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NOT TOO LONG AGO, studio artists were the unsung heroes of the music industry. Respected for their technical mastery, taste and absolute professionalism, they have long been a staple to the Joni Mitchells and Steely Dans, whose musical make-ups vary greatly from album to album. Because of the diverse needs of the artists with whom they work, studio musicians have become the Renaissance men of the industry. It is only in recent years that they have emerged as artists in their own right, releasing solo albums and touring with their own bands.
David Bromberg is one such studio player who appeared for years only in a back corner of someone else's album, hunched over one of a half-dozen musical instruments. In Reckless Abandon, his fourth or fifth solo album (depending on whether you toss any live albums into the count), he displays the fine musicianship typical of his studio work, coupled with refreshing disregard for the boundaries separating different musical genres.
Bromberg's early solo and studio work fell into a folk a and bluegrass style. His successful early songs, like "Hold-up," are a combination of fine guitar technique, a distinctive, highly expressive voice that hesitates ever-so-slightly before almost every phrase, and great lyrics:
Give me your money, don't stand there and shiver
Tax time is coming, give alms to the poor
Or I'll put a bullet right through your best liver
Wealth is disease, and I am the cure.
Bromberg would have been a musical find if excellent technique and humor were all he had to offer. But by 1974, when he recorded Wanted: Dead or Alive, the Bronx folkie had expanded his musical play-pen to include the Chicago blues sound, traditional Irish ditties, and just about anything else that falls into the categories of has or does not have a discernable beat. In Reckless Abandon (the title derives from the B. Kliban cartoons of the same name, which appear on the album cover), Bromberg continues his eclectic and humorous exploration of music, and does so successfully.
"I Want To Go Home," the opening cut, is a hard-driving, almost mainstream rock piece, that Bromberg blasts out in a ballsy, bluesy voice. One of the few songs on the album he wrote, indeed, one of the only contemporary songs, "I Want To Go Home" is a humorous study in seventies paranoia:
I want to go home.
My cover's been blown.
You'd best do the same.
I don't know who told Them,
But They're on to your game.
Oh, we're all in danger.
Oh, yes we're all in danger.
The atmosphere here
Is getting stranger and stranger...
Two cuts on the album are devoted to updating traditional music. Although the band plays the medley on side one cleanly, and although the music sounds impressive, it is not on a par with the rest of the album. The transitions between pieces in the medley are not smooth, and the thematic connections are not clear enough to lend the the medley a sense of unity. The medley on side two, however, is a strong, well-planned cut with good transitions throughout. While the drums and electric bass prevent it from merely imitating Irish traditional music, the piece remains true to the feel of the Gaelic sound.
IN A DIFFERENT VEIN, Bromberg creates a hybrid of dixie-land and rock around Gus Cannon's "Stealin'," producing a sound interesting enough to justify its appearence as yet another version of that frequently recorded rag. On this cut, as throughout the album, Bromberg holds himself back, never displaying the sheer virtuousity he has shown himself to be capable of. At the start of the song, for example, he offers only a few bars of tasty rag picking before drowning the guitar out in a melange of horns, mandolin, bass and drums. Although the absence of flash is somewhat disappointing, Bromberg's restraint makes for a well-integrated, solid sound.
A record on which eclecticism is the catchword and "Reckless Abandon" the title involves more risks than a straight forward rock LP. Surprisingly, only "Child's Song," a piece about a young man leaving home to discover himself, falls completely flat. When Tom Rush recorded this song, he understated the lyrics, using only a guitar to accompany his soft, husky voice. Bromberg makes the mistake of injecting too much pathos in an already overly sentimental song, allowing a string section to drip, or rather, gush, while he croons in what sounds like a hostile Leo Kottke imitation:
There ain't no use in shedding no more tears, Ma.
No use shouting at me, Pa.
I can't live no longer with your fears, Ma.
I love you, but that doesn't help at all.
In an album as solidly creative as Reckless Abandon, Bromberg earns the right for one major lemon. From its lyrics to the muddy, lower-register background harmonies, "Child's Song" is clearly the one.
The high point of the album, a superfunky update of a thirties song called "Beware, Brother Beware," more than compensates, however. The lyrics, a warning to single men to be on the look-out for those women who are out to turn them into husbands, is a perfect vehicle for Bromberg's city-slick, street-wise voice. With a tight horn section and the funkiest of rhythm sections behind him, he warns the poor unsuspecting male:
If she saves her dough, and won't go to a show,
Beware, Brother beware!
If she's easy to kiss, and never resists,
You better resist, yourself. Put on the brakes. Be Careful!
If her sister starts calling you "Brother,"
Then you got to get yourself farther, and
If her Mom acts real sweet, And her Pop's always discreet,
Hit the street!
As impressive as the musicianship is one this cut--and on the other nine songs on Reckless Abandon--it is ultimately Bromberg's personality and showmanship that pull it through and make it work so well. Yes, the arrangements are almost flawlessly tight, and yes, the soloing and general musicianship is superb throughout the album. But that's not it. Bromberg brings to his music a rare blend of talent, technique and energy that makes him a highly charismatic entertainer. And that's what Reckless Abandon is really all about: good entertainment.
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