Monday, January 24, 2011

Book Review: Blondie: The Complete Daily Strips 1930 - 1933 by Chic Young

The comic strip of Blondie has been around since before I was born. To tell the truth, I had never even found the characters to be very interesting. So the discovery of the beautiful new Blondie: The Complete Daily Comic Strips From 1930-1933 was a surprising revelation. Blondie may have always been perky, attractive, and “ditzy.“ But she actually began life as a far more complex, independent, and powerful woman that anyone has ever given her credit for.

In the beginning, Chic Young drew Blondie as the archetypal Twenties “Flapper.” She was the young, pretty woman, who did not need a man to have fun. It goes without saying that what she did off the pages of the strip was nobody’s business.

Unfortunately, The Great Depression hit just as Chic Young was trying to launch his character. Nobody knows, including Dean Young (son of Chic, who now writes the strip for his deceased father), what direction Blondie might have taken down the road. But it was very clear that the idea of the good-time floozy hooking up with a rich, slumming man would no longer fly.

The wealthy Dagwood Bumstead stood to be disinherited if he chose the "lower class” Blondie. It may sound ridiculously cliché now that we know he chose true love over money. The courtship, and eventual wedding of the characters were actually front page news back in the day.

It is an age-old story, but it always works.

Every single strip is faithfully reproduced from the years 1930-1933 in this book. Everything about Blondie: The Complete Daily Comic Strips From 1930-1930 is first class. This is a coffee-table book that has already sparked a number of conversations among my guests.

Blondie and Dagwood may not be Brangelina, but from 1930-1933 they actually were. It is an awful lot of fun to go back and look at what captivated a nation so many, many years ago. Place such a gorgeous book down, and say no more. This is art, history, nostalgia — and whatever else you wish to call it, all rolled up in one magnificent collection.

Article first published as Book Review: Blondie: The Complete Daily Strips 1930 - 1933 by Chic Young on Blogcritics.

Hans-Joachim Roedelius: Jesus "Kraut" Superstar

Is Hans-Joachim Roedelius the savior of what we have come to know as Krautrock? The point is certainly debatable. What is undeniable is his impact. Even stronger is how his influence continues to reverberate through music, and how little is known about the artist himself.

The obvious place to start (for us beginners) is David Bowie’s 1976 album Low. The amazing landscapes the second side describes were not created in a vacuum, or by Brian Eno. While Eno’s production of the record is often credited for the incredible sound and vision of tracks such as “Warszawa,” the template was created much earlier. Not only did Ian Curtis name the first incarnation of Joy Division as Warsaw in specific tribute to this very song, he modeled his entire career on the deep, dark territories the tune inhabits.

It came largely from the inappropriately named, yet hugely influential Krautrock scene. And the godfather of that music remains Hans-Joachim Roedelius.

Roedelius had already let the darker aspects of his musical personality go by this point. His involvement in a 1968 hippie-era commune/band - who called themselves the Zodiac Free Arts Lab was enough. In 1970, Roedelius formed Kluster. The trio consisted of Roedelius, Dieter Moebius, and Conrad Schnitzler. Their original three LPs, Klopzeichen, Zwei-Ostereinand, and Eruption are collected as a moderately priced triple CD set titled Kluster 1970 - 1971.

Even with a wide-open mind tuned to the avant-garde, this is some wild material. It also just happens to be the reason that Roedelius is so well regarded in Krautrock circles. I have a lot of respect for CAN, and Kraftwerk. But nobody was making music like this back then.

Even a cursory listen to the first track, “Kluster” will tell you the story. It is a far cry from what other so-called Krautrockers were doing at the time, not to mention what English and American bands were up to in those heavily stoned years. There are a total of six (count ’em) songs. The limited lyrics are in the German language.

Roedelius and Moebius left Schnitzler behind in 1971 to form Cluster, which became fully instrumental. The Bureau B label has just reissued their first album, and in many ways it continues the unrelenting experimentalism of the original band. Cluster ‘71 is a far more “listenable” record than the earlier ones were. All three tracks are titled “Untitled,” but it is the second one (15:43) that is clearly the precursor to Bowie’s ‘Warszawa.”

When it came time for Cluster II (1972), the basic ideas had mutated even further. I am convinced that when Brian Eno was wearing feather boas, and adding his “colorations” to Roxy Music, he was listening to this one. As hip as the dude was, he knew in his heart that this was where it really was at. Cluster had now moved up to a full six songs for an LP.

More importantly, Roedelius and Moebius figured out what they really wanted to do as a group. In many ways, the duo had reached a pinnacle of sorts. Cluster II is fantastic. The third Cluster album Zuckerzeit (1973) is another beauty, and was something of a collaboration with Neu! Guitarist Michael Rother. With Rother in tow, Roedelius and Moebius changed their name to Harmonia.

