Monday, June 27, 2011

DVD Review: Jackass 3.5

It is hard to believe that over a decade has passed since the debut of Jackass. For something that began as a juvenile goof by teens and early twenty-somethings, the franchise has had incredible legs. The show was an instant hit on MTV, and made big stars out such non-traditional Hollywood types as Johnny Knoxville, Steve O, Bam Margera, and others. There have been three Jackass feature films to date, and the whole franchise seems unstoppable.

This is readily apparent with the just released Jackass 3.5 DVD. Like the earlier Jackass 2.5, this is a straight-to-video release, featuring scenes that did not make it into the actual movie. I guess you could call these the leftovers, but most of this material is absolutely hilarious. In fact, some of these bits are funnier than those that did make it into the feature.

3.5 starts off strong with “Alligator Snapping Turtle.” The newly-sober Steve O is in his trademark thong telling us that this is the one stunt he had refused to do for years. One of the most vicious looking creatures I have ever seen is held up to the camera, an alligator snapping turtle. This turtle’s beak looks strong enough to snap through a lead pipe. He is then offered Steve O’s bare ass- cheek and clamps down. When he is finally pulled away, the turtle has left behind what looks to be a permanent bite mark, while the guys crack up uncontrollably.

Sometimes the titles alone provide sufficient explanation of what is going on. These include “Dildo Bazooka,” “Enema Long-Jump,” “Slip ‘N’ Bowl,” “Tennis Ball Nut Shot,” and “Fart Darts.” The scene they named “Wood Pecker” is literal. Steve Pontius manages to insert his sword into a hollowed out stick, and a woodpecker is brought in. When Woody’s beak breaks through the exterior, he just keeps on pecking.

Another great one features Spike Jonze dressed up as on obese old lady on the prowl. She asks men if they like her camel toe, and even sings a song that goes “I’m just a slut, I like it in my butt.” Sadly, Jonze gets no takers.

Some of the bonus materials are priceless. The MTV special Jackass: The Beginning is included and features some scenes that had never previously aired. In one we find Dave England walking up to a crowded bus stop, opening the trash can and digging for food. Unbeknownst to the people watching him, the crew had planted a diaper with chocolate pudding inside. When he begins to lick it clean, the group is absolutely repulsed. MTV deemed this one too disturbing for television, which was probably a good call. Additionally, there are deleted scenes, outtakes, and a six-minute “travelogue” of the European tour done for the opening of Jackass 3-D.

Jackass has always been your basic "love it or hate it" proposition, and 3.5 is certainly no exception. For fans like me who just cannot get enough though, this one’s a winner.

Article first published as DVD Review: Jackass 3.5: The Unrated Movie on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Cheer - Accident - No Ifs, Ands Or Dogs

Chicago noise-meisters Cheer-Accident have been at it in one form or another since 1981. Thirty years is a long time to be toiling away at anything, let alone in the outer world of avant-garde rock. But the group have built up quite a portfolio over this time. Cheer-Accident’s latest release, titled No Ifs, Ands Or Dogs is their 17th release, and second for the Cuneiform label.

Cheer-Accident specialize in what might be conveniently called “unclassifiable” music. It is either that, or dig out every hyphenated adjective used by critics over the course of the past 40 years. No Ifs, Ands Or Dogs contains elements of a ridiculous number of styles, all blended together into a mélange that somehow holds together.

There is definitely a prog influence at work here, it is noticeable from the first track “Drag You Down.” Not so much in a typical Yes/King Crimson manner however, more like what Todd Rundgren was doing with Utopia in the mid-seventies. In fact, his terribly underrated double-album Todd is what I keep finding myself drawn back to throughout No Ifs, Ands Or Dogs.

Rundgren may be an obvious comparison, given that he has dabbled in virtually every style of music known to man. But Cheer-Accident clearly have many, many more colors with which to paint with. “Trial Of Error” playfully uses cheesy early eighties syn-drums and ancient keyboards to get its point across.

Venturing deeper into the album, it seems that Frank Zappa has had a deep impact on the compsers. Tracks such as “This Is The New That,” “Life In Pollyanna,” and “Salad Dies” all reflect the type of difficult tempos, wild changes, and strange asides that were hallmarks of much of his best work.

At one point “Barely Breathing” provides an interesting reprieve from the frenzied fun, reminding me of the role played by “The Carpet Crawlers” from Genesis’ classic The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. Pure pop harmonies are also well-utilized. For these, Cheer-Accident have tapped masters such as Bacharach-David and Brian Wilson for inspiration.

While it is fun to listen to a record like this and recognize certain musical cues, there also seems to be a story being told. Various motifs recur, as do lyrical themes. I must confess however, that minus a lyric sheet, and any obvious groupings of songs in suite format, the overall concept of No Ifs, Ands Or Dogs eludes me for the time being.

That by the way, is a major characteristic of truly great prog records. The more difficult it is to figure out, the better. For example, has anyone ever deciphered Peter Gabriel’s story of The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway? The answer is no, but it remains Genesis’ finest moment.

In much the same way, No Ifs, Ands Or Dogs may be Cheer-Accident’s masterwork. Their reputation over the past 30 years has included references to extreme noise and the avant-garde, but I would have to say that this latest release is not that way at all. It is experimental, but not in a way that should put off new listeners. In fact, I find this to be one of the most interesting records I have heard in a long time. For those whose tastes run a bit more adventurous than the usual fare, Cheer-Accident are recommended.

Article first published as Music Review: Cheer-Accident - No Ifs, Ands Or Dogs on Blogcritics.

Book Review: Idea Man: A Memoir by the Cofounder of Microsoft Paul Allen

In the popular mythology of Microsoft, co-founder Paul Allen has been portrayed as something of a shadowy, behind the scenes character. Like his doppelganger at Apple, Steve Wozniak, Allen’s contributions were largely usurped by his partner’s force of personality. In Woz’s case it was Steve Jobs, in Allen’s it was Bill Gates. As is often the case with such byte-sized historical factoids, the reality of the situation was a little more complicated.

The origins of the company are really not in dispute. Gates was at Harvard, (where he met future Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer), while Allen was a student at Washington State University. They both dropped out of college to focus on the shared dream of starting a software company. Microsoft was initially located in Albuquerque, New Mexico — home of the first personal computer, the Altair 8800. This was in 1975, and the two initially thought they had already missed the boat on being the first to come up with a unifying BASIC platform for computers to run on.

As Allen freely admits, a fortuitous combination of drive, programming and luck all came together to make Microsoft the behemoth it became. The “micro-computer’s” rise from hardcore electronic hobbyist toy to ubiquitous business tool, to being today’s bedrock of communication seems inevitable now. Microsoft’s dominance of the industry was a long time in coming, however.

This is where the controversy surrounding Allen' memoirs, Idea Man, stem from. While Gates’ determination to make his company the leader in software is without question, his personality is what drove Paul Allen to leave. The “official” story was that Allen’s departure was for health reasons. This was true; in 1982 Paul Allen was diagnosed with lymphoma — a particularly virulent form of cancer. He was only 27. The stark reality of the situation understandably led to some deep soul-searching, and to his eventual decision to resign.

There were more reasons for Allen’s departure than previously reported, though. The machinations Gates engaged in to get Allen to turn over (extremely) valuable cofounder’s percentage points in Microsoft come across as heavy-handed at best. The straw that broke the camel’s back, however, was the conversation Allen overheard between Gates and Ballmer while he was recuperating from treatments, especially as they shamefully discussed ways to dilute Allen's shares now that he was no longer contributing as much as he previously had. According to Idea Man, Allen burst in on the meeting and confronted them on the spot, and departed soon after.

Since that fateful day, the billionaire has become owner of the Portland Trail Blazers, the Seattle Seahawks, and founded the EMP — among many other ventures. These are all detailed in the latter third of the book, but the bulk of the story is in the fascinating history of his relationship with Bill Gates.

Like all autobiographies, there is a bit of self-aggrandizement to be taken into account. For example, there are numerous anecdotal stories of Allen’s own Vulcan Company’s ruthless business tactics that are never addressed. Still, Idea Man has a lot to recommend it. Paul Allen’s life is an intriguing one, and is told in a very reader-friendly tone. The fact that he and Bill Gates have long since reconciled is also a positive.

