Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Adrian Belew Power Hour #2 Lodger

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By: Alex Gomory

Adrian only toured with Frank for one year.  During his time, Frank caught some band members using drugs (a big no-no in Frank's bands) and it was expected he would be cleaning house, which he ended up doing for the most part.  Adrian, concerned about what the future may hold for him in Frank's line-up was already open to new opportunities.

 During a show in Germany a young Brit-pop icon by the name of David Bowie approached Adrian after the show, offering him a spot in his touring band once he was done with Frank's band (this would be a common hiring trend for Adrian).  After the tour Frank let Adrian know he would be busy editing his new film Baby Snakes for a while, meaning he would not be needing Adrian.  Adrian, accepted David's offer and toured with him.  During his year long stint with David he would tour to support Heroes the second of the Berlin series trio, and be featured on the final Berlin album Lodger.  Adrian and David's paths would cross again twelve years later when Adrian would become the musical director for David's Sound+Vision tour.

Adrian's time in David Bowie's touring group is quite fitting considering David's music at the time.  The Berlin trio, aside from the single Heroes is often ignored by classic rock radio DJs for a variety of reasons.  The songs themselves are quite different from the rest of David's discography and could easily be considered challenging to the average music lover.  In addition, many tracks forgo David's iconic voice for a more instrumental approach.  It is a part of his career that is either loved or hated, with little middle ground.  Adrian's iconic approach to music fit in quite well with David's more challenging albums.

Lodger - David Bowie

To start off I should openly admit I am not the biggest David Bowie fan.  For every Ziggy Stardust there seems to be an accompanying Black Tie White Noise.  Perhaps it is a bit unfair to demand a perfect discography from a pop-rock act, but at the same time it would be disingenuous to state he can do no wrong.  Regardless I have infinite respect for him.  He could have easily gotten away with reproducing the same style of music over his still active career and potentially earn even more truck loads of money, but he did not.  David, to his credit, is always doing something new in his albums, which results in masterpieces, and disasters.  Regardless, an artist deserves respect for at least trying. Not every rock act is going to decide to shove in a saxophone for a few albums, or a do a bunch of instrumental synth tracks.  David's ability to step outside his comfort zone is what has made him such an admirable musician in the world of pop music.  This is also why he can be placed much higher that our current generation of pop-stars who seem to only rehash one style of sound over and over.  I doubt Nicki Minaj is going to hire Brian Eno to do any of her albums.....that would be awesome.  David Bowie, on the other hand, did work with Brian Eno.

Sadly, Nicki Minaj is not going to hire Brian Eno, so here we are discussing Lodger instead.  Lodger is the final album in the Berlin trio.  In short, David Bowie  and Iggy Pop lived in Berlin for a few years in hopes to become sober.  Bowie had developed quite a terrible cocaine habit in the prior years, overdosing a few times, saying some really weird things, such as praising dictators, and collecting Nazi memorabilia.  During this time Bowie delved into a very different musical style, grabbing influences from Kraut Rock groups such as Can, Kraftwerk, and Neu!, and ambient musicians, namely Brian Eno.  For those familiar with David's typical quirky, but popish tendencies, you can tell that the above influences do not typically come up in his earlier works.  While the more critical ear can hear varying influences in Bowie's massive discography, the Berlin trio is much more blatant in its diversion from his typical pop sensibilities.  It should come to no surprise then, that these three albums, Low, Heroes, and Lodger are three of the least known in Bowie's catalog by the general public.  Low and Heroes feature instrumental tracks and non-conventional sounds which are created through synthesizers and effect pedals.  However, we are not here to explore these two, but only the finale of the group, Lodger....other wise we would be missing the whole point now wouldn't we?

Of the three albums, Lodger is the tamest (which is not saying much), and shows David returning to a more traditional style of music that had abandoned for a few years.  Lodger is also in itself an homage to the 70s as whole. The 70s were glorious time that allowed musicians to do whatever they want and for some reason get paid to do it.  The musicians really ruled their own destinies during the fabulous decade, instead of studio executives providing direction for their signed artists.  After the follow up, Scary Monsters, Bowie, like a large chunk of the music community, would enter an almost religious transformation into very traditional pop tendencies with Let's Dance.  Lodger, in a lot of ways was a return to Bowie form, but also a swan song for the madness that was the era, and what an exit David Bowie made....then again, Bowie is known for his entrances just the same....the in-between stuff is pretty dramatic too.

The album's opener, Fantastic Voyage, is almost like a coming home song; as if his crazy bender years had ended and he was returning to an empty apartment that was his own life.  "Our lives are valuable too." Bowie hums, perhaps the realization that the mountain of cocaine he had ingested was not leading to any positive end point was finally dawning on him, who knows, but there is a sense of honesty in the song that does not come regularly.  Too often the album that follows one's sobriety (or near sobriety in this case) falls flat and replaces the drug-addled edge with a soft and bland resemblance of the former.  One could see that in this opener, considering the softer nature of the song which follows the more abstract works of the former two albums.  During my first listen I was worried I was being tasked to listen to a collection of ballads and soft rock.  Which, while earnest, would be far from the excitement of Ziggy Stardust.

