Thursday, July 28, 2011

Review: 'The Beast with Five Fingers'

Spoilers ahead…



American horror spent the ‘40s running on fumes. In the wake of The Wolf Man and the 1935 departure of monster-champion and production-chief Carl Laemmle, Jr., Universal Pictures put less stock in its horror films, churning out a succession of increasingly half-hearted sequels. The films by the genre’s new golden boy, producer Val Lewton of RKO, were atmospheric and cerebral but shied away from the paranormal. The supernatural spook pictures emerging elsewhere were either tempered with humor (Paramount’s The Uninvited) or sheer lethargy (MGM’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). All of these problems are grasped in the disembodied paw of Warner Bros.’ The Beast with Five Fingers. Had it been produced in the previous decade, this adaptation of W.F. Harvey’s short story might have been a first-rate chiller. It certainly has a lot going for it: stylish direction from Robert Florey (Murders in the Rue Morgue), a script by Curt Siodmak (The Wolf Man), a lush score by Max Steiner (King Kong), and meaty lead parts for Peter Lorre and J. Carrol Naish (doing an Italian caricature worthy of Chef Boyardee).

The glitch is that The Beast with Five Fingers isn’t quite sure if it’s man or beast. After a long, long lead up to the death of a crusty pianist (Victor Francen), his personal secretary Hilary (Lorre) starts seeing the dead man’s disembodied hand scurrying all over the place and people start getting choked. Although the hour preceding the hand’s appearance receives able support from fine performances by Francen, the ever-clammy Lorre, Robert Alda (Alan’s dad) as a wisenheimer musician, and Naish as a cop, it drags badly. Those who came to the picture for horror will note a decided reluctance to leap into those waters, possibly because the genre was such a pariah at the time. When the hand finally crawls out of a box like Thing, the terrific visual effects (which recall The Invisible Man) render the previous, humdrum 60 minutes irrelevant and the fun begins.

"You rang?"



But even now it’s difficult to suss where the filmmakers were aiming. The hand’s exploits are played dead-seriously, yet the sight of it tapping out a Bach partita on a grand piano is pretty silly. The ultimate cop-out arrives when we learn that the five-fingered beasty was nothing more than a psychotic hallucination of Hilary, who’d been committing the killings he attributed to the pianist’s nefarious mitt. As if tasked with helping us decide whether we should laugh, shriek, or shrug, Naish turns to the camera and drops a few creaky one-liners in his “that’s a spicy meat-a-ball!” accent. So it’s a comedy after all? Were the filmmakers shoehorning in jokes at the last minute to deflate the potentially heart attack-inducing horrors we just witnessed? Or were they working overtime to avoid having their picture filed in the career-killing horror drawer? Shrug. One thing is for sure: it’s a good thing the Brits were on the verge of taking horror seriously. Otherwise the genre may not have survived beyond the ‘40s.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Review: ‘33 1/3: Some Girls'

One of the marvelous things about Continuum’s 33 1/3 series is that it allows writers a wide range of approaches to discussing classic albums. Without any set format, the books range from neatly organized (Andy Miller’s The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society and Bryan Waterman’s Marquee Moon opt for tight chronologies followed by track-by-track analyses) to creatively messy (Marc Woodworth’s book on Guided by Voices’ Bee Thousand mimics that album’s random abandon with pleasing results). Some of the series’ writers would be better served by tighter parameters. John Dougan primarily used his The Who Sell Out as a study of pirate radio, failing to give The Who’s greatest album the attention it deserves. Cyrus R.K. Patell is another writer who could have used some editorial guidance. While Woodworth’s Bee Thousand was purposefully sloppy, Patell’s look at The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls gives the impression he wasn’t sure how to fill 150 pages.

This book is all over the place. The writer begins with a personal anecdote about a high school teacher without tying it into the album’s story satisfactorily. He then wastes time going over familiar territory: Andrew Oldham’s grooming of The Rolling Stones as the anti-Beatles. I think Patell’s intention is to establish how every move The Stones made was a reaction to existing factors in the pop world, which he explains via a discussion of literary historian Hans Robert Jauss’s “horizon of expectations” theory, but it’s overly labored for such a short book. All of that wordiness does little to illuminate why Some Girls is exceptional, which is contentious in itself. The album was a good return to form after the water-treading Black and Blue, but it doesn’t measure up to the band’s work from the ‘60s through Exile on Main Street. This book seems as though it was written by a writer who did not realize his subject lacks substance until after starting his assignment. So he filled it out with unnecessary autobiographical tangents, pretentious literary theories, and way, way too many passages pulled from other sources. Patell recycles so much of Life that Keith Richards should receive royalties for this book. What does a reprint of Patell’s own blog review of the Shine a Light concert film have to do with an analysis of Some Girls? I understand how Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy” may be relevant to a discussion of “When the Whip Comes Down” (both songs are about rubes and their eye-opening experiences in NYC), but do we really need to know how Campbell came to record the song and how it moved up the pop charts? More filler.

