Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Review: Vinyl Reissues of Three U2 Albums

OK, so in 1987, U2 completed the transition from being a particularly successful college rock band that had not yet cracked the top ten of Billboard’s album charts to the biggest band in the world. The Joshua Tree went to number one in almost every major market in the world, U2 filled stadiums and dominated MTV, Bono became Rock’s hunky conscience, and so on and so on. Yet the edge of a band once edgy enough to deserve a member called The Edge had gone a bit blunt. The punky energy that made Boy and War so invigorating was softening into a sound more befitting top-forty radio, and by the time U2 released the bluesy, snoozy soundtrack for their major motion picture Rattle & Hum in 1988, they were as edgy as a beach ball. Yet they still sold millions of albums, so it is to U2’s credit that they then started fucking with their tried and true formula at the height of their popularity.

U2 wasn’t the first minister to marry Rock & Roll and club-based dance music (that kind of thing had already been happening in the Madchester scene for a few years), but they were certainly the biggest. So new recordings such as “Mysterious Ways” and “Even Better Than the Real Thing” sounded fairly radical when they commandeered the airwaves in 1991. Digging deeper into Achtung Baby, there were somewhat more out-there things such as the sensual “The Fly”, the surging “Acrobat”, and the pounding “Zoo Station”, all of which hinted at what U2 could really do when they let their imaginations go wild.

And that’s just what they did with their next album. Zooropa is divisive not only because Bono’s new yen for adopting obnoxious, ironic personas wore out some less-committed fans but also because the music is so weird. The thing is, U2 could do weird very, very well. If “Mysterious Ways” was a bit of a refreshing change after the tedium of “Angel of Harlem”, then “Numb” was a revivifying plunge in an icy stream, taking everything we came to know about U2—including Bono’s bombastic pipes—and wiping them away. That’s the most revolutionary cut on Zooropa, but the title track, the hilariously discofied “Lemon”, the trashy smash “Daddy’s Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car”, and “The Wanderer”—starring guest vocalist Johnny Cash and guest instrument a twenty-dollar Casio keyboard—are just as far out. Bono’s withering perspective of contemporary life went down more pleasantly with a less hectoring tone and more humor. The only slight misstep is “Stay (Far Away So Close)”, but only because it doesn’t try to rise to the rest of the album’s level of experimentalism. 

Zooropa is one of the shiniest and most underappreciated gems in U2’s back catalogue, but it isnt for everyone, and those who prefer Larry Mullen, Jr., without the drum machine accompaniment could take solace in The Best of 1980-1990, which gathers up choice tracks from U2’s pre-experimental career. Much of what made the comp is unimpeachable—“New Year’s Day”, “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, “Bad”, “I Will Follow”, “The Unforgettable Fire”—and the Joshua Tree hits sound fresher when cut in among the more vital classics, but there is an over-reliance on Rattle and Hum that blunts the history. Because most of those songs were huge hits, they had to be included, but it would have been nice if some room had been made for minor singles such as “Two Hearts Beat As One”, “Gloria”, and “A Day without Me” to provide a more complete portrait of the early years— and because they’re great tracks.

Yet there are a few slight oddities to mix up the familiarity, most notably a good rerecording of the B-side “Sweetest Thing” (which actually ended up becoming a sizable hit in most of the world) and alternate edits of “New Year’s Day”, “Where the Streets Have No Name”, and “Bad”. The CD also included a hidden track and token obscurity— the title number and only representative of U2’s second album— though “October” is not much of a song.

Nevertheless, while you wouldn’t want to be without Boy or War, The Best of 1980-1990 still presents an adequate picture of U2’s first decade, and Achtung Baby and Zooropa certainly constitute the best of what came next, so these three albums are a pretty good trio to put forth together in a wave of vinyl reissues from Universal Music. Zooropa includes two bonus tracks—long, clubby, nearly unrecognizable remixes of “Lemon” and “Numb”—and The Best includes a bonus track from its Japanese edition, the relatively obscure Joshua Tree track “One Tree Hill”, which was released as a single in Australia and New Zealand. Each album arrives on double, 180-gram vinyl, and each is remastered with a reduction of the CDs’ brightness. 

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Review: 'The Future Then: Fascinating Art & Predictions from 145 years of Popular Science'

For nearly a century and a half, Popular Science magazine has been keeping the world on top of the latest developments in science and technology. Despite its prestigious history, it ain’t always right, and that’s one reason why The Future Then: Fascinating Art & Predictions from 145 years of Popular Science is fun. This attractive, hardcover tome collects everyone of the quarterly’s covers in full-color cover, each one positing some sort of scientific prediction made in the name of the mag. The captions assess whether or not that prediction came true, and they do so with cheeky irreverence. How could you not have your tongue in your cheek when combing over such wild brain waves as underground ice cities, a robotic exoskeleton called the “man amplifier” that can turn anyone into a superhero, and mechanical racehorses constructed from taxidermied stallions? Amazingly, some of this wackadoo stuff actually came to pass (though much did not exactly endure). It’s also interesting to note the particular obsessions of each decade, with the forties depressingly focused on machines of war (and also depressingly, most of those predictions came to pass), the fifties focused on DIY projects for new homeowners, and the sixties focused on…err… James Bond.

