Sunday, August 21, 2011

Music Review: Ten Years After - A Space In Time (24K + Gold Edition)

The lyrics “I’d love to change the world, but I don’t know what to do, so I leave it up to you,” were perfect for suburban post-sixties Boomers. They so encapsulated the zeitgeist in fact that the song “I’d Love To Change The World” by Ten Years After was immediately enshrined in the Classic Rock Hall of Fame. The album that boasted the tune, A Space In Time was a huge hit in 1971, and continues to be the band’s best-selling work.

The Audio Fidelity company was just reissued A Space In Time as a limited edition 24 karat gold CD, and it is an audiophile’s wet dream. The process behind these releases is a meticulous one, and quite intriguing for those of us who appreciate the ultimate in sound quality.

The first step is the remastering phase, which is done from the original tapes. Once this task is complete, the digital master is etched onto the glass disc surface in real time by laser. From this, the CD is made out of real gold, rather than the standard and often imperfect aluminum. The end result is a remarkably clean and “warm” sounding product, with the original analog depth intact, as well as the convenience and precision of digital technology.

Audio Fidelity focuses on classic rock releases, so it is likely that their audience is already familiar with the music. For those who may not be familiar with Ten Years After’s A Space In Time however, it is a great record. The haunting ballad “I’d Love To Change The World” is a bit of an anomaly, but fits perfectly. The real deal with the band has always been the incredible blues guitar of leader Alvin Lee.

Like a number of artists, Lee made his name on the Woodstock stage. TYA’s version of “I’m Going Home” is deservedly legendary, and Lee’s guitar work smokes. There are a number of cuts on A Space In Time that reflect his and the band’s love of the blues form. Opening track “One Of These Days” certainly qualifies as a leader in the British white-boy blues brigade. Over a heavy-duty 4/4 beat, Lee pulls out his slide and harmonica to emphasize this point.

A couple of the other notably bluesy numbers on the album are “Let The Sky Fall,” and “I’ve Been There Too.” The latter features the most fiery solo Lee plays on the record, and is a testament to just how good he is. Another factor in the popularity of A Space In Time is the variety of material on it. Besides the standard-issue blues, TYA were looking at other forms of expression. While “I’d Love To Change The World,” is the most effective ballad, it is by no means the only one included. “Here They Come” has a dreamy quality to it, and the strings on “Over The Hill” make it the most disconcerting track here. There is something about a band like Ten Years After slowing it down and adding violins that just sounds off - although it is a great tune.

Lee and company venture into rockabilly during “Baby Won’t You Let Me Rock ’N Roll You,” which may or may not have been referenced for Led Zeppelin’s later “Misty Mountain Hop.” Another stop the band make is at the roadhouse, during “Once There Was A Time.” This kind of music always brings to mind a good barroom brawl, and TYA do not disappoint. Finally we come to “Uncle Jam,” a two-minute Wes Montgomery-style jazz guitar piece to close the album out in fine form.

First timers will find a lot to recommend it in A Space In Time, without a doubt. For those who are already converted, the Audio Fidelity 24K + Gold Compact Disc Edition (to use the full name) is what you need for the ultimate Ten Years After experience.

Article first published as Music Review: Ten Years After - A Space In Time (24K+ Gold CD Edition) on Blogcritics.

DVD Review: The Death Of Andy Kaufman

It seems that whenever a celebrity dies the conspiracy nuts come out of the woodwork. In the case of Andy Kaufman (1949 - 1984), the belief that his death was a hoax is so strong that people are still waiting for him to reappear. Because of the way he lived his life, and the various events he staged, Andy is a perfect subject for the whole “faked death” theory. The recent DVD release of The Death Of Andy Kaufman explores this phenomenon, and the various reasons it is still believed even 26 years after he passed.

A lot has been written about Kaufman in the years since his death. One of the main themes is that he was ahead of his time, which is certainly true. There is also the “performance art” aspect to his life, which had not really come into vogue at the time either. The stunts he pulled are legendary now. Wrestling women as the “inter-gender” champion and the subsequent feud with Jerry Lawler, performances at colleges where he did nothing but read The Great Gatsby, and his often disastrous appearances on late night TV were acts that his audience did not understand. Why is Taxi’s lovable Latka Gravas acting so strange, we wondered.

When it was announced that Andy was suffering from a rare form of lung cancer, many assumed that it was just another one of his pranks. His death in 1984 did little to quell the persistent notion. In fact, in death he became even more popular than ever. Acclaimed director Milos Forman’s Man On The Moon (1999) ignited a great deal of interest in his career, as did biographies by Bob Zmuda and Bill Zehme.

Bob Zmuda may have known Andy better than anyone. As his partner in crime, Zmuda played a huge role in Kaufman’s best-known bits. He often played a heckler at Andy’s concerts, but perhaps his most brilliant contribution was Tony Clifton. The character of Tony Clifton was invented as a sort of washed up Vegas-style lounge singer. The overweight, profane has-been was everything Kaufman was not. He smoked, drank, ate huge steaks, and caroused with cheap whores when not insulting his audience, all the while denying that he was Andy Kaufman. The hilarious revelation in Zmuda’s book was that half the time it was Zmuda himself playing Clifton, which made Andy’s denials partially true.

Playing with the media was one of the things the two of them craved, so in 2004 Zmuda honored Andy by bringing back Tony Clifton. Although it was never explicitly stated, the implication was that after 20 years, Kaufman was ready for the denouement of his elaborate ruse. Zmuda staged some Tony Clifton concerts in the Los Angeles area, but Andy Kaufman never showed up.

The Death Of Andy Kaufman is a new documentary by Christopher Maloney which investigates the whole faked-death phenomenon. I suppose a “spoiler alert” is in order here, because Maloney never finds any evidence supporting the theory. What he does find is Andy’s brother Michael, who he interviews at length. Michael Kaufman reiterates the basic facts, and that is about it. There does seem to be a tinge of bitterness in his voice when he mentions how show business people such as Bob Zmuda are the ones the media always go to for comments, rather than family members. But he certainly does not feel that Andy is still alive.

Maloney’s camera travels to suspected hiding spots of Kaufman, such as the homeless enclaves of Santa Barbera, and Taos, New Mexico. The Lama Foundation in Taos is an interesting stop. This pseudo-commune seems to be where Maloney expects to find Andy. The latter-day hippies who inhabit the place seem incapable of remembering what they had for breakfast this morning, let alone if someone resembling Andy Kaufman had ever lived there.

For believers, there are four main reasons behind the hoax itself. First is the fact that Andy had often discussed faking his own death, and spoke to Alan Abel about it. Abel had actually done it, among other pranks in his lifetime, and Andy was fascinated. Big surprise there.

The second reason has to do with hair. Again, the evidence is less than compelling. When Kaufman was being treated, his hair fell out. This is quite common with cancer patients. There is a famous photo of Andy with a mohawk, which he said he liked better than having bald patches all over his head. Later he was photographed completely bald. The big news here is that he did not lose his eyebrows or chest hair. The idea is that he simply shaved his head, and there never were any cancer treatments.

Next we come to the curious case of one Nathan McCoy. This was something I was previously unaware of, but Nathan McCoy is the psuedonym that Andy was checked in under at Cedars-Sinai when he died. It is very common for celebrities to check into places under assumed names, is it not?

Finally we come to the state of his career at the time. It was not doing well. He had been banned from Saturday Night Live, and Taxi had been cancelled. Even wrestling had pretty much played itself out, as the Lawler feud had finally ended. The thought is that since things were at such a low point, a faked death would be just the shot in the arm his public profile needed.

