Least to Most: Bruce – Wrecking Ball

“After the crash of 2008, I was furious at what had been done by a handful of trading companies on Wall Street. Wrecking Ball was a shot of anger at the injustice that continues on and has widened with deregulation, dysfunctional regulatory agencies and capitalism gone wild at the expense of hardworking Americans.”

After the relative mid-tempo doze that was his last studio album, a few years passed before a new effort from Mr Springsteen arrived and he certainly seemed more fired up and focused for the break. According the The Boss, it was on a drive home from a local bar that “Easy Money” came to him and the muse materialised for most of the material that would appear on this, his seventeenth studio album.

wreckingballI don’t necessarily dislike Wrecking Ball. There’s some very strong songs on here and it’s great to hear a change, sonically, in Bruce’s material. It’s hard to put my finger on what it is that doesn’t push this album higher up in my favourites and I’m not alone here, even Bruce mused “Wrecking Ball was received with a lot less fanfare than I thought it would be. I was sure I had it. I still think I do and did. Maybe my voice has been compromised by my own success, but I don’t think so.”

Personally, I think it’s down to the production. I think Bruce perhaps lost his nerve when it came to producing his own music – he’s said himself that when he initially tried recording something with the E Street Band post-reunion, the results were flat – hence calling Brendan O’Brien for The Rising. Unfortunately, he later called Ron Aniello and began a partnership that has resulted in some of my least favourite output.

The songs that make up Wrecking Ball are strong and gritty. The first half of the album specifically tackles the economic blight that followed the 2008 crash. Yet rather than give these songs a good, gritty recording or even bare-bones them and let the lyrics speak for themselves, they’re covered in ‘ticks and gimmicks’ – IMHO.

I know that he’d just produced Patti Scialfa’s Play It Where It Lays but I still to this day wonder what it was about his back catalogue (Lifehouse, Jars of Clay, Candlebox) that made Bruce place his music in Ron’s hands. The stapled-on soul / gospel parts of ‘Shackled and Drawn’ (“I want everybody to stand up and be counted tonight, you know we got to praaaay together”) and ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’ rub the wrong way, as does the overly prevalent use of drum machines / loops. It seems to jolt too much with the force of the more organic sounding music that tears along like some pumped, stadium-ready, celtic folk-rock dervish and suits the anger that Bruce is trying to convey.

Take the kick-off ‘We Take Care of Our Own’, does it need the echo on his voice?

This album more than any since shows the influence of the Seegar Sessions in terms of instrumentation – there’s a real Celtic lean to a the opening clutch of songs but with a lot more punch and wallop. At times it brings to mind the Dropkick Murphys – ‘Death To My Hometown’ especially – and he sings with a lot more urgency and earnestness than he had on Working On A Dream.

Regarding the choice of music Bruce said he “used a lot of music from the 1800s and the 1930s to show these things are cyclical. The album is resonant with history.”

Resonant with history is a good choice of phrase. There’s some of his own on here with the revisiting of ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’* and the recasting of ‘Wrecking Ball’ into an album track.

Now… this is something that a lot of people have raised issue with and I kinda understand their points. ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’ has been slighted in its handling. Yes, it’s Bruce’s song and up to him to do as he sees fit with it but; this was an E Street Band song, 14 years old at the point it was recorded and had been a staple of almost every show since the reunion tour on which it made its début . Steven Van Zandt considered it “a wonderful reintroduction of what has become a very different E Street Band. We just opened with it the other night, and the whole fucking stadium took off.”

Live it was a sprawling epic, a soulful, uplifting song of hope – it’s also my go-to first play if I haven’t picked up my guitar for a bit – and I admit I did often wonder what it would sound like if the band recorded under a producer willing to tighten the bolts up a bit. Unfortunately the band didn’t record it. Only two members feature, with the remaining parts played by Bruce and Ron and session drummer Matt Chamberlain replaces Max Weinberg. Given that they’d played it nightly for over a decade prior and then had to play it on the subsequent tour, I can’t help but wonder how the band felt on that one. Max thumps the shit out of the drums on this live, especially. Then it was decided to fade it in and out around more ‘stapled-on’ gospel singers (I have nothing against gospel our soul singers, if I need to make that clear) singing parts of “People Get Ready”. To me it was as if Bruce was trying too hard to frame his music / emphasis the points it was trying to make.

