Sunday, October 22, 2017

Friend of Psychobabble Publishes Hilariousy Horrifying Piece in NYT

Getting published in The New York Times is by all accounts impressive (excluding the accounts of Fox News consumers, who don't like actual news). Getting published with a hilarious humor piece that references such Psychobabble favorites as Frankenstein, The Birds, It, and our finest of holidays (not Flag Day) is doubly impressive. On a personal note, this becomes triply impressive when the writer of the piece is a wonderful personal friend of Psychobabble, Sarah Hutto. Read Sarah's sinisterly seasonal "Well, Actually Frankenstein Was the Name of the Doctor" here.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Review: 'The Old Dark House' Blu-ray

Frankenstein is an undisputed masterpiece of Gothic horror with one of the great on screen performances from Boris Karloff as what is probably the most iconic depiction of a classic monster ever seared into celluloid. James Whale never made a more famous film—and not many other filmmakers have either—yet Frankenstein still doesn’t feel like his definitive work because it is almost completely lacking in a key Whale element: droll humor. He did not start stirring this essential ingredient into his horror movies until his next one: a nutso adaptation of J.B. Priestley’s novel Benighted called The Old Dark House.

The Old Dark House is a classic old dark house set up: on a stormy night, a rag-tag group of strangers seek shelter at a creepy manse full of ooky kooky weirdos. Plot-wise, there is very little else to The Old Dark House, but Benn W. Levy’s script gives a remarkable cast featuring Charles Laughton, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas, Eva Moore, and the divine Ernest Thesiger oodles of delicious things to say. As a leering butler without the ability to speak, Karloff does not get to roll Levy’s words over his tongue as the rest of the gang does, but he still makes his presence felt in an unhinged and unsettling performance. And the cool thing about The Old Dark House that distinguishes it from Whale’s other horror-comedies—The Invisible Man, and his real defining piece, Bride of Frankenstein—is that it still hold up as true-blue horror, blending in some genuinely chilling moments among the clowning.

Universal lost the right to release The Old Dark House after the Priestley estate resold the story to Columbia so it could remake Benighted in 1963 (and though I love director William Castle to death, it’s a lousy film), but this may actually be a good thing since Universal now only seems interested in its golden age horrors featuring the Big-Six monsters. If Universal still had dibs on The Old Dark House, we may never have gotten a Blu-ray release, which we now have thanks to the Cohen Film Collection. This 4K restoration looks miraculous compared to Kino’s 1999 DVD. The picture is clean and boasts beautiful contrast. The grain can get a bit intense, but these moments are few and hardly disrupt what is overall a fabulously clean presentation for a film of this age. Even the opening reel, which is only a dupe since the original was too decayed to use, looks pretty great. However, the soundtrack is somewhat tinny and noisy in patches, and the noise gets particularly hairy in the penultimate reel.

Most of the extras—feature commentaries with Gloria Stuart and James Curtis (who wrote the essential James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters) and an interview with Curtis Harrington, who knew Whale and hunted down the original negative of the film—were ported over from the Kino DVD (only an image gallery was lost in translation). Cohen only adds a booklet interview with Harrington and a 15-minute video interview with Boris’s daughter Sara Karloff, who discusses her dad’s career, difficulty in the makeup chair, and unique voice and body language. However, a lack of abundant new bonuses are of little consequence considering how much one of the great old films now looks like a great new film.

Monday, October 16, 2017

"You're Like Me": The Strange Links Between 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde' and 'Blue Velvet'

David Lynch has created some of the scariest moments on film. The infamous scene behind Winkie’s Diner has been rated cinema’s scariest scene more than once. Twin Peaks has been named television’s scariest show. Eraserhead, Lost Highway, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, INLAND EMPIRE, and of all things, The Elephant Man have been categorized as horror movies through the years. However, Lynch has never really been a horror film director. Rather he works horror into his work in the same way that he works in comedy and melodrama, and because he does not really make films we expect to hit the beats of specific genres, those moments of humor, naked emotion, and terror always hit harder than they would in genre pictures because they are so unexpected.

