Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Review: 'It Crept from the Tomb'

From the Tomb is the abbey-normal brainchild of Peter Normanton, a long time aficionado of classic horror comics. Normanton and his supporting cast of GhouLunatics such as Frank Motler, Peter Crowther, and Barry Forshaw use the British ’zine as an outlet for historical retrospectives, artist tributes, and personal tales for collectors of E.C., Charlton, Marvel, and the rest’s most gruesome titles.

In 2016, Twomorrows Press anthologized a selection of these articles from past issues of From the Tomb in a collection that somehow slipped under my radar. However, I managed to snag a follow up collection called It Crept from the Tomb, which bundles up a sprint through the careers of lurid artists Lou Morales and Richard Corben, the interesting story of Britain’s answer to Fredric Wertham, a few non-critical histories of the depiction of anti-communist hysteria in comics (these pieces do not focus on horror comics and are flatly written in keeping with the dullness of the topic), a piece on sex comics (which reaches the odd conclusion that "Human progress has evolved precisely...because of the males objective fascination with the female form"), a look back at House of Hammer comics, a quick look at the history of vampires in the comics, etc.

I enjoyed the pieces most when historical details specific to Britain entwined with more personal stories. Barry Forshaw’s memories of acquiring a banned and exceedingly rare copy of the first Tales from the Crypt published in the UK (a hodgepodge of stories published in various American issues) is neat both for the rarely told history and the nostalgia-stoking details (he swapped a beloved toy for the comic) that will resonate with collectors who surely have their own such tales stored in their personal crypts. It Crept from the Tomb is also loaded with comic art, which mostly stick with the lo-fi B&W images of a true ’zine but also adorn a lengthy full-color spread in the middle of the book.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Review: 'Led Zeppelin: All the Albums, All the Songs'

As Martin Popoff admits in his introduction to Led Zeppelin: All the Albums, All the Songs, he is not the first writer to examine every song in the band’s catalogue. The first time I read such a thing was a fairly cursory but appetite-whetting chapter in Charles Cross’s 1991 illustrated history Led Zeppelin: Heaven and Hell. Dave Lewis did a more thorough job in 2012’s Led Zeppelin: From a Whisper to a Scream, but his book lacked critical distance, a personal touch, and any kind of design aesthetic (there’s also Chris Welch’s Led Zeppelin: The Ultimate Collection from 2016, but I haven’t read that one).

So Popoff rightly recognized that there was room for the more attentive track-by-track study he gives Zep in his recent book. Popoff loves Led Zeppelin, but he also recognizes that their output isn’t flawless. He rightfully acknowledges that “You Shook Me” is boring and that Coda could have been improved without that retread of I Cant Quit You Baby, and though “Achilles Last Stand” is one of my very favorite Zeppelin songs, his criticisms of that beloved track are pretty reasonable. Even with such mildly iconoclastic strokes, Popoff finds something positive to say about almost all of their songs, so the punters won’t get too pissed off. I was kind of hoping he’d sink the knife in a bit deeper when discussing the band’s more overrated recordings (much of Led Zeppelin II, for example), but as a fan, I was pretty satisfied, and I’m always happy when a writer is on the pro side of the highly divisive “Carouselambra” debate.

Beyond its critical angle, All the Albums, All the Songs delivers in terms of history and trivia. Popoff covers the instruments the guys used at particular sessions, right down to Jimmy Page’s guitar-bow specifications (“more tension and more rosin”). I hadn’t known that Johnny Ramone obsessively drilled “Communication Breakdown”, which may largely account for his tireless down stroke technique, and I had no idea what the “merle” mentioned in “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” is until now.

