Least to Most; Bruce – Magic

“I tried to combine personal and political, so you can read into the songs either way. You can read the record as a comment on what’s been going on, or you can read it just as relationship songs.”

bruce_springsteen_-_magicIn December 2016 Bruce sat down with Brendan O’Brien at his home, handed him a book of lyrics and then played the tunes on his guitar, offering the producer the pick of the litter. The two then decamped to Atlanta again and with a core band of Springsteen, Weinberg, Bittan and Tallent, laid the basic tracks for the album. Other band members were called in to lay down their parts as needed and sessions were complete within two months. Another example of the pair’s more precise recording practice, it meant that without the opportunity to spend protracted amounts of time exploring alternative avenues and ideas, all effort and concentration focused on the one group of songs and bringing them to perfection. Shorn of the fiddles of Seeger Sessions and the acoustic dirge of Devils and Dust, the resulting Magic is the high benchmark of Springsteen’s second chapter and bursts with a fire and passion that sets a lot of his work in the shade.

I’ll be clear – as if it wasn’t already – I fucking love this album. The songs here are harder and sharper than on The Rising, the E Street Band – during its late peak – is playing tighter than a duck’s arse and the result is a joy to behold. The sound is ridiculously lush and there’s more revealed with every listen; the mandolin on ‘Magic’, Federici’s organ on ‘Livin’ In The Future’, the moody atmospherics of ‘Devil’s Arcade’ but I’m jumping ahead….

It starts with guitars. A thousand guitars and pounding drums, as ‘Radio Nowhere‘ leads an impassioned, energetic blast of all the E Street’s finest qualities and Bruce growling out his call to arms “Is there anybody alive out there?” against a thumping beat and euphoric blast from Clarence Clemons’ sax. Magic is Bruce and the E Street tuned in and meaning business as they bore through a new Springsteen classic and straight into ‘You’ll Be Coming Down’ which sounds like a blast of Bruce’s sound from earlier decades:

Indeed, Bruce spoke of how for this album he tried to get back to his earlier, romantic sounds last heard on Born To Run and there’s a wealth of nostalgia in the sound*.

“There’s some classic Sixties pop forms. California-rock influences –Pet Sounds and a lot of Byrds. I wanted to take the productions that create the perfect pop universes and then subvert them with the lyrics – fill them with the hollowness and the fear, the uneasiness of these very uneasy times.”

Take ‘Girls In Their Summer Clothes’ – which, apparently, Bruce had little interest in but O’Brien pushed for its inclusion – as an example of this; the doubling up of Bruce’s voice for the first time in goodness knows how long against a gorgeous backdrop (and a great rhythm guitar part) . Or the horns of ‘Livin In The Future’ that blast like a Freeze-out on a certain avenue. Or the out-and-out joy of ‘I’ll Work For Your Love‘.

But even here, the fire lurks beneath the surface. Bruce is angry and the pain and disbelief are shot through every song no matter how much he may have tried to allow the songs to be taken without them. There’s the groundskeeper who “opened the gates and let the wild dogs run” in ‘Livin..’ or  how the “city of peace has crumbled, our book of faith’s been tossed” in ‘I’ll Work For Your Love’, there’s no getting around it and it makes for some of his finest and most pointed lyrics in a long time. Certainly the best of Bruce V.2

I’ve mentioned before that  ‘Gypsy Biker’ shares a lot of ground with ‘Shut Out The Light’. The earlier track was one of Springsteen’s Vietnam tunes, ‘Gypsy Biker’ is one of a more modern war – Johnny gets to pull out his Ford and polish up the chrome in the former, the biker in the latter is coming home in a coffin; “Sister Mary sits with your colors”. It’s one of his best.

I remember at the time of release, Magic was referred to as being about “love in the time of Bush” **. There’s no direct references here, no mention of specific wars or Bush (though it may well be his “boot heels clickin’ like the barrel of a pistol spinnin’ round” on ‘Livin In The Future’) but he doesn’t need to.  The threat he felt in 2006 is there throughout.  Perhaps its most telling on the beautiful title track. Quiet, gentle guitar and chamberlin undercut with strings and Van Zandt’s mandolin make for a soothing, hypnotic stroll or dance as Springsteen lists ‘magic’ tricks but then it’s there in the last verse:

“Now there’s a fire down below
But it’s comin’ up here
So leave everything you know
And carry only what you fear
On the road the sun is sinkin’ low
There’s bodies hangin’ in the trees
This is what will be, this is what will be.”

If there was any doubt left about this album’s thrust it’s obliterated by what comes next. ‘Last To Die‘ takes it’s lyrics from John Kerry’s testimony on Vietnam (“How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”) and straps it to a howling, fierce track.

The album’s closing track*** ‘Devil’s Arcade’ is a dark bruiser of a tune that’s perhaps the most literal on it. A lover’s recall of portentous earlier memories and passion before her love enlists and winds up being wounded “the cool desert morning, then nothin’ to save, just metal and plastic where your body caved” and in a hospital while she waits for his touch –  Weinberg hammers home the rhythmic thump against the repeated “The beat of your heart, the beat of your heart”.

Again; it’s one of the finest things Springsteen has written and this album is chock-full of them. It’s strange to listen to this album again (though it’s rarely out of rotation) now as we find ourselves staring down even darker corridors than GW had lead the world. Then, as now, this album’s warmth and spirit remain a lighthouse; there is love, there is light and it needn’t be the monsters that call the tune, we have the choice.

Highlights: ‘Radio Nowhere’, ‘Livin In The Future’, ‘Your Own Worst Enemy’, ‘Gypsy Biker’, ‘Magic’, ‘Last To Die’, ‘Devil’s Arcade’.

*Something which would lead to a burst of writing just as the Magic sessions wound down and form the basis of Working On A Dream.

