CK Retro Review: Pipes Of Peace by Paul McCartney

Recorded for the most part at the same time as predecessor Tug Of War and released by Paul McCartney just a year later, 1983’s Pipes Of Peace suffers by comparison to the earlier album. It’s hard to hear some of the songs and not think that they were leftovers. That said, it’s the more experimental album, as McCartney and producer George Martin attempted to keep listeners on their toes, not easy to do for an artist as ingrained in the culture. They occasionally succeed and occasionally overdo it, but the efforts are admirable. Here is a song-by-song review (ratings based on a five-star maximum):

TWO STARS

11. “Tug Of Peace”- Attempting to provide a kind of link to the previous album, McCartney included this percussive, electronic quasi-instrumental that calls back to “Tug Of War.” Busy, but not that engaging in the end.

10. “Through Our Love”- The idea, I suppose, was that this would be the unifying, stirring ballad to wrap it all up. But it’s lyrically underwritten (lots of “true/you/do” rhymes) and lush enough to cause a toothache.

THREE STARS

9. “The Man”- The arrangement is a little overbaked, helping to undercut some interesting ideas (the lyrics are a kind of cousin to “The Fool On The Hill”) and the combined charisma of McCartney and Micheal Jackson on the lesser of their two collaborations on the album.

8. “Average Person”- Some of the effects get a bit cloying on this track, one which would have been better served by just playing it close to the vest with the solid piano-driven rhythm. Maybe one too many musical ideas on this one, but McCartney’s energy and commitment keep it afloat.

7. “Sweetest Little Show”- On this track, some good-natured rockabilly gives way to a contemplative acoustic guitar part. This is one of the times on the album where the experimental bent helps lift what could have been a pedestrian track.

6. “Hey Hey”- A fiery instrumental co-written by jazz fusion legend Stanley Clarke. It kicks up more dust than anything else on the record.

5. “Pipes Of Peace”- The title track is quirky and melodic, even if it seems grafted together from the bones of other songs, including ELO’s “Fire On High,” The Beach Boys’ “Heroes And Villains,” and Macca’s own “C Moon” and “Let ‘Em In.” It always struck me as the set-up for a concept album that never materializes, but it’s heartfelt enough to register.

4. “The Other Me”- It’s not me; it’s me. That seems to be the argument leveled here by the guilty suitor portrayed by McCartney in this nice, if relatively inconsequential, little midtempo number. And, hey, haven’t we all acted like a “dustbin lid” from time to time?

3. “Keep Under Cover”- It has an effective, stomping groove that nicely counteracts the strings and really pops when it emerges from the dreamy opening. The lyrics mainly stay out of the way, but McCartney sings them fervently enough to make you think there’s more there than meets the ear.

FOUR STARS

2. “Say Say Say”- McCartney certainly got the better end of the bargain when it comes to his collaborations with Michael Jackson. Whereas Michael kept the limp “The Girl Is Mine” for Thriller (and, who remembers this, actually released it as the leadoff single,) Paul was able to include this pop-funk ripper (and “The Man”) for Pipes Of Peace. He wouldn’t always be so fortunate in his business dealings with the Gloved One, of course, but these were happier times between the two. Their ease together pours out of the speakers here.

1. “So Bad”- I’ve professed my affinity for Paul’s occasional falsetto soul testifying elsewhere in this series, and he really nails it in this one. I’ll also defend the lyrics, which may seem to some to be mindlessly simple. I would argue that complicating them would have distracted from that melody, as soft and mesmerizing as a leaf gently twisting in the wind as it falls to ground from on high. Should have been a bigger hit, if you ask me.

(E-mail me at jimbeviglia@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Paul McCartney’s first band, check out the link below to preorder by new book, Counting Down The Beatles: Their 100 Finest Songs, which arrives in March.)

