Wrecking Ball is Bruce Springsteen's 17th studio album and, wow, is he angry. This is an album about the current state of the US, the lack of accountability for and following the global financial crisis, a lack of hope, and then, perhaps, hope for the future. The production is big, stadium-like rock but with enough layers to make it interesting. The lyrics are comparatively simple compared to some of Springsteen's earlier storytelling. The musical influences vary from rock, though country, Irish folk, gospel, country and R&B. I know I'm a Springsteen fan, but I just can't stop listening to this album.
A quick run-through...
The opening track We Take Care Of Our Own is an ironic scene setter - like Born In The USA the chorus is all patriotic but the verses ask a lot of questions. Easy Money is a sing-a-long about a modern day Bonnie and Clyde who are going out for a night of armed robbery. Shackled and Drawn is a folk tale of downtrodden workers. Jack Of All Trades is a rhythm and blues ballad where Springsteen inhabits an unemployed working class man - the guitar solo is amazing. Death To My Hometown is a fusion of Irish folk and American gospel that details the destruction brought by the "robber barons", complete with penny whistle. This Depression is a beautiful, moving ballad that intertwines the state of the economy and a state of mind. Wrecking Ball started out as a tribute to a baseball stadium due for demolition but also serves as a metaphor for destruction of good things brought on by greed. I think You've Got It is the album's only traditional love song but it is ambiguous enough that there might be a metaphor lurking there somewhere. Rocky Ground is R&B come gospel with lots of biblical imagery about losing direction. Land Of Hope And Dreams is a big gospel-infused production about a freedom train that takes people somewhere better, invoking Curtis Mayfield's People Get Ready in both influence and via samples. The album ends with We Are Alive, which brings together the voices of the lost to end on a potentially positive voice.
I've read through quite a few reviews of this album and they are polarised. Many heap high praise on the album, pointing out things like its clearly directed anger, big production and musical variation. Other have found fault including: the production is big but protest songs should be gritty and acoustic, the stories are painted in broad brushstrokes without the usual intricacy and intimacy found in many of Springsteen's lyrics, the big production is boring and lacks innovation, Springsteen is a millionaire entertainer speaking on behalf of the common man. I side with the positive reviews. This is Springsteen's best album in years. The point missed by many of the negative reviews is that this is an album of anthems, sometimes ironic, to be sung by anyone who is angry at the way things have panned out. Perhaps a naive right-wing politician will once again misunderstand the irony and decide that We Take Care Of Our Own should be their election campaign song!
While all the songs are big rock numbers of one type or another, many have loops and samples. There's gospel vocals and "whooping", horns and strings, drums and loops, accordions and penny whistles... and, of course, lots of guitars. The album certainly has enough musical ornamentation around the bombastic production to stop it from being boring.
The clear intention of the album seems to be a bunch of loud songs with a simple message and it clearly succeeds at this. You can't easily compare this album to the classic albums Springsteen made 35 years ago: he's different, times are different and this is supposed to be different. I really like this album and am listening to it a lot, often at the request of Sebastian who has also taken a shine to it. This is a very, very good album.
When Sing In My Meadow, the third installment in Cowboy Junkies' 4 part Nomad Series, was released I downloaded it (from the Cowboy Junkies clubhouse - surprise, surprise: I bought a subscription), got busy with other things and promptly forgot about it for a week. I had heard various rough mixes on the Junkies blog and had been wondering how it would fit together as an album. A week later I realised I hadn't listened to it yet so I copied it to my phone and began walking to catch my bus to work, listening to Sing In My Meadow. By the time I got to work I was very excited, encouraging people to put on my headphones and listen. I managed to sell a few copies... :-)
The opening track Continental Drift begins as an instrumental: a drum, bass and dirty guitar groove with Jeff Bird's reverb-laden harmonica coming in over the top. It is a full 2 minutes before Margo Timmins makes her entrance with vocals drenched in delay, singing some typically dark and adult Michael Timmins lyrics. Welcome to Cowboy Junkies acid blues album, which brilliantly captures that thing they do so well live.
It's Heavy Down Here fades in with a slow rolling groove. Margo and Mike Timmins do weird call-and-response vocals - sometimes Mike is ahead, sometime Margo is - they seem randomly woven together. Jeff Bird's electric mandolin, with fuzz and wah, complements the madness in the vocals nicely. Everything is once again dripping with delay and reverb. The sound is huge and live-sounding.