Brian Eno was such a fan, he got front row seats to a Harmonia gig, just to be invited on stage. Harmonia & Eno ‘76 contains all 12 tracks they recorded together later that year. Unfortunately, it took until 1997 for those recordings to be released to the public.

Cluster & Eno (1977) was the one we got at the time. It was recorded live, and inside we find the full transition. All four artists had moved into a completely different space together. The reckless excess has given way to a much more peaceful sound.

Please do not take those words lightly. It was actually two years after this album that Eno “created” so-called ambient music (a hilarious concept in itself) with his Music For Airports.

There is no question that Roedelius had toned it down a bit. I cannot help but to think of another musical hero of mine, John Coltrane. Had he been given a few more years, who is to say where his music would have gone? My guess is that it would have become much quieter, and much deeper.

With Hans-Joachim Roedelius, the music becomes very personal. You hear it most especially in his series of Selbsportraits, of which Volumes I & II have also just been re-issued by Bureau B. I was originally released by Sky in 1979 and II followed in 1980. There is a beauty to these recordings which is impossible to deny.

The reissues of Cluster ‘71, Selbsportraits I, and II are nicely packaged introductions to a man who in many ways invented what we have come to know as Krautrock. Do yourself a favor and discover just how deeply his music has affected what we hear today.

Article first published as Hans-Joachim Roedelius: Jesus "Kraut" Superstar on Blogcritics.

Book Review: Badass LEGO Guns: Building Instructions for Five Working Guns by Martin Hudepohl

When Ole Kirk Christiansen founded the LEGO Company in 1932, I seriously doubt he ever thought that one day there would ever be a book titled Badass LEGO Guns. Actually this is Martin Hudepohl, a.k.a. Xubor’s third instructional tome on how to build real working guns out of LEGO bricks. Badass LEGO Guns shows us how to do five of them.

Mind you, the guns will only shoot rubber bands or LEGO bricks, but the author notes that they can be “modified.” Hudepohl is nothing if not creative with the names. They are called, in the order presented: "Parabella," "Liliputt," "Mini-Thriller," "Thriller Advanced," and "Warbeast."

With Mini-Thriller and Thriller Advanced we are actually shown how to build crossbow pistols. These things look mean. Even if they “only” shoot LEGO bricks, they could cause some serious damage. I think the author’s own description of Parabella says it best: “Parabella is the ideal weapon for covert operations: It’s nasty, brutish and short.” The fact that he named it after a famous Advanced Geometry puzzle is a nice touch.

Then there is the Liliputt: “This tiny but terrifying semiautomatic pistol packs a serious punch with its nine-brick magazine.” The Lilliput really does look badass from the photos, but does not hold a candle to Warbeast. Again, in the author’s own words: “The Warbeast is a fully automatic assault rifle.” It is definitely the most advanced model, with 895 individual parts, including twin electric motors.

As something of a bonus, Hudepohl has included details on a little item called the Magic Moth. It is a primitive butterfly knife, which does not have an actual blade. “Despite that obvious limitation, it is my favorite model: There is no greater fun than brandishing this gadget, and learning tricks with it,” he says.

To be honest, I found the very idea of building guns out of LEGO bricks amusing at first. But after reading this book, it is a little frightening to see what can be done with such simple materials, and a little ingenuity. I have yet to attempt to build one of them, but I might - just for fun. The instructions and parts needed are very clear, as are the step by step photos included

Who knows? Maybe building some Badass LEGO Guns with my boy would be the ultimate father/son bonding experience. And in a few years he might come up with something like “Building LEGO Nuclear Warheads.”

It would most likely be published by No Starch Press, who have made a bit of a cottage industry with their "Finest In Geek Entertainment" philosophy. Besides Badass LEGO Guns, they offer 18 other LEGO books, including the wonderfully titled Forbidden LEGO: Build The Models Your Parents Warned You Against.

Fun, scary, ingenious, or all in one? I’m not sure, but how do you resist a title like Badass LEGO Guns? I know I certainly was unable to.

Music Review: Keith Jarrett / Charlie Haden - Jasmine

Jasmine is a collection of standards recorded by the duet of Keith Jarrett (piano) and Charlie Haden (bass). It was one of the most sadly overlooked releases of 2010. The eight tracks collected on this disc are simply beautiful. It is about as romantic an album as one is likely to hear, done by two master musicians, interpreting some of the greatest songs written in the past century.

The lovely “For All We Know” begins the proceedings in a suitably understated way. This lovely tune was written in 1934 by J. Fred Coots, with lyrics by Samuel Lewis. Among others who have recorded versions are Dinah Washington and Nat “King” Cole. Jarrett’s piano leads us quietly into the melody, as Haden’s bass softly comments on the proceedings. From there, the two play off of each other fantastically well, as if they have been doing this all of their musical lives.

