Monday, December 11, 2017

Review: The Beatles' Christmas Records Box & the 'Sgt. Pepper's' Picture Disc

In December of 1963, UK kids received their biggest reward for joining the Beatles’ Official Fan Club: a flexi-disc arrived in the post containing messages of good will and “Happy Crimble” from the Fab Four. Each year throughout The Beatles’ brief career, fan-club devotees received such a holiday record from their fave group.

For their first Holiday platter dished out on December 6, 1963, The Beatles grunt “Good King Wenceslas” and whistle “God Save the Queen” as John Lennon gives a neat recap of the first phase of his band’s success and says “gear” more times than a John Lennon impersonator. Paul McCartney begs for a moratorium on the chucking of Jelly Babies, Ringo Starr reprises “Wenceslas” like a lounge lizard, and George Harrison gets silly before all four fabs mangle “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” while plugging another famous schnoz into the lyrics.

In 1964, Beatlemania officially spread from the UK to the rest of the globe, and the boys’ recent discovery of Ms. Mary Jane seems to be the fuel on their Yule-log flame. The banter is a bit more lackadaisical than on their first Holiday Record. Or perhaps they were just exhausted. They do sound as knackered as they looked on the cover of the recently released Beatles For Sale… well, at least until the brief but frenzied piano demolition that ends this year’s message.

The Beatles’ 1965 message gets started with a rowdy knees-up of their latest rowdy number, “Yesterday”, before getting on to their usual heartfelt holiday messages. Taking some time out from recording Rubber Soul, John voices his appreciation for some rather original gifts he received from fans, then sings silly songs in an…ummm, I don’t know? Scottish accent? Next up is a reference to a George Harrison B-side that wouldn’t be released for another three years, a quick Four Tops parody, and a deranged version of “Auld Lang Sine” sung with Dylan-esque gravitas. Finally they all get sucked down some sort of reverb-laden vortex, no doubt gearing up for a New Year of acid experimentation and being bigger than that guy allegedly born on December 25th.

Not their most well-remembered holiday carol, “Everywhere It’s Christmas” (sung like the Upperclass Twit of the Year) begins the record shipped to fan club members in December, 1966. What follows is a far more elaborate production than those featured on previous holiday records, with the boys enacting a surreal holiday story complete with weird chorales and George’s memorable portrayal of Podgy the Bear.
 1967 saw release of the most famous Beatles’ fan club record thanks to the inclusion of their first and only full-band holiday song: “Christmastime (Is Here Again)”,  a number as tunefully frothy as their recent number one hit, “Hello, Goodbye”. Inter-cut within the song are snippets from a broadcast on Radio LSD, which features that beloved World War II chestnut “Plenty of Jam Jars” by The Ravelers.

To commemorate 1968, Paul McCartney does a “Blackbird”-reminiscent improv, John name-drops his new paramour amidst his usual verbal gobbledygook, Ringo goes insane, and a very stoned-sounding George pals around with Tiny Tim, who lays down a characteristically shrill version of “Nowhere Man” on his uke! All of this is glued together with some avant garde tape-tomfoolery straight out of “Revolution 9”. Freaky.

Sure, The Beatles couldn’t stand each other by 1969, but that neither stopped them from tossing together another holiday record or kept Yoko Ono—who sloshes through the snow with her new hubby and sings like a Disney thrush—from getting in on the fun. A bit of “The End” played beneath this recording gives a good idea of where The Beatles’ heads were in late ’69. Ringo plugs his burgeoning acting career, perhaps because he knows he’ll soon be without a job. However, a little X-Mas ditty by Paul provides an unexpectedly sweet holiday treat.

While original individual copies of these rare discs fetch as much as $600 today, a new box containing the entire set of these rather bizarre and often hilarious discs is now available for a fraction of that cost, and instead of crackly, wafer-thin flexi discs, they are on proper and rather heavy vinyl in a multitude of festive colors courtesy of Universal Music. There is quite a bit of sound variation due to the different sources from which the messages were pulled. According to the notes, some of the discs were sourced from the flexi-discs, and I'd wager that these include 1963, 1966, and 1969. While the crackling is shockingly mild on the 1963 record, the others sound considerably rougher. 1965 sounds like it was pulled from a cassette. The others sound much cleaner, which means that the most significant piece of music in the set, “Christmastime (Is Here Again)”, sounds nice. However, there are some distortions that likely result from the lo-fi way the original recordings were made, and be sure to take note that the 1964 record revolves at 45 RPMs rather than 33 1/3 or risk hearing the Fabs either sound like some sort of Satanic Santa.

The package is suitably lush. Each record comes in a shrink-wrapped picture sleeve with the original artwork (which because increasingly psychedelic as the sixties progress). The lot of them is encased in a gift box that’s only missing the paper and bow. There’s also a slim but nice booklet with a short introductory essay by Kevin Howlett, repros of each fan club newsletter shipped with each disc from 1963 through 1967, additional photos, and a note about the creation of each record. Gear!

