Culturespill » Bruce Springsteen

Best Albums of 2010 Series: “The Suburbs,” Arcade Fire

21st December

 

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2007’s Neon Bible found Arcade Fire sneaking early-’80s Bruce Springsteen into an abandoned church in Quebec and having him sing about antichrists in the television while the band kept the car running. It’s a safe bet that few among the legions who dropped to the floor in love after their first full listen of Funeral had the slightest clue that Springsteen owned  a fraction of the influence from which that music emerged. And it’s just as certain that even fewer gave a flying dog turd about Springsteen themselves. So to hear Win Butler wear that affinity like a shocking tattoo on Neon Bible was an alienating experience for fans of the band’s debut LP.

Neon Bible was no Funeral, and even The Suburbs, for all its obvious brilliance, also suggests that the fire the band trapped in the bottle of Funeral burns at a different temperature these days. It still blazes, but its environment is just a bit less volatile and prone to fewer sparks, its flames have changed color from their atomic tangerine to some pale hue of iris. It’s neither better or worse, but perhaps a bit easier on the bottle it writhes in, a little less likely to burst. The more music Arcade Fire releases the more Funeral sounds like the document of a fevered imagination; everything that we hear now is the sound of the aftermath. It is still beautiful but more conventionally so, still rending but cautious, still spontaneous but self-conscious.

The foreboding atmospherics with which Neon Bible opened reflected the paranoia of a band suddenly struck by the discomforting possibility that Funeral had turned them into some big important band now, the sort that wears the ankle weights of fans’ expectations in the studio. Win Butler sang of “waking from a nightmare” only to find himself in some moonless landscape in the black of night. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being watched, “shot by a security camera” as he struggled to even make out his own reflection in the “black mirror” of uncertainty. The track so seamlessly played like an outtake from David Bowie’s Scary Monsters that it was as if the band clung to that familiar ghost for comfort in the tortured terrain of the song.

Keep the Car Running,” like “Antichrist Television Blues,” was an absolutely brilliant reclamation of the band’s powers after the album’s uncertain opening statement. And the rest of the record’s grab-bag of sounds spanned a range from pipe organ to  woodwinds to hurdy gurdy that demonstrated nothing if not the boundless confidence of a band in full possession of its powers, fear of fame be damned.  It was an excellent record on its own that never once approached the pathos of “Crown of Love” or “The Backseat,” and it seemed to almost deliberately sidestep the radiant unpredictability of “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” or “Neighborhood #2 (Laika).”

Neon’s grandiose departure from the sound they honed on Funeral continues with The Suburbs, if a bit more quietly. A palm tree arches over an aging sedan on the cover art’s fading canvas as if to signal that the band is more at ease after the venting of their last LP.  The record is less bombastic and opens on a noticeably more settled note than that darker predecessor with its breezy gem of a title track.  “Ready to Start” crackles with all the sunny adrenaline of “Keep the Car Running,” and the haunted “Deep Blue” is quite possibly the finest piece of music the band has ever put to tape. The lyrics themselves are a restorative measure that heal the fractured psyche explored on “Black Mirror,” as Butler sings of being back in his own skin where he “can finally begin” and do so at a pace so completely his own that he kicks back and watches the century pass him by. A more majestic four minutes cannot be found on any other album released this year.

And yet “We Used to Wait,” the very next track,  somehow manages to sustain the power of its predecessor. Suddenly Butler’s not so sure about all that talk of self-assuredness he just got done with on “Deep Blue.” The lovers he sings about find their lives in the throes of change and can only “hope that something pure can last.” Regine Chassagne, who spends much of the album waiting behind its velvet curtain, returns to center stage with a stunning nod to new-wave on “Sprawl II (Beyond Mountains).” Her voice floats through the song’s misted air of whining synths that at times recalls the blue ruin of Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without a Face.” If the record’s energy flounders occasionally on the many tracks between these high points, it is only because its best moments set standards no band can possibly expect to meet for the full length of an LP.

