Monday, April 27, 2015

Review: 'Bowie on Bowie: Interviews and Encounters with David Bowie'

David Bowie was the first, possibly the last, major pop star in danger of being typecast as a Martian. As the man with two-tone eyes and painted face who made “Space Oddity”, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, and The Man who Fell to Earth, Bowie has often seemed something not quite—or perhaps more than—human. He was just as aware of this stereotype as anyone, turning down a role in an adaptation of Stranger in a Stranger Land for fear it would consign him to outer space once and for all.

Based on how he expresses himself across the interviews Sean Egan collects in Bowie on Bowie: Interviews and Encounters with David Bowie, it must have all been a little strange for the man who was so clearly playing roles as any actor would. Never does he put on otherworldly airs: not during his ethereal Man of Words/Man of Music phase, not during his “magicks”-obsessed “fascist” period, not even during his coked-up Berlin days. In fact, he was at his most humble and most self-doubting at the beginning of his career, which isn’t surprising considering how many false starts he had. His hard-R&B mod bands never took off. His Anthony Newley/psychedelic song-and-dance man persona of 1966/1967 led nowhere. By the time he hit with “Space Oddity” in 1969, which is where Bowie on Bowie begins, he’d had enough failures to keep his ego in check. He is never overly impressed with his triumphs, nor is he exceptionally crushed by his failures (he is confident that Tonight and Never Let Me Down had their share of good songs sunk by bad production and only speaks of Tin Machine as a positive experience). Bowie is also the rare celebrity interviewee who seems almost as interested in his interviewers as they are in him. He shares the hot seat with Bruce Springsteen, Brian Eno and Suede’s Brett Anderson, and in one instance, actually plays host to fashion designer Alexander McQueen. Perhaps a more accurate title would have been Conversations with David Bowie. Throughout these pieces, our star is open (about drugs, sex, his family, his beliefs, etc.), humble, gracious, charming, and thoughtful, often quite in contrast to the people who interview him, who tiresomely fixate on aspects of his career that no longer seem very important at all (his silly—and brief—flirtation with fascism; his sexual preferences; his run of bum albums in the eighties).

Egan selects his pieces wisely. While his similar book on Keith Richards favored the guitarist’s late career lopsidedly, Bowie on Bowie gives equal space to the seventies, eighties, nineties, and 2000s (ending abruptly in 2003 shortly before Bowie decided to retire from doing press). And unlike Keith Richards on Keith Richards, which basically confirms much of what we already assumed about that old pirate, Bowie on Bowie accomplishes something more meaningful by changing our perceptions. And hasn’t that always been the essence of Bowie’s art?

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Review: The Dream's 'Get Dreamy' Reissue

You don’t have to break your brain to suss out the influences of Norway’s first psychedelic band. The Dream rewrote “Hey Joe” as “Hey Jimi” in tribute to the guitar deity they worshiped. Hendrix’s presence looms over their one and only album, Get Dreamy, though there are also subtlety-devoid references to Cream, Booker T., Procol Harum (“You”), and Dobie Gray (“Driftin” is a lysergic lounge rewrite of “The In Crowd”). However, The Dream are more than the sum of the heroes they worship. Terje Rypdal is a gob-smacking guitarist, who’d have a respected career on his own after The Dream’s brief life. And not Hendrix nor Cream nor The Who had the audacity to include anything as uncompromising as the eight-minute-plus noise orgy “Ain’t No Use” on wax as early as 1967 (though they were all doing this kind of stuff on stage). In contrast, “Green Things (From Outer Space)” draws its intensity from heart-racing percussion, while lovely things such as “Emptiness Gone”, “Driftin’”, and “I’m Counting on You” give you a chance to catch your breath between onslaughts. RPM Records is now rereleasing Get Dreamy on CD with fine sound, in-depth liner notes (keyboardist Christian Reim’s plans for the band’s unproduced second album are hilarious), and an extra track: the lengthy, jazzy “Dead Man’s Tale”, The Dream’s final recording, though one that made its debut on Rypdal’s debut solo disc, Bleak House

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Review: The Everly Brothers’ 'Complete US & UK Singles As & Bs & EPs: 1956-1962'

