David Bowie “Blackstar” Review

With his new album Backstar, David Bowie turned his passing into a work of art.  Everyone must die, but very few people are able to turn that inevitable decline into something beautiful.  There is no doubt that fortune, if there can be anything fortunate about dying, was on his side, but it is still quite an accomplishment, to have that kind of fortitude in the face of death.

How is the album?  It’s easily his best since Heathen and quite possibly his best since the criminally underrated Outside.  For the first time since that album, an album about fictional art murders at the end of the century, he has made a completely cohesive record where every track not only works, but works together.

The last three album (Heathen, Reality, The Next Day), while all featuring great material, have been somewhat flawed.  The production by Tony Visconti was too clinical.  Heathen, the first of the last three records, was the best and worked way more often than it did not.  I can’t quite put my finger on it, as Visconti is usually top notch, but they sounded like someone trying to catch up to new technology, without mastering it.  The instruments felt too separate from each other.  The music often didn’t feel distinct, nor did the instruments sound like they were played with passion.  (Pete Townshend, playing guitar on the song Slow Burn, provided the kind of fire that was missing on some of the other tracks.)   In the past Bowie has had phases where he was consciously trying to play in a passionless way, taking inspiration from Kraftwerk, but this didn’t sound like that.  That’s not saying that these records were bad.  Each had things to recommend them, and all had a couple great songs, but they weren’t up to Bowie’s normal standard.

With his latest he sounds like he was truly pushing the envelope again.  By recruiting younger jazz musicians, he added a distinct element to the new music.  Also, Visconti regained his touch, providing the right amount of atmosphere, while still allowing unique musical personalities to come through the ambience.  There is a sense of danger and adventure to the record.  Bowie was again combining pop with the avant-garde.  The record sounds extremely modern, but not self-consciously so.  It doesn’t seem like an attempt to stay current, but that once again, like so many times, Bowie was ahead of the curve.

It’s a dark, often disturbing record, both sonically and lyrically.  Bowie’s lyrics are highly interpretive here, but full of striking imagery.  Anyone that starts an album with a 10 minute, two part, song filled with bleak imagery is not begging to be loved.  He is as much painting abstract art with words, as he is writing traditional song lyrics.  I kept thinking of the painting of David Lynch when hearing this song and several others.  (Bowie has worked with Lynch in his movie Fire Walk With Me.  Lynch also used Bowie’s I’m Deranged in his film Lost Highway.)

When an artist goes this far out on a limb they are in danger of creating something interesting, but possibly not inspiring.  It’s always noble when an artist tries to make something unflinchingly artistic, but one risks making something that is listenable for a spin or two and quickly gets filed away.  However, I kept finding myself going back to this record, listening the entire way through every time.  I think this is due to the quality of the material, the exciting musical soundscapes, and the fact that the album sounds like one complete whole.  There is no doubt that some who are only interested in his pop singles will not like this album, but that will be at their loss.

The record is also beautiful in places.  The final song, I Can’t Give Everything Away, up above, has a gorgeous melody.

There are so few artists that can walk the high wire between pop culture and upscale art.  Many modern artists can seemingly do one or the other.  Bowie could seem at home in either an art gallery or on a FM station.  There is no doubt that Bowie’s death probably gave this album a life that it wouldn’t have had, due to the challenging nature of some of the material.  But people’s lives will be richer for having this playing in their home.  So often these days #1 records seem the work of focus groups, instead of some kind of artistic endeavor.  But this record is art with a capital A.  If we were all talking about such a thing more often, modern life might feel so meaningless so often.


A Song For Sunday

She pulls the shade
It’s just another sunny Sunday
She dodges the light like Blanche DuBois
Bright colors fade away on such a sunny Sunday
She waits for the night to fall
Then she points a pistol through the door
And she aims at the streetlight
While the freeway hisses
Dogs bark as the gun falls to the floor
The streetlight’s still burning
She always misses
But the day she hits
That’s the day she’ll leave
That one little victory, that’s all she needs
She pulls the shade
It’s just another sunny Monday
She waits for the night to fall

Sunny Sunday by Joni Mitchell

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Public Image Ltd. “Double Trouble” Review

This is the single to the new Public Image Ltd. album, What the World Needs Now…, called Double Trouble.  It’s a complex record where John Lydon once again proves that he is not going to play by anyone’s rules but his own.  PIL, as they’re also known, has a unique discography that is really indescribable due to the amount of genres they piece together.  One album, or even song, might sound nothing like the next.  There is an abundance of dub influenced bass lines and angular post-punk guitars, but even those are entirely done away with at times.  The album The Flowers of Romance has no almost no bass or guitar on many of the tracks.  At times they have dabbled in synthpop, but even their synth pop is nothing like the kind that was predominant in the 80’s.  The only sound that ties their records together is that of Lydon’s voice.  Although on the last two records PIL has retained their lineup, the first two records also had the same lineup, although not the one they have now, Lydon has remained their only consistent member.