Fortunately that worry dissipates quite quickly with the follow up African Flight Night, a dark brooding stomp full of sweeping ambient drones, chanting, percussion interplay, and Adrian Belew guitar trickery.  It is hard to tell, as with anything involving Adrian, what here is a synthesizer and what is Adrian.  Considering Adrian's tendency to be influenced by animal sounds, he seems right at home in a song like this.  David rattles off lyrics like he has a gun to his head, while the rest of the band steps along in a slower rhythm.  The song, sadly, too off-putting for the radio, never got any sort of recognition as it is genuinely one of David's most creative compositions.

This is sort of the odd interplay that happens with this album, you will get a traditional song, either mutated with dissonant guitar tones, or an abrasive song shifted to into a pop format.  David tows a brilliant line here combining all these factors and somehow not allowing it all to fall apart.  Move-On is a perfect example, with odd backing vocals and a slowly building phaser like guitar effect circling the track in a hypnotic way.  Yassassin  in a similar way captures this vibe.  An awkward pace and rhythm is shifted into something quite pleasant with catchy vocals, and more guitar effects.  The song captures a great Middle-Eastern vibe that ensures the song is not too simple and shallow.  It works, somehow, as upon first glance it seems relatively forgettable, but the sharp layering imposed by Bowie creates an experience you keep wanting to dig into.

This is not to say that his formula is perfect, as there are a few moments where the album hits just a bit off the mark.  DJ is a bit too plodding and at four minutes it can not afford its length.  Not to mention DJ comes off as David had just seen a Talking Heads concert and crossed from inspiration to imitation (a funny observation considering Adrian's next move).  His singing cadence is way too similar to David Byrne's iconic awkward vocals to not raise an eyebrow or two.  The song is not a total bust, as it is saved by the wildly dreamy (or nightmarish depending on your definition) guitar work swelling in the background.  Even still, it is hard to not notice that the piano is playing one chord throughout the entire song, which helps to accentuate the repetitive nature.  Perhaps a balance between the two instruments could have helped.   I wish it would have given some of its length to other tracks like African Flight Night.  Repetition too has a bit of problem of just being forgotten in the mix of it all, not a bad song in itself, but overall nothing you will remember.  Heck, I had completely forgotten about it before going back to the album for this review.

Fortunately the album bounces back pretty quickly with Waiting so Long a percussion powered fury blow and Boys Keep Swinging.  Both tracks have a nice drive that awakens the listener after the slightly dull middle track.  David gives plenty of room for more ferocious guitar solos that challenge the listener to accept that there are more guitar effects outside of a wah pedal, perhaps something people were not quite ready for.

 Red Money closes out this quite short album, clocking in at only 35 minutes.  As a closer it gives a wonderful wave goodbye to the golden era of music that David and the whole of western music was about to step out of.  The track provides the listener a window into what sounds like a party in musical form, jamming and riffing over the same pattern over its four minutes of brilliance.  Even still you don't feel like the song overstays its welcome because you are continuously figuring out all the nuances of the material.  It is wonderful to hear pop music with such density, yet frustrating all at the same time, knowing that we simply don't get this kind of thought in radio music anymore.

In the end, I am left with a frustrating feeling over this album.  Bowie was clearly returning to a more pop-centric format with this album, but had not forgotten the creative inspiration that had flooded his records in the past few years. Bands like Can, Kraftwerk, Neu!, Faust, and Guru Guru would never genuinely break out and make it big, so for David Bowie of all people to spend three albums giving them creative nods means a lot.  Here in 2013 we know that even the subtle nod is long gone.  You don't hear any dissonant synth tones on a Maroon 5 track, there are no African poly-rhythms on a Justin Bieber album, and we certainly don't hear many soundscapes on a Taylor Swift album (woah...Brian Eno and Taylor Swift....that'd be weird).  As a pop album it stands perfectly on its own two feet, a near perfect collection of songs that dabble in multiple genres and ideas all the while not dragging the listener into too obscure of music for their own liking.  In a historical context it is a frustrating reminder of how stagnant and dull pop-music would become in the following years, with the help of David Bowie himself.

Fortunately, music was not completely doom and gloom after the 70s ended.  Many great bands formed, or continued to exist, albeit their popularity plummeted to frustrating lows as the popularity of pop-icons and glam rock exploded.  The 80s are a difficult time for music as a whole, for all the creativity that would occur, the realization that less effort could be exerted and the same record sales could be achieved inspired lazier and simpler song-writing.

Lodger then, is more than just a finale to David Bowie's Berlin years.  It is the finale (or close to it as we will learn next time) of creative and challenging pop tunes.  It is a historical piece for both David Bowie and for music as whole, and truly captures a picture of the changing times.  It almost seems like no surprise that so many bands disintegrated at the end of the 70s, or would have a comically bad period during the time.  Led Zeppelin would break up by the beginning of the 80s (although that is more likely due to Bonaham's death, still almost cosmic in a tragic way), Rush would descend into a period of simply awful synthesizer albums, The Who's better years were gone by the 80s (similarly to Zeppelin, with the help of the passing of Keith Moon), and even some of the inspirations for Lodger had called it quits by then.  It is hard to say what truly happened, as if some sort of dark force had
Ahem...excuse I was saying.  It was as if the creatively vibrant 70s were swallowed by some dark
.....As I was if some dark, crushing force had sucked the life out of

Oh forget it...just buy this album.

Next Stop: Remain in Light by Talking Heads.