Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Review: 'Batman: The Complete Television Series Blu-ray'

As you may have been able to tell from the bevy of Batman-centric reviews I've been posting here on Psychobabble this month, the Caped Crusader's 75th Anniversary has infected DC, WB, and other holders of Batman properties with a serious case of Batman fever lately. The crown jewel of all these wonderful toys is the release of William Dozier's brilliant live-action series on home video for the very first time. Why Batman: The Complete Television Series is only zapping into shops now is a complicated conundrum worthy of The Riddler, and it's been detailed elsewhere. So let's just skip ahead to how Warner Brothers did with this landmark blu-ray box.

Full disclosure: I have not watched every single one of the 120 episodes it contains. Doing so would mean this review wouldn't get posted until sometime in mid-2015. Based on the ones I've watched so far, the series looks better than it ever did and certainly better than its makers ever intended. You can count the bristles of Cesar Romero's mustache under all that Joker make up. Actually, everyone looks pretty heavily done up here with fake tans that probably registered as a healthy skin tone on crappy 1966 TVs. But obvious facade is a big part of Batman's humor, so it all works toward the show's grand joke. The primary-color palette pops like a bat-punch to the bat-face. Batman and Robin's capes look so silkily tactile you'd swear you could reach through the screen and snatch them off the dynamic duo.
One down note is that there is the occasional missing element, the most glaring of which are the absence of the tag at the end of the "Marsha's Scheme of Diamonds" episode and a brief shot of John Astin in "A Riddling Controversy". Most of the lost bits are bumpers announcing next week's villains that will probably only be lamented by the most hardcore batfans. (*Information about WB's disc replacement program can be found here)

We do get a nice array of extras, including a half-hour doc on Adam West that plays like a mini-"E! True Hollywood Story" ("Hanging with Batman"), a piece about tie-in merchandise with lots of toys and costumes to drool over ("Holy Memorabilia Batman"), a doc on the show's comic-book look and attitude ("Batmania Born"), odd sporadic video commentaries by West cut into the first two episodes of the series, a collection of dopey soundbites from cast and crew members of current TV shows ("Na Na Na Batman"), and a semi-celebrity fan roundtable discussion mediated by Kevin Smith. Funny, relaxed, and informative, that roundtable was my favorite of the lot. "Batmania Born" is the smartest retrospective of the bunch, though I wish the filmmaker hadn't invited that idiot Michael Uslan, who cited the Civil Rights movement as an example of the sixties "going wrong" in the "Batman: A Dynamic Legacy" featurette on the Batman: The Movie blu-ray and repeats his bullshit here.

Most of these extras are notable for the participation of Adam West and the absence of his co-stars aside from appearances by Burt Ward and Julie Newmar in "Batmania Born" and very briefly in "Na Na Na Batman". "Hanging with Batman" and "Holy Memorabilia Batman" are marred by a tone too earnest for tributes to a ridiculously fun series. You might want to hit the stop button before a collector starts singing a sappy piano ballad about his toys at the end of "Holy Memorabilia Batman". Unaffected by such matters are a sampling of vintage tidbits that include screen tests and a seven-minute pilot for a "Batgirl" series that didn't happen. Inclusion of the 1974 PSA about the federal equal pay law starring Yvonne Craig and Burt Ward (and an imposter Batman) would have been a really cool addition too. It's not here, but you can always just watch the bad quality version on YouTube.

Finally, we must make mention of the boffo limited edition packaging, which is more notable for a very cool, magnetically sealed box complete with Neal Hefti-theme-song playing button than any of the trinkets inside. The grooviest of these is probably the Hot Wheels Batmobile, but we also get a neat repro set of Topps' 1966 Batman trading cards. A wafer-thin hardcover book of color photos is less impressive, but when all is said and done, Batman: The Complete Television Series blu-ray is not one of the best home video releases of 2014 for the extras and swag. It's the gorgeously restored presentation of one of the best series of the sixties that makes this a must own. You might want to wait for the inevitably cheaper (though currently way overpriced, for some reason), standard packaging release to arrive before spending your bat dollars though.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Review: The Jam's 'Setting Sons' (Deluxe Edition)

The Jam never really sounded as much like The Who as journalists wanted you to believe, but The Who had been a key influence on the band ever since Paul Weller fell in love with My Generation. Aside from the occasional musical flourish—a storm of drums, a pick scrape down guitar strings, flicker of pick up— Weller derived much attitude and image from the early Who. For 1979’s Setting Sons, he picked up on another important Who calling card. It was to be a concept album with a story about three childhood friends whose wartime experiences divide them as adults. As so often happened to The Who, the realities of the record making business meant The Jam had to abandon their ambitions to rush new product into stores. So like The Who Sell Out or Lifehouse/Who’s Next, Setting Sons is really half a concept album. Also like those albums, it’s great.

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. In the former camp is “Eton Rifles”, a classic statement of righteous outrage against privileged military cadets, and the incendiary “Private Hell”. In the latter is the ultra-mini mini-opera “Little Boy Soldiers”, the stripped-down Motown vibe “Girl on a Phone”, and the exquisite orchestrated re-recording of Bruce Foxton’s “Smithers-Jones”.

