Sunday, 17 January 2016

The Prettiest Star


This is one of the hardest things I've ever had to write. I'm not sure if I'll be able to put into words the huge loss that we've suffered this week, to do justice to one of the greatest innovators of my lifetime without just rehashing what has been said a million times before. This is, without doubt, the biggest celebrity death that I've experienced. I was nine when Lennon died. I had only just started listening to the Beatles, I was too young to understand his significance. But Bowie is something else entirely. He is, I believe, the only musician in my collection who has been active for the whole of my life and whose music I've continued to buy throughout that time. (I'm now expecting a flood of comments suggesting others who fall into that category…)

Bowie was one of the first artists I discovered for myself. My introduction to music was through my dad's record collection. This mainly consisted of the Beatles, ELO and Johnny Cash. I'm not saying that my dad didn't like Bowie but surprisingly there were none of his records in our house. I first noticed him on "Top Of The Pops" around the time of "Scary Monsters" and began taping his songs from the radio. It wasn't until 1985 that I owned one of his albums.  On the strength of "Life On Mars?" - a radio staple at the time - I bought "Hunky Dory". I remember saving up the change from my dinner money and sneaking out of school one lunchtime to a newsagent that had a small selection of records - the only place you could get music without making an epic bus journey into Bath or Bristol. 30 years later, it remains one of my favourite albums.

It seems pointless for me to say that Bowie was "an icon" or "a chameleon", that he made it OK to be different, to be yourself. Anyone who hasn't heard all of that before is unlikely to be reading this blog. I've never subscribed to the cult of celebrity but Bowie is one of the few people that I think of as a star and yet still feel a connection to. Having said that, although I've never worried about "fitting in", I always felt that I could never be David Bowie. Writing this now, I feel a sense of regret that I never took him literally when he said that "we can be heroes", that I didn't take more inspiration from him. Perhaps I could have done something creative with my life.

I got hold of  (or "Blackstar" if you prefer) on its release day. I immediately started to notice recurrent images running through the songs and began to plan a review. Of course, my plans changed once I became aware that this was a farewell album in the most final sense of the word. The theme of stars has cropped up time and again throughout his recorded work - from the "Ziggy Stardust" period of course, through "New Killer Star" at the start of this century, up to "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)" more recently. To Ziggy, stardom was all that mattered but here we see a man assessing his own career and questioning what it means to be a star. The stars do indeed look very different today. When he sings "I'm not a pop star... I'm not a film star" on the title track, is he just belittling commercial aspirations and defending the right to follow whichever creative path you choose? I hoped that was the case despite a nagging suspicion that there was something else going on. I started to wonder if he was about to announce his retirement. If only I'd known how close I was to the truth.

I'm grateful for the three days I had when I was able to listen to these songs with no prior knowledge, to develop my own meanings. There are listeners who will never get that experience. I obviously won't see the album the same way again and it will be a while before I'm fully comfortable listening to it in its entirety. However, I hope that in years to come I will look back on  as an album that has many memories, some happy, some sad, attached to it.

Bowie has always surrounded himself with other great talents - Eno, Visconti, Ronson. The mark of a true genius is knowing your own limits and seeking assistance rather than trying to take all the credit. Here he is joined by saxophonist Donny McCaslin and several others whom I believe to be experts in their field but I have to admit that jazz is an area where I am totally ignorant. Although the screeching saxes could be off-putting to many listeners, the way Bowie's voice seems to battle against them is fitting in the circumstances. In fact, his voice is stronger than ever. This is not the sound of a man suffering from a terminal illness.

Bowie is never predictable and the avant-garde jazz approach comes as something of a surprise, but elsewhere we see elements of familiarity. Once the dissonance on side 1 subsides, the much mellower sax on side 2 is reminiscent of David Sanborn's contributions to 1975's "Young Americans" album. Other songs hint at "Low"/"Heroes" but for me the overall feel is of something that could have been recorded around the time of "Scary Monsters". This could almost be considered a career retrospective, with the only missing style being the stomping guitar riffs of the glam era. But no one would expect a return of those guitars; even those who associate him most with that sound will be aware that it makes up a tiny fragment of his universe and those rock star dreams were abandoned long ago.

