Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Music Review: Phantom Band - Phantom Band and Freedom Of Speech

For fans of pioneering Krautrockers Can, the band’s later years can be a touchy subject. The final three LPs—Saw Delight (1977), Out Of Reach (1978), and Can (1979)—found the group embracing a much more radio-friendly sound than ever before. They even had something of a hit single with the disco track “I Want More.” Die-hard adherents to their early, arch avant-garde material abandoned them during this time, and it was all over by 1980.

One of the more obscure groups to rise from the ashes of Can were Phantom Band. Phantom Band were led by one of Can’s founding members, drummer Jaki Liebezeit. They recorded three albums in the early 1980s: Phantom Band (1980), Freedom Of Speech (1981), and Nowhere (1984). Bureau B has just issued the first two Phantom Band records on CD, and both are fascinating documents of the era.

In addition to Liebezeit, the initial incarnation of Phantom Band included vocalist/bassist Rosko Gee (who had also played with Can), keyboardist Helmut Zerlett, guitarist Dominik von Senger, and percussionist Olek Gelba. All were leading lights of the underground music scene of Cologne at the time, so it is surprising to hear the direction they took with the debut.

Phantom Band opens with “You Inspired Me,” which sounds like nothing so much as a contemporary R&B single. If a radio station had slotted the song in between some George Benson and Grover Washington Jr. at the time, nobody would have noticed it. Phantom Band is all about the rhythm, in fact. “Phantom Drums” is a short 1:21 showcase for Liebezeit, and acts as something of a prelude to his “Absolutely Straight.” I was more than a little surprised to recognize the bass line of “Absolutely Straight,” as a near-exact replica of the one from “Bad Luck,” by Harold Melvin And The Bluenotes.

A bit of Fatherland camaraderie is achieved on “Without Desire,” a song that manages to pay tribute to Kraftwerk in its opening bars. Another founding member of Can, Holger Czukay, makes a nice cameo appearance on “For M.” playing what is described as “occasional horn.”

Freedom Of Speech was released just a year after Phantom Band, yet it sounds almost like it's by a completely different group. Rosko Gee had departed by this time, leaving the quartet with no bass or vocals. They soldiered on without a bass, using keyboards at times in its place. For vocals, they used spoken-word performer Sheldon Ancel, with some unique results. “Freedom Of Speech” kicks things off in a typically bizarre way. The drumhead military beat is enlivened with some nearly indecipherable proclamations from Ancel, while wild sound effects fill in the empty spaces.

Repetition is a key quality of Freedom Of Speech, and is the driving force behind “Gravity” and “Brain Police.” The loss of Rosko Gee is most keenly felt on “E.F. 1” and “Experiments,” both of which nod toward reggae, and would have benefited greatly from an actual singer.

“Brain Police” has a fairly obvious antecedent in Frank Zappa’s “Who Are The Brain Police,” and even shares a musical mood of paranoia. One of the more interesting parallels occurs in “Experiments,” which at times sounds almost like a carbon of “Ghost Town,” from The Specials. Since both were released around the same time, I think it is just coincidence, but the similarities are somewhat striking. While Freedom Of Speech is certainly Phantom Band’s own work, I also hear elements of Funkadelic, Talking Heads and the great Afro-beat pioneer Fela Kuti at times. Which proves they had great record collections, if nothing else.

Phantom Band and Freedom Of Speech are both key pieces of the post-Can continuum. For obsessive fans such as myself, their release on CD is a cause for celebration. As always, Bureau B have done a great job, with plenty of information and pictures in the packaging. These are a couple of records that definitely merit a listen.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Music Review: Fahir Atakoglu - Faces & Places

Who knew that such fine jazz musicians as Fahir Atakoglu were living in Turkey? The pianist has been actively recording since 1994, when he first gained fame for his best-selling soundtrack to a popular documentary on Turkish history. While Fahir has never really broken through in the United State, he has recorded 18 albums, with combined sales of over two million.

Faces & Places is Fahir’s bid to become a familiar face Stateside, and he has enlisted some heavy hitters to help make it happen. Some of the artists who appear on Faces & Places are: Randy Brecker (trumpet), Wayne Krantz (guitar), Bob Mintzer (sax), and John Patitucci (bass).

