Just A Blackstar Review

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I had been assigned to review this for a website, but since I didn’t get the record until 12:01am Friday morning, didn’t get to file it over the weekend as I had planned. I told my editor that I would get it to her on Monday during the day. But once I woke up on Monday, I had to write a whole new set of pieces, and this got set aside.

I actually did look at it on Tuesday, after I had posted an excerpt on Facebook, noting that it was going to be killed, given the circumstances. A couple of writers urged me to post it anyway. Plans to publish it at its original home fell through, and at this point it makes no sense — but I did want to commemorate it here.

David Bowie has mastered the modern music business landscape as well as (or even better than) anyone. The Next Day dropped without any clue whatsoever; his PR firm’s warning that a record was going to drop in the overnight and that the newsroom might want to be prepared had the editors guessing every other artist except Bowie. One song added to a greatest hits anthology rated detailed reviews of the one song in media outlets around the world. And the lead up to Blackstar was marked, measured and controlled to the nth degree, all of this for a 40-minute seven-track jazz-flavored collaboration that leans on a saxophone as the core instrument.

“Blackstar” as the opening track might seem like a misguided idea; it’s almost 10 minutes long, and when you listen to it in the context of the record, it will initially feel like it’s two separate songs, and you might think it would work better as the last track of the record. That will shift with repeated listenings, and the track will find its place and you’ll get more comfortable with it. It’s uncanny how catchy the song is, how its myriad sections will get stuck in your brain on a loop, as though it was the lightest, simplest pop song.

“‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore” is sad and angry and gruff; listen to it on headphones to catch the heavy breathing at the song’s start, rough and louche in the best way.

“Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)” was the bonus track on 2014’s anthology Nothing Has Changed, but it’s welcome here in this collection. It’s also the most successful jazz execution that also still sounds 100% like a David Bowie song. “Girl Loves Me” has a gigantic “EXPLICIT” attached to the title, and you wonder what could possibly rate that, and then the “Where the fuck did Monday go?” refrain kicks in along with the backbeat. “Who the fuck’s gonna mess with me?” It will repeat in your head for days.

“Lazarus” is one of a handful of songs written for the Bowie musical of the same name currently playing Off Broadway that survived the cut. Lazarus the musical has its issues but the song is not one of them. It’s a great song in the production and it’s still a great song here on the record; it’s also the only straight-ahead rock song in the batch. But it’s haunting and huge and you could dismiss it as classic Bowie, the kind of thing he could write in his sleep–but why on earth is that a bad thing? It’s unmistakable but it’s also not just flatly derivative. (And Michael S. Hall does an admirable job with the performance.)

Saxophone dominates the record in a surprising fashion, given that it’s not a straight ahead rock and roll record and isn’t a straight ahead jazz record, either. But it’s no wonder that Bowie would come back to the instrument here and now; it was his first instrument, and he never stopped loving it and never managed to master it. But he employed it, early and often, to memorable effect, and he’s not stopping now. This can be good, and it can also be unfortunate; the sax on “Dollar Days” sounds like it’s off a bad Billy Joel outtake that got lost somewhere on Baker Street.

Where Blackstar falls down is as a cohesive statement. It feels like a random collection of songs because that’s what it is, and that’s unfortunate coming on the heels of The Next Day, which absolutely felt like an album. (Hindsight is now 20-20; this review was largely complete before Bowie’s untimely demise late Sunday night. Now some things make more sense.)

When does a trend-setter get to stop setting trends, and just be allowed to create? The expectations of anything that has the name “Bowie” attached to it are always sky high, and that hasn’t tapered in almost 50 years of the man producing art. We’ve decided–he’s trained us to expect– that whatever he does has to break the mold, it has to be haute, it has to be the nth of whatever the particular art is. If we can let Sting put out a record about the shipbuilding culture in Newcastle and take it seriously, we can let fucking David Bowie put out a free range jazz collaboration, especially when the latter is strong and challenging and in several cases, actually fucking great.

