Album: The Next Day
Artist: David Bowie
Sounds like: Using the past to color the present, with brilliant results
The garden of music grows through the shoots and sprouts of new artists. The flowers of one-hit wonders shining colors in the summer sun, wilting in time and overcome by the weeds of imitators and wannabes in the seasons that follow. Trends fold over each other and cross pollinate, creating hybrids and new directions. Over the period of time the progression seems natural and ordered, but if you press fast forward all you’d really see is a cycle repeating. Seedlings bursting through the dirt, rising to the sun, and falling away until they show up pressed between the covers of NOW That’s What I Call Music collections that you can buy at gas stations for years and years to come.
I tend to think it’s because of the temporary nature of pop music that we gravitate towards superstars. As much as we love the flowers in the garden, we need the trees. The pillars that shade and give root all around. The trees around the garden provide the boundaries. They give us the security that there are things we can count on. For proof of this, all you have to do is take a quick glance around and notice how whole pop culture world lately seems to be waiting with baited breath for the new Justin Timberlake album, the one anointed by Jay-Z (and therefore ever so possibly touched by Beyoncé) to drop. It’s the first real big deal of the pop music year – carefully marketed, teased, and cultivated so that there’s as much curiosity from casual onlookers as there is from fans dripping with anticipation.
Flowers are unexpected surprises. Trees are events.
Which is perhaps what makes the “surprise” release of David Bowie’s 24th studio album The Next Day so interesting. It’s been almost 10 years since we’ve heard anything resembling new music from the iconic art-rocker – and considering his near total retreat from the public eye following a heart attack suffered backstage at a concert in Germany in 2004, it almost felt longer than that.
But as any Bowie fan will tell you, time is kinda relative when it comes to the man and his music.
A master of character and reinvention — there have been many David Bowie’s over the years. From the glam of Ziggy Stardust to the soul of the Thin White Duke, each moment in his discography seems to want to separate itself from the last. David Bowie’s career as a star doesn’t so much progress as it moves outward in angles, seemingly jumping away from where it was before by design.
But almost 50 years later when all those personalities are all but costume changes in a well-received concert tour, and the man underneath the greasepaint and the trenchcoats is hunched over grasping his chest backstage realizing that the one person connected to all those ethereal faces is suddenly human and mortal – even the king of reinvention might find the whole thing a little tiring.
And while he still maintains that he will never tour again, what fans found out recently (but should have known all along) is that an artist cannot simply stop creating. And so over the course of the past two years Bowie and longtime producer Tony Visconti began work on a series of songs in secret. Musicians were called in, and sessions were played – but each time they finished the pieces went home with David. A painter with a canvas of idea and a palette of past personalities to color it with.
And the results are like nothing you’d expect from a man who many had counted as out to pasture just a few years ago.
Casual fans can appreciate the fire of energy that comes from each track – as The Next Day presents itself as a alternative-tinged Brit rock album. Beatles harmonies against angular guitar lines. Socially aware lyrics over the funk of a deep saxophone riff. But it’s when more familiar listeners start to mirror these tracks against their own favorite version of the artist that the real textures start to emerge. The Next Day swirls with easter eggs for longtime fans – almost as if he’s calling all the characters together to see what he’s come up with this time.
From the almost too blatant joke of the album cover to standout tracks like “Dirty Boys,” “Boss of Me,” or the trippy bounce of “I’d Rather Be High” (easily my favorite track so far on the album) – there are hints to all kinds of past Bowie characters and moments. Not in a greatest hits way, but more in a sense that it’s a painting that looks different to each viewer. One that mixes all the different colors of the man’s past together into one surprisingly taut package.
In a week or so, Justin Timberlake will release an album that will provide a boundary. It will be a line that we can all stand on one side or the other of, because that’s what mature music fans do. We listen and evaluate, and then use that opinion to measure other things against. Lady Gaga’s next album, Adele’s follow up – these will all be better or worse than the JT disc. It will be the highly anticipated tree that shades over the next few months of music.
