Monday, December 10, 2018

Review: 'American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1990s'

Considering how forcefully comics have driven the pop culture of the twenty-first century, it is kind of amazing to review the state of the industry at the very end of the twentieth. Comics companies were stuck in a rut, catering to collectors rather than readers with cheesy “limited edition” stunts or pandering to audience’s basest instincts with brutal vigilante violence and bra-bursting sexism. Cinematic adaptations of The Phantom, Judge Dredd, Barb Wire, The Shadow, and Steel were sucking wind at the box office while The Flash could barely complete a single season on TV. Marvel, the company that practically holds a monopoly over the Hollywood of today, filed chapter 11. Comics sales as a whole slumped.

However, the nineties was also the decade when comics buying went totally mainstream as the tale of Superman’s (extremely temporary) demise flew off shelves and his romance with Lois Lane (by way of Teri Htacher) lit up small screens. It was when Batman did more than very well in theaters and shook up the state of TV cartoons with his Animated Series. It was the decade that saw the debuts of such innovations as The Maxx, The Tick, Hellboy, the artist-owned Image Comics, and the racially diverse Milestone Comics.

In the latest installment of TwoMorrows Publishing’s comics history overviews, Jason Sacks and Keith Dallas survey that topsy-turvy landscape of the nineties. While too many comics storyline summaries trip up the narrative, the fascinatingly troubled tale of the comics industry in the nineties still manages to come together in American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1990s. Sacks and Dallas not only cover the major companies and upstarts but also get deep enough into underground titles to forge a pretty complete portrait of a complex decade. And if you find yourself zoning out while reading those plot summaries that never seem to stick to the consciousness, you can just shift your eyes over an inch or two, because there is always some fabulous piece of full-color art to re-focus on.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Restored 'Rolling Stones Rock & Roll Circus' Arriving a Little Later Than Expected...

Last fall, word escaped that ABKCO was prepping a trio of 50th Anniversary Rolling Stones releases for the remainder of 2018. While a blu-ray of the Goddard film Sympathy for the Devil: One Plus One and an anniversary edition of Beggars Banquet did emerge before the year's end, a blu-ray edition of The Rolling Stones Rock & Roll Circus did not. While we will have to wait a little longer to take in the 4K restoration (from the original 35mmm film) of this marvelous, made-for-TV special featuring the Stones, The Who, Marianne Faithfull, John Lennon's Dirty Mac, Taj Mahal, Jethro Tull, and some acrobats and fire eaters, we now have word that the project is still happening. 
For an invited few, it will happen on December 11 at an exclusive London screening. For the rest of us schlubs, it will go down sometime in the spring of 2019 when a home video release is apparently planned. The cool news about this announcement is that the film will be presented in widescreen for the first time. The press release also describes this new edition as "expanded," though I'm not yet sure if that refers to the wider frame or the addition of footage that did not appear in the 1996 cut of The Rolling Stones Rock & Roll Circus. As soon as I have more details, I'll be sure to pass them along. Stay tuned...

Friday, December 7, 2018

2 Beach Boys Outtakes Sets Now Available

As we passed through the fall, which will soon break into winter, we received the expected 50th anniversary releases from The Beatles and Stones, but I was a bit surprised that The Beach Boys' camp was silent considering last year's CD release of the excellent Beach Boys 1967 set. Where was Beach Boys 1968, a look back on the year they made some of their best music since Pet Sounds, the year they released the highly underrated Friends album and the fine singles "I Can Hear Music" and "Do It Again"? Well, I have my answer today as two new Beach Boys 1968 collections--Wake the World and the Friends Sessions and I Can Hear Music: the 20/20 Sessions-- are quietly arriving. The catch is that these sets are only available as digital downloads, and unlike the Wild Honey-focused Beach Boys 1967 set, they arrive without fresh mixes of the albums they feature.

I guess the good news is that there isn't any wait for these two new Beach Boys 1968 sets: they are both available to download on right now here: Wake the World and the Friends Sessions and I Can Hear Music: the 20/20 Sessions.

