Bruce Springsteen Takes a Wrecking Ball to America

Bruce Springsteen is pissed off.

Wrecking Ball finds The Boss reacting to America’s current financial crisis, cutting straight past the bullshit volley of party politics and Cable news-inspired biases, and to the heart of the matter. Springsteen very much sounds like a man who’s heard this country’s political parties take their half-hearted stabs at fixing America for too long without resolution and wants to make his point loud anc clear. (I am very familiar with this man.)

The Boss is no stronger to singing about social issues and the state of the union. He’s been singing about it since the 1970s with full-album punctuation marks along the way (Nebraska, We Shall Overcome). Some people still yearn for the days of Thunder Road, but Bruce isn’t that twentysomething troubadour anymore and while he still has an occasional knack for an inspiring anthem or visceral love song, his greatest strength is his empathy for the working class hero. But he’s rarely been this enraged before.

The lead track and first single, “We Take Care of Our Own,” was a good appetizer for the album, balancing the fairly benign musical arrangement with double-take lyrics that question the promise of the stars and stripes. But from there, the music and lyrics only get infinitely better. Bruce is much fiercer on “Death to My Hometown,” a Celtic march where the enemies wield no cannon balls, rifles or bombs, but financial ruin. “The greedy thieves who came around/And ate the flesh of everything they found/Whose crimes have gone unpunished now/Who walk the streets as free men now,” sings Bruce of robber barons in business suits, a vicious faceless enemy.

On Wrecking Ball, Springsteen deftly mixes traditional rock with folk rock, gospel and soul, a blend of his best moments on recent E Street Band records as well as the vitality and verve of the Seeger Sessions. The latter has a greater influence on this new record (which is by no means an E Street Band album) and the album is better for it. America simply doesn’t need Bruce Springsteen singing “Queen of the Supermarket” right now. It needs the ferocious stomp of songs like “Shackled and Drawn,” which sounds like a forgotten outtake from Pete Seeger, and “Easy Money,” a rollicking Wall Street condemnation with an Irish folk arrangement. The Boss brings out the Irish influence again on “American Land,” a song developed during the Seeger Sessions but that has been an Encore staple for recent E Street tours as well. It retains it’s the dynamic energy of its live interpretations and is as vigorous a song as Bruce has written in decades.

The album slows things down some with “This Depression,” “We Are Alive” and “Jack of All Trades,” though the message suffers little for it. Punctuated with wailing guitar solos by kindred spirit Tom Morello and a moving vocal performance by The Boss himself, “This Depression” pleads for human connection in dark and desperate times. “We Are Alive” takes its cue from Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire”, setting up around a campfire and building to a mariachi crescendo. It’s a brilliant musical finale to an album that dabbles in everything and a lyrical testament to the endurance of our spirit beyond our time on Earth. After a somber tale of devotion and resilience in troubled times, “Jack of All Trades” brings its desperate hero to a startling revelation by song’s end,

But don’t let the subject matter fool you into thinking this is a desperate and dark record along the lines of Nebraska. Even in its darkest moments, the music intends to inspire and many songs are meant to lift the downtrodden and reward their faith through the turmoil. “Wrecking Ball” and “Land of Hopes and Dreams” stand tall with the best of Springsteen’s songs of the last 25 years, brilliant anthems that face down evil and take the high road to a hopeful future. Appropriately, they both feature the late Clarence Clemons on saxophone, The Big Man’s only contributions to the record. Springsteen debuted “Wrecking Ball” in 2009 as a tribute to the soon-to-be-demolished Giants Stadium. At the time it felt like a fun throwaway song that only locals would get. But Springsteen has managed to turn it into a rallying cry of strength and willpower against a system intent on destruction. “Land of Hopes and Dreams” dates back even farther (it was played live starting in 1999) and here is tinged with larger shades of gospel. He sings, “Dreams will not be thwarted…Faith will be rewarded.” As furious and confrontational he is about an America that has betrayed its working class and a corrupt system that needs its own wrecking ball, Bruce Springsteen still believes in the good of man, the promise of one’s dreams and the hope the future might bring if we could just persevere and sing loud enough that we can no longer be ignored. That’s a Boss we could all use to listen to.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

An Awful Kind of Truth

I have never doubted the skill and capable hands of Edward Van Halen so I never felt that A Different Kind of Truth would somehow need to prove that he still had it. The man has dealt with some personal issues over the years which have led to a void in creativity that is finally being filled again. But Eddie hasn’t lost his touch. (Nor for that matter has brother Alex, on the drums.)

