PJ's pain is a pleasure, but new albums by the Boss and Foo Fighters really are a pain

September 30, 2007


  Hot on the heels of the Kanye West/50 Cent showdown of Sept. 11 comes the next big release date in the major labels' packed fall schedules, with three highly anticipated new discs dropping on Tuesday and leading the charge for the top of the charts. And while the latest from an alternative-rock heroine may not be the biggest seller, it's by far the pick of the crop.


PJ Harvey, "White Chalk"
Amid Polly Jean Harvey's unremittingly heavy discography, "Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea" (2000) stood out for its relatively sunny tone, with the artist reveling in the joys of romance. By the time she released "Uh Huh Her" (2004), that relationship had unraveled and she was back to her dour self: One witty Irish scribe called it "a coroner's report written by a poet." But if you thought that album captured a bleak mood, it was positively euphoric in comparison to the singer-songwriter's latest.

In the early '90s, Harvey established herself as a great postmodern blues woman, finding catharsis by singing about her pain in a banshee wail paired with a ferocious guitar, as on her indisputable masterpiece, "To Bring You My Love" (1995). But the soon to be 38-year-old artist has always sought to confound expectations, and on her eighth album, she radically redefines her sound by eliminating the guitar, building a stark, minimalist set of 11 songs around quietly lilting piano, and trading her full-throated roar for a little-girl sing-song that brings to mind Bjork or Tori Amos at their mellowest.

The difference is that, like a great Gothic novelist, Harvey contrasts this evocation of innocence with a terror lurking in the hazy shadows. "Dear darkness, I've been your friend for many years," she sings at one point, while at another, she adds, "All of my being is now in pining." The question remains: Where does this pain come from? Harvey's eighth disc is named for the white chalk hills of her native Dorset, England, but if it's really such an awful place and the source of so many bad memories, why does she stay? Is the misery all just an act?

When the artist's passion is so compelling, it doesn't really matter. Absent such a powerful delivery, songs such as "Devil," "Dear Darkness" and "When Under Ether" could fall on the wrong side of Goth parody. But as surprising a departure as this disc is musically, and as chilling and downbeat an experience as it is lyrically, it is ultimately irresistible and absolutely entrancing.


Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, "Magic"
"I got a coin in your palm / I can make it disappear," the Boss croaks in the title track for his first album with the E Street Band since "The Rising" (2002), his folkie but bombastic musing on 9/11. "I got a card up my sleeve / Name it and I'll pull it out your ear / I got a rabbit in the hat / If you wanna come and see / This is what will be." To hear his longtime manager, Jon Landau, tell it, the "magic" of Bruce Springsteen's latest is the unbridled joy of him rocking out again with everybody's favorite big band after the stripped-down solo album "Devils & Dust" (2005) and last year's Pete Seeger tribute "We Shall Overcome." But it's all just an illusion.

Sure, the Wall of Sound is back, with both the good and the bad -- Max Weinberg's thundering drums vs. Clarence Clemons' dreadful sax -- and that familiar mix of '50s rock, doo wop, soul, gospel and country. But something is off: Springsteen's marbles-in-his-mouth vocals sound more detached and less committed than ever, and they never gel with Brendan O'Brien's recordings of those big arrangements, evidence of the fact that the whole band only flew in on weekends, and the E Streeters never really played with Bruce in the studio, according to the fan publication Backstreets.

Then there are the lyrics. "With his new album, Bruce Springsteen continues to be the conscience of his country," read the headline of a review in the north-of-the-border National Post, but only a Canadian who really doesn't understand America would say such a silly thing. Springsteen always has chronicled a ridiculously idealized and hyper-romanticized U.S. of A. that exists primarily in TV commercials for life insurance, and that continues here with lazy toss-offs such as "Livin' in the Future" (an odd turn toward science fiction with the chorus, "Don't worry darlin' / I've been there, don't you fret / We're livin' in the future / And none of this has happened yet"), "Long Walk Home" ("The flag flying over the courthouse / Means certain things are set in stone / Who we are, what we'll do and what we won't") and "Girls in Their Summer Clothes" (wherein the 57-year-old artist sounds like a dirty old man obsessing over the girls who pass him by).

Welcoming an opportunity to bring back listeners alienated by his client's admirably liberal beliefs, Landau has also been asserting that this isn't a political album, but that isn't entirely true. "Last to Die" certainly seems to be a song inspired by the senseless war in Iraq ("Who'll be the last to die for a mistake ... The wise men were all fools"), but since Bruce is pulling his punches for the sake of poetry, you can't really be sure. The same is true of the single "Radio Nowhere," which may be an attack on the "soulless" state of corporate media, or yet another nostalgic homage to a heyday that was never really as great as the Boss remembers it. When fellow roots-rockers such as Neil Young and Tom Petty take on these subjects, they say what they mean, and I'll take "Living with War" and "The Last DJ" over "Magic" any day.

Then again, as the e-mails sure to flood my inbox will stress in words that can't be printed here, this New Jersey native -- my dad was born and raised in Asbury Park, for God's sake! -- is the worst kind of heretic: A traitorous non-believer who's never fallen under Springsteen's spell. As the Boss himself said, "This is what will be." Deal with it.


Foo Fighters, "Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace"
Nirvana drummer turned Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl always has worked hard to portray his band as an unassuming lark and himself as "the nicest man in rock," a regular guy just tickled pink to appeal to so many people. In fact, playing the mainstream radio and MTV game with a canniness to rival Aerosmith or any platinum-selling corporation, Grohl has been the worst sort of pandering mercenary, tirelessly flaunting an absurdly simplified version of the Nirvana sound -- mellow verse, heavy chorus, hooks galore and oceans of never-say-die grunge guitar -- shored up with tedious and hollow arena bombast.

Granted, this can be pleasant enough in short bursts; just don't listen too deeply or examine what's beneath the bubblegum hooks, lest you discover what hackneyed but well-crafted product this is. On the band's latest release, Grohl reunites with producer Gil Norton, who helmed "The Colour and the Shape" in 1997, and pares things back to 12 simple songs. But if he's given up trying to make his "Physical Graffiti," he's still wallowing in the classic-rock cliches.

"Meet me in the summer time / We can know the end / Sweet Virginia countryside / I will meet you then / Blood and lips and cherry wine / Moonshine in your hair/Just keep staring at the sun / Pray for summer's end," Grohl croons in "Summer's End," an ersatz/retro country-rock ballad the Black Crowes would be too ashamed to record. After opening with a few formulaic grunge retreads -- including the single "The Pretender" and yet another veiled dig at Courtney Love, "Let It Die" -- the rest of the disc digs deep into this Good Ol' Boy vein, with the pretentious instrumental "Ballad of the Beaconsfield Miners," the sub-Elton John heap o' cornpone "Home," and the piano-driven, strings-laced nadir "Statues," which seems to repeat the meaningless chorus at least a hundred times.

Hey, Dave: Let it die, indeed.