High Hopes…. Dashed

Ugh. It almost pains me to write this. Especially when I consider that this will be the second time I mumble about a Springsteen album and the second not-so-favourable. I say this now because I do love a bit of Bruce Springsteen. My collection is stuffed with Boss. Nebraska, Tunnel of Love, Magic, Darkness and both Borns get heavy rotation. However….

Earlier this year Bruce Springsteen released his eighteenth studio album. Eighteenth. Saying that, two of the songs have seen release previously and three of the remaining are covers.

Before I get into this too much and why am I getting into this now….

This weekend, while doing a bit of tidying up and keeping the little man company, I found and put on Springsteen’s Blood Brothers DVD. It documents the slightly awkward and touch-too-soon mini reunion of the E-Street Band to record a few new tunes for Bruce’s first Greatest Hits (I should note here that I got that CD on its release and it served as my introduction to Springsteen and from there on…) .

blood_brothers_site-352x500Two things came from watching Blood Brothers that feed into this post. The first is a moment where, suddenly, the discomfort and ill-at-ease Bruce felt in front of the camera seems to fade as he discusses the implications of a string arrangement that had been created for Secret Garden. Talking of the song as a narrative, Springsteen explains to the gathered co-producers and mixers that the song is a narrative. If any arrangement or sounds distract from that “we’re fucked.” The second element of note is that the 1995 session captured also found Bruce and the band cutting into Tim Scott McConnell’s High Hopes for the first time.

That version of High Hopes was released as a B-Side to Secret Garden. Which, really, is where it should have stayed.

Let’s skip forward to 2014.  Post 2000 Springsteen is a different proposition to that of ’95 model Bruce. Now willing to trust others with production work, Bruce has seen his music produced, with varying results, by Brendan O’Brien (who should have taken a bow after Magic and not gone for the victory-lap with Working On a Dream) and, lately, Ron Anellio. Credit to him for this decision. If he’d stayed working away on his own, we may not have had the rebirth and revitalising of his and the E-Street’s sound that came with The Rising. Going on past lessons and biographical revelations, he may still have been in his home studio labouring away on the one album. Self-producing rarely works. It’s key to get a good collaborator in that can bring out an artist’s best and encourage them to shine.

So what’s the problem? Well I’d say Bruce has gotten a little lost lately in a seemingly ill-fated determination to sound fresh and vital. Just look at the cover. Sorry Bruce but is the double denim and popped collar really the best fit for you in 2014?


In the past, Bruce has had a very tight quality control. Not letting anything out that he wasn’t 100% happy with or didn’t fit the feel / story of an album. That’s what archival releases like Tracks and the Darkness box are for. Working On A Dream marked a turning point. There should have been more use of “no” in the studio on that one… “supermarket beeps and a song about fancying the girl on the checkout while doing your shopping? Sure thing Boss!”

Fuelled by social circumstances again and looking to vent, for Wrecking Ball Bruce came up with some of his tightest and most direct, angry lyrics yet. However, the collaborators bought in to furnish these songs took them the wrong way and did exactly what Springsteen previously voiced such determination to avoid – they detracted from the lyrics and the songs.

Unfortunately the songs on High Hopes suffer the same fate at the same hands. This is not a studio album in a true sense. Long-term Springsteen ally/collaborator/sidekick Stevie Van Zandt has often said that on any one day, Bruce will have at least half an album of songs on him. With High Hopes we discover what would happen if that half-album of songs were taken into the studio, recorded with selections of the E-Street Band, it’s latest quasi-addition Tom Morello shoved in awkwardly, mixed with another half-album of left overs from the last decade, warmed up by over-production and served as a ‘fresh’ dish.

That’s not to say that the album is devoid of good music. Frankie Fell In Love, Heaven’s Wall, The Wall, This Is Your Sword… all top-draw Springsteen material, even the brooding Harry’s Place feels like some of the cracking, darker material Springsteen wrote (though never truly released) in the early 90’s. Even it, though, is over-worked. Heaven’s Wall is nearly drowned in over-the top choir arrangements. Those heavy handed arrangements blight too much of the strong material here and are used far too much to prop up the lesser songs.

Morello is, frankly, out of place here. His guitar parts, the scratchy sounds that were once new and compelling, are both now and here tired and overplayed. They sound clunky when added to the title track and trample all over songs they have no business being near. Just take the title track as an example. It’s said that this project was born after Morello hearing High Hopes while preparing for the Australian leg of the Wrecking Ball tour and proposed it join the set list, from there the studio beckoned for a ham fisted bounce over a song that was only suited to B-Side status (let alone lead-single).


