Least to Most: Bruce – High Hopes

“I’m not sure what he had in mind from the beginning, but this is what we ended up with.” Ron Aniello on High Hopes.

high-hopes-album-bruce-springsteen-1389043820In my original review of the album I said “Bruce has gotten a little lost lately in a seemingly ill-fated determination to sound fresh and vital” and that the quality control, usually tighter than a duck’s arse, had gone AWOL here. I stand by those thoughts.

It’s hard to consider this as a ‘studio album’ and producer Ron Aniello’s “this is what we ended up with” is a good summary – if you take a group of songs not deemed right / worthy of inclusion on other albums, slap a few covers together and dub Tom Morello’s now-dull guitar over the top, this is what you end up with.

And it’s a shame. It’s a real shame because unlike, say, Human Touch, there are some great tunes on here that could be presented and served so much better had they not been included on what feels like a cash-grab.

‘Down In The Hole’ has shades of ‘Paradise’ from The Rising and is steeped in that song’s delicate touch and minimal beauty and is something of a family-affair with backing vocals from Patti Scialfa and their children. It’s a beautiful thing.

‘The Wall’ is one of the finest songs in Bruce’s catalogue but by dumping it on this ‘odds and ends’ album it’s not going to get the attention it should. An ode to a fallen serviceman, inspired by the loss of early mentor Walter Cichon (detailed in the Born To Run book) who volunteered for the Army only to go missing in action in Vietnam in March 1968. It had been a long time since Bruce visited Vietnam in song and this is as fitting and touching as any of those songs he’d done so with previously.

‘Frankie Fell In Love’ sounds like one of the best Bruce and Steve songs that barely features Steve at all – Mr Van Zandt was largely absent from sessions and the tour due to filming commitments on Lilyhammer. It’s joyful, whooping along with pure enthusiasm and a really catchy-as-flu melody. It brings to mind a modern recasting of the dynamism the duo had on earlier tunes like ‘Two Hearts’.

‘Harry’s Place’ – correct me if I’m wrong – dates back to sessions for The Rising and is a brooding gangster-populated number with a fantastic opening line “Downtown hipsters drinkin’ up the drug line”.

However. Bruce declared at the time that, for High Hopes, “Tom and his guitar became my muse, pushing the rest of this project to another level.  Thanks for the inspiration Tom.” Yeah… thanks Tom.  It’s the cuts onto which Morello is plastered that weaken the whole joint. Credit to him for living out every six-string plucking fan’s dream (the one where Bruce is suddenly short a guitarist and your phone rings), but the fit just isn’t right.  The awful re-recording of ‘American Skin’ is unpardonable.

The covers are lacklustre and suffer for Morello’s incessant ‘jamming’ over them. Bruce and The E-Street had already tackled ‘High Hopes’ and their decent-enough take was used as a b-side. The take included here is simply poor. Nor can I hear ‘Just Like Fire Would’ without hearing “Just like firewood, I burn up”.

Hard to view as a studio album proper, High Hopes is a real mixed bag; some great tunes lost amidst the flotsum and reheats.

Highlights: ‘The Wall’, ‘Down In The Hole’ ‘Frankie Fell In Love’

Lowlights: The Ghost of Tom Joad, American Skin (41 Shots) two originals damned by their “reimagining”.

Back in 2014

I’m always late with these things. It’s probably for two reasons – well three…. I see too many people giving their “Top Albums of the Year” lists when, really, who cares?…. I think the timing of too many of those lists means great albums released as the year draws to a close don’t get that little bit more exposure by inclusion and albums released in the early stages tend to be forgotten come December. Thirdly… well, life keeps me busy.


I listened to a lot in 2014 and plenty of new music within that lot. Pretty sure it was a good growth year for my vinyl collection too as I tried, for the most part, to stick with vinyl when it came to buying new music.

There were a couple of instances where I’m glad I didn’t shell out for the black circle though…

Two big names released new albums this year and, despite initial expectations, I was left a little disappointed by both. I’ve mumbled enough on the let down of Springsteen’s High Hopes here. It still holds, I’ve not gone back and listened to it and discovered any hidden layers since. That it made Number 2 on Rolling Stones’ albums of the year list baffles me. Then again they gave U2 the Number 1 slot and I don’t think I’ve heard anything that bad that wasn’t coming from an adjoining cubicle in a public toilet.

