Saturday, January 30, 2016

David Bowie: Life On Earth

I've written before about my relationship to David Bowie's music and art so this need not be a retrospective piece. It's rather an attempt to describe the size and shape of the hole left behind by his sudden and shocking death.

Sudden, that is, to us who weren't aware of his 18 months of living with cancer and its treatment. And shocking because Bowie had been so incredibly present ever since that glorious morning in 2013 when Where Are We Now appeared on our Vimeo feeds as if from the ether. 

Almost ten years of near-silence preceded The Next Day and one thing that brilliant album threw in sharp relief was the low level yearning we had all been living with during that time without Bowie. I can detect the sense that he understood our longing, even if only a little. He could have called the song Where Am I Now?, after all. Now we must contemplate the rest of our lives without him. Part of the shock is also that he was one man who contained multitudes for us and now all of that is gone. Unlike The Beatles, there is no truncated version of Bowie to whom we can all cling, no Paul or Ringo to offer the slightest bit of solace. 

I realize that I'm using "we" more than usual. I don't deign to speak for others, but in the days immediately following Bowie's death I found myself stereotyping madly, searching each silhouette that passed to see if they fit into the classification "Bowie fans." A confident walk, a crisp fashion choice, headphones, good shoes ("Your boots are shit," Marc Bolan told Bowie the first time they met), just searching for any clue that someone felt the way I do about David Robert Jones of Brixton.

This of course was a fool's game because I long ago made the decision to mostly keep my artistic leanings on the inside. In high school when my friends were dying their hair, giving themselves piercings and jailhouse tattoos, and painting their Doc Martens with nail polish, I continued on getting my haircuts from a guy called Paris at Gimbels East and wearing jeans along with worn button down shirts passed down from my father. You wouldn't know from looking at me that Bowie, Pere Ubu and Joy Division were bleeding from my Walkman, not to mention Hendrix and Coltrane. You had to get to know me to know what I was into.

So why should I expect any different from passersby on a street in 2016? It was really just a shellshocked symptom of the loss I felt, the need to be in a group of likeminded people, to believe that I was surrounded by people that got it. Based on my initial skim of social media, I think other people felt the same, hence the "we."

This also reflects the "Bowie spoke to freaks and outsiders" point of view, which is certainly part of the story. "Give me your hands," he implores on Rock'N'Roll Suicide, "You're not alone!" Hearing that, the cozy strum of Soul Love, the tour de force of Sweet Thing-Candidate-Sweet Thing (Reprise), Everyone Says Hi, or any number of other songs, gives me a warm glow of inclusion and belonging. Maybe you feel it, too. And never forget, that acceptance is a two-way street. We who "get it" took Bowie into our hearts and our lives without dismissing any of his quirks as simply "weird." He showed us a way to live and by going along with it, we showed him a way to continue.

Bowie also demonstrated how far out you could go and still be in - not just popularity-wise, but in the human race itself. Recording Low at the tail end of a two-year bender that destroyed his health and probably contributed to the end of his first marriage, he managed to make a break-up album that was both optimistic and futuristic - no blood on his tracks - yet still anchored in emotion. 

Thinking of those cut-outs I examined on the street I also think about others like me, who allowed the various shapes and shades of Bowie's looks to stand in for our inner states, like an action painting of our souls. And while we may not have dressed like him, we took note of the perfect gesture, the well-timed movement, the calibrated gaze, and allowed them to infiltrate us, changing the way we entered a room, sat in a chair, moved on the dance floor. This was the lore of years of study - mime, kabuki, Elvis - passed down and distilled for our daily use.

So while I sometimes sought the collective experience in those first days of grieving, there was also a part of me that wanted to be alone with the sorrow. I stayed off Spotify, where all listening is public, and out of the comment fields, listening mainly to bootlegs and thinking about how I would write this piece. I was somewhat surprised by this response so I went deeper into self-examination. It stopped me in my tracks when I realized the connection between my first child's short life and Bowie's truncated renaissance. My son Jacob (who also had a January birthday) died at 2 1/2 from cancer. Though there is no comparison between my love for Jacob and my attachment to Bowie, there are parallels in the joy I felt when my son was born, so long awaited, and the excitement Bowie's return engendered. 