However, there is one David Lynch film that really does mirror one particular horror classic: Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 adaptation of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  That distinction is an important one since Blue Velvet has very little in common with Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella. It has more in common with John S. Robertson’s silent adaptation starring John Barrymore from 1920, which is the version that sees the introduction of significant female characters into the story. Jekyll is to marry Millicent Carew, a young representative of “respectable” society. Hyde takes up with Gina, an artist and dance hall girl who represents the seedier side.

These characters take on greater significance in Samuel Hoffenstein and Percy Heath’s Oscar-nominated script for Mamoulian’s sound remake. The split in Frederic March’s Jekyll is made explicit even before he drinks the potion that draws out his monstrous id. He longs for a traditional (yet sexually active) relationship with Muriel Carew (Rose Hobart), the daughter of a respected brigadier general. He is also drawn to the sexually uninhibited dance-hall singer Ivy Pierson (Miriam Hopkins), whom he attends to after she is attacked by a brute. 
Hyde terrorizes Ivy.

Fans of Blue Velvet should start seeing the parallels coming into view already. Kyle MacLachlan’s Jeffrey Beaumont is our split Jekyll figure. Sandy Williams (Laura Dern), the daughter of a police detective, is Jeffrey’s opportunity for a traditional courtship: flirting across the table of a dinner; dancing at a make-out party. Nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens is our Ivy, drawing Jeffrey into the shadows of unfettered carnality (as portrayed by Isabella Rossellini, Dorothy even shares Hopkins’s shaky pitch).

However, Hyde is only embodied by MacLachlan in odd moments of weakness, as when Jeffrey spies on Dorothy undressing after sneaking into her apartment or strikes her after she commands him to during a bout of kinky sex. More often, Jeffrey’s id-self wears a totally different face a la Hyde. That face belongs to Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth, a monster who keeps Dorothy emotionally imprisoned in a constant state of agitated terror to extract physically abusive sex from her just as that other vile bully Hyde keeps Ivy trapped in a grotesque “love nest” for identical purposes. To make their shared-Jekyll/Hyde split explicit, Frank whispers to Jeffrey “You’re like me.” Like Jekyll, Jeffrey is a “good” person torn-apart by ugly behavior he believes he is incapable of controlling.

For fans of both films, the cables between Blue Velvet and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are too strong to miss; yet I would never imply that David Lynch wove them intentionally. While Lynch reportedly saw horror classics such as The Fly, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and The Thing from Another World during his youth, there is no evidence he’d ever seen Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which had been out of distribution since the release of the weak-tea remake in 1941 in any event. There’s no evidence Lynch saw that film either, though it does offer one more delicious connection to ponder: its Ivy was played by Ingrid Bergman— none other than Isabella Rossellini’s mother. 
Bergman and Rossellini: mother/daughter Ivy figures.
In 1999, interviewer Michael Sragow brought up the recurring Jekyll/Hyde theme in Lynch’s work to the director, but only specifically as it pertains to Alvin Straight in The Straight Story and Lynch didn’t let on that he has seen any version of Stevenson’s story. So it may be a bit extreme to label Blue Velvet a “remake” despite its numerous, tantalizing similarities to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but the two movies might still make for a fascinating double feature this Halloween season.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Review: 'Summer of Fear' Blu-ray

Following The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes —two super low-budget horror flicks that are now regarded as genre classics— Wes Craven brought his schlock-shock vision to the small screen with a movie based on Lois Duncan’s 1976 novel Summer of Fear. The film stars Linda Blair as Rachel, a teenage girl skeptical of her cousin Julia (Lee Purcell), who has come to stay with Rachel’s family after Julia’s parents croak in a mysterious car accident. As it turns out, Julia’s got some evil juju running through her, and she makes it her mission to cause trouble for Rachel and her kin.

When I first saw Summer of Fear (which I knew as Stranger in Our House, the title by which it originally aired) at the age of five or six, it terrified me. Terr-i-fied me.  Its insidious “I’m the only one who realizes the monster is a monster” premise, hellish climax, and queasy slow-mo closing credits gave me years of nightmares. No exaggeration. Rewatching Summer of Fear nearly forty years later, I no longer find it particularly scary, but it is great fun as a time capsule of super-seventies fright wigs (perms for everyone!) and polyester wardrobe and quite effective as simple horror premise. Blair is very good as the initially petulant, increasingly harried, ultimately heroic teen, and she and Lee Purcell have terrific antagonistic chemistry. It’s also interesting to see Wes Craven tone down his trademark nastiness for a subtler approach to horror. 

