Saturday, January 30, 2016

Reviewing every David Bowie live album

Two years ago, I paid tribute to Lou Reed by reviewing all of his live albums in the wake of his death.  Needless to say, David Bowie is more than deserving of a similar honour.

But whereas with Reed I was already familiar with parts of his live catalogue, heading into this project I have not, to the best of my knowledge, heard a note of music from any of these albums.  In fact, I've neither seen nor heard hardly any live Bowie -- besides the famous Live Aid performance and a bootleg from Glastonbury 2000 (which is fantastic) I can't recall a single thing off the top of my head (does the Bing Crosby TV appearance count?)*.  I'll be listening in chronological order of each album's first release (not the very different order in which they were recorded), although in some cases I'll be substituting the expanded re-release for the original.

* Oh, there is a 45-minute documentary of Bowie and Massive Attack in Israel in 1996 -- how about that for a double bill? -- that includes a few live songs.  I discovered it on Youtube the day after Bowie's death, but since then, it seems as though Israel Channel 2 have forced it off the internet.  Here's a short clip.  

David Live (1974) (2005 re-release)

This album has plenty of obstacles to overcome.  It was during one of Bowie's "drugged out of his mind" phases, so even though he a gives perfectly serviceable performance, it's almost totally lacking in passion and conviction.  That's a serious problem for an artist trying to transition away from glam rock and into what he claimed was soul music.  The same can be said of his backing band.  In place of a kindred soul like Mick Ronson who intuitively understood the Bowie aesthetic, here he brings a slick, professional outfit that is there to provide steady backup to Bowie but nothing more.  If the singer could carry the show on the strength of his charisma then that might be sufficient, but unfortunately that is far from the case here.

Songs like "Changes" and especially "Suffragette City" should be ramshackle and slightly unhinged, instead they become "Bowie: the Musical"-style supper club entertainment with ample layers of squawking (overdubbed) sax.  But as the album goes on, oddly enough, the style starts to work in a number of places, for example, with "All the Young Dudes" which for me has always been a Broadway-ready piece thanks to its dramatic and endlessly croonable chorus.  "Rock and Roll With Me" has a raw, freestyling feel with a pronounced gospel streak that anticipates what Spiritualized would do nearly thirty years later beginning with "Amazing Grace".  And of course, there's "Diamond Dogs", which was supposed to be a half glam, half Philly soul track in the first place.

Unfortunately, the album peaks around "Diamond Dogs"/"Panic In Detroit", before he digs into the meat of the "Diamond Dogs" album.  That middle forty or so minutes out of the 100-minute slog is wonderful, and there's just enough good to outweigh the bad overall, but I wouldn't call this an essential live document or anything.  5.5/10

Stage (1978) (2005 re-release)

Even two songs in, this album blows away nearly everything on "David Live".   "Stage" was heavily criticized at the time for being too "clean" (i.e. a soundboard recording with very little crowd noise) and sticking too close to the album arrangements.  I didn't know that excess crowd noise was considered a must in 70's live recordings, so let's just dismiss that line of criticism.  As for the arrangements, I think people weren't used to hearing seven minute instrumental pieces on recordings, so we can chalk it up to Bowie being so far ahead of the curve in his Berlin period.  There are plenty of fascinating arrangements here besides the general increase in tempos.  The squalls of guitar noise in the final minute and coda of "Beauty and the Beast" is just one example.  The entire "Ziggy Stardust" section that begins disc 2 is another.  Those songs lose much of their glam hedonism and take on a more sinister tone with Bowie's new band.  "Ziggy Stardust" is a song (and album) about the dangers of rock and roll excess and the "Stage" recordings are played with a subtle restraint that communicates that message perfectly, whereas the original studio recordings glorified that excess.

This performance of "Heroes" may be the best live version I've heard because it truly "gets" what made the studio recording so magical.  Subsequent versions tended to change it into a driving rock and roll anthem, but the studio version specifically tried to be less rock and roll despite its steady beat and soaring guitar solos.

