Monday, February 27, 2017

Review: 'Kiss of Death' Blu-ray

Victor Mature is Nick Bianco, a two-bit galoot who gets pinched after a sloppy jewel heist. The coppers lean on Bianco to rat out his cronies, but he’s a stand up guy and goes up river. While he’s there, he gets the skinny that his wife killed herself after Rizzo, one of Bianco’s partners in crime, raped her, leaving Bianco’s rug rats locked up at the local orphanage. That’s the last straw for Bianco, who’s finally ready to squeal in exchange for parole. However, instead of squawking about his old accomplices, he starts playing a much more dangerous game by dishing dirt on Tommy Udo, a total psycho who did some time with Bianco.

Largely because Mature is a bit of a cold-fish lead, Kiss of Death is a slow burn, but it blazes white-hot whenever Richard Widmark steps on screen to embody Tommy Udo. No one played coyote-lean crazy like Widmark. Imagine Frank Gorshin losing the green tights and giggles and just going full on terrifying as The Riddler and you’ll get an idea of how Widmark plays Udo. The scene in which Udo pays Rizzo’s wheelchair-bound mom a visit is a classic of its grotesque sort. Director Henry Hathaway also deserves a hat tip when he plays it more subtly. The post-heist scene in which Bianco and his cronies make an excruciatingly slow escape on an elevator may have even taught Hitchcock a thing or two about suspense.

Twilight Time’s new blu-ray edition of Kiss of Death is light on the extras—it only boasts a trailer and a couple of audio commentaries—but the film looks fabulous with deep contrast, natural grain, and a very clean presentation. Audio can be a bit crackly and tinny, but it more than gets the job done, which is more than I can say for Nick Bianco.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Review: Sundazed's Standells Reissues

In 1966, L.A.’s Standells defined sixties garage rock and gave Boston its signature song when they recorded former Four Prep Ed Cobb’s “Dirty Water”. With its sneering delivery, greasy riff, and show of solidarity with “muggers and thieves” (cool people, all), the track defined the band as bad boys even though Larry Tamblyn, Dick Dodd, Tony Valentino, and Gary Lane insisted that they were a nice quartet of young fellows. However, going that route would do them no favors, and The Standells were absolutely at their best when playing the role of druggies (“Medication”), rabble rousers (“Riot on Sunset Strip”), and letches (“Try It”…the wide banning of which was a huge feather in the band’s collective cap).

They pulled off that masquerade without fail on their debut album. Dirty Water is a consistently nasty collection of menace and mayhem.  Obviously, the title track and the minor classic Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White  are fabulous, but so are relative oddities like the sexy/stoned “Medication”, the lascivious “Little Sally Tease”, and the fuzzy “Rari”. A cover of “19th Nervous Breakdown” won’t make you forget who Mick Jagger is, but it is right at home here. Even the token ballad “Pride and Joy” is tough.

The problem with The Standell’s follow up Why Pick On Me/Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White (aside from a title that makes the name of The Left Banke’s debut seem positively concise) is that they go too soft on certain tracks like the Italian-language “Mi Hai Fatto Innamorare” and the almost Four Seasons-like “The Girl and the Moon”. The approach simply does not suit The Standells. Still, the sophomore album with the name I don’t have the energy to type again has enough grungy smashes to redeem it. “Black Hearted Woman”, “Mr. Nobody”, the brooding “I Hate to Leave You”, and the tracks for which the album was named do exactly what you want Standells tracks to do, though Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White is a pointless rerun after its appearance on Dirty Water.

Released in 1967, the year of obligatory experimentation, Try It proved that The Standells could stretch themselves without violating their attitudinal ethos. Soulful horns embellish “Can’t Help But Love You” and a cover of “Ninety-Nine and a Half” powerfully, while the breezy, keyboards, mallets, and Brasil ’66-style harmonies of “Trip to Paradise” and the trippy swoops of “All Fall Down” are perfectly picturesque. In this more eclectic environment, even the light “Poor Shell of a Man” sounds really good. There are also more traditionally punky tracks like “Try It”, an acid-spitting take on St. James Infirmary”, the throbbing “Barracuda”, the psychedelic yet totally exciting “Did You Ever Have That Feeling”, and the chaotic “Riot on Sunset Strip” for those who prefer The Standells to stay in the garage. All of this makes for what may be the band’s best LP.