Flimsy evidence, to say the least. The Death Of Andy Kaufman breaks no new ground, except to flesh out what the conspiracy theories base themselves on. There is also plenty of public-domain footage of Andy in concert and wrestling. The interview with Michael Kaufman is probably the most intriguing aspect of it, as the family’s thoughts have never been publicized before. The only extra included is a ten-minute interview with writer/director Christopher Maloney.

In the Andy Kaufman tale, there is very little new ground left to be uncovered, as The Death Of Andy Kaufman bears out. Still, if one is interested in the reasons behind the whole affair, this DVD is worth watching.

Article first published as DVD Review: The Death Of Andy Kaufman on Blogcritics.

DVD Review: Deep Purple - Phoenix Rising

They called it Deep Purple Mark IV. David Coverdale (vocals), Tommy Bolin (guitar), Jon Lord (keyboards), Glenn Hughes (bass), and Ian Paice (drums) made up this short lived, and final seventies edition of the band. For the past 35 years, it has been thought that no live footage of Mark IV existed. As sometimes happens however, accepted wisdom proved to be incorrect. The new Phoenix Rising DVD from Eagle Rock contains 30 minutes of the band playing live in Japan during their 1975 tour.

Although the entire concert was filmed, only five songs have survived: “Burn,” “Love Child,” “Smoke On The Water,” “You Keep Movin,” and “Highway Star.” This being the mid-seventies, the quality and editing leave something to be desired. The historical significance of the footage is undeniable though, as Tommy Bolin would be dead within months of the show.

Unfortunately for Bolin fans, his performance is severely limited. In the accompanying documentary “Getting Together” it is explained that he had slept for eight solid hours prior to the concert, on his arm. Bolin could barely move his fingers by showtime, and his playing is seriously compromised. He was so good with the guitar that he almost gets away with it, but not quite. Watching him strut around the stage like a peacock with platform shoes is pretty great though.

With Bolin practically sidelined, it is up to Jon Lord to take up the slack. He was always Purple’s not-so-secret weapon, and he steps up to the plate here in a big way. Lord’s solo during “Smoke On The Water” is a definite highlight, as is his synth turn during “Love Child.” Ian Paice’s drumming is power personified, and it is pretty amusing to watch Glenn Hughes ham it up with his bass playing. Listening to a hoarse David Coverdale croaking his way through the songs is the biggest drawback, but this was the end of the tour and he had probably blown it out.

The previously mentioned “Getting Together” is the other main feature of the set. In this 85-minute documentary, the various incarnations of the band are discussed. Both Jon Lord and Glenn Hughes were interviewed for this, and offer their observations about the history of the group. Hughes spends a lot of time discussing his cocaine addiction, while Lord explains the nightmare the band had in Indonesia just prior to the Japan concert. It is a fairly long story, but it sounds like the guys were lucky to get out of the country alive - one of their roadies did not.

As for extras, there is a more succinct re-hash of the Indonesia story, and an electronic press kit for the only album DP MK IV ever released, Come Taste The Band. This 20-minute piece about the record is actually quite interesting, with a fair amount of anecdotes I had never previously heard.

There are also a couple of booklets included in the set, featuring contemporary articles and pictures of the band. With all of this to recommend it, and despite the less than stellar performances, Phoenix Rising should appeal to most Deep Purple and Tommy Bolin fans.

Article first published as Music DVD Review: Deep Purple - Phoenix Rising on Blogcritics.

Book Review: Journey: The Untold Story by Neil Daniels

Thirty years has a nice ring to it. The hippies never trusted anyone over 30, and as the high school reunion committee keeps reminding me, it is also the number of years since I graduated. Thirty years have passed since the peak of Journey’s popularity as well. “Who’s Cryin’ Now” and “Don’t Stop Believin” were more than hits on the radio, they were anthems. Before the advent of “chick flicks” we had “chick songs,” and Journey were the undisputed champs. If a guy didn’t have an eight-track of Escape in his car back then, he was usually home alone on Friday nights. Who’s crying now? It used to be me.

As big as Journey were, there has never been a major biography written about them. Neil Daniels has corrected the situation with his new book Journey: The Untold Story. As they say, discretion is the better part of valor - and the members of Journey certainly adhered to the tenet. Unfortunately for them, Daniels found out where the bodies are buried.

The biggest revelation has to do with LSD — musicians’ shorthand for Lead Singer’s Disease. I first heard of it when Eddie Van Halen was talking about David Lee Roth. According to Daniels, Steve Perry is an LSD hall of famer. In some ways it is understandable that the front man of the group would think that he was also in charge. Unfortunately for the vocalist, this is almost never the case. When it came to Journey, the situation was magnified by the fact that the rest of the band were virtually anonymous to the casual fan. In their mind, Steve Perry was Journey.

Daniels takes us back to the early days, long before Perry came along. As a matter of fact, Journey was formed out of the ashes of Santana’s first lineup. Keyboardist Gregg Rolie was onstage with Santana at Woodstock, and even sang their big hit “Evil Ways.” A 16-year old guitar prodigy by the name of Neal Schon made his first recorded appearance on Santana III in 1971. When Carlos decided to take his music in a heavy jazz-fusion direction, Rolie and Schon opted out and founded Journey.

The first three Journey albums were not very successful. There was a tendency toward instrumental self-indulgence, which was common in the early seventies. It worked for some bands, but not this one. By their fourth attempt, it was do or die time. Enter Steve Perry, and the Infinity LP. This is where the Journey story really begins for many. “Wheel In The Sky,” “Lights,” and “Feelin’ That Way” were all on Infinity and became FM radio staples.

There was more to the winning formula than the simple addition of Steve Perry though. Besides KISS, Journey were one of the first “branded” groups. Ever notice the distinctive, yet similar album covers and titles during their golden years? We had Infinity, Evolution, Departure, Captured, and Escape, all with artwork by Stanley Mouse.

One of the first big rifts in the band happened when Perry decided that for 1983’s Frontiers, he wanted to change cover artists. It was little more than a power play, but he got his way. With that fateful step, the slow dissolution of the group began.

Daniels spends as much time on the decline of Journey as he did on their rise, which is the only real drawback of the book for me. There were solo albums, Perry left and came back, then left again… the tribulations go on and on. While their later years are an important part of the story, the momentum has clearly been lost.

At my upcoming reunion I fully expect to hear plenty of Journey tunes, especially “Don’t Stop Believin'.” It is a classic, and who can deny the final song Tony Soprano ever heard? Just like The Sopranos though, all good things must come to an end, including the golden-era of Journey.

But Journey itself did not end. They are now firmly in Neal Schon’s control, after Steve Perry’s final departure in 1998. Gregg Rolie had left the group he co-founded way back in 1980. Journey now tour the summer nostalgia circuit with their new singer Arnel Pineda.

In Journey: The Untold Story, Neil Daniels chronicles the rise and fall of the AOR perennials with an eye to detail and a healthy amount of respect. It is a refreshing look at a group who were once almost universally reviled as “corporate rock” by magazines such as Rolling Stone. The book is a well-written account of the band‘s long history and is recommended. All we need now are the Foreigner and Styx exposes to complete the trifecta.

Article first published as Book Review: Journey: The Untold Story by Neil Daniels on Blogcritics.

Music Review: You - Electric Day, Time Code

The duo who called themselves You were something of a post-Krautrock affair, whose first album Electric Day appeared in 1979. By that time the LP side-long atmospherics of fellow Berliners Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze were beginning to incorporate some rhythm into their “Kosmische Musik." You’s sound fit right into this new electronic world, even if they were somewhat overlooked at the time. Bureau B has just reissued the first two You albums, Electric Day and Time Code. Both provide a fascinating glimpse into this transitional era.

