Music

Bruce Springsteen: Wrecking Ball

Springsteen continues his remarkable resurgence with a crackerjack set of pissed-off folk, gospel-influenced rock, and rambunctious, Seeger Session-style Americana.


Bruce Springsteen

Wrecking Ball

Label: Columbia
US Release Date: 2012-03-06
UK Release Date: 2012-03-05
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Not so long ago, it looked like Bruce Springsteen was thoroughly Bruuuced-out and would never make rock records again. Back in 1995, three years after firing the E Street Band and, for some damned reason, touring without them behind a pair of ill-received albums (the simultaneously released Human Touch and Lucky Town), Springsteen surfaced with a mustache and ponytail, released a somber folk album (The Ghost of Tom Joad), and went on a solo-acoustic theater tour. Bruce looked thickish, sang only in drawls and whispers, and wouldn’t release another album for seven more years, and as each of those years passed, Springsteen Nation grew increasingly worried that their hero would never again sing “Badlands” in a packed arena, let alone a stadium, standing in front of the E Street Band.

Fast forward to 2012. In the last ten years, Springsteen has, not counting his new record, released five albums -- three of original rock material, an Americana covers record, and a solo mostly-acoustic album -- along with massive box-set reissues of Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town (which came with two discs’ worth of unearthed songs from 1978). Moreover, the last decade has seen Springsteen embark on five world tours, including three with the reformed E Street Band, shows that found, against all odds, Bruce recapturing all of the power and range of his rock voice, going for three hours a night, playing unique sets at every stop, taking left-field requests from the audience, surprising die-hards with deep obscurities, and performing his classic albums in their entireties.

So, apart from the sad, irreplaceable losses of keyboardist Danny Federici in 2008 and Clarence Clemons last year, it’s been a career resurgence as generous as any Bruce maniac could have hoped for, and the roll continues with Wrecking Ball, the 17th Bruce Springsteen album. Springsteen romantics want to get their bearings with a new Bruce album right away, and as “wild” and “experimental” as the new album was purported to be in advance, the musical direction of Wrecking Ball isn’t much of a surprise given the Boss’s musical instincts of late.

In fact, the album springs from a couple of recent Springsteen directions. First, the gospel-soul influences that informed “My City of Ruins”, a song that asked for spiritual redemption in the wake of 9-11, and that song’s rousing reach -- to matters of palms-out faith and blood-‘n’-fire imagery and la-la-la codas -- is a thread that runs from “The Rising” to “Land of Hope and Dreams” to “Long Walk Home” to the new “We Take Care of Our Own”. Second, the boisterous Americana that Bruce forged with his band of trombones, banjos, washboards, and accordions while covering Pete Seeger tunes on 2006’s We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. In fact, if there’s a single moment that pointed the way to what would become the Wrecking Ball sound, it’s “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?”, an old Blind Alfred Reed standard to which Springsteen rewrote the lyrics as a response to the Hurricane Katrina tragedy. The song appeared on an expanded edition of We Shall Overcome, alongside “American Land”, an original, barn-burning Irish jig about the false promises of the American Dream. On these songs, Springsteen resurrected roots traditions -- blues, gospel, folk, bluegrass -- to serve as musical backdrops that tie old economic injustices to new ones.

Wrecking Ball is, without question, about such hard times, just as Darkness on the Edge of Town was about Carter-era hard times and Nebraska was about Reagan-era hard times. If Wrecking Ball is “angrier” than either of those albums, as has been much reported, it’s in the new record’s relative overtness in its handling of its subjects. One of Springsteen’s gifts as a songwriter, from Darkness on anyway, has been in his ability to paint specific character vignettes that speak to larger social concerns -- the failed dreams of the shutdown stranger and hotrod angel in “Racing in the Street”, the ex-con who feels the itch again in “Straight Time”, the kids who suddenly realize they are adults destined to repeat the mistakes of their parents in “The River”, “My Hometown”, “Adam Raised a Cain”, and a few dozen others. But while most of Springsteen’s songs about class and society strike glancing blows at the destructive forces in charge (“foreman says these jobs are going, boys, and they ain’t coming back”; “come back home to the refinery/hiring man said, ‘son, if it was up to me…’”), the characters in “Wrecking Ball” are less elusive about whom to blame for their troubles, cutting out the middle figures like foremen and hiring men and taking on the real culprits unambiguously.