Here’s both versions for comparison:

Those that did make the cut were Van Zandt’s mandolin and Clarence Clemons, which brings me to another point…It was while recording Wrecking Ball that Bruce had been trying to reach Clarence to arrange a recording session. Specifically the sax solo on ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’. When Clarence did get back to Bruce he was feeling ill and it became the first and only time in which the Big Man bowed out of a scheduled session. No worries.. we’ll pick it up when you’re feeling stronger. Bruce went away on holiday with his wife and it was then that he got the call that Clarence had suffered a massive stroke. He passed not long after, something Bruce refers to as “like losing the rain.”

In the period that followed Ron Aneillo assembled the sax part on ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’ from recordings of the live version. When Bruce heard it he said it was though Clarence was in the room. It remains the song’s highlight. I just feel it was a missed opportunity to capture the punch that the band bring to it.

Wrecking Ball‘ was the other ‘old’ song to grace the album it gave it its title to. It had been written on the eve of the E Street Band’s final shows at Giants Stadium in 2009, after which it was to be tore down. As such it was a ‘road song’ written for the band. To quote Mr Van Zandt again: “They tend to take on a very comfortable arrangement because they’re being written for the live band and with the live band. It’s not like he’s going home in between and writing it and demo’ing it and showing it to the band later. He’s playing us the song backstage on his acoustic guitar, just like the old days. Songs like that take on a different sort of immediacy because they’re literally being worked up at soundcheck”.

It’s a strong song that’s become about much more – facing the hard shit that life can throw and actually daring it to bring it on. It’s the closest to the E Street Band playing as you’ll find – though Van Zandt himself doesn’t feature. I think at this point he was likely busy with ‘Lilyhammer’ (a show I do wish would make a return).

I mention the lack of E Streeters for a couple of reasons. First is that I think with Wrecking Ball, Bruce found the key to making ‘rock’ music with musicians outside of the band and still having it been accepted by his audience. That key being; feature some of them on a couple of tracks and tour the album with them. There’s no Garry Tallent or Roy Bittan and Nils Lofgren found his plectrums half-inched by Tom Morello. They’d all play the arse off of them on the following tour though.

The other reason is that Bruce has a new album in the works – well, it’s been delayed by the steady expansion of the current E Street tour in support of The River‘s box set. Both Bruce and Jon Landau have been at pains to point out that it’s a solo album and not an acoustic one, that it is “in fact, a very expansive record, a very rich record. It’s one of Bruce’s very creative efforts”. Given that he’s also been working with Ron Aniello (sigh) on it, Wrecking Ball‘s sound and lineup perhaps serve as the biggest indicator as to what, sonically, we might be in for.

Some criticism lobbed at Wrecking Ball accused it of being top-heavy and sonically uninteresting. For me the album gets better after ‘Jack of All Trades‘ (tepid, Bruce by numbers with added Morello). Aside from those already mentioned, songs from this point are solid – ‘Rocky Ground’ brings to mind the groove he mastered with ‘Streets of Philadelphia’ and features a Springsteen-penned rap, ‘This Depression’  originally considered to reference the economical could now be seen as Bruce praising Pati during the large depression of his own he was going through and the strange, ode to the dead that is ‘We Are Alive’:  “A party filled with ghosts. It’s a party filled with the dead, but whose voices and spirit and ideas remain with us.”

For my money – lose ‘Easy Money’, ‘Shackled and Drawn’, cut some of the effects and promote ‘Swallowed Up (In The Belly of a Whale)’ and  ‘American Land’ from bonus to full-album track and you’d have an absolute belter of an album with more of a sonic palette and a real barn-storming closer. Indeed, it’s how it plays on my iPod. But, then; everyone’s a critic….

Highlights: ‘We Take Care of Our Own’, ‘Death To My Hometown’, ‘Wrecking Ball’, ‘Rocky Ground’, ‘This Depression’, ‘We Are Alive’ and the bonus tracks

Not-so Highlights: ‘Jack of all Trades’

*’Land of Hope and Dreams’ was one of two new songs featured on the reunion tour Live In NYC album alongside ‘American Skin (41 Shots)’. The newer studio version of the latter was also cut during Wrecking Ball sessions and would later have Tom Morello dubbed onto it for release on High Hopes. Bruce, at the time, said that he wanted to give these live staples a more ‘official’ release but these are both songs that, I think, were better left – like ‘Seeds’ – in their original versions.

Book Review: The Mountain In My Shoe by Louise Beech

“A book is missing.

A black gap parts the row of paperbacks, like a breath between thoughts.”

love that opening.

