Priest Picks #25: Criminal Clowns, Golden Girls, & Poisoned Potables
Welcome to week #25 of Priest Picks. This week finds us with a new Springsteen album in our grubby paws and we've spent a lot quality time with it. Is this a letter we'll cherish or will it be returned to sender, address unknown? We post this on Election Day eve, too, so the importance of a bunch of music recommendations is minimal right now. I’m doing this so I can keep my mind off of more serious matters for a few moments. Maybe you can do the same.
1 BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN / Letter to You
2 BROKEN RECORD PODCAST / Interview with Bruce Springsteen
If there’s one thing I trust in, it’s Bruce’s good intent. Where some claim he’s not his old self (he’s not) or he’s lost his songwriting chops (certainly diminished), there’s absolutely no denying that his vision and sense of purpose remains steadfast. Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat: Letter to You is a damn good album for a 71-year-old in his sixth decade of recording. Relative to his best work, it will always reside outside the edge of town in some unincorporated area of his collected body of work, but we don’t require the equivalent of his early masterpieces anymore—it can’t be done anyway. Bruce has always had an incredible ability to put his career into a larger perspective, frequently referencing a lifelong “dialogue” with his fan base, so what we can rightfully expect from him in 2020 is some type of reconciliation or through-line that links his earliest work to the present day. With that in mind, time, by his own admission, is ticking fast (and I remember being amazed during the Born in the U.S.A. tour that he was still able to put on such an amazing performance at 35-years-old!). It makes sense that Bruce would make at least one more record with the whole damn band, live in the studio, with the same spontaneity and enthusiasm that he and his boyhood band, the Castiles, surely had back in the late-60s. It also makes sense that he now desires to put some closure on his storied career, not that it’s the end, but why not make sure to put a nice bow on his musical career while still in possession of your amazingly durable talents? In these respects, Letter to You is almost everything a fan could want—as long as there’s an understanding that it is not a stone cold classic able to hold its own with his greatest albums. What we do get is really effective at times, if imperfect as a whole. I thought I would go through the songs one at a time in order to chart my thoughts more specifically—this may be more for me than you in the end. So much has been written about the album already, so we know most of the background facts. The only thing that’s left is to see how the record is affecting his die-hard fans, of which I am proudly one.
“One Minute You’re Here”
I have to admit that my heart sank when I heard the first line, “Big black train comin’ down the track,” and then shuddered when the next was “Blow your whistle long and long.” Did he just say “long and long”? Why not loud and long? I don’t get it. If I could’ve given Bruce any advice going into his new album, it would’ve been to avoid three tired concepts: trains, dreams, and miracles. Bruce has abused each in his recent past and all have long ago lost their capacity to deliver meaningful emotional impact—instead they seem like they have become his default settings. In case of writer’s block, break glass. Clearly, Bruce’s intent here is to set the tone for the rest of Letter to You. In fact, the song reminds me of the opening scene from Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story when a stage manager is told that “Dewey Cox has to think about his whole life before he plays,” and then the movie rewinds back to where it all began and tells his life story. That’s Bruce here, contemplating how fast the time has gone, what his life has meant, and the people he’s shared it with along the way. In this song alone, images from Tunnel of Love, Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, and Lucky Town flicker in his rearview mirror. Overall, it’s a pretty song on the surface with forgettable lyrics ripped from the pages of a Larry McMurtry novel.
“Letter to You”
For the second straight song, I’m nonplussed with the opening line: “Neath a crowd of mongrel trees, I pulled that bothersome thread.” If this were an episode of Game of Thrones, I’d be all in, but if there’s one aggravating tendency in Bruce’s late-period writing it’s his tendency to lean of what I’ll call “Biblical language.” Which means lots of blood red skies, suns beating down, black skies, blood moons, skies of blue, dead suns, and endless black sheets of sanctifying, motherfucking rain. After awhile, it comes off as lyric sheet filler where there once used to be something genuinely moving instead. I would have to say at this point that this is my least favorite song on the whole album. Which, of course, means it’s the first single and the title track. That’s just how these things work.