The only track to miss the boat is a cover of “Heat Wave”, though this is interesting because it reveals The Who’s influence on two levels: it’s clearly patterned on their version and not The Vandellas’ original, and it serves the exact same filler purpose on Setting Sons as it did on The Who’s own semi-conceptual second album, A Quick One. Like The Who’s version, The Jam’s is not bad; it’s just out of place amongst such an exceptional selection of original songs.

UMe’s new deluxe edition of Setting Sons continues the story with the non-LP singles “Strange Town” b/w “Butterfly Collector”, “When You’re Young” b/w “Smithers-Jones (in its rocking original state), and “Going Underground” b/w “Dreams of Children”, as well as “Eton Rifles” in its edited 45 form b/w “See-Saw”.  These sides constitute some of the greatest singles of the turn of the decade.

Disc Two celebrates the intense live act The Jam were with a BBC concert caught at London’s Rainbow Theatre on December 4, 1979. Previously released as a limited edition bonus track on 2002’s The Jam at the BBC, this show mostly showcases Setting Sons and All Mod Cons. There are only a couple early classics, “The Modern World” (complete with BBC-censored “fuck”) and “Away from the Numbers”. The Jam may have developed beyond the punk rawness of those numbers on vinyl at this point, but they still kept it alight on stage.

Setting Sons is also available as a four-disc Super Deluxe edition with an extra CD of alternative takes, demos, and Peel sessions and a DVD of television appearances and music videos. A previously unreleased show at the Brighton Centre takes the place of the Rainbow one.

Get Setting Sons as a Deluxe or Super Deluxe edition on here:

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Review: 'Millions Like Us: The Story of the Mod Revival 1977-1989'

Paul Weller’s discovery of My Generation was a decisive event for a lot of late-seventies British kids. It was what sparked his obsession with long-dead Mod culture and inspired him to bring its style and sounds back from the dead with his own band, The Jam. That great group that fused the mid-sixties sounds of The Who and Small Faces with the contemporary speed and aggression of punk inspired a whole lot of other kids to kick their own bands into gear. By 1979, the U.K. scene was flooded with bands that fobbed off punk’s tattered fashions and nihilistic attitude for sharp clobber and messages of youthful unity.

A modern Mod movement was at hand and it never would really die again, though its most fruitful years were 1979 and 1980. Cherry Red’s new four-disc box set Millions Like Us: The Story of the Mod Revival 1977-1989 culls half its tracks from those two Mod, Mod, Mod, Mod years, when bands across England sang of joining together with their fellow alright kids on Bank Holiday, slashed out Townshend-esque chords, and slammed out Moony drum fills at purple hearts-fueled speeds. Pulling the best elements of punk and power-pop together, bands like The Chords, New Hearts, The Reaction, The Circles, The Lambrettas, and Dead Beats made some of the most adrenaline-pumping records of their generation. They make Millions Like Us an exhilarating listen, especially for a Yank such as myself since very few of these groups had any impact at all on my side of the pond (really, I was only already familiar with The Nips, The Aardvarks, Nine Below Zero, and Red Beans and Rice). So this set is a truly spectacular entry into a must-visit world for fans of The Who, Small Faces, Elvis Costello, and The Jam (who are not represented aside from the slew of groups that sound exactly like them).

Millions Like Us only loses a bit of steam for a stretch in 1985 when groups started making the kind of glossy, very-eighties plastic soul that would be on display in Julien Temple’s adaptation of Absolute Beginners the following year. But we’re talking about a tiny patch of five tracks out of 100, right in between The Combine’s “Dreams Come True” and 5:30!’s “Catcher in the Rye”. Those two numbers are as raw and vital as the mass of Millions Like Us, one of the best various artists box sets I’ve ever heard.

Get Millions Like Us: The Story of the Mod Revival 1977-1989 on here:

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Review: The Twilight Time Edition of 'When the Wind Blows'

The current generation may associate nuclear fear with the fifties and early sixties, but it was something we very much continued to live with in the eighties. I remember drills in which I was led out of class to squat down in the hallway with my knees against my chest, because somehow, this would protect a bunch of elementary school kids from a nuclear blast.

This seems like an idiotic thing to do. It was. But governments have always tried to soften the realities of the idiocy of nuclear warfare. In Jimmy Murakami’s 1986 animated adaptation of Raymond Briggs’s graphic novel, When the Wind Blows, a conservative, middle-aged, British couple refer to a government-issued pamphlet to prepare for imminent nuclear annihilation. Discussing their doom as if nothing more than a big snowstorm is on the way, Jim and Hilda paint their windows to insulate themselves from radiation, take inventory of canned goods, do the laundry, hide behind wooden doors and inside paper bags. It’s subtly played for laughs, but is it any more ridiculous than cowering from fallout in a school hallway?

Ridiculously, the couple’s efforts help them survive the blast. They’re not out of the woods yet, and the aftermath of the detonation sees When the Wind Blows gradually turn from droll satire to disturbing and depressing.

Murakami animated the most pungent nuclear-age satire since Dr. Strangelove in appropriately bizarre fashion. He combines childlike drawings (Jim and Hilda look like refugees from Nickelodeon’s “Doug”), sculpted live action backdrops, and stop-motion elements in the same frame. I have never seen another film that looks like When the Wind Blows. Murakami also employs flairs of other styles, such as the violently sketched sepia animations that accompany the bomb’s impact, snatches of actual WWII news footage, and the fantastical pastel passages that imagine a happier outcome for James and Hilda in fairyland. Voicing our cast of two, John Mills and Peggy Aschcroft employ a totally unaffected delivery that lends arresting realism to all of the grim strangeness.

