Being on the same record label and having been discovered by the same talent scout (John Hammond), Bruce Springsteen was inevitably hyped as another “next Bob Dylan.” And though Bruce ultimately justified that lofty moniker, albeit as the first Bruce Springsteen, on this somewhat tentative debut album Bruce flashed great potential but didn’t quite deliver the complete package. Points for a nice nod to his New Jersey hometown of Asbury Park (little wonder then that he became New Jersey’s favorite son), but this overly ambitious album isn’t helped by its thin production, which underscores how Bruce’s voice hadn’t yet developed into the raw, powerful instrument it would later become. In addition, though Bruce displays a remarkable way with words, the overabundance of those words sometimes overwhelms the simple structures of songs such as “Blinded By The Light” (later a #1 hit for Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, whose epic version, highlighted by Dave Flett’s classic extended guitar solo, let’s face it is far superior), “Does This Bus Stop At 82nd Street?,” and “It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City” (the latter minus the exciting dueling guitar section that would make it a live favorite). Throughout the album Bruce seems to be feeling his way as he tries to figure out what works and what doesn’t. “Mary Queen Of Arkansas” and “The Angel” don’t really work, but several other songs work extremely well. For example, “Growing Up” has an air of innocence that can only be found in his early work, not to mention the first of many future car references. Elsewhere, “Lost In The Flood” provides an example of the kind of intense story-based dramas that Bruce would prove capable of creating, while “For You” was an urgent piano rocker. Best of all was “Spirit In The Night,” which made obvious the r&b influence in Bruce’s music and was highlighted by Clarence Clemons’ stellar saxophone playing, Bruce’s strong storytelling skills, and some catchy backing vocals. At this point Bruce was more of a singer-songwriter (at least on record, as perhaps he was trying to live up to the Dylan tag; Bruce in concert was a far different proposition) than a pure rock 'n’ roller, and as such this was a sophisticated effort in that vein. If not yet the fully polished singer or songwriter, Springsteen was already a fine storyteller and wide-eyed dreamer full of optimism; such traits would serve him well in the future.
The Wild, The Innocent, And The E Street Shuffle (Columbia ‘73) Rating: A
Whereas Greetings From Asbury Park had only shown flashes of brilliance, especially lyrically, Bruce Springsteen’s second album was a much more assured collection that unleashed his towering musical gifts as a master of r&b-based rock 'n' roll. Arguably Bruce’s most underrated studio album (and probably my second favorite), The Wild, The Innocent, And The E Street Shuffle saw Bruce move away from Bob Dylan’s shadow into Van Morrison territory, though more and more Springsteen was beginning to find his own voice. The album consists of seven long and loosely constructed songs, giving Bruce the time to fully develop his stories while showing off a vast array of r&b moves. He also has greatly matured as a singer, delicately coaxing a lyric one minute and passionately crying out the next, thereby letting the full range of his emotions be heard (and felt). The album captures a joyous, youthful exuberance that Bruce would never again match, and he taxes his great young backing band (an early incarnation of the legendary E. Street Band) to their limits, producing a much fuller sound than on the debut. On the title track Bruce is still wordy but he sounds more relaxed and confident, and when Clemons’ sax joins in along with Springsteen’s impressive guitar playing it sounds like a celebration; the frenetic jam ending underscores that this was a band that could really play. “4th July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” is one of Bruce’s best ballads, containing vivid boardwalk imagery and an evocative musical backdrop (led by Danny Federici’s accordion). Again Bruce assumes the guise of storyteller, and his gift is in creating characters and situations that we care about deeply, all with a refreshing air of innocence that’s the youthful essence of the rock 'n' roll spirit (I suspect that Bruce’s New Jersey boardwalk never really existed, but you’ll wish it had). Continuing, “Kitty’s Back” is a largely enjoyable 7-minute workout with jazz-based grooves and several solo spotlights, while “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” does indeed conjure an interesting circus-like atmosphere, even if it's the least essential song on the album. The album then ends with a flourish with three fantastic epics (comprising side 2 on the LP back in the day), beginning with the wonderfully romantic story-based ballad (though it truly soars at times as well, like with the guitar solo towards the end) “Incident on 57th Street” (7:45) and continuing with the highly energetic rocker “Rosalita” (7:04), a perennial classic rock radio favorite whose free-spirited lyric and sax-led hooks are bound to bring a smile to any Springsteen fan's face. Arguably saving the best for last, “New York City Serenade” (9:55) begins slowly with a pretty piano intro (David Sancious at his very best) before some vigorous acoustic guitar kicks in (Bruce the guitarist at his very best); a lavish string-laden production (which achieves an almost classical perfection) then comes into play along with some of Bruce's most passionate singing on record and Clemons' magical sax interjections, providing a fittingly grand finale that perfectly set the stage for Bruce’s subsequent masterpiece.
Born To Run (Columbia ‘75) Rating: A+
John Landau (later Springsteen’s producer and manager) had famously and somewhat clumsily written in the Boston newspaper The Real Paper: “I saw rock 'n' roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” Bruce had also appeared on the covers of Time and Newsweek in the same week, so he had a lot to live up to. Fortunately, on the masterful Born To Run Bruce delivered on all counts, totally nailing his stated desire to “match the words of Bob Dylan to the music of Phil Spector.” The album begins with some pretty piano and the following words: “the screen door slams, Mary’s dress sways, like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays, Roy Orbison singing for the lonely, hey that’s me and I want you only.” Starting with those evocative lyrics, “Thunder Road” is an utter classic that’s ultimately punctuated by the following statement of purpose: “it’s a town full of losers, I’m pulling out of here to win!” And though the catchy horns and piano (Clarence Clemons and Roy Bittan both shine throughout the album) of “Tenth Avenue Freezout” gave Bruce another rough and ready r&b-based triumph, the album’s claim to greatness lies primarily with four fantastic epics, though “Night,” “She’s The One,” and “Meeting Across The River” are also more modestly terrific. In addition to “Thunder Road,” “Backstreets” is one of Bruce’s most dramatic songs, highlighted by Bruce’s impassioned vocal (probably my all-time favorite Bruce vocal performance in fact), impossibly moving lyrics, and Bittan’s majestic piano. But it's the title track that most people associate Bruce (and this album) with. The song’s supercharged initial surge immediately announces it as an all-time rock n’ roll anthem, helped along by its romantic viewpoint and eternal teenage optimism, not to mention the requisite car imagery. The song’s various sections also display Bruce’s ambitious reach: first comes the sax solo and then some quiet piano before it explodes into the “1-2-3-4” finale that sends chills down my spine every single time. Finally, the cinematic “Jungleland” is another full-blown 9+ minute epic (and even epic seems like too small a word for this one) that's layered into many parts, and which searches for and achieves a grand, panoramic sweep. Highlighted by a truly magnificent extended Clarence Clemons saxophone solo (which would get my vote as his greatest solo, though it has plenty of competition), its timeless romanticism lingers in the memory long after the last note, closing out one of the greatest albums of all-time on an exhausting but exhilarating high. Note: Drummer Max Weinberg, pianist Roy Bittan, and second guitarist Steven Van Zant joined the E. Street Band for this album, replacing standout keyboardist David Sancious and drummer Vini "Mad Dog" Lopez (though Sancious and drummer Ernest “Boom” Carter not Weinberg and Bittan played on the title track). Clemons (sax), Danny Federici (keyboards, accordion), and Garry Tallent (bass) rounded out the band's classic lineup.
Darkness On The Edge Of Town (Columbia ‘78) Rating: A
After a three year hiatus resulting from an ugly legal battle with soon to be ex-manager Mike Appel, Bruce Springsteen returned to the studio a changed man. On Darkness On The Edge Of Town Springsteen has grown up, and he doesn’t like what he sees. Whether detailing the daily drudgery of small town workers (on “Factory”) or simply ruminating on broken dreams and romantic longing, this is a dark and depressing album. Such pessimism from such a previous dreamer was startling at the time, but Bruce delivers a spectacular batch of lyrics (example: “daddy worked his whole life for nothing but the pain, now he walks these empty rooms looking for something to blame”), and the album’s small scale portraits are as effective in their own way as the widescreen epics of his previous two albums. The end result is a highly unified album that’s greater than the sum of its parts, as Bruce shows a mature empathy for and a deep understanding of the down and out characters chronicled, many of whom are simply trying to muddle through another day; thus Bruce became identified as a working class hero. Musically, his sparse, quieter vision is generally less exciting than his two prior efforts, but “Badlands,” “Adam Raised a Cain,” “Candy’s Room,” “The Promised Land,” and “Prove It All Night” are all excellent rockers. Bruce himself felt that “I undersang and we underplayed a bit,” and while I agree with the former charge he’s still being too hard on himself, especially since he does let loose with some impassioned vocals and several screaming guitar solos. Besides, though maybe a couple of tracks here aren’t among his more musically memorable, the slower songs all achieve an atmospheric resonance, buoyed by the stories they tell. This is especially the case on “Racing In The Street,” a sad but evocative tale of escapism with several quotable passages (“some guys they just give up living, and start dying little by little, piece by piece”), and the title track, which provides a glimmer of hope (“some folks are born into a good life, other folks get it anyway, anyhow”) that we still have some control over our own destiny. Darkness On The Edge Of Town was a courageous and heartfelt departure, and Bruce fully came to his own (no more Bob Dylan or Van Morrison comparisons could be made now) with this subdued triumph, which showed everyone that Bruce Springsteen would do things his way, no matter what the cost. Note: In 2010, the Darkness On The Edge Of Town box set appeared, which included the original album, a highly desirable documentary about the making of the album, two concert DVDs, and the "new" 2-CD album The Promise.