There’s just not a whole lot of melody to be found on the album. Or good singing. Or lyrics.

Admittedly, I lean more towards the Sammy Hagar-led incarnation of Van Halen. However, there isn’t anything here that even reminds us of the genius of Roth-era songs like “Dance the Night Away,” “Runnin’ With the Devil” or “Jamie’s Crying.” There’s barely a breather in what is essentially a collection of fast rockers. I know that macho fans will claim this is all they ever wanted, but it doesn’t make for quality album sequencing and isn’t exactly true to the band’s roots. [Read more…]

Counting Crows Dive Into Underwater Sunshine

Counting Crows have officially announced the release date, cover art and track listing for their latest project, Underwater Sunshine (or What We Did On Our Summer Vacation), a collection of cover songs that mostly skews towards obscure with a few familiar tunes. Recorded in 2011, the album not only marks the return of the band to recording for the first time since Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings, but also its first independent venture since splitting from longtime label Geffen Records. As indicated in that departure, the band is utilizing grassroots ideology in promoting the new album via social networking and free album streaming. They’ll also take to the road for the first time in a few years, which has always been their most successful and viable forum, and where many of these songs first took root.

[Read more…]

Middle 8: Favorite Songs of 2011

In a weak year for albums, the song was king. (And the king is most certainly not dead.) By far my hardest list to whittle down to eight, my favorite tunes of 2011 were mostly heavy on the synth with a few countryside exceptions. Nothing broke any major musical barriers here, but just show eight bands or artists who had an incredibly knack for melody and musicianship.

1. “You Are a Tourist,” Death Cab for Cutie

The first single from Death Cab’s Codes and Keys set the tone for the album with escalating “You Are a Tourist.” The song embodied the band’s experimental approach with tweaks and effects that challenged their traditional guitar-heavy sound. Along the way, singer and lyricist Ben Gibbard delivered an unlikely gush of affirmations that matched-up perfectly with the song’s sonic groove. In fact, I’ve spent most of the year with “This fire grows higher” still echoing in my brain.

[Read more…]

Middle 8: Favorite Albums of 2011

It was a particularly off year for rock n’ roll as many of its top bands had no new releases or spent the year on side-projects or retrospective looks back. And bands such as Radiohead and R.E.M. didn’t completely stick the landing on their 2011 releases. This all conspired to open up the field to independent artists, fringe acts, and an a cappella group! (NOTE: With no clear ranking to consider among this batch, the ranking is broken in half by the top four albums and the second four albums. They are as malleable as the moods that control our listening pleasures.)

Codes and Keys, Death Cab for Cutie

After the dark Narrow Stairs, Death Cab for Cutie returned with its best effort in years on the upbeat Codes and Keys. The album taps into the band’s various strengths and adds more experimental soundscapes, offering up an eclectic collection of sounds that elevate the band into a brighter atmosphere. Between the lead, affirmation-heavy single “You Are a Tourist” and the album-closing acoustic love-song “Stay Young, Go Dancing,” the band fills the spaces with experimental instrumentation and production that enhances but never buries Ben Gibbard’s brilliant songwriting.

Mr. Saturday Night, Julian Velard

Since Billy Joel no longer records music, we get the next best thing with Julian Velard who released his best effort yet with Mr. Saturday Night. The album is unabashedly inspired by ‘70s and ‘80s pop with Velard’s own witty lyricism grounding the songs in the modern age. With songs like the relentlessly devotional “The Guy Who” and the apprehensive ballad “On to Something” leading the way, Mr. Saturday Day shined through its downtrodden singer/songwriter brethren. (To boot, Velard offered up free b-sides to the album every Monday this past year, some of which were as strong, if not stronger, than some of the songs that made it, proving that Velard is running at an incredible creative peak right now.)