The album opens with a fine bit of funk-fusion, “Into You.” The cut finds Yellowjackets’ saxist Bob Mintzer in full flight, and Fahir lets rip with a solid post-Bop solo turn. “High Street” follows, which turns into a nice showcase for bassist John Patitucci, as well as the Spanish-flavored guitar of Romero Lubambo.

For me, “Mediterranean” is where the record really takes off. On this track Fahir incorporates many of the disparate musical elements he has come to know over the years. I hesitate to call this world-music or anything so trite, but there are a number of distinct styles thrown into the mix. The song begins with something of an Arabian Nights motif, only to be swept along with some swinging piano and saxophone. It all culminates in a beautiful flamenco guitar solo from Rene Toledo.

“NY-Retrospective” stands-out like the proverbial sore thumb. It is Randy Brecker’s first appearance on the album, and sounds like nothing so much as late period Miles Davis. It could have slotted in nicely on the You’re Under Arrest record, actually. I mean this as complimentary as possible, but it really does sound as if Brecker is channeling the master here.

The latter part of Faces & Places is dominated by guitar. Toledo’s flamenco on “…And Places” is extraordinary. And “Seven,“ which is the most fusiony song of the set, is given over to the blazing electricity of Wayne Krantz.

The record winds up with a tasty ballad titled “Your Face.” Mintzer’s lazy sax comes in over an understated Fahir melody, and brings to mind “After The Rain,” from John Coltrane. It is a winning choice to close out the collection.

Faces & Places is a good sampler of Fahir's unique amalgam of various jazz styles. I hope he finds an audience outside of his homeland, as he certainly deserves to.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Music Review: Cindy Blackman - Another Lifetime

Although the name Cindy Blackman may not be immediately familiar to most people, her drumming has been heard by millions. She has been playing behind Lenny Kravitz continuously since 1993, save for a period in 2004.

Cindy’s talents as a drummer stretch far beyond mere rock ‘n’ roll drumming though. Her first love is jazz, and she was exposed to it very early. "The first drummer I ever saw, where I got to feel the impact up close, was Tony Williams," Blackman has said. "When I was 16, Tony came to my local drum store with bassist and did a [drum] clinic that left a powerful impression on me.”

Her love of Williams’ extraordinary style is evident on her latest album, Another Lifetime. The record is a tribute to Blackman’s onetime mentor, and includes a number of his compositions along with tunes that are closely associated with him.

The opening track, “Vashkar,” is a nice example. Although it was written by Carla Bley, Williams made it his own on the first Lifetime LP, Emergency! The original recording featured John McLaughlin on guitar, while Blackman’s utilizes the great Mike Stern. Otherwise, the two tunes are similar, although Blackman does expand upon the original a bit. Organist Doug Carne, and bassist Benny Reitvald round out the main quartet here, and are featured on another six of the album's eleven tracks.

The searing intensity that Lifetime were so noted for is really first broached by Blackman's band on the second cut, “Where.” This nine-minute powerhouse finds the four of them on fire, especially organist Carne, who is filling the role Larry Young did on Emergency!

Next up is another classic Emergency! track, “Beyond Games.” If Cindy Blackman has not established the fact that the first Lifetime album was one she particularly liked, how about a reprise of “Vashkar” then? Actually, there are three versions of the song here, including an interesting experiment called “Vashkar - The Alternate Dimension Theory.”

Another Lifetime contains three of Cindy Blackman’s own compositions, “40 Years Of Innovation,” “The Game Theory,” and “And Heaven Welcomed A King.” Most of this material was recorded in a live-in-the-studio setting, and reflect a group of powerful improvisers.

The final track on Another Lifetime is Williams’ “Wildlife.” Blackman enlisted the help of Living Colour’s Vernon Reid on guitar for this cut, and it closes the set out nicely. The inclusion was poetic, as Reid had toured Japan in 2007as part of a Tony Williams Lifetime tribute, with Cindy Blackman in the drum chair.

Another Lifetime is a great fusion album, and obviously a very personal project for Cindy Blackman. It is also a fine tribute to an incredibly gifted drummer — a man who left us far too early.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

DVD Review: The African Queen

It is hard to believe that The African Queen (1951) has never been available on DVD before now. For fans of this classic, the wait has been worth it. Paramount Pictures has done an outstanding job in restoring the film — the Technicolor is so vivid it practically jumps off the screen. Print quality aside though, The African Queen is a beloved film for two reasons: Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn.

