Sunday, January 31, 2016

Playlist: January

        • David Bowie—Blackstar and entire catalog 
        • Steven Wilson—4 ½ (2016)
        • Shearwater—Jetplane and Oxbow (2016)
        • Field Music—Commontime (2016)
        • The Besnard Lakes—A Coliseum Complex Museum (2016)
        • Fovea Hex—The Salt Garden, Vol. 1 (2016)
        • The Mute Gods—Do Nothing til You Hear from Me (2016)
        • Colleen—Captain of None (2015)
        • Steve Reich—Music for Eighteen Musicians performed by Ensemble Signal (2015)
        • Rush—R40 (2015)
        • Dave Granfeldt Band—Live, 20th Anniversary Tour (2015)
        • Failure—The Heart is a Monster (2015)
        • Shawn Colvin—Uncovered (2015)
        • Porcupine—Carrier Wave (2015)
        • Buddy Miller—Cruel Moon (2012)
        • Fleetwood Mac—The Best of Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac (compilation; 2002)
        • New Order—The Best of (compilation 1994)
        • Moby Grape—Vintage (compilation; 1993)
        • T-Rex—Electric Warrior (1971)

Monday, January 11, 2016

David Bowie (1947-2016)

The song that's been in my head all day is "Where Are We Now?" Except, in my head, the chorus was, "Where Are You Now?"

When I woke up to discover that David Bowie had died, I was completely and utterly aghast. Like everyone else on the planet, really. After all, I'd just spent the previous three days listening to his tremendous new album Blackstar and I'd been marveling at how powerful his voice sounded. The sound of his instrument not only seemed to belie his years, but he sounded vital, full of vigor, and even cheeky. (Listen to how he bellows, "Where the fuck did Monday go?" on the Blackstar song "Dollar Days.")

There had been a time, of course, when rumors of Bowie's ill-health (and professional retirement) circulated as speculative gossip during his decade-long hiatus from public life. Bowie, seemingly ever aware of his persona and public perceptions (and misconceptions) of it, seemed to confirm the gossip with the unheralded 2013 single "We Are We Now." His voice sounded aged and frayed at the ages as he sang a reflective lyric about his past. It was a feint. The release of The Next Day revealed that his voice hadn't lost any of its potency or range. The lead-off title track triumphantly declared, "Here I am, not quite dying." The venerable artist declined all interview requests, allowing long-time producer Tony Visconti to act as an official spokesperson of sorts, but there was no sign of anything amiss. Bowie looked typically handsome in his publicity photographs. In the video for the rocking single "The Stars are Out Tonight," he looked like impossibly cool next to Tilda Swinton, who was dressed up as a younger Bowie.

The Next Day wasn't a revelatory new direction, but the melodies were strong and it continued in the pleasing vein of its two predecessors, Heathen and Reality. (Here's my review of it.) It was the best unexpected comeback since Kate Bush emerged from her own mysterious 12-year hiatus with Aerial. It seemed as if Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, The Thin White Duke, the European Lodger, and the cool rocker in the Union Jack jacket would be around for many years yet.

I came to David Bowie's music relatively late. As a young boy, I was aware of, and liked, "Let's Dance" and "China Girl" when they were released in the early 1980s. The collaboration with Pat Metheny, "This is Not America," was also an early favorite. A few years later, the single "Loving the Alien" made quite an impression on me. I still rate it as one of his finest moments and he occasionally performed the song live even on his final tour. The next time I became aware of Bowie was at age 14 when I was at a cinema and his song "When the Wind Blows" appeared on a trailer for the animated movie of the same name. I was immediately struck by it. But I was frustrated that I never heard the song again for many years because it wasn't a radio hit.

It was apparent to me even then, even during his most commercial and mainstream period, that he was different. The 1980s were mostly lazy stagnation for Bowie, but he could still release killer singles such as the aforementioned songs and "Absolute Beginners." Then again, that was the decade of his absolute nadir, the duet with Mick Jagger "Dancing in the Street."

