Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Review: 'Batman: The Complete Television Series Blu-ray'

As you may have been able to tell from the bevy of Batman-centric reviews I've been posting here on Psychobabble this month, the Caped Crusader's 75th Anniversary has infected DC, WB, and other holders of Batman properties with a serious case of Batman fever lately. The crown jewel of all these wonderful toys is the release of William Dozier's brilliant live-action series on home video for the very first time. Why Batman: The Complete Television Series is only zapping into shops now is a complicated conundrum worthy of The Riddler, and it's been detailed elsewhere. So let's just skip ahead to how Warner Brothers did with this landmark blu-ray box.

Full disclosure: I have not watched every single one of the 120 episodes it contains. Doing so would mean this review wouldn't get posted until sometime in mid-2015. Based on the ones I've watched so far, the series looks better than it ever did and certainly better than its makers ever intended. You can count the bristles of Cesar Romero's mustache under all that Joker make up. Actually, everyone looks pretty heavily done up here with fake tans that probably registered as a healthy skin tone on crappy 1966 TVs. But obvious facade is a big part of Batman's humor, so it all works toward the show's grand joke. The primary-color palette pops like a bat-punch to the bat-face. Batman and Robin's capes look so silkily tactile you'd swear you could reach through the screen and snatch them off the dynamic duo.
One down note is that there is the occasional missing element, the most glaring of which are the absence of the tag at the end of the "Marsha's Scheme of Diamonds" episode and a brief shot of John Astin in "A Riddling Controversy". Most of the lost bits are bumpers announcing next week's villains that will probably only be lamented by the most hardcore batfans. (*Information about WB's disc replacement program can be found here)

We do get a nice array of extras, including a half-hour doc on Adam West that plays like a mini-"E! True Hollywood Story" ("Hanging with Batman"), a piece about tie-in merchandise with lots of toys and costumes to drool over ("Holy Memorabilia Batman"), a doc on the show's comic-book look and attitude ("Batmania Born"), odd sporadic video commentaries by West cut into the first two episodes of the series, a collection of dopey soundbites from cast and crew members of current TV shows ("Na Na Na Batman"), and a semi-celebrity fan roundtable discussion mediated by Kevin Smith. Funny, relaxed, and informative, that roundtable was my favorite of the lot. "Batmania Born" is the smartest retrospective of the bunch.

Most of these extras are notable for the participation of Adam West and the absence of his co-stars aside from appearances by Burt Ward and Julie Newmar in "Batmania Born" and very briefly in "Na Na Na Batman". "Hanging with Batman" and "Holy Memorabilia Batman" are marred by a tone too earnest for tributes to a ridiculously fun series. You might want to hit the stop button before a collector starts singing a sappy piano ballad about his toys at the end of "Holy Memorabilia Batman". Unaffected by such matters are a sampling of vintage tidbits that include screen tests and a seven-minute pilot for a "Batgirl" series that didn't happen. Inclusion of the 1974 PSA about the federal equal pay law starring Yvonne Craig and Burt Ward (and an imposter Batman) would have been a really cool addition too. It's not here, but you can always just watch the bad quality version on YouTube.

Finally, we must make mention of the boffo limited edition packaging, which is more notable for a very cool, magnetically sealed box complete with Neal Hefti-theme-song playing button than any of the trinkets inside. The grooviest of these is probably the Hot Wheels Batmobile, but we also get a neat repro set of Topps' 1966 Batman trading cards. A wafer-thin hardcover book of color photos is less impressive, but when all is said and done, Batman: The Complete Television Series blu-ray is not one of the best home video releases of 2014 for the extras and swag. It's the gorgeously restored presentation of one of the best series of the sixties that makes this a must own. You might want to wait for the inevitably cheaper (though currently way overpriced, for some reason), standard packaging release to arrive before spending your bat dollars though.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Review: 'Millions Like Us: The Story of the Mod Revival 1977-1989'

Paul Weller’s discovery of My Generation was a decisive event for a lot of late-seventies British kids. It was what sparked his obsession with long-dead Mod culture and inspired him to bring its style and sounds back from the dead with his own band, The Jam. That great group that fused the mid-sixties sounds of The Who and Small Faces with the contemporary speed and aggression of punk inspired a whole lot of other kids to kick their own bands into gear. By 1979, the U.K. scene was flooded with bands that fobbed off punk’s tattered fashions and nihilistic attitude for sharp clobber and messages of youthful unity.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Review: The Twilight Time Edition of 'When the Wind Blows'

The current generation may associate nuclear fear with the fifties and early sixties, but it was something we very much continued to live with in the eighties. I remember drills in which I was led out of class to squat down in the hallway with my knees against my chest, because somehow, this would protect a bunch of elementary school kids from a nuclear blast.

