Album Reviews: 80s Flashbacks

Today I will review three recently-released albums by artists who were 1980s superstars.

AlbumWestern Stars
Artist: Bruce Springsteen
Release Date: June 14, 2019
Favorite Tracks:

  • Western Stars
  • Chasin’ Wild Horses
  • Moonlight Motel


I’ve always liked Springsteen well enough, although my knowledge of his work is fairly superficial.  This album reminds me of the Rolling Stones’ Blue & Lonesome in the sense that Springsteen is at an age where he has nothing left to prove, and has the leisure to dive into his roots.  Nonetheless, it’s a different sound for him, especially the string arrangements. Strings can be cheezy if done poorly, but they’re are well-integrated into the songs and the stories they’re telling and complement Springsteen’s voice which is as strong and expressive as ever. Springsteen is famously from New Jersey, but here is voice is baked in the Americana of the West.

Rating: ***

Album: Absolute Zero
Artist: Bruce Hornsby
Release Date: April 12, 2019
Favorite Tracks: none stand out, but they’re all decent

The less-famous Bruce had his biggest hits at the beginning of his career in the 1980s, and probably for most people that’s all they know about him.  In the 1990s, Hornsby toured with the Grateful Dead and created new albums with a jazz fusion sound.  When I lived in Williamsburg, VA, his hometown, he was a local celebrity and people exchanged stories of Bruce sightings.  I saw him in concert several times and have always thought his music sounds far better in live performace than on an album.  Neverthless, over the past 15 years or so I’ve failed to keep up with his career – until now.  This album uses elements of classical, jazz, and avant-garde music with Hornsby’s virtuosic style.  Jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette guests on some tracks as does Justin Vernon of Bon Iver which gives it some NPR Music cred.  It’s a creative experiment with dissonant sounds and juxtapositions, but I don’t think it’s something I’ll want to return to.

Rating: **1/2

Album: Originals
Artist: Prince
Release Date: June 7, 2019
Favorite Tracks:

  • 100 MPH
  • Holly Rock
  • The Glamorous Life
  • Wouldn’t You Love to Love Me?
  • Nothing Compares 2 U


Prince, of course, is deceased and will no longer be releasing new music.  But his famous vault will be mined for music for the forseeable future. Following up on Piano and a Microphone, 1983, and collects mostly unreleased versions of songs Prince wrote as demos for other artists. So now we can hear Prince’s take on songs like “Jungle Love,” “Manic Monday,” and “The Glamorous Life,” which were hits for The Time, The Bangles, and Sheila E.  A number of these songs were crafted by Prince for his proteges in the Minneapolis scene so they’re not familiar to me, although the most bizarre of the songs that are new to me is “You’re My Love,” which Prince wrote for Kenny Rogers!  The demos exude Prince’s hard work and musicianship and would’ve been good enough for Prince to release himself.  On the other hand, there are things the other artists brought to these songs that I think Prince was aware was needed.  This album is enjoyable, but I think it’s worth more for historical/musicological study than for just listening for fun

Rating: ***1/2

Bands Better Live Than Studio

I used to go to a lot more concerts and shows than I do now, and when I did I discovered a lot of artists and bands who won me over with their live performances. In some cases their studio recordings didn’t live up to the concerts, or it took me seeing them live to appreciate songs I’d previously only heard as recordings.  Of course there are a lot of bands that put on electrifying concerts that complement their excellent recordings, and some bands who are terrific in the studio but terrible performers, but for this post I’m going to focus on five  bands and artists I find better on stage than recorded.


Indigo Girls – The Indigo Girls were huge among my friends in college and I didn’t get it until a couple of them dragged me to a concert. Amy Ray and Emily Saliers have a humble yet inspiring presence and the concerts are all about creating a community.  The album 1200 Curfews captures some of their best work in the live environment.

Bruce Hornsby – People probably remember Hornsby for “The Way It Is” and other hits, and some may remember him touring as a keyboardist with The Grateful Dead, or the many other artists he has written songs for, produced, and appeared as a collaborationist on their recordings.  But Bruce Hornsby on record tells a very limited story.  I lived in his hometown of Williamsburg, VA for several years which meant I often saw him about town, but I also was lucky enough to see him in concert on multiple occasions (including once accompanied by the Virginia Symphony).  Hornsby shows were an exciting event featuring improvisation, rotating vocalists and instrumentalists, and even requests from the audience (and spectators could even request songs not by Hornsby and he and the band would confer for a moment and then play it!).  Here Come the Noise Makers is a good introduction to the live experience.

Arlo Guthrie – Arlo’s has some good tunes on record, but going to a concert is a chance to hear him tell his long, folksy stories.  The first time you hear an Arlo story, you laugh.  The second time, you say to yourself “Wait, I’ve heard this exact same ‘off-the-cuff’ story told the exact same way before.”  The third time (and beyond), you get excited to hear the story as if it was one of your favorite songs.

Black 47 – The very political Irish rock band from the Bronx seemed kind of bland when I first heard them, but then I saw them perform – of all the odd places – at Irish Night at Shea Stadium following a Mets game.  I was won over by their raw energy and rapport with the audience, and saw them several more times.  Black 47 disbanded in 2014 but you can still get a sense of their performance on the excellent Live in New York City album.

Dan Bern – Also known as Bernstein, the folk artist is kind of a Bob Dylan with the weirdness and crudeness cranked up to 11.  His albums never impressed me much but I saw a performance at Club Passim in Cambridge, MA where he got off the stage, sat in the middle of the room and had all the audience circle around, and lead a sing-a-long without the need for amplification.  It remains one of the most powerful concert performances I’ve ever experienced.

So who have you seen live that you would highly recommend?