CD Review: Bruce Springsteen - We Shall Overcome:  The Seeger Sessions

This nominal Pete Seeger tribute is easily the best album Bruce Springsteen has made in a quarter century or more. Hey, no one's more surprised by this than me, but there it is.

The record's good enough to convince a skeptic. This album is absolutely superior on every level to anything he's done since the '70s. The most important aspect of this is the songwriting. Bluntly, Springsteen hasn't written much worth hearing in many years. The tunes and hooks were grossly homogenized by Born in the USA, and lost strength entirely after Tunnel of Love, his last really worthwhile album.

He's cast himself here as an interpreter of song rather than a composer. Nominally, these songs are cast as songs associated with Pete Seeger. But mostly I know these songs as folk songs from grade school music textbooks, stuff from before the advent of recording technology. It occurs to me that this suggests a world of great songs that have had limited recording history.

If you know these songs from grade school, as performed by your local versions of Bobbi and Marty Kulp, the SNL music teachers, then you haven't quite got the good out of the song. I half remember being slightly struck by the "Erie Canal" song lo those many decades ago in school, but I've never heard anything like this Bruce Springsteen performance. He takes these songs to a whole different level. He's not just doing simple run-throughs of some old folk songs, but interpreting major standards. It's a whole different level of ambition.

For starters, this is as good a playing band sound as Springsteen ever had in life. So let's note this credit listing: The musicians on the record are Springsteen (guitar, harmonica, B3 organ and percussion), Sam Bardfeld (violin), Art Baron (tuba), Frank Bruno (guitar), Jeremy Chatzy (upright bass), Mark Clifford (banjo), Larry Eagle (drums and percussion), Charles Giordano (B3 organ, piano and accordion), Ed Manion (saxophone), Mark Pender (trumpet), Richie "La Bamba" Rosenberg (trombone) and Soozie Tyrell (violin). Lisa Lowell, Patti Scialfa, Springsteen, Pender, Tyrell, and Rosenberg contribute backing vocals.

He's concocted a sonic stew worthy of savoring. Reaching into pre-rock stylings, he sounds a little bit like a lot of things, but not really close to any of them. In flashes, I'm getting vibes of the Band, Mellencamp's Lonesome Jubilee, New Orleans, and Salvation Army bands.

Yet even the Asylum Street Spankers could not have made sharper arrangements and performances than these. The Seeger Sessions band laid down perhaps the best detail work on any Springsteen record. This was recorded in Springsteen's barn, but make no mistake this has the attention to detail of chamber music.

Personally, I've got at least four or five favorites here, but for the sake of argument, my favorite favorite is "O Mary Don't You Weep," a vintage gospel song given prominent New Orleans horn color which now still just a few months past the 2005 floods lends a complete new level to the central images of Moses, with the key line "Pharoh's army got drown-ed." The violin in the first 30 seconds was particularly striking.

In the context of a Bruce Springsteen tribute to Pete Seeger, when he passes on Yahweh's warning about "no more water, but fire next time" for the oppressors, that would appear to be notice of what we've got coming if we don't get aboard with Bruce and Pete and the Pinko People's Revolution which I, for one, have no intention of doing, even under the threat of Biblical punishment. Personally, I feel rebuked. But that's okay I'm sure I've got it coming to me. If you state your rebuke this outstandingly, well, I'll be happy to take my licks.

The quality of these songs as a framework for the production was crucial, and the unique talents and chemistry of the band were obviously important, but also this project brought something extra out of Springsteen himself. Somehow in the rarefied math of the Springsteen noggin, these songs have somehow allowed him to step somewhat outside of his particular self-consciousness and channel those dormant passions. He works up a hell of a Pentecostal fervor singing this gospel song.

Somehow, these songs and the framework he's concocted bypass a lot of the calculations for his alternating commercial aspirations and Woody Guthrie shtick, and allow him to properly channel his passions into actual MUSIC.

"Pay Me My Money Down" particularly satisfies as a driving jam, very rewarding to listen to in the car. "Pay me my money down / Pay me or go to jail." Particularly devoid of any social significance, he harnesses that impressive Springsteen will-to-power in a more direct way from his soul than any pinko pieties could ever inspire. Perhaps I'm prejudiced, but this recording seems considerably more spiritual to me than, say, the Tom Joad record.

