Thursday, July 29, 2010

Music Review: Careful (Eric Lindley) - Oh, Light

Eric Lindley is the one-man dynamo behind Careful, and Oh, Light is his second full-length recording. The thirteen songs that make up Oh, Light are definitely in the singer-songwriter mode, although he adds processed vocals and uses samples at times.

The disc opens up with a 30-second music box sample, which sets the tone. From there, Lindley moves on to “Shot An Apple Off Her Head,” an acoustic lament, featuring some haunting guitar sounds. Lindley obviously has a lot of influences, but on a couple of tracks including “Scrappy” his voice sounds uncannily like Nick Drake.

The sound effects really begin to start appearing with “Laid Or Lain,” but they never overwhelm the basic, almost fragile nature of the tune. “Oi, etc” is another example of the way he uses the sampler in conjunction with his tender acoustic guitar.

“We Give Up” heralds the final suite of songs on Oh, Light. It is a dreamy, almost hallucinatory song, and a hard one to forget. This is followed by another mesmerizing tale, titled “Turns Out.” Lindley seems to be on a journey, the gently pulsating beat coupled with his quavering delivery mark this one as a true highlight of the record.

Finally we come to “I Shot Smaller And Smaller Fruits Off Her Head,” which is great for the title alone. It is a short, postscript type of song, interesting, but hardly as moving as “Turns Out.”

Oh, Light is a very good singer songwriter album, and it is available through a number of sources, including his Myspace page.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Product Review: Wendy O. Williams "Throbblehead" by Aggronautix

Since launching their Throbblehead series a little over a year ago, the Aggronautix company have immortalized a number of punk rock legends as bobbleheads. Their first (and most popular) target was GG Allin, whose figure sold out almost instantly, and who was revisited a few months later with an “Extra Filthy Bloody Edition.” There were also dolls made of Tesco Vee (The Meatmen), Milo (The Descendents), Joey Shithead (DOA), and a double-headed edition of The Dwarves featuring Blag The Ripper and HeWhoCannotBeNamed.

It took them a while, but the company has finally honored the first lady of punk herself, Wendy O. Williams. As leader of The Plasmatics, Wendy was a one-woman tornado of energy. The group were legendary for their shows, which featured guitars and amps being mutilated by chainsaws, plus TVs and even cars exploding onstage. Wendy often performed topless, with nothing but a bit of electrical tape covering her nipples. A six-inch tall, bright-white mohawk completed the look.

Wendy’s attire was constantly changing, and Aggronautix settled on the W.O.W. look of 1982. It makes sense, as that was probably the band’s biggest year. The Throbblehead catches her in transition from the Metal Priestess era to that of Beyond The Valley Of 1984. The mohawk remained, but she is now sporting a torn leather bra, a leather micro-skirt, spiked elbow pads, and chains. The detail is quite extraordinary, down to the dozens of earrings she wears, and her kohl-rimmed eyes. It all forms an image of serious dementia, which is exactly what Wendy intended.

The figure is a little over six inches tall, and comes in a nice tri-windowed box, perfect for display. When the doll is removed from the molded plastic container, the head bobbles most convincingly. Aggronautix has limited the Wendy O. Williams Throbblehead to 2,000 hand-numbered units. It is a very cool collectible, and my guess is that it will sell out quickly.

Article first published as Product Review: Wendy O. Williams "Throbblehead" by Aggronautix on Blogcritics.

DVD Review: The Rolling Stones - 1969 - 1974: The Mick Taylor Years

“Many would argue that the lineup of The Rolling Stones was never better than it was in the years 1969 to 1974,” intones the narrator towards the end of this documentary. I would have to agree, which is why I was so anxious to check this DVD out.

The first three albums the group made with Taylor are amazingly consistent. Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile On Main Street, are certainly the finest of the Stones’ career. Nobody but The Beatles have ever been able to put a back to back run of records together like that, and it is doubtful anyone ever will.

The Rolling Stones - 1969 - 1974: The Mick Taylor Years is a 99-minute DVD which mainly uses interviews to tell the story. A number of writers are present, such as Barney Hoskyns, Robert Christgau, and the unbelievably annoying historian Alan Clayson. Mick Taylor’s former boss John Mayall contributes, as do various former Stones sidemen. The most unlikely comments come from Taylor himself, who still seems to be in something like denial about the whole experience .

The thing I look for in a DVD like this is the rare footage, and there is a fair amount of it here. The only problem is that the clips generally only run about thirty seconds, there are no full performances of any songs. Still, it is cool to see Jagger and Richards sharing vocal duties during a live take of “Happy,” for example. Other clips include “Brown Sugar,” “Tumbling Dice,” “Rip This Joint,” and “Time Waits For No One.”

The DVD begins in the wake of Their Satanic Majesties Request album, which was pretty much a disaster. With Beggars Banquet, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger took over the band from the increasingly addled Brian Jones. During the sessions for the follow-up — titled Let It Bleed, Jones was replaced by Mick Taylor.

Jones died just two days before what was to be Mick Taylor’s public introduction as a Rolling Stone, at a huge concert in London’s Hyde Park. Talk about a pressure situation. The concert became a memorial for Brian Jones, and a bit of a trial by fire for the new guitarist. Mick Taylor had just turned 20. The group then toured the States, winding it up in December with a free show at a speedway in California called Altamont. The live footage accompanying this period is not particularly rare, but it is nice to see how easily Taylor had already slotted into the band.

Two undisputed classic Stones records followed, Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main Street. Both are discussed in depth. From there, the inevitable decline sets in, due primarily to the lifestyle of the various members.

Goats Head Soup and Its Only Rock And Roll were the final two albums that Mick Taylor recorded as a Rolling Stone, and they were hardly fitting epitaphs. Still, his playing on Rock And Roll’s “Time Waits For No One” is absolutely brilliant.