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You’re wonderful. Give me your hands. 

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I went down to Lafayette Street last night, a thing I never would have done had the man not left us. But I heard about the tribute from a friend that lived downtown and felt the need to pay my respects. 

It is an insanely generous thing that this is being allowed, that the landlord and the neighborhood and the adjoining business owners* and the cops and the city are letting this happen. It won’t last forever, but it is happening right now, when we need it, and that is enough. 

*American Apparel did feel the need to add “Condolences to the friends and family of David Bowie” to their window right where it edges over the tribute site. Fair enough I guess. 

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David Bowie Was A New Yorker

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David Bowie never waited for the light to change before crossing.
David Bowie could finish the Friday crossword.
David Bowie wouldn’t lean on the pole during rush hour.
David Bowie ate a slice folded, walking uptown, without getting any of it on him.
David Bowie knew you never asked the cab driver if they would take you to Brooklyn, you got in and gave them the address.
David Bowie could play the Law & Order drinking game about his neighborhood.
David Bowie bitched about Time Warner.
David Bowie watched In The Papers.
David Bowie called it Sixth Avenue, called it the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, and it as far as he was concerned, it was always going to be the 59th Street Bridge, no matter what meshuganah name it was given.
David Bowie sighed and moved to the end of the car when he heard, “It’s showtime!”
David Bowie knew that blueberry is not an acceptable bagel flavor.
David Bowie walked on the other side of the sidewalk when the dude with the clipboard asked him if he cared about the environment.
David Bowie took his coffee regular.
David Bowie always stopped and gave directions to lost tourists. (Except when they asked how to get to Ground Zero.)
David Bowie waited on line, not in line.
David Bowie exited the bus through the rear.
David Bowie knew that Battery Park City is not Tribeca, even if it shares a zip code.
David Bowie believed that Pizza Rat was real.

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Review: Beach Slang, Knitting Factory, 12/17/15

James Alex

I don’t need another band to be the Replacements for me. That’s easy for me to say, I guess, because I had the actual Replacements when I needed that in my life. So people saying a band is just like the ‘Mats is pretty much guaranteed to make me scuttle off in the other direction, because it’s rarely true, and because I am not looking to relive my youth.

This is why I missed out on Beach Slang until earlier this year, because every other word about them was “Replacements” and that will definitely make me exit stage left. But then they opened for Tommy, and People I Know said, “No, really, you should,” and the coup de grace was actually a YouTube video of “Bastards of Young.” That might seem hypocritical, but it was their chops in being able to play it and the heart in being able to sell it that I needed to see. And then I bought all of the records (okay, I downloaded off of Bandcamp) and the guitar shimmer and the ache in the voice and the unintentional anthems and that sold me, hard, fast, it was love.

The band came through the Knitting Factory last week, the day after Sleater-Kinney played that life-altering gig at the Market Hotel. And I was nervous and I got there early and I got angry at dudes thinking they could stand in front of me. Then the band were onstage and it was sloppy and gorgeous, it was James trying to pull a rockstar move only to slip and fall. It was needing to tune between every song because they hit the strings so hard they went out of tune. The songs are better live, because they are rawer, closer to the bone, closer to that moment that created them, closer to feeling that freight train of energy and emotion.

I didn’t even get angry at the stage divers like I usually do (it’s not 1995) because it was mostly girls and then one got onstage and sang and it was mostly all so sweet and earnest and genuine, even the dudes in the center trying to get a pit started couldn’t generate sufficient angst. It’s not that the crowd wasn’t excited or into it, they just weren’t there to be assholes. That won’t last if Beach Slang gets bigger, but it’s certainly a refreshing change right now.

I turned on the camera when they went into “Bastards of Young,” Periscoping it for friends mostly, and then kept it on through “Can’t Hardly Wait.” And, again, I don’t think they’re the Replacements, although I think that wanting to be the Replacements is part of what makes the band great, what makes the songs great, wanting to be something that meant something, wanting to write songs that filled those missing spots in your soul, those gaps in your heart. Because the show was actually better after the ‘Mats tribute section was done.