As a nifty stocking stuffing bonus, UMe is also issuing Giles Martin’s recent 50th Anniversary stereo remix of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as a picture disc depicting the original cover on Side A and the custom Sgt. Pepper’s bass drum head on Side B. Picture discs have a reputation for crackly, dull sound, and while this pressing surely isn’t as crisp and vibrant as the CDs in the box set released last spring, and the bass is still overbearing, it still delivers generally good sound.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Review: 'Bang! The Bert Burns Story: Official Soundtrack'

Producer/composer Bert Bern’s role in the Rock & Roll conversation tends to be limited to discussions of Van Morrison and Neil Diamond’s early career, but there’s a lot more to his legacy than “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Cherry, Cherry”. Berns wrote or co-wrote such timeless tunes as Solomon Burke’s “Cry to Me” and “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love”, Them’s “Here Comes the Night”, Freddie Scott’s “Am I Grooving You”, and Erma Franklin/ Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart”. He also produced such major records as The Jarmels’ “A Little Bit of Soap”, The Isley Brothers’ The Exciters’ “Tell Him”, “Twist and Shout”, The Strangeloves’ “I Want Candy”, and The McCoy’s “Hang on Sloopy”. That there is one impressive track record, my friends.

A new documentary called Bang! The Bert Burns Story apparently sets the record straight by telling Burns’s story, while its soundtrack is a stunning sustained blast of why that story is worth telling. There is not one bum track on this 20-track double LP. There isn’t even one track that deserves anything less than a sincere “Wow!” Relative obscurities such as two tracks by The Pussycats (making their long-playing debut), Morrison’s funky “Chick-A-Boom”, Lorraine Ellison’s gospel-like “Heart Be Still”, Bobby Harris’s “Mr. Success”, and Kenny Hamber’s “Show Me Your Monkey” join most of the classics mentioned above. The absence of any of Diamond’s early sides for Berns’s Bang Records seems a somewhat glaring oversight, but that does nothing to change the fact that Bang! The Bert Burns Story: Official Soundtrack is a knock out pop and soul compilation.

Review: 'Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series' DVD

Twin Peaks is my favorite piece of pop culture, so I anticipated its return as a “Limited Event Series” on Showtime fervently. At the same time I was surprised that an artist of David Lynch’s caliber wanted to get in on a sequel-series trend that included the likes of Fuller House. While Lynch obsessively revisits motifs and even structures of his previous works, this would be the first time he’d revisit a specific work. Of course, if he was to revisit a work, Twin Peaks would be the one to revisit both because of a painful cliffhanger that even the feature film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me refused to resolve and because Twin Peaks is Lynch’s most popular production. I’d wager that part of the reason it is so popular is that Lynch’s experimentalism was watered down by Network desires and the fact that he shared duties with a slew of less experimental writers and directors. Had he made, say, Eraserhead: The Series!, it probably would not have endured as the Twin Peaks we knew and loved has.

The amazing thing about the Showtime revival is that Lynch has, in a sense, made Eraserhead: The Series! In other words, instead of servicing our collective nostalgia and desires to spend more time munching on cherry pie and guzzling coffee, Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost took the raw materials of Twin Peaks and took it to places that even the highly abstract Fire Walk with Me did not walk. This certainly was not the Twin Peaks that fans expected, but it truly justified both Lynch’s return to Twin Peaks and his return to filmmaking after a decade-plus absence. While I’m sure I would have enjoyed a nostalgic return to the feel of the original series, I probably would not have spent much time thinking about it. And thinking is something that the third season of Twin Peaks has provoked in me like no other series in our current Golden Age of Television. As brilliant as series such as Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Americans are, none hijacked my thoughts like the third season of Twin Peaks, none provoked so much deep discussion, frustration, obsession, and wonder. It’s been said before by others who have valiantly but futilely attempted to pick through the layers of the Limited Event Series, but it bears repeating—Lynch and Frost may not have given us the Twin Peaks we wanted, but they surely gave us the one we needed and deserved as intelligent people. 

Revisiting this revisitation on Showtime Entertainment/CBS’s new DVD set, Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series retains all of its power to mystify and intrigue. One major positive of knowing what’s coming next is that scenes that felt endless upon first viewing now don’t seem so maddening since I’m no longer dying to find out what happens next. So, for example, I can just relax and groove to “Green Onions” as some random guy sweeps the floor of the Road House without finding it indulgent or unnecessary. It provides a moment (or several moments) to reflect on what has happened and what will happen next. Also, now that we know the cruel fates of certain characters, we can better enjoy those who have satisfying conclusions, and those satisfying conclusions should help dispel feelings that Lynch and Frost had some sort of axe to grind against their audience.

Yet, they creators do everything in their power to level the original series that we know and love, so the Limited Event Series may be best viewed as a self-contained work rather than a proper continuation of something we don’t really want to see leveled. And perhaps it is another nice thing about the recent series that it can be viewed in so many different ways, interpreted in so many different ways. The fact that it allows for such options are part of what makes Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series such a thoroughly intellectually stimulating work of art. I can’t wait to find out how it influences future television series now that it has blown the medium wide open… assuming anyone dares to follow in its footsteps.

For those who are drooling for more time with the Peaks crowd, this new DVD set comes with almost five hours of supplemental material. Much like the series itself, the lengthy “Impressions: A Journey Behind the Scenes of Twin Peaks” is open to interpretation. For David Lynch—a guy who notoriously refuses to discuss the meaning of his work, illuminate his process with DVD commentary tracks, or explain how he made that bizarre Eraserhead baby—this is an unprecedented look at the way he makes movies. For some viewers, this will be endlessly fascinating stuff. For others, it will be a bit too illuminating and could break the spell of a peerlessly spellbinding piece of television. Enter at your own risk.

