Reviews of new releases by Bruce Springsteen, Charlie Louvin, John Shannon

Bruce Springsteen
Working on a Dream
Columbia

Reviews for Springsteen's latest tend toward extremes, with most critics declaring it to be either a work of absolute genius or an exercise in vapidity whose lyrics could use a major infusion of seriositude. The confusion is understandable. After all, Working on a Dream is a scattershot effort that juxtaposes some mighty fine material with a handful of amusingly loony whiffs.

Exemplifying the latter is "Outlaw Pete," the eight-minute-plus opener, which stands as a self-conscious throwback to early epics. Unfortunately, its melody can't support its wide-screen ambitions (and not just because of its resemblance to, of all things, KISS' "I Was Made For Lovin' You"), and Springsteen's delivery lacks the lively wit required by lines like, "At six months old, he'd done three months in jail." Likewise, "Queen of the Supermarket" yokes a small-scale tale of unrequited romance to an arrangement that would have to be dialed down to be considered overwrought. Not exactly a blue-light special.

In contrast, a handful of tunes placed deeper into the recording recall the best material on 2007's Magic, the album that truly marked the return of the Boss' mojo - among them the casually anthemic title track, the sunshine-pop ditty "This Life," the richly evocative "Life Itself" and the open-hearted "Kingdom of Days." As for "Surprise, Surprise," it's an enjoyable hook-fest that would have seemed more unexpected had Springsteen not visited this territory so recently.

When viewed as a whole, these tracks represent a more upbeat Bruce than usual - but not for long. The album ends with "The Last Carnival," a heavy-handed elegy for E-Street Band organist Danny Federici, who died last year, and the theme song to The Wrestler, which isn't exactly a feel-good number, either.

These disparate parts couldn't possibly fit together seamlessly, so it's no surprise that they don't. Still, even the least of the songs has something to recommend it. At an age when most rockers have long since stopped trying as hard as they once did, Springsteen is still aiming for transcendence, and occasionally even achieving it. That may not constitute a dream come true, but he's working on it.

Charlie Louvin
Sings Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs
Tompkins Square

The more stable half of the Louvin Brothers, among the greatest (and most unusual) harmony acts in country-music history, Charlie Louvin returned to the spotlight after a long absence with a self-titled 2007 offering featuring loads o' guest stars: Jeff Tweedy, Elvis Costello, George Jones, etc. His latest album is a more solitary effort, even though it's got a sibling; it was released around the same time as Steps to Heaven, which spotlights assorted gospel and sacred numbers. The latter is lovely and heartfelt, thanks largely to Louvin's simple, scratchy voiced renditions. Even so, Murder Ballads makes more of an impact, and no wonder given all the death on display, be it the natural kind ("My Texas Girl") or the sort caused by accidental catastrophe ("Wreck of the Old 97"). Heavenly visions are wonderful, but in this case, let there be blood.

John Shannon
American Mystic
Obliq Sound

Singer-songwriter Shannon is the subtlest of performers. His gentle vocals and delicate guitar picking can make the late Nick Drake seem like Ted Nugent in comparison. Yet compositions such as "Forgiveness" and "Somewhere" manage to cut through the clutter anyhow thanks to an emotional commitment that's both utterly unguarded and manifestly brave. Those coming to the recording expecting to be bowled over are apt to be disappointed, since Shannon's artistry doesn't aggressively impose itself on a listener. Instead, his music figuratively opens itself up and asks anyone who's interested to lend an ear. Do yourself a favor and accept this invitation.


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