Monday, May 24, 2021

Review: PJ Harvey's 'The Peel Sessions 1991-2004' on Vinyl

John Peel was likely the UK's most revered DJ, and being summoned for one of his BBC "Peel Sessions" was way cooler than a command performance for the queen. Peel called on PJ Harvey eight times from October 1991 to May 2004, and she participated in one final session in tribute to Peel eight weeks after he died on October 25, 2004. From those nine sessions, Harvey selected a dozen performances for her 2006 CD compilation The Peel Sessions 1991-2004

While Harvey's inaugural Peel session is considered one of the series' best, possibly because it captures her before she'd even put out Dry, the four performances she selected from it feel a bit redundant because they are all songs from that debut that do not differ significantly from the recorded versions aside from Steve Vaughan's extra wiry, extra distorted bass sound. They're all great songs performed well, but The Peel Sessions really gains value when PJ Harvey works through less familiar material or less familiar arrangements, which is what she does for the remainder of the disc. "Naked Cousin", a Rid of Me outtake that finally found a home in 1996 on the Crow: City of Angels soundtrack, is flat-out awesome--as devastating a song and performance as any on Rid of Me. I've loved her take on Willie Dixon's "Wang Dang Doodle" ever since I heard her do it totally solo on 120 Minutes in '93, and the full-band version here is considerably wilder. Her and John Parish's voice/guitars reading of "Snake" contains a vocal even more uncontainable than the one on Rid of Me. A completely fuzzed-out version of the Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea bonus track "This Wicked Tongue" sounds like a return to Rid of Me's lo-fi aesthetics in the days when PJ had polished up her sound on disc considerably. Her voice and guitar reading of "You Come Through" from the tribute session is much more intense than the airily atmospheric version on Uh-Huh Her.

That back two-thirds of The Peel Sessions renders the disc nearly as essential as PJ Harvey's proper albums, so it's very conscientious of Island/UMe to include it in its current PJH vinyl reissue campaign. It sounds just as full-bodied as the other LPs in this campaign.

Friday, May 21, 2021

Review: 'Prince and the Parade and Sign “O” the Times Era Studio Sessions 1985 to 1986'

Prince completed a wild amount of work in the two-year period it took to promote 1999, make the Purple Rain film and its phenomenal soundtrack, record the very different but stealthily complex Around the World in a Day, write and record a wealth of additional unreleased material, and mastermind successful projects by protégés such as Morris Day and the Time, Apollonia 6, and Sheila E. By 1985, Prince had definitely earned some time off. Instead, he spent the next two years doing more of the same. 1985 through 1986 was almost a mirror reflection of the two years that preceded it. Like Around the World, Parade is an under-appreciated, highly creative, and very unique record. There was another movie, though Under the Cherry Moon was hardly the commercial, career-making smash Purple Rain was. There was another masterpiece: the monolithic double-album Sign O’ The Times. And as 1983 began with the solidification of the band that would work in genuine concert with Prince during his most brilliant stretch, 1986 ended with that band’s dissolution and the beginning of the end of Prince’s most potent work and cultural impact. 

As he did with those fertile years of 1983-1984, Duane Tudahl tracks Prince through the next two with Prince and the Parade and Sign “O” the Times Era Studio Sessions 1985 to 1986. Like Prince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions, this new book is a thick, tremendously detailed day-by-day account of not only Prince’s studio work but also his stage work, film work, and personal activities. So along with spending time with him as he creates and seemingly rejects Parade and tries to make a towering triple-album called Crystal Ball but settles for the double-LP Sign O’ The Times, we also get first-hand accounts of his souring relationships with the Revolution and long-time girlfriend Susannah Melvoin. We learn of the very hard work Prince put into all of his recording projects as well as the apparent effortless magic of his songwriting. We learn of the human behind the apparent superhuman, who could be petty, mean, and childish, but also generous, tender, and funny. This period is also when Prince fully became the superstar he’d only previously pretended to be and developed a rather unlovable celebrity complex that may have been more than a little responsible for the ends of his most significant personal and professional relationships. I certainly don’t think the fact that the Revolution’s end coincided with the end of Prince’s best work is a coincidence.


That fact seemingly sets up Tudahl’s next book as potentially disappointing or borderline irrelevant in light of his fascinating and wholly necessary two books that precede it. Yet I want to keep reading because even when he was working below his abilities, Prince is always fascinating and his dedication to none-stop creativity is eternally inspiring.

(Disclosure: Rowman & Littlefield, the publisher of Prince and the Parade and Sign “O” the Times Era Studio Sessions 1985 to 1986, owns Backbeat Books, the publisher of my books The Who FAQ and 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Minute: A Critical Trip Through the Rock LP Era).

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Review: 'Underexposed! The 50 Greatest Movies Never Made'

Films that stall out before production have always held an allure for cineastes. What might have been if Hammer Films really had made that adaptation of Vampirella starring Barbara Leigh in the seventies? What if The Beatles really did star in an adaptation of The Lord of the Rings for Stanley Kubrick? What if the Stones played the droogs in a Kubrick-less Clockwork Orange or if Robert Rodriguez had remade Barbarella with Rose McGowan or David Lynch and Mark Frost had made a zany Steve Martin/Martin Short comedy called One Saliva Bubble

Joshua Hull runs through 50 of these "what ifs" in Underexposed! The 50 Greatest Movies Never Made. The crypto-movies he discusses are always most interesting when there is sufficient details about what they would have entailed. An entry on Neill Blomkamp's Alien 5 is essentially pointless since Hull provides no information about the treatment or script aside from a description of a few pieces of concept art. When details are sparse, the author provides synopses of the attached filmmakers' movies that were actually produced, which doesn't really scratch the itch this book promises to scratch, and his pun-heavy text is an acquired taste. But when Hull relays sufficient details about a Tim Burton-era Batman sequel featuring Nicolas Cage as Scarecrow and Courtney Love as Harley Quinn, a William Dozier-era one in which Adam West's Batman and Yvonne Craig's Batgirl would have faced off against Godzilla, and Steven Soderbergh's proposed 3-D musical about Cleopatra with songs by Guided by Voices, Underexposed! earns its keep. 

