Monday, March 12, 2012

New Takes on Kate Bush and David Bowie

Theo Bleckmann
Hello Earth! The Music of Kate Bush
(Winter & Winter)

The Wee Trio
Ashes to Ashes: A David Bowie Intraspective
(Bionic Records)

It's easy to make the mistake of remembering Kate Bush as a girl at her piano, a bit of a weird one maybe, but essentially looking pretty doing ballerina steps and singing pretty songs in a high soprano. And with as much as a dozen years passing between albums (she's released a total of 10 since her first in 1978), she doesn't do an awful lot to remind us otherwise.

It often feels as if this is the mistake singer Theo Bleckmann has made on Hello Earth! The Music of Kate Bush. While Bush's songs aren't often cheery, they do sometimes feel light. Not unsophisticated or unintelligent but ethereal, and these are the songs toward which Bleckmann is drawn. He is a fine singer, occupying a territory between art song and cabaret, which allows for smart arrangements and just a little bit of camp but not much by way of the screeches of terror sometimes in Bush's recordings.

As such, a song like “All the Love” from 1982's The Dreaming (her boldest and by some measures her best album) is perfect for Bleckmann: It feels easy but it doesn't move in obvious ways. There's enough gristle there to make for a smart arrangement and enough, well, dreaminess for Bleckmann to luxuriate in. It might be the high point of the album, along with a lightly percussive take on “Army Dreamers” from Bush's previous record, Never for Ever. Those two songs sandwich an example of Bleckmann's proclivities leading him astray. “The Saxophone Song,” from her 1978 debut, is a tossaway track about feeling a connection with a musician in a bar band; the band ups the jazziness and Bleckmann scats along pushing it (not illogically but still unenticingly) toward Joni Mitchell's stabs at jazz. Caleb Buhans is called upon to provide the sax fills of the original on his violin, but curiously doesn't get the chance to grind out the wonderful dissonances in Never for Ever's “Violin,” which they ill-advisedly turn into a thin thrash rather than letting it be the nightmare Bush originally created. Two other of Bush's harder-edged songs – The Dreaming's “Suspended in Gaffa” and “Running Up That Hill” (from 1985's Hounds of Love) – are given more fitting treatments if still a bit buffed and polished.

All of that said, however, it's a good album. If for the most part he stays in his comfort zone, it's also there that he finds success. Taking on “Babooshka” or “Sat in Your Lap” ultimately wouldn't have made Bleckmann's album better even if they're arguably among the better of Bush's songs. The band (which alongside Bleckmann's processed and layered vocals and Burhans' processed violin and guitar includes Henry Hey on electric and acoustic keyboards, SkĂșli Sverrison on electric bass and John Hollenbeck on percussion) does an excellent job of representing the Fairlight synth, tribal drums and floating tone clouds of Bush's music while giving it a fresh take. It's a bit odd to hear five men make Bush's music lighter than she did herself, but it works.

Probably moreso than any woman who had gone before her, Bush's spirit guide through art rock was David Bowie. Like him, she had the pretty face, unmistakably bravado vocals and sophisticated sexuality that made her seem to rise above the rock world. And like Theo Bleckmann, the Wee Trio attempts to place that figure in an arthouse lounge.

Bowie has had a longer and much more prolific career (and perhaps as a result hit-to-miss ratio), and has certainly held a brighter spot in the spotlight. But at his best he's right up there with her, and the Wees give a nice selection of his best in their half-hour, six song program. Two of finest art songs (“The Man Who Sold the World” and “Ashes to Ashes”) are at center, surrounded by a smart rocker (“1984”) and a dumb rocker (“Queen Bitch”), all bookended by nods to latter day Bowie in 1997's “The Battle for Britain” and 2002's “Sunday.” The trio (bassist Dan Loomis, drummer Jared Schong and James Westfall on vibes) has worked this sort of formula before. On past records they've recorded arrangements of Aphex Twin and Nirvana but this is the first time they've fixed their focus so tightly on one point. The arrangements here are smart, both inventive and faithful, and if there's a shortcoming it's in the design. It's a fun listen for Bowie fans, but a vibe trio is only going to get so far. The songs they chose originally called upon such diverse talents as Mick Ronson, Carlos Alomar and Reeves Gabrels – and that's just the guitars, which the Wees lack. As with Bleckmann's Bush, much of the drama gets lost in translation.

- Kurt Gottschalk

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