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From The Beginning: David Bowie – The Man Who Sold The World (1970-71)

Essentials of the Era
Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed” – BBC
Width of a Circle
All The Madmen
The Man Who Sold The World
The Supermen

Starting in 1970, David Bowie locked into an album-a-year rhythm he would maintain for nearly the entire decade as he left behind his more folk-influenced sound on Space Oddity and prepped material for The Man Who Sold The World. With this increased pace come necessarily briefer album cycles – Bowie would be on to the next era of material even before the final singles from this LP were released.

The Man Who Sold The World frequently gets lost between retrospective adoration for “Space Oddity” (not so big of a success at the time) and the three-album glam hits-capade that began with “Changes” from Hunky Dory. This marooned album had no terrific singles of its own. Nirvana did more to promote “Man Who Sold” as a song than Bowie did in the period. The period also occupies a peculiar sonic territory, with Bowie’s pre-Spiders band more interested in sounding heavy than glamrous despite Mick Ronson’s membership in both lineups.

The result is that most latter-day Bowie fans don’t know the music from this era especially well. That makes a deep dive into it all the more interesting … and challenging! This took me over a week to digest despite already having a familiarity with the LP.

bowie-1970Before The Man Who Sold The World

This era begins during the last: Bowie made his first appearance with The Man Who Sold band on the BBC on February 5, 1970, as he was still promoting singles from his second self-titled album.

This appearance was a full-length concert, though only about half those tracks are readily available today. Opener “Amsterdam” by Jacques Brel would later be recored on Pin Ups. Here, Bowie attacks it with verve, first singing in a fine theatrical baritone, but gradually growing more frenzied along with the acoustic guitar that drives the track. It’s not as though any of us are at risk of forgetting Bowie was a theatrical nerd (especially with his many alter-egos looming ahead) but it’s fun to think about how surprising this performance may have been to fans of the day. The host certainly seems a bit shocked by it.

“God Knows I’m Good” is less Dylanesque here than on Space Oddity, but its refrain is less indelible. The next sequence is lost – “Buzz The Fuzz,” “Karma Man,” “London Bye Ta Ta” and “An Occasional Dream.” We pick back up with the first of The Man Who tracks, “The Width Of A Circle.” This is a fascinating early glimpse into the track, which would grow to be impenetrable on the album. Stripped to its acoustic trappings it’s much more driving, but Bowie isn’t quite up to the howling vocal here. He warbles and cracks on the higher notes.

We then skip “Janine” and “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” for a vicious version of “Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed.” Here, the lower-fi sound of the radio session focuses the track’s fury beneath Bowie’s practiced vocal. Unfortunately, there’s no remaster of “Fill Your Heart” or “The Prettiest Star” – both would be fascinating. We do get a sprawling, eight-minute version of “Cygnet Committee” that’s perhaps a bit slighter than the album cut. Bowie’s highs are not as a clear, and his lows not as resonant. Finally, the show ends with “Memory of a Free Festival,” here just prior to its release as a single. However, this is more like the LP version than the fascinating single mix, with unadorned organ until the “sun machine refrain.” (A final take on “Waiting For The Man” is not collected.)

On the whole this session is unremarkable. Bowie is not in his finest voice, and “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed” is the only song strong enough to leave a lasting impression. Indeed, it is the band unleashed on “Unwashed” that seems to best presage the heft of the impending LP despite being still months out from its recording.

The band would return a little over a month later, already fused into a more metal stomp. They show it off on a pulsing version of “Waiting For The Man” with nothing of Lou Reed’s strut (which gets a little weary by the close). Mick Ronson, in particular, is in strong form. “Width of a Circle” has grown hugely in the intervening month. Bowie’s vocal is massive and confident, and Visconti and Woodmansey are beginning to lock into the riffing and fills that would appear on the LP without overdoing them. The song had yet to grow its epic tale of gods and demons (more on that below), so this isn’t really a definitive take on it. A plain electric guitar version of “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” feels out of place even after the band kicks in after the “really you and really me” refrain.

The Man Who Sold The World – Released November 4, 1970

The original UK cover.

The original UK cover.

This might be a weird statement to make about a David Bowie record, but I find it hard to enjoy The Man Who Sold The World because so much of it feels insincere.

When is David Bowie ever really being sincere? He’s not known for his confessional lyrics, that’s for sure. Yet, I would propose there is an inherent honesty and weight in how he portrays many of his fantastic characters with real emotion. They matter to him, so they matter to us. Here, Bowie’s narrative creations feel like nothing more than window dressing to a squalling live band of Mick Ronson, Tony Visconti, and Mick Woodmansey, with Ralph Mace on synthesizers.

The band rocks hard – as hard as anything in Bowie’s catalog until Tin Machine. They lean into a prog-rock, proto-metal sound on this disc that isn’t so far from early Black Sabbath, doubling down on the vibe of the heaviest cuts from Space Oddity. It all sounds terrifically heavy under Visconti’s production, but it isn’t a terrific fit for a fey young Bowie who famously appears on the LP’s cover in an ornate dress. The band’s driving sound leaves little room for Bowie’s flights of lyrical fancy. His vocals are often pushed to their most shrill rock belt, with none of the cutting nasal tone he would use in the Ziggy era.

Opener “Width of a Circle” shows off both the heaviness and the weakness of the band. After an appropriately circular opening riff played by all of the members together they explode! Each of them plays amazing, memorable fills, especially Visconti on bass, yet at points the song sounds like a competition between band members. Bowie’s allegorical lyrics make for fantastical prog rock, but they come off as lightweight nonsense as they compete for attention amongst the arrangement.

Those lyrics bear a deeper examination. After a crackling Ronson solo they reveal a journey to self-understanding that leads Bowie to fall into hell, entwined in near-sexual writhing with a demon god like Gandalf and the Balrog.

He swallowed his pride and puckered his lips
And showed me the leather belt round his hips
My knees were shaking my cheeks aflame
He said “You’ll never go down to the Gods again”
(Turn around, go back!)

He struck the ground a cavern appeared
And I smelt the burning pit of fear
We crashed a thousand yards below
I said “Do it again, do it again”
(Turn around, go back!)

His nebulous body swayed above
His tongue swollen with devil’s love
The snake and I, a venom high
I said “Do it again, do it again”
(Turn around, go back!)

It almost feels as though Bowie is apologizing for his fantastical vision by dressing it in such hard-rocking trappings. The song feels overlong at four minutes before we even get to the passage above. And it, the song’s most passionate moment, isn’t rendered with the same ferocity as the opening – it’s dressed with an almost-silly boogie blues when it should have been the peak of volcanic riffing.

The result is something fascinating but unbalanced, like a beautiful sword carried at the hip of a king that is not meant to be unsheathed in battle.

It’s easy to tag these excesses on “Width of a Circle” because “All The Madman” treads the same sonic ground with care and precision. It feels like a tidier version of Space Oddity‘s “The Cygnet Committee.” A dirge-like introduction is ferried by a cymbal ride and mellotron flourishes into thunderous mid-tempo rock complete with a harmonic guitar solo. Here, the band never swallows their leader. Bowie nearly sighs, “Don’t set me free … ’cause I’d rather stay here with all the madmen.” This is Bowie both genuine and surprising melancholy, as our narrator admits it’s better to be crazy and glad than sane and sad outside in the real world. This resigned madness is a familiar Bowie emotion. It’s conveyed perfectly here even as the song descends into chanting French gibberish at its close.

What has become the official and most widely-known cover of The Man Who Sold The World.

What has become the official and most widely-known cover of The Man Who Sold The World.

At this point, the album seems to be doing something significant and singular. In the span of two songs and ten minutes, Bowie has broken ground on themes of self, sexuality, and sanity, and he’s makes it sound particularly heavy while retaining his signature acoustic base.

Neither the sound nor the themes persist in the middle section of the record. This vast, doughy middle of insincerity is the core of my struggle with this album.

“Black Country Rock” is similar to the American rock sound of “Janine” from Space Oddity. It’s a little lankier, with more swagger. The band sounds sure and limber, the guitar tone is devilishly piercing, and there is a grin behind Bowie’s delivery (especially in the third verse, as he imitates Marc Bolan). You can imagine the alternate history of this heavy metal incarnation of Bowie growing alongside Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin.

This jagged arrangement had the power to speak more about the joys of madness, but it’s comprised of just one verse that feels more like an interesting collection of interesting sounds than a distinct a song (“Pack a pack horse up and rest up here”).

A later incarnation of Bowie could turn “After All” something remarkable. With a heavier swing it could be a pint-swaying drinking song. A more menacing arrangement would give it a seething, sinister bent. Without that drive it’s overburdened by its clumsy lyrics, like: “I sing with impertinence, shading impermanent chords, with my words.” This is the wordy, self-conscious Bowie of the prior two albums. The balance between Bowie’s low baritone and falsetto isn’t right, as it would be later on work like “Golden Years.” Instead, it sounds comedic.

“After All” closed the A-Side of the album on a pessimistic note. Paired with “Saviour Machine” as the opener of the B-Side, it feels that Bowie is already issuing a gentle rebuke of the free love, carefree feeling of “Memory of a Free Festival.” He even draws a direct parallel to the free-floating white balloon and sun machine party of “Festival”:

We’re painting our faces and dressing in thoughts from the skies,
From paradise
But they think that we’re holding a secretive ball.
Won’t someone invite them
They’re just taller children, that’s all, after all

The B-Side of the album holds up a mirror to the A, starting with missteps before approaching the more remarkable material. “Running Gun Blues” is an unfortunate mess. We find the band in tight form as on “Black Country Rock,” but Bowie squealing a lumpy story of a Vietnam soldier gone berserk. It feels more like a political version of the silliness from David Bowie than a contemporary of the rest of this material. It’s also one of his weakest vocals. “She Shook Me Cold” is a wheezing knockoff of “Whole Lotta Love.” It’s catchy and might have been a deserving single, but hopelessly flimsy compared to the rest of the album.

The band fights against (or, amongst) itself less on the similarly overwrought “Savior Machine.” Bowie joins them in working himself into a froth with operative baritone vocals on the refrain, filled with wide swaths of vibrato. It is altogether so grand it feels like a years-early outtake of the Orwellian Diamond Dogs (“You can’t stake your lives on a Saviour Machine”), but it also returns to the themes of logic versus madness of the opening duo of songs.

When the droning, three-note riff of “The Man Who Sold The World” cuts the air it’s immediately apparent that we’ve arrived at something very different. It’s not only notable for being the title cut of the disc or the song later made as famous as any other Bowie original. It stands apart from the rest of the LP sonically, as well. It’s by far the lightest cut on the disc. The elements feel as though they would be a better fit on the prior LP, although they form a gestalt moreso than the arrangements on either Space Oddity or this release. The almost-lounge vibe of brushed drums, guiro, and acoustic guitar, the phased effect on the vocal, the laser-fine electric guitar tone – each is distinct in the mix, yet they don’t compete for attention as the band’s playing does elsewhere on the disc.

There’s also the subject matter of a benevolent post-messiah – a god amongst men who chose to depose himself:

I spoke into his eyes
I thought you died alone, a long long time ago

Oh no, not me, I never lost control
You’re face to face With The Man Who Sold The World

The cover was reissued when Bowie's dress was considered too risque. Despite clearly being from the next era, this cover remained the one in circulation until the 90s!

The cover was reissued when Bowie’s dress was considered too risque. Despite clearly being from the next era, this cover remained the one in circulation until the 90s!

The message is intriguing. Instead of heavy metal wrestling with gods and logic, instead we casually meet a man who gave everything away with a natural ease. As he shares a conspiratorial handshake with the narrator, he seems to pass something else along with his firm grip – a certain electricity, yes, but also a sense of connectedness. Now the singer understands, and the final chorus reflects that with the revision to “we never lost control.” There will be no wagers on messianic machines or battles of logic with gods. The easiest thing to do is to give it all away so you can never lose your grip.

If there is a suggestion of a glimpsing a past life in “Man Who Sold The World,” it is the “The Supermen” that expands on that lost history. It is one of Bowie’s most straight-up fantasies of all time, on par with “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud.” It neatly matches with the engorged god he wrestles in “Width of a Circle,” as he describes a lost race of lumbering gods policing the Earth.

The “strange games they were playing” evokes for me the images of Plato’s Symposium, later put to song in Bowie descendant Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The ominous chanted backing vocals, throbbing bass, and tom-heavy drumming perfectly evokes massive feet trundling across the earth. Yet, even as Ronson unleashes a storm of distorted electric guitar, Bowie’s vocal floats above it – the mix favors him, and he’s singing in a lower and more powerful range than elsewhere on the LP. Bowie slowly climbs a scale above the lumbering rhythm section and deluge of guitar until the apex, a distinctive howl on “a supergod cries!”

There is no rule in music that you must write songs that form a cycle, or even that sound like they belong together. Bowie would later master this art, and here we witness his discovery of it. So how does this album not succeed in its mission? In aggregate, it is the sound of Bowie not at the controls of his own destiny, which is a mode that he’d repeat only sparingly during the rest of his career. Indeed, writing on the era emphasizes his disconnection absenteeism from the studio. That’s at odds with the consummately prepared technician Bowie we’d see for the rest of the 70s.

It isn’t surprising, then, that Bowie’s band is so often in the spotlight here – and, not in a way he would later encouraged in his songwriting. It’s as though he had some portion of a vision for where the record could go but couldn’t quite fulfill his own lofty goal. That is how this album lacks in sincerity – it doesn’t feel whole.

Even if I consider the effort to be a net failure, an ineffable magic remains. Bowie broke ground here that he would continue to mine for forty years more. There is still the title cut, still that fey image of Bowie on the cover, still his evolving philosophic opinion of big brother versus free will and the disaster that lies in wait on either side of the spectrum. There are still gods who are men later in Bowie’s career, but that parting shot of “a supergod dies” is something we would never see again – Bowie retiring a race of elder gods to shift his focus to the kind of gods who we could see, touch, and fuck.

“Holy, Holy” b/w “Black Country Rock” – Released January 15, 1971

bowie-holyholyFirst, note that the “Holy, Holy” generally associated with CD releases of The Man Who Sold The World is actually a later recording from 1971 that was released as a Diamond Dogs B-Side.