These songs set the scene for the album: great grooves, huge performances, delay and reverb. Regular guest Jeff Bird owns the left channel, alternating between electric mandolin and harmonica. It is a strong mark of maturity when an established band can give so much space in their performances to a guest. Most of the tracks were recorded live in the studio, with some or all of the vocals being redone - Margo had a challenging time with new, unusual material and the big performances from the rest of the band bled into the vocal track. Margo often gets out of the way during a live gig when the band goes nuts and jams - though singing over this stuff isn't her bread and butter, her performances here are commanding.
The nice thing is that the band, and Mike Timmins as producer and mix engineer, have really managed to capture that wild acid blues thing that Cowboy Junkies do so brilliantly live. I just don't get how this band is pigeon-holed as alt-country - they really are a rock jam band when they play live. I also don't understand why Mike Timmins isn't more widely recognised for his songwriting. As a lyricist he's an artist, mixing darkness and light, poetry and pop, smoke and mirrors, with a variety of melody that gives Margo space to deliver them either delicately or slightly-understated but in-your-face. Perhaps they're a bit too adult for mainstream radio? Perhaps a bit too classy...
I love this album. By modern standards it is fairly short, coming in at just over 40 minutes. However, given the intensity, adding a couple more tracks might result in too much of a good thing... and there's certainly no filler. Just 8 great tracks, featuring great grooves, masterful performances and huge production. I think that I've listened to this album more than any other over the past 8 months or so... and I can't see that trend changing...
When I first read that Demons, the second album in Cowboy Junkies 4 part Nomad Series, would be a collection of covers of songs written by some guy called Vic Chestnutt I was disappointed. I had never heard of Chestnutt and I was hoping for more original material penned by Junkies songwriter Michael Timmins... so I decided that 3 out of 4 (in the series) wouldn't be a bad outcome.
I was wrong. Very wrong. Demons is one of the most amazing albums I have ever heard. Chestnutt's songs are dark and disturbing, exploring his depression in a very direct and often challenging way. Cowboy Junkies have taken the songs and delivered them in a variety of powerful ways: sometimes laid back with a jazzy swing (We Hovered With Short Wings) and sometimes loud and heavy (Ladle). Margo Timmins' vocals switch between bitter, melancholy and soaring, as required by the lyrics. The whole band seems to revel in being able to pay tribute to their friend Chestnutt.
The guest performances are outstanding. Joby Baker's contributions on keyboards are amazing, with swirling organ filling many of the tracks. Jeff Bird's mandolin is delicate on the quiet tracks (for example, the amazing Supernatural) and absolutely tortured on the bigger numbers (such as the opener Wrong Piano). There are also cellos, horns, clarinet and more. Everything is beautifully balanced.
Highlights? This album is one of the highlights of my collection. I'm serious. It really isn't worth pulling out one or a few songs here and deciding they're the pick of this album. When I try to do that by focusing on a particular song, I find myself reaffirming the wonder of that song.
OK, I'm a Cowboy Junkies fan. They're probably my favourite active band. So this review is biased... however...
Cowboy Junkies exploration of Vic Chestnutt's demons is one of the best albums you're likely to hear. The big shame here is that the Junkies aren't a mainstream band so most people aren't likely to hear Demons. It is amazing.
Renmin Park is Cowboy Junkies first album in their 4 part Nomad Series, recorded to mark 25 years together as a band. This is a very good album and I like it a lot... but it doesn't sit comfortably with me in quite the same way as every other Cowboy Junkies album I own (i.e. most of them). I guess that this might be because it is "the experimental one" in the series and I see Cowboy Junkies as a guitar-based band. This album has many Chinese influences, based on songwriter Michael Timmins' extended stay in China. There are are also more pianos, loops and, well, Chinese instruments than other albums, along with some Chinese vocals and street crowd recordings. Some of the songs are written or co-written by Chinese artists that Timmins met or heard during his travels. It is fair to say that this is a departure for the Junkies.