Review: 'Haunted Horror: Comics Your Mother Warned You About'

Craig Yoe’s Haunted Horror gathers choice stories from less-remembered fifties horror comics like Voodoo, Worlds of Fear, and Adventures into Darkness. IDW’s hardcover anthology of the series’ first three issues, Haunted Horror: Banned Comics from the 1950s, made a pretty strong case for these comics with their weird stories and weirder artwork. The next few issues gathered in a new volume called Haunted Horror: Comics Your Mother Warned You About aren’t quite as out-there, with stories leaning more heavily on clich├ęs and oddly enough, sports, a topic that doesn’t mix well with horror’s dank atmosphere, and the misogyny of the bowling tale “Night Owl” is more repugnant than its predictable conclusion.

There’s still a good deal to enjoy in this latest volume, particularly in the run of stories that follow those blah sports ones. “Valley of Horror” gets things back on track with a motorist suffering from mistaken identity issues, Jack Cole’s classically morbid artwork, and a welcome dose of humor and imagination. “Dragon Egg” is like a collaboration between Ray Harryhausan and the Crypt Keeper. “Ghoul’s Bride”, with its Lon Chaney-inspired creature, and the vampiric “The Night of Friday the 13th” sport the book’s most striking art. “The Thing from Beyond” has its grossest. “The Improved Kiss” is a truly gruesome mingling of historical and supernatural horrors. The first half of the book has a couple of good pieces too in “Goodbye… World!”, a cuckoo tale of locust-sympathizing space harpies, and “The Devil Puppet”, which features what may be the most evil evil puppet in a long history of evil puppet stories.

Though these non-mother-approved tales are a milder bunch than last year’s banned ones, there’s still plenty to drool over, and as always, IDW packages these tasteless tales in lovingly tasteful fashion.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Review: The Twilight Time Edition of 'Flaming Star'

The things we expect from an Elvis movie—mindless joviality, pretty actresses, mediocre songs—arrive early in Flaming Star. Then just ten minutes in, shocking acts of violence transform it from an Elvis movie into a movie starring Elvis Presley. The title does not refer to a celebrity pop singer; it refers to the flaming star of death, and this western is nothing if not elegiac and serious as a stopped heart.

A hint that this might not be your typical romp with the King of Rock & Roll is dropped in the opening credits when the words “Directed by Don Siegel” flash on the screen. Siegel is renowned for dead-dark stuff like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Killers, and Dirty Harry. He doesn’t let any light shine in no matter who’s starring in his movie, and though Elvis is really part of an ensemble cast in Flaming Star, there’s no question who its star is. As the half-Native American son of a multiracial frontier family, Elvis is clearly the stand out player. He took his work on the film so seriously that he insisted the other unnecessary musical numbers Siegel shot be cut from it.

Elvis is Pacer. He and his family are caught in the middle of a war between white invaders and the Kiowa tribe. Depicted as craven, hot-blooded racists and rapists, the whites want Elvis’s all-white half-brother Clint (Steve Forrest) to fight alongside them. Led by Chief Buffalo Horn (Mexican actor Rodolfo Acosta) and driven by honor and the understanding that the whites intend to wipe them off their own land, the Kiowa believe Pacer should stand with them. The brothers vow loyalty to their family alone until another act of violence impels Pacer to take a side. 