As for the original 1971 single, two things are obvious: why it was chosen over album cuts and why it was not a hit. Considering hardly anything on the disc had a proper chorus, there weren’t many other options for singles. On the other hand, this song is a mess.

Here the band doubles down on the confusion of “Width of a Circle.” Everyone sounds as though they are playing a different style of song without listening to the others. The bass suggests a chugging four-on-the-floor rhythm while the drums sketch a military march. The electric guitar mostly follows Bowie’s vocal, while the acoustic has a sort of Flamenco flourish to it. Bowie sings in his penetrating higher range and here is a peculiar pattern of lines growing higher and higher before the melody drops on the chorus hook.  Somehow it both gallops and drags.

This is an interesting indicator of Bowie’s demos of the period. Altogether, it has a very Ziggy mid-album feel to it, and not just for the “lie lie lie” refrain’s similarity to “Starman.” In fact, he was already penning much of the Ziggy material, but he hadn’t worked out the magic Spiders formula for the songs. This is evident on the impending Arnold Corn material, as well.

“Moonage Daydream” b/w “Hang On to Yourself” by Arnold Corns – Released May 17, 1971

bowie-arnorld-corns

Pictured here is Freddi Buretti, Bowie’s friend and fashion designer, who was feted as the lead singer of this imaginary band.

In a bit of slight-of-hand, Bowie circumvented some label woes by launching a mysterious parallel glam act, Arnold Corns, which was actual his own band with him playing hype man. Not so different than the Ziggy Stardust formula, if you think about it. He gifted this act with two of the best Ziggy-era deep cuts, “Moonage Daydream” and “Hang On to Yourself.”

Neither had developed into their future indelible versions. “Moonage Daydream” doesn’t even have many of its final lyrics intact, and Bowie sings it all in a howling legato that has none of the deadpan sexiness of the final version. The song is primarily acoustic save for the solo, which alternates with each verse instead of it coming before a final refrain. There is no epic Mick Ronson finale.

“Hang On to Yourself” is similarly neutered by odd performances choices, though it’s much closer to its final form than “Moonage.” Crazy to thing that if Bowie hadn’t pressed on through Hunky Dory and gained some notoriety that these might be the only two versions of these songs we know – especially considering that the Ziggy version of “Moonage Daydream” is one of my favorite songs of all time!

The famous acoustic piano demo of “Lady Stardust” which later appeared on reissues of Ziggy Stardust may also originate in this era. It’s remarkable how fully-formed it is, perhaps owing to the gestalt of piano arrangement rather than contributions of the band.

(Some Bowie biographers would argue with my placement of this single, as Bowie didn’t commit any Ziggy material to demo until after the promotional cycle of Man Who Sold The World. However, it occupies a space of uncertainty between his record contracts, before there was certainty of Hunky Dory being committed to record, and was recorded before any Hunky Dory material was debuted live on the BBC. For my purposes, it slightly predates the formal start of the glam era, rather than kicking it off.)

Other Material

bowie-1970-haddonhallAn early demo of “The Supermen” is not as ominous, with incongruous peals of electric guitar solo, while a demo of “All The Madmen” is huge and hard-rocking – nearly verbatim to the LP. The mono single of “Madmen” is a bit of a mess, showing how importing the transition to stereo was to Bowie’s emerging sound.

“Lightning Frightening” is a acoustic sketch included on some reissues of Sold The World that could have gone in the direction of “Black Country Rock,” but it was recorded along with Hunky Dory material.

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I came away from this critical listen with a much deeper appreciation of this LP, and a tendency to sing “Black Country Rock” on loop for hours on end. Even if I’m not a major supporter of this period of Bowie’s early work, I can concede how important it was for his future – both sonically, and in helping him gain some traction in the American market. In a career of transformations, the wake of this era lead Bowie to undergo one of biggest reinventions and most-prolific periods.

That means I’ll have plenty to talk about in my next post, where I focus on a lifelong favorite, Hunky Dory.

From The Beginning: David Bowie – David Bowie AKA Space Oddity (1969-70)

Essentials of the Era
“Space Oddity”
“Unwashed and Slightly Dazed”
“Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud”
“Memory of a Free Festival part 1” (single version)
“London, Bye, Ta-Ta” (unreleased)

This is the third in a series of posts following my listen to David Bowie’s entire catalog from beginning to end. Last time, I listened to Bowie’s treacly full-length debut and discovered several gems (that were not on the album).

David Bowie’s 1969 had an auspicious start – while he recorded an ambitious promotional video to try to generate new label interest he simultaneously ended a serious relationship (perhaps during the actual filming). However, it was something that had happened just before those events that would define his year and even his entire career.

That something was his penning a song called “Space Oddity.”

Before Space Oddity – Early 1969

bowie_1969Early demos of “Space Oddity” from spring of 1969 show it had all the fine skeletal structure that makes it an arresting performance even today – the countdown, the layered “ground control” vocals, the drifting out in a tin can, and the extended break. A notable early demo features a live duo performance with Bowie handling the countdown himself. Yet, this was admittedly another curio – a gimmick song coinciding with increasing attention on the space race. Just as Bowie’s debut album couldn’t be shaped entirely around the theme of a giddy gnome, “Space Oddity” wouldn’t set the theme for the rest of its record.

After the recording of the LP but shortly before its release, Bowie appeared on the BBC for a three-song set. Only “Unwashed and Somewhat Dazed” saw radio play at the time, although its the other two songs that saw later release on Bowie At The Beeb.

“Unwashed” has a similar feel to “Space Oddity” to start with the major-to-minor strumming and chiming high electric guitars. It transforms into something much heavier as the band enters, thanks to a big, rubbery bass and heavy drumming. There is not an obvious hook, but it’s more enjoyable than the entirety of his debut. “Let Me Sleep Behind You” is more driven than the original, but the beat pushes past the distinct melodic hooks on the “let your hair hang down / wear the dress your mother wore” refrain. “Janine” has an southern-rock feel to it, with Bowie even effecting an American accent.

The sound was much hipper than Bowie’s previous incarnation. The band still had not found any special alchemy together, despite their time in the studio.

“Space Oddity” b/w “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” – Released July 11, 1969

Bowie_SpaceOdditySingle“Space Oddity” is a singularly peculiar song. Everything from it’s slow fade up and wheezing stylophone, to its measured countdown leading to liftoff, to it’s insistent lack of choruses. David Bowie told many fantastical stories in the songs of his debut LP with Deram, but none so dramatic or immediate as this one. It’s the little touches, like the love to his wife and the oscillating flutes behind the “sitting in a tin can refrain.”

It also had the great fortune to see release less than two weeks before man first set foot on the moon. After a series of failed singles and a flop of an album, David Bowie was finally gaining notice on another song that could be accused of being a novelty, though this one thankfully did not include laughing gnome. While the song was not a hit in the US, it reached the top five in the UK.

The B-Side is an early acoustic guitar and cello take on the fantastical “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud.” It’s missing its first verse and orchestra to truly set its scope and drama, but this version (long unearthed until the Sound+Vision box set) is simply an astounding performance. I’d hold up Bowie’s “really you, really me” refrain here as one of his finest vocals of all time, and the cello has many intricate little passes to suggest the motion of the later version.

David Bowie AKA Space Oddity – Released November 4, 1969

For as many people who know “Space Oddity” today, few have heard another song from David Bowie’s redebut, which was later rechristened in name of its one hit – more massive in later years than it had been at the time.

The only other single from the album is the peculiar “Memory of a Free Festival,” which bookends the disc with “Space Oddity.”  It starts dirge-like, thrumming on a lone electric organ, perhaps an elegiac memory of the recent-passed summer of love.

We claimed the very source of joy ran through
It didn’t, but it seemed that way
I kissed a lot of people that day

Oh, to capture just one drop of all the ecstasy that swept that afternoon
To paint that love upon a white balloon
And fly it from the toppest top of all the tops
That man has pushed beyond his brain
Satori must be something
just the same

bowie-space-oddityIn a tangle of noise, a refrain emerges: “The Sun Machine is Coming Down, and We’re Gonna Have a Party.” Eventually a chorus of voices swallow Bowie’s vocal until it disappears, and all that is left is the chorus, a fuzz bass, and a ponderous drum beat, which too fade until we are back to Bowie himself beating on his tiny toy organ.

It’s weird, evocative, and remarkable in almost the exact same way as “Space Oddity” despite the two songs having nearly nothing in common other than appearing on the album together. Both are perfect frames to peer through at a specific person and place, even though this one does not have a character or even tell a story. Despite not being very interesting or catchy up until the refrain, it is distinct and memorable.

This is the unique power that Bowie had found, seemingly from the ether, in the two years since his last release. While that album is full of story songs, none of them set a precedent for the sudden raw power of Bowie’s inventive song structures and arranging. What might we credit for this transformation? Was it simply the music that surrounded Bowie in the popular culture of the day? Was it his future wife Angela? The team at Mercury Records? Did he “Join the Gang” he warned us about on that last record, merrily running alongside “London Boys” until he was ragged and sick from the pills?

The album that stands between those two songs is fascinating because that very identity struggle is on display across its length. Bowie vacillates between respectable young man, member of an art movement, and an untrustworthy longhair. He takes that last role on the would-be single, “Unwashed and Slightly Dazed.” It’s a scorcher – a bluesy stomp about stalking around the house of a pretty upper-class girl. It begins disguised as another “Space Oddity” with minor chords abuzz on Bowie’s twelve-string, but once a pretty girl looks down her nose at Bowie it explodes into rock.It blends in themes of class warfare with hallucinogenic imagery. “Unwashed” wears the vocal stamp of Dylan, the contemporary influence of the Stones, and could neatly serve as prelude to Jethro Tull’s tramp in “Aqualung” two years later.

I’m a phallus in pigtails
And there’s blood on my nose
And my tissue is rotting
Where the rats chew my bones
And my eye sockets empty
See nothing but pain
I keep having this brainstorm
About twelve times a day
So now, you could spend the morning walking with me, quite amazed
As I’m Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed

There is more poetry and sheer lusty power in a single verse of this song than on Bowie’s entire last album, so it can be for an over three-minute funk breakdown that inexplicably brings in a breakdown horns by the end. It’s hard to believe no one pushed for it as a single.

“Letter To Hermione” is a folk song with a slight jazz influence that feels more of a piece with Joni Mitchell’s Clouds, released the same year. The theme of an unrequited love letter might have fit better on Bowie’s debut, but the texture of multiple acoustic guitars adds new depth to Bowie’s repertoire. It’s unfortunate that he acquires a frog in his throat at the midway point, as prior to that it’s one of his prettiest vocals. Despite lacking a traditional hook, the refrain of “I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do” clings after each listen.

“Cygnet Committee” is Bowie going full 1969, with backwards guitar. It starts out a soundalike to “Dear Prudence,” with a stepwise descending bass with a a tremendous vocal performance from Bowie. Yet, this isn’t another love letter, nor is it a lusty blues. This is one of Bowie’s first dystopian song stories (“As a love machine lumbers through desolation rows, plowing down man, woman, listening to its command, but not hearing anymore”), complete with an uplifting ending refrain that presages “Rock’n’Roll Suicide.” It still stands as one of his most complex epics. Unfortunately, the ring of adolescent petulance still clings – it reads like the spiteful goodbye letter to an ungrateful school club (and, in fact, was likely about Bowie’s disillusionment with the Beckenham Arts Laboratory he helped to found). Yet, there’s just not enough fuel for this one – the petulant lyrics in its buildup deflate what should be a victorious ascending climax emerging from the serpentine structure spread across its nine-minute length.

The one other fine specimen here is “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud,” which finds Bowie in his fantastical mode from “When I Love My Dream” on his debut. Yet, this song is not just a neutered love song, but a fantasy epic of its own about a messianic young boy who is embraced by nature just as his village rejects him. It is magnificent in scope, switching from orchestral Disney to rock, stopping for a carton-climax worth refrain of “It’s really me, really you and really me.”

“Freecloud” could easily be expanded into its own rock opera – there’s enough content there for an entire album. In fact, it’s eerily similar to “Ziggy Stardust.” Sure, Ziggy didn’t live in a Henson-esque fantasy world, but he was another of Bowie’s messiah figures who was briefly a savior until the kids consumed him and his sweet hands were crushed. Bowie simple switched the fantasy to sci-fi and brought his fictional Christ to down to earth – plus squeezed him into a traditional AABAB song structure.

Among the chaff is “Janine,” not transformed much from its BBC material; the sappy, flute-tinged “An Occasional Dream;” and a Dylan-influenced, finger-picked protest-song “God Knows I’m Good” (“the cash machines were shrieking on the counter”). These weaker songs are the puzzle of this album, and not just for their weakness. You can feel Bowie trying to find his voice, and these songs are remnants of some in-between phase we missed – the one that swallowed up his lovely “Let Me Sleep Beside You.”

There was probable one good folk-tinged rock album in Bowie in this time period – one that gave context to “God Knows I’m Good,” where “Letter To Hermoine” could be a rightful centerpiece, and where “Janine” could have teed up the meltdown of “Unwashed and Slightly Dazed” on the follow-up record. That might have been an album that yielded great commercial success – but we all had the misfortune to miss it.

It’s probably better for his career that we got this instead, an uneven album dotted with weird narrative monsters that feel doubly strange when held against the slighter songs in their midst.

bowie-the-prettiest-star“The Prettiest Star” b/w “Conversation Piece” – Released March 6, 1970

There are several intriguing elements of this single. First, it’s not on the album – having been recorded in January 1970. Second, it features Marc Bolan of T-Rex on lead guitar. Third, this version of the song is not the one you’re thinking of – most Bowie fans are familiar with the version from Aladdin Sane. This early version is too disarmingly pretty, with its twinkling chimes, compared with the more sour-sounding later version. Still, the fine quality of Bowie’s songwriting shows through – this cannot be compared to anything on his debut, or even the more forgettable songs on Space Oddity.

B-Side, “Conversation Piece” is a stumbling monologue that would have felt more at home on the prior album.