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CK Retro Review: Emotional Rescue by The Rolling Stones

They don’t all have to save the world, right? Well, they shouldn’t have to, but when you’re a band like The Rolling Stones, folks expect something substantial every time down the pike. 1980’s Emotional Rescue, by contrast, feels like an effort by the band to put out something with far more concern for grooves than thoughts. As such, it goes down smooth, but, with a few notable exceptions, doesn’t stick with you too long after it fades out. Here is a song-by-song review:

TWO STARS

10. “Where The Boys Go”- Autopilot Stones guitar churn without a melody. Not much to hear here.

9. “Send It To Me”- It figures that the ever-anonymous Bill Wyman would get to come to the forefront on a disposable song from an album considered to be one of the band’s most disposable LP’s. Still his contributions here are the most notable thing on this endless quasi-reggae jam.

THREE STARS

8. “Down In The Hole”- The sustained intensity of this blues jam is impressive. Sugar Blue gets in some impassioned harmonica while Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood do some hypnotic interweaving on guitar. The downbeat vibe is a little out of place with everything else here, but the song makes you stand up and take notice nonetheless.

7. “Dance (Part 1)”- Wood takes over on bass here and creates the first of many hooks the song has to offer, with others coming courtesy of the frisky horns and the vocal harmonies. Jagger’s patter is really inessential here, because the music is potent enough to carry the load.

6. “Summer Romance”- The idea of Jagger having a summer fling with a co-ed might strike some as icky, but a) it probably happened and b) if the Beach Boys can still sing about surfing and high school, who are we to begrudge the Stones this dip into academia? Like so much of the album, it’s a catchy number without much ambition that’s played with more gusto than it probably deserves.

5. “She’s So Cold”- You could pretty much ditto what I said about “Summer Romance,” only here the MVP is Jagger, who pretty much willed this one into being a hit with the loony charisma of his performance. Again Wood is on bass, playing melodic runs while Richards’ flickering lead adds even more rhythmic heft. Charlie Watts is the steady heartbeat. Still a lot of fun on your local classic rock station.

4. “Indian Girl”- Kind of an out-of-left field that succeeds in an offbeat way. The title character, a little girl orphaned in a Central American war, is not your typical Stones’ heroine, but Jagger lends her a great deal of dignity and respect with the straight-faced tenderness of his vocal. Meanwhile, the music, a lilting mariachi, shows that these guys still had versatility to spare, even if they displayed it less and less in those days.

FOUR STARS

3. “Let Me Go”- This underrated track sneaks into four-star territory just on solidity alone. Wyman and Watts are a propulsive engine while the electric guitars tick along, providing nice tension and release, and the solo is good as well. Jagger has more than fifty ways to leave his lover but she’s having none of it. Nothing groundbreaking, but done so effortlessly and expertly that it sneaks up on you.

FIVE STARS

2. “All About You”- The album starts with Jagger hailing Richards; it ends with Richards lambasting Jagger. Oh, you could kid yourself and pretend it’s about a girl, but, considering its placement on the record, it’s as if Keith has listened to Mick’s disco nonsense for as long as he can stand and has to get his two cents in. This is one of those tipsy Richards’ vocals that confound some people, but it’s genius, especially with how it plays off the smoothness of the harmonies. And it’s no surprise that Bobby Keys takes Keith’s side with his bluesy saxophone commentary. I think it says something about Jagger that he would allow this brazen pot shot on a record bearing his name; maybe he inherently knew that Glimmer Twins infighting and drama was as much of the brand as the lips.

1. “Emotional Rescue”- Rarely does the bass part in a rock song wake you up like Wood’s does here, although it’s a fair argument to say that this isn’t really rock. It’s pop, or disco, or maybe R&B, but whatever it is, it’s a recording that holds you in thrall for its entirety. Watts’ rat-a-tat snares are somehow the beat and the hook all at once, allowing Wood to just bounce around wherever he’s needed most. And Jagger strolls through this limber rhythmic bed with dramatically-intoned pronouncements and falsetto cries, an wild, improvisatory collection of words and sounds that’s sensual, silly, and, like he says, steadfast. Keys puts the whole thing to bed, bits of passion sneaking out from under the urbane facade. The perfect poster child for his off-kilter yet ingratiatingly lighthearted album.