The title track of Electric Day opens the original seven-song set. It is a heavily sequenced piece, with a high beats per minute quotient. “Electric Day” is in no way a dance music track however. “Magooba” highlights one of the brilliant guests You mainstays Udo Hanton and Albin Meskes brought into the project. Guitarist Uli Weber contributes mightily to the tale, as he does later during “Zero Eighty-Four.”

The Spiegeltraum Studio where Electric Day was recorded saw a fair number of Krautrock titans come to visit. One who decided to join the proceedings was drummer Harold Grosskopf. At the time, he was drumming with the remains of Ash Ra Tempel, which was now being called Ashra - and was led by Manuel Gottsching. He had also drummed for Klaus Schulze at one point.

The sequencer patterns of Electric Day add a certain “futuristic” sheen to the affair, but it is Grosskopf’s drums that hold everything together. Nowhere is this better exemplified than on the 12-minute “Slow Go.” This song more than any other bridges the old, lengthy improvisational style of the seventies with the more refined sounds that would become common in the eighties.

One of the great things about CD reissues is the opportunity for bonus materials. In the case of Electric Day, the original vinyl release held approximately 39 minutes of music. The Bureau B CD adds another 33 minutes to the mix. And these four songs are in no way inferior tracks. In fact, I am hard pressed to tell you why these were not issued - because they are as great as anything on the album.

The sequencer-driven, 11-minute “E-Night” features barely audible, out of phase spoken-word interludes (in German) at a couple of particular spooky points. Weber’s guitar apocalypse towards the end of the cut must be heard to be believed. Another strange and forward looking extra tune is “H. Rays Identity.“ The weird pre-videogame soundtrack is a uniquely intriguing vision. It is the sound of the future, as heard through the prism of the past.

You’s second effort, Time Code took four years to complete - and was released to an indifferent public in 1983. For Time Code, Hanten and Meskes were on their own. It often sounds as if the ghosts in their machines are having nightmares.

Their ambivalence about their musical role is reflected in some of the song titles. “Future/Past,” “Time Code,” and “Taurus-Fantasia” all seem to exist on a purgatory plain somewhere between the islands of old and new. The fact that all of their music is instrumental just adds to the delicious mystery of intent.

Time Code also pays tribute to the Dusseldorf electronic “power-plant” of Kraftwerk. Ralf and Florian’s place in music history was secure by 1983 with classics such as Trans-Europe Express and The Man Machine behind them. The way in which You touch upon their predecessor’s triumphs is fitting. They simply add glorious (wordless) harmonies to their electronic compositions. It is a very effective means of grounding the intangible synth-sounds with the human (and tangible) sounds of the duo.

The bonus tracks on Time Code are not as extensive as those of Electric Day. Only two appear. Both are eminently worthwhile however. Despite its title, “Controlled Demolition” is not the industrial strength, early Einsturzende Neubauten-style ear-drill one might expect. In fact, it is actually quite pastoral. This “kinder, gentler” side of You is further explored on “Zone Black,” which reminds me an awful lot of Jean-Michele Jarre’s landmark Oxygene.

You were a pair of German musicians caught up in a most interesting time. Although albums from any of the surviving Krautrock stalwarts in the early eighties make clear how awkward the period was, nothing captures it quite the way You do. Theirs is a lost chapter in the evolution of the genre, and one with a curious story all their own.

Article first published as Music Review: You - Electric Day, Time Code on Blogcritics.

Book Review: The Ultimate Bar Book by Andre Domine

Like it or not, alcohol has been with us for centuries now, and its popularity shows no signs of letting up. The huge (and aptly titled) Ultimate Bar Book contains everything anyone might ever want to know about the subject of spirits. The book covers the history of alcohol, the most popular types by region, cocktail recipes, and more booze trivia than you can shake a (swizzle) stick at.

The Ultimate Bar Book is a nice title, but at over 800 pages, it is almost an encyclopedia. The tale begins with the distillation process, which dates back at least to the 13th Century BC Sumerian people. Whether they were actually producing alcohol at the time is still a matter of debate, but by the mid-12th Century AD, the manufacture of al-kuhl was in full-swing in Europe.

Early reports of the revelatory properties of hooch were ecstatic. Quoting from the book: “Initially said to be a miracle substance capable of turning inexpensive metals into gold, they [alchemists] soon interpreted it to be a kind of universal medicine believed to grant health, strength, eternal youth, and wisdom.” Some of us still believe that, actually.

In the 17th Century, upper-class Londoners developed specific tastes for the brandies of the Cognac region of France. Thus the first “top shelf” liquors were born. The enjoyment of spirits was quickly adopted by all the classes however, a process that was accelerated a great deal with the Industrial Revolution.

Nobody really knows the origins of the word “bar,” although the book offers a number of plausible legends surrounding it. It was certainly in common usage by 1862, when Jerry Thomas published his definitive Bartender’s Guide.

The bulk of the book is taken up with discussions of the most popular types of alcohol from around the world. Photo-filled chapters in this section concern Cognac and other brandies; whiskey and bourbon; grain spirits (vodka, etc.); rum and tequila; absinthe; vermouth; liqueurs; and fortified wines (sherry, etc.).

Following this insightful trip around the world, and each region’s specialties comes the recipe section. There are 160 specific drinks included in this department, with 20 of them nonalcoholic or “virgin” concoctions. There are a few that look absolutely amazing. In the pousse-café’s (or rainbow drinks), different colored liquors are stacked atop each other in the glass for a stunning effect.

The picture of a blend called a 4th of July, which has a red, a white, and a blue layer is unbelievable. The ingredients are very simple: Grenadine, Blue curacao, and Batida de Coco. If you pour them into the glass slowly in that order, you will have a drink that is red on the bottom, blue in the middle, and white at the top. Pay attention to the book’s description however: “This is likely to please every American. Whether it also tastes good is another question.”

The grossest-looking drink I have ever seen is also included. It is called a Prairie Oyster. This is one of four mythical “hangover cures,” which also includes that old standby, the Bloody Mary. Here are just a few of the ingredients that go into a Prairie Oyster: one raw egg yolk, Olive oil, ketchup, Tobasco sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and Cognac. Sounds like we should call Eddie Vedder, because it’s time for a hurl-jam.

One of the most amazing bits of trivia I came across in book is where the U.S. fits in on a per-capita consumption level worldwide. Thanks to the massive amount of advertising we are inundated with, as well as the constant reminders about drunk driving, I figured we were way up there on the list. The truth is, we rank number 50 out of 115, with an average yearly intake of 11 pints. In contrast, the Russian Federation is number three, with 42 pints per person. Number one is the Virgin Islands, at a whopping 57 pints, while number 115 is Morocco, with a meager three fluid ounces per person per year.

For drinkers and non-drinkers alike, there is a great deal of fascinating information about these magic elixirs. The book was designed to give the individual all the information they would need to set up the greatest bar ever, a goal it definitely achieves. But The Ultimate Bar Book manages to be more than a simple guide. This is a funny, informative and endlessly interesting tome, and a book I thoroughly enjoyed.

Article first published as Book Review: The Ultimate Bar Book by Andre Domine on Blogcritics.

Muisic Review: R.E.M. - Lifes Rich Pageant (25th Anniversary Edition)

Coming off the dark and mysterious Fables of the Reconstruction, R.E.M. were poised for a more direct approach with their fourth album. Lifes Rich Pageant would be produced by Don Gehman, who had just finished work on John Cougar Mellencamp’s outstanding Scarecrow. The clear and distinct sound Gehman is famous for is the most obvious benefit of bringing him on board. Also, the songs that R.E.M. were writing were much more straightforward than previous efforts. When these elements came together in the spring of 1986, the result was one of the band’s greatest recordings.

