Sunday, October 30, 2011

DVD Review: Brideshead Revisited - 30th Anniversary Edition

It has been thirty years now since Brideshead Revisited originally aired on the British ITV network. The landmark Granada mini-series was big in every sense of the word. The production took a full two years to be realized, and featured an amazing cast, including Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir John Gielgud, Clair Bloom and Jane Asher, to mention a few. It also launched the career of Jeremy Irons, in his role as Charles Ryder. Brideshead originally aired in 11 parts, and had the country spellbound for the duration of its run. The response was similar when later shown in Canada and the United States. To this day, Brideshead Revisited is considered one of the greatest British series of all time.

The first thing one notices about Brideshead is the pace. This is a big story, told on an even bigger canvas, and nobody is rushing anything. The titular estate, Brideshead is enormous, and absolutely beautiful. Even today, it feels like such a privalige to be able to bask in the sumptuous landscapes and buildings of the property. You truly feel as if you have been transported to a different world.

The series is based on the book by Evelyn Waugh, first published in 1945. The opening scene finds us with Army captain Charles Ryder in 1944, who is establishing a secret Brigade Headquarters at Brideshead. It is a place he had not been to in years, and holds great significance for him. While gazing at the rolling lawns and enormous buildings, Captain Ryder is transported back to 1922, when he first met Sebastian Flyte, whose family owned the home.

Sebastian and Charles became great friends while students at Oxford all those years ago, and the series proceeds from 1922 all the way up to 1944, following their lives and those around them. It is a story of deep love and respect, for Charles became a surrogate brother to Sebastian, and virtual member of the Marchmain family.

Through Charles’ eyes, we see this family of great wealth living the aristocratic life, seemingly without a care in the world for many years. Of course, there are so many deceptions, and disappointments along the way that it takes a seventeen-hour mini-series to do the story justice. An underlying tenet of the book was the Catholicism of the Marchmains, which is shown to be a source of hope, pain, hypocrisy, and finally something in which Charles Ryder is unable to grasp. The simple leap of faith that happens at the end of the patriarch’s life, and an event nobody but his daughter believed would ever happen.

Brideshead Revisited was unlike any previous mini-series or “soap.” In fact, the care and expense that went into each episode is so deep, that they come across as individual films rather than chapters of a TV series. Although the subject matter is quite different, what it reminds me of in many ways is a show that came along 20 years later, The Sopranos. The quality really is that high.

Having never read Waugh’s Brideshead, I can only say that I was spellbound by the adaptation. Quite frankly, I did not realize that anyone was working this hard, and this well in British television 30 years ago. Brideshead really and truly is a magnificent accomplishment.

Included in this Acorn Media 30th Anniversary package of Brideshead Revisited are a wealth of extras, including a wonderful 2006 documentary on the making of the series, titled Revisiting Brideshead. There are also commentaries, photo galleries, and a viewer’s guide.

In the end, Brideshead Revisited won a total of 17 international awards, including an Emmy for Sir Laurence Olivier. It has also been voted the tenth greatest British program of all time. Frankly, it is about the best one I have ever seen. Do yourself a favor and take the journey to Brideshead, it is a world unlike any other, and a deeply satisfying series.

Article first published as DVD Review: Brideshead Revisited - 30th Anniversary Edition on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Bachman-Turner Overdrive - Not Fragile (24K+ Gold CD Edition)

This may be my ultimate “guilty pleasure” album. Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s Not Fragile was one of the first LPs I ever saved up my allowance to buy, down at the old Pay ‘N Save drugstore. It was a tough choice between this and Road Food by The Guess Who. “Clap For The Wolfman” rocked, but it was no “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet.”

At the time, I had no idea that Randy Bachman used to be in The Guess Who; I just liked BTO better. Looking back however, it is a little strange. Reportedly, Bachman left TGW because of his Mormonism - evidently they partied too much. Yet Not Fragile was one of the hardest rock albums of 1974. And you know what? It still sounds great.

