Thursday, December 28, 2017

Review: 'Long Title: Looking for the Good Times: Examining The Monkees’ Songs, One by One'

While examining “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone” in his book Long Title: Looking for the Good Times: Examining The Monkees’ Songs, One by One, Michael A. Ventrella writes, “I’ve never been much of a fan of this song. I’m not sure why; I can’t really point to anything wrong with it.” Hmm. Are you sure you’re the best person to be examining The Monkees’ songs one by one? Because I expect better insight than what Ventrella and his co-author Mark Arnold try to pass off as analysis in this book. “I don’t know why I don’t like this; I just don’t” may cut the mustard in a Facebook comment, but it does not belong in a book. And beginning that book by stating, “neither Mark nor I claim to be Monkees experts” does not give you a pass when it comes to the facts either. If I’m reading a book about any topic, I expect the writers to really know what they are talking about, to do as thorough a job of tackling their goal as possible. And there certainly is a lot one could do with a book examining a discography like The Monkees’. There were so many composers, so many musicians, so many influences, so many genres attempted, so many varying circumstances under which the music was made, so much variation in quality. In a sense, The Monkees’ body of work is much riper for analysis than The Beatles’ because it is so all over the place.

The problem isn’t the approach. I like the format of two people basically rapping about songs they like and dislike, and I don’t need complex music theory-based explanations for why a song is or isn’t up to snuff. However, I do expect some basic musical knowledge. I expect the writers to know what an “arpeggio” is and use that term instead of a “chord being played string by string” and know the difference between a cuica and someone making gorilla noises.” I expect the writer of a book about The Monkees to not be mystified by why the corporately created “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” was not included on the band created Headquarters, and to know such basic Monkees history as the fact that “Goin’ Down” was based on an arrangement of “Parchment Farm”. I expect the writing to read like…well… writing and not a transcribed conversation full of grammatically challenged sentences such as this song shows a little bit too much strings. I expect enough attention to detail to recognize that the first recorded version of “You Just May Be the One” is very different from the band version on Headquarters and not “about the same” as it. I expect that entries on recordings so inessential that they prompt one of the writers to comment “I didn’t even want to list all these in the book” to be edited out. I certainly expect more insight than “I don’t know why I don’t like this; I just don’t.”

These are not minor criticisms, but there are things I like about Long Title: Looking for the Good Times: Examining The Monkees’ Songs, One by One (that title is not one of them though. These guys really could have used an editor). I like the fact that Ventrella and Arnold are not super fans, that they are willing to criticize some of The Monkees’ most beloved recordings and find more divisive things such as “Writing Wrongs”, the studio version of Circle Sky”, and “Shorty Blackwell” lovable. I appreciated bits of lesser known trivia, such as the allegation that Boyce and Hart’s decision to have The Monkees record such gruel as “Teeny Tiny Gnome” and “Ladies Aid Society” inspired Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider to hand music supervising duties over to Don Kirshner. I certainly love the fact that a couple of writers realized that The Monkees’ discography was rich and fascinating enough to deserve song-by-song analysis. I just think that task should have been performed by writers more willing to take the task seriously. 

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Psychobabble’s 10 Favorite Retro Music Releases of 2017

Whether you’re a razor-sharp modernist or more of the psychedelic satin marching band-uniform type, 2017 offered quite a lot that should keep you smashed and blocked through the new year. Here are Psychobabble’s ten favorite retro music releases of this past year.

 (Each entry links to the original review)

In short: “…completes the task with an unbreakable parade of essential hits and powerful sound…”

9. Sundazed's Standells Reissues
In short: “Sound across all three mono CDs is exceptional.”

Friday, December 22, 2017

How to Have Yourself a Merry Little Psychobabble X-Mas

A real evergreen decked with handmade ornaments. Choruses of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” around a roaring fire. A ham dinner with all the trimmings for you and yours. Midnight mass. These are the things that make up an old-fashioned Christmas. But there aren’t very Psychobabbley.

Here on Psychobabble, old-fashioned does reign supreme, but it ain’t that kind of sweater-vest brand of old-fashioned. It’s the stupendously, tremendously retro brand. Don’t understand what I mean? Well, don’t fear, don’t panic, and don’t throw yourself in front of the next oncoming reindeer-drawn sleigh. My holiday gift to you is the following 24-hour schedule for having a very merry Psychobabble-style X-Mas….with all the groovy trimmings.