The River (Columbia ’80) Rating: A-
A sprawling double album, The River isn’t as soaringly optimistic as Born To Run or as bleakly pessimistic as Darkness On The Edge Of Town, but instead presents both sides of the story. The album contains some of Bruce’s most emotionally heavy stuff along with a fair share of throwaway fluff, and it became his biggest seller to date on the back of “Hungry Heart,” a swell sing along with a universal lyric that became Bruce’s first Top 10 hit (interestingly enough, the song was originally written for the Ramones before Bruce decided to keep the song for himself). Energetic rockers such as “Out On The Street” are where the E. Street Band makes their presence forcefully felt - other upbeat highlights include the jangly “The Ties That Bind,” the delightful garage rocker “Sherry Darling” (about that difficult mother in-law, i.e. "I didn't count on this package deal"), “Two Hearts,” which maturely reflects on love and growing up while frenetically rocking out, and “Cadillac Ranch,” a bright and catchy keyboard-led romp that’s one of several car songs on the album. But though the rockers are mostly energetic and enjoyable, forgettable songs such as "Crush On You," "I'm A Rocker," and "Ramrod" easily could've been relegated to b-side status, and the true heart of the album lies in a number of excellent ballads, most of which focus on unfulfilled expectations and feature heartbreaking tales of dissipated love and bitter regret. The superbly confessional “Independence Day” again details Bruce’s difficult relationship with his father ("there's just no way this house could hold the two of us"), while “I Wanna Marry You” is a romantic yet decidedly pragmatic look at love, ‘cause “in the end true love can’t be no fairytale.” The terrific title track is one of Bruce’s saddest and most haunting songs as it details a young couple’s loss of innocence and hope (“is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?”), while “Point Blank” is another dramatic portrait of broken dreams and a broken down romance (p.s. the title track is also one of the first songs I think of when I think of Bruce’s “harmonica songs,” the others being “Thunder Road” and “The Promised Land”). Springsteen has rarely sounded as desperate as he does on "Fade Away," while the spare, atmospheric "Stolen Car" is yet another heartwrenching song involving cars and a doomed relationship. "The Price You Pay" is another extremely strong mellower effort (this one has a nice melody and really showcases the band’s underrated harmonies), while the soulful, dramatic 8-plus minute epic "Drive All Night" features an impassioned Bruce vocal (one of his very best), silly yet awesome lyrics (“I’ll drive all night just to buy you some shoes”), and a sultry Clarence saxophone solo, before "Wreck On The Highway" memorably ends the album by vividly documenting a nightmarish scenario that our narrator can’t quite shake. These moving ballads, most of which are sequenced on disc two, are pretty musically but rely more on riveting narratives and lingering images for their effectiveness (that’s a nice way of saying that like on Darkness the fantastic lyrics are sometimes better than the music). It helps that there are some lighter moments that offset all the surrounding seriousness, and though there is some filler here - The River is a double album, after all - this album is always well worth returning to despite its faults since it provides an all-encompassing look at Bruce Springsteen's many strengths.
Nebraska (Columbia ‘82) Rating: A
Considered Bruce's masterpiece by many a critic, for a long time I considered this solo album a total bore, and only recently have I realized just how good Nebraska is. Perhaps I just never gave the album the intense, uninterrupted attention it requires (the better to appreciate Bruce's attention to detail and the subtle nuances of his songwriting), for few albums maintain an overall mood (perfectly conveyed by it's cinematic black and white cover) quite like this one. True, the melodies are rather simple and they do lack variety and excitement, but this is offset by the album's intense emotional impact and the sparse prettiness of its melodies, many of which are richer than I at first believed. Besides, ditching the E. Street Band and releasing a set of spare demo-like folk songs with little commercial potential took guts, and Bruce puts his heart into these ten bleak tales about lonely losers and desperate situations that are unlikely to ever be resolved happily. This is depressing, pessimistic stuff but with an eye for the truth and not an ounce of sentimentality. The album begins impressively with the title track, which details a senseless murder spree, and which is made all the more chilling by its matter of fact delivery and its conclusion that sometimes there simply are no good answers for why these things happen. Next comes the evocative “Atlantic City,” one of Bruce’s best song’s ever and which contains the album’s best melody by far, while “Mansion on the Hill” has another memorable lyric and a low-key melody that latches on after repeat listens (but only after repeat listens). Murder and death are again the central themes of the livelier “Johnny 99,” who’s guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and who wants nothing more than death, while “Highway Patrolman” is an unforgettable story song about a pair of mismatched brothers. The good brother is a sheriff and the no good brother is in big trouble; the sheriff gives chase but rather than bring his brother in he lets him go because "a man who turns his back on his family, well he just 'aint no good." Bruce's lyrical genius is in full flower here, for it is the flashbacks to better times that really gives the song its stunning emotional impact. “State Trooper” is also stunningly effective despite its (or maybe because of its) simplicity, as its throbbing low-key beat perfectly captures the desolate mood of a late night drive, while "Used Cars" is an ultra spare and highly autobiographical ballad and "Open All Night" is twangy and comparatively up-tempo a la “Johnny 99.” Finishing up the set list, the somber even for this album “My Father’s House” again talks about not so dear old dad before Bruce ends the most pessimistic of albums trying to find a “Reason To Believe.” Most of these haunting, haunted tracks feature Bruce’s voice, acoustic guitar, harmonica (most of the time), and not much else, and by and large the most successful songs here are when Bruce manages to fill out the stark overall sound somewhat. Perhaps Bruce’s music here isn't quite on the same level as his sharp lyric writing, but this folk troubadour approach took a lot of courage to attempt, and this album is a real grower that's all the more remarkable given how unexpected it was at the time.
Born In The U.S.A. (Columbia ’84) Rating: A
This is the album that brought Bruce into the big leagues alongside Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Prince, as “The Boss,” newly pumped up from arduous workouts, played arenas and stadiums worldwide to hordes of adoring fans who reveled in every minute of his sometimes four hour extravaganzas. But though of course some decried it as such, Bruce’s most commercially successful album was no sellout, as he simply put his downcast lyrics to more upbeat music, while also letting his sense of humor return after the relentless gloom of Nebraska. He also lets a little nostalgia seep in (“No Surrender,” “Glory Days”), while Max Weinberg’s big beat, Bittan/Federici’s prominent piano/keyboards, and Bruce’s raw vocals are the dominant aspects of the E. Street sound. It was good to see Bruce revisit turbo-charged rock n’ roll on “Cover Me” and the epic title track, which was memorably exploited by Ronald Reagan and largely misunderstood by the masses, who ignored the disconsolate verses about the plight of Vietnam veterans and instead concentrated on its epic chorus. Unfortunately, songs such as “Darlington County,” “Working on the Highway,” and “I’m Goin’ Down” are fun rockers but rank as minor Springsteen, and though the overly slick, synth-heavy “Dancing In The Dark” (a #2 hit) propelled the album to multi-platinum status (in no small part due to its popular Brian DePalma directed video, which featured a cameo by a then-unknown friend named Courtney Cox), it isn’t one of his more impressive singles (it is good though). Fortunately, “Downbound Train” is an effectively atmospheric and image-filled tale about lost love and dashed dreams (familiar Springsteen themes), while “I’m On Fire” and “My Hometown” are spare ballads that introduce some of the loveliest sounds of Springsteen’s career, with decidedly different results (chillingly understated on the former, thoughtfully contemplative on the latter). My two favorites songs here, however, are the odes to “Little Steven” Van Zant: “No Surrender” is a melodic mid-tempo number about chasing the rock n’ roll dream, while “Bobby Jean” was a touchingly sentimental goodbye as Van Zant (who had also done some great work with Southside Johnny) was about to embark upon a solo career (the last verse into the sax solo gets me every time). So, for all its faults, such as an extremely dated keyboard and drum sound, this alternately bombastic and subtle album largely deserved its enormous popularity, as it’s a filler-free package with quite a few stellar songs (although it eventually irritated me due to radio overexposure, “Glory Days” was also a fun, nostalgic look back at better times). And though it's not Bruce's best album, it's not too tough to look back and consider this album and especially its attendant tour as Bruce's career peak. Tired of the larger than life expectations generated by this breakthrough release (which contained a whopping seven top 10 U.S. singles!), Bruce greatly downscaled his next few studio outings, which lack the excitement of the high-energy dramas on display here.
