Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Review: 'Feel My Big Guitar: Prince and the Sound He Helped Create'

In the introduction to their new book, Feel My Big Guitar: Prince and the Sound He Helped Create (the first installment of a two-volume series), editors Judson L. Jeffries, Shannon M. Cochran, and Molly Reinhoudt define the Artist as "unquestionably a political animal." As unquenchable creativity seemed to fuel Prince above all else, the editors' statement may be questionable, but there's no question that much of their book is political. Most of its essays tend to frame Prince's life and music through a lens that puts race front and center, which is valuable as it shows how racism helped determine the verging fortunes of Prince and Rick James, an artist with whom he was often compared early in his career, or played a major role in the incessant comparisons with Jimi Hendrix, whose guitar technique, writer Ignatius Calabria quite effectively demonstrates, was very different from Prince's. Matters of gender come to the fore in Jude De Lima's exploration of Prince's songwriting techniques, while Fred Mark Shaheen's piece on Joni Mitchell's influence helps clarify one of the curiouser tributaries of Prince lore.  

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Review: 'Corman/Poe: Interviews and Essays Exploring the Making of Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe Films, 1960-1964'

In the late fifties, Hammer Film Productions struck a blow for Gothic horror just when it seemed as though bulb-headed martians and giant bugs had banished vampires, Frankensteins, and spooky cobwebs for good. That was great for UK, birthplace of Gothic horror, but what of the U.S.? Without having even seen Hammer's Curse of Frankenstein or Dracula, all-American Roger Corman came to the stateside rescue with a series of horrors based on stories by America's premiere Gothicist, Edgar Allan Poe. With more than a little help from screenwriters like Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont (both veterans of the Twilight Zone writers' room, not incidentally), producer/director Corman managed to inflate Poe's exceedingly short, not-exactly-action-packed tales of mystery and imagination into crowd-pleasing features. The guy who gave the world highly enjoyable but undeniably schlocky fare like A Bucket of Blood and Little Shop of Horrors suddenly displayed a true artist's eye, with his rainbow palette, brilliant use of foreground set dressing, and zeal for psychedelic dream sequences. With a stock team of iconic actors such as Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Jack Nicholson, Boris Karloff, Ray Milland, and Hazel Court, Roger Corman had found the formula for iconic, unforgettable, enduring films. 

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Review: 'Alternative Anthems' LP

The alternative scene feels like the great forgotten era in rock history. Although it was the most potent period in my own "coming of age"--the only rock movement I fully embraced as it was happening (although I lived through the new wave era, I didn't fully appreciate it until the eighties were a fart in the breeze), there are scant references to it today. There are no jukebox musicals that feature the songs of Pavement, no Belly biopic. They won't even put the goddamn Pixies into the idiotic Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, even though nineties rock would have been nowhere without their influence. 

Monday, June 19, 2023

Review: 'Worlds Beyond Time: Sci-Fi Art of the 1970s'

The mutual explosion of sci-fi and cheap paperbacks in the seventies necessitated a similar boom in sci-fi art. Near household names like Ralph McQuarrie, Roger Dean, Frank Frazetta, Robert McCall, and Alan Aldridge helped fulfill industry needs with nearly photorealistic depictions of otherworldly worlds, freaky tech, weird monsters, and excessively sinewed and/or buxom humanoids. The art adorning books by the likes of Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, and Ellison were often selling points as major as the words within. Some of it was garish or tacky, but even the most ghastly covers displayed a wealth of imagination and technique. A good deal of it was truly beautiful.

Friday, June 16, 2023

Review: 'Running Up That Hill: 50 Visions of Kate Bush'

While many of the hugest pop stars live lives of such strangeness that their music may only seem like a minor player in their biographies, Kate Bush's life has always been an extreme dichotomy between outlandishly rich artistry on vinyl and stage and utmost simplicity in her private life. There are no tales of Bush dumping TVs out of hotel windows or snorting ants. She was more likely hanging out with her brothers or Hoovering the living room. Of course, her music is so deep, startling, original, and infectious, so incomparably magical and obsession-inviting, that fans naturally want to know every little thing about her. 

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Review: 'Parachute Women'

The Rolling Stones have long been celebrated for their glamorous, titillating rock and roll decadence, but before hooking up with two remarkable women, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were basically a couple of low-key, awkward, middle-class English boys. It was Marianne Faithfull and, especially, Anita Pallenberg who helped elevate their art and personas by exposing them to culture outside of Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry. It was these women who imbued them with black magic mystique by pushing Jagger and Richards out of their comfort zones and into the more liberated/dangerous realms of sexual exploration and hard drug use. And while Jagger and Richards were lauded as "bad boy" templates for the male rock star, Faithfull and Pallenberg were held up as examples for how women should never behave and practically destroyed by both the men they loved and Britain's misogynistic tabloid press.

Saturday, June 10, 2023

Review: 'E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial' 40th Anniversary Soundtrack

His scores for Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark may have yielded more instantly recognizable themes, but John Williams composed some of his loveliest melodies and most varied arrangements when scoring E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. The stirring theme used to euphoric effect when Elliott and his alien companion take flight on a bike, is the most famous and Williamsy number, but the eerie, unresolved main theme, the sparse harp arpeggios that color Elliott's budding friendship with E.T., and the rippling piano piece that introduces the closing credits may be the composer's most enchantingly pretty and atypically reserved music. Despite its reputation for being saccharine, E.T. is actually fairly dark and surprisingly poetic, and Williams reflects those tones with the foreboding piece that accompanies the extraterrestrials' late-night botany hunt in the woods, the eerie drones heard inside their spacecraft, and an ominous theme that shudders as a team of mysterious scientists invade Elliott's home.

Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Review: 'Cliffhanger! Cinematic Superheroes of the Serials: 1941-1952'

Well before superheroes became staples of feature films, or even TV shows like the Superman series of the fifties or the Batman one of the sixties, muscled men in tights most regularly appeared on screen in matinee serials. Both Superman and Batman got their live-action starts in serials. So did future TV and movie stars such as Captain Marvel, Captain America, Flash Gordon, and Dick Tracy. It was a very sensible way to bring these characters to the screen, as the short, action-packed, cliffhanger-beholden structure of a serial episode was pretty similar to that of a comic issue. 

Sunday, June 4, 2023

Review: Tears for Fears' 'The Hurting' Half-Speed Mastered Vinyl

A lot has been made of the fact that the teachings of primal scream therapy guru Arthur Janov inspired Tears for Fears' debut, The Hurting. However, while that more famous Janovian rock record, John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band, draws a very direct line to Janov's teachings-- what with the LP's raw sound, blood-freezing shrieks, and extremely personal references--the influence on The Hurting is much mistier. Roland Orzabal's lyrics generally refer to childhood pain and working through trauma, but he never gets very specific, and none of my cursory Internet research turned up any specific details on what exactly he and partner Curt Smith suffered as kids, aside from absentee dads and broken homes.

Thursday, June 1, 2023

Review: Eddie Piller's 'Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances: A Life in Mod'

Eddie Piller is a big name in certain nattily attired, musically minded circles. He is the founder of Acid Jazz Records, a musical tastemaker who lends his name to mod and power pop compilations, and a renowned second-generation mod. So when I saw that he had a book coming along that cribbed its title from Mod-founder Pete Meaden's most famous description of his cult--clean living under difficult circumstances--I assumed it would be a general history of modernism. 
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