“Now down below and pullin’ on my shirt
I got some kids of my own
Well if I had one wish in this god forsaken world, kids
It’d be that your mistakes would be your own” Long Time Comin’
Let’s kick this one off with a small clarification – Devils & Dust (as with each that follows in this series) is a fine album. As strong a collection of songs as many could muster. From here on in (now that High Hopes is behind us) we’re really just talking personal preferences.
The outlier in Bruce’s ‘acoustic trio’, the songs on Devils & Dust aren’t as sparsely accompanied as they are on Ghost Of Tom Joad or Nebraska, nor are they as single-minded in their focus. Recorded after touring behind The Rising, this set was produced by Brendan O’Brien and mixes themes from politics to personal.
Many of the songs here go back to the Ghost Of Tom Joad tour – some even earlier -but the opening title track was new and is as fine a song as Bruce has ever written, a strong commentary on the Iraq war: “It is basically a song about a soldier’s point of view, but it kind of opens up to a lot of other interpretations.” The album and song were nominated for a few Grammy Awards (it won Best Solo Rock Vocal) and, performing the song during the broadcast he added a cry of “Bring ’em home” at the end before immediately turning and leaving the stage (missing his partial standing-ovation). It’s a great song.
There’s plenty of great tunes on Devils & Dust, even the older tunes revisited for the format work well and still stand (the mark of a good Springsteen song if you ask me) their ground. ‘All The Way Home‘ is particularly strong – written for and originally released by Southside Johnny in 1991 (on an album titled Better Days of all things) and is not even slightly acoustic, Bruce really steps into the lyric “I know what it’s like to have failed, baby with the whole world lookin’ on”.
One of my personal favourites on this one is ‘Long Time Comin” – a catchy, sins-of-the-father, redemption song that only suffers by it’s placing between ‘Reno’ and ‘Black Cowboys’:
Devils & Dust was the first Springsteen album to feature a Parental Advisory sticker and it wasn’t just for the ‘fuck it up this time’ in the ‘Long Time Comin’ either. It was most likely down to the album’s biggest talking point; ‘Reno’. To me, though, I find the song, like a couple of the others on here, just a bit ‘meh’. It seems like the minimal two-chord repetition and overly-heavy lyrics are too oppressive/dour and, in this instance, seem to be an awful lot of a build-up to hear Bruce sing about a man’s visit to a prostitute; “”Two hundred dollars straight in, two-fifty up the ass,” she smiled and said.” There’s nothing wrong with daring, there’s nothing wrong with those lyrics but it seems, to me at least, that the song isn’t really much to write home about in the first place and if it weren’t for those lines nobody would’ve really written about it all.
While there’s nothing wrong with a good ‘story’ song (‘Galveston Bay’ on Ghost of Tom Joad for example), there’s a few instances on Devils & Dust, like ‘The Hitter’ or ‘Jesus Was An Only Son’ where these near short-stories are too much for their minimal backdrops to retain attention. Take a look at the lyrics and you’ll see that some of these are blocks of paragraphs rather than verses and some (‘The Hitter’) are nine plus verses without a chorus. Don’t get me wrong; the lyrics aren’t bad at all (‘The Hitter’ is especially brutal) but it weighs the album down a touch more than the music and production can lift.
To me it’s not a good thing if a song can’t speak for itself. The inlay for Devils & Dust is filled with explanatory notes around many of these wordier tunes and, from what I’ve read, Bruce spent many a minute on stage during the solo tour for this one explaining the meaning / story behind a lot of the tracks – as can also be seen on the ‘Storytellers’ episode (and while that’s kinda the point it got a little frustrating as he’d almost pause during song to explain verse-by-verse).
That being said I reiterate that it’s a good album (again I’m sure there’s many who may say it’s their favourite) and contains some great tunes so I’ll drop the much-overlooked ‘Maria’s Bed’ here:
Highlights: Devils & Dust, All The Way Home, Long Time Comin’, Maria’s Bed, All I’m Thinkin About, Leah.
Lowlights: Reno, Black Cowboys, Jesus Was An Only Son.
“Well my soul checked out missing as I sat listening
To the hours and minutes tickin’ away
Yeah, just sittin’ around waitin’ for my life to begin
While it was all just slippin’ away. ” – Better Days
It’s an odd thing but the workaholic, perfectionist streak that was behind those arduous sessions for, say, Born To Run and the near-bankrupting sessions for The River that lead to those albums’ brilliance, can often lead to adding so much polish to something that you’re blinded to the turd underneath the shine. Just look at Human Touch. Far too much time and take-after-take on tracks that were second-rate for Bruce (don’t get me wrong, other artists have made long careers off of worse but Mr Springsteen set the bar higher for all including himself).
