It’s not fair. It’s not right. But Patti Scialfa will forever be best known as Mrs. Bruce Springsteen. Or the red-haired backing vocalist in the E Street Band. It’s nigh-impossible to shake the associations but, then again, Patti doesn’t exactly discourage them by naming her first solo album in 11 years 23rd Street Lullaby and peppering her songs with references to bohemian life on the mean streets of the Big Apple. To answer the obvious question: yes, Bruce appears on the album, but he’s wise to remain in the background, refusing to overshadow the proceedings with his looming personality. And, with a few minor exceptions, Patti handles the foreground just fine. Eschewing the theatrical rock swagger and lofty statements one might expect, given the family connections, Patti focuses instead on finely wrought vignettes from her past: wandering through rain-slicked Chelsea streets anonymous and unknown, scuffling as a waitress and taking refuge in a whiskey bottle hidden behind the coffee machine, late-night trysts in bedrooms illuminated by flickering neon signs. It’s city music for grownups, and Patti delivers her tales with an unflinching lack of sentimentality and a fine eye for detail.
The dominant musical motif is tasteful restraint. Her excellent backing band—featuring E Streeters Nils Lofgren and Soozie Tyrell and session guitarist extraordinaire Marc Ribot—is surprisingly subdued. Only on the rousing roots rocker “City Boys” does the band wake up and play with real passion. The end result is an album with far better lyrics than music. The last third of the album bogs down in mid-tempo regret and several of its tunes are simply too alike, sonically. Patti writes well, and there are memorable lines throughout this album. It’s unfortunate that the musicians and producer Steve Jordan take the “Lullaby” part of the album’s title a bit too literally.