Friday, October 20, 2023

The View On Pop Culture: Bruce Cockburn, T.M. Stevens, The Libertines (2002)

Bruce Cockburn's In the Falling Dark

A household name among music lovers in Canada, singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn is nevertheless a cult artist south of the border, best known for his lone U.S. hit, the folk-influenced “Wondering Where the Lions Are.” More adventuresome than your garden-variety folkie, Cockburn has redefined the possibilities of folk music during a career that has ranged across four decades. Albums such as Dancing In the Dragon’s Jaws and Stealing Fire have broken through the glass ceiling of folk-rock limitations, introducing elements of the blues, jazz, and world music into the mix and opening the door for like-minded artists to follow.

In what one can only hope is the first shot in restoring Cockburn’s fragmented and wonderfully diverse musical catalog, Rounder Records has reissued a handful of early Cockburn albums with additional songs and in-depth liner notes. As me cherished old grandpa used to say, “there’s not a punter in the bunch,” but if this humble scribe had to pick someplace to start, I’d recommend going with Cockburn’s 1976 classic, In the Falling Dark (True North/Rounder). A somber, reflective collection, the album marks the beginning of an artistic evolution for Cockburn as he allows jazz influences to creep into his acoustic, folk-based songs through the inspired use of flute and horns. These melodic flourishes flesh out Cockburn’s songs of faith and social consciousness, his expanding lyrics serving as signposts for the liberal Christianity that the artist would champion throughout his entire career.

Cockburn ended the decade of the ‘70s with his masterpiece Dancing In the Dragon’s Jaws (True North/Rounder), which yielded the aforementioned Top Forty hit and is, perhaps, Cockburn’s best-loved album among his fans. With a brighter, livelier sound than shown on his earlier albums, Dancing In the Dragon’s Jaws is an excellent collection of songs. Cockburn’s world travels opened his eyes (and ears) to the music of other cultures and informed his deepening spirituality with the realities of the social injustice he witnessed. With a fresh perspective, songs like “After the Rain” and “Incandescent Blue” showcase a maturing lyrical poetry while “Wondering Where the Lions Are” is as near perfect a slice of singer/songwriter heaven as you’ll find on this side of the great divide. Bonus tracks compliment the titles and fit nearly seamlessly with the original material; both albums do a fine job in illustrating Cockburn’s enormous skills as a guitarist and intelligence as a lyricist. If you want insightful and inspired music that will soothe and inform, look no further than Bruce Cockburn.

T.M. Stevens' Shocka Zooloo
On the other hand, if you want some music to raise the roof, check out the raucous brew that is Shocka Zooloo (United One); the latest disc dropped by T.M. Stevens. One of the most in-demand session bassists in the biz today, Stevens has contributed his talents to hits by folks like Billy Joel, Tina Turner, Cyndi Lauper, and Joe Cocker, among many others. For his fourth solo album, Stevens recruited a top-flight crew of imaginative players to back his flights of musical fancy, including the legendary Bernie Worrell and members of Megadeth, Savatage, and Living Colour.

Using classic bass-heavy funk as a foundation, Stevens fills Shocka Zooloo to the brim with contagious rhythms, scorching hard rock and ‘60s-styled soul. The resulting collection is as rowdy as a house party and as welcome as the night’s final kiss. Stevens is a fair vocalist and accessible songwriter, lending a down-to-earth feel to songs like the red-hot rocker “No Good w/Out the Bad” or the mesmerizing “The River Flow.” Stevens updates a Sly Stone classic with ”Family Man” while “Got Nothing To Say” offers up a vicious groove beneath its metallic veneer. Shocka Zooloo is forged out of the foot-shuffling rhythms of P-Funk, the hard rock of Living Colour, and the worldbeat of Bob Marley and Fela Kuti, an artistic tightwire dance that Stevens manages to make look effortless.

The Libertines' Up the Bracket
During the recent furor over the “new garage rock,” England has been noticeable by its absence. While Detroit and New York were grabbing all of the media attention and Sweden was churning out more hardcore rockers per capita than any other nation, The Libertines very quietly entered the game. With the unassuming and energetic Up the Bracket (Rough Trade), the Libertines put the UK on the garage rock map and walked off with a handful of end-of-the-year accolades in the British music press. Walking much the same side of the stylistic street as the Strokes, Up the Bracket shares a lot of the same musical influences as their stateside brethren.

Drawing from a musical well that includes punk rockers like the Clash, art-rockers like Television, and British mod heroes like the Jam, the Libertines have delivered an engaging debut album. Songs like the rockabilly-tinged “Vertigo,” the Pete Townshend inspired title track or the psychdelic-flavored “The Good Old Days” spark and crackle with raw energy and youthful enthusiasm. The album’s production, courtesy of the Clash’s Mick Jones, is nearly pitch-perfect, emphasizing the band’s assets while masking any musical liabilities with a white light/white heat wall-of-sound. Available only, at this time, as an import album, Up the Bracket shows the Libertines as worthy torchbearers in a proud garage rock tradition and a band worth keeping an eye on in the future. (View From The Hill, November 2022)

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