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Bruce Springsteen

High Hopes (Columbia/Sony)

Bruce Springsteen's new album, High Hopes, would seem to have hodgepodge written all over it.

None of the songs are brand new. Eight are originals that didn't make the cut onto various studio albums, some are longtime staples of Springsteen's live performances and three are covers, including the title track, written by Tim Scott McConnell of roots-rock band the Havalinas, and originally recorded by the Boss for his 1996 Blood Brothers EP.

So High Hopes couldn't possibly cohere as a unified artistic statement, or count as a significant addition to the prodigious Springsteen songbook, could it?

Well, no and yes. It is true that his 18th studio album -- which officially comes out Jan. 14, but which was leaked online after it was briefly made available on Amazon's mobile site at the end of December -- doesn't stick to a single stylistic or thematic tone and makes use of an array of implements in the New Jersey rocker's musical toolbox.

But that's not such a bad thing. Since reuniting in 1999 with the E Street Band, Springsteen has been in his most prolific recording period. And because he often omits tracks that don't fit the mood of a project -- like the 9/11 grief of The Rising, or the blue-collar empathy of 2012's Wrecking Ball -- choice tracks get left behind for reasons that can seem perverse in retrospect.

Which is not to say High Hopes is teeming with lost masterpieces. It's uneven in spots, and suffers at times from an overload of Tom Morello, the Rage Against the Machine guitarist who filled in for Steven Van Zandt on an Australian tour when the guitarist-actor was off playing a mobster in the Netflix show Lilyhammer last year.

Morello in many ways is to be credited with the album's existence: He suggested the rousing, brassy High Hopes, which serves up musical uplift while looking grim reality in the eye, be added to the set list in Australia.

While Down Under, Springsteen and band recorded the title cut and a driving version of Just Like Fire Would by Australian band the Saints. It's a track right in the E Street wheelhouse.

The Boss' new BFF plays on 10 tracks, and sings a duet on a thunderous remake of The Ghost of Tom Joad, the folkie title track to Springsteen's 1995 solo album. Including an extended guitar freakout, it runs seven-plus minutes, and traded-off vocals diminish the impact of the song, inspired by John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.

What about the less widely circulated tunes? Harry's Place, written for The Rising, is darkly atmospheric. A counterpoint to that album's Mary's Place, it's an anti-It's a Wonderful Life. "If he didn't exist, it would all go on just the same," a grizzled, fatalistic Springsteen sings. It's marred by the Boss' recent taste for distorting his voice. A better cut from The Rising sessions is Down in the Hole, which floats on a keyboard wash reminiscent of I'm on Fire.

The album picks up with tighter tunes that don't overreach. Heaven's Wall is a shouter that puts to productive use the gospel power of the beefed-up E Street Band. Frankie Fell in Love is a winning trifle that evokes Springsteen and Van Zandt's salad days in Asbury Park.

Throughout High Hopes, Springsteen moves from full-throated rockers to whispery folk. In the latter category, the keeper is Hunter of Invisible Game, one of three songs that will be featured in the Jan. 12 episode of the CBS drama The Good Wife. (In a novel promotional strategy, the entire album is streaming at cbs.com/springsteen until 6 p.m. Jan. 13.)

The album comes to a close with Dream Baby Dream, a gorgeous cover of the 1970s proto-punk duo Suicide that Springsteen played on the harmonium on the 2005 Devils & Dust tour. It wraps up High Hopes nicely by succinctly restating the "keep hope alive" credo that has always animated his work. "Come on, keep the fire burning," the Boss man sings in a stirring incantation. "Come on baby, dream, baby dream." ***1/2

Download this: Frankie Fell in Love

-- Dan DeLuca, The Philadelphia Inquirer

 

Mastodon

Live at Brixton 2012 (Warner)

Since releasing its debut full-length, Remission, in 2002, Mastodon has carved out a niche for itself by delivering the kind of full-scale sonic mayhem that crosses enough boundaries to keep even the most discerning headbangers, well, banging their heads. For its second live collection, the Atlanta, Ga. quartet waded across the pond to set the fabled O2 Academy Brixton in London alight with a collection of songs culled from its five studio albums.

This two-CD set comes in at 23 songs and 97 minutes long -- for that running time, there's plenty of bludgeoning havoc of the sort that makes one's head shake. Songs such as Spectrelight and Circle of Cysquatch rival Metallica for sheer might and speed. Tracks like the dense Where Strides the Behemoth and the aptly titled Blood and Thunder give absolutely no quarter when it comes to volume and attitude.

While the live sound leaves may leave something to be desired for true audiophiles, you still get the feeling the band made a sizable dent in the consciousness of those in attendance. Not for the faint of heart or sensitive of eardrum. ***1/2

Download this: Spectrelight

-- Jeff Monk

 

Peter Gabriel

And I'll Scratch Yours (Real World)

In 2010, Peter Gabriel released an album of covers called Scratch My Back, featuring his take on songs by Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, Lou Reed and others, and intended to follow it with an album of those artists covering his songs. It took nearly four years to gather what he needed, but much of And I'll Scratch Yours is certainly worth the wait.

Paul Simon's version of Biko is more tender than Gabriel's original, lamenting the death of anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko with acoustic guitars and sweet string sections. Where Gabriel is defiant, Simon is more fragile and emotional. The late Reed turns the wistful Solsbury Hill into a stomping, snarling piece, filled with guitar roar.

It's that combination of a new artist's work and Gabriel's original ideas that makes And I'll Scratch Yours so interesting, though some of the compilation's artists do well by simply moving the songs to the artistic ground they normally mine.

Arcade Fire's take on Games Without Frontiers places the Gabriel song in the same retro-dance vibe of their album Reflektor, while Bon Iver's Come Talk to Me could have come from Bon Iver, Bon Iver.

Though some of the inventions don't quite match the originals, most of And I'll Scratch Yours keeps Gabriel's experimental spirit. ***

Download this: Joseph Arthur, Shock the Monkey

-- Glenn Gamboa, Newsday

 

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks

Wig Out at Jagbags (Matador)

Wig Out at Jagbags is the first Jicks album since Stephen Malkmus reunited with his old Pavement buddies for a tour, and its emphasis on wit, wordplay and concision could be residual effects of revisiting his classic indie-rock songs from the 1990s. The sixth Jicks album still has some bluesy chord changes, heavy guitar solos and dissonant freakouts, but Wig Out is not nearly as jammy as 2008's Real Emotional Trash or 2003's Pig Lib. The band recorded Wig Out in Denmark while Malkmus, 47, and his family lived in Berlin. (They have since returned to Portland, Ore.)

The funny Lariat and catchy The Janitor Revealed possess Pavement's breezy charm, and the album is dense with great Malkmus quips. With its inside-basketball jokes (including the easy-listening, ironically groovy J Smoov), and its jabs at, among other things, hipster nostalgia for the Pavement era and Foxygen, Wig Out at Jagbags is Malkmus at his ironic, comic best. ****

Download this: The Janitor Revealed

-- Steve Klinge, The Philadelphia Inquirer

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 9, 2014 ??65532

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