While the name Kevin Armstrong may not be known to many readers, the list of people that he has played with over a career stretching nearly forty years is pretty impressive. It includes, amongst others, Iggy Pop, Prefab Sprout and Sinead O’Connor. Perhaps the two artists that most connect with this collection of songs are David Bowie (still missed around 17 Seconds Towers) and Morrissey.
Armstrong has written seven of the songs on this album himself, and the other four songs are co-writes with Bowie and Morrissey, two apiece. From Bowie we have ‘Run’ (recorded with the much-mocked Tin Machine project), and Morrissey ‘Oh Phony’ and the standout on the record ‘He Knows I’d Love To See Him.’
He’s a pretty reasonable singer, and an excellent guitarist. Whilst it’s not Slaughter On 10th Avenue, it’s a pretty solid collection of songs. ‘On Beachy Head’ seems to be a touchy without moping lament for a friend who died at that notorious suicide spot, and ‘Dog Ate My Giro’ is far better than a song with this seemingly daft title has any right to be. To say that this will only appeal to Bowie and Moz diehards is unfair. It’s a gentle listen, without some next textures throughout. Not lifechanging, but a steady grower.
Firstly, that I was trying to agree on an order. The final two choices I couldn’t quite make up my mind about. Secondly, there were a couple of albums I wanted to hear before I did the list that for one reason or another I hadn’t heard then. And as life changes, sometimes it’s just not possible to hear fifty albums well enough to rank them in order.
So, with that in mind, I’ve put together a top ten from last year, with a number that can be considered to have been worthy runners-up.
David Bowie Blackstar
Michael Kiwanuka Love And Hate
K Fellowship (AKA Kate Bush) Before The Dawn
Radiohead A Moon Shaped Pool
Kano Made In the Manor
PJ Harvey The Hope Six Demolition Project
Frank Ocean Blonde
…and worthy runners-up (in no particular order)
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds Skeleton Tree
Leonard Cohen You Want It Darker
Shirley Collins Lodestar
Dexys Let the Record Show: Dexys Do Irish And Country Soul
Kristin Hersh Wyatt At The Coyote Palace
Modern Studies Swell To Great
Emma Pollock In Search Of Harperfield
Underworld Barbara, Barbara We Face A Shining Future
To say I am gutted by the death of David Bowie at the age of 69 is an understatement.
I had written the review of his latest album Blackstarthe day it was released, it appeared on God Is In The TV, then both that site and this blog hit problems.
After careful consideration, I am going to publish the review below just as it was on Friday. Fair to say the two promotional videos, as displayed below, can only be viewed in a different light now.
David Bowie -‘Blackstar.’ (ISO/RCA)
Well, Happy Birthday to you Mr. Jones, and may I say…oh, a present for us, a new album?
Of course, David Bowie’s new album has been on the cards for some months, and it’s fair to say that fifty years into his career, a new David Bowie album is still an event for a lot of people. It may not be delivered in a ‘WOW! Look how big my ego is’ kind of way, but what is impressive is that this many decades in, it’s about what this artist can still deliver, as opposed to displaying a polite interest because of past glories.
Three years ago, on his 66th Birthday, Bowie re-appeared, from what many had assumed to be retirement (though this was never publicly acknowledged) and announced the imminent arrival of The Next Day, his first studio album in ten years. Listening to that album now, rapturously welcomes as it largely was at the time, it wasn’t one of Bowie’s more adventurous records. But Blackstar is Bowie experimenting again, as he has done throughout much of his career, forging new paths, sometimes so ahead of himself that the public have been scared to follow.
A little over a year ago, Bowie released a career-spanning compilation Nothing Has Changed. The token new track on that album ‘Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)’ and its b-side ‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore.’ Both those songs appear here – but in radically different form. Sure, there’s a still a hint of jazz about the proceedings (in a good way), but any concerns that Bowie might have unleashed an album of jazz-rock monstrosities on the world should be discounted. Whilst there was much pontificating on the internet about what this album would consist of, it’s clear that whilst Bowie has been taking in Kendrick Lamar (particularly on ‘Girl Loves Me’), he’s still managed to make a record that sounds like David Bowie. The voice is as strong as it has ever been, the lyrics slightly impenetrable – or should that be *probably* based on the Burroughsian cut-up techniques that he has used for many years.
‘Lazarus’ the second single to be released from the album is probably a case in why this album is worthy of your attention. It hangs together as a stand-alone song, yet explores so many ideas with its Berlin trilogy atmosphere meeting Faith-era Cure before smoothly blending into Portishead meets Bernard Hermann. ‘look up here I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.’ It contains as much mystery as Bowie has ever given us – and yet if Bowie were ever to play live again (don’t count on it), it would be a song that you could imagine people singing along with.
