Tag Archives: bowie

List-O-Mania: 5 Songs Where the Artist Went Outside the Box

Sometimes, a band just gets pigeonholed into a sound and feels the need to break the monotony with something wacky. Sometimes you just found a new instrument and want to see what it’s capable of (see The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood”). Sometimes, you let the drummer write a song. Whatever the case may be, I love hearing bands taking a stab and something totally outside of their wheelhouse. It makes one sit up and take notice (for better or for worse) and maybe even develop an appreciation for the curiosity of the members of the band. Either way, here are five tracks where artists went “outside”:

1) The Police – Mother

One of the few Police songs not penned by Sting, this track by guitarist Andy Summers takes the old I-IV-V blues progression and hangs on it an Arabian-tinged dirge more suitable for a slasher movie soundtrack. A far cry from their reggae-flavoured pop/rock, a synthesizer plays a maddening chromatic decent while Sting on the oboe winces in the background. Summers takes the lead vocal, screaming Oedipal declarations (“Well every girl that I go out with/Becomes my mother in the end!”) and laughing maniacally. Stuck in the middle of their pop masterpiece Synchronicity, which spawned both “Every Breath You Take” and “King of Pain”, it’s pretty jarring to hear, but not unwelcome. It’s refreshing that they were still open to that kind of experimentation up to what would be their swan song.

2) The Decemberists – Like A Lion

A far cry from their usual jangly folk-rock, “Like A Lion” does feature Colin Meloy and an acoustic guitar, but everything else seems…off. Based around a sample of an orchestral flourish that intrudes at odder and odder intervals, the acoustic guitar doesn’t have it usual deftness but instead is being hammered and sounds stunted and low, which fits the funereal atmosphere. When the song drifts away momentarily, it’s a gentle beeping which brings us back in. Later on, string scratches and feedback join the festivities and refuse to leave, building up an ugly wall of sound as it heads towards the finish. Meloy’s usual sprightly voice is dour and double-tracked, mournfully delivering a paean to that moment after you’ve held your breath and how “time stands still/until now”. Attempting to make sense of what he experienced at the birth of his son, “Like A Lion” is, on the surface, majestic, but one layer deeper, profoundly confused.

3) Peter Gabriel – Excuse Me

Before Peter Gabriel really found his groove with the rhythms that would define his later solo career, it released a rather eclectic first album after splitting from Genesis. One experiment he would not duplicate was the barbershop and light jazz of “Excuse Me”. On the introduction with Gabriel’s theatrical, exaggerated lead, you can practically hear the straw boater hats and canes. The a capella group is nary to return for the rest of the song, but are soon replaced with honky-tonk piano, slide whistle and tuba as Gabriel ends every verse by stating “I wanna be alone” as he yearns for everyone to get out of his mind, out of his life and out of his way for just a moment. The song is very much reminiscent of Queen’s “Seaside Rendezvous” as being a total throw back to 20s/30s music, but where Freddie Mercury adapted his voice to sound as if it emanated from the era, Gabriel sounds like his is stuck out of time and only has a 20s backup band available to get his thoughts across, so he might as well use ’em.

4) David Bowie – Yassassin (Turkish For: Long Live)

Bowie is well-known for being an experimentalist and trend-setter and has made a career out of getting to and defining the ‘latest thing’. An album after his side-long ambient experiments with Eno, Bowie released Lodger, which, as the title suggests, deals with his feelings as a world traveller. Though he doesn’t explore a whole lot of world music on the album, there are a couple of spots where the international flavour is felt and no more so than on “Yassassin”, which combines two styles, neither of which Bowie would return to much later on in his career: reggae and Turkish folk music. The offbeat reggae rhythm starts off the track, soon joined by a tinny organ, and then a wandering violin gives us the Turkish tune that goes for pretty much the whole song, gently soloing in an Eastern mode. It, strangely enough, works pretty well, with Bowie giving enough deference to both genres and giving a slightly accented vocal about being “just a working man/no judge of men” and an all male backing chorus telling us to “look at this!”