Less risky is a fun Twin Peaks panel at this year’s comic con hosted by Damon Lindelof (Lost; The Leftovers) and featuring Peaks stars Kyle MacLachlan, Naomi Watts, Dana Ashbrook, Everett McGill, Kimmy Robertson, James Marshall, Don Murray, Matthew Lillard, and Tim Roth in top spirits. There are also minor features such as a 14-minute mini-documentary called “Phenomenon” that previously aired on Showtime in three parts, a series of seven short promos, and a photo gallery.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Review: 'The Complete Monterey Pop Festival' Blu-ray

Capturing Rock & Roll at a more experimental phase than The T.A.M.I. Show did, but not as self-indulgent and drab as Woodstock, or as depressing as Gimme Shelter, D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop is the greatest multi-artist concert film. With a wide selection of some of the era’s most thrilling artists to include in his feature, Pennebaker created a nice sampler of all that made 1967 Rock’s most dazzling year. There’s a whole lot of soul (Otis), raga (17 minutes of Ravi Shankar flooring the crowd), jazz (Hugh Masekela), blues (Janis, Canned Heat), pacific pop (Simon & Garfunkel, The Mamas & The Papas) proto-punk (The Who), and of course, psychedelic Rock (The Animals, Country Joe, the Airplane, Hendrix and his Experience). The performances are as electric as they are eclectic, and Pennbaker’s shadowy cinematography creates nearly as much mood as the vibrant music.
In 2002, The Criterion Collection put together a triple-disc package called The Complete Monterey Pop Festival that built an already monumental film to skyscraper proportions. The set included the original film, as well as complete performances from Otis Redding and The Jimi Hendrix Experience and the feature-length Outtakes Performances. This is just as essential as Pennebaker’s 1968 film, recovering additional performances from The Who, Simon & Garfunkel, Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother & The Holding Company, The Mamas & The Papas, and Country Joe & The Fish, as well as footage of some major artists who didn’t make the cut of the original picture, such as The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Laura Nyro (whose spellbinding rendition of “Poverty Train” dispels rumors that she fumbled the gig), The Association (who provide a charmingly mainstream moment amidst all the heavy underground activity), and others. In addition to the three major supplements were a plethora of commentaries, interviews, trailers, and booklet essays.
In 2009, Criterion upgraded the 2002 DVD for Blu-ray without offering anything beyond the 2002 supplements. For the festival’s 50th Anniversary, Criterion has given the video a 4K buffing and added several extra features, such as new onscreen interviews with Pennebaker (who discusses the filming and the acts) and festival producer Lou Adler (who discusses a 50th Anniversary festival staged on the site of the 1967 one, the original film’s lack of explicit politics, and other matters) and a general new essay about the film by Michael Chaiken (however, text by Pennebaker and Jann Wenner from the 2002 edition have been lost in translation). Much more historically significant are some extra outtake performances from The Steve Miller Band, Moby Grape, and The Grateful Dead. 

Criterion’s new 4K restoration of Monterey Pop delivers splendid colors and appropriately crunchy grain. Some shots are a bit soft, but that is likely a consequence of the lo-fi conditions under which Pennebaker and his crew made the movie (we often see them working the focus in the middle of a shot). Jimi Plays Monterey, Shake! Otis at Monterey, and The Outtakes Performances are presented in the same 1080p transfers used for the 2009 Blu-ray release, but the Hendrix and Otis mini-movies have been newly restored according to the back-cover copy

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Review: 'Hendrix: The Illustrated Story'

Jimi Hendrix is the nearly unanimously acknowledged master of the electric guitar and one of the key Rock & Roll artists in general, so volumes have naturally been written on his life, work, and artistry. For casual fans who don’t have to patience to sift through all that stuff and want to get an eye-load of the man in all his wizard finery, a book such as Gillian G. Gaar’s Hendrix: The Illustrated Story gets the job done.

There’s not much depth to plumb in 200 pages, and the reliance on previously published sources means that new revelations are absent, but that’s not really the point of a book like this. Gaar delivers the essentials of Hendrix’s story, gratefully not pretending that the hideous moments in it didn’t exist (his relationship with an underage prostitute; his battery of a woman in his entourage; etc.), and buffers the text with lots of fabulous photos. Yet for such a short biography, there’s too much day-to-day data about the places he toured and the TV shows on which he appeared. Also, the writing lacks pizzazz considering her flamboyant subject matter. Gaar is at her liveliest when discussing Hendrix’s music in a supplemental essay on Are You Experienced?, but she leaves additional LP surveys to guest writers. In her discussion of Electric Ladyland, Jaan Uhelszki does a much flashier job of reflecting Hendrix’s vividness and made me wish that the rest of the book were as punchy. Gaars narrative is most compulsively readable when events are dramatic enough to carry the story, as it is when she discusses Hendrix’s tumultuous final days.

