Friday, April 20, 2018

Review: 'FAB GEAR: The British Beat Explosion and It’s Aftershocks: 1963-1967'

It’s no obscure morsel of trivia that British pop was the palest, flimsiest imitation of its American equivalent before The Beatles. When the Fabs turned the ignition switch on the sixties, a flood of new moppy popsters got signed. The best of them—The Kinks, the Stones, The Hollies, you know the rest— would have long and rich careers, but most weren’t fit to pass out cups of water in that league. The worst were throwbacks like Peter Jay and the Jaywalkers, Ray Singer, Bobby Rio and the Revelles, Migil 5, The Wackers, and The Chapters, who make Billy J. Kramer sound like Mick Jagger. Some of the ones that actually knew Chuck Berry existed were at least capable of making a nice noise: Carter-Lewis & The Southerners, Le Group 5, The Bo Street Runners, The Wild Oats, The Epics, The Clique, Grant Tracy, etc. (ironically, however, The Rockin’ Berries apparently never actually listened to the rocker they named themselves after). Artists who might have competed with the major names had the breaks been easier are pretty rare, The Action being one such group.

An expansion of Pye’s Beat, Beat, Beat compilation series, Cherry Red’s FAB GEAR: The British Beat Explosion and It’s Aftershocks: 1963-1967 is a hefty six-disc set that collects some of the bad, some of the great, and a whole lot of the in-between. This makes for an inconsistent and rarely revelatory listen, but fans of this tuneful era will find the mass of it great fun, and on occasion, educational. There are pre-stardom tracks from David Bowie (though, at this point, even this stuff is getting pretty familiar), Arthur Brown, The Moody Blues, Klaus Voorman, members of Deep Purple, The Move’s Carl Wayne, Mike D’Abo, Steve Howe, and Lemmy. A small smattering of familiar songs by The Kinks (a silhouette of whom adorns the cover), Chad and Jeremy, The Searchers, and Marmalade are like buoys that keep the listener oriented in a sea of obscurities, as do covers of several beloved Beatles, Kinks, and Chuck Berry songs, though titles such as “Hurdy Gurdy Man”, “I Go to Sleep”, “Where Have All the Good Times Gone”, and “Think It Over” are not covers of the classics you think they are.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Review: 'The Who Live at the Fillmore East 1968'

The Who were essentially an unknown quantity in America until they distinguished themselves in 1967with stateside performances at Murray the K’s concert series on the East Coast and the Monterey Pop Festival on the West Coast. When word of their autodestructive act got out, The Who rapidly developed a reputation as the ultimate Rock & Roll circus act. To capitalize on that deserved status, the planned follow up to The Who Sell Out would be a devastating live album recorded at New York’s Fillmore East in April 1968.

Unlike basically every live Rock album before it, the resulting recordings were powerful, well balanced, and mostly well captured. They were also loaded with gaffs as Pete Townshend stumbles on his guitar strings close to the beginning of the very first song and “Shakin’ All Over”; vocal harmonies miss their marks widely on “Fortune Teller”, “Little Billy”, and “Tattoo”; Keith Moon’s drums are so buried in the background on “My Way” that they seem to disappear at times; and Roger Daltrey sings the wrong words over John Entwistle in the first verse of “Boris the Spider”. Such errors are supposedly the reason an actual live album never materialized in 1968, and Decca settled for cheating new fans with the deceptively titled Magic Bus—The Who on Tour. Of course, quality control matters little to bootleggers, who embraced the unreleased tapes as their own for decades.

Now on its 50th anniversary, The Who’s April 1968 set is finally getting official release via UMe. The little flaws cease to matter as the strength of the overall performance booms through The Who Live at the Fillmore East 1968. There are many virtues to this collection. It catches The Who at a brief juncture when they still performed such oddities as the scrapped anti-ciggie advert “Little Billy” and a lengthy jam on “Relax” from the recently released Sell Out. Songs that didn’t make some of the bootlegs, such as “I’m a Boy” and Eddie Cochran’s “C’mon Everybody” (there’s a semi-Cochran theme throughout a set that showcases three of the rocker’s classics), are restored to the set, as are chunks of “Relax”, A Quick One While He’s Away”, and an almost absurdly extended “My Generation”, which is long enough to get its own disc in this new set. In at least a couple of cases, errors are fixed with cagey mixing: Moon’s drums are pulled to the fore in “My Way” and Daltrey’s lyrical fumble in “Boris the Spider” is pulled back. * Unfortunately, such miraculous cures of modern technology also come with an all-too common downside: the sound is brick walled.  Attention remasterers: stop making your remasters so fucking loud! The Who sure don’t need any assistance in that department.

Despite the uncomfortable sound quality, The Who Live at the Fillmore East 1968 remains a quality live album and one of their worthiest archival releases. If anything, the occasional mistake only adds to the charm of a disc that captures The Who approaching the end of their most charming era.