But if you look a little higher than that – over the highest branch, what you might see is a thin Englishman who’s finally able to look down without worrying if his final fall would ever be the one that enabled people to see his body of work as a single brushstroke from beginning to end.
Even if you’re not a superfan, this one’s worth a listen.
See what you think, here’s “Where are We Now?”
And for a more uptempo turn – here’s “The The Stars (Are Out Tonight)”
Alice Russell is the kind of act that makes people bemoan contemporary pop mores; she’s precisely the kind of act that almost seems to invite defensive tutting and teeth-kissing on her behalf at her apparent lack of commercial success, and the soaraway success of others. “Just because she doesn’t get her kit off…” the defense might contain, or, “None of those others can sing….” In a way, it’s justifiable, because, if you were to hear a small sample of Alice Russell’s output, you’d imagine she had some popular potential in her. She’s been plying her trade for around a decade now, releasing solo albums, performing guest vocals on the records of others, and collaborating with many in the UK soul and jazz firmament. Her following has grown, but has yet to break through into genuine crossover appeal. Why is that? It’s always difficult to pin-point precise reasons for something as idiosyncratic, ephemeral and unscientific as pop, but maybe Russell’s apparent devil-may-care attitude to anything approaching a compound career – one which builds interest upon the interest of previous outings – might have a little to do with it. She seems to be quite happy to take slightly left-field side-steps into different musical territory, simply because she enjoys doing so, before stepping back onto her own occasional career path. So it is that we reach To Dust, Russell’s sixth solo album (or fourth, if you discount two which contain alternate versions of tracks from other long players). Looking at the track listing, Russell’s charming approach to her career displays itself in the appearance of Heartbreaker Pt. 2, two tracks before the first part: curious decision by the records company, or simply a ‘because-it-works’ choice all of Russell’s own – who knows….?
Kicking off this album is A To Z which, in a way, is a statement of intent. It’s like an echo of those old R&B singles that would use a countdown gimmick, or an alphabetic one as a setting for some fun, carefree lyrics. And, alongside the determinedly retro setting of the track, that’s precisely what Russell gives us – and that sense of the carefree is something that, I think, is something that can be read between the lines of much on this album. The retro theme continues on the bluesy Heartbreaker Pt. 2, and on Heartbreaker itself. In between these, though, comes one of those little break-out moments, where Russell lets you know she isn’t just simply a mascara-fuelled exercise in retro R&B stylings. It’s a jerky, more contemporary take on US R&B – more Mary J Blige than Mary Wells.
As the album progresses, I began to notice how forthright the production was, more bold and brassy than your average supposedly retro effort from a singer – the guitars seem that bit more jangly (indeed, there is a rather pleasing garage-like sound to some of the six-stringers on this album), the drums given more oomph on the mixing desk, the cymbal crashes resonating a little longer. The reason, I think, is Russell herself – her voice demands that the rest of the instrumentation step up to the plate. Russell comes from a choral church background, so you can see where the technical proficiency comes from…the power and emotion, however – that’s all her own. And when she wants to, she can turn it on, which also why it’s nice to see that she often seems to hold back, in order for those moments of power to reach their full potency.
The conscious thematic thrust of the album, the ending of relationships, the dissolution and ennui it often leaves behind, coalesces around the title track, where she explicates, ”Seems like you’ve forsaken up my mind/ Crumbling to dust up my soul”. A track like Let Go (Breakdown) seems to neatly summarise the space Alice Russell takes up: a bluesy riff, some jazz-dance inspired bass breakdowns, a more contemporarily rhythmic singing style, and some vaguely ‘latin’ guitar. The song is not in any one of those genres, but seems to comfortably occupy all of them at once. As if to emphasize the point the next track, Drinking Song Interlude is determinedly contemporary, sounding very much like it comes fresh from the studio of the latest hot-to-trot UK Bass producer.