Indeed, it has been over thirty years since the two have recorded together. We have to go all the way back to 1976, and the live Eyes Of The Heart to find their last mutual appearance on record. That was in a full band context however, with Jarrett’s American Quartet. The Quartet also featured Paul Motian (drums) and Dewey Redman (saxophone).

In any event, Jasmine is such an intimate recording, it almost feels as if you are eavesdropping on personal conversation. The interplay is extraordinarily empathetic on tracks such as “Where Can I Go Without You,” and “Goodbye.”

“Where Can I Go Without You” was written by Peggy Lee and Victor Young, although it was never a big hit for Lee. “Goodbye,” by Gordon Jenkins is another story. Although he is something of a forgotten artist in this day and age, there was a time when Gordon Jenkins was recognized as the major talent he was. The song’s most famous interpretation was by Frank Sinatra on his Frank Sinatra Sings For Only The Lonely (1958). Jarrett and Haden’s adaptation is incredibly tasteful.

Another outstanding cut is the duo’s version of “Body And Soul.” It is likely the most famous song on the album, and has become something of a jazz standard. Again, Jarrett and Haden treat it with the utmost respect, and their version is as sweet as any I have heard.

Jasmine may not be the most challenging disc either Keith Jarrett or Charlie Haden have been involved in, but that hardly matters. It is one of the appealingly tender albums I have heard in a long time. Highly recommended, especially for those “in the mood.”

As much as I like Sinatra, even the lonely need a change once in a while. Jasmine is a perfect alternate choice.

Article first published as Music Review: Keith Jarrett / Charlie Haden - Jasmine on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Shilpa Ray & Her Happy Hookers - Teenage & Torture

With Shilpa Ray & Her Happy Hookers, I thought I was getting into some kind of Xavier Hollander thing at first. The opening lines “Click on me boys, Click on me,” did not help much. Then the guitar kicked in and Shilpa gave her best Poly Styrene vision with the repeated line: “Say you’re done, say you’re done, say you‘re done...” And I kind of got it.

The song is “Hookers,” and is the opening track of the new Shilpa Ray & Her Happy Hookers new Teenage & Torture CD, just released on Knitting Factory Records. As a non-time resident of the downtown NYC scene that Knitting Factory represents, I cannot tell you how “hip” this record is supposed to be. What I can tell you is how good it sounds.

It is the beautiful pop of “Heaven In Stereo” that makes the record. When Poly (excuse me Shilpa), sings “When it shakes, shakes, shakes in my heart,“ you feel a piece of razor-bladed pop strong enough to (almost) make you believe in the jaded NYC clichés.

Actually, a lot of the posturing falls away as you get deeper into the album. On cuts such as “Stick It To The Woman,” and “Erotolepsy,” I hear the wonderful early Blondie of Plastic Letters (1976). Shilpa Ray has a pretty strong Patti Smith thing going on as well. It is evident throughout the record, but nowhere stronger than in the final cut, “Requiem In A Key I Don’t Know.”

Who are Shilpa Ray And Her Happy Hookers? The cynic in me wants to call them pretentious players. But Teenage & Torture is actually just too damned good to dismiss. In fact, I think I will be playing it over and over in the coming months - just to find out what the hell it is all about. It is the first great record I have heard in 2011.

Article first published as Music Review: Shilpa Ray & Her Happy Hookers - Teenage & Torture on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Music Review: Arvo Part - Symphony No. 4

Arvo Part’s glorious new Fourth Symphony is subtitled “Los Angeles” for a couple of reasons. The first is that it was commissioned in part by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The second is a little more complex, and sheds some light on the way the composer works.

Arvo often bases his pieces on the canon of repentance of the Russian Orthodox Church. These can be literal, or figurative. His Fourth is both. Arvo had been toying with the idea of texts relating to the concept of guardian angels. With the commission from a city whose name literally means City of the Angels, the Orthodox text Part chose became “Canon of the Guardian Angel.”

Symphony No. 4 is no Hollywood, celestial harp-filled piece. While the 12:04 opening segment “Con sublimata” does evoke something of a sense of wonder, soon the depths of composer’s intentions become clear. The awe-inspiring emotion of miraculous vistas soon gives way to a much darker sound. The second, “Affanoso” (14:12) movement continues in this vein while the third and final “Deciso,” (8:45) finds resolution for his masterful Fourth Symphony.

Arvo’s dedication of the piece to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian entrepreneur who has been in prison since 2003 speaks volumes about his objectives. Presumably the jail sentence was for political reasons, and Arvo Part addresses his feelings about the situation forthright: “The tragic tone of the symphony is not a lament for Khodorkovsky, but a bow to the great power of the human spirit and human dignity.”

