The first thing you hear on January Sun, the debut EP by Russian singer/electronic producer Kedr Livanskiy (real name Yana Kedrina) is a Nintendo-like synth figure fading away, an envelope filter squeezing the life out of it. A rudimentary combination of beats emerges, one of which sounds like the sped-up bossa nova preset on an inexpensive junk keyboard meant for kids ages 3 and up; the other a prototypical hi-hat figure that has “I’ve just started experimenting with house music” written all over it. As dreamy-but-crude synth pads, hand claps, and Kedrina’s vocals all join in, it’s easy to mistake the song (“Razrushitelniy Krug“) as an unremarkable piece of lo-fi house music, made by someone without a developed sense for how to arrange an instrumental backdrop.

But she quickly proves that not to be the case. Her production touch is too delicate to consign this EP to the same bin as other music current music that arrives already dated because it reeks of Instagram. Where so many artists give their work the sonic equivalent of a fake tan when they try to “warm” it up, Kedrina captures the charm of listening to dance music that’s been taped off a late-night radio broadcast. As such, her nods to the past appear to stem from romance rather than cynical fascination with kitsch.

“Winds of May,” for example, begins with a wash of queasy synth melodrama, the likes of which Boards Of Canada turned into a career 20 years ago. Like many tracks on this EP, it sounds like it’s being played on a sluggish tape deck, but here there’s an occasional pitch-up effect, as if you were listening to a tape that sat in a basement for years and skitters forward every time one of its reels makes a full turn. On “Sgoraet” (The Burning Down) and the title track, Kedrina dons her David Gahan hat and captures the flashy brooding of Black Celebration/Music for the Masses-era Depeche Mode. Of course, Depeche Mode’s stock in trade was to turn personal angst into stadium-sized gestures that mimicked the collective hysteria of political rallies. Kedrina turns that vibe on its ear by catching a tiny bit of it in a bottle and setting it loose on a dingy, half-empty dancefloor.

A close look at the lyrics reveals further layers of interpretation and displacement. The EP title appears on the album cover in Russian, while the song titles alternate between Russian and English. Kedrina’s vocals alternate between the two languages as well, but are all listed in English. And even when she does sing in English, her delivery verges on formless much like those wordless ethereal female vocals that became Orbital’s trademark. So even when you’re reading the James Joyce verses that she quotes on “Winds of May”—”Winds of May, that dance on the sea / Dancing a ring-around in glee / From furrow to furrow, while overhead / The foam flies up to be garlanded”—her phrasing creates a sense of distance that isn’t attributable to language barrier alone.

January Sun closes with an acappella version of “Razrushitelniy Krug”/Destructive Cycle (alternately listed as “Cyclic Strength of Destruction”)that, even coming as it does after a bunch of songs with spartan arrangements heavy with primitive reverbs, feels like a curveball. With her voice echoing as if across a valley, Kedrina frees the EP from the confines of her home-recording setup, or the provincial Russian club where one can easily imagine her spinning records on an off night. On their own, her vocals take on a stately elegance, and her unbound Russian verses carry and drift. As a coda to her first musical statement, it is both striking and subtle. Whatever direction Kedrina chooses to move in with Kedr Livanskiy from here, the agility she shows on January Sun suggests that we should be watching her. 

Correction: The original version of this review referred to producer/singer Yana Kedrina as “Kedr Livanskiy.” Kedr Livanskiy is the name of the project. 

The first thing you hear on January Sun, the debut EP by Russian singer/electronic producer Kedr Livanskiy (real name Yana Kedrina) is a Nintendo-like synth figure fading away, an envelope filter squeezing the life out of it. A rudimentary combination of beats emerges, one of which sounds like the sped-up bossa nova preset on an inexpensive junk keyboard meant for kids ages 3 and up; the other a prototypical hi-hat figure that has “I’ve just started experimenting with house music” written all over it. As dreamy-but-crude synth pads, hand claps, and Kedrina’s vocals all join in, it’s easy to mistake the song (“Razrushitelniy Krug“) as an unremarkable piece of lo-fi house music, made by someone without a developed sense for how to arrange an instrumental backdrop.

But she quickly proves that not to be the case. Her production touch is too delicate to consign this EP to the same bin as other music current music that arrives already dated because it reeks of Instagram. Where so many artists give their work the sonic equivalent of a fake tan when they try to “warm” it up, Kedrina captures the charm of listening to dance music that’s been taped off a late-night radio broadcast. As such, her nods to the past appear to stem from romance rather than cynical fascination with kitsch.