Not only is Flaming Star unusually serious, violent, and light on music for a movie with Elvis Presley, it is uncommonly thoughtful too. The filmmakers clearly side with the Kiowa (and rightfully so) yet they are completely honest about the violence and tragic mistakes either side of any war perpetrates. That honesty extends to the way Siegel shot his film. He curbs the stylized strokes he brought to Body Snatchers and The Killers for a more straight-forward, more realistic approach in Flaming Star. Siegel works with pale daylight exteriors, dim blue nighttime ones, and shadowy interiors, making Flaming Star a sort of color noir without the weird angles.

Twilight Time’s new blu-ray of Flaming Star respects its muted aesthetic with fine clarity, depth, and grain. Film Historians Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman provide an audio commentary in which they discuss Elvis’s movies without pulling punches and relate how the relative commercial failure of Flaming Star ultimately did them a disservice. Interesting to my fellow horror fans is an extended discussion of how Barbara Steele was originally cast for a minor role that ended up going to Barbara Eden (who is quite good). The disc also includes original trailers and an isolated score track.

Review: The Pixies' 'Doolittle 25'

Like Please Please Me, The Velvet Underground & Nico, and Nevermind (which wouldn’t exist without it), Doolittle is an album that launched a thousand bands. It still sounds as disturbing, catchy, crazy, and uniformly perfect as it did 25 years ago—much less a product of its time than those other albums in its influential league. There is nothing indicative of the antiseptic sounds of ’89 in Gil Norton’s raw, organic production, though its original CD release was still in need of a sonic upgrade. Doolittle apparently got that when it and the rest of The Pixies’ catalogue was remastered in 2003. I don’t have that version, so I can’t confirm whether or not 4AD’s new triple-disc deluxe edition is an all-new master or a recycle of the 2003 one (and since nothing in the press material indicates a remaster, I think it might be safe to assume the latter). However, this is still a pretty must-own repurchase of an album that should have already been in your collection for twenty-something years.

Like all really necessary deluxe-edition excesses, Doolittle 25 offers ways to hear some familiar music in fresh and enlightening ways. While the original album occupies disc one, its demos on disc three strip away Norton’s barely-there sheen for an even rawer, even wilder Doolittle; not necessary a better version of an LP I already called perfect (and it can’t be said enough: Doolittle is perfect. It’s perfect), but a good idea of how it would sound on stage. Genuine live recordings can be heard on disc two in the form of a snatch of John Peel sessions that reinterpret some of the material faster, nastier. That second disc also includes all related B-sides, (many also in Peel performances) which are the best original B-sides of The Pixies’ career: “Manta Ray”, “Weird at My School”, “Wave of Mutilation UK Surf”, “Into the White”, and “Dancing the Manta Ray” (though I should note that “Bailey’s Walk” is probably their worst B-side). That these tracks are significantly meatier here than they were on 2001’s anemic sounding Complete B-sides CD leaves no wonder that at least they were remastered for Doolittle 25.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Review: 'The Who Hits 50!'

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only long-time Who fan who was initially perplexed, eventually exasperated, that the most over-compiled band in Rock & Roll was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary with yet another compilation. I was exasperated because The Who’s discography in the U.K. and U.S. is in such a bad state. John Astley and Andy Macpherson’s radical remixes were an interesting experiment in the nineties, but they’ve been the only versions of The Who’s albums in the West for way, way too long. In 2011, Astley remastered those albums, leaving the original mixes intact, for Universal Japan. Finally, The Who’s back catalogue was in shipshape with excellent sound, cool bonus tracks, and respect to the albums we old-timers grew up hearing. A domestic release of these expensive Japanese imports was what I wanted for the fiftieth anniversary, not another greatest hits.

Review: 'The Worst of Eerie Publications'

Here’s some sleazy business: as editor of Eerie Publications during the post-comic code-era, Carl Burgos would just collect a bunch of pre-code comics from obscure titles and have his artists redraw them with new details. That those new details were often primitive splashes of blood or eyeballs squeezing out of sockets was even sleazier. Because these comics were published in black and white and sold on newsstands, the code didn’t get to mess with them, so they could be as nasty as Burgos wanted them to be. And he wanted them to be pretty nasty.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Review: 'DC Comics: A Visual History (Updated Edition)'

Last week I reviewed Matthew Manning’s Batman: A Visual History, which told the story of 75 years of dark knighting through perhaps every issue of DC Comics to feature The Dark Knight and his multitudinous co-stars. Manning patterned his book after another visual history he helped to write four years ago. DC Comics: A Visual History is at once more ambitious and less ambitious than its Batman-focused predecessor. It is more ambitious because it has to cover so many different titles, characters, and genres, and less because that plethora of themes means it can get away without being so exhaustive. Instead of the complete histories of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, The Green Lantern, Hawkman, Hawkgirl, and the rest, we hit the major beats (no surprise that Batman and Superman still dominate).

