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Published: 2004/01/27
by Mike Greenhaus

Greatest Radio Hits – Bruce Hornsby

Musically, Bruce Hornsby has always lived a double life. A gifted pop
pianist, with a passion for jazz, Hornsby spent years playing sweaty clubs,
while also doubling as a songwriter for 20th Century Fox. The author and
co-author of two of the 1980s most ubiquitous radio singles, "The Way it Is"
and "The End of Innocence," Hornsby stacked his songs with politically
conscious lyrics, layering Reagan-era radio with subtle liberal messages.
Since breaking onto the Billboard charts, Hornsby has tried his hardest to
weasel his way out of mainstream pop-rock, so it makes sense that Hornsby's
first hits package doesn't really fit both of the pianist's personas,
instead unearthing a time capsule of his AOR singles.

A collection of 12 relatively restrained cuts, largely drawn from Hornsby's
Range-era repertoire, Greatest Radio Hits is somewhat of a mixed bag.
As its title suggests, Greatest Radio Hits isn't meant it capture
Hornsby's entire catalogue, merely his more polished studio endeavors and a
few hits he wrote for other artists. Also, as its title points out,
Greatest Radio Hits' pop glaze should be observed with some
historical hindsight, given Hornsby's busy alumni activities since
graduating from pop-rock radio.

In Greatest Radio Hits' liner notes, Hornsby says, "I always wanted
to have hits, but I wanted to have them on my own terms." Judging by his
first studio compilation, Hornsby has fulfilled at least one of his goals.
At times, Greatest Radio Hits plays like a Phil Collins-approved
Best of… collection. In fact, Collins even drops by for a guest
appearance on "Fields of Gray." Like all adult-oriented hits packages,
Hornsby's new disc has a fresh, polished package, complete with Billboard
information for each of Hornsby's charted cuts. Given Hornsby's knack for
creating excellent, catchy hits, Greatest Radio Hits is also an
enjoyable sing-along soundtrack, the type of tangible pop that values both
lyrics and production quality. Yet, no matter how overproduced many of his
songs sound, Hornsby makes sure to stray from traditional mainstream music,
including references to abortion in "The Valley Road" and commentary on
racism and welfare in "The Way It Is."

Hinting at Hornsby's live prowess, Greatest Radio Hits also includes
two previously unreleased concert cuts, drawn from the pianist's summer 2002
tour. Since releasing the outstanding live Here Comes the Noise
Makers, a sublime synthesis of Huey Lewis's pop-rock and the Dead's
psychedelic-jazz, Hornsby has proved that the stage is his true showcase.
Hornsby is also known to use his live show to mix and match his various
musical personas, performing Dead material like "Lady with a Fan" alongside
hits he wrote for Don Henley and Huey Lewis. Using two of his most popular
orphaned compositions as an excuse to delve into his relatively,
un-radio-friendly live repertoire, Hornsby hints at the work he created
during his tenure with The Dead. Stuffing a seven-minute version "The End of
Innocence" with structured solos and quirky time signatures, Hornsby and his
groovy solo band turn the hit into a mini-jam vehicle. Similarly, on
"Jacob's Ladder," Hornsby compacts a sea of horns, mandolins, and dueling
keyboards into a well-crafted four-minute piece of jazz-pop. Sequencing
these recent recordings amongst his '80s composition, Hornsby edits his
history book, reminding listeners that he always had more than pop

Unfortunately, many of Hornsby's original recordings have not aged as well
as the compositions themselves. Despite The Range's musical diversity,
Hornsby drowns out the group's technical subtlety with strings, synths, and
particular marring drum machines. Replacing many of bassist Joe Puerta's
lines with synthesized deep-ends, the production on all of The Range's
material is somewhat unbalanced, also valuing Hornsby's voice over his
musicianship. Since The Range features current Dead-cousin John Molo on
drum kit, it's even more disappointing that well-written material like
"Mandolin Rain" and "The Valley Road" are relegated to George Michael-style
adult contemporary duty through their production. Similarly, "The Way it
Is," the composer's most well know number, seems bare when placed next to
2Pac's well known samples and Hornsby's own live variations; proof that the
original hit was still in adolescence when it was released. While each cut
included on this collection is certainly well written, time has dated much
of the pianist's recorded repertoire.

Hornsby once said, "I spent the first five or six years having hits as a Top
40 artist and the last many years trying to, I guess, throw the coat off and
create a situation where I had an audience that was there for the right
reasons." That said, Hornsby's 1990s output takes more musical chances than
even Hornsby should have wagered. The post-trance pop of Big Swing
Face, represented by "The Good Life" sounds like an unfortunate midlife
crisis, filled with uncomfortable modern technological experiments.
Moreover, songs like "Walk in the Sun" and the previously unreleased "Go
Back to Your Woods" lack the crisp songwriting that has always been
Hornsby's musical heart. The lyrics of John Hornsby, Bruce's brother and
frequent collaborator, are also missed on Hornsby's new material, reminding
listeners just how important both brothers were to the creative process. But
that's not to say Hornsby isn't able to write good songs anymore. The
keyboardist's later day Range material, particularly "Set Me In Motion" and
the Jerry Garcia-aided "Across the River" hold up well over time, while
Harbor Lights' "Fields of Gray" is buffed up with cellos, violas, and
a well-placed Phil Collins.

Bruce Hornsby is a skilled songwriter. He is also a muscular musician, eager
to flex his toned abs. So its bit disappointing that Hornsby has never been
able to truly mix his most prominent skills. The pianist's best crafted
material seem to be written as a time when drummachines dominated Other Ones
ringers, while his newest compositions search for artistic credibility
through odd studio experiments. Ironically, the real gems of Greatest
Radio Hits are the among the disc's bonus materials, live renditions of
"The End of Innocence" and "Jacob's Ladder." Stripping down his songs to
their emotional core, Hornsby hints to his fans that the best songs don't
need studio excess to capture their grandeur; they simply need a grand

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