Ashes to Ashes :: Dwelling in the uncanny valley of David Bowie

Words: Anthony Hansen

Never Let Me Down

“It was a large room. Full of people. All kinds.
And they had all arrived at the same building
at more or less the same time.
And they were all free. And they were all
asking themselves the same question:
What is behind that curtain?”
– Laurie Anderson

Itʼs been years since Iʼve written really earnestly about music. My recent writing, for the most part, has taken the form of diary entries, scrawled confessionals that help me try to make sense of my busy brain. There was a time when David Bowieʼs music served a similar purpose. In the past, he gave me something to hold on to: his fragmented, sometimes aggressively non-linear lyrical style sang my alienation back to me. There was also something weirdly relatable about an artist who saw music as a form of play-acting, expressing himself through bits of other peopleʼs discarded personas. As someone who could only understand the world when it was explained to me through books, movies, music and television, seeing someone who exuded that same detachment was weirdly comforting. Hell, the more outlandish he got, the more I liked him. Itʼs like someone somewhere had given him the permission to look, sound and act as weird as I felt. Never mind that Bowie and I would have virtually nothing in common if we met. He was famous, he was a grown-up, and he knew what he was talking about. Everything was going to be okay.

Still, as Iʼve been awkwardly stumbling into adulthood, even the music thatʼs given me my most solid foundation has come into question. The past year or two has seen me parting ways with a lot of my formative musical influences – sometimes cordially, sometimes not. I respectfully said goodbye to Frank Zappaʼs monotonous misanthropy while still retaining a friendly relationship with his more charming “throwaway” albums (hereʼs looking at you, Chungaʼs Revenge and Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch). I was saved from an abusive relationship with Lou Reedʼs solo career by an extended stay in John Caleʼs Heartbreak Hotel. I realized a lot of punk bands just plain sucked. David Sylvian really is kind of a jerk. And so on.

But through it all, Bowie remained untouchable. Yeah, his last few albums bored me a bit if I were to be totally honest, but heʼd still left behind an impressive body of work. I defended a good chunk of his ’90s output, listened indulgently to his ’80s misfires when no one was looking, danced around my room to Ziggy Stardust, and marveled at his output from 1976 to 1980, easily my favorite string of albums by any single artist.

Point is, I havenʼt enjoyed his music so much as lived in it. So it frustrates me to say that walking into The Next Day, his first album of new material in ten years, feels less like coming home than camping out in a museum decked out to look like a bedroom. So much effort has been put into making this place look comfortable and familiar that all I can notice is how creepily unnatural it is. The Next Day dwells in the uncanny valley of being so much like what one would expect a Bowie album to sound like that all I notice is the nagging sense that somethingʼs missing. All I hear are catchy choruses, calculated craftsmanship, politely perverse rock and roll. The acceptable face of subversion.

And yet, something keeps pulling me back into The Next Dayʼs undertow. If I were to guess, Iʼd say itʼs because, for the first time since before I was even born, Bowieʼs become mysterious again. The all-too-human missteps that defined his fall from grace in the ’80s and subsequent journey to artistic rehabilitation are now just a small part of the broader Bowie mythos, meaning that as long he keeps this no-contact-with-the-press routine going he can go back to being a total enigma. Itʼs a marked contrast with the “David Bowie, somewhat normal guy” persona heʼd adopted with his last few albums. At no point on this album does he give you anything to empathize with. Thereʼs no way in. Itʼs just a catalogue of obsessions. This is an album calculated to be intriguing, and you know what? On that level, it works. The only other Bowie album that has simultaneously fascinated and frustrated me this much is Tin Machine.

Iʼd like to think that – from the flippant cover on down – The Next Day is a reckoning, an exorcism, a final, definitive break with and deconstruction of the very concept of being “David Bowie”. If this proves to be true, the albumʼs last two tracks may be clues pointing the way forward. “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” is a puddle of spiteful invective disguised as a feel-good singalong, a nasty piece of character assassination that ends with the drumbeat that opened Ziggy Stardustʼs opening salvo, “Five Years”. I love how it plays out like a sick joke at the expense of everything he once stood for or, perhaps, the idea that he ever stood for anything at all.

