Least to Most: Pearl Jam – Let the Records Play

Here we are at the end of another (my third to date) Least to Most series.

What’s been learned:

That when I tackle this series on an album by album basis this is a pretty consuming mission when combined with that other thing called ‘life’. And yet I already find myself looking at my shelves and wondering who’s next (it’s not Bob Dylan, that’s for sure).

Pearl Jam are fucking awesome. But then that shouldn’t be a lesson to anyone.

For my money, these blokes were at their finest between 1993-1998.

I still think they have at least one great album in them despite recent evidence.

For those playing along at home, the Least to Most favourite list broke down like this:

10. Backspacer
9. Binaural
8. Lightning Bolt
7. Riot Act
6. Pearl Jam
5. Ten
4. Yield
3. No Code
2. Vs.
1. Vitalogy

That’s today. Well, that’s how I eventually settled the list (after five drafts). Ask me again in a few months that might change. Ask me again when the next studio album eventually drops and it may be all change again.

For my money, if you want a good single, cover-all bases Pearl Jam album you’ll struggle with just one disc but if you get your hands on the Vs. & Vitalogy re-release box you’ll get two of their best and Live at the Orhpeum Theatre which is a fierce, powerful live disc that captured the band live between the two albums and is packed with cuts from Ten and a few rarities too.

Still, for more of what I’d recommend, and as a tip of the hat to Jim over at Music Enthusiast whose playlists are the stuff of curator envy, here’s my Pearl Jam ‘essentials’ playlist wherein I try and cherry pick the best of the band’s ten studio (and one rarities) albums and still end up with sixty tunes. Play in order or play in random but, hopefully, enjoy:

Least to Most; Bruce – I’m just around the corner to the light of day

So I’ve cleared the half way post. Hell, I’ve cleared the 75% mark and I’m about to go charging into the Top 5 like a hot stepping hemi with a four on the floor… *

As such I thought that, with 15 of 20 (given that I included both Tracks and The Promise) it was time for a quick re-cap of the order so far.

It’s been quite the challenge – a post per album and twenty total – but I’m happy to have managed thus far and have enjoyed the process, rediscovering many a near-forgotten gem or detail while listening to each one again and it’s served as a real reminder of just what a prolific and talented song writer Bruce is. Even on those albums that sit at the Least end of this spectrum there’s a good few songs that would make a compilation. Perhaps that’s the next compilation challenge – one, and only one, song from every release… In hindsight, while there’s a fair few bands / artists I reckon I could run this same format I don’t know that I’d go so far as a post per album. Then again, not so many acts have made the 20 album mark.

Again, this isn’t Worst to Best, this is purely personal preference and I could understand how an argument could be made for any one of these to be somebody’s favourite. I don’t think Bruce has mad a ‘bad’ album and even those at the tail end are better than many an artist at their best.

20. Human Touch (1992) Link

19. High Hopes (2014) Link

18. Lucky Town (1992) Link

17. Working on a Dream (2009) Link

16.  Wrecking Ball (2012) Link

15. Devils and Dust (2005) Link

14. We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (2006) Link

13. The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995) Link

12. Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ (1972) Link

11. The Promise (2010) Link

10. Born In The USA (1984) Link

9. The Rising (2002) Link

8. Tracks (1998) Link

7. Magic (2007) Link

6. The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle (1973) Link

5. …..

 

*answers on a postcard.

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:

BORN IN THE U.S.A
MURDER INCORPORATED
DOWNBOUND TRAIN
DOWN, DOWN, DOWN (I’m Goin’ Down)
GLORY DAYS
MY LOVE WILL NOT LET YOU DOWN
WORKING ON THE HIGHWAY
DARLINGTON COUNTY
FRANKIE
I’M ON FIRE
THIS HARD LAND

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’…..

 

 

Least to Most: Bruce – The Promise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Least to Most: Bruce – Devils & Dust

“Now down below and pullin’ on my shirt
I got some kids of my own
Well if I had one wish in this god forsaken world, kids
It’d be that your mistakes would be your own” Long Time Comin’

bruce_springsteen_-_devils__dustLet’s kick this one off with a small clarification – Devils & Dust (as with each that follows in this series) is a fine album. As strong a collection of songs as many could muster. From here on in (now that High Hopes is behind us) we’re really just talking personal preferences.

The outlier in Bruce’s ‘acoustic trio’, the songs on Devils & Dust aren’t  as sparsely accompanied as they are on Ghost Of Tom Joad or Nebraska, nor are they as single-minded in their focus. Recorded after touring behind The Rising, this set was produced by Brendan O’Brien and mixes themes from politics to personal.