*Update: It has come to my attention that despite the suggestion to the contrary in the press release, this new set is actually a mix of performances recorded on both nights of The Who's Fillmore stint in April 1968, so tracks weren't actually remixed to bury flaws but are totally different performances from the ones on the bootleg. Sorry about the sloppy assessing, folks.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Review: 'Superman: The Golden Age Dailies: 1944-1947 '

While thoughts of war were consuming his adopted home, Superman was intent on soothing America’s troubles with the whimsy that fits him like a red and blue unitard. Once he’s done hawking war bonds in the very first frame of the strips collected in Superman: The Golden Age Dailies: 1944-1947, Supes no longer has any such consequential matters in his spit-curled head. Instead, he’s contending with invisible imps called ogies (good luck not reading that as “orgies”) and the visible one known as Mr. Mxyztplk. He’s referring to his fellow fellows as “chaps” and Lois Lane is calling him “Supie.” He’s constantly on the verge of marrying Lois (though she never remembers their multitudinous engagements form story to story) and confounding Lex Luthor with his invulnerability (how is Luthor still confounded by this?). There’s a cliffhanger every third panel, little sense, and maximum fun.

That these storylines tend to wrap up in fewer than sixty strips further maximizes that fun by cutting out the repetitiousness and meandering subplots that always sink prolonged newspaper comic arcs. Despite their glorious silliness, I still found these stories irresistibly compelling. I was genuinely eager to find out whether or not Superman’s proposal to Lois in the “Engaged to Superman” was genuine or not. And I’m 44. Feel free to judge me all you like.

The only shade that falls on the sunny tone occurs in the final arc, in which Superman must deal with that new bugaboo hyperbolic fogies labeled “juvenile delinquency.” With its unpalatable preachiness and violence against kids, the subtly titled “Juvenile Delinquency” is a hint that Superman won’t be as swell in the fifties. But that’s really a concern for the next volume of this series. This one is almost completely on the beam.

Superman: The Golden Age Dailies: 1944-1947 is another collection from IDW and The Library of American Comics, so it goes without saying that these black and white strips are superbly packaged, printed on heavy stock pages wrapped in a full-color hardcover, and finished off with a ribbon bookmark (I love those). But the killer diller stories are what make this volume a must for Super fans.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Beware, Blue Meanies: 'Yellow Submarine' Is Coming Back!

To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the most pop-artful animated feature ever made, Apple Corp will be sailing Yellow Submarine back into theaters this summer. Ticket and theater info will be up on the official Yellow Sub site here.
The film has recently undergone a 4K restoration with each vibrant frame of the film spruced up by hand. The soundtrack has also been buffed up for a 5.1 presentation. No doubt a 4K home video release will follow later this year, which hopefully won't mean that some sort of fiftieth anniversary commemoration of "The White Album" a la last year's Sgt. Pepper's box set will be off the table. Stay tuned, Beatle people, and keep tip-toing through those Meanies.

In the meanie time, here's a trailer for this momentous re-release:

Monday, March 19, 2018

Review: 'The Star Wars Phenomenon in Britain: The Blockbuster Impact and the Galaxy of Merchandise 1977-1983'

Star Wars is celebrated and castigated as the movie that totally changed Hollywood. However, aside from its American director, producer, composer, and three young leads, it was largely a British-made production. That fact was not lost in the UK, where the film made its own unique impact.

Craig Stevens’s The Star Wars Phenomenon in Britain: The Blockbuster Impact and the Galaxy of Merchandise 1977-1983 takes a very deep look at how the original trilogy rocked British kids. Stevens provides a chronological history of the trilogy’s release in the UK, the reactions of the British press, special appearances by original cast members and the hired hands who made a few quid by dressing up in Vader gear, Palitoy’s spin on the Kenner toys, the UK version of Marvel’s comics, and pretty much anything else you might think of that would fit under his book’s lengthy banner. Fan recollections are generously sprinkled throughout to bring home these details with personal stories you don’t have to be British to grock. In fact, a good deal of this book—particularly the lengthy synopses and assessments of Marvels’ stories that take up a good deal of this book—are not particular to the UK at all.

Yet, the British did have a somewhat different Star Wars experience than we Americans did with the painfully delayed release of the original film, the somewhat different toys they received, and the television specials that only aired across the pond. So there is, indeed, a unique story here, and it is one that will delight fans regardless of what flag they wave because The Star Wars Phenomenon in Britain really conveys the nostalgic sensation that Stevens was surely intent on transmitting. This is particularly palpable when fans recall their own Star Wars experiences in theaters, toy stores, and playgrounds. By including such material, which would become tiresome quickly on its own, Stevens achieves a perfect balance between the historical and the personal, which makes The Star Wars Phenomenon in Britain both informative and tremendous fun.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Review: Jimi Hendrix's 'Both Sides of the Sky'

Jimi Hendrix hadn’t been dead for six months before the archive raids began with The Cry of Love. Over the next near-five decades, compilations of unreleased Hendrix tracks would be downright notorious in their abundance. That’s not to say there wasn’t gold worth mining, and the best of this stuff is condensed on 1997’s First Rays of the New Rising Son.