What I found more interesting than these summarized superhero histories were the ways DC detoured from its defining superhero genre on a very regular basis. The comic mega-company isn’t just a peddler of capes, cowls, and anti-crime crusades. DC has put out a slew of titles covering a slew of genres: cute animal stories for kiddies, preachy religious comics for kids with obnoxiously strict parents, comedy titles starring Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis, ones based on properties as diverse as Hot Wheels toys and Sgt. Bilko, mushy romances aimed at girls, pimply teen comics aimed at the “Archie” set, historical comics, cowboy comics, war comics, horror comics—just about any kind of comic you could think of. DC even dabbled in pop music with a magazine called Teen Beat, which featured The Monkees on its inaugural—and penultimate— cover.

An all-new edition of DC Comics: A Visual History takes the company’s story right up to this past July, and is very much a twin of Batman: A Visual History. It too comes in a heavy slipcase, sports a pocket containing a couple of prints (one of the Dark Knight; one of the Man of Steel), and is lushly illustrated with covers. The format only differs with the inclusion of some very pretty double-page artwork spreads and a timeline that runs throughout the book to give you an idea of what was happening in the real world when Robin first died or Jerry Lewis first landed on the moon.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Review: 'The Rolling Stones from the Vault: L.A. Forum (Live in 1975)'

Ronnie Wood got thrown right in the deep end when he joined The Rolling Stones in 1975. He had a lot to prove as the successor of Mick Taylor, the most classically accomplished musician ever to earn official-Stone status. That Keith Richards was in deep with addiction meant Ronnie had extra weight to pull on his first outing with the band, the Stones’ first tour of the U.S. in three years. With Jagger at center stage it wouldn’t be accurate to say all eyes were on him, but let’s face it, Ronnie had something to prove. Based on his work in the new “From the Vault” DVD, L.A. Forum (Live in 1975), he did a damn good job. Don’t get me wrong, Keith can still play, but he keeps an unusually low profile at this gig. When it’s his turn to step to the mic for “Happy”, he often doesn’t even bother to sing. The majority of the solos fall to Ronnie. When the band leans into “Fingerprint File”, it’s down to the new boy to play the funky bassline Mick Taylor handled on record. Bill Wyman sure couldn’t be expected to play it.

Ronnie stands out on Live in 1975, but he’s still upstaged by spotlight-snatching Jagger and even Billy Preston, who almost seems to be vying for bandleader at times. Kudos to control freak Mick for allowing the keyboardist so much leeway. Perhaps he realized he could use all the help he could get considering Keith’s condition. When the energy starts flagging during the center of this two-hour-and-forty-minute show (there’s an interminable version of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” that utterly fails to capture the recording’s propulsion), it’s Preston who gets it back on groove with performances of his “That’s Life” and “Outa-Space”. From there the Stones ride out the show with a Greatest Hits onslaught that never loses steam again, right up to the transcendent, show-closing version of “Sympathy for the Devil” that finds Mick leading a conga line of dancers and percussionists across the stage.

Not all of Preston’s contributions are stellar. He could have laid off his annoyingly squealing synth on several occasions. Yet he mostly shines in this show, and it’s cool to see a concert movie that isn’t solely owned by Mick for a change. We don’t see much of him, but Charlie Watts really makes his presence felt during this mostly powerful set too.

