If there were any doubt that Bruce Hornsby had completely redefined himself as a "do whatever I want to" musician rather than the pop/rock singer/songwriter he had appeared to be upon his popular emergence 20 years earlier, that doubt should have been dispersed by his two album releases of 2007, the bluegrass duo set Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby and the jazz trio session Camp Meeting with Christian McBride and Jack DeJohnette. That liberation accomplished at last, Hornsby unsurprisingly returns to the pop/rock singer/songwriter mode on Levitate, his first album since 1993's A Night on the Town to be co-credited to his backup band. But his old group the Range is long gone, replaced by an ensemble pointedly called the Noisemakers (John "J.T." Thomas on organ and keyboards, Bobby Read on reeds, Doug Derryberry on guitar, J.V. Collier on bass, and Sonny Emory on drums), who have been backing him as a unit since 2002 -- although some of the musicians have been with him since the early '90s -- and the sound of Levitate only occasionally recalls the Bruce Hornsby of "That's the Way It Is," "Mandolin Rain," and "The Valley Road." Instead, he and the Noisemakers come up with combustible jazz-rock arrangements revealing the influence of Steely Dan (notably on "Paperboy") and Brian Wilson ("Michael Raphael"), used to support sometimes bizarrely humorous lyrics, as signaled by the opening song, "The Black Rats of London." In truth, Hornsby isn't much of a lyricist, if only because he doesn't seem to know what to write about, and his songwriting has never recovered from the loss of his brother John Hornsby as a co-writer. The best songs here are co-compositions, particularly "Cyclone," with a strong, evocative, and characteristic lyric from former Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, as well as "Continents Drift" and "Simple Prayer," both co-written by Chip deMatteo. The album's unevenness also may be due to the multiple purposes that inspired the material, however. The music in some cases seems to have been written for different projects and retrofitted here: the title song (based on a theme in Thomas Newman's score for The Shawshank Redemption) appeared in a different version in director Spike Lee's film Kobe Doin' Work; "Invisible" is in director Bobcat Goldthwait's August 2009 film World's Greatest Dad, starring Robin Williams, in which Hornsby has a cameo; and some of the music apparently is intended for a Broadway musical to be written by Hornsby, called SCKBSTD. No wonder the album comes across as a collection of sessions instead of a coherent whole. Nevertheless, old-time Hornsby fans who fell away over the years might want to give this one a listen; it's closer to his singer/songwriter self than he's been in many years.
© William Ruhlmann /TiVo