High Hopes…. Dashed

Ugh. It almost pains me to write this. Especially when I consider that this will be the second time I mumble about a Springsteen album and the second not-so-favourable. I say this now because I do love a bit of Bruce Springsteen. My collection is stuffed with Boss. Nebraska, Tunnel of Love, Magic, Darkness and both Borns get heavy rotation. However….

Earlier this year Bruce Springsteen released his eighteenth studio album. Eighteenth. Saying that, two of the songs have seen release previously and three of the remaining are covers.

Before I get into this too much and why am I getting into this now….

This weekend, while doing a bit of tidying up and keeping the little man company, I found and put on Springsteen’s Blood Brothers DVD. It documents the slightly awkward and touch-too-soon mini reunion of the E-Street Band to record a few new tunes for Bruce’s first Greatest Hits (I should note here that I got that CD on its release and it served as my introduction to Springsteen and from there on…) .

blood_brothers_site-352x500Two things came from watching Blood Brothers that feed into this post. The first is a moment where, suddenly, the discomfort and ill-at-ease Bruce felt in front of the camera seems to fade as he discusses the implications of a string arrangement that had been created for Secret Garden. Talking of the song as a narrative, Springsteen explains to the gathered co-producers and mixers that the song is a narrative. If any arrangement or sounds distract from that “we’re fucked.” The second element of note is that the 1995 session captured also found Bruce and the band cutting into Tim Scott McConnell’s High Hopes for the first time.

That version of High Hopes was released as a B-Side to Secret Garden. Which, really, is where it should have stayed.

Let’s skip forward to 2014.  Post 2000 Springsteen is a different proposition to that of ’95 model Bruce. Now willing to trust others with production work, Bruce has seen his music produced, with varying results, by Brendan O’Brien (who should have taken a bow after Magic and not gone for the victory-lap with Working On a Dream) and, lately, Ron Anellio. Credit to him for this decision. If he’d stayed working away on his own, we may not have had the rebirth and revitalising of his and the E-Street’s sound that came with The Rising. Going on past lessons and biographical revelations, he may still have been in his home studio labouring away on the one album. Self-producing rarely works. It’s key to get a good collaborator in that can bring out an artist’s best and encourage them to shine.

So what’s the problem? Well I’d say Bruce has gotten a little lost lately in a seemingly ill-fated determination to sound fresh and vital. Just look at the cover. Sorry Bruce but is the double denim and popped collar really the best fit for you in 2014?

high-hopes-album-bruce-springsteen-1389043820

In the past, Bruce has had a very tight quality control. Not letting anything out that he wasn’t 100% happy with or didn’t fit the feel / story of an album. That’s what archival releases like Tracks and the Darkness box are for. Working On A Dream marked a turning point. There should have been more use of “no” in the studio on that one… “supermarket beeps and a song about fancying the girl on the checkout while doing your shopping? Sure thing Boss!”

Fuelled by social circumstances again and looking to vent, for Wrecking Ball Bruce came up with some of his tightest and most direct, angry lyrics yet. However, the collaborators bought in to furnish these songs took them the wrong way and did exactly what Springsteen previously voiced such determination to avoid – they detracted from the lyrics and the songs.

Unfortunately the songs on High Hopes suffer the same fate at the same hands. This is not a studio album in a true sense. Long-term Springsteen ally/collaborator/sidekick Stevie Van Zandt has often said that on any one day, Bruce will have at least half an album of songs on him. With High Hopes we discover what would happen if that half-album of songs were taken into the studio, recorded with selections of the E-Street Band, it’s latest quasi-addition Tom Morello shoved in awkwardly, mixed with another half-album of left overs from the last decade, warmed up by over-production and served as a ‘fresh’ dish.

That’s not to say that the album is devoid of good music. Frankie Fell In Love, Heaven’s Wall, The Wall, This Is Your Sword… all top-draw Springsteen material, even the brooding Harry’s Place feels like some of the cracking, darker material Springsteen wrote (though never truly released) in the early 90’s. Even it, though, is over-worked. Heaven’s Wall is nearly drowned in over-the top choir arrangements. Those heavy handed arrangements blight too much of the strong material here and are used far too much to prop up the lesser songs.

Morello is, frankly, out of place here. His guitar parts, the scratchy sounds that were once new and compelling, are both now and here tired and overplayed. They sound clunky when added to the title track and trample all over songs they have no business being near. Just take the title track as an example. It’s said that this project was born after Morello hearing High Hopes while preparing for the Australian leg of the Wrecking Ball tour and proposed it join the set list, from there the studio beckoned for a ham fisted bounce over a song that was only suited to B-Side status (let alone lead-single).

