Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Psychobabble’s Ten Greatest Albums of 1990

Popular myth tells us the nineties arrived when Kurt Cobain first struck the opening riff of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in 1991. A look over the previous year’s best albums tells us otherwise. Much of what would define nineties rock—its grrl power, grunge, Brit pop, irony, angst, DIY inventiveness, and uncommercial commerciality were already brewing while Michael Bolton and Bon Jovi were still dominating the charts. Really, the best nineties rock—Nirvana notwithstanding— never dominated the charts, so that may be an irrelevant distinction to make. Nevermind all that though, because even if the term “alternative rock” was not yet on the lips of every trend-hopping A&R turkey, 1990 was still when MTV dropped groups as weird as They Might Be Giants and Jane’s Addiction into regular rotation. Branching further into the pop culture landscape, it was also when television finally got cinematic and profoundly artistic, as one of the decade’s best albums commemorates. All this innovation started well before Nevermind. It started in 1990.

10. Up In It by Afghan Whigs

After self-releasing their debut, Big Top Halloween, Afghan Whigs landed with Sub Pop and put out the album that saw at least half of their persona in place. By Frankensteining grunge and the seemingly antithetical sounds of Philly soul, Greg Dulli and the gang created a unique new monster. The half still missing was consistently great songwriting, though some of the material on Up In It is definitely memorable: the boiling “Retarded”, the lurching “Southpaw”, the grinding “Hey Cuz”, the stumbling “You My Flower”, the bluesy, groovy “Son of the South”, and the almost Byrds-like “In My Town”, which is especially cool since the band would never do anything so jangly again. When the songs aren’t great, the Whigs slather on enough intensity that it almost doesn’t matter. Even though he had yet to transition from cut-off sweats and combat boots to three-piece suits and wing tips, Dulli already had his Bad Motherfucker act down, talking shit on “Retarded”, waxing inelegantly wasted on “Hated” and “Hey Cuz”, calling out good ol’ boys on “White Trash Party”, and of course, engaging in stormy sexual politics on “You My Flower”, “Son of the South”, and “Sammy”.

9. Soundtrack from Twin Peaks by Angelo Badalamenti (with Julee Cruise)

Break “Twin Peaks” into its components and it doesn’t seem like a show that would revolutionize TV. It’s a bit of a cop show, a bit of a soap opera, a bit of a sitcom, a bit of a who-done-it, a bit of a high school drama, a bit supernatural, a bit sexy— nothing uncommon to the small screen. However, the way David Lynch, Mark Frost, and their mass of collaborators assembled the series completely disassembled the vast wasteland. The same could be said of the soundtrack, which toyed with in such boring genres as cocktail jazz, fifties MOR, white blues, and new age. The way Angelo Badalamenti executed this music—with its eerie melodies (sometimes cooed by Julee Cruise) and unexpected developments—subverted the genres it simulated. Superimpose that incredible music over Lynch and Frost’s incredible images and you have two incredible entities inseparable from each other. Hearing “Laura Palmer’s Theme” without picturing the doomed character grinning back from her prom photo is just as unthinkable as watching Audrey Horne sway around the Double R Diner without hearing “Audrey’s Dance”. No nineties show changed television the way “Twin Peaks” did, and Angelo Badalamenti’s music played a starring role in that development.

8. Goo by Sonic Youth

Monday, June 29, 2015

Review: 'Becoming the Beach Boys, 1961-1963'

Composing the book you’ve always wanted to read is probably one of the better reasons to start a writing project, but not everyone has the ability to do the job right. I’m ashamed to admit I chuckled when I saw that the sole credit in James B Murphy’s author bio on the back of Becoming the Beach Boys, 1961-1963 was “veterinarian.” I shut up when I started reading his book. Murphy is a very good writer, and the book he always wanted to read was definitely worth writing. 

