Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Review: 'Capturing Archetypes: Twenty Years of Sideshow Collectibles Art'


Sideshow Collectibles are strangely multifaceted for models of characters from comics and genre movies. Sure, they’re basically scaled down representations of Darth Vader and Batman and the Alien and Bride of Frankenstein and The Creature from the Black Lagoon, progeny of the Aurora models adored by the monster kids of the fifties and sixties. But they are also exemplars of how seriously the geeks of today take their obsessions. The jocks can have their cheap plastic football trophies. Sideshow Collectibles are lovingly, intricately sculpted from assorted materials—resin, polystone, real cloth and leather, fiberglass. They may depict the icons of alleged low culture, but they are genuine art pieces, and they’re affixed with big art piece price tags, which also yokes them with the dubious distinction of being status symbols too (as of this writing, the most inexpensive item on Sideshow’s official site is a $69.99 vinyl doll of a character that looks like a licorice jelly bean called Dolly Colorway; the most expensive are lifesize busts of similar looking guys called War Machine and Iron Patriot, both running $8999.99). This means that they are only available to the wealthiest nerds, guys like Guillermo Del Toro, who pens the introduction to the new coffee table tribute Capturing Archetypes: Twenty Years of Sideshow Collectibles Art. This book is a far more economical way to collect these pieces than actually collecting them.

Del Toro offhandedly but insightfully mentions the “fetishistic” impulses of the collector, and Capturing Archetypes is nothing if not fetishistic. Instead of depicting the sculptures in flat full view, the book presents them in alluring shadows, lighting, and smoke, often zooming in on a particular feature or contour. There is an unabashed gaze on body parts, most obviously in the leering sculptures and photographs of curvaceous female characters, such as Catwoman, Molotov Cocktease, Lady Death, Vampira, Elvira, and Jessica Rabbit—who actually receives her own centerfold!—but also the absurd, veiny musculature of male characters like Dare Devil, the Hulk, and even Darth Maul. Capturing Geek Porn might have been a more accurate title for this book, but only the most blinkered critic would deny the true artistry of the pieces it depicts. And besides, Psychobabble Reader, whose body would you rather ogle: David’s or Boba Fett’s?

That’s what I thought.

Get Capturing Archetypes: Twenty Years of Sideshow Collectibles Art on Amazon.com here:


Saturday, April 12, 2014

A Note on Dave Davies, Jimmy Page, Shel Talmy, and 'The Who FAQ'


Hello, Psychobabble readers. I just want to take a moment to clarify a detail in my new book, The Who FAQ. In my chapter on musicians who guest-starred on Who recordings, I mentioned a much repeated and false claim by producer Shel Talmy that Jimmy Page played rhythm guitar on The Kinks' "You Really Got Me". I indicated that this was merely a "claim" and never intended to present it as fact. As the player of the unforgettable riff and astounding lead guitar on that classic song, Dave Davies feels great ownership over it and rightly so. There are few songs in the Rock & Roll pantheon with more iconic guitar playing. 

Nevertheless, I may not have made it sufficiently clear that this was not a fact and that it was merely Talmy's version of what really happened. My source was the producer's interview with Richie Unterberger in his book Urban Spacemen and Wayfaring Strangers. In fact, Jimmy Page himself denies playing on the song, which you can in this piece on soundonsound.com here, and in this same piece, Talmy says he does not remember whether or not Page played on the track, further revealing his own shaky grasp on the history of the creation of "You Really Got Me". Once again, the truth is that Page did not play any guitar on "You Really Got Me" whatsoever, nor did he have anything to do with the sound or tone of Dave's guitar. I hope that readers of The Who FAQ will understand that I never intended to indicate otherwise.

My mention of Talmy's claim in Urban Spacemen and Wayfaring Strangers in The Who FAQ has caused Dave Davies a great deal of irritation and he now regrets endorsing my book by penning the foreword. Nevertheless, Dave continues to be one of my top Rock & Roll heroes and The Kinks continue to be one of my very favorite bands.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Review: The Criterion Edition of 'Breaking the Waves'


After starting his career with a series of highly stylized films, Lars von Trier made Breaking the Waves, his first after co-founding the Dogma 95 movement, which preached absolute austerity: only location and handheld shooting, only contemporary settings, no non-diegetic sound or optical manipulation, no superficial action, no credit for the director, etc. Typically, he had trouble even playing by his own rules, and von Trier’s break-through film arrived without Dogma 95-certification, largely because of the hyper-stylized, digitally-colored chapter titles accompanied by non-diegetic pop songs by the likes of Jethro Tull, David Bowie, and Elton John to establish the seventies time period.

