Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Music Review: Soundtrack - Dr. Who And The Daleks/ Dalek Invasion 2150 A.D.

According to the Guinness Book Of World Records, Dr. Who is listed as the longest-running science fiction series in the world, and the most successful of all time in terms of broadcast ratings, DVD sales, and other associated merchandise. The original run of the series was an astonishing 26 years, from 1963-89.

The premise is a fairly standard science fiction one. Dr. Who is a Time Lord who travels through time and space in a contraption called a TARDIS (which is an old style British Police Box). He, and the various associates who accompany him, are on a mission to fight the forces of evil in the universe.

Chief among these adversaries are the Daleks. They are a unique looking bunch, kind of like moving trash canisters with lights all over. Their greeting is a not so subtle “Heil Hitler” arm extension. Their “arms” actually resemble nothing so much as a toilet plunger.

The Daleks sinister campiness was a huge hit immediately upon their first appearance on the program. In fact, the period leading up to the first feature-length film has been described as “Dalekmania” in Britain.

That first film, Dr. Who & The Daleks was released in 1965. The soundtrack was scored by Malcolm Lockyer. The second feature, Dalek’s Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. came out the following year. That soundtrack was by Bill McGuffie. Both of these are being released together for the first time on one CD, by the Silva Screen label.

Lockyer’s score for the first picture is fairly standard soundtrack music from this era, comparable to Herrman or Bernstein I suppose. There are a couple of nods to the James Bond theme in his “Fanfare” however, and the “groovy” guitar sound of “The Petrified Jungle” is a scream. The more fully realized tracks such as “The Trap,” “The Swamp,” and “The Mountain,” towards the end are much more satisfying.

I find Bill McGuffie’s score for Daleks Invasion Earth to be the more enjoyable of the two. There is a distinct jazz influence to his work which translates well. The five minute “Daleks And Robomen” positively swings, as if it were a British cousin of Neil Hefti’s Batman music. “Smash And Grab (Reprise) And End Titles” closes things out in a peculiar way. It is as if the Miles Davis of Sketches Of Spain has somehow wandered onto the set. The whole effect is weirdly perfect.

The rare bonus tracks are the real find here though. To cash in on all the fun, Malcolm Lockyer released a single titled “The Eccentric Dr. Who” b/w “Daleks And Thals” The A side is such a period piece. Imagine Ventures, Dick Dale, and The Munsters getting together for a session. Its great! The B-side is as sinister sounding as anything involving Daleks should be, with a dash of Goldfinger thrown in, just for kicks.

Bill McGuffie’s contribution here is an interesting, jazzy take on Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue In D Minor.” He calls it “Fugue For Thought” and it ran in the pre-credit opening of Daleks Invasion Earth.

There are also two tracks of effects that were used in the film, “Tardis Effects,” and “Dalek’s Effects.”

This compilation is about as thorough as one could be it seems, and it was obviously a labor of love for everyone involved. On the back cover there is even an old Sugar Puffs cereal ad with an offer to: “Win A Real Dalek.” Dr. Who fans should not pass this one up.

DVD Review: Saturday Morning Cartoons 1960s Volume 2

It’s Saturday morning, do you know where your children are? Back in the 1960’s, mine always did. I was sitting in front of our black and white TV, with a big bowl of Quisp, watching cartoons.

The folks at Warner Brothers sure got it right with these cartoon collections. The latest, Saturday Morning Cartoons 1960’s Volume 2 is every bit as good as Volume 1 was. The two disc set contains 12 shows, each of which originally were half-hour episodes.

Most of the shows revolve around a character. Take The Quick Draw McGraw Show for example. The one here is episode ?. After Quick Draw opens the show by shilling for Kellogs, we get a ‘toon from Snooper & Blabber, one from Augie Doggie, and of course a Quick Draw McGraw. Add some unique funny business with the “host” and voila, you have a show.

The discs lean pretty heavily toward the Hannah-Barbera characters, but the most memorable moments come straight from the Warner vaults. The Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, and Road Runner Shows are outstanding. The 1959 “Baton Bunny” starring Bugs as the conductor of the Warner Brothers Symphony Orchestra is great.

Another classic is “The Wild Chase” from 1965. “The Big Race” is on, between the Road Runner and Speedy Gonzales. Of course their respective nemesis’ Wiley Coyote and Sylvester are there to cause some mayhem. This is a great one, and I won’t spoil the outcome by revealing who is actually the winner.

There are a few characters on this set I do not remember at all. In 1966 Hanna-Barbera introduced the world to “The Space Kidettes” who even had their own show. This is one wacked out cartoon. There are four Kidettes who live in a space-clubhouse that looks to be made from an abandoned lunar module. They are forced to deal with bad guy Captain Skyhook and his trusty mutt Static, who are trying to steal their treasure map. Parents? Who needs 'em?

The ultimate Space-Age cartoon has to be The Jetsons. Thank you Warner for including “Elroy’s Mob.” The original run of the series was just 24 episodes, run in the 1962-63 season. “Elroy’s Mob” is number 24.

The funniest moment for me comes when Elroy’s buddy Kenny Countdown is watching his TV wristwatch in class. Elroy looks over, and we zoom in on an episode of The Flintstones. Kenny has a great line here: “This must be the billionth rerun.”

The only bonus feature to speak of is a five minute documentary titled “Completely Bananas: The Magilla Gorilla Story.” Apparently Magilla was the last of the Hanna-Barbera “funny” animal characters. They went fully into the next era of Johnny Quest type heroes after Magilla.

Saturday Morning Cartoons 1960’s Volume 2 contains five solid hours of cartoon fun. Now if I could just find a box of Quisp, I’ll be all set.

DVD Review: Saturday Morning Cartoons 1970s Volume 2

Sitting down in front of the DVD player, giant cereal bowl in hand to watch Saturday Morning Cartoons 1970s Volume 2 is a very different thing than watching the simultaneously released 1960s collection. Although both rely heavily on Hanna-Barbera produced programs, the product HB were creating had changed dramatically.

Kooky animal characters such as Quick Draw McGraw, Wally Gator, and Augie Doggie were pretty much over, as the studio’s emphasis became focused on action-adventure cartoons. Of the 12 shows contained on this 2 DVD set, half fall into the adventure genre. Things had gotten much more serious in cartoon-land, even Yogi Bear had sobered up.

The 1970s Volume 2 set contains quite a number of pilots. The first episodes of The New Adventures Of Gilligan, Sealab 2020, Yogi’s Gang, Valley Of The Dinosaurs, and Inch High Private Eye are all featured.

The Valley Of The Dinosaurs episode “Forbidden Fruit” is a prime example of the action-adventure field in animation. It is sort of a Swiss Family Robinson in prehistoric times. The Butler family somehow fell into a whirlpool in the Amazon which transported them to a land that time forgot. Thankfully, there are some friendly cavemen to help them hide from the dinosaurs.

It seems as if the live action TV stars of the 1960s were having a rough time of it in the 1970s. The New Adventures Of Gilligan features the voices of Bob Denver, Alan Hale, Jim Backus, and Natalie Shafer. The New Adventures Of Batman has both Adam West and Boy Wonder Burt Ward intoning their animated alter-egos.

The strangest aspect of all though has to be the new “socially-conscious” trend that took place in the early 70s cartoons. As a kid, I had no idea of the messages in some of these, but as an adult I find the indoctrination somewhat startling.

The short-lived Sealab 2020 is interesting as it equates exploration of the oceans with that of space. The explorers are even called “Oceanauts.” The first episode “Deep Threat” from 1972 concerns itself with nuclear waste being dumped in the oceans. A serious concern to be certain, but one for six year-olds to worry about?