Cue the Scott Walker-aping closer, “Heat”, with its refrains of “And I tell myself I donʼt know who I am” and “I am a seer and I am a liar”. Thereʼs a weirdly self-destructive tone to all of it, like David Bowie (the person) has gotten sick of being “David Bowie” (the icon). In fact, itʼs almost like those years of “David Bowie is dead” rumors roused the man into action. Oh no you donʼt, world. David Bowie isnʼt dead until David Bowie fucking says so. On this album, he doesnʼt just die, heʼs brutally murdered, his body “left to rot in a hollow tree” (to quote the driving title track, the albumʼs other major highlight). Itʼs not quite John Lennon singing “the dream is over”, but I guess itʼll have to do.

More than any other Bowie album, it reminds me of Never Let Me Down (Bowieʼs least favorite and probably yours too), an album of very dark, unsettling songs all but ruined by their overstuffed, Sports-Mascot-chipper arrangements. The difference for me is: 1) I heard Never Let Me Down when I was in grade school and 2) I had taken the time to read and be thoroughly creeped out by the lyrics before I even heard a single note of it. The fact that the album itself wasnʼt any good was irrelevant – at that time in my life and under those circumstances, it didnʼt have to be. I can still listen to that album today and hear it not for what it is but what I always wanted it to be. A tiny, embarrassing part of Bowieʼs history that I co-opted for my own purposes, it now exists in my psyche as a weird little lie I still tell myself to feel better about the way my handle on the world and on myself has changed.

This isnʼt a phenomenon exclusive to David Bowie, of course. There are plenty of objectively shitty albums Iʼve embraced because they happened to be just what I needed at the time. Granting yourself the right to occasionally have incredibly shitty taste in music is a small but weirdly satisfying victory, like looking at yourself naked in the mirror and successfully stifling the urge to flinch. But I digress. Sometimes life presents us with things that we recognize to be completely true, but more often than not weʼre just making shit up as we go along. Just as many have chosen to believe that this is the Bowie album theyʼve all been waiting for, I have to believe that the cold, empty feeling it leaves me with is deliberate, not only because thatʼs consistent with how I think of Bowieʼs role as an artist, but also because itʼs the only way I can finally make sense of this thing and move on with my life.

So here it is, The Next Day, Bowieʼs own “Glass Onion”, a monument to our misguided nostalgia, a comeback that exists only to shut us up once and for all. You either see it as the album you want, the album you need, or the album you deserve. Everybody wins.

Somewhere in the museum wing on my way out, I see a small note at my feet in what looks suspiciously like the artistʼs handwriting. Thinking it may provide some context for all Iʼve seen, I pick it up and, sure enough, there it is: “You Canʼt Go Home Again”.

“Or in other words, shy from the sky. No answer lies there. It cannot care, especially for what it no longer knows. Treat that place as a thing unto itself, independent of all else, and confront it on those terms. You alone must find the way. No one else can help you. Every way is different. And if you do lose yourself at least take solace in the absolute certainty that you will perish.”
– Mark Z. Danielewski

MIXTAPE OF THE DAMNED :: The year in OH, HELL NO

Words: Anthony Hansen

Skrillex with The Doors' Robby Krieger (shudder...)

Track One: “My Own Cobain” by Limp Bizkit

One fine day, myself and two other Texture writers (J.R. Cumming and Texture head honcho Jesse Locke) attempted to relive the most misguided days of our youth by putting on Limp Bizkit’s Greatest Hits. It didn’t work. Though good for an unintentional guffaw or two, it seems Limp Bizkit weren’t just one in an endless parade of shitty bands designed to capitalize on teen angst — they were a product of a very specific time and place, brazen bandwagon-jumpers whose sound defined an era we’ve all worked very hard to forget. And yet, here’s Fred Durst, dragging his knuckles into the 21st century with a song about… feeling like… Kurt Cobain? Seriously? Why, that’s almost as bad as…

Track Two: “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Miley Cyrus

Click to watch it (embedding disabled).

“FUCK YOU, DADDY!”

