If there ever was a poster boy for the singer-songwriter movement, it was Jackson Browne. Starting in the mid-60s, Browne, born in Germany, the son of Army parents, contributed songs to various Folk and Country/Rock acts including the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Tom Rush. Unable to get his recording career rolling Browne took up residence in L.A.'s Echo Park sharing a house with future Eagle Glen Frey. The Eagles connection would pay off for both parties. Browne and Frey co-wrote "Take It Easy" (one of the Eagles' better songs). "James Dean," a brilliant song using the fallen '50s icon as a touchstone, had Browne as a co-writer. It too was recorded by the Eagles and stands as a high water mark for everyone involved.
Finally, Browne was signed to Asylum Records in '71 and over the next six years produced "Jackson Browne," with the "Saturate Before Using" cover, "For Everyman," and "The Pretender." During this period he created literate, passionate and moving Rock. Highlights included "Rock Me On The Water," "Ready or Not" (which is great despite awful production) and "Here Come Those Tears Again."
At their worst live recordings are either a bland re-hashing of studio work or they expose a band's weakness. At their best they re-define an artist. "Running On Empty" did the latter for Browne. From the crowd noise opening of the title track (one of the best "looking-back" songs ever written), to the closing "Load Out/Stay" (with vocals on the latter by multi-instrumentalist David Lindley), the album, which was recorded in concert, on the tour bus and backstage, showed a depth uncommon in Rock.
Browne continued well into the '80s, recording hits "Tender Is The Night," "For A Rocker" and "Somebody's Baby" (his biggest U.S. record) for the "Fast Times At Ridgemont High" soundtrack. He also appeared at benefit concerts for No Nukes and Amnesty International.
If the late 80's and '90s were a relative dead spot, things picked up considerably after the turn of the century. Rolling Stone magazine listed "For Everyman," "Late For The Sky," and "The Pretender" among the 500 best albums of all time.
The following year, '04, Browne was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Bruce Springsteen handled the honors. Noting that the Eagles got in the Hall first, Springsteen added, "You [Browne] wrote the songs they wished they had written."
Always interested in politics Browne was part of MoveOn.org's "Vote for Change" in '04 and backed John Kerry for president (Browne had supported Ralph Nader in '00, so the less said about that the better). In '08, Browne endorsed John Edwards, who lost the nomination to Barrack Obama before admitting that he had cheated on his wife. While Browne had a solid record for backing losers he did a little better as part of the No Nukes movement. In '07, he participated in the organization's recording an updated version of the Buffalo Springfield chestnut, "For What It's Worth."
During the '08 election several performers complained that Republican candidates were using their songs in campaign commercials and at rallies without authorization. The issue even split bands. Van Halen's Eddie Van Halen objected to the use of one of the group's songs but ex-bandmate Sammy Hagar was OK with it. After his classic "Running On Empty" appeared in an Internet video promoting Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign nobody was more in front of the issue than Browne. He went to court charging that McCain and fellow Republicans had used the tune without authorization and that its usage falsely implied that Browne endorsed the candidate.
Long after the election was over (July '09) there was a settlement. McCain and the other defendants issued an apology. However, the financial terms were kept confidential.
Beyond of politics Browne issued "Solo Acoustic, Vol. 1" in '05 and "Solo Acoustic, Vol. 2 in '08. Both of these albums were exactly what the titles implied. However, later in '08 he issued "Time The Conqueror." "I missed my band a lot," explained Browne. "Getting to make an album where you're rehearsed and you have production . . . is a real pleasure for me." It was the singer-songwriter's first album of new material since '02's "The Naked Ride Home."
If the "Running On Empty" era is seen as a high water mark, then credit has to go in part to multi-instrumentalist David Lindley. So a Browne-Lindley reunion acoustic show in Spain, with contributions by Spanish performers, was highly anticipated. Especially since it focused on Browne's early to mid-70s catalog. For some reason though, the '06 concert wasn't released until four years later as "Love Is Strange."
