Thursday, April 26, 2012

Lucero - Women & Work

Lucero - Women & Work
ATO Records, 2012
4 stars

Since they got together in 1998, Memphis-based rock band Lucero have made seven full-length records, ranging from dirty, southern-tinged punk to roots rock 'n' roll, gathering alt-country influences along the way, and even layering their sound with soulful horns on 2009's 1372 Overton Park. Many fans dubbed that record as Lucero's magnum opus, and while their latest, "Women & Work," is a step back, it remains an alluring collection of raucous, bar-band rock 'n' roll that arrives just in time for the spring and summer seasons that it was so clearly meant to soundtrack. And while being the world's greatest bar-band (a title they've been fighting over with The Hold Steady for ages) is a rather dubious honor, it's clear from the album cover (which depicts the sextet sitting on a street corner outside of a bar), that it's exactly what Lucero is shooting for here. Look no further than the all-out-party that is the record's title track, which juxtaposes the aforementioned horn section, some terrific guitar playing, and a crashing piano into one of the most well executed rock 'n' roll rave-ups I've heard all year. "On My Way Downtown" is no less impressive, for all the same reasons, while "It May Be Too Late" utilizes the piano to an even greater effect, creating a song that would have sounded as good ten or twenty years ago as it does now. Indeed, Lucero find most of their inspiration for Women & Work by looking back in time, drawing from their Memphis-soul heritage, as well as from the bar-band honky-tonk of classic records like Bruce Springsteen's The River. Take the bluesy "Juniper," whose chorus sounds reminiscent of Queen's "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" for a split second, before frontman Ben Nichols launches into a killer bridge section, or "Like Lightning," where the band burns through a pre-ordained showstopper.

Not enough can be said of the high benchmark the band sets here (and regularly breaks) in terms of pure musicianship or versatility. Nichols has the kind of rough, weather-worn voice that you can just hear ringing through some hazy, 98-degree bar on a summer night, while John Stubblefield (bass) and Brian Venable (guitar) add classic, atmospheric flourishes to the sound that would be all too easy to miss if you weren't paying close attention. Frequently, a perfectly nostalgic B3-organ slices through the arrangements (or takes the lead, as in "Who You Waiting On?"), instantaneously transporting me back to some of my favorite records from my youth (The Wallflowers' Bringing Down the Horse and Counting Crows' August and Everything After both come to mind), adding a certain timeless, folky quality to every song it graces. That same timeless quality is palpable in the contributions of the horn section, which suits the band's sound as perfectly here as it did on Overton Park. However, it's the keyboards that take Women & Work to the next level, injecting the songs with that extra ingredient that I've always missed in records from the likes of The Gaslight Anthem, or on the last Hold Steady album (following the departure of piano virtuoso Franz Nicolay). The horns and the lurching piano lead the way throughout the record, allowing the band to play with the spontaneity and freedom of the seasoned live outfit that they clearly are.

Women & Work has one minor stumble, in the form of "I Can't Stand To Leave You," a song where the melody works and the band delivers (as usual), but which just doesn't quite go anywhere. Nichols sings in clichés, with a tired and dull vocal performance that makes them even less convincing, a shame, since it derails a fairly stellar full-band arrangement. Luckily, on the remaining occasions where the band sees fit to slow down the tempo, the resulting songs are dynamite. First is the wistful sweep of "When I Was Young," whose elegiac texture and chillingly distant steel guitar sounds make it a candidate for "best song" on the record (and one of my favorites of the year so far), while closer "Go Easy" brings a gospel choir into the studio to back Nichols up. The pairing is a strikingly natural inclusion within the band's southern-rock sound, and the call-and-response nature of the song legitimately sounds like it's inspiring Nichols to amp up his delivery. These two songs are the cornerstones of a killer quintet that carries the album out on a celebratory high note, and the other two are nearly as good. The rootsy "Sometimes" sees the band channeling their country influences, while the almost ragtime-influenced piano intro to "Like Lightning" quickly gets swallowed up by a bass crunch and explodes into a windows-down, fist-pumping guitar solo. The song unfolds into one of the album's best, most rollicking moments, accented by big horn hits, and featuring a committed vocal performance from Nichols that is sure to land the song on plenty of summer mixtapes. It also epitomizes everything Lucero does well on Women & Work, showcasing both their stellar musicianship and their ability to create music that is at once both fresh and timeless. So while Lucero might not be aiming terribly high with this record's bar-band anthems, and while it is unlikely to ever be considered their best effort, Women & Work is an addicting and nostalgic album that I can't wait to blast in my car, at maximum volume, all summer long.

