Sunday, March 31, 2013

One foot in the grave

If the arrival of David Bowie's new album seemed unlikely, given concerns he was in the throes of terminal illness, the release of a new album from Jimi Hendrix is even more improbable, seeing as he's actually been dead since 1970.

Still, it being Easter Sunday and all, it seems slightly fitting to draw attention to the fact that the ephemeral guitar legend has in fact released a brand new record, more or less.

People, Hell & Angels is, clearly, posthumous. I have seen Hendrix's memorial slab in a suburban Seattle cemetery and was pretty convinced he was lying beneath it.

It is, though a collection of 12 tracks 'rescued' from the vast vaults of material curated over by the Hendrix family corporation, and the latest of several albums and films that have been released in recent years to further mine the guitarist's brief but extraordinarily prolific career.

Thus, this isn't the first album Hendrix rarities to be released and I doubt it will be the last, either, considering that he shuffled off this mortal coil with hundreds of hours of material in the vaults, some of it experiments and most of it even now yet to see the light of day.

The trouble with posthumous releases is that often don't quite deliver on what they promise. When The Beatles released Free As A Bird in 1995 there was a certain disappointment at the development of an old Lennon home demo into a latter day Beatles single, over-produced by Jeff Lynne, no to mention the thought that it was a somewhat cynical attempt to shift more copies of the Anthology box set.

People, Hell & Angels is, thankfully, nothing like that. It does, inevitably, sound like a collection of offcuts, but that doesn't make it bad - this is still Jimi Hendrix. But after four decades, you can't help wondering if these tracks had been unreleased for a reason.

It should also be pointed out that many of the tracks on the album have appeared in some form previously: Earth Blues was included on a posthumous 1997 release, having been originally recorded for a planned fourth album by the Experience; Somewhere was on the sumptuous purple box set, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, 13 years ago;  and Bleeding HeartIzabella, Easy Blues, Crash Landing and Gypsy Boy have all appeared on other posthumous albums. Indeed, only Let Me Move You is actually properly 'new',

So that's the 'picky' bit. The fact remains, this is a Jimi Hendrix record and is therefore very good, with pristine production that belies the 45 years most of the tracks have been sitting in storage somewhere.

Released to sort of coincide with what would have been Hendrix's 70th birthday last November, People, Hell & Angels' recordings all date back to an experimental phase in the guitarist's career between 1968 and 1969 when he was experimenting with different musicians and musical textures.

Having released Electric Ladyland, Hendrix was itching to get a fourth album under his belt, in particular breaking some of the restraints he'd felt the Experience format had placed on him. The restless culture of the time was also encroaching on his own restlessness, and the wider circle of musicians playing on these sessions brought about a noticeably broader sound.

Organ, brass, even Harlem funk, such as Mojo Man (with Albert Allen on vocals) indicate a magpie-like Hendrix picking away at the shiniest baubles of the scenes he engaged with in New York. There are nods, too, to Stax, with the jam Let Me Love You featuring legendary bandleader Lonnie Youngblood on vocals and Mar-Kays-style sax workouts, so much so that Hendrix's guitar is almost reduced to a supporting player.

With so much of Hendrix's career, life and, of course, demise, pegged to London, there's also a taste of the influences the British capital was bringing to bear on the guitarist, with echoes of Cream and Eric Clapton's next project, Blind Faith, coming through on Earth Blues.

There is no shortage, either, of the blues that drew so much initial attention to Hendrix. Izabella chops about at a frenetic pace, while Easy Blues finds Hendrix swinging along, cabaret style, with his Stratocaster playfully sparring with the jazzy backing. Here My Train A Comin' is a looping, near-six-minute blues stomp, while Somewhere - featuring Stephen Stills on bass - takes the guitarist into woozy, pleasantly sleazy territory, his wah-wah pedal providing distinct Hendrix phrasing to a sweaty, club-like workout.

Hendrix may have been trying to go in different directions with the tracks on this album, but in truth doesn't stray too far. There is plenty of value and enjoyment to be had, however. It might feel like you've stumbled in on an extended jam session (which, let's face it, didn't bother Neil Young's Psychedelic Pill last year), but that is what makes listening to Hendrix - posthumously and 40 years on - still such an unbridled fun.

And a little frustrating. To think that, prior to these sessions, it had only been two years before that Keith Richards' then-girlfriend, Linda Keith, had heard Hendrix playing in a New York club, and, eventually via Richards and Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham, the guitarist found his way into Chas Chandler's management, that the Jimi Hendrix we have come to revere came into being.

People, Hell & Angels, then, performs a somewhat superfluous task in perpetuating the Hendrix legend.  He was, simply, the most gifted guitarist in history, and few people would ever challenge that assessment. This is an album for completists, for sure, but do not dismiss it as a curious snapshot of what Jimi Hendrix was trying to do next before he died at the age of 27 in a Notting Hill flat, having overdosed on barbiturates.