And it seems almost noteworthy in this day and age that the album is only seven tracks long and clocks in at less than three-quarters of an hour. There’s a lot of ground covered in that time, but there’s no flab on here. It does require quite a few listens as an album in order to get to grips with it, but Bowie has rarely concerned himself with making albums that are simply background music.
There’s no question that some will grumble that Bowie hasn’t made an album like [insert particular Bowie album here]. The reality is, though, like a handful of other members of rock’ aristocracy (Dylan and Neil Young, for example), he has continued to reinvent himself over the decades. It may be questioned whether people would be interested in this album if it didn’t feature Bowie’s name on the front. Leaving aside the pertinent issue of marketing and PR of any new album, I can only hope so, being as this album features strong songwriting, great vocals and a wish to push the envelope all on the same album, which few artists a third of Bowie’s age can do. On its own merits, it’s a good album. In the Bowie canon, it’s not perhaps his best, but given the run of albums he had, particularly between 1971-1980, that is hardly surprising. It certainly makes sense as part of Bowie’s awesome body of work, and if this time it did turn out to be Bowie’s final studio album, it would be a perfectly acceptable way to end his career, in a way that seems unmistakeably Bowie.
So, another year over, and a new one just begun, as John Lennon once sang.
I’ve written an article that has been published over at God Is In The TV, which outlines some of the albums on the way in 2016, starting with David Bowie’s latest album, Blackstar, which is released next Friday (January 8).
January 8 will be David Bowie’s 69th birthday, and will also see the release of his 25th solo album *, pronounced Blackstar. The video for the title track, which is now available to download, can be seen below.
The album was produced by Tony Visconti, who has also produced a number of Bowie’s previous albums, including The Man Who Sold The World, Young Americans, The Berlin trilogy and 2013’s comeback album, The Next Day.
According to Wikipedia, the tracklisting is as follows:
2. ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore
4. Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)
5. Girl Loves Me
6. Dollar Days
7. I Can’t Give Everything Away
‘Blackstar’ is the title music for the TV series The Last Panthers. Versions of ‘Sue…’ and ‘…Whore’ were released as a single last year to coincide with the Nothing Has Changed compilation, which collected fifty years of Bowie’s recordings.
In a not dissimilar vein, Desert Sound Colony take on David Bowie’s ‘Fashion’ and produce something that’s both dancefloor and chilled at the same time. ‘Fashion‘ originally appeared on Bowie’s Scary Monsters album, yet this version owes far more to the Berlin trilogy and Bowie’s great lost single ‘Loving The Alien.’
I wrote last month about the new David Bowie single ‘Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)’ which is released next week (Monday November 17), as a 10″ single and download and also appears on his latest greatest hits compilation, Nothing Has Changed, which is released the same day. The video has now been unveiled, which is suitably noirish (and no, I don’t just mean it’s black and white) and can be watched at the top of the page.
The b-side ‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore’ is available to download via iTunes and can be watched below. It’s utterly different – some Bowie fans have suggested it could date from the Heathen sessions. It’s not on the Nothing Has Changed compilation, just for the record.
So: two VERY different Bowie songs and a continuation of an amazing fifty year career…
At the start of 2013, David Bowie announced on his 66th Birthday that he would be releasing his first album in ten years, The Next Day, shortly. And he did. It was a terrific ‘comeback’ not least because it was assumed that he had, finally, retired, albeit quietly. There have been rumours ever since that there would be another studio album. Whether this materialises or not, he has announced another greatest hits style compilation, Nothing Has Changed, which runs in reverse chronological order and goes back beyond ‘Space Oddity’ to 1964’s ‘Liza Jane.’
The tracklisting can be found here. THe irony in the title is implicit: so much has changed in the last fifty years and Bowie has reinvented himself, mostly successfully, in that time more than even Madonna.
There’s one new track ‘Sue (or In A Season Of Crime).’ It’s a collaboration with New York’s Maria Schneider Orchestra, and it sees Bowie go jazz. Not, thankfully, in a hideous Michael Buble/Jamie Callum style way, but instead, this is Jazz that evokes the music at it’s most unsettling, late night, film-nor. Think Bernard Herrmann’s score for Taxi Driver and you’re getting close.
In a funny way, it’s as unsettling and dramatic as the second side of Low. Like much of that album, it’s unlikely ever (I hope) to be sung at karaoke. But it is one of the most startling pieces of music you will hear this year. And it’s not out until November 17, so you will have to make do with radio rips for now. It shouldn’t stop you being able to marvel at it.
I actually ended up picking up Low in Holland on the same family holiday in 1994 that I got Ocean Rain. Odd, I guess, as Holland isn’t particularly regarded as a great place for vinyl enhusiasts (though Germany I do recommend). But from that trip came the Bowie album above all that grabbed me.