“Winds of May,” for example, begins with a wash of queasy synth melodrama, the likes of which Boards Of Canada turned into a career 20 years ago. Like many tracks on this EP, it sounds like it’s being played on a sluggish tape deck, but here there’s an occasional pitch-up effect, as if you were listening to a tape that sat in a basement for years and skitters forward every time one of its reels makes a full turn. On “Sgoraet” (The Burning Down) and the title track, Kedrina dons her David Gahan hat and captures the flashy brooding of Black Celebration/Music for the Masses-era Depeche Mode. Of course, Depeche Mode’s stock in trade was to turn personal angst into stadium-sized gestures that mimicked the collective hysteria of political rallies. Kedrina turns that vibe on its ear by catching a tiny bit of it in a bottle and setting it loose on a dingy, half-empty dancefloor.

A close look at the lyrics reveals further layers of interpretation and displacement. The EP title appears on the album cover in Russian, while the song titles alternate between Russian and English. Kedrina’s vocals alternate between the two languages as well, but are all listed in English. And even when she does sing in English, her delivery verges on formless much like those wordless ethereal female vocals that became Orbital’s trademark. So even when you’re reading the James Joyce verses that she quotes on “Winds of May”—”Winds of May, that dance on the sea / Dancing a ring-around in glee / From furrow to furrow, while overhead / The foam flies up to be garlanded”—her phrasing creates a sense of distance that isn’t attributable to language barrier alone.

January Sun closes with an acappella version of “Razrushitelniy Krug”/Destructive Cycle (alternately listed as “Cyclic Strength of Destruction”)that, even coming as it does after a bunch of songs with spartan arrangements heavy with primitive reverbs, feels like a curveball. With her voice echoing as if across a valley, Kedrina frees the EP from the confines of her home-recording setup, or the provincial Russian club where one can easily imagine her spinning records on an off night. On their own, her vocals take on a stately elegance, and her unbound Russian verses carry and drift. As a coda to her first musical statement, it is both striking and subtle. Whatever direction Kedrina chooses to move in with Kedr Livanskiy from here, the agility she shows on January Sun suggests that we should be watching her. 

Correction: The original version of this review referred to producer/singer Yana Kedrina as “Kedr Livanskiy.” Kedr Livanskiy is the name of the project. 

We’ve all felt alone at some point or another. In those moments, it seems the world passes by while you sit in painful silence. It’s a common emotion, really; one you’re ashamed to admit, one that needs time to run its course. It seems rapper/producer Quelle Chris is going through something similar, if his recent work is an indicator: Last year’s Innocent Country briefly touched on his perceived personal insecurities, and his new instrumental album, Lullabies for the Broken Brain, carefully walks us through that despair using lo-fi drum breaks and spacious beat construction. Quelle’s production has always been unorthodox, yet Lullabies finds him pushing for something rooted in hip-hop, though it registers further away. This isn’t your average beat tape. Lullabies is made of divergent sounds, loosely built to set a pensive vibe shaded with desperation and hopelessness.

As the title suggests, Lullabies is overtly nocturnal, full of dark, disjointed sounds and cosmic clatter. It comes together like a Madlib instrumental project in the way certain songs aren’t fully formed, but they work well within the scope of the LP, making for a coherent suite to be played all at once. Many of these tracks don’t go much beyond a minute—except for “M-39,” “Peace and Pain,” “I’m the Bridge You Must Burn,” and a few others, which serve as some of the best work on Quelle’s album. Compared with 2012’s Jock Sin Six Beat Tape, an edgy conceptual EP dealing with societal angst, Lullabies is a slow burn designed to soundtrack what the mind endures when loneliness sets in. The melodies are cavernous and somewhat distant, emitting a gritty resonance that affirms Quelle’s premise.

At certain points on the album, we hear positive affirmations blended into the mix—like the 1970s “Most Important Person” commercial spot—offering brief glimmers of hope amongst an otherwise bleak soundscape. Lullabies is the album you play when you’re going through serious shit. At just the right length and tempo, Quelle skillfully blends genres, showing his great range as a composer and creative visionary. He opts for jazz fusion on “Desire to Be,” “Red Buttons,” and “Sickum,” sprinkling light keys and horns into the fray; the aforementioned “Peace and Pain” is a seething electro-rock hybrid similar to the work of OPN or Trent Reznor. This is easy listening, but it has all the psychedelic grit you’d expect from a Quelle release. He’s pushed beyond his usual arc, leading to a wonderfully ambient release that should be mentioned with the genre’s trendsetters.

