Thursday, September 18, 2014

Review: 'How Star Wars Conquered the Universe'


How Star Wars Conquered the Universe is the Star Wars book I’ve always wanted to read. It’s a well-written, frank, vivacious, irreverent, reverent look at the most popular film series of all time and the phenomenon it heaved out into the galaxy. Others have tried to do what Chris Taylor does but have been hampered by the strictures of working within the Lucasfilm Empire or their own Sithy ambitions. What Michael Kaminski took 500-plus pages to do in his admittedly essential but not exactly fun to read The Secret History of Star Wars, Taylor does in much easier-to-digest form. We get the gist that despite his usual rap, George Lucas really did not have much of a plan for his space opera.

Crucially, Taylor also spends a lot of time away from the making-of history (mostly focused on the 1977 film) that is the meat and bones of his book. Its heart is all those other little weird detours that make Star Wars much more than the sum-total of two great, two OK, and two straight-up lousy movies. Taylor realizes that he would not have told the full story without chapters on the kooky super-fans, the merchandise, the fellow sci-fi contemporaries, and the cheesy rip-off flicks Star Wars inspired. He dispels some myths (apparently, Lucas’s dad was not the villainous Darth Vader stand-in historians often believe him to be) and lets us know how the phenomenon affected such bit players as affable pothead Bill Wookey, who enjoyed a bit of fame because of his famous name, and the sadly infamous “Star Wars kid”, whose life was nearly ruined by a video a trio of assholes leaked (no worries though, people; Ghyslain Raza seems to be doing just fine now).

Taylor also dabbles with the seedier side of Star Wars—the backstage sex, drugs, and porno watching—that never would have made it into a book with the official Lucas stamp of approval. The author never wallows in these asides, so How Star Wars Conquered the Universe never becomes seedy itself. They’re just in there for the sake of completeness, and as satisfied as I was with this book, I still wish there was more of it simply because it was so much damn fun to read.

Get How Star Wars Conquered the Universe on Amazon.com here:


Monday, September 15, 2014

Review: 'Gimme Indie Rock: 500 Essential American Underground Rock Albums 1981-1996'


In the eighties, music fans who didn’t want to preen with the new wavers, pout with the hair metalists, or snooze with Lionel Ritchie really had to do their research. Groups like Black Flag, Throwing Muses, and The Feelies weren’t exactly playing alongside Mötley Crüe on MTV at 4PM, though you might catch them if you stayed up past Midnight on Sundays. You might also read about them in photocopied fanzines or get lectured about them from the Doc Martened blowhard at your local hole-in-the-wall record shop. 
In the Internet era, this kind of happenstance is less a prerequisite to discovering great underground groups, so from one point of view, Andrew Earles’s Gimme Indie Rock: 500 Essential American Underground Rock Albums 1981-1996 is about twenty years too late. Arriving in 2014, however, it still serves a definite function as a valuable tour of one of the least-eulogized roads of Rock history. More practically it’s a distillation of The Trouser Press Record Guide that hones a fifteen-year flood of small-label albums down to the must haves… or, at least, Earles’ idea of the must-haves. As is the case with any “best of” guide created by one person, the selection is highly subjective even as the writer reveals he chose some albums he didn’t like because of their historical importance. Taking that under consideration it isn’t unreasonable to wonder where certain artists (no Spinanes, no Velocity Girl, no Grant Lee Buffalo) or select albums (no Pony Express Record, no The Real Ramona, no The Stars Are Insane) are. Still I can’t say there are a ton of glaring omissions from Gimme Indie Rock.
As a writer, Earle certainly seems to have been influenced by The Trouser Press Record Guide (which he name-checks in his introduction) with his tendency to write about ecstatic music clinically rather than ecstatically. That kind of writing isn’t generally my cup of tea, but even Earle can’t hold back his awe from time to time, as when he uses more visceral terms to describe Team Dresch’s Personal Best, which “will knock unprepared listeners against the wall”. He is not fucking kidding.
Get Gimme Indie Rock: 500 Essential American Underground Rock Albums 1981-1996 on Amazon.com here:




Saturday, September 13, 2014

New Kinks Box Set Outlined with Pre-Order Info

It has been just six years since the release of the last Kinks box set, and while Picture Book was long overdue, it was also seriously flawed. Poorly mastered and perhaps a little too evenly split between the great and the not-as-great eras, that set is now out of print. On November 3rd (November 18th in the US), Sanctuary will release what is shaping up to be a far more interesting and consistent set. As its somewhat unimaginative title states, The Anthology 1964-1971 will focus on The Kinks' indisputably finest period. And it will not merely be a rehash of the excellent double-disc deluxe edition campaign that finally wrapped up with this year's Lola/Percy CD. The five-disc set will include a couple of the most sought-after and beautiful Kinks tracks: "Pictures in the Sand" and "Til Death US Do Part". Neither track has been released since 1973's controversial compilation The Great Lost Kinks Album.

According to Modculture.co.uk, The Anthology 1964-1971 will also include a bonus 7" single and can be pre-ordered now through Amazon.com here:


 Here's the track-listing from Modculture.co.uk:


Thursday, September 11, 2014

Farewell, Richard Kiel

Best remembered for his towering 7' 1.5" stature and for playing the silver-toothed villain Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker, Richard Kiel won Psychobabble's heart when he terrified as the Kanamit in the unforgettable "To Serve Man" episode of "The Twilight Zone" and milked laughs in the "I Was a Teenage Monster" episode of "The Monkees" (more on that episode next month...). You may have your own favorite Richard Kiel moments since he acted in nearly eighty films and TV shows, most recently providing the voice of Vlad in the hit animated movie Tangled and appearing as a Giant in an episode of the kids' show "Blood Hounds, Inc". A less known aspect of Kiel's career is that he also co-wrote Kentucky Lion, a biography of abolitionist Clay. Cassius Marcellus Sadly, Kiel died yesterday a week after being hospitalized for a broken leg. The specific cause of his death is not yet known.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Review: The Criterion Edition of 'Eraserhead'



Eraserhead has been streaming on Hulu as a member of the Criterion Collection for two years, which means excited speculation that Criterion might give it a proper home-media release has also been percolating for years. The ultimate cult movie meets the finest video-distribution company to achieve cult status of its own. That is a relationship much happier than Henry Spencer and Mary X’s.

