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

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CK Retro Review: Another Side Of Bob Dylan

Another Side Of Bob Dylan, released in 1964, owns a bit of an awkward spot in the Dylan catalog, wedged in between the protest folk of his first few albums and the incendiary shift to electric music in the middle of the decade. Yet the album contains several indisputable classics and a few more that probably deserve a better shake than they’ve been given over the years. Here is a song-by-song review.

TWO STARS

11. “I Shall Be Free No. 10”- Dylan comes off a little thin-skinned in the opening verse as he seems to be trying to shrug off the impact that his music makes on people. Things don’t really get a whole lot better from there, leaving this one as little more than a footnote in the man’s career.

THREE STARS

10. “Black Crow Blues”- As we progress throughout Bob’s catalog, we’ll see a number of instances where his off-kilter, intuitive piano style adds great value to his songs. This is one of the first examples of that phenomenon, as an otherwise nondescript blues vamp is brought to life by the saloon-like stomp he conjures on the ivories.

9. “Motorsycho Nightmare”- Dylan plays a smart-mouthed rake in this comic escapade  with such aplomb that you get the feeling that it wasn’t too out of character for him. The jokes about taking showers with a girl who looks like actor Tony Perkins were topical enough at the time; the jokes about Fidel Castro and his beard show that Bob wasn’t afraid of good-naturedly riling up Middle America.

FOUR STARS

8. “Spanish Harlem Incident”- One of the things that distinguishes Another Side Of Bob Dylan is that the songwriting takes a turn toward the poetic on several songs. This fun, short ode to a captivating “Gypsy gal” is strikingly vivid; Dylan’s expert descriptions allow you to see this girl in your mind’s eye as you listen and be just as entranced as the narrator by her “wildcat charms.” And Bob’s tripping wordplay is effortlessly nimble. Consider, for just one shining example: “The night is pitch black, come an’ make my/Pale face fit into place, ah, please!”

7. “All I Really Want To Do”- Any song that gets taken to the charts by both The Byrds and Cher must be pretty malleable. It’s ironic that the cover versions work so well, since the song seems to be a personal effort by Dylan to advertise his overall lightening up. The protagonist promises to the object of his temporary affection that he’s not looking to simplify or classify her, categorize her or analyze her. It sounds like the treatment that a guy burdened with the label of spokesman for a generation would want for himself.

6. “I Don’t Believe You”- This clever, one-liner-filled complaint about a fickle female feels like a precursor to some of Dylan’s jaded yet wounded anti-love songs that enlivened the tail end of his electric period. Maybe that’s why he was able to resuscitate the song for incendiary performances of it with the Hawks, including the one that can be found on the Live 1966 disc of the Bootleg Series, which turned out to be the definitive version of the song.

FIVE STARS

5. “My Back Pages”- I think people might misread this track sometimes as Dylan’s self-criticism of his earlier work. What I think he’s trying to intimate with this song is that his point of view was changing, and the gray areas of the big picture were suddenly more germane to his writing than the “lies that life is black and white.” He brings that same sort of loose-limbed approach to his wordplay, stretching the syntax of lines well beyond their breaking point and creating words and phrases from out of thin air that end up making perfect sense. Plus, it has one of the most memorable refrains not just in Dylan’s career, but in rock history.

4. “Ballad In Plain D”- Perhaps the most unjustly maligned song in the Dylan catalog, perhaps because Bob himself regretted writing it. It’s my contention that his regret is not due to the song’s quality, which is first-rate, but rather due to the song’s nakedly autobiographical nature as a blow-by-blow retelling of the final hours of his relationship with Suze Rotolo, which included a physical scuffle with her sister Carla. Bob comes off like a jerk at times in the song, but he seems to be aware of that fact and is willing to show the truth warts and all. His regret for his own failings is just as genuine as his animosity toward the sister. It all builds slowly to a towering climax, the “timeless explosion of fantasy’s dream,” before the sad epilogue and one of Dylan’s most cryptically incisive closing lines: “Are birds free from the chains off the skyway?”

3. “To Ramona”- It’s rumored to be about Joan Baez, but Dylan strayed away from specifics so the song could resonate with many. (It provides an interesting compare and contrast with “Ballad In Plain D,” for sure.) This is one of the sadder songs in the Dylan ouevre, simply because it’s hard to imagine Ramona snapping out of this funk in which she is ensconced. It’s a heartbreaking portrait of depression, and Dylan’s weary vocal is perfectly on-point, implying that hes can empathize with this girl and might even join her in the doldrums, but he’s never going to be able to save her.

