Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Music Review: The Red Garland Quintet Featuring John Coltrane - Dig It

1957 was a prolific year for Red Garland. In addition to his duties as pianist in the Miles Davis Quintet, he also recorded a number of sessions as leader of his own group.

In addition to the basic trio of Garland (piano), George Joyner (bass), and Arthur Taylor (drums) the quintet included Donald Byrd (trumpet), and fellow Davis alumni John Coltrane (sax).

In the space of a relatively short period of time, they managed to record 16 tracks of various lengths, which were then split up into four albums. Soul Junction, All Mornin’ Long, High Pressure, and the final Dig It were released in staggered intervals over the course of the next few years.

Considering the amount of music recorded in just a couple of month’s time, it is no surprise that the end results were somewhat uneven in quality. Dig It is generally considered to be the least noteworthy of the bunch, as it was the last to see the light of day.

The theory has some merit, although Dig It does contain some excellent work by all five musicians. It also includes a stunning appearance from another moonlighting Miles Davis associate, bassist Paul Chambers.

Chambers’ simultaneous pluck and bow technique on his stand-up bass is used to amazing effect on the all too brief “Crazy Rhythm.” The song is credited as a trio cut, and only Red, drummer Art Taylor and Chambers are present, which makes Chambers’ solo stand out all the more.

Although Red Garland is ostensibly the “star” of the show, it is (unsurprisingly) John Coltrane who provides the fireworks. Dig It opens with a version of Charlie Parker’s “Billie’s Bounce.” About 30 seconds in, Coltrane steps up with a truly superb solo.

Much has been made of his “sheets of sound” style. It is something that divides jazz audiences to this day. I am a fan of everything JC did, up to and including the late-period, stratospheric Impulse! Recordings. Yet I find this solo to be an excellent example of what I consider to be his purest period.

He had certainly found the method of playing he would come to use almost exclusively later on, but here it is tempered in the context of one of Bird’s defining bop compositions. The result is a near perfect bridge between what had come before, and what still lay ahead.

Cut three is titled “CTA,” and while it does feature another nice Coltrane solo, drummer Arthur Taylor’s presence is the most notable. This should come as no surprise though, as it was originally recorded under his name, and released on his Prestige album, Taylor’s Wailers.

Including someone else’s song on a Red Garland record undoubtedly fuelled the claims of “rip-off.” But the company defended the decision by pointing out that Taylor’s LP was (at the time) out of print, and they were doing his fans a favor by adding it here.

I think the biggest rap on Dig It pertains to “Lazy Mae.“ On the original Prestige LP, this track filled all of side two, coming in at just over 16 minutes. To be honest, the title is apt. Roughly the first eight minutes of the song are taken up with a perfunctory piano vamp that never goes anywhere.

Coltrane comes in with a decent solo, and trumpeter Donald Byrd does his bit, but all in all, “Lazy Mae” probably should have been left in the can.

Although Dig It is by no means terrible, it is does smack of good old record label cash-in product. Still, there are high points that should not be ignored, especially for John Coltrane fans. He is, as always, fantastic.

Music Review: Theolonius Monk Quintet - Monk

Thelonious Monk was already a legend in 1953, when the first of these recordings were made. He had only been on the scene for five years, but his unique perspectives both onstage and off kept people guessing throughout his career.

The seven tracks that comprise Monk are actually the results of two separate sessions, with two different quintets. The first occurred November 13, 1953, and the quintet consisted of: Willie Jones (drums), Percy Heath (bass), Julius Watkins (French horn) Sonny Rollins (tenor sax) and Monk (piano).

Legend has it that Monk and Rollins shared a cab on the way in to the studio, and the taxi was involved in a minor collision, making them very late for the session. A number titled “Friday The 13th” was recorded to mark the event, but due to time constraints of the LP format back then, it was held back for later release.

The three tunes that were released as side two of Monk were “Let’s Call This,” and two versions of “Think Of One.”

“Let’s Call This” contains some outstanding solos from Watkins, Rollins, and Monk. But what I find most striking are the sax and French horn combinations that open and close the cut. The sound of those two instruments played in tandem is pretty interesting.

I agree with critic Ira Gitler’s assessment in the liner notes that of the two versions of “Think Of One,” the first contains the better soloing. However, both are takes are worth listening to for the differences if nothing else.

Side one of the original LP was recorded May 11, 1954 by Rudy Van Gelder in his studio in Hackensack, NJ. Except for Monk himself, this is a completely different quintet and features: Curly Russell (bass), Ray Copeland (trumpet), Frank Foster (tenor sax), and Art Blakey (drums).

The four tracks laid down at this date offer much more variety than the earlier set did. Opening with “We See,” both Monk and Copeland shine in their respective solo spots.

Next comes the only non-Monk composition on the disc, a version of the classic “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” While the entire quintet is present, they lay back for the most part, allowing Monk’s piano to dominate in this great ballad.

“Locomotive” is an aptly titled piece, as the bass and drum propel the tune in a rolling style. Frank Foster’s sax solo is outstanding in his solo spot, and as he brings the number to a chugging close.

“Hackensack” is Monk’s tribute to Rudy Van Gelder, and his studio. It is a rollicking song, and highlighting Art Blakey, and the trumpet of Ray Copeland. Blakey‘s solo in particular is one of Monk’s peak moments.

Monk is another in the RVG Remasters series on Prestige, and well worth checking out. All of the artists who appear here are at the peak of their powers, transitioning between bop and what was to come later in the decade. It’s hard to go wrong with anything by Thelonious Monk.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Music Review: Chris Bell - I Am The Cosmos (Deluxe)

Chris Bell’s I Am The Cosmos contains some of the most beautifully desolate songs ever recorded. Like Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, Bell’s lone solo album seems to reach out from beyond the grave. The music and lyrics seem to foreshadow the tragic end that awaited him.

Unlike the delicate acoustic tapestries of Drake though, at heart Chris Bell was a rocker. As a founding member of Big Star, Bell knew the inherent joys of the perfect three minute rock song. The failure of Big Star’s debut, #1 Record to find an audience seemed to deeply affect Bell. He left the band in 1972 before the follow-up, Radio City was recorded.

It was was Bell’s proverbial banishment to the rock and roll wilderness that resulted in the 12 songs originally released in 1992 by Rykodisc. For a certain audience, I Am The Cosmos was a revelation.

Many of the tracks were in various states of completion before the 1978 car crash that took Bell’s life. Thankfully, they were not tinkered with, at least as far as I can tell.

Although he obviously had nothing to do with the sequencing and design of the record, it is hard to believe that Bell would not have approved of it. The 12 tracks that comprise I Am The Cosmos seamlessly work together to tell a story.

Beginning with the child-like vision of the title cut, through fun rockers like “Get Away,” and “I Kinda Got Lost,” through the triumphant (if willfully blind) acceptance of love on “Though I Know She Lies,” I Am The Cosmos succeeds brilliantly.

Rhino has taken the original version of the disc and added a second to create the just released I Am The Cosmos (Deluxe). To be honest, the extras on these types of things are usually pretty negligible. Having said that, there is a lot on the second disc to recommend to even a casual Chris Bell fan.

First off, all but two of the 15 tracks included are previously unreleased. The first two songs are by Icewater, who were the precursors to Big Star. Then there is a tune by a band Bell was in called Rock City. The next nine are all alternate versions and mixes from Cosmos.

The three alternate mixes are nothing to really get too excited about, as far as I am concerned. But the alternate versions are, especially the 5:18 take of “I Am The Cosmos,” which is nearly two minutes longer than the original. This cut alone justifies the entire package for me. It is simply stunning, and sounds as if it were recorded live in the studio with the full band. Really something to hear.

The final three unreleased gems include one titled “Stay With Me,” recorded with Keith Sykes (best known for his work with Jimmy Buffett). “In My Darkest Hour” features the vocals of Nancy Bryan, which is unique to say the least on a Chris Bell record.

The final track is a solo acoustic guitar piece by Bell titled “Clacton Rag.” It reminds me a bit of something John Fahey might have written.

“Every night I tell myself I am the cosmos, I am the wind…”

There is something so deeply personal, and magic about words like that. Words which seemed to come to Chris Bell so easily, and yet we know there was nothing easy about his life.

I Am The Cosmos (Deluxe) is not just for "the fans.” I think anyone who understands the special beauty of Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, or side two of Neil Young’s On The Beach will be well rewarded by hearing Chris Bell.

I Am The Cosmos inhabit’s a unique place in music, and this Deluxe edition just adds to it’s overall splendor.

Music Review: Various Artists - Motown 50 Fanthology

The first Motown anthology came out in 1962, just three years after the label was formed. Motown Special was a collection of 10 previously released songs that did quite well. It spawned an incredibly profitable side business of repackaging for the company, which continues to this day.

Motown 50 Fanthology is the label’s way of celebrating their fiftieth year in business. During the months of June and July 2009, fans voted online to select the songs to be included. While that seems to be the most democratic method possible, Motown hedged their bets a bit by only nominating 100 or so tunes.

Sadly, nothing by Leslie Uggams, Scatman Crothers, or Dr. Strut were included for the voter‘s consideration.

