Bruce Springsteen Wrecking Ball
Bruce Springsteen’s 17th studio album, Wrecking Ball, is another solid entry into his storied career, a culturally-relevant discussion of struggle, injustice, and the so-called “American Dream”.
Coming two years after the mildly-received Working on a Dream, Wrecking Ball boasts an eclectic, versatile mix of songs. There’s classic rock ‘n’ roll with lyrics that may be erroneously perceived pro-American (lead single We Take Care of Our Own), songs with spiritual undertones (the hymn-like Easy Money and the gospel-tinged Rocky Ground), and even Celtic influences (the stellar Death to My Hometown and the bonus track American Land).
And yet, despite the album’s varied structures and approaches, Wrecking Ball is, first and foremost, an album by The Boss. It teems with earnestness and emotion, delivered by a seasoned group of world-class musicians working without one of their core members, saxophonist Clarence Clemons.
Thematically, the songs are typically heavy on political content. Always one to stick up for the downtrodden and forgotten, Bruce touches on injustice in the lead single: From the shotgun shack to the Superdome / We yelled “help” but the cavalry stayed home / There ain’t no-one hearing the bugle blown.
Tom Morello provides additional guitar notes on Jack of All Trades and This Depression, but he mostly stays uncharacteristically subdued on the tracks.
That’s really a key aspect of Wrecking Ball – it’s somber yet highly produced, restrained but outspoken, creating the perfect atmosphere from which Springsteen condemns bankers, the government, and social injustice.
He’s been doing this sort of thing for decades, and Wrecking Ball allows Bruce to reflect upon our sometimes hypocritical society with the pomp, bombast, soul, and rock ‘n’ roll precision that has made him the legend he is today.
Michael Brunnock The Orchard
Though he’s lived for many years in New York City, The Orchard leaves no question of Michael Brunnock’s Irish origin.
A wealth of fellow Irishmen and New Yorkers pitch in, painting the corners with banjo, lap steel, mandolin, harmonium, didgeridoo, and a wide array of voices. Among the contributors are Glen Hansard and Colm Mac Con Iomaire of The Frames and The Swell Season, Brendan O’Shea, Mark Dingham, Jenna Nicholls, Ari Hest, Moe Holmes, and Joe Sumner (son of Gordon, better known as Sting).
The most undeniable composition is the title track: the hypnotizing, glassy slides of the lap steel placing you out on a sea of gentle waves. The wind arrives in the form of Brunnock’s voice weaving with Glen Hansard’s, lifting you above the bobbing rhythm.
Though ultimately it’d be nowhere without solid songwriting, what makes the record special is moments like this, another emerging at the end of Sensation. Over Mac Con Iomaire’s soaring violin comes the rich, bluesy tone of Moe Holmes, the contrast against Brunnock’s lighter, smoother vocal adding an unexpected and welcome emotional element.
The lyrics too are not to be discounted. Amidst themes of his homeland, of love and longing, strength and conquest, comes this gem punctuated with Glen Hansard’s unmistakable yell: “We are not alone or untouchable, we all share the throne.”
It’s an appreciated sentiment. The bouncy Every Step offers another to hold onto: “If this light is upon me, then I am alright.”
Right alongside all this unprecedented hope is the album’s closer, the traditional Down by the Araglin. The song is sung in tribute to Brunnock’s grandfather of the same name, whose recorded version is the only one known to exist. Julia Stone’s gorgeous harmonies act as the female counterpart in this rare vision of simple peace, finishing the record on a perfect note.
Sinéad O’Connor How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?
Say what you will about Sinéad O’Connor, but you can never doubt she means what she sings. She has a way of making you feel it too, as is the case on her latest effort. The songs follow in the vein of her signature style – fantastic vocals laid over simplistic, poppy arrangements.
There’s something about the opening chords of Reason with Me that instantly pulls you in. “But if I love someone, I might lose someone,” Sinéad breathes. You sympathize with the character, this junkie looking for a way out.
Her lighthearted side comes out on Old Lady, with its catchy chorus of, “Make me laugh like an idiot, not be so serious,” and again on Queen of Denmark, written by friend John Grant. To quote an excerpt would not do this one justice. It is genuinely funny.
The album remains accessible despite its spiritual overtones. A song like Take Off Your Shoes (sung from the point of view of the Holy Spirit) is amazingly compelling, with or without consideration of the lyrics.
Back Where You Belong and I Had a Baby take a few more listens to get into, but are balanced by the fun and funky 4th and Vine and the obvious single The Wolf is Getting Married. Similarly, the softly layered -yet righteously angry- V.I.P. and subsequent prayer that ends the record are balanced by a whispered, ‘Oh yeah!’ and a laugh.
Sinéad O’Connor is many things, and she manages to put a surprising number of them into these 10 tracks.
Pink Floyd The Wall (Immersion Edition)
For a collector, the Immersion Set offers some fun items: Wall marbles, a hammer logo scarf, art prints, a photo book, a documentary. Both the original album and the live 1980-81 Is There Anybody Out There? concert have been remastered.
But most interesting are the demos, not all of which are offered on the lesser Experience Edition. Unfortunately even in this deluxe set you only get short snippets of Roger Waters’ original recordings, which are utterly fascinating.
“I don’t need no education, I don’t need no rising water,” Waters sings ever so quietly with nothing more than an acoustic guitar and a bass to back him. To balance this, as he does so well, are downright eerie moments and a few of his trademark disturbing screams. On the tunes later sung by David Gilmour his unique, nasal-ish tone is remarkable in contrast.
