Obsessions and fixations // Playlist for a friend

A little while ago, a friend sent me a playlist filled to the brim with goodness. And I couldn’t resist the urge to return the favour, thinking: “Wait a minute, if he likes that, he might like this.” Right, like a streaming service, but without the big data and clever algorithms.

This list covers both long-standing obsessions and recent fixations. I’ll try to explain what’s going on. And as you can tell, I got more elaborate as I worked my way down the list. Enjoy!

Wire – ‘Pink Flag’

To kick off a playlist with an entire album, 21 songs in total. Yeah, what self-proclaimed genius came up with that? Well, I did. But I admit it’s not nearly as unconventional a move as Wire’s first outing. ‘Pink Flag’ remains a puzzling, abrasive and expertly sequenced work of art, far greater than the sum of its parts. So I won’t chop it up.

Essential reading: ‘Wire’s Pink Flag’ by Wilson Neate (33 1/3, 2009)

Breastfist – A Lickin’

This is the crossroads where funk, pop, absurdity and strange pronounciation meet. The hilarious Breastfist is currently signed to Snarky Puppy’s GroundUP label, also home to Sirintip, Becca Stevens, Charlie Hunter, Bokanté and David Crosby.

Further listening: Dread Fruit, a nutty homage to the ‘pleasure textures’ of raisins, prunes and figs (“I’m gonna put you on a cheese”).

Circle – Tulilintu

If Breastfist feels like a Scandinavian band to me, it’s probably because something – I don’t know what, a straight-faced sense of humour maybe – connects them to the Finnish Circle, not be confused with short-lived jazz supergroup of the same name (Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Barry Altschul and Anthony Braxton).

You could never blame Circle for a lack of intensity. I catched the band live. First with fellow-countrymen Magyar Posse and Pan Sonic in Ghent (2007), later with Isis and Keelhaul in Antwerp (2009). I felt like being hit with a hammer twice.

Tulilintu, a portion of Circle’s ode to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBH, see Saxon, Diamond Head, Def Leppard) ‘Tulikoira’, was released in 2005 and features Mika Rättö manically screaming and barking amid a raging guitar blizzard.

Plini – Inhale

Australian guitar wunderkind Plini strikes the balance between technicality, melodicism and dynamics, ranging from ambient prog to jaw-dropping shredding. Better take a deep breath.

Mission of Burma – Academy Fight Song

The first single by these Boston art punks (1980). A combative song about not fitting in, and not wanting to either.

Keith Jarrett – Mortgage on my Soul [Wah-Wah]

Jarrett puts out an assault to brutal he can’t even hear himself hum along. The groove established by a band of serious A-listers (Dewey Redman, Paul Motian and Charlie Haden) is not too dissimilar of a dark drum ‘n’ bass track. Jarrett himself played soprano. But it’s Haden’s heavy wah-wah bass that really stayed with me – if you listen close enough, you can hear two basses – one fairly clean but with a fat tone, the other drenched in wah-wah. Until recently I figured it was Jarrett on a distorted electric piano, but there’s not even a piano in this song.

Snarky Puppy – Lingus

At 04:16, the liquid fusion of Lingus breaks down.  The signal for Cory Henry to start building a new groove. He does so swiftly, with full mastery of technology, immense technique and  shiploads of imagination. Shaun Martin, Henry’s keyboard compadre, just can’t believe what he’s hearing. And right when Henry reaches the peak of Mount Syntherest, the horns return. With a vengeance.

Ava Luna – Steve Polyester

This is the song that pulled me into the weird and wonderful world of Ava Luna’s ‘Infinite Houses’. With its dead-pan spoken vocals, it feels like a distant cousin to Laurie Anderson’s Sharkey’s Day (‘Mister Heartbreak”, 1984). Steve Polyester lives and breathes New York, just like Laurie and her late husband Lou Reed do.

Sébastien Tellier – Wonderafrica

French eccentric and onetime Eurovision Song Contest contender Sébastien Tellier, sings the praises of African wildlife in this gently rocking Italo synthpop safari.

