- Written by Jason Crawford
- Published on 10 April 2012
Bruce Springsteen "Wrecking Ball" Columbia
Bruce Springsteen is a tricky one, huh? I love the guy and his music, but most of that musical love centers around four or five records from a short era in the 1970's. And none of them sound as good as they could have, but they all sound a damned site better than anything he did in the '80's. That probably goes without saying. Still, I've always had this, admittedly unrealistic, dream that he'd go back and re-record his entire catalog in such a way that actually does the songs justice. And let's dream big while we're dreaming, shall we? I was envisioning full band contributions from the original E Street Band. Now, Clarence Clemons has passed on, and it feels like he accounted for half the band on his own. He was big. I miss him already. His last contributions can be found on Bruce's new "Wrecking Ball" which made the record worth checking out even if you hadn't read any advance press about how "angry" or "political" this one was going to be. Well, Bruce has been doing the trick of politics for a while now, and somehow his work always seems more important than whatever else is out there. "Wrecking Ball" is no different. He doesn't beat you over the head with his message, he kinda slides it under the door for you to find when you wake up the next morning. I just wish he'd put it in a different kind of envelope.
I thought Bruce's "Magic" offering from 2007 had a smoking batch of songs on it, but the production was predictably wimpy and I just resigned myself to it. This feels like a rerun of that same scene albeit with an entirely different tone. Bruce has a gritty public personae. His songs are gritty, his message often is too. That's certainly true of the material on "Wrecking Ball," but you wouldn't know it by listening passively. "Finding Nemo" had more grit to it than "Wrecking Ball" does sonically. The first couple of songs involve string arrangements adding one more layer to a sound that I already wish had less. "Shackled & Drawn" has a vague echo of Peter Gabriel's "Solsbury Hill" in the beginning, but spins off into something else altogether with an accordion sound reminiscent of Bruce's "Seeger Sessions" record from '06. It's also the second consecutive song to call out the bankers & Wall Street types. "Death To My Hometown" is performed in a faux-Irish style with penny whistle, accent, and all. "Rocky Ground" has a female rap break. Chew on that one for a second... There are lots of gospel elements on this album including samples of old Alan Lomax field recordings. As always, there's hope in Bruce's pain. You feel like he has ideas for solutions which gives his griping a little more weight. Ironically, it reminds me of the corporate refrain that's caught on so aggressively over the last few years: "Don't come to me with problems without an idea for a solution." If you're coming to this party for a shot at dancing with Rockin' Bruce, you're gonna wish you wore a different pair of shoes. If you're looking for Experimental Bruce, you've come to the right place. I like some hip-hop beats as much as the next guy. In Beck songs. Or in hip-hop songs. Putting them in a Bruce song feels like pouring vinegar in a perfectly good sundae to me. Bruce is the one making the music, and I fully support his decision to take it in any direction he wants, but I'll pull "The Promise" off the shelf a million times before I reach for this one, I'm afraid. I hate to be a downer. I just wish he'd set up a couple of ambient mics in a juke joint somewhere in Jersey and let it rip. Or do something that feels a little more like "Nebraska" did. Something raw like the nerves he exposes in this particular batch of songs.
The vinyl package for this one comes with a physical CD so I'd say grab the double record if you're gonna grab it at all. Then again, it's a pretty shiny noise which wouldn't sound at all out of place in the digital realm either. The set comes with printed lyrics and a couple of photos on the inner sleeves, all in black and white. No gatefold cover, but an appropriately emotional eulogy for the "Big Man" is in the liners. "Clarence doesn't leave the E Street Band when he dies. He leaves when we die." I'll end this one on that note. Maybe the show in April will color the way I hear these tunes. I'll hang onto it until then, at least.
Deer Tick "Divine Providence" Partisan Record Co.
