Saturday, August 31, 2013

Magnificent Seventies

I don't know how I stumbled across The American Analog Set, an indie band from Austin, and I don't know why I clicked with them so quickly, but I did. It's really not the kind of thing I normally like—not far from dance music, although with a straight whiteboy vibe to it sorta like, I dunno, if Portishead were fronted by the Jayhawks—but I find it hypnotic and return to it surprisingly often.

After recording from the middle of the 90s until the middle of the 00s, they seem to have gone quiet. Which is a shame.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Favorite Song Friday: Up the Hill Backwards

The same voices making the same claims. And this song keeps running through my head.

The vacuum created by the arrival of freedom
And the possibilities it seems to offer
It's got nothing to do with you, if one can grasp it
It's got nothing to do with you, if one can grasp it

A series of shocks sneakers fall apart
Earth keeps on rolling witnesses falling
It's got nothing to do with you, if one can grasp it
It's got nothing to do with you, if one can grasp it

Yeah yeah yeah
Up the hill backwards
It'll be alright

While we sleep they go to work
We're legally crippled it's the death of love
It's got nothing to do with you, if one can grasp it
It's got nothing to do with you, if one can grasp it

More idols then realities
I'm okay, you're so so

Yeah yeah yeah
Up the hill backwards
It'll be alright

So he says. But listen to the intro and outro, both in 7/8, and tell me if it really sounds like it's going to be all right. 

(Yeah, I know—this about the media coverage of his divorce. Like much great art, it's not confined to just one interpretation. It's got nothing to do with you, if one can grasp it.) 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Livingstone Bramble

So. As previously mentioned, Mark Kozelek has a new album, his second collaboration with Desertshore. And there's more than one song named after a boxer—a Kozelek trademark—but unlike "Tavoris Cloud," this one, with lyrics perhaps nearly as autobiographical, isn't heartbreaking. Rather, it's maybe the best smack-talking song ever about the pantheon of great guitarists. (Admittedly, there isn't a whole lot of competition.) I mean, how can you beat:

I can play like Fripp or Johnny Marr 
And I can play circles 'round Jay Farrar
I like Jeff Beck and Page just fine
But I hate Derek Trucks and Nels Cline
I hate Nels Cline

followed by a parody of Cline's trademark wiggity-wiggity-woo. (Of which I'm very much a fan, incidentally.)

(I love the idea of Jay Farrar looking up and saying, in a McNutty voice, "what'd I do?!")

But is Kozelek done? Not even close. He hasn't gone after the big daddy yet.

I can play like Malcolm and Neil Young 
And I can play circles 'round most anyone
I like Kirk Hammett and Steve Vai 
But I hate Eric Clapton and Nels Cline
I hate Nels Cline

Listen, I love Mark Kozelek, and although he mainly plays nylon-string acoustic these days, he is indeed one hell of an electric guitarist. But Eric Clapton, you're playing with fire. And if you're gonna come at the king, you best not...ah, the hell with it. Slowhand's a big boy and Kozelek's laconic rumble gives the impression of either utter assurance that his absurd assertions are indisputable or he's taking the piss and doesn't really care much that you know it's not true and at the end of the day the point is that this is awesome.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

School Days

So my son started his freshman year of high school today. And while I come to grips with that emotionally ruinous fact, I need something raw and raunchy to slap myself awake from this broken, crippling catatonia that is now engulfing every ounce of my being.

This'll do.

Too bad these guys never got over their sloppiness and developed some musical discipline, huh?. They could have been something, maybe.

(Though how great is John's off-key tag — "School DAYS!" — at the very end? The answer is, "so very very great.")

Monday, August 26, 2013


No. No, he is not.

Oh, wait. Turns out there's photographic proof that he was!

Who knew? (And no wonder they broke up.)

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Beauty and the Beast

This is playing when my 12-year-old walks in.

At exactly the right time—which is 1:25, for those keeping score at home—she shrieks, "someone fetch a priest!" A moment later she adds, "you can't say no to the beauty and the beast...darling."

I stare. She notices and raises her eyebrows inquisitively. "You know this song?" I say, stupidly.

She looks confused, perhaps a bit sad at her father's early onset senility. "I love this song," she replies patiently.

[This has been another installment of I Am That Dad.]

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Tavoris Cloud

So Mark Kozelek has a new album. Not a huge surprise—after all, it'd been several months since his previous release. Once again, it's a collaboration, and once again, it's with Desertshore, a band led by former Red House Painters guitarist Phil Carney. And, once again, it's great. Once again, many of his lyrics sound like a combination of stream of consciousness and him simply singing his diary yet somehow making it rhyme and scan.

But in the case of "Tavoris Cloud"—yes, yet another Kozelek song named after a boxer—that just makes it all the more powerful, as he reflects upon the death of his kitten, the improbable late career success of Bernard Hopkins, the death of his friend and contemporary Tim Mooney and, of course, his life.

I miss my afternoon naps, my kittycat sleeping on my lap
She died August 2011, just got back from Norway, she slipped off to kitty heaven
Last night I had to laugh out loud when Hopkins beat Tavoris Cloud 
At the age of 48 no fighter ever was that great

2012 last July every night for a week I cried and cried
When I got the news that my old friend Tim Mooney died
My heart dropped dead and my head spun thinking about the times when we were younger
And how my band looked up to Tim and all the guys who played with him 
Sometimes I still cannot believe Tim Mooney died at 53
He seemed much stronger, he was too young to up and leave

And at the age of 46 I'm still one fucked up little kid
Who has my fears and has my doubts
Who has my challenges and bouts
And though I moved out here I know I'm still that kid from Ohio
Still has hopes, still has dreams, still  has not learned a fucking thing
And though I moved out here I know I'm still that kid from Ohio
Who's living in a world that I'm still getting to know

Testify, brother. No one ever told me that you lose your hair and you get a paunch and a bad back but inside you still feel like a stupid kid. Why don't they warn you about that?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Victim of Love v Squonk

So I recently took Don Henley to task for being a pedestrian drummer. DT astutely pointed out that a perfect illustration of Henley's flaws as a drummer can be found in "Victim of Love," off their Hotel California LP.

The song starts off well—very, very well, in fact—with some snaky, funky, dirty guitar, accentuated by Henley hitting the crash cymbal and bass and snare drums. It's good. It works. But then, at 0:21, Henley does a small roll to introduce the first verse and it''s okay. It's a bit tasteful, a bit restrained, where the guitar intro had been nasty. But it's okay.

And then we're into the verse and it all just plods. Where the song is supposed to stalk menacingly or stomp furiously, it lumbers lugubriously. And it's not just the guitar that the drums let down, it's the lyrics, which are (unfortunately) also nasty, even bitter. But the drums, meanwhile, are just...kinda bored. They're collecting a paycheck. Henley drops in fills here and there but they're all so sparse. They're clearly attempting to be funky...but they're not. No, they're not. They're going for Soulful. They achieve Empty.

Check out the guitar solo, starting at 2:40. Now, that's nasty while still being tasteful. And it spurs the drums to...just kinda trod down the stairs slowly, despondently, when the solo's over. "Hm? Solo's done? Time for the chorus again? Oh...oh...oh...okay."

