Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Review: 'Millions Like Us: The Story of the Mod Revival 1977-1989'

Paul Weller’s discovery of My Generation was a decisive event for a lot of late-seventies British kids. It was what sparked his obsession with long-dead Mod culture and inspired him to bring its style and sounds back from the dead with his own band, The Jam. That great group that fused the mid-sixties sounds of The Who and Small Faces with the contemporary speed and aggression of punk inspired a whole lot of other kids to kick their own bands into gear. By 1979, the U.K. scene was flooded with bands that fobbed off punk’s tattered fashions and nihilistic attitude for sharp clobber and messages of youthful unity.

A modern Mod movement was at hand and it never would really die again, though its most fruitful years were 1979 and 1980. Cherry Red’s new four-disc box set Millions Like Us: The Story of the Mod Revival 1977-1989 culls half its tracks from those two Mod, Mod, Mod, Mod years, when bands across England sang of joining together with their fellow alright kids on Bank Holiday, slashed out Townshend-esque chords, and slammed out Moony drum fills at purple hearts-fueled speeds. Pulling the best elements of punk and power-pop together, bands like The Chords, New Hearts, The Reaction, The Circles, The Lambrettas, and Dead Beats made some of the most adrenaline-pumping records of their generation. They make Millions Like Us an exhilarating listen, especially for a Yank such as myself since very few of these groups had any impact at all on my side of the pond (really, I was only already familiar with The Nips, The Aardvarks, Nine Below Zero, and Red Beans and Rice). So this set is a truly spectacular entry into a must-visit world for fans of The Who, Small Faces, Elvis Costello, and The Jam (who are not represented aside from the slew of groups that sound exactly like them).

Millions Like Us only loses a bit of steam for a stretch in 1985 when groups started making the kind of glossy, very-eighties plastic soul that would be on display in Julien Temple’s adaptation of Absolute Beginners the following year. But we’re talking about a tiny patch of five tracks out of 100, right in between The Combine’s “Dreams Come True” and 5:30!’s “Catcher in the Rye”. Those two numbers are as raw and vital as the mass of Millions Like Us, one of the best various artists box sets I’ve ever heard.

Get Millions Like Us: The Story of the Mod Revival 1977-1989 on here:

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Review: The Twilight Time Edition of 'When the Wind Blows'

The current generation may associate nuclear fear with the fifties and early sixties, but it was something we very much continued to live with in the eighties. I remember drills in which I was led out of class to squat down in the hallway with my knees against my chest, because somehow, this would protect a bunch of elementary school kids from a nuclear blast.

This seems like an idiotic thing to do. It was. But governments have always tried to soften the realities of the idiocy of nuclear warfare. In Jimmy Murakami’s 1986 animated adaptation of Raymond Briggs’s graphic novel, When the Wind Blows, a conservative, middle-aged, British couple refer to a government-issued pamphlet to prepare for imminent nuclear annihilation. Discussing their doom as if nothing more than a big snowstorm is on the way, Jim and Hilda paint their windows to insulate themselves from radiation, take inventory of canned goods, do the laundry, hide behind wooden doors and inside paper bags. It’s subtly played for laughs, but is it any more ridiculous than cowering from fallout in a school hallway?

Ridiculously, the couple’s efforts help them survive the blast. They’re not out of the woods yet, and the aftermath of the detonation sees When the Wind Blows gradually turn from droll satire to disturbing and depressing.

Murakami animated the most pungent nuclear-age satire since Dr. Strangelove in appropriately bizarre fashion. He combines childlike drawings (Jim and Hilda look like refugees from Nickelodeon’s “Doug”), sculpted live action backdrops, and stop-motion elements in the same frame. I have never seen another film that looks like When the Wind Blows. Murakami also employs flairs of other styles, such as the violently sketched sepia animations that accompany the bomb’s impact, snatches of actual WWII news footage, and the fantastical pastel passages that imagine a happier outcome for James and Hilda in fairyland. Voicing our cast of two, John Mills and Peggy Aschcroft employ a totally unaffected delivery that lends arresting realism to all of the grim strangeness.