At this point in the DVD, Mick Taylor gives his reasons for leaving the band, which are vague at best. It is up to the talking heads to illuminate us on what was really going on, and their explanations make a lot of sense. First was the fact that the young guitarist was dealing with his own drug problems. Maybe more significantly was his anger at not receiving songwriting credit for his contributions. Even a cursory listen to the music the band recorded after his departure makes it clear that he had a major role in shaping the music.

The only extra on the DVD is a six-minute segment titled “Meeting Mick Taylor” in which John Mayall talks about how he met his former protégé.

The Mick Taylor Years is a pretty good documentary about the time he spent as a Rolling Stone, but it is a little light on rare footage. Still, for those of us who think his time with the band is grossly underrated, it is worth seeing.

Article first published as DVD Review: The Rolling Stones - 1969 - 1974: The Mick Taylor Years on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Tommy Keene - Tommy Keene You Hear Me: A Retrospective 1983-2009

Has it really been 25 years since Tommy Keene’s major label debut, Songs From The Film? Along with The Replacements and Husker Dü, Keene seemed poised to bring a new type of power pop into the mainstream.

Of the three, he actually seemed to have the upper hand. Whereas Husker and the ‘Mats music came from a harder-edged punk perspective, Tommy Keene has never been shy about claiming The Raspberries as his major inspiration. The heavy duty promotional push from Geffen Records counted for a lot also.

So what happened? For one thing, Geffen dropped him like a hot potato shortly after his second album, Based On Happy Times (1989). But my guess is that the real reason is that his type of music has just never been very popular with the masses. Sure, The Raspberries had a big hit with “Go All The Way,” but it took them four albums to get there. Legends like Big Star never even got that far.

Keene's power pop may inspire rhapsodies from critics and a fanatical cult audience, but for the most part the general public couldn't care less. And that is a shame, because this is music that would appeal to a broad spectrum of listeners, if only anyone ever heard it.

Second Motion Records has assembled a stellar two-disc collection of Keene’s best, titled Tommy Keene You Hear Me: A Retrospective 1983-2009. It features some unreleased, some alternate, and some live tracks among the 41 songs included. But the bulk of it comes from his studio recordings over the years.

Fans of his two Geffen albums will appreciate disc one. Fifteen of its twenty-one tracks come from them, while the remaining six are previously unreleased cuts from those same sessions. Disc two is much more of a mixed bag. Tommy has bounced around a bit over the past 20 years or so, recording for labels such as Matador, Alias, and Eleven Thirty.

I have to admit that I pretty much lost sight of his career after the initial push, so listening to this disc has been a real revelation for me. Flashes of the old jingle-jangle guitars still appear, but a lot of these songs reflect a real stylistic move forward for him. Tempos occasionally slow down, and a couple of ballads even appear. I laughed out loud when I first heard the big metal guitars of “Turning On Blue” from Ten Years After (1996). Thankfully, this satirical tune was written with just that response in mind.

As one delves further into the chronologically arranged set, we find Tommy’s songwriting style maturing, and his voice becoming ever deeper. In the end, Retrospective shows an incredibly graceful career arc, from the beginning right up to three songs from In The Late Bright (2009).

There is little point in addressing Tommy’s fans, except to say that this is a well thought-out collection. After all, they have already drank the Kool-Aid. But for those who may like what power pop they have heard, but are just not sure about Tommy Keene, believe me — he is the real deal, and well worth checking out.

Article first published as Music Review: Tommy Keene - Tommy Keene You Hear Me: A Retrospective 1983-2009 on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Microtia - Spacemaker

Microtia hail from Portland, Oregon -- a town that never really gets the credit for the weird and cool scene it has had going for years now. Their new CD Spacemaker is a prime example, for a number of reasons. The first is in the packaging. They definitely believe in the DIY ethic. I had to crack up when I opened the eco-friendly (to the extreme) CD holder. It is made out of a Coors Lite beer case. They did a damn good job with it too, because it works perfectly. The next is the track listing, which have been manually typed onto a cut out cigarette box.

Setting aside the attention grabbing packaging though, what one finds on the disc itself is some pretty aggressive guitar driven rock. There are a couple of bands I thought of when listening to it for the first time. For example, “1000% Sure” took me to places normally inhabited by And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead. “Can You Hear The Jets” and “Interlude” exhibit some Radiohead damage, but they never slow it down to get as whiny as Yorke does sometimes.

There are a couple that the band may have never even heard of, for all I know -- but that I found myself reminded of. One is a group who called themselves East Ash. The other is The Silencers, whose visionary A Letter From St. Paul was one of the most sadly overlooked late eighties releases ever. It is the aggression of East Ash mixed with the storytelling of The Silencers that comes to mind when listening to “Tone Mtn. VS The Body Of Riffage” (gotta love them titles).

As Spacemaker moves into its final three tracks, the prog tendencies hinted at by the earlier Radiohead homages take center-stage. It is all done with some heavy riffs though, so as to never get too pretentious.

Microtia’s Spacemaker is a great homegrown record, and one worth checking out for those interested in cool, unsigned bands. To give people a little taste of Spacemaker, the band are even offering up a free single.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Music Review: Svanfridur - What's Hidden There?, Odmenn - Odmenn, Trubrot - Trubrot

A good twenty years before Björk and the Sugarcubes put Iceland on the international music map, the tiny island nation had already produced its first super-group. Trúbrot was formed when members' groups whose name translated as Sounds and Flowers came together in 1969. Fans of both bands were initially angry about the merge, and the members used this as a basis for their moniker, which in English means Breach Of Faith.