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Lifes Rich Pageant, Capitol/ I.R.S. have just issued a lavishly packaged, two-CD box set. Like the commemorative editions of Murmur, Reckoning, and Fables of the Reconstruction, the Lifes Rich Pageant (25th Anniversary Edition) one has some great bonus materials. All of that would be so much fluff, though, if not for the music of the original album. And as any R.E.M. fan will tell you, the 12 tracks the group recorded all those years ago were some of their best ever.

The album begins with “Begin The Begin,” an unequivocal statement of purpose for the group. Over Peter Buck’s marvelously staccato lead guitar, Michael Stipe declares his intentions, “Let’s begin again, like Martin Luther zen." Bill Berry’s drums drive the tune forward, and are clearer sounding than ever before. The ethereal background vocals of Mike Mills make an outstanding counterpoint to Stipe, while his bass holds the whole thing together.

These traits coalesce even more completely on the first single, “Fall On Me.” This haunting, medium-tempo cut addresses a topic the band has shown a particular affinity for: its concerns over environmental issues. As if to emphasize the point, the very next track is “Cayuhoga.” The song is about the toxic-waste-filled Cayuhoga River, in Ohio. As one of the most polluted rivers in the nation, the Cayuhoga would regularly catch fire.

Continuing the soft political vein of the record is “The Flowers Of Guatemala.” This intricate ballad is a near-perfect construction, in large part due to the guitar of Peter Buck. His solo in the mid-section offers a sublime commentary on Stipe’s stream-of-consciousness lyrics. In contrast to the more candid statements Stipe would make in the future, “The Flowers Of Guatemala” is shaded. The song's subtext is of the shameful conduct of the U.S. towards the people of Guatemala in the early eighties.

Lifes Rich Pageant has been unfairly categorized as R.E.M.’s political record, but as the title suggests, there is much more going on here. Exhibit A would be “Underneath The Bunker,” which is a salsa number, of all things. In a more traditional style comes “I Believe,” where country, and specifically honky-tonk music, is explored.

The other side of the coin is represented by “These Days” and “Just A Touch.” Both tracks show the harder-edged side of the band, albeit with a pop sensibility. In fact, “Just A Touch” nails the punk/power-pop combination that contemporaries Husker Dü were so well known for.

“Swan Song H” has received a lot of attention over the years. There is a similarity (in spirit at least) to what Mickey Newbury created with his “American Trilogy.” Like a lot of the subject matter on Fables Of The Reconstruction, R.E.M. are curious about their Southern heritage. The paradoxes of being young, white musicians growing up in Georgia are rich. “Swan Song H” concerns Civil War-era pirates, and the acoustic ballad sounds like nothing else on the album.

The final track is a cover of The Clique’s “Superman.“ To end such a powerful album with a tune like this is just plain weird. But they do a good job with it. Maybe the idea was to just keep us guessing. Or maybe it was more sinister, for they do begin the song with some sampled dialog from a Godzilla film.

Besides the remastered original album, the 25th anniversary edition of Lifes Rich Pageant has a bonus disc featuring 19 previously unreleased demos, recorded in March 1986 at John Keane’s Studio in Athens, Georgia. Except for “Superman,” the entire album is previewed. There are eight additional tunes, including such greats as “Rotary Ten” and “Mystery To Me.” Also included in the package is a poster-sized reproduction of the album cover, postcards, and a newly commissioned booklet with an essay by noted rock writer Parke Puterbaugh. The whole set is housed in a sturdy lift-top box.

Lifes Rich Pageant is without a doubt one of R.E.M.’s very best efforts, and this 25th Anniversary Edition is a fitting tribute to it

Article first published as Music Review: R.E.M. - Lifes Rich Pageant (25th Anniversary Edition) on Blogcritics.

Book Review: Hard Time - by Shaun Attwood

“English Shaun” Attwood was a British expatriate living the high life as a stockbroker by day, and an Ecstasy-dealing raver by night. The combination of big money and lots of drugs is always a bad one, but it became a nearly fatal one for him. You see, Attwood’s crimes took place in Phoenix, Arizona — home of the notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The abuses, graft, violent conflicts of interest, and other crimes committed in Arpaio’s jails have been documented before. But never by someone who spent two years inside.

Attwood’s new book, Hard Time: Life with Sheriff Joe Arpaio in America’s Toughest Jail describes the conditions of the (then) young man’s stint in these “temporary” holding facilities. The author was being housed in these jails before being actually sentenced to prison. The reason he was unable to bail out was that his was set at $1.5 million, a figure much higher than Arizona’s finest murderers routinely receive. The result of his ordeal is this sickening account of absolute sadism under the guise of law and order.

The jail environment is not supposed to be a pleasant one. But how bad should it be allowed to get? It seems Sheriff Arpaio’s mission is to find out just how far he can push things. The inmate death toll under his watch is the highest in the nation. In these jails, an integral part of the food supply is baloney sandwiches, made from moldy bread and a green baloney that is delivered in boxes stamped “Not Fit for Human Consumption.”

There is no system of air-conditioning at all (remember, this is Arizona — where temperatures often top 100 degrees), and the medical care is non-existent. Evidently the cockroaches feed off the pus generated by the MRSA-infected sores of spider bites.

While reading Hard Time, I often cringed at some of the situations Attwood described. Some of these instances seem to come straight out of the old HBO series OZ. While the author admits his guilt right up front, and expects to do prison time, we need to remember where all of these deaths and other atrocities are occurring. Sherriff Arpaio’s jails are holding people accused of crimes. Nobody there has been convicted or sentenced yet. Have we reached the point where the mere filing of a charge is enough to send someone to this type of hell hole?

Shaun Attwood was eventually sentenced to nine years in prison for his drug activities. He has since been released, and now speaks to teens as an anti-drug crusader. He also says that the two years he spent waiting to be sentenced in Arpaio’s jails were far worse than the nine he spent in prison.

What makes Hard Time so readable is Attwood’s obvious talent as a first time writer. There is no “woe is me” tone present, or prevarication about his being non-violent crimes. He takes his lumps, but he also shows just how ridiculous the whole situation there is. For example, he claims that he had never seen as much crystal meth on the outside as he did on the inside. Meth is a particularly nasty drug to have floating around in an already extremely dangerous environment. He is very lucky to have survived for two years.

There are also a number of humanizing moments, that he and his various cell mates share over time. These little glimpses of humanity in the midst of such squalor open up this tale to the rest of us. I certainly could not help wondering what I would do if faced with such a situation. Yes, of course, jail is intended as a deterrent, but this is like being thrown into the lion’s den.

Hard Time is a fascinating first-time book, and an eye-opening look at what is going on in the Phoenix jail system. This trampling of basic human rights needs to be addressed. Unfortunately, it seems Arpaio has so much power as to be immune. Just ask the former publisher of Arizona’s New Times newspaper, who was arrested in 2007 while investigating the abuses of the jail system. The investigation ended immediately.

Hopefully Shaun Attwood’s new book will cast more light on this intolerable situation. It is a harrowing, and at times oddly humorous account of life in hell. I only wish it was a fictional tale, because things like this should not be going on in America today. Hard Time is eye-opening, to say the least.

Article first published as Book Review: Hard Time: Life with Sherriff Joe Arpaio in America's Toughest Jailby Shaun Attwood on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Velvet Monkeys - Everything Is Right

With “Roadrunner,” Jonathan Richmanpioneered a Velvet Underground meets the Romper Room kids kind of sound. The VU influence of minimalism and drone was tempered with Richman’s sense of innocence - which provided an excellent contrast. This combination would lie dormant for many years before it become the basic K Records aesthetic - but before that we had Velvet Monkeys.

