Thursday, March 29, 2012

Lovedrug - Wild Blood

Lovedrug - Wild Blood
Street Talk Records, 2012
Four Stars

Right from the opening guitar notes of the anthemic title track, Lovedrug's Wild Blood is a record that caught my attention. The band, a Canton, Ohio outfit that just celebrated their tenth anniversary last year, has put out three other albums and about a dozen EPs, but beyond an atmospheric cover of Third Eye Blind's "God of Wine" that I stumbled upon last summer, Wild Blood is my introduction to them; what a killer introduction it is. The band's sound is defined by big, often almost grungy guitars, as well as by the distinctive voice of frontman Michael Shephard, equally adept at delivering softly haunting verse lines and huge, rousing choruses. Wild Blood generally tilts toward the latter, channeling classic rock and arena rock influences into a record full of the hopes, dreams, and endless opportunities of youth, resulting in one of the biggest sounding records I've heard so far this year. It's also one of the best, without a bum track in the bunch, and with a few gems that will almost certainly remain in fairly constant rotation for the remainder of the year.

Several of the songs on Wild Blood, (the title track, "Premonition," "Ladders," and "Your Country," especially) sound like they were meant to be played on the highway on a sweltering summer day: this is windows-rolled-down, sun-in-your-eyes, sing-along rock 'n' roll. "Sure shot, you were always my sure shot," Shephard belts out on "Pink Champagne", surrounded by a rain of guitars and a driving drum beat that transforms the chorus into one of the album's finest. Elsewhere, "Girl" provides the album with its slowest and most pensive moment, a gorgeous acoustic love song whose chorus ("I wanna set myself on fire tonight/I spent thirty years not knowing you/I can't afford to waste more time running around the world/When all I know is you're my girl") lodged itself in my brain after a single listen. "Great Divide" is another quieter moment, accented by an entrancing electric guitar line and Shepherd's engaging vocals.

Nearly half of the tracks on Wild Blood have been reworked from songs that have already appeared on the band's EPs, and while this makes the album a perfect starting point for those new to the band (such as myself), it could be a source of frustration for die hard fans who come into this release looking for brand new material. That said, most of the songs that have been re-recorded ("Pink Champagne," "Ladders," "Premonition") are very welcome additions to the album, and fit perfectly amongst the more recent material. The only exception, for me, was "Dinosaur," which is hardly a bad song, but one that feels out of place, is fairly easily the weakest the record has to offer, and one that, sitting in the track 2 position, disrupts the mood and flow so perfectly established by the title track. On the other hand, "We Were Owls," the fifth (and arguably, the best) of the old songs makes up for any missteps, easily becoming one of the album's biggest triumphs. The band sounds like they are channeling the likes of Manchester Orchestra here, with Shephard sounding eerily like Andy Hull, that band's frontman, on yet another excellent chorus.

Any complaints about this record will be silenced by the end though, as Lovedrug saves their best for last in the form of the sweepingly climactic "Anodyne." Even to the ears of someone who had no experience with the band's music, the song is perfect. For as long as I can remember, I've always partially judged albums on the strength of their closers, and it's not a rare occurence for the final moment to be my favorite on any given record. "Anodyne" flawlessly fits into the tradition, becoming an immediate contender for the song of the year title, as well as one that will almost certainly serve as the soundtrack for countless moments in my life over the next few months. Distorted guitars compliment Shephard's emotional vocals, building to a bridge that is nothing short of sublime. "Black is the rain when it's washing away/All of our sinners and saint's delight," Shephard sings, roaring through the lines as the album's remaining seconds dwindle and dissolve around him. "Bathe if you want, there is always some more/If you need, if you want..." It's a chilling moment right from the first listen, and it does exactly what it's supposed to do: it makes the listener want to flip the record over or hit replay so that they can just experience the entire thing over again. That's a surefire sign of a great album, and Wild Blood is one of the best that 2012 has had to offer thus far: clearly it's about time I took a trip through the Lovedrug back catalog.

Don't give away the end: My favorite opening and closing tracks

Following a viewing of High Fidelity late last fall (one of my favorite films, thanks to John Cusack's honest and funny portrayal and Bruce Springsteen's brief cameo), I got into a bit of a list making furor. In the film, Rob, Cusack's character, has a tendency to compile everything into top five lists, including, at one point the film, his "top five side-one, track-ones." It got me thinking, for perhaps the hundredth time, about what my favorite opening and closing tracks would be, but I let this list fall by the wayside for a long time, until I actually read High Fidelity and got it going again. Needless to say, it's taken me awhile to sit down and actually write this all out, but the goal remains the same as it was last fall. A great opening track can turn a good album into a classic, a solid set of songs into a personal soundtrack. So many opening tracks have an anthemic quality to them, a mood that just sets the tone for the record so well that it's impossible to imagine it opening any other way. On the other side of things, many artists always save their best song for last, and I think that's the way I will do things when I make a record (someday). There's just something so profoundly emotional about a great album going out on it's highest note: it makes you feel like you can do anything, and maybe more importantly, it makes you want to listen to the entire thing again. Sometimes, an album can feel like it's just been building to the climactic moment of the closing track, and when that moment finally arrives, it's nothing short of cathartic. Whenever I listen to a new album, I always await that closing track: it's what separates the boys from the men, and every single one of my favorite albums goes out with a resounding high note. Keep in mind that this is not science. There are so many classic candidates for both of these lists, and trimming them to five for each was murder (and didn't really happen...), but what remains represents not only my favorite tracks in a (somewhat) narrow category, but some of the greatest songs ever put on record.


1. One song per artist, per category. Otherwise Bruce would fairly easily have two in each, and Butch and Jimmy would both stand a fairly good shot at grabbing two of the slots in the album closer section.
2. The album in question has to be at least a year old, and I have to have been listening to it for at least a year as well. You never know what's going to stand the test of time.
3. Intros or outros don't count. A closer is a closer, even if there's an epilogue afterwords (though I will never understand the band who tacks on a lame outro track). Hidden tracks, if they were featured on the actual CD do count, however. Why? Because I want them to.


1. Bruce Springsteen - "Thunder Road" from Born to Run (1975)

I don't know how many times I've gone on about how perfect a song and how perfect an opener this masterpiece is, but rest assured, I could go on for much longer. From the chilling piano/harmonica intro to the deeply poetic lyrics (especially the first verse), there's nothing about this song I would change. I'm not sure Bruce has ever sounded better than he does here, and I still get chills when I hear him sing "show a little faith, there's magic in the night." The song just builds and builds, eschewing the normal verse/chorus dynamic of most pop and rock songs, and just flowing in a way that I still can't describe, even after I've listened to it hundreds of times and played it myself on countless occasions. No album has ever opened with a more powerful or inspirational song: it sets the scene for what is to follow, gathering steam as it goes, with Bruce's vocal line getting higher and the band closing in, until it all collapses, in a cascade of piano keys, into Clarence Clemons repeating sax solo. I don't think there could possibly a more fitting introduction to the greatest album of all time.

2. U2 - "Where the Streets Have No Name" from The Joshua Tree (1987)

The opening minutes of this 1987 classic, still one of the greatest albums of all, brought this band from good to great, from a force in the music industry to an icon, and in this track, you'll find every reason for why U2 has been the biggest band on the planet for so many years. When the Edge's unforgettable guitar riff echoes through the intro about a minute in, it's one of the most chilling moments in all of rock music, and the way Bono sings this song is incredible: he sounds hungry, and it's that quality that makes him one of the finest frontmen in rock. The song is at once forcefully inspirational and completely moving, a massive, life-changing kind of rock song that has soundtracked countless personal victories for me over the years. When they played the Super Bowl halftime following September 11th, it was this song that they used to unite those in the stadium (and those watching all around the country), immediately delivering one of the most iconic television performances of all time. And even though Springsteen and Butch will always be my favorite artists and dominate my top live shows list, I don't think I've ever been as excited to hear a song live, or as thoroughly elevated seeing one as I was when U2 finally pulled this song out during the first encore when I saw them last summer. It sat a number one on my "songs I need to see live" list for a solid year, and when I finally witnessed it, it was everything I hoped it would be and more.