Much has been made of Tony Visconti's revelation that the album was planned from the start as a "parting gift". The die-hard fans could have asked for nothing better than to go out on such a high note, but this is also a gift to those who have only dipped their toes into the waters of Bowie. Death inevitably leads to a renewed interest in an artist's work, and those "greatest hits" fans familiar with just "Ziggy", "Space Oddity", "Let's Dance" etc. will no doubt be intrigued by the mythology that already surrounds this final work. This in turn could be a stepping stone to both the "Berlin trilogy" and what I think of as the "recent" works - basically everything from the mid-90s onwards. If  leads just one person to 1995's "Outside" then I consider it a success.

When the recipient means something special to you, a great deal of love and care goes into wrapping a gift. I pity those who only got the download as the packaging is an important part of this release. It's the only Bowie album where he does not feature on the cover. (I'm aware that on "The Next Day" his face is obscured by a huge white square but he's still there.)  In contrast to the detailed pictures on pretty much every one of his releases, the stark, minimal design of  is possibly the blackest record packaging I've ever seen. And there is an awful lot of black in my collection. The glossy black text on matt black background makes it difficult to read the sleeve notes and lyrics, unless held at a very precise angle. This represents the nature of a lot of Bowie's later music. You need to persevere to get the most out of it. Most noticeable is the die-cut star in the sleeve of the vinyl version. Through the star-shaped hole, the record is visible. We can take some comfort in this - although the star is no longer there, we still have access to the music.

As I attempt to face the album again for the first time since hearing the news, one thing I realise is that Bowie has never been one to show bitterness or anger, although in this case it would have been understandable. The only hint of rage is on "Tis A Pity She Was A Whore", where he sings "Man, she punched me like a dude" - perhaps a reference to the disease eating away at him. Even his well-documented use of a profanity (although it's not the first time - see also "Time" and "Quicksand") is not done in anger. On "Girl Loves Me", the question "Where the fuck did Monday go?" suggests the last 40-odd years condensed into a single day, a reminder that we should make the most of the limited time available to us. He has managed to turn his illness into something creative and for that he should be admired as much as for everything else he's done. When future generations are taught the legend of Bowie this is one of the first things they should be made aware of, even if they don't listen to this album first.

So this is not a display of resentment, it is a record full of reflection, acceptance and perhaps even apology. The album comes to a close with "I Can't Give Everything Away", partly an explanation for why he kept his suffering secret for the past 18 months but also sorrow that after this, he will have no more music to give us. No need to feel bad about that, David. You've already given us more than any other artist in living memory. Wherever you are, I hope you're smiling now. Smiling through this darkness. All I have to give is guilt for dreaming.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

The Best Of 2015

It's that time of year again when we reflect on the past 12 months, and in my case that means trying to remember all the music I listened to. I've tried to compile a list of my favourite releases of 2015 although there are no doubt a few missing. I've attempted to rank them but to be honest the ordering is rather arbitrary - all of the top five albums are equally deserving of first place. I've noticed that each year my list seems to contain an increasing number of long-established artists - do I no longer have my finger on the pulse?

20. H. HAWKLINE - In The Pink Of Condition
Cate Le Bon collaborator Huw Evans proves he can create something equally kooky in his own right with this album of what he calls "strange pop". This is how I imagine Beck would sound if he'd grown up in Wales.

19. THE MANHATTAN LOVE SUICIDES - More Heat! More Panic!
One of the highlights of May's Birmingham Popfest. It's a tried and tested formula - girl group melodies hidden under fuzzy guitars played by guys in leather jackets and Ray-Bans. But if the formula works, why mess with it?

18. FEVER DREAM - Moyamoya
Another band I discovered at Popfest, trading in the kind of shoegazing I would expect from their name. Their performance drew me in enough to check out the album, which I was pleased to find was more fully formed and varied than their live set.

17. THE THE - Hyena
Far removed from his songwriting of the 1980s, Matt Johnson has now moved into film soundtracks. This spooky effort brings to mind Coil, particularly their compositions for Derek Jarman.