 Sundazed records is now reissuing these three essential Standells albums on LP and CD. The CDs also include a few bonus tracks each. A fairly weak crop augments Dirty Water, though an appropriately tongue-in-cheek version of the Batman theme is a lot of fun and features some thunderous drumming.  The trashier extras on Why Pick On Me/Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White are more essential because they help dilute the softness that plagues some of the proper album tracks. Try It, the most eclectic Standells album, also receives the most eclectic bonus tracks with the demo-like “Get Away from Here”; “Animal Girl”, which repeats the too-soft problem of those Pick On Me/Good Guys tracks; the stilted R&B of “Soul Dripping”; and the smoother soul of “Can You Dig It”. Sound across all three mono CDs is exceptional. You grumpy few who gripe that Sundazed’s discs are often too murky will have no such complaints here.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Review: 'Jay Disbrow’s Monster Invasion'

During the fifties, Jay Disbrow was a versatile writer and illustrator who dabbled in a variety of comic genres, but I’ll give you one guess which genre is the focus of Craig Yoe’s latest anthology, Jay Disbrow’s Monster Invasion. Despite some trepidation over the “gross” leanings of top-dog E.C.’s comics, Disbrow threw himself into fashioning horror tales for comics such as Ghostly Weird Stories, Forbidden Worlds, and Spook. His stories tend to be somewhat routine, but his artwork, which revels in giant, hairy monsters and some of the most deliberately ugly faces you’ll ever see outside of a nightmare, is distinctive indeed.

Disbrow’s most imaginative total-originals are “The Homecoming”, in which a Navy Admiral discovers his true nature in truly surprising fashion, and “Ultimate Destiny”, which puts a deliciously gloppy new spin on the old “I wish to live forever” plot. Disbrow kind of makes up for his more so-so plots with dense language that can get a tad purple but never talks down to the comics crowd. He also deserves major points for coining what may be the finest monster expletive ever coined. More than once, a terrifying Disbrow creation breaks the tension by exclaiming, “Graw!”

Other storytellers are behind the most compellingly far-out plots. His publisher, L.B. Cole, contributed the synopsis for “The Beast from Below”, in which a miner who fails to incite a labor strike turns into a giant murder monkey. Disbrow confesses that “The Insider”, in which a monster emerges from a book, is “a shameful swipe from H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Outsider’”… a story Disbrow apparently loved so much that he adapted it again as “Dwellers in Darkness”. Graw!

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Review: The Creation's 'Action Painting'

They never managed to get a hit like a lot of the other bands that Shel Talmy produced, but some rock cultists— such as Talmy— insist that The Creation was every bit as good as The Kinks and The Who. You have to take a lot of what Talmy says with a Rock of Gibraltar-size grain of salt, but in this case, there’s some truth to his assertion. With mighty, colorful, crazy records such as “Making Time”, “Nightmares”, and “How Does It Feel to Feel”, The Creation easily made records as good as the ’66-era Kinks and Who.

Consequently, The Creation have been anthologized a few times, though the most thorough collections are kind of a mess. I’m specifically referring to Retroactive’s 1998 comps Making Time (Volume One) and Biff Bang Pow! (Volume Two). Both discs are loaded with great music, for sure, but they’re programmed in a nearly unlistenable manner. Different mixes of the same songs are sprinkled about in such a way that the listening experience becomes vexingly repetitive. 

Numero Group’s new collection Action Painting solves this problem with more considerate programming. All of the original mono mixes are gathered on Disc One with only one repeated song: “How Does It Feel to Feel” appears in both its original UK version and its superior US remake, which is tacked onto the end of the disc long after the other version has played. Disc Two begins with four decent cuts by The Creation’s initial incarnation as The Mark Four before moving on to new, Talmy-approved stereo mixes of most of the songs on disc one.

This approach is much more listenable than Retroactive’s, even though I would have given that buzzsaw US version of “How Does It Feel to Feel” pride of place early in the disc and arranged the tracks according to when they were recorded rather than when they were released so that “I Am the Walker” and “Ostrich Man”—two of The Creation’s finest—aren’t buried so far at the end of the disc. But these are minor quibbles. Really, Disc One of Action Painting is superb and basically all The Creation you’ll ever need to hear with nice, thick remastering by Talmy and Reuben Cohen.

The stereo mixes on Disc Two are more of a curiosity, though they do reveal some interesting, heretofore-buried sounds, such as some keening backing vocals on “How Does It Feel to Feel” and Through My Eyes”. The tracks are allowed to play out completely without fades, which discloses interesting tidbits too. “Through My Eyes” has certainly never sounded more psychedelically demented than it does here.  Disc Two is also the only spot where The Creation’s covers of “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Hey Joe” appear on Action Painting, but these are fairly inessential tracks and you’ll never miss them if you decide to only keep Disc One in rotation. I certainly don’t miss having them in mono.