In contrast to "David Live", Bowie is energized and focused throughout the album, finally content to play something closer to his real life self (the underground artist from Berlin) rather than yet another character he had to convince himself he wanted to be.  The entire album sounds frighteningly contemporary too, I have little doubt, in a parallel universe where Bowie was still with us, that this performance with a few songs from "Blackstar" thrown in could have gone over huge at any festival this year.  What kind of mutant genius is this?  9.5/10 

Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture (1983 original release)(recorded 1973)

"Hang On To Yourself" explodes out of the gate, fueled by an intensity that is almost punk, a remarkably aggressive sound for 1973.  The slightly murky recording quality sets the scene beautifully, I can picture myself in the packed club, with raunchy smells in the air, watching a fierce and gloriously colourful rock and roll band.  The Spiders From Mars sound spectacular even at the end of what was surely an exhausting tour.  It is every bit the legendary gig that lives up to its reputation.

The guitar solo on "Moonage Daydream" is just ... wow.  "Space Oddity" provides the necessary comedown after that, and it was at this point that I finally understood exactly what Suede were aiming for in 1993 when they followed up "The Drowners" with "Sleeping Pills" on their first album.  Yes, of course they were glam-loving Bowie worshippers, I'm not talking about copying Bowie in the general sense.  I'm talking about trying to duplicate this exact moment, about three minutes into "Space Oddity", when you try to take in its soaring guitar lines when the exhiliration of "Moonage Daydream" is still wedged in your brain. 

After that extended cool down section, featuring epic versions of "Time" and "Width of a Circle", the energy ramps up again with "Changes", keeps increasing with "Let's Spend the Night Together", and hits impossibly high heights on "Suffragette City".  The song sequencing is impeccable here.

As for the "retirement speech", all five seconds of it, it's no wonder why people thought he was really retiring (those few seconds, separate from the rest of this gig, are the total extent of what I've heard previously from this album).  There's no sense of drama, as if he's immersed in the character and adding an extra element of drama to the show.  It really feels like an out of character moment, and of course the final song is "Rock and Roll Suicide", and the symbolism couldn't be clearer -- "we're going out on top and throwing ourselves on our swords as we go".  8.5/10

Live Santa Monica '72 (released 1994/2008)

Recorded nine months before the famous Hammersmith Odeon concert (see above), but released as a semi-legal bootleg in 1994 and then officially in 2008, this album captures a somewhat softer side of the Ziggy-era Bowie.  It's clearly the same band pushing the same buttons, but there are a few key differences.  The proggy middle section of the "Ziggy Stardust" soundtrack is replaced by an all-acoustic run.  "Changes" is closer in tone to the album version, and ballads like "Life on Mars" appear in place of the more aggressive "Aladdin Sane" material.  You can also sum up the differences by the choice of Velvet Underground covers.  On "Ziggy '73" they play "White Light, White Heat" -- raw, visceral, unforgiving.  Here they play a rollicking, almost jaunty version of "I'm Waiting for the Man". These aren't negatives, but there is a lot more risk taking with the "Ziggy" gig and a clearer shift away from rock and roll norms.  7.5/10

Side note: on these live versions of "Hang Onto Yourself", they attack the riffs with more ferocity than the album version, and with a far greater emphasis on the bass.  I wasn't convinced before, but I'm now fully on board with the theory that "Hang Onto Yourself" = sleng teng riddim.

Glass Spider Tour live (2008) (recorded 1987)

This is the one instance where I watched the concert video, for the rest of the albums I am reviewing just the audio recording.

This is the version of Bowie I grew up with -- the clean cut crooner of the post "Let's Dance" period. The clothes, staging, choreography, between song skits (weird half-street, half-surrealist stuff with a tinge of Janet Jackson ... definitely an odd coat for Bowie to try on) have all been impeccably stylized for the commercial 80's rock market.  We're right in the thick of what Bowie derisively called his "Phil Collins" period.  I still enjoy his singles from these years but I've never bothered to dig deeper into the albums or anything.  This version of Bowie is "what you see is what you get" -- still cool and stylish, but for an artist who was constantly evolving, he was never more like everybody else than he was from 1983-1987.

