Thursday, 19 December 2019

David Bowie - A More Contemporary Sound (1989-2003)



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The nineties were where David Bowie changed quite considerably, musically, incorporating contemporary dance beats into his music and giving his sound a deeper, more dense production. Although it is not my favourite phase of his many phases, there is still plenty of material to enjoy. (It was strange how he looked like David Beckham for a while, though, wasn't it?).

The albums covered are:-

Tin Machine (1989)
Black Tie White Noise (1993)
1.Outside (1995)
Earthling (1997)
Hours...(1999)
Live At Glastonbury (2000)
Live At The Beeb (2000)
Heathen (2002)
Reality (2003)
and A Reality Tour (2003)

Scroll down to read the reviews chronologically.

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TIN MACHINE (1989)

1. Heaven's In Here
2. Tin Machine
3. Prisoner Of Love
4. Crack City
5. I Can't Read
6. Under The God
7. Amazing
8. Working Class Hero
9. Bus Stop
10. Pretty Thing
11. Video Crime
12. Run
13. Sacrifice Yourself       

Bowie’s 1989 Tin Machine experiment, where he formed a “democratic” band with guitarist Reeves Gabrels and the rather odd Sales brothers was roundly mocked and derided by the music media and fans alike, which is actually extremely unfair. The intention was to strip things down, become a “band”, as opposed to a David Bowie vehicle, and return to some raw, hard rocking, guitar-driven rock music. All good so far, nothing wrong with that. The problem came maybe because of the seemingly endlessly hype from Bowie about how glad he was “just to be one part of a democratic band” and how good it was to be back on the road again, playing small flea pits. Unfortunately it all seemed just a tad pretentious and it would have appeared to alienate a lot of people. “I love Bowie, anything but Tin Machine though” was an often heard statement at the time, and over the following years. To add to that, Bowie’s dress was downstated and drab and he was bearded. No costumes or new “character” guise.

What I feel, though, is if this album had been released as a standard David Bowie release, the media would have been awash with “return to form” and “Bowie returns to his rock roots” quotes. The album would have been said to put 1987’s Never Let Me Down to shame. The fact that was not given any credibility at all it such a pity. In retrospect, though, people have started to view it more kindly, realising that in its grunge sound, Bowie was again ahead of his time (Nirvana were still a struggling small venue band at the time).


           

This is an excellent Bowie rock album, like The Man Who Sold The WorldZiggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane

The opener, Heaven's In Here is a impressive start, while Tin Machine is a frantic, punky piece of breakneck fun, with Bowie’s mockney vocals to the fore. Prisoner Of Love is as good a track as anything Bowie had done for several years.

Crack City is a mighty, powerful cut - again somewhat punky and grungy, all choppy guitars and nihilistic lyrics. It wouldn’t have sounded out of place on The Man Who Sold The World though. Bowie’s voice is on top form here. It is a sort of Diamond Dogs track for the late 1980s.



I Can't Read is a bit raucous and irritating, to be honest, although it has some understated bass lines in parts and some great guitar, but Under The God is another quality slice of urban guitar rock. This is another of the album’s cornerstones. It is an ear-spliting experience though. Amazing is as close as it gets to a drop in intensity and has hints of 2013’s The Next Day album about it.  Bowie’s cover of John Lennon’s Working Class Hero is excellent, turning the stark song into an insistent, menacing rock groove. Gabrels’ guitar is electrifying on this.

Bus Stop is another great track. How any Bowie fan could not get some enjoyment out of this is beyond me. The grunge attack continues with the remaining tracks to the end of the album and by now, it does get a bit exhausting. Listened to as a whole, all 14 tracks, it can get a bit jarring - the pace and the raw, pounding sound never lets up. There’s no Lady Grinning SoulSoul Love or The Supermen to change the soundscape and ambience for a while. But a track or two here and there every now and again is a pleasure. Listen to something like Pretty Thing as a one off and it is genuinely exhilarating. Or, alternatively, listen to the first seven or the last seven together, allowing more appreciation to the individual tracks, such as the excellent Run and Baby Can Dance from the last seven.

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BLACK TIE WHITE NOISE (1993)

1. The Wedding
2. You've Been Around
3. I Feel Free
4. Black Tie, White Noise
5. Jump They Say
6. Nite Flights
7. Pallas Athena
8. Miracle Goodnight
9. Don't Let Me Down And Down
10. Looking For Lester
11. I Know It's Gonna Happen Someday
12. The Wedding Song          

For me, there are two parts of David Bowie's career, his Tin Machine work being the bridging point between the two. The first part is the part that really means the most to me, the second part begins here, in 1993, and heralds the start of far more use of dance rhythms and contemporary music, some of which I find less accessible than the sounds of the 1970s and 1980s.