The hardback book/slipcase packaging is very attractive with a bevy of color photos, including repros of all The Creation’s picture sleeves , as well as some informative biographical and track-by-track essays. The too-tight pockets for the CDs could have been thought out a lot better, though. Nevertheless, Action Painting is a lovely package of some of the sixties’ most brutal music. It may even be definitive.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Psychobabble's Ten Greatest Albums of 1987

By 1987, much of the fun of eighties music had been effectively crushed under the studded boots of hair metal and big-haired pop, which weren’t nearly as fun as Bon Jovi and Taylor Dane would have you believe. But what that year lacked in the kinds of wonderful one-hit wonders we most associate with the decade (Til Tuesday was probably the only one-hit wonder worth a damn), new and old crops of artists brought some serious art to the table that year. To toss a highlight on that fact, two of the very, very best albums of 1987 use art-rock’s favorite format: the double album. However, art and fun don’t have to be mutually exclusive, and some of the decade’s most serious artists actually seem to be loosening up in bids for big eighties success. Actually, if there’s one thing that binds most of the eclectic albums that follow together, it’s their danceability. So put on your studded dancing boots and blast another layer of Aqua Net at your head. Here comes Psychobabble’s Ten Best Albums of 1987!

10. Kick by INXS

Kick is a prime example of how 1987 tried to oppress traditional bands and how certain bands didn’t fight their era one iota. INXS was clearly taking its core cues from the sixties. With his leather pants, wild tresses, perpetual pout, perpetually bare chest, and “Touch me, I’m Jesus” stage moves, Michael Hutchence couldn’t have patterned himself on Jim Morrison more if he’d crowned himself Lizard King of Australia. “Mediate” apes Dylan both musically and videoly. “New Sensation” and “Need You Tonight” try some James Brown moves, the genuinely atmospheric “Never Tear Us Apart” draws from the more pleading and elegant strain of sixties soul, and so on. Yet, the gated-drum/farty-sax/swaths-of-synth production is so eighties I expect a packet of Garbage Pail Kids stickers to plop out of the speakers whenever I spin Kick. Yet, it somehow still works. “Mediate” and the strident opening track “Guns in the Sky” have hardly aged well, but the other aforementioned tracks, “Devil Inside”, “Wild Life”, and “Calling All Nations” are as catchy and fun as any pop music of an era in which most artists seemed to be having a lot more fun than their audiences.

9. Sandbox by Guided by Voices

After a super-polished debut mini album that cast them as Dayton’s answer to R.E.M., Guided by Voices moved from the apparently lush confines of Group Effort Studios in Kentucky to Steve Wilbur’s 8-Track Garage in their hometown. The full-length debut that resulted, Devil Between My Toes, gave the first real taste of the band’s lo-fi ethos, even if the song selection was a bit uneven. Also recorded at Steve’s, Sandbox sounds slicker than Devil and the song selection is stronger without the disposable instrumentals that occupied space on the first disc. Perhaps nothing on the band’s second LP was as exhilarating as “Captain’s Dead” or as playground-hummable as “Hank’s Little Fingers” on their first, but Sandbox was definitely the band’s first album that proved Bob Pollard could dish up a consistent set of distinctive pop and—perhaps most importantly of all—that he and Guided by Voices could do it with relative hi-fidelity without sounding naff. “Serious” (trans: “tiresome”) fans would fall out of their garages to argue against that point a dozen years later when the band moved to TVT, but even those dogmatic types should have no beef with the awesome riffing of “A Visit from the Creep Doctor”, the lovely “Everyday”, the can-hoisting/Beatle-quoting “Barricade”, the rumbling “Can’t Stop”, the band’s first perfect miniature “Long Distance Man”, and the lurching jangle “I Certainly Hope Not”. As most of those relatively ordinary titles indicate, GBV had yet to fully embrace their wonderful weirdness on Sandbox, but they’d correct that too on their next album.

8. Document by R.E.M.

Friday, February 10, 2017

"Twin Peaks" Action Figures Coming...

She's dead. Made of plastic. 

Hey, who wouldn't want to get on the floor and play-act new North-Western adventures with a miniature dead teenage prostitute and a murder/molestation demon. Now we'll all get the chance to do that the very same month Twin Peaks returns to television. This May, pop-culturally-inclined toy company Entertainment Earth will issue the first official Twin Peaks toys. It is a pack of four action figures in the likenesses of Laura Palmer, Killer BOB, Agent Cooper, and the Log Lady. 

Yes, Coop does come with a tiny coffee mug and cassette recorder, and yes, the Log Lady does come with a tiny log. BOB seems to lack a knife, which is weird because he always did have a thing for knives. 

Once you've spent your thirty bucks over at Entertainment Earth's official site, you can start dreaming about who will be next. Audrey Horne, Bobby Briggs, Sheriff Truman, and Shelley Johnson, perhaps? The Little Man from Another Place, the Giant, that white horse Sarah Palmer sees whenever her husband slips her a mickey, and Señior Drool Cup, maybe?  A Leland Palmer three-pack featuring the multifaceted character with brown hair, white hair, and white hair and white eyes? A Harold Smith's Agoraphobia Dream House playset complete with secret-compartment bookshelf and mini-lady flipper and face-slicing trowel?  Start dreaming.
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