Their 1969 self-titled debut impressed the few lucky enough to hear it. It was recorded at London’s Trident Studios, and engineered by Tony Visconti (who would go on to produce David Bowie, among others). The tragic mistake they made was in recording the entire album in their native tongue. If it were not for this, Apple Records may have signed them. Instead they were picked up by EMI. The record was only available in Iceland, and the initial (and only) pressing of 3,200 sold out within weeks.

So how does this instant collectible sound 40 years later? For one thing, the Icelandic lyrics are probably nowhere near as off-putting as they once were, thanks to the explosion of so-called “world music” since then. A good idea of what Trúbrot’s originals sound like can be inferred from the covers they chose. The album features a version of The Beatles’ “Things We Said Today,” Jose Feliciano’s “Rain,” and “My World Is Empty,” made famous by The Supremes. I have to admit that hearing Lennon/McCartney in Icelandic is a bit strange.

Trúbrot contained a lot of elements that were popular on US radio at the time. There were jazz influenced numbers ala Chicago or Blood, Sweat, And Tears, some Steppenwolf-ish heavy rock, and even the mellow tones of someone like Burt Bacharach. Had their album been recorded in English, and distributed internationally, things may have been very different for Trúbrot.

The situation was very different just one year later, when Ódmenn’s one and only album was released. They were an all-out hippie/prog rock band, and their eponymous double LP debut reflected a variety of influences. Only one of the fifteen cuts was sung in English, “It Takes Love,” which sounds like it may have been intended as a single. The song is much more mainstream than the rest of the record.

What Ódmenn specialized in was a heavy blues, with an emphasis on solos. This certainly fits in with what was going on in “underground” music at the time. Opening track “Ein Ég Ræ” has the classic heavy guitar sound of Blue Cheer, while “Betri Heimur” trods the boogie path made famous by Humble Pie.

Elsewhere there are nods to the acoustic bliss of happy hippies such as CSN, and guitar showcases along the lines of what Carlos Santana was doing. The ultimate Ódmenn track is “Frelsi.” This tweny-minute extravaganza originally occupied all of the vinyl album’s side four, and is a suitable period piece.

Excess was the hallmark of the era, and bands generally considered their “long” song to be their best. “Frelsi” is better than a lot of its contemporaries. There is some real virtuoso guitar playing, and I imagine that the group really cooked onstage. Plus, you gotta love the mandatory drum solo.

Fast-forward to 1972 and we get another long-lost slab of prog-immortality in Svanfrídur. They were another Icelandic act whose sole output was their debut, What’s Hidden There? While it can sometimes be tempting to overrate a forgotten artifact like this, Svanfrídur’s album speaks for itself. This record is that rarest of all prog albums from the early seventies, it actually still sounds great.

One thing that helps is that it is all sung in English. But it is the variety of instrumental flavors that the group utilize that make this one truly unique. For example, the use of violin at the time usually resulted in an unlistenable song. Exhibit A would be “White Bird” by It’s A Beautiful Day.

The way Svanfrídur incorporate not only violin but flute into the title track is a testament to well thought-out arranging. There is no silly showboating as was common at the time, just some perfectly appropriate shading to a very nice ballad.

Make no mistake though, while there are a couple of pleasant acoustic cuts, Svanfrídur’s mission is to rock. On “Please Bend,” and “Give Me Some Gas,” they do just that. The former features some serious power-chording and an over the top violin solo, while the latter is a furious blues jam.

Closing out with “Finido” the group leaves one wishing they had stuck around for a few more years. The instrumental features one of the more inspired bass solos I have heard, and resolves itself with some furious guitar leads from Iceland’s Eric Clapton, Birgir Hrafnsson.

All three of these albums were reissued by the incomparable German label, Shadoks Music. They feature extensive liner notes (in English), and all of the original artwork. It is an impressive project to be sure. But the best aspect of finding such lost treasures is just being able to finally listen to them. It fascinates me to no end to hear what was going on in such “isolated” regions as Iceland some 40 years ago.

Their musicians were every bit as talented, adventurous, and just plain good as anyone in the “official” histories of rock. There is an undeniable allure in listening to something as exotic as original Icelandic prog, no doubt. But there is also little doubt that if you do enjoy that type of music, you will like these bands as well.

Article first published as Music Review: Svanfridur - What's Hidden There?, Odmenn - Odmenn, Trubrot - Trubrot on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Gurumaniax - Psy Valley Hill

Gurumaniax are something of a prog-rock supergroup. Led by Krautrock legend Mani Neumeier (drums) and his former Guru Guru stalwart Ax Genrich (guitar), the emphasis is on heavy duty psychedelic prog. Univers Zero member Guy Segers (bass) completes the power trio, with the emphasis fully on power.

While Mani has led Guru Guru from 1968 all the way up to the present day, the years Ax spent in the band (1970-75) are generally considered to be their most essential. These were the glory days of Krautrock, and Guru Guru contributed such classics as UFO (1970), Hinten (1971), and Kanguru (1972) to the cause.

Guy Segers joined the Belgian “chamber rock” consortium who call themselves Univers Zero in 1979, just in time to appear on Heresie. It is regarded as one of the darkest records ever, and is as mythical in some circles as anything Guru Guru accomplished.

With all of these credentials, Gurumaniax sounded great in theory. As we all know however, so-called supergroups are almost always a disappointment. Whether there is too much ego in the room, the guys have lost their chops, or time has just passed them by, these collaborations have a high rate of failure.

Thankfully, that is not the case with Psy Valley Hill. As opening track “Drumoroto” unfolds, you get the sense that this is a band with a lot to say. As the title implies, it is a drum showcase, and Mani brings everything he has to the performance. But nobody is laying back. Segers lays down some funky bass, while Ax gets a little crazed feedback action going on his Strat.

