Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Book Review: Two Gold Coins And A Prayer by James H. Keeffe III

“There I was, standing on the ground in enemy-occupied Holland… My face was smeared with mud and blood. And I was just four days away from my 21st birthday.”

So begins one of the most amazing World War II accounts I have ever read. “War is hell” is one of those clichés that nobody but those who were actually there can ever understand. If I did not grasp that concept before, I sure do after reading Two Gold Coins and a Prayer. It is the recollection of Lt. Col. James H. Keeffe Jr., USAF (Ret.), as told to his son James H. Keefe III. A little math reveals that Mr. Keeffe is now 89 years young - yet he seems to remember those awful events as if they happened yesterday.

Disaster struck on March 8, 1944, when Lieutenant James Keefe was forced to bail out of his B-24 bomber over Papendrecht, Holland. With the help of some truly remarkable individuals involved in the Dutch Resistance, James was able to survive undetected for five months in the occupied land. This was a most unusual feat, as one of the top priorities for the Nazis was to capture pilots who had been forced to bail out. Part of this was to break up the Resistance, and part of it was simply the glory of catching these “fly-boys” who were responsible for so much damage from the air.

This 475-page book is so full of details that it would be an overwhelming task to try and tell the Lieutenant’s story in a mere review, but there are some elements which are too incredible not to mention. There are the two gold coins mentioned in the title, for example. Initially, Lieutenant Keefe was being smuggled between various safe houses, and getting falsified papers together - towards the eventual goal of getting him to England. One of the keys to blending in was to not have any unusual items on one’s person.

One of the most dangerous things Lieutenant Keefe had in his possession were English pound notes. These would have given him away immediately had they been discovered, so a kindly member of the Resistance by the name of J.J. van Dongen traded him the notes for two Dutch gold coins, of approximately the same value. Unbelievably, Mr. Keefe still has those coins, and a picture of them is reproduced in the book.

Throughout his ordeal, which involved eventually being captured and imprisoned as a POW, (and much more) James was able to somehow hide these two coins and eventually bring them all the way back home to Seattle, WA.

That feat alone is hard to believe. After a traitor set him up, and he was taken into custody, the Nazis strip-searched him numerous times. Yet he still managed to somehow hang on to those coins throughout the entire ordeal.

The term “ordeal” does not even do justice to the conditions he describes having lived through as a prisoner of war. It was not just that the camp was horrible, (although it definitely was), but there were so many other indignities. Disease, lack of food, forced marches for untold kilometers in the snow - just about the worst of everything one can imagine.

What makes Two Gold Coins And A Prayer so remarkable, besides the story itself, is just how much detail it contains. Not only in the nearly day by day accounts of what went on, but in so many of the documents James was able to somehow acquire and keep for all these years. There is even a reproduction of the official paperwork (with photograph) of the original identification sheet that the Nazis drafted when he first arrived at the POW camp.

The story Two Gold Coins And A Prayer tells reveals every aspect of humanity in a deeply personal way. Not to diminish the experiences of any of the thousands of POW’s who have suffered similar (if not even worse) fates, but there is something unforgettable about this book. It is available through numerous sources, including the publishers themselves, Appell.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Music DVD/CD Review: Motorhead - The World Is Ours - Vol 1: Everywhere Further Than Everyplace Else

The career of Ian Fraser “Lemmy” Kilmister is one of the wildest ones in rock. Like Ozzy Osbourne, Lemmy is one of the ultimate survivors in a form of entertainment with a pretty high mortality rate. The fact that he is one tough SOB is undeniable, but there is a lot more to the man’s life and career than initially meets the eye. For one thing, despite his “hard-partying” rep, the guy is quite intelligent. He is also responsible for some of the best hard rock/heavy metal of the past 30+ years.

Motorhead’s latest release The World Is Ours Vol. 1: Everywhere Further Than Everyplace Else is a pretty nice career overview. It contains a live DVD, recorded at various locations, plus two live CDs - which also hail from a few different sources. The majority of the material is from a concert in Santiago, Chili on April 9, 2011. The set also contains a few tracks from shows in New York and Manchester.

The World Is Ours Vol. 1 is pretty much a live greatest-hits release. Motorhead have always been basically Lemmy, and his on again- off again cohorts. The lineup that recorded these concerts is actually the eleventh edition of the band. Besides Lemmy’s vocals and bass, the trio this time around features guitarist Philip Campbell on guitar, and drummer Mikkey Dee.