Bogart stars as Canadian Captain Charlie Allnut, who ferries mail and supplies up and down the Congo River on his rattletrap boat, the African Queen. Hepburn is Rose Sayer, a British missionary in German East Africa. With the onset of World War I, things have become very dangerous. The village Rose and her brother work in is attacked, and the brother dies shortly afterward. The miners Captain Allnut has been working with are driven out as well, leaving the two of them very much alone, deep in the jungle.

Charlie convinces Rose to come with him, as he knows the German soldiers will be back. They proceed downriver, without much of a plan, until he reveals that the well-armed German gunboat the Louisa is patrolling the huge lake the river feeds into. The Louisa is effectively blocking any British counter-attacks, which leads Rose to suggest they strike it with the African Queen. It is a suicidal mission, as Captain Allnut well knows, but she talks him into it.

The budding romance between the two is a huge element of the film, and the on-screen chemistry between Bogart and Hepburn is superb. Just as important though is the adventure aspect of the story. Their trip down the river is fraught with peril, with life-threatening situations around every bend. They dodge a series of rapids, a German fortress from which they are fired upon, and are seemingly at journey’s end when they get stuck in a swamp of reeds and muck.

Nothing is more dangerous than their plan to sink the Louisa though. Using Charlie’s leftover supplies, they fashion two torpedoes out of oxygen tanks and explosives. The idea is to aim the African Queen at the ship, build up a head of steam, then jump off at the last minute as the two collide.

The production of The African Queen is justly recognized as one of the most pioneering in film history. In 1951, filming on location in Africa was unheard of, except for quickie documentaries. Legendary director John Huston changed all that, and the results are evident in nearly every frame. The scenery is absolutely gorgeous, and the shots of crocodiles, hippos, and baboons cavorting in and around the river are priceless.

The one hour bonus feature, Embracing Chaos: Making The African Queen, explains the many challenges the production faced. One of the most dangerous was the river itself, which is described as “poison,” due to the high amounts of animal feces and the like present in the water. One of the anecdotes Hepburn relates in a vintage Dick Cavett interview concerns this situation. She explains that she drank only water during the production, which almost killed her. On the other hand, Bogart and Huston, who drank nothing but whiskey, never got sick.

In addition to Hepburn’s recollections, there are also classic excerpts from Huston and Bogart included. The documentary also features new interviews with luminaries such as director Martin Scorsese, producers Mark Rydell and Nicholas Mayer, actor Theodore Bikel, and critic Richard Schickel, among many others.

Both Bogart and Hepburn were nominated for their performances in The African Queen at the 1952 Academy Awards. Humphrey Bogart wound up winning, and claimed his one and only Oscar that year. Another nod to the enduring status of the film was Clint Eastwood’s White Hunter, Black Heart (1990). The picture was a thinly veiled portrait of Huston’s behavior during the shoot.

Due to the toxicity of the river on location, all of the shots of the actors in the water were filmed on a soundstage in England, in front of a blue screen. Because of the technology at the time, there was a certain amount of “bleed” between these shots and the scenery that was overlapped on them in post-production. As Embracing Chaos shows, this flaw was finally eliminated with the meticulous remastering process utilized for the DVD.

The African Queen has literally never looked better. From top to bottom, the release of the film on DVD is a first-rate job, and is recommended unequivocally.

Monday, March 22, 2010

DVD Review: Wartime Britain

Wartime Britain is an excellent DVD set chronicling life in Great Britain during World War II. The five-disc collection contains two full-length films, The Heat Of The Day, and Housewife 49, plus the six-part, three-disc mini-series Island At War. Each of these explores the effects of the war on the home front in various contexts. The issues of love, devotion, naivety, and betrayal are all explored in a most reservedly British manner. The results are provocative psychologically, and often stunning visually.

The Heat Of The Day (1989) originally aired on Masterpiece Theatre. It stars Michael Gambon, Patricia Hodge, and Michael York in a wonderfully complex story of misplaced trust and betrayal at the height of the war. While the tale is something of a spy vs. spy thriller, the real subject is love and rejection in a doomed three-way affair.

