Friday, January 28, 2011

Review: 'Waxwork'

Woo hoo! A sextet of 30-year-old high school students accepts curator David Warner’s invitation to his wax museum. They each end up getting sucked through the various exhibits into other dimensions where they must face off against a werewolf, Dracula, zombies, the mummy, and the Marquis de Sade.

Directed by Anthony Hickox, the son of Theatre of Blood-director Douglas Hickox, Waxwork (1988) is a gushing mash note to the golden age of monster movies. Part Universal Monster homage, part old dark house mystery, part Amicus portmanteau, part teens-get-systematically-slaughtered flick, Waxwork chomps off more than it can chew, but it’s still a highly enjoyable trot through some 70 years of horror clichés. Too bad it was made in the ‘80s when camp was at its most self-consciously ham-handed and B-movie aesthetics were overly dictated by music videos; there’s no shortage of crayola lighting and shitty synthesizer music here, kids. The tone is all over the place, with the tongue-in-cheek wraparound story clashing with the weirdly serious parallel-dimension monster episodes (the best being a way-too-brief black and white homage to Night of the Living Dead).

Still there are a few top-notch visual jokes, as when one of Dracula’s brides gets impaled on a wine rack and a bunch of champagne bottles froth over through her torso like gushing blood. The bad dialogue is fun but rarely funny, the best lines coming during the spectacular, climactic monster mash when Warner brings all of his exhibits to life to dispatch the survivors, and Patrick Macnee leads a horde of garden tool-wielding villagers against them. The cast is a dizzying parade of cult character actors: Warner (Time After Time), Macnee as a wheelchair-bound Van Helsing (a sly reference to Mother from the Tara King-era of “The Avengers” perhaps?), Zach Galligan (Gremlins) as the rich kid, Deborah Foreman (Valley Girl) as the good girl, Michelle Johnson (Blame It on Rio) as the bad girl, Dana Ashbrook (“Twin Peaks”) as the doofus, and John Rhys-Davies (Raiders of the Lost Ark) as the werewolf, which looks like it was sloppily recycled from special effects leftover from An American Werewolf in London. Shambling as it may be, Waxwork is a thoroughly original use of totally unoriginal material and a much better use of your time than anything starring a homicidal hockey goalie.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Tales from the Psychobabble Search Engine Terms: the worst monkees song

Have you ever wondered what search engine terms lead the dedicated few to accessing Psychobabble? Me neither! However, some of these terms are so oddly intriguing, so intriguingly odd, that I’ve been exploring them in a new feature called Tales from the Psychobabble Search Engine Terms!

the worst monkees song

Date Searched
January 14, 2011

Possible Purpose

I’d bet my chest hair that the searcher of the term “the worst monkees song” already had a pretty good idea of what he or she believes to be the worst Monkees song. Such a query can only spew forth opinions, so I’m guessing that this person was really looking for justification of his/her opinion about the crappiest Monkees track. I’ve done this myself on occasion. Every time I see the “Post-Modern Prometheus” episode of “The X-Files” I’m compelled to search for “worst X-Files Postmodern Prometheus” to find out if anyone else out in Internet Land shares my opinion that this turd, which is often ranked as one of the series’ best, is in fact, its worst. Why? A little justification; a little hope that I’m not the sole rational “X-Files” viewer who recognizes that a lighthearted romp about a Cher-loving mutant rape monster is unwatchable dreck.

Back on topic, let’s take a look at what our Google search for “the worst monkees song” reveals. Well, firstly there are refreshingly few results when one plugs in this term surrounded by quotation marks. Nice. I was expecting a slew of posts by bitter hippies answering this question with “all of them.” The once-reviled Monkees have undergone fairly serious reevaluation over the past twenty or so years, and most pundits no longer cling to the erroneous assertion that The Monkees never wrote their songs, never exhibited a lick of talent, and never “played their own instruments” (I believe Peter Tork once responded to this age-old bellyache with the witty retort—and I’m paraphrasing here—“No, we don’t play our own instruments. We borrowed them”). Monkees fans no longer have to hide their copies of Headquarters and Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, & Jones, LTD. when their snobby buddies visit.
No problems here.

