Kid Rock outdoes himself with ‘Born Free’
By the writers of Last Word Features
Kid Rock: ‘Born Free’ (Atlantic)
Kid Rock has always deserved more respect than he gets from critics, but this time, he’s outdone himself. Maybe he’s finally outgrown the swaggering pimp, rock ‘n’ roll Jesus persona – or maybe he’s just laying it down for now.
With producer Rick Rubin and friends Sheryl Crow, Martina McBride and T.I. (the latter two on the showstopper, “Care,” on which T.I. does the album’s only rap), Zac Brown, keyboardist Benmont Tench, drummer Chad Smith and even his hero, Bob Seger, he’s delivered a batch of thoughtful tunes that still rock in all the right places.
Owing much to Seger and John Mellencamp, he addresses the world’s woes, feels mortality and regret (“When it Rains”) and actually sings well. He doesn’t forsake fist-pumping party songs completely, but the arm-waving ballads and mid-tempo rockers, like “Purple Sky,” are downright impressive. And well-calculated to reach every row in the arena. — Lynne Margolis
Buy if you like: Bob Seger, Bruce Springsteen.
N.E.R.D.: ‘Nothing’ (Star Trak, LLC)
Pharrell Williams (the main man in N.E.R.D.) has been around long enough now to be considered an elder statesman of hip-hop. If “Nothing” is any indication, one lesson he has learned is that songs can’t live by catch phrase choruses and simple hooks alone. Instead, Williams is songwriter first. And while he remains a first-rate producer who’s up-to-date on the latest sonic tricks, he has crafted a set of tracks for “Nothing” that are multi-dimensional, rock solid on a melodic level and frequently tell a lyrical story that goes deeper than boasting about parties, women or his latest ride.
On the swirling ballad “I’ve Seen The Light/Inside The Clouds,” he evokes a bit of classic Philly soul. “I Wanna Jam” is a rock-solid track that does exactly what it promises: It jams. The lyrically provocative “It’s In The Air” is a sassy, jazzy track that brings to mind the likes of Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye.
Williams shows a lighter side on “Party People” (featuring T.I.), a festive track enlivened by horns and a swinging beat. “Help Me” has an urgent, edgy feel generated by its repeated guitar and bass lines and taut rhythm and recurring burst of horns and synthesizers. Williams may have been an in-demand songwriter/producer for a dozen years now (and no rookie with N.E.R.D., considering he and bandmates Chad Hugo Shay Haley now have four CDs to their credit as well). But “Nothing” is a clear indication that Williams’ songwriting, well, is anything but dry and he still has plenty of fresh production ideas up his sleeve as well. — Alan Sculley
Buy if you like: Santigold, Beck
The Brian Setzer Orchestra: ‘It’s Gonna Rock…’Cause That’s What I Do’ (ADA/Surfdog)
Since 1990, Stray Cats top cat Brian Setzer has been putting a new/old spin on vintage rock ‘n’ roll, adding a Doc Severinsen-style big band to the rockabilly bass/drums/guitar format. With 13 horns and a pair of female backing vocalists, Setzer’s orchestra brings some swing and blues, letting saxophone and trumpet add some punch while keeping Setzer’s Gretsch guitar front and center — which is what keeps things rockin’.
This 100-minute DVD captures the BSO in concert last June at the Montreal Jazz Festival, where it played for 150,000 people. The set starts out heavy on BSO songs, reaching a quiet zenith with the Sinatra-esque ballad “Lonely Avenue.” Then the band disappears, leaving Setzer and a stand-up bassist and drummer to romp through some rockabilly. They pay tribute to his heroes Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent and tear through Stray Cat faves like “Stray Cat Strut” before bringing back the horns for a drive to the finish.
As concert DVDs go, “It’s Gonna Rock ‘Cause…That’s What I Do” is very good. It actually rocks and captures much of Setzer’s sweaty showmanship. He’s as good as they get playing rock ‘n’ roll guitar, dresses the part and knows how to lead a band, entertaining and connecting with audiences thousands blocks away from the stage — or sitting months later in a living room. — L. Kent Wolgamott
Buy if you like: Dave Edmunds, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy
Ray Charles: ‘Rare Genius: The Undiscovered Masters’ (Concord)
It only makes sense that for an artist like Charles, who recorded regularly throughout a four-decade-plus career, there would be some leftover songs that deserve to surface now that he is gone. “Rare Genius,” released just weeks after Charles would have turned 80, pulls together 10 songs that are seeing their release for the first time.