At the end of the sessions for Human Touch, Bruce felt he needed one more song. He wrote ‘Living Proof’ and hit a streak which bought another ten songs in rapid succession. All of them (with the exception of ‘Happy’) were released as Lucky Town.
When I first bought these two albums I did so at the same time – I believe it was after having bought a ‘double’ which contained both Nebraska and Darkness so they were always gonna struggle to compare – and, initially, it was (as with many others I’ve read) Human Touch that I preferred. Yet on repeated listens and with the passing of time it’s Lucky Town that I go back to more. I find it’s quiet and more-adult contemplations get better with time and experience.
There’s something so much lighter about it yet it’s so much more focused and the song-writing stronger and more convincingly true than on Human Touch. While I’ll skip ‘Leap of Faith’ and’Big Muddy’ the remainder aren’t too bad at all and some I’d even call great.
‘Better Days’ is a strong kick-off and one that captures the happiness and contentment in his new life and how he struggled to reconcile such feelings with his former life -“It’s a sad funny ending to find yourself pretending, a rich man in a poor man’s shirt…. a life of leisure and a pirate’s treasure don’t make much for tragedy” – and the dichotomy of how to write about it rather than his previous muses that Bruce spent the majority of Human Touch and a later, never to be released, album fumbling around.
The song that sparked the whole album off, ‘Living Proof’, is one that I came to appreciate more as I added more years to my own clock, especially with fatherhood. While the slightly too slick and heavy session musicians almost marr it, the production isn’t as overwhelming as on this albums’ sister and it’s hard to deny the genuine salvation Bruce had found in this himself, the same goes for ‘My Beautiful Reward‘. *
Perhaps the album’s most lasting export, though, is ‘If I Should Fall Behind’ which very quickly outgrew it’s relatively minor representation here and became a centrepiece of many a live show and no doubt features in a lot of fan favourite lists. A beautiful, hushed hymn to his wife as they began their new life together which manages to do that magical thing a good Bruce Springsteen song can do – take something personal to him and make it universal to all and, if you check the notes, it’s one of those in which he played everything (save the drums) himself ensuring a) it comes across as intended and b) isn’t marred by flat playing:
‘Souls of the Departed’ is a strong song, touching back to the themes of ‘Born In The USA’ – only this time spurred by the Gulf War and the LA Riots; “This is a prayer for the souls of the departed, those who’ve gone and left their babies brokenhearted, young lives over before they got started” only with added personal clout this time round as all Bruce, while tucking his son into bed, “can think of is what if it would’ve been him instead.” It’s a bitter, cynical and biting song. Oddly enough Bruce managed to spend the 80’s avoiding having his work inflected too much by popular sound trends and the big sound on ‘Born In The USA’ pushes the song forward and lifts it. On ‘Souls..’ the sound is big but it was almost dated by the time it was released. It’s one of those from this era that I’d so very love to hear with the clout of Max Weinberg and a searing lick from Nils. Oh well. Still, I think more tunes from Lucky Town have been played live in recent years than from its sister album.
In his book Bruce does mention how he auditioned a lot of session players for his new band. How he struggled to find – given how many musicians there must be per square metre in that place I do wonder how hard he looked – a drummer with sufficient skill and clout… But he was determined to try routes new so calling The band wasn’t on the cards. It’s perhaps telling how he now feels about the band he assembled and its reception given how scant a summary he gives; there’s no enthusiastic wrap-up of concerts given or even much commentary of how it was received.
To be honest, it’s probably that which stops this album going higher up the list. Some of the songs on here stand head and shoulders above later and earlier duds but it’s the overall sound and lack of richness that comes with most Springsteen albums that handicaps Lucky Town and the songs on it. The players may have been top notch (for all my comments Gary Mallaber is a fine drummer) but the chemistry and spark just feels that little bit hollower and the production has dated poorly.
I think that, with the release of Human Touch and Lucky Town, two very-slick, glossy albums with a production that almost buffed the (ironically) human touch from Bruce’s songs, a lot of fans that had been held enraptured since the early seventies stopped listening and many didn’t really pay much attention again.
It’s a shame, for on Lucky Town there are some real gems. As any artist who releases a double album (or two single ones on the same day) will no doubt face the commentary that the project would’ve worked better whittled down to a single disc. It’s certainly true here. Oddly I think Bruce’s entire decade would probably have been kicked off and gone differently, and regarded as such in hindsight, had he binned pretty much all of Human Touch, dropped the title track onto Lucky Town, swapped ‘Leap of Faith’ for ‘With Every Wish’….. I think every fan has probably done this but, perhaps, mine would go something like this:
“I’m not sure what he had in mind from the beginning, but this is what we ended up with.” Ron Aniello on High Hopes.
In my original review of the album I said “Bruce has gotten a little lost lately in a seemingly ill-fated determination to sound fresh and vital” and that the quality control, usually tighter than a duck’s arse, had gone AWOL here. I stand by those thoughts.
