Sound Advice 

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Bruce Springsteen

Working on a Dream


Sounds like: What you'd find at Bruce's rummage sale

Short take: This dream could have used more work

Add Working on a Dream to the list of Bruce Springsteen's dubious 2009 decisions, which already includes a Wal-Mart-only sale of his latest hits compilation and his crotch-cam, "Boss time" Super Bowl halftime performance. The fuzzbox blues of "Good Eye" is derivative of live performances of "Reason to Believe"; "Tomorrow Never Knows" echoes Cat Stevens' "Here Comes My Baby"; and "Surprise, Surprise" is a poor man's "Girls in Their Summer Clothes." The most inspired moments, such as the rocker "My Lucky Day," the Barack Obama-inspired title track, and the tossed-in Golden Globe winner "The Wrestler," fail to connect around the droning "This Life" and "Life Itself." That Springsteen was able to do this much while touring, stumping for Obama and mourning the death of bandmate Danny Federici is laudable, but both Springsteen and this album could have used some "Boss time" to themselves. Jason Notte

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Ran Blake


Tompkins Square Records

Sounds like: Haunting covers from a master pianist

Short take: Bleak and beautiful

Ran Blake is one expressive player. On Driftwoods, he gathers 13 of his favorite vocal performances and uses the piano to turn them into haunting instrumental songs of mystery. Sarah Vaughan's "Dancing in the Dark" is all stormy notes and funereal feel, while Leon Payne's "Lost Highway" stretches out every note in a way Hank Williams never envisioned. "Unforgettable" launched a million marriages after Nat "King" Cole performed it; Ran Blake's embellishment is more like the soundtrack to divorce. The vocals of Milton Nascimento, Billie Holiday, Frances Faye, Hubert Powell, Mahalia Jackson and Sheila Jordan serve as off points for the pianist, with all of them sharing a crying-time emotion. Near the end, Jackson's "I'm Going to Tell God" says it all. From the promise of heaven to the pain of hell, Ran Blake takes us there. Bill Bentley

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... And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead

The Century of Self

Richter Scale Records / Release: Feb. 17

Sounds like: '90s alt rock with a modern spin

Short take: Band finds an indie rock groove

... And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead's best album was 2006's So Divided, which had more pageantry than Radiohead along with a Guided By Voices sense of pop melody. It was anthemic without a hint of bombast. For its follow-up, the group has created a complementary release that, although slightly obtuse, soon crawls underneath your skin with much gravity and purpose. "Far Pavillions" uses a Swervedriver-like swirling guitar as singer Conrad Keely howls his emotions, while "Bells of Creation" is a grandiose affair. The band expands its songwriting boundaries with "Ascending," a cascading guitar jam that employs two seemingly incongruent vocal tracks that somehow fit together, like tiny puzzle pieces flung in the air and falling back to earth in perfect symmetry. The Dead remains alive on The Century of Self, which will further expand this indie rock act's legend. John Benson


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