Of course, a lot of readers will check out Hendrix: The Illustrated Story less for the story and more for the illustrations, and groovy shots of Hendrix getting his hair done while perusing MAD or dolled up as a psychedelic Santa are major selling points. The faux velvet black light poster-style cover is a gas too.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Review: Rush's 'A Farewell to Kings' Deluxe Edition

After three spotty albums that found them fumbling between beery hard rockers to intellectual prog noodlings, Rush cracked the nut on 2112. The band’s resident thinker Neil Peart settled in as chief lyricist, the whole band started writing music worthy of their epic concepts, and their shorter songs tightened up too (even if none of them reached the heights of “Fly by Night”). Now that they had their act down, Rush could start perfecting the new format. With A Farewell to Kings, they came pretty close to doing that. The exciting title track, the looming “Cinderella Man”, and “Closer to the Heart”, the power ballad that launched a zillion Zippos, were miles beyond any of the short numbers on Side B of 2112. “Xanadu” was not as ambitious as the “2112” suite, but it was more melodic and stands as one of Rush’s very best long songs. “Madrigal” is winsome, but the corny lyrics suggest that love songs don’t fit comfortably into Rush’s sci-fi and sorcery universe (no biggy), and “Cygnus X-1” is a bit of a return to the muddled narratives of Caress of Steel, though it’s better than its mixed reputation suggests and the middle section (“I set a course just east of Lyra…”) rocks with that old Labatt’s-brewed fury. More importantly, it is the necessary first act of the even less penetrable yet stunningly beautiful “Cygnus X-1: Book Two” that would be the focal point of Rush’s next album.

On its fortieth anniversary, A Farewell to Kings is getting deluxe treatment via Universal Music. The core album is the same remaster released on vinyl in 2015, and the most startling thing about this remaster on CD is that it is significantly quieter than the album’s first CD incarnation released in the eighties. So the big boon of the triple-disc edition is that it includes a complete concert recorded at the Hammersmith Odeon in London in February 1978. The quality of the recording is much higher than any of the live material on UMe’s deluxe 2112 set, and the choice of songs is excellent with every Farewell track but “Madrigal” represented. There’s the occasional glitch, like a buzzing mic at the beginning of “A Farewell to Kings” and Geddy Lee sometimes has a bit of a frog in his throat in addition to the usual leprechaun, but this is a very release-worthy concert recording.

Finishing off the deluxe edition are four minutes of the weird noises that begin “Cygnus X-1” and pointlessly faithful cover versions of four of the album’s six tracks. As I wrote in my review of Universal’s deluxe edition of 2112, I’m not sure if fans are really going to want material from other artists on a Rush album, but at least these covers are more like bonus tracks tacked at the end of the concert than the centerpiece of a disc as they were on the 2112 set. I’m also not sure how fans will feel about the fact that the album’s original cover has been replaced with new digitally rendered artwork that makes A Farewell to Kings look like a Dream Theater album. Considering that Dream Theater is one of the contributors to this Rush album, that might be intentional.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Review: 'The Best of Muddy Waters' Vinyl Reissue

The term Rock & Roll wasn’t on anyone’s lips in 1948 when Muddy Waters released the malicious “I Can’t Be Satisfied”. With its pulsing rhythm and a title that The Rolling Stones would alter to create a genre-defining disc seven years later, it’s hard not to view “I Can’t Be Satisfied” as the birth of something. The connection between Muddy’s blues and the rockers who worshiped him would get even sharper when he plugged in with records such as “Rollin’ Stone” and “Honey Bee”. Keith stole his sting. Mick stole his yowl. But unlike so many artists who ceded the things they originated to those who took them and cashed in, Muddy always remained Muddy: an originator, a legend, and a true Rock & Roller.

One thing that wasn’t too Rock & Roll about Muddy Waters’s earliest records was the format. While the 45 would be the Rock & Roll format, Waters’s discs rotated at 78 rpms. In 1958, Chess Records glued together twelve of those key cuts and spewed them back out on LP for the first time.

The Best of Muddy Waters remains a bracing listen both for the power of the man’s voice and guitar and for the eerie atmosphere that transcends the usual notions of 1950s Rock & Roll. Most potent of all is an explicit sexiness that burns hotter than perhaps anything any other artist produced in Rock or the blues. Muddy Waters expresses the shit that Jagger and Robert Plant can only pretend to feel.

Universal Music has just reissued The Best of Muddy Waters on heavy, super quiet vinyl that makes the music sound like it was cut yesterday and may make you itch to hear some of those old pops and crackles… but I’m sure you’ll have no trouble making some of your own.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Psychobabble's Ten Greatest Albums of 1963

Great albums weren't a huge concern in the Rock & Roll world of 1963. Until that point, Elvis Presley and Ricky Nelson were the only Rock & Roll artists to have number one albums in the United States. Singles continued to be the preferred media, and they'd remain in that position until 1967, the first year a group of electric-guitar pickers had the number-one album of the year (though More of the Monkees was the one album The Monkees released that year on which the boys didn't actually do much guitar picking).

As we’ve already seen in this series, there had been great Rock & Roll records before 1963: Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry's After School Session, Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar, Here's Little Richard, Buddy Holly's The “Chirpin'“ Crickets, Bo Diddley, though most of these were conceived as singles appended with bits of filler that only by apparent providence turned out to be well above average. However, in 1963, artists such as Phil Spector, Sam Cooke, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, and especially The Beatles set the change-over in motion with truly fine LPs conceived to be just that. The year’s great records were also surprisingly varied with live albums, proto-concept albums, holiday albums, and the usual singles collections all sharing space on the shelves. The great-album era might not have been quite here yet, but now it was just a matter of time.