When I visited Hendrix's grave in Renton, Washington, in 1998, it was a simple slab, lying next to his father's plot, and featuring the outline of a Stratocaster and a simple inscription. I believe there's a more elaborate gazebo-type construction there now, to which Japanese tourists flock by the busload, but when I was there that drizzly Sunday morning, the only other person in the cemetery was a solitary widow tending the grave of her husband.

The point is, that simple inscription reminded me how mercurial Hendrix was in life, but what an incredible body of work he crammed into the three years he was a recording artist. The fact that thousands of hours lie somewhere is mind boggling.

Having stood graveside that Sunday, it is weird to be able to go into a record shop today and buy a new album from Jimi Hendrix. But is is also a privilege.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The single green shoot of Spring

Europe is cold. No matter which part of the continent you find yourself, it is as cold as the proverbial sorceress mammary gland. Brass monkeys. 'Taters. Choose your analogous epithet.

In Europe's southern half, where I currently find myself, it is not only cold and wet, but economically freezing.

In the northern half, the Old World equivalent of Punxsutawney Phil has declared the sixth ice age back on and has buggered off back to the warmth of his lair.

This should be the first weekend of Spring: lambs should be gambolling in daffodil-edged fields, country strolls should be protected by clothing measured by layer, not tog rating, and Easter egg hunts should not require ice picks and crampons.

But no. We shiver. We shudder. We pull the duvet up over our heads and vow to stay there until something changes outside.

Into this bleak landscape, however, pokes one green shoot hinting at winter's eventual demise: Understated by the blessed Edwyn Collins. Given his recent history (if you missed it, in 2005 Collins suffered two brain haemorrhages that very nearly finished him off), Collins could release an EP of him just playing the spoons and that will be enough for those of us of a certain age to be happy.

Such winsomeness in blokes like me, hanging on to life's supposed midpoint, is that Edwyn Collins had a small but significant part to play in our social development. The 1980s were a bleak time to be British. Our country was being run by a mad woman who was a cross between Hyacinth Bouquet and, well, Hyacinth Bouquet. And that is not something any country wants. Even Italy.

As we progressed through our teenage years, we gradually shed our pre-pubescent musical interests in rock bands whose logos could be sown onto our army-surplus napsacks, and we took interest in bands that were a little more chirpy, and thus, could be enjoyed in the company of girls, which would subsequently end in snog action. This didn't always work out so, but the theory behind it couldn't be faulted.

However, we couldn't or wouldn't part company with proper bands. Bands with guitars and drums and, you know, instruments. So, since we would never allow ourselves to acknowledge the legitimacy of electronic bands or dance music (kind of like Hamas recognising Israel), we latched on to the likes of Collins' Orange Juice, his compatriot Roddy Frame's Aztec Camera, The Blow Monkeys and Lloyd Cole. All of whom, I've just realised, are Scottish.

But let's skip past the frankly unedifying collective image of the thirty years past to hail this, Edwyn Collins' second album since his brush with the Reaper, which sees his self-confidence come on leaps and bounds

Eight years after virtually teaching himself to walk, talk and play guitar all over again, Understated is as bright and breezy as Sarah Greene in a dayglo puffball skirt (happenin' 80s reference there kids!), and as emphatic as a Welsh male voice choir in full muster.

Collins' ability to blend languid melody with frisky guitar pop (augmented by session musicians due to his continued difficulties playing the instrument) hasn't diminished, but in addressing his medical experiences through his songwriting, he has added a distinct husk to his music.

Understated is a consummate pop album, rooted around the guitar but drawing references and influences from across the musical spectrum, including Motown (Too Bad, That's Sad), ballad (Love's Been Good To Me) Northern Soul (the title track) and country (the delightful Carry On, Carry On). Over this canvas, Collins doesn't stray too far from addressing the aftermath of his illness. But not to wallow.

Some of the time he's extending a single-fingered salute to nature's cruelty, at other times he's simply self-depreciating. But at no time does he descend into self-pity. Quite the opposite. As he sings on the Velvet Underground-like Forsooth, "I feel alive, I feel reborn".

If your sole experience of Edwyn Collins has been Orange Juice's Rip It Up 30 years ago (a storming live version is included on the iTunes deluxe edition of Understated) or A Girl Like You, Collins' timely hit at the height of Britpop, you won't be at a disadvantage listening to this album. The Caledonian post-punk spirit of Collins' breakthrough act is still in there, but three decades - and the last eight years in particular - have emboldened Collins. Understated is anything but, but with abundant variety and a warmth that, with a winter hanging around like a malingering teenager, is more than welcome.

Up yours, Death. And hats off Edwyn.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Over the Moon

Hanging on 
in quiet desperation 
is the English way

Along with the ubiquity of fast food drive-throughs, questionable road surfaces and sparring with trucks large enough to have their own electorate, the essence of the American road trip lies in wading through the alphabet soup of radio stations that blanket the country.

As you cruise along at genteel, radar-enforced speeds, you dial through the stations like a master safe cracker, frantically trying not to get stuck on a frequency offering country music, hellfire-and-damnation religion, or whack jobs spewing forth on the right to use uranium-tipped bullets when hunting small animals.