We didn’t need a second take on Ghost of Tom Joad and as for the recasting of American Skin (41 Shots)? The live version of this was compelling, tight and full of well-directed anger with a searing solo from Springsteen himself. It came at a turning point for Springsteen – pre-9/11 and on the back of the reunion tour, a relative drought of quality new material in the 90’s and here, suddenly, was a glimpse at new material that bristled over with the force of old material. Guitars like teak bolted onto socially-aware lyrics and furnished with delicate, perfectly fitted arrangements from the E-Street Band. A precursor to The Rising and a return to form after a decade of almosts.

Bruce has said that he never felt it got presented properly. So, as with Land of Hope and Dreams on Wrekcing Ball, it was given a new studio arrangement. Surely it would be a winner. Relevant again with the shooting of Trayvon Martin and back in the set list, a slow burning tune that builds to a thundering climax and release. Surely it would be a winner. Surely…. Except it isn’t. Instead that same song is flat (albeit with the exception of Clarence Clemons’ sax giving us one last treat from beyond), layered with cheap-sounding production effects and, in place of Springsteen’s own guitar, ruined by a solo from Morello that’s bad-80’s-power-ballad by numbers.

With Nebraska, Bruce took his raw, home-made demos to the E-Street Band. They tried them on for size and found the songs didn’t fit in the band setting. Springsteen released them as was. The result is one of his most loved and praised albums.

Secret Garden: Bruce tried a few grander arrangements, added layers, different string parts. Didn’t work. The original arrangement was released. But, the other arrangements, rather than scrapped, did see release as B-Sides and soundtrack additions.

With High Hopes…. it’s the heavy handed, overworked and near-drowned in effects versions of the songs that have been released.

In a way, High Hopes is best looked at as a “what if” album rather than a legitimate ‘new’ studio album. What if some of these songs – Frankie Fell In Love, Heaven’s Wall… been given that little bit longer to gesticulate. What if some of these had been included in place of the clukers on Working On A Dream? What if Down In The Hole had been used in place of its very-close sister Paradise on The Rising? Sadly it’s not as intriguing or rewarding a listen as the “what-ifs” of Tracks’ second, third and even fourth discs.

To me, now, nearly ten months later and with Mr Springsteen assuming radio and road silence again, it’s a case of not only what-if but please, when the next album emerges we find the quality control of old back in place.

Back to Blood Brothers, though:

I love anyone who wants to phone home


This is a house of horror. A house of metal and country music. That Coldplay stuff isn’t even funny. It just makes for a bad atmosphere.

Not too long ago I came home from holiday to find two boxes waiting for me from Arcadia Books. One of those contained See You Tomorrow by Norwegian author Tore Renberg. The other contained Fan by Danny Rhodes (which I’ve just finished).

I was caught up in finishing two other books (The Goldfinch and Overlord) prior to picking up See You Tomorrow. I wanted to give it a clear run, the attention a glance at its first pages showed it clearly deserved. I knew nothing of Mr Renberg – first published in ’95 and widely known in Norway for his Mannen som elsket Yngve (The Man Who Loved Yngve) series (upwards of 400,000 copies sold).

This is the first novel from a Norwegian author I’ve read and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s set in Stavanger – a city I’ve been lucky enough to visit. That being said, the Stavanger within these pages is so far from the tourist’s snapshot I got of the city on my visit that were it not for the mention of a few landmarks and one character visiting Platekompaniet (a music store I shopped in during my own visit), I’d not be able to bring the two versions together in my mind.

There’s a great few articles to read around this, on the use of music within the novel (link) and a great interview (link).

Even now, two books on, I still feel under the spell of those red-edged pages. To review it was hard. I needed to review it, I wanted to review it but how to find the words when I hadn’t come across something this (and I don’t often use this word) groundbreaking for a long time.

How was the question I was faced with, how….

How do you review a book like See You Tomorrow; a book that deftly defies classification by mere genre yet incorporates elements from each, creating a compelling tapestry of a novel that satisfies every criteria for great fiction?

I suppose that’s a start. At least it’s a start that doesn’t – deservedly – lay every superlative possible on it.

See You Tomorrow captures the events of three days in which Stavanger is treated to unexpected, unseasonable warmth and sun as the lives of eleven characters cross paths with violent results.

