Monday, May 29, 2017

Review: 'Spaced Out: The Story of Mushroom Records'

Lasting a mere fifteen months from 1971 to 1972, and issuing only sixteen albums, North London’s Mushroom Records still managed to stir up a minor cult following because of the alluringly pungent music label-founder Vic Keary produced. It was an eclectic mix of raga (Pandit Kanwar Sain Trikha), Indian folk (Nitai Dasgupta), psychedelic folk (Magic Carpet), lush prog and early electronic music (Second Hand), jazz (Lol Coxhill), proto new age (Chillum), Irish folk and folk rock (Callinan-Flynn, Jon Betmead), soft rock (Gordo, Ellis, & Steele), and music for burning Edward Woodward alive to (The Liverpool Fishermen; Heather, Adrian, & John). This music is extremely eclectic yet hangs together because of its mutual archaic and exotic vibe and Keary’s sympathetic, sometimes tremendously vibrant (Second Hand’s “Hangin’ on an Eyelid”), production.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

8 Essentials for Living the Original Star Wars Life

When Twentieth Century Fox took a major gamble on a goofy space fantasy imagined by that goofy kid who’d made American Graffiti, neither that company nor George Lucas could have imagined we’d still be so ensconced in Star Wars forty years later. In fact, fans are now able to ensconce themselves more completely in that wacky universe of wookiees, droids, banthas, and wampas than they could back in the late seventies even though it seemed that every conceivable object had some sort of Star Wars equivalent back then. However, compared to a time when anyone can snooze in a tauntaun sleeping bag, make waffles shaped like the Death Star, or dab on Lando-scented cologne, the late seventies was a comparable Tatooine-desert of Star Wars merchandise. You couldn’t even watch the movies on your TV set yet, so those who wished to never leave Lucas Land had to make do with the essential bits of Star Wars-ernalia available. So for you contemporary kids who don’t understand how good you have it, here are eight examples of Star Wars essentials every fanatic worth his or her salt owned back when nobody knew what the hell A New Hope was.

1. Kenner Toys

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. The most effective way to melt into the Star Wars universe aside from watching the films has always been to get down on the floor surrounded by little bits of Star Wars-shaped plastic. The history of Kenner’s Star Wars figures has been regurgitated many, many, many times. I’m sure you already know about how unprofitable movie-tie-in toys had been, how Lucas made his fortune by retaining merchandising rights, how the toys weren’t ready for X-mas 1977 so Kenner sold cardboard “Early Bird” vouchers for Luke, Leia, Chewie, and R2-D2 figures instead. Blah, blah. Equally important is how nifty these little figures that could fit into scale Millennium Falcons and TIE-fighters were, how kooky the decisions to make figures of barely-on-screen characters like Prune Face and not-on-screen-at-all characters like Cloud Car Pilot was while neglecting more prominent characters like Tarkin and Uncle Owen because they didn’t look as cool, and how holding one of these tiny things in your hand today draws up childhood memories like biting into a Proustian Madeleine. And let’s not neglect all of those other variations of Star Wars playthings, like the too-big-to-fit-into-a-plastic-X-Wing “large size” figures that did such an effective job of capturing character likenesses and that plush Chewbacca toy that inspired so many of us to toss our teddy bears in the bin.

2. Listening Materials

A Selection of 'Star Wars' Sketches

In a Star Warsy mood because of the original film's 40th anniversary, I knocked off a few Star Wars-inspired pen and marker sketches. Here they are:

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Review: Steelers Wheel Vinyl Reissues

Stealers Wheel are obviously best known for their wonderful one hit “Stuck in the Middle with You”, a breezy shuffle delivered in a Dylan whine that went top-ten in 1973, but their pedigree is stronger than that of your usual one-hit wonder. Core member Gerry Rafferty went on to a long career of his own, which kicked into gear with the lovely and sad “Baker Street” in 1977. Rock and Roll’s pioneering dynamic duo Leiber and Stoller produced Stealers Wheels’ first two albums. And most important of all, those two albums are very good beyond the hit on the first one.

The band’s eponymous debut finds them toying with soul (“Late Again”), Move-style metal (“I Get By”), calypso (“Another Meaning”), and even power balladry (“You Put Something Better Inside Me”) with consistent success and bubbly personality. Steelers Wheel is a collection of poppy, pleasant, well-crafted music with a sort of underlying “White Album” vibe, though without any of The Beatles’ exciting weirdness.

