Monday, December 15, 2014
1. Hiss Golden Messenger: Lateness Of Dancers - The first time I listened to to M.C. Taylor and Scott Hirsch's fifth album as Hiss Golden Messenger, I dismissed it. "Somebody really likes Slow Train Coming!" I thought, before moving on. Granted, that was more of an impression I had gotten from their earlier stuff, finding it held back by an almost aplogetic politesse. But the fact is I really like Slow Train Coming, and there aren't many records that sound like It, so I kept going back. Gradually I tuned into the almost outrageous audacity of Taylor and Hirsch's strip-mining of the past, not only Dylan but a lot of other 60's and 70's folk rock. They just don't care what you think and their lack of concern is what cuts them free. I knew I was smitten when I began Tweeting lyrics regularly. "I think I'm obsessed," I told my wife, "I think this is the best album of the year."
Taylor and Hirsch produced the album themselves, calling on a brilliant cast of musicians to make the sound in their heads a reality. They came up with a nice blend of studio polish and casual intimacy ("The name of this song is called Day O Day," Taylor's kid says before that song begins) that fits the songs like a well-worn glove. This is what it sounds like when a band comes into their own. If you need convincing, seek out the earlier version of Lucia, the first song on the album, which they recorded years ago when they were in The Court & Spark. The production on that take is so overbearing you can't even connect to the chorus. Now, when Taylor sings "She was beautiful/It was circumstance/Watch the boat on the water learn to dance," I just nod my head as if I were there on the banks of the wise old river with him.
Among many wise decisions Hiss Golden Messenger made when crafting Lateness Of Dancers, one of the wisest was bringing in Mountain Man's Alexandra Sauser-Monnig to be the sweet Emmylou to Taylor's gritty and slurred Dylan/Parsons. On several songs, her voice limns his gorgeously, blending, echoing and circling around it like touches of color in a winter-gray sky. One reason their partnership works so well is that Taylor is now the complete master of his voice, knowing when to push it, when engage in almost exotic melisma, and when to deliver the words with utmost delicacy, as if they might break under the emotional weight.
Finally, a note about those words. These 10 songs contain some of the finest song lyrics of the decade, line after line of arresting imagery, heartfelt stories and choruses as solid as a hymn. "I lost myself in the jack-knife daylight/I sang "Rock Of Ages" til I was cross-eyed" (Black Dog Wind) or "The dead are here, they never go away/So I never ask them to" (Mahogany Dread) are just two examples of Taylor's plain spoken yet well-crafted writing. He's also not afraid to kick up some dirt on Saturday's Song, evince a beguiling malevolence on I'm A Raven (Shake Children) or not-so-simply rock out on Southern Grammar, making for a varied album.
The title of Lateness Of Dancers comes from the pen of another southern great, Eudora Welty, in her story Delta Wedding and the album is truly a flawless marriage of old and new. Lateness Of Dancers has become so entwined with my soul that I no longer just listen to it, rather I commune with it. Taylor and Hirsch have worked long and hard to get here and I feel truly lucky to have met up with them at this point in their journey.
2. Beck: Morning Phase - Much of the criticism of this remarkable return to form focused on its similarities to Sea Change as Beck assembled the same musicians in the studio for the first time since he made that album over a decade ago. But even if the players are the same, I find it quite a different listening experience, lacking the self-pity that marked some of Sea Change. Somewhat paradoxically, Morning Phase is more distant, even magisterial, while connecting on a deeper level to shared human experience. Follow the drum.
3. Breton: War Room Stories - Album number two from London's post-modernists finds them expanding their sound with orchestral arrangements and pop moves. While America sleeps, they are also becoming one of the best live bands on the planet. Now you can prepare yourself further with the deluxe edition, which adds 11 additional songs.
4. David Greilsammer: Scarlatti & Cage Sonatas - While Greilsammer's technique is formidable, what's more remarkable is his absolute commitment to such different composers. Simply one of the best, most engaging piano records I've ever heard.
5. Hollie Cook: Twice - Another bliss-inducing dose of pharmaceutical grade reggae-pop-dance songs. Prince Fatty controls the boards again, lavishing his usual expert roots sound with strings, harps and a touch of Chic. Keep this one away from the polar ice cap, as we're having enough trouble keeping that thing from melting as it is. Warm yourself when Cook returns to New York on January 8th.