“Memory of a Free Festival Part 1” b/w “Memory of a Free Festival Part 2” – Released June 12, 1970

In a peculiar move, Bowie’s record company passed over “Unwashed and Slightly Dazed” to have Bowie re-recored this odd pick of a single. I can’t help but think they had become enamored with the idea of him as a gimmick singer at this point, although that begs the question why they didn’t run with “Wild Eyed Boy From Free Cloud” (and then from there directly to the bank).

Granted, this recording carries a bit more structure and kick, overlaying an acoustic three-piece, Mick Ronson’s Bowie guitar debut, and spacey Moog synthesizer. This take brings the song much more in line with “Space Oddity,” and it’s downright anthemic. Also, for purposes of 45 single length, it splits the majority of the “Sun Machine” section into a second cut.

Score one for the A&R guys, I guess? There’s really no downside here

Other Space Oddity Era Material

Ragazza_solo_ragazza_solaBowie committed a rocking update of “London, Bye, Ta-Ta” to record in January 1970 but passed over it to make “Prettiest Star” a single. He probably should have gone with “London,” because’s it’s a knockout. It has the queazy style mash-up quality of his Young Americans work, evoking that same plastic soul feel. Particularly, the “I loved her” refrained backed by a cooing girl group is fantastic. (There’s a cleaner mix without the phased vocals, but it might be a little too normal, you know?)

“Space Oddity” was repurposed as “Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola” – “Lonely Boy, Lonely Girl” – for single release in Italy to ward off bands covering his hit. It’s performed to the original “Space Oddity” track, but the song is completely different! Not only is it not at all about an astronaut, but there are different combinations of voices and uses of harmony. I can’t comment on Bowie’s performance in Italian.

Bowie provided music for a piece of theatre called Pierrot in Turquoise or “The Looking Glass Murders” that was later broadcast on BBC. The recordings included an all-organ version of “When I Love My Dream,” the manic “Threepenny Pierrot” played on a ragtime piano to the tune of “London Bye Ta-Ta, plus two new songs. “Columbine” is an acoustic ode to the traditional leading lady of commedia dell’arte, while “The Mirror” bemoans the simple and foolish Harlequinn. The latter is quite a lovely bit of poetry, especially if you know your dell’arte archetypes:

Wash your face before your faded make-up makes a mark
The mirror will watch over you
Pierrot never comes so pack your face and chase the dark
The mirror’s hung up on you
Don’t be last, your friends and your reflection
It’s all so direction now
Poor harlequin, you’re quite an exception
Fay troubadour, on a downer
Gay harlequin, doesn’t believe in you
Doesn’t believe it’s true, such a downer.

An alternate mix of “Wild Eyed Boy From Free-Cloud” plays down the rock elements – it’s good, but not as great.

##

Despite a brief breakthrough, Bowie entered 1970 much in the same position as he began the prior year despite considerably more acclaim for his second David Bowie than he’d received for his first. However, the process of playing behind this album netted him Tony Visconti, who would produce both his next LP as well as many later-in-life albums, and the kinetic guitar playing of Mick Ronson. As for the alchemy they summoned together on The Man Who Sold The World, you’ll need to await my next post.

From The Beginning: David Bowie – The Deram Years (1966-1968)

Essentials of the Era
Sell Me a Coat” – David Bowie
Let Me Sleep Beside You (mono)” – David Bowie (Deluxe)
Silly Boy Blue” – The Lost BBC Tapes (bootleg)
In The Heat of the Morning” – Bowie at the Beeb

This is the second in a series of posts following a listen of David Bowie from beginning to end. Last time, I listened to Bowie’s earliest work, including material from before he christened himself “Bowie.”

After his brief but unremarkable sprint on Pye Records, Bowie signed with Deram Records. That’s not a typo of “dream” as I had assumed for years, they were really called “Deram.” The company was a subsidiary of Decca, who Bowie had auditioned for in previous incarnations.

He issued two singles with Deram prior to releasing his first full-length effort, then added some trailing work before being dropped and signed to Mercury to release another self-titled LP, later renamed to Space Oddity.

As a note, I’m using both Wikipedia and the book The Complete David Bowie to guide my chronological listening.

“Rubber Band” b/w “London Boys”

Promotional bio from the "Rubber Band" single. Click to view on the source site, bowie-singles.com

Promotional bio from the “Rubber Band” single. Click to view on the source site, bowie-singles.com

This was one of the first handful of records released on Deram, a close follow-up to Cat Stevens performing “I Love My Dog”/”Portobello Road” (bet you don’t know those two, either). They can be found on the second disc of David Bowie (Deluxe Edition).

Along with the “Bowie” name and the new record contract, there are a few other signs of future Bowie-ness on this A-Side. The voice is there, the low baritone straight off of “Rock’n’Roll Suicide.” Also, while this is still technically a sappy love song, the shift of focus from the girl to a related group that Bowie directly addresses telegraphs a future style to which he’d return frequently.

Rubber band
In 1910 I was so handsome and so strong
My moustache was stiffly waxed and one foot long
And I loved a girl while you played teatime tunes

Dear Rubber band, you’re playing my tunes out of tune, oh
Rubber band, Won’t you play a haunting theme again to me
While I eat my scones and drink my cup of tea

Granted, this is all accompanied by “oom-pah” brass band accompaniment, maybe connected with Bowie’s frequent covering of “Chim-Chim Cher-ee” from Mary Poppins? Who knows. Yet, focusing on the steely, controlled vocal you can easily imagine this as a much later Bowie cut. Maybe less brass, minor key… can you feel it?

B-Side “London Boys” masquerades as male retread of Petula Clark’s 1965 hit “Downtown,” and yet…

You take the pills too much
You don’t give a damn about that jobs you’ve got
So long as you’re with the London boys

A London boy, oh a London boy
Your flashy clothes are your pride and joy

…there is the subtle genius of this song. It sounds like it could be about a girl being seduced by London Boys, but it’s actually about becoming one of the boys. And, let’s be honest here: the seduction angle is still there. Was Bowie beginning to find ways to thread themes of his bisexuality into his work even at this early point?

“The Laughing Gnome” b/w “The Gospel According to Tony Day”

There’s something to be said for having the low-point of your fifty-year career during your third year in the business. This song is the worst. The literal worst. There is no worse song in Bowie’s entire catalog and, trust me, I know I’m going to be listening to some clunkers here and there.

Click to view the original on Flickr.

Click to view the original on Flickr.

I’ll try to type this with a straight face: This is a song is a novelty single about David Bowie befriending a mischievous gnome.

I was walking down the high street
When I heard footsteps behind me
And there was a little old man (Hello)
In scarlet and grey, shuffling away (laughter)

The parentheticals are lyrics delivered by the gnome. The little scamp loves making puns.

“Here, where do you come from? ”
(Gnome-man’s land, ha-hehehe!)

And…

Here, what’s that clicking noise?
(That’s fred, he’s a “metrognome,” ha-ha!)

Then, Bowie gets into the game:

“Didn’t they teach you to get your hair cut at school? You look like a rolling gnome.”
(No, not at the London School of Ecognomics!)

David Bowie’s career is even more amazing considering this was his first ignominious (HEY-OH!) flirtation with wider attention. In Bowie’s scant defense, I’ll at least point out that The Chipmunks predated this by a decade as a novelty record. Actually, that’s not a very good defense, is it? At least he avoided rhyming “telly” with “belly.” At best, this single places his songwriting focus firmly in the mode of the fantastical for the first time.

B-Side “The Gospel According to Tony Day” is also weird, but in a different way. It’s essentially just a rhyming game, or perhaps a drinking song. Bowie sings the name of someone repeatedly, and then delivers a punchline:

The Gospel According to Tony Day (x3)
If I find a girl he’ll take her away
Rotten Tony!

The weird part is that the song is not merry in the least. It sounds a bit slinking and sinister with a low, booming sax and stings of electric guitar. I expected the subject matter to be darker and was surprised to read the rather plain lyrics. Perhaps that is because Bowie has come into his full, mature voice here – you would instantly recognize him as the singer of any song from Ziggy Stardust. Combined with the ominous music, you expect something more dire.

I feel like both of these songs, taken with the prior single, act as points of triangulation towards Hunky Dory – but, I’ll get to that in a few more posts! They are both included on the second disc of David Bowie (Deluxe Edition), despite not appearing on the album.

David Bowie, released June 1, 1967

David Bowie’s three years of hard work and seemingly constant failure paid off in the release of his first LP of original songs on Deram. Unfortunately, it was another failure and lead him to be dropped from the label the following year.

Bowie-David-Bowie-DeramThis album cannot really be compared to any other LP in Bowie’s career. It was easy-going British chamber-folk that has more in common with The Monkees than with The Beatles. Even if you’re tempted to compare it to “The Benefit of Mr. Kite,” consider that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band was released on the same day as this record!

That makes for a useful tent-stake for comparison – Bowie released this frippery on the same day The Beatles released one of the most significant works in the history of popular music. The entire record is insubstantial – snapshots of the big city life flowing around a shiftless narrator. Yet, the nascent young Duke already has his sights fixated on the underbelly of these magical moments. The record is filled with disappointed go-go girls and their heartbroken small-town loves (“Maid of Bond Street”), children who’ve set fields afire (“There Is a Happy Land”) sad and incapable adults on the dole (“Uncle Arthur,” who “still reads comics … follows Batman”), and the occasional child-murderer (the less said about “Please Mr. Gravedigger,” the better).

This sort of baroque pop needs something more ornate in its arrangement to become fixed in your brain, but all these arrangements feel too thin by half. “Love You Till Tuesday” is a grand example. After a charming xylophone and horn riff opens song like a segment of Laugh-In, the band all-but disappears, leaving a scampering vocal from Bowie to fend for itself. It could be a catchy little go-go song – there’s really nothing wrong with it (aside from the image of Bowie grinning wide and fake as he delivers the inane lyrics), but there’s nothing to it to get your skirts and bellbottoms snagged on.

You begin to get the feeling that all of the attention and budget went into the first four bars of every song, and after that Bowie was left to his own devices. “Sell Me a Coat” comes closest to being anthemic of the entire LP with it’s easy-to-chant chorus, yet it is unmemorable. The same is true for “When I Live My Dream,” which would achieve Disney-ballad payload if it was more substantial. Bowie manages to work himself into a sobbing froth on a new arrangement of “Rubber Band” (even getting off a trademark “oh yeah!” in the background), but the sad trudge of the brass band does him no service.

“Silly Boy Blue,” one of the most overtly weird and forward-looking of the songs, is similarly sparse. Is it a torch song for the Dalai Lama?

You wish and wish, and wish again
You’ve tried so hard to fly
You’ll never leave your body now
You’ve got to wait to die
La la la la la la la la la la
Silly boy blue, silly boy blue
Child of the Tibet, you’re a gift from the sun
Reincarnation of one better man
The homeward road is long
You’ve left your prayers and song
Silly boy blue, silly boy blue

In hindsight, can we attribute a pied-piper’s intent to Bowie? It could be that he is drawing the children close now to expand their mind later. There are a few examples, the clearest being “Join The Gang,” which paints a manic picture of a bunch of drugged up hipsters crashing to party to party on sheer inertia. Despite warning us, “You won’t feel so good now that you’ve joined the gang,” it all sounds quite mad and gay.

Then, there is is the frightening “We Are Hungry Men,” with Bowie’s narration taking on the role of a despotic cannibal ruler whose support of suffrage and reproductive rights are only meant to tighten his iron fist control of society. You can imagine this as an early output of a fascination with dystopia, before Bowie realized the appear was in writing from the role of the revolutionary rather than the rule. (Unless, of course, we’re talking about the fashion police.)

You can follow the same thread to “Little Bombadier,” a doting man (perhaps the same as “Uncle Arthur”) whose spoiling of children is seen as sinister by those despotic iron fisters and Mr. Grown-ups out to spoil everyone’s fun. It’s a terrible song, but there’s a clear through-line from here to “Starman” – you can easily insert his, “Let the children use it, let the children use it, all the children boogie” refrain.

If there is one song on this effort that most telegraphs the Bowie to come, it is surely “She’s Got Medals.” It’s the only song on the disc to approximate the madcap energy of Jagger, though Bowie has scant resources to achieve it with his neutered band. More significantly, it’s a prototype of “Queen Bitch” that begins Bowie’s exploration of gender dysphoria:

Her mother called her Mary, she changed her name to Tommy, she’s a one, oh
She went and joined the army, passed the medical, don’t ask me how it’s done
They sent her to the front line
Fighting for her country’s name
She’s got medals
She got very tired of picking up girls
Cleaning her gun and shaving her curls
She got very tired of picking up girls
Cleaning her gun and shaving her curls
Then the enemy dropped a bomb
Survivors there were none

Despite some hints of weightier themes, there is not much to say for the treacly folk of David Bowie’s debut. Luckily, it was adept enough to earn him some notice – he managed to garner some appearances on the BBC. More on that below.

“Love You ‘Til Tuesday” b/w “Did You Ever Have a Dream”

The single version of “Love You ‘Til Tuesday” is considerably more dressed-up than the album-cut, adorned with strings in place of its twinkling xylophone and with a barrelhouse piano tucked deep in the mix. On the whole, the song comes off as more romantic than manic, though it doesn’t take away from the awkwardness of Bowie crooning “Don’t be afraid it’s only me, hoping for a little romance” and then giggling madly.

Prepare yourselves – I have video evidence:

B-Side “Did You Ever Have a Dream” is pure adolescent fantasy – literally! The lyrics are about dreaming about traveling the world as a polygot superman even while you’re rooted in one place. It’s childish, even compared to the rest of the LP.

Other Deram Material

Bowie cut a single version of his Disney-worthy “When I Live My Dream.” The more plaintive album version has a vocal more suited to a cartoon prince, but the broken chord piano of the single version is more in line with other hits of the era.

