Thursday, May 9, 2013

David Bowie: "Valentine's Day"

Bowie's first album in a decade, "The Next Day," is a remarkably dark collection.  It's splayed with blood at times, on songs like the title track, the haunting"How Does the Grass Grow", and "Valentine's Day".

"Valentine's Day" is particularly chilling given the recent events in Newtown, Connecticut.  Although there are obvious differences in the circumstances of his rampage, Adam Lanza could have been the boy the narrator is hearing fantasize about death and destruction in "Valentine's Day"...  "It's in his tiny face.. it's in his scrawny hand... it's in his icy heart...."

It's a brilliant song.  It begins like a moderate pop-rock song with an opening couplet that might fit into a typical love song.  Then it turns abruptly dark, and we realize we're not talking about puppy love here.   Valentine is a character fantasizing about shooting up his classmates.  It's a harrowing song, especially at the ambiguous ending ("It's happening today!! Valentine, Valentine!!")  We as the listener cannot know if Valentine is merely fantasizing to someone, or if this portends the start of violence, or perhaps the narrator - to whom Valentine is presumably confiding his plans - will step in and stop the situation.  I can picture a video where Valentine is walking towards school as if on a normal day, seeing the classmates around him, the camera cuts to Valentine's face, and then fade to black.  We don't know what happens.  Listen to the harrowing vocals in those last few lines, the drama and almost panic that Bowie conjures in those lines. 
Also notable in the song is the almost retro, old-school rock feel.  The sing-song "sha-la-la-la" backing vocals - the incongruity of innocence and beauty and the ice-cold alienation of a sociopath.   And the further realization that you never know who Valentine might be.  For every act of violence that comes to fruition, how many are stewing in someone's mind?
A stunning moment on an album that's loaded with them. 

Valentine told me who's to go
Feelings he's treasured most of all
The teachers and the football star
It's in his tiny face
It's in his scrawny hand
Valentine told me so
He's got something to say
It's Valentine's Day

The rhythm of the crowd
Teddy and Judy down
Valentine sees it all
He's got something to say
It's Valentine's Day

Valentine told me how he'd feel
If all the world were under his heels
Or stumbling through the mall
It's in his tiny face
It's in his scrawny hand
Valentine knows it all
He's got something to say
It's Valentine's Day

Valentine, Valentine
Valentine, Valentine

It's in his scrawny hand
It's in his icy heart
It's happening today
Valentine, Valentine

It's in his scrawny hand
It's in his icy heart
It's happening today
Valentine, Valentine

Monday, May 6, 2013

Robert Plant: "Big Log"

With Robbie Blunt's exquisite guitar, Plant's extraordinarily beautiful and effective vocal, and gorgeous heartfelt lyric, "Big Log" is one of the finest singles of the early 80s. Even though it was a sizable hit, it's been overlooked in some ways. Plant's solo work is overshadowed by the titanic Led Zeppelin legacy. But there is something about this song... the stripped down arrangement, the melancholy, the dreaminess.. It always appealed to me greatly when I was young (I was 11 when it came out, and I wore out the 45), and it still sounds great to this day. From the "Principle of Moments" album, which has its moments - most notably 2nd single "In the Mood" and the opening track, and #1 on the Rock Radio airplay Charts "Other Arms"... but the rest of the material is so-so. But "Big Log" is a timeless classic. The vocal performance alone requires that it be considered alongside the very best recordings Robert Plant has been involved with, and that includes Zeppelin.

My love is in league with the freeway
Its passion will ride, as the cities fly by
And the tail-lights dissolve, in the coming of night
And the questions in thousands take flight

My love is a-miles in the waiting
The eyes that just stare, and the glance at the clock
And the secret that burns, and the pain that grows dark
And it's you once again

Leading me on - leading me down the road
Driving beyond - driving me down the road

My love is exceedingly vivid
Red-eyed and fevered with the hum of the miles
Distance and longing, my thoughts do provide
Should I rest for a while at the side

Your love is cradled in knowing
Eyes in the mirror, still expecting they'll come
Sensing too well when the journey is done
There is no turning back - no
There is no turning back - on the run

