Monday, August 31, 2015

Farewell, Wes Craven

The first movie that ever terrified me was Stranger in Our House. It haunted my nightmares for two decades until I finally saw it again in the late nineties. Not being five-years old anymore made me see this 1978 made for TV-movie rather differently (I thought it was bad). Seeing it again last year when I was no longer a cynical twenty-something, I viewed it differently again, and though it no longer frightened me, I enjoyed its deliberate humor, no-bullshit pacing, and story line that does tap into a primal fear (being the only person who recognizes a monster). Would you expect anything less from a horror craftsman like Wes Craven. 

I wouldn't exactly call myself a serious Wes Craven fan, though even movies that I don't personally love--such as Scream or The Hills Have Eyes--are clearly made by an artist who knows his audience and how to satisfy and upset its expectations. In the case of A Nightmare on Elm Street, he made a truly great horror picture for the ages, once again giving his eighties audience what they wanted--lots of dead teens--and what they didn't realize they wanted--an interesting monster, an interesting hero, a witty script, and well-brewed atmosphere. Still, that movie never scared me like Stranger in Our House did (read more about that in Psychobabble's currently-hibernating series Things That Scare Me).
Craven's work in the eighties was so contemporary and fresh, I briefly forgot that he'd been at it for some 15 years before Nightmare on Elm Street, so my jaw dropped when I read about his death this morning. When I saw he was 76, I was surprised by my surprise, though the fact that the cause was brain cancer makes me feel that Wes Craven still went too young. I'll miss him every time I have a bad dream.

Review: 'The Beatles: Photographs from the Set of Help!'

In February 1964, Emilio Lari was a young Italian photographer recently arrived in London when he ambitiously—perhaps foolhardily—decided to horn his way into the filming of A Hard Day’s Night. The movie already had an official production photographer, Dave Thompson, but Lari made enough of an impression on Dick Lester that the director invited him to the set. Lari not only snapped off some iconic shots of the frolicking Fabs that ended up getting published, but also earned himself the position of production photographer on The Beatles’ second film.

Lari’s new book, The Beatles: Photographs from the Set of Help!, collects more than 125 of those B&W and color photos, mostly taken at The Beatles’ mod pad during the filming of the “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” sequence and at the field where they caught the militaristic “I Need You” and “The Night Before” sequences. The most pleasurable images find the guys goofing around between shots. Paul strokes his Hofner violin bass with an invisible bow. George wears his huge, square grin. Ringo takes a snooze while John reads a comic book. John wears a long wig with a bow and flashes the peace sign—certainly one of the first of many times he’d make that gesture for a camera.

Most of these shots were snapped at the flat, and some fans may be a bit put off by seeing the legendary peaceniks monkeying around with rifles and heavy artillery at the field location. But Lari’s pictures are always compelling… how could they not be with such compelling subjects? He’d go on to photograph such iconic film shoots as Barbarella, The Godfather, and Raging Bull, but there’s no question that the biggest stars he ever captured are in The Beatles: Photographs from the Set of Help! 

Monday, August 24, 2015

Review: 'Groove & Grind: Rare Soul ’63 – ’73'

Don Gardener? Little Charles & The Sidewinders? Jackye Owens? The Soul Shakers? I hadn’t heard of them either, at least not until I heard Rock Beat’s new crate-diving collection Groove & Grind: Rare Soul ’63 – ’73. Not every artist on this 4-disc, 112-track box set grooved and grinded in obscurity. Along with the head scratchers are Ike & Tina Turner, Carla Thomas, Kenny Gamble (pre-Huff), Big Dee Irwin, Bettye LaVette, and certainly others who will be familiar to soul scholars. However, even those artists are represented by deep cuts. In fact, Rock Beat’s goal was to only collect tracks that had never appeared on CD before. That’s a pretty massive challenge to take on in the waning days of the medium when rarity collections like these are a jukebox-dime a dozen. I’m not sure how close the compilers came to their goal, but I can at least say I’ve never heard a single thing in this set, though I’m no soul scholar.

I will say this: normally when I review a collection of songs I’ve mostly never heard before, I keep a running list of stand-out tracks to single out in my review. I gave up doing that with Groove & Grind when I realized I was writing down every track. Despite the obscurity of these songs, they are really consistent, and the compiler’s decision to mix up the chronology ensures that Groove & Grind rarely lapses into saminess. Each disc adheres to a theme (Urban Soul, Group Soul, Southern Soul, Funky Soul), but the first three themes are so general that the running remains eclectic and surprising. Things only get intermittently samey on the James Brown-worshipping funky fourth disc. There are also some refreshing splashes of humor, like when The Soul Shakers ill-advisedly challenge Muhammad Ali in “Big Train” or Chet “Poison” Ivey ill-advisedly demands to be called “The Poo Poo Man” in “The Poo Poo Man”.