After about a dozen major outtakes comps in total since Hendrix passed, a new one titled Both Sides of the Sky appears this year. As is to be expected at this point, you should not prepare yourself for the discovery of anything on the level of “Ezy Rider”, “Dolly Dagger”, “Freedom”, “Drifting”, or “Stepping Stone”, though there is an urgent version of the latter on this new double-LP. And performance, rather than songwriting, is certainly the focus of Both Sides of the Sky. Band of Gypsys are behind the most impressive ones, with fierce versions of Muddy’s “Mannish Boy” and Hendrix’s own “Lover Man”. “Hear My Train A Comin’” is the sole track with the Experience (though Mitch Mitchell does drum on three others) and it is probably the set’s best showcase for Hendrix’s sci-fi, six-string showmanship.

A few tracks are curious for their lack of that showmanship. A couple with Stephen Stills on vocals—Stills’s own minor-league “$20 Fine” and the future smash “Woodstock”— are historically notable, but Hendrix never asserts himself on the former and only contributes some gnarly bass to the latter. What these are doing on a Jimi Hendrix record is anyone’s guess. He dominates the instrumental blues jam “Jungle”, but only on rhythm guitar.

A few oddities are more than worth hearing, such as the sensual “Power of Soul”, the menacing powerhouse “Send My Love to Linda”, and “Cherokee Mist”, a groovy instrumental that provides the ultra-rare opportunity to hear the master on electric sitar. For the majority who don’t already have it in their collection, the previously issued version of Guitar Slim’s “The Things I Used to Do” featuring Johnny Winter is top shelf.

While few will rate Both Sides of the Sky among Hendrix’s most essential releases, the packaging is unquestionably nice. For the most part, the sound is excellent (some tracks, such as “Cherokee Mist”, are more on the noisy side), the 180 gram vinyl is stored in anti-static sleeves (why don’t more contemporary vinyl releases utilize these things?!?), and the gatefold contains an LP-size booklet with extensive track-by-track notes and a slew of terrific photos.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Review: 'A Trip to the Moon' Blu-ray

What to do with this new medium called cinema? Use it for anatomical studies? To record vaudevillian pratfalls? To document history? “No,” declared Georges Méliès. Cinema would be best used to conjure dreams.

There are few films dreamier than A Trip to the Moon, the culmination of Méliès’s celluloid magic tricks and one of the mere 200 of his 500 works that still survives. A surprise survivor is the original hand-painted color edition of his most famous film, which had to undergo a painstaking restoration process that would have driven even the most driven cinephiles mad. That process and the tangled history leading up to it is the subject of The Extraordinary Voyage, a wonderful documentary by Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange that accompanies presentations of both the color and black and white versions of A Trip to the Moon on Flicker Alley’s new Blu-ray/DVD combination pack.

Like Citizen Kane or The Wizard of Oz, A Trip to the Moon remains one of those keystones of cinema history that remains an absolute pleasure to watch. Yes, it is a handy marker for the birth of fantasy film-making, trippy special effects, and space-age imaginings (though it is not the first Méliès film to trade in all those things), but it holds up perfectly as a perfect film. The blatant artificiality of its sets and effects are key to its imagination-unlocking spell.

Both the color and B&W versions display a considerable amount of wear and tear, but considering everything this film has been through, its images of a moon-blinding rocket, bizarre creations frolicking among the craters, and undersea wonderlands still looks crisp and powerful. You should look so good when you’re 116-years old.

In addition to the color options, each version of A Trip to the Moon can also be enjoyed with an assortment of audio options. Both the color and B&W versions feature their own unique music choices in the form of full scores and solo piano pieces, as well as narration composed by Georges Méliès. Additionally, the B&W one offers contemporary actors providing character voices.

The two synthesizer scores that accompany the color version feel too modern for the material and too dated for the 21st century, leaving the more suitably whimsical piano accompaniment the preferable option. Méliès’s narration sounds suspiciously like a shooting script though. The orchestral score on the black and white version is by far the best music on the disc. The actors’ voice track is amusing, but might be a touch too Mystery Science Theater 3000 for some viewers.