It's not just easy but instructive to compare and contrast with some of the other drummers of the time were doing, and we don't even need to bring up John Bonham, despite the fact that Henley himself compared the Eagles to Led Zeppelin (and, indeed, in terms of commercial success, they were absolutely peers).

Take a look at Steely Dan, very much peers of the Eagles, in many ways, down to the fact that the bands mentioned each other in lyrics; after Steely Dan included the lyric, "Turn up the Eagles, the neighbors are listening," in their song "Everything You Did," the Eagles returned the favor with the slightly more obscure (but pointed) line, "they stab it with their steely knives, but they just can't kill the beast," in "Hotel California."

So check out the title track to their Aja album, released the year after Hotel California. Note how restrained and tasteful Steve Gadd's drums are at the beginning. Frankly, in a different context, they wouldn't be out of place for a Holiday Inn lounge out by the airport. After a bit the vocals enter, and then after two minutes, the vocals are more or less done. At the 3:10 mark, the guitar solo starts, and other than some nice cymbal accents, Gadd's still laying back, for the most part, commenting on the proceedings, but biding his time. Until 4:40, and the sax solo, when it's time to let loose, which he does with a series of fills so full of complex asskickery that professional drummers isolate them and burst into spontaneous applause as they listen to them over and over all by themselves.

If Henley had dropped just one fill anything like that into "Victim of Love," it would have elevated the song substantially. He's never possessed that kind of technique, of course—few have—but if even if he'd just gone for something in that 'hood, just made some sort of an effort, it'd have made all the difference.

Now, honestly, even though the bands were peers, it's a little unfair to compare Henley or, really, almost anyone to Steve Gadd, given that he may be the single greatest drummer of his generation, a master of rock, jazz and pop, inventive, tasteful and with the technique of a dozen great drummers. What's more, "Aja" is jazzy where "Victim of Love" is not even remotely. So something kickin' but more straightforward might have been called for.

So let's compare Don Henley, instead, to another drummer/vocalist, one who understands restraint (so much so that a few years later he'd begin to use drum machines more extensively than just about anyone outside of hip-hop) and who recorded a song with almost exactly the same tempo just a few months earlier. I speak, obviously, of none other than Phil Collins.

As with Henley, Collins goes, at least initially, for a minimalist approach, his fills being sparing (by his standards)—even his intro roll isn't dissimilar to Henley's verse intro.

But speaking of John Bonham, Collins has called this his Bonham song, his attempt at a Bonzo-like feel, ala (presumably) "Kashmir." He doesn't quite get there, both because stylistically, they were just too different, but also because the song's a light year away, harmonically and in terms of mood. Maybe most of all, the production doesn't give his drums anything like the heft Jimmy Page was able to give Bonham's—there's a reason the drums on "When the Levee Breaks" is one of the most sampled ever, as it's the perfect match of drummer and production. Still, you can see where Collins was coming from. And if it's not Bonzo—and it ain't—his playing's certainly quite a bit heavier than he was just a year earlier, on something like "Here Comes the Supernatural Anaesthetist."

But more to the point, listen to the way he allows the entire thing to build. His fills at 0:32 and 0:56 aren't far from something Henley might do. But at 1:16 and 1:27, his toms play off the vocals in a way Henley virtually never imagined, and at 1:30 he's got the kind of simple yet thunderous roll around the kit that the song calls for—and, unlike Henley, Collins hears the call and answers it. And from then on, he just keeps going, with fills that are by his standards (Collins was remarkably fluent in complex time signatures, and was able to imbue compound times with a swing that even some other perhaps more technically advanced drummers couldn't begin to approach) simple yet insistent. One thing they are not is "bored."

"Squonk" is far from the best drumming Phil Collins would ever do, but he's clearly not afraid to drive the band and the song. Don Henley on "Victim of Love," on the other hand, sits back and calmly watches the proceedings with a lofty reserve. Which is one of the main reasons the Eagles could never have been The Great American Rock Band they so dearly wished to be. To be truly great in rock and roll, you have to take chances. Always playing it safe just ain't gonna cut it.

Most of all, there has never been a great rock and roll band without a great drummer. Which means the Eagles were never, ever going to be that which they most desperately wanted to be. They were going to be popular and rich (the 3rd and 2nd things they most wanted), but great was always destined to remain just beyond their reach.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The History of the Eagles, Part One

ESPN's Bill Simmons wrote this absolutely fantastic review of the recent Eagles documentary, the imaginatively titled "The History of the Eagles, Part One."

Simmons's love for the film is not only obvious—I mean, he pretty much declares a half-dozen times that he wants to run away to a desert island with it, so I sure hope it's obvious and he's not just a gold-digger—but infectious. I loved the docu too, but after reading the Simmons piece I'm even fonder of it. Reading Simmons gush about the film is like one of those old SNL sketches featuring Eddie Murphy that was already really good, but then Murphy starts to break, and that just makes it all the better. Simmons is so over the top with his love that it's almost irresistible.

(If you don't want to sit through the entire 3-minute preview, just check out Glenn Frey's face at the 0:07—that pretty much sums up the entire story right there. Oh, what the heck, I'll cut to the chase and post it:)

Simmons does get a couple things wrong, though—really, really wrong—which isn't entire surprising, given that he opens the piece by admitting he never really even thought about the Eagles until seeing the film, even though he'd been listening to their music (unintentionally, for the most part) for 35 years. He always knew them, they were always around, he'd just never given them a moment's conscious notice.

Which would explain why he missed so many key elements of the Eagles story.

Here's the gist of what Simmons got right: Don Henley and Glenn Frey are assholes. They had awesomely bad 1970s hairstyles. Most of their fellow band members had even worse hair. They had more drive than maybe any other comparable band. The Eagles created some enduring songs. Their story is the same story as pretty much any other band that makes it big, breaks up and then gets back together, only even more so—because of the egos involved and the massive success of the band and the decade in which it all happened, in fact, much, much more so.

Here's where Simmons really missed the boat: he think it's funny that Don Felder's bitter about getting screwed by Henley and Frey. It's not.

Simmons compares it to Chris Bosh not getting as many touches per night as Lebron James or Dwayne Wade. Except that a band isn't a basketball team—George and Ringo made as much as band members for playing each concert and record as John and Paul did (apart from songwriting), as do Larry and Adam v Bono and the Edge, because that's how bands work. There are similarities between rock bands and sports teams, yes. And there are differences, and those differences should not be overlooked or minimized for a good line. Basketball teams are assembled by billionaire owners, and the players are employees. Rock and roll bands are formed by individuals who collectively agree to work together under certain terms. And Felder's not unhappy because Henley got to sing more than he did; he's unhappy that Henley and Frey changed not just the verbal contract they all agreed to when he joined the band but that they in fact changed the literal, legal, written contract they'd all signed when he joined. I'm sure Simmons'd think it'd be highstairical if ESPN unilaterally decided to do the same to his contract. Also, too, Felder wrote 100% of the music for "Hotel California," which (overplayed though it is) is by far their best song ever, musically, an Escher-like circular chord structure with a pretty astonishing (especially given when it was written) combination of Mexican and Jamaican influences melodically and rhythmically.