Twilight Time’s new blu-ray edition of When the Wind Blows looks terrific and comes with a nice selection of extras. The jewel of these is the feature-length Arts Council documentary Jimmy Murakami: Non-Alien from 2010. Murakami’s experience in a Californian concentration camp during WWII haunt this intimate portrait of and narrated by the artist. His focus on the horrid disruptions of war and the ways family helps one endure relates to the feature presentation directly. An excellent 24-minute doc specifically about that feature, The Wind and the Bomb, tracks When the Wind Blows from page to screen featuring interviews with Murakami, Briggs, and the animators. Their responses to “What would you do in the event of an actual nuclear attack?” is disarming and disturbing. The unrestored footage of the film in this documentary really made me appreciate how good Twilight Time’s blu-ray looks. There’s also a 13-minute interview with the eccentric Briggs. He based Jim and Hilda on his parents, and this interview reveals how deep his fixation on them goes. The isolated music track showcases David Bowie’s memorable theme song and Roger Waters’s soundtrack, which is as schizo as Murakami’s animation: doomy and synthesized during the horrifying scenes of approaching planes and imploding buildings; beautiful and acoustic during the fanciful interludes. A feature commentary from editor Joe Fordham and film historian Nick Redman round out an impressive lot of supplements to an extraordinary film.

Get the Twilight Time edition of When the Wind Blows at Screen here.

Review: 'Haunted Horror: Comics Your Mother Warned You About'

Craig Yoe’s Haunted Horror gathers choice stories from less-remembered fifties horror comics like Voodoo, Worlds of Fear, and Adventures into Darkness. IDW’s hardcover anthology of the series’ first three issues, Haunted Horror: Banned Comics from the 1950s, made a pretty strong case for these comics with their weird stories and weirder artwork. The next few issues gathered in a new volume called Haunted Horror: Comics Your Mother Warned You About isn’t quite as out-there, with stories leaning more heavily on clichés and oddly enough, sports, a topic that doesn’t mix well with horror’s dank atmosphere, and the misogyny of the bowling tale “Night Owl” is more repugnant than its predictable conclusion.

There’s still a good deal to enjoy in this latest volume, particularly in the run of stories that follow those blah sports ones. “Valley of Horror” gets things back on track with a motorist suffering from mistaken identity issues, Jack Cole’s classically morbid artwork, and a welcome dose of humor and imagination. “Dragon Egg” is like a collaboration between Ray Harryhausan and the Crypt Keeper. “Ghoul’s Bride”, with its Lon Chaney-inspired creature, and the vampiric “The Night of Friday the 13th” sport the book’s most striking art. “The Thing from Beyond” has its grossest. “The Improved Kiss” is a truly gruesome mingling of historical and supernatural horrors. The first half of the book has a couple of good pieces too in “Goodbye… World!”, a cuckoo tale of locust-sympathizing space harpies, and “The Devil Puppet”, which features what may be the most evil evil puppet in a long history of evil puppet stories.

Though these non-mother-approved tales are a milder bunch than last year’s banned ones, there’s still plenty to drool over, and as always, IDW packages these tasteless tales in lovingly tasteful fashion.

Get Haunted Horror: Comics Your Mother Warned You About on here:

Monday, November 17, 2014

Review: The Twilight Time Edition of 'Flaming Star'

The things we expect from an Elvis movie—mindless joviality, pretty actresses, mediocre songs—arrive early in Flaming Star. Then just ten minutes in, shocking acts of violence transform it from an Elvis movie into a movie starring Elvis Presley. The title does not refer to a celebrity pop singer; it refers to the flaming star of death, and this western is nothing if not elegiac and serious as a stopped heart.

