Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Springsteen's The Promise - LA Weekly

Bruce Springsteen's The Promise for LA Weekly's "West Coast Sound"

Now some guys they just give up living

and start dying little by little, piece by piece.

Some guys come home from work and wash up

And go racing in the streets.

--Bruce Springsteen

In 1975, at the age of 25, Bruce Springsteen released his third album Born to Run, a commercial and artistic success that solidified his place as the official raconteur of middle-class New Jersey. His tales of paved expanses and the salt-corroded machinery carrying misfits from boardwalk to boardwalk were wrapped in layers of rock orchestration unheard since Phil Spector was regularly terrorizing the studios of Los Angeles. (Few men can get away with using a piano, an organ and a glockenspiel all at once.) But following the album's success, Springsteen found himself locked in a legal dispute with his manager. He spent three years recording and touring before releasing his next album Darkness on the Edge of Town.

Now Springsteen definitively proves it wasn't writer's block that was keeping him off the radio with the release of The Promise: twenty-one tracks of Darkness-era outtakes, unreleased studio versions of live staples and even a newly recorded song (just to give the purists something to complain about). Overall the new tracks are interesting--but Springsteen's thirty-two year old decisions still seem like the right ones.

The double album opens with a Darkness outtake of "Racing in the Street" that is a little too reminiscent of "Thunder Road." An identical harmonica intro directs it immediately into the alternative takes bin. The alternate has a more grandiose conclusion but there was already plenty of that on the official release. "Come On (Let's Go Tonight)" is an alternative take to "Factory", an equally brief working-class dirge that could have just as easily fit on the Billy Elliott soundtrack. "Candy's Boy" is an alternative take on the breathy-but-bombastic "Candy's Room" with a more "classic rock" structure than the official release: Springsteen takes the sparse official track, adds a few verses and trades the guitar pyrotechnics for a roller-rink organ solo to diminished effect.

Springsteen has always been a scholar of rock 'n' roll--especially with the official garage rock professor, Steven Van Zandt, hanging somewhere off to his left for the last forty years. So it is no surprise to find a fair number of genre exercises littered throughout the album. "Ain't Good Enough for You" is the band's take on one of those party-in-the-studio albums that came out in the mid '60s--from the Beach Boys' Party! to Cannonball Adderley's Mercy Mercy Mercy. The band's off-time background vocals, whistles and handclaps capture the party vibe while Springsteen goofs his way through a litany of romantic frustrations. "Outside Looking In" is a Buddy Holly rave-up with rumbling tom-toms and scratchy guitars that is just a few vocal hiccups short of a tribute band.

While Springsteen was recording his highly orchestrated epics, the music world around him was changing. The punk movement, boiling less than forty blocks south of Springsteen's New York recording studio, was in mid-battle cry: Talking Heads '77, Marquee Moon and Ramones. Springsteen wasn't oblivious. His collaboration with Patti Smith, "Because the Night," became one of the biggest selling singles to come out of the CBGB's scene. (Is it surprising that the combination of these two artists sounds remarkably like Cher?) But Springsteen never released a version of his own at the time although it has remained in his live repertoire to this day. The studio version here is a little slower and grander than the Smith version but Springsteen adds a mid-song key change that lifts it to another level.

Springsteen also scored a chart hit when the Pointer Sisters covered his song "Fire" in 1978. The song was originally written for Elvis Presley but became a tribute to him when he died as Springsteen was still toiling in the studio. The Pointer Sisters version is sparser than Springsteen's--more indebted to the Motown girl groups with its tambourine and organ. Springsteen, when performing the song live, often brings out his more theatrical side with coy poses that say more than the lyrics ever could. The resulting studio version is an Elvis tribute that is as much white jumpsuit as pre-Army provocateur.

A lot of purists have shed some tears over Springsteen's decision to add overdubs to his old recordings. This revisionist history has become a bit of a genre these days with albums like Paul McCartney's Let It Be...Naked or the Rolling Stones' recent release of Exile on Main Street and even Brian Wilson's SMiLE. How can there be anything wrong with an artist choosing to alter his own work? The songs might not have benefited from the added work but it's not like he's finishing some lost Jim Morrison bootlegs. In releasing these tracks he has already yielded to some higher marketing power, otherwise he would have released them 30-something years ago. The man wants to do all he can to protect his integrity while preserving his brand. So aside from the added strings and vocals Springsteen has recorded a new song, "Save My Love"--a textbook "Springsteen" song with cascading piano octaves, precision drumming and a soaring chorus. It fits right alongside the other songs, which attests to both the sturdiness of his trademark sound as well as his willingness to exploit it.

