September 2021 Rock/Pop Record Reviews

David Bowie: The Width of a Circle
Parlophone 0190295082260 (CD). 2021. Bernie Andrews, others, prods.; Nick Gomm, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ***

The 50th anniversary of the release of David Bowie's The Man Who Sold the World was marked last year with a remastered reissue that restored Bowie's desired cover art and intended title: Metrobolist. Parlophone has followed that up with a worthy two-disc set charting Bowie's early course.

The first CD contains an hour-long radio appearance from February 1970, presented by BBC legend John Peel. On four songs, Bowie plays with his acoustic guitar; on two, he's accompanied by bassist Tony Visconti and drummer John Cambridge. Guitarist Mick Ronson joins on the rest.

Bowie was just 23 at the time, unsure what he wanted to do but certain he wanted fame. A couple of years later, he and Ronson would find it, but this session occurred just two days after Bowie and Ronson met, and the band sounds as unrehearsed as they were.

Bowie was a natural actor with innate musicality, able to throw himself into several roles in an hour, and the solo tracks are the most successful. The recording is clean enough to be enjoyed despite some thinness and small defects and dropouts. (The disc is sourced from Visconti's home recording of the broadcast.)

The second disc sounds better, although many of these tracks have been issued or bootlegged before: TV and radio appearances, alternate versions, and five new mixes by Visconti. All of this is housed in a nice, perfect-bound book with 48 pages of photos, handwritten lyrics, and other ephemera obviously aimed at the fanatic market. Bowie spent decades building that base, and they'll be happy. Others might instead be steered first toward Visconti's excellent Metrobolist remix.—Kurt Gottschalk


Japanese Breakfast: Jubilee
Dead Oceans (16/44.1, Qobuz). 2021. Michelle Zauner, others, prods.; Zauner, others, engs.
Performance ****
Sonics ***

Michelle Zauner's first two albums with her indie project Japanese Breakfast dealt with grief over her mother's death from cancer. Jubilee seems like a sign of recovery, acknowledging other aspects of life: facing the future, analyzing relationships, writing songs. Rich sound and articulate poetry pervade these glimpses into Zauner's mind.

Although Zauner is a multi-instrumentalist, this is not lo-fi bedroom pop. Ten other musicians, on horns, strings, guitars, and various keyboards, contribute to dense, weblike orchestrations. In interviews, Zauner claims she studied music theory in order to enhance this album. It seems to have worked. While the songs go down smoothly, their harmonic underpinnings earn one of the rarest adjectives in pop music: unpredictable. Not due to randomness but with a sense of organic growth and exploration. Counteracting that good work is the high-frequency sonic gloss over Zauner's voice, which comes off as oddly harsh in the more intense passages.

The songs cover a stylistic range from the retro dance beat of "Be Sweet" to the electronic atmospherics of "Posing in Bondage." "Slide Tackle" takes its musical language from jazzy soft rock, complete with a saxophone solo by Adam Schatz. "Sit" uses a synthesized chorale sound that would not be out of place in late-1980s The Cure.

What unites these tracks is their poeticism, which is both musical and lyrical. Whether it's the slow-motion loneliness of "Posing for Cars," about the search for love, or the deranged humor of "Savage Good Boy" showing the ultrarich escaping underground during a catastrophe, Zauner's point of view is too intriguing to be dismissed as merely "quirky."—Anne E. Johnson


The Chills: Scatterbrain
Fire Records (16/44.1, Qobuz). 2021. Produced and engineered by Tom Healy.
Performance ***½
Sonics ****

When punk came to New Zealand in the late 1970s, it didn't make it out to Martin Phillipps's hometown of Dunedin, where he and his musician friends were busy exploring the nuanced psychedelic experimentation of The Velvet Underground. Thus was born the "Dunedin sound" and its vanguard band, The Chills. After four decades and many changes in personnel—only Phillipps himself remains—The Chills have released their seventh album. Still tinged with psychedelia, their sound now gleams with pop accessibility, even as the songs fearlessly excavate the meaning of life.

After years of well-documented substance abuse that nearly led to his death from hepatitis C in 2016, today, at age 57, Phillipps seems committed to a sober and normal life. The proximity of death has rendered him thoughtful in a deeply personal way, which a good songwriter can turn into universal truths. "Caught in My Eye" appears to document the emotional impact of devastating medical news, while "Safe and Sound" quietly celebrates the chance to stay home with a loved one instead of facing the world.

In this Chills iteration, Phillipps is joined by Erica Scally, guitar; Oli Wilson, keyboards; Todd Knudson, drums; and Callum Hampton, bass, contributing skilled instrumental sup- port in gentle arrangements that never overpower the melody. The sound, engineered by producer Tom Healy, is robustly natural with tasteful timbral tweaks to expand its depth. An exception is the title song, which lunges forward on a sea of distortion; the heavy punk propulsion contrasts the R&B motion of the lyrics, a surprising combination of two simple ideas to create a complex effect.—Anne E. Johnson


Juliana Hatfield: Blood
American Laundromat Records (16/44.1, Qobuz). 2021. Hatfield, Jed Davis, prods.; James Bridges, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ***½

Veteran indie rocker Juliana Hatfield has been so focused on recording covers lately—an album of Olivia Newton-John in 2017 and one of The Police in 2019—that one might wonder if her seemingly endless fountain of original songs was running dry. In fact, her output of new material has slowed only a hair, with Weird in 2019 followed two years later by Blood, her 19th solo record. Created largely in her Boston-area home studio during the pandemic, Blood is edgy, angry, and beautiful.

Co-producer Jed Davis has manipulated Hatfield's one-woman band of guitar, drums, and keyboards with countless distorted timbres. The result is hard-rock rage with indie structural sophistication. This approach allows the accompaniment to do the emotional work, as in the opening "The Shame of Love," where Hatfield's simple melody and lyrics serve as the impassive eye of a sonic hurricane. On the other end of this imaginative spectrum of sound is "Splinter," which holds back, allowing precious moments of acoustic clarity.

The tracks go from sardonic ("Gorgon") to gruesome darkness ("Had a Dream") and yet much of the musical mood is upbeat—deceptively so. Hatfield's anger, mainly at the political environment, does not abate, but she finds subtler ways to show it. Ignoring the lyrics, you might be charmed by the energetic chord-based arrangements of "Suck It Up," reminiscent of the Go-Go's, while "Dead Weight" pits the electronic wit of Devo against a lush wall of sound, and "Torture" has pleasing Latin syncopation.

Put on headphones and focus to reap the full benefit of these expressions of frustration and powerlessness wrapped in power chords.—Anne E. Johnson