See:

We didn’t need a second take on Ghost of Tom Joad and as for the recasting of American Skin (41 Shots)? The live version of this was compelling, tight and full of well-directed anger with a searing solo from Springsteen himself. It came at a turning point for Springsteen – pre-9/11 and on the back of the reunion tour, a relative drought of quality new material in the 90’s and here, suddenly, was a glimpse at new material that bristled over with the force of old material. Guitars like teak bolted onto socially-aware lyrics and furnished with delicate, perfectly fitted arrangements from the E-Street Band. A precursor to The Rising and a return to form after a decade of almosts.

Bruce has said that he never felt it got presented properly. So, as with Land of Hope and Dreams on Wrekcing Ball, it was given a new studio arrangement. Surely it would be a winner. Relevant again with the shooting of Trayvon Martin and back in the set list, a slow burning tune that builds to a thundering climax and release. Surely it would be a winner. Surely…. Except it isn’t. Instead that same song is flat (albeit with the exception of Clarence Clemons’ sax giving us one last treat from beyond), layered with cheap-sounding production effects and, in place of Springsteen’s own guitar, ruined by a solo from Morello that’s bad-80’s-power-ballad by numbers.

With Nebraska, Bruce took his raw, home-made demos to the E-Street Band. They tried them on for size and found the songs didn’t fit in the band setting. Springsteen released them as was. The result is one of his most loved and praised albums.

Secret Garden: Bruce tried a few grander arrangements, added layers, different string parts. Didn’t work. The original arrangement was released. But, the other arrangements, rather than scrapped, did see release as B-Sides and soundtrack additions.

With High Hopes…. it’s the heavy handed, overworked and near-drowned in effects versions of the songs that have been released.

In a way, High Hopes is best looked at as a “what if” album rather than a legitimate ‘new’ studio album. What if some of these songs – Frankie Fell In Love, Heaven’s Wall… been given that little bit longer to gesticulate. What if some of these had been included in place of the clukers on Working On A Dream? What if Down In The Hole had been used in place of its very-close sister Paradise on The Rising? Sadly it’s not as intriguing or rewarding a listen as the “what-ifs” of Tracks’ second, third and even fourth discs.

To me, now, nearly ten months later and with Mr Springsteen assuming radio and road silence again, it’s a case of not only what-if but please, when the next album emerges we find the quality control of old back in place.

Back to Blood Brothers, though:

In Spite Of My Rage

I recently had the pleasure to hear listened to the new Smashing Pumpkins album Oceania. Thankfully I did this via Spotify for had I paid more than the % of my monthly premium account it took to sit through it I’d have been a bit cheesed off.

I’m not sure why the media (think Rolling Stone, Pitchfork etc) took the strange step of giving this such a push – aside from the obvious industry politics. The biggest superlative I remember being thrown at it was that it sounded familiar, like Pumpkins of old. If, by that, they mean Billy Corgan not giving a fuck about the rest of the band then, yes, it may well be. In the past this meant playing all the parts now it seems not caring who he is playing with.

smashing pumpkins 2012

Billy & The New Kids

To be honest it’s one of the most disappointing things I’ve heard so far this year from the Big Name Bands. The only passing familiarity to old Pumpkins Gold (surely a worthy a blog of its own soon) is the vocal dynamics available thanks to Corgan taking on another female bassist. In fact, it’s the strange line-up of this band that means I tend to refer to them as Billy & The New Kids rather than besmear the name of that band that recorded Siamese Dream.

Let’s be fair though. The New Kids do a good job. They’re clearly capable musicians – how else would they get the gig – and hold their own. There are some good songs on hear. Some might even be among the finest stuff he’s peddled out in years -Pinwheels, Violet Rays and the title track Oceania in particular stand out. It’s a good country mile stronger than the dire ‘comeback’ album Zietgest. The problem is that while the New Kids try hard, it no longer feels like a band, more one man’s newest backing band. There’s no weight to it. A feeling of clout is missing.

Perhaps it’s for that reason – for the fact that of the faces under the ‘Pumpkins’ banner now only one looks familiar (though as a pale, slightly wrinkled, prune like version of the strangely endearing face that once sung of Spaceboys and Bullets With Butterfly Wings)  – that this album isn’t doing it for me. Or, I imagine, a lot of fans.

