Thursday, January 7, 2016

Ziggy Plaaaayed....Tenor Sax

As my favorite artists get older, I grow increasingly fearful of no longer hearing new music. Then, the anxiety builds when new music is released and I don't like it. It has been eight years since Todd Rundgren released "Arena," a record that I warmed up to in big way after some initial disappointment, mostly in how it sounded and not the songs or performance. But since then, it has been five records that have left me cold, with three of them actually making me angry. Time is running out, I would imagine, for a record to remind me of why I became a fan of Todd Rundgren in the first place.

It has been ten years since David Bowie has taken the stage proper, but only three since his last release, which came ten years after his last record. That album, "The Next Day," was a surprise to everyone, not just because of the stealth of its creation and release, but because it was a fucking brilliant record that no one believed would ever come out of the Dame again. There was no tour, only adamant discussion about not touring. Was this Bowie's finale? If so, what a way to go!

It wasn't his finale.

By now, you must have read about Bowie's "jazz" record which hits tomorrow officially, but leaked last week. This is "Blackstar," and I hope I am the first to say, this is not a jazz record. Unless you think "Bitches Brew" is a rock and roll record, then maybe we have a discussion. Let's just do away with labels, shall we?

Bowie is backed by NYC's Donny McCaslin, a jazz sax player, and his band. Some songs are longer than usual. There is more freedom in the playing than what is usually associated with a Bowie record. But there is no doubt, this is a David Bowie record. This will not (read: should not) end up on Down Beat's jazz charts at the end of the year.

Now about this "Blackstar." I would imagine those who gave up on David Bowie around "Diamond Dogs," will have no tolerance for the music here. If you stayed with the man and still adore "The Berlin Trilogy," you should, at the very least, approach this record with an open mind. As a long time, ardent supporter and fan, who has stuck around since I first heard "Ziggy" in 1972, I found "Blackstar," (after two focused listens) to be one of the most difficult Bowie records to date. The record is soaked by the influence of Scott Walker, and a Scott Walker record is no walk in the park. It is more like walking across a possibly frozen pond wearing Keds.

More to the point, the 25 minutes that make up the songs "Blackstar," "Lazarus," "Tis Pity She Was A Whore" and "Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)" are very difficult minutes. Bowie is in his crooner voice, with melodies that never really take off and musical arrangements that are slippery. There are passages that want to be something. Maybe free form funk? Acid house? Operatic R&B? I have to make up new genres, because this record is all over the place. Yet, I cannot turn away. There is something here. It is David Bowie.

Nothing here is "Rebel, Rebel," or even something as strangely beautiful as a tune from Side Two of "Heroes." Even the three most conventional songs which close the record, "Girl Loves Me," "Dollar Days" and "I Can't Give Everything Away," seem to come and go, making me wish there had been something in between the first 25 minutes and the last 16 minutes.

I will stick with "Blackstar" for a little while longer, or at least that is what I hope. There is that possibility that the third pass might be the last...if I don't get it. But I think it might help matters if I get out of the head of thinking, THIS is the finale. I never expected another "Ziggy" or "Low" out of David Bowie, but then again, I never expected something so utterly "Ziggy" and "Low" as "The Next Day." So maybe, he has another one in him. For now, "Blackstar" is it. Oh well...


buzzbabyjesus said...

