Friday, December 18, 2015

Unstill Current: 35 Years Downstream, Bruce Springsteen's 'The River' Continues to Overflow [Spotify Playlist at bottom]

Box Set Review

Bruce Springsteen
The Ties That Bind:
The River Collection
featuring The River album,
numerous outtakes,
a new documentary and
a classic concert DVD

The River, initially released on October 17, 1980, two days after my 12th birthday, was the first Bruce Springsteen album I ever owned.

I probably didn't buy the double-LP set immediately, but as "Hungry Heart" hit the Top 10 in early December--the Boss' first song to do so--it likely wasn't too long thereafter.

Though I hadn't made a point of adding Born to Run or Darkness on the Edge of Town to our family's record collection, I undoubtedly already knew the anthemic "Born to Run" and have never forgotten hearing some WXRT DJs discussing the "poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king, and a king ain't satisfied till he rules everything" lyric from "Badlands" (off Darkness) while visiting Terri Hemmert on a Junior High assignment to "interview someone in a job you admire." (It's possible this was after I already owned The River.)

I believe at the time I was already familiar with the concept of an album as an artistic statement beyond a mere collection of songs; either my dad or I had bought albums like the Eagles' Hotel California, Led Zeppelin's In Through the Out Door, Cheap Trick's At Budokan, ELO's Out of the Blue and Pink Floyd's The Wall for the household, the latter two acquainting me with double albums that weren't soundtracks like Saturday Night Fever or Grease.

Still, with the stark photograph of Bruce on the cover, I remember there being something intense, even intimidating, about The River beyond the poppy lilt of "Hungry Heart," itself a song chronicling familial desertion, loneliness and longing.

Certainly the album's sheer sprawl contributed to this, and I'm sure sides 1&2 of the first LP became much more worn than sides 3&4 of the second.

Reviews I recall reading praised the album's duality of bar band songs and pensive, poignant ballads, the latter coming more so on the second half, so I almost instantly appreciated the album's scope on some level, but it's taken me years to fully digest it.

And even today the low-key, loss-themed, character-driven storytelling of songs like "Point Blank," "Fade Away," "Stolen Car," "Wreck on the Highway" and "Drive All Night" can make for dour listening, en masse.

I now have a far better understanding of Springsteen's oeuvre than I did at 12, and get that the bleak ballads, including "The River" and "Independence Day" not only provided a sonic and/or thematic counterpoint to rockers like "The Ties That Bind," "Jackson Cage," "Two Hearts," "Out in the Streets," "Cadillac Ranch," "Ramrod" and "Hungry Heart," they more so reflected Bruce's ongoing commentary on blue collar America (and his appreciation of classic country music).

Springsteen has often spoken of consciously wanting each of his albums to make a cohesive statement. Not as a concept album, or even clearly defined in its messaging, but perhaps in a more ambiguous overall sense of tonality and feel.

Which helps to explain why he has left oodles of material many others would kill for on the cutting room floor.

Or more accurately, the Columbia Records' vaults.

As a rather hardcore Springsteen fanatic ever since The River, who came to own every album, EP and DVD he officially released, and was aware that several notable songs were never included on his studio albums yet played live or otherwise disseminated--"Because the Night," "Fire," "Pink Cadillac," "Seeds" and "Be True" among them--my mind was seriously blown with the 1998 release of the 4-disc rarities set, Tracks.

It wasn't just that there were 66 songs that, for the most part, had never been released, and in most cases were completely unknown to me.

Sure, there were a handful of alternate versions, such as an acoustic "Born in the U.S.A.," and well-known B-sides like "Pink Cadillac," but even more fascinating than being able to hear "Lost Springsteen" songs I had long heard about--"Rendezvous," "Thundercrack"--was the preponderance of material that was truly revelatory in every sense.

It felt as if 20 years after making Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T., Steven Spielberg suddenly shared a bunch of similarly splendid movies that he shot around the same time but never bothered to release.

Most notable on Tracks was its second disc, which was chock full of buried treasures, the bulk of which were outtakes from The River.

These included "Restless Nights," "Roulette," "Dollhouse," "Where the Bands Are," "Loose Ends," "Living on the Edge of the World," "Take 'Em as They Come," "Be True," "Ricky Wants a Man of Her Own," "I Wanna Be with You" and "Mary Lou," along with "Bring on the Night," which was on Disc 1 of Tracks

Almost all of these are Grade "A," or at worst "A-/B+/B" songs, and Springsteen has worked some into his concerts in subsequent years, beginning with the 1999-2000 Reunion Tour with the E Street Band.

(For the record, I have seen Springsteen live 44 times dating back to 1984, with 40 shows since 1999; I now have tickets to two upcoming gigs supporting The River box set.)