The Promise is rather great as a collection of outtakes, but it is an exemplary indicator of the standard that Springsteen upheld in releasing his long-awaited follow-up. As an album, the collection falls a little short of coherence. The quantity of tracks is enough to indicate that it was never intended as an album. The best tracks were chosen for Darkness on the Edge of Town.

Nothing touches the greatness of songs like "Streets of Fire" or "Adam Raised a Cain" for sheer exuberance and screeching guitar. Springsteen is at his jaded best on Darkness, sneering alongside the rest of his generation in denim and a bandana rather than leather and a mohawk. Now in his 60s, Springsteen has lived long enough to see his work interpreted by multiple generations. He has received considerable hints to what his legacy will be. With Promise, he is responding as he sees fit. Who wouldn't, at the age of 61, change of few things they might have done when they were 25?

Springsteen's The Promise @ LA Weekly

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Rock & Rule - LA Weekly

Rock & Rule dvd review for LA Weekly's "West Coast Sound"

How many big-budget rock and roll movies were made by Canadian animators in the early 1980s? How many of them featured at least one cast member from SCTV, the voice-over work of journeyman Don Francks, and a song by Cheap Trick? Well, at least two.

Heavy Metal is the quintessential animated science-fiction rock film; a attention-deficit-friendly collection of intergalactic vignettes brimming with hard rock (Blue Oyster Cult, Grand Funk Railroad) and familiar funnymen (Eugene Levy, John Candy).

Rock & Rule, which was released two years later in 1983, traded Stevie Nicks and Sammy Hagar's sun-bleached smiles for Debbie Harry and Lou Reed's Lower East Side sleaze, set in a Blade Runner-esque post-nuclear cityscape, inhabited by wet-nosed mutants equipped with electric guitars and expertly blow-dried hair. And after 25 years (and then some) Lou, Debbie, Iggy Pop and Cheap Trick are finally released on Blu-Ray by Unearthed this week.

Despite its bleak setting Rock & Rule was the more family-friendly film of the two. Its plotline and animation style forms a strange link between Fritz the Cat and Thundercats--boobs but no nipple, drugs but no needles. The plot revolves around a four-piece rock band whose songs are provided by both Cheap Trick and Blondie.

Angel, the confident heroine of the story, is kidnapped by Mok, an aging rock superstar resembling Mick Jagger, circa 2065. She is kidnapped because her voice has the ability to summon a rather cumbersome fire demon with a penchant for Debbie Harry and glowing pentagrams. The rest of the band set out for Nuke York to rescue her with a little participation from Iggy Pop and Catherine O'Hara, the Jane Curtin of Canada.

Most of the songs composed for the film are kind of forgettable; tossed-off tracks from middle-aged downtowners, restless and a little too hungry for work. Cheap Trick kick it off with a anthemic bang and Debbie Harry has a few good ballads. Lou Reed's main contribution is a driving monotone rocker complete with Brill Building girls "sha-la-la"ing behind him but the standout track, oddly enough, is Earth, Wind, & Fire's funky club jam "Dance, Dance, Dance." It's a mixed bag of rock songs that was at least worthy of an official soundtrack album. Alas, funds dried up long before that point.

For all the work that went into the film ($2 million a year in studio costs over four years) it never saw wide release in North America. By the time they were ready for distribution all of their studio champions had moved on to other jobs and it ended up shelved for over twenty years; surfacing only as fill-in material for HBO and Showtime in the '80s and circulating on bootleg VHS tapes often incorrectly crediting Ralph Bakshi as the director. (It was Clive A. Smith.)

It wasn't until 2005 that the film was granted a home video release. This week it is being released on Blu-Ray in a special 25th anniversary edition--two years too late. Still: definitely one of the top two barely released Canadian rock and roll cartoons from the 1980s.

Rock & Rule @ LA Weekly

Cory Weeds & Joey DeFrancesco - All About Jazz

The Many Deeds of Cory Weeds
Cory Weeds & Joey DeFrancesco (Cellar Live)

Joey DeFrancesco (High Note)

This pair of live recordings featuring organist Joey
DeFrancesco finds him in two very different mindsets.
The Many Deeds of Cory Weeds, recorded in Vancouver,
puts DeFrancesco behind saxist Cory Weeds alongside
Chris Davis (trumpet) and Byron Landham (drums),
playing with a straightahead vigor, blasting through
hardbop classics. Snapshot sets DeFrancesco in a classic
jazz organ trio with guitarist Paul Bollenback and
Landham once more, using a greater sense of space to
create a more modern record.