Twilight Time’s new blu-ray edition of When the Wind Blows looks terrific and comes with a nice selection of extras. The jewel of these is the feature-length Arts Council documentary Jimmy Murakami: Non-Alien from 2010. Murakami’s experience in a Californian concentration camp during WWII haunt this intimate portrait of and narrated by the artist. His focus on the horrid disruptions of war and the ways family helps one endure relates to the feature presentation directly. An excellent 24-minute doc specifically about that feature, The Wind and the Bomb, tracks When the Wind Blows from page to screen featuring interviews with Murakami, Briggs, and the animators. Their responses to “What would you do in the event of an actual nuclear attack?” is disarming and disturbing. The unrestored footage of the film in this documentary really made me appreciate how good Twilight Time’s blu-ray looks. There’s also a 13-minute interview with the eccentric Briggs. He based Jim and Hilda on his parents, and this interview reveals how deep his fixation on them goes. The isolated music track showcases David Bowie’s memorable theme song and Roger Waters’s soundtrack, which is as schizo as Murakami’s animation: doomy and synthesized during the horrifying scenes of approaching planes and imploding buildings; beautiful and acoustic during the fanciful interludes. A feature commentary from editor Joe Fordham and film historian Nick Redman round out an impressive lot of supplements to an extraordinary film.

Get the Twilight Time edition of When the Wind Blows at Screen here.

Review: 'Haunted Horror: Comics Your Mother Warned You About'

Craig Yoe’s Haunted Horror gathers choice stories from less-remembered fifties horror comics like Voodoo, Worlds of Fear, and Adventures into Darkness. IDW’s hardcover anthology of the series’ first three issues, Haunted Horror: Banned Comics from the 1950s, made a pretty strong case for these comics with their weird stories and weirder artwork. The next few issues gathered in a new volume called Haunted Horror: Comics Your Mother Warned You About aren’t quite as out-there, with stories leaning more heavily on clichés and oddly enough, sports, a topic that doesn’t mix well with horror’s dank atmosphere, and the misogyny of the bowling tale “Night Owl” is more repugnant than its predictable conclusion.

There’s still a good deal to enjoy in this latest volume, particularly in the run of stories that follow those blah sports ones. “Valley of Horror” gets things back on track with a motorist suffering from mistaken identity issues, Jack Cole’s classically morbid artwork, and a welcome dose of humor and imagination. “Dragon Egg” is like a collaboration between Ray Harryhausan and the Crypt Keeper. “Ghoul’s Bride”, with its Lon Chaney-inspired creature, and the vampiric “The Night of Friday the 13th” sport the book’s most striking art. “The Thing from Beyond” has its grossest. “The Improved Kiss” is a truly gruesome mingling of historical and supernatural horrors. The first half of the book has a couple of good pieces too in “Goodbye… World!”, a cuckoo tale of locust-sympathizing space harpies, and “The Devil Puppet”, which features what may be the most evil evil puppet in a long history of evil puppet stories.

Though these non-mother-approved tales are a milder bunch than last year’s banned ones, there’s still plenty to drool over, and as always, IDW packages these tasteless tales in lovingly tasteful fashion.

Get Haunted Horror: Comics Your Mother Warned You About on here:

Monday, November 17, 2014

Review: The Twilight Time Edition of 'Flaming Star'

The things we expect from an Elvis movie—mindless joviality, pretty actresses, mediocre songs—arrive early in Flaming Star. Then just ten minutes in, shocking acts of violence transform it from an Elvis movie into a movie starring Elvis Presley. The title does not refer to a celebrity pop singer; it refers to the flaming star of death, and this western is nothing if not elegiac and serious as a stopped heart.

A hint that this might not be your typical romp with the King of Rock & Roll is dropped in the opening credits when the words “Directed by Don Siegel” flash on the screen. Siegel is renowned for dead-dark stuff like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Killers, and Dirty Harry. He doesn’t let any light shine in no matter who’s starring in his movie, and though Elvis is really part of an ensemble cast in Flaming Star, there’s no question who its star is. As the half-Native American son of a multiracial frontier family, Elvis is clearly the stand out player. He took his work on the film so seriously that he insisted the other unnecessary musical numbers Siegel shot be cut from it.

Elvis is Pacer. He and his family are caught in the middle of a war between white invaders and the Kiowa tribe. Depicted as craven, hot-blooded racists and rapists, the whites want Elvis’s all-white half-brother Clint (Steve Forrest) to fight alongside them. Led by Chief Buffalo Horn (Mexican actor Rodolfo Acosta) and driven by honor and the understanding that the whites intend to wipe them off their own land, the Kiowa believe Pacer should stand with them. The brothers vow loyalty to their family alone until another act of violence impels Pacer to take a side. 

Not only is Flaming Star unusually serious, violent, and light on music for a movie with Elvis Presley, it is uncommonly thoughtful too. The filmmakers clearly side with the Kiowa (and rightfully so) yet they are completely honest about the violence and tragic mistakes either side of any war perpetrates. That honesty extends to the way Siegel shot his film. He curbs the stylized strokes he brought to Body Snatchers and The Killers for a more straight-forward, more realistic approach in Flaming Star. Siegel works with pale daylight exteriors, dim blue nighttime ones, and shadowy interiors, making Flaming Star a sort of color noir without the weird angles.