“Let Me Sleep Beside You” is the first essential recording of Bowie’s career. It’s a stunner – it’s hard to believe any record company would decline to release it (reportedly, the “sleep” bit was considered risqué!). The song sounds entirely rock and roll and contemporary, which can be attributed to it being the first collaboration between Bowie and his longtime producer Tony Visconti. A more complex rhythm section and oo-ing harmonies underscore the descending melody of the title, which is followed by a groovy wah-infused guitar riff.

Yet, even as an acoustic demo the song would stand out for the mature, nuanced lyrics:

Baby, baby, brush the dust of youth from your shoulder
Because the years of fretting days are right behind you now
Don’t return to fields of green where rainbow secrets were told
Place your ragged doll with all the toys and things and deeds
I will show you a game where the winner never wins

Let your hair hang down, wear the dress your mother wore
Let me sleep beside you

Bowie welcomes his lover to bed as a peer with the intimation is he’s telling her to grow up, but threaded through the lyrics we see it’s him who is feeling suddenly mature and worthy of a lover’s touch.

“Karma Man” was recorded in the same session, but it doesn’t have the same pedigree. It pays lip service to the public fascination with eastern mysticism, but Bowie was getting these influences second-hand and the best lyric he can muster is, “He’s clogged and clothed in saffron robes.”

“London By Ta-Ta” was another intended single penned toward the end of Bowie’s doomed Deram contract. This song gets everything right that’s wrong on his album. It’s got the urban obsession, the hip swing, but it’s ornate. It even has a little bluesy flourish beneath the “I loved her” refrain that will feel instantly familiar to glam era fans.

Yet, my true favorite of this era is the “In The Heat of the Morning.” Again, adding a budding sexuality and a bluesier bass to these compositions makes a world of difference. Bowie’s pained delivery of the chorus above quivering strings is the essence of desire:

No man loved like I love you
Wouldn’t you like to love me too
In the heat of the morning
In the shadow I’ll clip your wings
And I’ll tell you I love you
In the heat of the morning

I’ve always thought that lyric was “In the shadow of the doorway,” which is so much better.

We’ll leave aside any comments on “When I’m Five,” as the title says all you need to know. No, wait, I have to add something: “When I’ve five I’ll jump in puddles, laugh in church, and marry my mum.” It’s roughly at the level of the LP material and not the more mature work that follows. “Ching-A-Ling” is sung by a rotating line-up of vocalists, intended for a potential Bowie-starring Mamas-and-the-Papas style vocal group. Thank goodness that fell through! The same gang added overpowering vocals to a recut of “Sell Me a Coat” – it was better without them.

As a note, I prefer the mono mixes of all of these songs when available, as they have a more gestalt period sound.

Live Material in the Deram Era

Bowie performed his first BCC session on December 18, 1967, which was broadcast a week later on Christmas eve. It was mostly composed of debut album tracks, including a go at “Love You Till Tuesday” with the studio orchestra consistent with the single version. “When I Love My Dream” is still more like the dull LP cut than the aborted single mix, but the live version of “Silly Boy Blue” gets across the gray skies mood of the song much better than the studio cut. This session also carries a sedate early version of “In The Heat of the Morning” with different lyrics. It’s a fascinating artifact, but not worthy compared to the later version.

On the whole, the session is much more compelling than the album. Per The Complete David Bowie, he was coerced to perform “Little Bombadier” by the host. Apparently, his self-preservation instincts were still developing. You can find this lost session, and other songs omitted from the Beeb box set, on this Lost Tapes bootleg (the sound quality is on par with the official release).

Bowie returned on May 13, 1968 for a set of his post-LP songs. This session leads off his fantastic Bowie at the Beeb box set with a simmering version of “In The Heat of the Morning.” I prefer this one slightly to the studio cut for the faster tempo, piercing organ, and Bowie’s more mature vocal. There’s also a charming version of “London By Ta Ta” marked by a double-tracked and chorused vocal on the refrains, an energetic run at “Karma Man,” and another fantastically yearning “Silly Boy Blue” with cello doubling the vocal. (The official BBC collection wisely leaves off “When I’m Five.”)

There are live versions of “Penny Lane” and “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” in this era sometimes attributed to Bowie, but I don’t know that I believe it (neither does The Complete David Bowie). The vocal is a bit too uncharacteristic, even if you picture Bowie trying to deliver a clean, work-for-hire performance.

##

As Bowie retreated from the nonsense of “The Laughing Gnome” with a string of remarkable and mature intended singles, little did he know his major breakthrough would be on another sort of novelty song! That’s right, next time I’ll be listening to the one and only “Space Oddity”!

From the Beginning: David Bowie – The Early Years (1964-1966)

David Bowie, 1966. Photo by David Wedgbury.

David Bowie, 1966. Photo by David Wedgbury.

David Bowie was born on this day, forty years ago.

Not the person, mind you – his birthday was last week on January 8. No, I mean the name. The moniker that bloomed into a legendary persona and universal star. Indeed, David Bowie was first credited on a single called “Can’t Help Thinking About Me” on January 14, 1966. It was his fourth single, but his first as Bowie.

I’m pretty certain you’ve never heard of that song. I hadn’t even heard of it until this week, and I count myself as a rather large David Bowie fan!

It’s easy to fall under the mistaken belief that David Bowie emerged fully formed from his own forehead. If you’re a Greatest Hits fan, or just someone who has never fell down the Wikipedia hole too deeply, you’d be perfectly reasonable in thinking there was some olden-days EP containing “Space Oddity,” “Man Who Sold The World,” “Changes,” and “Life On Mars” and then Bowie as we all love him exploded into being on Ziggy Stardust.

That’s not the case at all. David Bowie spent eight years as a recording artist before the release of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. He released a pair of glam albums before that. He had an entire folkish pastiche of an eponymous album prior to his more well-known eponymous album in 1969, later rechristened Space Oddity. And, even before that, for three years he issued a string of unremarkable vinyl singles. He began at the tender age of 17.

Thus, that is also where we’ll begin in my epic chronological listen to David Bowie. This post covers his first single in 1964 to material from before his first album in 1967.

“Liza Jane” – Davie Jones with The King Bees

Young David Jones first appeared as a member of The Kon-Rads, who recorded for Decca but were never officially signed or released. His first release as a bandleader was a 1964 single called “Liza Jane,” as performed by Davie Jones with The King Bees.

The song itself was much older than young Mr. Jones. It was written in 1910 by Countess Ada de Lachau and became a standard (here’s Nina Simone singing it). Bowie’s version is a sort of unremarkable post-Skiffle British R&B that the Beatles had perfected in the past year. It’s fascinating to think that 17-year old David Bowie cut this single after a year of likely hearing non-stop John, Paul, George, and Ringo on the radio. This is unsophisticated, by comparison, with its gallumphing lead line and wheezing sax (yes, played by David Bowie). but that’s no different than today. Someone breaks through on the radio with a new genre, and the next year a heap of imitators clumsily follow their lead.

The B-side of that release was “Louie, Louie Go Home,” originally recorded by Paul Revere and the Raiders as a sequel to their famous “Louie, Louie.” The King Bees’ version sounds like a decent teenage band in a garage covering one of their favorite songs but not really being sure how to end it. Their cacaphonous shouting of staccato “home home home” backing vocals is charming, but there’s nothing too memorable here.

You can pick up “Liza Jane” on Bowie’s Nothing Has Changed retrospective – it is the final track.

“I Pity The Fool” – The Manish Boys

David+Bowie+-+The+Manish+Boys+-+Davy+Jones+And+The+Lower+Third+EP+-+7-+RECORD-98577Bowie’s next incarnation was “The Manish Boys” in 1965, which issued one single: “I Pity The Fool” b/w “Take My Tip.”

The A-Side, “Fool,” was a cover of a 1961 Bobby Bland tune. It iss straight-up blues and, if you think about it, the closest David Bowie has ever really got to the blues was when he sang that one line in “Let’s Dance.” That should tell you how good this effort his. He doesn’t have the gravity in his delivery to make this remarkable. He sings in the reedy high-end of his baritone, and a hyperactive lead line thinks its adorning another song entire. Once again, it’s the saxophone that steals the show, though we can’t necessarily credit Bowie – there are multiple horn players on this cut.

The more interesting song here is “Take My Tip.” It was Bowie’s first published act of songwriting, as Davey Jones. For 2:15 in length, there’s a lot to dig into here. It has the familiar bounding bass and organ of his pre-glam work, and check out these lyrics:

You think you’re gonna please her
So you walk right up and tease her
But she walks right on by
You’re scared to walk beside her
‘Cause you’re playing with the [tiger? spider?] who possesses the sky

Totally normal English beat song and then all of a sudden we’re playing with a the [something] who possesses the sky. Despite all of our desperate wishes that David is singing “Spider” so we can call this song the secret origin of Ziggy Stardust, I’m pretty certain he says “tiger.” Still, that is a pretty bizarre line in an otherwise totally normal song.

The vocals here remain adolescent, but he’s beginning to sing in that slightly-nasal, cutting way he’d use on later choruses. Also, there is a brief drum break with chromatic changes in the middle that definitely hints at future arrangements.

This pair of tunes appear on a Bowie! 1965 MP3 release from Parlaphone.

Davy Jones & The Lower Third

From The Manish Boys, later that same year we hop to Davy Jones (& The Lower Third). Clearly he was going with the “Davy Jones” name before The Monkees hit it big. Their first single was “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving” b/w “Baby Loves The Way.” Both are Bowie writing credits and are both inoffensive, at best. He has abandoned his R&B sound of the prior single, but he hasn’t replaced it with much else. He tries on a cutesy, whiney boy voice that must have been popular on the radio at the time.

The interesting thing is the entrance of a fuzz bass on “Leaving” that leads to major psychedelic breakdown in the middle of the song. Despite some fluttering harmonica, it’s legitimately heavy – but just as it settles in to a groove, out pops the acoustic guitar from the other side. By contrast, “Baby Loves That Way” is super-vanilla, aside from a lovely little reverb guitar chord intro.

Both songs appear on the Parlaphone Bowie! 1965 EP.

I located another handful of songs that profess to be “Davy Jones with The Lower Third” tunes. They are “Glad I’ve Got Nobody,” perhaps a bit more Who-flavored than the prior two, and “I’ll Follow You,” which feels a bit like the throwback-y Beatles tunes like “Mr. Moonlight.” It’s very Sonny and Cher, but his plaintive singing is enjoyable. There’s a hint of some of the fluidity and grit to come.

There’s another obscure tune, “Baby, That’s a Promise,” which isn’t on any compilations though it’s easily findable on the web. It’s one of the catchier and better-performed of the songs of this period. A delightful, throaty vocal from Bowie shows some signs of his fine vibrato and falsetto.

David Bowie on Pye Records

1c2c11b116ab472681ddab4ca4e56b06Here, we arrive on January 14 1996, the debut of David Bowie – still with The Lower Third – with their single “Can’t Help Thinking About Me” b/w “And I Say to Myself.” This not only introduced David Bowie, but it’s was his first song to find its way to official release in the US (though it was a flop).

With the name change came some trademark Bowie-isms. The B-side, “And I Say To Myself,” is a sort of Motown-y R&B song, but it’s also the first time we get a lengthy listen to Bowie’s lower baritone vocals. And, the way he belts “guilt-ay!”on “Can’t Help” before the first refrain is pure glam-era, it gave me chills when I first heard it. While it is a pretty basic mod-rock acoustic guitar-driven track, the lyrics are edging into familiar dystopia:

Question-time that says I brought dishonour
My head’s bowed in shame
It seems that I’ve blackened the family name
Mother says that she can’t stand the neighbours talking
I’ve gotta pack my bags, leave this home, start walking, yeah
I’m guilty! I wish that I was sorry this time
I wish that I could pay for my crime
I can’t help thinking about me

Bowie then discarded “The Lower Third” (by the way, such a bad name – does that refer to them singing his underneath harmonies? Here’s some history on them) in favor of backing band “The Buzz” on “Do Anything You Say” b/w “Good Morning Girl.” Of the lyrical vomit and scatting on “Good Morning Girl,” I will say nothing further, but you will immediately recognize the throaty baritone on “Do Anything You Say.” It sounds like Bowie of five years later.

His next 1966 single, “I Dig Everything,” is so very much of the moment that it would fit perfectly into a montage in an Austin Powers movie. It has everything you associate with that sound – the organ, the guiro, the shuffling drums, the occasional mellotron. It’s pretty much a song about Bowie walking around town with a string of somewhat terrible things happening to him, periodically declaiming, “Everything’s fine and I dig everything.”

It was b/w “I’m Not Losing Sleep,” which is in the same vein but with a lower vocal that is a bit reminiscent of Tom Jones. The melody on the chorus of “I’m just counting sheep, I’m not losing sleep, my friend” is a bit catchy.

All of the Pye songs are available on I Dig Everything: The 1966 Pye Singles, more cheaply had as MP3s than a physical CD.

##

I wonder if David Bowie had many fans from this string of singles in the UK, following him from band name to band name. Earlier this week, Bowie’s response to fan letter from 1967 circulated and mentioned a British fan club. However, that was from September of 1967 after his solo full-length debut on Deram Records – but that’s a topic for another post!

Review: Red One, Vol. 1 – Welcome To America by Dorison, Dodson, & Dodson

Terry Dodson’s art occupies a space between cartoon and cheesecake. His men are muscled and smirking, his woman curvy with cheshire smiles. With his inking wife Rachel adding a slick, bold line on all of his figures his work is positively animated. That makes him a tremendous artist for a prior gig on Wonder Woman, but strange fit for some of the more grounded Marvel titles he’s graced, like Uncanny X-Men and portions of last year’s event flop Axis.

What Dodson hasn’t done much of is creator-owned work – and, why would he with the time restrictions of an artist who is in demand for Marvel’s highest-paying projects!

Yet, here his is, collaborating with French author Xavier Dorison. Together they’re penning a Communist superhero invading America in the late 70s to preserve its hedonism, a take surely inspired by The Americans.

How did it hold up?

Red-One-Vol01Red One, Vol. 1 – Welcome To America 1.5 stars Amazon Logo

Written by Xavier Dorison with art by Terry and Rachel Dodson

#140char review: Red One is a misguided mis-mash of 70s-worship and Cold War fetishizing, supposing the commies would win if we stayed Hedonists. Disjointed.

