Rockers in Walkers

We humans are fascinated by car wrecks on the road of life, and aging rock stars provide a plethora of accidents for our viewing pleasure. It is with eager anticipation that we await the release of a new album by a dozing giant, hoping against hope that it’s a flop. Or maybe I just speak for myself.

It’s difficult, improbable even, for an artist to make a good album 30 to 40 years after their heyday. The Sonics were an exception in 2015. So it’s with morbid fascination that I search for albums by former stars or stars-on-the-decline, and 2016 has provided more than its share. Today we look at an ancient rock group, an ancient ex-lead singer and a slightly-less-ancient pop star.

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Cheap Trick hit the big time with the release of Cheap Trick at Budokan in 1979. Although they continued to create high-quality albums for the next 30 years, the band’s success peaked soon after Budokan. 30 years later, 2009’s release, The Latest, showed that the lads … er, gentlemen, could still create amazing songs in their trademark power pop/hard rock wheelhouse. But following this album the band entered the longest silence of their career and seven years passed before the release of another album, 2016’s Bang, Zoom, Crazy… Hello.

So the question is: Do they still have it? And the answer is an unqualified, Yes! Bang, Zoom is not without a clunker or two, but overall the songs are very well-written, performed and produced. I’m not a huge Cheap Trick fan (although, wait for it, I do like their early stuff), but this is an album I could see listening to repeatedly. These fogies fellas have passed the litmus test of time, presenting fans with another gem.

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Aerosmith first came into the public eye in 1973 with the release of Aerosmith. They are a rare band, one that has maintained a high level of success over the decades. At nearly age 70 it’s no longer so easy to Walk this Way (pause for laughter), but the fellows are still performing, be it somewhat sporadically. And over 40 years after the release of Aerosmith, lead singer Steven Tyler has released his first solo album, We’re All Somebody from Somewhere, an alleged foray into the country music world.

Many times over the years aging rockers have released country albums, so it would be easy to assume that Mr. Tyler is going down a well-trod path. However, to paraphrase a review of his album: country is no longer a genre, it’s a marketing scheme. If I had not read that We’re All Somebody was country before listening to it, I never would have suspected. The songs are power ballads, pop and some bluesiness, with a bit of mandolin, pedal steel, banjo and fiddle thrown in for that country feel. But in reality, there are no songs that could even remotely be classified as country. However, the album is well-done and if you like Aerosmith and Tyler’s voice you will probably enjoy it.

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Cyndi Lauper exploded on the scene in 1983, which some of us think of as recently, others as 33 years ago. Spokeswoman for a generation of female music fans, actress and activist, Lauper released nine more albums after her debut, the last in 2010. Then in 2016 at 63-years-old, a time when singers’ voices often change for the worse, Lauper returned with a (wait for it again) country album.

Unlike Steven Tyler’s latest, Lauper’s album Detour uses immortal songs from the annals of country music. Since the songs are already beloved, this leaves the success of the album in the hands of her voice (so to speak), which is a brilliant concept since the voice in question is still going strong. The mix of beautiful interpretations with classic country repertoire results in an album of highly listenable music.

So, no roadkill or dismemberments for today. Maybe next time. We are simply left with a trio of good-to-great albums by a collection of geezers. And I mean that fondly, as a near-geezer myself. As Ringo Starr said in Honey Don’t, “Rock on George, for Ringo, one time!”

Which clearly doesn’t apply to this review.

Listen Up! August New Music Arrivals

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August seems to be the month for the rowdy and the thought-provoking; most of my picks this month deliver some pretty strong messages. Get involved – place your holds now!

Laura Mvula – The Dreaming Room (Sony Music Entertainment) – A strong follow-up to Mvula’s highly-acclaimed debut, Sing to the Moon. Enjoy rich vocals backed by a delightful mix of orchestral accompaniment, neo-soul rhythms, and a range of powerfully-moving songwriting.

Anohni – Hopelessness (Secretly Canadian) – Down-tempo alt rock/electronic pop with strong political themes. Vocals that shift from dreamlike to a hypnotic drone at times, even lilting.

Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate (Interscope) –  First and foremost a soul album, but with hints of rock, blues, gospel, and even a kind of classic rock feel at times. Very beautiful, grand, and political. I loved this album.

Audion –Alpha (The Ghostly International Company; !k7 Records) – The kind of club-friendly techno you’ve come to expect from Matthew Dear’s more driving and gritty alter ego.

Fantasia – The Definition Of… (RCA Records) – RnB with a little bit of rock, soul, and electronic influence. This is a great pick for anyone looking to dance around to some great harmonizing with the occasional dose of humor. It has a throwback feel that makes me think of a lot of early 90s RnB.

Mitski – Puberty 2 (Dead Oceans) – Gritty, beautiful, and packed with raw emotion. Mitski Miyawaki explores love, loss, anxiety, and depression in her 5th wonderfully-complex and vibrant indie rock offering.

White Lung – Paradise (Domino Recording Co.) – Vancouver punk trio dips a toe into new songwriting territory in their 4th release. The album remains unflinchingly confrontational and provocative, but they have embraced a hint of new pop sensibility that makes this release perhaps a little more accessible to a wider audience without much compromise.

Xenia Rubinos – Black Terry Cat (Anti) – A deeply-satisfying mix of funk, rock, electronic, RnB, jazz, and hip hop styles that explores how women of color move through today’s social landscape.

Listen Up! June/July New Music Arrivals

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I took a little break last month, so I’ve got a lot of new arrivals to recommend. Place your holds now and start exploring!

Joseph Bertolozzi – Tower Music (Innova) – Lively but minimalist (if that’s at all possible). This almost comes off as born-digital electronic music, even though the sounds were all produced using one very large analog instrument: the Eiffel Tower. I would love to hear the remixes that could be made from these pieces.

Boulevards – Groove (Captured Tracks) – Funk with a side of hip hop. Fans of Prince and Rick James will be into this.

Musiq Soulchild – Life on Earth (My Block; Entertainment One U.S.) – Dance floor friendly soul, RnB, and smooth slow jams.

uKanDanz –Awo (Buda Musique) –  Hailing from Addis Ababa and Lyon, uKanDanz classifies themselves as “Ethiopian Crunch Music.” What that means is that listeners are treated to a thoroughly satisfying mashup of metal and hard rock guitar riffs and power chords; a blues and jazz horn section; and amazing vocals that expressively wail, croon, and keen.

Debo Band – Ere Gobez (FPE Records) – Bluesy, jazzy, sultry, a little funky – almost torch songs, but with Ethiopian pop overtones.

Case/Lang/Veirs (ANTI-) – Dreamy, beautiful, and engaging vocals, with a bit of twang. Melancholy, moving, powerful, harmonious.

Miles Davis and Robert Glasper – Everything’s Beautiful (Columbia: Legacy) – A re-imagining of Davis’s catalog with the help of a star-studded lineup of jazz, hip-hop, and RnB collaborators.

Garbage – Strange Little Birds (Stunvolume) – In their 10th studio album, Shirley Manson and the band return to their roots by drawing on their musical influences, as well as the sounds that made them a hit in their 1995 self-titled debut. Strange Little Birds has a decidedly nostalgic feel, but is by no means stale.

William Bell – This is Where I Live (Fantasy) -Classic southern soul and RnB with a little bit of rock and roll mixed in.

Imarhan – Imarhan (City Slang) – Traditional Tuareg and pan-African ballads blended with rock and funk rhythms and a healthy love of bass.

Maxwell – Black Summers’ Night (Columbia) – In a long-awaited return 7 years in the making, this album is full of funky, smooth, even jazzy elements with some stand-out drum work.

A-Wa – Habib Galbi (S-Curve Records) – Three sisters with a love for electronic music, reggae, and Yemenite women’s chants. Sound like an odd mix? Only if you’re not into dancing, fun, and on-point harmonizing.

