Monthly Archives: April 2012

Todd Snider/Bruce Springsteen

Being easy for anthems, examinations of class and privilege that come down on the side of the least privileged, and Springsteen himself, I tried to give Wrecking Ball every conceivable break. I even buy some of the arguments I’ve read in its favor—particularly that the songs are hazy on specifics because they’re protest songs; being broad is the whole point. To which I must counter (and I’m hardly the first) that the people with the most to protest can’t afford a ticket to the live show where these songs undoubtedly find their ideal home. For class-conscious songs that resonate in any setting, and employ humor as the great weapon and salve it can and should be, there is Todd Snider.

Todd Snider: Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables
In a world of singer-songwriters with one specialty, Todd Snider has three. Aside from the socio-religio class songs that have become central to his work, he’s got a jaw-dropping knack for the acutely etched relationship song. He’s also developed a subgenre all his own with a series of biographical odes to his musical heroes that at once honor and demystify their subjects. “Brenda,” a highlight of Snider’s ninth album, may mark the first time he’s managed all three at once. The tale of the young couple who meet on a train and go on to build an empire together, only to feel their relationship fray as one of them stays home crunching the numbers that allow the other to party until dawn, is no less sweet or funny or wise for the revelation that it’s about Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. They’re the only millionaires here who aren’t appearing in the murder fantasies of someone less fortunate. Snider’s class-consciousness has grown plainer as he’s grown older. Funny from the beginning, he has never fused anger and humor as totally as he does here: “If I had a nickel/For every dime you had/I’d have half of your money/You talk about not half bad.” He’s just getting warmed up: “It’s too soon to tell what we’ll ever avenge/They say that living well is the best revenge/I say bullshit, the best revenge is revenge.” Snider sets all of this to a rough-hewn blues that seethes and scrapes around him, and he never hits harder than on “In Between Jobs,” in which he offers everyone in that particularly anxious purgatory, feeling duped yet undeterred, words to live by: “You think I‘m not very bright/And you might be right/I might have been born yesterday—but I was up all night.” That’s a great joke, but it’s a better threat. A

Bruce Springsteen: Wrecking Ball
Springsteen’s most sonically suped-up album since Born To Run comes packed with Alan Lomax field recordings, Celtic folk, drum loops, gospel choirs, and snatches of “Ring of Fire” and “People Get Ready.” Until you get to the ill-advised rapping, these are good ideas; they’re meant to give what amounts to Springsteen’s State of the Union address social and historical breadth, make the album a ragged and rangy music of the people. So it’s a shame the production, courtesy of Springsteen and a guy whose previous clients include Candlebox and Sixpence None the Richer, is so big and bloodless even Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello ends up sounding like the guy from Journey. For an album Springsteen’s been pushing as his angriest ever, it’s awfully prim. The Rising, Springsteen’s 2002 reaction to 9/11, and Magic, his 2007 survey of the Bush II era, were also too polished for their own good. But those albums had people. They had stories. Springsteen’s lyrics here are so broad they barely register. “Banker man grows fat/Working man grows thin/It’s all happened before/And it’ll happen again,” goes the representatively pat “Jack of All Trades.” But if Springsteen has any real feeling for what that working man lost (or any ire over what the banker man took from him), it’s swallowed whole by this 21-gun salute of an album. It’s some kind of miracle—or maybe just a testament to the kind of person Springsteen is—that he never once sounds disingenuous, nor remotely opportunistic. He wants to give us the Big Redemption his music has always promised, and his live shows are still where he gets it done because that’s where he still connects. Outside of the arena, Wrecking Ball stands as the most impersonal record he’s ever made. It’s a valiant failure, but a failure nonetheless: an album for everyone, seemingly about no one. B-

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April 2012 Consider/Avoid

More to avoid than consider this time around, much of which I’m told I’m supposed to like. The subtle (though often slight) beauty of Grimes did grow on me. Same with the skillful hedonism of Schoolboy Q. But the relentlessly frenetic (and wearying) Sleigh Bells? The needy earnestness of Alabama Shakes? With apologies to that taste-maker Brian Williams, I’d rather listen to Lana Del Rey. But avoid her too, if you still even care (and, really, why would you?).