The most interesting chapter is the one titled “Aftermath”, which covers the controversies Some Girls stirred, The Stones' “Saturday Night Live” performance in support of the album, and reactions to the band in their middle-aged years. But the book goes off the rails again when Patell gets into an extended, irrelevant discussion of the Steel Wheels tour. Is the point to show how commercially minded Jagger had become in the ensuing ten years after The Stones made their reaction to punk? Because punk gestures aside, he was pretty commercially minded in ’78 too. Whatever. This is not the worst book about The Stones out there, but with so many superior choices, it’s not really essential. Kind of like Some Girls.

Get 33 1/3: Some Girls at Amazon.com here.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Review: ‘33 1/3: Marquee Moon'

The late-‘70s punk movement gestated for a long time— some may say it began way back in 1963 when The Stones’ recorded Lennon and McCartney’s “I Wanna Be Your Man” as a hyperkinetic rave barely crossing the 90-second mark. Punk slipped through some unexpected variations on its way to becoming one of Rock’s most dogmatic splinters in 1977, when even the wrinkliest journalists knew the formula: two chords, two minutes, some spiky-haired scuzzo from London or NYC screeching about anarchy. Television did not fit that bill at all, yet they sat among the handful of bands that could really be credited with launching punk. They broke in CBGB for Patti Smith, The Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie, and all the other bands that would establish the former home of country, blue grass, and blues as ground zero for New York Punk. Tom Verlaine’s snotty yowl wasn’t radically different from Johnny Rotten’s or Stiv Bators’s, but neither The Sex Pistols nor The Dead Boys would have ever played a ten-minute anthem streaked with ecstatic runs of psychedelic guitar, nor would they have composed lyrics as evocative and poetic as Verlaine’s.

Television could be transcendent on stage, but harnessing that fluid magic on vinyl was tricky. After a false start recording demos with Brian Eno, who one might think would be a perfect match with Television’s atmospheric sensibility, they tried again with Andy Johns, best known for his work with Led Zeppelin and The Stones. The collaboration was surprisingly right (at least once Johns stopped miking Billy Ficca’s drumkit to sound like John Bonham's). Ambitious and beautiful, Marquee Moon is a rare jewel. Television crumbled nearly as soon as their debut was released, managing one other record, the so-so Adventure, before going on hiatus for nearly 15 years.

Bryan Waterman accomplishes quite a lot in chronicling Television’s bumpy path toward making Marquee Moon in his new book for the “33 1/3” series. His book serves as a well-researched biography of the band’s earliest days, which means it tells the portion of Television’s story that will most interest fans. Waterman maintains focus on the music, so anyone looking for anecdotes about Richard Lloyd’s days as a prostitute or other tabloid tales should stick with their copies of Please Kill Me. Yet we still get a rich portrait of the band because so much of their history is relevant to how Marquee Moon was created: the friendship between Verlaine and bassist Richard Hell and their bitter break, Verlaine’s relationship with Patti Smith, new bassist Fred Smith’s defecting from Blondie, the history of CBGB and the New York punk and poetry scenes. Waterman details the album’s recording before providing individual analyses of its tracks, doing his best in the face of Verlaine’s tendency toward the cryptic. Compact yet comprehensive, Bryan Waterman’s Marquee Moon crams a lot of interesting information and insights onto its 211 tiny pages.

Get 33 1/3: Marquee Moon at Amazon.com here.