Live/1975-1985 (Columbia ’86) Rating: A-
This monumental undertaking was the very first box set that I can remember, a 5-record (remember those big round scratchy things?), 3-cd set that still sold by the bucketful. Such was the power of the man they called “The Boss” after his triumphant Born In The U.S.A. tour, when he and the E. Street Band were at the peak of their popularity. Though longtime fans will almost certainly quibble about the omission of certain songs, and I'll quibble about plenty of other things later on in this review, this almost four-hour showcase (the approximate time of a Bruce show, as he was truly the hardest working man in show business) is an embarrassment of riches just the same. It showcased what a great, versatile songwriter Bruce was, as well as what powerful performers they all were during this time period. Backed by a smoking E. Street Band (with guitar whiz Nils Lofgren, who replaced Van Zant, supplying some choice licks on the later stuff along with Bruce, himself an underrated guitarist), Bruce runs through the gamut of his repertoire. In addition to most of his own signature songs, we get treated to some choice covers that Bruce gamely attempts to make his own, as well as several songs that he wrote or co-wrote that were hits for others, including The Pointer Sisters’ “Fire” and Patti Smith’s “Because The Night;” both of these versions soon became radio favorites and for good reason as I find both highly enjoyable. The most notable covers were a fire-breathing romp through Edwin Starr’s “War” and Tom Waits’ beautiful ballad “Jersey Girl,” which closes disc three and which fits Bruce so well it seemed as if he should’ve written it himself but simply hadn’t gotten around to it (unsurprisingly, both of these songs also became radio favorites). An enthusiastic crowd and some scene setting stories thrown in (most memorably during “Growin’ Up” and before “The River”) add to the concert-like ambiance, and the songs on the whole rock harder than their studio counterparts. Really, naming highlights throughout these three cds is a daunting task, so I won’t even try beyond noting that “Badlands” and “Born In The U.S.A.” sure sound great, and that the band introductions (on “Rosalita”) are always fun. Granted, with such a wealth of material there are bound to be a few lulls, but thankfully this happens fairly infrequently. I personally could do without a couple of the covers (such as "Raise Your Hand" and “This Land Is Your Land”), the Nebraska songs don’t really fit in with the rest of the material, and there are far too many tracks from the recently released Born In The U.S.A.. I also much prefer the original studio versions of “Thunder Road” and “No Surrender” to these stripped-down renditions, which are given markedly different presentations than their studio incarnations. To quibble further, if you’ve heard Springsteen bootlegs you’d probably complain about the contrived nature of this concert (which was obviously compiled from many different shows), and you’d likely state that this live box is inferior to any single true Bruce Springsteen concert. Also, it would’ve been better had Bruce taken the songs from the tours from which they originated, for example taken all Darkness On The Edge Of Town songs from their legendary 1978 tour. This would've presented a far more accurate portrait of what the E. Street Band really sounded like throughout the years. And where are the 1975 Bottom Line shows that made Landau make his famous proclamation? This is a major oversight, and I could go on, as this box set is far from perfect from the perspective of a diehard fan; there's only one performance from before 1978, for starters, so the title is a bit misleading even if it technically is accurate. Still, for all its faults I generally enjoy the bulk of this ambitious box set, as the exuberant performances of his great band and the sheer depth of Bruce’s artistry always wins me over in the end.
Tunnel Of Love (Columbia ’87) Rating: B+
Like Nebraska, this is a musically spare album that relies largely on Bruce’s acoustic guitar and conversational voice. However, this time out keyboards also play an equally important role, and this album is much more commercial sounding and accessible than Nebraska. The E. Street Band is used in a limited capacity, as more and more Bruce wanted to go it alone, which is fitting considering that loneliness is one of the album’s primary themes. Future second wife Patti Scialfa has joined the fold as a backup singer, lending haunting backing vocals to songs such as “Tunnel Of Love” “One Step Up,” and “When You’re Alone,” and her ghostly presence is ironic considering the subject matter, which features highly personal examinations of his failing first marriage to Julianne Phillips. Whereas Nebraska told tales about outsiders down on their luck, here the protagonist is clearly Bruce himself, and tracks such as “Ain’t Got You” acknowledge his outrageous fame and fortune without commenting on his beloved working class, which would have seemed less than honest at this point. Yet he still feels unfulfilled (indeed, money can’t buy him love), and tracks such as “Brilliant Disguise” offer incisive thoughts and at times cutting commentary (“I’m lost in the darkness of our love”) about the fears and doubts that every man (and woman) searching for lasting love experiences. This is a mature, adult album that doesn’t offer any answers but simply lays bare emotions out on the table. At its best (“Tougher Than The Rest,” “Walk Like A Man,” “Tunnel Of Love,” “Brilliant Disguise,” “One Step Up” “When You’re Alone”) these primarily mid-tempo meditations can be quite beautiful and moving, though at times the music can also come across as simplistic and boring (not to mention dated to the ‘80s). In addition, abrasive rockers such as “Ain’t Got You” and "Spare Parts" seem out of place, and Bruce adopts an overly mannered twang on too many of his vocals. Still, though he could’ve used some more help from the E. Street Band, all of whom would soon officially be given their walking papers, overall this somewhat patchy but often poignant album saw Bruce growing up with grace.
Human Touch (Columbia ’92) Rating: B-
After Bruce shockingly called a halt to his longtime association with the E. Street Band, who are simply one of the greatest backing bands of all time, Bruce borrowed a page from the Guns n’ Roses handbook by releasing two albums simultaneously. Really, the role of the E. Street Band on record had decreased dramatically in recent years, anyway, and where they were really missed was on his subsequent tour, where his hard rocking new band lacked the famous chemistry that made the E. Streeters so special. At least the tour (which I attended) was still quite good, thank you very much, since most of these songs sounded much better live. Unfortunately, aside from the title track, a highly melodic and appealing almost-classic, and the catchy, upbeat rocker "Roll Of The Dice" (one of several tracks featuring prominent backing vocals from the legendary Sam Moore of Sam and Dave fame), few of these 14 songs really stand out from one another. There are other minor highlights, as "All Or Nothing At All" and "The Long Goodbye" are catchy enough sing alongs, "I Wish I Were Blind" is an atmospheric ballad with a soaring guitar solo (lyrically it obviously liberally borrows from the soul classic “I’d Rather Go Blind”), and Moore really shines and props up songs such as "Soul Driver" and "Real World." Elsewhere, we get boring ballads ("Cross My Heart," "With Every Wish," "Pony Boy"), by the numbers rockers ("Gloria's Eyes"), and forced attempts at relevance ("57 Channels (And Nothing On)") and machismo (the lyrically awkward but musically solid "Man's Job" and the awkward all around "Real Man"). For the first time in his career, Bruce seems to lack a real sense of direction, and though the album is more energetic and rocking than its companion piece, much of the material here is rather unremarkable (the album would’ve been better served by having a few less songs). The fans agreed; though Human Touch and Lucky Town both debuted in the Billboard top 10, they sank like stones once the less than complimentary reviews started appearing.