David Bowie said this of recording the album -

"....I think this album comes from a very different emotional place than on previous albums. That's the passing of time, which has brought maturity and a willingness to relinquish full control over my emotions, let them go a bit, start relating to other people, which is something that's been happening to me slowly – and, my God, it's been uphill – over the last ten or twelve years. I feel a lot freer these days to be able to talk about myself and about what's happened to me, because I've been able to face it. For many years, everything was always blocked out. The day before was always blocked out. I never wanted to return to examine anything that I did particularly. But the stakes have changed. I feel alive, in a real sense....."
                                 
What we were getting here was a newly-energised Bowie, fresh after his fun with Tin Machine, recovered after the travails of Never Let Me Down.

 

Anyway, on to this album in more detail. It begins with an appealing instrumental, The Wedding, which combines some Low/"Heroes"- style sonorous keyboards with a lilting, melodic bass line, some swirling saxophone  and some funky guitar riffs. It is quite captivating in its own, meandering way. Chic's Nile Rodgers was on production duties again (he did Let's Dance) and old band mates Mick Ronson (who tragically died 24 days after the album's release), pianist Mike Garson and Tin Machine's Reeves Gabrels. The next track, You've Been Around, is a thumping piece of jazz rock and funk mixed in. Bowie briefly references 1971's Changes in the lyrics. The album was, I guess, intended to be a sort of Young Americans part two - this time updated to be a sophisticated urban soul meets dance club techno rhythms. That treatment was given to Cream's sixties blues rock classic I Feel Free, pretty much rendering it unrecognisable. It actually just sounds like a great new, state-of-the-art Bowie song. It has mesmeric, intoxicating rhythms sliced apart by a searing Mick Ronson solo. It has to remembered that, in many ways, grunge was the music of the era, yet Bowie came out with something like this. Very adventurous as usual.

Bowie plays a lot of saxophone on the album, and Rodgers interestingly said of the fact -

"....I think David would be the first to admit that he's not a saxophonist in the traditional sense. I mean, you wouldn't call him up to do gigs. He uses his playing as an artistic tool. He's a painter. He hears an idea, and he goes with it. But he absolutely knows where he's going, because he damn well plays the same thing over and over again until I say, 'Well, I guess he hears that.' It's what you might call accidentally deliberate...."

A wonderful trumpet from Lester Bowie (no relation) introduces the ebullient and stimulating Black Tie, White Noise with an instantly recognisable Bowie vocal. It has a laid-back, summery feel and a vibe similar to that which some of the tracks on Tonight were aspiring to. It reminds me of several other songs, but I can't bring them to mind, just snatches here and there. Despite the almost chilled out vibe at times the lyrics are typically portentous in places. Bowie certainly seems rejuvenated here, both as a lyricist and vocalist. Jump They Say has a frantic, dance-influenced rhythm, all repetitive drum beats per minute and swirling saxophone in places. Bowie's vocal is one of those deep, serious-sounding ones. Some excellent brass soloing in the middle. It is a very instrumentally adventurous track, despite the metronomic drum sound. Nite Flights (actually a Walker Brothers cover, although again it sounds like a Bowie original) has a deep, bassy and another vibrating, deep and haughty vocal. In many ways, these tracks are like some of the "Heroes" and Lodger material but without some of the industrial electronic vibes of that era. Some U2-style electric guitar punctuate the air. They started putting out material like this within months. I wonder why? Bowie leading the way again. It sounds cliched, but it is true.


The instrumental (save a few chanted vocals) Pallas Athena has some real "Heroes" saxophone blowing all around its pounding, clubby drum beat. Miracle Goodnight has a incredibly catchy instrumental hook and again, Bowie's vocals are a nostalgic reminder of earlier eras. Don't Let Me Down And Down is a somewhat twee, romantic song that would have been slated had it appeared on Never Let Me Down or Tonight. It is/was so cliched and easy to criticise those albums yet praise this one. For me, I like them equally, There were good points on those albums, whatever the music media say. The song is perfectly acceptable though, but is certainly no work of genius. Looking For Lester is a strident instrumental featuring the talents of the afore-mentioned trumpeter once again. The presence of instrumentals on this album enhance the Low/"Heroes" comparisons in a tiny way, but of course the overall ambience is utterly different. Mike Garson has a trademark piano solo on the track too, which is always good to hear.