Ouch. I've been a Bowie fan since Ziggy as well. I heard the Santa Monica Civic broadcast and bought the album.
I found "David Live", "Young Americans", really rough going. I didn't appreciate "Diamond Dogs" at first. I became very suspicious of the thin white duke, so I was late getting to "Station To Station", which I admire, but think those "wind" songs are terribly overblown.
Being an Eno fan already paved the way for "Low", and at the time King Crimson ruled my rock world, so Robert Fripp's involvement made "Heroes" a slam dunk. The "Berlin" trilogy came as a welcome new trend. Iggy's "The Idiot", and "Lust For life" are part of this era.
"Lodger" not so much, but "Scary Monsters mostly great. Excellent Frippery.
I embraced "Let's Dance", I'm glad he got the chart success, but I found "Serious Moonlight" to be a little vapid.
Then came "Blue Jean" and a long stretch in the woods with "Never Let Me Down" as the absolute nadir. Tin Machine has some moments. Two songs, maybe.
I have "Black Tie White Noise" which is terrible, and "Heathen" which is less so. I hear "Reality" is pretty good so I downloaded it the other day. I'm a little afraid to play it.
"Toy" has moments, I like the remakes of those corny old songs.
How could anyone anticipate "The Next Day" would be so great? A fitting finale.
Now "Blackstar". I watched the video, and was surprised by how far out he'd taken things. I wondered how the eventual album would sound. Was this the "hit", or did things get even more hookless from here? Apparently so. I, too recalled Scott Walker's recent, impressive, but buzzkilling recent work.
"Lazarus" got a less than stellar review in The New Yorker, with Dave's contribution singled out as a big part of the problem. For sure it's a phase, and he's probably got another good one in him, but be prepared to wait.

Sal Nunziato said...

BBJ- "Heathen" should get another visit. Falls in my Top 10 Bowie records. Also, "Black Tie, White Noise" has a few terrible mistakes, but again, some fantastic stuff.

wardo said...

As should be obvious from my own blog (plug plug) I love certain Bowie albums, and don't "get" others that people adore. I'm all about Hunky Dory and Station To Station, prefer Aladdin over Ziggy, and keep missing the boat on Lodger. I still love the first Tin Machine album, tolerate the second, and can't stand Black Tie.

The thing I'm most looking forward to about Blackstar is that it appears to be under 45 minutes, so it will be relatively easy to absorb. Also, both "Sue" and "Whore" are said to be different from their original released versions, so maybe that's a plus too.

Sal Nunziato said...

"Also, both "Sue" and "Whore" are said to be different from their original released versions, so maybe that's a plus too."

Yes. Funny, I edited an entire paragraph out of today's post about that RSD 10" that featured those songs. It basically said, I hated them but have improved in their new incarnations.

A walk in the woods said...

Great review - and more importantly in this forum, I think this is exactly the type of review many of wish were written more often. That is - you're a longtime music listener and fan of Bowie, and the review is totally from that perspective. Rather than a reviewer who's checking out 82 records every week, everything from Young Thug to the most fringe-dwelling indie squawk.

And I appreciate that, because it puts things more in a perspective that means something to me. There's a relatively limited universe of new releases most of us notice these days, and it's best to approach a new release by a longtime artist in a certain way.

So - Blackstar. I'm leery of it, based on the video. Like BBJ said, sooooo many artists who were once life affirming, or at least fun in their darkness, turn into "buzzkill" as they age. I'm sorry, I don't care for that, and wish I could lessen it.

Even Dylan, my personal hero, very much does that. (Which is partly why "Summer Days," which came out when he was 60 years old, was such a welcome kick) I need some sense of humor in the mix, or some sense of light, or it's too laborious for me.

So - I'm leery. But I'm willing to give this record a try. I do appreciate Bowie as an older artist - as long as there's some kind of tiny light at the end of the void he's staring into.

Bombshelter Slim said...

Sal, hard to tell if you "like" Blackstar or not!! I've listened to a leak once, and I think I get it... in fact I really like it. My shortlist for the best albums of 2016 is off to a great start.

Sal Nunziato said...

Bombshelter Slim, it's hard for me to tell if I like "Blackstar." I'm not sure yet.My feeling is, if I keep going back, I like it. Right now, I'm waiting for my vinyl to arrive for my next visit. I'll come closer to deciding this weekend.

Joelhb53 said...

When it comes out of the streaming site tomorrow, I will give it a chance. But nothing Dave has done in his entire career is totally worthless, IMHO.

Todd Glaeser said...

"Blackstar" reminds me a little of "Earthling" (which no one seems to have mentioned above) in so much as the drumming and/or percussion is the unifying ingredient that ties the separate songs on the album together.