For fans such as myself, one of the main attractions of the band has always been their basic approach to rock 'n' roll. They have written a multitude of great songs over the years, but (for the most part at least) have not included any Rick Wakeman-like organ solos in them. So with that in mind, Motorhead always seem to deliver - no matter who Lemmy has along for the ride. This version of the group certainly have the crowd inspired, especially during classics such as “Ace of Spades,” “Killed By Death,” and “Overkill.”

The World Is Ours Vol 1 is Motorhead’s sixth live album. My introduction to the group was No Sleep ‘til Hammersmith, way back in 1980. I’m not going to try and compare the two, because frankly No Sleep is one of my favorite albums of all time - live or otherwise. One big difference however is that the group have recorded quite a bit of material in the 30 years since, so obviously their set lists have changed considerably. Still, it is the old classics which get the biggest response.

I mentioned Rick Wakeman in passing earlier, sort of as a joke in terms of the type of music Motorhead are so well-known for. I wonder how many people are aware that Lemmy actually started out in the progressive-rock band Hawkwind though? I have always found that little rock 'n' roll bit of trivia pretty amusing. The “official” reason for him getting the boot from them was for his drug intake. Can you imagine? Has anyone ever listened to Hawkwind’s music? Talk about dope-addled, they gave new meaning to the term. Don’t get me wrong, I actually really like Hawkwind. But to say that Lemmy’s drug use was the reason for his ouster is something I just have to laugh at. I don’t think the old saying about the pot calling the kettle black has ever been more appropriate.

Lemmy has always said that he did the “wrong” drugs for that group. It is an argument that is pretty hard to deny. He was a “motorhead.” A speed-freak in the midst of a group of acid-heads. At this point, who really cares though?

The bottom line is that he is a rock and roll survivor and that is what matters. Whether you are a long-time fan, or possibly someone who is just curious as to what this legendary group is all about - The World Is Ours Vol. 1 contains some of their finest material, and is well worth seeking out.

Article first published as Music DVD/CD Review: Motorhead - The World Is Ours - Vol 1: Everywhere Further Than Everyplace Else on Blogcritics.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Music Review: The Tymes - So Much In Love

Oh, how simple it once was. With a perfectly rhythmic 4/4 snap of the fingers, a melodious whistle, and the line “How sweet it is, to be young and in love” we are off into the gorgeous doo-wop world of The Tymes’ “Wonderful Wonderful.” It is but one of the 17 tracks that make up So Much In Love, a killer collection of this vastly underrated five-piece group.

With doo-wop considered such an “ancient” form of rock 'n' roll, we tend to think of big names such as Frankie Lymon or Dion, if we think of the music at all. I guess it is just sort of the nature of the beast. Music is by definition disposable. Never more so than today with ringtones and iTunes, but I will save my rants about that for another column. What we have here is an amazing doo-wop group who are nearly forgotten today.

My personal connection is probably of little interest to anyone, but I think it provides a little context to my discovery of this fantastic group of vocalists. I am old enough to remember George Lucas’ first hit film, American Graffiti (1973). While being an undeniably excellent movie, I think that the soundtrack itself had an even bigger cultural impact. It went triple platinum, but more importantly (for me at least) it introduced me to music that was simply not played on the radio at all in 1973. Songs like “Why Do Fools Fall In Love,” and “Goodnight, Well It’s Time To Go,” just knocked me out.

In researching this piece, I was actually very surprised that The Tyme’s most famous track “So Much In Love” was not on the American Graffiti soundtrack at all. It certainly belonged there, but was not included for probably contractual reasons. I may as well finish my digression here by saying that “You Little Trustmaker” from 1974 was my introduction to The Tymes, and I was more than a little disappointed that that cut is not included on So Much In Love, again most likely for contractual reasons.

Be that as it may though, these 17 tracks (including the five “bonus” cuts) are wonderful. There is an indescribable magic to songs like “Almost,” “My Summer Love,” and their version of “The Twelfth Of Never” that is simply a lost art.

The Tymes knew exactly who they were, and even though some thought was obviously put into the arrangements - there was no question as to how the finished product would sound. The adjective “magnificent” is the one that comes to mind here. Certainly great care was taken to preserve the original tapes, and to remaster them - but the performances were spot-on.

It may seem strange to evoke Frank Zappa to wrap up a piece about The Tymes, but I find it fascinating that directly after his scathing indictment of the hippie culture with We’re Only In It For The Money, he recorded a loving tribute to doo-wop titled Cruising With Ruben And The Jets. He understood (and loved the form) unconditionally.