Track Three: “Edge Of Glory” by Lady Gaga

To everyone who ever pinned their hopes for the future of pop music on this woman, you fucking take that back. Right. Now. Not only does “Edge Of Glory” sound like the kind of tepid pablum you’d hear at a Céline Dion concert, it’s sadly representative of the horrifying tackiness that’s come to define and ultimately overwhelm Lady Gaga’s aesthetic. This is not to imply that I have a problem with kitschiness (I am a B-52’s fan, after all), it’s just that I can’t shake the nagging suspicion that it’s all in the service of one big desperate cry for attention, a temper tantrum thrown at a world that can and will never care enough. “Well, that’s what all pop stars do anyway!” I can hear you braying indignantly. OK, fair. But did I mention this song has a saxophone solo? Because it does.

Track Four: “Fireworks” by Katy Perry

Of course, if I’m gonna take potshots at Lady Gaga, it’s only fair that I should bash Katy Perry as well, seeing as the two seem to be neck-and-neck in their race for Top-40-queen omniscience. I know in my heart that I should probably like Lady Gaga more. After all, Lady Gaga actually has something resembling artistic credibility whereas Katy Perry’s songs aspire to be nothing more than trashy Top 40 fodder… but I’m not sure I buy that. I think there’s an art to crafting fun, simple, perfectly disposable pop songs that’s often lost on those who look to music solely for Big Statements and New Ideas.

Unfortunately, this song is dogshit and Katy Perry’s voice sounds like a defective car alarm.

Track Five: “Leck Mich Im Arsch” by Insane Clown Posse w/ Jack White and JEFF The Brotherhood

Insane Clown Posse – Leck Mich Im Arsch by Third Man Records

HA HA HA HA HA. WHERE’S YOUR MESSIAH NOW, WHITE STRIPES FANS???

Track Six: “Swagger Jagger” by Cher Lloyd

This is the only song I had to actually research before I wrote this list, and as someone who now knows more about this song than I know about some of my own neighbours: it wasn’t worth it. Nothing is worth anything anymore.

Track Seven: “Stereo Hearts” by Gym Class Heroes w/ Adam Levine

Business as usual. Adam Levine sings like he just unhooked his jaw to swallow a pile of gym socks.

Track Eight: “Profundis” by Morbid Angel

“Hear that, kids? That’s what your dad thinks all metal bands sound like. Now put on some Dire Straits or GET THE HELL OUT OF MY HOUSE.”

Track Nine: “Breakin’ A Sweat” by Skrillex w/ The Doors

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NM3mON6_yVk

Before I get to the year’s most infamous cross-cultural trainwreck, here’s something that might be even worse. Ray Manzarek has been doing his damnedest to sully The Doors’ legacy for well over 40 years now (Jesus), but working with Skrillex represents a leap in logic so convoluted it actually defies human comprehension. The worst part is that Skrillex’s production is actually not too shabby, it’s just that Manzarek’s constant spoken interjections posit this somewhere between running into your dad at a rave and watching a senile old dog try to hump an electric fence.

Track Ten: “The View” by Metallica w/ Lou Reed

Well, this was kind of inevitable, wasn’t it? It’s not every year that you get to witness a musical disaster of such epic proportions. And yet, I’d like to take this opportunity to point out something that I think no other reviewer has touched on, namely: Lulu sounds exactly like an early Swans album.

If Swans were terrible.

Freak Out! 10 Frank Zappa Albums You Ought To Own (And What To Pick Up Next If You Like Them) :: Part 2 of 2

Words: Anthony Hansen


Last week, the Texture Guide to Frank Zappa took us from Freak Out! to Apostrophe (‘) in one fell swoop. In part 2, we traverse the rocky territory of the 1970s to ’90s.

6. Roxy & Elsewhere (1974)

What I failed to mention in the previous article is that Zappa spent the better part of the mid-70s working with the most musically dexterous incarnation of his backing band yet (a loose group of musicians that generally included George Duke on keyboards, Ruth Underwood on percussion, Tom Fowler on bass and his brother Bruce on trombone). This is particularly important to keep in mind, because on Roxy & Elsewhere he really puts them to the test, tossing out some of his most mind-meltingly complicated compositions ever.

