Monday, April 29, 2019

Review: The Rolling Stones' 'Honk'

Ever since the release of Made in the Shade nearly 45 years ago, compilations of Rolling Stones Records-era Rolling Stones records have poked out every few years like the lascivious tongue that pokes out from most of their covers. When the Stones quietly released Blue and Lonesome a few years ago, another in this long, long lines of hits comps was inevitable, and that shoe is finally dropping now with Honk. It is another Rolling Stones Records-era compilation with a lot of the usual suspects from “Brown Sugar” to “Start Me Up” and beyond

Once again there is a modicum of variation to distinguish it from the myriad other Stones compilations. “Dancing with Mr. D.” makes its first appearance on a Stones compilation, and there is a trio of tracks from Blue and Lonesome. There’s also a triple-disc version of Honk that includes ten live tracks all culled from performances given over the past six years, which means they don’t catch the Stones at their most vital or even spry. The live selections are more notable for their most interesting (“She’s a Rainbow” makes its live album debut) and weirdly redundant (did we really need both studio and live versions of lesser songs such as “Mr. D” and “Bitch”?) choices than it is for the presence of guest stars Ed Sheerhan, Florence Welch, and Dave Grohl, who don’t make the Stones seem as fresh and relevant as Mick thinks they do. However, it is the fact that half of the studio tracks come from the Stones’ less vital albums of the past 35 years is what ultimately makes Honk a less thrilling compilation than the vast majority of others. 

Monday, April 22, 2019

Review: Weezer's 'Dusty Gems and Raw Nuggets'

With a roster that included Liz Phair’s Whip Smart, Grant Lee Buffalo’s Mighty Joe Moon, Guided by Voices’ Bee Thousand, Pavement’s Crooked Rain/Crooked Rain, and The Cardigans’ Emmerdale, 1994 may have been the best year for rock and pop since the sixties. Yet those “alternative” albums didn’t yield much in the way of smash singles. Weezer was a very notable exception from the Class of ’94; the rare band to make terrific, organic pop and be rewarded with a several hits singles. Ace of Base may have ruled the airwaves, but everyone still went around whistling “Undone—The Sweater Song” and “Buddy Holly” (and into 1995, “Say It Ain’t So”). With infectious stuff like “My Name Is Jonas”, “The World Has Turned and Left Me Here”, “Surf Wax America”, and “In the Garage”, most of the rest of Weezer (aka: “The Blue Album”) could have made the grade as singles too. And Weezer’s excellent mid-nineties output didn’t even end there. On the B-sides and various artists comps was such A-material as the folky “Jamie”, the fifties-ish “Susanne”, the crushing “Mykel and Carli”, and the Stack-O-Vocals “My Evaline”. The band also managed to capture terrific live versions of more familiar stuff such as “My Name Is Jonas” and “Surf Wax America” on tape too.

Along with some spare demos (including a bizarre version of “Undone” that slows the tempo to a sloth’s pace and makes room for a bit of rapping and a Nirvana pastiche called “Paperface”), these stray tracks were compiled onto Dusty Gems and Raw Nuggets, the bonus disc of the deluxe edition of Weezer released to commemorate its tenth anniversary. Now on its 25th anniversary (we’re old!), Universal Music is giving Dusty Gems and Raw Nuggets its first vinyl release. Isolated from the album its supports, this disc is still very much worth a listen, and a real treat for fans of Weezer and fans of vinyl (I’m certain there’s a major overlap between those particular groups). The vinyl is marbled blue and limited to 4,000 units.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Review: RSD Reissue of 'The World of David Bowie'

That David Bowie was a brilliant artist is pretty much universally accepted, though few fans have much affection for his Deram-era recordings. Before taking off with “Space Oddity” or zapping the glam movement into action, Bowie fancied himself a Dickensian waif and crooned Anthony Newley-esque psychedelic show tunes. This stuff is a tough sell for the average Ziggy Stardust or “Heroes” fan, but I must admit that there is something appealing about Bowie’s weird early stuff. Not that it betrays his future brilliance. While his melodies are generally fine, his singing is often overly mannered and his lyrics are downright bad: rambling, pretentious, and so, so corny. His twee topics include his desire to buy a coat, his desire to sell some toys, a magical land populated by children, and his dream of being Sir Lancelot or something.

Yet, while this stuff should drive one bonkers well before reaching the end of the Deram-era comp The World of David Bowie (which Bowie, himself, mostly culled from his eponymous debut album), it has quite the reverse affect. It’s a grower. Certainly the ornate, super-’67 instrumental arrangements account for a great deal of this collection’s charm, but perhaps it is also the fact that Bowie’s own innate charm is irrepressible even when he’s partaking in a pretty major folly. And some of the songs are good enough to enjoy without reservations or qualifications, particularly catchy stuff like “Karma Man”, “Let Me Sleep with You”, and “Silly Boy Blue”, which almost sounds like it could have found a home on Hunky Dory (sadly, the truly mad “Laughing Gnome” is not in attendance, though). Throw caution to the wind and enjoy.