6. Spoon: They Want My Soul - Britt Daniel, Jim Eno and co. add yet another brilliant collection to one of the deepest catalogs in the post-Nirvana landscape, and maybe their toughest album yet. Bonus meta-moment: listen for the reappearance of former nemesis Jonathan Fisk, who gets a drubbing along with "educated folk-singers" on the title track.
7. The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger: Midnight Sun - After so many years championing Sean Lennon's talent, it is very satisfying to see him have his moment with this collection of beautifully crafted and emotionally resonant psyche-rock.
8. Hamilton Leithauser: Black Hours - "Don't know why I need you, I don't need anyone," Leithauser sings on this triumphant album, his first without his band The Walkmen. Perhaps he's singing to Paul Maroon, the guitarist in that band, who is nearly as essential to the success of Black Hours as Leithauser himself. Perhaps less needed was the help of Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij, whose two contributions are not at the level of the others, but the vinyl edition sounds fantastic and comes with four more wonderful songs that are.
9. Tweedy: Sukierae - In a year filled with excellent releases from Wilco world, Jeff Tweedy, with the able help of drummer son Spencer, released this songwriting masterclass. With songs that are alternately haunting, arty, funny, and pure pop, Tweedy proves that there's still life in the White Album paradigm.
10. Nicole Atkins: Slow Phaser - Smart, sleek, hook-filled pop is hard to come by, although there is plenty of over-praised music masquerading as such. Atkins is the real deal, a complex character with huge voice that can swing from smoky to sweet. Tore Johansson, who produced Slow Phaser free of charge to help Atkins out after Hurricane Sandy took out her house, proves that all Swedish producers aren't calculating chart-hounds. Every track is filled out with well-placed touches that serve the songs perfectly and enhance their inherent catchiness. I find myself singing We Wait Too Long and The Worst Hangover ("Operator, operator, give me number 911 - I'm dying") among others, at odd moments, like as soon as I wake up. If you procrastinated on buying this since I last wrote about, I forgive you as it is now available in a deluxe edition that features a storming live set taped earlier this year at Detroit's Masonic Temple. Now, you have no excuse.
Coming soon: The Best of the Rest of 14 and Out Of The Past (Reissues and Other Older Sounds). What's your Number One?
Sunday, December 07, 2014
|Just three of the great records included in 11-20.|
12. Brooklyn Rider: American Almanac - Furious energy and a spate of new commissions make this the string quartet album of the year.
16. John Luther Adams: Become Ocean - While Adams' gorgeous Pulitzer Prize winning tone poem may not solve climate change, it will certainly change your own personal atmosphere. Smashing recording and performance from Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony.
18. Golden Retriever: Seer - One could almost imagine Scott Walker finding a place for his frightening ruminations in the sounds created by Matt Carlson (modular synth) and Jonathan Sielaff (bass clarinet) as Golden Retriever, except their music is somehow more friendly and inviting than what he typically goes for. They make the most of their limited palette, drawing on sources both ambient (Harold Budd comes to mind) and avant garde (they cite Alvin Lucier) to create long, spacious environments for the listener to explore. There's a lot of color and detail to Golden Retriever's music and the feeling of excited collaboration between Carlson and Sielaff is palpable - and contagious. Don't let Seer fly under your radar.
20. Perfect Pussy: Say Yes To Love - I admit to a secret fascination with online comments related to this young band from Syracuse. Invariably someone will say, with absolute authority: "This just isn't good noise or hardcore," which usually makes me think: "As if they care." While they do draw on those traditions, they have no need to fit into any genre or subculture or follow anybody's rules. Their debut album is short, serrated and sweet, like their performances. A recent concert from Paris shows they can rule a big stage as effectively as a small one.
A burst of blistering noise - that's a good way to end a Top 20, clearing the decks for 2015. However, there's still more 2014 to come: next time I'll go back to the beginning and deliver numbers 1-10. After that will come The Best of the Rest of 14 and Out of the Past (reissues and other older sounds).
Sunday, November 23, 2014
|Alex Chilton holds on in Memphis|
Let's get a few things out of the way. Like many people, I discovered Big Star retroactively, following the trail of breadcrumbs left by The Replacements. I'd heard of them, of course, often mentioned in the same breath as the Flamin' Groovies, but never heard a note - it wasn't easy to find their stuff for quite some time. When I did hear it, I connected with it immediately. Remembering Alex Chilton's voice on The Letter by The Boxtops, I kept thinking, "This is that guy?" Number One Record and Radio City are both classic albums and Third (Sister Lovers) is pretty fantastic, although fragmented. I also like a lot of I Am The Cosmos, the posthumously released album by Chris Bell, who was Chilton's main foil in the early days of Big Star.
