Monday, June 29, 2015

Review: 'Becoming the Beach Boys, 1961-1963'

Composing the book you’ve always wanted to read is probably one of the better reasons to start a writing project, but not everyone has the ability to do the job right. I’m ashamed to admit I chuckled when I saw that the sole credit in James B Murphy’s author bio on the back of Becoming the Beach Boys, 1961-1963 was “veterinarian.” I shut up when I started reading his book. Murphy is a very good writer, and the book he always wanted to read was definitely worth writing. 

The main goal of Becoming the Beach Boys is to examine the band’s earliest years to clear up the multitudinous misconceptions about that era. Murphy’s research is almost absurdly thorough. He lets no detail go un-checked. Brian Wilson claimed it was raining when The Beach Boys recorded “Surfer Girl”, so Murphy checked the local weather records to confirm that memory. The author goes to tremendous lengths to find out how the group’s long-lost first recordings were found and settle the circumstances behind the band’s first song, “Surfin’”. According to legend, Wilson patriarch Murry and matriarch Audree were on vacation in Europe when their sons used their food money to rent instruments to learn the song. Murphy consults period documents, such as Murry Wilson’s passport records, and utilizes his own powers of deduction to chisel out the most likely version of this oft-told tale. 

Murphy’s work is particularly necessary since The Beach Boys story stars so many unreliable narrators intent on telling the most self-serving versions of the tale (Murry, for example) or suffering patchy memories (Brian). The relatively minor players fascinate Murphy too, so we get extended bios of the band’s associates and collaborators during this period. Admittedly, the information digging can get a bit excessive, and only serious Beach Boys scholars won’t skim Murphy’s minutia about the guys who started Candix records or serial numbers on record labels or the dimensions of the handbills used to promote concerts. Consequently, Becoming the Beach Boys is not always a fun read, but it is an important historical document through and through. James B. Murphy definitely possesses the attention to detail I want from the dude who’s either writing a book about my favorite American band or diagnosing why my cat keeps throwing up all over the place.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Review: 'Valerie and Her Week of Wonders' Blu-ray

Two years after the Soviet Invasion had ostensibly brought an end to Czechoslovakia’s Spring of liberalized creativity, Jaromil Jireš made one of the country’s most liberated and creative films. Perhaps Valerie and Her Week of Wonders passed muster with the communist regime— which preferred social realism and had no compunction about banning art— because it is so openly critical of Catholic hypocrisy. However, the ideas behind Jireš’s film are not nearly as interesting as its images. In fact, its “plot” could have been pulled right out of the “Experimental Filmmaking 101” text book if it hadn’t been adapted from Vítězslav Nezval’s novel of the same name (written before Nezval, himself, joined the Party).

Valerie has just turned thirteen (daringly bumped down four years from her age in the novel to Jaroslava Schallerová’s actual age when starred in the movie). Having her first period, she’s now sexually mature and must traverse a Lewis Carroll-esque landscape constantly bouncing her between Catholicism and sexuality. Neither is very appealing in Jireš’s film. Religion offers nothing but lecherous clergy and suppressed desire. Sex Land is full of incest and nubile young women dropping live fish down their bloomers. Both sides are full of vampires and monsters to the point that Valerie and Her Week of Wonders functions as both surreal fantasy and full-blooded horror film. Valerie greets all this stuff in a constant state of bemused defiance, which renders her kind of likeable even if it never allows her more than a couple of dimensions. But depth is not really what you’ll find in her movie. Instead, you get a non-stop montage of arresting imagery. Valerie relaxes beneath an elaborate network of machinery. A parade of nuns passes a couple having abandoned al fresco sex (the only truly positive sexual image in the picture). Valerie’s grandma (a young woman in white death makeup) flagellates herself while the priest she loves eats chicken. He cowers inside of a birdcage as more people copulate outside it. Valerie reclines in a coffin of green apples. Creatures with joke-shop fangs peer from every corner. It’s all beautifully shot, and the picture’s economical running time keeps the style-over-substance issue from ever becoming a real issue. This is what great cult movies are made of.