I get the sense that Russell is itching to break out of the retro box that people put her in, but that she would also like to keep making such tracks if they occur to her – freedom, in essence, from the preconceptions people have both of her and any white British female soul singer. There is indeed this stereotype – the Winehouse, the Adele, the Joss Stone. Russell is none of those, she is her own thing, and thank goodness for that. Maybe she’ll make the album that truly defines her one day. I don’t think this is it, but it’s a damned good attempt.
Artist: Quantic & Alice Russell with the Combo Bárbaro
Album: Look Around The Corner
Genre: Retro Colombian and retro soul
Sounds like: Joss Stone and Jamiroquai handing in their resignation letters
Lordly rating: One may have to throw a cocktail party in its honour.
Reviewer: Fubsy Numbles
O Hell Nawl, keeping you up-to-date with the latest poptastic sounds from hep cats up and down this fine land, the Nation of our Queen, Elizabeth II. The homeland (go on, admit it, you know it is)…..So it is that, with an innate sense of pride, and no small amount of pleasure, we present to you this review of an album released almost exactly a year ago….(14th March 2012….)
Will Holland, aka Quantic, first fluttered across my consciousness just after the end of London’s Acid Jazz days, sometime in the late 90’s. I recall the music being pretty good, if unsensational. The thing that has remained with me about that initial outpouring of music, though, was that – unlike many of his contemporaries from that same movement, he was bold enough to introduce intriguing time-signatures, and not simply stick with the pop standard 4/4 beat. Apart from that, though, I must confess I rather forgot about him down the years, and didn’t really look up whatever happened to him. And then I came across a rather good contemporary retro-soul album by long-forgotten soul singer Spanky Wilson. Her backing band? One Quantic, with Soul Orchestra (mainly him, to be honest.) And then, a few years later, my ears really pricked up when I heard this (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K5_Fusasy2s). It was at this point that I really became interested in him. He’d been in Colombia at that point for a few years already, learning his craft, picking up new skills, learning the local culture, language and music – the Cumbia sound, and drawing around him a posse of very skilled musicians and singers. He released a fantastic record with this new combo, the Combo Bárbaro (definitely worth getting, as it is full of groovesome goodness). Although it had taken me a little while, Quantic was now on my radar as an artist to watch.
And then there’s Alice Russell, herself an artist of some substance, with a voice to match…. The two are on the same (awesome) record label, Tru Thoughts, and I imagine that was largely the impetus behind them hooking up together. And boy, am I glad they did….
The album begins in glorious fashion, with the title track, a splendid song that sounds so much like Rotary Connection that it might well fool the uninitiated (I’m not bragging either, as you’ll see in a moment.) The harmonies have exactly that late 60’s/ early 70’s hippy lilt, and it’s a rather beautiful thing. They do it again later with I’ll Keep My Light In My Window. When I first heard that tune, I was utterly convinced it was from the 70’s (I still think that piano riff’s from somewhere else, but I just can’t put my finger on it); I’m still utterly, utterly beguiled by both of these tracks. If an act is going to go the retro route, then these two tracks exemplify how to capture the sound; the attempts of Jamiroquai and Joss Stone are given a resounding trouncing by them, I am convinced. The rest of the album is no slouch either. In fact, if you want a blueprint of how to make an album that is absolutely soaked in the culture of the 60’s and 70’s soul, funk and Cumbia sound, and which seems to exist simply because of the fun of it (the band sound like they’re having a whale of a time), then this album is surely it. It’s an absolutely marvellous thing. Sorry we’re late on this, but it really doesn’t matter when the music’s this good…..Get it, or forever be missing out……
Side note: This might have appeared on my ‘Best of 2012’ list, had it not been for the fact that its appearance would have prompted Bef to slag me off. Yea, I was scareded. This is one of the best albums that was released last year, in my opinion.
Look Around The Corner