16. WIRE - Wire
They got regular mentions in this blog when it first started but Wire went off the boil slightly after the departure of Bruce Gilbert. This album sees them return to the jagged sound of their early work, albeit updated for the 21st century. To the uninitiated, the mix of melody and punchy rhythms along with the cunning use of an eponymous album title could suggest that this is the debut release by a younger band.

I discovered Parks supporting The Jesus And Mary Chain and was impressed by her solo LP but this duet with the Brian Jonestown Massacre frontman is the best starting point. Her voice suggests a huskier Hope Sandoval and Newcombe adds a layer of fuzz, slightly more subdued than that which his own band are known for, to create something utterly blissful.

When Depeche Mode are mentioned, for many people the first thing that comes to mind is Dave Gahan singing anthems full of religious imagery. But strip away the vocals and you'll find that DM have always been one of the most innovative bands on Mute Records, despite that label's eclectic roster. Gore's instrumental solo effort is the second album this year to make me think of Coil, and there are also hints of Eno and Cluster.

13. VIET CONG - Viet Cong
With advances in technology and recording techniques, it's good to know that people are exploiting these to make records that intentionally sound like they were recorded in 1980. An unholy alliance of Chrome, the Bunnymen and This Heat, with Martin Rev banging at the door demanding his synths back.

12. THE TELESCOPES - Hidden Fields
We were promised something more "song-based" than the terrifying previous album "Harm", by which they mean five long tracks rather than two very long ones and Stephen Lawrie using actual words rather than screaming. But you still need to refer to the lyric sheet to decipher the tales of claustrophobia, agoraphobia and various other phobias. Best played in the dark. Or not, depending on your nervous state.

11. THE FALL - Sub-Lingual Tablet
If you've never heard The Fall then it would be impossible to describe them to you. If you have then you know what to expect, but there are still some surprises. This picks up where classics such as "This Nation's Saving Grace" and "The Wonderful And Frightening World" left off.

10. SLEATER-KINNEY - No Cities To Love
Former riot grrrls return after a ten-year break, showing how it's possible to mature and still remain relevant. They cram more emotion into 32 minutes than their previous seven albums combined, with many of the lyrics exploring just why they've been away for so long.

9. POP WILL EAT ITSELF - Anti-Nasty League
With only Graham remaining from the original line-up, this has a much harder sound and tackles more serious topics than the comic book themes of their late-1980s work. Admirably released as a physical product only, as the band believe that downloads allow the listener to pick and choose tracks rather than hearing the entire album as intended.

8. DESPERATE JOURNALIST - Desperate Journalist
There are no great surprises here - the first three singles (favourites in 2014's end of year review) are included and some of the other songs are familiar from the band's constant gigging. But there are also no disappointments. The energy and sly references to classic indie bands remain, with hints that Desperate Journalist could develop their sound further, something that already seems to be happening with the recent non-album single.

7. JENNY HVAL - Apocalypse, Girl
The Norwegian's voice inevitably draws comparisons with Björk, but even Björk was never this weird. A quick scan of the lyric sheet suggests elements of erotica but if you played this as an attempt at seduction, your date would be cowering under the bed as soon as the needle hit the groove. Completely impossible to categorise.

6. PUBLIC IMAGE LTD - What The World Needs Now
I've seen mixed reviews of this but it engages the listener more than 2012's charming but forgettable comeback album. Lydon sounds genuinely angry for the first time in years - the lyrics contain more expletives than the legendary Bill Grundy interview and the album ends with a resounding "Fuck off!"

5. SUFJAN STEVENS - Carrie & Lowell
The Michigan artist returns to simple songwriting after his experimental period. This story of his childhood and family reminds me of my own father - see the full review here.

4. STEVEN WILSON - Hand. Cannot. Erase.
The hardest-working man in prog (I have music by him in ten different guises) creates something both complex and accessible with this concept album of sorts about a woman who died and lay undiscovered in her home for three years. At times the melodies remind me of Floyd's "Wish You Were Here" so I can't help imagining that the songs could be about Syd.

3. NEW ORDER - Music Complete
The public bitching has become tiresome and I was dubious about an album without Hooky, but with Gillian back in the fold we see a return to the disco sound not heard since "Technique". Some of the rockier elements from the previous album remain and there is an intriguing spoken piece from Iggy Pop, but overall it's full of tracks that would have filled the Haçienda dancefloor in its heyday.