Twilight Time’s new blu-ray of Flaming Star respects its muted aesthetic with fine clarity, depth, and grain. Film Historians Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman provide an audio commentary in which they discuss Elvis’s movies without pulling punches and relate how the relative commercial failure of Flaming Star ultimately did them a disservice. Interesting to my fellow horror fans is an extended discussion of how Barbara Steele was originally cast for a minor role that ended up going to Barbara Eden (who is quite good). The disc also includes original trailers and an isolated score track.

Get the Twilight Time edition of Flaming Star at Screen here.

Review: The Pixies' 'Doolittle 25'

Like Please Please Me, The Velvet Underground & Nico, and Nevermind (which wouldn’t exist without it), Doolittle is an album that launched a thousand bands. It still sounds as disturbing, catchy, crazy, and uniformly perfect as it did 25 years ago—much less a product of its time than those other albums in its influential league. There is nothing indicative of the antiseptic sounds of ’89 in Gil Norton’s raw, organic production, though its original CD release was still in need of a sonic upgrade. Doolittle apparently got that when it and the rest of The Pixies’ catalogue was remastered in 2003. I don’t have that version, so I can’t confirm whether or not 4AD’s new triple-disc deluxe edition is an all-new master or a recycle of the 2003 one (and since nothing in the press material indicates a remaster, I think it might be safe to assume the latter). However, this is still a pretty must-own repurchase of an album that should have already been in your collection for twenty-something years.

Like all really necessary deluxe-edition excesses, Doolittle 25 offers ways to hear some familiar music in fresh and enlightening ways. While the original album occupies disc one, its demos on disc three strip away Norton’s barely-there sheen for an even rawer, even wilder Doolittle; not necessary a better version of an LP I already called perfect (and it can’t be said enough: Doolittle is perfect. It’s perfect), but a good idea of how it would sound on stage. Genuine live recordings can be heard on disc two in the form of a snatch of John Peel sessions that reinterpret some of the material faster, nastier. That second disc also includes all related B-sides, (many also in Peel performances) which are the best original B-sides of The Pixies’ career: “Manta Ray”, “Weird at My School”, “Wave of Mutilation UK Surf”, “Into the White”, and “Dancing the Manta Ray” (though I should note that “Bailey’s Walk” is probably their worst B-side). That these tracks are significantly meatier here than they were on 2001’s anemic sounding Complete B-sides CD leaves no wonder that at least they were remastered for Doolittle 25.

Get Doolittle 25 on here:

Friday, November 14, 2014

Psychobabble’s Ten Greatest Albums of 1994

In 1992, the renewed interest in hairspray-free guitar-based bands that began with Nevermind opened wide. The term “Alternative” went into wide use to encompass not just the Seattle grunge scene, but indie bands from throughout the country. Major labels went into a short-lived frenzy to sign any group with shaggy hair and six strings in a way it hadn’t since The British Invasion. By 1993, groups that had previously recorded on shitty four-tack cassette machines were gaining access to relatively plush studios and making bigger, and often better, albums (though as we’ll see, some decided to keep the fi lo…very lo). If anything, ’94 was an even better year than ’93 as original Alternative acts continued to develop their voices in bold ways, great brand new groups entered the fold, and Alternative grandparents did some of their best work in years. Really, this was the peak year for nineties rock, and possibly the finest year for Rock & Roll since the sixties. While my selection for best album of 1993 was a clear-cut, no-question deal, the subsequent year was much harder to narrow down. Any CD in the upper half of this list really could be the greatest album of 1994.

10. Hips and Makers by Kristin Hersh

After spending the eighties as one of college rock’s best and most criminally underrated bands, Throwing Muses threw themselves into the nineties on the verge of serious upheavals. First to go was Leslie Langston, the band’s original bass player and one of the finest and most original musicians to ever pluck and thwack the four strings. Fred Abong filled that role for 1991’s The Real Ramona, and the Muses ended up with what may be their best record. Tanya Donelly’s maturing songwriting played a big role in that and it hit a peak with the pop-perfect “Not Too Soon”. No longer content to play George to her big sister Kristin’s John and Paul, Tanya absconded with Abong and formed Belly. And so, Throwing Muses were now two, and 1992’s Red Heaven found Kristin Hersh and drummer Dave Narcizo working a bit too hard to overwhelm with some underwhelming material. No doubt  Hersh needed to refresh her creativity. She did so by expanding the gloomy acoustic flavors of “Pearl”, the most mesmerizing track on Red Heaven, into a whole record. The brilliance of Hersh’s first solo album is that she sacrificed none of her innate electricity when working solely with acoustics. Take “A Loon”, a performance as terrifying as any you’ll hear on those terrifying early Muses albums. Her whoops are strokes of pure madness and pure inspiration. But then listen as the track soothes itself into a temple-massaging lullaby. Kristin Hersh is utilizing all the possibilities of her main instruments: voice and guitar (sometimes switching to piano, often receiving textural support from John Scarpantoni’s cello). The rest of Hips and Makers presents similarly variety, even as the mood always indicates storm clouds are hovering overhead. Hersh cries a haunted duet with Michael Stipe in “Your Ghost”, gets plaintive at the piano on “Beestung”, rages through “Teeth”, exhilarates on “Sundrops”, turns breathlessly desperate on “The Letter” or rollicking on the title track. Hips and Makers gave the impression that Hersh might not need a band at all, but it actually provided a more positive function by inspiring her to reinvigorate the Muses to make a couple of superb new albums. Fortunately, she didn’t give up on her solo career either, which continues to surprise and thrill.    