As much as I enjoyed Bowie's singles on the radio, and followed the Tin Machine project with interest, I didn't buy a David Bowie album until my early twenties. Credit the single "Jump They Say." It had a snap, crackle, and pop rhythms, an immensely hooky chorus and, above all, a vocal that epitomizes Bowie's cool and attitude.

I didn't buy the parent album of that single, Black Tie, White Noise (a somewhat uneven album that nonetheless contains gems such as the hip-hop jazz funk of "You've Been Around," an uppity cover version of Scott Walker's "Nite Flights," a rousing cover version of Morrissey's "I Know It's Going to Happen Someday," and "The Wedding," Bowie's unabashedly romantic song for his wife Iman.) Instead, I bought the two-disc compilation, The Singles 1969-1993. (Over the years, Bowie issued countless Best Ofs and compilation albums.) It featured all the classic hits, "Space Oddity," "Changes," "Life on Mars," "Fame," "Golden Years," "Ashes to Ashes," "Under Pressure." But The Singles 1969-1993 was also an introduction to songs I'd never heard before, such as "TVC15." It was a gateway to the albums themselves.

Over the years, I've collected 28 Bowie albums in all. They include most of the studio albums, a couple of live albums, and several compilations. I have quite a fondness for Bowie's very underrated run of albums from The Buddha of Suburbia (1993) through to Reality (2003). Many of those records featured Reeves Gabrels, his close collaborator from Tin Machine through to Hours..., on guitar. I remember the first time I saw Gabrels on a television broadcast of a Bowie performance. He wore a boa feather around his neck while he played his guitar with a sex toy. He looked totally badass! His Robert Fripp-influenced guitar-playing was anarchic and virtuosic. Just a few years later, I got to interview Reeves and hang out with him once or twice. Turns out that, unlike his stage persona, he's a mellow dude. Immensely likable and happy to share many stories about his years working with Bowie. To my mind, he deserves credit for midwifing Bowie's artistic return.

The knock on those records from 1989 to 2003 is that they weren't groundbreaking. Critics even chided Bowie for making a drum 'n' bass album, Earthling, in 1997 because he was late to the trend. Which was churlish given the sheer sonic oomph of songs such as "Dead Man Walking" and "I'm Afraid of Americans." Hours..., meanwhile, included Bowie's most autobiographical lyrics ever. The next album, Heathen, was a real highwater mark and ranks among my favorite Bowie records.

The first Bowie concert I ever saw was for the Heathen tour in Boston. I had to pay $120 for a scalped ticket for the small theater. It was worth every dollar. I still recall the gale force of the immense power of Sterling Campbell's drumming. I saw Bowie the next and final time he came to Boston in 2003 for the Reality tour. I went with my friend Heidi who reckons it's still the best concert she's ever seen. Bowie, ever grinning, is one of those frontmen who is in such command an arena that your eyes would follow him around the stage even if the spotlight wasn't on him. That tour was thrilling in the way that it touched on every decade of his career in a wide-ranging and varied setlist.

The weight of expectation for Bowie to create whole new forms of music and bend genres like he did in the 1970s seems unfair. By the 1990s, just about every type of musical genre had already been birthed. But I reckon that Bowie was actually ahead of the curve with perhaps his most overlooked album, Outside from 1995. (Thanks to my close friend Simon for buying me that one for a birthday.)

That album of industrial post-rock arrived at a time when music fashion was in thrall to grunge. The lush and dense production, courtesy of Brian Eno, was at odds with the stripped-down, raw musical ethos of the day. Had the album arrived a few years later, after the release of Radiohead's OK Computer in 1997, or even now, it would be heralded as a near-masterpiece. The sheer quality of the songs on the album is staggering. I still feel a tingle of excitement when I hear the silky seduction of the title track before it explodes in the chorus. The sheer menace and danger of "The Heart's Filthy Lesson" remains undiminished two decades later. What mars the album is the rather silly conceptual story (something about an art thief serial killer—don't ask) and its occasional spoken word interludes. Nevertheless, Outside remains a striking album. As Brian Eno remarked today in his reminiscences, he and Bowie both felt that album had fallen through the cracks.

