DAVID BOWIE: BLACKSTAR

(ISO/SONY RECORDS; 2016)

Blackstar

KEVIN RENICK review:

Things can change just like THAT. One day the reality is THIS, the next it is something very different. That is certainly the case with BLACKSTAR, the newest album from the (unexpectedly) late David Bowie. The narrative should have been (and clearly WAS for the early reviewers) that Bowie was back doing experimental stuff, returning to his glory days of the late ’70s, at least in terms of creative daring, and adding to the thrill of his “comeback” on 2013’s THE NEXT DAY with an even more classic, incredible album. The pioneering artist is back! He’s challenging us again! He’s made another boldly original statement! The tone of some early reviews of this record is painful to ponder now, and in some cases, even embarrassing. David Bowie has died. It was a huge, huge shock. It was anything but common knowledge how sick he was except perhaps to his family and a few close friends, so all of us waking up the morning of December 11 to hear the news were devastated. Bowie? The beautiful conceptual architect behind Ziggy Stardust? The “Thin White Duke”? The “Berlin trilogy”? GONE? Impossible. He was bigger than life, this man, an artist so entrenched in the full history of classic rock from the end of the ’60s to right now that a world without him seems unthinkable. It’s a world greatly reduced somehow, with a music industry wobbling in a more unstable manner. We NEEDED David Bowie… he represented the consummate rock icon, the master of disguises, the ultimate creative auteur who could control his image and take his audience on a wild, unpredictable ride. Bowie was HUGELY influential, often thrillingly weird and original, and the master manipulator of image, fashion, and the entirety of the “rock star game,” whatever that means. He shouldn’t be gone. We should have been better prepared… why didn’t he tell us he was so sick? Except, why SHOULD he? The amazing thing about BLACKSTAR is that it is an incredibly rare example of someone making a powerful artistic statement almost certainly KNOWING they are dying, laying down sounds and sentiments that are not often presented in such a choreographed, “this may be FAREWELL, folks” manner. But Bowie infuses this album with so much mystery, so many unanswered questions, that you hunger for more as you listen. You wonder whether he was suffering as he recorded these tracks… it’s known that he loved to work FAST, but was there added urgency because of his ill health? How much did he know about when the end would come? Were tracks like the title track and “Lazarus” intended as messages to his fans, perhaps intended to be comforting in the coming “after period,” or were they just his latest songs? We don’t know. Tony Visconti, Bowie’s long-time producer and collaborator, simply said “Bowie did what he wanted to do; he’s always done that” in a recent interview. We don’t know all the things we’d like to know, that’s for sure. Bowie took many secrets to the grave. And the outpouring of grief has been steady since he died, from musicians of all stripes, fans around the world. Not David Bowie. Not HIM! He CAN’T be gone! But… he can be, and he is.

David Bowie (photo credit: JIMMY KING)

David Bowie (photo credit: JIMMY KING)