Everything Is Right
was the 1981 debut of Velvet Monkeys, and was initially released on the bleeding-edge format of cassette tape only. The group was led by future indie-icon Don Fleming, who has remastered the 30-year-old tapes for this CD reissue. Besides Fleming’s guitar and vocals, the Monkeys consisted of Elaine Barnes (keyboards, vocals), and Stephen Soles (bass). In the tradition of all great rock bands, they had a succession of drummers - no less than three appear here.

The disc begins with “Everything Is Right,” a song that perfectly encapsulates what the group were all about. Fleming’s deadpan delivery of lines such as “Everything is right, everything is coming up roses” sounds irony-free. Of course this is highly unlikely, given the fact that they were a Washington D.C. band in the first-flush of Reaganism. What Velvet Monkeys pioneered was a way to have your cake (or jellybeans) and eat it too.

Their sense of fun is what comes through the most. With songs like “Drive In,” the foursome share their love of the simple pleasures of the drive-in double feature. In 1981, such things still existed. Other mood-lifters include a cover of “The Creeper” and “Velvet Monkey Theme Song.” As we all know, every band shoud have a theme song.

Velvet Monkeys were definitely not living in a vacuum. There is an experimental side to them that may have been obscured in the early days, but was clearly there. Whether intentional or not, “Any Day Now” has a great deal in common with the sound Martin Hannett produced on Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures album. Don Fleming may disagree with this, and it may have just been something in the air at the time. Still, there are remarkable similarities.

For the CD release of Everything Is Right, three live tracks are added for our listening pleasure. They are from a New Year's Eve 1981 show at a club called The Chancery in D.C. The tunes are raw as hell, and it sounds like everyone was having a damn fine night. Of course the conservatives were well on their way to putting an end to the hedonistic good times, and D.C.‘s own Minor Threat would soon spawn Straight Edge. But Velvet Monkeys were pointing the way to a very different type of punk rock, albeit one that would come of age many years later.

What is most apparent in listening to Everything Is Right is the profound effect it had on Beat Happening (whose debut appeared in 1984). Beat Happening’s homegrown label K Records even specialized in cassette-only releases at first. As is fairly common knowledge, the only tattoo Kurt Cobain ever had was of the K Records logo. And Velvet Monkeys themselves would one day record for K, in 1989.

But in 1981, all of these developments were a long ways off. Everything Is Right was a pioneering recording, and one that proved to have a lasting impact. It has also been nearly impossible to find almost from the start.

Thirty years is a hell of a long time, especially in the fickle world of music, yet
there is nothing dated about this disc. The amateur exuberance and obvious joy at just playing make the whole thing sound as fresh as ever. Everything Is Right is guaranteed to put a smile on your face, even if it is usually as frown-frozen a mug as Margaret Thatcher’s.

Article first published as Music Reiview: Velvet Monkeys - Everything Is Right on Blogcritics.

Book Review: Worst Ideas Ever by Daniel B. Kline & Jason Tomaszewski

We all have had those “What were they thinking?” moments. Whether it was New Coke, or Michael Jordan leaving basketball for baseball, or the creation of the XFL — some decisions just boggle the mind. Authors Daniel B. Kline and Jason Tomaszewski have collected 42 all-time great mistakes in their new book Worst Ideas Ever: A Celebration of Embarrassment. Written in a breezy style and including representative photos of each debacle, this is one of the most genuinely funny books you are likely to find.

One big reason is that outside of a couple of instances, e.g., The Hindenburg disaster, nobody gets hurt in these anecdotes. Well, just about everybody involved takes a battering in the pride department, but they had that coming. Leading the hit parade is possibly the biggest corporate embarrassment ever, the introduction of New Coke in 1985. The ludicrous idea was to replace Coca-Cola with a “new and improved” formula.

Immediately upon introduction, the response to New Coke was a deafening public outcry, and after a brief period (79 days) “Coca-Cola Classic” was brought back. New Coke hung on for a couple of years, but was eventually scrapped, presumably along with the executives who had approved it in the first place.

The book is broken up into five categories of study: “Food & Drink,” “Stuff,” “The Arts,” “Sports,” and “Media & Politics.” Under “Stuff” we find items such as “The In-Car Phonograph.” I never really knew the story behind this doozy, but Kline and Tomaszewski lay it all out, and the whole thing is just ridiculous.

In 1956, Chrysler actually offered this as an accessory on their De Soto, Dodge, and Plymouth models. Ignoring for the moment the obvious difficulties of playing a record in a moving vehicle, there was another problem. The contraption only played 45rpm singles. That means that every three minutes or so you would have to change the record!

Every one of these entries is hilarious, in a hard-to-believe kind of way. When you think back on the Conan/Leno Tonight Show fiasco perpetrated by NBC, or when AOL swallowed Time/Warner in 2000, it boggles the mind to realize that nobody batted an eye at the time. I’m sure there are plenty more examples of monumentally stupid decisions that have been made over the years. For now though, Worst Ideas Ever, the book and the up-to-the-minute blog, collects some of the funniest, and most clueless examples of bad decision making of all time.

Article first published as Book Review: Worst Ideas Ever: A Celebration of Embarrassmentby Daniel B. Kline and Jason Tomaszewski on Blogcritics.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Book Review: Giants of Rock: Led Zeppelin Box Set by Guitar World

As a subject for retrospectives, only The Beatles top Led Zeppelin. But where The Beatles’ impact was as much cultural as musical, with the mighty Zep it was almost all about the music. Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Bonham and John Paul Jones created a hard rock din of unparalleled majesty, which was generally dismissed by contemporary critics as so much noise. Those of us who were listening to something as gorgeous as “That’s The Way” on Led Zeppelin III knew the real score, and that was all that mattered.

Although Rolling Stone and Creem did not get the band, guitar magazines certainly did. In the case of Guitar World, all of the extensive coverage they have lavished on the band came after the fact. The magazine began publishing in 1980, the year Zeppelin called it quits following John Bonham’s death.

Guitar World’s new box set Giants Of Rock: Led Zeppelin contains some very cool stuff. The main attraction is the DVD: How To Play The Best Of Led Zeppelin. In this three-hour plus instructional disc, Guitar World’s Jimmy Brown takes us through four Zeppelin classics, note-for-note. The four songs are: “Rock And Roll,” “The Song Remains The Same,” “Stairway To Heaven,” and “Since I’ve Been Loving You.” Brown’s step-by-step examples are painstakingly precise, and should allow even the most novice player to be able to eventually play these classics.

Also included are three magazines. The first is the November 2010 “Collector’s Issue” of Guitar World, with Jimmy Page on the cover. Not only does this one celebrate the 40th (!) anniversary of Led Zeppelin III, it does so in 3-D. Yes, the ephemeral (one hopes) fad of all things 3-D proved too much for GW to resist, so we get glasses and the requisite fuzzy photos to go along. The magazine also offers a great deal of coverage about a landmark album that arrived in stores some 30 years ago, Pink Floyd’s The Wall.

The second magazine is a six-song collection of guitar tablatures. This is a form of sheet music for guitar players, where the notes are diagrammed out on the strings of the guitar. The songs are an interesting mix: “Black Mountain Side,” “Celebration Day,” “Good Times, Bad Times,” “Misty Mountain Hop,” “The Crunge,” and “Whole Lotta Love.” I have never met anyone who has considered Zep’s James Brown tribute “The Crunge” an essential one to learn, but here it is nonetheless.