Last year saw publication of Louise Beech’s How To Be Brave on Orenda Books. A thoroughly moving book that made my reads of the year list. What impressed me most was how its writer was unafraid to tackle emotional areas from which others might blanch while combining such insightful writing with a compelling story. She’s done it again.

I was more than happy and eager to read The Mountain In My Shoe when it was so kindly sent to me by Karen at Orenda. Life and this year being the utter shit that it has been, though, means I couldn’t do so straight away. My stop on the blogtour for this one was kindly populated by the author herself with a piece on adversity that’s well worth a read, here.

Now, though, I’ve not long turned the final page on this one and it’s time to get down my thoughts and I’ll try to do so without giving away too much. If I can…

From The PR: “A missing boy. A missing book. A missing husband. A woman who must find them all to find herself …

the-mountain-in-my-shoe-copy-275x423On the night Bernadette finally has the courage to tell her domineering husband that she’s leaving, he doesn’t come home. Neither does Conor, the little boy she’s befriended for the past five years. Also missing is his lifebook, the only thing that holds the answers. With the help of Conor’s foster mum, Bernadette must face her own past, her husband’s secrets and a future she never dared imagine in order to find them all.

Exquisitely written and deeply touching, The Mountain in My Shoe is both a gripping psychological thriller and a powerful and emotive examination of the meaning of family … and just how far we’re willing to go for the people we love.”

I seem to recall Louise Beech saying that in The Mountain In My Shoe she’d ‘accidentally’ written a thriller. If this is an accident then I’d be first in line to see what happens were she to set out to do so. I was thoroughly gripped and found myself turning through the pages with a speed that ought to have worried the binding. Contained within is a book that encompasses psychological thriller, emotional drama and gripping mystery.

As with How To Be Brave, there’s more than one voice telling a story in The Mountain In My Shoe: Bernadette, an abused housewife on the verge of leaving her controlling husband; Connor, a young boy who’s spent his life in the care system and The Book – Connor’s ‘life book’. The Life Book is Connor’s story updated by those that care for him – foster parents, social workers, teachers. I found this exceptionally moving – having just rediscovered my young son’s ‘My Story’ type book after moving and realising that, for Connor (and so many like him) life can deal some pretty harsh cards. A masterful touch from Mrs Beech.

The changing narratives and perspectives add a great depth to the story and each are handled convincingly and ring true. The Book is especially moving, upping the empathy for Connor and the suspense. It makes for painful reading at times but I’ve said this before and I’ll no doubt say it again; woe betide the author that goes for comfortable.

How To Be Brave and The Mountain In My Shoe are very different books and while there’s a few similarities (a diary and lifebook as narrative devices), there’s one undeniable thing they have in common; Louise Beech writes with an emotional honesty and bravery that elevates her work from the crowd. She writes in a way that just manages to cut to the core – especially as a parent – every single time. Brilliant.

Worth the wait, very highly recommended and thanks again to Karen at Orenda for another great book. Seriously, though, Karen; every time I think I’ve got my ‘Top Reads of the Year’ list sorted I open another book with the Orenda logo on its spine.

 

Tracks: Wots’…. Uh The Deal?

“Flash the readies
Wot’s, uh the deal?
Got to make to the next meal
Try to keep up with the turning of the wheel.”

Perched in the Pink Floyd discography between Meddle and The Dark Side of the Moon is the oft-overlooked Obscured By Clouds. I say oft-overlooked… fans will know of it, I’m sure, but it’s not one that really gets much of a mention and I don’t recall seeing any of its tracks appearing on any of the band’s compilations. Probably because it’s a soundtrack – to the French film ‘La Vallée’ – work more than it is an album proper, following their previous such efforts More and Zabriskie Point.

Now, between Meddle and The Dark Side of the Moon is an amazing place to sit, both stellar works. At the time the band were asked to create the soundtrack, work was already under way on Dark Side so I doubt the band were in a position to give it their all in terms of song-writing. Indeed from what I’ve read they weren’t too concerned at creating ‘songs’  and the sessions were somewhat rushed.

There is, though, some cracking songs on Obscured By Clouds that at least make it worthy of ownership if not constant rotation. ‘Mudmen’ is as massive, prism-shaped indicator as to what was in the Pink Floyd pipe as you could get, ‘Free Four’ is another cracker and got a bit of airplay Stateside and ‘Stay’ is quite lovely.

For me, though, this album is all about ‘Wot’s… Uh, the Deal?’ and it’s a Pink Floyd song that – were I to sit down and make it – would certainly be on my ‘Top Twenty’ or even ‘Top Ten’ PF songs.