So, listening to BLACKSTAR now, knowing it’s the last album David Bowie made as the purposeful, visionary artist he’s always been, is an utterly haunting, unforgettable experience. It is a phenomenal album, one that ranks extremely high in the Bowie canon. A friend asked me if I would think so highly of the album if Bowie hadn’t died. Yes… I had heard two of the songs before the news came, and I was riveted. I heard something new, eerie and boldly experimental in those two tracks (including the long title cut) and couldn’t WAIT to hear the rest. What Bowie’s death does to the listening experience is mostly about adding layers of sadness, forcing you to hear a “last testament” in these grooves, a place that Bowie knew he was going to that his fans could not follow, a place he himself had never been. The back cover of the CD jacket, the disc itself and the pages of the insert booklet are all black, with some shadowy photographs inside and the lyrics and credits almost unreadable as they, too, are black. But despite the darkness permeating this entire presentation, the music is vividly, powerfully full of life and wonder. It’s beautiful stuff from start to finish, reminiscent of the Berlin trilogy in many ways, but a new, jazzier kind of experimentalism that represented a new direction for Bowie. The 10-minute opener finds Bowie singing a perfect fifth harmony with himself that is mesmerizing, building a LOW era-vibe that keeps expanding outward, taking you on a journey to an unknown destination. There’s a solemn, minor-key mood that unexpectedly changes after a few minutes to a major key, almost upbeat section that features some of Bowie’s most plaintive vocals EVER, giving chills at the originality of the music. Ironically, though, Bowie sings this widely quoted lyric here: “Something happened on the day he died/His spirit rose a meter and then stepped aside/Somebody else took his place and bravely cried/I’m a blackstar/I’m a blackstar.” The word “blackstar” appears throughout this track, along with curious star negations such as “I’m not a popstar… I’m not a gangstar… I’m not a film star,” always followed by “I’m a blackstar.” It’s overwhelmingly unsettling to learn that the term “blackstar” is an oft-used term in medical literature to refer to a kind of cancerous tumor due to its appearance under close examination. This is something missed by the early reviewers of the album… they were looking for a more cosmic, outer-spacey sort of meaning, and perhaps Bowie wanted that interpretation to be valid as well. After all, one panel of the sleeve does indeed show a starfield, with a particularly bright star in the lower left corner. Whatever Bowie meant we can only guess at, but I’m betting that the significance of the “blackstar” concept was very much on his mind as his mortality came more and more to the front and center of his reality, and he had to wrestle with it in his own unique way. It makes this very daring track impossible to forget; it’s a soundscape worthy of immersion on every level. Mark Guiliana’s drums on this track are worth singling out… he’s called upon to do some unusual things, and he matches and holds down the weirdness Bowie himself is putting down on multiple other instruments. “’Tis a Pity She’s A Whore” continues the thrilling art rock with riveting saxophone from Donny McCaslin, one of the musical stars of this record. There are echoes of HEROES, LOW and SCARY MONSTERS in what we get here, but McCaslin plays with atmospheric bravado in a way that Bowie must have been thrilled by. The song rocks, rolls and soars madly, and Bowie sounds like he is having a blast in the studio. On the other hand, “Lazarus,” a song made into a morbid, unforgettable video, is going to be regarded by most of us as some sort of epitaph. With squonking horns again and some of Bowie’s most impassioned singing, we get lyrics like these: “Look up here, I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen/I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen/Everybody knows me now… You know I’ll be free/Just like that Bluebird/Now ain’t that just like me.” How can fans NOT react emotionally to stuff like this? It’s simply impossible to separate the reality of Bowie’s passing from the immediate reality of what this track does. “Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)” is a snarling, frenzied rocker that would’ve almost been easy to enjoy for its madness and musicality except that Bowie yells out at one point “Sue… Good bye!” and then you have to deal with truth again. “Girl Love Me” is a pretty weird song, with the repeated refrain “Where the fuck did Monday go?” (a question a lot of us probably ask from time to time, although more about OTHER days, I imagine) and it has an impatient, aggravated sense of ennui that is uniquely Bowie and his vocals reflect it. But the two closing tracks really KILL emotionally… that would be “Dollar Days,” an elegaic ballad and “I Can’t Give Everything Away.” In the former, over a plodding rhythm and that McCaslin sax again, Bowie seems to be heading out right before our ears and his voice trails off over these lyrics: “I’m falling down/Don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you/I’m trying to/I’m dying to.” That penultimate passage is just too much to take in light of reality, and someone is gonna shed tears if they bother to strain their eyes to read the black lyrics on the black page. Finally, in “I Can’t… ” Bowie gives us one last classic, a melodic, beautifully sung gem with a haunting refrain (that title), airy synth, and a band that is in absolute perfect lockstep with him. It sounds like the end of his story, frankly, and I can’t hear it without getting chills. “This is all I ever meant/That’s the message that I sent/I CAN’T GIVE EVERYTHING AWAY.” That title is in a larger point size in the lyrics… maybe it isn’t as significant as I think. Or, maybe, Bowie was clearly saying to us, “Some things have to remain a mystery. Figure it out yourself. I can’t spell out all my secrets for you.” Whatever the case, he left an astounding final musical statement. BLACKSTAR is a sad, haunting classic, a soundtrack to the final journey of one of the greatest musical adventurers and multi-media artists of all time. We won’t see the likes of the former David Jones ever again, and it’s fitting he went out with one of his greatest recordings. But honestly, I’m feeling pretty LOW that one of our most important musical HEROES is now a true starman in the great beyond. Bowie titled a recent career anthology NOTHING HAS CHANGED. Sadly, that’s not true at all. EVERYTHING has changed with his departure.