Here are the track listings for both sets: 

The Beach Boys 1968Wake the World and the Friends Sessions

Review: 'True Stories' Blu-ray

A mayor who never talks to his wife directly but talks with his hands incessantly. A gregarious yet lonesome soul determined to find a wife. An amateur voodoo practitioner. A woman dedicated to cuteness. A woman devoted to lying in bed. A woman simply devoted to lying. A narrator who finds them all worthy of wonderment and love. These are the inhabitants of Virgil, Texas, the mythical setting of True Stories.

David Byrne directed a few music videos to gear up for his transition from Talking Head to filmmaker, and there is music video style aplenty in his feature debut. Besides the actual musical interludes that include the “Wild, Wild Life” video, there’s the rhythmic editing, seemingly nonsensical juxtapositions, people and ideas that don’t exactly lead anywhere, and emotional focus that transcends meaning that beam through the entire picture. With their script based on some of Byrne’s doodles, Stephen Tobolowsky and Beth Henley string together the disparate characters of True Stories into something that makes sense even as it doesn’t not strive to make sense. When it’s all over, you do not want to say goodbye to any of these Virgil citizens even though they are flawed, even though they tend to lead you down narrative dead ends, because Byrne the director and Byrne the narrator present them with such judgment-free affection.

In a time when the nation is so divided along party and state lines, when real villains devoted to nothing more than what is worst for every American trample the United States, it is both heartening and sad to survey Virgil’s fairy land of mutual understanding and acceptance. Even that married couple who haven’t spoken to each other in years seem to do so more because they want their own entry in the Guinness Book than because they don’t love each other. The film itself finds a liberal from a signature New York City rock band welcomed into the heart of American conservatism. Did an America like this ever exist? I don’t know, but 90 minutes with True Stories is a warm escape from the America forced upon us today. Somehow this films makes laziness, the refusal to communicate adequately, conscienceless consumerism, and complete untruthfulness charming even in a time when Americas worst monster embodies all of these sins.

The Criterion Collection’s blu-ray edition of True Stories presents the film with its customary flawlessness. The Texan landscape is vivid, each frame is free of scratches or blotches, and the soundtrack ripples and booms. That entire soundtrack makes its CD debut (though you may not find things like Annie McEnroe cooing “Dream Operator” great listening when divorced from images of the world’s weirdest fashion show) and leads the way among several choice supplements.

The best video extra is a new hour-long documentary on the film, though it would have been nice if more of the cast members were among its talking heads. There are also shorter new documentaries about how the film’s locations have aged and Tibor Kalman, the graphic designer who masterminded the film’s opening montage and advertising campaign. Vintage material includes a 30-minute making-of featuring many of the original cast members in character (John Goodman on a tour of the house that served as the Ewing homestead on Dallas is pretty priceless) and 14 minutes of fairly interesting deleted scenes. The packaging is also praise worthy, especially the newsprint booklet designed as a mock tabloid.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Farewell, Pete Shelley

Buzzcocks were one of the first bands to find a direct link between legit punk and sweet-as-candy pop, and they did it better than most that would follow with songs that looked at adolescent sexuality and isolation with humor and true emotion. The band's face and voice was Pete Shelley, who also penned or co-penned their post enduring smashes. He drooled his way through "Orgasm Addict", got mopey with "What Do I Get?" and "Ever Fallen In Love (with Someone You Shouldn't've)", raved with "Everybody's Happy Nowadays" and never lost his wit or way with a tune no matter how much the tempo sped . He was also one of the first original punks to embrace electronic music and to open up about his bisexuality, which he did on his 1981 solo classic "Homosapien". Sadly, Pete Shelley has died of a suspected heart attack at the age of 63. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Psychobabble’s 10 Favorite Retro Music Releases of 2018

Now finishing out its tenth year, Psychobabble has gone full-retro. So the emphasis of 2018 has been on vinyl, and there has been no shortage of great reissues and deluxe editions of the waxy variety. However, there have also been some very worthwhile CD sets as well. Yet the year’s biggest thrill comes via vinyl presentations of classic albums by a decidedly CD-era artist. Check out all of my fave raves among Psychobabble’s 10 Favorite Retro Music Releases of 2018.