For demos, most of these songs are nearly fully realized, with multiple instruments and a modicum of production. These aren't your "bash it out on an acoustic just to get the song on tape" kind of early takes, so they don't provide all that much insight into their writing process, except to point out that working in the studio was an essential part of it. Of the unreleased songs, Queen Of The U.S.A. had serious potential - all they would need to do is hack out the silly sound effects from the bridge and this thing could've been a hit. Always Be My Girl is tuneful and fast-paced - with a different drum approach, it could have been a With The Beatles outtake. Let This Dream Never End is almost pure lite-FM R&B, replete with Greg Phillinganes keyboards and Paul Jackson rhythm guitar. Michael Jackson, Elton John, hell, even Whitney Houston might have found success with it. Season Of The Witch is one of the great groove songs of all time, but Jellyfish never quite seem to find their place in it - completists will be thrilled, as they will be with the rest of this definitive reissue.
Since the demise of Jellyfish, Falkner and Manning have always been busy and in 2000 they teamed up with drummer/composer Brian Reitzell (Redd Kross, Air, numerous soundtracks, including Lost In Translation) to form TV Eyes. They made one album in 2006, which found release in Japan only, played three concerts, and promptly moved on. Looking for something different from what Falkner calls "the macho 'alternative' post-grunge fallout," they took inspiration from Gang Of Four and other post-punk bands, as well as early electronica like Kraftwerk, Japan and Gary Numan's Tubeway Army. The broad swaths of guitar also bring to mind the work of Bill Nelson, especially his Red Noise album, which proved old prog-rockers could get angular, too.
Now, thanks once more to Omnivore, this material is no longer for collectors only, and it's worth investigating. While none of the songs equal their influences at their best, each one is fully realized and built-out with all number of layered keyboards, processed drums, disengaged vocals and cool sonic touches. Falkner, Manning and Reitzell are all pros in the studio and it shows, with Reitzell showing his hand in an genuinely haunting re-mix of Time's Up, one of the bonus tracks. What's also clear is that their affection for their sources includes a little well-placed amusement - they know Cars is a funny song as well as a great one - and although they steer clear of parody, they're not afraid of a little pastiche. So check out TV Eyes for some expertly assembled machine-tooled post-punk paranoia, especially if you don't mind a dash of fun in the recipe.
Sunday, November 16, 2014
Like the binary system, string quartets can convey seemingly infinite amounts of information using a simple and easily replicable structure. Two recent releases from Brooklyn Rider and the Juilliard String Quartet highlight some of those possibilities.
My first reaction to Dig The Say, Iyer's James Brown homage was "oy," based on the clunky title alone. But damn if he hasn't gone and done it, convincingly translating James Brown's methods to the world of the string quartet. It's simply delightful - and slightly hilarious - to hear cellist Eric Jacobsen expertly play a Bootsy Collins bass line. As Iyer says, Brown's "...groove-based music features complex polyphony, expressive virtuosity, and a ritual-like intensity," all successfully captured here. Dig it. Iyer's description of JB's music could also be used for Greg Saunier's work with Sean Lennon in their improvisatory duo, Mystical Weapons. However, his work here is one of the more mediative pieces on the Almanac. Titled simply Quartet, Parts One & Two and inspired by Christian Wolff, a composer closely associated with John Cage, it features long, plangent lines and such clarity that it's almost as if the quartet was reduced by half.
Sunday, November 09, 2014
Let's get one thing out of the way: Spencer can play. Just 18 years old, he is a tuned-in, versatile rock drummer who easily handles anything his dad throws at him, from the punky blast of opening track Please Don't Let Me Be So Understood, to the tense art-rock of Diamond Light Pt. 1, or the chugging folk-rock of Low Key. It would be unfair to compare him to Glenn Kotche, Wilco's groundbreaking percussionist, but he's not missed in this context.
