Meet Donny McCaslin: star of Bowie’s ★!

Bowie’s ★ is out. I haven’t received my copy yet. Not my fault: pre-order shipping delay at Warner’s … Luckily, the man who once fell to earth already offered a glimpse of his new directions. He released the title track and Lazarus as singles and paired them with deeply unsettling videos. You wouldn’t necessarily expect a well-established NY jazz combo to play a major role in Bowie’s new sound. But it does. So let’s focus on Donny McCaslin. Who is he? How did he appear on the Thin White Duke’s radar? And why should you track down his work?

In short: Donny McCaslin is an insanely gifted, soaring saxophone player, based in New York, just like David Bowie nowadays. When the news of ★’s imminent launch broke, I immediately delved into ‘Casting for Gravity’ (2012). The album sees McCaslin his extraordinary band – including force of nature and Brad Mehldau collaborator Mark Guiliana on drums and electronics – combining all kinds of influences into a strange-yet-familiar jazz melange. Notice their brilliant reworking of Alpha and Omega by Boards of Canada, a performance even Bowie used as a reference during the ★ sessions:

Closer-than-close-knit

Bowie did not just recruit McCaslin. He wanted the entire band. And you don’t have to be Stephen Hawking to understand why. McCaslin, Guiliana, Jason Lindner (keys), Tim Lefebvre (bass) and ace guitarist Ben Monder are excellent instrumentalists in their own right, which is just part of the story. Together they create an abundance of ideas and form a closer than close-knit unit.

When McCaslin’s gang reaches for extatic heights, as in Praia Grande, it doesn’t resort to cheap tricks. Instead, it surfs the harmonic waves skillfully and with telepathic ease. The band is equally strong in the angular metropolitan territory of Bend (not too much unlike overlooked Japanese fusionistas Machine & The Synergetic Nuts)

Eno, Fripp, Grohl

Bowie was never really a lone rider. He’s been scouting the country’s and the world’s top musicians for decades. The names of Mick Ronson and Brian Eno, Robert Fripp and blues master Stevie Ray Vaughan will resonate the most. Not to mention one-off guest spots for John Lennon (Fame), Dave Grohl (on Neil Young cover I’ve Been Waiting for You) and Pete Townshend (well, two times … on Because You’re Young and Slow Burn twenty years later).

And what about the excellence provided by lifelong companion Tony Visconti, and by the likes of Gail Ann Dorsey (her Under Pressure vocals on the Reality Tour were spell-binding), Mike Garson (hear his avant-garde soloing on Alladin Sane) and Carlos Alomar (listen to him layering funky guitar with Earl Slick on Stay).

So when Bowie is going to hire a jazz band, you know it’s not going to be some run-off-the-mill combo that never looks beyond Georgia On My Mind or Autumn Leaves. He needs lieutenants who bring their own vision to the mixing table. And that’s why Donny McCaslin’s band, which released the excellent ‘Fast Future’ in 2015, is such a great catch.

Not “Bowie with jazz combo”

Last december, both ‘Mojo’ and ‘Uncut Magazine’ reported on how McCaslin was instrumental in the making of ★, follow-up album to jack in the box comeback ‘The Next Day’ (2013). Bowie met McCaslin while recording fierce 10″ single Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) with the Maria Schneider Orchestra. McCaslin took the lead in the hefty brass parts, which sounded more forward-looking than anything on ‘The Next Day’, a fine, but fairly conservative album, measured by some of Bowie’s 70’s and 90’s standards.

As the story goes, Bowie dived into ‘Casting for Gravity’ at home, took notes and invoted the entire band into the studio, early 2015. But as McCaslin clarifies in Mojo, it’s not “Bowie with jazz combo”. A claim that’s been intensified by pre-album singles Blackstar and Lazarus.