But as I suggested, its factoids are just one reason why The Future Then is boss. The artwork is what really makes it a retro rush, as Popular Science’s painted covers look like they should adorn pulp novels for nerds. The magazine’s impressive roster of artists include Norman Rockwell and Reynold Brown, who’d really make a name for himself designing movie posters for such sci-fi classics as The Creature from the Black Lagoon and Attack of the 50-Foot Woman. Sadly, in the nineties, Popular Science discontinued its painted covers for sterile digital images, so the final sixty pages of The Future Then are not nearly as charming as the ones that precede them. It’s also tough to assess whether or not technology predicted so recently was a success or failure since it could still come to pass. So perhaps we should stay tuned for volume two, assuming that such quaint things as magazines, the ability to read, and life on Earth still exist in another 145 years. Have a nice day!

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Review: ‘The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland’ Expanded Edition

The covers-laden Supremes A-Go Go was significant because it was the first LP by an all female group to top the Billboard charts, but a much greater musical achievement was The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland. With Where Did Our Love Go and More Hits, Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland completed the trio constituting the hit-single makers’ finest albums. The hits—brooding “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”; ethereal “Love Is Here and Now Your Gone”—are among The Supremes’ finest, and might be Motown’s first official acknowledgment of the psychedelic era. Many of the non-hits are nearly as wonderful. Di, Flo, and Mary are at their most ecstatic on the shoulda-been-a-hit “There’s No Stopping Us Now”, their most haltingly dramatic on “Remove This Doubt”, their most grindingly raw on “Going Down for the Third Time”. The other songs that weren’t made famous by other Motown artists are groovy too (only the slightly cornball “Love Is In Our Hearts” is a bit flimsy) and the redundant covers are kept to a relatively minimal three. So don’t be fooled by its generic title and cover. The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland is essentially The Supremes’ Revolver: eclectic, a bit dark, a bit trippy, but always colorfully inviting.

Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland is the latest Supremes album to get the expanded, double-disc treatment from Universal Music. Along with very good-sounding presentations of its mono and stereo mixes (no debate here: the mono mix buries the imbalanced stereo one, though the way the morse-code guitar line of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” flits from channel to channel in the stereo mix is pretty neat), there are numerous bonus tracks, the centerpiece of which is a live set at the Copa from May1967. Like the unlistenable second side of The Four Tops’ On Top, this set is one of Motown’s weird attempts to force a teen-oriented act to appeal to boring old people. The big band arrangements are very cabaret, as is the emphasis on show tunes and standards. The group’s biggest early hits are compressed into a medley and “You Can’t Hurry Love” is played at blinding speed, both suggesting that the Powers That Be wanted The Supremes to get the teeny bopper stuff over with as quickly as possible. It’s all so stodgy and stagy that a relatively stripped down “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” stirs visions of a horde of young punks crashing mom and dad’s cocktail party. Diana Ross was also suffering from a cold that shot her voice. Yet the recording is nicely polished and there is significant historic importance since this was the last concert the group recorded before the sad departure of Florence Ballard.

More musically valuable is the inclusion of the peachy single “The Happening” and its fine flip-side “All I Know About You” (though in odd mixes that allow the songs to peter out instead of fade), a powerfully orchestrated revision of “You’re Gone But Always in My Heart”, and a cool extended remix of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” along the lines of the remix of “Love Is Like an Itchin’ in My Heart” that stood out on last year’s deluxe A-Go Go. There are also two booklets worth of vintage press material, a new interview with Lamont Dozier, track notes, essays, an annotated timeline, and lots of period photos. A splashy package, indeed, but the original album in its mono mix remains the uncontested star attraction of The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland: Expanded Edition.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Review: 'Just a Shot Away: Peace, Love, and Tragedy with The Rolling Stones at Altamont"