**Not the working title of a late-night Gabriel García Márquez adaptation.

***Officially. Following the death of Springsteen’s long-time assistant Terry Magovern, ‘Terry’s Song’ was added.

Blog Tour: Deep Down Dead by Steph Broadribb

From the PR: “Lori Anderson is as tough as they come, managing to keep her career as a fearless Florida bounty hunter separate from her role as single mother to nine-year-old Dakota, who suffers from leukaemia. But when the hospital bills start to rack up, she has no choice but to take her daughter along on a job that will make her a fast buck. And that’s when things start to go wrong.

The fugitive she’s assigned to haul back to court is none other than JT, Lori’s former mentor – the man who taught her everything she knows … the man who also knows the secrets of her murky past. Not only is JT fighting a child exploitation racket operating out of one of Florida’s biggest theme parks, Winter Wonderland, a place where ‘bad things never happen’, but he’s also mixed up with the powerful Miami Mob. With two fearsome foes on their tails, just three days to get JT back to Florida, and her daughter to protect, Lori has her work cut out for her. When they’re ambushed at a gas station, the stakes go from high to stratospheric, and things become personal.

Breathtakingly fast-paced, both hard-boiled and heart-breaking, Deep Down Dead is a simply stunning debut from one of the most exciting new voices in crime fiction.”


This book cost me some sleep; once it gets going Deep Down Dead is an addictive read and one any fan of a good thriller will love. 

Now I look at the book on my shelves I’m surprised that it’s over 330 pages – it rips along with such a pace but then there’s an awful lot of good stuff packed into Deep Down Dead: a gritty female lead with more punch than a Klitschko brother and a back story that ensures you’re hanging to each page rooting for her while the plot has more twists and excitement than a ride at Winter Wonderland. That this is Steph Broadribb’s first novel makes that all the more impressive. 

A thoroughly enjoyable read with enough grip and twists to keep the reader hooked through to the end. A strong debut and I’m looking forward to the next chapter.

Thanks again to Karen at Orenda for my copy and check out the other stops on the tour.


Least to Most: Bruce – Tracks

“The alternate route to some of the destinations I travelled to on my records.” Bruce Springsteen

“Every song on Tracks is a lost argument”. Steven Van Zandt.

Strap in, this one is a long one…

bruce_springsteen_tracksIn 1998, with eleven studio albums to his name, close to 75% of Springsteen’s work remained in the vaults. His mammoth studio and recording sessions from Darkness on the Edge of Town onward meant that he’d essentially written four albums worth of material for every one that was released. His production and arranging partner for much of this time, Steven Van Zandt, would get frustrated by this practice – especially when he had to work so hard for his own songs – as many of his favourite tracks would end up shelved despite being the sort of thing other acts could make a career from but has referred to this period as Bruce’s “hundred song phase”. Not many artists are capable of such sustained writing periods, let alone when the material was so solidly strong.

When Tracks was released in 1998 it had already been whittled down from six discs of material to four and the 66 tracks ran from Springsteen’s 1972 audition tapes for Columbia through roughly chronological order to the late 90’s, divided up (as illustrated by the covers given to each of those discs inside the box) into what Bruce saw as the sections of his song-writing arc. Given that it came at the end of an otherwise sparse decade for Bruce fans, it was embarrassment of riches; of the songs included a handful had been released as B-Sides, some had leaked out on bootlegs and some had been heard live but never released. Plenty of them though had never even been heard of.

Those audition tapes kick proceedings off but, given the bare-bones approach to their released versions, don’t offer anything other than a passing interest and ‘Bishop Danced’ isn’t all that good if I’m honest. The first disc is made up of out-takes that, for the most part, it’s clear to see why; the songs are good ideas but don’t really make for strong contenders. I couldn’t imagine much debate went into ‘Zero & Blind Terry’ vs ‘Incident on 57th Street’ but the songs are good examples of Bruce working out ideas in the studio, with many a part stripped from one and dropped into another – albeit a couple of decades later with ‘Seaside Bar Song’s “the highway is alive tonight” lyric. But that’s because, up to, and including, the Born To Run sessions, Bruce’s writing hadn’t hit its stride (in terms of prolificacy not quality) and I imagine the constraints put upon him by the record label meant the time to do so wasn’t afforded to him in the way the Appel lawsuit would force it. For once the first disc reaches ‘Rendevous’ and the sublime ‘Iceman‘  we’re jumping into songs from Bruce’s most fertile period and the quality kicks up into a different gear. The leap is noticeable between ‘Linda Let Me Be The One’ and ‘Don’t Look Back’.

Now, in the same way the The Promise represents a lost album, the second and third discs of Tracks are nigh on faultless and could easily make up three classic albums from tracks completely omitted from The River and Born In The USA. Just take the breathless joy of Disc 2 opener ‘Restless Nights’ as Danny Federici whips up a dervish on his keys before Bruce’s guitar rips into it a minute and a half in:

Tracks like ‘Roulette‘, ‘Dolls House’, ‘Where The Bands Are’, ‘Loose Ends‘, ‘Living on the Edge of the World’ are pure, perfect three/four minute pop songs. Van Zandt was aghast that these were shelved – believing an album of these, plus ‘The River’ would be been a great thing. He’s not wrong. ‘Living on the Edge of the World‘ perhaps sounds strange but that’s because Bruce would take a few of it’s lines and strap them to altogether different beats for Nebraska‘s ‘Open All Night’ and ‘State Trooper’. Oh and there’s the absolute classic ‘Take ‘Em as They Come’ which just bounds along on a stellar beat that surpasses many a released song.

