Thursday, September 29, 2011

Forgotten Music: September 2011

Welcome to the September 2011 edition of the Forgotten Music Project. As always, if I missed someone (or if someone joins in for the first time), I'll add you to the summary.

Enjoy.

Sean Coleman
Bill Crider
Eric (Iren)
Jerry House
Randy Johnson
George Kelley
Evan Lewis
Todd Mason
Charlie Ricci
Richard Robinson
Perplexio
Paul D. Brazill

Forgotten Music: David Bowie in the 1990s and the 2000s

(This is the September 2011 edition of the Forgotten Music Project.)

David Bowie, in the 1990s, played the most important character of his career: himself.

Many critics and fans consider Bowie’s 1990s output mediocre. His 1993 album Black Tie White Noise is the point, they say, where the slide began. However, when you examine Bowie’s entire career, the 1990s are not a slide but a rebirth.

Even if you think that Bowie’s hits began with 1969’s “Space Oddity” and followed with 1971’s “Changes,” I think most folks will agree that David Bowie really hit it big when he became Ziggy Stardust. For the rest of the 70s, phases of his career were noted by which character appeared on stage. You had Ziggy, Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs, the Thin White Duke, or that weird clown he played in the “Ashes to Ashes” video. Even in 1983 when he went mainstream with “Let’s Dance” he was more the Thin White Duke’s brother than Bowie himself (although, when you look at the number of album-cut songs he played on the Serious Moonlight tour, he was closer to his true self than ever before). Even in 1987 and his overtly and, in retrospect, too bombastic Glass Spider tour, you could make the case that it was the characters that mattered more than the music. Heck, if you hear “Suffragette City” or “Let’s Dance” or “Scary Monsters,” you think more of how Bowie looked than how good the songs are. Bowie has said that he staged the Glass Spider tour—with a giant, translucent spider hovering over the stage—because that’s what people had come to expect of him. The music didn’t matter. Only the image mattered.

But, for Bowie, the music mattered most and his 1990s catalog proves it. Many fans at the time wondered about the ill-fated experiment that was Tin Machine. (Now, as we celebrate that most un-forgotten album by Nirvana, "Nevermind," it's fascinating to listen to the Tin Machine album, since it amounts to a prelude to "Nevermind") Why was Bowie trying to be just a member of a band? Doesn’t he know that’s impossible? Yeah, it probably was impossible, but he was doing something he needed to do: get back to his roots. Get back to why he wanted to be a musician in the first place. In the mid-1960s, Bowie, then going by his given name of David Jones, was a member of a series of bands. After he had changed his last name to Bowie—so as not to be confused with the Monkees’ Davie Jones—Bowie became a solo artist and meshed all of the smorgasbord that was 1960s London into his own unique sound.

Bowie’s Tin Machine experience placed a bookend to the first phase of his career. After putting his extensive back catalog to rest in the 1990 Sound + Vision tour, Bowie returned to what got him first interested in music: jazz and playing saxophone. "Black Tie White Noise" (1993) is the result. With this record, Bowie pays homage to his musical heritage that influenced him in the 1950s and early 1960s, while still sounding modern. Nile Rodgers produced the album, their second collaboration after the multi-platinum Let’s Dance album. Lester Bowie, the avant-garde trumpet player, is featured heavily and Mick Ronson and Mike Garson, members of Ziggy’s band, the Spiders from Mars, also beam into the studio. The semi-autobiographical “Jump (They Say)” is the most popular from this CD. The video shows just how good a profile Bowie presents to the world. The rest of the music, including some instrumentals--a first since the 1970s--gyrated between pop, dance, jazz, and fantastic, yet underrated ballads. Sinatra would have been proud. Oh, and while Bowie is known for his often dour outlook on life as reflected through his songs, his then-recent marriage to model Iman made Black Tie White Noise altogether ebullient.

Later the same year, he recorded and released music for the BBC program "The Buddha of Suburbia," a collection of experimental music for which Bowie is quite proud. The music--almost all performed by Bowie and Erdal Kizilcay--was fresh. You could hear Bowie's pure enjoyment in the anonymity of the instrumental music. The title track is usually the only tune you hear from this album.

