Sound — 10
If you've listened to any soft rock radio stations, you know that Bruce Hornsby has carved out a cozy niche in the adult contemporary genre over the past few decades via his own solo work and collaborations with The Range. The mellow and pensive "The Way It Is" certainly became his signature song for the 80's-90's, and his easily identifiable vocal (and piano) style ensured that the Hornsby name was a staple in the soft rock world. Fast forward to 2000 and onward, and it's obvious that the singer/songwriter has been going through a shockingly creative phase. His current group The Noisemakers (which formed back in 1998) draws on a plethora of influences, a fact that has never been more evident than on the new record Levitate. Hornsby's latest album with The Noisemakers is full of what could seemingly be genres at odds with each other, but somehow the veteran performer makes it work. There are a few songs like "Continents Drift" that are in the vein of "The Way It Is," but Hornsby takes so many turns throughout the course of the album that the style that once defined him in the 80's-90's is pretty much thrown out the window. This is made particularly clear with the opening track "Black Rats of London," a tune that draws on an Irish storytelling tradition, complete with fiddles and what sounds like bagpipes (although this particular instrument is not listed in the liner notes). While it's certainly somewhat of a leap to go toward a Celtic genre, it's Hornsby's experimentation with a hip-hop vibe that truly raises the eyebrows. In both "Prairie Dog Town" and "Space Is The Place" (which features a raps from his children Russell and Keith Hornsby), the singer shows the funkier side to his vocals and it's surprisingly effective. Of the two, "Prairie Dog Town" is a bit more unique because of its ability to combine both the hip-hop element (which comes through in drum beats/tracks and vocalization) and more of a country/down-home vibe. Somehow it works. Often times you'll hear a Beatles-esque style arise in Levitate, with the psychedelic intro to "Continents Drift" and the chorus harmonies of "Paperboy" as prime examples. There is no one particular defining style anymore to Hornsby, and that is an extremely unexpected transition for someone who could have remained stagnant (and likely still popular) in the adult contemporary genre.
Lyrics — 10
As fresh and original as Hornsby's approach to music currently is, the songwriter has never been so awe-inspiring in the lyrical department. "Black Rats of London" sets the bar high with its storytelling devices about arriving in the New World ("Standing weakly on Yorktown battlefield with measles and small pox; Horses, hogs, chickens and dogs, and John Rolfe's prized worms; Divine intervention, bacterial strains from imported English dirt"), and he continues to impress throughout the record. His lyrics range from quirky in "Michael Raphael" ("Remember those cartoons, we watched when we were younger; Opposing angels sat there on Bugs and Daffy's shoulders") to a bit more reflective ("And the years passed by in our entwining; And the eastern coast met the western shore; The masses of land fit just like a glove"), and Hornsby proves he is a master storyteller by the last track.
Overall Impression — 9
Hornsby is no stranger to variety, playing with everyone from Don Henley to The Grateful Dead over the years. The eclectic nature of those experiences truly hasn't arisen in his own music until recently, and Levitate indicates just how many genres that Hornsby & The Noisemakers can handle. The answer? A hell of a lot. If you weren't a fan of Hornsby circa 1986, you might be surprised at the musician's growth. With the addition of Eric Clapton on one track (playing guitar, not singing) and Keefus "Buddy" Ciancia taking on the mysterious "new sounds," Levitate has plenty of impressive players to back Hornsby.