The great, good, and otherwise Rock & Roll records of the fifties have all fallen into the British public domain in recent years, which means there’s been a flood of budget reissues from sources of all reputes. Acrobat Music has gotten into the act by putting out triple-disc comps collecting all of the U.S. and U.K. single and EP sides of artists such as Duanne Eddy, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Burnette, and most recently, The Everly Brothers. So for under £12 ($20 American) you can horde a walloping wealth of PD tracks from some of the best artists of Rock & Roll’s inaugural decade. In the case of The Everly Brothers’ Complete US & UK Singles As & Bs & EPs: 1956-1962, that is 75 cuts, which amounts to about sixteen pence per song. And man oh man, you are getting some great songs for that pocket change. As you should already know, The Everly Brothers became a hit-spewing duo by marrying R&R and C&W with authenticity only rivaled by Johnny Cash’s marriage of those distinct genres. The hits might deliver thigh-whacking fun (“Bird Dog”, “Wake Up, Little Susie”, “Claudette”) or gut-gripping poignancy (“Let It Be Me”, “Devoted to You”, “Crying in the Rain”) or something in between (“Bye Bye Love”, “Cathy’s Clown”), but the quality was always high as the sun.

One would be unreasonable to expect the quality of the budget Complete US & UK Singles As & Bs & EPs to rise to that level, but this is still a very nice collection for the price. The mastering is more than acceptable, neither overly bright nor overly loud, which is how a lot of budget CDs overcompensate for the poor quality sources they use. Disc One of Complete US & UK Singles As & Bs & EPs generally utilizes good sources (a shrill “Oh, What a Feeling” and a slightly noisy “Always with You” are the most noteworthy exceptions), which is key since it’s the disc with most of the biggest hits, as well as their consistently excellent flip sides. Dodgy sources are more plentiful on the second disc, and some of its most essential tracks— such as the terrific hit “Walk Right Back” and the manically clattering “Muskrat”—are left sounding like low-kbps MP3s. This issue evaporates on disc three, which basically sounds good all the way through. A track or two, including Love Hurts, is a tad fuzzy but far from unlistenable.

The material beyond the most well known tracks on all three discs set is strong, and since the group’s first four LPs comprised cuts from their 45s and EPs exclusively, Complete US & UK Singles is also an LP collection of sorts... though one that jumbles the order of those albums beyond recognition. The packaging is refreshingly thoughtful as well, containing a thick booklet with historical liner notes and a good discography. Manage your expectations slightly and you’ll find Complete US & UK Singles As & Bs & EPs: 1956-1962 is a terrific value for twelve quid or twenty bucks. 

Monday, April 20, 2015

Review: 'Ultimate Star Wars'

Part of the appeal of the original Star Wars trilogy is that it was a fundamentally simple fairy tale: orphaned farm boy’s remaining family is slaughtered, so he decides to leave home and fulfill his destiny as a galaxy-liberating superhero, redeeming his evil robo-dad and hanging out with robots, a princess, a pirate, and a giant dog along the way. The twenty-first century decision to make the tale more complicated than it really needs to be necessitates a book like Ultimate Star Wars. It took four writers—Patricia Barr, Adam Bray, Daniel Wallace, and Ryder Windham—to make sense of all the minor characters, planets, and intergalactic politics the prequel trilogy and the TV series “The Clone Wars” and “Rebels” lumped into the mythology. The book attempts to follow a timeline of sorts by using the series’ multitudinous characters, locations, and hardware as springboards for summarizing the major historical events of the Star Wars universe, but its format, which involves a lot of chronological leaps, keeps the story from ever getting totally straight. Plus, the quartets’ writing tends to follow the dryness of the prequels instead of attempting to recapture the childlike fun of the original trilogy, so the book reads like a history textbook. Oh, Star Wars. How far you’ve come since the carefree days of C-3PO’s cereal and Boba Fett Underoos.