It's a good thing I have friends. I might never hear another new band if I didn't. I guess I'm set in my ways and more than a little suspicious of the pop landscape now. Do you blame me? Have you seen what's going on out there? I'm inclined to go the Howard Hughes route at times, but I don't have the constitution for it. Yet. My guy in Nashville has been on me for a while about checking out "Divine Providence" by Deer Tick. I swear I sent him five texts on separate occasions while browsing for records at various independent retailers on two coasts. I couldn't remember which "Deer" band I was supposed to be seeking out. Tick? Hoof? Hunter? I was pretty sure all along that it wasn't Hunter. I'd have remembered that. Makes me think of the Motherland. Anyhow, he was right. These guys rock. We're talking about Deer Tick, here. Good time music for the college kids. Or for folks like me that want to catch the college kid vibe vicariously while we struggle with the weight of professionalism, domesticity, fatherhood (not it), whatever. I'm in for this one. Time to let myself out of the house for a bit. Cut my hair, trim my fingernails, take the Spruce Goose for a spin...
A little looking around shows that this outfit hails from Rhode Island. Not what I think of as a hotbed of rock and roll activity, but I've never been there. I guess there could be all sorts of rootsy music springing forth from the fertile Rhode Island Delta. Seems that Deer Tick is basically a guy named John McCauley who employs the proverbial rotating cast of characters. He's got his thing happening on "Divine Providence" in a kind of Kinks meets Nirvana way. The Nirvana influence is more apparent in McCauley's vocal inflections than in anything musical. My guy in Nashville had forewarned me about this so it that may have colored my experience a bit. I wonder if he knew that Deer Tick plays sets of Nirvana songs live under the moniker of "Deervana." See what they've done there? They've melded the two band names together a la "Brangelina" or whatever. See? I know what's happening out there kinda. All kidding aside, this is a pretty trustworthy sound. There's some humor in the lyrics and a song called "Let's All Go To The Bar" which is sung in a sort of slash and burn approach that I guess you'd expect with a title like that, but overall we're just dealing with some old fashioned rock and roll. And I mean that. They included the "roll" with their rock which is nice for a change. My fave song is not McCauley's, it's called "Clownin Around" [sic] and is sung and written by the drummer. There isn't much drumming on the track. Maybe the guy can't sing and play at the same time or maybe the song just didn't call for drums. It works, I know that. I like the bit about "by now the hounds have surely caught my scent," and "Lord, you know I would repent, but now the Devil he speaks for me." Beyond all that, the record's got some classic crunchy guitar sounds, some moody keyboard work which fills in a lot of holes, and some simple, catchy rock songs without any fluff. How novel. I'd love to see these guys do it onstage and I expect I'll get a shot at it one of these days soon. I feel like I've seen their name in the local rags, but those "Deer" bands are hard to keep up with. I may be confused. One of them is actually from San Francisco. I think it's the Hoof version. I feel disoriented. Time to land this thing and head back to my cave full of Rolling Stones records. Thanks for the fresh air.
The vinyl pressing for "Divine Providence" ain't so divine, unfortunately. There's some surface noise in some less than ideal spots. Luckily, it's a straight up independent release and I don't remember it being priced exorbitantly so at least I don't feel like I've been gouged. I mean, I'd rather the noise not be there, but I'd rather listen to this music on cheap vinyl than on an $18 CD if they still make those things. It comes with a download coupon, lyrics insert, player credits, and instructions to "play this f*ck*r as loud as possible." That's been done before and that kind of sums it all up, I guess. There's nothing on here that's so original and crazy that I'm going to go screaming naked out in the rain at my neighbors in joy, but I'm happy to have it in my collection. I'll think to put it on every once in a while when I'm in the mood for a new band. I really like that "Clownin Around" song a lot.