It’s hard to consider this as a ‘studio album’ and producer Ron Aniello’s “this is what we ended up with” is a good summary – if you take a group of songs not deemed right / worthy of inclusion on other albums, slap a few covers together and dub Tom Morello’s now-dull guitar over the top, this is what you end up with.
And it’s a shame. It’s a real shame because unlike, say, Human Touch, there are some great tunes on here that could be presented and served so much better had they not been included on what feels like a cash-grab.
‘Down In The Hole’ has shades of ‘Paradise’ from The Rising and is steeped in that song’s delicate touch and minimal beauty and is something of a family-affair with backing vocals from Patti Scialfa and their children. It’s a beautiful thing.
‘The Wall’ is one of the finest songs in Bruce’s catalogue but by dumping it on this ‘odds and ends’ album it’s not going to get the attention it should. An ode to a fallen serviceman, inspired by the loss of early mentor Walter Cichon (detailed in the Born To Run book) who volunteered for the Army only to go missing in action in Vietnam in March 1968. It had been a long time since Bruce visited Vietnam in song and this is as fitting and touching as any of those songs he’d done so with previously.
‘Frankie Fell In Love’ sounds like one of the best Bruce and Steve songs that barely features Steve at all – Mr Van Zandt was largely absent from sessions and the tour due to filming commitments on Lilyhammer. It’s joyful, whooping along with pure enthusiasm and a really catchy-as-flu melody. It brings to mind a modern recasting of the dynamism the duo had on earlier tunes like ‘Two Hearts’.
‘Harry’s Place’ – correct me if I’m wrong – dates back to sessions for The Rising and is a brooding gangster-populated number with a fantastic opening line “Downtown hipsters drinkin’ up the drug line”.
However. Bruce declared at the time that, for High Hopes, “Tom and his guitar became my muse, pushing the rest of this project to another level. Thanks for the inspiration Tom.” Yeah… thanks Tom. It’s the cuts onto which Morello is plastered that weaken the whole joint. Credit to him for living out every six-string plucking fan’s dream (the one where Bruce is suddenly short a guitarist and your phone rings), but the fit just isn’t right. The awful re-recording of ‘American Skin’ is unpardonable.
The covers are lacklustre and suffer for Morello’s incessant ‘jamming’ over them. Bruce and The E-Street had already tackled ‘High Hopes’ and their decent-enough take was used as a b-side. The take included here is simply poor. Nor can I hear ‘Just Like Fire Would’ without hearing “Just like firewood, I burn up”.
Hard to view as a studio album proper, High Hopes is a real mixed bag; some great tunes lost amidst the flotsum and reheats.
Highlights: ‘The Wall’, ‘Down In The Hole’ ‘Frankie Fell In Love’
Lowlights: The Ghost of Tom Joad, American Skin (41 Shots) two originals damned by their “reimagining”.
Now I can imagine that for each of the albums that precede my ‘Most’ favourite in this series there’s plenty of people that will say “actually that’s my favourite..” to pretty much all of them. With the easy and obvious exception that is Springsteen’s early-nineties output. Given the scarcity with which the tracks are touched live I don’t think even Bruce cares much for them in retrospect.
Released on the same day in March 1992, neither Lucky Town or Human Touch have fared well with fans or critics. Perhaps it was the lack of E-Street support, perhaps it was the changing musical culture at the time but either way, I doubt that even the most die-hard will argue for their place in a Top Ten.
Of the two I find Human Touch the overall weakest link in Bruce’s mighty discography. These were songs that Bruce had been tooling around with for some time and had, in doing so, over-cooked. If you listen to The Christic Shows recorded in LA in 1990, many of the songs that would appear here can be heard in their early embryonic stages. They sound better. At the time it would’ve left fans eager to hear the finished result, excited by the change in direction with what sounded like some real personal stuff (though the sexually-charged ‘Red Headed Woman’ didn’t make the cut). Unfortunately when it came time to capture theses songs for release, the result was what’s now considered the nadir of Bruce’s output.
It’s not that there aren’t good songs on Human Touch it’s just that there aren’t enough of them and those that have the bones of a great song are lost under some truly awful production and sound, like ‘Soul Driver’, for example. When I do slip the cd into the car, it’s more likely that I skip through more than half of the album.
The story goes that Bruce – newly transplanted to LA – had a collection of songs that he was working on but couldn’t quite find the turning point that would bring them into a cohesive album. He wanted to continue the theme and practice of not employing the E-Street Band he’d started with Tunnel of Love and try a new approach. Then he met up with a similarly newly-moved Roy Bittan who showed him his new recording set up and synths before playing his former-Boss a few tunes he’d worked on. Inspired, Bruce went home, added a few parts and lyrics to those tracks and a long period trying to find the ‘sound’ and working with session players followed before the album was complete*.
