March 2021 Pop/Rock Record Reviews

David Bowie: ChangesNowBowie
Parlophone 0190295332747 (LP). 2020. Bowie, Reeves Gabrels, Mark Plati, prods.; Ray Staff, mastering.
Performance *****
Sonics ****½

"Warm" and "intimate" aren't words usually associated with Bowie, but here they are apt. You're placed up close as he rehearses for his 50th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden in 1997. With him are three musicians: Gail Ann Dorsey (bass), Reeves Gabrels (guitar), and Mark Plati (keyboards). It could be described as acoustic Bowie if it weren't for Gabrels' chainsaw solo on the Velvet Underground's "White Light/White Heat." It most definitely has an acoustic vibe.

It opens with Bowie reclaiming "The Man Who Sold the World" from Nirvana's unplugged cover. It and "Aladdin Sane" are the big hitters of the set; the latter has Bowie gently dueting with Dorsey in a delicately soulful rendition of the 1973 song. Written about a London before an imaginary apocalyptic war, the population having a last hedonist hurrah, the original had a nihilist joy at the thought, but here there is sadness at what will be lost.

The rest of the numbers are less well-known, including "Quicksand" and "Andy Warhol" (from Hunky Dory), "The Supermen" (MWSTW), and "Shopping for Girls," from the second Tin Machine album. These are exquisite versions, stripped to their essence, restrained, poignant. Bowie's voice sounds absolutely lovely.

This could so easily have been just another release riding the Bowie gravy train, but it is far more than that. Combining the immediacy of a live Performance with the polish of the studio, it hangs together like an original album.

ChangesNowBowie on vinyl had a limited release on RSD 2020, but fear not: There is an unlimited CD release, and a CD-resolution download, and it's streaming.—Phil Brett


Alaska Reid: Big Bunny
Terrible Records (16/44.1, Qobuz). 2020. Reid, A.G. Cook, Rodaidh McDonald, prods. and engs.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

24-year-old Alaska Reid split her childhood between Los Angeles and a small town in Montana. She started a band called Alyeska, which in 2017 put out an Americana-based album called Crush. She left that band and struck out on her own. Her courage is paying dividends.

As a child, Reid adored the storytelling aspect of classic country stars like Patsy Cline and Merle Haggard and the more modern sounds of Lyle Lovett. Her early indie influences were The Breeders and Dinosaur Jr., whose producer, John Agnello, worked on Crush. A.G. Cook assisted in production on Big Bunny, along with Rodaidh McDonald, who has worked with Adele and Vampire Weekend.

On the title track, recalling childhood romps with her sister in Montana, Reid's dark, dreamy imagery comes to life in Cook's intense, electronics-heavy production. Colored by sonic and poetic distortion, the emotional truth of this song brings to mind Irish songwriter Cat Dowling.

The lyrics to "Oblivion" express longing to escape to an idealized past relationship. Its chorus has an appealing pop hook that's likely to get this song noticed beyond the indie scene. The backing layers on "Quake" surround and vibrate the listener's bones, while on "Boys From Town," the conversational singing is allowed to stand apart from its sonic environment like a closely whispered story that no one else can hear. Reid's country roots show themselves in the sorrowful acoustic strumming and lyrics of "Mermaid Tears."

This is the stunning debut of a singer, poet, and composer with an individual voice that she's not afraid to explore and develop.—Anne E. Johnson


John Hurlbut & Jorma Kaukonen: The River Flows
Culture Factory USA (LP CFU01198). 2020. Jorma Kaukonen, prod.; Justin Guip, Dave McNair, engs.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****½

Guitar maestro Kaukonen shares top billing with guitarist/singer John Hurlbut in a downhome session of remarkable six-string storytelling, recorded as an offshoot of Kaukonen's Quarantine Concerts from his Fur Peace Ranch guitar camp in southeast Ohio. The pair embark on an eight-song acoustic guitar journey featuring top-tier Americana from modern-day troubadours from Byrds' founding members Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark to the Impressions' Curtis Mayfield.

Hurlbut, Fur Peace Ranch's manager and Kaukonen's longtime friend, delivers steady rhythms and all the vocals, a cross of early Dylan and primetime Prine. Kaukonen improvises as a lyrical guitar voice, blues string-bender, and emotional-motif painter.

On the opening track, "Ballad of Easy Rider" (composed by McGuinn for the 1969 Easy Rider soundtrack with uncredited support from Dylan), more than five minutes pass before words are sung; Kaukonen tops Hurlbut's strumming with a spirited, extended solo, tumbling from high notes to bass anchors then darting and zipping with homespun soul. Other highlights include a gospel-tinged take on Mayfield's "People Get Ready," a deep-regrets read of Billy Yates's country hit "Choices," and a bluesy ride on Clark's lonesome "Kansas City Southern." Also in the mix are an affecting rendering of underappreciated songwriter the late Spencer Bohren's "The Old Homestead" and Hurlbut's moving "Someone's Calling," about his mother, who passed away recently. The River Flows was recorded at the Fur Peace 32-track studio with no vocal or guitar overdubs. The sound is pristine in its simplicity.—Dan Ouellette

DavidEdwinAston's picture

When I bought, played, and studied, "Sunfighter", all those years ago, the track "Look at the Wood" drew me to Kaukenon. All these years on, this Album seems to be simply, perfection!
Slight stabs of pain at how how much Hurlbuts voice does remind me of Prine. Still, his own, distinctive voice and great songs. Thank you Stereophile.

teched58's picture

You write: "ChangesNowBowie on vinyl had a limited release on RSD 2020, but fear not: There is an unlimited CD release, and a CD-resolution download, and it's streaming."

Where/when is the unlimited release coming? Google turns up nothing except the 2020 RSD release. Same on Amazon.

teched58's picture