Life Beyond Mars - Bowie Covered

2008-07-22 08:10
These predominantly German-based electronic artists seem to be saying that there's no obvious bridge between the "me me me" digital generation and rock's great original innovators. That assertion is obviously and demonstrably bogus, but you have to at least acknowledge their chutzpah.

You could argue that these are not direct homages, but rather revisions of raw material from Bowie's back catalogue. It could have been an interesting premise – one that Bowie himself would have found an attractive prospect, given that man's penchant for experimentation and revision. It's a pity then that the results here are variously grating, overblown and self-important.

The worst offenders are Susumi Yokata ("Golden Years") and Leo Minor ("Ashes to Ashes"), who both mistake "off-kilter" delivery for "monotone", failing the lyrical core of both their songs miserably. Elsewhere, Thing turns "Life On Mars" into an almost unrecognizable double-bass-led noise adventure – amazingly still not as bad as Matthew Dear's "Sound and Vision", which sounds like it could be performed by cartoon frogs for better effect.
On the other hand, there's unexpected class in this version of "Be My Wife", coolly whispered into vast chambers of digital reverb by Richard Walters and Faultline. Au Revoir Simone gives "Oh! You Pretty Things" a very tasteful neo-chanson feel… think Air's Talkie Walkie album with English lyrics.

One or two artists get better with each listen as they revisit foundations of 80's electro pop to varied effect. Heartbreak's 7-minute long "Loving the Alien", for example, feels like a 12-inch B-Side to an Animotion single – that's either good or bad, depending on how you wore your hair in 1985. And probably the most "reverent" take of all is "Looking for Water" by the group Zoos of Berlin, here billed as a "demo version". It's not hard to imagine Bowie's vocals over this arrangement itself, which is very studied in respect of the man's legacy.

Still, there's no work on the level of an Eno or a Kraftwerk here (that's where the bar is set), and you could easily see where a more focused production aesthetic might have taken this collection. Featuring a few more musically gifted artists wouldn't have hurt either – a couple come to mind: Elbow, Mono, even the aforementioned Air…

Wisdom and fandom would suggest that David Bowie's genius is best left to its own hallowed history. Far from being a simple pop musician that is to be lifted, polished off and reissued every generation or so, the iconic Mr. Jones has proven himself through the years to be mostly un-coverable – certainly most of this collection seems to prove it.

** Several other reviewers have in the past recommended Hunky Dory (1971) as preferred Bowie listening. For comparative listening here, try the Berlin Trilogy: Low (1977), Heroes (1977), and Lodger (1979).

Anton Marshall

A collection of "interpretations" that seems to completely ignore the artistic agenda of the artist being honoured is a risky approach for a 'tribute' album.

There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.