Release Date for Super-Deluxe 'Quadrophenia'

What's going to be on it? Who knows? But we now have a release date for the Super-Deluxe Edition of The Who's 1973 Mod character study Quadrophenia. According to Amazon.co.uk, the set-- which looks as though it includes five CDs, an L.P.-sized booklet featuring a picture of Pete Townshend's synthesizer, and some postcards ("Greetings from Brighton Beach!" perhaps?)-- is scheduled for a November 14, 2011, release. The set is listing at £89.28 (about $145.50). What? You thought it would be cheap?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Small Faces Box Set and a Note on The Beach Boys' 'SMiLE Sessions'

According to a blurb in the new '60s special edition of Mojo, Universal Music will be issuing a Small Faces box set including "ultra-rare outtakes and unfinished songs" in late 2011/early 2012. Mojo writer Nark Paytress will contribute liner notes.

And while we're on that Mojo special edition, the issue includes a bonus 7" on clear, yellow vinyl containing "Cabin Essence" and "Wonderful" from The Beach Boys' upcoming SMiLE Sessions (both tracks are the versions currently available on 20/20 and Good Vibrations: Thirty Years of The Beach Boys). Still no date for The SMiLE Sessions, although Mojo pegs the box set for a summer 2011 release, which may support rumors that it will surface this September. But considering the ridiculous number of factual errors in the issue's series of articles about The Beach Boys, don't bet your life on it.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Criterion to release 'Island of Lost Souls'



Just in time for Halloween, Criterion will be releasing what may be the most demanded horror film yet to be issued on DVD this October 25. Erle C. Kenton's Island of Lost Souls is the finest adaptation of what may be H.G. Wells's finest novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau. Long unavailable for mysterious reasons, Lost Souls should be worth the wait, with the following enticing features slated for the DVD and Blu-ray releases:

-New high-definition digital restoration of the uncut theatrical version (with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition)
-Audio commentary by film historian Gregory Mank, author of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff and Hollywood’s Maddest Doctors
-New video conversation among filmmaker John Landis (An American Werewolf in London), Oscar-winning makeup artist Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London, Videodrome), and genre expert Bob Burns
-New interviews with horror film historian David J. Skal (The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror); filmmaker Richard Stanley (Hardware, original director of the ill-fated 1996 remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau)
-New interviews with Devo founding members Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh, whose manifesto is rooted in themes from Island of Lost Souls
-Theatrical trailer
-PLUS: A booklet featuring a new essay by critic Christine Smallwood

Click the links to pre-order the DVD or Blu-ray disc at Amazon.com.

Here's what Psychobabble had to say about Island of Lost Souls in the 1930s installment of 120 Essential Horror Movies:

Island of Lost Souls (1933- dir. Erle C. Kenton)

Although Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was an Academy Award-winning success for Paramount, the studio was not particularly interested in becoming another horror grindhouse like Universal. A full year passed before the studio released another such picture, and like Jekyll and Hyde—and Freaks, which it resembles in a number of ways—the studio’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau was beset by controversy. In the U.K., where animal cruelty was a big cinematic no-no, Island of Lost Souls was banned for its themes of vivisection, even though we never actually see any such thing in the film. Wells disdained the picture, feeling it degenerated his allegorical novel into a crass monster movie. Actually, Wells’s anti-imperialism message makes the transition from novel to film fairly well, and director Erle C. Kenton doesn’t spend much time ogling his man-beasts. The focus of the piece is Moreau, played with unctuous self-satisfaction by Charles Laughton. Without Frankenstein’s inner-discord or Jekyll’s chemical-induced madness, Moreau is the most unequivocally evil mad scientist of his era. While the monsters in Universal’s films were generally conflicted, none were more inherently sympathetic than the creatures in Lost Souls, brought into pitiful existence by Moreau to be tortured and controlled. Their climactic monster riot is as satisfying as the similar scene in Freaks, and it zaps the film out of its muggy lethargy: Kenton’s camera grows more active, the monsters lunge at the viewer in horrific close-ups, and Moreau is dispatched gruesomely in his own House of Pain.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Thing I Love Most Today: Townshend's Kinky Fan Mail

Courtesy of Shaun Usher of the Letters of Note site, a 1969 letter from Pete Townshend praising The Kinks to some cat named John. I'm not sure what's more adorable, Pete's unabashed fan-boy gushing or his vintage Holiday Inn stationary. Read the note and some interesting background at Chicagoist.com.

