Bruce Springsteen, “High Hopes” (Columbia)
The Boss credits Rage Against the Machine/Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello, who filled in for Steve Van Zandt on a recent Springsteen tour of Australia, for instigating this new collection of covers, live favorites, outtakes and reimagined oldies. His 18th studio disc is neither stylistically nor thematically unified. For an artist who prides himself on ambition and purpose, this seems like an inexplicable hodge-podge.
The title track, written by the Havalinas, may be the most exciting thing here, a horn-accented hard-funk commentary punctuated by Morello’s urgent wah-wah guitar. But Springsteen already recorded it on 1996’s “Blood Brothers.” The edgy “Harry’s Place,” an outtake from “The Rising” about some shady gangsters, sounds as if it will be worth visiting in concert with its haunting horns and wiry guitar. But the live staple “American Skin (41 Shots)” sounds overproduced here, and do we really need another recording of “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” even with Morello’s slashing guitar battling the Boss’? Save this electrifying treatment for the live shows.
For longtime Springsteen fans, it’s easy to fall in love with the ebullient Boardwalk twang of “Frankie Fell in Love,” the happiest and most lightweight piece here; “Dream Baby Dream,” a live Boss fave by Suicide done as a Roy Orbison-inspired dirge, and “The Wall,” a slow elegy for a Jersey Shore rocker who went missing in action in Vietnam.
As has been Springsteen’s practice of late, there are some gospel-infused pieces, notably “Heaven’s Wall,” and Irish-tinged tunes, such as the battle cry “This Is Your Sword.” Some of the songwriting seems below the Boss’ Hall of Fame standards. But “Hunter of Invisible Game,” an Irish-flavored reflection on faith of Dylanesque scope, contains some choice lyrics, including: “Strength is vanity and time is illusion/I feel you breathing, the rest is confusion.” Nonetheless, some of us had higher hopes for this album.
Jon Bream, Star Tribune
Various artists, “And I’ll Scratch Yours” (Real World)
Many veteran artists record cover albums, but credit Peter Gabriel with cooking up a clever concept. In 2010, he released “Scratch My Back,” which found him reinterpreting songs both familiar and obscure by artists he admired. Now comes most of those artists returning the favor by covering songs from Gabriel’s repertoire. The versions vary wildly in style and sound.
Lou Reed goes full grunge and fuzz on “Solsbury Hill.” Joseph Arthur brings out the menace and dread of “Shock the Monkey” in a spare, slowed-down take. And David Byrne gets whimsical and dreamy on “I Don’t Remember.” With other contributions from Bon Iver, Arcade Fire, Regina Spektor, Randy Newman, Elbow and Paul Simon, it’s an interesting, if uneven, experiment, but Gabriel fans will likely find versions that scratch their itch.