Simmons rightly points out that Don Henley, for all he's a jerk (although not nearly as big a jerk as Glenn Frey, despite being far, far more talented), is one of the greatest rock and roll singers ever, with flawless pitch, a great range and perfect timbre. But he's, at best, a serviceable drummer, perhaps the least good drummer of any major band ever, and you cannot have a truly great band without a great drummer. (Bands have tried. Bands have failed.) There's a reason Henley was a guest vocalist on so many records but pretty much never a guest drummer. (Compare and contrast with Ringo Starr, Phil Collins, Max Weinberg, Dave Grohl, etc.) Most tellingly, Henley himself hired real drummers to play on his own albums when he went solo. He's good enough to know he's not nearly good enough.

Simmons also glossed over the defining characteristics of the Eagles's music. The first is that it's catchy. Good Lord is it catchy. Love 'em or hate 'em, you have to admit that them boys could write melodies, and then surround them with impeccable (some would say sterile, and those somes would be right) backing tracks. They talk in interviews about how they used to record their vocals not just line by line or even word by word but (they claim) syllable by syllable...and, bizarrely, they're proud of it.

But the other main characteristics of the Eagles's oeuvre is that they are the most misogynistic major American band ever. (And if it weren't for the Stones, we might even remove the nationality qualifier.) Are there other bands as bad or worse? Sure...but none that are in their league as a sales force. I mean, they've the #5 selling band/artist ever. They've sold more than Michael Jackson, Billy Joel, Pink Floyd, Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Madonna, AC/DC, Van Halen...need I go on? The point's made, I trust. Love 'em or hate 'em, they've sold a trunkload. Which means taking a hard look at their lyrical content's entirely valid. And when you do...oh boy.

Well I'm a runnin' down the road tryin' to loosen my load
Got a world of trouble on my mind
I'm lookin' for a lover that won't blow my cover
She's so hard to find


Well I know you want a lover
Well let me tell your brother
She's been sleeping in the Devil's bed


Ev'ry night when the sun goes down 
Just another lonely boy in town 
And she's out runnin' 'round

Man, they've sure got some bad luck.

Just remember this, my girl, when you look up in the sky 
You can see the stars and still not see the light (that's right) 
And I'm already gone 
And I'm feelin' strong 
I will sing this vict'ry song, woo, hoo, hoo, woo, hoo, hoo

Huh. I'm guessing that the stars to which they're referring aren't only the constellations but also the stars with whom the "girl" in question's been privileged enough to sleep.

So, okay. When you look at a bunch of them one after another, a pattern starts to emerge. And then there's "Lyin' Eyes," which is simply toxic from stem to stern.

(That graphic is every bit as classy as the song deserves.)

God. The seductive, serpentine melody, the glorious harmonies—the harmonies! Good golly the harmonies!—the lush's all magnificent. As long as you don't listen to the words.

But let's take a gander at the open and close (and the middle's just as bad):

City girls just seem to find out early 
How to open doors with just a smile 
A rich old man and she won't have to worry 
She'll dress up all in lace and go in style


She wonders how it ever got this crazy 
She thinks about a boy she knew in school 
Did she get tired or did she just get lazy? 
She's so far gone she feels just like a fool 
My, oh my, you sure know how to arrange things 
You set it up so well, so carefully 
Ain't it funny how your new life didn't change things 
You're still the same old girl you used to be 
You can't hide your lyin eyes

Again, context is so important. So, at first, when you notice the casual sexism, you think, well, hey, it was the 1970s, it was rock and roll, no big deal. Besides, it's just one song—maybe the singer's in character. And then you realize it's a constant throughout their entire catalog. And you realize, hey, you know, the Who and Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan and Jackson Browne (who co-wrote "Take It Easy," but not the quoted verse) and James Taylor and David Bowie, they were pretty big acts at the time, and they don't seem to have had such animosity, such malice towards women like that.

And, look, it's not like those are cherry-picked off some b-side or deep album cut—those are half the damn songs on their greatest hits album, the best-selling album in the history of albums.

Know what, though? They were just kids. Maybe it got better as they got a little older, a little wiser, a little more successful.

What kind of love have you got? 
You should be home, but you're not 
A room full of noise and dangerous boys still makes you thirsty and hot 
I heard about you and that man 
There's just one thing I don't understand 
You say he's a liar and he put out your fire 
How come you still got his gun in your hand? 
Victim of love, I see a broken heart 
You got your stories to tell 
Victim of love, it's such an easy part and you know how to play it so well

Guess not. Then again, that's only a well-known cut off their best-selling album. It's not like it's

Her mind is Tiffany-twisted, she got the Mercedes bends


The other thing, and this goes hand-in-hand with the misogyny, is the overwhelming sense of victimization. I'm staggered Simmons didn't bring this up, 'cuz it's all over the damn film. The Eagles are always the victims. Of their first producer, Glyn Johns who, sure, helped them become stars off the bat but (correctly) didn't think they could rock like the Stones or the Who or Zeppelin, all of whom he's worked with and therefore was in position to know. Of their first label owner, David Geffen...who signed them sound unheard and screwed them so bad that Henley later signed with him again as a solo artist. Of their bass player who suffers from stage fright. Of their guitarist, who unreasonably demands that the term of the contract they all signed be kept. And, in the lyrics, of seemingly every female they come across.

I like the Eagles—their music, that is. In small doses. Their hits are still enjoyable 40 years down the line. (For the most part, however, their album cuts are some of the most disposable filler of any major artist since the early 1960s.) But listen to too many of their songs in a row and the ugliness builds and builds, slowly at first, so you hardly even notice how nasty it is until you're suddenly ready for a Silkwood shower.

Which leads to one conclusion: the Eagles just weren't very good.

At the end of the day, for all they have more than their fair share of songs that stand up—and despite everything, the Hotel California album really is pretty good, and the lasting popularity of their Greatest Hits understandable and I even really like "The Long Run," despite the fact that they ripped off the Otis Clay song "Tryin' to Live My Life Without You" so blatantly that their friend and mentor Bob Seger felt compelled to cover the original to try to make amends for his protégés (note the way he emphasizes several times that it's an old Memphis song...not a recent SoCal smash hit)—the Eagles just were not a great rock and roll band.

They wanted to be. Oh, did they want to be. And that's the key. Because there's certainly no shame in being a good country band, or pop band, or reggae group or certainly jazz combo or whatever. But that's not what the Eagles wanted. They were very clear about it: they wanted to be a rock and roll band. And not just a rock and roll band—the rock and roll band. The best in the world. Greater than Led Zeppelin or the Who, bigger than the Rolling Stones or the Beatles. They wanted to be the best.