Details on Scorsese's Upcoming George Harrison Doc

Announced quite some time ago, Martin Scorsese's four-hour documentary on the life and music of George Harrison will finally come to pass this October. George Harrison: Living in the Material World will feature unheard music Harrison created while still fabbing it up in the '60s, unseen footage, and presumably, the sharp directorial vision Scorsese brought to music-related projects such as The Last Waltz and Bob Dylan: No Direction Home. Exciting news... for the four or five of you who still subscribe to HBO, because that's where the two-part doc will air on October 5 and 6. The rest of us slobs will have to wait for a DVD release, which my Harrison-senses tell me will arrive in time for Christmas.

Update!: The Second Disc has just passed along a wealth of new details about George Harrison: Living in the Material World, including its U.K. DVD release date (October 10), and the various editions in which it will materialize, one of which sports a bonus CD of the unreleased material mentioned above.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Psychobabble’s 150 Essential Horror Movies Part 5: The 1960s

In this feature, Psychobabble creeps through more than 90 years of horror cinema to assemble a highly personal list of the genre’s 150 most monstrous works, decade by decade.
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51. Eyes Without a Face (1960- dir. Georges Franju)

Hammer may have upped the level of horror movie gore in the previous decade, but nothing the studio produced reached the graphic heights of Blood of the Beasts, Georges Franju’s 1949 documentary about a slaughterhouse outside Paris. While Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux Sans Visage) does not repeat that short’s realism it does display the same icy, graphic violence in ways Hammer would never dare try. The film stars Pierre Brasseur as a doctor suffering terrible guilt after causing the car accident that monstrously scarred his daughter, Christiane. Convinced he can restore her beauty and prove his own godly powers as a physician, Docteur Génessier makes numerous attempts at the world’s first face transplant with skin from young women procured by his assistant, Edna. Franju executes this potentially schlocky plot with hardcore explicitness and mesmerizing poetry. The operation scenes still have the power to disturb, particularly since contemporary audiences would never expect such graphic material in a black and white, French film from 1960. Those sequences are potent, but it is Edith Scob’s ethereal portrayal of Christiane and Alida Valli’s Edna that are most impressive. Like the classic monsters, both are frightening and sympathetic, though not in equal measure. The climax of the film in which Christiane commits some unexpected acts of vengeance, as well as real heroism, is only topped by the haunting final image of her floating into a dark forest and an uncertain future with a white dove perched on her finger. The beautiful, horrible, and artistically rich Eyes Without a Face received notoriously shabby treatment in the U.S., where it was dubbed into English, given the idiotic title The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus, and run as a double-feature with a cheapie called The Manster. In the ensuing years it achieved cult classic status, but Eyes Without a Face deserves to be regarded on the same level as any of its contemporary art films by Fellini or Bergman. Regardless of its reputation, Eyes Without a Face got one of horror’s most fruitful decades—and one of its most spectacular years—off to a striking start.

52. Peeping Tom (1960- dir. Michael Powell)

At the same time Alfred Hitchcock was making the film that would revolutionize the horror film in the ‘60s—and earn four Oscar nominations— Michael Powell was making the film that would nearly ruin one of the most prestigious careers in cinema. The maker of such British institutions as The Red Shoes and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was now treading through murky waters, indeed, choosing to tell the tale of Mark Lewis (Karl Böhm), a serial killer who photographs his victims at the moment of their deaths using a dagger concealed in his camera’s tripod. By emphasizing the link between sex and violence even more explicitly than Hitchcock (among Mark’s victims are a prostitute and a model who performs a frenzied, impromptu dance), Powell took his content several ticks beyond even Hammer’s controversial pictures. The film was ravaged by U.K. critics (Derek Hill of the Tribune wrote that it should be “shovel[ed] up and flush[ed]… down the nearest sewer”) and butchered in the U.S. where it was dumped in the grind houses. That’s rough treatment for perhaps the first film to examine the filmmaker’s responsibility in presenting violent material to audiences, as well as the audience’s own dicey desire to look at the sick and the horrible. Mark is not a peeping tom at all. Like Norman Bates, he is a voyeur who derives the pleasure of looking with debilitating guilt. The sexual feelings his gaze stirs moves him to murder. Unlike Norman Bates, Mark is given a richer and more convincing back story, one we see played out in one of the disturbing films he owns rather than hear from the mouth of a longwinded psychoanalyst. Critics also missed the sly humor that offsets the horror and despair, Moira Shearer giving a particularly delightful performance as dancer Vivian before Mark cuts her down. When she dies, we feel far greater remorse than we do after the deaths of Marion Crane and Arbogast in Psycho. Hitchcock is a cynic who wants us to feel complicit in Norman Bates’s crimes. Powell wants us to feel for his killer. Böhm helps accomplish this with a tortured performance, but we also sympathize with Mark because he is loved by a kind woman named Helen, played with charisma and vulnerability by Anna Massey. When Mark is outed as a murderer and meets his inevitable end, we feel reluctantly sorry for him and downright crushed for Helen. Peeping Tom has its flaws. Like so many of Powell’s films, it is slow. There is no explanation for why Mark speaks with a thick German accent even though he lived his entire life in London and we hear his father speak with a British accent in one of his films. And as always, the explicit correlation between sexual women and extreme violence is off-putting. In this way, Peeping Tom may be a clearer progenitor of the slasher film than Psycho. Depending on your opinion of that subgenre, this is either a distinction to be celebrated or shamed.