The third and final magazine is the one I found the most interesting. This is simply a collection of five previously published Led Zeppelin articles from Guitar World, dating back to 1991. What has kept the periodical in business all these years is the tremendous knowledge and care their writers put into their work. These five articles contain all kinds of little known facts about the band and their music, and make for a rewarding reading experience. Rounding things out are two guitar picks, each with an image of The Hindenburg screened onto them.

The tally: one DVD, three magazines, two guitar picks, and a handsome cardboard box to display it all in. I’m a fan, and my recommendation is based on that fact. There is quite a bit of information here, most especially for those of us who struggle with learning the songs. Also “The Complete Story” magazine (consisting of the previously published articles) is very worthwhile. All in all, Alfred Publishing has managed to put together a unique box set of all things Zeppelin.

Article first published as Book Review: Giants of Rock: Led Zeppelin Box Set by Guitar World on Blogcritics.

DVD Review: Spectacle: Elvis Costello with...(Season 2)

Was Elvis Costello really the angry young man who would storm off the stage after 45 minutes, and turn up white noise to clear the hall? It is hard to believe he was once such an asshole after watching him as the consummate host of Sundance’s Spectacle: Elvis Costello with… series.

Recorded at the Apollo Theatre in New York, the show is one-hour mix of interviews and performances, featuring some of the greatest names in music. The second season of Spectacle has just been released by MVD as a two-DVD set, and it is outstanding.

Only seven episodes were produced for the second season, as opposed to 13 for the first. Nevertheless, the quality is high - and Elvis’ guests are uniformly top-shelf. Take the very first program of the season, with Bono and The Edge. Elvis banters easily with the members of U2, showing them a poster of a gig they all performed on in 1980. U2’s name is barely legible at the bottom of the flier. “Then whoosh, to the moon - Red Rocks and setting everybody on fire,“ Elvis says.

There are so many brilliant musicians who took part in the second season, it is hard to whittle the list down to a favorite performance. However, the third episode of the season is a strong contender, with a band made up of Allen Toussaint, Richard Thompson, Nick Lowe, and Levon Helm. Their take on “The Weight” with Elvis is a big highlight. New York being New York, plenty of celebrities are in the audience. In this one Steve Buscemi is seen rocking out, and grinning ear to ear - possibly for the first time ever.

Mary-Louise Parker turns the table on Mr. McManus during the fourth show. In this one, the host himself is the guest. During the interview he discusses how he and his peers used to hide their influences. To be the 1977 version of politically correct, you could not admit an affinity for Van Morrison or The Band. The show is all solo Elvis. He even performs one of my favorite “angry young man” tunes, “I Don’t Want To Go To Chelsea.”

Bruce Springsteen fans may be the biggest customers for this set. The season ended with a two-part session with the Boss, which is typical for a guy who prides himself on four-hour marathon concerts. Some of the songs performed over the course of the two episodes include “She’s The One,” “The Rising” and “Pretty Woman.”

As for DVD extras, there is the behind the scenes documentary Spectacle: Elvis Costello with…Inside Notes - which is hosted by Co-Executive Producer David Furnish. There are also three bonus songs, of which I found Bono and The Edge’s version of “Allison” to be the most intriguing.

Spectacle: Elvis Costello with…Season 2 is a great mix of interviews and music, with some of the greatest names in the business. And the host ain’t so bad either.

Article first published as DVD Review: Spectacle: Elvis Costello with...(Season 2) on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Amina Alaoui - Arco Iris

The term “world music” is one of the most ridiculous tags ever. After all, isn’t all music world music? The implied condescension is repulsive, but thankfully an artist has arrived who is worthy of such an appellation. Amina Alaoui’s ECM solo debut, Arco Iris, is a stunningly beautiful album, filled with musical elements that really do seem to span the globe.

It all stems from the depth of musical knowledge Amina has spent her life amassing. Born in Fez, she was originally schooled in the Moroccan Gharnati tradition. She has also studied European classical music, medieval chant, and Persian song forms. One of the many brilliant aspects of Arco Iris is her ability to blend these influences into a style all her own.

The songs she has chosen are an eclectic mix; some of their texts and melodies date back over 1,000 years. Among the sources set to music are mystic poems by St. Teresa and the 11th century King of Seville, Al Mutamid Ibn Abbad.

A great deal of credit must also go to the group Amina assembled. They are Saifallah Ben Abderrazak (violin), Sofiane Negra (oud), Jose Luis Monton (flamenco guitar), Eduardo Miranda (mandolin), and Idriss Agnel (percussion, electric guitar).

Appropriately enough, the disc begins with the unaccompanied voice of Amina on the traditional Andalusian chant “Hado.” From there we move into “Buscate en mi,” with words by Santa Teresa de Avila (1515-1582), set to music by Alaoui. As is the case throughout the album, her choices are impeccable. The piece opens with a lonely violin, which is soon joined by flamenco guitar, and topped with her soaring vocals. The poems have been translated into English for the booklet, which only adds to the overall sense of wonderment. Consider the first few stanzas: “Let nothing trouble you. Let nothing frighten you. All is ephemeral. God alone is immutable.”

This is the level that Amina is working at, and every one of the 12 tracks is extraordinary in its own way. I found the nine-minute “Ya laylo layl” to be worthy of special mention, however. With words supplied by Ibn Zaydun de Cordoba (1003-1071), and music by Amina, this piece is one of the few that feature the full band playing together. A welcome twist occurs at the end, with a particularly unconventional flamenco guitar solo from Jose Luis Monton. The guitarist arranged “La Morillas de Jaen,” which is another superior track. This is the most aggressive piece on the record, and a virtual guitar extravaganza.

The final two cuts are the most personal of the set. “Que fare” was written by Amina, and features the only amplified instrument on the record. The electric guitar accompaniment is supplied courtesy of her son, Idriss Agnel. The disc closes with the title track, her song of praise to the “Arco Iris,” or rainbow.

This is a brilliantly conceived and executed collection of songs, and seems to have appeared fully-formed, and without precedent. ECM followers may have had an inkling that something like this was coming, however. Amina’s first appearance on the label came in 2009, on Jon Balke’s Siwan. It was another extraordinary blend of unexpected sources, with a sensibility similar to that of Arco Iris.

The intent was to recreate “what was lost to the bonfires of the Inquisition.” The medieval territory of Andalusia is the spiritual center of Siwan, a place where Muslim, Christian, and Jewish scholars freely exchanged ideas. For this collection of early music, much of the poetry was composed to Spanish translations. One of Amina’s central roles was to reshape the material around the original Arabic versions, which she then sang with a deep empathy for the form.

Among the multitude of players that Balke employed for the project is the legendary Jon Hassell. His involvement would seem to signal something of a modernist approach to all of this, but that is not the case. His contributions fit perfectly with the underlying themes. Special note should also be made of the 12-piece Barokksolistene (Baroque Soloists), who add a tremendous amount of flavor throughout.

While Siwan is a much different project than Arco Iris, both contain some of the most appealingly adventurous music one is likely to hear. The glue that binds the two recordings together is the remarkable voice of Amina Alaoui. Her talent, and desire to find common ground between all forms of music is a quality that is extremely captivating. She is very definitely an artist to watch, and Arco Iris is one of the finest records I have heard this year.

Article first published as Music Review: Amina Alaoui - Arco Iris on Blogcritics.

Book Review: Hollywood Hellraisers: The Wild Lives and Fast Times of Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper, Warren Beatty, and Jack Nicholson by Robert Sellers

Hollywood Hellraisers concerns the lives of four iconic movie stars; Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper, Warren Beatty, and Jack Nicholson. Two of them are still with us, two are gone - but all left an indelible mark on Hollywood.