10. Live at the Apollo by James Brown

James Brown certainly made some great records, but he would not be the Godfather if not for his electrifying, stupefying, mesmerizing stage show. Live at the Apollo is a valiant effort to capture that show for the home audience, though the fact that so much of Brown’s greatness was in his shimmying ankles and drop-to-the-floorboards shtick means that these two vinyl discs still aren’t the ideal Brown presentation. The Fabulous Flames vamp endlessly while Brown steps away from the mic to no doubt do something fabulous, but the lack of essential visuals leaves a couple of stretches of Live at the Apollo a little tedious and 10-plus minutes of “Lost Someone” is a lot of time to spend listening to a slow jam. Live at the Apollo really earns its place as the ultimate James Brown album in its pithier moments, as he and the Flames lay waste to the recorded versions of “I’ll Go Crazy”, “Try Me”, “I Don’t Mind”, and “Please, Please, Please”. And the hyperventilating version of “Think” makes a good case for the argument that James Brown is also the Godfather of Speed Rock.

9. Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah by Bob B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans

Monday, November 27, 2017

Review: 3 Billy Idol Vinyl Reissues

It didn’t really matter what tube you were in. In the eighties, you could grock Billy Idol if you were a metal head, a top-40 fluff head, a new waver, or even a less dogmatic goth or punk, particularly if you’d been following Idol since his Generation X days. With his cross-over appeal, personal style that felt more like a personal brand (the bleached spikes; the leather wardrobe; the Elvis sneer), and a sound that was really more pop than anything else, Billy Idol could have been little more than generic “Rocker” for the eighties if he and his hits didn’t exude so much personality.  The best of them are on his first two albums, which have just been remastered and reissued on vinyl by Universal Music.

Idol’s eponymous debut doesn’t give us much of a peek at his punk roots. The key hit “White Wedding” is fairly sinister stuff, but the rest of the album is straight pop with enough variety and tunefulness to keep it fun. However, choruses of “If you wanna rub-a-dub, rub-a-dub” and a closing number that sounds like it could have easily fit on a Tina Turner album help build a case that Idol needed to tap more into the darkness of “White Wedding”.

He managed to do that without alienating the hit parade on the classic Rebel Yell, which is both atmospheric and tirelessly catchy. Idol’s eternal compadre Steve Stevens, who’d been pretty restrained on Billy Idol, gets to show off his six-string flamboyancy to his heart’s content as Idol gets to do some legitimate sneering on the bourbon-soaked title track, the beautiful/absurd “Eyes without a Face”, and the appealingly sleazy “Flesh for Fantasy”. Those are the hits, but album tracks such as the brooding “Daytime Drama”, the crazy catchy “(Do Not) Stand in the Shadow”, and the celestial “Dead Next Door” are excellent too. The only misstep is some farty sax on the flop single “Catch My Fall”, but cut him some slack. It was the eighties.

Sweeping up the essential tunes that weren’t on Idols two best albums is the vinyl debut of the 2008 compilation The Very Best of Billy Idol: Idolize Yourself. This set is necessary for “Dancing with Myself” in its original Generation X version, Idol’s big chart return “Cradle of Love”, “Sweet Sixteen” (which suggests that Idol was listening to Chris Isaak before Heart Shaped World became a smash), and “World Comin’ Down”, a 2005 number that shows that Idol had not forgotten his stint as a member of the Bromley Contingent. The more synth-drunk singles from Whiplash Smile and covers of “L.A. Woman” and “Mony Mony” are not among Idol’s most timeless recordings, and the two tracks recorded for the compilation are pretty cheesy, but a track from the dated-upon-release Cyberpunk is actually not at all embarrassing.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Review: 'Mummies: Classic Monsters of Pre-Code Horror Comics'

Mummies are the least interesting of the classic movie monsters because there’s never much personality under all those bandages. They don’t get to say creepy things like Dracula or project pathos like the Frankenstein Monster. That’s why Boris Karloff spent the majority of the best mummy movie out of swaddling. Subsequent mummy movies The Mummy’s Hand, The Curse of of the Mummy’s Tomb, and Bubba Ho-Tep are only interesting because of their human characters. The monster is never much more than a leg-dragging drag.

Because they are so one-note with their shuffling and gaits outstretched arms, mummies are more at home on the pages of horror comics where depth is not nearly as important as a good drawing of a slimy thing from the grave (or sarcophagus, as they case may be). Mummies: Classic Monsters of Pre-Code Horror Comics, Craig Yoe’s latest anthology of forgotten horror comic tales, pays tribute to the Egyptian wings of also-ran titles such as Web of Mystery, Web of Evil, Baffling Mysteries, A Hand of Fate Mystery, and a couple of comics with neither Web nor Mystery in its title. 