I Know It's Gonna Happen Someday is a cover of a Morrissey song. I know nothing about Morrissey's work so have no knowledge of the song but it seems to suit Bowie in a Wild Is The Wind sort of mournful way. The Wedding Song reprises the opening track with more pumping beats and  wailing saxophone from Bowie, as well as a floaty, indistinct vocal. It is a relaxing end to an intriguing album. It is my favourite of this "second period" Bowie work until The Next Day.

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1.OUTSIDE (1995)

1. Leon Takes Us Outside
2. Outside
3. The Heart's Filthy Lesson
4. A Small Plot Of Land
5. Segue - Baby Grace ( A Horrid Cassette)
6. Hallo Spaceboy
7. The Motel
8. I Have Not Been To Oxford Town
9. No Control
10. Segue - Algeria Touchshriek
11. The Voyeur Of Utter Destruction (As Beauty)
12. Segue - Ramona A. Stone/I Am With Name
13. Wishful Beginnings
14. We Prick You
15. Segue - Nathan Adler (1)
16. I'm Deranged
17. Thru' These Architect's Eyes
18. Segue - Nathan Adler (2)
19. Strangers When We Meet    

David Bowie was back with old mate, producer Brian Eno for this one. It was released two years after the vaguely experimental Black Tie White Noise and it ploughed several new furrows - dance music, spoken interludes, electronica, post grunge and even more avant garde, piano-driven jazz than had been dabbled with on the previous album.

It has, supposedly, a "concept" about a detective investigating the horrific murder and dismembering of a fourteen year-old girl. All rather unsettling and frankly a bit odd. It features several characters and, in between the songs, has several short, often spoken pieces. The one called Baby Grace I actually don't ever play, finding it decidedly creepy. So, I just stick to the songs, leaving out the spoken interludes and, playing them thus, the "concept" fades away. Did I really care about these characters anyway? No. The songs can all be taken separately, at face value. Yes, I know it is supposed to be listened to in its original incarnation, but well, there you go, I don't. Am I "cheating" the concept? Bowie purists would undoubtedly say yes.

Bowie himself said that the album was intended to be post-apocalyptic in a slightly Diamond Dogs fashion as the end of the century approached, something about which Bowie seemed to have become increasingly afraid of.

  
                                 
Outside is a solemn, intense but sonically addictive song, with a really strong Bowie vocal and a great sound to it. Lots of searing guitar, keyboards and a slow, industrial drum beat. I had forgotten what a good opener it was. Heart's Filthy Lesson introduces us to Bowie's dance beat experimentation that would continue into 1997's Earthling album. Beneath the thumping beat lies some madcap Mike Garson piano, some delicious rhythms, backing vocals and some haughty Bowie vocals coming in here and there. It is an innovatory and interesting track. Similarly so is the avant-garde jazz of A Small Plot Of Land, with old Ziggy-era pianist Mike Garson to the fore. It is a most unusual track with some beguiling rhythms, cutting Talking Heads-style guitar and oddly distant but sonorous vocals floating around from Bowie. It is one of his strangest songs.

Quite how Hallo Spaceboy, a crazed dance beat song with spacey overtones, fits in with the concept  is unclear. It seems completely incongruous to me. The Motel is a haunting, ethereal number with some more sumptuous Mike Garson piano, some absolutely killer Reeves Gabrels guitar and some echoes of the future in how some of the Blackstar album would sound in places. That whole futuristic jazz thing.

I Have Not Been To Oxford Town has Bowie narrating part of the album's concept, semi-singing over an insistent but highly captivating guitar-driven industrial rhythm. No Control has a slow-burning, walking pace dance-ishbeat and a typically arch Bowie vocal. The Voyeur Of Utter Destruction has some Aladdin Sane-style piano over another thumping dance beat.

I Am With Name is a bizarre, cacophonous piece of jazzy experimentation that doesn't lend itself to too many listens, to be honest. Wishful Beginnings has a sledgehammer single beat drum sound that goes right to one's centre. It is a slightly unnerving but infectious song. All very enigmatic.

We Prick You has the frantic, synthesised dance beat back again, but it features some excellent keyboard and guitar sounds too and an energising vocal. I'm Deranged just washes over you in a swathe of dance beats and occasionally tinkling piano with a somewhat airy, distant vocal. Thru' These Architect's Eyes is one of the album's best tracks. It has a rumbling bass line, great guitar riffs, yet more wonderful piano and Bowie powerfully incanting out the perplexing lyrics. Finally, (and this has been Bowie's longest ever album), we get the most conventionally-played number, Strangers When We Meet. It has an introductory riff vaguely reminiscent of Spencer Davis's Gimme Some Lovin'. It is probably my favourite on the album. It has a great hook, catchy melody and thankfully, no dance rhythms! A "proper" Bowie song - at last. These last two songs have been good ones, but, I have to admit, although the album is somewhat stodgy, it does indeed merit many listens. There is much beneath the surface. That is the mark of a good David Bowie album, I guess.

