(ISO / Columbia ***1/2)
nolead ends Three Januarys ago, David Bowie celebrated his 66th birthday by ending a 10-year recording hiatus and surprise-announcing The Next Day, an altogether impressive collection that sounded like a shockingly normal, classic David Bowie album.
Blackstar is something different. Released last week on Bowie's 69th birthday, it reintroduces the strange, experimental anti-pop David Bowie. Its opening title cut is a mysterious three-part suite, a quietly clattering, mournful lament that might be sci-fi noir fantasia or could be "about ISIS," as saxophonist Donny McCaslin - whose downtown New York quintet backs Bowie, along with longtime producer Tony Visconti - has said.
The seven lengthy songs don't bother much with conventional structures or hooks, clocking in at a languorous 41 minutes. And though he's playing with jazz musicians, Bowie employs them in an avant-rock direction. He's a master conceptualist, creatively energized by a fresh set of sonic possibilities. The songs' odd time signatures and the use of McCaslin's horn as counterpoint to Bowie's crooning makes the connection between Blackstar and Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly that Visconti has pointed out in interviews seem not so far-fetched: They're both examples of an artist using jazz musicians to realize a non-jazz artistic vision.
"Everybody knows me now," Bowie sings on "Lazarus," a shimmery ballad in which the art-rock elder statesman fires off corrosive blasts of electric guitar while showing himself to be still fully alive creatively. Not really, we don't. In fact, he's still full of welcome surprises.
- Dan DeLuca
nolead begins Ennio Morricone and Various Artists
nolead ends nolead begins Quentin Tarantino's The H8ful Eight Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
nolead ends nolead begins (Decca, CD; Third Man, vinyl ****)
nolead ends Its characters curse up a racist, misogynist storm in accordance with Quentin Tarantino's script, which turns a snowy Wyoming plain bloodred. Roy Orbison echoes subtly but deafeningly in a funereal march ("There Won't Be Many Coming Home" that's so haunting and relevant you'll think the late crooner penned it for this film). Yet, as clearly as Samuel L. Jackson bellows with biblical force, a not-so-hateful Ennio Morricone is the true star of this post-Civil War cinematic escapade's sound track - his first western film score since The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
Tarantino is no stranger to Morricone's work. Elements of the classical spaghetti western maestro's music have appeared throughout Tarantino's filmic oeuvre. For the H8ful Eight score, composer-orchestrator Morricone pulls from his own back pages (the deep bassoons, the tension-filled strings) as a familiar reference point, the trembling tone of frontier justice. Menace and anxiety lurk within the low reeds, stressed strings, and muted brass of "L'Ultima Diligenza di Red Rock." The verve of danger, sadness, and sex tweak every note of "Neve." But this is no Morricone rerun. The sumptuous "Overture" moves slowly and playfully, with the shimmer of angelic chimes to offset the vintage violence that pervades the rest of his score.
- A.D. Amorosi
nolead begins Villagers
nolead ends nolead begins Where Have You Been All My Life?
nolead ends nolead begins (Domino ***)
nolead ends On last spring's Darling Arithmetic, Conor O'Brien reined in his penchant for broader orchestral arrangements. The Irish folk-rocker recorded Darling, the third Villagers album, essentially by himself (as he had the first one), and he eschewed the tendency toward grand, powerful song statements (something that marred the second one). Where Have You Been All My Life? doubles down on Darling's gentler acoustic approach.
O'Brien recorded these songs in one day, backed mostly by harp, piano, double bass, and flügelhorn. The tone is careful and intimate, highlighting O'Brien's earnest voice and light acoustic guitar fingerpicking. It's an odd career move: All but two tracks are pastoral versions of songs from the first three Villagers albums. But it works as a latecomer's introduction to Villagers, and fans of Damien Rice, Jeff Buckley, and Laura Marling would do well to take notice.
- Steve Klinge