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For a more in-depth look at The Stones, check out my new book Counting Down The Rolling Stones: Their 100 Finest Songs, available now at the link below.)

http://www.amazon.com/Counting-Down-The-Rolling-Stones/dp/1442254467

 

 


CK Retro Review: Between The Buttons by The Rolling Stones

It’s funny that Between The Buttons, released in the beginning of 1967, has the reputation of being a bit of a letdown album for The Rolling Stones after Aftermath (possibly in part because band members, particularly Mick Jagger, have always run it down in interviews). And yet, when you combine the UK and US versions of the albums, at least half the songs are stone-cold classics or at least close to that level. If the lesser songs are a bit bumpy, surely that can be forgiven considering the brilliance emitted by the cream of the crop. Here is a song-by-song review.

TWO STARS

14. “My Obesssion”- It’s got a stop-and-start beat going on, only each time it stops, it has a hard time getting started again. It feels like a half-finished idea.

13. “Please Go Home” (UK version only)- The return to a Bo Diddley beat doesn’t produce like you would expect it might, in part because the efforts to psychedelicize just make it noisy. Production run amok.

12. “Cool, Calm & Collected”- I’m not sure if this combination of musical whimsy and social commentary was ever the right approach for the band. Brian Jones’ kazoo solo, an early piano appearance from Nicky Hopkins, Keith Richards’ trebly guitars, the frenzied finish: It’s a bit much, and yet intriguing as a road not taken again, probably for the best.

11. “All Sold Out”- The band had gone so day-glo around this period that when they tried to rock out on this track, they sounded a little out of practice, coming off a bit clunky and generic.

THREE STARS

10. “Complicated”- It starts off pretty catchy but gets repetitive after a while. Speaking of repetitive, by this time on the album, all the songs about Mick Jagger’s muses/femme fatales start to bleed into one another. But Charlie Watts gets a sort-of drum solo, which is new.

9. “Yesterday’s Papers”- Jagger has stated that this was his first ever solo composition for the band, music and all, and this melody he constructed is affectingly lilting. It’s a little busy production-wise, but there’s a contemplative feel to it that sets it apart.

8. “Something Happened To Me Yesterday”- Turns out Paul McCartney and Ray Davies weren’t the only Brit rockers wishing to bring vaudeville back to the masses. The way Jagger breaks the fourth wall at the end of the song would presage the Fab 4’s Sgt Pepper’s move a few months down the road. Even if you never figure out what that “something” was, this one is still a lot of fun, especially with Jones conjuring a whole brass band all on his own.

7. “Amanda Jones”- When in doubt, the Stones could always reach back for a Chuck Berry-inspired rocker and find  their footing. Honestly, Jagger’s concerns about Amanda’s class and nobility don’t really register, but the locomotive groove and Richards’ crunching riffage is more than enough to get the job done.

FOUR STARS

6. “Connection”- You might be surprised when you hear “Ruby Tuesday” is a Keith Richards solo composition. You’re probably less surprised that this one is too, right? The hardly-hidden drug references get hung on a jumpy arrangement that nonetheless finds a sturdy groove in just under two minutes. An oft-forgotten fun one.

5. “Who’s Been Sleeping Here?”- If you’re looking for underrated Stones tracks, here’s a good one for you. It’s doubtful that it’s known to anyone but completist fans of the band, yet this one is nicely-executed mid-tempo intelligence. Dylan is the obvious reference, but Bob likely wouldn’t have ever tried an arrangement as sly as the acoustic-to-electric, quiet-to-loud strut the band pulls off effortlessly here. Plus Jagger walks the fine line between genuinely aggrieved and lashing-out nasty with nary a stumble.