The nice thing about the off-the-wall nature of the lesser horror comics is that common tropes often went out the window, so in addition to the standard grunting ghouls, there’s also room for loquacious mummies, a tribe of mummies, phony mummies, a mummy necklace, quite a few amorous mummies, and in the absolutely bonkers (and atrociously illustrated) “Vault of the Winged Spectres”, a sort of mummy bird. My favorites of the bunch are Bob Powell and Howard Nostrand’s “Servants of the Tomb”, which is kind of like a cross between one of those gruesome E.C. fairy tales and a Masters of the Universe mini-comic, and Charles Nicholas’s more sensible “The Demon Coat”, which simply squirms with monsters mummified and otherwise. There’s also a neat 15-page history of mummies from ancient Egypt days through the horror comics era. Neatest factoid: John Balderston, writer of Karloff’s The Mummy, was supposedly present at the discovery of King Tut’s mummy!

Friday, November 24, 2017

Review: 'Gold Dust Woman: The Biography of Stevie Nicks'

Stephen Davis’s The Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga is the infamously salacious story of the seventies’ hugest hard rock group, and often considered to be the definitive rock biography for its grotesque tales of sex slavery, Satanism, and sand sharks. The decade’s hugest soft rock group, Fleetwood Mac, perhaps didn’t slam out riffs as devastatingly as Zeppelin did, and they certainly never did half the horrid things Davis accused Zeppelin of doing, but their self-zombification through cocaine is legendarily decadent.

However, Davis’s new biography of the Mac’s central star, Gold Dust Woman: The Biography of Stevie Nicks is more relentlessly sad than page-turningly sleazy à la Hammer of the Gods. This is due to the main villain of a story with quite a few of them. Lindsey Buckingham apparently subjected the singer to decades of mental and physical abuse, from the relatively early days of their musical/“romantic” relationship when he browbeat her into posing nude on the cover of their Buckingham/Nicks LP to when he physically attacked her in front of the entire band while planning to tour behind Tango in the Night to his general cold, calculated, and creepy behavior toward her through the more recent reunions. It’s painful to read about how her successful solo career seemed to free her from Buckingham’s proximity yet she serially fell back into working with him again for various reasons. The devastating punch-line of this story that comes with the birth of Buckingham’s first child in 1998 is even more painful and a sad statement on the dependent nature of abusive relationships.

There isn’t much that lightens the mood of Gold Dust Woman, though the fact that Davis is so firmly in Nicks’s corner is heartening, and he reaffirms his mastery of writing a rock biography that is more than a rock biography by creating actual atmosphere, which is not necessarily considered an essential element of the rock biography. He does so by setting an appropriately witchy mood by delving into the mystical history of Wales to build Nicks’s cultural background or recreating the dank, stygian atmosphere of the “Gold Dust Woman” recording session. At times, Davis can get a bit repetitious—we could feed the world’s poor with a dollar for every time he refers to “Rhiannon” as the “old Welsh witch”—but as a whole Gold Dust Woman is a fine biography— though a depressing one that may make you want to take a long break from the music Lindsey Buckingham masterminded.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Review: 'Tears for Fears Rule the World: The Greatest Hits'

Tears for Fears Rule the World: The Greatest Hits is not the group’s first greatest hits compilation, but it is necessary since 25 years have elapsed since the release of Tears Roll Down (Greatest Hits 82-92) and Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith have kept the group going since then, producing such greatest hits-worthy tracks as “Break It Down Again”, “Closest Thing to Heaven”, and the majestic “Raoul And The Kings Of Spain” in the interim. Aside from these three tracks, the other two unique to Rule the World are new recordings. “I Love You But I’m Lost” is the bigger contender for hit status because of a production that is both very contemporary and noticeably eighties, yet it might be a bit too entrenched in the generic bombast of contemporary pop production and sounds so little like the Tears for Fears we’ve come to know and love that I can’t even tell who is singing lead. The pretty “Stay” is the more appealing track with its moody atmosphere that feels like a cross between “I Believe” and “Listen” from Songs from the Big Chair. Of course the biggest draw is going to be the classic hits, and the presence of  “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”, “Shout”, “Sowing the Seeds of Love”, and the divine “Head over Heels” ensure that Rule the World is necessary for the less committed fan or the merely curious.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Review: 'Groovy: When Flower Power Bloomed in Pop Culture'

In Mark Voger’s world, the lava lamp is always fired up, psychedelia and sunshine pop are always blaring from the jukebox, there are nightly screenings of Head and Easy Rider, the magazine rack is always stocked with the latest issues of Josie and the Pussycats and Zap Comix, and H.R. Pufnstuf, The Banana Splits, and Laugh-In are in constant rotation on the tube (and make no mistake, his TV has a tube… and rabbit ears). These are the things Voger defines as “groovy,” and these are the groovy things that he uses to build a groovy world in his groovy new book Groovy: When Flower Power Bloomed in Pop Culture.