Farrar, Johnson, Parker, Yames "New Multitudes" Rounder Records
Woody Guthrie was born about a hundred years ago. I've never delved too deeply into his work, but I've meant to for a while. Sometimes you need a nudge, and I guess that nudge can come from any old where. Mine came from a project called "New Multitudes." It had to with a lineup involving Yim Yames (My Morning Jacket), Jay Farrar (Son Volt), Will Johnson (Centro-matic), and some guy named Anders Parker who played in a band I've never heard of called Varnaline. The first two artists are amongst my favorite modern day singers and songwriters. I've enjoyed everything I've heard from Johnson's Centro-matic and can't quite figure out why I only have one of their albums when I like that one as well as I do. I should get more soon. And, in a truly triumphant rock and roll surprise, Anders Parker turned out to be the one that contributed my favorite songs on "New Multitudes." I love it when that happens. The record is comprised of lyrics that Guthrie wrote during a brief period living in Los Angeles. By now, quite a few bands have put music to Guthrie's words as Guthrie was hospitalized for the last few years of his life (where he was famously visited by a young fan named Dylan) and unable to play guitar. But he never quit writing so there are all sorts of unfinished Guthrie songs out there to peruse in his Archives. About 3,000 of them, by the looks of things. Someone had better get started on the rest soon or we may run out of time ourselves.
Initially, the idea of putting music to a deceased man's lyrics seemed like a hokey idea to me. I wasn't on board with it when I heard about Wilco's collaboration with Billy Bragg for 1998's "Mermaid Avenue." Shows what I know. They got a legitimate live show highlight out of "California Stars" on that one and a batch of pretty good numbers on top of that. I'd known of "New Multitudes" for about a month before I made the Wilco/Son Volt/Uncle Tupelo connection and wondered if Farrar felt at all uneasy about following up Jeff Tweedy's "Mermaid" project with his own. The two have some history, you might say, and I'm not so sure they care to talk about it at this point. Later, I read that Farrar was offered the "Mermaid" job first, but that he wasn't stoked about doing it with Bragg. Who knows? There are enough lyrics to go around, I suppose, and "New Multitudes" came out as a legitimate contender for "Record of the Year" so far in my opinion. I was blown away on first listen. As I alluded to earlier, the first song that really grabbed me was Parker's "Fly High" which is kind of remarkable as I'm against the lyrical rhyming of "fly" with "high" and "sky" as a general rock rule. Apparently, there are exceptions, and Woody Guthrie can be trusted to pull it off. Each of the four artists on "Multitudes" wrote the music to the songs they sing on record. There are twelve songs in all, three sung by each player. There's not much in the way of liner notes on this release which is too bad because fans of the work would devour them, I feel certain. I'd like to know who's doing what instrumentally, but you have to guess and wonder what the list of six additional musicians contribute. I caught the show live at the Fillmore a couple of weeks ago and I went in assuming that each player would wear a guitar and that the band would have hired a rhythm section to fill out the sound. I was fabulously wrong. Yames played bass for most of the night while Johnson handled most of the drumming except when he sang his tunes during which he played Parker's guitar who rotated back to the drum kit. Farrar kept his guitar on all night. We're not here for a live review, but I would be remiss if I didn't encourage you to catch this band's show if they come within 500 miles of your residence. I'll leave that there. Generally, there doesn't seem to be much reference to Guthrie's "Dust Bowl Troubadour" era that I can hear on "Multitudes." There are a couple of love songs and a Farrar rocker that stands out called "Hoping Machine." Really, all the songs stand out with Yames making his otherworldly impression on things. That guy keeps chasing his vision further out into the stratosphere and, so far, everyone is willing to go with him. He was the clear fan favorite at the Fillmore with people getting noticeably louder when he sang. Why not? The guy's got some pipes. There's not a weak song on "Multitudes" from anyone, and you can almost hear the musicians' awe and wonder at being chosen for this project. Guthrie's daughter approached Farrar first, and he chose the others. Good for the others, I say, and "thanks, Jay." They knocked this one out of the Dust Bowl.
Go get it. Listen to it. Absorb it. Learn from it. Get the vinyl, by all means. It comes with a download coupon anyway. The only thing that vexes me a little is that there's a "Deluxe Version" (of course) comprised of Farrar/Parker works that isn't on the record and probably not on the download included with the record. (To be fair, it may be. I haven't activated mine yet.) I'm not secretly of the opinion that any "Deluxe Version" should be the vinyl version. I know there would be added costs, blah, blah, blah. Put it on wax, damn the consequences. This is a Rounder Records release which feels perfect. The disc is quiet and shiny and heavy, and I'm gonna stop my typing and focus on that very disc right... now. You should too.
