Thursday, March 26, 2015

Review: 'Elvis Is King: Costello’s My Aim Is True'

In my recent review of Pop Classics’ installment on “Twin Peaks”, I mentioned that the new series is yet another in the vein of mini-book lines like Continuum’s 33 1/3. With just the fourth Pop Classics entry, rock journalist Richard Crouse gets even deeper into 33 1/3’s action by devoting his book to a single album. He also shows that increasingly self-indulgent and unsatisfying long-running line how to do it. There’s no pretentious navel-gazing or “how do I fill 100 pages?” tangents in Elvis Is King: Costello’s My Aim Is True. Like that no-bullshit debut album released at the end of a decade infamous for its poses and pomposity, Crouse’s book says what’s necessary in fast, furious fashion, covering Costello’s musical upbringing, his debut’s recording, its marketing, its songs, and subsequent stage and TV support appearances. Never does he lapse into obnoxious and very un-Rock & Roll pseudo-academic blather. Basically, he does what we always want 33 1/3’s writers to do. This isn’t a perfect book— Crouse’s disdain for all Rock & Roll made before 1976 gets tiresome quickly, he relies a bit too much on quoting a limited number of sources (particularly Elvis’s own liner notes to the 2001 reissue of My Aim Is True), and like Andy Burns’s Wrapped in Plastic: Twin Peaks, his very short book suffers a bit from bad timing, since it comes so close on the heels of Richard Balls’ thorough Stiff Records Story—but as a pocket making-of/history/analysis of one of the great freshman records, Elvis Is King satisfies. When was the last time you could say that about a 33 1/3 book?

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Review: 'So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films Volume One'

Giallo is a contentious genre. Part lurid crime thriller, part gory horror, part sleazo-sex flick, the distinctly Italian film field can be tough to pin down, and each of its hardcore fans probably has his or her own idea what qualifies. Author Troy Howarth (with ample help from guest essayists Ernesto Gastaldi and Roberto Curti) does what he can too pin down what, exactly, a giallo picture is and isn’t over the first 40 pages of his movie guide So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films Volume One. Then we’re in the deep end with a glut of reviews that waste no time courting controversy. Two films in and its The Three Faces of Fear (aka: Black Sabbath), included because the least-celebrated tale of Mario Bava’s horror portmanteau, “The Telephone”, passes the litmus test.

I’m certain Howarth will afford the rest of that film all-due attention when he and co-conspirator Christopher Workman get to the sixties-centric volume of their Tome of Terror horror movie guide series. So Deadly, So Perverse kind of functions as a companion to that series. Its extra space devoted to extended essays aside, it follows the same format as Tome of Terror with its tech specs, astute and lively reviews, detailed histories, above-and-beyond historical and biographical tidbits, and abundant illustrations. It differs from the first volume of Tome of Terror in its across-the-board depth. There are no two or three paragraph write-ups. Howarth examines every inclusion thoroughly, probably because there are fewer instances of lost films when dealing with giallo than 80-year-old horror movies. I personally don’t have as much interest in giallo as I do in 80-year-old horror movies, but I still found it hard not to get caught up in Howarth’s enthusiasm and came away from So Deadly, So Perverse with another dirty-laundry list of nasty movies to see. 

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Review: 'I Found My Friends: The Oral History of Nirvana'

Half way through I Found My Friends: The Oral History of Nirvana, Kevin Franke of the band Vegas Voodoo describes Kurt Cobain as “almost a ghost presence.” This kind of sums up Nick Soulsby’s book, which largely consists of the memories of musicians from obscure bands who played some gigs with Nirvana or saw them play but didn’t really know them very well. Too often we get snatches about how Krist Novoselic is tall or liked to party, or Cobain seemed shy or like he might have been on drugs, but insights about who these people really were and continue to be are rare. That’s because I Found My Friends is less the story of Nirvana and more the story of the music scene surrounding them. One thing we already knew about the group is that they were always supportive of bands that never cracked the “Alternative Nation” playlists, and Soulsby gives these musicians a chance to explain what it was like to play all the shitty, lice-infected clubs Nirvana did in their early years, or in the case of Calamity Jane, open for Nirvana at a huge post-stardom show in Buenos Aires where the crowd showered the opening act with abuse.

