Friday, April 12, 2013

DVD Review: Midsomer Murders: Tom Barnaby's Last Cases [Box Set]

John Nettles portrayed Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Tom Barnaby in the British ITV Networks' Midsomer Murders television program from 1997 until 2011. He was there from the beginning, and his departure left fans wondering how, or if the show would continue. By casting Neil Dudgeon as Tom’s cousin John Barnaby, the producers found a way to move forward without too much disruption. In Nettles’ final show, “Fit For Murder,” Tom announces his retirement, and introduces John. The basic premise of Midsomer Murders remains unchanged, and the 16th series (season) is currently in production.

That basic premise of Midsomer Murders is a good one. The show is based on the novels of Caroline Graham, and takes place in the fictional English county of Midsomer. Midsomer County is a wealthy enclave, and the settings are often quite beautiful. It is against this idyllic backdrop that an inordinate number of murders occur, and the perpetrators are usually the least likely candidates.

The locations of the murders range all over Midsomer County, and we follow Tom from a golf course to a touristy model town, to an old village school, and some grand estates, among many other places. His final case, “Fit for Murder” happens at a weekend spa that he and his wife are visiting. There is no rest for the wicked it would seem.

While the settings are certainly attractive, the mysteries themselves are what keep us coming back. For some reason, it seems that the English have a knack for crafting great murder mysteries. Caroline Graham’s Chief Inspector Barnaby novel series upholds the long tradition of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie.

The new 15-DVD, 15-episode box set Midsomer Murders: Tom Barnaby’s Last Cases contains all seven Midsomer Murders from series 12 (2009-10), and all eight from series 13 (2010-11). As the title indicates, these are the final 15 mysteries featuring John Nettles as DCI Tom Barnaby. While I have not as of yet had the opportunity to watch every episode of this long-running program, I can say that of the many I have seen, I have never been disappointed. This is certainly the case with the final 15 of Nettles’ run with the show.

Acorn Media has carved out a nice niche, releasing select British programs on DVD for the American market, and Midsomer Murders is one of them. I took a chance on one of the sets, and was very pleasantly surprised. Evidently, the DVD sets of Midsomer have done well, as these programs have already been previously released separately by Acorn. Having the two series packaged together in this manner is great for those who may not already them.

Midsomer Murders: Tom Barnaby’s Last Cases is housed in a four-volume box set, with a full DVD devoted to each mystery. The breakdown is as follows:

Series 12: Part One: “The Dogleg Murders” (100 minutes), “The Black Book” (100 minutes), “Secrets and Spies” (100 minutes), and “The Glitch” (100 minutes). Bonus materials include cast interviews and fact sheets. While Midsomer Murders is a television show, there is an advisory for “The Black Book” on the back cover to alert the viewer that it contains brief nudity and sexual themes. Previously released as Midsomer Murders: Set 17.

Series 12: Part Two contains: “Small Mercies” (100 minutes), “The Creeper” (100 minutes), and “The Great and the Good (100 minutes).” There is a 23-minute interview with Jason Hughes as a bonus on “The Great and the Good,” and “The Creeper“ contains brief nudity. Previously released as Midsomer Murders: Set 18

Series 13: Part One contains: “The Made-to-Measure Murders” (100 minutes), “The Sword of Guillaume” (100 minutes), “Blood on the Saddle” (100 minutes), and “The Silent Land” (100 minutes). “Blood on the Saddle” contains an interesting “Behind-the-scenes” photo gallery. Previously released as Midsomer Murders: Set 19

Series 13: Part Two contains: “Master Class” (93 minutes), “The Noble Art” (89 minutes), “Not in my Backyard” (89 minutes), and “Fit for Murder” (89 Minutes). John Nettles’ final starring appearance as Tom Barnaby comes in “Fit for Murder,” and the DVD also includes the bonus feature “Barnaby Through the Years” photo gallery and a “Saying Goodbye to Barnaby” essay. Previously released as Midsomer Murders: Set 20.

If you add it all up the run time would be approximately 24 hours. Although I would not necessarily recommend sitting down for one 24-hour marathon of Midsomer Murders, I would understand if you chose to do so. The series really is that addictive, and I believe it is one of the best British television shows going. For those who have yet to fall under the spell of Midsomer Murders, it is most definitely worth investigating.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

DVD Box Review: Foyle's War: The Home Front Files Sets 1 - 6

It is hard to explain why some British dramas catch on so strongly in the United States, and others go almost unknown. Foyle’s War is certainly one that I think should have gained a strong audience in America, but for one reason or another, has remained something of a cult item. Acorn Media have been releasing the series to DVD in America for a few years now, but their new Foyle's War: The Home Front Files Sets 1-6 collects all 22 episodes in one incredible package.

