Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Rock Opera Without The Accompanying Show: David Bowie's Pinups Is Astonishingly Good!

The Good: Musically diverse, Decent concept, Good vocals, Decent overall story feel.
The Bad: SHORT! Some lyrics aren't the best.
The Basics: Pinups is an operatic rock concept album of cover songs performed by David Bowie which - outside a short duration and a few lame lines - is an awesome experience!

When I went down to my local library today to pick up the latest arrival from my current Artist Of The Month, David Bowie, I had to smile. The album that arrived for me today was Pinups and if one wonders why an album I had never heard would make me smile like an idiot, one needs to understand the conditions. I recently went to the Hard Rock Cafe in New York City with my fiance (when she was only my fiance), who is an avid David Bowie fan. There is a very small section of David Bowie memorabilia up at the New York Hard Rock Cafe (which seems odd to me considering Bowie lives in Manhattan now) and the only album cover art by Bowie up at the restaurant was the cover art for Pinups. It felt like a strange kismet that the first post-trip Bowie to arrive in for me would be Pinups then.

I listened to Pinups seven times before I ever opened the liner notes to the compact disc and when I did, I was met with a strange sense of excitement and disappointment. Pinups immediately came across to me as a concept album, a Rocky Horror Picture Show independent of such a movie. In fact, several of the songs sound like they could have been in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

With only a dozen songs taking up less than forty minutes of play, Pinups represents an odd combination of the least Bowie work in terms of content, but the greatest creative accomplishment for the pop-rock styling of David Bowie. All of the songs are cover songs, from the likes of Pete Townshend, The Yardbirds and Pink Floyd. Bowie did not write a single song on this album, so very little of it is originally Bowie's musical vision.

However, David Bowie co-produced Pinups and he co-arranged every song, which is probably why none of the songs on this album sound even remotely familiar, despite being written and performed by others for almost a decade before he released this album (over thirty-five years ago). Bowie provides the lead vocals on all of the songs and on this album, he plays guitars, moog, harmonica, and two types of saxophones. So, to suggest this is anything but Bowie's creative vision is to underestimate his ability to take the words and general music of others and make it his own.

Pinups sounds most like Rocky Horror Picture Show, with the tracks having a generally theatrical quality to them. Moreover, Bowie's choice of songs seems to hinge largely on the idea that there are characters who are going through a journey; "Here Comes The Night" has a musical protagonist who has lost his love, which leads into "I Wish You Would," where the musical protagonist continues to wallow and attempts to will his ex back into his life. While "See Emily Play" is just plain weird, it could easily represent the musical protagonist (if it is the same one) seeing a new potential love interest. The musical story continues to evolve with songs about starting anew and experiencing new things.

The comparison to The Rocky Horror Picture Show is not a bad one, though. The entire album has a rock opera feel to it and it trends toward the strange ("See Emily Play," again). Bowie's vocals are creepy and the instrumentals are heavy and have an electric sound to them. Bowie almost assumes a Frankenfurter type persona as far as his weirdness on the track. And by the time the listener gets up to "Where Have All The Good Times Gone," they feel like they have been taken on a journey. Throughout the entire album, there is a sense of movement and a strong sense of character that does not usually come through on rock and roll albums (and not just rock albums of the early '70s!). The repetitive "Everything's Alright" has a big dance number and if I had not heard it on this Bowie album, I would have guessed it was by MeatLoaf!

David Bowie's instrumentals on Pinups defy the traditional guitar or piano (with bass and drums) arrangement most rock and roll artists utilize. This is because Bowie uses less traditional rock instruments, like being heavy on the saxophones and because of using non-rock instruments. While there are none credited, the coda to "See Emily Play" seems to have violins. And tracks that use pianos, like "Everything's Alright" rely on the sax and guitars heavily, creating a richer overall sound.

Bowie's vocals on Pinups are some of the most diverse of his career. He is light and whispy against the heavy guitars on "I Can't Explain" and he is soulful on "Rosalyn." His voice is almost completely obscured by the overproduction and backing vocals on "See Emily Play," but it comes through beautifully on "Don't Bring Me Down" and "Where Have All The Good Times Gone." He sings more like a storyteller on "Friday On My Mind" and on "Here Comes The Night," he adds a dramatic sense to his vocal tones that is atypical to pop-rock music. He grooves through "Sorrow" and the sheer diversity of his instrumental and vocal performances is extraordinary.

What ultimately knocked the album out of perfect status for me was the duration - two albums from this time period would fit on a single c.d. - and some of the lyrics are just too ridiculous, with their singsong rhymes and ultimate lack of substance. Take, for example "Now the trees are almost green / But will they still be seen / When time and tide have been / Boy into your passing hands / Please don't destroy these land / Don't make them desert sands / (Come tomorrow), will I be older / (Come tomorrow), maybe a soldier / (Come tomorrow), may I be bolder than today" ("Shapes Of Things"). These are hardly the most sophisticated or even interesting lyrics and the rhymes are troubling for their obvious quality.

Similarly, on "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere," Bowie is singing lyrics that are well below his usual standard. He has a great groove quality, but the idea that he is in control of his own choices and destiny one suspects he could (or has since) write better than "I can do anything / (right or wrong) / I can talk anyhow / (and get along) / I don't care anyway / (I never lose) / Anyway, anyhow, anywhere I choose / Nothing gets in my way / Not even locked doors / Don't follow the lines / that been laid before" ("Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere"). Relying on others for his lyrics does not serve him especially well in this case.

It is not all bad, though. "Where Have All The Good Times Gone" sounds good and works with Bowie's sense of style. Moreover, he manages to select some decent poetics for some of his songs. Take, for example, the lines "With your long blonde hair / And your eyes of blue / The only thing I ever got from you / Was sorrow / Sorrow / You acted funny trying / To spend my money / You're out / There playing your high class games of sorrow / Sorrow" ("Sorrow"). This is on par with most early Bowie songs.

Ultimately, this is a near miss on a perfect album and were it Bowie's original lines and/or a little longer, I would have bumped it up the rest of the way. For those with less stringent standards, this is an idea David Bowie listening experience: original, imaginative and a great embodiment of classic rock and roll.

The best track is the weird "See Emily Play," the low point is the less inspired "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere," though even that is not too bad a song.

For other David Bowie reviews, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
Diamond Dogs
Christiane F. Soundtrack
Let's Dance
Labyrinth Soundtrack
Eart hl i ng
Best Of Bowie (1 Disc version)
The Best Of Bowie (2 Disc version)


For other music reviews, be sure to visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

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

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