Lengthy Lifelines, Time Cut Short

Bowie, Hendrix eras commemorated

It's the rare aging rock legend whose catalog is untarnished. Even more unusual, though, is the falling star that bounces back.

The late '80s and early '90s found David Bowie floundering in musical doldrums from which it seemed he would never recover. The once chameleonlike trendsetter reached a commercial and critical nadir with slick, hastily conceived post-Let's Dance flops, followed by the disastrous hard rock/art metal of Tin Machine. After Machine rusted, Bowie returned to his solo career with 1993's Black Tie White Noise, a hesitant comeback that didn't find an audience because of his label folding soon after the album's release. (Interestingly, there was enough interest for a recent elaborate CD/DVD package).

But Bowie then got busy reclaiming his rock iconoclast mantle with a hat trick of releases. Generally ignored at the time, this set of mid-to-late '90s offerings has just been reissued in expanded editions.

Even with extraneous remixes bloating the playing time, taken as a whole, the three discs — Outside, Earthling and Hours (their one-word titles recall Bowie's influential late-'70s Brian Eno-assisted trilogy of Low, Heroes and Lodger) — form an impressive return. Individually, cracks are apparent, but these are serious, well-crafted and artistically striking works that show the man who sold the world earning back his tarnished crown.

Released in 1995, the sprawling 19-track (20 on the reissue) Outside is an oblique, muddled conceptual song cycle that makes Bowie alter ego Ziggy Stardust look like Harry Potter. Again collaborating with Eno, Bowie supported the album with a tour co-headlined by industrial rock act Nine Inch Nails, an idea sparked by Outside's grating, metallic tendencies. Nearly impossible to unravel and difficult to digest in one sitting, this is nonetheless an ambitious return to form that yielded a few enduring tunes ("The Heart's Filthy Lesson," "Hallo Spaceboy"), which appear in his current set.

Similarly, the brooding industrial/jungle, synth-heavy experiments of 1997's Earthling seem forced. But Bowie is forging challenging territory and "I'm Afraid of Americans" remains one of his most chilling songs. Hours closed out Bowie's '90s with a more retro, acoustic-based atmospheric sound. Elegant yet edgy, Bowie's singing is relaxed and powerfully wistful, making this a forgotten gem. It's a moving coda to three albums that bear re-examination in his extensive catalog.

-- Hal Horowitz

Rightfully remembered as the most electrifying guitarist of the '60s, Jimi Hendrix pulverized pop music's conventions.

Whether wringing impossibly ornate jazz arpeggios from the neck of his upside-down Fender, or literally setting the instrument aflame after transmuting a three-chord oldie into the aural equivalent of napalm, Hendrix was at once both iconic and iconoclastic. His era did spawn other legendary guitarists, but Eric Clapton never boasted Hendrix's beads-and-ruffled-collar sartorial appeal, and Carlos Santana didn't sing.

Although Santana and Stevie Ray Vaughn replicate Hendrix's complex fretboard fireworks on Power of Soul — A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix, an impressive new authorized tribute CD released by Image Entertainment, it's Hendrix's remarkable vocal talents that become the disc's principal focus. His voice is most faithfully echoed by Musiq on the album's opener, "Are You Experienced?" The neo-soul singer's band re-creates Hendrix's clipped guitar chords via turntable effects, effectively linking his legacy to modern hip-hop. Others who more obviously owe a debt to Hendrix — including Prince and Lenny Kravitz — submit breathy contributions, the former a brightly rendered "Red House" (cheekily retitled "Purple House") and the latter a remarkably feminine-sounding "Have You Ever Been (to Electric Ladyland)."

Like Kravitz's, Sting's voice hits the highs but not the lows when he mimics Hendrix's inflections on "The Wind Cries Mary." On the other hand, Chaka Khan successfully renders a slow "Little Wing," afloat with passion. Cee-Lo offers a raspy, almost a cappella reading of "Foxy Lady," while Earth, Wind & Fire and Sounds of Blackness submit group vocals, transforming Hendrix classics into stirring tribal chants.

For earthy character, it's tough to top Eric Clapton's smoky rendition of "Burning of the Midnight Lamp." Bluesman John Lee Hooker not only sings like Hendrix on "Red House," but literally sounds like an older Hendrix, giving us a haunting glimpse of what might have been had the late legend survived beyond his mere 27 years. — Gregory Nicoll