9. American Thighs by Veruca Salt

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Review: 'The Who Hits 50!'

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only long-time Who fan who was initially perplexed, eventually exasperated, that the most over-compiled band in Rock & Roll was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary with yet another compilation. I was exasperated because The Who’s discography in the U.K. and U.S. is in such a bad state. John Astley and Andy Macpherson’s radical remixes were an interesting experiment in the nineties, but they’ve been the only versions of The Who’s albums in the West for way, way too long. In 2011, Astley remastered those albums, leaving the original mixes intact, for Universal Japan. Finally, The Who’s back catalogue was in shipshape with excellent sound, cool bonus tracks, and respect to the albums we old-timers grew up hearing. A domestic release of these expensive Japanese imports was what I wanted for the fiftieth anniversary, not another greatest hits.

Then my exasperation turned to curiosity when I found out what was on The Who Hits 50! Sure “Be Lucky”, Townshend and Daltrey’s first studio collaboration in eight years, intrigued me (it’s really good, by the way, though I could have done without the brief use of auto-tune, which is the most nauseating pop trend of the past ten years). However, I was more interested in the first domestic remasters of “The Last Time”, “Relay”, and “Dogs” in twenty years. I was curious to hear which mixes were going to be used: the original ones or the nineties ones. And when I found out that Hits 50! was to include the long mix of “Magic Bus” never issued on CD in the states, I decided to get over my exasperation and give The Who Hits 50! a listen.

Let’s get the big questions out of the way first: these are almost all original mixes. “Postcard” has John’s bass line you heard on Odds & Sods in 1974. “Trick of the Light” does not have an over-extended fade. The vocals are misaligned on the first chorus of “Eminence Front” just as they were in 1982. Old timers, this is, indeed, The Who you grew up with. The one notable remix is that long version of “Magic Bus” that first appeared on the vinyl version of Meaty, Beaty, Big, and Bouncy in 1971 that has only made it to CD on a couple of releases outside the U.S. The mix on Hits 50! is true mono with full percussion intro, not the fake stereo one with clipped intro from the old Meaty, Beaty LP. This mix first appeared on the 2011 edition of The Singles released in Japan only. The mastering here is better than that version, which was a bit muddy. The same can be said of “Dogs”. Both songs never sounded better than they did on The Who Hits 50! The rest of it sounds great too.

You may still be wondering why a new compilation is necessary. Why did the compilers once again trot out the absurdly edited single versions of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Who Are You”. I won’t try to convince you another compilation is necessary, because it isn’t even though The Who Hits 50! is still essential for things like “Magic Bus”, “Dogs”, and “Relay” you can’t get in such high quality on another U.S. CD. I do think it may have a purpose though.

My theory is that The Who Hits 50! isn’t really intended to be “the best sampler” of The Who’s music, as Howie Edelson writes in his liner notes. If this were the case, we’d get all 8:33 of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and all 6:22 of “Who Are You”. We wouldn’t be burdened with three tracks from It’s Hard while A Quick One and Sell Out are short-changed with one measly track each. Odds & Sods would be represented by a better song than “Postcard”: “Naked Eye”, “Long Live Rock”, “Pure and Easy”, or “Glow Girl”, for example. My theory is that The Who Hits 50! is actually an improved and expanded version of that Japanese edition of The Singles. Everything on it is here with the notable exceptions of “Long Live Rock” and the mono single mix of “I Can See for Miles”; the stereo album one is included instead. “Postcard” might be here because it was released as a single. There are three tracks from It’s Hard, because the album produced three singles (though as is the case with a lot of these songs that weren’t on Japan’s The Singles, the album mix of “Eminence Front” is used instead of the single edit). Essential tracks “Baba O’Riley”, “Boris the Spider”, and “Bargain” (a great track that is now considered essential because it was used in a stupid SUV commercial) are the only songs never released on 45 in the U.S. or U.K. If this is the rationale behind this new compilation, am I out of line in thinking / hoping that we in the U.S. and U.K. may soon receive domestic releases of all those great editions of The Who’s back catalogue Japanese Wholigans have been enjoying without paying hefty import prices for the past three years? If The Who Hits 50! is just the start of a revamped release campaign, maybe I’m not out of line and maybe the next few years will make us U.S. and U.K. Who fans a bunch of Happy Jacks. (Thanks to regular Psychobabble reader Bill C. for inspiring this review).

Get The Who Hits 50! On here:

Review: 'The Worst of Eerie Publications'

Here’s some sleazy business: as editor of Eerie Publications during the post-comic code-era, Carl Burgos would just collect a bunch of pre-code comics from obscure titles and have his artists redraw them with new details. That those new details were often primitive splashes of blood or eyeballs squeezing out of sockets was even sleazier. Because these comics were published in black and white and sold on newsstands, the code didn’t get to mess with them, so they could be as nasty as Burgos wanted them to be. And he wanted them to be pretty nasty.