I said NO TRAINS! In any self-respecting publishing house, a responsible editor would tell a redundant author something like, “Hey, you realize you mentioned trains about five minutes ago, right? Maybe use a different analogy this time?” Sure enough, moments ago our train was proudly rolling down the track tooting its whistle loud and loud (ugh), but now said train is on fire. What the fuck happened? Did the projectionist skip a reel? Thankfully, the whole song gets redeemed because the song really rips and is going to be a powerhouse live number when the tour kicks off in 2022. See how good Bruce is? He can even battle back from a double-dose of train analogies and still make it work. It seems like many of the songs on Letter to You intentionally or unintentionally reference past stories he’s told us and this one also strips some Bruce classics for pieces and parts. This time, there’s allusions to “Backstreets,” “Born to Run,” “I’m on Fire,” “Downbound Train,” “The River,” and “Adam Raised a Cain” and that’s just for starters.
"Janey Needs a Shooter"
This is the first of three old songs on the record dating back to Bruce’s pre-Greetings years and while it is great to have it on a formal Bruce record once and for all, it is also an odd choice for the album. Its main function is to represent Bruce’s early voice on an album with designs toward an epic career arc, but it has no thematic tie-in beyond that. It’s a disturbing tale, substantially more overt than “Candy’s Room” and creepily more lurid than “Reno” (and that one clarified a $250 price tag for anal sex!). One by one we hear about the men in Janey’s life, most of them with bad intentions. Has anyone put forth the idea that this is a prequel to “Janey Don’t You Lose Heart” If not, it should be. It’s an excellent song with horrifying lyrics, which is shocking considering Bruce was in his early 20s when he wrote it.
"Last Man Standing"
A stirring song which benefits from detailed lyrics referencing Bruce’s early band, the Castiles, while also lamenting the death of his former bandmate George Theiss, leaving Bruce as the last Castile standing. You’d be melancholy, too, I imagine. This song only reinforces the power Bruce can bring to his songwriting when he’s drawing on something specific from his past (“You count the names of the missing when you count off time.”). On a side note, the concept isn’t new; Willie Nelson beat him to the punch with his own “Last Man Standing” from his 2018 album of the same name. Perhaps Willie summed up the feeling best: “I don’t want to be the last man standing, but then again maybe I do.”
"The Power of Prayer"
This didn’t take long. Go-Kart Mozart is back checkin’ out the weather chart at the start of yet another song. Here, we’re back on a “dreamy afternoon ‘neath the summer sun” lying entwined by a lake (Greasy Lake?), the tan and wet girl a blessing in his arms. So prayer will get you a girl, will it? I wish I had known that back in the day. It’s a nice song, but the lyrics can get comically lazy at times, “It’s a fixed game without any rules / An empty table on a ship of fools.” That’s a total groaner of a line if I’ve ever heard one. Later he’s “reachin’ for heaven, we’ll make it there.” Is anybody alive out there really buying this cheese? Has Bruce been cribbing lyrics off of Jon Bon Jovi during the pandemic? Why not just cover “Living on a Prayer” and get it over with? Thankfully, the song has an anthemic chorus that’ll sound good after a few beers and I do really dig the last verse about Ben E. King singing “This Magic Moment” at closing time. It’s sweeter than Janey’s fingers in the cake. Bruce pulls the song off in the end, but this will never be a Bruce classic for the insurmountable reasons stated.
"House of a Thousand Guitars"
Bruce has claimed this is his favorite song on the record. I don’t totally agree, but it’s a pretty good late-period song for the Boss. Of course, we’re not leaving home until our favorite amateur meteorologist gives us the Shakespearian weather report: “The blood moon shines across the vale” (“the vale”?; has Bruce been hanging with the Bronte sisters?). After that, we’re off and running onto the set of “Jungleland” (“Bells ring out through churches and jails”). In no time, we’re traipsing over to Westeros where “a criminal clown has stolen the throne.” You know I can’t let that go. I’ve got to throw a flag. I don’t even know what penalty I’m calling, but I’m thinking “illegal use of imagery” or something in that section of the rule book. When I think criminal clowns, I think John Wayne Gacy, the notorious serial killer who buried 33 young boys in his crawlspace. Stealing the throne was the least of my worries when he was terrorizing suburban Chicago in the 70s. Miraculously, Bruce then does what he usually does; he pulls a rabbit out of a hat. In the next line he graces us with the stirring couplet, “May the truth ring out from every small town bar / And we’ll light up the house of a thousand guitars.” It’s got that epic romantic feel to it that has been Bruce’s stock and trade for fifty years. I like it. In reality, Bruce came up with the title and found a way to make it work and he accomplishes that for the rest of the song. It’s that opening couple stanzas that I just can’t get over. Somewhere, some guitar shop is changing its name as you read this.