On Ferguslie Park, the songwriting and production are not quite as sharp. Even the heavier tracks sound airy due to Rafferty and cohort Joe Egan’s ethereal harmonies and Leiber and Stoller’s soft production. The album also lacks a major hit to anchor it, though the McCartney-esque “Star”, which did go top thirty, the glammy “What More Could You Want”, and the light metal “Back on My Feet Again” are all excellent tracks, as are the haunting “Who Cares” and “Everything Will Turn Out Fine”, which feels a bit like “Stuck in the Middle with You Again”. The Kinky social commentary that drives through a lot of these songs can be too blunt at times (see “Good Businessman” and even “Star”), but it contributes to the album’s unified feel.

The vinyl reissues of Stealers Wheel and Ferguslie Park Intervention Records issued last year were created in accordance with that label’s 100% analog philosophy and really shine as a result. The softness of Ferguslie Park could have turned into mush with improper mastering, by Intervention keeps it clear and textured.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Review: Vinyl Reissues of Joe Jackson's First Two Albums

Joe Jackson started his career as a blatant Elvis Costello clone, doing everything but copping Declan’s trademark specs when cooking up cynical, punky power poppers like “Happy Loving Couples” and “Fools in Love” and aggro-Anglo reggae like “Sunday Papers”. So what? Elvis is great and Look Sharp! and I’m the Man are too, and along with Armed Forces, they helped make 1979 a year of riches for nerdy, jilted angry young(ish) men.

Look Sharp! is the favorite Jackson LP, and it is indeed a fierce set with such signature bitter pills as “Is She Really Going out with Him?”, “Sunday Papers”, “One More Time”,  and the title track. I’m the Man is not as cluttered with hits, but for my money, it’s the better album because it’s where Jackson starts finding his own voice with an absence of songs that could spark copyright suits and because phenomenal bassist Graham Maby is so front-and-center. The title track is a hilarious and ferocious crap-culture critique, “Geraldine and John” is Jackson’s most underrated reggae splash, “The Band Wore Blue Shirts” and “Amateur Hour” are masterfully executed mood pieces, and “It’s Different for Girls” is his most incisive piece of sexual politicking, taking the atypical-for-1979 position that some women actually just want to get laid without all the romantic goo men demand.

Last year Intervention Records reissued Joe Jackson’s first two records on vinyl (as well as his fifth, Night and Day, which I did not receive for review purposes). Using a completely analog process, Kevin Gray mastered each album from safety copies of the original master tapes. Played against my original copy of I’m the Man, I can guarantee that it sounds totally authentic and particularly forceful in the low end and whenever Dave Houghton gives his snare drum what for. I didn’t already have Look Sharp! on vinyl, so I could not make a similar comparison, but I can confirm that it sounds warm and wonderful on Intervention’s new vinyl nevertheless.

Since Intervention uses heavyweight plastic inner sleeves for all their releases, I’m the Man has been upgraded to a gatefold with the lyrics and photos (can’t live without that shot of Maby in his mesh tanktop) printed inside the gatefold. Look Sharp! comes in a the same kind of slightly textured sleeve as its first UK pressing. These are vinyl reissues made with love… and not a trace of the delicious cynicism found within their grooves.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Review: 'Night Comes Down: 60s British Mod, R&B, Freakbeat, & Swinging London Nuggets'

Despite a very specific origin in London’s jazzy coffee houses of the early sixties, Mod has gone through so many changes that it basically just means “British” at this point. That elasticity didn’t have to wait until Paul Weller and Phil Daniels reinvigorated the cult in the late seventies; it was already happening ten years time ago in the mid-sixties.

RPM Record’s new triple-disc box Night Comes Down: 60s British Mod, R&B, Freakbeat, & Swinging London Nuggets draws all incarnations of homegrown Mod music in a manner that implies a sort of sound progression by playing with chronology.  Had these 87 tracks been arranged chronologically, they would have sounded like a senseless jumble of cool jazz and R&B, bulls-eye power pop, underground-scene psychedelia, and sprinklings of other styles, such as the more mainstream pop of Twinkle’s “What Am I Doing Here with You” and the eccentric genre-shuffling of the two instrumentals from the soundtrack of the Marianne Faithful vehicle (tee-hee) Girl on a Motorcycle. Instead, the songs are more-or-less arranged according to style, so the set strolls from the kind of hard R&B (Lita Roza’s “Mama”), Booker T.-style work outs (The Mike Cotton Sound’s throbbing “Like That”), and jazzy slow-drips (Laurel Aitken’s “Baby Don’t Do It”) the original Mods dug to the red-with-purple-flowers detonations championed by The Who and The Birds to the U.F.O Club sounds that really have nothing to do with the movement except for maybe giving ex-Mods a spot to drop acid now that they were done popping purple hearts.

