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Big Swing Face

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Album Review

Never let it be said that Bruce Hornsby has had a predictable career. He very well could have followed one of two paths after his first two albums — he could have continued turning out heartland rock, or slipped into adult contemporary balladeering. He chose a third path — a restless, sometimes bewildering, foray into experimentation, heavy on jazz and improvisation; there was a reason he played with the Grateful Dead, after all. This led to a series of records that relied more on instrumentals than songs, culminating in 1998's sprawling double-disc set, Spirit Trail. By that point, only his hardcore fans were still paying attention, but even they could not have predicted the sharp change in direction on its follow-up, 2002's Big Swing Face. Nor could they have been prepared for this — a record that is heavy on post-electronica beats, filled with drum loops, Pro Tools editing, and dense arrangements. It's not just that the music sounds different: Hornsby himself sings differently. For the first two tracks, it feels like somebody else is singing, so different is the phrasing and timbre of his performance. Though that shock begins to wear off a few tracks into the record, Big Swing Face never stops feeling utterly alien to anybody expecting a typical Bruce Hornsby record, whether it would be the Hornsby of The Way It Is or of Spirit Trail. Which is not to say that it's a bad record, because it's not — it's very accomplished on its own terms, it succeeds more than the '90s albums where he seemed to drift into new age and, beneath all the busy surface, it boasts the tightest songs he's written in many a moon. It's hard to say who will hear this album — it's too much of a departure for many of his fans, and it's unlikely to win him new listeners — but it's some kind of an accomplishment all the same, one of the strangest records of 2002.


Born: 23 November 1954 in Williamsburg, VA

Genre: Rock

Years Active: '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s

Possessed of a breezy, nonchalant style that belies his technical gifts, pianist Bruce Hornsby writes powerful songs from the heart that touch on several distinctly American traditions: pop, jazz, bluegrass, and '60s soul. He worked for a while as a studio player and songwriter, and had his first hit in 1986 with the stirring and philosophical "The Way It Is." After that, he continued to release albums that honored his own muse rather than the marketplace, and put together various backing bands to...
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Big Swing Face, Bruce Hornsby
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