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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Bruce Springsteen -- Working on a Dream


When I review something, I always have to decide between going in depth or just being brief and general. I really want to go in depth with Springsteen's decade-ending Working on a Dream, but the nature of the album almost begs I don't.  The songs contain more experimentation than Bruce has ever dared, but their simple optimism resists overanalyzation.
Working on a Dream starts "Outlaw Pete," an eight minute song about an Outlaw named Jerry.  I'm just kidding, his name is Pete.  Anyway, if you were expecting a Springsteen album to start with an epic cowboy tale, you are from the future and should be doing better things with your advanced technology. "Outlaw Pete" is a blast, and drives smoothly into "My Lucky Day," a fun, fast-paced song that is again literal in it's title (or actually metaphorical since his "Lucky Day" is a person).  Every single on this song is about what it says.  Whether pumped up by a new presidential administration, or just excited about his station in life, Springsteen sounds both contemplative and giddy. The themes of the album are positively basic, with constant reminders that money can't buy happiness, and that life lived loving others is a beautiful thing.  I guess that's why, despite the fact that these songs hit more genres and feature more odd, bubbly sounds and instrumentation than any Bruce has ever recorded, I don't feel like I can write a probing review.  I could just write a review based on the song titles alone.
So in conclusion, this is an energized and ecstatic Springsteen, and his enthusiasm bleeds easily into his band.  While the subject matter is light, the album is a musical waterful of goodness. If Magic was too heavy for you, Working on a Dream is the way to go.  This album would have made for a fitting goodbye for the 62-year old legend. The spare, sagelike concluding songs, "The Last Carnival" and "The Wrestler" would have made for an excellent encore.  We'll see where he goes next in a couple of weeks...
Also, people way younger than me listen to Springsteen, and they are adorable.

2009 Columbia
1. Outlaw Pete 8:00
2. My Lucky Day 4:00
3. Working on a Dream 3:30
4. Queen of the Supermarket 4:39
5. What Love Can Do 2:56
6. This Life 4:30
7. Good Eye 3:00
8. Tomorrow Never Knows 2:13
9. Life Itself 4:00
10. Kingdom of Days 4:02
11. Surprise, Surprise 3:24
12. The Last Carnival 3:29
13. The Wrestler 3:50

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Bruce Springsteen -- Magic


After the artistically energized Devils & Dust and the joyous Seeger Sessions, one would think Springsteen's first foray with the E Street Band in five years (and only second in twenty-three!) would take all that positive energy and run with it.  And one (that being me) would be wrong.  Magic is energized in certain ways, and sounds thicker than ever, but it's themes are as stark and reflective as its cover implies.
Magic starts with "Radio Nowhere" a fast-paced classic fakeout. The song bemoans the state of FM Radio as it gradually dies to satellite, but works in a spiritual angle with Springsteen trying to "make a connection to you." I'll take vague pronoun references to God over the fumbling all-inclusiveness of The Rising, anyday. One might think this song sets the tone for the album, but PYSCH!, it doesn't. "You'll Be Comin' Down" introduces the heavy mid-tempo groove the rest of the album rolls on. Drummer, Max Weinberg, and bassist, Gary Tallent, are in lockstep throughout Magic, presenting perhaps their tightest work yet. The entire band sounds great, and Brendan O'Brien's production work utilizes the "Wall of Sound" technique to the fullest. Springsteen lets a little Beach Boys influence in, as well, with some tinkling and tocking noises and vocal harmonies tossed in (see "Your Own Worst Enemy"), which somehow makes the rock sound and harsh themes of Magic more resonant. Those themes are essentially prophetic, with Springsteen all but announcing the coming financial crisis. "You'll Be Comin' Down" starts as if a kiss-off to an ex-lover, but it soon becomes clear the entity headed for a fall is the good ole USA. "Livin' in the Future" continues the idea of partying straight off a cliff. It also mirrors the metaphoric breakup of a relationship with lines like "the grounds keeper opened up the gates/And let the wild dogs run." Magic sticks to the metaphor of a wayward woman as the nation at first, but things become more clear as the album progresses. "Gypsy Biker" minces no words in its anti-Gulf War sentiments. The opening line? "The speculators made their money on the blood you shed/Your momma's pulled the sheets up off your bed." Ouch.
While Bruce hides his sentiments under meticulous, well-recorded arrangements, they are there for anyone willing to take a closer look. It turns out the the title-track, and the whole album isn't referring to the good kind of magic. "Magic" in this case means government trickery. As such, Magic is Springsteen's most political work yet. Thankfully, though, his disappointment with the moral choices of the nation come from a personal place. It's clear from these songs that he loves what he is critiquing, and this makes the political tone bearable and listenable for those who disagree with his opinions.
But whether you agree with his sentiments or not, Springsteen was right. Approximately a year after the release of Magic, the country went into financial meltdown. Since then, it's been "A Long Walk Home" indeed, and we haven't yet sat.

2007 Columbia
1 Radio Nowhere 3:19
2 You'll Be Comin' Down 3:45
3 Livin' in the Future 3:56
4 Your Own Worst Enemy 3:18
5 Gypsy Biker 4:31
6 Girls in Their Summer Clothes 4:19
7 I'll Work For Your Love 3:34
8 Magic 2:45
9 Last to Die 4:16
10 Long Walk Home 4:34
11 Devil's Arcade 5:20
12 Terry's Song 4:11

Yankee Hipsters, Stop Saying "Y'all!"