(As always, each entry links to the original review)

In short:A splashy package, indeed, but the original album in its mono mix remains the uncontested star attraction of The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-HollandExpanded Edition.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Review: 'Superman: The Silver Age Sundays 1959 to 1963'

The Superman comic strip ran in newspapers daily from 1939 to 1966, so IDW’s latest collection of them comes close to the end of the run. As early a 1961, you can kind of sense why a good thing had to wrap up as our hero engages in such inanities as an encounter with a telepathic dinosaur from space who can transform into a rock and yet another insulting storyline involving a character who suddenly becomes overweight.

The silliness of such storylines at least hints that Superman was still more about unfettered whimsy than punching bad guys in the face, and that’s a good thing since the strip was always more interesting as a vehicle for wackiness than as a conventional superhero yarn. A storyline in which Supes is rapidly promoted through the army because of his unusual abilities is like a supernatural episode of Sgt. Bilko. One in which he reveals his longstanding love for a mermaid is both bizarre and oddly affecting—an epic, interspecies love story. Another takes what may be the weirdest turn of all when Lois Lane transforms into a bug-eyed alien with superpowers. Daily Planet Chief Perry White develops superpowers too. Oh, there’s also the one where Superman transforms into a thing with a human body and the head of an ant.

Plus we see Superman face a series of bizarre challenges from a colony of Amazon women, and Lois Lane believing that her love’s secret identity is a Rod Serling stand-in! Yet these stories lean on some more tired devices as once again Superman goes to great lengths to avoid marriage and Lois once again falls victim to a slightly malicious prank. She just can’t get a break in these stories.

Superman: The Silver Age Sundays 1959 to 1963 contains a few clunker plotlines, but for the most part it delivers the usual fun. And also as usual, it’s a beautifully designed, full-color package from IDW.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

'Horror of Dracula' Finally Coming to Blu-ray

It's been over three years since Warner Brothers first dipped into its archive of Hammer Horrors for blu-ray presentation, and we fans of blood and British accents have spent much of that time wondering where the hi-def editions of Hammer's two best movies are. While the wait continues for Curse of Frankenstein, we Yanks will at least be able to add Horror of Dracula to our blu-ray collections sometime next month (the lack of a specific date this late in November has me feeling a bit skeptical about a December release though).  (UPDATE) on December 18.

Unlike the lesser Hammers that Scream Factory has been flooding "to buy" lists lately, Warner Archive's Horror of Dracula will be pretty bare bones, sporting only a trailer. However, the promise of a restored version of this classic horror may be seductive enough.

Meanwhile, those bonus-feature bloated Scream Factory releases coming down the Borgo Pass include Dracula: Prince of Darkness (December 18), Plague of the Zombies (January 15), and The Vengeance of She (February 26).

Review: Vinyl Reissue of 'A Motown Christmas'

With production as crystalline as a snowflake, harmonies as sweet as candy canes, and an image as squeaky clean as Tiny Tim’s, Motown was the secular label most suited toward churning out Christmas discs. And that is just what they did during their hey day: The Supremes’ Merry Christmas in 1965, Stevie Wonder’s Someday at Christmas in 1967, and a trio of them by The Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and the Jackson 5’s stocking stuffers in 1970. Each record brought something a bit different to the Christmas table. The Temps brought their usual professionalism and consistency. Stevie brought original composition, and in the case of his title track, a sharp point of view. The Supremes brought traditionalism in terms of their orchestral arrangements. The Miracles brought a surprising sense of experimentation. Of course, considering their age, The Jackson 5 were best suited to singing about every kid’s fave holiday, and their take on the holiday was the most correct ... and the funkiest.

In 1973, the cream of these discs was ladled onto the double-LP comp A Motown Christmas. Not everything here works. The Miracles’ medley of “Deck the Halls” and an oddball spiritual called “Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella” is pretty insufferable, and their lurching arrangement of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is too. Stevie Wonder interprets “Ave Maria”—one of the most exquisite pieces of music every conceived—gorgeously until the absurdly kitsch decision to wheeze a verse on his harmonica. And Motown’s quality control department clearly guzzled too much spiked eggnog when they hired the choir of tone-deaf kids who caterwaul the awful “Children’s Christmas Song” with The Supremes awfully.