Musically, many of the tracks, such as Stranger Here and Little Dark Heart, would not be out of place on other Cowboy Junkies albums. Others, such as A Walk In The Park are (intentionally) entirely foreign. I guess Timmins is intentionally trying to juxtapose very different ideas from 2 very different cultures. I wonder if it is a little more jarring than intended for those without the required context or if the differences are meant to be instructive. I think I can see the point of the album but it doesn't quite work for me. Perhaps a few more listens are required...
There are 2 Chinese cover songs on the album: I Cannot Sit Sadly By Your Side and My Fall. Strangely these are 2 of the most "comfortable" songs on the album. I guess I like my influences combined within songs rather than displayed in contrast in adjacent songs. I think that Timmins' tweaked versions of the English translations and the resulting Junkies treatment of these songs make them fantastic. Cowboy Junkies have always been an outstanding covers band and these tracks are no exception.
Michael Timmins' vocals feature much more on this album than any previous Junkies album, including on the tracks Sir Francis Bacon At The Net, Cicadas and Renmin Park (revisited). It is interesting to finally hear the songwriter sing (parts of) some of the songs and Timmins has a pretty good singer-songwriter voice... but I think it is fair to say that his sister Margo does very good interpretations of his songs... ;-)
The band are in fine form on this album with Pete Timmins and Alan Anton playing some fine grooves. Margo Timmins sings wonderfully - her voice just gets better as time goes by...
Renmin Park won't be the most listened to Cowboy Junkies album in my collection but I'll certainly revisit it every few months. I like it... but it doesn't thrill me.
I caught the tail end of Sophie B. Hawkins' live performance on 26 July 2004 at the House of Blues in Chicago, where she was supporting Chris Isaak. I was very impressed by her passionate performance featuring some rather large vocals - not Joplin-esque screaming but big nevertheless. So I bought Wilderness, which was her current album at that time.
This album turns out to be a very good album. However, much of it is quite poppy and isn't the rocker that I expected when I bought it. Many of the tracks aren't really my thing - there's a little too much loopy drum programming for my liking. Still the performances are all very nice especially considering that Hawkins appears to play most of the instruments on many of the tracks.
For me the highlights of the album are Sweetsexywoman and the closing 3 tracks Angel of Darkness, You Make Me High, Feelin' Good. These are the tracks that are more reminiscent of the live performance I saw. They're a bit jazzier and tend to be a bit heavier than the rest of the album. I really like these songs.
However, the album closes with an "Infinite Space Mix" bonus version of an earlier track Soul Lover. This track doesn't do much for me and I feel it detracts from the nice closure that Feelin' Good gives the album. I think I'll delete this "bonus" track from my various media players. I often do this with classic albums that have no need for a "bonus" - sometimes I put the bonus tracks into a separate "album" in case I do actually want to listen to them.
I think I'd like to hear more of Sophie B. Hawkins... though I'm not sure which albums to look at...
The Long Run was the Eagles' last studio album before their 1980 breakup. It is the culmination of the domination of the band by Glenn Frey and Don Henley, and the departure of the other remaining co-founder Randy Meisner. The 4th co-founder, Bernie Leadon had left several years earlier. The move away from country rock to to a heavier pop-rock sound (although still with some country influence) was also complete. That said, the album is also more musically diverse than it's predecessor Hotel California. The Long Run was also the 2nd album I bought "with my own money" (the 1st was Who Are You by The Who).
Although Heartache Tonight, I Can't Tell You Why and the title track gained the most radio play, and continue to do so, they're probably the smoothest and musically least interesting songs on the album. Well, OK, Heartache Tonight at least rocks some amount and is probably the song that caused me to by the album back in 1979. Joe Walsh's In The City shines through "side 1", mostly because the rhythm guitar playing is interesting. Adding spark to "side 2" are Those Shoes, with it's slightly funky tinge, and Teenage Jail, a slow and heavy track that I used to listen to repeatedly. The seemingly throwaway The Greeks Don't Want No Freaks adds a little more novelty before Henley's closer The Sad Café takes the the album out in a similar fashion to Hotel California's The Last Resort. Being a sucker for a great ballad, I've always loved The Sad Café and it is also one of my earliest introductions to nice saxophone solos in nice ballads. :-)
I'll never regret buying the initial vinyl version of The Long Run or replacing it many years later with the CD. It is a very good album with some very good songs performed incredibly well. I don't think it is the great album that The Eagles would have liked to follow up Hotel California with. However, this album continues to demonstrate that The Eagles were outstanding musicians. Although it isn't one of my favourite albums, I do like listening to it every couple of years... and it is still miles ahead of much of the dross churned out by others since...
