Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Review: 'Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir '

There's no way to miss a noir when you're face to face with one. The story is always the same. There's always some world-weary private dick or ne'er-do-well who falls hard for a femme fatale or a less dangerous woman in the possession of some loathsome mug. You know you're looking at a noir because the image is drained of color, shadows crowd the frame, and you're never, ever in the country. You know you're hearing it because noir speaks a tangy language all its own.

Originally published in 1998, Eddie Muller's Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir has to be the ultimate noir survey because it hits all the noir signifiers square between the eyes. Naturally, it has to cover the most important and iconic films, and it has all the usual suspects: Laura, The Maltese Falcon, Nightmare Alley, Gilda, Touch of Evil, and so on, as well as a few less typical selections such as Psycho and neo-noirs such as Chinatown. It better show us something to, and with ample stills and striking poster art, it tics that box too. Where Muller really goes above and beyond is in his telling. He speaks fluent noir, and Dark City reads like Dashiell Hammett's auto-bio. 

Dark City is now available in an expanded and updated edition.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Review: PJ Harvey's 'White Chalk' and 'White Chalk-Demos' on Vinyl

PJ Harvey tended to work in phases, beginning her career with a couple of psycho-blues breakdowns, continuing with a couple lusher, more somber productions, then onto two relatively traditional yet eclectic rock and roll records. Then came the outlier. There's nothing quite like White Chalk in Harvey's oeuvre, or any other rock artist's for that matter. White Chalk sounds like it was flown in from some hard-to-pinpoint era when people still lived in log cabins, lit the night with bonfires, and whispered of phantoms haunting the surrounding woods. Harvey plays ghost throughout every aspect of the record from her washed out image on the cover to her lyrics awash in death to her weightless vocals that never push into her trademark Beefheart bellow. Yet her banshee shrieks that climax the album will drag chills up your neck more assuredly than any of her earlier, more forceful stances. The archaic arrangements of hollow piano and acoustic guitar, dulcimer, zither, concertina, harp, and so on contribute immensely to the singular mood. Even on the odd occasion Harvey and co-producers John Parish and Flood opt for electricity, they use decidedly old-fashioned tools such as the Mellotron and the minimoog (courtesy of former Beefhearter Eric Drew Feldman). Harvey created specific sustained moods on each of her first four albums, but she had never done it as masterfully or specifically as she did on White Chalk. It's so specific that I'd feel as weird playing the album at any time but Halloween season as I would playing "Jingle Bells" in July. White Chalk is haunting, sincerely scary, beautiful, poetic, autumnal, gloomy, and my very favorite album by an artist who made several of my favorites.

White Chalk is so old-fashioned that it also feels wrong listening to it on any format but good old vinyl, and I've spent the last decade or so kicking myself for not grabbing the wax upon its 2007 release before it went out of print. So it's the album I've been most looking forward to since last year's announcement that the whole Harvey catalog would be remastered for vinyl. I'm not disappointed. Without any fanfare or even an indication on the LP jacket, inner sleeve, or labels, White Chalk spins at 45 rpms. It sounds fabulous. The vinyl is flat and quiet with a properly centered spindle hole. My copy has a series of unfortunately-placed scratches during the a capella opening of "Broken Harp", but this is more likely a flaw particular to my copy than a production error.

This release's accompanying disc of demos isn't radically different from the main feature. 
White Chalk - Demos sounds like White Chalk stripped of everything but Polly Jean's contributions. That means it's great because Harvey's work on White Chalk is great, but it's no substitute for the final album and no font of revelations either. It does make one fully appreciate the little ear-catching touches Harvey's collaborators added. White Chalk - Demos may have been of more interest to non-completists if it included the itunes-only bonus track "Wait", which is a really good song in the folk-rock mode Harvey had previously only attempted on "Good Fortune" from Stories from The City. Still, I'm glad it was not appended to the proper album because it strays so far from the utterly perfect mood of White Chalk.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Review: 6 Vinyl Reissues from Traffic

The Spencer Davis Group introduced the world to the precocious soul howl of teenaged Stevie Winwood. That singer and multi-instrumentalist did not fully explore his creativity until he veered out of Davis’s lane and into Traffic in 1967. With the co-leadership of former SDG-roadie Dave Mason, a more distinctly English and whimsical songwriter in the Syd Barrett mode, Traffic created one of the most delightful and imaginative debuts of rock’s most delightful and imaginative year. Mr. Fantasy pools hard rock jamming, raga rock, wyrd folk, spacey ballads, jazz parodies, woodwinds, sitars, harpsichord, and Mellotron without ever sacrificing fully developed songwriting for gimmicks or self-indulgence.


Such precision and concision was still in effect for Traffic’s self-titled second LP, though it was something of a less psychedelic affair. Mason had left the group after their debut due to standard-issue “artistic differences,” but rejoined to help Winwood, drummer Jim Capaldi, and woodwinds-player Chris Wood flesh out a skimpy selection of songs, the best of which is the surreal “Forty Thousand Headmen”. Interestingly, Mason’s contributions include “Feelin’ Alright”, a simple song more in line with the work of a soul outfit like the Spencer Davis Group than wacky Traffic. It became Traffic’s best known song and a genuine rock and roll standard. Winwood definitely should have been allowed to sing it, though. Mason’s vocals are rough throughout the record.


Mason was gone again after the album Traffic, and the band Traffic seemed deader than dead. However, sessions for what would have been Winwood’s first solo album in 1970 organically morphed into a new Traffic album when he asked for Capaldi and Wood’s assistance. John Barleycorn Must Die pointed out a new direction for Traffic. Now the emphasis would be on longer yet disciplined jams and more sincere jazz. Fortunately, the songwriting has recovered after the somewhat half-hearted Traffic and tracks such as “Empty Pages” and “Freedom Rider” rank among the band’s best. The instrumental “Glad” became a classic rock radio staple for decades to come.


Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Review: 'Summer Movies: 30 Sun-Drenched Classics'

What should be considered a "summer movie"? The first thing that may come to mind is anything featuring Frankie, Annette, and a whole lot of bikinis and sand. Or you may think of a summer movie as any you first saw as school let out and the sun seemed to stay out right up until bedtime. For me, Return of the Jedi is a summer movie not because of its metal bikini and Tattooine sand but because I very clearly remember seeing it in the summer of '83 and having it loom over that whole season of freedom and play. 

John Malahy isn't quite that loose with his definition of "summer movie," but his new book Summer Movies: 30 Sun-Drenched Classics does look at nearly every angle of what that term could mean. Yes, he throws a beachball to Frankie and Annette (Beach Blanket Bingo), but he also includes such disparate movies as Jaws and its bloody beach water, Caddy Shack and its seasonal silliness, and Do the Right Thing and its sweltering summer discord. There are B-grade things like Beach Blanket Bingo and high art like Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night.  

Because the films vary so much in style, genre, and quality, I'm not quite sure to whom Summer Movies would most appeal. That variety nearly renders it a book of randomly assorted movies even as Malahy is always sure to bring his discussions of each film back to the season that is their ostensible connecting thread. Still, his writing is insightful enough and the book is a nicely designed hardcover with lots of full-color photos. 

All written content of Psychobabble200.blogspot.com is the property of Mike Segretto and may not be reprinted or reposted without permission.