As something of a bonus, Symphony No. 4 also contains “Fragments From Kanon pokjanen” (14:50). These selections from one of his major choral works are gorgeous. Again based on the Orthodox Canon of Repentance, these pieces are sung a cappella. The entire work is wonderful, especially for those who are fans of choral music reminiscent of the more “famous” Gregorian Chant.

Arvo felt that excerpts from his choral work regarding these texts would compliment his Fourth Symphony quite well. As he puts it in the accompanying book: “I wanted to give the words an opportunity to choose their own sound. The result, which even caught me by surprise was a piece wholly pervaded by this special Slavonic diction found only in church texts. It was the canon that clearly showed me how strongly choice of language preordains a work’s character.”

Arvo Part’s Symphony No. 4 was released late in 2010 along with a special edition of his landmark Tabula Rasa (1977) in time to coincide with his 75 birthday. He remains every bit as powerful and fascinating composer today as ever.

Article first published as Music Review: Arvo Part - Symphony No. 4 on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Paul Motian - Lost In A Dream

So many jazz albums have been recorded live at The Village Vanguard in New York that the venue itself has become as famous as many of the artists themselves. Among the 100-plus albums from the Greenwich Village landmark include classics by Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, and John Coltrane.

The trio of Paul Motian (drums), Jason Moran (piano), and Chris Potter (tenor saxophone) spent a week-long residency there in February 2009. Afterwards, Motian and producer/ ECM label head Manfred Eicher sifted through the tapes to choose the 10 tracks that constitute Lost In A Dream.

The album is comprised of exclusively Motian-penned tunes, yet one would hardly know it based on the performances. The disc primarily consists of ballad material. Why the set was chosen this way is open to interpretation, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it was to highlight the individual musicians' talents. A flubbed note or solo that goes nowhere is easily overlooked on a high-energy piece with a large band. But in the small confines of a trio playing ballads, every statement becomes significant.

Although the contemporary New York Times review of the concerts mentions the piano work of Jason Moran: “The playing of Mr. Moran had a strong pull in the music” — I disagree. Moran’s playing is outstanding, but it is the tenor sax of Chris Potter that I notice the most.

“Blue Midnight” very prominently features Potter. John Coltrane may always be remembered for the incredibly adventurous music he was making in his final years. One of my most cherished Coltrane LPs though is Ballads. For the most part, he plays it straight, but there are a few moments when he briefly just lets fly. They remind you in no uncertain terms of who you are listening to. The highest praise I can give Potter is that there are times during “Blue Midnight” that he reminds me of what Coltrane accomplished on that album.

This is not to diminish the contribution of Jason Moran in any way. His solo in the album’s opening track “Mode VI” is a wonder. And he tops himself on the very next cut, “Casino.” It brings to mind the brilliance of Bill Evans on the Miles Davis masterpiece Kind Of Blue. In particular, the way Evans’ piano defines “Flamenco Sketches.”

Paul Motian actually began his career with a brief spell as the drummer behind Thelonious Monk. While “Drum Music” is a showcase for his phenomenal drumming, it is also the closest this album comes to the type of material Monk was so famous for. Very, very hard bop — and a whole lot of fun. “Abacus” is up next, and provides another opportunity to highlight the man’s talent behind the kit. Both tracks hail from Motian’s classic Le Voyage (1979).

Lost In A Dream closes with “Cathedral Song,” which completes something of a perfect circle. All three musicians shine on this beautiful ballad, sending the audience home very obviously satisfied. It makes you feel that you have just witnessed a world-class jazz trio. Which is exactly what they are.

Article first published as Music Review: Paul Motian - Lost In A Dream on Blogcritics.

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 oblivion.

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

Article first published as Book Review: The Eric Carr Story by Greg Prato on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Various Artists - Kris Needs Presents...Dirty Water: The Birth Of Punk Attitude

The first British magazine devoted exclusively to rock was called ZigZag, and was first published in 1969. A man by the name of Pete Frame was the editor, and he later became famous for his “Family Trees,” with which he chronicled the evolution of bands and individual artists. ZigZag had a troubled history, mostly due to financial woes caused by their focus on obscure underground artists. Unfortunately, putting Captain Beefheart on the cover did not move many copies off the newsstand.

Kris Needs took over as editor in 1977, and focused completely on the burgeoning punk scene. With covers such as the February 1978 one featuring an unbelievably hot Debbie Harry, the magazine actually became successful. More importantly - his wit, intelligence, and devotion to all things punk brought him the type of respect money cannot buy.

So when I came across Kris Needs Presents…Dirty Water: The Birth Of Punk Attitude, I was immediately intrigued. And sure enough, he got it right. Do not be fooled by the use of the word “Punk“ in the title. This is not a punk rock collection at all. Rather, the 33 songs on this two-disc set are filled with what one might term “outsiders.” Various artist collections are typically hampered by licensing issues, and there probably were difficulties in getting clearance to include certain tracks. But as something of an ultimate “mix-tape,” Kris Needs shines a bright light on loads of brilliant material.

