November 2009

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To the Elvis Costello/Allen Toussaint collaboration The River In Reverse. I find myself appreciating how much it is a collaboration, rather than an Elvis Costello album.

Not being familiar with Allen Toussaint’s work, I felt a little bit lost on first listening. It didn’t sound like Elvis Costello, and I didn’t have a good sense of what I was supposed to expect. But I’m starting to like the feel of updated 70s soul. Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further, for example, has a very nice classic soul sound.

In addition, having recently been to New Orleans adds some additional resonance to the album, though I can’t say how much. I didn’t actually listen to much music in New Orleans, but it nevertheless means that I have an image of the city in my mind while listening.

I’ve been wanting to post for a while about the archival 1975 Bruce Springsteen concert recording that was released a couple of years ago. So, as I finally sit down to write, I find myself with a variety of thoughts.

The first, and most important, is that I think it’s fabulous, important, and for me who has never been a particular fan of Bruce Springsteen, it seems like a great introduction to early Bruce Springsteen. Listening to it I thought both, “I finally get the appeal of this music” and that if, as I do, you think that Springsteen is a sufficiently important artist that it’s worth having at least one of his albums in your collection that this would be the one to have — without even having listened to all of the original albums, so take that with a grain of salt.

A good deal of the strength of the recording is described by Springsteen in the liner notes:

In 1975, we stepped out of the plane into the land of our mythic heros. A London, that was yet to see its first McDonald’s, that was still wrasslin’ with making a good cheeseburger and that seemed very foreign and exotic to a bunch of provincial Jersey Shore beach bums and musicians.

[T]hat evening an E Street Band, with a good deal of the carnival still left in it and armed with a set list I still dare any young band to match, strode onto the stage of the Hammermsith Odeon. The tempos were fast. A Jersey stew of almost punk soul, fueled by the visionary songwriters, 60’s records, garage bands, and Rhythm and Blues we loved. For me, the set went by like a freight train. Later, all I remember . . . [is] thinking we hadn’t played that well. I was wrong.

To select two tracks, consider Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, the second song in the concert, and the first track in which the band really comes in (the opener is a version of “Thunder Road” that mostly has Bruce singing by himself), and It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City, a song from later in the concert off his debut album, which was two years old at that point.
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I have been listening to Saint Etienne recently, and I didn’t like them at first, but they’re growing on me and I have a comparison to try out.

Listening to Sylvie, I found myself thinking of Steely Dan because hearing the word “September” made me think of “My Old School.” The more I think about it however, I think that the qualities that make Saint Etienne good are similar to the qualities that make Steely Dan appealing, though they’re very different stylistically.

To start out with, they’re both studio bands, formed by people who’s primary relationship to music is that of a listener, rather than a performer. They both draw on eclectic influences and enjoy obscure references. Both of them are very much of their times, Steely Dan the 70s, and Saint Ettienne the early 90s, while having a sound that seems to look both forward and backwards.

Most importantly, they both have a strong sense of style, without being just an exercise in style. The music is produced, but it doesn’t feel faked in any way. In both cases studio work feels like a method for a genuine musical creativity. There’s something heartfelt in the music, but in a very different way than someone who’s performing for an audience. They are sincere, not in the subject of their songs, but in their appreciation for music itself.

Looking for an appropriate Steely Dan song to match, I settled on the entertainingly sarcastic Show Biz Kids which feels like the right tone.

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