FIVE STARS

4. “She Smiled Sweetly”- Richards plays organ and bass on this track, and for much of the song, it’s just those instruments and Charlie Watts on drums carrying the load. Watts is brilliant, proving that a slower song can have propulsion if it’s handled delicately enough. There’s something spiritual going on in the lyrics, in the way that the narrator can only find succor and soothing in the presence of the mysterious girl who turns his anguish into happiness with just a few words and a smile. The minimalism of this one allows it to sneak up on you until it’s gone and you’re wishing you can bask in its presence again.

3. “Back Street Girl” (UK version only)- Lyrically, this is as cold as anything, with Jagger essentially telling the titular character to stay in her place as his girl on the side and to not interfere with his public life. Yet the music won’t let things get too nasty, with the romance of the accordion and Jones’ vibraphone tinkling away on the lonely end. The melody is sadly pretty and Jagger sings with empathy for the girl that his lyrics are marginalizing. The Stones never had much use for tact in their songs, and it’s all the better they didn’t, because we might never have heard hard-hearted but honest slices of life like this one.

2. “Let’s Spend The Night Together” (US version only) – Do we believe Mick when he says this isn’t an everyday occurrence? Not so much. But everything else in this ingratiatingly direct proposition rings true. Right from the beginning when Richards’ piano comes charging out of the gates, the intentions are bracingly clear. The only brief respite is during a Beach Boys-style harmonizing session in the break, which seems designed to take the piss out of the pop singers who would mask their come-ons in euphemisms and pleasantries, a la “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” With those “ba-da-da” refrains seemingly everywhere, this is hooky, colorful, still convincingly Stones-y, and as joyous as they ever sounded.

1. “Ruby Tuesday” (US version only) – Yes, this song was completely written, lyrics and all, by Richards. I guess it doesn’t fit the image, although he would prove to be a reliable source of ballads for years to come. In this case, he writes a song that’s part character sketch, part broken-hearted farewell. The instrumental touches are all sensitively-rendered, especially the double-bass pretending to be a cello and Jones’ dreamily melancholy recorder. (Had I known that instrument could have produced something so lovely, I would have stuck with it after third grade.) Plus the production is one of Andrew Loog Oldham’s finest and Jagger connects with the lyrics so well that you can understand people not believing that he had a part of the writing. The band’s best slow one ever? You could make a pretty solid argument for it.

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com. For more on the Stones, check out my new book Counting Down The Rolling Stones: Their 100 Finest Songs, available for preorder at the link below.)

http://www.amazon.com/Counting-Down-The-Rolling-Stones/dp/1442254467

 

 

 


CK Retro Review: The Envoy by Warren Zevon

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:

TWO STARS

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.

THREE STARS

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.

THREE STARS

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 countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia.)

http://www.amazon.com/Counting-Down-Bruce-Springsteen-Finest/dp/1442230657

http://www.amazon.com/Counting-Down-Bob-Dylan-Finest/dp/0810888238

 

 


CK Retro Review: Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School by Warren Zevon

It didn’t have the hits of Excitable Boy and it lacked the grandeur of his self-titled album. But Warren Zevon’s 1980 album Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School, perhaps more than any of his albums, really grows on the listener and reveals its many wonderful characteristics over time. The attitude is prickly throughout and there aren’t really any attention-grabbing single-type songs on there, and yet Zevon’s puncturing songwriting, musical adventurousness, and willingness to bear the harshest parts of his soul make this an album without a real weakness. Here is a song-by-song review.

THREE STARS

11. “Interlude No.1/Interlude No.2”- Little classical pieces connecting rock songs on albums were common at the time; Zevon’s buddies in the Eagles used them often. Zevon, always a classical buff, utilizes them well here.

10. “A Certain Girl”- Reviving this R&B hit as the album’s first single was a typically off-kilter move, although it blunted some of the commercial momentum that the previous album had built up. And the public wasn’t entirely wrong: Although Zevon sells it with wild aplomb, it isn’t as rhythmically sure-footed as it probably needs to be.

9. “Jungle Work”- A dirty guitar riff, tribal beat, and Zevon’s return to the world of mercenaries is pretty much what you’re getting here. The synths offset the brutal attack of the main section nicely. Unkempt and all the better for it.