For example, there is no way in hell The Last Poets could ever be considered punk. But their song “On The Subway” brings the noise in a way that had a profound impact on a young Chuck D - before he formed Public Enemy. Without The Last Poets, there may not have been a Hip-Hop Nation. The point is arguable, to be sure. The one thing that there is no argument about is just how potent this piece was, and still is.

Let’s face it though, the majority of people who will pick up Dirty Water will do so because of the use of the word "Punk" in the title. After reading the book I Slept With Joey Ramone by Joey’s brother Mickey Leigh, I know for a fact that the song “Dirty Water” by The Standells had a huge impact on him.

For such a collection of obscurities, there are actually quite a number of famous names included. T. Rex is represented with a live version of “Elemental Child.” The MC5, Sun Ra, New York Dolls, and even Gene Vincent are also present. The real fun comes with wonderful weirdos such as Jook, David Peel or The Pink Fairies though. These are the type of cuts that illustrate the point Needs is making. Specifically, it is that the attitude of anti-authoritarianism (which we now call punk) has been around for a very long time.

The final two songs both hail from 1977. Both were hugely influential in their own right. We get The Saints’ “I’m Stranded,” which just kicks ass. But I like the way Needs signs off. He uses what has become something of a Rasta anthem: “Two Sevens Clash” by the reggae band Culture.

In Rastafarian literature the number seven is not good. In fact, it is analogous to six for the Christians, as in 666. When Culture wrote and sang “Two Sevens Clash” in 1977, it was written in apocalyptic terms. Not only is the tune one of the finest the genre ever produced, you know these guys absolutely believed every word of it.

A great deal has occurred in the world during the 34 years since “Two Sevens Clash.” Punk as a genre mutated into new wave, hardcore, and later grunge. Dirty Water reminds us of where it all began. One could make a pretty valid argument that punk attitude goes all the way back to Robert Johnson, or even earlier. Does not matter. This is a great collection of music, and the 76-page book that accompanies it is insanely informative, and totally makes Needs’ case. Dirty Water: The Birth Of Punk Attitude is one of the coolest sets it has ever been my good fortune to stumble across.

Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - Kris Needs Presents...Dirty Water: The Birth Of Punk Attitude on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Ralph Towner/ Paolo Fresu - Chiaroscuro

At first glance, an album consisting of nothing but duets between trumpet and acoustic guitar may seem a bit odd. But with Chiaroscuro, Ralph Towner and Paolo Fresu have managed to pull it off. In fact, the combination works so well, one wonders why nobody had thought of doing this before.

The reason the record is so effective is the talent of the two musicians involved. Guitarist Ralph Towner has been recording for decades, most notably as a member of Oregon and as a sideman with such powerhouses as Weather Report. He met Paolo Fresu fifteen years ago in his adopted home of Italy and was immediately impressed.

Towner had been commissioned to write a piece for a festival in Sardinia, and Fresu was among the local musicians who played on it. The composition was titled “Punta Giara,” and it appears here in a newly arranged form for trumpet and 12-string guitar. There is a marked Spanish influence at play on many of these songs, and “Punta Giara” is no exception.

In fact, with the playing style of Fresu, coupled with the lovely bed of sound Towner provides, I am often reminded of a classic Miles Davis album. One of my all-time favorites of his is Sketches Of Spain (1960), and even though that one is heavily orchestrated at times, there are definite similarities on Chiaroscuro.

Towner and Fresu make the connection crystal-clear with their version of Davis’ classic “Blue In Green,” from Kind Of Blue (1959). It has always been such a lovely song, and their take on it is a nice one. The fact that Fresu’s trumpet sounds so much like Miles’ helps a lot. But Fresu has never been shy about admitting his adoration of Miles Davis, going so far as remaking Porgy And Bess in 2001.

One of the more interesting tracks here is titled “Doubled Up.” Towner has tuned his guitar down to make it work as both guitar and bass at once, hence the title. Meanwhile, Fresu’s trumpet comments on the proceedings in a sometimes subtle, sometimes aggressive manner. It all comes together quite well.

A couple of older Towner tunes are reworked. The earliest is “Zephyr,” which dates back to his days as a member of Oregon. The second is the beautiful opening track “Wistful Thinking,” from his solo album Open Letter (1992).

As the title indicates, “Sacred Place” is a somewhat meditative cut, and there are actually two versions of it on the album. Both are relaxing, pretty, and always interesting. Indeed the whole album is that way. Chiaroscuro may not be the one to play if you are in the mood to rock out. But as a tonic to soothe the soul — without any of the new age predictability that term might imply — this is the one to put on.

Every one of the eleven tracks are recommended, for various reasons. Chiaroscuro is an off-beat pairing that works better than probably anyone involved could have predicted. Highly enjoyable, and highly recommended.

