Thursday, December 18, 2014

Psychobabble’s Ten Greatest Albums of 1984

1984 was a rough year in many ways. Ronald Reagan got reelected. AIDS was on the rise, as was the apathy of people in power like Reagan. Ethiopia sank into famine. More on topic, Tipper Gore rallied a bunch of officious ninnies to wage war against pop music with her PMRC. A look at the charts makes Gore’s crusade seem really unnecessary. What did she have a (where’s the) beef with? Matthew Wilder’s “Break My Stride”? Kenny Loggins’s “Footloose”? Phil Collins’s “Against All Odds”? Lionel Ritchie’s “Hello”? Stevei Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You”? Actually, if she’d wanted any of that crap banned, I probably would have gotten behind her. But, of course, these were not her targets, though the song that inspired the PMRC was buried on the biggest album of the year. So I should stop being flip here to acknowledge that ’84 was also the year of Let It Be, Learning to Crawl, four albums so fantastic that I had a hell of a time deciding which was best, and a bunch of other totally awesome ones. Here are ten.

10. The Unforgettable Fire by U2

U2 had done their best work on their first few albums when there was still some punk spirit behind their righteousness. After the smash success of War, the pomposity that would make them pretty insufferable by the time they put out the vastly overrated Joshua Tree and the boring Rattle and Hum was beginning to creep into their music. So The Unforgettable Fire is not as good as Boy or War, but it is still very good, at least as a collection of really committed performances. Song wise, the lazily vague “Pride (In the Name of Love)” and the repetitious “Bad” aren’t much, but you’ll rarely hear this much uninhibited passion outside of an opera house. Better yet is when Bono doesn’t step on The Edge, Larry Mullen, and Adam Clayton when they kick-it-out on “Wire” and “Indian Summer Sky”. Not everything here works—“MLK” sounds like a shapeless attempt to rewrite the beautiful “40” while going to the Martin Luther King well once too often, and the endless “Elvis Presley and America” is a poorly sung six-and-a-half-minute wank—but when U2 are on fire they make The Unforgettable Fire worthwhile.  

9. The Top by The Cure

Monday, December 15, 2014

Psychobabble’s 10 Best Music Releases of 2014

2014 was almost like 1964 all over again, what with all the major Beatles and Beatles-related releases. As you’ll see from my best album picks below, there were some amazing ones, but my favorite release offered something none of those fab CDs and LPs could: a ton of spectacular music I’d never heard before. There were also some cool box sets, deluxe editions, vinyl reissues, and even one compilation that may point to more interesting things ahead for 2015.

As was the case with the past two week’s lists on the best books and home video releases of 2014, each item below links to the original review.

In short: “Two of the most unique records of the late sixties are now more unique than ever.”

In short: “The Jam’s first two albums were pretty punk. Their third, All Mod Cons, went in more of a polished pop direction. Setting Sons incorporated the best elements of both phases with some of the hardest hitting and loveliest music of their career.”

8. Venus and Mars by Wings

In short: “…much of the rest of the album rates among the best stuff Wings did.”

7. The Apple Years 1968 – 75 by George Harrison

In short: “Newly remastered from the original analog tapes, it is warm and detailed, as are the other discs in this nicely packaged set.”

6. Siouxsie and the Banshees Reissues

In short: Sound on the three earliest albums is a booming improvement over the tinny and flat original CDs.

5. The Who Hits 50 by The Who

In short: “Old timers, this is, indeed, The Who you grew up with.”

4. The U.S. Albums by The Beatles

In short: “Those who want as close a reproduction of those old American albums as they’re going to get with supreme sound and packaging, those who don’t mind hearing “I Feel Fine” pop up on Beatles ’65 without so much reverb that its magnetic guitar riff is nearly indecipherable, will be most pleased.”

3. Doolittle 25 by The Pixies

In short: “…this is still a pretty must-own repurchase of an album that should have already been in your collection for twenty-something years.”

In short: “For someone who already has a firm mono preference, these LPs are heaven.”