While Nirvana fans who come to this book expecting inside information on the band members’ personal lives or studio work will be disappointed, I Found My Friends is a compelling read for those who are simply interested in the nineties rock scene or the often thankless and grinding experience of being in a band in any era. And along the way we do get some genuinely valuable tidbits about Kurt and Krist’s generousness, playfulness, loutishness, devotion to worthy causes, and talent (there’s precious little about their drummers, and that includes Dave Grohl). Soulsby includes some odd comments as well, such as the occasional “I didn’t stick around to watch Nirvana’s set and never thought they were any good anyway,” an anonymous person’s account of his/her own heroin experiences, and the concluding string of eulogies for musicians from other bands, some of which are never even mentioned elsewhere in the book.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Review: 'Tome of Terror: Horror Films of the 1930s'

Horror movie guides pop up like grass on a grave, yet they never tend to get it right. Too often they are glib, and they never encompass everything world cinema has contributed to the genre since its inception. There have been good ones. Jonathan Rigby’s American Gothic and the collaborative, two-volume American Silent Horror, Science Fiction, and Fantasy Films, 1913-1929, come to mind, but as their titles suggest, their scopes are still limited. A series is necessary to serve a genre with as much breadth and longevity as horror, which Christopher Workman and Troy Howarth realize.

Based on the first volume of their series, a chunky collection of reviews devoted exclusively to the thirties, these guys aren’t cutting any corners (the second volume will actually backtrack to the silent era and pick up with the forties in volume three). Tome of Terror: Horror Films of the 1930s swells with shorts and features from all recesses of the world, which is significant considering that studies of the genre’s key decade are often limited to its most prolific location of production, Hollywood, and often even more limited to a specific studio, Universal.

Each entry features a few technical specs, cast list, synopsis, history, critique, and even some details about the major players’ personal lives and careers beyond the given films. Pieces on lost films may only be a few paragraphs, but major movies may receive an entire page or more. Workman’s entry on King Kong is truly superb, going deep enough to assess the biological accuracy of its dinosaurs! (On the flip side, his more critical assessment of the comparatively fantastical creatures in Son of Kong goes a little too far considering that it is, after all, a movie about a giant gorilla.)

The writers’ tone keeps the discussions enjoyable rather than dry, though I believe they are too hard on certain aspects of the classics, like the oft-denounced “staginess” of Dracula and the performances of Valerie Hobson and Una O’Connor in Bride of Frankenstein, which I believe are integral to the movie’s delicious deliriousness. Of course, no opinionated reader is ever going to completely agree with all the opinions of a movie guide writer, so I’m impressed by how often I agreed with Workman and Howarth. I would have preferred the book to be arranged strictly chronologically instead of alphabetical by year, since how one film develops on the innovations of others is particularly significant in horror. That’s a nitpick since guides of this sort are meant to be dipped into rather than read from cover-to-cover, even though this is one of the few that welcomes that kind of reading. Some might also complain that a lot of the murder mysteries and Sherlock Holmes and Charlie Chan movies in here only loosely qualify as horror, but I think their presence is further evidence of the writers determination to be all-inclusive. You certainly cant complain that any significant film is missing, which would be the far greater crime. Tome of Terror also scores points for the terrific photos that appear on nearly every one of its pages, but its greatest achievement is fattening up my list of movies to see, which is the ultimate job of any movie guide worth reading. I can’t wait to build that list even bigger when they publish volume two.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Review: Updated Edition of 'The Life of Python'

George Perry’s The Life of Python first appeared in 1994 when that revolutionary comedy troupe probably seemed deader than an ex-parrot. Of course, money has a way of bringing dead things back to life, and the promise of a nice pay day has recently reunited Michael Palin, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terrys Jones and Gilliam, and even Graham Chapman (appearing from beyond the grave via archival footage) for some live appearances. That means it’s a prime opportunity for Perry to get in on the action with an all-new edition of his book. For fans who’ve spent the last twenty years resisting The Life of Python, it’s a pretty straight piece of journalism/biography with individual chapters on each Python and a final extended one covering the guys’ collective career. Theres a great deal of informational overlap between the sections, and the bio chapters spend a lot of time looking beyond the Flying Circus at Gilliam’s big screen triumphs and failures (mostly failures), Cleese’s marital triumphs and failures (almost exclusively failures), and so on. The absence of Carol Cleveland in this story is glaring. Perry also makes no effort to tap into Monty Python’s insanity and inanity, so his book is more drily informative than fun, though his paraphrasing of a response Idle sent to some complete idiot who implied Chapman should be killed because of his homosexuality made me laugh hard enough to almost make up for that.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

