Paul McCartney’s second solo foray into rock and roll and rhythm and blues history outdid the first, which was no small feat. Unlike CHOBA B CCCP, which had a tossed-off quality that sometimes helped and sometimes hindered the material, 1999’s Run Devil Run, consisting primarily of cover songs of mid-20th century classics and obscurities, benefits from what seems like a little bit more forethought. McCartney also found a wonderful ad hoc band for the project, featuring crackerjack guitarists David Gilmour and Mick Green. His three original songs aren’t anything too memorable, but his first album following the death of wife Linda found him on firm, familiar musical footing that must have been reassuring to him at such a difficult time.
15. “Try Not To Cry”- The staccato, herky-jerky feel of this McCartney original feels beamed in from a different era than the classic covers, breaking up the spell a bit. Plus it’s a rare McCartney song that is lacking in the melody department.
14. “Brown Eyed Handsome Man”- Even though Chris Hall adds an excellent accordion part, zydeco is the one sub-genre represented on this collection where McCartney doesn’t quite feel at home.
13. “What It Is”- The band makes a pretty good ruckus on this one, but it feels a bit rushed in terms of the execution and a bit blah songwriting-wise.
12. “Shake A Hand”- McCartney gets a chance to tear up his larynx here. Maybe he gets a little silly with it here and there, but it slides by.
11. “Party”- One more wild rocker for the road sends the album out on a note of raucous fun. The prolonged ending is a nice touch.
10. “Run Devil Run” – The best of the three McCartney originals holds its own with the classics surrounding it. Frenetic but held together by the chemistry of the band and Paul’s powerhouse vocal.
9. “Blue Jean Bop”- Great way to start the album, with this modest little Gene Vincent number that gives Paul a workout on bass and lets Gilmour and Green cut loose on electric guitar.
8. “She Said Yeah”- The Beatles did pretty well with Larry Williams covers, so it makes sense that McCartney would look to one of his classics once again. The band revs this one up and provides some serious thunder, while Paul’s vocals are suitably wild and woolly.
7. “I Got Stung”- A great, relatively obscure barnburner on which the band to pack a serious wallop. That they do this while still sounding loose, not shambolic, is a testament to the unit assembled by McCartney for this project.
6. “Movie Magg”- McCartney slides into this Carl Perkins rambler like it was written for him. It would have been easy to do “Blue Suede Shoes” or something like that. He does more honor to the original artists by digging deeper into their catalogs, showing just how intriguing some of their lesser-known songs were. A wonderfully restrained and charming performance from Macca on this one.
5. “All Shook Up”- Here the band takes a well-known chestnut and imbues it with enough personality that it becomes their own. Each instrumentalist is fired up individually, but they also all come together cohesively for some unstoppable forward thrust. Explosive in a way that even Elvis’ original couldn’t claim to be.
4.”Coquette”- Of all the artists that McCartney has either covered or honored with homages over the years, Fats Domino is probably the one that, for whatever reason, has been the tightest fit. As Pete Wingfield knocks out the triplets, Paul struts through a standout vocal on this typically charismatic Fats’ composition. The lyrics don’t work unless the singer emanates confidence that the titular girl is going to realize her folly and come crawling back, and McCartney is on top of that all the way.
3. “Honey Hush”- What really stands out time and again on the uptempo numbers is how the originals are beefed up with modern rock heft while the original, classic feel is maintained. You can hear that balancing act pulled off most memorably on this rip-snorter. McCartney and producer Chris Thomas deserve credit for the arrangements they concocted on this and the other fast ones. Why would anyone want to hush up this glorious yakety-yak?
2. “No Other Baby”- This brooding slow-builder is one of the more obscure songs that Paul took on for this project, which works in its favor. Without the preconceived notions from the listener about what it should sound like, McCartney can turn it into a smoky, brooding slow-builder, the one cover here that you could say sounds “modernized,” and effectively so. He builds the tension expertly until finally uncorking with more emotive vocals as the song progresses.
1. “Lonesome Town”- Paul’s best decision on this classic ballad made famous by Rick Nelson was to sing it in a high register throughout. Whereas Nelson’s version is brilliant for all that it holds back, Macca’s take succeeds in a different way, spilling everything on the table. (Plus the original didn’t have a top-notch David Gilmour guitar solo in its favor.) I’m not one to jump to conclusions and say that he was thinking about Linda while he sang so emotionally here, but it’s certainly tempting to connect those dots. In any case, it’s a wonderful combination of songwriting perfection and interpretive feeling. And all of us who’ve ever been denizens of that figurative location can relate and wallow right along with him.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. Check out my new book, Counting Down The Beatles: Their 100 Finest Songs, available now. Order at the link below or at your favorite online bookseller.)