On the cusp of its fortieth anniversary, Summer of Fear comes to Blu-ray via Dopplegänger Releasing. The film looks its age with a fair share of scratches, specs, and blotches. The picture is generally soft and grainy, but it is still very watchable. Interior scenes tend to be  dark and low on detail, but exterior daytime scenes look good and the overall clarity seems to improve about halfway through the movie. Extras include a commentary by Wes Craven’s, which has been ported over from Artisan’s 2003 DVD, a short image gallery, and a neat new 13-minute on screen interview with Linda Blair, who discusses the film’s casting, her rapport with that cast, Wes Craven’s directing style, a disturbing stunt involving a horse that clearly made an impression on animal rights activist Blair.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Review: Joe Jackson's 'Summer in the City: Live in New York'

In August 1999, Joe Jackson performed at tiny Joe’s Pub in NYC, his voice and piano accompanied only by Gary Burke’s drums and Graham Maby’s bass. Considering the lack of guitar and the fact that the show took place amidst Jackson’s retreat from pop, one might assume the performance had some sort of jazz trio pretentions. But with Burke’s hard hitting and Maby’s trademark vicious attack, the set was pure Rock & Roll. It also formed the basis of a CD called Summer in the City: Live in New York released in 2000.

With Jackson looking back on his rocker days, it was appropriate that his original selections not only relied exclusively on the seventies and eighties, but that they also included oldies by The Beatles, Yardbirds, Steely Dan, and as the CD’s title reveals, The Lovin’ Spoonful (though there are nods to jazz in his covers of Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” and The Ramsey Lewsi Trio version of “The In Crowd”). Refreshingly, the covers and the punkish early cut “One More Time” retain all their thrust in this stripped down setting. This is in no small way due to the awesome Maby. With his 5-string bass, he supplies all the strings any Rock band could need as he adds some (in Joe’s words) “very deep bass” to “Fools in Love” and whips off a thrilling solo on “Another World”. All hail Graham.

Because it was recorded in the dedicatedly digital age, Summer in the City: Live in New York may seem an odd choice for the audiophile label Intervention Records (who’d previously reissued Jackson’s Look Sharp!, I’m the Man, and Night and Day), which normally goes to length to use a completely analog process in its reissues.* But even with only “high quality files” from the original DATs available, this double-vinyl release sounds superb with Maby and Burke rattling the floorboards and Jackson’s voice soaring over them with remarkable clarity on quiet 180-gram vinyl.

*Update: Shane Buettner of Intervention Records had the following to say about the process of mastering Summer in the City: Live in New York:

I definitely specialize in 100% analog mastering, because so few labels do that. However, my ethos is to be truest to the master source. For this project there was analog tape, but as the master source was native digital, the digital sounded best and that’s what I used. In this case it’s important to note the HUGE impact of going from the 16-bits of the CD to the 24-bit source files we used. 24-bits is 256 times the resolution of 16-bits! In addition, the original CD had several dB of dynamic compression whereas we didn’t employ any.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Review: 'The Twilight Zone Encyclopedia'

The Twilight Zone ran for 156 episodes written by 40-something different writers and featuring way more actors and actresses than I’m willing to count. You can literally fill an encyclopedia with this stuff, and that’s just what Steven Jay Rubin literally did with The Twilight Zone Encyclopedia.

Running for 424 packed pages, Rubin’s book discusses every episode, every writer, every director, every major theme (aliens, children, time travel, etc.), every significant location or item (Sunnyvale Rest home from “Kick the Can”, Talky Tina from “Living Doll”, etc.), and nearly every actor and actress who appeared in the series’ original run (understandably, people like Phil Arnold, who played “Man” in “Mr. Dingle, the Strong” and Jimmy Baird, who played “Boy” in “The Changing of the Guard” are a bit too much for our valiant author). And the original run is Rubin’s main concern, which he makes very clear in his book’s introduction, although he still manages to slip in a good deal of information about, for example, Twilight Zone: The Movie in his entry on “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”.

