Two decades ago, new albums from David Bowie, Paul McCartney, John Paul Jones and others were spinning away in my portable CD player. Here’s what I had to say about them back then (with some minor editing):
‘hours … ’
With the possible exception of Madonna — and she learned it from him — no rock performer has reinvented himself as frequently, consistently and completely as David Bowie.
Earnest folkie, bisexual glam rocker, pop crooner, blue-eyed soul man — Bowie has worn and discarded all these masks over his career. And whether you worship him or not, you’ve gotta admit he remains one of the few artists who remains truly unpredictable. There’s really no way to know precisely what he’ll do — or who he’ll be — next.
Which makes it all the more surprising that on ‘hours … ’ his 23th album, Bowie’s latest incarnation turns out to be … David Bowie. Not Ziggy Stardust, not The Thin White Duke, not some futuristic private eye, just plain ol’ Dave, attempting to shed all those layers of skin and take stock of the guy beneath it all. Of course, after all these years, you almost have to wonder if there is a real Bowie. Or if there’s just one. Perhaps that’s the point of the multiple-Bowie theme of the disc’s artwork — David sitting at a table with himself, three Bowies seated side by side, the new-look Bowie cradling his last version in his arms. Whatever.
What is clearer is that ‘hours …’ is Dave’s most heartfelt, emotional outing in some time. On 10 tracks co-written with Tin Machine guitarist Reeves Gabrels, Bowie ruminates on romantic loss and emotional regret, with rock’s first and foremost post-modernist sliding easily into the role of pre-millennial crooner. Starting with the downbeat soul ballad Thursday’s Child, Bowie meanders through a subtle landscape of acoustic trip-folk, electro-rock and even touches of orchestral grandeur, slowly building up steam until he hits the summery synth-rock of Baby What’s Happening? (a knockoff of Keep Me Hangin’ On) and the paranoid android-crunch of The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell, a perfect set-closer.
Too bad it isn’t. Instead, ‘hours … ’ drags on for three more songs, frittering away its momentum with pointless New Romantic warbling, a needless instrumental and a plodding finale. It’s almost as if Bowie has lost his momentum or his interest. Or perhaps looking in the mirror turned out to be tougher than he thought it would be.
Run Devil Run
Like last year’s reissued album of Paul McCartney’s Unplugged gig, this new set — his first since Linda’s death — finds Big Mac revisiting the music of his youth. Only this time he’s gone all the way back to the pre-Fab Four days. Backed by a ragtag team of VIPs — including Deep Purple’s Ian Paice on drums and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour on guitar — Paul and the boys joyously bash and jam through an equally oddball set of semi-classics such as Gene Vincent’s Blue Jean Bop, Larry Williams’ She Said Yeah, Elvis Presley’s I Got Stung and the like. No, there isn’t much substance here. But it’s not as if McCartney hasn’t paid his musical dues; let him have a little fun.
John Paul Jones
Yes, it’s that John Paul Jones — the ex-Led Zeppelin bassist and keyboardist who has been more or less MIA for nearly two decades. The last time we heard from him, he was recording with oddball vocalist Diamanda Galas and producing Butthole Surfers. Now, he’s back in the solo spotlight with Zooma, released on King Crimson majordomo Robert Fripp’s label. Funnily (or perhaps fittingly) enough, this nine-song instrumental work hews closer to the Surfers and Adrian Belew-era Crim than classic Zep. Featuring nine instrumental tracks anchored by massive slabs of bass — four-string, 10-string, 12-string and even a freaky lap steel bass — Zooma is an hour of sinewy prog-funk grooves, odd-time polyrhythms and hypnotic experimentalism. Call it a back-to-bassics affair.
Live: A Benefit For Maryville Academy
The Who leader says he recorded this benefit gig for a Chicago child-abuse centre to make amends for a shoddy, drunken show in the Windy City a few years earlier. I’m not sure what one has to do with the other, but if this is the result, it was worth his slip off the wagon. The semi-unplugged Live is his most vibrant and compelling disc in years, as Townshend and a sparse, tasteful backing band playfully root through his catalogue, tossing off loose, freewheeling versions of Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere, Won’t Get Fooled Again, Let My Love Open The Door, You Better You Bet and two versions of Magic Bus — one a duet with Eddie Vedder. It’s a must for every Who fan.