The second disappointment was more of a shocker, though. It was a shock to hear that, after twenty years, Pink Floyd would be dropping an album. It was a bit of a surprise that it was to be ambient / song-free and I was even more surprised that my excitement didn’t continue after I’d heard it. Granted, I first heard The Endless River through headphones on Spotify (having been put off by the hefty price tag associated with vinyl pre-orders) and when I picked up the CD it did reveal more. It’s not a bad album but it’s not a great album, which their legacy deserves. It’s an album divided into four distinct parts and I think it’s fair to say I like 2/4 of it, love 1/4 and outright loath the other 1/4 – the first half is a decent lead in, the third quarter is abysmal and the final stretch from Talkin’ Hawkin’ is spot on.  While Louder Than Words is a nice nod to and send off for Rick Wright, I still think High Hopes was the perfect way to say farewell to Floyd.

That’s the negative out of the way.

photo 1There was a lot of new music I loved in 2014. Mogwai got things going with the early release (and then forgotten about come those Best of lists) of Rave Tapes. A lot of spins on the record player and a lot of plays in the car – while not as adventurous or different in sound as the press would suggest, it marked a good step forward in their sound and did find them incorporating additional elements into the mix. Though am I alone as a Mogwai fan in not really enjoying it when they sing?

Speaking of which… Thee Silver Mt Zion’s Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything was another stand out. I tend to view Silver Mt releases with mixed emotions; as much as I enjoy them I’d still rather Godspeed was the main going concern. Still, Fuck Off Get Free… is a solid addition to a very strong canon and sees Menuck really developing as a lyricist.

Sharon Van Etten’s Are We There found its way into my collection in October after reading positive review after positive review. It justifies those reviews. Loved it. Lot of pain and emotional fall out in the lyrics but such delivery and luscious song writing.

I was given Ryan Adams‘ self-titled new album this year too. I wasn’t hugely taken with his ‘comeback’ album Ashes & Fire (don’t get me wrong; it’s good, but…) but this one is a different kettle of fish altogether. Sounding much more vibrant, confident and sure of himself than perhaps ever, really. More direct and accessible than previous albums, hugely enjoyable and listen-able from start to finish.

I spoke of the Foo Fighters’ Sonic Highways – it’s still getting a lot of rotation (again, probably fuelled by the fact that my son enjoys it so much too) and more appreciation with each listen. Still can’t get over the cumbersome nature of Congregation as a lyric.

Also warranting a few rotations was the latest J Mascis solo trundle – Tied to a Star. While not as much as a revelation as his first ‘alone with an acoustic’ album Several Shades of Why, Tied to a Star is very enjoyable, adding a bit more of a backing band to flesh out the sound along with the odd burning guitar solo though never quite realising the highs of either the former album or his Dinosaur Jr work, of which I hope there’s more to come this year.

A couple of EPs – both the third in a series – bookended the year for me: Pixies EP3 (which also allows me to count Indie Cindy as one of this year’s most played) and EP3 from SQÜRL. Though vastly different in sound of course, both are cracking ends to a trilogy and contain some of each bands best work. Though the SQÜRL EP gets the win if only for the presentation and picture disc.

At the tail end of 2013 I started getting in the War on Drugs. Their new album Lost In The Dream made its way to the top of a lot of end of year / critics choice lists and it thoroughly deserved to. I loved it. It threw me at first – I thought there was something wrong with my record player thanks to the sound. It’s a beauty. It does recall a lot of those 80’s rock landmarks like Springsteen, Petty and the whole Den Henley  Boys of Summer vibe (all of which get a tick from me) but they’re hinted at, alluded to rather than worn brazenly on a denim-clad sleeve, it’s very much a contemporary sound. One which is so easy to get lost in as you travel through the album – despite being great to spin on a Sunday afternoon, it’s very much an album for listening to on the move. Hazy, dream-like sounds danced all over by some sublime guitar lines.

photo 3In terms of Re-Issues… I only really got into two. Some Pixies magic (again) with the end-of-year release (so will ludicrously miss being included on all those lists when it deserves to sit atop them) of Doolittle 25 meant a triple album of greatness, with the original album remastered, demos, b-sides and Peel sessions all making a compelling release. The second was Led Zeppelin’s IV reissue – hugely superior sound quality and a second slab of vinyl containing alternate takes and mixes adding to an already faultless album.