Incidentally the extended double disc edition of the album contains endless remixes of some of the tracks - five versions of Hearts Filthy Lesson, for example. It is a labour of love trawling through them all, but some of them are pretty good and sometimes superior to the one used on the actual album. I particularly like the bassy Rubber Mix of Heart's Filthy Lesson.

Interestingly, Brian Eno spoke one week after Bowie's death thus -

"....About a year ago we started talking about Outside – the last album we worked on together. We both liked that album a lot and felt that it had fallen through the cracks. We talked about revisiting it, taking it somewhere new. I was looking forward to that...."

What a shame it never came to pass.

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EARTHLING (1997)

1. Little Wonder
2. Looking For Satellites
3. Battle For Britain (The Letter)
4. Seven Years In Tibet
5. Dead Man Walking
6. Telling Lies
7. The Last Thing You Should Do
8. I'm Afraid Of Americans
9. Law (Earthlings On Fire)                                 
This was David Bowie's "dance" album, influenced by contemporary electronica and "drum and bass" synthesised sounds. It is not a genre that has ever really appealed to me, so, for that reason, it is not one of my favourite Bowie albums.

However, unlike a lot of drum and bass material, Bowie didn't simply take snippets, loops and samples of bits of other songs and paste them over a dance beat, he did create actual songs to go with the beat. They are lyrically pretty minimalist, but they are actual songs and do have a certain appeal. In some ways, though, the songs sound as if they are regular Bowie songs and he has slapped a dance beat on them. One wonders what they may have been like given a maybe more conventional rock backing, a soul backing, or a Tin Machine grungy backing. As it was, he wanted to give them a dance backing, so that was that. Beneath the slightly overwhelming backing, though, lie a few hidden treasures here and there. Bowie was always the great innovator, and he certainly is here. It is one of his most experimental albums, if not the most.

Bowie actually compared the album to Scary Monsters in its aural attack and I can sort of see what he meant. He said he wanted to be "dynamic and aggressive". It was certainly that, but, as I said, I would have preferred more guitar to programmed drums, but there you go.

Little Wonder does indeed have an intoxicating rhythm, a catchy chorus hook - "so far away..." and all sorts of electric noises coming in and out of the song, behind the metronomic, thumping dance beat. There are guitar bits, keyboard bits, strings bits. It is a veritable cornucopia of sounds, making it stand out a bit from the usual dance stuff.

  

Looking For Satellites is less frenetic, beat-wise and quite slow and industrial in its grinding beat and chanted vocal refrain about "shampoo, TV..." and so on. Battle For Britain (The Letter) actually sounds like a song from the Space Oddity era of the late sixties/early seventies until the huge drum machine rhythm kicks in. It has a great, sharp guitar interjection in places, which is quite exhilarating. The vocals just sound so evocative of that early era.

Seven Years In Tibet has really a chilled-out, quiet introduction and some plaintive Bowie vocals before a seriously huge, heavy blast of a chorus kicks in, then it goes quiet again. It is actually an intriguing song, with many facets. Typical Bowie in fact. Dead Man Walking sees a return to the 160 beats per minute, (or whatever it is), club beat backing. It has, beneath the synthesised onslaught, some excellent Bowie vocals and lyrics. It also has some interesting keyboard and guitar parts that have a Talking Heads feel to them in places. Right at the end, some recognisable Mike Garson piano arrives, a bit too late though.


Telling Lies is a sonorous, bassy thumper with another haunting and beguiling Bowie vocal. Again, one can't help but wonder what he song would have been like if given an alternative backing. The same applies to the mysterious The Last Thin You Should Do , which features some searing guitar from old Tin Machine mate Reeves Gabrels. By now, listening to this album, the monotonous beat is starting to grate a bit, I have to admit. I am saved, though, by the gloriously powerful, riffy and addictively catchy I'm Afraid Of Americans. This is, in my opinion, the best track on the album. It has some excellent lyrics, a great build up and a monster of a chorus. Law (Earthlings On Fire) has echoes of The Human League's Sound Of The Crowd in its vocal refrain. Otherwise it is pretty intransigent, clunky dance stodge. The album is not really my thing, but a dip into it every now and again can't harm.