The Many Deeds opens with Horace Silver’s “Juicy
Lucy”. Weeds confidently struts through a tasteful
solo with Davis close on his heels, spouting gravelly
lines over the rhythm section’s unerring sense of
swing. “Goin’ Down” is a great boogaloo vehicle for
DeFrancesco’s funky fingers to build an explosion of
syncopated vibrato. The album features two Hank
Mobley tunes: “Fin de L’Affaire” and “Boss Bossa”.
The former, a steamy ballad, brings out the best in
Weeds’ delicate touch while the latter features Davis
evoking Clifford Brown through his breathless runs.
DeFrancesco’s unwavering basslines provide
invaluable support, embracing his inner Jimmy Smith
with split-brained precision. In just eight tunes, half
over ten minutes, The Many Deeds is an excellent oldschool
blowing session that never seems excessive.

Snapshot is a reunion for DeFrancesco. Guitarist
Paul Bollenback left DeFrancesco’s band some time
ago but has joined up again to revel in the band’s 15-
year history. Bollenback’s choppy, staccato notes blaze
across the record, drawing DeFrancesco into more
adventurous support from his basslines to his
syncopated chord clusters. The album opens with Ron
Carter’s “Eighty One”. Unlike with The Many Deeds
DeFrancesco gets some chordal support, which allows
him to drift a little further into reharmonization and
dissonance. Harold Land’s “Ode to Angela” highlights
Bollenback’s ethereal accompaniment behind
DeFrancesco’s soaring, quick-fire lines, with a few
cheeky quotes in between. The Eddy Arnold classic
“You Don’t Know Me” gets a slow, gospel reworking with
Landham’s chiming cymbal pushing the band
into the more soulful corners of their instruments
while “Fly Me to the Moon” goes in directions Frank
Sinatra would probably have had trouble following;
pedal tones build the tension while the band makes a
tried and true standard new again.

Snapshot proves that the DeFrancesco trio never
lost their musical connection with telepathic shifts
occurring with every chorus. Here’s hoping their
partnership is renewed for a few more albums.

Cory Weeds & Joey DeFrancesco @ All About Jazz - New York

Bill Cunliffe - All About Jazz

Three's Company
Bill Cunliffe & Holly Hoffman (Capri)

Bill Cunliffe, long a fixture of both Southern
California’s cover charge and course reader scene, has
been working with flutist Holly Hofmann for over two
decades. Three’s Company, their third recorded
collaboration, finds the duo aided by an allstar cast of

The album opens with a duet on Burton Lane’s
“Too Late Now” in a limited, Claude Bolling-esque
interplay before giving way to a more guttural and
swinging partnership that lasts for the remainder of
the record. “Dalto”, the second track, is the first of
Cunliffe’s four contributions to the album. A persistent
syncopated bass line opens the track before Cunliffe
sparingly implies it below his own solo. Hofmann’s
approach, rising and falling in quick-fire steps, is
supported by Cunliffe’s unwavering montuno.
The first trio formation comes courtesy of violinist
Regina Carter who, alongside Hofmann’s underscoring,
string-like vibrato, works through a rendition of
Strayhorn’s “Star-Crossed Lovers”,
simmering through nine minutes of nuanced phrasing
and glissandos. Carter’s contribution, the only
stringed instrument on the album, is refreshingly
subdued, free of the electric baroque figures that can
riddle her more uptempo performances.

The titular following track, a Hofmann original, is
a swiftly driven tune with Cunliffe providing sparse
clusters behind her and trumpeter Terell Stafford. The
trio is at their swinging best with Stafford’s muted
trumpet spinning across the changes. Cunliffe’s Bud
Powell-indebted bop tirade follows effortlessly while a
minimal left hand bookmarks the chord changes.
Cunliffe’s “Reunion”, which features clarinet
throwback Ken Peplowski breathing in unison
alongside Hofmann, finds a symphonic touch as the
two winds wind through Cunliffe’s ten-fingered
orchestra, eventually pitting the two soloists against
each other while Cunliffe holds down the fort. Fauré’s
“Pavane” restores things to duo status with Cunliffe
and Hofmann ebbing through a gentle, chamber
performance, achingly slow before closing with
Hofmann fluttering around the lower register while
Cunliffe lays down a gentle bassline.

The last two tracks are a pair of Cunliffe
goodbyes: “Sweet Andy”, his tribute to bassist Andy
Simpkins featuring drummer Alvester Garnett’s
nimble brushes and punctual bass drum, and
“Farewell”, wrapping up the album with just Cunliffe
and Hofmann. Three’s Company finds the duo creating
well-seasoned instrumentals with and without the
help of their virtuosic contemporaries.

Bill Cunliffe & Holly Hoffman @ All About Jazz - New York