What keeps this from being just an empty display of muso wanking, however, is the fact that in addition to playing these songs perfectly, the band makes them swing, infusing them with a spontaneity and vitality that makes it sound like they could do this sort of thing in their sleep. The scary thing is, they probably could. The scarier thing is, they did it live.

HERE, START WITH THIS: “Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?”

What to get next: One Size Fits All retains much of the same lineup and, for those with more delicate sensibilities, is one of the few Zappa albums without any gross-out humor or perverse sexual references in the lyrics. That the songs are all top-notch doesn’t hurt, either.

7. Sheik Yerbouti (1979)

From this point on, every Zappa album with vocals followed the exact same formula: loud rock music with questionable lyrical content and a few muso-baiting instrumentals thrown in for good measure. One could argue that 1976’s Zoot Allures set the template, but it’s Sheik Yerbouti that takes it to its furthest extreme: it’s filthier, fiercer, funnier, and guaranteed to offend absolutely everybody.

It’s also got some of Zappa’s best and most singable melodies, even if they’re in the service of lines like “Don’t fool yourself girl / it’s going right up yer poop chute”. Musically, this is as straightforward as Zappa ever got, but the supernaturally energetic backing band assures that there’s never a dull moment. Incidentally, this is the album that introduced the world to art-rock guitar god Adrian Belew and gigantic drum set enthusiast Terry Bozzio (who spends a good portion of the album screaming his lungs out).

HERE, START WITH THIS: “Broken Hearts Are For Assholes”

What to get next: Joe’s Garage, because if you can stomach songs like “Bobby Brown Goes Down” and “Jewish Princess”, chances are you’re ready for a rock opera with 10 minutes of robot-fucking.

8. You Are What You Is (1981)

Turning the perverse humor down a notch, Zappa returned to barbed social satire on You Are What You Is, this time targeting youthful indolence, yuppie self-absorption, and organized religion with a ferociousness that borders on blood-thirsty. Zappa clearly entered the ’80s more frustrated and pessimistic than ever, and it seems the mean-spiritedness that marked his late-’70s novelty-rock albums had now finally found some worthy targets.

Still, in spite of the sour aftertaste, this is easily one of Zappa’s best lyrical offerings, and the extra effort he seemed to have put in the words gives the hyper-caffeinated, ADD-addled music a focus that differentiates it from the “throw-everything-against-the-wall-and-see-if-it-sticks” quality that mars even some of his better efforts. And of course, this being a Zappa album, a lot of it is funny as hell.

HERE, START WITH THIS: “You Are What You Is”

What to get next: Zappa followed YAWYI with Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch, a comparatively lightweight effort that benefits from being one of the most immediately likable, casual-sounding albums in Zappa’s discography. Six songs, no filler, and a slight New Wave aftertaste (yes, it’s the one with “Valley Girl” on it).

9. Broadway The Hard Way/The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life/Make A Jazz Noise Here (all from 1988)

After spending the bulk of the ’80s in a depressingly self-indulgent creative rut, Zappa released a trio of live albums featuring some of the best music of his career. Though his 1988 touring band didn’t last too long due to internal politics (i.e., infighting), they were hailed by many fans as one of the most talented he’d ever assembled.

Of the three albums, Broadway The Hard Way focuses most on political satire, The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life is concentrated more towards crowd-pleasing fan favorites (and some exceptionally weird covers), and the mostly-instrumental Make A Jazz Noise Here focuses on just how well this band could play the complicated stuff. Though Best Band is the easiest place to start, the medley of early Mothers material on Make A Jazz Noise Here has to be heard to be believed. Oh, and did I mention this lineup featured a full five-piece horn section?

HERE, START WITH THIS: “Stolen Moments”

What To Get Next: If you get all three of these albums and still want more, you might as well go the whole hog and delve into the exhausting six-volume You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore series, a comprehensive collection of rare live cuts that spans Zappa’s entire career.

