I think I've listened to my CD copy of Appetite for Destruction so many times that its grooves are wearing out; still, I've never once given thought to buying a copy of Slash's Snakepit. And, no matter how many times I listen to a Frank Zappa album and sit in amazement at the stunt guitar work of one Stevie Vai, it's never seemed the least bit important to listen to anything Vai recorded once he went solo. Furthermore, I've been victimized multiple times in my life by such lackluster albums as Ric Ocasek's Troublizing, Walter Becker's 11 Tracks of Whack, John Popper's Zygote, and just about everything Paul McCartney's released since 1970. With the rare and notable exceptions of the world's Neil Youngs and (to a far lesser extent) Robbie Robertsons, few individuals can themselves capture the magic they helped create with seminal bands like the Cars, Steely Dan, Blues Traveler, the Beatles, Buffalo Springfield, or the Band.
So why did I bother to pick up Zig Zag, the sixth solo album by David Bowie's long-yet-sometimes sideman Earl Slick? After repeated listens, I still can't say for sure. There's something to be said about a good-hearted curiosity that appreciated the great work Slick offered on the classic Young Americans and Station to Station albums, along with the ridiculous playing Slick demonstrated throughout the Thin White Duke touring years, captured so wonderfully on David Live. But that interest should have been tempered by the fact that it's been Slick -- and notably not far superior Bowie axmen Reeves Gabrels, Adrian Belew, Robert Fripp, or even Carlos Alomar -- who has been called in to play on the lackluster and vapid recent Bowie releases Heathen and Reality.
Speaking of Bowie, lackluster, and reality, they all set in too quickly on Zig Zag's third track, "Isn't It Evening" (ridiculously sub-titled "The Revolutionary"). Calling to mind the banal R&B stylings of Bowie's vapid Hours, the song crawls through a five minutes so tepid that even the featured guest's soaring tenor fails to elicit any excitement. The problems that plague this song in fact define the album entire: Slick just isn't a very good songwriter. It seems as if his true gift with six strings is to add to the context that others create; watching him try to build that same sonic soundscape all by his lonesome is just a little too much for him. (You could have figured this out all by yourself if you noticed that four of the albums ten tracks are instrumentals.) And it's not just that Slick's written mediocre material; the middling nature of the tunes seems to prevent him from reaching any worthwhile heights on the guitar as well.
Where Slick does deserve credit, however, is in his selection of artists to add their voices to his project. Aside from Bowie, the Cure's Robert Smith, Spacehog's Royston Langdon, the Motels' Martha Davis, and Def Leppard's Joe Elliot have all been harangued into joining the crazy sideways projections that are Zig Zag. And while it might be interesting to think of what would happen if all these folks met at a dinner party, I assure you that the conversation over fine food in the Slick family home would be far more interesting than this record. For, going in, we all knew that Earl has many good friends who are famous; what I unfortunately had to listen to 50 minutes of music to discover is that his little constellation of stars shares his inability to transcend music that really doesn't rise at all.