STOP IT STOP IT STOP IT! That is our word. If you aren't from or living in the Deep South, don't say it. You sound like an idiot. It isn't ironic, and don't even act like you know what irony means. Just say "you guys" or whatever your regional word is and stay out of dialect toybox! Y'all are ruining everything!!!

Monday, February 27, 2012

Bruce Springsteen -- We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions


After the revelatory Devils & Dust, Bruce Springsteen found himself at an artistic highpoint.  Instead of taking time off to write a new album, he dove directly into a new project.  The Seeger Sessions album was released exactly a year after Devils & Dust and is...different. The positive energy and life from Devils & Dust carries over onto this project.  Instead of a continuation of sound, though, Bruce decided to get together with a bunch of singers and fiddle and horn players to cover a wagon load old traditional and gospel songs. 
I won't lie.  Back in 2006, wanting more of what I'd come to expect of Springsteen, I turned this album off after about three seconds.  I wish I hadn't, though.  It is quite good.
Once the shock wears off, the pure energy and sweeping joy of this recording becomes apparent.  There isn't much pre-assembled about The Seeger Sessions.  Bruce brought a ton of people into his home, put microphones in front of them, handed them sheet music, and let her rip.
"Old Dan Tucker" opens with Bruce and a drummer counting down, a banjo pops up and starts plucking out a melody, Bruce shouts out in a boisterous voice he's never used before, and the band blows in.  Bruce's wife and twenty other people shout along in the background.

This is what you get for the next hour.  A rollicking good time.  Don't be surprised to even hear an accordian and some zydeco tossed in (don't even be surprised when sentences end in prepositions). It's unexpected, but it's good fun.  It's obvious Bruce and his pals were having fun, too, which makes most of this album, even the literal ballads, infectious. An hour is a long time, though.  This is The Seeger Sessions' only real flaw.  As fun as this music is, forty-five minutes would have done the job.  That withstanding, the sheer guts that Springsteen had to pull this album out of his hat at almost sixty is unbelievable.  If you allow yourself the concession that the guy who wrote "Born to Run" is now ripping through "Froggie Went a Courtin'" (and at a tempo the E-Street Band would rarely dare), there is plenty here to enjoy. 

2006 Columbia
1 Old Dan Tucker 2:31
2 Jesse James 3:47
3 Mrs. McGrath 4:19
4 O Mary Don't You Weep 6:04
5 John Henry 5:07
6 Erie Canal 4:03
7 Jacob's Ladder 4:28
8 My Oklahoma Home 6:03
9 Eyes on the Prize 5:16
10 Shenandoah 4:52
11 Pay Me My Money Down 4:32
12 We Shall Overcome 4:53
13 Froggie Went a Courtin' 4:32

Friday, February 24, 2012

Bruce Springsteen -- Devils and Dust


And now we finally reach the great victory lap that is modern day Springsteen. After bringing himself back into the public conversation with the well-regarded, but bloated and overrated The Rising, Springsteen was ready to again stretch his artistic muse.  On Devils & Dust, Springsteen channels his experiences, artistic passions, and musical aspirations into an album full of life.  You can almost hear the bugs crawling through the wetness of the grass sprouting beneath the feet of the protagonists on Devils & Dust's twelve tracks (and hear the ratlesnakes slithering through the sand of the desert-set tracks).
In my review of Human Touch, I complained that the songs sounded like they belonged in the end credits of a box-office flop.  Devils & Dust's opening title track sounds like it could score the ending of a deserving Oscar Winner.  I keep using the word cinematic, but that's exactly what these rich, full-sounding recordings are.  I don't think Springsteen has ever recorded an album that sounds this great with arrangements this interesting.
While this is a solo album, Bruce did not look for a new backing band like he did on his early 90's failures.  He plays almost every instrument himself and lets friends fill in to give the album fresh textures.  His wife notably provides backup vocals on several tracks, and a few songs also have a very beautiful, organic-sounding string accompaniment. Experiments in production add character, as well.  Some of the songs put Springsteen's weathered vocals right in the listener's ears, but instead of disconcerting, the sound is comforting.
While Devils & Dust can be considered a spiritual successor to Springsteen's Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad, it's quite different, fuller sounding, and far more encouraging. There aren't any desperate criminals to be found in Devils & Dust's lyric book, just ordinary folks living their lives.  Also a departure are the uplifting (not in the Michael Bolton on a mountaintop way) love songs.  The Deep South back-porch charm of "All I'm Thinkin' About" is about as far from anything on the those two previously mentioned albums as one can get.

The moon, water, and stars seem to pop up on at least half of the tracks on Devils & Dust, as well.  The album may begin starkly and end with a corpse floating down a river, but that only highlights the beautiful day found within.  If Springsteen can make albums like this at nearly sixty, one has to feel just a little more optimistic about aging

2005 Columbia
1. Devils & Dust 4:58
2. All the Way Home 3:38
3. Reno 4:08
4. Long Time Comin' 4:17
5. Black Cowboys 4:08
6. Maria's Bed 5:35
7. Silver Palomino 3:22
8. Jesus Was an Only Son 2:54
9. Leah 3:31
10. The Hitter 5:53
11. All I'm Thinkin' About 4:22
12. Matamoros Banks 4:00

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Bruce Springsteen -- The Rising