3. The Wallflowers - "One Headlight" from Bringing Down The Horse (1996)

"One Headlight" introduced The Wallflowers to the world via the sound of the couple of ringing guitar notes that echoed through the speakers of car radios everywhere in 1996. Next to the harmonica wail that kicks off "Thunder Road," I don't think there's a moment that's ever drawn me into a song, and album, or an artist as fast than the first few seconds of "Headlight" do. But where those notes were merely introducing the world of mainstream music to the presence of Bob Dylan's son (Jakob Dylan, who fronts the band), for me, it was where this whole big, messy, all-consuming obsession with music began. Back in '96 or '97, whenever my older brother got his hands on Bringing Down The Horse, I had him make me a cassette tape copy of it, and "One Headlight" soon became my first ever "favorite song." A decade and a half later, it still wouldn't be far off. Jakob Dylan tackles death and broken hearts, all in a killer five minute pop song, surrounded by a bed of rootsy-rock glory (to this day, I find myself comparing similar bands to the Flowers' performances on this record). I love the song for all of those things: for the lyrics that continue to confound me to this day, for the stellar musicianship on display, but especially for that hook, which never fails to take me back in time.

4.  Bob Dylan - "Like a Rolling Stone" from Highway 61 Revisited (1965)

Rolling Stone called it the greatest song ever written, and there are days when I've felt inclined to agree (though I've probably committed some sort of blasphemy by putting it below his son's song). Springsteen described the song's opening as "the snare shot that sounded like somebody'd kicked open the door to your mind," and the song as a whole shattered the boundaries of the pop song, dragging onto six-minutes, electrifying Dylan's sound, and delivering verse after verse of impossibly good poetry (his best) before exploding into that iconic chorus. "How does it feel? To be on your own? To be without a home?" he asked, over and over, destroying Dylan's folk roots, sending the world of pop music reeling, and bringing rock 'n' roll to a height that Lennon and McCartney (and all who came after them) never reached or matched. It is not my "favorite" song of all time, but objectively, it's almost certainly the greatest.

5. Matthew Ryan - "Return to Me" from Regret Over The Wires (2003)

What can I say about the song that has probably landed itself on more of my mixtapes and playlists than perhaps any other in my collection? This slow burning track, juxtaposing a lurching electronic drum beat with a gentle acoustic swell to create an atmosphere that is both hopeful and relaxing, and Ryan's low, soothing vocals sound rich and warm from beginning to end. In my collection, I don't think there's a single song that I've returned to (no pun intended) for comfort, time and time again, like I have this one. In turns, it's been a lullaby, a soundtrack for thoughtful drives, a farewell to important things in my life, and even a victory anthem, and for that reason, it's become one of the most played songs and best kept secrets in my collection. I love it today as much or more than I did the first time I ever heard it, and while I think it would have worked just as well as a closer as it does an opener, it remains one of my all time favorite songs, and therefore deserves a slot on this list.

6. Chad Perrone - "Blinded" from Wake (2008)

I discovered Chad Perrone two summers ago, on a recommendation from a guy on a message board I frequent. He's an independent artist out of Boston with a knack for writing killer pop hooks, and the perfect voice with which to deliver them. This song was my introduction to his solo material, and I'm honestly not sure if there has been a more perfect pop song written this millennium. The hook feels so effortless, and yet so completely flawless, that it attached itself to my brain on first listen and has yet to let go. And Perrone sings with such emotion and conviction that it's hard to believe that he's a complete unknown. The level of talent on display here, especially in the way he sings the song's massive bridge, is infectious, and I honestly believe that this song could have been a huge hit had it been marketed correctly. It's a shame it wasn't, but as it stands, it's my own personal treasure, a perfect opener to a ridiculously varied set of songs that has quickly risen up my list of favorite albums over the past two years. But even after he took my album AND song of the year titles in 2011 (with his album Release and the song "Under Different Circumstances," respectively), this one perfect song is still him at the peak of his powers, and still manages to blow me away every time I listen to it. If you need an opening track for your summer playlist this year, I don't think there's a better one than this.

Honorable Mentions: The Who - "Baba O' Riley" from Who's Next (1971)

"Baba O' Riley," next to "Born to Run," is probably the biggest anthem in music history. Is there a more satisfying chord progression in music than the one that explodes at the start of this song? Roger Daltrey gives one of the all time great vocal performances, and Pete Townshend's bizarre electronic textures create an atmosphere that is impossible to resist. Few things scream rock 'n' roll as loud as this song's massive, crashing verse sections, subsiding eventually into an Irish, folk-tinged violin solo that carries the song out. For me, it was one of the songs I found myself blasting at maximum volume on my way to my high school graduation. When you listen to this song in that situation, you feel immortal, and the song is immortal because of that. It's so good, in fact, that I've never been able to love Who's Next as much as I would like because it just cannot live up to the impossibly high standard set by this song. 

Counting Crows - "Round Here" from August And Everything After (1993)

Counting Crows are one of those bands that undeniably peaked with their debut album, and it's hard to think of many opening tracks that establish a more immediate impression, not just for an album, but for an entire career, than "Round Here." Legend has it that the recording that ended up on the album was the the only time the song was ever played in that arrangement, so this is a rare case where the live versions of the song (which go on for ten minutes, with singer Adam Duritz singing variations on a melodic line, with a bunch of alternations, extra lyrics, and emotional build thrown in for good measure) are actually the signature versions. If that's the case, then the band stumbled upon something genius when they recorded that take, because the album version is one of the most beautifully understated openers on any album. Duritz is clearly the star here, delivering some of his most poetic lyrics with what is perhaps his best vocal performance today. His delivery is at once yearning and heartbreaking, and the song's arrangement showcases a full range of emotion, building to an incredible climax 3/4 through. The 10 seconds of silence that kick off the record only add the breathtaking intimacy and power of the song when it finally hits.

But how can I have an opener list without at least mentioning Augustana ("Hey Now"), The Beach Boys ("Wouldn't It Be Nice?"), Beck ("The Golden Age"), Black Lab ("Mine Again"), Butch ("The Weight of Her"), Cary Brothers ("Ghost Town"), The Damnwells ("Soundtrack"), Dashboard ("Hands Down" or "The Brilliant Dance"), Bowie ("Five Years"), The Fucking Eagles, Man! ("Hotel Calfornia"), Elton John ("Tiny Dancer"), Fastball ("The Way"), The Gaslight Anthem (a wash between "American Slang" and "Great Expectations"), Goo Goo Dolls ("Big Machine"), any of the Jack's Mannequin openers, most of the Jimmy Eat World ones (especially "Futures"), Lennon ("Imagine"), Jon McLaughlin ("Industry"), Josh Ritter ("Girl in the War"), The Killers ("Jenny Was a Friend of Mine"), Lydia ("This is Twice Now"), any Marvelous 3, Mat Kearney ("All I Have" or "Undeniable"), Matt Nathanson ("Car Crash"), Oasis ("Hello"), Pete Yorn ("Life on a Chain"), Ryan Adams ("New York, New York"), Ryan Bingham ("Southside of Heaven"), Safetysuit ("Someone Like You"), Sister Hazel ("Your Mistake"), either Something Corporate opener, Switchfoot ("Needle in Haystack Life"), Third Eye Blind ("Faster"), Valencia ("Better Be Prepared"), Will Hoge ("Hard to Love"), William Fitzsimmons ("It's Not True"), 1969 ("Why the Suspense"/"Wreck Me"), or extra Springsteen ("Badlands"), U2 ("Sunday Bloody Sunday"), Wallflowers ("Days of Wonder"), Dylan ("Tangled Up In Blue"), Chad Perrone ("OK") and Counting Crows ("Hard Candy").


