Least To Most: Bruce – “halfway to heaven and just a mile outta hell”

Ok, so I’ve just looked at my (much revised, scrawled over and rewritten) list and realised we’re at the half way point in my rambling about Bruce’s albums in Least to Most Favourite order. We’re ten down with ten to go and that feels like a good point to take a breather* and talk about some Springsteen songs (a couple of favourites amongst them) that wouldn’t otherwise get a mention and take a look at those releases that don’t qualify for the list.

Compilations 

Bruce was twenty three years into his recording career before he decided it was time for a compilation. 1995’s Greatest Hits oddly didn’t get the best reviews – many felt that by omitting anything prior to Born To Run, Bruce was cutting out an important part of his history (“no Rosalita?!” was a common cry in reviews I’ve found in archives**) and others suggested that these songs simply didn’t belong together and performed better in their original album sequencing… though isn’t that the case with all such compilations? Seems like a trite comment to make.

Personally, this was my introduction to Bruce Springsteen so I’m a little biased. I was a little put-off by the sounds of ‘Born In The USA’ and it’s kin (this was 1995, after all, and such sounds weren’t ageing well) but there was no denying the draw of songs like ‘The River’ and ‘Atlantic City’ which were the big hook for me.

I’ll also make a fight for the new songs included here that many a critic argued were weak. I think ‘Blood Brothers’ remains an essential Bruce Springsteen song and both ‘Streets of Philidelphia’ and ‘Secret Garden’ are strong tracks and that’s without the dusted-off and revisited ‘Murder Incorporated’ (which saw Steven Van Zandt return to the fold for the video and would become a real blazer on the Reunion Tour) and ‘This Hard Land’ – both Born In The USA cuts that didn’t make selection, the latter of which was Max Weinberg’s favourite tune. For a one-stop sampler of Bruce Springsteen V1***, Greatest Hits is still a damn good start for any Bruce newbie.

Strangely enough, just two studio albums later and with the successful launch of Bruce Springsteen V2 cemented, it was time for another compilation.

This time more space was allotted to it and the selection was allowed to span out across two discs so that The Essential Bruce Springsteen kicked off with ‘Blinded By The Light’ and wrapped it up with cuts from Live In NYC and The Rising making sure to include ‘Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)’, all the hits, some fan favourites like ‘Jungleland’ and ‘Nebraska’. Of course, the fans would already have all of these so a limited run with a third disc of rarities was offered and some of those are none-too shabby either. I particularly enjoy Springsteen’s live take on ‘Trapped’:

Odder still, in 2015 the track listing was revised. Out went ‘Jungleland’ and ‘Tunnel of Love’ and in came ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze Out’ and ‘One Step Up’ and a handful of other tracks were shuffled / cut in order to make space for a couple of bolted-on post-The Rising tunes. Bonkers, if you ask me; cutting ‘The Darkness On The Edge of Town’  to make space for something from High Hopes?! Why bother?

On the ‘Why Bother’ list is the 2009 Greatest Hits which was billed to Bruce and The E Street Band (is that only their second billing? Though they didn’t get the US cover) which strips it all back to one disc and adds a couple of newer tracks – presumably released to catch the newer casuals after Superbowl and festival appearances.

Chapter & Verse was released this year to coincide / accompany Bruce’s Born To Run book. It’s somewhat linear and obvious in its song selection and only really stands out in as much as being more ‘personally’ selected than the above comp and featuring a handful of pre-Columbia Recording Artist Bruce. The best of which being ‘Ballad of Jesse James’. I’ve yet to add this to the shelves as they’re not what you’d call ‘required listening’ for anything other than an intro to the origins story.

Live

In terms of live albums, while there’s certainly a couple listed on Bruce’s discography, Live 1975-85 is inarguably the best way to get a take on what makes Springsteen live so legendary. Sure, Live In NYC is a good capture of the reunited E Street Band (and the best place to hear its new songs) but it’s strange sequencing and fading out have hampered it and interrupt the flow.

Live 1975-85 contains 40 songs recorded with the band in its prime, a wealth of classics, Springsteen pre-song story telling and, in ‘Seeds’ another great original:

It’s only downfall – and one that was much picked up on by fans I’m given to understand – was that it didn’t include ‘Prove It All Night’ in the live reshaping (or at all, in fact) that had acquired a massive fandom. So here it is:

Worth mentioning that Bruce is more than savvy to the current musical buying trends and has made many a current and classic concert available for download at http://live.brucespringsteen.net/

EPs

1988’s Chimes of Freedom was released to tie-in with the Human Rights Now! tour. The live rendition of ‘Tougher Than The Rest’ is suitably girded by the E Street Band’s backing, ‘Be True’ is a decent enough tune but the flip side with Bruce’s take on Dylan’s ‘Chimes of Freedom’ and the acoustic ‘Born To Run’ and still captivating stadium-size crowds is the strongest, in my opinion:

Blood Brothers originally came with the film of the same name (in a very limited pressing) that documented the mini-reunion of the E Street Band. While the tracks included are certainly interesting there’s nothing really here other than curiosities – like the ‘alt’ version of the title song.