This is usually about albums and an occasional concert... but I want everyone in the world (OK, everyone who reads this) to check out this performance of The Beatles' Across The Universe by Eddi Reader (Fairground Attraction) and Liam Ó Maonlaí (Hothouse Flowers). This performance starts delicate and understated. The RocKwiz Orkestra are as solid as a rock, allowing Ó Maonlaí and Reader to do the right amount of improvisation. During the 3rd chorus you can feel the performance go ethereal - there's a certain edge in the voices, Ó Maonlaí and Reader exchange some glances, and everyone in the room, including the performers, knows that something special has just happened.
I've seen this sort of thing many times during live performances by talented people - it's magic. I can watch one this again and again... and it still stuns me just as it did the first time. Thanks RocKwiz for letting us witness these sorts of performances...
Abbe May is a singer, guitarist and songwriter from Perth, Australia. I first saw her here in Canberra when she was featured in Deborah Conway's Broad Festival in 2007. If you haven't seen or heard Abbe May before there are also a couple of RocKwiz TV performances that are definitely worth watching (these are the solo performances - the duets are also well worth a look). Howl & Moan is Abbe May's debut album released in 2008. It features her band The Rockin' Pneumonia playing a range of roots-based rock tracks, predominantly quite heavy, grunge-inspired blues-rock.
This album opens with the title track Howl & Moan, a very solid blues-rocker that starts the album nicely. This is followed by the rockabilly inspired You Gonna Get It. Neither of these songs hang around for very long. In fact the longest track on the album is a little more than 3:30, with several around 2:30 or less.
We'll Take A Trip Up The Country follows and we hear Abbe May doing slightly heavy, but fairly standard Australian country music - it's extremely well done. This is followed by one of the rockiest 2 songs on the album Costanza, a song of love gone wrong that proclaims "I can't stand ya no more". Yes, the title is a play on a Seinfeld episode. The contrast between these 2 tracks is well done... and this effect is used throughout the album. Half the songs are heavy, with fresh, light songs interspersed between them.
Speaking of which, Ma is a lovely little acoustic guitar and voice interlude that lasts just over a minute and Old River is a short, slow blues featuring both whistle and guitar solos. Many songwriters have tendency to try and turn a good, short snippet into a longer, but weaker, though hopefully more radio-friendly song. Abbe May doesn't suffer from this problem - she recognises that some things are better left simple and often just gives you a minute or 2 of something special...
The stand-out track on this album is A Blackout In Your Town. It starts as a slow acoustic-based blues, introduces drums and dirty guitar, and then just simmers for a few minutes. A great combination of alternating restraint and freight train blues-rock.
Storm has Abbe May playing ukelele in a folk-country setting, and whistling an outro that finishes the song nicely. Sidesteppin' is a sub 2 minute acoustic track, with another whistling solo that meanders to its logical conclusion. You don't hear whistling much in modern music... :-)
Howl & Moan closes aptly with another nice, heavy blues-rocker Lay Me Down.
This album is over before you know it, partly because it is very short (27:27), especially by modern standards, and also because it rocks along at a good pace. That said, I much prefer a good, tight album that one that has been extended out using filler. I've mentioned that many of the tracks are short and I think this a feature, especially because the arrangements are quite simple and, therefore, they might labour in extended studio versions. That said, I could imagine some of these songs turning into extended jams in a live setting.
The title of the album does a good job of describing Abbe May's voice. In the ballads it can be just a plaintive moan and at other times it is like a freight train. While listening to Howl & Moan a couple of weeks ago a friend wondered whether we were listening to Janis Joplin or PJ Harvey. There are similarities with both of these performers, though Abbe May's voice is more locomotive than Joplin's jet engine, and she's more rootsy than Harvey's indie.
This is an excellent album that leaves me wanting to hear much more from Abbe May.
My introduction to Even came via some performances by singer-songwriter-guitarist Ashley Naylor on SBS's RocKwiz. I found his solo performance very entertaining but when the first couple of lines of Get Off My Cloud came out of his mouth I was stunned. It was just so clear that Naylor "got" the song - he's obviously a big fan of music. So I went searching for some of Even's albums.