Of course, this does not mean that The Monkees pooped nothing but pearls. A fair number of their songs were pretty lousy and fully support the common gripe that they made low-grade pap for pre-teens. I’m happy to report that two of our Google Search results do, indeed, accurately identify The Monkees’ worst song. The first does not, although it comes pretty close. A customer review on the itunes page for the boys’ penultimate record, The Monkees Present , calls out “Ladies Aid Society” as the worst Monkees song. Close, friend, close! Culled from sessions for More of the Monkees, this piece of bubblegum trash nearly sinks an album of relatively sophisticated music. Late in their career, the guys fully developed and honed their musical personalities: Mike Nesmith, with his assertive country-rock, Micky Dolenz, with his affinity for lounge jazz and avant weirdness, and even Davy Jones, whose adult-contemporary pop confections were finally truly fit for adult consumption. Sadly, none of these musical directions resembled The Monkees’ sound from when they were actually selling records, so The Powers That Be at Colgems records records performed an archival dig that resulted in the worst song tacked onto Present: the truly awful “Ladies Aid Society”, as flaccid a protest against officious moralizers as you’re likely to hear.

The other search result that doesn’t quite answer the query correctly identifies a track called “Moving in with Rico” from the 1987 reunion record Pool It! I don’t doubt that this track is terrible, but I can't say for sure because I’ve never tortured myself by listening to Pool It!. I will, however, suggest that choosing a track from an album made 20 years after a band’s heyday—and one made in the eighties, no less—is like shooting ducks in your bathtub.

Fortunately, commentators in the final two search results get it right. According to one Darren Andrews of Pandora’s More of the Monkees page and “sunshine eyes” of (brace yourself, seekers of Monkees credibility) The Partridge Family Bulletin Board, the worst of the worst is “The Day We Fall in Love”.

Following a guitar lick that cops the intro of The Stones’ “Tell Me”, Davy Jones begins reciting all the nightmarishly precious things that will occur on the day he falls in love with you. “There’ll be birds singin’ everywhere and the wind will be blowin’ through your hair, I’ll look in your eyes and wait for the prize, your lips kissing mine…” Careful kissing these lips, Davy, lest yours taste the vomit that just climbed up my esophagus.

The worst Monkees tracks were the ones that most played into the group’s status as teeny bop idols. Yes, sometimes the guys went too far in the opposite direction, indulging in bizarre, very teen-unfriendly experiments. But I’d still much rather listen to Micky sing the praises of his cat and lament his fame in keening falsetto on “Shorty Blackwell” or Mike caterwaul over a turgid pipe organ on “Writing Wrongs” than hear about how Davy’s gonna look in my eyes and wait for my prize. Regardless of its awfulness, there’s no mystery regarding why music director Don Kirshner selected this composition by Sandy Linzer and Denny Randell (who wrote the genuinely wonderful “A Lover’s Concerto” for The Toys, as well as The Monkees’ very good “I’ll Be Back Up On My Feet”) for The Monkees’ second album. The idea of Davy Jones, that ultimate idol of the sexually latent set, reciting a litany of vapid romantic declarations in the first person to his legions of little fans must have ignited Tex Avery-style dollar signs in Kirshner’s eyes. Chances are the guy who chose cartoon characters for his next protégés after The Monkees fired him wasn’t going to recognize the cynical horridness of “The Day We Fall In Love”.

Don Kirshner sez: "Well, at least these guys can’t sack me."

File this mystery under : solved

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Review: Kristin Hersh's 'Rat Girl'

Between the springs of 1985 and ’86, Kristin Hersh was hit by a car, infected with an influx of incomparably off-kilter songs, lived as a squatter, befriended a former Hollywood star turned college student, diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, cut her first album with Throwing Muses, and became pregnant with her first child. Anyone swept up in such a dizzying draft of events during such a brief period of time—especially when that person is barely out of her teens—is right to think she might have an interesting story to tell. How capable she is of telling that story well is key. That Hersh based her memoir covering this topsy-turvy year, Rat Girl, on the diary she kept at the time might raise a big red flag that we’re in for an insular, possibly self-pitying ride. That Hersh is known for writing elliptical, poetic, angular songs, and not for composing lucid prose, might raise another.