Which brings us to the last release of new Bruce Springsteen material – American Beauty. Now, if High Hopes was made up of songs that didn’t make the cut for The Rising or Wrecking Ball then an ep of songs that didn’t make the cut of THAT might be stretching it a bit….  Indeed it is. Nothing on here is particularly essential in its listening and there’s chunks of all that were salvaged and better used elsewhere, it’s release remains something of a mystery to me, almost an example of a big artist and major label slapping something together to cash in on Record Store Day and it pains me to say that as a fan. That being said, ‘Hey Blue Eyes’ is a very good song and I do play it a fair old bit on stream. One of Springsteen’s angry Bush-era political songs that isn’t mired by over-production – almost demonstrating in on four-track EP how clearly Brendan O’Brien is the better set of hands for Springsteen’s songs over Ron Aniello.

 

*Whether I’ll manage to finish this series by the New Year remains to be seen.

**Bruce made reference to this in the linear notes for The Essential and, if you watch the accompanying ‘Blood Brothers’ DVD, there was plenty of discussion against the inclusion of earlier tracks

***Bruce Version 1 extends from his debut up to the conclusion of The Reunion Tour. The Rising marked the emergence of Bruce Springsteen Version 2.0

Least to Most: Bruce – Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J

“Madman drummers bummers and Indians in the summer with a teenage diplomat
In the dumps with the mumps as the adolescent pumps his way into his hat
With a boulder on my shoulder feelin’ kinda older I tripped the merry-go-round”

Pardon?

greetings_from_asbury_park_njGreetings From Asbury Park, NJ feels exactly like a debut album should: it’s full of energy, enthusiasm and awash with ideas – essentially what happens when an act has been working up these songs long before getting a deal and let into a recording studio. So here we find Bruce Springsteen at the tender age of 23, in thrall still to his idols, making his recording début not as a frontman for a rock band but, essentially, a solo artist with a few band members on a couple of tracks.

Indeed a bit of a dispute arouse very early in as Bruce wanted more tracks with his band (at that time featuring Vini ‘Mad Dog’ Lopez, Garry Tallent and David Sancious) whereas Mike Appel and John Hammond wanted more of the solo artist, acoustic feel. Not only that but Hammond’s boss, Columbia Records president Clive Davis,  didn’t feel there was a single on the album and sent his new signing back to work.

So Springsteen, proving his craft, wrote two – ‘Spirit In The Night’ and ‘Blinded By The Light’* (which would mark Clarence Clemons’ entry into Bruce’s catalogue). Neither would prove a hit for Bruce but Manfred Mann’s Earth Band would take ‘Blinded…’ to the top of the charts. The two songs pushed a trio of ‘solo acoustic’ songs off never to be heard from again. I’ve never been this song’s biggest fan, to be honest. I don’t like what I feel is wordplay for the sake of wordplay and I still can’t fathom the meaning of lines like “And go-cart Mozart was checkin’ out the weather chart to see if it was safe to go outside, And little Early-Pearly came in by her curly-wurly and asked me if I needed a ride, Oh, some hazard from Harvard was skunked on beer playin’ backyard bombardier”… it’s almost as though he’s just going for rhyme over reason… but that’s just me.

 

But then if – after seventeen studio albums – your début was still considered your best you’d have to wonder what you’re doing wrong, right? He’d later start finding his own voice and stripping away all the wordiness and start matching his poetry to more muscular, tighter rhythms that really worked together. At the time, though, I think he was desperate to get his foot in the door. I think he’s even explained that he’d sit on the bed with a rhyming dictionary to help with the lyrics. It’s a fun anecdote now but I think it does kinda harm the music – Jon Landau and his editing hand were still a way off.

I think the only reason I don’t spend as much time with this as I do with later albums is probably down to the production / guiding hands behind it. The whole ‘New Dylan’ tag that Columbia was marketing Bruce behind meant that  it landed somewhere between folk and rock and not firmly in either, in amongst some that don’t really leave much of an impression are some great songs on here that would later go on to become fleshed out monsters live restrained by their studio rendering –  as though Bruce wasn’t being allowed to really bust loose with his own material. When he’d play the final album to a friend, the question was “where’s the band?”

For my money the album’s stronger tracks are those which most prominently feature a band – ‘Lost In The Flood’ is an immense song for someone in their early twenties to have penned (and features Mr Van Zandt clobbering Springsteen’s Danelctro amp to get the opening sound) remains a favourite and I’m sure it’s not just one of mine, and marks the start of those ‘story’ songs that would continue on up to ‘Jungleland’.