With the replacement of Tim Bachman by Blair Thornton on second lead guitar, the five-piece completely gelled. Both Randy Bachman and Fred Turner wrote some of their finest material for this album, which went all the way to number one. Thornton proved his songwriting mettle right off as well, with “Free Wheelin.” It was the instrumental B-side to “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet,” and is credited with giving the single a second life. The song had fallen to number 34 after hitting number one, then rose to number eight when disc jockeys began playing the flipside. On the album, “Free Wheelin” is listed as “Dedicated to Duane.”

In another bit of BTO trivia, I gotta say I love the origins of the title. Not Fragile is a blunt, blue-collar response to prog, as in being “Not” Fragile by Yes. The crate of gearshifts on the cover makes it pretty clear that these guys are no panty-waist art rockers anyway, and BTO fans call themselves “Gearheads” to this day.

With cuts like the title track, “Roll On Down The Highway,” and “Blue Moanin,” Not Fragile was Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s finest moment. To put it into context, I would compare it to Def Leppard’s Pyromania, which came out in 1983. Both were state of the art hard rock, perfect for radio and one of the few that both men and women agreed on without hesitation. Listening to the album today, it sounds effortlessly clean all the way through. Yet that was an illusion. BTO had a couple more hits later on, but they would never repeat the success of this one.

I think I need to take back that “guilty pleasure” distinction. There is no guilt in digging Not Fragile; it’s a classic. To that end, it is the latest 24K + Gold Edition CD from the Audio Fidelity label. In this process, the top layer of the CD is made out of real gold, rather than the standard and often imperfect aluminum. The end result is a remarkably clean and “warm” sounding disc, with the original analog depth intact.

I find it to be a delicious irony that a record which probably sold more on 8-Track tape than any other has been given this audiophile treatment. But Not Fragile is certainly as deserving of the approach as any other, for it was one of the best albums of that era. Now if we can just get those folks at Audio Fidelity to work on Road Food, we’ll really have 1974 covered.

Article first published as Music Review: Bachman-Turner Overdrive - Not Fragile (24K+ Gold CD Edition) on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Stefano Battaglia Trio - The River of Anyder

The Anyder River is the largest river in Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, and provides pure water for the island’s inhabitants. It also provides an evocative title for Italian pianist Stefano Battaglia’s latest collection of music, as the compositions themselves have a purity all their own. As Battaglia states, “I set myself the task of writing songs and dances uninfluenced by the sophistication of contemporary musical languages, striving to shape pieces that might have been played on archaic instruments a thousand years ago. I think of it as a kind of music before the idioms.”

Along with Salvatore Majore (double-bass) and Roberto Dani (drums), Battaglia has indeed reached into a mythical past for the ten compositions that make up The River of Anyder. There is a timelessness to a piece such as “Arayat Dance” that is undeniable. In the opening segment, Majore’s bass is played to sound as exotic as a sitar, while Battaglia and Dani hang back. Later Stefano’s piano comes in to take full command of the song, with Roberto’s crashing cymbals in seeming full acquiescence.

The titles come from mythical places such as Tolkien’s Minas Tirith, Sir Francis Drake’s Bensalem, and legendary lands such as Ararat. Each piece evokes a particular sound, very different from the other. Battaglia seems to have a wealth of textures at his disposal, which serves him well. There are far too many musicians who have only one way of playing. This is not to condemn anyone’s “signature” style; it is just to say that on The River of Anyder, Battaglia manages to continuously find different inspirations which render the various titles a special significance. The names serve a deeper purpose than as simply randomly chosen imagery.

The prevailing mode of the River of Anyder is that of a jazz trio, although that is a very trite description. Like most of what ECM releases, there is so much more going on in the music than these simple descriptive terms are ever able to convey. The River of Anyder is as much a spiritual journey as it is a CD of great music. Battaglia underscores this in the included booklet by presenting excerpts from such beautiful minds as Rumi, Rimbaud, Hildegard con Bingen and the Black Elk of the Oglala Sioux. We are offered an eclectic mix of philosophy and literature, which perfectly mirrors the blend of musical styles that fill the record.