Donny McCaslin – Praia Grande

Much to Donny McCaslin’s amazement, David Bowie turned up at one of his Greenwich Village gigs in 2014. The album ‘Casting For Gravity’ had left a deep impression on Bowie, who gloriously resurfaced after a long hiatus in 2013 and was plotting his next move, which turned out to be his final. The bond that Bowie and McCaslin forged was immortalized on ‘Blackstar’, Bowie’s swansong. Among the songs that got Bowie excited, was the extatic, vibrant Praia Grande, with a main theme that squirms like a python and a sax solo that roars like a lion.

Knower – Overtime

“I’m the frosted side of a Mini Wheat // You, you know that I’m so sweet.” Knower – Louis Cole and Geneviève Artadi – know how to inject their infectious brand of electrofunk with humour. While not nearly as wacky as The Government Knows or Die Right Now, love song Overtime features fabulous songwriting, a spacy timeless mood, great musicianship and seductive vocals.

Tatran – Strawberry Fields Forever

Hey hey, why does it say Tatran instead of the Beatles!? Well, dear reader, I’m the first person to admit that some classics are better left untouched. But this version by Israeli intrumentalists Tatran is achingly beautiful, adding something new to a much-loved melody. No mean feat.

The Troggs – Strange Movies

In 1966, The Troggs stormed the charts with ‘Wild Thing’. And mothers and fathers locked up their daughters. Things didn’t improve by 1973, when The Troggs and Reg Presley sang about their first encounter with an up-and-coming new film genre: “Sid and Mandy they were, uh, getting randy, uh uh // When Sue and Bill joined in // Jake was waiting and uh anticipating uh, uh // Started smoothing their skin // Then just to ease the strain // They all formed a daisy chain // They went uh uh uh uh uh uh uh, well!”

Lex Sadler feat. Ari Hoenig – Shibuya Crossing

Tokyo’s Shibuya Crossing is one of the busiest intersections of the world. If you haven’t visited it in person, you might know it from Sofia Coppola’s ‘Lost In Translation’ (2003).  New York-based producer and musician Lex Sadler used the crossing as a source of inspiration to make the musical equivalent of a timelapse video. An ever-shifting trip that starts in the early morning and moves from rush hour chaos to neon-lit nightlife.

Max Tundra – Number Your Days

Just like Knower’s Die Right Now (‘Life’, 2016) and Motorpsycho’s When You’re Dead (‘Phanerothyme’, 2001) Max Tundra’s Number Your Days ponders death in a light and funny way: “Nothing happens when you die // You don’t leave your body or fly off into the sky.” Coupled with Tundra’s outlandish, melodic and all-embracing interaction with a multitude of influences (from crystalline pop to chiptune aesthetics), it makes for a gripping song that sticks out on an already excellent album (‘Parallax Error Beheads You’, 2008).

John Zorn – Erotico (The Burglars)

John Zorn lifted the enigmatic Erotico from Ennio Morricone’s score for ‘The Burglars’ (‘Le Casse’, Henri Verneuil, 1971) and turned it into a more organic (no pun intended) and frankly superior song, thanks in no small part to Big John Patton’s roaring Hammond. The same BJP recorded the iconic album ‘Let ‘Em Roll’ for Blue Note Records in 1965. Other Zorn acolytes like Bill Frisell (guitar) and Bobby Previte (drums) fill out the sonic mosaique, while Shelley Hirsch and Laura Biscotto provide appropriately erotic voices.

Maudlin of the Well – Gleam In Ranks

Before Toby Driver secured himself and his band Kayo Dot a deal with John Zorn’s Tzadik label, he made these peculiar dark metal rollercoasters with Maudlin of the Well (as well as gorgeous ballads, like Sleep Is A Curse). Gleam In Ranks travels from the quietly ominous to the downright evil, driven forward by a frivolous piano motif, guitars like chainsaws, twin kick drums and Driver’s voice, which goes from a whisper to a scream in the blink of an eye.

Cardiacs – Is This The Life?

Cardiacs are criminally good, but also criminally underrated and overlooked. That’s why you can’t just be a casual fan, you become a zealot. On Is This The Life?, Cardiacs approach things a bit more straightforward than they normally would. The feel of the song is not unlike that of Killing Joke’s Love Like Blood. You won’t find any weird twists and turns nor batshit crazy time signatures (compare Fiery Gun Hand) here, but you do get Tim Smith’s acerbic vocals, an epic guitar assault and a fierce band performance.

