One of the more fascinating transformations in rock history took place between Bruce Springsteen’s releases of Born to Run (1975) and Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978). On the latter album, Born To Run‘s operatic “West Side Story”-style romantics and runaways give way to an older cast of characters, already disillusioned with life, and facing the prospect of a world where neither winning or losing are as clear-cut as they are in the movies. The writing itself shifts radically: gone is the profusion of images, characters with goofy in-joke names, and the torrential wordplay; instead, verses and choruses are honed to an edge, short and direct, and where Born To Run was driven by its Spector-ized production and almost jazzy mixture of piano, sax, and trumpet, Darkness is all about screaming guitar and pounding drums. What happened in that three-year interim, of course, was the lawsuit by Springsteen’s former manager that kept him out of the recording studio for almost two years, and in a way, grew Springsteen up: no longer a scrabbling musician with little to lose, he faced the prospect that some lawyers and stacks of paper could cost him not just money (which he’d really never had), but ownership of his life’s work. When the suit was finally settled, he spent a year sorting through the changes in himself, and his approach to music, before settling on the ten songs that became Darkness on the Edge of Town; the 2-CD set of The Promise is an attempt to re-create the album that might have emerged from that interim period. It’s fascinating to listen to him experiment with more pop song-oriented composing (including the first commercial release of his studio recordings of “Fire” and “Because the Night”), and to hear the original version of the epic title song (the high point of the “Lawsuit Tour” concerts in 1976). Listen particularly to the transition from the big, bold, and melodramatic version of “Racing In The Street” that opens The Promise with the stark and sober one that concluded side one of Darkness: over the course of the bruising lawsuit, Springsteen’s focus shifted from the grand gesture of the young street kid to the constantly-challenged faith of the working class American that would fuel so much of his work in the decades to come. The sound is fine for the period, and the occasional newly recorded vocal or instrumental part never feels obtrusive; on the contrary, it just reaffirms Springsteen’s commitment to his music as a continuum. In addition to this 2-disk set, of course, there is a pricey deluxe package (currently $90 from Amazon), but compared to similar releases this year from folks like Bowie and McCartney, it’s a bargain: the two full CD’s of The Promise, a newly remastered CD of Darkness, and three DVD’s/Blu-Rays, including a complete live show from 1978, another 90 minutes’ worth of other concert footage from the same era, the award-winning 2010 documentary on the making of the album, and a recent onstage performance of all of Darkness.
Well, not new music, anyway. With Stereolab embarking on an open-ended hiatus, what we actually have here is material from the same sessions that produced 2008’s Chemical Chords. In fact, tracks like “Two Finger Symphony” and “Pop Molecules (Molecular Pop 2),” don’t simply harken back to songs from the preceding album, but are variations on themes from Chemical Chords, with a niggling repetitiveness that borders on the annoying. The album’s at its best when it steps away into what may or may not represent a future direction for Stereolab, from the “It’s Not Unusual” stylings of “Supah Jaianto” and “Lelekato Sugar” to the giddy enthusiasm of “Everybody’s Weird But Me.” The remix of “Silver Sands: Emperor Machine” is probably the strongest tune here, bringing a brightness to the band’s krautrock homage. Not an album designed to win new converts, but if Chemical Chords… well, struck a chord with you, here’s part two.
As a would-be mix of Eminem and Motorhead, Kid Rock managed to turn himself into a punchline for late-night TV comics, but he certainly shifted some product. That well running dry, he’s reinventing himself here in the vein of someone like John Mellencamp–or more specifically, Bob Seger, who is here, playing keyboards (!). The title song is a “Made In USA” rabble-rouser designed to follow Seger’s “Like A Rock” into TV commercial residual-land, and song after song tosses out the star-spangled cliches: our hero is “working for the man,” and when trouble “rains, it pours.” There’s rootsy cred with such guest musicians as Heartbreaker Benmont Tench, Zac Brown, Red Hot Chili Pepper Chad Smith, David Hidalgo from Los Lobos and Chavez guitarist Matt Sweeney. I give the guy credit for the impulses behind the picture of hardscrabble Detroit that emerges in “Times Like These,” but the “Why can’t we all just get along?” of “Care” is more interesting for its weird blend of T.I. and Martina McBride than anything Mr. Rock has to say. Still, if you’re jonesing for a bit of heartland rock that isn’t beholden to the current Nashville product machine, you could do worse than the genial “Rock Bottom Blues,” the crunchy “God Bless Saturday,” and Rock’s winningly effective duet with Sheryl Crow on “Collider.”
