Prolific Central Jersey singer-songwriter Bruce Tunkel has released two records since late summer, an LP entitled “Us” and the new EP, “American Patriot.” PHOTO BY JESSE MICHALSKI
I’ve been a fan of Bruce Tunkel since 1988 when my mentor, Grammy Museum Executive Director Bob Santelli, turned me onto the late, great alt-rock band The Red House. Bruce was the band’s main lyricist, lead singer, and rhythm guitarist.
For the first two years of Makin Waves, The Red House were one of the Dirty Jersey Dozen best-unsigned bands in the state. Then they nabbed a deal with long-defunct SBK Records, put out the best album of 1990 with their self-titled major-label debut, and charted with the U2-like anthem “I Said a Prayer,” the video for which landed them MTV rotation. When the major label bullshit hit the fan, and The Red House broke hearts by breaking up, Bruce went solo dropping eight LPs and 30 singles during the next 30 years.
Pretty prolific for sure, but now he’s topped that track record with an LP and an EP since this summer. Hell, he dropped the new EP, “American Patriot,” before I could review the late summer LP, “Us,” so I’m gonna play catch up with a roll through both.
Let’s start with “American Patriot,” which, completely is performed and produced by Bruce. The four-song musical grenade kicks off with a Springsteen-like title track that chronicles the mindset of a politically and emotionally misguided right-wing gun nut. In a similar first-person albeit journalistic fashion to the way the other Bruce looked at police brutality in “41 Shots,” the sparse, acoustic “American Patriot” is even more gripping and certainly a much-needed anthem two weeks before the most important election in U.S. history.
“I’m Better Than Somebody Else,” a stunning Woody Guthrie/Billy Bragg-like statement about economic disparity, is a track that I know Springsteen would love if he heard it. I hope you do too, and I hope someday America finally lives up to the foundations of freedoms on which it is based. This EP give me hope for that because it criticizes Trump-loving Nazis for being selfish, demoralizing, detrimental assholes during a global pandemic through which the rest of the world pulled together, such as on “It’s All About Me.”
When I was a young Springsteen fan and the Boss was flying his Woody Guthrie flag high between 1978 and 1984, I remember him being referred to as America’s moral compass because of his political idealism and working-man mentality. Then he cheated on his first wife with his second one, and that description went blowin’ down the road.
Since then, I haven’t heard anyone referred to as a moral compass, so the closing track of “American Patriot” fascinates me, especially because Bruce Tunkel’s “Moral Compass” sounds so much like Springsteen & the E Street Band, especially the Roy Bittan-like piano and the way the closing chorus slams into a sparse, emotional bridge. Yet every note on every instrument is played by Bruce Tunkel, whose take on a moral compass unravels the skewed view of the bully as the American hero, not unlike the stormtrooper to Nazi Germany.
All four songs skewer America and its so-called patriots with intelligence, stunning narrative structure, and, most importantly, gut-wrenching irony in the face of the farce that is the Trump presidency, its boot-lickin’ cronies in Congress, and its racist, hate-mongering mob, most of whom have the audacity to call themselves Christians.
Whew! Great stuff that I hope finds the audience it justly deserves and that desperately needs it.
Whereas “American Patriot” is venomously political, “Us” is confessionally reflective. A healthy 18 songs, the 80-minute collection examines the fragility of hearts and minds for the most part, starting with “Tremblings of My Mind,” a psycho-analyzing classic rocker that blends elements of The Who, Steve Windwood, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, and The Byrds.
“Daydream” then looks at when fantasies make you feel more alive than reality, while “Still My Heart Breaks” is a jazzy ballad that lives up its title with a heartbreaking lyric about the deceptions within a lasting relationship that balances forgiveness with perseverance and passion with genuineness and integrity. Smooth, lyrical Lester Young-like sax solos by Steve Peckman add to the emotion of the complicated tale.
“Us” rolls on with “The Hurting Crew,” a piano-driven ballad about changing perspectives in a lifetime of trying, possibilities and dreams; “Tumble and Dry,” a Springsteen-meets-the-Stones rocker about resilience; “Already Here,” a rootsy love song with sweet slide guitar work by Bruce; “Right and Wrong,” a righteous Tom Petty-inspired rave-up, and “Brave,” a pretty country-rocker about the talented souls whose broken hearts line the boulevards of Nashville and Hollywood.
At this point, the album offers an interlude, “Theme from Us,” a well-orchestrated and arranged instrumental of the beautiful closing title track … but more about that later. Beforehand, there’s “True to Myself,” a mid-tempo rocker about finding the strength to break free from the chains that choke promise and potential, while overcoming or at least enduring the pain that always accompanies love.
“Don’t Say Your Sorry” is a pretty, passionate path of pain navigated through the forest of forgiveness that leads to “Left Wondering,” a beautiful one-man band track about the sadness that surrounds life’s dead end. Bruce’s piano, guitar and drum work are impeccable, but the tour-de-force is the arrangement of the synth strings.
The standout “I Can Do Better” also offers Bruce at his one-man best, especially the haunting, tubular-sounding guitar work. But what makes this track the standout are powerful Springsteenesque lyrics, especially “There’s always a looming darkness blocking the sun. The shame that I carry weighs a ton. And I can fix myself in a million ways starting with one. Sometimes it feels like everything is slipping away, like sand through my fingers, like the passing of days. Maybe I don’t have my eyes on the right prize.”
Rounding out the album are:
That bring us to the aformenteioned title track. “Us” is a hauntingly beautiful tale of lovers walking steadfastly on the tightrope of life as the world crumbles around them.
So a total of 22 songs in a tumultuous 2020 from this fella, and not a weak one in the bunch. Thanks, Bruce, for giving us so much to listen to and think about.