Massacre – Legs

New York again. Massacre was formed by experimental musician Fred Frith after the demise of avant-prog outfit Henry Cow in 1979. Frith moved to New York and, judging from the quirky, abrasive sound and conciseness of Legs, seemed to draw inspiration from the local No Wave-movement. Legs is wild, rhythmically complex (listen for Bill Laswells wobbly counterpoint) and as a whole irresistible. It’s a short distance from Massacre to math rock.

Cluster – Hollywood

An early electronic song that still plays tricks on me, after discovering it throug Hans-Joachim Roedelius’ ‘Works’ (1968-2005). In ‘Rock. The Rough Guide’, the author wrote: “What is so exciting, if you discover or rediscover these albums [‘Cluster’, ‘Cluster II’ and ‘Zuckerzeit’] now, is just how contemporary they sound at a time when the power of the drone is being re-invoked by a the new ambient-electro bands.” And if it’s true that’ Zuckerzeit’ sparked Eno’s interest in Cluster, then this mind-boggling track was probably his first taste of Roedelius and Moebius.

 

King Crimson Antwerp Live Review banner

Volcanic! // King Crimson (Antwerp, 3 Nov 2016) // Live Review

King Crimson, Stadsschouwburg Antwerp (Belgium), 3 November 2016

In 1969, King Crimson shook the world with a radically new sound, firing off the manic 21st Century Schizoid Man at a time when the familiar sounds of The Beatles and The Stones ruled the airwaves. Now, well into that 21st century, Robert Fripp and his gang of master musicians continue to undertake radical action. I witnessed the second of their Antwerp concerts – a nearly two-and-a-half hour onslaught. And I’m still recuperating.

What went before …

It’s fair to say I’ve had a European affair with King Crimson. I bought my first album, ‘In The Court of the Crimson King’, in Tuscany – along with Gentle Giant’s eponymous debut album, ‘H to He Who Am the Only One’ by Van Der Graaf Generator and – perhaps surprisingly – Springsteen’s ‘The Rising’, which had just been released. So it must have been 2002.

A year later I climbed the narrow alleys that lead towards the Galata Tower in Istanbul to find ‘Larks’ Tongues in Aspic’ in a tiny record shop. Unlike my first encounter with ‘In The Court’, I didn’t immediately get ‘Larks’. The spark caught fire months later, during a bus ride to Prague.

The irony of this KC-inspired travelogue is that Robert Fripp himself has been unwilling to play Europe after his 2003 tour of the continent. I can’t retrace why exactly, but Fripp had experienced some serious issues with the conditions of European concert venues. Thank god he reopened the case and found a way to tour this chunk of the old world again in 2015 and again 2016. On 3 November, Antwerp unfolded the red carpet for the Crimson King …

Polyrhythmic jigsaw puzzles

From the first part of Larks’ Tongues in Aspic on, it was clear we were going to be treated to a rock sound of volcanic proportions. The frontline consisted of Pat Mastelotto, Jeremy Stacey and Gavin Harrison and their personalized ‘cyclops’ drumkits. An impressive, ehrm, sight. Together they produced an almost terrifying sound. I was seated in row three, at eye (and ear) level with the kick-drums. And boy, it felt like being trapped in a thunder cloud.

Whether it was justified to enlist three drummers? No doubt about that. Each one brought his own strengths to the table. Harrison proved to be the conductor and metronome of the drum department, while bowler hatted Jeremy Stacey crafted a more sober counterweight and played mean mellotron, and Mastelotto reshaped the percussive inventions of ex-KC maestro’s Jamie Muir and Bill Bruford. The result? A highly musical polyrhythmic jigsaw puzzle.
King Crimson European Tour 2016 Antwerp

The unmoved mover

Meanwhile, Robert Fripp sat quietly in the background. Mastermind of all this tricky music. Personification of Aristotle’s ‘unmoved mover’. Guitar innovator in every conceivable way.

He recalled old cohorts Mel Collins (flute and saxophones) and bass player Tony Levin to duty. And lent the singer/guitarist spot to lifelong zealot Jakko Jakszyk, who played a PRS guitar with a striking ‘ITCOTCK’-print.