My love is in league with the freeway
Oh the freeway, and the coming of night-time

My love is in league with the freeway

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

David Bowie: "My Death"

Bowie covering Jacques Brel via Scott Walker. "My Death" was a song that he performed regularly during the 'Ziggy Stardust' era. He dusts it off here for the GQ Man of the Year awards in 1997. Featuring a sublime piano solo by the incredible Mike Garson.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

David Bowie: "Tin Machine II"

It's very difficult to pick a "most underrated" David Bowie album because most of them are generally lauded by critics.   You might say "Lodger" because it doesn't have the standing of "Scary Monsters" or "Low" - but it is still very well regarded.  "Heathen" might quality.  It did receive mostly positive reviews at the time of its release, but perhaps in retrospect it's a stronger and even more important album than was apparent at the time.  My esteem for it has only grown in the decade-plus since it's release.

But really if you think about an album that is still widely dismissed that deserves a far better fate, it's "Tin Machine II".   Fans and critics were somewhat bemused by Bowie's abandonment of the bloated stadium-rock of the "Never Let Me Down" period for a stripped-down, no frills "i'm one of the band" rock approach on the first Tin Machine album.   Fans gave it a chance and there was a decent promotional push, but none of the material was particularly commercial.  It wasn't a bad album, and it was nice to see a fresh direction from Bowie, but it wasn't a knockout.

Given the relative failure of "Tin Machine", it's perhaps surprising a sequel ever saw the light of day.  "Tin Machine II" is far better.  Partly due to record company issues, the album really never had a chance.   It was scoffed at and ignored by the press, and folks - many of whom probably never really bothered to listen to it - named it a disaster.  It was largely ignored by the public and is current out of print and unavailable for purchase.

A true shame.  Minus the 2 tracks sung by Hunt Sales, "Stateside" and "Sorry", this is a classic Bowie album.  If it had been released under the name David Bowie and given another title, maybe it would have fared better.  It opens with a killer trio of originals, all of which were singles:  "Baby Universal", "One Shot" and the wonderfully off-kilter "You Belong in Rock n' Roll".   Then a white hot cover of Roxy Music's "If There is Something".  The rest of the album is mostly very strong as well, with Reeves Gabrels' guitar work interesting throughout.  Some should-be Bowie classics here - like why isn't "Shopping for Girls" regarded alongside his best work?   It's tremendous.

Give it another listen with a fresh ear.  It stands up remarkably well 22 years later.  Hopefully Bowie's return to the music scene will lead to a fresh look at his back catalog, and this criminally underrated gem will get another chance.  

Friday, January 11, 2013

David Bowie: "Where Are We Now?"

I have been listening to Bowie non-stop this week.  I've actually been in a Bowie mood for a while, so the timing was perfect for the most stunning music news in recent memory:  with zero advance notice or warning or hype, David Bowie ends a near 10-year recording silence with a new single, "Where Are We Now?", and an album called "The Next Day" due in March.   The news shellshocked the music industry and I couldn't believe what I was reading when I first saw it.

But... is it any good?

"Where Are We Now?" is just sublime.  Unbelievably powerful.  The perfect song for Bowie's return.  He mournfully, wistfully ruminates on his past, walking the dead through his old haunts of Berlin.  But the song turns, becomes a defiant statement of "hey, we are still here!" - with a desperately, brilliant sung vocal that conveys the message perfectly.  Yeah, we can sit and wistfully remember our past.  But we are still here, we are still living, and we still have a future.  At the end of the video they slip away from their pasts and walk out of the room, into their everyday, real lives.

The slow buildup and swell of the music, and Bowie's vocal performance... nostalgic and somewhat bittersweet and then turning tense and passionate ...  "as long as there's fire... as long as there's you... as long and there's me.."    The song has literally left me in tears.

The man, even at this stage in his career, continues to surprise, amaze, astonish, delight.  Thank you Mr. Bowie.  You didn't have to come out of your domestic bliss/retirement, but I'm so happy that you did.  It couldn't have been a better-crafted return.