On Wrecking Ball, the heat-packing protagonist out looking for “Easy Money” rails against “all them fat cats” who think his desperation is funny. The rock-breaker in “Shackled and Drawn” hollers, “Gambling man rolls the dice, working man pays the bills/It's still fat and easy up on bankers hill”. The struggling handyman in “Jack of All Trades” vows, “If I had me a gun, I'd find the bastards and shoot 'em on sight." The narrator of “Death to My Hometown” details the “vultures” and “greedy thieves” who “destroyed our families' factories and…took our homes” and hopes to “send the robber barons to hell”. “Rocky Ground” speaks of a divine retribution for failing to take care of our own: “We'll be called for our service come Judgment Day / Before we cross that river wide / Blood on our hands will come back on us twice."

It has, in fact, been awhile since Bruce met a biblical reference that he hasn’t been tempted to turn into an extended metaphor, but Wrecking Ball is Bruce’s most, well, Jesus-y album to date. Most obviously, the record is threaded together with gospel-music archetypes, from wailing preachers to testifying choirs, bringing to mind the throttled, sweatball preacher shtick that Bruce ran into the ground on two straight tours during his aughties comeback. But lyrically, Springsteen turns continually to biblical themes. In “Jack of All Trades”, the speaker hopes that “we'll start caring for each other like Jesus said that we might”; in “”Rocky Ground”, we’re reminded that “Jesus said the money changers in this temple will not stand”; “We Are Alive” invokes “a cross up on Calvary Hill”; bonus track “Swallowed Up (In the Belly of a Whale)”, beyond the obvious allusion in the title, calls on “God’s Mercy” as a matter of birthright.

This is all part of the narrative structure of a cohesively designed album, sequenced to rail against economic injustice by way of catchy, rattling folk-blues numbers on the first half of the record and to rise with spiritual redemption in the second half by way of train-a-comin’ rafter-raising. The first five songs are all at turns hopeless and furious. Sixth track “This Depression” starts to change focus, blending worry over financial plight with the need for a healing love. “Wrecking Ball” turns the corner, a song of endurance -- “hold on to your anger”, Springsteen sings, but “don’t fall to your fear”, a theme that carries through the gospel-influenced one-two punch of “Rocky Ground” and “Land of Hope and Dreams”, spirituals that promise new-day salvation for all lost but faithful souls.

Despite the range in the record’s narrative arc, the political fire of the first half of Wrecking Ball establishes a tone that the album never quite shakes. So if 2002’s The Rising will always be remembered as Springsteen’s “9-11 album”, it’s a safe bet that Wrecking Ball will go down as his “Occupy album”. Message aside and from a purely musical standpoint, the new album is Springsteen’s most enjoyable and freshest-sounding in ages.

Bruce has said that Wrecking Ball is one of the most direct records he’s ever made, and, since it is the first album of originals in ten years that Springsteen has recorded without producer Brendan O’Brien, he may be right. After all, O’Brien is a notorious futzer in the booth, and the layered, dense quality of 2007’s Magic and 2009’s Working on a Dream often took the arrangements unrecognizably far from the E Street shuffle of yestershore. Ron Aniello was brought in to produce Wrecking Ball, a move that paid off, as the record sounds terrific, not that Aniello brings a particularly light touch -- the personnel list is a mile long, and the record is brimming with samples, electronic beats, and piled-on instrumentation. Yet Springsteen’s voice is pushed up front, and the sonic embellishments gracefully support the songs and rarely feel indulgent or detract from the almighty melodies on the record. Instead, the vocal whoops, electronic drums, and sound effects are subtle enough to avoid imposing themselves but timely enough to add rhythm and propulsion to the tracks.