On a quiet autumn day like today, there is a magic to this music, and to the words that accompany it as well. If the River of Anyder provided pure water for the Utopians, Battaglia’s River of Anyder provides a purity of sound for the rest of us.

Article first published as Music Review: Stefano Battaglia Trio - The River of Anyder on Blogcritics.

Music Review: The Gurdjieff Folk Instruments Ensemble - Music of Georges I. Gurdjieff

George Ivanovich Gurdjieff (1866-1949) was born in Armenia, and set out to explore the mystery of human existence at a young age. His search took him from Armenia, to the Middle East, Central Asia, India, and North Africa. The folk music, sacreds, rituals, and dance he absorbed on these travels would come to serve him well. Settling down in the 1920s, Gurdjieff dictated some 300 melodies to his pupil Thomas de Hartmann.

Gurdjieff’s most prolific writing period coincided during the biggest upheavals of modern times, World Wars I and II. Drawing from a variety of world religions, his constant quest was to find a way for man to coexist in a peaceful manner. But maybe all of his writings were for naught, because what he achieved musically seemed to render this goal plausible by itself.

Nowhere can this be better heard than on The Gurdjieff Folk Instruments Ensemble’s Music of Georges I. Gurdjieff. The thirteen-piece ensemble is led by director Levon Eskenian, and play a wide variety of non-traditional instruments. Although Gurdjieff’s music has been recorded by various artists over the years, including Keith Jarrett’s Sacred Hymns in 1980, most have been piano recitations.

The Music Of Georges I. Gurdjieff is much more “authentic” sounding with the use of such traditional instruments as the duduk, blul, oud canon, kamancha and others. All 17 tracks on this album are relatively short, and work in a variety of capacities. For one, there is just the pure enjoyment of hearing many of these ancient, soothing hymns, chants, and songs played as they were meant to be played. There is a “world music” element to this, but not in the pretentious manner that term often connotes. Rather, the pieces are heard in a much more organic way. You see, when Gurdjieff was traveling, he was memorizing these tunes, then having them transcribed later. So none of these ever feel like field recordings.

The second manner in which this Music can be heard is as a wonderful accompaniment to the writings of Gurdjieff. While he loved music and travel, the true quest for him was a spiritual one. It seems his hope was to find either the “one true answer” or construct it out of the various religions he studied.

In any case, he music he returned with, and has been recorded by the Gurdjieff Folk Instruments Ensemble is fascinating, and a great introduction to one of the true Renaissance men of the early twentieth century.

Article first published as Music Review: The Gurdjieff Folk Instruments Ensemble - Music of Georges I. Gurdjieff on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Chick Corea / Stefano Bollani - Orvieto

Chick Corea has long been a master of improvisation. Whether in a solo or group context, his abilities to create magic out of thin air have never failed to impress. He also pioneered the relatively recent development of two-piano improvisation, by working with players such as Herbie Hancock, Friedrich Gulda, Nicolas Economou, and Gonzalo Rubalcaba. For his first ECM recording in 27 years, Corea was teamed with Stefano Bollani for an advanced class in two-piano improvisation.

The two have been playing together since 2009, mostly at Italian jazz festivals. The performances captured on Orvieto are from the Umbria Jazz Winter Festival, where the duo played several nights of concerts. The musical program they have chosen reflects their eclectic roots. Between such Corea/Bollani originals as the opening “Orvieto Impression No. 1” and closing “Blues In F,” the pair cover a great deal of stylistic ground.

The first of these is the bossa nova king Antonio Carlos Jobim, and his “Retrato Em Branco E Preto.” Corea and Bollani’s fingers seem to dance around each other in the first few bars of the tune, then settle in for a riveting display of the melody, all the while never losing sight of what the other is doing. The near-telepathic interplay between the two is fully on display here. As Bollani has stated, “It is as if one mind were controlling four hands.”

