Kat: If you're a Bruce Springsteen fan, you know he's worth listening to and you live for the moments where he is more than that. The Nebraska moments, the Born in the U.S.A. moments, The River moments. Those are the highs. Though some might disagree, I've never really noticed any lows. At his "worst," he's still listenable. With or without the E Street Band, you can toss him on the stereo -- pretty much blindly -- and know you won't have to grab the remote and stand close by to avoid the groaners.
For me, there's one "worst" album in the Springsteen canon: Greatest Hits. Now true, I don't care for repackaging studio cuts, but I found little on that album that was worth getting excited about. It was the dullest, safest mix and it's probably the only one that I've never popped out of the case and played again after the initial hearings.
He's got a new album out, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. Seeger being Pete Seeger, the legend, the pioneer -- add your own adjective of choice. He's not with the E Street Band and if you're thinking that means you're getting Nebraska or The Ghost of Tom Joad, you're mistaken. On this album, he plays "guitar, mandolin, B3 organ, piano, percussion, harmonica, tambourine" and contributes backing vocals as well as leading vocals. A far cry from Nebraska which was was recorded by Springsteen on a really crappy tape recorder and finally released with a few tweeks after attempts at re-recording the home recordings never captured the hypnotic and powerful quality he'd created more or less by himself -- chiefly with his vocals and guitar playing. In addition to the variety of instruments he plays this go round, thirteen people contribute assistance.
It's a loud album. Loud's not bad. But it's one that you may need to listen to repeatedly in order to appreciate. You think "Pete Seeger," you usually picture a solitary man, onstage, with his guitar. Springsteen could have done that. It was probably wise not to.
The point of the album is not just to provide a tribute. There's nothing wrong with the concept of a tribute album (though the execution of one is often frightening -- such as a Jimi Henrix album released not all that long ago). But at best, what happens is that a few fans of the artist, or artists, doing the tribute end up learning of a musician. A few may even seek out the artist receiving the tribute's own recordings.
Springsteen's doing something similar here to Dolly Parton's recent Those Were The Days. It's a louder, muscular version and that sometimes turns off people. It's why some refer to his music as "jock rock." But like Parton, he's digging into the past to comment on the world now.
Here are some of the gripes I've heard about this album.
"It's not Pete Seeger's songs!"
It's called the Seeger Sessions and for those not familiar with folk tradition, Harry Belafonte, Malvina Reynolds, Miriam Makeba and others were doing something new when they began performing original songs. (Yes, this predates the emergence of Bob Dylan as a songwriter and, yes, it's overlooked in the rush to holler, "Praise be to Dylan! God of all music!") In the mid-20th century, folk artists usually went to the "roots" which meant traditional folk songs that might have been forgotten were the artists not there to bring them to the attention of a new generation. So these are songs Seeger has recorded (and a few of them are ones he had a hand in writing).
"It's too loud!"
It's a look at America and, in case you missed it, we're rarely seen overseas as reticent. Hearing the power in his voice as he sings "John Henry" is something you'll either enjoy or you won't. I have a hard time figuring out how you sing "Erie Canal" without using a powerful voice. (Though a stark presentation might work as well, the song -- with repeated cries of "low bridge" -- really requires a powerful reading.) The loudness critique actually came from a twenty-one-year-old friend who is devoted to "hardcore." (Sh, don't tell him it's died.)
The reason he thinks it's too loud? "I bought this for a relaxing listen." This is an active listen. It's not the sort of CD you put on at the end of a long day when you're relaxing before bedtime. It's a blood pumping CD.
"It's too fussy."
That actually may be the most apt criticism for those who like their Springsteen stripped down (Nebraska, The Ghost of Tom Joad). (For those who like their Springsteen really stripped down, he used to favor blue briefs.) He's working with a large band and those not familiar with the hootenany form will be left scratching their heads. Hopefully the success of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack provides some form of a starting point for those asking "Hoot-a-what?"
"We Shall Overcome" is the song that's getting most of the ink. It's a quieter version that you may be used to, one that vocally recalls Springsteen's "Streets of Philadelphia." Most friends really enjoy the album but they have issues with the track order. Sumner, for instance, thinks "Jesse James" should have been the opener because it starts off soft (as most people probably expect) and transitions quickly into the group effort present on the album.
But even those who would rearrange the track listing, can't stop listening (even if they use the program function on their CD players to put the disc in the order they wish it came in). A few listens and I'm guessing you will too. He's not coasting and using "tribute" to hide behind uninspired. He's fully committed to the music and, for Springsteen fans, that's probably all they need to know about We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.
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