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HOURS....(1999)

1. Thursday's Child
2. Something In The Air
3. Survive
4. If I'm Dreaming My Life
5. Seven
6. What's Really Happening
7. The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell
8. New Angels Of Promise
9. Brilliant Adventure
10. The Dreamers  

After the diversification into dance music experimentation that was Earthling, two years later, Bowie, thankfully, in my view, ditched the "beats per minute" and returned with this mainly melodic, ethereal, introspective album. He still employs programmed drums and bass guitar as opposed to a conventional band, but it often doesn't sound like it. Initially, they recorded it with a Diamond Dogs  guitar backing, which guitarist Reeves Gabrels much preferred, but in the end Bowie went for a more slick, contemporary sound. That was a shame, I would have liked to have head the original version.
                                 
It kicks off with the airy, breathy Thursday's Child, which, although it appears to use programmed drums has a fetching melody and a killer bass line, which is also synthesised but actually sounds authentic. The same sound features on the relaxed and chilled-out intro to Something In The Air - a nonchalantly appealing and typically Bowie song. This album, far more than the previous two, sounds what I imagine a David Bowie album twenty-odd years on from the mid/late seventies should sound like. I much prefer it to either Earthling or 1.Outside, although there are many who would not agree with me.

 

Survive is, according to Bowie himself, very much written using similar structures to those used on Hunky Dory in the early seventies. I am sure he is correct, but I can't detect it myself. It sounds very much of its time. A bit of Starman style morse code guitar creeps in, however. If I'm Dreaming My Life is sombre and introspective and probably a bit too long. It is considerably darker and bleaker than the material so far.


Seven brings us back to a lighter mood, however, with a Hunky Dory style acoustic guitar intro, but that is as far as that tenuous link goes. For me, the material is not really reminiscent of any earlier era. It is Bowie as he was in 1999. It is music contemporary to its time.

What's Really Happening is a powerful, industrial-sounding rock number with a big drum sound and some "Heroes"-style guitar. The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell is a strong, riffy guitar-driven rock number, probably my favourite on the album. Bowie's vocal is deep and confident on this one too.

New Angels Of Promise starts with a Japanese-sounding intro and has lots of echoes of Sons Of The Silent Age in its deep, resonant vocals. Brilliant Adventure is an infectious, eastern-sounding instrumental which has always reminded me of the theme to Midnight Express. Again, it sounds a lot like the instrumental stuff from "Heroes", like Moss Garden. This relatively short album ends with the melancholy, sonorous The Dreamers, which is full of strong, powerful, scratchy guitar riffs and slightly distorted vocals. The album was quite harshly treated by critics at the time, which was somewhat unfair. It is not that bad at all.

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LIVE AT GLASTONBURY (2000)

1. Wild Is The Wind
2. China Girl
3. Changes
4. Stay
5. Life On Mars?
6. Absolute Beginners
7. Ashes To Ashes
8. Rebel Rebel
9 . Little Wonder
10. Golden Years
11. Fame
12. All The Young Dudes
13. The Man Who Sold The World
14. Station To Station
15. Starman
16. Hallo Spaceboy
17. Under Pressure
18. Ziggy Stardust
19. "Heroes"
20. Let's Dance
21. I'm Afraid Of Americans

What a truly wonderful year 2018 has been for David Bowie live releases - Welcome To The Blackout, the two concerts on the Loving The Alien box set and now this, his long-awaited Glastonbury headline appearance from 2000. This is manna from Heaven to Bowie enthusiasts. Admittedly it is a bit of a "greatest hits" exercise as opposed to, say, 2003's Reality Tour set list, but you have to expect that from the Glastonbury set up. You don't want people moaning "he didn't play Let's Dance...." after all.

The first thing that hits you when the absolutely tip-notch band kicks into a haunting but powerful Wild Is The Wind is just how damn superb the sound is. Well, it is for me, at least. Nothing "bootleg" about it. Audiophiles may disagree but it suits me perfectly - full, muscular and bassy, as it should be. Bowie's voice is outstanding on this opener too, doing justice to a great song and the guitar at the end is sublime. One song in and I am completely immersed in this. Looks like another "Bowie day" coming up. China Girl is thumpingly more attacking than the original, which I like. More excellent guitar on here too. It's old 1974 mate Earl Slick, so what did one expect? Mike Garson is on piano too and you can hear his trademark sound all over the album (check out the bit at the end of Fame).  I really like this interpretation of China Girl. One of the best ones around. The piano is almost E. St Band at the end. The guitar/piano/vocal interplay is stunning.

  

Changes is given a huge, pounding sound in between Bowie's iconic verses. It is played in a David Live style, in terms of its full-on assault, well that's what it reminds me of anyway, although there is no saxophone. Look, I could carry on saying how wonderful every track is. I am sure you don't want to plough through all that but needless to say I just have to reiterate just what a pleasure it is listening to this. Just check out the verve and funky vigour of Stay - it's guitar, its delicious bass, its funky drums. Just great stuff. Good Lord above I miss Bowie. Thankfully releases like this keep coming along with regularity to sate my appetite for more. I couldn't recommend this highly enough. There will be some who will no doubt disagree, as that seems to be the way with Bowie releases these days, but i am sure 90% will just sit back and enjoy this.

