After a tour with Nine Inch Nails, Bowie is back with a somewhat refreshed, if not particularly original attitude towards attack drums and dance anxieties.
Earthling starts off with a great grabbag of sonic tricks: "Little Wonder" merges Bowie's always theatric vocals with a machine gun electric beat and various sound F/X. It's a song dying for dance club play, and a refreshing return for Bowie after the unappetizing dark confusion that was his last CD, Outside.
"Wonder" is a great addition to the Bowie canon, as is the wild-electric texture of "Dead Man Walking," which bears a strong resemblance to "Lucy Can't Dance," the best song on 1993's Black Tie White Noise album.
The Nine Inch Nails lessons turn up noticeably on the aggressive guitar barrage of "The Last Thing You Should Do" and "Battle For Britain," the latter of which also includes a mad piano interlude.
The downside of Earthling is that once Bowie latches onto a good groove, he doesn't know how to let go of it. Much of the disc spins along with what seems to be the same drumbeat at its core. This, as you can imagine, gets old fast. And some of the songs themselves don't know when to quit; the average track length is five minutes.
It's not Bowie at his best, but it is Bowie with a good beat — and that's always worth hearing.
Breaking the Ethers
I don't often drag jazz into this column — there's more than enough pop music to review. But every now and then I hear an album that I simply have to mention: Tuatara's disc is one of them. This is a wild, sometimes dark and staccato stream of instrumental jazz and world music that is fluidly dreamy as often as it is frantic. The band brings in everything from honking saxophones to steel drums and Australian didgeridoo to bongo percussion, moving from Spyro Gyra easy listening melodies to funky jams to subtley engaging compositions. Unlike a lot of jazz discs I hear, it's never boring.
And, as I learned once I began to write this review and chanced to look at the list of band members, there's a reason this is such an eclectic and inventive act: it's not a group of standard jazz musicians at all, but a collection of rock band sidemen. Tuatara founders Barrett Martin and Justin Harwood hail from Screaming Trees and Luna, respectively and handling strings is R.E.M.'s Peter Buck. Saxophonist and percussionist Skerik rounds out the group. The album also features guest appearances from members of Pearl Jam, Young Fresh Fellows and Los Lobos.