It’s also what great Criterion Collection blu-rays are made of. Jireš’s dreamy images look exquisite in this new 4k restoration, which is devoid of a single blemish. Lubos Fiser’s soundtrack sounds excellent as well, and its enchantments make the inclusion of a proggy alternate soundtrack fairly superfluous, though the fifteen-minute featurette on this so-called “Valerie Project” is pretty fascinating. There’s also a fairly worthwhile monologue about the main feature from film scholar Peter Hames. However, the gem of the extras is a trio of Jireš’s short films, which seem to plot his move from relatively conventional filmmaking toward the pure avant-gardism of Valerie. The six-minute “Uncle” (1959) is touching, funny, and a perfect example of micro-storytelling, yet only experimental in its mild quotes from German Expressionism. “Footprints” (1960) has a more open-ended narrative. “The Hall of Lost Footsteps” (1960) walks much further out, chopping together horrifying holocaust and A-bomb footage with shots caught at a train station and romantic images rendered hopeless by what surrounds them. Its fractured timeline and jumbling of the beautiful and the terrible is an effective lead in to Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

Monday, June 22, 2015

Review: 'The Who: Live at Shea Stadium 1982'

In 1982, The Who released their first “farewell” album, It’s Hard, and undertook their first “farewell” tour. Neither was the most beloved chapter in Who lore. Many fans, and certain band members, didn’t rate Kenney Jones an adequate replacement for the recently deceased Keith Moon. Pete seemed begrudging about the whole thing and was wrestling with his own issues with substance abuse and depression. The new material he offered to The Who wasn’t nearly as strong as the songs he kept for his own records, which meant set lists were peppered with less-than-classics.

Quite a few of these issues didn’t matter that much when The Who took their act to New York’s Shea Stadium on October 12 and 13. Perhaps it was playing at such a historic venue (on the 13th, they whipped out two songs from The Beatles’ first album—that’s two more than they played from their own two first albums combined!). Perhaps having The Clash as opening act lit a fire under them. As evidenced from Eagle Vision’s new disc, The Who: Live at Shea Stadium 1982, The Who didn’t exactly put on the ultimate performance during their NYC stint, but they do burn through quite a lot of it, particularly when playing more recent material like “Sister Disco” and “The Quiet One”—both blinding showcases for John Entwistle—or treasured obscurities like “The Punk and the Godfather”, “Drowned”, and “Young Man Blues”. Otherwise, The Who mostly deliver the professionalism that makes the show a good listen, if not an exhilarating one. Mid set, that professionalism slips a tad with a version of “Tattoo” that suffers from some dodgy harmonizing and a general lack of enthusiasm over the number, but that kind of façade drop had always been an integral component of their shows—nobody ever wanted to The Who to be nice (plus, the song is their best as far as I’m concerned). A slack rendition of “Naked Eye” and a monotonous one of “Cry If You Want” are a little less easy to forgive.

An interesting facet of the movie is how it reduces great, big Shea Stadium to a more intimate venue by not dwelling on the elaborate stage set up, leaving most of the huge audience in shadow (we only really glimpse the first few rows), and muting their screams. It creates the illusion that The Who said “farewell” by playing a mid-sized club.

The Who: Live at Shea Stadium 1982 arrives on DVD and Standard Definition Blu-ray. That means it was shot on video (complete with some awful “slo-mo” video effects), so the picture cannot be in hi-def, but the music can at least be delivered without loss. As far as video goes, it doesn’t look bad. The audio is pretty good, though I wish there was more John in the mix. The show from the 13th is included in its entirety, as are five bonus numbers from the 12th, three of which are songs not performed the following night (“A Man Is a Man” and the essentials “My Generation” and “5:15”). Too bad the other two songs exclusive to that night (“Magic Bus” and “Athena”) aren’t here too, but overall, Live at Shea Stadium 1982 shines as positive a light on The Who’s rocky 1982 as one can expect.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Review: 'The Wrecking Crew' DVD

No Rock & Roll education is complete without getting familiar with the rotating ensemble of session musicians now known as the Wrecking Crew. Guitarists Tommy Tedesco and Glen Campbell, drummers Hal Blaine and Earl Palmer, bassists Carol Kaye and Joe Osborn, saxophonist Plas Johnson, and pianist Leon Russell are just a few of the musicians who helped bring records for Brian Wilson, Phil Spector, The Monkees, The Byrds, Sonny and Cher, Nancy Sinatra, The Mamas and the Papas, and too many others to life. Since they rarely received any credits on the records they made, a documentary like Denny Tedesco’s (son of Tommy) The Wrecking Crew is long overdue.

