David Bowie – “Blackstar” (2016)

January 9, 2016 at 11:48 pm (David Fricke, Music, Reviews & Articles)

David Fricke’s recent Rolling Stone review (from the Jan. 14, 2016 issue) of David Bowie’s brilliant new album, released yesterday…

Bowie Stares Deep Into the Void 

The arty, unsettling Blackstar is Bowie’s best anti-pop masterpiece since the Seventies.

Three years ago, with little warning, David Bowie ended a decade-long break from studio releases with The Next Day. The second album he’s released since that unexpected return to the limelight is an even greater surprise: one of the most aggressively experimental records the singer has ever made. Produced with longtime collaborator Tony Visconti and cut with a small combo of New York-based jazz musicians whose sound is wreathed in arctic electronics, Blackstar () is a ricochet of textural eccentricity and pictorial-shrapnel writing. It’s confounding on first impact: the firm swing and giddy vulgarity of “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore”; Bowie’s croons and groans, like a doo-wop Kraftwerk, in the sexual dystopia of “Girl Loves Me”; the spare beaten-spirit soul of “Dollar Days.” But the mounting effect is wickedly compelling. This album represents Bowie’s most fulfilling spin away from glam-legend pop charm since 1977’s LowBlackstar is that strange, and that good.

The longest reach is up front, in the episodic, ceremonial noir of the title track. Bowie’s gauzy vocal prayer and wordless spectral harmonies hover over drum seizures; saxophonist Donny McCaslin laces the stutter and chill like Andy Mackay in early-Seventies Roxy Music. The song drops to a blues-ballad stroll, but it is an eerie calm with unsettling allusions to violent sacrifice, especially given recent events. (No who or why is specified, but McCaslin has said the song is “about ISIS.”) “Something happened on the day he died/Spirit rose a meter, then stepped aside,” Bowie sings with what sounds like numbed grace. “Somebody else took his place and bravely cried: I’m a blackstar.” His use of an ideogram for the album’s title makes sense here – there is no light at the end of this tale.

The album includes a dynamic honing of Bowie’s 2014 single “Sue (or in a Season of Crime)” with less brass and more malevolent programming; the title song from his current off-Broadway musical production, Lazarus (that’s Bowie firing those grunting blasts of guitar); and a blunt honesty at the finish. Bowie turns 69 on January 8th, the day Blackstar comes out. In “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” he states his case for the dignity of distance – his refusal to tour (so far) and engage with the media circus – against guitarist Ben Monder’s lacerating soprano-fuzz guitar, a sly evocation of Robert Fripp’s iconic soloing in 1977’s “Heroes.” “This is all I ever meant/That’s the message that I sent,” Bowie sings in a voice largely free of effects – clear, elegant and emphatic. This is a rock star who gives when he’s ready – and still gives to extremes. (RS RS 1252)

David Fricke


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Otis Clay (1942-2016)

January 9, 2016 at 12:38 pm (Life & Politics, Music)

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Repeal the Second Amendment

January 9, 2016 at 9:53 am (Life & Politics)


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President Obama’s Weekly Address (Jan. 9, 2016)

January 9, 2016 at 9:50 am (Life & Politics)

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Prince – “Hit N Run Phase Two” (2015)

January 9, 2016 at 8:49 am (Music, Prince, Reviews & Articles)

Chris Gerard’s recent PopMatters review (dated Dec. 14th) of Prince’s 2nd phase of Hit N Run. This album has not yet been released in physical form, only as a download…

It’s been a mere three months since Prince dropped Hit N Run Phase One first on Jay-Z’s Tidal streaming service, and then a few weeks later via more traditional outlets. Arguably the single worst album of his legendary career, the sterile and soulless Phase One quickly sank like a stone, notable more for being the first product under Prince’s highly publicized deal with Tidal than for its music. At the time there was speculation as to whether a Phase Two would materialize—that speculation can now be put to rest. On Saturday, 12 December, without any warning whatsoever, Prince fans awakened to the news that Hit N Run Phase Two is available via Tidal to either purchase and download or to stream via the subscription service. Happily, even though it relies heavily on previously released material, Phase Two outshines Phase One by a mile—it’s not even close. Phase Two boasts enough classic Prince moments to sufficiently wash the worst memories of its vapid predecessor out of fans’ memory banks permanently. It has a completely different vibe than Phase One, eschewing producer Joshua Welton’s impotent and amateurish digital wreckage for a funky, horn-heavy sound that’s altogether more real.

Hit N Run Phase Two opens with “Baltimore,” which Prince first released back in May 2015 following the riots in Baltimore sparked by the ghastly murder of Freddie Gray while he was in police custody. Featuring prominent vocals by Eryn Allen Kane, “Baltimore” is Prince’s obviously sincere call for peace, love and understanding as the country grapples with ongoing turmoil in the wake of numerous incidences of police brutality caught on video. It’s not hard to figure out which side of the controversy Prince stands on, as he takes up the rallying cry of the protesters, “If there ain’t no justice, then there ain’t no peace!” “Baltimore” is slick and highly polished, lacking the emotional power of Prince’s strongest works about social justice (it ain’t no “Sign o’ the Times”), but it’s still an engaging song that captures for posterity a moment in our history that may turn out to be a tipping point for the better—or so we can hope.