My only knock is the sound, which is pretty harsh. The liner notes warn that some master tapes couldn’t be recovered and those tracks had to be ripped from 45s. That’s all fine and good, but almost everything on this set kind of sounds like a 45 rip. Perhaps this was a mastering decision to retain consistency, but recordings taken from master tapes should sound better than this, especially when they demand the weight and depth that soul demands.

The song selection and packaging (a mini-box format with extensive track notes), however, are superior. Groove & Grind: Rare Soul ’63 – ’73 is a four-disc instant party. 

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Review: 'House of Bamboo' Blu-ray

When an American army sergeant is killed during a Japanese train heist, the U.S. military and Tokyo police hook up to find out what happened. Unfortunately for this review, to reveal much more about House of Bamboo is to spoil its numerous deceptions and surprising developments. Fortunately for anyone who watches the film, those deceptions and development make it riveting viewing. 

Sam Fuller is the mastermind behind this 1955 mash-up of noir mystery, gangster, military, and romance movie elements. With a genius for injecting soft-boiled humanity into hard-boiled genres, the director delights in confounding our expectations from the broad points of who our characters are to the smaller details, such as when a traditional Japanese dance suddenly mutates into a wild jitterbug. 

Fuller also luxuriates in ravishing locations and sets and the bright colors that undermine the noir clichés that all but melt away by the Hitchcockian climax atop a rotating globe high over Tokyo. While Fuller usually worked in black & white during this period (though he’d just come off the color Hell and High Water), the locations and sets in House of Bamboo are simply too vibrant and detailed to reduce to monochrome. Star Robert Stack brings similar vibrancy and detail to a character who enters the film as a cliché-spouting and rather charmless thug, and ends up taking unexpected turns in keeping with so many of the film’s other elements.

Twilight Time’s new blu-ray really does justice to the DeLuxe Color and CinemaScope breadth of House of Bamboo. Presentation is natural and devoid of a single blemish. This is a beautiful picture. Bonuses include Twilight Time’s standard isolated film score and commentary track with Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, as well as an additional commentary from filmmaker and noir historian Alain Silver and his frequent collaborator James Ursini. Units are limited to 3,000, and you can purchase one on Twilight Time's official site here.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Farewell, Yvonne Craig

As you probably deduced from the headline of this post, there is sad news to report. Actress Yvonne Craig died this past Monday. While Craig's foundation was in ballet, she became known and loved by my fellow geeks for her appearances on such TV classics as "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.", "Star Trek", and of course, "Batman". As Batgirl, she was the last regular character to join the Bat-family, injecting much needed life into the show's formula during its hit-and-miss final season. 

Craig's ballet training was very apparent in the fight scenes that gave the opportunity to flaunt her impressive high-kicking skills. She also got a chance to twirl on screen as the icon green alien dancer Marta in the final season of "Star Trek", sparking rumors that Captain Kirk had a thing for inter-species romance, which persist to this very day.
Aside from appearing on a lot of very cool TV, Craig was a very cool person who devoted her time to supporting worker's unions, advocating free mammograms, and calling for women's right to equal pay. In fact, she stepped into her Batgirl gear for a PSA for that latter issue in 1973.

Sadly, Craig died relatively young at 78. She had suffered from breast cancer, which passed to her liver, for over two years. She will be missed by those who knew her and those who never had the pleasure.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Review: Deluxe Editions of The Seeds' Debut Album and 'A Web of Sound'

They couldn’t claim a string of international hits, but The Seeds were LA garage rock royalty, and sitting on the throne was yowling, howling spaceman Sky Saxon. He and his horde—rippling electric pianist Daryl Hooper, fuzz-faced guitarist Jan Savage, and slamming drummer Rick Andridge—spun out two-chord songs simple as nursery rhymes and monstrous as Grimms’ fairy tales. Their eponymous debut is a work of pure excitement, and though they’ve been accused of recording the same song over-and-over, there’s enough blood running through The Seeds to make it a killer record in the Ramones-vein. In fact, tracks such as the single-minded “Pushin’ Too Hard”, the mesmeric noise “Evil Hoodoo”, and the chanting “No Escape” are as punk as anything The Ramones and their brethren did a decade later. The debut single “Can’t Seem to Make You Mine” contrasts the prevailing speed and stomp with a dreamy pace, but it also has Saxon’s most intense vocal as he erupts into anguished primal screams. I wonder if John Lennon was listening.

Monday, August 10, 2015

1,100th Post: Psychobabble’s 100 Favorite Songs of the 1980s!