In short: “…one of the best various artists box sets I’ve ever heard.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Review: The Criterion Edition of 'Safe'

The late eighties/early nineties was a boon time for young visionary directors, but your Steven Soderbergs and your Quentin Tarantinos and even your Lars Von Triers had nothing on Todd Haynes. His first film starred a Barbie and Ken doll as Karen and Richard Carpenter. Despite the silly premise and the offensive blandness of The Carpenters’ music, Superstar not only wasn’t a joke but it was legitimately disturbing, depressing, and moving. His second film, Poison, fell in line with his AIDS-awareness activism, but did so with fearless originality, interpreting the writings of Jean Genet as a shuffled up portmanteau of horror, documentary, and prison mini-movies. Haynes’s activism became a lightning rod for some viewers, particularly those in the LGBT community, when he made his next and biggest budget (still under a million dollars) film to date. Because Safe dealt with disease, and featured implicit and explicit references to AIDS, other activists felt Haynes was selling out by making his main character a woman and her illness something other than AIDS.

Safe isn’t really about the illness though. It’s about the blank slate character—“a void” by Haynes own description— who suffers from it and finally comes into her own (sort of) as a result. As Dennis Lim points out in his essay for Criterion’s new blu-ray edition of Safe, such characters occur regularly in Haynes’s work, whether they are based on real-life shape shifters like Dylan (I’m Not There) and Bowie (Velvet Goldmine) or they’re original creations like Carol White. 

Actually, Carol begins as something of a clichĂ©: the classic gilded cage-bound, suburban wife. She orders expensive furniture to fill her time. She orders her Hispanic housekeeper around in her soft voice. She engages in uncomfortable-looking, obligatory sex with her boring husband. She does aerobics and goes to lunch and gets her hair done all with the same air of joylessness and emptiness. Then as Carol drives behind a truck on the expressway, she suffers a choking fit from its exhaust. At the salon, the chemicals used to curl her hair into an infantile Shirley Temple do make her nose bleed. She’s unable to breath after eating some cake at a baby shower. Her male doctors patronize her, insisting that there’s nothing medically wrong with her, but Carol continues to disintegrate. Then the setting radically shifts as Carol moves from the suburbs to a desert health commune for other people apparently suffering from an allergy to the twentieth century.

Safe isn’t as out-there as Superstar or Poison, but it remains a wholly original entity even as it exploits familiar suburban-death tropes; Haynes’s framing, which makes interiors look like cubby holes in a dollhouse, is very reminiscent of Kubrick; and the soundtrack regularly evokes Angelo Badalamenti’s ominous synth work for David Lynch. Also like Lynch, Haynes refuses to supply pat answers (is Carol physically or mentally ill? Is the commune doing her good or is it a cult just as destructive as her condition?) and refuses to choose a genre. Safe is a sort of modern “woman’s picture” melodrama, a dark comedy (check out the too-sparingly used James LeGros, who’s hilarious as Carol’s admirer), and a horror film (the final scene is bone chilling). It is also a powerful showcase for Julianne Moore, who plays Carol with girlish frailty and subtle authority, as when she quietly refuses her husband sex despite his petulance or when she reprimands a nurse for spraying chemical cleaners near her hospital bed. Her subtle reference to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s proto-feminist short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” may provide a clue to the point the film provocatively refuses to make in bold text.

Safe comes to blu-ray with the excellent audio and video we expect from Criterion, as well as some interesting bonuses. Pulled from the 2001 DVD is a commentary track by Haynes, Moore (seeing the final cut for the first time!), and producer Christine Vachon much, much more lighthearted than the film. Haynes discusses the challenges and solutions to making a relatively low-budget movie (basically, get your family involved), though a lot of the commentary is the trio just watching the movie. They get a lot more focused in a couple of brand new features: Vachon sits for a 15-minute interview in which she discusses her long-running working relationship with Haynes and the adverse reaction Safe encountered, and Haynes and Moore star in their own completely engaged, intellectually stimulating 35-minute chat, which delves deeply into the film’s inspiration, approach, and themes without ruining its essential ambiguity. The final extra is a recently unearthed 20-minute short called “The Suicide” that Haynes wrote and directed when he was 17. While the film is more rapidly cut than most of his mature work, his themes of alienation are present in this simple but powerful (and really depressing) piece about a slow-to-mature Middle School kid facing ridicule at a new school.