With a couple days to kill in the studio and some ace session men on hand, Paul McCartney ripped off a bushelful of songs consisting mostly of classics from the first wave of American rock and roll. The resulting album (CHOBA B CCCP or Back In The U.S.S.R.) was released only in the Soviet Union in 1988 before finally getting a worldwide release three years later. Although the arrangements sometimes betrayed the tossed-off, hurried nature of the sessions, McCartney’s affinity for and ease with this material makes it an invigorating listen, reminding anyone who might have forgotten how great a rock and roller this guy is.
14. “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”- A rock arrangement of this standard might have worked with just a tad more lightness to highlight the deft nature of Duke Ellington’s melody. But the band sort of bludgeons it, even if the instrumental break is well-done.
13. “Ain’t That A Shame”- Cheap Trick had a pretty good go at this song by not playing it too close to the vest. The respect that McCartney shows to the original smothers it a bit and makes it come off as more imitation than inspiration.
12. “Midnight Special”- Maybe too light a touch is employed here by McCartney and the band, with the arrangement by Paul not quite capturing the darkness in the song that makes that ever-loving light so important in the first place. Nice guitar work on this one by Mick Green though to recommend it.
11. “Lucille”- The groove is a touch mathematical here, especially when you compare it to Little Richard’s raucous original. McCartney has fun with the vocal though, inspired by one of his true idols, and there’s no denying that this is a bona fide classic that’s hard to botch as long as you bring the energy.
10. “That’s All Right, Mama”- You have to hand it to McCartney on one account: He certainly didn’t back away from the behemoth songs of the genre. His take on this track that Elvis immortalized hews a bit more country and western, with the exception of the robust guitar break. Doesn’t threaten the original by any stretch, but a fine turn nonetheless.
9. “Kansas City”- McCartney knows his way around this song, as it was included way back in the day on Beatles For Sale. His voice sounds remarkably spry considering the quarter-century between recordings, doesn’t it? But, then again, it sounds pretty spry today even further down the road. Pretty good heft delivered by the band on this one.
8. “I’m Gonna Be A Wheel Someday”- McCartney is, for sure, a “real gone cat” throughout this collection. On this, one of three Fats Domino-penned songs on the album, he and his buddies bust it up pretty good and vigorously sink their teeth into a tale of romantic revenge.
7. “Twenty Flight Rock”- This one holds a special place in Macca’s heart, as it was his knowledge of the song’s lyrics and changes that allegedly impressed John Lennon back in the day when the pair first met. Mick Gallagher gets a nice showcase on piano, as the band, taking the Eddy Cochran classic at a lope instead of a sprint, keeps their footing very well.
6. “I’m In Love Again”- Anybody’s who’s ever heard “Lady Madonna” should know that McCartney can do Fats Domino better than anyone save Fats himself. He slips into this rambler with no sweat at all, as Gallagher nails the piano triplets to anchor the music.
5. “Lawdy, Miss Clawdy- Man, does Paul sing this one wonderfully, touching every bit of the playfulness and bluesiness in the lyrics with ease. The fuzz of the guitar doesn’t quite square with the swing of the arrangement, in my humble view, but that’s nitpicking. The positives far outweigh that little nick.
4. “Crackin’ Up”- This is the most obscure song on the album, and it benefits from that, sounding alive and fresh rather than encased in glass. McCartney gets a lead guitar showcase and makes the most of it, while seeming to enjoy the quirkiness of the lyrics.
3. “Just Because”- The quartet nails the rockabilly vibe of this one, an antiquated song that Elvis also made famous. Great interplay among the musicians, while Paul’s bass and vocals bring a lot of charm to the proceedings. Certainly one of the most fun recordings on an album where “fun” was the operative word.
2. “Bring It On Home To Me”- Taking on a Sam Cooke song isn’t for the faint of heart if you’re a vocalist. McCartney tears into it fearlessly, adding a bit of a grittier edge in the higher notes compared to Cooke’s break-no-sweat smoothness. The call and response at the end leaves everything on the floor. A great showcase for his vocals, which retain their youthfulness and yet still reference the heartbreaks only life experience can engender.