December 25

Midnight: Wake up. Ideally you spent the entirety of Christmas Eve sleeping and building up reserves of energy, because the following is—as I’ve already stated—a 24-hour schedule. No sleep ’til Boxing Day. And you’re really going to need that energy because the first task on our holiday schedule is stocking up on the gifts. No lazy shopping in front of your fancy home computer. We do it the old-fashioned way: Midnight Sale at Toys R’ Us.  Be prepared to gouge out the eyeballs of a fellow loving parent for that last Cabbage Patch Kid on the shelf, because in Psychobabble Land, that kind of thing still happens.

1:00 A.M.: Now get all that booty home and wrap it as fast as possible because it is time to deck some fucking halls the Psychobabble way. If you’ve already set up projected LED snowflakes or any other newfangled decoration, tear that shit down and replace it with toxic melted plastic peanut snowmen on the windows, garish blow-molded Santa and reindeer display on the roof, and flaming hot C7 ½ multicolored bulbs around the eaves. Tarp up that brick fireplace and hang your stockings from a vintage cardboard fireplace by Toymaster. Finish it all off with an aluminum tree sprinkled with satin-covered Styrofoam balls and bathed in the artificial glow of a motorized color wheel.  

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Review: 'The Rolling Stones On Air'

Until very recently, ABKCO/Universal has kept a pretty tight lid on the Stones’ 1960s vault. This began to change in 2016 with the release of the long anticipated Rolling Stones in Mono box set, and more recently with the unanticipated-by-everyone-but-me deluxe edition of Their Satanic Majesties Request. This new access continues with Rolling Stones On Air, a double disc collection of BBC recordings the guys made from 1963 to 1965.

This is the first taste of real rarities yet as we get to hear renditions of eight songs that never made it onto the Stones’ proper LPs or singles and versions of popular faves with more pronounced differences than a mere shift from the familiar to stereo to the slightly less familiar mono. The chance to hear the Stones’ takes on gems such as Buster Brown’s “Fannie Mae” (which they’d later rip for “their own” “Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man”), Tommy Tucker’s “High Heel Sneakers”, Bo Diddley’s “Cops and Robbers” and “Crackin’ Up”, Jimmy Reed’s “Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby”, and a whole mess of Chuck Berry tunes will probably provoke the most purchases. The other stuff may not be quite as valuable, but it’s still very cool to hear things like “Cry to Me” and “I’m Moving On” with greater clarity than the more familiar versions.

Sometimes the greater clarity is not really an asset as it demystifies the murky alchemy of “Satisfaction”, “Mercy Mercy” (complete with way out-front falsetto by, I believe, Bill Wyman, who was no John Entwistle in the falsetto-singing bassist department), and “The Last Time”, but it’s always fun and interesting to hear such well-worn material in any different light. In at least one instance, hearing a lack of difference is actually fascinating. I’ve always marveled at the fluid, effortlessness of Keith Richards’ playing on “Down the Road Apiece” and surmised it was something our sloppy hero could never recreate. The fiery rendition of that number recorded he recorded for the Top Gear program proves me wrong in the most wonderful way.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Psychobabble’s 10 Favorite Pop-Culture Books of 2017

Books of and about comics, pop art books, a book that fills some pieces into television’s most exquisite puzzle, and the bio of a man famed for his green cap and killer dip make up the bulk of Psychobabble’s ten favorite retro pop-culture books of this past year.

 (Each entry links to the original review)

In short: “…will get the nostalgia glands salivating.”

Monday, December 11, 2017

Review: The Beatles' Christmas Records Box & the 'Sgt. Pepper's' Picture Disc

In December of 1963, UK kids received their biggest reward for joining the Beatles’ Official Fan Club: a flexi-disc arrived in the post containing messages of good will and “Happy Crimble” from the Fab Four. Each year throughout The Beatles’ brief career, fan-club devotees received such a holiday record from their fave group.

For their first Holiday platter dished out on December 6, 1963, The Beatles grunt “Good King Wenceslas” and whistle “God Save the Queen” as John Lennon gives a neat recap of the first phase of his band’s success and says “gear” more times than a John Lennon impersonator. Paul McCartney begs for a moratorium on the chucking of Jelly Babies, Ringo Starr reprises “Wenceslas” like a lounge lizard, and George Harrison gets silly before all four fabs mangle “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” while plugging another famous schnoz into the lyrics.