Compiler Mike Howlett pulls together a heaping help of the nastiest Eerie comics he could find in a new anthology from IDW gleefully titled The Worst of Eerie. To read publisher Craig Yoe’s “revolted” introduction, you’d think you were about to view pornography or something. Granted, a couple of the covers are pretty outrageous and require a tolerance for monsters assaulting absurdly sexualized women, and the stories are probably gorier than anything you’d want your eight-year-old to read, but they aren’t that shocking. There are some typical plots (an executioner is haunted by his collection of heads), topical plots (a comic from 1969 finds an acid head butchering his hippie buddies), and topographical plots (a jealous cactus axe murders a woman’s suitors before pricking her to death). “Heads of Horror” has some of the funniest artwork I’ve seen in a horror comic. “Horror Club”, in which a couple of ug-ohs find true love, is gore-free and downright cute. The most shocking story is probably “Vengeance” because it involves an off-screen rape. But it can’t be that shocking, since this plot ripped from Samuel Blas’s short story “Revenge” made it onto TV in 1955 in the debut episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”. “Food for Ghouls” deals with domestic violence, but it’s more depressing than gross.

Still, you have to hand it to Yoe: that cat has the ghost of P.T. Barnum flowing through him. His introduction, in which he declares that the comics in his book should have been banned, is great fun— just as fun as most of the comics that follow. Howlett’s horrifying history of Eerie, which has no shortage of thievery and gunplay, is even more outrageous than those comics. With its wonderful essays, quality paper, full-color cover reproductions, and untampered-with black and white interior artwork that’s better than Yoe wants you to believe (wink, wink), The Worst of Eerie is another beautiful horror comics collection from IDW.

Oops, did I say beautiful, kiddies? I meant revolting. Real revolting.

Get The Worst of Eerie Publications on here:

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Review: 'DC Comics: A Visual History (Updated Edition)'

Last week I reviewed Matthew Manning’s Batman: A Visual History, which told the story of 75 years of dark knighting through perhaps every issue of DC Comics to feature The Dark Knight and his multitudinous co-stars. Manning patterned his book after another visual history he helped to write four years ago. DC Comics: A Visual History is at once more ambitious and less ambitious than its Batman-focused predecessor. It is more ambitious because it has to cover so many different titles, characters, and genres, and less because that plethora of themes means it can get away without being so exhaustive. Instead of the complete histories of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, The Green Lantern, Hawkman, Hawkgirl, and the rest, we hit the major beats (no surprise that Batman and Superman still dominate).

What I found more interesting than these summarized superhero histories were the ways DC detoured from its defining superhero genre on a very regular basis. The comic mega-company isn’t just a peddler of capes, cowls, and anti-crime crusades. DC has put out a slew of titles covering a slew of genres: cute animal stories for kiddies, preachy religious comics for kids with obnoxiously strict parents, comedy titles starring Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis, ones based on properties as diverse as Hot Wheels toys and Sgt. Bilko, mushy romances aimed at girls, pimply teen comics aimed at the “Archie” set, historical comics, cowboy comics, war comics, horror comics—just about any kind of comic you could think of. DC even dabbled in pop music with a magazine called Teen Beat, which featured The Monkees on its inaugural—and penultimate— cover.

An all-new edition of DC Comics: A Visual History takes the company’s story right up to this past July, and is very much a twin of Batman: A Visual History. It too comes in a heavy slipcase, sports a pocket containing a couple of prints (one of the Dark Knight; one of the Man of Steel), and is lushly illustrated with covers. The format only differs with the inclusion of some very pretty double-page artwork spreads and a timeline that runs throughout the book to give you an idea of what was happening in the real world when Robin first died or Jerry Lewis first landed on the moon.

Get the new edition of DC Comics: A Visual History (Updated Edition) on here:

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Review: 'The Rolling Stones from the Vault: L.A. Forum (Live in 1975)'

Ronnie Wood got thrown right in the deep end when he joined The Rolling Stones in 1975. He had a lot to prove as the successor of Mick Taylor, the most classically accomplished musician ever to earn official-Stone status. That Keith Richards was in deep with addiction meant Ronnie had extra weight to pull on his first outing with the band, the Stones’ first tour of the U.S. in three years. With Jagger at center stage it wouldn’t be accurate to say all eyes were on him, but let’s face it, Ronnie had something to prove. Based on his work in the new “From the Vault” DVD, L.A. Forum (Live in 1975), he did a damn good job. Don’t get me wrong, Keith can still play, but he keeps an unusually low profile at this gig. When it’s his turn to step to the mic for “Happy”, he often doesn’t even bother to sing. The majority of the solos fall to Ronnie. When the band leans into “Fingerprint File”, it’s down to the new boy to play the funky bassline Mick Taylor handled on record. Bill Wyman sure couldn’t be expected to play it.