At first glance, they seem like they are. They have most of the ingredients to be. But it never quite jells. Henley is a fantastic singer but a pedestrian drummer and Frey's shallowness keeps Henley's lyrics with the Eagles from consistently hitting the reflective heights he occasionally obtained as a solo artist. Felder is a truly great guitarist, but he was constrained by Henley and Frey's perfectionism from cutting loose, resulting in songs that have a constricting sterility to them. I mean, these are guys who managed to tame Joe Walsh. (To be fair, possibly keeping him alive in the process, although that was far from their motive.) Their recordings are so perfect that they're virtually devoid of life. When you listen to the isolated tracks of the Beatles or the Beach Boys or the Stones or the Who or Zeppelin, you hear so many damn mistakes—bits of dialogue accidentally left, occasional clams, even editing mistakes. There's none of that in any Eagles record. And the things is? People like some humanity in their art. Otherwise, we'd listen to computer generated recordings. There's so little humanity to the Eagles—the exceptions being the vocals of Henley and Walsh, and some of Walsh's and Felder's guitars, and those human elements are one of the main reasons the band has lasted.

The success of the Eagles is largely—although far from entirely—due to Henley and Frey. The failure of that pair to see the forest for the trees is what also kept the band from truly achieving not just the commercial success for which they worked so hard, but also the critical acclaim and lasting greatness they desired so desperately. They missed the forest for the trees. They wanted so bad to be the greatest rock band ever that they forgot to actually rock. And they committed a fairly unforgivable rock and roll sin, a denial of the very origins of rock and roll: they punched down. And then they blamed everyone but themselves.

I turn on the tube and what do I see 
A whole lotta people cryin' "Don't blame me" 
They point their crooked little fingers at everybody else 
Spend all their time feelin' sorry for themselves 
Victim of this, victim of that 
Your momma's too thin; your daddy's too fat 
Get over it 
Get over it 
All this whinin' and cryin' and pitchin' a fit 
Get over it, get over it

On that one, they were right. It's just that, as usual, they were blaming the wrong people. They looked, sneeringly, in every direction, except the correct one: towards the mirror. Oh, the irony.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Favorite Song Friday: Beautiful Now

So this is something of an odd one. Because I only even became aware of this song (and artist) about 10 days ago.

But this song just has absolutely everything I love about music. A simple and engaging melody. Lyrics that come straight from the heart and express sentiments (in this case, beauty and love) that are as basic as they are timeless. And a singer who pours every ounce of himself into it, leaving nothing, as the saying goes, in the tank when he's done. And much like falling in love, time doesn't have to matter. Whether it's something you've been hearing on the radio since you were eight or something you just heard for a first time a few hours ago, when you know, you know.

I had the privilege of seeing James Maddock play last night at my church in East Longmeadow, MA. A small crowd of about 80 people came to watch this affable, engaging Brit play a 90-minute set in a quiet, candlelit setting that more than a little resembled MTV Unplugged in its heyday. 

Maddock is a Greenwich Village singer-songwriter guitarist with a few very impressive albums to his credit and whose career appears to be on a decidedly upward trajectory. He's already played with none other than Bruce Springsteen and has developed quite a faithful following in New York City. Next week he makes an appearance on the CBS Morning Show. He came to our quaint little church last night as both a favor to a friend who is a former member of our parish and a wise career move; he wants to start developing some street cred in the arts-loving Western Massachusetts area.

For all of us who were there, James Maddock was a revelation. He has this earthy, graveley voice that falls somewhere in John Gorka/Jason Isbell range, and occasionally even shows some of the raspy scrap of Bob Seger and Rod Stewart. He smiled and energetically workhorsed his way through a 20-song set that sprang from the gritty, folky clay that has produced so much amazing music for decades and decades. His songs were about people he loved, places he loved, and all the regrets and successes that come from living the human life. He was a hit with us, indeed, and hopefully he is on his way.

He played this song, as I so desperately had hoped he would, halfway through his second set. Good golly does he knock it out of the park on this song.

Favorite Song Friday - James Maddock - Beautiful Now

There is something just so splendid and sweet about this straightforward love song, admiring a lover not for what she once was or even how he still thinks of her, but rather of what she is.

"You were beautiful then
But you're way more beautiful now."

"Beautiful Now" doesn't disregard the past, but it puts it in its proper place. It challenges the notion that our better days are behind us. Those days really aren't the priority in the context of the person singing this song and lauding the woman at its heart. And that is not only a stunningly mature point of view to take, but a comforting one as well. Who among us doesn't sometimes feel the days when we were at our best now linger sadly in the rearview mirror? Who doesn't feel old, tired, worth less and less from time to time?

We grow older and we grow more and more distant from what we once looked like and acted like; this is simple human evolution. And sure, there are times when we all long to have a glimpse back at what those long-ago years looked like, to examine those photographs with the awed wonder of  people who have seen and done much in the years that have fallen between.

Maddock doesn't scoff at that; in fact he embraces it, acknowledging the memories ("The ghosts of golden hair, the ghosts of silver jeans") that he likely never got to share in, finding the angelic nature of his lover in her younger life entrancing indeed. But it all takes a backseat to what she is now, to what he sees in the clear and wonderful present everytime he looks at her. "You were beautiful then, but you're way more beautiful now." Who doesn't want to hear that? And even more, who doesn't want to really believe that?

From sleep I fall to waking
As I awake I find
A distant wave still breaking
On the West Coast of my mind
Time casts its great illusions
Such glimpses we're allowed
You were beautiful then
But you're way more beautiful now

James Maddock isn't the first writer to ever venture into the "It's what I see, not what anyone else sees" territory. Surely Shakespeare's most famous sonnet (Sonnet 130: "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun") tackled this subject with so much aplomb it surely covered the ground for centuries.

And when I read this:

"And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As an she belied with false compare."

And then this:

"You were beautiful then,
But you're way more beautiful now."

I hear the same thought being delivered, with the same amount of passion and conviction. It's not as flowery or as perfectly and seismically crafted, but it cuts through everything and arrives at a very similar place, offering a sentiment that is as honest and true and meaningful as any I have heard in song for quite some time.

I admire James Maddock's songwriting, indeed, and I love this song for how easily and melodically it offers such a timeless and earnest message, delivered with the confidence of someone who knows what he's talking about and deeply, deeply believes in it.

And one word keeps coming back, each time I listen and fall more and more in love with this song.


Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Bruce Springsteen Albums, Ranked

So. There have been at least two different outstanding lists recently, ranking Bruce Springsteen's albums from worst to best. Good as the lists were—and they were—neither list quite agreed with each other, and we both disagreed with both lists, but disagreed over just where the disagreements were. Naturally, out of this strife came the idea of making our own ranking. Since we disagreed, however, on what went where or why, we each did one and then smooshed them together. (To use the technical term.)

It's tempting to make one of our usual jokes about how Scott's list is the correct one, and then DT adds a parenthetical about how, no, his is, and then Scott comes back, but the truth is that both of our lists are pretty good and are pretty flawed, in that (like the previous lists that spurred ours) they're both (we like to think) well-reasoned and coming from a place of considerable Springsteen knowledge, but attempting the impossible, as art of this calibre shifts as the years go by and future works (by the same artist as well as others), as well as the listener's changing and evolving life experiences, limn the original in different lights, leading to constant reappraisal. Meaning it's possible
Magic, say, will drop a half-dozen places in the next decade, or Wrecking Ball rise, or vice versa. 

