May 292012

The Way He Is

Somehow I was recently reminded of this post, in which we speculated which band most reduced rock ‘n roll to its cliched essence. Then, somehow, Bruce Hornsby and his eternal tuft of hair entered my thoughts. I’ve been chuckling over the thought of Bruce Hornsby ever since. How does a man maintain so little hair for so long—without variation? How does he get his hairline to recede so far without actually being bald? He practically has a natural mohawk. He never experiments with the length of his hair. He never grows sideburns. Even when he played with the Grateful Dead he kept on being Everyman Bruce Hornsby. And what happened to the promise of Hornsby the Gothic Americana Songwriter? Remember the buzz over his debut album and comparisons to The Band? I never got it. I never got Hornsby, although I must say, he seems like a good egg and a real musician’s musician in all the best ways of that term.

Now that I’ve slammed the poor guy (and feel free to slam me back appropriately), let me tie it back to the old thread about bands that reduced rock ‘n roll to its cliched essence. Way back then we focused on bands. How about we determine about the most cliched singer-songwriter in rock ‘n roll, that is, the singer-songwriter who hits all the marks critics expect to see hit while failing to actually make any lasting personal statement, the way an archetype of the genre, like Bob Dylan did with regularity? It can’t just be a “bad” singer-songwriter, like Jewel. It has to be someone who has experienced critical acclaim while maintaining a long career, someone like Bruce Hornsby.

I look forward to your thoughts.


  49 Responses to “Which Critically Acclaimed Singer-Songwriter Has Reduced Rock ‘n Roll to Its Cliched Essence?”

  1. tonyola

    Bruce Hornsby is responsible for a lot of sins including wringing out what little interest Don Henley evoked in the 1980s with the latter’s The End of the Innocence album, but he’s a piker compared to who is probably the least fun person in all of singer-songwriterdom. I’m speaking of course of Jackson Browne. World-weary yet eternally callow. Prattles on and on about the state of the world only because his own problems are so uninteresting. An object lesson on how someone can be relaxed and tight-assed at the same time. Even James Taylor has more swing than him. Browne’s saving grace is that his monotonous, unemotional singing style and piano playing are instantly recognizable so one can hit the mute button before too much cerebral softening occurs. He must have been too spontaneous and daring for his own comfort during the one time he cut loose a little bit (Running on Empty), so he made sure to never repeat that experiment.

  2. cherguevara

    In the archives here at RTH you can surely find a post from me where I question the appeal of Steve Miller. To me, his songs are exercises in bad cliches, in terms of their musical and lyrical construction. Even at his best, I find his music to be piffle.

  3. How about Ryan Adams? I was a huge Whiskeytown fan — Strangers Almanac and Pneumonia are still near the top of the stacks at my house, but I can’t say the same for singer-songwriter solo albums by Ryan Adams. I know some people think Heartbreaker is great, and there are a smattering of good songs on his solo albums, but Ryan’s solo stuff just doesn’t stick with me at all. As an example, check out Chains of Love off his latest album:
    Where do you start? Chains of Love lyric? Rooftop performance? Solo strumming in some field? Or is it when old sparky makes an appearance? Here’s hoping he has a mid-career rally.

  4. cherguevara

    Don’t know if Miller qualifies as “critically acclaimed,” though.

  5. tonyola

    Miller was pretty good from 1968 to 1970 or so. His first four albums (Children of the Future, Sailor, Brave New World, and Your Saving Grace) are considered minor classics of the era. Miller was exploring many different styles and taking chances then. It wasn’t until later (starting with 1973’s The Joker) that Miller became cliched and too comfortable.

  6. machinery

    Not that I was ever a huge Tom Petty fan, but he lost me when he put on the Alice in Wonderland hat. Hard to take him serious after that. We get it Tom, you get high.

    I’d also mention Willie Nelson. Can you get more cliched than the red, white and blue guitar? Though I like him for reasons I can’t really name, most of all his canola-oil-running-tour bus.