1. Bruce Springsteen - "Jungleland" from Born to Run (1975)

 Just as "Thunder Road" is the flawless introduction to this record, "Jungleland" is the only appropriate closer: an epic, 9 minute and 38 second masterpiece that, at times contends with the opener as my all time favorite song. Springsteen bid farewell to this type of extended, freewheeling narrative song after Born to Run (he'd attempt another on 2009s Working on a Dream, with mixed results), but the last one was by far the greatest, showcasing some of his best lyrics to date. But even as Bruce's characters progress and his words weave themselves into your brain, "Jungleland" thrives most on the strength of the performance of the E-Street Band, which is the best band performance ever committed to tape. Take Roy Bittan's powerful, expressive playing throughout; Danny Federici's explosive organ noise at the song's key moments; Bruce's rousing guitar solo at the halfway point; Max Weinberg's torrential downpour of drums; and then, of course, the granddaddy of all Clarence Clemons sax solos, a two and a half minute outpouring of emotion that has, at many moments, taken my soul to a higher place and brought tears to my eyes. Following his death last summer, I found many entire essays examining the "Jungleland" sax solo: how it saved lives, how Clarence Clemons' playing somehow tells a story of a million words without anyone saying anything at all, how when the solo collapses back into the sound of a broken organ and Springsteen's more broken vocals, we feel as emotionally exhausted as he does. It's arguably the single greatest moment in the history of recorded music, and that, along with Bruce's wordless wails that close the song out, makes "Jungleland" the undisputed BEST closer of any album, all time.

2. Jimmy Eat World - "23" from Futures (2004)

It's almost unfair that Jimmy Eat World have to contend with "Jungleland" here, because each of their albums sports the perfect closer, and most of them (the exceptions being Clarity and possibly Invented) save their best track for last. There have been days since the release of Chase This Light in 2007 where I've thought that "Dizzy" was the best thing the band ever wrote, but ultimately, I always end up coming back to "23." And it makes sense that I do, because Futures might have been the single most pivotal album in my musical evolution. When it came to me in the fall of 2004, it was the first album to show me the huge effect that music could have on me, to show me how an album could become something completely personal, could help me through the hard times, serve as soundtrack for the good ones, and become a part of me. And the best thing about Futures is that, over the seven and a half intervening years, it has never stopped growing and changing with me: I can still listen to it on cold fall nights and feel the same way I did the very first time. And as the sweeping chorus of "23" closes out that titanic record, it reaches through the crashing finale and wraps itself around me, swelling and exploding into one of the most gorgeous finales I have ever heard: one that has never failed to move me. It seems appropriate that Futures ends on its highest note, because it makes the message of the album that much clearer: that there’s no sense in waiting for life to come and find you, because you just have to get up and go after it. It’s a hell of a wild ride, and staring off into the great unknown can be the scariest thing in the world, but when Jim Adkins sings "Don't give away the end/The one thing that stays mine," I can just relax and know that, after all, that's part of the fun.

3. Butch Walker - "Stateline" from Letters (2004)

Here's a somewhat controversial (for lack of a better word) choice, since it's a hidden track rather than the album's proper closer. But like I said, a closer is a closer, and few reach the heights of this one. Butch made what is probably his strangest choice ever in relegating this track to hidden track status, as it is absolutely one of his two or three best songs, and provides a fitting emotional climax to a very emotional record. With little more than his acoustic guitar (and some tasteful reverb effects) to keep him company, Walker delivers one of his rawest and most emotional vocal performances ever, building, much like "Jungleland," to a cathartic wordless wail to finish it out. Walker channels every last ounce of his sadness and pain into the lyric (which depicts a man who never gets to see his kids) until it overwhelms him. As the crashing noise of that wordless bridge subsides, the song fades to silence and the guitar vanishes, making way for Walker's last words: "thinking of you with my last breath." Sung a cappella, the line is one of the most cutting and chilling moments of the record and the perfect encapsulation of the journey the record represents. And just for the record, had my rules been different, had I not allowed myself to choose hidden tracks, Butch would have been in this slot anyway, for the songwriting showcase of a singalong that is "When the Canyons Ruled the City."

4.  "Cigarette Lighter Love Song" from Readysexgo! (2000)

 Here's a stretch, since the Butch Walker-fronted band pretty much served as his personal musical vehicle, but since the artists are technically different, and since this song is simply too good to leave off, here we go. Marvelous 3 fractured and broke up after releasing Readysexgo!, their power-pop-meets-arena-rock masterpiece, which functioned as both a prophetic farewell to fans and a major "fuck you" to Elektra Records, who cut of the band's promotion and left them for dead after a single hit. Butch still plays this one today though, and when he does, he often describes it as "the last song we ever wrote, the last song we ever played as a band, and the last song we ever put on a record." It's not just a finale too a terrific record, it's the coda of the band's entire journey. The way it builds from a hushed piano opening to an explosive, guitar layered bridge (concluding with Walker's shout of "I guess this is the end"), is nothing short of chilling, and over ten years later, the song still stands as one of Walker's very best. For a long time, I thought it was the best song I'd ever heard; when I heard Walker perform it last fall, in an almost completely a cappella arrangement, I thought, for a few minutes at least, that I might have been right.

5. The Dangerous Summer - "Never Feel Alone" from Reach for the Sun (2009)

Reach for the Sun, for me, is an album thoroughly entwined with my final months of high school, my graduation, and the summer that followed: there's not a song on the record that I don't adore, not a single one that doesn't take me back to a moment or a feeling from my past. But every song on the record pales in comparison to "Never Feel Alone," which, even after The Dangerous Summer landed easily on the top of my favorite albums list for last year, will probably always be their definitive composition. By this point, the entire record has passed as a series of intense emotions: of love and loss, hope and fear, regret and nostalgia, happiness and heartbreak, and it all leads, in perfect design, to this crushing finale. "Never Feel Alone" is the purest kind of love song, and it hurts to listen to because it's so honest, so raw and naked. It describes so perfectly that moment in a relationship where you realize you're about to fall in love and let your guard down completely, for better or worse. And the way A.J. Perdomo sings the bridge and final chorus, surrounded by the band's customary wall of guitars, it just rips right through me, because the "better" and "worse" are really there. Because when he sings them, it feels like, even despite all the hardship and tragedy on this record, if he can just have this girl, maybe everything will be okay, like he's laying everything on the line and gambling it on a single possibility. As the Beatles sang, "All you need is love," and this song, with its ideas of falling in love, of giving all of yourself to another person, of finding refuge in that love, is one of the most perfect depictions of a single, distinct moment that I've ever heard, and one of the most beautiful and cathartic album closers I've ever heard.

6. The Killers - "Why Do I Keep Counting?" from Sam's Town (2006)

I've always found it incredibly irritating how Sam's Town, otherwise my favorite Killers album, is hampered somewhat by the way it is framed as a record. The "Enterlude" is strange enough, since it comes after the opening title track and is, as a result, pretty pointless. The "Exitlude," on the other hand, isn't such a bad song, but it does hamper the effectiveness of "Why Do I Keep Counting?" as a finale, and even makes it a questionable inclusion on this list. But there aren't a whole lot of songs that are more climactic or as innately, irrevocably final as this one, nor are there many "closers" that sum up their album's so perfectly. "Why Do I Keep Counting?" also come from a guy (Brandon Flowers) who has closed his other three records with what are arguably their weakest tracks, and is, as a result, all the more magnificent. It's a song that plays like a mini "Jungleland," at the end of a record that is so enthralled in Springsteen's influence that the band's sound is transformed entirely (something that earned the record decidedly mixed reviews back in 2006). But Sam's Town is actually the better record overall than Hot Fuss was, and "Why Do I Keep Counting?" is a climactic masterstroke, building to a bridge so huge and so vocally stratospheric that it wouldn't have been out of place on Born to Run. And while I wish the record really did end with the big drum hits at the end of this song, "Exitlude" ultimately plays like an extension of it.