After a seven-year album hiatus, Bruce Springsteen returned in 2002 with The Rising, and to much fanfare.  After ten years, it's a bit difficult to see what the fuss was about.  This is a bunch of mid-tempo, timid rock songs with generalized lyrics more in the vein of Springsteen's early 90's releases than his best work.  The two major differences I can really see between The Rising and Human Touch/Lucky Town are sound and context--the full-band (and the E-Street Band, Springsteen's REAL band at that) sound instead of just Bruce and some cheap instrumentation recorded in a sterile basement; the fact that 9/11 happened a year before this album's release (both of these things were able to spawn a hyphen AND a semi-colon).
After Bruce's all time best lyric writing and storytelling in The Ghost of Tom JoadThe Rising gives us a lot of vague lyrics about faith, hope, and carrying on.  Without the spectre of 9/11 looming, some of these songs just sound like navel-gazing nonsense.  The worst offender might be "Mary's House," in which the narrator has "seven pictures of Buddha, the prophet on (his) tongue, eleven angels of mercy..." Bruce should know better.  You try to include everyone, you just exclude everyone.  Anyone with true belief in anything isn't going to care about the song's sentimental cry to "let it rain, let it rain."  Worse, songs like "Into the Fire" just sound like grandstanding--though it is supposed to praise NYC firefighters, it sounds like Bruce is standing in front of an American flag, eating a hunk of cheese.  It isn't the only song to fall into this hole, and with fifteen tracks spanning almost an entire CD's memory, that's a lot of dairy to digest.
Then again, with fifteen songs, you'd expect to get a fair share of good songs, and The Rising has those, too, also a difference from his early 90's work.  "Nothing Man" proves the point "Into the Fire" attempted to make.  The rousing title track bravely waits thirteen cuts in to make its appearance.  "Paradise" is a ponderous but lovely and haunting song.  The violins and ripping electric guitar of "Worlds Apart" foreshadow the work Bruce will tackle throughout the rest of the decade.  There are enough solid tracks like these to make The Rising not quite a comeback, but not a total loss, either.  It's just an okay album, a documented transition period that helped Bruce realize the public eye didn't have to be poison, and that his albums could again sound cinematic, and not like they cost a week's allowance to produce.  It's a good fit for Springsteen fans as a piece of history, but newcomers should only pull this one from the bargain bin (and if you want, you'll see it's easily found there.  Culturally hyped but overrated albums always are).

2002 Columbia 1. Lonesome Day  4:08
2. Into the Fire 5:04
3. Waitin' on a Sunny Day 4:18
4. Nothing Man 4:23
5. Countin' on a Miracle 4:44
6. Empty Sky 3:34
7. Worlds Apart 6:07
8. Let's Be Friends (Skin to Skin) 4:21
9. Further On (Up the Road) 3:52
10. The Fuse 5:37
11. Mary's Place 6:03
12. You're Missing 5:10
13. The Rising 4:50
14. Paradise 5:39
15. My City of Ruins 5:00

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Bruce Springsteen -- The Ghost of Tom Joad


The Ghost of Tom Joad, or For the First Time in Eight Years, Bruce Springsteen Shows Some Ambition.
Nothing that Bruce Springsteen released between 1988 and 1994 is worth listening to.  There, I said it.  That is quite a drought to have not one good song.  To an extent, Bruce's real life got in the way.  Settling down, being happy, all the important things in life.  Unfortunately for Bruce's fans, this meant the artistic fire in his belly had gone to coal and ashes.  I'm not sure what spark ignited these meager embers, but, despite a quiet sound, there is a bright fire shining through the desert night of The Ghost of Tom Joad.
A western theme is pretty prominent throughout The Ghost of Tom Joad.  Most of these songs (just like the Steinbeck penned novel the title character comes from) are set along the Mexican border. Someone must have reminded Bruce of his master storytelling powers, or perhaps he just looked in the mirror. His wonderful character portraits return here.  While some compare this album to Springsteen's landmark, Nebraska, The Ghost of Tom Joad is an entirely different beast. This is a studio album with subtle, but more diverse instrumentation--not just guitar and harmonica.  Drums even show up a couple of times. 
Bruce put much sincere thought into this album, and the delicate melodies he picks out on his acoustic guitar fit the intimacy of the stories.  I've said it before, but I hate that word. "Intimacy." It sounds so cheesy.  Literate, yet warm is a more intellectual way to describe the songwriting style of this album.  As Bruce unveils his characters--losers, criminals, drug runners, desperate immigrants--one can imagine an entire book based on each song.
Bruce's aforementioned guitar and quiet synthesizer work propel most of the songs musically.  There is a little Spanish guitar, some Western slide guitar, and a few other small touches, but The Ghost of Tom Joad is pretty spare, musically speaking.  This is the album's only weakness at times.  "Balboa Park" is an absolute home run lyrically, but the music leaves its well-told story hanging obliquely.  This happens a few times throughout, and I think a tad more musical diversity would help the album flow a bit better.  Other than that small complaint, The Ghost of Tom Joad, is a highly underrated Springsteen album, and perhaps his lyrical masterpiece.  Anyone who enjoys intelligent music should give it a spin, and fans of good storytelling are truly in for a treat.