  7. cliff sovinsanity

    As usual I come running to the defense of Adams. I can understand his solo stuff not sticking as much as his Whiskeytown output because they sound like 2 different eras of Adams. The Whiskeytown era benefited from Caitlin Cary and other bandmates. I think this added a certain consistency.
    His solo stuff is quite varied. I really like Love Is Hell and some of the Cardinals albums. They would make really good “best of ” compilation.
    I don’t put much stock in the video either.

  8. Nor even a modicum of the faux introspection of a John Mayer.

  9. I think of Tom Petty as more of an extremely competent rocker, but if considered as a “singer-songwriter” I agree that he fits the bill. The song that marks the divide for me is “I Won’t Back Down.” Taken as a mild rock anthem it works thanks to Petty’s smart-and-tasteful-for-a-dumb-guy commitment to the song. Taken as a piece of Songwriting, as I think people too often make out of smart-for-a-kind-of-dumb-genre rock songs, it’s only a notch better than a Bon Jovi anthem.

  10. Bold – and worthy of consideration. Browne may have been a pioneer in cliched singer-songwriting.

  11. ladymisskirroyale

    Sufjan Stevens. The man has a nice voice. He likes his states of the US. He has big, soulful brown eyes and plays an acoustic guitar. And I like his voice and melodies. He is indie woman’s wet dream.

    But the man has been straying into some very weird territories (s/s/s) and if he ain’t careful, he’s going to lose that singer/songwriter, Eau de Indie Guy fragrance pretty soon…

  12. 2000 Man

    I just can’t get behind that guy. I’ve tried, but he reminds me of the line in that old Harvey Danger song: I’m yawning like a kid in a carpet store. That’s how bored I get with him, and it’s almost instant!

  13. 2000 Man

    Critically Acclaimed Singer-Songwriter That Reduces Rock ‘n Roll to Its Cliched Essence.

    Isn’t the Harry Chapin’s job description? I know Gordon Lightfoot wanted the job, but he just couldn’t quite that far down in the barrel.

  14. Eau de Indie Guy may need to be expanded into an RTH Glossary term!

  15. After being totally in the tank for the guy, I was somewhat anti-Petty for an extended period of time — especially the “I Won’t Back Down” — era of arena rock he was doing, but he redeemed himself (for me anyway) with the more recent Highway Companion.

  16. BigSteve

    I think RTH fave Bob Seger fits the bill.

  17. You could say he’s another pioneer in running this genre into the ground prematurely.

  18. bostonhistorian

    Bruce Hornsby is critically acclaimed? I’m not saying that to be facetious. I just can’t think of anything I’ve read about Bruce Hornsby that was more than mild enthusiasm. I’ve always thought of him as a guy who is known more for playing with other people rather than on his own merits, his one big hit notwithstanding.

  19. Hell yeah! When he came out the likes of Rolling Stone and Musician heralded him like some cross between William Faulkner and Leon Russell. I wish I could find one of those early reviews. Here’s an excerpt I found online from RS’ review of his second album:

    “Sometimes a wildly successful debut album – like The Way It Is, by Bruce Hornsby and the Range – can be a curse for a rock band. Suddenly faced with the pressure of recapturing the commercial magic while not repeating themselves musically, many bands find their songwriting stunted or lose their focus altogether the second time out.

    Rather than merely echo the promise of The Way It Is, Scenes from the Southside, this band’s sophomore effort, fulfills it. Hornsby – the man who singlehandedly reestablished the grand piano as a viable rock instrument in the otherwise synthesized Eighties – fleshes out his keyboard runs. At the same time, the members of the Range manage to achieve what just barely eluded them on The Way It Is: the right mix of rock, country and jazz.”

  20. The two suggestions I like the best so far are Jackson Browne and Harry Chapin. Of the two, Browne gets a pass because I genuinely like Running on Empty, road cliches and all (It gets grandfathered in from 7th grade). Chapin is all meandering, world weary, morality plays.