53. Psycho (1960- dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

The past five years had seen numerous innovations in horror, and none of them arose from the major Hollywood studios that had ruled the genre since the early ‘30s. It took a British director to give Universal another shot at the thorny crown it once wore. Actually, Alfred Hitchcock made Psycho at Universal Studios but produced it under his own Shamley Productions, which was responsible for his popular macabre series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” (Paramount distributed the film). One certainly could not mistake Hitch’s follow up to the ultra-glossy North by Northwest for a big Universal or Paramount production. Inspired by the low-budget intimacy and gimmickry of William Castle’s recent schlocker shockers, Hitchcock used his TV crew to shoot Psycho in simple black and white with a small cast, small sets, and on a miniscule budget. He even employed a Castle-esque shuck to promote the picture (“No one... but no one will be admitted to the theater after the start of each performance…”). Hitchcock may have scaled way back on the frills and felt it necessary to use a bit of corny hucksterism to sell tickets, but he’d never made a picture more suspenseful, disturbing, or brilliantly plotted than Psycho. Of course, Joseph Stefano deserves a lot more credit for the picture’s greatness than he usually receives. The screenwriter exaggerated the pacing of Robert Bloch’s novel to build the film’s ingenious structure: get the viewers so involved in the story conflicted thief Marion Crane (Janet Leigh, the film’s one big star) for the first half hour that they forget they are even watching a movie called Psycho, then… SLICE!... carve up their expectations by having Norman Bates carve up Marion in cinema’s most famous shower scene. The twisting and throttling of audience expectations doesn’t end there. Hitchcock cast the boyish, sympathetic Anthony Perkins to play maniac Norman Bates, and we uncomfortably empathize with him even when he is committing the most heinous deeds. The most striking example of this is when the director manipulates us into rooting for Bates as he rolls Marion’s car, which contains her dead body, into a bog. It wasn’t enough for Hitchcock to show us a murder; he wanted us to feel complicit in it. That was also his sense of humor, even though this is one of his least mirthful films (the exception being the very funny early sequence in Marion’s office featuring Hitchcock’s daughter Pat as a self-obsessed chatterbox). What Psycho may lack in laughs, it more than makes up for in incredible performances, fascinating characters, and genius direction. The influence of Psycho would stretch far. Roger Corman, Castle, and Hammer studios all produced self-conscious responses to it. The slasher films born in the late ‘70s owe a direct debt to it, too, though none of them came within a mile of Psycho in terms of quality, style, or smarts.

54. The Brides of Dracula (1960- dir. Terence Fisher)

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Psychobabble’s Ten Greatest Albums of 1981

Greatness was in short order in the increasingly shallow pop scene of 1981. Punk faded, MTV entered the picture. Style started trumping substance and would continue to do so throughout the rest of the decade. That does not mean ’81 was a wash by any means. After more than a decade of the L.P.’s reign, singles started reclaiming their role as the ideal pop vehicle, and the year saw some great ones. “Under Pressure”! “Genius of Love”! “Kids in America”! “We Got the Beat”! “Electric Avenue”! Yes! There were also some genuinely great albums to be heard. Here’s a selection of ten.

