Grind' and '1 Giant Leap'
musical equivalent of staring into the sun
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.