Get the Criterion edition of Safe on here:

Friday, December 12, 2014

Review: 'Terry O’Neill’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Album'

Terry O’Neill photographed some of the most monumental movers and shakers of the twentieth century: JFK, Churchill, Mandella, Blair. That’s very nice for him, but what about the people who made us move and shake? Well, stand back, because this cat has shot The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Ray Davies, Led Zeppelin, Elvises Presley and Costello, Chuck Berry, Diana Ross, Janis Joplin, Springsteen, Bowie… I think you get the picture. You can get a slew of them in a new A (for AC/DC) to Z (for Zeppelin) collection of his most iconic and rarest pictures called Terry O’Neill’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Album.

That title is actually slightly misleading because quite a few of the stars between its covers have nothing to do with rocking or rolling (there’s a big spread on Sinatra, who hated the genre). Don’t get too hung up on that because there’s plenty that fits the bill from O’Neill’s earliest swinging snaps of the Fabs, The Dave Clark Five, The Animals, and some very, very young Stones through relatively recent artists such as Blur and Amy Winehouse. She’s the most recent one in the lot because O’Neill admits in his introduction that no one since her has had enough star power to ensnare his interest (I see what he means).

The interesting thing about O’Neill’s work is the way it often subverts our expectations. He’s the one who shot that famous picture of Ozzy in which the evil one looks like he just paid his one hundred bucks at Glamour Shots. He made Liza Minnelli look like Jagger. He made ol’ Lucifer Lips look like a cuddly bear all wrapped up in his fur-lined anorak. Ringo appears to be the lead Beatles as he leaps over the rest of the band in an extraordinary action shot I’d never seen before. He filmed hellion Marc Bolan in a very moving embrace with his infant son.

At other times, O’Neill captured the artists just as we expect them to be, whether it’s Sir Elton posing in his giant wardrobe of outrageous gear or Alice Cooper subverting that Bolan shot hilariously by applying fright makeup to a sleeping baby. Really, there is no unifying style or approach to perceive among the mass of photos in Terry O’Neill’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Album. Color or black and white, candid or staged, funny or po-faced, action-packed or serene, bizarrely normal or normally bizarre, the photos in this big, big, big book really have one thing in common: big, big, big music stardom.

Get Terry O’Neill’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Album on here:

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Turn Left at Greenland, Part 12: ‘Hey Jude’

In this monthly feature on Psychobabble, I’ve been looking at how The Beatles were presented on long-playing vinyl in the United States.

On September 26, 1969, The Beatles released the last album all four Fabs intended to release. Abbey Road wrapped up the experience well, providing outstanding showcases for each band member: Lennon transitioned to the bloodletting of his solo career with his grungiest tracks yet, McCartney continued his obsession with lavish production with the medley that consumed Side B, Harrison contributed what may be his two signature compositions, and Starr comported himself well as rare composer of one track and rare soloist on another. That track was called “The End”, as if the finality of Abbey Road needed to be made any more explicit. It was all over but the legal matters, and there were a lot of those. If Abbey Road provided a sweetly polished finale to Beatlemania, then the lawyers, paper chasing, obligations, and conniving of the nefarious Allen Klein were the sour end.

John, George, and Ringo’s preferred manager Klein caused a lot of friction within the disintegrating band, but he is also responsible for one of the more benign obligations of The Beatles’ final days. As part of his renegotiation of the group’s Capitol contract in 1969, he promised to deliver one extra LP in the tradition of the ones the label had been conceiving since 1964, the ones I have been examining all year long in Turn Left at Greenland. Like those albums, the concept was songs that had yet to appear on a Capitol LP, and like a lot of them, there was little cohesiveness. Like them there would be controversial mixes (Lennon loathed how his “Revolution” sounded in stereo). Like them this new album would pass off singles as album tracks, and like them it would be a huge hit, effortlessly hitting number two on Billboard’s charts despite the fact that a lot of people already owned everything on it. In fact, the centerpiece of the album is The Beatles’ biggest selling single in the U.S. ever. The masterminds behind the album were so convinced that the song’s place on the LP would move units that they changed the title from The Beatles Again to Hey Jude.