The Tower & The Fool - How Long

The Tower & The Fool - How Long
Run For Cover Records/Earshot Media, 2012
4.5 stars

Every once in awhile, an album comes along, out of nowhere, and just stops you in your tracks. It's a rare but beautiful thing when you can listen to a record for the first time, completely free of all expectations, and have it knock you down. Last year, a pair of records landed in my top ten from artists that I had known nothing about prior to my first listen: the first was Charlie Simpson's Young Pilgrim, a gorgeous folk-pop effort that was right up my alley from the get-go. The second was Mansions' Dig Up the Dead, an emotionally intense set of break-up songs that wormed its way into my consciousness as the year moved on until I couldn't ignore it: I expect that a similar fate will befall How Long, the excellent full-length debut from Rhode Island-based rock band The Tower & The Fool, a break-up album that encompasses some of the best melodies, the most emotional vocals, and the most stunningly heartbreaking lyrics that I've heard all year (or, perhaps, all decade). 

In the realm of musical statements, I find a well-executed break-up album to be among the most fascinating. Undoubtedly, some of the greatest art of all time has been the product of personal disaster. When artists let the world in to see them bleed, put all of themselves and their lives into a musical work, the result is the rawest, most unadulterated portrait of them that we can ever glimpse. Its why so many of my favorite records have this associations: albums like Butch Walker's Letters, or Will Hoge's Draw the Curtains, Fleetwood Mac's Rumours or City And Colour's Sometimes, Bruce Springsteen's Tunnel of Love or Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks. Each of these records, whether or not I consider them the best the artist in question has to offer (which, except for Springsteen and maybe Dylan, I do), has a raw honesty that is truly enrapturing, and each of them include some of the greatest songs I have ever heard. Were it not for Springsteen's protest-album masterpiece Wrecking Ball, which will very likely be my album of the year, I could say that none of those artists ever again reached the dizzying heights of their break-up masterpiece. There's something electric about a break-up album, something real and fleeting that is impossible to re-capture, but difficult to walk away from, and few artists are ever able to achieve that emotional apex more than once. Here's hoping that the guys from The Tower & The Fool don't succumb to that curse, but from the moment frontman Alex Correia references "Tangled Up In Blue," the definitive break-up anthem from Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, on album-highlight "Broken," it's clear that he's not kidding around.
The band isn't kidding around with their list of influences either, which reads like a 90s-throwback compilation and includes artists like Counting Crows, Whiskeytown, and The Gin Blossoms. There are shades of those bands' folk and alt-country leanings all over How Long, but Correia's whiskey-drenched vocal tone is a bit rougher around the edges than those groups' respective frontmen, and some finest moments here veer closer to more recent artists like Jimmy Eat World and The Dangerous Summer: emotional lyrics, set to sweeping melodic choruses and devastating verses. It’s a formula that never lets the band down, and there isn't a moment that even comes close to being weak across the record's ten tracks. Anthems of heartbreak, like "Dive Bar" and "Broken," give way to more pensive numbers, such as the title track, "My Heart is Dead in NYC," and "Breach," with Correia delivering a handful of lines in each that hits like a ton of bricks. In "Dive Bar," the album's rousing opener, it's "maybe you fell in love with a feeling and not a girl," while in "How Long," the album's elegiac centerpiece, it's lines like "And at night when I sleep, her ghost crawls in my sheets/I hear her voice calling out my name" that will transport us all back to those moments when we were forced to get over a person we had no interest in moving on without.

