Entertainment

David Bowie and the fringe dwellers happy staying on the outside

David Bowie

David Bowie, still pushing boundaries.
David Bowie, still pushing boundaries. 

BLACKSTAR

(Sony)

★★★★

Andrew Kidman

LITMUS and GLASS LOVE

(Anthology Recordings)

★★★

Playing out on the fringes is sometimes, but not always, a tactical choice by a musician. Some people get shunted out there, protesting that they are really quite accessible, that if you listen again you'll forget the odd unexpected chord and instead pick out that melody, hear a nice harmony and look, guitar solo, just like in a regular song.

Other musicians head there immediately, not too fussed if a lot of us follow, content in the knowledge that those who need to hear it, or know how to respond to it, will come. And if most people don't "get it" then that's OK, they can listen to their Foo Fighters or Taylor Swift albums and live happy lives.

Of course, exactly what constitutes the fringe is hard to define. Is it the "weird stuff" that a decade later becomes the norm such as the way Nirvana couldn't get played on commercial rock radio in the mid '90s but now those same rock stations rotate it through the playlist as "classic rock"? Is it the discordant and the disturbing, the music that stops you in your tracks and has you yell "what the hell is that"? Or is it the material that just falls short of whatever is so hot right now?

For example, can the gently delivered, folk-ish acoustic songs Andrew Kidman performs on the soundtrack to the 2006 surf film Glass Love, with the kind of semi-fragile vocalising that would become the standard for the likes of Angus Stone soon after, really be a fringe product? Or is the more varied material on his earlier soundtrack to the mid '90s surf film, Litmus – a mix of acoustic pop, folk, indigenous songs, spaced-out rock, hard-eyed blues in the manner of Nick Cave and some hippie throwbacks to the 1970s – so esoteric as to qualify?

Neither to my mind, especially when played now in a new vinyl box, packaging them together with a beautiful, large format book of photographs and interviews. The way Litmus leaps about stylistically is hardly unique among quality soundtracks and Glass Love could carry a sticker saying "if you like Jack Johnson and pals you'll dig this (even though it's much better)".

It's consistently good material, but neither of these albums could crack it for attention outside the surf community at the time, tagged as surf film soundtracks and therefore of little interest back on dry land. That is the real weirdness.

For all that, surfing is one activity that lends itself, even today in its most commercialised period, to elevating the fringe to the status of ideal home. After all, who needs a horde of clumsy part-timers dropping in on your wave? Staying just outside the lines/rules is exactly where they want to be.

And the same can be said for David Bowie who has at times intersected with the regular and the popular but almost always on his terms. He's had hits aplenty but has gone off-plantation many times, from veering into Euro moods on Station To Station and the German alternative scene in the so-called Berlin trilogy, to the not always successful but never wholly boring Tin Machine dip into razor-edged art rock, and his under-appreciated mix of electronica and pop in the mid '90s.

When Bowie returned from a decade-long break three years ago, releasing the first single from an upcoming album without notice on his birthday, January 8, he stunned us all. Not just because we hadn't seen it coming – his heart attack had seemed to end his interest in recording and performing – but because that album, The Next Day, was so good: rich with melancholy and reminiscence but also vibrant and sometimes funny, alive with quirks as much as hooks.

It sold, but more importantly put Bowie back in the conversation. And now, he's taking that conversation out to the edges. The edges in this case being that often thrilling, semi-lit space between art, rock and jazz where dance rhythms are there but never predictable; vocals can croon or lurch ominously ala modern Scott Walker and then fly straight at you; and atmospheres swing from film noir to Lynchian to agitated, hand-held camera action flick.

Blackstar is what rock sounds like played by jazz musicians taking it seriously, particularly saxophonist Donny McClaslin who offers discursiveness, harshness and smoothness in equal measure (observe his two solos in Dollar Days), but always remains deeply in the moment. Likewise the alarmingly flexible rhythm section of bass player Tim Lefebvre and drummer Mark Guiliana, who can punctuate as effectively as they support – most tellingly in the disorienting sections of Girl Loves Me that looks back to Ashes To Ashes – but when needed, as in Tis A Pity She Was A Whore, can lead as well.

Bowie and co-producer Tony Visconti pepper these songs with off-the-peg synth sounds, allow the bustling Sue (Or A Season Of Crime) to generate its own momentum and set guitarist Ben Monder free to swirl around the closing I Can't Give Everything Away. They can because the players are so good and the songs are so sturdy.

Images flash by in the lyrics: the "the guys with foaming mouths" in Dollar Days who seem connected to Bowie's declaration in Tis A Pity ... that he's seen things "that can't be seen"; the urgent query in Girl Loves Me, "where the f--k did Monday go?"; and most disturbingly and fascinatingly, the portentous scenes in the title track where "in the villa of all men stands a solitary candle".

Blackstar isn't going to challenge Beiber or Coldplay at the chart top this month. Like the Litmus and Glass Love soundtracks, this will sit on the fringe. And Bowie will be pleased to hear it.

Andrew Kidman is playing the Litmus soundtrack at Manly Boatshed, January 8 and, Palm Beach RSL, January 9, and Pilgrims, Cronulla, January 13, as part of a national tour

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