So you may find yourself lifting the needle a bit when spinning UMe’s new vinyl reissue of A Motown Christmas this December 25th lest your guests head for the door before forking over the gifts. Yet, you’ll still want to spin it for the consistently excellent selections from The Jackson 5 and The Temptations (their version of “Silent Night” is the only version of “Silent Night” that doesn’t make me barf), Stevie Wonder’s superb original compositions “Someday at Christmas” and “What Christmas Means to Me”, and (“Children’s Christmas Song”  notwithstanding) a selection of the best cuts from The Supremes’ mostly dodgy Merry Christmas.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Review: Vinyl Reissue of Howlin' Wolf's 'Moanin' in the Moonlight'

With its sophisticated electric instrumentation and the relatively plush facilities of Chess Studios, the Chicago blues was a less rough and rustic affair than its counterparts further south. Chester Burnett—better known as Howlin’ Wolf—was on the chess roster, but all the fancy Fender guitars and recording consoles in the world couldn’t citify this particular Mississippi native. Wolf’s records were swampy and distorted in intended and unintended ways. His voice was an unaffected growl, like something you’d hear rumbling from Buzz Buzzard. In the case of certain sides such as “I Asked for Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)”, which is held together only by a primordial percussive thump, the performance is downright ramshackle. In other words: magic.

Like almost all the artists of his generation, Howlin’ Wolf cut singles, not albums, so despite the absence of “Greatest Hits” or “Best of” in its title, his first album was really a singles compilation. 1959’s Moanin’ in the Moonlight sported many of Wolf’s best-known hits, including the hypnotic title track, the boogied-up “How Many More Years”, and the wailing “Evil”. Most striking of all, of course, is the endless/timeless groove of “Smokestack Lightnin’”, the record that launched a thousand British Blues Babies.

While the varying recording and performance quality betrays its status as a comp, Moanin’ in the Moonlight still hangs together fabulously as a one-stop shop for electric blues essentials in much the same way that The Best of Muddy Waters does. Moanin’ is now being rereleased on vinyl courtesy of Geffen/Ume on 150-gram vinyl. To emphasize this edition’s source, the inner sleeve features images of the original analogue tape box, though I assume the transfer was done digitally since there is no trumpeting about an all-analog process in the press release. Sounds good though.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Review: 'Prince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions' Expanded Edition

In the eighties, no artist burned with as much creativity as Prince. Hell, in the history of pop music few artists have. That guy loved to sing about sex, but a glance at his schedule during his most vital years—1983-1984—makes one wonder if he ever even had the time to take off his purple pants. Prince not only recorded his greatest album and another pretty terrific one during that time, but he also recorded a wealth of unreleased music and B-sides, mounted a meticulously choreographed tour, starred in a feature film loosely based on his own history, and masterminded side projects for The Time, Sheila-E, Vanity 6, Apollonia 6, and The Family. All that makes James Brown sound like the Godfather of Slacking.

That kind of full-steam creativity is exhilarating to learn about, which is why you may find yourself burning through the nearly 500-page Prince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions: 1983 and 1984 in a couple of days. Duane Tudahl’s 2017 book is part day-by-day diary, part oral history, and all fascinating. Anyone mildly interested in the creative process or unsure of the definition of “dedication” should read this book. Natural talent surely played a huge part in Prince’s greatness, but unbelievably hard work did too, though Prince probably saw his studio time more as play, or perhaps if he really reflected on it, compulsion. Those in his inner circle could not help but recognize that greatness, so when he’d call an engineer or singer at 3 AM to get out of bed and down to a session, they tended to follow his royal decree. They also tolerated some other forms of megalomaniacal behavior, though by most accounts, Prince was usually respectful even when he was at his most competitive, angry, and demanding. Nevertheless, you clearly had to be made of strong stuff to work with the guy.

