Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Review: Vinyl Reissue of 'A Motown Christmas'

With production as crystalline as a snowflake, harmonies as sweet as candy canes, and an image as squeaky clean as Tiny Tim’s, Motown was the secular label most suited toward churning out Christmas discs. And that is just what they did during their hey day: The Supremes’ Merry Christmas in 1965, Stevie Wonder’s Someday at Christmas in 1967, and a trio of them by The Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and the Jackson 5’s stocking stuffers in 1970. Each record brought something a bit different to the Christmas table. The Temps brought their usual professionalism and consistency. Stevie brought original composition, and in the case of his title track, a sharp point of view. The Supremes brought traditionalism in terms of their orchestral arrangements. The Miracles brought a surprising sense of experimentation. Of course, considering their age, The Jackson 5 were best suited to singing about every kid’s fave holiday, and their take on the holiday was the most correct ... and the funkiest.

In 1973, the cream of these discs was ladled onto the double-LP comp A Motown Christmas. Not everything here works. The Miracles’ medley of “Deck the Halls” and an oddball spiritual called “Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella” is pretty insufferable, and their lurching arrangement of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is too. Stevie Wonder interprets “Ave Maria”—one of the most exquisite pieces of music every conceived—gorgeously until the absurdly kitsch decision to wheeze a verse on his harmonica. And Motown’s quality control department clearly guzzled too much spiked eggnog when they hired the choir of tone-deaf kids who caterwaul the awful “Children’s Christmas Song” with The Supremes awfully.

So you may find yourself lifting the needle a bit when spinning UMe’s new vinyl reissue of A Motown Christmas this December 25th lest your guests head for the door before forking over the gifts. Yet, you’ll still want to spin it for the consistently excellent selections from The Jackson 5 and The Temptations (their version of “Silent Night” is the only version of “Silent Night” that doesn’t make me barf), Stevie Wonder’s superb original compositions “Someday at Christmas” and “What Christmas Means to Me”, and (“Children’s Christmas Song”  notwithstanding) a selection of the best cuts from The Supremes’ mostly dodgy Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Review: 'Prince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions' Expanded Edition

In the eighties, no artist burned with as much creativity as Prince. Hell, in the history of pop music few artists have. That guy loved to sing about sex, but a glance at his schedule during his most vital years—1983-1984—makes one wonder if he ever even had the time to take off his purple pants. Prince not only recorded his greatest album and another pretty terrific one during that time, but he also recorded a wealth of unreleased music and B-sides, mounted a meticulously choreographed tour, starred in a feature film loosely based on his own history, and masterminded side projects for The Time, Sheila-E, Vanity 6, Apollonia 6, and The Family. All that makes James Brown sound like the Godfather of Slacking.

That kind of full-steam creativity is exhilarating to learn about, which is why you may find yourself burning through the nearly 500-page Prince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions: 1983 and 1984 in a couple of days. Duane Tudahl’s 2017 book is part day-by-day diary, part oral history, and all fascinating. Anyone mildly interested in the creative process or unsure of the definition of “dedication” should read this book. Natural talent surely played a huge part in Prince’s greatness, but unbelievably hard work did too, though Prince probably saw his studio time more as play, or perhaps if he really reflected on it, compulsion. Those in his inner circle could not help but recognize that greatness, so when he’d call an engineer or singer at 3 AM to get out of bed and down to a session, they tended to follow his royal decree. They also tolerated some other forms of megalomaniacal behavior, though by most accounts, Prince was usually respectful even when he was at his most competitive, angry, and demanding. Nevertheless, you clearly had to be made of strong stuff to work with the guy.

