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'Hard Grind' and '1 Giant Leap'
The musical equivalent of staring into the sun
by Mark Anderson

t's easy to see why critics and music-buyers alike want to love the latest disc from Bruce Springsteen.

Any proper attempt to make sense of the human condition gains incalculable cachet on the heels of unmitigated tragedy, and Springsteen is widely considered the ideal shaman.

Arena-size kicks: Bruce and band in Minnesota, October 1980.

But here's the truth: The Rising contains one really great song and the rest runs much closer to mediocre. Even the one song, "My City of Ruins," was written before last September's calamities – and got captured more movingly at the televised tribute last fall.

Still, the purpose here is not to trash Bruce Springsteen. He and his band continue to bring many joys to a great many people – in bars, on recordings and arena-style – for 30-some years and counting. We can remain forever grateful – no matter how painful it's been to witness his summer parade across the talk show circuit. And he still might have more than a few great songs left in him.

Meanwhile, it's much better to point out a pair of worthy alternatives that succeed mightily in mining the same humanistic vein without seeming to try nearly so hard. Such is the case with Hard Grind and 1 Giant Leap.

Sharp Axe: a hardscrabble soundtrack for the working middle class.

Hard Grind is a gritty blues project by Little Axe, a guitarist born in 1949 as Bernard Alexander and also known as Skip McDonald. His equally complicated résumé includes a longtime stint as guitarist in the house band at Sugar Hill, the seminal rap recording label.

With Hard Grind he takes his place as a blues-based mix-maestro for the new century.

The album is raw, cuts to the bone and contains an apocalyptic moment with a song called "Tight Like That," where words and music rise to a fire-and-brimstone pitch:

"It seems to be a hard and tight world we're living in today," rumbles a preacher-man's sandpaper voice atop a sinewy backdrop of mouth harp, crackling drums and nasty hook from acoustic guitar.

Little Axe, aka Bernard Alexander and Skip McDonald.

"When a man is cold, hungry and mad and ain't got no job," wails the rousing voice, "you can't borrow any money, your credit is no good and your wife is buzzing and the children are crying, brother, it will feel like you're in hell when it's tight like that."

The response, gospel-tinged and female, is glorious in refrain: "There is but one God, God almighty."

The story takes off from there.

Hard Grind is serious music for adults – 11 assured songs that spill out like a clear-eyed cinematic vision, a hardscrabble soundtrack for all us working middle-class stiffs.

1 Giant Leap is a world-beat experiment with a fascinating bunch of guest vocalists that comes from a pair of producers named Jamie Catto and Duncan Bridgeman.

Leap of faith: no missteps across more than 70 minutes of music.

The vocalists – Michael Franti, Neneh Cherry, Eddi Reader, Michael Stipe, Grant Lee Phillips, Baaba Maal and many more – inform the album with melodic grace and lyrical depth throughout a worldly-wise ocean of textures and rhythms.

Franti's "Passion," Reader's "Daphne" and "The Way You Dream" featuring Stipe, are especially compelling, but there's not a misstep across more than 70 minutes of words and music.

A string of narrators, including Tim Robbins, Ram Dass and Kurt Vonnegut Jr., adds connective human context by way of non-obtrusive and brief voice-over passages.

Overall, the music is sure-handedly exotic – hiked up loud, it fills any room with the approximate global village aura.

Of course, any such project falls apart if the music is uninviting. But that's not a problem here – these two discs aren't soothing platitudes, nor do they come anywhere close to repulsive. Instead, they're a wild and welcoming pair of joyrides that stick to the brain, the musical equivalent of staring into the sun.

And ultimately, there's nothing ignoble about Springsteen's attempt. Just keep in mind that come next winter Bruce will be on TV, tux-clad and glad-handing the academy, and gathering up his preordained slew of semiautomatic statuettes.

While Hard Grind and 1 Giant Leap will keep working the back streets in rolled-up shirtsleeves, telling much more interesting sides of the same story.

E-mail Mark at andersonenterprises@hotmail.com, and visit prior editions of tripewriter.

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