10. Civilization Phaze III (1994):

DON’T GET THIS FIRST. This is the FZ master class, the final exam, a monolith of musically uncompromising darkness that stands in stark contrast to everything else the man ever did. Composed almost entirely on Synclavier during the last years of Zappa’s life, Civilization Phaze III is an “opera-pantomime” that seems to allegorically describe where he thought society was headed. It isn’t pretty.

The nightmarish dystopia described in the libretto is perfectly articulated by the music, a creepy, discordant, borderline-incomprehensible polyrhythmic collision of otherworldly, computer-manipulated instrumental tones. Though it sounds like pure chaos on the surface, the truth is that Zappa had never been so firmly in control of his own musical vision, even as his body was succumbing to the later stages of prostate cancer. Not all of it works, but it’s hard to fault what essentially amounts to Frank Zappa’s musical last will and testament.

HERE, START WITH THIS:“Dio Fa”

What To Get Next: Next? You’ll be lucky if you even find this one. Nevertheless, The Yellow Shark, Zappa’s second-to-last album, features his orchestral compositions being played by the Ensemble Modern, one of the few groups of musicians who took Zappa’s orchestral music seriously enough to do it justice.

Freak Out! 10 Frank Zappa Albums You Ought To Own (And What To Pick Up Next If You Like Them) :: Part 1 of 2

Words: Anthony Hansen

The man, the legend.

There are few discographies as intimidating as Frank Zappa’s. The man released something like 63 albums in his lifetime and approved at least six more for release shortly before his death (a couple of which still remain in the vaults). Add to that the fact that Zappa didn’t fall into any kind of stylistic rut for more than few years at a time (at most), and you get a man whose work is exceptionally hard to pin down. And yet, for however many different musical phases he went through, his work is almost always immediately recognizable.

Contrary to what many people believe, Zappa’s influences are obvious – it’s just that very few people thought to combine doo-wop vocal harmonies and blues-inspired guitarwork with the compositional techniques of Edgar Varèse (and, to a lesser extent, Igor Stravinsky). This doesn’t even account for the deeply cynical world view that informed his lyrics, his affection for various strains of jazz, and his brief but regrettable dalliance with reggae in the ’80s.

Simply put, this was a man crazy enough to make a career out of breaking as many rules as he could, but only because he was smart enough to have learned all the rules in the first place. Without further ado, here it is: 10 Frank Zappa Albums You Ought To Own (And What To Pick Up Next If You Like Them).

1. Freak Out! (1966)

Though it was always clear who was running the show, Zappa began his career as part of the Mothers Of Invention, a calculatedly outrageous group of musical trouble-makers who subverted/perverted whatever cultural norms they could get their grubby little mitts on. Though a certain amount of attitude wasn’t uncommon in rock music at the time, The Mothers may have been the first group to turn that kind of attitude against the music itself, effectively making them the first truly post-modern rock band.

On this album you’ll find scathing political diatribes (“Trouble Every Day”), flippant anti-love songs (“Go Cry On Somebody Else’s Shoulder”), catchy pop songs ruined by deliberately stupid lyrics (“Wowie Zowie”) and the most hellish take on barbershop quartet harmonies ever conceived (“It Can’t Happen Here”). How revolutionary was it? Put it this way: when The Beatles were making Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Paul McCartney referred to it as “our Freak Out!”

HERE, START WITH THIS:
"Hungry Freaks Daddy"

What to get next: We’re Only In It For The Money, which condenses all the best aspects of Freak Out! into an airtight tight 39 minutes – and gets in a few famously nasty jabs at the hippie subculture The Mothers unwittingly helped create.

2. Hot Rats (1969)

The one Zappa album even most non-Zappa fans can enjoy. Musically, this is his most serious, straightforward, and pleasingly melodic foray into jazz music, showing a focus and sophistication that wasn’t always evident in The Mothers’ brand of scabrous satire.

For this album he wisely jettisoned his former backing band (save for multi-instrumentalist Ian Underwood) in favor of a rotating cast of jazz and blues luminaries that included Shuggie Otis, Sugar Cane Harris, Jean-Luc Ponty and his childhood friend Don Van Vliet, a.k.a. Captain Beefheart (on the album’s one vocal cut, “Willie The Pimp”). Still, Zappa more than holds his own in such esteemed company, and the result is an album that stands as a landmark in both jazz and rock.