There is another point the book makes that I found interesting. As Allen notes, the future of Microsoft is hardly set in stone. A great deal of the graduating class of 2011 are using various smart phones as their main computing device. This is an area where Microsoft has been woefully inadequate in providing for, and could be a serious threat to the company in the coming years.

As always, Paul Allen is thinking ahead. Idea Man is an apt title for his memoirs, and recommended.

Article first published as Book Review: Idea Man: A Memoir by the Cofounder of Microsoft by Paul Allen on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Frank Sinatra - Ring-A-Ding-Ding

The year 1961 was a big one for Frank Sinatra. His career was at an all-time high, and he had even helped elect his friend John F. Kennedy to the Presidency. When Sinatra's Capitol Records contract ran out that year, he was finally free to pursue his life-long dream of owning a record label. He called it Reprise, and the inaugural release was his Ring-A-Ding-Ding album.

As it turned out, there would be a significant penalty to pay for leaving Capitol Records though. Frank and Nelson Riddle had previously worked together on classic albums such as In The Wee Small Hours, Songs For Swingin’ Lovers, and Come Fly With Me. But Capitol decided to play hardball when Sinatra left, and would not allow Riddle out of his exclusive contract.

Sinatra was forced to look elsewhere for an arranger, and he made an excellent choice. Although Johnny Mandel was still a few years away from winning Emmy and Academy Awards for his work, he was already a highly respected composer/arranger in the Los Angeles studios. He did a magnificent job with Sinatra on this one.

It’s all right there on the opening track, “Ring-A-Ding-Ding.” Mandel’s orchestrations on this tune immediately let us know that this will be a high-energy affair. The George and Ira Gershwin classic “A Foggy Day In London Town,” is an early highlight - with the trumpet solo of Don Fagerquist being a particularly memorable one.

The most requested number from the album is the great “In The Still Of The Night.” Again, Mandel’s arrangements are a wonder - as is the solo. This time it is the trombone of Frank Rosolino that comes in for special mention. Incidentally, Sinatra liked Mandel’s arrangements for both of these tunes so much that he stuck with them during performances until the end of his life.

The original 12 songs that made up Ring-A-Ding-Ding have long been considered among Frank Sinatra’s best, and they sound even better in this remastered edition. But the bonus tracks are equally worthy of praise. The first of these unreleased gems is “Zing Went The Strings Of My Heart.” This was one of Judy Garland’s signature tunes, and Frank sings his heart out on it.

The second, stunningly gorgeous “lost” cut is the Rodgers and Hart standard “Have You Met Miss Jones?” At over ten minutes long, this is a tour-de-force. It is a ballad, and as such was deemed inappropriate for a swing album. Incredibly enough, this amazing track has been sitting in the vault for the past 50 years. The song is an amazing find, and one that should excite every Frank Sinatra fan.

Ring-A-Ding-Ding was a wonderful start for Reprise Records, and marked the beginning of yet another brilliant phase of Sinatra’s career. There were many reasons he was called the Chairman of the Board, not the least of which were classic albums such as this one.

Article first published as Music Review: Frank Sinatra - Ring-A-Ding-Ding on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Various Artists: Bustin' Out 1984: New Wave To New Beat 1984

1984 was one of the weirdest years in music that I can think of. In addition to Ricky Martin joining Menudo for Menudomania, we saw Michael Jackson's scalp catch fire during a Pepsi commercial, and the launch of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC). As dire as the situation was in the mainstream, there was a wealth of great stuff happening in the nascent digital underground though.

With his Bustin' Out: New Wave To New Beat series, DJ Mike Maguire is chronicling the rise of electronic dance music. The fourth edition has just been released, and focuses on 1984. One wonders what George Orwell would have thought of such willing sublimation of the individual to the machine. Would he have decried it, or recognized such songs as Severed Heads’ “Dead Eyes Opened” as the good, clean fun they are?

Maguire has collected a diverse roster of artists to represent the bleeding edge of electronic music for the year in question. Many of the musical movements that became dominant at the end of the decade were in their infancy at the time, and this set deftly weaves the various strands together.

The Flowerpot Men kick start things with "Jo's So Mean To Josephine." This is a heavily Cabaret Voltaire-damaged slab of proto industrial/ futuristic disco that still sounds great. Speaking of the Cabs, they are up next with "Sensoria," from the classic Micro Phonies album. As always, the band were miles ahead of their contemporaries. Their early industrial roots had been left behind long before, and we find them now deeply immersed in rhythm.

Carrying on the industrial torch, and pointing the way to the sounds it would ultimately be associated with are Skinny Puppy and Front 242, Front's "Commando Mix" is nine minutes of revolutionary mind-fucking that proved to be hugely influential. Canada's Skinny Puppy and their track "Smothered Hope" would also have a major impact on bands such as Nine Inch Nails and Ministry.

The dance floor reigns supreme throughout this set, and Strafe's "Set It Off" is a killer example of classic electro-funk. The Chicago house music scene was gestating at this point in time also. In fact, many cite Jesse Saunders' "On & On" as the opening shot for this soon-to-be sub cultural phenomenon. Another high point is found during a journey into the unknown, courtesy of former Yello keyboardist Carlos Peron’s "Et." Factory Records franchise New Order were probably the most successful electronic group of the era with "Blue Monday." Label-mates Section 25 mine a similar territory with their mesmerizing "Looking From A Hilltop."

Maguire does not stick strictly to dance music however. The advances in dub music are highlighted with "The Show Is Coming" from Adrian Sherwood's Dub Syndicate. There is even something of an unholy electronic/goth hybrid represented by Anne Clark's "Our Darkness."

Bustin’ Out 1984: From New Wave To New Beat Volume 4 is a wild mix of electronic fun, and much of it is most likely unknown to a large segment of the public. This is more than an archaeological dig through the recent past however, as all of this material still sounds magnificent. Thorough liner notes from former Trouser Press editor Kris Needs complete the package.

Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - Bustin' Out 1984: New Wave To New Beat Volume 4 on Blogcritics.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Music Review: Joe Jackson - Live Music

Rock’s “Where Are They Now?” file expanded to warehouse proportions after “New Wave Day” at the second US Festival in 1983. After playing to over 100,000 of people, bands such as Missing Persons, A Flock Of Seagulls, and Men At Work were unceremoniously bused to a holding facility outside Cleveland, never to be heard from again. Although Joe Jackson initially escaped this fate by not performing there, he was soon to join them anyway.

With his first two albums, Look Sharp and I’m The Man, Joe Jackson was garnering favorable comparisons to Elvis Costello. His breakthrough paean to Cole Porter and New York City, titled Night And Day was almost perfect, and remains one of my favorite eighties albums. Maybe it was the pressure of living up to being a child prodigy that spawned it, but after Night And Day Joe Jackson completely blew it.

The salsa-inflected Body And Soul came next, followed by the three-sided LP Big World. Neither were total catastrophes, but they did not find many fans either. The two times I have seen Joe Jackson were on the tours behind these albums, and both were unmitigated disasters. I walked out of both shows (as did most of the crowd) after listening to him castigate us over and over again for not showing the proper respect for his music. For many, this was the end of Joe Jackson as far as we were concerned.

Unsurprisingly, Jackson’s record sales plummeted, he was dropped by his label, and he played to empty houses. After two decades of toiling in the wilderness, Joe figured out that maybe if he came back as a friendly retro-act he might be able to upgrade to a two-bedroom flat. The ploy worked, kicked off by the god-awful Night And Day II in 2000. Nobody cared about the album, but the man had written some great songs way back when, and some were interested in hearing them performed live.

He has released five live albums since 2000 - and Live Music is the latest. 30 years in front of an audience have finally mellowed Jackson - I guess he figured out that most people don’t enjoy paying money to be berated. He is Mr. Warmth during these performances, which is a welcome development.

Of the 12 songs contained on the disc, five are from Night And Day - while three are covers. Jackson’s choice of covers are interesting, he goes from The Beatles’ “Girl,” to “Scary Monsters,” by David Bowie, followed by fellow New Wave Brit Ian Dury’s “Inbetweenies.” The Night And Day material is (unsurprisingly) the most effective. Thankfully Jackson does not substantially alter “Another World,” “Chinatown,” “Cancer,” “Steppin’ Out,” or “Slow Song.” Like it or not, these are the songs his fans came to see.

