Music

Jeff Bridges: Jeff Bridges

In the wake of Crazy Heart, Jeff Bridges proves that his musical skill is for real, even if for the most part he's treading familiar ground.


Jeff Bridges

Jeff Bridges

Label: Blue Note
US Release Date: 2011-08-16
UK Release Date: 2011-09-05
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Artist website
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Any celebrity with a modicum of musical talent could easily make a record, hinging its success largely on his persona instead of actual musical ability. The hardcore fans of such a celebrity, for the most part, would likely buy the album regardless of their knowledge of his musical talent. Given that many modern actors have many talents (one notable example being James Franco, who, while maintaining an acting career, recently released a collection of short fiction while working toward his doctorate in English), it's not surprising to see them branch out into the musical arts. Unfortunately, not all meet with success; Scarlett Johansson's musical career still hasn't taken off, for instance, despite her many successes in film. Star power aside, people listen to music expecting good music, not just their favorite actor jamming in the studio.

This is where Jeff Bridges's first success lies: the album's best moments aren't contingent on Jeff Bridges being Jeff Bridges. As he had already shown in his Oscar-winning turn as a worn country singer in 2009's Crazy Heart, he's quite a good musician and songwriter (his country drawl is at times akin to John Hiatt). "The Weary Kind", the Oscar-winning song from that movie, is the obvious precursor to this record: T-Bone Burnett, who won the Oscar for co-writing the song with Ryan Bingham, worked again with Bridges on this record as producer and co-writer, and much of the music is in the same vein. Like the music of Crazy Heart, much of the album is dominated by mid-to-low tempo country music, and it more or less extends Bridges's excellent performance into a full-length album. This doesn't sound like The Dude recorded a country album; it sounds like Jeff Bridges, the musician, made a country album, though often the voice of Crazy Heart's Bad Blake is still here as well.

The album basically picks up where Crazy Heart left off in terms of tone and tempo. The most raucous the album gets is either on the opening track, "What a Little Bit of Love Can Do" (which sounds similar to some of Warren Zevon's forays into country and folk, though with Bridges's kindness in lieu of Zevon's cynicism), or "Blue Car", a cover of country singer Greg Brown. The latter is one of the album's best tracks. Bridges takes the original song, which had a more pastoral feel, and turns it into a cool twelve-bar blues, adding more and more instruments with each verse. Still, neither are terribly uptempo, and as the album comes to a conclusion, it seems that Bridges would have done well to pick up the pace on occasion. "The Weary Kind" showed Bridges's skill with the introspective, but when the majority of the record is dominated by slow and often morose ballads, the album drags on, especially given that many of the album's reflective pieces sound perhaps too close to the material from Crazy Heart. In particular, the especially bluesy "Slow Boat", the album's longest track, ambles on pointlessly for its six-minute run time. Where this is more successful is on the Bridges-penned "Tumbling Vine", a jazzy dirge that features Bridges's best vocal performance on the record. His deep, throaty voice blends quite well with the smoky jazz, accented with upright bass and nylon string guitar. It's a refreshing moment, one that showcases Bridges's talent as a songwriter and deviates from the formula present on much of the album.

"Am I falling short / Or do I fly?" Bridges asks on "Falling Short"; "While I miss the mark / Do I hit the sky?" Given that portions of the album feel like unused material from Crazy Heart, at times the album feels too much like a companion piece to the film as opposed to a true solo record. Admittedly, Bridges himself did note that some of the album's music was written during his work on Crazy Heart. Still, given the music here that sounds removed from the film (such as "Tumbling Vine"), it seems that Bridges could have used more of the album to explore that material as opposed to riffing on the music of Crazy Heart. Bridges is indeed a fine musician, and it would be great to hear more of his individual voice. It's paradoxical, in a way; while the album's successes don't hinge on Bridges's actor persona, much of the album's music is closely bound with one of his performances. The performance was a fine one, but Bridges's music is good enough that his recording career need not be lived vicariously.

So in some ways, Bridges is falling short, but it fortunately has nothing to do with a lack of talent. On that note, Bridges succeeds quite well. What he needs to do is clear: More Jeff Bridges, less Bad Blake.

6

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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