Thursday, July 19, 2018

Review: ‘The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland’ Expanded Edition


The covers-laden Supremes A-Go Go was significant because it was the first LP by an all female group to top the Billboard charts, but a much greater musical achievement was The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland. With Where Did Our Love Go and More Hits, Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland completed the trio constituting the hit-single makers’ finest albums. The hits—brooding “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”; ethereal “Love Is Here and Now Your Gone”—are among The Supremes’ finest, and might be Motown’s first official acknowledgment of the psychedelic era. Many of the non-hits are nearly as wonderful. Di, Flo, and Mary are at their most ecstatic on the shoulda-been-a-hit “There’s No Stopping Us Now”, their most haltingly dramatic on “Remove This Doubt”, their most grindingly raw on “Going Down for the Third Time”. The other songs that weren’t made famous by other Motown artists are groovy too (only the slightly cornball “Love Is In Our Hearts” is a bit flimsy) and the redundant covers are kept to a relatively minimal three. So don’t be fooled by its generic title and cover. The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland is essentially The Supremes’ Revolver: eclectic, a bit dark, a bit trippy, but always colorfully inviting.

Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland is the latest Supremes album to get the expanded, double-disc treatment from Universal Music. Along with very good-sounding presentations of its mono and stereo mixes (no debate here: the mono mix buries the imbalanced stereo one, though the way the morse-code guitar line of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” flits from channel to channel in the stereo mix is pretty neat), there are numerous bonus tracks, the centerpiece of which is a live set at the Copa from May1967. Like the unlistenable second side of The Four Tops’ On Top, this set is one of Motown’s weird attempts to force a teen-oriented act to appeal to boring old people. The big band arrangements are very cabaret, as is the emphasis on show tunes and standards. The group’s biggest early hits are compressed into a medley and “You Can’t Hurry Love” is played at blinding speed, both suggesting that the Powers That Be wanted The Supremes to get the teeny bopper stuff over with as quickly as possible. It’s all so stodgy and stagy that a relatively stripped down “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” stirs visions of a horde of young punks crashing mom and dad’s cocktail party. Diana Ross was also suffering from a cold that shot her voice. Yet the recording is nicely polished and there is significant historic importance since this was the last concert the group recorded before the sad departure of Florence Ballard.

More musically valuable is the inclusion of the peachy single “The Happening” and its fine flip-side “All I Know About You” (though in odd mixes that allow the songs to peter out instead of fade), a powerfully orchestrated revision of “You’re Gone But Always in My Heart”, and a cool extended remix of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” along the lines of the remix of “Love Is Like an Itchin’ in My Heart” that stood out on last year’s deluxe A-Go Go. There are also two booklets worth of vintage press material, a new interview with Lamont Dozier, track notes, essays, an annotated timeline, and lots of period photos. A splashy package, indeed, but the original album in its mono mix remains the uncontested star attraction of The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland: Expanded Edition.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Review: 'Just a Shot Away: Peace, Love, and Tragedy with The Rolling Stones at Altamont"


Meredith Hunter. We all know the name Altamont and its associations, but too few know the name of the young man murdered at the hands of the Hell’s Angels at the infamous free concert staged at the Altamont Speedway on December 6, 1969. His name is Meredith Hunter, and in Just a Shot Away, author Saul Austerlitz makes damn sure that we know that Hunter was not just some pawn in an event lazy writers love to use as the anti-Woodstock or as a pat conclusion to the sixties and its peace and love ethos. No biography of The Rolling Stones, the band that headlined Altamont (of course, you already knew that), fails to mention Hunter’s name, but I’ve never read one that gave a full, breathing profile of the man’s life. Even before his tragic end, it was fascinating, horribly troubled, creative, deeply complex. Hunter was raised by a schizophrenic mother whose piece-of-trash husband forced her into prostitution. Hunter was an artist. He was a juvenile delinquent. He was a druggie. He was a loving and devoted uncle and brother. He was a complete human being who lived a multi-faceted life despite its brevity. I never knew any of these things before reading Just a Shot Away: Peace, Love, and Tragedy with The Rolling Stones at Altamont, and that's what makes it such a gift

It is also a genuine horror story as Austerlitz describes the sickeningly unfolding events of Altamont with a masterful grasp of tone, detail, and character (though he is not above a few sloppy gaffes, the most egregious one I caught being his attribution of Paul Kantner’s on-stage barbs against the Angels to the wrong Jefferson Airplane guitarist: Jorma Kaukonen). We learn all the events leading up to the matter that ostensibly justified the Hell’s Angels’ attack. Yes, Hunter had a gun, but he only took it from his car after the notoriously racist biker gang had been beating on the crowd for hours, and if they were treating white people like that, what would they do to him? I can never defend possessing a gun under any circumstances, but simply having one in one’s possession hardly justifies being stabbed multiple times, having your head kicked in and stood on until your nose is left a smashed mess that makes breathing through it impossible. Apparently, the gun wasn’t even loaded.

