Sunday, February 20, 2011

DVD Review: Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum is a captivating documentary about the history and controversy over one of the Twentieth Century’s most enduring architectural landmarks. Wright worked on the project for 16 years, and died just six months prior to its completion. The Guggenheim is his most famous work, yet his original ideas for the building were far more radical than what was eventually built. In every way the man was an architectural genius, a true artist of the discipline.

Microcinema’s new Guggenheim Museum DVD is hosted by Neil Levine, a scholar of architecture and a Harvard professor. While these are rock-solid credentials, I like the way he eases us into his studies of Wright. In 1976, Levine and his wife were looking for a reason to tour the United States. They wanted to see the nation, but they also wanted something more than simply a road-trip.

After being talked into taking his architecture class on a tour of a Wright home in Massachusetts, Levine was hooked. The couple then spent five months touring America - visiting roughly 150 Wright-designed homes during the trip.

When wealthy art-collector Solomon Guggenheim decided he wanted a permanent location to display his world-class collection of modern, abstract art - he commissioned the already famous Frank Lloyd Wright to design it. As anyone who has seen The Guggenheim knows, the architect’s vision was as uncompromising as any of the art housed inside. It is often said that the greatest piece of art that the museum holds is the building itself.

Wright began work on the structure in 1943. His benefactor Solomon Guggenheim passed in 1949, which led to a great deal of difficulty in bringing the initial concepts to light. In fact, Wright’s innovative spiral design was nearly abandoned in favor of the box-like structure of the Museum Of Modern Art - which had recently opened.

Thankfully, Frank Lloyd Wright’s imaginative motif won out in the end. But where did such a notion originate? After all, there was no building in Manhattan that even remotely resembled The Guggenheim. This is where Levine earns his paycheck. By showing us the ancient Mesopotamian Ziggurat Temple forms, the inspiration becomes crystal clear. Add to this the first building described in The Bible, The Tower Of Babel, and suddenly new light is shed on where such an inventive piece of architecture came from.

There was much more to the initial design however. If you look at The Guggenheim, it is an inverted cone - a concrete tornado if you will. Like the Great Pyramids, the paintings of the Tower Of Babel describe a flat bottom.

To Wright, that shape seemed dull and stagnant. His wish was for the museum to imply action, and with modern technology - he felt that he could make his building simulate motion and activity, by design alone.

To a degree, the architect won this battle. On one of the biggest conceptual points he had though, we all lost. Wright’s idea was that an elevator would take visitors to the top of the interior, where they could leisurely walk down the ramps, admiring the pieces on display. At the floor level, we would all be reunited afterwards - making the whole experience much more social than idly working one’s way up, then back down.

It is typical of one of the many reasons people revere the designs of the man. As thoroughly modern as The Guggenheim still looks, the impetus was as populist as the Midwestern (Wisconsin, to be exact) origins of Frank Lloyd Wright. Over 100 years ago, he developed what came to be known as the Prairie House. These were the small, 1500 square-foot, single-level houses that sprang up like wildfire in the Post-WWII era. They represented affordable housing for blue-collar families, with an emphasis on relative ease of maintenance.

The entire country is filled with tracts of this type. These fifties-era fading suburbs may be a cliché now, but the Baby Boom would not have happened without them. It is little wonder that the American Institute of Architects named Frank Lloyd Wright "The Greatest American Architect Of All Time” in 1991.

The man was a genius. Learning about his most famous building with the Guggenheim Museum DVD is a fine place to start. Then you can get into how his ideas have probably been felt (or lived in) by just about every American born in the past 100 years, and you will get an idea of why I respect him so much.

Article first published as DVD Review: Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum on Blogcritics.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Book Review: Dear Hacker: Letters To The Editor Of 2600 by Emmanuel Goldstein

This book came out a few months ago, but I am such a fan of 2600: The Hacker Quarterly — I just had to say something about it. I have been curious about hackers since I bought my first computer back in 1987. It always seemed like a closed world to me. Not because I wanted to do anything ‘bad,’ but because I wanted to know more about the computer itself. The only problem was, I had spent time in Silicon Valley, with real coders — and knew I had no skills in that department whatsoever.

Even more so than in the previous collection, The Best Of 2600 (2008), Emmanuel Goldstein spells out what he considers a hacker to be. It is certainly not the demonized evil kid the media has presented us with. No, a true hacker as defined by 2600, (which has been publishing since 1984 by the way) is a person with a quest for knowledge. If one discovers things that could be used for ill will — then they have discovered flaws that have always been there. The difference between a hacker and a criminal is what the person does with the knowledge once they have it.

Dear Hacker is nothing more than a collection of letters to the editor of 2600 magazine, broken down into nine sections. These include “The Magic Of The Corporate World,” “The Challenges Of Life As A Hacker,” and “A Culture Of Rebels.” Believe me, those titles may sound somewhat incendiary, but they are not at all. In fact, what comes through is the humanity of these people. On one page you will find a writer talking about how she discovered a massive security hole in a major credit corporation, and reported it to them — right next to some misguided schlump looking for help in hacking his ex’s Yahoo account to mess with it.

