Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Reality (2003)


1. New Killer Star: Irresistible static-hazed riff that bubbles and pops against those intense guitars, weird chorus and shaky background singers, this marvelous opener sets the tone early with it’s instantly recognizable classic-Bowie timbre. 7.5

2. Pablo Picasso: Electric Spanish guitar introduces this cover of the Modern Lovers song. Bowie radically reworks this Jonathan Richman gem from the mid-70s, as usual his taste in covers exceptional. Echoing trills, white-funk syncopation and the intense surrealism makes this a relatively fun inclusion here. 6.0

3. Never Get Old: Great track. An energetic and rollicking live favourite. It’s also a curious and hugely addictive piece of wry self-observation and was used in a famous and rather funny clip for Vittel water, which is worth a look. The live version on A Reality Tour rocks the house down. 8.0

4. The Loneliest Guy: Atmospheric guitar treatments, a track far more real than its name implies. There’s a bare hint of strings and stray piano chords which fade with mournful uncertainty. No easy reading of this song is possible but it’s human, bittersweet, and altogether a mournful tale of regret and loss. A beautiful pace-changer in the live setting without being a classic. 6.0

5. Looking for Water: Could be sung from the point of view of our otherworldly hero Thomas Jerome Newton from The Man Who Fell to Earth (or not). Either way it bounces along on a supremely nervous and desperate groove. 6.5

6. She’ll Drive a Big Car: New York referencing lyrics of a girl peeling along Riverside Drive before she just swings it off to the left and takes the whole lot down. “Bursting her bubbles of Ludlow and Grand, south along the Hudson”. She's turning the radio up high so she doesn't have to think anymore when she makes her decision to go over the edge (just ask DB). Seriously deep and haunting song with a vague 80s feel. Great vocal and harmonica performance. 7.0

7. Days: Quite a moving number and beautifully subtle and melodic with a gorgeous circular middle eight. This is the sound of an older man putting his affairs in order, mending bridges and significantly, restoring order to his life. An album highlight. 8.0

8. Fall Dog Bombs the Moon: Bowie dips into his Burroughsian bag of tricks on this lyrically and melodically fine number. Quite a sad tone to this and just a little bit of resignation in his voice. I would not be so bold to tell you what I think it may be about. 7.5

9. Try Some, Buy Some: Covering Ronnie Spector’s version of this mighty George Harrison penned number from the early 70s, Bowie unfortunately ends up with something that’s a bit sappy and plodding with the waltz-timed over-orchestration. The track lacks any of the self-referential poignancy found elsewhere on Reality, throwing off the album's nicely sequenced flow. Not horrible though. 6.5

10. Reality: The title track is a breakneck rocker and comes at a time when the album was screaming out for one. Unfortunately is sluggish and tuneless and is the lowest point of the album. 5.5

11. Bring Me the Disco King: Stripped down, woozy, off-kilter jazz homage, this track first surfaced around 1993's Black Tie White Noise. At nearly 8 smokey minutes, it’s an extraordinary closer, however Bowie sounds thoroughly bushed amid Garson’s, as per usual, wonderful ivory improvisations. 6.5


VERDICT: Surprisingly released hot on the heels of Heathen, this is a rock ‘n roll album written and recorded to blast out in a live setting. And boy did it blast. Like Heathen, Reality is produced by Tony Visconti and contains songs that deliberately recall a classic Bowie sound, retro in parts, and sometimes both tuneful and adventurous. It’s as an eclectic and enjoyable album Bowie made in the last 20 years. It’s also lively and convincing, without a central theme or any over-conceptualisation and it has a real freshness and accessible sound within it’s strong songwriting and authoritative delivery. Like Heathen, this album contains its fair share of quieter, more introspective moments but generally does not cut as deeply as it’s fine predecessor. It is however an acceptable and thoroughly worthwhile (and final?) addition to Bowie’s superb generation-spanning catalogue.