On October 17, 2015, the 35th anniversary of The River, it was announced that a box set called The Ties That Bind: The River Collection would be released in early December, analogous to how Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town had previously been commemorated.

The Darkness box set had been highlighted by The Promise, two CDs featuring 22 songs that didn't make it onto the 1978 album, which was notoriously delayed by legal issues between Springsteen and his manager.

But although many of the songs on The Promise are stellar, most are quite sonically distinct from what would wind up on Darkness, or had been on 1975's Born to Run.

It essentially plays like a very good album Bruce might have released in 1976-77, but not the equal of what came before or after, and with a few exceptions, the songs didn't make me wish they had been included on Darkness on the Edge of Town.

In other words, that so much of The Promise long sat on a shelf was a bit more comprehensible than the clandestiny of so many stellar River outtakes.

And now there are even more, uncovered.

The first two CDs of The Ties That Bind set appropriately contain a remastered version of The River--not so important to me as I got such a thing last year as part of The Album Collection: 1973-1984, though both new editions sound superb--and the third reveals a single-disc album called The Ties That Bind that Springsteen had actually turned into Columbia in 1979 before pulling it back, deciding it "wasn't big enough."

This is an interesting listen as it includes some great songs that would make it onto the 2-disc River, including "The Ties That Bind," "Hungry Heart," "The River" and "The Price You Pay," along with alternate versions of River songs "Stolen Car" and "You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)" and three tunes that wouldn't make the official album: "Be True," "Loose End" (sometime pluralized, sometimes not) and the never before heard "Cindy."

Hearing The Ties That Bind now, I believe Springsteen was right to take it back and work for another year on what would become The River.

As he explains in a new documentary included in the box set--the doc by longtime Springsteen associate Thom Zimny is also titled The Ties That Bind--as well as in an interview with fansite, with The River Bruce was trying to give listeners a sense of his incendiary but sonically diverse concerts.
"I'd gotten to the point where I wanted to include everything that I did, from the party material to my character studies, and I didn't think I could do that successfully on one album at that time," Springsteen recently told's Chris Phillips.
Hence the bar-band rockers were mixed together with the deliberate character studies, most written in the wake of "The River" song, which set the tone in terms of Springsteen stepping "into a character's shoes and trying to get your listeners to walk in those shoes for awhile."

As mentioned above, most of the the ballads are about blue collar Americans struggling with hardship, broken relationships, longing and similarly poignant matters, so I perceive this great lyric from "The River" as serving as something of a thematic thread:
"Is a dream a lie if it don't come true or is it something worse?"
So the box set, accompanying materials and related press have given me a newfound appreciation for The River and why Springsteen made some of the choices he did.

In serving as the official bridge between Darkness on the Edge of Town and Nebraska, which was followed by Born in the USA and Tunnel of Love, The River, as it stands, makes a lot of sense.

And it's also worth noting that from still somewhat regional arena-sized stardom, The River took Springsteen to superstardom before Born in the USA took him to megastardom.

But the quality of the outtakes continues to boggle the mind.

Even more so, as in addition to including the 11 River sessions songs that were on Disc 2 of Tracks--for some reason, "Bring on the Night" is missing--the Outtakes CD of The Ties That Bind box set includes 11 additional outtakes that weren't previously released. (Though the instrumental "Paradise by the 'C,' powerfully featuring the late saxophonist Clarence Clemons, was heard in live form on the Live 1975-1985 box set.)

And most of these are also terrific, including "Meet Me in the City," "Party Lights," "Night Fire," "The Man Who Got Away," "Little White Lies," "Whitetown" and, IMO, the best ballad from this era outside of "The River," a somber, haunting vignette called "Stray Bullet."

That there are this many high quality outtakes, including 12 ("Cindy" being the one not on the Outtakes disc) that are just now being shared with the public 35+ years after Springsteen not only wrote, but in most cases, fully produced them--many with some rather nifty instrumental and/or vocal effects--is rather astonishing.

Not least from a creative ego standpoint.

I can't really consider myself an artist, but whether in the professional realm of advertising copywriting, or writing articles for this blog, or being an avid photographer, occasional amateur poet, greeting card maker and more, for me wanting to share what I've made has always accompanied the act of creation.

So for Bruce Springsteen to have written and recorded so many stellar songs, and then contentedly put them on the shelf only to revisit decades later, is anathema to my own innate need to have others see what I've done.

Including "Bring on the Night," but leaving out alternate versions--and one outtake, "Mary Lou," that shares many similar lyrics with another, "Be True," as Bruce was prone to re-use bits and pieces in finalizing what worked best--I count 25 "extra" songs that well could have been put on 20-song River, or compiled on a follow-up double studio album.

And these finished but largely forgotten songs--a few supposedly have re-recorded vocals by Bruce in 2015, but I can't tell which--were culled from (as stated in the documentary) 95 solo home demos Springsteen recorded before convening the E Street Band, and 104 demos with the band.