An early highlight comes when the two tackle Fats Waller’s classic “Jitterbug Waltz.” The tune has always been a great piano showcase, and in this environment, both Corea and Bollani give it their all. Another universally acclaimed jazz legend is Miles Davis, and he is honored here with a rendition of “Nardis.”

Both Chick Corea and Stefano Bollani seem to have been looking toward South America a bit this night. They include a second Antonio Carlos Jobim track here, “Este Seu Olhar,” as well as a Corea original, “Armando’s Rhumba.”

With their concluding “Blues In F,” the two finish as they began, with some wonderfully inventive improvisation. Their styles run the artistic gamut and are on display not only on this final piece, but throughout the 75-minute concert. Chick Corea and Stefano Bollani are both outstanding improvisers, and the proof of it is right here on Orvieto. Here’s hoping they get out of Italy for a bit, and bring some of this magic to a US tour soon.

Article first published as Music Review: Chick Corea / Stefano Bollani - Orvieto on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Ricardo Villalobos & Max Loderbauer - Re: ECM

There have been plenty of unusual releases this year, but so far nothing has surprised me as much as Re: ECM. Berlin-based Djs Ricardo Villalobos and Max Loderbauer have reimagined 17 tracks from the acclaimed label, to create a truly unique set. They use the term “sound-structures” rather than “remixes” to describe their work, but the terminology is academic. What the duo have achieved with these jazz and new music compositions is to cast them in a whole new light. The results are a striking blend of tape loops, minimal beats, instrument sounds, and silence.

“Immersing oneself in the productions of ECM, one learns a lot about the optimum sound experience. We too have the paramount rule of making no compromises where sound is concerned.” say Villalobos and Loderbauer.

Of the seventeen tracks contained on Re: ECM, I certainly do not hear any compromises. What the mixmasters have fashioned here could never be mistaken for dance music, but Re: ECM is quite possible the ultimate chill-out record.

This is by no means the first ECM album to utilize electronically manipulated sounds to achieve a goal. Nils-Petter Molvaer’s remixed Khmer from 2007 comes immediately to mind. There are are also catalog releases by the Music Improvisation Company and Karlheinz Stockhausen to be considered. But Re: ECM is the first to take a various artists approach, and to allow outside Djs to do as they please with the original takes.

The duo were careful in their choices. “We chose specific ECM productions that offered parts where instruments, voices/choirs, and atmospheres were self-sufficient and isolated in the room,” they say. The use of ECM as source material could not have been more logical then, seeing as how one of producer Manfred Eicher’s stated goals with each recording is to fully utilize the dynamics of sound and silence in the studio.

To this end, Re: ECM becomes far more than just an assemblage of doctored tracks, but rather a journey unto itself. Whether initially planned this way, or the result of happy coincidence, the two-disc set has a definite structure about it.

The minimalistic approach of the first track, “Reblop” (Christian Wallumrod) sets the stage nicely. This begins with an interesting piano loop, morphing into a great, stand-alone piece by the end. This introduction to the record works perfectly as it shows what Villalobos and Loderbauer are working towards, without being so radical as to completely derail the project.

From there we venture into ambient territory for a time, and are slowly introduced to some minimal beats. These are used as tastefully and discreetly as any other element, and add a great deal to pieces such as “Rensenada,” (Bennie Maupin), and “Reblazhenstva,” (Alexander Knaifel). As the set continues, things become a bit darker. The ever-present ambient tone takes on a more sinister character during “Retikhiy,” (Alexander Knaifel), and “Rekondakiom,” (Arvo Part).

The works of composers Christian Wallumrod and Alexander Knaifel seem particularly suited to the method of Villalobos and Loderbauer, as they utilize five and four songs from each respectively. Placing the two composers back to back to conclude the set seems to wind things up in a suitably perverse fashion. Knaifel’s “Resole” has a soothing, almost transcendent tone which eases ones mind in a satisfying way. The duo clearly did not wish for the experience to end on such a note however, as their treatments of Wallumrod’s “Redetach” display. My nickname for this one is “ECM Nervosa.”