Whether or not Zappa’s respect of this type of music makes any difference to you is probably irrelevant, but I found it interesting. In the end, the doo-wop of The Tymes is a nearly perfect introduction to this style of music. I think that for music fans who have never really been exposed to the music they will be pleasantly surprised at just how great it is. Although So Much In Love will most likely be greeted as little more than your parents’ (or grandparents’) music - and geared towards the nostalgia market, I think that is a shame.

Hearing the blends of vocals, and arrangements of The Tymes is revelatory. They had something very special, and for those who occasionally like to take a chance on something “different” - this is one rewarding CD.

Article first published as Music Review: The Tymes - So Much In Love on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Music Review: Cat Stevens - Tea For The Tillerman (Limited Edition SACD

What a treat it is to listen to Cat Stevens again. I’m sorry, but his departure from music is missed by a lot of us. This is not the place to discuss his change in identity to Yusuf Islam - because it is irrelevant here. But the new SACD release of his classic Tea For The Tillerman was something I found irresistible, for a couple of reasons.

Number one was the fact that I just happen to love this album. Number two may seem a bit odd, but it is nontheless true. After being shocked at hearing just how incredible the SACD version of Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here sounded - I honestly wondered how this process could improve such a delicate, acoustic recording as Tea For The Tillerman.

The answer is that it feels like you are right in the studio with him. Most Stevens’ fans consider this to be his finest album - I know I certainly do. Tillerman contains the hit single “Wild World” but there are many who would argue that there are even better tracks contained on this 11-song collection. The opening song “Where Do The Children Play?” is one. “Hard Headed Woman” did receive quite a bit of airplay back in the seventies. Try “Miles From Nowhere,” and “Father And Son” for a couple more fantastic tunes.

My curiosity was what more the SACD format could add to an acoustic recording like this. It was surprising. With an album like Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, one could pretty well figure out that the various sound effects they used would benefit from the process. Yet with such a straightforward acoustic recording as Tillerman, I really wondered what could be added.

The re-mastered edition of Miles Davis’ classic Kind Of Blue was the template for me. I had come to know the original LP pressing of that album so well by the time it came out on CD, I was very excited to hear it in a re-mastered context. Originally, they did nothing but transfer the LP to CD. What a disappointment. Then somebody got a clue, and actually went back to the masters and pulled out all of that awful tape hiss that had been there from the beginning. As previously mentioned in this review, it was like you were actually in the studio with the sextet while they were recording.

The SACD release of Tea For The Tillerman has very much the same effect. In 1970, when the album was recorded - recording technology had advanced quite a ways since 1959. Then again, only 11 years had passed, and going back to the original tapes and using 2011 technology has made quite a difference. I am not really good at summing up the reasons for this, so will defer to the quote the SACD people’s use as the official way of explaining why this format is so superior:

“The SACD layer of hybrid SACDs offers much higher fidelity than regular compact discs, containing up to four times the musical information. Hybrid SACDs are designed for CD-quality playback on conventional systems, including home and car stereos, portable CD players, computer CD- and DVD-ROM drives, and DVD players.”

Now I have to say that my system is not any sort of super-audiophile set-up in any way, yet the SACD edition of Tea For The Tillerman has never sounded better to these ears. I am the first to sneer at audiophile hype. Yet this SACD Haromonia Mundi is indeed worthwhile. If you love this record as much as I do, then you will notice the difference right off.

I’ll sign off by saying that this is the definitive version of Tea For The Tillerman. And honest to (name your deity), I really miss the artist who once called himself Cat Stevens.

Article first published as Music Review: Cat Stevens - Tea For The Tillerman (Limited Edition SACD) on Blogcritics.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Music Review: Lisa Smirnova, G.F. Handel - Die Acht Grossen Suiten (The Eight Suites Great Suites)

The term “prodigy” is one which is so over-used, it has become almost meaningless. Yet I cannot think of a more apt description for a pianist who made her United States debut in no less a venue than Carnegie Hall - at the age of 20. Lisa Smirnova is her name, and her new ECM Records release is Die Acht Grossen Suiten (The Eight Suites Great Suites).

The Suites were composed by George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), and though not as famous as some of his other works, are nonetheless absolutely beautiful in their virtuosity. Handel is probably best known for his Messiah, and Water Music Suite. He was an extremely prolific composer though, and there is much, much more to his legacy than those very recognizable pieces. The Eight Suites is a perfect example.

