Saturday, June 16, 2018

Review: 'Bang: The Bert Berns Story'

Bert Berns is not unusual in the pop world because he was a great songwriter who wrote tons of hits; there were quite a few of them. He’s also not unusual because he was a businessman who fancied himself a tough guy; there were lots of those too. Berns is unique because of how completely he played both roles, writing and/or producing some of pop and soul’s A-list classics—“Twist and Shout”, “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love”, “Brown Eyed Girl”, “Tell Him”, “Piece of My Heart”, “I Want Candy”, “Cry to Me”, and too many more—and doing gangster-type stuff with gangster-type guys all in the name of “business.” I wouldn’t blame you for scoffing at the unsavory stuff he was involved in (why is dangling someone out of a window always the go-to business method for music business bullies?), but you cannot minimize the body of work, and that is what makes Bang: The Bert Berns Story an important documentary. Because as well known as Berns’s songs are, he is not a household name, and a Rock & Roll education is incomplete without being able to identify the guy who was largely responsible for so much incredible music. 

With the passage of years, many of the artists in his circle seem to have let bygones be bygones and have no compunction about paying their respects. Watching the film, I was floored by how complimentary the eternally surly Van Morrison was when the notoriously protective artist discussed the guy who’d released Morrison’s first album and packaged it in legendarily tasteless fashion all without the artist’s knowledge (Neil Diamond, who had a friend attacked and a gig ruined with a stink bomb both at Berns’s behest, is probably justifiably still sore, hence his lack of participation).

The good and the bad get full airing in Bang, but there is no judgmental point of view in the filmmaking, which is probably all for the best considering that Berns’s son Brett is the filmmaker and the movie could have just as easily become some sort of straight-up hagiography. Yet, that neutrality also makes a fairly exciting story feel a bit rote. Steven Van Zant’s narration brings some much-needed personality to the picture, and I defy you not to feel as though you’re hanging out in the back room of the Badda Bing while Silvio Dante regales you with tales of his old crew. And though the film is overly reliant on the standard Rock-doc talking heads, the talking heads in question—Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Solomon Burke, Ellie Greenwich, Ben E. King, Mike Stoller, Andrew Loog Oldham, Van Morrison—are pretty damn impressive.

The 64 minutes of bonus interviews on the DVD edition of Bang: The Bert Berns Story don’t necessarily provide revelations that the feature skips (though it might have if Van Morrison had a slot among the extras), but they flesh out the story a bit with more memories of the man, the music, and the sketchy company he kept.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Review: ''Beside Bowie: The Mick Ronson Story Soundtrack'

Like Steven Van Zandt, Steve Stevens, Lenny Kaye, Robin, and Kato, Mick Ronson was the rare sideman who managed a degree of fame in his own right. Yet most people do not realize the extent of the guitarist’s influence on David Bowie or Ronson’s own talent. He was the ordinary bloke from Hull to Bowie’s Starman from Mars and Bowie’s main man behind the curtain. Mick Ronson wasn’t just the definitive glam guitarist; he was a multi-instrumentalist, producer, and an arranger who actually knew how to write an orchestral score (listen to “Life on Mars?” and succumb to the awe). Without Ronson, the first major phase of David Bowie’s career would have been utterly different, and most likely, not nearly as spectacular.

These are the things we learn in Jon Brewer’s 2017 documentary Beside Bowie: The Mick Ronson Story, and they are somewhat reinforced in the film’s soundtrack now receiving a vinyl and CD release via Universal Music (I received the vinyl edition for review purposes). Ronson’s work was so varied that a 14-track record couldn’t capture it in any complete way. His instrumental, arranging, and production work with Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, The Rich Kids, and Morrissey are not represented, but fortunately, rights were cleared for a dose of classic Bowie (“Moonage Daydream”, “Cracked Actor”, “Time”), Ian Hunter (“Once Bitten, Twice Shy”), Elton John (an early, epic version of “Madman Across the Water” that isn’t used in the film even though it’s a veritable Ronson demo reel), and Michael Chapman (“Soulful Lady”, another cinematic no-show).

