Springsteen, The River, And The Mixed Legacy Of Pop Music

bruce_springsteen_tiesSo, I’ve been listening, on Spotify, to the just-released box set of Bruce Springsteen‘s 1980 double studio album The River, titled The Ties That Bind: The River Collection, which includes the remastered original album, the shorter single album version that was almost released instead of the double album, a bunch of outtakes, and…

…it’s really a mixed bag.

There is undeniable explosive energy in many of these songs, some of the lyrics are as good as anything Springsteen wrote before or since, and the musicianship is solid, the product of indisputable talent.

And yet…

The most persistent impression I got as I listened was that Springsteen was reaching for a sound reminiscent of early Rock & Roll from the 1950s, with a touch of Phil Spector’s early 1960s Wall of Sound studio approach, and I think it’s important to note that Rock & Roll, during that period, still had one foot in the often cheesy pop music that it grew out of.

There are two elements, in particular, that stand out to me, one related to the studio production, and the other to specific instruments.

First, the studio production, the most pervasive element, affecting every single song on the record. The best way I can describe it is that the album sounds incredibly thin, even on a good sound system or using good headphones, as if it was playing on those cheap metal speakers they had at old drive-in movies.

And while it may have seemed like a clever homage at the time, it gets old real fast, and it feels inexcusable, given that Springsteen had the very best studios and engineers at his disposal. I found myself wanting less reverb and a lusher mix, with the mids and trebles tamed and the low-mids and bass enhanced.

Second, the single most-noticeable instrumental element that stands out is the way keyboards are used on this album. Not THAT they are used, but HOW they are used, which is to say that they, unfortunately most of the time, DOMINATE and therefore detract.

This is also a tragedy of the studio process, as it turns out, because if you check out on YouTube some of the awesome footage from The River tour, you can hear that, onstage, the keyboards are WAY less forward in the mix, and the guitars and the bass, fortunately, stand out, giving the songs more bottom end and an edgier power, as opposed to the bubble gum sheen that the keyboards gave to the same songs on the album.

There’s no better example of this than the song Ramrod.

Here’s the cheesy studio version:

And here’s a live version from the tour:

If Springsteen released a live album from The River tour that had all of the songs from The River on it … well … I’m not saying it would be as great as his first four albums, but it would sound like it belonged in their ranks.

SO many of my favorite rock musicians were inspired by early Rock & Roll and give credit where credit is due, to artists who blazed a new trail.

But, there is a reason why that early Rock & Roll music sounded SO much better, to me at least, when played by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who and other British Invasion bands, and it’s because they either reduced or left out entirely the cheesy pop elements and they rocked the shit out of the songs.

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