The screenplay of The Heat Of The Day was written by Nobel laureate Harold Pinter, based on the novel by Elizabeth Bowen. The bonus features on the DVD include an extensive text biography of Pinter, as well as filmographies of Gambon, Hodge, and York.

Housewife, 49 (2006) is an adaptation of the wartime diaries of Nella Last. She took part in a government program called the Mass Observation Project. British citizens were encouraged to keep track of their day-to-day experiences during the war. The diaries were to be compiled into a unique record of life in England during this extraordinary time.

Victoria Wood wrote the screenplay, and stars as Mrs. Last. The title comes from the anonymous moniker the author is given when first submitting her experiences as a 49-year-old housewife. The film is a fascinating story of a middle-aged woman finally coming into her own via her volunteer efforts for the war. Wood’s performance is remarkable as she suffers all sorts of class indignities, and manages to rise above it all by the end. Her grace and poise puts all of her would-be tormentors to shame, including her own husband.

The DVD special features of Housewife, 49 include a background on the U.K.’s Mass Observation Project, a text interview with Victoria Wood, and filmographies of the cast.

The mini-series Island At War (2004) was another Masterpiece Theatre production, and is a triumph. I was previously unaware that any of Britain had been occupied by the Nazis. It turns out that the sparsely populated Channel Islands, which sit a mere ten miles off the coast of France, were occupied during the war years.

Island At War is set on the fictional island of St. Gregory, presumably a device to enable a more dramatic rendering of the facts. What emerges over the course of the six episodes is a fascinating story of two opposing cultures forced to coexist over a fairly long period of time. The events unfold through the eyes of three families who had lived peacefully on the island for generations.

When the British Armed Forces are called away from the islands, the residents are well aware that they will soon be invaded. The smart ones immediately evacuate to England, including most of the Jewish population. The Germans make their intentions crystal clear with an air raid on the harbor, which sets the stage for their occupation.

With most of the young men of the islands already conscripted, and no troops left behind, the residents offer no resistance to the Nazis. Their pacifism confuses the Germans, and sets up an uneasy alliance between the two groups. This only intensifies as the monotony of day-to-day life wears on. The Germans have left behind their wives and girlfriends, while most of the English men are fighting the war elsewhere. A fair amount of fraternization between the opposite sexes ensues, in a morally ambiguous environment.

There are a number of surprising plot twists in the tale, and I found it thoroughly enjoyable. Some of the bombing raids and other battles are simply spectacular as well. DVD bonus sections include historical background features, cast reflections, a behind-the-scenes photo gallery, and cast filmographies.

Wartime Britain features nearly ten hours of material, focusing mainly on the psychological effects on the population during those harrowing years. The films are uniformly excellent, and the whole set is highly recommended.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Music Review: Jen Gloeckner - Mouth Of Mars

Jen Gloeckner reminds me of one of those crazy public-access television chicks. She is possessed of a singular vision, is bursting with creativity, and is going to share it with the world come hell or high water. Mouth Of Mars is her sophomore recording, following the similarly powerful Miles Away (2004).

Her music has variously been described as ethereal, dark and ambient. Mouth Of Mars certainly contains all of these elements. It is also a little more of a mature recording than Miles Away, with several straight-ahead rock songs. The addition of cellist Helena Espvall is a major asset as well.

“Mouth Of Mars” is the first track, and sets the stage for what is to follow. Like most of Gloeckner’s lyrics, the words are a dreamy mix of images, and complement the trippy music perfectly. Like much of the album, the song reminds me of nineties Euro bands such as Portishead and Hooverphonic. Gloeckner has much less of an obvious electronica vibe going on, but the ambience is very similar.

She shows her penchant for a good old rock riff on the very next track, “Pulse.” From there Mouth Of Mars veers between her peculiar nods to trip-hop and classic rock 'n' roll. Espvall’s cello makes its first appearance on “Burn Me,” and proves to be an excellent counterpoint to Gloeckner’s voice.

Her lyrics reach a creepy apogee on “Haunt You.” Over an acoustic guitar, Jen describes herself as the ultimate stalker, a ghost who wants to haunt you. We are in definite “crazy chick” territory now, and she does not disappoint. “Peace Among The Chaos,” and “Bailing Water” are further examples of a truly unique perspective on the world.

