January 2023 Rock/Pop Record Reviews

David Bowie: Divine Symmetry (An Alternative Journey Through Hunky Dory)
Parlophone (4 CD Box Set + Blu-ray). 2022. Various prods., engs.
Performance *****
Sonics ****

The David Bowie estate seems to raid more vaults than John Dillinger ever managed to. But then, if the quarry results in quality releases, why not?

Divine Symmetry certainly is a quality release. It's not just the title, which is great (although it's not the first time the "Quicksand" lyric has been used; there was also an unofficial release). Included in the box, alongside a lush book of essays and pics, is a Blu-ray of the 2015 remaster of Hunky Dory, the original album. The big draw here, though, are the previously unreleased songs, rarities, and 2021 remixes. A BBC recording from legendary DJ John Peel takes up one side; it includes a wonderful romp through Chuck Berry's "Almost Grown." (Bowie at the Beeb contained some of the same session.)

The demos on the first CD will probably be of greatest interest to Bowiephiles, perhaps a bit too in the weeds for everyone else. It is interesting to hear how classics such as "Life on Mars?" were tidied up for the official release. Often the changes (including of the song itself) are not major; Bowie tended to go into the studio with songs pretty much fully formed. There are also rarer songs. Occasionally, there's a reason for that: His rendition of Biff Rose's "Buzz the Fuzz" is nowhere near the standard of his take of another of Rose's, "Fill Your Heart."

Happily, there are plenty of gems. "Right on Mother," about Bowie's relationship with his mom (who'd have guessed), had been considered as a single, but it got lost in the oncoming Ziggy juggernaut. All by itself it makes the set worthwhile. Also in the chest of goodies: "Tired of My Life" is pretty much unknown except that several lines were used years later in "It's No Game."

Divine Symmetry is worth investing in. There's much to treasure here.—Phil Brett


Björk: Fossora
One Little Independent Records tplp1485 (LP; also available as CD, download, streaming). 2022. Björk, prod.; Bergur Thorisson, Jake Miller, others, engs.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

Oversharing has become Björk's mission. On Fossora (from the Latin word for digger, burrower), another very personal journey is writ large for all to hear and ponder.

Here, the Icelandic creative force mourns the passing of her mother then moves on to ruminations about being a mother to her own daughter.

Never one to mince, she sets the tone in the ardent, near-dance-track opener, "Atopos": "If we don't grow outwards towards love/We'll implode inwards towards destruction." In "Sorrowful Soil," a direct tribute to her late mother Hildur, a renowned environmentalist and also a nihilist, she speaks of an "emotional textile" and how in "a woman's lifetime she gets 400 eggs/but only 2 or 3 nests." In the brooding, groaning "Victimhood," the narrative gets even more personal: "Rejection, it left a void that is never satisfied/sunk into victimhood/felt the world owed me love."

While her words are very intimate, and she's incredibly brave—rather than narcissistic—for proffering them, it's the angular, avant music here, intricately recorded, that makes Fossora worth the listen. "Atopos" features a jolting, near-dance beat that she and Indonesian group Gabber Modus Operandi construct, and inside of which six clarinets and bass clarinets, arranged by Björk, flutter and feather. On "Sorrowful Soil," a baroque-styled choir accompanies. Twelve flutes, again arranged by Björk, form diverse whirlwinds of sound in "Allow." Opening with a gong, "Ancestress" is backed by a mini orchestra conducted by Ragheidur Ingunn Johannsdottir.

At times these hugely creative, otherworldly creations become mere settings for her exhortations and play like vocals in very unconventional, cutting-edge musical theater. It's a strange musical universe of cinematic melodrama, not for everyone surely, but utterly original.—Robert Baird


Emily Scott Robinson: Built on Bones
Oh Boy Records (16-bit/44.1kHz streaming on Qobuz). 2022. Brandy Zdan, prod.; Teddy Morgan, eng.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****

Emily Scott Robinson wants to counteract the trope of ugly, warty-nosed witches as a metaphor for intelligent, powerful women. And because Robinson has an arrestingly beautiful voice and a gift for poetry, her new EP, Built on Bones, is not at all the heavy-handed sermon this description might conjure up.

Originally conceived as a theatrical piece, these six songs were envisioned as being sung by the three witches in Shakespeare's Macbeth. Joining Robinson, the songwriter, as the other two witches are Alisa Amador and Lizzy Ross (aka Violet Bell); their silken, eerie voices match well with Robinson's and contribute to the message that these sorceresses are, in fact, good.

"Built on Bones" opens the EP with creepy pedal steel sucked back in time by acoustic-guitar fingerpicking, layered against it in a lilting, ancient rhythm. The string arrangements by Kristin Weber favor low, earthy pitches.

It would have been unthinkable not to use the title "Double Double." Co-written with Colin Sullivan, who originally commissioned this music, Robinson's spooky rock song is the least interesting of the cycle. The other Sullivan collaboration, "Men and Moons," also lacks the magical draw of the other tracks. "Sleep No More" brings back the fairyland feel with its a cappella three-part harmony, the witches preparing mad Lady Macbeth for the afterlife.

The song cycle follows the highlights of Shakespeare's play from the witches' point of view. Blossoming with mountain harmony, "Old Gods" imagines the love between Macbeth and his wife. It is sung first in major and then later in minor, after Lady Macbeth's death. The minor version is the record's highlight; the voices intertwine like moonlit gossamer, accompanied with bowed bass, piano, and Eamon McLaughlin's wistful fiddle line. There is nothing ugly about these witches.—Anne E. Johnson