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CD Reviews:
The Listening Room: Bruce Springsteen, Andrew Bird and more...

for Journal Register Newspapers

Posted: Sunday, March 4, 2012

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Bruce Springsteen

"Wrecking Ball"



"Where's the promise from sea to shining sea?" is hardly a new question for Bruce Springsteen; it's been a central tenant of much of his music since he began looking outwards in 1978's "Badlands." Springsteen is one who believes the American Dream is more entitlement than accident, and "Wrecking Ball," his 17th studio album, takes stock of it amidst historically hard times. Its 11 protest songs (13 on a deluxe edition) walk a line between resolve and despair, intertwining the two in a song like "Jack of All Trades," whose subject announces "I can see the light" while still vowing vengeance on those who put him behind the economic eight ball: "If I had me a gun, I'd find the bastards and shoot 'em on sight" -- one of several "Wrecking Ball" references that might convince bankers and politicians it would be wise to cross to the opposite sidewalk if they see Springsteen coming down the street. But if "Wrecking Ball" doesn't necessarily surprise us with its lyrical tenor, Springsteen's musical approach, co-produced with new cohort Ron Aiello, is a broad-reaching and even experimental mish-mash of heartland folk and 21st century pop. While the first single, "We Take Care of Our Own," charges out with fist-waving, anthemic fury, the bulk of the album incorporates a richly potent blend of Celtic flavors, Depression-era balladry, country-western twang, martial rhythms and edgy atmospherics. "Rocky Ground," for instance, loops in a 1942 recording of "I'm a Soldier in the Army of the Lord" and incorporates a brief rap by Michelle Moore, while the album-closing "We Are Alive" is driven by the familiar guitar riff and trumpet salvo of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire." It's a far cry from E Street -- Springsteen's regular band members, save for wife Patti Scialfa, are scarce, although the set features two sax solos by the late Clarence Clemons -- and there's extensive use of vocal chorales, string and horn sections, loops, samples and a pair of striking guitar solos by Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello. Some of it takes a few lessons to really sink in, but, as Springsteen sings in a studio recreation of the concert favorite "Land of Hope and Dreams," that faith will truly be rewarded.


Andrew Bird, "Break It Yourself" (Mom+Pop) **1/2

Multi-instrumentalist -- but mostly violinist -- Bird has been something of an acquired taste over the course of 12 albums with is band, Bowl of Fire, and as a solo artist. But on "Break It Yourself" he continues the more accessible path of 2009's "Notable Beast," and the likes of "Give It Away," "Eyeoneye" and the downright poppy "Near Death Experience Experience" [cq] are some of the most fully realized songs he's ever released. Other standouts including the shimmering folk of "Lusitania," which features St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark), the calypso-flavored "Danse Caribe" and "Hole in the Ocean Floor," an ebb-and-flow composition that goes by quicker than its eight-plus minutes. It's a definite entry point for anyone put off by his more esoteric earlier fare.

New & Noteworthy:

Todd Agnew, "How to Be Loved" (Columbia): The Christian pop singer-songwriter from Memphis keeps the faith on his first new album in three years.

Every Time I Die, "Ex Lives" (Epitaph): The Buffalo headbangers tapped Joe Baressi (Tool, Queens of the Stone Age) to produce their sixth studio album.

Rocco Deluca, "Drugs 'N Hymns" (429): The California singer-songwriter changes label homes for his fourth album after a tenure on actor Keifer Sutherland's Ironworks imprint.

Floratone, "Floratone II" (Savoy Jazz): A second teaming of guitarist Bill Frisell's quartet with drummer Matt Chamberlain and others yields 13 new songs, with guest appearances by cornetist Ron Miles and multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion.

Human Nature, "The Motown Record" (UMe): The Smokey Robinson-approved Australian vocal quartet lays down a dozen Hitsville favorites it's currently performing in Las Vegas.

I See Hawks in L.A., "New Kind of Lonely" (Western Seeds): The California psychedelic folk-rock troupe unplugs for an acoustic-minded sixth album.

JB and the Moonshine Band, "Beer For Breakfast" (Average Joes): The album title might give you a sense of what this honky-tonk rock troupe from Texas gets up to on its sophomore release.

Kaiser Chiefs, "Start the Revolution Without Me" (B-Unique/Cooperative Music/Downtown): The British quintet's fifth album features five new songs along with eight culled from 2011's digitally released "The Future is Medieval."

Lovedrug, "Wild Blood" (Lovedrugmusic): The Canton, Ohio, modern rock troupe funded its fourth album with fan contributions -- in exchange for a cover of Def Leppard's "Hysteria."

The Magnetic Fields, "Love at the Bottom of the Sea" (Merge): Stephin [cq] Merritt and his troupe bring synthesizers back into the mix after putting them aside for a three-album hiatus.

Idina Menzel, "Live Barefoot at the Symphony" (Concord): The Broadway and TV actress ("Rent," "Wicked," "Glee") recorded this album and DVD in Toronto with the 52-piece Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony.

120 Days, "120 Days II" (Splendour): The Norwegian quartet scrapped another planned sophomore album before settling into this follow-up to its 2006 debut.

Royalush, "It's Only Kinky the First Time" (High School): Rich vocal harmonies mark this Los Angeles hard rock group's otherwise aggressive approach.

Jenny Scheinman, "Mischief & Mayhem" (self-released): The violinist recorded her latest album with Wilco's Nels Cline, Ani DiFranco cohort Todd Sickafoose and credentialed drummer Jim Black.

Todd Snider, "Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables" (Aimless): The socially conscious singer-songwriter's first new album in three years follows a well-received 2011 live set.

Ty Stone, "American Style" (Top Dog/Atlantic): The singer-songwriter and Kid Rock protege from Detroit's downriver suburbs releases his long-in-the-making debut album, online and through Meijer stores.

Tyrone Wells, "Where We Meet (Position): The singer-songwriter from Spokane returns with his first new music in three years, and a new label deal to boot.

White Rabbits, "Milk Famous" (Mute): The Brooklyn indie rockers recorded the bulk of their third album in Austin, Texas, with producer Mike McCarthy (Spoon, Patty Griffin, etc.)

Alex Winston, "King Con" (Cooperative Music/V2): The Bloomfield Hills-bred singer-songwriter, now in New York, releases her first full album after a series of EPs.

Yellow Ostrich, "Strange Land" (Barsuk): Wisconsin singer-songwriter Alex Schaaf cut his second Yellow Ostrich album with the trio he formed after releasing 2010's acclaimed debut, "The Mistress."

From The Vaults: Gary Allan, "Icon" (MCA Nashville); Blues Traveler, "25" (Hip-O Select); Tracy Byrd, "Icon" (MCA Nashville); Clanand, "The Essential Clannad" (RCA/Legacy); Fleetwood Mac, "Go Your Own Way: Live 1977" (IMV Blueline); Israel Houghton and New Breed, "Decade" (Integrity Media); Michael Jackson, "Icon" (Motown/UMe); Carole King, "Touch the Sky," "Welcome Home," "Simple Things" and "Pearls: Songs of Goffin and King" (all Rockingale/Concord); Mark Lindsay, "The Complete Columbia Singles" (REal Gone); Wes Montgomery, "Echoes of Indiana Avenue" (Resonance); Rick Nelson, "The Complete Epic Recordings" (Real Gone); Diana Ross, "Icon" (Motown/UMe)

New Music DVDs: Merrell Fankhauser, "Best of the Tiki Lounge Vol. 1 & 2" (Gonao MultiMedia)

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