Tore Renberg has said that it took six years to write See You Tomorrow. That he created playlists for each of the principle characters from whose perspectives the story is told (all eleven of them) in order to get into their skin. It shows. Each of the characters live and breath in these 600 pages with such an alarming vitality – very alarming in the case of Tong – that I hated putting this book down for fear something would happen while I wasn’t immersed in its world. It’s just that gripping.

Yes, there are 600 pages but there’s not a spare word amongst them. The narratives are so densely written and the events of the story’s three days so closely examined from every angle that the story rips along at a breakneck pace.

Themes abound – from broken families, social criticism, criminal undercurrents and the destructive power of secrecy to the frustrating catchiness of Coldplay – all served with dark humour and a quest to find the light in such a world.

And there’s the key. For all the damage the characters in See You Tomorrow carry with them and into the lives of others, this novel is ultimately uplifting. Whether it’s Pål’s desperate measures to end his financial burdens, Daniel’s ‘life-plan’ to mute the horror of his past to Tiril’s singing Evanescence to a crowd… even the delightfully unhinged petty criminal Rudi is a self-declared man of love. All are looking for the ray of light in these dark times, a way out, a release from their secret. In most cases, though at no small cost and in ways previously undreamed of, they find just that by the end of the three days.

Three days of unexpected warmth and light when least expected.

I cannot imagine just how tricky this book must have been to translate yet Sean Kinsella deserves praise for managing to do just that while retaining Renberg’s mastery of prose and wit.

See You Tomorrow is not only one of the best books I’ve read this year but is in serious contention for one of the best I’ve ever read. It would be a struggle to find such an original and compelling book as this. That Tore Renberg has a sequel to unleash upon us can only be good news.

Quick list: Top Five Second Albums

Following the Top Five Debut text, I recently texted  two of my most music loving, list-compiling friends another simple message: “All time top five second albums?”

Only the one cross-over across the lists (Nevermind popping up on two of the three). Here, however, are mine (in no particular order, that’d be too hard):

Pixies – Doolittle

Bob Dylan – The Freewheelin’

In all likelihood still my favourite Dylan album.

Nirvana – Nevermind

Yes, I know; this is such a commercial choice… blah blah. Commercial, sell-out, whatever – the importance of this cannot be denied.

My Bloody Valentine – Loveless

Foo Fighters – The Colour and The Shape

I still don’t think they’ve bettered this. Yes this makes my list a bit Grohl-heavy but what can you do?


The second album is important. A debut album tends to be more of a compilation of songs that the artist has been living / gigging / tinkering with for years prior to a deal. A second finds them more established, a bit more at home with the idea of recording and who they are and building on those foundations laid by the debut. I think….

A fine fresh sunny summer’s day and Lisbon was sparkling

I got sent the Facebook ‘challenge’ of naming ten books that have stayed with you / made a mark / etc… last week.

It was quite easy to come up with my ten – well it was tricky whittling it down to ten – but I was surprised that sneaking in was a little book that I’d bought on a whim and remains relatively unknown – at least nobody I know had heard of it or read it before I stumbled on it.

Pereira Maintains is a delicious little ‘cult’ book and one I took up as part of my ongoing interest in reading novels based in those cities / areas I’ve visited. This is true of many of the books I’ve read lately and in each I’ve been happy to find a setting bought to life that is wholly different to that which I saw upon my visiting while still providing sufficient touchstones (in Pereira this would be the cobbled, hilly streets of Lisbon and its trams) to give sense of both familiarity with the location and a desire to return.

The Lisbon that comes to life in Pereira Maintains is, of course, dramatically different in many ways to that which I’ve known on the occasions I’ve been fortunate enough to visit it – but then, given that it’s set in the late 1930s, you’d expect that.

Tabucchi does do a wonderful job of bringing that city to life yet his expertise lies not in bringing a postcard to his readers but in creating an eerily vivid impression of life in a beautiful city during not so beautiful times.

The story covers a surprising amount given its brevity yet within its couple-of-hundred pages Pereira Maintains slowly and dramatically builds up a story of intrigue and complexity before exploding in a dramatic climax.

The characters are superbly created and this book is great for those looking for a quick read with a bit of bite – though be prepared to fancy an omelette at least once.

There’s undoubtedly hundreds of lists of great “short novels”, those small but perfectly formed works of fiction. When I create mine Pereira Maintains will undoubtedly high up – it’s a fantastic little novel of a big story.


