[27 October 2004]
When Bruce Hornsby came to the forefront in the mid-‘80s with his roots pop sound, few could’ve imagined that he would have been the original forerunner of Hootie and the Blowfish. Making a big splash with his debut album with The Range, The Way It Is, Hornsby had über-hits such as the title track, “Every Little Kiss”, and “Mandolin Rain”. After another album or two, he was just a blip on the radar, spending time in the early ‘90s with the Grateful Dead. But like everybody else who tries to revive their career, Hornsby has decided to get an A list of musicians to help him out and get the career back to perhaps half of its starting point. That’s the game plan anyway on the pleasing, contemporary “Gonna Be Some Changes Made”, which sounds like he’s being produced by Peter Gabriel. Sting has a vocal appearance on this track, while Eric Clapton adds some guitar work. Hornsby tries to speak the lines, but Dylan he ain’t—more like a qualified Tom Petty circa “Yer So Bad”. And for such a lineup, the tune itself rarely gets over the bar. In fact, it resembles the current adult contemporary malaise of Phil Collins.
What works far better, though, is the soulful and light gospel toe-tapping funk on a simplistic “Candy Mountain Run”. Slowly piling one little instrument on top of another, Hornsby has tapped into something good here and he just lets it slide over him. “Wallin’ and a-rumblin’, I’m movin’ not stumblin’ / Come, come with me on my Candy Mountain, Candy Mountain Run”, Hornsby sings as it picks up steam. Unfortunately, “Dreamland” doesn’t quite make the grade, with Elton John helping out after the chorus with a rather routine delivery and performance as gospel-tinted harmonies try to soothe and smooth things over. Gospel singer Lloyd Jones chimes in as well.
There are some other songs that are good ideas on paper but just far too messy or haphazard when put to sound. This is indicated on “Circus on the Moon”, something Hornsby might actually be creating with this song, as it doesn’t make much sense here. With strings assisting a galloping, quasi-world arrangement, Hornsby is trying to rein in roughly four sounds at once, something he is briefly successful on during the chorus. It’s adventurous and the jammy bridge is also solid, but it’s too little too late. The title track is slower and melancholic and perhaps the worst of the lot thus far. Stagnant and resembling a featherweight Otis Redding or Dr. John, the tune just doesn’t seem to capture the listener.
“What the Hell Happened” is a song that, well, makes you wonder what the hell happened? Here, Hornsby does his best Tom Waits-meets-Randy Newman impersonation as he gives a nifty piano solo halfway through this vaudeville schtick. The saddest part, though, is that this tune seems good against the rambling “Hooray for Tom”, which would be best left for some rolling credits closing a motion picture. “Teach me long division / So I can figure out baseball stats”, he sings as if he’s performing before a kindergarten class.
By the time you start to listen to “Heir Gordon”, you think that Hornsby has lost his mind and been possessed by Dr. John. Wait, let me check the credits no, no Dr. John in the credits. So this tune is basically filler, and bad filler at that. “Mirror on the Wall” finally restores some sense of purpose here, recalling his earlier work that mixed pop and roots music perfectly. It’s a song you should hear on radio, but never will hear on the commercial conglomerates, er, stations. “Lost in the Snow” is another keeper, but the hit and miss nature to this album is disappointing, especially since those that are hits are occasionally home runs.