But as integral as Spencer is to Sukierae, make no mistake: Jeff is in the driver's seat, writing all the songs, singing, playing multiple instruments, producing, arranging and recording nearly everything at the Wilco loft in Chicago. The end result is as convincing a display of his casual mastery as we're likely to get. Despite sometimes sounding tossed off, almost all the songs resonate emotionally and contain well-turned hooks and tangy little touches that keep you coming back. I could see an argument for paring Sukierae down to a single disc, but if you listen in a sitting (try it, you might like it), there's an accretive effect of all the verses, choruses and bridges stacking up, seemingly generated from an unending fount of creativity. You might find yourself thinking American song is in a healthy place with this Tweedy guy.
His deep engagement with the history of his medium is reflected in that first song, with its jokey reference to the classic song sung by The Animals, Nina Simone, and so many others, and Hazel, the penultimate track, which calls back to an under-appreciated Dylan song of the same name from the Planet Waves album. Also, the sequencing of the record can't help but bring to mind the White Album, with its whipsaw shifts of mood and its variety of approaches. The sonic environment of Sukierae is more limited than the classic Beatles album, but Tweedy shows a lot of imagination in how he chooses to present each song.
Like The Beatles, Jeff Tweedy also knows when a little help can be useful, deploying Scott McCaughey (who played with R.E.M. for more than 15 years and currently heads The Baseball Project) on several tracks, mostly on piano, and calling in Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig (who perform as Lucius) to sweeten things with their background vocals on nearly half the songs. I especially love their work on sardonic rocker I'll Sing It, where they channel a little of that Flo & Eddie sound from Electric Warrior. Their Lucius bandmate Dan Molad is also heard on two tracks, but credited differently for some reason. There are three songs with Jeff on his own, with Fake Fur Coat an excellent example of the genre of "strumming and picking folk songs with lyrics that blend the surreal with the quotidian." It is, after all, Dylan's world and we can hardly blame Jeff Tweedy for living in it.
Although the lyrics can be oblique at times, there is a general sense of vulnerability, and even fragility at times. Nobody likes to cry in front of their kids, but there is absolutely no sense that Jeff is holding back to protect Spencer. While Jeff has had his rock star troubles, it seems like things turned out pretty well on the home front, and that feeling of familial cohesion is one of the external delights of the album. It should also be mentioned that father and son share at least one of the emotional cruxes of the album: wife and mother Susan Tweedy's diagnosis of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, for which she is currently being treated. Sukierae (pronounced "sookee-ray") is one of her family nicknames, making the album partly a tribute to her - and it's one she and all the Tweedies can be proud of.
Coming soon: Wilco returns with two career-spanning collections, celebrating 20 years of excellence and exploration. The first, Alpha Mike Foxtrot, will be a box set of rarities and unreleased material, and the second, What's Your 20?, will feature that number of "essential" songs from their eight studio albums.
Sunday, November 02, 2014
Pure conjecture, of course, but who's to say this sort of experience wasn't the impetus for J.S. Bach to come up with the spidery opening chord and dramatic beginning for his Partita No. 2? All I can say is that when I hear it, I sit up in my chair, a master of all I survey. However, not every performance of Partita No. 2 has that effect on me. As part of my preparation for reviewing Igor Levit's new recording of Bach's Partitas Nos. 1-6 I decided to focus on one of the six pieces and get to know it really well. So I made a playlist of more than a dozen complete recordings of No. 2, with a little lagniappe from the Swingle Singers's Jazz Sebastian Bach album thrown in for good measure.
As I listened, I started forming very definite opinions on how this music is best played. Naturally, like anything else open to interpretation, beauty will be in the ear of the beholder, but I do think that Bach should not be easy listening. Put another way, Bach is known for writing a large body of utile music, such as to accompany church services or festivals, or to aid in the teaching of music itself. However, I don't think he ever put quill to parchment with the hope of creating wallpaper. In fact, we know that Bach was using the Partitas to establish himself as a composer of keyboard works, being known mainly for his choral works at the time he published the first one. Making a strong statement would definitely be on his list of priorities with these works.
The first recording on my list was by the legendary harpsichordist Wanda Landowska and my first reaction was, "Wow, but no - too weird. Haunted house!" Gradually, however, I began to come around to it, and the harpsichord in general, embracing the weirdness. I've always found that instrument a little tough to take but for this project I wanted to really give it a chance. After all, the harpsichord was Bach's axe of choice back then. He completed the book of Partitas in 1730 and didn't hear a piano that he liked until 1747, when he took on the sideline of selling the newfangled keyboards for pioneering manufacturer Gottfried Silbermann.