In 1964, Beatlemania officially spread from the UK to the rest of the globe, and the boys’ recent discovery of Ms. Mary Jane seems to be the fuel on their Yule-log flame. The banter is a bit more lackadaisical than on their first Holiday Record. Or perhaps they were just exhausted. They do sound as knackered as they looked on the cover of the recently released Beatles For Sale… well, at least until the brief but frenzied piano demolition that ends this year’s message.

The Beatles’ 1965 message gets started with a rowdy knees-up of their latest rowdy number, “Yesterday”, before getting on to their usual heartfelt holiday messages. Taking some time out from recording Rubber Soul, John voices his appreciation for some rather original gifts he received from fans, then sings silly songs in an…ummm, I don’t know? Scottish accent? Next up is a reference to a George Harrison B-side that wouldn’t be released for another three years, a quick Four Tops parody, and a deranged version of “Auld Lang Sine” sung with Dylan-esque gravitas. Finally they all get sucked down some sort of reverb-laden vortex, no doubt gearing up for a New Year of acid experimentation and being bigger than that guy allegedly born on December 25th.

Not their most well-remembered holiday carol, “Everywhere It’s Christmas” (sung like the Upperclass Twit of the Year) begins the record shipped to fan club members in December, 1966. What follows is a far more elaborate production than those featured on previous holiday records, with the boys enacting a surreal holiday story complete with weird chorales and George’s memorable portrayal of Podgy the Bear.
 1967 saw release of the most famous Beatles’ fan club record thanks to the inclusion of their first and only full-band holiday song: “Christmastime (Is Here Again)”,  a number as tunefully frothy as their recent number one hit, “Hello, Goodbye”. Inter-cut within the song are snippets from a broadcast on Radio LSD, which features that beloved World War II chestnut “Plenty of Jam Jars” by The Ravelers.

To commemorate 1968, Paul McCartney does a “Blackbird”-reminiscent improv, John name-drops his new paramour amidst his usual verbal gobbledygook, Ringo goes insane, and a very stoned-sounding George pals around with Tiny Tim, who lays down a characteristically shrill version of “Nowhere Man” on his uke! All of this is glued together with some avant garde tape-tomfoolery straight out of “Revolution 9”. Freaky.

Sure, The Beatles couldn’t stand each other by 1969, but that neither stopped them from tossing together another holiday record or kept Yoko Ono—who sloshes through the snow with her new hubby and sings like a Disney thrush—from getting in on the fun. A bit of “The End” played beneath this recording gives a good idea of where The Beatles’ heads were in late ’69. Ringo plugs his burgeoning acting career, perhaps because he knows he’ll soon be without a job. However, a little X-Mas ditty by Paul provides an unexpectedly sweet holiday treat.

While original individual copies of these rare discs fetch as much as $600 today, a new box containing the entire set of these rather bizarre and often hilarious discs is now available for a fraction of that cost, and instead of crackly, wafer-thin flexi discs, they are on proper and rather heavy vinyl in a multitude of festive colors courtesy of Universal Music. There is quite a bit of sound variation due to the different sources from which the messages were pulled. According to the notes, some of the discs were sourced from the flexi-discs, and I'd wager that these include 1963, 1966, and 1969. While the crackling is shockingly mild on the 1963 record, the others sound considerably rougher. 1965 sounds like it was pulled from a cassette. The others sound much cleaner, which means that the most significant piece of music in the set, “Christmastime (Is Here Again)”, sounds nice. However, there are some distortions that likely result from the lo-fi way the original recordings were made, and be sure to take note that the 1964 record revolves at 45 RPMs rather than 33 1/3 or risk hearing the Fabs either sound like some sort of Satanic Santa.

The package is suitably lush. Each record comes in a shrink-wrapped picture sleeve with the original artwork (which because increasingly psychedelic as the sixties progress). The lot of them is encased in a gift box that’s only missing the paper and bow. There’s also a slim but nice booklet with a short introductory essay by Kevin Howlett, repros of each fan club newsletter shipped with each disc from 1963 through 1967, additional photos, and a note about the creation of each record. Gear!