A swell of B3-organ keys and a scorching guitar solo are the cornerstones of penultimate cut "Die Alone," which serves as the climactic peak of a heartbreaking record. Desperation cuts through Correia's voice as he belts out the song's chorus ("And I'm praying to God that her love keeps me afloat/'Cause man, I don't wanna die alone") but we feel distinctly like there's no end to his suffering here, and the closer, though it reaches resignation, is one of the album's hardest-hitting moments. Set to the backdrop of a single acoustic guitar, softly finger-picked in a swirl of intimacy, "Who Does She Think She Is?" lands very much in the tradition of great break-up album closers. It's a slow-burn of regret and resignation, where Correia sounds tired and broken, and just like many of his predecessors in this tradition, like he has nothing left to give or to say. "Love is a horrible thing," the album concludes, and though The Tower & The Fool may be inviting a pity party of sorts with this record, that's an important part of the tradition as well.

Ultimately, How Long earns itself the rather dubious honor of being the saddest album of the year (at least so far), and while the constant surge of heartbreak and bitterness that Correia sings about may grow tiring for listeners who aren't going through a similar situation (such as myself), we've all been through a romantic disaster at least once, and these songs express those feelings perfectly. It's the kind of record you can disappear into, an album full of lyrical gems and musical triumphs that build to a sublime catharsis, and the overall impact is breathtaking. Only time will tell whether or not anyone will construct a better ode to a relationship or a more emotionally intense record this year, but for now, The Tower & The Fool is in about the best position any 2012 release could be: in my number two slot, right after Springsteen.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Land of Hope and Dreams: Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band Live in Detroit, 4/12/12

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band
Live at The Palace of Auburn Hills, Detroit, MI
April 12th, 2012

Five songs into his marathon, 3 hour, 26 song Auburn Hills
set (27, if you count both pieces of the "Apollo Medley"), Bruce Springsteen broke musical ranks during a brassy, orchestral re-imagining of "My City of Ruins" to have a word with his audience. "Good evening Detroit!" he shouted gleefully. "I love you old Michigan! That's right, I know where the fuck I am!" He was referring to his last visit to the Palace (on November 13th, 2009, also my first Springsteen show), where he famously forgot he what state he was in. On that particular occurrence, he shouted "Hello, Ohio!" three or four times before Little Stevie finally set him straight, but tonight, he had a fan's "Bruce: You Are Here" (with a drawing of Michigan) poster to help him out. It was a good-hearted callback to a night I count among the best I've ever had, and a perfect way for him to re-acquaint himself with the crowd. He continued, telling us all, "You're gonna go home tonight with your hands hurtin' and your voice sore and your back hurtin', and tomorrow you're gonna say '...what the fuck happened to me?!?'"

"And of course, we're here to tell you a story, as always," he said a few moments later. "And tonight's story is a story about hellos and goodbyes, and things that leave us, and things that remain with us forever. So let's get started." And they did, playing through three quarters of the song before pausing again for Bruce to do a roll call of his legendary E Street Band. After he had introduced everyone onstage, the longtime virtuosos and the new additions alike, he asked the big question of the night. "Are we missing anybody?" he roared at the audience. As nice as the gesture would have been, everyone in the Palace on Thursday night knew that Bruce wasn't talking about his wife, back-up vocalist Patti Scialfa, who was absent from the proceedings tonight. No, Bruce was clearly referring to the mammoth presence of Clarence "Big Man" Clemons, whose iconic saxophone sound was stolen from the band when he passed away last summer, due to complications from a stroke. And Thursday night's crowd, aware of this fact from the moment they entered the arena, screamed his name back at Bruce as loud as they could muster, over and over again. It was the night's first direct reference to Clemons, but there wasn't a minute of the show's 180 minute run-time where he was far from everyone's minds - Bruce's included. But just as he's been saying all tour long, "the only thing I can guarantee is that, if you're here, and we're here, then they're here with us tonight." And from the moment Jake Clemons (the Big Man's nephew and his perfect spiritual stand-in) nailed the first sax solo of the night during "Badlands" (the first of many brilliant deliveries), the show felt like a tribute, a farewell, and a catharsis.