In all cases, Goldstein’s integrity shines through. In the former he praises her for doing what he would have done. In the latter, he calls the guy out with a razor-sharp satirical response. The poor bastard probably never even got the joke — but I did.

Goldstein’s Hacker Quarterly is approaching its 30th anniversary, and yes, he has taken his fair share of harassment from those in power. I love the fact that he lives by the idea that information is free — it is what you do with the information that makes you wrong or right.

2600 is iconic in my mind. The idea that public information should be freely shared is so subversive, it is almost — oh what, a part of the Fourth Amendment to The Constitution? Conveniently forgotten perhaps, but there nonetheless.

As Isaac Asimov put it in The World Of Ideas: Writers “ Why does one think they need to stop learning when they get out of school? Learning is a life-long process.” I whole-heartedly agree, and so does 2600. That is the very root of what Emmanuel Goldstein has been saying for the past 27 years. A real hacker is synonymous with a real learner. Maybe the term is hopelessly polluted in the public mind. But the spirit never dies.

I checked out Dear Hacker from my local library, and you can too. If they do not have it, then ask them to get it. That is hacking in the most fundamental sense. Don’t take the “officials” at face value — you have a right to request a book purchase from the library. And never be intimidated by bureaucracy, it is all a house of cards based on insecurity (on their part) in the first place.

I think Emmanuel Goldstein would agree with me on this. Even though he would only be selling one copy to a library, versus say ten or twenty individual ones — the concept has always been about sharing. I seriously doubt this guy is getting rich here, so it is obviously a labor of love.

Embrace learning, curiosity, and individualism. You are not a Communist, or a member of the Taliban by doing so. Dear Hacker says it better than I ever could. Check it out (literally).

Article first published as Book Review: Dear Hacker: Letters To The Editor Of 2600 by Emmanuel Goldstein on Blogcritics.

DVD Review: Wheelie and the Chopper Bunch: The Complete Series

Wheelie And The Chopper Bunch was one of the last great Hanna-Barbera cartoons. Sadly it only ran for one season, from 1974 to 1975. The new Wheelie And The Chopper Bunch: The Complete Series is a three-DVD set containing all 13 episodes, and they are as great as ever.

Each episode is comprised of three shorts, each running six minutes - for a grand total of 39 individual stories. That is a healthy output, no matter how you look at it. Our heroes were Wheelie, a red Volkswagon Beetle - and his girlfriend Rota Ree, a yellow sports car. Their antagonists were the Chopper Bunch, four bumbling motorcycles. The gang was led by Chopper, and also included Revs, Hi-Riser, and Scrambles. The Chopper Bunch were occasionally put in their places by Captain Tough (a police car), and Fishtail (a police motorcycle).

The plotlines revolved around the Chopper Bunch provoking Wheelie through various schemes. Much of this had to do with trying to steal Rota away from Wheelie, as if that would ever happen. The Bunch never questioned Chopper’s plans, even though they inevitably went horribly wrong.

The very first short was titled “Get A Doctor,” and sets the stage for what was to follow. Wheelie is up against the Chopper Bunch in a cross country race, from New Car City to Camshaft-Cisco. The grand prize? A date with Rota Ree, which is enough to rev everyone’s motor. After many shenanigans, including trying to mail a flattened Wheelie without a stamp, the Chopper Bunch get busted by a postal truck, and end up sorting mail.

“Razzle Dazzle Paint Job” was another early winner. The Chopper Bunch incur the wrath of Captain Tough, who sends Fishtail out after them. Meanwhile, Wheelie has been given a certificate for a free paint job, which Chopper is trying to steal. Captain Tough and Fishtail are sort of a Laurel And Hardy combination, and get a lot of exposure in this one. The Chopper Bunch get theirs at The Razzle Dazzle Paint Shop, where their antics (as always) backfire.

Things get really fun during “Wheelie Goes Hawaiian.” Everybody has gone to Hawaii for the Outrigger Race. Captain Tough and Fishtail also happen to be there, on vacation. The Chopper Bunch rig up a palm tree catapult trap for Wheelie, which lands him on a rock. When he escapes to rejoin the race on a raft, the Chopper Bunch turn a remote controlled shark on him. He retaliates with a remote of his own - and sends the shark after them. Score another one for Wheelie.

In “Dr. Crankenstein, ” we find famous director Federico Fuellini making a movie starring Wheelie, and the Chopper Bunch are jealous. Even funnier is the Dragnet parody, “Dragsternet.” Captain Tough as Sergeant Friday is a hoot. Then there is “Dragula.” Obviously Rob Zombie was inspired by this one, he wrote a hit song by the same name.

“Johnny Crash” takes on the man in black, with Wheelie auditioning for the Johnny Crash TV show. We find motorcycle Johnny Crash strumming his guitar and singing “I was a fool to pop my gaskets, and make myself a wreckage over you” in front of the camera. Despite the Chopper Bunch’s best efforts, Wheelie gets the gig when he pulls a fiddle out of his trunk and plays up a storm.