Admittedly, the Landowska recording was a little rough and ready, being from the 30's and slightly distorted. In addition to Landowska, I also grabbed Ton Koopman's recording, which was certainly beautiful if a little straight laced in comparison. Finally I discovered Christiane Jaccottet's brilliant performance, which seems to find the perfect balance between sheer beauty, drama and strangeness all tied together with a slightly searching quality as if playing the music in the process of discovery. The recording is close but not clinical, revealing some of the mechanical noises of her keyboard, but not distracting lay so. Listening to the three harpsichord recordings in my playlist pointed put a key interpretive choice: whether to spread or roll out that opening chord or to play the notes in unison. Landowska and Jaccottet both opt for the former and Koopman for the latter.
I do not know enough about it to understand why rolling the chord is optional, but I can say that I like it better in general, whether on piano or harpsichord. While there were some recordings I took to that didn't spread the chord, it's just a bolder statement and seems to put the partita on a different footing. So I had my harpsichord breakthrough thanks to this process, although listening to it's brittle, metallic sound for extended periods still causes fatigue. But maybe that's as it should be. Are we supposed to sit and listen to all six partitas at once, with the endings running into the beginnings in unending stream of Baroque melodies? There's that wallpaper question again.
Speaking of which, as I compiled my list I came across the best-selling release by Simone Dinnerstein called Something Almost Being Said, which has music by both Bach and Schubert. While I have enjoyed some of her work, especially Night, her collaboration with Tift Merritt, I just can't tolerate her soft-edged, diffuse approach in this music. While I'm not an original instruments snob, I do think there is a point where a player can seem to be ignoring everything a composer ever hoped for their work. "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there," L.P. Hartley wrote and I don't think its a bad thing to allow some of that foreign-ness to exist in very old music. Something almost being said? I think not. I think Bach was actually saying something, and we should respect him enough to let the music do the talking.
For a great recording on modern piano, Glenn Gould is still the man. Stylish and dynamic, he manages to put a personal stamp on it while maintaining a clarity in the counterpoint that keeps you anchored. And you should hear what he does with that opening, putting a little hesitation between the first note and the rest of the chord, making a new sequence. While known as a bit of an eccentric, Gould had nothing on Julius Katchen's entry which is full of blurred passages, odd dynamics and rushed tempos. I think Katchen took more liberties than the Swingle Singers. Call it sloppy if you will, but the sense of ownership is captivating. Another fine recording is by Eldar Djangirov, known mostly for jazzy crossover stuff but whose stunning precision and expert pedal work do perhaps the best job of translating the qualities of the harpsichord to the modern instrument. Style to spare, too.
My playlist also includes David Korevaar, Martha Argerich, Andras Schiff, Roger Woodward, Lydia Gorstein, and Vladimir Ashkenazy, all of which have something to recommend them, as well as one smoothed out movement on harpsichord by Hermann Stinders, which does not. As for the Swingle Singers, their take is kind of charming and while I wouldn't want a whole album of it, makes for a nice palate cleanser.
So how does Levit do, shouldering his way into a crowded subway car of fleet-fingered, often imperious masters of the keyboard? Born in Russia in 1987, Levit has been playing since the age of three but waited until last year to make his recorded debut, first as a soloist on a live recording of Eric Tanguy's In Terra Pace, and then on his own album of late piano sonatas by Beethoven. The Tanguy album didn't make much of a splash (the music isn't terribly distinctive) but the Beethoven album was greeted rapturously. While I'm not going to investigate fully, from what I can hear he more than holds his own in another packed field, displaying astonishing technical assurance, lyricism and drama. His Beethoven sings.
He brings many of those same qualities to his Bach, playing the partitas in a manner that is unapologetically modern while nodding to Baroque style. His tempos may be more measured than some yet his well-defined rhythmic sense keeps things moving, acknowledging the parlor dances that give some of the movements their structure. He makes the most of the piano's dynamic range while avoiding an excess of romanticism. That said, a clue to his approach lies in a Schumann quote in the liner notes where he says, referring to Bach, "... I myself confess my sins to this lofty figure every day, while seeking to purify and strengthen myself through him." Levit has some of this interiority as well, giving the sense of a personal journey through the partitas, rather than just a display of virtuosity.