The Suburbs is superior to Neon if only by a horse’s nose at Belmont Stakes, and as a whole it is the band’s finest statement to date even if moments on Funeral scale heights the band is still yet to revisit.  Only The National’s High Violet has any claim to the throne Arcade Fire seizes with this LP.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

Bruce Springsteen: He’s Bringing Darkness Back

26th November

 

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It’s been a long time since we’ve heard anything genuinely “dark” from the artist not always known as “The Boss.” Back before his working man’s hero act became as kitschy as a Phil Levine poem with factory smoke in it (or, for that matter, a Rick Springfield song), he explored a totally believable and sincere American mythos that hadn’t yet washed away in the saccharin production of Born in the USA or his last two albums, Magic and Working on a Dream–possibly the weakest one-two punch of releases in the man’s career. Even the brilliant Tunnel of Love LP in 1987, which he wrote while digging himself out of the smoldering ruin of a marriage gone bad, sported claws that were sharp to the eye but clipped occasionally by his preference for sonic excess over the spare,  bleeding wound of the “NY Sessions” of Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, for example, where there’s no band and it’s just Dylan spitting at the world and the woman who razed it as the buttons of his coat audibly rap his acoustic guitar while he plays. (Even today Dylan can’t help but backstroke through his disappointment in, well, everything, singing “dreams never did anything for me anyway / even when they did come true” on his 2009 album Together Through Life.)

It’s precisely that sort of disappointment and resignation in which Springsteen found such an articulate voice that his songs became the working-class narcotic of a generation. You’ll hear it once again on The Promise–outtakes from the sessions that brought us the masterpiece Darkness on the Edge of Town in 1978–and really for the first time since tracks like “Downbound Train” or “One Step Up” from his ’80s prime (although moments on the excellent comeback albums Devils and Dust and The Rising come close). But if these are the explorations that culminated in Darkness, they were recorded somewhere inside the blazing sunrise that preceded it. Disc one opens with an absolutely bombastic take on “Racing in the Street,” where Roy Bittan’s fluttering piano work cheers up the distant organ riffs that approximate the version we know so well by now. But then somebody starts blowing the guts out of a mouth harp, Max Weinberg starts beating the balls off his drums and Bruce gradually builds toward the unhinged howl he lets loose on tracks like “Adam Raised a Cain” or “Something in the Night.” Violins sneak into the mix like a Facebook message from a good buddy you haven’t heard from since high school, and ultimately you end up with the unthinkable possibility that the sum of all this is actually superior to the standard version we’ve been listening to for the past 32 years. Unthinkable, yes—until you hear it for yourself.

And that’s just the first track of a double disc package with 21 songs on it. If you’re already exhausted, you’re starting to understand what it’s like to listen to what Springsteen calls “the music that got left behind.”

Six-and-a-half minutes into “Racing,” the whole beautiful mess slow-fades into a stunning little track called “Gotta Get That Feeling” whose production has Little Stevie’s fingerprints all over it. Van Zandt’s adoration for Wall-of-Sound-era Doo-wop is no secret to anyone that has listened to his “Little Steven’s Underground Garage” radio show for more than five minutes. The arrangement sounds like Phil Spector gets into a head-on collision with a mariachi band and, miraculously, both parties survive. The horn section is haunted by the ghost of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” while Bittan’s bright piano once again drives a backbone through the song.

A couple tracks later the gorgeous “Someday (We’ll Be Together”) opens with a jangle of mall-Santa bells and a sluggish drum beat that sounds like the Ronettes got piss drunk and recorded a midnight version of “Be My Baby” at the speed of sleep. The song sweats with the kind of desperate desire that only a 20-something kid from Jersey still groping for the dreams he followed out of Asbury Park can convey.  It is emotionally riveting, impactful stuff.

Springsteen’s take on “Because the Night,” though, is the diamond in the mine of disc one. Inevitably eclipsed by Patti Smith’s downright vicious interpretation that made the track famous the same year that Darkness was released–with Bruce’s version of the song left to gather dust until now (although he did include a live version on his huge live offering, Live 1975-1985) —Springsteen’s take burns to life with the youthful radiance that makes his clumsy 1973 debut record and its follow-up so much fun to listen to. It’s hard to hear the song through Patti’s signature version, but if you can somehow tune Patti out for the length of the song and listen to Bruce’s version on its own terms–admittedly not easy; that woman has a voice that bellows from the center of the earth—the track bears a gush of fruit to reward you for the effort.

Disc two gets off to a remarkably coy start against the explosion with which Disc one begins, as a pretty forgettable rock-ballad called “Save My Love” sounds as tossed-off as the title. But things quickly turn around with the jumpy “Ain’t Good Enough For You” that brings to mind the brilliant “Spirit in the Night” from Greetings from Asbury Park, with an instantly catchy piano riff cushioned in the fabric of so many deep-voiced backup singers. Then everybody starts whistling, applauding and laughing like they just happen to be celebrating Bruce’s birthday as they lay down the track. 1970s-era Bruce never quite figured out how to put together the kind of taut, radio-ready single he mastered in the ensuing decade, but “Ain’t Good Enough for You” suggests that he already had it in him–he just didn’t yet care to go there.