Lisa Smirnova’s recording may help to popularize the Suites a bit. One of the difficulties I have had in educating myself about classical music has been the challenge of simply where to begin. There are so many different versions of famous compositions in existence, that it becomes almost overwhelming when trying to choose the “best” edition. I have come to trust the ear of Manfred Eicher (founder of ECM) a great deal. With that in mind, I decided that Lisa Smirnova’s renditions of The Eight Suites might be worth looking into.

Thankfully, Mr. Eicher’s instincts were correct. As previously noted, it can be a challenge to just guess at which performer’s version of a given piece will be most appealing. Even though the compositions themselves do not vary, the ability of the artist at hand can make a huge difference.

What I found in listening to Lisa Smirnova’s playing is a technical virtuosity, combined with a very obvious “feel” for the nuances of each of the suites. This may stem from the fact that she began working on the project some five years ago, back in 2007. She not only gained a masterful understanding of every note, but with that intimate knowledge, has been able to add her own personality to the music as well.

For this non-musician, the distinction is crucial. It moves what are truly imaginative, and very inviting suites of music into a whole other realm. While it is not my intention to compare Lisa Smirnova’s version of The Eight Suites to the literally hundreds of other recordings of them available - I must say that her interpretations are outstanding.

The packaging of this release is also worthy of note. I have been a long time fan of the ECM label, as much for the quality of the music, as for the manner in which it is presented. Die Acht Grossen Suiten certainly lives up to ECM’s reputation for paying as much attention to the supplements as to the music itself. Not only are there highly informative liner notes, but there are also facsimiles of Handel’s original, hand-written compositions included. I found these original hand-written pages, which are nearly 300 years old - to be an extraordinarily inspired touch.

Lisa Smirnova’s Die Acht Grossen Suiten is set for release on January 24, 2012. In every way, it is a marvelous way for ECM to ring in the new year.

Article first published as Music Review: Lisa Smirnova, G.F. Handel - Die Acht Grossen Suiten (The Eight Suites Great Suites) on Blogcritics.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Music Review: Various Artists - Fo(u)r Burials Compilation

The compilation Fo(u)r Burials was originally released in 2008 — and is being marketed as the most extreme “doom” collection ever. Flenser Records is a San Francisco label that has just re-released the disc. Well hell’s bells — that was a description that caught my eye, and I had to check out just how “deathly” this compilation was.

I hate to make this joke, but I have to. The career of the likes of Justin Bieber is a far more frightening prospect to me than anything on this album. There are plenty of the dreaded “descending Satanic tritones” (as Johann Matheson described them in the 18th century). Probably the most well-known example of this sound is the song “Black Sabbath” by Black Sabbath. It was considered beyond evil by some; the chord progression itself supposedly summons Lucifer upon command.

Well, we all know how that went. It appealed to those who had had enough of the Up With People gang — and good grief, many of those people even enjoyed a bong-hit or two as well. As far as turning anyone into a living gargoyle though, as far as I can tell it was only Ozzy’s prodigious drug-taking that had any lasting effect. And then one day G.W. Bush invited him to the White House.

So let’s move away from the selling of this as the most evil recording one could possibly imagine, and actually listen to it. What we have here are four pretty great (and lengthy) tracks. There is no question that this music is intended for a specific audience. I think that was a mistake, but then again, I wouldn’t know how to market it any better than Flenser, with statements like, “This four-track album reeks of desolation, the gnashing of teeth, and virulent decay.” Well, okay, but then again, I used to be afraid of Mortiis.

With band names such as Mournful Congregation, Loss, Orthodox, and Otesanek, what the freak else are you going to do? The problem is, all four of these groups deserve a lot more attention than being shoved into the “demonic” ghetto.

Otesanek’s “Seven Are They” opens the disc, and it is the “heaviest” song here. It almost exclusively uses the tritone in form, and the “Cookie Monster” vocals (which are such a cliché at this point) are the other most noticeable element. But what happens after they have established their “darkness” is the first example of why I recommend this album so highly. The band is just too talented to stop there, and the song moves into a much more progressive place. They just can’t help themselves, I guess.

Loss’s “(To Pass Away) Death March Towards My Ruin” has much the same effect. Despite repeating the line “I become death, death is the seed from which I grow” for the first 3:12 of the song, they then find themselves at a dead-end, and move into a far more interesting direction. Having established their bona-fides, Loss are just too damned good to stay in such a one-dimensional spot. It gets deeper and darker, and one heck of a lot more interesting as they musically move much further up or down the line (depending on your perspective).