Slipped just before ‘Take ‘Em..’ is a Born In The USA out-take whose existence was previously unknown;

‘Wages of Sin’, another Bruce classic, is the first hint of what’s to come on Disc 3; a wealth of tunes that were recorded between 1982 and 1984 in that protracted recording period that lead to Bruce’s biggest-selling album. As big as that album was, the tracks that didn’t make the cut could easily be put together into an alternative album that would’ve been as good if not better. Just picking a handful of those tracks, say: ‘Wages of Sin, ‘Rockaway the Days‘, ‘Shut Out the Light’, ‘This Hard Land’, ‘Frankie’, ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find (Pittsburgh)‘, ‘Lion’s Den’ will give you a strong album, if you were to add ‘My Love Will Not Let You Down‘, which breezes and rocks past plenty like on Born In The USA then you’ve got a classic and that’s without even mentioning another previously unheard of song – ‘Brothers Under The Bridges ’83’:

More than an ‘alternate route’ there’s alternate albums here. Oddly enough, Bruce even toyed with yet another album approach between Nebraska and …USA. Buoyed by the positive reception Nebraska‘s stripped-down sound received he headed back and laid down a few more tracks in a similar bare-bones, minimal approach before abandoning and heading back into the studio with the full band. Of those recorded during those sessions the soft tribute to Elvis, ‘Johnny Bye Bye’ and ‘Shut Out The Light’ would end up released as b-sides for ‘Born in the USA’ and ‘I’m On Fire’ before their inclusion on Tracks.

It’s not only ..USA that could’ve taken a different theme – just take a look at the difference in themes on those songs recorded during the Tunnel of Love sessions. ‘The Wish‘ is perhaps most known of these- a song Bruce wrote for his mother but felt unable to release officially given its sentimentality – while ‘The Honeymooners’ (a home-recording with the sound of dog barking captured in the background), ‘Lucky Man’ and ‘When You Need Me’ give a different insight to the men & women relationships that album tended to lean toward. Hell, ‘When You Need Me‘, similar in its uncomplicated sentiment as ‘Two For The Road’ is as content as Bruce would get this side of Lucky Town: “When you need me call my name, ’cause without you my life just wouldn’t be the same”.

The final disc loses the momentum a little with a lot of bass-heavy songs cut during the Human Touch sessions weighing it down. “I wrote about half a record on the bass, where you had a note and you had your idea. The only one that made it to release was ‘57 Channels,’”… indeed, and on Disc 4 there’s the remainder of those cuts – all exploring similar themes (internal dialogues working out psychological or relationships as Bruce himself was at the time) but none that really stand out as worthy of going further. That being said I’d rather something like ‘Gave It  A Name‘ or ‘When The Lights Go Out’ had seen release over the aforementioned Human Touch cut itself.

There’s still plenty to enjoy, though. In ‘Songs’ he explains that to shake off his writer’s block, Bruce started sessions for Human Touch by experimenting with different styles he “had always liked: soul, rock, pop, R&B”.  If you ask me, removed from much of the heavy-handed production that spoilt that album, they shine brighter here. One such song ‘Sad Eyes‘ is a cutting tune that’s better than most released on that album (and features David Sancious who also plays on ‘Part Man, Park Monkey’), ‘Seven Angels’ is back to the rock but undercut with more humour and looseness than anything that made the cut and ‘Gave It A Name’ – the master take couldn’t be found so Bruce and Roy Bittan recut the track in ’98 – is masterful in it’s minimalism. Oh, and there’s also ‘Happy’ the sole out-take from Lucky Town omitted only, I guess, because it shared the “gold and diamond rings…drug to ease the pain that living brings” line with the superior ‘My Beautiful Reward’.

The box is rounded out by the then-latest omissions. ‘Back In Your Arms‘ features the E Street Band and was recorded during the Greatest Hits sessions – like ‘Secret Garden’ it was originally one intended for Bruce’s shelved ‘Philadelphia’-style album – while ‘Brothers Under The Bridge’ is a beautiful out-take that was, exasperatingly when you considered what it could’ve replaced, omitted from The Ghost of Tom Joad and brings the set up to what was then Bruce’s most recent studio sessions. A story about a homeless Vietnam veteran living “who has a grown daughter that he’s never seen, and she grows up, and she comes looking for her dad. And what he tells her.” It would be performed live after ‘Born in the USA’ or ‘Shut Out The Light’ to place it within Bruce’s Vietnam arc and its one of those songs (like ‘The Promise’) whose live rendering meant fans were puzzled by its omission from the record.

Not everything on Tracks is brilliant but a lot of it is, much of it is very strong and some of the songs are absolute Bruce classics that stand above many in his catalogue. That’s why it’s on this list and why it’s on this list in this place; if I were talking to a Bruce newbie I’d recommend many of the songs on here well before a lot in his catalogue.

While many box-sets merely curate already-released material with a smattering of live cuts or offer up b-sides that are clearly inferior to their As, Tracks represents a much deeper fleshing out of the Springsteen narrative and emphasises just how strong a songwriter he is; even those tracks omitted from his albums piss all over many artist’s hits. Four discs and 66 songs is a lot to get through but it’s worth it. If you’re pressed for time then Discs 2 and 3 contain enough gold to make sure the box is worth of inclusion as an essential addition to a Springsteen collection / discussion.

Highlights: ‘Iceman’, ‘Don’t Look Back,’ ‘Restless Nights’, ‘Roulette’, ‘Take ‘Em as They Come’, ‘Shut Out the Light’, ‘My Love Will Not Let You Down’, ‘Frankie’, ‘Rockaway the Days’, ‘Brothers Under the Bridges ’83’, ‘Seven Angels’, ‘Gave It A Name,’ ‘Happy’, ‘Brothers Under The Bridge’

Not-so-highlights: The omission of ‘The Promise’. This actually lead to many a complaint from fans. A new recording of it would be slapped on the single-disc-sampler/cash-in 18 Tracks along with another couple of ‘new old’ tracks – ‘The Fever’ and ‘Trouble River’. 18 Tracks, intended for fans who didn’t fancy the full box, actually fared worse than Tracks in terms of sales and charting; Tracks was something of a hit for Bruce, hitting the Top 30 and shifting plenty of units, defying expectations for a Box Set in much the same way as Live: 1975-85 had a decade earlier.

Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

I’ve set myself a target / challenge of reading 40 books this year. It might seem like a few but I cleared 30 or so last year and I’m 3 down already. The first book I read in 2017 is going to take some beating though. It really cost me some sleep.

img_1467Some time last year I saw All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr on a table in the local (chain) bookshop. Immediately I was struck by the cover (I’m pretty sure a lot of others do judge books this way) even before I read the blurb on the back which well and truly got my interest. However; my TBR pile was already well stocked so it stayed on the table. Until it appeared under the Christas tree.

I’ve heard some people bemoan the historical fiction genre as limited and this has always baffled me. Aside from the opportunities offered by the ‘what if / alternative timelines’ explored by the likes of Fatherland, even small parts of history such as the Second World War offer a canvas so vast and wide as to be pretty much limitless in opportunities for invention and story while the gravitas of events is always going to add some emotional heft and that’s certainly the case with All the Light We Cannot See.

Thing is, with all that emotional heft and known touch points, it’s easy for historical novels to overdo it and try and hit every (see City of Theives) but that’s not the case here. While it’s clear from the get go that this is going to be an emotional novel – Marie-Laure is a blind girl whose mother died in childbirth while Werner and his sister Jutta are orphans in a harsh German mining town, Doerr doesn’t over egg the pudding. He doesn’t need to:

“Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighbourhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.

In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.”

The story gets started with the night before the near destruction of Saint-Malo in 1944 before tracing the timelines of its two leads back to their childhoods and briskly bringing them to the present and to each other in one hell of a climax. Told in present tense, the prose is short and bullet sharp and keeps the momentum of the story ripping along, there’s no time to dwell on emotional impact (perhaps making it all the more hard-hitting when it comes) and there are moments when it’s clear that Doerr is himself wrapped up in the story and just letting it unfold and getting out of its way. An absolute joy to read.

A story of science and the power of radio, Nazi occupation, wonderment and the question of morality, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is a genuinely great novel- it’s a good thriller crossed with a damn good stab at great literature. It’s been pretty much highly received and won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (I’m also a big fan of the previous winner, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch).


Least to Most: Bruce – The Rising

“I need your kiss, but love and duty called you someplace higher
Somewhere up the stairs into the fire…”

I’ve mentioned before that I think the negative reaction to Human Touch and Lucky Town gave more of a knock to Springsteen’s confidence than he’d be willing to let on; rather than follow Greatest Hits with a full blown reunion and band album he went the solo route and still wasn’t convinced that the Reunion Tour was a good thing practically up until the last minute. When that tour finished in July 2000, many assumed the next logical step would be to get the reconstituted band into the studio for a new album, presumably featuring some of the new songs they’d aired during that tour.

springsteen_the_risingBut… not quite. Instead Bruce spent roughly half a year logging up solo recording sessions, perhaps wary of going for another ‘rock’ album after so many years. Indeed, during press for The Rising he admitted hesitancy at returning to his ‘rock voice’.  Then, in March 2001, Bruce assembled his then core production team of Landau and Chuck Plotkin with Toby Scott recording and bought the E Street Band into New York’s Hit Factory. A handful of songs were recorded but the results… didn’t jump. It seems hard to think that with the band at full power a recording could be flat but it had happened before when he struggled with the sound on The River and Bruce has admitted that he realised he was now a better writer and singer than he was a producer and that modern techniques and equipment were simply unknown to him. He also felt that there was no unifying theme to bind the tracks written thus far into a ‘record’. If Bruce and the E Street Band were to move into the new millennium as anything other than an oldies touring act, he needed a new sound and a subject.

Then everything changed one terrifying and tragic September morning.

On his way home to his wife and kids that morning Bruce was sat at a stop sign. The driver of a car hurtling down the off-ramp recognised him, wound his window down and, as he drove past, shouted “Bruce, we need you now!” Bruce got the message, he just didn’t know how he could respond. Whether it was the call from the car or Bruce reading obituary after obituary mentioning victims being his fans*, but as he found himself glued to footage and, watching the firefighters making the ultimate sacrifice, climbing up the stairs, bidding goodbye to this world and stepping into the unknown… the songs started coming with ‘Into The Fire’.**

Some years prior, the president of Sony Records had mentioned to Bruce that producer Brendan O’Brien (Pearl Jam, RATM, STP amongst many others) had mentioned a desire to work with him. The two connected, met up and Springsteen played him a couple of tracks he’d written. Now, O’Brien is a very hands-on producer, in search of the ‘song’ he’ll roll up his sleeves and get stuck in. This doesn’t always please the artists. By all accounts his sessions with Aerosmith in 2009 were fraught with tension between him and Tyler partly due to the frontman’s displeasure at O’Brien’s methods**. When Springsteen played him ‘You’re Missing’, O’Brien jumped straight in re-arranging. Initially he believed Springsteen was impressed, though he later found out The Boss wasn’t so happy at the idea but realised this might be needed: “At one point Brendan said, ‘Well, I think we should find another chord for this spot.’ I said, ‘Find another chord?! Wait a minute, now! Hold on, hold on! Those are the chords!’ But then I’m thinking that my job now as the producee, is to say yes.” They cut the demo and Brendan told Bruce “this is good, now go write some more”.

