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How About I Be Me (And You Be You)

Sinead O'Connor

How About I Be Me (And You Be You)

Ahh, Sinead, Sinead, Sinead...always keeping us guessing, giggling behind our backs as we squirm and hope for your well-being and think perhaps the meds aren't working. The frank, explicit Tweets about your lack of intimate pleasures; the open invitation to apply as your bed partner; the announcement that you were getting married to one of the applicants on your birthday; the break-up a couple weeks after; the reconciliation; the confession that you were "very un-well...and in danger." It all sounded very off the rails, even for someone who always enjoyed stirring the pot with a shovel instead of a spoon. And then you give us this...your new album. And you've tricked us again, because you know what? It's quite stunning. After two decades of not bad to pretty darn good efforts covering everything from standards to tweaked-up Irish songs to reggae, O'Connor has found herself in classic form again. The power, the anger, the glory of O'Connor's first two - and best - albums are here in full force, as are her amazing voice and the quality of the songs. In the first, the jaunty, optimistic "4th and Vine," she sings of putting on her pink dress, some perfume, some eyeliner, as she gets ready for her wedding day. They're gonna have six kids and be happy for all time! Yes, of course they will. But with Sinead, it can't be all peaches & cream for long...the very next track, "Reason With Me," is a portrait of a junkie thief hoping to right himself someday, but meantime, "I stole your granny's rosary for 50p." The squirm truly begins with "Take Off Your Shoes," in which she plays the holy spirit vowing retribution to those corrupting the church from within ("I bleed the blood of Jesus over you") and it continues with her cover of John Grant's "Queen of Denmark." O'Connor flatly delivers the humorous and profane lyrics as if she's patient for now, but simmering under the boil, before all hell breaks loose and power chords from angry guitars chop as she goes ballistic - "Why don't you take it out on somebody else / Why don't you tell somebody else that they're selfish." It's a high point of the album, as is the single, "The Wolf Is Getting Married," a simple and effective love song, which acts as a breath of fresh air to the harrowing moments that surround it. It's nice to hear O'Connor singing "Your smile makes me smile / Your laugh makes me laugh" like she really means it. It makes me think she's gonna be all right after all.

Arrow

Being one of singer Erika Wennerstrom's bandmates in the Heartless Bastards could be a mixed blessing. They're a better-than-average bar band fronted by the powerhouse vocals of Wennerstrom, who can wail like the second coming of Janis Joplin as easily as dishing up the honey like Lucinda do (I even hear some Amy Winehouse moments in there). The songs? Most are decent but unremarkable rockers with a sprinkle of roots-rock here, a dash of blues-rock there, some Dusty inspiration, like I said....a really good bar band, but with a singer you won't likely forget. There are a few standouts on Arrow, which drops tomorrow - "Simple Feeling" recalls the bluesy psychedelia of Cream and Screaming Trees and Wennerstrom performs all sorts of wonderful vocal acrobatics in the breezy soul-pop of "Only For You." Also notable is the seven-plus minute closer "Down In the Canyon," in which the Bastards take Neil Young's Crazy Horse and ride it hard. Apparently no one could talk Wennerstrom out of the album's worst misfire - opening it  with a six-plus minute snoozefest, appropriately titled "Marathon." Wennerstrom herself writes all of the songs, so her band can't be faulted for the lack of truly memorable material here. But seriously, with a talent as great as hers, she could toss them under a bus and not break a sweat - just ask members of the Bastards' many previous lineups. Pick Arrow up and use it for your next road trip - it makes fine company.

Download "Parted Ways"

21

Adele

21

Just finishing listening to Adele for the very first time. Missed out on her debut, 19, and likely would have paid no mind to her new record, 21, as well, if I hadn't heard a snippet of it at Easy Street the other day. Then it grabbed me. Damned if the song I heard, "Take It All," wasn't a picture perfect nod to the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. A slow, rolling piano anchored the gospel feel of the song, and Adele's voice, possessed with such rich depth, was impossible to ignore. Yes, Amy Winehouse, fantastic, sure, but this…this takes the small-but-growing "retro-soul" niche to a whole 'nutha level. The song that followed, "I'll Be Waiting," again channels Lady Soul, but this time the celebratory, Muscle-Shoals-driven R&B of much of her late '60s work.