In Tudahl, this story seems to have found its perfect teller, because a comparative level of dedication was necessary to see Prince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions through. Tudahl began work on the book some twenty-three years before its first publication. During that time he spoke to droves of artists who knew and worked with Prince, and examined reams of session material and interviews with the Artist, himself. Just a year after his own obsession’s publication, Tudahl is already publishing a new edition with many additions and revisions. He even went to the trouble of noting the pages on which the major changes appear in his new introduction to this expanded edition. I had not read the previous edition, so I cannot report on the specific changes. Even if I did own the first edition, I wouldn’t do that because I’m not nearly as obsessive as Prince or his valiant chronicler.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Review: 50th Anniversary Edition of Rolling Stones' 'Beggars Banquet'

The old story goes that Their Satanic Majesties Request was an unmitigated disaster and The Rolling Stones desperately needed to find their way back from a 2000 light-year remove from the earthier sounds that made them. The nice thing about Beggars Banquet is that the Stones made that restorative trek without entirely discarding the colors, instrumentation, and imaginative lyricism that made Satanic Majesties such a gas to certain fans (such as me). That increased creativity coupled with a return to the Stones’ blues/Rock & Roll roots is the key to their finest album. Take “Street Fighting Man”, a three-chord piece of uncomplicated Rock & Roll zapped to life with Indian instrumentation, a tangy combination of hi-fi and lo-fi recording techniques, and provocatively ambivalent lyrics about the band’s role on the outskirts of 1968’s revolutionary temper. Take “Sympathy for the Devil”, another three-chord simplicity that revives the frantic rhythms that added so much texture to Satanic Majesties with a sweeping, funny, frightening lyric that I contend is Rock & Roll’s very best. Take the murky drones and Mellotron of “Stray Cat Blues”, the ethereal take on the blues called “No Expectations”, the outlandish character piece “Jigsaw Puzzle”, the goony humor of “Dear Doctor”, the tapestry of shimmering strings on which “Factory Girl” lounges, and the lush and hippie-ish “Salt of the Earth”. Just as Let It Bleed and Exile on Main Street needed Beggars Banquet to establish their formats, Beggars Banquet would not exist without Their Satanic Majesties Request to serve as its artistic stepping-stone.

And so as Beggars followed Satanic 50 years ago, an anniversary edition of the 1968 album follows last year’s anniversary edition of the 1967 one now. In my review of the 50th anniversary edition of Their Satanic Majesties Request, I expressed some disappointment that there were no bonus tracks—nothing at all that was not on the original album. Since that release made it clear that bonus tracks, or even contemporaneous singles, would not be part of these reissues of sixties-era Stones albums, I won’t waste time griping about the absence of, say, a bonus single of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” b/w “Child of the Moon” in the 50th anniversary edition of Beggars Banquet. There are still some missed opportunities though. Rob Bowman’s essay was a real highlight of the 50th anniversary edition of Satanic Majesties, but there are no notes at all with the Beggars Banquet set. Since Beggars Banquet was really only mixed in stereo (its rare mono edition is a fold down), it’s no big deal that most of the album is not on the bonus 12” disc featuring the mono mix of “Sympathy for the Devil”, but there is a very unique mono mix of “Street Fighting Man” that should have been included on that piece of vinyl as well. You can’t say there was no room for it, especially considering that the disc’s B-side contains no music at all.  

However, a flexi disc with a rare Jagger interview recorded during the recording of Beggars Banquet only released in Japan is a pretty cool bonus, although it suffers from the issues of its sub-par medium. I had to force the disc down over my record player’s spindle and the stylus started skipping as it got closer to the end of the disc. As for its content, the interview is as shallow as them come but it does touch on a fun array of period topics: the Stones’ collaborations with The Beatles, the prevalence of Asian instrumentation in Western Rock, and Mother Earth, a label the Stones were considering starting but never got off the ground.

As for the main attraction, Beggars Banquet is a great album that sounds really good in its new vinyl incarnation, though the best sounding thing in the set is that mono mix of “Sympathy for the Devil” spinning at 45 RPMs. Its bass sounds particularly deep.  I also dig the packaging, which wraps the groovy, banned toilet cover in an outer sleeve featuring the less-offensive/less-interesting invitation design.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Review: Jimi Hendrix's 'Electric Ladyland: 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition'

Note: I revised this review with more details regarding the audio on ll/10/18.