Eventually in this megahertz miasma you will come across something as familiar as your own face, and indeed as old as your face. It will be a riff, a chorus or a solo. You have found a classic rock station.

We Brits may have developed an awkwardness towards our own musical legacy, but Americans positively embrace those who led the British invasion of the 1960s and 70s. The likes of Led Zeppelin, The Who, Cream, the Stones and even The Beatles are often considered their own, part of the fabric that built the modern American culture. It is no accident that Tony Soprano, that icon of the American dream, drove - and frequently crashed - to the sound of New York's WAXQ, being of the generation of Americans who hold due reverence for the music that defined the rock era.

In the UK, classic rock artists - while still celebrated (as we saw during last summer's Olympic entertainment) - have been consigned to darkening corners of the radio spectrum. Although Stairway To Heaven was never released as a single, the idea of playing it in daylight hours is akin to walking naked down Oxford Street playing the German national anthem on a kazoo - somewhere between unfashionable, eccentric and arrestable.

But find yourself within 100 miles of any American conurbation between sea and shining sea and you will never be more than 20 minutes away from a station playing a track from Rumours or Frampton Comes Alive. Or a track from one of the most revered albums ever made, one that continues to draw superlative regard as it enters its fifth decade, and which, this week, celebrates its 40th anniversary: Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon.

With more than 50 million copies in circulation in the world and a cover that even those who've never listened to the record will recognise, Dark Side Of The Moon was a landmark record, full of landmarks. Musically, it is the definitive Pink Floyd album (although the surviving Floyd members still dispute this - Roger Waters citing The Wall, David Gilmour favouring Wish You Were Here).

It is also as musically accessible as anything in the Floyd canon. Breathe, the album's first musical track, is seemingly built out of an extended bluesy jams that were the band's hallmark in their early days in London's underground club scene, the only notable shift being Richard Wright's Miles Davis-influenced chord changes on the piano.

In principle, however, DSOTM is a concept album, lyrically owing much to bassist and lead writer Roger Waters' perennial obsessions with distance, separation (the loss of Syd Barrett) and death (the loss of his father at Anzio during World War II), and a growing cynicism towards the modern world.

Not that Dark Side Of The Moon is so starkly contrived. Like so many albums of its time, it's as much a collection of happy accidents as a narrative of conscious statements on these topics: death is covered more or less melodically by The Great Gig In The Sky, with Clare Torry's lyric-free, lung-rattling one-take vocal (for which she received the princely fee of £30 - later successfully contested in court), built over Wright's mournful piano. Happy it may not be, but by its end, few listeners have ever been anything other than exhilarated by one of the most memorable vocal performance in music history.

Lyrically DSOTM engenders some reasonable criticism. Even Waters himself has described lines like those on Breathe as "a bit Lower Sixth" ('Breathe, breathe in the air. Don't be afraid to care. Leave, don't leave me. Look around and choose your own ground), but such lack of erudition can be easily glossed over by the mammoth impact of the album's music.

Like most episodes of Monty Python's Flying Circus, the social commentary of Money, is dating, especially if you regard new cars and caviar the height of extravagance. Still, as prescient as references to LearJets and buying football teams may have been, reflecting Waters' underlying socialist bent, they're hardly in the same league of rock star awkwardness as We Didn't Start The Fire or Sting singing about the plight of Russian children.

While Money afforded a generation of gauche adolescents the opportunity to let rip with the "goody-good bullshit" line, it also became the first Floyd song to be a commercial hit. One of the most unlikely aspects of this is one of the song's least obvious aspects - its obscure 7/4 time signature providing the 1-2-3-4-1-2-3 cyclical bass figure, a walking blues with its roots in Booker T & The MGs' Green Onions. And, of course, it features that looped sound effect of a cash register and the splash of coins being thrown by Waters into one of his wife's pottery creations, with the loop then spliced into seven pieces and hooked around upturned chair legs to keep with the 7/4 time.

Money isn't the album's only taste of sound effects, of course: the ticking and ringing alarm clocks of Time and the pulsing heartbeat that heralds the opening track, Speak To Me and the album's first words: "I've been mad for fucking years, absolutely years, been over the edge for yonks". This and other excerpts of spoken voice throughout the album was the result of Waters using cue cards to ask stock questions to various hangers-on around Abbey Road Studios including (but never used) Paul McCartney, road manager Peter Watts (father of actress Naomi) and the cheerful studio doorman Gerry O'Driscoll ("I'm not afraid of dying. Any time will do").

And there's the mournful Us and Them, a song loosely about depression (another Waters theme), and built on a Rick Wright composition originally written for the 1970 film Zabriskie Point by Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni (and featuring a brief appearance by Harrison Ford, trivia fans). In place of a traditional middle eight, it features roadie Roger 'The Hat' Manifold, airing his wisdom on a road rage perpetrator.

I mean, they're not gonna kill ya. If you give 'em a quick short, sharp, shock, they won't do it again. Dig it? I mean he got off lightly, 'cause I would've given him a thrashing - I only hit him once! It was only a difference of opinion, but really...I mean good manners don't cost nothing do they, eh?

