Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Tom Morello - "Marching On Ferguson"

So I promised Rory and Steve I would keep my political rantings to a minimum on this blog.  I saw this video a few weeks back, and decided not to immediately post about it, because I still was so enraged by what I saw happening in Ferguson, that I don't think I could have kept my political thoughts in check.  Now that the situation has died down, I feel I can share this video.

I won't get into my own personal feelings about Ferguson.  Whether or not it was a young, unarmed man gunned down by prejudice and trigger-happy cop, or whether or not this was a criminal, who attacked a cop and was justly killed by a cop doing his job, this blog is neither the time or place to discuss it, and no one here knows for sure, so let's just let the grand jury do their job with the evidence that's presented.

So, Tom Morello and his band the Night Watchmen wrote this song about the situation in Ferguson, and this was the best copy I can find.  The lyrics are pretty hard to understand, and even still the song barely clocks in at 2 minutes with a large part of that being instrumental.  But it's not a shocker at all to see that Morello sides with the rioters in Ferguson and their cause.  He has a history of taking part in political causes that seem to start with good intentions, but then are just taken over by opportunists who don't care about the cause and ruin the message (most notably Occupy Wall St.).  And, of course, his signature guitar, with his "arm the homeless" written on it.  Until you remember that most homeless people are mentally ill, and the exact people we should keep guns out of the hands of.

I'm still torn about how I feel about Tom Morello in the E Street band.  Musically he's been great, and a breath of fresh air.  He's fit in very well, and been very well received by the Bruce's fans.  However, personally I still think he's kind of a jackass, and get annoyed every time I hear him talk.  Unless he's inducting Kiss into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame.  Then he's awesome.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Song Spotlight - "Frankie Teardrop" by Suicide

In doing my research for last week's Nebraska review, I came upon the note that Springsteen's "State Trooper" was heavily influenced by Suicide's "Frankie Teardrop".  This is not the first time that I've seen the Suicide-Springsteen connection, as Bruce's "Dream Baby Dream" has been frequently discussed on the blog.  However, I was still unfamiliar with Suicide, so I dove right in with the above song, having no idea what I would be getting myself into.  "Frankie Teardrop" is a frightening, experimental track, featuring monstrous screams and a maddening drone that makes the song almost too brutal to play in a haunted house.  It is not for the faint of heart, but, as the wannabe Springsteen historian that I am, it is interesting to hear this song and see how it shaped "State Trooper" (i.e. the screams and the slow, repetitive rhythm) and Nebraska as a whole (with multiple tales of murder).

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Cover Spotlight - "Take 'Em As They Come" by Jimmy Eat World

Earlier this month, I saw the Gaslight Anthem play their largest show in New Jersey at the PNC Art Center (you can see my excitement in the comments section of this post).  While the Gaslight Anthem delivered a fantastic performance to a packed crowd, I was very impressed by their opening act, Jimmy Eat World.  While their star has faded over the last decade, they cranked out a tight set of solid rock songs - there wasn't a "slow or new song that let's people go to the bathroom" moment during the hour or so they played.

While the Gaslight Anthem's connections to Springsteen are very solidly drawn (lead singer Brian Fallon admitted to having a photo of Springsteen in his dressing room, leading to cheers of "Bruuuuuuce" from the crowd), you will have to dig deeper to find the link between Jimmy Eat World and the Boss.  And, here it is: a cover song (released only as an iTunes exclusive) of a song released only on a B-sides and rarities collection.  It's a fun and faithful rendition of "Take 'Em As They Come" that emphasizes the strongest parts of the song: the immediate opening, the frantic energy, and the catchy chorus.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Album Review - Nebraska

Today marks the 32nd birthday of Nebraska, one of Springsteen's most unique and unexpected albums.  For those familiar with Springsteen at all, you know this album's reputation.  Among the descriptors for Nebraska I have heard over the years are: dark, depressing, uncompromising, challenging, gritty, original, controversial, etc.  It is what makes this review difficult to write - this album has been dissected and analyzed so much these last three decades that I will inevitably end up using one or more of those cliche descriptions.  So, before getting into the review, allow me to indulge in something personal, since it may be the only original idea I will have going forward.

I have had a bias against this album for quite some time.  It really has nothing to do with its content, but rather all to do with what I just wrote about: it's reputation.  Too often, I have heard the album described the following way: "Even if you don't like Springsteen, you'll love Nebraska."  While you could interpret this as saying that Nebraska is Springsteen's best album, or it has a universal appeal, the context is often positioning this statement as a critique of most of Springsteen's other work.  "Here, listen to Nebraska.  It is actually artistic, not that like those other Springsteen records with their overblown sounds and corny lyrics."  It is insulting, yet it is not unusual to hear Springsteen fans themselves promote Nebraska to their non-Springsteen loving friends in the same manner.  So, based on this mildly pretentious description, I developed a resentment towards the album.  Did I like it?  Of course!  It's Springsteen!  But, I bestowed it with the one word used by many a snarky internet blogger: overrated.