Then again, this isn’t surprising if you’ve followed Quelle so far. The Detroit native has long pushed his music to weird places, crafting art that’s equally genuine and peculiar. In recent years, though, Quelle has discussed his career path with the same level of angst we’ve all expressed in our respective fields. He ponders the road ahead and choices he’s made along the way. He’s wondered why he’s slept on and what it’ll take to move past those doldrums. Over several projects, Quelle has always been someone you can relate to, and his music comes off as such. If Innocent Country trailed off without clear resolutions, Lullabies signals Quelle’s uncertain trek to the light. Many of us have taken that journey, or will do so eventually.

We’ve all felt alone at some point or another. In those moments, it seems the world passes by while you sit in painful silence. It’s a common emotion, really; one you’re ashamed to admit, one that needs time to run its course. It seems rapper/producer Quelle Chris is going through something similar, if his recent work is an indicator: Last year’s Innocent Country briefly touched on his perceived personal insecurities, and his new instrumental album, Lullabies for the Broken Brain, carefully walks us through that despair using lo-fi drum breaks and spacious beat construction. Quelle’s production has always been unorthodox, yet Lullabies finds him pushing for something rooted in hip-hop, though it registers further away. This isn’t your average beat tape. Lullabies is made of divergent sounds, loosely built to set a pensive vibe shaded with desperation and hopelessness.

As the title suggests, Lullabies is overtly nocturnal, full of dark, disjointed sounds and cosmic clatter. It comes together like a Madlib instrumental project in the way certain songs aren’t fully formed, but they work well within the scope of the LP, making for a coherent suite to be played all at once. Many of these tracks don’t go much beyond a minute—except for “M-39,” “Peace and Pain,” “I’m the Bridge You Must Burn,” and a few others, which serve as some of the best work on Quelle’s album. Compared with 2012’s Jock Sin Six Beat Tape, an edgy conceptual EP dealing with societal angst, Lullabies is a slow burn designed to soundtrack what the mind endures when loneliness sets in. The melodies are cavernous and somewhat distant, emitting a gritty resonance that affirms Quelle’s premise.

At certain points on the album, we hear positive affirmations blended into the mix—like the 1970s “Most Important Person” commercial spot—offering brief glimmers of hope amongst an otherwise bleak soundscape. Lullabies is the album you play when you’re going through serious shit. At just the right length and tempo, Quelle skillfully blends genres, showing his great range as a composer and creative visionary. He opts for jazz fusion on “Desire to Be,” “Red Buttons,” and “Sickum,” sprinkling light keys and horns into the fray; the aforementioned “Peace and Pain” is a seething electro-rock hybrid similar to the work of OPN or Trent Reznor. This is easy listening, but it has all the psychedelic grit you’d expect from a Quelle release. He’s pushed beyond his usual arc, leading to a wonderfully ambient release that should be mentioned with the genre’s trendsetters.

Then again, this isn’t surprising if you’ve followed Quelle so far. The Detroit native has long pushed his music to weird places, crafting art that’s equally genuine and peculiar. In recent years, though, Quelle has discussed his career path with the same level of angst we’ve all expressed in our respective fields. He ponders the road ahead and choices he’s made along the way. He’s wondered why he’s slept on and what it’ll take to move past those doldrums. Over several projects, Quelle has always been someone you can relate to, and his music comes off as such. If Innocent Country trailed off without clear resolutions, Lullabies signals Quelle’s uncertain trek to the light. Many of us have taken that journey, or will do so eventually.

Calling an album Music for Listening to Music to seems at best a throwaway line, at worst an unfortunate, self-directed neg. La Sera’s fourth album, its first with singer/bassist Katy Goodman’s husband Todd Wisenbaker officially on board, does itself at least one disservice with it, subtly highlighting that this is La Sera’s most tentative-sounding outing. Produced by Ryan Adams in the sole week he was able to spare from a demanding schedule, Music finds the line separating “casual-sounding” from “underbaked” and plays hopscotch.

That concentrated week with Adams produced a coherent sound, one that cleaves to Adams’ alt-country wheelhouse. At their best, the duo harnesses wavering Ennio Morricone guitar and pairs it with indie pop pathos. “That’s my mistake,” Goodman allows mournfully in “Begins to Rain,” as duelling bright guitars whine. Yet Adams’ whims might be responsible for some of the weaker inclinations of the record: “I was certain that I could help her lose control a little bit more,” he said of Goodman’s vocal performance.

He’s done that, but it wasn’t a favor. On jangling opener “High Notes,” Goodman’s trill is less poised than we’re accustomed to hearing. Whether losing purchase on a sustained note or dashing off the final syllables of a verse (“I’m sorry/ Is the song too slow?” goes one breathless, ironic phrase), the ex-Vivian Girls bassist’s warble feels thin and skittish. Instead of embodying the pursed-lips defiance of its lyrics, the song lands like a just-OK bet thrown onto the bar. The difference between the voice pushed beyond its limits here and its smooth nonchalance on 2012’s Sees the Light or the breezy multitracked comings and goings on the self-titled 2011 LP is noticeable.

