Monday, March 29, 2021

Review: 'Orbit: The Seventies'

Orbit: The Seventies is a fairly bizarre attempt to convey the biographies of four key stars of seventies rock in comic form. The weirdness starts on the cover with prominent portraits of Steven Tyler and Bruce Springsteen. Neither singer is a focus of this book. Rather, it tells the tales of David Bowie, Alice Cooper, Keith Richards, and Michael Jackson. 

Orbit begins with a cursory biography of Bowie that often reads more like bullet points than a proper story. The telling is so slapdash that the writer makes it seem as though Bowie divorced his first wife because she attempted suicide. While some panels are well rendered, much of the art looks like it was made with GIMP's cartoon filter.

A lot more thought went into the section on Alice Cooper, which uses kids messing with a Ouija board as a means to relate Cooper's story in a suitably spooky/silly manner and acknowledges when myth and fact get muddled. The inorganic, Saturday Morning cartoon style art is not exceptional, but it is more consistent and individual than the sloppy, generic art in the Bowie chapter. 

The Keith Richards story uses an unspecified overdose as a way into telling his story, although that device is quickly abandoned for another quick bolt through a career too complicated to adequately convey in twenty pages of speech bubbles and pictures.  The grey, smeary art looks like it was rendered with debris from an overused ash tray. It's appropriate to its subject but terribly ugly. 

The weirdest chapter is reserved for the weirdest artist in this book of weird artists. A sort of Jiminy Cricket character narrates a hagiography that outright dismisses all charges that Michael Jackson was a child molester. It would have been more moral and truthful to take a less firm stance on that touchy and controversial subject, but I guess it's naive to think that any life can be accurately and satisfactorily captured in a twenty page comic.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Review: 'The Complete Illustrated History of Fleetwood Mac'

Fleetwood Mac's story is often more interesting than their music. At their best, they courted legit weirdness (the invigorating and eclectic Tusk) or at least made finely crafted radio-ready pop that burned with personal intensity (Rumours). That intensity was a consequence of their oft-told story: a genuine rock soap opera of hook ups, break ups, packing up, and shacking up. However, they began as a hit-or-miss British blues band and went through several nondescript incarnations on their way to becoming the cross-Atlantic juggernaut that recorded and stirred Rumours. Even that mega-selling monster is a hit-or-miss affair with Lindsey Buckingham's bitter Buddy Holly riffs and Stevie Nicks's bewitching ballads sitting alongside Christine McVie's MOR soft pop stylings.

Originally published in 2016, and now being reprinted, Richie Unterberger's The Complete Illustrated History of Fleetwood Mac traces the group from their beginnings as a vehicle for Peter Green's bluesy slow hand through their metamorphosis into the Buckingham-Nicks machine. Unterberger's writing is informative and as straight-forward as a McVie torch song but a welcome bit of Buckingham oddness intrudes on the narrative with LP-overviews by an all-star roster of guest contributors, such as Dominic Priore (Look! Listen! Vibrate! Smile!), Barney Hoskyns (Small Town Talk), Martin Popoff (Anthem: Rush in the 1970s), Zoë Howe (Stevie Nicks--Visions, Dreams, an Rumours), and Anthony DeCurtis (Rolling Stone). There are also plenty of full-color and B&W pics of Stevie Nicks in her top hat and Mick Fleetwood with his mouth hanging open.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Review: 'Art Sleeves: Album Covers by Artists'

There have been many collections of album cover images, and the implication of all of them is that the album cover is more than a carrying case for music: it is a self-contained work of art. Specimens such as Peter Blake’s life-size collage for Sgt. Pepper’s or Storm Thorgerson’s striking Dark Side of the Moon prism support that stance, but another collection of such usual suspects would be pointless.

Monday, March 8, 2021

Review: 'Hollywood Eden'

LA was America’s rock hub in the mid-sixties. The Beach Boys, The Turtles, The Doors, Buffalo Springfield, The Monkees, The Mamas and the Papas, The Byrds, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Harry Nilsson, Frank Zappa, Nancy Sinatra, and Love are but a scoop of the artists who buzzed around the Sunset Strip, scored smash hits, and/or changed the face of rock and roll in America and beyond.

Monday, March 1, 2021

Review: 'Rock Me on the Water: 1974—the Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television, and Politics '

I’ve always considered 1974 to be a low-water mark for pop culture. The year’s central sound was the bland MOR rock wafting out of Los Angeles. So I was curious to read Ronald Brownstein’s new book Rock Me on the Water: 1974—the Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television, and Politics not because I’m interested in the pop culture of ’74 but because I wanted to know why anyone would select that year for examination.

There’s no question that the year Watergate blew up and Nixon resigned was politically crucial, but Brownstein mostly steers away from politics aside from occasionally checking in with California’s aspiring governor Jerry Brown. The author’s decision to limit his scope to LA is an issue with a book that is already limited by the creative fatigue of the year it examines. British artists such as John Cale, King Crimson, Genesis, and Roxy Music, who all did great work in 1974, get left out. That leaves chapters on the Eagles, Jackson Browne, and Linda Ronstadt: an uninteresting cast of characters making dull music. Because of that LA-focus, Matos’s look at film doesn’t do much Peter Biskind hadn’t already did with Easy Riders, Raging Bulls

By far the most engrossing chapters in Rock Me on the Water deal with the year in television, though 1974 is more significant as a breaking point than a creative peak since the shows Brownstein examines—All in the Family, M*A*S*H, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show— had all been on the air for several years by ’74. The year is only significant because it ended with federal regulations designed to scale back what was permissible on TV, hampering the development of more adult shows and paving the way for piffle like Happy Days and Three’s Company. The discussion is still fascinating, particularly when Brownstein gets into the strides women made behind television cameras during this period, and his writing is engaging enough that even the less vital chapters on music and film are highly readable. I’m still not sure why he specifically chose 1974 though.

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