High Hopes, by Bruce Springsteen
The title track of the new Bruce Springsteen album is his second recorded shot (this time with Tom Morello, once of Rage Against the Machine, as his temporary lead guitarist) at a version of a certain sort of updated work song by a now-defunct, post-rockabilly, looking-for-the-lost-spirit-of-America band called the Havalinas.
You will notice a lot of ghost chasing in that sentence. One of the tracks here, maybe even the best — an orchestral waltz detailing the Buddhism of low expectations — is called Hunter of Invisible Game. What a perfect title that would have been for this record.
This is a chunk of studio material from the last decade that was never released (including a posthumous appearance by saxophonist Clarence Clemons on Harry’s Place), with some added parts; songs that were already recorded but are here revived and retouched; and covers of other songwriters’ work. You sense that Springsteen is, in some way, thanking these songs, or paying respect to their power over his audience: He’s doing so by giving them an official recorded version. The best of them — mostly the resigned or farseeing songs, the songs that have no hero and no story — rise above the odds. But a large portion of the record feels, let’s say, official.
It’s not scattershot. It has sufficient unity of instrumentation and postproduction mastering. It’s an album of nearly symphonic roots-rock and selected extras — accordion, uilleann pipes, gospel choruses — to get close to other forms and visions, and then some temporary downshifts into sparer and less narrative modes.
It also has Morello as added value, and sometimes it’s his job to distinguish a track, to add grain or spark to it. His distortion, wah-wah and digital whammy effects open up broad, loud holes in a few songs — especially the gospel-ish Heaven’s Wall and the redo of Springsteen’s The Ghost of Tom Joad — to the point where you feel that Springsteen has yielded control. This isn’t a very good thing, unless you are here to learn guitar technique from Morello.
The record ends with Dream Baby Dream, an unblinking stare of a love song. It was recorded in 1979 by Suicide, and Springsteen used it to close his 2005 solo tour, playing harmonium and singing with a jarring echo. Those versions, which you can easily enough hear online, really make their point: Springsteen goes somewhere with the song, through repetition, intensity, even small failures of pitch. The official version here, with strummed guitar, orchestra and a soft rhythm track suitable for yoga, expands it, defangs it and fuzzes up its purpose. Oh, well.
— Ben Ratliff, NY Times News Service
That Girl, by Jennifer Nettles
The four-word phrase that’s fast becoming a four-letter word in pop music is “produced by Rick Rubin.” The eminence-grise phase of Rubin’s career began with projects — Johnny Cash, Red Hot Chili Peppers — in which he distilled complex artists to hard, essential cores. He became the legend whisperer. Last year, Kanye West benefited from Rubin’s trademark gifts of reduction, but West was a maximalist in search of severity, a talent that could meet Rubin at eye level, or above.
Generally, though, those who make the trek out to Rubin’s Shangri-La Studio, in Malibu, California, are supplicants: They want something from Rubin they don’t find in themselves. For a great but unimaginative singer like Jennifer Nettles, frontwoman of the genial and sometimes ambitious country outfit Sugarland, securing Rubin to produce her solo debut album, That Girl, is a loud plea to be taken seriously, a coup and also a waste of energy. Sure, Rubin may attempt to boil her down to her essence, but he may or may not find anything there.