Of those Bittan co-writes that made Human Touch ”Roll of the Dice‘ is Springsteen-by-numbers but without the heart and force of the E-Street band to lift it beyond over-glossed territory. On the other hand, ‘Real World’ is perhaps the most fully-realised of his ‘men and women’ concept that many had hoped for. There’s just not enough of it and the players and production still mar what should have been a classic.
While the production (the one and only time Roy Bittan received a credit for such) is very much of it’s time and the slick sound has never suited Bruce. It would be the last ‘rock’ album he’d release before he released that he wasn’t the right person to produce his music any more. The album does have some strong contenders, not least it’s classic title track, that stand up well to repeated listens. ‘With Every Wish’ is a great tune as is ‘I Wish I Were Blind‘. They’re more relaxed, less drenched in studio-session sound and are genuine, occasionally even tender tunes that, along with ‘Human Touch’ and ‘Real World’ are the most realised on the album. Indeed, some of his best lyrics can be found within the title track: “you can’t shut off the risk and the pain, without losing the love that remains”.
Unfortunately the remainder – to my ears – sound more like what a songwriter trying to write like Bruce Springsteen would create. They seem hollow-boned and attempts to cover the gaps with gloss and force (which may have worked with the E-Street) via top notch session players just fall flat. At the time it wasn’t so condemned but now, further on up the road, it’s blighted by dated guitar tones and synthesisers and drum beats that simply don’t measure up to Max.
Thankfully, Human Touch may have been the first release of the nineties from Mr Springsteen but from here it was only upwards in terms of quality and its sister release was a whole other story.
In the spirit of ‘what might have been’ – some of the tracks deemed not suitable for Human Touch would later appear on Tracks and, shorn of the production elements that blight it, sound (just a touch mind) a little better than those duffs rounding out the numbers here. I’d gladly swap ‘When the Lights Go Out’ for ’57 Channels’ and I still enjoy ‘Seven Angels’.
Highlights: Human Touch, Real World, With Every Wish, I Wish I Were Blind
Lowlights: Soul Driver, Man’s Job, 57 Channels and Nothin’ On, All Or Nothin’ At All
*Almost – he felt he needed one more song, wrote ‘Living Proof’ and instead dashed off enough tracks to make Lucky Town in just a few days.
I don’t think I’ve really delved into a long ‘series’ of posts on here before. However, after reading Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run I was thrown into revisiting his albums, almost one-by-one as the book progressed and decided to try to share my thoughts on each – in a series.
It’s an undertaking as this is likely to include some twenty posts so thought I’d first offer up an intro so I can, with the next instalment, get straight to the chase. Now, any musician with a such a long career and discography and varied output is bound to have a number of “worst to best” type lists on them doing the rounds on various websites and Bruce is no exception.
This isn’t intended to be one of those. I’m not a music critic, this isn’t a site of critique more of personal thoughts and opinions. As such I’m going to be running through, in order (though not necessarily uninterrupted), my Least to Most Favourite Bruce Springsteen albums. It’s just that, personal favourites – I don’t lay claim to my judgement of one album’s quality to being universal or true. It’s supposed to be fun after all.
It’s also worth noting that as a Springsteen fan, while it might be among the ‘least’ end of the spectrum, any such album is still likely to be played a fair bit by me and held in overall good standing.
In my Born to Run post I mention how, when it came to the rebirth of the E-Street Band, Bruce Springsteen was hesitant almost until curtains up.
He needn’t have been. Obviously. That tour was a scorcher and set the stage (excuse the pun) for a resoundingly successful second-era for him and his band. It was captured and released on the Live In NYC album but I always felt that CD was a little on the short side.
I also mentioned that in preparing for the tour, Springsteen was building set lists that pulled heavily from previously unreleased material on the then-new Tracks and how I’d have loved to hear some of those deeper cuts. Well… while reading some early reviews of that show today I found increasing mentions of songs that were played during that tour but not captured. Given how much the reinforced E-Street Band (four guitars strong at that point and Max Weinberg hitting harder than before) added to songs like ‘Youngstown’ and ‘Lost In The Flood‘ I was delighted to find that that tour’s recasting of ‘The River’ was often followed by a re-reading of one of my favourites from that album; ‘Point Blank’.
Having found audio of it, I’ll share it here:
The real gem of my search is this… the full concert from the Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA from October 1999 with a set list that varies pretty wildly from the tour’s official release and includes some fantastic cuts including my own favourite Tracks highlights ‘Take Em As They Come’ and ‘The Promise’ and also features the first play ‘Incident on 57th Street’ in close to 20 years!