Throughout, Levit opts more for beauty than for some of the alien aspects of the Baroque approach, but without any sense of soft-pedaling (literally or figuratively) the work of a genius from almost three centuries ago. It's almost a high wire act on Levit's part, balancing all of these elements, and his sense of command is such that you never worry about him falling. This is an excellent recording and confirms Levit's place at the front ranks of today's keyboard artists. He makes a number of subtle, intelligent decisions and executes them with flair. If I would like to see him use more imagination when it comes to record-making I also understand his need to get some major repertoire on the books at this stage of his career. In the end, while Jaccottet might have the edge with Bach himself, I don't doubt that Levit would also get a nod of approval from the old master as he entered that imagined party seeking friends and recognition.
Sunday, October 26, 2014
When I fell for David Bowie back in 1981, I fell hard. While I had always prided myself somewhat on maintaining enough critical distance from musicians to avoid sheer fandom, Bowie fascinated me like no other artist and I went willingly down the rabbit hole of his career. The catalyst had been the casual purchase of the ChangesTwoBowie compilation as a holiday gift for my brother. I think it may have been only the second Bowie album in the house, believe it or not, with the other being Changes One.
Perhaps because it covered a longer period than the first collection, it gradually dawned on me how varied his work was. "All of these songs are so different," I remember thinking, " but they're all so good. What's going on here?" Game, set, match to Bowie as I began haunting my favorite used record stores for decent pressings of his catalog as the RCA "Nice Price" reissues used flimsy vinyl and indifferent color correction on the sleeves. In short order I had acquired them all and was busy absorbing song after song.
Interestingly, Bowie himself was basically absent from the world stage as I was losing myself in his past. The end of his RCA contract had coincided with the disastrous realization that he had essentially been turned into his own employee. Having almost nothing financially to show for creating one of the greatest multi-album runs in recorded history he had retreated to lick his wounds and plot his next steps. They turned out to be...dance steps. I stayed up late one night to hear the New York premiere of Let's Dance and it was instantly obvious that something had changed. It was a great song, fun to dance to, but the Nile Rodgers production gleamed just a bit too brightly and the seams in the songwriting were a little too obvious.
I didn't buy the album (it would be six years before I bought anything by him (I still stand by the first Tin Machine album, by the way)) but its success meant ubiquity for Bowie and I eagerly snatched up every magazine with him on the cover and paid a scalper $50, which felt like a fortune, to see him at Madison Square Garden on the Serious Moonlight tour. He was as astonishing a performer as I had hoped and I was thrilled when Stevie Ray Vaughn was replaced by Earl Slick, who was a connection, along with Carlos Alomar (ever-present on rhythm guitar) to the RCA years. How the heck was Vaughn going to play Heroes, anyway?
Many articles on Bowie start out remarking on how hard it can be to be a Bowie fan, what with his sometimes wayward career after Scary Monsters. But that's old news. Despite the 10 year hiatus between Reality and The Next Day, that makes three great albums in a row, with the latter being one of his strongest records period. And there seems to be more on the way: BBC 6 just premiered his new song, Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime), a striking collaboration with jazz composer Maria Schneider, that will appear on an upcoming retrospective, cleverly titled Nothing Has Changed.
All of this is to say that when it was announced that David Bowie Is, the comprehensive exhibition created by the Victoria and Albert Museum was touching down only in Chicago, I knew I had to get there. Thanks to my lovely and supportive wife, a plan was hatched to make a family trip of it and spend Columbus Day weekend in the Windy City. I knew I was in the right place when I took a random run near our hotel and came across a huge Aladdin Sane mural on the side of the museum. Above it was a sign: David Bowie Is Watching.
After a day of sightseeing on Saturday, we were among the first people at the Museum Of Contemporary Art on Sunday with our 10:00 AM timed tickets. The facade of the ultra-modern building hinted at the glories within, with another mural and Bowie's lyrics on the stairs to the entrance. When we told the greeter we were from New York, she said to our kids, "Wow. Do you know how cool your parents are right now?" I was beginning to really like this place! We checked our bags, ascended to the third floor and walked through the empty queue to pick up our headsets and enter the show.
Somewhere I had read that the average stay inside the exhibition was 90 minutes. I was in there for four hours, so deeply immersed it felt like mere minutes. Alongside the traditional vitrines and frames, the show uses cutting-edge display techniques like huge 3D shadow boxes with internal projections, which serve to bring various periods of his and career to life. Also, wearing the headphones, which delivered content triggered by where you stood in each gallery, had the effect of putting Bowie in your head, spoken words and music colonizing your consciousness.
