Just for the record: Down to business with The Boss
A fortnightly guide to music on vinyl
He’s been rather busy these past three years, has Bruce Springsteen. In 2016, he toured a revival of 1980’s The River (Columbia Records), and then published his autobiography, Born to Run. The hoopla surrounding the book had hardly settled when he began a solo residency at New York City’s Walter Kerr Theatre in October 2017 performing a show based on the memoir, Springsteen on Broadway. It was a runaway success, running until mid-December last year, and was commemorated with a Netflix special.
It has also been released as a critically acclaimed four-LP set, a two-and-a-half hour theatrical production in which Springsteen plays the part of Springsteen, laying on the humour and sentimentality in a well-crafted illusion of intimacy as he introduces his audience to significant milestones in the Springsteen story by way of lengthy spoken introductions to songs.
It may work for some, but the “theatricality” of Springsteen on Broadway (Columbia) is not for me. As solo outings go, 1982’s Nebraska (Columbia), a stark acoustic set recorded in a home studio as a demo, remains a benchmark.
Most of Springsteen’s albums are terrific, although if I had to choose a favourite, it would, for purely personal reasons, be 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town (Columbia), a collection of songs that was the antithesis of 1975’s breakout success, Born to Run, and its epic celebration of freedom. Darkness was, well … very dark, shot through with despair and desperation with songs haunted by broken promises and shattered dreams.
And we waited a long time for that record. Springsteen was hailed as the saviour of rock upon Born to Run’s release in cover stories for both Time and Newsweek magazines. Such unprecedented hype threatened to derail his career – as did a bitter lawsuit with Mike Appel, his then manager and publisher, which resulted in a two-year studio lockout. Unable to record, Springsteen spent the time writing new songs, so much so, that when he was finally able to get back into a studio, he recorded enough material for four albums.
One of them was Darkness. But a further 21 unreleased songs written and mostly recorded between 1976 and 1978 later turned up on 2010’s The Promise (Columbia), a triple LP set that offered an idea of what might have been had Springsteen been allowed to work on an immediate follow-up to Born to Run. It is not only a worthy companion to Darkness, even if does lack the latter’s anger and bitterness, but The Promise also stands on its own as a great Springsteen record and, despite its epic sprawl, does sound like a focused and complete project.
Fans of African music were saddened by the recent death of Zimbabwean guitarist and songwriter Oliver Mtukudzi. One of his early Western champions, the American slide guitarist and blues artist Bonnie Raitt, once described his unique blend of mbira, mbaqanga, wit and other southern African music traditions thus: “The juxtaposition of what Mtukudzi sings about and his raw, imploring, vocal reminds me of Otis Redding, Toots Hibbert and some of my favourite reggae, an odd pairing of agonising, thorny lyrics over basically lighthearted music.”
It’s a pity, as far as vinyl junkies are concerned, that his later “international breakthrough” albums, such as 1999’s indispensable Tuku Music (Sheer Sound/Putumayo), were only ever released on CD. Hopefully, vinyl editions will be considered should there be plans to reissue Mtukudzi’s back catalogue.
Mtukudzi’s earliest recordings, cut for a domestic market with backing band The Black Spirits, were however released on vinyl, on Zimbabwe’s small and now long-gone Kudzanayi Records label. These are, it hardly needs to be said, quite rare and, with his passing, dealers are asking a fortune for them. A Discogs trader, for example, has a copy of Mtukudzi’s 1978 debut, Ndipeiwo Zano (Kudzanayi BL 151), and wants more than R10,500 for it. Its condition is listed as “very good plus”. There must be others out there, so get digging in those vinyl fair and flea market crates.
COVERED New York’s Mercury Rev have been described as being more of a long, strange trip than a band, and their latest album is certainly a case in point, a weird left-field excursion in which the psych-pop pranksters boldly cover in toto a long-lost country-soul gem from 1968, Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete (Capitol Records).
