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Week 88 | Unplugged & Slightly Phased (2019)

Well, this is yet another “new” Bowie live album, released in 2019 but featuring two performances by Bowie in 1996 at an annual fundraiser organized by Neil Young’s wife, Pegi benefitting a school for children with special needs in California.  This album is distinct from most of the ever-expanding line of live Bowie albums released since his death for a several reasons, through in many respects it is similar to “VH1 StoryTellers” in that it is an intimate, largely acoustic set.  The title is a play on a Bowie song from the 1969 album, “Space Oddity,” which was called, “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed.”  oddly, that song does not appear on this album, and while the songs are “unplugged,” the “slightly phased” part of the title makes no discernible sense.

The arrangement of most of the songs on this album are different than their studio version counterparts, and, for the most part they are different than other live versions performed at larger concerts.  This is the album’s strongest feature.  It opens with a strong duet version of, ‘Aladdin Sane,” what Bowie performed with Gail Ann Dorsey, Bowie’s long-time bass player.  It’s a good start, in part because to my ears it is a better version than the original.  Moreover, the album contains Bowie performing two songs that I have not heard him perform elsewhere— the alarmingly vulgar, “I’m A Hog For Your Love,” which is apparently a Grateful Dead song, and “You and I and George,” which is another cover though I know even less about.  While it is good to hear Bowie singing something “new,” neither of these are standout songs.

Anyway, so far so good: new arrangements performed well and a couple of songs we hadn’t heard Bowie perform before.  But the album has a fatal flaw.  The fundraiser for which these songs were performed took place over two days.  Bowie performed on both days, but he performed some of the same songs on both days.  This collection includes both performances of four songs— “Aladdin Sane,” “The Jean Genie,” “I Can’t Read” and “The Man Who Sold the World.”  While the performances of these songs are not absolutely identical, they sound about the same.  In listening to the CD for the first time, I felt compelled to check if it had simply started over from the beginning after the second performance of “The Jean Genie,” which followed the second performance of “Aladdin Sane,” which is how the album began.  The inclusion of both performances (it would be giving too much credit to call them, “both versions”) of four songs serves no purpose.  Had the second performance of each of these songs simply been removed, the album would have still had a respectable eleven songs.  Instead, their inclusion is an impediment to repeated listening of the album as a whole, which is too bad.

I am also struck by the inclusion of, “I Can’t Read,” which is the one Tin Machine song that Bowie apparently performed after Tin Machine.  The song is also included on “VH1 Storytellers,” making the comparison of the two albums even more inevitable.

The question in my mind is, who is this album for?  I do think it is plausible for a casual fan to have a live album as the only Bowie album in a collection.  The dilemma in that case is which one?  The answer almost certainly would not be this one, and that’s mostly because of the repeated songs.  There’s a good chance that a fan with a deeper collection already came across “VH1 Storytellers,” and might shy away from this one because of the similarities.  So that leaves the very small number of us who would take just about any Bowie we can get.  I fall into that category, and again I am happy with the performances such as they are, but this is a case where a little less would have been more.

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