As a publication by the coffee table-centric Voyageur Press, All the Albums, All the Songs is also an eye-grabbing assemblage of color and B&W photos. It also betrays that publisher’s tendency to not cross every T during the editing process, which leaves some sentences hard to decipher (for example: “It’s a strange reference that Plant so fleeting it seems a metaphor” in the write-up on “Ramble On”). Furthermore, the fact that Popoff glosses over anything not on an album released between 1968 and 1982 (barely a mention of “Hey, Hey What Can I Do”, “Travelling Riverside Blues”, “Baby Please Come Home”, etc.) undermines his title. Still, his engaging and attractive book essentially satisfied that appetite for a hearty discussion of Led Zeppelin’s output that Cross stoked nearly thirty years ago.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Review: Vinyl Edition of Veruca Salt's 'Eight Arms to Hold You'

Producer Brad Wood shot Veruca Salt’s American Thighs through an evocative layer of mid-fi indie gauze, and the result was arguably the strongest debut album since Wood’s production of Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville the year before. However, gnarly monsters like “All Hail Me”, “Victrola”, and the definitive hit “Seether” suggested that Veruca Salt might be happier to Rock without the indie part (so did the disc’s AC/DC-referencing title).

Nina Gordon, Louise Post, Steve Lack, and Jim Shapiro made good on that threat with Eight Arms to Hold You, a ROCK album as full throttle as any by the Young Brothers. With A-bomb-force production from Bob Rock—who’d worked with such hairspray enthusiasts as Bon Jovi, Mötley Crüe, David Lee Roth, and Aerosmith—tracks such as “Straight”, “Volcano Girls”, the absolutely killer “Don’t Make Me Prove It”, and “Shutterbug” hit harder than anything on American Thighs. Even poppier numbers such as “With David Bowie” and ballads such as the rapturous “Benjamin” hit harder than the mass of Veruca Salt’s first album. Consequently, Veruca Salt’s recordings lost a good deal of their atmospheric allure, but they gained a lot of power, though in the cases of some of the heavier numbers, that power could get a bit much.

With a refreshingly quiet mastering job, UMe’s new vinyl edition of Eight Arms to Hold You tones down the overwhelming noise a bit, smoothing out Bob Rock’s excesses pleasingly. The vinyl arrives in two formats: 120-gram black and 180-gram gold (which is the one I received for review). Both editions include the bonus track “Good Disaster”, a “B-side” on the original “Volcano Girls” single. Whenever I’d listen to my Eight Arms CD, I’d always picture “Benjamin” as the last track on Side A and “Shutterbug” as the first one on side B (yes, yes—I had a real hard time acclimating to the CD age), but the presence of “Good Disaster” bumps “Shutterbug” to the end of side A for whatever that’s worth. The bonus track serves as a gentle epilogue to the epic “Earthcrosser” in a similar manner to the way “Sleeping Where I Want” followed “25” on American Thighs. The CD booklet is converted to a large insert with band photos on one side and lyrics on the other, though the purple and gold scheme of the booklet lyrics are converted to straight B&W for this vinyl release.

Apparently, this is not the first time Eight Arms to Hold You was available on vinyl, though I’m sure its nineties incarnation was quite a rarity. While issuing the digital recordings of the nineties on vinyl is technically excessive and unnecessary, I still love having those great old CDs are being converted to this more textural format, and I’m glad that Eights Arms to Hold You has been given the opportunity to take part in this fun trend.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Review: 'Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice' Blu-ray