I slipped on her shoe, she was a perfect size seven
I said "there's no smoking in the store ma'am"
She crossed her legs and then
We made some small talk, that's where it should have stopped
She slipped me a number, I put it in my pocket
My hand slipped up her skirt, everything slipped my mind
In that little roadhouse
On highway 29

It was a small town bank, it was a mess
Well I had a gun, you know the rest
Money on the floorboards, shirt was covered in blood
And she was crying, her and me we headed south
On highway 29

In a little desert motel, the air it was hot and clean
l slept the sleep of the dead, I didn't dream
I woke in the morning, washed my face in the sink
We headed into the Sierra Madres, across the borderline
The winter sun, shot through the black trees
I told myself it was all something in her
But as we drove I knew it was something in me
Something had been coming for a long long time
And something that was here with me now
On highway 29

The road was filled with broken glass and gasoline
She wasn't saying nothing, it was just a dream
The wind came silent through the windshield
All I could see was snow and sky and pines
I closed my eyes and I was running,
I was running then I was flying

1 The Ghost of Tom Joad 4:26
2 Straight Time 3:30
3 Highway 29 3:44
4 Youngstown 3:57
5 Sinaloa Cowboys 3:52
6 The Line 5:19
7 Balboa Park 3:21
8 Dry Lightning 3:37
9 The New Timer 5:49
10 Across the Border 5:29
11 Galveston Bay 5:06
12 My Best Was Never Good Enough 1:59

Monday, February 20, 2012

Breathing Lessons

Don't forget that without the efforts of tall trees and tiny little plankton in the ocean, your great big lungs would have no oxygen to take in.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Bruce Springsteen -- Lucky Town


Lucky Town starts off strong. "Better Days" seems like about as autobiographical a song as Springsteen could write in 1992.  It's pretty simple to see that the better days he speaks of involve his new life with his new wife (and now wife of over 20 years), and his time out of the spotlight.
Well I took a piss at fortune's sweet kiss 
It's like eatin' caviar and dirt
It's a sad funny ending to find yourself pretending
A rich man in a poor man's shirt
It's all well and good that Springsteen is disenchanted with being a huge star traveling around the world on a magic carpet made of money.  It's great that he realizes that life isn't him, and that he is attempting to get back to being a simple man. It's great that through his trials he's learned humility.  Divorce is a sad topic, but befitting this change, Springsteen even traded out his supermodel wife for a plain old Jersey Girl from right down the street.  Though this collection of songs came out on the SAME DAY as the recently trashed by The Nicsperiment Human Touch, there is more grit and truth in Bruce's voice on this one track than on all of that album.  But unfortunately, Bruce hasn't come to a place where he realizes he can both humble himself AND create great music.  So once again, barring a few standouts, Lucky Town is another weakly produced album of less than stellar tracks.
The one major positive element that lifts this album above its fraternal twin is Bruce's palpable excitement at starting this new life, one true to himself.  This feeling never falters throughout the album, even when Bruce puts a false twang into his voice (which isn't being dishonest...that forced twang is true to who Springsteen is). This makes Lucky Town at least listenable, despite the lackluster nature of Bruce and his new band's music...if only there was a band Bruce had better chemistry with than this one...

Looks like that Jackson fellow is still playing bass...

1992 Columbia
1 Better Days 4:08
2 Lucky Town 3:27
3 Local Hero 4:04
4 If I Should Fall Behind 2:57
5 Leap of Faith 3:27
6 The Big Muddy 4:06
7 Living Proof 4:49
8 Book of Dreams 4:24
9 Souls of the Departed 4:18
10 My Beautiful Reward 3:55

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Bruce Springsteen -- Human Touch


My major complaint with Bruce Springsteen's Tunnel of Love is the uninteresting, uninspired music. Bruce follows that album with a collection of b-sides that takes the most lackluster elements of that music and runs with them.  What's that?  These aren't b-sides? These are the real songs and the guy who made Nebraska made them? I can't believe it.
Human Touch is a collection of lightweight pop songs with little substance.  Though Bruce has a new backing band for this album, it often sounds like he is programming beats into a cheap keyboard (it's actually ace session drummer Jeff Porcaro, but who can tell the difference?) and playing along with his electric guitar locked onto the least edgiest setting his effects board has. Also, you know that really boring guy from American Idol who always says "Dawg" or "Yeah, Dawg, I'm not feeling it?" I've never sat down and watched that show, but I've seen him say "Yeah, Dawg, I'm not feeling it" in enough commericials to make me really not want to watch that show. Well, he plays bass on this album. I'm definitely not feeling it, Dawg.
Take "Roll the Dice" for instance.  It's one of the few songs where Bruce actually tries to get something going. He tries to rock out at the start, but see if you can make it to the minute and a half mark.

Nothing exciting happens there, it's just the moment I get bored.
Human Touch is the sound of your friend who just got married and doesn't want to hang out anymore.  Human Touch is the sound of the closing credits in a box office flop.  It is the sound of a high school dance DJ'd by the principal. It is the sound of the adult contemporary station playing in the bathroom of a corporate firm.  It's the sound of Michael Jordan trying to play baseball.
The worst thing about Human Touch is, it is the sound of a man running away from his destiny.  It is almost as if Springsteen is making the most minor music he can possibly make, dodging the shadow of his own greatness for some corner no one will ever want to look.  He saw for a decade just how great he could be, found no personal happiness in it, so tried to do something else (and tried to do it without the great band that got him there in the first place).  It doesn't work and it's a shame.

