Picture of - Bruce Springsteen Wrecking Ball: Bonus Tracks: Special EditionThe problem with downloading music is that you miss out on all of the things that you get with a CD, or even vinyl, like visuals, lyrics and sleeve notes. When an album by an artist like Bruce Springsteen comes along all of these things matter, particularly this time around. This is the first album since the death last June of Clarence Clemons and you can’t underestimate the impact of that loss on Springsteen’s recorded and live performances.

The “Born to Run” album was successful for many reasons and the quality of the music was only one of them. The cover photograph on the album is one of rock music’s most enduring images. You could interpret the image of Springsteen and Clemons as a cynical attempt to cash in on the liberal sentiments of the era or you could just accept that it’s a very powerful image of 2 friends who play in a band together. If you can’t make up your mind, read the sleeve notes on “Wrecking Ball”; there isn’t a lot of room for misinterpretation.

So, on to “Wrecking Ball”. The 1 criticism you can’t level at this album is that it’s short on ideas; there are plenty of those. Actually, there’s plenty of everything; plenty of musicians, plenty of different production techniques, plenty of musical styles and plenty of themes running through the album. Unusually for Springsteen the songs feature a lot of references to other people’s songs (and a few to his own), which is probably the influence of the new collaborator, producer Ron Aniello.

There are a lot of musicians and singers on this album. It’s not quite a cast of thousands, but it’s not far from it. Interestingly, the only E Street Band members to feature are Mighty Max Weinberg and Clarence Clemons (on a couple of songs each) and, not surprisingly, Patti Scialfa. Excluding the E Streeters, there are an additional 10 musicians on the album before you even start on the horn section and the additional vocalists. Having so many musicians involved and line-ups varying from song to song, it’s inevitable that the album doesn’t have a unified feel but it’s unlikely that it was ever intended to.

Springsteen, like Neil Young and Bob Dylan, is a big enough to musical presence to be able to decide how his albums should sound and has never been afraid to release albums which were seen as uncommercial (starting with “Nebraska”). The difference this time is that virtually all of the production styles and band arrangements used by The Boss throughout his career can be heard on the 11 tracks here; from the “Nebraska” feel of “This Depression” and “Jack of All Trades” through the “We Shall Overcome” feel of “Shackled and Drawn” and “Easy Money” to the more traditional Springsteen production values and band arrangements of “Wrecking Ball” and “We Take Care of Our Own”. But it’s not that simple; throughout the album you can hear loops and samples (all credited in the sleeve notes, even the oblique references) which add a layer that Springsteen has never explored before.

Which leads us neatly into the musical styles used on the album and there are an awful lot of them. You can pick out gospel choirs, Celtic arrangements, African arrangements, bluegrass arrangements, Mexican arrangements and many others alongside the usual E Street rock band and brass stylings. And it’s not as simple as 1 style for 1 song; “Death to my Hometown” combines Celtic pipes with African choir arrangements within the first four bars of the song. “Land of Hope and Dreams” combines a fairly standard E Street Band arrangement with a huge gospel choir and a fade-out which pays tribute to Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” and works perfectly. There is a song on the album which features even more strange combinations, but I’ll get back to that later.

There are a few themes which you can’t ignore on the album and some are more obvious than others. There’s a lot of anger in the lyrics, most of it aimed at bankers in particular and money men generally, but there’s also a lot more going on. When you hear a reference to the money men, there’s usually a counterpoint reference to the ordinary guy (“Shackled and Drawn” and “Jack of All Trades”) or to the impact of global finance on local communities (“Wrecking Ball”). There are constant references to community running through the album, particularly in “Land of Hope and Dreams” and the first track, “We Take Care of Our Own”. It’s easy to interpret this song as a piece of flag-waving but I think it digs much deeper than that, referring to the Jersey shore musical community and their largely blue-collar supporters .

There’s a spirituality running through the album which is probably an inevitable response to the death of a very good friend, particularly in “Rocky Ground” and “Land of Hope and Dreams” which have a real gospel feel and this spills over into some resurrection references as well (more about that one later). The selection of songs on the album is diverse and, apart from the very digital production, could be slotted comfortably into several previous incarnations. It’s a bit like an alternate universe post-“Darkness on the Edge of Town” greatest hits package.

And that leaves the one song that just defies categorisation. “We Are Alive” isn’t just a strange song by Springsteen standards; it’s a strange song by anyone’s standards. There’s an acknowledged steal of the guitar riff from Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire”, a Mexican brass arrangement and lyrics which build towards an apocalyptic vision of the dead rising from the grave to fight injustice. There are too many contrasting threads woven into the fabric for me, but it could be a work of genius and I’m out of step.

There are some great tunes on this album (give it a few listens and they start to creep up on you when you least expect it) and there are some powerful lyrics. There are some interesting arrangements and production techniques but it doesn’t all gel quite as often as it should, which shouldn’t really surprise anyone after the events in Bruceworld over the last few years. Parts of the album inevitably feel like a cathartic response to the death of a great friend and parts of it feel like the end of an era.

So let’s get back to buying a physical copy of this album. If you did that, you’ll know what’s coming; if not, then here’s the reason why you should get physical again. The sleeve notes accompanying the album tell you the real story more effectively in just over 50 words than I can do in 1,000:

“Clarence was big and he made me feel, think, love, and dream big. How big was the big man? Too fucking big to die. You can put it on his gravestone, you can tattoo it over your heart.