But it was also so much more than that. It was a powerful display of a band and a frontman who, 40 years down the road from their first record, are still absolutely performing in top form. It was a slate of some of the best music ever written, coming alive for new generations and past ones alike. And for me, it was a reminder of the power music can have, but I'll get to more on that later. All of those things were evident from the show's introduction (where Springsteen memorably introduces himself) and the one-two punch opening of "We Take Care of Our Own" and "Wrecking Ball," a pair of songs from his latest record that crackled and thrived in this setting, even alongside a smattering of classics. The former, especially, came alive tonight, and "Wrecking Ball," while I personally found it more striking when I saw him two and a half years ago (at this same venue) on the final leg of the Working on a Dream tour, was certainly welcome here, as it remains one of the highlights from the new record and possesses a certain amount of bombast that is very appealing in a live setting. Speaking of new highlights, the Irish rave-up that is "Death to My Hometown" was as ferocious and riotous as I hoped it would be.

Photo by John T. Greilick / The Detroit News
The epic sweep of "Badlands" is welcome in any setlist, whether it occurs near the beginning or towards the end (it served as the main set closer on Springsteen's last visit to Detroit). The Darkness on the Edge of Town opener represented one of only three forays into that record tonight (another being "Candy's Room," which also appeared early), but both songs clearly illustrated why the Darkness tour holds such legendary status, as both still ring with the kind of electricity and life that begets the best live shows. Hearing "My City of Ruins" was a particularly emotional experience for me, not only because of the Clarence, or because of the 9/11 association I will always have with it, but because, aside from maybe "Born to Run," it was the first Springsteen song I ever fell in love with. Hearing it seven or eight years after it first caught my ear, especially in such a centerpiece role, with such a lovingly rendered arrangement (the horn section Springsteen has on this tour was especially effective here), was nothing short of breathtaking. The way Springsteen commands the audience on the classics and the rockers is one thing, but his ability to bring things down to pin-drop ambiance on late-career ballads like this one is testament to both his charisma and the devotion of his fanbase: I can think of a lot of bands that are pretty much relegated to playing their greatest hits these days, but I for one am as pleased to watch Bruce play through his post-millennial output as I am to hear his classics.

Then again, not all fans are so accommodating, and I saw more than a few people heading for the doors in pursuit of bathroom breaks and beer runs during "Jack of All Trades," the most pensive moment from Wrecking Ball. While the song is hardly my favorite on the record, the live performance was undeniably effective, plunging the Palace into an elegiac darkness and allowing Springsteen's voice and words (and later, Nils Lofgren's stunning guitar solo) to ring through the arena unhindered by special effect. On the other hand "Trapped," a cover of a Jimmy Cliff song, thrived on lighting effects, starting in a hazy purple light (which perfectly accentuated the song's nostalgic guitar intro), and exploding into the chorus just as the house lights went up. A muscular electric version "Youngstown," a blue-collar anthem originally from the all-acoustic Ghost of Tom Joad album, played spectacularly well in Detroit, which has fallen on harder times than a lot of other places in the country, while "The E-Street Shuffle," a block-party style jam session from way back in 1973, played up the other side of things and gave the city's residents reason to dance and sing along. Each of these songs epitomized the spirit of the first half of the set, where Springsteen spent most of his time diving in the back catalog and snatching out deep cuts, a practice which might not be rewarding for casual fans, but which I found fascinating.