And overdue it is. The younger Tedesco started work on this film in 1996, completed shooting in 2008, and was finally able to release it this year with the aid of a 2013 Kickstarter campaign. The age of the project is certainly detectable in the finished product. The interview footage is all full-screen with the only wide elements being still photos and certain pieces of archival footage. There’s none of the animation or stylish computer manipulation used in seemingly every contemporary pop doc. This is a straight-up, twentieth-century-style documentary full of shot-on-video talking heads. The filmmaker’s relationship with his subject also means that The Wrecking Crew is mostly celebratory. Nevertheless, we do get the gist of some member’s irritation with their lack of credits, being serious jazz musicians making records for The Association and Gary Lewis and the Playboys, and seeing the rise of “album artists” reduce their workload in the late sixties. The Wrecking Crew is not a piece of audacious filmmaking, but its humble style is a very fitting way to tell the story of a group of musicians never known for their audacity.

The Wrecking Crew comes to DVD from Magnolia Home Entertainment with a massive bundle of deleted scenes. While this kind of thing is mere filler on most discs, the scenes here actually fill out the story in essential ways. Despite being synonymous with the Wrecking Crew, Phil Spector receives very little attention in the proper film. The deleted scenes make up for this with pieces on his demanding working methods and his Christmas album, one of the most significant showcases for the Wrecking Crew’s talents. We also get deeper looks at the recordings of specific songs (guitarist Billy Strange tells a touching tale about cutting “Sloop John B.” that spotlights Brian Wilson’s generosity), how Beatlemania affected the crew, and insights from several major players missing from the proper film.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Farewell, Christopher Lee

Very sad news to report today: Christopher Lee, the British actor best known for his embodiment of Hammer horror, died last Sunday of heart failure. Of course, Lee's 93 years were richly spent. He starred in some of the most successful film series of all time--not just Hammer's Gothic horrors that found him playing Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, and the Mummy-- but also Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies, James Bond's The Man with the Golden Gun, and the Star Wars prequels. On imdb, Lee has an extraordinary 278 credits, and he remained active right into this year, most recently doing voice-over work in Raul Garcia's yet-to-be-released animated anthology of Poe adaptations, Extraordinary Tales. That is a fitting end to a career steeped in classic chills, and one so dependent on the actor's marvelously distinctive bass intonation. Despite the rich wealth of Christopher Lee movies already in existence (my personal favorites include Dracula, The Wicker Man, The Curse of Frankenstein, and The City of the Dead), I will miss seeing him in another one.

Review: Reissues of 'Procol Harum' and 'Shine on Brightly'

I doubt Procol Harum set out to found two new genres with their first two albums, but they did. On their eponymous debut, they married rock, soul, and Bach at his most funereal with Keith Reid’s death-obsessed lyrics and Goth rock was born. On the sophomore Shine On Brightly, they fused the length and suite-structure of The Who’s “A Quick One While He’s Away”, the recording innovations and grandeur of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and their own tricky musicianship to make the first true prog rock record. Procol Harum and Shine on Brightly also contained the memorable songwriting and soulful execution that make them great albums regardless of any pioneering achievements. 

In 2009, Salvo Records rereleased Procol’s opening salvos with a slew of bonus tracks, informative liner notes by the band’s biographer Henry Scott Irvine, and pretty good remastered sound by Nick Robbins. However, “Conquistador” and “A Christmas Camel’ on the first album and everything on the second ran at the wrong speed, causing Gary Brooker to sound more like Alvin the Chipmunk than Ray Charles. Six years later, Procol Harum and Shine on Brightly have passed to Esoteric Recordings and remastered by Ben Wiseman from the original tapes. The speed errors have been corrected. Sections of “In Held Twas in I” are as much as nine seconds longer than their Salvo counterparts. Both albums also sound warmer and deeper than the Salvo ones. Shine on Brightly sounds particularly extraordinary.