While there is really no arguing with the results, this is Motown we are talking about after all, the methodology is interesting. The US version of Fanthology is a two-disc, 45 song collection. The number one track is “My Girl,” by The Temptations, followed by Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” at number two, then “Let’s Get It On,” at number three.

The superior UK version is a three-disc set, with all 50 of the top songs included, plus an additional 11 tracks featuring Motown artists covering others, including The Supremes with “Come Together,” and Smoky Robinson doing “Witchita Lineman.”

The differences between the chart positions are striking. On the three-disc set “My Girl” comes in at number 30, with Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” in the number one slot.

It seems that the company decided to separate the polls geographically, which makes sense. The most tracks on the US set went to Marvin Gaye, with seven. Surprisingly, Michael Jackson only came in with four, three with the Jackson Five, and his lone solo appearance “Got To Be There.”

Poll positions aside though, these are just some amazing songs. How can you go wrong with a reasonably priced set containing such greats as “Brick House,” “Super Freak,” and “Superstition?” And those are just some of the later-era funk tracks.

Even if Motown left Ozone and Diahann Carroll out of the running, they have compiled a nice selection of hits here. I have read some comments to the effect that by the very nature of the ranking, the Cds are front-loaded from best to worst.

Theoretically, this is true. But in reality, it is simply not the case. There are no duds that made the grade on either the two or three-disc release. From top to bottom, these are uniformly excellent songs.

If you have been looking for a good, solid Motown collection, Fanthology is a tough one to beat.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Jazz Legacy Productions: Dreaming The Impossible Dream?

Launching a new jazz label in the music-biz climate of 2009 seems an almost crazy notion. But Jazz Legacy Productions co-founder John Lee seems to know exactly what he is facing, and has clearly given the venture some serious thought.

We had the privilege of speaking with Mr. Lee recently, who is a formidable bass player as well as a newly minted label head. The first thing we discovered is how dedicated he is to the music.

When asked about the decision to initiate a jazz label in 2009, Lee’s answer was a simple one, “Having recorded for so many labels, for longer than I care to mention, I thought it was about time there was one that would be friendly to the artists.”

With a career stretching back nearly 40 years, John has recorded and performed with a number of legends. His first big gig was with Joe Henderson, and he went on to appear with Pharoah Sanders, Max Roach, and Dizzy Gillespie, just to name a few.

“A lot of the older guys are playing better than ever,” says Lee, “but the record labels today will not touch them. That leaves a hole in the history of jazz. I think a lot of their stuff should be heard, and that was one of the reasons we founded the label.”

“The fact that I have my own studio, and have been recording for most of my career made everything that much easier.”

JLP’s launch was fairly low key, their inaugural release consists of four titles: Cyrus Chestnut - Spirit; Heath Brothers - Endurance; Steve Davis - Eloquence; and Sharel Cassity - Relentless.

Plans for 2010 are a little more expansive, with eight titles planned. Not all are confirmed, but Lee mentioned records by One For All, Michael Dease, Randy Weston, and Israeli guitarist Yotam Silberstein as being in the pipeline.

“Another goal of JLP,” says Lee, “is to record new artists such as Sharel Cassity and Yotam Silberstein, to get their stuff out there. Jazz has no future without the infusion of new blood.”

One of the most immediately noticeable aspects of JLP discs is the branding. Back in the day, albums on labels such as Blue Note, and especially Impulse! were immediately identifiable by their appearance alone.

We asked John Lee about the Jazz Legacy Productions brand, and what it means to the label as a whole.

“I grew up with CTI Records,” he explained. “I loved the way their covers looked. In fact, even though I already knew a lot of the music, there were still times I bought records based simply on the cover art.”

“When we formed Jazz Legacy, it seemed natural to have a uniform look and feel. We use the same photographer for each artist, with our own unique background. If you notice, each release is a simple one word title chosen by the artist to best reflect their music.”

In the end, it really comes down to the music though. What follows is a brief summary of Jazz Legacy Production’s first four releases:

Steve Davis - Eloquence

The title of trombonist Steve Davis’ latest obviously refers to the playing of 91 year old piano legend Hank Jones, Davis’ key collaborator here. At this point in his life, Jones could be excused for laying back a little, but he never does. Throughout Eloquence, Jones and Davis share a musical banter that is easy, economical, and well - eloquent.

The disc opens up with Charlie Parker’s classic “Yardbird Suite.” In addition to Davis and Jones, the quartet is filled out with bassist Nat Reeves and drummer Joe Farnsworth, and both are featured prominently on this track.

A couple of Hank Jones classics are included, “Minor Contention,” and “Peedlum.” In addition to the basic quartet, “Minor Contention” also features Roy Hargrove and Steve Nelson. John Lee adds his distinctive bass to “Peedlum.”

My personal favorite Eloquence track also features Lee on bass: “Road Song,” by Wes Montgomery. Check out their version of the Modern Jazz Quartet’s “Django” as well.

Heath Brothers - Endurance

Endurance is the first CD to be released by the Heath Brothers since the unfortunate passing of Percy in 2005. Although Percy’s bass is clearly missed, surviving brothers Jimmy (saxophones) and Albert “Tootie” Heath (drums) have fashioned a powerful new quartet to move forward with.

Bassist David Wong is solid as a rock, and acquits himself admirably in his role. But it is the discovery of pianist Jeb Patton which really moves this record ahead.

Endurance is a disc that slots in easily with earlier Heath Brothers recordings. There is the patented easy swing of “Wall To Wall,” and “Dusk In The City.” Patton’s playing is a joy to hear on tracks such as “Changes,” and “Ballad From Leadership Suite.”

Jimmy Heath’s sax has lost none of it’s fire on “Autumn In New York,” and closing track “Rio Dawn.”

Endurance is an excellent addition to the legacy of the Heath Brothers, and their elegy to Percy, “From A Lonely Bass,” is stunningly beautiful.

Cyrus Chestnut - Spirit

Pianist Cyrus Chestnut has been around for quite a while now. He has played with everyone from the Dizzy Gillespie All Star Big Band to Wynton Marsalis.

While he has recorded extensively, Spirit is his first solo collection of spiritually inspired music. Spirit contains straight-up gospel numbers such as “Oh How I Love Jesus,” and “Old Time Religion,” not to mention his own “Gospel Improv #1.”

What I find much more intriguing however, are his versions of secular tunes such as “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and “Lean On Me.” In many ways his interpretations remind me of Lyle Mays, both in their economy, and tastefulness.

Spirit ends with Chestnut’s version of “The Lord’s Prayer,” a fitting conclusion to this deeply moving solo outing.

Sharel Cassity - Relentless

As the “token newcomer” to the JLP stable, expectations may be high for Cassity. There is no question she is up to them though. Having (fairly) recently completed her Masters at Juilliard, Relentless is actually Cassity’s second solo outing following her 2008 debut Just For You.

While having never heard Just For You, I can only guess as to it’s quality. I can state without hesitation however that Relentless is a well-chosen title for her sophomore release.

Her sax playing is shockingly powerful on tracks such as opener “Say What?” and “No Turning Back.” Her band are no slouches either, pianist Orrin Evans runs with “Relentless,” the tune written for Cassity by partner and trombonist Michael Dease.

The bass of Dwayne Burno and drums of E.J. Strickland are solidly dependable throughout. The rhythm section gets a little flashy at times, but mostly serves to ground these young lions perfectly. By allowing Cassity in particular the space to open up her improvisational skills, they fulfill their obligation in no uncertain terms.

They allow the star to shine, and it is my belief that we will be hearing much more from Sharel Cassity in the future.

Launching a boutique jazz label in 2009 is unquestionably a gutsy move. With that in mind, we wish Jazz Legacy Productions all the best in this great venture.

Book Review: Canuck Rock - A Histoy Of Canadian Popular Music by Ryan Edwardson

At first glance, Canuck Rock - A History Of Canadian Popular Music appears to be a fairly straightforward history of Rock music in Canada. I expected a tale similar to the well-known US version of events from the 1950’s up to the present.

Canada has produced superstars such as Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Rush, Anne Murray, The Guess Who, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, and so many more, that the book looked to be a very interesting read.

It is interesting. But Canuck Rock is not the book it appears to be. The story starts out with typical, if cliché events. Teens went crazy over Elvis and Bill Haley. Regional scenes developed to accommodate the garage bands they inspired. Later came The Beatles, the baby-boomers began to exert their huge generational influence, and so on and on.

With minor variations, this is a story that is remarkably similar throughout the Western world.

Maybe author Ryan Edwardson interviewed one too many bitter Sixties era musicians. Midway through that decade, Canuck Rock makes a huge left turn into the policies and politics of the Canadian music industry and government.

As Edwardson points out, one of the most basic components of the music business is it’s integration. A band performs, the press writes about them, clubs book them. If they are lucky, people show up at the gigs, they get signed, radio plays them, and everyone lives happily ever after.

What I had never really grasped before was the intense regionalism apparently so ingrained in the Canadian psyche. According to the author, a band from Vancouver had basically no chance in Toronto. Unless of course, they had already broken in the United States.