Bowie saved everything so each room contained more than one astonishing artifact, from the document that made his name change official, to his coke spoon from the Thin White Duke era, to the ring of keys from his years in Berlin. And that's not even mentioning the creative memoribilia - hand-written song lyrics, sketched out vocal arrangements, storyboards for an abandoned film called Hunger City, instruments from guitars to keyboards. Then there are the costumes, some for performance and others for street wear. Along with the evidence of his inspirations - Anthony Newley, Lindsay Kemp, Ballard and Burroughs, etc. - this all has the effect of connecting you deeply with his process. Then when you turn a corner and are confronted with his product, say the performance of Starman on Top of the Pops, the impact is enormous (my wife watched that one four or five times, marveling at the bromance between Bowie and guitarist Mick Ronson).
I'm not sure there has ever been a museum show that so explicitly lays out the path of an artist from preparation to experimentation to the creation of a new original. For Bowie, periods of research, drawing on seemingly disparate materials, are followed by an assembling of collaborators, often a familiar group with a wild card or two, and then working in the studio with lightning speed to capture a song before it ossifies. The way Bowie works is tailor-made for an exhibition like this and, having long found his methods instructive for the way an artist can operate, seeing it all in front of me was thrilling.
The rooms were laid out mostly chronologically, with strategic intrusions from other eras when it made artistic sense. Gradually it dawns on you that, even with his chameleonic ways, there are constants: the canny combination of abstraction and specificity in his lyrics, the draw of dance music, the clothing that reshapes his figure, the appeal of squalling guitars. He often stuck with collaborators like Ronson, Eno, Tony Visconti, or the designer Freddie Burretti, as long as possible, not casually casting people aside to get a quick infusion of new blood, and occasionally returning to people years later. One flaw in the show, although an understandable one, is that a neophyte could walk out thinking more about Bowie's extensive work with Alexander McQueen just because his name is on the wall, and have no idea who Mike Garson, Carlos Alomar, Dennis Davis and George Murray are, just to mention a few of the musicians who were crucial to many of his best records and performances.
Speaking of performances, throughout the show, there is the occasional throb of what almost sounds like a live concert, noticeable even while wearing the headphones. This makes you wonder what you're missing and pulls you through the galleries. I was able to resist the temptation to dash ahead and let myself get thoroughly absorbed in everything. I knew I was getting closer when I got to the room where a well-edited loop of Bowie's film and theater work was running and the throb got louder. From his first appearance in the 1967 short The Boy, he was perfect for the camera, magnetic and controlled. By the time of The Man Who Fell To Earth and The Elephant man, he had learned how to invest his seemingly natural charisma with pathos and had become a great actor. Unfortunately absent is his spectacular turn from Extras, singing Pathetic Little Fat Man to Ricky Gervais, which proved comedy was also in his grasp. Based on the evidence in this room, there probably is more he could do with his acting talents if he so chose.
Finally it was time to enter the room where the noise was coming from. This turned out to be a larger than life showcase of some representative performances which were projected on three walls. Some of these were heard through the headphones but others were blasted into the open air, almost replicating the collective experience of being at the show. There was a stonking take on Jean Genie with Mick Ronson playing to rule the world - I almost applauded when it ended - and three versions of Heroes playing at the same time. One was part of The Concert for New York City, which was put on in the wake of 9/11 to raise funds for the rescuers. Gradually everyone in the room gravitated to that wall, mesmerized by Bowie's obviously heartfelt performance.
As the camera panned over the audience, filled with police officers and firemen in uniform and their families, I couldn't help but be reminded of all the emotions surrounding the city in those terrible days. And then I thought about how remarkable it was that this artist extraordinaire, who made the world safe for freaks and outsiders of every stripe, was also able to provide succor and uplift with grace and generosity to people who really needed it. Just one more incredible moment in the life and work of the man born David Robert Haywood Jones, someone who has enriched my musical, creative and emotional life immeasurably. As I left the show to puruse the extensive gift shop, I was filled with a sense of gratitude for his work and for the dedication of the curators who gave me this opportunity to engage with it on an entirely new plane.
David Bowie Is will go down in history as one of the greatest museum shows of all time. If you can't get there, I highly recommend ordering the beautifully executed catalog, which features essays by Camille Paglia and Jon Savage, among others, along with a generous selection of photographs. When you get your copy, dial up either this career-spanning mix or the original track list of ChangesTwoBowie, put on your own headphones, and dive in to the world of David Bowie. May your time there be as rewarding as mine was.