David Bowie (uncredited photo)

David Bowie (uncredited photo)

BILL WINER review:

I bought David Bowie’s new album, BLACKSTAR, the day it came out, on his 69th birthday. It’s haunting, adventurous, sonically beautiful… everything you would expect from him and more. Very different from his previous album, THE NEXT DAY, which was his first in ten years. I played BLACKSTAR all weekend, then found out Monday morning, he had passed away after a long battle with cancer. To say I was shocked and stunned would be an understatement. BLACKSTAR is such a wonderful album… now, it has turned into his swansong and his epitaph. The title song and “Lazarus” are the longest tracks and are haunting in every respect. I must also add that his backing band are New York Jazz musicians, including Donny McCaslin, who plays some of the most haunting saxophone I have ever heard on a pop or rock record. Mark Guiliana is a wonderful percussionist and is all over the place with great fills and superb drumming, adding to the sonic depth of the album. “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” is one of the best rockers on the album; two of the middle songs “Sue(Or In a Season of Crime)” and “Girl Loves Me” are very strange; “Dollar Days” is a great piano ballad. The real kicker is the last number, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” which is Bowie saying goodbye with a wonderful song and he sings his heart out on it. I’ve seen some of the video for “Lazarus,” which is one of the most haunting and bizarre music videos ever. He sings “Look up here, I’m in heaven” and his body starts floating away. BLACKSTAR is a must have album and as good as anything he has done. The fact that, now, it becomes his swansong makes it even more important. As Bowie’s longtime friend and producer, Tony Visconti, said, “His death was no different than his life… a work of art.”


JAMES WILLIAMSON: RE-LICKED

(LEOPARD LADY RECORDS; 2014)

Re-Licked_Cover

By 1972, the Stooges were collapsing in upon themselves; the band were two years removed from their second album, FUNHOUSE; they were dropped by their record label, Elektra, and bassist Dave Alexander and guitarist Ron Asheton were gone. James Williamson was the new hot-shot guitar-slinger but, without a record company to back them, Iggy Stooge (now Iggy Pop), drummer Scott Asheton and Williamson were on the verge of packing it in. Then, David Bowie stepped in, convincing his management team, MainMan, to take a flyer on the down-and-nearly-out Detroit bad boys and securing a record deal with Columbia; with Bowie taking a hand in the studio and Ron back in the fold (as a rather disgruntled bass player), the group gave us the seminal 1973 album, RAW POWER. Iggy and Williamson had been writing and demoing material for their next record but, not seeing the kind of return they were expecting, Columbia dropped the band. Williamson and Pop released the KILL CITY album, a live record (METALLIC KO), as well as a couple of EPs of demos before Iggy, with Bowie’s help, went on to a long and erratic solo career. Over the years, other demos have cropped up on various bootlegs. Williamson was said to have been in retirement when the Stooges came calling again, in 2009, after the death of Ron Asheton; in 2014, with the band on hiatus following Scott Asheton’s death, Williamson decided it was time to give those now-ancient songs a proper unveiling. Though Iggy declined to participate on the project, he did give James his approval to re-record the tunes, utilizing a core group of Cat Power’s Gregg Foreman on keyboards, Primal Scream’s Simone Marie Butler on bass and uber-drummer Michael Urbano, as well as the Stooges’ touring band and a string of punk and alt-rock heavy-hitters to bring Iggy’s lyrics to life. Forty years in the making, RE-LICKED is the result.

