March 2022 Rock/Pop Record Reviews

David Bowie: Brilliant Adventure (1992–2001)

Parlophone DBXL 5 0190295253462 (LP Box Set). 2021. Various producers and engineers.

Performance *****

Sonics ****½

Brilliant Adventure could easily have been called Bowie Gets His Edge Back. After years of shallow creativity, he found himself back at pop’s outer reaches. Included in this wonderfully packaged box set are the remastered studio albums Black Tie White Noise, Outside, Earthling, ‘hours…’, and The Buddha of Suburbia, which served as a soundtrack for a BBC series of the same name. There’s also an exuberant live album, from 2000, the highlights being “This Is Not America” and a delightfully sleazy “Cracked Actor,” with Earl Slick’s guitar sounding positively obscene.

It’s great to have these albums, which were long unavailable on vinyl, return in this form; the drum’n’bass of Earthling especially benefits from the space to breathe over three sides. There’s also a lush book with interviews and pics, and an album of rarities.

The real draw, however, is the previously unreleased Toy. In 2000, Bowie returned to some of his earliest songs and rerecorded them with his band, but the album got lost in the scheduling shuffle and was never officially released, until now.

Mostly it works, as on “Silly Boy Blue,” which here drops the whimsy of the original and turns it back into Heathen-era alt-rock. “Conversation Piece” is marvelous, surely now regarded as one of his great songs.

Not all the songs benefit from the update. With its recorded-in-a-closet sound, the original “London Boys” had a melancholic Mod swagger, which gets lost when that sharp mohair suit is swapped for a comfy-cardigan indie-modern production.

But even average Bowie is interesting, and on the whopping 34 sides of music in this box set, the vast majority is better than average. Brilliant Adventure is heavy, not just in weight (though it is; be careful how you lift it!) but in quality, too. David Bowie was back.—Phil Brett


The Accidentals: Vessel

The Accidentals (16/44.1, Qobuz). 2021. Tucker Martine and John Congleton, prods.; Richard Dodd, eng.

Performance ****

Sonics ****

Violinist Savannah Buist and cellist Katie Larson started playing together in high school, bound by a conviction that classically trained musicians should not be barred from pop and rock music. When they met the imaginative drummer Michael Dause, the Accidentals were complete. Vessel, their fifth album, is a worthy step in the band’s development.

The coproducers on this project are indie rock nobility: Tucker Martine and John Congleton. Their experienced guiding hands yield dividends in the sophisticated soundscape of the Accidentals’ 14 original songs. Buist is the lead singer, with Larson on vocal harmonies and Dause sometimes joining in. Both women play other instruments, most prominently guitar and mandolin, with as much skill as they play their specialties.

The weakest aspect in many Accidentals songs is the vocal line. Buist’s flutish voice is pleasant, but these composers are not natural melodists. “Marrow” is one of the more interesting vocals; its observational lyrics smack of Suzanne Vega, and the tight harmonies conjure up the Indigo Girls. The unison singing on “Count the Rings,” over a thudding bass, has a Go-Go’s feel, right down to the swallowed word-endings and glottal stops.

Artful instrumental arrangements make up for unglamorous vocals. The taut pizzicato on “Go Getter” brings to mind the Ravel F-major String Quartet. “Waste,” on the other hand, uses distortion in the cello and electric guitar to support commentary on climate change. On “Damascus Blades,” Larson’s long bow strokes provide a bone-buzzing foundation for countless instrumental layers. In contrast to the standard, cheesy use by rock bands of bowed strings as an emotional crutch—the string-quartet swell at the bridge—the Accidentals have a keen understanding of their timbral potential.—Anne E. Johnson

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