Rubin doesn’t make room for potential entries about such original series-related items as all the merchandise The Twilight Zone spawned or The Simpsons’ “Treehouse of Horror” episodes that so wonderfully parody so many classic Zones, but we do get a lot that saves the book from being redundant in light of The Twilight Zone Companion, Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic, IMDB, and Wikipedia. There are quotes from new interviews with a slew of people involved with the original series, odd bits of trivia (example: Russ Meyer was a still photographer for the series! Nina Roman-Rhodes, who played the maid in “Miniature”, was one of the few people who reported seeing a second gunman at the site of JFK’s assassination!), and quite a few unusual photos (my favorite: Gary Crosby of “Come Wander with Me” monkeying with an electric bass). Ten pages of Rod Serling’s final interview is a cool addition too even though the creator barely mentions The Twilight Zone at all.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Review: 'The Real Classy Compleat Bloom County 1980-1989'

Before the eighties, the funnies proved they could be smart (Doonesbury) or weird (try reading some classic Superman strips), but it was only during the decade of Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side that they really became both. And it all really started with Bloom County. Like Doonesbury, Bloom County had politics on its mind but its talking animals, geeky reference points, surrealism, and all-out anarchy made it a hell of a lot more fun than Garry Trudeau’s strip. Despite its mission to expose greed and hypocrisy in contemporary society, its refusal to accept war and bigotry as anything but shameful and horrific, and its sheer silliness, Bloom County also had a wistful tone that often made it poignant and utterly human even when the cast consisted of a neurotic penguin (or was Opus a puffin?), an ultra-conservative bunny, a bigoted groundhog, and a scraggly cat hooked on more shit than Keith Richards.

Reading Bloom County today, it is striking how well it holds up despite how topical it was. Actually, its topicality is one reason why it is still such a great read since it functions as a bit of a history lesson and a bigger bit of a nostalgia trip with its references to Pac-Man, Rubiks Cubes, “Where’s the Beef”, and other eighties touchstones. The surreal nature of history keeps some of this stuff relevant too. Who would have thought we’d still be concerned with the idiotic antics of a certain talentless, tactless, conscienceless real estate tycoon whom Breathed roasted back in the Bloom County days by placing his brain in the body of Bill the Cat?

IDW is now collecting the entirety of those days in a two-volume set you could flatten a cat with. The Bloom County-esque punchline of The Real Classy Compleat Bloom County 1980-1989 is that it isn’t especially classy at all. The soft covers are only mocked up to look like cracked lather, though they are housed in a heavy slipcase. While some IDW books load on the extra features, this set only features a one-page introduction by Breathed, who is still as fixated on our idiot president as he was before the idiot became president (and no, kids, we do not get a reissue of the Billy and the Boingers flexi-disc featuring those classic hits “U Stink but I U” and “I’m a Boinger”). That’s not a problem, though, since Bloom County was never particularly concerned with being classy. The most crucial word in the title is no joke: compleat. Well, considering the archaic spelling, maybe it’s a little bit of a joke. Ack! 

Monday, October 9, 2017

Monsterology: Clowns

Way-hey, kids! Are you ready to have some fun? Because I’m the fun fellow with the floppy feet who loooooves to have fun! I love all kinds of fun! Like luring you into the sewer to play with my collection of balloons! They float! They all float down here, kids, and when you’re down here with me, you’ll float too! Sounds like fun, don’t it? I may take your arm, but just consider that the price of admission to my fun, fun sewer circus! You’re not scared, are you? I’m just the friendly, funny fellow with the floppy shoes, and everyone knows that a clown is a kid’s best friend, right? Right?

Wrong! In fact, the creepy clown has become such a common horror figure that it’s hard to imagine there was a time when children laughed along with the likes of Clarabell, Bozo, and Ronald McDonald. These days it seems that the easiest way to get distribution for a cheap-o, direct-to-video (sorry…I mean “direct-to-streaming”) horror movie is to stick a leering, fanged clown in it. Stitches (2012), Sloppy the Psychotic (2012), Mockingbird (2014), All Hallow’s Eve (2013), and of course, Clown (2014) are just a few of these fun flicks.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Review: 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Ultimate Visual History'

