Inside Recordings INR14107-1
Musical Performance: ****
Sound Quality: ****
Overall Enjoyment: ****
The cover photo of Jackson Browne’s new disc, Standing in the Breach, is of a young African-American couple holding hands as they walk through the burning aftermath of some cataclysm. The photo captures both sides of Browne -- the poet of romance and the political activist. Since Browne began bringing his political concerns forward in his music with Lives in the Balance (1986) and World in Motion (1988), he has sometimes let them get in the way of his ability to write memorable tunes. On Standing in the Breach the songs stay with you, whether the subject is love or current events.
Browne has recorded “The Birds of St. Marks” before, on Solo Acoustic, Vol.1 (2005), but this is the first time he has done a full arrangement of the tune, which he wrote in 1967. "This is a song I always heard as a Byrds song,” Browne told Rolling Stone, so guitarist Greg Leisz plays a chiming 12-string guitar that provides the song’s backbone. Browne’s voice remains supple and he handles the song’s high notes easily. Revisiting it must have reminded him that, at his best, he can write songs with good hooks that still express his ideas, even if they are topical.
“The Long Way Around” is overt in its expression of disappointment in the current state of things in the world, from Citizens United to handgun control, and carries with it a sense that concern itself can be overwhelming (“I could feel my memory letting go some two or three disasters ago”). In the chorus, Browne takes a longer, more hopeful view. The title song also offers hope in the face of harsh truth, and both songs have good melodies and memorable arrangements.
Browne the romantic and rocker uses a classic riff as the basis for “Yeah Yeah,” and he sets Woody Guthrie’s love poem to his second wife, “You Know the Night,” to music with help from Rob Wasserman. Throughout Standing in the Breach Browne’s voice sounds as strong and at ease as it did 40 years ago, and it underlines the unforced feel of the songs. He seems to have relaxed enough to realize he can tap into his long experience as a songwriter and let his instincts guide him. Even the preachy “Which Side?” benefits from a melody that lingers.
Guitarists Leisz and Val McCallum are at the heart of Standing in the Breach. McCallum’s volume swells and single-note lines on “The Long Way Around” establish the song’s atmosphere and Leisz’s tenor guitar gives it body. Leisz’s pedal steel and McCallum’s solo on “Leaving Winslow” had me hitting the repeat button, but in truth all the players -- too numerous to list -- are first rate and understated, committed to serving the songs and not calling attention to themselves.
The sound on Standing in the Breach is open and involving, especially Browne’s voice, which is three dimensional and well articulated. The guitars ring out and sustain, and the bass is punchy and clear. The drums, understated throughout, are well mixed, but in a few rare instances I wished for more transient attack from cymbals. That is a minor caveat for this very good disc. Browne has made a lot of good records, and Standing in the Breach is one of his best.
. . . Joseph Taylor