“Spaceship Memory” follows, and provides a direct link back to Guru’s early days. The thirteen minute song recalls elements of “Spaceship,” which closed out their second album, Hinten in 1971. As the initial trippines wears off, the three go into a bit of a chill-zone, and Ax’s guitar dominates. There are times when this track veers into some of the post-apocalyptic territory of Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain,” the parts in between the terrifying solos of Eddie Hazel.

In fact, the ghost of that troubled, yet brilliant guitarist seems to haunt Ax Ginrich often here. That signatory sound is even more prevalent on the aptly titled “Ghost Of Odin.” The closest Gurumaniax come to Univers Zero is on “Electrosaurus,“ which incorporates some severe dirge motifs.

The best Krautrock balanced the serious music with a bit of goofy, off the cuff material, and Psy Valley Hill lives up to the tradition. “Telefonladies,” is probably the funniest, a tribute to the old school telephone operators who used to help us make calls. It is also a sly wink to Kraftwerk, who cut “The Telephone Call” many years ago, in a similar vein.

The album closes with a bluesy lament titled “For Uli T.” Bassist Uli Trepte was a founding member of Guru Guru, and played on their first three albums. He passed in 2009, and his former colleagues pay him a nice tribute here.

Far from being a disappointment, the old guys who got together “one more time” as Gurumaniax have achieved the near impossible. They have released a credible Krautrock album in 2010, against all the odds. Anyone who liked what that genre, or good prog was all about back in the day should definitely hear Psy Valley Hill.

Article first published as Music Review: Gurumaniax - Psy Valley Hill on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

DVD Review: The Red Shoes (Criterion Collection)

The Red Shoes (1948) is considered by many to be the finest ballet film of all time. It may well be, but there is so much more to this picture than simply the ballet scenes. For one thing, the cinematography is dazzling, especially vivid with the three-strip Technicolor process that was used. But what really makes The Red Shoes so memorable is the way it confronts the basic questions an artist faces. Just how important is your work? Are you willing to give up everything for it?

The film opens with scenes of young composing student Julian Craster (Marius Goring) and his friends frantically securing seats at the premiere of the latest Lermontov Ballet performance, "Heart Of Fire". The music is credited to their Academy professor, Andrew Palmer. Shortly into the performance Julian realizes that the professor has stolen his compositions and passed them off as his own. It is a bitter disappointment.

At an after-party, the Ballet’s impresario Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) meets young dancer Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) for the first time. Their initial exchange informs everything that is to follow.

Lermontov: Why do you want to dance?

Victoria: Why do you want to live?

A few days later, Julian is granted an audience with Lermontov. When the subject of composer credits for Heart Of Fire comes up, Lermontov cautions the young man, “It is much more disheartening to have to steal, than to be stolen from.”

Thus the stage is set for Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s (collectively known as The Archers) foray into the ruthless milieu of world-class ballet.

Julian and Victoria are soon hired by Lermontov, and set to work on his adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s dark fairy-tale The Red Shoes. Julian scores it beautifully, and Victoria’s dancing makes her an overnight sensation. Predictably, the two fall in love. Just as predictably, they are fired by Lermontov. Victoria had heard his admonition to his former lead, “The dancer who relies on the doubtful comforts of human love will never be a great dancer. Never.”

Lermontov’s desire for Victoria is not romantic; it is all encompassing. He wants her very soul. He bides his time until the right moment presents itself. “Put on the red shoes Vicky, and dance for us again,” Lermontov purrs, and she agrees.

Opening night for the return of The Red Shoes is in Monte Carlo. It is the same night as Julian’s opera Cupid And Psyche is set to debut at The Royal Opera House in London. But Julian abandons his appearance and arrives backstage at Monte Carlo. When he asks Victoria to join him on a train to Paris, she replies “Please Julian, wait until after the performance.”

Julian: “It will be too late then.”

Lermontov then enters the room and says, “You’re already too late Mr. Craster.”

Turning to Victoria he continues: “Tell him why you have left him. Nobody can have two lives, and your life is dancing.”

It is an impossible choice, but the red shoes make the decision for her in a stunning conclusion.

The conviction and passion the three actors bring to this scene is heartbreaking. Indeed, their performances throughout the film are striking. Especially that of Moira Shearer, who was a professional dancer and had never previously acted.

The Archers’ choice of Shearer was brilliant, because as the essay by David Ehrenstein notes, “When you look at Shearer you see a dancer — even when she’s standing still.”

The story within a story is The Red Shoes ballet itself. This is a remarkable twenty-minute dance piece, created specifically for the film. While the sequence does stay true to Anderson’s fable, there are a host of allusions to the three-way conflict. The effect is almost hallucinatory, as Victoria’s thoughts merge with reality, and she sees herself dancing with both Julian and Lermontov at times. All the while she is actually onstage, dancing through a hypnotizing series of scenery, including a ballroom, a carnival, the desert, and cloudy skies.

As usual, Criterion has done an outstanding job with the extras. Martin Scorsese introduces the film, with a demonstration of the amazing restoration job that was completed in 2009. There is audio commentary from Scorsese, as well as stars Marius Goring and Moira Shearer, among others. There is also an alternate audio track, featuring Jeremy Irons reading excerpts from Powell and Pressburg’s 1978 novelization of The Red Shoes. The original theatrical trailer completes the selections on disc one.

Disc two consists of nothing but bonus material, and some of it is magnificent. My favorite is the interview with Thelma Schoonmaker Powell (15:00). This was recorded in 2009 at Cannes, during the premiere of the restored version. Besides being Scorsese’s longtime editor (since 1972), Thelma was also Michael Powell’s widow.

