Thursday, December 3, 2020

Review: 'Charles Brown's Cool Christmas Blues' on Vinyl

With The Blazers, Charles Brown created a smooth blues sound he put to fine use on his 1947 hit "Merry Christmas Baby". After Brown went solo in 1948, that hit solidified into standard and he became pretty associated with the holiday season. He penned another seasonal standard called "Please Come Home for Christmas" in 1960 that would be covered by everyone from The Eagles to Bon Jovi to Kelly Clarkson. Ummm, guess whose version is the best.

In 1994, Brown revisited those two classics and nine other numbers for Charles Brown's Cool Christmas Blues. If anything, the album is a bit too cool. Its slow, serene sound gets a little samey. But though his re-recordings do not have the vintage atmosphere of the originals, I like the way his voice has aged. Charles Brown at 72 wasn't quite as smooth as he was at 25, but his voice acquired a lot more character. His band stretches out for some pleasant, light jazz improv. Normally I'd rather hear that version of "Jingle Bells" by the barking dogs than any version of "Silent Night", but Brown infuses the corny hymn with fresh soul by playing with its sing-songy melody in his inimitable style.

Originally released on compact disc, Charles Brown's Cool Christmas Blues is now making its vinyl debut. It's amazing to think that such an organic sounding recording was made during the digital age. It sounds terrific on this release and will surely put you deep into a seasonal groove. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Review: 'Can’t Slow Down: How 1984 Became Pop’s Blockbuster Year'

Judged solely on the quality of its music, 1984 wasn’t necessarily the best year of the eighties. It did have an unusually high number of blockbuster releases. While 1982 could claim Thriller, and 1983 had Synchronicity, An Innocent Man, and Pyromania, 1984 was the year of such single-spewing juggernauts as the Footloose soundtrack, Born in the U.S.A., Eliminator, Sports, Can’t Slow Down, Like a Virgin, Private DancerShe’s So Unusual, Purple Rain, and yes, 1984. So you can’t fault Michaelangelo Matos for making the year the subject of his new book Can’t Slow Down: How 1984 Became Pop’s Blockbuster Year. 

That attitude is appropriate since Matos is upfront in his introduction about the fact that 1984 was both a year of commercial breakthroughs and an artistic demarcation line at the dead center of the decade. As the author notes , the second half of the eighties kind of sucked. If 1984 didn’t produce as much great pop as ’82 or ’83, it certainly had more than ’85 or ’86. Certainly the work Prince, Cyndi Lauper, R.E.M., The Replacements, and X produced that year was among the decades best.


And despite his book’s title, Matos does not limit himself to pop. Like Andrew Grant Jackson’s excellent books on 1965 and 1973, Can’t Slow Down is ostensibly formatted chronologically with each chapter titled for a specific date, but those chapters focus much more on a specific genre than any precise period in the year. While pop is front and center throughout the narrative, the author also covers hair metal, punk, hip-hop, jazz, corporate rock, classic rock, MOR, country, college rock, reggae, new wave, and dance music in satisfying depth. In a few instances, the books biggest artistsPrince, Madonna, Springsteencommandeer whole chapters for themselves.


Along the way, Matos draws lines from the music to the deepening AIDS crisis, Ethiopia’s hunger crisis, Reagan’s “Star Wars” nightmare and Thatcher’s insidious influence in the UK, Satanic Panic, Apartheid, the WWF, Miami Vice, and other current events that help paint a vivid picture of a year both tumultuous and antiseptic. The latter can never be said about Matos’s consistently entertaining and enlightening book.  

Friday, November 27, 2020

Review: 'The Art of Star Wars: The Mandalorian'

We fans have a notoriously tough time rallying around any live action Star Wars product that isn’t the original trilogy. Who can blame us? The prequel trilogy was a turgid gasbag. The sequel trilogy got off to a lively and well received start with The Force Awakens, but it began to divide fans as it became clear that the filmmakers were just winging it, and the whole thing ended on a fatuous note with The Rise of Skywalker. Rogue One was a good yarn but too dour to truly love. Solo was dumb. 