The writing and format issues are not necessarily deal breakers, since Ultimate Star Wars is a coffee table book at heart, and it is definitely a great-looking one, overstuffed with big color photos of some of cinema’s most colorful characters. And I assure you that with the  exception of a few background characters (Death Star Droid, Snaggletooth, Ree-Yees, etc.) they are all present and accounted for. Hello, Lobot! Hello, Porkins! Hello, Zuckuss 4-Lom! Hello, 4-Lom Zuckuss! Hello, Imperial Officer that Darth Vader chokes for mouthing off! Hello, Cliff Clavin! There is also a smattering of neat behind-the-scenes snaps. The most priceless one is easily a shot of Irvin Kershner, Darth Vader, and IG88 snuggling together to say cheese.” It is adorable.

My fellow original trilogy purists should beware that this book really rubs our noses in the “Special Editions” and prequels. It is so excessive that the guy who wore heavy makeup to play Governor Tarkin at a far distance in Revenge of the Sith is used to illustrate that character’s section instead of Peter Cushing. The section on Jabba’s palace contains a still of the universally loathed— and Jedi-free— “Jedi Rocks” song-and-dance number. The one on Greedo contains a shot of the CG laser leaving his pistol before Han Solo has a chance to shoot first. And I thought George Lucas’s relinquishment of Star Wars to Disney would have brought an end to this kind of thing. How naïve I am.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Review: 'RKO Radio Pictures Horror, Science Fiction, and Fantasy Films, 1929-1956'

As the company that put out Val Lewton’s psychological horror productions, Merian Cooper and Ernest Shoedsack’s giant ape pictures, and Disney’s greatest run of animated fantasies, RKO Radio Pictures certainly has a reputation for producing major genre pictures from the 1930s through the fifties. The studio’s genre output should be enough to inspire a book’s worth of quality history and criticism, but that’s not really what we get in Michael R. Pitts’s RKO Radio Pictures Horror, Science Fiction, and Fantasy Films, 1929-1956. The author includes a wealth of movies he admits are neither horror, science fiction, nor fantasy. For example, he tosses in a ghost-free western called The Black Ghost because Lon Chaney, Jr., is its star, and Chaney was in a lot of other movies that actually were horror pictures (I guess if RKO produced Of Mice and Men that would be in here too). Even worse, he fills the majority of his 382 pages with really, really thorough synopses of these films. I’m not sure for whom Pitts intended this stuff. Anyone who has already seen one of these pictures does not need to read its synopsis. Anyone who hasn’t wouldn’t want to for fear of having the whole plot spoiled. Each entry also includes complete cast and crew specs, a bit of history, some blurbs from vintage movie reviews, and a smidgen of Pitts’s own cursory critique, but anyone who writes about the Amos ‘n’ Andy movie Check and Double Check without dealing at all with its treatment of race and use of blackface clearly isn’t thinking very deeply about film, culture, or history. Considering that he dismisses those who’ve kept the “Amos ‘n’ Andy” TV show off the air since the sixties as the “political correctness crowd,” hes probably a guy who’s better off keeping his thoughts to himself anyway.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Review: Reissue of The Monochrome Set's 'The Lost Weekend'

The Monochrome Set were still with Cherry Red when they cut what would be the final album of the first part of their career. Although the recordings were made on Cherry Red’s dime in 1983, the Warner Brothers subsidiary Blanco y Negro would not release the album until 1985. By that point, The Monochrome Set seemed to be winding down anyway, not doing much of anything in 1984. Those were not happy times for The Monochrome Set, though the LP released as The Lost Weekend is pretty jolly. The band was understandably frustrated by how their new label bungled the timing of their first single on it. “Jacob’s Ladder” was getting good radio play, but since the single was not in shops yet, the promotional engine pooped out before anyone could buy it. This is one of the odder points of the Lost Weekend story, since “Jacob’s Ladder”—a trivial fusion of Brit-Pop and gospel—hardly seems like the stuff hits are made of. The band would have done well to relinquish hopes for commercial success and keep the song’s original lyrics, which bandleader Bid says described intercourse in pornographic detail. So the track ends up sounding like a parody that never gets around to the joke.

Fortunately, The Monochrome Set’s unique humor is present throughout much of the rest of The Lost Weekend. Their pop craft is strong too, with wry nods to reggae (“Sugar Plum”), tango (“Cargo”), sixties dance craze discs (“The Twitch”, “Boom Boom”), fifties ballads (the hilarious “Letter from Viola”, which recounts the true story of the unflattering Mohawk haircut that cost guitarist James Foster his girlfriend), and psychedelia (the enchanting “Cowboy Country”).

