In the 1990s, David Bowie stopped leading the trends and took to following them: Black Tie, White Noise, Outside and Earthling were the (generally) embarrassing sounds of a middle aged man desperately trying to confirm his credibility by running with a younger crowd. Soon after his 50th birthday, however, Bowie finally realized what his fans already knew that he had nothing left to prove. In then teaming up with peak period producer Tony Visconti and establishing his own record label for last year's Heathen, he finally brought himself back down to earth and into the present day.
Reality marks another step in the right direction: these have to be his best songs in a decade. They certainly feature the most ebullient recordings: Bowie sounds stronger ('Reality'), and angrier (Jonathan Richman's 'Pablo Picasso'), if also, at times, more moody ('Bring Me The Disco King') and even forlorn ('The Loneliest Guy'). What matters is that at all times Bowie sounds like himself not like he's trying to jump the latest passing trend. in interviews, Bowie has explained that he's achieved this by placing himself outside the songs in other words, these are not autobiographical lyrics. But on 'Never Get Old,' the album stand-out, he nonetheless hints at the ongoing lust for life that separates him from those who sat back on their laurels decades ago: "No there's never gonna be enough money, There's never gonna be enough drugs
There's never going to be enough bullets, There's never going to be enough sex, And I'm never gonna getta old."
Visconti's experienced hand at the controls helps root these songs in their own domains they sound like nothing so much as Bowie in mid-70s peak - and his ever-excellent band of musicians (Earl Slick and Gail Ann Dorsey especially) help clarify the recordings. But ultimately it seems we can thank simply the passing of time for Bowie's eventual return to form. He may never get old, but he also knows he can't stay forever young.
The magic of Jodie Holland's stupendous debut may be in the circumstances: Catalpa was recorded as demos, which explains why we hear Holland cough, why we hear her musicians drop things, why we hear the scrape up and down the strings of the acoustic guitar; why, in fact, we hear just about every ambient sound in the recording process except the potential clarity of Holland's voice. What we hear most of all is the emotion: Holland's voice wanders back to earliest Cajun recordings, it recalls both Michelle Shocked and Lucinda Williams at their most simplistically soulful, and it gives all the current contenders Kelly Willis, Gemma Hayes etc. serious reason to question their existence.
The finest moments on Catalpa find Holland arranging Syd Barrett's words on 'The Littlest Birds' and adapting a W.B. Yates poem on 'Wandering Angus,' with notable music and guitar contributions on the latter from Brian Miller. But Holland demonstrates her own writing talents on 'All The Morning Birds' and 'I Wanna Die' ("in New Orleans"). Completely unconstrained by fashion, Catalpa's folk waltzes, ballads and blues will likely sound just as unique a decade from now which makes them a valuable reminder to labels and musicians alike that occasionally it's more important to capture atmosphere than concentrate on polish.
It's an immutable fact of the music business that if an ageing solo artist's career steadily spirals downward, they will embark on 'collaborations' to buoy themselves back up. Often this smacks of desperation, but for Iggy Pop, whose last couple of albums have been dogs (tired dogs at that), opening up the recording process appears to have unleashed the creative floodgates. With Skull Ring, Iggy finally sounds like he means business again.
He achieves this by heading both backwards and forwards in his choice of partners. On four songs, he reunites with Ron and Scott Asheton, erstwhile guitarist and drummer with The Stooges for the kind of gleefully dumb punk you'd expect from teenagers, not fifty-somethings. The title track 'Skull Ring' comes over like a particularly cocky battle cry of desires; the introspective 'Dead Rock Star' proves an exception to its three companions.
At the other end of the generational spectrum, he recruits Green Day's instantly identifiable pop sound for 'Supermarket,' and Sum 41's more highly charged punk for 'Little Know It All.' And he renders himself truly contemporary by partnering with Peaches, both on a response to her own track 'Rock Show' and then on the sordid collaboration 'Motor Inn.' ("I gotta a brown girl whose titties are mine, I love brown titties," skits Iggy. "You love 'em!" confirms Peaches. I'm sure he does.) The outside influences have then helped Iggy's regular backing musicians The Trolls to raise their standards on their own contributions: 'Perverts In The Sun' is of itself better than almost anything Iggy's released in the last few years.
