BRUCE Springsteen's music continues to pervade contemporary American rock 'n' roll, indomitably marching through the mainstream, oblivious to trends and fashions. The Brains, Manfred Mann, Willie Nile, Iron City, Houserockers -- these are only a handful of the rock performers who have borrowed Springsteen's style.
Of course, Springsteen is a great borrower. On all of his recordings, you can hear the influence of early Bob Seger, Mitch Ryder, the Young Rascals, Motown, obscure R&B legends -- in fact, the whole sweep of rock history. Perhaps Springsteen was finally accused too often of stealing (particularly on "The River," the mammoth of the Grand Trilogy) from a long-gone but respected auteur of the early '60s, Gary "U.S." Bonds. The "Boss" tracked Bonds down, graciously lent him the E Street Band, and bankrolled a recording project. The result, "Dedication" (EMI-America SO-17051), is a magnificant musical compromise that will undoubtedly be on everybody's turntable all summer long. Bonds will perform at the Bayou on Thursday night.
The Album's first hit, "This Little Girl," has made the listless AM radio seem alive again. Although it falls short of Bonds' wild sounds for Norfolk's Legrand Records ("Quarter to Three," "Dear Lady Twist"), the record remains drunken and carefree, Bonds making up in exuberance what he lacks in youthfulness.
Throughout the album, Bonds' attitude is that of an ex-Boxer setting out to prove he can still kayo the best. Despite the vapid material (a six-minute version of Jackson Browne's "The Pretender," including a hip female chorus undercutting Bonds' seasoned vocals) or the impossible covers (Dylan's "From a Buick 6"), Bonds bestows upon every word its proper import. On the Beatles' "It's Only Love," he reveals a complete understanding of the song as tender seduction. "Similarly, in Stevie Van Zandt's "Daddy's Coming Home," he transforms an otherwise banal tearjerker into a meaningful statement of personal resolve.
His determination is what shines through Bonds' entire work. At times, he may sound like soulful sensations such as Dobie Gray or Sam Cooke given an extra boost by Springsteen's three new songs and the E Street gang (who sometimes recall the loose style of the Band). Nevertheless, it's Bond's desire to recapture his former self in his new music. Such drive can be heard on the title cut (where a false attempt is made to revive Frank Guida's trashy garage-production of Bonds' early stompers), but especially on "Your Love." Here, Bonds is joined by Ben E. King ("Stand By Me") and Chuck Jackson ("Any Day Now") in what should be regarded as a modern R&B masterpiece -- smooth, simple, and very moving. The vocal presence of Jackson and King is staggering, shaping the scope of soul music into a heartfelt instant.
Although many rock artists aspire to Springsteen's sound, few choose to share his pop romanticism so openly. Tom Petty is the rare exception. Petty's music, like Springsteen's, is a blend of mid-'60s references -- although far more derivative. Spread across four ardent LP's, his songs echo the ringing truth of the Byrd's lyrical covers of Dylan. On his best work, 1979's "Damn the Torpedoes," Petty reintroduced romance into real life, disguising experience as pop sentiment.
Two years later, he has releasaed a new statement, "Hard Promises" (Backstreet BSR-5160), containing the usual love songs and catchy melodies, and the question is, was it worth the wait? Fortunately, the answer is as close as your radio, for the album's hit single, "The Waiting" (a tough and immediate AM classic), may say it all.
It isn't that Petty has abandoned the hopeful stance for the artificial pleasures of escapist pop -- it's just that his new songs don't blush with the puppy love of stronger material like "American Girls" or "Here Comes My Girl." Instead, the album features a penetrating glimpse of the life of a loser ("Something Big"), a paean to those guarding the dark corridors of night ("Nightwatchman"), even a moral punch a la born-again Dylan ("The Criminal Kind").
Lyrically, the finest cut is "Insider," but it's dragged down to a snappy level by the addition of Stevie Nicks on harmony vocals. The song conveys the atmosphere of superstars hanging out their dirty laundry. For many, the good news will simply be that Petty is still writing along the same lines of optimism. But for others, the bad news will be that Petty's two-year hiatus has made very little difference to his work.