James Williamson; Alison Mosshart; James Williamson (photo credits: HEATHER HARRIS)

James Williamson; Alison Mosshart; James Williamson (photo credits: HEATHER HARRIS)

If I were going to fire an opening salvo across the bow of the enemy, I think that shot would probably be loaded with the demented warble of activist and former Dead Kennedys vocalist, Jello Biafra; apparently Williamson thought the same thing with Biafra’s frantic howl leading the charge on “Head On the Curve.” The tune kinda has a “Stooges meets the MC5 at a mixer hosted by the New York Dolls” vibe, with Foreman’s barely-controlled tack piano coda, massive fuzzed-out bass from Simone (with additional low-end from Mark Culbertson’s contra bass) and – of course – Williamson’s typical slash-and-burn guitar. “Open Up and Bleed” is a sweltering, stormy Blues track. It features an inventive lead from Williamson, alongside another nice solo, as well as some minor key piano from Stooges drummer Toby Dammit; the real highlight comes from the throat of under-rated Blues wailer, Carolyn Wonderland, who also adds a dose of her unique guitar sound. Primal Scream vocalist (and former Jesus and Mary Chain drummer) Bobby Gillespie offers his usual ragged, snotty voice to “Scene of the Crime,” a loud, sloppy piece of raunch with the tack piano (provided by Butler) and lo-fi rhythm section (Butler again, with Urbano banging away on the drums) that was the hallmark of RAW POWER. Steve Mackay offers some sludgy sax work, while James adds a stinging solo. While the majority of the songs here are Pop/Williamson compositions, “She Creatures of the Hollywood Hills” was co-written by Iggy and original Stooges guitarist, Ron Asheton. The tune is a jazzy blast of swampy Doors Style rock and roll, with Manzarek-like keyboards from Foreman and Ariel Pink, ably abetted by Petra Haden, offers up a weird James Brown meets Jim Morrison vocal scat, as Dammit and bassist Mike Watt add a perverse rhythmic swing to the proceedings. There’s also a skronking kind of sax solo from Mackay that is of a variety that wouldn’t sound out of place on an early Mothers album. On what is probably the best track on the album, “’Til the End of the Night,” Alison Mosshart’s (of the Kills and the Dead Weather) atmospheric moaning is delivered over Williamson’s sparse acoustic and Urbano’s heavy, orchestral percussion. The tension builds to about the 3:15 mark when everything explodes, collapsing into a jagged electric solo before reverting back to form for the final minute or so.

James Williamson (photo credit: HEATHER HARRIS)

James Williamson (photo credit: HEATHER HARRIS)

Iggy’s “I Got a Right” crashes Stooges punk into Mother’s Finest rockin’ soul with vocals from the wildly talented Lisa Kekaula (of the Bellrays) wailing away over the Dammit/Watt rhythm section, Petra Haden’s oddly non-verbal backing vocals and a full horn section that includes Allison Gomer, Steffan Kuehn and Aaron Lington. Of course, the master of ceremony holds court with another dose of raunchy rock guitar on a song that woulda made Wendy O and the Plasmatics smile. “Pin Point Eyes” has a dirty, 1920s bawdy house feel, with Foreman’s ragtimey piano and the same horn section as “I Got a Right” dominating the rhythm. The Icarus Line’s Joe Cardamone’s vocals fall somewhere between Berlin-era Iggy and Johnny Thunders’ drugged-addled slurs. All of this, along with a rather restrained solo from James makes the track one of my favorites… this is the type of thing that I think Stiv Bator would be doing if he’d stuck around. The magnificent Alison Mosshart returns for “Wild Love” and she brings Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees, Mad Season, Queens of the Stone Age… you get the idea… the guy’s got quite a pedigree!) along for the ride. With a butt-load of snarling guitars and the retro sound of Urbano’s drums and Butler’s bass, it’s a love song, Stooges style, and may just be the closest approximation to the band’s first Williamson era. There’s kind of an abstract Bowie-ness to “Rubber Leg.” The stomping rocker features a nifty, gravelly vocal from Little Caesar’s Ron Young amid a miasma of sound with Rolling Stones-like backing vocals and a weird, distorted sax from Steve Mackay that’s buried deep in the mix, coming up for air on an odd Farfisa run from Foreman; the whole thing is very noisy and quite disjointed and… I like it! “I’m Sick of You” is an archaic, American Gothic tune for the first half, with moody guitars and keyboards oozing underneath atmospheric vocals from the Orwells’ Mario Cuomo. It turns into a classic Stooges blast of intensity, with Williamson’s massive power-riffing tolling the death-knell of a broken relationship.