Things got so bad that the government got involved in 1970, mandating a 30% “Canadian content” quota on radio. As you can imagine, this has led to a simply nightmarish situation. Arguments rage over what makes a record “Canadian,” and what does not. Why do some Canadians get played and not others? And on and on, ad infinitum.

The saddest result of this seems to be the most fundamental of all. If I as a Canadian, thought that the only way a band could get played on the radio was because the government had forced the station to play it, I really would not be very interested. What, they aren’t good enough to be played without being threatened? No thanks.

Apparently, Bryan Adams and Celine Dion no longer qualify as “Canadian content.” So how do we get them forced off the air in the US?

A much larger story than misguided government mandates becomes clear when reading Canuck Rock. The separatism in Quebec seems to be just a symptom of a very deep problem in the national identity. The problem being that there really is no national identity, just a bickering collection of provinces.

While Canuck Rock does not contain the stories about Klaatu’s garage days, or Triumph’s woeful New Wave years I was dying to hear, it is eye-opening. Well worth checking out.

Book Review: The Collected Works Of Philip K. Dick

Was Philip K. Dick the greatest post-War writer of all? Not just science fiction, but fiction period. It is a lofty conceit to be sure, but one I think a case can be made for.

Hollywood is certainly still interested. Following the successes of Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, and A Scanner Darkly, there is now a production of his classic 1974 book Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said in the works. And these blockbusters only scratch the surface of the 36 novels published in Dick’s lifetime.

In the end, PKD’s genius was deceptively simple. His secret was that his heroes were always us. By placing the reader front and center of extraordinary events, we became intimately involved. He was able to make the stories believable because his characters reacted to bizarre situations the way most “average” people would. It was an incredible gift, and one of the many reasons his tales never felt outlandish.

The Library Of America has recently issued a landmark set of Philip Kindred Dick’s finest works. The three volume set comprises thirteen of his full-length novels.

Volume one: Four Novels of the 1960s includes The Man In The High Castle, The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch, Ubik, and Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?

Volume two: Five Novels Of The 1960s & 70s features Martian Time Slip, Dr. Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along After The Bomb, Now Wait For Last Year, A Scanner Darkly, and Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said.

Volume three: VALIS And Later Novels contains VALIS, A Maze Of Death, The Divine Invasion, and The Transmigration Of Timothy Archer.

Where to begin with such a wealth of material? My personal preference has always been for The Man In The High Castle. Originally published in 1962, it describes a world in which Japan and Germany won World War II, and the United States is a divided land. It won the Hugo Award that year, and remains as vivid a story as ever.

The Transmigration Of Timothy Archer is another favorite. Dick’s final novel can be read on a number of levels. It works as a simple sci-fi story, it can be interpreted as a drug-fuelled dream, or even as a spiritual tale. My feeling is that the book is a lament from a man whose mind remained as sharp as ever, even as his body was failing him.

The film Blade Runner (1982) was adapted from Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? originally published in 1968. To this reviewer, it remains the template for adaptations of Dick’s writing to the big screen. The film remains visually stunning, but the pathos Harrison Ford brought to his characterization really conveys the type of duality so common in PKD’s prose.

What is now Volume One of this Library Of America set was actually first published in 2007, to coincide with the 25th anniversary of Blade Runner. When it became the biggest selling title in their catalog, the LOA decided to go a little further with the program.

Not to be a company shill, but the set is modestly priced, and an excellent way to introduce yourself to one of the finest writers it has ever been my privilege to read. The volumes are hard-bound, with excellent covers, and make a nice addition to the bookshelf.

Is Philip K. Dick the finest post-War writer of American fiction? You be the judge. Based on these 13 novels, I think the argument can definitely be made.

And honestly, what do you have to lose? We have all seen the movies, and most are acknowledged classics. Why not go to the source? Reading a Philip K. Dick novel is as rewarding an experience as any I can think of.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Music Review: Anvil - This Is Thirteen

Nothing’s free, pay for it all, can’t you see...

In the case of Anvil, truer lyrics have never been written. Who would have thought, 30 years after getting together, that they would finally find a measure of success? The recent documentary Anvil! The Story Of Anvil has received wide-spread critical acclaim, and I think that its pending DVD release will be huge.

But what about the music? Way back in 1982, I was a huge New Wave Of British Heavy Metal fan. I bought Anvil’s Metal On Metal based on the cover alone, and was not disappointed. Even though these guys were Canadian rather than British, it hardly mattered. The music fit right in with the Saxon, Raven, and Tygers Of Pan Tang records I was listening to.

This Is Thirteen is their latest. It was originally released in 2007, available only via the band’s website. In conjunction with the film, the newly formed VH1 Classic Records has just reissued This Is Thirteen with a bonus track.

And you know what? They still rock. I had completely forgotten about Anvil, until the documentary came out. So when the opening power chords of the title song kicked in, it was a genuine surprise to hear how good they still are.

Of course you have to wonder. How strong can a record by guys in their fifties be? Cut for cut, I’ll stack This Is Thirteen up against just about any metal record I have heard this year.

“Burning Bridges” contains the first of many shredding guitar solos by founding member Steve “Lips” Kudlow. Robb Reiner, who has been drumming with Lips since they were kids in 1973, is a powerhouse. His playing is exceptional throughout, especially on “Room #9,” and “Axe To Grind.”

The bonus track, “Thumb Hang” is a showcase for (relative) newcomer Glenn Five’s rhythm guitar. It is kind of a riffology seminar, and notably good. I’m a little surprised they left this song off the original This Is Thirteen release.

The closest band I can compare them to is Motorhead. Lips’ vocals sound uncannily similar to Lemmy’s on “Ready To Fight,” and “Should’ A Would’ A’ Could’ A.” In fact, back in 1982, Lips declined an invitation to replace Fast Eddie Clark in Motorhead.

Anvil! The Story Of Anvil is being touted as the “feel good” rock-doc of the year, and it’s great. But what seals the deal is the fact that Anvil still have the chops to matter all these years later.

This Is Thirteen is a surprisingly solid metal album. The NWOBHM may not be new anymore, but Anvil rock it like it’s 1980 all over again. For us graying head-bangers, there’s nothing out there quite like it.

DVD Review: That Hamilton Woman

Alexander Korda’s 1941 film, That Hamilton Womanis a romance of epic proportions, yet it started out as a piece of propaganda for the war effort. Before Pearl Harbor, Great Britain stood alone against Germany, and things were not going well. When Korda moved his family to California, Winston Churchill asked him for a film that might nudge the US into the conflict.

The result was That Hamilton Woman, a masterpiece made under extraordinary pressures of both time and finance. The story begins on skid row, where a woman (Vivian Leigh) is being arrested for stealing a jug of wine. Inside the jail, Emma, as we come to know her, begins to tell her story to a disbelieving prostitute.

Many years prior, she had traveled to Naples, Italy with her mother, to meet the uncle of her fiancé. The uncle, Sir William Hamilton just happened to be the British ambassador to Italy. The trip was a ruse, as the ambassador had paid his nephew's debts in order to meet Emma. She was hurt at first, but adapted and wound up marrying the much older man a couple of years later.

Then one day Captain Horatio Nelson (Laurence Olivier) arrived, seeking troops to help him in his battle against Napoleon. It was love at first sight between the (married) Captain and Mrs. Hamilton.

Their doomed love affair plays out against the ongoing struggle between England and France. Or more specifically, between Napoleon and Nelson. Napoleon’s aggression is clearly meant to represent that of Adolf Hitler.

Nelson’s victories in these battles make him a national hero. The affair is an open secret, but there is little the Navy can do, as he is so popular. Nelson is eventually given the title of Lord, fathers Emma’s illegitimate child, and leaves his wife to live with her and her mother. It is a brief time of bliss for the couple, as Napoleon has rebuilt his fleet and is on his way to England.

History records the outcome of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Nelson’s ships destroy Bonaparte’s, yet he pays the ultimate price with a bullet in the heart.

This final battle at sea is remarkably well done, especially considering the constraints the production was under. They had but five weeks to shoot the entire picture, and money was incredibly tight. So bad in fact, that they only used make-up on the side of Vivien Leigh’s face that was being shot.

Much has been made of the way art imitated life in the case of Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier. Although the couple had recently wed at the time of filming, both were married to other people when they first met. Like Emma and Horatio’s, their affair was a very public one.

The extras included on this DVD include a rare, 15-minute radio broadcast from the set to promote the film, titled Alexander Korda Presents. There is also a 35-minute interview conducted in April 2009 with Michael Korda, Alexander’s nephew. His insights into the filming of That Hamilton Womanare somewhat interesting, although he was only eight years old at the time.

The original British trailer for Lady Hamilton(as it was titled there) is included as well. The booklet contains some nice stills, and I particularly enjoyed the essay by film critic Molly Haskell in it.

That Hamilton Woman is a riveting historical and romantic tale, with outstanding performances by Leigh and Olivier. The supporting cast are all in top form as well. The subjects of love and betrayal, war and peace are timeless, and for those reasons alone, this is a DVD worth seeing.

Winston Churchill certainly thought so. He claimed to have seen the picture over 80 times.

Music Review: Gong - 2032

Of all the bands who have come and gone over the past 40 years, it is mind-boggling that Gong are still around. Their music was strange, their live appearances were infamous, and their psychedelic appetites were legendary.