When recording on The Rising began in late January 2002 at Southern Tracks in Atlanta, it was out with the old and in with the new. Brendan O’Brien produced and mixed and recording was handled by Nick DiDia. In the past Springsteen album sessions were long and laborious. As Van Zandt, back in the band sharing second guitar duties with Nils Lofgren, Bruce would “write a bunch of songs, we’d record them, then, you know, hang out for a bit. He’d write another bunch of songs, we’d record them. What would happen is, we’d always do two or three or four records before one finally came out.” For The Rising the band would run through the song a couple of times and O’Brien would call time to record. Recording sessions for the last E Street Band album, Born in the USA, took over two years. Recording sessions for The Rising took seven and a half weeks.

urlThe first new Bruce Springsteen album I bought on day of release, The Rising is the sound of Bruce and his band embarking on a new era, re-galvanised and sounding tighter and tougher than before, songs focused and punchier than in over a decade. Bruce said of the change in sound that “I heard the way we sound right now. Today. And I said, ‘Well, that’s what we need to do.’ If somebody has all our other records, I want to make sure they don’t have this one. You can’t replace this one with some of the other ones.”

O’Brien’s touch isn’t as heavy-handed and obvious as a later producer would be, the altering of the band’s sound more of an update than an overhaul. His work seems to be more in finding the essence of a song, distilling it down and bringing different sounds to the forefront – the guitar tone on here eclipsing that of Lucky Town / Human Touch for example – and adding subtle touches to the overall palette.

The Rising never tackles the theme of September 11th directly, but it’s shadow can be felt across the album. With ‘Your Missing’ and ‘Into The Fire’ nine of the album’s fifteen tracks were written post 9/11 while ‘Nothingman’ and ‘My City Of Ruins’ fit the overall feel perfectly.

While not quite the finest record of the Bruce V2 era it’s certainly up there higher than most of his recorded output since and marked a fine return to form. I’m not a fan of ‘Waitin’ On A Sunny Day,’ nor am I that bothered about ‘Lets Be Friends (Skin to Skin)’ but I find it hard to find a fault with the rest of the album and it gets many a play. These are songs of loss, sure, but they’re also songs of finding strength in that loss. Songs of love, faith and power. Themes Springsteen had sung of throughout his career and, with the rejuvenation offered by The Rising, would go on to do so into a new chapter of his career.

Highlights: ‘The Rising’ ‘Into The Fire’ ‘Worlds Apart’ ‘Mary’s Place’ ‘You’re Missing’ ‘The Fuse’

*Bruce would reach out to the families of those victims, talking and consoling at length.

**’Into the Fire’ wasn’t finished just yet so come the A Tribute To Heroes concert it was ‘My City Of Ruins’, written previously for Asbury Park, that Bruce played.

***The band was already fraught with tension, Tyler was using again and were abandoned much to the chagrin of other members even after, according to Brad Whitford, O’Brien “bent over backwards to do whatever he could to make Steven comfortable”.

We got the means to make amends… Pearl Jam and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Warning: rant incoming.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a strange thing. From where I sit it seems like a lot of back-slapping and congratulating from industry-types with very little real merit. Does it mean something to be a “Hall of Famer”? Does it add all that much credence anymore? Perhaps it means more in the States than it does here where a UK Music Hall of Fame sputtered, stalled and stopped before anyone paid it any attention.

Let’s spin back a bit to 1983; the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was set up by Ahmet Ertegun (he of Atlantic Records) to “recognize and archive the history of the best-known and most influential artists, producers, engineers, and other notable figures, who have each had some major influence on the development of rock and roll” (Wikipedia) and began inducting such artists in 1986 with the first group of artists including Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke and Chuck Berry.

Since then each year a group of artists are nominated, voted for and inducted in a ceremony – again; from where I sit – that seems overly long on speeches and pretty short on the ‘rock and roll’. With each year there’s criticisms about who is and isn’t nominated (chief amongst which being that those controlling nominations, as a small group, are not musicians and nominate based on personal taste) and then there’s plenty of column inches and website debate and pages handed over to the ‘drama’ of which members from a certain band will be inducted, will attend, will tell the HoF to shove it…

From those Bozos in Makeup to Axl Rose’s tantrums, the question about which ex-members should be in alongside the nominees seems to draw more debate than discussing that band’s lasting impact. The cynical side of me (which seems to only get more so after a decade in marketing) certainly thinks that this is a deliberate act by the HoF in order to stir the pot, get more attention and create more buzz than the ceremony would otherwise get, nominating bands for whom the real question will be “will they induct that member who played tambourine on their first album or…?”

Nirvana had it in 2014 when those members inducted included Dave Grohl and not the four drummers that had sat on the stool pre-Nevermind. Would they induct Chad Channing or the first drummer, Aaron Burckhard? For, you see, there’s a criteria for getting in: “artists will first become eligible for the Rock Hall 25 years after the release of their first record (LP, EP or single)”. Bleach was released in 1989 (with Chad Channing on drums and Jason Everman on guitar*) but Nevermind, the first record Grohl drummed on, came out in 1991. It really adds weight to the idea that the HoF is after the popular vote more than anything – everyone loves a bit of Dave Grohl, nobody knows who Chad Channing is. There was, of course, a lot of online hubbub about the ‘snub’ of Chad.

Being the perennially nice guy of rock that he is, of course, Dave praised those drummers that had hit the skins before him in his speech and the band invited Channing to attend.

This year that question and the online buzz falls upon the collective shoulders of Pearl Jam. A band with a huge and dedicated following who forged a path for many to follow. Few can touch them live or match their unique set lists and they’re certainly the last men standing when it comes to the ‘Seattle Scene’. Their place in the Hall, even in the first year of eligibility, isn’t likely to be questioned. They’re also a band who, for the first half of their career, had a Spinal Tap scenario with their drummers**.