The Lost Weekend ultimately landed back with Cherry Red, which put out an extended edition of the album in 2009. The bonus tracks are mostly instrumental B-sides, though “Le Boom Boom” is notable for being a superior mix (with added female vocals) of the LP’s “Boom Boom”. “Yo Ho Ho” is notable for being the only track The Monochrome Set recorded specifically for Blanco y Negro and for sounding suspiciously like John Cale’s “Ghost Ship”. Mat Smyth’s quiet remastering requires the listener to really crank it up. That’s a nice consideration in an age when too few engineers trust listeners to work the volume knobs on their stereos. Cherry Red has just reissued its 2009 edition of The Lost Weekend

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Review: Paul Revere and the Raiders' 'Revolution! Deluxe Expanded Mono Edition'

By just the fifth album credited to Paul Revere and the Raiders, the band had gone from a savage Boise-based garage band to the studio project of singer Mark Lindsay and producer Terry Melcher. This kind of situation may seem inauthentic, but as any Pet Sounds fan will tell you, it doesn’t necessarily result in inferior music. I personally rate Revolution! as the best Raiders record even if it doesn’t contain a track as definitive as “Kicks” from Midnight Ride and isn’t as bloated with hits as Spirit of ’67. Unlike those two largely excellent records, Revolution! doesn’t contain a single bum track. Tough rockers like the hit “Him or Me—What’s It Gonna Be?”, “Make It with Me”, “Mo’reen”, and “Ain’t Nobody who Can Do It Like Leslie Can” (a blues parody with a Revere vocal that is the album’s only contribution from a Raider other than Lindsay) slam with all the power of the band’s early singles. Psychedelic excursions like “I Had a Dream”, “Tighter”, and the magical “I Hear a Voice” make the most of Lindsay and Melcher’s studio arrangement without abandoning the instantly accessible pop craftsmanship essential to the best Raiders cuts.

Like Brian Wilson and The Beatles, Lindsay and Melcher were getting a bit more experimental but still favored the soon-to-be obsolete mono format. The guys had such disregard for the new format that they never even bothered to mix “Wanting You”, “Gone—Movin’ On”, “Make It with Me”, and “Leslie” in stereo, which is the only way Revolution! has been available on CD until now.

For the first time Now Sounds is bringing the mono mix to CD. Long time listeners will discern some distinct changes here and there, most notably the heavier psych effects on “Tighter”. They can compare and contrast without ever having to pop the disc out of the player since all distinct stereo mixes are included as bonus tracks, as are the essential singles “Ups and Downs” and “Legend of Paul Revere” (featured in its extended stereo mix previously on the Sundazed release of Revolution!) and the solid outtake “Try Some of Mine” (ditto).

In terms of packaging, this is an excellent release with all essential period tracks included and superb liner notes with lots of commentary on the songs and recording straight from Mark Lindsay. The sound is a bit of a let down though. Although Alan Brownstein mastered Revolution! from the original master tapes, he made it overly bright and tinny, so even the mono tracks don’t have the weight of the stereo ones on Raven Records’ budget Evolution to Revolution: 5 Classic Albums from 2013. Revolution! Deluxe Expanded Mono Edition is still a historic release: the chance to hear an excellent album in the mix its creators always considered to be the definitive one.  

Monday, April 6, 2015

Review: 'Journey to the Center of the Earth' Blu-ray

Entering theaters in the last weeks of the decade, Journey to the Center of the Earth is a fifties sci-fi picture with credentials that set it apart from most of its matinee peers. It is an epic-length movie with gorgeous, jewel-like sets, a brilliant score by cinema’s top composer, Bernard Herrmann, and A-lister James Mason leading the cast. It was a massive box-office hit, nominated for three Oscars, a major influence on filmmakers from Irwin Allen to Steven Spielberg (who lifted more than one of its scenes for Raiders of the Lost Ark), and is still critically lauded today.

