Bruce Hornsby: eighties pop-rock smoothie, honorary Grateful Dead member, Tupac samplee.
Unlike all of them he’s still going strong, and as it turns out is still game to brave uncharted waters. Hornsby’s been a folkophile-in-denial since a 1989 team-up with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, but he’s always stayed faithful to his old jazz piano. But no more; with new album ‘Rehab Reunion’ Hornsby ditches the ivory and goes scampering dulcimer-first into the upbeat Americana record that was always hiding in his heart.
The album kicks off with the Appalachian log-beater ‘Over The Rise’, featuring ubiquitous Indie-Folk mystic-man Justin Vernon on ethereal backing vocals. From there it’s a leisurely, mandolin-thick canter through a string of tracks both cheerful and thoughtful. In true Hornsby style, each has a sing-it-in-your-sleep hook, yet contain ample breathing room for the extended improv-jams these tracks will need when performed live. Highlights include the lyrically playful ‘M.I.A In M.I.A.M.I’ and the philosophical oddball ‘Hey Kafka’. The record concludes with the soul-sprinkled duet ‘Celestial Railroad’, featuring legendary gospel khaleesi Mavis Staples.
But the album’s zenith is penultimate slow-down ‘The Valley Road’, the pop-rock classic first released by Hornsby in 1988. This, his second reimagining, is wisely stripped-back, and showcases the honest heartland earnestness his vocals have acquired. It has a weighty end-of-the-movie vibe to it, like Hornsby is riding into the sunset waving a fond farewell to his pop-piano past. A lot of the album feels that way.
Nevertheless, this is still very much a Bruce Hornsby record. Every track is marinated in small-town nostalgia and there’re enough sing-along choruses and smooth-sailing guitars to keep the old guard satisfied. There’s even a cheeky jazz-organ solo on the track ‘Tipping’.
Also in evidence are the improvisational ticks that made Hornsby such a legend on stage. The tracks are laced with Hornsby’s usual selection of yeahs, whoops, and shout-outs as his band-mates take solos. Said band, The Noisemakers, do a rousing job of backing their man down to country-folk town, and power through their parts like combines through a cornfield.
All things said, it’s an album that sounds surprisingly fresh. By rights Hornsby should be kicking back on the nostalgia circuit with Huey Lewis and Toto, churning out perfunctory stocking-fillers and living pretty on the royalties from yoghurt commercials. Instead he’s chalked up a heartland-folk slam-dunk that’s re-energised his reputation as a sharp-as-a-tack songwriter, and might even snag a few new listeners from the Mumford and Frank Turner legions. The strangest thing is, despite going piano-free for the first time in his career, Hornsby’s never sounded more at home.