Dark Side Of The Moon has been hailed greatly and derided selectively. To the punk movement it was a convenient target, hippies going mad amid a barrage of bloated excess and overwrought self-examination that famously remained on the Billboard Hot 100 for decades after its release. Along with Emerson & Palmer's invention of the behemoth stadium tour, DSOTM is frequently suggested as one of the seeds of punk. It isn't, and shouldn't, and in some respects Money even predicts the coke-shoveling, overblown state that rock music found itself in during the mid-1970s, giving punk a platform to rail against.

At just over 42 minutes' long - constrained, of course, by the capacity of vinyl - DSOTM is short by comparison with some of the opuses of the day. And while it may well, as Waters ascertains, been the beginning of the end for Pink Floyd (or at least the album on which the creative tensions between Waters and Gilmour began to turn more dysfunctional), it is still, 40 years on, a remarkable record.

On March 24, 1973, when Dark Side Of The Moon was released, the concept album wasn't anything new. Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper, even Who's Next had all attempted some sort of narrative, musical theatre of the mind. But unlike Waters' deliberately more theatrical effort with The Wall, DSOTM presents a more subtle collage, the central theme being modern life and how rubbish it really is.

Gloriously melancholy, in a way only an English songwriter could write. Perfect, then, for driving on American roads.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

He's not the Messiah, just a very gifted footballer

In much of the world, we've become quite used to the commonly employed calendar system. We know that this is 2013 AD, and at some point in time there was a year 1AD.

Before that, we had the BC era, which goes back to, well, whenever somebody first named the years in decreasing numbers until you got to 1BC, skipping 0, clearly, because that would have meant having 0BD/AD as a year, which would have sounded like a blood group.

Fans of the England football team, however, follow a similar system to the Jewish calendar, ignoring conventional chronology. Orthodox followers of English football believe the modern era began in 1966. And it’s been downhill ever since.

1966 should have heralded a glorious new dawn, but it darkened pretty quickly. By 1972, in fact, when West Germany wrought revenge for the Wembley brouhaha involving a Russian linesman, and ejected England – not for the first time, either – from the European Championships that year. Worse was to come with failure to qualify at all for the 1974 World Cup, and again in 1978 when we all became honorary Scots, And so on, and so on, and so on..

So excuse the miracle-starved among us  for thinking there was a new Messiah abroad when, in 1998, a young boy danced through the Argentinian defence at the French-hosted World Cup match to score a wonder goal.

The boy was Michael Owen: born in Chester on December 14, 1979, and who this week announced his intention to retire at the end of this season. At the age of 11, he joined Liverpool as a schoolboy player, turning professional on his 17th birthday. By this stage there was already plenty of buzz about him. Was he The One? On his first-team debut for Liverpool, Owen scored against Wimbledon, setting the hopes, dreams and aspirations of a nation alive with his arrival.

And then came 30 June 1998. In Saint-√Čtienne (the French town, not the Sarah Cracknell-fronted indy electro darlings). Aged just 18, he pulled off the goal that had us all convinced he was The One. Collecting a pass from David Beckham, Owen set off on a winding run through the Argentina defence, snaking through it like a raging, coursing river, before letting fly just outside the penalty box, with the ball whistling past goalkeeper Carlos Roa.

While Beckham would get sent off just after half-time for his petulant kickout at the odious Gabriel Batistuta, and the game would end ingloriously on penalties (with Argentina progressing to the quarter-finals), that one goal would be burned in our memories as the start of something new.

The following season’s home Chelsea league fixture against Liverpool was a must-attend. We all wanted to see the wunderkind who’d lifted our hopes that summer.

For Liverpool, Owen would deliver 158 goals in 297 appearances (take note, F Torres). However, by the time the-then 26-year-old made a Mr. Big Pants move to Real Madrid, his star - even with such a prodigious goal record at Anfield - had already started to wain. Some say it had faded by the time he turned 21.

Today, Michael Owen may be preparing for retirement with a multitude of records to his name, but the one least likely to appear in his private trophy cabinet is the title of "Most Likely To Be Found On A Treatment Table". Like a footballing meteor lighting up the night sky, Owen's early promise did, let's be honest, fizzle somewhat, thanks to injuries which surely couldn't have been helped by being thrust onto the world stage so young.

Owen's switch to Madrid produced a solitary season of just 40 appearances with Galacticos like Zidane, Figo, Carlos and Raul, and a return of just 14 goals. But as inevitable as injuries were, part of the problem was the fit: he just missed the Premier League. Who can blame him?

Returning to England, Owen could have gone back to Liverpool: he wanted to, but the record shows that one Rafa Benitez wasn't interested. I'll say no more than that. Instead. Newcastle took him on, until a broken metatarsal playing for England at the end of 2005 led to a year out, and Owen was never the same player again, though 30 goals in 79 games for Newcastle is still not that bad. Sadly,

After Owen parted company with Newcastle in 2009, Sir Alex Ferguson took a punt and brought the striker to Manchester United. A 30-year-old striker is not necessarily a bad thing. Look at Didier Drogba. But at 30 Owen was, in Premier League years, and old man. Still, he gave Manchester United 17 strikes in 52 games, and another couple of seasons at a top club, before moving this season to Stoke for just seven appearances so far and a single goal.