Most Played?

Bu6ErPKIEAAJp0PThe record that probably got the most spins this year? It’s a very tasty album indeed. It’s the Mondo Tees reissue of the Jurassic Park soundtrack. I love this for so many reasons. I was (very) lucky enough to be given this for my first Fathers Day by my wife after I’d hum this to get our son to sleep. I was also very (very) lucky enough to get one of the very rare Dilophosaurus version. Also, John Williams created another beautiful soundtrack for JP back in 1993 all summed up beautifully in Welcome to Jurassic Park:

I’m still playing catch-up with some of 2014’s releases – I’ve only just picked up Karen O’s Crush Songs and have yet to drop needle on it’s lovely blue vinyl, nor did I get around to hearing new albums from Jenny Lewis, Ben Frost, Spoon or even the terrifying good (based on the little I have heard) Swans albums dropped in 2014. What can I say; I’m a busy guy and who really cares what I think of them?


Mea Culpa

There’s a very large book on my book case, not yet slipped into its correct place as I await delivery of more bookshelves to house it and those others that currently sit in the recently read and to-read piles (I find this fitting given a certain passage within this very book). Large in terms of size, epic in terms of the scale it covers and immense in its brilliance.

It’s Confessions by Juame Cabré.

I was sent it to me to read and review by the great folks at Arcadia Books.

I’ve hemmed and hawed over this review for some weeks now. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the book. Far from it. I loved every single word of it. It’s nothing short of a masterpiece. My procrastination was due more to wondering just what I could add to the no doubt miles of column inches that already sing its praises.

While Confessions has been compared – and rightly so – to books such as The Shadow of The Wind, The Name of the Rose and The Reader – I can’t recall the last time I read a novel as affecting as this. While it does contain similarities to the aforementioned  – neither they or any book I’ve read for some time has made me run the gamut of emotions in such a way as Juame Cabré does within these seven hundred or so pages.

At sixty years old Adrià Ardèvol, an immensely intelligent man who is now rapidly losing his mind to an aggressively advancing form of dementia. Following an abrupt realisation on his own loneliness, he decides to set down his life in words. But it’s more than the story of one man. It’s the story of Vial, a prized Storioni violin around which the lives and misfortunes of so many are wrapped. It’s also their stories and and it is in the telling of these stories that Cabre also explores the nature of evil in mankind and the power of obsession. Not to mention a certain pendant…


Within the opening pages Adrià ponders where to start, perhaps 500 years ago “when a tormented man decided to request entry into the monastery of Sant Pere del Burgal”. Instead he starts with his own childhood. Adrià’s father is a man obsessed with possessing ancient treasures and manuscripts and is an authoritarian dictator in his home. Toward his son Felix Ardèvol shows no affection. Adrià’s mother is equally aloof and cold: “Mother, on the other hand, was just Mother. It’s a shame she didn’t love me”. Alone in his own home and childhood, Adrià occupies himself by spying on his parents – a network of hiding places and peep holes – and confessing in his only companions, Black Eagle and Sheriff Carson; two small toys. Even these he has to keep hidden from his father, How.

It’s a master-stroke. Starting the narrative though the eyes of a young boy, starved of demonstrative love and driven hard by his all-controlling father, I read the entirety of the events as though seen through such innocent eyes, making all that unfurls as the stories emerge and intertwine all the more affecting.

At first the structure of the narrative can be a little hard to grasp but following the realisation that our narrator is writing as the dementia takes a grip the reasoning becomes clear – stick with it, it all soon flows together beautifully and when the links between each narrative thread are revealed it’s akin to magic – from rivalry in a medieval village and the fate of Jachiam of the Muredas after he commits murder, back further to the Inquisition and it horrors, through to the crafting of Vial and on to the 18th century and on to the wave of darkness that Nazi rule threw over Europe and the stomach-churning experiments at Birkenau.