Eagle Vision’s new DVD release of the L.A. Forum gig sounds damn powerful too. The video is less spectacular, looking a lot like an old VHS bootleg complete with washed out bars running through the screen. The poor video quality actually didn’t do much to affect my enjoyment of this disc though. I guess a good concert is a good concert.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Review: Glyn Johns's 'Sound Man"

Glyn Johns isn’t a household name for anyone but the truest Rock & Roll obsessives. His c.v., however, will blow the most clueless cat’s mind. He has produced, mixed, and engineered recordings for The Beatles, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Marianne Faithfull, Small Faces, Procol Harum, The Move, Traffic, Belly, Del Shannon, The Clash, and too many other artists to mention. While doing his most memorable work during the hedonistic sixties and seventies, he kept his head the whole time, preferring to fraternize with the era’s soberest players –Ian Stuart and Bill Wyman, for example—while putting in his hours with wild children like Keith Moon, John Bonham, and Keith Richards. Johns may be the only guy in the universe who could come away from a day’s work with Marianne Faithfull madly in love with the studio instead of her.

That clear-headedness is very evident in Johns’s new autobiography Sound Man. While his straightness may not always make for the most rocking and rolling reading, he has rubbed shoulders with so many greats that his behind-the-board perspective brings new angles to some old stories. Although he supports the theory that Mick and Keith were always really the producers behind their greatest hits, he admits to being impressed with Andrew Loog Oldham’s work on his first Rolling Stones session, though he doesn’t get too specific about what impressed him. Gear heads expecting a lot of production tips from one of the industry’s best might be disappointed. Johns aims for a broader audience and doesn’t skip over discussions of his most legendary gigs, such as capturing The Beatles during the tension-fraught Get Back sessions or working with Zeppelin on their debut. His minor recollections make these major stories worth retelling, as when he mentions that Paul McCartney wanted him more involved in the process than he was expecting or hilariously recalls showing off Led Zeppelin’s first recordings to Mick Jagger and George Harrison only to be met with confusion and disgust.

Sometimes Johns’s stories do elevate to the mythic level we expect from a Rock & Roll memoire. He reveals Bob Dylan’s plan to make a record with The Beatles and The Stones (!) and chillingly recounts how Small Faces’ manager Don Arden hired thugs to threaten him at gunpoint. Just as often he brings the myths down to earth, as when he describes The Rolling Stones’ utterly tedious recording process. Johns certainly pulls no punches. Pye Records’ A&R man Toy Hatch is “an unpleasant little shit with a massive ego.” The Stones’ “Sing This All Together” is “drivel.” Phil Spector’s version of Let It Be is “the most syrupy load of bullshit” he “ever heard.” So I guess what Sound Man lacks in Rock & Roll wildness it makes up for with a bit of Rock & Roll attitude.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Review:'The Batman Files'

Being the Batman is dangerous work. The dude may have survived uncountable scrapes, but his luck couldn’t hold out forever. He has even died on occasion (of course, no superhero in the comic book world stays dead forever…at least no one as popular as Batman). He thought Dick Grayson did an OK job as his temporary stand in, but not a great one. So Mr. Bats very thoughtfully collected all the information he believes is necessary to be him in a volume called The Batman Files. This over-sized, full-color paperback includes reams of Batman’s personal diaries, newspaper clippings about everything from the murder of his parents to the time Joker shot and paralyzed Batgirl and how he got that T. Rex in his trophy room, dossiers on associates and adversaries from Commissioner Gordon to The Riddler to The Mad Hatter, maps of Gotham, blueprints of the various Batmobiles and Batcopters, and other assorted Batmaterial you might need if you ever put down that damn bag of Doritos, get your ass off the couch, and don the cape and cowl so you can pick up where Bruce Wayne left off.

Originally published in hardcover in 2011, The Batman Files is a bit like two other Batman books I reviewed here recently that were also written by Matthew K. Manning. Like Batman: A Visual History, it’s a big, colorful, and canny canned history of Batman’s life and work (though this one really only goes back to the eighties when people like Frank Miller and Alan Moore made The Dark Knight real, real dark). Like The World According to The Joker, it’s a mostly first-person account of the life of one of Gotham’s most well known residents. The format made sense with The Joker, who always had a problem with keeping his thoughts to himself. It’s more unusual for Batman since he’s so famously taciturn. He really spills his guts in The Batman Files, so if you have no problem with the mythic hero getting slightly demystified, you’ll really dig it. It’s also a great, big, piece of eye candy with all its color artwork and moody black & white sketches (no one is credited as artist, so I’m assuming all of the art has been published previously).  Because it focuses on the most recent incarnation of Batman, which includes a lot of ugly stuff—like that disabling of Batgirl and Miller’s charming brainwave that Cat Woman used to be a hooker—I can’t say it’s a ton of fun. But I guess fun isn’t what contemporary fans want from their Batman. Frankly, I wanted to know what to do the next time King Tut got bonked on the head by a flowerpot.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Review: 'The Doors: Feast of Friends'