Gong have remained so far past their sell-date that their upcoming UK tour is shaping up to be an event of epic proportions (for ticket information, go here). It is in support of their improbable, and impeccable new recording 2032, scheduled for release September 21st.

The Radio Gnome Trilogy is Gong’s best known work. The three albums comprising the set are Flying Teapot, Angel’s Egg, and You. They were all released between 1973-’74, and remain the high point of the group's career. At the time, Guitarist extraordinaire Steve Hillage had just joined, and brought with him a high level of musicianship which improved their sound immensely.

In 1975, the inevitable dissolution began, with the departure of founding guitarist Daevid Allen. Hillage followed suit in 1976. Like so many psychedelic/progressive bands of the era, Gong blithely soldiered on, shifting line-ups and styles for an ever diminishing audience.

There have been a few reunions recently, but 2032 is the first recording by the archetypal grouping since 1974, and is billed as a continuation of the Radio Gnome story. 2032 is quite remarkable in a number of ways. For one thing, these old hippies sound is state-of the art. It also seems as if Planet Gong has been visited by Dr. Funkenstein.

The opening track, “City Of Self Fascination” is total white-boy funk, and establishes a groove to be maintained for most of the record. While 2032 is certainly no funk record, elements of the genre persist in the ever present beat of drummer Chris Taylor.

Gong‘s trademark psychedelia makes it‘s first appearance on the eight minute tour de force "How To Stay Alive".

Then comes “Escape Control Delete” which really cranks up the psych, while paraphrasing Robert Heinlein: “If you feel like a stranger in a strange land, it’s probably who you are.”

Another 2032 highlight is “Wacky Baccy Banker” (wonder what they are talking about here?) The bombastic, trademark early Seventies progressive rock opening sets the listener up for a blistering Hillage guitar solo. Theo Travis, who has played with Porcupine Tree and Brian Eno, follows with a saxophone solo every bit as powerful.

There are so many great moments on 2032, it becomes difficult to catalog them all. Taylor’s drums on “Pinkle Pockle” are outstanding, and the token straight-ahead rocker “Guitar Zero” is also something to hear. The electro-funk of "Robo-Warriors" is the most surprising sound to appear on 2032. It could have been a track left off of Funkadelic’s 1982 LP The Electric Spanking Of War Babies.

Fittingly, it is the final song that commands the most attention. The instrumental “Portal” is Steve Hillage at his finest, and Didier Malherbe’s sax solo serves to contrast and complement the song as well.

The whole Gnome mythology is far too complex to go into here. Call it an outer-space Tolkien fantasy if you like. A visit to the Planet Gong is an essential element of the tale. So when the final words, spoken by The Good Witch Yoni (Miquette Giraudy) are uttered: “The portal is open,” you may be excused for assuming that the story has finally ended.

Just remember though, 2032 is only 23 years away. For all we know, Gong may have a record and tour already scheduled for then too.

Book Review: Our Noise: The Story Of Merge Records by John Cook

I’m working, but I’m not working for you...

Superchunk’s “Slack Motherfucker” was the first “hit” on Merge Records, and it launched both the band and the label. Our Noise: The Story Of Merge Records looks back on the first 20 years of the label, one of the most successful indies of the modern era.

Merge and Superchunk founders Laura Balance and Mac McCaughan took a road trip in 1989. Traveling from their home in Raleigh, North Carolina they drove across the country, all the way to Seattle, Washington. While in Seattle, they visited the fledgling Sub Pop Records office, to see a friend. On the way back home, they decided to form Merge.

If there is an over-riding theme in the book, I would call it “punk rock integrity.” Until recently, there were never contracts between the label and artists. It was a practice that ultimately hurt the label, because after nurturing a band’s career, the artists were free to jump to a major, leaving Merge high and dry. It happened a few times.

But these idealists took the long view, and it eventually paid off. Besides Superchunk, the label’s catalog includes such perennials as Magnetic Fields, Neutral Milk Hotel, Arcade Fire, Spoon, Polvo, Dinosaur Jr, Teenage Fanclub, Conor Oberst — just to name a few.

As the artists listed above indicates, there is no particular “sound” associated with Merge. If anything, it comes down to what Laura and Mac like, and what they think might at least recoup expenses in the marketplace. They have done remarkably well, overcoming hurdles in both their personal and professional lives to keep the operation afloat. And it has paid off.

Our Noise is filled with vintage photos as well. It seems that the pair, and everyone in Raleigh, are unrepentant pack-rats, because there are some great pictures, and original gig posters reproduced here.

Our Noise is no simple picture book, though. The 20 year history of the label is told thoroughly, through interviews and personal recollections of the author, John Cook. Ryan Adams wrote the somewhat gushing Introduction.

The history of Merge Records parallels that of the music industry as a whole over the past 20 years. It’s almost like “The Tortoise And The Hare.” When the post-Nirvana boom of major label signings occurred, Merge could do nothing but watch. Of course, when those (literally hundreds) of bands got screwed within a year or two, Merge was there to pick up the pieces.

In the end, the story of Merge is somewhat inspiring. Sometimes the good guys actually do win.

Music Review: The Feelies - The Good Earth

So what happened? Did fellow Jersey-ite Tony Soprano have a sit-down with The Feelies? Did they listen to Springsteen’s Nebraska one too many times? Maybe they got on The Grateful Dead’s touring bus, and never left.

After The Feelies’ remarkable 1980 debut, Crazy Rhythms, they waited six years to release their follow-up, The Good Earth. Sophomore slump doesn’t really explain it, as they had only been together four years before they recorded Crazy Rhythms.

The length of time isn’t really the issue though. It is as if the over-caffeinated Wire meets Television jingle jangle of Crazy Rhythms never even happened. The Good Earth is by no means a bad record, but it certainly sounds as if it were made by a different band.

And in some ways it was. Drum legend Anton Fier and bassist Keith DeNunzio had departed, and were replaced with three new members. Only the twin-guitar core of Bill Million and Glenn Mercer remained intact. And for that we can be thankful, because it is the guitars that save The Good Earthfrom the dreaded “REM effect” (Peter Buck produced it).

Right off the bat, with the acoustic strumming of “On The Roof,” The Feelies let you know that it is no longer 1980. There were so many bands doing this type of music in 1986, it was ridiculous. Call it roots music, alt-country, no depression, whatever. Eventually some good stuff emerged from the genre, but really — The Feelies as Depression-era hobos? Give me a break.

The only track that recalls their herky-jerky heyday is “Slipping (Into Something)” and it almost single-handedly saves The Good Earth. Opening with a quietly strumming guitar, and slowly building towards it’s inevitable crescendo, “Slipping (Into Something)” is a remarkable song.

To be fair, if The Good Earth had been released by anyone but The Feelies in 1986, I probably would have nothing but praise for it. There are some great songs here, particularly the country-tinged “Tomorrow Today,” and “The Last Roundup.”

But for me, and the millions (or hundreds) of fans out there, the title of the final song on the original LP version of The Good Earth ironically sums everything up: “Slow Down.”

New Jersey based Bar/None Records has just re-issued The Good Earthin a great package. Not only do you get the original record—exactly as it appeared on vinyl—but there is also a card included giving fans access to previously unreleased bonus tracks.

There are three extra songs included as well, and they are all worthwhile. The band covers “She Said, She Said” (big Beatles fans), and Neil Young’s “Sedan Delivery.” There is also a live version of “Slipping (Into Something)” recorded at a reunion in March 2009.

Despite my initial reservations about The Good Earth, it has grown on me. And Bar/None has done an excellent job with the re-release. Definitely worth checking out, if only to see where these guys went after their astonishing debut.

Music Review: OM - God Is Good

The online stoner community (is that an oxymoron?) was up in arms over the announcement that OM founding drummer Chris Haikus was leaving the band. Remember the Genesis album And Then There Were Three? OM’s God Is Good could have been subtitled And Then There Was Uno.

A brief history is probably in order. In the early ‘90’s the three piece Sleep were pioneers of the so-called stoner movement. Their most infamous recording, Dopesmoker was only released years after they had disbanded, and consisted entirely of one song, the 73 minute title track.

Drummer Chris Hakius and bass player Al Cisneros formed OM in 2003 and released three records together. Due to those ever popular “creative differences” Hakius left OM in 2008, and (pardon the pun) everyone thought OM were doomed.

Not so. God Is Good is every bit the stoner classic that 2006’s Conference Of The Birds was. The first cut on God Is Good is the 19 minute “Thebes,” an extended saga on par with Birds’ “At Giza.”

“Thebes” opens up with the droning tamboura of guest Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe. Cisneros’ bass then enters the mix, playing a line reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s “Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun.”

Lyrically, I have no idea. And it probably doesn’t matter. Here are the first lines of “Thebes”: “Descends supine grace of the luminant, attunes to access light of celestial form.” Praise the Lord and pass the bong, I guess.

Much has been made of the use of flute on track two, “Meditation Is The Practice Of Death.” Sure, flute may not be the most metal of instruments, but I think it fits the mood of the track perfectly. The insistent drone of their music isn’t exactly Slayer, and the flute adds to the distant subject matter of the song.