Needless to say, the real theme here is “smashing music,” so who cares what’s “real Mod” and what isn’t. That distinction sure doesn’t matter when tracks such as The Moody Blues’ soulful “And My Baby’s Gone” is rubbing elbows with The Attraction’s amp-slashing “She’s a Girl”, Fat Mattress’ trippy “I Don’t Mind”, and Twiggy’s magnificent “When I Think of You”, which somehow draws those three disparate styles together without sounding like some sort of hack-and-glue job. There are other familiar names too, such as Arthur Brown, Spencer Davis Group (post-Stevie Winwood), Johns Children, Chad & Jeremy, Alexis Korner, Mark Wirtz, and Mike D’Abo (as well as tracks featuring such future stars as Jimmy Page and Lemmy, who gets in on the thievery of a “Kids Are Alright” rip so blatant that the track is credited to Townshend), but none of the artists are represented by their best-known numbers, so there’s a lot to discover on Night Comes Down.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Review: 'Sgt. Pepper at Fifty: The Mood, The Look, The Sound, The Legacy of The Beatles’ Great Masterpiece'

Like 1955, 1977, and 1991, 1967 was a pivotal year for Rock & Roll. There was now a permanent place for ART in the raw and raucous genre, and critics and older people started taking it seriously. The LP replaced the single as Rock’s main medium. Pop bands were no longer limited to guitars, bass, and drums. All of this is tightly tied to the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and when you’re on the 50th Anniversary of such watershed events, a lot of retrospectives naturally follow.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Review: 'The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen'

What do you have to do to be worthy of the title “superhero”? Must you be capable of flying around in your underwear or blasting cobwebs out of your wrists? Do you need the wealth and training to thwart evildoers with your creepy cowl, pricey toys, and great, big muscles? Or maybe a woman who simply manages to run the everyday patriarchal gauntlet and come out the other end with her humor, wits, self-respect, and strength intact is a sort of superhero too.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Review: 50th Anniversary Edition of 'Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band'

They can call those blues-peddling Stones a bunch of middle-class poseurs. They can call The Beach Boys too square. They can accuse The Monkees of being phony or The Who of being pretentious, but even the most hostile critics can’t say “boo” about the unassailable Beatles. This has been the prevailing consensus for some fifty years now— and let’s be honest— as far as pop legacies go, The Beatles’ is as airtight as it gets.

That does not mean that it’s perfect or that there is no room for improvement. Even The Beatles’ most influential and definitive album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, could use some gussying up, largely because of the obvious flaws of its original stereo mix which committed the same crimes as so many of The Beatles’ stereo mixes. As the now well-known story goes, The Beatles were mono purists who usually baled on George Martin’s hastily performed stereo mixing sessions. Those stereo mixes tended to be poorly balanced and lacked some of the carefully considered signature touches of the mono mixes. On Sgt. Pepper’s, songs that were treated with effects in the mono mix might lack them in stereo. Tracks that had their speed altered in mono might not receive the same colorations in stereo. Consequently, and perhaps ironically since stereo is made for hearing the full spectrum of trippy music through headphones, the mono mix of The Beatles’ psychedelic opus ended up more psychedelic than the stereo mix.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Review: 'Toybox Time Machine: A Catalog of the Coolest Toys Never Made'

Advertising is an eyesore and brainsore of bland compositions, slick computer graphics, and lazy irony. It wasn’t always this way. The mad men of the mid-twentieth century often created marvelous art pieces with striking graphics and gonzo promises (see: sea monkeys). These ads were at their most marvelously striking when hawking junk for kids. Marty Baumann, a multi-faceted artist who helped create the looks of Disney’s Toy Story 3 and Cars and played guitar with Bobby “Blue” Band and Jr. Walker & the All Stars, was steeped in that enchanting style, which bursts forth in his own retro creations collected in a new book called Toybox Time Machine: A Catalog of the Coolest Toys Never Made.