The World of David Bowie is another special record store day reissue from Universal Music. This limited edition of 3,500 units is presented on blue vinyl and sounds quite nice.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Review: Picture Disc Edition of Rush's 'Hemispheres'

As soon as they acquired resident intellectual Neil Peart, Rush had big conceptual ambitions. Yet, although sprawling conceptual epics were the centerpieces of album such as Caress of Steel, 2112, and A Farewell to Kings, their short songs were still better than their long sci-fi and fantasy narratives. With their final album to contain such an epic, Rush finally got it right. As far as I’m concerned, Hemispheres is the first Rush album on which the long songs unquestionably beat the short ones. If you put me on the rack and stretched my body until I revealed the meaning of  “Cygnus X-1 (Book II-Hemispheres)”, I’d end up being pulled to pieces, but it is as dreamy, enveloping, and enthralling a musical suite as Rush would ever conjure. So what if the lyrics are gibberish? They sure beat the log-limbed metaphors of what may be the worst of Peart’s early songs: “The Trees”. This ditty sports the message: “People bicker and complain too much! Some of them even whine about wanting equal rights!” Trenchant insights from a rich, white, Ayn Rand fan.

Rush is better in the short form with the hard-edged and autobiographical “Circumstances”, which boasts a wicked-tricky spiraling riff and some of Geddy Lee’s most hysterical wailing, but that too pales next to the album’s grand finale. Considering Rush’s celebrated musicianship, it is surprising that they did not record their first stand-alone instrumental until their sixth album, but “La Villa Strangiato” is well worth the wait: nearly ten minutes of  Alex Lifesons flaming Spanish guitar, lurching melodies, wild bass flutters, and best of all, a mighty riff based on Looney Tunes soundtracks.

As part of its recent Record Store Day roster, Universal Music has reissued its rare 1978 picture disc edition of Hemispheres for a limited run of 5,000 units, which is great news for everyone who likes to watch a naked guy standing on a brain spinning at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute. Picture discs tend to be a bit noisy, and this one was pretty crackly right out of the sleeve and a bit of grinding sound is noticeable through headphones, but the mastering sounds really good.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Review: Blu-ray Edition of 'A Face in the Crowd'

You can’t say we weren’t warned. Nearly 60 years before the disastrous 2016 presidential election, Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd warned of a big-mouthed, small-minded, adoration-addicted TV personality who would catch the ears of middle and Southern America with his off-the-cuff babble to ultimately help push a conservative agenda.

The difference between real-life clown Trump and fictional one Lonesome Rhodes is that Rhodes did not get his start as an utterly immoral monster with a silver spoon in his mouth. In fact, he gets his start as a penniless drifter happy to be left alone, take shelter in jail cells, and whack his guitar and wail some pretty funky country-blues numbers. When the host of A Face in the Crowd—a radio show spotlighting regular folk—discovers Rhodes at a county jail, she sees bigger opportunities for his out-sized personality. His own radio show follows, and when he gets his own TV program, his first act is to put an African American woman on screen—a radical act in 1957 recognized by his show’s viewers—to solicit donations to rebuild her burned home. Such flashes of benevolence melt as Rhodes metamorphoses from popular media star to populist demagogue, his appeal is recognized as a potential political tool, and his initially obnoxious behavior turns deplorable in a way that should resonate intensely with viewers tuned into the political environment of today.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Review: 'The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Its Terrifying Times'

Because of  the way it was made—actors maintaining a near constant state of hysteria in the punishing Texas heat while surrounded by rotting carcasses or literally torturing each other—The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a fascinating film to study. However, Joseph Lanza’s new book The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Its Terrifying Times is not really about the harrowing ordeal of making the film; it is about the harrowing times that birthed it. Lanza builds a sordid, extremely cynical snapshot of America circa 1973 and beyond, connecting the dots from various historical touchstones to their equivalents in Tobe Hooper’s horror milestone. The factual elements range from the undeniably relevant (the rise of serial killers and the decline of hitchhiking) to the less obvious (solar flares, Alice Cooper, Gestalt therapy, Deep Throat).

Lanza sometimes provides evidence that these historical elements had a conscious influence on Hooper and co-screenwriter Kim Henkel, but not always, as is the case with extended looks at the Nixon presidency and the Zodiac killer. Consequently, Leatherface fanatics who really just want to know about their favorite film may find much of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Its Terrifying Times frustrating. Those without specific expectations will find it a spellbinding, though brief, history of some of the worst aspects of America somewhat filtered through one of the most trying horror films ever made and consistently filtered through Lanza’s withering world view. Certainly the kinds of strong-stomached horror fans who adore The Texas Chain Saw Massacre shouldn’t be disappointed with a book that often graphically describes true-life horrors that are infinitely more disturbing and repellant than anything Hooper and Henkel imagined. You’ve been warned.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Review: Oscar & the Majestics’ 'Rare & Unissued Cuts ’64-’66'

Meeting a band through an E.P. of rarities probably isn’t ideal, and so I wasn’t expecting much from Oscar & the Majestics’ Rare & Unissued Cuts ’64-’66. Okay, so this collection of six tracks may not have made me forget about The Kink Kontroversy or My Generation, but it is some pretty thrilling garage rock from a quartet who dig it fast, loud, and fuzzy. With shades of surf and blues, the things that really hold this verging-on-self-combustion ship together are the group’s speed and shouted unison vocals and leader Oscar Hamod’s assaultive guitar. While the Majestics’ cover of the Temptations’ “Get Ready” isn’t quite as hot as Jeff Jarema’s liner notes want you to believe, the other five tracks earn their keep, especially a daffy version of the Kingsmen’s “Haunted Castle”, which is also the only previously released track here (and good luck haunting down an original copy of that single). Rare & Unissued Cuts ’64-’66 spins at 45 RPMs on red vinyl from Beat Rocket Records.

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