NEXT: Toy, anyone?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Heathen (2002)


1. Sunday: Masterpiece #32. A monster of an opening track laced with spooky synth and a sombre dreamlike production, 'Sunday' becomes a disturbing incantation that builds into a warm chorus-scape. It’s simply the best track on a Bowie album in years. The live arrangement a la 2004 with Earl Slick’s towering guitar solo is simply breathtaking. 10.0

2. Cactus: Delightful Pixies cover off their seminal Surfer Rosa album although Bowie doesn’t bring a lot to the table on this one. He does however play everything on this track except bass. 7.0

3. Slip Away: Gorgeously sad and nostalgic track, although very slow paced, Bowie plays the antique synth the Stylophone first time since ‘Space Oddity’. The fretless bass (an instrument I am not a huge fan) works well but the lyrics defy explication. The song dates back to the 60s about (and may have originally been called) Uncle Floyd and his puppet sidekick Oogie (sound familiar?). 8.0

4. Slow Burn: This song is about the slow destruction of the world and possesses quite the swagger. It’s a moody and bouncy number with a nice bass/sax pop combo that vaguely recalls the Pin Ups sound. Some nice guitar work from Pete Townshend (last heard on ‘Because You’re Young’) doing his best ‘Teenage Wildlife’, but Bowie’s emotive rumble dominates. 7.5

5. Afraid: This builds well through emotional intensity alone and a high-speed jolt of strumming and strings it’s a good new wave-ish rocker, particularly live. Like ‘Slip Away’ this was originally recorded for the unreleased Toy non-album (as it is a reworked older song) but reshaped, works well in this set especially with the addition of a cello. 7.0

6. I’ve Been Waiting for You: A jacked-up Neil Young cover. Bowie takes this unremarkable Neil track (off his unremarkable self-titled debut) to a new plateau, the earthiness of the original replaced by an other-worldly alienation. Ironically the Pixies covered this back in the day too. 6.5

7. I Would Be Your Slave: Magnificent string section hovering unsettlingly above a metronomic drum pattern, electronic pulses and gender-neutral lyrics, Bowie puts in a moving and heartfelt performance and bringing a confessional tone to this album highlight. 8.0

8. I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship: Covering a track from Bowie’s 60s muse The Legendary Stardust Cowboy this is fast-paced electropop featuring frenetic beats and dark swirling synths with Bowie’s amusingly detached vocals. 6.5

9. 5.15 the Angels have Gone: Underrated track, melodically exquisite if a little slight. The verse’s melody and guitar lick simply gorgeous, the misty-eyed nostalgia finds Bowie in a reflective mood not for the first time on the album, unfortunately let down by a bland-out refrain “Weeeeee never talk anymore”. Nice drums all-round. 7.5

10. Everyone Says “Hi”: A feeling of homesick melancholy cloaks this jolly little melody with a fine chorus and middle-eight that is something of a nod to the charming ‘Absolute Beginners’ (8.5) from 1985. Worthy single materiel. 8.0

11. A Better Future: A summation of an on-going internal spiritual dialogue, it’s a simple hypnotic and relatively catchy melody but the lowest point of the album. 6.0

12. Heathen (The Rays): Masterpiece #33. One of the first tracks written for the album, the ominous militaristic rhythms of the ghostly title track is quite a wonderful piece of bleak songwriting and display enormous emotional depth and quality. A welcome return to brilliant ambient menace. 10.0


VERDICT: While not a complete return to the form of the 1970s, Heathen is a huge comeback for an artist who was seemingly fading away amid an avalanche of indifference. The youthful brilliance and trend setting finesse of his early work is long gone, but in it’s place is a mature assured sound of acceptance, nonchalant charm and great songs. Out goes the heavy industrial sounds and the gratuitous guitar noodlings of Reeves Gabrels (as did the many co-write credits - Bowie was writing on his own again) and in comes a classic rocking guitar and saxophone sound, doom-laden lyrics literally threatening God himself (hence the album title?), and cool multi-layered backing vocals. Reuniting with producer Tony Visconti they have come up with a string of fascinating arrangements enhancing the timely subject matter to often moving effect. Heathen contains Bowie’s artistic leanings within a pleasing pop framework and it sparkles with hindsight unlike his past few albums which relied on the simple addition of bizarre-o sounds to flesh it out. Bowie finally formed his own record label (ISO) just prior to the release of Heathen which gave him renewed artistic freedom allowing him to write, record and release whatever he liked. This was particularly welcome after the unreleased indignity of (Virgin’s) Toy. Heathen put Bowie back on the map.