The final short of the series is “Wheelie’s Clean Sweep.” It provides a nice ending to the show. In it, Wheelie meets Rota’s father, a street sweeper. Wheelie takes over the job, so the old man can have a day off. The Chopper Bunch decide to have a little fun (don’t they ever learn?) and wind up in the city dump. Wheelie has scored big points with Rota’s dad, and the series winds up with the Bunch taunting Chopper with “We told ya, we told ya, we told ya.”

Wheelie And The Chopper Bunch were competing with The Bugs Bunny Show during the entire run, which is probably the biggest reason the series only lasted one season. Go back and look at these beautifully drawn, and often hilarious stories though. The show was very well done. Absolute fun for the whole family, and a reminder of the Hanna-Barbera team's genius.

Article first published as DVD Review: Wheelie and the Chopper Bunch: The Complete Series on Blogcritics.

Music Review: ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead - Tao Of The Dead

Tao Of The Dead is the best thing the group …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead have recorded in nearly 10 years. For a band that I had just about completely written off, it is an amazing achievement. Although this is only February, I have a very strong feeling this album will be high on many Top 10 lists at the end of 2011. By going back to their roots (or their Tao, if you will), Trail Of Dead have made the strongest statement of their entire career.

In 2002, the Austin, Texas group released their major label debut Source Tags & Codes on Interscope Records. For many of us fans, it was not only album of the year, but one of the finest records of the decade. Worlds Apart (2005) and So Divided (2006) followed, with an expanded lineup. I must admit that this version of the group was not really for me, or for Interscope either as it turned out. They were dropped from the label, and The Century Of Self (2009) was released independently.

When word started leaking out that the band had scaled back to a four-piece and were working on songs for some sort of “epic,” I was intrigued. On the one hand, getting back to basics was exactly what I was hoping they would do. On the other, I had some definite concerns about this “epic” business.

Main songwriter and vocalist Conrad Keely conceived of Tao as a tribute to classic prog albums of the '70s. In the vinyl days, you got two separate suites when you bought albums such as Close To The Edge by Yes, or Dark Side Of The Moon by Pink Floyd. Such was his idea for Tao. The first 11 cuts segue together seamlessly, and constitute "Part I." "Tao Of The Dead Part II: Strange News From Another Planet" is a 16:32 track made up of five “movements.” These segments refer back to each other throughout the piece.

One of the things Trail Of Dead have always specialized in is the art of the slowly-building song. The introduction can go on seemingly forever, while the tension is gradually increased. Then comes the incredible guitar-fueled release.

Nowhere is this better displayed than on the first track, “Introduction: Let’s Experiment.” When the break finally comes, it is shocking. They reproduce the glorious saxophone moment when Clarence Clemons takes Bruce Springsteen’s “Jungleland” into a truly magical realm. That has always been one of my favorite musical touches in The Boss’s nearly 40-year career. Trail Of Dead pretty much “had me at hello” with this brilliant bit.

There are many, many other honorable mentions on Tao Of The Dead. The way the first 11 tracks flow together is one. Obviously, great care was taken in making this a unified work. A nod to The Rolling Stones’ “Jumping Jack Flash,” as the main riff of “Pure Radio Cosplay,” works nicely. In fact, during the “Pure Radio Cosplay (Reprise),” which comes towards the end, “Introduction,” melds with “Cosplay.” The effect is that of Bruce and The Stones together in the studio.

The four cuts that make up the middle section of “Part I,” titled “Fall Of The Empire,” “The Wasteland,” “The Spiral Jetty,” and “Weight Of The Sun,” really make the case for Neely’s vision. Each of these relatively short songs have a similar acoustic/electric guitar makeup, and just fit together perfectly. Cut number 11, “The Fairlight Pendant,” closes out the suite in a gloriously manic, instrumental manner.

Then we come to the much more experimental “Strange News From Another Planet.” It works as something of a summation of the previous tunes. There is certainly nothing “otherworldly” about this lengthy track. Trail Of Dead’s greatest talent lay in their ability to mix powerful guitar riffs with catchy-as-hell hooks. On “Strange News,” this ability is prominently displayed.

The progressive rock cover art resembles that of Roger Dean, and was done by the multi-talented Conrad Keely. Tao Of The Dead is a fabulous album, and there is already a spot reserved for it in my Top 10 of 2011.

Article first published as Music Review: ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead - Tao Of The Dead on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Various Artists - CTI Records: The Cool Revolution

I remember when CDs were first introduced to the marketplace. There was a ridiculous amount of noise from retailers having to do with them being forced to reconfigure their existing racks to hold the small items. At the time, the “long-box” was introduced as a way to minimize shrinkage. My thought back then was to keep the 12” x 12” cover format, and house the individual CD inside. We would have preserved the glorious art (which has now been reduced to a joke) and nobody would have had to change a thing — except that you would have had the “indestructible” CD rather than the somewhat fragile vinyl method of delivery.