Even more bizarre is Yogi’s Gang. Another first episode, “Mr. Bigot” is possibly the strangest Hanna-Barbera cartoon I have ever seen. Yogi has built an ark, like Noah’s I guess, but it flies. Yup, it has a propeller that is powered by Magilla Gorilla running on a treadmill. A very PC touch.

Populating the ark are all the 60s H-B gang: Atom Ant, Ricochet Rabbit, Huckleberry Hound, Snagglepuss and the rest. This episode is titled “Mr. Bigot.” Yes, there is a villain out there with a “Bigot-Gun” set to turn all of mankind into hate-mongers. When the formerly friendly Mr. Cheerful gets zapped, and turns on the gang, Yogi springs into action. Good guys that they are, the animals turn the other cheek and bake him a cake.

As Snagglepuss should have said: “Heavens to Mergatroyd!” What kind of a lesson is this? It took a quick trip to the menu bar and an episode of the always reliable Bugs Bunny/ Road Runner Hour to cleanse my mental palette.

Then there is the Banana Splits Adventure Hour. This is a glorious mess of live action, cartoons, and music. For some reason The Splits’ antics still crack me up. The live action Danger Island serial cliff-hanger is a little odd, as it is just literally cut with scissors in the middle of a scene. There is no method to it at all. Just snip, and no word about tuning in for the next episode or anything.

The Banana Splits song “Soul” is the best part. Filmed in that super-cheesy Hollywood version of psychedelia, the video for “Soul” is great. The singer even gets in name-checks of Otis Redding and Ray Charles, for the hip kindergartner in the crowd.

The only bonus feature included is titled “The Power Of Shazzan.” This is a five-minute documentary on the short-lived Hanna-Barbera show, mainly featuring interviews with people associated with its production.

Watching Saturday Morning Cartoons 1970s Volume 2 is fun. If nothing else, it serves as a reminder of what a truly bent decade it actually was.

Book Review: Elton John: The Bitch Is Back by Mark Bego

Elton John: The Bitch Is Back certainly is an appropriate title for a book purporting to capture: “The passion, the outlandishness, and the complexity of Elton John’s life.”

Sir Elton has lived a few lifetimes in his 62 years, the past 40 of which have been in the public eye. Author Mark Bego spends a few token pages on Elton’s youth, when he was called Reginald Dwight. The seminal event for the young man was his parents’ divorce. Reg embraced his mother and new stepfather immediately, leaving his biological father out in the cold, basically for the rest of his life.

The story picks up steam when he joins a group called Bluesology, who went on to become Long John Baldry’s back-up band. As any music fan knows though, the real break came when he met Bernie Taupin. One of the more interesting revelations in the book was how Elton wrote the music to Bernie’s lyrics. Taupin would hand him the words, and Elton would compose the music right there on the spot. I don’t care what anyone thinks of Elton John, the ability to write like that shows an amazing talent.

The run Elton went on in the early 1970’s was unprecedented. Seven consecutive number one albums, including the very first one to debut at number one on Billboard. The only band that had enjoyed such sustained success before him were The Beatles. Now that is some heady company to be keeping.

Elton’s cocaine and alcohol abuse became big news in the 1980’s, but it had started long before. Bego traces the end of the “Elton-mania” era to drug use, and serious depression, despite all of the success. The Blue Moves LP was aptly titled.

The first two-thirds of The Bitch Is Back concerns itself with what most people consider the “classic” Elton John period, from 1970-76. From there, things go sideways in every manner imaginable. There was his infamous first wedding, to a woman no less, that eventually cost him 45 million dollars.

The drugs continued, his sexual appetites morphed into addiction, and the records became pretty spotty affairs. Elton became close to many of the rich and famous, most notably the Royal Family. But so much of this is either sad tabloid fodder, or breathless celebrity gossip. Honestly, the last hundred or so pages of The Bitch Is Back are a bit tedious. For all of his success with The Lion King or Aida, I just miss the fun Elton of “Bennie And The Jets,” or as The Pinball Wizard in Tommy.

I think the author does too, because the past ten years especially are pretty much phoned in. Here’s an example: “Throughout 2001 Elton was kept busy with solo tour dates and his ongoing Face To Face tour with Billy Joel.”

A couple of pages later comes this: “His 48th album Peachtree Road, was one of Elton’s main focuses in 2004.”

The dry prose reflects the subject. Elton John is now simply a product, a cash cow on tour with the occasional new record release. Once in a while he manages to generate some humorous headlines. His diva flap with Tina Turner is the best recent one.

I’m happy he’s clean and sober, and apparently found his one true love, but Elton John is and has been pretty boring for a long time. Then again, I’m just an old guy who as a kid in the sixth grade bought Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy the day it came out. I have only done that a couple of times in my life since.

So that early ‘70’s version of The Captain remains indelible for me. The good news is that the author seems to feel the same way. It is no coincidence that so much of the book is devoted to those years. Obviously he had to report on Elton’s life since 1976 though, and to be fair there were some pretty good songs, and some very juicy incidents to report on.

You can’t fault the author for the direction his subject chose to go in. Mark Bego did an outstanding job with Elton John: The Bitch Is Back. It is the most up to date an Elton John bio out there right now, and a fine read as well.

Music Review: Grant Hart - Hot Wax

When Hüsker Dü split due to mounting tensions within the band, the future of Grant Hart seemed somewhat cloudy. He was suffering from some very public addictions, and things seemed a little sketchy for him at first. Thankfully, he was able to get clean, and go on to form the excellent Nova Mob.

The nine tracks that make up Hot Wax seem to have been recorded under a number of different circumstances. There are two producers listed, and the sound quality varies wildly from track to track. As a whole though, the record hangs together in a remarkably cohesive fashion.

Hot Wax opens up with “You’re The Reflection Of The Moon On The Water,” which is a garage-band extravaganza. There is a great vintage organ sound on it, similar to that of the legendary Them’s “Gloria.” It is a great way to kick off a record.

The garage band vintage organ echo continues on a number of tracks, including, “Charles Hollis Jones,” and “Sailor Jack.” Actually, “Sailor Jack” is sort of an unholy spawn of The Beach Boys and Question Mark And The Mysterians.

I have always been hard pressed to describe Hart’s voice, as he uses different inflections depending on the song. But on Hot Wax, there is a notable similarity to that of David Bowie, certainly of the way he intones “Changes.” A quick listen to “School Buses Are For Children,” and “My Regrets,” will confirm this.

One of Hüsker Dü’s all-time greatest songs is “Diane,” off Metal Circus. Grant Hart wrote it, and it shows off his way with a melody spectacularly. He still has the gift, as “California Zephyr” shows. This is sort of a Big Star meets the Dü kind of tune.

I’m not really sure what all the Greek mythological references are about, but they are here. The title of the album, Hot Wax is illustrated on the cover not with a melting LP or something similar. Rather, it features a rendering of Icarus flying too close to the sun. If you remember, the wings Icarus flew on were made of wax, and his flight melted them.

There is also a song here titled “Narcissus, Narcissus,” a mid-tempo rocker that sounds like a kiss-off to an ex-lover.

Twenty years after the demise of Hüsker Dü, one of the great American bands of all time as far as I am concerned, it is really great to hear one of the principles back at it.

Hot Wax is in its own way the perfect summation of what Grant Hart has always been known for. Great punk, great pop, and wildly provocative lyrics are what this record is all about. It really does have merit for those who exist outside of the Dü-obsessed like myself.

Hot Wax is a pretty good record from someone I had kind of given up on. It may not be Hüsker Dü, but for now, it will do.