Jimi Hendrix’s abilities as a musician came together immediately. On his very first album, he was already manipulating the strings like a master puppeteer. It took him slightly longer to fully develop as a songwriter and record maker, but once he did—holy shit!—Electric Ladyland. Like all great double albums from Blonde on Blonde to Sign O’ the Times and beyond, this is the sound of an artist of limitless imagination free to explore and exploit his every idea with magical abandon. Everything great about Jimi Hendrix froths from the grooves of Electric Ladyland. Hendrix the interpreter was never better than when teaching Bob Dylan—Bob Dylan!—how it’s done with “All Along the Watchtower”. Hendrix the singer reaches heights never before hinted at with his Curtis Mayfield-worthy falsetto on “Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)”. Hendrix the bluesman stretches from the Mississippi Delta to Neptune on “Voodoo Chile”. With “Burning of the Midnight Lamp”, Hendrix the pop craftsman pulls one of psychedelia’s bubbliest nuggets from his cauldron. Hendrix the doobie-sucking jazzbo lays back and grooves on “Rainy Day, Dream Away”. Hendrix the town crier shouts of racial injustice in “House Burning Down”.  Hendrix the mind melting prankster forges “…And the Gods Made Love”, and Hendrix the avant-garde-sci-fi-Walt Disney animates “1983 (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)”/ “Moon, Turn the Tides…Gently, Gently Away”. Hendrix the guitarist, of course, shines and burns and glows on every goddamn track.

A creation this momentous could not be forgotten on its 50th anniversary, especially considering how awash we currently are in 50th anniversary releases. Legacy Recordings is pulling out the stops with a huge anniversary edition of Electric Ladyland. The big news of this box is that while most bloated anniversary sets cheap out by placing the majority of rarities on CDs, Electric Ladyland: 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition is available in a vinyl edition that includes everything on wax: the original double-album, the set of demos, and the live album from the Hollywood Bowl. Why don’t they all do this?

While early reviews on the CD edition of the Electric Ladyland: 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition warn of excessive loudness and clipping, Im happy to note that Ive noticed no such issues with the all-analog mastering for vinyl. I compared this new set with the Electric Ladyland material on my nice, old copy of Smash Hits and the new discs are more detailed and not much louder to the naked ear. However, there is a persistent hiss throughout all of the discs on this set, though it is only really noticeable during quiet passages while listening on headphones.

 The general audio quality of the demos varies from the full-band, pro quality of “1983” (as “Angel Caterina”) and “Little Miss Strange” to relatively hi-fi home recordings of “Angel”, “Gypsy”, and “Voodoo Chile” to recordings of rarer stuff such as “Snowballs at My Window” and “My Friend”, on which it sounds like Hendrix got his mouth in front of the mic while picking a guitar stored in his closet. However, the sound quality of the live set recorded at the Hollywood Bowl on September 14, 1968, ranges from mediocre to outright unlistenable. The recordings on the first disc in the set suffers from tinny drums and distorted vocals. The second disc sounds like it’s playing through totally blown speakers. The liner notes admit that this live album is bootleg quality for whatever that’s worth. 

The set also includes a blu-ray disc including 5.1 surround mixes of the original album and the original stereo mix. I’m not set up for 5.1, though I’ve read very positive things about that mix. The stereo mix, however, is considerably harsher than the all-analog vinyl. The blu-ray also includes one video feature: At Last…The Beginning: The Making of Electric Ladyland, a 1997 documentary for the Classic Albums series. It features a fair share of Hendrix footage and memories from many of the album’s original cast, including Mitch Mitchell, Noel Redding, Steve Winwood, Jack Casady, Eddie Kramer, and Chas Chandler. For this release, At Last…The Beginning is expanded by 40 minutes, making a fine documentary even better.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Review: 'The Princess Bride' Blu-ray

While fantasy geeks dig The Dark Crystal, hopeless romantics worship Say Anything, and comedy junkies never stop howling at Airplane!, The Princess Bride is an eighties picture with massive cross-over appeal because it does so many different things so successfully. Rob Reiner’s deceptively complex picture built on the simple premise of young lovers separated and reunited is like the best of all genres—genuinely witty comedy, genuinely swoon-worthy romance, genuinely imaginative fantasy, genuinely thrilling swashbuckling. It is also the very, very rare eighties movie that still feels utterly timeless.

