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Opinion: New releases by David Bowie, Shuggie Otis

March 21, 2013
By MARK J. MILLER - Staff writer ( , The Herald-Star

This week I review "The Next Day," David Bowie's latest release along with the reissue of Shuggie Otis' "Inspiration Information" on Sony Legacy.

David Bowie - "The Next Day"

In some ways, huge mainstream success ruined David Bowie.

While Bowie was known for his pop hits, including "Space Oddity," "Changes," Rebel, Rebel," "Fame," "Young Americans" and "Golden Years," it really wasn't until 1983's "Let's Dance," Bowie uber-commercial and successful record aimed squarely at the mainstream, did Bowie really become a household name.

And while "Let's Dance" was an excellent record and miles beyond what most pop crooners were capable of, the sad truth is David Bowie was never really the same after that record. I don't know if he got too comfortable or bored with music - I think it was equal parts of both - he spent much of the 1980s trying to cater to the mainstream. The result was mediocre music.

In the 1990s, Bowie tried to make music that mattered again, and the result was several albums that were OK but not up to par with Bowie's best work. "Black Tie, White Noise," "Earthling," "Seven" and "Outside" were fine records with some really great moments, but nowhere near as essential as what I consider to be Bowie's best, including "The Berlin Trilogy" - "Low," "Heroes" and "Lodger," and his finest record - "Scary Monsters."

Bowie also recorded several fine albums in the early 2000s as well, including "Heathen" and "Reality." After a mild heart attack while on tour in 2004, Bowie canceled the rest of the tour and dropped out of sight. Completely out of sight, in fact. So much so there were rumors his health was bad, he had no interest in ever recording or touring again, blah, blah, blah...

It's been nearly 10 years since Bowie's last release, and the good news is it was worth it. "The Next Day" is easily Bowie's best work since "Scary Monsters."

Bowie wisely doesn't try to be "hip" or "modern" on "The Next Day," and that's precisely what makes the album hip and modern. Instead, Bowie enlists the assistance of Tony Visconti, the producer/musician who manned the helm for Bowie's best work from "Diamond Dogs" to "Reality." Bowie, a man who became famous for adopting different personas, uses the best tricks in his catalog for inspiration for "The Next Day," and the result is a romp through 1960s-styled pychedelic pop - "How Does the Grass Grow," "Dancing Out in Space," "If You See Me" - to the cynical and post-apocalyptic - "The Next Day," "You Feel So Lonely You Could Die" - to the nostalgic - "Where Are We Now?"

My favorite cut is "Dirty Boys," a greasy, stuttering - and funny - funk tune complete with absurdist lyrics and sleazy saxophone that wouldn't be out of place on a Tom Waits album. "Dirty Boys" is a brilliant song that shows when Bowie wants to he can still conjure the juju.

The avant garde shadings and minimalist synth vibe borrowed from the Berlin Trilogy are here in spades, while the guitar attack reminds me of Bowie's entirely personal and angular way of playing that marked "Diamond Dogs" and Iggy Pop's Bowie-produced masterpiece "Lust for Life."

When I heard the first single off the new album - "Where Are We Now?" - I thought Bowie had lost it for good, as the mellow tune sounds like a simplistic and hollow tribute to his "lost years" living in Berlin during the late 1970s, the nostalgic memories of an old man with nothing new to say.

In the context of the album the song sits very well and becomes quite moving. In fact, "The Next Day" is probably the most cohesive album the Thin White Duke has made since "Let's Dance."

Bowie's voice still retains its magnificence, range and power, but it's now tempered and weathered with age, which gives him something new to play with. "The Next Day" is a great record fans of Bowie's greatest artistic moments will enjoy. Welcome back, David.

We should all be so productive at age 66.

Shuggie Otis - "Inspiration Information"/"Wings of Love"

This reissue by Sony Legacy of one of the unheralded gems of early 1970s bedroom soul/funk will be released on April 16.

This isn't the first reissue of this classic and highly-thought-of record, as it was previously reissued in 2001.

Shuggie Otis, the son of big bandleader Johnny Otis, began his recording career as a blues guitar prodigy before venturing into laid-back funk and soul in the early 1970s. Playing nearly all the instruments on "Inspiration Information," Otis seemed disappointed the album didn't sell well, and he disappeared from the scene. Since then the album has become an acknowledged cult classic, and the re-issue will include an extra disc of unreleased gems recorded between 1975 to 2000 by Shuggie. The writer of the Brothers Johnson huge, 1970s funk hit "Strawberry Letter 23," Otis has remained largely underground over the years, while the reputation of "Inspiration Information" has only grown over time. The disc is highly recommended for fans of Marvin Gaye, Al Green and other bedroom soul crooners of the early 1970s.

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