, there is more than a hint of country in the E Street Band’s delicate performance. Springsteen effortlessly describes not just the endless cycle of waking, suffering, and sleeping that exemplifies the working life of men like his father, but the collateral damage such a life does to the families of these men.
5. “The Promised Land”- While it is definitely not an upbeat album, Darkness does not trade much in despair either. The hero of this rousing, elegant rocker certainly feels life’s pressure, but he never relinquishes his hope in something better. He also memorably chastises anyone who would view this hope as naivete: “Mister, I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man.” Springsteen’s pop sense, in terms of keeping songs tight and at a radio-palatable length while maintaining their impact, started to show in songs like this and “Prove It All Night.” Even though they weren’t big hits, they were certainly progenitors of the hits to come.
4. “Prove It All Night”- A gleaming track that’s proved a worthy concert staple, it’s studio rendering is taut and potent, benefiting from expert ensemble work and wonderful solos from Springsteen and Clarence Clemons. Springsteen had entreated girls in the past with methods comical (“Rosalita”) and somber (“Thunder Road.”) On “Prove It All Night,” it’s a no-nonsense approach in keeping with the tone of the rest of the album. He doesn’t want to hear any belly-aching from this porch-hanging Mary and seems just as ready to drive away if she’s even the least bit reticent. Again, should have been a big hit, but it’s proven far more durable than some of the tripe that topped it on the charts in ’78.
3. “Racing In The Street”- What a difference a musical setting can make to a set of lyrics. If you just read the words to “Racing On The Street” and imagined them set to something like “I’m A Rocker”, you’d walk away exhilarated and believing that this anguished couple might indeed be able to wipe their slate clean. By setting it to Roy Bittan’s elegiac piano at a dirge-like pace, Springsteen exposes the deep futility of their lives. Any highs of races won are quickly doused by a home life filled with denial and depression. The lovely coda by Bittan on piano and Danny Federici on organ sounds like the dream ride into the sunset that these two aren’t destined to take.
2. “Badlands”- It’s crucial that Springsteen’s protagonist is obsessed with the facts, because the album jump-started by this rousing opener spells out those facts with ruthless efficiency and maximum impact. Yet “Badlands” is another track here that fights valiantly to come to some sort of terms with those facts, first by facing up to them, then by rising above them. Having music as pulse-pounding as this certainly helps, with Max Weinberg in full wallop mode and Springsteen and Clemons once again trading off with abandon. The last verse quiets things down only to rise back into the defiance of “I wanna spit in the face of these Badlands,” one of the first examples of a tactic Springsteen has come to perfect. It pulls people involuntarily out of their seats to confront their own existences and demand they make them worth something.
1. “Darkness On The Edge Of Town”- The miracle of this song is how it walks a fine line between uplift and delusion. One way to look at the protagonist is to say that he found a venue where he can again taste life’s marrow after his previous state of numbness. Another way is to say that he has lost the best things he had in favor of foolish self-destruction. What Springsteen suggests is that we all tread that line, and choices are never easy when you start to wobble. In the refrains, the band crashing down all around him, he sings with a mixture of anger, lust, and bravado, so that it’s impossible to tell if he’s reached the top of the mountain or if he’s tumbling over the cliff. Maybe his most pyschologically profound song to that point in his career, and, come to think of it, it still might hold that title.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For books and e-books based on material that originated on this site, check out the links below.)
My take on the sublime 70’s anthem “Surrender” by Cheap Trick is now available at American Songwriter’s site. Check it out in the link. More Boss tomorrow.