One thing's for sure, however: it's nearly impossible that
Human Touch'll ever get outta the basement. At least, sweet fancy Moses, we sure hope Bruce never records an album more awful than that.


— 17 —

Human Touch — Last place with a bullet. By far the easiest to place on this list. Nothing even comes close. There are a few genuinely good or even great songs on there—"With Every Wish," "The Long Goodbye" and "I Wish I Were Blind" are the most obvious, but I've always had a soft spot for "57 Channels," which I think would have made a killer b-side, and "Real World" in its stripped down piano arrangement is wonderful—but most of it's just forgettable, except for the ones that are all too memorable (that's right, I'm looking at you, "Real Man") but for all the wrong reasons. It's also his first release that began a surprising number of albums with disappointing endings. I mean, sure, "Pony Boy" is sweet and all...but, come on, man.

Human Touch — Three great songs (“I Wish I Were Blind,” “With Every Wish” and the title track), one truly god awful song (“Real Man”) that ranks among his worst ever, and a whole lotta filler in between. Without question his worst. Plenty of the songs are listenable (“Gloria’s Eyes,” “Real World”), they just don’t measure up to what he’d done before, what he’d do in the future, and what he did literally at the same time with Lucky Town.



The Seeger Sessions — I'm not 100% convinced this should even be on the list. I know Springsteen himself would disagree with me, but I'd actually put this on the side along with Tracks, Greatest Hits, The Essential and The Promise. Fine collections, one and all, a delightful weekend excursion with some relevant lessons learn, yet still well off the spine of the main story.

Working on a Dream — Thematically I really like the optimism of this album and see it as something of a long-awaited sequel…or flip-side? Tunnel of Love. Melodically it’s beautiful on so much of it. But it has that horrendous title track, an overlong opening song that oddly does not exactly hold up, and more filler (“Life Itself,” “What Love Can Do,” “Tomorrow Never Knows”) than any other album save for Human Touch. “The Last Carnival” and the gorgeous “Kingdom of Days” are standouts, and again, the effort and the thread of happiness running through most of it are admirable. Just doesn’t really cut it the way he may have intended.



Devils & Dust — Look, let's make something crystal clear: something's going to have to go on the bottom of this list; I mean, that's just the way ranked lists work. So just because I'm saying this is only his 15th best album doesn't mean I don't think it's fantastic. 'cuz I do. We're just speaking in relativities here. And, yes, I feel absolutely sick about this being ranked so low. Anyhoo. The good stuff on here (the title track, "Reno" and especially the "Rosalita" sequel "Long Time Comin'") is absolutely brilliant. There's just not quite enough of it to outweigh the ungreat stuff, some of which (DT mentions the others in his write-up but unlike him I'm also very much not a fan of "Jesus Was An Only Son") is really not great—at least, not Springsteen-level great. Oddly, it's more a collection of songs than a cohesive album, at least, by Springsteen standards; Human Touch may be much, much weaker (and indeed it is) but at least it has a certain unity of theme, something Devils & Dust, alone amongst Springsteen's oeuvre, lacks. It ends much stronger than several of his better albums, interestingly.

The Seeger Sessions — If I must include this—and I’d rather not—it falls here. Excellent effort, most of it works swimmingly (“My Oklahoma Home” is awesome, “Mrs. McGrath” is stark and haunting, and favorites like “John Henry” and “Erie Canal” get a rather royal treatment) but, well, this is a hard list to be on top of. (That’s what she said.)



Working on a Dream — The title track is the worst song since his debut—even worse than "Cautious Man" or "Skin to Skin"—and only maybe three songs have lyrics truly worthy of him. (Those'd be perhaps "This Life" and definitely the gorgeous "Kingdom of Days" and the insanely underrated "Queen of the Supermarket," which manages to be both truly funny and surprisingly touching and trenchant.) Most of the lyrics, on the other hand, are shockingly insubstantial. And yet, pound for pound, it's more melodic than any other album he's ever done, boasting an unusual and sumptuous baroque 1960s sound, erasing any doubt that he could have been a constant presence on the pop charts any time he wanted, had he chosen to go higher, and making this one of his most simply pleasant albums to listen to.

Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ — Too short and has two of the five worst songs he ever wrote (“The Angel” and “Mary Queen of Arkansas”). Five of its songs are undeniably brilliant, though, (particularly “Growin’ Up,” his first great song, and the incomparable “For You”) and I get why it is so treasured by fans. The riotous and chaotic word explosion is so stunning that it comes close to equaling Dylan at his most zany (hence the "New Dylan" moniker he briefly earned...and hated). And after this album he moved on to something else, for the most part. A breathtaking debut. Too bad the good stuff is less than a half-hour long, and therein is the problem. It’s still a 4-star album. Just compared to what was to come, it’s more like a (hearty) check-swing.



The Ghost of Tom Joad — Going by just the best material, this should be much higher, given how great the great stuff is (the title track and "Youngstown" most obviously). But it simply doesn't have the musical interest of virtually anything else he's ever done, and is really dragged down by the three songs on it for which he forgot to write melodies. Sure, the idea behind "Galveston Bay" is a wonderful one, but a song in any of the genres in which Springsteen has worked—even a challenging folk song—is supposed to have some sort of melody, rather than a random drawl going up and down sporadically over a barely audible guitar. To show what this could and should have been, compare and contrast it with the not entirely dissimilar but vastly greater "Matamoros Banks." And following the disappointing and eternal-seeming "Galveston Bay" with the failed humor of "My Best Was Never Good Enough" was a mistake. A frustrating collection, because the good stuff is just so good.

Devils & Dust — Most of the tracks work well. A couple lack...something. Like “Black Cowboys” and “Silver Palomino.” “All The Way Home” is strangely out of place for someone who usually crafts his song orders so intricately. At its best (“Long Time Coming,” the gorgeously mournful “Reno” and the title track) it is transcendent. But the bottom line is this is a very, very good record that unfortunately does not reach the crazy heights other records of his reach.



Wrecking Ball — It's too soon, for me, to have any kind of objective view of where this belongs. I don't think it really should be quite this high, and yet, there 'tis. Possibly, I'm realizing as I type this, as a sop to DT. Now I hate myself. It's got the opposite trajectory to Magic and works just as well here as that does there. Here's one thing about it that stands out compared to Greetings from Asbury Park, Devils & Dust, Working on a Dream and The Ghost of Tom Joad (and even The Rising): there's no really glaring weak spot. (Although "You Got It" comes mighty close—an okay song, but out of place.) The other thing, I just realized, is this: when I'm reaching for a Springsteen album to listen to these days, this is almost always one of the first I go for. I just really like it.

The Ghost of Tom Joad — This and Devils & Dust are largely companion pieces. Near equals in execution, too. Here’s why I rank Joad one step higher – the first five songs on Joad are just so damn good it’s hard to imagine an album starting out more audaciously and building as well as this does. The Ghost of Tom Joad has the weakest song of the 24 in the lot (the melody-free “Galveston Bay”). But the album starts off so damn strong—the title track through “Sinaloa Cowboys”—and it has such a strong thematic fiber running through it all (poverty, crime, violence) that it’s hard to ignore.



Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ — The two acoustic songs are so bad. But the rest of it is so damn good: where others hear anemic production of songs later played with far more power, I hear a nearly DIY recording of a band that's lithe and sinewy in a way they never will be again. Still, I have a feeling I have this at least a bit too high, given that after you nix the two awful songs, the album's really only 28 minutes long. But what 28 minutes they are.

Magic — Holy crow this is too low, isn’t it? Such brilliant songs. “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” and “Long Walk Home” and “I’ll Work For Your Love” and “Devil’s Arcade” and “Radio Nowhere.” It also speaks to the anger and fear and frustration that was the end of the Bush era of Iraq and looming economic crash. "That flag flying over the courthouse means certain things are set in stone," he brilliantly offers at the apex of "Long Walk Home. "Who we are, what we'll do, and what we won't." Also, in many ways the album is the last major work we see from Clarence Clemons. Damn. Now I hate myself for ranking it this low. And for making you do this too. Dammit. Dammit!



Lucky Town — Jesus, look at that track list. Is there anything on there approaching weak, much less dead weight? I mean...when "Better Days" and "Local Hero" are maybe the softest spots, that is an album to be reckoned with. And he's never had a lovelier closing track than "My Beautiful Reward" and, yes, I really did just write that and, yes, I know what his other closing tracks are. From another really, really good artist, this'd be a grand slam, the artist's bid to crack the all-time classic list with Abbey Road and Blonde on Blonde and Exile on Main Street and Automatic for the People. From Springsteen it'd surprise most Bruce fans that it's this high. In fact, I'm not sure it belongs this high. I hate you now. (Know what? I think I've just revised my opinion on this one: it's [almost] to parenthood and a happy marriage what Tunnel is to a troubled marriage. Screw y'all.)

Lucky Town — For the second of what will oddly be seven times, we are in agreement on the placement. This is an amazing collection of songs that finds Bruce...happy! After all the doubt of Tunnel of Love, where we'd last left off. It is also way tighter thematically than it’s ever gotten credit for, with sketches of marital bliss and parenthood and protection of those you love shining around every corner, as well as some startling self-awareness. Highlights? How about the splendid “My Beautiful Reward,” the joyously fierce “Living Proof” and the leadoff raveup of “Better Days.”



The Rising — If it weren't for the dead weight at the (literal) center of the album, this'd be at least one notch higher...and maybe two. Cut "Worlds Apart," "Let's Be Friends (Skin to Skin)," "Further On Up the Road" and "The Fuse" and you've just added at least half a star to the LP and maybe a full star: addition by subtraction's a real thing, at least when it comes to art. (I love "Further On Up the Road," but it just doesn't fit here; meanwhile "Worlds Apart" does fit...but isn't good.) But the surrounding 11 songs are very nearly as good as anything he's ever done, and certainly far, far better than anyone had any right to expect, given the subject matter and that it'd been 15 years since he'd last released a truly great album. (Also, I don't think Springsteen gets enough credit for producing what appears to be, 10+ years down the road, one of the very few truly great works of art yet to come out of September 11th.)

The Rising — Two in a row! Yes to everything Scott said. The middle four songs drag it down a few slots. If the album was the 11 songs that open and close the record it may have been the best album of the 2000s. By anyone. Yes, I just wrote that. "The Rising" and "Lonesome Day" and "My City of Ruins" and "You're Missing" and "Nothing Man", does the list go on and on. And its greatest song (“Paradise”) is its quietest and least known, as well as the boldest thing he ever wrote. Wow again.



Magic — Rollicking, fun, serious (deadly serious, in fact) without ever becoming preachy, it starts off with "Radio Nowhere," which at first seems like it could be a cranky old man yelling at you kids to get off his lawn but you realize it isn't and is, in fact, much deeper and more serious, and gradually gets darker and darker all the way to the very end, his only album with that trajectory—a tough one to pull off, but he does it, with the final three songs being absolutely flawless, including not only "Long Walk Home," perhaps his finest song of this century, but "Last to Die," a greatly underappreciated post-apocalyptic horror show. (The last song, incidentally, being the sadly beautiful "Devil's Arcade," and not "Terry's Song," which is a bonus track and that's just the way it is.) It's tempting to switch this and The Rising, and if The Rising were four song shorter, they would be. But it's not, so here it is, the sleeper of his entire catalog.

Wrecking Ball — Forget “Swallowed Up,” as bonus tracks don’t count. They just don’t, okay? The next weakest song is “You Got It,” and…that’s a pretty damn good song. It just doesn’t fit, much like “Further On (Up the Road)” doesn’t on The Rising. But he just bends so much into this record and delivers a product that is thematically airtight and melodically breathtaking. This is a post-Tea Party, pre-2012 election album that gets just the right snapshot of where we are (“Death to My Hometown,” “Shackled and Drawn”), who it hits the hardest (the masterpiece that is “Jack of All Trades”) and, hopefully, where we’re headed (“Rocky Ground” and “We Are Alive”).



The River — "Hungry Heart," "Independence Day," "Point Blank," "Wreck on the Highway," and, oh, and the little ditty that is the title track, and this isn't a Top 5 record? Insanity. (And that's not even considering the phenomenal songs, like "Roulette," "Be True," and a half dozen more that were cut at the same time but tossed aside.) It runs the gamut from (near) throwaways to stone cold genius and everywhere in between—and as a double album, there's room for a lot, and Springsteen packs every corner. If this were released five years later, it would have had a song or two deleted and fit on a single CD. Now aren't you glad it wasn't released five years later? Because you just know one of the first things to get nixed would be something like "Crush on You" or "I'm a Rocker," which are goofy and fun and still manage to kick major ass, thanks to a band that sounds harder and hungrier than ever and yet looser than they'd ever be again. Lousy cover, though.

The River — Again we agree. And FYI we are now into the bona fide classic album category. This is his last one that is not lockdown 5 stars (as in an A). And it might be. The album starts with the line “You been hurt” and ends with a man thinking about a death on the highway. In between we have serious father issues, family abandonment and miserable desolation alongside love both requited and unrequited and promises to never, ever fade away. "The Price You Pay" is amazing, and it's like the 12th best song on this record. "Two Hearts" is amazing and it doesn't crack the Top 10 either.  I have no idea how this album could have been any better. No clue. Probably because it couldn’t have been.



Born in the USA — The incendiary title track, the creepy "I'm on Fire," the defiantly happy in the face of impending defeat "Glory Days," the flawless, complex pop of "Dancing in the Dark," the poignant and quietly tragic "My Hometown" the hell can this not be Top 5? The admittedly dated keyboards are nowhere near as dated as their reputation, and the songs and performances are very nearly unparalleled. Geoffrey Himes argued persuasively in his book-length tome (in the wonderful 33 1/3 series) that this is Springsteen's best ever album, and while I obviously don't agree, it's more a reflection of how great his other albums are than any flaws in this one. Because there sure ain't many, and they ain't major. Springsteen had already swung for the fences and hit it out of the park. This time he decided to try to pitch a perfect game as well, and did.