Developing The Monkees was the most substantial thing on Paul Mazursky’s behind-the-camera résumé before he made his feature-film directorial debut with Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice in 1969. If nothing else, his TV work indicated he had genuine sympathy with the counterculture even though he was well past the age that hippies could trust him. But these are all elements that make Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice such a fascinating film. The infamous swingers angle is how the movie was marketed, but it’s really about how two almost-middle-aged couples acclimate to a rewritten world in which the sexual mores of their youths have basically been obliterated and things like unfiltered honesty and communication are new to marital relationships. Bob (Robert Culp) and Alice (Natalie Wood) are the privileged pseudo-hipsters of the quartet, attending a sort of Plato-Meets-Janov Retreat to get in touch with their feelings. Ted (Elliot Gould) and Alice (a truly marvelous Dyan Cannon) are that couple’s uptight, old school best friends with whom they end up in bed by the film’s climax. The touchy feely philosophy of the film makes it as dated in its own way as such other counter-culture items as Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy both also released in 1969 (and the former is also a product of The Monkees’ camp). Yet those grittier films traded in a hip cynicism that appealed to hippies at the time but now reads as a criticism of counter-cultural ideals. Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice never sneers at the idea that “All You Need Is Love” even as it examines that philosophy from a number of angles, some of which are a lot less flattering than others. It is a film that truly believes in love to the point that its unexpectedly transcendent climax finds the characters all but reaching out of the screen to embrace and comfort its audience. Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is also surprisingly mature for a movie mainly marketed as titillation, as it examines marital relationships with more honesty and openness than any other late-sixties movie I’ve seen. It is certainly refreshing to watch a movie that deals incisively with themes of consent in the bedroom that was made at a time when slobs chasing secretaries around desks was still considered funny.

The image of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice Twilight Time’s Blu-ray is good overall, with strong colors and nothing egregious in the way of scratches, dots, or debris. The grain is on the heavy side and you may find it excessive depending on your tolerance. Bonus features include the 18-minute Tales of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (a stage interview with Mazursky that deals as much with his thoughts on comedy as it deals with our main feature) and the informative and charming commentary with Cannon, Gould, Culp, and Mazursky (the latter two have since died) ported over from the DVD, as well as a new commentary with Twilight Time’s resident historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Review: 'Dragonwyck' Blu-ray

Although he’d starred in such second-tier Universal horrors as The Invisible Man Returns and Tower of London, Vincent Price didn’t really become established as the horror star of his generation until House of Wax in 1953. Yet it was 1946’s Dragonwyck that saw the Vincent Prince archetype coalesce. His ruthless landowner Nicholas van Ryn is posh, snooty, seemingly soulless yet tortured to his soul, and more than a little campy (one might imagine 20-year-old Roger Corman sitting in the cinema, taking notes). Despite some arguments to the contrary, and a couple of spooky scenes that actually imply mental illness more than supernatural doings, Dragonwyck is not a horror movie at all but a Gothic romance in the recently-established Rebecca tradition. Like Hitchcock’s commercial breakthrough, Dragonwyck is based on a piece of neo-Gothic pulp literature and focuses on a naïve young woman (Gene Tierney) who takes up residence in the gloomy mansion of a troubled older man with some nasty secrets (Price). The payoff of Dragonwyck is not as satisfying as its more prestigious predecessor’s, the pace can be sluggish at times, and the whole affair feels a bit slight despite the grandeur of the performances, music, and sets, but it certainly is more fun to watch Vincent Price in this kind of picture than Lawrence Olivier. Gene Tierney’s Miranda Wells is also a stronger heroine than Joan Fontaine’s nameless bride, though Miranda’s pluck wilts by the end of the picture. Price makes up for that by layering on the juiciest slices of ham he can cook up at this early stage of his career.
Twilight Time’s 1080p presentation of Dragonwyck might not knock you out—there’s a little dirt here and there and detail is sometimes weak—but there is no significant damage or debris, grain is organic, and the sound is excellent, really showcasing Alfred Newman’s lush, sometimes baroque, sometimes almost poppy score, as does Twilight Time’s obligatory isolated music track. This disc also ports over some nice bonuses from the 2008 DVD: a featurette called A House of Secrets: Exploring Dragonwyck, which includes some talking heads making that unconvincing “Dragonwyck is a horror movie” argument, a commentary by historian Steve “Dragonwyck is a horror movie” Haberman and filmmaker Constantine Nasr, and a radio drama of the story performed by Price and Tierney in the year of the film’s release. Twilight Time adds an additional radio adaptation from 1947, this one starring Price and Teresa Wright, and best of all, a pair of full-length A&E biographies—one utterly sad, one utterly charming—spotlighting the film’s two stars.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Review: Criterion Edition of 'The Silence of the Lambs'