Her insights are fascinating, both on the continuing impact the film has had over the years, and its impact on Scorsese directly. She claims that every one of his pictures contains a homage of some sort to The Red Shoes. Most notable of these is the red coloring of Mean Streets. She hesitates in giving other specific examples, leaving the door open for us to find them for ourselves. Another great bit of trivia I picked up is about what goes on in the editing room. Apparently they run Turner Classic Movies nonstop, twenty-four hours a day on a side wall (silently I assume), for total immersion in film.

An indication of Scorsese’s love for the movie is apparent in his memorabilia collection. These are still photos of some of his prized artifacts, number one being the actual red ballet shoes themselves, which are autographed by three of the principles. He also has Emeric Pressburg’s original shooting script, and storyboards from the main ballet scene. This last was a gift from Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts.

There is an interesting documentary titled Profile of "The Red Shoes” (25:00), which features interviews with members of the production team and their families. Finally there is "The Red Shoes" Sketches (16:00), an animated piece constructed from the original color storyboards, with narration again provided by Jeremy Irons.

The Red Shoes is a tremendous combination of story, acting, dance, and music, all performed on the vibrant canvas of Technicolor. The meticulous digital restoration is something to behold as well. Criterion has assembled the definitive edition of this classic, and it is highly recommended.

Article first published as DVD Review: The Red Shoes (Criterion Collection) on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Music Review: Judas Priest - Setlist: The Very Best Of Judas Priest

The Setlist series from Columbia Legacy is about as ecologically sound as it gets. Utilizing 100% recycled material for the packaging, and putting the liner notes on the actual CD, this low-priced series has a lot going for it. The complaints I have heard thus far have more to do with the repackaging of previously released material than with the actual final results.

Judas Priest - Setlist: The Very Best Of Judas Priest compiles some of the group's best live recordings ever, with B-sides that have been extremely difficult to find for fans.

By beginning the disc with “Judas Rising” from their 2005 album, Angel Of Retribution, the band stakes their claim to this being a contemporary look back at their years together. Having said that, hearing them perform greats such as “Heading Out To The Highway” and “Breaking The Law” is no small treat.

But hell, I’m an old dude — my introduction to Priest was in 1979, with Unleashed In The East. I still think it is one of the best live albums of the seventies, and this collection utilizes three of its best tracks. “Exciter” is the first, and any fan of the NWOBHM (including Lars Ulrich) has to give it rightful props. “Tyrant” is another tremendously powerful showcase, especially for guitarists Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing.

But it is their version of “The Green Manalishi” that must be heard. The song was written by Peter Green, who wrote it as a member of Fleetwood Mac in the late sixties. Judas Priest treated the cut with the malevolence it demanded. Rob Halford's soaring vocals over the top of his crack band is the reason he is considered one of the greatest metal singers of all time.

Closing out Setlist are the previously unreleased “Beyond The Realm Of Death” and a US Festival recording of “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin‘,” which remains their best known number.

The Setlist series is a budget-priced introduction to various bands, and collects their “greatest hits” in a live format. With Judas Priest, I think the label did a great job. This one is recommended.

Article first published as Music Review: Judas Priest - Setlist: The Very Best Of Judas Priest on Blogcritics

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Book Review: The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story Of The Company That Is Connecting The World by David Kirkpatrick

Facebook’s growth since its inception in 2004 has been nothing short of phenomenal. With a membership hovering at around a half a billion people today, the ubiquitous site is an Internet success story like no other. In The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story Of The Company That Is Connecting The World, author David Kirkpatrick tells the remarkable tale of this industry colossus, and of the man behind it all, Mark Zuckerberg.

As it was originally known, launched on February 4, 2004, out of Zuckerberg’s Harvard dorm room. The site was incredibly exclusive, you had to have an email ending in to join. It became so popular that Zuckerberg and his “staff” (his roommates) decided to offer it to other Ivy League schools shortly afterwards.

Thus began the snowball momentum that continues to drive Facebook forward to this day. Soon the doors were opened to all U.S. colleges, then high schools, and finally to everybody else. Zuckerberg and company moved out to Silicon Valley “just for the summer” after their first year at Harvard. They never went back.

Kirkpatrick was able to speak with the early players in the story fairly extensively, including Zuckerberg himself. The account of these nineteen-year-old kids building up a company valued at $15 billion over the course of just a few years is stunning. The growth pains that accompany such rapid success are also discussed, and Zuckerberg’s talent for getting advice from older dot-com veterans has helped Facebook survive some potentially fatal experiences.

The first two-thirds of The Facebook Effect trace the business’ growth from 2004 to 2010. It makes for fascinating reading. The last hundred pages or so are devoted to chapters such as “Facebook And The World,” “The Evolution Of Facebook,” and “The Future.” These speculative essays were probably necessary to balance out the book, but they are the least interesting portions of The Facebook Effect.

David Kirkpatrick is a former senior editor at Fortune magazine, and his writing style is a winning combination of business facts mixed with the quirky personalities of the key players. The Facebook Effect is informative and fun, a rare combination in the world of business books. For up to the minute information on the biggest social networking site the world has ever known, it is recommended.

Article first published as Book Review: The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story Of The Company That Is Connecting The World by David Kirkpatrick on Blogcritics

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Music Review: The Dream Syndicate - Medicine Show

The Dream Syndicate were instant hipster faves with their 1982 full-length debut, The Days Of Wine And Roses. Along with bands such as Rain Parade and Green On Red, Dream Syndicate came to be known as charter members of the unfortunately named Paisley Underground. As the movement’s name implies, the tendency was towards the music of the '60s, particularly the strummed guitars and clear harmonies of The Byrds.