Clarence doesn’t leave the E Street Band when he dies. He leaves when we die.”?

Well, back at the Leicester Square Theatre again. I knew that this was a great venue for comedy, but it’s also a great venue for an intimate gig like this one, with a capacity of about 500 and 2 bars; it’s comfortable and you don’t wait 45 minutes for a drink. The sound was crystal clear all night and the audience was knowledgeable and appreciative; all you need now is good performances. I’ve seen Nick Lowe a few times in the past, including the first proper gig I saw. There’s a great story behind that gig, but I’m saving that for the book.

The tour is in support of the latest album “The Old Magic” but, as Nick Lowe points out, the set is structured to include old favourites going back to the early 70s. The fun starts with a 30 minute solo set from the band’s keyboard player, the legendary Geraint Watkins, who plays a mixture of ballads and boogie-woogie and wins the audience over with his musings between songs, great playing and a very powerful voice.

After the interval, Nick Lowe takes the stage on his own to start the set with a solo acoustic version of “Stoplight Roses”, the opening song from “The Old Magic”. From the outset, it’s obvious that he’s a great performer; he doesn’t do anything too showy but it’s all entertaining. He gently reassures the audience (probably unnecessarily) by explaining that he won’t play lots of new songs that they don’t know but we get about half of the new album and the audience know the songs anyway.

After 2 songs, Lowe is joined by the Geraint Watkins (keyboards), Robert Treherne (drums), Johnny Scott (guitar) and Matt Radford (double bass). They’re all great players and 3 of the 4 contribute tight harmonies as well. This isn’t about huge productions and pyrotechnics; it’s about 5 great musicians performing great songs for an audience that actually listens.

As well as “The Old Magic” material, we heard a sprinkling from “Dig My Mood”, “The Impossible Bird” and “The Convincer”, all performed with great skill and taste by a great group of players. Predictably, the big hits got the best response. “Cruel to be Kind” was popular and a rockabilly version of “I Knew the Bride” raised the roof, but the best was saved till last.

The encores feature a duet with Geraint Watkins on “Only a Rose” (a Watkins song), a stripped-down version of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” and a final, final solo encore performance of the Elvis Costello song “Alison” performed perfectly with only his own acoustic guitar as backing. Most of the audience were surprised (actually gobsmacked) at the inclusion of “Alison”, but it’s a great song and he did produce the original version after all.

This was a night for anyone interested in hearing great songs played well by great musicians with a minimum of fuss. Nick Lowe has been in the business for over 40 years and all of his experience is channelled into creating a great performance which showcases the songs and the musicianship (along with some very dry and laconic interludes) while making the whole enterprise look very easy. “The Old Magic” is definitely worth listening to if you haven’t had a chance to see the band, but you could do a lot worse than to dig out any of Nick Lowe’s back catalogue.  If you haven’t heard of Geraint Watkins, then it’s worth checking him out as well.


Charlotte Gainsbourg has a voice and a presence that is perfectly suited to a recording studio. Her second album, ‘IRM’, where she worked with and was produced by Beck was more successful than her, passive ethereal debut (as an adult at least), ‘5:55’, which found Jarvis Cocker on song-writing duties along with Nigel Godrich producing. It had far more bite and sonic diversity with Beck coaxing a more sardonic and engaging performance from Gainsbourg and her plummy, plaintive voice (no sign of a French accent although she occasionally sings in the language) and showed that she could be an interesting, elegant artist in her own right.  Interesting though that both Cocker and Beck have also written for Marianne Faithful, another artist whose singing voice is an acquired taste but who has no problem in attracting hi-profile collaborators due to her ability and willingness to interpret almost exclusively male narratives.

I’m hoping that Stage Whisper is just a stop-gap album as I looking forward to seeing how Gainsbourg develops as a musical artist, already an accomplished actress.  It certainly feels like a stop-gap album. The first eight songs here are new and are studio recorded, the remaining 11 tracks are live renditions of tracks from her first two albums including one cover version (Dylan’s ‘Just Like A Woman’, not good) all recorded on Gainsbourg’s last European tour. It would be a disjointed and messy move for a more traditionally ‘live’ artist to release such a half hearted compilation but for Gainsbourg it really only serves to highlight her weaknesses. The longer, live section that makes up just over half of this album is at best a curio for fans. With a limp and insipid live band Charlotte is certainly not the only one to blame for this but her voice is just not made for a big venue. Only on the robust interpretation of  Cocker’s ‘The Operation’ does she actually improve on the original recording; the clarity and urgency of her vocals sitting on the top of a tight, chugging guitar riff. Elsewhere she struggles to recapture the atmosphere of the studio albums.

The new tracks that begin the album include some of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s best work to date. The first 4 songs see her and Beck continue their work together and build on the electronic indie-pop sound that dominated IRM. The schaffel beats of ‘Terrible Angels’ are reminiscent of Goldfrapp’s glam rock period but don’t feel like a pastiche and the double hand -claps of ‘Paradisco’ are already attracting big name re-mixers. The baroque, haunting ‘White Telephone’ and deadpan ‘All the Rain’ are more downbeat but just as diverting. The remaining 4 tracks all see Gainsbourg imagined as a folky story teller; a duet with Charlie Fink (Noah and the Whale) starts well at least and the brief ‘Anna’ is the most successful song of this bunch with a nice piano solo that brings the song to an all too early end. It would have been nice to have a whole album of new songs especially considering the quality on show here but in the meantime this will just about do.