Lovely to hear Absolute Beginners given an outing, in its full version too, (it makes my soul soar at the "it's absolutely true" bit), and The Man Who Sold The World. Great to hear that. Ashes To Ashes is just barnstormingly atmospheric. Golden Years too. Wow. Wonderful. Starman is as good as  have ever heard it, too. It doesn't often get an airing, either.

I'm sure you can tell by now that the set list is great, Bowie is on fire, the band is marvellous, the sound similarly so. Bowie says at the beginning of Life On Mars? that he had been suffering from laryngitis earlier in the week. You would never had known. His voice is sublime. It is one of the finest live versions of Mars? I have heard, if not the best. Listening to it sound so good just makes me feel sad. He wouldn't want that, though, he would want his remarkable work to be enjoyed to the full. So I will.

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LIVE AT THE BEEB (2000)

  


TRACK LISTING (CD 3)

1. Wild Is The Wind
2. Ashes To Ashes
3. Seven
4. This Is Not America
5. Absolute Beginners
6. Always Crashing In The Same Car
7. Survive
8. Little Wonder
9. The Man Who Sold The World
10. Fame
11. Stay
12. Hallo Spaceboy
13. Cracked Actor
14. I'm Afraid Of Americans
15. Let's Dance

Although there is some excellent quality late sixties/early seventies material on this main 2CD box set, it is the 2000 Live At The BBC Radio Theatre CD that I bought this for. Recorded a short time after Bowie's historic Glastonbury appearance (now thankfully available, at last) the sound quality is truly excellent and although the set list is shorter at fifteen songs, it contains not just '"greatest hits" but includes contemporary album cuts like Seven and Survive, plus a stunning, almost jazzy version of Always Crashing In The Same Car and the wonderful This Is Not AmericaAbsolute Beginners is here too, in its barnstorming full version. Well worth getting your hands on this 3CD edition if you still can.

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HEATHEN (2002)

1. Sunday
2. Cactus
3. Slip Away
4. Slow Burn
5. Afraid
6. I've Been Waiting For You
7. I Would Be Your Slave
8. I Took A Trip On A Gemini Spaceship
9. 5.15 The Angels Have Gone
10. Everyone Says "Hi"
11. A Better Future
12. Heathen (The Rays)    

This is an album that included three cover versions of other artists' songs and an upbeat, lively ambience, utilising a lot of drum machine rhythms (far more than on Reality for example, which used more "proper" drums). Personally, I prefer the latter, but this is certainly not a bad album, containing some interesting material that demands several listens.

  

                             
The haunting Sunday is a low-key beginning with a percussion riff that sounds as if was taken from the title track of Station To Station (the train sounding bit). There are other addictively weird electronic noises and Bowie's voice is sonorously haughty. After about four minutes it suddenly develops a pounding rock beat and then finishes, just when it was getting interesting. The powerful drum beat is continued in Cactus, which has an insistent rock beat which is almost "dance" in its metronomic consistency of rhythm. An acoustic guitar leads the track, however and the lyrics are somewhat bizarre. Apparently it is a cover of a song by The Pixies, something of which I was not aware (or of the original song, which I have just listened to, and enjoyed, although I prefer Bowie's version). Slip Away is a melodic, grandiose song delivered in a sort of Space Oddity anthem type of fashion. It has "space" references and mentions in the chorus of "Uncle Floyd" who was a US children's TV character (another thing of which I had, or indeed have, no knowledge).

It is pretty much a consistently expressed opinion that the "Heroes"-esque Slow Burn is the favourite track on the album for most. It is mine too. It builds up magnificently, with a cutting lead guitar, great bass line and intoxicating rhythm that keeps your attention. It has hints, for me of Teenage Wildlife from Scary Monsters (that other notable "Heroes" re-write). I have read some commenters say that there are vague references to 9/11 (which took place during the recording sessions for this album) on this track and on other parts of the album. Personally, I don't pick up on them at all and indeed, Bowie has stated that none of the songs relate to that event. Maybe people are looking to hard for something that just isn't there. Either way, its a stunning track. Best on the album.