The main goal of Becoming the Beach Boys is to examine the band’s earliest years to clear up the multitudinous misconceptions about that era. Murphy’s research is almost absurdly thorough. He lets no detail go un-checked. Brian Wilson claimed it was raining when The Beach Boys recorded “Surfer Girl”, so Murphy checked the local weather records to confirm that memory. The author goes to tremendous lengths to find out how the group’s long-lost first recordings were found and settle the circumstances behind the band’s first song, “Surfin’”. According to legend, Wilson patriarch Murry and matriarch Audree were on vacation in Europe when their sons used their food money to rent instruments to learn the song. Murphy consults period documents, such as Murry Wilson’s passport records, and utilizes his own powers of deduction to chisel out the most likely version of this oft-told tale. 

Murphy’s work is particularly necessary since The Beach Boys story stars so many unreliable narrators intent on telling the most self-serving versions of the tale (Murry, for example) or suffering patchy memories (Brian). The relatively minor players fascinate Murphy too, so we get extended bios of the band’s associates and collaborators during this period. Admittedly, the information digging can get a bit excessive, and only serious Beach Boys scholars won’t skim Murphy’s minutia about the guys who started Candix records or serial numbers on record labels or the dimensions of the handbills used to promote concerts. Consequently, Becoming the Beach Boys is not always a fun read, but it is an important historical document through and through. James B. Murphy definitely possesses the attention to detail I want from the dude who’s either writing a book about my favorite American band or diagnosing why my cat keeps throwing up all over the place.

Get Becoming the Beach Boys, 1961-1963 on here:

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Review: 'Valerie and Her Week of Wonders' Blu-ray

Two years after the Soviet Invasion had ostensibly brought an end to Czechoslovakia’s Spring of liberalized creativity, Jaromil Jireš made one of the country’s most liberated and creative films. Perhaps Valerie and Her Week of Wonders passed muster with the communist regime— which preferred social realism and had no compunction about banning art— because it is so openly critical of Catholic hypocrisy. However, the ideas behind Jireš’s film are not nearly as interesting as its images. In fact, its “plot” could have been pulled right out of the “Experimental Filmmaking 101” text book if it hadn’t been adapted from Vítězslav Nezval’s novel of the same name (written before Nezval, himself, joined the Party).

Valerie has just turned thirteen (daringly bumped down four years from her age in the novel to Jaroslava Schallerová’s actual age when starred in the movie). Having her first period, she’s now sexually mature and must traverse a Lewis Carroll-esque landscape constantly bouncing her between Catholicism and sexuality. Neither is very appealing in Jireš’s film. Religion offers nothing but lecherous clergy and suppressed desire. Sex Land is full of incest and nubile young women dropping live fish down their bloomers. Both sides are full of vampires and monsters to the point that Valerie and Her Week of Wonders functions as both surreal fantasy and full-blooded horror film. Valerie greets all this stuff in a constant state of bemused defiance, which renders her kind of likeable even if it never allows her more than a couple of dimensions. But depth is not really what you’ll find in her movie. Instead, you get a non-stop montage of arresting imagery. Valerie relaxes beneath an elaborate network of machinery. A parade of nuns passes a couple having abandoned al fresco sex (the only truly positive sexual image in the picture). Valerie’s grandma (a young woman in white death makeup) flagellates herself while the priest she loves eats chicken. He cowers inside of a birdcage as more people copulate outside it. Valerie reclines in a coffin of green apples. Creatures with joke-shop fangs peer from every corner. It’s all beautifully shot, and the picture’s economical running time keeps the style-over-substance issue from ever becoming a real issue. This is what great cult movies are made of.