No one, however, is that surprised Owen has chosen to retire at the and of this season. Injuries not withstanding, the fire that tore apart the Argentinian defence in 1998 has long since been reduced to a flickering flame.

You could argue that the 15 years since Saint-√Čtienne have seen diminishing returns. But let's not quibble too much. Some things aren't meant to last long: Jimi Hendrix only made three proper albums; The Beatles broke up less than 10 years into their recording career; and it is true that a Big Mac is over with too soon. If only for that one goal in France in 1998, we can be thankful that Michael Owen blazed. It was just a bit early, and didn't last long.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Red faces all round

It would be dreadfully obvious for me to launch into badinage over Manchester United's Champions League exit last night, but come on, there is surely nothing funnier than Sir Alex Ferguson in full-blown eruption, the hairdryer set to 'Kill'.

I just couldn't get enough of Sky Sports News repeatedly showing the clip of an apoplectic SAF leaping (well, sort of leaping) from the exotically furnished home team dugout to protest at Nani's red card.

At first he seemed unable to decide in which direction he should explode. Like Dad's Army's Corporal Jones in full "Don't panic!" fluster, Fergie appeared to go this way and that, before an unfortunate camera angle (the camera being positioned on the other side of the Old Trafford pitch) caught sight of Mike Phelan with the outstretched arms of his boss emerging from behind him.

When Congreve wrote the oft-misquoted "...nor hell a fury like a woman scorned..." he clearly had no idea of what an enraged 71-year-old Scotsman could be capable of in unleashing such a flamethrower of bile about a refereeing decision that he could be left "too distraught" to speak to the media afterwards. "It's a distraught dressing room and a distraught manager. That's why I am sitting here now," explained Phelan in the post-match press conference, by way of some apology.

Well, we've all been there before, either through travesties of officiating calamity or literal applications of the law. Cast your mind back to the 2004-05 Champions League semi-final between Liverpool and Chelsea when the red team - managed by one Rafael Benitez - beat the blue team by a single goal. This was later described by the then-Chelsea boss, a certain Jose Mourinho, as a "ghost goal", on account of the fact that Luis Garcia's fourth minute strike didn't actually cross the Chelsea goal line, and that William Gallas - in a career-rare example of commitment - cleared it off the line.

Cast your mind back, as well, to the 2008-2009 Champions League semi-final between, yes, Chelsea and Barcelona, during which the hapless referee Tom Henning Ovrebo managed to turn down four nailed-on penalty appeals by Chelsea in a game largely dominated by the gravitationally-challenged behaviour of Barca players, and capped by Didier Drogba's industrial rant down the lens of a live television camera. Ovrebo had to be smuggled out of England. All round, not exactly football's finest evening.

So, then, last night's result couldn't really have happened to a nicer team. The rationalist in me can see the point many neutrals made last night, that Manchester United were grandly injusticed. But I've seen United get away with too much over the years to care; Fergie's hectoring of fourth officials, and his impetuous wristwatch-tapping when trying to shorten extra time, like an irascible pensioner complaining that his mobility bus is running late.

Man U have had plenty go their way, so an injustice, even one as perceptibly heinous as last night's, only generates so much sympathy in me. Yes, from one angle Nani appeared to go in studs-up like Bruce Lee, and, yes, from another angle, he looked like he was trying to hook down the ball, and Alvaro Arbeloa merely clattered into him.

Even as a Chelsea fan, with previous with Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir (he sent off John Terry at the Nou Camp last year for that kneeing incident with Barcelona's Alexis Sanchez in the Champions League semi-final), one ultimately has to agree with the Nani decision. Cakir was correctly applying the letter of the law. Studs up - early bath. Even if it was clear, from the more advanced optics of TV, that Nani's eyes remained trained throughout the incident on the ball.

But, Roy Keane - being somewhat disingenuous, perish the idea - had a point: "It's dangerous play - it's a red card. You have to be aware of other players on the pitch. Does [Nani]  think he's going to have 20 yards to himself?". One wonders what Keane himself would have done...

The pain of accepting the red card decision being the right one is that with Nani walking on 56 minutes, Mourinho merely had to send in Modric and the odious Ronaldo to pull United asunder. Rarely has a red card inflicted such obvious pain on a side: Modric's equaliser was top-drawer, the winner from Ronaldo - who wears so much hair product these days you expect to see dead seabirds appearing on beaches - proved fatal.

The irony of last night, then, is that the man walking away from Old Trafford quietly, and with the smug grin we have all seen before, was Jose Mourinho. With a barely concealed smile, Mourinho shed a few crocodile tears in his own post-match interview: "Independent of the decision, the best team lost," he non-blubbed, adding: "We didn't deserve to win but football is like this."