The initial run of the program was from 2002 to 2008, for a total of six seasons, or “series” as the Brits refer to it. Although it rarely works, in the case of Foyle’s War, the outcry of fans actually succeeded in reviving the show, and a seventh series ran in 2010, and reportedly there is an eighth scheduled for 2013. There were a total of 22 programs produced during the original run of the show, with each year seeing four, three and even just two individual 90-minute installments.

As mentioned, Acorn Media have previously released these as individual DVD sets, each with a single DVD devoted to what amounts to separate TV movies. The new Foyle’s War The Home Front Files Sets 1-6 contains all 22 DVDs in a box-set format, and it is a mighty impressive collection.

First of all, let me just say that using the backdrop of World War II to present murder mysteries was inspired. I have always been a fan of murder mysteries, be they English or American, but Foyle’s War is really something special. With the war raging in the background, there is a much deeper level to all of the stories, and the producers use that to excellent effect.

The titular character is Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle (Michael Kitchen), who is based in Sussex, England. The very first Foyle’s War episode is titled “The German Woman,” and is set in 1940. At this time, anyone of German extraction in England was immediately suspect, as the Germans were bombing the country. “The German Woman” refers to the brutal murder of the local magistrate’s wife, who was German. Among some of the townspeople of Hastings (in Sussex), there is kind of a feeling of “who cares” as she was German, but Foyle gets to the bottom of it, and the story is quite compelling.

This level of sophisticated story-telling continues with the remaining three episodes of the first season. They are “The White Feather,” “A Lesson in Murder,” and “Eagle Day.” All four are excellent, and I really enjoy the chronological format as well. This first season is set from May to August of 1940. The second season of Foyle's Warpicks up the story in September of 1940, with “Fifty Ships.” This second set also contains four DVDs/episodes, and ends in October 1940.

Set three is also a four-DVD collection, and takes place from February to June 1941. To this viewer, the third series of Foyle’s War was a real peak, maybe the finest of the six. Each of these mysteries does what Foyle’s War does best, presenting a fascinating mystery with the equally fascinating intrigues going on in civilian Sussex during 1941. “The French Drop” is a perfect example of this. In it, Foyle traces a murder back to the mysterious wartime Special Operations Executive (SOE), which is an undercover espionage-training group. The tensions between the SOE and the government in these early days are captivating to say the least.

For whatever reasons, Foyle’s War was off the air in 2005, and the series resumed in 2006, for its fourth season. This season only produced two episodes, although they were both quite good. “Invasion” sees the arrival of American troops in Hastings, who are not made to feel 100% welcome. We are in March, 1942 at this point, and the U.S. has just entered the war in a big way after Pearl Harbor. The other Foyle’s War program for the fourth season was “Bad Blood,” which has some early-21st century parallels thanks to the use of anthrax in biological warfare experimentation.

Season five was also a two-episode affair, and initially aired in 2007. These are two more excellent installments though, without question. "Bleak Midwinter" is appropriately titled, as the show takes place during December of 1942. In this case, Foyle finds himself investigating the mysterious murder of a munitions worker. "Casualties of War" moves the story into 1943, and is one of the more intriguing of the lot. The situation involves more investigation into top secret weapons research, which is always creepy. The show also focuses on domestic events in Foyle's life, as his god-daughter and her young son unexpectedly come to stay with him. In 2007, viewers must have thought the series was over, as Foyle retires at the end of "Casualties of War."

The show did return in 2008 however, for its sixth season. The three episodes that comprise season six take place from April 1944 to May 1945. At first, it certainly appears that Foyle's decision was final, as we are introduced to his replacement. But things get mighty dicey in this one, and Foyle winds up solving not one but two murders. At the end of the show he has decided to put off his retirement until the end of the war.

"Broken Souls" finds Foyle in the middle of a strange situation with a former POW and a psychiatrist at a mental health institution. "All Clear" refers to the end of the war, VE Day, but that joyful event is marred by another murder.