Born in the USA — This is getting spooky. We’re agreeing too much. Or we're both frequenting the same crack dealer. Either way. The bookends of anger (“Born in the USA”) and resignation (“My Hometown”) are perfect. Perfect. Because you know what? They're the only songs that really address those two emotions head-on. Everything else in between stops short of boiling over with frustration and stops equally short of packing it in. But BitUSA still seethes and hisses, even as it tries to have fun and refuses at every turn to take itself too seriously. While there is a song I genuinely don’t like (“Cover Me”) I can’t say it’s a bad song. They say a good golfer is more judged by how manageable his bad shots are than by how wonderful his good shots are. We know the classics are awesome (“I’m On Fire” and “Bobby Jean” and “Dancing in the Dark” and “Glory Days.”) But check out the strength of the “lesser” tracks here – “I’m Going Down,” “Downbound Train,” “Working on the Highway.” Yeah. Yeah.



Tunnel of Love — There are lots and lots of great rock albums made by Angry Young Men. In fact, pretty much all of them are. (And a million more lousy ones made by the same demographic.) Except for Tunnel of Love, which stands with only Blood on the Tracks as all-time great classic unimpeachable albums made by adults looking at the trials and travails of adult relationships and finding the road not merely rocky but verging on impassible. The title track should have been a dance hit, "Brilliant Disguise" is as brutally self-reflective and incisive as anything Elliott Smith or Kurt Cobain ever attempted, "One Step Up" is as gorgeous and heartbreaking as a George Jones classic, while the catchy "All That Heaven Will Allow" almost seems like his first happy upbeat love song...except that it's not, really, because nothing on this album is quite what it seems. Only "Cautious Man" keeps this from overtaking The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle.

The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle — Raucous and ridiculous and flamboyant and a more diverse cocktail of competing styles than anything he (or anyone else, for that matter) has ever done. This album aches and pines ("Fourth of July, Asbury Park") as loudly as it howls and wails ("Kitty's Back"). It struts with the clueless cocksure of the lovable loser ("The E Street Shuffle" and, of course, "Rosalita"). And it unveils two of his three impassable street operas that forever have embedded themselves into the hearts of his fans (the graceful elegy of "Incident on 57th Street," the sprawling urban jambalaya of "New York City Serenade.") Only “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” keeps this from overtaking Tunnel of Love.



The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle — Of his top 10 albums, this has the weakest songs, using the commonly accepted metric (a composition which loses little to no power when played on just an acoustic guitar)...but sweet Jesu, the energy, the passion, the exuberance, the beauty and the joy. Springsteen and the E Street Band would never again come close to this level of true funkiness, and on "Rosalita," they race at lightning speed along a crumbling precipice for far longer than should be possible and yet somehow never quite slip. Meanwhile, with "New York City Serenade" Springsteen decided to see what would happen when the Celtic mysticism of Astral Weeks got transplanted to the greater NYC metro region and, it turns out, what happened was sheer magic of a loose gossamer beauty he'd never again quite attain (or attempt). And he was all of 23 years old. Punk.

Nebraska – More than any I agonized over whether this or Tunnel of Love should be higher. Whose idea was this? Yours, Scott? I hate you. But the songs...good golly. The dead cold drone of "Nebraska" chills to the bones. More murder and mayhem follows, without an ounce of regret or apology, in "Atlantic City" and "Johnny 99." Wistful dreams are tamped down with hard reality in "Used Cars" and "Mansion on the Hill." Family heartbreak pervades every second of "Highway Patrolman." And to wrap it up, in easily one of the 10 best songs he ever wrote as well as the most provocative, Bruce leaves us with a conundrum for the ages with the Woody Guthrie-esque "Reason to Believe." Is it a testament to perseverance? Or a scornful mocking of the hopeless who still think there's hope? We never find out. With Nebraska, Bruce stripped it all the way down after the sonic mayhem of the first five albums and envisioned something only he could see. Now we all can see it. Exactly as he had intended.



Nebraska — Right between his first major pop hit (1980's "Hungry Heart") and his biggest pop hit (1984's "Dancing in the Dark") comes a solo acoustic album that starts in the head of a serial killer and ends with a jilted groom staring at a river rushing by, wondering why his bride-to-be stood him up at the altar, in front of everyone, and now he's perhaps considering suicide as he wonders how anyone in such a world can possibly have faith. And in between those bookends are tales every bit as challenging—the raucous "Johnny 99" begging to be executed, the terrifying singer warning the "State Trooper" not to stop him, a threat you never doubt for a second is real—set to skeletal music equal to their lyrics. And virtually the entire thing is made up of first takes set down in just a single day. It wasn't even supposed to be an album, just some demos for the band, but Nebraska wasn't having it, instead forcing its way out because that's what the greatest art does, sometimes, it overwhelms its creators, just like Nebraska's still an overwhelming listen, an auditory docudrama of people pushed to their absolute limits or even beyond. Rarely in the history of rock has l'art pour l'art been so successful or rewarding. Spine-chilling and haunting and yet you cannot turn away and find yourself drawn back again and again.

Tunnel of Love – Not even “Cautious Man” sinks it for me. His bravest effort ever, in that his post-Born in the USA megastardom left everyone wondering where he would go next. Instead of bigger, he looked inward and scored one of the two greatest albums (the other being Blood on the Tracks) written about adult relationships by an adult. It is entirely possible to read the full album as 12 chapters in a book, in order. (With the brilliant “Spare Parts” and the dull “Cautious Man” thrown in as vignettes, or possibly dreams.) But once “Walk Like a Man” comes on Bruce is as in command of the material as any artist who has ever lived.



Darkness on the Edge of Town — It is unlikely verging on impossible to believe Bruce Springsteen could ever have released a finer album than this one. When the least good song on the album may be the soul-searing look at and through my father's eyes of "Factory," or perhaps the not soul-crushing but soul-crushed dirge "Something in the Night," with the lines "you're born with nothing and better off that way—as soon as you got something they send someone to try to take it away," you know you have an LP to be reckoned with. Home to not only anthems "Badlands" and "The Promised Land," the statement of purpose title track and, inconceivable as it may be, the only song greater than "Born to Run" or "Thunder Road," Darkness is a stone masterpiece from beginning to end. So why isn't it Number One? Because, improbably, he'd already created one even (ever so minutely slightly) better.

Darkness on the Edge of Town — Only because even Abbey Road has Revolver to look up at. The perfect follow-up to the most perfect American album ever released. What a follow-up, to make the understatement of the year. Bruce the Romantic was gone, mostly, lost to court fees and plaintiffs motions. The highway that once held such promise now offered nothing more than road, road leading...who knows where? Dreams were torn, pain was inherited, workers grew deaf and angry and storm clouds appeared on the once clear horizon. Yes, darkness is everywhere here. Far more raw than anything he would ever again do, more despondent than anything he had ever done, and bookended by four openers and closers (“Badlands,” “Racing in the Street,” “The Promised Land,” “Darkness on the Edge of Town”) that only one other album has ever equaled in terms of quality. Hmm…I wonder what that album is?