In 1968, Jim Morrison's buddy Paul Ferrara accompanied The Doors on tour with his 16mm camera in hand. He shot some footage of the band on stage at the Hollywood Bowl and elsewhere, Jim rapping with an Evangelical minister, and babbling while abusing a grand piano backstage. After the tour, Ferrara cut the footage together and laid over studio versions of "Wild Child", "Moonlight Drive", "Five to One", and "Not to Touch the Earth", finishing the film with a sixteen-minute rendition of "The End" from the Hollywood Bowl. Feast of Friends screened at a few festivals, won an award, and then went missing only to show up on bootleg in the ensuing years.

45 years later Feast of Friends is receiving its first official release as a Blu-ray from Universal/Eagle Vision Entertainment. Doors fans will find quite a bit to interest them on this disc, though not necessarily in the main feature. A lot of the Feast of Friends footage has crept out in various forms through the years, and that version of "The End", which constitutes about a third of the film, can be seen in more meaningful context as part of the Live at the Bowl concert film. The extras on this disc, however, are an intriguing lot, with "Feast of Friends: Encore" consisting of 34 minutes of outtakes that provide a more satisfying glimpse of Morrison's talk with the minister and a fascinating peak at the recording of "Wild Child". If great live footage is what you want, check out The Doors Are Open, a British television documentary that attempts to link the band with some sort of political ideology (and fails since the guys in the group have nothing profound to say), but rips and roars with some really raw live renditions of "When the Music's Over" (a song I generally don't care for but kills here), "Five to One", "The Unknown Soldier", "Spanish Caravan", "Back Door Man", "Hello, I Love You" (with Ray Manzarek on lead vocals), and "Light My Fire" from London's Roundhouse. The songs are intercut with disturbing period footage of police brutality and pontificating politicians. Finally there's a live performance of "The End" recorded for Toronto television before The Doors really broke on through. It is tremendously riveting despite the band's self-censoring of the song's iconic Oedipal pantomime.

On the video front, Feast of Friends is the only feature that has really been subjected to a clean up. Significant blemishes are absent, but so is fine detail. The other pieces are fairly scratched up, but you won't care as much since they're so much more fun to watch.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Review: 'The World According to The Joker'

That Joker. He sure does get a bad rap, even though more than a few Bat fans, such as your humble reviewer (that means me), find him more fascinating than the ostensible hero of Batman comics, films, TV shows, etc. Well, the Clown Prince of you-know-what is finally getting his chance to tell his side of the story with a little help from ghost-writer Matthew K. Manning (who has been a very busy boy lately). 

So what do we learn in The World According to The Joker? Well, we finally pin down the details of his childhood as the vengeful son of an abusive low-income dad. No, wait a minute. His parents were millionaires, and he was the product of upper-class neglect. Hmmm, maybe there are a few holes in his story. If nothing else, we can be clear that The Joker has nothing but contempt for peers such as The Penguin, Cat Woman, and Poison Ivy, and something approaching a crush on his caped and cowled arch-nemesis. Oh, old softy! 

Since our narrator isn't exactly the reliable kind, we get some bonus insights from the shrinks who've tried to break through his emerald cranium. Dr. Harleen Quinzel actually isn't much help since she's apparently just as smitten with The Joker as he is with Batman. Come to think of it, Dr. Jeremiah Arkham isn't much help either, since he doubts basically everything Joker says but doesn't have much to say about what he thinks the real story is. So we're left with a lot of rambling and raving as Joker cracks jokes, unveils fashion statements he rejected before settling on his iconic purple zoot suit, and boasts about his own wonderful toys: his joker gas, Jokergyro, deadly squirting flowers and joy buzzers, etc.