  21. bostonhistorian

    Go figure. I guess I fall into the Robert Christgau school:

    “The Way It Is [RCA Victor, 1986]
    Schlock has roots, too, which is why sentimental bizzers hail this mildly surprising platinum-plus debut as the second coming. Hornsby roughs up a piano that’s more Elton John than Floyd Domino with a voice on the boogie side of country-rock and adds sometime folkie David Mansfield to songs that divide the same way–they sound like pop and read like something closer to the source. Title tune was my guilty pleasure of 1986 because what makes me feel guilty is succumbing to the blandishments of liberalism. The rest I don’t have much trouble fighting off. B-

    Scenes from the Southside [RCA Victor, 1988]
    This unassuming platinum mine is compassionate, serious, literate. He plays a “real” piano. And he’s a menace. I mean, in the privacy of your own mind, try crossing vague Bruce with ’80s Elton. Then run it through Firefall. Finally–this is important–slow down those tempos. No no no, leave the drum sound up. See? C”

  22. bostonhistorian

    70s singer-songwriters make me cringe as a general rule, but Chapin is the nadir.

  23. cherguevara

    Where this thread confuses me a bit is the idea of a singer-songwriter creating an essence of rock and roll, aren’t they two different genres?

    What about somebody who created a template, which should maybe get them a pass, but then has stayed within that template forever? I’m thinking James Taylor.

  24. James Taylor is the real deal. Any credit he ever got he deserved. He’s written a couple of songs that no one should regret ever liking. I’m talking about people who bring nothing but the basest “confessional,” “intimate” trappings of the genre without putting a personal stamp on their works that lasted as long as side 1 of their debut. What I’m getting at is that some artists have made a career out of respinning the most cliched aspects of the “real-deal” early 1970s singer-songwriters, those who brought what could be considered the minor appeal of Folk records into the Rock records section of consumers’ minds.

    Hornsby, for instance, is easy for most of us to dismiss, but he’s solidly accepted as an Artist among singer-songwriters and I have to wonder if anyone regrets having issued him those papers. Even Bonnie Raitt, who is a fine musician and seemingly an incredibly cool person, has been granted Singer-Songwriter Artist papers despite the fact that most of her songs are covers.

    I personally can’t stand all but one album by John Hiatt, but I wouldn’t call his singer-songwriter work “cliched.” I don’t want us simply beating up on singer-songwriters we don’t personally like. Perhaps Hornsby is an original bore as well. I was just throwing him out there as a possibility.

    I know this is a difficult topic, but if we don’t tackle it who will?

  25. Here’s a modern-day artist who comes to mind: Norah Jones. Everything I’ve heard by her is pleasant and familiar. The best things about her are that she’s good looking and she has the stones to make her more “rockin'” albums with her band. She kind of swims against the current she initiated and could so easily travel, but musically she seems to hog more critical space than her music has warranted.

  26. In performing some additional research on Hornsby I ran across the following nightmare comparison:

  27. I still don’t really understand the largely hostile reaction that Jackson Browne provokes from RTH. If singing about love and loss in all its complexities is tight-assed, well so be it. And, yeah, he hangs out with The Eagles too. But his records hold up a lot better that you might think they do.

  28. I’m surprised no one has mentioned John Cougar Mellancamp yet. From “Jack and Diane” to “Pink Houses,” his songs are beyond reductive, creating a void so massive I’m surprised the rock and roll world hasn’t caved in on itself.

  29. bostonhistorian

    It’s a pretty accurate description.

  30. I’d still sucker punch Browne for the song “The Load Out,” but I’m generally off the Hate Train for him. I still don’t understand, however, why you can’t see how he’d inspire such negative reactions. In his time he fed into the perception that rock ‘n roll was long overdue for a kick in the ass. In retrospect some of that thinking may seem silly, but it was felt deeply at one time.

  31. He’s an EXCELLENT suggestion – a one-man wrecking crew on par with the worst of Foreigner and their ilk. As with Tom Petty, I have trouble perceiving him as a “singer-songwriter.”

  32. tonyola

    I don’t think of Bob Seger as singer-songwriter material, though he has mellowed out with age. In his prime, he was a rocker who turned out a few confessional songs.

  33. BigSteve

    Remember when the word ‘sensitive’ was permanently affixed to ‘singer-songwriter’? I guess some people think rock always has to be rough and tough. Sensitive people need not apply. Or they can expect to be punched.