They did an amazing cover of “Boxcar” by Jawbreaker and the crowd surfers came out in force, but it was “Kids” from the first Beach Slang record that was the best thing all night, that moment where everything slid into place, locked and loaded, the band, the crowd, the energy, the moment. It was anarchy, it was an arena anthem, it was everything, and you wanted it to last forever.

People Magazine and The New York Times are writing about Beach Slang and I retweeted the Times link with, “Sadly ecstatic that the heroes are news,” probably Townshend’s best line ever, because it could not be more true. They are getting the press because everyone feels the potential. This may be the last time I see them in a club this small. Here’s hoping so.

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Latest Work

BROOOOOCE TV: The Best Bruce Springsteen Television Moments

MISSED OUT ON TICKETS TO SPRINGSTEEN IN NYC? HERE’S HOW TO FIND THEM NEXT TIME

JOHN LENNON’S MOST MEMORABLE — AND NOTORIOUS — NYC MOMENTS

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The Ties That Bind – Coverage

Salon: Springsteen worked slow for a reason: New “Ties That Bind” box set chronicles the fascinating and frustrating road to “The River” and also “Trouble in the heartland,” indeed: See Bruce Springsteen get political on the day after Reagan’s election in this amazing concert film

Vulture: Tracklisting the Single-Album Version of Bruce Springsteen’s The River/The Ties That Bind That Could’ve, Should’ve Been – in which I try my hand at sequencing a single-album version of TTTB.

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Springsteen’s Most Memorable NYC Shows

I’m a freakin media syndicate these days.

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Thoughts on seeing David Bowie’s Lazarus

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DISCLAIMER: I AM NOT A THEATER CRITIC.

David Bowie’s latest artistic foray, Lazarus, a musical inspired by The Man Who Fell To Earth, is playing off-off-broadway at the New York Theater Workshop. There was a release of tickets for this weekend so I grabbed one for the Sunday evening performance.

~~SPOILER ALERT. I’m not going to spoil the plot but I will spoil the music. You’ve been warned. Yes, it’s a limited run, but there are posters all over the subways for a limited run that’s already sold out so they’re clearly looking to make it an unlimited run.~~

As someone who has attended Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway productions in New York City, I was surprised that the theater was larger (and therefore more comfortable) than I anticipated. The stage was a beige box with two large picture windows at the back, behind which you could glimpse musicians setting up. (More on this later.)

I’ll start with the good things: The acting was phenomenal. Every single actor on that stage was absolutely fantastic, and Michael C. Hall in the lead was great. My word, he has charisma and talent in spades. Really, I have nothing but superlatives for the acting work of the entire cast.

There’s a full band, two guitars, bass, keyboards, drums and what sounded like a full horn section. There’s no one I’ve ever heard of, but they have chops and personality and the performance was impeccable. Nothing about the instrumental performance of the music was a distraction to someone who might have heard some of these songs hundreds of times. (At no point did you think “My god, they’re ruining the song.”)

The plot was interesting, but not so fantastical (at least at the outset) that you were unwilling to suspend your disbelief. But that started to fray towards the back third, as things became more— explained. I’ll buy that this is The Man Who Fell To Earth. I’ll buy that he’s an alien that could never get home. But then the premise became this melange of supernatural elements that I probably could have gotten behind in the service of the story, until they were accompanied by unnecessary explanation. Once I started to think about it, the willing disbelief began to crack and by the end of it I was sitting there cynically wondering how they were going to end it. Characters were introduced and never explained or named but then appeared and reappeared. There’s an interesting on-screen cameo appearance by a reasonable star of stage and TV, which takes a long time and provides a flimsy and unsatisfying plot point which doesn’t add anything and doesn’t make sense. There’s a Greek chorus of sorts, which is fabulous at first, but then break the rules of what a Greek chorus is supposed to do. The quality of the acting is what got me through 2/3 of the thing before I started to disconnect and dissect things more closely.