While it’s not as polished or refined as it would become as the tour progressed and the arrangements tightened, it’s all the better for it’s rough and ready nature and WELL worth a listen:
I tell you, moving house knocks it out of you. Still, sometime between my birthday a couple of weeks back and popping it back up on a new shelf, I found the time to tear through Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography Born To Run (it was never going to be called anything else, was it?).
It is an absolute blast to read. Written completely solo and without the assistance of a ghost-writer, the voice is clearly that of Bruce – at times cuttingly honest, at others poetic and then written as though delivering a sermon from the stage on the LIFE SAVING POWERS OF ROCK AND ROLL!!! (yes, the caps-lock button is Bruce’s friend). Contained within its five hundred or so pages is the story of how a young man from a poor, working class family in the town of Freehold, New Jersey, fell in love with music, got a guitar, learned how to make it talk, refined his craft and cracked the code. It’s fascinating and joyous stuff.
This being a memoir / auto-biography, the story is going to be somewhat one-sided. This is Bruce’s version. So while in Born To Run, Bruce describes the recording of Tunnel Of Love, for example,by writing that Bob Clearmountin ‘tidied up’ his playing so it sounded as if he knew what he was doing, it’s Peter Ames Carlin’s 2012 Bruce that fills the picture out by pointing out that Bruce and Bob actually used samplers, drum machines and synths to create a lot of the music and then bought in members of the band to “beat the machine” – if they did the part was recorded, if not… well not every member of the E-Street featured and not every member of the band were impressed by the process but then Bruce is the Boss, a fact he gently underlines on a number of occasions in the pages of his own book; “I’d declared democracy and band names dead after Steel Mill. I was leading the band, playing, singing and writing everything we did. If I was going to carry the workload and responsibility, I might as well assume the power”.
The part of the book that deals with the period before the release of Born In The USA is both the largest and juiciest. There’s a wealth of information about the source of Bruce’s art, his influences and his decisions. These were lean times – it wasn’t until after The River tour that Bruce had anything resembling financial success thanks to lawsuits and recording costs inflated due to his infamous perfectionism – and there’s a huge amount of detail as to what drove him to take certain choices with his music. While there’s no real breakdown of what inspired each and every song (that already exists in Songs) there’s a great amount of revelations to be found.
Bruce is surprisingly candid when it comes to more personal elements too. I was a little surprised by some of his descriptions of his fellow E-Streeter’s – especially the late Danny Federici – but then his undeniable love for these band-members is also evident as his heartbreak at their passing.
Many of the column inches covering this book in the press have been at pains to mention that Mr Springsteen is equally revealing when it comes to his struggles with depression. Having managed to suppress what he describes as a consequence of the same mental plagues suffered by his father through years of working and touring, Bruce’s own depression came jumping up into his face . He is very open with his fight with and its effect on both him and his loved ones. As a fellow sufferer of that Black Dog it’s inspiring to read. His relationship with his father as a young man – while hinted at in song – is revealed in a much deeper and, at times, darker light and there’s a real sense of emotion and release when, post diagnosis with Paranoid Schizophrenia, Bruce’s father becomes a softer man and the two find some form of closure.
Part of not embracing the full ‘rock star lifestyle’ means that there’s not a huge amount of rock star stories to be found here and you’d be forgiven for skimming a go-nowhere Frank Sinatra story or those chapters (yep) dedicated to horse riding and Bruce’s equestrian escapades. Indeed, post-USA the structure is more vignettes than linear bio and some of those don’t really feel all that vital but, then, Bruce spent the larger part of that time period between E-Street lives building and raising his family and seeking a sense of calm that had previously alluded him so I’d hardly argue that this is a fault.
But there is still plenty to enjoy in the latter section of the book including some real eye-openers even post-USA. Bruce shines a little more light on the ‘missing’ album from the period between ‘Streets of Philadelphia’ and Greatest Hits – it was another ‘men and women, relationships’ themed album but steeped in that minimal, loops and beats sound he’d employed for SoP. During a drive with Roy Bittan, his trusty piano player mentioned that perhaps it was the lyrical content of this new music that audiences were having trouble connecting to. Unable to find a unifying voice and sound for it, the album was shelved “and there she sits” – ‘Secret Garden’, ‘Missing’ and ‘Nothing Man’ would see the light of day. Bruce may have shot The Professor down but it dawned soon enough – he’d lost his ‘voice’. Post Greatest Hits he went to find it and that’s why Ghost of Tom Joad is more of an important album than that subtle masterpiece may have been considered: “the songs on it added up to a reaffirmation of the best of what I do. The record was something new, but was also a reference point to the things I tried to stand for and still wanted to be about as a songwriter.”
Particularly interesting and surprising – given how logical and inevitable it must have seemed to all outside of Bruce’s head – is that up until the last minute, he still doubted whether reuniting the E-Street Band was the best move – not feeling the fire despite the band’s force, initially building a set list that drew heavily from Tracks and eschewed hits and classics (fuck but I’d love to hear that set!) It wasn’t until the fifty or so fans that had stood outside the rehearsals trying to hear the sounds drifting out were let in to watch that Bruce felt the spark.
