February 21, 1996
Three From Virgin - I recently received new albums from three of Virgin's biggest stars. And while each has outstanding singles, none is fully satisfying.
David Bowie, Outside (Virgin 1995) - After a 15-year break, David Bowie is reunited with Brian Eno, his collaborator on the late 70s trio of Low, Heroes, and Lodger (still Bowie's high water mark). Recorded at the famed Mountain Studios in Montreaux, Switzerland, Outside finds Bowie moving backwards and forwards at the same time.
Backwards in the sense that Bowie is reunited with some of the musicians who helped lead him to his greatest fame, including Carlos Alomar, who has worked as Bowie's rhythm guitarist since 1974, and Mike Garson, who played keyboards on Aladdin Sane.
Also appearing is drummer Sterling Campbell, now with Soul Asylum, and lead guitarist Reeves Gabrels, whom Bowie still calls "one of the great unknowns of rock," despite his work on the disaster known as Tin Machine.
Bowie recalls that, when recording Outside, "Brian [Eno] set up his various gizmos, rhythm machines, toy pianos, clocks, samplers, radio, etc., and gave each musician a flash card. On it he had written a brief character description. 'You are the last remaining survivor of a catastrophic event, and you will endeavor in such a way as to prevent feelings of loneliness developing within yourself,' and so forth."
Eventually, the artists recorded this sprawling 74-minute set, which Bowie subtitles "The Diary of Nathan Adler, or the Art-Ritual Murder of Baby Grace Blue."
Ostensibly, the album concerns seven characters set in the fictional village of New Oxford Town, Connecticut, and their investigations into a "series of so-called ritual art murders, concept muggings, and other diverse and chaotic misdeeds." However, I have a hard time finding the unifying thread.
Which leads to the forward looking part of the album. For the first half of the disc, Bowie explores a series of atonal concepts. Which leads you to wonder whether Bowie's way ahead of his time, or has simply become melodically-impaired.
Fortunately, Bowie finds a melody on the eighth cut, the terrific "I Have Not Been to Oxford Town." With its solid rhythmic stomp and overlaid vocals, "I Have Not Been to Oxford Town" brings back memories of "Joe the Lion," a delicious cut from Heroes.
Unfortunately, Bowie then sags again until the end of the album, which perks up with another great single, "Strangers When We Meet," a moody piece that is reminiscent of the Diamond Dogs sessions.
Overall, Outside is a hard album to listen to. But the singles are great. Too bad Bowie didn't shorten the album and include a few more catchy riffs.
Smashing Pumpkins, Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness (Virgin 1995) - Even more difficult is Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness, a double-disc collection with 28 songs and more than two hours of music. Smashing Pumpkins are one of today's hottest alternative acts (their last studio album, Siamese Dream, sold over 3.4 million copies), yet I find this set too extreme.
Originally based in Chicago, Smashing Pumpkins consists of singer, songwriter, and guitarist Billy Corgan (hailed by some as a genius), guitarist James Iha, female bassist D'Arcy, and Jimmy Chamberlain on drums.
To have achieved their incredible success, Smashing Pumpkins must be a dynamite live act. However, Mellon Collie is a bit too much. Too loud, too brash, too metallic, too alternative. I like my rock more mainstream, with an emphasis on guitars and melodies. And hopefully, lyrics that I can relate to.
Which makes most of Mellon Collie difficult for me. But the single, "1979," is massive. With a terrific techno-guitar sound, "1979" is everything you would want from an alternative rock song. And it deserves every bit of the airplay it is getting. I just wish the rest of the album was more traditional.
Stripped is billed as a live album, and finds the Stones returning to chestnuts from their heyday of 1965 to 1973. With a blend of R & B, gospel, rock, and honky-tonk, Stripped shows why the Stones were such a great band. [Stripped is also the band's first release without long-time bassist Bill Wyman, who has been replaced by Darryl Jones].
People who saw the Voodoo Lounge tour tell me this album is a faithful sampler of the set. The cuts are an interesting cross-section, as they range from a cover of Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone," to "Let it Bleed" (originally recorded in 1969) to "Dead Flowers" (from 1971's Sticky Fingers).
Unfortunately, several tracks fall flat, like the unneeded ballads "Wild Horses" and "Angie," both of which sound bloated in retrospect. Unlike the excellent live material recorded at the El Macombo Club on 1976's Love You Live, these cuts lack the spark needed to drive a live recording.
However, some of the singles are smashing, such as "Not Fade Away," a Buddy Holly song with a Bo Diddley drum solo that opened the Voodoo Lounge tour, and "Sweet Virginia," a great and long-forgotten blues number from 1972's Exile on Main Street.
The problem with Stripped is that it lacks a cohesive identify. Some tracks were recorded live at the Paradise Club in Amsterdam and the Olympia Theater in Paris: the balance were recorded at rehearsals in Tokyo, Japan, and Lisbon, Portugal.
And I can't even say I like the live tracks best, as my two favorite cuts ("Not Fade Away" and "Sweet Virginia") were both recorded at rehearsals in Lisbon. Stripped can't decide whether it's a live album, an Unplugged album, or studio album. And it's this lack of coherency that ultimately bogs it down. Though, once again, the singles are delicious.
-- Randy Krbechek
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