Released in August 1991, Ten featured Eddie Vedder, Stone Gossard, Mike McCready, Jeff Ament and, on drums, Dave Krusen. Krusen, though, had left the band in May due to alcoholism. His replacement, Matt Chamberlain only hung around for a handful of shows before heading off to join the SNL band. He suggested a guy to take his place; Dave Abbruzzese. Abbruzzese played drums through the rest of the tour supporting Ten, on Vs. and Vitalogy before he was fired in 1994.  During which time the band would tour extensively, Abbruzzese would write the music for ‘Go’, ‘Last Exit’ and ‘Angel’ and defined the band’s sound at the time with his ferocious drumming. The harder sound he bought helped them move away from being pigeon-holed as another clone.

If you ask a Pearl Jam fan what the band’s ‘peak’ period was I’m willing to lay money on a large percentage saying 1991-1994. Abbruzzesse was a key part of that sound. The problem is, he enjoyed it too much. I’m not talking piles of cocaine and claims of being a Golden God, no; he just loved it all and smiled too much. Rumours swirl as to why Abbruzzesse was actually let go but it boils down to the fact that he was obviously having fun. Vedder was, at this time, at his most serious and ‘punk’, it wasn’t ‘cool’ to be enjoying your success and, as the front man, he took most of the attention and it was a lot to handle. While the band withdrew from the spotlight, Dave would give interviews (albeit to drum magazines, not Spin or Rolling Stone). While the other members would go the Volvo or battered old truck route, Dave bought a Lexus. He didn’t really care about the famous Ticket Master Boycott either. Apparently the final straw for Dave’s tenure came when he accidentally broke the neck of one of Vedder’s guitars during Vitalogy sessions and didn’t hang around to tell Eddie or apologise. He wouldn’t be in the band when it came time to tour the album he’d helped create, he was let go – Vedder wouldn’t do it, the task fell to Stone Gossard.

Pearl Jam

Jack Irons, formerly of the Red Hot Chili Peppers*** was then in the saddle for four years and two albums before he ducked out (not happy with touring) in 1998 and then-former Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron took the seat he still occupies. Now, Cameron is certainly the stick man with the longest tenure and its clear that he’s considered a full member of the band – Vedder continues to praise him and has credited his joining with keeping them together – but I don’t think I’m alone in seeing him as an outsider even some 19 years and five albums later.

Now of all their six drummers, only one, technically, qualifies: Dave Krusen. He played on Ten, twenty-five years ago. By all accounts he’s quite surprised at the nod. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, however, is also inducting Matt Cameron. And nobody from the period between the two.

Now, out-dated and bloated an institution as it may be, if the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are recognising Matt Cameron then they sure as shit should recognise Dave Abbruzzese.  As much of a deliberate poking of a hornet’s nest as the snub is, it’s also pretty unfair to then place the onus of dealing with the question onto Pearl Jam (ever-shy of such publicity and awards) to be the ones to deal with it. Dave, obviously riled himself, has said plenty, chiefly:

“I have always thought that every award given to a band that celebrates the bands lifetime achievements should be awarded to every person that was ever a debt incurring, life sacrificing, blood spilling, member of that band. Maybe the Hall should reevaluate the need to put all the monkeys in the same cage in order to boost revenue, and instead let the history of the band be fully and completely represented as they were and as they are. …leave it up to the group to show their true colors as they celebrate their own history in a manner of their choosing…

I will admit to wanting to look out over my drum kit at the faces of Jeff, Stone, Mike and Eddie. Looking to my left at my drum tech, the mainest of mellow, Mr. Jimmy Shoaf and seeing him give me that look that dares me to destroy my cymbals and kick the songs ass, the bands ass and the crowds ass… The idea of counting it off and giving the band, the music & the people all that I have to give, as I always have without compromise or hesitation… The sound of the people singing along… Making eye contact with the person air drumming their ass off right before the big drum fill, so we can do it together…
I loved it.
I loved it every single time.”

Pearl Jam have always marked themselves out as a band of integrity and honest values. They’re continually raising money and awareness for important causes and fighting the good fight. Again, it’s unfair of the HoF to put this on them but it is gonna be down to them to decide how to deal with the Dave question. History gives no real clue – their 2004 compilation Rearviewmirror featured photos cropped not to include him yet in 2016 the band performed his composition ‘Angel’ for the first time since 1994 with Vedder stating it ” was written by the guy who was our drummer. Dave Abbruzzese, We wish him well.”

How it’s dealt with come the night, though, we’ll have to see. And that’s how the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame keeps getting people to pay attention. And, damn it, they’ve suckered me in to giving a damn too. The rat bastards.


* albeit in name only and his image was ‘tastefully’ removed from the album cover come the 20th Anniversary re-release. Everman would go through a musical life of ups and downs which would include a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it stint on bass for Soundgarden before cutting his hair and joining the army where he would serve with the Rangers and Special Forces – it makes for a fascinating read.

** You can’t dust for vomit.

***and was inducted into the HoF in 2012.

2016 On The Spin

So as I slip what is likely the last 2016 addition (the tortoiseshell edition of Chapter & Verse I received for Christmas) into place in my collection it’s time to chew over those other new albums that crossed my turntable over last year.

This isn’t a Top Ten such list nor does it include those I’ve streamed as I tend not to do whole-album listens in such a way, just a look at those I’ve purchased and spun.

I think this is the first year in which I’ve not bought any new album on CD. If I’ve parted with cash for it it’s been on vinyl. I’m clearly not alone in this habit as 2016 saw sales on this format reach a 25 year high at 3.2 million units in the UK. But then I also read that at least half of vinyl purchases never have a needle dropped on them…. people are just buying them for decoration and using the digital download code instead. I find this somewhat discouraging. For me, digital purchase alone has never been as satisfying as I like the feel of actually owning something and if I buy a record it gets played before I download and burn to CD for car use and played again (and again). Even the most attractive and (apparently) valuable item in my collection gets a regular play. Why own it otherwise?