Re: ECM is another unexpected release from the people at this endlessly intriguing label. It is definitely one worth checking into for fans of ambient music, chill-out, and most especially of the label itself.

Article first published as Music Review: Ricardo Villalobos & Max Loderbauer - Re: ECM on Blogcritics.

DVD Review: Sounds And Silence: Travels With Manfred Eicher

The ECM (Edition of Contemporary Music) record label is now in its 42nd
year, and remains as mysterious and uncompromising as ever. This is primarily due to the fact that ECM is a nearly total reflection of founder Manfred Eicher. In fact, there has never been a label that has enjoyed such long-term success, while retaining an owner's hands-on approach as ECM.

In an attempt to understand this enigmatic music figure, filmmakers Peter Guyer and Norbert Wiedmer followed Eicher across Europe, and to South America, capturing him working with a number of artists. Their film Sounds And Silence: Travels With Manfred Eicher is a fascinating glimpse of life behind the curtain.

The movie begins with rehearsals in the medieval St. Nicholas church of Tallin, where Arvo Part and Manfred are working to achieve the optimum sound for an upcoming performance. Their association dates back to 1984, when ECM’s New Music series was launched with Part’s Tabula Rasa.

From Estonia, we follow Manfred to rehearsals in Athens, then to The Prince Regent’s Theatre in Munich, and then to the Serassi Cinema Theatre in the Italian town of Bergamo. Mr. Eicher then boards a plane to Argentina, where we are introduced to a very different world. In all of these encounters, Manfred Eicher is seen studying, listening, and offering quiet suggestions as to how the sound may be perfected. At times, this may be through the use of silence even, which is where the film gets its title.

In the midst of these travels, Manfred also ventures home to Munich and the headquarters of ECM. The austere offices are striking for their sterility. For a company that specializes in music as passionate as that of ECM, it is a bit of a shock. The building seems better suited to a meeting of the Politburo than to a creative endeavor. It seems to be an integral part of the ECM enigma however, appearances aside.

Among the many artists Manfred works with over the course of this 87-minute documentary are Marilyn Mazur, Jan Garbarek, Dino Saluzzi and Anja Lechner. Each of these musicians have very unique sounds, yet as Greek composer Eleni Karaindrou notes, “Wherever Manfred works, he is one hundred percent involved. That is the nature of his passion. He devotes himself to the moment and is entirely committed to the artist he is recording.”

The recent DVD release of the film includes some bonus materials. These feature a video (of sorts) for Manu Katche’s “Playground,” and the original theatrical trailer.

For those who have followed this remarkable label, and have been as curious as I have about the man behind it all, Sounds And Silence is indispensable.

Article first published as DVD Review: Sounds And Silence: Travels With Manfred Eicher on Blogcritics.

Peter Koppes: Australia’s Cinematic Master Of The Guitar

Peter Koppes is a founding member of one of Australia’s finest rock bands, The Church. Over the course of their 31 year career, the group has experienced their fair share of ups and downs. One thing that has never wavered however, is their dedication to the music. To this end, in addition to his work with the band, Koppes has recorded two EPs and five albums of solo material, and is presently hard at work on his sixth.

The recent two-disc Misty Heights & Cloudy Myths collects 33 tracks of Koppes' solo work, and serves as a handy introduction to some of his best material. The music is of a much more personal nature than his collaborative efforts with The Church. One thing that is immediately noticeable is the incredible variety of atmospheres and textures that inform these songs.

What I found striking was just how suitable so many of his recordings seem to be for use in television and film. When asked about this this, Koppes says, “my publishers have always asked me to send my instrumentals in to be presented that way, which is something I am finally beginning to do.”