The band still has a good feel for a certain kind of song: Wisenbaker’s nimble, reverb’ed guitars and Goodman’s coltish vocal line makes Music sound like nothing so much as the soundtrack to a ’90s high-school dance. From the descending bluesy riff of “I Need an Angel” to the languid sway of “Take My Heart,” the best songs recall nervous sweat, skittish dancing, and hopeful heartbreak. A notable exception to this mood is “Shadow of Your Love,” which echoes hauntingly as if from a jukebox somewhere in Gene Pitney’s West.

Wisenbaker turns a few of the record’s songs into duets, with mixed results. “I would do anything for you to love me,” he beseeches Goodman in “Angel,” a boy whose snarl disguises pain. The spurning-and-supplication interplay in this duet is fun, but the song peters out, turning the time-honored two-chord guitar outro into an extended shrug. In “One True Love” his singing battles his guitar low in the mix, bringing to mind the guy from accounts who doesn’t really want to be at karaoke. By contrast, Goodman’s angelic peal soars, her counterposition distant as a mirage.

As with the record’s title, closing track, “Too Little Too Late” accidentally invites you to agree with the sentiment. Over simple, pretty arpeggiation, Goodman sings with assurance, finally settled and at ease. La Sera’s experiment with a new musical direction, line-up, and producer is by no means a failure, but, being the product of a logistical opportunity, comes across as more like a short stop on the way to something more solid and definitive.

Calling an album Music for Listening to Music to seems at best a throwaway line, at worst an unfortunate, self-directed neg. La Sera’s fourth album, its first with singer/bassist Katy Goodman’s husband Todd Wisenbaker officially on board, does itself at least one disservice with it, subtly highlighting that this is La Sera’s most tentative-sounding outing. Produced by Ryan Adams in the sole week he was able to spare from a demanding schedule, Music finds the line separating “casual-sounding” from “underbaked” and plays hopscotch.

That concentrated week with Adams produced a coherent sound, one that cleaves to Adams’ alt-country wheelhouse. At their best, the duo harnesses wavering Ennio Morricone guitar and pairs it with indie pop pathos. “That’s my mistake,” Goodman allows mournfully in “Begins to Rain,” as duelling bright guitars whine. Yet Adams’ whims might be responsible for some of the weaker inclinations of the record: “I was certain that I could help her lose control a little bit more,” he said of Goodman’s vocal performance.

He’s done that, but it wasn’t a favor. On jangling opener “High Notes,” Goodman’s trill is less poised than we’re accustomed to hearing. Whether losing purchase on a sustained note or dashing off the final syllables of a verse (“I’m sorry/ Is the song too slow?” goes one breathless, ironic phrase), the ex-Vivian Girls bassist’s warble feels thin and skittish. Instead of embodying the pursed-lips defiance of its lyrics, the song lands like a just-OK bet thrown onto the bar. The difference between the voice pushed beyond its limits here and its smooth nonchalance on 2012’s Sees the Light or the breezy multitracked comings and goings on the self-titled 2011 LP is noticeable.

The band still has a good feel for a certain kind of song: Wisenbaker’s nimble, reverb’ed guitars and Goodman’s coltish vocal line makes Music sound like nothing so much as the soundtrack to a ’90s high-school dance. From the descending bluesy riff of “I Need an Angel” to the languid sway of “Take My Heart,” the best songs recall nervous sweat, skittish dancing, and hopeful heartbreak. A notable exception to this mood is “Shadow of Your Love,” which echoes hauntingly as if from a jukebox somewhere in Gene Pitney’s West.

Wisenbaker turns a few of the record’s songs into duets, with mixed results. “I would do anything for you to love me,” he beseeches Goodman in “Angel,” a boy whose snarl disguises pain. The spurning-and-supplication interplay in this duet is fun, but the song peters out, turning the time-honored two-chord guitar outro into an extended shrug. In “One True Love” his singing battles his guitar low in the mix, bringing to mind the guy from accounts who doesn’t really want to be at karaoke. By contrast, Goodman’s angelic peal soars, her counterposition distant as a mirage.

As with the record’s title, closing track, “Too Little Too Late” accidentally invites you to agree with the sentiment. Over simple, pretty arpeggiation, Goodman sings with assurance, finally settled and at ease. La Sera’s experiment with a new musical direction, line-up, and producer is by no means a failure, but, being the product of a logistical opportunity, comes across as more like a short stop on the way to something more solid and definitive.

