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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

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    Music for Grown-ups: Veterans’ Day

    “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away,” said General Douglas MacArthur, the aging World War II warhorse, sadly and prophetically.

    Not so for old rock and rollers. They’re more like the Energizer Bunny, and keep going and going and going. Each of these guys has been in heavy rotation on my turntable since — well, since I had a turntable and records!

    Each of their new releases circles on mortality. By this point in their careers, they’re less about posturing and more honest, unflinching, and determined not to channel the denial of groups like the “ageless” Rolling Stones or the “timeless” Beach Boys. These guys are grownups.

    Jackson Browne: “Time the Conqueror” (Inside Records)

    There’s more than a whiff of mortality here. Browne epitomized that endless L.A. summer until he let his political convictions drive his musical passions off a polemical cliff. As an independent, he’s achieved a balance between the political and the personal — and he’s got plenty of material to work with. “Drums of War” and “Where Were You?” ask the innocent questions — why, who gives the orders, who benefits, why is impeachment off the table, where were you? Sometimes the political correctness overwhelm Browne’s febrile sensibilities.

    But sometimes he’s pitch perfect. “Off of Wonderland” looks back without nostalgia at the amazingly privileged life he’s led as a mega-selling songwriter. And I love the little bounce to “Going Down to Cuba” as he figures out how to go to avoid the blockade. Yeah, it’s tough, he says, but at least they “know what to do in a hurricane.”

    Joe Jackson: “Rain” (Ryko)

    Joe Jackson decamped from London to New York around the time of his mainstream breakthrough Night and Day (1982). Now he’s moved to Berlin and sends back “Rain,” filled with similar breakthrough ambitions.

    His lyrics are still smart, his wry, slightly off-kilter sensibility is still sharp. But to my ear, Jackson’s strength has been portraits in miniature, capturing some elusive experience or emotion by seeing the world a bit cockeyed, with ironic detachment (like “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” or “Real Men”).

    Here, even reunited with his old band, he’s grander, with more orchestral piano and symphonic arrangements. It’s not so much that his reach exceeds his grasp. It’s more that if you can “see the world in a grain of sand,” as Blake famously put it, why would want to paint a whole beach?

    John Mellencamp: “Life, Death, Love and Freedom” (Hear Music)

    John Mellencamp has always played rural country-boy to Bruce Springsteen’s urban working stiff. But while Springsteen takes on “big” themes (police brutality, 9/11, teen pregnancy, father-son relations) through intimate lyrics and sonic surround-sound, Mellencamp has always advertised his themes broadly, with somewhat more grandiose claims. Need evidence? Take a look at the title of this CD. What does he leave out? God? Stay tuned.

    But portentous doesn’t necessarily mean pretentious. Produced by T Bone Burnett, this largely acoustic album is stripped down and immediate. Songs like “Troubled Land” use a swirling organ frill add a Dylan-esque groove to his gravelly vocals as he soliders on. “Jena,” based on a true story of high school racism and murder in Louisiana, stabs through racism like a knife — a serated knife.

    Mellencamp seems more concerned with mortality — “If I Die Sudden” is lyrically unsentimental as a man looks to settle his cosmic tab, but the guitars sound like a wailing Greek chorus of mourners. And “Don’t Need this Body” is stark and bare: his wife and kids are said to have cried when he first played it for them.

    Yet several songs use the same traditional riff — “the Cuckoo” — which can grow wearying. And offten, I don’t believe Mellencamp’s characters as much as Springsteen’s — I confess I never thrilled to either Jack or Diane — but when he catches fire, he’s as compelling as any. Like Springsteen, he puts the pop in populism.

    [Note: both the Mellencamp and Jackson CDs come with a free DVD of live performances and interviews; nice bonus!]

    James Taylor: Covers (Hear Music)

    James Taylor has always seemed to know just who he is, and he seems so utterly comfortable being “Sweet Uncle James” in many a family. (My 80-year-old mother likes him!) But there is something so comforting to see someone so comfortable in his own skin.

    The good news is that Taylor can turn just about anything into a soothingly Lite-FM classic — including old soul numbers like “Road Runner.” The bad news is that Taylor can turn just about anything into a soothlingly Lite-FM number — like a denuded rockabilly “Hound Dog” or the once-electric rocker “Summertime Blues.” Still, “Seminole Wind” and “Why Baby Why” are delightful.

    And it’s a fitting coda to Taylor’s record that he ends with Buddy Holly’s upbeat assertion of love, which is really a comment on these veterans who will, we continue to hope, “not fade away.”

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