Well, 25 years later, the great label CTI has offered up their version of this idea with the beautiful CTI Records: The Cool Revolution. This four-CD set is packaged as a classic double LP. With cover art featuring reproductions of the original albums, a nice (full-sized) booklet, and the discs themselves, this is the definition of cool in my book.

Oh, and by the way, the music is pretty great too. With artists such as Chet Baker, Airto, and Stanley Turrentine (among many others), how can you go wrong? Turrentine’s “Sugar” opens the set, and sets us off in a marvelous way. Other highlights on the first disc include not one, but two versions of the great Miles Davis track “So What” from Kind Of Blue. Both Ron Carter and George Benson take their stabs at this de facto jazz standard.

I must confess that I took a lot of the jazz snobs at face value back when I was expanding my listening palette out from Ted Nugent and KISS. The line on CTI was that it was watered-down, vanilla muzak. Nothing could be further from the truth. First of all, how do you call a guy like Chet Baker a pale imitation? The man may have been white, but he could blow as fabulously as Miles did. Of this, there is no doubt in my mind. Give a listen to his “Autumn Leaves” if you do not believe me.

Maybe some of this ill-advised pretentiousness towards the label stems from their biggest hit, Deodato’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001).” I should have seen through the baloney right from the start, because I dug this track even as a little kid. And yes, it still sounds great.

In fact, all 39 tracks on this set deserve mention. Whoever came up with the title CTI Records: The Cool Revolution was a genius. This is about as cool a retrospective set as there ever has been. Thank you, thank you. What an excellent way to introduce yourself to a much maligned label, and style of music. Perfection.

Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - CTI Records: The Cool Revolution on Blogcritics.

DVD Review: John Wayne: Bigger Than Life

“The Duke” (John Wayne) really was bigger than life. I loved this guy from the moment I went to one of my very first theatre films. The movie in question was The Cowboys in 1972. I apologize if this is a spoiler, 39 years later, but the climactic scene of Wayne being killed by Bruce Dern still gets to me.

There is a modestly priced triple-DVD set out now called John Wayne: Bigger Than Life. The press release calls it “A celebration of The Duke, America’s most iconic tough-guy hero.” Okie-dokie then, but it does not quite deliver. Clearly, the point was to present his 1963 film McLintock! In a framework that would entice shoppers.

To that end, the set works quite well. I have never been much of a fan of McLintock! though. In fact, I have always considered it one of Wayne’s (many) career mistakes. But with over 150 films under his belt, who can deny him a clinker now and then?

How about Stagecoach? Or The Searchers? Anyone up for the original True Grit? These are the movies that made the man a legend. So why none of them are discussed in depth in the documentary portions of the set is far beyond me.

Instead, we are offered “Rare John Wayne TV Appearances.” Yes, Wayne did show up on Art Linkletter’s People Are Funny, the Colgate Comedy Show, and even (not making this up), The Lucy Show.

Why do I need to see this? It seems that the only reason John Wayne bothered to show up at these gigs at all was in an effort to promote his latest flicks. It also feels as if his ever-present bottle of bourbon was just out of camera range.

Besides McLintock!, the only reason to get this set is the documentary, The American West Of John Ford (1971). Ford was a magnificent visual artist who stamped the look of “The Old West” into our minds forever with his use of Monument Valley in Arizona as his most common location.

The truth is, you should not buy this set unless you are expecting nothing more than The American West of John Ford and McLintock!

The rest is filler. Actually, I should take that back. If you are a member of the Tea Party, you might enjoy No Substitute For Victory (1970). Hard-righter Wayne takes on the hippies and peaceniks in this televised segment about the crisis of confidence over our involvement in Vietnam. He acts like a freaking jackass, to be honest.

In the end, John Wayne: Bigger Than Life is a curio. For some, (like myself) who cannot get enough of The Duke, it is worth a look. Otherwise, go to your favorite rental house and get The Searchers.

Article first published as DVD Review: John Wayne: Bigger Than Life on Blogcritics.

Book Review: A**-hole-ol-o-gy: The Cheat Sheet by Chris Illuminati

Although I have been called many things over the years, the word “a**hole” seems to crop up the most. So when I came across a book titled A**-hole-ol-o-gy: The Cheat Sheet, I was curious. What could this guy possibly know that I don’t already? I also wondered if there might be some tips in it that I may have somehow overlooked.

What I found was a wealth of funny material, delivered in a practically Biblical manner. The Introduction features “The Ten Demandments” of a true a**hole. These include such gems as: “The a**hole cares about the a**hole the most,” and “The a**hole is always right.”

Words to live by, without a doubt. Actually, beneath all of the bravado and humor, there is an underlying point. Author Chris Illuminati (nice name), is pointing out that nice guys really do finish last. Political correctness aside, nobody respects a wimp. Illuminati is not going to lead you to this conclusion easily though. Essays such as “Borrow A Friend’s Car, Then Sell It,” or “Take Your Dad To A Strip-Club To Blackmail Him,” are not your usual self-help topics, after all.