Then...crushing disappointment and sadness, the air let out of the balloon for good. When Bowie died, that sense of deflation felt very familiar, harmonizing uncomfortably with those dark days of 1999 when my son succumbed to his disease. This realization helped me switch between public and private modes of bereavement around Bowie. I imagine it's possible that there is some other public figure who could inspire such thoughts and feelings - for others, not for me - but I can't think of who that could be. Once again, I suspect I'm not the only one feeling this way, which is why I'm sharing these deeply personal investigations. 

The concert bootlegs did help, and still do. Naturally, my usual source made several additional recordings available: Budapest 1997 (interesting), Paris 1990 (his voice uncharacteristically shot), and two Ziggy- era gems, one from London's Rainbow Theater in 1972, and one from Radio City Music Hall in 1973. I really gravitated to the latter as not only is it an extraordinary performance, but because of where it took place it's very easy for me to picture the surroundings. It's also an audience recording and I find myself relating to the little crowd around the taper. This is my virtual collective experience, listening to these serious Bowie fans react the way I might have had I been there. 

"When's the album coming out?" one of them says after the Spiders play another song from Aladdin Sane, which had yet to be released. "Wow," another says after a beautiful take on Space Oddity. At the end of the show, after the encore of Rock'N'Roll Suicide, one of them simply states: "Unbelievable. Unbelievable." But my favorite moment immediately precedes an intense version of The Supermen. After a spare and spectacular solo performance of Jacques Brel's My Death, we hear some electronic swoops and swooshes causing the crowd to start cheering wildly. "Oh, God," one of my new friends exclaims and another says, "I've never seen anything like it!"

No, he hadn't, and neither had we. Nor shall we, ever again. 

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Best Of 15: Singles & EP's

By now we know that not only is the album not dead, but the resurgence of vinyl (and now even cassettes) seems to be mostly album-based. While the black plastic discs are still a tiny part of the overall music market, they are one sector that has shown continuous improvement over the last few years, which is something to celebrate. Even so, there is still a place in the output of artists for short-form releases like singles and EP's. In some cases, an artist will do their best work in this area. In others, it's just a stopgap before their next album. Either way, I would hate for these great songs to get lost in the shuffle - literally - Read on for my favorites from the year just passed.

The Redeemed

If you've been following closely, you will know that I was a big fan of the early EP's of Tahliah Debrett Barnett, who performs as FKA twigs. So I was surprised to find her first album, last year's LP1, to be a bit of a snooze. So I'm happy to report that M3LL155X (pronounced "Melissa") finds FKA twigs at the top of her game, from the fabulously creepy cover and video, to the mesmerizing songs. Producer Boots helps construct dark soundscapes for twigs' melodic and lyrical flights of fancy, without ever letting the momentum lag. I might be the only one who feels this way, but if her EP's are this good, why bother with albums?

Appreciation for the Staple Singers is on the rise with the release earlier this year of Faith & Grace: A Family Journey 1953-1976, the first comprehensive look back at their extraordinary career. Mavis Staples, however, is very much in the present, having made two albums with Wilco's Jeff Tweedy in recent years. While there was nothing truly wrong with those records, they failed to catch fire for me. She's now working with Son Little, a Philadelphia-based musician making a name for himself with an updated take on soul, blues and R&B. Your Good Fortune, the four song EP they put out in the spring, bodes well for the future. All four songs find Mavis in great voice, with the first two written by Little and the last two classics. It's tough to take on Blind Lemon Jefferson's classic See That My Grave Is Kept Clean and make it fresh, but she digs deep and pulls it off, with an energy belying her 76 years. Long may she reign.

Serving No Wine...

In the case of the haunting All Is Forgiven by Alekesam, I'm starting to wonder if it is forgivable to put out a song this cool and then...nothing. Hopefully 2016 will see more to come from the talented duo of Sal Masakela and Sunny Levine.

Moses Sumney is also deeply talented, a singer of originality and spiritual depth and a songwriter who traverses folk, soul, and jazz with the ease of a natural polymath. After last year's brilliant Mid-City Island EP, this year he gave us Seeds and Pleas, two ethereal meditations that are hopefully part of something bigger.

The music of Jordan Lee, released under the name Mutual Benefit, has a rare combination of sturdiness and fragility to it, which makes it enormously appealing. Not For Nothing, his entry in Weathervane Music's Shaking Through series, is a fine countryfied addition to his catalog. As his last full-length album was 2013's brilliant Love's Crushing Diamond I'm hoping for more than one song in 2016!