2. “It Ain’t Me Babe”- When The Turtles turned this one into a hit, they sang the refrain in an almost taunting manner. Dylan’s reading is much more measured and matter-of-fact, as he simply relates all the ways in which he will never be able to live up to the demands of his former lover. The subtle genius of the song is the way that these demands escalate throughout until it becomes clear that “Babe” ain’t ever gonna be satisfied.

1. “Chimes Of Freedom”- Instead of singling out a specific cause to protest, Dylan rounds up practically every wounded soul on the planet and grants them a deux ex machina in the form of the titular bells to wipe away all their hurt. His descriptions of the storm in the verses contain imagery that makes the imaginary tumult seem spectacularly real. Then his roll call of those needing assistance, many of whom might be overlooked by the average person, builds in the refrains ‘til his final plea for the chimes to toll for “every hung-up person in the whole wide universe.” It’s one of the very best moments in Bob’s recorded career, coming in a song that ranks up there with his elite.

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.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.)

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


CK Retro Review: Full Moon Fever by Tom Petty

It was essentially his first ever solo album, although Tom Petty wasn’t alone by any means on 1989’s Full Moon Fever. Heartbreaker sidekick Mike Campbell was along for the ride, along with several Wilburys. The result is an album that stands as perhaps the finest of his career in terms of top-to-bottom quality. Here is a track-by-track review.

(The quotes following the songs were taken from Breakdown: Tom Petty’s 100 Best Songs, my recently published e-book which can be purchased in the link below.)

http://www.amazon.com/Breakdown-Pettys-Best-Songs-ebook/dp/B00C281ZB6/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1366938869&sr=8-3&keywords=Jim+Beviglia

TWO STARS

12. “A Mind With A Heart Of Its Own”- This boogeying number didn’t make my list of Top 100 Petty songs, the only one on Full Moon Fever that missed. That’s more a testament to the quality of the album than it is a knock on “A Mind With A Heart Of Its Own,” which boasts some humorous lyrics.

THREE STARS

11. “Love Is A Long Road”- “Petty’s nasally singing is a bit affected here, but it’s ultimately secondary to Mike Campbell’s thunderous guitars. They’re the main selling point of a track that really tears it up when played live and would stand out on any normal album. On Full Moon Fever, “Love Is A Long Road” suffers for being a really good song among great ones.”

10. “Depending On You”- “Notice how those refrains play off the verses, as Petty plays it coy with his talk-singing in those parts before powering into the choruses, like a conversation that starts simply before the intensity ratchets up. It’s just a little touch that makes this otherwise humble little number sound downright powerful.”

9. “The Apartment Song”- “Best of all is the brief, Buddy Holly-inspired, guitar-and-drum breakdown. At any moment during that portion of the song, you half-expect Petty to break into a few bars of “Peggy Sue”. It’s that kind of anything-goes approach that made the album so special and transformed “The Apartment Song” from a leftover to a winner.”

8. “Alright For Now”- “To the long list of rock lullabies, feel free to add this unabashedly pretty offering from Full Moon Fever. Tom Petty and Mike Campbell do some intricate finger-picking on acoustic guitar without ever raising the volume level too high. Wouldn’t want to wake up any dozing youngsters now, would they?”

7. “A Face In The Crowd”- “Elegant in its understatement and suggesting a lot without really saying much of anything at all, “A Face In The Crowd” proves Petty’s ability to create waves of emotion without spelling everything out. That it feels like a minimum of effort was exerted on this Full Moon Fever track is even more of a testament to TP’s talent as a songwriter.”

6. “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better”- This song was not included in my Petty Top 100 because he didn’t write it (Gene Clark did), but the letter-perfect rendition on Full Moon Fever not only honors Petty’s debt to The Byrds but also injects a jolt of sunny adrenaline to anybody who listens to it.

5. “Zombie Zoo”- “I suppose if you dig deep enough, you might be able to find a commentary on the conformity of youth culture or something like that, but why bother? With that horror-movie organ at the start of the song and lines like “You like Boris Karloff and you don’t even care,” it’s best just to enjoy the aural delights of “Zombie Zoo.” Consider it the victory lap on a triumphant album.”

FOUR STARS

4. “Yer So Bad”- “Petty’s sense of humor is all over this one, veering from mischievous (pondering the relative unworthiness of yuppies and singers in the first verse,) to gallows (the jilted lover contemplating suicide in the second.) You can imagine the band getting a good laugh as Petty brought those lyrics into the studio. Jeff Lynne gets a co-writing credit here, with his apparent contribution being the structuring of the chords to help Petty get from one section of the song to the next.”

