Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball
I had never been much of a Bruce Springsteen fan until recently, when a friend then gave me a crash course on his music, and I enjoyed it to the point that Wrecking Ball is the first album I’ve bought on launch day. Packaged in a simple card envelope, surrounded by CDs in plastic cases, it immediately stands out from the shelf as different from most new releases. And the album, peppered with Springsteen’s trademark off-mic mumbles, whoops and counting-in, feels more raw and genuine than the typical autotuned chart-toppers. There’s a wide variety of musical styles and instruments on use here, a plethora of folk instruments and heavy usage of backing singers. There’s also a religious element to be found in a number of the songs, with gospel or evangelical rhythms and backing singers particularly prominent in the tracks “Rocky Ground”. Consequently the album, while still having a distinct overall sound, rarely feels repetitive. The album carries a very angry message about American economic policy, but rather than feeling like a political statement masked as an album, it is still very much a musical album first, that happens to carry a statement.
The opening track, “We Take Care Of Our Own”, is perhaps the highlight of the album. It is very much “Born In The USA” for a new generation, employing an up-tempo, triumphant melody contrasted by dejected and angry lyrics. It’s certainly one for future Greatest Hits compilations, and will no doubt be severely misused in the run-up to the 2012 Presidential elections.
The title track “Wrecking Ball” is another superb record. Springsteen has been performing the song live since 2009, and in many of his live versions it has sounded distinctly angry and with a hard rock edge to it. The album version is softer, neither is superior to the other but simply different. It’s also the first of two tracks on the album to feature a Clarence Clemons saxophone solo, his last recorded album with the E-Street Band before passing away, and the booklet that comes with the album includes a touching memorial to Clemons.
Other memorable songs from the album include “Shackled and Drawn”, a folk song reminiscent of railroad working anthems, “We Are Alive”, a catchy campfire song, “Death To My Hometown”, a song that draws from Irish & Scottish folk rock, and “Easy Money”, a very classic-Springsteen sounding song. There are no bad songs on the album, but for me “Jack of All Trades” and “You’ve Got It” don’t quite hit the same mark as the rest of the album. They aren’t bad songs, but aren’t especially memorable either. The bonus edition of the album contains two further tracks, one of which, “American Land”, is particularly enjoyable. Springsteen has been performing it live since 2006, and the studio recording, inspired by Irish folk and sounding like a hybrid of Bruce Springsteen and The Pogues, is a real treat and a surprising omission from the main album. The other bonus track, “Swallowed Up”, is an unusual song that doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the album so it is understandable that it is a bonus song.
Overall, Wrecking Ball is a very good album, one of Springsteen’s most consistent and complete releases in a long time. There are at least two genuine instant-classics, and a number of other songs that grow on me each time I hear them. If you’re a Springsteen fan the album is a must purchase, if you’re not it’s still worth buying. I would also recommend the extended edition if only for “American Land”.
By Zach Cave
Perfume Genius – Put Your Back N 2 It
I always think that people like Perfume Genius (real name Mike Hadreas) are refreshing presences in modern indie music; his music has a quiet, honest vulnerability that is surprisingly affecting. He shares a penchant for quiet subtlety with artists like The xx, although the two are stylistically very different. His first album Learning, was full of fragile songs mostly consisting of voice and piano with lyrics about things like suicidal school teachers, and was highly praised when it was released in 2010.
His new album Put Your Back N 2 It (the title apparently refers to Prince-style text speak as he says in this recent interview with the Quietus) is unmistakeably the work of the same artist, but it feels much less insular. This album was recorded in an actual studio as opposed to mother’s house and so he the production is much more expansive. The core of most of the songs is still piano and voice but the extra instrumental colours give the album some nice variety; I particular like the subtle use of orchestral instruments. On ‘All Waters’ the whole atmosphere of the song is created by dark low strings sustaining under the defiant vocal, and ‘Awol Marine’ has a nice instrumental coda. This means that the album is far less homogeneous than Learning which makes it a more interesting (if maybe slightly less focused) listen than that album.
The lyrics on this album are less achingly personal than on his last album. The songs are more general often dealing with things like like love, sexuality and anxiety. Songs like ‘Hood’ (which had an advert containing footage from its music video scandalously banned from youtube) are easily relatable; the song deals with being afraid to truly be yourself in case people don’t love you. However, the lyrics are still quite a bit more introspective than on most albums but I think this is an irreducible part of Perfume Genius’s appeal. I also really like his vocal delivery on the album; each lyric feels meaningful when he sings it and his vocal range is better than it was on Learning.
The album can still be quite a heavy listen, however a lot of the songs deal with quite depressing subject matter so I don’t really think that this album is for everyone. But there are brighter moments here and there; one of my favourite songs on the album is called ‘Dark Parts’ and is a song Hadreas wrote for his mother. The first half of the song is a propulsive, framing a memorable vocal line amongst some driving piano and percussion. Then suddenly the momentum vanishes and he repeats the lyric ‘I will take the dark parts of your heart into my heart’ against sparse piano chords. The song demonstrates how much he has advanced as a musician; anyone with a penchant for beautiful, heartfelt music should check this out.
