Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Review: 'Wrapped in Plastic: Twin Peaks'

ECW's new Pop Classics series is another in the vogue-ish vein of ultra-mini pop culture lines like Continuum's 33 1/3 books, Wallflower Press' Cultographies, and Auteur's Devil's Advocates. Unlike those lines that specifically home in on albums, cult movies, and horror movies, respectively, Pop Classics is broader in its focus, its first titles covering comics (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles),  cult feature films (Showgirls), and cult TV. The first title devoted to the latter is Andy Burns's Wrapped in Plastic: Twin Peaks. The timing for this book may seem perfect since there's so much resumed interest in David Lynch and Mark Frost's groundbreaking series amidst a recent high-profile blu-ray release, and more improbably, the announcement that season three is in the works, but it's actually slightly unfortunate since that resumed interest means a new flood of very in-depth writing about the series, best exemplified by Brad Dukes's superb Reflections: An Oral History of Twin Peaks

In contrast, Burns's book is a pretty basic, 100-page introduction to the series that probably won't teach hardcore "Peaks" fans much they don't already know. He covers the basic genesis of the series and how it broke conventions of Network TV storytelling and how its aftershocks can be felt in series from "Northern Exposure" and "Picket Fences" through "Psych" and "Hannibal". There are some interesting tidbits that come through in the interviews Burns conducted with alumni such as actor Dana Ashbrook (who gives some fascinating background on Bobby Briggs's poignant conversation with father Major Briggs in the season two premier), actress Kimmy Robertson (who provides some extra details about what went wrong with the Uli Edel-directed episode), and Secret Diary of Laura Palmer-scribe Jennifer Lynch (who offers a very interesting interpretation of BOB's possession of Leland Palmer). Burns also deserves credit for reserving several of his scant pages to exploring how the series dealt with incest. Overall, though, Wrapped in Plastic is really a primer for brand new fans. Fortunately, with the release of that blu-ray and the announcement of season three, there should be plenty of those.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Review: 'The Purple Rose of Cairo' Blu-ray

Woody Allen’s bad personal choices had at least one major artistic ramification: he could no longer collaborate with Mia Farrow. The Purple Rose of Cairo might have been filed with his relatively minor films if not for her (though, to be fair, her presence didn’t rescue Broadway Danny Rose or Alice from that file). Her performance as Cecilia, a Depression-era victim of domestic abuse who finds solace escaping into movies—or specifically, one particular movie called The Purple Rose of Cairo—elevates the film of the same name to one of Allen’s very best.

The magical conceit is that the movie ends up escaping into Cecilia’s world when minor character Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) takes notice of the woman who keeps coming to see his movie and decides to step off the screen to be with her. The brilliance of the conceit is that there is no question about whether or not this is Cecilia’s fantasy; it is not and we see the hilarious ways the film’s other characters (who, we are told, are not human), producers, and audiences deal with Baxter’s strange leap. Meanwhile, the character expects the real world to function as smoothly as the movies. He’s baffled when he tries to escape from a restaurant where he tried to pay for dinner with phony movie money by getting behind the wheel of a random car that does not automatically start up as soon as he presses the gas.

This is basically Woody Allen’s take on the popular eighties trope of an alien falling in love with a normal person (see Starman, Splash, E.T., etc.), and it plays out with the director’s signature pathos, humor, and honesty—he may love those old Hollywood movies as much as Cecilia does, but like her he ultimately refuses to accept escapism as a viable way to live. Yet it is Farrow who truly sells the conceit with Cecilia’s wide-eyed openness, infectious love of the movies, and underlying sadness. Annie Hall may be Allen’s best movie, and Bananas may be his funniest, but The Purple Rose of Cairo is my favorite. It comes to blu-ray from Twilight Time, though the film’s soft, sepia aesthetic is not the greatest for showcasing the wonders of hi-def. Still, the disc looks true to the film and is only occasionally invaded by a white speck or two. As usual for Twilight Time, there is an isolated music score track, and as usual for a Woody Allen home video, there are no other extras.

