Review: Bruce Springsteen – “Wrecking Ball”

One could argue that, at this stage in his career, a Bruce Springsteen album will be two things: never as good as his best work and still better than any new rock music releases.

With Wrecking Ball, Springsteen’s 17th album, he somehow confounds this notion by delivering a record great enough to be considered alongside his best work. Sure, there are experiments with a segment of Bruce-penned rap in “Rocky Ground”, some percussion loops, and Dropkick Murphy-style stomp rock with “Death to My Hometown” and “Shackled and Drawn”.

But what Wrecking Ball really flies is a gospel music flag. The chord changes, the church choir voices, and the lyrics that ultimately forsake resignation for hope.

Is it about Occupy Wall Street, as many focused on before its release? I d argue that is too narrow of an assessment. Instead, it is about the country, and the economy, and what the past few years has done to the psyche of those who are living without the safety net of millions of dollars in the bank. Looked at in these thematic terms, it relates more to Born in the USA than any other record he has made.

The most familiar (i.e. 70’s and 80’s Bruce rock) sounds come from the title cut, “We Take Care of Our Own”, and (due to it’s inclusion in the past ten years of shows) “Land of Hope and Dreams”, recast here as a focused, kicking rock anthem. These are the songs most easily digested by fans. They lend familiarity to the set, allowing for some sonic risks on the other cuts.

The centerpiece is “Jack of All Trades”, a Nebraska-esque sound wrapped around a song about a man who can do a lot of things, but nothing about problems bigger than himself. Still, he tries to convince his girl that it will “be alright”.

The album is wholly and unmistakably a Bruce Springsteen rock record. Hints of his Seeger Sessions work are never too far away — and that looseness is welcome.

And when Clarence Clemons’ sax solo rings during the latter half of “Land of Hope and Dreams”, the melancholy is absorbed by the notion that Springsteen has figured out how to mix his old with a touch of new, with the help of producer Ron Aniello. The album will be one of the best rock (or other) albums of 2012.

The bedlam of Born in the USA will never return; that was a blaze that burned far too high and wide to be repeated. But what Wrecking Ball does is show an American rock and roll singer, nearly 30 years down the road from that cultural moment, still able to capture a sound and emotion that resonates deeply.

WTTS Radio celebrates 20 years of rock

This year marks 20 years for Bloomington’s WTTS radio to be playing its mix of rock music. We’ve been pretty lucky to have a station around for that many years that can be comfortable mixing stuff from John Hiatt and John Mellencamp with newer music like the Black Keys and Arcade Fire. We caught up with longtime WTTS Program Director Brad Holtz to see what he liked about music in 2011, what he sees for 2012, and what are some of favorite things about the station.

Rockforward: First, let’s look back at 2011. Tell me a couple of your favorites, and why.
Brad Holtz: I think Adele has to be on everyone’s list. That an artist so genuine and heartfelt in their approach can translate into a mass-appeal performer in the face of some rather “manufactured” competition is pretty inspiring. Aside from that, in 2011 we continued to see the rise of indie artists. The Head & The Heart, Blitzen Trapper, Iron & Wine and Fleet Foxes were a few. Arcade Fire winning the album of the year at the 2011 Grammys has to be a high point too.

Rockforward: What about American guitar rock and roll?
Holtz: As far as American rock and roll, The Black Keys are the real deal. Although they’re new to a lot of people, the guys have been around for seven albums. WTTS was playing them five years ago. It’s nice to see them getting the wider attention they deserve.

Rockforward: As a radio station that has continued to embrace the music of John Mellencamp, I’ve heard rumors (and talked to Larry Crane a while back) of the old band (Crane, Aronoff, Toby) getting back together. What do you think?
Holtz: I can’t speak to these rumors, but everyone loves a comeback, right? I think such a reunion would mean a lot to the many fans touched by their music over the past 35 years.

Rockforward: Lots of great music from women played on WTTS. Some favorites?
Holtz: I already mentioned Adele for all the obvious reasons. I think Florence Welch (Florence + The Machine) is a tremendous talent who translates beautifully live. Speaking of live, I just caught a new singer-songwriter named Katie Herzig at a recent WTTS Emerging Artist show at Creation Cafe. A very gifted writer, musician and performer who sounds great on the radio AND on stage.

Rockforward: Has WTTS changed over the years?
Holtz: I really don’t believe we’ve changed our approach. It has always been our goal to expose a variety of great rock music from different eras encompassing different styles. And as an independently owned radio station, we’ve also felt that part of our mission was to expose new artists not played elsewhere, and to give newcomers a chance. So basically, play a lot of great music and play some new stuff nobody would dare touch. That’s what WTTS did 20 years ago, that’s what we’re doing today and that’s what we’re going to be doing for years to come.

Rockforward: Love the Sun King Studios live music stuff you guys do. How has that helped WTTS?
Holtz: We love it too. Studio 92 opened seven years ago, if you can believe it. Our downtown performance studio houses 40 listeners and we’ve had well over 100 performers come by. And the range has been awesome – from newcomers like Amos Lee and Ray Lamontagne, back when they were newcomers – to legends like The Doobie Brothers, Joan Armatrading, Suzanne Vega, Ziggy Marley and John Hiatt. This year, Sun King became our official partner in the studio. It’s a relationship we value tremendously. Listeners watch these performances, meet the artists, get their CDs or posters signed, have a Sun King. I mean, how cool is that? I sit there watching these performers while sipping on a Sun King and I think to myself, “this is really my job?”

Rockforward: Any bands that we need to keep an eye and ear on in 2012? Who’s going to break out and be heard?
Holtz: I wish I had a crystal ball but all I can say – we’re always listening to new music, especially our incredible Music Director, Laura Duncan. New Music Monday, Indy Underground and OverEasy are all great WTTS programs where we love to expose the next things.

Listen at 92.3 FM or online.