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William Shatner

Seeking Major Tom

Review by Gary Hill

What an interesting ride I’ve had leading into this album. First, I heard about the concept of Shatner working with a lot of great rock musicians to do an album of space related covers. With Steve Howe on the bill among others, and considering how much I enjoyed Shatner’s previous disc (Has Been), I was really looking forward to this one. Then I heard “Iron Man” and thought it was really weak. (It has grown on me since.) So, I was concerned. Hearing “Bohemian Rhapsody,” I found it better, but a bit over the top.

Then I got the whole disc. On the first time through it was appropriate that those two tracks were among the weakest of the bunch. I have no idea why they chose to let them out first as singles (or at least promotional items). They really aren’t likely to sell people on the album. The truth is, this is a brilliant collection that uses the concept album mainstay of repeating themes and connecting songs together to create a disc that’s a real work of art. I’ve included it in the progressive rock section because a good chunk of the music qualifies and that over-arching concept really makes this more progressive rock than anything else. Most of this album is very good. Some of it is incredible. Only a couple points are weak. The whole, though, is far greater than the sum of the parts. It’s certainly not for everyone but, like Has Been, will probably make my list of top discs for the year (or at worst will barely miss that list).

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2011  Volume 6 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Disc 1
Major Tom (Coming Home)

This starts with ground control chatter and eventually the sound of a rocket launching. The chatter continues as the electronic music rises. Shatner’s spoken recitation of the lyrics work quite well as this number builds. The soaring chorus section is quite effective. Nick Valensi of The Strokes joins Shatner on this piece. It is a killer tune that is definitely quite different from the Peter Schilling version, but not inferior. In some ways, one could think of this track as the inspiration for this album because it was, essentially, the first expansion of the Major Tom concept begun by David Bowie years earlier.

