Sunday, October 23, 2011

Christiane F. - Obscure Bowie Soundtrack Still Makes For A Great Album!

The Good: A few decent, recognizable singles, Good instrumental performances, Production, Voice and lyrics.
The Bad: SHORT!!!
The Basics: David Bowie's hard to find soundtrack Christiane F. is a real winner providing deeper orchestral music to play off Bowie's classic pop-rock sounds!

As my exploration of my October Artist Of The Month, David Bowie, continues, I have discovered the joy of being engaged to someone who has an extensive collection of works by my Artist Of The Month! In this case, my wife pretty much worships Bowie (as we move into house hunting, I am certain there will be the insistence of a shrine room . . .) and so it was a good choice for me to review his works for October. But as well, this means that I have access to c.d.s like some of Bowie's obscure soundtracks that do not necessarily pop up in all of his discographies, albums like Christiane F. which was a soundtrack to a little German film called Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo. One supposes when one is making a soundtrack to a movie whose title translates to "We Children Of Zoo Station," one may be eclectic, but here Bowie creates some real magic.

It is worth noting that I have never seen this German film, nor have I ever heard of anyone who has. As a result, this is a very pure review of the album unencumbered by any context with the movie it accompanied. For a little bit of context, it ought to be noted that this album precedes Let's Dance and was released in April of the same year as ChangesTwoBowie (that being 1981). Collectors of hard-to-find Bowie will certainly love this album, but more casual fans are likely to wish it filled out the full potential duration of the compact disc medium.

With only nine songs coming in at just over forty-two minutes, Christiane F. is hardly an ambitious use of the compact disc medium. This is, however, largely Bowie's musical vision as he wrote six of the songs on his own and three he wrote with Brian Eno (I assume someone will correct me if I'm wrong, but as I looked into the works of Brian Eno, it seems he is more of a composer, suggesting that Bowie wrote the lyrics while Eno wrote or co-wrote the music), with whom he had had a pretty decent long-standing professional relationship by the time this album came out. Bowie provides all of the lead vocals and is a co-producer on the album and outside possibly tailoring song choice to the film, this does appear to be very much the musical vision of David Bowie. Collectors of Bowie's works will want to hunt this soundtrack down because it is the only place (barring on-line sources for individual tracks) to get Bowie's song "TVC 15."

Moody and often dark, Christiane F. is an album that effectively mixes pop-rock songs with more grand orchestral sounding works. The result is standard tracks like "Heroes," "Boys Keep Swinging," and "Look Back In Anger" being paired up with songs that actually employ an orchestra ("V-2 Schneider"), have extensive instrumental parts ("Sense Of Doubt," "Warszawa") and/or are different takes on known Bowie songs, like the live performance of "Station To Station." Instrumentally, this album is one of Bowie's most intriguing. The deep chords that open "Sense of Doubt" darkly are not present on Bowie's usual studio albums until his works in the early '90s, when he had fallen well off the pop radar.

Bowie's instrumentation and accompaniment are more dour than on some of his other works around this time and he does not appear to be marketing toward the dance-rock market. Instead, he plays to a more moody medium and there he creates a mix that is dark and big and anthemic. Perhaps the most pop-sounding track is "Boys Keep Swinging," but by the time that comes up, it offers some levity before the darker instrumentation and mood of "Sense Of Doubt" and "Station To Station."

Bowie's voice on Christiane F. might well be one of his best displays of range. Even as the instrumentals get dark and deep, he is able to have fun with his vocals on "Boys Keep Swinging." When the tempo picks up for "Stay," his vocals get smooth. And on "Heroes," even as his voice strains, one feels invigorated as he calls out for those listening to rise up. Perhaps that is what makes Christiane F. work so well as an album; despite long instrumental interludes featuring stringed instruments before the more traditional rock keyboards and synths come back into play, Bowie's voice acts as an anchor, a constant that keeps the listener engaged and grounded. And on the album, there are songs where Bowie is both meaningful and fun.

For an album that is so hard to find and contains so many obscurities, there is something refreshing about hearing Bowie ring out with "I, I will be king / And you, you will be queen / Though nothing will drive them away / We can beat them, just for one day / We can be Heroes, just for one day" ("Heroes"). Of course, on this album, "Heroes" is called "Heroes/Helden" as the song journeys from the traditional English "Heroes" into a German version of the same. It is an interesting sound and it fits the album and Bowie well.

But it is worth seeing what some of the true oddities on Christiane F. are for those considering hunting it down. Most noteworthy, of course, would be "TVC 15," which is one of Bowie's more trippy conceptual songs. Creating a mechanical construct the musical protagonist has grown attached to, Bowie sings "Maybe if I pray every, each night I sit there pleading / 'Send back / My dream test baby, / She's my main feature' / My T V C one five, he, he just / Stares back unblinking / So hologramic, / Oh my T V C one five / One of these nights I may just / Jump down that rainbow way, be with my baby, then" ("TVC 15"). Given Bowie's creativity and ability to pull off musically what many others are unable to in writing, song or story, a collection lacking such creative works as "TVC 15" are missing out on vital pieces of Bowie that help flesh out the most diverse and true interpretation of his works.

This is not to say that Bowie is simply eclectic. Far from it. Bowie manages to combine both his eccentric personas and his ability to write meaningful lyrics perfectly on this album. He does this with the inclusion of songs like "Stay," where he writes and sings "Stay - that's what I meant to say or do something / But what I never say is / Stay this time / I really meant to so bad this time / 'Cause you can never really tell / When somebody wants something you want too." Bowie captures perfectly the frustration of not being able to discern what another person wants and he makes it musical, which is quite a feat.

Above all, Christiane F. is musical, with Bowie's voice combining expertly with the instrumentation to become another instrument in its own right. Those who might have picked apart the rest of Bowie's works will likely want to get their hands on this harder-to-find c.d. (it was released on c.d. on September 11, 2001, so while it is a great mix of Bowie and orchestrations, it did get trumped in the news cycle that week). In fact, those who do will likely only come away from it wishing there were more to it.

For other David Bowie reviews, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
Diamond Dogs
Let's Dance
Labyrinth Soundtrack
The Best Of Bowie (2 Disc version)


For other music reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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