His instrumentals would definitely do the trick. Take “Grasshrooms” for instance. Described as “a testament of the ingredients alluded to by the title, especially the crossing over chromatic movement in the middle section,” it is fairly trippy, but not in an off-putting way. Koppes' pop sensibilities are far too deeply ingrained for anything like that to ever happen.

More to the point would be the cinematic quality of songs such as “Caravan” and “Arabia” off the Water Rites album. The time he spent in Morocco in 1978 apparently had a lasting effect on him. Both of these tracks exude a haunting whiff of Middle Eastern intrigue. In fact, nearly everything on Water Rites has a larger than life element that practically cries out to be paired with celluloid.

What he seems most excited about today is a new guitar device he has been using, which apparently is very similar to the one Neil Young employs on his latest album Le Noise. “It is a special harmonizing effect that produces something of an orchestral sound,” says Koppes. “I am using it in a very folk-music direction, and adding this modern guitar/orchestra sound to it. It sounds something like a Mellotron, in fact.”

Koppes’ devotion to music has been a nearly life-long pursuit. In addition to guitar, he plays bass, drums, piano, mandolin, and is now learning bass recorder. He is also teaching music on a one-on-one basis, which seems to give him a great deal of joy. “It is one of the most beautiful things I have done,” he says, “teaching music to children.”

Even with The Church off the road for the moment, he is still gigging. His most recent “show” was as his kindergarten-aged son’s school, where he performed Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ’N Roll” for a rapt audience of youngsters.

This is not to imply that he has lost his interest in more adult oriented music. He plays drums for Psychedelia, a side band. They stick to small gigs in and around his hometown in Australia, playing a mix of classic psyschedelic music such as the legendary phased-out “The Real Thing” by Russell Morris, a huge Aussie hit in 1969.

It was songs like those that prompted Peter and Steve Kilbey to form their first band in 1974. They called themselves Precious Little, and were something of a glam-rock affair. But psychedelic music was never far away from Koppes’ mind, as evidenced by his continuing development of a guitar sound that added much more to the music than simply notes and chords.

I have been a fan of Koppes’ since first hearing “The Unguarded Moment” on the local college radio station way back in 1982. His playing is incredibly expressive, and is an essential component of their sound. While The Church are anything but a “formula” band, their music is by definition collaborative. This is one of the reasons why many of us are such fans of his solo material; it allows him complete freedom to indulge a virtually unlimited sonic palette.

Maybe Hollywood will one day take notice of this. Based on his huge body of work over the past 31 years, I think Koppes could have an extraordinary second career making music for television or film. For now though, we have Misty Heights & Cloudy Memories. It is a fantastic glimpse into the musical soul of one of Australia’s finest musicians. And its remarkable Technicolor qualities are designed to take you just about anywhere you wish to go.

Whether Koppes is eventually accepted by the Hollywood film community or not, he is living well on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. Between kindergarten gigs, small shows with Psychedelia, and teaching guitar to young students, he appears a happy man. Of course if all else fails, he can always go back to The Church, who are second only to AC/DC as musical ambassadors from the land down under.

Article first published as Peter Koppes: Australia’s Cinematic Master Of The Guitar on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Vladimir Horowitz - Horowitz Plays Liszt

October 22, 2011 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Franz Liszt. The Hungarian-born pianist was revered in his time as perhaps the greatest who had ever lived. Liszt was also a composer, conductor, and teacher. It could be argued that Liszt was the first “rock star” as well. When he heard that plans for a Beethoven monument were in danger of being scrapped due to lack of funds, he began touring incessantly. He performed across Europe for eight years, and became supremely popular.

In fact, it was during this time that a new, and very strange phenomena first occurred. Newspapers called it “Lisztmania,” and it swept the Continent. Hysterical women fought over his silk handkerchiefs and velvet gloves, which were torn to pieces to become souvenirs. It is said that his electrifying stage presence led his audience into a nearly hypnotic state. While two centuries may have lessened this type of rabid devotion, the passage of time has not at all diminished his influence in classical music.

