Category Archives: Reviews

Jackson Browne — Running on Empty

I have a copy of Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty, but to be fair, this is my wife’s album.  Prior to about ten years ago I was familiar with some of the songs, but the work as a whole.  It really wouldn’t be fair to me to give a critical review of the record, but there’s still a discussion to be had.

Released in 1977 and easily Browne’s most successful album in terms of sales, Running on Empty is a travelogue, recorded by, of, and for the road in concert halls, hotel rooms, and on tour buses.  It sounds lonely and achey, like an album born under such conditions should.  Melancholy pianos set a persistent tone, driven home by echoes that betray the stillness of rooms both empty and full, and the loneliness that can accompany each.

As a concept album it works rather well, as Running never veers from its life-on-the-road framework and only occasionally (“Shaky Town”) descends into self-parody.  That being said, it’s a time capsule piece of music, inextricably tied to late 70’s rock excess and the lifestyle of a working musician and those working for him, which somewhat leaves the album feeling dated.  But as a 10-song postcard from the era it holds up fine.

Running on Empty‘s most useful application is where my association with it comes in to play.  As I said earlier, this is my wife’s album and one she clings to dearly, as for her it serves as a link to her father and the cusp of her consciousness.  She introduced me to it on roadtrips around the Southeast and to her family roots in Iowa.  The first few times she threw it in, the opening chords of the title track solicited a quiet cringe;  it usually just wasn’t what I was in the mood for.  But over time I began to appreciate the album as a wonderful backdrop for the open road — it actually sounds better the more sparse the road becomes and the later the hour gets.  I have a similar affection for the works of Bob Seger due to an old college roommate;  I only want to hear Bob on the road and out in the country.

Listening to it right now at a desk, I kinda wish I was in Iowa.  Or better yet, on the way there.


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Bruce Springsteen — Magic

As you get older, you come to grips with the fact that many of your heroes will falter and fade, and that both genius and relevance have finite shelf lives.  The best of bands become novelty acts or worse if they don’t die or break up first, and often they aren’t even self-aware enough to realize it.  As Neil Young said, better to burn out than to fade away.

So it was with much trepidation that I dove into Springsteen’s latest when it hit the streets last Fall.  Granted, Bruce had already cycled through an extended period of mediocrity and came out the other end with Rock Statesman credentials, but he’s just at that point where you don’t know what to expect.

So imagine my joy and relief when what I heard was an honest-to-god Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band record.  And not just one that passes enough muster to warrant the Boss seal, but an album that you could drop into the late 70’s and, production polish and infinite nostalgia aside, place somewhere between Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River

If that sounds hyperbolic (it did to type, even with conviction), then give it a listen and tell me I’m wrong.  “Radio Nowhere” announces, with resignation and a lonely anger, his own nostalgia for the landscape that fostered his prime, and from that touchstone launches a litany of our favorite incarnations of Bruce.  The grasp for the summers of youth, the blue-collar romantic, the carefree and the overburdened, the hopeful and the disenfranchised, they all make their appearances.  But whereas many artists of his longevity have nothing left in the tank but to dust off and repackage old chestnuts, Springsteen approaches familiar turf with renewed gusto, blazing through a set of mostly rockers with fierce guitars, soaring sax, and smart arrangements.

Hey, none of these songs will become “Born to Run” or “Thunder Road”.  That window has passed, sadly or just realistically.  But Magic serves to underscore that the man who rarely missed during the 70’s and early 80’s can still knock it out of the park.

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Radney Foster — Labor of Love

I was introduced to Radney Foster in college by a roommate who played me a copy of his solo debut Del Rio, TX 1959, a fantastic album that sidled up to Nashville but kept a foot firmly planted in his native Texas. 

This, however, is not that record.  Instead, this is his follow-up,  Labor of Love, and whereas the former saw Foster sticking to the better angels of his songwriting nature, the latter finds him succumbing to the more base demons of country music circa the mid-nineties.  The title says it all –it sounds like a bad country song.  It is a bad country song.  Worse, it’s a bad country album.