But, admittedly, I was being an idiot.  What someone else says or thinks about an album shouldn't affect my enjoyment of it.  When seeking out new music, the first question should be "What is the music like?", not "Who else is listening to this?"  The concept of something being overrated or underrated is silly and arbitrary to begin with.  So, with the anniversary of the anniversary of the record approaching, I decided to try to clear my mind of all preconceived notions of the album and give it a fresh listen (I did the same with Working On A Dream earlier this year).

Upon my first listen, my thoughts immediately confirmed all the cliches I listed in the first paragraph.  It is certainly not a record where you can just put on and go clean the house.  It is a challenging listen to grasp all of what Springsteen is laying out there.  There are complicated characters, stories told from various viewpoints, and a harmonica motif that runs from the first song to the last.

Naturally, as I digested the album more, I found myself always drawn back to songs such as "Atlantic City", "Johnny 99", and "Reason To Believe", which are songs that were eventually given a full-band makeover in the 21st century.  "Atlantic City" is one of my all-time favorite Springsteen songs, and the nature of the lyrics leads to many variations: it can be a tale of a hero making one last stand against the forces of darkness, or the story of a loser deluding himself into yet another failure.  "Johnny 99" is everything that "Outlaw Pete" wishes it was - a raucous scoundrel story with a catchy riff.  "Reason To Believe" is a perfect note in ending the album, as it is probably the most uplifting song on the album (despite starting with the image of a dead dog).

What keeps bringing me back to the album is the themes, both musically and lyrically, that tie the album together.  For example, "Nebraska" starts and ends with a sad, distant harmonica, which is present in almost nearly every other song, such as "Mansion On The Hill" and "Used Cars".  This  harmonica turns upbeat in the concluding song "Reason To Believe".  Another theme is Springsteen's wailling, on "Johnny 99", we hear a joyous "woo!"  Yet, this turns to screams of anguish in "State Trooper".  The darkness permeating the album can be overwhelming at times.  Dirges such as "Mansion On The Hill" and "My Father's House", both dark lullabies about houses of some sort, are more whispered than sung, and are probably the most difficult to get into. Additionally, "Open All Night" stands out as an unusually track to include, as it is a rockabilly toe-tapper and the only song to use an electric guitar.

After going back, I would consider myself a convert to Nebraska.  It is an impressive experiment by Springsteen that has never been exactly duplicated. (Sidenote: While others may point to The Ghost of Tom Joad and Devils & Dust as attempts to recapture Nebraska, I feel Springsteen's best recent "experiment" has been The Seeger Sessions).  It is not my all-time favorite Springsteen album, but it easily stands among his best work, and I would rate it as a 5 out of 5.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Coming Soon: Springsteen Profiled in HBR's "Leading the Life You Want"

Bruce Alert: Harvard Business Review Press has a new book coming out next month which profiles The Boss as an example of how to be successful at both work and life. As someone who looks to Bruce for inspiration about all aspects of life, I couldn't agree more with his inclusion here!

"Leading the Life You Want: Skills for Integrating Work and Life" by Stewart Friedman hits shelves on October 7, but you can preorder it from Amazon here.

From the publisher:

LEADING THE LIFE YOU WANT: Skills for Integrating Work and Life by Stewart Friedman (Available October 2014).
The book looks at succeeding in multiple quadrants of your life—work, life, family etc.—without having to sacrifice one for the other. Friedman, a professor at Wharton (University of Pennsylvania), profiles six individuals in the book who are successful because of this.

Bruce Springsteen is one of the six profiled in the book, along with First Lady Michelle Obama, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, U.S. Navy Seal Eric Greitens, Tom Tierney of Bridgespan, Olympic athlete Julie Foudy.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Album Review - Dead Man’s Town: A Tribute to Born in the U.S.A.

In connection with the 30th anniversary of Born in the U.S.A., independent record label Lightning Rod Records created Dead Man’s Town: A Tribute to Born in the U.S.A. The album – in which 12 bands cover one of the 12 tracks from Born in the U.S.A. – is a somber, minimalist interpretation designed to cut to the emotional core of the songs, stripping away all pop affectations.

The artists featured include Jason Isbell & Amanda Shire, Low, Trampled by Turtles, and Justin Townes Earle. Each artist puts their own spin on their respective track. Some sound like you’d expect a slower cover to sound, and some sound very different. For example, Holly Williams’ version of “No Surrender” won’t sound that striking to anyone who has heard one of Bruce’s acoustic renditions, but Apache Relay’s eerie take on “Cover Me” feels very foreign indeed (and somewhat reminiscent of an Arcade Fire song). I also really liked Joe Pug’s musical arrangement on “Downbound Train” and it’s always fun for me to hear personal favorite “I’m Goin’ Down” in any variation.