Get The Purple Rose of Cairo blu-ray on Screen here.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Review: 'The Bride Wore Black' Blu-ray

Francois Truffaut was one of cinema’s key filmmakers and one of its key students and critics. He had already showed off that first hat with The 400 Blows, Shoot the Piano Player, Jules and Jim, and Fahrenheit 451 and the second and third ones with his work for Cahiers du Cinema, in which he posited the auteur theory, by the time he made The Bride Wore Black in 1967. Here Truffaut’s art and his obsession with the art of another—namely Alfred Hitchcock—gel in a film that begins as winking homage before developing into something more personal.

When The Bride Wore Black (based on a novel by William Irish, who also wrote “It Had to Be Murder”, which Hitch adapted into Rear Window) begins by showing generally mundane images set to Bernard Herrmann’s overwhelming and overwhelmingly recognizable score, it’s as if Truffaut is trying to shove a signifier of Hitchcock’s most melodramatic scenes into scenes nearly devoid of melodrama despite the fact that the woman on screen tries to kill herself at one point.

That woman is Julie Kohler (Jeanne Moreau), who soon sets about her own obsessive mission by insinuating herself into the lives of various men and killing them. Her motive remains a mystery for a quarter of the film, but since the title of the movie is The Bride Wore Black, I don’t feel like I’m spoiling too much by saying she’s on a mission of revenge against the creeps she blames for her groom’s death.

While Truffaut seems to drop clues about his movies’ apparent main influence (we see such locations of iconic Hitchcock scenes as a schoolyard, a speeding train, and a concert hall), Julie differs from the mass of Hitch’s charming main characters because she is a husk (it is telling that she shares a surname with the similarly emotion-drained title character of Shoot the Piano Player). She carries on with her grim mission devoid of emotion, something that could not be said of even sketchy characters like Norman Bates and Marnie Edgar. This means The Bride Wore Black is not as fun to watch as your average Hitchcock movie, but maybe revenge, murder, and soul-destroying grief are not supposed to be fun (or maybe they are—just see how Quentin Tarantino reshaped this movie’s premise into Kill Bill). It is, however, a suspense film worthy of the master when obstacles such as an unexpected visit from a redheaded model, a sweet little boy, and even the possibility that she may have found a new love fall into Julie’s vengeful path. These are the film’s most powerful moments.

I’ve been wanting to see The Bride Wore Black ever since I saw Kill Bill ten years ago. It’s finally available on blu-ray via Twilight Time, and in a beautiful transfer with strong blacks, strong color (though this is not a strikingly colorful movie), and strong grain. Supplementing the film (presented in both subtitled and English dubbed versions—the dubbed one contains different musical cues) is a commentary by film historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman and Herrmann biographer Steven C. Smith. Smith’s presence puts a lot of the focus on the score, and he discusses the clashes between Hermann and Truffaut over the director’s choices in this film—as well as Herrmann’s clashed with Hitchcock. Kirgo tries to pull the focus away from Hitchcock, whose influence she does not see as strongly in the film as a lot of other commentators do, and discusses the more meaningful role gender dynamics play in the film. There is also a supplementary CD featuring a 79-minute interview with Bernard Herrmann that spotlights the composer’s short temper. The blu-ray disc’s isolated score track spotlights his art.

Get The Bride Wore Black on here.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Review: 'Tom Sutton's Creepy Things'

Perhaps you know him as Sean Todd, or more fittingly, Dementia or Grisly, but no matter what name he drew under, Tom Sutton was at the forefront of seventies horror comics largely because of his black and white work on Vampirella. Yoe Books/IDW’s new anthology, Tom Sutton’s Creepy Things, mostly focuses on his color work for titles such as Ghostly Haunts, Haunted, Ghost Manor, Midnight Tales, Haunted Love, and yes, Creepy Things (oddly the source of only one story in this collection). As it turns out, Sutton’s work was just as effectively goopy and kooky in color as it was in black and white. His style, which takes Graham Ingels’s signature ooze to nearly abstract levels, always works best when he was rendering ghouls, corpses, and creeps. His humans, particularly the ones he intended to look attractive, are often awkwardly drawn, sometimes distorted. This might not necessarily be a flaw though, as it leaves even his most “normal” panels looking unsettlingly abnormal. And Sutton had little patience for normality. Although he didn’t write everything in Tom Sutton’s Creepy Things, each of its stories reflects his innate weirdness. The book collects a nutso tale about a murderous teddy bear, one written from the grave’s point of view (and featuring some of the finest art in this book), one about the ghost of a hypocritical temperance advocate who finds himself a new drinking buddy, a nonsensical monster rally intent on cramming in references to every classic movie and literary monster you can think of, and a twisted twist on Richard Matheson’s “Twilight Zone” episode, “A World of His Own”. The book gets even weirder when Sutton works outside of the horror genre on the sci-fi fantasy “Lost in Transit”, the prehistoric sci-fi sci-fi fantasy “Goo”, the time-hopping sword-and-sandal fantasy “Journey to Lost Orlaak”, the hilarious fairy tale “The Tower Maiden”, and the adventure yarn “The Kukulkaton”, starring a sleazy, racist proto-Indiana Jones. In the final tale, “Through a Glass Darkly”, Sutton’s psychedelic B&W art and metaphysical, Lovecraftian storytelling are nothing short of sublime. All of this makes for one of Yoe/IDW’s very best anthologies yet.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Review: 'Swampmen: Muck-Monsters and Their Makers!'

