Friday, August 31, 2018

Review: 'It Must Be Art! Big O Poster Artists of the 60s & 70s'

Poster art made the big leap from the purely commercial to the voguishly decorative in the mid-sixties when hippies started decorating their groovy pads with brain-blistering images originally intended to attract flocks to Dylan concerts or other assorted happenings. During this period, infamous counterculture magazine OZ gave birth to a poster business with the express intent of enticing flower children to wallpaper their dorms with affordable images from the likes of Martin Sharp, Roger Dean, and Heinz Edelman, in essence transforming graphic art into something more personal. Big O Posters hawked its wares from 1967 into the punk era, when decidedly un-flowery artists such as H.R. Giger got in on the fun.

It Must Be Art! Big O Poster Artists of the 60s & 70s
tells the story of the company, profiles nineteen of its most significant artists, and most importantly by a great distance, presents many of its posters and other artworks by the profiled artists in full color and at large scales. The art towers above all else both because it is outrageously striking by design and because much of the text is not that interesting. Roger Dean may have produced some truly iconic fantasy images, but he’s kind of a dull dude. The same is true of most of the graphic artists who often tell their own stories via dry interviews. There are a few exceptions when too much acid (David Vaughan), awful wartime experiences (Virgil Finley), or proximity to the infinitely more exciting pop world (Edelman, who designed Yellow Submarine seemingly against his will, and Sharp, who co-wrote “Tales of Brave Ulysses” and created some Cream album covers) intervene. Witchy Vali Myers is the rare artist in this book who makes for interesting text on personality alone, and not just because she’s the only woman who cracked its all-too-typical Boys Club.

But no one is going to pick up It Must Be Art! for its words. While some of the artwork is indescribably ugly (Brad Johannsen’s “Parson’s Crazy Eyes”) or tacky (pretty much everything by Robert Venosa), there’s also a lot of cool stuff in a wide variety of styles. The best of it captures psychedelia at its most garish without losing focus: Sharp’s intricate graphic designs, Dean’s prog dreamscapes, Ivan Ripley’s nursery décor, Rudolph Hausner’s bold and grim surrealism, Graham Percy’s tactile cuteness, Virgil Finlay’s pointillistic intricacies, Wayne Anderson’s mellow, gnomish fairy tales. There are also neat spreads devoted to Yellow Submarine and Giger’s Alien.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Review: 4 Vinyl Reissues from Siouxsie and the Banshees

In the U.S., Siouxsie and the Banshees didn’t expand their audience beyond a small cult of artfully manicured creatures until the CD era, so copies of their vinyl releases have always been few on these shores. Even when their work was being reissued on UK wax in recent years, they were still being passed over in America. Fortunately this irritating wrong is now being righted, and considering the unenthused fan reaction to older UK vinyl reissues and the excellent sound of these new transatlantic ones, the wait was worth it.

There will be several waves in Universal’s reissue campaign, and the first finds Join Hands, Juju, Tinderbox, and Through the Looking Glass creeping out on 180-gram vinyl. Mastered at Abbey Road and pressed at Germany’s Optimal Media, the albums sound dynamic, expansive, and marvelously detailed. Percussion slices out of the bridge of “Candy Man”. “Halloween” is a juggernaut. Through the Looking Glass eases into a new warmth and Join Hands is no longer unyieldingly flat. Budgie’s drumming sounds true throughout, whether falling down the stairs on “Spellbound” or ramming you to the dance floor on “Cities in Dust”.

The discs are thoughtfully packaged with crisp artwork. The vinyl is stored in poly-lined paper sleeves, though repros of the less forgiving all-paper inner sleeves are included as well.

As for the albums themselves, this first batch is a career-spanning mix. The group is at their most punishing with Join Hands, though that controversial studio version of “The Lord’s Prayer” does reveal an atypical amount of humor with its quotes from “Twists and Shout”, swipes at Dylan, and Siouxsie’s bizarre yodeling and chicken clucking. It’s still fourteen minutes of filler, as is a creepy lark in which Siouxsie sings along with a music box, but the line up on Side A contradicts the album’s usual sophomore slump rep. “Icons” is an underrated early classic of foreboding pomp and circumstance.

The undisputed best album in this bunch, Juju, finds the Banshees in transition between their more difficult early era and the more radio-friendly one to come. It boasts two of the groups’ most infectious singles but also nasty fare such as “Halloween”, “Head Cut”, “Sin in My Heart”, and “Voodoo Dolly”. “Into the Light” is an early example of the Banshees’s ability to achieve breath-taking beauty.

Tinderbox is full-on pop, and it’s incredible that the band who’d once caterwauled their way through “The Lord’s Prayer” could now deliver such sugary delectables as “Candy Man”, “The Sweetest Chill”, and the irresistible “Cities in Dust”. Of course, in words and atmosphere, Siouxsie and the boys were still very much in the shadows.