Breaking the Waves may have failed to live up to the strictures of Dogma 95, but it was most successful in kicking off two decades of controversy courting with his riskiest storyline yet. Bess, a religiously sheltered woman, fulfills her paralyzed husband’s wish for her to seek sex outside their marriage, but she does so in increasingly dangerous and degrading ways. What a lot of critics miss about Breaking the Waves—and similarly provocative films such as Dogville and Antichrist—is that the patriarchy is always von Trier’s real villain. He often conveys this complexly by showing how oppressive institutions twist the thinking of the women they wish to oppress. In Breaking the Waves that institution is a misogynistic religious order and the surrounding community. Its victim is Bess, who believes the only way to do her “duty” to her husband is by suffering, and that suffering is neither glamorized nor fetishized. The hero of Breaking the Waves is Emily Watson in a career-making role that demanded a hell of a lot from her and found her giving so much more than that. She makes the seemingly simple Bess into a lovable, loving, intensely passionate, and ultimately rebellious woman, shredding a recent claim that von Trier is obsessed with “emotionally empty women” in a denunciation of his new film Nymphomaniac on Jezebel.com. I have yet to see that film, but having seen all of his others, I can say that it applies to no von Trier character I’ve ever seen. I’m more on board with actor Stellan Skarsgård, who says von Trier creates some of the best roles for women in an interview on Criterion’s new blu-ray/DVD combo edition of Breaking the Waves.

As much as I love Breaking the Waves, I was a bit skeptical about its appearance in hi-definition. Aside from those gorgeous chapter-title sequences and the brief, fantastical, transcendent digital-image that ends the film, it is a grainy movie shot with shaky hand-held camera. Criterion’s 4k digital restoration does not transform Breaking the Waves into 2001: A Space Odyssey or anything (that would violate the aesthetic von Trier intended), but it does sharpen the film considerably, rendering Artisan’s blurry DVD from 2000 unwatchable. The film looks darker with more natural tones than the washed-out blues that made the actors look like the walking dead on the Artisan DVD. The restoration made me feel like I’d never really seen Breaking the Waves before. So did the reintroduction of shots censored from the Artisan disc, as well as one change that actually altered the film for the worse in my opinion. In its theatrical run, David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” played over the final chapter title. Because of rights issues, it was replaced with Elton John’s “Your Song” on the Artisan DVD. Criterion restores the Bowie song to the film. I won’t deny that “Life on Mars?” is a much better song than “Your Song”, but I always found that the naked, corny emotion of John’s song complimented the melodramatic ending of Breaking the Waves with an almost unbearable emotional intensity, so I do miss it.

I have no complaints about the other aspects of Criterion’s new edition. It is stuffed with about 1 hour and 45 minutes of bonus material, including an ingenious selective audio commentary that boils the comments down to the most interesting ones over a 47-minute summary edit of the main feature. So we are spared having to listen to a lot of “umming” and “ahhing” over scenes about which the commentators have nothing much to say. There is also a riveting new interview with Emily Watson in which she discusses her very personal and quite astonishing connection to the character she played. A selection of deleted and extended scenes, one of which makes Bess’s husband’s righteous intentions too explicit, reveals how Breaking the Waves could have been a lesser film with their inclusion. A smattering of other goodies, some of which are a lot more light-hearted than the heavy feature, make this a surprising and satisfying release.

Get the new Criterion edition of Breaking the Waves on Amazon.com here:

Monday, April 7, 2014

Turn Left at Greenland, Part 4: ‘A Hard Day's Night' and 'Something New’

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

How long could Beatlemania possibly last? Like most fads, not long…right? For every enduring hula-hoop there were 50 coon skin caps; for every Elvis Presley, 100 Fabians. Was there any reason to believe John, Paul, George, and Ringo would be the lucky four? Why believe those novelty wigs patterned on their absurd moptops would last any longer than the coon skin cap? Best not to waste a second cashing in or The Beatles’ moment would surely be up. A cash-in flick must be rushed into production. Get those Beatles up on the screen before they go the way of the Watusi.

Expectations were low. Elvis Presley’s movies certainly weren’t especially memorable. Directed by Michael Curtiz of Casablanca fame, King Creole had a good degree of panache, but more recent pictures like Fun in Acapulco and Kissin’ Cousins weren’t exactly endearing Elvis to the greasy delinquents who’d crowned him the King of Rock & Roll.

Of course, The Beatles were not four Elvises. They didn’t seem to have it in them to make subpar product. The talent behind A Hard Day’s Night was first rate: the vibrant and experimental young American director Dick Lester, who’d so impressed the incorrigibly hard-to-please John Lennon with his short “Running, Jumping, Standing Still Film”, writer Alun Owen, who’d also won over the Fabs with his Liverpudlian teleplay No Trams to Lime Street, and a strong cast of British comedic actors. There was Wilfrid Brambell of “Steptoe and Son”, Norman Rossington of gritty dramas like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and the daft Carry On comedies, and the wonderful Welsh multi-talent Victor Spinetti, who’d enjoy a fruitful relationship with The Beatles on film. And let’s not underplay The Beatles’ contributions to a film that ultimately rested on their shoulders: Paul, ever charming and expressing a degree of sneering cynicism at odds with his good boy persona, George, whose shrugging naturalism makes his meeting with a smarmy ad man one of the film’s most memorable scenes, John, whose flashes of signature madness (“My name’s Betty!”) make the whole thing seem spontaneous, anarchic, and Ringo, whose underplayed pathos raise the film above a mere larf, imbue it with genuine emotion, and signal that he might be the Beatle with a real film career ahead of him.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Win a Signed Copy of 'The Who FAQ'!