Whitney – Light Upon the Lake (Secretly Canadian) – Upbeat, bright, rock album with distinctive vocals. This debut is chock-full of short but polished tracks that show the well-honed skills of duo Max Kakacek (Smith Westerns) and Julien Ehrlich (Unknown Mortal Orchestra).

Ólafur Arnalds – LateNightTales (Night Time Stories Ltd.) – Down-tempo, ambient, beautiful dreamscapes. Some trip hop beats interspersed. Fans of Bjork, Prefuse 73, and Sigur Rós would probably be into it. ‘Icelandic’ would be the best adjective to describe this one.

Bowie Has Left the Planet

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10 years of nothingness had passed when seemingly out of nowhere David Bowie released The Next Day. People assumed he’d retired from music, the album came as a complete surprise. Although it took two years to record, Bowie made sure it was kept entirely secret. If I’d been paying attention to his career, had known he was still capable of making incredible music, I would have been thrilled! But the release passed me by, unnoticed. Until now.

When I think of Bowie, I tend to think of Suffragette City and other songs in that vein. If one approaches his later work with the expectancy of Ziggy Stardust rocking out, one will be disappointed. Unlike mosquitos filled with dinosaur DNA, artists are not bugs captured in amber. Their work evolves over time. People age, their capabilities change. In the case of David Bowie, his voice is the most noticeable difference, no longer as flexible, no longer as energetic or dynamic. Yet … still amazing. Melodies tend to be a bit more monotone, tempos slower, dynamics softer. But this isn’t better or worse, it’s just new.

The Next Day includes songs that range from full-on rockers ([You Will] Set The World on Fire), to the slow and delicate (Where Are We Now?) to standard anthems (How Does the Grass Grow?) to chaos infused with fits of stability (If You Can See Me). Styles are incredibly varied. This is classic Bowie yet innovative. While you might find some tarnish amongst the glitter, the album is certain to please.

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The following year, 2014, saw the release of Nothing Has Changed, a career-spanning collection of greatest hits reaching back to 1969 and wrapping up with selections from 2013’s The Next Day. All phases of Bowie’s career, other than Tin Machine, are covered in this comprehensive release. If you’re looking for an introduction to 45 years of music, Nothing Has Changed is an excellent choice.

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And finally, all too soon, I come to that which I’ve been putting off, the acceptance of mortality. Perhaps when I was unaware of his later work I didn’t care as much, but now I’m truly sorry I’ve heard the last of David Bowie. His music will always be there for me, but it is complete, finite, there will be no more.blackstar

In my research for this series of posts I made an intriguing discovery: every David Bowie album has a picture of Bowie on the cover. Sometimes it’s a fairly simple photo, other times a cartoonish drawing, a stylized scenario, or even, as in the case of The Next Day, the re-use of a previous album cover (Heroes) with Bowie’s photo obscured by a white square. Every cover sports a picture of Bowie except for the cover of his final album. Blackstar features the image of a black star. This seems significant. We could ponder the symbolism of a black star or the clues found in the album’s lyrics, but instead of dwelling upon the sadness of death, let us rejoice that Blackstar is a stunning collection of music.

Somewhat in the same vein as The Next Day, the album features songs varying in style tremendously, laid-back vocals and a quiet/ethereal/sparse mood. It’s one of the best efforts from Bowie’s later career, a thoroughly satisfying and lush listening experience. The opening song, Blackstar, is simply gorgeous. Beautiful keyboards, a dark mood and a story well-matched by its music. Sue is an unsettling song filled with discomfiting music. Wild, crazy percussion and bass play frantically beneath sparse, languishing vocals. The album concludes with a celebratory mood in I Can’t Give Everything Away, a wonderful career-ending song.

And then, Bowie left the planet.