Joe Jackson is now a very engaging performer, with some brilliant songs to share, and it sounds as if it were a very enjoyable night for all. If you ever wondered what he sounded like in a live setting - minus the invective, Live Music is worth checking out.

Article first published as Music Review: Joe Jackson - Live Music on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Craig Taborn - Avenging Angel

Craig Taborn is an exceptional pianist who has recorded with a number of major jazz artists, most recently as part of Roscoe Mitchell's Note Factory band on the Far Side album. Although Taborn has been actively recording since the early 1990s, Avenging Angel is his first unaccompanied solo effort. The recording was done in the exceptional acoustics of the recital room at Lugano's Studio RSI, with Manfred Eicher producing, and features a wide range of improvisational styles.

Avenging Angel opens with "The Broad Day King," and the unadorned beauty of Taborn's playing is striking. The contemplative nature of the piece makes for a marvelous introduction to this very personal album. "The Broad Day King" has a very serene feel about it, and one would be excused for momentarily wondering if they had put on a George Winston disc rather than Craig Taborn.

That impression is nullified with the very next track, "Glossolalia." The title is a reference to speaking in tongues, in which believers claim is their deity speaking directly through them - albeit in a way that nobody can understand. If that is the case, then Taborn's muse is decidedly avant-garde. "Glossolalia" continuously takes the listener down unexpected avenues, something only the greatest of improvisers are able to consistently do.

For the most part the 13 tracks that make up Avenging Angel rotate between these two styles, the quiet semi-New Age feel, and a more experimental, and often aggressive sound. The title track is a good example of Taborn combining both approaches. As the song opens, we are presented with relatively pastoral tones. Midway through, Taborn's left hand begins a descending run down the keys that repeatedly draws us into a much more aggressive arena. "Avenging Angel" is a memorable cut.

The curiously titled “True Life Near” is the most hypnotic track on the album, and a personal favorite. “A Difficult Thing Said Simply" is another spellbinder, very much in the mold of “True Life Near.” There is a sort of majestic cocktail-jazz feel to “Forgetful,” which serves as a reminder of how long Craig Taborn has been a professional musician, and of the many places he must have played over the years.

“This Is How You Disappear” is the album’s final track, and if nothing else it is a testament to how creative Mr. Taborn can be in titling his improvisations. Actually this is another remarkable mini-composition, which sends us off in a winning manner.

As the current holder of Downbeat’s Rising Star award for his playing, Craig Taborn is a force to be reckoned with in jazz. But as Avenging Angel shows, his improvisational prowess is not limited to jazz at all. He is in fact a master of many different styles, and his many improvisational guises can be heard on this very intriguing new release.

Article first published as Music Review: Craig Taborn - Avenging Angel on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Klaus Schulze - La Vie Electronique 9

Klaus Schulze is nothing if not prolific. Since he began recording in 1970 as a founding member of Tangerine Dream he has released over 40 albums, and that does not even include his various collaborations. With such a vast amount of material to work with, putting together a compilation of his work has not been an easy task. In 2000 he came up with the ultimate solution, releasing The Ultimate Edition, a 50-CD set that covered 40 years of work. Recognizing that few people are prepared to pick up such a monumental set all at once, Schulze has broken the contents down a bit with his triple-disc La Vie Electronique series.

The latest edition is La Vie Electronique 9. The music contained herein spans the period between 1982-1984. It appears that Klaus records everything, as this set shows. The first disc is from a concert in Budapest he performed with keyboardist Rainier Bloss on October 21, 1982. The three lengthy tracks show the two artists managing a unique dance between music of the head, and entertaining an audience. As Schulze was to do more and more over the course of the eighties, the use of percussion is very prominent.

The opening piece, "Ludwig Revisited" is an update of his earlier "Ludwig" from the X album released in 1978. The four-movement composition begins with a striking piano solo from Bloss, with Schulze adding dreamy textures from his Mini Moog. A bit later, Schulze switches over to his EMS "Suitcase" synth for some extra-terrestrial sounds. "Peg Leg Dance" follows and is a clear audience favorite, thanks to the extended Mini-Moog solo Schulze employs midway. The third and final track from this concert is titled "Die Spirituelle Kraft Des Augenblicks," and clocks in at just under 16 minutes. This is a hard one to describe, as there are elements of African music blending into nearly generic seventies prog, held together by an insistent drum machine. Who knew electronics could create such an eclectic blend?

All of the music on discs two and three were recorded in the studio in 1984. They are mainly long experimental tracks, which find Klaus incorporating much more rhythm into his music than ever before. As he and fellow electronic travelers were finding out, the seventies were over. Shorter, more compact songs were preferred, with lots of big drums. It was a difficult time, as even the liner notes acknowledge, but there is some fascinating music to be discovered here.

Disc two opens with "Seltsam Statisch" a tri-part composition which makes extensive use of the Fairlight synthesizer, as well as a drum machine. The "motorik" beat once associated with fellow Krautrockers Kraftwerk and Neu! Is significantly employed, albeit in a much different light than the way they previously used it. Listening to "Seltsam Statisch" today reminds me of the term retro-futurism. What was once intended to sound as futuristic as possible now sounds quaint.

Of the remaining two cuts on the disc, my preference is “Kompromisslose Invention.” This one is nearly 16 minutes long, and strikes an unusually cacophonous tone for Klaus. It’s always good to shake things up from time to time.

The third disc is dominated by “National Radio Waves,” which is definitely the longest track on this collection at over 53 minutes. The composition is stretched out into six different movements, which are quite distinctive. We begin with a faux overture, then move into what could charitably be described as some unheralded “Phantom Of The Opera” cues, resolving with horror sounds worthy of a Hammer film. “The Garden Of Earthly Delight” follows at a paltry two minutes, and the set closes with “The Midas Touch – Cave Of Ali Baba.” This is another intriguing piece, blending many effects with what again sounds like nods to ancient African tribal music.

Discs two and three also feature interviews with Klaus Schulze, both in German.

Listening to La Vie Electronique 9 it is abundantly clear that Klaus was searching for a way to update his sounds, and experimenting with new technologies. While some of the material on this set may not be quite as compelling as other recordings he has made over the years, there are some undeniably great moments. La Vie Electronique 9 may not be the ideal place for the neophyte Klaus Schulze fan to start, but for longtime aficionados – there is much to recommend it.

Article first published as Music Review: Klaus Schulze - La Vie Electronique on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Mark Snow - The X-Files Expanded Edition Volume 1

There is nothing that evokes the spirit of the '90s for me the way the theme to The X-Files does. The spooky ambience Mark Snow creates for the opening is the perfect accompaniment to the mysterious imagery, especially the show’s motto: “I Want To Believe.” The program ran from 1993-2002, but it was the episodes of the latter part of the '90s that really captured what came to be known as “Millennium Fever.” Paranoia about the calendar turning from 1999 to 2000 was rampant, and The X-Files was right there with plots about conspiracies and the supernatural.

Mark Snow’s music was a constant throughout all 202 episodes of The X-Files. Although he was nominated five times, Snow never won an Emmy for his invaluable contributions. But the boutique label La-La Land Records have come up with a beautiful box set to honor his work. The X-Files Expanded Edition, Volume 1 is an impressive four-CD package with over five hours of music from all nine seasons of the series. For fans, this collection is a must.

The set offers music from representative episodes of each season. For those of us who tuned in every Sunday night, there are a lot of memories contained here. Cues from classics such as “Dreamland,” “Musings From A Cigarette Smoking Man,” and “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” are all wonderful reminders of just what a great series The X-Files was.

Like the shows themselves, each CD opens with the main theme, and closes with the end titles. The Main Title was originally timed at 0:48, and later shortened to 0:37, while the End Credit remained unchanged. To fill in the beginning and ending of each disc, the titles and credits have been remixed and extended by Snow.