1992 Columbia
1. Human Touch 6:32
2. Soul Driver 4:39
3. 57 Channels (And Nothin' On) 2:28
4. Cross My Heart 3:51
5. Gloria's Eyes 3:46
6. With Every Wish 4:39
7. Roll of the Dice 4:17
8. Real World 5:26
9. All or Nothin' at All 3:23
10. Man's Job 4:37
11. I Wish I Were Blind 4:48
12. The Long Goodbye 3:30
13. Real Man 4:33
14. Pony Boy 2:11

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Bruce Springsteen -- Tunnel of Love


After Born In the U.S.A., Bruce Springsteen found himself at the height of fame and adoration.  He was now married to a woman the Elite Modeling Agency referred to as a "perfect ten package."  He had everything he thought he ever wanted...
In the true spirit of the human condition, three years after Born In the U.S.A., Springsteen returned with a forlorn album full of disappointment.
Tunnel of Love's title is true.  Every song revolves around a romantic relationship between a man and a woman.  These songs are lyrically as deep as anything Bruce has ever written, but knowing later what he was going through casts them in a more difficult light.  Tunnel of Love was released a year before Springsteen and his spouse filed for divorce. That explains the reason most of the relationships described in Tunnel of Love's songs are on the rocks.  This also sets the stage for the album's greatest asset: the juxtaposition of Bruce's desire to act like a man with his own disappointment that he hasn't turned out to be man he thought he would. On those terms, Tunnel of Love becomes a confessional, and another honest narrative from a great artist.
There is a reason I don't rank Tunnel of Love among Springsteen's greats, though:
Lack of energy.  Bruce performed the majority of Tunnel of Love without his usual co-horts, the E-Street Band, and the deficit shows.  On one hand, their near absence makes sense.  Bruce seems kind of sick of himself here, and purposely (Nebraska was sort of a happy accident) strays far from his trademark sound.  Little here is upbeat, which would be fine if the album had more oomph, but it doesn't. The tempos and sounds are a little too similar throughout (this is the other hand) , and some spontaneity would have been appreciated.  Then again, spontaniety is something Springsteen was known for, so perhaps this is a willing departure as well.  Whatever the case, Tunnel of Love is a landmark release in Springsteen's catalog, but due to limitations inherent in its own nature, a minor one.

1987 Columbia
1. Ain't Got You 2:11
2. Tougher Than the Rest 4:35
3. All That Heaven Will Allow 2:39
4. Spare Parts 3:44
5. Cautious Man 3:58
6. Walk Like a Man 3:45
7. Tunnel of Love 5:12
8. Two Faces Springsteen 3:03
9. Brilliant Disguise Springsteen 4:17
10. One Step Up Springsteen 4:22
11. When You're Alone Springsteen 3:23
12. Valentine's Day Springsteen 5:11

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Bruce Springsteen -- Born In the U.S.A.


Born in the U.S.A. should not work.  Its canned snare drum, heavy synthesizer use (sounds like I just accused this album of having a drug problem), and earnest vocals should crash and drag against my ears like a busted tailgate on the interstate. Somehow, not only does that not happen, but this album, twenty-eight(!) years later, sounds like a bonafide classic.
That previous sentence was strange to type. When The Beatle's Abbey Road was twenty-eight years old, I was old enough to drive. In some ways Born in the U.S.A. is better than that album.  The music, while fun, and timeless in it's datedness, is not timeless in the way Abbey Road's is. But on the other side of the token, Abbey Road is miles behind the stories and character portraits Bruce Springsteen sets to 80's pop-rock on Born in the U.S.A. I only compare these two albums to show how revolutionary Born in the U.S.A. truly is. (Yes, I'm going to write this review like a high school paper).
Thesis: Born in the U.S.A. became a classic album and contained a record number of hits (seven top ten singles) because it melded Springsteen's classic rock stylings with the pop sentiments of the day, but more importantly, because it layered them all on a foundation of true-to-life characters and lyrical voices.
The title track is case in point.  "Born in the U.S.A." sounds like some patriotic 80's American anthem, but the lyrics sing a different story.

Born down in a dead man's town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that's been beat too much
Until you spend half your life just covering up
Man, that doesn't really sound like an uplifting "Go Team!" anthem. The song goes on to describe the life of a man born into tough breaks, who is quick into trouble, sent to Vietnam to fight, comes home to a jobless economy, and has no options. People who just like rousing anthems get a chorus they can nod their heads to. Thinkers get a story on which they can ruminate. Everybody wins. The ambiguity of the chorus is also a selling point--"I was born in the U.S.A" but is that a good or a bad thing?
In a way, this is the same cast of characters as Springsteen's previous albums, and side one of Born in the U.S.A. is basically a full-band continuation of Nebraska.  The second side has a more victorious feel, but it still seems like the same guys and girls, standing defiant now in the face of their trials.  The progression through the album works, and in my opinion, perfects Springsteen's "four-corners" approach, starting each side with an up-beat sounding track, and ending with a more low key one.  Side one ends with one of Bruce's best quiet songs, "On Fire," a haunting portrait of unrequited lust.  I covered this for my wife of five years way back when she was dating someone else.  I am awesome.