This song doesn’t sound like anything else Bruce has recorded in the past and that’s a very good thing. It has a majestic, almost mythological, quality to it that will at the very least give him something of his own to play when it rains at an outdoor gig in the future (perhaps he can now retire his former go-to, CCR’s “Who’ll Stop the Rain”). Of course, he defaults to the weather forecasting app on his iPhone for the opening line YET AGAIN: “Parched crops dying ‘neath a dead sun.” If you’re not keeping track, that’s the third song out of the first eight that uses the word “’neath” in its first line. Later, we find people willing to “taste the dark sticky potion” and I honestly don’t know, and don’t want to know, what that is…ever. The title of this track lets us know some heavy weather could be in the forecast, but matters immediately get confusing after this inexplicable line, which just has to be a placeholder for some real lyrics to be named later: “Painted rainbow, crescent moon, and dark clouds.” In THAT order? Uh, I don’t think so. With all this weather talk, I have a theory that Bruce is playing to his aging fan base here. Most of his long-time fans are getting up there by now, and stereotypically, the older you get the more you become obsessed by the weather, so this song scratches that natural itch. Based on the above, you might not guess that I kind of like this song, but I still do. Go figure.
"If I Was the Priest"
You wish you were the Pickled Priest! That job is taken, Boss man! This is the second of three older Bruce songs on the record and it’s easily the best of the bunch. Interestingly, it starts with lyrics that seem plucked from the Seeger Sessions album from years later: “There’s a light on yonder mountain / And it’s callin’ me to shine.” Cue banjo solo. Alas, not the case, and soon after it meanders into some vintage pre-Greetings wordplay. The images come fast and furious like they often did back then and there are so many of them it doesn’t matter if they make any sense. He was young and reckless then, not old and measured like he is today. His lyrics, of course, were very Dylan-esque back then and he wrote while clutching his artistic license tightly in his fist. The song is a fever dream, part John Wayne, part Charlton Heston, and it’s a glorious set of flickering images that’ll fuel your own dreams for weeks. He played it for John Hammond and got an immediate record deal out of it, so you know it’s something special. I’m happy we finally have a formal version for posterity.
This is the song from Letter to You that’s going to crush it when the next full-band tour gets going a couple years from now. “Count the band in, then kick into overdrive / By the end of the set we leave no one alive.” And have no doubt, Bruce will still being doing just that even though he’ll be almost 73 when the tour eventually kicks off. Sure, some new songs will be “bathroom songs,” but this will surely come near the end of the set, perhaps right before “Born to Run” and it will pack some serious firepower. It’s so great to hear the band playing together, too. No other track displays the glory of E Street with as much bombast as this one.
"Song for Orphans"
In the Broken Record podcast referenced above, Bruce laments that he left his early songwriting style behind too quickly in an attempt to distance himself from the “New Dylan” pressure put on him in order to craft a songwriting identity all his own. He goes on to say he kinda wishes he had stayed longer with the style because it was a fun way to write. This song shows he was damn good at it, too. It reminds me of Dylan and the Band fucking around at Big Pink. Just imagine if “Priest” and “Orphans” were on Greetings back in the day (perhaps in place of “The Angel” and “Mary Queen of Arkansas”). The album could’ve been even better than it is (and I love it already). This is another slice of early Bruce and I’ll take everything he has to give.
"I’ll See You in My Dreams"
As I said in my comments about “One Minute You’re Here,” If I had my way dream songs would’ve been off limits for this album. Sadly, that’s not my call so here we go. Actually, while this is generally a tired concept, Bruce does make it work here—at least thematically. Bruce stated in “One Minute You’re Here” that he’s all alone, then later he told us that he’s the last man standing, and now he seems to have resigned himself to the fact that, at least for now, dreams are his only way to commune with the souls of the departed (to quote another classic Bruce song). Until he himself leaves this “mortal cage” that is. And I hope it’s not for a long and long time.