At the other end of the spectrum is the opener, "Rolling In the Deep," which begins with a slow-burning build, Adele's confident vocals accompanied first by an acoustic guitar, then the thump-thump-thump of a bass drum, before finally breaking into a glorious chorus, which had me reaching for the platform shoes, so similar it was to epic disco anthems of the '70s (minus the cheesy rhythm patterns and cardboard production, mind you). "Rumour Has It" seems like a big flip of the bird to those who try to pigeonhole Adele into a retro-soul trap. This is how I would imagine the late, great Dusty Springfield would sound like if she could make a comeback record with Rick Rubin (who, incidentally, produced this cut). It's a full-on rhythmic stomper with a swampy Creedence-y backbone and a percussive drive on the lines of Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk."

Unfortunately, there are a few misfires that follow, some schlocky sentimental ballads (best suited to be played on the Grammys, methinks) and an overly dramatic, string-laden moment of agony titled "Set Fire to the Rain." But that's it….things pick up with the sultry "He Won't Go" and she can't go wrong from there on out, even throwing in a Cure cover before it all ends with an emotional heartbreak song, "Someone Like You," in which Adele offers a stunning vocal performance.

21 is not likely to grow on you with repeated listenings - you'll either get it straightaway or you won't. Love it or not, it's almost impossible not to admit that Adele is an enormous talent. And, most importantly perhaps, she's only 22. Will she end up being one of the best singers of our time? If she can keep her nose clean, not lose her sense of adventure, and keep the r.e.s.p.e.c.t. for her influences, I have no doubt.

Red Barked Tree

Wire

Red Barked Tree

In the early days, Wire were the unchallenged masters of minimal - fifteen of the twenty-one songs on their 1976 debut, Pink Flag, were under two minutes, with six coming in at under one minute. Working within that time frame, the band could rarely fit more than a few chords into a single composition. This was a good thing. Only a third of the songs on the the follow-up, Chairs Missing, were under the two-minute mark, and by the third album there were none. Naturally, a band needs to progress, expand, challenge themselves, but in Wire's case, less was more.

Wire returned from a five-year hiatus in 1985 armed with synthesizers and drum machines and gave us The Ideal Copy, taking cues from New Order along the way. They toured in support of the record, but refused to play any of their older material, instead bringing a Wire cover band along to throw fans that particular bone. A subsequent album featured an eleven-minute song. In 1990, original drummer Robert Gotobed left the band, having grown weary of their use of loops and electronics (and let's not forget eleven-minute songs!). He returned in 1999, as did the band's balls.

Preceded by a few EPs, the astonishing Send displayed four very angry older men seemingly releasing years of pent-up aggression. It was nearly as great, even if very different, as the band in its prime. On the next album, Object 47, guitarist and champion of Wire's noisier excursions, Paul Gilbert, was out of the picture and the melodic side took over, the rough edges sanded down to smooth.

And today there's Red Barked Tree, in which brief squalls of ferocity sit uneasily with the more tuneful elements of Wire. Potential contemporary hits like "Adapt" - a sweeping, majestic, acoustic hummer - patiently share space with bone-rattling, industrial two-chord bashers with fuzzed-out vocals (e.g., "Two Minutes" and "Moreover") - as if they were kids from the previous marriage. In the middle ground we have "A Flat Tent," which delivers a couple minutes of Buzzcocks-flavored punk-pop, and "Clay," where the vocal melody pours sugar on top of a fairly pedestrian, though catchy, progression. Opener "Please Take" could well be a lost Simple Minds track except that singer Colin Newman is politely requesting "please take your knife out of my back" and "fuck off, out of my face," rather than "don't you forget about me." The longer songs near the end get a bit tedious, as Wire still rarely goes beyond two or three chords to get their point across, but all in all there's enough quality and variety in Red Barked Tree to please the old fans and attract some new ones as well.

The Promise

Bruce Springsteen

The Promise

My wife walked in the door as I was cranking The Promise, a two-CD set of unreleased songs originally recorded as part of Bruce Springsteen's Darkness on the Edge of Town sessions. She managed to get halfway into the kitchen before she stopped, turned around and remarked, "You're listening to Springsteen?? You HATE Springsteen!" I mumbled some defensive comment, along the lines of, "I never HATED Springsteen, I just like lots of other singers better." But, she wasn't too far off, truth be told.