(one) Honorable Mention: Green Day - "Whatsername" from American Idiot (2004)

There will never come a day when people stop giving Green Day crap: crap for the pop-punk hits they scored in the early 90s, crap for the cultural ubiquity that "Good Riddance" earned as "that one graduation song," and especially crap for American Idiot, which spawned five reasonably successful singles and was termed, in different circles, as sell-out garbage and as a masterpiece. I'd be in the latter group on that one: I will never be able to discount the massive personal importance this record had on my musical evolution back in 2004, and while it hasn't aged as well as a few of the albums I was listening to at the time (Jimmy Eat World's Futures being the obvious pick), it's still a record I still love and revisit fairly often, still spawned some of the absolute finest radio rock singles of the decade, and still has one of the best album closers I've ever heard. Sell out bands don't make records as deep as American Idiot, records where the album tracks trump the singles and where the thematic elements are as important as the musical. "Whatsername" is the realization of everything American Idiot actually is, even if people didn't quite get it at the time: American Idiot got saddled, rather unfortunately, with being the "Bush protest album," released around the time of the 2004 election, but at it's heart, it's Born in the U.S.A. all over again: the politics are there, but they serve as subtext for the story, which is just about friendship and love (and their later disintegration) in a fucked-up modern America. "Whatsername" is the epilogue, a break-up anthem for the ages where the end of a whirlwind relationship also symbolizes the end of youth and innocence for the protagonist, and the realization of the cruelty the world can throw. Years later, I appreciate the album so much more because it's basically a condensation of the arc Springsteen pursued across five or six records, and this song is what makes that so evident. "Forgetting you," Billie Joe Armstrong sings in the song's final moments. "But not the time." Could there be a more apt or honest statement about youth?

The "they don't quite count in the ways I want them to, but are still killer ways to close an album" category

Third Eye Blind - The last three songs on Third Eye Blind (1998)

While a band going out on their highest note is certainly something I appreciate, I could hardly have gone through a post like this without acknowledging the perfectly executed beauty that surrounds the last fifteen minutes of Third Eye Blind's masterful debut album. While much of the album was full of bratty, high energy, tongue in cheek pop rock, the final trinity ("The Background," "Motorcycle Drive-By," and "God of Wine") showed just how deep and hard the band could hit, and all three of those songs rank amongst my personal favorites ("Motorcycle Drive-By" would be in the top ten). These songs explore death, fractured relationships, and every stage of grief, and in doing so, they join to form one of the most powerful and emotionally exhausting conclusions to any record I own. When the band hit it big with "Semi-Charmed Life" (which could be the catchiest pop song of all time), I doubt many listeners expected the band had songs like these three in them. I certainly didn't, and I can't remember actually listening to the full record until about 2004 (though I loved all the singles as a kid). Still, I remember listening to "Motorcycle Drive-By" on some summer evening, and having it hit me right in the gut. Over the next few years, the song would earn a massively personal spot in my heart, but it was just one piece of three, and both "The Background" and "God of Wine" are songs that knock me down and blow me away whenever I listen.

Dashboard Confessional - "Dusk & Summer" and "Heaven Here" from Dusk & Summer (2006)

"Heaven Here," as the proper closer, could have made its way onto the list proper, but I figured by doing that, I would be doing a disservice to the truly impeccable juxtaposition between it and the penultimate title track. I've already written about these songs in regards to the summers they have soundtracked, but I'll say a few bits of it again. That Dusk & Summer ends up being, rather surprisingly, my favorite Dashboard record (and at least two others would stand a good chance of scoring a spot on my all time top 50). But here, in the space of a mere nine minutes, Carrabba captures a single feeling, a single atmosphere, as well as I've ever heard any songwriter do it. It's that feeling I get at the end of every summer, looking back over the season, sitting on the beach with the girl I love as the sun goes down and trying to hold onto the brilliance of summer and of youth, even as it slips through our fingers and out the door. The summer I fell in love for the first time, those two songs immortalized themselves and became a part of who I am: the former played as I realized that I loved this girl, and the latter the next morning, as we said goodbye to each other and began a long distance relationship. Carrabba's voice soars at the climactic moment of "Heaven Here," reaching impossible heights as he sings "Heaven is here, and tonight we are the only ones who feel it." Hearing that song, as I kissed my girlfriend goodbye, as the entire season and our entire romance flashed before my eyes, as tears poured down my face, was the most intensely emotional connection I have ever felt with a person or with a song. In that way, I guess "Heaven Here" should be number 1, but I just wouldn't have felt right listing without the title track, since after all, I couldn't have had one without the other.

I could go on all night listing honorable mentions for closing tracks. More often than not, the closer ends up being the peak of the album (or at least one of them), and there are so many songs that could have made it onto this list easily. Springsteen has more great closers than I could ever have fit on here, even if I had allowed for more than one per artist. "Darkness on the Edge of Town," all of side two from The Wild, The Innocent ("Incident," "Rosalita," and "New York City Serenade" could have easily made it into that last category), "Valentines Day," or certainly "My City of Ruins." As I said, every Jimmy album sports a great closer, same for Butch (including the Marvelous 3 material). I love closers that reprise bits and pieces of their albums' earlier songs, like Chad Perrone's "Keep Us Around" (all of his closers are incredible, including "Goodnight, Goodbye" from his old band Averi), or Valencia's "Free," and could have easily swapped them in for that fifth slot. And even then there's Will Hoge ("This Highway's Home"), The Gaslight Anthem ("The Backseat"), Anberlin ("*Fin"), Arcade Fire ("Sprawl II"), The Beatles ("A Day in the Life," the Abbey Road Medley, "Twist & Shout"), Ben Folds ("The Luckiest"), Billy Joel ("Everybody Has A Dream" OR "Miami 2017"), Black Lab ("Circus Lights"), Bloc Party ("Ion Square"), Bon Iver ("Re-Stacks"), Counting Crows ("Walkaways," "A Murder of One"), David Bowie ("Rock 'n' Roll Suicide") Death Cab For Cutie ("A Lack of Color"), Doves ("Caught by the River"), Fastball ("Whatever Gets You On"), The Format ("If Work Permits"), Guster ("Parachute"), Idlewild ("In Remote Pt. 1/Scottish Fiction"), ANY of the Iron & Wine closers, The Injured List ("Wait"), Jack's Mannequin ("Into The Airwaves" or "Caves"), Jesse Malin ("Aftermath"), Lifehouse ("Everything"), Matchbox Twenty ("The Difference"), Michael McDermott ("Carry Your Cross"), Motion City Soundtrack ("Hold Me Down" OR "Even If It Kills Me"), The New Frontiers ("Who Will Give Us Love?"), Oasis ("Champagne Supernova"), Peter Gabriel (the iconic "In Your Eyes," thanks to ANOTHER John Cusack movie), Radford ("How Does It Feel"), Ryan Bingham ("For What It's Worth"), Safetysuit ("Life Left To Go"), Something Corporate ("Miss America"), more Third Eye Blind ("Good Man") Van Morrison ("Slim Slow Slider"), The Who ("Won't Get Fooled Again") and Yellowcard ("Back Home").

