Artist: Bruce Springsteen
Released: September 30th, 1982
Highlights: Nebraska, Atlantic City, Highway Patrolman, Reason to Believe
In the music business, especially after an artist transcends the halls of mortality and becomes a legend, song demos turn into little pieces of treasure. However valuable they might be, though, they are merely seen as items that will only catch the eyes of the most dedicated fans; curious novelties that are put out in the market after the vault of finished songs has run dry. That reality makes “Nebraska” utterly bold, for it is an official studio album by a major recording artist at the peak of his chart-topping powers that is entirely composed of demos recorded at home with a simple 4-track cassette recorder. Some might call it lunacy, others might claim it is an attempt at commercial suicide, but the bottom-line is that “Nebraska” clicks. More than that, it envelops listeners in a world of despair and darkness with enough power to strike their soul like an incandescent branding iron.
Legend has it that Springsteen recorded the demos as a way to flesh out the songs before teaching them to his group and finding the right full-blown energetic arrangements that only the E Street Band can pull off. Upon listening to the tape, though, he noticed that the album was ready: the stripped down voice-and-guitar approach and the fact that the recording setup had made it seem like he was singing from the bottom of a dark deep well were perfect matches to the tunes that had been composed. As it turns out, his perception was right. Whereas Springsteen’s previous albums featured characters who faced their working-class lives like relentless wrestlers that refused to go down and wished to break free; “Nebraska” was concerned with people that sunk under the same circumstances, the ones that became soulless, resigned, broken, corrupted, and alienated due to the issues they had to face.
The title cut, which narrates in first-person – with accurate coldness and distance – the murdering spree of real serial-killer and his eventual capture and judgment, sets the tone for the bleakness present in the rest of the record. The track’s closing line, “Well, sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world”, is a poignant summary of the tales told throughout “Nebraska”, as the album shows people dealing with, and often being consumed by, the evilness that haunts humans both internally and externally. “Atlantic City” shows a man turning to organized crime to escape a dire financial situation; “Mansion On the Hill” and “My Father’s House” are bittersweet reminiscences on better times that are long gone after being hurtfully shattered; “Highway Patrolman” is an analysis of a conflicted sergeant who has to deal with the crimes committed by his brother; “Used Cars” is a sad picture of poverty; and “Johnny 99” and “State Trooper” are tales on criminals.
By embodying the soul of the characters he created, and doing so in a basic setup, Springsteen turns in a mature full-fledged singer-songwriter folk record, a fact that becomes even more impressive when one takes into account its release date. Much has been said about how “Nebraska” might be overrated due to its unique and courageous nature; however, truth is this is a record that features an impressively cohesive atmosphere during the entirety of its running time, and that is powered by incredibly sad and remarkable melodies. Its closure on a positive note, the hopeful “Reason To Believe”, is the final brilliant touch on this bleak, moody, and haunting masterpiece.
Album: Post Pop Depression
Artist: Iggy Pop
Released: March 18th, 2016
Highlights: Gardenia, American Valhalla, Chocolate Drops, Paraguay
With Lou Reed and David Bowie gone, Iggy Pop stands as the last rock ‘n roll rebel; the final bastion of the proto-punk generation of musicians that, through their looks, attitude, themes, and – most importantly – musical prowess, displayed to countless other talents that tackling the music business and consequently bringing that giant down could be done without losing one’s authenticity. From his maniacal presentations with The Stooges; going through the life-threatening addiction that followed the breakup of his legendary band and the subsequent start of his solo career with the help and support of Bowie himself; and including his most recent artistic endeavors, Iggy Pop has always been a man willing to live and die on his own terms. “Post Pop Depression” is not different from that mindset: it is loose, dirty, weird, passionate, energetic, reckless, and incredibly genuine; and it might also be Pop’s best work in well over a decade.
Joined by Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age), Dean Fertita (Queens of the Stone Age and The Dead Weather), and Matt Helders (Arctic Monkeys), Iggy sounds as reinvigorated and as close to being back on track as his persona allows him to. Whether consciously or not, in “Post Pop Depression” Pop pays homage to his two deceased companions. From Bowie, he borrows the feel and sound of both David’s Berlin Trilogy and of his own albums produced in Germany alongside the British star, the classics “The Idiot” and “Lust for Life”. Meanwhile, from Reed, he takes the distant and dry delivery of poetry concerning the deranged, the outcast, and the emotionally disturbed; subjects that, truthfully, have always been Iggy’s main theme given his identification with such people.
In fact, such recognition runs so deep that while Reed was firmly attached to the description of third-party characters, Iggy’s lyrics here seem more personal than ever. There is little to no doubt that Iggy Pop is talking about himself when he sings “I’ve shot my gun, I’ve used my knife / This hasn’t been an easy life” and “But if I have outlived my use / Please drink my juice”, in American Valhalla; or “I followed my shadow / And it led me here / What is the problem / If I disappear?” in “In the Lobby”. It is as if, by looking at himself and the world that surrounds him, Iggy was so unnerved by the incompatible values, lifestyle, and way of thinking that he used it as fuel to power one final grand statement as an artist. It is no surprise, then, that the album concludes with the epic “Paraguay”, whose coda is a hilarious, lengthy, and angry rant where Iggy shouts “I don’t want you” and “I’ve had enough of you” at the listener before exclaiming “I’m gonna go to Paraguay / To live in a compound under the trees / With servants and bodyguards who love me / Free of criticism / Free of manners and mores”.
Under that wild thunderstorm of words, Josh and the band lay thick grooves and textured beats all over the record, setting the table for Iggy to shine, understanding who the real star of the show is here. Although pounding riffs and spiraling guitars do occasionally show up, the instruments never overpower the vocals. Instead, they complement them with accuracy either in the album’s poppiest moments (“Gardenia” and “Chocolate Drops”); in its most inscrutable tracks, like the Nick Cave inspired “Vulture”; or in its borderline hard-rock numbers, like the heavy opener “Break into Your Heart”, which is as close to Queens of the Stone Age as this excellent album gets.