The 15 tracks that make up Mouth Of Mars are an interesting batch of tunes, and well worth checking out for fans of the more offbeat in music. The cover art by Justin Osbourn is worth special mention, as it is some of the finest I have seen in ages. If you still have a turntable, I suggest getting the vinyl version for the artwork alone. Mouth Of Mars is self-released, and the easiest way to get it is to visit Jen Gloeckner’s website.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

DVD Review: South Park - The Complete Thirteenth Season

The debut of South Park in 1997 was nothing short of phenomenal. I remember hearing about the show practically everywhere I turned, but my cable system did not carry Comedy Central. Literally within a few weeks though, the cable company had added the station. It was an amazing thing to see a program have that much of an immediate impact. It also put creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone in an almost untenable position. Maintaining the level of momentum they had begun with was an almost impossible task. To their credit, South Park remains as funny as ever, which is more than evident on the latest DVD release, South Park - The Complete Thirteenth Season.

South Park remains Comedy Central’s biggest hit, but only makes news these days when Parker and Stone tackle a big fish like The Walt Disney Company, which they did in the very first show of season 13.

“The Ring” is a brilliant piece of pop culture satire, and one of the best South Park episodes ever. It features the most unlikely of all the characters, Kenny, getting his first real girlfriend. She is rumored to be the elementary school slut, who gave a guy a blowjob after listening to the Jonas Brothers. This piece of news inspires Kenny to immediately run out and buy tickets to the Jonases' upcoming appearance.

Backstage at the concert, the Jonas boys are rebelling against Disney CEO Mickey Mouse’s dictum that they promote “purity rings.” As the diminutive mouse explains, “The rings let us sell sex to little girls.” I won’t spoil the rest of the episode by revealing how the mouse gets his comeuppance, or if Kenny ever does get his BJ, but this is one of the funniest South Park shows I have seen.

“Dead Celebrities” is another great one. The summer of 2009 saw an unprecedented spate of high-profile celebrity deaths. With their crude brand of animation, South Park Studios can churn out episodes in a fraction of the time it takes other shows. For this reason, South Park was able to present a timely comment on the situation. There are a lot of funny bits in this one, but my favorite has Billy Mays popping up every few minutes to sell comfort products to celebs in purgatory.

Of the 14 shows that comprise the three-DVD set South Park - The Complete Thirteenth Season, there are a host of other highlights. To my knowledge, “Eat, Pray, Queef” is the first animated reference to the feminine phenomenon. Then there is “W.T.F.” where the boys form their own wrestling federation after going to a WWE Raw taping. They get so popular that Vince McMahon himself shows up to check them out. Another classic moment features a high seas battle between the Deadliest Catch and Whale Wars ships.

South Park has always been proudly politically incorrect, and the thirteenth season carries on the tradition in style. There is “The F Word,” where the word “fag” becomes the official designation of bikers, and “Pee,” which features the song, “There Are Too Many Minorities At My Water Park.”

One of the cool things about owning the DVD set of South Park is the fact that it is uncensored. It is so much more enjoyable to watch the shows without all of the four-letter words being bleeped out.

The bonus features include a behind the scenes look at South Park Studios, where each episode is created. Their productivity rate is incredible for an animated show, putting out a brand new episode in just six days. There are also a selection of deleted scenes and hilarious commentaries from Trey and Matt. With South Park all set to move into their fourteenth season this week, South Park - The Complete Thirteenth Season is well worth checking out.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Music Review: New Model Army - Today Is A Good Day

Over the course of the past 30 years, New Model Army have never gained much of an audience in the United States. They have managed to garner the attention of government officials though. The group were denied visas to tour in 2007 by the US Department Of Immigration.

New Model Army were charter members of the same early-eighties gang that spawned U2. Nobody ever came up with a satisfactory term for it, but at one point I remember bands such as The Alarm, Big Country, and The Call being labeled “Anthem-Rock.”

New Model Army were always something of an also-ran in the category. They never had a big hit States-side, but developed a pretty serious cult following. I fell off in 1989, after Thunder And Consolation. But after the visa dust-up, I decided to check out their latest, Today Is A Good Day.