As I’ve said, we’re already into real strong territory on this list so I won’t say anything on Greetings is bad, more that the kitchen-sink attempts don’t always work and songs like ‘Mary Queen of Arkansas’ and ‘The Angel’ don’t really hold long in my memory after listening. There’s just not much about them to kinda hang your hat on – they don’t have the melody / hook of ‘Growin’ Up’ or ‘It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City’ which, although it’s almost drowned in the Dylanesque lyrical flood, points as to where he’d be going with his next effort in just a few months.

One of this album’s fans included David Bowie – who actually covered ‘It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City’. Initially, though, it was meant to feature on his Young Americans album but, according to Tony Visconti, after they played the cover to Bruce, David and The Boss had a tense, private chat after which work on the song was abandoned (later released on Bowie’s 1989 box set).

I think what I really love about Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J – aside from the music – is the sheer journey it started. It’s amazing to listen to this and associate it the the same artist who, just a decade later, would be muscle-bound and singing about how he “had a brother at Khe Sahn”. Here he is in all his youthful, bearded glory, searching out the avenues his music would later stride down, a little in awe to the poetry of his idols over his own voice but still, unquestionably, massively talented.

Highlights – ‘Lost In The Flood’, ‘Growin’ Up’, ‘It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City’.

*Jon Landau would pull the same method just a decade later, sending Bruce back to come up with a ‘hit’ as he felt that Born In The USA lacked one. Turns out that with the resulting ‘Dancing In The Dark’ it had seven singles in it.

Least to Most: Bruce – The Promise

“When the promise is broken you go on living
But it steals something from down in your soul
Like when the truth is spoken and it don’t make no difference
Something in your heart goes cold”

Three years separated the release of Springsteen’s star-making Born To Run and its follow-up Darkness on the Edge of Town. If you look at it on paper, even factoring in the long tour for BTR, that’s a big chunk of time for an artist that needs to prove he’s more than a Newsweek and Time double cover and hype. But, due to legal and contractual malarkey with his former manager Mike Appel, Bruce was forbidden from entering a recording studio and releasing new music.

bruce_springsteen_-_the_promiseFrustratingly, this was also right at the point that Bruce was hitting his prolific stride in terms of song writing. So when, four days after his lawsuit with Appel was finished*, he finally hit the studio in May 1977 he was over-flowing with ideas and laid down eight songs in the first night alone. The take of ‘Something in the Night’ from this first session made the album. By the time recording for Darkness on the Edge of Town finished in January 1978 , Jimmy Iovine estimated that some thirty songs had been recorded and readied for release (and probably just as many in a less-refined state) – a huge increase in output when you consider that there were perhaps seven out-takes for BTR and albums prior, most of which only ever made it to raw mixing stages.

So what happened to those other songs? For a long time nothing. Some (‘Don’t Look Back’, ‘Hearts of Stone’, ‘Iceman’, ‘Give the Girl a Kiss’) were released twenty years later on Tracks. ‘The Promise’ was played live a couple of times and caused uproar when it wasn’t released on that box set (Bruce recorded a ‘new’ version in 1999 for 18 Tracks as partial recompense) along with a handful of others which became solid bootleg items but, for the most part, nobody outside of the group heard ’em.

Until 2010 when, while putting together a slightly-late retrospective package for Darkness on the Edge of Town, the songs were revisited. Most of the 22 (there’s an uncredited one at the end) are presented as-is, some had new vocals added and one was completely re-recorded by Bruce and the Darkness era E Street band, making the chiming, delightful ‘Save My Love’ the final recording session for Clarence Clemons.

‘The Promise’ was written as something of a sequel to ‘Thunder Road’ and appeared on likely track listings for Darkness almost until the last minute. One of his most-revered out-takes, Bruce felt it too soon after the release of ‘Thunder Road’ and that it threatened to over-shadow the rest of the album as well as not finding it in tune with the general theme of Darkness.

Originally released as part of  the box set The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story, then later as a stand-along (though the box set is well worth investment) The Promise is more than a compilation of ‘lost songs’. More a ‘lost album’ in my opinion – it’s not only packed with previously unheard gems but really shows the evolution of Bruce’s songwriting. The choices he’d make in terms of cutting and refining down to get the sound he wanted for Darkness as well as showing the range of directions he could’ve gone down and just how comfortable he was with each.

There’s gorgeous pop songs in ‘Gotta Get That Feeling’, ‘Rendezvous’ and ‘The Little Things (My Baby Does)’ that must’ve been a massive delight for Steven Van Zandt when they finally saw the light of day. The slashing guitar player believes it’s “just full of some of my favorite things ever in Bruce’s history. That is now neck-and-neck with my favorite E Street album, which is the second disc of the Tracks box set”.