Lead single and album opener “We Take Care of Our Own” follows “The Rising”’s musical template -- that is, a crescendoing cacophony of anthemic, monochromatic choruses and vocal hey-heys about faith and country and elemental imagery. These are scathing message songs that sound patriotic, an irony lost on nearly everyone who hears them, another great Springsteen tradition. In fact, the angriest songs on Wrecking Ball are the most fun to dance to.

“Easy Money” is more quintessential modern-day Bruceness, since synth-and-violin countermelodies have largely supplanted the sax-and-keys sound of old. The fiddles do-si-do with a thick wash of guitar and gospel background vocals for a midtempo two-step hootenanny, featuring Bruce yelping like the dude from “State Trooper” ready for another ride into the wee wee hours. “Shackled and Drawn”, a hammer-slinging chant mined from the great folk songbooks, is Bruce’s catchiest chain-gang song since “Working on the Highway”.

“Jack of All Trades” finds Springsteen returning to straightforward ballad writing. Like much of the record, it’s either a love song about money or a money song about love, so call this one, “If I Should Fall Behind on My Payments”. In any case, it’s a lovely waltz, especially that trumpet solo, even though (or because?) it sounds like the theme song to The Waltons. And speaking of musical irony, Tom Morello guests here, lending one of his patented machine-shop guitar solos to the album’s slowest song.

“Death to My Hometown” is a rugged Irish stomp in “American Land” mode, as a tin whistle dances on a stormy rabble of jumbled chanting. It’s the record’s fieriest song, making like Dylan circa ’63 by piling on a catalogue of grievances that build to a perfectly-timed shotgun cock-and-blast.

“Wrecking Ball” is a ringer, a song that the Boss wrote for the impending destruction of Giants Stadium and debuted on the Working on a Dream tour. The version here is a leaner, faster machine, one that combines folk Bruce and rocker Bruce as well as any. Handclappy and fistpumpy, “Wrecking Ball” incorporates the acoustic-guitar-and-horns model of the Seeger Sessions into the anthemic rise-up fortitude of the classic, heart-swelling Springsteen mythos.

Nothing here sounds much like ‘70s or even ‘80s Springsteen, but “You’ve Got It” comes closest to what Bruce used to sound like in its melody and Bruce’s vocal delivery, and not just because it sounds an awful lot like “All or Nothin’ at All” from 1992’s Human Touch. “Rocky Ground” will be the song that divides the Bruce believers, as it’s the most fussily produced of the new songs, with a gospel-gal hook here, a shouting-minister sample there, looping beats everywhere, and… egads… some girl is rapping. It’s all artfully arranged and interwoven, but the rap verse wasn’t worth the gamble Springsteen and Aniello took, as Bruce’s reach finally exceeds his considerable grasp in this case.

The full-blown gospel choir that joins “Rocky Ground” segues into more Pentecostal shouting, which introduces “Land of Hope and Dreams”. It’s a song that anyone with an interest in Springsteen already knows well as an encore staple of recent tours. However, any feeling that the song’s inclusion is merely filler -- an old song thrown in as padding -- is swept aside by the terrific studio version here, a brighter, peppier take than the one released on 2001’s Live in New York City, and when Clarence’s unmistakable sax (one of just two appearances on the album) busts out of the bridge, it’ll bring you to your knees. The album version also manifestly pays tribute to “People Get Ready”, the song’s most obvious ancestor, and overall reminds us that “Land of Hope and Dreams” is one of Springsteen’s finest modern originals.

The regular set ends with “We Are Alive”, a song that, both thematically and musically, binds the record’s two halves -- pissed-off folk and gospel-laced rock -- as Springsteen gives voice, Spoon River style, to the subjugated dead, who join the ghost of Tom Joad, beneath banjos, handclaps, mariachi horns, and Tex Ritter guitars. It’s a suitable ending to a record that finds Springsteen still firing on all cylinders -- writing with poetic urgency, drawing on traditions old and new, singing and playing with prime strength and energy, and delivering a new set of killer melodies with fresh sonic wallop. At this stage in a rocker’s career, it’s a lot to ask for, but Springsteen proves again that there’s nobody better to deliver it.

9

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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