The horror film had basically been around since the dawn of cinema—Méliès’s still-creepy Le Manoir du diable appearing just a few years after the Lumière Brothers’ earliest experiments—but it remained so disreputable that the fact that a true-blood horror movie such as The Silence of the Lambs could also be a prestige picture was still regarded as something of a novelty a century after Méliès. And Jonathan Demme’s film won all its critical, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and audience plaudits despite being a gory, grisly, transgressive adaptation of a pulp novel. Demme’s pungent Gothic style, Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins’s masterful performances, and a story with a pulpy surface and a pointedly feminist core were all suited to the art houses as well as the multiplexes. That the film’s gigantic artistic and commercial success didn’t actually manage to spark some sort of horror revolution—in fact, the nineties proved to be a really decade of doldrums for the genre—emphasizes how horror hadn't quite gone legit yet and what a lightning-in-a-bottle phenomenon The Silence of the Lambs was.

That doesn’t mean the movie is tragically dated, though the fact that the acronym “LGBQT” has become a household word in the ensuing 27 years means that members of that community will no longer be the only ones who take offense to the stereotypical antics of trans serial killer Buffalo Bill. The film’s legacy does not ignore that unfortunate reality, which is addressed in nearly every supplemental feature in the film’s multitudinous DVD and Blu-ray editions.

The Criterion Collection’s new Blu-ray edition of The Silence of the Lambs gathers every substantial bonus feature from those various discs released by various companies (well, MGM and Criterion, to be precise), while also giving them a 1080p upgrade. Criterion’s latest also adds two significant additions, the most enticing of which will probably be an extra 20 minutes of deleted scenes (this includes eight full minutes with that obnoxious preacher Hannibal Lecter is forced to watch from his cell), though critic Maitland McDonagh’s discussion of serial killers in life and film and the way they pertain to the main feature is the most compelling new perk. She also speaks at length about the Hannibal TV series.

As for that main feature, Criterion’s 4K restoration is one of the best I have ever seen. The film’s muted tones may slightly mute the wow factor, but not by much. You don’t need an eye-full of brilliant colors to appreciate how powerful the definition and depth of this picture are. Some of the exterior scenes practically look 3-D. So those hours and hours of interviews and documentaries are really great, but the real reason to upgrade to this new Criterion blu-ray is the most potent representation of some of the most potent images of nineties cinema.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Big Box of Love's 'Forever Changes' Coming

Rhino missed the mark by several months when naming its upcoming Forever Changes box set the '50th Anniversary Edition', but better late than never I suppose. On April 6th, the label will pay tribute to Love's highly influential and still wonderful 1967 masterpiece with a set containing 4 CDs, 1 DVD, and 1 vinyl LP. 

The CDs feature the newly remastered original stereo mix, the original mono mix, the 2008 alternate mix from Rhino's 40th Anniversary set, and a collection of singles and outtakes on Disc Four. The DVD is mostly audio with a high-resolution version of the new stereo remaster as well as a rare promo video for the "Your Mind and We Belong Together" single. The vinyl features the stereo mix as well.

Each disc adheres to the same track listing of the original album except for Disc Three, which contains "Wonder People (I Do Wonder)" as a bonus track, and Disc Four, which includes:

1. Wonder People (I Do Wonder)
2. Alone Again Or (Single Version) 

 3. A House Is Not A Motel (Single Version) 
 4. Hummingbirds (Demo)
5. A House Is Not A Motel (Backing Track)
6. Andmoreagain (Alternate Electric Backing Track)
7. The Red Telephone (Tracking Sessions Highlights)
8. Wooly Bully (Outtake)
9. Live And Let Live (Backing Track)
10. Wonder People (I Do Wonder) (Outtake, Backing Track) (*)
11. Your Mind And We Belong Together (Tracking Sessions Highlights)
12. Your Mind And We Belong Together 13. Laughing Stock
14. Alone Again Or (Mono Single Remix)

Monday, February 5, 2018

Review: 'The Doors: Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970'