Most importantly, there are four representatives of Ronson’s solo career, though they are limited to the material intended to be included on a third album that didn’t materialize until 1999 and the final album he recorded, 1994’s Heaven and Hull. Thus, the representation of his work continues to be lopsided on this soundtrack, and Joe Elliott’s version of “This Is For You”, a rambling bit of improvised piano from Mike Garson, and even Ronson’s own cover of “Like a Rolling Stone” are not especially essential… though that last one may miss the mark simply because a song so associated with its creator doesn’t cover well (no offense, Jimi). “Midnight Love” from Heaven and Hull may be significant because Ronson handles all of its instruments himself, but the song is muzak. Nevertheless, there is an inarguably healthy clutch of essential music on Beside Bowie: The Mick Ronson Story, and you can’t go wrong with the Elton/Bowie/Hunter-dominated first disc.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Review: 3 Liz Phair Albums on Vinyl

Liz Phair’s career arc is among the oddest and most notorious in pop, and UMe’s new vinyl reissues puts the spotlight back on that arc even though her defining album in not among the trio (Exile in Guyville is a Matador property and was recently the centerpiece of a massive 25th Anniversary box set by that label).

While Whip Smart does not have the reputation of Exile in Guyville, it is very nearly as wonderful, catching Phair still riding the peak on which she started her career. Brad Wood’s production is a bit cleaner than it had been on Exile, but Phair’s songs are still fabulously eccentric, personal, amusing, emotionally gripping, and frank… though all that “potty mouth” business that was such a publicity hook 25 years ago feels neither shocking nor nearly as interesting as the other aspects of Phair’s artistry anymore.

The title track of Whip Smart gets my vote for the best pop song about being a parent ever written, and that theme joins Phair’s usual musings about sex and relationships in full force on Whitechocolatespaceegg. However, few critics had been paying attention to how much Phair was also musically yearning for fame beyond the pages of CMJ (as far back as Exile’s “Help Me Mary” she’d been threatening to weave her disgust into fame), and that obsession flowers on Whitechocolatespaceegg both lyrically (see the admittedly ironic “Shitloads of Money”) and practically (see “Polyester Bride”, Phair’s first number to get airplay off the indie stations). Perhaps not coincidentally, that was also the least interesting track on Whitechocolatespaceegg, which still delivered much unique Phair oddness with slanted tracks such as “Ride”, “Headache”, and “Baby Got Going”. However, my pick for the album’s best track, the beautiful “What Makes You Happy”, shows that Phair could adapt her style for the Top 40 pop stations. Why it wasn’t pulled for a single is beyond me.

Perhaps Liz Phair had other ideas about what makes a hit, because her eponymous fourth album is both dogged about getting one (the hit factory known as the Matrix produced four tracks) and totally unlike any of her previous albums. And that’s the main issue with Liz Phair: it is neither terrible nor embarrassing; it simply sounds like any pop singer could have made it. But we aren’t fans of just any pop singer; we are Liz Phair fans, and her presence is barely a phantom on the album she named after herself. Songs about underwear or scientifically dubious properties of semen are more like the work of a lesser artist aping Phair than that of the real deal. Granted, “Why Can’t I” did the commercial trick better than anything else, nabbing Phair her one and only entry in the Top Forty of Billboard’s Hot 100, but even she seems to realize that her true legacy lies in her first album.

Still, we shouldn’t forget how fab Whip Smart and Whitechocolatespaceegg continue to be, and UMe’s vinyl reissues provide fine reminders of that (ever the odd-woman-out, Liz Phair is not a reissue but a vinyl debut). There is no suggestion either in UMe’s press release or on the album sleeves that any remastering has taken place, and played against the original CDs, they sound identical to me. Considering the infuriating 21st Century trend to brickwall everything, that is great news.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Review: Vinyl Edition of 'Johnny “Guitar” Watson'

The artists of the fifties weren’t necessarily known for their eclecticism, but Johnny “Guitar” Watson was a true exception. Toying with pure blues, soul, pop standards, jazz, and Rock & Roll, Watson bucked limitations at the very start of his career. As a singer, he could grit it up like Stax’s nastiest renegades or spread on the sweet butter like Tamla’s smoothest stars. Even the specificity of his nickname couldn’t keep him from having his way with keyboards, percussion, and the saxophone.  As the decades progressed, he always moved with the times, scoring hits in the funk era with stuff like “Superman Lover” and “A Real Mother for Ya” and convincingly laying claim to the invention of rap. Hell, you could even argue that his “Posin’” pioneered voguing when Madonna was barely toilet trained.