P.S. There's a 10" on the way for this year's Record Store Day. I'll save you a place in line.
Georgia Sea Island Singers "Join The Band" Mississippi Records
What is it about Black roots music that I find so appealing? It must be the emotion as I certainly haven't lived through anything like the troubles these groups sing about. The Georgia Sea Island Singers, for instance. Their recordings that I'm most familiar with are from around 1959 or 1960. I can no more pretend to know what was happening in the Black rural communities on Georgia's coast at that time than I can pretend I'm a four legged astronaut. But, somehow, I feel as if I'm picking up on the truest feelings that are being expressed in the music. And I must not be alone. These folks performed at Presidential inaugurations before they were done. That was well after Alan Lomax first recorded them. And some of those recordings are what we're talking about here. I've had my eyes on the folks at Mississippi Records for a few months now. I've been kind of flying in circles above them waiting to swoop down and grab something of their works that I knew would grab me back. This is it. Their Fred McDowell titles looked appealing, of course, but I have some originals of Fred's already and I can get by with those for now. Lomax's original "Southern Journey" titles are a little harder to come by on eBay without selling your limbs, and they're hard to come by at all in any decent shape. Now, I can skate by with "Join The Band" for a while. Thanks Mississippi Records. You are officially on the radar.
I got this one on a recent trip to North Carolina when I saw it has "Turkle Dove" on it. It's sung a cappella with Bessie Jones right out front with some dialect involved that I can't even understand. I've had the song on CD for years as Rounder released some of the "Southern Journey" works with expanded tracks back in the '90's. Unfortunately, "Join The Band" doesn't contain the spoken bits that are on the CD wherein Bessie explains some of the lyrical nuances to Lomax. Some of the unrecognizable words that she sings in "Turkle Dove" are supposed to be the first sounds the angels made when they reached heaven if I remember correctly. I believe her. There's something about the folks that make music strictly for the sake of the music itself. You can't fake that emotion and you can't avoid getting drawn into it either. Part of the performances were a means of keeping their cultural heritage alive. It wasn't too long before these recordings were made that African-Americans weren't allowed to write. They were not allowed to write. It's a sad state of affairs when we have to gauge progress from a starting line like that one. And somehow, in spite of all that history, these folks made a joyful noise. Undeniably so. Joyful in its pain and joyful in its joy. Pop music fans of a certain age will recognize the refrain in "Sometimes" right away as the sample that Moby built "Honey" around on his monster album, "Play." He used a bunch of other Sea Island Singers stuff on that record too. He had vision and good taste. I'll give him that much. The song listing on "Join The Band" is all messed up though. "Sometimes" is listed as "Sink 'em Low," but we can find our way through that, I feel certain. Some of the "Join" recordings involve a fife and drum band which is cool as I don't recall these songs being on the Rounder CD. I guess that was the Singers' version of fancying up their performances. Most of the songs are backed by hand clapping and more singing. Those are the ones I like the best. Bet you didn't see that one coming...
It's hard to comment on the quality of vinyl on a release comprised of field recordings. I mean, we're not talking about Alan Parsons type production quality or anything. But it sounds pretty perfect to me and the disc doesn't look much worse than that. There's a neat little essay included for liners with photos and a link to CulturalEquality.org. It looks like you can get the work as a digital download too if you don't have a turntable or if you're just a weirdo that prefers a download to vinyl. Whatever blows your skirt up. You need these recordings in your collection if you have even a passing interest in roots music or in this type of history. I'm stoked to have it and will probably double up my efforts to find some original discs in good condition however long that might take. In the meantime, keep an eye on the folks at Mississippi Records. It looks like they're fighting the good fight. I hope they keep it up. There's a market for it, I swear. Give them some support, please. This is true Soul music.
The Doors "L.A. Woman: The Workshop Sessions" Elektra / Rhino / Doors Music Co.