In Tudahl, this story seems to have found its perfect teller, because a comparative level of dedication was necessary to see Prince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions through. Tudahl began work on the book some twenty-three years before its first publication. During that time he spoke to droves of artists who knew and worked with Prince, and examined reams of session material and interviews with the Artist, himself. Just a year after his own obsession’s publication, Tudahl is already publishing a new edition with many additions and revisions. He even went to the trouble of noting the pages on which the major changes appear in his new introduction to this expanded edition. I had not read the previous edition, so I cannot report on the specific changes. Even if I did own the first edition, I wouldn’t do that because I’m not nearly as obsessive as Prince or his valiant chronicler.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Review: 50th Anniversary Edition of Rolling Stones' 'Beggars Banquet'

The old story goes that Their Satanic Majesties Request was an unmitigated disaster and The Rolling Stones desperately needed to find their way back from a 2000 light-year remove from the earthier sounds that made them. The nice thing about Beggars Banquet is that the Stones made that restorative trek without entirely discarding the colors, instrumentation, and imaginative lyricism that made Satanic Majesties such a gas to certain fans (such as me). That increased creativity coupled with a return to the Stones’ blues/Rock & Roll roots is the key to their finest album. Take “Street Fighting Man”, a three-chord piece of uncomplicated Rock & Roll zapped to life with Indian instrumentation, a tangy combination of hi-fi and lo-fi recording techniques, and provocatively ambivalent lyrics about the band’s role on the outskirts of 1968’s revolutionary temper. Take “Sympathy for the Devil”, another three-chord simplicity that revives the frantic rhythms that added so much texture to Satanic Majesties with a sweeping, funny, frightening lyric that I contend is Rock & Roll’s very best. Take the murky drones and Mellotron of “Stray Cat Blues”, the ethereal take on the blues called “No Expectations”, the outlandish character piece “Jigsaw Puzzle”, the goony humor of “Dear Doctor”, the tapestry of shimmering strings on which “Factory Girl” lounges, and the lush and hippie-ish “Salt of the Earth”. Just as Let It Bleed and Exile on Main Street needed Beggars Banquet to establish their formats, Beggars Banquet would not exist without Their Satanic Majesties Request to serve as its artistic stepping-stone.

And so as Beggars followed Satanic 50 years ago, an anniversary edition of the 1968 album follows last year’s anniversary edition of the 1967 one now. In my review of the 50th anniversary edition of Their Satanic Majesties Request, I expressed some disappointment that there were no bonus tracks—nothing at all that was not on the original album. Since that release made it clear that bonus tracks, or even contemporaneous singles, would not be part of these reissues of sixties-era Stones albums, I won’t waste time griping about the absence of, say, a bonus single of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” b/w “Child of the Moon” in the 50th anniversary edition of Beggars Banquet. There are still some missed opportunities though. Rob Bowman’s essay was a real highlight of the 50th anniversary edition of Satanic Majesties, but there are no notes at all with the Beggars Banquet set. Since Beggars Banquet was really only mixed in stereo (its rare mono edition is a fold down), it’s no big deal that most of the album is not on the bonus 12” disc featuring the mono mix of “Sympathy for the Devil”, but there is a very unique mono mix of “Street Fighting Man” that should have been included on that piece of vinyl as well. You can’t say there was no room for it, especially considering that the disc’s B-side contains no music at all.  

However, a flexi disc with a rare Jagger interview recorded during the recording of Beggars Banquet only released in Japan is a pretty cool bonus, although it suffers from the issues of its sub-par medium. I had to force the disc down over my record player’s spindle and the stylus started skipping as it got closer to the end of the disc. As for its content, the interview is as shallow as them come but it does touch on a fun array of period topics: the Stones’ collaborations with The Beatles, the prevalence of Asian instrumentation in Western Rock, and Mother Earth, a label the Stones were considering starting but never got off the ground.

As for the main attraction, Beggars Banquet is a great album that sounds really good in its new vinyl incarnation, though the best sounding thing in the set is that mono mix of “Sympathy for the Devil” spinning at 45 RPMs. Its bass sounds particularly deep.  I also dig the packaging, which wraps the groovy, banned toilet cover in an outer sleeve featuring the less-offensive/less-interesting invitation design.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Review: Jimi Hendrix's 'Electric Ladyland: 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition'

Note: I revised this review with more details regarding the audio on ll/10/18.