Thankfully, the end of the war did not spell the end of Foyle's War. The three-episode seventh season takes place in the immediate post-war period of June to August 1945. It was originally transmitted during 2010. "The Russian House," "Killing Time," and "The Hide" continue the excellent, theatrical film level quality of the show in fine fashion.

Michael Kitchen does a marvelous job as Christopher Foyle throughout the series, and he gets wonderful support from his co-stars as well. Acorn has not skimped on the bonus features here either, as the set includes interview segments with the creator of the show, Anthony Horowitz and actors Anthony Howell and Honeysuckle Weeks. The making of pieces are also top notch.

Each of these "shows" are really individual movies, and are just the perfect thing for fans of British mysteries. Foyle's War is one of the finest shows of its kind, and Acorn have made this all-inclusive set available at a very reasonable price. I recommend this one without reservation.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Black Sabbath to Release Their First Album with Ozzy in 35 Years

An edited version of this article was first published as Music News: Black Sabbath to Release Their First Album with Ozzy in 35 Years on Blogcritics.
With their first album, Black Sabbath invented heavy metal. Hailing from Birmingham, England, Ozzy Osbourne (vocals), Tony Iommi (guitar), Geezer Butler (bass), and Bill Ward (drums) created a sound that was unlike anything that had come before. The original lineup released eight albums between 1970-1978, but the band sacked Ozzy after Never Say Die! in 1978. The reunion album is titled 13, and was produced by Rick Rubin. It is scheduled to be released in June, with a summer tour likely to follow. So what makes Sabbath the original metal band? With all due respect to the likes of Led Zeppelin, Blue Cheer, and even Dave Davies’ guitar riff on The Kinks‘ “You Really Got Me,” the Black Sabbath album set the template. The cover alone scared the hell out of me, let alone the music. From the opening tritone sequence of Iommi’s guitar, to Ozzy’s frightening intonation of the words “What is this that stands before me,” and the pure doom that infused the whole of “Black Sabbath,” this song was unrelenting. And that was only the first track. Other standout cuts included “The Wizard,” “Behind the Wall of Sleep,” and the monstrous "Warning." As if Black Sabbath were not enough, they managed to release a second long-player just seven months later. Paranoid was more than a worthy follow-up, and many fans (myself included) consider it to be their best. Besides the title tune, Paranoid also boasted “War Pigs,” “Iron Man,” and “Hand of Doom,” among other classics. Sabbath were as far from the hippie delights of CSN and the gentle singer-songwriters of the period as could be imagined. Black Sabbath and Paranoid heralded a new era in music, and the critics were not happy. Even Lester Bangs missed the boat. His review of Black Sabbath in Rolling Stone described it as "discordant jams with bass and guitar reeling like velocitized speedfreaks all over each other's musical perimeters yet never quite finding synch." In the 1979 Rolling Stone Record Guide, Ken Tucker summed up the Ozzy years with this pithy statement: “These would-be Kings of English Heavy Metal are eternally foiled by their own stupidity.” 1970 was the band’s watershed year, and they consolidated their early ‘70s supremacy with Master of Reality (1971), Volume 4 (1972), Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973), and Sabotage (1975). They were the English Kings of Heavy Metal, critics be damned. These albums contained a plethora of brilliant songs, including such essentials as “Sweet Leaf,” “Children of the Grave,” “Wheels of Confusion,” “Supernaut,” “Killing Yourself to Live,” “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,” “Hole in the Sky,” and “Symptom of the Universe.” As the title of “Snowblind” from Volume 4 hints at though, the troubles that would eventually destroy them had already surfaced by 1972. Butler explained the situation to Guitar World magazine in 2001: "The cocaine had set in. We went out to L.A. and got into a totally different lifestyle. Half the budget went on the coke and the other half went to seeing how long we could stay in the studio.” The cover of Sabotage was a clear indicator of trouble in paradise. Look at those guys! Good Lord, what the hell were they thinking? My favorite has to be Bill Ward and his white