Close Encounters of the Third Kind was special in the sci-fi pantheon for the way it invited viewers to contemplate the galaxy and consider that what was out there may actually be friendly. Steven Spielberg’s motivation for making the film was ultimately noble and humane (despite a lead character who abandons his family to go star hopping), but it would not have worked without startling visuals to make us believe there really is something out there worth contemplating. With inestimable assistance from people such as cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, concept artist George Jensen, art director Joe Alves, and special effects-Merlin Douglas Trumbull, Spielberg delivered those visuals spectacularly. So a visual history of Close Encounters seems a natural publication for the film’s fortieth anniversary, and the visuals in Michael Klastorian’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Ultimate Visual History deliver the goods in the form of stills, Jensen’s impressionistic paintings, behind-the-scenes snap shots, images of deleted and aborted scenes, and clearer looks at the Mothership and  aliens than we get in the film (though these photos reveal why the phony looking aliens had to be muted by creative lighting in the film).

However, what makes Klastorian’s book truly special is access. Spielberg, himself, not only opened his archive of materials for inclusion but also his memories, granting personal interviews and even penning the foreword. Stars Richard Dreyfuss, Melinda Dillon, Cary Guffey, and Bob Balaban, as well as such off-screen magicians as Trumbull and Alves, are similarly generous with their recollections in new interviews conducted exclusively for this book. Of course, Close Encounters is a milestone movie, so it had already been documented pretty well and a lot of the stories they tell won’t be super revelatory to long-time fans, but finer details on the production probably will be, and in any event, it is nice to have the whole story collected in such an attractive package. The idea to stick detachable production notes, art, script pages, storyboards, and other memorabilia onto the pages with gummy glue wasn’t the best one, since these inserts are probably easily damaged and a bit disruptive to the book’s design if they aren’t detached, but as a whole, Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Ultimate Visual History is a gorgeous way to pay tribute to a sci-fi picture with ideas and images that still instill wonder after forty years.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Farewell, Tom Petty

He wasn't revolutionary like The Clash, innovative like Patti Smith, or ironic like Cheap Trick. Tom Petty just got by on writing rock solid songs and performing them with a rock solid band. His talent was such that albums such as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Damn the Torpedoes, and Hard Promises didn't need to shake things up to still stand out among the great albums of the seventies and eighties. And he was always  so resolved in his refusal to follow trends that he ended up seeming oddly hip, as cool as any of the new wavers and as edgy as any of the punks. The timelessness of his music was certainly a factor in the length of his career, which left most of the new wavers and punks in the dated dust. Sadly, that career came to an end last night. Tom Petty has died of cardiac arrest at the mere age of 66. Rock & Roll will never be quite as cool again.

Baby’s First Exorcism: 10 Movies to Desensitize Your Kids to Monsters and Murder

Every new parent faces the same serious dilemma: When do I first show my child The Exorcist? Age 3? 4? 7? It’s a pickle, indeed, and the answer is a bit convoluted, because if you sit little Johnny or Suzie in front of Regan MacNeil’s pea soup vomiting and crucifix…errr… “play” too early, you might do serious damage to his or her psyche. Wait too long, and your child might spend the rest of her or his life watching the same damn Barney tape over and over, never conditioned to take in heartier fare.

No worries, Big Johnny or Suzie, because I am an experienced parent equipped to guide you down the perfect path toward ensuring your child will one day join you for marathons of horrifying, terrifying, disgustifying movies all Halloween Season long. The key is to systematically expose your child to the following 10 movies guaranteed to desensitize your kids to monsters, murders, and anything else your favorite horror flick may lob at them.

Step 1. Curse of the Cat People

We begin with a film that does not quite qualify as a horror movie despite being a sequel to Jacques Tourneur’s chilling masterwork Cat People. A sequel may seem like an odd starting point, but Robert Wise’s Curse of the Cat People really has very little to do with Tourneur’s picture about a woman with serious sexual hang ups who turns into a blood thirsty panther (or at least thinks she does) whenever she gets horny. Clearly, that movie would not be very appropriate to show to your three-year old, but Curse of the Cat People has more in common with Alice in Wonderland. Oliver Reed and Alice Moore from the original film have an over-imaginative little daughter named Ann who finds a photo of her dad’s ex, the now deceased cat-woman Irena Dubrovna, and fantasizes her into existence as a ghostly playmate. Ann also makes friends with an old actress with a penchant for telling especially vivid tales of the Headless Horseman. Curse of the Cat People is ultimately a very charming, moving tale of growing up fit for any tot, but its ghost and scary stories will gives your kid the heads up that there are things more intense than Cars 3 out there.