As a nifty stocking stuffing bonus, UMe is also issuing Giles Martin’s recent 50th Anniversary stereo remix of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as a picture disc depicting the original cover on Side A and the custom Sgt. Pepper’s bass drum head on Side B. Picture discs have a reputation for crackly, dull sound, and while this pressing surely isn’t as crisp and vibrant as the CDs in the box set released last spring, and the bass is still overbearing, it still delivers generally good sound.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Review: 'Bang! The Bert Burns Story: Official Soundtrack'

Producer/composer Bert Bern’s role in the Rock & Roll conversation tends to be limited to discussions of Van Morrison and Neil Diamond’s early career, but there’s a lot more to his legacy than “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Cherry, Cherry”. Berns wrote or co-wrote such timeless tunes as Solomon Burke’s “Cry to Me” and “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love”, Them’s “Here Comes the Night”, Freddie Scott’s “Am I Grooving You”, and Erma Franklin/ Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart”. He also produced such major records as The Jarmels’ “A Little Bit of Soap”, The Isley Brothers’ The Exciters’ “Tell Him”, “Twist and Shout”, The Strangeloves’ “I Want Candy”, and The McCoy’s “Hang on Sloopy”. That there is one impressive track record, my friends.

A new documentary called Bang! The Bert Burns Story apparently sets the record straight by telling Burns’s story, while its soundtrack is a stunning sustained blast of why that story is worth telling. There is not one bum track on this 20-track double LP. There isn’t even one track that deserves anything less than a sincere “Wow!” Relative obscurities such as two tracks by The Pussycats (making their long-playing debut), Morrison’s funky “Chick-A-Boom”, Lorraine Ellison’s gospel-like “Heart Be Still”, Bobby Harris’s “Mr. Success”, and Kenny Hamber’s “Show Me Your Monkey” join most of the classics mentioned above. The absence of any of Diamond’s early sides for Berns’s Bang Records seems a somewhat glaring oversight, but that does nothing to change the fact that Bang! The Bert Burns Story: Official Soundtrack is a knock out pop and soul compilation.

Review: 'Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series' DVD

Twin Peaks is my favorite piece of pop culture, so I anticipated its return as a “Limited Event Series” on Showtime fervently. At the same time I was surprised that an artist of David Lynch’s caliber wanted to get in on a sequel-series trend that included the likes of Fuller House. While Lynch obsessively revisits motifs and even structures of his previous works, this would be the first time he’d revisit a specific work. Of course, if he was to revisit a work, Twin Peaks would be the one to revisit both because of a painful cliffhanger that even the feature film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me refused to resolve and because Twin Peaks is Lynch’s most popular production. I’d wager that part of the reason it is so popular is that Lynch’s experimentalism was watered down by Network desires and the fact that he shared duties with a slew of less experimental writers and directors. Had he made, say, Eraserhead: The Series!, it probably would not have endured as the Twin Peaks we knew and loved has.
The amazing thing about the Showtime revival is that Lynch has, in a sense, made Eraserhead: The Series! In other words, instead of servicing our collective nostalgia and desires to spend more time munching on cherry pie and guzzling coffee, Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost took the raw materials of Twin Peaks and took it to places that even the highly abstract Fire Walk with Me did not walk. This certainly was not the Twin Peaks that fans expected, but it truly justified both Lynch’s return to Twin Peaks and his return to filmmaking after a decade-plus absence. While I’m sure I would have enjoyed a nostalgic return to the feel of the original series, I probably would not have spent much time thinking about it. And thinking is something that the third season of Twin Peaks has provoked in me like no other series in our current Golden Age of Television. As brilliant as series such as Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Americans are, none hijacked my thoughts like the third season of Twin Peaks, none provoked so much deep discussion, frustration, obsession, and wonder. It’s been said before by others who have valiantly but futilely attempted to pick through the layers of the Limited Event Series, but it bears repeating—Lynch and Frost may not have given us the Twin Peaks we wanted, but they surely gave us the one we needed and deserved as intelligent people. 
Revisiting this revisitation on Showtime Entertainment/CBS’s new DVD set, Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series retains all of its power to mystify and intrigue. One major positive of knowing what’s coming next is that scenes that felt endless upon first viewing now don’t seem so maddening since I’m no longer dying to find out what happens next. So, for example, I can just relax and groove to “Green Onions” as some random guy sweeps the floor of the Road House without finding it indulgent or unnecessary. It provides a moment (or several moments) to reflect on what has happened and what will happen next. Also, now that we know the cruel fates of certain characters, we can better enjoy those who have satisfying conclusions, and those satisfying conclusions should help dispel feelings that Lynch and Frost had some sort of axe to grind against their audience.
Yet, the creators do everything in their power to level the original series that we know and love, so the Limited Event Series may be best viewed as a self-contained work rather than a proper continuation of something we don’t really want to see leveled. And perhaps it is another nice thing about the recent series that it can be viewed in so many different ways, interpreted in so many different ways. The fact that it allows for such options are part of what makes Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series such a thoroughly intellectually stimulating work of art. I can’t wait to find out how it influences future television series now that it has blown the medium wide open… assuming anyone dares to follow in its footsteps.
For those who are drooling for more time with the Peaks crowd, this new DVD set comes with almost five hours of supplemental material. Much like the series itself, the lengthy “Impressions: A Journey Behind the Scenes of Twin Peaks” is open to interpretation. For David Lynch—a guy who notoriously refuses to discuss the meaning of his work, illuminate his process with DVD commentary tracks, or explain how he made that bizarre Eraserhead baby—this is an unprecedented look at the way he makes movies. For some viewers, this will be endlessly fascinating stuff. For others, it will be a bit too illuminating and could break the spell of a peerlessly spellbinding piece of television. Enter at your own risk.
Less risky is a fun Twin Peaks panel at this year’s comic con hosted by Damon Lindelof (Lost; The Leftovers) and featuring Peaks stars Kyle MacLachlan, Naomi Watts, Dana Ashbrook, Everett McGill, Kimmy Robertson, James Marshall, Don Murray, Matthew Lillard, and Tim Roth in top spirits. There are also minor features such as a 14-minute mini-documentary called “Phenomenon” that previously aired on Showtime in three parts, a series of seven short promos, and a photo gallery.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Review: 'The Complete Monterey Pop Festival' Blu-ray