Music Review: Sachal Vasandani - We Move

Once upon a time there were giants in the field of jazz vocalists. The list is long, and includes such names as Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, and Nat “King” Cole, for starters. It has been a dying art for many years though, as all-instrumental music has pretty much replaced the vocalists of old. Besides Harry Connick Jr. I really cannot think of anyone else today who qualifies as a classic jazz singer.

That is until I discovered Sachal Vasandani. We Move is his second outing, on the Mack Avenue label. It definitely evokes images of the classic era of this type of music.

Opening with “Escape/There’s A Small Hotel,” Sachal and his trio set the pace for the high-quality hour of music to follow. It opens up with the quietly insistent sound of Quincy Davis’ drums, followed after a few bars by David Wong’s bass, and Jeb Patton’s cocktail-ish sounding piano. Right off the bat you realize that Sachal has put together a top-flight trio to accompany him.

This is nowhere more evident than on their cover of Thelonius Monk’s classic, “Monk’s Dream.” The song contains some great solos by Patton and Wong. Sachal delivers the lyrics in a pretty straightforward manner, reminiscent of Connick Jr.

Drummer Quincy Davis is great throughout, but his real shining moment comes on “I’d Let You Know.” As the song builds toward its crescendo, Davis just lets fly. You imagine him grinning ear to ear as he takes full advantage of the opportunity.

Sachal Vasandani’s voice is a little difficult to describe, just because it is so unique. There were more than a couple times I was reminded of the early Seventies singer-songwriter Jesse Colin Young. Which by the way, is meant as a compliment, I have always liked JCY.

Sachal flexes his vocal chops most effectively in the scatting style during “By The River St. Marie.” He gets pretty soulful in a couple of cuts as well, listen to “Heartbeat,” and “Travelin’ Light.”

To tell the truth, there is not a bad track to be found on We Move. It is refreshing to hear a relative newcomer to the scene with such style. I will be looking forward to hearing a lot more from Sachal Vasandani.

DVD Review: Virtual JFK - Vietnam If Kennedy Had Lived

There has long been a sub-genre in science fiction called alternate history. The premise is pretty simple. For example, what kind of world would we live in today, had the Axis Powers been victorious in World War II?

The Virtual JFK - Vietnam If Kennedy Had Lived DVD presents a “what if” scenario with Kennedy not being shot in Dallas. Narrator Professor James G. Blight prefers the term virtual history, which is pretty much a synonym to alternate history, minus the dreaded science fiction associations.

To prove his thesis, the Professor presents six events that occurred during Kennedy’s three years in office. Each could have escalated to war pretty easily, considering the heat of the Cold War at the time. In each instance, stock black and white footage is shown, most of it pretty grainy. Kennedy was able maneuver out of each confrontation without them becoming any more belligerent.

The six crises Blight cites as evidence are The Bay of Pigs, The Laos Crises, The Berlin Wall, The Showdown over Vietnam, The Cuban Missile Crises, and finally his attempts to quietly withdraw from Vietnam just 80 days prior to his assassination.

A huge amount of footage comes from press conferences, and are almost all grainy black and white, like the newsreels. The press conferences are interesting in themselves however, as we are able to see Kennedy charming the press with his humor, while deflecting most of the serious questions.

Professor Blight sums up his conclusions with this quote “It is almost inevitable that he (JFK) would not have had that war in Vietnam.”

The raw numbers themselves are pretty sobering. When Kennedy assumed office in 1961, there were approximately 3,000 US troops in Vietnam. Under LBJ in 1967, 8,000 soldiers had been killed in Vietnam. The figure jumped to 19,000 dead in 1968, the year Johnson bowed out of the Presidency.

The bonus features are interesting in that they all feature Johnson, rather than Kennedy. There is an eight minute statement concerning the resumption of bombing in Vietnam, for 1966. There is a 15 minute excerpt from Johnson’s 1967 State Of The Union address, which concerns Vietnam. And from 1968, there is a 15 minute statement to the country about the differences between North and South Vietnam. All of these segments are in black and white.

If Kennedy had lived, Vietnam may not have gone the way it did. In fact I am pretty certain Kennedy would have handled things differently than Johnson did. But really, so what? No amount of speculation can change what actually occurred.

The Virtual JFK - Vietnam If Kennedy Had Lived DVD presents an intriguing hypothesis. If nothing else, it is always good for a little banter alongside the many other Kennedy conspiracies, allegations, and legends we have come to know over the years.

DVD Review: Roxy Music - More Than This

“Imagine you’re a teenager in the north side of Dublin and some aliens arrive on Top Of The Pops,” says Bono, by way of introducing the new DVD: Roxy Music - More Than This.
This is the best documentary I have seen on the influential 1970’s band, and it features interviews with not only Bono, but also Brian Eno, Siouxsie Sioux, Steve Jones, and a host of others. The live footage is excellent, all of it is taken from TV shows, and later videos, and is of uniformly excellent quality.

Roxy’s original configuration included Brian Eno, who appeared on the first two albums. One of the more interesting tidbits Eno mentions in his interview is that he feels the band’s finest recording was Stranded. This was their third LP, and the first without him.

A huge part of the band’s early appeal was their look. Bryan Ferry, the suave sophisticate, surrounded by his wildly flamboyant band. When Eno left, Eddie Jobson joined, complete with his amazing glass violin. Another Roxy Music trademark were the models gracing their album covers.

Beginning with the first, Roxy Music, and its Vargas inspired Fifties look, through Jerry Hall’s decadent mermaid of Siren, the early Roxy records had a look all their own. When the single from Siren, “Love Is The Drug” failed to take off in America, the band went on a three year hiatus.

At the time, nobody was sure if Roxy Music were over or not. In 1978 with the release of Manifesto, one thing was clear. The experimentation of their first era was over. “Dance Away” from Manifesto clearly points the way to their final triumph of Avalon.

The stories, interviews, and live segments move the documentary along rapidly. Like the band itself, this DVD is never boring. The bonus features are pretty good as well. The first section features extended interviews with most of the participants in the documentary section. They discuss the album covers in particular detail. The interviewees also dissect the roles various members of the band played in shaping the whole.

The final 15 or so minutes is what fans will be looking forward to the most though. From a London concert in 2006, Roxy Music are shown playing “Both Ends Burning,” “Editions Of You,” and “Do The Strand.”

For anyone interested in the history of one of seventies most inscrutable bands, Roxy Music - More Than This is an excellent addition to the DVD collection.

Book Review: Revolution In Seattle by Harvey O'Connor

“A toast, to the 47 states of the Union, and to the Soviet of Washington,” Postmaster General James A. Farley (1936).

Drummer Bill Reiflin, who is probably best known for his work with Ministry, spent many years in Seattle. He once called it: “A small island, surrounded by rednecks.” I have lived in the Northwest all of my life, and would tend to agree with Reiflin’s assessment. After reading Harvey O’Connor’s memoirs Revolution In Seattle though, I realized that things were once very, very different around here.

Revolution In Seattle was originally published in 1964. It concerns the only General Strike ever held in the United States, which occurred in Seattle in 1919. It is kind of a strange that the reprint is out 45 years after the original, which was published 45 years after the Strike.

Could anyone imagine pulling off a general strike in 2009? The very idea seems absolutely ludicrous. But 90 years ago in Seattle, it happened. The strike itself lasted for five days, and was pretty uneventful. People mainly stayed home to wait it out, while high level meetings were held to get the city back to work.

Far more interesting are the events that led up to the strike. O’Connor was there, and was able to talk to many who were still alive from the era as well. What emerges is a picture of capitalism run amok in the backwater region of the United States. Loggers in particular were doing extremely dangerous work 10-12 hours per day, with meager rations, for very little pay.