Through the Looking Glass is one of those time-filling covers albums, but Siouxsie and the Banshees make even this kind of disposable disc an essential occupant of their discography with lush arrangements of classics by Iggy Pop, The Doors, Roxy Music, Billie Holiday, the snake from The Jungle Book, and of all people, Dylan (Siouxsie was allegedly horrified when she discovered who’d written that old Julie Driscoll hit). Looking Glass boasts some of the best use of harp on a pop album, but with choices such as Television’s “Littly Johnny Jewel” and John Cale’s towering “Gun”, the band also relocate a bit of their punk fury. Along with Bowie’s Pin Ups, Through the Looking Glass is the only covers album worth a damn.

Stay tuned for the line up of The Scream, Kiss in the Dream House, and Superstition (rumored to be a double-disc) next month.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Review: 50th Anniversary Remix of The Band's 'Music from Big Pink'

When Dylan emerged from his cocoon with John Wesley Harding in late 1967, he seemingly wiped away the psychedelic excesses he helped set in motion with Blonde on Blonde instantaneously. One of the first major new bands to define the Dylan-provoked “return to roots” movement was The Band. However, the group was never as simple as their Antebellum South image implied.

First of all, they weren’t really a new band—they’d been Dylan’s backing band and collaborators for well over a year—and only one member of the group hailed from the American South. The rest were Ontario boys. The music on their debut album, Music from Big Pink, similarly defies dismissive pigeonholing. While John Wesley Harding and the eponymous debut by Creedence Clearwater Revival— that other misleadingly located face of new Americana— are as stripped to the bones as Sgt. Pepper’s or Days of Future Past are lavishly over-dressed, Music from Big Pink is a complex production full of small details that bring its sepia-hued snapshot of a dead world to vivid life. Eerily echoed backing vocals or organ lines skid out of the deep background. Trippy, leslied guitar lines creak in the foreground. Most intricate of all is The Band’s gorgeous loose-weave harmonies.

These fine details have never popped more than they do on the new, remixed edition of Music from Big Pink. The original mix sounds flat in comparison, though the new mix retains the original’s warmth, crunchiness, and antique atmosphere. Mastering is significantly louder, though at least in its vinyl incarnation, it doesn’t sound excessively loud. That 180-gram vinyl edition is presented as a double-LP set with both discs spinning at 45rpm.

For its fiftieth anniversary, Music from Big Pink is also available as a CD Super Deluxe box set and a pink vinyl edition.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Review: 'Closer You Are: The Story of Robert Pollard and Guided by Voices'

A mark of a band’s legacy is the number of books devoted to it. A cursory search on Good Reads yields over 2,500 results for The Beatles (no, I am not going to account for how many of those are reprints or song books—that’s still a lot of books). A search for Elvis Presley yields only about 850, but there would probably be a lot more results if I’d just searched for “Elvis” and he’d been the only guy who ever had that name. The Stones: about 1,000. Hendrix: about 450. The Grateful Dead: about 350.

The kind of widespread obsession that accounts for such numbers trails off a lot when you start searching for books about nineties bands. Yes, there are over 200 results for Kurt Cobain (again we have term issues here because a search for Nirvana would unearth more, but tons of fiction and spirituality books would muddy the waters), over 150 for Radiohead, and over 100 for Pearl Jam, but barely a handful for such major artists of that era as The Pixies, PJ Harvey, and Liz Phair.

In light of that, the fact that Guided by Voices have now been the topic of three books makes it seem as though they have a relatively decent legacy in terms of nineties indie rock. Matthew Cutter’s Closer You Are: The Story of Robert Pollard and Guided by Voices is the book that brings the GBV bibliography up to three. In some ways, it feels like the first though. Jim Greer’s Guided by Voices: A Brief History and Marc Woodworth’s Bee Thousand (one of the very best entries in the dodgy 33 1/3 book series I’ve read) are both terrific, but they’re short and lean too much on both the collage-like nature of the band’s music and band involvement—Greer was in GBV for a while for Chrissakes.

Cutter is apparently a Guided by Voices insider, and there are extensive interviews with most of the major members of GBVs vast cast of characters, but his book is the first proper, objective, anything-but-brief biography of the group. It may not be as formally thrilling as the other two books, but it is much, much more informative. And beyond normal fan interest in any beloved band, this really is a fascinating story completely unlike any other in rock. What other artist besides Bob Pollard achieved “fame” when he was nearly 40, has a discography of over 100 madly eclectic albums, or puts so much hand-crafted care into making and packaging them? Who else can drink like that? The lack of support Pollard received from all but his most devoted drinking buddies also makes Closer You Are an exceptional tale of overcoming adversity. By default, it is also the definitive Guided by Voices biography, and since it’s probably going to be a while before a Good Reads search for “Guided by Voices” or “Robert Pollard” yields 350 results, it will probably hold onto that honor for the foreseeable future.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Review: 'Comic Book Implosion: An Oral History of DC Comics Circa 1978'

DC comics was suffering in the late seventies. Some blamed it on the harsh winter of ’78, a period of incessant blizzards that prevented a lot of kids from visiting the newsstand. Some blamed it on DC’s publisher, Jenette Kahn, whose failed scheme to reinvigorate her company involved swelling page counts, cover prices, and titles. Keith Dallas and John Wells accuse unsympathetic distributors in the epilogue of their new book Comic Book Implosion: An Oral History of DC Comics Circa 1978. However, they mostly stay out of the way, allowing quotations from reams of old articles and interviews to tell the story of a topsy-turvy period in comic history.