                     Photo by John T. Greilick / The Detroit News
But the "golden greats" did start to appear eventually, first with "She's the One," the first of four Born to Run cuts to make it onto the stage tonight, and then with live stand-bys like "Waitin' on a Sunny Day," where Springsteen brought a little boy up onstage to sing the chorus and taught him how to do his patented "knee slide" ("His life peaked at seven," my brother exclaimed later. "What could he possibly do that would be more exciting than that?"), or "The Promised Land," the third Darkness cut and another chance for Jake Clemons to show off his chops. I personally don't understand the ubiquity of "Sunny Day" as a live staple, as I've always found the song to be one of the more innocuous moments on The Rising: it's a simple, somewhat tongue-in-cheek pop song on a record of deeply spiritual songs dealing with tragedy. That said, the song is a lot of fun, and I was more jealous of that kid than I would care to admit (though going back to reality after this concert was hard enough for me, even without having shared the stage with a legend). "The Promised Land" was as solid as ever, though I would have traded it out for either "Racing in the Streets" or "Darkness on the Edge of Town," and no complaints on "She's the One," as any Born to Run song is a good one.

Perhaps the best moment of the night came when Springsteen plucked a fan's poster from the pit and held it up, saying "special request for Detroit." The sign read "Incident on 57th Street," a title that prompted every hardcore Springsteen fan in the place to let loose a few ecstatic expletives. That song is one of the three classics that constitute the flawless second side of Springsteen's second record, The Wild, The Innocent, The E-Street Shuffle (and is generally considered "his best song not on Born to Run). However, despite the adoration it receives in fan circles, "Incident" is rarely played live (this was the proper-tour premiere of the song), but hearing the E Street Band play the song tonight made me wonder why. The song was neither the longest, nor the shortest performance of the set (clocking in at 8:30, it was sandwiched between two longer segments in the forms of the soulful "Apollo Medley," where Springsteen paid tribute to Detroit's Motown history, and "American Skin," which I'll get to in a moment), but it was certainly among the best. Most of the audience quieted down to hear this (nearly) historical moment, allowing the song's melodic splendor and lyrical depth to shine. By the time Bruce got to my favorite line of the song ("Hey little heroes, summer's long but I guess it ain't very sweet around here anymore"), I was in heaven.

Photo by John T. Greilick / The Detroit News
"American Skin (41 Shots)" emerged over a decade ago for the E Street Band reunion tour in 1999 and 2000. That tour eventually lead to the inception of The Rising, but the song never made it onto a proper record, and remains available only in live recording. As a result, it's not a song I've spent a lot of time with over the years, but that changed when Springsteen brought it out and polished it off on Thursday night, using it to deliver one of the most emotionally intense moments of the night. Written for the controversial 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo, Springsteen revived the song last month in Tampa, FL, a mere two hours' drive from Sanford, where Trayvon Martin was shot and killed similar circumstances. Tonight, it sounded like a funeral dirge, transforming the Palace into a cathedral of sound and tragedy, and providing the most sobering moment of the night. As the song stretched on for almost nine minutes, through repeated chants of the "41 shots" motive, and a scorching, over-the-top guitar solo from Lofgren, it resonated in a way that few songs ever do, and was transformed into a highlight. Bruce didn't need to say Trayvon's name for everyone to know what he was singing about, but that's always been one of his gifts: he's always been able to take a song that was written for something else, and apply it to new situations in performance. It happened ten years ago, when "My City Of Ruins" morphed into a hymn to the events of September 11th in the wake of the attacks, or at the end of the reunion tour, where he re-wrote bits of "Blood Brothers" and had his band clasp hands and close their eyes as he sang them. I was humbled to see it happen to yet another song tonight.

"The Rising" never truly resonated with me until I saw Bruce play it live here in 2009, so I was eager to hear it again, and it didn't disappoint. A Johnny Cash-esque, mostly acoustic performance of Wrecking Ball closer "We Are Alive" was every bit as moving, but both were nothing compared to "Land of Hope and Dreams," which served as main set closer tonight, and burst with more energy and emotion than any band has a right to have after playing for over two hours. "Hope and Dreams," which was also originally penned on the reunion tour, finally made its way onto a studio record with Wrecking Ball, and how pleased I am that it did, as its undoubtedly my favorite song of the year so far. In studio form, it contains the only Clarence sax solo on the record, one last flawless piece of a man who spent his life conjuring up some of the greatest moments in the history of recorded music. In its live setting, the song is a sweeping, epic behemoth, a flawless set closer, and an affirmation of the beauty of life, music, and everything in between. It was already my favorite song of the year, but that it managed not only to stand up to Springsteen's best material, but to land as a highlight amidst a set of highlights, was nothing short of staggering, and made me appreciate just how good Wrecking Ball is as a record.