1. “Summertime”- Taking this George Gershwin song and giving it an arrangement that hits the ominous notes of “House Of The Rising Sun” proves to be a stroke of genius. It really transforms it into something that Gershwin himself might not have realized possible. And it’s the one place where the heavier tones of the electric guitar don’t sound like they’re overwhelming the content of the song. Paul puts everything he has into the vocal; Ella would have been proud.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter & JimBeviglia. My new book, Counting Down The Beatles: Their 100 Finest Songs, arrives in March. You can preorder it at the link below.)
As a general rule, when Paul McCartney was forced to take most of the burden on himself the create a Wings record, the resulting record turned out to be better than the group’s more democratic efforts. Much like Band On The Run, 1978’s London Town was essentially carried by McCartney, wife Linda, and Denny Laine when other band members headed for the hills at the last minute. And while it doesn’t quite reach the masterpiece status of Band On The Run, London Town, until it peters out at the very end, abounds with such effortless geniality and tunefulness that it makes a strong case to be included among the Top 10 McCartney post-Beatles albums.
14. “Don’t Let It Bring You Down”- It gets lost somewhere between traditional folk and prog, and McCartney doesn’t really try hard enough with the lyrics here. Really the only time this album seems ponderous.
13. “Morse Moose And The Grey Goose”- Bizarre right down to the core, this track sounds like McCartney started trying to make some grand statement that got away with him. It’s too bad the last two songs on the disc are the weakest; sequencing (or maybe lack of editing is the better term) mars an otherwise excellent album.
12. “Backward Traveller”- It’s barely over a minute long, but it’s urgently engaging enough to make us wish that it were fleshed out to a full length.
11. “Deliver Your Children”- The minor-key whoosh, the finger-picked acoustic guitar a la “I’ve Just Seen A Face,” the solid harmonies from McCartney and Denny Laine, the refrains: All are fine. The lyrics start well but spin out of focus by the third verse, which keeps this one from quite meeting its potential.
10. “Name And Address”- Not much going on here beyond some rockabilly grooves and McCartney trying out his Elvis impression, which turns out to be not half-bad. The Stray Cats were listening.
9. “Cuff Link”- The light-saber synths are a nice contrast to the ominously funky rhythmic thrum, which, of course, is McCartney on bass and drums, which, of course, turns out to be all you need.
8. “I’ve Had Enough”- It has a very Wings-y feel to it, right? The fact that the song was recorded before Jimmy McCulloch and Joe English skedaddled probably accounts for that, but McCartney is still driving the bus with his feisty vocal.
7. “Cafe On The Left Bank”- The lyrics could have come off as twee, but McCartney’s decision to marry them to some of the toughest music on the disc erases any concerns. Some excellent lead guitar and clopping percussion keep this one vibrant and entertaining throughout.
6. “Famous Groupies”- Maybe not as sweetly appreciative as George Harrison’s “Apple Scruffs,” McCartney’s ode to rock hangers-on is still suitably awed at these sirens’ surprising powers over the musicians they enchant. Winking fun and, you guessed it, catchy.
5. “Children Children”- For my money, this is Denny Laine’s finest moment in Wings. He co-wrote the song with Macca, and you’d have to think Paul had a big hand in the song’s melodic charms, which are hopeful with a slight undertow of melancholy. Nonetheless Laine plays an engaging Pied Piper. Sweet without being cloying.
4. “Girlfriend”- McCartney’s efforts to craft a song for Michael Jackson led him to inadvertently test out his falsetto stylings, which turned out to be quite seductive in their own right; you can kind of understand why the titular character would be stepping out with this guy on the side. McCartney also adds the high-drama instrumental break (omitted by Jackson in his own take), which deepens what could have been just a fun but lightweight ditty.
3. “With A Little Luck”- One of the things critics of McCartney’s lyrics fail to recognize is just how adept he was at matching the words he chose to the the music he crafted. So while “With A Little Luck” might not seem like much on paper, the tentative optimism of the tune is perfectly captured by Paul’s simple declarations. Even the little-engine-that-could backing vocals at the end are right on point. What starts out as a humble tune, barely willing to poke its head out of the ground, becomes quite decisive and stirring.
2. “London Town”- The obviously antecedent here is “Penny Lane,” right down to the colorful characters and dignified brass. That the title track wakes up the echoes of such a formidable number is to its everlasting credit. It also sets a relaxed, benign tone for the rest of the album that turns out to be its calling card. Also, it seems redundant at this point in this particular Retro Review series to say that McCartney writes an enchanting melody, but, really, it’s a beauty. And the brief, rocking break shows there’s some spunk in the old city after all.