There’s the old-school R&B feel with songs like ‘Ain’t Good Enough for You’ (with a shout out to the up & coming Iovine) and even his recording of the the song he wrote for Elvis Presley – ‘Fire’ – which he and Steve jammed up in about 20 minutes (The Pointer Sisters would have a huge hit with it) and his own ‘Because The Night’.

This album also showcases just how much of a craftsman Bruce is – the early versions of songs that would make Darkness here demonstrate just how determined he was to work a song to get it to perfection. Take ‘Racing in the Street ’78’ as an example, how many other artists would release the version included here once they’d hit it? Not Bruce; he refined this further, working on the details until a line like “Other guys do it cause they don’t know what else they can do,  well and they just hang around in an empty home, waking up in a world that somebody else owns, and tonight tonight the strip’s just right…” became that beautiful punching line “Some guys they just give up living and start dying little by little, piece by piece. Some guys come home from work and wash up, and go racin’ in the street”.

It’s also a real insight into the creative process to hear ‘Candy’s Boy’ as something of an E Street waltz before Bruce took his axe to it and turned it into the turbo-charged (really been listening to a lot of The Boss’ car songs) ‘Candy’s Room’ for Darkness or the ‘Come On (Let’s Go Out Tonight)’ would be similarly parred down into ‘Factory’. Not only that but, in the same way as Tracks would reveal, Bruce would take a ‘discarded’ song and strip it for parts when he needed to make another song work. Any fan listening to ‘Spanish Eye’s for example is going to sit up in their car seat (or comfy chair) and say “hang on a bloody second”**…

But… but BUT. Here’s the thing. They all work in these versions too. The Promise is a fantastic album not just because it shows the different paths Bruce and these songs could’ve taken after Born To Run but because these songs are so fucking good as they are; they’re peak-period Springsteen songs recorded and mixed to a releasable state backed by one of the finest bands of its time. They could all just as easily made up an album and it would still be a solid contender. I’ve had this album spinning in my car again for the last week and I still keep stumbling across moments that make me go “shit, how did I miss that on first listen?”

While the songs here certainly point the way to what Darkness on the Edge of Town would become, they represent a ‘lost’ album, highlighting what was a very productive time for Bruce. It really isn’t just a collection of off-cuts, it’s a real insight into a creative genius hitting its stride and I’d gladly recommend that any ‘Springsteen newbie’ check out the songs on these two discs to discover what he’s all about than many a weaker studio album ‘proper’.

Highlights: ‘Racing in the Street – ’78’, ‘Gotta Get That Feeling’. ‘Wrong Side of the Street’, ‘Save My Love’, ‘It’s A Shame’, ‘Breakaway’, ‘The Promise’.

Not-so highlights: Again, pretty much into solid gold rankings now.

 

*Appel got $800,000 and retained 50% of rights to songs from up to and including BTR.

** or the less-British version. Interestingly the lyrics listed for this one on Springsteen’s site are nothing like the version on The Promise which begs the question as to how many versions of ‘Spanish Eyes’ there are.

2016 Between Covers

Here we are once again amongst the closing days of another year. This is certainly one year I’ll be glad to see the back off. I won’t go off-topic here or cross that line into putting too much of the personal up here but I will say 2016 was an utter bloody farce of a year.

However, as the days before the fat man with a beard drops down the chimney diminish, it’s also that time to share what I think were the best things I read during 2016.

Once again – save for a few weeks where I simply couldn’t read / take anything in – I read a lot this year – some amazing fiction new and old and plenty of fascinating non-fiction. There are some I’ve started but not finished (I do aim to finish Life and Fate in 2017) and some that still sit on the To Be Read pile.

This list, then, is my take on the best written word I consumed during 2016 and is in no particular order with the obvious exception…

Fiction

IMG_7211Jihadi: A Love Story by Yusuf Torpov

One of the first books I read this year and one that’s stayed with me throughout. Echoes of great writers can be found throughout but it’s truly marked by the unique voice of Yusuf Toropov who here has written an important novel of our time. In my review I said that  its a rare thing to find “a book that is so unarguably great that you find yourself telling everyone they should read it regardless of their usual choice of paperback writer. Jihadi; A Love Story by Yusuf Toropov is just such a book.” I stand by that.

Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon

A spy thriller set at the very start of the Cold War, as divisions and sides are drawn in a country still beset by the scars of war and trying to rebuild itself amongst the rubble. As much as I was fascinated by the historical element the plot equally gripped my attention and has sent me off down another path of reading with a couple of Cold War thrillers already en route to my letter box. Original review.

