Gave the People What They Had

Sometimes, the best new music is the best old music

If the techno-hip-hop cut-and-paste mindset has changed anything, it's made us listen to music differently. The mind's ear has been taught to isolate certain instruments: the high hat, the bass line, the keyboard fills, the guitar strokes. Today's listener is much more attuned to hearing the parts that make up the whole. Hearing these old recordings after so much has passed between listens is a revelation. Rather than sounding like oldies--which is what the radio stations continually playing "For Once in My Life," "You Are the Sunshine of My Life," and "Sir Duke" would have you believe--Wonder's music sounds fresh. Listen to what Wonder was doing musically, really listen, and you can trace where so many of today's subgenres grew up. Hear Stevie Wonder wail all over the melody on "You and I" (from Talking Book), and you can hear Whitney Houston, R. Kelly, D'Angelo, and every other overwrought R&B singer trying to hit those notes Wonder reaches so effortlessly. Play Music of My Mind from beginning to end, and you can hear a man discovering that the synthesizer needn't be sterile, machine-like. Wonder was looking for new beats decades before such a pursuit became an obsession for rap and R&B producers.

At the core of artistic challenge is the ability to completely convey the song, the painting, the movie, the book in your head. The pure musician becomes merely a conduit in the transfer of the idea into being. In his darkness he's invisible, so Stevie Wonder becomes the instrument. He becomes the soul. His voice goes unimpeded to the edge of heaven as far as he knows. (Michael Corcoran)

Bruce Springsteen: Nebraska Calling
When Sub Pop Records announced earlier this year it was releasing a tribute to Bruce Springsteen's 1982 album Nebraska--the one he recorded in his bedroom, the one on which he sounded like Bruce Springsteen doing Bob Dylan doing Woody Guthrie doing Bruce Springsteen--it sounded like a novel concept, if not an awfully good idea. If Nebraska--with its songs about serial killers and state-sponsored executions and used-car salesmen and factory workers living in the shadow of glowing mansions on the hill--was the essential reflection of Ronald Reagan's mean-spirited America, it seemed appropriate that another generation of singer-songwriters was going to tackle and interpret these songs. Maybe they had noticed how germane the album had become again--how eloquent it spoke not just about the barely distant then but to the here and now, a period in American history when the gulf separating the haves and have-nots is wider than ever despite cheerleading claims of "national prosperity." Where Nebraska once lingered like a ghost, the "meanness in this world" sung about in the title track now seems solid and whole.

At the very least, one hoped that fans of such disparate artists as Aimee Mann, Hank Williams III, Deana Carter, the Pretenders, Son Volt, Ben Harper, and Johnny Cash would see their heroes listed on the back of the just-released Badlands: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska and seek out and purchase the original. Even now, it remains among the lowest-selling albums in Springsteen's catalog--oh, yes, and the best. But Badlands will likely do nothing to bolster its rep; it might even make a few people sell their copies of Nebraska to the used-CD stores. One can find no sense of urgency so essential to the original on Badlands; it's nothing more than a collection of inappropriate artists mimicking and/or butchering Springsteen, a standard tribute album that makes you wonder yet again why anyone thinks such things are tributes at all. Why, Lord, do people insist on honoring their heroes by performing the work as though none of it rubbed off?

If the Kinks' Ray Davies was the "only true and natural genius" of British rock, how do you explain "Low Budget"?
Kevin Reynolds
If the Kinks' Ray Davies was the "only true and natural genius" of British rock, how do you explain "Low Budget"?
After Lowell George got happy feet and left Little Feat, he and the band went to pot.
After Lowell George got happy feet and left Little Feat, he and the band went to pot.

Maybe we should have seen this coming. After all, Nebraska is of a whole--a novel about one thing (what happens when the world, be it a lover or a job or a religion, betrays you), rather than a collection of short stories to be divvied up and handed out. It needs one voice, not a dozen; to chop it up is to kill it. Most of the artists on Badlands possess neither understanding of nor disdain for Springsteen, his legacy, his predecessors, his anything; they are therefore bereft of passion. Like radio-contest winners waiting in a room backstage, they don't have any business here, but they don't seem to know it.

Nebraska means little to most of the musicians here; it could have been any Springsteen record, even Human Touch. Deana Carter, three Dixie Chicks in one, told the Dallas Observer two weeks ago that she liked the "seductive twist" of "State Trooper"--a song about a man fleeing his family as he heads out into the dark and wet nowhere of New Jersey. Springsteen's original was dangerous, a song sung by a man with bloodshot eyes and white knuckles and a sweat-soaked shirt and a gun beneath his seat. Carter performs it like a come-on; she misses the point, and then dulls it to a nub.

So too do most of the other artists here: Chrissie Hynde turns the title song, in which 1950s serial killer Charles Starkweather waits for his soul to be hurled into "that great void," into a monotone lullaby; Dar Williams gender-bends "Highway Patrolman" (among the 12 perfect songs ever written) until it makes no sense; and Ben Harper burns down "My Father's House" with all the care of an arsonist. Only Johnny Cash has any reason to be here--he's covered songs from Nebraska before, on his own albums--but his contribution, "I'm on Fire" (a Nebraska discard later resuscitated for Born in the U.S.A. and MTV) feels like an afterthought, like something left off his new album Solitary Man. Oh, joy--the best song here could have been an outtake.

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