10. AHS 1005 by Lyres

Glossy, soulless pop production had barely begun ruining many an ‘80s album when Boston-based Lyres were already in revolt. AHS 1005 is impossible to place as a record released in 1981. The snarling attitude and raw production are pure ’65. Jeff Conolly put together Lyres after his even more brutish group, DMZ, went extinct in the late ‘70s. The new combo allowed more breathing space for his throaty grunt and squealing Farfisa, but he’d hardly been tamed. Neo-Nuggets such as “Buried Alive” and “100 CC’s (Pure Thrust)” burn with all the cro-mag fury of The Sonics, The Shadows of Knight, Question Mark and the Mysterians, and the rest of the mop-topped, one-hit wondering horde. “High on Yourself”, “She Pays the Rent”, and “Help You Ann” are garage rock masterpieces with all the catchiness and pure thrust of the oldies that inspired them. Released as a 45 RPM 12” L.P., AHS 1005 shreds by in under 25 minutes. Another minute may have caused listeners’ heads to cave in.

9. Pleasant Dreams by The Ramones

The Ramones’ formula—a few words shouted over a couple of power chords all brought in under two minutes—resulted in a lot of amazing music, but it was also limiting. After four great records they recruited Phil Spector to expand their sound on End of the Cenutry with unspectacular results. Instead of accepting that minor failure and retreating to raw simplicity, The Ramones gave progress another shot by having Graham Gouldman produce Pleasant Dreams. Gouldman may be best known as a member of mock-poppers 10cc, but The Ramones were likely more impressed by the songs he wrote for The Yardbirds, The Hollies, Herman’s Hermits, and other ‘60s favorites. Not surprisingly, the band was again disappointed by the overly slick product of their efforts. Graham’s compressed, smooth production doesn’t have the raw power of Tommy Ramone’s work on those first four records, yet Pleasant Dreams is a lot better than its reputation suggests. The indifference of End of the Century is replaced by a sort of bitter rejuvenation in Joey’s writing after Johnny “stole” his girlfriend, Linda. Joey’s pain over losing the woman he loved, and anger about being stuck in a band with the guy who was now groping her in the back of the van, rips through “Don’t Go” and “The KKK Took My Baby Away”. Despite Gouldman’s attempts to domesticate them, the band sounds fierce on “All’s Quiet on the Eastern Front”, which features one of Dee Dee’s best vocal counterpoints, “You Sound Like You’re Sick”, and “You Didn’t Mean Anything to Me”. Joey and Dee Dee’s songs are as catchy as ever, often favoring a more jangle-pop sound than the speedy punk of their earlier work. If not for Gouldman’s polished production, Pleasant Dreams could have easily rated alongside The Ramone’s best records.

8. Beauty and the Beat by The Go Gos

The Go-Go’s rose from the same L.A. punk scene that spawned hardcore groups like The Germs (for whom Belinda Carlisle briefly drummed) and Fear, but their earliest recordings indicate that their punk predecessors were The Shangri-La’s rather than, say, The Sonics. When they made their debut album for I.R.S. in 1981, producers Richard Gotteherer and Rob Freeman had basically shaved off the stubbly rawness of those demos, while the label packaged Beauty and the Beat condescendingly with a title that emphasized their physical attractiveness and in an LP sleeve that depicted them doing such “girly” things as posing in mud masks, blabbing on the phone, and sniffing flowers. All of that bullshit still could not tame the five women whom VH-1 documentaries remind us were completely out of control. Tracks like “Lust to Love”, “This Town”, “Tonight”, “We Got the Beat”, and “Can’t Stop the World” are desperately passionate, the slick and poppy production failing to reign in Gina Schock’s tom-tom clobbering and Belinda Carlisle’s over-the-edge yowling completely. Not that pop was the wrong direction for The Go-Go’s, and they made some utterly perfect pop classics with “Our Lips Our Sealed” and “How Much More”, while attitudinal lyrics about lust, love, and roaming and ruling the streets like panthers prove that no idiotic bathtub photo shoot could sanitize the very dirty spirit of The Go-Go’s.

7. Juju by Siouxsie and the Banshees

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Review: The Next Wave of Kinks Deluxe Editions



The Kinks entered 1966 as a radically different band. Power-chord pile drivers such as “You Really Got Me”, “All Day and All of the Night”, and “Till the End of the Day” gave way to sensitivity and social observation. These ingredients had already seasoned the more sedate moments on their earlier records, but they became The Kinks’ raison d'être on Face to Face. The band could still whip up a froth on stuff like “Party Line” and “House in the Country”, but the heaviness had dissipated. So had trivial lyrics about hand holding and all that follows. Ray Davies’s literate tales of self-pitying layabouts, wayward teens, and vain bounders placed him in the same league as Britain’s top composers. In his own way, Davies nearly matched Dylan in terms of influence on his mid-‘60s peers. He was single-handedly responsible for spearheading the wave of music-hall nostalgia and unapologetic Britishness that made London swing in ’66 and ’67. It is impossible to imagine The Stones’ Between the Buttons, Donovan’s Mellow Yellow, and even Sgt. Pepper’s without The Kinks’ inspiration. Yet few beyond their fellow musicians and hip music critics were aware of the full breadth of The Kinks’ greatness during this period, because they were still generally regarded as a singles band. A Musician’s Union ban from the United States further damaged their commercial potential.