Thug Entrancer: Arcology

by Feed Engine

Like so much electronic music to have come before it, Thug Entrancer’s Arcology has futurist themes encoded deep within its DNA. It takes its title from a term coined by the architect Paolo Soleri, best known for Arizona’s Arcosanti community, meant to describe architecture in balance with ecology. But the album’s press release speaks of alien colonies and world-building, while its cover art features a cybernetic figure wearing what look like VR goggles; a cable extrudes from the back of his skull, Matrix-style. (Zoom in far enough, and you may also notice a peeing-Calvin decal adorning his jack—the influence, perhaps, of Daniel Lopatin, whose Software label put out the record, and whose last album as Oneohtrix Point Never similarly grappled with science-fiction themes through the twin lenses of adolescence and trash-culture kitsch.)

But, as is the case with so much electronic music to have come before it, the sci-fi conceit also feels like a red herring. Thug Entrancer is Ryan McRyhew, a Denver-based musician who came up playing punky electronic music in the DIY scene around the city’s Rhinoceropolis space before moving for a time to Chicago, where he discovered local staples like juke, footwork, and acid. His debut album, 2014’s Death After Life, was a snapshot of his infatuation with those sounds as he acquainted himself with the mechanics of 160-BPM drum patterns and squirrelly 303 lines. Of Arcology, McRyhew says, “The album title stems from the idea of a structure or object that is entirely self-sufficient and life-generating with little to no outside influence.” But that’s precisely the opposite of how the album actually functions. Arcology, like its predecessor, is a genre study first and foremost, rearranging familiar elements according to McRyhew’s own idiosyncratic vision.

Those elements haven’t changed much since Death After Life; he’s still preoccupied with frenetic drum-machine workouts and lyrical bass melodies, and he’s still using classic pieces of kit like the Roland TR-808 and TB-303 (or, perhaps, plug-in simulators). But where his debut album was split mostly between flickering footwork tunes and, less successfully, sluggish slow-motion sketches, he’s expanded the tempo range here, and in doing so he’s opened up to a wealth of new ideas and moods. The early standouts “Ghostless M.S.” and “Arrakis” boast gnarled, overdriven acid lines that really sing, along with hectic-yet-nimble drum programming.

McRyhew boasts his considerable sound-design chops on a handful of ambient cuts, like “ROM” and “Low-Life” and “VR-Urge,” that come closer to the otherworldly ideas supposedly underpinning the album. The finest thing here, “Arcology,” also functions like an ambient track, even though it ripples away at 150 beats per minute: Its keening synth melody recalls early Autechre, back when they still wore their hearts on their sleeves, but it’s not directly derivative of anything or anyone. Its pinging, rustling background noises, meanwhile, sound like electronic imitations of running water. Formally, it is a picture of perfect balance, all its moving pieces in perfect synchronization with each other. Within the context of the album, it operates as a kind of clearing, an oasis, where the known universe falls away. If McRyhew really is interested in world-building, it is an excellent first stab at terraforming. 

Thug Entrancer: Arcology

by Feed Engine

Like so much electronic music to have come before it, Thug Entrancer’s Arcology has futurist themes encoded deep within its DNA. It takes its title from a term coined by the architect Paolo Soleri, best known for Arizona’s Arcosanti community, meant to describe architecture in balance with ecology. But the album’s press release speaks of alien colonies and world-building, while its cover art features a cybernetic figure wearing what look like VR goggles; a cable extrudes from the back of his skull, Matrix-style. (Zoom in far enough, and you may also notice a peeing-Calvin decal adorning his jack—the influence, perhaps, of Daniel Lopatin, whose Software label put out the record, and whose last album as Oneohtrix Point Never similarly grappled with science-fiction themes through the twin lenses of adolescence and trash-culture kitsch.)

But, as is the case with so much electronic music to have come before it, the sci-fi conceit also feels like a red herring. Thug Entrancer is Ryan McRyhew, a Denver-based musician who came up playing punky electronic music in the DIY scene around the city’s Rhinoceropolis space before moving for a time to Chicago, where he discovered local staples like juke, footwork, and acid. His debut album, 2014’s Death After Life, was a snapshot of his infatuation with those sounds as he acquainted himself with the mechanics of 160-BPM drum patterns and squirrelly 303 lines. Of Arcology, McRyhew says, “The album title stems from the idea of a structure or object that is entirely self-sufficient and life-generating with little to no outside influence.” But that’s precisely the opposite of how the album actually functions. Arcology, like its predecessor, is a genre study first and foremost, rearranging familiar elements according to McRyhew’s own idiosyncratic vision.