Lucky Town (Columbia ’92) Rating: B+
When Bruce was working on Human Touch, he felt that the album needed one more song before it could be considered complete. Several weeks and ten songs later Bruce had a second album on his hands, and the underrated Lucky Town turned out to be considerably better then Human Touch, in large part because it holds together much better as a cohesive album statement. Aside from a couple of moody, darker hued musical entries (“Souls Of The Departed,” which has a nice groove along with some prescient social commentary, and the atmospheric dirge “The Big Muddy”), most of this optimistic album can be seen as the antithesis of Tunnel Of Love, as Lucky Town is nothing if not a love letter from a smitten Springsteen to his new wife Patti Scialfa and their two young children. Playing most of the instruments himself, Bruce delivers 10 finely crafted, if not overly exciting, mid-tempo rock tunes along with several simple but effective ballads. The best of these is easily “Better Days,” the best song on this or Human Touch, while the intense yet catchy title track and "Living Proof" are other notable rockers, despite the overly accented country vocals on the former song and the latter track sounding a bit like an inferior rewrite of "Better Days." While we’re at it, “Local Hero” and “Leap Of Faith” also share similar characteristics due to their bright upbeat sound and prominently female backing vocals; both are solidly enjoyable and easy to sing along to. On the mellow ballad front, the stellar "If I Should Fall Behind" and the also-pretty if less impressive "Book Of Dreams" are stately pledges of devotion to Patti, while "My Beautiful Reward" is another pretty, understated ballad that ends the album (dig the harmonica that appears here and elsewhere). At times Bruce lapses into generic rock n' roll or bland singer-songwriter banality, and Bruce later somewhat ruefully joked that his fans disliked these albums because the songs were too happy on the whole. However, this town is well worth visiting from time to time, though truth be told Bruce probably should've taken the best songs from Human Touch and Lucky Town and released a single album instead.
Greatest Hits (Columbia ’95) Rating: B+
After Lucky Town and Human Touch, Bruce received negative reviews for the first time in his career, and his next step was to take stock with this “greatest hits” collection. Since Bruce Springsteen is an album oriented artist with rabid fans who already own all of his songs, the reason people ran to their local record store to buy this album was because of the four newly recorded songs with the reunited (at least temporarily) E. Street Band. I’m generally not in favor of having too many new songs included on “greatest hits” collections because 1) they’re not “hits,” and 2) they invariably fail to measure up to songs that have been skipped over that actually belong on the album. Even with that, the song selection here is highly questionable, totally skipping over his first two albums and including non-hits such as “The River,” “Atlantic City,” and “Better Days” (admittedly superb songs all). Too many great songs are omitted to even begin discussing here, and at the very least this should’ve been a 2-cd set. At least the Grammy winning “Streets Of Philadelpha” is included for the first time on a Bruce Springsteen album, although room should’ve been made for “Trapped” as well. As for the new songs, it’s inevitable that they should fall short when standing next to tall anthems such as “Born To Run,” “Thunder Road,” and "Badlands." However, “Murder Incorporated” is a strong (and fairly heavy) rocker left over from the Born In The U.S.A. sessions (or back when Springsteen considered himself a “rocker” as well as a “writer”), and “Secret Garden” is a mellow synth-ballad in the vein of “Streets Of Philadelphia” that later became a hit when released as a single interspersed with dialogue from the movie Jerry McGuire. In addition, “Blood Brothers” is an atmospheric tribute to his bandmates (on which his bandmates ironically are barely noticeable), and “This Hard Land” is a solid mid-tempo piece which showed that Bruce hadn’t lost his terrific lyrical touch. So, for many hardcore Bruce fans this probably is worth having for the new songs, none of which are great but all of which are worth hearing. However, considering the album’s title and what’s missing I found Greatest Hits to be extremely disappointing, though Bruce’s written notes about each song is a nice touch. Note: The far more comprehensive 3-cd The Essential Bruce Springsteen was released in 2003. The first two cds provide a far superior career overview than Greatest Hits, while the third disc contains surprisingly good rarities not on Tracks, including my beloved "Trapped."
The Ghost Of Tom Joad (Columbia ’95) Rating: B-
After Greatest Hits, hopes for a full E. Street Band reunion ran high, but instead Bruce surprised (and disappointed) everybody by releasing the solo The Ghost Of Tom Joad, which brought him back to the same stark black and white images of Nebraska only not nearly as successfully. Though songs such as the title track (named after the title character in John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes Of Wrath) and “Youngstown” are extremely compelling, this album too often sets vivid lyrics to insubstantial and ultimately boring music. As with Nebraska (again there’s that inevitable comparison) Bruce writes about the desperate plight of others, with songs about immigrants, murderers, and other assorted criminals. But these relentlessly bleak one-note performances tend to drag, as the album could use a few more melodies as memorable as “Youngstown.” Bruce’s muffled vocals don’t help matters any, and though I respect his decision to make deliberately uncommercial music when he could still be selling out stadiums, personally I wish that Bruce would be more musically ambitious (c'mon Bruce bring back the E. Street Band for good!). Unlike Nebraska, I don't get the impression that these tales absolutely needed to be told, but rather that Bruce was grasping for critical respectability after the relative failure of Human Touch and Lucky Town. In addition, and maybe this is just me, but I always liked the idea of Nebraska being a once in a lifetime sort of curveball, and the appearance of this vastly inferior sequel (of sorts) somehow makes Nebraska seem slightly less special to me. Don't get me wrong, there are some other solid songs here, such as "Straight Time," "Dry Lightning," and "Across The Border," and the album's liner notes are a really good read, but musically speaking I guess I’ll always prefer Bruce the rocker to Bruce the folkie. Fortunately, the E. Street Band reunion would happen eventually and would prove to be well worth the long wait.
Tracks (Columbia ’98) Rating: A-
Even before he ditched the E. Street Band to make mediocre solo albums where he often sings with a strange, overly affected country twang, Bruce was often his own worst enemy. For a man who writes so prolifically he has far too few albums to his name, and over the years many quality songs have been omitted from albums either because they didn’t fit or (in many cases) because Bruce picked the wrong songs (he also gave quite a few high-quality songs away to other artists). Really, what plausible reason could Bruce possibly give for omitting an excellent rocker like “Restless Nights” from The River in favor of the likes of "Crush On You," "I'm A Rocker," and "Ramrod"? Fortunately, the 4-cd Tracks attempts to rectify past mistakes by delivering 67 unreleased songs, and though quite a few of them deserved their obscure status, there’s enough high-quality stuff here to make Tracks an essential purchase for diehard Springsteen fans. It’s a pity that joyously summery party tunes like “So Young and In Love” and “Give The Girl A Kiss” were written after The Wild, The Innocent, And The E Street Shuffle, and I certainly understand why the latter was omitted from the downbeat Darkness On The Edge Of Town (while we’re at it, “Santa Ana” and especially the 8+ minute “Thundercrack” also would’ve fit in mighty fine on The Wild...). The spare rendition of “Born In The U.S.A” from the Nebraska sessions is truly eye opening, and “Linda Let Me Be The One” is a classy r&b-based ballad that was later reworked for The River as “I Wanna Marry You.” “Loose Ends,” a moody mid-tempo breakup tune, was a real grower for me, while “Bring On The Night” has Elvis Costello-ish Farfisa keyboards and an easily singable and passionate chorus. The tender “Janey, Don’t You Lose Heart” is a comforting, low-key triumph that would’ve fit nicely on either Born In The U.S.A or Tunnel Of Love, while the rather generic “Where The Bands Are” is raucous fun just the same and even got some airplay. This song exemplifies how the overall mood of many of these songs is lighter than what’s typically found on Bruce’s albums, which might help explain why at least some of them were excluded in the first place. I could go on and describe other songs such as "Zero and Blind Terry," "Rendezvous," "Iceman," "Don’t Look Back," "A Good Man Is Hard To Find (Pittsburgh)," "Roulette," "Dollhouse," "Be True," "Johnny Bye-Bye," "Shut Out The Light, " "My Love Will Not Let You Down," "Frankie," "Rockaway The Days," "Man At The Top," "Two For The Road," "When You Need Me, " "The Wish," "Sad Eyes," "Back In Your Arms," and "Brothers Under The Bridge," as well as the more well-known likes of b-side "Pink Cadillac" (Bruce does rockabilly), an alternate take of "Stolen Car," "This Hard Land" (better than the Greatest Hits version), and (due to Southside Johnny) "Hearts Of Stone"…those are but some of the other highlights scattered throughout this box set, which is best browsed through rather than listened to from start to finish, the better to avoid a fair amount of the filler that is inevitable with such a project. These unreleased songs were "rejects," after all, and some seem unfinished or at the very least could've used more polish. The lack of truly informative liner notes is also disappointing at this price tag, as was Bruce's decision to rip off his longtime fans by releasing the single cd 18 Tracks, which was basically a "best of" Tracks that conveniently added 3 songs ("The Fever," "The Promise," and "Trouble River") not on the original box set. I'd love to hear Bruce's explanation for such crass exploitation of his fans, especially since it seemingly flies in the face of everything he supposedly stands for. However, I'm veering hopelessly off track here, as for all my complaints this long overdue if overly stuffed collection provides a highly enjoyable addendum to Bruce's original studio albums. As for other things worth noting, this collection is more or less sequenced chronologically based on when the song was recorded, starting with four songs from Bruce’s famous solo “interview” with legendary talent scout John Hammond. Also, the majority (almost half) of these songs were recorded during The River/Born In The U.S.A. sessions, and the majority of disc four is comprised of songs recorded during the Human Touch album (not surprisingly, this is the weakest of the four discs).