By using this format, The X-Files Expanded Edition consciously mimics the arc of the series. While the alien conspiracies and characters such as The Lone Gunmen were always a part of the program, there were also wonderful standalone episodes as well. Listening to the individual CDs of this set works in much the same way. Familiar themes run throughout each disc, yet somehow each functions as an organic whole. A great deal of care was obviously taken in the programming, as the whole thing blends seamlessly together.

It has taken far too long, but the music of one of television’s finest series has at last been honored in the manner it deserves. The X-Files Expanded Edition, Volume 1 is an exquisitely packaged affair, with extensive liner notes by Randall D. Carson. The set is a limited edition of 3,000, which I imagine will go fast.

Remember, the truth is out there.

Article first published as Music Review: Mark Snow - The X-Files Expanded Edition, Volume 1 on Blogcritics.

Book Review: Surf Beat by Kent Crowley

“…And you will never hear surf music again” sang Jimi Hendrix at the close of “Third Stone From The Sun.” Most people interpreted this as the psychedelic warrior’s ultimate dis of the Camelot-era’s innocent fun-in-the sun sounds, as exemplified by the Beach Boys. However, as author Kent Crowley points out in his new book Surf Beat: Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Forgotten Revolution, Hendrix’s intent may have been the exact opposite.

For one thing, there is the title’s similarity to one-hit wonders The Nocturnes’ 1963 “Third Star To The Left.” But the deeper connection is with Dick Dale, whose playing had a huge influence on Hendrix. More than anyone else, Dale pioneered the use of amplifier as instrument. He consulted with Leo Fender on ways to get maximum sound out of the primitive equipment of the day, because in a live setting the music was all about the volume. And the shredding, of course, of which Dick Dale was a master.

At the time Jimi recorded Are You Experienced, Dale was in Hawaii attempting to beat a particularly virulent form of cancer. It was thought to be terminal, and after spending a considerable amount of time with the surf hero after his Air Force stint, Hendrix was said to be distraught. Seen in this light, the line becomes a sad farewell to a friend. Dick Dale not only beat cancer but even recorded his own version of “Third Stone” in the 1990s.

The nineties saw the biggest boom in surf music since its original early sixties heyday. The renewed interest can be traced back to one of the best films of the decade, Pulp Fiction (1994). Quentin Tarantino’s use of Dale’s “Miserlou” as the theme, and other surf classics on the soundtrack did wonders for the genre. It rightfully linked the music to the danger and violence it once represented, which was what drew surfers to it in the first place.

Crowley certainly did his research, and meticulously explains the early connections between the various surfing scenes and the bands. One tends to think of Southern California as one vast, sprawling mass. But to surfers, there were distinct differences between the various beaches, which the individual surf groups reflected. Many of these were high-school garage bands, who drifted apart after a year or two together. They may have scraped enough money together to record a single - usually sold at their gigs, before moving on.

As Crowley’s subtitle indicates, there is a great deal of surf’s history that has been forgotten. He blames much of this on vocal groups such as the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean, as well as that infamous line Hendrix sang. He recounts some great anecdotes along the way too. The origins of the killer “Ha-ha-ha, wipeout!” opening of The Surfaris’ “Wipe Out,” and Frank Zappa’s involvement in the scene are just a couple of examples.

Another intriguing aspect of the book is the rapid development of the equipment during this time. Surfboards morphed from the custom-built, and very expensive wooden long boards, to the inexpensive mass produced short boards we see today. This innovation put surfing in the hands of the general public, popularizing the sport - but ruining it for purists.

The developments Leo Fender made to his guitars and amps at the suggestion of surf musicians were crucial. His shop was in the area, and guys would often show up on Monday morning with their battered equipment and work with Fender on improvements. He also attended many performances himself, to get a first-hand look at what was going on in the field. Volume was key for the amplification, and sustain for the guitars. The advances Fender made proved invaluable to the growth of not only surf, but rock, and later heavy metal.

Surf Beat: Rock ’n’ Roll’s Forgotten Revolution is a great book about a sadly overlooked chapter in music, presented in a very readable style. Never hear surf music again? Not a chance. Hang ten forever is much more like it.

Article first published as Book Review: Surf Beat: Rock 'n' Roll's Forgotten Revolution by Kent Crowley on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Music Review: Mickey Newbury - An American Trilogy (Box Set)

Mickey Newbury (1940-2002) never really achieved widespread success as a performer, but as a songwriter his achievements are staggering. His songs have been covered by over 1,000 artists to date, for a total of over 1,300 versions in every musical style imaginable. One would think that someone with credits like those would be a well-known figure. For a variety of reasons, that never happened. In fact, his most famous composition is more closely associated with Elvis Presley than anyone else.

The song in question is “An American Trilogy,” which Elvis performed from 1972 up to his death in 1977. It is a brilliant medley of three Civil War-era songs: “Dixie” represents The Confederacy, “The Battle Hymn Of The Republic,” takes The Union side, and the resolution is the African American spiritual “All My Trials.”

An American Trilogy is also the title of a new, four-CD set from Drag City celebrating Newbury’s legacy. It features the three incredible albums he recorded between 1969 and 1973, plus a disc of rare and unreleased material.

The first of these is Looks Like Rain from 1969. This is a haunting piece of work, recorded in Nashville, and which is considered by many to be the opening salvo of the nascent Outlaw movement. Looks Like Rain is an acoustic concept album about a lost love. The listener is drawn into its web of sorrow with sound effects (rain is a linking theme), and unusual instrumentation.

Waylon Jennings was particularly moved by this one, and recorded a version of “The 33rd Of August” for his 1970 LP Waylon. He also covered the album’s most celebrated track, “San Francisco Mabel Joy” a couple of years later. Even one of rock’s most enduring legends, Mr. Keith Richards has paid tribute to Looks Like Rain with his version of “She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye.”

Frisco Mabel Joy was Newbury’s next album, released in 1971. It did not contain a version of the song, so the title is a curious choice. The record does lead off with “An American Trilogy” however, which immediately lets us know that we are in the presence of a genius.

This is another concept album, and tackles the topic of what “America” as an idea really means. It is another deeply moving recording, beautiful, sometimes painful, and always compelling. Many consider ‘Frisco to be Newbury’s masterpiece. Peter Blackstock, editor of the influential No Depression magazine organized ‘Frisco Mabel Joy Revisited in 2000, a re-creation of the entire album with artists including Dave Alvin, Bill Frisell, and Kris Kristofferson.

Mickey Newbury revisits “San Francisco Mabel Joy” on his 1973 release Heaven Help The Child. As a matter of fact, four of the eight tracks are re-recordings of earlier songs. The other three updates are “Sweet Memories,” “Good Morning Dear,” and “Sunshine.”

Unlike the previous two efforts, Heaven has no unifying concept. It is a marvelous collection, however. Leading with the powerful and evocative title track, the new material is right up there with his finest work. “Why You Been Gone So Long” has become something of a bluegrass standard over the years, and has been recorded by Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and David Allen Coe among others.

The fourth disc in the set is Better Days (Demos, Rarities, And Unreleased). The 16 tracks are of varying quality, as is generally the case with such odds and sods collections. Five are publisher’s demos, and are pretty raw. There are a couple of home recordings that remained unreleased until now. The most interesting material are the seven songs recorded for a radio broadcast in 1970.

Indie label Drag City has pulled out all the stops for this set. First of all there is the remastering job, done from the original analog tapes for the very first time. They were believed to be lost in a fire many years ago, but were recently discovered in the Elektra Records vault.

The box is a one-time only pressing of 1,000 copies, and features an elaborately annotated booklet with everything one might want to know about Mickey Newbury. In truth, everything you need to know about him is contained in his songs though. An American Trilogy is a virtual treasure trove of music, just waiting to be discovered

Article first published as Music Review: Mickey Newbury - An American Trilogy [Box Set] on Blogcritics.

DVD Review: The Best Of The Dean Martin Variety Show

I do not believe anyone has ever appeared to be as casual as Dean Martin did during the run of his variety show - which debuted in 1965 and ran until 1974. 1965 was a couple of years past The Rat Pack’s prime, but it didn’t matter. At the time, Dean was hotter than Frank Sinatra himself. He was enjoying hit records, sold-out appearances, and a film career. There was something about Dino that people could not get enough of, as is evident on the new double-DVD set The Best Of The Dean Martin Variety Show.