Those elements haven’t changed much since Death After Life; he’s still preoccupied with frenetic drum-machine workouts and lyrical bass melodies, and he’s still using classic pieces of kit like the Roland TR-808 and TB-303 (or, perhaps, plug-in simulators). But where his debut album was split mostly between flickering footwork tunes and, less successfully, sluggish slow-motion sketches, he’s expanded the tempo range here, and in doing so he’s opened up to a wealth of new ideas and moods. The early standouts “Ghostless M.S.” and “Arrakis” boast gnarled, overdriven acid lines that really sing, along with hectic-yet-nimble drum programming.

McRyhew boasts his considerable sound-design chops on a handful of ambient cuts, like “ROM” and “Low-Life” and “VR-Urge,” that come closer to the otherworldly ideas supposedly underpinning the album. The finest thing here, “Arcology,” also functions like an ambient track, even though it ripples away at 150 beats per minute: Its keening synth melody recalls early Autechre, back when they still wore their hearts on their sleeves, but it’s not directly derivative of anything or anyone. Its pinging, rustling background noises, meanwhile, sound like electronic imitations of running water. Formally, it is a picture of perfect balance, all its moving pieces in perfect synchronization with each other. Within the context of the album, it operates as a kind of clearing, an oasis, where the known universe falls away. If McRyhew really is interested in world-building, it is an excellent first stab at terraforming. 

Sixteen years after being released on CD, Bowie at the Beeb finally gets the vinyl box set treatment, with some scanty bonus bits: a fantastic 1971 rendition of “Oh! You Pretty Things” where Bowie and Mick Ronson perform as a duo, from the Japanese CD, and a previously unheard version of “The Supermen,” from March 1970, where he’s backed by the Hype. It’s tempting to assume the collection of his early BBC sessions is a posthumous cash-in, except that it was announced in December, three weeks before Bowie’s death, thus making it a viable part of his beautifully choreographed stage exit. While the rush to winkle out clues from Blackstar in the wake of his passing felt a bit like pointing out how a magician does his tricks, it’s worth asking why he pushed us toward these formative live sessions as he knew his life was coming to its end.

Simply put, perhaps it’s nothing more than a show of gratitude toward an organization whose early belief in him never wavered (and whose publicly funded existence is always under threat from Britain’s Conservative government). Bowie recalled failing a 1965 audition to work with the BBC, who stated, in their classic patrician tone, “‘This vocalist is devoid of personality and sings all the wrong notes.'” And yet they gave him another shot, as Bowie pointed out: “So in your inimitable manner and with tremendous enthusiasm you got me back on for another audition, which I passed the second time around, which gave me freewheeling access to a lifetime of singing all the wrong notes.”

This four-LP collection spans Bowie’s second-ever BBC session, in 1968, through to May 1972, after which he wouldn’t record another until 1991. Rather than a sign of rupture, that 19-year gap is possibly an indirect result of the BBC’s support: After Bowie performed “Starman” on the network’s “Top of the Pops” in July 1972, his fame rose enormously, leading him to America, tax exile in Switzerland and Germany, and into periods of immense productivity (and, of course, druggy preoccupations). Manager Tony DeFries may not have seen the point in having him do more sessions.

Yet in the early days, back when Bowie was still an earnest Anthony Newley wannabe whose career could never get seem to get off the ground, Auntie’s arms were always there to scoop him up and give him another shot. His first chances came from John Peel, and from there he trickled down through Radio 1’s primetime slots; by 1970, he was being given hour-long live appearances on the station. It’s an appealingly linear type of progress, and a literal one, too; unlike Five Years and other more carefully curated Bowie box sets, Bowie at the Beeb is an anatomy of how he became a rock star. 

The first session here (and second, historically) was recorded for Peel in May 1968, and finds Bowie in romantic mode, though bigger ideas are taking shape: the swoony “London Bye, Ta-Ta” characterizes the influx of immigrant communities to London as two lovers who don’t make it. “Karma Man” and “Silly Boy Blue” both deal with Buddhism, but the latter gives the very timely fixation a Bowie spin, as he empathizes with a monk who doesn’t fit in with his community. By October 1969, there’s been a perceptible shift in attitudes: “Let Me Sleep Beside You” and “Janine” are tougher in sound and spirit.

Bowie’s February 1970 session with the Tony Visconti Trio—aka the Hype—starts inauspiciously. He covers Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam” competently, and the acoustic “God Knows I’m Good” is a tedious ditty about a woman being caught shoplifting. But then comes “The Width of a Circle,” and Mick Ronson’s first-ever performance with Bowie. Maybe the subtlety of their work together here is a sign of a tentative new relationship: Ronson’s riff is much more muted and ingrained in the mix than it would be on record, but still gorgeous. Their dynamic picks up steam on “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed,” as Bowie’s frustrations at the loss of his father preempt a brilliantly wiggy Ronson solo.