Method Man & Redman
Another week, another Wu-Tang CD. In this one, the Staten Island Clan’s heavy hitter Method Man goes er, man to man with fellow New York-area verbal pugilist Redman. As it turns out, however, they’re fighting on the same side. Unlike too many ill-conceived hip-hop collaborations these days, Blackout! doesn’t feel forced or contrived. Meth’s sinister slur and Red’s rambunctious ramblings go together like chicken and waffles, while the bumptious backing tracks offer plenty of block rockin’ rhythm to go with the rhyme. It’s a Mans’ world.
This U.K. teen-rock trio has matured since their first two CDs, 1977 and Trailer. Or at least that’s what they want you to think with Nu-Clear Sounds. So you get slow ballads and thoughtful, contemplative tracks like Folk Song and Burn Out along with the Stooges-style rock-outs, post-grunge anthems and cheeky Britrock riffs. All of which is well and good, although it comes off as a tad calculated, like a kid cleaning up his room the day before his birthday. They’re still at their best on tracks like Death Trip 21 and Numbskull, when they just crank up, jump on the bed and thrash around like the young’uns they are. If we’re lucky, this maturity thing is just a phase they’re going through.
Performance And Cocktails
Finally, a U.K. band that nearly lives up to the hype. Welsh trio Stereophonics bagged a gaggle of British music awards for this followup to their 1997 debut Word Gets Around. Now that Performance And Cocktails has finally been released on this side of the pond, you can bet word’s going to get around about it. And I best much of the talk includes the names Rod Stewart and Oasis, thanks to singer/guitarist Kelly Jones’ raunchy rasp and the band’s penchant for sweeping Britrock grandeur. Along with those two, the lads’ sound namedrops Nirvana, Cheap Trick and a host of others, along with incorporating some dub and trip-hop technology. Our only complaint: Too many ballads. Think performance boys, not cocktails.
You wouldn’t exactly call this fresh Air. In the wake of the North American success of the album Moon Safari, this French disco duo has dug into its back catalogue of European singles for this EP. And there’s a whole catalogue of styles on display here: Breathy moonscapes, icy-cool electric piano, space-age Europop melodies, blaxploitation funk, old-school robo-disco bump and even a sprinkling of folk guitar. As usual with Air, you never know which way the wind is going to blow.
Whole Lotta Blues: Songs Of Led Zeppelin
To many, Led Zeppelin were the first great heavy metal band. But as this tribute disc argues, they were also the last great blues band. And to prove the point, a roster of Chicago and Memphis players get the Led out here, covering a dozen or so classic Zep tracks. Alvin (Youngblood) Hard finds the folk at the heart of Heartbreaker, Clarence (Gatemouth) Brown puts a little Memphis boogie into Rock N’ Roll and Joe Louis Walker and James Cotton reclaim Willie Dixon’s You Need Love, which Zep, er, “borrowed” for Whole Lotta Love. This could use a few cooler acts and cooler tracks, but Whole Lotta Blues is probably gonna make you sweat, and gonna make you groove.
Going Nowhere Fast
And they do mean fast: This veteran skate-thrash foursome burn some serious rubber on their latest disc, blazing through 15 tracks in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it time of 26 minutes. (I got up to answer the phone without hitting pause, and when I came back, I’d missed two songs — and it was a wrong number!) Suffice to say these high-speed punk anthems don’t have much fat. But there’s still plenty of meat on the bones — the possessed ’boarders cram more beats, brains and metal riffs into 100 seconds than some bands do in 100 songs. Maybe they should have called this Land Speed Record.
Bob Log III
They broke the mold when they made blues lunatic Bob Log III. And lotsa folks might say that’s for the best. After all, could the world really handle more than one freakball in a motorcycle helmet and a cop uniform, flogging his slide geetar with his “monkey paw” and stomping on a big bass drum while wildly yelping lewd psychohoodoogaragabilly epics like Ass Computer, Clap Your T— (featuring women actually, um, clapping) and Daddy Log’s Drive In Candy Hoppin’ Car Babes? Probably not. Which is a durn shame, if you ask me. Think of it this way: For every Bob Log CD, there might be one less crappy blues album out there. And we can all get behind that, can’t we?
Meet Me In The City
Late Mississippi juke jointer Junior Kimbrough is already well on his way to becoming the Jimi Hendrix of Delta blues — this is the second posthumous release since his death last year. Not that we’re complaining, mind. Just like with those innumerable Hendrix outtakes, it doesn’t that most of these are murky home demos and ragged-ass live tracks — the raw power and blistering intensity of his spine-tingling moan and crawling king-snake guitar rise up through the murk like some unstoppable swamp thing. Crank this up and you’ll frighten the children, freak out the neighbours, drive away the postman — and cleanse your soul. Keep ’em comin’, Fat boys.