2. THE NIGHTINGALES - Mind Over Matter
I'd come to regard them as a bunch of regulars at my local pub, and then they hit me with something like this. Read the full review to see why I'll never take The Nightingales for granted again.

1. SWERVEDRIVER - I Wasn't Born To Lose You
It was a close-run thing for the number one spot but Swervedriver, back after a 17-year break, narrowly beat the 'Gales simply because of the nostalgia factor on this album. Not just sonically, it also takes past lyrical themes and reflects on them with the wisdom brought by age. Read the review of the gig where many of these songs were played and you'll understand why looking back doesn't necessarily mean a refusal to move on.

I stopped once I got to 20 but if I had more time I could probably have extended it to 30, 40... who knows? There are many other albums that I've listened to over the past year: a powerful live recording from Swans plus new efforts from Godspeed You! Black Emperor, The Pop Group, Moon Duo, The Wave Pictures, She Makes War (which I haven't reviewed as I don't believe it's widely available yet), Ultimate Painting, Houndstooth to name a few. Also worth a mention, although strictly speaking not released in 2015, solo bass/nail varnish wizard Steve Lawson made his entire back catalogue available on a single USB stick shaped like a vinyl record - thereby overcoming my reluctance to buy MP3s, which I normally shun as there is no physical product to hold and cherish.

As always, many of my evenings were spent watching live music. I attended 74 gigs/all-dayers/festivals, here are ten of the best - not including those already referred to in the list of albums. Two trips to the capital but the rest were in Brum, showing that we have a thriving live scene despite my complaints that touring bands tend to skip the Midlands.
It's difficult to rank these events so they're in chronological order.

1. JULIAN COPE - Glee Club, 25th January
Read the full review to see why the arch-drude of Tamworth is more interesting when he suppresses his experimental leanings.

2. MORRISSEY - NIA (or whatever it's called these days), 27th March
I've had doubts about Morrissey of late and was unsure whether it was worth getting a ticket but despite recent health scares, he gave the most energetic performance I've seen from him for about 20 years.

3. LOUIS BARABBAS - Tower Of Song, 26th April  
Utter genius. Impossible to sum him up in one sentence so read the full review.

4. SUPER FURRY ANIMALS - Brixton Academy, 8th May
Known for their catchy tunes but they can out-psych the best of them. A two-hour set, with the last 30 minutes turning into an epic freak-out. The lightshow sparked some strange dreams when I got back to my hotel.

5. THE POP GROUP - Supersonic Festival, 12th June
There is always a diverse range of innovative music at Supersonic but Mark Stewart and his crew outshone everyone else that weekend, and possibly every other gig of 2015. Writing a review wouldn't do it justice so instead check out these photos to get some idea of the energy and also the classics included in the setlist.

A free gig from a songwriter who merges elements from all corners of my record collection. I was going to include the album "The Fates" in my top 20 but then noticed that it actually came out in 2014.

7. THOMAS TRUAX - Tower Of Song, 20th September
Like being trapped in a David Lynch film with a crazed inventor. By all means check out his records  but he really needs to be seen live with his homemade instruments to get the full effect.

8. INDIE DAZE - Kentish Town Forum, 3rd October
An afternoon of classic (and not-so-classic) bands from my late teens. Always good to see PWEI and The Wonder Stuff but the undoubted highlight was The Wedding Present, playing "Bizarro" in full and also the closest you'll ever get to an encore from them.

9. RIDE - Institute, 22nd October
Possibly my favourite band from the shoegaze era, playing their first album in full plus another hour of classics. Even the songs from their badly-received later albums came across well.

10. THE PRETTY THINGS - Sensateria, 12th December.
Five minutes in and I realise I'm completely unfamiliar with the 1960s/70s legends' back catalogue. But with founder members Dick Taylor and Phil May giving it all they've got, this doesn't make any difference. I've clearly got some catching up to do.

So all in all, a busy year. Let's hope 2016 is equally exciting and I have plenty to write about over the course of the coming months.