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Summer of Love, and there have been no shortage or reverent, historically conscious books to commemorate the Aquarian age. Groovy is the first one I’ve read that actually captures the full flowering fun of that period. I love, love, love the fact that Voger makes room for the things Jann Wenner types consciously leave out of the discussion. Our author betrays no snobbery, placing the perennial critical darlings beside the less revered but no less lovable sorts. So in this lively, ping-ponging survey of the late sixties and early seventies, there are places for The Buckinghams next to The Beatles, The Guess Who next to The Who, The Cowsills next to The Beach Boys, Tommy James next to Dylan, and Tiny Tim next to Hendrix. A lot of these folks stop in to gab with Voger too, and the book is liberally seasoned with recent and less recent interviews with fab folks such as Donovan, Maureen McCormick, the Smothers Brothers, Brian Wilson, Ruth Buzzi, Mick Taylor, Paul Kantner, Shirley Jones, Bill Wyman, John Entwistle, Lily Tomlin, Roger McGuinn, all four Monkess, and many others. What a gas! However, Groovy’s grooviest feature may be its acid-cartoon design, which explodes with colorful portraits, period art, album jackets, and memorabilia galore.

Mark Voger is also the author of Monster Mash, a book about the Monster Kid phenomenon I gushed over a couple of years ago. I can’t help but think that with his wonderfully definitive volumes on classic monsters and now the psychedelic age, Voger has managed to distill everything I’ve attempted to do with Psychobabble over the past decade in just a couple of handy, dandy hardcovers. He’s a true kindred spirit, Psychobabblers, and judging from his personal, humorous, self-effacing, fun-loving prose, a pretty groovy himself.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Two Horror Classics Coming to Blu-Ray from Criterion This February

Just in time for, errr, Valentine's Day, the Criterion Collection is releasing two classics more befitting Halloween season.  Night of the Living Dead and The Silence of the Lambs have actually already been released on Blu-ray by other companies, but both titles clearly deserve the lavish attention of a Criterion edition. And this is what they apparently shall receive this February 13. Here are the specs straight from

Night of the Living Dead
  • New 4K digital restoration, supervised by director George A. Romero, coscreenwriter John A. Russo, sound engineer Gary R. Streiner, and producer Russell W. Streiner
  • New restoration of the monaural soundtrack, supervised by Romero and Gary R. Streiner, and presented uncompressed on the Blu-ray
  • Night of Anubis, a never-before-presented work-print edit of the film
  • New program featuring filmmakers Frank Darabont, Guillermo del Toro, and Robert Rodriguez
  • Never-before-seen 16 mm dailies reel
  • New piece featuring Russo about the commercial and industrial-film production company where key Night of the Living Dead filmmakers got their start
  • Two audio commentaries from 1994, featuring Romero, Russo, producer Karl Hardman, actor Judith O’Dea, and more
  • Archival interviews with Romero and actors Duane Jones and Judith Ridley
  • New programs about the editing, the score, and directing ghouls
  • New interviews with Gary R. Streiner and Russel W. Streiner
  • Trailer, radio spots, and TV spots
  • More!
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Stuart Klawans
The Silence of the Lambs 
  • New 4K digital restoration, approved by director of photography Tak Fujimoto, with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • Alternate 5.1 surround soundtrack, presented in DTS-HD Master Audio on the Blu-ray
  • Audio commentary from 1994 featuring director Jonathan Demme, actors Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, screenwriter Ted Tally, and former FBI agent John Douglas
  • New interview with critic Maitland McDonagh
  • Thirty-five minutes of deleted scenes
  • Interview from 2005 with Demme and Foster
  • Inside the Labyrinth, a 2001 documentary
  • Page to Screen, a 2002 program about the adaptation
  • Scoring “The Silence,” a 2004 interview program featuring composer Howard Shore
  • Understanding the Madness, a 2008 program featuring interviews with retired FBI special agents
  • Original behind-the-scenes featurette
  • Trailer
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Amy Taubin along with, in the Blu-ray edition, a new introduction by Foster; an account of the origins of the character Hannibal Lecter by author Thomas Harris; and a 1991 interview with Demme

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Review: 'Book of Alien'

Despite the philosophically deep 2001: A Space Odyssey and the generally shocking Clockwork Orange, science-fiction was still pretty much considered a kid’s genre when Alien was released in 1979, so you can forgive Kenner for trying to market the graphically violent, R-rated movie to tykes with a Xenomorph action figure that drew the outrage of parents.

Owen Williams’s new Book of Alien feels like another slightly misguided product for children based on a very adult movie. The book is constructed as a survival guide full of files on the various monsters, past space crews, missions (i.e.: movie plots), and machines for marines dealing with chest bursters, face huggers, queens, and other nasties in that place where no one can hear you scream. That semi-cute conceit is what makes the book feel like it’s intended for kids, and the rah-rah-military attitude feels out of line with films that were often deeply critical of the military industrial complex. Nevertheless, Book of Alien is great to gaze at it with its spiffy design and abundance of photos and illustrations of Aliens, spacecraft, and high-tech weaponry. Interestingly, the series’ casts are almost entirely absent from the visuals—not a single snap of Sigourney in the bunch. But I think anyone who will really be into this book will care less about the film’s human elements more and more about the monsters and gadgetry. Kids love that stuff.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Super Deluxe Edition of 'More of The Monkees' Coming Soon

On December 15, Rhino Records will continue its long-running Monkees Super Deluxe Edition campaign with a triple-disc edition of More of The Monkees. Sessions for The Monkees' second LP were extensive and had the distinction of producing some of the group's best early songs ("Mary Mary", "Steppin' Stone", "She", "Look Out", to name a few) and some of their all-time worst ("The Day We Fall in love","Ladies Aid Society","Kicking Stones", "I Never Thought It Peculiar"... I shall name no more). The sessions also produced quite a few early versions of songs The Monkees would revisit later in their career ("Valleri", "Words","Prithee", "Mr. Webster", "I'll Be Back Up on My Feet", "I Can't Get Her Off My Mind", "Don't Listen to Linda", "The Girl I Left Behind Me", "I'll Spend My Life with You", "Whatever's Right").

Rhino's Super Deluxe More of The Monkees spreads the great, the bad, and the rest across three discs of mono, stereo, alternate, vocals-only, and instrumental mixes. The most intriguing inclusions on this set are a couple of numbers exclusive to the TV series ("I Love You Really"from the "Monkees at the Movies" episode and Mike's wacky version of "Different Drum" from "Too Many Girls") and the earliest live tracks to get official release. These ten numbers caught in Arizona in 1967 include the long-discussed rarity "She's So Far Out, She's In" and the guys' four traditional solo set pieces (Peter's "Cripple Creek", Mike's "You Can't Judge a Book By Its Cover", Micky's "I Got a Woman", and Davy's "Gonna Build  a Mountain").

You can pre-order the Super Deluxe Edition of More of the Monkees at here. And now here's the complete track listing:

Disc 1
She (Remastered) [Mono Mix]
When Love Comes Knockin' (At Your Door) [Remastered] [Mono Mix]

Thursday, November 2, 2017

A Very Beatles Christmas is Coming

Just in time for the holidays, Capitol/UMe will release a genuine and long-desired rarity for the first time. As far as The Beatles' back catalog goes, their fan club-only Christmas records are the most glaring missing pieces of the Livrpudlian puzzle aside from the Let It Be film. Released in the sixties on chintzy flexi-discs, the seven Christmas records the Fabs issued from 1963 to 1969 will be issued on colored vinyl in a limited edition box set this December 15. According to the official press release, the set will include all original picture sleeves and a 16-page booklet with "recording notes and reproductions of the fan club’s National Newsletters, which were mailed to members with the holiday flexi discs." 

As a little seasonal bonus, Capitol/UMe will also issue the recent stereo remix of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band as a limited edition picture disc LP. Happy Crimble!

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Review: 'Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier'

The thirst for more time in Twin Peaks was no doubt largely fueled by the desire to return to a mystery, alluring, deeply dangerous locale that held a select few of us in its thrall for 25 years. We wanted to find out what happened to Agent Cooper and his evil double. We wanted to know whether Norma and Big Ed ever got together once and for all. We wanted to know if Audrey Horne survived the bank explosion.

But if we are completely honest with ourselves, our desire for more Twin Peaks was also tied to nostalgia, and though Mark Frost and David Lynch did provide answers to most of the questions we’d spent 25 years pondering, they defiantly refused to give in to our desire for nostalgia. Like Agent Cooper, Twin Peaks was back but not quite in the form in which we were expecting it to be. Many questions were answered, but the holes that remained left some viewers feeling challenged a bit out of their comfort zones.

Our first clue that this was what we should have expected from a third season of Twin Peaks is a firm understanding of David Lynch’s uncompromising artistry: there is no way that the man who made Eraserhead, Mulholland Dr., and INLAND EMPIRE was going to take us on a trip back to Twin Peaks just so we could enjoy one more comfy helping of cherry pie. Our second was Mark Frost’s book The Secret History of Twin Peaks, a winding journey through the town’s history that teasingly focused on matters far removed from the original series’ main events and characters.

As stimulating as these new print and screen additions to Twin Peaks lore have been to some of us, other longtime fans have found them understandably frustrating. Such fans should take heart in the publication of what could be the last word on Twin Peaks, because Frost’s latest book, Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier, answers a lot of questions.

While Mark Frost presented The Secret History of Twin Peaks as a near-multimedia collection of newspaper articles, diary entries, memos, footnotes, and other print materials, The Final Dossier is much more straight-forward. It is a series of between-then-and-now narratives that reveal the fates of characters who didn’t show up for the return, such as Sheriff Truman, Leo Johnson, and Donna Hayward, and explanations of some of the more talked-about matters in the latest series. Such questions as who was behind the so-called Manhattan experiment and who was the girl who swallowed the frog-roach are now answered. And, yes, we finally find out how’s Annie.

The Final Dossier is Mark Frost’s satisfying conclusion to Twin Peaks for those who were unsatisfied by Lynch’s elliptical television incarnation, and it is much tidier than Frost’s own Secret History. That means it is also much briefer—The Final Dossier is a scant 145 pages—and much less idly luxurious. Images are few and the design is far more austere than the lovely Secret History. However, we get much more time with our favorite Peaks characters and much more humor than we did in The Secret History.

Those who revel in the unsolved mysteries of the Showtime series might want to steer away from Frost’s book, or at least, parts of it. I personally found the short but illuminating chapter on Audrey Horne a bit too illuminating even as Frost avoids giving us too clear a picture of what her current situation is. Yet, I was not at all sorry I read it, and with all the theories about what really happened in the third season of Twin Peaks already floating out in the zone, I imagine that Frost would delight in having us accept his version of events as just one more theory that may or may not be gospel. As far as theories go, I’ve read none that were more entertaining or compulsively readable than Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier.
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