For The Dream Syndicate, being heralded as overnight rock saviors was a little disconcerting. They were immediately signed by a major label (A&M), and were assigned a big-name rock producer, Sandy Pearlman (Blue Oyster Cult, The Clash) for the follow-up. When Medicine Show appeared in 1984, it shocked and angered many of the original fans of the group, and was a commercial flop.

With the passage of time comes perspective, a fact which has helped bolster the standing of Medicine Show a great deal. What was once considered a blatant sell-out is now seen for what it actually was: a tremendous leap forward.

The eight songs that make up Medicine Show were perfect for the then ubiquitous LP format. There were five relatively concise cuts on side one, and three long-form workouts on side two. This would prove to be Karl Precoda’s last record with the band, and his and Steve Wynn’s guitars are one of the big reasons Medicine Show has come to be so highly regarded.

Opening track “Still Holding On To You” is a definitive example of the “college rock” sound of the mid-'80s. It is hard to believe that Dream Syndicate fans did not like this music at the time. The tune resembles a harder-edged Badfinger. Precoda’s guitar cuts like a crystal all the way through, and the production is amazingly clear.

“Daddy’s Girl” takes an intriguing rockabilly turn, while “Burn” is Americana writ large. The dash of Neil Young-inspired guitar in “Burn” helps the song out considerably. The guitar action gets particularly frenzied during “Bullet With My Name On It.” This may not have been what Dream Syndicate fans were expecting back in the day, but that was their loss. “Bullet” is a great track, and was Precoda’s lone songwriting contribution to the record.

On the final three cuts the band went off the grid. “Medicine Show” starts out as a deceptively simple blues jam, and soon evolves into a hypnotic guitar showcase. Although The Doors never had the chops to pull off something like this, they are an obvious inspiration, as are The Velvet Underground.

“John Coltrane Stereo Blues” is the heart and soul of Medicine Show. It is the only piece credited to all four members, and was what they warmed up with every night before recording. The group threw everything into this one. Over the nine-minute duration you will hear aspects of just about everyone the band were influenced by. The Stooges, Jim Morrison, Neil Young, and Television are just a few of them.

The album winds up with “Merrittville,” a tune that starts out as a carbon copy of Bruce Springsteen’s “The Promised Land.” The piano work of guest Tom Zvoncheck really drives this desolate ballad, at least until the guitars kick in. When they do, it is for some incredibly powerful interplay between Precoda and Wynn. I would have loved to see the two of them playing this one live back then.

This CD reissue appends a live five-song EP titled This Is Not The New Dream Syndicate Album…Live! Unfortunately, it does not include “Merrittville,” but we do get some blazing guitar action during “The Medicine Show,” and “John Coltrane Stereo Blues.”

Medicine Show is one of the great lost records of the '80s, and I am hopeful that this reissue might inspire former fans to give it a second chance.

Article first published as Music Review: The Dream Syndicate - Medicine Show on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Adam Franklin & Bolts Of Melody - I Could Sleep For A Thousand Years

As the former leader of Creation Records' legendary Swervedriver, Adam Franklin’s place in the indie-music pantheon is secure. But don’t count the old chap out just yet, because I Could Sleep For A Thousand Years ranks right up there with the best of his previous band’s work.

I Could Sleep is Franklin’s third solo outing, and it is miles ahead of last year's Spent Bullets. The difference here is that for the first time, Franklin has recorded with his touring band, Bolts Of Melody. The group add so much to the songs that it is really unfair to even classify the album as a solo record. This is a group effort in every sense of the word.

The jingle-jangle guitar is the first thing one notices when hearing I Could Sleep for the first time. Opening cut “Yesterday Has Gone Forever” has that instant classic sound of vintage Big Star, The Raspberries, or even The Records. Big, gloriously strummed guitars over a melody as catchy as any in recent memory are a powerful introduction to the album.

Franklin and company seem to be basking in the joy of pure power-pop here, as tracks like “I Want You Right Now,” and “Sinking Ships” testify. There are some darker cuts mixed in with these crowd-pleasers though. “I’ll Be Yr Mechanic” is reminiscent of some of The Church’s more introspective moments, while “Guerica” glances in Elvis Costello’s general direction.

“God knows I’ve tried to resist ya,” begins the most interesting song on the record, “Lord Help Me Jesus, I’ve Wasted A Soul.” This slow blues number features a number of atmospheric effects, which comment on the troubling lyrics. It reminds me of some of the late Chris Bell’s more naked moments during I Am The Cosmos.

“Take Me To My Leader” closes things out in suitable style. The brief overture that begins the track soon gives way to another clear, ringing pop song full of optimism. Not only have Adam Franklin & Bolts Of Melody emerged with a fantastic album, you get the feeling that they know it. As you listen to this song, and reflect on those that came before, the realization dawns that the old boy has still got a lot of life in him yet.

Adam Franklin’s music works best in a full-band environment, and I Could Sleep For A Thousand Years is an excellent example of the reasons why.

Article first published as Music Review: Adam Franklin & Bolts Of Melody - I Could Sleep For A Thousand Years on Blogcritics.

DVD Review: Have Gun - Will Travel Season Four Volume 2

Westerns were king during television’s Golden Age, and nobody stood as tall as Richard Boone playing Paladin, in Have Gun - Will Travel. The program aired from 1957-1962, and the final installment of the series has just been issued on DVD: Have Gun - Will Travel Season Four Volume 2.

The 19 episodes collected on this three-DVD set feature a number of guest stars and directors. Among the more famous acting names are Buddy Ebsen, George Kennedy, and Ken “Festus” Curtis. Ida Lupino directed one program, while Boone himself directed three. There was even a script written by the young Gene Roddenberry.

