For me, Black Friday is a day to stay indoors and relax. You won’t find me at a store, jumping over people to get a great sale. I only have one exception to this rule: Record Store Day. While the vinyl lovers’ holiday usually comes around in April, the Black Friday edition offers some great exclusives. One such release? Jherek Bischoff and Amanda Palmer’s tribute to two legends we lost this year: David Bowie and Prince.
Soon after Bowie passed away, Amanda Palmer & Jherek Bischoff released a string-laden tribute to the Thin White Duke. She gathered several of her friends to help with the memorial for the artist who meant so much to them. In her own words:
“Music is the binding agent of our mundane lives. It cements the moments in which we wash the dishes, type the resumes, go to the funerals, have the babies. The stronger the agent, the tougher the memory, and Bowie was NASA-grade epoxy to a sprawling span of freaked-out kids over three generations. He bonded us to our weird selves. We can be us. He said. Just for one day.”
A couple months later, Prince died and the two of them also recorded a cover of “Purple Rain.” All these tracks are on this Record Store Day release for Black Friday. As a tribute to two of weirdest and greatest musicians ever, it goes in its own direction but still stays true to the spirit of the originals.
On the artwork, this is one of the more striking RSD releases. Created by Sarah Beetson, the front sleeve features the Aladdin Sane cover, but replaces the lightning bolt with a couple of violins. Not only does it look wonderful, but it also tells out everything you need to know about the record. It’s a tribute to Bowie, with strings! Beetson’s take on Prince fills up the back sleeve. Though it is a more basic drawing of the Purple One, it still has incredible details, like a single purple tear.
In the gatefold sleeve, there’s a beautiful drawing of Bowie’s eyes by Bill Sienkiewicz. Sienkiewicz, who worked on Marvel Comics’ “The New Mutants” and “Elektra,” uses a great mix of pencil and watercolor work to create a weeping effect.
Bischoff’s string arrangements mold themselves successfully to Bowie’s music. On “Ashes to Ashes,” strings sweep over the melody, with no need for any other instrumentation. Palmer’s inflections hew close to the original, but divert when needed. For example, she reduces the “I’ve never done good things” verse from a shout to a whisper. “Heroes” is equally effective, the cutting strings increasing in power over the course of the song. Palmer, backed up on vocals by John Cameron Mitchell, throws all her passion into each note. The instrumental take of “Life On Mars?” is all Bischoff, filtering the emotion of Bowie’s voice through his string arrangement.
This EP is not without weak points. These missteps come from Palmer’s vocal decisions on the covers for “Blackstar” and “Space Oddity.” While she gets the haunting vibe of the former, she ignores the sly saunter that Bowie puts on later in the song. The smirking attitude he gives to a couple of the verses is sorely missed. It’s surprising that Palmer, someone with swagger to spare, doesn’t cut loose here. Her performance in “Space Oddity” runs into the same issue, sounding too subdued. Having Neil Gaiman read the countdown though is a nice touch.
On the flip side of the record, Palmer absolutely hits the right mix of vulnerability and spirituality that made “Purple Rain” a classic. She also kicks off the song with the famous “Dearly beloved” read from “Let’s Go Crazy.” It’s a great addition for this fitting tribute to Prince.
While Strung Out In Heaven isn’t perfect, it’s a passionate display from other musicians who took the lessons of Bowie and Prince to heart. Both of those artists were about individuality and using your outsider status as a strength, not a weakness. While the titans may be gone, their music remains. And there are still artists on the fringe who keep it okay to be weird.