HERE, START WITH THIS: "Peaches en Regalia"

What to get next: Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo, Zappa’s return to fusion after a questionable foray into vaudevillian comedy rock.

3. Weasels Ripped My Flesh (1969)

Of course, there’s something to be said for pure musical anarchy, and no Zappa album is as proudly abrasive, undisciplined and all-over-the-place as Weasels Ripped My Flesh, the original Mothers’ swan song. Compiled from various live improvs and studio outtakes (much like its predecessor, the far more subdued Burnt Weeny Sandwich), this is the album where Zappa’s affection for free-jazz luminaries like Albert Ayler, Eric Dolphy and Rahsaan Roland Kirk really shines through.

Along the way, we also get a couple of absolutely smoking blues numbers (“Directly From My Heart To You”, “My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama”), a bona fide We’re Only In It For The Money outtake (“Oh No”), and the title track, an impenetrable wall of noise that sums up the irreverent, confrontational tone of the album perfectly. All that and what may be Zappa’s best-ever album cover, to boot.

HERE, START WITH THIS: "Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue"

What to get next: The aforementioned Burnt Weeny Sandwich provides a glimpse at the Mothers’ more “serious” side and features some of the most exquisite compositions in the Zappa catalogue. If that sounds like a more appealing prospect than the jarring, discordant mess of Weasels, you may want save the flesh-razing for another day and grab yerself a tasty Sandwich.

4. Chunga’s Revenge (1970)

The closest Zappa ever came to a “normal” hard rock album, and it’s a monster. What’s worth noting right off the bat is that it’s not just “normal” in its musical straightforwardness (a good portion of these songs are essentially just blues jams), but structurally as well. Where all Zappa’s albums up to this point had some kind overarching/underlying concept or theme trying their songs together, Chunga’s Revenge sounds more like a quick snapshot of whatever was running through Frank’s mind (or setlist) at the time.

So you get a Hot Rats outtake here (“Twenty Small Cigars”), an all-over-the-place live improv there (“The Nancy And Mary Music”) a fake drum solo thrown in for no apparent reason (“The Clap”), and a wonderful R&B number to top it all off (“Sharleena”).

This album also marks the first appearance of Flo and Eddie, two former Turtles who would act as Zappa’s main singers/sleazy comedic foils for the following two years. The next couple of albums would show what a pain in the ass they could be when given free rein over the music, but it’s hard to imagine any other singers pulling off a song like “Tell Me You Love Me” with such dick-swinging conviction.

HERE, START WITH THIS: "The Clap"

What to get next: Most critics would steer you away from this era of Zappa entirely, but I have an inexplicable soft spot for Just Another Band From L.A. I’m in the minority, though, so caveat empor.

5. Apostrophe (‘) (1974)

Having gotten a couple of fine instrumental albums out of his system, Zappa returned to more conventional pop songwriting, though “conventional” is always a relative term in the Zappa universe. Not only was he still cramming in as many complicated musical twists as he could, he was also incorporating his more recent jazz-fusion influences, as well as some very pronounced funk-rock elements.

The first album to display this change in style was Over-Nite Sensation, but Apostrophe is (arguably) even better. Yes, the dog wee-wee jokes are stupid, but the music is so full of intriguing twists and turns, lightning-speed instrumental interplay and rock-solid melodies that Frank could have been singing from a phone book and this would still be one of his better albums.

Luckily, some of the wordplay is among his most clever (even when the subject matter is eye-rollingly inane) and he even makes room for a kick-ass jam with ex-Cream bassist Jack Bruce on the title track. Speaking of which, the dirtiest joke on the album is the title – what do YOU think an apostrophe between two brackets is supposed to look like?

HERE, START WITH THIS:“Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow”

What to get next: The aforementioned Over-Nite Sensation contains some of Zappa’s best songs, not to mention his filthiest. Apostrophe may have the edge here, but to get one and not the other would be like speed-reading through one of the most vital chapters in Zappa’s musical development.

Next: 1974-1994…