It's Only Rock 'n' Roll

By JOHN SWENSON, United Press International  |  Sept. 18, 2002 at 4:40 PM
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Singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn is a national hero in Canada but is not particularly well known in the United States despite an impressive body of work. Rounder Records intends to do something about that with an extensive reissue of Cockburn's catalog.

The reissue campaign begins with six albums prepared for an Oct. 29 release. These are "In the Falling Dark," first released in 1976; "Further Adventures Of," from 1978; "Dancing in the Dragon's Jaws," from 1979; "Inner City Front," from 1981 and "The Trouble With Normal," from 1983; and "Live," recorded at Toronto's Ontario Place in 1989 and issued the following year. The original 14-track double LP has been expanded to include a 15th track, "If I Had a Rocket Launcher."

The six titles follow up last January's release of Cockburn's first album for Rounder, the 16-song "Anything Anytime Anywhere (Singles 1979-2002)." The compilation showed that, over the course of the past 20-some years, Cockburn has managed to put his distinctive stamp on progressive radio waves with stunning regularity.

From his first U.S. breakthrough hit, "Wondering Where the Lions Are," from "Dancing In the Dragon's Jaws," through the string of career-defining songs that won new fans through the '80s and '90s -- "If I Had a Rocket Launcher," "Lovers In a Dangerous Time," "Call It Democracy," "Last Night of the World" -- the collection showcased an artist who has stayed committed to remaining on the cutting edge.

It was bolstered by two new tracks, "My Beat" and the title track, "Anything Anytime Anywhere."

This first wave of releases encompass a fascinating period in Cockburn's life -- as he made the transition from the acoustic folk setting of the mid-'70s to a fuller sound in the '80s.

The scope of Cockburn's artistry at this point in his career paved the way for his timely embrace of what would come to be known as the "world beat" genre. These new rhythms would gradually facilitate the musical expression of his concerns for global crises at home in North America and throughout the Third World.

"In the Falling Dark" was the first of a trilogy of recordings that linked Cockburn's acoustic work of the early '70s with his electric period a decade later. It's a landmark work that announced Cockburn's arrival as an important songwriter. But it's also a generative recording, planting the creative seeds that came to fruition on the subsequent studio albums.

Cockburn's world grew expanded when the acclaimed singer-songwriter made his first performances outside Canada, in Japan and the northeastern United States. Around this same time, Cockburn also encountered the work of a number of freethinking writers whose books became a strong influence.

Absorbing brave new ideas and influences, "Further Adventures Of" finds him in full, exploratory flight.

Rounding out the '70s and completing a trilogy of acoustic albums that included "In the Falling Dark" and "Further Adventures Of," Cockburn's "Dancing in the Dragon's Jaws" stands as both an era-ending album and a cumulative release that neatly built on the strengths of its predecessors.

Featuring some of his finest guitar work ever, the album was voted an "essential" recording by Acoustic Guitar magazine, putting Cockburn in the prestigious company of such revered pickers as Django Reinhardt, Andrés Segovia, Bill Frisell and Mississippi John Hurt.

It also provided Cockburn with a commercial breakthrough on the strength of his buoyant Top 40 hit, "Wondering Where the Lions Are."

The months leading up to the release of "Inner City Front" had been fraught with change: his 10-year marriage dissolved, leading him to switch from country to city life. Taking an apartment in downtown Toronto, he assembled a band of crack musicians and adopted a more rugged, urban sound.

Cockburn's political activism is immediately apparent on "The Trouble With Normal," an album bristling with anger and outrage.

Citing labor strikes, tenant struggles and Third World subjugation, Cockburn laments "the grinding devolution of the democratic dream." Essentially, it's a rejection of the status quo and a call to action.

"The trouble with normal," warns the chorus, "is it always gets worse."

When Cockburn performed the song in the summer of 2002, he introduced it this way: "This is an old song that seemed timely when I wrote it, and unfortunately it still does."

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