When it debuted on Disney+ last year, The Mandalorian proved to be a completely refreshing change of pace. Creator Jon Favreau pleased fans old and new with a series that embraced the humor, uncomplicated adventure, and weird background characters in rubber masks that made the original trilogy an organic phenomenon in the seventies and eighties. Unlike the prequels and the two final installments of the sequels, The Mandalorian also won hearts because it looks like Star Wars. The ship, environment, and creature designs are all spot on, picking up on the muted color palette and simple geometric shapes that defined the old movies. Favreau fully realizes this and spotlights the show’s production paintings during the closing credits of every episode.


Such art is further spotlighted in Phil Szostak’s gorgeous new book The Art of Star Wars: The Mandalorian. I figured the book might just be a compilation of all those beautiful, Ralph McQuarrie-indebted paintings that roll under the credits, but it’s a lot more than that. The Art of Star Wars: The Mandalorian bursts with storyboard excerpts and scrapped costume, creature, ship, and even scene designs that are just as lushly realized as the art depicting the approved ones. Mando duels with an enemy while astride some sort of snow dinosaur. An early costume design owes a conscious debt to Jon Snow’s fur coat on Game of Thrones. Mando presents Baby Yoda to his helmeted brethren.


The text is also more than worthwhile as Szostak explains the series’ background as a tribute to both the enticingly underused Boba Fett and a manga called Lone Wolf & Cub. He and artists such as Doug Chiang and Brian Matyas also get into the first season’s production and design. We learn which classic creature Greef Karga was originally supposed to be, how The Dark Crystal and Looney Tunes influenced Baby Yoda, how Ray Harryhausen influenced that ice creature in episode one, and why the trandoshans’ eyes are so inappropriately human-like in episode two. A terrific read and an absolute treat to gawk at, The Art of Star Wars: The Mandalorian is a fitting companion to the best thing to zoom down the Star Wars pike since The Empire Strikes Back.

Monday, November 23, 2020

'Star Wars Holiday Special' Documentary in the Works

42 years ago, Star Wars fans eager for more product during the interminable wait between the first movie and The Empire Strikes Back tuned in to CBS on November 17 to watch The Star Wars Holiday Special. It was a moment that would live in infamy for all who failed to get the charms of watching wookiees bark at each other and sweat over space porn for a light year. 

While revisiting that show via unofficial channels reaps very few rewards, the special is still one of the weirdest offshoots of the Star Wars phenomenon, so a deep dive into its mysteries could be quite interesting. That must be what documentary filmmakers Jeremy Coon and Steve Kozak (Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made) are hoping, because they are currently at work on A Disturbance in the Force: How the Star Wars Holiday Special Happened

Although the doc is not scheduled to be released until the original special's 43rd anniversary, a trailer is now making the rounds.

Happy Life Day!

Review: 'Bugs Bunny 80th Anniversary Collection'

 (Warner Bros. Home Entertainment provided me with a free copy of the Blu-ray I reviewed in this Blog post. The opinions I share are my own.)

The Flintstones and Tom and Jerry are fine for a dose of nostalgia, but there’s a reason that Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies are timeless: they are still really, really funny. No other cartoons of their era packed such a wallop of anarchy, imagination, and wild one liners. 

The most memorable lines spewed from the buck-toothed grin of Bugs Bunny. Bugs could be sarcastic, salacious, or just plain screwy, but he was always hilarious. There was tremendous variety in the situations and the ways Tex Avery, Robert McKimson, Friz Freling, Bob Clampett, or Chuck Jones depicted him, but the wabbit was invariably puncturing pomposity and annihilating authority. I started showing Bugs Bunny cartoons to my son when he was still in diapers to help him develop a healthy spirit of rebellion and an unhealthy sense of humor. His hankering for carrots was an unintended side effect.