tights. The music inside still rocked though. Technical Ecstasy would be the first album in which the cover art was the most notable element of the set. I do not know what drew the famed Hipgnosis art-crew to the Sabbs, but the robot-fucking cover art was a beaut. It just did not fit with the music at all though. The robots would have been perfect for a Krautrock album, but Sabbath got it, and it is one of my all time favorites. As for Never Say Die! the less said the better. There was a weird optimism to the title song, with a chorus of "Don't ever, never say die!" which was bizarre. They even performed the song on Top of the Pops. When a band puts the word "die" in the album title, it is usually the kiss of death. Just ask Grand Funk Railroad, after their Born to Die LP. There was a primal brilliance to the songs of Black Sabbath and Paranoid, which were almost punk in their primitivism. By the time of Never Say Die!, this had been replaced by a bland competence. They sold their souls for rock and roll? No, they just got boring. I will never forget the Never Say Die! tour. It was my first opportunity to see Black Sabbath, and I was kind of excited. But it was the opening band, Van Halen that my high school buddies and I were really there for. Van Halen were the worst possible opening act Sabbath could have chosen at that time, because they absolutely blew the headliners off the stage. That was a very long time ago though, and the big question today is, what will 13 sound like? A clue emerged at the November 2011 announcement of the reunion, which was hosted by Henry Rollins at the Whisky a Go Go in Hollywood. All four original members were there, and Butler said that the new material “has the old Sabbath style and sound." Since that announcement, Ward has dropped out. Although the details have been kept under wraps, there has been a new contract drawn up regarding the brand name “Black Sabbath.” Ward calls the document he was presented with “unsignable,“ and is not participating in the reunion. 13 will feature Brad Wilk of Rage Against the Machine’s on the drums. With all due respect to the rest of the band, it has always been the guitar of Iommi which has defined the group. He has been the only member to appear on every one of the 18 studio albums released under the name Black Sabbath. Most of the later records were basically Iommi solo albums though, with a revolving door of back-up musicians. This is pure speculation, but some clues to what 13 might sound like may be in The Devil You Know, released under the moniker Heaven and Hell in 2009. Because of the Black Sabbath agreement, Iommi, Ronnie James Dio, Geezer Butler, and (drummer) Vinny Appice were forced to call themselves Heaven and Hell, even though it was in essence a reunion of the Dio-fronted version of Sabbath. The Devil You Know contains the most recent examples of Iommi’s guitar playing, which could indicate the direction of the new material. It should be noted that Iommi’s style with Dio was quite a bit different from what it was with Osbourne. Whether this reflects his style of playing with different vocalists, or simply the way his approach has evolved is difficult to say. I guess we will find out in June. In any case, 13 is a recording that Sabbath fans have been anticipating for many years. The album will be released on the Vertigo label worldwide, and Vertigo/Republic in the U.S. Interestingly enough, the 1970 Black Sabbath LP was issued on Vertigo as well. Another bit of trivia tying the two records together was the release date of that first album. It was on Friday, February 13, 1970. The one song title that has been leaked is “God is Dead.“ I am looking forward to hearing what Ozzy fan and born-again Christian George W. Bush has to say about that one. It really sucks that Ward is not going to be a part of this. I can only imagine that it was the hand of Sharon Osbourne behind this maneuver. Iommi basically owned the name, and had to have been convinced to "share" it, I guess. Look, all four of these guys were there at the beginning, and they should all be equal partners. No matter how well the record does, you know that the reunion tour will be massive. To cut Ward out seems incredibly petty at this late date. I am very curious to hear this record though, and my hope is that Rubin will be able to get them to go back to the primitive, yet timeless music they created in the early '70s.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Book Review: The Cusp of Everything by Laura Huntt Foti