The final two tracks on God Is Good are titled “Cremation Ghat I” and “Cremation Ghat II.” Both are instrumentals, with some chanting, and "I" in particular suggests a different direction for OM. The tempo is increased considerably, and the drum sound of new member Emil Amos is very prominent.

On “Ghat II,” Lowe’s tamboura reappears, and the song goes into a strange “Blue Jay Way,” middle section for a while, before resolving itself.

Stoners, Tibetan chant enthusiasts, and fans of psychedelic music should all check out God Is Good. Like Current 93’s recent Aleph At Hallucinatory Mountain, this music inhabit’s a fascinating spiritual realm. The rumor that these guys are Christians just adds to the mystery for me.

Music Review: The Feelies - Crazy Rhythms

Crazy Rhythms was the very definition of “Square Pegs” in 1980. All of the hipsters were listening to The Clash’s London Calling at the time. But there were a few of us music nerds who found The Feelies.

It was a small, secret club. In fact, I may have been the only member in my high school. But those songs! I still remember the day I bought it, taking a chance based on some reviews I had read. And how blown away I was when I played it the first time.

“There's a kid I know, but not too well, He doesn't have a lot to say”

Those first tap-taps that open Crazy Rhythms are so quiet, I wondered if I had gotten a defective album at first. Then they increased the tempo, and the guitars chimed in. “The Boy With The Perpetual Nervousness” builds to an almost anthemic finale. It is a statement of purpose, almost as if to say: “You have never heard anything like this before.”

Indeed, I had not.

As if to perpetuate their claim, song number two is The Feelies first single “Fa Ce-La,” an infectious piece of pop. Then comes “Loveless Love,” a song so impossible to explain, a song so incredible to hear. It is if every moment of all of your favorite tunes were distilled into one great one.

I had gotten lucky this time. Nine times out of ten I got burned when I bought a record based on reviews, before ever even hearing it. The only other time things had worked out was when I sprung for Television’s Marquee Moon. So the two became one of a piece to me, brothers in arms as it were.

There was something about the songs on Crazy Rhythms that defied easy categorization. The twin guitar sounds of Bill Million and Glenn Mercer on songs like “Forces At Work” and “Moscow Nights” were just amazing.

Then there is the Anton Fier workout on the title song. This is where the drummer’s legend was born. Even though this is clearly Fier’s showcase, the guitars sound superb as well.

In fact, every cut on this record is stellar, with the possible exception of the cover of The Beatles’ “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide (Except For Me And My Monkey).” Although some people swear by it, I find the original to be much more compelling.

In any event, Crazy Rhythms is a classic, and is finally being re-issued by Bar/None. In a nice marketing touch, the original LP version is coming out exactly as it appeared in 1980, and includes a download card, which gives fans free online access to bonus tracks.

The five extras on Crazy Rhythms include the single mix of “Fa Ce-La” from 1979, and demo versions of “Moscow Nights” and “The Boy With The Perpetual Nervousness.” The two demos feature jazz musician Carla Bley’s vocals for some reason. There are also two live tracks, recorded in March 2009 at a reunion gig.

All in all, this is an excellent package. If you have never heard Crazy Rhythms before, I suggest you take a chance. Yes, based on a reviewer’s opinion. It is a fantastic record.

Music Review: Flying Machines - Flying Machines

It’s 1979, and Big Radio is grappling with the dichotomy between the bombast of Queen, and the new wave of The Police. Nobody really knows which way to go, and the airwaves momentarily open up to allow such one-hit wonders as The Headboys, New England, and The Fabulous Poodles in.

The sad fact that the doors closed soon after is of little consequence. Just being heard may not have been all those bands were after, but honestly, it was better than nothing.

I find myself wondering if the same fate awaits Flying Machines. This is a really good band, albeit one with way too much Queen damage. But still, their eponymous (God, I love that word) debut has all the makings of a hit.

From the semi-prog opening cut “Talk About It” to the concluding “Clearing The Boards,” Flying Machineshonestly makes me feel as if I am in the late seventies. Better than that though, they actually make me remember long lost bands like Nantucket.

Of the ten songs on Flying Machines, “Video Games” is the clearly the winner. Vocalist William Ryan George does an amazing job at channeling the ghost of Freddie Mercury, while guitarist Ken Weisbach does the best Andy Summers imitation ever.

When I mention the Queen influence, it is overt. Flying Machines clearly love the band, and it shows. Better yet, they seem to have listened only to the early stuff, before “Bohemian Rhapsody.” So you hear tributes to the likes of “Brighton Rock” and “Keep Yourself Alive” rather than the more obvious choices.

There is a lot more to Flying Machines than the Queen tag though. Bassist Evan Joyce is incredible on “Hopelessly Alone.” And guitar player John Wlaysewski seriously rocks it on “Clearing The Boards.”

Flying Machines are a marketer’s dream band. They have won tons of online polls, and Yahoo! Is behind them big-time. Let’s hope they can get past all of the hoopla, (anybody remember Rail?) and get their music heard.

I for one, like this a lot. Their debut is worth hearing, and a reminder that some of the best stuff out there still comes from kids listening to their favorite records in the basement, and re-writing them.

Weird choice that it is, “1979” is probably my favorite Smashing Pumpkins song. Flying Machines takes me back in such an indelible way to that very odd, and ultimately very rewarding year.

DVD Review: Elvis Presley: The Ed Sullivan Shows

There is such an obvious sense of abandon in The Ed Sullivan Theater during these performances, it is electrifying. 1956 was Elvis Presley’s breakout year, yet music snob Ed Sullivan originally wanted nothing to do with him.

When rival Steve Allen booked Elvis and handily beat Sullivan in the ratings, the impresario changed his tune. Suddenly Presley was booked for three appearances, and the show was on.

Ironically, due to a serious auto accident, Sullivan himself missed the first event. Actor Charles Laughton introduced Elvis Presley to America that night, and it was a night to remember.

The King was in all of his element September 9, 1956. And so was his band. Even as a life-long fan of Rock ‘N Roll, I had never seen this footage before. It is everything you would expect a legend to be founded on.

Besides the charisma of Presley himself, the band behind him are unbelievable. Watching Scotty Moore take a solo during “Ready Teddy” is a joy. It is no wonder that musicians such as Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck readily acknowledged him as an influence.

Drummer DJ Fontana is another presence who just shines in his moments. For this reviewer though, it is The Jordanaires who kind of steal the show. Watching them harmonize behind Elvis during “Don’t Be Cruel” is a wonder.

Presley’s second appearance on the show is probably the most famous, because Sullivan was so scandalized by Elvis’ dancing. I was always wondering just how crazily sexual things got, and have to report that this stuff is pretty tame by modern standards.

Still, the third appearance of Presley on Sullivan was shown waist-up only. On this one Ed Sullivan is such a condescending jackass you just want Elvis to pop him one. “I want to tell the country that this is a real decent, fine boy,” says Ed.

Jeez, what a jerk.

The bonus features are pretty minimal. There are some home movies by the “Memphis Mafia,” and some embarrassing moments of Ed mentioning Elvis at various times. Besides that, I would say that John Byner’s comedy bit is the best of the bunch.

Elvis - The Classic Performances is wonderful just for what it is. A legend performing live in his prime. It is probably the best material available to see him in all of his glory.

Book Review: Too Soon To Tell by David Alan Grier

David Alan Grier’s new Too Soon To Tellis subtitled Essays For The End Of The Computer Revolution. For Grier, the revolution ended quite some time ago, and his case is compelling.

In the preface, Grier argues that with over one billion personal computers in use globally, the computer can “no longer be considered new, novel or revolutionary.”

Point taken, but what brought us here? Through his father, Grier has an unique perspective on computer history. Thomas Grier’s career in the industry began in 1957, working on the Univac. A generation later, young David would join the “family business.”

Too Soon To Tell is a collection of 43 essays organized into a rough chronological order. Of these, 20 were newly written for inclusion in the book, the remainder were originally published in Computer magazine, in his column “In Our Time.”

I find the early years of vacuum tubes and the first printed circuits to be a fascinating subject. Grier takes us from 1957 to the present with a style that is refreshingly lacking in technical terms and industry jargon.

His field of endeavor is programming, and morphed into education. No offense to programmers, but I was a little surprised at just how enjoyable a read Too Soon To Tell was. Grier is a talented writer who is able to weave personal reflections of his father and those he worked with into the narrative.

In an early essay titled “Songs Of Comfort And Joy,” he relates the story of how in 1958 his father and others programmed their Univac to “play” Christmas carols. Management was not impressed, and digital music would be put on hold for decades. When the genie finally was let out of the bottle, it spelled the end of the music industry as we had come to know it.

Speaking of music, another essay discusses the 106 (in)famous IBM company songs such as “Ever Onward” and relates them to such current items such as Radiohead’s “Palo Alto.” It is a great connection from the past to the present.

Too Soon To Tell ends on a philosophical note, that everything we know today about computers will be moot in just a few years. But the basics will remain the same: Fundamentally, computers are tools for the people, a fact which gets lost at times, and is always good to remember.