Rat Girl burns those flags. This is a beautifully written, deeply insightful rummage through a year that might have crippled someone without Hersh’s good humor. Ironically, she seems most disturbed by the songs that suddenly begin pouring into her aggressively and constantly. Unsure if the songs are a curse or gift, the fruits of a creative mind or symptoms of mental illness, she can only collect them as they intrude. Hersh’s description of the songwriting process is the most accurate I’ve read, although “process” might be the wrong word. The way songs arrive—and, I assume, continue to arrive— is more like getting clobbered by a generous, if obnoxious, phantom. Equally fascinating, she illustrates numerous passages with her lyrics, which both emphasizes the importance of these moments and brilliantly illuminates Hersh’s famously enigmatic songs. Suddenly, the meanings behind such seemingly willfully obscure lines as “I have a fish nailed to a cross on my apartment wall” and “that looks like a carnival wig and two shiners” materialize.

Rat Girl also pulses with a cast of fantastic characters: Hersh’s geeky yet refreshingly self-possessed band mates, the sweet junkies she befriends, 4-AD’s eccentric founder Ivo Watts Russell (who calls Hersh daily to ask if he can help The Muses with anything and remind her that he doesn’t sign American acts. Until he does), restless producer Gil Norton, and especially, Betty Hutton. After Hersh’s hippy dad (another memorable character!) introduces his daughter to the singer, comedian, and star of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and The Greatest Show on Earth at Salve Regina University, they become fast and unlikely friends. Hersh’s recollections about Hutton towing her priest along to Muses shows and imparting show-biz advice she learned from Al Jolson to the mad-eyed, flailing singer are hilarious. The Jiminy Cricket guidance Hutton carefully portions out to Hersh provides the most moving moments in a book rich in humanity, humor, and honesty.

Plus, Hersh begins Rat Girl with quotes from Dostoyevsky and Micky Dolenz. Extra points for that.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Psychobabble Loves P.P.

Finish snickering at those initials then get hip to the reality that P.P. Arnold is the greatest soul singer you may have never heard. Pat Arnold was opening for The Rolling Stones as an Ikette in the Ike and Tina Turner Review when she struck up a friendship with Mick Jagger. Jealous Ike gave Pat her pink slip, but The Stones’ savvy manager, Andrew “Loog” Oldham, quickly snatched her up… and away from Stones bassist Bill Wyman, who wanted her to sing backup for his protégés Moon’s Train. Oldham gave Pat her new moniker, which was intended to suggest bluesiness, and signed her up to his independent label, Immediate Records.

As P.P. Arnold, she released “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” (co-written by Oldham) in early 1967. A smooth bubblegum soul production that was equal parts Phil Spector and Motown, “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” is a standout because of P.P.’s unpolished pipes, which rasp away over the orchestral backing. But the record’s real gem—and the real indicator of the Arnold agenda— was buried on the flip. Written by David Skinner and Andrew Rose of Immediate’s pasty folk duo Twice as Much, “Life Is Nothing” is a moody, acoustic ballad with tasteful strings, more reminiscent of The Beatles than anything Aretha Franklin would have cut. That’s what really set P.P. Arnold apart from her soul peers: she essentially transformed British pop numbers into achingly soulful work outs every time she layered on that cracked rasp. What P.P. Arnold was doing was not dissimilar from the records of her label mates, Small Faces, so when she eventually started recording with them it was a match made in Northern Soul Nirvana. But first she’d work her magic on her signature song: Cat Stevens oft-recorded “The First Cut Is the Deepest”. That she was able to a transform a song that is, let’s face it, pretty corny into a work of flaming rage and hurt that could peel the paint off Rod Stewart’s little red wagon is another of P.P. Arnold’s great gifts. She did the same thing with the even cornier “Angel of the Morning”, a song that more famously got the sap treatment by the likes of Juice Newton, Merilee Rush, and Olivia Newton John. Careening from P.P. Arnold’s throat, “Angel of the Morning” is a masterpiece of mighty assuredness (John Paul Jones’s exquisite baroque-soul arrangement doesn’t hurt either).