1.”I’m Carrying”- I have no idea what the narrator is carrying, nor do I know the occasion of this meeting with him and the girl in her room. But I do know that it is mesmerizingly romantic, thanks to the music behind the tale and the melody with which it is told. The delicately-picked guitar and the carefully-arranged strings form the airborne foundation, and the tune soars even above that with avian grace. In the final repeat of the refrain, you can hear McCartney start to let loose with some wordless “ooo-ooh” vocals, for even he is caught up in the sheer beauty of his creation. Who wouldn’t be?
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Macca’s “other” group, check out the link below to preorder my new book, Counting Down The Beatles: Their 100 Finest Songs, due out in March 2017. Below that is a link to my Amazon page, where you can check out all my Counting Down books and e-books.)
The wry, knowing smile Warren Zevon displays on the cover of his 2000 album Life’ll Kill Ya is a good indication of what’s to come. Zevon writes and performs on the album like a guy with nothing left to prove, simply making the music that comes naturally to him. That’s not to say that his inherent prickliness abandoned him; the album title should let on that isn’t the case. But the album begins the unofficial trilogy that closed out his life and found him at ease with his legacy, reflective, spouting practical wisdom, and winning us over all over again. Here is a song-by-song review:
12. “Hostage-O”- Zevon borrows more than a bit from “Tracks Of My Tears” in the acoustic guitar riff that drives this odd combination of benign melody and harsh imagery. The narrator’s point, that he’ll take abuse over loneliness, is a bit unwieldy for the musical setting, but it’s an interesting attempt.
11. “Dirty Little Religion”- Zevon drains all the Hallmark out of his pitch to a would-be lover, coming on like a modern-day Elmer Gantry. The sentiment may be sour, but I like how it’s matched up with a Johnny Cash-style rumbling rhythm.
10. “Life’ll Kill Ya”- After he tugs at your heartstrings with one of those Zevonian quasi-classical opens, he goes on, with something approaching glee, to tell us that those strings will be clipped in due time. If you can accept death’s inevitability, there’s a kind of liberating effect that the song has, especially with that underlying piano keeping the melody afloat.
9. “Porcelain Monkey”- Leave it to Zevon (and co-writer Jorge Calderon) to look back at Elvis through the lens of his sad decline rather than focusing on the good stuff. The silliness of the title trinket suggests just how wasteful Zevon felt The King’s final years were.
8. “My Shit’s Fucked Up”- It’s not an easy listen, nor is it Zevon’s most eloquent display of lyrics, although it shouldn’t be considering the effect he desires. This is one of those songs that is almost too intense, considering what would eventually befall Zevon, to bear, but the stark honesty of his performance demands your attention.
7. “Ourselves To Know”- Sounds a little like something off John Wesley Harding, with its antiquated setting, religious overtones, and quizzical message. It’s lovely in an understated way, with some nice interplay between Zevon’s harmonica and Jim Ryan’s mandolin.
6. “Back In The High Life”- Zevon gets a chance to show off his interpretive skills here. In Steve Winwood’s original, his elastic voice created a joyous effect. When Warren sings it, he sounds so ravaged and defeated that the redemptive promise of the refrain seems like nothing but a pipe dream, lending the song an air of sadness that it doesn’t have on the page.
5. “Fistful Of Rain”- There’s a macabre joke at the heart of the refrain here, because what do you really end up when you “Grab a hold of that fistful of rain?” The pennywhistle and call-and-response backing vocals give this one a little musical ambition that makes it stand out a bit, while Zevon’s message that we should embrace the futility of life is ironically inspirational.
4. “For My Next Trick I’ll Need A Volunteer”- Displaying the solidity of Zevon’s songwriting chops, this one delivers a hooky melody and the ability to milk a metaphor for all its worth that could hang with the best of Motown or Nashville. Nothing too fancy, and yet it cuts pretty deep thanks to the hurt inside false bravado of the vocal.
3. “I’ll Slow You Down”- There’s a little “It Ain’t Me, Babe” in this melodic charmer, as Zevon frames the song on the surface as a narrator’s admission of his unworthiness while making veiled criticisms of the priorities of the girl whom he’s cutting free. The British Invasion slope of the tune taxes Warren’s vocals, but the strain he shows only proves his point somehow that he’s better off staying behind.