While the Hell’s Angels are without question the villains of this story, the Stones have also often been criticized for fashioning the situation that put a bunch of scumbag, violence-addicted, racist, right-wingers in the role of security. Austerlitz not only repeats the truth that too few people know—the Grateful Dead’s camp were actually responsible for hiring the Angels—but also emphasizes the Dead’s cowardice in turning tail on an admittedly hellacious scene while the Stones met it head on in a vane attempt to settle the crowd. Without question The Rolling Stones were a great band, but they certainly never seemed heroic. As described by Austerlitz , their taking the stage at Altamont is probably the closest they ever came despite their ineffectualness. Their silence about Hunter immediately following the concert, however, was unconscionable.

But this isn’t the Stones’ story. To a small degree it is the Hell’s Angel’s story, but it is really the tale of a young, black man murdered by racist “upholders of the law.” Sound familiar? The contemporary relevance of this story is not lost on Austerlitz, who explicitly ties it in with the stories of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir, Rice, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, and all the other men who have become the victims of racial violence at the hands of cops and vigilantes. In writing of how the Hell’s Angels acted “out a parodic version of American freedom, where freedom itself was an amoral act, unkind and selfish” and “required tuning out the quiet voices that insisted on the inherent dignity of others, and amplifying the ones that demand that others respect yours,” Austerlitz perhaps inadvertently ties this story to the grotesquely toxic White House of 2018. For such reasons, I defy anyone with a conscience to read this account of a 49-year old crime without getting angry as hell today. As you can probably tell, I did, and for that, Just a Shot Away is not only a great piece of historical journalism but an enduringly vital and relevant one too. 

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Review: 'Star Wars Memorabilia—An Unofficial Guide to Star Wars Collectibles'


Paul Berry is correct when he writes, “For a child growing up in the 1980s, Star Wars….collectibles meant more than the films…” We surrounded ourselves with Star Wars stuff because there was so much available. The plentitude of R2-D2 kitchenware and C-3PO toiletries, as well as the heavy nostalgia value of these things, has made Star Wars collectibles a minor subgenre in Star Wars books. The best of these come from Stephen Sansweet, who is to Star Wars what Forry Ackerman was to monster movies. However, even a book as thick as Sansweet’s Star Wars: 1,000 Collectibles fails to even wipe the dust off the surface. So there is certainly room for a more complete book of Star Wars collectibles, though Berry’s isn’t it. At just 95-pages, Star Wars Memorabilia—An Unofficial Guide to Star Wars Collectibles didn’t have much of a chance.

Berry’s book is skinny and his drily informative text makes no attempt to reflect the fun of his subject matter, but there are some nice images here that do not reproduce those in the other Star Wars collectible books. A UK publication, Star Wars Memorabilia supplies plenty of nice photos of carded Palitoy figures and adverts. There are a few odd images related to Topps’ trading cards that did not make it into Abrams Books’ recent anthologies of Star Wars trading cards. There are also some images of items too recent to appear in the older books, though Berry’s focus is mostly on the original trilogy and classic items as it should be. However, the limitations forced by the paltry page count (the chapters really only focus on toys, games, models, books, periodicals, trading cards, and home video) means that there is no room for the kinds of oddities that make these books really interesting.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Review: Vinyl Reissue of Matthew Sweet's '100% Fun'


Even though he made the albums that defined him during the CD age, Matthew Sweet still went the analog route in the studio. While this may not have been the most practical form of music making in the nineties, it is very faithful to the vintage vibe that Sweet’s best music radiates. 

Girlfriend, the first of Sweet’s classic triad, still tends to get most of the love, but in my estimation, the two albums that followed deserve equal plaudits: the gnarly Altered Beast and 100% Fun, which sits in the zone between Girlfriend’s pristine jingle-jangle and Altered Beast’s mid-fi roar. More concise than either, 100% Fun arrived the latest but it may ultimately prove to be the best entry point into Matthew Sweet fandom. So it makes some sense that 100% Fun is the first entry in Intervention Records’ reissue campaign that will see all three of Sweet’s essentials reissued on vinyl in audiophile quality and with bonus tracks. 