It is Orthodox who own the album. “Heritage” either makes Fo(u)r Burials, or breaks it — again depending on your point of view. I was shocked at the directions this 18:33 track took. So amazed in fact that I listened to it three times in a row just to make sure that my initial impression was on track. Whatever the term “progressive rock” means today, and how it could possibly relate to the (self-described) genre of “extreme doom” was not something I had ever even considered. And yet, here it is.

From the low-key opening, to the nearly Gregorian chant-like period that follows, through the gradual build-up in tempo, this song is truly hypnotic. If there was ever a reason for people to be frightened of so-called “doom” music, “Heritage” is absolutely it. No matter what your particular biases are, there is no denying the fact that this piece of music as the work of musicians far beyond the need for hype. I don’t care what Orthodox’s music is called. These are not kids in a garage trying to write music to scare their parents, or to impress their friends with. The sophistication of “Heritage” blew me away.

The final track on the album is “Left Unspoken” by Mournful Congregation. It’s pretty “deathly,” I guess. A mournful congregational piece with some surprisingly insightful lyrics, here are its opening words:

“I’m failing to bring forth peaceful emotions, for a reason I cannot perceive. But for a moment I am lost, in my own mind, alone.”

I am not sure if my review of Fo(u)r Burials adequately explains just how impressed I am with this album. The whole death metal/doom/gloom/goth business is just too ripe for parody — and I realize that some of that is reflected in this review. Despite the over-the-top hype about this being some of the most “dangerous” music you will ever hear, very few people take any of it seriously. All of my (probably unfunny) jokes aside, this is a CD that that shows a group of talents which merits much more than the usual Halloween face-paint, and predictable music and lyrics.

Listening to Fo(u)r Burials may not automatically send you to meet the man with the pointed tail, and (heaven forbid) a pitchfork in hand. But it just might introduce you to some music you would otherwise never hear.

To put it bluntly, this is a pretty goddamned great collection.

Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - Fo(u)r Burials Complimation on Blogcritics.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Book Review: If You Like Monty Python... Here Are Over 200 Movies, TV Shows, and Other Oddities That You Will Love by Zack Handlen

The new series of books from the Hal Leonard publishing empire called If You Like is a fascinating one. The books are actually released under the Limelight Editions imprint, but I suppose that is only of particular interest to bibliophiles and probably the Limelight employees. What the If You Like books do is point readers towards other material they may enjoy as fans of the subject matter at hand.

The first of these was fully titled If You Like The Beatles…Here Are Over 200 Bands, Films, Records, and Other Oddities That You Will Love by Bruce Pollock. The idea was so good that it was carried on with If You Like The Sopranos… Here Are Over 150 Movies, TV Shows, and Other Oddities That You Will Love. This is one of those great ideas that could (and should) go on forever. Neat stuff.

The latest is If You Like Monty Python…Here Are Over 200 Movies, TV Shows, and Other Oddities That You Will Love. One thing I have to say right off the bat is how much I enjoy the variety the company is employing here. The Beatles is a pretty obvious choice, but The Sopranos is a little out of left field. And as great as Python were, they are still (at least in the U.S.) considered relatively obscure.

One thing I really enjoyed about this book is the way Handlen opens it - with a discussion of the roots of the comedy of Monty Python. While it may not be a stunning revelation that the members of the troupe found inspiration in the Marx Brothers, his mention of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts was a bit unexpected - as was Bob Newhart’s 1960 debut comedy LP; The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart.

As the book progresses, Handlen details the history of Monty Python’s various works, plus the many other programs and such that they inspired. It is no surprise that Saturday Night Live and SCTV are included. But there are some pretty cool connections the author makes which I intend to look into as well. Although I have seen Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) many times, the mention of it in this context is interesting, and provides me with yet another excuse to watch it (as if I needed one).

Surprising connections one may not have initially made are what make the If You Like Monty Python I book such a worthwhile read. This is a great series, and I certainly hope that the publisher continues with it.

Article first published as Book Review: If You Like Monty Python... Here Are Over 200 Movies, TV Shows, and Other Oddities That You Will Love by Zack Handlen on Blogcritics.