Like, gag me with a spoonful of Mr. T cereal, my tubular valley Smurf! I’ve totally posted, like, 100 posts here on Psychobabble since my 1000th post when I ran down my personal favorite 100 songs of the seventies. That means it’s, like, time to do the same for my 100 faves of the eighties! It’s gonna be non-stop Leon Neon references, Pee Wee Herman quotes, and close ups of Madonna’s navel as I bag your face through a massive mass of mint tunes! Where’s the beef? Probably somewhere in my 1,100th post, Poindexter! So take a chill pill and bang your head to Psychobabble’s 100 Favorite Songs of the 1980s! Totally!

100.Nasty” by The Damned

“Oh, you’ve got a video?” Only a total nerd would have answered this question in the negative in the eighties. There was nothing more awesome than going to the video store to rent some shitty movie from the horror section, but if you were English, that awesomeness hit a serious snag when professional prig Mary Whitehouse spearheaded the prosecution of 39 “video nasties,” including Flesh for Frankenstein, Driller Killer, and Cannibal Holocaust. As always, it was Rat Scabies, Dave Vanian, and the aptly named Captain Sensible who called for a little rationality amidst the witchhunt. They did so with three minutes of high-speed punk professing their romance with video nasties. That they recorded the track specifically for one of the best episodes of “The Young Ones” makes “Nasty” all the awesomer.

99.Hungry for You (J’aurais Toujours Faim de Toi)” by The Police

One of the neat surprises of Ghosts in the Machine is how proficient Sting is with a horn in his mouth. Throughout the record, he fattens out the core Police sound with overdubbed saxophone arrangements. The chart on “Hungry for You (J’aurais Toujours Faim de Toi)” is particularly simple, but those two note blasts say more than a million over-bloated eighties saxophone solos. The songs message—mostly delivered in French—is equally fat-free: “No matter what I do, I’m still hungry for you.” That there is real lust.

98.Automatic” by Prince and the Revolution

“Automatic” pretends to be a message of love, but I have a feeling it has something more akin to “Hungry for You” on its dirty mind. Like that Police song, “Automatic” derives its power from a mesmerizing beat, but it also builds a tangible world: the seventh circle of sex hell. Prince’s vision is kind of disturbing because of the explicit threats (“I’m going 2 have 2 torture U now”) and the robotic quality of it all (“A-u-t-o-matic”). Sexy, disturbing, futuristic, uncompromising. Prince in a nutshell.

97.Kiss Off” by The Violent Femmes

Friday, August 7, 2015

Review: 'Wally Wood’s E.C. Stories Artisan Edition'

Late last year when I made my wish list for 2015 here on Psychobabble, the first and most far-fetched entry on the list was for IDW to take “The E.C. Archives” out of Dark Horse’s hands and begin reprinting authentically colored and textured collections of Tales from the Crypt, The Haunt of Fear, and The Vault of Horror. This was far-fetched because Dark Horse clearly had no plans of relinquishing such a valuable catalog and already had additional editions of “The E.C. Archives” scheduled for the coming year. Sigh.

That being said, IDW’s Wally Wood’s E.C. Stories Artisan Edition ain’t a bad consolation prize, even though it is merely a soft-cover edition of a book already published back in 2012 and it lacks any of Wood’s horror stories. However, as far as texture and authenticity go, it can’t be beat. This collection of Wood’s sci-fi, war, and two-fisted tales is very different from those garishly colorful, completely digitized books Dark Horse has been trotting out. The Artisan Edition series presents classic comics in the raw, before they were colored or cleared of pencil notes and pasted-in edits. This kind of book is definitely geared toward a very particular reader with an interest in the process before the final product. Fortunately, Wood’s intricate, lovingly rendered artwork translates quite well to black and white. The pieces in this book demand to be studied deeply to be fully absorbed. It’s the kind of book that rewards repeat perusals.

It would have been nice if editor Scott Dunbier had tossed in a horror story or two. Wood was never super prolific in E.C.’s horror titles, though he did create at least one true classic, “Judy, You’re Not Yourself Today” for Crypt (he also wrote one of the entire E.C. line’s very best stories, “Drawn and Quartered!”; Jack Davis delivered the art). Perhaps the availability of original artwork was a reason Wood’s horror work got shut out.

Still, there is certainly a lot of horror in Wood’s stories, which often veer toward the apocalyptic and depressing. A little boy gets his wish to have his workaholic astronaut dad return home for good in the melodramatic yet devastating “Home to Stay”. “Down to Earth” is a litany of airline disasters. In the poetic “My World”, Wood lays out his cynical world view explicitly with a dash of hope only evident in “The Children”, the only one of his stories in which love trounces cynicism. “Project... Survival!” is inadvertently scary due to its disconcerting distrust of science in all forms, though the fact that the Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombings preceded these stories by just a few years makes that extreme stance somewhat more understandable. Wood powerfully illustrates an account of that particular historical horror story in a devastating piece penned by Harvey Kurtzman, though the fact that Wood didn’t write most of the war and thriller stories means they’re generally less grim and pulpier than the sci-fi ones.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Psychobabble’s Perfect Guided by Voices Box Set Recipe!

