Hot New Joints: David Bowie and Atoms For Peace

“Where Are We Now?” by David Bowie

This morning, in checking the music news, I let out an audible “oh shit” when I saw the headline that David Bowie was releasing a new album (his first in a decade) and that the first single off of it was available AT THAT VERY MOMENT.

It’s funny that David Bowie has chosen now to return to music. Everybody presumed that he had retired from recording and performing, and it’s fascinating that he was able to quietly record a new record, and announce its arrival in two short months.

As a gigantic Bowie fan, I had given thought to writing a piece about him for this blog—specifically his decade of musical silence. So I guess don’t have to write that piece.

“Where Are We Now?” is the first single from the forthcoming album The Next Day. The song strikes a balance between grand and reserved—Bowie turned 66 today, and you can certainly hear that in his voice. But that’s not a bad thing at all. It actually serves this song very well.

Musically, the song sounds very warm and lush—expertly produced by long time Bowie collaborator Tony Visconti. While many naysay Bowie’s last 20 years of work—beginning with anything released after Scary Monsters and ending with 2003’s Relativity, for some reason it is strange for me to hear “modern” production values on a classic artist like this.

The feeling the song gives off, upon my initial listens, was similar to “Strangers When We Meet,” the closing track off of his bizarre 1995 album Outside. “Where Are We Now?” burns much slower though, but is equally as somber in tone.

Some, who may be reading way too much into this, are seeing this new album as a call back, or some kind of response, to his land mark 1978 record “Heroes.” There’s the title—The Next Day—it could be taken as the day following the “just for one day,” from the song “Heroes.” There’s the unsettling video for “Where Are We Now?” that features Bowie’s face, and some unidentified woman’s face superimposed on two small stuffed dolls—apparently an allusion to West and East Berlin. Then there’s the cover art itself, which has caused quite a stir already.

Naysayers will say nay to revered, elder artists who continue to release new albums. There hasn’t been talk of a tour in support of this record, but many would probably go to a Bowie concert to see him play the hits—not the new stuff.

I hope that the musical landscape of 2013 is ready for something new from David Bowie.  It will be interesting to see how this record fits in with contemporary popular music, as well as in the Bowie canon. The idea of a new David Bowie album is something that I haven’t give much thought to, so the fact that this is right around the corner is a strange feeling. I have faith that the rest of the record will build on the promise of this single.

“Judge, Jury, Executioner” by Atoms For Peace

On New Year’s Day, my wife and I were in the car. Rather than fumble around with what cds to bring with us, I opted to listen to the radio—something we really don’t do all that often. The station I picked is a rather popular station based out of the twin cities—89.3 The Current. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?

It’s part of Minnesota Public Radio, and at one point, early in its inception, The Current was a really great, really diverse radio station. I distinctly remember The Twilight Singers’ cover of “A Love Supreme” once when listening, way back in the dark ages of 2005. At the time, I recall thinking to myself; “this is a radio station for me.”

Cut to eight years later. The Current, while much loved by many, has become an awful station—losing sight of what it originally set out to do. While it is “public radio,” it is blatantly commercial in the sense of the songs that it has to play. The Current is also “member supported,” so they are constantly begging for your money. If you become a member, you get the cd of the week—and I can recall in August of 2011 hearing an advertisement inciting you to become a member, because if you did, that week’s reward was the latest Red Hot Chili Peppers record.

Need I say more about how un-current The Current has become?

But I digress. On New Year’s Day, The Current was counting down its Top 89 songs of 2012, as picked by listeners who voted online. One song I heard while we were in the car, much to my surprise, was the debut single from Atoms For Peace, entitled “Default.”

Atoms For Peace formed in 2009 when Thom Yorke (perhaps you’ve heard of him) wanted to go on tour and play songs from his 2006 solo effort The Eraser. So he recruited a band to come along with him. Sticking out like a bit of a sore thumb in the line up was, Flea, of the Red Hot Chili Peppers (coincidentally enough,) on bass.

As “Default” ended, the on air personality came back, and proceeded to say “everything that features Thom Yorke on vocals sounds like Radiohead,” and then went on to complain about not being able to hear Flea in the song at all.

I bring up this somewhat longwinded story for this reason—Atoms For Peace really doesn’t sound like Radiohead. Sure, they share the same unmistakable vocalists, but the sound, and the feel, is completely different.

It’s pretty common knowledge; I think anyway, that Thom Yorke prefers to listen to more beat oriented, electronic music when he’s not writing and recording with Radiohead. His solo effort threw many for a loop since it was so drastically different from what people were accustomed to hearing. And while Atoms For Peace is still five people playing together (same as Radiohead), the results are different.

The new Atoms For Peace single, “Judge, Jury, Executioner” proves that point. Taken from their forthcoming debut LP Amok, due out in February, there are elements of this song that I argue you wouldn’t find within Radiohead’s output. Rhythmically, it’s based around a very strong bass line (hey, there’s Flea!), along with handclaps and light percussion. Oh and sure, once Yoke comes in singing and the acoustic guitar plucking begins, you could draw some parallels to Radiohead there—but there’s something about this song that lets you know that it is, in fact, not Radiohead.

“Judge” is the second single off of Amok—an album that only contains nine tracks. A “lean motherfucker” is how Yorke would probably describe it (that’s a direct quote on how he felt about The Eraser—also containing nine songs.) I look forward to Amok’s arrival to hear what else this group can do to distinguish itself as its own band.