A hint that this might not be your typical romp with the King of Rock & Roll is dropped in the opening credits when the words “Directed by Don Siegel” flash on the screen. Siegel is renowned for dead-dark stuff like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Killers, and Dirty Harry. He doesn’t let any light shine in no matter who’s starring in his movie, and though Elvis is really part of an ensemble cast in Flaming Star, there’s no question who its star is. As the half-Native American son of a multiracial frontier family, Elvis is clearly the stand out player. He took his work on the film so seriously that he insisted the other unnecessary musical numbers Siegel shot be cut from it.

Elvis is Pacer. He and his family are caught in the middle of a war between white invaders and the Kiowa tribe. Depicted as craven, hot-blooded racists and rapists, the whites want Elvis’s all-white half-brother Clint (Steve Forrest) to fight alongside them. Led by Chief Buffalo Horn (Mexican actor Rodolfo Acosta) and driven by honor and the understanding that the whites intend to wipe them off their own land, the Kiowa believe Pacer should stand with them. The brothers vow loyalty to their family alone until another act of violence impels Pacer to take a side. 

Not only is Flaming Star unusually serious, violent, and light on music for a movie with Elvis Presley, it is uncommonly thoughtful too. The filmmakers clearly side with the Kiowa (and rightfully so) yet they are completely honest about the violence and tragic mistakes either side of any war perpetrates. That honesty extends to the way Siegel shot his film. He curbs the stylized strokes he brought to Body Snatchers and The Killers for a more straight-forward, more realistic approach in Flaming Star. Siegel works with pale daylight exteriors, dim blue nighttime ones, and shadowy interiors, making Flaming Star a sort of color noir without the weird angles.

Twilight Time’s new blu-ray of Flaming Star respects its muted aesthetic with fine clarity, depth, and grain. Film Historians Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman provide an audio commentary in which they discuss Elvis’s movies without pulling punches and relate how the relative commercial failure of Flaming Star ultimately did them a disservice. Interesting to my fellow horror fans is an extended discussion of how Barbara Steele was originally cast for a minor role that ended up going to Barbara Eden (who is quite good). The disc also includes original trailers and an isolated score track.

Get the Twilight Time edition of Flaming Star at Screen here.

Review: The Pixies' 'Doolittle 25'

Like Please Please Me, The Velvet Underground & Nico, and Nevermind (which wouldn’t exist without it), Doolittle is an album that launched a thousand bands. It still sounds as disturbing, catchy, crazy, and uniformly perfect as it did 25 years ago—much less a product of its time than those other albums in its influential league. There is nothing indicative of the antiseptic sounds of ’89 in Gil Norton’s raw, organic production, though its original CD release was still in need of a sonic upgrade. Doolittle apparently got that when it and the rest of The Pixies’ catalogue was remastered in 2003. I don’t have that version, so I can’t confirm whether or not 4AD’s new triple-disc deluxe edition is an all-new master or a recycle of the 2003 one (and since nothing in the press material indicates a remaster, I think it might be safe to assume the latter). However, this is still a pretty must-own repurchase of an album that should have already been in your collection for twenty-something years.

Like all really necessary deluxe-edition excesses, Doolittle 25 offers ways to hear some familiar music in fresh and enlightening ways. While the original album occupies disc one, its demos on disc three strip away Norton’s barely-there sheen for an even rawer, even wilder Doolittle; not necessary a better version of an LP I already called perfect (and it can’t be said enough: Doolittle is perfect. It’s perfect), but a good idea of how it would sound on stage. Genuine live recordings can be heard on disc two in the form of a snatch of John Peel sessions that reinterpret some of the material faster, nastier. That second disc also includes all related B-sides, (many also in Peel performances) which are the best original B-sides of The Pixies’ career: “Manta Ray”, “Weird at My School”, “Wave of Mutilation UK Surf”, “Into the White”, and “Dancing the Manta Ray” (though I should note that “Bailey’s Walk” is probably their worst B-side). That these tracks are significantly meatier here than they were on 2001’s anemic sounding Complete B-sides CD leaves no wonder that at least they were remastered for Doolittle 25.