The big discovery is a version of the Kris Kristoffersn song, “Why Me Lord,” on which Johnny Cash and Charles combine their distinctive vocals. It was produced by Billy Sherrill in 1981 and given a proper bit of funky soul to fit the country gospel style of the song.
“Why Me Lord” may be the headliner of “Rare Genius,” but there are plenty of other highlights, starting with “It Hurts To Be In Love” and “Love’s Gonna Bite You Back,” whose horn-drenched soul sound is right in Charles’ stylistic wheelhouse. There are a couple of duds, too, such as the over-produced country tune “She’s Gone” (didn’t those background vocals go out with the ‘50s?), and the vamping “I’m Gonna Keep On Singing’” which is just a bit too contrived for its own good. But for the most part, “Rare Genius” makes one look forward to further raids of the vault of unreleased Charles’ recordings. — Alan Sculley
Buy if you like: Big Joe Turner, Otis Redding
Bruce Springsteen: ‘The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story’ (Columbia)
Even Springsteen himself looks at his 1978 album, “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” as a turning point in his career. He was coming off of a masterpiece, 1975’s “Born To Run,” an album that had earned him cover stories in the same week in Time and Newsweek magazines and began to deliver on all the predictions that he was destined for greatness.
With “Darkness,” Springsteen made a fundamental shift in his songwriting, moving away from the hopeful cinematic story-telling of “Born To Run” to a grittier, more realistic and more personal portrait of determination and struggle in a challenging world. Springsteen, the spokesman for the working class everyman was born, and he’s been with us ever since.
This reissue of “Darkness” isn’t your garden variety deluxe edition. It’s closer to a holy grail for “Boss” fans. A lawsuit with former manager Mike Appel had kept Springsteen from quickly following up “Born To Run,” and he used this down time to examine how to move forward as an artist and a person, and to write songs – lots of them – 70 in all. A lot of excellent songs were left behind in favor of the 10 that went onto the original “Darkness” album.
The two CDs of unreleased songs included in this set (finally “Fire,” “Because The Night” and “Talk To Me” make their official debuts) go a long way toward providing a more complete picture of Springsteen’s varied work from 1975 through 1978. Interestingly, many of the leftovers (“Ain’t Good Enough For You” and “Wrong Side Of The Street”) were more upbeat, and more in a Jersey rock and soul vein – good songs, but not a fit for “Darkness.”
A great DVD documentary on the making of the “Darkness” album provides lots of insights into the whole saga. And it’s not clear if “Darkness,” while it remains a cohesive set of great songs, ever achieved its full potential. In the set’s documentary, Springsteen readily acknowledges the struggle to achieve the sound he wanted for “Darkness.” Certainly the studio versions fell well short in capturing how the songs were rendered live. That difference becomes clear in a DVD of a complete three-hour 1978 concert from Houston — a true highlight of this set. The Houston concert shows just how songs like “Badlands,” “Streets Of Fire” and the epic expanded version of “Prove It All Night” became explosive anthems on stage, easily surpassing the tame-by-comparison versions from the “Darkness” album. The filming is a bit basic by today’s standards, but it captures the experience just fine — and shows why, for my money, Springsteen and the E Street Band are the greatest post-70s live act in rock and roll.
It’s also great to see a young Springsteen connecting with the crowd, playing a terrific song set with supreme passion and joy — dancing, vamping with a quite nimble Clarence Clemons, climbing onto amps with a single bound (well, maybe two), wading into the crowd – and basically establishing himself as one of rock’s all-time great showmen.
The third DVD in this set goes deeper into the live side of Springsteen. It starts with a fiery 2009 performance from Asbury Park in which Springsteen and the E Street Band played the “Darkness” album front to back. Next comes a way-cool collection of rehearsal and concert performances of “Darkness” era songs from between 1976 and 1978.
All together, this is simply the best, most expansive, most illuminating reissue of a single album that has ever been released. I can’t wait to see what Springsteen does with “The River” album. – Alan Sculley
Buy if you like: Bob Dylan, John Mellencamp