Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Heathen by David Bowie (2002)

Not many artists have experienced such a commercial and critical nosedive as David Bowie. From a near-infallible and extremely prolific output in the 1970s, culminating in 1983’s lap of honour Let’s Dance, its follow-ups Tonight (1984) and Never Let Me Down (1987) are such unspeakable duds that they deserve to remain sealed. In fact, these two albums are the most readily available from Bowie’s back-catalogue in second hand vinyl stores, probably precisely for this reason. Feeling the need for a reinvention, his brief “Tin Machine” alt-rock phase was brave, but felt incredibly forced, screamed “midlife crisis” and remains a textbook case of ill-fitting makeovers. In the 1990s, flirtations with industrial music and what was then called “Jungle” saw a goateed Bowie playing catch-up with “the kids” and their music.

Bowie the Earthling, circa 1997.

Heathen then, represents a welcome “reboot” of the singer’s career. The cover is a hint of the contents; businesslike, a bit grim, and cool. Tellingly, the baggy white outfit of 1999’s ‘Hours…’ is traded in for a smart suit. Reunited with Tony Visconti, producer of Bowie’s biggest 1970s albums, the sound and production alone is a welcome return to the latter part of that decade, with some tasteful 21st century flourishes (the odd drum loop, some drum and bass influences). The production is remarkably lithe, a very clear mix bringing out the gracefully ageing Bowie on top of his fantastic backing band (big session names, Visconti himself and the essential Carlos Alomar). The energy is up throughout the album, refusing to bog down like the 1980s albums, and strongly indebted to the state of alternative rock at the turn of the century. Some songs are accompanied by a tasteful string quartet.

Some tracks immediately leap out at the listener. “I Would Be Your Slave” is built around a soft drum and bass loop, with the “Scorchio Quartet” fleshing out the body of the accompaniment. Here, Bowie is in fine form, effortlessly echoing his performance of “Wild is the Wind” some 25 years previously. “Cactus” is a Pixies cover, adding punch to a previously weedy song, possibly rocking harder than any other song since Bowie’s glam days. “Slip Away” is a no-punches-pulled ballad with a soaring chorus. Channelling the spirit of the Berlin Trilogy (1977-79) most obviously is the bouncing “Slow Burn”. Its bass-line is obviously indebted to “Boys Keep Swinging” from Lodger (1979), while the backing vocals are clearly in the style of “Sons of the Silent Age” from “Heroes” (1977). At least Bowie refers to what are arguably his strongest albums, with all of Heathen possessing the same edgy cool that the Berlin Trilogy exudes. One of the most remarkable tracks, if only for its frantic energy and remarkable arrangement is the cover of the Legendary Stardust Cowboy’s “Took A Trip on a Gemini Spaceship”. Doffing its cap to Bowie’s early 1970’s “space alien” phase (Ziggy Stardust) theremins glide over a drum and bass song with vocals that sound almost like a parody. It must nevertheless be congratulated for the unashamed enthousiasm with which the song is tackled.

Bowie a few years later, as elder statesman and fashion icon

Truthfully, the album does not maintain the quality of the aforementioned highlights throughout its running time; the last few songs are not entirely memorable. “Everyone Says ‘Hi’” features a dandy Bowie straight off of Hunky Dory (1971), and the title track provides a fitting end. The album contains no fewer than three covers. Nevertheless, Heathen represents a rebirth, albeit a short one. It was followed one year later by the more patchy “Reality”, and since then, no new material has come from “the actor”. Heathen finds him taking stock of his qualities, cashing in his chips as new generations of listeners and critics were exploring his back catalogue. His pioneering work acknowledged, he could now be revered as a well-dressed elder statesman, fashion icon and kooky NYC neighbour of Moby. Rather than racing to keep up with new developments, as in the 1980s and 1990s, Heathen finds Bowie at ease with his age, status, and unafraid of lingering on the sidelines, where he has always been at his best.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Suburbs by Arcade Fire (2010)

