Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene In All Sincerity

Cutrufello, Massey play rock with integrity

By Michael McCall

SEPTEMBER 8, 1998:  Few rock 'n' roll archetypes are more familiar--or more potent--than that of the singer planted in the spotlight at center stage, legs spread and guitar cocked, attacking the microphone with every ounce of emotion. If the singer happens to be delivering a gritty song about real life--about good folks trying to find a reason to believe, or about outsiders struggling for dignity--then the image digs that much deeper into rock 'n' roll mythology. Previous decades have seen their share of rock icons who've played the role to the hilt: John Fogerty, Bob Seger, Joan Jett, Chrissie Hynde, and that king of rock sincerity, Bruce Springsteen.

These days, however, few performers aspire to such earnestness; straightforward rock has become as pass as honesty in politics. In the decade of spin, integrity has been displaced by aloof irony and superficial sentimentality--and when everything comes off looking like a pose, honesty becomes the most suspect stance of all. Singers can be cool and distant, they can be glamorous and suave, they can be tortured and moody, they can even be sentimental and sweet. But genuine and impassioned? That went out with vinyl records, didn't it?

If so, don't tell Mary Cutrufello or Ned Massey. Both Cutrufello's new debut, When the Night Is Through, and Massey's two-month-old Almost Drowned are steeped in the kind of rolled-up-sleeve rock 'n' roll that suggests that their lives have been saved--or at least been given meaning--by music. The two artists are, in one respect, at different ends of the music business: Cutrufello is receiving the full-on financial muscle of Mercury Records, while the Nashville-based Massey is being pushed by the indie company Punch Records. But in other ways, the two artists share many commonalities: They're both singers, songwriters, and guitarists who owe an obvious debt to Bruce Springsteen.

In fact, Cutrufello has already been hailed as "The Next Springsteen" on the cover of the September issue of Interview. She comes by the analogy honestly: She cites The Boss as a primary influence and still listens to his albums several times a week. In a well-received Saturday-night performance at Exit/In on Aug. 29, she performed a compelling version of Springsteen's "Darkness on the Edge of Town." And, as if to nail home the connection, her current touring band features former E Street Band member Danny Federici on keyboards.

"I love Springsteen," Cutrufello said while visiting Nashville on business last week. "I'm flattered to be compared to him." The comparisons come about, she believes, because she writes about "real-life characters caught in situations that people can relate to.... I think there's a certain straightforwardness we share in how we write about the good things and the bad things in life."

Massey's connection to Springsteen may not be as explicit, but it runs just as deep. Not only has he repeatedly mentioned Springsteen as an artistic guidepost, he also gained an early career boost from the late John Hammond, the legendary talent scout and record producer who played an important role in discovering Springsteen (as well as Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday, and others). Massey was Hammond's last big discovery; after hearing a tape of his material, the A&R man courted the young singer-songwriter and plugged him into the Columbia Records pipeline.

Unfortunately, Hammond passed away before Massey had signed a contract. With his biggest supporter gone, Massey no longer had someone to guide him through the crowded Columbia system, and he got pushed aside. In the liner notes to Almost Drowned, he dedicates the album to the memory of Hammond.

Both artists' connections to Springsteen are interesting, but they don't serve as a substitute for quality. Indeed, Cutrufello's and Massey's albums manage to pay tribute to their biggest creative influence while also pushing his music in new directions. Cutrufello's release isn't as consistent as Massey's, nor does it venture as many risks. But both collections, in their best moments, offer the kind of highlights that define the glory of rock 'n' roll.

At her best, Cutrufello captures the dynamic exuberance of Springsteen's "Rosalita" or the stripped-down directness of a melodic rocker like "Hungry Heart." When she opens her album with an explosive declaration, "Ain't it good to be alive on a sunny day," she perfectly captures what it feels like to experience a transcendent moment. The song, "Sunny Day," describes a woman who has spent the night crying and awakens feeling overwhelmed by her life. But when she opens the door and feels the sun on her body, Cutrufello conveys how one such flash of realization can give a person hope, despite everything.

This celebration of the basic joys of life comes across in Cutrufello's most compelling songs: It's in the ZZ Top-like groove of "Miss You #3," the Stones-like blast of "Rollin' and Tumblin'," the buoyancy of "Sweet Promise," and the melodic guitar pop that plays against the message of obsessive love in "Can't Let Go."

Unfortunately, not everything on the album lives up to these high points. Cutrufello occasionally reaches for profundity by relying on clichs, and her nonstop use of growls, exhortations, and hiccuping vocal twists becomes tiresome over the course of a dozen songs. Straining too hard to keep the intensity high, she comes off sounding more like Melissa Etheridge than like Springsteen. She needs to learn that sometimes a little less exertion can give a passionate musical moment all the more power.

In fact, she might do well to take notice of Massey, whose natural delivery achieves exactly the results she's searching for. Not only that, he makes better use of dynamics and wordplay. Thematically, though, he and Cutrufello are on the same wavelength. He too opens Almost Drowned with a juicy first line: "There once was a story, and the story was me," he sings in "Mess," in which he admits that his songs draw upon both "the garbage and the grail" of his life. Meanwhile, the album's second song, "On a Good Day," parallels Cutrufello's opening conceit: that all the shit of life can be scraped away by the bliss of one beautiful moment.

That said, Cutrufello delivers nothing as powerful as "I Almost Drowned," on which Massey confronts the specter of untimely death as clearly, and with as much unfettered fury, as Jim Carroll or Patti Smith. Nor is there anything on her album as gutsy as "Patrick O'Daugherty," an Irish-derived story song that takes much of its power from Massey's stark arrangement.

In a different era, Massey's talents would likely have been undeniable--both to record execs and to the general public. But in the '90s, he's an honest, literate, non-pretentious rocker at a time when record companies care little for such attributes.

With any luck, though, Massey's and Cutrufello's albums may hail an impending change back toward sincere, direct rock 'n' roll. As Massey himself points out in "Smarter," nobody wants to lead with his heart anymore. We're all too smart and too in on the joke, so all we can do is smirk and wink at each other knowingly. But both these artists refuse to do that anymore, and their music is all the better for it.

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