Part of Foster’s appeal back then was that he came across as somewhat of a Nashville outsider, albeit one working to kick the doors in.  No hat.  No pre-fab manly-man appeal.  In fact, he rather bore a resemblance to R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, with erudite glasses and decidedly uncountry hair.  But where Del Rio sounded like a road trip through dusty south Texas into Acadiana, Labor of Love has the sterile feel of a Nashville recording studio.  Overproduced, overwrought and littered with cliches and unimaginative lyrics.

It opens with the promising “Willin’ to Walk”, and then quickly descends into New Country power ballad hell.  Songs like “If it Were Me” and “Precious Pearl” are cringe-inducing, and betray the overwhelming fault of the album:  banal verses, constructed solely to get to the crescendo of syrupy choruses.  It sounds like a man trying too hard to please too many people.  Which is too bad, as the outsider’s stance suited him well.


*Y’know, at first I was going to include this in my list of bad music investments (for the record, ten bucks on cassette in 1995, maybe the last cassette I ever purchased?).  But as I never paid a dime for Del Rio, TX 1959  and have listened to the absolute hell out of it, I’m calling it even.

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Primus — Sailing the Seas of Cheese

Some things you just have to leave in your youth.

I was eleven years old when Top Gun was released.  My friends and I, we loved Top Gun.  Because we were eleven.  Then you watch it again about fifteen years later and realize it’s actually crap.  Horrible.  And strangely, deeply homoerotic, which at eleven my friends and I weren’t sophistocated enough to figure out.  Then again, maybe some of my friends did know.

The point here is that Primus’ Sailing the Seas of Cheese is somewhat similar.  It’s an album I latched onto when I was seventeen, doing seventeen year-old things, and dear lord was I into Primus for about a year and a half.  Thing is, it’s not a very good album at all.  Maybe I figured this out around twenty, and that’s why I haven’t listened to it straight through in so long.  

Primus was the sort of band that, if you were an experimental high school kid (not experimental in the Top Gun way, mind you), you could easily latch onto.  It sounded like nothing else, and Les Claypool’s bass skills and quirky sense of humor made for great fun.  For a while.  The problem is that the formula became formulaic quick, and Seas of Cheese didn’t have nearly as much charm as its predecessor, Frizzle Fry. 

Granted, “Jerry Was a Racecar Driver” is still a fun song, and “Those Damn Blue-Collar Tweakers” is so good you’d like to hear a better band cover it.  But in retrospect, “Tommy the Cat” is poorly delivered by guest Tom Waits, and “Sgt. Baker” is petulant and childish.  Also, and this is a problem endemic to all Primus albums, it’s half filler.  Intro songs, outro songs, pointless near-instrumentals, almost every form of filler finds its way onto this record.

And as you sit and listen to it again, you realize that Claypool’s vocals are more grating than amusing.  And the guitar work isn’t intentionally sloppy, it’s just sloppy.  You realize that the whole thing was gimmicky.  You realize that Primus wasn’t a very good band.

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Metallica — …And Justice For All

I stumbled across a review today for Metallica’s new album, Death Magnetic, which apparently hits the streets this Friday (since when did albums come out on any day other than Tuesdays?).  The advance word is that this is a return to old school thrash metal Metallica, the kind unseen since 1988’s …And Justice For All.

If that’s true, then Metallica has finally made the album I’ve been wanting from them since I was fourteen, back when …And Justice stormed the world and my adolescence.  Of course, I’m now in my thirties and haven’t bought a new heavy metal record since, what, Metallica’s eponymous black album in 1991?  And while I won’t rush out to pick up the new record on the release date like I did seventeen years ago, it did seem like a worthwhile reason to throw in …And Justice for its first full spin in close to a decade.

There’s a clear dividing line amongst Metallica fans.  There are those who came on board with or after the explosion of the Black Album, and there are those who were made fans by or before …And Justice For All.  I fall into the latter.  And for those of us whose march into puberty was scored by the first four Metallica albums (and let’s not forget the Garage Days… EP), there have been several decades of relative disappointment.  We realize that it isn’t fair to begrudge a band their opportunity for growth, but dammit, Metallica wasn’t supposed to grow.