Having been musically born again, Bowie reviewed his career before he tackled his next album. For all the hit records and personas, fans and critics generally agreed that his trilogy of albums with Brian Eno—Low, “Heroes,” Lodger, (1977-79), sometimes referred to as the Berlin albums named for the city in which they were recorded—marked a creative moment in time for which Bowie could be proud. With that in mind, and giving a nod to his earlier theatrics, Bowie and Eno collaborated on 1995’s Outside. A concept album, somewhat bloated by its strict adherence to the overall story, Outside marked yet another example of what Bowie has done throughout his career: take stock of current musical trends and take a step ahead. The grunge movement was in full sway but there was also an undercurrent of industrial-rock that was bubbling up to the surface.

Characterized by a furious guitar-driven wall of sound as well as the moody, ambient synthesizer of Eno, Outside is Bowie return to the familiar, desolate sound of isolation in the midst of the modern. The tour that followed, co-headlined with Nine Inch Nails, exposed Bowie to a new, younger audience who must have wondered why Bowie, the original author of “The Man Who Sold the World” but made famous by Nirvana’s Unplugged set, was covering a Nirvana song. For the older fans, Bowie’s 1995 tour was a pleasure with new, industrial readings of old songs (Scary Monsters, Look Back In Anger, or DJ) and the dusting off of rarely-heard songs (Andy Warhol, My Death, or Teenage Wildlife). Popular songs from this album were “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” (good song, but somewhat out of context when heard on the radio; check out the horror-film-like video), “Hallo Spaceboy” (pile-driving rocker with blistering guitar work, here, live with Trent Reznor), and the subtle and wonderfully melodic “Strangers When We Meet," my personal favorite from the CD, especially live with Mike Garson's beautiful piano work.

After Bowie’s experiment with industrial music, he noticed that the clubs in London played what was described as jungle/drum-and-bass music. You could certainly make the case that jungle/drum-and-bass was to London what hip-hop was the America, namely, an urban musical form with its own vocabulary and styles. In the mid-90s, this style was still more a jumble of musical types superimposed on each other, the result somewhat mish-mashed. Leave it to Bowie, with his perfectly maturing voice, to inject a degree of melody on rapid-rhythm drum-and-bass on his album Earthling (1997). He created something altogether unique in his career as well as the 1997 musical scene. Highlights of this CD are “Dead Man Walking” (original and the gorgeous acoustic version) and “I’m Afraid of Americans.” As with "Dead Man Walking," in certain concert settings, Bowie unplugged these songs, stripping away the techno music to reveal the beauty of his music and voice underneath.

When examining Bowie’s entire career, you can see trilogies emerge. The aforementioned Berlin trilogy is one, the trilogy of albums surrounding Ziggy Stardust—The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Aladdin Sane, Pin-Ups—is another, and the 1980s albums—Let’s Dance, Tonight, Never Let Me Down—is a third. The early-to-mid 1990s albums just discussed is another trilogy and, yet, Bowie gave us a fifth. Beginning with 1999’s …hours, Bowie began to reexamine his own career in an overt way. Upon listening to the sedate musings of the then 52-year-old man, …hours sounds very much like the answer to the question: What would Bowie’s 1971 album Hunky Dory sound like if it were recorded in 1999? With its acoustic stylings and meditative reflections, …hours was the answer. And it was a distinct break from the previous three albums. “Thursday’s Child” was the lead single, followed soon after by “Seven” and “Survive.” Back in 1999, you had to wonder if this were one of the few stand-alone albums Bowie had released throughout the years—The Man Who Sold the World, Young Americans, Scary Monsters—or the beginning of another cycle.