Step 2. The Wizard of Oz

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Beware! Here Comes Psychobabble's 10th Halloween Season!

We’ve reached another October 1st here on Psychobabble, and like every October 1st here on Psychobabble, today marks the start of our annual, month-long, Halloween-season celebration. Today also marks my tenth year of Psychobabbling here on Psychobabble, which will culminate with the site’s official tenth anniversary on October 1st, 2018. 

It all started on October 1st, 2008, with the very first Diary of the Dead, which would remain a Psychobabble Halloween tradition for several years until I realized I started running out of decent Halloweeny movies to watch. 

So while there will be no Diary of the Dead this year, there will be plenty of other creepifying new features, such as new installments of Monsterology, List-o-Mania, and Psychobabble's favorite... So tune in to Psychobabble all month long for the latest in eeeeevil. And tune in all year long for my tenth year of catering to all you retro rockers, groovy ghouls, and kooky cultists.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Review: Dantalian's Chariot's 'Chariot Rising'

It doesn’t matter how much of a blues purist you were; everyone went psychedelic in 1967. Some of them wore it well. Eric Clapton filtered his B.B. King licks through a lysergic rainbow on the fine Disraeli Gears and the Stones went full-fantasy on their cult classic Their Satanic Majesties Request. Others didn’t adapt as convincingly, as former greats such as Eric Burdon and the Animals lapsed into unpoetic pretentiousness.

Zoot Money and His Big Roll Band were among Britain’s blues purists in the early sixties, but they never had the worldwide success that Clapton, the Stones, or the Animals had, so there was a lot less riding on their Summer of Love metamorphosis into the flower-twirling Dantalian’s Chariot. Their sole album didn’t even get released for thirty years. However, when Chariot Rising finally emerged on Wooden Hill Records in 1996 it did, indeed, prove to be a lost classic in the Disraeli Gears/Satanic Majesties vein rather than a miscalculation in the “San Franciscan Nights”/“Monterey” one. The album is a charming and largely consistent artifact of the height of psychedelia with its backward tape loops, sitars, whacky lyrics, forceful rhythms, and distinctively British whimsy.

Today Dantalian’s Chariot’s biggest claim to fame is the fact that Andy Summers was a member, but his guitar work does not stand out as much as his and Zoot’s songwriting. Fans of this fragrant period will want to kick off their shoes and stretch back into the daisy-strewn lawns of “Madman Running Through the Fields” (released as a single—the only vinyl the band managed to put out during their brief existence), “Sun Came Bursting Through the Clouds”, and “World War Three”. A couple of picturesque instrumentals are reminiscent of Chocolate Watchband’s lush Inner Mystique. Only “Flying Bird”—with its clumsy Burdon-esque references to people with flowers in their hair and San Francisco and noodly guitar solo— is worth a cringe or two. The rest of Chariot Rising is dated in only the very best way. 

Next month Esoteric Records is rereleasing Chariot Rising with good remastered sound, a booklet essay featuring numerous recent quotes from Mr. Zoot, and a much cooler cover than the garish one that adorned the Wooden Hill release.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Review: 'Soulsville U.S.A.: A Celebration of Stax'

How do you condense fifteen years of arguably the most important soul label (and Motown is the only reason it’s arguable) down to 60 songs? The new triple-disc comp Soulsville U.S.A.:  A Celebration of Stax has the pluck to answer this question, and the answer is “as best as you can.” The label’s most vital artists—among them: Sam & Dave, The Staple Singers, William Bell, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Isaac Hayes, Eddie Floyd, Booker T. & The M.G.’s, the immortal Otis Redding—are present with their very best-known records. You don’t have to check the track listing to know that “Dock of the Bay”, “Soul Man”, “Walking the Dog”, “Theme from Shaft”, “Green Onions”, Mr. Big Stuff”, “Knock on Wood”, “Gee Whiz”, Ill Take You There”, and “Soul Finger” are on board, which is the best one can hope for when a CD set has to take on what Soulsville U.S.A. takes on. Just be sure to manage your expectations when hunting out your favorite oddities, because the ones I had my fingers crossed for—The Astors’ “In the Twilight Zone”, Wendy Rene’s “Bar B-Q”, Rufus’s “Jump Back”, to name a few—didn’t make the cut. But that’s just a testament to the greatness of the rawest, wildest soul label, because capturing its greatness in any completely satisfying way can only be accomplished by a massive undertaking like the 28-disc Complete Stax/Volt Singles Collection series. As far as distillations go, Soulsville U.S.A. completes the task with an unbreakable parade of essential hits and powerful sound (loud but not quite brick-walled) that keeps it mono until well into 1968.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Review: Reissue of Murray Head's 'Nigel Lived'