The second side closes with "My Hometown," about a man who has seen his place of birth go from idyllic to less than savory.  Still, true to the album, there is hope in the new life of the narrator's son, who sits on his father's lap in the family car and gets a tour of his town, just as the narrator's old man gave him.  It shows to Springsteen's new maturity that he could now think of things more important than running.  He is no longer born to perfom that action, but ready to stand up and fight in the place of his birth, proud of who he is even if he isn't happy about it. That strangely American attitude permeates Born In the U.S.A., and gives deep roots to the album's pop tendencies instead of a simple glossy sheen. This is where Born In the U.S.A. is revolutionary: when is the last time a pop album had subtext?
Conclusion: Born in the U.S.A. is an album of many talents.  While its sound should date it, it only adds to its endearing nature. Springsteen may have decided to make the biggest, most popular album he could make, but at this point his talent was so ripe, he couldn't fail in making a classic.  That's just what Born in the U.S.A. is.
(Do they still give A+'s now, or did they ban them for making the other children feel bad?)

1984 Columbia
1. Born in the U.S.A. 4:39
2. Cover Me 3:26
3. Darlington County 4:48
4. Working on the Highway 3:11
5. Downbound Train 3:35
6. I'm on Fire 2:36
7. No Surrender 4:00
8. Bobby Jean 3:46
9. I'm Goin' Down 3:29
10. Glory Days 4:15
11. Dancing in the Dark 4:01
12. My Hometown 4:33

Monday, February 13, 2012

When Wimpy Indie Bands Win Grammys (Grammies?)

I wish all of Bon Iver's songs were as full-bodied and muscular (even if it's just little egg biceps) as this SNL performance of "Holocene." It's cool when someone not many people know of win big awards in front of 40 million people, but I wish Bon Iver and his soft-rock indie ilk didn't have to sound so wimpy all the time.

The Dream of the 90's is Alive in Portland

The skinniest strongman is alive in Portland.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Bruce Springsteen -- Nebraska


I hate reviewing stuff that's awesome.  It's way harder to praise something perfect than to bash something terrible. I'm reviewing my own collection, and I generally only buy stuff I like, so the scores are generally going to be high, but every 10 I hand out, I do with an almost heavy heart.  In this case, the only heaviness in my heart is coming from the fact that I know I can't do this album justice.
I am convinced that every non-Springsteen fan has an inaccurate image in their head of who Springsteen is and what he sounds like. Nebraska is that image breaker. Whatever you think Bruce Springsteen sounds like, it is probably not this.
But jeez, what does this sound like, rambling idiot?
Argh...well, could give history. Bruce recorded demos at his house on a four-track with mainly just a guitar a harmonica, and his voice, than attempted to re-record the tracks in the studio with his band. Unfortunately for his band, Bruce apparently had had one of those rare, direct-line-to-God moments when he recorded the original demos, and that magic could not be re-created. Fortunately for the human race, and also miraculously, the record label allowed their bankable star to do something very non-bankable: they released Bruce's original demos as is, and those demos are Nebraska.
Nebraska's songs come from the point of view of the losers, downtrodden, and the down-and-out. Three songs come from the point of view of someone facing law enforcement.  One of these, "State Trooper," got me hooked on this album.  I've previously mentioned that I first heard the song in high school on the Sopranos, and if I gained nothing else from that show, I still gained a great deal.

New Jersey Turnpike
Riding on a wet night
Beneath the refinery's glow
Out where the great black rivers flow
License, registration
I ain't got none
But I got a clear conscience
About the things that I done
Mister state trooper, please don't stop me
Please don't stop me, please don't stop me

Maybe you got a kid
Maybe you got a pretty wife
The only thing that I've got
Been bothering me my whole life
Mister state trooper, please don't stop me
Please don't stop me, please don't stop me

In the wee wee hours
Your mind gets hazy
Radio relay towers
Lead me to my baby
Radio's jammed up
With talk show stations
It's just talk, talk, talk, talk
Till you lose your patience
Mister state trooper, please don't stop me

Hey, somebody out there
Listen to my last prayer
Hiho silver-o
Deliver me from nowhere

Now I have a kid AND a pretty wife, but I can still identify with this song more than just about anything. I don't see how any living human being wouldn't, at least at some point in life.  All of the songs have this kind of lyrical depth and emotion.  Some are almost emotionally unbearable.  "My Father's House" details a man who leaves the safety and grace of his father, only to return home too late.

Last night I dreamed that I was a child
Out where the pines grow wild and tall
I was trying to make it home through the forest
Before the darkness falls

I heard the wind rustling through the trees
And ghostly voices rose from the fields
I ran with my heart pounding down that broken path
With the devil snappin' at my heels

I broke through the trees, and there in the night
My father's house stood shining hard and bright
The branches and brambles tore my clothes and scratched my arms
But I ran till I fell, shaking in his arms

I awoke and I imagined the hard things that pulled us apart
Will never again, sir, tear us from each other's hearts
I got dressed, and to that house I did ride
From out on the road, I could see its windows shining in light

I walked up the steps and stood on the porch
A woman I didn't recognize came and spoke to me through a chained door
I told her my story, and who I'd come for
She said "I'm sorry, son, but no one by that name lives here anymore"

My father's house shines hard and bright
it stands like a beacon calling me in the night
Calling and calling, so cold and alone
Shining across this dark highway where our sins lie unatoned

Alright, it's probably about more than just that. This album isn't all downtempo acoutic songs, though. There are some great songs where Bruce lets it rip, like Atlantic City, which rocks harder than most of his full band tracks with just his voice, harmonica, acoustic guitar, and a mandolin.

