Monthly Archives: September 2016

“Nevermind” at 25

In many ways, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is the ‘90s version of “Like a Rolling Stone”: the song that stopped time in tracks and changed everything that came after it. But there’s a key difference: “Like a Rolling Stone” was truly revolutionary its approach of combining rock music with sophisticated lyrics. The sound of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” wasn’t particularly new (just listen to the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa for instance), but it sounded revolutionary to most people’s ears. And that can be just as powerful.

Usually, front-loading an album with the single (and what would become the band’s most famous song) is a risky move: will the rest of the songs measure up? But also “Like a Rolling Stone” (which was the lead track off of “Highway 61 Revisited”), it’s a signal of things to come. What follows on both albums is a set of brilliant songs that find both artists at the peak of their powers.

The genius of “Nevermind” lies in its contradictions. The band attacks its songs with a punk-rock thrash but the melodies are catchy as anything the Beatles came up up. The guitars are distorted with noisy solos, but the production is clean and crisp: purposely designed to get a big audience. Cobain’s screams and wails sound angry (and they definitely can be) but there’s also wit and sarcasm in the songs too. (Something that is missing from Pearl Jam’s “Ten”, much as I like that album.)

I was too young to truly grasp the impact that “Nevermind” or “Teen Spirit” had musically or culturally. But even at 9 years old, when I first heard the song in my older brother’s bedroom, I could tell something was special about Nirvana that set them apart. The music was so immediate and intense. Like the mumbled lyrics of R.E.M.’s “Murmur”, it didn’t matter that I couldn’t understand a fucking thing Kurt Cobain sang. What mattered was that it stopped people in their tracks and made them feel something.

Sometime later, when one of my other brothers gave me a cassette of “Nevermind”, I played the hell out of it on my walkman on the bus ride to school. I loved every single song on the album for different reasons: the watery guitar sounds of “Come As You Are”; the instrumental break-down on “Drain You”; the double-timed second half of “Lounge Act” just to name a few. Every single song was captivating and exhilarating.

As I got to be a bit older, I began to had a more conflicted view of “Nevermind”. Be it elitist or stupidity (and maybe they’re the same?) I began to discredit its merits over artists who were noisier than Nirvana or artists who I felt like the band owed a massive debt to. This is a case where listening to “Raw Power” too much can be detrimental: “Nevermind” should have sounded as abrasive as that! Or: Damn, every single song Kurt wrote is a half-assed Pixies song! The most absurd was thinking “MTV Unplugged” was the only good thing they did.

These ideas are not only bullshit, but flawed. “Raw Power” is great and so are the Pixies. Nirvana’s Unplugged performance is legendary, but it’s not the band’s definitive statement. And “Nevermind” deserves every accolade it gets, because it’s the kind of album that comes along once in a lifetime. It changed everything. Of course, sometimes that means you forget how great the songs were and what a visionary Kurt Cobain was. Take an hour and listen to the album with fresh ears. Brush aside all the hype, impact and stories. Just turn up the stereo and take it in.

That’s why we’re talking about it 25 years later.

Matt’s 25 Favorite Bruce Springsteen Songs

I realized recently that I hadn’t updated in months. There were various reasons, but a big part was I was having trouble with things to write about. In honor of Bruce Springsteen’s 67 birthday and release of his memoir next week, I decided to list my 25 favorite Springsteen songs. Why 25? Well 10 didn’t seem like enough and something like 50 is a very daunting task. So I decided on 25. 25 also happens to be the age that Springsteen was when he recorded and released Born to Run, so there you go.

As you read this, you’ll note that some very big songs and fan favorites are missing. If I was writing “best” instead of “favorites” the list would be completely different. For instance, “Backstreets” is actually a better song than many listed, but it doesn’t speak to me as much as the ones l came up with. I also didn’t include “Because the Night”, because I consider the Patti Smith version to be the definitive one.

I also noticed several things while writing this. My favorite Springsteen songs are either 1.) the short-punchy numbers with a clear early rock and roll influence or 2.) the soul-influenced songs. Roy Bittan is without the doubt the most musically talented member of the E-Street Band (even more so than Springsteen, I think.)

