Saturday, March 03, 2007

A Grateful Nod to the Boss

December 21, 2006

By KENNETH PARTRIDGE, Special to The Hartford Courant

Though he spent much of this year singing over banjos and tubas, touring behind his album of folk songs originally made famous by Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen may have been the most influential artist of 2006.

Two of the year's most talked-about releases, the Killers' "Sam's Town" and the Hold Steady's "Boys and Girls in America," bear the unmistakable mark of the Boss, even if they reference entirely different eras in his storied career.

For the Killers, nodding to Springsteen was a tactical move - a chance to defy critics who have chastised the Las Vegas band for sounding cold and overly British.

"Sam's Town" still has a slick, almost New Wave feel, but its bombast has some precedent in the album it partially wants to be, Springsteen's "Born in the USA."

Throughout "Sam's Town," singer Brandon Flowers trades the monotone dandyism he favored on the band's debut, "Hot Fuss," for his own version of Springsteen's freewheeling American romanticism.

The transition is evident from the opening strains of the title track, as swirling synths and charging drums give way to simple palm-muted guitars and an uncharacteristically earnest lyric: "Nobody ever had a dream 'round here/ but I don't really mind that it's starting to get to me."

Flowers goes on to reference his "sentimental heart" and pine for the day when he can break free from his surroundings and laugh in the face of "judges" who aim to keep him down.

Unfortunately, for all its ambition, the album doesn't quite achieve the desired effect. Flowers' writing is vague and often self-conscious, and he almost never hits on the universal themes that make Springsteen's songs so essential.

Even so, "Sam's Town" represents a daring step forward for a band brushed off by many as nothing more than another '80s revival act.

By contrast, the Hold Steady's decision to fully embrace the Springsteen sound is more natural progression than about-face.

the Hold Steady

On its previous two albums, the Brooklyn band with Midwestern roots explored a number of classic-rock influences, with singer Craig Finn's wordy story songs often drawing comparisons to Springsteen's verbose early work.

On "Boys and Girls in America," the band sounds as if it's finally relocated to E Street. Much of this is due to keyboardist Franz Nicolay, who adds "Born To Run"-style organ and piano flourishes to "Stuck Between Stations," "Chips Ahoy!" and the lovely ballad "First Night."

A more realized effort than "Sam's Town," "Boys and Girls" is remarkable for, among other things, its heart.

Finn's characters are drugged-out teens drinking from flasks on prom night and overdosing at outdoor music festivals. Still, he treats them with tremendous respect and delicacy, like Springsteen did with the troubled heroes of "Born to Run."

Whether 2007 will find Springsteen once again interested in playing his own music is anyone's guess. While he's on hiatus, though, it's nice to know we have the Hold Steady, chugging away (both on guitars and from beer cans) for all the kids still grappling to find themselves.

No comments: