Friday, April 20, 2012

David Bowie 34: iSelect, Santa Monica, Storytellers

While he’d shown up here and there on stage and screen, the first decade of the 21st century had turned quiet for David Bowie. Still, a few new collections of older material kept him on the shelves while we waited for something new.

With its retro photo and Changesonebowie typeface, iSelect was sure to draw attention, even after it was given away with a Sunday paper in the U.K. This was a handpicked compilation of his own favorites, mostly from the ‘70s and generally deep cuts, complete with his own commentary on the inspiration and/or recording for each in the liner notes. He’s not above self-deprecation, and is also careful to praise several of the musicians who contributed, including Mick Ronson and Mike Garson.

Any collection taken from such a wide source is guaranteed not to please everyone, but we find it hard to fault a mix tape that begins with “Life On Mars?” and “The Bewlay Brothers” from Hunky Dory with the “Sweet Thing/Candidate” suite in between. As for rarities, “Some Are” was included from the out-of-print Rykodisc version of Low, while “Time Will Crawl” was upgraded with real drums and strings replacing the machines on the original. The radio introduction and “Hang On To Yourself” from Santa Monica in 1972 cap the set.

That particular recording had been a legendary bootleg for years, and got wider distribution in the mid-‘90s via a label set up by Bowie’s old management, to the artist’s irritation. An official Bowie-approved release, with improved sound and packaging, was something of a surprise in 2008 after such a stretch of time. It’s an essential snapshot of the era; the band was only ten shows into the American tour, and they’re still working on their swagger. Terrific performances of “The Supermen”, “Life On Mars?”, “Waiting For The Man”, and a preview of “The Jean Genie” are just some of the highlights, and Bowie’s brief but affectionate liner notes praise Ronson and Garson again.

Such candor wasn’t exactly rare for Bowie when the mood struck him. He was particularly effusive for his appearance on VH1 Storytellers as part of the advance promotion of ‘hours…’ Along with anecdotes (and occasional imitations) of Iggy Pop, Marc Bolan, and Steve Marriott, he delivered two songs from the album, plus low-key renditions of a few deep cuts and a few familiar ones. “China Girl” got a lovely introduction courtesy of Mike Garson, and a revved-up remake of his oldie “Can’t Help Thinking About Me” would lead to a shelved album of similar remakes. (When made available for purchase ten years later, the CD merely replicated the original broadcast, but it was packaged with a DVD that added four further songs, which have since become available via streaming and a vinyl release. These included two more new songs, plus his recent deconstruction of “I Can’t Read” and a striking “Always Crashing In The Same Car”.)

David Bowie iSelect (2008)—
David Bowie
Live Santa Monica ’72 (2008)—
David Bowie
VH1 Storytellers (2009)—3

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