25. The Wrestler (Soundtrack for The Wrestler/Working on a Dream)

Originally written for inclusion in the 2008 The Wrestler (for which it won a Golden Globe) “The Wrestler” got tacked on a bonus track to Springsteen’s worst album (Working on a Dream”). For my money, the song is perhaps his most under-rated. You could argue that he’s written better songs about a broken man, but the opening lines (“if you’ve ever seen a one-trick pony, then you’ve seen me”) remain a heartbreaking portrait of someone who has hit rock bottom.

24. From Small Things Big Things One Day Come (The Ties That Bind Boxed Set)

It might seem like a throwaway and a throwback to ‘50s rock. Again, this is a song you could argue that he’s written better songs in the same vein, but the performance is perfectly executed. I also love Max Weinberg’s taught drumming that propels the song. Bonus points for having a “fun” song contain a murder at the end.

23. Death to My Hometown (Wrecking Ball)

A bit of an experiment musically, in that it contains element of hip-hop, folk, celtic punk and soul. It’s probably also one of Springsteen’s angriest songs. There’s no mistaking his disgust when he spits out lyrics such as, “Send the robber barons straight to hell/The greedy thieves who came around/And ate the flesh of everything they found.” One of the few Springsteen songs where I find the live version to be inferior to the studio version.

22. I’m on Fire (Born in the U.S.A.)

You can just feel the sex ooze from the speakers in this track. An understated track that sticks with you in more ways than one. I used to think the fade-out should have gone on longer, but then I figured that two and a half minutes is actually  quite appropriate considering the subject matter.

21. Mary’s Place (The Rising)

I’m a sucker for anything Sam Cooke related, and here Springsteen lifts the chorus from Sam Cooke’s “Meet Me at Mary’s Place” for his own purposes. The premise in both songs is the same: everybody’s going to Mary’s place for a party. But by including it in on The Rising, Springsteen’s version of Mary’s party is a bit more like an Irish wake. How you feel about it live, depends on how you feel about Springsteen’s rock and roll testament act.

20. Ain’t Good Enough For You (The Promise)

This is a case where other acts would kill to have written something this good and Springsteen shelves it, because it doesn’t fit into his vision. It’s one of the songs I always turn to and put myself in a good mood, which is ironic considering the subject matter. But the call and response between Steve Van Zandt and Springsteen is absolutely infectious.

19. Hungry Heart (The River)

Being from Baltimore, I had to include this one. I’m also curious as to what The Ramones version would have sounded like.

18. The E-Street Shuffle (The Wild, The Innocent and E-Street Shuffle)

The first time I heard the song, I remember thinking about half-way through , “Okay this a pretty good Springsteen. But very indicative of his early days: great music, but quite wordy. But then I got to the false ending and the funky fade-out and the song became one of my favorites instantly. And the slow-burn soul found in the version from the Hammersmith Odeon 75 show is not too shabby either.

17. Brilliant Disguise (Brilliant Disguise)

This song contains of my favorite Springsteen lines: “Is that you baby, or just a brilliant disguise?” This song is interesting, because the pain is on the surface, but the crisp (if somewhat dated) production helps sooth the wounds just a little. Speaking of the production, the opening seconds sound like they belong at the closing credits of a 1980’s John Hughes movie.

16. Save My Love (The Promise)

There’s something magical about the way this song unfolds with Roy Bittan’s slightly melancholy piano carrying the melody that drives the song. The lyrics harken back to Springsteen’s early days when radio and young love were two of the things that mattered most to him. “Save My Love” is a good reminder that Springsteen doesn’t always have to go big to create something meaningful or heartfelt.

15. Meet Me in the City (The Ties That Bind Boxed Set)

To me, this song is better than half The River combined. I’ve always thought it of it as a kind if late night sequel to “Out in the Street”, but in this case, the narrator may or may not have gotten busted. (It’s unclear to me if the lines about parole violation and being in jail are a metaphor for a relationship).The E-Street Band is on fire here, and Clarence Clemons nails the saxophone solo like only he could. There’s no way to hear this song without gleefully singing, “if you can holler than say alright!” along with the band.

14. You’ve Got It (Wrecking Ball)

Major points for borrowing the title from a Roy Orbison song and making it sound it like an unreleased Roy Orbison song. (Hey, how come Bruce wasn’t in the Traveling Wilburys yet Tom Petty was?  One of the great wonders of life.)

13. Kitty’s Back (The Wild, The Innocent and the E-Street Shuffle)

The E-Street Band isn’t technically a jam-band, but when they do stretch out, they are far more imaginative and compelling than most jam bands. “Kitty’s Back” is the best example of this, where each member of the band is given their chance to shine in the jazzy breakdown in the middle of the song. The 17-minute live version from The Hammersmith Odeon ’75 is absolutely incredible .