I haven’t heard the album enough to write a proper review yet.  The song above is about a domestic dispute between him and his wife over fixing the toilet.  Lydon, the same person that wrote the lyrics to Anarchy In the U.K. and God Save the Queen, hasn’t retired from political statements.  Lydon still sings about the state of the world, hence the album title, if in at times a slightly more abstracted way.  He still, as always, has a true sense of justice and is deeply troubled by the class systems in the world.

But for right now, until I have a better grasp of the record, I want to talk about the single and why I like it, even if it is one of the lighter pieces on the record.  Lydon is less of a singer at this point than an actor.  However, I don’t mean that he is hiding behind personas.  He is one of the most authentic people in music.  But less than singing a tightly written melody, he allows his voice to embody the emotion of a song.  You may listen to the song above and hear a lack of singing range, you may think his voice lacks a melodicism in the song, which it does. But that isn’t the point.  If you listen to the record as a whole, he has a great expressive range in his voice, even more so than he has in the past.  His vocals take on all kinds of interesting characteristics through the album. Lydon is channeling emotions in a way to get at truth.

The french philosopher Montaigne talked about how the functions of the body, something which is rarely talked about in polite company, is actually a part of life that all people must deal with.  Because all people must deal with it, it is actually something that should be dealt with in discussion.  It shouldn’t be outside the realm of philosophy.  I am simplifying to get to the point, Montaigne is actually more complicated, but I couldn’t help but think of this idea when I listened to the new PIL single.

I always talk about how I like songwriters who expand the form.  Lydon is taking a subject that everyone who has been in a relationship, or who has had roommates at least, has dealt with, yet doesn’t get put to music because it isn’t glamorous.  Lydon is taking a little piece of everyday life and making a little painting out of it, even if it is a garish, somewhat silly one.  I’m not trying to make the song seem more important than it is, but in a way he is destroying the idea of the pop star, as pop stars are often nothing more than images that are made to seem like they are above the trappings of everyday humanity.

I personally love the sound of the track, with Lydon’s bratty vocal, and especially the skronky guitar part laid out by the always great Lu Edmonds.  But why would Lydon choose this song as not only the first single, but the first track on the album, an album that I can already tell deals with more serious themes?  I don’t quite know yet, but I have some theories.  First, Lydon has always had a sense of fun about him.  There is no doubt about that.  However, I also think that in Lydon’s choice to sing about something “real”, he is showing that he can be trusted.  When he sings about weightier topics, its not as someone that is casting judgment from an ivory tower, but his messages come from someone that is down in the human muck with the rest of us, trying to navigate this strange world, being as honest as he can.

Public Image Ltd. “Album” – John Lydon, Ginger Baker, and Steve Vai Collaborate

One of my favorite bands, that I have written about from time to time, is Public Image Ltd.  Fronted by John Lydon, former Johnny Rotten of Sex Pistols fame, they have continuously pushed the boundaries of music.  If you listen to their catalog, it simply doesn’t sound like anyone else’s, even if certain songs, or parts of songs, are grounded in particular genres.  Punk, dub, world music, rock, and electronic music all play a role at various time periods in the bands history.  I shouldn’t really call it a band.  Although the project started as a band and has been a functioning band recently, the only consistent member has been Lydon.

Tonight I have been watching the documentary Beware of Mr. Baker.  The documentary is about drummer Ginger Baker.  Baker is most famous for Cream and Blind Faith, though he has a long and varied career.  It made me think of his work with Public Image Ltd.

One of the most famous Public Image Image Ltd. albums is Album, or Compact Disc or Cassette, depending on the format at the time of its release.  (Though it is now predominately known by the first title.)  It’s a truly strange release that brings together not only Lydon and Baker, but also virtuoso guitar player Steve Vai, among others.  That is not exactly a trio of musicians that you imagine having something in common, other than the fact that they are all people that have tried to push the boundaries of music in one way or another.

If I’m honest, this is not my favorite record of theirs, though it definitely has its merits.  On several of the tracks producer Bill Laswell pushes them towards heavy metal, though it’s not typical metal by any means.  On these tracks the musicianship and Lydon’s one of a kind personality shine, but music itself isn’t as adventurous as a lot of the PIL catalog.  My favorite two tracks are at opposite ends of the spectrum.  The most famous track is the single Rise, which has an African music element, but also incorporates Vai’s unique guitar tone and brief moments of darkness that contrast the major key African elements.  The last track is great as well, and also perhaps the strangest.  The song Ease starts out with keyboards and a didgeridoo, followed by the bulk of the song, which has a majestic rock quality, almost Middle Eastern in sound.  The song closes with an epic solo by Vai, the likes of which is not heard throughout most of the PIL discography.  I’m not even sure if the song is any good, but it is definitely great.  Something that starts with a didgeridoo, then features Lydon singing over almost a Led Zeppelinesque middle passage, and closes out with a solo by Vai, is not like anything else I have ever heard.

Although there are other PIL records I prefer, the sheer fact that Lydon was so willing to reach out into new territory time and time again is inspiring.  And even if I would advise one to start elsewhere with their catalog, I think this one should be added to your collection at some point.  It’s a true one-off, that could only have been created at it’s unique time and place in musical history, by a group of freaks trying to do something new.  I’m always interested in hearing people go down the road less traveled.