It’s also what great Criterion Collection blu-rays are made of. Jireš’s dreamy images look exquisite in this new 4k restoration, which is devoid of a single blemish. Lubos Fiser’s soundtrack sounds excellent as well, and its enchantments make the inclusion of a proggy alternate soundtrack fairly superfluous, though the fifteen-minute featurette on this so-called “Valerie Project” is pretty fascinating. There’s also a fairly worthwhile monologue about the main feature from film scholar Peter Hames. However, the gem of the extras is a trio of Jireš’s short films, which seem to plot his move from relatively conventional filmmaking toward the pure avant-gardism of Valerie. The six-minute “Uncle” (1959) is touching, funny, and a perfect example of micro-storytelling, yet only experimental in its mild quotes from German Expressionism. “Footprints” (1960) has a more open-ended narrative. “The Hall of Lost Footsteps” (1960) walks much further out, chopping together horrifying holocaust and A-bomb footage with shots caught at a train station and romantic images rendered hopeless by what surrounds them. Its fractured timeline and jumbling of the beautiful and the terrible is an effective lead in to Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. Get it on here:

Monday, June 22, 2015

Review: 'The Who: Live at Shea Stadium 1982'

In 1982, The Who released their first “farewell” album, It’s Hard, and undertook their first “farewell” tour. Neither was the most beloved chapter in Who lore. Many fans, and certain band members, didn’t rate Kenney Jones an adequate replacement for the recently deceased Keith Moon. Pete seemed begrudging about the whole thing and was wrestling with his own issues with substance abuse and depression. The new material he offered to The Who wasn’t nearly as strong as the songs he kept for his own records, which meant set lists were peppered with less-than-classics.

Quite a few of these issues didn’t matter that much when The Who took their act to New York’s Shea Stadium on October 12 and 13. Perhaps it was playing at such a historic venue (on the 13th, they whipped out two songs from The Beatles’ first album—that’s two more than they played from their own two first albums combined!). Perhaps having The Clash as opening act lit a fire under them. As evidenced from Eagle Vision’s new disc, The Who: Live at Shea Stadium 1982, The Who didn’t exactly put on the ultimate performance during their NYC stint, but they do burn through quite a lot of it, particularly when playing more recent material like “Sister Disco” and “The Quiet One”—both blinding showcases for John Entwistle—or treasured obscurities like “The Punk and the Godfather”, “Drowned”, and “Young Man Blues”. Otherwise, The Who mostly deliver the professionalism that makes the show a good listen, if not an exhilarating one. Mid set, that professionalism slips a tad with a version of “Tattoo” that suffers from some dodgy harmonizing and a general lack of enthusiasm over the number, but that kind of façade drop had always been an integral component of their shows—nobody ever wanted to The Who to be nice (plus, the song is their best as far as I’m concerned). A slack rendition of “Naked Eye” and a monotonous one of “Cry If You Want” are a little less easy to forgive.

An interesting facet of the movie is how it reduces great, big Shea Stadium to a more intimate venue by not dwelling on the elaborate stage set up, leaving most of the huge audience in shadow (we only really glimpse the first few rows), and muting their screams. It creates the illusion that The Who said “farewell” by playing a mid-sized club.

The Who: Live at Shea Stadium 1982 arrives on DVD and Standard Definition Blu-ray. That means it was shot on video (complete with some awful “slo-mo” video effects), so the picture cannot be in hi-def, but the music can at least be delivered without loss. As far as video goes, it doesn’t look bad. The audio is pretty good, though I wish there was more John in the mix. The show from the 13th is included in its entirety, as are five bonus numbers from the 12th, three of which are songs not performed the following night (“A Man Is a Man” and the essentials “My Generation” and “5:15”). Too bad the other two songs exclusive to that night (“Magic Bus” and “Athena”) aren’t here too, but overall, Live at Shea Stadium 1982 shines as positive a light on The Who’s rocky 1982 as one can expect.

Get The Who: Live at Shea Stadium 1982 on here:

Monday, June 15, 2015

Review: 'The Wrecking Crew' DVD

No Rock & Roll education is complete without getting familiar with the rotating ensemble of session musicians now known as the Wrecking Crew. Guitarists Tommy Tedesco and Glen Campbell, drummers Hal Blaine and Earl Palmer, bassists Carol Kaye and Joe Osborn, saxophonist Plas Johnson, and pianist Leon Russell are just a few of the musicians who helped bring records for Brian Wilson, Phil Spector, The Monkees, The Byrds, Sonny and Cher, Nancy Sinatra, The Mamas and the Papas, and too many others to life. Since they rarely received any credits on the records they made, a documentary like Denny Tedesco’s (son of Tommy) The Wrecking Crew is long overdue.