12. Streets of Fire (Darkness on the Edge of Town)

A slow-burn on a song that absolutely explodes in the choruses. This is the song that convinced me that Springsteen is 1.) a great singer and 2.) and a great guitar player. His singing in the chorus reminds of a bit of Roger Daltrey’s performance on “Love Reign O’er Me”: loud and full of anguish with Springsteen fully in control of his voice as well.

 

11. I’m Going Down (Born in the U.S.A.)

I’m glad that Springsteen finally came around to realize how good of a song this is and has been playing it live somewhat regularly again. For some reason, this song became a late night staple at a dive-bar in South Bend Indiana whenever the Fighting Irish had a victory. If it seems ridiculiuous, it absolutely is. But that’s also the point.

10. Candy’s Room (Darkness on the Edge of Town)

Holy shit, that guitar solo. It’s like a hot knife through butter. But the real start of the show here is Roy Bittan whose stinging piano lines perfectly match the sexual tension within the lyrics and Max Weinberg who gives the song its sense of danger.

9. No Surrender (Born in the U.S.A.)

The whole song is fantastic, but the song has become immortal because of that line.

8. Land of Hope and Dreams (Wrecking Ball)

“Land of Hope and Dreams” is Curtis Mayfield filtered through the worldview of Bruce Springsteen. If you’ve ever needed a Springsteen song to lift you out of a rut, this is the one. The breakdown where Springsteen declares all the things and people that this will train will carry, is one of the best things he’s ever done. The song is every more poignant when you remember that Clarence Clemons saxophone track was added posthumously.

7. She’s The One (Born to Run)

Once again, “She’s the One” is another example of Springsteen taking a well-known musical idea that already existed and making it his own. In this case, it’s the Bo Diddley beat. Like all things Born to Run related, “She’s the One” is blown up to epic proportions. What I would have given to see  “Mona” intro he gave the song in the ‘70s.

6. Out in the Street (The River)

Probably the best song on The River, “Out in the Street” is the song where the two extremes of the album (the “party songs” and “life issues songs”) meet in a glorious celebration of the end of the work-week. I love Clemons saxophone solo here and the way the band plays underneath him.

5. Streets of Philadelphia (Greatest Hits)

“Street of Philadelphia” contains one of Springsteen’s best opening lines. The imagery of the narrator not being able to recognize himself in the window is heartbreaking. (A line by the way, I’m almost sure Bono stole from Springsteen for U2’s similar themed “Moment of Surrender.”) The sparse instrumentation perfectly captures the mood and isolation felt by the narrator.

4. Jungleland (Born to Run)

If I’m being truly honest, it took me until the death of Clarence Clemons to truly appreciate this song. A friend once commented that “Jungleland” sounded like a Meatloaf song and the comment stuck with me for years.  With its tale of gritty street-life “Jungleland” is the flip-side of “Born to Run”’s optimism. The howl at the end foreshadows the disillusioned dreams that fill Darkness on the Edge of Town.

3. Spirit in the Night (Greetings from Ashbury Park, New Jersey)

The first Springsteen song that I absolutely loved. This is wordy Bruce Springsteen at his best. The cast of characters here are immediately memorable: Crazy Janie, The Mission Man, Wild Billy, Hazy Davy (who infamously ran into the lake without his socks and his shirt). Always a show-stopper, the 75 version is a real mind-fuck. The E-Street Band turns the chilled out vibe of the original into a scorching rocker without ever losing its groove.

2. Prove It All Night (Darkness on the Edge of Town)

I’ve always liked this song, but after hearing the ’78 version of the song from a bootleg, I became obsessed with it. The interplay between Roy Bittan and Springsteen for the first four minutes is a thing of beauty. The band keeps pushing itself into oblivion until they can (and the audience) can no longer take it and with a crash from Max Weinberg, they go straight into the studio version of the song. If you’ve ever doubted that Springsteen is a great guitar player, you have to listen to those versions.

1.Born to Run (Born to Run) 

Did you expect anything else? So much has already been said about the song and its themes, so I won’t add to it. Plenty of other people have done it much better than I could.  But I will say this: check out the 75 version where the song is placed in the middle of the set and played at breakneck speed.