UPDATE: There is a winner among us...congratulations, Wardo! Your signed copy of The Who FAQ is coming at you.

Incidentally, if you feel like falling down an Internet rabbit hole for a few hours (or days), check out Wardo's record-review blog Everybody's Dummy. That's what I plan on doing until the baby wakes up...

I have good news and bad news. The good news is that you can now win your very own copy of my new book The Who FAQ: All That's Left to Know About Fifty Years of Maximum R&B. The bad news is that it's signed by me, which will make it a lot harder to sell on ebay.

Now this is no jive-ass giveaway that requires nothing of you. It is a straight-up trivia challenge that requires maximum knowledge about The Who...or at least the ability to perform a few very simple google searches. As you may or may not know, one of the gimmicks of Back Beat's FAQ series is that every chapter in every book uses a snatch of lyric for a title. Since my book is about The Who, I chose Who lyrics for chapter titles. Makes sense, right? Well, below you will find find five bits of lyric that function as titles of five of the chapters in The Who FAQ. First Wholigan to identify the five songs from which each lyric is taken wins the book! 

And now, the lyrics:

1. "A little thread" 
2. "Inside, outside"
3. "All mixed up"
4. "Come to this house"
5. "We talk so much shit behind each other's backs"

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Publication Date, Shmublication Shmate: The Who FAQ is Shipping Now!

Well, despite months of laboring under the misconception that my book The Who FAQ: All That's Left to Know About Fifty Years of Maximum R&B would be released on May 13, I just received word that it is actually shipping now. I received my personal copy last week and I can confirm that it is indeed a book with words on nearly every page, most of them pertaining to the World's Greatest Rock & Roll Band...The Who.

Stay tuned for an exclusive Who FAQ signed copy give away later this week. But don't let that stop you from ordering the book nowbecause the likelihood that you'll win is probably pretty slim. 

Hope I die before I get old!

 

Monday, March 31, 2014

Review: Mono Vinyl Reissues of Harry Nilsson's 'Pandemonium Shadow Show' and 'Aerial Ballet'


At the very, very end of the hallucinogenic year of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Rock’s Pied Piper released an album so radical it inspired all of his underlings to abandon their sitars and Mellotrons and get back to Rock & Roll’s rustic roots. Dylan’s John Wesley Harding actually wasn’t that radical considering that Rock & Roll had always been cyclical and always would be. It was inevitable that someone would eventually lead the pack away from psychedelic fads (in fact, Dylan’s album wasn’t really even the first back-to-the roots record of late ’67; The Beach Boys’ Wild Honey was).

For a truly radical late-1967 album, check out Harry Nilsson’s RCA debut, Pandemonium Shadow Show. It’s as psychedelic and as rootsy as a Stephen Sondheim musical, yet it houses trappings of both pre-and-post John Wesley Harding pop. Nilsson’s cover of The Beatles’ “You Can’t Do That” encapsulates this perfectly by quoting a dozen tracks by the kings of psychedelia to a back porch rhythm section of acoustic guitar and bongos. Nilsson mapped out a totally individual pop approach by tarting up such unfashionable styles as jazz, lounge, olde tyme brass band, and Broadway with wiseass humor. He made it more than mere novelty by interpreting this material with a truly gorgeous voice, often laid down in blankets of flawless overdubbed harmony. Even tarter, he undercuts all the offhand satire with “1941”, a stark, breath-snatching piece about the daddy issues that haunted his life and work.
           
This topic plops down at the very start of Nilsson’s second RCA album, 1968’s Aerial Ballet, as “Daddy’s Song” (later made famous by The Monkees in their movie Head, leading him from cutting the track from second pressings of Aerial Ballet). Despite the ironically light approach of this track, the rest of the album is less comic than Pandemonium Shadow Show and more of a personal artistic statement. The previous album had been evenly divided between covers and Nilsson originals. The new one only contained a single cover, a version of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” that ended up being its most well-known track when John Schlesinger used it in Midnight Cowboy. Nilsson’s own composition “One” would be an even bigger hit when covered by Three Dog Night the following year.


Pandemonium Shadow Show and Aerial Ballet are both lovely, melancholically funny, and emotionally tender records, and both were released just as mono was falling out of favor, leaving the stereo mixes far more common. Sundazed Records has unearthed the mono versions for new 180 gram vinyl reissues produced with all due love, respect, and authenticity (even the RCA label’s are retained). Two of the most unique records of the late sixties are now more unique than ever.


Get Harry Nilsson’s Pandemonium Shadow Show and Aerial Ballet on Amazon.com here:
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