So you don't feel cheated by the lack of answers about the Joker enigma, the kind publishers of The World According to The Joker have sneaked all kinds of detachable goodies into its colorful pages: a genuine Joker playing card, a poster for a comedy show he performed before becoming a criminal super genius, a "Humdinger Laughing Gas" recipe card, an ad for Joker Fish, a mini-poster of the book cover, and all those skeptical post-it notes from Dr. Arkham. A spinning wheel depicting different ways one might kill Robin, a Where's Waldo-style "spot the Robin" game", and a real, working full-length mirror (for very, very small people) are not detachable, but they're just as fun as all the other stuff in The Joker's world.

Review: 'Scared to Get Happy: A Story of Indie-Pop 1980-1989'

The British punk movement of the late seventies was just the thing to flush out pop’s veins. But as brilliant as it was, punk had its limitations, and the genre’s most enduring acts—The Clash, The Damned, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Jam, etc.—quickly went in interesting directions that led them far from their lo-fi, two-chord origins when the eighties began.

At that very time, a new movement was born in Britain, one that picked up on punk’s minimalism and lack of fidelity, but didn’t necessarily share its sneering attack. If it was sometimes as nihilistic as punk, it was a lot more resigned about it. In years to come, this movement would be known as indie-pop and its guiding light that never goes out was The Smiths (who, like the original punks, absolutely worshipped The New York Dolls). While The Smiths’ influence is very detectable in many of the 134 tracks on last year’s Scared to Get Happy: A Story of Indie-Pop 1980-1989, and that title certainly seems to suggest a rather dour affair, you’d be wrong to think this box set was just a great, big, five-disc mope. In fact, there is a thrilling variety of styles and moods dancing inside this wonderful sampler. “Getting Nowhere Fast” by Girls At Our Best! is punk by any definition of the term. “The Jet Set Junta” by the divine Monochrome Set has a spaghetti western under taste and is as danceable as the best of sixties garage rock. Jane’s a cappella “It’s a Fine Day” is a defining example of twee. There’s psychedelia, Latin rhythms, hypno-noise, loungey crooning, jangling, jingling, and jostling.

The selection is also smart because while the point of sets like this is always to turn you on to obscure artists like Girls at Our Best! Grab Grab the Haddock, Close Lobsters, Gol Gappas, and Bad Dream Fancy Dress (who may win the best track award with their insane, genre-hoping freak show “Choirboys Gas [Hack the Cassock]”), there are enough familiar artists—The Jesus & Mary Chain, Josef K, Everything But the Girl, Pulp, Aztec Camera, Television Personalities, Primal Scream, Stone Roses, Inspiral Carpets, The La’s— to provide numerous paths in. Even cooler, most of these groups are represented by obscure early, demo, and live tracks, so there’s always something to discover.

The only knock against Scared to Get Happy is its allegedly innovative packaging, which requires you to pull required a visit to a YouTube video in order to figure out how to get the discs out of the damn box. Make sure you watch that video, kids, and be very, very careful. These are discs you do not want to scratch.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Review: 'The Rolling Stones from the Vault: Hampton Coliseum (Live in 1981)'

The Rolling Stones U.S. tour of 1981 will be familiar to a lot of people because it’s the one Hal Ashby documented in his concert film Let’s Spend the Night Together. Mick’s in his kneepads, neon, and cherry picker phase. Keith is off smack and looking pretty good. Stu’s behind the piano for his last time with the Stones. Tattoo You has just come out. The arenas are huge and the show is loooong. Ashby documented The Rolling Stones as they’d be from there on out. They were now crowd-pleasing pros far removed from the ragged marauders they were in their vital early years and even the punk posing of the much more recent Some Girls concerts.

But wait. Mick’s still affecting his Cockney stance and dropping politically incorrect (and stupid) asides about Turkish taxi drivers and fucking girls as cold as ice cream cones. The polished professionalism evaporates for a shambling run-through of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” that sounds like it’s about to disintegrate at any moment. A guy charges at Mick during the final song of the set—the ever-predictable “Satisfaction”—and Keith unpredictably whips off his guitar and beats the hapless intruder. It’s one of the last shocking moments in a career of many.