In honor of this bicentennial of Liszt‘s birth, Sony Classical is celebrating with a slew of Liszt releases. One of these is the brilliant four-disc Horowitz Plays Liszt collection. It is a masterful pairing, as Vladimir Horowitz is considered by many to be the greatest pianist of the twentieth century. The two share not only accolades, but approaches to interpreting music as well.

As Camille Saint-Saens said of Liszt, “He did not superimpose his will on the composer’s, but endeavored to reach only the heart of the music and lay bare its true meaning.” This semi-improvisational method was applied by Horowitz to the music of Liszt. “How do I know what I think until I hear what I play?” he asked his critics. As mentioned in the accompanying booklet, “He [Horowitz] enjoyed living dangerously.”

He was also very particular in the Liszt pieces he chose to perform. In this collection there are numerous duplicate selections. For instance, there are no fewer than five different takes on Valse oubliee No. 1, recorded in 1930, 1951 (two versions), 1975, and 1986. There are two of Au bord d’une source (1949 and 1975), two of Petrarch Sonnet No. 104 (1951 and 1986), and two of the B Minor Sonata (1949 and 1977).

While all of this material has been previously released on various labels, this collection provides an outstanding opportunity to hear the compositions of the 19th century’s finest pianist played by the 20th century’s finest pianist.

Article first published as Music Review: Vladimir Horowitz - Horowitz Plays Liszt on Blogcritics.

Book Review: Unmasked: The Forgotten Origins of Hollywood's Most Famous Western Heroes Edited by Tom Roberts

Black Dog Books specialize in reprinting classic stories from the long-ago era of pulp magazines. Those anthologies had their heyday in the early part of the twentieth century, and while many may dismiss them as “old fashioned,“ they are nothing of the sort. As publisher Tom Roberts has repeatedly shown, there is a treasure trove of great writing contained in those dusty pages.

A favorite genre for the company is the Western. I have always been a fan of the books of authors such as Louis L’Amour and Max Brand, but had never had access to really early Western material before now. With the publication of Unmasked: The Forgotten Origins of Hollywood's Most Famous Western Heroes, Black Dog Books has taken the reprint idea to a whole new level.

The stories contained here are the literary origins of such famous television and movie heroes as Hopalong Cassidy, The Cisco Kid, and Zorro. The fourth and arguably most famous is The Lone Ranger, who did not actually originate on the printed page, but rather on radio. When the character’s popularity took off, the decision was made to launch The Lone Ranger magazine in 1937, where our hero’s exploits were first documented on the printed page.

Clarence E. Mulford’s Hopalong Cassidy was very different from the one we came to know from television. The original character had a limp (hence his nickname) and a penchant for rowdy behavior. As Francis N. Nevins writes in his introduction, “Welcome to the world Mulford made! Sanitized cowboys keep out!”

The first Hopalong Cassidy story appeared in the December 1905 issue of The Outing Magazine. The remaining five followed from April to August 1906. When the stories were later anthologized into book form, there was a great deal of alteration done by editors, either by cutting some sections to pick up the pace, or adding new material to create continuity. Thankfully, Black Dog has gone back to the originals and published these short stories exactly as they were originally written.

Although I have been watching repeats of The Cisco Kid on television for decades now, I had no idea that he was created by one of the greatest American writers of the early 1900s, O. Henry (William Sydney Porter). The story originated in the June 1907 issue of Everybody’s Magazine. “The Caballero’s Way” was the only Cisco Kid tale O. Henry ever wrote. Rather than the white knight character we came to know through television, O. Henry’s Cisco was a bad-ass outlaw.

Zorro has enjoyed an amazing run of popularity over the years. The other characters in Unmasked hit their peaks in the 1950s, when Westerns were all the rage. But Zorro managed to linger on, long into the modern era with films such as The Mask Of Zorro (1998) and The Legend Of Zorro (2005).