The Esoteric releases are each available in two formats. Procol Harum arrives as a single disc edition in its original mono mix with four single sides as bonus tracks, and a double-disc version that includes the 1971 stereo remix and additional outtakes and BBC sessions. Shine on Brightly comes as a single disc edition with the original stereo mix and three single sides and a triple-disc edition with the original mono mix, BBC sessions, outtakes, and backing tracks. I received the austere single-disc editions to review, so I cannot provide any information about the bonus material, but judging from the sound quality on the single-disc ones, I’d guess that Procol’s fans will agree that Esoteric is doing right by one of Rock’s most influential yet underrated bands.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Review: 'Spider Baby, or the Maddest Story Ever Told' Blu-ray

Earlier this year I reviewed Christopher Workman and Troy Howarth’s Tome of Terror: Horror Films of the 1930s. I gave the horror movie guide a deserved good write up, but I privately took issue with one statement the authors made: “While the 1930s do not represent the birth of the horror genre, the decade does represent the genre at its most formative. Not until the 1970s would it see another such year…”

I disagree. Just look at what happened to the genre in the 1960s. That’s the decade horror really had an impact throughout the globe, producing enduring classics in France (Eyes without a Face), Russia (Viy), Japan (where do I start?), Italy (ditto), and the UK (double-ditto). It’s when horror got truly gory (Eyes without a Face in the art houses and Herschell Gordon Lewis’s movies in the grind houses), when the devil came home (Rosemary’s Baby), when Romero reinvented the zombie once and for all, and when the small screen finally made room for monsters (“The Munsters”, “The Addams Family”).

The sixties was also when the horror film became truly self-referential and ironic, largely thanks to Roger Corman. The producer is famous for turning out big star directors, such as Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, and Martin Scorsese. All those guys went on to distinguished careers with work barely traceable back to Corman’s rubber-suited monsters and kooky campiness.

One of Corman’s first collaborators, Jack Hill, was a different story. He too was successful, but exploitative fare like Coffy, Foxy Brown, and Switchblade Sisters was much more in keeping with Corman’s wild sensibility. So was Hill’s first movie, though drive-in dwellers would have to wait four years to see Spider Baby, or the Maddest Story Ever Told, because financing delays kept it from being released closer to its 1964 production. When the movie finally surfaced in ’68, cheap-o horror fans had to have been impressed by the flick. They had to have! That crazy premise (the inbred Merrye clan regress as they get older, behaving more and more like children…and more and more like psycho killers!)! That totally far-out, totally committed cast (special nods to Jill Banner, Beverly Washburn, and Sid Haig as the Merrye kids and Lon Chaney, Jr., giving what may be his best and most moving performance as their adoring caregiver)! Hill’s witty, gross, offensive script that never stops winking at us! Alfred Taylor’s atmospheric photography, which casts an artful shadow over the whole production! Spider Baby may have even bested Corman classics like A Bucket of Blood and Little Shop of Horrors, and for a cheapy cult flick many of its fans label “bad” (it isn’t), the movie has certainly had legs (eight of them, I’m sure), influencing filmmakers like Joe Dante and Rob Zombie and spawning a stage musical version.

A true cult classic with charms every cult movie fan does not necessarily recognize, Spider Baby was a prime candidate for British cult home video distribution company, Arrow Films, which has developed quite the cult following of its own. Indeed, Arrow released a region B edition of Hill’s movie as a blu-ray/DVD combo in 2013. Earlier this year, Arrow launched a U.S. branch, and wisely selected Spider Baby as one of its first stateside titles. This excited me because I’ve been waiting for the right title to introduce me to Arrow, and I can think of few righter than Spider Baby.

I am not disappointed, although reasonable expectations are still required. Keep in mind that this is a low-budget movie shot in twelve days that hasn’t exactly been preserved as if it was Citizen Kane. Crispness is inconsistent. There are some bad elements here and there (you won’t miss the blurry, unstable shots of a character tied to a chair). The sound is fairly tinny. But one cannot really expect this movie to look or sound any better considering how it was made and how it has been preserved. Overall, the picture looks really good and natural, and Taylor’s images remain bold and atmospheric.

Spider Baby also delivers in the extras area, several of which have been carried over from Dark Sky’s 2009 DVD. There’s a nice half-hour documentary that trots out most of the surviving major players, including Hill, Taylor, Washburn, and Haig (as we’re sadly reminded, Jill Banner died in a car crash in 1982, and obviously, old-timers Chaney and Mantan Moreland have been gone for decades). Carol Ohmart is the only notable no-show. Hill and Haig contribute an audio commentary, and there are additional featurettes on the Merrye House and Ronald Stein, who composed the memorable score, including the fun theme song “sung” by Lon Chaney; a stills gallery; an alternate opening credits sequence with the original title Cannibal Orgy; and an extended version of the scene in which all the outsiders arrive at Merrye House.