I don’t really know how this record will fit into my listening future. With Bruce, it’s hard to concretely determine the value of a record until it has time to settle. These are only my first reactions and sometimes it takes me a while to get over the hump on some songs. But I do trust Bruce. I know he operates with purpose, so I anticipate that these songs may resonate more as I get older and older. That said, I’d be lying if I said I was confident of it playing out that way. I do think Bruce has intentionally moved his songwriting to a more spiritual level, which explains his penchant for dramatic language and analogies whose meanings are unmistakable. Unfortunately, for me that equates to songs that have too many interchangeable passages that seem immaterial to the context of the song. Why exactly do we always need to know the color of the moon, the sun, the skies? Does he write a line about a “painted rainbow” and not realize he subconsciously lifted it from the script of a My Little Pony episode? There are also too many lines that stand on their own looking for a connection to something else. The old Bruce didn’t operate that way and I miss him. I think Bruce does, too. How else to explain his harkening back to his earliest songs? Right now, I’m a little disappointed with the record in some ways. Then again, I’m moved by the romantic affection he has for his past life, lost band mates, old songs, current band mates, and even his glory days. Yes, they’ve passed him by, but it’s also encouraging to know he still feels alive with the power of rock and roll and that he “can feel the blood shiver in my bones.” It’s amazing that he’s still living and breathing for the same job he’s had since the mid-60s. Perhaps it’s because he knows one minute it’s here, the next it’s gone.
Before I move on, please, if you haven’t already, listen to the Broken Record podcast captioned above. It features big thinker Malcolm Gladwell and zen producer Rick Rubin interviewing Bruce and it’s one of the best discussions I’ve heard with the Boss. Bruce clearly was up for the interview, and the respected company clearly brought out the best in him. Even for Bruce, who is always eloquent when being interviewed, it’s a fascinating listen with many new revelations. If you don’t respect Bruce when it’s over, something’s wrong with you.
3 GIRL IN GOLD BOOTS / Soundtrack and Movie
We love a mindless diversion now and then, and we found one this weekend with the arrival in the mail of the Girl in Gold Boots soundtrack just reissued on vinyl this year. I love a bad genre picture and this one ham-fistedly attempts to capitalize on the go-go dancing craze of the late-60s. Several things lured me into the discovery of this movie. One, I love a campy album cover. This one grabs the eye with its exotic, psychedelic montage—guns, guitars, bikinis! Two, the album came with a DVD copy of the movie in question—a nice touch. Otherwise, how are you going to ever see the movie? A brilliant, and cheap, way to make suckers like me cough up cash for an album they’ve never heard before on sight alone. And finally, it was on colored vinyl. While I have openly criticized the colored vinyl boom (needless in most cases), sometimes it just makes sense. Hence, this album was justifiably released on “gold boot” colored vinyl. Kismet! If any record gets a pass for using colored vinyl, this is it.
As it turns out, the movie is terrible, but in a good way. I knew that going in, of course. You don’t watch a movie like this expecting Citizen Kane. All I wanted was a few yuks and grins and maybe a little sleazy camp and I got exactly that. It’s a tale of a small town girl who wants to dance for a living and will do almost anything to make it happen (the fact she’s a terrible dancer who can’t stay on the beat is irrelevant). She hooks up with several men along the way who, as the cover claims, “offered love, danger, excitement!” In the end, there are guns, drugs, and booze, but our girl finally gets her coveted starring role in an all-girl go-go review in L.A.—and the main dancer gets to wear the gold boots as a reward! But the seedy side of the business finally gets to her and she eventually chooses love over “fame.” In other words, Showgirls a quarter century earlier, without a budget and sans nudity, but with an equally clunky script.