The King is Dead, The Decemberists

The Decemberists shifted away from progressive rock and British folk revivalism in 2011 on the Americana-infused The King Is Dead. Unlike previous high-concept efforts, The King Is Dead goes for a loose collection of bucolic ditties, trading in complex time-signatures and organ solos for fiddles and mandolins. With Peter Buck assisting on guitar on three songs and Gillian Welch as a primary harmonist throughout, Colin Meloy proves he had other tricks up his sleeve with an album daring in its simplicity.

Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes

On their sophomore effort, Fleet Foxes took big strides towards expanding and tinkering with the sound that adorned their breakthrough debut. While many songs retain the retro folk sound they established on their first album, ornate arrangements and more elaborate instrumentation give songs like “Bedouin Dress” and “Lorelai” a more dynamic luster while “Battery Kinzie” is propelled by an anxious piano rhythm. Pack-leader Robin Pecknold once again adorns all of this beauty with pastoral (and often esoteric) lyrics, never better than on “Helplessness Blues” which makes working on an orchard and running a country store sound like a damn refreshing career path.

No One Listens to the Band Anymore, The Damnwells

The Damnwells went the independent route with recording and financing the ironically-titled No One Listens to the Band Anymore throughout 2010. Born to record shops at the outset of a cold 2011, the album yearned for warmer days and open windows with songs like ‘70s-inspired “Death Defier” and bouncy “She Goes Around”. Alex Dezen is often at his best when harmonizing with wife Angela and backed by full band, but excelled even on quieter, lonelier moments like “The Great Unknown.”

The Best Imitation of Myself, Ben Folds

In a year that had its share of retrospectives and rarity collections, as well as deluxe reissues of some of rock’s most hallowed masterpieces, Ben Folds offered the most bang for your retrospective buck with a collection that tackled every aspect of his solo and Ben Folds Five repertoire. At three discs plus an additional 56 songs available via digital release, Folds covered nearly every nook and cranny of his 15-year career, including three new tracks with his former Five bandmates. While the hits were a known quantity, the collection’s strength is both dynamic live performances and eclectic unreleased tracks and various oddities like the boy-band-wannabe “Girl” and brilliant covers ranging from “Say Yes” to “Wild Mountain Thyme.” It might’ve been presumptuous for an artist with a fairly slim catalog to release what essentially amounts to a box set at this point in his career, but the quality of what Folds has compiled here deserved a wider audience than just his die hard fans.

Mylo Zyloto, Coldplay

Though not as strong as Viva La Vida, Mylo Zyloto grows better upon further listening, particularly because of strong sonic departures like “Charlie Brown” and “Hurts Like Heaven” and throwback quieter moments like “Us Against The World” and “U.F.O.” That odd mix of sounds actually turned what’s supposed to be somewhat of a conceptual piece of work into an often-herky jerky collection of songs that flows oddly in places. A synth-heavy song will flow into an acoustic strum or a soaring soulful ballad will fall into the depths of a terrible pulsating Rihanna-invaded dance tune. But it has far stronger moments than weak ones and it’s in those moments where the album truly shines. A few tracks after evoking a Parachutes-era baritone on “U.F.O.”, Chris Martin sends his falsetto soaring with the majestic “Up in Flames.” Album-closing “Up With the Birds” is a radiant finale, an appropriate downshift for an album chockfull of arena-anthems like the glow-in-the-dark “Charlie Brown” and the sprinting synth of “Don’t Let It Break Your Heart.”

Season 3 of The Sing Off, Pentatonix

Though not an album in the traditional sense, Pentatonix’s appearance on Season 3 of The Sing Off was vastly more entertaining than many artists’ original albums and provided one of the best music highlights in 2011. If you take the best of their a cappella performances (almost all of them), you have a diverse body of work that even as essentially live auditions works better than most polished professionals’ meticulous creations. Anchored by an otherworldly  bass and beatbox, the quintet displayed a sound as full as some bands twice their size. By the time they got to a cover of Florence and the Machine’s “Dog Days Are Over”, they’d essentially locked up their victory. But along the way, they put up great renditions of everything from “Video Killed the Radio Star” to “E.T.” and captured the imagination of viewers/listeners every week this past Fall.