The two major extras unique to Arrow’s blu-ray are “The Host”, a Jack Hill student short boasting Sid Haig’s film debut, and a 2012 panel discussion featuring Jack Hill, Beverly Washburn, and Quinn Redeker (Uncle Peter). “The Host” is a 1960 western based on James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. It has atmosphere and a star-quality star, but the addition of a cheesy synthesizer score clashes with the period mood. For those looking for that old Jack Hill touch of schlock, there’s a little gore and the truly ridiculous impersonations of Mexicans that Haig’s costars perpetrate. The panel takes a while to get started, so we only spend 23 minutes of its half-hour with the director and actors (though the MC’s extended description of other programs running at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences FILM-TO-FILM festival made me wish I could travel back to 2012). Then we get to heartfelt remembrances of Banner and Chaney from Washburn, quite a bit of capering and one provocative comment about The Beatles’ fondness for Banner from Redeker, and some background on the film from Hill that touches on the stage musical version and Hill's own unproduced sequel. Im keeping my fingers crossed that that one might still happen...

Monday, June 8, 2015

Review: 'Dust on the Nettles: A Journey Through the British Underground Folk Scene 1967-72'

While the American hippies were digging up the blues and country roots buried in their home soil, their British counterparts were getting back in touch with their own past. Thus, archaic ballads, weird legends, and a creepy Gothic sensibility came billowing out of the cauldron that some branded “acid folk.” The endless Jerry Garcia jams yawning across the pond could only sound staid and boring in comparison.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Review: 'Lennon' Vinyl Box

If one phrase sums up how John, Paul, George, and Ringo returned after The Beatles split up it must be “without compromise.” Paul made no effort to tidy up his farm-grown mess McCartney. George let his thoughts on God and religion hang out further than the great, bushy beard he sports on the cover of All Things Must Pass. Ringo thumbed his schnoz at the Rock & Roll world that made his career with a disc of ancient standards called Sentimental Journey. However, no former Beatle began his solo career as uncompromisingly as John Lennon. With John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, he tossed a lit match on the life he’d lived up until that point, tearing into religion and former partner Paul, railing at the mother and father who’d abandoned him and the misogynist he’d been in his younger years, and declaring that all he needed now was himself, his wife, and maybe a little “Sesame Street” (“Cookie!”). Without a lick of the hominess of Paul’s debut, the spirituality of George’s, or the comfy familiarity of Ringo’s, John made a record that was devastating, honest, raw, and more than a little abrasive. In other words, John made a record that was very John.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Review: Lovin' Spoonful Mono Remasters

Unlike their considerably more progressive cousins across the water, The Beatles, The Lovin’ Spoonful acclimated to the stereo format quite nicely in 1965. While Help! and Rubber Soul both found The Beatles’ vocals lazily panned away from their instruments to the extreme, Do You Believe in Magic was generally balanced and full. That does not mean the stereo mix was perfect—exhibit A being John Sebastian’s hard-panned lead vocal on “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?” Both of the Spoonful’s other two absolute classic records—Daydream and Hums of The Lovin’ Spoonful—also contain one stereo track that commits this same crime (“You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice” on the former and “Rain on the Roof” on the later). The overall stereo separation of those two albums is also more extreme than that of Do You Believe in Magic. Nevertheless, the stereo mixes are the ones that have remained in print.

Sundazed is now offering fans a couple of choices by reissuing the Spoonful’s three finest albums in mono, both on CD and vinyl. It goes without saying that “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?”, “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice”, and “Rain on the Roof” sound better on these discs than they do on any other CD in print, and not just because of their centered vocals. Sundazed has a rep for the warmth, clarity, and crunch of their reissues. Magic, Daydream, and Hums are no exception. That “crunch” is particularly noteworthy here since the Spoonful were one of the lighter major acts of their period, but rockers like “My Gal”,  “On the Road Again”, and “4 Eyes” kick professional ass (an unfortunate exception is “Summer in the City”, which ends up sounding like mud). Even softer pieces like their glorious cover of The Ronettes’ “You Baby” radiate power in this format. 

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