Album: Sound & Color
Artist: Alabama Shakes
Released: April 21st, 2015
Highlights: Don’t Wanna Fight, Dunes, Future People, Gimme All Your Love
After getting a strong hold on the garage brand of blues their early career success was built on in “Boys & Girls”, a record that alternated many blissful compositions with a few rather mundane tracks, the Alabama Shakes quickly moved onto new territory with “Sound & Color”. Perhaps not unintentionally, the way the titles of the two records mirror each other is rather telling of the distinctions between both works. “Boys & Girls” was grounded, a record done by regular people who got together and wrote songs sustained by the black-music sources upon which their taste had been built; “Sound & Color” looks to transcend those earthly confines of concrete musical pillars and easy-to-grasp subjects and land on an abstract plain of feelings and nuances.
It is unquestionable that, in terms of soundscape and experimentation, “Sound & Color” successfully travels through a realm where Pink Floyd would have roamed through if blues musicians had been their primary influence, and had Waters, Gilmour, Wright, Mason, and Barrett had access to the modern-day electronic witchery that exists in a recording studio. In its heart, this is the very same blues that was present in “Boys & Girls”; the difference is that, here, it is not tackled by a four-piece band in the same stripped down way. Therefore, a genre that is often simple and emotional gains contours of weirdness, trippiness, and idiosyncrasy.
At its best, the new presentation found in “Sound & Color” makes the compositions penned by Brittany Howard seem fresher while retaining their incredible power, a feature that is almost always evident in the Alabama Shakes’ sound thanks to her incredible voice, which is a flooring combination of a more technical Janis Joplin with a whole lot of Otis Redding. Tracks, like the opening sequence of “Sound & Color”, “Don’t Wanna Fight No More”, “Dunes”, “Future People”, and “Gimme All Your Love”, are a spectacular example of that effect. At its worst, though, the new outfit these blues numbers put on ends up taking them down meandering paths that either drain them of that same power which is such an integral part of what the Alabama Shakes do or simply unnecessarily lengthen the path that some tunes take to get to somewhere significant.
Fortunately, none of the twelve tracks that make up “Sound & Color” are totally undermined by that issue; they are simply held back from realizing their true potential. Consequently, “Sound & Color” ends up being more praise-worthy than a magnet for criticism. This is a bold career move by a group that could have spent at least another two albums cooking the same recipe inside the same tried-and-true caldron, but that opted to – instead – steer their relatively successful ship onto new waters to see what they could find there. What they wind up discovering is brand new sound that is derivative of their original work but still widely original and that could, with a few refinements, yield a modern-music masterpiece down the line. Until that moment does not come, “Sound & Color” should be interesting enough to keep listeners satisfied.
Album: Different Gear, Still Speeding
Artist: Beady Eye
Released: February 28th, 2011
Highlights: Four Letter Word, The Roller, Kill For a Dream, The Beat Goes On
Although his voice lent relentless defiance to the songs that served as the soundtrack for the teenage years and early adulthood of a generation, Liam Gallagher never really was Oasis’ greatest talent, as all melodies and lyrics that propelled the group to super-stardom had come from his older brother’s brain. That is the reason why Beady Eye is such an utterly intriguing concept, as the group’s line-up can be described as Oasis without Noel Gallagher, the man responsible for – even in the band’s more collaborative final two efforts – creating most of the tunes. The question that arrives attached to “Different Gear, Still Speeding”, Beady Eye’s debut, then, is whether the remaining bits of the Britpop phenomenon would drown or float without their former creative leader, and it does not take long into the album to realize that neither answer is thoroughly correct.
“Different Gear, Still Speeding” has little to none of the pop-rock subtleties that marked most of Oasis’ numbers; as it turns out, Liam Gallagher is way too driven by instinct to have the time to stop and pay attention to any of that. That is why even though “Different Gear, Still Speeding” is not an album comprised exclusively of loud straight-up rock tracks, it feels like a record done with feeling rather than one created through an extensive thoughtful approach, a tactic that has the benefit of making the music sound almost unanimously fun, but whose downside is the quality slips it causes. In a way, it is “Be Here Now”, Oasis’ loosest and most overblown work, without the absurd indulgence of a modern rock mammoth that has run out of control, but with songwriting that is far more irregular.
“Different Gear, Still Speeding” has its shining moments: the violent riffs of “Four Letter Word”, which support a Liam Gallagher that comes off as the vocal representation of a mighty force of nature; “The Roller”, a perfect bubblegum piece of pop-rock music that could comfortably sit, even in terms of quality, in either “Definitely Maybe” or “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?”; and the gorgeous balladry of “Kill For a Dream” and “The Beat Goes On”. Its lesser moments, some of which are plain bad and others that are merely average, tend to be saved by the fact that the album shows a band that is surprisingly flexible, albeit one that never truly transforms its influences into something completely fresh or remarkable.
“Millionaire” is a decent swing at writing a song built on a variation of traditional blues’ progressions; “Beatles and Stones” is a fun rock track that name-drops the boys from London and Liverpool, but that actually borrows its angular riff from The Who’s “My Generation”; “Bring the Light” has enough Rockabilly blood in it to make Jerry Lee Lewis climb on top of his piano; and “For Anyone” could be a mid-tempo acoustic song from one The Beatles’ first five records. “Different Gear, Still Speeding” is not excellent and might not have enough juice in it to even qualify as a great album, but it is a fun, honest, and energetic attempt by Archer, Bell, and Gallagher to keep on rolling following Noel’s abandoning of the ship.