LP Review: Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Western Stars’ – Born To Bacharach?

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I had been hearing for a while that Springsteen had cut a solo album, heavily influenced by Jimmy Webb, whose songs were made famous predominantly by the legend Glen Campbell. The most famous of those tracks was “Wichita County Lineman.” Interestingly enough, I saw the Stones in Wichita one time with my old college buddy Drew. The Stones did “Wichita County Lineman” and Mick said, “Everybody who plays Wichita probably plays this track, but here’s our version…” Drew said, “Actually, nobody ever does that song here.”

Hearing Springsteen was doing a Jimmy Webb/Southern California-70’s style album had a lot of people concerned this was going to be a country album. A lot of artists like say, Bon Jovi have done a country album late in their career as a crass commercial move. I will give country fans credit where credit is due… they still buy albums and CDs. And if they could they’d probably still be buying 8-tracks. Well, that’s only a theory…tip of the Stetson to you country folk out there. Hearing Western Stars and spending the last few weeks with it, I can tell you, it’s not country. It has more in common with Burt Bacharach’s sound to me.

I’ve had a real mixed relationship with Springsteen’s “solo” work, ie, his work without the E Street Band. I grew up in the midwest, which was Springsteen flyover country. He was big in the Northeast and the Ohio Valley… even down the eastern seaboard. He was big on the edges of the country. Chicago and California embraced him. In Kansas City he wasn’t really that big of a deal until later. Maybe radio programmers thought he was too “east coast,” whatever that means.

In 1979 I absolutely fell in love with The River. It was the first album with songs that got significant airplay in KC and so I made that huge double-LP investment and bought it. It was all over stylistically and I love every track on that album. I just loved the whole concept of this gang – The E Street Band. It all sounded so cool…and yes, I liked the way they dressed, homeless chic. Where was this E Street, and how do I get there? I slowly worked my way backwards through his wonderful early catalog. I was just back home from a very difficult first semester in college during my freshman year for Christmas break and was in the mall with my then-girlfriend and we passed by one of the record stores. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a rack full of Nebraska albums. I hadn’t heard any of the music, or anything about the album, but it was Springsteen, hells yes! I dropped my girl’s hand and went lunging into the record store. I was not emotionally prepared for the bleak music that poured out of my speakers when I got home that day. I realize Nebraska is a classic, but it took me a long, long time to appreciate it. You won’t hear that album at a party.

The next solo album by Springsteen was Tunnel of Love. There were cameos by the band, most notably Nils Lofgren’s amazing guitar solo on the title track, but it was a Springsteen solo project. I love that album, it’s a masterpiece. After that tour Springsteen went solo and fired the E Street Band. The resulting two albums, released on the same day, Human Touch/Lucky Town were a bit of a mess. Human Touch was overly produced and sounded labored. Lucky Town was lyrically rich but plodding musically. I still think there is one good album hidden in there… (iPod Playlist – Springsteen’s ‘Human Touch’/’Lucky Town’ LPs at 25: The B&V Single LP Edit). There are some great songs scattered across those two discs.

His next solo project was The Ghost Of Tom Joad. Other than the title track, I don’t think I’ve heard a track from that bleak album since…although “Youngstown” was a live staple. Devils and Dust recorded after he’d reunited with the E Street Band was topical but a truly great album. Like I say, it’s been an up and down road for me on Bruce’s solo stuff. All of his records have gems on them, but on his solo stuff you have to dig a little. Wrecking Ball certainly had a few great songs but overall, not my favorite Springsteen.

Western Stars,  while not country, is certainly country tinged… you’ll hear a pedal steel on a number of the tracks. This album, and I’d call it a genre exercise, is more of a sepia-toned, Southern California, 70s singer-songwriter album. There are strings on each track here that would make a young Elton John jealous. Springsteen’s voice, along with the strings, are front and center on this record. The other instrumentation is almost superfluous. You certainly aren’t going to get any screaming guitar solos here. He sings his ass off on this album. The vocal on There Goes My Miracle may be the most ambitious he’s ever done. These songs are, as the kids say, as melodic a.f. Sonically, this is as about as far away as you could get from Nebraska. It’s the lush kind of album you just don’t hear anymore.