So instead of sitting back waiting to be amazed I find myself listening, instead, for things to go ‘ugh’ over – like how when Billy sings the line “never let the summer catch you down” on Celestials it comes out as “never let the salmon get you down”.

I should point out that this is perhaps more upsetting as I’d quite liked some of the recent stuff put out as part of the Teargarden by Kaleidyscope  songs. “Song For A Son” was a slab of what once made me listen to them in the first place.

If this were a Billy Corgan album (even if he called it Billy & The New Kids) or even with a new band, I’d receive Oceania – on this point, seriously; wtaf is with these ridiculous bloody names, you’re not coming across as mystical or mysterious just some strangely creepy old hippy uncle who needs to put the tie-dye shirt away – a bit more warmly. I’m sure critics and fans would be beside themselves too. But to call it a Smashing Pumpkins album despite that there’s only Pumpkin on it, reeks of what it really is: “The new album by Billy Corgan who knows it won’t sell if it’s not called Smashing Pumpkins.”

I don’t know. Perhaps it’s just me that hates it when this happens. It’s not the first instance and sure won’t be the last – there’s the on going Guns N Roses chuckle and the new Courney Love’s Hole (though I saw that Hole had a genuine reunion that went without controversy recently) – instance of frontmen realising they can’t pack em in on their own like they do with the band.

Or perhaps it’s nostalgia. The biggest impact the new album had on me was to go back to the older, full-band albums and listen to those again.

Let’s finish this on a comparison.


VS my favourite (and, thanks to a Rolling Stone poll, I see the fan favourite):

Play Rock ‘n’ Roll! Or – When Jocks Attack

So I was in the process of preparing a post on the ultimate Pearl Jam set list (I should point out that Pearl Jam are on that list of Bands Who Can Do No Wrong) were time and times not a factor when I came across a particular rendition of Bu$hleaguer and this post was born as a stopgap.

Now not only am I lucky enough to have caught Pearl Jam live back on the Binaural tour (they haven’t really played here much since when I’ve been able to catch a show) but I’m also lucky enough to have a wonderful wife who kitted me out with the full set of merch surrounding the PJ20 film last year – the soundtrack and book. While reading through I came across a more detailed account of something that I’d only really heard a little about – the negative response the band would get to the song.

For those that don’t know the tune here it is:

Quite the Bush-baiting track with a pretty decent guitar phrase and a nice touch in the sinister “black out weaves its way through the city”… it’s a pretty decent tune on an album (Riot Act) that was overlooked despite having it’s fair share of them.

Anywho. The track didn’t go down at all well with the Republicans among PJ’s fanbase and on April 30th the band played it at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale with Vedder in his shiny suit and Bush mask. It doesn’t go down well at all. From the PJ20 book:

Matt Cameron: There was a hail of quarters being thrown at us, and that was the first time at Pearl Jam show where, like, I felt the crowd was really mad, and they were trying to hurt us.

Mike McCready pointed out that there was “one fireman in the front row, and he was, like, showing me his badge. He looked at us like, “you’ve betrayed us”. I felt like, as Americans, we should have the right to say what we have to say.”

Of course I went straight to the PJ20 soundtrack where said performance is captured and it’s true you really can hear a wave of hostility (even though it was just a small part of the crowd that weren’t digging it) being fired back. Problem is that the track cuts off after Vedder’s “I busted out the nice suit for you, yeah.”

pj-bushleaguerThankfully I then decided that given how many amazing live shows the book documented, it might be worth seeing if I could get some of em on the Bootleg series. Bit pricey but never fear, the internet is here and there’s an amazing site – Pearl Jam bootlegs – that had an amazing array of the band’s live shows so I could listen and download until my iPod exploded. Among those shows is the April 30th 2003 show at the (ah, this might explain a bit more of the Republican feeling) Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Uniondale.

On the bootleg the track isn’t cut and what you get is the full 4 minutes after the tunes last bar. What you get is Vedder trying to talk to a crowd while still Bush-baiting – “maybe you like him cos he’s gonna give you a tax cut, maybe you like him cos he’s a real guy that relates to you cos he’s so ‘down home'” – while they’re still booing. He goes as far as to point out that, of course, he’s pro-USA and for the most part the crowd lap it up but what gets me… and I guess what got them too.. is that there’s one guy who’s voice is so cutting it sounds way too high in the mix. Not only is he booing but he’s chanting something repeatedly: PLAY ROCK N ROLL, PLAY ROCK N ROLL…

Now, I can imagine this guy as being what the American call your typical jock. A meat head who thinks that music should be devoid of message and meaning and should be just mindless, thumping music to chug beers and get out of your head to. I’m not sure what that is (though I have a suspicion it’s Nickleback and Ted Nugent) but I’m pretty sure it’s not Rock N Roll. Hell, look at when rock n roll started – it was pure rebellion. It was something purely for teenagers, it was anti-establishment before Punk was even conceived and it’s spirit is about freedom and challenging the rules. Why else do you think it made such a stir?