For Two Thousand Years by Mihail Sebastian

For completely personal reasons this book would already make the top ten. It was purchased while spending ten hours waiting for a plane at Gatwick airport ahead of a family holiday where it was hungrily consumed. I’d been searching for Sebastian’s work in English and this, published this year, did not dissapoint. Beautifully written and deeplu insightful and evokative. The knowledge of the tragedies that lay in store for Mihail Sebastian only make it all the more poignant. Original review.

imageIn Her Wake by Amada Jennings

This book absolutely broke my heart. This book was so far from what I was expecting and so gripping that I honestly can’t see how it wouldn’t make this list. If everything you knew about yourself turned out to be a lie, that your whole life was built around a crime so devestating that lives have been ruined, what would you do? In Her Wake, is a real story of hope and courage. And, yes, the final revelation about Bella still guts me many months down the road.

Notes on a Cuff by Mikhail Bulgakov

Finding this book last year, and finally reading it in this, was such a joyous experience. I thought I’d read all that was available so to discover the stories in Notes on a Cuff was like stumbling upon gold dust. These stories, written in the early 1920s, show a real master finding his voice and revelling in the art and joy of writing. There are elements here that he’d perfect later in his career but it’s amazing to see just how brilliantly formed his work already was.

Purity by Jonathan Franzen

On each occasion (and it’s always an ‘occasion’) that a Franzen book is published I can’t help but think it won’t be as good as his previous novel. On each occasion I’m proven wrong. Easily his most accessible and equally amongst his finest work.

The Bickford Fuse by Andrey Kurkov

I’ve written before on just how much I love Kurkov’s work. Something of a cross between Bulgakov and a Ukranian Vonnegut, he weaves near-absurdist, satirical novels of the highest calibre. The Bickford Fuse from what I can tell, is an earlier book than any he’s yet published and was written in the final days of communism. A look at ‘Soviet Man’ told through a series of somewhat connected stories and characters that, while clearly written by the same author, is completely unique amongst his work printed thus far. Ambitious, multi-layered and hugely rewarding to read.

IMG_9197Where Roses Never Die by Gunnar Staalesen Favourite Fiction of 2016.

I read this in circumstances almost as perfect as possible yet I’m sure that had I read it in the middle of a cesspit as I sank down to the bottom I would have loved it just as much. Hugely gripping, deeply evokative and written without a spare word, Gunnar Staalesen is like the samauri of Nordic Noir – every masterful, well-practiced and skilful word strikes home hard. Staalesen is the master of his craft and it’s a big credit to the translation that there’s never any question of this when translated into English from the native Norwegian. Original review.

Non-Fiction

A book about the intelligence war was never not going to be my cup of coffee and when you factor in that it’s written by Max Hastings, The Secret War couldn’t get much better. Some real shockers in here and written in such a way as to ensure it never gets dull. It’s strange as it never caught my attention in school (more down to the education system at the time) but the Second World War has become the subject I’ve probably delved into most in terms of personal education. While I always enjoy a personal account – my interest being how normal people find themselves in extraordinary circumstance that I can’t comprehend rather than the ‘guns and glory’ stuff – the intelligence and spy / espionage war really fascinates me and this book is packed with detail.

In theory that should mean this would be the best NF book I picked up in a year but, then, this was the year that Bruce Springsteen published his autobiography.

Born To Run is the memoir every Bruce fan could have hoped for. He could’ve phoned it in. He could have gotten a ghost-writer to assisst and turn it into pristine prose. He didn’t. A deeply personal book, there’s more insight here than any such auto-bio I’ve read and all told in Bruce’s own voice. Revelations, inspiration and the salvation of music is all in here like one of his greatest songs. Original review.

 

Honourable Mentions…

The Dark Iceland series by Ragnar Jónasson is one of the most compelling and rewarding additions to the thriller genre and this year’s Black Out and Night Blind were both excellent – but impossible to choose a favourite.

I delved deeper into the Jack Reacher series this year with a good five books under my belt including the new (in paperback) Make Me which was a real strong contender and shake up of the character.

Yann Martell’s books are always going to suffer in comparisons to his famous book with the tiger but The High Mountains of Portugal was a good effort, if a little wayward at times, with a beautiful, heartbreaking evocation of absolute grief.