  

Afraid is pretty good too - lively, fast-paced track with some string orchestration in the backing and an energetic vocal from Bowie. I can see why it is often considered a bit of a throwaway after Slow Burn but I quite like it. The bass is superb too. I've Been Waiting For You is another good one, a cover from Neil Young's debut album, with a powerful guitar sound (more so than Young's, even) and strong hook. The rhythmic opening to I Would Be Your Slave is extremely catchy and the vocal is a typical Bowie one - instantly recognisable in that sort of Absolute Beginners yearning style.

I Took A Trip On A Gemini Spaceship sounds like something from the dance-influenced Earthling album, with that frantic, synthesised drum machine sound. It is vibrant, however, and actually a lot of fun. Almost as if Bowie is parodying himself. It is, however,  a cover of something by The Legendary Stardust Cowboy who I have blissfully never heard of. (I checked it out, it's phenomenally awful!) 5.15: The Angels Have Gone is a beguiling song with a totally addictive drum rhythm and a plaintive vocal. It does eventually kick in to a massive, heavy chorus before quietening down again into its inventive rhythm.  It is probably the most experimental, adventurous track on the album.



I find Everyone Says "Hi" to be somewhat twee, however. It has a good hook, though, with some "way-wah-wah-ooh" backing vocals straight off Absolute Beginners. I like A Better Future with its chant-like refrain of "I demand a better future..." and the album ends with the plaintive, haunting Heathen (The Rays). Not as good as Reality is my opinion, but an album worthy of repeated listens.

PS - On the extended version of this album are some excellent bonus tracks - the rocking re-makes of  the sixties tracks You've Got A Habit Of Leaving (which I love) and Baby Loves That WaySafe;  Shadow Man; When The Boys Come Marching Home, Wood Jackson and also re-recordings of Conversation Piece and Panic In Detroit. All these tracks are well worth checking out.

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REALITY (2003)

1. New Killer Star
2. Pablo Picsasso
3. Never Get Old
4. The Loneliest Guy
5. Looking For Water
6. She'll Drive The Big Car
7. Days
8. Fall Dog Bombs The Moon
9. Try Some, Buy Some
10. Reality
11. Bring Me The Disco King     

This is a keyboard, electronic sound-dominated album, taking some of the sonic ambience of "Heroes"Lodger and, particularly Scary Monsters to produce an album that while, looking back to those albums, still managed, as Bowie always did, to sound contemporary. There are all sorts of weird dance-ish sort of sounds all over the album. Bowie's distinct vocal soars confidently over it all. It is one of my favourites of the "later period" Bowie albums. There is considerable contemporary influence on it, but it also rocks, as much as any of his later albums, which is so good to hear. Earl Slick and Mike Garson are present from days gone by too.

Bowie also showed he had lost none of his innate ability to produce a somewhat pretentious quote explaining the concept of the album, however -

"...I feel that reality has become an abstract for so many people over the last 20 years. Things that they regarded as truths seem to have just melted away, and it's almost as if we're thinking post-philosophically now. There's nothing to rely on any more. No knowledge, only interpretation of those facts that we seem to be inundated with on a daily basis. Knowledge seems to have been left behind and there's a sense that we are adrift at sea. There's nothing more to hold on to, and of course political circumstances just push that boat further out...."
                   
OK David, shall we get on with the music? The opener, New Killer Star features a really good Bowie vocal, a big thumping metronomic drum sound, some searing guitars and some swirling "Heroes"-style synthesiser riffs. The song has a catchy hook and something about it. "The great white scar over Battery Park" presumably refers, somewhat obliquely, to 9/11. It has an urban New York feel to it, anyway, or maybe I am subconsciously conditioned to thinking that.

  

The punchy, upbeat Pablo Picasso has a sumptuous, intoxicating bass line underpinning it some addictive keyboard riffs, Spanish guitar and some decidedly odd lyrics from Bowie about Pablo Picasso never being called an asshole. There is something vaguely Velvet Underground about this one and it has a very psychedelic sixties mandolin(?) solo part at the end. It is an appealing, beguiling track. Never Get Old has a booming, strident hook about never getting old (obviously). Bowie delivers the message wonderfully and you believe him. Of course, tragically, he never did get old. One of the things that is so notable about this album, for me, is just how good Bowie's vocals are.

The Loneliest Guy is a plaintive, piano and keyboard backed sombre and sad number that brings the tempo of the album down, briefly, but it is soon back up again for the riffy, Looking For Water, which, for me, has hints of some of the Never Let Me Down material from 1987 about it. It also has that cutting, Robert Fripp-style guitar all over it and a haunting, sonorous Bowie vocal.

  

She'll Drive The Big Car is a rhythmic, bassy very American-influenced, grinding song with references to "up on Riverside", "The Hudson" and "by the dawn's early light..". Again, the vocal has real Never Let Me Down era nuances to it, in places. Days is not The Kinks song, but somehow it sounds like its older brother. Again, it has a really appealing bass rhythm and yet another towering, yet somehow sad and yearning vocal.