2. “I Was In The House When The House Burned Down”- This energetic album-opener proves that you don’t need to plug in to rock out; just an acoustic guitar, a harmonica, and some peppery drums get the job done quite well here. It also helps to have Zevon unapologetically and metaphorically commenting on the eventful life he’s spent being in the right place at the wrong time with intentions that probably fall somewhere between the two extremes. His survival instincts win the day.
1. “Don’t Let Us Get Sick”- Forget for a moment the heartbreaking irony contained within the song as it pertains to Zevon’s eventual fate. Concentrate instead on the melody, one of Zevon’s most enduring, which is really saying something. And concentrate on the benevolence and warmth of the message, which should fill the hardest heart and moisten the most jaded eyes. Sing it as a lullaby or chant it as a prayer; either way, “Don’t Let Us Get Sick” holds powers and charms far beyond the seeming simplicity of the notes played and sung by its one-0f-a-kind creator.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia.)
Many singer-songwriters found themselves floundering amidst the sizzle and flash of the early 80’s, but the era was particularly harsh on Warren Zevon. His 1982 album The Envoy took such a commercial nosedive that he lost his recording contract in the process. The album doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be from song to song, seesawing haphazardly from the personal to the political, while reliance on synthesizers puts Zevon in a somewhat odd setting. And yet the sweetness and optimism of some of the numbers really shines. Somehow this album sounds dated and underrated all at once. Here is a song-by-song review:
9. “The Overdraft”- Author Thomas McGuane helps out with the not-bad lyrics and Lindsey Buckingham contributes cackling backing vocals. But the whole thing is a little hectic.
8. “The Hula Hula Boys”- A somewhat amusing tale of being cuckolded in picturesque scenery, this one shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Just enjoy it for the island lilt and move on.
7. “Ain’t That Pretty At All”- Some of the old snarl returns at long last for this one, which, truth be told, is a bit one-note. Still, it’s an entertaining note, and the idea of Zevon crashing about the Louvre is fun to contemplate. Plus his buddy Don Henley must have been listening closely, because he copped the synth-funk vibe from this one, tightened and cleaned it up, and came out with a hit called “All She Wants To Do Is Dance” just a couple years down the road.
6. “Charlie’s Medicine”- Maybe this one tries a bit too hard to be epic; it might have worked better as a quiet cautionary tale. Waddy Wachtel’s wah-wah freakout is a thrilling ride though, and the coldness of Zevon’s narrator, who goes about finishing his score even with the death of his friend still lingering in the air, demonstrates well the nastiness of the drug scene.
5. “Jesus Mentioned”- Tender acoustic guitar from Wachtel and Zevon’s voice at his most fragile and affecting carry it a long way. I’m not sure what parallels Warren seems to be drawing between the Lord and the King, but who really cares when it all sounds so delicate and pretty.
4. “The Envoy”- This is one time on the record where the synths work in a grittier setting, as the insinuating music sounds like the theme to some cool cult TV show. And wouldn’t you watch such a show, as the titular character weaves his way between all of the world’s hot spots solving problems that lumbering government bodies can’t even approach? Another in Zevon’s rogues gallery of unlikely tribute subjects.
3. “Let Nothing Come Between Us”- Doesn’t this feel like it should have been a hit? It was the video age, understood, but this sweet Beach Boys-ish swayer about the need for solidity and constancy in a relationship features Zevon at his most unguarded and charming, taking advice from Mama and walking down the aisle without looking over his shoulder.
2. “Looking For The Next Best Thing”- This is the sound of settling, as Death Cab For Cutie once sang. You can say it about this song, Zevon trading in his somber piano for the warm yet cold whine of the synthesizers. And you can sort of say it about the whole album, which feels at times like Zevon wearily capitulating to commercial demands instead of traveling the “road to perfection.” So the next best thing ends up being four-star songs like these instead of uncompromising five-stars like “Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner” or Desperadoes Under The Eaves.” What are you gonna do?
1. “Never Too Late For Love”- And just when you think he has given up the fight, he surprises us with a hopeful closer. Hopeful but clear-eyed, I should say. After all, the narrator’s companion is beset by all sorts of troubles. Yet Zevon encourages and props her up instead of diving down in the gutter with her and popping open a cold one. Maybe the guitars get a little too power ballad-y at the end, but the emotional pull of Zevon’s vocals is strong with this one. A counterintuitively heartfelt way to send this elusive album out.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia.)