And yet goddamn, this concert is still great.  Sure, Carlos Alomar tries to show off his shredding skills a few too many times, Peter Frampton duets on "Sons of the Silent Age" and nearly ruins the song, and there's way too much Huey Lewis-style sax for my liking.   But check out Bowie's dancing on "Fashion" -- who knew he was so flexible and could dance so well?  Him and his band slay with "Young Americans" and "The Jean Genie", rearranged into bombastic overload for the 80's.  And this concert features "Absolute Beginners" in its impossibly cool prime.  Is it probably or most definitely the most underrated Bowie single?  8/10

VH1 Storytellers (2009) (recorded 1999)

The best part of this brief concert is a second hand story told to Bowie by Iggy Pop.  Iggy went to a club on an anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall, and at the appropriate moment, the clubgoers gleefully smashed up a model of the Wall.  After it was done, everyone burst into tears.  From the perspective of a frequent visitor to 21st century Berlin, as the city completely reinvents itself for the third time (at least) in the last century, that story got to me.

There are no standout musical performances or unique arrangements (although the semi-acoustic format of Storytellers does limit potential risk taking from the artists) but Bowie does take risks with song selection, digging deep into his catalog to play a number of seldom played album cuts.   Also of interest is "Thursday's Child", the lead single from "Hours", which comes off sounding more lively than any of the older tunes.  Sometimes you need reminding about how great Bowie could still be at his commercial nadir.  "Thursday's Child" is easy on the ears, and is easily his most radio friendly single of the last fifteen or so years (my favourite radio station still plays it from time to time). 6/10

A Reality Tour (2010) (recorded 2003)

Sadly, this turned out to be Bowie's final tour.  If he had announced it as his final tour at the time then you couldn't have asked for much more as a fan.  Over the one hundred plus dates of the tour, he played a total of 67 songs from every phase of his career (the popular and not so popular ones).  The concert was recorded over two nights in Dublin, and on the second night he played 35 songs from 15 different albums, plus a number of covers.  The general theme is that there's something for everyone.  It's a celebration of his career, and a decidedly uncontroversial and non confrontational one from an artist who usually tried hard to be both.  Then again, "Reality" was a fairly straightforward rock album.

Still, if you don't get goosebumps hearing "Life on Mars" and "Ziggy Stardust" for the 10 000th time and at least five or six other songs of your choice (including at least one or two from his later albums), then I have no idea why you've made it to the end of this post.  7/10

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Pazz and Jop 2015

Every social media platform and online media outlet has been re-branded as a David Bowie tribute/fan site this past week, and rightly so.  As such, this year's Pazz and Jop rollout was mostly an afterthought next to the far bigger news story of the week.  The VV is already disadvantaged by being the last major publication to release a year-end list, and barring mid-December surprises like last year's winner, Maxwell's "Black Messiah", that's not going to change anytime soon.  The poll still performs an important function by being the largest of its kind and by far the most well-archived.  Long after the shrugging has stopped in reaction to yet another website ranking Kendrick Lamar at #1, the wealth of information contained in each yearly P&J list will make it (in my view) an invaluable reference source for a long time to come.  Speaking of which, there was even a David Bowie/P&J article published this week too -- specifically, in reference to Bowie's historically poor showing in the poll, even in his 70's heyday.  
Some randomly organized thoughts:

-- The mid-January publication date (which is in itself relatively new, a few years ago they moved up the date by a couple of weeks to bring it closer to the publication of every other major media outlet's year-end list) doesn't lend itself to surprise results, save for the rare mid-to-late December bombshell (Beyonce and Maxwell in recent years).  But I can't recall seeing Carly Rae Jepsen ranked so high on other year-end lists, so I must ask ... what the hell?  I invested way too much time with that album this year, subjecting myself to multiple spins in an attempt to understand even 1% of the hype that had deemed it the smartest and most underrated pop release in forever.  I never heard anything other than your basic bubblegum pop dance album, which is a perfectly fine thing to be, and does not the least bit resemble something that deserves to be ranked as the #3 album of the year.  Maybe 2015 was a worse year for music than I thought ...

-- There's an interesting run from #43 to #49 which includes Low, Deerhunter, and Wilco, three indie darlings who didn't get much publicity this year presumably because of their familiarity after 15-20 year careers.  Nonetheless, there always seems to be a bedrock of critics who pay close attention to what they do because they never fall below a certain level in a large multi-generational poll like P&J.  That also applies all-time rock heavyweights like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen ... and how about that, there's Bob Dylan at #49!