Music Review: Eno Moebius Roedelius - After The Heat

After The Heat was originally released in 1978, and is the second collaboration between Brian Eno, Dieter Moebius, and Hans-Joachim Roedelius (Cluster). The first collection, the landmark ambient album titled simply Cluster & Eno, came out in 1977. All of the material for both records was recorded during one three-week session in ‘77, after Eno had finished work on David Bowie’s "Heroes" LP. The trio were joined in the studio by Asmus Tietchens and Holger Czukay of Can on a few tracks.

After The Heat starts out much like Cluster & Eno. The first track, “Oil,” is a piano soliloquy that seems to be heading into familiar, soothing territory. Then a foreboding bass enters the picture, which signals that the journey will be a little different from the previous one. This is confirmed by the next cut, “Foreign Affairs,” an early stab at world music, which also manages to reference Kraftwerk’s contemporary Trans-Europe Express.

The original vinyl LP split the ten songs evenly between two sides, and the remaining three on side one are the closest to the ambient sounds of Cluster & Eno. “Old Land” is particularly peaceful, setting us up for the kill, I guess.

The remainder of After The Heat is very different. The five songs that round out the record have a lot in common with what Peter Gabriel was working on during this period. I guess that is why it was hailed as a prog record upon release.

The funk factor is the most unique quality of After The Heat. While Eno, Moebius, and Roedelius will never be confused with the Ohio Players, these white boys definitely find the beat on “Broken Head,” and “Tzima N’arki.” Holger Czukay’s bass on “Tzima N’arki” is a wonder as well, and leaves no doubt as to the direction his career was headed.

Another difference between After The Heat and the previous set is the fact that Brian Eno “sings” three songs. His very precise, and somewhat flat vocals complement the music perfectly though, adding another layer to the eclectic mix.

After The Heat remains something of a lost classic. For fans of Eno, Cluster, Krautrock, or even prog, it is definitely worth hearing.

Music Review: Cluster & Eno - Cluster & Eno

Cluster & Eno has been credited by some as inventing the ambient genre. While that claim is debatable, one thing is certain: This is one of the finest ambient records ever.

Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius had been recording together as Cluster since 1968, and counted Brian Eno among their fans. After recording “Heroes” with David Bowie in Berlin, Eno paid a visit to Cluster’s studio in Forst, Germany.

Over the course of three weeks, Cluster and Eno were joined by Asmus Tietchens and Holger Czukay of Can to record 19 tracks. Nine of these were selected for Cluster & Eno, which was released in 1977 by Sky Records. The remaining ten came out the following year as an album titled After The Fire.

It is obvious that great care was taken in programming the original LP. It opens with some incandescent piano work on “Ho Renomo,” and flows steadily through a variety of ever increasing tempos. “Steinsame” is an early highlight, containing some amazing guitar textures.

The tempo increases a bit towards the end of the record with tracks such as “Selange,” and “Die Bunge.” These tracks lead up to the amazing “One,” definitely the ringer here. Adding sitar, tabla, and tamboura to the lush keyboard bed of sound could have been a major mistake. But it works beyond all expectation. “One” is an incredible piece of music.

The final track, "Für Luise" is a requiem of sorts for this journey, and features a lovely piano meditation.

There is a reason Cluster & Enois so highly regarded by fans of ambient music. It would be a good 15 years before bands such as The Heavenly Music Corporation and Pelican Daughters would expand on these concepts for the chill out rooms.

Those bands created some great music to be sure. But for this reviewer, nobody has topped the original. Cluster & Eno is simply a fabulous record.

Music Review: Birdsongs Of The Mesozoic - Dawn Of The Cycads

Birdsongs Of The Mesozoic was formed out of the ashes of Mission Of Burma. Guitarist Roger Miller folded the legendary post-punk band in 1983 due to severe tinnitus. He began collaborating with fellow Bostonian Erik Lindgren, with whom he had previously appeared with in the band Moving Parts.

Lindgren's studio provided the perfect environment for Miller's quieter piano pieces. When the duo's "Pulse Piece" was selected for inclusion in the Boston area sampler A Wicked Good Time, Birdsongs' career began in earnest.

In addition to Lindgren's formidable Moog talents, keyboardist Rick Scott and "tape manipulator" Martin Swope completed this initial Birdsongs lineup.

Dawn Of The Cycads contains all of the material the band released on the tiny Ace Of Hearts label. From 1983 to 1987, Birdsongs Of The Mesozoic released two EPs, one full-length Lp, and one live album. The live recording, Between Fires is from a 1987 show and contains seven tracks, all save a version of "Pulse Piece" were previously unreleased.

Listening to Birdsongs' music has always been a rewarding endeavor, but describing their music can be a challenge. The New York Times once called them "The world's hardest rocking chamber quartet." Their music owes a definite debt to the minimalism of Phillip Glass and Steve Reich, but there is much more to it as well.

Birdsongs are best represented by their sole full-length LP, Magnetic Flip (1984). The band stakes out a pretty wide territory here. From the opening rocker "Shiny Golden Snakes" to the reflective "Final Motif," this record is a tour de force of styles.

Birdsongs show their classical chops ala Emerson, Lake & Palmer with "The Rite Of Spring (Excerpts)," then go in a completely opposite direction by covering the Rocky and Bullwinkle theme. Best of all is "Terry Riley's House," a tribute to the minimalist pioneer.

Of the two EPs, Birdsongs Of The Mesozoic (1983) and Beat Of The Mesozoic (1986), I prefer the first one. Maybe I'm just a sucker for a great melody, but tracks like "The Orange Ocean" and "Sound Valentine" really define the quieter side of the band for me.

Beat Of The Mesozoic finds the group exploring Jean Michel Jarre territory on "Scenes From a ..." and "Waterwheel." The title song is a very powerful rocker that caps off the collection in an appropriate manner.

One of the coolest aspects of Dawn Of The Cycads is the extras included on disc 2. They can be accessed from any computer, and include gig posters, set lists, reviews, even sheet music to four of the songs. There are also some dioramas for fans to cut out and play with, which I assume were included in the original vinyl releases.

For Birdsongs Of The Mesozoic fans, Dawn Of The Cycadscan hardly be beat in terms of their early career. Believe it or not, they are still around, nearly 30 years later. Keep on rocking in the opera house, guys.

Book Review: I, Doll by Arthur "Killer" Kane

I, Doll is the perfectly ambiguous title for the autobiography of Arthur “Killer” Kane, late of the New York Dolls. His life was first and foremost defined as a founding member of the band. He sometimes referred to himself as Arthur Doll.

I, Doll could also pertain to the manner in which the group's status grew over the years. In the eyes of some, including Morrissey of The Smiths, Kane was an “idol.”

Finally, there are the poverty years, spent in L.A. The entire modus operandi of the Sunset Strip hair metal bands was based on the New York Dolls template. Kane watched this scene explode in the 1980’s, while he sat on the sidelines, idle.

None of his music, or even his appearance in the great 2006 film New York Doll prepares a person for the immediacy of Arthur’s writing. I, Doll covers just the first 16 months of the Dolls career. And it ends before they even landed a record contract. But what he has to say about that period is incredible.

The stories of their early days on the streets of NYC are hilarious, and Kane puts the events into perfect context. In 1972, Nixon’s America was engaged in a culture war defined by the length of a man’s hair. Meanwhile, The Dolls thought the only people on the planet who even remotely resembled them were David Bowie’s Spiders From Mars.

Clearly there was a gap between what the New York Dolls thought appropriate and what the rest of New York City did. Each member of the band rode the subway in full costume on the way to rehearsal or gigs. They went to local bars that way and played suburban gigs fully dragged out.

As only truly charismatic characters are able to, the guys always somehow escaped serious injury. But their near-misses are funny as hell. Especially the one that took place in a sleazy bar with David Bowie in tow. That was the last time he hung out with the Dolls.

The band secured a residency at the Mercer Arts Center in Manhattan, after a particularly well received gig, and that is where their legend was born. I wish Kane had more to say about those shows, but he admits that he was pretty wasted throughout this period.

The book ends with the New York Dolls’ first appearances in England, and the experience is just heartbreaking. As anyone who knows their history will attest, founding drummer Billy Murcia never made it back. Kane saw him two hours before his death, and it is obvious he blames himself, even though there is no reason to.

From the epilogue written by “Killer’s” wife of 30 years, this was to be the first of a multi-part autobiography. Kane blamed singer David Johansen and the management firm of Leber-Krebs for the failure of the group’s career.

Kane felt that Aerosmith were the first of the New York Dolls rip-off bands, with KISS a close second. The fact that they were both managed by Leber-Krebs didn’t help matters any. His bitterness comes through pretty strongly at times.

The book was written a couple of years before the fantastic reunion seen in New York Doll. The film is the perfect postscript to I, Doll. The band were amazing at Morrissey’s Meltdown Festival, and Kane is endearingly humble as a happy librarian for the Mormons. It’s too bad he passed just three weeks after the Dolls reunion, I’m sure volume two would have been great.

This is probably the most inside, and honest account of the early New York Dolls we will ever see. By turns funny, poignant, frightening, even spiritual, I, Doll is one of the rock ’n roll reads of the summer.