P.P. Arnold’s greatest record was written by Small Faces Steve Marriott and Ronnie Lane and saddled with the laughably dated title “(If You Think You’re) Groovy”. With Small Faces as her backing, Arnold shreds her vocal cords beyond the call of duty as she lets a cat know that he isn’t nearly as groovy as he thinks he is. The chorus punches in with a Kenny Jones drum fill that detonates like an A-bomb, then Arnold takes over to rant and rave her way to transcendence. Fucking unbelievable.

The first of P.P. Arnold’s LPs, The First Lady of Immediate, is her greatest, a flawless soul pop album bolstered by her first few singles and some exceptional additional material, some of which was composed by the singer. With the smoldering “Though It Hurts Me Badly”, “Treat Me Like a Lady”, and “Am I Still Dreaming”—a track that would have inspired Spiro Agnew to leap off his ass and do the pony—she delivered the record’s purest soul numbers. Arnold’s second album, the more conceptually produced Kafunta, is great as well, although it is slightly lessened by an abundance of overly familiar covers. But though her versions of Jagger and Richards’s “As Tears Go By” and The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and “Yesterday” are inessential, her reading of “God Only Knows” is stunning, and even more so considering that the original features what might be the most beautiful vocal ever captured in a pop recording; the kind of recording that should make all others irrelevant.

After P.P. Arnold cut her final sides for Immediate in 1969, she appeared in stage musicals, acted in the nighttime soaps "Knot's Landing" and "St. Elsewhere" in the '80s, and performed session work for such artists as Nick Drake, Roger Waters, Ocean Colour Scene, and Oasis.

All the amazing recordings P.P. Arnold made during her brief two-year career with Immediate Records are compiled on First Cut, which you should pick up immediately.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Farewell, Anne Francis

*spoilers ahead

Anne Francis is probably best known for starring in 1956's Forbidden Planet, one of the first films to take science fiction seriously, and the private eye series "Honey West", but she has long been a Psychobabble favorite for appearing in two of the finest "Twilight Zone" episodes: "The After Hours" and "Jess Belle". "The After Hours" had a strong enough premise that it would probably be regarded as one of the series' best regardless of who starred in it, but it achieves classic status because of Francis's work. She struck a wide arch of emotions as Marcia, a woman initially perturbed then terrified by strange goings on in a shopping mall. Her ultimate realization that she is a mannequin granted a month to live as a human and must now return to modeling mall wares is a moment as heartbreaking as Burgess Meredith shattering his eyeglasses at the climax of "Time Enough at Last".

"Jess Belle" does not sport a script as original or punchy as "The After Hours", but it too is a classic largely for its multidimensional characters (a rarity for "The Twilight Zone", which was so often populated by stereotypes) played with extraordinary skill by a first-rate cast led by Jeanette Nolan, James Best, and Francis as the title witch. Francis was just as effecting as Jess-Belle as she was as Marcia the Mannequin, making this episode one of the few hour-long "Zones" that could stand proudly among the best 30-minute shows. Although it forgoes several of the components we most associate with the series (there's no ninth-inning twist, no parting narration from Rod Serling, no ironic punishments are meted out), "Jess-Belle" is my personal favorite "Zone" largely because of Anne Francis, who plays unrequited love in the episode as convincingly as any other actor I've seen.

Anne Francis may have only starred in two episodes of "The Twilight Zone", but she is the actress most associated with the series because her performances so perfectly reflected the series' humanity, beauty, and poignancy. She died yesterday of complications from pancreatic cancer at the age of 80.
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