Just for the record: Let me take you on a Bruce cruise
A fortnightly review of music on vinyl
It’s all Boss at the moment. A new documentary released this month, Asbury Park: Riot, Redemption, Rock ’n’ Roll, features the seaside resort’s most notable exports, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, recounting (along with several others) their Jersey Shore roots.
Directed by Tom Jones, the film explores the town’s history and how unemployment led to the civil unrest that laid waste to the Asbury Park’s predominately black neighbourhoods, including its fabled jazz and blues scene. The film traces the aftermath and the rise of Springsteen and the Jersey sound, with a focus on the famed venue the Upstage, which became a hub for musicians from all over Asbury Park.
The film features recent concert footage of Springsteen – and serves as an appetiser for his forthcoming new solo album, Western Stars (Columbia). Released in June, it’s his first new studio album in five years and, what’s more, it’s arguably a whole new kind of Springsteen, too.
According to the bumf, the 13 new songs on Western Stars drew their inspiration in part from the Southern California pop records of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Think of Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” meeting the Beach Boys with all the usual sweeping US themes: wide open spaces, endless highways, emotional wastelands and what have you. “This record is a return to my solo recordings featuring character driven songs and sweeping, cinematic orchestral arrangements,” said Springsteen in a statement. “It’s a jewel box of a record.”
Musically, it seems very big, with arrangements that, apart from guitar, bass, drums and keys, include strings, horns, pedal steel and contributions from more than 20 guest artists. Last week, Springsteen released another teaser from the album, There Goes My Miracle, which sees him dropping his trademark gravelly growl and upping the register for a clear tenor a la Roy Orbison.
This follows Hello Sunshine, a bittersweet slice of atmospheric introspection that is perhaps more in keeping with the latter-day Boss as we’ve come to know him.
BEATING A NEW DRUM
There were resounding endorsements at the weekend in the British press for The Healing (Buda Musique) by Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness, or BCUC, the seven-piece ensemble from Soweto. The group have wowed audiences at international festivals in the past few years. By rights, their explosive stage act – all pounding percussion, deep baselines, and vocals that range from deep growling and shouting to sweet soul singing – should be difficult to capture on vinyl. But The Healing, like previous releases Emakhosini and Yinde, does so with some flair.
Their songs are long, 20 minutes at times, but they never drag. Opener The Journey With Mr Van Der Merwe takes up all of the first side of The Healing. It is all fury, a charge against inequality and injustice, which suddenly breaks for a hauntingly mournful vocal section before building up to a thunderous crescendo. Writing in the Financial Times, critic David Honigmann says the album contains the “most thrilling music from SA in many years”.
Over at the Guardian, where The Healing was declared world music album of the month, journalist Robin Denselow writes how BCUC have shaken up the SA scene by “mixing the ancient and modern with a real sense of danger”. Their music, he says, ebbs and flows “like a storm” and has the “wild but trancelike quality” of the Moroccan Joujouka musicians.
When Emakhosini (Buda Musique) was voted the Guardian’s best world music album of 2018, Denselow declared BCUC the year’s “most exhilarating newcomers” and their music “a dramatic, often intimidating blend of ancient South African chants, township influences and contemporary bass riffs matched against Kgomotso Mokone’s cool, soulful vocals.”
Most of The Healing’s second side is taken up by Sikhulekile, 15 minutes of percolating mayhem that features guest artist Femi Kuti, the saxophonist whose father Fela was a role model for BCUC with his extended, scabrously political songs. If, at times, it sounds as if the younger Kuti is hanging on to the music for dear life, then he probably is.
As rock biographies go, Nothing’s Bad Luck: The Lives of Warren Zevon by CM Kushins (Da Capo Press), an acclaimed new book on a singer-songwriter who remained a fringe cult figure but certainly deserved better, has all the requisite self-destruction that goes with the form.
