Monday, July 03, 2006

Bruce Hornsby: Studied Exuberance

Studied exuberance. That just about describes the music that iconic singer-songwriter Bruce Hornsby has been making throughout his two decades plus in the business. Having received a serious music education at ultra-prestigious Berklee, the Virginia-born Hornsby then got his chops by playing underground bars and other assorted dives before getting a contract in 1985. There's been no looking back for him ever since.

Hornsby's nascent trademark style was what many commentators refer to as "heartland rock", a rootsy, rousing rock and roll form that addressed a variety of sociopolitical issues close to the hearts of Southern liberals, with the occasional reference to more personal matters of the heart. Although it has to be noted that Hornsby's flavour of heartland rock was a form that has been streamlined and informed by his disciplined inclinations, making for a somewhat calculated, but still emotive and evocative approach that rocked as hard as Seeger or Springsteen.

Here then are several examples of Hornsby's early-phase signature heartland rock, before he went a bit loopy around the turn of the century and started experimenting with electronica loops, freeform Parker-esque post-bop and extended piano improvisations.

1. EVERY LITTLE KISS (The Way It Is, 1986)
A superb, jaunty rocker that brilliantly displays Hornsby's virtuosic melodic right-hand runs, the seemingly lighthearted melodic nature of "Every Little Kiss" masks a desperate lyric about the travails of waterfront labour, chronic homesickness and the pains of missing a loved one. On its parent album, "Every Little Kiss" boasts arguably the most dazzling musical progression, a breathtakingly original solo-piano breakdown that practically embodies the title of this article. A real contender for the the title of Most Consummate Hornsby Composition.

2. MANDOLIN RAIN (The Way It Is, 1986)
Most casual listeners will be instantly familiar with the hit-single status of "The Way it Is", Hornsby's scathing overview of a socially decaying mainstream America, but "Mandolin Rain" off the same album has invariably garnered the most accolades as Hornsby's most accomplished early-career number. An easygoing, laidback bluegrass-influenced ballad that suggests humid evenings in the older locales of Raleigh, "Mandolin Rain" is a thoroughly heartfelt, tearjerking ditty that relies on that old standby, unrequited love, as its subject matter. The understated mandolin ripples are a nice touch.

3. TILL THE DREAMING'S DONE (Scenes from the Southside, 1988)
A reflective but still animated slowie that is another fine exemplar that has Hornsby extolling the agonies of harbouring an unrequited love from a distance, ruing the fact that "I left in the springtime long, long ago, funny but I never got to know her". The perfect theme for not-quite-there relationships.

4. THE VALLEY ROAD (Scenes from the Southside, 1988)
A propulsive, straightforward rocker that deceptively couches its bitterly realistic anecdote of inter-class resentment and discrimination within a series of jazzy piano riffs, "The Valley Road" magically merges Hornsby's sparkling arpeggios with drum-machine aesthetics, making for a seemingly impossible confluence of mechanised firepower and good, old-fashioned rock and roll.

5. LOOK OUT ANY WINDOW (Scenes from the Southside, 1988)
Highly reminiscent of Jackson Browne's brand of elliptical, socially aware songwriting of the 1980s, "Look Out Any Window" is a panoramic snapshot of corporation-led environmental degradation in Reagan-administered America, marked by a brightly coloured, minute-long solo-piano breakdown that makes the best of the song's fundamental two chords.

6. ACROSS THE RIVER (A Night on the Town, 1990)
Standing out by virtue of the absence of any Hornsby piano solo, "Across the River" is still a powerful reaffirmation of individual independence and the pursuit of one's ambitions. The late Jerry Garcia helps out with an intuitive, straightahead slide-guitar solo that aptly drives home the song's message.


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