Live In New York City (Columbia ’01) Rating: A-
The long-awaited reunion of Bruce Springsteen with the E. Street Band was most welcome, and the subsequent concerts actually lived up to the extremely high expectations. With Steven Van Zant (that’s Silvio from the Sopranos to some of you) back in the fold and a newly unleashed three-pronged guitar attack, these recently inducted Hall of Famers didn’t miss a beat. This 2-cd live album (and concurrent HBO special now available on DVD; I'd highly recommend getting the DVD instead of the cd if forced to choose between the two mediums) isn’t the definitive Springsteen live album by any means, but it is a nice sounding and energetic souvenir of part of that tour. In addition, the song selection works well as a companion piece to his previous 3-cd live opus Live/1975-1985 (there’s not much song overlap), and it’s good to see Bruce back in the guise of a rock n’ roller again after several low-key efforts. This revitalization is immediately apparent on “My Love Will Not Let You Down” (much better here than on Tracks), which demonstrates that Bruce’s bandmates were always far more than a mere backing band, and in particular what a world-class drummer Max Weinberg is. The more familiar rocker “Prove It All Night” is next, and like many of the songs here this fantastic version is extended for the stage and has added guitar muscle, with the best bits usually being handled by Nils Lofgren. Other notable highlights and/or song reworkings include “Two Hearts,” a high energy duet with Van Zant (as was the best part of “Prove It All Night”) that shreds the original (I think that this rockin’ rendition of "Murder Incorporated" also easily eclipses its studio counterpart), “Atlantic City,” which is transformed into a stately accordion-led waltz, “Mansion On The Hill,” a pretty duet with wife Patti Scialfa that’s more countrified and musically fleshed out than on Nebraska, and “Youngstown,” which is here presented as an accordion and electric guitar-led epic. “Badlands” and “Out In The Street” are but two of the songs on which the crowd joins in on the fun, while a completely scaled down “Born In The U.S.A.” is the most radically different interpretation (though it's not too different if you've heard the version on Tracks). "Jungleland" is suitably epic, as you'd expect (Clarence - maybe my favorite sideman ever - never disappoints, and "If I Could Fall Behind" (which has belatedly become something of a latter day classic) memorably ends the album with multiple band members trading leads and/or duetting (Bruce, Patti, Steven, Nils, and Clarence). The two new songs themselves alone are almost worth the price of admission, as rich keyboards and jangly guitars gallop along for 9 majestic minutes on the superb “Land of Hope and Dreams.” Of course, it was the Amadou Diallo-inspired “American Skin (41 Shots)” that caused a considerable commotion, especially in New York City, but this moody, haunting song carries itself in a dignified manner and doesn’t take sides. The album isn’t without its flaws, as some will no doubt quibble about the inclusion of certain songs (“Ramrod?”), while Bruce’s rough vocals can be a bit overbearing at times. Still, though this album isn't quite essential listening, especially when compared to the subsequent Hammersmith Odeon London '75 album, by and large Live In New York City is a powerful and fun reminder of what great live performers Bruce and his fabulous E. Street Band have always been, and obviously still are. If nothing else, you should check out the 16-minute version of “Tenth Avenue Freezeout,” which includes chunks of other songs as well and contains arguably the greatest extended band introduction I've ever heard (feel free to e-mail me if you've heard something better because I'd love to hear it). Correction: Bruce Springsteen was inducted into the Hall Of Fame in 1999, but the E Street Band wasn’t inducted until 2014! That’s as good an example as any as to how half-assed and ridiculous the voting process for that place is.
The Rising (Columbia ’02) Rating: A
Bruce Springsteen’s career since his last album with a fully engaged E. Street Band (1984’s Born In The U.S.A.) has been largely disappointing, so it was with modest expectations that I first listened to The Rising. However, it didn’t take long for me to realize that Bruce and his bandmates are determined to make up for lost time, and that this album would’ve exceeded my expectations even had they been enormous. Whereas a previous Bruce album like Darkness On The Edge Of Town could loosely be called Bruce’s “working class” album and Tunnel Of Love foretold about his pending divorce, The Rising is clearly Springsteen’s “September 11th album.” “Lonesome Day” gets the album off to a rousing start as the E. Street Band’s presence is immediately felt, bringing forth an impressive wall of sound on an anthem that has all the makings of an instant classic. “Into The Fire” is arguably even better. Starting as a solemn prayer, this song about a heroic firefighter on that fateful day ultimately rises to anthem-like status, and though our hero perishes the song ultimately offers hope for a better day. After such heavy fare a break in the action is needed, and that’s just what the upbeat and catchy party tune “Waitin’ On A Sunny Day” provides. This pleasurable lighter tune then leads into another weighty track, as “Nothing Man” movingly recounts the empty feelings of a surviving hero. The stately synthesizers and haunting backing vocals (which appear throughout the album) only add to the song’s elegant resonance, before “Countin’ On A Miracle” provides another lighter r&b-based track. “Empty Sky” vividly recounts feelings we’ve all felt since 9/11 (“I want an eye for an eye”), but but “Worlds Apart,” the album’s longest and most ambitious song which merges raw rock n’ roll with the mystically chanted Pakistani music called qawwali (sung by Asif Ali Khan and Group), provides a powerful demonstration of how differing cultures can come together to (at the very least) make stirring music. After that exhausting and highly experimental mid-album climax, the album’s slightly less impressive second half seemingly begins with another fun sing along party tune called “Let’s Be Friends.” However, lyrics like “I know we’re different you and me, got a different way of walkin’, the time has come to let the past be history, yeah, if we could just start talkin’” shares a similar theme of unity with the surrounding seriousness, and “Further On (Up The Road),” another hard charging rocker on which the E. Streeters shine, again ups the intensity, albeit in somewhat generic fashion. Though it's also hardly one of the album’s most impressive songs, the electro-gospel of “The Fuse” further demonstrates Bruce’s willingness to experiment on this album (much of the credit there is probably due to producer Brendan O’Brien). For example, impressive violin playing (courtesy of Soozie Tyrell) appears throughout the album on songs as different as “Mary’s Place,” an upbeat track (inspired by Sam Cooke’s “Meet Me At Mary’s Place”) on which Bruce pulls out all the stops (violin, horns, female backing chants, and several Clarence Clemons saxophone solos), and “You’re Missing,” a simple but heartbreakingly effective song about a single family’s loss of a loved one. Further juxtapositions appear on the next two songs. On the terrific title track (another anthem) our narrator courageously runs up endless stairwells to his obvious fate, while the spare, evocative “Paradise” presents the thoughts of a suicide bomber. That’s the genius of The Rising; all sides of the 9/11 story are told, from small acts of courage to tales of tremendous loss to misguided views of martyrdom. The pacing is close to perfect, too, as there are enough lighter respites to ultimately make The Rising an enjoyably uplifting experience despite its dark subject matter. Last but not least, a reinvigorated E. Street Band is in exemplary form, and though perhaps this 73-minute album is overly long this seems like nitpicking given the high overall quality of its songs. The slow, soulful “My City Of Ruins” provides a perfect ending to the album by exhorting all of us (not just Americans) to “rise up” to a better place, where an indomitable spirit of kindness, hope, and love can persevere over cowardly acts of vengeance and hate.
