Saturday, December 05, 2015

Reviews: Bruce Springsteen - The Ties That Bind: The River Collection


Every artist has outtakes, but few have the breadth of outtakes possessed by Bruce Springsteen.


Bruce Springsteen sang about growing up on his first album, when he was 23, with the glee of a lost boy amazed to find anyone was listening. As he approached 30, though, his idea of adult life was different – something you couldn't necessarily run from, no matter how many songs about escaping down the highway you had.

The River is where Springsteen grew his sound up. The music he made – 60-plus songs over 18 months – focused the operatic sweep of Born to Run and the existential struggles of Darkness on the Edge of Town in smaller narratives anchored by the concrete details of time and place. The subject matter was long-term relationships, with the hope that the songs would mark a path forward that wasn't only aesthetic.

The Ties That Bind shows how charged with desperation the work was, almost as inexhaustible as the questions it asked. It expands the 1980 double album with 22 outtakes (half never before released) and a 10-song version of The River that Springsteen turned in to his label, then took back and spent a year expanding. This music isn't transitional: It searches for answers but knows its sound, which is what makes this the most satisfying of Springsteen's archival album sets. Even throwaways like the rockabilly rumble "Chain Lightning" and the acoustic guitar sketch "Mr. Outside" crackle with urgency.
Contradiction, too. Springsteen wanted an album that captured the breadth of his live shows – that's why he withdrew a ballad-heavy single disc and blew it out with garage-band rompers that brimmed with what he's called the "never-ending now" of the three-minute pop song. He was making music to be played on the road, but he was writing it about the desire to establish a home and family. The sound of The Ties That Bind is dense, claustrophobic. The feeling is a room – a bar, an apartment, a studio – and the fight to establish meaning outside that room. The songs form boxes that the band strives to break out of, often led by the skyward soar of a Clarence Clemons solo.
A DVD of a 1980 concert in Arizona shows how that freedom – both the manic and the tragic – translated live. As with most concert films, you may not find yourself firing it up more than once. No matter. The music is full of teenage dreams crashing up against reality, dusting themselves off and trying to figure out the next move. If we're lucky, it's a story that never stops.

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'River' box set review: The maturation of Bruce Springsteen

, @ChrisFHJordan
December 2, 2015

It was a case of the wedding bell blues.
One illuminating insight into the making of Bruce Springsteen's hit 1980 double album "The River," provided by the new box set "The Ties That Bind: The River Collection," is that marriage was on the minds of E Street Band Band members at the time.
A clip of Max and Becky Weinberg's 1981 wedding is included in the new Thom Zimny film "The Ties That Bind," part of the expansive four-CD and three-DVD box set out Friday, Dec. 4, from Columbia Records.
"The band was not very grown up, people were starting to get married and have kids," Springsteen says in "The Ties That Bind." "It was still very much the Lost Boys."
And there you have the dramatic tension of "The River" -- a contemplation of how to embrace "normal' grown-up society with all of its obligations and demands and yet still keep the wild spirit of rock 'n' roll intact.. Much of "The River's"  contemplative side arises from a new influence for Springsteen at the time -- a country noir, or dark tales from the heartland.  The magnificent  poetry of the track "The River," the confessional "Independence Day" and the chance encounter with young tragedy of  "Wreck on the Highway" have an old Americana feel. It's a style that became more tightly focused on Springsteen's 1982 "Nebraska" and on subsequent works, too.
Part of Springsteen's genius is the intermingling of  tragedy and joy, and how the two never seem to be too far away from each other. "The River" had plenty of feel-good rockers, like "Sherry Darling," but those had a poignancy too, too, like the breakout hit "Hungry Heart," a tale of a home torn apart  that became an anthemic sing-along.
It's this complexity  that makes Springsteen stand out from so many others who have come before and probably, many who will follow. "The Ties That Bind: The River Collection," in sum, is a document of the years 1979 and '80 in Springsteen's career. There are 52 tracks, 11 of which are previously unreleased; the original single album version of "The River;" four hours of never-before-seen video on three DVDs that includes the famed 1980 show in Tempe, Az.; the new Zimny film which features the Boss performing recently filmed acoustic versions of  "River " tracks; and a coffee-table book of 200 rare or previously unseen photos and memorabilia with a new essay by Mikal Gilmore.
The "new" tracks are a joy to hear. "Night Fire" is an atmospheric rocker with a Yardbirds-like guitar solo; "Chain Lightning" has a Duane Eddy vibe and "Paradise By The C," released as a live track on "Live 1975-85," is a vampy instrumental that highlights the late Clarence Clemons.
The theme of a tentative adulthood is carried through on the "new" tracks. In "Party Lights," an up-tempo rave-up, the
protagonist asks a "Juliet," now a single mom, "do you miss the party lights when you're lying in bed at night?"
What is the cost of adulthood, and what is the reward?