In 1940, Theodore Sturgeon published an atmospheric, highly unsettling story about a murderous mass of swamp vegetation called “It” in Unknown magazine. Sturgeon’s career would continue to blossom, adding such achievements as the script for the classic “Star Trek” episode “Amok Time” and inspiring Kurt Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout to his résumé. The swamp creature would go on to have an even more flourishing life. Shortly after the publication of “It”, The Heap oozed across patriotic Airboy comics. In the sixties, seventies, and eighties, muck monsters like the Lurker in the Swamp, Bog Beast, Marvin the Dead-Thing, Man-Thing, a revived Heap, and especially, Swamp Thing were sprouting up in every comic brand worth its salt.

Swampmen: Muck-Monsters and Their Makers!, the sixth installment of The Comic Book Creator series, doesn’t get too deeply into why swamp monsters caught on the way they did (I think it has to do with both our fear of primordial swamp environments and the way such isolated places serve as pathways to exploring our own feelings of isolation), but it doesn’t skimp on anything else about these unique creatures. This text-thick, completely illustrated edition features a detailed and critical timeline of muck monsters in the comics, full-color pin-ups, the full text of Sturgeons “It”, biographies of the half-dozen-or-so major muckers, and a series of very in-depth interviews with monster makers such as Len Wein, Alan Moore, and Bernie Wrightson (Swamp Thing), Steve Gerber and Val Mayerik (The Man-Thing). Rather than being mere page-filler, these interviews are consistently fascinating, whether Wein offers his brief but thought-provoking take on the appeal of swamp monsters, Wrightson gets into his Monster Kid childhood, or Moore waxes philosophical about his Swamp Thing contributions and handles some no-punches-pulled questions graciously (although it is off topic, I was hoping hed discuss The Killing Joke a bit too, but he doesnt). While Swampmen doesn’t hesitate to take its bizarre topic seriously, there is almost always a sense of fun purveying this colorful, informative, artful, and intelligent volume.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Review: '1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music'

The title of Andrew Grant Jackson’s new book, 1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music, made my eyebrows rise. Really? 1965? Sure, it was the year Dylan went electric and the Stones lamented their lack of satisfaction, but wouldn’t 1968—the year of “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”, “Street Fighting Man”, Electric Ladyland, the formation of Led Zeppelin, the release of the first LP-length rock opera (S.F. Sorrow), and well, “Revolution” — be more apt? Or how about 1967, the year of Sgt. Pepper’s, The Velvet Underground & Nico, the Summer of Love, Monterey Pop, Motown going psychedelic, and Paul McCartney going on TV to say he’s done acid? Or maybe even 1966 with its Revolver and Pet Sounds and Blonde on Blonde and Aftermath.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Review: 'Howard Nostrand’s Nightmares'

Howard Nostrand brought artistry to non-E.C. horror comics like Chamber of Chills and Witches Tales by consciously copying E.C.’s greatest artist, Jack Davis. The approach was contrived, but it worked because Nostrand’s stories were utterly bizarre in ways that E.C.’s often-formulaic morality and thing-rises-from-the-grave tales rarely were. There is a child’s rambling logic to things like “Zodiac”, in which a pair of astrologers conjure zodiac icons to do their evil bidding, “Search for Evil”, in which a Crypt Keeper lookalike brings a mad scientist’s “see no evil, hear no evil” monkey statues to life to procure victims for his experiments, and “TerrorVision”, in which a space octopus forces some dudes to build a TV. In pieces such as the corpse-narrated “The Lonely” he approached E.C.’s yucky gruesomeness and did the same for its intelligence and humor with the vampire-narrated “I, Vampire” (while also using vamps as metaphors for prejudice half-a-century before “True Blood”).

