Album Review: Bruce Springsteen – Letter To You

One Minute You’re Here sees Bruce Springsteen return to the “edge of town” but this time it’s not just dark, it’s empty. Love is gone and memories haunt. Springsteen really *sings* this short, subtle, sensitive overture.

The title track sees Springsteen continue with the crooning that marked the previous album, Western Stars, but with a decidedly ‘E Street’ rock edge this time. Tremolo guitar duels with Hammond organ. It’s a celebration of honesty, memory and connection that’s crowned with a majestic outro that will undoubtedly come alive live, whenever that might be. A fan favourite in the making.

Glockenspiel is back for Burnin’ Train, along with a four to the floor driving beat. This is High-NRG Street evoking Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers guitar and celebratory drum fills. It’s a delight.

Janey Needs A Shooter drops the pace into an earnest story song. It’s perhaps a bit too long for the record but not a bad set up for comprehensive exploration live. Which is sure to thrill the diehard fans, since it’s an unreleased track from the 1970s!

Last Man Standing returns us to the familiar working man’s landscape of Union Hall and Route 9. Jake Clemmons both keeps his uncle’s spirit alive and stands on his own with the sax work here.

The Power of Prayer functions like a secular religious song. It’s almost naïve in the simple pleasures savoured: “Right by the lake ’til the evening comes/I run my fingers through your sun streaked hair.” Clemmons’ sax punches through adding vitality and urgency to the instrumentation.

We explore the familiar landscape once more, the “small town bars” and the House of a Thousand Guitars. There’s a note of defiance, declaring the power of music, creatives, and truth in the time of “the criminal clown [who] has stolen the throne.”

An interesting Dustbowl description ushers us towards an exploration of why people might trust the wrong people in bleak times, but the promise of the lyrics gets buried somewhat by the instrumentation that’s straining to make a generic stadium song.

If I Was The Priest is more musically satisfying. Springsteen’s distinctive voice stretches out over restrained musicianship. It’s another song from the archives, but there are sonic nuggets of latter day nuanced The Gaslight Anthem rather than the other way round. This keeps it contemporary despite its heritage. It deserves a few listens to pick up the story that’s told through Western and religious metaphors, both sacred and profane.

Ghosts goes full throwback retro with that familiar heartland rock gravel vocal that feels like a warm hug. It’s joyful. It’s vital. It’s life affirming: “I can feel the blood shiver in my bones/I’m alive and I’m out here on my own/I’m alive and I’m coming home.”

It’s now time for the third deep cut. Song for Orphans was once considered a rarity, even making it on to Rolling Stone’s 15 Insanely Great Bruce Springsteen Songs You’ve Never Heard list last year. It is thought to have been a contender for Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J that didn’t make the cut. Collectors had to make do with an unofficial 1972 studio version and a handful of 1973 and 2005 live airings. What a treat for the fans to find it here in all its glory, then, with stream of consciousness observational lyrics of the American Dream turned hollow.

Loss has stalked the album so it’s fitting to end it all with I’ll See You In My Dreams: “I’ll see you in my dreams when all our summers have come to an end/I’ll see you in my dreams, we’ll meet and live and laugh again/I’ll see you in my dreams, up around the river bend/For death is not the end.”

Letter To You sounds like you’ve always known it yet it delivers something new. It’s Springsteen being Springsteen but with the artistic license to be his authentic self in the here and now. Spend some time with it.

Letter To You is out now. Photos by Danny Clinch.

Album Review: Michael McDermott – What In The World

“I’m sure you know the story: record deal early, some modicum of success, and then the long slow descent and destruction. Jail, rehab, fortunate enough to be alive, man.”

Michael McDermott

McDermott explodes out of the gate with a title track that’s a modern-day retelling of We Didn’t Start The Fire: “it’s new world order/walls along the border/kids in cages/executive order/welfare for billionaires/people hungry everywhere…I think it’s time we take a good look in the mirror/what in the world is happening here?” It’d surely be something special to see him perform this jet-fuelled tongue twister live. There’s an acoustic demo version as a bonus track.

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Album Review: Ward Richmond – Highly Meditated

“I was walking down a crowded street one night and suddenly I realized I might like being alone/I might have read a few psychosemantic expert books/I once passed a science test a took/so I think I’ll be alright on my own.” Well, have I got a pandemic for you! Everything comes across like a tongue-in-cheek kids song celebrating introversion and self-reliance – although the f-bomb is fairly adult, of course!

Photo Credit: Will von Bolton
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Album Review: Ben Kunder – Searching For The Stranger

A whalesound song and a beat halts for an a capella interlude: “I was in Berlin on the anniversary of some forsaken tragedy/shadows of my past.” The instrumentation builds back up as he relates taking in the scene while taking in the advice of a loved one. Given the setting, “tear down the walls” is more than a metaphor as he embraces a new normal of coming to terms with the past and the persistence of memory.

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Album Review: Nicole Atkins – Italian Ice

Nicole Atkins recorded Italian Ice at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio with some of her “best musical friends,” including Britt Daniel, John Paul White and members of The Bad Seeds. Intrigued already?

AM Gold hits with an easy listening vibe and girl gang harmonies. The gloves are off: “don’t get stuck in the mirror cuz that shit’s rough.” Atkins rejects religious comfort in favour of the primacy of people and music.

Mind Eraser is bassy and whisper sung. It soon takes an interesting turn, for the chorus follows siren synths piling up to a melodic cacophony.

Domino strides in with discordant tones using a funk beat and a sultry vocal reminiscent of Juanita Stein. The falling domino motif adorns the album cover but a dominant metaphor in the song is passage of time.

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Danny Schmidt’s lockdown lullabies

Even before we knew that the best way to test your eyes was to drive to Barnard Castle, Danny Schmidt had made the connection between this year and the standard for good eyesight.

2020 Vision was written during and about the COVID-19 pandemic so you should not be surprised to feel recognition and emotional resonance: “She’s holding her breath/she’s hiding her mouth/we’re walking on opposite sides….I cross the road and she crosses herself.”

It speaks to the sense of a year passing too quickly and too slowly, lost to tedium and tenacity, childcare and barely dressed remote working, shopping despite empty shelves, and compulsive hand washing. Many other artists have found metaphor in our shared experiences but Schmidt has documented how we have actually lived during this topsy turvy, turbulent time, all set to a lilting waltz.

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Album Review: Brendan Benson – Dear Life

A synth piece explodes into a ringing, repeated exclamation: “I Can If You Want Me To.” The pace picks up; he’s certain and ready.

The follow-up keeps the discordancy but loses the need for a relationship: “It’s only me/there’s no-one else.” A disco fill pushes the subject from wasted to ready. There’s time to question the moon landing and aging, but we always return to the mantra “it’s Good To Be Alive.”

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