8. “Empty-Handed Heart”- This was the era when the power ballad first started coming into vogue, so the overblown nature of this one is somewhat understandable. Nor is it Zevon’s most memorable melody, and the lyrics are a bit mushy for the man. Yet, when Linda Ronstadt comes in to play the other side of this sad romantic story, damn it if the thing doesn’t come to life and pull you along in its sway.

7. “Bed Of Coals”- The country lilt to this one, embellished by David Lindley’s steel, is well-executed, even if the pace lumbers a bit for a five-minute song, keeping it in the solid-but-unspectacular range. If this album is Zevon’s regurgitation in song of his personal problems (but, then again, couldn’t you say that about all of his albums?), here is the grand statement. Co-written with T Bone Burnett; man, that guy has been everywhere.

FOUR STARS

6. “Wild Age”- It acts as a kind of apologia for self-destructive types without completely excusing them for the part they play in causing their own problems. In that way, Zevon both identifies with and castigates folks like these, and certainly he was among their number. Beach Boy-ish harmonies make for a sweet sing-along moment at album’s end, an invitation for all the iconoclasts out there to join the chorus.

5. “Bill Lee”- Like one of the titular lefty’s sweeping curve balls, this one comes out of nowhere and mesmerizes. So what if it’s under two minutes; it’s still one of the few songs in rock about baseball that doesn’t sound like a novelty. And it’s a lot more fun than Dylan’s “Catfish.”

4. “Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School”- The crunching guitars following up the sweet violin opening immediately lets you know that Zevon is going to be mixing in the tough with the tender maybe more randomly and haphazardly than ever before. And the relentless raucousness of the music suggests that the protagonist’s promises to change might be broken before the song even ends. This one might get overlooked because the lyrics are simple and to the point, but it works really well in a blunt-force kind of  a way.

3. “Gorilla, You’re A Desperado”- Zevon proves his ability to do Randy Newman-style satire with a hilarious and on-point tale of a simian who makes the mistake of thinking that the grass is greener on the other side of the bars. Instead, he ends up saddled with very LA problems like divorce and depression, finally becoming a different kind of prisoner, “shackled to a platinum chain.” The synth-island vibe and the one-liners make this the perfect change of pace from the heavier stuff all around it, even as it stays in keeping with the album’s downbeat tone.

2. “Jeannie Needs A Shooter”- Well, having a girl’s name in the title should be the first clue that The Boss was involved here. Bruce Springsteen was fiddling around with versions of this song since before his first record was released. Zevon pretty much took the music and the chorus and filled in the rest, turning it into a classic story of two lovers separated by an angry father. Befitting Zevon’s sardonic sensibilities, the father wins, leaving our hero bleeding out in the dust while his intended rides away. A fun story song in a gleaming package.

FIVE STARS

1. “Play It All Night Long”- It’s hard to say why Zevon felt he needed to answer “Sweet Home Alabama” (which was an answer song in the first place), but we can be grateful he did. The music is searing, Zevon’s calliope-like keyboards swirling around the thunderous rhythm. Since he’d already maligned the lifestyle of his home base on the West Coast on his first album, I guess it was time to take down the American South. Any romantic notions Skynryd might have had are set aflame in an inferno of illness, incest, cattle disease, and, unforgettably, “sweat, piss, jizz and blood.” And yet, somehow, there’s a sense of Southern pride in there too, in the way Zevon owns it all unapologetically. Plus, you couldn’t imagine the career of the Drive By Truckers, who would eventually cover it, without this song as a template.

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia.)

http://www.amazon.com/Counting-Down-Bruce-Springsteen-Finest/dp/1442230657

http://www.amazon.com/Counting-Down-Bob-Dylan-Finest/dp/0810888238


CK Retro Review: Working On A Dream by Bruce Springsteen

I come to praise Working On A Dream, not to bury it. Maybe that makes me a lonely rider in the world of Springsteen analysis, but I love the looseness of this record, which shines through both on the out-there experiments and the more somber songs. The E Street Band sounds fully at home on loving throwbacks to 60’s pop and rock, while Bruce subtly constructs an overriding theme on the autumn years of life and all of the struggles and triumphs that go along with that time period as convincing as the youthful narratives he spun in the early days. Here is a song-by-song review.