The big line on Laura Huntt Foti’s debut novel, The Cusp of Everything is that it is the first book to come with its own soundtrack. The idea is for Kindle Fire, iPad, and other online device readers to simultaneously stream the music from while they read the book. It is an intriguing proposition, as music infuses the novel. In fact, to be honest, the references are almost overwhelming. The author says that she got the idea while reading Keith Richards’ autobiography, Life. I understand completely what she is saying, I too found myself putting on various Stones albums while reading his remembrances.

In the interest of full disclosure, I did not read the book as Foti envisioned though. I simply read it as a novel. The book takes place during the year between July, 1975, and July, 1976. Many (but not all) of the songs cited were big radio hits. So, sorry — but since I was close to the age of the protagonist at the time, I was intimately familiar with most of the songs anyway. For example, the very first one mentioned is “Love Will Keep Us Together,” by The Captain and Tennille. I wonder if there a person who was alive in the mid-seventies who does not have that particularly annoying ditty tattooed on their brain?

Evidently Laura Huntt Foti has worked in and around music for most of her professional career, so her choices are pretty hip, where appropriate. It’s kind of like what Steven Van Zandt had to say about the music of The Sopranos. Considering that Tony and Carmela were in high school in the late seventies, early eighties, their classic-rock has to reflect that. Unfortunately, this meant stuff like REO Speedwagon and Journey. Sopranos guru David Chase said that the show had to be true to what (they) would have listened to, and Van Zandt’s response was basically, “Yes, but that means a lot of crappy songs.” As the “Love Will Keep Us Together” citation shows, it was definitely a similar situation in the mid-seventies as well.

So let’s table the music portion of the novel for now, and discuss the story itself. The Cusp of Everything is the perfect title for a book which takes place in the mid-seventies. For those of us coming of age at that time, we really had no idea of the huge societal changes ahead of us. The use of the word “everything” is important though, because the changes ahead are very, very personal as well.

I had kind of a strange feeling while reading this book. It was as if I were reading an interesting diary, from someone who had a lot to say, but never expected anyone else to read it. In a way, the feeling I had was almost “naughty,” as if I were eavesdropping on an inner conversation I should not be hearing. This is certainly to the author’s credit, as she quite obviously delved deeply into her own emotions to express the inner life of Karen Walsh.

When we meet Karen in July, 1975, she has just graduated high school, and is headed toward her first year of college. Talk about a “cusp” period in life, I remember it well. Her parents are divorced, and while civil towards each other, the situation is not great. Like most 18-year olds, her hormones are getting the better of her, and she is infatuated with a couple of men over the course of the story. To put it delicately, none of these situations work out too well, as is also the case with most 18-year old romances.

While I do not really wish to give away too much of the story here, I would describe it more as a “slice-of-life” tale than anything else. Karen lives on the “bad side” of wealthy Westchester County, outside of New York City. She longs to move to the City, and will the following year, to attend NYU. For now, however, she is enrolled at SUNY, living at home, and is not exactly thrilled about any of it.

I grew up in the boonies outside of Seattle, so there is one aspect of The Cusp of Everything that I cannot relate to, and it is an important one. Karen interacts with a number of “out” gay men over the course of the story. In the Northwest, things were still much more closeted than they were in the Northeast. Or so I am guessing. Of course, I really cannot relate to being an 18-year old female in 1975 either, so there you go.
In any event, what I, and any other reader can relate to is the heartbreaking emotional turbulence of life at that age. While the world has changed dramatically in the past 35+ years, the teen-angst that Karen goes through probably never will.

We wind up at a Bicentennial celebration outside the Statue of Liberty on July 4, 1976. The final song cited is (appropriately enough), “America Tune” by Paul Simon. Over the course of 232-pages, we have gotten to know Karen Walsh so well, it is unavoidably depressing to say goodbye to her. I want to know what follows, and hopefully Laura Huntt Foti’s sequel will arrive soon enough.

While I did not read the book online, with the soundtrack streaming, I did get prompted to put on some of the great songs that she mentions. For anyone reading the old-fashioned way as I did, any of those Rhino Best of the 70s collections will do in a pinch, as well as The Best of The Ojay’s. She cites over 200 songs throughout the text, and not all of them are radio hits. Notable “oddities” include the Close To The Edge album by Yes, and “I Think of You” from Renaissance. For those Kindle-impaired like me, the author has helpfully included “The Soundtrack,” which lists every song, artist, and film mentioned (by chapter) in the text.

I applaud the forward-looking setup of The Cusp of Everything, but in the end, it really is the story that counts. The inner-life of Karen Walsh is a fascinating one, as it reflects a very self-aware, albeit conflicted young woman. There is much to applaud in this first effort, and I enjoyed the book immensely.

Article first published as Book Review: The Cusp of Everything by Laura Huntt Foti on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Joel Frederiksen and Ensemble Phoenix Munich - Requiem for a Pink Moon

From conception through execution, Requiem for a Pink Moon is a nearly flawless recording. Pink Moon (1972) was Nick Drake’s final fully-realized album, and has reached something of a mythic status among his fans. It is indescribably elegant, mainly featuring only Nick and his guitar performing 11 songs. Pink Moon is only 28 minutes long, yet in those 28 minutes he breaks our hearts over and over. There were more sessions in 1974, recorded just prior his death by suicide, but Pink Moon remains his definitive work.