Could you have blamed Mourinho for declaring the result sweet revenge for the Liverpool incident nine years ago? Course not.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

And on The Next Day: David Bowie resurrected

When What Would David Bowie Do? was conceived in a fit of pique one June morning in 2010, it was generally assumed that the object of its title was quietly enjoying retirement in New York, walking daughter Lexi to school and basking in the warm glow of marriage to the former supermodel Iman.

Sightings had been rare since 2004 when, towards the end of his Reality Tour, David Bowie underwent heart surgery. A guest spot with Ricky Gervais in Extras, a one-off show with David Gilmour, and a supporting appearance at the premiere of his director son Duncan Jones' film Moon seemed to be about it. Even a photograph, last October, of Bowie near his Lafayette Street condominium, apparently out buying the papers, seemed nothing more than a rare sighting of a reclusive retiree.

On January 7 this year, the day before The Dame's 66th birthday, nothing seemed stirring in Bowieland. The next day changed all that.

Ever since the Brixton-born David Robert Jones released Space Oddity in the summer of 1969, cashing in on Neil Armstrong's giant leap for mankind, the renamed David Bowie has, arguably, been the most talked about rock star of his generation. And I mean, talked about. I can't think of another music icon - even Elvis - to have been so forensically debated. Madonna may have absorbed Bowie's ability to evolve visually, but she is nevertheless dilettante in comparison.

Because, whichever version or angle of Bowie you choose to examine - folk-rocker, glam-rocker, funk-rocker, arguable godfather of punk, actor, drug-addled superstar, diva…the list is, actually, endless - no-one has commanded as much re-examination. Even with moments of misadventure - quasi-fascist salutes at Victoria Station, the disappearing-up-own-arse Glass Spider Tour, Tin Machine, flirtations with club culture, discussions with the Labrynth costume designer - Bowie has always been able to command maximum media interest.

So, when early on January 8, word starting spreading that Bowie had released a new single, gobs were universally smacked. When it emerged that he'd actually been working in complete secret for two years on an album or more's worth of new material (the October photograph was actually taken outside the recording studio…), journalists and long-time fans alike started experiencing tremors of excitement…and fear.
Comebacks are rarely that good. The chasm between expectation and reality is usually perilously deep. It's even worse when you have more than 40 years of work to be compared with. Thus, the conventional wisdom is that the Stones haven't made a decent record since Exile On Main Street, and McCartney since Let It Be, which is like saying a stick man cartoon by Picasso on the back of a beer mat is "a bit crap" by comparison with his Guernica.

As for Bowie, his golden years, ho-ho, were behind him in the era of Ziggy, Young Americans and the Berlin trilogy, Low, Heroes and Lodger. The arrival, then, next week of Bowie's first new album in a decade, The Next Day, should be met with trepidation. Much like the adage "never meet your heroes", the grave concern is that it won't be any good, that it will be some latter day Bowie knock-off, like more recent efforts by Bob Dylan, closer to self-parody.

When Where Are We Now? was released on January 8, the majority of journalists went into paroxysms of ecstasy that not only was Bowie back, back, back, but back with a song of melancholy beauty, or beautiful melancholy, and that if the subsequent album was anywhere as good, life as we know it will change for the better.

Other journalists were simply left gasping for air that Bowie should have been able to work in absolute secret for two years with producer Tony Visconti and a small group of musicians like bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, drummer Zachary Alford and guitarist Gerry Leonard, who formed the nucleus of Bowie's group on The Reality Tour, without something leaking. After all, in this era of Twitter and celebrities posting photographs of themselves in all manner of private moments, it is virtually impossible not to know every last detail about, well, everyone.

There were, however, a few lone dissenters, professional curmudgeons who declared "meh…", largely for contrarian effect, methinks. Everyone's entitled to their opinion, of course, and if that was genuinely their feeling, then they have a perfect right to accuse everyone else of praising the emperor's new clothes.

The reality, however, of The Next Day, is that it is without doubt one of Bowie's best albums. Ever.

"But he would say that, wouldn't he" is, I know, your immediate reaction to that statement. But the truth is, it really is that good.

True, rationality is a scarce commodity when an icon like Bowie produces something new, lest he should produce something after such silence.

The title track which opens the album is vintage Bowie. Grating guitars and boinking bass notes √†-la Fashion introduce a song that sets the lyrical tone of the entire album, as Bowie - rather than looking back in wistful dotage, as some predicted it would be - looks towards a future dystopia. Bleak, that premise may be, but it's also a damn good pop song, with the chorus "Here I am, not quite dying" providing as much a demonstration of Bowie's sense of humour as a statement of his vitality. Take note, vendors of effluence pervading our TV screens on a Saturday night.

The job of rock star is largely about swagger. That, to be honest, is mainly what makes them a rock star to begin with. Bowie, one suspects, has always been an actor playing a rock star, applying a form of total theatre throughout his career. Dirty Boys starts with a jumpy, nervous sax-driven rhythm and a telephone-filtered vocal treatment before opening up into an Anthony Burgess-esque story of thuggery and feather-hatted yobs smashing up Finchley Fair with cricket bats. It's hard to imagine One Direction doing anything similar anytime soon.