The I.W.W. and AFL found great success in an area full of frustrated workers and indifferent, if not openly hostile, management. Tensions had been building since the 1890s. There were ongoing labor battles, resistance to the Draft and WWI, and the rise of Bolshevism among many other factors that led up to the strike.

O’Connor is sympathetic to the strike, which was nonviolent, and basically shut down all nonessential activities in the city. Power stayed on, and select food stores stayed open, but that was it for five days. The strike was called in support of the shipyard workers, who were being especially mistreated at the time.

The aftermath of the strike was a bloody one in the (truly) redneck town of Centralia. There members of the I.W.W. or Wobblies as they were called, were lynched. One man was even castrated before being hanged. The pro-management forces such as the newspapers and court systems were clearly against the union man. Some things never change.

According to O’Connor, much of what the left were trying to achieve for labor came about with Roosevelt’s New Deal. Rules were made that even the most antagonistic employers had to follow, like it or not. O’Connor briefly brings the history of radicalism up to date (1964), focusing mainly on the McCarthy hearings of the early 1950s.

Revolution In Seattle is a fascinating story. It was such a different world 90 years ago in so many ways. The naked brutality of those days is gone for good. It most certainly remains in covert ways, but at least you won‘t get your face bashed in. The power of labor remains a force, but a dormant one. The scandals of Hoffa and others have de-fanged this once fearless group.

It is incredible to read how things were back then. Going on strike could literally get you killed. And there would be no prosecution. Just organizing the workers could get you killed even. There are many stories like these in Revolution In Seattle.

After reading this book, the WTO riots of 2000 start to make a lot more sense. If they were to happen anywhere, they needed to happen where the General Strike once did. Revolution In Seattle is full of men and women so committed that some gave their lives in support of better working conditions.

What a contrast to today’s Paris Hilton, Lindsey Lohan-obsessed world. Our current national mood is infantile in comparison to the one described in this book. Revolution In Seattle is well worth putting the clicker down for, and actually reading.

Music Review: Paavo Jarvi - The Planets

One of the 20th century’s most enduring Classical works is Gustav Holst’s The Planets. It has been recorded by nearly every leading orchestra in the world, including the New York Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra, and the Vienna Philharmonic.

Excerpts from The Planets have appeared throughout popular culture. Sci-Fi films such as Star Trek IV, Return Of The Jedi, and The Man Who Fell To Earth have all incorporated selections of it.

Even Jimmy Page has paid tribute Holst‘s masterpiece. In the midst of his extended solo in “Dazed And Confused” from The Song Remains The Same, Page quotes “Mars, The Bringer Of War.”

With the myriad of recordings available, one might wonder, why another? Conductor Paavo Jarvi and The Cincinnati Orchestra bring an intimate knowledge of the material to the studio. Their vision, from November 2008 is as pristine a version of the work as has ever been presented.

The Planets as a whole is an incredible achievement. Written between 1914-16, the suite cannot help but to reflect it’s time. Holst’s homeland of England were swept up in the carnage of World War I at this point. He volunteered, and was reportedly torn apart because his service was declined due to his terrible eyesight.

Instead, Holst taught music and was introduced to astrology, which in turn lead to his composition of The Planets.

Beginning with “Mars, The Bringer Of War” through “Neptune, The Mystic,” The Planets is really of reflection of the various states of mankind. This view of man is seen through the astrological eyes of the ancient Greek gods, who correspond to the planets in our solar system.

The remaining five pieces in Holst’s suite are:

“Venus, The Bringer Of Peace”
“Mercury, The Winged Messenger”
“Jupiter, The Bringer Of Jollity”
“Saturn, The Bringer Of Old Age”
“Uranus, The Magician”

It is an amazing conceit, taking the gods of yore, and writing music to describe them. As there is no astrological sign for Earth, and Pluto had yet to be discovered, Holst’s composition remains a seven-song cycle. It is certainly one of the most influential of its type.

As something of a bonus, Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra is included in the disc as well. Britten wrote the piece in 1946 as a literal guide to the orchestra, sans narration. Jarvi and The Cincinnati Symphony recorded this in 2006, and it has been previously released.

I recommend this CD to everyone, but most especially to parents. Paavo Jarvi and The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra have put together a program that serves as a marvelous introduction to some of the best classical music of the 20th century.

The Planets and The Young Persons Guide To The Orchestra is a nice place to start in appreciating what formal music has to offer. More to the point, it is a great recording of some of the finest classical music of the past 100 years.

Book Review: The Beatles: Box Of Vision

Like the remastered Beatles mono box set, the companion Box Of Vision book box sold out immediately upon release. None of the sets even made it out of the US into the world market. The printers have been working overtime however, and The Beatles - Box Of Vision is finally available in the UK and Europe.

The set is a worthy companion piece to the CD boxes. Book one - The LP Sized Album Artwork Book is just that. 200 pages of both the US and UK artwork for every album, including back covers, gatefolds, inserts, and booklets.

This is the first time all the US and UK artwork has been collected in one book. The book itself is the size of an LP, so that each cover is reproduced exactly as they originally appeared.

Book two - The Catalography is an exhaustive discography of every US and UK Beatles release, with tons of photos.

Book three - Box Of Vision Storage Book holds all of the re-mastered CDs in one convenient, lavish book, which has separate spots for the discs themselves.

This three book set is the ultimate companion to the re-mastered CDs. You can check it out or get ordering information at

For fans looking to upgrade their Beatles collections, these books are something of a must. They provide the fan with an attractive venue to display their CDs and a comprehensive discography. They also give us back something we have sacrificed to the digital age, the dimensions of the original artwork, in all of it's splendor. Dating back to Meet The Beatles, the graphics of their LPs was a huge part of the appeal. Box Of Vision brings it all back home, and is the perfect addition to a Remasters upgrade.

Music Review: Keith Jarrett - Testament

The genius of Keith Jarrett is his ability to improvise fully-formed compositions for solo piano in a live setting. While this is practically unheard of, Jarrett has been doing it for decades. One of the highest selling albums in jazz history is his Köln Concert from 1975. On Köln, Jarrett is simply amazing, with one piece clocking in at 41 minutes, all of it improvised on the spot.

In the 34 years since Köln, Jarrett has tried a number of things. He recorded as a trio with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette in the 1980’s. And he has pursued his abiding interest in classical music over time as well. But something of a personal tragedy turned him back to the approach his audience loves so dearly.

When Keith’s wife of 30 years left him, he was devastated. The liner notes he wrote for Testament are some of the most personal I have ever read. In them he describes getting back onstage in this environment as: “A scramble to stay alive, as music has been my life.”

The two concerts that make up Testament were held in Paris and London. The first disc of this three CD set was recorded in Paris on November 26, 2008. It speaks volumes about his inner turmoil.

Opening the disc is “Part I” (everything is referred to numerically), and it is somewhat tentative as he seems to be casting about as to where this musical journey will go. By “II” though, his muse has returned. This is the Keith Jarrett of old. Confident, and playing as if this is a song he has known forever. From here the pace never slackens. There are some notably dissonant moments to add suspense, and some incredibly soothing selections as well.

My personal favorite of the eight tracks is “VII.” Jarrett seems to reference his old boss Miles Davis here. Actually it is the late Bill Evans, who played piano on Kind Of Blue that this track reminds me of the most. Evans’ solo on Blue’s final cut, “Flamenco Sketches” is one of the most indelible ever. Jarrett seems to use a taste of it as a jumping off point for an exquisite turn of his own.

Discs two and three hail from the London show, December 1, 2008. This was to be Keith Jarrett’s first appearance there in 18 years. The notes convey his state of mind better than anything else could, “ On the way into London, I had as close a brush with a nervous breakdown as I’ve had.”