But then, it was singalong time: a trademark harmonica yelp heralded the arrival of "Thunder Road," arguably the greatest song of all time and one of the best I've ever seen performed live. Chills shot down my spine as Springsteen wound through the lyrical beauty of the song's intro, and returned when he let the crowd yell "Show a little faith, there's magic in the night, you ain't a beauty, but hey, you're alright" back at him. "Rocky Ground" had no business being anywhere near an encore set, as much as I like the song on record and as well performed as it was. Back-up singer Michelle Moore got a prominent feature, both on the song's vocal refrain and during the climactic rap section, but the audience reaction was lukewarm, and the song threatened to kill the feverish momentum that had been carefully building since "Incident." Luckily, a performance of "Out in the Street," a raucous bar-band rock song from The River (the only track off that album played tonight), helped bring it back, and by the time the opening swell of "Born to Run" had filled the arena, everything was forgiven. The house lights came up, and I put my arm around my brother and we both screamed along with every word. As the song neared its euphoric bridge section, I took a look around at the arena, gazing behind me at the hundreds of faces scattered on the floor, and the thousands more I saw rising around me in the seats, and I felt like a part of something huge, momentous, and important. With a massive grin on my face, I turned back to the stage and belted out the song's climactic lines: "someday girl, I don't know when, we're gonna get to that place where we really want to go and we'll walk in the sun," and I knew these were moments that I was going to remember and cherish for the rest of my life. "But until then, tramps like us, baby we were born to run." Amen.

The show could have stopped there and I would have been more than satisfied, but it didn't. Bruce asked us all to "put on our dancing shoes" as the synth-intro of "Dancing in the Dark" washed over us. He pulled a pair of young girls out of the audience to dance onstage, mirroring the song's music video, which gave Courteney Cox her big break 25 years ago. Those who had waited for singles all night (if those audience members existed) had to be satisfied by the one-two punch of "Born to Run" and "Dancing," the two biggest singles from their respective albums, and two songs that transformed the Palace floor into a dance-hall-party. But even as the song dissolved (following one last perfect sax solo from Jake Clemons), Bruce screamed "we're not done yet!" and I knew full well what was coming next: "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," the song that has served as the closer all tour long, and for good reason. Halfway through, Springsteen made his way out to the central walkway (ending up some twenty feet from where I stood), and shouting "THIS IS THE IMPORTANT PART!" before delivering the most iconic lines of the song: "well they made that change up town, and the Big Man joined the band." The song is, essentially, the story of how the E Street Band formed and of how Bruce and Clarence came together, and on record, that line is followed by a blast from Clemons' sax. Not tonight though. Tonight, the band dropped out, allowing Springsteen to sing that line a cappella, and when he was done, they didn't come back in. Springsteen raised his microphone into the air and photographs of Clarence rolled on the venues' media screens as the audience screamed and clapped for the better part of two minutes. Eventually, Springsteen gave the brass section a cue, and they launched back into the song (with Clarence's sax motive), but it was the two minutes of pure tribute that every audience took with them, and it was a tremendous way to close the set (while carrying it past the three hour mark). "Thank you, Detroit!" Bruce yelled, as the song crashed away and subsided. "Thanks for a great night! We love you!"