A dozen of Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s early sides are represented on an eponymous 1963 compilation for King Records. While blues dominates, the tracks play with the form enough so that you never feel like you’re hearing the same thing twice. I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard a pretty string arrangement sweeten hard blues as successfully as one does on “Cuttin’ In”. When Watson strays from the blues form, as when he dives into the Great American Songbook and swims up with “Embraceable You”, he kicks up enough vocal debris that it doesn’t sound out of place among its bluesier company. Modern Harmonic Records’ new vinyl edition of Johnny “Guitar” Watson is warmly and richly mastered from the original tapes through an all analog process onto orange vinyl.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Review: 'The Shadows of Knight Alive in ’65!'

Illinois’ Shadows of Knight are notable as the band that turned Van Morrison’s garage anthem “Gloria” into a hit, but they also worked their grungy magic on such less well-known items as Bo Diddley’s “Oh Yeah” (which earned a coveted spot on Lenny Kaye’s original Nuggets comp), The Wheels’ “Bad Little Woman”, and “I’ll Make You Mine”, a nasty item co-written by Carole Bayer Sager that the Knights apparently got their mitts on before anyone else. While these numbers weren’t the hits that “Gloria” was, they remain the most enduring Shadows of Knight remnants because they don’t invite much comparison with more famous renditions (though they are all viciously executed enough that they might not pale in comparison under any circumstances).

The set that Shadows of Knight played at Chicago’s the Cellar in the summer of ’65 featured no such obscurities. Instead they ravaged their way through The Kinks’ two biggest hits to date, perennials such as “Rawhide”, “Memphis”, and “Louie Louie”, and a load of R&R and blues standards best known by the Stones (as well as Jagger and Richards’s own “Heart of Stone”). The Shadows’ covers were spirited, fierce, and never superior to the more famous versions. Consequently, The Shadows of Knight Alive in ’65! is a fine but fairly inessential document of a bar band at work in the mid-sixties.

Most impressive is the quality of the recording considering that it was caught on a reel-to-reel that rhythm guitarist Norm Gotsch perched on the side of the stage. As mastered by Bob Irwin for Beat Rocket/Sundazed Music, Alive in ’65 sounds especially powerful. The sleeve notes are quality too with extensive recollections from Gotsch.

Review: 'Gathered from Coincidence: The British Folk Pop Sound of 1965-1966'

In 1963, The Beatles revolutionized pop with a distinctly English ear for melody and harmony and an uncompromised big beat yanked from the yanks. That same year Dylan rearranged the face of folk with a ragged edge that brought the sanitized harmonies of The Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul, & Mary to Earth and a surreal ways with words that kicked it back into the cosmos. As dissimilar as their styles were at the time, there was already some cross-pollination between folk and pop happening. As early as 1962, Dylan rocked up his hootenanny with the obscure “Mixed-Up Confusion”, and The Beatles’ debut single, “Love Me Do” was more folk than pop with its turgid beat, absence of electric six-strings, and wheezy harmonica. Once Dylan and The Beatles became aware of each other, such heavy petting was over and the marriage was officially consummated as Dylan’s influence loomed all over “I’ll Be Back” and much of Beatles for Sale and The Beatles’ beat inspired Dylan to plug in… though his stripped down, thumping sound was always more Stones than Beatles. It took The Byrds to pointedly fuse Dylan’s far-out poetry and The Beatles’ clean jingle-jangle, officially putting a face on the new folk-rock genre.

Between Mersey Beat-dominated ’64 and psychedelic ’67, folk-rock was the dominant pop style for young, white artists. Even such hardened souls as the Stones, Kinks, and Pretty Things got sucked into it. Appropriately, Grapefruit Records’ new triple-disc collection Gathered from Coincidence: The British Folk Pop Sound of 1965-1966 limits its scope to those two years, and while its reasonable to wonder if its location and period limitations result in a limited listening experience, they don’t.

