Devils & Dust
Bruce Springsteen has always liked to change speeds, so it's no surprise that he's followed up the rocking Big Statement of The Rising with something more intimate. Devils & Dust finds the 55-year-old legend in a sort of modified Woody Guthrie mode - not as stark and purely folk as, say, The Ghost of Tom Joad, but definitely more introspective and acoustic than his other work in this decade.
Ultimately, Devils & Dust is best suited for Springsteen diehards, those who hang on his every note and word. To more casual fans (myself included), the disc, while clearly heartfelt, can be a bit of a snoozer.
Built around acoustic guitar, dobro and pillowy keyboards, the new CD covers a lot of well-trodden melodic territory, from the anthemic rock of "All the Way Home" and "Long Time Comin' to winding folk narratives like "Black Cowboys" and "The Hitter." The latter, more sedate, efforts fare better because here Springsteen ditches the clichés and gets deep into storytelling mode.
The most compelling of these is "Black Cowboys," which portrays of an African American kid growing up on in a tough Northeastern neighborhood. When his protective mother takes up with a drug dealer ("a man whose business was the boulevard," in Springsteen's folksy argot), the kid steals some of his money and grabs a bus headed for Oklahoma, fulfilling a dream to become a black cowboy.
In fact, after listening to Devils & Dust, you might wonder if Bruce should get fitted for a pair of chaps. The disc's rural imagery sounds disingenuous. Critics have knocked Springsteen as a multimillionaire writing odes about the common man. That's never bothered me. But to my ears, this Big Sky conceit is far more troublesome. It sounds like he's been having drinks with Larry McMurtry.
The songs are populated with horsemen (and horses), loners drifting around the West and truckers rolling through Carolina. The album's most overt social comment, "Matamoros Banks," tells of a Mexican illegal who dies while crossing the Rio Grande. Its most controversial tune - the one that kept the CD out of Starbucks - is the ballad "Reno"; it's about a man's encounter with a hooker and includes the eyebrow-raising lines, "Two hundred dollars straight in/ two-fifty up the ass."
Although several of these stories are quite poignant, Springsteen often labors his vocals with such slurry affectation - like some ersatz Okie drawl - that the words are all but unintelligible. This is fine for Boss geeks who'll sit down with the lyrics sheet until all the words are committed to memory, but to those of us less committed, it makes it harder to connect with the tunes. 1/2
ROBERT PLANT & THE STRANGE SENSATION
Long-in-the-tooth rockers dabbling in world music or psychedelia or some other stylistic angle can reek of desperation. Not so with Robert Plant, who on Mighty Rearranger deftly combines his love of North African music with an ongoing penchant for blues-rock and the trippy sounds of the '60s. The five-piece Strange Sensation, whose collective resume includes stints with Massive Attack, Portishead and Roni Size, is a major reason why. As a unit, they paint an intoxicating aural landscape using a blend of rock staples (it's always cool when a monster guitar riff suddenly rears up), exotic instruments and electronics. Several of the songs here are not particularly well drawn, but bathing them in adventurous sonics enhances their allure. The album's high point may be its uncredited final track, a truly spacey workout where effects-laden vocals float in and out of a pulsating, quasi-drum 'n' bass grind. For his part, Plant keeps his singing subdued but steamy, occasionally swathing it in echo but never reaching for the banshee blues wail of yore. Don't expect much from the lyrics: Plant has cobbled together an awkward mix of old blues clichés and utopian platitudes that's not nearly as eye-rollingly funny as latter Zep's pompous mysticisms. 1/2
To Live and Die in Tampa Bay
Internationally recognized Tampa punk label/'zine A.D.D.'s latest full-length is a compilation of two tracks each by 10 Bay area bands (save acoustic roots-punk prankster Crash Mitchell, who contributes one) that shows, more than anything, how much this particular corner of the scene has in common with the rough-and-tumble more-rock-than-punk sounds popularized by Gainesville friends like Hot Water Music and Against Me!. This isn't a compendium of soundalikes, however. While all of the acts represented are characterized to some extent by seriously overdriven guitar tones, gravelly shout-sung vocals and a certain commitment to raw enthusiasm over technical execution, each brings a distinct personality to the fore - The Dukes of Hillsborough experiment with some brutal off-kilter time signatures, for example, and Flat Stanley plies a more straightforward and melodic old-school style. Highlights include Super Power Abuse's "Hell is Advertising;" Vagina Sore Jr.'s vaguely Built To Spill-esque "Vast Horizons and Approaching Mountain Ranges;" The Tim Version's stomping, Southern-fried "We're a Collective Badass;" and two tracks from the unpredictable Arcade Inferno, "Automatic" and "Molly Speaks," that show a new, more articulate side of the always-uncompromising Pinellas duo. If you like your punk rock meaty and committed, this anthology offers plenty of above-average fare, but if you're looking for big hooks, big production or an eclectic selection of sounds, you'd do well to look elsewhere. (www.addzine.com) 1/2
The CD Release Party for To Live and Die in Tampa Bay, featuring The Dukes of Hillsborough, Flat Stanley, Vagina Sore Jr. and Chest Rockwell, takes place on Fri., May 27 at Skatepark of Tampa's Transitions Art Gallery.