Each of the book’s pieces is presented as a faux mid-century ad for toys but and other kid-centric products like candy, Halloween costumes, and sugary breakfast cereals. Each piece is conceived in its own particular style, sometimes recalling the work of such period icons as Jack Davis, Ed Roth, Hanna-Barbera, and James Bama, while the faux products are often based on existing ones:  View Master, Aurora Model Kits, Ben Cooper costumes, Silly Putty, Barbi dolls,  Beatles guitars, etc. The bogus TV shows with which many of the products tie-in are sly twists on properties like The Groovie Goolies, Yogi Bear (reborn as a beatnik!), Batman, Dark Shadows, Honey West, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., George of the Jungle, and others that will get the nostalgia glands salivating. Spotting the references is part of the fun of soaking in all these dreamy mid-century- style graphics and fetishes (expect plenty of tikis, monsters, robots, rockets, and spies). And some groovy co. really needs to make Baumann’s battery-operated Creepy Clutching Hand crawler a toy-box reality.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Review: Edsel Records' Deluxe Turtles Reissues

Although they scooped up a bundle of smash 45s such as “Elenore,” “You Showed Me”, “It Ain’t Me Babe”, and the deathless “Happy Together”, The Turtles never quite garnered the reputation for being a great album group as peers such as The Byrds, Simon & Garfunkel, and The Monkees did. That’s too bad because The Turtles’ albums tended to be as effervescent, memorable, and weird as their singles. The LPs also really throw a spotlight on the odd ways a group most noted for their good-timey pop tunes evolved.

The 1965 debut, It Ain’t Me Babe, finds the L.A. sextet in total folk-rock mode, covering Dylan with almost as much enthusiasm as The Byrds did on their debut. The Turtles also shred through a couple of bitter treats by Dylan-aspirer P.F. Sloan and thoughtful originals by their own Howard Kaylan, such as “Wanderin’ Kind” and “Let the Cold Winds Blow”. While there are none of the gum drops that would soon come tumbling out of The Turtles’ shells, a jaunty version of “Your Maw Said You Cried” and the band’s decision to cover a tune by Tin Pan Alley team Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil is an early clue that times would soon be changin’ for the less politicized.

Nevertheless, 1966’s You Baby/Let Me Be is still dominated by “Let Me Be” brooding rather than “You Baby” sugariness, offering another slew of withering folk rock, such as Kaylan’s “House of the Rising Sun”-esque “House of Pain” and Highway 61-esque “Pall Bearing, Ball Bearing World”. Even the love songs are pretty moody, and the upbeat “Flyin’ High” and the Kinky “Almost There” bookend the album with a fanged snarl. A version of Bob Lind’s “Down in Suburbia”, however, matches cute social commentary with a fun and funky Latin clatter, hinting at the clever strangeness to come.

Then came The Turtles’ breakthrough year, 1967, and the hits that really defined their career. “Happy Together” and “Me About You” are too moody to really categorize as bubblegum, but “She’d Rather Be with Me”, “Guide for the Married Man”, “Makin’ My Mind Up”, and “Person without a Care” deliver the Bazooka Joe goods in the best way. Happy Together is also where The Turtles started exploring their inner zany for good (“The Walking Song”) and ill (the unlistenable “Rugs of Woods and Flowers”).

Produced by one-time Turtle Chip Douglas, 1968’s The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands makes use of a concept that allows the band to indulge every idiosyncratic side of their personality with complete abandon. The album basically makes good on the supposed concept beneath Sgt. Pepper’s: The Turtles pretend to be a different band on each track, which allows them to show off how well they could mock soul combos (“The Battle of the Bands”), psych groups (“The Last Thing I Remember”), corny C&W pickers (“Too Much Heartsick Feeling”), surf bands (“Surfer Dan”), jazz fusionists (“Food”), Booker T. & The MG’s (“Buzz Saw”), errr…world music? (“I’m Chief Kamanawanalea”), and themselves (“Elenore”). A rare flash of sincerity called “Earth Anthem” reveals that the Turtles still cared about their world, could create work of tremendous beauty, and were rather prescient in their ability to foresee the coming environmental movement of the seventies. Anyone baffled by how the guys who sang “Happy Together” ended up working with Frank Zappa should listen to Battle of the Bands pronto.

