First Listens: New Releases from Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, the Kinks, and More

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The RiverBruce Springsteen, The River. Bruce Springsteen’s first album in more than two years, which contains 20 songs on two LPs, will surely stand as the best rock album of 1980; indeed, it is one of the finest rock records ever. There’s not a clunker anywhere on the set, whose length and diversity suggest a definitive statement a la the Beatles’ White Album and Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. Springsteen’s still writing about ordinary people’s big dreams and he’s still using cars as metaphors, but the words have never flowed better and the results have never sounded so spontaneous. Space considerations preclude a listing of all the highlights, which include at least a dozen of the selections. Suffice it to say, though, that they embrace several of his hardest-rocking compositions to date; that the whole album clearly comes straight from his heart; that versatility, enthusiasm, and talent of the E Street Band are unmatched by any other contemporary rock outfit; and that the only way to have more musical fun than this album offers is to catch one of the group’s incredible four- to five-hour shows.

Stevie Wonder, Hotter Than July. The guy they used to call “Little Stevie Wonder” isn’t so little anymore, but he’s still a wonder. Though he has understandably leveled off a bit since the breakthrough of Songs in the Key of Life, Hotter Than July finds him on a high plateau. A pair of ballads rank among the highlights here, but rhythmic, uptempo numbers dominate. Among the reasons why this album should reach a wider audience than did Secret Life of Plants: the infectious “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” and “Happy Birthday,” an impassioned albeit lyrically platitudinous argument for making Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday a national holiday.

Randy Hansen, Randy Hansen. Seattle’s Randy Hansen launched his career by performing impressions of Jimi Hendrix’s music. Now, apparently realizing the limits of that approach, he has released an album (his first) that concentrates on his own material. The only trouble is that Hansen’s guitar still sounds a good deal like Hendrix’s, and the new artist pales by comparison with his progenitor. There’s lots of energy and a fair amount of skill evidenced here, but almost nothing that’s fresh or original.

Linda Ronstadt, Greatest Hits, Volume Two. Partly because she often projects more polish than personality, Linda Ronstadt’s music can grow tedious in large doses. But she shines in a greatest-hits context, and this collection of her latest bona-fide smashes sounds just fine. Among the contents, which are drawn mostly from Simple Dreams, Living in the U.S.A., and Mad Love: Buddy Holly’s classic “It’s So Easy,” the explosive “How Do I Make You,” and Roy Orbison’s melancholic “Blue Bayou.”

Ry Cooder, The Long Riders. This soundtrack for the Walter Hill movie of the same name constitutes what may well be Ry Cooder’s best album to date—which is saying a lot. As Hill notes on the liner, Cooder “has a habit of reaching into traditional sounds, reinterpreting and making the result singly his own.” Here, the traditional territory is the post–Civil War Midwest, and the exuberant music manages to make it come alive without ever sounding like a history lesson. Credit Cooder’s inimitable guitar and vocals, David Lindley’s fiddle, and the abundant taste and exuberance of all concerned.

Sky, Sky. In a market that’s flooded with acts like Genesis, Mike Oldfield, and Yes, do we really need another attempt at a classical/rock fusion? Two weeks ago, I would have answered with a firm “no,” but that was before I heard Sky, perhaps the first group to really do justice to the genre. What makes it different? For one thing, its personnel (including world-renowned guitarist John Williams) are neither rockers dabbling in the classics nor the opposite; all five members evidence a thorough understanding of both fields, and all have the credentials to prove it. A genuine fusion, their music boasts the structure and versatility of the classics and the dynamism and hot hooks of rock. This specially priced double album is already a smash throughout Europe and, if it does as well here, as I suspect it might, it should do much to bridge the gap between classical and rock audiences.

Pointer Sisters, Special Things. “I think all of us are really singing at our peaks now,” says Ruth Pointer, and it’s hard to disagree after listening to this third Richard Perry–produced LP for the Planet label. The best cut is clearly “He’s So Shy”—a smash single that recalls 60s groups like the Marvelettes—but there’s not a rotten apple in the bunch. Expect crisp, clear production, soulful, well-arranged vocals, and polished albeit mainstream pop/soul material by an assortment of veteran tunesmiths.

Asymuth, Outubro. If this Brazilian group’s second album is confined to the “sleeper” status of its 1979 predecessor, there’s clearly no justice in the world. Featuring original material as well as Chick Corea’s “500 Miles High” and Milton Nascimento’s “October,” the set finds Asymuth artfully combining contemporary funk and jazz with strong melodies and large doses of Brazilian rhythm. The well-produced result doesn’t sound quite like anything we’ve heard before. It’s no wonder vocalist Flora Purim calls Azymuth “the best group in Brazil today.”

Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra, Naturally. Though the legendary Mel Lewis/Thad Jones partnership has come to an end, this first solo outing from the former features essentially the same band they fronted together, as well as a preponderance of Jones’s compositions. The group is excellent—several of the players seem to have the makings of solo careers—and the sound quality is splendid, largely because this is a digitally recorded audiophile disc. As such, the list price is a hefty $17.95, but if you have a fondness for jazz and Lewis in particular, it’s worth it.

Pat Benatar, Crimes of Passion. Pat Benatar’s second album emphasizes both the strengths and considerable weaknesses evidenced by her debut. Certainly, on the one hand, her soprano is strong and her energy seems boundless. But her weak songwriting hurts here, and her unsubtle, humorless approach proves fatal, particularly now that producer Mike Chapman has been replaced by Keith Olsen. I’d call this a poor man’s Blondie, but that group’s albums won’t cost you any more.

Donna Summer, The Wanderer. On this label debut, Donna Summer makes an obvious attempt to expand her audience beyond disco while continuing to attract her current fan base. I prefer her disco efforts but her new flirtations with rock, pop, soul, and gospel do meet with a good deal of success. Longtime cohorts Giorgio Moroder and Pete Mellotte deserve plaudits for the production, though straightforwardness and crispness give way to self-indulgence on an occasional cut (e.g., “Grand Illusion”).

New England, Explorer Suite. On their second album, New England come across as a quintessential mediocre rock outfit. The LP is overproduced and cluttered with umpteen electronic embellishments, but that clutter seems understandable because it helps (albeit insufficiently) to mask weak lead vocals, prosaic instrumentation, and unfocused, cliche-ridden lyrics. I’d predict a quick route to the bargain bins, but New England already have one hit to their credit and equally vapid outfits like Styx have also done well, so anything’s possible.

Shel Silverstein, The Great Conch Train Robbery. Until now, cartoonist/lyricist/author Shel Silverstein has made his musical mark mostly via cover versions of his tunes by Dr. Hook and others. That’s not surprising, because the bulk of his earlier vocals could easily have been mistaken for a cross between the sound of a sick dog and that of a babbling drunk. He doesn’t appear much more tuneful on this album but, thanks to such top-notch Nashville musicians as John Hartford and Pig Robbins, he manages to keep the proceedings listenable. Why bother with something that’s merely “listenable”? Because Silverstein’s lyrics are unique and inventive; and if you play tunes like “You Ain’t Here” and “Quaaludes Again” at your next party, I guarantee you that at least half your guests will be smiling broadly within minutes.

Various artists, A Night at Studio 54. I find disco culture abhorrent and don’t hear a whole lot of aesthetic value in much of the attendant music. But disco engineering and production have set new standards for the entire record business; and this package—which also profits from nonstop music segues—proves that as well as any. Though the double LP intersperses little of lasting value with rubbish like Patrick Juvet’s “I Love America,” moreover, it does offer quite a few temporal pleasures. One night at the real Studio 54 was enough for me, but I’m still having fun with such tunes as Musique’s engagingly silly “In the Bush,” Chic’s vibrant “Le Freak,” and D.C. LaRue’s aptly title “Hot Jungle Drums and Voo Doo Rhythm.”

The Brothers Johnson, Light Up the Night. Though the Brothers Johnson evidence several major musical limitations, you don’t have to listen long to figure out why this album will likely join all three of its predecessors in platinum-plus territory. True, the brothers might as well dispense with vocals altogether, because their lyrics prove uniformly forgettable and neither of them sings with any distinction. Their sophisticated, frequently disco-oriented funk, moreover, isn’t about to launch any stylistic revolutions; it’s all been done before. Vocals and lyrics aside, though, it’s rarely been done this well. The duo write solid hooks, strong melodies, and powerful dance grooves; add the brothers’ considerable instrumental facility and a first-class Quincy Jones production and you have an album that, while inconsequential, is still rather enjoyable and impressive.

Gordon Lightfoot, Dream Street Rose. I’ve never heard Gordon Lightfoot sing or play a wrong note, and virtually all of his music and lyrics prove spirited, polished, and inviting. Such consistent professionalism makes it difficult to cite objective reasons why one LP outshines another but, that said, I’d place this album about halfway between peaks like Sundown and valleys like Cold on the Shoulder. Numbers like “Sea of Tranquility” don’t do much for me, but such lilting highlights as “On the High Seas” and “Mister Rock of Ages” may alone be worth the price of admission.