What we learn is that DC was not the only company in over its head. Golden-boy Marvel was too, only to be rescued from the abyss when it agreed to publish spin offs of a weird new sci-fi movie by the kid who’d made American Graffitti. However, the main focus is on DC, particularly Kahn’s planned “Explosion” that was to see 22 new titles hit the stands in a new longer format only to be cancelled at the last minute. The titles that were to be included in this infamous Cancelled Comic Cavalcade, where those titles ended up, and the reasons for that cancellation are major points of discussion.

There is also a lot of discussion of pricing and the business-side of comics publishing in this book, but all of those facts and figures are the least interesting thing about Comic Book Implosion. What’s more intriguing are the soap-opera drama, the bizarre and desperate ideas (an African-American superhero named Black Bomber whose secret identity is a white racist? Yow.), and the stray triumphs that emerged amidst the turbulence. We see the successful revival of the Teen Titans, the births of Black Lightning and Firestorm, the mania surrounding Superman: The Movie and its handsome star, and the ballyhooed bout between the Man of Steel and Muhammad Ali. And despite the initial failure of Kahn’s planned Explosion, she did a lot of good for DC, such as her cultivation of younger talent and new titles, her abolishment of lazy reprints, and her implementation of profit sharing.

Although Dallas and Wells did not conduct any new interviews for Comic Book Implosion, they culled their quotes from such a wide swath of sources, and from such an interesting line up of industry folk (including Kahn, Larry Hama, Neil Adams, Carmine Infantino, Archie Goodwin, James Warren, Muhammad Ali himself, etc.), that it doesn’t matter much. Yes, it makes for messy storytelling, but that’s basically the case with all oral histories. And Dallas and Wells’s refusal to editorialize allows us readers to decide who are the heroes and who are the villains, who is lying and who is telling the truth, which makes for more involving reading. The cavalcade of photos and illustrations— which includes an 8-page, full-color spread—makes it fun.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Review: Vinyl Reissue of Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66’s 'Greatest Hits'

In the year of such earthquakes as Revolver, Pet Sounds, Aftermath, Blonde on Blonde, and the dawn of Hendrix, Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66— with their airy bossa nova rhythms, Bacharach/David covers, and tropical cocktail party atmosphere— must have seemed terribly unhip to the Now Crowd. Removed from any contemporary matters of what is or ain’t with it, Mendes’s jazzy pop remains eternally refreshing like a sweet island breeze. However, there is a certain power too as the group’s most famous song, “Mas Que Nada”, surges like an ice cream tidal wave, and the group’s cover of “Spanish Flea” picks up momentum that would have swept Herb Alpert out to sea.

Sadly, the latter is one of the tracks missing from Mendes and Brasil ’66’s 1970 Greatest Hits collection, though “Mas Que Nada” naturally leads the way, and essentials such as “Going Out of My Head”, a hip-swiveling cover of “Day Tripper (one of three Beatlesongs), a panoramic one of “Scarborough Fair”, my pick for the ultimate version of “The Look of Love” (sorry, Dusty), and Mendes’s own wonder “Look Around” are on board. Ideally, a couple of the more Muzak-leaning songs (I’m thinking of the non-hits “So Many Stars” and “Pretty World”) would have been trimmed to make way for grander stuff such as “Bim Bom”, “Watch What Happens”, and of course, “One Note Samba/Spanish Flea”, but no use crying over the line up of a nearly 50-year old comp. It’s still groovy.

(Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66’s Greatest Hits is now getting back in print on vinyl via Craft Recordings.)

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Review: 'Twin Peaks and Philosophy: That’s Damn Fine Philosophy'

Appearing at a time when television’s greatest philosophical questions were “How will MacGuyver save the day with nothing but a wad of  gum and an enema bag?” and “Which toddler will fall on his ass this week on America’s Funniest Home Videos?”, Twin Peaks seemed like an intellectual breath of Douglas Fir-scented air. David Lynch and Mark Frost’s series swam in the murky waters of metaphysics, synchronicity, duality, and other philosophical concepts, and these were not just set decorations for a show often dismissed as arbitrarily weird; they were central to its plot and purpose. So Twin Peaks is an ideal topic for Open Court Books’ Popular Culture and Philosophy series.
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