Born to Run — There are a lot of reasons this is Bruce Springsteen's greatest ever album. From the iconic cover art—a masterpiece itself of design, conception and execution—to the production to the performances to, perhaps most of all, the songs. But the thing that gives it the top spot is this: as previously mentioned, there has been a lot of great rock and roll created by Angry Young Men™—in fact, in terms of sheer numbers, that's who's created most of the best stuff. Well, the Springsteen of Born to Run was young, that's indisputable (although, like most 24-year-olds, he probably didn't think at the time he was young at all). But anger? There's little or none to be found on the LP. Instead, there's passion, there's yearning, there's lust, there's humor, there's desire, there's exhilaration, there's desperation, there's joy and there's love. So much of those things, such a surfeit, that the grooves practically overflow from the abundance. Angry and sad songs may not be easy...but the evidence would seem to indicate they're a whole lot easier, otherwise there wouldn't be so many more great angry or sad songs than happy ones. As with so many other things, here Bruce Springsteen shows that not only can it be done, it can be done brilliantly. Hence not only his greatest album ever, but a serious contender for anyone's greatest album ever.

Born to Run — Yep. From the scene-setting harmonica of “Thunder Road” to the disembodied cries that close “Jungleland,” this is Bruce Springsteen’s masterwork in every way imaginable. It has the pathos of "Backstreets" ("Remember all the movies..."). The powerful strut of "10th Avenue Freeze Out." The cool, sultry burn of "Meeting Across the River." It has inimitable contributions from people named Boom and Suki. Oh, and it has his greatest song at the heart of it (the title track), and the promise, "Someday girl, I don't know when, we're gonna get to that place where we really want to go, and we'll walk in the sun." Simply put, no American artist has ever shot bigger, aimed higher and scored such a perfectly realized vision as Bruce Springsteen does with Born to Run.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Hitter

I'm working on formatting an upcoming piece for this here site when this song comes on.

"Daddy," says my seven-year-old from the kitchen table, where she's been quietly coloring for an hour.

"Yes?" I reply distractedly.

"I love this song so much."

This gets my attention. "Really?"

"Yes," she replies matter-of-factly. "I've never heard it before. But now I love it because even though I don't know the words, listening to it you can just tell someone's sneaking up on him."

I start to laugh, but then I listen. And I realize she's absolutely right. It's just that it's either not a "someone" but a "something"...or if it is a "someone," that someone is the singer himself. And even if you don't know the lyrics, it's all right there in the music. 

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Can You Take Me Back

If there were a seven hour version of this, I think I'd be happy to play it every day.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Favorite Song Friday: Here's Where the Story Ends

Somehow I missed it. I wasn't listening to a lot of new music in 1990, which is odd and disappointing, given that I was still a college student, the last time a lot of people are exposed to a lot of new music. But I was too busy with my first senior year and a new girlfriend and living in a house with four other guys and trying to score Bruce Springsteen bootlegs on CD and, what's more, I didn't have a TV, so no MTV for me.

All of which is to say that somehow this pop gem passed me right by. So when I heard it for the first time, just a few years ago, I was blown away and felt like I'd discovered a rare treasure. The song feels light as a feather, but without any of the negative connotations such a description would normally carry. Rather, the combination of David Gavurin's multi-tracked guitars and Harriet Wheeler's intoxicatingly sweet vocals, over a pristine, perfect Smiths-like rhythm section groove are like watching flower petals carried into the distance on a gentle spring breeze. 

Until you listen to the words.

People I know places I go
Make me feel tongue tied
I can see how people look down
They're on the inside
Sad. And all too relatable for many of us.
Here's where the story ends 
Intriguing. Nice phrase. Really nice.
People I see, weary of me
Showing my good side
Are they wearying of her showing her good side, or are they simply weary of her and she refuses to give up? It's unclear, but either works just fine.
I can see how people look down
I'm on the outside 
Hm. Is she a touch paranoid or is she really an outcast? Again, either is entirely possible.
Here's where the story ends
Ooh here's where the story ends
So far what we have is a perfect pop song: lovely music, engaging vocals and a compelling, recognizable lyric. 
It's that little souvenir of a terrible year
Which makes my eyes feel sore 
A souvenir? Interesting. What could that be?

Oh I never should have said the books that you read
Were all I loved you for 

That does seem like the kind of thing that could cut a guy (admittedly, a pretty geeky guy) to the quick.

It's that little souvenir of a terrible year
Which makes me wonder why 

Wonder why...what, exactly?

It's the memories of the shed that make me turn red
Surprise surprise surprise

Uh-oh. And suddenly things take a much darker turn. They'd already been gray, a bit cloudy, but suddenly there's a storm upon us before we even saw it coming. What...what happened in the shed? I mean, I think we know, more or less, what happened...but there's still more than a few variables, and the devil's in the details, as they say. The main thing, of course, is the question: how willing a participant was she? 
Crazy I know, places I go 
I don't think the narrator is meaning to say she's well acquainted with insanity—I suspect she's merely being colloquial...but it's impossible to say for sure.

Make me feel so tired
I can see how people look down
I'm on the outside
If we take her at her word, that would seem to indicate she hasn't been paranoid about any of this, and that whatever happened in the shed, the rough outline is a matter of more than a little gossip around town.

Oh here's where the story ends
Ooh here's where the story ends

It's that little souvenir of a terrible year
Which makes my eyes feel sore
And whoever would've thought the books that you brought
Were all I loved
Oh the devil in me said go down to the shed 

And here she seems to be taking at least some responsibility for whatever happened in the shed. Which is to say, she's claiming she initiated the journey, with a pretty good idea of what was going to happen. Even here, however, she's distancing herself from the action, claiming it was the devil inside her, meaning she knows she shouldn't even as she's doing it...and yet doing it anyway.
I know where I belong 
On the other hand, this would seem to indicate a certain measure of self-loathing. Perhaps she was already an outcast before the events with the books and shed?

But the only thing I ever really wanted to say
Was wrong, was wrong, was wrong

More ambiguity. Is she saying that the only thing she ever wanted to say was incorrect? Or that all she wanted to do was tell him that what was happening was wrong, wrong, wrong?
It's that little souvenir of a colorful year
Which makes me smile inside 
And this is where, I think, we get a surprise turn away from the darkness and into an unexpected bright side. What could the souvenir possibly be? There are really only a few options that leap to mind: her permanently tarnished reputation, an STD...or a baby. And which of those three are most likely to make her smile, even if only on the inside?

So I cynically, cynically say the world is that way
Surprise, surprise, surprise, surprise, surprise

And here I picture her smiling down at her little bundle of joy, crooning this softly, just the two of them, alone, the only characters that matter. She's older, she's (sadly) wiser, perhaps a bit bitter but maybe not quite as much as she thinks because, after all, she's the one that came out of that terrible, albeit colorful, year with something of value—the most valuable prize of all, in fact.
Here's where the story ends
Why? Because her story is over and her child's is just beginning? Or because that's all in the past, a closed book, and from here on the two of them will be starting over, writing a new story: their own.
Ooh here's where the story ends
And that's all she wrote.