Given the level of detail assigned to the writing and recording of earlier works, it’s a little surprising and perhaps disappointing that the post E-Street reformation era isn’t deemed sufficiently interesting to warrant the same treatment. The Rising onwards saw Bruce’s career and popularity reborn after a lacklustre nineties yet the six albums recorded since are breezed over – with the exception of Bruce noting how disappointed he was that Wrecking Ball did not garner the impact and attention he felt these songs warranted. From my point of view and deviating slightly that’s down to the fact that his and Ron Anellio’s attempts to sound sonically relevant and ‘now’ detracted from the quality of the song writing. That being said it was surprising to read the candour with which Bruce realised that, after years of doing so, he simply wasn’t the right person to record or produce his music any more.
Despite the slightness of its third act – I guess if he’d been as thorough here the book would’ve been simply too long as well – Born To Run is, without question, one of the best musician’s autobiogs I’ve read. Hugely insightful, informative and written with a trueness of voice that equals Bruce’s finest music, it’s an essential read for any fan and a bloody important one for anyone with even a passing interest.
Released to accompany the album is Chapter and Verse. Given that it took close to twenty-five years and eleven albums for Bruce to release his first Greatest Hits and in the twenty years that followed there were another three such compilations to the six studio albums… it’s hard to believe that another new compilation were needed to do so, it does kinda reek of cash-grab.
Of the eighteen tracks on Chapter and Verse, thirteen have already been released many in the same order on other compilations. That’s not to say the songs aren’t required listening – any album that contains ‘The River’, ‘My Father’s House’, ‘Born To Run’ and ‘The Rising’ is easily going to stand strong. In some respects the running order here is more beneficial than other instances – lifting ‘Long Time Comin” from it’s sandwiching on Devils And Dust‘s weaker tracks really allows it to shine. But, given that fans will already have either the existing compilations, the albums these tracks are culled from or both, it’s hard to argue a case for their recompiling.
So – the big USP of Chapter and Verse comes down to this; the first five songs have not been released previously and pre-date Bruce’s recording career with Columbia. But are they worth shelling out for? In a couple of words, sorry but not really…. These songs are notable for the progression they represent (even the jump in style between the two cuts from Springsteen’s first band The Castiles) but, ultimately are only being heard because who one of their members went on to be. The Steel Mill song ‘He’s Guilty (The Judge Song)’ is a standard southern-blues stomper recorded in San Francisco as the band tried to use California to break out of Jersey-only stardom but highlights what Bruce himself realised; for every Allman Brothers Band there were a hundred Steel Mill’s and there’s little here to distinguish them above the pack. The exception, though, is The Bruce Springsteen Band’s ‘The Ballad of Jesse James’ which, of the five ‘new’ tracks is the keeper.
For myself, and I’d wager a few others, I’d rather the previously-unreleased material shone some light on either the E-Street Band’s take on Nebraska (that the fabled Electric Nebraska exists in its entirety is confirmed in Born To Run) or Bruce’s shelved album from the nineties… so I’ll drop one such track here – ‘Waiting On The End of the World’, written for that album and taken a stab at with the E-Street Band at the time of Greatest Hits which, for my money, is still the best Springsteen comp.
If you are still looking for music to ‘accompany’ the reading of Born To Run, there’s a Spotify playlist that Bruce (or someone on his team, most likely) put together containing all songs referenced and important:
A hitman. A journalist. A family torn apart. Can he uncover the truth before it’s too late?
Caution: a tiny, tiny (revealed early anyway so not that huge) spoiler could be found in this review.
From the PR: “In the dead of winter, investigative reporter Janne Vuori sets out to uncover the truth about a mining company, whose illegal activities have created an environmental disaster in a small town in Northern Finland. When the company’s executives begin to die in a string of mysterious accidents, and Janne’s personal life starts to unravel, past meets present in a catastrophic series of events that could cost him his life.
A traumatic story of family, a study in corruption, and a shocking reminder that secrets from the past can return to haunt us, with deadly results … The Mine is a gripping, beautifully written, terrifying and explosive thriller by the King of Helsinki Noir.”
I’m writing this review as closely to finishing the book as possible; I’ve not long turned the final page on Antti Tuomainen’s fantastic The Mine and relished every second of reading it. The pacing and style are brilliantly effective; calmly drawing you in until you realise you’re practically up to your knees in Finnish snow and up to your neck in a complex mystery and there’s no way you’re gonna want to leave this story even after the last page is turned.
Antti Tuomainen does a crackingc job of evoking a sense of place and the remote setting of most of the action – the isolated mine sits in Northern Finland, snowbound, dangerously cold and practically deserted – adds to both the sense of dread and the intensity.