Jimi Hendrix’s abilities as a musician came together immediately. On his very first album, he was already manipulating the strings like a master puppeteer. It took him slightly longer to fully develop as a songwriter and record maker, but once he did—holy shit!—Electric Ladyland. Like all great double albums from Blonde on Blonde to Sign O’ the Times and beyond, this is the sound of an artist of limitless imagination free to explore and exploit his every idea with magical abandon. Everything great about Jimi Hendrix froths from the grooves of Electric Ladyland. Hendrix the interpreter was never better than when teaching Bob Dylan—Bob Dylan!—how it’s done with “All Along the Watchtower”. Hendrix the singer reaches heights never before hinted at with his Curtis Mayfield-worthy falsetto on “Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)”. Hendrix the bluesman stretches from the Mississippi Delta to Neptune on “Voodoo Chile”. With “Burning of the Midnight Lamp”, Hendrix the pop craftsman pulls one of psychedelia’s bubbliest nuggets from his cauldron. Hendrix the doobie-sucking jazzbo lays back and grooves on “Rainy Day, Dream Away”. Hendrix the town crier shouts of racial injustice in “House Burning Down”.  Hendrix the mind melting prankster forges “…And the Gods Made Love”, and Hendrix the avant-garde-sci-fi-Walt Disney animates “1983 (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)”/ “Moon, Turn the Tides…Gently, Gently Away”. Hendrix the guitarist, of course, shines and burns and glows on every goddamn track.

A creation this momentous could not be forgotten on its 50th anniversary, especially considering how awash we currently are in 50th anniversary releases. Legacy Recordings is pulling out the stops with a huge anniversary edition of Electric Ladyland. The big news of this box is that while most bloated anniversary sets cheap out by placing the majority of rarities on CDs, Electric Ladyland: 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition is available in a vinyl edition that includes everything on wax: the original double-album, the set of demos, and the live album from the Hollywood Bowl. Why don’t they all do this?

While early reviews on the CD edition of the Electric Ladyland: 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition warn of excessive loudness and clipping, Im happy to note that Ive noticed no such issues with the all-analog mastering for vinyl. I compared this new set with the Electric Ladyland material on my nice, old copy of Smash Hits and the new discs are more detailed and not much louder to the naked ear. However, there is a persistent hiss throughout all of the discs on this set, though it is only really noticeable during quiet passages while listening on headphones.

 The general audio quality of the demos varies from the full-band, pro quality of “1983” (as “Angel Caterina”) and “Little Miss Strange” to relatively hi-fi home recordings of “Angel”, “Gypsy”, and “Voodoo Chile” to recordings of rarer stuff such as “Snowballs at My Window” and “My Friend”, on which it sounds like Hendrix got his mouth in front of the mic while picking a guitar stored in his closet. However, the sound quality of the live set recorded at the Hollywood Bowl on September 14, 1968, ranges from mediocre to outright unlistenable. The recordings on the first disc in the set suffers from tinny drums and distorted vocals. The second disc sounds like it’s playing through totally blown speakers. The liner notes admit that this live album is bootleg quality for whatever that’s worth. 

The set also includes a blu-ray disc including 5.1 surround mixes of the original album and the original stereo mix. I’m not set up for 5.1, though I’ve read very positive things about that mix. The stereo mix, however, is considerably harsher than the all-analog vinyl. The blu-ray also includes one video feature: At Last…The Beginning: The Making of Electric Ladyland, a 1997 documentary for the Classic Albums series. It features a fair share of Hendrix footage and memories from many of the album’s original cast, including Mitch Mitchell, Noel Redding, Steve Winwood, Jack Casady, Eddie Kramer, and Chas Chandler. For this release, At Last…The Beginning is expanded by 40 minutes, making a fine documentary even better.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Review: 'The Princess Bride' Blu-ray

While fantasy geeks dig The Dark Crystal, hopeless romantics worship Say Anything, and comedy junkies never stop howling at Airplane!, The Princess Bride is an eighties picture with massive cross-over appeal because it does so many different things so successfully. Rob Reiner’s deceptively complex picture built on the simple premise of young lovers separated and reunited is like the best of all genres—genuinely witty comedy, genuinely swoon-worthy romance, genuinely imaginative fantasy, genuinely thrilling swashbuckling. It is also the very, very rare eighties movie that still feels utterly timeless.