The moment Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band left the stage on Thursday night, my head was filled with satisfaction and euphoria, vows to revisit songs that came alive tonight, questions of when I would get to see them again, and a distinctly singular statement: that this was the greatest musical performance I had ever witnessed. I think that last bit is something that every great live performer inspires, and I have certainly felt shades of it on numerous occasions: several Butch Walker shows, the U2 show I saw last summer, and the last time I saw Bruce, to name a few. Comparing concerts is always a ridiculously difficult task because once it's over, it's gone forever. You can download a bootleg, and there may even be a DVD release of it, but there is no substitute for actually being there, nothing that can ever reconstruct that experience. But when Springsteen left the stage at the Palace last Thursday, when those three brilliant hours were just a mere memory, I couldn't recall a concert that had so completely engulfed me, moved me, or reminded me of just how huge an impact my favorite artists can have on my life. Over the past six months, I've gone through some tough situations with my University in regards to my music major, and that's caused me to lose a little bit of faith in the art form that has defined my life for the better part of a decade. But this show was an affirmation, a reminder of why music is so important to me, and Springsteen helped heal those scars on Thursday night. Maybe there were people in the audience like me that night, people who were searching for healing or faith or something equally intangible, and maybe these songs and the atmosphere and energy in the audience helped heal them too. Certainly, each and every one of us was gifted with a catharsis regarding Clarence Clemons, an opportunity to participate in these incredible tributes to him, and a chance to say goodbye in a way that felt completely right. All of those things seemed like miracles to me as I drove back home that night.

The next morning, I got a text from my brother: "What the fuck happened to me?!?" Bruce's prophecy had come true. I myself was exhausted, running on 5 hours of sleep, sore all over, and with a voice that sounded like a hoarse rhinoceros (three days from having to sing in a choral concert, no less), but what I'd gotten in return was greater than anyone who wasn't in that audience could possibly imagine. As I re-adjusted to my everyday life, memories of that concert infected every moment of conscious thought: they were there as I performed that Sunday concert (my voice did come back, amazingly), with a re-energized adoration for music in my heart; they were there as I wrote thirty pages worth of term papers, looking past them to an expansive summer full of possibilities; and they are still here with me right now, as I type these words, listening to the bootleg from the show and trying to sink back into these songs, right back to where I was standing on the floor of the Palace of Auburn Hills that night. In this modern world, this very week in fact, we are worried about a lot of things: about tax day and gas prices and just how the hell we're going to make it through exam week without burning out, but really, beyond things like love, family, and friends, the things that make our day to day life worth living, is there anything more important than a rock 'n' roll concert? Because after seeing Bruce Springsteen play a three hour show, it sure doesn't seem like it.

To borrow a quote from a poster that appeared during the E Street Band Working on a Dream Tour Finale in Buffalo, NY: "It's only rock and roll, but it feels like love."


We Take Care Of Our Own
Wrecking Ball
Death to My Hometown
My City of Ruins
The E Street Shuffle
Candy's Room
Jack of All Trades
Trapped (Jimmy Cliff cover)
Youngstown (Tour Premiere)
She's the One
Waitin' on a Sunny Day
The Promised Land
Apollo Medley
Incident on 57th Street (Tour Premiere)
American Skin (41 Shots)
Because the Night
The Rising
We Are Alive
Land of Hope and Dreams


Thunder Road
Rocky Ground
Out In the Street
Born to Run
Dancing in the Dark
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Tyler Hilton - Forget the Storm

Tyler Hilton - Forget the Storm
Hooptie Tune Records, 2012
Four stars

Of all the artists I follow, Tyler Hilton probably comes with the weirdest claims to fame. In addition to a minor taste success with his single "When it Comes" back in 2004 or so, the California native singer/songwriter has made a name for himself in popular culture based on his recurring guest role in the teen soap-opera One Tree Hill (which apparently just wrapped up a marathon nine-season run last week), for a brief cameo as Elvis in last decade's Johnny Cash biopic, Walk the Line, and for his appearance in the music video for Taylor Swift's "Teardrops on My Guitar." While those might not sound like the most promising credentials on paper, Hilton is a strong songwriter with a knack for infectious hooks and heartfelt lyrics, and his latest, entitled "Forget the Storm" (a title referring to his ongoing struggles with the major label system), is one of the best albums I've heard all year.