Lisa Kekaula; James Williamson; Mark Lanegan (photo credits: HEATHER HARRIS)

Lisa Kekaula; James Williamson; Mark Lanegan (photo credits: HEATHER HARRIS)

Now… with apologies to the Chairman of the Board (c’mon… you all know who Im talking about) and lyricist Paul Anka, there’s this: “And now, the end is near. Bonus tracks? We’ve got a few, but then again too few not to mention.” Carolyn Wonderland returns on vocals and guitar a funky blast of punk (or, is that a punky blast of funk?) called “Gimme Some Skin,” the first of six CD bonus cuts. Buoying Carolyn’s soulful voice are ragged, frenzied guitar blasts from both she and Williamson, as well as a wicked harmonica run from Walter Daniels and some James Chance post-punk sax bleats from Mackay. The first of two takes of “Cock In My Pocket” features typically raunchy Iggy lyrics, delivered with throat-throttling fervor by former Hellacoptors and current Imperial State Electric singer Nicke Andersson. The track also highlights some brilliant baritone sax from Aaron Lington. Another welcome return is featured on “Heavy Liquid.” Lisa Kekaula’s Paul Stanley-like howls carry the wicked Detroit-centric melding of the Stooges with the MC5, Death, Alice Cooper and Mitch Ryder over a muddy RAW POWER sound, with trashy horns from Kuehn, Lington and Gomer. Expanding the rock and roll pool to more of a world stage, the underlying riff is quite reminiscent of Budgie’s “Nude Disintegrating Parachutist Woman” and about half-a-dozen other hard rock classics, not to mention a bit of Devo and a sniff of Talking Heads. Other than lead singer Shea Roberts and guitarist Jesse Nichols, the Richmond Sluts (Chris B, Justin Lynn, John Tyree) seem to be relegated to the role of vocal support on “Wet My Bed,” with James, Simone, Gregg and Michael doing all of the heavy lifting, instrumentally. The arrangement works really well, with a shambolic free-for-all that sounds like the Dolls channeling Chuck Berry at a ROCKY HORROR SHOW revival; Williamson does his best Johnny Thunders doing his best Chuck and Foreman offers up a great tribute to the late, great Johnnie Johnson (the TRUE King of Rock and Roll)… this one’s a lot of fun. There’s not a lot difference between the first and second versions of “Cock In My Pocket,” other than the punkier voice of Gary Floyd, giving this version a Handsome Dick Manitoba/Dictators vibe. An alternate version of “Rubber Leg” sounds closer to RAW POWER than the regular album version, especially with the Iggy-cum-Joey Ramone yelps of JG Thirlwell, the alter-ego of the extreme artist known as Foetus. RE-LICKED is essential listening for rockers the world over, reminding us all why we started listening to rock and roll in the first place. The album is available in two physical formats: The first is a vinyl version with the first ten cuts… no bonus tracks, but it does come with a CD version that does feature all sixteen tunes; the second version is a standard release of the sixteen track CD. Both versions feature a cool “Making of… ” feature on a bonus DVD, a very nice addition to the entire experience.