And as much as artists Sid Jacobson and Craig Yoe underline Davis’s influence in their introductory essays to the new anthology Howard Nostrand’s Nightmares, Nostrand had an eye for detail that was all his own. Marvel at the intricacy of the opening splash panel of “The Rift of the Maggis” before guffawing at the gleeful nastiness of the story that follows. And when Nostrand out-and-out rips off E.C., as he does when employing that comics’ trademark first-person pov device or redrawing its most famous character in “Zodiac”, you at least have to admit that the guy was smart enough to steal from the very best.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Review: 'Be Stiff: The Stiff Records Story'

The pop landscape had changed radically in the ten years leading up to 1976. With albums such as Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s, The Beatles had officially done away with the single as pop’s primary medium, ushering in an era of often overly-serious long players, possibly elevating pop to high-art, possibly helping to erase some of its intrinsic fun. We all know what happened in the seventies with the rise of progressive rock, that favorite bugaboo of rock and roll purists. While I believe the ill effects and, well, crappiness of prog have been highly exaggerated (and I’ll admit, it has often been exaggerated by me here on Psychobabble for no other reason than making fun of prog— quite a bit of which I really dig— is fun), I also believe pop really did need a high colonic around ’76.

It got that with two major events: the arrival of calculatedly “dumb” punk rock and an even more calculating new record label that consciously established itself as everything mainstream rock no longer was. Founded by brilliant iconoclasts/wise asses Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera, Stiff Records took a great, big whiz on the seriousness and ponderousness of current rock by returning the focus to singles with humor that might have made Rick Wakeman hide under his spangled cape. This was the label that had the great bolshie yarblockos to adopt “The King Is Dead, Long Live the King!” as a slogan promoting Elvis Costello mere days after Presley bit the dust. Less controversially they issued an LP called The Wit and Wisdom of Ronald Reagan, which naturally contained forty minutes of total silence. Robinson and Riviera were also reverent record lovers who understood that their fellow geeks would drool over limited edition, colored vinyl, ingeniously designed (most notably by legendary house artist Barney Bubbles) packages. Every indie label worth its salt followed suit.

Robinson and Riviera knew well the benefits of publicity bad and good, but they also knew that artists who don’t don superhero costumes and play half-hour Hammond organ solos need nurturing and exposure too. Thus, Stiff became home to some of the best and truest artists of late-seventies/early eighties pop— Costello, Nick Lowe, The Damned, Madness, Lene Lovich, The Adverts, Devo, etc.—if only before they passed on to bigger labels.

Richard Balls’s new book Be Stiff: The Stiff Records Story is half great because it serves as a series of biographies outlining the early careers of such significant artists and half great because it’s so fun to read about all the outrageousness of and surrounding Stiff. One of the book’s weirdest tales involves Virgin Records founder Richard Branson getting Devo baked so he could ambush them with a surprise request from Johnny Rotten. One of its funniest involves Rod Stewart sabotaging Lou Reed on Ian Dury’s behalf. Perhaps its most shocking revelation is recording engineer Bazza’s declaration that The Damned recorded their anarchic debut album as “well behaved young gentleman.” Now that’s outrageous!

Review: 'Recovering 1940s Horror Cinema: Traces of a Lost Decade'

The 1920s and 1930s were watershed years for horror cinema as they were for all cinema. The twenties saw silent horror rise around the world with abandoned artistry. The thirties saw the genre’s tropes come into focus at Hollywood’s Universal Studios. That decade’s horror explosion turned to an implosion with the arrival of World War II’s very real horrors and the MPAA’s censorship crackdowns. This left forties horror seemingly out of focus with its plethora of relatively benign sequels, “Poverty Row” cheapies, and hard-to-categorize realistic pictures residing in the twilight zone between horror and noir. The apparent lack of full-blooded, truly artistic horror cinema during the forties often leaves the genre getting a bad critical rep—or even ignored—in discussions of horror and forties cinema.