Man, as a kid, I thought Jim Morrison hung the moon and told the stars when to come out. If I could have found a suitable pair of brown leather pants that fit an undersized 14 year old in Augusta, Georgia circa 1988 I'd have worn them every day. The ankle high boots too. That may have gone over better than some of the things I did find to wear, actually. As I got older, I began to see Morrison as a clownish, silly figure that ran around making a jackass out of himself in ways that only 14 year old kids might find cool. Later, I kind of melded the two opinions and began to pick and choose the Doors material that I thought held up rather than going all in or bailing completely on the entire body of work. I lost sight of one very important piece of knowledge during the "bailing completely" stage which was that "L.A. Woman" is, and always has been, one wicked piece of rock and roll greatness. It always felt as if it had been stripped of Morrison's artifice revealing a real live rocker underneath with some lyrical chops that transcended his never ending quest for attention via lunacy. Now, we get to hear that stripped down sound in its naked development on "L.A. Woman: The Workshop Sessions." Let us rejoice. Leather pants all around, please.
I wouldn't want to read the raw first drafts of my favorite novels or to sit through endless first takes of my favorite film scenes. These seem like creations that are best kept in the kitchen until serving time. But music, to me anyway, can be a little different in that the initial inspiration often cuts to the marrow of the matter in ways that revised editions might not. I've experienced it as an artist myself. When I was very young, I could draw, but at some point I learned that I could not. When I still could, I'd tinker with a drawing and add to it until it tipped in the wrong direction. I felt appropriately bad every time. For the record, I think the Doors got "L.A. Woman" right in the end. But the "Workshop" sketches are pretty complete too and there are tons of interesting nuances for fans of the work to chew on. I always assumed, for instance, that Morrison's breaking voice on the "I've been all around" lyric in "The Changeling" was a glorious error. But, judging by the "Workshop" version, it appears that it was rehearsed that way. There are much more obvious differences too ("Do you love her madly?" versus "Don't you love her madly?"), but I get the most mileage out of hearing the players work through their parts and find their spots. Robby Krieger's guitar work in "L.A. Woman" is especially fun as he finds some of the riffs that would make the final cut while tinkering with some that didn't. Manzarek's solos often go up when you're used to hearing them go down or vice versa. A couple of my favorite album tunes were not included on the "Workshop Sessions," "Hyacinth House" and "L'America" chief among them, but the revelations on this set more than compensate for the omissions. There's plenty of studio chatter for folks that are into that sort of thing, and there's a previously unreleased tune called "She Smells So Nice / Rock Me" which sounds like it kind of starts in the song's middle section or something. It's gloriously distorted, clearly not ready for release, but it rocks well enough in a straight blues progression with a sloppy Krieger solo to dig into. It may contain the original "Mr. Mojo Risin'" lyric too as that famous refrain makes an appearance at the end of the "Rock Me" section. Ultimately, the band made the right choice by leaving it off the finished work, but it's a fun diversion on the new release. That one takes up all of side three and side four contains an etching of Morrison's lyrics which could be dangerous if you're not paying attention to what side you're dropping your needle on, but who doesn't pay attention to that? Still, it makes you wonder what else they could have pulled from the vault for this release with all that left over real estate available. Maybe there's more forthcoming. I'd be happy to give it a listen...
Producer/Engineer Bruce Botnick has a cool little essay inside the gatefold that gives you a rundown of the technology used for this release. That technology includes Pro Tools and the essay contains terms like "96k/24-bit" so these sounds were digitized at some point during the process. It's all a little over my head, but the sounds work for my ears no matter what. The records are heavy and the pressings are pretty darned good sonically if not visually. The set is an expensive one, especially considering there's no music on that fourth side and the third side is basically an afterthought. Still, it feels strong to me. I would have appreciated a CD for the price, but there's no digital copy included here. I'd like to know if there are plans for any releases from the "Morrison Hotel" sessions, but I haven't seen anything to suggest there might be. I know MoFi is releasing some titles soon so Doors fans can look forward to that. In the meantime, keep your pants tight, your shirts puffy, and let your beard grow long. The Lizard King is back in the castle.