Out There In The Dark
Remember Time Bandits? That Terry Gilliam movie about thieves with a holy map of the universe who slipped through tears in the space-time fabric to nick priceless artifacts? Well, somehow Detroit’s Outrageous Cherry got their hands on that map — and they’ve put it to a new artistic use. This garage-pop outfit has found a passageway that leads from The Rolling Stones’ Paint It, Black and Electric Prunes’ Too Much To Dream Last Night to The Velvet Underground’s Loaded and Sonic Youth’s Expressway To Yr. Skull. And they’ve borrowed the best bits of all those worlds to create a new one of their own: A black-lit, interplanetary crash pad drenched with Dadaist drums, sawtoothed strumming and candy-coloured clouds of reverb. But be warned: If you visit, you may never find your way back.
1000 Yard Stare
A pal of mine thinks this southern nu-metal quartet’s debut sounds like Warrant. I don’t know what’s more distressing: His assessment or the fact that he knows what Warrant sounds like. Anyway, he’s got a point: 1000 Yard Stare’s sizzling crunch-metal arpeggios, thundering beats, brooding lyrics and soaring vocals are the stuff of 1,001 metal acts — especially Days Of The New and Soundgarden. But dD make up for it with two things: a Spinal Tapishly heavy cover of Mexican Radio and some world-class studio smarts. This self-produced disc is one of the most sonically inventive we’ve heard lately, replete with nifty tricks and ear-tweaking effects. Give up playing and open a studio, boys. I bet Warrant is looking for a new sound.
We’ll Never Stop Living This Way
Not many folks could use the words “Kraftwerk” and “funk” in the same sentence. Maximilian Lenz can and does — the German deejay posits that the proto-electromeisters of the ’70s are the only white musicians to influence black music. Consider him the second. As WestBam (taken from his hometown of Westphalia and his idol Afrika Bambaataa) Lenz refocuses and updates the K-men’s sound for the ’90s, taking their simple synth lines, robotic beatboxes, vocorders and four-on-the-floor techno thump and making it funky — sorry, funkier — with syncopation and cutting-edge knob-twiddling. As the man-machines would say: Fun, fun, fun, oh so fun.
Whine De Lune
“I been a good girl, I been taking my pills,” claims Trailer Bride singer/songwriter Melissa Swingle on Dirt Nap, one of the songs on the band’s third album. Well, I don’t know what she’s taking, but if they’re mood elevators, they ain’t working, bubba. And thank heavens for that. I like Swingle’s world-weary country croon just the way it is — with a little bit of Courtney Love’s narcotized sensuality, some of Carla Bozulich’s tragic warble, and even a smidgen of Exene Cervenka’s country-punk sneer. Put it together with her band’s southern-gothic C&W minimalism and you’ve got a real bitter pill you’ll be begging to swallow. Open up and say ahhhh …
The Evil Tambourines
Let’s face it: When you think of Sub Pop records, you think of one thing: Rock ’n’ roll. Heavy, snarling, fearsome, brutal rock, whether it’s the grunge of oldsters like Nirvana or the Stooges riffs of The Go! What you least expect is hip-hop — but that’s precisely what you get from Sub Pop’s newest act, the PacNorwest duo Evil Tambourines. Hip-hop with an indie-rock sensibility is the specialty of the day here. The grooves are light and trippy like early De La Soul; the production is loopy and whimsical like Dream Warriors; the rhymes sometimes have the sizzle and sass of Paul’s Boutique-era Beastie Boys. Just call them Sub Hop.
You might never have heard of Bows. Likewise, maybe the name of leader Luke Sutherland doesn’t ring any bells. But if you’re a fan of Scottish music, chances are you’re familiar with the bands Mogwai and Long Fin Killie. Well, Sutherland plays violin with the former and led the latter. And on his debut solo disc, he doesn’t stray too far from either. Marrying Long Fin’s eccentric trip-pop to Mogwai’s minimalist swirl, Sutherland produces a baker’s dozen tracks spinning with the dubby, narcotic drum ’n’ bass and throbbing low-end rumble of Massive Attack and the atmospheric space-rock of My Bloody Valentine and Mogwai, accompanied by rich strings, brass and airy female vocals that drift around like poltergeists. At first Blush, Bows deserves a standing ovation.