Outside Looking In: Iron & Wine’s Kiss Each Other Clean continued Sam Beam’s expansion of the band’s sound and included lots of departures from the quieter songs that once were Iron & Wine’s forte; The Beach Boys’ legendary SMiLE, while not a new album by any stretch of the imagination, finally saw official (albeit unfinished) release in a sweet box set that showed the world that Brian Wilson’s genius in 1967 was also quite evident in 2011; Bright Eyes’ The People’s Key had a lot of great songs surrounded by a few misses and some spoken-word ramblings that sounded profound upon initial listening but became meddlesome on repeat; Pentatonix’s top competitor, the effervescent Dartmouth Aires, had The Sing Off’s most dynamic singer and some of this season’s greatest musical moments, including a mind-blowing Queen medley.

Just a Whiny Little English Boy Singing the Blues

Singer-songwriter David Ford tackles two different musical approaches with his latest releases, with one foot in the past and one taking a creative step forward.

Ford is familiar with the process of releasing period EPs ahead of a traditional album release, as he did with his Pages Torn from the Electrical Sketchbook series in 2008-2009. Those EPs were a mixed bag of Ford songs then in development, many of which got tidied up and re-recorded for Let the Hard Times Roll. On Ford 4.1, Ford starts off this next series of EPs with a concentrated sound, paying homage to American music, most specifically blues with a slice of Americana. [Read more…]

David Ford Goes to Hell and Back

David Ford has always done a great job at balancing a knack for beautiful melodies and earnest lyrics with a sharp and often angry wit. It has always informed his music, which can range from odes to beautiful relationships (“Song for the Road”) to venomous attacks on warmongering governments (“State of the Union”). Thus it’s no big surprise that he had no problem translating his lyrical poetry to the prose format of a book (particularly if you follow his insightful Twitter feed). In I Choose This: How to Nearly Make It In The Music Industry, he goes beyond the constraints of 140 characters and Verse-Chorus-Verse to expound on his journeys and observations through the record industry landscape.

Ford tells his tale chronologically, starting with his beginnings but without dwelling on the type of overwrought life history that you’ll find in lots of self-important autobiographies. His interest is in getting to the meat of the story immediately and it truly starts with his endeavors starting a career in music. The chapters are formatted like essays, often tied together by a common theme, but also very digestible in and of themselves. Ford never holds back on any of his topics, with brutally honest stories about former bandmates, producers and record industry execs. The section of the book detailing Columbia Records (and Rick Rubin) dropping Ford is frustratingly profound and fantastically insightful. But the way Ford soldiers on in the face of an industry astray and directionless is inspiring, entertaining and always humorous.

I Choose This is a fantastic view of the record industry from an artist who has struggled getting his foot in the door and ultimately back out of it, and who represents a new breed of truly independent artists making a career out of it on the very fringes of the music industry. As the sole voice in the book (Ford is not assisted by a ghostwriter), and a very eloquent and incredibly candid voice at that, Ford’s tales are a brilliant, engaging read and will only make you feel that the wrong people succeed in this business.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The Swell Season Finds Joy in Heartache

Strict Joy is the first album by principals Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova that does not reference any prior recordings that either did in any previous incarnation (including Hansard’s first band The Frames). Once and The Swell Season shared a lot of songs with each other, albeit in different interpretations, as well as a few of The Frames’ later albums. As such, this album was crucial in establishing some new direction for a group of musicians who had essentially been playing a lot of the same material from album to album. [Read more…]

Middle 8: October 19, 2011

A departure from the repetitive verse-chorus-verse of your typical Top 10s, The Vinyl Recliner presents our inaugural Middle 8 countdown…

Ben Folds FiveTell Me What I Did
One of three new recordings done by Ben Folds Five for Folds’ retrospective of his career with and without Five, “Tell Me What I Did” is most like early BFF, with a raucous riff and clever lyrics (both written by bassist Robert Sledge).

Sleeping At Last Noble Aim
The indie rock band wrapped up it’s 12-EP Yearbook project with September, which includes the autumnal and inspiring “Noble Aim,” with sweet harmonies by Katie Herzig. [Read more…]

Barenaked Ladies Find a New Voice

When Steven Page left the Barenaked Ladies in early 2009, he left behind a band full of talented vocalists and musicians but also a band largely dependent on his songwriting abilities. He also left amidst unfortunate personal drama that pervaded the band’s usual affable image. While public reports have noted the split as amicable, you couldn’t help but think the now-quartet harbored some resentment. On the band’s latest album, All In Good Time, there is no longer any doubt. [Read more…]

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