Ronnie stands out on Live in 1975, but he’s still upstaged by spotlight-snatching Jagger and even Billy Preston, who almost seems to be vying for bandleader at times. Kudos to control freak Mick for allowing the keyboardist so much leeway. Perhaps he realized he could use all the help he could get considering Keith’s condition. When the energy starts flagging during the center of this two-hour-and-forty-minute show (there’s an interminable version of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” that utterly fails to capture the recording’s propulsion), it’s Preston who gets it back on groove with performances of his “That’s Life” and “Outa-Space”. From there the Stones ride out the show with a Greatest Hits onslaught that never loses steam again, right up to the transcendent, show-closing version of “Sympathy for the Devil” that finds Mick leading a conga line of dancers and percussionists across the stage.

Not all of Preston’s contributions are stellar. He could have laid off his annoyingly squealing synth on several occasions. Yet he mostly shines in this show, and it’s cool to see a concert movie that isn’t solely owned by Mick for a change. We don’t see much of him, but Charlie Watts really makes his presence felt during this mostly powerful set too.

Eagle Vision’s new DVD release of the L.A. Forum gig sounds damn powerful too. The video is less spectacular, looking a lot like an old VHS bootleg complete with washed out bars running through the screen. 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.

Get The Rolling Stones from the Vault: L.A. Forum (Live in 1975) on here:

Monday, November 10, 2014

Review: Reissues of Wings' 'Venus and Mars' & 'Speed of Sound'

Paul McCartney couldn’t catch a break in the post-Beatles world. Critics lambasted him for putting out saccharine, half-assed records, even when he did work as wonderful as RAM. Things started looking a lot better for him in 1973 when he let loose Band on the Run, a collection of well-crafted, well-produced, well-played songs that most critics agreed was pretty great, and that includes Paul’s harshest critic, John Lennon. Although that record was credited to Paul McCartney and Wings, it was actually his most solitary album since his one-man-band debut. He even played all the drum parts. Credited just to Wings, his follow up album was his most collaborative to date and the first convincing evidence that Wings was more than a reaction against Paul control-freak reputation.

Paul’s relinquishing of some control actually means Venus and Mars isn’t as strong as Band on the Run. The only song the band’s acknowledged leader didn’t write was Jimmy McCulloch’s OK bluesy rocker, “Medicine Jar”. Paul handed his own “Spirits of Ancient Egypt” to Denny Laine to sing. Again, it isn’t bad musically, but the lyric might be Paul’s dumbest. However, much of the rest of the album rates among the best stuff Wings did. The title track is a mysterious and tuneful prelude to the arena-quaking “Rock Show”, which gains extra charm from its goofy “we’re coming to rock your town!” lyric. “Love in Song” is alluringly eerie. “You Gave Me the Answer” is a pleasing revival of Paul’s fascination with quaint pre-Rock & Roll pop, which previously produced “When I’m 64” and “Honey Pie”. The comic booking “Magneto and Titanium Man” is rollickingly silly fun (and I’m pretty sure Belle & Sebastian are fans, because it sounds a hell of lot like their “Boy with the Arab Strap”). “Listen to What the Man Said” is a catchy single with bubbly sax work from legit jazzman Tom Scott, and the soulful “Call Me Back Again” is one of the finest artifacts of the Wings years.

Riding high on the success of Venus and Mars, McCartney gave his band a lot more room on its successor, Wings at the Speed of Sound. This time his magnanimousness backfired artistically, if not commercially (it was his biggest hit album in the U.S.), because the others’ songs just aren’t up to snuff aside from Denny Laine’s two contributions: “Time to Hide”, a close cousin of “Letting Go” from Venus and Mars, and the atmospherically somber “The Note You Never Wrote”, which is really more effective as a recording than a composition. McCulloch’s “Wino Junko” is a tuneful enough piece of light pop, but the finger-wagging lyric stinks. Linda sings the even worse lyrics of her “Cook of the House” amateurishly as the band boogies along awkwardly behind her. There’s one big surprise among these more collaborative tracks though: on “Must Do Something About It”, drummer-turned-singer Joe English sounds exactly like Billy Joel. Whether that’s a good or bad surprise is up to you.

As for the star of our show, Paul McCartney is working below his abilities too. The album’s two huge hits are not among Paul’s best, though they definitely have their winning qualities: “Silly Love Songs”, which hits back at his critics with a Nerf hammer, has a terrific bass-line and a complex vocal arrangement, and “Let ’Em In”—which is so minimalistic it’s practically an anti-composition—has an infectious air of fun. These tracks are also indicative of the main problem with Speed of Sound: there just isn’t enough good, old Rock & Roll. Paul only remembers his screaming Little Richard roots on “Beware My Love”, easily the best thing on the album.

The new reissues of Venus and Mars and Wings at the Speed of Sound from Hear Music’s “Paul McCartney Archive Collection” each come with spiffed-up sound (compare how much deeper and growlier the bass on “Silly Love Songs” is to the most recent remaster of it on the Wingspan compilation) and a bonus disc. In this department, Venus and Mars continues to be the vastly superior package. It comes with a 50-minute bonus disc that blasts off with the snarling single “Junior’s Farm” and jogs on through a selection of tracks mediocre (the jazz muzak “Walking in the Park with Eloise”/ “Bridge on the River Suite” released as a 1974 single credited to “The Country Hams”), good (the hummably ridiculous ditty “Hey Diddle”; a version of “Baby Face” with tasty Dixieland horn arrangement), and awesome (white hot versions of “Soily” and “Rock Show”, which sounds like Wings paying tribute to Big Star). Lumped on an anemic 21-minute disc, the bonuses on Speed of Sound are interesting but probably won’t inspire multiple listens. The best of the lot is a version of “Must Do Something About It” with Paul on lead vocals that should have been on the album instead of the Joe English version and a raw run through of “Beware My Love” with John Bonham on drums. A piano demo of “Silly Love Songs” is mostly a means to work out the track’s vocal arrangement, while a similar demo of “Let ’Em In” shows just how much of a handle Paul had on its instrumental arrangement before the band took it into the studio.

