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The Piano Man Sings a Song of the South : Check List ****<i> Great Balls of Fire</i> ***<i> Good Vibrations</i> **<i> Maybe Baby</i> *<i> Running on Empty </i>

***BRUCE HORNSBY & THE RANGE. “Scenes From the Southside.” RCA.

It’s not Bruce Hornsby’s fault that he came to be the perfect flagship artist for one of the worst radio formats of all time--you know, that “wave” of FM mediocrity that segues from bad new-age music into bad pop/jazz into bad soft-rock. His blend was smooth, true, but he didn’t intend it as background music for tofu parties.

That blotch aside, Hornsby has a fairly clean record that’s not blemished a bit by this worthy sophomore effort. Again, nearly every song builds almost exclusively around his piano--not rock’s usual boogie-woogie piano, but an elegant, jazz-inflected, grand piano.

Co-producer Neil Dorfsman (Sting, Dire Straits) has tried to add more kick with extensive computer percussion and sequencers, yet much of the LP sounds like the same old Hornsby piano sound with a drum machine tacked on. So where’s the Range? Always around, but not until the middle of Side 2, with the bluesy “Defenders of the Flag” (with harmonica by Huey Lewis) and “Jacob’s Ladder” (previously recorded by Lewis), does much of a band sound seep into your consciousness.

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Still, Hornsby’s playing is more colorful this time, and it’s not just the piano solos that are lyrical. He and his brother John are reliable hands at establishing Southern settings; in one mining town, “The coal dust settles on the window display / They have to change it about every other day.” Class differences mine “The Road Not Taken,” about an out-of-reach Appalachian girl, and “The Valley Road,” in which a plantation worker gets the boss’ daughter pregnant.

Speaking of offspring, the suitable-for-all-demographics “Southside” seems likely to sell at least as many trillion as “The Way It Is.” And if its tinkly keys also help start up a few dozen more lousy radio stations, well, as Martin Scorsese might well have said when he got some heat for the Hinckley shooting, “Don’t blame me, I’m just the piano player.”


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