By the time the title was changed to Hey Jude, lots of Beatles Again labels had already been printed. Instead of eating the cost, Apple just released early copies of Hey Jude with the irrelevant labels.

Unlike the previous Capitol exclusives, Hey Jude was not focused on a concentrated era, and so it also differs from, say, Beatles '65 or Beatles VI because it isn’t trying to fool anyone into believing it’s the latest batch of Beatles recordings. So perhaps it doesn’t quite fit Turn Left at Greenland and would be more at home in a discussion of compilations like A Collection of Beatles Oldies, 1962-1966, and 1967-1970 (all of which, incidentally, are fairly focused on a specific era). That Hey Jude now seems like a blueprint for Past Masters Vol. 2 makes its status as a clear-cut compilation all the more clear cut.

Eight of Hey Jude's ten tracks were released on the CD-era closet cleaner Past Masters Volume Two.
But it is its own beast in a sense. Hey Jude certainly is not a greatest hits album, even though “Can’t Buy Me Love”, “Paperback Writer”, “Lady Madonna”, “Hey Jude”, and “The Ballad of John and Yoko” are some of The Beatles’ biggest hits. It doesn’t do what most greatest hits albums set out to do, which is satisfyingly distilling a group’s history into a dozen-or-so key songs. There are too many gaps in the story here. There’s nothing from 1965 (even though “I’m Down” could have been included and would not end up on LP until 1976’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Music comp). 1967 is unrepresented too. Hey Jude is back heavy with tracks from the back end of The Beatles’ career.

Of course, not every compilation is a greatest hits album, but the worthwhile ones have a definite concept. As already mentioned, the concept of Hey Jude is a Capitol closet cleaning, though this does not mean all of these tracks are taking their first turns at 33 1/3 rpms. “I Should Have Known Better” and “Can’t Buy Me Love” had been released on United Artists’ A Hard Day’s Night soundtrack five years earlier, placing those two tracks in the tradition of The Early Beatles, which consisted of songs already released in the states on non-Capitol LPs.

If compiler Allan Steckler wanted to make Hey Jude’s masquerade as a non-compilation more convincing he couldn’t really pull it off anyway because there were too few candidates for inclusion. The upcoming Let It Be LP was to contain the recent past masters “Get Back” and “Across the Universe”, although they would be different versions than the ones that had already been released as a single and a compilation track, respectively. Still, even releasing different versions of these songs might have felt like a cheat (though one in keeping with “Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand” from Something New). “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)”, which would be released just one month after Hey Jude on the B-side of the “Let It Be” single, was actually an old track from 1967. “The Inner Light”, the B-side of “Lady Madonna” was a slightly more recent piece, but its raga instrumentation makes it sound like a product of ’67. It would sound very out of place among straight-forward rockers like “Don’t Let Me Down”, “Revolution”, “The Ballad of John and Yoko”, and even its own A-side, “Lady Madonna”.

So what is Hey Jude? Is it a compilation? Is it the final sham in a six-year tradition of sham American albums? Capitol seems to opt for the latter, including it among all of its other non-comp LPs in the U.S. Albums box set released early this year. I guess it doesn’t really matter, because as we’ve seen over the past twelve months, The Beatles’ story on American wax has often lacked rhyme and reason. The first Rock & Roll group to really treat their albums like art had seen that art invaded by lounge instrumentals, jumbled so that their earliest recordings were released on their fifth LP, and treated as weird proper album/singles comp hybrids. The Beatles had seen their masterpiece butchered, the dismembered parts lumped inside a cover banned for being “offensive”, and on a few occasions, their preferred versions of their albums would not be the ones a lot of fans preferred. In the end, Hey Jude is just another strange destination to visit when you turn left at Greenland.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Review: 'Rock Covers'