Of course, Bowie's best work is inarguably the 1970s run of albums from Hunky Dory through to Lodger. Everyone has their personal favorite, whether it be the theatrical glam rock of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders of Mars (which owes much to the great guitarist Mick Ronson), or the Philadelphia Soul-influenced Young Americans or the Art Rock of Station to Station (here's my review of it). My fave? Low. The 1977 masterpiece is an album of two halves. Side A is full of killer singles such as "Sound and Vision." Side B is music from another dimension. That side of instrumentals, at once chilly and forboding, yet shot through with moments of melodic warmth, is still some of the most transportive, otherworldly music ever created. Bowie's so-called Berlin trilogy was his zenith as an innovator.

Which brings us back to Blackstar. Bowie and Visconti were keen to once again produce an album unlike anything in Bowie's back catalogue. They succeeded in producing a send-off for Bowie that was at once an emphatic statement of artistic vision and also a farewell. I'd like to think that, in his final days, he enjoyed the rapturous reception the album received. The adventurous album encapsulates everything that I love about the artist. The brilliant adventures in sound. And that voice. David's lyrics didn't always make linear sense (they were often words that had been cut up from magazines and reassembled as provocative phrases), but his voice was so emotionally expressive. That quality, above all, resonated with me the most.

Now that we know Bowie had been battling cancer for 18 months, Blackstar seems to be full of lyrical messages about his imminent departure, not the least of which is in the final song, "I Can't Give Everything Away." The video for Bowie's last single, "Lazarus," depicted the singer and songwriter thrashing about in impossible pain on a hospital bed. We just thought he was being theatrical, just like when he was writhing while blindfolded on a stretcher in the video for "Jump They Say." But now we can see the final image—a man retreating into a wardrobe—for what it was.

The song title "Lazarus" is prophetic. David Bowie knew that even after his death, his musical legacy and fame would live on. We don't know where Bowie is now. But in many ways he's still here with us. Always.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Playlist: December

WHY DO ANGELS HAVE TO FALL from tonichilds on Vimeo.

    • Toni Childs—It's All a Beautiful Noise (2015)
    • Steven Wilson—4 ½ (2016)
    • Shearwater—Jetplane and Oxbow (2016)
    • Wolf Alice—Love is Cool (2015)
    • Neil Finn and Paul Kelly—Goin' Your Way (2015)
    • Sonar—Black Light (2015)
    • Marillion—A Monstrously Festive(al) Christmas (2015)
    • Bohren and Der Club of Gore—Piano Songs (2014)
    • Bent Knee—Shiny Eyed Babies (2016)
    • Roxy Music—The Best of Roxy Music (2001)
    • Darkroom—Carpetworld; Daylight (1998)
    • The Golden Palominos—This is How It Feels (1993)
    • Martin Carthy & Dave Swarbrick—Life and Limb (1991)
    • Michael Hedges—Aerial Boundaries (1984)
    • Yes—Drama (1980)
    • Rickie Lee Jones—Rickie Lee Jones (1979)
    • Bruce Springsteen—Born to Run (1975)
    • Joni Mitchell—Clouds (1969)
    • Velvet Underground—Velvet Underground (1969)

Friday, December 18, 2015

Star Wars: The Great Unifier

I just wrote a newspaper article about why Star Wars: The Force Awakens is that rarest thing: a shared cultural experience that transcends generations, gender, race, politics, and nationality. A look into why this movie is the great unifier at a time of widespread divisions in the world. Here's a link to the article.