So along with the fundamental joy of hearing great songs such as the head banging “Sick of Myself”, the sadly sunny “We’re the Same”, the Revolver homage “Lost My Mind”, “Get Older”, “Walk Out”, and the rest, there’s the exceptional audio quality that brings out every nuance of the album’s warm, grungy timbers without any surplus, unintended grit. On their website, Intervention Records boldly declares that even attempting to compare their 100% analog edition of 100% Fun to the brittle, two-dimensional CD from 1995 amounts to “a total farce,” and it ain’t no idle boast.

The seven bonus tracks are included on their own LP as a sort of 12-inch E.P., but Intervention makes the most of the format by having the disc spin at an audiophile-friendly 45 rpms. The songs are good, though only the B-sides “Never Said Goodbye” and “You” are excellent enough to have been contenders for the main attraction. It would have been nice if there had been some annotation indicating the sources of these bonus tracks… I had to perform a bit of internet research to find out which ones were B-sides and which ones were outtakes. Hardcore completists may also lament the absence of a couple of demos that were included on the “We’re the Same” single but are missing here. Still those quibbles are totally minor when the sound, packaging, and music are so unquestionably fab. Keep it up with Altered Beast and Girlfriend, Intervention, and you may have the reissue campaign of the year.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Review: Expanded Editions of 3 Procol Harum Albums


Procol Harum through Home constitutes one of the finest four-album runs in Rock—reasonably in the same league as Rubber Soul through “The White Album” (damn you, Yellow Submarine!) and Aftermath through Beggars Banquet (no, that is not a massive typo). 1971’s Broken Barricades broke that spell with indifferent songwriting and some of Keith Reid’s worst lyrics (“Luskus Delph” may set the record for ugliest lyrics matched with prettiest tune), and from there, Procol Harum’s output was pretty hit or miss.

Interestingly, Esoteric Record’s latest wave of expanded Procol reissues focuses only on the hits—at least as far as the seventies are concerned. Grand Hotel and Exotic Birds and Fruit are by far the band’s best two post-Home albums, the former displaying the group at their appropriately grandest and the latter at their most soulful. While neither hits the heights of those first four albums, songs such as “As Strong As Samson”, “The Idol”, “For Licorice John”, and “Grand Hotel” can stand side by side with “A Whiter Shade of Pale” or “A Salty Dog”. 

Perhaps in an effort to bury a low point among two high ones, 1991’s The Prodigal Stranger is also tossed into the latest campaign. From that first super-gated drum fill, you’ll suss that this is not the Procol Harum you’re looking for. The soulless soul choirs and synthetic production that was already dated in the year we were all smelling Teen Spirit has not deepened with age, and the BIG pop choruses are no better. This one is only for those who are terminally addicted to Gary Brooker’s voice, which remains in gorgeous form.

Since I only received MP3s for review purposes, I cannot give a full assessment of the sound, but after running them through Audacity, I can report that the files are brickwalled, though Exotic Birds and Fruit is not as extreme as Repertoire’s edition from 2000.

There’s a lot of variation in terms of the bonus tracks. Grand Hotel receives five while The Prodigal Stranger gets only three. Exotic Birds and Fruit, however, swells to three discs, making it the most appealing collection in terms of the quality of the original album and its supplements. Aside from the good B-side “Drunk Again” and an off-putting remix of “As Strong as Samson” that lowers the key for no sensible reason, the triple-disc Exotic Birds includes very professional live sets recorded for the BBC’s In Concert series and Texas Radio. As well as pricking up your ears for versions of such peak-period classics as “Homburg”, “Whaling Stories”, Long Gone Geek”, “Cerdes”, and “Mabel”, be sure to listen for the weird yelping of some goofball in the audience at the BBC show.

Grand Hotel’s more austere selection of bonuses includes a version of the title track without its signature sumptuous strings and alternate versions of “Bringing Home the Bacon”, “Toujours L’amour”, “Fires (Which Burn Brightly)”, and “Robert’s Box”, none of which are radically different from the familiar recordings. The rougher sound of the two demos appended to The Prodigal Stranger should provide a respite from the main attraction’s slickness, but weak songwriting, poorly recorded drums, and overuse of synthesizers remain issues. A live version of “Holding On” recorded for German radio in 2003 is probably the best thing on the entire disc by default, though we can finally hear the mileage on Brooker’s pipes and the song still stinks... but let’s not end on a sour note when the other two albums are so terrific, Grand Hotel and Exotic Birds and Fruit remain essential albums by one of British Rock’s most essential groups.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Review: 'Retro Fan' Magazine


The very idea of starting a magazine so deep into the digital age is totally retro, so it is appropriate that you can read TwoMorrow Publishing’s Retro Fan without the aid of any electronic device. Reading the quarterly magazine on a kindle would spoil the feeling, and this thing is all about the feeling. Maximum nostalgia is editor Michael Eury’s (author of the excellent Hero A-Go-Go) battle cry as he loads his pages with stories of the TV shows, comics, and toys that defined our mid-twentieth-century childhoods. Think of it as Dynamite for the adults who read Dynamite when they were kids. 