But his was not mere brattish behaviour, for Zevon brought a certain resolution and literary mystique to his benders; his excesses were steeped in such violence and madness they seemed as if they had crawled from pulp noir. He was forever coming round from the blackouts in motel rooms on the wrong side of Los Angeles staring at a mirror with a revolver in his hand.
This was part of his artistic process. He was especially fond of alcohol; like most of his literary heroes, he regarded it as a creative stimulant, even giving himself a nickname: F Scott Fitzevon. When the booze worked, it did so in spades.
His first album, 1969’s Wanted Dead or Alive (Liberty), was a critical and commercial failure and best forgotten. But 1976’s Warren Zevon (Asylum Records) was a masterpiece, a takedown of Tinsel Town that was seemingly more inspired by the novels of Raymond Chandler and Nathanael West and the films of Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder than the usual sunny 1970s southern California country-rock tropes.
Linda Ronstadt would go on to successfully cover three of its tunes, the ballads Hasten Down the Wind and Carmelita, and the rocker Poor, Poor Pitiful Me.
The stress to produce a follow-up was evident on Excitable Boy (Asylum), released two years later. It’s a no-less essential album, but now the songs verge on the cartoonish, with characters that rode in from B-grade movies, shooting from the hip. There’s a perverse Cold War paranoia in songs like Lawyers, Guns and Money and the mercenary anthem, Roland, the Headless Thompson Gunner.
The album spawned Zevon’s only big radio hit, Werewolves of London, a catchy bit of nonsense that was as endearingly funny as it was bizarre.
It was diminishing returns after that – for a while at least. The alcohol and drug abuse took its toll. The one highlight that followed was the raucous 1980 live album, Stand in the Fire (Asylum), which serves as a better greatest hits package than 1986’s A Quiet Normal Life: The Best of Warren Zevon (Asylum). Both Warren Zevon and Excitable Boy have been recently reissued on vinyl.
After a spell in rehab, a sober Zevon rebooted his career in 1987 with Sentimental Hygiene (Virgin), his strongest record in more than a decade. While it cast a rueful and somewhat mordant eye backwards at his addiction, it rocked out harder than anything he’d done before thanks to REM who stood in as Zevon’s backing band. Guest artists Neil Young, Bob Dylan and George Clinton also brought a certain gravitas to the proceedings. No word of a reissue just yet, though, but copies do turn up at vinyl fairs.
Zevon was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer in August 2002. In the last few months of his life he recorded The Wind (Artemis Records), a strong, star-studded album that plumbed for the cheerfully cynical (for Zevon this was optimism and the sunniest of dispositions) rather than maudlin reflections of his own mortality – although the inclusion of Dylan’s Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door was stating the obvious.
Roll out the reefer and roll up the carpet – reissue specialists Music on Vinyl are to re-release (on red vinyl) Dread at the Control Dubwise, the legendary set by the late DJ, producer and vocalist Mikey Dread.
It was said that the entire Jamaican recording industry had a hand in this album, which was recorded in various sessions with the cream of the island’s reggae session musicians at Kingston’s hallowed Channel One Studios in the late 1970s.
The honours list included, among others, Robbie Shakespeare, Ranchie McLean, Earl “Bagga” Walker, Sly Dunbar, Carlton “Santa” Davis, Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace, Earl “Chinna” Smith, Augustus Pablo, Ansel Collins and Gladdy Anderson, with production credits by Prince Jammy, King Tubby, Errol Thompson and Ernest Hookim.
Not for nothing was the original vocal version of the album, 1979’s Dread at the Controls (Trojan Records, and reissued by Music on Vinyl in 2018) a blast. This was one of the most phenomenal-sounding reggae albums of its day, and would have been a smash even without Dread (real name Michael Campbell) opening his mouth. Here were classic reggae grooves spun out in long, slinky hypnotic strands that sound impossibly more cavernous and sumptuous on the dub version. The two albums deserve to be heard together.