While Bowie has been away the cult of celebrity has shifted on its axis, as reality TV shows have turned non-descript fools into household names selling self-branded perfume. The Stars (Are Out Tonight) wryly addresses this with an imagined world that celebrities have actually taken over ("They burn you with their radium smiles and trap you with their beautiful eyes"). Given the amount of media attention the Kardashian family generate, it's possible this may have already taken place, but on this sweeping song - released as the second single from the album - Bowie takes the notion of The Man Who Fell To Earth and applies it to celebrities - "dead ones and the living" suggesting that "Brad" (Pitt we assume) and "Kate" (Winslet?) are amongst us as aliens. And he does it with the sort of stonking mock braggadocio that made China Girl such a blast.

Within Bowie's catalogue there are songs that make great stadium anthems, songs you can swing your pants to, songs you can rock out to and songs you can, you know, do the thing to. Love Is Lost is neither of these things. Instead, with its crisp, treated snare drum and bleed-in of heavy church organ chords, it is one of those Bowie songs that creeps up on you before attacking with a sharp lyric, this one about an arriviste individual whose "possessions are new" but whose "fear is as old as the world".

When Where Are We Now? slipped in under the cover of radar in January, the incredulity of its unexpected appearance soon gave way to an excess examination. Like scientists scrutinising bacteria found in a small lump of space rock, marvelling at the possibility that this may be microscopic evidence of life elsewhere, Where Are We Now? was placed immediately in the petri dish.

Was Bowie dying? Was this really just a melancholy one-off to say farewell? Was it a mournful recollection of his days in Berlin with Iggy and Eno, recording the albums that would critically resurrect his career? As producer Tony Visconti explained in interviews, it turns out that this is the most downbeat of an otherwise upbeat collection of 14 tracks (17 if you buy the 'deluxe' version). It is, after repeated listens over the last six weeks (and I mean, repeated - on January 8 it was the only thing I listened to all day), one of the most beautiful songs The Dame has ever produced. One that ultimately uplifts, despite its gloomy premise. And, yes, it will be amazing to hear live. DB, please note.

The clock is turned back almost to the beginning with the Hunky Dory-era feel of Valentine's Day, one of those terrific vignettes Bowie is so adept at, the story of a quirky little sociopath with a "tiny face" and a "tiny heart" who spends his time being a bit of arse.

Bowie dives into his broad vocal spectrum for If You Can't See Me, sounding like a Dalek in another song about a despotic nutjob and, possibly, a cross-dressing nutjob ("I could wear your new blue shoes, I should wear your old red dress"). It's a frenetic, short song which threatens to drag Bowie back to his ill-advised late-'90s encounter with drum'n'bass, but mercifully stops short.

I’d Rather Be High is the most lary track on the album, and one that the Gallaghers will kick themselves over, with it's Tomorrow Never Knows vibe and Champagne Supernova guitar. It's an open, expansive song, the story of a soldier wishing he was anywhere but the desert battlefield he finds himself, "training these guns on those men in the sand". Much of this album concerns itself with an imagined future of dictatorial chaos, but this track - of all - is the closest Bowie appears to get to commenting on the present, having last written anything only two years after his adopted hometown was shattered by airliners hitting the World Trade Center, and the Middle East being opened up for revenge in the aftermath.

Just because Bowie has spent the last few years out of the limelight doesn't mean that he's been living Miss Havisham-like in his New York apartment brooding. It's quite possible that, when not doing schoolruns and picking up groceries, he's been quite happily enjoying life. Being married to Iman helps, which might explain the loose enjoyment of Boss Of Me, another great pop song with the pure romantic hook of "Who'd have ever thought of it, who'd have ever dreamed, that a small-town girl like you could be the boss of me?". Either that, or a very odd Bruce Springsteen reference.

Opening with the longest saxophone note since Lee Thompson's on Night Boat To Cairo, Dancing Out In Space draws together two of Bowie's longest thematic interests - space and alienation - in a boppy, finger-popping, early-'80s jig of a song that could easily have found its way onto Let's Dance.

Making a reference, like that, to an earlier excerpt from the back catalogue is an ever-present danger in listening to The Next Day. Such is our affinity with Bowie's style, Bowie's sound and Bowie's storytelling that there are throwbacks and references to so much of his 44-year career. None are necessarily intentional, or attempts at self-regarding pastiche.

With every new song on the album there is both familiarity and unfamiliarity: How Does The Grass Grow? is, lyrically, another vision of hell, but with a Broadway-camp "na-na-na-nah" chorus and the sort of tight, solid bass, guitar and drum performance that underpinned the Berlin trilogy.

Underpinned by the sort of power-chorded, riff-heavy guitar work that powered 1980s poodle rock, (You Will) Set The World On Fire harks back to New York in the 1960s and the hippy-dippy aspirations of the Greenwich Village folk set. While the likes of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan may have been singing about peaceful revolution with acoustic guitars and harmonicas, Bowie hits out at the ill-faited idealism of the peace movement, presenting another view of modern hell, but from the perspective of a certain cynicism "I can hear the nation cry".