I used to keep a copy of Michael Ochs’s 1000 Record Covers on my desk. It was a handy reference for cool album art and fit perfectly next to my little dictionary and thesaurus. One thing the 5.5-inch x 7.5-inch book did not do was provide an accurate representation of the scale and detail of those covers. That kind of thing may have cut the mustard during the CD age when we forgot what we were missing, but vinyl has now made a resounding comeback (do I need to refer you to the wild hype surrounding the release of the Beatles in Mono vinyl box a few months ago?). That means the 1-foot-square sleeve has too. For a better idea of how it feels to actually hold a copy of Here's Little Richard or Pet Sounds or Atom Heart Mother or Marquee Moon or Goo or The White Stripes in your hand, dig Busch, Kirby, and Wiedemann's Rock Covers. Like 1000 Record Covers, it is published by Taschen, but it probably won't fit on your desk. Just a half-inch shorter on both sides than your average LP jacket, Rock Covers is surely intended to provide an authentic experience even though every one of its artworks is not presented at full-page size. The editors also fill in a lot of Ochs's blind spots, giving much more space to punk, college, and alternative albums than Ochs did. Not only do we get some classic Vaughan Oliver sleeves but we get a short interview with the man himself, as well as others such as Henry Diltz and Black Crowe Chris Robinson.

That this is a great art book is a given since it contains so much great art. It does lose a few points for authenticity when compared to Ochs's book because everything in it is so straight-out-of-shrink-wrap clean. Ochs did not whitewash what goes down in a real record collection. You could tell his records were used, abused, bruised, deeply loved, and regularly rotated. I also like how he'd juxtapose sleeves that shared some sort of aesthetic trait. Busch, Kirby, and Wiedemann go for straight alphabetical order. Still, if it's between tiny, damaged images and great, big, unblemished ones, I admit size matters. Rock Covers comes out on top.

Get Rock Covers on here:


Monday, December 8, 2014

Psychobabble’s 10 Best Home Video Releases of 2014

The blu-ray revolution has been in effect for quite some time now, so it’s a bit weird—and not good weird like a David Lynch movie—that so little of David Lynch’s work had been available in hi-def in the U.S. That changed in 2014 when the back catalogue of our greatest living filmmaker started getting blu-ray releases. There have been a few technical glitches along the way, but these have mostly been stunning treatments of some of the most stunning film and TV of the twentieth century. American Lynch freaks are not the only fans who’ve had to be patient. Another of this year’s best releases was even longer overdue.

Not every great home video release of 2014 had some sort of historical significance, but it has been a pretty knock out year for those of us who’ve had to sit tight. Seeing my all-time favorite film and my all-time favorite TV show come to blu-ray this year was a groove. It might take a hi-def release of the original Star Wars trilogy to come close to 2014 in terms of home video releases. I personally doubt there’s any way to top it, though.

As was the case with last week’s Best Books of 2014 list, each item below links to the original review.

In short: “The poor video quality actually didn’t do much to affect my enjoyment of this disc though. I guess a good concert is a good concert.”

In short: “It looks sufficiently vibrant even though this is one of the darkest Hammer films.”

In short: “…the new edition of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is well worth checking out for its vastly superior picture quality.”

In short: “I have never seen another film that looks like When the Wind Blows.”

In short: “...if this is the best we’re ever going to get Wild at Heart on home video, I have no complaints.”

In short: “…a surprising and satisfying release.

In short: “…a new Blu-ray/DVD combo that delivers high quality in both the video/audio department and the extras.”

In short: “It's the gorgeously restored presentation of one of the best series of the sixties that makes this a must own.”

In short: Eraserhead is my favorite movie, and I’m thrilled with this new disc.”

In short: “…we'll be focusing on how these main features of "The Entire Mystery" measure up quality wise. If I had to sum it up in a couple of words, I'd choose 'holy' and 'shit'...”
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