And overdue it is. The younger Tedesco started work on this film in 1996, completed shooting in 2008, and was finally able to release it this year with the aid of a 2013 Kickstarter campaign. The age of the project is certainly detectable in the finished product. The interview footage is all full-screen with the only wide elements being still photos and certain pieces of archival footage. There’s none of the animation or stylish computer manipulation used in seemingly every contemporary pop doc. This is a straight-up, twentieth-century-style documentary full of shot-on-video talking heads. The filmmaker’s relationship with his subject also means that The Wrecking Crew is mostly celebratory. Nevertheless, we do get the gist of some member’s irritation with their lack of credits, being serious jazz musicians making records for The Association and Gary Lewis and the Playboys, and seeing the rise of “album artists” reduce their workload in the late sixties. The Wrecking Crew is not a piece of audacious filmmaking, but its humble style is a very fitting way to tell the story of a group of musicians never known for their audacity.

The Wrecking Crew comes to DVD from Magnolia Home Entertainment with a massive bundle of deleted scenes. While this kind of thing is mere filler on most discs, the scenes here actually fill out the story in essential ways. Despite being synonymous with the Wrecking Crew, Phil Spector receives very little attention in the proper film. The deleted scenes make up for this with pieces on his demanding working methods and his Christmas album, one of the most significant showcases for the Wrecking Crew’s talents. We also get deeper looks at the recordings of specific songs (guitarist Billy Strange tells a touching tale about cutting “Sloop John B.” that spotlights Brian Wilson’s generosity), how Beatlemania affected the crew, and insights from several major players missing from the proper film.

Get The Wrecking Crew on here:

Saturday, June 13, 2015

4 Hammer Horrors Finally Coming to Blu-ray from WB UPDATE: with date and pre-order info

On the heels of yesterdays terrible news about Christopher Lee's passing, Warner Archive has announced that it is finally taking advantage of its stockpile of Hammer Horror titles and releasing a box set of four films later this year (hopefully in time for Halloween season!) according to The title selection of Horror Classics: Volume One favors some of Hammer's campier titles and few of the acknowledged classics: Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, The Mummy, and Taste the Blood of Dracula. But as the words "Volume One" in its title imply, this should just be the first in a series of sets, and it's certainly nice to get a hi-def copy of the beautifully filmed Mummy, which also features a memorable Lee performance as the creature. I'm keeping my fangs crossed that more essential titles like Dracula and Curse of Frankenstein will follow soon. Others, such as Brides of Dracula and Curse of Werewolf, reside with Universal, but maybe WB's release will light a fire under Universal to crack their Hammers out of the crypt too.

UPDATE: We now have a release date and pre-order link for the Horror Classics: Volume One blu-ray set. October 6 is the release date. Here's the pre-order link:

Friday, June 12, 2015

Farewell, Christopher Lee

Very sad news to report today: Christopher Lee, the British actor best known for his embodiment of Hammer horror, died last Sunday of heart failure. Of course, Lee's 93 years were richly spent. He starred in some of the most successful film series of all time--not just Hammer's Gothic horrors that found him playing Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, and the Mummy-- but also Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies, James Bond's The Man with the Golden Gun, and the Star Wars prequels. On imdb, Lee has an extraordinary 278 credits, and he remained active right into this year, most recently doing voice-over work in Raul Garcia's yet-to-be-released animated anthology of Poe adaptations, Extraordinary Tales. That is a fitting end to a career steeped in classic chills, and one so dependent on the actor's marvelously distinctive bass intonation. Despite the rich wealth of Christopher Lee movies already in existence (my personal favorites include Dracula, The Wicker Man, The Curse of Frankenstein, and The City of the Dead), I will miss seeing him in another one.
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