The combined careers of all these players reeds like a who’s who in rock music. Fripp famously played guitar on Bowie’s Heroes, Mel Collins provided the sax solo on Miss You by the Rolling Stones and featured on Dire Straits’ live album ‘Alchemy’, Tony Levin seems to have played with everyone but Elvis, … But there’s probably no bigger challenge for them than playing King Crimson.

King Crimson 2016

The Antwerp setlist was like a wet dream (see below). There were quite a few songs from the earliest incarnations of the band, which frankly I hadn’t heard in ages. Jakko Jakszyk did a terrific job interpreting the original vocals by Greg Lake and Gordon Haskell, and even John Wetton (Easy Money and Starless).

The lack of eighties material was remarkable. It’s not unlikely that Adrian Belew’s jerky voice stylings were too much of a stretch. Even more since Jakko replaced the spoken word sections of Indiscipline with a vocal melody, which worked astonishingly well.

King Kong Crimson

The new material – there’s quite a lot of it, including two drum-only instrumentals – blended in nicely with the rest of the set. 60’s, turn-of-the-century or present-day Crimson? It all shared the same forward-thinking spirit, delicacy and King Kong-like power. At times it felt like the earth trembled underneath the Antwerp Stadsschouwburg. It reminded me of the thundering intensity of a Swans gig.

In fact, the first half of the show was a bit much to take – can’t tell you why – and I felt like I needed a pause as much as the band did. Somehow the Crimson machine ran smoother in the second half. Or was it my ears, that had ultimately surrendered to the onstage gunfire? I clearly wasn’t prepared for this. And that’s probably why the concert keeps ringing in my brain.

I don’t really feel like analyzing every player’s virtues. What would be the point? The most important thing is that this seven-headed King Crimson is a force of extreme unity. And unity makes strength. All hail the mighty King Crimson!

Highlights

  • Easy Money
  • Indiscipline
  • Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part Two
  • Starless
  • the finale of Banshee Legs Bell Hassle and 21st Century Schizoid Man
  • and Mel Collins cheekily citing St. Thomas by Sonny Rollins during one of his solos

Full setlist – King Crimson, Antwerp 3 Nov. 2016

Set 1

  • Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part One (‘Larks’ Tongues in Aspic’, 1973)
  • Pictures of a City (‘In The Wake of Poseidon’, 1970)
  • Lizard (The Battle of Glass Tears – Dawn Song) (‘Lizard’, 1970)
  • VROOOM (‘Thrak’, 1995)
  • Cirkus (‘Lizard’, 1970)
  • Hell Hounds of Krim (new)
  • Peace: An End (‘In The Wake of Poseidon’, 1970)
  • Radical Action (To Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind) (new)
  • Meltdown (new)
  • Epitaph (‘In The Court of The Crimson King’, 1969)
  • Easy Money (‘Larks’ Tongues in Aspic’, 1973)
  • Radical Action II (new)
  • Level Five (‘The Power to Believe’, 2002)

Set 2

  • Indiscipline (‘Discipline’, 1981)
  • The ConstruKction of Light (‘The ConstuKction on Light’, 2000)
  • The Court of the Crimson King (‘In The Court of The Crimson King’, 1969)
  • The Letters (‘Islands’, 1971)
  • Red (‘Red’, 1974)
  • A Scarcity of Miracles (‘A Scarcity of Miracles’, 2011)
  • The Talking Drum (‘Larks’ Tongues in Aspic’, 1973)
  • Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part Two (‘Larks’ Tongues in Aspic’, 1973)
  • Starless (‘Red’, 1974)

Encore

  • Banshee Legs Bell Hassle (new)
  • 21st Century Schizoid Man (‘In The Court of The Crimson King’, 1969)

Fripp frenzy

It’s been Fripp frenzy here at Unearthing Music HQ since the show. Here’s the evidence:

Fripp frenzy after King Crimson show Antwerp Nov 2016

David Bowie – Can You Hear Me (Gouster Version) // Song Review

I always had a soft spot for ‘Young Americans’, Bowie’s 1975 blue-eyed soul album. An early version of that album – called ‘The Gouster’ – is now included in box set ‘Who Can I Be Now? [1974-1976]’. While most of the tracks already appeared elsewhere, I had never heard the slightly rougher take on Can You Hear Me before. So there I sat, during my early train ride to work. With eyes all watery from the sensitive phrasing of the very first line: “Once we were lovers.”