I’m always curious to hear covers of Springsteen songs because they can reveal new sides of the lyrics, reframe the story, reposition the tone, and frankly, they’re just often easier to understand than the originals. As such, I leapt at the chance to listen to Dead Man's Town, especially on the heels of spending so much time with Born in the U.S.A. this summer. I wasn’t familiar with any of the bands featured on the album before listening, and I can’t say I’ll be seeking out any of them further, but they all mesh together very nicely here. It doesn’t feel jarring at all to switch between artists at every track.

The record company has done a nice job creating a cohesive album here – one that’s perfectly suited to accompany moments of contemplative soul searching while staring out a rainy window. I can’t say you'll find any of these tracks on a best Springsteen covers list, but the album certainly captures an overall mood and feel very effectively.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Song Spotlight: “Old Haunts” by The Gaslight Anthem

When a band name checks Bruce Springsteen twice in one song (“Meet Me by the River’s Edge”), it’s no secret that they are heavily under the influence of The Boss. So it won’t come as a surprise to anyone with a passing interest in the The Gaslight Anthem to see them featured on a Springsteen blog.

In comparison to Bruce, I’d say these NJ-based rockers are more interested in capturing a mood and emotion than they are in telling vivid stories with characters and plot turns (especially their two most recent albums).

While you can probably pick out any one of their songs and find a connection to Springsteen – not a bad thing! – I wanted to shine a spotlight on the song “Old Haunts” from their 2010 album American Slang. I see this song as their rendition on “Glory Days.”

So don't sing me your songs about the good times
Those days are gone and you should just let them go
And god help the man who says "If you'd have known me when..."
Old haunts are for forgotten ghosts

Much like “Glory Days”, this song is about looking to the past when you should be looking to the future. While “Glory Days” is a bit more wistful, “Old Haunts” cuts to the bone.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Coming Soon: Outlaw Pete, in Children's Book Form

In case you missed the news, it was announced the other week that Bruce Springsteen will be adding another title to his resume: children's author. This joins his recent foray into filmmaking with the short for "Hunter of Invisible Game."

The book is due November 4 (can you already imagine it wrapped under your Christmas tree?) and is an adaptation of the song "Outlaw Pete" from Working on a Dream. Based on the description, I'm not sure if there is any new writing by The Boss, but the song does seem like a natural fit for an illustrated accompaniment. The publisher also refers to it as a picture book for adults, but that's presumably to get around some of the criminal behavior described in the song. Either way, I'll definitely be picking up a copy - and pending final screening - reading it to my son regularly.

Click here to pre-order a copy on Amazon.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Video Spotlight - Warren Zevon and Bruce Springsteen: "Disorder In The House"

This year has been filled with a plethora of celebrity deaths, such as Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Williams, and, most recently, Joan Rivers.  While sad, we do have the wonderful consolation prize of being able to go back and enjoy their artistic achievements.  With that in mind, I've spotlighted this video to remember Warren Zevon, who passed away 11 years ago today.  Zevon had an amazing career with many great songs, such as the famous "Werewolves of London", my personal favorite "Splendid Isolation", and the above duet with Springsteen, recorded in the last year of his life as he was battling cancer.  While Zevon may be gone, his work continues to live on and influence generations.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Best Of The Bruce Build-Ups

As we all know, there's nothing better than seeing Springsteen live.  Granted, the songs sound great in studio, but live?  Surrounded by thousands of screaming fans, and watching the man himself go crazy for three straight hours?  It really has to be seen to be believed.

My favorite moments in each concert are the "build-ups".  You know the moments I'm talking about: where the song reaches an emotional high point, teeters there for a moment, and then Bruce sends it crashing down.  Here are, in my humble opinion, the songs that, from the first chords, have me eagerly anticipating that build-up-and-crash.

5. "Badlands"

"Ooooooh, oh oh OH oh...."  It's a call that's become so synonymous with the song that I'm surprised that it isn't actually on the studio version (it's more of a low hum).  The chant is so popular that it frequently used as a call for an encore!  After the saxophone solo, the chants start, building in volume and intensity, just waiting for Bruce to return to the song.  Then, "For the ones who has a notion..." leads the way to the climactic line: "I want to SPIT in the face of these BADLANDS!"  I saw "Badlands" live in my first Springsteen concert, and had a similar experience to the above performance.  Since that time, it has been cemented as an all-time favorite Springsteen song for me.

4. "Darkness on the Edge of Town"

"Darkness on the Edge of Town" is a song that slowly lulls you in.  It's gentle rhythm is easy to listen to, and it's melancholy story is engrossing.  Then, Bruce's wailing chorus kicks in, and you are hooked.  But, it doesn't end there.  The verses return to being gentle and approachable, while the story gets richer and darker.  Finally, the build-up breaks, culminating with Bruce screaming "TONIGHT I'LL BE ON THAT HILL, BECAUSE I CAN'T STOP!"  It is chillingly effective each time.