DVD Review: Bob Dylan - 1978-1989: Both Ends Of The Rainbow

The years 1978 to 1989 were rough ones for Bob Dylan. Both Ends Of The Rainbow is a two-hour DVD featuring interviews with musicians and journalists about this period. It also features numerous video clips, including many live versions of songs written and recorded during this 11-year period.

The combination of interviews and performances on this DVD paint of vivid picture of an artist in crisis. It is unfortunate however that Dylan himself chose not to participate in this documentary in any way.

The DVD starts out with a brief discussion of Dylan’s 1978 LP Street Legal, the disappointing follow-up to his acclaimed Desire. Following it's lackluster tour, Dylan was introduced to the Vineyard Christian Fellowship by members of his band.

The reverberations of Dylan’s conversion to Christianity have resonated in his career in various ways ever since. The most obvious results were the trilogy of "Born Again" records he released between 1979-82. Slow Train Coming, the first of the three, was positively received for the most part, and charted at number three on Billboard.

Interviews conducted for this DVD with journalists and former musicians make it clear that had Dylan stopped here, his audience would have most likely remained intact. But it was not to be.

Saved and Shot Of Love were vilified by critics and the public. In his on-screen interview about Saved, Johnny Rogan says simply: “It was a catastrophe.“ The third and final recording of this era, Shot Of Love was produced by Chuck Plotkin and he mentions how much better he thought the LP could have been had Dylan allowed him to actually produce it.

Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespear are both interviewed on the DVD for their contributions to Dylan’s 1983 Infidels album. Although Infidels is by no means Blood On The Tracks, it certainly had it’s moments. The live footage of Dylan singing “Jokerman” at the time is a highlight.

For the following six long years Dylan seemed adrift. Whether it was his disastrous performance at Live Aid (which the footage confirms) or the rotating musicians and studios he utilized, nothing seemed to work.

Empire Burlesque, Knocked Out Loaded, and Down In The Groove lacked all sense of purpose, marking a troubling first for Bob Dylan. They were generic “Eighties” music in every sense of the word, and for the most part, pretty awful. The many interviews with musicians, journalists, and producers recorded especially for this DVD set testify to this, and to what might have been.

One day Dylan received a call from old friend George Harrison, who wanted to use his home studio to record a few demos with “some friends.” The friends turned out to be Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne. The five settled on The Traveling Wilburys as a name.

Their record was a smash in 1988, and showed Dylan the way back out of the wilderness. Rather than chase the MTV flavor of the moment as he had been doing, it was time for Dylan to get back to basics, and just be himself again.

The two-hour DVD ends on a positive note with the 1989 release of Oh Mercy, hailed as one of his all-time best by some. It was unquestionably his best since Desire at least, which the critical and fan response bore out.

The 1990s were just around the corner, and would present a whole new set of tribulations, and accomplishments. But that is a story for another documentary.

The few extras included in this set are fairly unimpressive. There is an eight-minute feature concerning some interviews Dylan gave in '79-'80 to various radio stations, and a text-only biography section for the 17 contributors who appear in onscreen interviews.

Both Ends Of The Rainbow is advertised as a two-disc set, which is technically correct. But the second disc is an audio-only CD featuring an hour’s worth of radio interviews from '79-'82, the heavy-duty Christian era. Interesting but hardly essential.

For serious Bob Dylan fans however, I think the two hour DVD is essential. Both Ends Of The Rainbow sheds a lot of light on events that were somewhat bewildering at the time for many of us. In that regard, it is recommended.

Music Review: Art Pepper - The Art History Project

One of the best autobiographies ever written is Straight Life: The Story Of Art Pepper. The book chronicles the life of the finest alto sax player of the post-Charlie Parker era. It is also one of the most honest accounts of a man devastated by heroin addiction I have ever read.

The Art History Project attempts to tell Pepper’s story through music. It is a lofty goal, but one his widow succeeds at admirably. Laurie Pepper was Art’s co-author on Straight Life, and she knows his story inside and out.

Pure Art is the title of the first disc of this three CD set, and covers the years 1951 to 1960. Although he was addicted, and spent time in jail, the playing is surprisingly consistent. Pepper’s confident and unique phrasing is highlighted best with “Begin The Beguine” and his own theme “Straight Life.” It would be many years before he played this well again.

Hard Art is the title of disc two, which focuses on the years 1960 to 1968. This period reflects Pepper’s somewhat bewildered response to the New Frontier of Jazz. The influence John Coltrane held on him during this time was extreme. In fact, Pepper even changed from his signature alto sax to Coltrane’s tenor for a while.

Sadly, Art Pepper spent most of these years locked in San Quentin. During his occasional, and relapse-abbreviated paroles, Pepper managed to record most of these tracks.

Although this material is actually quite good, the Coltrane emulation borders on idolatry. It becomes a little embarrassing, having heard his talent before heroin and jail. Still, on songs such as “So In Love,” and “That Crazy Blues,” Pepper’s sax has a lot to say, even with the Coltrane-isms.

This was obviously a very dark and lonely period for him. It is to Laurie Pepper’s credit that these sessions are even seeing the light of day. They mirror a man lost, in every sense of the word

Consummate Art is the title of the final disc, and it is a great third act. Opening with Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” it is clear that Pepper and the band are on fire. This is glorious music, harkening back to where he began. He has returned to alto sax, and plays with a style and verve that was seemingly lost. The Coltrane influence is now just a part of Pepper’s terrain.

Out of 41 total tracks, my two favorites are contained here. “Landscape” and “Mambo Koyama” were recorded live in New York City, just two months prior to his death. Both of these songs show a man in full command of his instrument, his talent, and his band.

The Art History Project is an excellent collection. All three discs stand up to repeated listens. But I think it works on a deeper level as well. The classic Behind The Music story is an obvious cliché, but no hair-metal guy ever did the kind of prison time this man did for drugs.

Art Pepper had it all, lost it all, and actually got it all back and more in the end. The Art History Project is the musical reflection of a man’s life lived on the edge

It is also one hell of a listen.

Book Review: Precious Metal: 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces by Albert Mudrian

Precious Metal is a compilation of articles from Decibel magazine’s popular “Hall Of Fame” monthly feature. It is an updated and expanded collection of the top 25 entries, and features interviews with all members of each group inducted.

Decibel prides itself on being the ultimate authority on “Extreme Metal.” Bands such as Cannibal Corpse, Napalm Death, and Slayer are typical examples. Whether it is death metal, black metal, grind-core or Lord knows what, the editors have chosen the most influential, and extreme acts ever to grace their Hall.

Some of the interviews are unintentionally hilarious. Take this quote from Carcass bassist Jeff Walker, discussing the band’s Necrotism - Descanting The Insalubrious: “It was pretty mainstream.”

Here are a couple of titles from Necrotism: “Lavaging Expectorate of Lysergide Composition,” and “Corporal Jigsore Quandry.” I swear dude, Rick Rubin is all set to turn these cuts over to Neil Diamond as we speak.

The period covered in Precious Metal runs from 1980 to 2001. The bookends are Black Sabbath’s Heaven And Hell to Converge’s Jane Doe. And there are some worthy stories in between.

I particularly enjoyed the Sabb’s frank discussion of how the band completely fell apart with the sacking of Ozzy. At one point, only Iommi and Dio were even into it, yet they managed to put together a record that stands up to anything the group ever did.

The interviews with Cannibal Corpse are pretty funny also. Back in my Ye Olde Record Store days, we used to yell out the song titles just to get a laugh. Nobody could be for real with something called “Entrails Ripped From A Virgin’s Cunt.” Or so we thought.

I love Corpse’s lyricist Chris Barnes‘ interview: “I’ve always taken pride in writing a storyline.”

Holy crap, what’s next? Norwegian death metal, of course. Burn down 1,000 year old churches, and murder your rival vocalist. Cool. But isn’t even murder a cliché after Manson? Come on guys, give me a break.

As a fan of extreme music in all genres, I had an inclination to like this book. Ending it in 2001 obviously opens the door to a volume two. I think the first one should have been a little more inclusive of the originators.

Beginning with Sabbath’s Heaven And Hell was a good start, and following it with Diamond Head and Celtic Frost made a lot of sense. But the prerequisite of interviewing every band member for inclusion is ludicrous.

A dead band-mate means your record will never qualify? That apparently is the story. Two quick examples: Master Of Puppets by Metallica, and Cowboys From Hell by Pantera. It wasn’t even drugs that killed these guys, and those are two of the most influential “extreme” (at least at the time) records I know of.

I understand that the conceit here is to interview every member of the band, and on that level Precious Metal works very well. My problem is with the missed opportunity of putting a true Top 25 of this music together. Nobody else is going to write it.

Precious Metal does one hell of a job with the self-imposed artificial restraints of the editors. As a fan, I would like to see them step out a bit further, and include records made by guys who are now dead.

Celebrating murderers who escaped the death penalty, and ignoring Cliff Burton and Dimebag Darrell makes no sense at all. Precious Metal is a great book on its own terms. As a definitive statement on the genre though, I find it sorely lacking.

Book Review: The History Of Independent Cinema by Phil Hall

Phil Hall’s recent The History Of Independent Cinema is a captivating look at the world of film from a different perspective than is customary. For those who may think of independent film’s “early days” as John Water’s Pink Flamingos, or even those by Andy Warhol, this book may come as a bit of a surprise.