Get Doolittle 25 on here:

Friday, November 14, 2014

Psychobabble’s Ten Greatest Albums of 1994

In 1992, the renewed interest in hairspray-free guitar-based bands that began with Nevermind opened wide. The term “Alternative” went into wide use to encompass not just the Seattle grunge scene, but indie bands from throughout the country. Major labels went into a short-lived frenzy to sign any group with shaggy hair and six strings in a way it hadn’t since The British Invasion. By 1993, groups that had previously recorded on shitty four-tack cassette machines were gaining access to relatively plush studios and making bigger, and often better, albums (though as we’ll see, some decided to keep the fi lo…very lo). If anything, ’94 was an even better year than ’93 as original Alternative acts continued to develop their voices in bold ways, great brand new groups entered the fold, and Alternative grandparents did some of their best work in years. Really, this was the peak year for nineties rock, and possibly the finest year for Rock & Roll since the sixties. While my selection for best album of 1993 was a clear-cut, no-question deal, the subsequent year was much harder to narrow down. Any CD in the upper half of this list really could be the greatest album of 1994.

10. Hips and Makers by Kristin Hersh

After spending the eighties as one of college rock’s best and most criminally underrated bands, Throwing Muses threw themselves into the nineties on the verge of serious upheavals. First to go was Leslie Langston, the band’s original bass player and one of the finest and most original musicians to ever pluck and thwack the four strings. Fred Abong filled that role for 1991’s The Real Ramona, and the Muses ended up with what may be their best record. Tanya Donelly’s maturing songwriting played a big role in that and it hit a peak with the pop-perfect “Not Too Soon”. No longer content to play George to her big sister Kristin’s John and Paul, Tanya absconded with Abong and formed Belly. And so, Throwing Muses were now two, and 1992’s Red Heaven found Kristin Hersh and drummer Dave Narcizo working a bit too hard to overwhelm with some underwhelming material. No doubt  Hersh needed to refresh her creativity. She did so by expanding the gloomy acoustic flavors of “Pearl”, the most mesmerizing track on Red Heaven, into a whole record. The brilliance of Hersh’s first solo album is that she sacrificed none of her innate electricity when working solely with acoustics. Take “A Loon”, a performance as terrifying as any you’ll hear on those terrifying early Muses albums. Her whoops are strokes of pure madness and pure inspiration. But then listen as the track soothes itself into a temple-massaging lullaby. Kristen Hersh is utilizing all the possibilities of her main instruments: voice and guitar (sometimes switching to piano, often receiving textural support from John Scarpantoni’s cello). The rest of Hips and Makers presents similarly variety, even as the mood always indicates storm clouds are hovering overhead. Hersh cries a haunted duet with Michael Stipe in “Your Ghost”, gets plaintive at the piano on “Beestung”, rages through “Teeth”, exhilarates on “Sundrops”, turns breathlessly desperate on “The Letter” or rollicking on the title track. Hips and Makers gave the impression that Hersh might not need a band at all, but it actually provided a more positive function by inspiring her to reinvigorate the Muses to make a couple of superb new albums. Fortunately, she didn’t give up on her solo career either, which continues to surprise and thrill.    

9. American Thighs by Veruca Salt

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Review: 'The Who Hits 50!'

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only long-time Who fan who was initially perplexed, eventually exasperated, that the most over-compiled band in Rock & Roll was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary with yet another compilation. I was exasperated because The Who’s discography in the U.K. and U.S. is in such a bad state. John Astley and Andy Macpherson’s radical remixes were an interesting experiment in the nineties, but they’ve been the only versions of The Who’s albums in the West for way, way too long. In 2011, Astley remastered those albums, leaving the original mixes intact, for Universal Japan. Finally, The Who’s back catalogue was in shipshape with excellent sound, cool bonus tracks, and respect to the albums we old-timers grew up hearing. A domestic release of these expensive Japanese imports was what I wanted for the fiftieth anniversary, not another greatest hits.