There are moments when Mr. Illuminati gets it completely right however. The nine individual chapters are broken down into smaller sections that present: “The Problem,” “The ’Hole Truth,” (offering solutions), and “Don’t Be A Douche,” (drawing the line between being a man, and being an idiot).

My favorite came in the chapter titled “How To Deal With Friends.” The essay is “How To Handle A Loud Cell Phone Talker.” It is a situation we have all been faced with at one time or another. How do you tell Joe or Jane Jerk to shut the f*** up when they are being so obnoxious with their phone? You want to say something, in fact you want to call this person out for being so damned rude, but you keep quiet and follow the rules of polite society. Are the details of your upcoming grocery store trip really that important to the rest of us? I think not. A**hole-ol-o-gy offers some excellent recommendations on how to put these evolutionary deficients in their places.

This type of (somewhat) practical advice is balanced out by hilarious essays such as: “You Got Caught Masturbating, What Now?,” “Your Friend Brought A Girl To A Guy‘s Night Out” or “Visit The Office Fridge For Free Food.”

The main point the author is hitting is very simple: BE the alpha-male at all times. In that respect, items such as “Dealing With Customer Service,” or “Keeping The Repairman From Screwing You Over” become words of wisdom.

Act like an a**hole first, and ask questions later seems to be the motto. Or as the back-cover blurb proudly asks: “What would an a**hole do?” The mock-religious tones make the whole thing even more comical. But as the great bard Homer Simpson once put it, “It’s funny because it’s true.”

My recommendation is that A**-hole-ol-o-gy: The Cheat Sheet would make the perfect Father’s Day gift. That is unless he (like me) has already written his own version of the book. Then just give it to him for laughs.

Article first published as Book Review: A**-hole-ol-o-gy: The Cheat Sheet by Chris Illuminati on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Marcus Miller - A Night In Monte-Carlo

Marcus Miller’s collaborations with Miles Davis in the late 1980’s will likely overshadow everything this remarkable musician will ever do. After all, it is no small claim to be the last significant contributor to the legend’s final years.

At the ripe young age of 27, Miller brought Davis squarely into the “real” jazz world of the late eighties with albums such as Tutu and most especially Amandla. Both were magnificent recordings. There may be a bit of eighties sheen to them, but who cares? They stand up well to this day.

The unfortunate reality is that Miles passed just shy of 20 years ago. So what does a young, incredibly gifted musician such as Miller do as an encore? The answer goes to the very root of why I love jazz so much. You keep playing. Hard or soft sales, big or small audiences, musical forays you might one day live to regret, it doesn’t matter. You just keep playing.

And so it was on November 29, 2008 in Monte-Carlo. Marcus Miller was commissioned to play in Monaco, with the Monte-Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra. The extraordinary bassist/arranger/producer brought his full game for this event, which has just been released as A Night In Monte-Carlo.

The first glimpses that we are in for a “not your usual” night of jazz are heard immediately. The opening tabla and sitar sounds of “Blast!” made me think I was in Madison Square Garden back in 1971. In particular, the first segment of The Concert For Bangla Desh, which featured 17 excruciating minutes of Ravi Shankar.

I was wondering about what we were in for, until about 30 seconds into the cut - when Miller’s monster bass kicks in. The melody is strong, but the whole thing gets really wild a little later. Taking a page from old-school turntable scratchers like Grandmaster Flash, DJ Logic just lets it rip. The scratching is as fast (and wonderful) as Miller’s old friend Herbie Hancock did with Grandmixer D St. on his classic “Rockit” (1983) single. To hear such retro-futuristic sounds against a symphony is a great contrast.

Next up, why not go to the maestro? Miles Davis' “So What” - from the greatest jazz album of all time Kind Of Blue follows. Somehow Miller finds room in his interpretation of this classic for some turntable magic from DJ Logic as well. And it actually works.

From there, Miller expands his repertoire considerably. We go into Gershwin’s Porgy And Bess with “I Loves You Porgy,” and later opera - with Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi: “O Mio Babbino Caro (Oh My Dear Papa).”

There is another visit to Davis included, with what I consider to be Miller’s finest contribution to the trumpeter’s canon: “Amandla.” Hell, Miles liked it so much, he titled an entire record around it. Besides Star People, I consider Amandla to be Miles Davis’ finest album of the eighties.

The disc closes out with a studio recording of the Billie Holiday classic “Strange Fruit.” It was added at the last minute apparently, and certainly saves the day from the nauseatingly reverent version of “Amazing Grace” that the concert itself ends with.

“Strange Fruit” features Marcus Miller on bass clarinet, which totally evokes the pain of Holiday’s vocals in the original. He is accompanied solely by his friend Herbie Hancock on keys.

A Night In Monte-Carlo is a magnificent way to illustrate the various talents of Marcus Miller. The ultimate compliment I can think of is that Miles (might have) done it just the same way.