bowie_can-you-hear-me-gouster

Overall, the delicacies of Bowie’s vocal performance seem to be invented on the spot. Especially when compared to the delivery he later greenlighted for ‘Young Americans’. There’s a bit of hiss in the background. And even on Bowie’s voice, hoarse from cocaine addiction. Moreover, the a capella ending, strings and timpani of the final version are missing, … And yet, it all adds to the emotional radiance of the song.

“Life has surface noise”

The triumph of this rendition is that it’s NOT crystal-clear. There is some surface noise. Which makes me think of that great quote by the legendary John Peel: “Somebody was trying to tell me that CDs are better than vinyl because they don’t have any surface noise. I said, ‘Listen, mate, life has surface noise.'”

From Carlos to Cass

On a side note, Carlos Alomar’s classy guitar fill right after the line “closer than others, I was your…” was already in place. Now, I don’t know whether that melodic trick was a trope he found in the records that influenced him. But the fact is that it lives on. The other day, I discovered a similar figure in the chorus of Opposite House, a mellotron-heavy song on the excellent ‘Mangy Love’ (2016) by Cass McCombs. Check it out!

How Can You Hear Me was born

Further reading: this wonderful account on the genesis of Can You Hear Me, originally titled Take It In Right.

And just before you go, enjoy the ‘Young Americans’ version of Can You Hear Me:

bowie_can-you-hear-me-young-americans

Four Die-Cut Sleeves To Die For

The die-cut sleeve is very much alive. To prove it, I handpicked four jaw-dropping pieces of evidence from my record cabinet.

Scissor seventies: early die-cut sleeves

First off, some … background. One of the most famous die-cut sleeve examples – and one of the most ambitious record sleeves altogether – is surely Led Zeppelin’s double album ‘Physical Graffiti’ (1975).
Led Zeppelin - Physical Graffiti - Die-cut sleeve
Designer Peter Corriston cut the windows out of two New York tenement buildings, exposing well-known faces like Lee Harvey Oswald and Laurel & Hardy on the inner sleeves as well as (printed on the insert) the letters that form the album title. Read all about it on Dangerous Minds.
Led Zeppelin - Physical Graffiti - Die-cut sleeve
Also check out the amazing die-cut sleeve of ‘In a Glass House’ by Gentle Giant (1973) on Discogs: “Album comes in a gimmix cover with the center part of the jacket front side being transparent foil with black print on it; there is a printed cardboard insert that provides the remainder of the cover image.”
More recent examples show a more minimal approach to die-cut sleeve design. Let’s cut to the chase.

1. Bowie – The No Inner Sleeve Die-Cut Sleeve

Bowie - Blackstar - Die-cut sleeve

Artist: David Bowie
Title: ‘Blackstar’
Label: ISO Records, Columbia, Sony Music
Year of release: 2016
Designer: Barnbrook
Bowie - Blackstar - Die-cut sleeve
Die-cut sleeve design: in the wake of Bowie’s death, much has been written about every detail of his life and artistry, including the meaning behind the die-cut sleeve design of ‘Blackstar’. But let’s keep it simple. London agency Barnbrook designed a pitch black gatefold sleeve, with shiny pieces of stars at the bottom of the front sleeve, and above that, a big cut-out star.
Bowie - Blackstar - Die-cut sleeve
There is no printed inner sleeve, only a thick transparant plastic sleeve that holds the actual record. Prices for this limited edition clear vinyl edition skyrocketed after the Starman left Planet Earth. It has already been sold on Discogs for 409.10 euro! Insane, but it’s a magical thing!

2. The Durutti Column – The Sandpapery Die-Cut Sleeve

Durutti Column - Die-cut sleeve

Artist: The Durutti Column
Title: ‘The Return of the Durutti Column’
Version: FBN 114, UK
Label: Factory Benelux
Year of release: 2013 (originally 1980)
Designer: James Nice / Peter Saville

Durutti Column - Die-cut sleeve

Die-cut sleeve design: the first pressing of this 1980 album was distributed in an iconoclastic sandpaper sleeve, famously assembled by the members of Joy Division. This 2013 reissue pays tribute to that version, albeit with bigger respect for neighbouring record sleeves in your collection.