“Rock N Roll Love Affair” is a brisk guitar rocker that first appeared as a standalone single in late 2012. It was barely promoted and disappeared without a trace, but it’s a solid tune worthy of resurrection and it fits right in with this Princely mix. “2Y2D” is a blazing slab of funk with a sizzling horn arrangement. Prince returns to one of his favorite topics—sex—with the main hook, “She’s old enough to do ya, but too young to dare.” His work has been somewhat sanitized in recent years compared with his notoriously raunchy past, and while “2Y2D” is a far cry from Dirty Mind it’s still sexy enough to show that whatever religious leanings Prince may have these days, he hasn’t left his career-long preoccupation with the joys of the flesh behind.

“Look at Me, Look at U” by itself blows anything on Phase One out of the water. A smooth mid-tempo R&B gem with a terrific vocal by Prince, “Look at Me, Look at U” is notable for its shimmering electric piano, flute and the sensual sax solo that closes the song. “Stare” is a slice of “Musicology”-type funk that Prince released as a standalone track via Tidal this past summer. With its wildly popping slap-bass and tightly-wound horn riffs, “Stare” is among the hottest tracks that Prince has released this millennium. It also finds Prince embracing his past as he includes sly sonic references to two classics, “Kiss” and “Sexy Dancer.”

Speaking of classics, “Xtraloveable” is a song that’s been percolating in Prince’s vault since at least early 1982, when he recorded it for potential inclusion on his 1999 album or perhaps for his all-female protégé group Vanity 6’s self-titled album, both of which he was recording simultaneously. Prince’s original recording, a white-hot funk/rock epic with some decidedly racy lyrics and scorching guitar, ended up not making either album but has been widely bootlegged over the years. In 2011 he released a newly recorded version of the song, and then another take featuring a prominent brass section was issued in 2013 via his website. It’s the 2013 version that appears here, and while it isn’t close to being on par with the electrifying 1982 recording, “Xtraloveable” is still an eminently funky tune that deserves to finally land a spot on a proper Prince album.

“Groovy Potential” is another killer track that first appeared on Prince’s website in 2013. It’s a long and sinuous piece with an elaborate arrangement and an outstanding vocal performance by Prince. It begins with delicate piano and guitar over a simple backbeat as if it’s going to be a mellow soul track, but soon builds layer by layer to a thrilling climax with horns, guitar, and thunderous percussion ascending in waves of musical bliss. The sweet soul waltz “When She Comes” sounds like it may have been recorded around the same time as “Groovy Potential”, although with Prince it could just as easily be a nugget he plucked from the vault after leaving it to gather dust for who-knows how many years. Whenever it was recorded, we are fortunate that he decided to unearth it. Prince’s falsetto vocal is gorgeous over an exquisite musical backdrop that includes an accordion humming faintly beneath the glistening brass. “Screwdriver” is a fiery guitar rocker that Prince recorded with his backing band 3rdEyeGirl and first released as a standalone single in February 2013. With the mischievous catchphrase “I’m your driver, you’re my screw”, “Screwdriver” harkens back to Prince’s edgy, more sexually brazen work from his younger years.

The smoldering 7+ minute “Black Muse” dates back to 2010 when it was performed live on Prince’s Welcome 2 America tour and sung by backing vocalists Elisa Fiorillo (now known as Elisa Dease), Shelby J. and Liv Warfield. The version included here has Prince taking the lead, although prominent backing and harmony vocals remain. It’s an ambitious and densely complex track that unfolds a little bit more with each listen. It’s hard not to wonder how Prince could leave a track this fine sitting on a shelf while releasing so much inferior material in the five years that it took “Black Muse” to see the light of day. “Revelation” is another breathtaking reminder of how great Prince can still be. A simmering, sexy ballad with elegant riffs of sax, “Revelation” features Prince delivering a knockout falsetto vocal performance and an absolutely scalding guitar solo. This is Prince operating at his highest level, a song destined to rank with the best work he’s done since his ‘80s creative pinnacle.

Phase Two closes with “Big City,” a buoyant rocker with big horn riffs and a heavy, infectious groove. “Big City” is another song that’s been stewing for a couple years at least, as it has occasionally appeared in his live performances starting in 2013. It’s an upbeat, raucous jam that closes Phase Two with an exclamation point.

Yeah, Phase Two is a grab-bag of older recycled tracks and a few newer recordings that were obviously not originally intended to be grouped together as an album. That in itself isn’t a problem—some of Prince’s best works have been similar hodgepodge collections of diverse material. After all, over the course of his career he’s often used older material when he felt the time was right for a song to finally emerge (although not necessarily previously released material, as is the case here). Whether the songs were originally intended to be collected on the same album is completely beside the point—Phase Two hangs together remarkably well as a cohesive listening experience that is as exhilarating as it is unexpected. As for its predecessor, the less said about it the better. Phase Two makes it very easy to pretend that Phase One never existed.  Does it stand up to Prince’s very best material? No. But it does stand up to his best work of the 2000s (3121Lotusflow3r, and Art Official Age), and it’s certainly true that even an average album by Prince’s standards is better than just about anything else out there. For those disillusioned by Hit N Run Phase OnePhase Two is good enough to renew faith in the mercurial Minneapolis wunderkind. He may have had to trawl through the vault to make it happen, but who cares… Prince is back with an album worthy of his name.

Chris Gerard


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David Bowie – “Lazarus” (Video – 2016)

January 9, 2016 at 7:57 am (Music)

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