Article first published as Music Review: Marcus Miller - A Night In Monte-Carlo on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Music Review: Lee "Scratch" Perry - Revelation

OK, maybe it took me until “Armagideon Time” by The Clash to “get” dub, but once I got it, I really got it. Started checking out guys like Mikey Dread (who they used on Black Market Clash), and went deeper. Eventually I discovered the be-all and end-all of dub, Lee “Scratch” Perry. Apparently, everything you have heard about this cat is true — times about 1,000. His latest release, Revelation, is so steeped in ganja I had to give my CD player a shot of Cleanse to make it play anything else. Then it got hungry…

“Revelation, Revolution, And Evolution” is such classic “Scratch” it makes me hunger for the years when this type of music was actually being regularly made. No small credit goes to The Clash for popularizing dub. There is no way in hell that this white boy from a small town in the Northwest would have gotten into these sounds without them. But listen to the Master. Revelation is manna from heaven for fans like myself.

Tracks like “Used To Drive A Tractor In Negrille” just groove with a Marley-endorsed vibe, then kick everything into high gear with some tasty dub. Babylon, as typified as “the three” won’t be there at the party. The three? “CIA, FBI, CBS - won’t be there, at my party.” That comes from cut three, “Firepower,” and we have barely even begun.

This is as good as this type of music gets. Traditional dub gets exposed once again on tracks such as “Let There Be Light” and “Run For Cover.” On the final tune, “An Eye For An Eye,” Perry brings it home. Using his best dub skills, coupled with a solid reggae beat and lyrics that spell out his intentions, “Scratch” says it as only one of his biggest fans (Keef) could: “I’m not getting older, I’m getting better.” Then he just riffs off of it, and winds up with the line, “An eye for an eye.“ It is a master class in toasting.

This whole album just reeks — in the best possible way. Hold on, I think a skunk may have walked into my listening room. Oh wait, it’s Lee “Scratch” Perry. Better turn off the smoke detector.

Article first published as Music Review: Lee "Scratch" Perry - Revelation on Blogcritics

DVD Review: Bill Moyers: A World Of Ideas - Writers

The great Bill Moyers outdid himself with A World Of Ideas: Writers. Originally broadcast on PBS in 1988, the sixteen half-hour episodes have just been issued in a four-DVD set by Acorn Media. Each program features one-on-one interviews between Moyers and renowned writers. What emerges over the course of the set is truly a world of ideas.

Everything from the value of knowledge, politics, the state of third-world nations and so much more is discussed. These are some fascinating minds at work here. Many of the things that were mere conjecture 23 years ago have now come true. And other thoughts now sadly seem profoundly naïve.

A great number of literary legends took part in the show. These include Joseph Heller, E.L. Doctorow, and August Wilson among others. There are three who were given two episodes to fully express themselves. They are Isaac Asimov, Toni Morrison, and Tom Wolfe.

Of all thirteen subjects Moyers speaks with, I found Asimov to be the most compelling. His views on what he calls the “con game” of mysticism are not particularly incendiary. But Moyers gently pushes him towards his views on organized religion, and the great science fiction writer does not disappoint.

“I find it insulting to human beings that a system only offering punishment and rewards is the only way you can life your life,” says Asimov, “I have a conscience, and it does not depend on religion.”

In the second part of the interview, the two are discussing the value of learning. Asimov is absolutely prescient in predicting the rise of the Internet. In 1988, the Internet did exist - but it was extremely difficult to get onto, and the World Wide Web had yet to be invented. Still Asimov speaks of a world where a person could get onto their computer, and if they had an interest in baseball (for example), they would be able to call up all the information in existence about the sport. Little did he know that that world was less than a decade away. Or did he?

Predictably, Tom Wolfe speaks about American culture, particularly the culture of New York City in the eighties that is described in his Bonfire Of The Vanities. He also makes his own predictions about the future. In 1988, Wolfe thought that the twenty-first century would be something of a “hangover” from the excesses of the twentieth century. Considering what happened in New York thirteen years later, it is a sobering thought.

Other interviews that I found quite enjoyable include E.L. Doctorow - who discusses the then current state of fiction writing. Also Joseph Heller, author of the classic Catch 22 - who compares the U.S. to ancient Greece. Strangely enough, it is the female African American writer Toni Morrison who saddened me the most. Her belief in the all conquering power of love probably sounded quaint even then, but today it is just painful to listen to.

The fourth DVD of the set is all bonus material, some 205 minutes to be exact. These interviews originally aired on NOW with Bill Moyers and Bill Moyers' Journal, between the years 2002 - 2010. All eight of the subjects Moyers speaks to here are women, and include such luminaries as Alice Walker (The Color Purple) and Louise Erdrich (Shadow Tag).

Besides the fourth DVD, the other extras are text-based book lists for the authors included in the original series, and biographies for those included in the final segments. There is also a booklet included titled “A Viewers Guide” with more information about the series.

Altogether, the set runs over ten and a half hours. For fans of Bill Moyers, the various authors, or simply of very engaging intellectual give and take, I recommend A World Of Ideas: Writers. Bill Moyers and all of the people he speaks to share a wealth of thoughts that are as relevant to today as they were in 1988.