Capturing Rock & Roll at a more experimental phase than The T.A.M.I. Show did, but not as self-indulgent and drab as Woodstock, or as depressing as Gimme Shelter, D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop is the greatest multi-artist concert film. With a wide selection of some of the era’s most thrilling artists to include in his feature, Pennebaker created a nice sampler of all that made 1967 Rock’s most dazzling year. There’s a whole lot of soul (Otis), raga (17 minutes of Ravi Shankar flooring the crowd), jazz (Hugh Masekela), blues (Janis, Canned Heat), pacific pop (Simon & Garfunkel, The Mamas & The Papas) proto-punk (The Who), and of course, psychedelic Rock (The Animals, Country Joe, the Airplane, Hendrix and his Experience). The performances are as electric as they are eclectic, and Pennbaker’s shadowy cinematography creates nearly as much mood as the vibrant music.
In 2002, The Criterion Collection put together a triple-disc package called The Complete Monterey Pop Festival that built an already monumental film to skyscraper proportions. The set included the original film, as well as complete performances from Otis Redding and The Jimi Hendrix Experience and the feature-length Outtakes Performances. This is just as essential as Pennebaker’s 1968 film, recovering additional performances from The Who, Simon & Garfunkel, Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother & The Holding Company, The Mamas & The Papas, and Country Joe & The Fish, as well as footage of some major artists who didn’t make the cut of the original picture, such as The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Laura Nyro (whose spellbinding rendition of “Poverty Train” dispels rumors that she fumbled the gig), The Association (who provide a charmingly mainstream moment amidst all the heavy underground activity), and others. In addition to the three major supplements were a plethora of commentaries, interviews, trailers, and booklet essays.
In 2009, Criterion upgraded the 2002 DVD for Blu-ray without offering anything beyond the 2002 supplements. For the festival’s 50th Anniversary, Criterion has given the video a 4K buffing and added several extra features, such as new onscreen interviews with Pennebaker (who discusses the filming and the acts) and festival producer Lou Adler (who discusses a 50th Anniversary festival staged on the site of the 1967 one, the original film’s lack of explicit politics, and other matters) and a general new essay about the film by Michael Chaiken (however, text by Pennebaker and Jann Wenner from the 2002 edition have been lost in translation). Much more historically significant are some extra outtake performances from The Steve Miller Band, Moby Grape, and The Grateful Dead. 