On the one hand, The Suburbs is a commendable album. On the other hand, it has several critical flaws that undercut its brilliance. Coming a generous three years after their sophomore album Neon Bible (2007), it certainly sounds like what we’d like Arcade Fire to sound like. Pop the CD in your player (if you’re old-fashioned like yours truly), and there’s no mistaking: that signature dry/dull “indie” drum sound, the bawled vocals of Win Butler, the occasional orchestral flourish and some majestic choruses are all present and accounted for. As the cover and track titles indicate, this is somewhat of a concept album, with several two-part suites and numerous references to some sort of civil war breaking out in and between the suburbs. Are Arcade Fire cementing their critical success with a grand statement, or are they reaching too far and not quite up to task yet?

The Suburbs has some brilliant songs, intriguing at first, and memorable after two or three listens. The first three songs make a strong opener, each flowing into the next while preserving a unique quality. The two “Half Light” songs are beautifully epic, sounding like sweeping soundtracks to some imaginary epic film about the Napoleonic Wars. At the same time, songs like “Wasted Hours” showcase a looser, more laid-back sound that was also put to good use on the often bombastic Neon Bible. 1980s style synthesizers have started to make an appearance as well (“We Used to Wait”, “Sprawl II”), showing Arcade Fire are not immune to following trends, rather than setting them.

A few tracks on the album immediately leap out at the listener, especially if he or she is familiar with the previous two albums. “Month of May” rocks harder and faster than anything they’ve attempted before. Another one that is impossible to ignore is “Sprawl II”, with its synth-led “dance” aesthetics. These are brave tracks on an album that for the most part sounds exactly like what we’ve come to expect of Arcade Fire. Apart from these two tracks, The Suburbs is a step back from Neon Bible’s great leap forward, once again embracing the bleakness of 2004’s debut Funeral. Whereas some bands might have relegated these “novelty” tracks to mere B-sides, or a side-project, The Suburbs embraces this diversity. There’s just one problem: the tracks sound too “forced”. “Month of May” sounds exactly like Marilyn Manson’s “We’re From America”, released the previous year. In fact, it sounds like Manson’s “America” with Neon Bible’s own “(Antichrist Television Blues)” played on top of it. The likeness is just too strong to ignore, being a bit off-putting. A similar problem afflicts “Sprawl II”. This track shamelessly mimics Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” by way of Baccara. In a world where lesser offenses are mercilessly punished, Debbie Harry's lawyers should have enough reason to start filing. “Rococco”, for all its interesting rhythmic elements and instrumentation is blessed with one of the most banal choruses of the past decade, along with toe-curlingly self-referential lyrics about “the kids”.

These anomalies aside, the volume of good material is commendable. However, it must be said that The Suburbs is at least three, and possibly four songs too long. At one hour and four minutes, it is some fifteen minutes longer than their previous releases. Sadly, the album suffers through it. Arcade Fire aren’t quite ready to do their The Wall yet; they have the ambition but as of yet they lack the mature songwriting (not to mention much-needed variation) necessary to lay down more than an hour of music. The album is miles ahead of the competition, but its size makes it unpalatable and weighs it down. It especially nosedives after “Month of May”, two or three songs as an epilogue would have been more than enough. Arcade Fire should have taken a leaf out of Radiohead’s and MGMT’s book(s), keeping their latest albums short and extraordinary, rather than falling to the temptation of piling on the songs.

Arcade Fire’s grandest statement yet is commendable for its ambition, scope and sheer volume of eccentric, high-quality pop-rock music with a twist. Not many bands combine the bombast of U2 with a human element, and certainly not in such a thrilling way. The issues with its most outstanding (in the literal sense of the word) tracks somewhat undercut their worth, as does the album’s overall length and somewhat monotonous nature. A flawed masterpiece indeed! Let us hope Arcade Fire manages to surprise next time around, perhaps “pulling a Kid A” before finally making a definitive statement once the band’s experience matches its ambition.