Which incarnation of Bruce Hornsby do you prefer? Do you like the more accessible side of the artist, in which something as classic as “The Way It Is” seems effortless and universal? How about the jammy side of him that can drop Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” into a live version of “Fortunate Son” without blinking an eye? Or would you rather experience the jazzier element of his work that peers through the somewhat forgotten 1993 gem “Talk Of The Town”?
Whichever dose of the Williamsburg, Va., piano man’s strengths you prefer most may be rendered moot on his latest effort, the soundtrack to Red Hook Summer, a Spike Lee movie released this year about a teenage boy sent to live with his preacher grandfather. Why is that? Because while many fans may be used to his expansive, performance-bending instrumental chops, this 14-track set is far from the normal Bruce Hornsby experience considering how most compositions appear without the luxury of words and only four tracks eclipse the three-minute mark.
That’s not to say it’s a bad effort—this is a movie soundtrack, after all—but even with that in mind, Red Hook Summer still might throw longtime followers for a loop at first glance. Songs like “MNF” and “Camp Variation” are typical Hornsby compositions, but both cause the tinniest bit of disappointment due to their abnormally short length (1:24 and :54, respectively). For instance, while the former is a stomping piano riff that builds to what could be a vengeance-fueled climax, the piece simply ends before properly taking off. Such a move can work wonders for a quick scene in a movie, but standing on its own, the piece is nothing more than an unfulfilled tease. “Variation”, meanwhile, is based around a progression that could pass as anything that appeared on Spirit Trail, but without vocals or a band, it merely sits as a pleasant 50 seconds of sound.
Still, if there’s one thing Hornsby has been so consistent at conveying throughout his 26-year career, it’s been the inordinate ability to feel emotion through black and white keys. “Gospel Camp”, a perceived flushed-out take on “Variation”, is a fine piece of musical composition with its bouncy rhythm and simplistic melody. If nothing else, it proves how intricate the pianist’s material is while showcasing his excellent technical abilities—something his other bands tend to overshadow. “Boiler Room” and “Arc de Terre” are somber expressions with the live element adding to the latter a tiny bit of gloom that could have been lost with over-production. Both paint rainy streets and cold nights, and both don’t need words to survive.
That said, it should come as no surprise that the set’s most memorable material comes when vocal tracks do pop up. “Ogerman” doesn’t have much, but what makes it work so well is its sparse playing and hymn-like crooning that can only be described as spotty. The word “Jesus” combines with echoes of nothingness to create an element of authenticity that allows it all to come across as more beautiful than bland. Its minimalism is used to perfection and it instantly creates a tone of poignancy that Hornsby has always been so good at displaying.
But then “Spirit Climbing” and the non-instrumental version of “Hymn in C” happen, and you instantly crave for an entire set filled with voices and choruses. The first of the only two singing selections, “Spirit Climbing” is a wonderful blues romp that is carried by Hornsby’s weathered and oddly soulful voice. Tales of a “man in a dark room” ring out over a traditional groove and suddenly all the misgivings of short tracks and instrumental experiments are gone. Not only is it the best song of this soundtrack, but it’s also one of the singer’s better offerings in recent memory. “Hymn” follows that with a slow crawl that could replace the typical Bruce Hornsby ballad on any of his previous albums, though because of its surroundings, the performance seems just a little more affecting and a little more dramatic. Maybe it’s the movie element of it all falling into place, or maybe it’s just a subconscious breath of fresh air after sitting through 12 tracks of near-nothingness.
Still, all’s well that ends well, and the soundtrack to Red Hook Summer certainly concludes with a couple notable, if not memorable, Bruce Hornsby originals. Hot House or Levitate, this is not. But an interesting and at-times pretty solid collection of what seems to be more ideas than songs, this record most certainly is. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter which incarnation of the singer you prefer—all that matters is that you prefer him, period.
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