Issue #1 includes Eury’s interview with Lou “The Incredible Hulk” Ferrigno transcribed from a Comic Con appearance, and another with Betty Lynn of The Andy Griffith Show, as well as deep looks at Filmation’s Star Trek cartoon, Mego’s line of Stretch Armstrong rip-offs, and The Phantom. These pieces are all collected in a colorful, glossy package intended to stimulate the nostalgia glands, yet there is also intelligence behind these looks at the trivialities of our youth. Eury’s pieces exude a palpable yearning for a less troubled time in our lives without pretending that the era surrounding our childhoods didn’t have its own troubling baggage (though, as a rebuke to one of that era’s biggest problems, it would have been nice to have some female voices on Retro Fan’s currently all-male writing staff).

Some of the articles are a bit rambling (Ernesto Farenio’s memoire “I Met the Wolf Man”), but even when these pieces are not supremely informative, they always stoke that nostalgic feeling. I never watched The Andy Griffith Show, so I personally wasn’t riveted by the series of pieces on that series, but anyone who spent their childhood whistling down at the waterhole surely will. I never was a fan of The Phantom either, but Martin Pasko’s piece on the pioneer superhero who just can’t seem to endure was fascinating in that it filled valuable details into the more general topic of superhero history. And with a cover depicting Elvira, the Groovie Goolies, and Ben Cooper Halloween costumes, the upcoming autumn issue of Retro Fan looks like a can’t-miss item.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Review: 'Female Trouble' Blu-ray

Dawn Davenport is a thief and a shit kicker and she wants to be famous, and that is exactly what she does in John Waters’s way out Female Trouble. Well, his third feature film is way out by most standards, though compared to Pink Flamingos and its relentless freak parade of atrocities, Waters’ follow-up film is almost quaint. 

In lieu of Flamingos’ genuinely shocking scenes of tuneful sphincters, flaccid blowjobs, chicken murder, and shit eating, Female Trouble has something closer to an actual story as Divine’s Davenport goes through the paces of a twisted Douglas Sirk picture. She’s a juvenile delinquent who runs away from home when she doesn’t get the cha-cha heels she demands for X-mas (who wouldn’t?), gets raped (by a male character also played by Divine, which may defuse the horror of mining rape for laughs for some viewers), gets pregnant, raises a nasty daughter she can’t even control by whipping her with a car aerial, finds stardom as a murderous performance artist, takes a bath in a crib full of fish, and gets the chair. 

With so much to sink his (he always identified as male) teeth into, Divine gives his greatest performance, though Mink Stole as Dawn’s bratty daughter Taffy comes close to stealing the show…as was her tendency. Female Trouble feels a bit overlong and a bit flimsy in comparison to the more audacious pictures that bookend it, but since it is not as polarizing as Pink Flamingoes or as bizarre or Divine-devoid as Desperate Living (my personal favorite of Waters’s early films), it is probably the best entry point for potential new fans before they move onto the director’s hardier and better stuff.


Last year, Multiple Maniacs was the Criterion Collection’s first entry in the John Waters collection, and it’s good to see that the best home video company out there is continuing its relationship with the guy a lot of cineastes consider to be one of the worst filmmakers of all time (he’s not; he’s just the filthiest). Criterion treats this trash like its Citizen Kane, cleaning up the image beautifully—the colors in the X-mas tantrum scene are spectacularly saturated—and piling on the supplements. Waters’s feature commentary has been ported over from the DVD edition, but there are also over two hours of extra goodies, including Dennis Lim’s new interview with Waters, Waters’s charming new interview with the actress who played Taffy as a little girl, and vintage interviews with Mary Vivian Pearce (who seemed somewhat bitter about her director’s demanding methods), casting director Pat Moran, and clothing and makeup master Van Smith. Additional bonuses include 15 minutes of outtakes (mostly musical montages) and 11 minutes of on-set footage with Waters’s commentary (mostly identifying the people in each shot) from the main feature and 17 minutes of Female Trouble-centric interviews and outtakes from Jeffrey Schwarz’s excellent documentary I Am Divine. However, the most substantial supplement is a vintage and very funny 32 minute roundtable discussion featuring Waters, Divine, Stole, and David Lochary.  

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