The London set opens with echoes of Paris, with Jarrett seemingly searching through various motifs, to find what feels right. Fortunately, London proved to be one of his finest nights behind the keys ever.

This is an extremely varied set. In “III” I hear some Ray Charles nods, “IV” is as intimate as a piano can sound, and “V” goes down some dissonant dark alleys. The mood gets playfully sinister on “Part VII,” and “VIII” brings to mind John Coltrane’s “After The Rain.”

The final 17 minutes are impeccable. “XI” is as gorgeous as a solo piano can sound. And with “XII” Jarrett sums up the night, and his return to this type of music with an almost religiously glorious piece.

The master has clearly lost none of his fire. Playing through a deep hurt, and never flinching,Testament becomes a literal testament. It is a recording that not only extolls the joys of music, but it’s healing powers as well.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

DVD Review: Anvil: The Story Of Anvil

If you liked The Wrestler, you will love Anvil: The Story Of Anvil. Like Mickey Rourke’s fictitious Randy “The Ram” Robinson, Anvil exist in a state of pure denial. The band wholeheartedly believe that their big break is just around the corner, even after some 30 years of slogging it out.

The DVD opens with footage from the 1984 Super Rock Festival in Japan, a huge event that Anvil played along with metal titans such as The Scorpions, Whitesnake, and Bon Jovi. Cut to some interview segments with famous fans including Lemmy of Motorhead, Lars Ulrich of Metallica, and Slash of Guns And Roses. All are united in their belief that Anvil should have made it.

The next scene shows Steve “Lips” Kudlow at his day job, delivering food for a catering company, on a cold Canadian winter’s day. Apparently Lips is a pretty good worker, according to the testimonials from his fellow employees. But Lips’ heart and soul is in rock and roll.

Anvil’s first album was released in 1981, and the beauty of The Story Of Anvil is in how it shows the guys still believing in the dream all these years later. If you are looking for Spinal Tap type yuks, The Story Of Anvil does not really deliver. Rather you come to root for these 50-something rockers, who refuse to acknowledge the painfully obvious fact that the train left the station years ago.

We follow the band on a disastrous tour of Europe, booked by their inept groupie/manager (who wound up marrying the guitar player). They get a call from a big time record producer in London who wants to work with them, the catch is they need $20,000 to do it. After Lips spends some time in a hellish telemarketing center, his sister loans him the money.

The resulting album, This Is Thirteen was originally sold on the band’s website, after some humiliating turn-downs from record labels. It has just been reissued by the VH1 Classic label, and is a surprisingly good metal album.

The movie ends on an up note, with Anvil playing another metal festival in Japan, to an adoring crowd. The Story Of Anvil is a great documentary, whether you are a metal fan or not. The story of boyhood pals Lips, and drummer Robb Reiner refusing to stop pursuing their dream is downright inspirational. With the release of The Story Of Anvil, the band have received more attention than ever before. And that is a heart warming turn of events.

The bonus features on the DVD are fairly minimal. There are some deleted scenes featuring interviews with former band members, Lips’ brother, and more of Lips’ co-workers at Choice Children’s Catering. Producer Sacha Gervasi gets the gift of a lifetime when he is invited onstage in Japan to drum on “School Love.”

The interview with Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich is really worth seeing though. Over the course of this 30 minute segment, Ulrich goes from the bored rock star we all have grown tired of, to the 18 year old metalhead he once was. He really dug Anvil back in the day, and still does.

If jaded old rockers like Ulrich can still get excited about Anvil, there is hope yet. The Story Of Anvil is a damn fine DVD, and carries a nice message of believing in your dreams, no matter what the odds are.

DVD Review: On The Road With Charles Kuralt

Beginning in 1967, On The Road With Charles Kuralt ran for an unprecedented quarter century. The show elevated Charles Kuralt into a beloved national icon, and won a slew of awards. The premise of On The Road was deceptively simple. Kuralt and his crew traveled the United States in a motor home, looking for interesting, offbeat stories.

Over the course of 25 years, On The Road hit all 50 states, and managed to go through six motor homes. All told, the show produced over 500 segments. This three-disc set marks the first appearance of On The Road on DVD.

The set contains 18 episodes, featuring a total of 77 individual pieces. Like a Reader’s Digest condensed article, each segment is bite-sized, averaging approximately five minutes in length.

One of the unifying traits of the On The Road pieces was their celebration of a vanishing America. Since Kuralt’s passing in 1997, nobody has stepped up to fill his shoes. And so these vignettes become ever more poignant as time marches on, revealing themselves to be the work of a one of a kind television journalist.

When I was growing up, we watched this show regularly, and I fondly remember many of them. There is the great story of a small town library in Oregon that stays open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Another classic features a man who actively solicits for junk mail, to burn in his wood stove as a source of heat.

I recall marveling at learning that the Zildjian cymbal company manufactures 90% of the cymbals used in the world. The segment on the covered bridges in Vermont was also memorable, and led to an abiding interest in the subject for me. In fact, there really isn’t a dud in any of these 77 pieces.

As for bonus material, there is very little. Each disc contains a couple of paragraphs updating some of the stories, and disc one has a biography of Kuralt. All of this is text only.

But it hardly matters. On The Road With Charles Kuralt is kind of like comfort food for your DVD player. While the nutritional value may be questionable, the satisfaction level is off the chart.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Music Review: Keith Jarrett - Testament

The genius of Keith Jarrett is his ability to improvise fully-formed compositions for solo piano in a live setting. While this is practically unheard of, Jarrett has been doing it for decades. One of the highest selling albums in jazz history is his Köln Concert from 1975. On Köln, Jarrett is simply amazing, with one piece clocking in at 41 minutes, all of it improvised on the spot.

In the 34 years since Köln, Jarrett has tried a number of things. He recorded as a trio with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette in the 1980’s. And he has pursued his abiding interest in classical music over time as well. But something of a personal tragedy turned him back to the approach his audience loves so dearly.

When Keith’s wife of 30 years left him, he was devastated. The liner notes he wrote for Testament are some of the most personal I have ever read. In them he describes getting back onstage in this environment as: “A scramble to stay alive, as music has been my life.”

The two concerts that make up Testament were held in Paris and London. The first disc of this three CD set was recorded in Paris on November 26, 2008. It speaks volumes about his inner turmoil.

Opening the disc is “Part I” (everything is referred to numerically), and it is somewhat tentative as he seems to be casting about as to where this musical journey will go. By “II” though, his muse has returned. This is the Keith Jarrett of old. Confident, and playing as if this is a song he has known forever. From here the pace never slackens. There are some notably dissonant moments to add suspense, and some incredibly soothing selections as well.

My personal favorite of the eight tracks is “VII.” Jarrett seems to reference his old boss Miles Davis here. Actually it is the late Bill Evans, who played piano on Kind Of Blue that this track reminds me of the most. Evans’ solo on Blue’s final cut, “Flamenco Sketches” is one of the most indelible ever. Jarrett seems to use a taste of it as a jumping off point for an exquisite turn of his own.

Discs two and three hail from the London show, December 1, 2008. This was to be Keith Jarrett’s first appearance there in 18 years. The notes convey his state of mind better than anything else could, “ On the way into London, I had as close a brush with a nervous breakdown as I’ve had.”

The London set opens with echoes of Paris, with Jarrett seemingly searching through various motifs, to find what feels right. Fortunately, London proved to be one of his finest nights behind the keys ever.

This is an extremely varied set. In “III” I hear some Ray Charles nods, “IV” is as intimate as a piano can sound, and “V” goes down some dissonant dark alleys. The mood gets playfully sinister on “Part VII,” and “VIII” brings to mind John Coltrane’s “After The Rain.”