Space Oddity
Ritchie Blackmore and Candice Night guest on this number. Acoustic guitar opens it and other layers are gradually added. Shatner does a great job handling the vocals here. In a lot of ways, Bowie’s artistic sensibility is built for a theatrical reading, so this is quite logical. Musically, this is quite powerful. It works in a very acoustic, stripped down approach early and moves out to more lushly arranged progressive rock as it continues. Blackmore’s guitar soloing is tasteful and tasty. I have to say that this is another point where this rendition is quite different from the original, but arguably on an equal level in terms of effectiveness and charm. The sounds of space take over at the end of this.
In A Little While
This one was originally performed by U2. I don’t think I’ve ever heard their version. This is an intriguing blend of electronic styled music. Lyle Lovett lends some non-lyrical vocals to the proceedings. It’s a lushly arranged and quite pretty track, but kind of pales in comparison to the two that preceded it. When Lovett sings a verse it feels more like U2. There’s a reprise of “Space Oddity” at the end of the tune.
Space Cowboy
Both the original space cowboy, Steve Miller, and Brad Paisley guest on this tune. It’s a cover of Miller’s own song. It starts with more ground control chatter and then powers out into a smoking hot rocking rendition of the main riff. Shatner’s spoken vocals feel a lot like beat poetry here. Miller throws in a guitar solo that far and away eclipses the one on his original recording. Brad Paisley’s sung chorus is a nice touch. Another bit of “Space Oddity” is added at the end.
Space Truckin'
I think this Deep Purple cover might well be my favorite track on the set. Certainly it’s a contender. Ian Paice reprises his role as drummer on the piece while Johnny Winter handles the guitar soloing. Shatner’s vocals have a definite beat poetry texture to them. Sure it’s a little over the top in a way, but it gets cooler and cooler the more you listen to it. And, once more there’s another bit of “Space Oddity” to pull this back into the main theme.
Rocket Man
Maybe this was the original impetus for this disc. Shatner did a version of this song years ago on television. Steve Hillage joins him here and this is a pretty rendition that brings it more fully back into the progressive rock zone.
She Blinded Me With Science
Just the concept of Bootsy Collins and one-time Yes keyboardist Patrick Moraz on the same song makes this worth listening to. The thing is, if there’s a competitor to “Space Truckin’” for the best song of the set, this is the one. It captures the geekyness of the original Thomas Dolby number while bringing some serious funk and fun into the mix. It’s a great tune that’s a lot of fun. I think I like this better than the original. Collins provides a cool little rap mid-track, too. This time there’s a short reprise of “Rocket Man” that serves to link it back to another reprise of “Space Oddity” that takes it to the next number. 
Walking On The Moon
Since the Police were heavily influence by reggae in the beginning of their career, it’s appropriate that reggae musician Toots Hibbert joins Shatner on this number. Some space chatter brings this in and then the familiar music comes into being. It’s a cool version with both sung vocals from Hibbert and spoken from Shatner.
Spirit In The Sky
Peter Frampton plays the guitar on this. It’s another cool rendition, and while Shatner’s vocals are spoken, this really captures the feeling and “spirit” of the original rendition. This time we get a reprise of the opening number pulling the set together.
Bohemian Rhapsody
John Wetton plays a part in this cover of Queen. Shatner’s spoken vocals get a little over the top in terms of his theatrical evocations. Still, the musical arrangement is an interesting way to take the piece, preserving a lot of the original music while taking it in a new direction for freshness. With a real rock icon piece like this, it’s tough to please anyone.
Silver Machine
Considering Carmine Appice’s varied career and the never ending sea of personnel changes Hawkind has had, it seems shocking he’s never been in that band. I mean, even Ginger Baker took a turn. Still, here he brings his talents to their biggest hit (one could say their only hit). Wayne Kramer, who was a cofounder of the MC5 is also along for the ride. I’m a huge Hawkwind fan, although this has never been one of my favorite songs from them. I really like this rendition. It almost sounds like something that band would have done. After all, they definitely have been involved in theatrics over the years. There’s another reprise here with a cool space rock jam and more spoken vocals.
Mrs. Major Tom
Originally released by K.I.A. I’ve never heard of this song before or the musical artist. It continues the story of Major Tom but from the perspective of the wife left at home. Sheryl Crow provides sung vocals on this track, and it’s more a Sheryl Crow song than it is a William Shatner song. Still, it’s an effective and pretty number and does continue the themes of the album.
Disc 2
Empty Glass
A song from The Tea Party, this one features the guitar talents of Michael Schenker, bringing it into seriously hard rocking territory.
Lost In The Stars
With saxophone provided by Ernie Watts, Shatner covers Sinatra in a cool jazzy arrangement. This is a nice touch. There’s another reprise part, electronically delivered, here.
Learning To Fly
Edgar Froese of Tangerine Dream fame is featured on this cover of the Pink Floyd piece. The pounding hard rock of this works quite well. Shatner’s spoken performance works extremely well on this one. Another reprise links things together.
Mr. Spaceman
A song originally performed by The Byrds, Dave Davies is featured here. They create a bouncy and fun little country inspired jam on this.
Twilight Zone
This time around Shatner turns his attention to the Golden Earring tune with help from Warren Haynes. A heartbeat and other sound effects open it. This works really well.
Struggle
This is the sole Shatner penned tune on the disc, and the only one that was never recorded before by anyone. He’s joined by Adam Hamilton (Brides of Destruction) on this number.
Iron Man
Shatner tackles the Sabbath classic with the help of Ozzy and Black Label Society guitarist Zakk Wylde along with Mike Inez of Alice in Chains. Musically it works, OK, although I’m not crazy about the raw, overtly metal approach to the music, taking a lot of the inherent charm away in favor of crunch. When I first heard this, Shatner’s vocal delivery really threw me off. After time, though, it worked much better. 
Planet Earth
The Duran Duran song gets the Shatner treatment with Yes’ Steve Howe helping out. It’s got a real electronic texture to it. In a lot of ways that works well, but there’s a rather annoying little stuttering effect at times. Overall this is a cool track, though, and a nice way to bring things back to Earth. Yes, that was an intentional pun. The final reprise links back to the opening number, and comes off of the “Earth below us” concept. There are some cool emotional bits added before sounds of a rocket engine or something burning up on re-entry.
 
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