Bruce Springsteen: The Ties That Bind — The River Collection

Every artist has outtakes, but few have the breadth of outtakes possessed by Bruce Springsteen.

Bruce Springsteen
The Ties That Bind: The River Collection
Rating: 5 stars out of 5 stars
Every artist has outtakes, but few have the breadth of outtakes possessed by Bruce Springsteen. And fewer still can match The Boss in terms of the quality of those outtakes. All of this becomes abundantly clear once again on The Ties That Bind, Springsteen’s excavation of the period surrounding his 1980 double-albumThe River. This release presents three or four completely different paths that he could have taken at that time, any of which would have produced something worthy of the lofty standards of his catalog.
For those who don’t know the history (and an outstanding documentary included in this package will elucidate it), Springsteen submitted a single disc consisting of ten songs recorded in 1979 to his record company, only to take it back at the last minute. Seven of the ten songs eventually made it onto the double-album, some slightly altered (a few different lyrics on “The Price You Pay,” “Hungry Heart” mixed at a faster speed), some drastically different (for this reviewer’s money, the original rockabilly stomp of “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)” beats the more polished version on the final album, while the longer countrified take on “Stolen Car” falls short of the slow-building brooder found on The River.) Of the trio that didn’t appear on the double-album, the only one that hasn’t been previously released is “Cindy,” an affable but minor song of romantic frustration.
The package also includes the version of The River that we’ve come to know. Springsteen was attempting to emulate the feel of his live shows and the rollercoaster of emotions they brought forth, which is why harrowing narratives like the title track, “Independence Day” and “Wreck On The Highway” coexist with loosey-goosey larks like “Sherry Darling” and “Crush On You.”
By casting aside the shackles of thematic unity, Springsteen stumbled upon a theme anyway, one about life’s contradictions, how happiness and heartbreak are often separated by nothing more than fate’s whim and a flimsy moment. The Riverembodies and embraces those vagaries, making for a crowd-pleaser with depth, one that does indeed outdo the album that Bruce pulled back. If one were to pick nits, it would be with the exclusion from the final album of the pristinely potent “Loose End,” which was originally slated to close out The River. Not only should it have made the final cut, but it would have worked better as the album’s second single than the meager love song “Fade Away,” which dulled Springsteen’s radio momentum after “Hungry Heart” gave him his first big hit single.
Also included here are the finished songs that Springsteen and the E Street Band recorded during sessions from that time that didn’t make the final cut of either version of the album. Many of these have seen the light of day already on compilations like Tracks, but they’re collected here and there are some real heavyweights in the bunch. “Roulette” is as frenzied and furious as the band has ever sounded; “Mary Lou” is an underrated gem; “Ricky Wants A Man Of Her Own” is tasty bubble gum; and “From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)” is a wild story song with rollicking music to match.
As if that weren’t enough, The Ties That Bind includes eleven more songs recorded from that time that have stayed in the vaults till now. And when you listen to this group as a whole, it sounds like a coherent album all on its own, one which takes things in a vastly different direction than The River eventually traversed. While this group starts out with the big-hearted “Meet Me In The City,” most of the rest of the songs tell how the city hollows you out once you arrive there.
These songs combine some of the musical toughness of Springsteen’s previous album, Darkness On The Edge Of Town, with a little bit of the swagger that the band brought forth on The River. (And if you’re wondering what an electricNebraska might have sounded like, check out “Chain Lightning.”) Singing over mostly minor keys, Springsteen hints at an elusive, existential malaise in songs like “The Time That Never Was” and “The Man Who Got Away.” “The sound of broken glass and running feet” is a phrase repeated in a couple of these tracks, and that sums up the sustained mood. By the time Springsteen gets around to the mournful “Stray Bullet,” you might not recognize the guy who sounds so ebullient on The River’s party tracks.
The collection also includes a DVD of a typically inexhaustible and engaging live performance in Tempe, Arizona from The River tour. As great as the footage of prime-era E Street Band is, the studio music is the real revelation here and what makes this collection so essential. You can take many of the couple dozen outtakes from the sessions and imagine shoehorning them into The River, possibly even replacing time-tested songs from the album. Such is the bounty contained on The Ties That Bind that it might make you question Bruce Springsteen’s judgment even as you marvel at his ridiculous talent. 

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