In 2002, Bowie released his most critically acclaimed album in years, Heathen. Produced by Tony Visconti, the soundboard genius behind most of Bowie’s albums in the 1970s, Heathen all but returned to the sound of the Berlin trilogy. Dark, moody, introspective songs like "Slow Burn" punctuated with loud bursts like Bowie’s cover of the Pixie’s “Cactus,” Heathen arrived on store shelves in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks and seemed to pose new questions. In interviews during 2002, when Bowie was asked if the attacks had inspired any of the songs on the record, Bowie usually responded by stating that this particular pessimistic outlook on life had been a staple of his entire career. So, nothing fundamentally different but again, it was a prescient Bowie being one step ahead of the rest of us.

Then, in 2003, came his latest (last?) album, Reality. And it is here that Bowie embraces something altogether positive: the spirit and essence of New York City. Just listening to the tracks like "New Killer Star" you can all but smell the odors wafting along the Avenue of the Americas or hear the sounds of the city. There are obvious post-9/11 depressive lyrics—“See the great white scar/Over Battery Park/Then a flare glides over/But I won't look at that scar”—as well as more surprisingly optimistic lyrics, perhaps as the result of his fourteen-year marriage to Iman or the joy that the couple’s then three-year-old daughter bring to their life.

But there’s also something else. There’s a sly wink and a smile by Bowie to all of us. He tells us that he’s never gonna get old. During the Reality Tour, he delved into every phase of his catalogue, bringing out album cuts that hadn’t been performed live in decades. The DVD that documented that tour contains thirty songs (just drool at the set list and look at the stats of the tour), a three-hour experience that showed a performer, musician, and icon still performing at a peak many other artists would envy.

Smoking and touring finally caught up with Bowie in 2004, enough so that he had to cut the tour short. In the years since—going on seven—it is the longest drought of Bowie’s career without a new record. He has recorded one-off songs here and there but performed rarely. You would be foolish to think there won’t be another Bowie album out there. But Ziggy is 64 and, as much as I hate to admit it, it is possible that we have all we’re going to get. It is an all-but certainty that the Reality tour stop in Houston the spring of 2004--mere weeks from his heart attack--will be the last time I see him live. If so, he went out on such a high note that I'm completely satisfied.

Either way, do not dismiss the 1990s (and 2000s) albums. Collectively and separately, they constitute some of the best music of Bowie’s career. And if we do get that one, last album, you can bet David Bowie, The Thin White Duke, will probably be one step ahead of everyone and beckoning us to follow.

Monday, September 26, 2011

CSI: Miami - Season 10 Premiere Recap

My take on the CSI: Miami Season 10 premiere, "Countermeasures," is now live at Criminal Element.

Houston Texans Haiku: Week 3 at New Orleans Saints

Yes, it was a loss.
But the Texans played with heart.
The dream grows some more.

Red zone offense. Argh!
Need more touchdowns, less FGs.
Nearly stole it, though.

Houston Texans - 33
New Orleans Saints - 40

Record: 2-1

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

"Castle" Premiere: "Rise" Recap

My recap and take on last night's Season 4 premiere of Castle is now live at Criminal Element. Head on over and have a read, see if you agree with me that the show about a writer who tags along with NYC homicide detectives just gets better and better.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Houston Texans Haiku: Week 2 at Miami Dolphins

The New Man: Ben Tate
Churning up yards, eating clock.
The hope grows some more...

Two and Oh again.
But we have been here before.
To a new place...go!

Houston Texans - 23
Miami Dolphins - 13

Record: 2-0

Monday, September 12, 2011

Houston Texans Haiku: Week 1 vs. Indianapolis Colts

First drive? Typical.
The rest? Pretty tres awesome!
Dare we hope again?

Indianapolis Colts - 7
Houston Texans - 34

Ahh! The sweet smell of NFL football! It's been a long nine months (since the Texans played a game). Even before yesterday, there was a sense that maybe, just maybe, perhaps, if all goes well, this might, just might, be a year of something special. Granted, we had that thought last year after beating the Colts (with Peyton Manning) in game one, but this year still feels different. We'll have to wait and see.