Recovering 1940s Horror Cinema: Traces of a Lost Decade collects seventeen new essays that reevaluate a period too often maligned or shrugged off. What the writers uncover might cause horror fans to rethink both the standing of our favorite genre during the forties and what constitutes a horror picture. Writer Kristopher Woolfer acknowledges the blurriness of this period by noting how, in the forties, horror as pulpy as House of Dracula had become more reality based— with its vampire and werewolf seeking scientific cures for their monstrousness— and how drama as reality-based as the pseudo bio-pic Citizen Kane borrowed Gothic horror tropes liberally. Peter Marra further forces us to rethink how horror hid in the forties by designating Bluebeard, The Lodger, Hangover Square, The Leopard Man, and The Spiral Staircase as proto-slasher pictures—right down to their sexually motivated killings— released decades before the usually identified year-zero pictures, Psycho and Peeping Tom. Meanwhile, filmmaker Anne Golden acknowledges that a movie such as The Spiral Staircase does not have to adhere to a single genre, and can exist just as reasonably in the shadows of horror as it can in those of the avant-garde. Even more fascinatingly, Ian Olney locates a previously hidden stream of proto-feminist horror pictures during the era (while cheating a bit by bleeding into the fifties). Mario DeGiglio-Bellemare argues that The Body Snatcher contradicts Val Lewton’s reputation for overly restrained “horror of the unseen” pictures with one that he sees as falling in line with the Grand-Guignol tradition (the writer avoids discussing the graphic gore for which the theater is best known since Lewton’s production obviously has none of that). Mark Janovich tries to boost the reputation of forties horror by calling attention to the work of two of Hollywood’s biggest icons—Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson—in the genre.

This book lacks a serious reevaluation of Universal’s horrors of the forties, which included enough unfairly over looked pictures—The Mummy’s Hand, Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, House of Frankenstein—to warrant their own explorations. Too often, Universal’s movies cast in minor comparative roles throughout these pieces. But perhaps Universal’s horrors have been handled as a whole enough times that this gap is excusable. Meanwhile, some of the best horrors of this period—Dead of Night and The Uninvited, to name a couple—are never even mentioned. That is more than a little curious, but even without such key pictures, these essays still manage to reveal how varied, evolving, influential, and present horror remained in this so-called “lost decade.” As should be expected of a book of this sort, a couple writers (Woolfer, Cory Legassic) bury their arguments beneath a slag heap of academic jargon , but the vast majority of these essays are as lucid and pleasurable to read as they are thought provoking… and Kier-La Janisse’s study of the appeal of the horror comedies of the East End Kids for real kids is downright fun.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Review: Expanded Editions of The Mascots' 'Your Mascots' and 'Ellpee'

Garage rock aficionados know The Mascots because of “Words Enough to Tell You”, a romantic jangler that earned a spot on Rhino’s Nuggets II: Original Artyfacts from the British Empire and Beyond box set. Aside from that one track, they’re pretty obscure outside of Sweden, apparently because they weren’t too concerned about international success. At home, they were considered a Scandinavian Beatles, though The Zombies seemed to have had an equally heavy influence on the band. Their debut album, Your Mascots, blended the Fabs’ buoyancy with The Zombies’ sullenness for a sound a lot like the early Beau Brummels. They were actually darker than any of those groups. Even Lennon hadn’t written anything as nasty as “I hope that this is forever goodbye / I hope that you forever will die” (“Goodbye”) at this point in his career (though he would pretty soon with “Run for Your Life”) and Harrison never sounded as dour as The Mascots do on the pitch-black “For Him”. On a version of Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business” sung with the blinding speed of the guy from the Micro Machines commercials, The Mascots just sound crazy. All of this makes for one of the most interesting pseudo-Mersey Beat records of 1965.