Bob Dylan and The Beatles had opened the floodgates for releases of cutting-room floor material with The Bootleg Series and Anthology, respectively, and, since no one had a more overstuffed vault of unreleased material than Bruce Springsteen, it made sense that he would follow suit. Still, not even the most diehard bootleg collector could have expected the treasure trove of great stuff to be found on Tracks, Springsteen’s 1998 three-CD excavation of the songs that fell through the cracks. Here is a song-by-song review of my choices for the Top 20 from that collection.
20. “Two For The Road”- A lovely little solo recording from the Tunnel Of Love Period, this track even features some impromptu whistling from Bruce. It’s honest yet ultimately optimistic take on the commitment and dedication that love requires presages “If I Should Fall Behind.”
19. “Don’t Look Back”- One wonders if Springsteen learned this phrase from his knowledge of Satchel Paige or if he heard it watching the famous Dylan doc (something tells me the latter.) In any case, he utilizes it for this full-speed-ahead rocker with propulsive music that seems to be heeding the warning of the narrator in the lyrics about the need for forward motion at all times. Great drumming from Max Weinberg throughout this one.
18. “Iceman”- This moody cult item is in the same vein as “Racing In The Streets,” yet even darker somehow. The narrator has no misconceptions about the highway or dreams or any of the usual Springsteen lifelines. Instead, he was “born dead” and prefers riding “Hellbound in the dirt” to any glory roads, suggesting that lowering expectations is the only sane way to get through the dreary world.
17. “My Love Will Not Let You Down”- With Danny Federici’s glockenspiel doubling the opening guitar riff, it doesn’t take too long to figure we’re in Springsteen’s rocking wheelhouse. The lyrics aren’t anything he hasn’t said before, yet he puts them across with such desperate conviction that they sound brand new.
16. “Roulette”- One of the great things about Tracks is how it explores fascinating roads not taken. After opening with Weinberg’s “Wipeout” impression, the music, taut and tense, is as close as The E Street Band ever came to the American New Wave that was ruling the roost on rock radio circa 1979, which is when this song was recorded. Lyrically, Springsteen tells a tale of an unseen entity robbing a simple man of everything he has, until he decides that suicide is the only sane option. It may sound like science fiction, but images like stranded toys in a yard keep this thing realistically harrowing.
15. “Santa Ana”- Somehow this morphs from a dusty Western homage into a soulful rocker featuring crescendo after crescendo. Springsteen basically takes the same wild and woolly cast of romantic fools from Jersey and plops them down in the deserts of New Mexico to see what happens. It’s all a bit unkempt and disheveled, but lovably so.
14. “Pink Cadillac”- When Tracks was released, this was probably the most well-known song on it to the casual fans (probably still is) due to the fact that it transcended its B-side status to receive significant airplay at the height of Springsteenmania in the mid-80’s. Bruce basically cops the rhythm of the Peter Gunn theme and adds some Elvis flavor in the lyrics. Of course it’s a lark, but it’s an extremely well-executed lark. And you get Clarence Clemons adding the exclamation points with saxophone blasts, which is never a bad thing.
13. “Back In Your Arms”- Springsteen’s narrator begs for a second chance at love and happiness after kicking it away for so long. With The E Street Band in delicately fine form at his side and a moving chorus sung with unabashed emotion, he could probably get a third chance if he needed it.
12. “Johnny Bye Bye”- It’s only a postage stamp of a song, clocking in at under two minutes, but it’s intriguing nonetheless. Springsteen opines on the death of Elvis Presley, and if you read beyond the lyrics and the deadpan delivery, you can tell how much the senselessness of it haunts him.
11. “Wages Of Sin”- Another longtime audience favorite that sends people into convulsions whenever Bruce trots it out in concert, this track is a meditation on how it’s impossible to ever truly be given a clean slate. In this case, past mistakes haunt the frazzled narrator both in his relationship and in his life, as the stifling tension of the music closes all around him and never releases its grip.
10. “Mary Lou”- Based on other songs on Tracks, particularly “Be True,” Springsteen seemed to keep rewriting this song until finally packing it in. That’s too bad, because this is the E Street Band at their most colorful and affecting. The staccato keyboard blasts and Clarence’s long notes would be repurposed to great effect on “Bobby Jean,” but this tale of a movie-crazy soon-to-be spinster is pretty special on its own.
