David Bowie approaches music as if it were a fashion wardrobe and he were a model.
Like the top model he is, Bowie has a refined taste in pop music fashions and he wears them with such elegance that they often sound smashing on him. Yet there is no talent, no attitude, no personality at the center of the music. Bowie detaches himself from all commitments and expresses himself entirely through style. This approach to life is a strong tendency in western culture, and Bowie sums it up perfectly.
Among Bowie's best records have been those in which he tries to don the current fashions in black pop music and inevitably creates a dramatic conflict between his own detachment and the soulfulness of the music. This happened when he modeled Philadelphia soul on the 1975 album "Young Americans." It happens again as Bowie models New York funk on his new album, "Let's Dance" (EMI SO-17093).
The album was coproduced by Bowie and Nile Rodgers, one half of the creative team behind Chic. Using musicians from Chic and other friends, Rodgers creates tightly wound dance tracks that unwind with perfect, driving syncopation. Rodgers' own rhythm guitar tracks have the same economical power that Steve Cropper's had in Booker T & the MGs. Layered atop these compelling dance rhythms--but not always connected to them--are Bowie's icy vocals.
On the three songs in which the tracks and vocals connect, a tug-of-war develops between Bowie's attempts to stay aloof and Rodgers' efforts to pull him into the groove. The album's best song is "Modern Love," which boasts a riveting rhythm & blues chorus hook and recalls the hit single "Young Americans." The bright snare drums give the song explosive accents, and even Bowie gets caught up in the excitement. His lyrics maintain he doesn't believe in religion or modern love, but he does admit, "I try."
The album's title track opens with a "Twist and Shout" intro and segues into one of Rodgers' best rhythm work-outs. Rodgers' guitar and the rhythm section trade riffs, and a superb horn section punches the song forward. Bowie's vocals are mixed down amid the instruments and offer contrasting, droning harmonies to the clipped rhythms. Texas blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn of Double Trouble adds his sizzling lead guitar licks to "Let's Dance" and Rodgers' improved remake of Bowie's theme song from the film "Cat People." In both cases, Vaughn supplies the intense immediacy missing from the vocals.
The rest of the album sounds as if Bowie and Rodgers had different conceptions of the songs that never quite meshed. On "China Girl," which Bowie wrote with Iggy Pop, the backing tracks are mixed so low they get smothered by the vocal. "Shake It" is a second-rate imitation of "Let's Dance," and the vocals on "Ricochet" and "Criminal World" are so mechanical they drain the tracks of their life. When Bowie attempts an emotional ballad on "Without You," one realizes just how thin and one-dimensional he is.
Since 1977, Nile Rodgers has worked with Bernard Edwards as co-composer and coproducer on every Chic album as well as working on records by Sister Sledge, Diana Ross and Debbie Harry. Now this team has split up--at least temporarily--as Rodgers has worked without Edwards on "Let's Dance" and his own solo debut, "Adventures in the Land of the Good Groove" (Mirage 90073-1). This solo album comes off as a Chic album with a stripped-down, funkier sound but with less melody and texture. Using the Chic band without Edwards, Rodgers has created an album rich in complex, compelling rhythms but poor in nearly everything else.
While most people think of composing in terms of melody, chords and lyrics, Rodgers' true gift as a composer is in inventing rhythms. Each of the album's eight songs arranges its syncopated accents in a novel way. Leading the way on rhythm guitar, Rodgers has his band execute these rhythmic signatures impeccably. The beat is so central that the lyrics for three of the songs discuss just that. Never much of a lyricist or a singer, Rodgers is content to chant catch-phrases as an accompaniment to the rhythm section.
"Yum-Yum," is a successful imitation of The Time's hit mixture of dirty jokes and techno-funk. The one ballad, "My Love Song for You," has a lusher Chic production and a strong duet vocal by LaBelle alumna Sarah Dash. The album's best song is "It's All in Your Hands," which actually boasts a memorable melody. Rodgers' finally shows off his guitar skills with intricate fills that give the song a graceful top to counterbalance the funky bottom.
Rodgers, who creates the best rhythm tracks anywhere, deserves melodies and themes that are equally good. Neither of these albums quite manages that.