The package contains seven individual episodes, and covers the years 1965 - 1972. The guest list features some of the biggest names in show business. These include Bob Hope, Jack Benny, John Wayne, George Burns and many others. Fans of Dean’s politically incorrect portrayal of himself as a lush will find much to enjoy here as well, for this is where he really developed the character.

As warranted by the variety show format , there were also plenty of musical guest stars. Among them are Juliet Prowse, Peggy Lee, and fellow Rat Packer Sammy Davis Jr. Naturally Dean himself sings plenty of songs as well. Old-school comedians Don Rickles and Rodney Dangerfield also appear. Speaking of old-school, Regis Philbin wrote the introduction to the accompanying booklet.

Dean Martin could get away with anything back then, and famously refused to rehearse before taping. This brought a sense of spontaneity to his segments, which cannot be manufactured. His ad-libs and outright mistakes during sketches just made the audience laugh that much harder. The Best Of The Dean Martin Variety Show is a glimpse of a world which was actually already dated at the time. Which again, simply did not matter. Dean’s fans were fans for life. Count me in, I think these old shows are great fun.

The DVD extras feature exclusive interviews with Jonathan Winters, Angie Dickinson, Florence Henderson, and Phyllis Diller, among others. All fondly remember Dean Martin for his warmth, humor, and style. They don’t make ‘em like Dino anymore, or for that matter shows like this. But these programs sure are a treat to look back on.

Article first published as DVD Review: The Best Of The Dean Martin Variety Show on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Lee "Scratch" Perry - Rise Again

Lee “Scratch” Perry has been a prime mover in reggae music since the birth of the genre. First as a talent scout who put together the original Wailers, then as a producer, and finally as a recording artist in his own right, “Scratch” has been there through it all. What he may best be known for are his dub excursions, which positively reek of sacrament yet sound great to even the uninitiated.

His latest release is titled Rise Again, and is a collaboration with Bill Laswell. Laswell’s studio adventures with his group Material have a lot in common with what Perry has come to be known for, and the two work well together. There are also a load of guest appearances on the album, including those by Sly Dunbar, Bernie Worrell, and Tunde Adebimpe of TV On The Radio.

The disc opens up with “Higher Level,” which is vintage Lee “Scratch” Perry reggae/dub. Laswell’s influence is first felt on the following track, “Scratch Message.” His Material-esque manipulations blend well with what Perry is up to, and the song is one of the highlights of the record. There are limits to the effectiveness of the pairing, however, which is probably to be expected.

There are times when Laswell’s atmospherics overwhelm the more organic sounds of Perry, though, and this is where I had some difficulty. “Rise Again” and “Dancehall Kung Fu” are the two biggest examples of this, although Laswell fans may find these tracks to be the strongest of all. The lyrics of “Dancehall Kung Fu” are hilarious, by the way.

“House Of God” brings the funk in no uncertain terms, which sets things right back on track. By the time we reach the finale, “Inakaya (Japanese Food),” Lee “Scratch” Perry has taken full control of the proceedings again. His ode to what used to be called “the munchies” is another ditty that only could have come from the mind of the master.

Rise Again is a little uneven, but nobody’s perfect. As a collaboration between these two studio rats, it actually works quite well. Recommended.

Article first published as Music Review: Lee "Scratch" Perry - Rise Again on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Johnny Taylor - Taylored In Silk

There was a brief window of time in the early seventies for soul music unlike any other. I'm talking about the years 1971-1974, the period just after Marvin Gaye's masterpiece What's Goin' On (1971), and just before the rise of disco. It was during these halcyon days that Johnnie Taylor's Taylored In Silk (1973) was first released, and it is a gorgeous record.

As part of the Stax Remasters series, Taylored has just been reissued, with six bonus tracks. Although JT scored a smash in 1976 with "Disco Lady," he never really received the type of accolades that someone like Al Green did. The music business is a strange beast when it comes to who makes it and who does not. Drop your figurative needle down anywhere on Taylored In Silk, though, and tell me why it is not considered a definitive soul album.

It's all there in the opening track, "We're Getting Careless With Our Love." The lush orchestration meets gospel arrangements, topped off with Taylor's supremely assured voice making for a terrific combination. The public seemed to agree, pushing the single to to number five spot on the R&B charts. The most familiar track on the album is most likely "Cheaper To Keep Her." Over a steady, walking bass line, the "Soul Philosopher" lays out the reasons a man should watch when it comes to steppin' out on his woman. JT has one word: "Alimony."

The eight cuts that comprised the original album favored the ballad overall, which is fitting when one is blessed with a voice like Taylor's. "Talk To Me" is a stirring confessional, as is the third sing from the record, "I Believe In You (You Believe In Me)." The LP closed with "This Bitter Earth," a fine update of the 1960 Dinah Washington hit.

The six bonus tracks appended to the disc comprise the A and B sides of three singles Taylor recorded for Stax before the album; all six highlight a much funkier sound than most of it, too. Check out "Doing My Own Thing (Parts 1 and 2)" in particular.

When Stax folded in 1975, Johnnie Taylor moved to Columbia - and "Disco Lady." Incidentally, that song was the first single ever to be certified platinum. Great stuff, to be sure, but I am partial to his Stax material. For these ears, it doesn't get any better than Taylored In Silk.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Book Review: Out Of The Vinyl Deepsby Ellen Willis

As the very first “pop music” critic for The New Yorker magazine, Ellen Willis (1941 - 2006) was one of the founders of modern rock criticism. Her “Rock, Etc.” column debuted in 1968, and had a distinct edge to it. In 1976 she became Rolling Stone’s first female managing editor, and wrote for other outlets until her “retirement” from music in 1981. For the next 25 years Willis wrote about a number of topics, but only rarely revisited the music world. This is probably the reason she is not as well remembered as other critics of the era, a situation Out Of The Vinyl Deeps seeks to rectify.

The book focuses solely on her work as a rock journalist, and was edited by daughter Nona Willis Aronowitz. One of the notable aspects of Willis’ writing was how she managed to tackle various topics in the context of a music article. Aronowitz has grouped the 59 essays into six topics: Before The Flood; The Adoring Fan; The Sixties Child; The Feminist; The Navigator; and The Sociologist.

Willis focused a great deal of attention on the political and sociological aspects of the artists. The Rolling Stones were a perennial favorite, and every time they rolled out across America she was there to cover it. Dylan was another subject of serious attention. What I found most compelling, though, was her reporting on the also-rans.

In article after article, Willis found great things to say about third billed acts who never made it past the starting gun — yet she would present them as if they were already stars. Another intriguing thing about reading a collection of essays published mainly in the '70s is how the events of the day informed her responses.

In a piece written over 40 years ago about Woodstock, she talks about the hopelessly unhip Sha Na Na as not belonging there. What nobody saw at the time was that Sha Na Na represented something that would haunt the music world forever. Nostalgia for the recent past. We saw this to a ridiculous degree in the eighties, especially with the CD reissue campaigns stating: “It was 20 years ago today.” In the '90s, the '70s became incredibly cool somehow, and today we are supposed to be reverent to all things '80s. I am certain that the Spice Girls, Backstreet Boys and N’Sync revival is just around the corner.

No wonder Willis stopped writing about music when everything circled around on repeat cycle. Ellen Willis was never afraid to take on critical sacred cows either. While professing her adoration for the talent of Lou Reed in one such piece, she then goes on to tell us that Transformerbasically sucked. She goes one better in reviewing a 1974 Bruce Springsteen concert. While generally praising the show, Willis mentions that parts of the two and a half hour concert were boring. This she attributes to him as “not being a very good songwriter.”

This is criticism, and by definition subjective — but Bruce being not much of a songwriter? That’s a tough one to swallow. Again, it is through Ellen Willis’ determination to say what she believes — no matter what, that makes her work so endearing. Out Of The Vinyl Deeps is a long-overdue collection of some of her best writing, and shows why she has always belonged in the pantheon with the greats.

To those of us who were influenced by the big names of the “golden era” of rock writers, Willis has been overshadowed a bit by some of the more famous scribes. It was primarily a male domain, with legends such as Lester Bangs, Dave Marsh, Greil Marcus, and Robert Christgau leading the pack.

