Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Wallflowers - Glad All Over

The Wallflowers - Glad All Over
Columbia Records, 2012
Four stars

Next to the wailing harmonica and slamming screen door that kick start Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, few album introductions are as effective as the ringing guitar that heralds the arrival of The Wallflowers’ 1996 album Bringing Down the Horse. The song it belongs to, “One Headlight,” was where my whole big and messy obsession with music started, my first favorite song from my first favorite band, and 16 years later, it’s still in the upper echelons. The album remains in my all time top ten as well, a gorgeous array of steel guitars, ringing organ lines, and roots rock grandeur (and a true summer night staple) with lyrics that I could sing along to in my sleep. And somehow, as baffling as it seems now, those songs were making waves on the radio, too. But something happened after that album and the band fell out of the public consciousness as quickly as they had entered it. One particularly enlightened sports fan blamed the fall from grace on Springsteen himself, saying that, when Bruce joined Jakob Dylan and company onstage for “Headlight” at the 1997 VMAs, he “rediscovered his ability to rock” and turned the whole event into his own personal comeback, hijacking the ‘Flowers’ song “right out of their feeble hands” and crushing their spirits in the process.

Perhaps that was the case, but I would prefer to blame the band’s exit from the spotlight on the changing musical landscape. When The Wallflowers finally released the follow up to Horse in 2000 (called Breach), they could hardly have been further from what pop music had become. They were a folk-indebted classic rock band trying to survive in an age of boy band and pop princesses, and those recipes were never going to mix. Their next two albums, 2002’s Red Letter Days and 2006’s Rebel, Sweetheart, didn’t change that, remaining within the same roots rock wheelhouse where the band had always resided. But even though The Wallflowers never did evolve that much, I still loved them. Their songs were always deeply comforting and nostalgic for me: theirs was the kind of music I would put on at the end of a hard day or during some personal crisis. and it would whisk me off to the carefree days of my childhood without a second glance. More than any other band, save for perhaps the Counting Crows, The Wallflowers’ records were the ones I grew up on, and all of them remain incredibly important to me. Sweetheart, in particularly, is fantastic: a songwriting master-class that saw Jakob Dylan’s lyrical abilities reaching levels that reflected his heritage (his father is Bob Dylan, after all) and melodic strains that were unforgettable after a single listen.

For a long time, it seemed like Sweetheart would be their swan song. Dylan went solo, moving towards more overtly folk and country textures on a pair of records called Seeing Things and Women and Country, respectively. I enjoyed both, but for me, Dylan’s breathy rasp always sounded best with the full force of his band behind him, with electric instrumentation and the ringing surge of Rami Jaffee’s B3 organ serving as his accompaniment. So naturally, when I heard the band was pulling back together to record their sixth full-length (and their first album in six years), I was ecstatic. And while the result, called Glad All Over, rarely approaches the heights of its predecessor, it’s still hard for me to describe how happy I am to have these guys back.

When it dropped a few months back, first single “Reboot the Mission” made waves as a jarring shift for a band that listeners had always pretty much counted on to do some variation of a similar sound. Instead of a folk-y lilt, the song had a loud, harsh, Clash-esque drive to it, from the blatantly Brit-rock chorus to funky bassline to the retro guitar echo. Undoubtedly, Clash guitarist Mick Jones, (who guest stars on the song) had a lot to do with that direction (as does drummer Jack Irons, who, as Dylan notes in the song, "jammed with the mighty Joe Strummer" on his album Earthquake Weather), but his influence doesn't stop there. Glad All Over is louder, brasher, and more rock-based than any album in the band’s discography, from the groovy blues-stomp of opener “Hospitals for Sinners” to the throwback guitar solo on “It’s a Dream.” Sometimes the influence works perfectly, like on “Misfits and Lovers,” which surrounds a classic Jakob Dylan chorus with Jones’ sexy, freewheeling guitar riffs. Elsewhere it doesn’t work at all, like on the snoozer that is “The Devil’s Waltz,” a textbook case of filler material redeemed only slightly by another blistering guitar solo. Most of the time though, it’s a pleasure to hear the band sound so loose and spontaneous: these guys clearly know their way around a recording studio, and on Glad All Over they sound like a gang of seasoned vets.

But still, it’s the nostalgic nuggets, the songs that sound like they could have fit on Bringing Down the Horse or Breach that hit the closest to home. “First One in the Car” plays like the missing link between “6th Avenue Heartache” and “Bleeders,” the kind of gorgeous, organ-drenched mid-tempo rocker that Dylan has always been able to pull off at the most opportune moments. A steel guitar rings through “Constellation Blues” in chilling fashion, giving the song a spacious, road-trippin’ atmosphere that befits its penultimate placement perfectly. Dylan’s lyrics are in top form here, recalling his best and most poetic moments from Sweetheart and making me wish there were a few more traditional folk songs to delve into on this record. “My birthday’s in two months, I’ll be twenty-one/I am the second oldest to an only son/The third generation to carry a gun/I’ve got brown eyes like my mother does,” Dylan spits out early on, just one image in a series of vivid lyrical depictions that are all too easy to get lost in. And the wistful “Love is a Country” is the album’s highlight, a piece of full-bodied grandiosity that swells with acoustic guitars, echoes of pedal steel, and distant piano chords before it reaches a euphoric conclusion.

None of these songs reinvent the wheel: not the Clash-infused lead-single, not the Magic-era Springsteen-posturing (“It Won’t be Long (Till We’re Not Wrong Anymore)” or “Have Mercy on him Now”), and certainly not the traditional roots-rock approach of the album’s best songs. But The Wallflowers have always been a band that excelled at bringing new life to things we’d heard before, and that remains true on Glad All Over. It’s far from their best record and I might have expected a little bit more after a six year hiatus, but for my first favorite band, I’m willing to let a few things slide. Maybe Springsteen did break their spirits back in ‘97, but I prefer to believe that they gave him the exuberant rock ‘n’ roll experience he needed to realize how much he wanted to have the E-Street Band beside him once more. Either way, it’s great to see an outfit as tight as The Wallflowers still trucking, twenty years down the road from their debut and fifteen years past their last scrape with “relevance.” Here’s to another twenty more...even if that popularity never comes again.

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