The strangest thing is how well Vedder keeps his cool. He has the vast majority of the crowd on his side, he also has the microphone but rather than doing, say, a Josh Homme (have you heard him tackle a heckler on Monster In The Parasol on Over The Years? “Hey cock-smocker, eat a bag of dicks…. you cock-smocking fuck hole”), he tries to reason and calm. Then again he’s clearly pissed off – you can hear the anger in his voice when the band breaks into Know Your Rights next (seriously, how Rock N Roll is that – playing an even more anti-government song after being booed for playing your own?) and then calls it quits after another – Rockin In The Free World – two songs early.Pearl Jam Riot Act

Surely the frustration isn’t so much the fact that they were booed – and had quarters thrown at them – they’ve had it before (“shoe the shoeless” in a youtube will give you some smiles). I think the frustration is that they’re still getting these jocks in their audience some 12 years in. It’s a common thing really with similar bands. I’ve seen and read enough biogs on Nirvana to know that they were equally surprised and frustrated to see these jocks appearing in their crowds because certain tunes had a bit of rock muscle on radio. The recent Grohl biog even points out that when they all heard Alive for the first time they expected Pearl Jam to be those big high school jock types.

Of course with songs like Alive stocking up the mainstream radio it was unavoidable that people would love the power and the rock in it (and there’s no harm in a bit of rock) without paying attention to the songs lyrics but after 12 years? It’s not like during those ten years Pearl Jam put out a cover of Cat Scratch Fever. No, they deliberately went underground in comparison. They made records like No Code and Vitalogy as non-rock as possible. Their political voice may not have been too loud at that point but surely nobody goes to the trouble of buying a Pearl Jam ticket without knowing more than one song from their albums or even giving Riot Act a cursory listen? I guess this guy did, I guess he went expecting them to simply stand still and play the hits.

Anyway it did create magic because that track got new life live as a result of the tension it would breed – some of the tunes best performances followed the night at Nassau – and the power of Know Your Rights following it also makes for a standout performance:

Or check out the whole show at PJ Bootlegs

I’m not sure what Mr Meathead was after, something soulless, something that doesn’t challenge the rules, didn’t make you think, doesn’t make you want to get up and DO something – anything. I’m not sure what that is but it isn’t rock n roll.

Occupying Hypocrisy

Let me kick this post off with a couple of statements, in a ‘don’t get me wrong’ manner. Firstly, I love a bit of Rage Against The Machine and the first Audioslave album was an absolute monster musically – the other two had their highlights too. I’m also a huge Springsteen fan, many of his albums are perpetually in my car’s multichanger or playing through my iPods. It’s easy enough; I have them all, some in multiple formats and even a few of the boxsets.

Accordingly, my point is even stronger than an unbiased few as I admire both men as artists and some of their songs have featured in key moments in my life. One of the things that I really don’t like is hypocrisy and I can’t help but think they’re both guilty of it to a large extent at the moment.

bruce springsteen wrecking ballLet’s take Wrecking Ball as an example. It is a fine album. It’s certainly a lot stronger than Working On A Dream. It’s tight, it’s cohesive and sounds vital and packs a real punch – surprising given the lack of cohesion in the assembled musicians (there’s no real band more different groupings of musicians) which speaks volumes about the writing and production. We Take Care of Our Own, Jack of All Trades, Land of Hope & Dreams, Rocky Ground and even the title track are belters that will no doubt be setlist staples on the next few tours (Land… has been for the last decade already but the newer version is tighter than a duck’s arse). Death To My Hometown is a corker of a song that sounds like Bruce swallowed the songbook he’d been sniffing at for Seeger Sessions, chugged down some rocket fuel, strapped a guitar on and let fly (I sniffed a musical-criticism-cliche book before writing this).

The thing that stops me loving this album as much as Magic (of his recent splurge of productivity Magic and The Seegar Sessions sit up there with Darkness, Born To Run and Tunnel) is the inclusion of a couple of clunkers. I’m not talking about We Are Alive or You’ve Got It (every classic Boss album has a track or two like that but you know they’ll eventually grow on you in the same way as the jokes in a Hemmingway novel stop you getting overpowered by the weight of the drama). It’s the songs of ‘anger’, the songs that address the State of the Nation – you know, a financially and morally bankrupt America (not that the U.S of A is alone in such a state but Bruce’s Jersey is New not of the Channel Islands) – that irk me.