Then my exasperation turned to curiosity when I found out what was on The Who Hits 50! Sure “Be Lucky”, Townshend and Daltrey’s first studio collaboration in eight years, intrigued me (it’s really good, by the way, though I could have done without the brief use of auto-tune, which is the most nauseating pop trend of the past ten years). However, I was more interested in the first domestic remasters of “The Last Time”, “Relay”, and “Dogs” in twenty years. I was curious to hear which mixes were going to be used: the original ones or the nineties ones. And when I found out that Hits 50! was to include the long mix of “Magic Bus” never issued on CD in the states, I decided to get over my exasperation and give The Who Hits 50! a listen.

Let’s get the big questions out of the way first: these are almost all original mixes. “Postcard” has John’s bass line you heard on Odds & Sods in 1974. “Trick of the Light” does not have an over-extended fade. The vocals are misaligned on the first chorus of “Eminence Front” just as they were in 1982. Old timers, this is, indeed, The Who you grew up with. The one notable remix is that long version of “Magic Bus” that first appeared on the vinyl version of Meaty, Beaty, Big, and Bouncy in 1971 that has only made it to CD on a couple of releases outside the U.S. The mix on Hits 50! is true mono with full percussion intro, not the fake stereo one with clipped intro from the old Meaty, Beaty LP. This mix first appeared on the 2011 edition of The Singles released in Japan only. The mastering here is better than that version, which was a bit muddy. The same can be said of “Dogs”. Both songs never sounded better than they did on The Who Hits 50! The rest of it sounds great too.

You may still be wondering why a new compilation is necessary. Why did the compilers once again trot out the absurdly edited single versions of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Who Are You”. I won’t try to convince you compilation is necessary, because it isn’t even though The Who Hits 50! is still essential for things like “Magic Bus”, “Dogs”, and “Relay” you can’t get in such high quality on another U.S. CD. I do think it may have a purpose though.

My theory is that The Who Hits 50! isn’t really intended to be “the best sampler” of The Who’s music, as Howie Edelson writes in his liner notes. If this were the case, we’d get all 8:33 of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and all 6:22 of “Who Are You”. We wouldn’t be burdened with three tracks from It’s Hard while A Quick One and Sell Out are short-changed with one measly track each. Odds & Sods would be represented by a better song than “Postcard”: “Naked Eye”, “Long Live Rock”, “Pure and Easy”, or “Glow Girl”, for example. My theory is that The Who Hits 50! is actually an improved and expanded version of that Japanese edition of The Singles. Everything on it is here with the notable exceptions of “Long Live Rock” and the mono single mix of “I Can See for Miles”; the stereo album one is included instead. “Postcard” might be here because it was released as a single. There are three tracks from It’s Hard, because the album produced three singles (though as is the case with a lot of these songs that weren’t on Japan’s The Singles, the album mix of “Eminence Front” is used instead of the single edit). Essential tracks “Baba O’Riley”, “Boris the Spider”, and “Bargain” (a great track that is now considered essential because it was used in a stupid SUV commercial) are the only songs never released on 45 in the U.S. or U.K. If this is the rational behind this new compilation, am I out of line in thinking / hoping that we in the U.S. and U.K. may soon receive domestic releases of all those great editions of The Who’s back catalogue Japanese Wholigans have been enjoying without paying hefty import prices for the past three years? If The Who Hits 50! is just the start of a revamped release campaign, maybe I’m not out of line and maybe the next few years will make us U.S. and U.K. Who fans a bunch of Happy Jacks. (Thanks to regular Psychobabble reader Bill C. for inspiring this review).

Get The Who Hits 50! On here:

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