Instead of just spotlighting songs that reflect The Byrds’ 12-string shimmer, Gathered from Coincidence presents a variety of sounds that fall within its narrow premise. There is electric jangle (Peter and Gordon’s “Morning’s Calling”, The Silkie’s “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”, The Hollies’ “Very Last Day”) but also solo acoustic pieces (Donovan’s “Catch the Wind”), full-band acoustic rambles (The Kinks’ “Wait Til the Summer Comes Along”), heavy-beat rock (The Pretty Things’ “London Town”, Manfred Mann’s “If You Gotta Go, Go Now”), shades of distinctly British baroque pop (Marianne Faithfull’s “Come and Stay with Me”), bubblegum folk (Twinkle’s “Golden Lights”, Heinz’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”), elaborate productions that fly in the face of folk’s dogged simplicity (Murray Head’s “The Bells of Rhymney”, Justin Hayward’s “Day Must Come”), and some of the turgid, old-fashioned stuff that Rock & Roll mostly swept away (Ian Campbell Folk Group’s “The Times They Are-A Changin’”, First Gear’s “Gotta Make the Future Bright”).

As you probably sussed from the artist and song names, Gathered from Coincidence contains some big groups and a lot of Dylan covers. It also has some varying perspectives, as parodies such as Alan Klein’s “Age of Corruption” and Micha’s “Protest Singer” protest the protest singers, though neither are particularly listenable (however, John Cassidie’s “Talkin’ Denmark Street” is the uncanniest Dylan send up I’ve ever heard). Fortunately, such bum tracks are pretty rare and Gathered from Coincidence ends up a mostly consistent and varied collection of songs from the beginning of pop’s most fruitful period.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Review: Vinyl Reissue of Little Willie John's 'Fever'

Little Willie John had a voice that betrayed his years. He was only 19 when he cut the first version of the deathless “Fever”, but his delivery already seemed as richly aged as a snifter of 40-year old cognac. It was just as smooth too without a sprinkle of the grit less naturally skilled singers force to put miles on the odometer. It didn’t matter if he was  smoldering his way through “Fever”, aching out the smoky “Suffering with the Blues”, belting blues on the hit “All Around the World”, and bouncing joyful noise off his sister Mable on the goofy B-side “Dinner Date”. I’d be shocked if Sam Cooke didn’t spend the morning before he recorded Night Beat spinning his Little Willie John records over and over.

Originally released in 1956, John’s first LP Fever collected most of his early A sides for King Records into a consistently strong package. Modern Harmonic Records has now reissued Fever on white vinyl. The analog process results in sound that is clear, powerful, and organic complementing the clarity, power, and naturalness of the man’s voice luxuriously.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Review: Michael Nesmith & The First National Band VInyl Reissues

Micky Dolenz may have been the voice of The Monkees’ greatest hits and Davy Jones may have been the group’s face, but no Monkee was more poised for a great solo career than Michael Nesmith. As a unique writer, singer, and producer, he had the essential skills to make quality records, and the experimental side that saw him indulging in impenetrable poetics, playing with Tex-Mex rhythms, drawing pure country influences into pop, and digressing down some really weird psychedelic alleys suggested his solo work could be quite innovative as well.

Nesmith’s first outing with his group The First National Band follows up on all the promise of his Monkees work. While artists such as The Byrds and Dylan had already done conceptually C&W discs, only Nesmith applied The Beatles’ most out-there production concepts to country. On Magnetic South, he revolutionizes terrific songs such as “Calico Girlfriend”, “Hollywood”, “Little Red Rider”, the minor hit “Joanne”, and the rump-kicking “Mama Nantucket” with Pepper-esque segues, sound effects, psychedelic improvisations, and surreal lyricism. Red Rhodes’s pedal steel is a neat substitute for the absence of Mellotrons, harpsichords, and orchestras.

Also released in 1970, Loose Salute fails to build on Magnetic South’s innovations but it does deliver several more excellent originals (particularly “Silver Moon” on which Nesmith adds country-ska to his growing list of wacky hybrids, “Tengo Amore”, and “Thanks for the Ride”), as well as a superb cover of “I Fall to Pieces”. On the downside, “Hello Lady” has an irritating chorus and a couple of Monkees-era songs suffer in comparison to the originals: “Listen to the Band” lacks the grandeur that masks the slight songwriting of The Monkees’ single and “Conversations” lacks the haunting atmosphere of the version Nez recorded in 1967 as “Carlisle Wheeling”.