Anyway, I’ve digressed. The new music buying started in earnest in January with some pre-orders and the discovery of Milk Teeth who’s début Vile Child got a lot of plays, was something my wife got into too and felt like a real blast from the past with a vital, punky, 90’s feel. A lot of fun to listen to and they’re only bloody kids (in comparison, that is).

Two of those pre-orders dropped through my post box on the same day – albums from two of post-rock’s finest. The Atomic soundtrack / album from Mogwai comprises material reworked from their contributions to a BBC4 documentary “Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise” about the Hiroshima nuclear bomb and its legacy. More textures and soundscapes than ‘rock’ it’s a wonderful album. Explosions In The Sky spent the four years since Take Care, Take Care, Take Care working on soundtracks (all well worth a listen) and this year’s The Wilderness was a triumphant return for EITS. Understated and beautiful, the album’s tracks are their most concise and direct to date, there are no ten or fifteen minute epics here – the longest track just tips over the seven minute mark – instead they’ve found a way to distil down to the purest, most urgent elements and create a great album. The artwork / packaging was stunning too.

Atomic recording and touring duties not enough, Mogwai‘s Stuart Braithwaite joined up with members of Slowdive and Editors to form the brilliant (don’t say supergroup) Minor Victories and their self-titled album is a fantastic one that crackles with a taut electricity and energy and I hope there’s more to come from the group.

“‘Alt-rock’ legends with new album” was probably slapped on reviews for at least a handful of bands this year, begging the question as to how many legends there are. Of the two I got my hands on that I’d apply such an honorific to I’d say Dinosaur Jr fared better than the PixiesHead Carrier – their first with Paz Lenchantin as a legit replacement for Kim Deal – is a strong effort, don’t get me wrong and certainly recalls more of the earlier quirkiness of their heyday. It’s always a mistake to try and judge a band by their work of twenty years earlier and if you leave your expectations and baggage at the door it’s a good effort. However, Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not, the band’s eleventh album, found Dinosaur Jr offering up a tight, focused slab of what makes them great.

In a similar vein Weezer‘s self-titled ‘White’ album is easily the best thing they’ve done in at least a decade. Without the self-conscious apologetic hues of 2014’s Everything Will Be Alright in the End,  this one represents a genuine return-to-form that had been long hoped for and given up on at least a few times, I’m still finding new things to enjoy some eight months after it first dropped.

Oh, on the subject of legends offering up new albums there was a new offering from that little outfit from Oxford… A Moon Shaped Pool was everything you could have hoped for from a new Radiohead album and more. Atmospheric, beautiful and compelling. At once their most direct and least-angular, this album certainly deserves the plaudits and places atop year-end polls its received.

Available digitally in 2015 but unheard by me until the physical EP arrived in February,  Foo Fighters‘ Saint Cecilia was a lot more enjoyable and blast-of-fun than their previous studio album and seemed like  – without Butch Vig at the helm – a more varied and energetic collection of songs than they’ve made with any producer thus far with the title track being one of the best things they’ve dropped for a while.

It’s always a pleasure to listen to the Twin Peaks OST and I was lucky enough to be given this year’s re-release of Angelo Badalamenti‘s score on vinyl which is just gorgeous to behold. Not always the case with coloured vinyl, it’s a great pressing and the sound is crisp – it’s done by Death Waltz / Mondo who are also responsible for the Jurassic Park OST in my collection that’s equally beautiful and high in quality. Shame they’re so sodding expensive really.

Perhaps the new album most played in 2016 was Heaven Adores You by Elliott Smith. I was still listening to it this morning. I’d held out for the vinyl of this one, the accompanying music to 2014’s film of the same name about Elliott’s life and music (I’ve still yet to watch) and resisted urges to stream until I could give it the proper attention. Not necessarily an entry point for those new to Mr Smith’s music, for those already converted it’s an essential – there’s tracks you love, twists on existing tracks and tracks previously unknown. I’m very much looking forward to 2017’s release of an expanded and remastered Either/Or.

2016 releases I missed and still plan on getting round to:

Regina Spektor – Remember Us To Life

Band of Horses – Why Are You OK?

Bon Iver – 22, A Million

Swans – The Glowing Man


Least to Most: Bruce – Born in the USA

“You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just covering up”

bruceborn1984Bruce at his largest in terms of both commercial appeal and sound, this was the spark that ignited ‘Boss Mania’ and saw Springsteen go from playing to packed arenas of the faithful to selling out stadiums and play-acting himself to newer audiences against a screen that projected his newly pumped-up image punching his fist into the air, ushering in the final verse of the misappropriated title-track to his then-new album Born in the USA to the cheap seats at the back of the crowd.

Thirty million (and still counting) sales, seven top ten hits. That cover. That Ben Stiller parody. Born in the USA is Bruce’s biggest selling album and, probably, his most well-known.  Yet commercial heights do not always equal creative heights. There’s always a sacrifice, a deal with the devil to achieve those numbers. For my money, the production and sound on this blockbuster meant that the details that make for a great Bruce song were sacrificed somewhat.

But let’s not get confused, though. At this point in the list we’re really getting into the quality end of the spectrum, the wheat has been separated from the chaff and we’re down to lining up in order of personal preference and anything from here on in will likely regularly feature on any stereo and may well top other ‘favourite / best’ lists.