Among rock critics’ most tiresome clichés is “Bob needs an editor.” The Bob in question is Guided by Voices’ guide-in-chief, Robert Pollard. The body of work in need of editing is Guided by Voices’ consistently stellar LP catalog. Really? What would you snip off Bee Thousand? Or even the track-stacked Alien Lanes? Or even even the critically and fan maligned Do the Collapse, which is actually an incredible assortment of polished yet still fairly weird pop from start to finish (and, yes, that does include the beautiful Lennon-esque ballad “Hold on Hope”).

As much as I’d never imagine tampering with GBV’s proper albums, their equally plentiful assortment of EPs, outtakes, oddities, and B-sides collections is another story. Here an editor would be welcome to sift through the go-nowhere experiments and sub-par song sketches to cull only the most valuable gems, of which there are many. A small handful of these discs—King Shit and the Golden Boys or Sunfish Holy Breakfast, for example—are solid and require no culling or pruning. But for the most part, even the best of Guided by Voices’ collections—Suitcase or Hardcore UFOs, for example—could use a good set of shears.

In this second installment of Psychobabble’s Perfect Box Set Recipe, I humbly submit myself as shears-wielder. I’ve pored through a mass of the band’s CDs to rescue 141 tracks for the perfect four-disc box set of Guided by Voices’s best outtakes, exclusive singles, EP tracks, demons, painkillers, and pipe dreams. I did my best to assemble the tracks in roughly chronological order, though the sketchy info on some of the outtakes made this impossible, so I attempted to guess the relative era of each mystery track.

I also included a few longer EPs—the Hold on Hope EP, The Pipe Dreams of Instant Prince Whippet— in their near-entirety simply because they’re really good, but I’m rarely inspired to put them in the CD player… and because I had the extra space on these four discs to include so many of their tracks. Hey, this isn’t science, and unlike Bob, I am not a scientist.

As always, I insist that these playlists be burned onto actual CD-Rs and listened to on an actual CD player. To do anything else would make a sham of Psychobabble’s Perfect Box Set Recipe. This also means you need a box, so I hope you recently bought a pair of Keds or something. I should also warn you that the volume levels of these tracks can vary wildly. Just think of the constant volume-knob adjusting you’ll have to do as “engaging in active interaction with your music.” The days of lazily listening to your iPod on shuffle are over here, people. Get ready to work for your entertainment.

But enough jabberstroking! Let’s get to that recipe!


Monday, August 3, 2015

Review: 'Superman: The Atomic Age Sundays 1949-1953'

Pooh-pooh to the dark knights of today’s comics. I prefer it when superheroes get goofy, and there’s no super hero superer than Superman, and he gets super goofy in IDW’s new anthology of his Sunday comic adventures from 1949–1953. Thank artist Wayne Boring and writer Alvin Schwartz, who had enough refreshing disrespect for the Man of Steel to pit him against Arthurian knights and pose as a mustachioed minstrel named Clark of Kent or whittle giant marionettes so he could put on the puppet show that saves a country girl from marrying a smarmy con man. Superman hides Clark Kent robots all over Metropolis and makes a big brass monkey to thwart some thugs. He gets caught in the web of a giant caterpillar. Lois Lane rescues a parrot. It’s fitting that the only arch villain who appears in this daffy volume is that slaphappy, dimension-hopping imp Mr. Mxyztplk.

Without interruptions from B&W daily comic strips following their own story lines, Superman: The Atomic Age Sundays 1949-1953 reads like a proper comic book anthology, especially since the Sunday comics from this period are full page stories that minimize awkward recapping of the previous Sunday’s events. There is much wit, imagination, and heart in Schwartz’s writing as Superman goes about his zany business and criminals meet with more forgiveness than they usually do in the superhero realm. Just don’t expect Superman to settle down and get married. That’s one thing for which he has no forgiveness in these pages!

The book comes with IDW’s usual quality and authenticity: no digital altering of the artwork; grainy paper that recalls the texture of classic comic book pages without the thinness; a slick ribbon bookmark. A few extra extras aside from a brief though informative introduction from comic writer Mark Waid and a selection of Boring’s covers for Superman and Action Comics would have been nice, but you’d be a super jackass to complain too much about a volume as super as The Atomic Age Sundays 1949-1953
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