Now Hear This 

CD reviews

Bruce Springsteen "Born to Run: 30th Anniversary Edition" (Columbia)

"Born to Run" is on most "greatest rock albums of all time" lists. Its opening visions of racing out of the twilight past into a nighttime future alive with possibility possess an almost mythic power — so much so that it overshadows the dawning doom of the second side.

Arguably Springsteen's best work was his next album, "Darkness on the Edge of Town," in which the mixture of dreams and disappointments are more elegantly balanced. But the transcendent intensity and ambition of "Born to Run" are undeniable. Marking three decades of release was going to take more than just a new 24-bit remastering.

The kicker in the set is a live performance DVD from London in November 1975, just weeks after the album's release. The skinny, mumbling Springsteen, with his scruffy beard and floppy cap, is far from his later buffed and polished incarnation in every way but his ability to connect with the audience. He and the E Street Band blast through a set of his earliest and best songs, culminating with evangelistic fervor in a medley of Detroit rock 'n' roll classics. Also included is a "Making of" documentary that, while very good, doesn't require repeated viewings. The concert performance is the reason to buy this set, a reminder that behind the great album, even through the haze of time and polyester, was a really great band. ***** — Peter McElhinney

Various artists "American Primitive Volume II: Pre-war Revenants (1897-1939)" (Revenant Records)

The last project overseen by the late "primitive" guitarist John Fahey, this two-CD set features a treasure trove of rare 78 rpm records that crackle and hiss with the ghostly sounds of forgotten blues. Handsomely packaged, the set includes 50 obscure tracks from unheralded singers and musicians whose hypnotic blues rags, folk, gospel and jazz-inflected songs were limited by the technology of the day, but still managed to sound more alive in spirit than much of what passes for popular music today. Of course, the sound quality varies, but there is plenty of amazing stuff to enjoy — from the phony preaching of "Shrimp Man" (1928) by (Red Hot) Old Mose to the slowly haunting "Last Kind Word Blues" by southerner Geeshie Wiley (which fans of the documentary "Crumb" may recognize). Wiley's tune features an archaic eight-bar verse structure that helped create one of the most distilled and affecting blues recordings ever. Truly moving stuff that will transport you to a time when music was less disposable. ***** — Brent Baldwin

Various artists "New Orleans Will Rise Again" (Night Train Records)

Unlike other Katrina benefit collections, this CD features gritty examples of obscure soul, R&B, blues, jazz and funk that sound like a truer representation of the mythical city's allure. Ten of the 22 tracks are previously unreleased, among them an infectious R&B oldie stomp, "The Thing" (by "Unknown"), that begins with hypnotic calypso percussion, then proceeds solely accompanied by a man whistling and singing to himself — achieving a kind of soulful meditation. Other standouts include: "Mama Ka Toka Laku Poo Poo Ya" by Alex Spearman (a sax-spewing oldie with a catchy chorus that sounds more like "Mama talk a lot of poo poo, yeah"); the funk gem "The Monkey That Became President Part 1" by Brotherhood; a rousing acoustic guitar singalong "Give Us a Drink Bartender" by Edmond "Doc" Souchon; and a rare 1959 boogie-woogie practice session, "Dirty Rotten Mother Fuyer," by maniacal pianist Jerry Raines. Like the city, this CD is rough and uneven but truly enchanting in spots. Proceeds benefit the New Orleans Musicians' Clinic. **** — Brent Baldwin

Mary J. Blige "The Breakthrough" (Geffen)

When Mary J. Blige pledged no more drama in her life on her last release, she meant it. On her seventh album, you won't find any volatile, thumping dance grooves reminiscent of "Family Affair" or "Real Love." For most of the album, Blige settles into a confident but mid-tempo groove that dips into the occasional ballad and is livened by a few break-beats, sweeping strings and piano tinkles. These days, domestic bliss is evident and the self-proclaimed "queen of hip-hop soul" is content, mature and offering up advice in the form of seasoned confessionals. Infusing the strength of a gospel choir on such tracks as "Be Without You" and "About You" with Black Eyed Peas' Will.i.am., and embracing the ease of a lullaby on "Take Me As I Am," Blige's vocals are both versatile and strong. Other guests include Jay Z and U2 front man Bono for the awkward, second coming of the band's hit, "One." Overall, these 16 tracks prove that while softer, Mary J. Blige continues to reign supreme as R&B royalty. *** — Hilary Langford

Coming to Town

Pearls and Brass "The Indian Tower" (Drag City Records)

Seems like established indie rock labels that used to be the sole province of shoe-gazing emo kids have been branching into other genres lately: especially hip-hop and heavy metal. Fans of heavy-rock "power trio" groups such as The Groundhogs, Cream and Sleep might appreciate these three young guys from Nazareth, Pa.

Recorded by Tim Green (ex-Nation of Ulysses), these throttling songs wallow in the kind of smoky loud rock — with requisite shifting time signatures — that one might have heard standing in the black-light section of Spencer's gift shop at the old Cloverleaf Mall circa 1978. Songs like "Face of God" and "Boy of the Willow Tree" betray the members' fascination with Wiccan stoner metal, better described here as a lumbering heavy blues that often veers into angular math rock territory. Bands like P&B usually make technically proficient, if predictable, jam albums that are more interesting (or tolerable) live. ** —Brent Baldwin

Pearls and Brass perform at Legend Brewery in Richmond Sunday, Jan. 29.



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