Archive for January, 2014

Record Review: ‘High Hopes’ by Bruce Springsteen (Sony)

13 Jan


Boss time!

Boss time!

The new Bruce Springsteen release ‘High Hopes’ is unexpected, with The Boss spending the last 18 months on the road touring the ‘Wrecking Ball’ record and few hints of recording studio time accrued.

But the internet is a wondrously widespread beast and not only allows Backstreets, Greasy Lake and other Springsteen websites to obsessively follow developments, but allows Mr Springsteen to exchange ideas with his producers (Brendan O’Brien and Ron Aniello) and send ideas, bridges and mixes back and forth electronically.

‘High Hopes’ differs from previous output in three ways: it involves 2 different producers; features three cover versions; and on more than half of the twelve songs features Tom Morello.

Also known as the Night Watchman, Morello is former guitarist for Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave and sat in for Steven Van Zandt recently, with Little Steven already committed to filming series 2 of the wonderful ‘Lilyhammer’ and Springsteen keen to tour the far-flung southern parts of the globe.

Keen observers will have seen Morello playing ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’ with the E Street Band at previous gigs, and this is one of the two Springsteen compositions revisited on ‘High Hopes’ – the other being ‘American Skin’, which reappeared as a live number in Ireland last year, on the day Trayvon Martin’s killer walked free.  

The album lacks the ‘feel’ that Bruce Springsteen usually seeks, a thematic coherence conveyed via strands of lyrical content within an overall production sound, in a precise running order.

This theme –evidenced on, say, Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River or Wrecking Ball – imparts the core message and makes many Springsteen albums more than just the sum of their parts.

‘High Hopes’ departs from this path in being a far more eclectic mix of recent music, obscure covers and remastered live material and has patches of light and shade as a result.

Opener ‘High Hopes’ has Latin and marimba rythms, horns which can be heard on ‘We Shall Overcome’ and ‘Wrecking Ball’ and bowls along at a nice pace – could easily be a crowd-pleaser at a live show. ‘Harry’s Place’ wouldn’t have sounded out of place on ‘The Rising’ with a sinister mobster tale and ‘American Skin’ revisits the enduring disgrace of how fragile and cheap the lives of young black men are.

Bruce describes this song and ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’ as ‘among the best of my writing’ and both get a deserved airing on this record. (‘Ghost…’ is a song I’d have played at my own funeral, an unflinching portrayal of the underside of modern life uplifted by a hymn of defiant, positive resistance.)

 Other stand-outs on early listening are ‘Down In the Hole’, ‘This is Your Sword’ and ‘The Wall’. The first has a haunting melody and searing, graphic lyrics which fit with a 9/11 motif; ‘Sword’ wouldn’t sound out of place at a ceilidh or as a modern church hymn; and ‘The Wall’ is the keynote song which Springsteen devotes two thirds of the liner notes to: the homage to a childhood friend missing in action in Vietnam and all the more bitter and angry for being delivered in a soft slow arrangement. ‘Apology and forgiveness got no place here at all’.

 There are songs here to suit most tastes, but the record will appeal primarily to Springsteen anoraks and those looking to visit his music for the first time. There is variety and colour, some knock-out rock guitar from Tom Morello and more than occasional flashes of the writing which the man from Freehold has graced us with this last five decades. Check it out.

 (NB British listeners also snag an enclosed bonus DVD of Bruce and the E Street band performing the ‘Born In The USA’ album at the Olympic Park in June 2013, featuring the best performance of some of those songs I’ve heard to date.) 

 Still a believer…..

Gig Review: Black Sabbath, Birmingham LG Arena, 20 December 2013

07 Jan


Geezer, Ozzy and Tony.

Geezer, Ozzy and Tony.

I’ve loved Black Sabbath since my mid teens and watching them gig in Birmingham is as good as it gets.

I don’t really care that they’re in their 60’s either, they’re still playing live, producing new material and Tony Iommi’s recent lymphoma hasn’t even stopped him performing live. Mind you, he lost the tips of 2 fingers in the late 60’s and didn’t let that stop him playing guitar. ‘Iron Man’ indeed…

So, rolling up to the refurbished NEC (LG) Arena in a sell-out crowd I’m close enough to the stage to see facial expressions. That’ll do.

More importantly, the sound quality is superb and breaks my three gig streak of decidedly dodgy mixes. The air raid sirens wail, the crowd roars and the bone-shaking opening chords of ‘War Pigs’ kick off a solid two hour set. ‘Into The Void’ and ‘Under The Sun’ follow, songs rock DJs would describe as ‘deep cuts’ from albums number 3 and 4 respectively, and not for the faint-hearted. This is classic heavy metal from the band who invented the genre and set the standard. ‘Form is temporary, class endures’.

Ozzy’s singing is slightly sharp almost as often as he’s on the mark, but his voice lasts the gig out and the delivery and overall sound make that minor quibble unimportant. Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler pound out bass-end heavy riffs and licks, new drummer Tommy Clufetos batters his kit mercilessly and the crowd goes, well, slightly mental….

It is joyful to be stood in the heart of a homecoming gig and Sabbath are loving every minute of it. Mr Osbourne goes to his knees doing the ‘we’re not worthy’ genuflection to the crowd, smiles like a crazed hyena and shouts as if he’s the Arena’s police force – ‘let me see those f*ckin’ hands!’.

As Tony, Geezer and Ozzy beam across to each other, you are witness to the unifying pleasure of playing a home gig for your people, many of whom have been with you since 1969.

‘Age of Reason’, ‘God is Dead?’ and ‘End of the Beginning’ are culled from the new ‘13’ album and match existing material but in truth Sabbath unfurled a set full of gems. ‘Classic’ is a much misused word but without doubt applies to this band’s back catalogue: ‘Snowblind’, ‘Fairies Wear Boots’, ‘NIB’, ‘Iron Man’, ‘Children of the Grave’…… the evening ends with confetti and balloons dropped on us during ‘Paranoid’ and a happy crowd trudges out into a wet and shitty December evening, reconnected with humble lads from Aston who left an indelible mark on rock music.

Respect is due.

Stephen Smith: writer

Rants, rambles and other assorted thoughts

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