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Inside Most Intense Public Enemy Record of the Century – New Record 'Man Plans, God Laughs'

Inside Most Intense Public Enemy Record of the Century

As I looked quickly at the headlines over at Rolling Stone today, I was shocked and extremely psyched to see that Public Enemy is releasing a new album…this week!  The album is titled Man Plans, God Laughs.  They are one of the greatest groups of all time in any genre, and if they weren’t so intensely political, I believe their profile would be even higher here in the states than it has been in recent years.  Their last two albums, Most of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear On No Stamps and The Evil Empire of Everything, both released in 2012, were both jaw dropping and worth checking out if you have checked the group out in awhile.  (I would definitely get both records as they both feature different sonic textures, yet compliment each other really well from a musical perspective.  If you love the group or just love exciting and intense music, you can’t go wrong.)  The above video is one of the official singles from Most of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear On No Stamps.

New Order Release New Album In September

One of my favorite bands of all time is New Order.  (And I really love anything Bernard Sumner is a part of.)  It looks like they will be releasing a new studio album in September called Music Complete.  Peter Hook is no longer with them, but Gillian Gilbert is back for the first time in a decade.  Up above is a 30 second sound clip from the new record.  One can’t tell much from it, but it makes no difference, I’m already in.

NYT Brian Wilson No Pier Pressure Review

Brian Wilson No Pier Pressure Review

The above New York Times article is the best review I’ve seen yet of Brian Wilson’s new album, No Pier Pressure, based on what I have heard of the record so far.  All of the other reviews I have read have been either completely shallow, or seem to not be interpreting it correctly given his discography.  I am still forming my thoughts about the record and will write about it more at some point.  In the meantime I think that this is a good place to start reading about the album if you are interested in it.

For All My Sisters Review


I really like the new Cribs album For All My Sisters a lot.  It’s pop music in the best sense.  Pop music as played by rock band.  Despite the fact that the band is from England, there is something California about their new record.  If not for the accents on the vocals, there is something about this record that can be traced on a musical family tree back to certain elements of Weezer and even the Beach Boys.  I’m not saying that is intentional, or that there aren’t stylistic differences, only that there is a melodic sense that is somehow sunny and often melancholy a the same time.

The album is produced by Ric Ocasek who also produced Weezer’s Blue and Green albums, and also their excellent new album Everything Will Be Alright In the End.  As I said, there are definitely some melodic moments that recall Weezer, although The Cribs have been delivering great melodies since the start of their career.  However, while Weezer, for the most part, have an easy mass appeal, despite their idiosyncrasies, The Cribs new album is more cryptic.  Despite being melodic, the guitars are more jagged, more angular.  Even their extremely melodic vocal hooks are more elusive, less singsongy.  This is rock n roll pop music filtered through British post-punk.

One of the things that Ric Ocasek does time and time again is get great guitar tones.  He does this without doing anything seemingly complex.  Aside from a couple of synth parts and extra backup vocals, there is almost nothing on this album that the three piece Cribs could not reproduce live.  Hearing a guitar overdub that plays something different than the main guitar line is rare.  Mostly it just sounds like one guitar part doubled.  If you listen to this album, the Weezer albums, or even the Bad Brains God of Love, Ocasek is able to create deep textures through guitar distortion.  He is able to take something incredibly simple and turn it into an aural painting.  Where guitars can often sound flat, he creates an incredible amount of depth, a warm swimming pool that the listener can pleasurably dive into.  This is a big deal, especially for a three piece band.

Despite the album being full of hooks, there is not anything as instantly memorable as earlier Cribs records.  There is no song that has a chorus as memorable as the song We Share the Same Skies, for instance.  This doesn’t necessarily work against it, as the album holds up on repeated plays.  The album is enjoyable on the first listen, but it is definitely a grower.  I know that I have said several times that is is incredibly melodic, and it is true that the album has very glossy production, but there is a slight sense of artiness here, just below the surface, that keeps the album from being swallowed too easily.

If I had to criticize anything, it would be that the lyrics haven’t really opened themselves up to me yet.  That’s not to say that they are bad or unintelligent.  They do not get in the way of my enjoyment either.  It’s just that, despite the album having a classic rock mix, the vocals are not buried like they are on many other indie rock records, the vocals seem part of the music more than the centerpiece.

The Cribs have consistently been at that crossroad where indie, pop, rock, and post-punk collide.  I am partial to this kind of music, but I think anyone that likes to hear guitar oriented rock music with great melodies would like this as well.  They are not doing anything groundbreaking, but they put the ingredients together in a unique way that gives them their own sound and personality.  The fact that they do have their own personality does mean they are able to expand the form on the margins, and that alone is worth something.

New James McMurtry Out Today

James McMurtry’s new album Complicated Game is out today.  McMurtry is one of the best songwriters in America.  I probably won’t be able to review the new album until next week.  In the meantime here is one of the tracks off of it.  I’m really looking forward to diving into this record when I get the time.