The Wee Trio – Ashes to Ashes: A David Bowie Intraspective (2012)

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A finely judged treatment of David Bowie’s music, done without hewing too closely to the old sides — and without fear of going too deep into his catalog for material. Along the way, the Wee Trio gives us a new understanding of Bowie’s sometimes overlooked way with a pop tune. But, more importantly, Ashes to Ashes is such a complete recording that it holds up even if you don’t consider yourself a Bowie completist.

That’s perhaps best heard on the title track from Bowie’s 1970 album The Man Who Sold the World. The cut begins with a whisper-quiet bit of interplay between bassist Dan Loomis and vibraphonist James Westfall, turning what was already a quiet little gem into a hushed series of crepuscular revelations. Slowly, ever so slowly, they build toward an album-defining solo by Westfall, one that recalls the initial inspiration of this oft-heard Bowie cut even while deftly conveying its own new, stirring emotions.

“Queen Bitch,” from 1971’s Hunky Dory, seems to best capture the janus-like musical shape shifting that began to mark Bowie’s career almost from the first — as the Wee Trio leaps from one tempo to another, playing the words more than the song, sounding at times like a melodic reverie and at others like a rattling ride down a punk-rock side road.

Then “Ashes to Ashes,” originally a 1980 side, strips away that artifice, the endless fascination with persona, that can obscure the timeless nature of Bowie’s work. Sometimes the mask was intriguing, of course; other times, it was simply a distraction. Here, in the Wee Trio’s able hands, you sense all over again how good the bones were on these old cuts. Free of the synth-pop pretensions of the era, the group fashions an improvisational vehicle of previously unknown depth — yet one that never loses its sense of melody. That’s a credit to Bowie on first blush; then to these frisky next-gen musicians, on second thought. The Wee Trio’s take on “1984,” a deep cut from 1974’s Diamond Dogs, does a similarly impressive job of tearing the track down to its harmonic two-by-fours — and then building up from that foundation.

Ashes to Ashes is bookended with music of more recent vintage, and each adds another dimension to the project.

“Battle for Britain,” the opener, is from an underrated 1997 release called Earthling that saw the ever-changing glam-rock legend burst into hard-edged electro-dance noise. The Wee Trio confidently mimics that with a crashing, very outside opening stanza, and this manic drum signature from Jared Schonig which seems to hurtle the song from one improvisational exchange to another. It’s Bowie jazz, alright.

The group then closes with “Sunday,” a standout moment from his dark and stormy 9/11-inspired 2002 release Heathen. As easy as it had been, in many ways, to hear this group happily swing through disco-influenced tracks like “1984” and lipstick rockers like “Queen Bitch,” this song seemed from the first to demand a more considered approach — and the Wee Trio deliver. From its initial, very contemplative moments on through to its rumbling finale, “Sunday” shows just how in command of the material they are. But it also underscores the ease in which they are able to turn a passion for Bowie into new ideas (rather than simply to echo him), to respect the footprint of the originals even as they expand upon them.

Ashes to Ashes (available for purchase through the band’s Web site) is confidently, memorably, brilliantly exploratory — both familiar and something that stands all on its own.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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