Devils and Dust (Columbia ’05) Rating: B
After the brief career renaissance of The Rising, Bruce preached for the Kerry/Edwards presidential ticket on the failed Rock For Vote tour before again (unfortunately) ditching the E. Street Band on Devils and Dust. Right away the title track takes us to a soldier in Iraq, and it's one of the album’s best (and most political) songs, with quotable lyrics (“what if what you do to survive kills the things you love”) and, more importantly, memorable music. When the strings kick in with Bruce’s harmonica the end result is quietly epic, but elsewhere too many of these songs lack distinctive melodies, as sparse tracks such as “Black Cowboys,” “Silver Palomino,” “Jesus Was An Only Son,” and “The Hitter” come and go anonymously, though Bruce’s storytelling skills on “Black Cowboys” and “The Hitter” are certainly impressive. Fortunately, the album has its fair share of fine songs as well (even if none are classics), and Devils and Dust has a fair amount of “firsts” for Bruce. However, before I get to them, I’d like to address something else in that a lot of reviewers seem to be considering this some sort of belated sequel to Nebraska and The Ghost Of Tom Joad, and I just don’t think that’s the case at all. In fact, the album’s stately synths and plentiful backing vocals are more in line with Tunnel Of Love, and this album isn’t nearly as bleak as any of those albums, making it its very own entity (for better and sometimes worse). Indeed, most of the best songs here are lighter, more up tempo tracks such as “All The Way Home” and “Long Time Comin’,” which could be described as “country rock” and which deliver rare singable choruses (especially the latter song, which features a rare f-bomb from Bruce). Also notable are “Maria’s Bed” and “All I’m Thinkin’ About,” which see Bruce singing in a strained, high-pitched falsetto reminiscent of Neil Young (he even references sugar mountain on the former song), and both songs work surprisingly well in exuding a lively yet low-key charm (though the latter song is a bit repetitive). There’s certainly nothing in the Springsteen catalogue like them, and “Leah” is another winner, with straightforward love lyrics and (again, more importantly) a nice groovy melody, with evocative harmonies and even a trumpet solo adding to the song’s ambiance. Last but certainly not least is “Matamoras Banks,” which thematically takes us back to Tom Joad (it’s a sad tale about a failed Mexican migration inventively told backwards from one man’s death to his journey towards “The Promised Land”) but whose low-key, lullaby-like melody surpasses almost anything on that album (not that that’s too hard). Of course, the song that’s getting the most attention is “Reno,” whose sexually explicit lyrics (“two hundred dollars straight in, two-fifty up the ass she smiled and said”) are definitely a first, but again I wish Bruce would lose that forced country twang (there is some fine country pickin’ on the album, though), and truth is the song otherwise isn’t all that memorable, meaning that musically a good third of the album is fairly forgettable. Additionally, although producer Brendan O’Brien does his part to incorporate all sorts of different instrumentation (bass, electric sarangi, hurdy gurdy, tambura, sitar) onto the album, sometimes he goes overboard, leading many to suggest that the album is “overproduced.” Still, Devils and Dust does have some good songs (again the best being the title track), and it often sees Bruce trying new things, mostly successfully and generally without the preachiness I feared Bruce would subject us to (such as on his current solo tour, where he routinely yells at his audience - the most loyal fans in rock - if they’re “too loud”). The several optimistic songs should erase all those Nebraska/Tom Joad comparisons, and quality-wise the album falls somewhere in between, as erasing one or two of the filler tracks would’ve considerably strengthened the album’s overall impact. Also, and this must be said, aside from Nebraska Bruce’s non-E. Street Band albums simply lack that special something that his band albums have (a great band backing him, mostly), even if he remains a solid songwriter. Here’s hoping for another E Street Band reunion, and that Bruce’s next album won’t annoyingly be “MP3 protected,” which prevents me from playing this album on certain mediums or from ripping its contents onto my recently purchased iPod.
Hammersmith Odeon London '75 (Columbia ’06) Rating: A+
Originally available on the 30th anniversary edition of Born To Run, this legendary concert is now available as separate DVD and cd releases. According to Bruce's brief liner notes, this was the "show that put us on the map in England," and he also claims in a rare moment of immodesty that they were "armed with a set list I still dare any young band to match." Hey, as the old saying goes, it 'aint bragging if you can back it up, and Bruce and company do so in no uncertain terms. Really, it's amazing to think that the tapes of this much-bootlegged concert had gathered dust for 30 years before Bruce rediscovered them, but all's well that ends well, so let's get to the actual album review, shall we? Simply put, this is one of the greatest live albums of all-time. For one thing, it features an excellent set list of songs from my favorite Bruce period, and the fact that quite a few of these songs would later be dropped from Bruce's set lists makes the album that much more special. Also, a young and hungry E. Street Band is on fire, and the energy and passion of their performances would make most punk bands green with envy, all while their stellar musicianship would satisfy even the most hardcore jazz snob. This was a gutsy, tremendously talented artist and backing band on the cusp of stardom, playing spontaneously without a net, taking chances, and clearly having a great time in the process. They pay tribute to influences at various times by playing songs (or integrating parts of songs) by Sam Cooke, Van Morrison, Isaac Hayes, Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels, and Gary U.S. Bonds, but fantastic though these versions often are it is Bruce's own songs that shine brightest. There's the sparse introductory version of "Thunder Road," an exciting, energetic "Tenth Avenue Freezeout," a theatrical, jazzy "Spirit In The Night," and a dramatic rendition of "Lost In The Flood," for starters. "She's The One" comes next, and it's always good times when Bruce and Van Zant share a mike; next up is "Born To Run," which was just another song then, before it became the ultimate rock anthem ever. It's still great though, and "The E. Street Shuffle," here expanded past 12-minutes, is totally transformed into a slow, bluesy shuffle. Van Zant lets loose on guitar both here and elsewhere, such as on "It's Hard To Be A Saint In The City," which has those dueling guitars between him and Bruce that the original studio version lacked (and which is why I much prefer this great live version of the song). Anyway, that's most of disc one; I only omitted "Backstreets" which is also predictably great. Then again, so is most of disc two, on which I'll skimp on the details a bit. I will note that this disc rolls out one epic after another ("Jungleland," "Rosalita," "4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)," among others), and that the highlight of the entire concert is a 17+-minute version of "Kitty's Back" on which Danny Federici (keyboards), Bittan (piano), Bruce (guitar), and Clemons (sax) all solo. Damn these guys could jam! Drummer Max Weinberg is an absolute monster, and I could listen to Clarence play all night. Anyway, there's not much more to say other than to say that this double album (or better yet, single DVD, where you can see Bruce fussing with his stupid hat all night), which is the first official Bruce live album that presents a complete concert in its entirety, is a must-have. Even if you don't like Bruce, or if you just think that you don't, I urge you to listen to this impossibly great album before deciding for sure, because unless you've seen him live or listened to bootlegs you've never quite heard this Bruce before. The only questions left are what took so long? And what's next? My personal preference would be a show from the Darkness tour of '78, but I'll take whatever archive live releases I can get.
We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (Columbia ’06) Rating: A-
In 1997 Bruce Springsteen recorded a song, “We Shall Overcome,” for a Pete Seeger tribute album, and he was so inspired by the material that he later reconvened with many of the same excellent musicians (13 in all) for 1 day recording sessions in 2005 and 2006. The end result is We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, Bruce’s first all-covers album and by far the most spontaneous album of his career. Now, I don’t know all that much about Pete Seeger (wasn’t he one of the guys who bitched and moaned about Dylan going electric?), but apparently he popularized these songs, only one of which he actually (co-)wrote. Most are traditional and quite old (read Dave Marsh’s researched notes for individual song details), but Bruce discovered these songs on Pete Seeger albums, hence this album’s title. Anyway, history lessons aside, this is a Bruce Springsteen album through and through, though at various times he brings Bob Dylan, The Band, Tom Waits, The Pogues, and any number of New Orleans or Dixieland artists to mind. Regardless of how old these songs are, they sound fresh here, much like what Billy Bragg and Wilco accomplished with their Mermaid Avenue albums, as the album is imbued with a rich American sound and has a loose, off the cuff feel and a ramshackle charm. It sounds like Bruce and the gang had a lot of fun making this album, and as a result it’s a lot of fun to listen to. By and large these are simple songs, at times overly wordy much like Bruce’s own material, but the plethora of intermingling instruments (violin, fiddle, banjo, organ, accordion, brassy horns, etc.) keeps things interesting even after multiple listens. Quite honestly, I like the mere idea of this album; a superstar multi-millionaire known for his exacting recording methods (who is so stingy about what he releases that he’s supposedly preparing another box set of unreleased songs!) simply letting the whiskey flow and bashing out 13 barely rehearsed (you can even hear Bruce shout out instructions on the fly from time to time) songs live in the studio. That took guts, and the resulting album does indeed sound very much alive, especially on the upbeat rockers - raucous shout alongs (“Old Dan Tucker”), brisk, bawdy Irish folk turned rockers (“Jesse James”), a drunken Irish waltz (“O Mary Don’t You Weep”), a rowdy circus song (“Jacob’s Ladder”), and the plain-spoken number that everyone can relate to (“Pay Me My Money Down”) - all come across as rambunctious party tunes. Sure, the lyrics to story-based songs such as “John Henry” (which I don’t especially care for) and “My Oklahoma Home” (which I like a lot anyway) border on sheer silliness, and Bruce often adopts the affected country twang I’ve found annoying in the past. But here it fits the material, a fair amount of which is comprised of low-key ballads, often with a mournful tone. Although I prefer the rockers overall, "Eerie Canal" is all but impossible not to sing along with, “Eyes On The Prize” (like "Eerie Canal," this isn't a 100% ballad, really, at least not when the swamp infested horns kick in) and “Shenandoah” have a real spiritual air about them, the title track exudes a quiet strength, and “Mrs. McGrath” is a moving, moody Irish anti-war ballad (“all foreign wars, I do proclaim, live on blood and a mother’s pain”) on which it’s impossible not to think of the current situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Still, this is not a political album, which is good news as far as I’m concerned as frankly I’ve gotten a bit tired of hearing Bruce on his soap box. Really, this album resists comparison with anything else he’s ever done, and though I must admit that I can take or leave a couple of songs ("Froggie Went A Courtin'," for example) and that I’m not always in the mood for this type of old time hillbilly music, overall We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions is a rousing success that should temporarily satiate fans who are eagerly awaiting the next E. Street Band album (rumored to be Bruce’s next project; then again, we’ve heard that before...). Note: This cd comes packaged as a dual disc; flip the original cd over and you'll get a DVD that includes the album in PCM stereo, two worthwhile bonus tracks ("Buffalo Gals" and "How Can I Keep From Singing"), and a short video film. Pretty good bang for your buck, though truth be told 9 times out of 10 I tend to simply stick with the original album.