The plot (adapted from William Goldman’s novel) winds in ways that make a summary pretty difficult to crack, and running down its tropes—the pretty princess (Robin Wright), the dashing hero (Cary Elwes), the giant with a heart of gold (Andre the Giant), the gnomish conjurer (Billy Crystal), the tortured soul bent on revenge (Mandy Patinkin), the craven villain (Chris Sarandon), the villain’s heartless right-hand man (Christopher Guest)—is pointless too when so much of this story subverts our expectations of such a stock cast of characters. One disappointing exception is the title character, who is denied much to do aside from playing the standard damsel in distress, which particularly sucks since she is the movie’s sole significant female character.  

Because of its intelligence, charm, style, and uniformly winning performances, The Princess Bride has built up an overwhelming cult following, so fans certainly cheered when news arrived that the Criterion Collection would be bringing it to blu-ray. This is not the film’s first blu-ray release, but even without seeing the previous edition, I’m pretty confident that Criterion’s disc is the definitive one. The image is clear and rich yet it retains the dreamy softness integral to the picture’s atmosphere. An abundance of extras should please fans too, though most of this stuff is not new. Exclusive to this release are video essays about William Goldman’s book and a gorgeous Princess Bride tapestry the author had commissioned, as well as an interview with the film’s art director, Richard Holland. However, the older documentaries and featurettes are where the fun is at because most of them allow us to spend a little extra time with that delightful cast and their equaling charming director. Much like re-watching The Princess Bride for the 100th time, viewing these extras is like catching up with old friends and falling in love with them all over again.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Review: 'Confessin' the Blues'

In the sixties, The Rolling Stones slid the world a welter of great singles and LPs, but the most profound thing they delivered was an awareness of the blues that spread like a sweet, sweet virus. After hearing the Stones’ sometimes weedy, sometimes powerful remakes, white kids who’d never before heard the names Muddy, Howlin’, or Slim suddenly got hip to what had already been happening in the music world for some twenty years.

While giving the Stones too much credit is totally patronizing to the artists who helped them a hell of a lot more than Mick Jagger and Keith Richards ever helped anyone else, they are probably the best white rockers to curate a collection like Confessin’ the Blues. Many of the songs Mick and Keith chose for this double-disc set are numbers the Stones covered during their most vital decade: the title track by Jay McShann & Walter Brown, Muddy Waters’s “I Want to Be Loved” and “I Just Want to Make Love to You”, Slim Harpo’s “I’m a King Bee”, Howlin’ Wolf’s “The Red Rooster”, Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain Blues”, Jimmy Reed’s “Bright Lights, Big City”, Amos Milburn’s “Down the Road Apiece”, etc. Appropriately, a song they didn’t play but appropriated in a significant way begins the set. While neither Chuck Berry nor Bo Diddley were strictly blues artists, they were signed to the crucial home of Chicago blues, Chess Records, and highly inspirational to the boys, so key numbers such as “Carol” and “Mona” makes appearances too.

Ultimately, the Stones-connection is a bit of window dressing since most of these tracks were not in that band’s repertoire and since you will forget all about Mick, Keith, and Charlie as soon as the opening bars of “Rollin’ Stone” start grinding. Essentially, Confessin’ the Blues is a fine starter blues compilation, at least in terms of the track selection. The excessively trebly sound does little service to the depth of these records.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Review: Vinyl Reissue of The Moody Blues' 'In Search of the Lost Chord'

The Moody Blues underwent one of pop’s most radical metamorphoses when they transitioned from making soul-beat records to creating grand psychedelia in the mid-sixties. Their first effort in the new vein justified the gamble when Days of Future Passed spawned two decent-sized hit singles: the magical “Tuesday Afternoon” and “Nights in White Satin”, which somehow transposed the emotional intensity of the Moodies early hit “Go Now” over a landscape of Mellotron and orchestra. However, the rest of the album leaned too hard on its symphonic gimmick and filled space with some truly ghastly spoken word passages.