In mid-to-late '70s, my soundtrack was Priest, Sabbath, Zep, Kiss, UFO, Scorps, you get the picture. Bruce music sounded to me like the stuff you'd hear as Saturday Night Live broke for commercial; the piano/sax-driven soundtrack for the NYC cocaine set too sophisticated for disco. I placed him in the same corner as Van Morrison, Randy Newman, Bruce Cockburn, etc, all of which I never cared for back in my teens (and as I later learned, this was the stuff that music journalists of the day fawned over - now it's the Hold Steady). Born In the USA hit in '84, and by that time I was dipping my toes in the punk pool. During the Reagan years it was pretty uncool to be both proud of the US and into punk rock, and so the Boss's flag-waving patriotism on BITUSA provided more fuel for my ire. So, as a result, I never bought a Bruce Springsteen album, never listened to Nebraska or The River, let alone Darkness or Born to Run all the way through. Sure, I knew about all the five-star reviews, but my mind was made up without even taking time to listen - I did not like Bruce Springsteen. My buddy tried to help me out by taking me to one of his legendary three-plus hour shows, and I just fell asleep. No way, no how.

I don't know what got me to play the online stream of The Promise last week, but something funny happened when I did - I felt a strong urge to turn it way up. And once it was done I played it again. Now that punk has mostly faded from my rear-view mirror, I've found that I now enjoy listening to Randy Newman, Steely Dan, Van Morrison, Paul Simon, from time to time (Oops, there's my wife again, "What do you mean? You HATE those guys!"). And you know what? The Promise sounded GREAT! Yeah, sure, Bruce & the E-Streeters wear their influences loudly and proudly on their sleeves on this collection - a factor which apparently led to the scrapping of most of these songs when Bruce took his editing pen to create the final song lineup for Darkness on the Edge of Town.

The legendary Ronettes/Spector "Then He Kissed Me" drum pattern - complete with castanets - is unashamedly nicked in at least a few songs (if only that drummer could collect royalties!); the gorgeous masterpiece "The Brokenhearted" might as well be a lost Roy Orbison song; the shimmering ballad, "Someday (We'll Be Together)," despite lifting the title from the Supremes, is another stunner, and these last two revealed to me what a great singer dude really is (I'd only really heard his "ballad voice" on the hit "I'm On Fire.") There's a homage to '60s garage rock (the stellar "Wrong Side of the Street"), nods to the Byrds (12-strings front-and-center on "Rendezvous"), Sam Cooke (the finger-snappin' "Aint' Good Enough for You," basically an awesome rewrite of his "Twistin' the Night Away"). But there are other songs that are all Bruce - the sultry, bluesy "It's a Shame"; the jump-in-the-car-take-the-top-down-we're-hitting'-the-road feel of "Save My Love" (see "Born to Run" for another example); the hyper, horn-laden R&B of "Talk to Me," and the Darkness piece de resistance, "Racing in the Streets," of which I am told is the "rock" version (never heard the original version until this week, of course…see below for that story). The Promise also includes fine versions of the songs he wrote for Elvis Presley and Patti Smith - "Fire" and "Because the Night," respectively (although Elvis didn't bite, the Pointer Sisters and Robert Gordon both recorded decent versions of "Fire").

The thing that truly blows me away about The Promise? These 22 songs have been under wraps for thirty-plus years and there is not a single bad one in the bunch. Even more amazing, the majority of them are truly great songs - classics even - stuff that most real rock 'n' roll bands would kill to be able to write. After I listened to it for the third time and finally read the story behind it, I remembered that not long ago a friend gave me a box of vinyl he was getting rid of. And somewhere in that box was a Bruce Springsteen album that I filed away. Went down to the basement, and sure enough, it was Darkness on the Edge of Town. I put the needle to the groove and enjoyed every minute of it. Now off to Easy Street to fill in some of the rest of the gaps. Perhaps one of the biggest Boss fans I know of - MY boss - will point me in the right direction.

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