What they were supposed to do was keep pumping out albums like …And Justice For All, which in hindsight wasn’t a sustainable trajectory.  It was the high water mark of not just Metallica, but metal period.  Powerful, epic, and relentless, …And Justice took the phenomenal (and in some ways superior) Master of Puppets and made it darker, tighter, and angrier.  Album covers be damned, this is the black album, a tone the opening “Blackened” sets early.  The assault continues through the winding ten-minute title track, past the breakthrough hit “One”, all the way to “Dyer’s Eve”, the traditional blazing fast Metallica album closer.  It’s heavy metal at its most grim, painting a paranoid portrait of government institutions and cold war politics.  It’s an album not just trying to scare you, but actually scared itself — it sounds like insanity backed into a corner.

Musically, the blueprint Metallica had been working on since Ride the Lightning reached its zenith, with guitars chugging through endless riffs and countless stop/start time changes, intertwined with Kirk Hammett’s technically-impressive solo work.  It was the first time they had the luxury of having a real budget to record on, and what results is guitars that ring louder and drums that pound harder than previous efforts.  James Hetfield’s vocals may have sounded better on Puppets, but here his deeper growl fits the mood and the songs just fine.

And what it wrought was a generation of fans not unlike myself; teenage boys that, upon hearing it once, immediately had no use for the glam rock of the time.  This album rendered entire swaths of my music collection obsolete.  How was I supposed to go back to old Bon Jovi records after this?  Instead we worked backwards, catching on to the other great albums of the genre that led to …And Justice For All.  It would take us several years to realize that there wasn’t going to be another album like it — in perfecting speed metal, …And Justice also sounded its death knell.


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Lucinda Williams — self titled

I moved around a lot growing up, but spent a good chunk of my formative years in Louisiana.  The same can be said of Lucinda, and that’s a large part of what led me to pick up an album of hers years ago.  I’d probably have to give due credit to Vic Chesnutt’s song by her name, as well.

For the uninitiated, Lucinda Williams is the sort of singer/songwriter that country musicians love, but country music fans may not even know.  If they have heard of her, they’re probably mostly familiar with this self-titled release’s “Passionate Kisses”, which netted her a songwriting Grammy several years later when Mary Chapin Carpenter had a hit with it.  Tom Petty fans may recognize “Change the Locks”. 

And those are only a few of a highlights on what is one of the better and more diverse entries in Mrs. Williams’ catalogue.  At its core is a gritty, dusty country record, one that alternatingly sounds like the life of the party or the lonely soul at the end of the bar.  There’s elements of rock and pop to be found for sure, but the minimalist production ensures that it never pushes into Nashville New Country territory.  What emerges instead is a straight-on approach, one resulting in a timeless record that allows itself to be carried by the strength of the songwriting.  Frankly, it’s easy to forget this album is from 1988; it doesn’t sound like anything from the time, rock, pop, or country.

The zydeco-tinged “Crescent City” is close to the best three minutes she’s put down in her career, and “Big Red Sun Blues” isn’t far behind.  It’s an album both confident and vulnerable, determined and unsure.  Lucinda would take this blueprint to her zenith a decade later with Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, but this is as good a point of entry to her work as any.

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J Mascis + the Fog — More Light

After finishing up his Sire contract, J Mascis dropped the Dinosaur Jr. moniker under which he had worked since, well, when Dinosaur Jr. had been an actual band.  A control freak to the point of legend, J named his new still-solo project “The Fog”, releasing its debut album in late summer of 2000.

Between the shifting of tastes at the time and the fact that the album didn’t carry the Dinosaur Jr. brand, More Light flew pretty much below radar.  Which is too bad, as it’s a fine rock album and still fairly Dino-ish.  It’s certainly better than the scattershot Dinosaur Jr. coda Hand it Over, and could close to hold its own against 1994’s Without a Sound

There aren’t any real traces of the SST-era J Mascis to be found here until the title track wraps things up, but then the bludgeoning fuzz of those albums was mostly gone by the early 90’s.  Nor does More Light feature the sonic overload of the early Sire records.  What’s left is still J’s jaw-dropping guitar work, but less layered, allowing it to come across a little cleaner and bit more angular.  The distortion is still there though, especially in “I’m Not Fine” and the “Same Day”.  And there’s still a growth curve going on, as his ability to pen slower tempos continues to improve.

It’s actually not a bad point of entry to J Mascis, at least in terms of getting a full range of style.  I’ll still take Where You Been?  to my desert island, but there are worse albums to be stranded with than More Light

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