Durutti Column - Die-cut sleeve

The outside sleeve is off-white. An old Factory Records logo by Peter Saville was cut out and accentuated by the orangy grinding paper that’s paisted on a white inner sleeve. The inner sleeve provides additional information on its remarkable design.

One word of advice: always keep the actual record at a safe distance from its sandpaper sleeve. You might scrape of some great guitar bits!

3. Goat – The Triangular Space Tunnel Die-Cut Sleeve

Goat - Die-cut sleeve

Artist: Goat
Title: ‘Commune’
Label: Rocket Recordings
Released: 2014
Designer: Chris Reeder
Goat - Die-cut sleeve
Die-cut sleeve design: Swedish band Goat pushes things to a psychedelic level. Inside the cut-out triangle of the golden outer sleeve, a mind-altering space storm of red and blue seems to be raging, going in circles or coming straight at you, depending on how you insert the inner sleeve. Goat - Die-cut sleeve
As a bonus, this Rocket Recording edition – nomen est omen! – contains eye-catching ‘red with blue splatter’ vinyl.

4. Steven Wilson – The Girls Behind Bars Die-Cut Sleeve

Steven Wilson - Die-cut sleeve
Artist: Steven Wilson
Title: ‘4 1/2’
Label: Kscope
Released: 2016
Designer: Carl Glover
Photographer: Lasse Hoile
Steven Wilson - Die-cut sleeve
Die-cut sleeve design: this release features a sober grey outside sleeve. Four and a half strips of cardboard are cut out, which nicely references the album title.
Steven Wilson - Die-cut sleeve
The two women that peep through the ‘bars’ are on the inner sleeve, captured in a magnificently coloured photograph, that brings to mind the even more intense, heavily filtered pictures of war-torn Congo by Richard Mosse.
Amazing, isn’t it? Which records would you add? Tell me!

How Bowie Bookended my Final Days of Youth

Last weekend, I celebrated my thirtieth birthday. It had been a Bowie-fuelled couple of days. On Friday, while writing my piece about Bowie’s new band, ‘Blackstar’ played non-stop. On Saturday, I enjoyed the entire ‘Heroes’ album with family in the afternoon, and again in the evening, with friends. On Sunday, ‘Blackstar’ cured my epic hangover. On Monday, Bowie was dead. And the world stopped turning.

It all seems like a compressed version of the huge impact Bowie had on the lives of millions of people. He built landmarks in our memory. He was like a globetrotting friend: hard to recognize at every return. Different hair, different costume, different band, different sound. Different.

The launch of his most recent album ‘Blackstar’ was equally different: haircut of an electrocuted person, ‘bicoloured’ eyes blindfolded, electro-jazz people in his ranks and prophetic avant-garde rock on tape. He created a brilliant scenography for his final masterstroke, which would foreshadow his imminent end.

“The last show that we’ll ever do”

Unfortunately, Bowie didn’t just silence one his incarnations this time. In 1973, at the end of a concert in London’s Hammersmith Odeon, he laid Ziggy Stardust to rest, saying: “Not only is this the last show of the tour, but it’s the last show that we’ll ever do.” A stunned audience and legion of journalists thought Bowie was withdrawing from music altogether. But only three months later, he-who-used-to-be-Ziggy launched ‘Pin-Ups’. And the following year saw the release of ‘Diamond Dogs’.

The saddest festival. Ever.

Now that I’m reading Ziggy’s famous last words again, I’m transported back to 2004: I’m wandering around the Rock Werchter festival site. Somewhat lost. Hugely disappointed. Bowie cancelled his set due to severe heart problems. I bought the ticket for one man and one man only. But the saddest bit was that I would never get the chance to see Bowie in action. Ever.
At that time, I took the Bowie train from … station to station. Commuting between the stilish art rock of ‘Heathen’ and ‘Reality’, colourful early works like ‘Hunky Dory’ and the revolutionary sounds of Bowie’s Berlin trilogy.

