As the music world anxiously awaits the return of Bruce Springsteen and the big rock and roll noise of the E Street Band this fall, a certain other member of the Springsteen family has her own album coming out this Tuesday. Play It As It Lays is the third solo release from Patti Scialfa — that would be Mrs. Springsteen for those who didn't already know — following 1993's Rumble Doll and 2004's 23rd Street Lullaby.
Given the length between Scialfa's solo recordings, and the relatively marginal sales they have generated (at least compared to her husband), it might be easy to think that Patti's continuing career as an artist in her own right gives new meaning to the old saying "you don't mess with the wife of the Boss." That assumption would be dead wrong, and this album proves it in spades.
The most striking thing about Play It As It Lays is how it sounds so much more like a southern blues or gospel sort of record than the Jersey sort of vibe you'd expect from anyone associated with Springsteen or the E Street Band. Throughout this album, bluesy slide and acoustic guitars complement stark, simple arrangements that suggest something far closer in spirit to Memphis or Atlanta than to Asbury Park.
The music here could best be described as dominated by southern rural blues – only as seen through the prism of a certain Jersey Girl. Beneath it all, Scialfa's voice — which often comes through like a slightly huskier, smokier sounding version of Bonnie Raitt — buttresses lyrics that are both tough, yet tender.
Play It As It Lays opens with a blast of bluesy harmonica, and a husky sounding vocal to match from Scialfa on the track "Looking For Elvis." Like much of this album, there is a sort of "deep south" vibe to this song. But the more universal theme seems to be one of the lost soul in search of redemption anywhere it can be found – be it a juke joint in Jersey, or a jukebox in Missisippi.
That same theme of longing heard on "Elvis" crops up again and again throughout. On "Bad For You," Scialfa sings in an understated moan of how "I could have had it bad for you, and that's not good." On the song "Run, Run," Scialfa channels the delta blues spirit of Bonnie Bramlett, in an arrangement that recalls Delaney & Bonnie during their Muscle Shoals period — when people like Duane Allman and Eric Clapton would regularly show up to play on the records.
But there is also a dark undercurrent running through much of this record, in both the lyrics and the musical tone.
On "Town Called Heartbreak," Scialfa crosses deep bayou swamp, with the witchy sounding sort of L.A. pop of Stevie Nicks of all people. Scialfa's vocal here is equal parts Nicks and Raitt. Musically speaking, think of something like "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" put in a blender with John Fogerty's "Run Through The Jungle," and you start to get the general idea. The seeming clash of styles works remarkably well on this song, and Scialfa's vocal delivery is just flawless.
Turning to a more common theme, Scialfa sings "you can play around, but don't ya play around me," to an apparently unfaithful lover on the song "Play Around." On this track, the understated choral arrangement at times recalls the haunting howls of her more famous husband's Born in The USA hit "I'm On Fire."
Although the advance CD I got did not come with liner notes of any kind, there is little mistaking the crying guitar intro of the E Street Band's Nils Lofgren on "Rainy Day Man." From that intro, the song moves to a funkier arrangement, augmented at times by churchy organ and gospel-sounding female background vocals. Here the gals coyly coo lyrics like "sugar, sugar, sugar, baby, bang, bang" in a suggestive sort of come-on that sharply contrasts the more, shall we say, "sanctified" musical foundation here.
As for the title track, it is simply gorgeous. Patti's vocal here is particularly understated, as it glides in and out of Dylanesque carnival organ runs, and a fluid guitar that brings to mind Steve Cropper of Booker T & The MG's, and later, Blues Brothers fame.
On Play It As It Lays, Patti Scialfa more than holds her own as she steps outside of the shadow of her famous husband, and of her own role in Springsteen's E Street Band. Here she is still every bit the Rumble Doll of her first solo record. But there is also a vulnerabilty in the lyrics here. Call it Patti's way of playing the "Cruel To Be Kind" card.
You just don't mess with the wife of the Boss.