I love a good, complex conspiracy in a book and The Mine delivers this in spades. Taking on some heavy and important themes, this is, indeed, an intelligent thriller, hugely gripping and immensely rewarding.
While I might not have liked Janne as a character – perhaps because his own work-first, family-second approach is so at odds to my own – his determination to get to the bottom of the story is contagious and this is another of Orenda’s recent publications that was ripped through at a pace.
The sub-plot surrounding Janne’s hitman father Emil is perhaps my favourite part of this book. Here is a man who takes life for a living – in manners described in some darkly delicious scenes – yet his own calm, pedestrian manner are so counter-intuitive as to the preconceived, literary portrayals of such characters as to be utterly fascinating. Here he is calmly throwing a man off a balcony to his death, here he is just as calmly and routinely browsing through books in a bookshop, here calmly snapping someone’s neck mid-run. It’s handled so fantastically and as though run-of-the-mill that he might just as well be – as he initially tells his son – working in HR.
That Emil’s calm, mild-mannered and thorough manner of carrying through his own occupation contrasts with Janne’s investigative urgency is a great device, especially as the older-man, now so-removed from such concern for taking life, is returning to his son almost as he himself is on the precipice of throwing away his family – giving Janne a much a warning not to repeat mistakes, that it’s the people that matter in life – just adds to the overall richness of this multi-faceted book.
A huge thanks to Karen at Orenda for sending me yet another ripper of a read, encouragement to check out the other spots on this Finnish Invasion blog tour and a wholehearted recommendation to go and get your hands on Antti Tuomainen’s The Mine.
Woke today to the news that, on the 7th November, Leonard Cohen passed away at the age of 82. The Canadian singer, songwriter, poet and novelist had a long and and varied career that saw him pen some of the most revered songs ever put to tape. Taking his colours from the darker end of the palette his were songs that were often better known when sung by others but, in my own opinion, that merely highlighted the quality of his writing. It took a lot to make an arse of such great source material.
While not a huge fan, there’s perhaps just a couple of his albums in my collection (when you factor in that he released 14 studio albums that’s hardly representative), but few could argue that Mr Cohen was an excellent songwriter. Thanks to “Hallelujah” (on which I see Jim at Music Enthusiast has just posted) he’s probably one of the most covered / heard songwriters there is and yet it’s likely few have heard his own version of the song.
Some time ago on a blog almost now forgot I dropped a post citing Songs of Love and Hate as one of my 100 Essential Albums. I’ll share that post here, now, as it seems somewhat fitting:
I know it’s been said before and there’s no way it won’t be said again, and I also know that I’m likely to incur the odd spiteful comment or grimace from those true musos and aficionados that like to put things up on pedestals when I say that I concur with the sentiment that Leonard Cohen writes great songs, for other people to sing.
It sounds awfully popularist to say that Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” is the better (if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s not my favourite JB song) and somewhat cliché to say I’d take Concrete Blonde’s version of “Everybody Knows (and I, surely cannot be alone in that) and that “Tower of Song” is better served by Nick Cave’s vocals. That’s not to say I don’t like Mr Cohen, far from it – nobody can question the man’s ability. It’s just that sometimes his voice doesn’t give the songs the life which that of another artist can breath into it.
That being said, there isn’t, however, a single song on Songs Of Love And Hate that I think is better suited to anyone but Leonard. From the moment his voice pours over the tumbling strings of “Avalanche” to the final “la” of “Joan of Arc”, this album, to my mind (and, hey, what’s this blog all about anyway?) is the perfect match for his voice.
Even “Diamonds In The Mine”, which often gets held up as a ‘what the hell is he doing with his voice?’ works for me – it brings to mind one of Bob’s bitter, angst-ridden, rants. While his voice isn’t in it’s natural key there’s no questioning the sincerity of the emotion it bellows.
The fact that he barely touches “Dress Rehearsal Rag” live because he found it so depressing just speaks volumes. The album itself is pretty damn far from cheerful, his voice aches with regret and despair throughout and for someone so seemingly at home with the bleak to come up with something that he himself finds depressing… I have to take my hat off to it.
For me thought there are two songs that define this album and warrant it’s inclusion on this list – “Avalanche” and, of course, “Famous Blue Raincoat”. The number of times I’ve found myself singing ‘New York is cold but I like where I’m living’ or ‘it’s 4 in the morning, the end of December’ and left them hanging in the air because, frankly, that song is damn near perfect in both it’s lyrics, the way it delivers such power from such relatively straightforward wordplay and a nagging melody. Which is why I love “Avalanche” too. A tumbling, cascade of guitar strung notes plunging you straight away into Cohen’s voice.
While it doesn’t contain his best songs, Songs Of Love And Hate does contain the best songs for himself.