Icon/Iconoclast

Later, I found that every single Bowie was fascinating:

Young Brel Enthusiast (Amsterdam), Novelty Hitmaker (The Laughing Gnome), Spokesman of the Late Space Age (A Space Oddity), Folky Balladeer (‘Space Oddity’),  Pop Perfectionist (Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust), Orwellian Messenger (‘Diamond Dogs), …

Philly Soul Man (on slightly underrated album ‘Young Americans’), Pale-Skinned Skinny Sci-Fi Actor (in Nic Roeg’s ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’), Ambient Architect (‘Heroes’ and ‘Low’), …

Visionary Pierrot (Ashes to Ashes), Spontaneous Collaborator (with Queen on Under Pressure), New Romantic Dancer (‘Let’s Dance’), Mid-Eighties Superstar (This Is Not America, with the Pat Metheny Group), Back-to-Basics Bandleader (with Tin Machine), Mourning MC (at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert), …

Icon-turns-Iconoclast (Little Wonder), Self-Mocking Funnyman (in Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant sitcom ‘Extras’), Renaissance Rocker (‘The Next Day’), Legendary-yet-Obscure Backing Vocalist (The Reflektor by Arcade Fire), …

“Love, David”

Last Sunday, that same Bowie eventually put off his mask and let his superhuman soul slip away. He bookended my birthday with his, and with his sudden decease. In my thoughts, he left a litte piece of paper, on which he wrote: ‘I’m off now, Fabian, and I’m taking your youth with me. Just so you know. Love, David.”

David Bowie Back

Meet Donny McCaslin: star of Bowie’s ★!

Bowie’s ★ is out. I haven’t received my copy yet. Not my fault: pre-order shipping delay at Warner’s … Luckily, the man who once fell to earth already offered a glimpse of his new directions. He released the title track and Lazarus as singles and paired them with deeply unsettling videos. You wouldn’t necessarily expect a well-established NY jazz combo to play a major role in Bowie’s new sound. But it does. So let’s focus on Donny McCaslin. Who is he? How did he appear on the Thin White Duke’s radar? And why should you track down his work?

In short: Donny McCaslin is an insanely gifted, soaring saxophone player, based in New York, just like David Bowie nowadays. When the news of ★’s imminent launch broke, I immediately delved into ‘Casting for Gravity’ (2012). The album sees McCaslin his extraordinary band – including force of nature and Brad Mehldau collaborator Mark Guiliana on drums and electronics – combining all kinds of influences into a strange-yet-familiar jazz melange. Notice their brilliant reworking of Alpha and Omega by Boards of Canada, a performance even Bowie used as a reference during the ★ sessions:

Closer-than-close-knit

Bowie did not just recruit McCaslin. He wanted the entire band. And you don’t have to be Stephen Hawking to understand why. McCaslin, Guiliana, Jason Lindner (keys), Tim Lefebvre (bass) and ace guitarist Ben Monder are excellent instrumentalists in their own right, which is just part of the story. Together they create an abundance of ideas and form a closer than close-knit unit.

When McCaslin’s gang reaches for extatic heights, as in Praia Grande, it doesn’t resort to cheap tricks. Instead, it surfs the harmonic waves skillfully and with telepathic ease. The band is equally strong in the angular metropolitan territory of Bend (not too much unlike overlooked Japanese fusionistas Machine & The Synergetic Nuts)

Eno, Fripp, Grohl

Bowie was never really a lone rider. He’s been scouting the country’s and the world’s top musicians for decades. The names of Mick Ronson and Brian Eno, Robert Fripp and blues master Stevie Ray Vaughan will resonate the most. Not to mention one-off guest spots for John Lennon (Fame), Dave Grohl (on Neil Young cover I’ve Been Waiting for You) and Pete Townshend (well, two times … on Because You’re Young and Slow Burn twenty years later).

And what about the excellence provided by lifelong companion Tony Visconti, and by the likes of Gail Ann Dorsey (her Under Pressure vocals on the Reality Tour were spell-binding), Mike Garson (hear his avant-garde soloing on Alladin Sane) and Carlos Alomar (listen to him layering funky guitar with Earl Slick on Stay).