Epithany Jones by Michael Grothaus and The Exiled by Kati Hiekkapelto really should be on this list too…

Least to Most: Bruce – The Ghost of Tom Joad

“Shelter line stretchin’ ‘round the corner
Welcome to the new world order
Families sleepin’ in their cars in the southwest
No home, no job, no peace, no rest”

I’m starting to think that the poor reception that greeted Human Touch and Lucky Town kinda knocked Bruce’s confidence a little heavier than he’d let on. Going by the fact that, at the time, he was still actively fighting depression and going through a lot of personal changes, it’s not that big a surprise. One could imagine that, were he feeling more resilient mentally he may have said “nuts” to the negative reviews, gone back to the woodshed and kicked it up a notch. Instead, during the period between the end of what’s now called ‘The Other Band’ and the start of the E Street Reunion tours precious little of what Springsteen wrote saw the light of day (pun intended).

the_ghost_of_tom_joadNow to me – and I hope others – this is a real burr because what recorded material from 1994 onwards has reached the eager ears of listeners is gold and does show that the man was more than capable of saying “nuts” and going back to work. There’s an entire album’s worth (close to two*) of material that was shelved and will likely never be released. There’s been some hints as to what it contains – like the E Street reworking of ‘Waiting on the End of the World‘ – but it’s likely to remain unheard save a (much prayed for) Tracks 2**emerging and all you need to is cast a look at the material Bruce did release from that era, all with a certain understated charm, to know why we’re missing out: ‘Streets of Philadelphia’, ‘Secret Garden’, ‘Blood Brothers’ (the latter two written during a run of inspiration ahead of and during the E Street reunion for Greatest Hits), ‘Missing‘, ‘Lift Me Up‘, ‘Dead Man Walking’, even ‘Without You‘ has a joyful charm, ‘Nothing Man’ originated during this period… and then there’s this thing he wrote called ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’.

‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’ was written around the time of Greatest Hits and Bruce even took the band through a few takes but, much like elusive ‘Electric Nebraska Sessions’, it wasn’t right. So, instead of the presumed course after that compilation’s reunion, Bruce took a sharp left: he assembled a group of songs about the American South West and, for the most part, embellished them with little more than his voice and some delicate guitar patterns weaving through the odd keyboard drone (something that started with ‘One Step Up’ and featured heavily in his 90s output to good effect).

And what a group of songs they are***. More restrained and narrow focused than his earlier solo (masterpiece) Nebraska, these songs actively incorporated silence and hushed phrasing (so much so that the tour that followed was often referred to as the ‘Shut the Fuck Up’ tour) to create memorable and affecting stories that lingered. Listening back to this one I’d forgotten just how powerful some of these are, take the tale in ‘Sinaloa Cowboys’ as an example:

Here the stories are perfectly succinct and the delicate touches of instrumentation mean that in their simplicity they achieve what the over-worked attempts of Devils & Dust failed to: stories with bite with music as a subtle backdrop rather than focus.

There are four songs on The Ghost of Tom Joad, title track included, for which Bruce assembled a small backing band – including Gary Tallent and Danny Federici – to add a little colour to the sonic palette and these serve as beautiful counterpoint to the otherwise stark, bitter-sweet beauty of songs like ‘The Line’. ‘Straight Time’ and ‘Dry Lightning’ may not linger as much as, say, the powerfully stark ‘Highway 29’ which could slot right at home on Nebraska, but the title track and ‘Youngstown’ are both essential Bruce songs.

‘Youngstown’ has become such a torch-burning, electrically recast centre-point of E Street band shows since the Reunion tour that it’s easy to forget just how strong the original is:

The other reason Ghost of Tom Joad is an essential part of Springsteen’s catalogue is that it finds him rediscovering his voice. Not the hushed tones of the vocals but the no-linger inward focus. This was Bruce looking for inspiration outside of the men vs women themes he’d used for the previous three (released, that is) albums, but looking at the struggles of others – as he says; ““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.””

Received to slighter commercial success but pretty strong reviews with Rolling Stone reckoning it “among the bravest work that anyone has given us this decade”  (and a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album), it perhaps receives a harsher view in retrospect from some corners than it deserves. Some criticisms fired at this album focus around the hushed, minimal delivery or the lack of fire and brimstone given to the recorded versions of songs like ‘Ghost of Tom Joad’ and ‘Youngstown’ compared to their now live rendering but, if you ask me, they’re missing the point. The songs on this album (something of a concept album in that respect) all focus on the- as  his own website puts it – ” poverty, immigration and the brittle troubles of Americans and Mexicans in the Southwest.” The desert can be a cold, bleak place with vast empty spaces. The Ghost of the Tom Joad, sonically, is the sound of these oft-broken characters staring into that space after a day in the cruel, blinding light of its heat with acceptance / surrender of the inevitable. It’s not a time for boot, stomping rock and, in the brittle, fragility of its delivery of these stories Ghost of Tom Joad remains an understated and captivating masterpiece.

Highlights: ‘Ghost of Tom Joad’, ‘Youngstown’, ‘Highway 29’, ‘Sinaloa Cowboys’, ‘The Line’, ‘Galveston Bay’.

Not so highlights: The exclusion of ‘Brothers Under The Bridge’ which could’ve elevated this album to virtually unimpeachable. But then everybody needs a ‘Blind Wille McTell’.