TWO STARS

13. “Tomorrow Never Knows”- No, it’s not a Beatles cover, although that psychedelic Revolver tune wouldn’t have totally out of place on this collection. Instead, it’s an acoustic shuffle that’s amiable enough but feels a bit underwritten.

THREE STARS

12. “My Lucky Day”- The theme about taking a chance on love is one that’s been said many times before, including a few times by Bruce himself, but the hard-charging music, reminiscent of something that might be heard on The River, is effective. Props to Garry Tallent, who gets a chance to flex his muscles a bit more on this album than usual, for his nimble, melodic bass that propels this one.

11. “Good Eye”- I’m not sure straight blues is a strong point for The E Street Band; the rhythmic chops that they show on their soulful numbers sort of disappears here in favor of a more locked-in approach, to the detriment of the song. Springsteen, on the other hand, proves to be an expert blues belter, muscling out his lines as if trying to exorcise any demons temporarily lodging in his soul.

10. “Life Itself”- Although the whooshing chorus keeps trying to lighten this one up, the darker undercurrents of the verses and the moody music don’t really allow that to happen. The Byrds-like middle section with the backwards guitar is a bit out of left field compared to the rest, but it is intriguing.

9. “What Can Love Do”- Again, it’s a case of downcast verses and an anguished, almost desperate chorus, as Springsteen testifies on the power of love to cure even the worst ills. There is real sting in some of the imagery that Bruce uses in the verses, which makes his promise in the refrain all the more redemptive if he can indeed deliver.

8. “Working On A Dream”- It was probably miscast as the first single, which may be why the album seemed to fade from the public attention span faster than most Bruce releases. It is, however, a simple, affecting paean to resilience, with an Orbisonian tear in Springsteen’s voice that demonstrates just how hard that work can be.

7. “Queen Of The Supermarket”- The production sounds like something that the great songwriter Jimmy Webb might have spun back in the day, while the lyrics have some Randy Newman in them in the way they portray a character who borders on the unsavory as he leers at the checkout girl. It’s a bit wacky, and the f-bomb at the end is an uneasy fit with the orchestration, but there’s an honesty in the writing that sneaks up on you.

6. “Surprise, Surprise”- Some may find this slight, but that’s like saying early Beatles songs are slight. The optimism provides a real jolt, as does the lovely vocal interplay toward the end of the song. (On the whole, Working On A Dream is a treat for lovers of harmonies and sweet vocals.) Not every song has to solve the world’s problems. Some can just project good vibes into a world that needs them, and “Surprise, Surprise” does that better than most.

FOUR STARS

5. “This Life”- There’s a fine line between homage and copycatting. Springsteen and the band always seem to be on the right side of it on this album. The Pet Sounds open and the “ba-ba-ba” backing vocals near the end pay their respects to The Beach Boys, but it’s just a quick dip in the West Coast pool before we’re back on E Street thanks to Clarence Clemons wonderful solo. The narrator preoccupies himself with the heavens and spectral matters, realizing that there is nothing out there quite like what he’s found on Earth. The immortality mentioned in the bridge certainly seems doable in the midst of those beautiful harmonies.

4. “Outlaw Pete”- (Since I’ve had a lot of commentary in anticipation of this song already, I thought the best way to defend it would be to include the essay that accompanies the song in my new book, Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs. So here’s an exclusive excerpt solely for my loyal readers.)

Bruce Springsteen made a bold choice by making “Outlaw Pete” the leadoff track for his 2009 album Working on a Dream. It’s rare that an artist as advanced in his career as Springsteen can release a song that genuinely sounds like nothing they have done before, but “Outlaw Pete” manages to be just such an outlier.