Bruce Springsteen With The Sessions Band: Live in Dublin (Columbia ’07) Rating: A-
Sans the "Seeger" in their title, Bruce took the Sessions Band on tour, and three shows at The Point Theatre in Dublin, Ireland formed the basis of this stellar live release, which is available as both a DVD and a 2-cd audio set. And I must say that recording the album in Dublin was an inspired choice; many of these songs have a Celtic flavor, after all, and like many great live albums the energized crowd here almost acts as the co-star, joining in on many a sing along chorus and pumping up fan favorites such as "Old Dan Tucker," "Jesse James," "O Mary Don't You Weep," "Jacob's Ladder," and "Pay Me My Money Down." As for the band, let's just say that the E. Street Band isn't the only great band that Bruce has led (though of course they'll always be #1 in my and most people's hearts). Now 17 members strong, the musicianship is simply phenomenal throughout, and the looser arrangements and longer song versions allow for many an impressive solo, almost all of which are extremely well integrated and not at all gratuitous. Again, various fiddles, banjos, violins, drums, pedal steel and acoustic guitars, accordion, piano, flute, sax, and deep Dixieland horns blend together during an eclectic set list that fuses together strands of folk, blues, rock, jazz, and gospel music. The end result is simply timeless music that harks back to a bygone era but is here made vitally contemporary, propelled in part by a slew of powerful backup singers, one of whom is Patti Scialfa who is showcased like seldom before, duetting with Bruce on standout renditions of "If I Should Fall Behind" and "When The Saints Go Marching In." Bruce himself does a solid job on vocals, though again sometimes his overly accented twang irritates me and his big throaty shouts are a bit overwhelming at times; still, the passion is there, and he does a fantastic job of arranging both the Seeger songs (all but three reappearing from the previous album), a few new covers ("When The Saints Go Marching In," "This Little Light Of Mine," and "Love Of The Common People") and nine often-drastic reworkings of his own songs. For example, "Atlantic City" is given a propulsive, intense, bluesy reconfiguration, "Highway Patrolman" has a far more fully fleshed out melody, "Long Time Comin'" is a catchy highlight, "Open All Night" is an 8-minute centerpiece that sounds nothing like the Nebraska version, and "Blinded By The Light" sounds more like "When The Saints Go Marching In" than that also drastically altered song does! What most of these songs have in common is an infectious energy and an unbridled passion that's only heightened by the "one for all" sense of community that permeates this live setting. True, there are some mournful, elegiac ballads, but more often than not this is a joyously upbeat party album that makes me feel good whenever I listen to it. Maybe it's not necessary to have both this album and We Shall Overcome given the extensive song overlap, and again I'm not always in the mood for this type of music, but I'm quite glad that I have both albums, and if pressed to pick between them I'd probably go with this one.
Magic (Columbia ’07) Rating: A-
After a rather unimpressive nineties, Bruce Springsteen has come roaring back this decade, with two great live albums, one outstanding archive live release, and two terrific studio albums (ok, one was a covers album, and I've never totally warmed up to Devils and Dust but even that one’s not bad by any means). Make that three extremely strong studio albums, as Magic can be added to that list as well. Reunited with the E. Street Band and producer Brendan O'Brien, who definitely goes overboard with the string arrangements but otherwise does a decent job, Springsteen delivers a strong batch of varied songs, as Magic is comprised of moody, haunting ballads, upbeat pop songs, and even some balls out rockers. Largely ditching his affected country twang and touching upon a range of subjects, sometimes political ("Gypsy Biker," "Last To Die") but not overly so on the whole, Bruce's bruised protagonists have interesting stories to tell, as per usual. More importantly, Bruce has written some truly memorable melodies, many of which are quite catchy, particularly on the album's first side, which starts off with the hard rocking single "Radio Nowhere," which makes an obvious but necessary anti-radio indictment, much like Tom Petty had done a few years back. "You'll Be Comin' Down" is a melodic rocker that's led by Max's big beat and Clarence who lends a hummable sax solo, and who also has a major presence on "Livin' In The Future," whose dark lyrics are in direct contrast with its rollicking r&b-based pop music. Without getting into a track-by-track summation, I'll note that "Your Own Worst Enemy" is melodic and singable, and that "Girls In Their Summer Clothes" is the kind of breezy, summery pop pleasure that I wish Bruce gave us more of (if Bruce is smart he'll release it as a single once the weather starts getting better again). I'm also partial to several other tracks, in particular "Gypsy Biker," a moody, meditative guitar-driven rocker about the homecoming of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq, "Long Walk Home" (love it when the guitar solo segues into the soulful sax solo on this story-based breakup song), and "Terry's Song," a touching tribute to a deceased friend that works as a moving, heartfelt eulogy. Though those are the highlights for me, the rest of the album rarely fails to deliver as well, albeit not as memorably, and the band puts in as solid a performance as you'd expect from such a talented group of seasoned pros. Personally, I wish that the album sounded a little less studied and was more loose and off-the-cuff (a la the Sessions Band), and I don't think it coheres together quite like his very best albums do. Rather than the more thematically cohesive The Rising, which will be hard for Bruce to top as a late career peak, Magic is more just a collection of songs, but I think it's a damn good collection of songs just the same.
Working On A Dream (Columbia ’09) Rating: B
This album was somewhat rush released due to Bruce’s then-upcoming Super Bowl appearance (which was enjoyable if not spectacular), and it’s also notably optimistic compared to recent releases, likely due to the wave of (as it turned out, unfounded) optimism that swept the country after the United States’ first black President, Barack Obama, was elected. Again (over)produced by Brendan O’Brien, this album’s glossy pop hooks were duly noted by many, but the bottom line is that this simply isn’t among Bruce’s best batch of songs, though it’s still a solid enough album overall (after all, Bruce has never made a truly bad album, merely a few less than inspired ones and this is one of them). The album gets off to an ignominious start with the 8-minute “Outlaw Pete,” a clumsy, overblown attempt at an epic. If that wasn’t bad enough, it outright rips off the most infamous KISS song of them all (“I Was Made For Loving You”)! “Queen Of The Supermarket” is another swing and a miss, and the gratingly obnoxious blues “Good Eye” is a serious contender for worst Springsteen song ever. Fortunately, aside from a couple of other nondescript songs, most of the material here is fairly enjoyable even if the album is completely bereft of truly classic tracks. For example, there’s hooky, melodic songs like “My Lucky Day,” “Working On A Dream,” “This Life,” and “Surprise Surprise,” all easily recommendable. “Tomorrow Never Knows” (no, not The Beatles’ song) is short and sweet, “Kingdom Of Days” is lyrically strong and melodically solid, and “The Last Carnival” provides a moving tribute to Danny Federici, one of the unsung heroes of the E Street Band who died of cancer in 2008 (Danny plays on the album, which is fittingly dedicated to him). Anyway, on the whole this album has grown on me somewhat but it’s not one I’m likely to return to often. Note: Some copies of the album come with the soundtrack song “The Wrestler” (a sedate ballad) as a bonus track.