Article first published as Music Review: Ralph Towner/ Paolo Fresu - Chiaroscuro on Blogcritics.

DVD Review: An Ultimate Gulliver Collection

Containing 208 minutes of animated Gulliver and Gulliver-related material, this really is An Ultimate Gulliver Collection. The main attraction is the wonderful Max Fleischer feature Gulliver’s Travels (1939). Although Fleischer is an undisputed legend in the world of animation, he only made two full-length films over the course of his long career. Gulliver’s Travels was a success upon release, but the follow-up Mister Bug Goes To Town (1941) was a disaster, and from then on he concentrated on shorts such as Popeye and Superman.

It is easy to see why Gulliver’s Travels was so popular though, it is simply gorgeous. From the story, to the music, to the strikingly rich colors, this is something of a forgotten classic. As a cornerstone of English literature, most people are familiar with the basic outline of Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. Briefly, a young man named Gulliver finds himself shipwrecked in the land of Lilliput, where he is a giant in comparison to the natives.

Town-crier Gabby is the Lilliputian who discovers Gulliver, and alerts everyone. The character of Gabby became so popular in his own right, that Fleischer spun him off into a series of short features simply called “Gabby.” An Ultimate Gulliver Collection contains seven of these little gems, and all are worthwhile.

The second full-length film here is titled Gulliver’s Travels Beyond The Moon (1965). This is a strange one. It is a Japanese film, which was dubbed into English, and the music was changed to appeal to Western audiences. The basic plot finds a much older Gulliver traveling in outer space. It is somewhat reminiscent of that enduring oddity Santa Claus Conquers The Martians (1964).

Gulliver’s Travels Beyond The Moon is fun to watch, but it does not hold a candle to Fleischer’s original. The most amazing bonus feature on the set is “Gulliver’s Travels Among The Lilliputians And The Giants” directed by the legendary Georges Melies in 1902. This was also the year of what is likely his most famous work, “A Trip To The Moon.”

The French filmmaker was an absolute genius, as his take on Gulliver perfectly demonstrates. Although the fim is only 4:15 long, it is a wonder of its time. In fact it holds up perfectly fine today, over 100 years after being made.

An Ultimate Gulliver Collection is a very modestly priced, and enormously entertaining DVD. I recommend it to just about anyone. Whether your interest is in the Gulliver stories, the wonderful animation talents of Max Fleischer, oddball Japanese/US cartoons of the '60s, or the genius of Georges Melies - there really is something for everyone here.

Article first published as DVD Review: An Ultimate Gulliver Collection on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Thin Lizzy - Thin Lizzy, Shades of a Blue Orphanage, Vagabonds of the Western World

“To you and me, he’s a renegade…”

Truer words were never spoken about the author of that song, Phil Lynott (1949-1986). Except maybe in “The Rocker.” Underneath Eric Bell’s searing guitar, Lynott spells it out: “Hey little girl, keep your hands off me, I’m a rocker, I’m a rocker, I’m a roller too…baby.”

The fact is, Phil Lynott never fit in anywhere else besides being a rocker — and a renegade. Set aside for the moment that he was a brilliant bassist, vocalist and songwriter. Just look at the dude. As a towering “mixed-race” Irishman he stood out in every crowd. Lynott decided to embrace his differences, and became “The Rocker.”

Thin Lizzy’s most famous song “The Boys Are Back In Town” is a classic-rock staple. For many, this is where the band begins and ends. But there is so much more to the group, and Lynott in particular, than that one (admittedly great) tune. Thin Lizzy’s first three LPs have just been reissued in deluxe, bonus-track-filled CDs. They are a wonderful way to get to know this band.

Their first, simply titled Thin Lizzy (1971) is unquestionably of the era. The ringing guitar of Eric Bell opens the record on “The Friendly Ranger At Clontarf Castle.” Lynott’s closer, “Saga Of The Ageing Orphan,” just hurts to listen to today. The reissue adds a few bonuses — basically later remixed tracks.

On Shades Of A Blue Orphanage (1972), Lynott started to really address his heritage. The title alone not only speaks to his own life, but also to the fact that Thin Lizzy had now become the vessel for the vision of Lynott himself.

Although it was only released as a single initially, “Whisky In The Jar” provided Thin Lizzy with their first hit. The song was not even included on the LP. It appears in the reissue in two versions — as the single, and a great “John Peel BBC 1 Session.” For a group who hated the very idea of doing this traditional Irish song, their version is magnificent.

Shades Of A Blue Orphanage is magnificent in its own right. How can you deny an album that opens up with a Brian Downey drum solo? If “The Rise And Dear Demise Of The Funky Nomadic Tribes” brings to mind the worst excesses of prog, I cannot disagree. There is undeniable fun available on this album though. “Buffalo Gals,” and the amazing acoustic-guitar opening of “Brought Down,” come immediately to mind. But Lynott as a poet, artist, visionary, and sadly-missed icon emerges on the final, title-track.