*Depending on how much different side-men know: Bruce has spoken about an album of more relationship songs in the minimal ‘Streets of Philadelphia’ style, Shane Fontayne has given interviews that hint at yet another. Could just be crossed wires, could be another well of unheard material. He was certainly clocking up recording sessions during this period.

** At the time of Tracks 75% of Bruce’s material was unreleased. Even the number of songs settled on for Tracks was then culled from 100 to 66. What was on those extra two discs? Surely more than went on to make up The Promise and The Ties That Bind?

***Here, again, though he wrote some 22 songs. There’s tales of two albums’ worth of songs – one with the band backing – being recorded. Some would pop up on tour, some never to be sung again. FFS.

Least to Most: Bruce – We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions

“Now Teddy me boy,” the old widow cried
“Your two fine legs was your mama’s pride
Them stumps of a tree won’t do at all
Why didn’t you run from the big cannon ball?”

“Now against all war, I do profrain
Between Don Juan and the King of Spain
And, by herrons, I’ll make ’em rue the time
When they swept the legs from a child of mine.”

It’s worth pointing out that, from this point on, we’re really into the quality stuff. 8/10 and upwards so there’s no real “this album is a bit cack because” elements, more of a general exploration / personal ranking attempt.

seeger_sessionsWith eighteen studio albums (he counts High Hopes), half a dozen compilation albums, a few box-sets and a couple of live records, it’s We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions that’s the real outlier in Bruce Springsteen’s catalogue. NebraskaGhost of Tom Joad and Devils & Dust may not have been sonically in line with, say, The River, but their subjects and song writing style certainly sit within the overall Springsteen narrative style. We Shall Overcome.. is an album made up entirely of covers* and contains his interpretations of thirteen tracks made popular by Pete Seeger.

This one goes back, initially, to that fallow period in Bruce Springsteen’s recorded output, between Ghost of Tom Joad and the resurgence of the E Street Band at the end of the decade. In 1997 Bruce got together with a group of musicians introduced to him by Soozie Tyrell and recorded ‘We Shall Overcome’ for the Where Have All the Flowers Gone: the Songs of Pete Seeger tribute album.

A few years later, his career revitalised and during a brief break between ‘rock’ albums, Bruce decided to revisit the idea and the band got together in his home, counted off and let her rip.

In a recent interview Bruce was asked about the possibility of a second Seeger Sessions album and he said that, while there’s nothing on the horizon yet, he doesn’t see why not, he’s “collected a small group of material” and that what he enjoyed about this one was he that didn’t have to write and “that it was such an enjoyable band I can’t imagine not doing it again”.**

So here we have thirteen songs that Bruce chose to cover and had an absolute blast playing with musicians introduced to him just days before and just letting rip. If you hang your Springsteen luggage at the door it’s a hugely enjoyable album from which the most apparent feature is just what a joyful experience recording it must have been.

The tracks are pretty diverse and date back many hundreds of years and Bruce brings his own arrangements to each.

Let’s face it; for all his detours into hushed acoustics, Bruce is primarily a rock singer and carries with his voice and phrasing a certain clout. Even with his first two albums of acoustic-based music (we’ll get to those a bit later in this series) you only need go back a few years in his musical journey and he was on stage with Steel Mill belting out southern-tinged harder-rocking numbers and honing the his abilities to rock any joint that would let him plug in. When it’s just him with a guitar you can expect a hush but if you put a band behind him it is (to pull a Steve Van Zandt line in where he has no place) “Boss time” – what he brings to these arrangements of folk standards is an extra thump, a beefing up ready for those stadium-ears almost. I find ‘Mrs McGrath’ particularly benefits from this. It not only makes these songs sound more contemporary but is likely the best way to make them accessible for his own fanbase who – were they recorded in a style much closer to their standards – may not give them as much time.

Personally – I love a lot of this record and it did mean I not only went out looking for more similar music but spent a lot of time with this in the car. Mission accomplished then, I guess.

I recall at the time of release that We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions was met with a lot of acclaim. It picked up a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk album and the tour that followed won similar applause (and was captured on the Live In Dublin album which featured a few of Bruce’s originals re-worked) though, reportedly, a little under-attended.  There was some negativity – the very ‘Springsteeninsation’ of these songs robbed them of some of their more traditional elements but then, if you want a traditional folk rendering would you really buy a Springsteen version? For my money, a lot of those traditional ones can come across a whole lot more bland and a whole lot less fun.

When it comes to why this one doesn’t go higher up in terms of rotation it’s probably down to the fact that, for all the fun and appeal of it, it’s not necessarily one to listen to all the way through each time – after a while the lack of diversity becomes a little much and I find myself wanting to listen to something else. An element which will also depend on which version of this album you got your hands on. I got this one on day of release so mine concludes with ‘Froggie Went A-Courtin”. Frustratingly, six months later the album was reissued as  We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions – American Land Edition. This version slapped an extra five tracks on including Springsteen’s own ‘American Land’ (later re-recorded for Wrecking Ball) and ‘How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live’ featuring some additional lyrics from Bruce. A little vexing as both are strong tunes but I wasn’t about to go out and buy the same album twice in one year and it felt a little cash-grab.