So the rules of musical theater, as I understand them, is that everything is supposed to be in service of the book. I believe that the new songs written for the production absolutely do that. (I also thought, “Wow, this absolutely sounds like a David Bowie song” each and every time. There are four new songs.) I’m prepared to say that “Lazarus” is a GREAT song.

But when you’re also using music that already exists, it gets harder, because there are ties to that music already.

Songs like “It’s No Game” and “Valentine’s Day” don’t have a huge existing cultural profile, and so they can become part of a new context with ease. Other more well known songs till made sense: “Sound and Vision,” “This Is Not America” and (obviously) “Life On Mars.” I’m an enormous fan of “Absolute Beginners” and was thrilled to see it reborn in this production; it’s a lush, evocative song that definitely worked in the context that it was given. If I had to guess, this was exactly the reason Bowie got involved in a theater production in the first place, to try to do something else with his work to get it in front of a new audience.

“Love Is Lost,” from the last Bowie record, was also a fantastic choice, but I didn’t think “Where Are We Now” had any context at all, and definitely not with the video playing behind it—especially since the storyline seems to take place in New York City, and we’ve just watched five minutes of Berlin footage for reasons that are never explained.

The big faux pas were with the war horses: you can’t take something with a huge cultural and emotional profile like “All The Young Dudes” and chuck it into the middle of a production without it being incredibly jarring and distracting. You can’t just say, “Hey, we’re going to use this song and it’s going to mean THIS,” and unequivocally have it be so. That’s just not how it works. “Heroes” was also an enormous train wreck at a key moment of the production, and had a major lyric change that also did not work. If you know the words to the song, you were sitting there nervously thinking, “My god, there’s no way they can sing that line in this context.” And then the line changes, and in some ways that was worse. It didn’t even truly fit the plot point, to be honest; it felt melodramatic and forced.

On the positive side, at least it wasn’t being used to sell me a car, if that makes any sense. It was art used within art. I might think they got it wrong but at least it didn’t have its edges smoothed over to suit the mainstream.

The audience was a mix of theater people and music people and aging Bowie fans. Some of these people brought significant others who weren’t familiar with the material. This led to entirely too much buzzing in the audience at the start of every song, as someone needed to tell someone else the name of the song or some other obviously hugely important fact. The woman doing the buzzing in my immediate area stopped after the third time when other people (not me) gave her the evil eye enough times. DO YOU PEOPLE NOT KNOW HOW TO BEHAVE AT A THEATER PRODUCTION.

Unlike other programs for musicals, there’s no listing of songs. I imagine this is absolutely deliberate. I think it’s unfortunate because if they expand it to a larger audience, those people are going to want to hear those songs at some point, but maybe that’s what an original cast album is for, I guess.

I’m glad I went, but for Off-Off-Broadway this was REALLY REALLY PRICEY; it’s a David Bowie price tag ($125), and as a result I was expecting more new or experimental Bowie than catalog Bowie. I don’t even understand why the pre-production press was so cagey; using catalog material well is a difficult thing to do and doing it well and not in some kind of forced manner is a challenge, so just tell people that. It was definitely more polished and more mainstream than I anticipated. I’m guessing this is David’s way of endowing this particular theater group, which is also a fine way to go about doing things. But I am not at all sure this is a must-see event, even for the Bowie faithful.

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Dylan’s Best NYC Shows

The next installment in my series for the Voice of best NYC shows is Mr. Dylan: HERE’S A LOOK BACK AT BOB DYLAN’S BEST NYC CONCERTS.

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Review of “The Ties That Bind” Documentary

I wrote about the new Springsteen documentary for Salon: Springsteen’s “Ties That Bind”: The new documentary goes deep into the “adult concerns” that fueled “The River”

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