The criminally underappreciated Bruce Hornsby, shackled forever in the public consciousness by his lone drum-tracked No. 1 hit from 1986, returns with a nuanced, assured soundtrack effort for the forthcoming Spike Lee film.
Of course, those who’ve thrilled to his varied work with Ricky Skaggs or Pat Metheny, inside his own jazz trio, or amid the rollicking thunder of the Grateful Dead’s early 1990s tours, have long since set aside any questions about his chops. But, for everyone else, there’s Red Hook Summer — another high profile chance to right the wrongs wrought by the pleasant, once-omnipresent and entirely unrepresentative “The Way It Is.”
Hornsby originally constructed that track as a demo, with a computerized cadence meant simply as a placekeeper — but record company executives pushed to release the tune as it was, and Hornsby has struggled ever since to reclaim his own unvarnished brand of Appalachian soul music — an ageless combination of jazz, bluegrass, gospel and Faulknerian story telling.
Cue up Red Hook Summer — available as an exclusive download at Amazon beginning on Tuesday, July 31, 2012, then as a compact disc everywhere 90 days thereafter — and it’s all there. I can’t speak to how this music fits into the film, don’t even know yet what the script holds for Lee’s characters. I approached the album as just that — an album of solo compositions. And, as such, it’s an understated, yet remarkably intense journey.
Forget for a moment that it’s a soundtrack, as I did, and listen as Hornsby, in complete control, adds ruminative colors to “Boiler Room,” then rouses himself for these outbursts of back-pew preachifying on “Gospel Camp” and “Camp Variation.” Tracks like “Claus Ligeti” and “Sordid Pastime” move like cat feet across a twilit hardwood floor, like a barely heard whispers. Meanwhile, there’s a sense of heart-splashing fortitude on ‘Song E (flat),” and this tick-tocking urgency on “MNF” — all performed alone, with woodsy, soul-lifting enthusiasm and no small amount of assurance by Hornsby.
Three of the songs are presented in separate environments, providing varied levels of insight. The live version of “Arc de Terre” bears little difference from its studio counterpart, whereas the concert performance of “Ogerman” seems devastatingly raw without the warmly inviting choir of singers from its original presentation. Finally, there’s “Hymn in C,” which is presented first with an appropriately churchy solemnity and then as a touching, gospel-inflected vocal performance. “Spirit Climbing” boasts a santuary-rocking lyric, perfectly showcasing the yearningly resilient timbre that always made Hornsby’s singing do distinctive.
I kept coming back to the misnomer of Bruce Hornsby as one-hit wonder. Dig deeper. Start here, if you haven’t already. Red Hook Summer shows, once more, he’s so much more than that.