Yes, Bruce is at his best when he’s ‘angry’ and brooding. Look at Nebraska, Darkness and even USA. Hell even Tunnel of Love is a record of despair. But that negativity is more of a personal one – it’s his father, his soon-to-be ex-wife or even the Talk Show Stations on the radio. On ..USA, yes, there’s anger at the way the government is treating veterans and a few stabs at the system in Downbound Train but…. But my problem is that here Bruce Springsteen now is singing as if one of the ‘99%’ as the Occupy Movement have come to regard those of us that don’t have a few million in pocket change on any given day.

Bruce who is worth a rough $200 million or so. Mr Springsteen who has sold more albums than the entire Occupy movement has used markers for their placards. On Wrecking Ball’s weakest tracks (musically they’re diamonds cut from the same rock that spawned Seeger Sessions) Shackled and Drawn and Easy Money, Bruce sings about how:

“workingman pays the bill
It’s still fat and easy up on banker’s hill
Up on banker’s hill, the party’s going strong
Down here below we’re shackled and drawn”

Or how he’s going out on the town in search of that ‘easy money’. Now these are admirable lyrics. They are. For someone who can be beleived to be the character in those songs. I desperately wanted to catch Bruce and E-Street Band when they come to town this year but I was put off because I’d be facing a nice £200 cost just for me and my wife to catch the show. Anyone with ticket prices that high is already up on ‘banker’s hill’. If this were the Bruce that sang of operas being played out on the Turnpike and the streetlife of Asbury park circa 1972 it would be believable but for the multi-millionaire musician of 2012 to be singing as if cap-in-hand is as appropriate as Kirk Lazarus having a skin pigmentation procedure to play Sgt Osiris.

tom morello

Tom Morello - leave it at home mate

Let me reiterate one of my earlier points – Wrecking Ball is a good album. It’s bloody good. One of the highlights is the guitar work (though it’s nowhere near as it good or fiery as it could should be) of Tom Morello – not to mention Swallowed Up In The Belly of a Whale which is a dark, broody monster that creeps into your ears and should have replaced Easy Money. The two musicians are pretty close lately and have been popping up together wherever a need to stand on a makeshift stage and sing This Land is Your Land in a real ugh-inducing way – does a 70 year old Woody Guthrie folk song really sum up the problems faced by ‘the 99%’? – presents itself.

Indeed, Mr Morello is seemingly trying to become Guthrie – his guitar painted with whatever cliched slogan pops into his head and singing ‘protest’ songs at every opportunity while doing his damndest to become the champion of the Occupy Movement. Once again, this smacks of hypocrisy to me. How big were Rage? How many millions did they sell? Shitloads. Not only that but how many times have the band members gone “kerching!” to festival appearance requests since reuniting a few years back? How can you speak for the 99% (I should point out that I hate that phrase in itself) when you’re so far from being amongst them?

The only person who was able to imitate Guthrie without being so hideously ham-fisted about it was Bob Dylan but that was in 1962 and even he gave it up quickly – in fact, he never even claimed to be a protester. For multi-millionaire musicians whose talents lie in creating music of a far different beast to be suddenly finding their inner dust-bowl just reaks of cash in.

Bruce recently said that he would never be as active politically as he had been in the run-up to Obama’s victory, saying that artists should be “the canary in the cage.” Absolutley, couldn’t agree more. However, there’s a difference between lending your support and voice to a group and trying to be one of that group. Especially when the gap between their message and your circumstances is so severe. Christ, we’ll have Bon Jovi singing from the point of view of starving Africans next.

To rectify this malaise, stick the first RATM album or Battle of Los Angeles in your CD player – those are real songs of anger and power – or get hold of Wrecking Ball. I still love it but then I’ve adjusted the tracklisting thusly:

We Take Care of Our Own

Death to My Hometown

Jack of All Trades

This Depression

Swallowed Up (In The Bell of the Whale)

Wrecking Ball

You’ve Got It

Rocky Ground

Land of Hope and Dreams

American Land

We Are Alive

Bonus Tracks:

Easy Money

Shackled and Drawn

Like I said, it’s a great album and Bruce is better when he’s packing a punch (I really don’t want another Lucky Town / Human Touch or Queen of the Supermarket) but this way there’s a little less “I’m one of the people” cheese.