Taking it's title from Heartbreak Hotel, Bowie takes a melodramatic tour through Scott Walker territory with the old-school ballad You Feel So Lonely You Could Die. It isn't a happy song, calling up more imagery of a world-gone-wrong as the backdrop of story about a relationship-gone-wrong.

Walker's influence makes another appearance with Heat, a short, almost coda of a final track of the 'standard' version of The Next Day, in which Bowie croons his way through a song about self-questioning, replete with Starman ch-ch-chang guitars, and a string arrangement so wigged out you half expect William Shatner to pop up, overacting his way through the spoken lyrics of Space Oddity. It is, it must be said, a very odd end to the album. But at 52 minutes in total length, The Next Day is a full and as nourishing a Bowie record as anyone could have hoped for.

It is a proper album. This is no collection of scraps that have been hanging around, but an album that, from start to finish, has purpose and meaning. There was so much to be fearful of. Mercifully, those fears were completely unfounded. Welcome back David. And thanks.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Fireside stories: Steven Wilson's The Raven That Refused To Sing

Regular readers to these blatherings will be in little doubt as to where my footballing allegiances sit, but for this post, I must proactively declare a personal interest.

I'm sure there is, somewhere, a blogosphere convention on such a thing. However I am compelled to redeclare the fact that I have known Steven Wilson longer than anyone else outside my immediate family, and that it is possible that such a history might colour my objectivity when it comes to his new album The Raven That Refused To Sing.

I'll spare you the complete back story, but you can read it here (Memories from the bottom of the garden). In reconnecting with Steven over the last four years I have immersed myself in much of his back catalogue, particularly work with the band he co-founded, Porcupine Tree, but also his Storm Corrosion project with Opeth's Mikael Akerfeldt, and his Blackfield collaboration with Israeli superstar Aviv Geffen.

Given this sort of workload, plus his Surround Sound remixing work for King Crimson, Jethro Tull and others, it's a wonder he ever found time to launch a solo career alongside his myriad other projects. Which might explain how The Raven... - his third solo album - came to be recorded in a matter of days last September in Los Angeles.

Lyrically themed around short stories of the supernatural penned by Wilson himself, The Raven... exudes a self assuredness that comes from a recording career dating back 30 years to cassette-taped demos as a teenager. That confidence also comes from the fact the album was recorded by the same group of musicians Wilson spent the best part of a year touring to promote his last solo album, Grace For Drowning, a recording that took him further away from the heavier progressive rock elements of Porcupine Tree, and more into a jazz-influenced fusion reminiscent of Genesis before they discovered MTV.

Credit: Naki Kouyioumtzis
He might actually hate that reference point, as I know his record collection is one of the most eclectic I've ever come across. But if you were a fan of the Genesis that made Wind And Wuthering and A Trick Of The Tail, and the Gabriel-era Trespass and Foxtrot, rather than the poptastic Invisible touch, many elements of The Raven... will generate a pleasing sensation of familiarity.

Chief of these is the 12-string guitar-infused opening of The Watchmaker, and its multi-tracked vocal, revealing a range of texture, intrigue and narration through melodic variety. Likewise, Luminol, driven by its bassy opening, and The Pin Drop, with time signature jumps, Mellotron backing and sublime lead guitar work, take me back happily to my own adolescence, and the discovery of music that would engross me totally, rather than induce me to dance or bang my head.

So, yeah, I may have preferred listening to music you take notes to as a teenager, but who really cares now I'm 45? It is, however, an incredible element of our rekindled friendship that I discovered the music Steven found as a child is the same I found, and has so heavily influenced his work as a writer and artist, that I'd be enjoying his music even if we didn't know each other. Perhaps, then, my declaration of personal interest is not so necessary.

The Raven... may have been recorded in days, rather than weeks or months, but it is certainly not a rushed or compromised work. It actually feels like it was recorded live, in real time, as if it arrived in the studio fully-formed. Credit for that goes to Alan Parsons, the former Abbey Road production legend (Dark Side Of The Moon amongst his achievements) who engineered the album, providing Wilson with additional support and wisdom.

But, perhaps, the real key to this album's coherent immediacy is that the seven tracks were recorded by Wilson and the same group of ultra-talented musicians that had recently come off his Grace For Drowning world tour. This is not an album of excess augmentation by session players and guest artists. It's a solo album for Steven but a clear group effort - the prolific Nick Beggs on bass, gifted flautist/saxophonist Theo Travis, Adam Holzman - son of Elektra Records' founder, Jac Holzman - on keys, German-born drummer Marco Minnemann and the stunningly fluid lead guitarist Guthrie Govan.

One of my pet bugbears is that, despite being one of Britain's most productive and plenteous musicians, Wilson lacks recognition by the mainstream media. The Raven... deserves their attention. At its broadest, it is a superb piece of rock, full of adventure and groove in equal measure, building to a title track that I can't wait to hear play live next week in Paris.

Plenty of artists, as they get into their third and fourth decade of performing plateau out. The evidence presented by The Raven That Refused To Sing is that Steven Wilson is still climbing.