CK Says: Skip It

There’s a very interesting premise here: The Cold War served the ruling class of Russia as much as that of America, and the best way to extend that was to make sure America was a land of increasingly liberal hedonists. What if America was suddenly gripped by an evangelical vigilantism that threatened to plunge the country into a conservative movement bordering on Neo-Fascism? What if Russia was willing to send in their best agent – Black Widow under another name – to disrupt the trend?

If you think that sounds like an amazing concept, you’re not alone – I think so, too! However, Red One never quite gets there.Xavier Dorison’s script and his direction of Terry Dodson’s animated panel work is disjointed, with word balloons that don’t quite make sense and actions that don’t quite track from panel to panel. What should be a rich mythology winds up a flimsy plot that barely keeps the pages turning in this outlandishly oversized tome – it’s the size of a 70s magazine, like the old format of Rolling Stone.

The size serves Dodson’s artwork well. It is bold and beautiful, with Rachel Dodson using a seemingly-slimmer line on her inks. Maybe that’s the size of the format, or Dodson handling his own colors (which are beautiful). Yet, even this beautiful oversized format has some flaws, among them mis-sized letter balloons and badly fit words – completely uncharacteristic of super-pro Clayton Cowles.

The true problem here might not be bad storytelling, but a flawed premise. While setting this book forty years ago gives it a chance to play in a historical context predating the dissolution of the USSR, the present day would be a better fit for the thematic context. A few touches of same sex relationships, sex-positive attitudes, and polyamory come off as lurid rather than thoughful. Even if you can make the leap to root for the Russian disruptors and against the cultish, prudish anti-hero The Carpenter (yeah, really, it’s that subtle), there’s the implication that Russia likes all this hedonism because it’s bad for America. That puts a oily film over all of it, even though Red One is weirdly okay with it all (because it totally makes sense that Russia’s top agent, trained for 21 years of her quarter century of life, would actually be a total party animal).

I don’t mean this to come off as some form of thought-policing. Your superhero book can be about the downfalls of redefinition of morality and still be good. The problem here is that there is just no nuance to Red One’s chauffeuring of a famous porn director while beating up Neo-Cons on her breaks.

Red One is the boring cartoon fairytales The Americans might tell their children before bed, and not one you should spend your time reading unless you are a prohibitive Terry Dodson fan.

Marvel Now In Hindsight: Every Comic Book Series, Ranked

marvel-now-bannerAfter Avengers vs. X-Men at the end of 2012, Marvel reloaded their entire line save for a handful of just-launched books and dubbed the era of titles “Marvel Now.” There have been a few incremental waves of additional launches since then, but the main spine of Marvel has been telling consistent stories since then – the Avengers and X-Men flagships, their big three Avengers heroes, and Spider-Man.

The stories haven’t only been consistent – they’ve been really good. Unlike the 2011 DC New 52 launch, Now hit the stands with nothing bad in the bunch. Even as some books declined as the period wore on, we got other amazing winners in the intermediate waves.

Now that we’re only weeks away from the next major period of Marvel where every book will be refreshed, I thought it was the right time to look back about what was so awesome about Marvel Now by ranking every book we got along the way – over 70 ongoing titles!

As with my Writer-Rankings last week, being low on the list doesn’t mean a book was bad – just that it’s not my top pick for you to spend your hard-earned dollars on.

The criteria: I’m a trade-waiter, so books had to release at least one trade by this week. Books from before Now only count if they made it through 2014. No series that were explicitly disclaimed as limited (short series that got cut off by Secret Wars do count). Two volumes of a book by the same author or with continuous story count as one entry – like Daredevil Volume 3 and Volume 4, both by Waid, or Iron Man and Superior Iron Man.

The final trades for these series were too late-breaking for me to evaluate them fairly, but I’ll add them into the order with the appropriate post-dated annotation when I catch up: All-New Captain America, Amazing Spider-Man Vol. 3, Bucky Barnes: The Winter Soldier, Deathlok, Savage Hulk, Silk, Spider-Gwen, Spider-Woman, Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Uncanny Avengers Vol. 2, Wolverines.

Let’s get to it!

CK Says: Must buy!

Thor, God of Thunder + Thor by Jason Aaron

The pinnacle of what Marvel Now had to offer in every regard. Writing, character voice, plot, art – all of the above were the best they could be in this landmark run on Thor, which gave way to a historic makeover for one of Marvel’s biggest heroes. It’s like watching Thor as it’s own multi-part cinematic epic with a scope as large as Lord of the Rings. It has my highest recommendation.

Start with Thor, God of Thunder Deluxe Hardcover Vol. 1 or visit the guide.

Silver Surfer by Dan Slott & Mike Allred

Utter perfection in every issue. A wry love-letter to the totally zany Marvel comics of the 60s, where space contained the most improbable things. It was a delight to see Dan Slott step away from his Spidey-mode and push his storytelling to the limits. It makes me wish he had the time and inclination to start up some indie comics, but this is even better – a classic, never-better take on a character who has gone a bit under-appreciated in the past few years. Oh, plus a dozen issue run of Mike Allred’s art? No way to go wrong there.

Start with Silver Surfer, Vol. 1

Storm by Greg Pak

Sometimes you see fans ask Marvel editors why a certain character hasn’t yet had their own series, and the reply is usually, “No one’s made the perfect pitch.” Greg Pak had the perfect pitch on Storm. This has everything you could hope for from a series starring the weather goddess and Wakandan ex-royalty, from humanitarian missions to hand-to-hand combat to thievery to clashing with the FBI. Pak executed every moment on this high-wire with precision, and artists Victor Ibanez, Alejandro Barrionuevo, and Neil Edwards gave a real world weight to Ororo’s adventures.

Get it all: Storm Vol. 1 and Vol. 2

Superior Spider-Man by Dan Slott w/Christos Gage

Who knew something so bad would feel so, so good? Spider-Man as a reluctant hero and a recovering villain made for some of the most page-turning issues in his recent history. Even as this All-New Peter Parker reversed his infamous Parker Luck, Dan Slott piled on the misfortune for New York City until the scales tipped and our Superior hero had to make some challenging choices when it came to his newfound success. They say that good stories sometimes put their characters through the worst, and never has that been both so enjoyable.

Start with Superior Spider-Man Deluxe Hardcover, Vol. 1 or visit the guide.

Deadpool by Gerry Duggan & Brian Posehn

I am not a Deadpool fan. I AM REALLY NOT A DEADPOOL FAN. This is a character that induced groans from me in every previous iteration, but Duggan and Posehn found a special magic in decrepit old Wade and turned him into one of Marvel’s most-readable heroes – yes, even with the gags intact. It’s hard to believe. Art from Tony Moore, Mike Hawthorn, and Scott Koblish was consistent, flashback issues were a hilarious bit that never got old, and we even found some weighty highs and lows between Deadpool’s marriage, his friendship with Agent Preston, and the reveal of his lost family. If you like even the idea of the Merc With a Mouth with a half-decayed secret heart of gold you must read this run.

Start with Deadpool Deluxe Hardcover, Vol. 1 or visit the guide.

Superior Foes of Spider-Man by Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer crafted a beginning-to-end farcical delight that wound up more of a Rubik’s cube than anyone would have guessed at the start. This sort of clever, indie-style book that elevates minor characters into majors is one of the things Marvel does best in the NOW era, and despite declining sales this book was every bit as clever as the similar tone and look on Hawkeye – and usually a lot more fun to read. Primary penciller Steve Lieber was the only real superhero on the book, delivering classy, pitch-perfect, gag-filled art for the majority of issues. Even fill-ins from James Asmus struck the right tone. A major success.

Get it all in the Superior Foes of Spider-Man Omnibus

Avengers Arena / Avengers Undercover by Dennis Hopeless

We all love seeing teens take up the mantle of our favorite heroes, but seldom do we ask, “What’s the price they pay?” Avengers Academy did a fine job exploring their scarring origin stories and PTSD, but it never touched on the vengeance a true villain could wreak on an impressionable generation of superheroes. Who would have ever thought that villain would be Arcade, the carrot-topped constant failure who habitually plagues the X-Men and Spider-Man for no reason other than his own amusement? Dennis Hopeless drew together dozens of disparate characters and themes to craft a Marvel-style Battle Royale or Hunger Games, yet there were twists within beyond either of those two works. Meanwhile, Kev Walker bloomed before our eyes from the steady-eddie from Thunderbolts to one of Hickman’s headline artists on Avengers! If only Hopeless got another 10 or 20 issues to extend his ideas on Undercover! Yet, even the aborted themes of descent and redemption there were crafted perfectly.

Start with Avengers Arena, Vol. 1 or visit the guide.

Hawkeye by Matt Fraction & David Aja

For all it’s lateness and idiosyncrasies, it’s hard to ignore the heart in Clint Barton as a unloveable screw-up with enough charm to get by and Kate Bishop as an unrepentant A-Student taking a test she can’t study for. Was it worth the wait for every issue? Maybe so, maybe not, but I don’t think anyone wishes that Fraction, Aja, and Wu were pulled off the book at any point to speed things up.

Get it all with Hawkeye by Fraction & Aja Omnibus

Magneto by Cullen Bunn

Here’s the pitch: Magneto, solo *kinda) – but good (kinda), without powers (kinda), and bald (totally) with a serviceable author (Bunn, who has crashed several series to date). Sounds like a surefire miss, right? Instead, it was a glorious, twisted, dark run that breathed life into a Magneto who has been humbled for many years. This run touched many parts of his long and somewhat-mangled history, from surviving the Holocaust in Germany to the genocide of mutants in E for Extinction. I was expecting a X-Men: First Class cash-in, but instead we got some of the best stories every written about this villain.

Start with Magneto, Vol. 1

Secret Avengers Vol. 2 + Vol. 3 by Nick Spencer & Alex Kot

A messed-up superhero story that didn’t quite require you to read every issue but improved if you did. Spencer and Kot were two of the only authors to innovate on a team book in a period of strong solo work across the Marvel line, and they did it by doing the unconventional – creating a team of heroes that couldn’t remember their deeds, and then augmenting the team with MODOK and a living bomb. Also, Deadpool. It was glorious, and the art – especially by latter-run artist Michael Walsh on Kot’s run, had an appropriately slight cartoonish bent (though never so much as the blocky covers).

Start with Secret Avengers, Vol. 1 or visit the guide.

Daredevil Vol. 3 + Vol. 4 by Mark Waid

As nimble as its title character, Daredevil is a title that hops genres and tones and never gets caught off-guard. A slight bobble at the end of each volume is no reason to be down on this all-time classic book, the first one in a long time to put a shine in Murdock’s smile and a devlish glint in his eye. It doesn’t hurt that the artwork was top-notch throughout, with some truly groundbreaking work from ARTIST at the beginning to define the look of the book.

Start with Daredevil by Mark Waid Deluxe Hardcover Vol. 1 or visit the guide.

Loki: Agent of Asgard + Thor & Loki: The Tenth Realm by Al Ewing

Is it blasphemy to love a new Loki other than Kieron Gillen’s? If it is, then Odin is going to strike me down where I stand. Al Ewing’s genre- and gender-bending take on the god of mischief was full of smarts and smirks in every issue, and his artistic collaborators were always on their A-Game. An enjoyable riddle of a book that tapped into Hiddleson’s mischievousness while making Loki more relevant to the onoing story of Asgard than ever.

Start with Loki: Agent of Asgard, Vol. 1

Avengers Assemble by Kelly Sue DeConnick w/Warren Ellis

If Bendis’s multi-year addition to Avengers was giving a soul to a sometimes randomly collected team, DeConnick gave it a heart. There were so many small moments in this run where we saw the human connections that result from battling alongside each other for years. Whether it was the Stark vs. Banner rivalry, the Spider-Woman and Hulk playfulness, the Captains America and Marvel’s exasperation, or Black Widow’s ability to be the subtle social glue to get their best out of a team while never being the obvious “leader.” Every issue and arc here was massively enjoyable, and scratched an itch no other Avengers title has ever before quite hit.

Start with Avengers Assemble: Science Bros or visit the guide.

Angela: Asgard’s Assassin by Kieron Gillen & Marguerite Bennett

Kieron Gillen’s parting love letter to Loki and Asgard comes in this brisk single arc exploring Angela’s first solo adventure as a woman without a realm – not accepted within Asgard, and never truly a winged creature of Heven. What results is nothing you’d expect – an unusual tryst, a touch of darkness, and a best friend who is not all that she seems (nor is that sentence). If you’ve enjoyed any of Thor or Journey Into Mystery in the past few years but wished it had more of a female touch, this is it – especially thanks to awe-inspiring art from master Phil Jimenez and the heavenly Stephanie Hans.

Get it all with Angela: Asgard’s Assassin!

Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson

Ms. Marvel was the major can’t-miss-moment of Marvel Now! It’s rare that Marvel creates a new hero from whole cloth, rarer still for them to debut in their own book, and even more shocking to see that book be given so much room to breathe without crossovers and tie-ins. As we roll into a second and third set of stories the bigger villain arc got less interesting and the interpersonal relationships got stronger. It will be interesting to see what G. Willow Wilson does with the next volume to set up a nemesis for Kamala.

Start with Ms. Marvel by Wilson Deluxe Hardcover, Vol. 1 or visit the guide.

Elektra by Haden W. Blackman & Mike Del Mundo

Finally, Elektra who is more than just a killer or just a killer pair of legs and sais! Blackmun’s Elektra was driven by her assassin’s code and a need to be right, and nothing else mattered. While every move seemed to entangle her further in a plot where she had no control, instead of seeing a defeated hero we met one who grew ever more determined. It made for a slick plot and Mike Del Mundo’s art could have been the best interiors of Marvel Now this side of Thor.

Get it all with Elektra Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 and visit the guide for more Elektra.

Keep reading for the books that I recommend and ask you to kindly consider, plus a few I think you ought to avoid.

Continue reading ›

Review: Birthright, Vol. 1 – Homecoming, by Williamson & Bressan

Image Comics knows what’s up with finding readers outside of the Direct Market. Valiant, too. Really, everyone except DC and Marvel.

