David Bowie

All Saints: Collected Instrumentals 1977-1999

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There's an old joke about the famous rocker who, stumped for a suitable Christmas present for his friends and family, ended up handing them all a signed photo. David Bowie's friends probably don't think that's so funny -- in 1993, finding himself in an equal bind, the thin, white Santa handed them all a compilation of his own music. Not that that is anything to be sneezed at. A superbly limited edition of just 1,000 copies, All Saints amplified its exclusivity by concentrating on music which, it could be cruelly smirked, has no more than a thousand or so actual fans -- that is, the instrumental tracks which consumed great swathes of 1977's Low and Heroes collaborations with Brian Eno, plus a smattering of the session outtakes which lesser mortals received via the Rykodisc reissues; cuts from Buddha of Suburbia and Black Tie White Noise; and, finally, a passage from Philip Glass' Low Symphony. Jingle bells indeed. Seven years later, Bowie gifted the rest of his fans with much the same package, dropping a couple of tracks, adding a couple more. "Brilliant Adventure," from the ...Hours album, is the most obvious addition. The mood of the album, however, remains unchanged. Sixteen tracks open with the most upbeat cut of all, the almost punk-oid frenzy of "A New Career in a New Town" and "V-2 Schneider" (memorably written for Kraftwerk's Florian Schneider), while other soundscapes are familiar simply for their subsequent restructuring across the electronic and industrial music scenes. Lest you forget, too, Low utterly revitalized Bowie at a time when he was in distinct danger of sinking into a morass of musical irrelevance. Released at the dawn of the punk explosion, and tearing up the rule book with just as much gusto as the spikiest one-chord wonder, it remains one of the most courageous releases ever unleashed by a so-called mainstream artist, with its side-long instrumental quotient a desperately vital part of that equation. It is rewarding, but faintly chilling, too, to discover that the best of those pieces -- "Warszawa," "Subterraneans," and "A New Career" -- have lost none of their impact. Cuts from Heroes were less revelatory at the time, simply because Bowie had already done it once -- here, too, they are little more than interesting diversions, while the outtake material sounds as unfinished as outtakes normally do, although "Abdulmajid" oozes all the mystery and promise its title implies. But a couple of cuts from Buddha of Suburbia are uniformly excellent, while "Brilliant Adventures" loses only an ounce of the impact it carries on ...Hours. There, its beauty was its unexpectedness, an oasis of weirdness within Bowie's best new album in a decade. Here we realize that it simply repeated much he'd done before, although that doesn't change a lovely melody and evocatively Eastern mood. All Saints probably isn't the most essential album Bowie has ever released, compilations or otherwise. On a shelf stuffed with recycled hits and rarities collections, however, where even his most sublime songs are now suffering from severe overwork (how many copies of "Space Oddity" do you need?), it hauls out 16 tracks which have seldom seen the light of day before, and aren't likely to be seeing much more in the future. Do not begrudge them their day in the sun -- or Santa might not come back again.

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