For his final album with the First National Band, Nesmith handled a dwindling material issue by packing Side B of Nevada Fighter with a so-so array of covers, many of which are by former Monkees composers such as Harry Nilsson, Bill Martin, and Michael Murphy. However, the reserved batch could have used a few jolts of Rock & Roll energy. The center of Side A also sags with too many ballads (though “Propinquity” is a pretty Monkees leftover given a superior remake here), but the rockers that bookend it are top notch with “Grand Ennui” igniting things with tough attitude and the title track breaking a much needed sweat at side’s end. Still Nevada Fighter feels like the continuation of a slight downward slide. Of course the band’s dissolution brought that problem to a fast end.  

Nevada Fighter isn’t a great album, but it at least sounds nice. Sundazed’s new colored vinyl reissues of the FNB trilogy sound nice too, drawing out the warmth in the rustic atmosphere. I was struck by how harsh BMG’s 1999 CD twofer of the first two albums sounded in comparison, and how much punchier John London’s bass and John Ware’s drums are on Sundazed’s new vinyl.

Friday, May 25, 2018

10 Reasons 'Return of the Jedi' Doesn't Suck

Sorry, Richard Marquand. Sorry, Bib Fortuna. But when it comes to assessing the original Star Wars trilogy, your episode tends to come out on bottom. There are multiple reasons why Return of the Jedi is a lesser movie than Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. It lacks the freshness of the first movie, even resorting to duplicating a lot of Star Wars beats (most blatantly in flying the heroes back to Tattooine and rebuilding the Death Star). It lacks the relative depth of Empire largely because George Lucas was adamant about not overtaxing his fans brains, which he apparently assumed were fairly puny. Lucas was mainly concerned with drawing in a new audience of toddlers, whom he assumed would bully their parents into buying everything on the Ewok shelf at the local Toys R Us.

Despite the issues with Return of the Jedi, it would take sixteen years for there to be a Star Wars movie that genuinely sucked. Here are ten reasons why it may not be fair to say that about Return of the Jedi.

1. The Ultimate Monster Menagerie

Although Star Wars is likely the most popular movie ever made, it has a sloppy legacy because George Lucas is notoriously dissatisfied with it (hence those terrible Special Editions). One of the biggest bugs up his butt is the fact that the assortment of Bug Eyed Monsters populating the Mos Eisley Cantina weren’t up to his standards. This zany sequence still managed to become one of the film’s most beloved, but one has to admit that there is a slapdash quality to some of the rubber-masked aliens. And if this is not apparent upon viewing Star Wars for the first time, it will become apparent after seeing Return of the Jedi because that sequel’s menagerie of monsters is so markedly superior. In crafting the Jabba’s palace sequence, a creature design team that included Joe Johnston, Phil Tippett, and Chris Walas redecorated our fantasies and nightmares with aliens bizarre (Squid Head, Ree-Yees), comical (Salacious Crumb, Sy Snootles), genuinely frightening (Bib Fortuna), or a combination of all those qualities (the Gamorrean Guards). And one creation was so stunning that he warrants an entry on this list all to himself…

2. Jabba the Hutt

Monday, May 14, 2018

Review: 'The Beach Boys with The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra'

What does a record company issue when a valuable property’s back catalogue has already been remastered, remixed, repackaged, rereleased, and rejiggered more times than anyone could count? Something like The Beach Boys with The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, I guess.

Superimposing Muzak strings onto a simple rocker like “Fun, Fun, Fun” or “Kokomo”, a song that no one but Mike Love remembers fondly, is a terrible idea. Productions such as those on Pet Sounds are already sufficiently orchestral. Yet there are possibilities. Some of The Beach Boys’ more unfinished-sounding tracks—say “Cool, Cool Water”, much of Smiley Smile, or oddities such as “Can’t Wait Too Long” –might have been interesting if finished off with arrangements more in the experimental spirit of such pieces. The fairly complementary and relatively dissonant orchestrations on “Heroes and Villains” (the only track exclusively recorded for Smiley Smile in the bunch) support this. The one other track that survives the orchestral treatment is “Darlin’”, which receives an understated bed of sweeping strings in the Philly Soul vein. However, by mostly playing it safe and only tampering with The Beach Boys’ most familiar tunes instead of seeking out oddities that might actually benefit from this concept, conductors/composers Steve Sidwell and Sally Herbert smear a layer of pap over some of the most perfect productions in pop.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Audiophile Matthew Sweet Reissues Coming This Year

From 1991 through 1995, Matthew Sweet released three of the best power pop CDs of the nineties. Beginning late May/early June 2018, audiophile label Intervention Records will start rolling out Girlfriend, Altered Beast, and 100% Fun on 180 gram vinyl. Each album has been subjected to complete analog mastering from the original master tapes and will be presented as multi-disc sets to allow room for a multitude of bonus tracks. First up will be 100% Fun followed by Altered Beast appended with the Son of Altered Beast EP in July/August, and finally Girlfriend in October. All discs will also be released as SACDs "within a month or two" of the vinyl releases. 