These companies realize that buying the first collection an untested property from an author you may or may not know is a risky proposition, and generally not something you’ll plunk a $20 down for. That’s why nearly every Image first volume trade paperback is a handy $9.99 – which puts it in the five to eight dollar range when you buy it online.

That’s the story of how I wound up with a copy of Birthright, Vol. 1 – a $6 gamble on a book with a beautiful cover that evokes Sword In The Stone with hints of more dire elements along the edges. I was completely unfamiliar with creator Joshua Williamson by virtue of him solely writing for DC after his first pair of creator-owned works, both short-form. That’s changed in the past two years, with Williamson writing a trio of ongoings for Image – Ghosted, Nailbiter, and Birthday (plus Robocop for BOOM!).

When I wrote up Nailbiter in last week’s new comic roundup and decided to grab the first volume (again: $6), I realized I had another Williamson book in my in box (an actual longbox) waiting to be read!

How was it?

Birthright, Vol. 1 – Homecoming 4 stars Amazon Logo

Birthright - Vol01

Written by Joshua Williamson with art by Andrei Bressan and color by Adriano Lucas

#140char review: Birthright is Goonies crossed w/Sword In the Stone plus something sinister, like Harry as an agent of Voldemort. Bressan’s art = perfection.

CK Says: Buy it!

Birthright is a batter of different genre tropes that baked up into something a lot tastier than its individual ingredients.

Birthright is primarily a Chosen One narrative in the Joseph Campbell model, like Star Wars and Harry Potter before it. Where it deviates is that we’re getting the story after the fact, and we see that part of the reason all of those stories end so pat is that the orphan hero tends to make some choices that haunt him after his victory. That’s the case here with young Mikey, who disappeared into the woods on an early birthday without a trace during a game of catch with his dad.

Here’s where creators Joshua Williamson and Andrei Bressen do something a little weird. They spend their start-up issues focusing on the human trauma behind a child who disappears, writing a family drama and a police procedural for a few pages before the fantastic main plot gets underway. It’s a risk. It gets a little too simple at points (random cop dude insists, “He is a security risk.” To what, exactly?). There’s a repeated rubber-band snap as we get yanked out of the fantasy-themed pages we crave and back into a dingy interrogation room. Yet, that tension and genre-hopping is what marks Birthright as not the hero story we’ve come to expect. It’s what makes this book a page-turner even before the biggest twist is unfurled.

The remainder of that success comes from artist Bressen and a remarkable set of colors from Adriano Lucas. Many indie comics are well-executed but don’t achieve the right color palette or gradient shading, but here Lucas breathes three-dimensional life into Bressen’s characters. They nearly leap off the page when they are in motion.

It’s difficult to say more without completely spoiling the super-punch surprises of the plot here. It turns out that the fantasy world has an ongoing relationship with Earth, as represented by several unusual visitors who have crossed over. They are working at cross purposes to each other, and it’s hard to know who to trust – especially if you are a family that has been shattered by grief for the past year. Would you believe anyone who told you what you wanted to hear and offered you a means of putting your life back together? Or, would you be skeptical of everything offered to you after such a tragic loss? How Mikey’s family answers these questions divides them down the middle.

Ultimately, the heroic tale and the familial drama are one and the same, and to enjoy them both you might need to forgive the police procedural portion of its weaker spots. What shines through each element is that the whole Chosen One business is unfair. It picks on kids who don’t know who they are or want to be and it tears families apart by necessity. Every one of the four family members has been damaged in the process, and with so much book ahead of us it’s unknowable whether they can help each other heal or if the wounds will just fester.

The dual-worlds narrative plus a last page reveal might leave you a little cynical that this is very much a post-Saga derivative. I’m optimistic. I believe in Williamson’s easy scripting and the consistently gorgeous visuals from Bressan and Lucas enough that I’m signing on for a full-priced second volumeBirthright has the potential to be a lasting epic if it can keep up the momentum of this first five-issue sprint.

Ex Machina is the worst movie I have seen in 2015

Fuck this misogynist racist bullshit right in its ruddy white male ass. That's my rating.

Fuck this misogynist racist bullshit right in its ruddy puckered white male ass. That’s my rating.

E and I haven’t watched a new movie in a month or more between busy-ness and trying to maintain our new midweek no-screen night policy. Tonight we were excited to relax and watch a new arrival from Netflix. We picked Ex Machina.

I don’t know if I can name any other movie that has made me as angry. At least, not this year. I fundamentally disliked other recent critical darlings like the stupefying Snowpiercer and the ludicrous Gone Girl. In the same vein, Her was terrifically average. In all three cases I left with something to discuss rather than just wasted time and a void of seething rage.

I’m not sure if the rage is due to me finding the movie so awful and downright problematic, or because I discovered that it ranked anywhere from 70-93% approval on critic aggregators. Critics are supposed to dissect this nonsense, not endorse it.

Here I am to dissect it for you. There might be spoilers from here on out, because I really am hoping you’re not going to watch it.

The basic premise is that a reclusive Steve Jobs type of character (the Creator) plucks one lucky winner (the Tester) from his company to visit him in his isolated R&D living space, where he is single-handedly developing and constructing an AI. The lucky winner will conduct a week-long Turing Test to evaluate the success of the current model for reasons that are unclear.

Its an interesting premise if there is somewhere to take it. Will the AI adapt? How does the Creator feel about his creation? Will it make the Tester question his humanity?

Ex Machina feints in all of those directions but mostly stands in one place. The AI doesn’t adapt – in fact, it behaves exactly as the creator expects, every time. The Creator is a one-note always-right asshole from an actor delivering all the nuance of a cinderblock, so there goes the question of his feelings and any satisfaction you might derive from the answer to the first question. And, what could have been a terrific plunge into existential terror for the Tester is addressed by a brief attempted suicide montage that apparently resolves all of his concerns and then we don’t have to keep worrying about it.

If that was all that was wrong with the movie, we could simple call it weak and leave it at that. There is so much more.

First, the movie nails its achievement in CG and production design, but other areas of technical performance are a flatline. The sound design is awful. It wants to be both aspirational and claustrophobic, but it’s just bland and buzzy. The cinematography had consistent problems. There were some weird framing and focus-pulling choices early on that I thought were deliberate, but as they continued through the movie I decided that, no, they were just inept.

However, the biggest technical flub is the acting. It was terrible. The Creator was in mustache-twirling mode the entire movie. I suppose that’s largely the fault of the script, but I still believe there could have been sort of motivation within the asshole rather than playing him like a SNL caricature of the worst boss ever. The AI actress was mushy at best, trying to sketch an arc from stoic machine to perky robot to steely automaton but mostly just mumbling and staring with sleepy intensity. The Tester is a relatively charming actor (Bill Weasley, actually), but he didn’t create much emotional life for his character. When he confesses that his parents died and that’s why he learned to code, the scene is so flat and unaffecting that it could have been cut if it wasn’t part of the awful punchline that tries to gotcha in the final scenes.

Which brings us to the script and all of its many faults. It starts with the terrible, stilted exchange between Creator and Tester when the latter first arrives. It’s like writer/director Alex Garland has only ever read about people speaking to each other and never witnessed it for real. (See what I did there? No? Good, that means you haven’t watched the movie.) This disconnect meant every scene between the two men felt like it might finally be the revelatory one where they cut through their awkwardness but, no, the awkwardness was the script, not the relationship. Even when they have their reckoning and we should have felt something between them, it’s still as stilted as ever.

Then, there is the first Turing Test session. It’s a bust. That the Tester didn’t walk out and just say to the Creator, “Sorry, dude, back to the drawing board!” was super-puzzling. Later, the script tries to make some sort of point of this by having the AI ask the same questions of the Tester to watch him stammer through the answers. It was clumsy and self-correcting as if the prior exchange was already committed to film – like a TV show that is trying to retcon an earlier blunder.

It is so attractive to think of the Tester as a potential machine because the script is so bad. If his fumbling suicide attempt had actually taken the movie in that direction, we’d say, “Oh, that’s why!” about the beginning of it and forgive it for Shyamalan reasons. As for why the Tester develops a crush on the AI and then needs to help her escape purely for ethical reasons, that all happens just because it has to happen and because he’s a “good person” and the AI is sure he’s not lying about that. There’s no real reason for any of it. His speech that more or less introduces the Cave Allegory to the AI (who should know about it, she is built on a search engine) goes toward explaining his actions, but all of his reasons are told and not shown.

Now we’re in the middle of a movie with three characters it’s impossible to care about, except for the tiny inkling that the Tester may actually be the AI and that’s what we’re testing here. Ah, but there is a fourth character – a subservient (of course) house-maid and (of course) sex slave who is an Asian female (of course), who is a little clumsy except when she is doing sweet 70s dance choreography or lounging around with her breasts out, as she is wont to do.

Here’s the thing, shitty filmmakers: You can make the argument that the particular awful Creator character would choose to both idealize and abuse a woman of Asian looks (not descent, mind you, as she’s descended from a can-opener), but if you’re NOT going to build that profile into your character then what you’re achieving on screen is just sexist, misogynist, racist crap. The Creator has contempt for everyone, but never once does that come out in him being sexist or racist – which means the hangup is the filmmaker’s, not the character’s.

Oh, and don’t think it escaped me that the one AI model we see footage of the Creator dragging around like an inanimate object just happened to be skinned as a black woman. Total coincidence, right? The first model is nude and blonde with just a polite touch of pubic hair, and we never see her harmed or retired. Then, a Black model never gets a face and just happens to need to be dragged around limply as though she had been beaten to death. A subsequent Asian model with slightly harder features is also defiant but she is kept at a distance and destroys herself in the process. Then the idealized Asian model with delicate features was subservient and perfect in actions – but not in intellect! Back to the white girl drawing board!

We learn about this in a single stomach-churning montage (but, don’t worry – these are objects, not women!) that cuts directly to the subservient Asian model in a sexual pose. We get to ogle the obsolete women’s fully-nude full-length bodies repeatedly for the rest of the film – because of course they still have their full skin and carefully threaded pubic hair and carefully sculpted pubis mounds as they are kept in their closets, and of course the camera must linger on these details carefully. Never you mind that the Creator explains that the brains are really the only thing he is significantly tweaking between models. He’s definitely going to vary the body types and races because, you know, reasons.

Here’s an astounding question – why did any of these models have skin on them enough to show their bare breasts to begin with if they were such early versions? Our main AI character is in a sleek carbon-fiber body that she eventually wraps flesh around, but it’s a massive plot point that she has very little skin. Yes, that’s partially because she’s a bit of a decoy, and the point is to see if the Tester can get past her semi-human appearance (and the human part is specifically modeled on faces he’d react to). However, why did previous models have skin at all? What were they of a race, if not just exploitation and as objects to express violence against? Why were their races varied at all? Why weren’t they colored blue or green?

Here’s the honest answer: Because there is nothing smart or challenging about Ex Machina. It’s main attribute is that it is a white male power fantasy about white men having power over each other and everything else in the world. The AI doesn’t win, as the movie manipulates us to try to feel in its final shots. Really, each of the men won and so also lost, and as a fringe benefit a woman created like Eve from a rib got to enjoy the spoils of their victories by continuing to act out the programming given to her by her Creator – because man always gets his way in the end.

There are myriad ways this movie could have been a thought-provoking success even with its one-note script. A gender or race swap of any character would have made it more interesting even with all the same words because the power dynamics would have changed. Leaving the Tester being AI more open-ended or handling it with more care would have been interesting. The Creator actually having any emotions at all could have helped – you don’t even get the sense he’s very invested in the outcome of his success.

Even without any of that, this movie could have been an enjoyable if it didn’t wear its utter malice towards women of color on its sleeve. Want to see a truly disturbing movie about two people locked in a house and manipulating each other? Try Hard Candy.

Ex Machina – .5 stars

 

Review: Talking Is Hard – Walk The Moon

I am terrified that Walk the Moon are going to be a one-hit wonder.

Let’s be honest – “Shut Up and Dance With Me” is absolutely that kind of song. A “867-5309” or a “Jessie’s Girl” or “Take Me Home Tonight,” an exuberant male anthem of sudden and unrequited affection that might not last past its consummation, complete with a shimmering and anthemic chorus and a quick solo into a refrain. It feels like that.

I’m terrified for them, because it’s clear they did it intentionally. They do it again and again on Talking Is Hard. I added it to my collection begrudgingly to learn the single for our cover band, and after one listen it became the first LP to supplant 1989 in the “unadulterated pop perfection” category that the most earwormy albums scratch for me.

Opener (and new single) “Different Colors” feels very of-this-moment and modern rock-y. You know the thing: snotty vocals, throbbing synths intertwined with guitar, wordless falsetto hook. There’s something about the refrain, “this is why, this is why … we bite the bullet, we know the kids are right.” It’s something more than the now of modern rock. It’s like Third Eye Blind crossed with Duran Duran. They hit the latter harder on “Spend Your $$$” but it also has a certain Talking Heads quality with the repeated breaks into falsetto, with a little flavor of “Psychokiller.”

The lack of surprise is the surprising thing about this album. It’s of this moment, but it’s not about trends. Yes, there’s “Portugal,” where the synths quote the vocals and visa versa so many times that you’ll lose track of which is doing which at what point in the song. Yet, even there is the plaintive, “Take me with you, ’cause even on your own you’re not alone.” Nicholas Petricca’s voice is pliant and sweet, with just the right amount of explosive belt before an able and imperfect falsetto, in the pop-crossover male mold set by Brandon Flowers last decade.

Just as the guitar intro to “Shut Up and Dance” is pure Edge with the churning arpeggio atop a sparking delay effect, and just as it apes those infatuated 80s anthems, the entire album is a careful study in wearing your influences on your sleeve. “Work This Body” pure Paul Simon without the self-awareness of Vampire Weekend, a well they hit again on the chorus of “Sidekick.”Aquaman” is almost a straight up cover of “Sexual Healing” via its canned drums and synths, but there’s something so “In Your Eyes” about each phrase of the melody.