Such a drastic departure doesn’t necessarily have to lead to something that’s artistically effective, of course, and it seems that “Outlaw Pete” is a bit of a polarizing song among the rabid Springsteen faithful. Some fans took to derisively labeling it “Out to Pee” for the way that a segment of the crowd would head for the bathrooms whenever the E Street Band trotted it out on the tour supporting Working on a Dream.

If there are fans who have dismissed this fascinating track, they should reconsider. “Outlaw Pete” is full of musical daring, and it works lyrically whether you choose to hear it as a well-told tall tale of a legendary bandit or as a metaphor for the way that the tentacles of the past relentlessly spread into the present and the future.

Springsteen referenced the latter reading in a 2009 interview with Observer Music Monthly. “The past is never the past,” he said. “It is always present. And you better reckon with it in your life and in your daily existence, or it will get you. It will get you really bad. It will come and devour you, it will remove you from the present. It will steal your future and this happens every day.”

That quote shows that Springsteen feels that the old William Faulkner maxim (“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”) doesn’t quite go far enough to explain the danger of it all. The title character in “Outlaw Pete” is emblematic of this, a man whose attempt to put his heinous past behind him is nothing but a fool’s errand.

The music that accompanies Outlaw Pete on his journey is one of Springsteen’s most ambitious concoctions. It’s a heady combination of Ennio Morricone spaghetti-western ambience and progressive rock drama. The song alternately recalls some of the more ornate productions of Jeff Lynne for ELO and the over-the-top thrills of modern rock adventurers Muse.

If nothing else, the song takes you on a ride, and even if it occasionally makes you queasy, it’s never less than invigorating. There are powerful hooks at every turn, from the elegiac guitars to the darting strings. It’s all very cinematic, which makes sense in a song that plays out like some bizarre Western.

In the early stages of the song, Springsteen describes Pete in such away as to make him seem like the Paul Bunyan of banditry, weaving exaggerated tales of both his criminal behavior as a child and his supernatural defiance of heavenly figures. The tone gets more realistic when Pete gives up his life of crime to settle down with his new wife and child on an Indian reservation. From that point, Springsteen’s tale plays out like a thriller, especially with the introduction of the bounty hunter Dan.

Dan represents the righteous revenge that Pete has coming to him, and even as the bad (or badder) guy wins the showdown, Dan’s dying words ring with icy truth that Pete cannot deny: “We cannot undo these things we’ve done.” So Pete rides off alone and takes a header with his horse off a mountain.

That strange finish is just another one of the daring turns this song takes. It’s as if Springsteen started off writing a John Ford movie and it transformed into one directed by David Lynch. The refrain “Can you hear me?” becomes especially haunting at song’s end, since Pete is now an apparition calling from limbo to warn the living against repeating his mistakes.

Those who feel “Outlaw Pete” is too much of a departure for Springsteen might not be listening closely enough. After all, the street races and gang fights that filled his early narratives were always larger than life; “Outlaw Pete” just offers that grandiosity in a different setting. You could even say that the ambiguous ending, whereby no one can be sure of Pete’s fate, is a throwback to the way that Zero and Blind Terry disappeared into the night way back when.

In any case, Springsteen’s ambition is part of what makes him such an enduring artist. Experimental curve balls like this exciting track are testaments to his refusal to live off past glories. After all, as “Outlaw Pete” clearly shows, a healthy relationship with the past is integral to peace of mind in the present.

FIVE STARS

3. “The Wrestler”- Springsteen gets so far in the head of Mickey Rourke’s character from the film of the same name that he must have identified with him somewhat. Otherwise this could have been a bloodless, almost anthropological kind of character study. The narrator asks for no forgiveness or sympathy. He doesn’t even try to articulate the insensate urges that push him to choose pain and misery over love and companionship. Still, he takes a strange sense of pride from the fact that his utter self-destruction provides fodder for entertainment, that his fast road to oblivion is a spectacle for those who pay their two bits. Even though it wasn’t written for the album, it fits beautifully as the tack-on track.