Criterion’s presentation of Eraserhead is almost all good news for those of us who’ve been sitting tight for the last couple of years. The lossless audio and 4K visual upgrades of this new release are stunning. Lynch and Alan Splet’s unusually alive (and constant) sound design rumbles the floor tiles yet still retains its unique timbre in which voices almost sound as if they’re transmitting from some old timey radio broadcast. Contrast is totally effective despite the film’s deliberately dark palate and there is not a blemish to be seen. The deep blacks never looked so velvety, the industrial greys never so brooding, the sudden shocks of white never so headlight blinding.

Well, with the exception of one instance, which leads us to the one significant flaw of Criterion’s disc (and those who fear spoilers should tread-lightly for the rest of this paragraph). The quietly glum Henry achieves his first emotional/spiritual breakthrough when he touches a mythic character known as The Lady in the Radiator. Lynch expresses this breakthrough by filling the screen with a blinding white light. However, on the disc I received, the exact opposite happens, and the screen falls black at the moment of the touch. This constitutes just a few seconds of the film, but it is a pivotal few seconds, and seeing the screen turn black at this moment completely changes the scene’s meaning and derails the film’s first instance of transcendence. Hopefully, Criterion will catch this rare error in its generally flawless output and correct it. I’ve already written to the company about this matter.

On the extras front Lynch’s feature-length “Eraserhead Stories” interview that appeared on the old DVD is still present. Criterion supplements it with a half-hour of new interviews featuring Charlotte Stewart (Mary X), Judith Ann Roberts (The Beautiful Girl Across the Hall), Cinematographer Frederick Elmes, and Assistant Director/Log Lady Catherine Coulson. This is a really nice companion piece to “Eraserhead Stories”, offering other perspectives of the film’s making and impact. We learn how Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon was integral to the unique look of Eraserhead and get teasing peeks at Lynch’s script and storyboard. But for me the biggest revelation was seeing Judith Ann Roberts today—I had no idea that was her in the most recent season of “Orange Is the New Black”!

Criterion also digs up about forty minutes of vintage interview footage with members of the cast and crew, one of which finds Lynch tooling around LA with Jack Nance and basically behaving exactly like Agent Cooper a year before the duo made “Twin Peaks”. We also get the Eraserhead-reunion segment of Toby Keeler’s wonderful 1997 documentary Pretty As a Picture: The Art of David Lynch, and the Eraserhead chapter from Chris Rodley’s absolutely essential Lynch on Lynch book in the booklet.

Finally Criterion delivers what may be the most tremendous bonus feature in its entire collection: five of the short films included on the 2002 DVD The Short Films of David Lynch. A couple of these pieces are negligible. “Six Men Getting Sick”, a film intended to be projected on sculpture, loses something when deprived of its unique presentation, and “The Amputee” remains little more than an amusing experiment with different video stocks. However, the terrifying/mesmerizing ultra-minis “The Alphabet” and “Premonitions Following an Evil Deed” and the beautiful, poignant, and uncommonly resourceful “The Grandmother” prove Lynch is just as much a master of short forms as he is of long ones. These shorts appear in 2K restorations and the ages and presentations of each film is sometimes a factor. “Six Men” and “The Alphabet” both have their shares of scratches and spots, though the images and colors have never looked so good on home video. “The Amputee” never looked good, and it still doesn’t. Fortunately, the best film in the bunch—and one of Lynch’s best films, period— “The Grandmother”, is the most well maintained on all accounts. Its spare use of color is finally as vivid as Lynch intended it to be (and finally, the pee stain on the little boy’s bed looks more pee-yellow than orange juice-orange). Unfortunately, there is one absentee from the Short Films DVD, the slight but enjoyably goofy “Cowboy and the Frenchman”, which apparently could not be included because of rights issues.

Eraserhead is my favorite movie, and for the most part I’m thrilled with this new disc. It looks and sounds fabulous and the bonus features are a dream. All Criterion needs to do is fix that one, very brief error in the film and it can proudly declare its Eraserhead blu-ray the film’s ultimate presentation.

Get the Criterion edition of Eraserhead on Amazon.com here:




As for the film, here’s what I had to say about Eraserhead in Psychobabble’s 150 Essential Horror Movies:

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Siouxsie and the Banshees' Final Four to Finally Be Reissued Next Month

It has been four years since Universal Music abandoned its Siouxsie and the Banshees reissue campaign that saw the group's first seven studio albums remastered and ornamented with bonus tracks. On his Facebook page, bassist Steve Severin said the decision was down to those albums lacking sufficient bonus tracks back in 2010. Apparently, that was bollocks, because UMe, in conjunction with Polydor, will be reissuing Through the Looking Glass, Peepshow, Superstition, and The Rapture complete with bonus tracks this October 13. Hopefully, now that Universal and The Banshees are back on track that career-spanning box set Severin has been teasing for years will finally happen.

For now, you can pre-order Siouxsie and the Banshees' final four on Amazon.com here:


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