Old rockers: Neither burning out nor fading away
October 26, 2007
On “Radio Nowhere,” the opening track to his new CD “Magic,” Bruce Springsteen bemoans an FM band that just doesn’t deliver the goods like it did in the glory days. “I just want to hear some rhythm / I want a thousand guitars, I want pounding drums,” demands the Boss. “Is there anybody alive out there?” he wonders.This month, Springsteen might find signs of life in radio-friendly rock in an unlikely place – among his contemporaries, and those who even have a few years on his 58-year-old bones. Apparently, it’s a good time to be an aging rocker. Not all of the classic rock audience has given up on rock as a young person’s sound. Springsteen and some of his mates have found graceful ways to slip into new (usually quieter) sounds; others are finding that the old grooves and licks are still tasty 40 years on. And, as in their ’60s and ’70s heyday, there’s a war and a slimy government to rail against.Following are reviews of recent CDs from the 58-and-up crowd.
Bruce Springsteen, ‘Magic’ produced by Brendan O’Brien (Columbia)The Springsteen of the ’70s was the near-perfect representative of youthful, working-class American pangs, looking for the right woman, buddies or cars to pull him out of the pits of crummy jobs and suffocating parents. The Springsteen of “Magic” can’t be so easily labeled; the moods here are many. The crackling “Radio Nowhere” has echoes of that early Bruce, looking into a dark night for hope and connection. The song even takes place in a car. “I’ll Work For Your Love” is a statement of fidelity that is taken to a biblical level. “Livin’ in the Future” details the crapstorm that is 21st century America; Springsteen likens the U.S.A. to an old lover he doesn’t know anymore. But the twist of the song, another upbeat work driven by the pounding E Street Band rhythm section, is its sense of reassurance: “Don’t worry Darlin’,” comforts the Boss, “none of this has happened yet.”Springsteen is at his best here, however, when he’s not so sanguine. The real keeper here is “Girls in Their Summer Clothes.” Like many of the tunes, the sound seems like an update of the more rocking side of 1980’s “The River”: direct and structurally simple. The singer walks into a town kissed by fortune: kids playing, familiar places and faces, pretty girls. The only thing wrong here is the singer himself; the girls just pass him by.The title song is spare and desperate, reminiscent of “I’m on Fire,” from 1984’s “Born in the U.S.A.” Instead of burning with lust, though, “Magic” torches the sleight-of-hand practiced by the Bush administration. Where “Magic” speaks metaphorically, the next track, “Last to Die,” is literal: “We don’t measure the blood we’ve drawn anymore / We just stack the bodies outside the door.””Magic” takes one more worthy turn with the unlisted track “Terry’s Song,” a gentle, worshipful memorial for an old friend.Springsteen probably never will reach the epic scale of songs like “Thunder Road” and “Jungleland” again. But on “Magic,” he hits all the bases; it just takes him a dozen songs to do it now.
Neil Young, ‘Chrome Dreams II’produced by Young and Niko Bolas (Reprise)Neil Young (61) reaches into his past for “Chrome Dreams II.” The title refers to a 1977 album that was recorded but never released. Several of the songs included here were written in the ’80s. Some of the songs borrow from the moods and tones of earlier works; “Beautiful Bluebird,” with its banjo, steel guitar and three chords, could be slipped into 1972’s “Harvest” without anyone noticing.The centerpiece here, though, is something sort-of new. “Ordinary People” is 18 minutes of Neil – not three verses and 16 minutes of Crazy Horse making its shambolic garage rock, but nine verses that rail against crime and commercialism, while paying homage to the common folk – the “patch of ground people,” in Young’s neat phrase. Young isn’t about to beatify the working class here en masse: “Some are saints and some are jerks,” he sings. But his heart is big for the work ethic that produced American cars and trains, and sympathetic to the plight of those who struggle while drug lords and capitalists count their money. The song actually dates to the ’80s – hence the reference to “the Lee Iacocca people” – but it’s an approach to song writing that seems contemporary and fresh, and the subject feels timely. Between the verses, Young’s shredding guitar duels with a horn section blowing the same slow, steady riff from beginning to end.Elsewhere, Young shows a spirituality that he hasn’t displayed like this before. “Shining Light” has a near-gospel feel; the simple “The Believer,” the 14-minute “The Hidden Path,” and, most especially, the tender “The Way,” built around a choir and piano, show that the new Neil is thinking of higher ground.
John Fogerty, ‘Revival’produced by Fogerty (Fantasy)After spending the last few decades duking it out with his old band and old record label – and making the occasional, occasionally great record – John Fogerty is back to his old self. On “Revival,” he’s battling the enemies he did on the classic Creedence Clearwater Revival albums: warring politicians, a divided America. Fogerty doesn’t really pull out any new weapons, but he would argue that the familiar ones – a chugging, swampy beat, and his stinging, country-touched guitar – work as well now as they did 40 years ago. “Creedence Song” makes just that case, a blast of romantic nostalgia that concludes, “You can’t go wrong if you play a little bit of that Creedence song.”Of the bands that came out of ’60s San Francisco, Fogerty, from the working-class East Bay, was the least likely to wear a smiley-face button. But the 62-year-old Fogerty seems to have an enlightened take on that scene from which he came. “Summer of Love” celebrates hippie values – “Reach out your arm / Touch the moon, touch the star” – and even features Fogerty mimicking the licks of Hendrix and Cream-era Clapton. And Fogerty outdoes the most-blissed-out ’60s survivor in “Revival’s” infectious opening track, “Don’t You Wish It Was True,” a case study in overcoming reality with positive vibes.Mark Knopfler, ‘Kill to Get Crimson’ produced by Knopfler, Guy Fletcher and Chuck Ainlay (Reprise)Those hoping for a return to the days when Mark Knopfler made his reputation as a fleet-fingered electric guitarist will have to keep on waiting. Same for those who wanted another straight-up countryish acoustic record, like last year’s collaboration with Emmylou Harris, “All the Roadrunning.” Those are fine sentiments to have, but the 58-year-old Knopfler is onto other things.
On “Kill to Get Crimson,” Knopfler is too busy orchestrating to shred the six-string. The album features strings, horns, flute and accordion, all utilized to create a restrained but textured album. That’s matched by Knopfler’s singing, which has never been mellower. If this doesn’t sound scintillating, just click to “Heart Full of Holes,” a hushed masterpiece that incorporates waltz times and Celtic swells. Knopfler pushes both the waltz feel and the nostalgic vibe even harder on “Secondary Waltz.”Levon Helm, ‘Dirt Farmer’ produced by Larry Campbell & Amy Helm (Vanguard)Throat cancer has made the 67-year-old Levon Helm sound more like one of the Stanley Brothers than like a member of the Band, in which he sang and played drums. Scratch past the enhanced rawness of that voice, however, and the substitution of fiddles and mandolins for Robbie Robertson’s electric guitar, and “Dirt Farmer,” a collection of mostly traditional songs, isn’t all that far removed from Helm’s work with the Band. If the Band were to have taken another step backward in time, they might have landed at the same spot Helm is now. There is still the vivid rural imagery, the barrelhouse rhythms, and especially the ragged-but-right harmonies. Here, it is mainly Amy Helm, Levon’s daughter, doing the harmonizing.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org