However, overall, nothing but like for We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.

I have one small curiosity of a hang-up with it though and it’s a trifle of a thing but it’s the cover. Bruce has been backed by the E Street band on ten albums. Yet the cover is always Bruce alone. So you’d guess the rule is that the musicians that play on the songs don’t get to the cover. Except, it would seem, the group of musicians of the Sessions Band (who he’d only played with a couple of times) – they get the cover. Garry Tallent has played bass on 14 Springsteen  records since 1972 – he’s not on any cover. A chap called Jeremy Chatzky plays upright bass on We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. He’s on the cover. Played bass on one album, on the cover. Garry Tallent bass on 14 albums, no cover. Even on the live albums credited to the E Street only Bruce was on the cover. I think only one album, a ‘quick we’ve got some big festival shows coming’ Greatest Hits comp saw the whole band on the front cover and even that was only for the European disc. My tongue is, of course, firmly in my cheek with most of this but I do wonder if this caused a slight eye twitch on the E Streeters….

Highlights: Mrs McGrath, John Henry, Pay Me My Money Down, Eerie Canal, Eyes On The Prize

Not so highlights: most of these will be empty from here on in.

*Again; unless you have the reissued version in which case you get one original Springsteen song and some original lyrics.

**He also revealed that he wrote and submitted a song for the Harry Potter films which went unused.

Blog Tour: The Exiled by Kati Hiekkapelto

Is there a Finish expression for busman’s holiday?

From the PR:
“Murder. Corruption. Dark secrets. A titanic wave of refugees. Can Anna solve a terrifying case that’s become personal?  
Anna Fekete returns to the Balkan village of her birth for a relaxing summer holiday. But when her purse is stolen and the thief is found dead on the banks of the river, Anna is pulled into a murder case. Her investigation leads straight to her own family, to closely guarded secrets concealing a horrendous travesty of justice that threatens them all. As layer after layer of corruption, deceit and guilt are revealed, Anna is caught up in the refugee crisis spreading like wildfire across Europe. How long will it take before everything explodes?”

41mxo4kt01l-_sx322_bo1204203200_I really need to get my hands on a copy of The Hummingbird, the first installment in Kati Hiekkapelto’s Anna Fekete series. Last year the second book The Defencless was one of my best reads of 2015  and, having just finished The Exiled it’s safe to say this is fast becomming one of my favourite series and Anna Fekete makes for a compelling lead character.

A fish out of water in Finland, Anna finds herself just as out of place back in her ‘home’ country – she’s lived abroad for so long now that the mannerisms, and even the language, are alien to her and Kati Hiekkapelto perfectly captures that strange sense of disconnect felt by those returning home from a different culture – specifically a ‘western’ one – and the seeming frustration at the change in how even the most straight-forward of things function differntly. It’s not obvious to all who haven’t witnessed or experienced it but there is a real change in the pace of life and priorities compared to more latin countries and it’s clear the author has done more than her homework here.

Kati does a wonderful job of evoking Serbia – the people, the mannerisms, the climate, the pastimes, even the social necessities and the odd (to Western eyes) importance placed on just those, along with Anna’s confused emotions on returning to her homeland – even if what she finds isn’t always to her liking there are certain sensations and memories that cannot be tainted and here come across beautifully. Ms Hiekkapelto’s skill, though, is in combining these rich evokations with a gripping and superbly paced plot. It’s one thing to paint a picture so vivid as to have the ready longing for another glass of homemade plum brandy, it’s another to write a genuinely engaging and taut mystery but it’s an art to get the two to work together seamlessly. That’s an art where Kati Hiekkapelto is most definitely skilled.

As much as I enjoy tearing though a fast-paced thriller, I love a good slow-burner and The Exiled more than delights; the writing is calm and effective – it draws you in with deceptive ease until you’re fully immersed in both place and plot with a great level of detail and characters and as determined to get to the bottom of the mystery as Anna Fekete herself.

One of the elements I enjoyed most about The Defenceless was Kati Hiekkapelto’s handling of important social themes and the same is true with The Exiled. Never more timely, the handling of the dehumanisation of refugees – even the nastily subtle manner in which the media decides they’re ‘immigrants’ rather than people fleeing absolutle terror – plays a central role in this novel; a pertinent message for our times as the Right seems to barrel it’s way through truth and humanity.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Exiled and can’t recommend it enough. Thanks again to Karen at Orenda for my copy and do check out the other stops on the blogtour:

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