Christgau was in fact Willis’ first husband. At a memorial for her in 2007 he had this to say: “Ellen was one of the few people I’ve ever known who I’d say unequivocally was smarter than me.” High praise indeed from the self-anointed “Dean Of American Rock Critics.”

Thankfully, all of these articles are reprinted exactly as they appeared, with explanatory footnotes thrown in to explain some early, embarrassing word choices such as “girls” and “Negros.” These two unfortunate incidents occur in her Dylan treatise for the defunct Cheetah, published in 1967. Reading through Out Of The Vinyl Deeps, one sees the development and growth of a writer who had a great deal to say.

There are a number of reasons to read this book, but maybe the simplest is just to see what it was like when people were actually passionate about music. Ellen Willis certainly was, and Out Of The Vinyl Deeps contains some powerful examples of the reasons why.

Music Review: Booker T. & The M.G.s - McLemore Ave.

This is about as hip as it gets. Booker T. & the M.G.'s covering Abbey Road by The Beatles? Genius! Surprisingly, the project even lives up to everything I had hoped it would - and my expectations were pretty high.

First of all, there's the cover art. Booker T., Steve Cropper, Donald "Duck" Dunn, and Al Jackson Jr. are crossing McLemore Ave. right in front of the Stax studios in Memphis. Unlike the pristine Abbey Road (where the EMI Studios were), McLemore Ave. is a pretty funky street — funky as in rough — and the guys themselves look pretty badass too.

On McLemore Ave., the band have taken the Abbey Road LP apart and rearranged it into a series of medleys. Is it mop-top faves filtered through "Green Onions?" Hardly. These guys were way too smart for anything like that. Instead what we get is likely the tightest studio group in the country putting their stamp on one of The Beatles' greatest records of all.

You hear it immediately with the majestic, church-like organ of Booker T. playing the opening chords of “Golden Slumbers.” This beautiful beginning to what will become a 16-minute medley is followed by the crisp, unmistakable guitar of Cropper on “Carry That Weight.” Although McLemore Ave. contains minimal vocals — most of it is instrumental — hearing Cropper’s guitar mimic Paul McCartney's voice during the song is an early highlight.

Ringo Starr’s famous drum break is referenced, before the group play the original’s closer, “The End.” But this is Booker T. & The M.G.’s version, not The Beatles’. Here, “The End” means nothing of the sort, as the next piece of the medley is “Here Comes The Sun.” Bringing home the five-song suite is a stellar “Come Together.”

There are two more, fairly similar medleys on McLemore Ave., and each are brilliant as well. The only Abbey Road cut singled out for a full-length treatment is George Harrison’s “Something,” which (like the rest of the album) is outstanding.

This remastered CD reissue is generous with bonus cuts as well. The additional six tracks are “Day Tripper,” “Michelle,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Lady Madonna,” and two versions of “You Can’t Do That.”

Booker T. & The M.G.’s were one of the very few groups who have ever been able to add something special to the music of The Beatles. McLemore Ave. is quite simply one of the coolest reissues of the year.

Article first published as Music Review: Booker T. & The M.G.'s - McLemore Ave. on Blogcritics

Friday, June 17, 2011

Book Review: 1969: The Year Everything Changed by Rob Kirkpatrick

Like so many others who are not of the Baby Boom generation, I am sick to death of hearing about The Sixties. At first glance, a book titled I969: The Year Everything Changed looked to be yet another rehash of the well-worn war stories we have all heard ad infinitum. Upon closer inspection however, 1969 proved to be a far more interesting book than I had originally assumed it to be.

By looking back with the jaundiced eye 40 years provides, author Rob Kirkpatrick has managed to impart the events of the year in a very engaging way. His loosely chronological format (from January to December) is one of the simplest, yet most effective storytelling methods he could have chosen. So much cultural baggage about “the end of the sixties” has built up, that a simple step back to treat the year 1969 as a year in the life of the U.S.A. has seemed an impossible task for most.

For example, there seems to be some unwritten Strunk & White dictate that one cannot write about Woodstock without invoking Altamont in the same sentence. You know the story: Woodstock was the birth of hippie, Altamont represented their death. How lazy. Both were huge “free” concerts. Both had major problems that could be attributed to a lack of organization on the part of the promoters, and the authorities.

Where Kirkpatrick’s book differs from every Woodstock account I have ever read is his simple choice to discuss what else was going on in the nation that weekend. A couple of thousand miles away from a career-making performance by Sly And The Family Stone, there was a real disaster going on that affected millions of souls in the south. Nobody hears about Hurricane Camille anymore, but it threatened a great deal more people than the prospect of hearing Richie Havens in the mud on a farm did.

While the Woodstock chapter comes fairly late in the book, it is a great example of how the events of the year are treated. As Kirkpatrick states in the Epilogue: “The world did not end. The modern American society that we know today was just beginning.”

This is true. The “culture wars” which now define America began in earnest that year. Although I singled out the way the author handled the Woodstock event, there are many other notable facets of the book as well. For one thing, 1969 was the first year of Richard Nixon’s ill-fated presidency. Like all newly minted Presidents, even Nixon was afforded a bit of a “honeymoon” period by the press. That in itself is hard to believe, considering what happened later. But it makes sense.

Extraordinary things occurred month by month that year, but even the Manson murders were overshadowed by what was going on in Vietnam. This was the year of the My Lai massacre. To attempt to appease the protesters, Nixon brought thousands of soldiers home. So while on the one hand he was espousing a commitment to victory at any cost, he was handicapping the soldiers by thinning their ranks.

What a mess. I was too young to be aware of what was going on in the world in 1969. In reading Rob Kirkpatrick’s 1969: The Year Everything Changed however, one gets the sense that a period of five years had been condensed into one. This is an excellent, and unsentimental look back at a year that truly did change America forever.

Article first published as Book Review: 1969: The Year Everything Changed by Rob Kirkpatrick on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Rasputina - Great American Gingerbread

Rasputina have developed a genre all their own, which they call “cello rock.” Great American Gingerbread is a CD/DVD set of the group performing obscurities and others from their catalog. The set-up is three female cellists with a male drummer keeping the beat. Although none of their material is quite as mannered as Celtic Woman, there are certain similarities.

One element is that these are very attractive women, who are also very serious musicians. Their medieval outfits are a nice touch, and the fact that leader Melora Creager has kept the group active for nearly 20 years is certainly one reason they sound so good together.

Although one does not hear it in the music of Rasputina, their main inspiration (as a whole) has been that of punk rock. This was made clear when they first gained notice while touring with Nirvana in 1992.

The music of Rasputina has very little to do with what one would consider punk, however. There are no hard-charging cellos berating capitalism, and I seriously doubt that they have ever inspired a mosh-pit. The perspective remains DIY, however — not only as in doing it yourself, but also in staying true to your vision, no matter what.

Over the course of six albums and multiple other projects, Rasputina have done exactly that. As a New York band, they have been popular in the downtown scene for some time now, and the concert DVD was filmed live at the legendary Knitting Factory.

Watching the group perform for such an informed audience is a wonderful thing. Jokes go over spectacularly, and the performers all look extremely comfortable. There are terrific songs contained in this concert as well. A couple of stand-outs are “Sweetwater Kill” and “Trenchmouth.” The CD is a bit more confrontational. Track one, “Pudding Crypt,” will get one’s attention immediately. It also supplies the interesting title to Great American Gingerbread.

Rasputina’s obscurities reveal a darker side than most of the selections on the DVD. With “Death at Disneyland,” “Ballad of Lizzie Borden,” and “Skeleton Bang” we come face to face with the angry young cellists, which is a disconcerting prospect to say the least.

And yet there is beauty in all of this music. Whether immediately obvious or not, a great deal of thought has gone into the presentation and development of the Rasputina vision. I quite enjoy the CD's 14 songs, but seeing them in a live context on the DVD is even better. Great American Gingerbread offers both options and is the perfect way to get to know this intriguing group.

Article first published as Music Review: Rasputina - Great American Gingerbread on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Kaboom Karavan - Barra Barra

There is a darkness about Kaboom Karavan that is all enveloping. The Belgian collective have previously worked in theatre, film, and contemporary dance - which explains much of the visceral power their music holds. Still, the sounds they create on Barra Barra, their full-length CD debut, defy easy description. These ten tracks belong to a world of their own.