The optimistic days of men sporting mullets are back. Well, maybe not the mullets, there are no photos. In fact, maybe the spirit of optimism is completely missing as well. Today Is A Good Day is a dour record, infused with some of the catchiest “anthemic" riffs in ages. While NMA’s concerns are valid, it really would not hurt them to lighten up now and then in the lyric department.

Justin Sullivan basically is New Model Army these days. He was always the voice and guitar of the band, and has been the sole original member for years. On songs such as the title cut, “La Push” and “Autumn,” Sullivan’s guitar work is fantastic. The classic “big sound” of tracks like “Autumn” and “Disappeared” are brilliant as well.

But what do you say to lyrics like: “And everything is beautiful, because everything is dying” (“Autumn”), or “Peace is only for the dead and dying” (“Peace Is Only”)? Make no mistake, these songs employ jaunty, enjoyable melodies. They certainly do not sound like death marches. But with the passing of founding member Robert Heaton in 2004, the emotions are obviously pretty raw.

There is also a song titled “States Radio.” Amid some of Sullivan’s finest guitar work on the album, the dreadful United States is excoriated relentlessly. The clever analogy is to bad radio, which reflects the bad character of the nation. The Clash did this way better with “Know Your Rights.”

Musically, I find Today Is A Good Day to be a very powerful record. But I am at a loss as to why the US government banned the group. The lyrics are juvenile, and about as dangerous as a 19 year old would-be “radical” who still lives with Mum.

Music DVD Review: David Tudor - Bandoneon! (a combine)

Next to John Cage, David Tudor (1926-1996) was one of the leading lights of the post-war avant-garde movement in the United States. Tudor actually premiered Cage’s most notorious piece, 4’ 33” (1952), which featured the pianist sitting stock still in front of his keyboard for exactly four minutes and thirty-three seconds. The “music” was provided by the sounds of the audience shuffling uncomfortably in their seats, and any other random noises heard in the hall.

Nearly 60 years after the fact, a performance such as 4’ 33” may seem quaint, even silly. Make no mistake though, David Tudor has had a direct, or indirect influence on every bleeding-edge artist of the past 50 years.

For example, Krautrock godfather Karlheinz Stockhausen dedicated his Klavierst├╝ck VI (1955) to Tudor. And most significantly to rock fans of today, Tudor premiered some of the early compositions of La Monte Young. Young went on to mentor John Cale, who then formed the Velvet Underground, which incorporated his theories. And as every punk fan knows, the VU have had an influence on just about every band since.

The context is important in understanding the DVD Bandoneon! (a combine). This is a documentary of David Tudor’s first full concert work as a composer. He was participating in a series titled 9 Evenings, presented in 1966 in New York. The other artists involved were John Cage, Lucinda Childs, Oyvind Fahlstrom, Alex Hay, Deborah Hay, Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, Robert Rauschenberg, and Robert Whitman.

Tudor’s night was October 6, and the instrument he played was the bandoneon. The bandoneon is a Latin instrument, and is somewhat analogous to a small accordion.

As the DVD shows, though, Tudor’s bandoneon is an instrument unlike any other. With the help of technicians from Bell Telephone Laboratories, Tudor’s bandoneon was the driving force of a multimedia blitzkrieg. By connecting contact microphones to various switches, delays and loops, and even running some through an ancient harmonium, the sound of the instrument becomes an unbelievable wash of feedback.

I can only imagine how abrasive this sounded back in 1966, and the way the microphones are set to loop each other, the whole thing actually takes on a life of its own. The audience had a different listening experience than we get, as the speakers were in constant motion. They were hooked up to remote control carts, which were sent around the stage randomly by five of Tudor’s friends.

To add to the sensory overload, the sounds were fed into an oscilloscope, with the resulting images projected onto a huge screen at the rear of the stage.

The results are amazing. I defy anyone to watch and listen to this material even today and not be blown away. The fact that all of this is presented by short-haired, serious young men wearing suits makes it all the more disconcerting.

Bandoneon! (a combine) is an incredibly valuable historical document. My only problem with the DVD is its brevity. There are two parts to it: Tudor’s performance, and a documentary of what went into making the event happen. All of this is fantastic. The problem is that we only get 14 minutes of performance, and about 20 minutes of documentary footage. I wish there were more.