Enter lutenist and Elizabethan music scholar Joel Frederiksen. He came about his interest organically, having started out as a guitar player. While in college he attended a live lutenist performance, and as he puts it in the liner notes, “Realized I had to have a lute!” The idea of Requiem for a Pink Moon took a long time to come to fruition, as his interest in recording and performing Elizabethan-era music became all-encompassing.

What tipped his hand was a Volkswagen ad from 2000, which utilized the song “Pink Moon.” In this serendipitous moment, the thought of uniting English music written some 400 years earlier, with that of Nick Drake, began to form.

The resulting Requiem is the most adventurous album I have heard (and likely will hear) this year. One of the many courageous decisions Fredericksen made in the construction of the record was to not follow any structure other than his own. Thus the 24 song, 65:53 set is as personal a requiem as possible. When I first heard the title, I assumed that Requiem for a Pink Moon would be the Pink Moon album simply played in a classical motif. And frankly, that alone was enough to intrigue me.

But the Requiem is so much more. First of all, not all of the songs from Pink Moon are included, only six. Joel has taken the liberty of adding tracks from Nick’s previous two albums, Five Leaves Left, and Bryter Layter, as well as a couple from those final 1974 sessions which were eventually released as Time of No Reply. Interspersed with these are pieces by John Dowland, Michael Cavendish, and Michael Campion, which date all the way back to at least 1597.

Hearing these songs played side by side is revelatory. Knowing that Nick Drake took an overdose of pills at the tender age of 26, forever casts Pink Moon as a haunting, final missive from a doomed soul. Hearing these baroque pieces, with Gregorian texts next to “Road” or “Which Will” is a testament to the brilliance of Joel Frederiksen, for nobody else would have come up with such a thought, or dared see it through.

The most perfect combination for me comes during something of a medley of John Dowland’s “His Golden Locks” and Drake’s “Place To Be,” especially in the second half of “Place To Be” when the two songs are sung simultaneously, further stressing their lyrical connectedness. It is the first of many transcendent moments.
There is much more to come however, as another Dowland composition, “Time Stands Still,” shows. Published in 1603 in The Third and Last Booke of Songs or Ayres, the text is credited to both Anonymous and Joel Frederiksen. His additional lines again draw explicit lines between Nick Drake and these centuries-old lyrics.

Referring to the liner notes again, Joel says that his inclusion of his own “Ocean” was the ultimate “dare” in realizing the Requiem. The song “comments on Nick’s songs and life, and completes a kind of circle,” Joel writes. “Nick uses the ocean frequently as an image and metaphor in songs like 'Time Has Told Me' and 'Voice From The Mountain.'"

For those (like myself) who have always felt that nobody but Nick Drake could sing his songs, there may be a bit of a shock in hearing Joel Frederiksen sing them. His deep voice is so contrary to the fragile, at times barely there vocals that Nick Drake imbued his music with that it takes some getting used to. Again though, the inclusion of the Elizabethan music works to Joel’s great advantage, as his strong voice is the only way to effectively express the sentiments of those pieces. What was initially somewhat disconcerting becomes perfectly natural as the album progresses.

Another genius conceptualization Joel came up with for the Requiem was in allowing Nick’s blues-based 4/4 beat to be the template for the album. It simply would not have worked if there had not been a uniform tempo, and I again applaud the choice he made.

In my effusive praise for what Joel Frederiksen has accomplished with Requiem for a Pink Moon, I have neglected to mention the excellent performances of his Ensemble Phoenix Munich. The contributions of Timothy Leigh Evans (tenor, drum), Domen Marincic (viola da gamba) and Axel Wolf (theorbo, arch lute) provide a wonderfully sympathetic accompaniment to Joel’s voice and lute.

I seriously doubt that I will hear another recording this year which will come close to matching the power and grace Requiem for a Pink Moon. In my opening sentence I called this a “nearly flawless recording.” I should remove the qualifier, for if there is such a thing as a flawless album, this Requiem is certainly it.
Let us give Joel Frederiksen the final word on the recording, in the form of his dedication:

                                                            This CD is for Nick.
                                                      Thank you for the inspiration.

Music Review: Dean Martin - Collected Cool Box Set

“Live, direct from the bar - Dean Martin,” went the introduction for the King of Cool. Really, was there a cooler guy out there than Dean? Sinatra maybe, but there was always an element of volatility with him. In contrast, we never saw Dean lose it. The drinking thing simply would not fly in today’s world, but it was all an act anyway. It didn’t matter, we loved him no matter what. The new, four-disc Collected Cool box-set celebrates Dean Martin’s career with three-CDs and a DVD of a rare concert performance in London. It is hard to believe that it has taken this long for a career-spanning collection of his to appear, but the good news is that it has finally arrived.