But even the more political statements here come off way better than average. "Mrs. McGrath" is a new song to me, and probably the best anti-war song I've heard in the Bush era. Instead of bloodless abstractions and cheap invocations of details of the W administration that will not be very meaningful after 2008, he picks a very good vintage song about the anguish of a mother whose son has come home legless from the war.

The suffering of a soldier's mom is, of course, a classic artistic motif, for good reason. It's direct and real and emotional, not just an iteration of ideology. Springsteen really latched onto the Irish dread such that even Sinead O'Connor would be proud to claim this arrangement and effective performance. This track would sound sweet in an iPod mix back-to-back with "Drink Before the War."

"Keep Your Eyes on the Prize" makes a particularly good choice for Springsteen. It's almost a gospel song, though more associated with political struggles than religious. Nonetheless, this song, like "O Mary Don't You Weep," channels his secular liberal religion to the verities of our most organic American spiritual music. That idea of faith and perseverance comes out so much better in these classics than some tuneless, contrived pseudo-Guthrieism.

This is some righteous church music. You needn't be a Christian or a Stalinist folk singer to take substantive spiritual nourishment from the encouragement of "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize." This one of the most beautiful and spiritually profound recordings I've heard any time recently.

I was particularly surprised by how beautiful the "Erie Canal" came out. I remember somewhat liking this tune in grade school, but I've never heard it given a serious recording. For starters, this recording makes me realize that a lot of those grade school songs were not children's music. This is SO much better as a basic melody and song than any recent Springsteen composition, and so much more natural a statement of working class sentiment than his political contrivances.

If Springsteen wants to show solidarity with the working man, this is a particularly good way to do it. This is a beautiful display of weariness and determined perseverance, the kind of things that might be the good artistic themes that he'd want to pursue in this vein. Really though, careful listening reveals that this is basically a love song to a mule - and a very moving one at that. Hey, Sal is his co-worker, companion, and protector. That sounds better than most wives.

This song even makes a banjo come out somber. That's a pretty tough trick, as per the classic Steve Martin routine. Yet in at least a couple of places on the album, notably "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize" and this "Erie Canal," the banjo cuts an unusual and artistically rewarding non-joyous tune.

Of course, the classic "John Henry" is a perfect Bruce Springsteen song, when you think about it. Again that will-to-power thing of Springsteen projects well into this tale of the working man who died with a hammer in his hand. Springsteen turns in as good a vocal performance of the song as any I've heard, but he also has a particularly sharp, well detailed arrangement. They may be credited as "violins," but this is some legitimate fiddling, among other things. The accordion solo helps set it off. I'd put this back to back with even the Johnny Cash performance.

I would typically think of "Jacob's Ladder" as fairly somber, but he turns this into an outstanding rambling New Orleans jazz jam. The high quality of his band comes out particularly well in some of the details of this song, the violin and piano, and the whole thing.

Let me take just a quick aside to bitch about "Jesse James." Now, this part is not a musical criticism. It's a fine song, and Springsteen gives it a compelling arrangement and performance. But the underlying point of this song is some particularly offensive socialist nonsense, praising a two-bit robber and killer as a hero because he (supposedly) gave some of his take to the poor. I'm particularly unimpressed by the invocation of his grieving wife and kids. What about the wives and kids of the people that Jesse James killed? Perhaps if I robbed and murdered this fat-cat Springsteen and tithed to a poor relief fund, I too could be considered a legendary hero. Okay, end o' rant. Thanks for your kind indulgence.

The songs framing the album serve well by their clear and complete lack of social significance. "Ol Dan Tucker" starts the album out on a particularly appropriate artistic note of hunger. It's a clear indication of intending to set a basic tone of relaxed jamming for jamming's sake.

"Froggie Went a Courtin'" is certainly not a serious song, but then there's Bruce Springsteen. By the time he dresses Mr. Frog up for courtin' in the accordion and fiddle and all, he's looking pretty sharp. When he puts in his vocal performance, he's all invested. Goofy as it may be, he makes the outcome between Mr. Frog and Miss Mousie seem pretty important.

I never drank the Springsteen Kool Aid, and I don't buy his whole Woody Guthrie shtick. I don't buy the personae, so he has to really sell me with an actual good record. It's been about 20 years since he's actually done that.

Yet I say that this is a really beautiful record. You need to hear it.

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