So when Bowie is going to hire a jazz band, you know it’s not going to be some run-off-the-mill combo that never looks beyond Georgia On My Mind or Autumn Leaves. He needs lieutenants who bring their own vision to the mixing table. And that’s why Donny McCaslin’s band, which released the excellent ‘Fast Future’ in 2015, is such a great catch.

Not “Bowie with jazz combo”

Last december, both ‘Mojo’ and ‘Uncut Magazine’ reported on how McCaslin was instrumental in the making of ★, follow-up album to jack in the box comeback ‘The Next Day’ (2013). Bowie met McCaslin while recording fierce 10″ single Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) with the Maria Schneider Orchestra. McCaslin took the lead in the hefty brass parts, which sounded more forward-looking than anything on ‘The Next Day’, a fine, but fairly conservative album, measured by some of Bowie’s 70’s and 90’s standards.

As the story goes, Bowie dived into ‘Casting for Gravity’ at home, took notes and invoted the entire band into the studio, early 2015. But as McCaslin clarifies in Mojo, it’s not “Bowie with jazz combo”. A claim that’s been intensified by pre-album singles Blackstar and Lazarus.

McCaslin’s star is rising

Donny McCaslin’s involvement in Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’ is great in many ways. It transports Bowie to yet another reinvention of himself. Besides, McCaslin is a frontrow witness of Bowie’s current work ethic. A spokesman role he shares with Tony Visconti, while Bowie mysteriously stays out of the limelight. McCaslin’s studio story even reached – somewhat bizarelly – British tabloid ‘The Sun’.

At the same time, McCaslin’s Bowie liaison will no doubt boost exposure for his own work. In a perfect world, he’ll be playing ‘Casting for Gravity’ and ‘Fast Future’, truly great albums, somewhere near you soon. In a surreal world, he’s supporting Bowie minutes before joining him for his long-awaited return to the stage.★

Buy me! Vintage music ads, Part I

Punks, proggers, pub rockers, … everybody wants to sell records. Back in the day, long before we all went online, bands and record labels would have to draw attention to their latest offspring through print advertising. Considering the inventiveness and atmosphere of some of these vintage music ads, it now seems a bit of a lost art. Let’s start off with my favourite example …

Lou Reed – ‘Rock n Roll Animal’ (1974)
Lou Reed - Rock n Roll Animal - Vintage Music Ad

Miles Davis – ‘At Fillmore’ (1970)

Miles Davis - At Fillmore - Vintage Music Ad

Elvis Costello – ‘This Year’s Model’ (1978)
Elvis Costello -  This Year's Model - Vintage Music Ad

Rush – ‘2112’ (1976)

Rush - 2112 - Vintage Music Ad

Kraftwerk – ‘Man Machine’ (1978)

Kraftwerk - Man Machine - Vintage Music Ad

Jeff Beck – ‘Blow by Blow’ (1975)

Jeff Beck - Blow by Blow - Vintage Music Ad

 Iggy Pop – ‘Lust For Life’ (1977)

Iggy Pop - Lust For Life - Vintage Music Ad

Queen – ‘News of the World’ (1977)

Queen - News of the World - Vintage Music Ad

Television – ‘Marquee Moon’ (1977)

Television - Marquee Moon - Vintage Music Ad

Caravan – ‘If I Could Do It All Over Again, I’d Do It All Over You’ (1970)

Caravan - If Could Do It All Over Again - Vintage Music Ad

Ian Dury – ‘New Boots and Panties!!’ (1977)Ian Dury - New Boots and Panties - Vintage Music Ad

Ian Dury - New Boots and Panties - Vintage Music Ad2Ian Dury - New Boots and Panties - Vintage Music Ad3

AC/DC – ‘Highway to Hell’ (1978)AC/DC - Highway To Hell - Vintage Music Ad

David Bowie – ‘Heroes’ (1977)
David Bowie - Heroes - Vintage Music Ad

 Captain Beefheart – ‘Trout Mask Replica’ (1969)

Captain Beefheart - Trout Mask Replica - Vintage Music Ad

Bruford – ‘Feels Good to Me’ (1978)Bruford - Feel Good to Me - Vintage Music Ad

King Crimson – ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ (1969)King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King - Vintage Music Ad