The Doors’ third-to-last concert was the biggest of their career. In fact, it was the biggest of anyone’s career since the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival even broke Woodstock’s attendance records. Yet it was a gig that occurred at a tough time for the band, and not just because they went on stage at 2 A.M. Jim Morrison was mentally beleaguered by the possibility he may have to face a prison stint for his infamous “indecent exposure” charge and physically softened by alcohol. He appears bearded, a bit bloated, and sedentary at the concert. His vocals remain animalistic, though only when he feels moved to deliver. Listening to the studio version of “When the Music’s Over” was never the most interesting way to spend eleven minutes, but Morrison transforms the pretentious epic into a spellbinding stage performance with his controlled body and uncontrolled voice. “Light My Fire”, a far superior song, ends up sluggish due to Morrison’s lack of commitment to the hit and a long-winded and surprisingly sloppy performance from the band. A seemingly endless version of “The End” is somewhere in between, going on way too long but also supplying more frenetic energy and sheer wackiness than the studio version—and without the song’s Oedipal psychodrama centerpiece no less!

So the new concert film The Doors: Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970 is a mixed bag, but it is still fascinating for its historical value and a brisk new edit of the footage brings all the energy to this performance that Morrison withheld. The dim, red-bulb lighting must have seemed totally inadequate to the massive crowd back in 1970, but it makes the film eerie and atmospheric. For the faithful, this DVD is an unquestionably valuable artifact.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Review: Super Deluxe Edition of 'Roxy Music'

More intricate than glam, sexier than prog, Roxy Music wasn’t just a new band in 1972—it was a new genre. Yet Roxy Music wasn’t unprecedented, and they had a tendency to wear their influences on their sequined sleeves. In fact, their debut album begins with rhythmic quotes from The Velvet Underground and Chuck Berry, melodic ones from The Beatles and Wagner, and sonic quotes from Charlie Parker, King Crimson, and Joe Meek. The magic lies in the way Roxy Music took such disparate influences, jumbled them up, and regurgitated them as something entirely their own. Elements such as Brian Eno’s visionary use of synthesizer vistas —very different from Wonder and Townshend’s more rhythmic use of the new instrument—and Bryan Ferry’s vibrato croon and James Bond-from-Neptune image—very different from Ziggy Stardust’s brand of glamour—were entirely new to pop. And no other Rock band made the oboe an integral part of the line up.
Roxy Music is as audacious a debut as one might expect from a band like this. Each song is totally unique from the one that follows, as the thunderous “Re-Make, Re-Model”, gives way to the confident stride/sci-fi rocket ride of “Ladytron”, which crashes to Earth with the country-ish clip-clop of “If There Is Something”, which then morphs into the Move-like prog of “Chance Meeting”. Roxy Music couldn’t even stick to one style in a single song. It was as if they were afraid they’d never get to make another album and were intent on informing the listener of every place from which they were coming on the first one. Amazingly, this was only the beginning.

Such a rich beginning makes a super-deluxe edition of Roxy Music rich with possibilities. Universal’s new four-disc set covers the music’s various guises quite well, with the requisite reintroduction to the original album (in its 1999 remaster—not new but not begging for another rebuff either) occupying disc one and in studio and live BBC sessions on disc three (each of the album’s tracks is represented save “Bitters End”). Discs two and four are the most exciting. Disc two collects demos and outtakes that include a dramatic, cinematic blueprint for “Ladytron” that presage’s Eno’s collaborations with Bowie several years later, an epic early image of “2 HB”, a short but exciting instrumental outtake, and chattering documents of the makings of tracks such as “Re-Make, Re-Model”, “Bitters End”, and “Virginia Plain”. Even better is disc four, a DVD document of TV and stage performances that deliver both killer live music and Roxy Music’s essential visual element. So does a glam-bam, LP-sized package with big hardcover book featuring an excellent essay by Richard Williams and loads of images of the band in the studio, onstage, and posing... as well as outtakes of the saucy, iconic album cover.
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