The plot (adapted from William Goldman’s novel) winds in ways that make a summary pretty difficult to crack, and running down its tropes—the pretty princess (Robin Wright), the dashing hero (Cary Elwes), the giant with a heart of gold (Andre the Giant), the gnomish conjurer (Billy Crystal), the tortured soul bent on revenge (Mandy Patinkin), the craven villain (Chris Sarandon), the villain’s heartless right-hand man (Christopher Guest)—is pointless too when so much of this story subverts our expectations of such a stock cast of characters. One disappointing exception is the title character, who is denied much to do aside from playing the standard damsel in distress, which particularly sucks since she is the movie’s sole significant female character.  

Because of its intelligence, charm, style, and uniformly winning performances, The Princess Bride has built up an overwhelming cult following, so fans certainly cheered when news arrived that the Criterion Collection would be bringing it to blu-ray. This is not the film’s first blu-ray release, but even without seeing the previous edition, I’m pretty confident that Criterion’s disc is the definitive one. The image is clear and rich yet it retains the dreamy softness integral to the picture’s atmosphere. An abundance of extras should please fans too, though most of this stuff is not new. Exclusive to this release are video essays about William Goldman’s book and a gorgeous Princess Bride tapestry the author had commissioned, as well as an interview with the film’s art director, Richard Holland. However, the older documentaries and featurettes are where the fun is at because most of them allow us to spend a little extra time with that delightful cast and their equaling charming director. Much like re-watching The Princess Bride for the 100th time, viewing these extras is like catching up with old friends and falling in love with them all over again.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Review: 'Confessin' the Blues'

In the sixties, The Rolling Stones slid the world a welter of great singles and LPs, but the most profound thing they delivered was an awareness of the blues that spread like a sweet, sweet virus. After hearing the Stones’ sometimes weedy, sometimes powerful remakes, white kids who’d never before heard the names Muddy, Howlin’, or Slim suddenly got hip to what had already been happening in the music world for some twenty years.

While giving the Stones too much credit is totally patronizing to the artists who helped them a hell of a lot more than Mick Jagger and Keith Richards ever helped anyone else, they are probably the best white rockers to curate a collection like Confessin’ the Blues. Many of the songs Mick and Keith chose for this double-disc set are numbers the Stones covered during their most vital decade: the title track by Jay McShann & Walter Brown, Muddy Waters’s “I Want to Be Loved” and “I Just Want to Make Love to You”, Slim Harpo’s “I’m a King Bee”, Howlin’ Wolf’s “The Red Rooster”, Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain Blues”, Jimmy Reed’s “Bright Lights, Big City”, Amos Milburn’s “Down the Road Apiece”, etc. Appropriately, a song they didn’t play but appropriated in a significant way begins the set. While neither Chuck Berry nor Bo Diddley were strictly blues artists, they were signed to the crucial home of Chicago blues, Chess Records, and highly inspirational to the boys, so key numbers such as “Carol” and “Mona” makes appearances too.

Ultimately, the Stones-connection is a bit of window dressing since most of these tracks were not in that band’s repertoire and since you will forget all about Mick, Keith, and Charlie as soon as the opening bars of “Rollin’ Stone” start grinding. Essentially, Confessin’ the Blues is a fine starter blues compilation, at least in terms of the track selection. The excessively trebly sound does little service to the depth of these records.

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