With 'Force Awakens,' 'Star Wars' expands its universe (+video)

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Playlist: November

  • Steven Wilson—4 ½ (2016)
  • Shearwater—Jetplane and Oxbow (2016)
  • Anna von Hauswolff—The Miraculous (2015)
  • Chris IsaakBecause the Night (2015)
  • DeerhunterFading Frontier (2015)
  • Joanna NewsomDivers (2015)
  • ReignsWidow Blades (2011)
  • Ryan AdamsLove is Hell, Pt. 1 (2003)
  • Sigur Ros - () (2003)
  • David BaerwaldA Fine Mess (1999)
  • MansunSix (1998)
  • Patty GriffinLiving with Ghosts (1996)
  • King CrimsonThrak (1995)
  • Brian Eno & Robert FrippEssential (1994)
  • PJ Harvey4-Track Demos (1993)
  • no-manLoveblows and Lovecries (1993)
  • JellyfishBellybutton (1990)
  • Living ColorVivid (1998)
  • Peter GabrielSecurity (1982)
  • Roxy MusicAvalon (1982)
  • Jaco PastoriusWord of Mouth (1981)
  • Jeff BeckThere and Back (1980)
  • Nick DrakePink Moon (1972)

Monday, October 26, 2015

Now on Newsstands

Prog magazine asked me if I'd interview Perfect Beings for its new issue, now on newsstands (and also available digitally—here's the list of contents). I hadn't come across the Los Angeles-based progressive rock band. As soon as I heard their grabby single "Helicopter" from their debut album, I eagerly took on the assignment.

The five-piece group should appeal to fans of Yes, King Crimson, XTC, Jellyfish, and Supertramp. Singer Ryan Hurtgen writes the main melodies and has an appealingly naturalistic and emotive voice. Until two years ago, Ryan hadn't listened to progressive rock. But then he met guitarist and producer Johannes Luley, who broadened Ryan's music horizons. Result? The formation of one of the most exciting new prog bands I've heard in recent years. Read more about the band in the current issue of Prog and, in the meantime, visit the the official Perfect Beings YouTube channel.The band's superb new album, Perfect Beings II, is out now. Visit

Also on newsstands: the new issue of Classic Rock magazine. I reviewed Robert Plant's recent show here in Boston for the magazine. Over the past year, I've been fortunate to see three different shows by Plant. This was the best of the three (and the 26th time I've seen my all-time favorite singer). To get a feel for just how great the show was, check out this video of Plant's performance of "The Lemon Song."

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Playlist: September

  • Shearwater—Jetplane and Oxbow (2016)
  • Richard Barbieri + Jan Linton—Cosmic Prophets (2004)
  • Kansas—Kansas (1974)

Musings on music reviews

photo: Camilo Rueda López (Creative Commons)

Joan Anderman, former music writer for The Boston Globe (before she voluntarily left to co-found the band Field Day), recently wrote, "I listened to records and went to concerts and decided whether they were good or bad, although as time went by, I began to worry that there's no such a thing as good and bad, only people who can persuade you that they know the difference."

So true.

I've been thinking along similar lines. As a professional journalist, I've reviewed a fair number of albums over the years and continue to do so (links to many of them are collected in the bottom half of the rail to the right of your screen). Lately, I've been wondering whether my opinions on music are worth a damn.

Music writers, both professional and amateur, typically present their reviews as some sort of objective truth. The critiques in professional publications carry the imprimatur of Official Truth. Words (and often grades) coming down from on high.

But they're not necessarily right or wrong. When you get down to it, music tastes are entirely subjective. That may seem to be stating the obvious, but many people will still claim that there are only two types of music, good and bad. And proclaim themselves reliable arbiters in determining which is which. If it were only that easy.

"But wait," I hear you object, "Are you telling me that Right Said Fred isn't crap? What about The Village People?"

In my opinion, yes. But, earlier this month I read an essay in The Guardian by British journalist and broadcaster Pete Paphides in which he wrote about how the song "Go West" by the Village People, later covered by The Pet Shop Boys, reduces him to tears. To my ears, it's a camp and cheesy song. But for him it's a song with a far deeper meaning about sexual freedom and its cost. about the American Dream. His essay reminded me just how subjective this stuff is.