The first CD is subtitled “Memories Are Made of This: 1949-1961,” and contains 19 songs. One of the difficulties in presenting an all-inclusive Dean Martin set has been the fact that he recorded for different labels over the years. The first disc is culled from his work with Capitol Records. The songs included feature classics such as “That’s Amore,” “Volare,” and his duet with Nat “King” Cole, “Long, Long Ago.”

The second CD is “Everybody Loves Somebody: 1962-1985,” and contains 18 tracks. These were recorded for Sinatra’s Reprise Records. This second disc includes his biggest hit, “Everybody Loves Somebody,” as well as a number of other greats. Just as an aside, “Everybody Loves Somebody” replaced The Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” at the number one spot upon release. This is the original, stripped-down jazz quartet version of the song, which initially appeared on the Dream With Dean album. Another definite highlight here is his duet with Sinatra on “Guys and Dolls.” Some of the other brilliant performances include his version of “Welcome To My World,” and another of his signature tunes, “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You.”

The third CD of the set is pretty self-explanatory, “Live In Lake Tahoe.” This fifty-minute, 24-track disc was recorded July 27, 1962 at the Cal-Neva Lodge. The concert contains plenty of “Show Banter” (seven tracks) of which Dean was a master at. He opens with “Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes,” and proceeds through fine versions of “Almost Like Being In Love,” “Beautiful Dreamer,” and “You Made Me Love You,” among quite a few others. It was a great night to see a show for those folks who were lucky enough to be at the Cal-Neva that evening.

The final disc is a DVD of Dean “Live In London.” This concert was filmed at the London Apollo Victoria Theatre in 1983. It was shown on cable a couple of times, then disappeared into the vaults, where it has remained until now. The former Dino Paul Crocetti still had it in 1983, and was cool as could be in front of this most appreciative London audience.

Although the Rat Pack were the epitome of hip in 1960, by the end of the decade, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, and Dean Martin were seen as terminally unhip. It’s a shame, because even though they were considered “your parent’s music,” all three were still in their prime. I think their ill-advised rejection of rock and roll (both Dean and Frank in particular) really worked against them. It took a long time for the Boomer generation to come around to the Rat Pack. I belong to what has been termed “Generation X,” and never had that generation gap thing against them, but unfortunately was too young to ever get the chance to see the guys (or Dean in particular) perform live.

So the Live In London DVD holds a little extra special attraction for me. I have seen some old black and white footage of the Rat Pack live in Vegas previously, but never a full Dean Martin concert. And as previously mentioned, he was still “Mr. Cool” in 1983. The concert is a veritable greatest hits, and includes songs such as “That’s Amore,” “Everybody Loves Somebody,” and “Welcome To My World.” Dean’s version of the Ray Price hit “For The Good Times” is quite nice, and a bit of a surprise comes with his rendering of Jim Croce’s “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.”

The box-set itself is so well-done, one wishes other labels would look to it for inspiration when it comes to items like these. They certainly got it right with Collected Cool. The package is an 8” x 8” book, with the discs inside. It features 62-pages of rare full-color pictures and text detailing the life, songs, and career of Dean Martin. I found the discussions of the individual tunes to be the most informative aspect of it. The notes were written by James Ritz, who was clearly allowed full access by the Dean Martin Family Trust to tell the various stories behind the recordings.

Collected Cool is by far the finest anthology of Dean Martin’s music to ever see the light of day. This one is a keeper, no question about it.

Music Review: Various Artists - Personal Space: Electronic Soul 1974-1984

The first question I had when listening to Personal Space: Electronic Soul 1974 - 1984 was, where in the hell did Rob Sevier find this stuff? Sevier is the researcher behind the Personal Space: Electronic Soul 1974-1984 collection from Chocolate Industries. Every one of the 17 tracks on this compilation sound like voices from another world. And in a lot of ways, they are.

When affordable home recording equipment began to appear in the '70s, a lot of people were inspired with the whole D.I.Y. ethic. For some strange reason, I had previously associated this phenomenon with mostly white New Wave acts such as The Flying Lizards or A Flock of Seagulls. I must say, I have never been happier to report just how wrong I was on that assumption.