Article first published as DVD Review: Bill Moyers - A World Of Ideas: Writers on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Erkki-Sven Tuur - Strata

Composer Erkki-Sven Tuur has delivered a powerful piece of work with Strata. The disc contains two compositions, “Strata“ and “Noesis,“ both recorded with the Nordic Symphonic Orchestra, conducted by Anu Tali. In addition, “Noeses” features the solo violin of Carolin Widmann, and the solo clarinet of Jorg Widmann. All acquit themselves marvelously.

Erkki-Sven Tuur’s sixth symphony is “Strata.“ As the title implies, “Strata” slowly moves and shifts over the course of its 32 minutes. The work is a single movement, which is unusual. Actually, calling “Strata” a single-movement symphony is a bit of word-play on the composer’s part, which he freely admits. “I deliberately title some of my works symphonies in order to provide the listener with a certain ’code’ through which they can access my music,” Tuur says.

There are a number of distinct segments to the composition. For the sake of brevity, I am going to break them down into three broad strokes. During the first we are introduced in a slowly building, and very dramatic manner. In the second, the energy rises to an almost fever pitch. The close finds us in (somewhat) familiar symphonic territory once again. Symbolically, we have taken a tectonic journey, gradually working up to either an earthquake or a volcanic eruption, and then easing back into a state of near-serenity.

The second piece on the disc is a concerto for violin, clarinet and orchestra, titled “Noesis.” The title references Plato’s “highest form of knowledge,” which is not a bad way to spell out your intentions. I wonder what Plato would have thought of this. I guess he would have had to time travel, since many of the instruments utilized did not even exist during the time of ancient Greece. Be that as it may, he might very well have enjoyed the composition.

After the various modes of “Strata,” the 20-minute “Noesis” is fairly straightforward in a compositional sense. There really are three distinct sections to this piece, all describing something of a “love affair” between the clarinet and the violin of the soloists. The orchestra backs them up in various ways, and at times comments on the proceedings. The result is a splendid meld of sound between violin, clarinet and the symphonic orchestra.

For me, the ECM New Series is the finest imprint for contemporary classical music that presently exists. Strata has done nothing but confirm that impression. Bold, yet never off-putting — this is serious, adventurous, and above all, highly listenable music. Strata is absolutely worth looking into for anyone even slightly curious about the current state of the art.

Article first published as Music Review: Erkki-Sven Tuur - Strata on Blogcritics.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Music Review: All India Radio - The Silent Surf

Let’s begin with the gorgeous cover art of All India Radio’s latest, The Silent Surf. It features a beautiful rendering of the moon rising out of a clear blue ocean. This is one of the reasons people such as myself mourn the demise of vinyl as a format. Record covers like this need to be appreciated in the old school 12” x 12” design, rather the shrunken CD 5” x 5” style we have (sadly) become accustomed to. The Silent Surf is actually available as a limited edition 180-gram LP, but more on that later.

For all intents and purposes, A.I.R. is Martin Kennedy. His collaboration with Steve Kilbey of The Church, Unseen Music, Unheard Words last year was one of my favorites. Unseen Music was an excellent example of two like minded individuals working together for a one of a kind recording. Kilbey graces the opening track of The Silent Surf, “The Bomb” with his presence. This is the type of music both Kilbey and Kennedy do best. “The Bomb” seems contentedly placid on the outside, but that is just a ruse. Listen a bit deeper, and you find all sorts of strange and wonderful things going on.

One of the reasons I like The Silent Surf so much is that you can listen to a cut like this over and over, and never really get to the bottom of it.

“Saucer” features a number of other sampled voices as well. According to the credits, these even include those of NASA people. It is another song I have returned to many times, although I have yet to come to a point where I can say exactly what A.I.R. are getting at. If that sounds like a dig, it is absolutely not intended to. It is a pretty strong recommendation from me in 2011 to say how much I enjoy being able to listen to an album repeatedly, finding new things every time. There are far too few in this day and age that provoke that level of interest from this jaded old soul.

Titles such as “Crystal Waves,” “Purple Sky,” and “Ghost Song” may suggest a New Age recording. And while I grant that there is a calming, peaceful tone to the album, it is a far cry from anything I have ever considered New Age.

All India Radio’s music exists in a place all its own. It is an area where provocative thoughts live, yet never have to be shouted. There is no question that the collection has a soothing, calming effect on the listener. But the subtext is as complex and curious as life itself.

Article first published as Music Review: All India Radio - The Silent Surf on Blogcritics.

Book Review: Is The Internet Changing The Way We Think? by John Brockman

When I originally came across the new book Is The Internet Changing How You Think? edited by John Brockman, I could not help but chuckle. The title sounds about as ridiculously out of date as Al Gore’s famous description of the Internet itself: “The Information Super-Highway.”

The question was posed as something of a “Well duh…” type of query. What Brockman was looking for was a wide variety of opinions on the subject. By posing this open-ended thought to 150 people, and asking for approximately 1,000 words in response, he got his answer. Rather, he got quite a number of answers, and wound up with an incredibly absorbing collection of essays.

