Bruce Springsteen collects some odds and ends for his latest CD, “High Hopes.”
Bruce Springsteen may have titled his new CD “High Hopes” but fans should keep their expectations low.
It’s not a genuinely new album, after all, but a collection of mutts and strays — pieces that had either previously been passed over for a disc, or required a strong rerecording to render them fresh.
It comes as no surprise, then, that the music doesn’t hang together tightly. The songs date from different eras — though most come from the last decade — and they employ a wide array of musicians, including the late Clarence Clemons on two tracks.
To fudge a through-line, Springsteen leaned heavily on ex-Rage Against the Machine guitar czar Tom Morello. The agile axman has played on several tours with the E Street Band when Steve Van Zandt couldn’t.
It turns out to be a ghastly match.
Morello, whose inventive guitar style dovetailed perfectly with the dissonance and metallic power of Rage, has a wholly different role in music this melodic. In some places, his solos sound like tacky hair-metal schmaltz. In others, his flights simply draw too much attention to themselves.
It’s no mean feat to dominate the other players in a mix this thick. Nearly all the tracks on “High Hopes” are wildly overproduced and arranged, leaving no room to rock. In “Heaven’s Wall” a faux gospel choir shouts righteously against a drenching string section while Morello’s guitar squeals and wails with masturbatory absorption.
The same thing happens in the otherwise gorgeous “American Skin (41 Shots),” Springsteen’s 14-year-old song about the police shooting of Amadou Diallo. The song previously surfaced on CD in a fine and direct live take. Here, it turns into a gaudy opera. “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” a clichéd dirge that served as the title track of a 1995 CD, bloats to the grotesque at seven and a half minutes.
The album features some odd covers, including “Just Like Fire Would,” from the Aussie band the Saints. As arranged, it sounds too much like John Mellencamp’s “Small Town.” The take on Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream” turns their abstract song corny.
The disc isn’t a total washout. “Hunter of Invisible Game” glides on strings elegant enough for a John Ford western score. There’s subtlety, too, in “The Wall,” a 1998 ballad written to memorialize Walter Cichon, a Jersey rock idol of Springsteen’s who died in Vietnam.
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings mine retro sounds on “Give the People What They Want.”
Otherwise, the only thing this disc of unclaimed pieces proves is that the Boss was right in shelving them the first time.
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings
“Give the People What They Want”
The headline-making event in Sharon Jones’ life has nothing to do with music.
Last year, she was diagnosed with bile duct cancer, which forced the cancellation of a planned summer tour and delayed the release of this, her sixth album with Brooklyn’s Dap-Tones. Jones has since completed her treatment and was deemed fit by doctors to return to the road. (The band headlines the Beacon on Feb. 6.)
Jones finished the disc before her diagnosis, so her treatment had no effect on her singing and invited no reflection in the lyrics. But the music itself continues to present its own formidable hurtle.
Whenever you listen to any Jones recording, the past overwhelms the present. Her band’s hard-pumping horns, flickering funk guitars, and “River Deep — Mountain High” echo dives into retro-soul with unwavering zeal.
This makes it impossible to hear the songs divorced from the era they so painstakingly evoke. Not that Jones wants it any other way. She never makes any apologies for her devotion to antique soul. In fact, at her age (57) this late-blooming singer considers the music she grew up to be an ongoing, thriving influence in her life.
That’s fine for her, but it means listeners must unhear as much as they hear. There’s no other way to unearth the individuality that lies below all the historic riffs and references.
Song after song on “Give the People What They Want” performs its title’s function for anyone enthralled by the Stax, Philips, Motown and Okeh Records of old. The grand timpani has the melodrama of a Phil Spector teen-dream, while the brass mimics the brashness of a prime Muscle Shoals session. The backup singers echo classic 1960s roof-shakers like the Sweet Inspirations (who supported Aretha).
Luckily, the heat of Jones’ performance, and the essential quality of the band’s melodies, do manage an individual stamp. Never a subtle singer, Jones attacks her soul anthems like a blunt force instrument. That’s fine, since nuance isn’t called for here. Force is, and Jones has enough of it to thrill.
That still isn’t enough to drag the Dap-Kings out of the shadows of their idols. But if they don’t care about that, how deeply should we?