As much as there is to recommend this adaptation of Jules Verne’s scientifically off-the-wall trip to the Earth’s core, it has issues that leave it wanting in comparison to cousins like The Incredible Shrinking Man and The Day the Earth Stood Still. Mason is certainly among the great actors of his generation, but he’s not exactly an effective action hero, nor is his assistant, Pat Boone, who breaks from the action every once in a while for some bland crooning. Like First Men in the Moon, which I recently reviewed here on Psychobabble, Journey to the Center of the Earth dawdles way to too long before getting to its otherworldly destination. Unlike that H.G. Wells adaptation, there’s at least a bit of intrigue to sustain interest during the film’s first fifty minutes on the Earth’s surface. Also unlike First Men, its effects don’t quite work. The climactic madness of Verne’s book is that the Earth’s core is populated with dinosaurs. Instead of cool, stop-motion creatures, we get some very real iguanas with pasted-on fins and lizards painted red. Monstrous roaring effects do make them fairly horrible and over-cranked photography make their movements appear adequately lumbering, but this kind of thing really only works in a movie like Shrinking Man in which enlarged animals are not standing in for other creatures. Plus the facts that the animals are clearly being mistreated and killed make these centerpiece scenes impossible to enjoy on any level. In his audio commentary, historian Steven C. Smith says, “We don’t want to know how this was done” before one of the poor things is riddled with arrows and gnawed on by other iguanas. Easy for him to say.

Journey to the Center of the Earth returns to Twilight Time blu-ray looking excellent without a single scratch, speck, or shoddy element worth mentioning. The grain may be a tad on the heavy side in a few special effects shots, but the picture is still sharp and the colors still vivid. Herrmann’s score, which recalls some of the work he was currently doing for “The Twilight Zone”, gets its own audio track, while another is reserved for Smith, actress Diane Baker (who actually has very little screen time as Mason’s niece), and Twilight Time’s resident mediator Nick Redman. Get it on Screen here.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Review: 'Batman Collectables'

One of the things that have kept Batman so alive and present for 75 years is the horse-choking mass of bat merchandise. If it’s a thing, chances are it has had Batman’s cowl or insignia slapped on it at some point: nightlights, trading cards, puppets, jewelry, wallpaper, slippers, piggy banks, dice, cereal boxes, mugs… you get the picture. You could get a lot of pictures in Chip Kidd’s fabulous 1996 book Batman Collected. That will likely continue to be the definitive volume of baternalia, though that should not dissuade you from checking out Batman Collectables.

At a scant 96 pages, Rob Burman’s new book is admittedly slim, but the writer was smart to mainly compile items not included in Batman Collected or ones that Kidd did not give as much attention as I wished he had. There are probably no more definitive Batman collectibles than Mego’s toy line from the seventies, and I was surprised to see how little attention Kidd gave them. Burman rights that wrong with wonderful full-page shots of Mego’s Batman (with and without removable cowl!), Robin, and Penguin in their original mint/near mint packaging (but what, no Joker?), as well as impressive pics of the Batmobile, the Batcycle, and the Mobile Bat Lab (but no Wayne Manor?).

Burman also provides a nice amount of background details on the items and the companies that created them. It is not necessarily an eclectic assortment. Despite a couple of Ben Cooper costumes, a watch, and the hilariously hideous ceramic mug that ends the book, Batman Collected really should have been called Batman Toys, and possibly more specifically, Batmobile Toys since the Caped Crusader’s main mode of transport receives much more attention than any other item. But as far as a brief collection of such playthings goes, it’s well designed and pretty informative. 

Review: 'First Men in the Moon' Blu-ray

A crew of U.N. astronauts think they’re the first Earthlings to set foot on the moon. Imagine their surprise when they find a Union Jack planted there already. The strange discovery leads U.N. representatives to a rest home where they meet the man who helped transport that flag to the seemingly barren satellite. Back in 1899, Arnold Bedford (Edward Judd) was a ne’re-do-well playwright living in a cottage near mad scientist Joseph Cavor (Lionel Jeffries), inventor of a metallic goo capable of deflecting gravity. Together the men scheme to use this “Cavorite” to lift a little vessel straight to the moon where they encounter a race of insect-like aliens.