Even with that exhaustive list, I'm certain I've missed more than a few of my favorites, and if you asked me the same question next week, any of the above could jump up even higher in the conversation. This list was also made, in accordance with rule number two, by completely ignoring 2011, which took more than a few terrific songs out of the conversation on both sides. Ultimately though, these songs represent some of the greatest, most emotionally moving, and most lasting music in the world, at least to me, and really, what else even matters?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Room at the End of the World: Matt Nathanson Live in Grand Rapids, 3/09/12

I bought Some Mad Hope, Matt Nathanson's breakthrough 2007 album, on a class trip in the fall of my junior year of high school. I didn't know much about him or his music, other than that he'd contributed a cover of the James hit "Laid" to the soundtrack of the horrifically bad third American Pie film, but the record had gotten a terrific review from one of the websites I followed heavily at the time, and the opener, "Car Crash," had been a free iTunes single that I'd had in fairly constant rotation in the weeks leading up to the trip. I didn't get to listen until I got home the next night (this being the age of the iPod, I didn't have my good old portable CD player at my disposal), but when I did, I was thrilled with my purchase. Today, Some Mad Hope is one of my favorite records, a killer collection of songs, representing a series of emotional highs and lows for its composer, and building to one of the best back sections of any record that decade. Last year's Modern Love was every bit as good, landing at number eight on my end of the year list and constituting a big part of my summer soundtrack. Before those two records, it had always been said that Nathanson was unable to translate the electricity of his live show into a studio album without losing something in the transfer. Indeed, those earlier records do have the songs (especially Some Mad Hope's predecessor, Beneath These Fireworks), but seemed to be suffocated a bit underneath the slick production. I think he finally figured it out on the last two albums, but beyond those, it's easy to argue 2006's Live at the Point as the best showcase for his talents: an all acoustic setlist that shows off his hilarious stage banter, his palpable rapport with audiences, and his tendency to interpolate bits and pieces of his record collection into his own songs.
All of those things were on clear display last Friday night, from the moment Nathanson took the stage at the sold-out Intersection in Grand Rapids (to the theme of Superman, no less). I've seen Nathanson once before, as the opener for Third Eye Blind at a summer festival back in 2009, but this was the first time I got to see him headline a show, and boy was it a riot. Singer/songwriter (and surprisingly good beat boxer) Rachel Platten opened the show, proving herself the perfect companion to Nathanson in terms of pop hooks, stage presence, and interesting pop covers (though a piano take of Snoop Dogg's "Gin & Juice" was a bit too gimmicky for my taste). Still, Platten played an entertaining set that probably placed her somewhere in the upper echelon of opening acts I've seen (always a pleasant thing to say, since I've seen more than a few trainwrecks), and had me making a note to check out her material.

After taking the stage, Nathanson and his band rocketed into a pair of rockers from Some Mad Hope - "To the Beat of Our Noisy Hearts" and "Gone" - before delving into the record they're actually on tour supporting with the title track off Modern Love. "Run," originally a country-ish duet with Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland fame, offered one of the most memorable instances of Nathanson's stage banter. Nathanson noted that he would be delivering both the male and female verses by himself (a curious choice, since he had a more-than-capable female singer sitting backstage), comparing the album version to "playing scrabble" (which quickly became the night's thinly veiled term for "sex"), and the live version to "a game of solitaire" (hint, hint).  As the show was all ages (and since there was at least one very young child in the audience), Nathanson made a laughable attempt to censor his language and the subject material behind the songs (he told brief stories before many of them, often having at least some connection to "playing scrabble"), but it was clear this behavior has become a trademark in Nathanson's shows, and it became a goodhearted running joke of sorts between himself and the audience.

The aforementioned "Laid" provided one of the most enjoyable singalongs of the night, while "Still," which has become a favorite of mine from Some Mad Hope over the years, was a welcome addition to the set. "Detroit Waves" was an obvious tribute to Matt's Michigan surroundings and was elevated by a riveting snippet of U2's "Exit" halfway through. The song, which is one of the darker and more obscure cuts off the band's legendary Joshua Tree album, fit perfectly within Nathanson's own composition and was the first of several terrific little covers to appear in the setlist. That gave way to "Bare" and "Amazing Again," a pair of songs from the older records that were clearly less known amongst the crowd, but no less terrific in execution. "Amazing Again" was particularly notable for featuring best cover moment of the night, in the form of the first verse of "Angels of the Silences" by the Counting Crows. I was hoping this would turn into a more extended cover, but those hopes were cut short as Nathanson returned to the chorus of his own tune a bit too soon for my taste.

Nathanson called "Kiss Quick" his favorite song on Modern Love, something I found a bit surprising, since I felt like the new record generally saw a trade off between higher quality upbeat tracks and less striking slow ones (when compared to Some Mad Hope). The song had some trouble gaining traction in its live setting, and Nathanson seemed to lose the crowd for a few minutes, but he got it back with the song's emotional climax. The catchy riff and the infectious and anthemic chorus of "Car Crash" didn't hurt either. "Crash" has become a live staple in Nathanson's catalog, and for good reason, as it thrived in its live version. An awkward interpolation of Cee-Lo's "Fuck You" hampered the song's effectiveness a bit, but Nathanson redeemed that blunder with a far more fitting tease of Ray LaMontagne's "Jolene," my pick for that songwriter's best work and one of my favorite songs of the last ten years or so. Clearly, Nathanson would be a fun guy to listen to some records with.

Despite a slew of great songs and performances, entertaining moments of crowd banter, and the fun "trainspotting" game to be played with his cover choices, Nathanson saved his aces for the end of the show. The euphoric "Room at the End of the World" was the highlight of Modern Love and one of my four or five favorite songs of last year, and hearing the song's immaculate chorus blaze forth in this environment was every bit as fantastic as I thought it would be. As Nathanson sang that song, I smiled to myself, basking in the moment, but also in the dozens of moments from last summer that it returned me to, and I felt like maybe, despite the bitingly cold temperatures outside that night, summer wasn't so far off: like it was almost in my grasp. "Faster," Love's first single and one of its catchiest numbers (which is saying something for a record that was brimming with irresistible hooks), was a perfect opener in album context, but works almost better in the live one, moved towards the end of the set. Nathanson led the crowd in a synchronized clap that showcased the audience's excellent sense of rhythm (or, in a few cases, lack thereof), before blasting through one of the night's most fun and high energy performances: it was a knock-out. And "All We Are," the lyrically driven closer from Some Mad Hope, provided a gorgeously downbeat and acoustic finale to the main set.

Nathanson's biggest hit, the sugary sweet "Come on Get Higher," also from Some Mad Hope, made its appearance as the penultimate encore number, and encouraged such huge cheers that it was likely a few audience members had come to see that song alone. And it didn't disappoint, proving, much like "Faster," to be one of the most enjoyable singalong songs of the night. Nathanson introduced his band and bid us farewell before retreating from the front of the stage, preparing their final (and their greatest) song of the night. Near-silence filled the venue for a moment as the band took up their instruments one last time. And then, just as I was wondering if we were going to get another song or not, the room exploded into the intro to "Wedding Dress," arguably Nathanson's most emotionally draining and most viscerally moving song to date. The volume indicated that the band may have turned the amps up to 11 for the finale, but the sound was pristine and clear, and by the time the song hit its cigarette-lighter-waving chorus, I was absorbed, belting along at the top of my lungs. Despite the fact that I had pretty much shredded my voice from shouting along with these songs all night, I couldn't help but join in with this one, and it was one of the more powerful moments I've witnessed in concert. "Wedding Dress" is a shattering depiction of a marriage that, for whatever reason, isn't going to work out; indeed, most of Some Mad Hope is about picking up the pieces of broken relationships, even if it doesn't quite seem that way on the surface. I've always loved that song, but I've also thought that there was something missing from the studio version: something about the production or the arrangement feels thin, and the fade-out leaves it feeling unfinished (does the fade-out technique ever work?). That night, though, as the band played their hearts out and left every bit of themselves onstage or ringing out over the crowd, the song was elevated to new heights; hearing Matt sing those lines with a voice that was starting to break from fatigue was nothing short of chilling. And even though I felt beat up, hungover, and vocally dead the next day (all of this was curious, since I hadn't had a single drop of alcohol), that moment and many more made it all more than worth it. Nathanson is a real talent, both as a performer and as an album maker, and I just hope that, this time, he doesn't take four years to make a new album again.
1. To the Beat of Our Noisy Hearts
2. Gone
3. Modern Love
4. Run
5. Queen of (K)nots
6. Laid (James cover)
7. Still 
8. Detroit Waves -> Exit (U2 snippet)
9. Bare
10. Amazing Again -> Angels of the Silences (Counting Crows snippet)
11. Kiss Quick
12. Car Crash -> Fuck You/Jolene (Cee Lo and Ray LaMontagne snippets)
13. Room at the End of the World -> (Tributes to Davy Jones and Whitney Houston)
14. Faster
15. All We Are
16. Come on Get Higher
17. Wedding Dress

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Bruce Springsteen Retrospective Part VII: Born in the U.S.A.