Meredith Hunter. We all know the name Altamont and its associations, but too few know the name of the young man murdered at the hands of the Hell’s Angels at the infamous free concert staged at the Altamont Speedway on December 6, 1969. His name is Meredith Hunter, and in Just a Shot Away, author Saul Austerlitz makes damn sure that we know that Hunter was not just some pawn in an event lazy writers love to use as the anti-Woodstock or as a pat conclusion to the sixties and its peace and love ethos. No biography of The Rolling Stones, the band that headlined Altamont (of course, you already knew that), fails to mention Hunter’s name, but I’ve never read one that gave a full, breathing profile of the man’s life. Even before his tragic end, it was fascinating, horribly troubled, creative, deeply complex. Hunter was raised by a schizophrenic mother whose piece-of-trash husband forced her into prostitution. Hunter was an artist. He was a juvenile delinquent. He was a druggie. He was a loving and devoted uncle and brother. He was a complete human being who lived a multi-faceted life despite its brevity. I never knew any of these things before reading Just a Shot Away: Peace, Love, and Tragedy with The Rolling Stones at Altamont, and that's what makes it such a gift

It is also a genuine horror story as Austerlitz describes the sickeningly unfolding events of Altamont with a masterful grasp of tone, detail, and character (though he is not above a few sloppy gaffes, the most egregious one I caught being his attribution of Paul Kantner’s on-stage barbs against the Angels to the wrong Jefferson Airplane guitarist: Jorma Kaukonen). We learn all the events leading up to the matter that ostensibly justified the Hell’s Angels’ attack. Yes, Hunter had a gun, but he only took it from his car after the notoriously racist biker gang had been beating on the crowd for hours, and if they were treating white people like that, what would they do to him? I can never defend possessing a gun under any circumstances, but simply having one in one’s possession hardly justifies being stabbed multiple times, having your head kicked in and stood on until your nose is left a smashed mess that makes breathing through it impossible. Apparently, the gun wasn’t even loaded.

While the Hell’s Angels are without question the villains of this story, the Stones have also often been criticized for fashioning the situation that put a bunch of scumbag, violence-addicted, racist, right-wingers in the role of security. Austerlitz not only repeats the truth that too few people know—the Grateful Dead’s camp were actually responsible for hiring the Angels—but also emphasizes the Dead’s cowardice in turning tail on an admittedly hellacious scene while the Stones met it head on in a vane attempt to settle the crowd. Without question The Rolling Stones were a great band, but they certainly never seemed heroic. As described by Austerlitz , their taking the stage at Altamont is probably the closest they ever came despite their ineffectualness. Their silence about Hunter immediately following the concert, however, was unconscionable.

But this isn’t the Stones’ story. To a small degree it is the Hell’s Angel’s story, but it is really the tale of a young, black man murdered by racist “upholders of the law.” Sound familiar? The contemporary relevance of this story is not lost on Austerlitz, who explicitly ties it in with the stories of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir, Rice, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, and all the other men who have become the victims of racial violence at the hands of cops and vigilantes. In writing of how the Hell’s Angels acted “out a parodic version of American freedom, where freedom itself was an amoral act, unkind and selfish” and “required tuning out the quiet voices that insisted on the inherent dignity of others, and amplifying the ones that demand that others respect yours,” Austerlitz perhaps inadvertently ties this story to the grotesquely toxic White House of 2018. For such reasons, I defy anyone with a conscience to read this account of a 49-year old crime without getting angry as hell today. As you can probably tell, I did, and for that, Just a Shot Away is not only a great piece of historical journalism but an enduringly vital and relevant one too. 

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Review: 'Star Wars Memorabilia—An Unofficial Guide to Star Wars Collectibles'

Paul Berry is correct when he writes, “For a child growing up in the 1980s, Star Wars….collectibles meant more than the films…” We surrounded ourselves with Star Wars stuff because there was so much available. The plentitude of R2-D2 kitchenware and C-3PO toiletries, as well as the heavy nostalgia value of these things, has made Star Wars collectibles a minor subgenre in Star Wars books. The best of these come from Stephen Sansweet, who is to Star Wars what Forry Ackerman was to monster movies. However, even a book as thick as Sansweet’s Star Wars: 1,000 Collectibles fails to even wipe the dust off the surface. So there is certainly room for a more complete book of Star Wars collectibles, though Berry’s isn’t it. At just 95-pages, Star Wars Memorabilia—An Unofficial Guide to Star Wars Collectibles didn’t have much of a chance.

Berry’s book is skinny and his drily informative text makes no attempt to reflect the fun of his subject matter, but there are some nice images here that do not reproduce those in the other Star Wars collectible books. A UK publication, Star Wars Memorabilia supplies plenty of nice photos of carded Palitoy figures and adverts. There are a few odd images related to Topps’ trading cards that did not make it into Abrams Books’ recent anthologies of Star Wars trading cards. There are also some images of items too recent to appear in the older books, though Berry’s focus is mostly on the original trilogy and classic items as it should be. However, the limitations forced by the paltry page count (the chapters really only focus on toys, games, models, books, periodicals, trading cards, and home video) means that there is no room for the kinds of oddities that make these books really interesting.
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