Another up-tempo track, "Reason to Believe," closes Nebraska . It's repeated refrain of "at the end of every hard earned day, people find some reason to believe" is subtle and ambiguous. Some say he is being sarcastic, including the person who subjectively authored Nebraska's Wikipedia page, but to me Bruce seems optimistic about the fact that even after the worst of times, people can still find reasons for going on. This great album is filled with these kind of questions, and is well worth listening to for a lifetime. Anyone from Dustin Kensrue of Thrice to Ben Harper have attempted to cover Nebraska's songs. My cover of "State Trooper" is never going on Youtube, but that's not going to stop me from trying to do it better the next time. No one is going to do these songs the justice they are served on this album, but the fact that people keep trying is proof of its perfection.
Hey, I tagged this as a "tribute" for a reason.

1982 Columbia
1. Nebraska 4:31
2. Atlantic City 4:00
3. Mansion on the Hill 4:08
4. Johnny 99 3:42
5. Highway Patrolman 5:40
6. State Trooper 3:17
7. Used Cars 3:10
8. Open All Night 2:58
9. My Father's House 5:07
10. Reason to Believe 4:08

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Bruce Springsteen -- The River


The River is Bruce Springsteen's big, dumb record. People like to pretend like there is some great juxtaposition of his more subtle, serious minded songs with more frivolous rocking songs, but that presumption is false. The majority of this 20-track double-album is big, dumb, tongue-hanging out rock. Unfortunately, these songs also have more of a dated sound than the rest of Springsteen's catalog. Born In the USA may use more canned drums, but that album still has an inherent timelessness that The River lacks. I am not sure what chronological plane The River runs through, but it is my least favorite band of sound the Boss has occupied. 4/4 time, plenty of doo-wop organ, not much spontaneity, and general The Nicsperimentdoesn'tlikethisness abound. This is the sound people who think they don't like Springsteen think of when they think about Springsteen (PROOFREADING EDIT: nailed that sentence).

While even some of the ballads are overblown ("Drive All Night" could not be used as a hamburger topping according to the Jewish religion), the saving grace of The River are those few scattered quiet, thoughtful songs...and I do mean "few." There aren't a lot of them, "Wreck On the Highway," "Stolen Car" and their small amount of siblings barely redeem The River for me. "Stolen Car" in particular paves the way for Nebraska, but I shouldn't get ahead of myself.
(This version fits...I reviewed straight from vinyl)

1980 Columbia
Disc 1
1. The Ties That Bind 3:34
2. Sherry Darling 4:03
3. Jackson Cage 3:04
4. Two Hearts 2:46
5. Independence Day 4:50
6. Hungry Heart 3:19
7. Out in the Street 4:17
8. Crush on You 3:11
9. You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch) 2:37
10. I Wanna Marry You 3:30
11. The River 5:01

Disc 2
1. Point Blank 6:06
2. Cadillac Ranch 3:03
3. I'm a Rocker 3:36
4. Fade Away 4:46
5. Stolen Car 3:54
6. Ramrod 4:05
7. The Price You Pay 5:29
8. Drive All Night 8:33
9. Wreck on the Highway 3:53

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Bruce Springsteen -- Darkness on the Edge of Town


Springsteen comes off of, Born to Run, his biggest success yet, with an album that tones down the theatricality, and focuses more on individual characters. Basically everything I complain about in my Born to Run review is absent here on Darkness on the Edge of Town. I'm not just trying to be a contrarian by saying the less popular of these two albums is better--it's just logically better, and here is why:
1. Subtlety: The arrangements are elegant but less busy than Born to Run. The album sounds grittier and less polished, but still professional. The band sounds tighter together than ever.  When there's a saxophone, it's because there is supposed to be saxophone.
2. Flow: These ten very different songs fit well together and feel like they tell a complete story. Springsteen repeats certain phrases and musical patterns throughout to lend to the feelings of cohesion and consistency. Also, Darkness on the Edge of Town actually builds to a moment of catharsis, "Prove It All Night" that feels earned because:
3. Emotion: The stories Bruce tells here about desperate people who really need to get away from where they are are finally starting to feel fully formed and not just like caricatures. The more real a song is, the more emotion it can contain. When Bruce sings "Adam Raised a Cain," obviously referencing his own troubled relationship with his father, you can feel it a lot stronger than a song about someone asking someone else to get on their motorcycle with them. It also probably helps that "Adam Raised a Cain" sounds like the band is playing in the scariest blues bar ever at midnight over the sound of a black river.

Darkness on the Edge of Town is easily better than anything Bruce released before it. More cohesive, better songs, solid theme. The band sounds tighter. Bruce is a grown up. There is no logical level that someone can argue Born to Run is better than Darkness..., except that it sold more copies.
Now go listen to Bruce and his band rock out, or face the wrath.
1978 Columbia
1. Badlands 4:04
2. Adam Raised a Cain 4:34
3. Something in the Night 5:14
4. Candy's Room 2:48
5. Racing in the Street 6:54
6. The Promised Land 4:29
7. Factory 2:19
8. Streets of Fire 4:03
9. Prove It All Night 4:01
10. Darkness on the Edge of Town 4:29

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Bruce Springsteen -- Born to Run


