David Bowie – Blackstar

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Blackstar

Released January 8th, 2016 on ISO/RCA/Columbia Records

Singles:

Blackstar

Lazarus

In 2013 David Bowie emerged from ten years of quiet to release The Next Day, an album that recalled his work with the Berlin Trilogy of Low, Heroes, and Lodger without ever actually being as wildly experimental or as unsettling as those three albums.  Despite this, it was easily the best album Bowie had released in a long time (personally since Earthlings, for most people since 1980’s Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)) and gave birth to discussions of a new creative renaissance for him.  This idea tends to ignore the fact that, aside from the relatively regrettable period of 1983-1987, Bowie has been in a constant state of reinvention.  After his pop period, he became a hard rock dynamo (Tin Machine), a purveyor of sax-soaked New Jack Swing and rave rhythms (Black Tie White Noise), an industrial-etched grunge freak (Outside), and a jungle and drum n bass ingenue (Earthling) before settling into a somewhat more sedate period of more traditional pop/AOR songs.

Still, despite this restless nature, there’s nothing in the Bowie catalog quite like Blackstar.

To say it’s “experimental” is to miss the point.  To call it “jazz fusion” is to massively generalize what’s going on here.  There’s saxophone all throughout the album, in a way that there hasn’t been since 1993, but it’s not jazz-sax in the sense that one normally considers it.  Longtime collaborator Carlos Alomar once likened Bowie’s sax playing to the brushstrokes of an impressionist painter, and this is especially true of the sax usage on Blackstar.  Between Bowie and his new lieutenant Donny McCaslin, the saxophone is used in unsettling ways throughout the record, as a tonal voice rather than as the typical flurry of notes or jazzy finger-snapper.  In fact, “unsettling” is the best way to describe the album, and in that it’s the first Bowie album to truly evoke unease and contemplation since Scary Monsters.  So there.  It’s his best since Scary Monsters.  People have been using that line to describe Bowie albums since Black Tie White Noise but if we’re really going to examine the man’s discography (and I already have) then it’s more in line with being his best since Heroes.  More to the point, it’s not quite like anything else, so comparing it to previous albums is almost a useless exercise.  “Blackstar” is nearly ten minutes of atonal noise, thoroughly modern percussion, unsettling lyricism, odd voices, and a clean vocal section that feels like it’s the straight man to the experimentation going on around it.  “‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore” is a stellar Bowie song in the tradition of stellar Bowie songs – a more menacing take on something like “Beauty And The Beast”, let’s say – and “Dollar Days” is akin to that, only in the form of a ballad like “Word On A Wing”.  “Lazarus” is structured so that every line is punctuated by bursts of sax and distorted guitar, lending it weight and unease; the reworked version of “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)” makes what was previously an interestingly curious single into a something altogether more gritty, as though the group decided to take the jazzy feel of the original out of the club and into the dark and rainswept streets.  “Girl Loves Me” kicks along like the teeth-bared Bowie of the late 1970s and returns to his love of strange languages (Nadsat, from A Clockwork Orange, and Polari, a slang among gay men in Britain in the 1950s) as well as his previous techniques of Burroughs-esque cut and paste.  “I Can’t Give Everything Away” is the most straightforward cut on the album, a Bowie crooner like he’d fallen into on Heathen or Reality, although it is far beyond anything that was featured on either (except maybe “Bring Me The Disco King”)

Blackstar does something more than merely prove that Bowie still has it.  It presents a worthy addition to the legend that has been created around him.  It’s as good as Station To StationLowHeroes, or really anything else he’s recorded, and as able to stand on its own.

Destroyer – Poison Season

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Destroyer – Poison Season

It’s been a long, long time since City Of Daughters, the first of Dan Bejar’s Destroyer albums to achieve wider distribution and recognition.  Back then, in those heady days of 1998, he was the poet laureate of drinking in the park, a dissolute and languid lover scribbling guitar sketches of love for various women and hatred for the record industry.  Since then he’s found a permanent place as the resident poet of the New Pornographers and slowly grown his image, developmentally and chronologically.  He switched the mickey-in-a-paper-bag for fine bourbon, the ripped jeans for a crisp white linen suit, and the song-sketches for fully-realized instrumental smorgasbords.  The density of his poetry developed alongside; by the time Destroyer’s Rubies came along in 2006, he was the poet laureate of the modern singer-songwriter.