This album conjures wide-open spaces, specifically in desert parts of the country like southern California, Nevada or Arizona. There is no social commentary in these songs as has been his more recent m.o. The songs are filled with drifters or men who are on the downward slope of life and somewhat down and out but the album is far from a bummer. Many of the protagonists are preoccupied with lost love or lost opportunity. The sun seems to always be going down. Most of the characters on this album could be described as a troubled Wichita lineman… There’s a sense of movement, or rather desperate men racing away from something… or finding escape through hard work under a big sky… with the past always near behind. I’ll be the first to admit, this album is somewhat monochromatic. It’s like Picasso’s blue period. Say man, try a little red.

The album opens with a pair of drifter tracks. “Hitchhikin'” opens the album and the first thing you hear is Springsteen’s voice, a perfect place to start. That leads into “Wayfarer,” which is the story of the hitchhiker if he had a car. While the first track has a nice acoustic guitar driving it, the second is all strings. The down on your luck theme continues later with the title track which tells the tale of a has-been actor, trading on his past glory for chicks and free drinks. “Drive Fast (Stuntman)” is the story of, obviously, a stuntman, near the end, hobbling around on “pins in my ankle.” “North of Nashville” finds a singer who never quite made it in the Country Capitol. All the protagonists mourn a lost love. While the songs all explore similar themes they’re all unique.

Lost love as a theme continues on “Sundown” “Stones” and “Moonlight Motel.” As a man who is no stranger to heartbreak I found these tracks all very moving. Although even I’ll admit “Stones” gets a tad repetitive. “Chasing Wild Horses” is the story of a guy with a temper issue who wears himself out at work each day to avoid fighting anybody at night. Like I said, its a bunch of troubled Wichita County Linemen…

The best tracks here, to me, include the first single, “Hello Sunshine.” That’ll be the track on the greatest hits packages going forward. It’s a classic tune, Review: Springsteen’s New Solo Song, “Hello Sunshine” From The Upcoming LP ‘Western Stars’. “There Goes My Miracle” is my favorite in a long list of strong vocal performances. Lately, and I don’t know why, I wake up with the refrain in my head, “there goes my miracle, walkin’ away.” On “Tucson Train” a man “down and out in Frisco” waits expectantly on his lover to arrive on the train to make everything better… why she isn’t taking the bus which is cheaper and faster, we’ll never know. I love a good train song and this one is the happiest track here.

There’s really only one song on this album I don’t like. It’s the change of pace, upbeat, Tex-Mex (almost zydeco) track, “Sleepy Joe’s Cafe.” It’s a bit like “Mary’s Place” on The Rising. It’s meant to be a bit of sunshine amongst a group of troubled characters but it just ends up being annoying. He could have easily cut that track and I’d have been happy.

This album makes me feel like I’m cruising down Highway 1 in California, top down with my shirt unbuttoned, with the wind blowing through my long hair and sideburns like it’s 1973, Aqua-Velva oozing from my pours, cowboy hat on the seat next to me. That’s just my 70s vibe, others might feel differently. I really like this album and urge everybody to check it out, despite it’s monochromatic bent. This is the most engaging, interesting thing Springsteen has done in quite a while.

Cheers!

 

 

 

Review: Springsteen’s New Solo Song, “Hello Sunshine” From The Upcoming LP ‘Western Stars’

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I took a little vacation down to the Florida Keys last week. It was good to get away. I was able to sit and roast in the sun (always use sunscreen folks, and don’t forget to slather your feet with it), put my headphones on and crank up the tunes… “Hello Sunshine,” indeed. The people the Rock Chick and I were traveling with, who live down there, are enormous music fans. Their principal interest remains classic rock and especially the blues. Every night ended with us sitting out on the lanai (a very fancy word for a screened-in deck/porch) cranking tunes on my little portable speaker and enjoying a nightcap, or two. I don’t think I’ve listened to that much Lynyrd Skynyrd since high school. Florida really is just Arkansas with coastline. Our traveling companions were laser-focused on finding live music every night which is always fun.

As part of an unplanned change-up during the trip, we left the Keys early and headed up to South Beach in Miami for that last night in the “Sunshine State.” At one point that evening, we ended up in a Salsa bar, which is a lot like ending up in marching band camp, all horns and noise…the horror, the horror. I was just trying to watch the Kentucky Derby and enjoy my bourbon. One might describe the week as a “musically immersive experience.” The best part of decamping early to Miami was the three hour drive up the Keys where my hosts played SiriusXM’s Spectrum station. The Spectrum plays classic and current rock. Over the course of the trip I heard the new Bruce Springsteen track, “Hello Sunshine” probably three times. It’s always better to first experience a new track in the car. There’s just something about driving and jamming.