Now for the track listings:

100% Fun

Side One

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

New Rolling Stones Vinyl Box Coming in June

This won't be the first box set of post-sixties Stones vinyl, but it looks like it has the potential to be done right when UMe puts out The Studio Albums Vinyl Collection 1971-2016 on June 15. The 15 albums (5 of which are doubles, bringing the set to 20 discs) in the set spanning Sticky Fingers through Blue & Lonesome has been "sourced from the original master tapes" and "remastered and cut at half-speed at Abbey Road studios" by Miles Showell according to the press release. The Stones' signature packaging quirks have been retained, including the working zipper on Sticky Fingers, the postcards included with Exile on Main Street, the die-cuts in the cover of Some Girls, and all of the other assorted gimmicks. And it will all be housed in a lenticular box.

Here's the run down of what will be included:
  • Sticky Fingers (1971)
    • LP sleeve presented as Andy Warhol's original design complete with working zip and hidden image beneath

Monday, April 23, 2018

Psychobabble's Ten Greatest Albums of 1988

The return to a more organic sound that would define the best nineties rock was still a distant pipe dream in 1988, yet there is a sense of new birth and rebirth in the best music of a generally stale year. Morrissey and Keith Richards stepped outside of bands either seemingly dead or most sincerely dead to make worthwhile solo debuts. Jane’s Addiction slithered out of the sleazy Sunset Strip scene that gave us the hair metal polluting the era and put a scary, junkie spin on the metal revival that felt far less mannered than Axl Rose’s whining. The Pixies and My Bloody Valentine— perhaps the two most influential bands on the coming decade— both released striking debuts too. Meanwhile two of the most influential bands of the waning eighties released L.P.’s that found them inching closer toward genuine superstardom (though only one would truly snatch the coveted ring). So for a year dominated by the likes of Def Leppard, Whitney Houston, Tiffany, Debbie Gibson, Rick Astley, and White Snake, 1988 still managed its share of great discs. Here are ten.

10. Viva Hate by Morrissey

Just days after the release of Strangeways, Here We Come, Morrissey was already at work on his solo debut, and Viva Hate is a different beast from the final Smiths record. While The Smiths sound was always distinct from contemporary trends, Viva Hate and its gated, glossy Stephen Street production is pure eighties and completely lacks the distinct musicianship Johnny Marr and Andy Rourke brought to every Smiths session. Viva Hate sounds like Morrissey’s bid for solo stardom, but his writhing discontent and all-around disagreeableness could never have put him in competition with Rick Astley. Take the utterly sweet sounding “Bengali in Platforms”, which can be interpreted as either an in-character snapshot of Thatcher-era racism or just an honest expression of Morrissey’s own shitty opinions about immigration and race, which he has become more comfortable expressing in recent years. Either way, it does not stir feelings of comfort. “Everyday Is Like Sunday”, Morrissey’s definitive solo number, is considerably less distasteful, though his wishes of seeing a dull seaside holiday town nuked into oblivion is hardly hit parade fare. His anger is most justified on “Margaret on the Guillotine”, though the lyric is devoid of insight (he wants her executed because she makes him feel old and tired…not because of her inhuman policies?) and the airy music never touches ground. Street and Morrissey grumpiness meet on common ground in “Angel, Angel Down We Go Together” in which Morrissey finally reveals a degree of humanity by offering some very Morrissey comfort to a suicidal friend and Street lays on a string arrangement owing more to “Eleanor Rigby” than “The Long and Winding Road”. “Suedehead” is the most-Smiths like number on the disc and arguably the finest. Now if only Morrissey would shut the fuck up so I could still enjoy listening to his music.

9. Talk Is Cheap by Keith Richards

Friday, April 20, 2018

Review: 'FAB GEAR: The British Beat Explosion and Its 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 Its 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 The Whos 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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