They call this dance the washed-up crawl

Ahhhh the Pixies.

Have they made a bad song?


Even one of their new songs (and title of their ‘new’ album) Indie Cindy points to this “Put this down for the record, it’s more or less uncheckered”.

As such there was more than a little weight of anticipation and no small amount of pressure on any new music they were to put out following their re-emergence as a recording act.

I, for one, spoke of my excitement upon hearing BagBoy and the news of EP1. That was in September last year. A year ago, in fact. Since then they released three EPs of new music and compiled the twelve songs onto one disc for those who didn’t grab them as EPs. I did.


Going back to my original sentiment – there wasn’t a bad song to be found amongst these dozen shiny new tunes from the man who calls himself Frank Black and his merry men.

The “merry men” element has been one of the biggest focus points from the press – the lack of Kim Deal on the new material. Of course, it was bound to be that way. Her absence is felt though, and no disrespect meant, not in a way that makes this any less of an album. It is noteworthy of course than the first new song and album highlight “Bagboy” does feature backing vocals from a Deal soundalike. Described by the band as pure coincidence it could, still, be interpreted as a deliberate move to aid the transition to a Kim-free Pixies.

I did say album highlight. For me it contains an element of magic when, at the two minute mark , Frank Black joins in with the “Bagboy” calls….

But this is an album full of highlights. From the thumping opening of What Goes Boom to the sign off “Goodbye and goodnight, goodbye” of Jamie Bravo via the delightful, acoustic layers of Greens and Blues, the brooding grower of Silver Snail, Indie Cindy’s kiss-off lyrics to the Pitchfork ‘indie kids’ , the  born-in-a-studio-jam Snakes and the brilliant Another Toe In The Ocean.

It has everything you’d expect from the Pixies – soaring harmonies, catchier than catchy tunes, Frank Black shouting nonsense in both English and Spanish and guitar lines that weave magic despite their simplicity and huge dollops of weird. The different ingredient, and one which has split critics, is that – t0 my ears at least – this album is defined by a more relaxed, confident vibe.

Some critics have defined this as “the problem. Pixies no longer seem a little strange, or in need of excuse. They seem like a really pretty good alt-rock band…”

No they don’t sound ‘strange’. But then given that we’re talking about an older group of musicians now, who have spent the 13 years between albums continually working (in music and…. magic) they were never going to sound as they did before. For critics to criticise them for just this, for not sounding like Pixies of old, is both naive and hypocritical. They’d be the first in line (definitely Pitchfork handing down their 1.0 and 2.0 reviews from their throne of pretension) should they have tried.

I’ve read that Gil Norton, when meeting the band to discuss recording new material and the weight of expcatiation, told Frank Black to approach the song writing not as if this were the first new Pixies album in 13 years but, instead, to do so as if the band had been off touring outer space. Accordingly it’s a collection from a band that carried on evolving in their style away from our ears. Instead of ‘picking up where we left off’ it’s catching up with friends and finding out where the intervening years have lead them.

Then, to further ease the pressure… release it in segments not as THE FIRST NEW PIXIES ALBUM IN OVER A DECADE (P.S: NO KIM DEAL).

It was an undoubtedly savvy move. It allowed them to not only test the waters and gauge reception to their new material (surprisingly not all overly positive) in a gentler way than the conventional album-roll-out and the expected press hype around the first new Pixies album in 13 years would allow. It also gave those of us who adore the band that little something extra in having the three EPs on vinyl. Besides; who does convention roll-outs these days?

Now the dust seems to have settled. The band have released a new video for Ring The Bell and are gearing up for another tour. Surely the downside of having only just, technically, having released a ‘new album’ when the songs have been drip-fed out for over a year is that, I’m sure, the press is already forming the questions “so… what now?”

Whatever it is, I wait the eager anticipation: it’s so good to have them back.


Public Service Announcement

This blog could be a testament to good intentions gone awry. A testament to procrastination (“I’ll write about that album… maybe tomorrow”)

It’s not lack of the wanting. Nor of the not listening to music and wanting to mutter. More of the lack of time. Anyone with a baby in the house will agree… it flies away that stuff called free time.

I’ve been reading a lot, too. I’m feeling the need to write about that, too. So I will. Consider it an expansion. An annexation of a seemingly one-track blog.

The sun is shining.

Let’s try again.