FOR THE RECORD

Rock with a twist

Three Canadians span a multitude of styles

NICHOLAS JENNINGS October 21 1991
FOR THE RECORD

Rock with a twist

Three Canadians span a multitude of styles

NICHOLAS JENNINGS October 21 1991

Rock with a twist

Three Canadians span a multitude of styles

FOR THE RECORD

WAKING UP THE NEIGHBOURS Bryan Adams (A&M)

With his raspy vocals, raunchy guitar style and devilishly good-time attitude—not to mention his trademark blue jeans and white T-shirt— Bryan Adams practically personifies rock ’n’ roll. The Vancouver native has certainly carved out an image for himself as a tough but amiable rocker for the masses. But Adams has never been original. His talent lies more in putting a fresh spin on tried-and-true rock formulas. It is an approach that has served him well: his freewheeling fourth album, Reckless (1984), sold more than 10 million copies around the world. And he has since become one of the top-grossing acts on the international concert circuit. Yet Adams appeared to want something more. His more thoughtful and mature follow-up to Reckless, Into the Fire (1987), brought him none of the critical respect that he was striving for— and it sold poorly in comparison with his previous efforts. With Waking Up the Neighbours, Adams has returned to what he does best: fullblown, fun-loving rock ’n’ roll interspersed with ballads.

In fact, ballads, including the 1985 song Heaven, have provided Adams with his biggest hits. The new album includes (Everything I Do) I Do It for You, the theme from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and it is already a huge international success. Since its release in July, the single has topped Billboard as well as British charts and sold more than four million copies around the world, proving once again that his public loves to hear a raw-voiced Adams singing a simple, tender tune.

There are weaker ballads and some mediocre rockers on the 15-song collection. The best moments are to be found on riotous, up-tempo numbers like House Arrest, about a party that gets out of hand. With lines like “Cops are on the outside, landlord’s on the phone,” the song is juvenile, but it is also irresistibly delinquent. And the album’s sassy opener, Is Your Mama Gonna Miss Ya?, uses a clever economy of words in the finest tradition of rock music. More than four years in the making, and having been through three record producers, Waking Up the Neighbours is worth the wait. Although he is no artist, Adams is clearly one performer who is mastering the craft of rock ’n’ roll.

NOTHING BUT A BURNING LIGHT

Bruce Cockbum (True North/Sony)

For more than 20 years, Bruce Cockburn has established himself as the conscience of Cana-

dian pop music, a passionate artist who has won over critics and listeners with songs about nature, spirituality and social injustice. Yet

outside the country, Cockbum is a cult figure

with only a small following. That may all change with Nothing but a Burning Light, his 20th album but his first to get a big marketing push in the United States from a major label. Produced by respected veteran T-Bone Burnett in Los Angeles, the record is a nearmasterpiece brimming with fresh ideas.

The album’s brilliance lies as much in the production as in the songs themselves. Cockburn’s choice of Burnett, a superb craftsman who has worked with such artists as Elvis Costello and Richard Thompson, was inspired. The producer, who also plays guitar on several tracks, strips down Cockburn’s sound to its essentials without returning the musician to his

FOR THE RECORD

folkie roots. The result is a series of vibrant, sometimes bluesy numbers that feature acoustic bass, violin and even washboard. Added to that is a distinctly 1960s undertone, brought about by the surf-rock style of Cockburn’s guitar playing and by the presence of organist Booker T. Jones, a veteran rhythm-and-blues artist of that era.

The album, which includes guest appearances by singers Jackson Browne and Sam Phillips, contains some of Cockburn’s most poignant and heartfelt lyrics to date. A gentle romantic ballad, One of the Best Ones, pronounces: “There’s no snake oil or pill/Can make love less painful or fine.” And Cry of a Tiny Babe, a sometimes comical but ultimately profound expression of religious faith, uses 1990s vernacular to describe the birth of Christ.

On the evidence of the new recording, the firebrand Cockburn, who once recorded the lyrics “If I had a rocket launcher, some son of a bitch would die,” has not tempered his politics. Two songs touch on the condition of natives both past and present, and Mighty Trucks of Midnight is a damning indictment of free trade. But ultimately, the new album reveals a happier, more satisfied Cockburn, nowhere more clearly than on the unabashedly joyful Great Big Love, a celebration of his life in the country, where he has taken up such pastimes as riding and target shooting. “Got a woman I love and she loves me/And we live on a piece of land/I never know quite how to measure these things/But I guess I'm a happy man.” More than anything else on Nothing but a Burning Light, that song, with its infectiously sunny melody, seems likely to finally take Cockburn to the top of the international charts.

STORYVILLE

Robbie Robertson (Geffen/MCA)

Robbie Robertson, who takes an almost literary approach to his music, has always pushed the limits of songwriting in rock music. Blessed with a good ear for language, a writer’s knack for character and a strong sense of place, he is, essentially, a storyteller who over the years has given rock some of its most memorable songs. His best compositions with The Band, such as The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and The Weight, were rich visual narratives set in the American South about individuals with names like Virgil Kane and Miss Fanny. When The Band broke up in 1976, Canadian-born Robertson shifted his attention to movies and began acting and writing music for films. But he made a dramatic return to the music world in 1987 with a powerful self-titled album of deeply personal songs. Now, with Storyville, Robertson has released his most ambitious work to date.

A so-called concept album with a unifying theme, it is like a series of chapters from a highminded tale of mystery and romance, and seems aimed at discerning listeners. The songs follow the paths of a small-town boy and a city girl, both from Louisiana, as they meet, fall in

love, separate, grow up, explore their spirituality and then discover each other again. The musical backdrop for the story is a spicy melting pot of New Orleans styles, from jazz and gospel to rhythm and blues and funk. The album’s title refers to a fabled section of the city that was once dedicated, writes Robertson, to “fast living, hot music and moonburnt nights.”

Storyville sizzles when it plunges headlong into those New Orleans sounds, as on the wildly rhythmic Go Back to Your Woods, which features the cream of the city’s musical talent, including Aaron Neville. Robertson, never a strong vocalist, is at his best when delivering a

number like Day of Reckoning (Burnin for You), where the heat of romance is nearly palpable in his gravelly whisper. And a number of lines from that song, such as “Anything can happen/when the zephyr blows,” have a poetic mystique.

But ultimately, Storyville s concept is more inspired than its compositions. Too often, the lyrics seem contrived to create dramatic effect. Although far more imaginative than most rock albums, Storyville in the end is more like a movie script in development than a collection of songs.

NICHOLAS JENNINGS