Review: Vinyl Reissues of Four Beatles Compilations

1966 was the first year The Beatles released only one LP. Since Revolver came out in mid-summer, this meant there’d be no new Beatles product for the Holiday spending season for the first time since With The Beatles appeared in November 1963. Parlophone took care of this by issuing the UK’s first official Beatles compilation, A Collection of Beatles Oldies. International comps would not appear until 1973 with the releases of two double-albums devoted to the 1962-1966 and 1967-1970 eras. Although Allen Klein compiled the so-called “Red” and “Blue” albums as counterattacks against an unsanctioned As-Seen-on-TV collection called Alpha Omega, they have become integral components of The Beatles’ discography. A lot of future Beatlemaniacs (such as your humble narrator) cut their teeth on these four records and went on to pick up everything else the band put out, both because they highlighted the high quality that surely lurked in every groove on every proper Beatles record and because they had so many gaps. The songs I knew from regular radio rotation that weren’t on 1962-1966 (“Twist and Shout”, “Good Day Sunshine”, “Do You Want to Know a Secret”, “I Saw Her Standing There”, “Got to Get You Into My Life”, “I’m a Loser”, “I Should Have Known Better”) or 1967-1970 (“When I’m 64”… ummm, there were way fewer of them on the second collection) forced me to hunt down A Hard Day’s Night and The Early Beatles and Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s, and I am forever grateful to Allen Klein for that (and only that) reason.

Even with the whole Beatles collection in hand, these first two major compilations are still great listens for those rare days when I just hanker for the hits. No, they are not perfect. Why is nearly half of Rubber Soul on the first collection but there are only two tracks from the superior Revolver? Why was that awful, echo-saturated version of “I Feel Fine” included on 1962–1966?  Why weren’t there any liner notes?

Capitol/Ume’s all-new vinyl reissues of these key compilations fix some of those issues. “I Feel Fine” doesn’t have all that echo. Liner notes that presumably first appeared in the CD reissues are included on large cards. Naturally, the track line-ups remain the same because you just don’t monkey that much with history unless your last name is Lucas and your first name is George. That’s fine by me. After all, Rubber Soul is very good.

The big news for Beatles vinyl aficionados is that like the recent Mono box set, the 54 mostly stereo recordings on these new editions of 62-67 and 67-70 were culled from the analogue masters, which means that you won’t hear the stereo mixes sounding better anywhere else on new vinyl. They are louder and deeper than the digital remasters from 2009, which you can hear on the Stereo box set or in much smaller doses on another compilation newly issued on vinyl.

1 was released in 2000 as a budget solution to anyone who somehow managed to not be so enchanted by the Fabs to want their entire output— or at least the more inclusive 62-66 and 67-70 collections. Gathering all the band’s British and American number-one hits in one place is a logical approach to compiling The Beatles onto a single disc, but it leaves some pretty brutal holes in the story while making room for songs that simply aren’t among their very best. “All You Need Is Love”, “The Long and Winding Road”, “Love Me Do”, and “From Me to You” are here, but “Strawberry Fields Forever”, “A Day in the Life”, “In My Life”, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, and “Here Comes the Sun” are not. Of course, altering the concept for this vinyl reissue would not make a lick of sense, but I’m not quite sure why Capitol decided to go with those 2009 digital remasters instead of the analogue ones used on the “Red” and “Blue” albums. So for song selection and sound, you’re way better off saving your pennies until you’re able to afford the reissues of those 1973 collections instead of settling for 1 even if you’re barely interested in The Beatles… unless you really want the full-size poster depicting picture sleeves from around the world that comes with it, which I admit is really fab.

I’m not exactly sure who the audience for Love is. Is it for Beatles completists who can’t stand the idea of not hearing their favorite band in every weird configuration imaginable? Is it for people who don’t think The Beatles are that great and could use a lot of unnecessary modernizing? I appreciate the amount of skill it takes to make a “mash up” and George and son Giles Martin do pretty good jobs mashing “Drive My Car” with “What You’re Doing” and “Come Together” with “Dear Prudence” or whatever, but to my ears, Love is really just a novelty to hear once and set aside before cracking back into Revolver for the 3000th time. I suppose the fact that it isn’t just the same old songs in the same old versions is what earned Love a spot among the “canon” compilations while others—Rock and Roll Music, Love Songs, Reel Music, 20 Greatest Hits, even Rarities—have bitten the dust. Whatever the reason, this one is now on double vinyl for the first time too.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Review: 'Boof! The Complete Pussy Cat: 1966-1969'

France’s - girls were known for singing—or often speak-singing—coquettish or girlish lollipop pop and looking cute. Pussy Cat would have none of that. Her stage name was the only cutesy pie thing about Évelyne Courtois, a serious rocker who sang and played guitar in France’s first all-female band, Les Petites Souris, and later drummed in Les Pussy Cat. Moving outside of that band while taking along its name for herself, Pussy Cat performed tough-ass, modish rock and pop, appropriately debuting with a version of “Sha La La La Lee” (“Ce N’Est Pas Une Vie”) that doesn’t hold back any of Small Faces’ bottom-heavy bash. Her attitudinal singing has none of Bardot’s disaffected meow. Stand back when her rage boils over on an electrifying cover of Betty Everett’s “You’re No Good” (“Mais Pourquoi…”).