Nathan Juran’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’s First Men in the Moon is like two very different movies. The first 45 minutes, concerned with everything that goes down on Earth, plays like a goofy Absent Minded Professor Disney flick for kids. The second takes a dark turn as Cavor suddenly becomes less hapless and more philosophical and Bedford succumbs to a disturbing hawkishness. Here First Men in the Moon falls in line with fifties science-fiction monster movies, and it is by far the more interesting section of the movie. On the moon, Cavor, Bedford, and Bedford’s fiancé Kate (Martha Hyer), who accidentally comes along for the ride, move from strange environment to stranger environment, while the assortment of creatures—some wondrous Ray Harryhausen stop-motion creations; some kids in rubber monster suits—apparently threaten them, though it’s possible that the humans are the real threats. The moon portion of First Men is surprisingly complex, with our ostensible heroes either making genuine sacrifices for the sake of pacifism and good will or succumbing to Eisenhower-era paranoia. By the time we get to the last scene, in which a man takes satisfaction in the death of an entire civilization, it’s hard to even remember that 45 minutes of family-friendly comedy ever took place.

That’s a good thing for First Men in the Moon, since it leaves the picture feeling better than it probably is. Edward Judd and Lionel Jeffries are both very good comedic actors, but their Earth-bound capering feels like it goes on forever. The decision to shoot in widescreen Panavision depleted the budget, which may account for why so much of the film takes place on Earth and certainly accounts for the costumed aliens that are so much less effective than their stop-motion overlords. The difficulty of constructing sets long enough for Panavision accounts for the preponderance of traveling matte shots. Despite those issues First Men in the Moon  is still half a great movie  willing to deal with some pretty weighty matters. Plus, Harryhausen’s psychedelic sets and creepy creatures are superb.

Twilight Time’s blu-ray is pretty terrific too, presenting First Men in the Moon without a blemish but with its natural grain. Aside from a couple of passing mildly rough elements, the film looks great and it’s a relief that Harryhausen’s effects hold up so well under the HD microscope. Twilight Time supplements the feature with a fun but very short vintage featurette that ties the film to NASA’s actual space program, a brief video introduction from Randall William Cook (a special effects artist whose work includes animation design in the Lord of the Rings movies), and Cook’s feature commentary with Ray Harryhausen. Recorded shortly before the master’s death, the commentary is a bit slow moving and Cook is a bit too insistent about the film’s “perfection,” but there are still some interesting tidbits here and there and it’s always a pleasure to hear Harryhausen discuss his own work. First Men in the Moon also includes an isolated score track and is available in a limited run of 5,000 units. Get one on Screen here.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Diary of the Dead: Spring 2015

The ice has broken. The snow has melted. The temperature has risen. All this can only mean one thing: I may now commence spending the next six months wishing all this wretched warm weather away so that Halloween season can make a speedy return. Since I’m impatient by nature, I will mark this occasion by starting Halloween season right now, or at least enjoying a taste of it with a mini-installment of one of Psychobabble’s triedest and truest Halloween Season traditions: Diary of the Dead.

The films I spent March watching were mostly recommendations culled from Christopher Workman and Troy Howarth’s Tome of Terror: Horror Films of the 1930s, which I reviewed last month, so you will notice a definite decade bias amongst the following selections. I also managed to sneak in a few flicks from other decades that had been haunting my movies-to-see queue for far too long.

So squirt that sunscreen down the commode, kick off those sandals, and slip on your hobnail boots, because spring has been cancelled and Halloween season has been green lighted all in the name of a fiendish feature I call Diary of the Dead.

I wrote it. You read it. No one needs to get hurt.

March 11

One Frightened Night (1935- dir. Christy Cabanne) ***

A cantankerous chap with a heart of gold and a bank account of gold announces his plans to hand out fat inheritances to a bunch of friends and relatives before a new tax law goes into effect at midnight. When a woman claiming to be his granddaughter shows up, he decides to give the whole fortune to her instead, and the jilted group’s greed takes over. Things get more convoluted when yet another alleged granddaughter arrives, and someone ends up dead. This is standard-issue old dark house stuff with an incessant lightning storm, a killer in a grotesque mask, and a mummy (don’t get too excited. It stays put). The patter is passable and the cast is very good, particularly the lovable Charley Grapewin (Uncle Henry of The Wizard of Oz) as old grampa moneybags.

March 14

The Drums of Jeopardy (1931- dir. George B Seitz) ***½
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