Get the Paul McCartney Archive Collection editions of Venus and Mars and Wings at the Speed of Sound on here:

Review: Glyn Johns's 'Sound Man"

Glyn Johns isn’t a household name for anyone but the truest Rock & Roll obsessives. His c.v., however, will blow the most clueless cat’s mind. He has produced, mixed, and engineered recordings for The Beatles, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Marianne Faithfull, Small Faces, Procol Harum, The Move, Traffic, Belly, Del Shannon, The Clash, and too many other artists to mention. While doing his most memorable work during the hedonistic sixties and seventies, he kept his head the whole time, preferring to fraternize with the era’s soberest players –Ian Stuart and Bill Wyman, for example—while putting in his hours with wild children like Keith Moon, John Bonham, and Keith Richards. Johns may be the only guy in the universe who could come away from a day’s work with Marianne Faithfull madly in love with the studio instead of her.

That clear-headedness is very evident in Johns’s new autobiography Sound Man. While his straightness may not always make for the most rocking and rolling reading, he has rubbed shoulders with so many greats that his behind-the-board perspective brings new angles to some old stories. Although he supports the theory that Mick and Keith were always really the producers behind their greatest hits, he admits to being impressed with Andrew Loog Oldham’s work on his first Rolling Stones session, though he doesn’t get too specific about what impressed him. Gear heads expecting a lot of production tips from one of the industry’s best might be disappointed. Johns aims for a broader audience and doesn’t skip over discussions of his most legendary gigs, such as capturing The Beatles during the tension-fraught Get Back sessions or working with Zeppelin on their debut. His minor recollections make these major stories worth retelling, as when he mentions that Paul McCartney wanted him more involved in the process than he was expecting or hilariously recalls showing off Led Zeppelin’s first recordings to Mick Jagger and George Harrison only to be met with confusion and disgust.

Sometimes Johns’s stories do elevate to the mythic level we expect from a Rock & Roll memoire. He reveals Bob Dylan’s plan to make a record with The Beatles and The Stones (!) and chillingly recounts how Small Faces’ manager Don Arden hired thugs to threaten him at gunpoint. Just as often he brings the myths down to earth, as when he describes The Rolling Stones’ utterly tedious recording process. Johns certainly pulls no punches. Pye Records’ A&R man Toy Hatch is “an unpleasant little shit with a massive ego.” The Stones’ “Sing This All Together” is “drivel.” Phil Spector’s version of Let It Be is “the most syrupy load of bullshit” he “ever heard.” So I guess what Sound Man lacks in Rock & Roll wildness it makes up for with a bit of Rock & Roll attitude.

Get Sound Man on here:

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Review:'The Batman Files'

Being the Batman is dangerous work. The dude may have survived uncountable scrapes, but his luck couldn’t hold out forever. He has even died on occasion (of course, no superhero in the comic book world stays dead forever…at least no one as popular as Batman). He thought Dick Grayson did an OK job as his temporary stand in, but not a great one. So Mr. Bats very thoughtfully collected all the information he believes is necessary to be him in a volume called The Batman Files. This over-sized, full-color paperback includes reams of Batman’s personal diaries, newspaper clippings about everything from the murder of his parents to the time Joker shot and paralyzed Batgirl and how he got that T. Rex in his trophy room, dossiers on associates and adversaries from Commissioner Gordon to The Riddler to The Mad Hatter, maps of Gotham, blueprints of the various Batmobiles and Batcopters, and other assorted Batmaterial you might need if you ever put down that damn bag of Doritos, get your ass off the couch, and don the cape and cowl so you can pick up where Bruce Wayne left off.

Originally published in hardcover in 2011, The Batman Files is a bit like two other Batman books I reviewed here recently that were also written by Matthew K. Manning. Like Batman: A Visual History, it’s a big, colorful, and canny canned history of Batman’s life and work (though this one really only goes back to the eighties when people like Frank Miller and Alan Moore made The Dark Knight real, real dark). Like The World According to The Joker, it’s a mostly first-person account of the life of one of Gotham’s most well known residents. The format made sense with The Joker, who always had a problem with keeping his thoughts to himself. It’s more unusual for Batman since he’s so famously taciturn. He really spills his guts in The Batman Files, so if you have no problem with the mythic hero getting slightly demystified, you’ll really dig it. It’s also a great, big, piece of eye candy with all its color artwork and moody black & white sketches (no one is credited as artist, so I’m assuming all of the art has been published previously).  Because it focuses on the most recent incarnation of Batman, which includes a lot of ugly stuff—like that disabling of Batgirl and Miller’s charming brainwave that Cat Woman used to be a hooker—I can’t say it’s a ton of fun. But I guess fun isn’t what contemporary fans want from their Batman. Frankly, I wanted to know what to do the next time King Tut got bonked on the head by a flowerpot.

Get The Batman Files on here:

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