You can't call it a comeback, given that he's never stops working but you can certainly class Skull Ring as Iggy's most varied album to date, and easily his most consistent in a decade. Unlike his former musical partner, David Bowie, Iggy shows little desire to grow old gracefully; what they have in common is an eternal lust for life.
Those who still don't 'get' Bruce Springsteen and I'm constantly surprised by how many of my friends have an entirely inaccurate (and certainly incomplete) picture of The Boss could do a lot worse than pick up this newly-released compilation. More than a Greatest Hits and mercifully less than a Box Set, The Essential distills Bruce's 30-year career down to two CDs, then throws in a bonus disk of unreleased out-takes, live songs and other rarities for the fans. With a retail price as low as $25, neither hard-core followers (who've frequently paid more for a single dubious bootleg album) nor newcomers should have any compunction about parting with the cash. And people like me, who still have many old Bruce albums on vinyl, will surely appreciate the chance to find some of the highlights on one CD package too.
The chronological format enables us to track Bruce's career through both commercial and artistic peaks and valleys. And it immediately establishes the staying power of Bruce's best songs. 'Blinded by the Light,' the opening song of his debut 1973 album Greetings from Asbury Park, would later be a hit for Manfred Mann, while the Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle's 'Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)' sounded like nothing less than a generational theme song for the middle aged fans I shared Shea Stadium with this October.
If the songwriting was there from the start, the performance and production picked up a distinct notch with 1975's Born To Run, though it surprised me how the title track's epic arrangement now sounds muffled in volume. Bruce continued to hone his strength penning lengthy urban poems about life's minor characters through the albums Darkness on The Edge of Town and The River; the title track to the latter, 1981 album, is probably the most sublimely sympathetic song ever written for an invisible member of the American working class. Throughout this first decade, the E Street Band provided solid support, stepping into the limelight only when requested, and otherwise demonstrating their skills by refraining from showing them off.
Springsteen's greatest forte has been his willingness to take career detours. He did so notably with 1982's Nebraska, perhaps the first time a major artist ever decided to release demos as a finished album and a serious risk at the time; but just listen to 'Nebraska' and 'Atlantic City' as they finish up the first CD here and dare doubt the wisdom of that decision.
Then, after his blockbuster Born In The USA sold tens of millions around the globe, ensuring Bruce's place in history and his financial security, the Boss decided he actually preferred challenging himself and by extension, his audience. He did so initially with Tunnel Of Love, an album of superbly crafted songs obsessed with romantic distrust (check 'Brilliant Disguise' for a lesson in songwriting); then with the misadvised twin release of Human Touch and Lucky Town, which might have made a decent single Bruce album had he exhibited his usual quality control; and finally with 1995's The Ghost of Tom Joad, a return to the acoustic, intra-national politics of Nebraska.
There was nowhere really to go after that but full circle; the end of the Century saw Bruce reunite with the E Street Band on a tour that was unfairly marred by the introduction of 'American Skin (41 Shots)', included here in live rendition as an obstinate matter of pride.
That reunification led to The Rising (three cuts featured here, including, as with every one of his albums, the title track), which marked my own return to Bruce's fold as a fan. Springsteen's life, after all, has not always interacted with his audience, yet he's showed a remarkable ability to articulate its aspirations and fears - which is presumably why the double package ends with a live rendition of 'Land of Hope And Dreams,' a song unreleased in studio form, and one which marks a satisfying temporary conclusion period to his ongoing obsession with America.
The bonus CD is, by nature, a smorgasbord. 'From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)' was later recorded by Dave Edmunds; 'None But The Brave' is an outtake from Born In The USA; 'The Big Payback' and 'County Fair' are from unreleased acoustic sessions that followed Nebraska. And, of course, there are a couple of covers: Jimmy Cliff's 'Trapped,' Mort Shuman/Doc Pomus' 'Viva Las Vegas.' You get the picture. On the subject of which, it all ends with a restrained acoustic version of The Rising's 'Countin' on a Miracle.' A silent film of that same studio recording closed out Bruce's last concert shows; in giving us the audio portion, the Boss demonstrates his usual keen understanding of continuity and completion.