The book is basically a four-part biography. Each of the men started out poor, but developed a keen interest in acting early on. Marlon Brando was born April 3, 1924 in Omaha, Nebraska. His was an abusive, alcoholic family, and he left it behind at the age of 19. Four years later, on December 3, 1947 to be exact - Marlon Brando became a star. His role as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire became the hottest ticket on Broadway.

Dennis Hopper came into the world on May 17, 1936, on a wheat farm in Kansas. He was only five when he lost his father during basic training before shipping out to join the war. In 1946, his father returned from the dead. Jay Hopper had been recruited as a spy, and his whole death had been a ruse. The entire event haunted Hopper until the day of his own death, and may in large part explain some of the self-destructiveness he later displayed.

Warren Beatty arrived in the world March 30, 1937 - three years after his sister Shirley MacLaine. They had a pretty normal upbringing in Richmond, Virginia, although both had their eyes on show business. Warren was still in high school when Shirley hit the big time. Sibling rivalry demanded that he become a bigger star.

Jack Nicholson was born (appropriately enough) in Neptune, New Jersey, on April 22, 1937. His situation is the strangest of the four, as he did not find out until the age of 38 that the woman he thought was his mother was actually his grandmother. And his “sister” had actually been his birth mother. Nicholson was already a rich and famous movie star by the time of the discovery, and acted unfazed by the whole thing. But it must have been devastating, especially as both had already passed away.

From these beginnings, the four Hollywood hellraisers conquered the world of film, each taking their own path. After brilliant performances in The Wild One (1953) and On The Waterfront, (1954) Marlon Brando perversely took on the worst roles imaginable - for the money. He was box-office poison for most of the sixties, and the studios would not touch him. Francis Ford Coppola had to convince Paramount to take a flyer on him for The Godfather (1972). Yet Brando came up with one of the most unforgettable characterizations ever, and won an Oscar for his role as Don Corleone.

Wild man Dennis Hopper’s self-destructive urges derailed his career practically before it began. Landing a bit part in Rebel Without A Cause, (1955) Hopper became enamored of James Dean. Unfortunately for Dennis, Dean had a bit of an attitude towards “the suits,” which he emulated for years.

Although Peter Fonda came up with the original kernel of Easy Rider (1969), even he agrees that it was really Hopper’s picture. The film’s profits changed the thinking in Hollywood virtually overnight, and ushered in a short-lived, but golden renaissance period. Without Easy Rider, directors such as Scorsese, Coppola, Lucas, and even Spielberg would have had a much tougher go of it.

Thanks to his habits, Dennis Hopper would not share in any of this. Although he enjoyed a celebrated role as the photographer in Apocalypse Now (1979), Hopper’s career did not really resume until Blue Velvet (1986). By then he had finally embraced sobriety. When he died in 2010, he had managed to rehabilitate his life and career - and after an incredible journey, was deservedly eulogized as a legend.

Jack Nicholson had been banging around in Hollywood for years before his big break. He worked in various capacities with Roger Corman throughout most of the sixties, until the call came for him to play the lawyer in Easy Rider. It made him a star, and enabled him to make such classics as Chinatown (1974), One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), and The Shining (1980). While Nicholson has made his fair share of duds, and his personal life has occasionally come under scrutiny, he seems to be well-adjusted to life as a movie star.

As author Robert Sellers shows us, Warren Beatty has never been remotely self-destructive. In fact, he has proven to be one of the shrewdest businessmen in Hollywood. Early on, the pretty-boy landed some television roles, most notably in The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis, but it wasn’t until Bonnie And Clyde (1967) that he became a household name.

Beatty’s drug of choice was sex, and his chapters in Hollywood Hellraisers are not much more than laundry lists of the women he has had. He made some memorable movies after Bonnie And Clyde, including Shampoo (1975), and Reds (1981). After decades of (as the British author puts it) “shagging,” Warren Beatty finally married Annette Bening in 1992. Upon the news, The Washington Post asked “Is this the end of civilization as we know it?” The rest of us just yawned.

Still, like the other three subjects of Hollywood Hellraisers, Warren Beatty has reached iconic status. This is a breezy read about four fascinating characters, and contains some intriguing, little-known stories. It is definitely worth a look for fans of the actors, or the movies in general.

Music Review: Gosta Berlings Saga - Glue Works

Gosta Berlings Saga are a quartet that specialize in an eclectic combination of progressive rock and the avant-garde to produce a sound uniquely their own. Their latest release is titled Glue Works, and is another in a long line of challenging releases from the magnificent Cuneiform label.

The disc opens with “354,” a very proggy affair with some cool guitars, and the trippy sounds of the theremin (actually created by a synthesizer). Towards the end, there is a dark element that seeps in, which becomes more pronounced as Glue Works moves forward. The short “Icosahedron” follows, and picks up on the ominous closing tones of “354,” before resolving itself in a much more open, even sweet manner.

“Island” is the first tour de force to appear on Glue Works, and sets the stage for the fireworks to follow. At 12:26, “Islands” allows ample time for Gosta Berlings Saga to indulge their collective musical whims, resulting in a wild ride. The repetitive nature of the tune displays elements of classical compositional structure in tandem with a fleeting minimalist influence. The guitar and synthesizer solo spots are again exemplary.

Next up is “Gliese 581g.” This intriguing piece reminds me of Polygon Window’s (aka Aphex Twin) somewhat obscure, and very beautiful Surfing On Sine Waves. Moving in a completely different direction is Gosta’s own “Waves,” a very rhythmic and keyboard-driven track.

“Geosignal” signals a return to the portentous tones explored earlier on the disc. The cut works as something of an overture, heralding the arrival of the final track, “Sorterargatan 1.” Mysterious, low tones are the initial sounds we hear, and as the piece progresses they transform into a brighter, and rhythmically challenging tableau. The tempos then begin to rapidly change, illustrating the virtuosity of all four musicians. Just as we have become accustomed to the anxious energy, the tune moves into a gentle piano-driven culmination.

The four musicians who make up Gosta Berlings Saga are unmistakably gifted composers and players. Glue Works is a powerful testament to their talents.

Article first published as Music Review: Gosta Berlings Saga - Glue Works on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Eberhard Schoener - Flashback

This is quite literally the greatest Police album you have never heard. Flashback is credited to Eberhard Schoener, but Andy Summers, Stewart Copeland, and Sting are so deeply involved as to make this a de facto collaboration.

Eberhard Schoener is a German director/musician who invited his friend Andy Summers to take part in a show he was creating. The Police had just formed, and were scuffling for gigs, so one day in early 1977 the trio went to Munich. What they encountered there was “A multi media extravaganza of lasers, circus, rock, classical, and electronic music, with ballet dancers and a mime artist,” according to Sting’s liner notes.

When the stage appearances ended, work commenced on what would become Flashback. By all accounts the four got along famously, until the arrival of manager Miles Copeland that is. Copeland’s vision for the Police did not include stints as the backup band for an experimental German composer, and he quickly moved to bury any mentions of this period from their history for good.

Flashback was released in 1978 on a small German label, and promptly disappeared. It has remained an obscure (and extremely rare) curio in the years since. But the album has finally seen the light of day as a CD through the efforts of the MIG label.

This is certainly a far cry from The Police's debut, Outlandos d’Amour, which was released the same year. All of the tracks on Flashback were written by Eberhard, and take the form of two song cycles. Side one of the original vinyl LP contained a suite of six short tunes, subtitled “From The New World.” It is the description of a journey to the United States and back to Europe. Side two, “From The Old World,” contains three longer tracks meant to evoke a vision of the Rhine, from delta to river head.