“It’s a Shame” crackles with life from first moment to last, knee-deep in a gritty guitar riff that turns the track into possibly the most accessible rock song Springsteen ever put to tape in the 1970s, while “The Promise” and “City of Night” rein in the enthusiasm with gray-skied ballads that thrust the lives of the forgotten under the unforgiving glare of Springsteen’s America. A penniless scamp is taking a taxi to see his sugar baby somewhere on 12th & Vine in the middle of the night, someone’s cashing in his dreams out on Route 9, and everybody carries on despite a gnawing feeling that they left their lives behind them somewhere.

Even the best of Bruce’s more recent output makes clear that in the twilight of his career he can only hope to approximate the desperate streets he wandered in song decades ago, but that’s why The Promise is such a welcome gift. The package as a whole has its flaws—some of the tracks should have stayed where Springsteen left them—but as a whole these 21 songs bring back to life the soiled rags and busted dreams of the America he used to sing about. It’s the America where there is work to be found in Darlington County if you know where to look for it, the America where “Johnny works in a factory and Billy works downtown,” and when they get home they rinse the grime from their faces and go out racing in the streets with their ’32 Fords.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

The Promise: The Spill from Around the Web

Pitchfork: “Still, despite the lack of consistency, the 22 new songs (there are 21 tracks, but “The Way” is a hidden bonus track at the end) are mostly very good and occasionally great. None feel like they should have been on Darkness, but almost all of them holds up to repeat plays and stand on their own as very good Springsteen– easily on the level of mid-level stuff on The River, say.”

Chicago Tribune: “What’s less appreciated about the era chronicled on “Promise” is the large volume of exceptional music that didn’t make the final cut, left to languish unheard except for a few live performances and covers by other artists — until now.”

SoundCheck:  “Of the new songs, longtime fans will be familiar with most, yet the material has never been released with such solid in-studio treatment. “Rendezvous,” for example, has made occasional concert appearances over the years, but to hear it so alive and fresh is a revelation.”

The Guardian: “Bruce Springsteen’s The Promise, stuff that didn’t make it on to his 1978 LP Darkness On The Edge Of Town, is an astounding artefact in its own right; most artists would cheerfully claim these studio-floor sweepings as their magnum opus.”

Music Radar:  “That’s clearly evident among the 21 tracks we get to hear for the first time on the second and third discs of this release; a dizzying ride through American popular music, liberally borrowing instantly familiar motifs. The 10 tracks that comprised Darkness’ on its release in 1978 were carefully chosen to reaffirm Springsteen’s literate singer-songwriter reputation, but the music here is less concerned with cementing a specific identity.”

The Quietus: “Well, the first disc is where all the goodies are. There are songs here that could (and would) be massive hits. The dark, brooding version of ‘Because the Night’, later to become a hit when Patti Smith recorded it, is impressive. It oozes a menacing aspect that’s sometimes lost in translation.”

L.A. Times:  “As a set, the previously unreleased material feels experimental, not in tone but in spirit. Some songs, like the brooding hymn “Come on (Let’s Go Tonight)”, are the seeds of others on “Darkness.” Others could stand on any Springsteen album, relating familiar tales of freedom or peril on the highway, or love in dark tenement corridors, within arrangements that lack the sharpness of the “Darkness” material but often have more warmth.”

SoundSpike:  “No song on “The Promise” belongs on “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” The 21 songs, many of them unknown except to the most avid of bootleg collectors, are imbued with the ambition of “Born to Run,” the influence of the Jersey shore — aka “home” — and traditional Springsteen themes, like the search for sanctuary and redemption.”

PopMatters:  “There are alternate takes of tracks, and the best of them is “Racing in the Streets”. A bit dustier than its album version, this one feels more like a stomping full band than the spacious, piano-y cut that made Darkness, and the buzzing intensity here might actually outdo the original. Elsewhere, “Come On (Let’s Go Tonight)” is an early take on “Factory” with wholly different lyrics. The feel, however, remains pretty much the same with discussion of men walking around “with death in their eyes”, and people headed to a party down the road to escape, if for a night.”

Culturespill Flashback: Warren Zevon’s “The Wind”

15th May

Zevon in Shadows

One lesson learned from the success of Warren Zevon’s musical epitaph, The Wind, is that any artist struggling too long for that big break probably hasn’t tried dying yet. As the speed with which Zevon’s final album flew off the shelves confirms, there is no better way of boosting record sales than a well-timed death. The album, released just two weeks before Zevon succumbed to lung cancer, sold over 50,000 copies in only its first week out of the gate, making it his first top forty album since 1978’s Excitable Boy.