McCaslin’s star is rising

Donny McCaslin’s involvement in Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’ is great in many ways. It transports Bowie to yet another reinvention of himself. Besides, McCaslin is a frontrow witness of Bowie’s current work ethic. A spokesman role he shares with Tony Visconti, while Bowie mysteriously stays out of the limelight. McCaslin’s studio story even reached – somewhat bizarelly – British tabloid ‘The Sun’.

At the same time, McCaslin’s Bowie liaison will no doubt boost exposure for his own work. In a perfect world, he’ll be playing ‘Casting for Gravity’ and ‘Fast Future’, truly great albums, somewhere near you soon. In a surreal world, he’s supporting Bowie minutes before joining him for his long-awaited return to the stage.★

Buy me! Vintage music ads, Part I

Punks, proggers, pub rockers, … everybody wants to sell records. Back in the day, long before we all went online, bands and record labels would have to draw attention to their latest offspring through print advertising. Considering the inventiveness and atmosphere of some of these vintage music ads, it now seems a bit of a lost art. Let’s start off with my favourite example …

Lou Reed – ‘Rock n Roll Animal’ (1974)
Lou Reed - Rock n Roll Animal - Vintage Music Ad

Miles Davis – ‘At Fillmore’ (1970)

Miles Davis - At Fillmore - Vintage Music Ad

Elvis Costello – ‘This Year’s Model’ (1978)
Elvis Costello -  This Year's Model - Vintage Music Ad

Rush – ‘2112’ (1976)

Rush - 2112 - Vintage Music Ad

Kraftwerk – ‘Man Machine’ (1978)

Kraftwerk - Man Machine - Vintage Music Ad

Jeff Beck – ‘Blow by Blow’ (1975)

Jeff Beck - Blow by Blow - Vintage Music Ad

 Iggy Pop – ‘Lust For Life’ (1977)

Iggy Pop - Lust For Life - Vintage Music Ad

Queen – ‘News of the World’ (1977)

Queen - News of the World - Vintage Music Ad

Television – ‘Marquee Moon’ (1977)

Television - Marquee Moon - Vintage Music Ad

Caravan – ‘If I Could Do It All Over Again, I’d Do It All Over You’ (1970)

Caravan - If Could Do It All Over Again - Vintage Music Ad

Ian Dury – ‘New Boots and Panties!!’ (1977)Ian Dury - New Boots and Panties - Vintage Music Ad

Ian Dury - New Boots and Panties - Vintage Music Ad2Ian Dury - New Boots and Panties - Vintage Music Ad3

AC/DC – ‘Highway to Hell’ (1978)AC/DC - Highway To Hell - Vintage Music Ad

David Bowie – ‘Heroes’ (1977)
David Bowie - Heroes - Vintage Music Ad

 Captain Beefheart – ‘Trout Mask Replica’ (1969)

Captain Beefheart - Trout Mask Replica - Vintage Music Ad

Bruford – ‘Feels Good to Me’ (1978)Bruford - Feel Good to Me - Vintage Music Ad

King Crimson – ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ (1969)King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King - Vintage Music Ad

Jenny Hval - Apocalypse Girl

‘Apocalypse, Girl’ by Jenny Hval – Totally disorienting

The world is a tough place. You can’t deny it. At least when you allow Jenny Hval’s ‘Apocalypse, Girl’ to spread its tentacles into your mind – and I did. The artwork features a woman tripping over a space hopper rather clumsily. Face down.

If we may believe Hval, such uncomfortable situations dominate our lives. The pressure not to make a fool out of yourself is unbearable. A phenomenon the Norwegian chanteuse analyses with an almost painful self-awareness.

Championed by Michael Gira

When in September 2014 noise guru Michael Gira (Swans, Angels of Light) agreed to do a brief Q&A session before steamrolling Brussels’ Ancienne Belgique, he turned up at the eleventh hour. Luckily, he picked some interesting music for the eagerly waiting audience.

Not particularly extreme-sounding, the combination of a fairylike female voice and some seriously disturbing words, was surprising. Later on, back home with ears still ringing, buzzing and roaring from Swans, Google told me the singer was Jenny Hval.