My first memory of David Bowie isn’t this album. It’s that duet with Mick Jagger. But that aside, I became gradually more and more obsessed with Bowie throughout my teens. Sure he had a bad second half of the eighties -though I would recommend that ‘Absolute Beginners,’* ‘Loving the Alien’ and ‘Time Will crawl’ be given a second chance. Thing is, they pale into insignificance with this album.
Maybe my obssession with the city of Berlin stems from hearing this album. I’ve never been there – but there’s something about the whole aesthetic of such widely different films as Run Lola Run, Wings Of Desire, Goodbye Lenin!, The Edukators and of course, the Bowie-soundtracked Christiane F. Low is famously the first of the three Bowie albums that make up the Berlin trilogy -the others being Heroes and Lodger. It might be pointed out that these albums are not all recorded in Berlin (Low was mostly recorded in France and Lodger in Switzerland), but the work that took place at the famous Hansa studios ‘by the [Berlin] wall sealed the reputation.
Low is very definitely divided into two parts; the first side has songs, the second side pieces that owe much to the influence of collaborator Brian Eno and producer Tony Visconti. It’s bleak in tone throughout, but particularly the second side, which has singing but not vocals per se. The titles alone give clues to the bleak delights herein -‘Weeping Wall’ ‘Subterraneans’ ‘Always Crashing In the Same Car’ and ‘Breaking Glass.’
Whilst side two is what seals it for me, I wouldn’t like to be seen as downplaying side one. If side two owes much to Brian Eno, then in the process of effectively inventing ambient music, ensuring that rock bands wishing to be seen as artistses would be queueing up to work with him for decades to come (hello U2, James and Coldplay), then side one owes much to Kraftwerk. ‘Sound and Vision’ is as good a pop song as anything from Ziggy or Aladdin Sane.Though Kraftwerk hailed from Dusseldorf, their album Autobahn had proved a huge influence on Bowie, as he looked away from the America that has inspired Diamond Dogs and Young Americans into the European sounding Station to Station, released the previous year to Low. It’s a cliche, but if British acts want to make money they look to America; if they want to make art they look to Europe (again, compare U2’s Joshua Tree Americanisms with the very European and Hansa-recorded, Eno-produced Achtung Baby).
No, it’s not an easy listen, but it rewards repeated listens. It’s bleak and beautiful, the soundtrack to a thoughtful if hardgoing film that may not have been made yet (think Threads if it was set and made in Berlin, before and after a nuclear bomb being dropped).
Haven’t posted much here this week. It’s been kinda busy, and isn’t showing sign of letting up. How the heck did Tony Wilson manage to run a label and work in TV? No marking, I suppose.
Anyway, some songs for a cold winter’s day…
Johnny Cash -‘Hurt.’ (No there’s nothing wrong with me, just something in my eye…)
afterword: Johnny Cash’s wife June Carter Cash, seen here in the video, died shortly before him in 2003. Someone said that ‘she’d gone to get the house ready for him.’ I’m sure some would criticise that statement as sexism, but to me it makes my eyes almost as misty as watching the video.
The Cure -‘Charlotte Sometimes.’
Who would have thought a pop video could be so sad and creepy? I remember watching that video with my dad and the hairs on his arm literally standing on end. Also worth reading Penelope Farmer’s book Charlotte Sometimes which inspired the song. Charlotte Sometimes is my favourite song by my favourite ever band, and second only to this…
Joy Division -‘Atmosphere.’
My favourite ever song. Apparently the surviving members of the band hated this video but I love it. The bit when the synths ocme in sounds like the sound water would make if you could tape it forming on water (actually, I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what Martin Hannett would have recorded). The bit where this is played in 24 Hour Party People is a misty-eyed moment as well…
David Bowie -‘Life On Mars?’
For many years, this was my favourite song and it’s still up there as one of my favourites. I’m sure I heard Flaming Lips do a cover of that on John Peel’s show in about 1993. If anyone can help, please let me know…
Billie Holiday -‘Strange Fruit.’
I was amazed but delighted to find footage for Strange Fruit. It’s a beautiful but harrowing song. Covered by many people including Robert Wyatt, Tori Amos, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and also by Nina Simone, who had to give up performing it as everytime she did, she broke down. There’s ingenious (IMHO) use of this in Ae Fond Kiss, a film that looks at sectarianism in Glasgow in the twenty-first century.
So…I’ll finish with a clip of Nina Simone, talking about how important it is to her as an artist to reflect the times. I found myself thinking it was a shame she hadn’t lived to see Barack Obama elected to be President of the US, but there’s millions of Americans who would have loved to have seen that.