Various artists, Southern Clawhammer Banjo. Tired of Ted Nugent? Bored with Bad Company? For a complete change of pace, try this delightful collection from some of the best exponents of an old-time music genre that relies on interplay between fiddle and banjo. Highlighting the 17-song LP are such rhythmic, informally performed numbers as Susan Cahill’s “Roustabout” and “Train 45,” by 71-year-old Fred Cockerham, an influential, widely recorded music veteran.

The Kinks, One for the Road. Like the Rolling Stones’ Got Live If You Want It, the Kinks’ last all-live album appeared well over a decade ago and contained enough extraneous clamor to prove that the art of waxing concerts was in its infancy. Now, of course, both “live” recordings and the Kinks have come of age; and One for the Road, which embraces the group’s entire career, nicely brings things up to date. On the program: the touching “Celluloid Heroes”; the vintage “Stop Your Sobbing,” which has recently been popularized by the Pretenders; anthems like “Misfits” and “Victoria”; early smashes such as “You Really Got Me”; and more. Occasional fans may prefer the more crisply produced and carefully wrought studio versions; but Kinks fanatics will understandably want these commendable live readings as well.

Crystal Gayle, Miss the Mississippi. Crystal Gayle’s ambition and abundant talent are in evidence on this latest release, which finds the country and pop singer successfully putting increased emphasis on the latter genre. Gayle’s rich, sensitive vocals seem appropriate to everything on the LP’s tasty program, which ranges all the way from the AM-oriented “Half the Way” to the Amazing Rhythm Aces’ melancholic “Dancing the Night Away.” Recommended, particularly to the singer’s present fans.

Jimi Hendrix, Nine to the Universe. Had Jimi Hendrix not died in 1970, would his music have continued to expand and mature beyond its initial rock horizons? Might he even have made a serious mark on the jazz world? This five-track collection suggests that the answer to both questions is “yes.” Recorded in early 1969 between sessions for his final rock album, the jams here explain why Hendrix had begun to hang out with—and garner the admiration of—Roland Kirk, Tony Williams, and Miles Davis. Though not intended for release and consequentially informal and rough-edged, the performances offer first-rate lead guitar; complementary bass, drums, and organ; and a tantalizing glimpse of what might have been.

Grace Slick, Dreams. Grace Slick’s first post-Starship album is about as disappointingly mundane as the Starship’s first post-Slick album. Left to her own devices, the singer employs uninspired albeit competent studio musicians, an overblown Ron Frangipane production, and a largely self-penned crop of puerile lyrics and soulless, sluggish arrangements. Slick certainly remains one of rock’s top vocalists. But as this album emphasizes, solo work is a whole new ballgame; and we’ll just have to be patient while Slick tries to connect wiht the right producer and backup crew—and to develop her songwriting abilities (or find other writers who can do justice to her other talents).

Yes, Drama. Though my calendar verifies that we’re living in the 80s, you might begin to question the date after listening to this 12th Yes album, which sounds as if it could have been recorded at the same time as Fragile and Close to the Edge (both from 1972). Yes’s enthusiastic grasp of its longstanding style is impressive, if only because the group’s ostensible prime movers, Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman, were both replaced early this year. Nevertheless, the fact remains that it’s 1980, and the group’s admittedly excellent pyrotechnics now seem eclipsed by its failure to progress and by lyrics and music that appear increasingly pretentious and anachronistic.

Duck Baker, The Art of Fingerstyle Jazz Guitar. Guitarist Duck Baker turns his attention from folk to fingerstyle jazz guitar here, with results that mark him as a master. His technique is impressive, but what really sets him apart are his fluid, rhythmic improvisations. The album, which features classics like “Take the A Train” and “Summertime,” as well as some delightful obscurities, has my vote for one of the year’s best instrumental LPs.

Melissa Manchester, For the Working Girl. Though Melissa Manchester sounds more professional with each new album, her basic approach hasn’t changed a bit since day one. This ninth album finds her still covering, writing, and cranking out MOR-oriented torch ballads that rely on dynamic pop vocals, strong hooks, and climactic orchestral parts. I’m impressed by Manchester’s technique and ability to score hits, but my personal taste makes me wish that somebody would banish her from the radio and send her a one-way ticket to Vegas.

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