“Do it yourself” was embraced by Black America just as strongly as it was by everyone else. And it had been going on long before the recordings of Grandmaster Flash or Afrika Bambaata became famous. It was about as underground as possible though. The songs that Dante Carfagna compiled for this album were originally released on tiny independent labels with names like New Detroit, C-Wind, and Preston, to name just a few. One of the most impressive aspects about this anthology is the range of music included. Just about every form is represented in some way it seems.

The lead track is the instrumental “Excerpts From Autumn” by Jeff Phelps, which is a perfect choice. It is sort of a “smooth” number, albeit one with plenty of “spacey” elements. Listening to this 1:40 excerpt just whets the appetite, and really makes me want to hear the whole tune. Maybe I’ll get lucky and find the album it comes from, Magnetic Eyes on e-Bay or somewhere. Magnetic Eyes is also where “Super Lady,” comes from. This track shows a very pronounced early New Wave influence. I have a feeling that Jeff Phelps had listened to a couple of Kraftwerk or Gary Numan records in his time.

Despite what one might expect from the title though, Personal Space is not just primitive synth music. The subtitle of Electronic Soul is well-chosen. Whether it is the low-down funk of “A Man” by Key & Cleary, or the Curtis Mayfield groove of “All About Money,” from Spontaneous Overthrow, or even the Isaac Hayes-style “rap” from USAries, this anthology is the real deal. Speaking of USAries, they are the only other artist (besides Jeff Phelps) who have more than one song on Personal Space. Their 45 rpm single “Are You Ready To Come? (With Me)” was a two-part affair, “Part One” on the A-side, and “Part Two” on the B-side. Both are included here. Interestingly enough, they are presented separately, with the first part comprising the seventh cut, while “Part Two” comes at track 15.

I used to think “out there” in funk meant the various works of George Clinton’s P-Funk brigade, such as Funkadelic, Parliament, Bootsy’s Rubber Band, and The Brides of Funkenstein. And as “far out” as a lot of that stuff was, there are some cuts on Personal Space that might even blow Dr. Funkenstein’s mind.
“Master Ship” by Starship Commander Woo Woo is one of the greatest jams ever. This one of the most spaced-out, stretched-out, funked-out, deep in the groove parties ever laid down on wax. My only regret is that it is only a 6:22 excerpt, from the Master Ship album - another one that I am going to have to seek out.
I mentioned “All About Money” from Spontaneous Overthrow earlier, but there is much more to it than just the Isaac Hayes “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” type of “rap” in it. The vibe of this one is so perfectly old-school it is unreal. In fact, my mind went to a weird place while listening to it.

There was an amazing scene in The Hughes Brothers classic Menace II Society (1993), involving one of the character’s father. You may remember it. In a flashback, the boy witness a card game that goes bad in the family living room. The time is sometime in the early '70s, and “Just Be Thankful,” by William DeVaughn is playing. When one of the guys accuses the other of cheating, the guns come out. The scene served a couple of purposes. It showed that deadly violence can come up anywhere, even in a “friendly” game of cards, and that the kid was born into “the life.“ Even though “All About Money” does not really sound like “Just Be Thankful,” it would have fit that scene perfectly.

A few of the tracks are purely instrumental. “Disco From a Space Show,” by Guitar Red is one, and it sounds exactly like its hilarious title. What kills me is why this performer is calling himself Guitar Red? It sounds like some old blues guy or something. Believe me, “Disco From a Space Show“ is a hell of a long way from the blues. Add the album it comes from, Hard Times to my ever-growing want-list after hearing this one.

“My Bleeding Wound” is another monster. Head back to Funkadelic’s “Wars of Armageddon” (from Maggot Brain) to begin with. Then head into the place where Miles ran the voodoo down, and you will start to get an idea of the total headtrip vibe in the song. Add some heavily orgasmic feminine groans, and you have a track that is almost impossible to describe. The only “straight” element here is the unflappable bassline, which somehow keeps it all from flying apart.

The album ends as perfectly as it begins. The closer is “Time To Go Home,” by Otis G. Johnson. But this is not Marvin Gaye singing “Lets Get It On.” Otis is singing to God, and how it is time to go home to Him.
Believe it or not, these are just a few of the highlights of this brilliant set. There is much more, but hopefully I have gotten my basic point across. Personal Space: Electronic Soul 1974-1984 is one of the greatest collections of “lost” music I have ever heard.