The soundtrack, considering the quality of the movie, isn’t half bad. Although annoyingly littered with snippets from the movie that get old very quickly, they actually put some effort into the music, which makes sense considering the subject matter is go-go dancing. I was hoping for a few more wild dance party songs and there’s a few too many goofy ballads, but my standard wasn’t high going in. It’s all kitsch of course, and nothing is going to rock your world, but there are some inspired moments like the title track, “(Everything I Touch Turned to) Gold,” “Sin,” and the bizarre and misplaced Christmas song “Cowboy Santa” that comes in out of nowhere without purpose. Then again, who gives a shit when you’ve got cute girls go-go dancing in skimpy outfits? And a genre was born.
4 BEE BEE SEA / Day Ripper
This is a killer garage rock album imported from Italy along with some extra virgin olive oil and a few wheels of parmesan. With all those fast Italian sports cars over there, it’s a wonder there were any open garages in which to practice in the first place, but the cleverly-named Bee Bee Sea (presumably named after the BBC) manage to bottle the breakneck energy of vintage American garage rock, add their own unique spices, and spit it back out in convincing fashion. And they sing in English to so you don’t have to open your Italian-to-English translation app to understand what the fuck is going on (well, you still might not, but you know what I mean). Day Ripper is as apt a title as any other I’ve heard this year. The band wastes not one-second of their 34-minute second record. In this tightly packed record, you’ll get ten young, loud, and snotty singles that seem to get better and better as the album progresses, which is a nice trick. Truth be told, if not told they were Italian, I would’ve never known. They could just as easily be a bratty garage band from Seattle. No matter where they’re from, they have that X-factor needed to stand out in the populated garage rock universe, which is songs that do something different around every corner. The more they fuck around—sometimes with the vocals, sometimes with the guitars—the more interesting they get. No recommended songs. Just let the whole thing rip as the title instructs.
5 ROY REDMOND / “Ain’t That Terrible”
6 ROY REDMOND / “Good Day Sunshine”
Improper dancing, in the middle of the street
Somebody better notify the chief of police!
“Improper Dancing” / Electric Six
The only thing better than a song written specifically for a specific dance craze (“The Twist”) or a bunch of dance crazes (“Land of 1,000 Dances”) is a song that mocks people for getting their shorts in a bunch about kids dancing in the first place. Which is where Roy Redmond’s underappreciated R&B single “Ain’t That Terrible” comes into play. The killer single has been reissued by UK DJ-run label Harlem Shuffle Records for the first time since its original release on Warner subsidiary Loma Records back in 1967 and it’s very cool to have it back in circulation. The song basically runs through a list of hot dances and then sarcastically denounces them in its chorus, “Terrible! Lord ain’t that terrible / Baby, baby awful! / Let me tell ya, downright sinful!” If you want to know where Charles Barkley got his oft-parodied pronunciation of the word “terrible” look no further. Yet another great single rescued for another generation. Not that Loma Records is an obscure label, per se, it was the original home of Ike & Tina Turner and was also responsible for a handful of the greatest R&B cuts in history with J.J. Jackson’s “But It’s Alright” and Lorraine Ellison’s “Stay With Me,” but it came and went relatively quickly and never got to that Stax, Motown, or Hi Records level of notoriety. If remotely interested, pick up a used copy of The Best of Loma Records on Warner Archives. Well worth the investment. But if you love R&B, pick up the song in its original single format on vinyl. It’ll be worth the import price, I guarantee it.
The astute DJs at Harlem Shuffle also made the wise move to reissue Redmond’s second single for the label, his cover of the Beatles “Good Day Sunshine.” It’s got to be one of the best covers of the Fab 4 out there and proves that the truly great songs are malleable, able to withstand reinterpretation with integrity intact. And after hearing this version’s laid-back groove, you might presume the R&B version to be the original, but that’s not the case of course. But it does seem perfectly suited for this style, complete with Marvelettes-esque background singers doing the “good day sunshine” chorus. This is immediately going on my ever-expanding mix of amazing soul singles. It’s a little slice of, you guessed it, sunshine.