Most of the full-band demos (which are complete in length) are much closer to the final versions, but some are endearingly laughable. The world never before knew how close Comfortably Numb came to being a truly awful song.
There are additional tracks that never found a home on the record but instead on its follow-up, The Final Cut, and Roger Waters’ first solo effort, The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking. There is even one never before heard called It’s Never Too Late that presumably would have closed the album.
It’s apparent how fully-formed the concept of The Wall was even in its early stages (despite numerous lyrical alterations), but getting a peek into the evolution of the process is invaluable.
Mars Volta Noctourniquet
The Mars Volta’s new album, Noctourniquet, may be the most challenging in their chameleonic career – and that’s saying quite a lot, considering how past efforts like Frances the Mute and Bedlam in Goliath were affronts to traditional expectations of contemporary “alternative” music.
TMV’s prog-rock-jazz-experimental fusion has set them football fields away from the rest of the music community over the years, and Noctourniquet cements their place in their own galaxy. Opener The Whip Hand sets the tone in an appropriately off-kilter manner, led by the double-barreled assault provided by Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s jarring guitar riffs and Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s abrasive vocals.
Slower, atmospheric jams like Aegis, Empty Vessels Make the Loudest Sound (an album highlight), Lapochka, Imago, Vedamalady and Trinkets Pale of Moon may cause some to call this a “soft” record, but that shouldn’t be considered a criticism – this is a relentlessly engaging album, slicing through genres, structures, intensities, and rhythms with ease.
They can still revisit the spastic freakouts of their early career, as evidenced on songs like Molochwalker (another key track), The Malkin Jewel, and Dyslexicon, but the power of Noctourniquet lies in its precision. New drummer Deantoni Parks is a perfect fit for the group, his staccato kit-smashing the percussive complement to Bixler-Zavala’s demanding vocal chops.
Six studio albums in, The Mars Volta continue to grow and expand. While 2009’s Octahedron wasn’t the band’s most warmly-received album, Noctourniquet finds them at their very best – there’s a focus and poise to their chaotic experimentation, and it pays off exceedingly well.
Prediction: Noctourniquet ends up on its fair share of end-of-year “Best Of” lists.
Andrew Bird Break it Yourself
Eclectic songwriter/singer/violinist Andrew Bird’s new album, Break it Yourself, is a woodsy delight, the kind of album perfectly suited for mid-afternoon drives through the mountains, the sun peeking over the horizon ever so slightly.
Fluffy descriptions aside, this is an excellent, whimsical celebration of music – from the ethereal acoustic guitars to Bird’s masterful violin playing and whistling.
Desperation Breeds… opens the set, reaching a dreamlike atmospheric that would make Fleet Foxes and Sufjan Stevens jealous. It wouldn’t really do Break it Yourself much justice to break it down into a discussion of individual songs, though – this is an album in the traditional sense of the term.
It creates a feeling, an experience, and a vibe; Danse Caribe blends violins, indie-pop jangle and Caribbean flavor, beach sounds and a steady beat accentuate Eyeoneye, Lazy Projector (a discussion on reality and perception) glides by while Bird peppers in some whistling, Lusitania careens up into the clouds, Orpheo Looks Back is heavy on the Irish fiddling and barroom stomp, and so on. By now, you should get the idea – everything is dreamy, airy, and delightful.
Andrew Bird has made this type of music for years, as this is his ninth solo record, but this may be one of his best efforts yet – it gets better and better with each listen. It’s rare that albums like this are made today, the kind that reveal more depth and complexity with each listen.
Break it Yourself should be considered this year’s equivalent of Bon Iver’s award-winning album of 2011, and ought to appeal to the same demographic; the difference, though, is that Bird’s is a much more uplifting, affecting, and altogether pleasant musical journey.
The Cranberries Roses
The Cranberries’ first new album in more than a decade, Roses, arrived on February 28th.
Listening to it, you wouldn’t think they’d been out of the game for so long – lead singer Dolores O’Riordan’s signature Celtic-flavored voice, arguably the most recognizable aspect of the band’s music, shines throughout the record, a blast of vintage 1990s alterna-pop that holds its own among the band’s more classic material.
Admittedly, Roses doesn’t have a Dreams, Linger, or Zombie, but lead single Tomorrow and the mid-tempo Fire & Soul demonstrate that the band’s recent reformation may have been a good idea after all.
Schizophrenic Playboy is about as “aggressive” as the Cranberries get on the record, its wavy guitars creating an urgent atmosphere reminiscent of 1970 spy movies. It’s a pretty solid song, and is a welcomed respite from the mostly subdued compositions on the rest of the album.
Strings accentuate the breathy Waiting in Walthamstow, while acoustic guitars provide the backbone for Show Me, another up-tempo number highlighted by O’Riordan’s refrain of Show me the waaaaay. Just as Schizophrenic Playboy had an undercurrent of urgency, Show Me utilizes a similar tone, making it another highlight on the record.
Astral Projection is aptly titled, a chorus of whispery angelic voices swirling around until the instruments pick up and take things into the clouds.
The album ends with two more slow numbers, So Good and the title track, which brings things to a close in a fittingly relaxing way.
Much like the album’s themes of life, love, and relationships, there’s a sense of melancholy throughout that is best encapsulated by O’Riordan’s words on the title track: Life is no garden of roses/More like a thistle in time.