NEXT: “Never ever gonna get old”.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Hours... (1999)


1. Thursday's Child: The moody magnificence of ‘Thursday’s Child’, a laid-back contemplative piece, is a pleasing shift in tone from the previous album's all-out bombastic aural drum 'n bass assault. Wistful and melancholy and sung quite beautifully in Bowie’s fragile vibrato, it’s the only track on the album where Bowie doesn’t do his own backing vocals. 6.5

2. Something in the Air: This one featured in a couple of film soundtracks (eg: Memento) and has a nervous grace to it via bittersweet reflections, grandiose minor chords and emotional atmospherics but, similar to a lot of materiel on Hours... , hardly a memorable melody. 4.5

3. Survive: Classic-sounding Bowie track and relatively straightforward affair with an acoustic guitar (and what sounds like a mandolin) strumming it’s way through a simple lyric and sweet melody. Represents a contemplative artist in the autumn of his life looking back over the years and trying to make sense of it all. Sparks into life with Reeves Gabrels’ solo before an outro that sounds a bit like 1975’s ‘Win’. 5.0

4. If I'm Dreaming My Life: An echo of a three-part epic, this has a certain dramatic presence although it sounds like it belongs on Tin Machine II. Like much of this album never gets out of first gear. 4.0

5. Seven: A pleasant acoustic song of regret. Like a few songs on this album the production is sparse and sounds like a demo, although give me that over the blips and bleeps of Earthling anyday. 5.0

6. What's Really Happening?: Ultra-dull track co-written by an Internet competition winner although the lyrics are quite good. Reeves Gabrels does his best Mick Ronson but nothing to get too enthused over here. 4.0

7. The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell: Hilarious tongue-in-cheek glam retread with it’s chugging designer metal riff and glammy swagger. It’s a harmless little sarcastic grunge number and sung in an amusing English robotic voice. Shame there wasn't more of this on the album. 5.5

8. New Angels of Promise: Futuristic-sounding epic with a lovely Japanese-influenced synth-flute intro (and outro). Written for the soundtrack for the computer game Omikron, it’s the standout track on the album. Sounds like something off "Heroes" combined with Outside, it’s an extremely underrated song. The most structurally complex and strongest Bowie track in years. 8.0

9. Brilliant Adventure: This short instrumental is also reminiscent of Bowie’s late 70s work, ‘Moss Garden’ and ‘Crystal Japan’ spring to mind, but they were inspired works of genius. This is discordant, inconsequential filler. 3.0

10. The Dreamers: Strong album closer with great lyrics about decline of spirit and guilt with a nice distorted treatment on the vocal. It’s quite a complex piece and rewards with repeated listens and finishes the album on a pleasing note alluding to what comes next. 6.0


VERDICT: Bowie explores adult contemporary pop territory on this introspective album with it’s brooding, wrist-slitting laments about growing old and irrelevant. Hours... is certainly not on par with his earlier masterworks as initially reported (far from it) but it never attempts to be. His lyrics deal with subjects of remorse, regret, mistakes and failure almost relentlessly, at a time when he seemed genuinely happier with his life more than ever. His vocal performance throughout is excellent and this marked a return to more traditional song structures after two or three willfully experimental albums. Unfortunately the majority of Hours... comes across with precious little of the vitality and energy Bowie is known and capable of. Some of the tracks on this mostly unexciting album make me long for his (at least) Tonight-era swagger and relative cool. The languorous pacing of every humourless track (except perhaps 'The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell'), and muted feel of the album in general makes me wonder if the enigmatic songwriting genius who set the rock scene ablaze in the 1970s is still with us. This album is disappointing not through pretension (Black Tie White Noise) or over-ambition (Outside) or trying to be down with the hipsters (Earthling) but through time-honored sub-standard songwriting. The lenticular album cover is a good one, a repentant long-haired Bowie comforts an exhausted short-haired 1997 version. I know how he feels.