I do not know how to put the various states of emotion “Shades Of A Blue Orphanage” puts me through. All I want to get across is that this is truly the great “lost” Thin Lizzy piece.

Lynott came to grips with who and what he was on Vagabonds Of The Western World (1973). “The Rocker” might be the most famous cut; but the record opens up with “Mother Nature Said,” a fantastic heavy-duty rock track with a bit of an ecological bent.

Track two is titled “The Hero And The Madman.” Can you guess where Lynott puts himself? My best guess is that he is both. This is one of the Thin Lizzy tracks that those of us who call ourselves fans continue to argue about. Thin Lizzy were still a couple of years away from their pinnacle of commercial success, but as a vehicle for the vision of Phil Lynott, the dye was cast with Vagabonds.

Uni understand the importance of this record. In fact, I was shocked at how much attention they lavished upon it. The first disc contains the original eight songs of the LP. Add to that ten bonus tracks. Then we get a second disc of soundboard “Live At The BBC” material from the era. Plus a wonderful, and informative booklet.

This is where the legend of Phil Lynott begins.

Article first published as Music Review: Thin Lizzy - Thin Lizzy, Shades of a Blue Orphanage, Vagabonds of the Western World on Blogcritics.

Book Review: Speed-Speed-Speedfreak: A Fast History of Amphetamine by Mick Farren

The first thing you notice about Speed-Speed-Speedfreak is the design - it is literally a giant Dextroampethamine capsule. The second may be the author’s name, Mick Farren. As leader of The Deviants and Pink Fairies, Farren has first-hand knowledge of the subject at hand.

Honestly, I did not expect much out of this cleverly shaped, 208-page tome. Farren is no burned-out druggie extolling the virtues of meth though. With no axe to grind, he just lays out the facts. The bonus is how tremendously enjoyable I found his writing style to be.

Although herbal stimulants have been around for centuries, amphetamines were not synthesized until 1887. Much like hardcore speedfreaks themselves, the U.S. governmental attitude toward the drug have been completely schizoid. A substance that makes a person aggressive, fully alert, and uninterested in sleep sounds like a dream come true for the military. And as Farren details, troops have been given (covertly or otherwise) the drug since World War One. He even offers anecdotal evidence of the practice going on in Afghanistan today.

It is well known that Hitler was a speedfreak. But we never hear about JFK, who reportedly was addicted as well. As Farren shows, the whole post-War, New Frontier era was all about speed. Over the counter, pharmaceutical-grade amphetamines such as Benzedrine are what really what made the engine of the U.S. economy roar in those years.

He also does a marvelous job of laying out the ridiculous “War On Drugs” policies of the government. In 2010, you cannot come up with a more demonized drug than methamphetamine. But the same tired, patently false, and outrageously exaggerated tales have just been recycled. This whole fake Puritanical attitude is just bizarre when you think about it - and Farren’s book does make you think.

Look back to Prohibition. Well that sure worked, huh? Then it was pot, and Reefer Madness (1938). Post-War bohemians who listened to jazz were (by definition) hooked on heroin. The current War On Drugs really began in response to LSD, yet the rhetoric remains Reefer Madness. In the seventies it became angel dust. In the eighties we had crack. Today it is meth.

Mick Farren goes to great lengths to point out that he is not advocating drugs, or even legalization. Meth isn’t pot; it is a very serious drug. And I have to absolutely agree with him that in 10 years, there will be a new biggest threat to our nation’s youth, indeed civilization itself.

The points Mick Farren makes in Speed-Speed-Speedfreak are just so damned commonsense it is ludicrous. Not only is the guy something of a musical cult-hero, he is one hell of a great writer. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. But that should come as no surprise, as it was published by Feral House. In fact, with the creative shape design, and well-reasoned writing inside - I have to say that Speed-Speed-Speedfreak is my favorite book of 2010.

Article first published as Book Review: Speed-Speed-Speedfreak by Mick Farren on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Various Artists - Glimpses Volumes 1 And 2

Glimpses Volumes 1 And 2 is a double-CD collection of some incredibly rare U.S. garage/punk/psych singles from the 1960s. The two original albums were briefly available in the early 1980s — and clearly had an impact. For those who enjoyed Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets (1972) set, this is like a P.H.D. course in obscure sixties rock.

Of the 27 total tracks, a whopping 16 hail from such previously unheralded Midwest towns as Saginaw, MI and Milwaukee, WI. And who knew there was ever such a smoking band as The Troyes from Battle Creek, WI — home of the Kellogg’s Cereal Company?