Grimes: Visions (“Oblivion,” “Symphonia IX (my wait is u),” “Skin”)
Schoolboy Q: Habits & Contradictions (“Sacrilegious,” “There He Go,” “Blessed”)
Tennis: Young and Old (“Origins,” “Petition”)
Mark Lanegan Band: Blues Funeral (“Gravedigger’s Song,” “Harborview Hospital”)
Cate Le Bon: Cyrk (“Ploughing Out Part 1”)

Lana Del Rey: Born To Die
Damien Jurado: Maraqopa
Beth Jeans Houghton: Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose
Nada Surf: The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy
K’Naan: More Beautiful Than Silence
Frankie Rose: Interstellar
Sleigh Bells: Reign of Terror
Alabama Shakes: Boys & Girls

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Leonard Cohen/Craig Finn

These sinners-cum-sages have always derived much of their best work from a fraught relationship with the lord. That remains the case on both of these records—Cohen’s 12th and Hold Steady front man Finn’s first as a solo artist—only this time both are more concerned than usual with death. Of the two, it’s 77-year-old Cohen who affirms life, probably because his is the more serious reckoning.

Leonard Cohen: Old Ideas
“I love to speak with Leonard/He’s a sportsman and a shepherd/He’s a lazy bastard living in a suit.” So Leonard Cohen, in the voice of an entity far more omnipotent than himself, begins this self-described “manual for living with defeat.” He’s winking at you with that “lazy bastard” stuff. Cohen takes his time between records (eight years have passed since his last), but only because he selects his words with care enough for the Book of Life. Cohen has given up on singing per se, and these songs are slow even by his standards, but he still recites gold: “Had to go crazy to love you/Had to let everything fall/Had to be people I hated/Had to be no one at all,” goes “Crazy to Love You,” the ‘you’ he addresses corporeal or otherwise. That has something in common with “I needed so much/to have nothing to touch/I’ve always been greedy that way,” from 1984’s “Night Comes On.” Cohen’s a practicing Jew, but he’s also a practitioner of Buddhist meditation, and his obsession with having and being nothing as a means of attaining peace, or at least relinquishing control (“The older I get, the surer I am that I’m not running the show,” he told the Times in 2009) isn’t surprising for a man who spent five years in a Zen monastery. But peace is even harder than faith, and Cohen’s pursuit of both wouldn’t mean half as much if he weren’t so ornery, so horny, so hellishly funny. ”Both of us say there are laws to obey/But frankly, I don’t like your tone/You want to change the way I make love/I want to leave it alone,” he growls on “Different Sides,” the object of his frustration sounding very corporeal indeed. There is always too much to touch. No one knows that better than the man who’s been to the monastery and back. Be thankful for him while he’s here. A-

Craig Finn: Clear Heart Full Eyes
The title is a play on an oft-repeated motto from the late, great TV series “Friday Night Lights”: “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.” The point, I think, is to turn the youth and exuberance of that phrase into a description of that sad moment when experience begins to overtake wonder. At least I do after spending some time with the characters inhabiting Finn’s first solo album. Like older versions of the American boys and girls The Hold Steady has chronicled over its spectacular five-album run, these older boys and girls look for redemption in music, church, and booze, almost never in that order. But where The Hold Steady once raised a “toast to Saint Joe Strummer,” Jonny Rotten is the touchstone here. As in, “No future for you, no future for me.” Recorded with Nashville session players, the album works best on folk noir tales like “Western Pier,” in which a drifter who may have just gotten away with something very bad gets more mercy from the judge who’s “sorry love’s been such a let down” than from the lord himself. Less impressive are the moments when, in both voice and words, Finn retreats to the cadences of a Hold Steady album, and you start to miss Tad Kubler’s guitar. Thankfully, Finn’s knack for poetic omission is put to perfect use here. “I went to the SA to get some cigs/I asked the doorman to remember me/I looked up to see the moon/And I saw you and him out on the balcony/It was the same thing that you did to me.” Do we let our minds take us to the extremes of what that “it” could be or is she just, I don’t know, lighting the guy’s cigarette? These characters hurt too much to tell the whole story. B+

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