As David Cavanagh’s excellent book on John Peel’s sessions points out, Bowie was hardly gigging even by 1971, when he had had a bona fide hit with “Space Oddity”: “He doesn’t have a regular band, his albums don’t sell, and he’s prone to being in a state of artistic flux.” So the hour-long, June 1971 Radio 1 performance by David Bowie and Friends at London’s Paris Theater was a huge showcase, preempting the release of Hunky Dory that December. Never mind the size of his ensemble, however; the highlight is a box-fresh, solo rendition of “Kooks,” played acoustically just four days after it was written to herald the birth of his son, Zowie.

Bowie always called himself a “tasteful thief,” and the permeability of his brain becomes clear on the third LP of the set, which deals with late 1971 and early 1972. Bowie had just returned from New York, where he met Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, and Iggy Pop. In early 1972, his covers of “Waiting for the Man” and “White Light/White Heat” are a little unconvincing, but no matter; the transformative experience has brought out a new ability in Bowie to really sell his own songs live as he never had before, ramping up his infectious, virile energy. You can hear the Spiders From Mars hitting their stride, and a lizardy streetwise quality appearing in Bowie’s voice.

Of course, all this nascent rockstardom comes to a head in The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, which Bowie previewed live on Radio 1 a month prior to release in June ’72, across two separate sessions. By this point, “Starman” had been DJ Johnnie Walker’s single of the week, which earned it daily plays, and allowed Bowie to delve a little further back into his catalog for hidden greatest hits: “Space Oddity,” and “Changes,” where Ronson transforms the original’s hammered piano riff. But in the here and now, Bowie’s ravishing yowl makes an early appearance on “Moonage Daydream,” and you hear him start to reach outward, beyond the intimacy of radio into the visceral performer he would become. His May 22, 1972 session ends with—what else—”Rock’n’Roll Suicide,” the last song he would play live on the BBC for 19 years.

As ever, nothing was accidental. Beyond the vinyl reissue of Bowie at the Beeb, Bowie reached out to the BBC one last time before he died. His last round of Twitter follows included BBC 6Music and some of the station’s flagship DJs (along with a cheeky parody account: God). The new music industry ecosystems mean that bands are no longer built up by single organizations in the same way that Bowie was by the BBC at the turn of the 1970s, which made the day of his death all the more remarkable. Like thousands of other Brits, I found out by listening to BBC 6Music DJs Shaun Keaveny and Matt Everitt announce the news at 7:08 a.m. Although they were clearly grasping for words, Keaveny landed on the perfect summation of what happens when the value of patronage is recognized and repaid: “David Bowie’s music is an absolutely central tenet of what we do here at 6Music.” Bowie at the Beeb doesn’t always make for essential listening, but it represents a foundational part of British culture, and upholds the importance of public broadcasting as a mutually beneficial relationship.

Sixteen years after being released on CD, Bowie at the Beeb finally gets the vinyl box set treatment, with some scanty bonus bits: a fantastic 1971 rendition of “Oh! You Pretty Things” where Bowie and Mick Ronson perform as a duo, from the Japanese CD, and a previously unheard version of “The Supermen,” from March 1970, where he’s backed by the Hype. It’s tempting to assume the collection of his early BBC sessions is a posthumous cash-in, except that it was announced in December, three weeks before Bowie’s death, thus making it a viable part of his beautifully choreographed stage exit. While the rush to winkle out clues from Blackstar in the wake of his passing felt a bit like pointing out how a magician does his tricks, it’s worth asking why he pushed us toward these formative live sessions as he knew his life was coming to its end.

Simply put, perhaps it’s nothing more than a show of gratitude toward an organization whose early belief in him never wavered (and whose publicly funded existence is always under threat from Britain’s Conservative government). Bowie recalled failing a 1965 audition to work with the BBC, who stated, in their classic patrician tone, “‘This vocalist is devoid of personality and sings all the wrong notes.'” And yet they gave him another shot, as Bowie pointed out: “So in your inimitable manner and with tremendous enthusiasm you got me back on for another audition, which I passed the second time around, which gave me freewheeling access to a lifetime of singing all the wrong notes.”

This four-LP collection spans Bowie’s second-ever BBC session, in 1968, through to May 1972, after which he wouldn’t record another until 1991. Rather than a sign of rupture, that 19-year gap is possibly an indirect result of the BBC’s support: After Bowie performed “Starman” on the network’s “Top of the Pops” in July 1972, his fame rose enormously, leading him to America, tax exile in Switzerland and Germany, and into periods of immense productivity (and, of course, druggy preoccupations). Manager Tony DeFries may not have seen the point in having him do more sessions.