The two Saginaw bands have classic names: Count And The Colony, and The Marauders. Their tunes ain’t half bad either. “Can’t You See” from Count is a rip-off of the Stones' own ripped-off version of “Not Fade Away.” The Marauders have no time for blues covers; their dreamy doo-wop meets early-psych track “Nightmare” recalls some of the finer moments of what The Small Faces’ Ogden Nut Gone Flake (1968) would later employ. According to the extensive liner notes, the Count’s single was released in 1967, while the forward-looking Marauders tune came out in 1965.

On Glimpses, there are actually two completely different bands called The Marauders. It is a great name after all, and I doubt if the Massachusetts group ever even heard of their Saginaw counterparts. “Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind” (1966) is so familiarly mid-sixties garage/psych it is just about perfect. The song also sounds like the blueprint for much of the Screaming Trees’ career.

Then again, some of the greatest eighties bands were eating this kind of music for breakfast. I know for a fact that the Trees were, and for that matter the whole L.A. paisley underground, and most of the bands who were called “college rock” back then. Hell, XTC even masqueraded as The Dukes Of Stratosphere to pay specific homage.

I have barely scratched the surface on all of the fun that is contained on Glimpses. This is a treasure trove of music, and every track was chosen for a reason. These kinds of records were once only owned by wealthy collectors, who never even listened to them. The great Portland, OR hardcore band Poison Idea said it best when they titled one of their albums Record Collectors Are Pretentious Assholes.

Glimpses contains a wealth of jewels that those collectors previously salivated over — together in one excellent two-disc set.

Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - Glimpses Volumes 1 And 2 on Blogcritics.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Book Review: Felix The Cat: The Great Comic Book Tails by Otto Messmer, Craig Yoe, Don Oriolo

Like many of those in my age group, I adored Felix The Cat. Whether it was the afternoon cartoons on TV, or in comic books - he was such a great character to us. I was never much of a comic book collector however, and was not familiar with his exploits during the Golden Age of Comic Books (1938 - 1954).

Felix The Cat: The Great Comic Book Tails has remedied that situation. The 14 classic stories collected here date from 1946 to 1954. Full of stunning artwork, surreal situations, and fascinating historical insights, this is a marvelous book.

The opening chapters briefly detail the origins of the character, which will probably be disputed indefinitely. It appears that the basic black cat was refined numerous times, beginning with the silent, black and white animated short “The Adventures Of Felix” (1919). His first big wave of popularity occurred during the following decade.

The book opens with a huge, two-page photo spread from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1927. It is being led by a giant Felix balloon. Felix The Cat was the first cartoon character to appear in the parade. The final photo is also from 1927. It is of Charles Lindbergh in his plane, with a Felix logo on the fuselage. Lindbergh took a Felix doll along with him for good luck on his famous solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean that year.

There are a few panels and covers from the early days, which are nice to see. But the heart and soul of the book is in the full color reprints of the Dell and Toby Press “tails.” They are beautiful. Funny, fantastical situations arise from page to page, with our hero coming out not only unharmed, but usually ahead of the game.

One of my favorites is “Seeds And Proceeds” (1949). In this 16-pager, Felix gets some seeds, which turn out to be magical. The resulting plants grow to gargantuan size, helping Felix and his friends out of all kinds of circumstances. His canine pal needs a house, so Felix gives him a pumpkin seed. Soon the dog has a giant pumpkin, big enough to live in. Then it starts to rain, so Felix plants mushrooms. They instantly pop up to be bigger than the cat himself, who then sells them as umbrellas. The final frame finds Felix counting all the money he made.

Another plant-related story is “Felix In Vegetaria” (1950). His magic carpet takes him to a land of giant vegetables, but right from the start he feels uncomfortable. Sure enough, oversized tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, and others come after him. Towards the end, a giant potato is leading a shackled Felix along, with an oversized tomato behind saying “Lynch him!“ Things are looking mighty grim, until a swarm of giant bugs suddenly appear. The veggies drop Felix and run for their lives. Felix saves them by whistling for his magic carpet. The carpet brings a sprayer full of DDT!

The situations Felix The Cat gets into are often described as surreal. There is no better example of this than “Felix Pulls Through” (1950). I am not even going to try to detail this one; too much fun stuff happens. Suffice to say, it is insanely creative, and makes even a jaded old soul like myself smile. A couple of other honorable mentions go to “Felix In Candyland” (1950), and “Felix In Roboteria” (1953)

I wanted to mention a few favorites, but every single one of these stories are excellent - in every way. It is little wonder that comic book collectors pay big bucks for the originals; they really are wonderful. Thankfully, Felix The Cat: The Great Comic Book Tails makes some of this magic available at an affordable price to the rest of us.

Article first published as Book Review: Felix The Cat: The Great Comic Book Tails by Otto Messmer, Craig Yoe, Don Oriolo on Blogcritics.