(3 of 5)
Bruce Springsteen: The River (Columbia). Four sides, 20 songs, a clarity and artistic ease and breadth of passion unequaled by any other rock record this year. Like Francis Coppola's Godfather, another great work of popular art, The River creates a whole world in an instant. Lives spring up and play out in the time it takes a Polaroid snapshot to develop, private and separate destinies all unite into a single truth. Springsteen's characters in these songs are the proud, hopeless dwellers on the ragged fringes of the urban landscape. The compassion in the writing will come as no surprise to anyone who knows Springsteen's work. What is new is the deceptive simplicity of the lyricswhat sounds at first like a classic rave-up, Cadillac Ranch, comes, on repeated listenings, to sound more and more like a jukebox thanatopsisand the glistening energy of the music, played and produced with such precision that it almost seems to stand clear of the record. The sound is big, not forced, bold with out turning grandiose, and the playing of the E Street Band matches, to a man, the eight-lane grandeur of Springsteen's songs. It seems only fair: the best deserves the best. Ask Michael Corleone.
Stevie Wonder: Hotter Than July (Tamla). A scorcher. Stevie Wonder, who was out in the ozone all fitted out for a higher-consciousness Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants not a year ago, is back in his old neighborhood again. Effortless polyrhythms, funk stood on its ear, blues inflections, jazz riffs, R & B undertones all blend together into a kind of easeful aural mural. Hotter Than July, like The River, is about hanging tough, keeping proud and getting on. It contains Wonder's galvanic new single, Master Blaster (Jammin') and a song called Happy Birthday, which is dedicated by Wonder to the proposition that Martin Luther King Jr. deserves a national holiday of his own. The song is a declaration of independence and a celebration of pride, and it is one measure of Wonder's gifts that his music not only honors the memory of a great man, but enhances it.
The Eagles: Live (Asylum) and Randy Meisner: One More Song (Epic). Even a hard-core Eagles fan will have to admit they are not a great performance band. Consequently, a live Eagles album makes as much sense as an on-the-spot recording of a Jack Benny violin concert. Except, of course, that the Eagles are not as good for laughs. There are unexpected chuckles, however, and some surprisingly solid grooves on One More Song, a second solo album by ex-Eagle Randy Meisner. Meisner used to specialize in the kind of Southern California pop that turns to pap in a temperate climate, but the material here comes from strong sources (notably Writer Jack Tempchin), and Meisner's down-to-business vocals take care to keep things on the darker side of mellow.