New Blood

The first time I saw Spires, it was almost like a live rehearsal, but the last time I saw them they tore up the Mercury Lounge in front of an audience that had no idea who they were, blasting through a short set of their hyper-driven psych rock. Their five-song self-titled official debut finds them slightly tamed, but still tunefully pursuing their vision of the late sixties. Keep up with their songs here so you can sing along when you see them live - which you absolutely should.

As a micro-genre, I'm not sure "doom folk" ever took off, but John Joseph Brill's band Burning Beard gained some attention as a prime mover in that area. Now he's on his own and has released a four-song EP, Pieces, and a single, The Grape And The Grain, that are the strongest things he's yet done. He seems to come by his world-weary, sepulchral voice honestly and he knows how to write songs that are built to last. 2016 could be his year.

I came across Novelty Daughter when she opened for TV Girl one sweaty night at Shea Stadium last August. I loved the mix of big beat electronics and her honey-toned jazz-inflected voice, which made for a beguiling combination on stage. Now you can hear it for yourself with Day Of Inner Fervor, the lead off single from her debut album, Semigoddess, out 3/25/16. Be hip - preorder.

Old Favorites Return

My #1 album of 2014 was Hiss Golden Messenger's Lateness Of Dancers, which left me hungry - even starving - for more songs from M.C. Taylor. He had a busy year on the road promoting that brilliant album so I consider us fans lucky to have gotten the Southern Grammar EP, which featured two new tracks alongside a smoking live version of the title song. He Wrote The Book is one of Taylor's warm-blanket specials, a comfort to my soul, and Brother, Do You Know The Road? is the kind of song you can really inhabit, a widescreen tale told through music. New album in October - I think I can contain myself until then.

Beck's Morning Phase had the #2 spot for me in 2014 so my antennae were up when I got notice of a new release at the beginning of the summer. After the acoustic elegies of Morning Phase, I knew he would have something different up his sleeve. But I didn't expect a bid for song of the summer, which is essentially what he gave us with Dreams, a spectacular slice of pure pop, gorgeously produced by Greg Kurstin. Supposedly, there's more delights along these lines coming soon. Until then, keep dancing to Dreams.

Both my wife and I had our mind's blown a few years ago by Any Port In A Storm by Scott & Charlene's Wedding, the project of Craig Dermody, an Australian singer-songwriter. As described in his classic (to me, anyway) song Fakin' NYC, he literally came to NYC with a dollar and a dream, managing to make a go of it with his incisive lyrics and jangly take on 90's slacker rock. The melodies are always great, even when he sings off key, and his guitar solos always give me a buzz. Delivered brings the story forward with three tight new songs along with an epic (for him) and wonderfully sloppy cover of Elton John's Bennie And The Jets. When a formula is this good, why mess with it?

Field Music, the band helmed by David and Peter Brewis, has often gone on hiatus to allow them pursue other projects (see under School Of LanguageSlug and Frozen By Sight). While they did release Music for Drifters earlier in 2015, a nice series of instrumental cues for a 1929 documentary about Shetland Island fishermen, it's now been nearly four years since their last album of songs. So I was pretty excited when they dropped The Noisy Days Are Over to tease Commontime, their fifth album, which is due on February 5th. This clever song pokes fun at aging with an intricate and spiky arrangement that owes as much to late Steely Dan as it does to mid-period XTC. Good fun is on the horizon.

Also on the horizon? David Bowie. I'd pull a mic dropping "need I say more?" at this juncture but I do need to say a little more. I mean, have you watched the video for the outrageously stylized Blackstar yet? If not, get to the biggest screen you on which you can find YouTube and watch this thing. Even if there wasn't an album coming on January 8th, Bowie's 69th birthday, this one song would be evidence of an ever-questing master working at top form. I'm still trying to catch up with him on this song and Lazarus, the other single, which is also from a musical he's producing based on The Man Who Fell To Earth. Has the Star Man become a Blackstar? We'll just have to wait and see...

All the songs above, except Novelty Daughter's, are in this playlist - put it on shuffle or play it straight.

You might also enjoy:
Best Of 15: The Top 20
Best Of 15: Out Of The Past
Best Of 15: Reggae
Best Of 15: Hip Hop