New Reviews From Sarah

Here are two new reviews from Sarah. For more of Sarah’s reviews, and lots of other great stuff, head over to our Facebook page.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

VegetarianThis novel won the Man Booker Prize for fiction, and I was concerned it might be too “literary” for my tastes. But it’s easily accessible, and I devoured it in two days.  The title, while accurate, is pretty nondescript at explaining this complex work. Yeong-hye, an obedient and solemn wife, decides to quit eating meat, after she has a disturbing nightmare. No one in her family can understand her reasoning, or her consequent retreat into herself. Yeong-hye’s emotions seem to shut down, as she rejects those closest to her, and isolates. Her brother-in-law, an artist who has lost inspiration, becomes obsessed with Yeong-hye. His artistic vision requires her participation in an explicit sensual piece of performance art. In-hye, Yeong-hye’s sister, struggles with her own mental fragility, as she attempts to assist her ailing sister. Kang follows each character’s unique mental stability, delusions and dreams. It’s challenging to determine which character is falling into madness. This is truly a unique and dark look at the human mind, connections and instinct.

Kill Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul by James McBride

killemandleaveJames McBride, National Book Award winner and musician in his own right, sets off to explore the roots of the iconic soul legend, James Brown. James Brown led a complicated life, and he was a very secretive man. Few people were let into his inner circle, and he purposefully kept his fans and entourage at a distance. Brown was born in South Carolina in extreme poverty, spent his adolescence with extended family and got interested in music at a young age. McBride delves deep into Brown’s past, interviewing past band members, family members and those who knew Brown best. This biography isn’t chronological, but collates a myriad of personal recollections, attempting to find the real James Brown. Unbeknown to me, James Brown informally adopted Al Sharpton, helping to shape the civil rights leader’s career and focus. McBride’s writing is easily digestible, and he provides a lyrical account of the racial environments that produced a legend. One of the best books I’ve read this year, and McBride may have set himself up for another award.

Bowie, Still David Bowie

When we last left David Bowie it was 1993 and his music had moved in a somewhat darker direction. This leaves him with 23 years and 6 more albums before the culmination of his career, Blackstar.

OutsideNext up for Mr. Bowie was Outside (1995), a concept album realized with Brian Eno. The pair entered the studio with no written songs, just a vague wisp of inspiration from a fictional dystopian diary written by Bowie. A computer program was used to chop up and randomly cut and paste the text of the diary, and the result of this process became a starting point from which music was improvised. This music eventually coalesced into the finished album. An intensely dramatic entry in the Bowie catalog, I recently discovered this album and cannot stop listening. It’s a truly amazing work.

Earthling1997 saw the release of Earthling, an album influenced by the drums and bass culture of the 90s. As with all of Bowie’s work, he takes the kernel of an idea (in this case a style) and makes it truly his own. For example, instead of sampling other people’s music as a starting point, Bowie’s band creates their own loops to use as musical building blocks. The resulting music is highly aggressive, filled with industrial buzz saw guitars and synths. I would never recognize this as a Bowie album just from listening. Critics were pleased with the results and the recording received a Grammy nomination.

HoursAlways striving for ch-ch-ch-change, Bowie released Hours in 1999. It was his first album to miss the US top 40 in over 25 years. The music is very mellow, even falling comfortably in the Adult Contemporary category. In short, I really quite, er, like it less than intrusive surgery. As do many Bowie fans. However, I can respect the exploration of new styles, and really, in a 40-year career I can give him one album that I’m less-than-enthusiastic about. And perhaps you, Dear Reader, might love and cherish this recording. That is the beauty of personal taste.

Bowie released two more albums before taking a 10 year break: Heathen in 2002 and Reality the following year. Both showed marked improvement to the lackluster Hours. Many good songs, packed with variety, and a laid-back vocal style that characterized the remainder of Bowie’s work.

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A 2004 tour was halted by emergency coronary surgery and this slowed Bowie’s output significantly. He took most of 2006 off, performing his own music on stage for the last time in November. Work continued as a composer, with occasional appearances, but a decade passed before the appearance of another album in 2013.

This is where I must wax philosophically. David Bowie, who was such a big part of my musical existence, took a 10 year break and I wasn’t even aware of it until researching this post. At some point I assumed that Bowie had peaked, didn’t have anything left in the tank, and I stopped paying attention. Now I know that a wealth of great music was created after 1983. And I’m grateful that this music will forever be a part of my listening rotation. But I remain stunned that Bowie all but disappeared for 10 years without me even knowing. I’m sure there’s a lesson to be learned in here somewhere.