There’s so much I love about this song – the rolling piano, the gentle melody and lyrics that touched on lyrical themes that would be explored greater on DSOTM and some wonderful vocals and guitar work from David Gilmour (and a great bit of lap steel). It’s a beautifully sedate piece of a style that’s somehow so very English they did so very well (see also ‘Grantchster Meadows‘ from Ummagumma) and would later come back to so spectacularly with ‘High Hopes’.

At what was undoubtedly a peak time for the band, even their rushed soundtrack work contains some great material.

Shame Roger Waters would cock it all up.

David Gilmour, while touring his On An Island album dusted the song off and gave it the odd airing, which is also worth sharing. I think. Not least because it bought about a rediscovery of the song for many and it includes Richard Wright on piano.

Book Review: Dark Side of the Moon by Les Wood

41binrfmxkl-_sx324_bo1204203200_Boddice, a crime lord looking over his shoulder for good reason, has assembled an unlikely band of misfit crooks. Their job is to steal a famous diamond worth millions, known as The Dark Side of the Moon. Despite the odds, the crew is self-serving squabbles and natural incompetence, the plan progresses. As events build to an explosive climax no one really knows who is playing who. Full of twists and turns and laugh-out-loud moments, this is a hugely enjoyable romp entirely from the criminal’s point-of-view, with not a single cop in sight.

An odd one, this; Dark Side of the Moon  by Les Wood is essentially a crime story with not a whisper of the police.  Instead what we get is a crime lord falling down the pecking order of Glasgow’s underbelly, desperate to pull off a big job and secure his place at the top of the table. A gang of petty criminals and hard men all under his thumb / at his mercy. The world’s most valuable diamond and a plot to steal it against tough security and odds with no experience and no real clue what the hell is going on.

Gritty, at times uproariously funny and populated by some truly memorable characters Dark Side of the Moon is more than a madcap heist story – for one thing there’s an undercurrent of sadness throughout. It’s a grim, blighted reality that these characters live in and it’s pulling them all down. Strangely, though, this meant I ended up having genuine sympathy for some of them despite the fact that these are some pretty nasty people. It’s a mark of real talent that Les Wood manages to draw out compassion for someone as brutal and hardened as Prentice – even after Kyle’s dog story.

Like the hard-men it portrays, this book gets its punches in early and doesn’t relent. Maybe it’s the continual influx of bad news that this year has heralded but I’m finding myself increasingly immune to shock, yet there are parts of Dark Side of the Moon that caused me to swear and put the book down for a moment or three (though never for long as I was hooked) so powerful are parts of it. I’ve not been able to look at a can of emulsion paint the same way since.

But don’t get me wrong – this isn’t a bleak book that’s hard to read. Noooo… far from it. I love a book that challenges and I thoroughly enjoyed reading Dark Side of the Moon. Les Wood finds the perfect balance between vividly portraying the dark underworld, humour and thrill with pacing that keeps the book surging along, building up to a terrifyingly gripping and bloody crescendo of a climatic scene that both quashed expectations and left my mouth agape.

Deliciously dark and hugely entertaining, The Dark Side of the Moon is a great novel and I’m very surprised that this is Les Wood’s first. Very grateful to Freight Books for sending this one my way and wholeheartedly recommended.

Least to Most: Bruce – Working On A Dream

I’m gonna take a bet that of this album’s fans, Steven Van Zandt (“I’m a pop-rock-band guy. That’s all I am”) is one of the biggest. He’s stated that he sees this – the last Bruce Springsteen and E-Street album to date – as the logical end of a trilogy that started with The Rising with “a projection more toward the pop-rock form” achieved more completely on Working On A Dream.

working_on_a_dreamI might be quoting more heavily on Mr Van Zandt than anyone else but that’s because Bruce is somewhat quiet about Working On A Dream in hindsight. Even in his own book it got just a fleeting mention. Perhaps he – like quite a few – consider it one without real staying power. Perhaps it was sheer timing that meant that Working On A Dream, the third-and-final album with Van Zandt & co would also be the least rewarding. Let’s face it; in the ten years preceeding its release Bruce had reunited the band and embarked on a huge tour, released The Rising, Magic, Devils & Dust, The Seegar Sessions, an anniversary edition of Born To Run, released The Essential compilation, toured the globe tirelessly and stepped into the political arena with the Vote For Change tour. A whirl of activity that by far eclipsed that of Bruce’s previous decade. It was probably time to take a break.