“Parka” is a good example. Like much of Barra Barra, “Parka” utilizes a powerful drone, while a variety of odd instrumentation drops in and out. The overall feeling is one of walking through a very old and decrepit mine shaft, with debris falling all around you.

As the album deepens, the listener is drawn into even more claustrophobic spaces. “Thyres” and “Not Gone Is Seen” both evoke a feeling of being somewhat trapped in the darker recesses of the mind. Like Coil’s Hellraiser Themes, or something from Lustmord, this “closing in of the walls” only seems to increase as the recording progresses.

Barra Barra is unquestionably cinematic, although it is very difficult to figure out what Hollywood would do with such uncompromising sounds. There is one possibility I discovered quite by accident however. While silently queuing up the classic Aguirre - The Wrath Of God (1972), I did find a possible match for Kaboom Karavan.

As the conquistadors’ initially set out by raft, Karavan’s “Walzer” happened to be playing - and it was a perfect match. Later during the scene, as one of the rafts becomes hopelessly mired in a spiral eddy - the song “Barra Barra” played, and immediately lent itself to this foreshadowing shot of the trip's ultimate futility.

Kaboom Karavan have been compared to early Cabaret Voltaire, Einsturzende Neubauten, and SPK for good reason. Those proto-industrialists were never looking to form a particular musical genre, but they were profoundly interested in forging new directions with their sounds.

With Barra Barra, Kaboom Karavan have done just exactly that. There have been some amazing bands to emerge from Belgium over the years. Kaboom Karavan have shown with Barra Barra that they belong in such heady company

Article first published as Music Review: Kaboom Karavan - Barra Barra on Blogcritics

Music Review: Robert Johnson - The Centennial Collection

Robert Johnson (1911 - 1938) would have been 100 years old on May 8, 2011. To commemorate the event, Columbia Legacy have just released The Centennial Collection. This two-CD set contains all 42 extant Johnson recordings, exquisitely remastered and sounding better than ever.

Considering the ongoing impact of the legendary bluesman’s life and music over the years, it is a welcome tribute. It is certainly not the first time these legendary sides have been reissued, though. After being initially released on the heavy shellac format of 78 rpm singles, Johnson’s music sat in the vaults for over 20 years.

In 1961 Columbia released the King Of The Delta Blues Singers LP, and the secret was out. Young English blues aficionados such as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Jeff Beck heard it, and the British Blues Boom was on. Johnson may not have been the sole instigator of the movement, but he was incredibly influential, as a cursory look at the sheer number of cover versions of his songs reveals. In response to demand, a second volume was issued in 1970.

Then in 1990, the unprecedented occurred. Robert Johnson became a bona fide superstar — with music that had been recorded over 50 years earlier. During the initial CD box-set craze, Columbia cleared the vaults with Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings. The double-disc set held 41 tracks Centennial adds an alternate version of “Travelin’ Riverside Blues”, and went on to win a Grammy and sell over a million copies.

As mentioned in the accompanying booklet to Centennial, the remastering process has undergone dramatic improvements in the past two decades. These 1936-1937 sessions have never sounded so good. I also very much appreciate the sequencing. Where the first collection placed the “final” version of a track side by side with the alternate take, Centennial presents the alternates separately. This makes for a much more appealing listening experience. And while the inherent pops and crackles of decaying masters may have added a historical flavor to the earlier releases, they are gone now. All that remains is the music, which at times sounds so clear it is as if we are in the same room as Johnson and his guitar.

This is incredibly moving music. One of the reasons the whole tale of selling his soul emerged is just how far ahead of his contemporaries Johnson was. He manages to accompany himself on the bass strings of his guitar while pulling off incredible licks and riffs and singing dark, dark tales of Delta life.

A full listing of the artists who have covered these songs would fill pages, but here are a few of them: Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Cream, Patti Smith, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rush, and The Grateful Dead. It goes without saying that probably every blues musician since 1960 has recorded (or at least played) a few Robert Johnson tunes in their day.

Another huge benefit of the intense scrutiny of Johnson over the past 20 years is the wealth of new information about his life. These, along with discussions of his continuing impact on music and a bit of insight into the remastering process are included in the booklet.

There are very few artists whose music stands the test of time as deeply as Robert Johnson’s has. He just seems to get more popular as the years go by. The Centennial Collection is a brilliant commemoration of the 100th anniversary of his birth.

Article first published as Music Review: Robert Johnson - The Centennial Collection on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Albert King - The Definitive Albert King On Stax

For British rock guitarists of the sixties, the acoustic blues of Robert Johnson, Willie Dixon and Elmore James was the Holy Grail. It is somewhat embarrassing that their great songs needed to be electrified and swaddled in psychedelic imagery for US listeners to appreciate them, but that’s the way it happened.

At the time, however, authentic bluesmen such as Albert King (1923-1992) were tearing up their amplifiers as heavily as their English counterparts were. There were three (unrelated) Kings competing with each other, and all added immeasurably to the genre. The trio were B.B. King, Freddie King, and the maestro of the Flying V – Albert King.

Albert had already impacted the R&B charts in 1961 with his “Don’t Throw Your Love On Me So Strong.” But it was his signing with Stax Records in 1966 that really kicked off his career. The new double-CD set The Definitive Albert King On Stax makes this abundantly clear.

With a nod toward friendly rival B.B.’s Gibson “Lucille,” Albert named his Flying V “Lucy.” Like a number of left-handed players, Albert simply turned Lucy upside down to play. It was in this manner that he became known for his clean, crisp tone – a quality that would deeply inspire young Stevie Ray Vaughan (among others).

King’s period with Stax ran from 1966–1975, when the label was forced to close. For Albert, these years proved to be the high point of his career. Among the greats collected here are “The Sky Is Crying,” “Killing Floor,” and “Dust My Broom.” It was at Stax where King’s signature tune “Born Under A Bad Sign” was recorded. His taste in rock and roll was evident with versions of both “Hound Dog” and “Honky Tonk Women.”

Considering the fact that Booker T. And The M.G.'s were basically the Stax house band, Albert was blessed with some tremendous company for many of these recordings. A large number of sessions featured all-stars such as Donald “Duck” Dunn (bass), Steve Cropper (guitar), Alan Jackson Jr. (drums), and Booker T. himself on the ivories. The legendary Memphis Horns make some appearances, as does the Memphis Symphony Orchestra on a couple of the later tracks.

What holds all of this together though is the incredibly clean playing of Albert. He was one of the finest bluesmen of our time, and every one of these tracks deserves a listen. This collection is the perfect introduction to the electric blues master.

Article first published as Music Review: Albert King - The Definitive Albert King On Stax on Blogcritics.

DVD Review: The Cosmos: A Beginner's Guide

The Cosmos: A Beginner’s Guide is a captivating six-part series, originally broadcast on the BBC. It is definitely not to be confused with Carl Sagan’s The Cosmos from the late seventies, although it is every bit as intriguing as Sagan’s series was. The Acorn Media Group are leaders the field of issuing original PBS and BBC programming. The Cosmos: A Beginner’s Guide, released under the Athena Learning rubric, is one of the most informative and entertaining titles they have produced this year.

One thing The Cosmos: A Beginner’s Guide greatly benefits from is the three decades of scientific development that have occurred since Sagan’s program. The first episode: “Life In The Cosmos” presents some mind-boggling facts. With an estimate of 10,000 planets in our galaxy alone that could support life - when expanded to the entire universe, the odds become (pardon the pun), astronomical as to the existence of extra-terrestrial life forms.

The remaining five programs are just as interesting. The self-explanatory titles are: “Building The Universe,” “Seeing The Universe,” “Space Exploration,” “Violent Universe,” and “Other Worlds.” While each of these half-hour shows are excellent, I found “Violent Universe” to be especially well done. The visuals alone are worth the price of admission, with footage of gamma-ray bursts and solar flares.

The Cosmos: A Beginner’s Guide is a two-DVD set, totaling approximately three hours. Extras include a gallery of Apollo astronauts and an informative “Viewer’s Guide” in booklet form. The guide discusses European space exploration, the messages we have incorporated into spacecraft for other beings to find, and the CERN super-collider, among others.

