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Will’s CD Reviews

November 6, 2006

As a teenager I always envisioned myself working in the music industry as a professional guitarist, a record producer, or a writer/journalist. In that spirit, let me indulge myself here.

I guess this is the awesome cover albums edition.

Bruce Springsteen recently released an album of covers inspired by the musical career of Pete Seeger. The Seeger Sessions was well received by critics and fans alike. More recently, Bruce re-released the album with some bonus tracks and a DVD called The Seeger Sessions: The American Land Edition. You need this CD. Bad.

Now I’m not one of those guys who gushes endlessly about Bruce. He’s always been too much of a critics’ darling for my tastes, given my contrarian nature. Heck, I got sick of U2 during their peak and then returned as a staunch defender when they briefly became less popular. But I was always more of a Police / U2 guy than a Bruce guy back in the day, and I probably still am.

Anyway, this album is truly inspiring and a great listen. Bruce gathered an amazingly large band (guitars, bass, twin fiddles, banjo, horn section, drums, you name it – this IS Bruce Springsteen, the king of “if four instruments make a good band, eight is twice as good and sixteen is FOUR TIMES as good!”) in a house and recorded this collection of reworked folk tunes in three separate sessions. Some, like “Froggie Went a’ Courtin'” may be a bit frivolous but the recontextualization of “John Henry” with its appealing theme of man vs. machine (could the machine that takes the hammer from our hands now be a computer?) couldn’t be more relevant. The Iraq war gives Bruce a reason to resurrect Seeger antiwar chestnuts like “Bring ’em Home” and “Mrs. McGrath.” And he completely rewrites the lyrics to “How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?” to reflect the devastation left behind by hurricane Katrina.

The album is rounded out by spirituals that absolutely raise the roof: “Jacob’s Ladder” is a hoot while “O Mary Don’t You Weep” sounds as joyous as Miriam’s original Exodus song.

All in all, this album does what a good folk album is supposed to do. It gives voice to the voiceless in the face of power, it articulates what many people are thinking, and it keeps older traditions alive with new breath. If Bush supporters find Bruce’s indictment of the administration’s failures (Iraq, failed response to Katrina) uncomfortable or biased, good. I think that’s exactly what Springsteen wants. The goal is clear – comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. With an artist’s touch he interweaves church music, political music, front-porch music and children’s music and comes up with a great album.

Should it be your first Springsteen album? No, that’s Born to Run. But you could sure do worse!

Now I’ve always liked Matthew Sweet, and before him I’ve always liked the Bangles. Sweet is responsible for one of the greatest underappreciated albums of all time, 1992’s Girlfriend. His biggest problem was timing. Sweet’s affinity for 1960s chord changes and melodies accompanied by screaming guitars and bashing drums made his music too hard for pop but too melodic for grunge. So he kind of got lost in the shuffle.

When director Jay Roach teamed his wife, the Bangles’ Susanna Hoffs, with Sweet for Ming Tea, Austin Powers’ band, the pairing made perfect sense. Both could sing and play impeccably, both had a near-obsession with 60s music, and both could write convincing pop music in that vein. Why it took “Sid n’ Susie” (Sweet and Hoffs’ Ming Tea names) this long to record a proper album together is beyond me. But the results are outstanding.

Sweet and Hoffs pull off the near impossible on this album. Familiar songs sound fresh and exciting. Not every guitarist can pull off a convincing “And Your Bird Can Sing,” much less any Beatles cover that doesn’t make you run screaming for the original version. But Sweet nails the parts and their vocal harmonies add an intangible something to the song that might make you think they understand something about that kind of music that most people don’t. Other familiar covers that are hard to pull off include “Cinnamon Girl,” “The Kids are Alright” and “Different Drum” in which Susanna actually tops Ronstadt’s original vocal.

Mixed in, though, are lesser-known chestnuts like Love’s “Alone Again Or,” the Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning,” and the Left Banke’s “She May Call You Up Tonight.” These covers sent me straight to my favorite music download sites looking for the original versions. They’re not all there. Ahh, well – chances are good that I’ll be listening to these covers more than I would the originals anyway because this CD is GREAT in the car.

Sweet has the vocal and guitar chops to pull off this kind of music wonderfully. Not just anyone can nail Brian Wilson’s falsetto on “The Warmth of the Sun” without sounding like a weenie. Sweet makes it sound like Wilson may have written that vocal part for him. And when Hoffs sings, the only thing missing (and then only occasionally) is the harmony vocal of the Peterson sisters, especially during the cover of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”

All in all, I hope this isn’t the last we hear from Sid n’ Susie. In fact, I would like to hear what they could do with original material since both are more than ample songwriters. I hear that an album of 70s covers is in the works, and that should be fun. I hope they don’t do an 80s cover album, though, especially if Susanna digs out some of her atrocious 80s outfits and the big hair.

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