Many of the songs here go back to the Ghost Of Tom Joad tour – some even earlier -but the opening title track was new and is as fine a song as Bruce has ever written, a strong commentary on the Iraq war: “It is basically a song about a soldier’s point of view, but it kind of opens up to a lot of other interpretations.” The album and song were nominated for a few Grammy Awards (it won Best Solo Rock Vocal) and, performing the song during the broadcast he added a cry  of “Bring ’em home” at the end before immediately turning and leaving the stage (missing his partial standing-ovation). It’s a great song.

There’s plenty of great tunes on Devils & Dust, even the older tunes revisited for the format work well and still stand (the mark of a good Springsteen song if you ask me) their ground. ‘All The Way Home‘ is particularly strong – written for and originally released by Southside Johnny in 1991 (on an album titled Better Days of all things) and is not even slightly acoustic, Bruce really steps into the lyric “I know what it’s like to have failed, baby with the whole world lookin’ on”.

One of my personal favourites on this one is ‘Long Time Comin” – a catchy, sins-of-the-father, redemption song that only suffers by it’s placing between ‘Reno’ and ‘Black Cowboys’:

Devils & Dust was the first Springsteen album to feature a Parental Advisory sticker and it wasn’t just for the ‘fuck it up this time’ in the ‘Long Time Comin’ either. It was most likely down to the album’s biggest talking point; ‘Reno’. To me, though, I find the song, like a couple of the others on here, just a bit ‘meh’. It seems like the minimal two-chord repetition and overly-heavy lyrics are too oppressive/dour and, in this instance, seem to be an awful lot of a build-up to hear Bruce sing about a man’s visit to a prostitute; “”Two hundred dollars straight in, two-fifty up the ass,” she smiled and said.”  There’s nothing wrong with daring, there’s nothing wrong with those lyrics but it seems, to me at least, that the song isn’t really much to write home about in the first place and if it weren’t for those lines nobody would’ve really written about it all.

While there’s nothing wrong with a good ‘story’ song (‘Galveston Bay’ on Ghost of Tom Joad for example), there’s a few instances on Devils & Dust, like ‘The Hitter’ or ‘Jesus Was An Only Son’ where these near short-stories are too much for their minimal backdrops to retain attention. Take a look at the lyrics and you’ll see that some of these are blocks of paragraphs rather than verses and some (‘The Hitter’) are nine plus verses without a chorus. Don’t get me wrong; the lyrics aren’t bad at all (‘The Hitter’ is especially brutal) but it weighs the album down a touch more than the music and production can lift.

To me it’s not a good thing if a song can’t speak for itself. The inlay for Devils & Dust is filled with explanatory notes around many of these wordier tunes and, from what I’ve read, Bruce spent many a minute on stage during the solo tour for this one explaining the meaning / story behind a lot of the tracks – as can also be seen on the ‘Storytellers’ episode (and while that’s kinda the point it got a little frustrating as he’d almost pause during song to explain verse-by-verse).

That being said I reiterate that it’s a good album (again I’m sure there’s many who may say it’s their favourite) and contains some great tunes so I’ll drop the much-overlooked ‘Maria’s Bed’ here:

Highlights: Devils & Dust, All The Way Home, Long Time Comin’, Maria’s Bed, All I’m Thinkin About, Leah.

Lowlights: Reno, Black Cowboys, Jesus Was An Only Son.

 

Least To Most: Bruce (Intro)

I don’t think I’ve really delved into a long ‘series’ of posts on here before. However, after reading Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run I was thrown into revisiting his albums, almost one-by-one as the book progressed and decided to try to share my thoughts on each – in a series.

It’s an undertaking as this is likely to include some twenty posts so thought I’d first offer up an intro so I can, with the next instalment, get straight to the chase. Now, any musician with a such a long career and discography and varied output is bound to have a number of “worst to best” type lists on them doing the rounds on various websites and Bruce is no exception.

This isn’t intended to be one of those. I’m not a music critic, this isn’t a site of critique more of personal thoughts and opinions. As such I’m going to be running through, in order (though not necessarily uninterrupted), my Least to Most Favourite Bruce Springsteen albums. It’s just that, personal favourites – I don’t lay claim to my judgement of one album’s quality to being universal or true. It’s supposed to be fun after all.

It’s also worth noting that as a Springsteen fan, while it might be among the ‘least’ end of the spectrum, any such album is still likely to be played a fair bit by me and held in overall good standing.

So, let’s get on with the list….