Criterion’s new 4K restoration of Monterey Pop delivers splendid colors and appropriately crunchy grain. Some shots are a bit soft, but that is likely a consequence of the lo-fi conditions under which Pennebaker and his crew made the movie (we often see them working the focus in the middle of a shot). Jimi Plays Monterey, Shake! Otis at Monterey, and The Outtakes Performances are presented in the same 1080p transfers used for the 2009 Blu-ray release, but the Hendrix and Otis mini-movies have been newly restored according to the back-cover copy

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Review: 'Hendrix: The Illustrated Story'

Jimi Hendrix is the nearly unanimously acknowledged master of the electric guitar and one of the key Rock & Roll artists in general, so volumes have naturally been written on his life, work, and artistry. For casual fans who don’t have to patience to sift through all that stuff and want to get an eye-load of the man in all his wizard finery, a book such as Gillian G. Gaar’s Hendrix: The Illustrated Story gets the job done.

There’s not much depth to plumb in 200 pages, and the reliance on previously published sources means that new revelations are absent, but that’s not really the point of a book like this. Gaar delivers the essentials of Hendrix’s story, gratefully not pretending that the hideous moments in it didn’t exist (his relationship with an underage prostitute; his battery of a woman in his entourage; etc.), and buffers the text with lots of fabulous photos. Yet for such a short biography, there’s too much day-to-day data about the places he toured and the TV shows on which he appeared. Also, the writing lacks pizzazz considering her flamboyant subject matter. Gaar is at her liveliest when discussing Hendrix’s music in a supplemental essay on Are You Experienced?, but she leaves additional LP surveys to guest writers. In her discussion of Electric Ladyland, Jaan Uhelszki does a much flashier job of reflecting Hendrix’s vividness and made me wish that the rest of the book were as punchy. Gaars narrative is most compulsively readable when events are dramatic enough to carry the story, as it is when she discusses Hendrix’s tumultuous final days.

Of course, a lot of readers will check out Hendrix: The Illustrated Story less for the story and more for the illustrations, and groovy shots of Hendrix getting his hair done while perusing MAD or dolled up as a psychedelic Santa are major selling points. The faux velvet black light poster-style cover is a gas too.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Review: Rush's 'A Farewell to Kings' Deluxe Edition

After three spotty albums that found them fumbling between beery hard rockers to intellectual prog noodlings, Rush cracked the nut on 2112. The band’s resident thinker Neil Peart settled in as chief lyricist, the whole band started writing music worthy of their epic concepts, and their shorter songs tightened up too (even if none of them reached the heights of “Fly by Night”). Now that they had their act down, Rush could start perfecting the new format. With A Farewell to Kings, they came pretty close to doing that. The exciting title track, the looming “Cinderella Man”, and “Closer to the Heart”, the power ballad that launched a zillion Zippos, were miles beyond any of the short numbers on Side B of 2112. “Xanadu” was not as ambitious as the “2112” suite, but it was more melodic and stands as one of Rush’s very best long songs. “Madrigal” is winsome, but the corny lyrics suggest that love songs don’t fit comfortably into Rush’s sci-fi and sorcery universe (no biggy), and “Cygnus X-1” is a bit of a return to the muddled narratives of Caress of Steel, though it’s better than its mixed reputation suggests and the middle section (“I set a course just east of Lyra…”) rocks with that old Labatt’s-brewed fury. More importantly, it is the necessary first act of the even less penetrable yet stunningly beautiful “Cygnus X-1: Book Two” that would be the focal point of Rush’s next album.

On its fortieth anniversary, A Farewell to Kings is getting deluxe treatment via Universal Music. The core album is the same remaster released on vinyl in 2015, and the most startling thing about this remaster on CD is that it is significantly quieter than the album’s first CD incarnation released in the eighties. So the big boon of the triple-disc edition is that it includes a complete concert recorded at the Hammersmith Odeon in London in February 1978. The quality of the recording is much higher than any of the live material on UMe’s deluxe 2112 set, and the choice of songs is excellent with every Farewell track but “Madrigal” represented. There’s the occasional glitch, like a buzzing mic at the beginning of “A Farewell to Kings” and Geddy Lee sometimes has a bit of a frog in his throat in addition to the usual leprechaun, but this is a very release-worthy concert recording.