The final 17 minutes are impeccable. “XI” is as gorgeous as a solo piano can sound. And with “XII” Jarrett sums up the night, and his return to this type of music with an almost religiously glorious piece.

The master has clearly lost none of his fire. Playing through a deep hurt, and never flinching,Testament becomes a literal testament. It is a recording that not only extolls the joys of music, but it’s healing powers as well

Monday, October 12, 2009

Music Review: The Flaming Lips - Embryonic

Listening to a new Flaming Lips record is like waking up from a fever dream. The imagery is always vivid, and the soundtrack veers wildly between the lush and the outrageously chaotic. In the end, everything somehow manages to make sense, and follows an internal logic all it’s own.

Embryonic is no exception. Somehow, over the course of a 26 (!) year career, The Flaming Lips continue to top themselves. The Soft Bulletin (1999) was their first undeniable masterpiece. Ten years later, the band has released what I consider to be a serious contender for their best yet.

“Confused By The Hex” opens up Embryonic with some of the most thunderous sounds ever on a Flaming Lips record. The dual drum attack of Steven Drozd and Kliph Scurlock are the first things you hear.

The disturbing lyrics foreshadow what is to come. According to Wayne Coyne, the song was inspired by the 1974 film The Night Porter: “The themes of submission and obsession and cruelty and pleasure really put the zap on my sleep-deprived head,” he states.

Coyne describes the making of Embryonic as the “merging of low-fi distortion jams with hi-fi computer overdubs.” The five astrologically titled tracks sprinkled through the disc bear witness to this. The first, “Aquarius Sabotage” disrupts the established mood with the sound of breaking glass and utter chaos.

“Powerless” is Wayne Coyne’s guitar extravaganza. Despite his claims that he “is not a very good musician,” Coyne’s solo here is riveting. Sometimes it is not the technique, but the feeling that matters most. Like Neil Young, Coyne has feeling down in spades. Check out his guitar on “Worm Mountain” as well.

“I Can Be A Frog” features Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and is a childlike sketch. It creates one of those moods of wonder that the Lips are masters at inducing.

Of the 18 songs comprising Embryonic, “The Impulse” is my favorite. While I fully expect others to call this track indulgent filler, I love it. With a melody as sweet as anything in the band’s catalog, and treated vocals extolling the virtues of a positive outlook in all situations, this is an amazing piece of music.

The final triad of tunes form a suite of sorts. “Silver Trembling Hands” steadily builds a nervous feeling, until the joyous release of the chorus. The all-too knowing repeated phrase of “When she’s high” make the subject matter explicit.

The song segues into something called “Virgo Self-Esteem Broadcast,” which seems like a darker continuation of what had come before. In fact, it sounds otherworldly, as if the heroine of “Silver Trembling Hands” has gone beyond. In this context, the repeated disembodied chant of “This is the beginning,” becomes absolutely spooky.

The organic, tribal feel of Embryonic is never more pronounced than on the final track, “Watching The Planets.” Karen O returns to chant the lyrics “Killing the ego tonight,” with both Wayne and Steven Drozd.


What does it mean

To dream what you dream

To believe what you’ve seen?

(From “The Sparrow Looks Up At The Machine”)

Emerging from the fugue Embryonic puts me in, I am reminded of a favorite Frank Zappa quote: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

Capturing transcendence in music is an even more elusive challenge. With album number twelve, The Flaming Lips have somehow managed do it. They have trapped lightning in a bottle.

Embryonic is a brilliant record.

Book Review: Prestige Records - The Album Cover Collection

As part of the celebration of Prestige Records’ 60th Anniversary, Concord Editions has published Prestige Records - The Album Cover Collection. This coffee-table sized book features reproductions of 120 classic LP covers from the legendary jazz label’s rich history. And just to set the proper mood, there is also a nine track various artists CD included with the package.

The early EPs and 10-inch LP covers were pretty primitive, typically consisting of a picture of the headliner and a lot of type, listing the other players on the set. Label owner Bob Weinstock did the early design and photography, then slowly began farming these duties out to others.
Prestige hired some major names early on, including Andy Warhol (1953), and legendary MAD magazine artist Don Martin (1953). Reid Miles, who went on to become art director of Blue Note Records began his career with Prestige as well.

Oddly enough, considering the myriad of duties label head Weinstock had on his plate, he photographed some of the most iconic images associated with Prestige. His picture of the Hackensack River for Miles Davis' Miles LP is exquisite in it’s stark simplicity, as is the shot of Sonny Rollins adorning Tenor Madness.My personal favorite Prestige album cover has to be for Eric Dolphy’s 1960 LP, Out There. It was done by Richard “Prophet” Jennings, and is a great Twilight Zone type painting. Another nice later cover is for Jaki Byard’s On The Spot (1965), designed by Don Schlitten. It is possibly the first psychedelic jazz cover ever.

The last covers in the book came from records issued in 1969, by Houston Person and James Moody. The Person shot in particular reflects it’s time. It is a picture of him blowing the sax dressed not in the traditional suit and tie, but in some vaguely African attire.

The nine track CD included with the book contains some great jazz. Many of Prestige’s finest artists are represented on it, including Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Mose Allison, and Eric Dolphy. A treat for me on the disc is the inclusion of Moondog's “Organ Rounds,” one of the label’s lesser known artists, and one of their finest.

Prestige Records was sold to Fantasy in 1971, which effectively ended it’s operation as an independent. But their legacy lives on, and The Album Cover Collection is a nice way to celebrate their 60th anniversary.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Music Review: Scott Lafaro - Pieces Of Jade

Bassist Scott Lafaro was already a legend at the tender age of 25, when he lost his life in an auto accident. His proficiency with the instrument had already led to high profile gigs with the likes of Chet Baker, Ornette Coleman, and Bill Evans. As the years progressed, Lafaro’s style has been singled out by many key innovators, including Stanley Clarke and Jaco Pastorious.

Resonance Records have recently unearthed some previously unreleased Scott Lafaro material from 1960-61. The eight tracks which comprise Pieces Of Jade are definitely a mixed bag.

The first five of these cuts were recorded in 1961 in a trio format that featured Lafaro (bass), Don Friedman (piano) and Pete LaRoca (drums). The group opens the disc with the standard “I Hear A Rhapsody.” As is the case throughout these tracks, the piano takes the lead, and Scott takes a nice solo at the midpoint of the song.

There are two versions of Don Friedman’s “Sacre Bleu” included. Both run a little over six minutes. The first version is played at a bit of a quicker tempo, and features a superior solo from Lafaro. Version two is a little more relaxed, but the drum and piano solos a bit sharper than on one. Nice to have both to choose from.

“Green Dolphin St.” is sandwiched between the two versions of “Sacre Bleu” as sort of aural palate-cleanser . The trio’s version of this evergreen is a moment for Friedman to really shine. Lafaro takes about a one minute bass solo, and LaRoca pretty much hangs back just keeping a steady beat.

The fifth of these sessions is Dizzy Gillespie’s “Woody’n You.” It is Lafaro’s turn to just play sideman here, while LaRoca gets to shine. He really lets it rip during his drum solo. All five of these cuts are excellent, and represent possibly the final unreleased material from 1961, the last year of Scott Lafaro’s life.

In 1960, Lafaro played on Ornette Coleman’s landmark Free Jazz album. But it was the posthumous release of Sunday At The Village Vanguard, recorded just ten days prior to his death, that Scott is best known for.

The trio of Bill Evans (piano), Paul Motian (drums) and Lafaro managed to attain an extraordinary amount of empathy in their music that night. Sunday At The Village Vanguard, along with Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue is for many people not only the summit of Evans’ career, but also one of the greatest recordings in jazz history.