Well we busted out of class
Had to get away from those fools
We learned more from a three minute record, baby
Than we'd ever learned in school
Tonight I hear the neighborhood drummer sound
I can feel my heart begin to pound
You say you're tired and you just want to close your eyes
And follow your dreams down

Have there ever been two records, side by side in an artist's catalog, more different than Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska and Born in the U.S.A.? One is a sparse set of acoustic tunes, recorded in his bedroom on a 4-track; the other is his pop masterpiece, a heavily produced set of songs, drenched in 80s synthesizers, that today proves to be his most divisive work. Before 1984, Springsteen had released six records containing a grand total of ONE top ten hit: The River's "Hungry Heart." To put that in perspective, Born in the U.S.A. spawned seven massive top ten singles (a record that he shares in a three way tie with Michael and Janet Jackson. Looking at the list of singles right now ("Dancing in the Dark," "Cover Me," "Born in the U.S.A.," "I'm on Fire," "Glory Days," "I'm Goin' Down," and "My Hometown," in that order), I'm struck by the thought that Springsteen and Columbia could have probably scored at least one more hit, if not two, as the best songs on this record never saw the light of day as singles (we'll get to that in a minute).

Considering how vastly different Nebraska and Born in the U.S.A. are from each other as far as sound is concerned (were Bruce a less iconic artist, you could be forgiven if you thought they were made by two different artists), it's worth noting that the latter was essentially born out of the same style that beget the former. Bruce opens the record with the title track, a song that had been misunderstood for decades and continues to be ignorantly judged to this day. The song is probably best known for the infamous moment when Ronald Reagan tried to adopt it as his re-election campaign theme, an occurrence that was laughably ironic for two reasons: the first was that Springsteen has always been a dead-set liberal and never would have endorsed Reagan under any circumstance. The second was that  the song, which is so often viewed as some fist pumping patriotic anthem, is an anti-war, anti-governmental tirade from the point of view of a disgruntled Vietnam vet. The character in this song returns from the futility of that war to find that his life been broken and beyond repair ("Ten years burning down the road/Nowhere to run, ain't got nowhere to go," Springsteen shouts at the song's key moment). For years, I thought the song was cheesy and repetitive, and just like so many others, I misinterpreted it. I can still remember the day, in the spring of my senior year in high school, when I finally gave this record and this song another chance. As I drove through my hometown and really listened to the lyrics, to Springsteen's voice as he sang them, my opinion of the song transformed instantaneously. Suddenly, amidst the shimmering synth riff and the muscular majesty of the E-Street sound, I heard all of the anger and anguish in Springsteen's voice and I finally understood what he was trying to say: it's still among my favorite Springsteen songs, something that would become even more evident when I saw him live for the first time 8 months later. The song grew out of an acoustic version of it originally meant for the Nebraska sessions, but it's doubtful anyone could have imagined it turning into the song it did (other than perhaps Springsteen himself). The other Nebraska leftover, the somber "Downbound Train," is probably one of the record's weaker tracks, but gives us an idea of what that record would have sounded like with the full force of The E-Street Band behind it.

Speaking of the album's weaker tracks, I don't think Born in the U.S.A. ascends to masterpiece status until about halfway through, leaving side one, despite the presence of the title track, to be one of the weaker parts of the first eight Springsteen records. The central trio of songs on side one - "Cover Me," "Darlington County," and "Working on the Highway" - have always been what keeps this record from perfection in my eyes, despite the fact that none of them are even remotely poor. "Cover Me" is a driving rocker marked by one of Springsteen's most scorching guitar solos, while "Darlington" and "Working on the Highway" each have a kind of honky-tonk drive that landed somewhere between Springsteen's trademark heartland rock and country: both are pleasant enough as singalong songs, though I understand why some have found the latter's rapid fire chorus a bit grating. As side one closes out, Born in the U.S.A. transforms into one of the best nighttime records I've ever heard, a seamless transition with the haunting "I'm on Fire" leading the charge. The song, told from the point of view of a man who is having an affair with another man's wife, is one of the most unique moments in the Springsteen catalog: drummer Max Weinberg supplies a train-like rhythm, mixing with a rain of synths and Bruce's exposed guitar line to create a song that is both strikingly atmospheric and definitively '80s. Lines like "At night I wake up with my sheets soaking wet/And a freight train running through the middle of my head/Only you can cool my desire," as well as Springsteen's like-a-man-possessed falsetto bridge, immediately transformed the song into a moment that was equal parts seductive and iconic: it's no mystery why the song has been covered time and time again by a myriad of modern artists.

"I'm on Fire" propels the record into side two, kicking off the strongest trio of songs on the record. "No Surrender" is arguably the greatest pop song Springsteen ever wrote, spinning off a trio of perfect verses (like the one above, which starts the song with one of my favorite lyric couplets ever recorded), and rockets through an infectious and anthemic chorus. "Bobby Jean," despite its infamy among fans (the song held a position of ubiquity in Springsteen shows following the release of this record, earning the scathing nickname of "Bobby fucking Jean"), is nearly as good. Springsteen wrote the song as a "good luck, goodbye" to guitarist and friend Steve van Zandt, who chose to leave the band around the time this record was recorded. Both songs radiate themes of deep friendship and nostalgia and, as a one-two punch, represent the emotional peak of a record that many have argued doesn't have the same emotional impact of Springsteen's best work. Two years ago, when my best friend moved away to NYC, it was "No Surrender" and "Bobby Jean" (and "Blood Brothers," a later song that also spoke of the palpable bonds between the members of the E-Street Band) that served as soundtrack. When I listen to this record, the warm nostalgic mood of those songs infects everything that surrounds them, transforming Born in the U.S.A. into one of the most personal records in the Springsteen catalog for me, and as a result, into one of my five or six favorites.

"I'm Goin' Down," despite a surging tempo and a poppy chorus, is among Springsteen's saddest break-up songs, told from the point of view of a man who is left shattered and confused when the woman he loves falls out of love with him. "Glory Days" offers another trip down memory lane, this time representing a conversation between Springsteen's narrator and his old friend, a guy who was a great baseball player back in high school, but who seems to have lost his way since. These characters pretty much peaked in high school, but the song still blazes along with a goodhearted nostalgia that's almost impossible not to relate to: we all have moments where we are humbled by the world around us, and in those moments, it's always a comfort to look back at the "good old days," even if it might be more logical to look towards to the future. These songs represent two of the more unlikely hits from this album for me, but released as the fifth and sixth singles, respectively, they also show what an unstoppable force the record had become by that time; Bruce would score yet another hit before the record finally faded away.

"Dancing in the Dark" is arguably Springsteen's biggest hit to date, and is probably the source of much of the bitterness this record receives from fans. While the song was the first single from the album and went to number two on the Billboard 100 (turning Springsteen into a pop icon almost overnight), it was also the last song written for the record. Legend has it that, by the time Born in the U.S.A. was finally taking shape, Springsteen had written over 100 songs for the project (numerous outtakes appear on the Tracks collection), but producer Jon Landau didn't think there was a surefire hit in the bunch and suggested that Bruce write another song. Bruce's bitterness at the request is palpable in the song's lyrics ("Man I'm just tired and bored with myself..."), and clearly there were more than enough hits in the collection already, but I can't imagine Born in the U.S.A. sounding complete without "Dancing in the Dark." There aren't a whole lot of hooks out there more indelible than this one ("You can't start a fire without a spark/This gun's for hire, even if we're just dancing in the dark"), but beneath the prominent synths and glorified '80s production, its still the same Springsteen who made those previous six records. "Dancing" may have brought Bruce to true mainstream prominence, but it did so without sacrificing any of his ideals or songwriting integrity, and that's why I love the song, even if there are a lot of fans who would probably prefer if he never played it again.