LEGACY OF A LEGEND
THE DEFINITIVE DAVE BRUBECK ON FANTASY, CONCORD JAZZ AND TELARC
In honor of the 90th birthday of one the most important pianists in the history of jazz, we get two complementary anniversary sets. Legacy covers Brubeck’s best-known period, recording with his quartet for Columbia during the 50’s and 60’s, and includes Brubeck’s two best-known recordings, “Blue Rondo A La Turk” and “Take Five” from the 1959 album of the same name. Time and again, the set demonstrates Brubeck’s lifelong quest to reconcile the classical piano training his mother insisted upon with the exciting and uninhibited jazz scene of the postwar U.S, with challenging time signatures and rhythmic innovation. Besides the two “hits,” high points include the lush “The Duke,” Carmen McRae’s sassy vocal on “My One Bad Habit,” and the previously-unreleased “You Go To My Head” and “Three To Get Ready,” from Brubeck’s personal collection. Definitive forms the donut around the Legacy hole, capturing Brubeck’s earliest recordings for Fantasy (including exquisite trio performances of “Laura” and “Singin’ In the Rain,”) and his autumnal career following the Columbia era, and right up to the present day, with highlights including the imaginative quartet interplay on “Day After Day,” and the solo piano “Variations on Brother Can You Spare A Dime,” a testament to Brubeck’s continuing power and presence as a pianist (following heart surgery, he expects to return to concert performances in the spring). Start with Legacy as tne main course, with Definitive providing appetizer and dessert.
Other Notable 11/16 Releases
Norah Jones, Featuring Norah Jones. As a songwriter, she’s third-level Joni Mitchell. As a singer, she can be formidable, with a veteran’s command of phrasing and nuance; and given the fact that these duets consist of her guest appearances on other people’s songs, it makes for an engaging, if erratic, listening experience, touching such bases as the “Little Willies” project (a sultry “Love Me”) all the way up to this year’s guest appearance with Belle and Sebastian. She has no clue what to do with “Ruler of My Heart,” but she practically crawls inside Bryan Ferry’s groin on “More Than This.”
Glee: The Music, The Christmas Album. I’m perfectly prepared to believe those people who tell me that this show is well-written and well-acted. But what I’ve heard of the music suggests that it’s maybe not exactly in my wheelhouse, as they say. And given that I’m pretty sure I don’t need any more versions of these songs, I’ll leave this one for the fans.
Keith Urban, Get Closer. Country solely by association and outlook, this is the sort of thing that made Bryan Adams a millionaire. And now all you people have done the same for this dweeb. I hope you’re happy.
Rascal Flatts, Nothing Like This. Yeah, right.
Annie Lennox, A Christmas Cornucopia. A natural for Lennox’ voice, really, when you think about it, with the arrangements not worlds removed from what a Eurythmics Christmas album would have sounded like. Her voice has naturally thickened over the years, but if she still does it for you, it’s quite listenable.
Pink Martini, Joy To The World. Christmas tunes rendered NPR-safe.
The Who, Live At Leeds – 40th Anniversary Super-Deluxe Collectors’ Edition. By my count, this is the third release of vintage Who live material so far in 2010, but I’ll admit I could have missed one or two. It does have two distinctions: a) it also includes the show that took place in Hull the night AFTER Leeds, and which the band actually preferred, but felt wasn’t sonically ready for release. And b) at around eighty bucks, it’s the most expensive! 4CD’s, vinyl LP and single, and souvenir book for all you readers out there.
John Martyn, Live at Leeds: Deluxe Edition. Unlike previous issues with dodgy bits, this time we supposedly get the complete unadulterated 1975 Leeds show from Martyn and bassist Danny Thompson, with rehearsal/soundcheck stuff added. It’s not the place to begin appreciating Martyn’s songwriting or guitar playing (among other things, the between-song banter is dated and embarrassing)–start with Solid Air or Sweet Little Mysteries: The Island Anthology– but it’s a stunning live performance and an excellent recording/remastering. I do wish the man had learned to pronounce the letter “S,” though.
The National, High Violet (Expanded Edition). I assume there’s some perfectly good reason that they couldn’t have just released the bonus tracks and live stuff on a lower-priced EP, instead of making their fans buy the whole album again.
Ne-Yo, Libra Scale. Concept album about funky superheroes called The Gentlemen, and the dangers of falling in love with a woman named Pretty Sinclair. Rocks a bit.
Rihanna, Loud. You know, if I honestly believed she actually knew anything about “S&M” (title of the lead track here), I might be inclined to pay attention.
The Doors, Live In Vancouver 1970. If you’ve been waiting for a Doors live album that covers the Morrison Hotel era, here ya go.
Nelly, 5.0. I didn’t get to hear an advance of this one, but I suspect by the time you read this, you’ll have heard it anyway.