Reviewing a friend’s record collection…

So as you may have noticed, I’ve decided to review the albums in my good friend’s rather impressive record collection. You can read all the latest reviews simply by clicking the Vinyl tab in the header. I hope you enjoy, here’s the first review. Let me know what you think.

1. David Bowie – Young Americans (RCA – 1975)

Suffice it to say I only had the vaguest of expectations with this album, and was completely blown away when I listened to it for the first time. I was familiar with the two principle singles, Young Americans and Fame, though I was not aware these tracks were actually from the same album. I’ve only begun to get into Bowie over the last year or so, and it’s largely a result of hearing Stay off of Station to Station, in addition to a close friend’s reserved praise of the Bowie canon. Knowing him to be a thorough and critical devourer of excellent music, I decided my initial experiences with Bowie were almost exclusively from a poorly executed greatest hits collection I purchased several years ago and thus felt overwhelmingly compelled to give his albums a listen. I know for a fact that many of Bowie’s albums fell on deaf ears, so to speak, and I suppose I’m curious to try and see if I can discern what drives such an enduring and prolific artist.

I should say from the outset that it has been three days since I fist listened to the entirety of Young Americans, and suffice it to say the album has dominated what I’ve been listening to since.

I remember I used to despise the title track for what I perceived to be saccharine musical qualities and its use in some good-awful teen drama I saw many years ago. Of course, the song is hardly sentimental nor overly approving of Americans in general, but I suppose this point was lost on test audiences. Of note is the presence of a lyric from a Beatles song, A Day in the Life. The album also boasts a uniquely Bowie cover of Across the Universe featuring backing vocals by John Lennon, who also co-wrote Fame and provides additional vocals. Luther Vandross played a significant role arranging the emphatic and precise backing vocals, which are prominent throughout the album.

What’s striking about this album is precisely its transitional musical nature. The Bowie so well-crafted during the earlier Ziggy Stardust/ Glam Rock era had been thoroughly shed by the time Young Americans as released in 1975. In fact, the transitional albums between Diamond Dogs and the Berlin Trilogy (beginning with Low in 1977) are marked by a pre-occupation with American soul and funk music, in particular the popular Philadelphia Soul sound. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition between cynical, bleak and often politically-conscious lyrics with a generally danceable musical backdrop. It’s a fantastic funk album by any account, with tracks such as Fascination, Right and Fame providing a unique window on an outsider’s interpretation of the genre. Fame, moreover, was used as the musical foundation for the James Brown track Hot (I Need to Be Loved, Loved, Loved); the main guitar riff is copied almost identically, and as it happens, Bowie’s lead guitarist Carlos Alomar had previously toured with James Brown in the late 1960s.

The composition and arrangement of the album is pleasant as it switches between soul and funk influences, ensuring the listener a guarantee of momentum. At some points Bowie reaches the edge of excess, his voice and the instrumentation intertwining momentarily to form epic walls of sound. A sampler’s album, though a good choice to get a party started as well. Highly recommended.

Key tracks:
– Young Americans
– Fascination
– Right
– Somebody Up There Likes Me
– Fame

Charles Dickens Street РMontr̩al

The former Charles Dickens Street, late 1950s - not the work of the author.

This is the aptly named Charles Dickens Street, a former roadway of the City of Montréal.

It’s difficult to tell based on this picture where it was taken, though the underpass and viaduct visible to the right may place it in Griffintown, Pointe-St-Charles, Goose Village or around the Old Port, I imagine East of Place Jacques Cartier.

Wherever it was it no longer exists, though I doubt as a result of some Bill 101 backlash against English sounding place names. Rather, I think these buildings, possibly the entire block, was razed in the mid 1960s as a part of the massive urban renovations going on at that time.

I wonder if anyone who ever lived on this street found their situation as comedic or ironic as I do. Maybe this is just a shitty picture, and isn’t characteristic of the street’s overall personality. I doubt it, as cleaning up urban squalor was big-time fodder for the local press back then. Drapeau was largely elected for the first time to do just that – clean up City Hall, raze the slums, and gentrify urban ghettoes. He was successful, despite himself, but his authoritarian tactics turned many into born-again free market enthusiasts, and a hands-off attitude has characterized Montréal mayors ever since. Pity.

Either way, what with the current exposition at the Centre d’histoire de Montréal on lost neighbourhoods (such as the former Quartier des Mélasses), its still important for locals interested in the urban preservation and conservation movement to discern between what needs to be conserved to maintain a societal and aesthetic balance and the necessity of slum clearance. I’ve heard many people bemoan the loss of so may old buildings during the Drapeau administration, and while some cases are indeed tragic (such as the Van Horne Mansion or the destruction of Goose Village), there seems to be a general wistfulness for the days of cheap urban living in cold-water shacks. If you think student living options aren’t great today, consider that when my mother began university in the early 1970s cold-water flats in rickety old wooden buildings (without proper insulation or fire-proofing) were commonly offered to students as appropriate housing.

So suffice it to say, while I can join in the mourning of the affordable antique residential buildings that were once well-distributed throughout the urban core of the city, I’m not sorry to see the shacks have been razed. Slum clearance wasn’t generally well-handled, at least by current standards, as the episodes of mass clearance should be studied by any city administration with big development plans. At the very least compensation to renters and owners ought to be a chief concern for the city. Back then poor votes didn’t count for much…