3. "Jungleland"

Bruce's climatic build-ups are not only in signified by massive guitars and primal wailing.  Sometimes, the build-up leads to a whisper, and it is no less dramatic.  This is best signified in the conclusion of the musical epic "Jungleland".  The journey Springsteen takes us on in "Jungleland" is sprawling, beginning slowly with violins and a piano, becoming an up-tempo rocker, transitioning to a somber saxophone solo, and concluding back again with the piano.  After this nearly ten minute adventure, the music stops.  It is now just Bruce and the audience.  "Tonight.....in....."  Anticipation builds with each out-of-rhythm syllable.  "Jun...."  When will the next one drop? "Gle...."  And, finally, finishing the build-up with long, low growl: "Laaaaaaaaand....."  The piano kicks back in, taking us away from this world.  Amazing.

2. "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out"

I've been writing about this since, quite literally, the start of the blog.  It's a simple, repetitive riff, but each time, the anticipation builds.  As the song is basically the origin of the E Street Band, this build-up is functional to the storytelling process: it signifies that this is truly the start of something special.  s I wrote back then, I could listen to those opening notes on repeat for hours.  But, evenutally, Bruce reaches that "One two!" and brings it to the drop.  The song is filled with "moments" that you anticipate, such as "Kid you better get the picture" and "When the Big Man joined the band", and concludes triumphantly, but that opening build-up/drop sets everything in motion.

1. "Born To Run"

Come on, you knew this was coming.  This is what the build-up list has been building up to.  I feel silly describing the moment, because most fans know what it is already.  An everlasting kiss.  A saxophone solo. It all comes crashing down.  You shake your hands in the air.  You shake them longer.  Then, after an eternity, you hear "One two three four! The highway's jammed with broken heroes...."  And the crowd goes bonkers.  Not just one of the best Bruce build-ups, but one of the best rock-and-roll build-ups of all time.

So, are there any that I missed?  Let us know in the comments!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Album Review - Voice of America by Little Steven

Several weeks ago, I had finally discovered the hidden gem that was Little Steven's debut album Men Without Women.  It's a tough album to get your hands on, but I was fortunate enough to get in a two-pack from Amazon.com, where it was shipped with Steven's second album, Voice of America.  Since I was pleasantly surprised by Men Without Women, I held back a while from Voice of America as to prevent myself from coming in and being disappointed.  Unfortunately, this strategy didn't work.  Voice of America is quite a departure from Men Without Women, a respectable experiment that didn't quite work.

The changes in musical style are evident right off the bat: the horns are completely gone, and what we have is an album dripping in 80s synthesizers.  The songs, for the most part, aim for loftier political goals, whereas Men Without Women stuck mostly to personal relationships.  Songs such as "Checkpoint Charlie" underscore the problem with on-the-nose political commentary in pop music, in that it dates it to a specific time and place (as opposed to "Devils & Dust", where the metaphors are just ambiguous enough to take on different meanings to listeners throughout the years).  

That being said, there's enough strong rock songs to keep you coming back for more.  The above video is for "Out of the Darkness", perhaps the biggest hit on the album (and with good reason).  It goes back to Little Steven's roots with songs about relationships, but can also work as a political rallying cry.  "Los Desaparecidos" is propelled by a catchy Bon Jovi-esque riff and a strong rebellious story.  "Undefeated" closes the album on a positive note, and sounds like it could be used in an 80s movie montage.

Perhaps the strangest and most intriguing part of this album are Little Steven's experiments into a Reggae sound.  The above song is "I Am A Patriot", another protest song that Jackson Browne has made part of his act.  Little Steven busts out his Reggae voice again in "Solidarity", and the song "Among the Believers" starts with a funky baseline that strong percussion opening that is somewhat reminiscent of "Heaven's Wall".  Your mileage may vary on how much you enjoy these songs, but I appreciated the change of pace from the synthesizers.

Ultimately, the album was a mixed bag.  There were a couple of rockers here and there, but ultimately, the songs did not have enough variety, as the message of rebellion was hammered home in nearly every chorus.  As mentioned several times above, but this album is entirely 80s through and through, only topped by Clarence Clemon's campy debut album in terms of 1980s cheese.  That being said, it wasn't an overall unpleasant listening experience.  If I gave half-stars, this would be a solid 2.5 out of 5.  But, life doesn't give you half stars, so I reluctantly give it 3 out of 5 stars.  Perhaps if you are a die-hard Little Steven fan, or if you in the mood for some 80s arena rock, it would be worth checking out.  But, the casual Bruce fan can skip this one.