Unlike The Turtles’ previous hit-packed albums, Turtle Soup failed to spawn a significant single. This is significant because it also marks The Turtles’ complete maturation as an album group. Blame Ray Davies, whom the band hired to produce in the vein of The Kinks’ raucous early singles. However, Davies had just completed his masterpiece, the textured and sensitive Village Green Preservation Society, and decided to continue with that approach while also taking advantage of resources available to a band that sold a lot more records in 1968 than The Kinks did. The results were such Wagnerian production feats as “Love in the City” and “How You Loved Me”, as well as the more elegantly orchestrated “John and Julie”. Relatively simple productions, such as the ’66-style jangle of “She Always Leaves Me Laughing”, the stripped down boogie of “Hot Little Hands”, and the Happy Together-revisited arrangement of “You Don’t Have to Walk in the Rain” were just as effective. As far as I’m concerned, Turtle Soup is not just the best Turtles album but also one of the very best of 1969, and I’d sooner spin it than such acknowledged classics of that year as Led Zeppelin’s debut, Let It Bleed, and The Kinks’ own Arthur.

If you’ve yet to discover the hidden wonders of Turtle Soup and the rest of The Turtles’ long-playing catalog, you’d do no better than starting with Edsel’s new reissue series. Utilizing Bill Inglot’s same warm and detailed remasters that graced Manifesto’s Complete Original Album Collection released in the U.S. last year, Edsel’s new individual releases split the mono and stereo mixes of the first three albums between two discs each (dont bother popping in the stereo It Ain’t Me Babe disc unless you have a high tolerance for vocals hard panned to the left and instruments hard panned to the right).  The second discs of Battle of the Bands, Turtle Soup, and the collection of 1966 outtakes Wooden Head load up on stereo mixes of non-album singles (the mono originals were collected on last year’s superb All the Singles), Turtle Soup demos, some fabulous psychedelic outtakes cut around the same time as Sound Asleep, and a fascinating and characteristically unsettling half-dozen Jerry Yester productions recorded for the band’s scrapped 1970 LP to be titled Shell Shock (judging from these tracks, it would have been a great record). The nice digipak packaging and Andrew Sandoval’s short but sweet liner notes help give these excellent albums the respect they should have been receiving for the past fifty years.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Review: 'Star Wars: The Classic Newspaper Comics Volume One'

With their simple emotions and motivations, instantly recognizable appearances, and thrilling derring-do, Luke Skywalker, Chewbacca, and the rest of the Star Wars gang were just at home in the comics as they were on the screen. Founded by an unabashed comics junkie, Lucasfilm recognized this immediately and dispatched Charles Lippincott to sell the idea of Star Wars comics to Marvel, striking a deal that would see the books hitting shelves just as Lucas’s film was hitting screens. 

The Marvel books were a smash and allowed all the opportunities for new adventures and characters that the film series’ necessarily slow schedule couldn’t allow. Two years after the debut of the Star Wars comic books, more opportunities for intergalactic action arose when the franchise expanded to the L.A. Times Syndicate’s daily papers. The Star Wars black & white daily strips and color Sunday ones were more simplistic and less eccentric than their comic book cousins (nothing comparable to Marvel’s outlandish man-rabbit Jaxxon here). However, Russ Manning’s stark artwork offered the surprise revelation that George Lucas’s colorful universe could translate mighty well to moody black & white and his passion for the film resulted in a voice truer to the source material than Marvel’s freewheeling wackiness (the fact that one storyline references the wookiee Life Day celebration introduced in the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special is probably wacky enough for a lot of fans.). The newspaper stories were generic enough that several of them have Marvel equivalents (Princess Leia liberates slaves while posing as one; the Star Warriors encounter a race of telepaths; etc.) but there are unique elements that make the strip its own thing, such as the device of having C-3PO relay the adventures to a super computer named Mistress Mnemos and the appearance of other original creations, such as the ethereal villain Black Hole and his dark-clad cadre of stormtroopers and Grand Moff Tarkin’s blood-hungry widow who resembles one of those terrifying Disney villains.

These strips have been posthumously compiled before, but IDW’s new anthology Star Wars: The Classic Newspaper Comics Volume One does so with the publisher’s special touch, making these strips extra pleasurable to revisit. A hardcover volume that refuses to digitize the original inking, the book includes such bonus material as an introduction on the series, a biography of Manning, unpublished story ideas and panels, and a ribbon bookmark. This first volume covering March 1979 through October 1980 is a lovely presentation typical of IDW, and the promise that the next installment will feature an adaptation of Brian Daly’s novel Han Solo at Star’s End is quite an enticement to watch the skies for Volume Two. I’m glad the daily strips didn’t sideline the best Star Wars character in carbonite for three years like the Marvel books did.
All written content of is the property of Mike Segretto and may not be reprinted or reposted without permission.