Next month we will look at the final albums, more fabulous music, and the grand finale in an exquisite career. Stay tuned.

Bowie, David Bowie

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Confession time: I’ve never been a rabid Bowie fan. Oh sure, his music is incredible and I’ll happily listen to it over and over, but only songs recorded between 1969 and 1983. I’m fairly unaware of albums recorded after Let’s Dance. Bowie got me to the church on time and then I abandoned his music.

When he died I fervently resisted the urge to jump on the bandwagon and sing Bowie’s praises, viewing his last album as the most incredible ending to a perfect musical life. I assumed plenty of others would take up that mantel. But when I finally did hear Blackstar recently, I was stunned by how spectacular the music is. And only then did I realize that I had no idea what Bowie had been up to for the past 30+ years.

Thus began a quest to quickly get a feel for Bowie’s “recent” albums, to look for trends in his compositions, and to see how the final album fits into the big picture. So buckle in, Major Tom, and prepare for the journey of a lifetime.

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Frequently bands put out a remarkable first album and never again reach the same level of accomplishment. The reason for this is simple: An entire lifetime of composing goes into a first album. A second album has roughly a year in which to be put together.

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So here’s something beyond amazing: From 1969 to 1980 David Bowie put out more than one album per year, many of them absolutely brilliant. Space Oddity (1969), The Man Who Sold the World (1970), Hunky Dory (1971), The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972), Aladdin Sane (1973), Pin Ups (1973), Diamond Dogs (1974), Young Americans (1975), Station to Station (1976), Low (1977), Heroes (1977), Lodger (1979) and Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) (1980). The timeless songs found on these albums include Space Oddity (1969), The Man Who Sold the World (1970), Changes, Oh! You Pretty Things and Life on Mars? (1971), Ziggy Stardust and Suffragette City (1972), The Jean Genie (1973), Rebel Rebel and Diamond Dogs (1974), Young Americans and Fame (1975), Golden Years (1976), Heroes (1977), Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), Ashes to Ashes and Fashion (1980).

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Not bad for a career. But that only covers ¼ of the time Bowie filled in the “musician” bubble on standardized forms.

Eric Carr, in reviewing Bowie’s 2003 album Reality sums up the last ¾ of Bowie’s career quite nicely:

“Bowie’s work is traditionally seen in a terrifically damaging binary– common law states that if his work isn’t brilliant, it’s terrible…”

This is a fair assessment of how Bowie’s post-1983 albums were received. Realize that he was not content to repeat previous successes but always strived for something different, a particular concept or composing strategy. Some forays into new territory were more successful than others. Often the results did not meet fans’ expectations. Judgments were harsh. And 1983/84 were pivotal years in this process.

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Before the release of Let’s Dance, Bowie was immensely popular yet associated with fringe or avant-garde culture. Making a complete left turn, his 1983 album was straight-ahead danceable pop music. The 1984 follow-up Tonight, featuring similar music, made Bowie more commercially successful than ever and brought in a legion of new fans. However, the commercial success came with negative reviews; to his long-time followers, Bowie was not acting like Bowie.

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Three years passed before the release of another album, Never Let Me Down. Three hit-singles, commercially successful, but critically panned. Later in life Bowie felt that he had not been involved enough in the process of making this album. He commented that the time after Let’s Dance was a bad one for him artistically.

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Bowie’s next two albums were with the band Tin Machine, and it wasn’t until 1993 that he released another solo album, Black Tie White Noise. This album moved in a new direction of darker music, more intensely personal songs. The result? Critical and commercial success. The music is still funky and dance-oriented, but not poppy, somewhat similar to synth-pop band Heaven 17. Lyrics focused on Bowie’s wedding to Iman and his step-brother’s suicide. Highly personal and dark.

With still more than 20 years of music before the release of Blackstar, stay tuned for more on David Bowie’s later career next posting, same Bowie time, same Bowie channel.