It’s amazing that a character whose been bouncing off the walls for 80 years can still delight new audiences. A new collection of 60 classic Bugs Bunny cartoons proves this. It’s also amazing that after six volumes of the 4-disc Golden Collection DVD sets, three volumes of the 2-disc Platinum Collection Blu-ray sets, and a bunch of other stand-alone “Best of” collections, there are still so many shorts that had yet to make it to disc. Of the 60 toons on the triple-disc Bugs Bunny 80th Anniversary Collection, half have never been released on DVD, and all but a dozen are making their Blu-ray debut. This includes such essentials as “Jack Wabbit and the Beanstalk”, “Hare Lift”, “Racketeer Rabbit”, “Hare Brush”, “Now Hare This”, and “Yankee Doodle Bugs”. There are a few weak choices. “What’s Cookin’, Doc?”, “His Hare-Raising Tale”, “Hare-Abian Nights”, and “This Is a Life?” (the one rough-looking toon in the set) are basically clip shows. The set could have used more Daffy Duck and less Yosemite Sam. But the selections still give a solid overview of Bugs’ eclectic history, and there’s a good balance between familiar favorites and forgotten classics.


Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Review: 'The Jimi Hendrix Experience-Live in Maui'

On August 1, 1970, Jimi Hendrix played a spur-of-the-moment free concert on a slapped together stage on a cattle ranch in Maui so filmmaker Chuck Wein could shoot some live footage to insert into an awful sounding Easy Rider rip-off called Rainbow Bridge. This was just four weeks before Hendrix’s infamously disappointing performance as the headliner of the Isle of Wight Festival— just seven weeks before his death. Under such circumstances, it’s natural to expect little of Hendrix’s Maui gig. Yet, recordings prove it was a spectacular testament to how in charge of his powers he still was so close to the end of his life.

After performing a couple of jammy, fairly nondescript songs he intended to include on the uncompleted First Rays of the New Rising Sun, Hendrix—with Billy Cox on bass and Mitch Mitchell from the Experience on drums—settles into a stunning run of material played with all due beauty and fury. Hear a stormy “Foxey Lady” melt into a gorgeously fluid, string finessing “Hear My Train A-Comin’” that builds to a scorched earth climax. Hear an explosive “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” on which Hendrix draws out the song’s depth by singing as though he’s crooning at the bottom of a cavern. Hear vicious versions of “Fire” and “Ezy Ryder” and a very funky “Message to Love”.

Despite the ramshackle set up, the recording is pretty solid. Hendrix’s guitar and Cox’s bass are sufficiently clear and deep, though Mitchell’s drums sound a bit like a rack of tin cans. While not every unreleased live recording from even an artist of Hendrix’s stature deserves release, the Maui gig certainly does, and The Jimi Hendrix Experience-Live in Maui is now appearing available from Sony Legacy as a triple vinyl set and a double CD set with a Blu-ray that includes all existing footage of the gig as well as the documentary Music, Money, Madness … Jimi Hendrix and Maui. It’s an attractive package, but it’s what may be the last recorded evidence of Hendrix’s on-stage brilliance that makes The Jimi Hendrix Experience-Live in Maui essential.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Review: 'Drawn to the Dark: Explorations in Scare Tourism Around the World'

In 2013, Chris Kullstroem was fresh out of graduate school and primed to pursue her next project: she would travel the world and experience its various horrific traditions and attractions first hand. She’d hang out in an Oaxaca cemetery on Dia de los Muertos. She’d get whipped by part-time sadists in Krampus masks in Salzburg. She’d visit Kyoto during Japan’s demon-centric celebration, Setsubun. She’d check out the Transylvanian castle that inspired Dracula’s digs and do Walpurgisnacht in Berlin.


The irony of this project is that monsters tend to end up ostracized, but Kullstroem used them as a throughway for appreciating cultures other than her own and meeting new people. For a book focused on fiends, death, and violence, Drawn to the Dark: Explorations in Scare Tourism Around the World is tremendously humane. The author often has the very American reaction of finding unfamiliar traditions weird at first but she inevitably ends up loving them and the locals who serve as her often amiable, sometimes caustic, always willing tour guides through the sundry parades, festivals, landmarks, and haunted houses they visit.


Although Drawn to the Dark does have lessons to impart, it is not fueled by the kind of pretentious deep thoughts that make most memoirs insufferable. Kullstroem’s approach is personal and welcoming, but she is much more interested in the spooky, creepy marvels she encounters than she is in herself. Her writing can be a bit stiff and purple, but so are zombies, so I guess it’s perfectly appropriate.

All written content of is the property of Mike Segretto and may not be reprinted or reposted without permission.