"My Hometown" carries Born in the U.S.A. out, both as the album closer and the seventh and final single. The song offers one last final nostalgic journey: a man puts his son on his lap as he drives through town, telling him to "take a good look around" and to take pride in the place. The boy grows up and his memories, both good and bad, are woven into the song's narrative until, in the final verse, he takes his own son for a similar drive. The song's elegiac texture paints the portrait of a town drowning in hard times, even as the memories of the better ones surround the narrator, and just as the song's tale comes full circle in the final verse, the album's story comes full circle here as well,  The characters in these songs have realized, in a line, what Springsteen put so eloquently nearly three decades later: that "hard times come, and hard times go, but just to come again;" they bask in the warmth of their memories for comfort, even as they realize that the "glory days" seem to evaporate far more quickly than the dark ones ever do. Still, these songs carry a resilience and hope that seemed absent on Nebraska: the darkness is still waiting out on the edge of town, but hope, happiness, glory, and most of all, friendship, can be found within it. Perhaps it's my own deep personal attachment to the record, or perhaps it's the layers of '80s pop sheen, but I've always found Born in the U.S.A. to be one of Springsteen's more comforting and uplifting records, even if its subject matter is significantly deeper and darker than that of many pop records from the same time. It's a record that will always go down as Springsteen's most popular (and indeed, as one of the most popular of all time), but in my eyes, removed from the era that spawned those seven massive singles, Born in the U.S.A. is just the next step in the evolution of Bruce Springsteen, as a songwriter, as a storyteller, and most of all, as "the Boss." I don't think anyone will ever be able to call it his best work, but with this record, Springsteen broke into the very center of the mainstream without sacrificing who he was or what he believed in, and that alone is worthy of renown.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Bruce Springsteen - Wrecking Ball

 Bruce Springsteen - Wrecking Ball
Columbia Records, 2012
Five stars

Bruce Springsteen needs no introduction: he's "the Boss," a living legend who is renowned not only for the strength of his best records (Born to Run is my all time favorite album), or for the cultural ubiquity of his most successful (Born in the USA, which spawned seven massive hit singles), but also for his ability to tap into the psyches of the average American everyman, not to mention his life-affirming live shows, which often stretch on towards the marathon length of three hours or more. Upon the death of legendary saxophonist Clarence Clemons last year, many questioned whether Springsteen would ever make another record, or whether the E-Street Band would ever tour again. They needn't have worried about either of those points, as another worldwide E-Street Tour is brewing for the upcoming spring and summer months, and as Springsteen drops Wrecking Ball, his 17th studio record, this week. While many associate Springsteen with the huge, anthemic sound of his biggest masterworks (Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town) or with the faux-patriotic 80s pop of Born in the U.S.A., Wrecking Ball is a more experimental record, incorporating everything from his classic rock influences to Irish/celtic rave-ups, with a tad of hip hop thrown in for good measure. The resulting record is a masterpiece, the best and most lively collection of songs Springsteen has put together in decades (since U.S.A., at least), and the best album of the year so far.

I wasn't a fan of Bruce's last effort, 2009's Working on a Dream, where the Boss got a little too content with the state of his country, and as a result, a little too boring. George Bush was out, Barack Obama in, and suddenly, the angry political songs of 2007's Magic had faded away. What was left was arguably the weakest set of songs of Springsteen's career, something even he seemed to realize, largely avoiding the album on the subsequent tour and turning instead to his classic material. The end of that tour seemed like a fitting finale for the illustrious career of the E-Street Band, and indeed, upon the death of Clemons, it was certain that things would never be quite the same, no matter their course of action. Wrecking Ball, although it includes contributions by many members of his band, is more in the tradition of Springsteen's solo efforts (the cult classic "Nebraska"), and several songs, like the morose narrative of "Jack of All Trades" (complete with a cathartic guitar solo by Tom Morello, of Rage Against the Machine fame), or the mostly acoustic "You've Got It," wouldn't have been completely out of place amongst that album's sparse 4-track recordings. Meanwhile, one listen to the raucous choruses of songs like "Easy Money," "Shackled and Drawn" or especially "Death to My Hometown" will reveal the plethora of folk and celtic influences Springsteen adopts here, often reminiscent of his equally experimental work on last decade's "The Seeger Sessions" and "Live in Dublin" releases. And then there's "Rocky Ground," a clever rewrite of his Oscar winner "Streets of Philadelphia," complete with an out-of-left-field rap section by gospel singer Michelle Moore; needless to say, it's quite a change of pace for the 62 year old Springsteen.

But even amongst all of the experimentation, at its heart, Wrecking Ball is thoroughly a Bruce Springsteen record. Take the masterful title track, which juxtaposes a flawless singalong chorus with some of Springsteen's best lyrics to become his most epic anthem since "Badlands," or "This Depression," which could have fit on The Rising were it not for the anguished guitar echoes that permeate the second half. Meanwhile, the fist pumping rock 'n' roll of first the single, "We Take Care of Our Own," fits comfortably in the wheelhouse of post millennial Bruce, with a lyric that stands to become his most misunderstood political statement since Born in the U.S.A. Perhaps best of all is "Land of Hope and Dreams," where the ghost of Clarence Clemons floats through one of his last recorded sax solos, recalling a million brilliant moments from the Springsteen catalog and providing the album with its most sublimely emotional moment. "This train carries saints and sinners, this train carries losers and winners," Springsteen sings on the song's joyful chorus, almost like he's paraphrasing the words inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty. It's a moment that could come across as cheesy or heavy handed in lesser hands, but if there's a guy on the planet who can pull it off, it's the Boss, and pull it off he does.

Wrecking Ball certainly has the goods as far as the songs are concerned, but it wouldn't work the way it does if Springsteen didn't have the conviction. If Working on a Dream was the sound of a rock star with nothing left to say, Wrecking Ball is the sound of an American who thought his darkest days were behind him, only to realize that things had never stopped getting worse. His economy a wreck, his people unemployed and unhappy, and as many broken dreams and wasted lives scatter across his nation as ever, Springsteen turns around and writes his most scorching, angry, and heartbreaking album in years, but at the same time, it's also among his most resilient and life-affirming. At the end of Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen's characters were resigning themselves to what their lives had become on the wrong side of the American dream, but here, those same characters are fighting back. The art of the protest album has faded in recent years, but Springsteen, always the voice of the everyman, brings it back and delivers one that is certain to mean something to an awful lot of people. In the album's final moments, on the closer "We Are Alive," Springsteen delivers both a eulogy for his fallen brother and a rallying cry for the downtrodden people of his country. There is a distinct sense of things having come full circle, not just for the record, but for Springsteen's career as a whole, but with the amount of life and passion he showcases on this record, it's not difficult to imagine him making music for another 15 or 20 years. A terrific set of songs, a summation of a brilliant career, both in sound and theme, and a effortlessly affecting message, Wrecking Ball is a late career masterpiece from one of the most significant musical figures in rock and roll history, and is just about as good a record as anyone is making these days: I seriously doubt I'll hear a better album this year.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Bruce Springsteen Retrospective Part VI: Nebraska (1982)

Now I been lookin' for a job but it's hard to find
Down here it's just winners and losers

And don't get caught on the wrong side of that line
Well I'm tired of comin' out on the losin' end
So honey last night I met this guy and I'm gonna do a little favor for him 

Well I guess everything dies, baby that's a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back
Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty
And meet me tonight in Atlantic City

Following a week's residency on Jimmy Fallon, Bruce Springsteen will drop his much anticipated 17th studio record tomorrow. Wrecking Ball (which I have already reviewed, over at!), is the best album Bruce has released since Born in the U.S.A., I think, and I found myself wavering between giving it a 9.5 and a perfect 10. Only time will tell if I'll be pleased with my choice of the former, but check out the review (I got offered to write for Rock Freaks in response to my review of fun.'s Some Nights). Also, stay tuned for more in depth thoughts on the record's songs and their stories here, probably sometime in the next week, but perhaps even further down the road, when I finally get through this Springsteen retrospective project. Anyway, since it's a big week for Bruce, I figured I'd try to knock out a few more of his records here, so without further ado, I give you his 1982 masterpiece Nebraska.