The Promise (Columbia ’10) Rating: A-
Available as a standalone 2-CD release or as part of the Darkness On The Edge Of Town box set (which also includes the original album, a highly desirable documentary about the making of the album, and two concert DVDs), The Promise is an important release because it rescues many quality stray songs from Bruce’s most prolific period, when he was writing and recording tons of songs but couldn’t release any of them due to litigation with then-manager Mike Appel. I’m not sure how many of these songs were touched up in the studio, apparently some of the songs have new overdubs and have been tinkered with even though only one of the songs (the poppy “Save My Love”) was completely re-recorded for the album. However, this stands as a very strong Bruce Springsteen release, even though it probably would’ve made a better 15-track single album rather than a 22-track double album (“The Way” is a hidden track on disc 2). Don’t get me wrong, there are few if any bad songs here, but some seem a bit redundant to me, though I can’t fault Bruce from wanting official studio homes for some of his best known unreleased songs, such as “Because The Night” (I prefer both Patti Smith’s classic version and his own semi-classic, much harder-hitting live version), “Fire” (again I prefer the slower, sexier live version), and “Talk To Me” (this version is good but Southside Johnny’s is better). Elsewhere, it may be interesting to hear songs like “It’s a Shame” (which was later reworked as “Prove It All Night”) and “Come On (Let’s Go Tonight”) (ditto “Factory”), but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re disposable, and though I like the fun party tune “Ain’t Good Enough For You,” it shares the same melody as the (Bruce written) Gary U.S. Bonds hit “This Little Girl,” which I again prefer. These criticisms out of the way, I really like the majority of these songs, which are influenced by heroes such as Phil Spector, Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, and Motown (in fact several songs have Motown song titles), and mood-wise have more in common with The River than the relentlessly bleak Darkness. In fact, the strength of these outtakes slightly diminishes Tracks to me, as many of these songs are superior to what had appeared on that box set (“Rendezvous,” also associated with Gary U.S. Bonds, actually appears on both); what took so long to release this stuff? Well, better late than never, right? Anyway, listing highlights is tough, as that would be the majority of the songs I haven’t yet mentioned, starting with the great alternate version of “Racing In The Street (’78),” which feels more heartfelt and epic than the Darkness version (which is also great in a different way). The catchy r&b-tinged pop rocker “Gotta Get The Feeling” and the catchy mid-tempo pop rocker “Outside Looking In” are minor gems, and I guess that’s another minor quibble I have with the album; there’s an abundance of really good songs but few all-time Bruce classics. Side one continues with a pair of stellar ballads, “Someday (We’ll Be Together),” with its memorable female backing choir, and the slow, soulful “One Way Out,” which sees Clarence and the tagteam of Bittan and Federici in prime form (as is the entire E Street Band throughout both discs, but no surprise there). When the guitar solo and sax solo meet in unison on the melodic jangle rocker “Wrong Side Of The Street” it’s a great moment, and these discs have their fair share of them, like Clarence’s sax solo on “Breakaway,” which is a thing of aching beauty, and Bruce’s falsettos throughout the catchy, easily singable “The Little Things (My Baby Does).” The albums best song, and the most Darkness-like track (it’s about the Appel situation), is the title track, which recalls “Thunder Road” in the lyrics (as had the harmonica on “Racing In The Street ”) and is Bruce and the E Street Band at their epic (ballad) best (this song had also previously appeared on 18 Tracks but I easily prefer this far more musically fleshed out version). “City Of Night” seems anti-climactic by comparison but is perfectly pleasant, and I don’t know why “The Way” was relegated to hidden track status, as it’s one of the highlights of the set, with another great sax solo (all the more precious given Clarence’s 2011 passing). Again, nothing here is bad, but there are a few songs that are unremarkable or redundant, which leaves only a fully packed album of prime Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. The Promise contains a nice mix of soulful ballads (like the Roy Orbison-esque “The Brokenhearted”) with more lively pop and rock songs that are upbeat and fun. The end result is an endlessly playable album that’s all the more remarkable given that it’s comprised mostly of discards.
Wrecking Ball (Columbia ’12) Rating: B+
The first Bruce Springsteen album without Clarence Clemons, and with a new producer in Ron Aniello (the Brendan O’Brien partnership was successful but it was time for a change), Wrecking Ball sees an angry Boss inspired by America’s recent financial collapse, where white collar criminals robbed Americans blind, with little to no consequences. The strong, propulsive first song here, “We Take Care Of Our Own,” is presumably meant to be ironic though like prior songs (most notably “Born In The U.S.A.”) the anthemic music sends something of a mixed message. Elsewhere, songs such as “Easy Money,” “”Shackled and Drawn,” “Death To My Hometown,” and “We Are Alive” have a Celtic flavor that brings The Seeger Sessions to mind, and again the often-downcast lyrics are sometimes at odds with the expansive music, which is often quite uplifting and singable, with female backing vocalists, Soozie Tyrell’s violin, a horn section, and strings often fleshing out the sound along with the core members of the E Street Band. More minimalist, downcast songs also appear, such as “Jack Of All Trades” (though my favorite part is its surprising guitar outro) and “The Depression,” while “You’ve Got It” is a rare straightforward love song (I like the guitars on this one), and “Rocky Ground” is the album’s most experimental track, though not always in good ways (I hope that this is the first and last guest rap on a Bruce Springsteen album). The album’s two best songs are probably the title track, an anthemic tribute to Giants Stadium (which was tore down so that loyal Giants (and Jets) season ticket holders could be priced out and/or extorted in the form of PSLs), and “Land Of Hope and Dreams,” which had previously appeared on their Live In New York City album. That version was terrific, but I can understand why Bruce wanted to try a definitive studio take, since this great galloping epic rocker may very well be his single best song from the past 20 years. If anything this studio version even surpasses the live version, largely due to the great guest gospel vocals (also prominent on “Shackled and Drawn” and “Rocky Ground”) and also Clarence, who takes the song to another level, as he had done so many times before (props to Aniello who took a live solo and added it to the studio version). On the whole, this is a good album, albeit not without flaws as the sound is a bit bombastic, the lyrics and music are at times mismatched, and (as noted in my prior Seeger reviews) I’m not always in the mood to hear Celtic-flavored rock music.
High Hopes (Columbia ’14) Rating: B
This hodgepodge release of cover songs, old songs revisited (it’s nice hearing Clarence and Danny again the infrequent times they appear), and new songs is Springsteen’s least cohesive album ever. Which doesn’t make it bad, merely inconsistent and somewhat lacking in terms of having the type of unified overall vision that makes his best albums greater than the sum of their individual parts. But hey, 40 years into a career it’s pretty admirable that Bruce is still trying to remain relevant/contemporary, even if his attempts sometimes fall flat (like on the experimental electro-rap of “Harry’s Place”). The Celtic flavor that was so prominent on his last album again appears on songs such as his cover of The Saints’ “Just Like Fire Would” and “This Is Your Sword,” while horns appear prominently on several tracks (the overly busy yet interesting title track comes immediately to mind), and there are some subdued, atmospheric efforts as well (“Down In The Hole” and “The Wall,” both quite good). This album is best known for the studio version of “American Skin (41 Shots)” and a heavy, completely revamped “The Ghost Of Tom Joad,” both of which feature guest guitarist Tom Morello prominently, as do several other songs here if not quite as successfully (Morello had subbed for Van Zant on tour while he was filming a TV show, and these mutual admirers kept it going thereafter, Tom become something of a de-facto E Street Band member in the process). Personally, I prefer the Live In New York City version of “American Skin,” feeling it was more haunting and intimate, and less overproduced (I’m not a big fan of the electro-vocals here). Still, this is a good version as well, and Morello’s contributions are notable in making the song more epic. Speaking of which, this version of “Tom Joad” is an absolute killer, as they transform the spare folk song (itself one of his best efforts in that style) into a raging hard rocker, with Morello’s extensive guitar soloing (and surprisingly, vocals) at the forefront for what’s truly a terrific reinvention. Elsewhere, “Heaven’s Wall” is a simple, singable guitar-heavy gospel-flavored track, and “Frankie Fell In Love” is a minor yet enjoyable poppier effort with a good melody. Rounding out the track listing (which I’ve described out of order), “Hunter Of Invisible Game” is a pretty (if pretty insubstantial) orchestral ballad, and their cover of Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream” is another highlight, one that’s so successful that Alan Vega declared that he’d like it played at his own funeral! Still, aside from “American Skin (41 Shots)” (inferior version or not it’s still really good), “Dream Baby Dream,” and especially “The Ghost Of Tom Joad” there’s nothing here that I consider essential in the grand scheme of all things Springsteen. Though I don’t fault the attempt, I feel that Bruce tried to replace Clarence with Morello as his “muse,” and the partnership simply isn’t as natural sounding or as successful, plus with O’Brien and Aniello sharing production duties, the album’s labored gestation process sometimes shows through. In short, like the last few Springsteen albums (excluding The Promise), this is a solid album but not one that ultimately adds much to his overall legacy.
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