For their second album as a psych group, The Moody Blues managed to cook up some actual material to supplement the singles, and though In Search of the Lost Chord is not remembered as fondly as Days of Future Passed, it is a much better album. What the lead off single “Ride My See-Saw” lacks in craftsmanship or lyricism, it makes up for in chutzpah. It’s the rockingest of all Moody Blues records with a fuzzy, hypnotic guitar lick. And by scaling back the poetry this time, The Moodies make the occasional spoken passages more palatable. In fact, I contend that the only way to hear “Ride My See-Saw” is with the brief, crazed poetic prologue that electrifies the song’s intro.

Nothing else on Lost Chord is as powerful as “See-Saw”, but almost all of it is very good. The two-part “House of Four Doors” may ramble on too long, but the hippity-hoppity “Dr. Livingston I Presume”, the daffy “Legend of a Mind”, the lovely single “Voices in the Sky”,  and the ethereal likes of “Visions of Paradise” and “Om” are all dated in the very best way.

For the album’s 50th Anniversary, Universal Music is reissuing In Search of the Lost Chord in a number of formats including a 3 CD/2 DVD set that includes a new stereo remix. The 1968 stereo mix is used for the album’s 180-gram vinyl edition. I can’t hear too much room for improvement in that original mix, which always sounded very thoughtfully balanced to me. The sound is warm, full of detail and depth, and not too loud, and the packaging is authentic, utilizing the same kind of fold-over cover used in the Beatles in Mono vinyl box set a few years back.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Diary of the Dead 2018: Week 5

I’m logging my Monster Movie Month © viewing with ultra-mini reviews at the end of every week this October. I write it. You read it. No one needs to get hurt.

October 26

Hellraiser (1987- dir. Clive Barker) ***½

When Clive Barker adapted his novel Hellraiser for the big screen, he introduced horror fans to a genuinely original take on the genre in a decade when most horror movies were either by-the-numbers slice-‘em-ups or smirking self-parodies. Hellraiser doesn’t make a ton of sense, but the visuals do a decent job of recreating the imaginative grotesqueness of a Francis Bacon painting. Barker may not be on Bacon’s level of artistry, but Hellraiser gave violent eighties horror a desperately needed dollop of imagination.

Phenomena (1985- dir. Dario Argento) ***

Psychobabble’s 31 Favorite Universal Horrors: #1

Halloween season simply isn’t Halloween season without a regular dose of golden age Universal horror (1923-1963). Every day this October, I’ll be giving you a steady IV drip of it by counting down Psychobabble’s 31 Favorite Universal Horrors!

#1. Bride of Frankenstein (1935- dir. James Whale)

There could be no other number-one in this series. It is widely regarded as the crown jewel of Universal horror and one of the few sequels to best its original predecessor. It is an explosion of imagination, special effects, pathos, humor, camp, and sheer madness. Every scene offers something delightful to behold: the glittering, self-referential prologue in the home of Mary Shelley and spouse; the mock-scary re-introduction of Karloff’s monster; the unveiling of wonderfully withering and withered Dr. Pretorius; Elizabeth Frankenstein’s weird freak-out in her bedroom; Minnie; Pretorius’s astounding homunculi; the Monster’s strangely moving visit with a blind hermit; the birth of the magnificent Bride and the Monster’s ill-fated attempt to court her. Bride of Frankenstein is not as scary as Frankenstein or as pungent as Dracula or as consistently funny as Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein or as sophisticated as Psycho and The Birds, yet it is a movie that feels like it has it all and then some. It is a monster masterpiece and such dizzying fun that it will keep you sugar-buzzed for a week after Frankenstein’s castle explodes. It is Psychobabble’s favorite Universal horror, favorite horror, favorite movie, and the best prescription for having a happy Halloween. Hope you have one yourself.

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