“Trans-AM” opens the proceedings with the sound of a jet taking off. This is soon replaced with a minimalist droning melody, which sounds very Krautrock, and Sting’s voice intoning words such as “I want to touch the sky.” The Georgio Moroder-inspired beat of “Why Don’t You Answer” comes next, and for me is the highlight of the album.

“Only The Wind” features some early sequencer sounds, complemented by whooses straight out of Edgar Froese’s textbook. In much the same way as he would do years later as a solo artist, Sting’s voice drifts in and out of the music. Whether he is singing actual words or just acting as accompaniment, the swordsman is ever-present.

The three remaining tracks, “Rhine-Bow,” “Loreley,” and “Magma” are very symphonic in structure, and prominently feature the Orchestra of the Munich Chamber Opera. Schoener’s visual experience is very pronounced on these final cuts, as they sound much like film music.

There is a bonus track appended to the reissue. “Why Don’t You Answer” has been remixed up to 21st century dance-floor standards. The results are pretty average; I much prefer the original Munich-beat version.

Flashback is a very intriguing document of a strange time for all involved. Serious Police fans should definitely hear it, and for those of us who enjoy Krautrock’s many guises, it is also of interest. The rest of the world will probably look upon it as a curiosity at best. Historical relevance aside, though, Flashback seems to be a very personal statement by the artist, and as such is worth a listen.

Article first published as Music Review: Eberhard Schoener - Flashback on Blogcritics.

Book Review: Cannibal Killers: Monsters With An Appetite For Murder And A Taste For Human Flesh by Chloe Castleden

Cannibal Killers: Monsters With An Appetite For Murder And A Taste For Human Flesh is definitely not a book for the squeamish. Author Chloe Castleden has scoured the globe for the most incredible stories of modern day cannibalism, and presents 20 of them here. While some of these cases may be more famous than others, all are equally gruesome. There are a number of sick minds out there, and Cannibal Killers takes us right into them.

In the twisted world of cannibals, some are more well-known than others. These include Jeffrey Dahmer, Ed Gein, Edmund Kemper, and Alfred Packer. But Castleden has unearthed monsters from all over the planet, with stops in Russia, Germany, Japan, and even Merrie Olde England.

Obviously this is a cast of characters so demented and psychotic they are all beyond the pale. Still, a few stand out as even more twisted than others. Take the German mother and son cannibal team for instance. Lyudmila Spesivtsev and her boy Alexander had their own set of family values.

Their ritual began with Mom going out shopping at the local market. Walking home, she would spill her bags, and persuade friendly neighborhood kids to help her out. When they arrived at the apartment, the youngsters would be turned over to Alexander. He would then rape, torture, kill, and eat them.

For the gay cannibal couple of Ottis Elwood Toole and Henry Lee Lucas, sharing really was caring. They spent the Bicentennial summer of 1976 together, engaging in arson, murder, necrophilia, and, of course, cannibalism before being apprehended.

Amazingly, there is the story of a civic-minded cannibal. Daniel Rakowitz got tired of seeing homeless people in New York’s Tompkins Square Park, and decided to permanently remove some of them. His job in a soup kitchen enabled him to feed his victim’s remains to other transients.

One of the strangest cases in the book is also the most recent. I think everyone has heard of the potential perils of meeting strangers online by now. Back in 2001, Armin Meiwes began advertising for a “dinner date” on a website called “The Cannibal Cafe.” Incredibly, he had quite of number of takers. Some even showed up at his home/slaughterhouse, although they finally backed out when they realized that this was the real deal. One guy even wound up seeing the film Ocean’s Eleven with Meiwes instead of being eaten.

Bernd Jurgen Brandes actually went through with it, and as Meiwes’ surveillance tape shows, he did so quite willingly. This posed a bit of a problem for the German police at first. After all, the whole thing was consensual, and they had no laws against cannibalism at the time. Eventually Meiwes was convicted of murder, however, and sentenced to life in prison. The final bizarre twist occurred in prison, where Meiwes became a vegetarian.

Cannibal Killers is filled with stories like these, proving again and again that truth really is stranger than fiction.

Article first published as Book Review: Cannibal Killers: Monsters With An Appetite For Murder And A Taste For Human Flesh by Chloe Castleden on Blogcritics.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Book Review: The Eric Carr Story by Greg Prato

Eric Carr (1950 - 1991) replaced Peter Criss in KISS just in time to record their ill-fated Music From ‘The Elder’ album in 1980. It represented them at the nadir of their career (at least in the U.S.), but Carr was just happy to be in the band. They bounced back of course, and had a number of hair-metal hits in the eighties, sans makeup. Greg Prato’s new book The Eric Carr Story details the man’s life, and his heartbreaking demise from cancer at the tender age of 41.

Prato is something of a master at the art of the oral biography. To be honest, I have never been much of a fan of this type of writing, but Prato is the exception. I have read previous books by him, including Grunge Is Dead and The Tommy Bolin Story, and came away very satisfied.

One of the inherent drawbacks to this type of writing though is cooperation. Prato very obviously did not get to speak to either Gene Simmons or Paul Stanley. Knowing those guys - they probably wanted a 99% to 1% split on any royalties. Prato works around it though, by speaking with quite a number of people who were involved with Eric Carr and KISS during the time he spent as their drummer.

A few things about the man come across from multiple sources. Number one is just how thrilled he was to have gotten the job. As anyone who considered themselves a rock fan in the seventies can tell you, there was no cooler, better group out there in the middle of the decade than KISS. Alive, Destroyer, and Alive II were/are monster albums. Definitely their peak. Just a couple of years later though, they cut their hair and went disco with “I Was Made For Loving You,” and we all pretty much walked away.

Eric Carr didn’t. One of the more enjoyable aspects of Prato’s book is how he details the difference a “big” drummer like Carr brought to their music. The drums behind KISS were no longer the simple five-piece set so common to the era. He had a huge, double-bass drum setup, with every type of accessory imaginable. Only Neil Peart of Rush was going this balls-out with his equipment at the time. It certainly did bring a new element to their music, and quite possibly saved them from terminal

From all sources, the fact that Eric Carr was a genuinely nice guy comes across as well. And then there was the drinking. Multiple interviewees mention how Carr could drink everyone under the table, yet never show any signs of intoxication. Make of that what you will, but the overriding feeling is that he just had a high tolerance, and was never a mean, or even sloppy drunk. He just liked his cocktails, I guess.

One has to wonder if the drinking contributed to his early death though. There are various opinions voiced by those who Prato interviewed. In the end, nobody really has an answer.

In any event, this is a very enjoyable book. Even though Greg Prato does not make his opinions very obvious by just outright stating them - his questions show the framework of what he had in mind. There is no doubt that he is a fan of Eric Carr, but was willing to allow the pins to fall where they may.

The end is as hard as one can imagine, especially as voiced by the people who loved Eric Carr. But bravo to Greg Prato for writing this book. It puts the emphasis on a man who has been sadly written out of the “official” KISS history in many ways. And the book shows that he clearly deserves much more credit as a musician than he has previously received. Eric Carr’s life was much more than the simple “Replaced drummer Peter Criss in KISS” kind of nonsense that is the usual obituary tidbit.

For fans of KISS - from any era of their nearly 40 years together, this book is a must. It sheds a lot of light on what was going on when they came so close to completely ending it in 1980. In many ways, Eric Carr is the unsung hero of their so-called comeback. The Eric Carr Story lays it all out, spoken by many of those who were actually there. The book is available exclusively through