Although some of the outtakes are demonstrably better than songs that made The River--in the documentary, Bruce himself mentions the most obvious oversight, the unsubstantial "Crush on You" being in and the phenomenal, blazing "Roulette" being out--even now it's hard to second guess the product that hit record stores on October 17, 1980.

Sure, it's been fun on Spotify--where the entire 52-song The Ties That Bind: The River Collection can freely be streamed--to make playlists that mix together album songs and outtakes into The River that could have been, with a variety of double-album iterations.

But simply to pick one's 20 favorite songs from the 46 different ones (including "Bring on the Night," though again, it's not in this box set) is a different exercise than to appreciate Springsteen's vision for what it was.

For other than "Stray Bullet," there aren't any meditative ballads among the outtakes, many of which are uptempo rockers with redundancy in tone & theme, to each other and album tracks. While several of these, both previously known and not, are first-rate--"Roulette," "Dollhouse," "Where the Bands Are," "Take It As it Comes," "Restless Nights," "Party Lights," "Loose End," "Be True," etc., etc.,--few are as musically distinctive as "Hungry Heart," "Out in the Streets," "Cadillac Ranch" and other uptempo tracks that wound up on vinyl.

And though in the documentary, Bruce himself notes that "The River," "Independence Day," "Fade Away," "Stolen Car," "Drive All Night," "Wreck on the Highway," meant including several songs that are "long and slow" and pretty much mandating a double-album, not only did they help strike a balance reflective of his concerts, and served to bring greater sonic diversity to River Tour concerts, they pointed in the direction Springsteen would take on Nebraska and Tunnel of Love.

So in sum, the audio portion of the new box set serves to enhance for me the original River album and the astonishing amount of quality music that was long hidden to history.

Whether you are a hardcore Bruce Springsteen fan like me (or beyond), an avid but less obsessive
appreciator or a relative newbie to his brilliant oeuvre, there is a substantial amount here with which to happily acquaint yourself.

But at $92 on Amazon, is The Ties That Bind: The River Collection worth buying, as a gift to yourself or Boss fans you know? 

Though owning the physical set--which through Amazon comes with a free MP3 Rip of the whole thing--delights me, it's hard for me to answer in the affirmative to the question above, especially as you can hear everything on Spotify.

Adding to its value and appeal, the box set includes a coffee table book with 200 rare photos and a reproduced (though sadly not in full) notebook of Bruce's in which he hand-wrote lyrics. Oddly, the printed lyrics to the River album, which were part of the original LP set, are not provided anywhere in the box's materials.

But along with the 4 CDs of audio, there is some fine video.

Unlike similar films for the Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town retrospectives, the 54-minute documentary by Zimny--which was shown on HBO--does not have the benefit of studio footage shot as The River was being recorded. So most of the doc is a modern-day interview (by Zimny) of Bruce, holding an acoustic guitar, which he uses to play and sing lovely versions of "Two Hearts," "The River," "Independence Day" and more.

And then there is a concert DVD, or Blu-ray, of a Bruce Springsteen & the E Street band show in Tempe, Arizona on November 5, 1980.

On the one hand, this is outstanding, as Zimny has newly edited together multi-camera footage and excellent sound, and although I can say this about almost point in time--including hopefully the upcoming tour--Bruce & the ESB in 1980 were as good live as anyone who has ever played rock 'n roll.

But while the concert film is a wonderful document and phenomenal in what it depicts, because at the time the concert wasn't being filmed for full release, 10 of the 34 performed that night at Arizona State University are not included on the DVD. (There are also 5 songs, though not unique ones, included from a tour rehearsal.)

Thus is the passion of a fanatical Springsteen aficionado.

He releases a pristine-sounding collection of 52 mostly-great songs, including 11 you never knew about, plus a book, notebook, documentary and concert video, and you can help but be a bit chagrined that "Backstreets," "Darkness on the Edge of Town" and other songs you've heard & seen in myriad other packages were unavoidably left out.

But then the ties that bind are mightily strong and steadfast for Springsteen devotees.

And The Ties That Bind only tightens, and deepens, that grip.

I truly can't wait to hear The River, in full, and hopefully a good chunk of outtakes played live in the weeks ahead.

Compiling 24 prime River outtakes included in the Ties That Bind box set, along "Bring on the Night," (from Tracks, Disc 1), this is a playlist imagining a double-album follow-up to The River, entitled Night Fire.

Although lacking the fast/slow balance of The River, I think it's nonetheless filled with great music, and may even have a few too many songs than would have fit on 4 sides of vinyl. Given how important song sequencing has always been to Springsteen, I'm imagining this as 4 sides of music, not just 25 songs.  

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