Immediately, Nebraska is strikingly different than anything Springsteen had ever done before (and anything he's done since, despite numerous attempts to replicate it's successes). Legend has it that, after his first top 10 hit with The River's "Hungry Heart," Springsteen retreated. While The River gave him his first taste of success in the mainstream pop music world, it was "Stolen Car," a dark, sparse, hopelessly sad storyteller piece, that would serve as the biggest indicator of where he was going when he sat down in his bedroom and recorded the Nebraska demos on a 4-track recorder. Later, Springsteen and the E-Street Band convened to record the material (I'd kill to get my hands on this version of the record), but something was lacking in the full band arrangements, and Bruce ultimately decided to release the tape he'd been "carryin' around in his pocket without a case for a couple of weeks" as the record.

Despite it's rather dubious origins, Nebraska has become one of the favorites of the Springsteen catalog, and I often see people online naming it among his best. In the modern age of music, Nebraska's lo-fi sound has influenced a slew of singer/songwriters, from Johnny Cash to Sam Beam, and the haunting atmosphere of the record completely turned the perception of Bruce on it's head, removing the iconic trademark of Clarence Clemons' saxophone and bathing Springsteen's characters in darker themes than ever before. Whereas Darkness on the Edge of Town was basically a sequel to Born to Run, with songs that told the tales of what happened to those characters after they realized that the American Dream wasn't as black and white as they had believed in their youth, Nebraska focuses on different characters altogether. Here, Springsteen hones in on the underbelly of American life, often focusing on criminals or the people whose lives they disrupt. The opening title track, accented by a mournful harmonica, tells the story of a young man who went on a killing spree back in '57 and '58, and pretty much shows us right away what this record is going to be with its slow-burn storytelling and sparse, acoustic instrumentation. Interestingly, the story also inspired a Terrence Malick film called Badlands, a title Springsteen had used as his opener a mere two albums before: perhaps it's on purpose, then, that the two songs couldn't be further from one another.

Where Springsteen's previous albums were chalk full of huge full-band moments and anthemic choruses, there isn't any of that on Nebraska. Choruses become refrains (like the gorgeous one that floats through "Highway Patrolman"), and the sole obvious "hook" belongs to "Atlantic City," which became the most well known song from the collection. It's also the best, perfectly balancing Springsteen's older melodic ideals with this album's stark atmosphere, and coming out with a song that, despite finding its basis in no more than three chords, is immediately memorable. "Atlantic City," much like the songs on Born to Run, depicts a couple's romantic escape to a promised land of sorts, only to find that the city is as dangerous, corrupt, and difficult as anywhere they've ever been. Mafia violence and involvement permeates every moment of the song, from the iconic opening line ("Well they blew up the chicken man in Philly last night"), to the second verse, detailing the rise of crime in the gambling circuit, all the way to the final lines above, where the desperate protagonist turns to crime himself in order to make his way on the mean streets. Just like "Meeting Across the River," the penultimate cut on Born to Run, "Atlantic City" is a masterclass in lyricism precisely because it cuts the story off just before the climax. In "Meeting," it was a man trying to talk his friend into helping him out with a heist of sorts. Here, it's a man in a similar situation, and whether the "favor" he's prepared to do is in connection with the mob or in defiance of it doesn't really matter: something in Springsteen's delivery lets us know that things aren't going to go as planned.

"Highway Patrolman" is one of the most fully realized story songs in the Springsteen catalog, something Sean Penn must have realized when he made a movie based on it with 1991's The Indian Runner. Springsteen weaves the tale of a cop and his brother, a notorious screw up who the protagonist feels obligated to protect. The song masterfully juxtaposes happy memories with the main plotline, where Frank, the brother, kills a man in a bar brawl and then flees the country, with the "Patrolman" in hot pursuit. Ultimately, the brotherly bond wins out, and he lets Frank get away, saying "man turns his back on his family, well he just ain't no good." Themes of family permeate numerous other songs on the record, from "Used Cars" to "My Father's House," all with similar sonic textures (a 4-track doesn't allow for too much variety), but all with lyrical content that ranks amongst Springsteen's most spellbinding, and all with a hypnotic delivery from the man himself that embodies the songs' characters with life and spark. And indeed, these characters are among Springsteen's most fleshed out and memorable: take the title character in "Johnny 99," who turns to crime after losing his job and being left with "debts no honest man can pay" (the same theme as "Atlantic City," right down to the lyric). In a robbery gone awry, the character kills a clerk, and gets sentenced to life in prison, only to ask instead for the death penalty. Or take the protagonist in "State Trooper," a paranoid criminal whose plea of "Mr. State Trooper, please don't stop me," serves as the song's refrain as he drives through the darkness of middle America. Perhaps it's the same character from "Stolen Car," the guy who was just hoping to get caught so that things in his life would change; perhaps it's a different person, a person who knows that if he gets pulled over, he'll have no choice but to pull the trigger yet again. It's likely that Springsteen fully intended to leave the connection rather ambiguous, and that he does so on numerous occasions throughout his career only makes his discography that much more riveting and rewarding to explore.

"Open All Night," like "Atlantic City" or "Johnny 99" is more of a stripped down rock song than it is a piece of folk or Americana, and it's perhaps for that reason that these songs have remained standbys in Springsteen's live sets more so than the ones that surround them. The song has a drive and edge that would not have felt out of place on the latter half of Born in the U.S.A., and for that matter, a foot-stomping rhythm that feels a bit like the first five tracks on his latest. It's also the only appearance of electric guitar on the record (or of amplified instrumentation at all), and would be notable for that reason alone, even if it weren't as solid and straight up enjoyable as it is. And while I think it ranks as one of Springsteen's weaker closers, "Reason to Believe" serves as a perfect conclusion to this set of songs. Much like the characters in "Darkness on the Edge of Town" or "Wreck on the Highway," the figures in "Reason to Believe" are beset on all sides by tragedy or misfortune, but as Springsteen sings in the refrain, "at the end of every hard earned day, people find some reason to believe." Despite the fact that Nebraska is Springsteen's most hopeless record to date, it ends with a song that is, at least partially, a hymn to human resilience, giving the record a satisfying arc, and making it that much more rewarding on repeat listens: in that sense, "Reason to Believe" is a terrific finale.

If Nebraska is Springsteen's most unique record, it's also his most challenging. Over the years, this record has confused me, moved me, frustrated me, and amazed me, sometimes all at the same time; I've ranked it everywhere from fifth to tenth in terms of his discography, and unlike most other record's in the catalog, there are some days when I'm just not in the mood for this one. Certainly, it's never obtained the level of respect or the sheer volume of plays that I've bestowed upon Born to Run, and I've never been able to wrap my head around the lists where I see it ranked above that album, which I think is the only completely flawless full-length work in the history of recorded music. I don't think it compares to the four records that preceded it, and I also think that The River's more downbeat moments did a similar type of darkness in a more effective way. All of that said, on the days when I feel truly in the mood for Nebraska, I can put it on and completely understand why it's Springsteen's second most revered album: I can fully see how brave it was for him to strip his sound down to its rawest and barest essentials; I can see why the lyrics of this record have been the subject of entire studies by "Springsteen scholars; I can certainly see why this record, more than perhaps any I really know, has an almost cult following; and mostly, I can understand why this record took Springsteen to another level in terms of how he was viewed as a songwriter, how this might be the record to thank for his undisputed legendary status (because really, could there possibly be a soul who dislikes Born to Run, Born in the U.S.A., AND Nebraska?) So while it will never be my favorite Springsteen album, while I will almost always prefer to hear Springsteen's voice and lyrics with the full force of the E-Street Band behind them, Nebraska is an important piece of music history that I at very least respect, and one that, on its best days, I truly love.