The Gentry album, 12 segued songs that detailed the songwriter’s Mississippi childhood in a swampy, folk-tinged serving of blues, country, gospel and southern soul, and followed her successful 1967 debut, Ode to Billie Joe. The Delta Sweete was another acclaimed album but, like all of Gentry’s subsequent releases, it failed to make much of an impression on the charts. It did go on to become a cult item, though, one of the great underrated masterpieces of American music. Certainly, the decision to remake the album a half-century later was a bold one, but Mercury Rev appear to have pulled it off, and result, Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete Revisited (Bella Union), is a tender, opulent and affectionate reboot, albeit one in which the group sort of take a pronounced back seat.
All the upfront work was passed on to the album’s 13 female guest vocalists, including Norah Jones, Margo Price, Beth Orton, Vashti Bunyan, Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval and Lucinda Williams, who closes the album with Ode to Billy Joe. The song, admittedly, wasn’t on the original album, but its presence here is fitting as its success did allow Gentry the autonomy and respect to make The Delta Sweete.
Some critics have suggested that the Mercury Rev album will serve as a fresh introduction to Gentry and a reappraisal of her work. It may even prompt a revisit to the group’s own earlier albums, like 1998’s Deserter’s Songs (V2 Records, reissued on the band’s label, Excelsior Melodies, last year), a masterpiece that drew comparisons with Americana legends The Band.
There’s an emerging indie genre that some critics have rather lazily pigeonholed “songs by sad girls with guitars”. Current rising star of this wallflower fringe, Jessica Pratt, would probably prefer that other, more convenient label “freak folk”: her insular and engaging style – low-key recordings of her hushed dreamy vocal style and simple acoustic guitar accompaniment – has, for example, invited comparisons with Joni Mitchell, David Crosby and others from the late 1960s’ Laurel Canyon scene.
Pratt’s recording career began in San Fransisco, where she was then based, when an awestruck friend started a small label, Birth Records, solely to release her music. Her home-recorded self-titled 2012 debut has been described as like eavesdropping on a shy housemate singing to herself in her bedroom. It was initially a limited release and quickly sold out, as critical acclaim and general audience approval grew with subsequent touring. Thankfully, Pratt did little to change things for her 2015 follow-up, the more widely-available On Your Own Love Again (Drag City Records), adding only the subtlest of embellishments to produce an album that brought out the rhapsodic in the music press and, more critically, resulted in a flood of invitations to tour in support of high-profile artists Father John Misty, Julia Holter and Beach House.
Her latest, Quiet Signs (Mexican Summer/City Slang), out this month, steps up things a bit. It’s her first album recorded in a professional studio, and, according to Mojo magazine, the result is “mercurial in every sense: silvery, surprising, spinning away from wherever it’s just been pinned down”. You can get a taste of what the Guardian calls its “quiet disquiet” here.
THE ESSENTIAL COLLECTION
Aficionados will tell you there has never been anyone quite like Howlin’ Wolf (or, as his birth certificate puts it, Chester Arthur Burnett), and it’s unlikely there will ever be another. A physically terrifying presence – he was more than 1.9m tall and weighed about 135kg in his prime – the Wolf personified the full primal force of the blues. Of his peers, Muddy Waters may have had the dignity and BB King the technical expertise, but the Wolf was unmatched when it came to live performances that threatened to tear down the joint while scaring his audience out of their minds.
Wolf’s debut LP, Moanin’ In The Moonlight, a 1958 collection of recordings for Chicago’s Chess label, is the recommended place to start, packed as it is with some of his better known sides, including How Many More Years, Smokestack Lightnin’, I Asked For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline) and Evil. Several labels have reissued the album on vinyl in recent years. Most of them are rather shoddy. The exception is last year’s Universal Music release (pictured), a wonderful package that not only faithfully reproduces the original but is a fantastic 180g pressing. It’s the next best thing after the original mono release (Chess LP 1434), copies of which are prized by collectors and sell for hundreds of dollars.
Wolf’s second, self-titled Chess LP, released in 1962, is also worth investigating. Known as the “Rocking Chair” album, it includes yet more well-known standards, such as Wang-Dang Doodle, Spoonful, Back Door Man and Little Red Rooster, a song which the Rolling Stones covered and released as a UK single in 1964.
It was a number one hit, the only time ever that a blues tune has topped the British pop charts.
There are a number of recent Howlin’ Wolf reissues on the market, including a 2016 edition by the Dutch label, Music on Vinyl (MOVLP1283), released on orange vinyl, oddly enough.