Yet in the early days, back when Bowie was still an earnest Anthony Newley wannabe whose career could never get seem to get off the ground, Auntie’s arms were always there to scoop him up and give him another shot. His first chances came from John Peel, and from there he trickled down through Radio 1’s primetime slots; by 1970, he was being given hour-long live appearances on the station. It’s an appealingly linear type of progress, and a literal one, too; unlike Five Years and other more carefully curated Bowie box sets, Bowie at the Beeb is an anatomy of how he became a rock star. 

The first session here (and second, historically) was recorded for Peel in May 1968, and finds Bowie in romantic mode, though bigger ideas are taking shape: the swoony “London Bye, Ta-Ta” characterizes the influx of immigrant communities to London as two lovers who don’t make it. “Karma Man” and “Silly Boy Blue” both deal with Buddhism, but the latter gives the very timely fixation a Bowie spin, as he empathizes with a monk who doesn’t fit in with his community. By October 1969, there’s been a perceptible shift in attitudes: “Let Me Sleep Beside You” and “Janine” are tougher in sound and spirit.

Bowie’s February 1970 session with the Tony Visconti Trio—aka the Hype—starts inauspiciously. He covers Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam” competently, and the acoustic “God Knows I’m Good” is a tedious ditty about a woman being caught shoplifting. But then comes “The Width of a Circle,” and Mick Ronson’s first-ever performance with Bowie. Maybe the subtlety of their work together here is a sign of a tentative new relationship: Ronson’s riff is much more muted and ingrained in the mix than it would be on record, but still gorgeous. Their dynamic picks up steam on “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed,” as Bowie’s frustrations at the loss of his father preempt a brilliantly wiggy Ronson solo.

As David Cavanagh’s excellent book on John Peel’s sessions points out, Bowie was hardly gigging even by 1971, when he had had a bona fide hit with “Space Oddity”: “He doesn’t have a regular band, his albums don’t sell, and he’s prone to being in a state of artistic flux.” So the hour-long, June 1971 Radio 1 performance by David Bowie and Friends at London’s Paris Theater was a huge showcase, preempting the release of Hunky Dory that December. Never mind the size of his ensemble, however; the highlight is a box-fresh, solo rendition of “Kooks,” played acoustically just four days after it was written to herald the birth of his son, Zowie.

Bowie always called himself a “tasteful thief,” and the permeability of his brain becomes clear on the third LP of the set, which deals with late 1971 and early 1972. Bowie had just returned from New York, where he met Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, and Iggy Pop. In early 1972, his covers of “Waiting for the Man” and “White Light/White Heat” are a little unconvincing, but no matter; the transformative experience has brought out a new ability in Bowie to really sell his own songs live as he never had before, ramping up his infectious, virile energy. You can hear the Spiders From Mars hitting their stride, and a lizardy streetwise quality appearing in Bowie’s voice.

Of course, all this nascent rockstardom comes to a head in The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, which Bowie previewed live on Radio 1 a month prior to release in June ’72, across two separate sessions. By this point, “Starman” had been DJ Johnnie Walker’s single of the week, which earned it daily plays, and allowed Bowie to delve a little further back into his catalog for hidden greatest hits: “Space Oddity,” and “Changes,” where Ronson transforms the original’s hammered piano riff. But in the here and now, Bowie’s ravishing yowl makes an early appearance on “Moonage Daydream,” and you hear him start to reach outward, beyond the intimacy of radio into the visceral performer he would become. His May 22, 1972 session ends with—what else—”Rock’n’Roll Suicide,” the last song he would play live on the BBC for 19 years.

As ever, nothing was accidental. Beyond the vinyl reissue of Bowie at the Beeb, Bowie reached out to the BBC one last time before he died. His last round of Twitter follows included BBC 6Music and some of the station’s flagship DJs (along with a cheeky parody account: God). The new music industry ecosystems mean that bands are no longer built up by single organizations in the same way that Bowie was by the BBC at the turn of the 1970s, which made the day of his death all the more remarkable. Like thousands of other Brits, I found out by listening to BBC 6Music DJs Shaun Keaveny and Matt Everitt announce the news at 7:08 a.m. Although they were clearly grasping for words, Keaveny landed on the perfect summation of what happens when the value of patronage is recognized and repaid: “David Bowie’s music is an absolutely central tenet of what we do here at 6Music.” Bowie at the Beeb doesn’t always make for essential listening, but it represents a foundational part of British culture, and upholds the importance of public broadcasting as a mutually beneficial relationship.