Deceivingly innocent

Hval’s writing style is rather, erm, carnal. Involving a small army of cunts and ‘soft dicks’. Mastering a sense of drama likely learned from childhood idol Kate Bush, Hval sets her angelic, deceivingly innocent voice against a spiky musical backdrop. You’ll understand it doesn’t take ages before ‘Apocalypse, Girl’ totally disorients you.

Hardly a melodic piece, opening song Kingsize immediately shows Hval is capable of tremendous mental leaps. In a matter of moments she mentions bananas rotting away in her lap, cupcakes and a “huge capitalist clit”. Ominous strings and spoken word set the tone. And it’s a grim one.

Fierce social commentary

Take Care Of Yourself dissects what people do to keep themselves happy. Which apparently comes down to: meeting the expectations of others (“shaving in all the right places”) and … masturbating. Hval sounds in turns joking, elegiac and unpleasantly disturbed. While synths paint the scene in ever darker tones.

Only after that there’s room for a more or less accessible song: That Battle Is Over. Hval’s voice might sound heavenly, but excells in fierce social commentary. Specifically about the burden on today’s women’s shoulders:

“Statistics and newspapers tell me I am unhappy and dying
That I need man and child to fulfill me
That I’m more likely to get breast cancer
And it’s biology, it’s my own fault.”

Washed up from a wild sea, Heaven takes the tempo to a mild trot. With pounding electronics and strings and harps spiraling around Hval as she climbs to a higher register. But again, her words are arresting: “I never was a girly girl, forgive me”, reveales that it’s damn hard to swim against the tide.

The pains of being a female outsider

The velvety Sabbath is dominated by the feeling that we have zero control at all. Self-doubt is the starting point for Angels and Aenemia, while the lengthy Holy Land culminates in Hval violently gasping for air.

Despite her unfiltered stream of consciousness, Hval’s message is crystal clear: people are constantly judged – even more so being a female outsider. Taking herself as an example, Hval exposes her inner self as few did before.

Stand-out track:

This review is based on a piece I wrote for daMusic.be in Dutch.

FFS - 'FFS' - 2015 Album Review

‘FFS’ by FFS – Not some kind of monster

Sparks have been going since 1971, Franz Ferdinand surfaced in 2001. Sparks have twenty-two albums under their belt. Franz Ferdinand reached five. Sparks is a duo. Franz Ferdinand is a quartet. And the six of them now form one band, FFS, which just launched a captivating eponymous debut album.

The Franz-Sparks alliance dates back to 2004, when Ferdinand was dominating the airwaves with Take Me Out. The Mael brothers thought it was a cool song and wanted to meet the Glaswegians in their hometown LA. A demo for the song Piss Off stems from that period, but didn’t come to fruition back then. So there it lay … an auspicious ditty, gathering dust. Until the guys bumped into each other in downtown San Francisco.

Franz Ferdinand - Take Me Out

“Take us out, Ron and Russell!” – Franz Ferdinand

Born out of that lucky encounter, ‘FFS’ sounds equally spontaneous. Which is a small miracle, given the fact that it must be extremely hard to drag two seasoned bands away from their routines. The danger of creating some kind of monster is real. Especially when – the initial romance waned – both bands realize that this town ain’t big enough after all.

Dramatic falsetto vs. deadpan delivery

Collaborations Don’t Work – an update of Bohemian Rhapsody? – speaks volumes: sooner or later mutual respect will make way for frustration and envy. A fear brilliantly transmitted by the quarrelling between Russell Mael (S) and Alex Kapranos (FF):

S: I don’t need your patronizing
FF: I don’t need your agonizing
S: I don’t need your navelgazing
FF: I don’t get your way or phrasing

Rest assured: Sparks and Franz Ferdinand did not fall into that trap. Both sporting a very distinctive style, they give each other plenty of room to move and breathe. Indeed, what’s making the FFS sound so potent, is the clash of musical contrasts: Ron Mael’s dramatic piano gestures and orchestral leanings against Franz Ferdinand’s guitar crunch, his brother Russell’s falsetto against Kapranos’ deadpan vocal delivery.