Jackson Browne tends to take himself a bit too seriously. That has caused his albums to often be preachy or self-indulgent. Get by or skip that material and go directly to the root of Browne's appeal. His calling card is a wry, mournful voice articulating life's challenges. A piano accompanied by acoustic and electric guitars provide texture while a tight, driving rhythm put his songs over.
'72 release "Jackson Browne" containing "Doctor My Eyes" (a pop hit played into the ground) and "Rock Me On The Water" is a great album and a good place to start. "For Everyman" has "Take It Easy" (the original version of the Eagles' hit) and "Ready Or Not" (Browne's best humorous song). "The Pretender," released in '76, features "Here Come Those Tears Again" (Browne's 2nd best song). "Running On Empty" rumbles along like a tour bus on a dark, winding back road. The title track (Browne's best song) and "You Love The Thunder" are exquisite. '83 release "Lawyers In Love" has the title track, the touching "Tender Is The Night" and "For A Rocker." It stands as Browne's best '80s effort.
A way to cover all this ground and more is "The Next Voice You Hear: The Best of Jackson Browne." '04 release "The Very Best Of Jackson Browne" is a two CD set. The first CD is a magnificent collection of Browne's premier material. The second disc, opening with "Running On Empty," keeps things rolling. But mid-way through, as the focus shifts to more current material, it falters. Still, any two CD set with over twenty classic songs is certainly worth owning.
What made Jackson Browne compelling back in the '70s was that his life fables (at least the good ones) were lashed to a Rock beat. That's missing from "Solo Acoustic Vol. 1 & 2," Browne's foray into the unplugged world (not that he was all that "plugged" to begin with). He's still got the vocal chops (a whining sense of urgency) and his playing isn't half bad but nobody is going to trade this in for the earlier, better, Browne.
Usually CD covers warrant little notice. It's enough that they are serviceable and tell you the artist and title. But the cover of "Time The Conqueror" is a bit of a jolt. Browne's got a full beard. He looks like he's been hanging at a Dead concert, scored some weed and decided to contemplate the waves crashing against the Big Sur shore. Browne's gray streaked facial hair is like a throwback to another time. Somebody should tell him the '70s are over. Or maybe not.
When Browne first came to the public's attention he looked like a fresh faced college student who'd just aced his Psych test and got a B+ in Poly-Sci and was ready to enlighten the world. And that was pretty cool back then since the U.S. was involved in an unpopular war, was governed by a corrupt administration and the economy was on the verge of tanking - oh, and gas prices where rising out of sight where gas was available. Thirty-five years later, things have changed. The U.S. has two wars going (Iraq and Afghanistan), an even more corrupt regime (Nixon got caught while Bush managed to elude justice) and the U.S. economy is in shambles (thank you Wall St.) - oh, and gas costs so much Americans are actually curtailing their driving. Imagine that.
So maybe Browne figures his words, registering disappointment and disgust, will have greater resonance since we all know guys with beards are smarter and foster deeper thoughts than those clean shaven twits.
After two low-key solo acoustic albums, it might be expected that Browne, with band in tow, would be charging out of the gate on "Time The Conqueror." In certain circles Browne registers with his uptempo songs like "Here Come Those Tears Again," Runnin' On Empty" and "You Love The Thunder," but essentially he's a troubadour. "Time The Conqueror" shows Browne in a fairly good light as he rolls through ballads and mid-tempo songs. The best being the Country flavored title track, "Off To Wonderland" (with acoustic guitars and a fat Hammond organ), "Just Say Yeah" (the set's real keeper) and the delicately sparse "Going Down To Cuba."
"Love Is Strange" but it isn't sleepy. Two of Browne's better known songs greatly benefit from the acoustic approach. His original version of "Take It Easy" and the later Eagles cover sound as though they are in a hurry to relax. Here, the song's message is far more believable. "Running On Empty" also benefits. The words have a chance to sink in about the passing of time and the decisions made. And, as on the "Running On Empty" album, Lindley sings "Stay," though this time it's is paired with the title track.