W. Dan Hollis’ introduction spells out the type of thinking the book is filled with. He quotes a Tom Wolfe 1999 article titled “Hooking Up.” In it, the white-suited one tells us how our world is the same as it ever was. Wolfe once captured the zeitgeist of the culture with books such as The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

In “Hooked Up,” he labels the online world as nothing more than “Digibabble.” Wolfe’s point was that the Internet was nothing more than a new form of communication. While it may have been updated a bit from markings on caves to tell stories, the Internet/Web (which he uses interchangeably) was nothing more than another way for people to talk to each other.

The type of thinking that fills this book is evident in Hollis’ response. He mentions how many people in the mid-nineteenth century thought that the introduction of electricity simply meant lighting for their house. “A few dreamers speculated that electricity would change the world, but one can imagine a nineteenth-century curmudgeon: ‘Electricity is a convenient means to light a room.... The rest is Electrobabble.'”

Although I enjoyed every one of the essays, it was Brian Eno’s “What I Notice” that most made me sit up and (pun intended) take notice. The piece has a rhythmic flow, each thought beginning with the words “I notice…” But he hit upon an amazing piece of truth with this one: “I notice that everything the Net displaces reappears somewhere else in a modified form... Bookstores with staff who know about books, and record stores with staff who know about music are becoming more common."

Those are just two of the great opinions collected in Is The Internet Changing How You Think? While Brockman solicited numerous sources, some of the other recognizable names include Douglas Coupland, Jonas Mekas, Stewart Brand, and (believe it or not) Alan Alda.

Alda’s comments actually really surprised me. They are so far from the image I had of the man — and wonderfully so I might add.

I was shocked at how much these bite-sized essays made me think. And yes, I oftentimes read them sitting down. Is The Internet Changing The Way You Think? is the ultimate bathroom book for pseudo-intellectuals like myself. But honestly, there is nothing intellectual about it at all. The collection reads very much like a conversation with a trusted friend.

Article first published as Book Review: Is The Internet Changing The Way You Think?: The Net's Impact on Our Minds and Future by John Brockman on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Various Artists - Funky Frauleins Volume Two

Hold on to your lederhosen, the Funky Frauleins are back - and these German hotties mean business! Funky Frauleins Volume Two is a 17 song collection subtitled “Female beat, groove, disco, funk in Germany 1968-1981.” Most of Volume Two hails from the seventies, and unlike Volume One, contains no disco - just solid funk of many stripes. Funky Frauleins indeed; these babes bring the noise.

The sexy intentions of these Teutonic women are front and center right off the bat. The first track, “Sunny Honey” by Uschi Moser, is from a German film titled Atemlos Ver Liebe, which translates into Yearning For Love. The liner notes describe it as a “raunchy flick,” and it is one I would like to see. The horny horn driven tune is pure ear-candy.

Sweet Philly soul meets the funk in the very next cut, “He, Wir Fahr’n Mit Dem Zug,” by Veronika Fischer. Look, I have no idea what these words actually mean, and it could matter less. It’s a great song in a style I have always loved.

There a fair number of covers included in the collection. The version of “I Dig Rock And Roll Music” is a freaking gas! The song was originally recorded by Peter, Paul And Mary, and name checks the Mamas And The Papas, Donovan, and The Beatles. Caterina Valente’s ridiculously straight reading of the words (in heavily accented English), coupled with a near martial beat is not to be missed. Definitely one of those, “You gotta hear it to believe it” kind of situations.

The other side of the coin comes from the beautifully named vocalist Inga Rumpf, with her take on Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.” I know this sounds unbelievable, but it is actually a heavier slab o’ funk than the original. First of all, her voice is deeper than any man’s I have ever heard, and her band is incredibly tight. Guys like me would get down on their knees for Mistress Rumpf.

Another out of this world interpretation comes from Lill Lindfors, working with James Last on a beat driven version of the country classic “Harper Valley PTA.” Use your imagination, then multiply the weirdness factor by 10, and you still will not have scratched the surface of this wonderful oddity.

Additional highlights include “Der Superman” by Heidelinde Weis, which sounds like the blueprint for Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman.” Then we get “Funky Bone,” from Li Monty, who sounds as if she just stepped out of Parliament’s Mothership. There is also “Fingernails” by Anne Haigis, which utilizes a bit of late period fusion jazz-funk to great effect.

Closing out the set is a very early Donna Summer track, done by Donna Gaines and titled “Can’t Understand.” The groove in this cut is pure Isaac Hayes, in particular that of his classic version of “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” off Hot Buttered Soul.

Funky Frauleins Volume Two is fun, sexy, funky, and strange - all at once. Who knew? Certainly not me, but I’ll be Google-ing the likes of Inga Rumpf, Heidelinde Weis, and their fraulein friends from here on out. They make the “outrageousness” of Lady Gaga look positively embarrassing. Open up your ears to the truly wild, and check out Funky Frauleins Volume Two. This is world music unlike anything you have heard before.

Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - Funky Frauleins Volume Two on Blogcritics.