Scenes From The Southside
RCA Records, 1988
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 02/14/2010
This review might have had the longest gestation of any I’ve ever actually finished. It’s literally been more than 11 years between from the moment I decided to write it and when I finished it the other morning.
My motivation all along has had everything to do with my first Bruce Hornsby review, a 1998 review of his fourth album Harbor Lights, which saw him abandon the smart, melodic, soulful singer-songwriter approach he had employed to establish himself on his first two albums for the unfocused, jam-heavy, Dead-influenced jazz-pop mélange he has favored ever since -- at least when he wasn’t veering off into bizarre experiments like Big Swing Face.
I hated Harbor Lights, to a large degree because I really loved Hornsby’s first two discs The Way It Is and Scenes From The Southside. As a fan (an occasionally melodramatic one, I grant you), I felt abandoned and betrayed. But in starting out by reviewing Harbor Lights, I knew I had only told half the story -- and the second half, at that.
Scenes From The Southside picks up where Hornsby’s sparkling debut The Way It Is left off, an album full of rolling, crisply arranged, soulful keyboard-based pop-rock that showcases Hornsby’s literate storytelling and warm vocals. Hornsby receives great support here from his initial backing quartet The Range, comprised of guitarists George Marinelli and Peter Harris, Joe Puerta on bass and John Molo on drums.
“Look Out Any Window” is a powerful opener, an expansive, punchy and purposeful number with an environmentalist message, and it’s followed by three of the best songs Hornsby has ever recorded. “The Valley Road,” “I Will Walk With You” and “The Road Not Taken” are a trio of gorgeous story-songs, embellished with tasteful piano and synth arrangements and sterling support from The Range. The arrangements are outstanding; “Valley Road” features a couple of instrumental sections that comprise some of the most supple, melodic and downright gorgeous piano work ever to grace a pop song. They are remarkable in part because they are so precise and restrained, in contrast to the self-consciously show-offy, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach Hornsby would later adopt.
And the lyrics fit the music perfectly -- there’s a gentle melancholy about these tunes, sensitive and insightful fables about human nature and human failings. They have a depth to them that his later stuff simply lacks. His later material might stretch and challenge his musical chops more, but for the most part it lacks any semblance of the emotional impact of a song like “The Road Not Taken.” The exquisite “Road” captures a bittersweet moment that feels both personal and universal, that moment where you’re thinking back on the choices you’ve made in life, and letting your mind explore – without regret, but with deep feeling nonetheless -- what might have been if you’d made them differently.
The warmth of Hornsby’s playing in the opening stanzas of “The Show Goes On” similarly captures everything that was great about these early songs -- it’s rich and melodic, never forced, always appealing. Later in the going they play around a bit -- “Defenders Of The Flag” is as clean and sharp as the rest, but has more of a funk-soul vibe than anything else here and more emphasis on guitars and some nice harmonica work from Huey Lewis (who’s trading favors, having had a hit with Hornsby’s “Jacob’s Ladder,” the next song on the disc).
The key to the larger story, though, lies in the songwriting credits. On The Way It Is, seven of the nine tracks were co-written by Hornsby’s brother John. On Southside, John co-wrote six of the nine, and on the subsequent A Night On The Town, it was five. On Harbor Lights, and ever after? Zero, nada, zilch -- partnership over. So perhaps the real story here is that in terms of songwriting, I’m apparently a much bigger fan of John Hornsby than his piano-playing brother. The evidence seems clear that it was John’s influence that drove the writerly, introspective lyricism of the best songs in Hornsby’s catalogue.
Musical deduction-slash-conjecturing aside, Scenes From The Southside is among the premier piano-driven pop-rock albums of its era. Not even a subtle drop-off in quality in the second half can do much to dim the glow of what is undeniably a great album -- unfortunately, Bruce Hornsby’s last great album.
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