-- Kendrick Lamar's "To Pimp a Butterfly" was the most dominant #1 album in the history of P&J, seeing as it was named on over 40% of the ballots -- the highest percentage ever.  The real #2 album should have been Maxwell's "Black Messiah".  Why, you ask?  Since I've been voting (not sure about before that), the singles lists has always used carryover votes from previous years, against all discernible logic.  The poll is trying to recognize music in the year it made the most "impact", which is defined by the poll editors, not the voters.  So if I vote for "Habib Galbi" this year (which I did, and I was the only one) and it somehow breaks through and becomes a worldwide hit in 2016, then my vote will be counted toward the 2016 poll as well.  Thus, a song's standing is routinely boosted by double counting the votes of the first adopters.  This is usually the pattern, where a song takes a long time to catch on, a very small number of people vote for it in the year of its release, followed by a deluge of votes in the next year (the "impact year").  

Of course there's no reason to assume that the song had an "impact" on the first adopters in the year after they voted for it.  It's more likely that they've moved onto newer, and for them, more current songs.  Why assume (in this hypothetical example) that I liked "Habib Galbi" as much in 2016 as I did in 2015?  Because a bunch of other people decided to start liking it too?  Wouldn't I vote for it again if that were the case?  And assuming that I vote for ten different songs in 2016, doesn't that give me an unfairly expanded ballot with eleven songs instead of ten?

Oh but what's the harm with adding in a few extra votes as long as the poll gets the big picture right?  If five people vote for a song in 2014, and another fifty discover it in 2015, then let's forget about the calendar quirks and give the song its fifty five total votes for 2015, i.e., the year that it'll forever be associated with.  The bulk of the votes came in 2015, and the carryover votes are a small correction that don't impact the main results of the poll.  Well, except this year, when "Uptown Funk" got 44 votes, a majority of which (24) were carryover votes from last year.  Most of those voters were probably sick of it by mid-February and wouldn't even dream of voting for it again.  Or maybe they did and their votes were double counted!

And Maxwell?  I have no idea why that carryover rule should apply to songs and not albums, whose "impact" can equally well be spread over multiple years.  So Maxwell's 2008 points from last year should add with his 190 points from this year (18 mentions), boosting him from 42nd to 2nd place.  Anyone out there remember when CFNY named Smashing Pumpkins' "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness" their #1 album in both 1995 and 1996?  I still enjoy laughing about that one.  

I'm just looking for some consistency in these polls, that's all.  

-- There was no token top forty techno-related album this year, presumably because Philip Sherburne had better things to do than rally the troops.  The highest was Arca's "Mutant", which is a great record that I may have unfairly passed on for too much of the year, especially judging by the list of like-minded voters who did.  Other electronic-ish albums turn up in the 70's, including those by New Order, Holly Herndon, and Floating Points.  

-- The Christgau, Tate, Powers, and Levy end of year verbal jam session didn't live up to my high expectations, unfortunately.  Possibly because I don't know a thing about country and didn't learn anything new about Kendrick Lamar that I haven't read in a hundred other places.  Yes, it's an album dealing with black issues and primarily intended for a black audience.  At least they do acknowledge -- the white critics anyway -- that the debate leaves them on the outside looking in to some extent. 

-- As I expected, I was further from the consensus this year than ever before.  By far.  Glenn McDonald, as always, has the numbers to prove it.  

In Centricity, I was #432 out of 480, or bottom ten percentile.  My score was 0.058 (the higher the score, with one being the absolute maximum, the closer you are to the critical consensus).  My average over the previous seven years was 0.273.  The albums in my top 10 earned only 47 other votes in total.  In most previous years I listed at least one album with more than one hundred other votes. 

Going back to 2008, only in 2012 did I submit a ballot where no album earned more than 50 other votes.  That year, 50 other critics voted for Swans' "The Seer", and 39 voted for Beach House's "Bloom".  This year, my most popular albums, Beach House's "Depression Cherry" and New Order's "Music Complete", earned just 19 and 11 votes respectively.  Five of my albums were voted on by nobody else but me, a personal record.  One of those was Howling's "Sacred Ground", which is not a shock because nobody else (literally, besides one other critic who liked the 2009 Moderat album) ever votes for Modeselector, Moderat, or anything on their label(s).    