Springsteen has been a busy man whilst on hiatus from the E Street Band. He had his very successful, one-man show on Broadway based on his autobiography, and won a Tony. He followed that up with a Netflix special of the show and the inevitable soundtrack there of, Review: Netflix’s ‘Springsteen On Broadway’ – The Artist’s Dialogue With Fans Comes to the Great White Way. I’d been hearing about a solo project he’d recorded either prior to his Broadway show or during that time frame. The new music was described as “beautifully orchestrated.” Springsteen hinted that he was looking for a certain late-60s/early 70s sound on this new mystery solo project. I also just read yesterday, in a sudden burst of creativity he wrote an album’s worth of material for an E Street Band album. Which is really good news for those of you fearing we’d never see those guys together again. For now at least, we have the new solo album to look forward to in June, Western Stars. 

When describing the specific 60s/70s sound he was looking for, Springsteen mentioned singer/songwriter Jimmy Webb. I’ll be the first to admit that Webb is not a household name. I have been fortunate in my life that I’ve always surrounded myself with music nuts. After college, many of us eventually ended up in Kansas City. The guy I spent most of my time with in those days was an old roomie of mine, who I’ll call Stormin (name obscured to protect the guilty). Storm is like me, a huge music fan. When we weren’t drinking beer and eating stolen t-bones, we liked to go to the record store, spelunking for new stuff. He actually purchased a Jimmy Webb album back in those days and played it for me. It had all these great old tunes, mostly made famous by Glenn Campbell, like “Wichita County Lineman,” “Galveston,” and “By The Time I Get To Phoenix.” I said, “Why is this guy doing all these covers?” Lo and behold, I found out that much to my embarrassment, Jimmy Webb wrote all those great songs and I’d had no idea.

Springsteen, of course, isn’t covering Jimmy Webb, he just wanted to capture that sound. The songs Webb wrote always had beautiful melodies and amazing orchestration. It’s easy to think that his stuff was made famous only by Glenn Campbell, meaning they are all country songs, but that would be wrong. His stuff was recorded by artists as diverse as Isaac Hayes, Waylon Jennings and the 5th Dimension. Disco queen Donna Summer even did “MacArthur Park.” Alas, Webb never found the success (commercially) as a recording artist that he did as a songwriter… the critics always seemed to like his records but not the fans in general.

On “Hello Sunshine,” Springsteen has indeed captured that beautiful orchestration that Webb was famous for. The influence is very strong. Frankly, I’m thrilled Springsteen is paying this much attention to the sound of his music. Sometimes he can get a little too focused on the lyrics and the message. His music has become ever more topical of late, which isn’t a bad thing, it’s just nice to hear Bruce do more of a “pop” song (for lack of a better description). Over hushed drums and a wonderful bass line, Bruce sings in a slightly deeper register and manages to capture both the sadness and joy in the lyrics. It’s one of the most nuanced vocal performances I’ve heard from the Boss. The strings and piano kick in and the song takes off. There’s a beautiful pedal steel signature that plays throughout. The track does have an old-school country vibe, and I really, really love this song. Even the Rock Chick, who likes a fraction of Springsteen’s music said, “This could be a really great Springsteen album.” This song is almost an anachronism… it feels like it belongs in another time and place.

The lyrics are just great. The track is about a guy coming out of a dark time, perhaps a depression. The first lyric says it all, “Had enough of heartbreak and pain,
I had a little sweet spot for the rain.” Some of us get used to the darkness and come to be almost comfortable in it. It seems the “Sunshine” of the title may be a new love… “I’ve always liked my walking shoes, but you can get a little too fond of the blues.” I just think the lyrics perfectly fit the mood of the track. I love the sound and I love Bruce’s singing here. “Hello Sunshine, won’t you stay…” Don’t we all feel that way sometimes?

I don’t think this is Bruce’s “country” album. If “Hello Sunshine” is any indication, I think Western Stars has a chance of being a great, old-school, singer-songwriter type of album. You know, like Springsteen on his first album. This gives all of us at B&V something to look forward to this summer. I highly urge everybody check this track out!

Cheers!