The title track is inescapable, even on this side of the Atlantic, whenever Bruce is mentioned. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s a belter of a song. Let’s skip over the way in which it was misinterpreted as that’s been discussed ad nauseam. I think what fascinates me is just how different this version is from the original demo cut around the Nebraska sessions is (perhaps this was the key to the sacrifice – in its original form it would not have been so misunderstood yet would never have reached such a wide audience) and that the version on the album is only the band’s second take at it – Max Weibnerg didn’t even know Bruce was going to count the band in for another punch at the four-and-a-half minute mark but The Boss has praised ‘Born in the USA’ as his drummer’s finest recording*.

That being said, I dont’ always listen to it when I play the album so over-exposed did it become and it was one of those songs that put me off Bruce initially. Listening to Chapter & Verse recently it sounds so out of place sat between ‘My Father’s House’ and ‘Brilliant Disguise’ as to almost sound like the work of a different artist. Almost.

Perhaps it was a cultural thing – Reagan harped on about a new morning in America while that country’s cinema heroes of the early 1980’s were muscle-bound and jingoistic, here we were had Thatcher and mining strikes (cinema audiences dropped to an all-time low in ’84) so a bicep-baring Bruce singing heartland rock against a backdrop of the Stars and Stripes was never going to be as huge here as it was in the US** and I don’t think this one has quite the lasting appeal in comparison to his other work.

I think that those songs at the start of the album are the ones I enjoy least and rarely listen to. I’d struggle to quote a lyric from ‘Darlington County’ say, or easily recognise ‘Working On The Highway’ if played live. The recording of Born In The USA dates back to 1982 and many of the tracks were written at the same time as those that appeared on Nebraska**. Bruce himself has said that “if you look at the material, particularly on the first side, it’s actually written very much like Nebraska – the characters and the stories, the style of writing – except it’s just in the rock-band setting.” Given that the fabled ‘Electric Nebraska’ has yet to see the light of day I can see why, the songs just don’t suit the sound – in my own humble.

Perhaps its another one of those results of a protracted recording period. Sessions for the album were spread over so many months (years even) that it can seem a little disjointed and with so many songs recorded it would be hard to find the perfect balance and he toiled with it for a long time. At one point in 1982, with the demo tape that would become Nebraska ready for release and a record of band material also ‘ready’ he toyed with releasing the two as a double album; one solo, one ‘band’ with a tracklisting ready as:

DOWN, DOWN, DOWN (I’m Goin’ Down)

Yet then he released Nebraska as a stand alone (no tour, no real fanfare) and took a break before picking up recording again in early 1983 with newer songs coming up and wouldn’t conclude until February of 1984. As such a wealth of material was recorded and never released – you could easily pick a dozen of any such songs and create an album that would still be considered a classic. So the protracted recording, agonising and umming and erring (toying with releasing different selections and demos as is) as Bruce searched for that elusive ‘binding factor’ means that perhaps this record isn’t as consistent as it deserves to be.

But… but BUT. This album contains a wealth of such strong material that even if I tend to skip a few tracks a the start there’s enough here to warrant its inclusion in the top half of this list. Even limiting myself to two tracks from each album when I compiled my own Top 20 Springsteen songs was a tough one with this album and those I chose weren’t released as singles.

‘Downbound Train’ remains one of my favourite Springsteen songs and one I feel is criminally overlooked.

‘I’m On Fire’ gets many a play as does ‘Bobby Jean’. And then there’s ‘Dancing In The Dark’. When Landau listened to Born in the USA his reaction was “we don’t have a single” and told his charge to go home and write one. Legend has it a guitar was thrown at this point. However, Bruce set about writing about his frustration about writing – “It went as far in the direction of pop music as I wanted to go – and probably a little farther.” His biggest single to date (with it the album actually had seven) and one which initially wasn’t popular with the band. Van Zandt has said “It was much, much, much more produced. I didn’t like that song when I first heard it.”*** While it may still have its detractors I still really enjoy it a lot more than some of the album’s other singles like ‘Glory Days’.

Overall Born in the USA is something of a grab-bag album. Certainly affected by over-production in its unabashed reach for the maistream (no qualms here, if any artist is going to shift thirty million copies of an album I’d rather it a Springsteen than a Beiber) it nonetheless contains more than its fare share of solid Springsteen tunes that carry the album into the higher quality end of his catalogue.

Highlights: ‘Downbound Train’, ‘Bobby Jean’. ‘I’m On Fire’, ‘Born In The USA, ‘No Surrender’, ‘Dancing In The Dark’.

*While Weinberg is fond of the song for the same reasons, his favourite of these sessions, ‘This Hard Land’ was shelved like so many of the 80(!) recorded.

**It was a hit, though, nonetheless, topping the charts and shifting just over a million. I don’t feel though that it had quite the same cultural impact as it did for Bruce at home.

***Van Zandt would leave the E Street band in 82 (though this wasn’t really announced until after the recording of Born in the USA) and Nils Lofgren would join in time for the tour. The official line being that he’d joined in order to help see Bruce rise to success and, job done, it was time to focus on his own music.

Quick List: Top Five ‘River Songs’

I was up in Cambridge the other day and aside from the usual insistence my mental jukebox has of lining up Pink Floyd songs, the chalked up directions to the Cam got me thinking about ‘river songs’ – songs either about or with rivers in their title.

Once I’d started thinking though it was quite the flood. However, here’s a quick Top Five:

Nick Drake – River Man

Pixies – River Euphrates

Bob Dylan – Red River Shore

I think that period from Oh Mercy to Time Out of Mind was one of Dylan’s finest so Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Seties Vol.8 is a real treasure trove and this is a real gem upon it.

REM – Find The River

Bruce Springsteen – The River

Was there ever any question this would be here?

Of course there could also be CCR’s ‘Green River’ (‘Proud Mary’ being overdone), Ocean Colour Scene’s ‘Riverboat Song’, ‘Dam That River’ by Alice In Chains, ‘Five Feet High and Rising’…..