So it was with no little anticipation that I looked forward to hearing the 22 minute rehearsal tape from 1960 on Pieces Of Jade. It features Lafaro and Evans going over “My Foolish Heart,” which was performed at the Vanguard.

While it is of undeniable historical value, the tape was obviously never stored properly and is pretty garbled. With Lafaro’s bass occupying the low end of the spectrum, his sound is tolerable. But it is painful to listen to the piano of Bill Evans. It sounds totally off-key due to the tape deterioration.

Following this is a 13 minute interview with Evans from 1966, in which he discusses Lafaro, and the music they made together in depth.

Pieces Of Jade ends with a piece titled “Memories For Scotty.” This is a solo piano composition by Don Friedman, which was recorded in 1985. It is a nice elegy to a man who was taken much too early.

Taken as a whole, Pieces Of Jade is a fine tribute to the brief life of a musician who affected a great many lives. Scott Lafaro’s legacy deserves nothing less.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Book Review: The Magical Chorus - A History Of Russian Culture From Tolstoy To Solzhenitsyn by Solomon Volkov

For those of us who grew up in the West, it is nearly impossible to fathom how difficult life was in 20th century Russia. We know of the events: WWI; The October Revolution; Stalin’s Purges; WWII; The Iron Curtain, and so on. But can any of us really understand what it was like to live under such conditions?

With The Magical Chorus - A History Of Russian Culture From Tolstoy To Solzhenitsyn, author Solomon Volkov has found a unique way of illuminating these years.

Volkov opens his tale with the passing of Leo Tolstoy. The legendary author’s 1910 funeral turned in to what Volkov describes as “a media circus.” The death of the literary lion left a spiritual void in the cultural leadership of the nation. Many would attempt to fill the vacuum over the next eighty years or so, but it would take the return of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn from exile in the US to complete the cycle.

Volkov vividly illuminates the schizophrenic nature of the relationship between the Soviet government and the artistic community. It was generally a marriage of convenience, which often turned tragic when the honeymoon ended.

Take Stalin’s brief affiliation with the avant-garde. These writers and artists were quite useful when Uncle Joe needed support from the left to shore up his power. A few years later, most of them had either been executed or were toiling in Siberian labor camps.

For a number of reasons though, Stalin developed a deep bond with writer Maxim Gorky, one which was maintained through the end of Gorky’s life. Another unusual relationship Stalin nurtured was with filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, with whom he pressed into service making propaganda films.

After Stalin’s death in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev became First Secretary of the Soviet Union. He stepped into a position of de facto dictatorship, which had been held for the previous 30 years by the ruthlessly efficient Joseph Stalin. His insecurities led the world to the brink of nuclear Armageddon, yet his biggest battle seemed to be in stopping the importation of banned literature, music, film, and art from exiled artists.

His successors, Leonid Brezhnev and Mikhail Gorbachev would continue this ultimately futile effort. Volkov makes an effective argument that the culture is what finally doomed the Soviet Union. As the populace slowly but surely absorbed the images of life in the West, their own circumstances became less and less tolerable, until that fateful day in 1991 when it all came crashing down.

Through the course of The Magical Chorus, Volkov introduces us to countless figures, some well-known, others less so to American and European audiences, but all of whom had a significant impact in the USSR.

The biggest of these was exiled author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. His Gulag Archipelago, a first-hand account of the labor camps, is possibly the most momentous Russian book of the past 100 years. It was originally published in 1974 in the United States, and there is no telling how many illegal copies were smuggled into Russia over the years.

In 1989, at the height of perestroika, the book was finally published in the Soviet Union. It was a sensation, selling nearly three million copies that year, with hundreds of thousands more to follow.

Solzhenitsyn was poised to carry the voice of what Tolstoy called “the peasant class” into the 21st century. But in many ways, with the collapse of Communism, the role of the intelligenstia had become a moot point. Mother Russia had joined the global village. With the advent of satellite TV and the internet, the populace were poised to become as narcissistic as the rest of us.

For such a potentially dense subject, The Magical Chorus flows along surprisingly well. It also opens up the world of 20th century Russian culture in a very accessible manner, while presenting a provocative theory for the real reasons Communism eventually failed.

Music Review: Thomas Zehetmair Niccolo Paganini - 24 Capricci

Niccolo Paganini (1782-1840) was called “The Devil’s Son,” and “The Witches’ Brat,” with regards to his “supernatural” abilities as a violinist. The “Satanic” accusation is one that never seems to lose it’s luster in explaining the extraordinary talents of some musicians. In the Twentieth Century, both Robert Johnson and Jimmy Page were said to have sold their souls as well.

Paganini set the template for what we would recognize today as the decadent rockstar lifestyle. In his time, he was as famous for his womanizing and gambling skills as he was for his playing. Complications from syphilis and a host of other health problems acquired along the way took him prematurely. But he left behind an astounding body of work.

I mention the travails of Paganini’s life not to sensationalize it, but to provide context. The man who many claim was the greatest violinist who ever lived continues to exert a powerful impact on classical music. His contributions to the form were truly revolutionary. Witness the variations on his “A Minor (No. 24),” by such masters as Lizst, Brahms, and Rachmaninoff, to name but three.

That caprice (piece of music) is taken from his most famous work, 24 Capricci For Solo Violin, published in 1820. Mastering the Caprices has long served as the equivalent of a PHD for violinists. They are among the most challenging pieces ever written.

Although the majority of the Capricci fall into the moderate tempo (moderato), Paganini seemingly filled every bar with as many notes as possible. Frank Zappa composed some similar pieces for guitar, and titled them with variations on “The Black Page.” This was because the sheet music contained so much ink as to render it’s appearance nearly pure black.

Possibly the trickiest of the 24 is “B-Flat Major (No. 13).” Nicknamed “The Devil’s Laughter,” this is a stunningly complicated work, and a great example of why people were in such awe of Paganini’s talent.

“A Minor (No. 5)” is notable not only for it’s complexity, but for the influence it has exerted on heavy metal guitarists. Yngwie Malmsteen based his entire career on this sound, while Steve Vai used “No. 5” as the text for his guitar solo (as Satan) in the film Crossroads.

With the recent 24 Capricci, world-renowned violinist Thomas Zehetmair interprets them for a present day audience. While Zehetmair does not stray from the original compositions, his background in New Music does add nuance to his readings.

Zehetmair first recorded the Capricci some 15 years ago, on a now deleted Teldec disc. Revisiting them today, his playing has taken on more personal inflections than on the previous set. This undoubtedly reflects his familiarity with the material, as well as his own continued growth as a musician.

As Zehetmair himself mentions in the liner text: “You can only capture ten percent of any piece on paper in musical notation. There are in fact thousands of different ways of playing any single written note.”

Listening to all 24 Capricci in one sitting is an almost overwhelming experience. It is not very surprising at all that this music frightened some of Paganini’s contemporary audiences. They remain shockingly complex. While the Capricci have been recorded by countless artists over the years, I highly recommend this ECM New Music set both to the neophyte, and the experienced listener.

Thomas Zehetmair is an extraordinary talent, and listening to his 24 Capricci is a powerfully rewarding experience. Let’s just hope nobody starts any rumors about his own “deal with the devil.”

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Music Review: Beastie Boys - Hello Nasty Remastered

How ironic is it that these smart-ass punks are still around, 25 years since their first appearance? The Beastie Boys have been a conceptual band since their very first 12-inch single, “Cookie Puss,” in 1984. The genius of the group has always been their ability to combine so many disparate elements into the whole.