One of my friends who fails to 'get' Bruce complains it's because of 'Pink Cadillac.' He might like to know it's not included here. (It was written for Natalie Cole, anyway.) Nor is 'Because The Night', which Bruce co-wrote with Patti Smith. And neither, for that matter, are any of the following: 'No Surrender,' 'Backstreets', 'Tenth Avenue Freeze Out,' 'Sherry Darling,' 'Independence Day,' 'I'm On Fire,' 'My Hometown,' 'into The Fire' or 'Waitin' On a Sunny Day.' The album title, after all, does not label this the Essential Collection; rather, it just confirms that Bruce Springsteen himself is essential. And supplies the proof.
(Further evidence can be found in Tony Parsons' overview of Born In The USA, reprinted here from Jamming! Magazines 22, published in October 1984.)
Dead rock stars have been proven to sell records which is why record companies are so eager to pry new recordings from beyond the grave. And because artistic considerations have usually been usurped by financial ones, posthumously completed albums rarely make for a pleasurable listening experience. Joe Strummer, who was an exception to almost every rule of rock while alive, continues to buck trends a full year after his unexpected death from an undiagnosed congenital heart defect, on December 22 2002. (Read my tribute to his life here.) Streetcore, his third album with the Mescaleros, though less than halfway finished at the time of his passing, stands as his best work since peak period Clash. Really.
For this, we can thank Joe's passion - for music, words and life in general, all of which oozes through Streetcore like an infectious high. But the real awards should go to younger Mescaleros Martin Slattery and Scott Shields, who labored intensely to master Joe's vocals, finish the backing tracks, complete the mixes and hunt down alternate songs all with Joe's widow Lucinda watching over their shoulder. They can rest secure in the knowledge that they've helped produce Joe's perfect epitaph.
It's a gratifyingly varied album, though not desperately original. On 'Coma Girl,' Strummer maintains his life-long obsession with the mythical "gang"; on 'Get Down Moses' he continues down the punk-reggae path the Clash cleared for so many others; and on the ballad 'Burning Streets' he deliberately revives the theme of 'London's Burning.' Yet for all their evident clichés and repetitions, these are three of the most immediately appealing songs Joe had recorded in years, songs the Clash would surely have recognized as potential singles while struggling through Sandanista!
No surprise perhaps that these were also the songs closest to completion when Strummer died. Of the others recorded with the Mescaleros, it's relatively obvious that the beautiful gospel ballad 'Ramshackle Day Parade' was carefully built around Joe's leftover vocal (the ambient synth introduction is an inspired choice), and that 'Midnight Jam' was an unfinished instrumental (Strummer's voice is beamed in from some BBC World Service shows he recorded, an inspired stroke that imbues the song with the singer's personality without requiring him to sing). It's harder to believe that a song as rambunctious as 'Arms Aloft' was not left behind in fully mixed form; throw this one at your next punk revival and watch your friends wonder aloud if you haven't unearthed a rare Clash recording. (Lyrically, the song harks back to past triumphs "We were arms aloft in Aberdeen" while allowing that life cannot always be so memorable.)
Yet, all Slattery and Shields' efforts would not have made for a full album but for some outside help. Rick Rubin stepped forward with a demo of a song 'Long Shadow' Strummer had written and recorded, with Smoky Hormel, for Johnny Cash. (The pair will be heard singing it together on a forthcoming Clash box set; presumably, you can also hear them at it up in heaven.) Rubin had also recorded Strummer singing Bob Marley's 'Redemption Song'; this song has come in for criticism as an 'obvious' throwaway, but if you understand that Strummer, a former busker, was a reggae fanatic, and yet that the reggae anthem 'Redemption Song' has become a busker's classic, his performance - steeped in respect as it is - makes perfect sense.
Strummer had also written and recorded a new song with rock-dance crossover producer Danny Saber; unsurprisingly, 'All in A Day' sounds more like B.A.D. at their fired-up best than it does a Mescaleros track. You could even convince yourself that's Mick Jones joining in on the chorus. It's riotous stuff, Joe going out dancing and having a ball.
On which lyrical note ("I wanna go out dancing every night," to be precise) Streetcore concludes with the song that opened the recording sessions: a simple rendition of the Fats Domino favorite 'Before I Grow Too Old.' If Strummer, performing with Shields and Slattery and led by Tymon Dogg's folksy violin, hadn't intended the song's late-life lyrics to be quite so literal, he would surely have loved the way his band-mates allow him the last word. "Okay, that's a take," we hear him happily report, directing affairs to the end. Though barely passing the 40 minute mark, Streetcore manages to avoid more than a moment of filler. What a way to go.