Hours ... (Virgin 7243 8 48157 07)
Some people never change, but David Bowie isn't one of them. Easily the most chameleonic pop star of his generation, he has offered himself in numerous guises over the years, each with its own distinct musical identity.
Bowie's compulsive changeability has been useful in terms of keeping his audience from tiring of the same old shtick -- could you imagine having to sit through "Ziggy Stardust: The 25th Anniversary Tour"? -- but it does have its drawbacks. Because moving on to a new sound every couple of years is admirable only if that new sound is better than the last one.
Unfortunately, that's not the case with "Hours ..." As it moves away from the flashy, drum 'n' bass-oriented sound of "Earthling" and toward a more conventional, guitar-based approach, it should make Bowie's music more appealing to rock-and-roll traditionalists. But it doesn't, in large part because it never seems to connect to the sort of rhythmic energy that has always been at the heart of his best rock efforts.
"Hours ..." is moody and brooding, so full of weariness and ennui that Bowie's whimpering croon seems about to crack under the strain. It's a voice he's used before -- perhaps the brightest example of the downbeat Bowie can be found on the 1977 album "Low" -- but usually, he plays it for contrast, letting his enervated vocals play off the vitality of his backing tracks.
That's not the case on this album, however. Despite some nasty bursts of distorted guitar from Reeves Gabrels (who also co-produced the album with Bowie), there's not much edge or energy to these tracks. Instead, the music for the most part is oddly soothing, like some perverse variant on soft rock. Perhaps Bowie was out to create a new type of elevator music: uneasy listening.
To their credit, the music Bowie and Gabrels create in this mode is much more melodically and harmonically ambitious than their previous work together (which stretches from "Earthling" back to the first Tin Machine album in 1989). But that ambition is undermined by Bowie's inability to navigate those tricky, sophisticated tunes, as the off-key moments in "Thursday's Child" make painfully clear.
Even the token attempt to rekindle his old flame -- a self-conscious glam rocker dubbed "The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell" -- is disappointingly flaccid, offering neither menace nor titillation. It sounds almost as if Bowie simply didn't have the energy to be outrageous.
Here's hoping Bowie moves to his next sound real soon.*
Amber (Tommy Boy 1253)
Unless they happen to be '70s veterans, disco singers don't get much respect these days. So even if the single "Sexual (La Da Di)" becomes a massive hit, it's unlikely that such success will make Amber a star. A pity, because "Amber" shows that there's more to this young German than her current single suggests. True, "Sexual (La Da Di)" is everything a dance hit should be, from its irresistible chorus to its driving, house-schooled beat. But it doesn't make as much of Amber's vocal strengths as the dynamic "Love One Another" or the carefully nuanced "Above the Clouds." Add in the Madonna-style wit of "Spiritual Virginity" and the soulful subtlety of "I Found Myself in You," and suddenly Amber sounds like a major talent. ***
Ultra-Obscene (XL/1500/A&M; 0694904282)
Considering how far from the mainstream the world of "breakbeat" styles such as jungle and drum 'n' bass remains, it seems almost silly to describe Breakbeat Era as a "supergroup." Still, this collaboration between producers Roni Size and DJ Die with singer Leonie Laws is a genuine breakthrough for the genre, in part because it operates more like a band than most breakbeat projects, but also because it seems more conventionally song-oriented. That's not to say the music is catchy in any conventional sense -- the pastiches of rumbling synths and hyped-up drum machines will still strike pop fans as painfully abstract -- but as framed by Laws' vocals, the music is blessed with a jazzy angularity that makes its restless energy seem oddly tuneful. ***
Brooks & Dunn
Tightrope (Arista 18895)
At this point in their careers, Brooks & Dunn rank as one of the most popular and dependable acts in country music, and that ought to be as good a time as any for the duo to rest on their laurels. But they haven't. In fact, "Tight Rope" is perhaps the strongest and most adventurous album the pair have made. That's not to say they've radically changed their sound; tracks such as "Beer Thirty" and "Goin' Under Gettin' Over You" offer all the charms longtime fans expect. But there's an unexpected soulfulness to the sweet, sad "Hurt Train" and an emotional openness to "All Out of Love" that take the traditional Brooks & Dunn approach to a new level entirely. ***
The Sweetest Punch
New Songs of Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach Arranged by Bill Frisell (Decca 314 559 865)
Although improvisation is what puts the jazz into a jazz album, solos aren't always the recording's focus. Take, for example, "The Sweetest Punch: New Songs of Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach Arranged by Bill Frisell." Working from the material Bacharach and Costello composed for their 1998 collaboration "Painted From Memory," Frisell creates settings that so totally focus on the beauty of the songs' melodic and harmonic ideas that the solos almost seem secondary. That's no slight against the players, who include such heavyweights as Don Byron and Curtis Fowlkes, who are amply showcased. But everything, from the instrumental lines to occasional vocals by Costello and Cassandra Wilson, is offered in service of the songs -- and frankly, they deserve the attention. ***
* = poor
** = fair
*** = good
**** = excellent
Pub Date: 10/07/99