Fall Dogs Bombs The Moon recycles that swirling, industrial sounding "Heroes" synthesiser riff in places, particularly half way through. It is a pounding, intense and bleakly rocking number. One of the best on the album. Proper drums on it too. Try Some, Buy Some is a cover of a George Harrison song from 1971. For whatever reason this one just doesn't convince me and is probably this album's It Ain't Easy. I actually don't think it's a very good song, to be rurally honest. Reality is next and a frenetic, electric rocker it is too, with airs of the material on Lodger about it for me, and some of Scary Monsters too. Something in that guitar sound.



I love the atmospheric, jazzy Mike Garson piano intro to Bring Me The Disco King  and the brushy percussion. This song was apparently a reject from 1993's Black Tie White Noise. It did indeed feature some of the jazzy influences that were present on that album. In fact, it would have sounded better on that album than on this one, maybe. Here it sounds ever so slightly incongruous after the largely upbeat material that has been before. That is a really tiny gripe, though, because I love the track. Many at the time thought this would be Bowie's last album. If it had been, it would have been a good one, and Bring Me The Disco King such a beguiling final track.


* Bowie's cover of The KinksWaterloo Sunset is included on the deluxe edition and highly enjoyable it is too. Wouldn't it have been great on Pin Ups?

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A REALITY TOUR (2003)

1. Rebel Rebel
2. New Killer Star
3. Reality
4. Fame
5. Cactus
6. Sister Midnight
7. Afraid
8. All The Young Dudes
9. Be My Wife
10. The Loneliest Guy
11. The Man Who Sold The World
12. Fantastic Voyage
13. Hallo Spaceboy
14. Sunday
15. Under Pressure
16. Life on Mars?
17. Battle For Britain (The Letter)
18. The Ashes
19. The Motel
20. Loving The Alien
21. Never Get Old
22. Changes
23. I'm Afraid Of Americans
24. "Heroes"
25. Bring Me The Disco King
26. Slip Away
27. Heathen (The Rays)
28. Five Years
29. Hang On To Yourself
30. Ziggy Stardust
31. Fall Dogs Bomb The Moon
32. Breaking Glass
33. China Girl

This is David Bowie's last official live recording, and what a great show it is. Performed before an enthusiastic crowd in Dublin, you get a two hour plus set of Bowie classics mixed with his contemporary material, all played by Bowie's superb band. The man himself is on fine form, sounding and looking healthy after a period of poor health and absence from the live concert circuit. Nobody had expected this tour and it was a really enjoyable, exhilarating surprise. Occasionally, in his between songs chat, Bowie appears to speak in an affected Irish accent, which is somewhat odd, however. Listen to it - he really does, to be sure.

  

The set kicks off with an energetic Rebel Rebel and you can feel (and hear) the crowd's excitement. The band crank it up and the sound is thumpingly big and bassy, which I love. There is a palpable "live" feeling right from the start on this release. It is actually on of Bowie's finest ever live recordings. What a shame it was to be his last. The more contemporary material is played with a vigorous and vitality of an artist and band enjoying something new. New Killer Star is a great example.

Classic Bowie songs interjected through the set are a superb, pulsating, bassy Fame; a welcome outing for All The Young Dudes (the crowd, incidentally, I am sure, cheer because they are expecting Young Americans from the introductory drum roll, just before it goes into the iconic guitar intro to Dudes); Be My Wife; an even more welcome and wonderful version of The Man Who Sold The WorldFantastic Voyage from Lodger; a most evocative Life On Mars?Ashes To Ashes; the most underrated Loving the AlienChanges; an atmospheric "Heroes" and the "Ziggy" closers of Five Years, Hang On To Yourself and Ziggy Stardust. Right at the end, Breaking Glass from Low appears, and the whole thing ends with China Girl. I like the way that every few songs, along some a classic. So he avoids losing people's interest with newer songs, but also doesn't turn it into a "greatest hits" thing either. It is a nicely balanced set.

The more modern material is, as I said earlier, very impressive. RealityI'm Afraid Of Americans and a rousing Never Get Old are highlights, as is the guitar riff-driven, muscular Pixies cover, Cactus. Another great moment is Under Pressure with Gail Ann Dorsey supplying the iconic bass line perfectly. The comparative rarity, Iggy Pop and Bowie's Sister Midnight, is delivered superbly, full of great bass, drums and lead guitar. Check out the guitar on Afraid as well. Quality all over the album.

The whole album is a pleasure to listen to (and watch on the DVD too).

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