The series followed a fairly standard outline. The show would open with a scene inside the luxurious Carlton Hotel in San Francisco, which Paladin called home. He would often be chatting up a countess or some such refined lady, only to be interrupted by Hey Girl (Lisa Lu) with a telegram or message of a pending job. Paladin’s card reads “Have Gun - Will Travel,” and he is known as the best hired gun in the West.

The variety of storylines is a cut above typical Western fare of the era. While there is a fair amount of action, many of the plots are more psychological than anything else. “The Gold Bar,” (directed by Ida Lupino), is a good example of the “counselor” role that Paladin often found himself in. A meek bank teller (John Fiedler) steals a bar of gold from the bank safe. The bank manager does not know that it was his own trusted employee who stole it, and hires Paladin. Later, our hero convinces the teller to break back into the bank and replace the bar before the auditor arrives.

Then there is “The Cure,” which finds Paladin helping the original Calamity Jane reclaim her lost fortune, and her dignity, which she lost due to her heavy drinking. “El Paso Stage” was written by Gene Roddenberry, and stars a truly villainous Buddy Ebsen as a crooked town marshal. This is one of the better ones of the season, and is modeled after the film 3:10 To Yuma.

The series ended with “Soledad Crossing,” and it went out on a high note. Paladin is leading a convicted killer into the Oregon town of Soledad, where he will be hanged. When they arrive at the bridge to go into town, they are turned back, as the area is in quarantine. Soon the hangman arrives, as well as a man and his daughter. All are forced to wait out results of the outbreak by the side of the river. The tension is high as the group wonders whether any, or all of them are infected. All the while there is the threat posed by Paladin’s prisoner, a man who has nothing to lose.

One of the notable aspects of Paladin’s character is worldliness. Besides being a crack gunman, he is a wine connoisseur, a master chef, and speaks several languages. Throughout the show, the only other regular character besides Paladin is the hotel’s Hey Girl, who appears to be Chinese. She tends to his every need, and is obviously smitten.

All of the episodes were filmed in black and white, and have been very well preserved over the years. The print quality is excellent throughout the set. Have Gun - Will Travel is worthy of its reputation as one of the best Western TV shows of the era, and the final run of the series never faltered.

Article first published as DVD Review: Have Gun - Will Travel Season Four Volume 2 on Blogcritics.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

DVD Review: We'll Meet Again

We’ll Meet Again (1982) is an excellent World War II mini-series that was shown on the BBC in the early eighties, and later PBS in the United States. The thirteen one-hour episodes concern the impact that the 1943 arrival of 2,000 Air Force servicemen had on the small town of Market Wetherby, Suffolk. As one of the locals puts it about the Americans, “They’re overpaid, oversexed, and over here.”

Much of the tension in the early part of the series revolves around the resentments many of the more staid Brits have towards these gung-ho flyboys. This, coupled with the fact that many young English women are decidedly smitten with them results in some predictable clashes. Most of the action takes place in the local market and pub, where the two groups often come into contact.

As time goes on, and more and more men are lost during bombing raids, the attitudes noticeably soften. There is even a wedding between the pub-owner’s daughter, and an airman. When the groom is forced to bail out over Brussels the very next day, the impact of the war hits the village in a profound way.

There are a number of romantic subplots in the series, the most notable being between Dr. Helen Dereham (Susannah York), and Major Jim Kiley (Michael Shannon). Helen’s husband is fighting in North Aftrica, and when he returns in a wheelchair, the three find themselves mired in a hopeless love triangle.

What sets We’ll Meet Again apart from other wartime romances is the action it incorporates. Utilizing both stock footage and newly shot scenes, the bombing missions the airmen go on are very realistic. They also mitigate some of the more maudlin elements of the story. No matter how overwrought some of the scenes get, there is always the knowledge that this could be the last night of the men’s lives.

Another factor that makes this four-DVD set worth seeing is the location shooting. Many of the original structures from the WWII-era were still standing when the series was filmed, which gives it an uncannily authentic look. The fact that a mix of English and American actors were used also adds credibility.

Nearly 30 years later, We’ll Meet Again still stands up as a very good wartime romantic drama/action mini-series, and one worth seeing for fans of the genre.

Article first published as DVD Review: We'll Meet Again on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Hans-Joachim Roedelius - Lustwandel

The third studio album by Hans-Joachim Roedelius, titled Lustwandel, was originally released in 1981. The German experimental-music pioneer had already made a name for himself as a founding member of the seriously avant-garde Kluster, and its polar opposite, the proto-ambient Harmonia. But as a solo artist, Roedelius was able to pursue his most personal visions, no matter where they might lead.

Lustwandel is unique in the fact that an acoustic piano is used so often. As an artist who was considered by many to be the electronic keyboardist of the Krautrock era, this was a considerable development. It must have helped that Lustwandel was produced by Peter Baumann (of Tangerine Dream) because the album turned out to be one of Roedelius’ finest works.

The record begins with the title track, a deeply introspective piece of piano meditation, which sets the tone for the next 12 tracks. No matter what the context, Roedelius’ music has always been known for the atmospheres he evokes. On Lustwandel, he glides seamlessly through them. “Draufen Vorbei” comes across as playful while “Legende” has its roots in chamber music of the 19th century. “Wilkommen” emanates a vaguely militaristic feel, and “Langer Atem” hearkens back to the composer’s more experimental work.

Sprinkled throughout the album are brief, one-minute interludes that act as something of a palette cleanser for the composer’s next direction. No matter what the idiom of each individual cut, there is an overall tone of calm about Lustwandel that never falters. Much like his previous effort, Jardin Au Fou, the tracks all seem to blend into one long suite. There are a number of twists and turns, but the music is always very clearly that of Hans-Joachim Roedelius.

Lustwandel is a disc that works for any number of moods, but my favorite time to hear it is first thing in the morning, over a nice cup of coffee. It is an album that I have been listening to for nearly 30 years now, and one of the few I never tire of hearing.