Two lunar-centric shorts, “The Eclipse” (9 minutes) and “The Astronomer’s Dream” (3 minutes), complete the package with additional examples of Méliès’s camera-pausing magic tricks and utterly delightful two-dimensional props. The monstrous moon in “The Astronomer’s Dream” is easily as unforgettable as the iconic one in the main feature.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Review: Procol Harum's 'Still There'll Be More: An Anthology 1967-2017'

When it was released in 1992, the Jefferson Airplane Loves You box set included a little card with the write-in question to the effect of “What other band deserves a box set?” I wrote in “Procol Harum” and mailed it off to RCA/BMG Records even though Procol Harum was on A&M. But that’s just how hungry I was for a box set of Britain’s greatest soul/goth/prog combo. A few years later, A&M did, indeed, deliver a Procol Harum set, but it was essentially a repackaging of their first four albums with an extra disc of singles, a couple of outtakes and a few alternate takes. That ultimate Procol Harum-box set itch wasn’t quite scratched yet.

In recent years, the popularity of deluxe editions of individual albums has largely displaced the career-spanning box set, and Procol Harum has certainly gotten its due in that realm with Esoteric Recording’s expanded versions of the group’s first four albums, which seemingly have swept up every unreleased track and alternate mix from the group’s most fruitful years. So I’m not sure if I believe an old-fashioned career-spanning box set is as necessary as I did in 1992, but it’s still nice that one is finally arriving.

Even nicer is that it is probably very different from the kind of set that would have been released 26 years ago when they tended to consist of three or four audio discs. Still There'll Be More: An Anthology 1967-2017 is much more massive than that, and it sets its sites beyond mere audio. The first three discs are fairly typical, picking a few singles and a few songs from each of the band’s thirteen albums right up to last year’s Novum. I’m sure that diehards who’d buy an eight-disc box will likely already have these thirteen albums, so Discs One through Three are mostly valuable for sparking the kind of debate that compilations spark, so prepare to exclaim things like, “Where’s ‘In the Wee Small Hours of Sixpence’? Is ‘Barnyard Story’ really one of the four best cuts on Home? Why only three tracks from Shine on Brightly but four from the inferior Procol’s Ninth? Are all those bland post-Procol’s Ninth tracks really necessary (though the two cuts from Novum are pretty good)?” Etcetera, etcetera.
 More important are the superb live sets on Discs Four and Five, which capture the band’s two sides beautifully. Disc Four portrays Procol at their grandest. It is essentially an expansion of their great 1972 live album, once again capturing the band with an orchestra, though this time it’s the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and Roger Wagner Chorale instead of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. It’s a great recording with such recent songs such as “Grand Hotel” and “Fires (Which Burnt Brightly)” as well as older numbers like “A Christmas Camel” and “Simple Sister” that weren’t part of the Edmonton set. The band’s more stripped down, soulful side is caught on a set at Bournemouth’s Winter Gardens in 1976.

Discs Five through Seven provide the coolest segment of Still There'll Be More as they collect television performances ranging from a BBC TV lip sync of “A Whiter Shade of Pale” in late 1967 (starring a shockingly youthful, pre-mustache Gary Brooker and Matthew Fisher resplendent in Goth monk cloak) to a Sight & Sound in Concert appearance from 1977. In between is a wealth of other performances mostly recorded for German TV. Though eleven tracks from Germany’s Beat Club Workshop were already released on DVD as Procol Harum Live in 2005, the footage did not look as clear as it does here, perhaps because this new version eliminates the distracting and ugly chroma key nonsense, leaving a neutral blue backdrop. The performance also starts earlier than the 2005 DVD, allowing a glimpse of the bands warm up on The Beatles Something, and ends later with half of In Held Twas in I”. 

The old DVD also included two bonus cuts (Drunk Again” and Grand Hotel”) from Procol’s 1973 appearance on Musikladen, and Disc Seven of the new box set builds on them with seven additional choice performances of songs mostly culled from  Grand Hotel, as well as the box’s only video performances of the essential epic Whaling Stories”, the stormy Kaleidoscope, and the underrated Too Much Between Us(though the decision to add lumbering drums to this most ethereal song was a rare lapse in taste from the usually irreproachable B.J. Wilson).  Considering that Procol Harum was a group that let their highly visual music take center stage while they basically stood stock still to play their instruments, all of this footage is surprisingly great fun and very valuable indeed. An interlude in the Musikladen performance in which Gary Brooker accuses one of his band mates of farting is unquestionably worth the cost of the entire box set.  

Disc Eight’s Sight & Sound in Concert spotlight on the dodgy Something Magic is less valuable. This disc does provide the box’s only completely live video performances of Nothing but the Truth and A Whiter Shade of Pale”, though we sadly get less than two minutes of the latter as it plays out over the closing credits. It’s also too bad there wasn’t any available live footage from the classic Fisher/Robin Trower era, but only the saltiest dog would waste an excess of time complaining about the footage that is included on this long, long awaited box set...after all, DVDs didn’t even exist back in 1992!
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