  34. tonyola

    Paul Simon also sang about love and loss in all its complexities, but he made it sound interesting and authentic. Unlike Browne, he avoided getting preachy about the state of the world and understood that the music needed to be as compelling as the message. Simon’s records hold up a lot better than Browne’s bland output.

  35. tonyola

    Substitute “dull” or “preachy” for “sensitive” and you’ll see the problem with Browne.

  36. tonyola

    Christgau is a clever putz who values his own wordplay, obscure references, and quip-making ability over any real insight or constructive input.

  37. Authentic? Well, that’s not the direction I was going–but since you brought it up, many of Simon’s songs leave me guessing as to what the song is about. Which is fine, because I often like his use of poetic images, but I don’t feel like he’s really connecting with me on the level that Browne does.

    As for being preachy, isn’t that a charge that could be leveled at the bands, like The Clash, responsible for kicking the singer-songwriters off of center stage?

  38. tonyola

    Preachy can be tolerable when it’s wrapped up in music that’s as rocking and/or danceable as the Clash’s. Shake your head or booty and feel free to ignore the polemics. Neither rocking or danceable really applies to Jackson, so you’re forced to sit and listen to the dreary sermons.

  39. misterioso

    tony, you mindreader! I would have to say in the overall scheme of things Jackson Browne’s sins are greater than Hornsby’s, if only because he was popular at a time when I was less able to simply ignore him. True, Browne has a few things on his resume–writing “These Days” for Nico and the two songs of his that I like in spite of everything–“Running on Empty” and “On the Boulevard.” But somehow those things end up reminding me all the more of how irritatingly mediocre and cliched he is the rest of the time.

  40. misterioso

    Interesting….I would have to agree. Can someone out there slap together a mock-Chanel #5 type Eau de Indie Guy ad?

  41. misterioso

    Mod, I agree with you about Hiatt, who is fearfully overrated. Frankly, I don’t know if Taylor is critically acclaimed or not but I find your defense of him totally puzzling. ‘Cause, one or two songs aside, he sucks. And having grown up in New England, where you are as expected to embrace whole bs laidback JT vibe like its a lifetime supply of clam chowda (which I also detest), I have to ask you to clarify.

  42. bostonhistorian

    Putz or not, he has Bruce Hornsby nailed.

  43. saturnismine

    my knee-jerk response to reading the title for this post was “Bruce Springsteen.”

    What singer songwriter could be more critically acclaimed, more clichéd, and more lauded for understanding the essence of Rock and Roll?

    Even the language developed to describe his achievements has ossified into rock cliché.

  44. sammymaudlin

    Faces albums A Nod… and Oooh La La to solo releases Every Picture… and Never a Dull Moment and somewhere along the line- The Bod

  45. I would take Browne and Mellancamp over JT and Chapin anytime.
    The worst one not mentioned so far is Dave Matthews.

  46. I can’t stand Dave Matthews Band, but to be fair, I think he sucks in an original way. He’s got an artsy Peter Gabriel/Sting slant to his music that’s not as cliched as some of the other folks noted here, don’t you think?

  47. cherguevara

    I worked at a record store when that Henley album came out. They had a countertop stand-up thing, which was a cut-out of Henley on the cover of the album. This included a cut-out of the cigarette he’s holding in his hand, so I lopped it off and taped it onto his mouth. The store manager got pretty irritated with me, maybe he liked Don Henley.

  48. Any songwriter who has ever mentioned “a hunger” is guilty in my book.


  49. cherguevara

    I heard Steve Lillywhite give a talk where he spoke of finding the Dave Matthews Band and how he felt he HAD to produce them. To me, it just seemed an indication of how the mighty had fallen – though certainly a good financial decision on his part. DMB were talking with Jerry Harrison and Lillywhite came in and nudged him out. Then, he declared in his talk that he had “done him (Harrison) a favor” because Harrison had to know that Lillywhite was really the right producer for the job. Somehow, don’t think Jerry saw it that way.

    I like the phrase “sucking in an original way.” I wonder who are rock’s greatest innovators when it comes to originality in sucking, since often one major component of sucking is being too derivative of other artists.

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