Murray Head recorded one excellent single (“She Was Perfection”) for Andrew Oldham’s Immediate label in 1967, but he didn’t really find his unique voice until landing a role in a stage production of Hair and voicing Judas Iscariot on the album version of Jesus Christ Superstar in 1970. Those musicals’ union of pop and theater carried over to Head’s first solo album in 1972.  

Nigel Lived tells the story of an aspiring singer who leaves the safety of home to find stardom in the big bad, big black smoke. Instead of achieving success, Nigel succumbs to London’s vices and ends up hooked on junk. Reactionary? Absolutely, but Nigel Lived is still one of the more successful progeny of Tommy because of its eclectic arrangements and styles (Head dabbles in everything from funk to acoustic balladry to straight Rock & Roll to blues to chamber pop to a sort of avant garde pop), its excellent production values, and Head’s expressive voice, which veers from a Peter Gabriel-esque croon to a blue-eyed soul howl. The one thing Nigel Lived lacks is consistently strong songwriting. Things like “Pacing on the Station”, Ruthie”, and “When You Wake Up in the Morning” are good little numbers, but a couple of the more experimental pieces—the pseudo hymn “Pity the Poor Consumer” and the choppy and overlong “Junk”—are kind of bad. However, there are two genuinely superb standouts. Head manages to boil down the best of circa-1966 McCartney into “Nigel, Nigel” and recycles his own “She Was Perfection” for the lovely “Religion”. If nothing else, you have to admire the guy for trying different things regardless of whether or not they always work.

Audiophile label Intervention Records is now reissuing Nigel Lived with above-and-beyond care. The music is captured on two 180 gram records that play at 45 RPMs for maximum fidelity. Mastered from the original analog tapes, it sounds warm with crystal clear high ends and powerful lows that never get muddy. The super-quiet vinyl is particularly necessary for this release since Head paints large portions of Nigel Lived in near silence. Equal attention has been lavished on the packaging, which reproduces the original lyric sheet (with pages from Nigel’s diary to help you navigate the story line) in a heavyweight gatefold.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Review: Two Judee Sill Reissues

There’s no question that Judee Sill’s back story is fascinating and disturbing. The biological daughter of a man who imported exotic animals for films, she emerged from a violent home life with a step dad who animated Tom and Jerry cartoons to become an armed robber, drug addict, prostitute, scam artist, and convict. Then she apparently discovered Jesus and became a recording artist.

While her lyrics take the occasional glimpse into the shadows (most fearlessly on “The Lamb Ran Away with the Crown”), Sill’s first recordings fail to reflect her harrowing experiences. Her voice is full bodied and pitch perfect, but it does not exactly exude emotion, making her sound like she should be serenading kids on The Magic Garden and leaving folky compositions such as “Crayon Angels” and “Jesus Was a Cross-Maker” pleasant but not terribly moving. The religiousness of her lyrics won’t appeal to everyone either. Without a doubt the most striking song on Judee Sill is the heart-rending “Lady-O”, which The Turtles recorded with more acute emotion in 1969. These songs all appear on Sill’s 1971 self-titled debut co-produced by Graham Nash. The inoffensive acoustic arrangements are in line with Nash’s work with CSN’s softer songs. The Paul Buckmaster-esque string arrangement on “Lopin’ Along Through the Cosmos” is the one unquestionably potent ingredient in an otherwise bland stew.