9. “Hearts Of Stone”- The purists might have a problem with the fact that Springsteen beefed this one up for Tracks by adding some after-the-fact horns, but life’s too short to worry about that. The bottom line is that the finished product is a melancholy beauty, with Clarence in heart-rending top form and Steven Van Zandt doing some soul testifying with Bruce. John Cafferty, Billy Vera, and others had big hits doing fine homages to Bruce balladry, but the original is hard to beat.
8. “A Good Man Is Hard To Find (Pittsburgh)”- Sometimes the best issue songs are ones where the issues are never mentioned. Short of a passing reference to the rain in Saigon, Springsteen keeps any mentions of Vietnam out of this song, concentrating instead on the day-to-day life of a war widow. The country flavorings of the music make this one a ringer for an early Eagles track, while the lyrics beautifully detail how hard it is for this woman to move on when everything reminds her of her loss.
7. “The Wish”- The fact that Springsteen kept this wonderful ode to his Mom off any studio album makes it seem like a personal gift (something the lyrics also claim.) And yet it transcends all the winning details about Bruce’s life as a boy with heartfelt lines about the tenderness of a mother-son relationship to which a lot of folks can relate. Maybe more than any Springsteen songs, it gives you the urge to say “Awwww” when you hear it.
6. “Linda Will You Let Me Be The One”- One of the few outtakes from Born To Run, this track is good enough to have fit well on that album, which is seriously high praise. A doomed romance told amidst the backdrop of a classic 60’s pop-soul sound (right down to the “Be My Baby” drumbeat and rhythm), “Linda Will You Let Me Be The One” is Springsteen doing his street poet thing in the verses and singing the stuffing out of the refrains. Impossible to resist.
5. “Happy”- Much of Springsteen’s early 90’s material was specific in its reference to Bruce’s own personal journey. That’s not necessarily a bad thing if the song is just right, but “Happy” avoids that trap. It seems autobiographical and yet contains trappings that anybody who has traveled a rocky path to a benevolent fate can recognize. Moreover, the yearning music suggests that happiness comes only when you’ve got sacrifice and anguish in the rear-view.
4. “Ricky Wants A Man Of Her Own”- One of the great fallacies about pop and rock music is that a song needs to have serious subject matter to be great. It takes just as much craft to construct a slice of roller-rink heaven like this track as it does to create the weighty stuff. Danny Federici’s organ chirps gloriously throughout as Bruce tells the tale of a little sister who, contrary to Elvis’ famous song, doesn’t know the meaning of the word “don’t.”
3. “Shut Out The Light”- “Born In The U.S.A.” gets all the accolades among Springsteen’s Vietnam-based narratives, and rightfully so. Yet this one is haunting in its own way for how it delves into the psychological prison within which the war ensnared even those who survived it. With excellent violin work by Soozie Tyrell accompanying Bruce’s harmonica work, it’s a small recording that packs a big emotional wallop, especially when you consider the image of Johnson Leneir petrified in his bed, begging to be spared the darkness.
2. “Zero And Blind Terry”- Springsteen’s tales of gangs fighting deep into the city night always had an almost supernatural ring to them. “Zero And Blind Terry” takes that subtext and brings it closer to the surface in this dreamlike tale told in retrospect by a veteran of the scene. This was pre-Born To Run, a time when Bruce’s lyrics were so ambitiously ornate that they could occasionally spin off the rails, but here they plant the landing even with the high degree of difficulty. The music never settles into verse-chorus stuff, alternately ambling and soaring to mimic the exploits of the hero and heroine. In their heart of hearts, every Springsteen fan wants to see Bruce try something like this again.
1. “Loose Ends”- One of the absolute mysteries of Springsteen’s career is how this absolute sure shot was left off his studio albums, thereby robbing it of the widespread popularity it deserves. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Bruce song with more hooks, and it scales to fist-pumping heights with stunning ease. Not to mention the lyrics that yield a tough and searingly honest depiction of relationship angst in a minimum of words. Someday, if I get the chance to talk to Bruce, I promise you, dear readers, that one of the first questions out of my mouth will be why this song had to wait until Tracks for its time in the spotlight.
(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 on June 16, but you can pre-order now at all major online booksellers.)
The media painted it as an artistic comeback for Bob Dylan from the poorly-received Self Portrait, but in fact 1970’s New Morning was formulated at roughly the same time (and released just four months after) its infamous predecessor. As a matter of fact, the album has its own quirks and peculiarities that make it a bit of an outlier in the Dylan catalog, albeit an enjoyable one. Here is a song-by-song review.
