Thursday, 30 January 2014

High hopes for "High Hopes"

This is my second LP review on this blog and in fact it is my second Bruce Springsteen LP review. My first was for "Wrecking Ball" nearly 2 years ago. Between then and now, there has been a world tour with two legs in Europe both of each I attended with 3 gigs each. During the Australian leg last year, we learned that Bruce went into a studio with Tom Morello and recorded some tracks. And suddenly, this year, there's a new Australian leg (and a South Africa one, taking place right now) plus a new album. But is it really new? The first info circulating on the internet before its release suggested it was probably "Tracks 2" because it was rumoured that it featured outtakes from "The Rising". As it turned out it did feature outtakes. And also last year's Australian recordings with Morello. And studio versions of songs previously officially available on live versions only. And 2 producers: Brendan O'Brien who had produced "The Rising", "Devils + Dust", "Magic" and "Working On A Dream" and Ron Aniello who had produced "Wrecking Ball". And it featured contributions from Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons. So, not really a "new" album...

First of all, let's examine the "studio versions of songs previously officially available on live versions only" bit, It seems that lately, Bruce has undertaken the task to commit these songs to studio versions. So, two years ago, on "Wrecking Ball" we had studio versions of "Wrecking Ball", "Land Of Hope And Dreams" and "American Land" (the latter only on the "deluxe" version). On "High Hopes" we get "American Skin (41 Shots)" originally from "Live In New York City" and "Dream Baby Dream" which was regurarly performed on his solo "Devils + Dust" tour and had been released on a limited edition 10" single. It was a cover of a Suicide song, and since the aforementioned 10" also featured the original version, I can tell you that in my humble opinion, Bruce's version is far superior and he really has made this song his own.
The "Dream Baby Dream" 10 inch single
 Apart from these two songs we something really peculiar: "The Ghost Of Tom Joad" which is "a studio version of a song previously officially available on a STUDIO version only". What's going on here? The story behind it is this. Bruce has released this song in 1995 on his "Ghost Of Tom Joad" album. The album, as the title track is pretty much an acoustic affair. Tom Morello's band, Rage Against The Machine, covered this song. And when Bruce and Tom happen to be together on stage (something which seems to happen quite often these days) they usually play that song together. But the things is, Tom adds, not only lead vocals but an amazing guitar solo, that makes the song (again in my own humble opinion) more powerful and far superior to the original "acoustic" version. That's why, I think, it's really important to have this different version on a studio album (It had previously been available in a live version on the b-side of the live 10" Wrecking Ball single).
The "Wrecking Ball" 10 inch live single featuring "The Ghost Of Tom Joad" with Tom Morello

The title track "High Hopes" may also fall in the category described above. This is also a cover version (originally by The Havalinas if I'm not mistaken) but it has also been available as a studio version. The catch is that it was featured on a very rare release, a CD EP called "Blood Brothers" which was given away with initial copies of the VHS tape with the same name. (It might also had been featured as one of the b-sides on one of the "Secret Garden" CD singles. Here, we have a new version, with Morello on guitar and Ron Aniello studio effects, but personally I prefer the first Bruce version. It was played last year's Australian leg of the tour, apparently at Morello's request, so maybe that's why they decided to get into the studio and record it.

Another cover version that was performed on the Australian leg of last year's tour is "Just Like Fire Would" (a cover of a song by Australian band The Saints) and it also finds its way into the album, presumably also recorded in an Australian studio last year. It is my favourite song on the album (after "Dream Baby Dream" of course).

So what about the other songs? First of all, "Harry's Place". I don't know how to describe that. I don't know what that beat reminds me of. A friend suggested that it sounds like Foreigner and it seems to me that if it was a bit faster you could expect the saxophone part of "Urgent" to come up. A saxophone part does come up, but thankfully it sounds nothing like "Urgent". "Down In The Hole" doesn't do much for me, not a bad one, but I expect much more from Bruce. "Heaven's Wall" has that "raise your hands" chant that sticks to your mind, but the rest of it is easily forgettable to my ears. I had many doubts about "Frankie Fell In Love" at first, but with every listen it grows on me, to the point that at this moment is one of my favourite songs on the album. As is "This Is Your Sword", the difference being that I immediately liked this at first listen, maybe because it reminds me a bit of "The Seeger Sessions". "Hunter Of Invisible Game" is another slow song but much better than "Down In The Hole". It seems to be growing on me, but I still haven't made up my mind about it. Probably needs a few more listens.

Finally "The Wall". This is the favourite song on the album for most Bruce fans, but not for me. It is supposed to be one of those longs that tells a story, in the unique way Bruce has of telling them. I'll keep on listening to it, paying closer attention to the lyrics.

So, I still don't know how to judge this album. Some fans claim that "Working On A Dream" was a bad album, but the thing is, I found at least some good things to say for every track of that album. But maybe I shouldn't think of "High Hopes" so much as an album, but more as a collection. A don't take my word for it. You favourite tracks may be the ones which I don't like, and the ones you hate may be those ones which I praise. And the truth is I'd like to think of myself as a fan, not a critic.