Having also cut tracks by and popularized by The Hollies, The Moody Blues, Paul Revere and the Raiders, The Ballroom, and Herman’s Hermits (okay…she does have her odd cutesy moment), Pussy Cat eventually distinguished herself as a good songwriter in her own right in the late sixties, though by that point she’d shed a lot of her Rock & Roll hellfire and went in more of an emotive ballad direction. Nevertheless, her rock and pop roots were still very detectable, as when she stole a bit of The Ronettes’ “Walking in the Rain” for “Cette Nuit” or did a pretty good version of The Zombies’ “She’s Not There”.

RPM Records’ Boof! The Complete Pussy Cat: 1966-1969 collects all of Pussy Cat’s sides for her first anthology released outside of France. A couple of unreleased cuts and four Les Petites Souris sides that reveal Courtois had been penning her own material as early as 1965 complete a revelatory portrait of one of France’s most legit rockers.

Review: 'Tod Browning’s Dracula'

I can’t for the life of me find the source, but I believe I read at some point that there’s a scene in Dracula in which the camera remains completely static for six excruciating minutes. It’s the scene in which Mina talks with Van Helsing and Harker on an outdoor lounge about 48 minutes into the film. Every time I re-watch Dracula, which I do at least once a year, I watch the DVD counter during this scene, and every time it falls well short of six minutes. Where do these rumors get started?

This was probably an exaggeration of a more well-traveled accusation that has director Tod Browning allowing his camera to remain still for three minutes in this scene, which is something that has been repeated by no less a Dracula scholar than David Skal. This is untrue too. A dolly-in occurs only seconds into the scene, and a dolly-out ends it. Based on the way dollies frame the scene, it actually seems pretty well planned out and not the lazy blunder a lot of film historians want you to believe it is.

The same can be said of the entire film. While only a fool would argue that the very first sound horror film featuring one of the all-time iconic performances in any genre is not historically important, a lot of critics still argue that Dracula is a slow, talky, music and camera movement-devoid, overacted, underacted, dated bit of piffle that front-loads its only worthwhile scenes in the first two reels. Such criticisms always irk me, because Dracula is my favorite film from Universal’s golden age of monster movies that wasn’t directed by James Whale. I don’t find it slow. I think its “talky” script is swollen with quotable lines. I think Bela Lugosi and Dwight Frye give two of the great horror performances, and I love how the relative lack of music contributes to its atmosphere of quiet, eerie dread.

The bad rep Dracula has developed throughout the years also really irks film historian Gary D. Rhodes. He backs up his belief the film has been unfairly and ignorantly maligned with a mountain of evidence in his new book Tod Browning’s Dracula. Rhodes knows you can’t get too scientific about opinions; if someone doesn’t like a movie, they don’t like it. But he proves that a lot of the reasons critics give for disliking Dracula are simply wrong. Rhodes compares the film to twenty other specimens released around the same time and concludes that its use of camera movement, music, and dialogue are not unusual for its day. This holds true when held against George Melford’s Spanish-language version of Dracula, which historians regularly rate as superior for its more active camera. This is an easy conclusion to repeat, but far more tedious to check. Well, Rhodes did the tedious work, counting the number of camera movements in both films, and guess what… Tod Browning’s Dracula has the more active camerawork and in a far tighter timeframe.

And speaking of Browning, Rhodes is making another point with the title of his book. The author refutes the rumors that Browning barely directed the film, that cinematographer Karl Freund did all the directorial work. He also challenges the often-repeated notion that the film is a faithful adaptation of the Balderston-Dean play and the gossip that Universal never wanted Lugosi for its star.