7 THE OTHER HALF / “Mr. Pharmacist”
While I’m giving props to my new favourite DJs at Harlem Shuffle, here’s one more absolute gem they reissued last year. Most, including me, were introduced to “Mr. Pharmacist” by the Fall, originally released on their Bend Sinister album from 1986. I long ago put the song on my marathon madcap mixtape of deviant singles and strays (now at 1,602 songs in length as of this moment!) and it will never come off. Mark E. Smith delivers a stuffed-up snotty vocal (his specialty) and the band stomps like a mad marching band for the full 2-minute duration. I’ve loved it from the first time I heard it. Strangely, I never thought twice at the time to seek out the original. Perhaps because I didn’t gather that it was a cover at the time. I do wonder how this original song from 1966 by San Francisco psych band the Other Half got across the pond and into Smith’s hands, but I’m glad it did. (Perhaps he got his mitts on Rhino Records’ Nuggets compilation where it was featured at one point.) While the Fall’s version adds the bite needed to put the song over the top, the original is also a stomping little gem as well, and both can coexist in my world with no problem at all.
8 THE OSSIE LAYNE SHOW / Barcelona 69 (EP)
While on the subject of reissued soul, another nifty little find has come my way courtesy of respected UK label Acid Jazz. Specifically, this EP of four blue-eyed Mod soul numbers from this band, which featured American soul singer Ossie Layne backed by some surprisingly soulful Brits (who were used to back up other American soul singers when touring England, one of them being Solomon Burke!). This record was apparently issued in Spain, hence its title, but you can see why Northern Soul lovers in the UK fell for it. Their instrumental cover of soul classic “Midnight Hour” is fast, funky, and mod at the same time, like a classic soul single done after lines of coke were passed out to the band. An absolute must for that demented mixtape you’ve been contemplating. And the buzz doesn’t subside when they take on Sly & the Family Stone’s classic “Sing a Simple Song” (from their Stand! album from that same year). It brings the raw, simmering funk of Sly’s original into a trippy Austin Powers-esque nightclub in swinging, psychedelic London during the peace and love era. Rod Stewart’s “Rock My Plimsoll” and a Farfisa-drenched live medley of two late-60’s gems (“Fresh Garbage” by Spirit and a song titled “Can’t Be So Bad” that I haven’t placed yet) round out the EP, which is to say the least, one kinetic affair. Thank goodness this gem of an EP, and its killer cover, have been rescued from obscurity and I’ve found them a full half-century later! Totally loving the vibe throughout this sweet little diamond in the rough.
9 WAR ON WOMEN / “Aqua Tofana”
I’ve been spending a little time with feminist hardcore punk band War on Women’s raging new record this weekend called Wonderful Hell, and while I’m not done, uh, er, digesting it yet I have become intrigued by the first song on the record titled “Aqua Tofana.” Aqua Tofana is a poison used in the 17th century used by women to kill their evil husbands, which explains the “Kill him! Kill him! Just kill him!” mantra shouted gleefully by singer Shawna Potter throughout. Not for the weak of heart or constitution to say the least, but it’s a punishing track already in contention for my year-end mixtape. In a way, the song reminds me of the chorus to Shellac’s “Prayer to God” from way back in 2000, which found Steve Albini praying for the demise of his girlfriend and the guy who took her away from him. The girl gets off relatively easy in that song, with the prayer requesting a simple and merciful blow to the back of her neck. But the guy? Not so discerning for his literal execution, “Just fucking kill him / I don’t care if it hurts.” Albini takes the song to its final moments repeating his request, “Fucking kill him / Kill him already / Kill him!” If only he had known about aqua tofana, then perhaps he could have taken the matter into his own hands.
THE 10 SPOT
While I was doing our Blue Note Album Art Spotlight last week, I got to thinking about UK graphic designer Christophe Gowans, who looks at music in creative and clever ways on his website The Rockpot. First he re-imagined great albums as if they were books. Now he’s done the logical thing and reversed that concept—imagining great books if they were actually Blue Note album covers. I’ve included a few favorites below, including the album cover for To Kill a Mockingbird and the book version of Blood on the Tracks, which now hang in my living room and kitchen walls respectively. That’s right, all the items are for sale, done in high quality print runs. So send Christophe some love and pick one up for yourself. For fun, run through the covers in my Blue Note feature and compare some of the designs below. The Blue Note catalog continues to inspire decades after their glory days.
Well, off to watch election coverage for the next week or until it's over, whichever comes first. No matter what happens, use music to celebrate or mourn, whatever you need to get by.