5) Muse – Madness

Though the song is quintessentially, undeniably Muse, there’s something different about “Madness” that catches the ear on the otherwise totally bombastic The 2nd Law. It’s mainly about control. Most Muse songs wield powerful riffs, lush, orchestrated harmonies, gasping breaths, shouted paranoid lyrics and piercing falsetto (in fact, all of these things can be found on the tracks proceeding it, “Supremacy”). But “Madness” is controlled. It has a simple beat, a plaintive melody, is about love of all things (though seeing love as an encroaching mental illness is very Muse), has measured harmonies and slowly builds up, with each verse adding a couple more layers. The guitar solo is absolutely precise, gorgeous and the perfect length for the song. This is Muse with their powers focused into the 3-minute pop song (well, 4:40) and it just emerges crystalline. Not that they aren’t one of the best rock groups on the planet, but this is just a surprising entry to their oeuvre that produced fantastic results.

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#16: The Next Day – David Bowie

(ISO, 2013)

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(Image from Spotify)

Mr. Bowie, you didn’t have to do that.*

It starts with the cover. By now firmly entrenched in popular culture, David Bowie doesn’t go anywhere without his enormous celebrity and legacy following him wherever he goes. For The Next Day, he acknowledges that by grabbing the only thing I assume he has left to write on – one of his militia of hugely successful records (not to mention one of his most iconic covers), blanking out the irrelevant parts (the title, his then-likeness) and replacing them with newly relevant ones (the back of the album is similarly the back of the “Heroes” LP with a big white square on top listing the tracks for The Next Day). Nothing he’s going to produce at this point is going to completely come out from under the shadow of his massive career. Honestly, as I listened to the album, I was trying to decide on which album each track would fit on.

Which is not to say The Next Day has just trod upon old ground. It can be viewed as a retrospective is taken through the lenses of all the different styles Bowie’s done, but I see it as him stretching the creative muscle he hasn’t flexed in ten or so years.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that is isn’t a midtempo, solemn affair that many of music’s elder statesmen produce looking back on their career on life. I would go so far to say that The Next Day would even work well as an introduction to Bowie for new fans. The album moves through several different moods and, employs quite a few different instruments (keys, saxophone, strings, contrabass clarinet) and flourishes to give each song its own personal coat of paint, but some of the best moments come from the straight ahead rocking of a simple guitar/bass/drum three-piece (“The Next Day”, “(You Will) Set the World On Fire”), impeccably arranged and leaving neither the muso or headbanger wanting – angular guitar riffs leaning on the precipice of feedback (including Bowie himself and Bowie band alum Earl Slick, class of 1976),  and heart-thumping but at the same time nimble bass-playing (Bowie band stalwart Gail Ann Dorsey , Grand Vizier of Session Bass Players Tony Levin, and Bowie’s long-time producer Tony Visconti, who produced some of the best basslines I’ve ever heard on Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World album). The sound doesn’t particularly evoke the old Spiders, but it’s a fantastic display of what the Spaceman can do even when wielding a simple power trio.

Of course, The Voice is a dominating presence on this album. Swarms of chorusing Bowievoices swoop in and out of the ears, coming in at every angle and pitch, brushing a moment of clarity with just a tinge of malice (similar to “Blackout” from “Heroes”). Hasn’t lost a damn step, though. He can belt it out, but doesn’t hang the record around his ability to do so. He takes you by the hand and pull you into each song and keeps you sane as you boggle at the landscapes (even if he starts singing in nonsense syllables, a la “How Does the Grass Grow?”).

It’s hard to separate this album from its position as the culmination to a comeback that nobody was even expecting – it’s brand new Bowie (which we haven’t had in a decade), and it’s fantastic. No gimmicks, just pure songwriting and performance as only The Thin White Duke (and Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Halloween Jack, the Goblin King, Thomas Jerome Newton) can deliver. What can I do but throw my hands up then start applauding?

10/10

* At just about fifty years into his incredible career, David Bowie does not owe the ‘people’, the music industry and what-have-you any more music.  His decades-long career had provided fans and critics alike with more than enough euphoria a subtle head-nodding, respectively for anyone to have been satisfied at the the close of 2003’s Reality that he had truly given his due. But then he goes announcing one his birthday that “oh yeah, got an album coming out in a month or so.” A secret he managed to keep from EVERYONE. So you figure that, at this point, he’s not just producing albums as a way of keeping himself in the public eye. He producing ’em because he wants you to hear ’em.

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