Instead, struck by inspiration and a writing spell that carried through from the final recording sessions for Magic, Bruce returned to the studio with Brendan O’Brien (one last time) and a core band of Max Weinberg, Roy Bittan and Garry Tallent (other members would be bought in to add their parts later) to catch, as he said, the “energy of the band fresh off the road from some of the most exciting shows we’ve ever done.”

One could argue that, with a Superbowl concert on the horizon the need for product was in mind and this one was perhaps a little under-cooked. One could argue that… could…

See, there are some songs here that I simply cannot connect to no matter how I try. The title track has never clicked. Yeah; it’s nice and pleasant but it just seems to lack spark or real weight and I think he’s tackled the theme better elsewhere (on Lucky Town especially). ‘Queen of the Supermarket’ simply should never have been and I had to wonder what a champion lyricist like Bruce was thinking with ‘Life Itself’ – “We met down in the valley where the wine of love and destruction flowed, there in that curve of darkness where the flowers of temptation grow”… do what, mate?

But. But. ButIt’s not fair, though, to write it off or brush over it completely because this is Bruce Springsteen and (with the rare exception) you only tend to have to wait a second for a belter of a song to reveal itself and there is a lot to enjoy on Working On A Dream.

Take the opener; ‘Outlaw Pete’. I know it gets a bit of slack for being a bit overblown and borderline self-parody, but I still enjoy it (granted, I wouldn’t listen to it everyday) and I don’t think Bruce is exactly taking himself seriously with it. Yes it’s daft (“by six months old he’d done three months in jail”), yes it may well have borrowed from another song but it sets the scene – I really think that at this point it was a case that, rather than sweating over everything too much, the mood was “you know what? Fuck it, let’s give it a go”.  Not to mention that when played live (though I don’t think it’s been touched since) Steve – a much underused player on stage these days – got to play the lead.

Right on it’s heals – ‘My Lucky Day‘ is another fast, blistering tune that, again, sounds like a blast was had recording it. Its fast, rawer sound almost at odds with the layers of overdubs and lush, huge 60’s sound that drapes so much of the album. Step past the next couple of momentum stallers and you get to the great sonic backdrop of ‘What Love Can Do’ and the swampy, blues-stomp of ‘Good Eye‘ a nice enough (though nothing that special) couple of tunes that sandwich ‘This Life’ – a more obvious Beach Boys’ aping sound you’d be hard pushed to find:

‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ jangles along quickly and without much to hang on to, as does ‘Surprise Surprise’. ‘Kingdom of Days’ is a genuinely warm one about love and ageing. The album’s most affecting track though is saved for last (if we exclude – still very good – ‘The Wrestler’ tacked on as a bonus).

‘The Last Carnival’ is seen by many as a follow up to ‘Wild Billy’s Circus Story’ from The Wild The Innocent & the E Street Shuffle. It is, more importantly, for Danny Federici who passed away in April 2008, the first member of the E Street Band to do so having played with Bruce for forty years. Danny had appeared with the band briefly over the previous Magic tour and did so last less than a month before his death. Bruce asked him what song he wanted to play – it was, of course, ‘Sandy’. In his book it’s clear that while Danny Federici was the only member of the band to drive him to violent rage, Bruce had a genuine love for the organ player and his death certainly rocked him, as he said in the eulogy: “After a lifetime of watching a man perform his miracle for you, night after night, it feels an awful lot like love.”

‘The Last Carnival’ is a beautiful send off. An immensely affecting farewell to a fallen brother. After opening to Jason Federici’s accordion, Bruce sings at the bottom of his range in a barely-suppressed choke and hush against minimal accompaniment “Where have you gone my handsome Billy?” before layered voices swell to a choir. It’s a moving send-off and ending to the last album featuring the full E Street Band*.

A couple of clunkers aside, while there’s nothing wrong with the majority of Working On A Dream it perhaps lacks the sharpness and punch of its immediate predecessor. That being said, in amongst some of the most ambitious production of his career (Rolling Stone gave it the default 5 star review, though none of its songs made their 100 Best Springsteen Songs list, wetting their knickers over its lush sound), Bruce was still capable of crafting a fair few beauties so that the good by far outweighed the bad.

Highlights: My Lucky Day, Kingdom of Days, The Last Carnival

Lowlights: Queen of the Supermarket

*Certainly their last full album. Songs that didn’t make the cut on this or its immediate predecessors and featured E Street (and Danny Federici) included High Hopes highlights ‘Down In The Hall’ and ‘The Wall’.