As for the visual quality of the footage, it is very good for the most part. The main body of the performance is shown in black and white, and was very well preserved. Apparently, Bell shot the event in color, for their own records, and some of it is used very briefly. Bell’s tapes were not cared for very well, and so the quality of the color footage is pretty poor. Most of the interviews in the documentary section were conducted in the 1990s, and are in fine shape.

In the end, I have to put my reservations about the brevity of the DVD aside. This performance is of such historical value that it is worth seeing regardless.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Music Review: Damin Eih, A.L.K., And Brother Clark - Never Mind

“The world is ridiculous, the world is ridiculous,” goes the repeated chant of “Monday Morning Prayer,” from Never Mind, by Damin Eih (guitars), A.L.K (percussion), and Brother Clark (bass). It is also an apt description of this acid-drenched obscurity from 1973. Not much is known about the Minneapolis trio, except for the music they left behind. Never Mind was a privately pressed, impossibly rare album before the appearance of this reissue. The music contained within its 11 tracks is positively unhinged, a mostly acoustic acid-folk collection that is as close to a pure sugarcube of Owsley as it gets.

Never Mind opens with a blast of punk-psyche prog titled “Tourniquet.” The song is a bit of a red herring, as the rest of the record settles into a much different groove. “Sing A Different Song,” is far more representative, with some beautiful 12-string guitar courtesy of Damin Eih, and otherworldly lyrics. Next up is “Take Off Your Eyes,” another acoustic venture into the outer lysergic reaches. Eih straps on the electric for “Thundermice,” which has a thunderous middle-section amidst the mysto-visions.

The trip continues on side two of the original LP, with tracks such as “Marching Together,” “Kathryn At Night,” and “Party Hats And Olive Spats.” The final cut on the album is “Return Naked,” which shows the trio pursuing a somewhat different track. There is a much more traditional, bluesy, even boogie feel to this song. For the most part, that is. Damin Eih gets into some serious electric-guitar freakiness in it as well. This may well have been the direction the trio were headed in, if they had recorded a second record. Instead, Damin Eih - who seems to be the leader of the band, took off for India. Like all great legends, he has not been heard from since.

Before hearing Never Mind, I had always considered Love’s classic Forever Changes to be the ultimate statement in psychedelic-folk music. I stand corrected. For anyone who enjoys truly bent psychedelia, Never Mind is about as out-there as it gets.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Music Review: Buzzcocks - A Different Kind Of Tension (Special Edition)

A Different Kind Of Tension is the third and final installment in Mute Records’ excellent Buzzcocks reissue program. Like the previous sets, Tension contains the contemporary singles, demos, and John Peel Sessions in addition to the original record. In this case, the extracurricular material is crucial, for it documents the sound of a band coming apart.

1978 had seen the release of two full LPs, Another Music In A Different Kitchen and Love Bites. They had also issued five singles (which with B-sides add up to nearly an album’s worth of tunes themselves). In 1979, the year Tension was released, the pace had clearly caught up to the group. The fact that lead ‘cock Pete Shelley was tripping on LSD at the time did not help matters.

For those of us in the United States, the release of Singles Going Steady in early 1979 was a revelation. The 16-song compilation was nearly ideal, featuring all the hit singles in chronological order, the A-sides on the A-side, and the B-sides on the B-side. Even more exciting was the fact that the two most recent ones were included, and both boded extremely well for the new record.

I was right there when the first all-new Buzzcocks album came to the local record store. The very first track, the punky “Paradise,” hooked me. “You Say You Don’t Love Me” should have been a hit, and the side’s closer “Raison d’Etre” was another blast of punk, with a psychedelic guitar solo twist.

Side two was another beast entirely. The five songs that make up this mini-suite resonate a lot deeper than anything the band had done previously. Lyrically and musically, this is the sound of a mind coming unglued. Although it took me a while to realize this, the evidence is there in the song titles alone: “I Don’t Know What To Do With My Life,” “Hollow Inside,” and “A Different Kind Of Tension.”