Only occasionally does it get so by-the-numbers anthemic that you could be a little cynical about it – on the very OK Go “Up To You,” the post-Franz Ferdinand “Down In The Dumps,” and the by-the-numbers single “We Are The Kids,” but if those are the weak tracks on your album you are doing something very, very right.

Walk The Moon is doing something very, very right. I stand in the kitchen and debate with spirit what ought to be the next single. Every song is mentioned. I hum and whistle the hooks on my walk to the bus when the songs are not even on. I am still not sick of “Shut Up and Dance With Me” despite listening to it 100s of times to get the rhythms just right for our cover, but it is no longer the song I am most excited to hear on this album.

You can be a band that wants to sound 80s, or you can be band that knows the playbook of a decade so back-to-front that your album feels like a piece of it despite being completely modern as well. That’s what Talking Is Hard is – and it’s an instant classic.

Honestly, I don’t think I need to be too worried about the one-hit-wonderdom of a band who can string together 11 potential singles on a 12 song album. I think I’m less terrified for them as I am for myself, because I need other people to understand how perfect the album is and mythologize it they way they do other single-laden breakthroughs like Jagged Little Pill or Songs About Jane. It’s that good.

Review: The Divine OGN

While I aspire to not judge any proverbial books by their covers, I don’t think it is such a bad thing to find a proverbial book’s cover interesting. That’s how I found so many interesting artists to listen to in the 90s – I’d just buy the CDs with the most interesting artwork.

In this case we’re talking about an actual book – The Divine. It was nothing I had heard of before from creators who were strangers to me and a publisher I don’t own a single book by. The two boys on the cover had a sort of liquidity to their poses, and they also reminded me a bit of Jamie Hewlett’s artwork for Gorillaz. Intrigued, I checked out the description, which ends with this line:

What awaits him in Quanlom is an actual goddamn dragon.

Clearly, I bought the book.

The-Divine-CoverThe Divine OGN 3.5 stars Amazon Logo

Written by Boaz Lavie with artists Asaf Hanuka and Tomer Hanuka.

#140char review: Divine from 1st Second press…a stunningly illustrated OGN w/dirt beneath it’s nails. I’d’ve liked it more if it paid off more early promises

CK Says: Consider it.

Whatever I was expecting from The Divine, I certainly got something completely else.

It’s a book that unfolds in parts, and you aren’t entirely sure what you’re reading until you are firmly in the middle. It it a story about Mark and his explosives? About his impending fatherhood? About the balance of domesticity and adventure, responsibility and risk-taking? Or, about neglect on an international scale? Or, is it really about a dragon?

Yes to all of that, even if those themes don’t play out so literally as they are introduced in the opening pages (dragon included). Instead, Mark’s trip to the fictional, wartorn country of Quanlom works as an allegory, both in his own life and for the reader. Does it all really happen the way we both witness it, with exploding body parts, clay soldiers brought to life, and fearsome dragons invisible to most men? Or, is that what Mark needed to see? The book gives a clever, blink-and-you’ll-miss it out that lets you consider just how much truth there is to Mark as our limited first person narrator.

All of that comes from a very literal inspiration – an indelible, tragic photo shot by Apichart Weerawong of a pair of Burmese twin boy turned unintended warlords, supposedly imbued with magical imperviousness. Their only magic was in occupying a dark spot in the world’s vision, a space open to intervention but impervious to compassion. (They have since departed, separated, and reunited.)

Photo by Apichart Weerawong.

Photo by Apichart Weerawong.

There is more magic than that in The Divine, and to believe the authors’ note it is out of necessity to give a satisfying narrative to how two boys like these could be put in such a tragic position (because the real story is too terrible to replicate faithfully).

That magic is the magic of the land and of the mysterious and powerful visage of Leh, and they are both imbued with it and in in awe of it. Mark is a creature of destruction but also newly a part of creation – the second is how he reconciles one last massive act of the first before settling down in the deceivingly named Eden. (Says Rachel, “You seriously think they’d call a nice place Eden?”) He finds himself playing out this push and pull as he first negotiates with his lunkhead ex-military co-worker Jason and then later sympathizes with the tiny warlords who have aligned against him.

Divine‘s artwork is – well, I won’t say the obvious, but it’s quite perfect. Despite not looking much like it, it reminded me constantly of Robbi Rodriguez’s Federal Bureau of Physics. I think it’s mainly due to the figures and the details.

The Hanukas’ people are remarkably realistic, sometimes with a slight twist, just as Rodriguez presents a series of verisimilitudinous but mismatched caricatures. This is best expressed by a beautiful and horrific local news anchor who occupies two frames but might haunt your dreams with her broken smile. All of the faces of The Divine have that crooked truth to them. The Hanukas have captured that split-second gawkiness of a face that is handsome when in motion as well as a camera, and that makes their people shine.

The-Divine-InteriorMeanwhile. the surrounding environments are absolutely haunted with detail. In one panel of Mark’s living room my eyes dwelled on the bifurcated plug of a television and a unattractively-placed smoke detector. Later, in the mountainous countryside of Quanlom, their landscapes are liquid. Trees and mountains look like a sluice of melted wax, with highlights dripping across them. As the magical nature of the book increases, so does that liquid, which makes a late change back to reality feel all the more square as a result.

If there is a downside to this quick read it’s that not every detail you pick up on early in the book is paid off in full. Rachel is quickly made into a round character and then left behind, though her actions are crucial to the story. A strangely compelling exchange about a photochromic set of glasses is never recalled. Jason’s cryptic obsession with Quanlom morphs into a scenery-chewing obviousness. Mark’s skill with and fear of explosives is central to the plot, but his facility with them is secondary.

None of that takes away from the experience of the novel. If anything, it will compel you to re-read it, searching for links as you parse the allegory within the allegory. You could spend weeks picking out the fine details of the artwork, but it would be a mistake to not also dissect fine gradations of meaning in the plot. T

his is not a read once and love it kind of book, but if you are willing to let a graphic novel sink in it’s the perfect choice for you.

What came before: from the Hanukas: Bipolar collected as The Placebo Man … from Asaf Hanuka: The Realist … from Tomer Hanuka: Overkill & Philosophy in the Boudoir

You might also like: Federal Bureau of Physics Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 (similar art with low-fantasy sci-fi twist on reality)

Review: Magneto, Vol. 3: Shadow Games

It took 20 years from Magneto to go from his first titled comic to his own ongoing series!

It took 20 years from Magneto to go from his first titled comic to his own ongoing series!

There are certain Marvel characters that you probably assume have had at least one ongoing series after four or five decades, but they can sometimes surprise you. As an example, Black Widow didn’t get her first ongoing series until 2010 despite being around since the 60s.

Magneto falls into that category for me. When his series was announced as “his first ongoing title” at the end of 2013, I did a double-take – fifty years and no ongoing? Yet, my comic collection tells me it’s true: the Master of Magnetism has had a handful of mini-series and one-shots, including his first – a beautiful, foil-covered affair that I have in mint condition somewhere in my attic.

Once that surprise wore off, cynicism wore in. Author Cullen Bunn has been hit and miss with me on his Marvel work, and his hits have been female-driven stories in The Fearless and Fearless Defenders. What could he bring to a Magneto whose motivation and powers were both feeling a little watered down from him playing second string to a resurgent, insurgent Cyclops for the past few years? Would this simply be a movie-fervor cash in with a hunky Fassbender style Magneto staring moodily off into the distance and pulling out people’s fillings?

Yesterday I caught up with the third volume of his edition…

Magneto, Vol. 3 – Shadow Games 45star Amazon Logo

Collecting Magneto (2014) #13-17. Written by Cullen Bunn with artists Javi Fernandez and Gabriel Hernandez Walta and color artists Jordie Bellaire and Dan Brown.

#140char review: .@cullenbunn’s Magneto v3 is must-read! A distinct un-@Marvel rhythm & deep story roots give Mags motivation. Herald of good to come on UXM.

CK Says: Buy it!

Magneto-2014-Vol03This is a chilling, down-tempo masterpiece of anti-heroic deconstruction. The only time I was tempted to put it down is to think about it before I turned another page! Cullen Bunn is making Magneto more fearsome and more human than ever, and it’s a compelling read.

The cleaner of Fernandez’s art in the first issue are a welcome site as the focus is on the mysterious Briar, wherein Bunn plays a Morrison-like game of building a sub-culture around villainy. If there were super-villains in your world, wouldn’t you be scouring flea markets for DVDs of their greatest destructions after the footage was pulled from YouTube as supporting terrorism? Would people be proud of their scars or angry? This is one of those perfect issues that implies those questions without every verbalizing them, and which deepens the suddenly quite-fascinating mystery of Magneto’s mysterious human benefactor.

Afterwards, Walta continues to lend a weariness to Magneto’s chapters with his sketchy lines portraying a certain rough-edged weariness, which Jordie Bellaire has long-since perfected a color pallet to accompany. Here we see Magneto turn on SHIELD after cooperating with them briefly in Uncanny X-Men. What follows is more interesting. Magneto is re-building some semblance of society on Genosha out of a lingering guilt that he’s let his species down. How to even choose the occasion of his deepest regret? Was it the slaughter just perpetrated by The Red Skull on the island? Or perhaps the genocide of millions of mutants in Morrison’s E is for Extinction. Or, were his failures manifest much earlier – during his first overt strike on US missiles during his original encounter with the X-Men and in his guilt for surviving the Holocaust? Some Nazi and Holocaust imagery here is truly nightmarish, but only once does it feel present purely for shock value.

What’s so fascinating is that all of our flawed protagonist’s decisions feel right – it’s what you might choose in the position of a beleaguered former super-villain, right down to the shocking final choice he makes to resolve the volume.

Bunn’s dissection of Magneto’s extended history feels inspired by James Robinson, who carefully disassembles all things Golden and Silver aged to construct his stories. Maybe Bunn was capable of this all along and never had a character with a rich enough tapestry of stories to draw from. Either way, against all odds Bunn has made Magneto both a nuanced character and a must-read series. If you’re not already excited for him to helm the next volume of Uncanny X-Men headlined by Magneto, then you absolutely must read this book!

What came before: Magneto, Vol. 1 – Infamous 30star >> Magneto, Vol. 2 – Reversals 40star

What comes next: Magneto, Vol. 4 – Last Days >> Uncanny X-Men, Vol. 4 (begins in November!)

You might also like:

Ranking Madonna’s Rebel Heart, track-by-track

madonna-rebel-heartAny week that includes the release of a new Madonna album is a national holiday for me, and this past week’s release of Rebel Heart was the most-exciting Madonna holiday of all time.

In its Super Deluxe format, Rebel Heart is a 23-track album – Madge’s longest-yet. By itself, that’s cause for celebration – especially given that her early 00s LPs were just 10-tracks a piece! Plus, due to various pre-release leaks, there are another 16 songs from this album cycle in various stages of completeness floating around the internet.

I’m typically not too interested in leaked albums – whether the LP is finished or not, I know I’ll buy it when it comes out, anyway. However, in this case the first leaked tune was the title track, a curious acoustic and strings composition that really piqued my interest for the album as a whole.

With the album in-hand and digested, I realized the final version of “Rebel Heart” was pretty distinctly different than the outstanding leak, and I sought out all the other demos. That’s what brings me to this best-holiday-ever. Not only does that yield 39 total songs – a triple-album bounty – but it’s a rare chance to appreciate Madonna’s songwriting and production process by comparing demos to the final tracks. And, even more amazing – there’s nothing truly bad out of the 39!

(Before you ask: No, I do not have the demos to share with you. Just Google each track name and “Madonna Rebel Heart Demo” and you will find some means of hearing them.)

You should know a three things about me:

  1. I have been a Madonna fan for as long as I can remember, which happens to be around the time of Like a Virgin’s release.
  2. I have been a musician for considerably less time than I’ve been a Madonna fan, but each influences the other.
  3. I have been known to like some of the odder songs in Madonna’s catalogue. I love I’m Breathless and American Life. I love Love Song and Bedtime Story.

Now that you know what you’re getting into, let’s begin.

Continue reading ›

Comic Book Review: Marvel’s Infinity #2

Jonathan Hickman and the Avenger’s writing and editorial team are turning linewide crossovers into highly choreographed dance before our very eyes.

From the relatively staid Infinity #1 sprang Hickman’s own Avengers #18 and New Avengers #9 – one a space battle that forged unlikely allies, the other a civil war between Earth’s remaining mighty heroes. From Avengers #18 spun Kellie Sue DeConnick’s two-sided coin of Avengers Assemble #18 and Captain Marvel #15, following two Avengers Quinjets into and out of the battle through the eyes of two best friends separated by the gulf of space.

They were four highly enjoyable comic books. The coordination between Avengers, Assemble, and Captain Marvel was nothing less than extraordinary – each one mirrors scenes from the other to construct a prismatic view of the same battle.

That brings us to the second entry in the main event – Infinity #2. Would it play out yet another dimension of the same space battle? Would it breathe some life into the characters from the prior issue? Would the teenage angst of the art improve?

Let’s find out.

Infinity 0002Infinity #2 of 6  

Script and graphic design by Jonathan Hickman. Art by Jerome Opena & Dustin Weaver. Color art by Justin Ponsor.

Rating: 3 of 5 – Good

#140char review: Infinity #2: The plot picks up as a still impersonal story snaps between Earth & space but it’s Opena’s portion of art that makes this epic.

CK Says: Consider it.

Infinity #2 is a thriller from its opening pages, and writer Jonathan Hickman can’t even take all the credit.

Marvel-Infinity-0002-interior01

Marvel needs to back up a Brinks truck to the front door of Eisner-winning artist Jerome Opena to ensure his participation on big event books for many years to come. Surely his highly-detailed, cinematic art takes a steady hand and long hours to produce, but every damn frame of it in this comic book is utterly gorgeous – especially wall-worthy recaps of the battles shown in New Avengers. Justin Ponsor’s colors ground Opena’s lined work, adding to its depth and texture.

I suspect this is the sort of comic art movie-goers are hoping to find when they crack open an issue or buy it digitally. Marvel can’t afford to have this sort of weary realism grace the pages of every book – nor would that be appropriate. But it’s a welcome delight after events handled by the slick, animated style of Coipel and Immonen. When it comes to The Avengers and massive events, readers deserve the best of that style – and right now Opena is its pinnacle at Marvel (along with veteran Mike Deodato on Hickman’s Avengers books).