This self-titled album released in 2007 opens with I Am The Light, which is reminiscent of a psychedelic-era Beatles pop-rock track. However, like many of the songs on this album, it isn't that simple. There are influences from a lot of music, particularly from the late 1960s and the 1970s, and all of these these influences are infused into the music.
I'll skip through the tracks a bit because if I rave about every song then this is likely to get boring very quickly... :-)
I Walk On features an excellent guitar riff, vocal harmonies, and nice variation between verse and chorus. Superstition Blues features harmonica and slide guitar. It sounds like US southern rock played by a late-1960s British blues-rock band.
It is hard to pick favourites on this album, but one of mine is Which Way To Run, featuring wonderful playing by the whole band and some Wurlitzer piano contributed by one of the album's many guests. It is one of the album's bigger songs. For contrast this is followed by the acoustic and steel guitar based The Fool Who Made You Sad. I can't tell if this is a perfectly executed country song or if it is a perfectly executed spoof of a country song - I don't know enough about the band! Whatever the case, it is brilliantly executed.
I also think Tangled Up and the closer Pinnacle are exceptional songs... but then I think this album has no weak songs on it.
The production on Even is stellar. Some of the songs have a lot of guitars but they all occupy their own space and never become overbearing. The big songs have just the right amount of everything. The other thing that is brilliant about this album is Ashley Naylor's guitar playing - he plays rhythm and lead across all of the songs, managing to be continuously interesting and inventive.
I've already mentioned the 1960s and 1970s influences that pervade this album. There are influences from The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, The Who, Led Zeppelin and many more - I can hear a lot of music I like in there. Other bands like Oasis and Jet have also displayed a combination of similar influences but I think that Even do it in a more straightforward yet interesting way. There's also also a strong indy rock feel to the music, which gives it a slightly more interesting edge.
OK, enough superlatives! Almost. Ashley Naylor and his band are students of rock music who have mastered the art-form. They pay homage yet still manage to play interesting, new music. This is one of the best recent albums that I've heard in a long time. Recently I've listened to this album more than any other... and I heartily recommend it.
Any Better Time is another album sent to me by my friend Dan. He grew up living across the road from singer-songwriter Christine Santelli and he thought I might like this roots-infused album that she has recorded. Santelli has a voice that sounds like it is full of cigarettes and whisky. Various tracks on this album encourage comparisons with people like Bonnie Raitt and Melissa Etheridge but Santelli occupies her own space, playing an interesting mix of folk-country-rock... or something like that. This is her seventh album and it is very good.
Good Day For A Hangin' opens the album nicely. It is rocky and showcases Santelli's vocals. I like this song except for one annoying bit where she sings "I just can't seem to stop smoking" in a space where it doesn't quite fit. This sounds like something that could be a nice feature when done live as a variation but I'm not sure it works on an album. That said, it annoys me less after quite a few listens than it did the first time I heard it. There are a couple of other times on the album where similar, uncomfortable phrasing is used.
The album's standout track is Guilty, a tale of love gone wrong set in an excellent mid-paced ballad and carried by excellent performances from the entire band. The next track Ponytails is a pretty, optimistic folk-country ballad. This is followed by the title track, which is a piano led number that bops along a little more than many other songs on the album, although Santelli's voice keeps things firmly on the ground. Down In The Valley, a gospel-country-ish song, follows.
Butterfly is probably my least favourite song on the album. It is quite poppy and pretty, but perhaps a little trite - to me it actually sounds like a cover that I might have heard played in a restaurant back in the late 1980s. I think the production on the drums contributes to this feeling.
The album has a good amount of variation. Calgary is another folky ballad that features some nice violin playing, Lily's Song is pure country and Brown Haired Girl is beautiful and folky. Ode To Bill is a blues-rock song featuring some searing lead guitar playing that interacts wonderfully with Santelli's vocals. The closer On The Farm is a delightful down-home country stomp.
I won't dissect this album any more. Any Better Time is a very good album - just short of being great - and I'm listening to it a lot. I'd actually like to listen to some of Chistine Santelli's other albums and I really think I'd enjoy seeing her live.