On her second album, 1973’s Heart Food, Sill taps into her experiences more effectively with country-ish arrangements that place her work in that genre’s tradition of hard living. More of the grand string arrangements that were the highlights of Judee Sill prevent the Heart Food  from ever feeling like mere rural pastiche. Most importantly, Sill lets down her guard in front of the mic. The inherent quality of her voice is still very present, but by allowing it to droop into audible despair, to soar with intensity, to bend and even crack, she bridges the emotional gap that made her debut feel distant. The most explicitly religious thing here is an epic called The Donor yet it is so breath-taking that even we heathens can dig it. There’s nothing as recognizable as “Jesus Was a Cross-Maker” or “Lady-O” on Heart Food, but it is most definitely the superior album.

Intervention Records is now giving the only two records Judee Sill completed before her death in 1979 deluxe treatment with a new audiophile reissue that splits each album between two 180 gram, 45-rpm records. True to advertising, the vinyl is whisper quiet and the all-analog masters are exceptionally present and detailed. Some of the music is merely pretty but the presentation is consistently beautiful.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Coming to Blu-ray December 5

Complete Monterey Pop Festival Coming to Blu-ray

Just in time to qualify as a 50th Anniversary release, The Complete Monterey Pop Festival is coming  to blu-ray courtesy of the Criterion Collection this December 12. Aside from new interviews with concert producer Lou Adler and director D.A. Pennebaker and the inclusion of a short film called Chiefs which played with Monterey Pop! upon its 1968 release, this is a straight 16-bit, 4K upgrade of Criterion's 2002 DVD set. This is still reason to get excited anew since that set was a stupendous one, including not just Pennebaker's documentary of the 1967 festival featuring The Who, Hendrix, Redding, Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Shankar, and a bunch of other A-listers, but also the feature-length outtakes performances film (featuring groups such as The Byrds, The Association, and Laura Nyro who were absent from the main feature), and full sets by Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix. The Redding and Hendrix films are omitted from an alternative budget blu-ray simply called Monterey Pop.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Review: 'Steve Miller Band Ultimate Hits'

The Steve Miller Band made some of the most simplistically pleasurable hits of the seventies.  Yet Steve Millers career is a complicated wad of contradictions. Before becoming a superstar for making zillions with conservative pop like “The Joker”, “Jet Airliner”, and “Take the Money and Run”, he was a cosmic bluesman in the West Coast underground scene. He became a major superstar despite being almost completely faceless. Although his songs have shamelessly ripped off Cream, Joe Walsh, The Mamas and the Papas, Free, and even himself (“Fly Like an Eagle” recycles the riff of 1969’s “My Dark Hour”, and “Take the Money and Run” recycles everything but the lyrics of 1969’s “Kow Kow Calculator), the songs somehow transcend that issue. In other words, listening to “Rocky Mountain Way” doesn’t really scratch the same itch that “The Stake” does. Despite the fact that his music doesn’t even have the emotional core of hits by similar seventies megastars such as Fleetwood Mac and Elton John, those songs have connected with millions of people. Seemingly everyone born before 1975 has had the original Steve Miller Band’s Greatest Hits 1974-78 in her or his record collection at some time.

The interesting thing about the new compilation Ultimate Hits is how it attempts to sort through those contradictions. The set attempts to put a face on Miller by beginning not with his hits, but his personal history and voice. It begins with a short audio clip recorded during his childhood in which an older relative tells him he has a great voice and will find great success with it (the tuneless “la la las” that follow drop a hilarious punch line on the clip). Next up is a live version of “Gangster of Love” that begins with three minutes of Miller’s personal monologue on a background that is actually quite extraordinary: his godfather was Les Paul, who taught Miller his first few chords, and T Bone Walker continued that education.

After those four minutes of speech that effectively humanizes the hit machine, we get into a semi-chronological trip through the early psychedelic blues (though much of it is presented in live versions from later in his career), hey-day hits, slightly new wavey eighties period, and more recent recordings that forces listeners to hear beyond the 1974-78 radio-focused compartmentalization of the old Greatest Hits. Miller does not emerge from this set on the same level as the most individual artists of his generation, nor even as potent as Fleetwood Mac or Elton John—he’s too dependent on the musical ideas of others and too emotionless for that—but it does draw a more complete portrait of the real human behind the hits than any previous compilation. And more importantly, “The Joker”, “Jet Airliner”, “Take the Money and Run”, and the rest are still pleasing to hear forty years on.
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