Still The Kinks soldiered on, crafting an L.P. that should have been their masterpiece. Arriving in late 1967, Something Else by The Kinks develops upon Face to Face to formulate a perfectly realized microcosm of English life populated by a particularly vivid cast of characters. Peculiarly, Ray chose to tell his stories not from the perspectives of these golden boys and girls, but from drab, envious bystanders. As such, “David Watts”, “Two Sisters”, “Lazy Old Sun”, and “Waterloo Sunset” are among his most humane and finely detailed character sketches. Meanwhile, brother Dave—the Sybilla to Ray’s Priscilla—was developing into a fine songwriter in his own right with the comparatively extroverted rockers “Funny Face” and “Love Me Till the Sun Shines” and the sublime Dylan-pastiche “Death of a Clown”.



Something Else should have been The Kinks’ masterpiece because no band should have it in them to make a record of greater beauty or depth. That did not stop them from conjuring The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society a year later, and a more perfect pop creation is impossible to imagine. So magnificently realized, the album made decline an inevitability, and though Arthur or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire is wonderful, it does feel like The Kinks’ had passed the rainbow’s peak. Recorded as the soundtrack to an uncompleted television film, Arthur drags slightly because of the extended jams cut to fill out dramatic sequences. Yet Ray’s compositions continue to astound—“Victoria”, “Shangri-La”, and “Yes Sir, No Sir” certainly rate among his finest—and the band sounds positively elated to be back in harder rocking territory.

Village Green received an extraordinary sonic upgrade and expansion way back in 2004, but the other records that komprised The Kinks’ most kreative period were only available in poorly mastered, hard-to-find editions. Sanctuary/UMC’s new kampaign to refurbish The Kinks’ back katalogue (OK, I’ll stop with the K’s …) has finally bestowed the definitive editions of Face to Face, Something Else, and Arthur on a patient public. Well, as definitive as we’re likely to get. The sound of these discs cannot be improved. Like the double-disc editions of The Kinks’ first three records released this past Spring, these latest releases are dense and detailed. Each album is presented in both mono and stereo mixes, which is slightly redundant on Face to Face since several tracks on the “stereo” album are actually in mono. These numbers are given all-new stereo remixes as bonus tracks, though a quick listen will reveal why they were left in mono in the first place. Something Else is the record on which The Kinks were well represented in stereo for the first time. The mixes are unusually well balanced and full-bodied for the era. The mono version is still worth hearing for its fascinating alternate details, particularly apparent in “Lazy Old Sun”. Arthur was recorded after the proliferation of stereo, and the mono mix sounds lacking in comparison.

The compilers did a good job of sweeping together a bundle of bonus non-L.P. sides, alternate mixes, BBC cuts, and oddities (collectors will be pleased to discover “Sand on My Shoes”, an early version of “Tin Soldier Man”, and an acoustic version of “David Watts”). Still, it isn’t nitpicky to note that several great, lost Kinks classics still have not received official release. The scuttlebutt is that Ray blocked the inclusion of “Pictures in the Sand” and “Till Death Us Do Part” from the deluxe edition of Village Green Preservation Society for some reason, so he may be blameworthy for their non-appearance on these latest discs, too. Those divine songs would have been preferable to the alternate mix of “Drivin’” and backing track of “Shangri-La” included on Arthur. So would orphans such as “There Is No Life Without Love” and “I’m Crying” from Dave’s abandoned solo record featuring The Kinks as his backing band. Oh well. There’s always hope that these tracks may find their ways onto a deluxe edition of Lola vs. Powerman and the Money-Go-Round sometime in the future. Keep your fingers krossed.

Obtain these fine Kinks deluxe editions at Amazon.com here:

Face to Face

Something Else

Arthur
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