Licensed To Ill featured their patented snot-nosed, white-boy attitude coupled with killer hip-hop beats, while adding the classic album rock of Led Zeppelin and AC/DC into the mix. The follow-up, Paul’s Boutique went even further. By putting their psychedelic vision of side two of Abbey Road in place of Rick Rubin’s classic rock samples, they came up with their acknowledged masterpiece.

The Beastie’s then went back to their punk rock roots with the well received Ill Communication and Check Your Head. Fine records to be sure. For me though, 1998’s Hello Nasty is the one.

Like the earlier Paul’s Boutique, Hello Nasty is ambitious. There are tributes to the golden age of Tommy Boy Records, Grandmaster Flash, De La Soul, and Martin Denny, just to name a few.

The early-Eighties “electro-funk” sound of Africa Bambaata and The Jonzun Crew was the sound of hip hop when the Beasties started out. “Intergalactic” pays specific tribute to this sound, and is fantastic.

The scratching styles of Djs such as Grandmaster Flash, and Whiz Kid have always been a part of Mixmaster D’s sound. They make this explicit with “Three Mcs And One DJ.” His abilities are pretty impressive throughout, especially on “Super Disco Breakin,” and “Body Movin.”

While “Picture This” may sound like a nod to the then emerging lounge trend, there is a history. Beginning with elements of Paul’s Boutique way back in 1989, the Beasties have been using this type of music in varying degrees.

The recent release of Hello Nasty Remastered gives it the deluxe treatment. The set features 43 remastered songs on two discs. The five-panel foldout package it comes in is pretty nice too. The original album comprises disc one, while disc two features 21 tracks of outtakes, remixes, odd vocal snippets, and general weirdness. It is for the completist to be sure, but for the most part, the extras are worth hearing.

The remixed versions of the original Hello Nasty tracks are probably the most significant aspects. Fatboy Slim’s remix of “Body Movin” is vintage 1998, while Kut Master Kurt’s version punches up the drums in no uncertain terms.

“Intergalactic” is such a great song it would be nearly impossible to mess up. The Colleone & Webb remix is pretty standard, bringing up the drums and vocals, to fine effect.

The “dub” version of “Dr. Lee, PHD” is pretty funny. How do you dub out the most dubbed out cat ever, Lee “Scratch” Perry? With a lot of ganja apparently, because the second disc’s dub version does manage to do it. This one will appeal to fans of The Clash’s Black Market Clash, like myself.

Of the rest, there are more remixes, basic instrumental tracks, and studio banter to choose from. One of the joys of going “deluxe” is seeing if this type of ephemera really makes it for you.

In the pre-Millennial world of 1998, Hello Nasty spoke to the optimism many felt about what the new century would bring:

“Getting’ on down to the year 2000, a slight distraction can get you paid…”

Besides being a great Beastie Boys record, Hello Nasty now exists as a reminder of what many of us felt was possible way back in 1998. Some may be feeling that way again. Who knows, the Beasties may have been further ahead of their time than we knew.

What makes Hello Nasty so special for me is the way they were able to look back with respect, while looking forward to the future. It is a trait that should never go out of style.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Music Review: Harmonia '76 - Tracks And Traces Re-Released

"Krautrock" was a term coined by British journalists to describe German progressive rock, and was always meant in the most pejorative manner. Thanks in large part to Julian Cope’s (sadly out of print) book Krautrocksamper, the phrase is now a badge of honor.

Harmonia were something of a Krautrock super-group. Michael Rother of Neu! joined with Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius of Cluster in 1973 to create the band.

Brian Eno was a big fan from the beginning, even appearing onstage with them in 1974. In 1976, he joined Harmonia in the studio, where they recorded the 12 songs that make up Tracks And Traces Re-Released.

For 20 years, these recordings had lain dormant, thought to be lost to the ages. When the tapes were discovered in the mid ‘90’s, they represented something akin to a Krautrock Holy Grail.

In 1997, Rykodisc released nine of the tracks as Tracks And Traces. Today, the Gronland label has come out with the definitive version. The three previously unreleased cuts only add up to about ten minute’s worth of music, but their inclusion alters the entire context.

The previous version opened with the somewhat unsettling “Vemos Companeros.” It was almost a step straight into the abyss. The Re-Release begins with "Welcome," a beautiful proto-New Age piece which gently invites the listener in.

“Atmosphere” follows, and is aptly titled. It could have easily slotted in on Jean Michel Jarre’s Oxygene. The addition of this new material is seductive, and serves to clear the way for the more avant-garde material to follow. The effect is like an audio version of A Clockwork Orange.

The centerpiece (literally) is the 16 minute “Sometimes In Autumn.” This tour de force is a little slice of heaven to retro-futurists like myself. The synths may sound dated today, which is part of the charm, but the drones and repetitive motifs remain mesmerizing.

Nearly every song contains noteworthy elements, except for the lone vocal track, “Luneburg Heath.” Brian Eno’s flat intonation of the repeated line “Don’t get lost on Luneburg Heath," is out of place here. It is a minor complaint however, as the riches found on Tracks far outweigh this one misstep .

Tracks closes with “Aubade,” the final of the three unreleased cuts. The record originally ended with “Traces,” 1:33 of enormous potential, which left one wanting more. By finishing with the very open and bright "Aubade," the disc ends in a positive, and satisfying way.

The additional three tracks included on Tracks And Traces Re-Released give it a remarkable feeling. Sort of like being immersed in a fascinating, if at times disturbing vision.

Like the best dreams, it is a place you instinctively want to return to.

Music Review: Sonny Rollins With Thelonius Monk And Kenny Dorham - Moving Out

In late 1954 Sonny Rollins recorded the two sessions which resulted in Moving Out. He then went on the first of his famous “sabbaticals,” laying low in Chicago for most of 1955. He emerged with his first acknowledged masterpiece, Saxophone Colossus shortly afterward.

In hindsight, the five tunes that make up Moving Out clearly show the saxophonist as being well on his way to the mastery of Colossus. The quintet that gathered August 19, 1954 would be considered a jazz “supergroup" today.

In addition to Rollins’ sax, there was Kenny Dorham (trumpet), Elmo Hope (piano), Percy Heath (bass) and Art Blakey (drums).

The record opens up with the title cut, “Moving Out.” This is a high-energy number with some great solos by everyone, particularly Elmo Hope. Art Blakey then announces his presence in no uncertain terms to begin “Swingin’ For Bumsey.”

Another up-tempo piece, “Bumsey” introduces one of the most satisfying elements of Moving Out. The way Rollins’ sax and Dorham’s trumpet trade off solos is something to hear.

This methodology becomes even more pronounced on the blues “Solid.” The two horns play in tandem to open up the tune, then wail on their respective solos.

“Silk ‘N’ Satin” is the first track to really explore the full-bodied sound Sonny Rollins later became so famous for. This ballad is almost wholly Rollins, with the rest of the group laying back for the most part, although Hope’s piano does provide a short interlude at one point.

Two months later, on October 25,1954, Rollins went back into Rudy Van Gelder’s studio. He was accompanied on this date by Thelonius Monk (piano), Tommy Potter (bass), and Arthur Taylor (drums).

The majority of these sessions were released on the excellent Thelonius Monk/Sonny Rollins LP. However, one track was selected from them to fill out side two of Moving Out. The ten minute “More Than You Know” is an exquisite piece of music.

After a brief bass intro from Tommy Potter, Sonny’s sax enters. His melancholic lead is riveting for the first 4:30, when it is replaced with the even more introspective piano of Thelonius Monk. The final two minutes of the tune are again taken by Rollins, who winds the song, and the album down in a simply marvelous way.

Moving Out is a great snapshot of where Sonny Rollins was at just prior to his “time out.” It also contains some fine jazz music, state of the art, as a matter of fact, circa 1954.