12. “If Dogs Run Free”- Lounge-act kitsch also attracted The Beatles around this time (their goofy novelty song “You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)” is evidence of this), so maybe Dylan can be forgiven. While there’s no doubt he was in on the joke, it doesn’t mean that the joke was all that funny. This one would have been better suited to the erratic weirdness of Self Portrait.
11. “Father Of Night”- The lyrics have some interesting things to suggest about a God who births both the good and the bad, but they are ultimately let down by the song’s repetitive melody and brevity. Dylan usually is right on with his choices for album-closing songs, but this one sends New Morning off in forgettable fashion.
10. “One More Weekend”- A bit of the old rasp in the voice helps authenticate this bluesy, randy ode to getting away from it all, if only for a couple of days. It’s a bit of a throwaway, but a fun one nonetheless.
9. “Time Passes Slowly”- Slowing down the pace of life is something that clearly appealed to Dylan around this time. This song is a sweet little ode to that kind of lovely lethargy. The piano is somewhere between gospel and jazz, while the urgency in Bob’s vocal suggests that the quiet life isn’t easily obtained or sustained.
8. “New Morning”- The preponderance of downright happy songs are what makes New Morning such a refreshing listen. There’s nothing fancy going on with the title track, but that’s only right since the simple pleasures are what Dylan is espousing here.
7. “Three Angels”- Dylan ingeniously contrasts the bustlings of city life with a trio of heavenly statues watching them all. Bob speak-sings the lyrics while the mournful music swirls around him. The message about man’s obliviousness to spirituality might be overdone a tad, but it’s hard not to get swept up in it in the end.
6. “Went To See The Gypsy”- The common critical consensus used to be that this song was inspired by a visit to Elvis Presley (the line “He did it in Vegas and he can do it here” is supposedly the giveaway), but Dylan has since denied meeting him. Whatever the case, the song works as a meditation on the chasm between living life in public and staying out of the limelight. Considering the emptiness of the narrator’s visit to the gypsy and his final transportation back to a small Minnesota town, it seems that Bob was contemplating the proper road to take.
5. “Winterlude”- It’s one of the most charming songs in the Dylan canon, all coy come-ons and sweet nothings that amount to a romantic proposal that’s impossible to resist. The niftiness of the wordplay is impressive, the warmth of the music is enchanting, and, as cheeky one-liners from Bob go, “Winterlude, this dude thinks you’re fine” ranks right up there.
4. “If Not For You”- I think that this song would have prospered even more if a middle ground could have been reached between the muddled arrangement that Dylan chose and the overly lush take that producer Phil Spector created for George Harrison on All Things Must Pass. None of that can mask the fact that this is one of Dylan’s sweetest and most direct love songs, making it an excellent tone-setter for an album full of gentle reflections on love, life, and happiness.
3. “The Man In Me”- Maybe the Coen did us all a favor by making this The Dude’s unofficial theme song in The Big Lebowski, because they captured its essence in the process. It is indeed the perfect embodiment of amiable aimlessness, echoed by Al Kooper’s wandering organ. Dylan’s “la-la” refrains reveal in their own special way more about the inner workings of the narrator than any verbose verses ever could.
2. “Day Of The Locusts”- Dylan’s freaked-out experience during his reception of an honorary degree at Princeton University inspired this fascinating track, one of the few in Bob’s career which can be considered nakedly autobiographical. The skepticism of higher education is a recurring theme in Dylan’s career from “Like A Rolling Stone” to “Foot Of Pride,” and it manifests itself here in darkly comic fashion. This is one of the most vibrant musical tracks on the album as well, gathering momentum throughout and featuring a memorable chorus that Dylan cathartically belts.
1. “Sign On The Window”- The album’s standout is marked by some lovely interplay between Dylan’s forceful piano playing and Al Kooper’s wistful keyboards. The female backing vocals are well-utilized as well and it’s a nifty little gospel-tinged melody with melancholic undertones. Dylan’s lyrics, perhaps his best set since John Wesley Harding, and his emotional performance are truly what make this one so special. The narrator’s yearning for an unassuming homestead and a large brood in the last verse is made even more touching by the contrast of his struggles to get there in the first few verses and the bridge. “That must be what it’s all about,” is what he concludes about his dream life, but it doesn’t mean it will be an easily achieved dream.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Bob Dylan, check out the link below to my upcoming book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs.)