The book's what-if poster art is generally very cool too, but it would have been even cooler if all of the artists had made an effort to recapture the poster art style of the given film's era as Dave O'Flanagan (the unproduced John Hughes romp Oil & Vinegar), Nick Taylor (David Cronenberg's pre-Schwarzenegger Total Recall), Rachael Sinclair (Vampirella), and Mary Levy (Batman vs. Godzilla) did.

Monday, May 17, 2021

Review: 'The Who Sell Out' Deluxe Double-LP

The Who were constantly on the look-out for a gimmick, and when Pete Townshend feared his latest batch of songs weren’t fierce enough and lacked a sense of overall purpose, managers Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp suggested he unify them with a pseudo-pirate radio concept full of zany adverts and wacky station identification spots. Thus, The Who Sell Out was born. With its completely unselfconscious humor, sensitive performances, sumptuous harmonies, and songs that may have lacked ferocity (well, not “I Can See for Miles”) but wanted nothing for beauty and harmonic complexity. The album’s light-touch, colorful cartoonishness, and lack of pretension (well, not the operatic “Rael”) have made it the favorite of a lot of Who fans, including myself. The Who Sell Out certainly hasn’t been played to death as Tommy and Who’s Next have been, so it still feels fresh in a way that so many Who war horses no longer do. So if you were to, say, sit down for several hours to pore over a 5-CD box set devoted to Sell Out before digging into a 2-LP Sell Out vinyl set, you probably wouldn’t even get sick of it!

Monday, May 10, 2021

Review: 'Moonlighting: An Oral History'

Not since the days when Adam West played comedy straighter than Gary Cooper or Micky Dolenz serially broke the fourth wall had there been anything like Moonlighting on TV. At a time when Dallas’ soapy entanglements passed for drama and Family Ties’ laugh-track clichés passed for comedy, Glenn Gordon Caron’s neo-noir absurdist romantic-comedy sparkled brighter than Cybill Shepherd through a diffusion filter. And unlike Batman and The Monkees, Moonlighting was pitched squarely at adults, what with its fixation on boinking.

As welcome as Moonlighting was in a mid-eighties television environment notoriously lacking in imagination, multiple issues conspired to derail its magical run. Stars Shepherd and Bruce Willis loathed each other. Shepherd loathed Caron. Caron often seemed intent on keeping his stars from sharing screen time. Shepherd successfully got Caron booted from his own show.


Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Review: ''Sukita: Eternity"

The covers of albums such as Wish You Were Here and Nevermind are regarded as art because of their provocative and unusual compositions. However, with a photographer as focused as Masayoshi Sukita behind the camera, the simplest shot can become iconic. Take his work on the sleeve of David Bowie’s “Heroes”, which features nothing more than the artist chest up against a featureless backdrop. Yet the striking clarity of Sukita’s black and white and Bowie’s unnatural pose are as powerful and unforgettable as any flaming businessman or money-grubbing water baby.

Eternity presents the breadth of Sukita’s work in a halting package. Though they haven’t crossed into the culture the way his photos on the covers of “Heroes” and Iggy Pop’s The Idiot have, Sukita’s portraits of Marc Bolan (who, like Bowie and Pop, is the subject of an entire chapter), Klaus Nomi, Bryan Ferry, David Byrne, The B-52’s, Ray Charles and Quincy Jones, Joe Strummer, and Elvis Costello punching himself in the face are also potent. Sukita may be at his most arresting when working with Yellow Magic Orchestra, who were up for having their faces painted or plastered with newsprint or propelled through the air amidst a flurry of cassette tapes. Such photos deliver all the striking character of Sukita’s work with Bowie and Iggy and the conceptual ingenuity of those Pink Floyd and Nirvana covers. 

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Review: 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High' Blu-ray

Teen comedies weren’t quite a thing yet when Fast Times at Ridgemont High hit theaters in 1982. Porky’s had been a big hit the year before, but Bob Clark’s puerile approach was very different from Amy Heckerling’s more nuanced one even if a lot of critics couldn’t tell the difference. The dawn of John Hughes’s teen comedies that would define the decade was still a couple of years away, and his glossier, more mannered, more melodramatic approach was very different from Heckerling and screenwriter Cameron Crowe’s inclination toward realism. 

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Review: 'A Band with Built-In Hate: The Who from Pop Art to Punk'

The great irony of The Who’s career is that despite their utter musical uniqueness they were constantly on the look out for a gimmick to distinguish them from The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and the rest of their Rock & Roll peers. Although no group had a songwriter as equally tender and perverse as Pete Townshend or such combative yet virtuosic instrumental interplay, The Who and their management were convinced that the only way they could rise above the throng was to refashion themselves as Mods… or end their act with a brutish yet intellectually rooted act of “auto-destruction” (i.e.: guitar smashing)… or maybe position themselves as the pop equivalent of an Andy Warhol silkscreen… or compose rock operas.

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