2. “The Last Carnival”- Danny Federici got on the traveling circus that is The E Street Band back in 1973. His death in 2008 inspired Springsteen to reach back to “Wild Billy’s Circus Story,” writing this quasi-sequel as a tribute to his late friend. The basic gist is that the circus continues even as the vast hole left behind by the loss remains, a metaphor that rings true for anyone trying to move on from a devastating loss. Springsteen’s aching vocal is a thing of beauty, the carnival sounds (some conjured by Danny’s son Jason on accordion) haunt the edges of the narrative, and the final wail by the band really reaches you. Springsteen could have said goodbye any old way, but he really honors Federici with the ingenuity and heart behind this track.

1. “Kingdom Of Days”- A majestic love song, one of the best Springsteen has ever written, “Kingdom Of Days” speaks of a romance that still burns with the force of young love, even if it’s about two folks closer to senior citizen status than senior year. On other songs on the album, time ravages, sneers, and avenges. The couple in this song conquer time by coming to terms with it, robbing it of its power to harm. The chorus is simply beautiful, with the strings and horns providing the fanfare and the heavenly harmonies providing the heart. “We’ll laugh beneath the covers and count the wrinkles and the grays” might be, in its way, one of the most romantic things the man has ever written, and you can take that to the bank, Baby Blue.

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. My new book, Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs, arrives in June, but you can pre-order now at all major online booksellers.)

http://www.amazon.com/Counting-Down-Bruce-Springsteen-Finest/dp/1442230657

http://www.amazon.com/Counting-Down-Bob-Dylan-Finest/dp/0810888238


CK Retro Review: Atom Heart Mother by Pink Floyd

Pink Floyd entered the 70’s still a bit adrift creatively. Although the soundscapes on 1970’s Atom Heart Mother were as hypnotic as ever, the songs still seemed to be lacking any kind of deeper meaning amidst all the ambiance. So while there are no out-and-out embarrassments on the album, there is also nothing that leaves an impact too far past its time on the speakers. Here is a song-by-song review.

TWO STARS

5. “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast”- At the very least, the sounds of roadie Alan Stiles preparing his morning meal provide some sort of unifying element, which is good because the three distinct musical passages bear little relation to each other. What’s worse, that music lacks any kind of bite.

THREE STARS

4. “If”- This delicate folk song shows Roger Waters beginning to look inward in his lyrics, evincing the odd combination of empathy and paranoia that would become a hallmark of later work. He was also learning to outflank the limitations in his vocal abilities by connecting to the emotional content of the lyrics. These developments would reap major rewards in subsequent albums, even if the efforts here come off a tad limp.

3. “Summer ’68”- Rick Wright’s solo songwriting efforts were spotty at best, but this one gets by on its ambition, as it neatly changes from a restrained ballad to an impassioned grinder at the drop of a hat. The Beach Boys-inspired vocal effects come off pretty well, and Wright shows a little bit of fire that’s lacking from the efforts of his bandmates elsewhere on the album. A worthy obscurity.

2. “Atom Heart Mother”- This 24-minute would-be epic gets a little too big in spots; the horns and strings are ladled on a bit too thick, betraying the fact that they were done by Floyd collaborator Ron Geesin with little input from the band. It’s too bad, because the band made a big step with the song in terms of having all the musical motifs, from the Spaghetti Western touches to the choral section to the wild sound effects, cohere in time for a stirring conclusion.

1. “Fat Old Sun”- David Gilmour also got caught up a bit in the folk torpor that had enveloped Waters with this song that’s so ethereally languid it threatens to evaporate before our ears. Even if his lyrics lacked focus, his melodic instincts and his singing ability, here displayed via a tender falsetto, were excellent. But the song’s finest ingredient by far is the anguished song-ending guitar solo by Gilmour that brings the other band members to life and hints at the grandeur and glory that was in the offing.

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com and follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. Check out the links below for books based on material that originated on this site.)

http://www.amazon.com/Counting-Down-Bob-Dylan-Finest/dp/0810888238

https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781442230651