To add a little more to this post I’ll include a couple of other favourites from Mr Cohen’s tower of song:
Not too long ago – when explaining the need for self-compiling cds/playlists for those artists who already had a compilation out in the world, I mentioned that compilations are strange thing. That you’re never going to please everybody with a selection (in the linear notes for The Essential, Bruce Springsteen suggests that “one man’s NYC Serenade is another man’s Rosalita”*) and that my choice of what I’d consider essential listening very rarely coincides completely with the ‘official’ compiler’s (usually because they’re doing so with a specific, marketing-dictated aim rather than just cherry picking).
There are some compilations, though, that are as close to perfect and essential as you can get. They do that rare thing of providing as solid, all-encompassing an overview as is possible in a dozen or so tracks in a manner that will provide a great entry-point for the uninitiated and give the already-converted a good career-spanner to listen to when they don’t feel like going through whole-albums. A good track-listing can also allow tracks to breath a little differently, have a better light shone on them than when otherwise buried on an album (see Long Time Comin’ on Springsteen’s Chapter and Verse – of which more to come later).
So I thought I’d kick this possible-series off with one of my favourite compilations, one that’s been keeping me steady company for a good sixteen years now; Asides from Buffalo Tom.
Now when it comes to recalling bands from Boston, I imagine those that get mentioned would include Aerosmith, The Cars, The J. Giels Band, Pixies, possibly even Dropkick Muphys and, of course Boston. I don’t know how many would pull up the trio of Buffalo Tom but, save for a bit of a break between 2000-2007, they’ve been a stalwart of indie-rock since their first album, the J Mascis produced self-titled effort, dropped in 1988.
After shifting song-writing gears for the 90’s, they became a pretty popular alt-rock band and yet, while Big Red Letter Day even managed to crack the top 20 over here, they never achieved the popularity their songs and music deserved. It is mind-boggling to me, and I’m sure others, that bands like The Goo Goo Dolls and Matchbox 20 got gargantuan levels of exposure while how-did-they-miss singles like “Taillights Fade” and “Mineral” remain songs I have to enthuse to people about as they’ve never heard ’em.
Of Buffalo Tom, I’ve read of them being described as “like a bar band fronted by an anxiously melancholic whiskey-fueled Alex Chilton” while even the too-cool-for-this Pitchfork said of them: “solo-ridden guitar-god aspirants Buffalo Tom: 1) named themselves after their drummer and Neil Young’s first band because it’d have been too much trouble to come up with anything really new; 2) played assorted variations on the strummy post-pop that filled collegiate airwaves throughout the 1980s because innovation is overrated; and 3) wrote sharply observed conversational lyrics because it was too hard to be obscure.”
This album came into my hands upon day of release thanks to my hearing “Taillights.. ” on a magazine sampler and seeing (just one of so many) highly-starred reviews against this comp. Having since gone back and accumulated the band’s discography, it’s still Asides From that gets the most plays (I’m genuinely surprised the disc hasn’t given out, the case certainly has). It contains the perfect selection of their finest from the 11-year period represented and the non-chronological sequencing makes this feel more like an album of absolute all-killer-no-filler than a compilation-by-rote. Early-cut “Birdbrain”, for example, is daft but is so full of hook as to be a barn-stormer and here rubs shoulders with the more bluesy-throat of “I’m Allowed”.
What such a track-listing also highlights is that, despite their lack of mainstream or commercial breakthrough, Buffalo Tom remained staggeringly consistent in terms of quality – album closer (and then final single) “Wiser” is one of their finest moments but here sits among plenty of equals – and remained ready and willing to bring it to every session.
While it isn’t going to break any new ground or make anyone wonder “how are they doing that?”, Asides From Buffalo Tom contains 18 very strong songs (even their cover of The Jams’ “Going Underground” is worth a listen) – in a way the fact that I’ve still yet to bump into anyone who shares this knowledge makes em feel just that little more ‘mine’. Still, I’m sharing it here and recommend – given how little it’ll cost – it to all.
After the release of Asides in 2000 (and the quickly-following Besides..), Buffalo Tom took a bit of a break – singer Bill Janovitz dropped another solo album, took up real estate, wrote a couple of books on The Rolling Stones – before getting back together and releasing Three Easy Pieces (2007) and Skins (2011). Both reveal the band remain consistently capable of a great tune and contain tracks that could easily sit alongside those on this best of – particularly You’ll Never Catch Him, Down and Don’t Forget Me (which features co-vocals from Tanya Donelly of another Boston band, Belly). There’s hints/rumour/suggestion of new Buffalo Tom music on the way and it’s something that I’m eagerly anticipating – a now long-term love for a band kicked of and continually fuelled by this compilation.
*or another combination – it, like all of my music collection, is currently sealed up in a box in the ‘spare’ room of my new house.