CD Review of Wonderland by Nils Lofgren

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Released: 1983/2007
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It’s tempting to believe that the reissue market was bled dry of anything approaching noteworthy product a long time ago – Steely Dan and Elvis Costello, just to name two of the worst offenders, have seen their entire catalogs receive the this-time-we-mean-it remaster treatment more than once – but for proof that there is yet gold in them thar vaults, look no further than the back-to-print campaign being waged by American Beat on behalf of a wide array of artists, including, as you’ve no doubt guessed by now, Nils Lofgren.

Lofgren has enjoyed several decades of critical affection, but none of his albums have sold for dick, which is why, if you say the words “Nils Lofgren” in succession, most people who aren’t card-carrying members of the Bruce Springsteen fan club will draw a blank.

The Springsteen connection, as the fan club could tell you, is this: After Steven Van Zandt quit the E Street Band in 1984, Lofgren was recruited to take his place for the Born in the U.S.A. and Tunnel of Love tours. When the time came to reunite the E Street Band in the late ‘90s, Springsteen opted to retain both Lofgren and Van Zandt – a decision which has probably had more of an impact on Lofgren’s retirement portfolio than all of his solo albums combined.

This is not to say that Lofgren’s music – either on his own or with his short-lived early ‘70s rock combo, Grin – isn’t worth hearing; in fact, it’s often quite good, and 1983’s Wonderland is a fine example.

Though his albums are occasionally guilty of being heavy on riffs and light on actual songs, Wonderland captures Lofgren near his peak; it isn’t quite as good as 1985’s Flip or 1991’s Silver Lining, but as an example of something rock audiences should have been buying in ’83 (and an example of why the phrase “criminally overlooked” can often be fairly applied to Lofgren), it’ll do.

Lofgren noviates should know up front that he’s never been known for his singing. He’s taken a fair amount of flack for his reedy instrument, actually, which isn’t entirely fair; even if he wasn’t blessed with a vocal range any more or less impressive than your average pre-fab pop starlet, when he plugs in his guitar, he’s Luciano friggin’ Pavarotti – his vocals are beside the point.

That distinctive guitar work is on full display here, and happily, Andy Newmark’s production is relaxed and relatively clean. The album’s got its share of synths, and it’s soggy with reverb in patches, but on the whole, Wonderland has a relatively timeless sound – lyrics about world peace and lovers across the tracks notwithstanding. Fans who have had to resort to buying used or import copies of the album at inflated prices might not be able to suppress a sigh at this reissue; those looking for a solid, budget-priced introduction to Lofgren’s work, however, could do far worse than this.

~Jeff Giles