Article first published as Music Review: Hans-Joachim Roedelius - Lustwandel on Blogcritics.

DVD Review: Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage

What is it with Canucks and rock music documentaries? Last year it was Anvil: The Story Of Anvil, the tale of two lifelong friends who vowed to make it despite all the odds. Although 2010 is only half over, I cannot imagine a better rock-doc coming out this year than Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage.

With Anvil we met two 50-something friends who had been chasing the rock dream since they were teens. It was a fantastic story, because Lips and Robb came off as such genuinely nice guys. Rush’s history is a little different, as they have been hugely successful for many years now. But as far as getting any respect from mainstream media, they are still fighting.

Rush have never been accorded the type of respect that The Stones, The Who, or even AC/DC get — yet their sales figures are comparable. It is one of the major themes of the DVD, although in their self-effacing way, the trio never really address the subject. Through vintage concert footage, recent interviews, and some amazing home movies, they keep their cards close to the vest. It is up to guests such as Billy Corgan, Vinnie Paul, Les Claypool, and Sebastian Bach to make the case that Rush are a band for the ages.

When pressed to discuss wild tales of on-the-road behavior, Geddy Lee just laughs and says that they were “pretty nerdy.” Gene Simmons takes it further when he talks about Rush opening for KISS in 1974. “There were willing women lined up in the hotel corridors,” he says, “But the Rush guys would be holed up in their rooms, watching TV.”

I never really knew what prompted the change from original drummer John Rutsey to Neil Peart, which is explained. Lee, Lifeson, and Rutsey were basically a bar band who got a deal and recorded the first LP, Rush. But Rutsey was seriously ill with diabetes, and trying to ignore it. Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson are both emphatic when they say the decision was made to let him go because they didn’t think he would survive touring.

The two still refer to Neil Peart as “the new guy.” Sadly, it was Peart’s personal life that has had the most profound impact on the band. In 1997, his 19-year-old daughter was killed in an auto accident. Just ten months later, his wife succumbed to cancer. At the funeral, Geddy Lee says Peart turned to him and said, “Consider me retired.”

This is where the real friendship of the band comes in, and it is hard to stifle a tear when they talk about it. Both Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson are adamant when they say that Rush was over without Neil Peart.

It took a couple of years, and 55,000 miles logged on his motorcycle, but Peart was able to work through the tragedies. Rush began touring again, to some of the biggest audiences of their career. As they all laugh about in the interview segments, Rush are “terminally unhip.” But their tour this summer is already proving to be one of the biggest ones of the season.

There are a number of bonus features on the second DVD, of which the most notable is a live version of “La Villa Strangiato.” They also talk about the record that song came from, Hemispheres — and how they consciously abandoned the progressive “song-suite” format afterward.

I remember the hilarious “Rush Is A Band” bumper stickers back in the '80s when Limbaugh first became popular. It always warmed my heart. Neil Peart’s lyrics and the incredible music these guys laid down seemed to put them in the cult band category. But that was never really the case. Rush’s appeal completely transcends the categories. Yes, Rush is a band, and a great one at that.

Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage is as good as rock DVDs get. It is a fascinatingly candid look at a very private band, whose story is all the more riveting for that very fact. Absolutely recommended.

Article first published as DVD Review: Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Devo - Something For Everybody

Like Kraftwerk before them, Devo arrived on the scene as a fully formed, self-contained unit. They had the look, the sound, the style and attitude down cold by the time their Warner Brothers debut Are We Not Men? was released in 1978. They even had a philosophy, which was represented by the name Devo — shorthand for the idea of de-evolution. The theory is that humans have already peaked as a species, and are now regressing, or de-evolving.

Great stuff, and it caught the music world’s attention immediately. The only flaw in the strategy was that the act was a little too perfect. After a few years of groundbreaking music, videos, and costumes (remember the flowerpots?), Devo were seen to be repeating themselves. Warners dropped them, and after floundering on a couple of independent labels, the band called it quits in 1990.

So here we are, 20 years later, and Devo has released one of their finest efforts yet. They are even back on Warner Brothers Records again. Reunion albums are always a hit-or-miss affair. To be honest, it is usually miss. That is not the case with Something For Everybody. This is easily the best they have done since 1982’s Oh No, It’s Devo.

Lead track “Fresh” is classic Devo. You hear elements of their most abandoned moments throughout the song, as well as reminders of fellow Class Of ‘78 alumni such as the Dickies and B-52’s. Any thoughts of this being just a new wave redux record are vanquished on the next track, “What We Do.” The vintage house-music beats sound so 1988, it’s comical. But this is meant as a positive, because someone as cutting-edge as Mark Mothersbaugh knows exactly what he is doing, so the wink to late-eighties Wax Trax! is clearly intentional.

“Don’t Shoot (I’m A Man)” is an instant classic, one of those insanely hook-filled tunes that you just cannot get out of your head. “Mind Games” is another, with the added fun of being filled with antiquated 8-bit videogame sounds.

The only song that gave me pause comes towards the end with “No Place Like Home,” a pretty straightforward ballad with lyrics bemoaning the destruction man has caused on the earth. Devo goes Green, I guess. It certainly fits in with the de-evolution idea, but is a little disconcertingly earnest.

The album winds up with “March On,” which effectively incorporates a message with the classic Devo sound. In this case, it is about a “brave little soldier” whose life has passed him by. The beat and the effects Devo utilize to tell the tale work perfectly, combining to close the record out on a great note.

It is heartwarming to see a group like this make a triumphant return to recording. I think anyone who ever appreciated Devo in their heyday will enjoy Something For Everybody.

Article first published as Music Review: Devo - Something For Everybody on Blogcritics.