Friday, August 7, 2009

Jahnke's Record Collection

There is no “Frequently Asked Questions” section on the Electric Theatre website for the simple reason that I am not asked questions very frequently. However, one that has come up on more than a few occasions is, “Why don’t you write music reviews more often?”

The question always surprises me since, if you’ve actually read any of the few music reviews I’ve done for my buddy Matt Rowe’s MusicTAP site, I would think it’s fairly obvious why I don’t do more of them. I’m not very good at it. Don’t get me wrong. I love music with a passion. All kinds, from classical to country to rock to the hippity-hop that’s so popular with the kids these days. I recently did an iPod purge. I tend to listen to the thing on shuffle, so I got rid of hours worth of music that didn’t really work in that style. That still left me with over 5,000 songs.

I feel as though I know a little bit about music. I’ve co-written a few songs, there are a couple of instruments I can pick up and make sound like something (although I’d never say that I know how to play them), and I’ve immersed myself in a relatively diverse range of music over the years. In other words, I know just enough about music to realize that I don’t really know shit.

Movies are a different story. I can review a film and explain why I liked or disliked it. If someone asks how I’d improve it, I can come up with an idea or two. I can’t do that with music nearly as well. If someone asked me how I’d make a song that I didn’t like better, I’d just shrug my shoulders. I can do fairly well if the topic is someone whose work I admire. I could explain why Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness On The Edge Of Town is a better album than Lucky Town, for instance. But I’m not sure that I could tell you why I think Lucky Town is a better album than Garth Brooks’ No Fences, other than to say I like Bruce Springsteen and hate Garth Brooks. Why do I hate Garth Brooks? I dunno. I just think he sucks, that’s all. That’s not exactly an insightful critique.

Recently, I’ve wanted to experiment with more music reviews. Sure, part of the reason is because I like getting free CDs. But the bigger reason is it’s a challenge and gets me out of my writing comfort zone. Since I clearly haven’t been able to come up with a better use for this blog, this seemed like the best place to do it. But these aren’t going to be your ordinary music reviews.

Jahnke’s Record Collection is meant to be a magical mystery tour through all of the recorded music I’ve accumulated over the past few decades. Every so often (ideally once a week but we’ll see how that goes), I’ll pull an album at random off the shelf and give it a listen. Occasionally I’ll be talking about the music but primarily, I want to explore why I have this crap and what it means to me. I’m fascinated by how our relationship to music changes over time. An album can require repeated listenings before it begins to grow on us. Contrarily, a record that was once a favorite can suddenly turn into utter garbage. I have a tendency to hold on to stuff for…oh, pretty much ever, so I’m sure there’s going to be some truly embarrassing gems in here.

One more thing. Most of my collection is on CD but some of it is still on vinyl and cassette (I used to have some 8-tracks but regrettably got rid of them years ago). Regardless of the format, I’m still calling this Jahnke’s Record Collection. As far as I’m concerned, the word “record” is simply an abbreviation of “recording”. So yes, CDs are records too. Go split hairs someplace else.

Now then, let’s begin with one of the worst albums by one of my favorite artists…

Bruce Springsteen - Human Touch

I’ve been a die-hard Bruce Springsteen fan since my early teens. Even so, the early 90s was a tough time to remain among the faithful. Bruce had broken up the E Street Band, moved to Los Angeles, and hadn’t released an album since Tunnel Of Love back in ’87. So in 1992, when it was announced that he was releasing not one but two albums of new material, I was understandably excited. Sure, he was using session musicians instead of the venerable E Streeters but it was Bruce! How could it be anything less than awesome?

As it turns out, it could be considerably less than awesome in quite a number of ways. I was never one of those fans who thought Springsteen was incapable of writing a bad song. But up ‘til now, he hadn’t recorded anything quite so…bland. Human Touch committed the worst sin an album could make: it was forgettable.

Which isn’t to say I hated the whole thing (or its companion, the aforementioned Lucky Town). Between the two of them, you could put together a reasonably decent album. No classic, by any definition, but at least something you could listen to and enjoy. But far too much of Human Touch was taken up by mediocre songs that barely resonated in your ear even as you were playing them.

At the time of the album’s release, I was about to get married. Consequently, it should come as no surprise that songs like the title track and “Cross My Heart” appealed to me quite a bit. They still do, truth be told, even if they now seem a little bit more boring than they once did. And Springsteen does offer up at least two keepers here: the truly sad and painful “I Wish I Were Blind” and “The Long Goodbye”, a strong rock song with lyrics that are almost shockingly bleak.

But by and large, Human Touch is dominated by some of the most boring songs Springsteen ever committed to tape. Tracks like “Soul Driver” and “With Every Wish” are just about as dull as music can get before it turns into white noise. And then there’s “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On)”. “Weird Al” has written better songs on this subject before. No slam against Mr. Yankovic, whom I admire quite a bit, but when Bruce Springsteen can’t out-do “Weird Al”, something’s out of whack with the musical universe. To be fair, Little Steven did the best he could with his remix of this song and he joined Bruce for a blistering live version on Saturday Night Live. It’s the only performance of this song I’ve ever enjoyed.

Human Touch was still an important album in my musical development in that it was one of the most disappointing records I’d ever heard up to that point. It and Lucky Town were released on the same day but I was so underwhelmed by what I heard here that I didn’t bother to pick up the other one until months later. The album made me consider perhaps for the first time what it was that I responded to in Springsteen’s music in an attempt to figure out what was lacking here. The fundamental element was passion. For the first time, I was hearing Bruce Springsteen simply go through the motions. It would happen again. I’m still a fan and have found much to enjoy in later albums like The Rising and Working On A Dream. But I’m still waiting for another album of all-original songs that blows my mind the way Darkness On The Edge Of Town or Born To Run did. It may never happen but that’s part of being a fan. The hope that it might.

1 comment:

  1. A new book focusing on Springsteen's Darkness on The Edge of Town, The Light in Darkness, will be launched September 2009.