By Michael Vasmer
Daughn Gibson – All Hell
Pure country music has never really had an indie scene. However, as soon as it becomes grafted onto other genres then it has become very successful, as countless alt-country, folk and rockabilly bands have proven. Daughn Gibson has chosen the road less travelled. By manipulating voices and adding drumbeats and loops, he has tried to weld a supremely organic type of music with the cold tread of our electronic-21st century world.
Gibson’s motif derives from the country tunes one hears while driving down the road well past midnight. Imagine a route-66 version of Sinatra’s Sings Only For the Lonely. So the themes are certainly gloomy. Gibson narrates doomed scenarios of broken men, for instance he growls, “there’s nothing like a grown man crying” in “A Young Girl’s World”. His baritone echoed voice, reminiscent of Johnny Cash and Scott Walker, applies the depth to the lyrics, as in the depth of his characters’ existential abyss. And indeed because their situations seem so doomed, a perverse sense of enjoyment is incorporated. For one thing, many of the riffs are very catchy such as “Lookin’ Back on ‘99” with its menacing jangles, and the cathartic female chorus of “In the Beginning”. “Tiffany Lou” is perhaps the album’s best song. It’s chorus best exemplifies the tension between sadness and hubristic ecstasy. For it has the cold far-away moans of Gibson’s vocals, yet suddenly a flat note is struck on the guitar, followed by a few comfortable piano and you wonder if the chorus is some kind of redemption, until the song ends entropically with only the moans.
What is also invigorating is how Gibson manages to vary his songs within the album, while still maintaining a core concept. Throughout, you suddenly hear a seconds worth, of totally unexpected influence such as Paul Simon in the pre-chorus to “In the Beginning” or Kraftwerk in the feedback interlude to “Dandelions”. But perhaps Gibson’s greatest and most immediate debt is to James Blake, who through his debut album last year, has paved the way for a more quieter, patient sound where depth is more important than volume. Yet despite their similarities, Gibson’s debut is refreshingly idiosyncratic, and has a few single-worthy songs to create an impact for the less patient listeners.
By Josh Rogan
Beat Happening – You Turn Me On
This album marks the apex of the band that galvanized and refined the twee pop movement. “Twee” means something that is excessively quaint, and indeed Beat Happening was that. They rejected drugs and drinking in place for picnic and pie-baking parties. But what makes them important musically was the fact that they called themselves punk. In fact twee pop, which developed throughout the 80’s, essentially took punk to its rawest tenet of “I’ll do whatever I want to do”, especially eschewing the already formulaic style of leather jackets and safety pin piercing. Or as Beat Happening sang in “Hey Day”: “No golden rule”.
Beat Happening chose the less-travelled route where everything was incredibly informal: chords were jangled out, drum beats held a very fragile rhythm, instruments were swapped most songs, and if the speakers didn’t work then that would not mean stopping. Indeed upon first listen to their early songs, one wonders if they’d even be able to finish their song. Yet what perseveres is the songs’ simple greatness. Harking back to the basic virtuosity of The Velvet Underground’s eponymous third album, and catalysed by singer Calvin Johnson’s baritone confidence, they encapsulate a pure feeling.
You Turn Me On exhibits these feelings in their completed and varnished state. As the album title suggests, a prominent feeling is lust. Raw guitar riffs and primal drumbeats bleed through songs like “Pinebox Derby” and the Kinks-esque “You Turn Me On” which maintains a manic chorus of Johnson drawling “Turn me on dead man”. Indeed as “You Turn Me On” best highlights in its images of burning, Beat Happening are no longer playing kids. Their penultimate song “Hey Day” has the disaffectedness of their darker compatriots such as Sonic Youth and Nirvana. And yet conversely, the album also contains some of the band’s greatest love songs. The opener “Tiger Trap” harks back to the idyllic innocent scenes of Beat Happening’s early hits such as “Indian Summer” yet contain more conviction. Also the band’s secondary singer Heather Lewis finally comes into her own in this album, rather than merely playing Moe Tucker to Johnson’ Lou Reed. She sings three songs on the album with her girly charm, including the nine-minute droning love song “Godsend”, a landmark length for the band.
Indeed this album was a landmark for the band in many ways, most importantly it signalled a desire to mature. The songs no longer have the abrasive lo-fi quality of their earlier works, but show technical efforts such as over-dubbing, rhythmic ability and even guitar solos. Yet in tightening a sound, which is inherently loose, does the band not lose its purpose? For this album was the band’s last; and the closer “Bury The Hammer”, shared by both Johnson and Lewis, definitely has the swansong quality of riding into the sunset. Instead the Beat Happening story, which lasted nearly a decade, should be viewed more as a striving for an ideal. Thus once this ideal was realised in You Turn Me On, they had the choice of either continue playing into monotonous oblivion or end on a high. Once again the band chose the harder but more fulfilling route of disbanding and pursuing other interests, in order to preserve the legend of Beat Happening.
By Oliver White