Hilton broke onto the scene in 2004, with the release of his sophomore album The Tracks Of..., a solid collection of mostly-acoustic pop songs that fit somewhere between Howie Day and John Mayer. It's an album I've always enjoyed, but not one I've ever loved, and as a result, not one I've revisited a lot over the years. Over the course of the last decade though, Hilton, thanks mostly to his role on One Tree Hill, tended to pop up and disappear every once in awhile, and I found myself increasingly interested in hearing another record from him. Quality singles saw the light of day every few years (including the gorgeous "You'll Ask For Me," a flawless piece of road-trip balladry that gets a nice, if somewhat unnecessary makeover here), but a full album follow up to The Tracks Of... never saw the light of day, and sometime around 2008, I was beginning to wonder if Hilton had hung up his guitar. Thankfully, he hadn't: 2009 and 2010 saw the release of a pair of EPs, and now, eight years down the line from the first time I heard him, Hilton finally drops his third full length.

Hilton doing his best Elvis impersonation for 2005's Walk the Line.
While Hilton's trademarks are still here (his slightly raspy vocals, a penchant for earnest lyrics, and a talent for writing sweepingly melodic hooks), Forget the Storm displays both a growth of personal maturity and songwriting prowess. Where "The Tracks Of..." was a hit-or-miss collection that fluctuated between pop gems and youthful clichés, Forget the Storm finds more sanctuary in classic singer/songwriter records and blues and soul singles, circa 1970. The result is a dynamic set of radio friendly songs that could be equally well suited for raucous live shows or pensive television soundtracks, and it's truly a joy to explore. It doesn't hurt that Hilton kicks off "Forget the Storm" with "Kicking my Heels," a ridiculously catchy, well sung track that ranks immediately as his best song to date. The chorus demands a sing-along, Hilton's soulful delivery, a commendation, and the rousing electric guitar solo that gives the song its climax, a sold-out club to resound through. It's one of a handful of songs on the record where Hilton, clearly a natural-born balladeer and pop artist, manages to sound edgy without trying too hard. The fate is similar for songs like the bluesy lead-off single "Loaded Gun," which gives Hilton a chance to show off his frontman charisma, and his band, another fine display, or the southern-rock tinged "Ain't No Fooling Me," both placed at perfect points amongst the album's more top-40 driven efforts.

But when Hilton does play to his pop sensibilities, the result is only a tad less compelling. Take "Prince of Nothing Charming," a harmless piece of radio fluff that will function well as a single, but works even better in context, or "Jenny," another rather innocuous chorus-driven number that is good enough to not come across as filler material. The unapologetic pop sheen of many of Hilton's songs may turn some listeners off, as will the potentially maudlin textures of songs like "Can't Stop Now" or "Leave Him," but Hilton's delivery very often makes up for any clichés he chooses to indulge in. "Leave Him," a gorgeous bit of Elton John-meets-Jon McLaughlin piano balladry, is actually a perfect example of this, since Hilton's vocal delivery turns what could have been a derivative love song into a highlight. Similarly, the pop-country tinged "I Belong" is an exquisitely well written pop song that will very likely make its way onto my summer soundtrack, despite using lines and ideas that could have sounded tired in lesser hands. We've all heard it before: young love, sweeping declarations, big chorus, etc. But "I Belong" is the kind of pop song that takes you right back to the moments of your life where you felt that way: moments where you felt lighter than air, completely alive, and (quite possibly) immortal, and that's something that will always keep me coming back.

We all look to music for different things: for inspiration, for refuge, for musicianship, for lyrics that will make us think, or for a million other reasons that I don't have room to list, and all of those are very admirable qualities to strive for. But sometimes, all you need is a great pop song, a big chorus, and a committed performer to, in the blink of an eye, make you feel great, and Hilton has those in spades with Forget the Storm. It will be too mainstream for some, but for a guy like me, with a romantic mentality and a weakness for a killer hook, this record is just about perfect. Calling back immediately to my favorite pop singer/songwriter albums of last year (Matt Nathanson's Modern Love and Mat Kearney's Young Love), Forget the Storm is a optimistic life-soundtrack waiting to happen, and with summer just around the corner, that's exactly what I need right now. Welcome back, Tyler. Here's hoping you stick around this time.