Monday, January 11, 2016

David Bowie RIP

So many thoughts about David Bowie.  

In retrospect, of course the song and video for "Lazarus" are about his death.  I mean, the song is called "Lazarus".  Listen again to the opening lines: "look up here I'm in heaven/I've got scars that can't be seen".  And we didn't know?  In the video his body is covered by a sheet, his eyes are wrapped up like a mummy, and as he struggles to sing, he takes on a half sitting/half levitating pose.  Wow.  

I remember the lead up to Freddie Mercury's death, rumours had been swirling for months when Queen hadn't announced a tour in conjunction with their upcoming new album.  Something wasn't right.  Queen always toured, and even though they were past their peak as a recording act, as a live act they were still legendary.  This was shortly after the Who and the Rolling Stones had made their comebacks and went on record breaking tours.  Being relevant on the radio was no longer important for bands at this stage of their careers, the new album was a conveniently timed signal for beginning a new tour.  So there were plenty of rumours.  Freddie was sick.  It made sense given the lack of a tour announcement and the non-denials from the Queen camp, but nobody knew anything for sure.  News travelled slowly, there was no internet, no social media.  

I don't remember how those rumours started, but they were there, and everything was trading endlessly in the same tiny pieces of information.  Finally came the confirmation that everyone had feared: Freddie was sick with AIDS.  And the next day he died.  His inner circle had obviously known what he was dealing with for some time, but it was kept quiet.  For the public, who knew nothing officially but deep down knew something was terribly wrong, it was two shocks one after the other -- before anyone had properly processed the AIDS announcement, came the announcement that he was dead.  

Information travels so much quicker these days, and yet with Bowie, we see there has been little change in the speed of understanding.  He was looking more frail in recent photos and videos than he was for his last album three years ago.  He was not granting interviews (although the same was true with "The Next Day").  Nobody seriously raised the idea that "Blackstar" was an album of hidden messages.  On one hand, the art should be all that matters and not everything has to be a reflection of the artist's personal life, which is nobody's business anyway.  On the other hand, 85% of the internet is morons spewing hateful accusations and stupid conspiracy theories, and nobody thought to mention that maybe David Bowie was dying.  

In 1990, I bought the "Changesbowie" cassette, which I believe was the first "classic rock" greatest hits collection I ever bought, and listened to it endlessly. At a time when I was obsessed with finding really long songs, I was very much into this 14-minute remix of "Fame '90" (a version long since forgotten, even by me).  

In 2000, his set at Glastonbury wowed even the most jaded critics who felt he'd lost his way in the 90's trying to stay contemporary with his odd forays into electronic music.  I heard the set for the first time in 2004, and was blown away with how pure and powerful his voice still was.  I realized I'd be making a mistake if I didn't see Bowie play live at least once in my life.  Little did I (or anyone else) know at the time that he was almost done as a performing artist.

Two Bowie-related memories from TV have always stood out for me.  The first was NBC using the full album version of "Heroes" in the closing montage of the 1997 World Series.  The slow build of the song perfectly matched the drama and heartbreak of sport, at least on that day.  I think it was at that moment that I realized that "Heroes" was his best ever song, only ten years after everyone else realized it at "Live Aid".  

The second was his amazing one-off appearance with Arcade Fire at Fashion Rocks 2005.  Bowie was forever cool for a reason -- he never stopped being a fan of contemporary music and trends, and was constantly on the lookout for new ideas and fresh acts to inspire him.  The best artists make everyone around them better.  Queen's best song by miles is "Under Pressure", whereas for Bowie it was just one all-time highlight in a career filled with them.  The Arcade Fire performance is one of the best examples I've ever seen of an act slowly winning over a disinterested audience.  Even the director has no idea who they are.   At the beginning of the song he's fast cutting all over the stage, most likely because he had no idea who the lead singer was.  By the end of the song, an entire hall of non music fans are on their feet.  Bowie may have been the hook to get them to pay attention, but it was the joint effort of band and guest artist that eventually won them over.  For Arcade Fire, it was a great moment on their rise to superstardom.  For Bowie, it was yet another cool career highlight that he seemed to churn out effortlessly, and one of his final live appearances.