Review by vonwegen January 13, 2004 (4 of 4 found this review helpful)
|This is another Bowie album that remains rather opaque until you play the 5.1 surround mix. The Redbook CD & SACD stereo layers both have a very mid-80s sound like the much-maligned "Never Let Me Down", especially the Phil Collins-snare drum sound--which is very surprising, considering that Tony Visconti co-produced this one.
Likewise, most of the songs seem ok initially, but nothing special--until you go to the surround mix. Suddenly hooks start popping up even in lesser songs like "Looking For Water" and "The Loneliest Guy", and even the questionable cover of "Try Some, Buy Some" is _almost_ listenable, despite it being one of George Harrison's most confused and turgid tunes (believe me,I have tried to like it--I have the original Ronnie Spector version on Apple 45 r.p.m.--even her great voice can't lift this tune above its limitations).
The most controversial song here has to be Bowie's remake of Johnathan Richman's classic "Pablo Picasso". DB speeds it up a lot in the vocal department, adds a sing-along intro/outro with new lyrics and basically puts Richman's words over a completely new melody. The result is almost as radical as Devo's re-working of the Stones' "(I can't get no) Satisfaction". Does it work? After a few listens to get used to it, I can say that yes, it does. It doesn't eclipse JR's original or the Burning Sensations' much more faithful cover on the Repo Man soundtrack, but there are sonic treats aplenty, especially (surprise, surprise) in the 5.1 mix. Kudos to whoever plays the lo-fi acoustic guitar outro (there are six possible guitarists who may have played it, including Tony Visconti & Bowie himself)--it's wild and careens all over the place, but still is melodically appropriate as well as catchy.
The rest of the tunes sound great in 5.1: to give an example of how it opens things up, "She'll Drive The Big Car" suddenly goes from being ok to this really nice Neil Young/doo-wop pastiche with loads of acoustic guitars and Bowie's own unique Stylophone before sequeing into the chorus, with all its very hummable backing vox located in the rear speakers.
The drums sound much more natural in the surround mix, lending me to believe that Bowie's non-presence during the surround mixing (he was already touring by that time) may be partly responsible for the difference in drum sound approaches between the stereo & 5.1 versions.
As I said before, no less than six guitar players feature on this album: while Garry Leonard is evident on most songs, playing the U2-sounding clean guitar, Earl Slick is initially not much in evidence except on the title track. You have to listen closely on the other songs to pick out his parts, as they are mostly heavily treated, sometimes even through Bowie's ex-Eno "suitcase synth". Again, the surround mix is the one to go to for the best detail.
The bass is clear & deep throughout without being too dominant. My subwoofer gets a lot of workout from the bass drum, which was recorded in really phat Hip-hop mode.
As with "Heathen", Bowie's dry lead vocal has the center speaker all to itself, a move that increases the intimacy of the songs a lot.
The album's centerpiece has to be the final track, "Bring Me The Disco King", where Mike Garson manages to sound like the late Bill Evans come back to life and recorded in a state-of-the-art DSD studio, backed by brushed drums (with a huge kick drum beat thrown in) and Bowie's jazzy & enigmatic vocal.
If the REdbook and Super Audio stereo mixes weren't so processed sounding, I'd give this album 5 stars in sound. In any case, 4 stars all around, even though Sony totally bungled the marketing of this hybrid SA-CD by postponing the release date again & again, as well as refusing to publicize its existance at all.
What's worse, it isn't even available in Continental Europe or Japan (why? because Donald Rumsfeld is still mad at France & Germany?)
When are record companies going to do something about doing a decent SA-CD publicity campaign?
Don't hold your breath...
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