Springsteen's breakout album is an undeniable change in sound.  For one thing, any sense of rambling is gone.  This is a straightforward, defiant affair. Max Weinberg (yes THAT Max Weinberg) takes over the drumset from Vini Lopez, and the ADD drum sound (I don't mean that as an insult) of the first two albums is reined in for what I guess is a more professional sound.  Roy Bittan takes over piano duties and adds a more theatrical vibe to the music. The saxophone is also more prominent than ever. I hate to call this album Bruce Goes Broadway, mainly because I've never been to New York and all I know are stereotypes, but that's the feeling I get with Born to Run in comparison to Bruce's previous work.
I know that this is one of The Boss' most heralded albums, but to me it is the least personal. Maybe it's personal to him and the whole "I gotta get out of (run from) Jersey thing," but to me it seems more like a calculated bid to finally make it big. I don't know when I first became a fan of the guy...maybe late high school when I first heard Nebraska (thanks to a Soprano's episode featuring the song, "State Trooper") or maybe from all the singles from Born in the USA getting blasted at every Parish fair of my childhood. I don't have any kind of personal attachment to this album, though, and listening to it objectively, it's quite good, and I like it a lot, but it's not one of the best ever and it's not even Bruce's best.  To me it just feels like it doesn't quite get started.  All of the songs are good, and some of them fit together well, but I don't feel like I am getting any kind of complete package.  I'm glad that Bruce cut the unnecessary fat that larded up his previous album, The Wild, The Innocent & the E Street Shuffle. Only two of the songs on Born to Run are over five minutes...but there are only eight of them. Really, though, I don't think that's my problem with the album.  My problem is that by the time I heard the vague, West Side Story dramatics of "Jungleland," I had already heard Bruce's highly detailed character portraits in Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad.  Why would I want to come back to this?
Sorry for the blasphemy. I'm just being tough because I know this isn't the best there is. 
It's still better than almost anything.

1975 Columbia
1. Thunder Road Springsteen 4:49
2. Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out Springsteen 3:10
3. Night Springsteen 3:00
4. Backstreets Springsteen 6:30
5. Born to Run Springsteen 4:30
6. She's the One Springsteen 4:30
7. Meeting Across the River Springsteen 3:18
8. Jungleland Springsteen 9:35

Friday, February 03, 2012

Watch Justified, Dangit!

There are some really terrible shows on TV, and there are some really awesome ones, but why would you watch the terrible ones when you have better options?  Watch Justified, people.  You only have three episodes to catch up on this (the third) season, and you can jump in without having seen the first two seasons.  After you do that, go watch the first two seasons because they are awesome. 
The actors are awesomely likeable in their roles.
The characters are awesomely sharp and well drawn.
The dialogue is awesomely clever and witty.
The show is awesomely scripted and filmed.
It awesomely doesn't take place in New York or Los Angeles.  Flyover country represent!
So awesomely watch it and feel awesomely happy and awesome or else those horrible women on whatever Real Housewives Of show you watch will come out of your TV The Ring-style and pull you down into their well of television mediocrity.  And they won't awesomely do it, I promise you.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Bruce Springsteen -- The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle


Springsteen's sophmore effort is thicker and a bit darker than its predecessor. Though two songs shorter, it's ten minutes longer.  He doesn't abandon any of the sounds from his debut, but adds a little more guitar effect on some songs and really more of everything considering all but three of the tracks are more than seven minutes long.  While this gives Bruce a bigger canvas to paint his stories, some of these songs undoubtedbly do go on a bit too long.  Though the energy rarely flags, it's clear that this album would have made a better forty minute listen than forty-eight. TWTIATESS (why is it so fun to do that?) does pay off almost every flagging moment, though, and rounds out solidly. 
One of the best things to come out of this album is the last minute of this video.  Does this even happen to the Bieber? Would the Bieber play it this smoothly? (Also, more bands should be bi-racial. RIP Clarence)

1973 Columbia
1. The E Street Shuffle 4:31
2. 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy) 5:36
3. Kitty's Back 7:09
4. Wild Billy's Circus Story 4:47
5. Incident on 57th Street 7:45
6. Rosalita (Come Out Tonight) 7:04
7. New York City Serenade 9:55

Lovely Bloodflow

Holy bad words, this is beautiful.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Bruce Springsteen -- Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.


I am not going to lie.  I was not looking forward to revisiting this album. I envisioned it as a bunch of cheesy songs about teenagers racing around in cars or something. It isn't. I was also scared all of these songs would just be weak prototypes of "Born to Run." They aren't.
On this, his debut, Bruce is already a fully-formed artist with a vision. The stories he tells here are full of genuine emotion, varied in their sound. "Mary Queen of Arkansas" is an acoustic song that could have been recorded yesterday. "Lost in the Flood" and "The Angel" are similarly downbeat and emotive (and mention but don't revolve around automobiles), but there are also plenty of upbeat tracks featuring the classic freewheeling bass and drum playing inherent in 70's rock. There's even a soul song, "Spirit in the Night," that's a lot of fun. 
I mentioned Bruce's storytelling above, and I think he establishes himself as a master storyteller right off the bat here, but man does he pack some words into these songs. The closer, "It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City" is about just what the title says and boasts a lyric sheet a mile long in three minutes.  It's a great song, but one has to get the feeling that Bruce himself saw the humor in the fact that two and a half minutes into the recording, he was already out of breath.  Fortunately, he still had and has a lot left to say.

1973 Columbia
1. Blinded by the Light 5:04
2. Growin' Up 3:05
3. Mary Queen of Arkansas 5:21
4. Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street? 2:05
5. Lost in the Flood 5:17
6. The Angel 3:24
7. For You 4:40
8. Spirit in the Night 4:59
9. It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City 3:13