The History Of Independent Cinema traces the origins of the art form all the back to the very first films ever produced. In fact, the semantics get a little tricky, because all films were by definition independent before the rise of the major studios.

Hall does an excellent job of describing the politics, and basic chicanery inherent in the rise of the big studios. Ruthless actions have been a hallmark of Hollywood since the very beginning. The first half of the book is a somewhat heroic story of autonomous underdogs trying to hold their own against a monopolistic system.

As a contributing editor to Film Threat magazine, author Phil Hall certainly knows his stuff. This book is filled with titles I had never heard of before, along with brief descriptions which encourage me to check many of them out. Films such as Nanook Of The North (1922), or Meshes Of The Afternoon (1942) sound fascinating, as does Carnival Of Souls (1962).

One of the more intriguing aspects of the book are the various “10 Most Important Independent Films Of All Time” sections. Hall has solicited seven of his peers to contribute their choices, with notes. Each entry follows a chapter. The various lists make for an interesting comparison.

It is probably unsurprising that the lists contain many well-known and recent titles in the genre. Reservoir Dogs, Night Of The Living Dead, and Easy Rider all make numerous appearances. And while they are all great, I think the real value in this book is in the more obscure titles you may find.

In any event, The History Of Independent Cinema is a story of a different Hollywood than the one we usually hear about. It is a riveting tale and a reminder that there is almost always something exciting bubbling just under the surface of the mainstream.

Music Review: Steve Kuhn - Mostly Coltrane

For those who may be unaware of ECM stalwart Steve Kuhn’s connection to John Coltrane, they actually played together for a few weeks in 1960. The first three months of 1960 saw Kuhn as Coltrane’s pianist at the Jazz Gallery in New York City.

They never played together again afterwards, but Kuhn was deeply influenced by the experience. Kuhn’s Mostly Coltrane is one of the finest of the many John Coltrane tributes to have emerged over the years. Kuhn’s longtime trio, which includes bassist David Finck, and drummer Joey Baron is supplemented by tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano.

Lovano acquits himself admirably in the Coltrane role, which is kind of a no win proposition really. You never mistake his phrasing for actually being Coltrane. But the arrangements and execution are done so respectfully as to make it a moot point.

One of the many impressive aspects of this set is the songs Kuhn chose to use. "Central Park West," "The Night Has A Thousand Eyes," and "I Want To Talk About You" were all part of the Jazz Gallery sets he played back in '60. They reflect the hard bop era that Coltrane was just transitioning out of.

Of the remaining ten tracks, eight are Coltrane originals recorded between 1964, and his final year, 1967. I like the fact that Kuhn began when he played with the man, and then followed JC’s journey through to the end.

“Welcome” from the 1965 album Kulu Se Mama opens things up perfectly, setting just the right tone for what is to follow. “Living Space,” also originally recorded in ‘65, but unreleased until the posthumous ‘98 disc of the same title, is another highlight.

Kuhn’s interplay with the band is so spot on, yet so different from what Coltrane’s pianists usually did. It begs the obvious question, what if Kuhn had stayed on?

The two remaining cuts are by Steve Kuhn. “With Gratitude,” is a beautiful piano meditation featuring some of his most reflective playing. It was a stroke of genius to close Mostly Coltrane with “Trance” though.

This amazing piece lays bare just how profoundly Kuhn has been influenced by his one-time band leader, and where those influences have taken him. “Trance” is a piano improvisation that works in captivating ways, and surprises like no other.

For this listener, Steve Kuhn’s Mostly Coltrane is about as good as it gets in paying tribute to a legend.

Prog Rock: How Long Is Your Song?

During the golden age of progressive rock, there was a simple litmus test for the best song on a record. It was always the longest one. Something magical happened when a single track took up the whole side of an album.

An eight minute ditty like Don McLean’s “American Pie” is one thing, but 18:50 of “Close To The Edge” by Yes was an event. As it turns out, I have owned a fair amount of records featuring a single song on one side. In the case of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, one epic tune took up both sides of the LP.

Like so many worthy rock traditions, it all began in 1968, with Iron Butterfly’s immortal In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. The record contains six songs, five on side one, and 17 glorious minutes of the title track on side two. It became the template.

While the idea of a song stretching out over ten minutes was not unheard of in '68, devoting a full side to just one was definitely a new thing. The Grateful Dead’s Anthem Of The Sun came out that year, and contained the 15 minute “Alligator.” But it was followed by five minutes of “Caution,” which spoiled the whole marathon experience.

John Lennon was the only one who really got it right that year, with his horrid Two Virgins collaboration with Yoko Ono. The album featured two cuts: “Two Virgins Side One” and (you guessed it) “Two Virgins Side Two.” The music was bad enough, but the nude cover, sheesh! These are two people I never, ever needed to see naked.

Solo Beatles led the one-song per side movement in 1969. Not one but two Lennon/Ono “experimental” records came out that year: Life With The Lions, and Wedding Album. Two sides each, four terrible “songs” total.

But George Harrison came up with something fairly worthwhile. Electronic Sound contained “Under The Mersey Wall” on side one, and “No Time Or Space” on side two, and both are actually pretty interesting.

The early seventies was the era when the side-long song concept really took hold. Pink Floyd got it all started in 1970 with their 23 minute title suite for Atom Heart Mother. Deep Purple gave us the endlessly amusing Concerto For Group And Orchestra that year as well

1971 saw even more of these extravaganzas. As if they were in the Mafia, Uriah Heep paid tribute to elders Iron Butterfly with Salisbury. Just like In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, Salisbury contains six songs. Five crappy ones on side one, and the title cut taking up all of side two. Plus, the album features the classic “Heep In A Jeep” cover. Beautiful.

1971 also brought another Pink Floyd entry into the genre. Side two of Meddle consisted of the excellent 23 minute long piece “Echoes.”

Where would a list of LP length songs be without Emerson, Lake And Palmer? With their second album Tarkus, they entered the fray. But they switched things up a bit. The title song took up all of side one this time. Subversive as hell.

As fun as the previous years were, 1972 proved to be even more grandiose. Jethro Tull entered the field with guns blazing on their monumental Thick As A Brick. This song was spread out over both sides of the album. Terribly amazing.

Genesis’ Foxtrot came out that year as well, with the marvelous “Supper's Ready.” Now I know that all the Prog nerds out there are going to bust me by saying that “Horizons” technically opens the side. But I don’t care. “Horizons” works as a beautiful 1 minute acoustic guitar opening to “Supper's,” so I‘m gonna use it anyway.

Richard Branson’s Virgin empire was launched in 1973, on the back of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells. My feelings about the “Billionaire Bad Boy” are a little less than enthusiastic these days. But the fact that he took a chance on what would have seemed to be a blatantly un-commercial record at the time wins some points.

As it turned out, Tubular Bellsbecame a monster hit, and Branson was on his way.

The best album of ELP’s career came out this year as well: Brain Salad Surgery. I have avoided discussing one of the major attractions of Prog LPs up to this point, the cover art. In so many cases, the cover was better than the music itself.

HR Giger’s original packaging for Brain Salad Surgery is spectacular. And in this instance, the side-long “Karn Evil 9” was as good as the artwork that came with it. The quintessential Prog year was 1974. Nixon resigned, and the most unbelievably excessive LP in music history was released: Tales From Topographic Oceans by Yes.

Just thinking about this record cracks me up. It was a double, so there were four sides. And yes, four songs. It really doesn’t get any better than this. But wait, look at that Roger Dean cover. It’s like the old Windows 95 aquarium screen-saver came to life!

‘74 also saw Kraftwerk’s Autobahn, Utopia’s 30 minute “The Ikon” and Phaedra by Tangerine Dream. Marathon cuts like these would never rule the charts again as they did this year.

As far as I can tell, Todd Rundgren pushed the bar as far as possible in 1975. His Initiation holds what I believe to be the longest side-long song ever done, "A Treatise On Cosmic Fire" fills side two with 36 excruciating minutes.

Besides Rundgren, the period of 1975 to 1979 saw a sad decline in the genre. The “Space Rock” groups such as Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schultz, Michael Hoenig, and Steve Hillage kept up the valiant fight, but it was really all for nought.

Strangely enough, those wacky Canadian mooks Rush scored two of the best side-length tracks ever in the latter part of the decade. 2112 was released in 1976, and Hemispheres in 1978. They may have been a little behind the curve, but both are among the band's finest efforts.

Filling up a whole side of your album with one song was one of the hallmarks of a truly “progressive” rock band. It meant you were pretentious enough to think you could hold a listener’s interest for 20 some minutes, and that you actually had something to say as well.

It was usually just a bunch of crap, but that made everything more fun anyway. Besides, most of us were completely zonked back then, so it didn’t even matter.

I say bring back Prog Rock, good old vinyl LP’s, and maybe that damned Windows ‘95 aquarium screen-saver too.

We could use a little more fun in the world right now. If you’re feeling down, just give Tales From Topographic Oceans or Concerto For Group And Orchestra a spin. For this old Progger at least, they are guaranteed to deliver a wistful smile.