3. “Runnin’ Down A Dream”- “According to Paul Zollo’s career-spanning interview book Conversations With Tom Petty, Petty claims that he and Jeff Lynne watched in stunned amazement as Mike Campbell blistered through the memorable solo at the end of “Runnin’ Down A Dream” in one stunning take, slack-jawed at the brilliance they were seeing and hearing. When it came time to edit the song for release on Full Moon Fever, Petty couldn’t bring himself to cut out any of the magic his guitarist had given him.”

FIVE STARS

2. “I Won’t Back Down”- “Then the song veers quickly back to the mantra of the refrain, with TP’s good buddy George Harrison seconding that emotion on backing vocals. “I Won’t Back Down” isn’t so much about taking some righteous stand as it is adhering to a certain, unwavering code. It’s about integrity really, and few artists have ever exuded quite as much of that elusive quality as Tom Petty.”

1. “Free Fallin'”- “I suppose that some people find some uplift in these lyrics; as for me, I feel like they speak to middle-age aimlessness. That’s what makes the set-up of the refrain so clever: He says he’s “free,” only to pull the rug out from you with the punch line: “Free fallin.’” Maybe he’s looking for a new world because his misdeeds, committed more through a matter of human frailty than any meanness, have left him without a home on this one.”

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. E-books and books based on material that debuted on this site are available in the link below.)

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=Jim+Beviglia&rh=i%3Aaps%2Ck%3AJim+Beviglia


Bob Dylan Countdown #140: “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”

Dylan tried to take this song back from The Byrds with his own version that was released on his second Greatest Hits compilation. In truth, he could never take it back from the version found on The Basement Tapes, which will always be the definitive one for this listener and, I suspect, most others.

Loping along like a burro on Prozac, the pace of “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” certainly is in keeping with the theme of the song. This easygoing nature is reflected in Dylan’s lyrics, full of strange asides about Genghis Khan and free-associative wordplay. Every time you seem to be getting somewhere in the narrative, you get sidetracked by something new. Again, you ain’t goin’ nowhere.

All of the various cover versions that have been released over the years can’t hope to catch the deadpan essence of the original by Dylan and The Band. This song, like many others on The Basement Tapes, is a plea to the entire God-Almighty world to slow down for a bit. If things don’t exactly make sense, so what? Best to “strap yourself to the tree with roots” and enjoy the scenery, which, in this case, is the effortlessly pretty music.

One thing about Dylan’s own version of the song that needs to be noted:  The ribbing of Roger McGuinn for changing the words. I guess the whole no-stress vibe goes out the window when somebody messes with your lyrics.


Bob Dylan Countdown #151: “All I Really Want To Do”

So who do you have in the battle of the Dylan cover versions? It was Cher vs. The Byrds in a tete-a-tete over “All I Really Want To Do,” the two disparate artists having duked it out in the charts in 1965. (For the record, Cher won easy in the U.S., but The Byrds had her number in the UK.) I’m going with Cher, because she captures the playfulness of the song; The Byrds’ version is too solemn by a half.

I know I’m going to sound like one of those annoying dudes who digs for autobiographical evidence in songs, but I’ve always heard “All I Really Want To Do” as Dylan’s gentle prodding of his fans and critics to just chill out and let him be the songwriter he wants to be. While it works on the surface level as a guy trying to cajole a girl that his intentions are pure, some of the lines seem like references to Bob’s public persona.

An example of some of the things the narrator’s not lookin’ to do:  “simplify you, classify you,” “analyze you, categorize you,” “define you or confine you,” “Or select you or dissect you/Or inspect you or reject you.” That sounds like the kind of treatment Dylan might want for himself. His last promise:  “I ain’t lookin’ for you to feel like me/See like me or be like me.” Perhaps a reminder to his fans to not follow leaders and watch their parking meters?

You also have to consider that “All I Really Want To Do” is the first song on Another Side Of Bob Dylan, an album designed to pull back from all the heavier stuff he had been doing, an album which contained a song with the line, “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” Throw in Dylan’s laughter during the song and his impromptu yodeling, and it all seems calculated to get everyone to lighten up.

Come to think of it, that’s probably what he’d tell me when he read that long-winded description. You can tell us all you want, Bob; it doesn’t mean we’re gonna listen.