Then came 2011 and Kaputt.  At first the concept seemed absurd:  it was an album deeply indebted to disco rhythms and the sounds of the early 1980s.  It was, as both detractors and champions pointed out, the purest expression of yacht-rock that you could find.  Despite its dubious influences, it worked amazingly well, garnering stellar reviews and numerous spots on year-end lists.  The wider fame generated by the success of Kaputt also made Bejar more uncomfortable; having spent fifteen years taking potshots at the record industry,being caught up in it proved to be just as depressing as he’d imagined.  This discomfort with the trappings of newfound fame explains both the four-year wait for Poison Season  and the change in sound.

Poison Season is not a yacht-rock album.  It is not a post-disco album.  It is not a pop album, although Kaputt was never a strictly pop outing either.  Instead, Poison Season is both a return and a progression.  It’s a return to the sprawling singer-songwriter, the man in the open-chested white suit tickling the piano and singing literary songs of chasing lovers and lives.  At the same time it’s much more than that.  The sheer amount of instruments on any one given track can be overwhelming at times.  It’s not just Bejar and a piano – it’s the piano, the strings, horns, dollops of full-throated saxophone, and a bit of guitar layered in for texture.  On the two rockier tracks – “Dream Lover” and “Times Square” – it sounds uncommonly like the E Street Band before they left Asbury Park for the wider sounds of America.  There’s a whiff of “Rosalita” and “Incident On 57th Street” here and there, although the Boss never went as fully chaotic as Bejar allows his band to go here.  There are moments – like on the end of “Hell Is An Open Door” – where the songs descend into a maelstrom of instruments, furiously playing off of one another like a hurricane of sound.  In the middle of it all, Bejar’s voice brings everything together, the anchor for the yacht in the middle of the fury.

If Kaputt was a (relatively) sunny album, a daytime album, Poison Season is the nighttime album.  The yacht has docked and Bejar and Co. are playing on the beach to a crowd of well-heeled degenerates looking to party genteely until dawn.  When dawn comes, it’s a surprise; “Oh shit, here comes the sun,” he gasps in surprise on the sax-drenched “Dream Lover”, and it’s a change from his previous embrace of the all-night escapade on “Here Comes The Nighttime”, from This Night.  This is not an isolated self-reference, either; as usual, Bejar peppers his lyrics with backlinks to previous songs from ThiefThis Night, and Your Blues.  If you think you’ve heard a line before, you probably have, and it comes across as usual as a wink-and-nod to the people that have stuck with him across the wide gulf of years that separate drinking in the park from drinking at an open bar on a private beach.

If there’s a line that can sum up the feelings brought about by Poison Season, it’s “Bitter tears, bitter pills / it sucks when there’s nothing but gold in those hills”, from “Girl In A Sling”.  That is to say, it may suck for Bejar to be cursed with a sense of style and flair that has proven popular, but for me listening it’s nothing less than triumphant.  Destroyer will likely continue to be a popular unit, regardless of Bejar’s feelings on the matter, and for the rest of us that’s quite alright.

 

Goodnight Ornette Coleman

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The music world has lost a true game-changer today.  Ornette Coleman has died of cardiac arrest at the age of 85.

Coleman was amongst a handful of similar innovators in the late 1950s and early 1960s – a group that includes Mingus, Coltrane, Parker, and Davis – that changed the rules of jazz.  The sharp divide between people who hear the word jazz and think of vocal American Songbook exercises a la Norah Jones and people who hear it and think of angular note-heavy freakouts is due in large part to the early work of Coleman, especially his 1959 masterpiece The Shape Of Jazz To Come.