NEXT: “Nothing remains……”

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Earthling (1997)


1. Little Wonder: Opening with an awkward high-pitch synth loop and jungle beats over some decent live drums, it’s a conventional song with a bouncy melody which Bowie could’ve written in his sleep anytime around 1967. It’s the first of several mocknee avant nursery rhyme ditties, extended instrumental passages and cutting-edge programmed percussion let down by being a cluttered mess and the disappointing repetitive refrain of “so far away” when the song was screaming out for a strong hook-laden chorus. Sadly, gone too was Bowie’s effortless cool for the videos from this period. This one being particularly unwatchable. 3.5

2. Looking for Satellites: Intro vocal pattern quite interesting "Nowhere, shampoo, tv …", and a beautifully paced shuffle makes way for a lovely Lennon-esque vocal melody in the verse, it has a bountiful style and sound and is the best track here comfortably. Actually when Bowie finally gets around to singing “looking for satellites” it’s the highest point of the album. Reeves Gabrels telegraphs his signature tortured guitar noodlings and goes for a Fripp-style slowburn solo for the outro and nearly pulls it, and his whammy bar, clean off. 6.0

3. Battle for Britain (The Letter): Turbo-charged guitars, obnoxious drum programming and avant-garde flourishes from Mike Garson, it’s the same problem with 'Little Wonder' and most proper songs here: it sounds lifeless and half-written. 3.0

4. Seven Years in Tibet: Obviously going for the loud/quiet/loud juxtaposition, there’s some good things about this stilted, lengthy track: cool lounge jazz, Bowie’s alto sax, a wandering bassline, electronically treated vocals and now stock standard Gabrels’ scratchy squeals. Unfortunately the two-chord verse pattern is swamped by pulverising industrial power riffs in the chorus. 3.5

5. Dead Man Walking: A pleasingly simple melody, tuneful and catchy, chewed up and spat out by overblown dance club beats and irritating samples. Incomparable to the wonderful acoustic live version. 5.0

6. Telling Lies: Immediately sounds the same as track one, exactly the same jungle beats, but this time it’s a tune-free plodder. 2.5

7. The Last Thing You Should Do: Blips and bleeps and overbearing Nine Inch Nails inspired guitar hammering gives way to a overly-busy robotic trance grind. This isn’t my favourite Bowie materiel, you could say. Highly underwhelming hyper-techno. Makes 'Pallas Athena' sound like a classic. 2.0

8. I’m Afraid of Americans: Inexplicably overrated stuttering rocker. Surprisingly co-written with Brian Eno but nowhere near as good as anything they did on Outside. A minor hit but so intoxicatingly awful with it’s tiresome anti-anthem clich├ęd chorus and obnoxious no-chord riff repeated ad-nauseum that it’s beyond ironic that it has became a live favourite. The remix by Trent Reznor was much worse. 1.0

9. Law (Earthlings on Fire): More relentless club trance muzak dressed up in the same jittery synth, looped drones, melodic vocal snippets, sound effect samples and don’t-go-there jungle beats, this is actually one of the album's more interesting forays into techno. 3.5


VERDICT: Never warmed to it. A period piece that captured the mood of the contemporary pop culture but you could say that about Bowie’s whole catalogue. No, this is much worse. It’s a collection of conventionally structured, spark-less rock songs drenched in jarring drum and bass production by Mark Plati, generally revolving around monotonous dance electronica or, um, jungle (jumble?) beats. Thankfully his beautifully matured voice injects a degree of dignity to the album and some of these songs can be enjoyed in a stripped down, unplugged format in various concert settings. This was the sound of an artistically rejuvenated and enthusiastic artist releasing a logical follow-up to the post-grunge industrial experimentation of the gothic Outside. The only snag being it is nigh on unlistenable. No doubt a courageous experiment and that has to be applauded but the whole thing is let down by these things plus an overreaching ambition and the shallow “alien” concept (the sleeve has some cool imagery, unfortunately the one-dimensional Earthling concept is a little tactless and the liner notes impossible to read). Accompanied by ever-increasing collaborator Reeves Gabrels, new comer bassist and vocalist Gail Ann Dorsey and now mainstay Mike Garson, the most dominant musician however is the studio in an overwhelming production extravaganza creating a sound that has not aged well.

NEXT: ‘The Dreamers’ Omikron: The Nomad Soul.