As a fan of the NFL, I missed Peyton Manning. He is truly one of the great players ever to play the game and, frankly, I always enjoy watching him play. The way he choreographs his team is like a master potter making beautiful art out of clay. I hope he returns soon and wished he would have been able to continue his consecutive starts streak.

Still, football is back!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Book Review Club: The Gentlemen's Hour by Don Winslow

(This is the September 2011 edition of Barrie Summy's Book Review Club. For the complete list, click the icon at the end of this review.)

Remember the thrill of first love? That inexplicable, special something deep down in the pit of your stomach that feels like it's left earth's gravity and is caroming off into outer space? It happens with your significant other or spouse, but it also happens with books, too. The first time you discover an author, the special ways the prose is styled, the particular nuance of storytelling, it's magical. That's how I felt when I read Don Winslow's 2008 book, The Dawn Patrol. It was, by far, the best book I read that year and, had The Dark Knight not premiered in July of that year, Winslow's book would have been the best thing I consumed all year.

Finally, three long years later, the sequel arrives. The Gentlemen's Hour does exactly what a sequel is supposed to do: return you to the place you discovered, to the fictional people with whom you have a bond, in prose that breathes life into nonexistent folks. Boone Daniels is a man's man, the kind of guy someone like me pines to emulate but knows, in reality, could never be. He likes to surf with his friends. That's kind of about it. Whereas Anthony Bourdain has the mantra "I write, I travel, I eat, and I'm hungry for more," Boone Daniels would probably say "I surf, with my friends, and watch the sunset, what more do I need?" He's a PI only so far as to keep the lights on and pay for food. As bohemian as that sounds, it's not a lifestyle to be admired.

Which is why he basically takes almost any job that comes his way, seeing as he doesn't have a line of potential customers outside his door. Unfortunately for Daniels, the job that comes his way is with the defense attorney for Corey Blasingame. You see, Blasingame stands accused of killing one Kelly Kuhio, the absolute zen master of surfdom in SoCal, the kind of man all sides admire. This doesn't sit well with Boone's core group of friends: Hang Twelve, Hide Tide, Dave the Love God, and Johnny Banzai. They all think Corey should just be lynched. As does the rest of the SoCal surfing community. Heck, Johnny, a San Diego cop, was the detective on Blasingame's case, so any headway Boone can make on the case, he has to take on Johnny and take him down a peg or two. Not a good way to keep your friends.

Then there's Petra Hall. Hot British chick, lawyer for Blasingame's attorney, uppity, and definitely not a surfer. She's basically the one main female character in a book populated by macho men, so she has to hold her own. She and Boone have a thing, but neither know precisely what it is. Sunny Day, the one female surfer from The Dawn Patrol, is absent from this one save for a scene. For most of the book, Petra and Boone struggle with determining what, if anything, they have together. There's the professional sides of both of them, and then there's that magnetism where opposites attract.

As you can imagine, the deeper Boone digs into the case, the deeper the fractures become among the Dawn Patrol. Friendship hang by a thread and loyalties are questioned. I'm not as versed in PI literature as other people are, but I know enough to know that many PIs are loners. Not Boone. He relies on his friends and hates to pursue this case. But he does it because that's what the dead Kuhio would want him to do. It's almost as if Kuhio is the Obi Wan Kenobi to Boone's Luke Skywalker.

For as powerful a writer as Winslow is, as completely as he controls the pace, the prose, and the scope of this book, if you don't have a good ending, the entire book could be tarnished. Have no fear. He delivers an ending that completely satisfied all that I wanted in this book. And he does it in a language so "of the area" that it makes me want to hope on a board and surf...even though I can't surf. Winslow's sense of place is that palpable.

The number one problem most of us have with sequels (or series titles) is the sameness of it all. Meh, we might say, I've seen that before. Or, whatever, there was just too much. Not so with The Gentlemen's Hour. Here, we have character progression in Boone, but his core remains the same. He still possesses that which we fell in love with back in The Dawn Patrol, but this is clearly not The Dawn Patrol II. That's what makes a good sequel.

To quoth the sage of surfdom, it was epic macking crunchy.




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