Not all of the book is Opena – after a low-orbit prologue, he sticks to the space battles, leaving two scenes of Earth-bound action to compatriot Dustin Weaver. Weaver, whose notable slowness has marooned a second series of Hickman’s SHIELD two-thirds of the way through, is in solid form in his two segments if not a match for Opena.

As with Cheung before him, he draws terrific architecture and monstrous aliens. However, he also nails all of the human figure-work and faces – at least, for the men he does. He can’t seemed to decide how to draw Inhuman queen Medusa from panel to panel.

(And, let’s face it – his marquee panel of a determined Black Bolt looks like Grumpy Cat.)

Overall, the art is just a mugging Inhumans away from five-stars, but how does the story fare?

Marvel-Infinity-0002-interior02

Hickman is in finer form here than in the first chapter, deftly playing between the scenes of the four tie-in issues that intervened. A brief prologue showing an armed infiltration of a S.W.O.R.D. satellite base is isn’t strictly necessary, but wisely frames the action on Earth that we saw in New Avengers #9 to draw it into the context of this story. Opena’s panel’s of Sydren are perhaps the best he’s ever looked (and I think I own his every appearance so far). Similarly, Hickman and Opena dispatch of the three-issue space battle in a single page that expertly weaves in the action we’ve missed.

Scenes in the Inhumans’ floating city shows why Thanos’s interest have suddenly turned to Earth while The Builders’ obliterate societies across the galaxy, while in the intervening pages we see The Builders’ plot of destruction is not as one-sided as we thought.

In getting there, we view a series of thrilling still-frames from a kinetic space battle that casts our Avengers (and Claremont-created Gladiator of the Shi’ar) as a new pantheon of powerful gods to replace our creators of old. What use does an adult society have with its progenitors? Once we are given life, how long must we show gratitude and deference before striking our own path? The Builders seem to be contemplating these same questions, as they send a sole Ex Nihilo (meaning “out of nothing” – a concept intrinsically linked with creation) on a mission that runs counter to his life’s purpose.

This is the Hickman I know and love – interlacing questions of determinism and theology amidst his punch-ups.

Marvel-Infinity-0002-interior03

Yet, even as Hickman hits his narrative stride, he shows that he’s still adjusting to story-telling on comics biggest stage. Both the space battle and the wake of the Nihilo’s action are narrated by a removed speaker, keeping the reader at a distance from the heroes we so desire to get close to. In particular, their humanitarian mission to the victims of the Ex Nihilo comes off as a maudlin waste of pages despite Opena in full gravitas mode. Just a word from Thor’s lips to pair with his actions could have loaned these scenes the narrative heft to match their imagery, but Hickman misses the chance.

A final Earth-bound sequence by Weaver is all exposition to get us to the issue’s big reveal. It’s a doozy in terms of Marvel continuity, but it would have been heavier if we could expect a Secret Invasion style “Who could it be?” surprise in the coming issues. Unfortunately, the mystery doesn’t have a very deep bench of characters to draw its answer from. It would have probably been more interesting to make the subject a mutant than an Inhuman, which would have also made the X-Men more relevant to the event. Alas, Marvel has other intellectual property to flog in 2014, and Hickman dutifully steers the story in that direction.

We end Infinity #2 in a far more interesting place than we began, questioning the motives of a pair of seemingly-unconnected but equally-complex enemies. It’s clear this crossover isn’t going to be the two-front bash-em-up its lead-up suggested. Yet, one-third of the way through the event, it’s a fair question to ask if Hickman will ever make these stunning images and surprising developments truly visceral. For all the barbs thrown at past event-pilots Bendis and Fraction, they each knew how to give voice to fan favorite characters and twist a personal knife amidst the destruction of battle.

Though the story of Infinity has now proven its intrigue, I fear Hickman might stay removed from the action for the duration of this series. Maybe that’s how it should be … maybe that’s how we avoid a disappointing event. Even so, it’s also going to leave each issue slightly unsatisfying as we finish it.

Comic Book Review: Marvel’s Infinity #1

Monthly comic books are a bit like the local nightly news.

Whether a day is exciting or not, or whether you care or not, your local nightly news will find something to say about it. I haven’t seen it for over a decade, but some people watch it daily. Others just tune in when there is a big story to report on.

Ongoing comic books are a lot like that. They just keep happening, issue after issue, while comic book publishers find new things about them to hype every month. Some people devoutly collect each one, while others only buy stories with their favorite characters or creators.

Both in news and in comics, every once in a while there is a big event. A big news event is the kind of thing that causes TV networks to break into their regularly scheduled programming with an update from the national news bureau, and might keep you refreshing Twitter or CNN all day long.

Comic books have the equivalent in line-wide event books. These limited-run titles signal the arrival of a massive, world-altering story too big in scope to contain in a single 22-page issue. However, much like big news events, sometimes comic events are a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing, and after all the breathless coverage you wonder what the big deal was.

Which brings us to today’s topic…

Infinity - 0001Infinity #1 of 6  

Script and graphic design by Jonathan Hickman. Pencils by Jim Cheung. Inks by Mark Morales with John Livesay, David Meikis, and Jim Cheung. Color art by Justin Ponsor.

Rating: 2.5 of 5 – Okay

#140char review: Infinity #1: Hickman reveals a long-term plot in steady pulses. As usual, Cheung’s heroes are all thin-lipped teens. Solid (if bland) set-up

CK Says: Consider it.

Jonathan Hickman excels at writing entire forests of plot and motivations, and in the end Infinity #1 is just a single tree.

Marvel - Infinity - 0001 - interior01

You can tell that important plot points are being set up here. You can feel that certain foreboding exposition is actually the punch line of a dark joke we won’t be told for several issues.

Yet, on its own Infinity #1 just doesn’t excite.

Part of this is a heavy reliance on alien concepts (literally and figuratively). While the Giger-eseque alien Outrider and an entire subjugated society of Ahl-Gullo are made from whole cloth, bringing Space Knights back from the brink of obscurity is a delight. However, the resultingly spare speaking panels full of heroes leaves this thick book feeling a bit light on content.

Of those, only Captain America, Hawkeye, and Black Bolt get significant screen time here, and none of them are actually significant. The former two feel as though they appear just to appease whiners like me, though Black Bolt certainly makes his presence felt (and heard).

Jim Cheung is drawing both the bookends of this series, and those positions are likely the wisest choice. Cheung excels at creatures, cityscapes, gear, and explosions – all guaranteed in the opening and closing installments. His widescreen alien action will make you realize why comic book movies will never top the sheer audacity of settings and casting of actual comics.

Marvel - Infinity - 0001 - interior02

That said, films do have one up on Cheung: he’s merely average on faces. His heroes are no Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson, handsome and distinct. Every last human being has the same thin-lipped, constipated teenager face – Cap’s just has a few extra wrinles. It made Cheung unmissable on Young Avengers and Children’s Crusade, but annoying here. His action is unclear, making the nimble escape of the Outrider a confusing muddle.

The real art-star of this book is colorist Justin Ponsor, who finds middle ground between Dean White reversed-white shading and Marvel’s infamously orange sunset color scheme. From the haunting red of the sunken eye-sockets of a tortured Caretaker to the dusty rainbow of superhero costumes pressed together in a chilly cargo hold, Ponsor finds the right tone for every page. It’s he who knocks it out of the park for the best splash pages of the book – the visceral vibration effect on Black Bolt’s seismic whisper and two full pages of Thanos’s shadowed face.

The lack of thrill in issue one isn’t a mood-killer. Hickman has yet to pen a disappointing arc of comics. The next two artists – Opena and Weaver – are two of the best in Marvel’s stable. And, in addition to five additional issues of Infinity, we’re also due for nine key Avengers issues to expand the plot – so, it’s likely Avengers #18 and New Avengers #9 will fill in the character beats I sorely missed in this issue. Plus, once we’ve traversed the entire forest, this particular tree will probably look much more interesting.

This isn’t a bad comic book, but you probably won’t go wrong simply picking up #2 when it hits in a few weeks.

PS: If you can, pick this book up digitally for a rather impressive Silver Surfer back-up story that isn’t present in the print edition.

Top 12 X-Men Collections of 2011 – New Material

Uncanny X-Men issue #534.1, from Uncanny X-Men: Breaking Point

Today I bring you a list of the best collections of new X-Men material released in 2011, which collect stories originally published over the last 18 months of comics.

Occasionally I wonder if comic collecting as an adult is merely a shameless attempt at recapturing our youth now that we have the budget to appreciate it properly – especially as I and many other fans (let’s be honest) fetishize premiere format reprints of the comics we coveted as a kids. (Last week’s post covered the best of those from 2011.)

Is there anything to this hobby other than rewarding our inner teenage geeks?

If there’s an answer to be found in X-Men comics, it must be on this list. These are the twelve new X-Men stories that captured my imagination like those old issues I still obsess over, and I categorize “the wonder of feeling like a kid again” separately from “trying to recapture youthful feelings with a dose of well-preserved nostalgia.” Read more…

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5. Uncanny X-Force: Apocalypse Solution
Collects Uncanny X-Force #1-4 & material from Wolverine: The Road to Hell

A team of 90s-popular hyper-killers plus a parody of a 90s hyper-killer sounds very … 90s. Right?

Wrong, when they are in the hands of breakout star writer of 2011, Rick Remender. Wolverine is deadly and deadpan, Psylocke and Archangel are both believably in love and reluctant to pull a trigger, Deadpool is simultaneously hilarious and murderous, and Fantomex is like Robert Downey Jr. playing James Bond playing Deadpool as a Frenchman. This opening arc fires on all cylinders and Jerome Opena’s art is beyond gorgeous. (Read my original review.)

Also available in paperback. If you like this, pick up the following arc, Deathlok Nation.

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4. Astonishing Spider-Man & Wolverine
Collects the six-issue limited series. 

Even more Wolverine? And how did this book get on here when I claim to dislike Jason Aaron?

As it turns out, Aaron is at his best when he’s at his most zany, which is maybe why I don’t enjoy him on straight Wolverine books. With Peter Parker as his narrator, a nonsensical cross-time caper as his backdrop, and the best-ever take on a classic scenery-chewing X-villain from artist Adam Kubert, he finds sure success. This book is madcap, requires little or no prior knowledge, and is repeatedly worthy of an actual LOL.

Also available in paperback. If you like this, you need to pre-order Aaron’s forthcoming Wolverine & The X-Men, Vol. 1 ASAP.

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3. X-Men: Age of X & X-Men Legacy: Aftermath
Collects Age of X: Alpha, New Mutants #22-24,  X-Men Legacy #245-247, and Age of X: Universe 1-2 & #242-244 and #248-249

Early previews of Age of X left fans a little cold – another alternate reality with twisted versions of our heroes? Leave it to Mike Carey, departing this month after a 70+ issue run on X-Men Legacy, to surprise us all by turning in a subtle, slow-burning alternate reality tale. Age of X is a quality mystery story that gets deep into the psychology of all of our favorite X-Men, plus features delectable art from rising star Clay Mann.

To fully appreciate the deft, self-contained world of Age of X, you also need the strong Aftermath, which bookends Age of X with a pair of significant stories that both benefit from and add depth to to the mysteriously twisted alternative world. Throughout, Rogue (and, to a lesser extent, Magneto) is star of the show. (Read my original AOX and Aftermath reviews.)

Both Age of X and Aftermath are available for pre-order in paperback. If you like the actual-reality of Aftermath, try X-Men Legacy: Emplate (HC or TPB). If you like the alternate-reality of Age of X, pre-order the massive forthcoming Age of Apocalypse Omnibus.

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2. New Mutants: Fall of the New Mutants
Collects New Mutants #15-21.

Since it’s 2009 debut New Mutants has been a fun read, but its first year of issues read like an overflow pan for plots too periphery for Uncanny X-Men to deal with. Here the book not only gets its own unique story, but it is a gripping, daunting action-adventure with high stakes that stretch all the way back the Inferno saga of the 1980s!

Spider-Man writer Zeb Wells nails the characterization of the entire team (even oft-ignored Karma!) and Leonard Kirk draws engaging comic art without the fussy overly-detailed photo-reference of his peers. Together, they plunge the team into one of their most desperate positions (and that is saying a lot for this group of characters!), which makes the shocking resolution even more satisfying! (Read my original review.)

This directly precedes Age of X (above), and should absolutely be read beforehand if you plan to pick up both. Also available in paperback. If you like this, try X-Infernus (HC or TPB) or New Mutants: The Return of Legion (HC or TPB) – both of which are key setup for this arc.

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1. Uncanny X-Force: The Dark Angel Saga: Book 1 (& 2!)
Collects Uncanny X-Force #8-13 (& 14-18 or 19)

Do not be surprised when every year-end X-Men list names this as the storyline of the year. Or decade. Or “ever, since Dark Phoenix.” Writer Rick Remender finds layers in his kill-squad of Deadpool, Psylocke, and Fantomex that never existed before and somehow finds a way to make Wolverine not the main character, all while crafting Angel into the best villain the X-Men have faced in years (decades?) (since Dark Phoenix?).

Yet, this Saga isn’t all endless piles of over-dramatic continuity porn – it starts off with two killer one-shot issues before beginning its sickening ascent up a rollercoaster of plot that pays off with insane loop-to-loops in the forthcoming Book 2. Together they form the story named by a vast majority of X-Men fans – including your author – as the best of 2011.

Plus: the original Dark X-Man, Jean Grey … but not how you might have expected. 

Just trust me on this one. Both Book 1 and Book 2 are available for pre-order in paperback. If you like this, read The Dark Phoenix Saga (duh).

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Whew! That’s a lot of X-Men comics! For my fellow fans – do you agree? What 2011 new releases have I left off that no true X-Fan should be without? Leave a comment with your reasoning!

I’ll get back to my collections-of-the-week series soon, but first I’ll be back next week with a preview of the best upcoming collections announced for 2012 in both new and reprinted material.