Is there a role for music criticism, then? Music reviews don't matter the way they used to. Prior to the information revolution of the Internet, music writers wielded clout because their reviews typically arrived before the release of an album. It was more difficult, back then, to assess the music oneself because you had to wait for songs to show up on the radio or hope that you could listen to a release in a record store. Nowadays, music listeners would much rather decide for themselves by going to YouTube. Recommendations by peers and friends are far more influential than the scribblings of pro journalists. Indeed, the wonderful democratization of the Web means that we can all now be critics, whether it's on Amazon reviews or in the comments section under a YouTube video.

The best music writers, of course, are able to place music inside a historical context and offer observations about what, if anything, the writer is trying to say and how well they achieve that goal. (Great music writers can have a field day dissecting, say, the art—and artifice—of Lana Del Rey.) Music writers can also provide valuable signposts and recommendations to artists that one may have missed—curation is incredibly valuable at a time when there's an overwhelming number of new music released each week. I particularly love reading the stunning prose and witty observations of The Guardian's lead music writer, Alexis Petridis. And I never miss out on the weekly musings of music omnivore Andre Salles (a writer whose broad taste across genres resonates with my own tastes) over at Tuesday Morning 3 a.m.

Having said all that, never forget that every music critic is merely expressing an opinion. His or her critique is filtered through very subjective set of preferences—as well as his/her personal circumstances and what they're seeking from music. A song can strike one in very different ways depending on one's mood. A piece of music that never did anything for you at one time may suddenly seem incredibly moving and profound when you hear it at a different time in one's life. Same picture; different frame of mind.

That's not to say that music critics can't offer valuable and objective criticisms. (Though even these may seem subjective to some.) For instance, one can call out an artist if they've been lazy with the lyrics by resorting to "moon" and "June" rhymes or verses that don't make sense. Similarly, if the artist may not have progressed and may be repeating themselves. Or they may release an album that seems nakedly calculated to be a commercial hit rather than a personal statement.

...and yet many listeners will love those albums and songs because of, or in spite of, those very reasons.

What about guilty pleasures? Everyone has them. It's music that we'd blush to admit liking because we think it's something that we like in spite of what our head—and popular opinion—is telling us our response should be. Recently, the virtuoso art-rock guitarist Markus Reuter said something profound to music journalist Anil Prasad in an Innerview.

"When I hear people talk about 'guilty pleasures,' I think that concept is ridiculous. The peer group you belong to is usually why people think of certain music as guilty pleasures. Perhaps you belong to a group of people who like the goth scene, which means you can’t enjoy Eurodance. It’s largely to do with belonging to groups. Why should you feel guilty about enjoying something? I say come into the music with an open heart and indulge in the emotional experience. Don’t let the style of music, the sound or the scene influence what you feel when you listen to music."

I'm more wary, now, of casting aspersions on music that I hate yet others like. If you like Celine Dion, it would be churlish for me to complain if her music makes you happy or elicits an emotional response. If you're an ardent fan of Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine I say, "Have a nice day...but please don't turn up the volume."

My music collection is filled with so many bands and artists that are terminally unhip and which others wouldn't rate as "cool." Everyone's taste is just as valid as mine, even when I'm sure they're wrong. Each and every person in the world can proclaim that they have the best taste in music—and I love that!

Monday, August 31, 2015

Playlist: August

  • Shearwater—Jetplane and Oxbow (2016)
  • David Gilmour—Rattle that Lock (2015)
  • Patty Griffin—Servant of Love (2015)
  • Foals—What Went Down (2015)
  • John Metcalfe—The Appearance of Colour (2015)
  • Gary Clark Jr.—The Story of Sonny Boy Slim (2015)
  • Beach House—Depression Cherry (2015)
  • Vennart—The Demon Joke (2015)
  • Mew—+ - (2015)
  • Riverside—Love, Fear and the Time Machine (2015)
  • Grasscut—Catholic Architecture/Beacons (2014)
  • Calexico—Garden in Ruins (2006)
  • Peter Gabriel—Secret World, live (1994)
  • Steve Hackett—The Tokyo Tapes (1998)
  • Peter Case—The Man with the Blue, Postmodern, Fragmented, Neo-traditionalist Guitar (1998)
  • Frank Zappa—Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar (1981)