Transatlantic humour

Dictator’s Son sees Ron and Russell hopping over a light melody, while heavy guitars vainly try to tone them down. An abundance of great, subtly incorporated ideas aside, most songs are pretty straightforward. Glued together by transatlantic humour and a mildly sardonic tone – what else did you expect?

Sparks - 'Kimono My House' (1974)

“Kimono our house, Franz” – Sparks

Call Girl revolves around wordplay, while Police Encounters hysterically revolves around the wife of a police officer. The Man Without A Tan is about the threat imposed by an all too popular new kid in town, and Piss Off is a Pythonesque way of saying goodbye.

A nod and a wink

To thicken the intellectually amusing ambience, FFS indulges in clever winks to popular culture and auto-reference. For instance on the Japanese-titled So Desu Ne, which mentions both Hello Kitty and ‘kimono’ – a clear nod to Sparks’ 1974 breakthrough album ‘Kimono My House’ (1974). Indeed, the one that made a lasting impression on a teenage Morrissey.

Driven by tiresome cadences, Save Me From Myself and The Power Couple are slightly less memorable. But overall, ‘FFS’ is a surprisingly coherent album. Hopefully inspiring more bands to put their heads together.

‘Juggernaut’ by zZz – Dealing exzZzitement!

For a decade now, zZz has been building excitement in home country Holland, and far beyond. Their third LP is a self-proclaimed ‘Juggernaut’. An apt title, especially if you flip to side two.

Playing just keys and drums, zZz is quite an usual sight: Daan Schinkel pounding away on his organ and synths, and Bjorn Ottenheim keeping a sturdy beat and singing fuzzed-out lines. Recorded on a converted houseboat and launched in 2005, debut album ‘The Sound of zZz’ contained one of my favourite Dutch rock songs … ever: Lucy.

Not in it for a Pulitzer

Let’s cut to the chase: if you’re into deep or poetic lyrics, ‘Juggernaut’ is not for you. But it’s clear zZz is not after a Pulitzer Prize. They deal excitement. They want your heart to bounce out of your chest and your eardrums to keep trembling when the music’s over.

zZz’s style may be wild, but it’s not flat. Which is largely down to Schinkel’s swirling keyboards.

Hawkwind! Punk! Krautrock!

The first thing that hits me on album-opening track Blood, is Ottenheim’s vocal eruption and the immediate reaction of drums and synths. It makes me think of Silver Machine, an unlikely hit for Hawkwind in 1972. Did anyone mention the word juggernaut?

Hawkwind - Silver Machine (1972)

Hawkwind – Silver Machine (1972): an inspiration for zZz?

zZz’s style may be wild, but it’s not flat. Which is largely down to Schinkel’s swirling keyboards. ‘Juggernaut’ rolls on in a variety of moods: punky (My Girl), slow-burning (Dead End), moving (Doze) and voiceless (Red Beat). The latter a pastische of late seventies, drum computer-fed electronic music. It sounds as if the album’s end is near, but the real Juggernaut is yet to come: a sidelong, trance-inducing slice of neokraut.

Surfing the waves of intensity

Considering the shorter songs on ‘Juggernaut’ are not too bizarre, the title track signals a radical change of direction. Luckily, the piece does not stumble forward aimlessly: its teasing intro and subtle waves of intensity are arresting enough to keep you from feeling completely numb.

A bit of a mixed bag, ‘Juggernaut’ is a more than decent record – and a worthy addition to the discography of excellent Dutch rock label Excelsior Records. It’s striking how zZz carves out its own path. In these times of hot air, ‘Juggernaut’ is refreshingly welcome.

Stand-out track:

This review is based on a piece I wrote for daMusic.be in Dutch.