William Repsher said...

There will always be new music. Whether you want to go on hearing it, there's the rub. I never give up on my 60s/70s icons as they age, but for nearly all of them at some point in the 80s, for some even in the 90s, I started lowering expectations. Which is why I think that last Bowie album was so well received. It was a good album. But when I have stuff like "TVC15" ... "The Bewlay Brothers" ... "Fantastic Voyage" ... "Five Years" as reference, I couldn't call it great.

This new one, what I've heard, sounds like another good album, but I'll need to sit down and listen to the whole thing this weekend. (I haven't peeked in on it yet.) To be honest, the horse's ass videos for the songs nearly put me off them: a return to the pantomime clown driving a bulldozer on the beach. The gauze wrapped around the head with buttons for eyes? I've seen "Major Tom" theories spring up over this nonsense. Man, come on. I never could stand the goofball, faux artsy slant of so much of Bowie's visual presentations.

That said, I've always appreciated the music. Aside from one of the tracks borrowing heavily from Stevie Wonder's "Someday at Christmas," I liked what I heard, some interesting stuff going on there, a good feel more than memorable melodies or any sense of "classic" Bowie.

He's lost me at times, but I'll always cut him slack. Tonight was a major let down, still recall cringing when first hearing his cover of "God Only Knows." But the post Let's Dance 80s weren't a complete wasteland, and I find myself going back to certain tracks: the 12-inch version of "Never Let Me Down," "Miracle Goodnight," "Absolute Beginners," etc. Ditto, the 90's, although I really tuned out with the whole Reznor/Nine Inch Nails association. (I've since double backed and stumbled on a few gems.)

Bowie's the one artist I hope to one day run into by chance on the streets on NYC. Something about his music tells me he'd be a lot more approachable and sane than what most rock stars put forth. I'm glad he's still around, even if he's as confounding now as the day Low came out and put everyone in a different head.

Sal Nunziato said...

"To be honest, the horse's ass videos for the songs nearly put me off them: a return to the pantomime clown driving a bulldozer on the beach. The gauze wrapped around the head with buttons for eyes? I've seen "Major Tom" theories spring up over this nonsense."


The videos are a horrible distraction. I was thrilled when I first played the title track on my stereo without having to see the visual. I liked it more.

Jobe said...

It might be me, after countless listens to "The Next Day" I didn't get it. Now with "Blackstar" I've at least found 2 maybe three songs I can listen to without wondering if I've wasted my money. Let's see the song "Blackstar" starts as a plodding, minimalistic tune then at about 5 minutes into it,it seems to turn into an actual song that is listenable. Next up "Tis A Pity" which showed up as a b-side to the song "Sue" I've come to expect Bowie to take chances, "Earthling" "Outside" "Low" but at least I've always found something toe-tapping in these albums, with "Low" being the standout. "Heroes" is no "Low." Now the first full fledged number I like "Lazarus." The "jazz sound" that he purports to trying to establish seems to me comes together on this number. Next up "Sue" I'm sorry but once again (to me) it just sounds like more "I'm not really trying here, but people will think I'm that chameleon character that no one can figure out" The last three songs are tolerable but nothing I will rant or rave about, with "I Can't Give You Everything" being the best. Then it hits me, maybe that's what I'm missing out here. "I Can't Give You Everything" but maybe that's what I was expecting after the disastrous "The Next Day" Damn I don't think I'm that hard to please, after all I do think "Hours" and "Reality" are two of his best albums. Anyway if you've made it this far I thank you for your time and patience, and for reading my review of "Blackstar"

Joe Streno said...

I've been a long time Bowie fan. As I write this I'm listening w/ headphones to Blackstar for the first time . Don't know if I have anything of import to contribute — yet — but I am nothing but intrigued by what I hear so far.

As far as a Jazz album ... not so much. The musicians are certainly jazz musicians. "Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)" sure does reming me of Chick Corea & Return to Forever-esque fusion & the intertwining sax riffing in "'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore" coupled with Bowie's guttural yelps are so visceral — I love it!