I’ve read a number of accounts from this particular nadir of humanity both fictional and non. I don’t think any of those have hit me as hard as those in Confessions. I don’t mind admitting that I had to put the book down and stop reading at one or two points. While I’m at it I don’t mind confessing that it also bought me to tears in a number of places. Like I said: no other book has made me run the gamut of emotions in such a way.

Yes this book has its dark points but it’s also shot through with light. It’s bound by merriment and humour just as much as it’s haunted by tragedy and steered by mystery.

The various narrative threads all link together and all contain enough plot twists and revelations to drop the jaw. The characters are rich, the plots enthralling and reading Confessions feels like absorbing the most detailed and resplendent of artworks.

It is a big book but it’s an important one, every word is essential, rich and rewarding. Much like Storioni’s Vial, Confessions is the work of a true master and contains every element in perfect balance. That it’s sold over a million copies and ranked as an instant best seller in 20 languages already is no surprise. If it had sold ten times that it wouldn’t surprise either.

Mara Feye Letham most certainly had her work cut out in translating this novel and keeping its unique narrative and style yet it doesn’t show; the novel flows beautifully through her translation.

Confessions gave me something I hadn’t experienced in a while; a book hangover. It was a few days before I could do more than scan a paragraph of another book. Juame Cabré has crafted a monumental novel in Confessions, one that will linger and continue to deliver long after turning the final pages.


The black mares in free gallop

Twisted crowd barriers. Lads lugging makeshift stretchers across a pitch strewn with the injured and bewildered. The dead lined up in rows on the turf. Twisted minutes. Twisted metal. Twisted news reports. Everything twisted.

Fan has been described as a must-read for anyone that started watching football after Hillsborough. I’ve not watched football before or after. It’s not my cup of coffee. Good literature, though, is. And Fan most definitely is good literature.

Bxy6VQRCAAAU296With some books of late I’ve felt that some holes in my knowledge have hampered my full understanding and enjoyment of a book. Most particularly this is down to certain Russian novels and my knowing barely anything of that country’s revolution. With Fan, this is not the case. While I have only the vaguest of idea who Brian Clough was, Danny Rhodes writes with such informed and heart-felt passion that I understood. The same is true for football fandom. It’s something that I’ve never grasped, a spell I’ve never been under. Yet Fan expresses the love felt for the game by its protagonist – John Finch – and so many with a clarity and firmness of belief anyone with a passion for something would understand and get on board with.

I knew little of Hillsborough before reading Fan, only what was occasionally mentioned in the news since. Danny Rhodes was there. He writes of it with an alarming clarity, bringing the horror into full focus as is his right.  John Finch was there. He never really left. To say it screwed him up would be an understatement.

Finch cannot move forward. He’s moved away but he can’t move forward. He’s moved from Grantham and its bleak oppression to the South where he finds himself equally oppressed – by the pressures of his relationship and the pressure of the past, reaching forward and pulling him under. Unable to operate in any gear other than neutral for the fear of his terror – the black mares – pulverising him. He’s gotten to the point of no return, clearly suffering PTSD, his job is now on the line and his relationship is crumbling around him.

When word reaches him that one of those friends with him at Hillsborough has “gone and done himself”, Finch realises the only way he can break free, prevent the same fate befalling himself and move forward is to go back. Back to Grantham, back to his old stomping ground, his old circle of friends and search for the closure denied to him those years ago.

Jumping between 2004 and the past, Rhodes deals masterfully with the portrayal of a man hunting for closure, wanting to do the right thing but left helpless and weak by his demons. It’s both immediate and raw and told with an increasing sense of urgency underwritten by the unnerving sensation that we’re dealing with a whole lot of fact in this fiction.

Tackling the effects of trauma, social injustice, the pain and cost of change – both personal and sociological, and, of course, the devotion of football fans, Fan works well both taken at face value and when looking at the subtext.

While football is at the heart of the story, Fan is about more, much more than the game. The subjects tackled will resonate with a much wider audience than any one team’s fans.  Danny Rhodes has delivered a compelling read, full of brilliant narrative and insights.

A big thanks, again, to Arcadia Books for sending me this book.

They call this dance the washed-up crawl

Ahhhh the Pixies.

Have they made a bad song?


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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