His first appearance was in the All-Story Weekly magazine in 1919. “The Curse Of Capistrano” was serialized over a five week period. In Unmasked, editor Tom Roberts chose to print the second episode of the serial, which picks up and advances the action at a crucial moment in the story.

Finally, we come to The Lone Ranger. As previously stated, he did not originate on the printed page, but on radio. As the popularity of the character steadily grew, the decision to launch The Lone Ranger Magazine was hatched. The story included in Unmasked is “The Masked Rider’s Justice,” which actually appeared in the second issue of the magazine, dated May 1937.

The Unmasked collection of stories provides a fascinating glimpse these characters in their early, development stage. And thanks to the respect Black Dog Books has for the source material, they appear here exactly as their authors intended. For a host of other imaginative Westerns from the early days, and a great deal more, check out Black Dog for yourself.

Article first published as Book Review: Unmasked: The Forgotten Origins of Hollywood's Most Famous Western Heroes, Edited by Tom Roberts on Blogcritics.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Music Review: Shirley Brown - Woman To Woman

"Phenomenon means having your first single record...'Woman To Woman'...sell a million in eight weeks," reads the opening liner notes of Shirley Brown's 1974 debut album, Woman To Woman. The song finds Brown confronting "the other woman" over the telephone, and is surprisingly direct. Over a seductively sweet blend of soul instrumentation, Shirley lays down the law to a lady named Barbara:

"It's only fair that I let you know, that the man you're in love with...he's mine. From the top of his head to the bottom of his feet, the bed he sleeps in and every piece of food he eats."

The opening monologue (or rap) was a technique made famous by Isaac Hayes with his classic version of "By The Time I Get To Phoenix" in 1969. Barry White had borrowed it for most of his early seventies hits, but Shirley Brown was the first female vocalist to top the charts with this approach. She had already paid plenty of dues by the time of her "overnight" success. Shirley had caught the ear of Albert King in 1961, when he heard her perform at the Harlem Club in Brooklyn, Illinois. She was just 14 years old. King recruited her to open for him, and she spent the next 13 years touring the so-called "chitlin' circuit" with the bluesman.

"It Ain't No Fun" was the follow-up single to "Woman To Woman," and went to number 32. It is a bluesy, late-night ballad, with her lamenting, "It ain't no fun being in love all by yourself." Midway through we find Shirley delivering a monologue to her girlfriends about her good-for-nothing man. "I've Got To Go On Without You" was originally intended as the A-side of the single, but radio chose "It Ain't No Fun" instead. It is a shame too, because "I've Got To Go On Without You" is a terrific song. Shirley's singing on many of the album's tracks point to a gospel background, very much like her contemporaries the Staple Singers. I mention this because "I've Got To Go On Without You" sounds very much like the music the Staple Singers were making at the time.

Although never released as a single, "Passion" should have been. There is a sexiness to Miss Brown's delivery here that is a long way from the church choir. She reminds me of a female Teddy Pendergrass on this one, ready to reach out through the speakers to make love to you. The original LP ended with "Between You And Me," a funky statement of purpose from a woman who knows exactly what she wants. "Come on baby, lets get it on," is not sung as a Marvin Gaye seduction, but rather as an urgent call to action. On this tune, our lady is anything but passive.

As part of the new Stax Remasters series, Woman To Woman has just been reissued in its entirety, along with some bonus tracks. When Albert King first brought her around to Stax, she recorded three Aretha Franklin tunes as demos. Her versions of "Ain't No Way," "Respect," and "Rock Steady" have never been previously released, and each sounds great. The real wonder, though, is her seven-minute take on Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered." This is a remarkable bit of interpretation, and available for the first time here as well.

When "Woman To Woman" topped the soul charts in late November 1974 it became the final hit single for Stax Records. The label closed the doors for good the following year. Shirley Brown has fared considerably better than her former employers, and continues to perform and record to this day. She will always be best known for "Woman To Woman," though, and the album it came from remains a high point of mid-seventies soul.