Finishing off the deluxe edition are four minutes of the weird noises that begin “Cygnus X-1” and pointlessly faithful cover versions of four of the album’s six tracks. As I wrote in my review of Universal’s deluxe edition of 2112, I’m not sure if fans are really going to want material from other artists on a Rush album, but at least these covers are more like bonus tracks tacked at the end of the concert than the centerpiece of a disc as they were on the 2112 set. I’m also not sure how fans will feel about the fact that the album’s original cover has been replaced with new digitally rendered artwork that makes A Farewell to Kings look like a Dream Theater album. Considering that Dream Theater is one of the contributors to this Rush album, that might be intentional.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Review: 'The Best of Muddy Waters' Vinyl Reissue

The term Rock & Roll wasn’t on anyone’s lips in 1948 when Muddy Waters released the malicious “I Can’t Be Satisfied”. With its pulsing rhythm and a title that The Rolling Stones would alter to create a genre-defining disc seven years later, it’s hard not to view “I Can’t Be Satisfied” as the birth of something. The connection between Muddy’s blues and the rockers who worshiped him would get even sharper when he plugged in with records such as “Rollin’ Stone” and “Honey Bee”. Keith stole his sting. Mick stole his yowl. But unlike so many artists who ceded the things they originated to those who took them and cashed in, Muddy always remained Muddy: an originator, a legend, and a true Rock & Roller.

One thing that wasn’t too Rock & Roll about Muddy Waters’s earliest records was the format. While the 45 would be the Rock & Roll format, Waters’s discs rotated at 78 rpms. In 1958, Chess Records glued together twelve of those key cuts and spewed them back out on LP for the first time.

The Best of Muddy Waters remains a bracing listen both for the power of the man’s voice and guitar and for the eerie atmosphere that transcends the usual notions of 1950s Rock & Roll. Most potent of all is an explicit sexiness that burns hotter than perhaps anything any other artist produced in Rock or the blues. Muddy Waters expresses the shit that Jagger and Robert Plant can only pretend to feel.

Universal Music has just reissued The Best of Muddy Waters on heavy, super quiet vinyl that makes the music sound like it was cut yesterday and may make you itch to hear some of those old pops and crackles… but I’m sure you’ll have no trouble making some of your own.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Psychobabble's Ten Greatest Albums of 1963

Great albums weren't a huge concern in the Rock & Roll world of 1963. Until that point, Elvis Presley and Ricky Nelson were the only Rock & Roll artists to have number one albums in the United States. Singles continued to be the preferred media, and they'd remain in that position until 1967, the first year a group of electric-guitar pickers had the number-one album of the year (though More of the Monkees was the one album The Monkees released that year on which the boys didn't actually do much guitar picking).

As we’ve already seen in this series, there had been great Rock & Roll records before 1963: Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry's After School Session, Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar, Here's Little Richard, Buddy Holly's The “Chirpin'“ Crickets, Bo Diddley, though most of these were conceived as singles appended with bits of filler that only by apparent providence turned out to be well above average. However, in 1963, artists such as Phil Spector, Sam Cooke, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, and especially The Beatles set the change-over in motion with truly fine LPs conceived to be just that. The year’s great records were also surprisingly varied with live albums, proto-concept albums, holiday albums, and the usual singles collections all sharing space on the shelves. The great-album era might not have been quite here yet, but now it was just a matter of time.

10. Live at the Apollo by James Brown

James Brown certainly made some great records, but he would not be the Godfather if not for his electrifying, stupefying, mesmerizing stage show. Live at the Apollo is a valiant effort to capture that show for the home audience, though the fact that so much of Brown’s greatness was in his shimmying ankles and drop-to-the-floorboards shtick means that these two vinyl discs still aren’t the ideal Brown presentation. The Fabulous Flames vamp endlessly while Brown steps away from the mic to no doubt do something fabulous, but the lack of essential visuals leaves a couple of stretches of Live at the Apollo a little tedious and 10-plus minutes of “Lost Someone” is a lot of time to spend listening to a slow jam. Live at the Apollo really earns its place as the ultimate James Brown album in its pithier moments, as he and the Flames lay waste to the recorded versions of “I’ll Go Crazy”, “Try Me”, “I Don’t Mind”, and “Please, Please, Please”. And the hyperventilating version of “Think” makes a good case for the argument that James Brown is also the Godfather of Speed Rock.

9. Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah by Bob B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans
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