Mostly, Warren Zevon’s name might get passed around a few dinner tables now and then, and, in a reasonably informed household, the grumbly old man will grunt something like “oh, yeah, the werewolf guy who died of cancer,” before stuffing another forkful of canned lasagna in his face. Yes, it’s true, Zevon wrote the immortal “Werewolves of London,” and if he is remembered for nothing more than its instantly captivating piano riff and that wolf guy strolling the rainy streets of Soho for some Beef Chow Mein, well, that’s more than most schmucks will be able to say for themselves when their cards are called.

It is also true that Zevon did indeed fall prey to cancer at 56 years old Sunday, September 6th, 2003, but not without having something to say about it. He had a whole lot to say, actually-nearly 3 decades worth of death, blood and gore. Zevon always seemed like the kind of guy who’ll take fangs over flowers any day of the week. That said, it’s most fitting that Mr. Zevon’s last word includes some of the most emotionally urgent music of his life, void of even the slightest pose or mask; though a few of the album’s real rockers do pack a claw or two.


Warren Zevon: “My Shit’s Fucked Up”

Death’s approach galvanizes even the most mundane lyric on The Wind. When Zevon sings “Let’s party for the rest of the night . . . we may never get this chance again,” he means it quite literally. The tune itself rocks with the fury of war, as Tom Petty and his trusty Heartbreakers sidekick, Mike Campbell, rock and howl their way right through the song’s last line.

Most remarkable is Zevon’s apparent ease with the fate that awaits him, as though, after learning from his doctor of the inoperable tumor in his lung, he decided to record The Wind in celebration, not despair, for the life he was about to lose. Zevon audibly trades chuckles with members of the band on numerous tracks as they erupt into song together. “Let’s do another bad one, then,” Zevon tells his bandmates before lapsteel guitarist David Lindley rips into “Numb As A Statue,” the album’s fourth track, “because I like it when the blood drains from Dave’s face.”

Of the many renowned friends that joined Zevon to help him make what they knew would be his last album — names like Bruce Springsteen, Ry Cooder and Billy Bob Thornton top the list — still the primal drum work of lesser-known Luis Conte raises “The Rest of the Night” to the height of its booming promise. One icon falls; another gets busy making his name.

But while similar tracks would rock most other acts off the stage–the stomping, electric blues of “Rub Me Raw” or Springsteen’s jangling guitar searing through the frenzied “Disorder in the House,” for instance–it is the album’s surprisingly tender moments that make it a masterpiece. Concluding with one of the most poignant codas in rock history, the divine, understated “Keep me In Your Heart,” The Wind congeals into a uniquely sincere and confident embrace of mortality. “Shadows are falling and I’m running out of breath / keep me in your heart for a while / If I leave you it doesn’t mean I love you any less / keep me in your heart for a while,” Zevon croons along to Jorge Calderon’s acoustic guitar and the legendary Jim Keltner’s shuffling drums.


In Memoriam: Warren Zevon

It is interesting to note another song that begins with an image of “falling shadows”: “Not Dark Yet,” by one of the many noted comrades Zevon gathered over the years, Bob Dylan:

Shadows are falling and I’ve been here all day
It’s too hot to sleep time is running away
Feel like my soul has turned into steel
I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal
There’s not even room enough to be anywhere
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there

Whether or not Warren had Dylan’s song in mind when penning his own, it is just as preciously coincidental as it is moving. This is not the only shadow Dylan casts over the album. Zevon’s taut cover of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” is nothing short of sublime. The timeless tune is another of the album’s bitingly appropriate and all too literal anticipations of finality.

Arguably, though, the album’s highest moment arrives amid the ghostly, possessed chants of “Prison Grove”:

Dug in, hunkered down,
Hours race without a sound
Gonna carry me to where I’m bound
Looking down on Prison Grove

Iron will hard as rock
Hold me up for the fateful knock
When they walk me down in a mortal lock
Out on Prison grove

Zevon groans as a harrowing swarm of voices that sound like the mantras of the dead howl “Shine on / Shine on all these broken lives / Shine on / Shine the light on me,” as though begging for a break from some underworld of their own doing. Everyone and their mothers chime in for this one, including old pals Jackson Browne, Billy Bob Thornton, T-Bone Burnett, Bruce Springsteen and, of course, Warren himself. The effect is chilling as Warren snarls “come on!” before each additional chant, as though daring death to show its face amid such dark divinity. Ry Cooder is in rare form here, his famous slide guitar rivaling even the licks he got in on John Hiatt’s brilliant Bring the Family seventeen years prior. Cooder’s prowess captures perfectly the immediacy and courage with which Zevon confronts his owndestruction. “They say you’ll hear your own bones crack,” Zevon asserts, “When they bend you back to bible black.” Well, Warren, is it true?