These wild moments were reserved for a show Ashby shot on December 18th at Virginia’s Hampton Coliseum. Had he used that show instead of the other ones he used in Let’s Spend the Night Together, he would have had a much more exciting, much less rote movie on his hands. But you can now see all two-and-half hours of it on Eagle Vision’s new blu-ray Hampton Coliseum (Live in 1981), the latest installment of the Stones’ ongoing “from the vault” closet cleaning. Look, this isn’t Gimme Shelter or anything, but it is surprising to see the Stones putting on such a supremely watchable and listenable show at a time after a lot of fans believe the fire had gone out of the band. This release was kind of misrepresented three decades ago when some of its audio was pulled for the lackluster live album Still Life and a couple of the songs Ashby shot, “Going to a Go-Go” and “Time Is on My Side”, went into heavy rotation on MTV. Those are not among the best performances in this set, though it is very nice to see the guys dipping back into their past after spending so much of the seventies pretending the only record they’d cut before “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” was “Satisfaction”. They’re clearly keener to play more recent things like “Let Me Go”, “Shattered”, and “Neighbors”, which are among the best performances here.

Hampton Coliseum (Live in 1981) presents the show with good sound, but the video quality is less impressive. Detail is minimal to the point that it almost looks shot on video (and for the record, some elements of the “Beast of Burden” performance must have been missing, because the movie suddenly looks like an ancient VHS tape for a few minutes). There are no extras aside from a booklet essay.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Review: 'Batman: A Visual History'

Batman must have passed through more dark, goofy, and weird incarnations than any other major superhero. Forget Tim Burton's blockbuster visions and Chris Nolan's grim, gritty, mumbling version of The Dark Knight. Forget the forties serials with its saggy-pajamas wearing Batman who battled racist stereotypes. Forget the camp sixties series (just briefly, of course; then you should remember it again because it's awesome). Batman changed almost constantly in his key medium. On the pages of D.C. comics, Batman might be a nasty customer who thought nothing of gunning down a crook or a colorfully rendered goof dueling with aliens and monsters or a disturbed dude dealing with a Joker who does horrible things Bill Finger never would have envisioned seventy five years ago. It's really hard to keep track of it all, which is why Matthew K. Manning's new book Batman: A Visual History is a necessary research tool.

I'm not certain what percentage of Batman comics are covered in this book, because Batman appeared in a lot of comics. But there are a lot in here. Manning uses this wealth of material to tell Batman's story on page in a very satisfying way. The character's major innovations, historical milestones, and transformations earn multi-paragraph summaries with half-page reprints of the relevant comic's cover art. Tales of secondary importance are told in single-paragraph summaries alongside quart-page cover reproductions. The rest are given single-sentence descriptions sans art. The essential series (Batman, Detective Comics, The Brave and the Bold, World's Finest Comics, Justice League of America, etc.) are featured with oddities like guest appearances by Batman or his co-stars in Wonder Woman, Swamp Thing and Richard Dragon: Kung-Fu Fighter, as well as co-star-centric titles like Nightwing, The New Teen Titans, and Man-Bat.Through it all, Batman befriends Superman and punches dinosaurs, Alfred transcends his bumbling origins, Robins die, The Joker disables Batgirl, Batman dies, and he and his multitudinous co-stars are given more varying and contradictory origin stories than you can count. Strange trivia arises (I had no idea screenwriter Leigh Brackett, who famously worked on The Big Sleep and The Empire Strikes Back, wrote for Batman in 1953!). Strange supporting players too (The Condiment King... a guy who shoots guns loaded with spicy mustard!).

But let's not merely focus on the "history" aspect of this visual history. That visual component plays an integral part in this book's success too, as each over-sized page is stuffed with covers and blown-up art details. Sometimes this doesn't work well, with details from early comics blown up so huge that the quality degeneration makes them look like blurry stained glass, but most are good quality. The packaging is excellent quality: a hardback book housed in a heavy slip case and furnished with a pocket containing a couple of prints depicting the art on the slipcase and book covers. A very nice package and important addition to any Bat library overall.

All written content of is the property of Mike Segretto and may not be reprinted or reposted without permission.