"American Storm" (Capitol, PT-12398) is a crucial album for Bob Seger. The veteran Detroit rocker provided the model for Bruce Springsteen's blue-collar rock, and through 1983 stayed one step ahead of his successor on the charts. Then in 1984, Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." went through the roof to become a new national anthem and to redefine the possibilities of blue-collar rock.
So Seger's first album in 3 1/2 years has a high standard to live up to. It's obvious from the epic American themes and anthemic arrangements that Seger was working hard to clear that hurdle, but "American Storm" is not the masterpiece Seger was looking for. In retrospect, the masterpiece was his 1982 album, "The Distance," though few realized it at the time.
Critics have always slighted Seger in relation to Springsteen. Seger is not quite the lyricist that Springsteen is, but he's a much better singer and melodist. He deserves better critical recognition. His "Night Moves," "Against the Wind" and "The Distance" are three of the best American rock albums of the past dozen years.
"American Storm" is not quite in that class. Not only do the melodies and arrangements usually recall older Seger tunes, but the songs resemble each other too much to stand alone. At a time when Seger needed a bold step forward, he decided to recycle his past. It doesn't help, either, that it was recorded in Hollywood studios with the dull polish of an Eagles album.
The lyrics also suffer at times from overgeneralization. Significantly, not one of the songs offers a character with a given name. Instead we are presented with generic characters: a Cuban immigrant, a newly single woman, a nameless American, a "someone" who's "walkin' out the door."
Despite all these caveats, "American Storm" can be extremely likable. When Seger lets loose his grizzly-bear growl, the warmth and conviction cut through the artifice of rock radio. Even his most familiar melodies still deliver pleasure, and his best songs contain a knowing irony.
The album's first single, the title song, develops an exciting rhythmic momentum. Nonetheless, neither the melody nor lyrics to "American Storm" ever snap into focus. Even when you read the printed lyrics, it's unclear whether the storm refers to the Reagan recession, resurgent patriotism or adolescent energy.
Similarly vague are songs with such unspecific titles as "Sometimes" and "Somewhere Tonight." "Miami" describes the excitement of Cuban boat people as they spy Miami's skyline appearing over the horizon. Unfortunately, the song never hints at the irony of their imminent future in that city's violent ghetto.
Much better are the songs about people Seger actually knows. The album's most modern song, "Tightrope," uses ominous synthesizers and an air-hammer beat to drive home the tale of an old friend turned junkie. "It's You" is yet another gorgeous Seger love song, taken at an easy midtempo pace.
No one in rock 'n' roll writes about growing old better than Seger. "Like a Rock" is a variation on "Night Moves": Seger thinks back 20 years to when he was 18 and strong "like a rock" and wonders where that certainty went. Even better is "The Ring," a restrained country-rock story of a wife married in the '50s and still waiting for her dreams to come true.
Seger's holdovers from the Silver Bullet Band -- keyboardist Craig Frost, bassist Chris Campbell and saxophonist Alto Reed -- plus L.A. pros Rick DeVito on lead guitar and John Robinson on drums -- deliver the raucous blue-collar rock of "The Aftermath," the tale of a newly single woman hitting the bars. One can only hope Seger brings this same band when he comes our way this summer.
The latest auspicious addition to the Seger/Springsteen lineage of blue-collar rockers is New Jersey's John Eddie. His debut album, "John Eddie" (Columbia BFC 40181), represents the best strains of that tradition: realistic stories about high school friends growing old set to twist-and-shout rock 'n' roll.
Like John Cafferty, Eddie absorbed these lessons on the East Coast beach bar circuit with Springsteen as a friend and mentor. The E Street Band's Max Weinberg and Nils Lofgren highlight an all-star band that makes Eddie's well-crafted songs jump to life.
Eddie's first single, "Jungle Boy," tells the worn-out story of being a rock 'n' roll fan in the face of adult disapproval, but the tale takes on fresh energy thanks to the rumbling tribal beat and the catchy vocal chant in Eddie's strong, personable tenor. Another single possibility is "Cool Walk," an impatient, feverish celebration of a young girl's strut, complete with falsetto vocal embellishments.
More ambitious are songs like "Dream House," "Buster" and "Stranded," which savor the irony of big hopes proven empty. When Eddie describes driving past his old dream house, his gritty voice reluctantly acknowledges that "the house is still there, but the dream is gone." Both the vocal and the band seem to be holding back, as if they're fighting more anger and disappointment than they reveal. It's a powerful effect.