21 Underrated Songs by The Monkees You Need to Hear Now!

I’ve done quite a few of these “21 Underrated Songs You Need to Hear Now” lists, but this is the one that matters most, because none of the other groups I’ve covered are as misunderstood as The Monkees. Ridiculed during their time for being phonies because they formed on a TV studio back lot and not in a garage, The Monkees were painted as a quartet of no-talent, bubblegum salesmen. Anyone with ears who heard their best hits could detect this wasn’t true, even if the guys rarely contributed more than their considerable vocal talents to those charting singles. But as far as I’m concerned, you have to dig a bit deeper to uncover the songs that really made The Monkees extraordinary. Some of these non-hits—such as “Randy Scouse Git” (which actually was a hit in the UK), “Shades of Gray”, “What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round?”, “Saturday’s Child”, “Mary Mary”, “Goin’ Down”, and “For Pete’s Sake”—have been well represented enough on hits compilations that they can’t really be called underrated anymore. A lot of other Monkees recordings have gotten a lot less exposure than they deserve. So for anyone who still holds to that increasingly outdated opinion that Mike Nesmith, Micky Dolenz (celebrating his 70th birthday today), Peter Tork, and Davy Jones weren’t truly talented, truly original singers, musicians, writers, and producers really does need to hear the following 21 underrated songs.

1. “Papa Gene’s Blues” (from the album The Monkees) 1966

The Monkees were rarely taken seriously during their own time, but fortunately a lot of the stupid prejudices to which they were subjected have faded over time. Today it’s hard to feature anyone not succumbing to the exhilaration of Mike’s Tex-Mex jambalaya “Papa Gene’s Blues”. With its rising and falling chord progression and simplistically joyful chorus, it remains one of Nes’s freshest compositions. With its intricate web of percussion and twangy guitars, it is one of his most magnetic productions. Mike deserves extra credit for demanding Peter Tork be allowed to pick his acoustic in the backline, thus taking the first tentative step toward making The Monkees a real group.

2. “Sweet Young Thing” (from the album The Monkees) 1966

Despite composing some high quality material on his own, Mike Nesmith still couldn’t catch any respect from music supervisor Don Kirschner, who insisted he work with the more seasoned duo of Gerry Goffin and Carole King. The experience wasn’t pleasant for anyone involved, and Mike apparently said something that reduced Carole to tears at one point. Fortunately, something great came out of the forced collaboration, the stomping, careening Cajun funk “Sweet Young Thing”. Like “Papa Gene’s Blues”, it was a real pop anomaly in ’66, and I certainly haven’t heard anything that sounds like it since. I don’t care if Mike wasn’t the guy whacking out those fuzz chords or sawing away at the fiddle (session man Jimmy Bryant deserves credit for that dizzying touch), he produced this thing, and it’s the production that makes the fairly simplistic composition come alive.

3. “All of Your Toys” (unreleased until 1987’s Missing Links compilation) recorded 1967

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Ten Genuinely Great Classic TV Themes

A TV theme has a job to do and that is to set the tone for the show that follows. Unfortunately, most twentieth-century TV shows were pretty goofy and got the catchy/crappy themes they deserved. Hey, I can remember all the words to the “Brady Bunch” theme song as well as the next asshole, but it isn’t exactly my idea of good music.

On occasion shows ended up with legitimately good themes, either because they were extraordinary pieces of television that deserved complimentary music or…err… by accident, I guess. I’m not talking about programs that cheated by using pre-composed music or classic pop songs as themes, otherwise the following list would be loaded with classics such as “Paint It Black” (“Tour of Duty”), “Reflections (“China Beach”), “Bad Reputation” (“Freaks and Geeks”), “Rock Around the Clock” (“Happy Days”), “Five O’ Clock World” (“The Drew Carey Show”), “Having an Average Weekend” (“The Kids in the Hall”), “And Your Bird Can Sing” (“The Beatles” Cartoon), “Falling” (“Twin Peaks”), and “For Pete’s Sake” (a way better song than the cutesy “Monkees Theme”). Instead I selected ten songs specifically created for specific programs that I wouldn’t feel ashamed to blast with the TV turned off.

1. “Twilight Zone Theme” by Bernard Herrmann

The discordant tune that instantly conjures memories of gremlins, murder dolls, and pig doctors is Marius Constant’s “Etrange No. 3”, a piece of music recorded for CBS’s library of stock cues but not necessarily “The Twilight Zone”. Eugene Feldman edited it with Constant’s “Milieu No. 2” to serve as the series’ theme in the second season, probably because the music that opened the show’s first one simply isn’t very catchy. It is, however, an eerie scene setter composed by perhaps the greatest composer of cinematic thriller scores, Bernard Herrmann. If Constant’s “Etrange No. 3”/“Milieu No. 2” delivers the skin-crawling shocks of “Eye of the Beholder” then Herrmann’s theme is more in line with the haunting subtlety of “Mirror Image”…

2. “Route 66 Theme” by Nelson Riddle
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