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Going Beyond That Hornsby Sound


By Brian R. Hecht

A few days ago I told a friend that I had just bought the new Bruce Hornsby album.

"Didn't he just come out with one?" he asked nonchalantly.

Bruce Hornsbury and the Range

A Night on the Town

RCA Records

That was two years ago, I explained.

"I used to like him," my friend said, "But everything sounds the same. Why do I need to buy another album? I've got the first two."

When Hornsby began to write songs for his new album, he explains in countless interviews, he knew he had a problem. Yes, he had achieved the elusive "style" sought by so many of today's fleeting pop stars. But this style ran rampant and overwhelmed every project Hornsby touched. "End of the Innocence," last summer's hit by Don Henley, reeked of Hornsby's syncopated chord-jazzy piano run formula, and even his most ardent fans were thinking it was time for a change.

Luckily, Hornsby was thinking the same thing. His third album, A Night on the Town is decidedly different from his first two. Hornsby's work is not unrecognizable on this new collection--the telltale jazz riffs and rim/hand-clap percussion are, of course, still here.

But on Night on the Town, Hornsby has taken the familiar musical elements he introduced in his earlier work and produced a richer, more complex and more mature sound. The tinkly piano ballads like "Mandolin Rain" are, for the most part, absent from this album. Instead, Hornsby makes elaborate use of synthesizers and electric guitars to produce driving rockabilly tunes with appropriately cynical lyrics.

And Hornsby has apparently discovered the obvious advantages of collaboration. For the first time, he makes extensive use of backup singers, with Harvard Square-favorite Shawn Colvin (who opened Suzanne Vega's now infamous Harvard show) making frequent appearances. And the subdued twang of Jerry Garcia's guitar riffs are hard to miss on songs like the first single, "Across the River."

All these new elements add to, rather than detract from, Hornsby's original style. This is best demonsrated on the title track, whose bluesy, driving harmonies are underscored by Hornsby's rhythmic piano, rock guitar and some nice Yamaha synth sounds. The result is a pumped-up "Look Out Any Window" (but without the politically correct lyrics).

Hornsby explores different pop styles succesfully, but the sources are not hard to discern. "Stranded on Easy Street" takes its boppy synthesizer chords straight from Lee Greenwood, and "Carry the Water" uses the high-pitched guitar pick that has become popular lately (particularly in Little Feat's recent "One Clear Moment").

Hornsby the lyricist is at his best when describing Southern working-class life with distinctly populist political overtones. This is highlighted on the album's best track, "Another Day," a hand-clapping, banjo-picking, hyperactive hoedown tune that could well have been played at a Southern dance hall like the one pictured on the album jacket.

The lyrics cleverly depict the life of blue-collar America in the age of Reagan: "Home Shopping Club's got us by the eyes/Scrambling to the phone ordering porcelain flies/Talk to the women talk to the wives/Everybody's buying important things for their lives." Hornsby even mentions his presidential target by name: "Let it ring, George," he belts.

But the usual litany of politically correct lyrics, so powerful on Hornsby's first two albums, becomes tiresome and formulaic on some of his new tracks. There is the standard environment song, and the standard racism song. True, Hornsby succeeds when he relates these issues to real people's lives, but the agenda sometimes becomes overpowering.

Hornsby's lyrical performance is also somewhat weakened by an occassional inane or meaningless chorus. "It's alright, it's okay, Hey don't you worry about a thing," just doesn't pull it. On an album which so brilliantly weaves homespun tales of Southern life, the inferiority of generic pop lyrics truly stands out.

This impressive collection may not spawn many hits--the music may be a little too sophisticated, a little too Jazzy for today's disco-laden pop charts. But Hornsby should be happy knowing that he has done what few rock musicians can do. He has gone beyond the stylistic constraints of his first few albums and has built upon his "signature sound" to create a more mature, and truly original, style. And Hornsby made this transition not by discarding what was old, but by doing more of what he does best.

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