Also the beginning vocal melody of "Can't Give Everything Away" reminds me of the melody of "Soul Love" from Ziggy Stardust.

I do love so many of Bowie's records but two of my desert island records would be "Scary Monsters" & "Earthling". :)

Anonymous said...

Halfway through a second listen. Surprised by some of the other comments here. I find it immediately engaging, much more so than The Next Day, an album I love but which for me took some listening to get into. Not sure about the melodies here yet, but lots of hooks and grooves to hang on. I'm actually liking it so much I'm scared it might eventually wear thin for me, in the way that a lot of records do that I initially spark to. Also, despite the jazz band backstory, doesn't sound like much of a departure to me. If someone had told me this was a "lost record" from sessions that took place between, say, Heroes and Lodger, I might have fallen for it, but maybe I'm listening too casually thus far.

Also, this is the first new album I've bought on vinyl (at least since 1988 or so). Sal, let us know what you think of the vinyl when you listen to it. Curious how it sounds to you compared to whatever digital version you've been listening to.

Bruce H

cmealha said...

Listened to this courtesy of Apple Music and agree with you that it's not easy. Nonetheless, I found myself not disliking it. There's nothing to hang your hat on but throughout there were bits and pieces that intrigued me and, dare I say it, were enjoyable. The thing is it's hard to say I enjoyed the bit from 2:20 to 3:23 from this track as opposed to saying this is a great song. Definitely deserves a few more listens.

Anonymous said...

Was inspired to listen to The Next Day for the first time in a while. Can definitely hear the age in his voice on that one. Funny, he sounds younger to me on Black Star.

I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now...

Bruce H

Sal Nunziato said...

I just listened to a proper digital copy, loud! The vinyl isn't coming until Monday thanks to an Amazon screw up. Huge difference between the leak (not sure of its source) and the proper copy. I am still intrigued. This pass "Tis Pity..." really knocked me out, and the last three bored me further. But I am still not handing in a verdict. Along with The Beatles and The Who and sometimes Todd Rundgren, Bowie is it for me.

This is something I had written to BBJ in an e-mail. I've edited and polished a bit so it reads better. Maybe you will find it interesting.

"I'm really intrigued by the comments on the blog. It seems like all involved are true Bowie fans and the opinions differ drastically on certain records. I have a friend who thinks "Young Americans" is the greatest, "simply heaven with David Sanborn and all those Sigma Sound nuances." I fucking despise the sound of David Sanborn's horn and I think Young Americans is the most forced Bowie record, like Bowie is some 40s movie star and the music is some bad rear-projection while he is driving a car. I see right thru it. It's not real. But that's me.

Then there are those who dismiss "The Next Day," which I think is as good as anything Bowie has released. Or those who love "Reality," which I think had potential to be great, but was ruined by Tony Visconti, and "Heathen," which I think has moments as brilliant as "Low," but most people didn't like."

I hated "Lodger" and "Scary Monsters," upon their release, both sounding even more out there than "Low" and "Heroes," but I was a teenager. Different ears. I love "Lodger" now, but still don't think "Scary Monsters" is more than half a record. It's feels weird for the sake of weird. Right now, that's my feeling about "Blackstar." It feels weird and adventurous just to be both those things. I'm all for adventurous, but I also don't want to work too hard to enjoy an album. More on Monday.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't make any great claims for Young Americans but I enjoy it. That said, your description of it as bad 40s rear projection is pretty apt--and hilarious.

I guess with someone as eclectic and prolific as Bowie, responses of even committed fans are going to be all over the map. Probably inevitable. The generally beloved album that's never lit my fire is Hunky Dory. "Changes"irritates me. Couldn't tell you why.

I'm with you Sal, on Heathen. I think you even talked it up to me at the store once upon a time. Didn't bite then, but listened a few years ago and quickly sparked to it.

Okay, who's going to make a case for Tonight or Never Let Me Down? (Not me!)

Bruce H