The misinformation surrounding this film is staggering, and it has sadly played a major role in lessening its standing as a great film. I really hope that will start to change with the publishing of Tod Browning’s Dracula. This is a superior piece of cinematic detective work and a great example of what one can accomplish when one simply does his or her homework. I’m not sure if it will make any of Dracula’s multitudinous haters reevaluate the movie for the better, but I sure hope they’ll at least stop using lies to rake it over the coals. Rhodes’s book is apparently the first installment of Tomahawk Press’ new series about classic horror films. I can’t wait for the next one, and I hope it is written with the same care, attention, and sense of purpose as Rhodes put into his book.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Review: 'Let Them Show You: The Anthology 1964-1967' by The Shanes

Sweden’s The Shanes were absorbing British influence even before The Beatles took their homegrown pop international in 1964. The previous year The Shanes got started as a Shadows-type instrumental band, but started yelping into mics and surfing the Mersey Beat in ’64. Their output that year had an R&B beat but a light approach that was more Beatles (for whom they opened in Stockholm) than Stones. In 1965, they toughened up a lot for some really wild records, such as “I Don’t Want Your Love”, a crazed lift of The Kinks’ early power chorders,  “Crazy County Hop”, which has some of the most eardrum-piercing harmonica squealing on record, and a live version of “Roadrunner” with fiery guitar that would do Townshend or Beck proud. This was The Shanes’ most powerful period as evidenced on Let Them Show You: The Anthology 1964-1967, the band’s first compilation released outside of Sweden. The punchy, maraca-rattling R&B in the center of this disc—much of it pulled from the sophomore LP, The Shanegang— is its bread and butter. The Shane’s odd return to lighter, 1964-style pop in the psychedelic years is a bit confusing and considerably less satisfying (they even rip off Herman’s Hermits with “Chris Craft No. 9”), but there’s still stuff to dig in this period, particularly the moody chamber pop “Like Before”.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

1000th Post: Psychobabble’s 100 Favorite Songs of the Seventies!

It seems like yesterday that Psychobabble hit 900 posts and I posted my very personal 90 favorite songs of the sixties. The next 100 posts went by faster than a convoy of macramé big rigs chugging Billy Beer. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Then you didn’t live through the seventies…not even for the pretty brief period I did. Since I was so young at the time, the decade is a bit of a blur of colors (brown, orange, and puke green) and pop culture litter: Star Wars, “The Incredible Hulk” with Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, Jaws, “WKRP in Cincinnati”, Grease, “The Muppet Show”, Saturday Night Fever, “Welcome Back, Kotter”, Dynamite Magazine. Then there’s the music I remember hearing constantly: Barry Manilow, Starland Vocal Band, Bread, The Carpenters, John Denver, Paper Lace, Anne Murray, The Eagles. But hey, it wasn’t all shit. Hearing a bit of the good stuff by Wings, Fleetwood Mac, or Elton John brings me back to the decade of my youth as assuredly as a sip of Kool-Aid from a C-3PO Dixie Cup. And as I grew up, I discovered all the truly great music that lived elsewhere from the AM dial. Here are 100 of my personal faves gathered tidily in the 1000th post here on Psychobabble!

100. “Do Ya” by The Move or Electric Light Orchestra

We begin with a nod to the Choose Your Own Adventure Series, a staple of school libraries from 1979 on. You are drifting through an arena, surrounded by a fog of doobie smoke. Two doors face you. Which will you choose? Walk through the door to your left, and get your ears blown out by the rampaging Rock & Roll of Roy Wood’s The Move. The sounds pouring through the door to your right are impeccably polished by ex-Move man Jeff Lynne and buoyed by the swooping strings of E.L.O. Unlike a Choose Your Own Adventure book, you will not end up toiling in the salt mines of your giant ant overlords if you pick the wrong door. Either way, you will end up rocking to the mighty “Do Ya”, and either way, it’s dynamite.

99. “Telegram Sam” by T. Rex

There’s no choice this time, because only one man can pick out the slinky riffs sneering over the driving beat of “Telegram Sam”. He is Marc Bolan, and this marriage of nonsense nursery rhymes and white-hot Les Paul-stroking is one of his most magical conjurations. Where can I get me a pair of automatic shoes?

98. “Whole Wide World” by Wreckless Eric

Marc Bolan wants nothing more than to have a good time all the time. Wreckless Eric has more global goals. He wants the girl of his dreams, and he’s will to walk the Earth endlessly to get to her. Songs don’t come more romantic without getting sappy.

97. “The Rain Song” by Led Zeppelin
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