There is also a center-fold of “The Life Cycle Of Stars.” While the material contained on The Cosmos: A Beginner’s Guide is educational, it is also never less than fascinating. Like previous Athena releases such as The Genius Of Design and The Power Of Myth - The Cosmos: A Beginner’s Guide is well worth a look at, and is appropriate for all ages. This is a superb series

Article first published as DVD Review: The Cosmos: A Beginner's Guide on Blogcritics

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Music Review: The Matadors - Get Down From That Tree!

The Matadors were one of the finest garage bands Czechoslovakia ever produced. It never ceases to amaze me how universal music can be. Regardless of oppression, language barriers, and all of the other cultural hurdles — this band rocked. Thanks to Munster Records, the rest of the world is now able to revel in their raw rock and roll.

Get Down From The Tree! takes its name from the opening track on this new 24-song collection. It features all of their studio recordings from 1966-1968. The package marks the first time all of their singles and one-offs have been compiled with their lone, self-titled LP

The results are an impressive document of a band emerging in one of the least likely places, during those famously lysergic years. The Matadors began by playing mainly international hits of the day. Their set included tunes from the likes of The Who, The Small Faces, and The Pretty Things. R&B was also a fave, and the collection includes covers of “I Think It's Gonna Work Out Fine” as well as “My Girl.”

There were many more influences in the ether back then, however, as The Matadors’ version of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” attests. “Extraction” is an example of where the group's collective head was at in 1968, when The Matadors was recorded. “Extraction” is a six-minute studio improvisation that had a lot more in common with what The Seeds were up to at the time than Smokey Robinson.

With recordings like these, there are often some early missteps along the way, and The Matadors were no exception. They struggled with English especially, at least at first. Early singles such as “Sing A Song Of Sixpence” and “Old Mother Hubbard” were written by “reinterpreting” English children’s stories.

Throughout their career, The Matadors were plagued by personnel changes. After touring behind their album, the group effectively disbanded — just in time for the notoriously slow Communist regime to actually release it in Czechoslovakia. What was left of The Matadors were asked to become the house band for a touring version of the musical “Hair,” which they did until 1970 as the Broadway Matadors.

In the early seventies, the core of the group mutated into a legendary Krautrock outfit called Emergency. Over the past few years, The Matadors have occasionally reunited to play short sets of their former hits for the faithful.

Get Down From The Tree! is a cool dispatch from the other side of the world at a time when music was undergoing rapid changes. It is a must for fans of Nuggets and other mid-sixties garage-rock collections.

Article first published as Music Review: The Matadors - Get Down From The Tree! on Blogcritics

DVD Review: The Third Reich - The Rise And Fall

“This is not the story of how Adolf Hitler seized power in Germany. This is the story of how and why the German people gave it to him,” intones the narrator at the beginning of the provocative new two-DVD set The Third Reich - The Rise And Fall. Although the incredible tale of Hitler and The Third Reich has been has been examined countless times, I have never seen a documentary quite like this one before.

The Third Reich - The Rise And Fall is made up almost exclusively from home movies. Most of these are German in origin, filmed by ordinary citizens witnessing extraordinary events. Some of the later material was filmed by Russians as they were advancing on Berlin. All of it vividly captures the times, from a very unique perspective.

We begin with Germany’s humiliating defeat in World War I. As one of the title cards reads: “The 1919 treaty that ended the first world war had 440 clauses. 414 were devoted to punishing Germany.” The cities of the war-torn nation became incredibly decadent, while a corporal in Munich began causing trouble with the officials. The rise of Hitler had begun.

Another intriguing element the filmmakers utilize is the use of the private diaries and journals. These are used as voice-overs to convey a very different perspective of Hitler than was voiced publicly. In the words of author Sebastian Haffner: “Hitler himself is still rather a handicap for the movement that has gathered around him. Besides, for ordinary Germans, his personal appearance is thoroughly repellent. The epileptic behavior, the wild gesticulations and foaming at the mouth - the alternately shifting and staring eyes. Most of those who have begun to acclaim Hitler would probably avoid asking him for a light if they met him in the street.”

This private revulsion, coupled with a belief in democracy pointed the way for Hitler to assume power just by taking it. He was installed as Chancellor on February 10, 1933.

Watching these events unfold through the eyes of average German residents is interesting to say the least. As the SS begins to systematically wipe out all traces of rebellion, along with “undesirables” such as Jews, homosexuals, the handicapped, and scores of others - we see first hand how the Nazis were able to control the country, right from the beginning.

The inevitable invasions of other countries follows, along with the hideous “Kristallnacht” and building of concentration camps. It is amazing how much the turning of a blind eye towards such horrors can facilitate them.

What is striking is just how “normal” things seem (in suburbia at least) even late in the war. There are a number of home movies of families out picnicking for example, with Allied bombers flying overhead towards the cities.

The most shocking footage comes at the end, again via home movies. The scenes of a bombed-out Berlin are incredible. I am assuming that much of the smuggled Russian film is from the very end, when the camps were being liberated. No matter how many times one may have seen scenes of the starving, often naked prisoners - the images remain as shocking and sickening as ever.

The Third Reich - The Rise And Fall was originally broadcast on The History Channel as two 120-minute programs. Most of it is shot in black and white, although there are some color segments. There are some extremely graphic sections, especially those of the camps at the end of The Fall.

After having watched a great number of documentaries about World War II and the Nazis in general, I have to say that The Third Reich - The Rise And Fall is one with a very unique slant on those terrifying years. This set is highly recommended

Article first published as DVD Review: The Third Reich - The Rise And Fall on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Julia Hulsmann Trio - Imprint

The Julia Hulsmann Trio achieve a very rare balance on Imprint. Playing jazz in a trio context can be tricky; there is often an inclination to fill the spaces left open in such a setting. Fortunately, Julia Hulsmann (piano), Marc Muellbauer (double bass), and Heinrch Kobberling (drums) have transcended this temptation.

Theirs is a music full of deep reflection, world-class playing, and most importantly, a genuine sense of self-awareness as a unit. It is a quality that seems to inhabit every note on this outstanding 12-song recording. The story the Trio tell on Imprint may be an old one, but it is one well worth repeating: Less is more.

For this, Julia Hulsmann credits producer Mannfred Eicher: “Whenever we felt the temptation to play more busily, he’d remind us that the music must flow. Naturally, we want this too, but sometimes it takes a little courage to leave the pieces alone.”

Opening track “Rond Point” is an example. Julia’s piano plays the main theme quietly for a few moments, while Heinrich Kobberling’s brushes gently comment. It is when we hear the bass of Marc Muellbauer enter that we know exactly what they are aiming for, and the result is pure, stark beauty.

The middle section of “Rituel” is a good example of how well the piano and bass play off of each other. While Julia plays a melody that seems almost an homage to the main theme of Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells,” Marc’s bass dances in and around the notes. This soon resolves into one of the busiest tracks of all as they work towards a satisfying conclusion.

Julia Hulsmann’s piano is magnificent throughout Imprint, and I have singled out Marc Muellbauer’s bass as well. But the drumming of Heinrich Kobbering is in many ways the glue that holds everything together. His willingness to use the lightest touch most of the time is perfect for this format. It could not have been easy — after all, the role of the drummer is usually a pretty aggressive one.

He gets the chance to let loose a bit on the final two tracks, “Zahlen bitte,” and “Who’s Next.” “Zahlen bitte” is one of two Imprint tracks composed by Kobbering. It is solidly mid-tempo, with plenty of room for his drums. Coming as it does towards the end is fitting. We have enjoyed some fairly introspective music up to now, and the change of pace is welcome.

The album concludes with Julia’s “Who’s Next,” a bop tune written as a tribute to the great Thelonious Monk, clearly one of her heroes. This is a terrific song. The greatest compliment I can think of is that it would have fit right in on one of Monk’s LPs.

Imprint is a wonderful collection of modern jazz. The word “modern” here is probably inappropriate. In fact, there is nothing particularly modern about the album at all. This music is timeless.

Article first published as Music Review: Julia Hulsmann Trio - Imprint on Blogcritics