The fact is, the band were burned out. This is nothing new of course, it happens all the time. But what makes Tension such a great record is the fact that the Buzzcocks were actually able to essay the process. When most bands “lose it” the situation is usually pretty obvious, the records simply suck. Not so with the Buzzcocks. The five closing songs of Tension (six if you count the 41-second “Radio Nine”) are a mix of psychedelia, punk, power-pop, and the avant-garde. They are unlike anything else released by a major group of first-wave British punk. Incredible.

I had already heard the two singles associated with Tension, as they were included on Singles Going Steady. They are here as well. The six and a half minute “Why Can’t I Touch It?” was the B-side to “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays.” It may be the single greatest track they ever recorded, an absolutely stunning example of a band at its creative peak.

The journey down the rabbit hole began in earnest in 1980, as the group attempted to follow up Tension. What was later issued as an EP titled Parts 1-3 were recorded at this time. The idea was to release six singles, then put them all together to form an LP. They only got out three before the implosion. The significance of them lies in the full emergence of Steve Diggle as a major talent. His “Why She’s A Girl From The Chainstore,” “Airwaves Dream,” and “Running Free,” are the highlights.

The final recording of the classic line-up was “I Look Alone.” Sadly, it found the once mighty Buzzcocks going out with a whimper, not a bang. The following year, Shelley would release one of the projected songs for Parts 1-6 titled “Homosapien.” It would prove to be a bigger hit than anything the band ever did, which is unfortunate, because it has virtually nothing in common with what this great group achieved in their brief time together.

There are 11 demo versions on this Special Edition, which should appeal to hardcore fans. Also, two John Peel Shows are represented, for a total of four tracks done live in the studio.

A lot of people rate A Different Kind Of Tension as the Buzzcock’s finest moment, and it is hard to disagree. I think all three of the original albums are worthy though. Mute Records have done an outstanding job with this reissue series, and all three Special Editions are highly recommended.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Book Review: The Billion Dollar Game: Behind The Scenes Of The Greatest Day In American Sport - Super Bowl Sunday by Allen St. John

February 3, 2008 was the date of Super Bowl XLII. The undefeated New England Patriots were set to wrap up a perfect season against the New York Giants, who were in the big game despite a 13-6 record. It was a great contest, and somehow the Giants managed to pull off one of the biggest upsets in Super Bowl history.

The game provides the perfect conclusion to The Billion Dollar Game: Behind The Scenes Of The Greatest Day In American Sport - Super Bowl Sunday, by Allen St. John. The author caught a lucky break — the game itself was a memorable one. But the contest on the field is actually of very little consequence to the overall story. The Billion Dollar Game is about almost everything but football, chronicling all of the various elements that go into the making of this de facto national holiday.

According to the author, the day after the Super Bowl is the first day of preparations for the next one. With this in mind, he followed all of the essential ingredients of XLII throughout 2007. What emerges is a fascinating document of what actually goes into making the event a success. As a contributor to multiple periodicals, and sports writer for The Wall Street Journal, Allen St. John was given access to a plethora of heretofore unavailable backstage areas.

A huge aspect of Super Bowl XLII was the stadium that was built to host it, designed by world-class architect Peter Eisenman. It is called The University Of Phoenix Stadium, but the designation is a corporate sponsorship like Staples Center or Safeco Field. The UOP Stadium is an investment in Phoenix's future. The Cardinals may play there, but the real intent is to host the Super Bowl on a regular basis, in as hospitable an environment as can be produced.

While the UOP Stadium story is unique to the 2008 game, many features St. John discusses would have occurred no matter where it was held. The incredible amount of energy that goes into planning the promotional pre-game parties is an example. He compares and contrasts the soirees held by Playboy and Maxim in particular. I think this chapter is just an excuse to brag that he actually went to both exclusive events. Then again, maybe I’m just jealous.

Other behind-the-scenes tales include the bizarre phenomenon of the commercials being almost as important as the game itself, and how half-time at the Super Bowl has become the biggest gig in music.

My favorite moment of the book is when St. John tells the story of a blue-collar Giants fan who busted the piggy-bank to bring his two sons to the game with him. It is a hilarious story of fandom run amok, and the gentleman’s spouse must be the most understanding wife in the world.

The Billion Dollar Game is a lot like the Super Bowl itself. It contains enough information to keep a semi-rabid fan such as myself sated, while providing plenty of entertainment value for the non-fan.