Book Review: Chuck Jones: The Dream that Never Was edited by Dean Mullaney & Kurtis Findlay

In the world of animation, there are very few names that loom as large as that of Chuck Jones (1912 - 2002). While at Warner Bros., Mr. Jones was responsible for some of the most memorable cartoon characters ever created. These include The Road Runner, Wile E. Coyote, Pepe Le Pew, and Marvin The Martian - among many others. His work was nominated for eight Academy Awards, which he wound up winning three times - plus a fourth Honorary Academy Award in 1996 for "the creation of classic cartoons and cartoon characters whose animated lives have brought joy to our real ones for more than half a century," as the official statement read.

To put it simply, Chuck Jones was a legend in his field. He had one spectacular failure, however, which is almost never discussed. In the new IDW book Chuck Jones: The Dream That Never Was, edited by Dean Mullaney & Kurtis Findlay, we are introduced to Crawford - a character Chuck worked on in various formats for a period of 27 years. In the end, the legacy of Crawford was as a daily comic strip run in a few newspapers from January to May of 1978.

The nine-year old Crawford was semi-autobiographical in nature, although Jones added and subtracted personality traits over the years. He was initially to be introduced to the public in 1962, on the first Road Runner TV series. The character did not quite fit the tone of the show and wound up on the cutting room floor. This was to be the case time and again during the 1960s and ‘70s, until one day the opportunity arose for Crawford to become a syndicated newspaper comic strip.

By this time, Crawford had been refined numerous times. Jones had developed various proposals for a TV show starring Crawford, and during this time had fleshed out the character considerably. For various reasons though, much of it simply bad luck - the proposals were never picked up. So when the opportunity arose to bring Crawford to life in the newspapers, Chuck went for it.

Opinions vary as to why Crawford the comic strip only lasted for five months before being pulled, but that of Robert Reed - who was president of the Chicago Tribune - New York News Syndicate is telling; “I think it was a bit too sophisticated for the public and the editors,” he said.

Chuck Jones never really gave up on Crawford though. As late as 1989, he was still working on trying to get a version of it up and running as a Saturday morning cartoon show. It remains unproduced, and that was the end of the line for the dream that never was.

The long history of Chuck Jones’ attempts to bring his pet project to life are fascinating, but there is a great deal more contained in The Dream that Never Was than that story alone. The book contains a plethora of storyboards for the various projects, which shed some intriguing light on his working process.

The coolest feature of the book is the reprints of the strips themselves though. The name of the strip had become Crawford And Morgan, and detailed the adventures of Crawford and his friend Morgan. The dailies are in black and white, and the Sunday editions are in full color. There is also a section of unfinished and unpublished strips, which are quite illuminating as well.

IDW is a publisher whose reprints of classic comic strips I have long respected, but this one is a little different. With Chuck Jones: The Dream that Never Was, we get not only the strips, but quite a fascinating story of the one unfortunate failure of a true animation legend. As much as Jones had personally invested in Crawford, he actually did not care to publicly discuss it. In his 1999 autobiography Chuck Amuck, he does not even mention Crawford, which is kind of sad.

Thanks to IDW though, we now have the full story of Crawford - and it is as intriguing a story as one is likely to come across in the world of animation.

Article first published as Book Review: Chuck Jones: The Dream that Never Was edited by Dean Mullaney & Kurtis Findlay on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Music DVD Review: PJ Harvey & Seamus Murphy - Let England Shake: 12 Short Films by Seamus Murphy

Does anyone remember the short-lived “video-albums” era? Back in the early eighties when MTV was all the rage (and actually played music videos), some of the more adventurous artists made videos for each song on their record. Thus, the VHS (and sometimes Laser Disc) Video LP was born. Devo’s The Men Who Make The Music was supposed to be the first of these, originally set for release in 1979 as the world’s first Video LP, although it was not actually released until 1981. There were a number of others as well, but obviously the format never caught on, and was abandoned.

I mention this because the very idea of such a project seemed to have pretty well died 30 years ago. So it was a pleasant surprise to hear that the always adventurous PJ Harvey had decided to work with photographer Seamus Murphy on such an undertaking. Let England Shake: 12 Short Films by Seamus Murphy is a fascinating document of two extremely talented individuals coming together to produce something quite extraordinary.

Polly Jean Harvey has been actively recording for 20 years now. From the very start, she has been an artist with a singular vision. Her 1992 debut Dry garnered a lot of attention, and no less an artist than Kurt Cobain called it one of his all-time favorite records.

Seamus Murphy is primarily known for his photography. His 2008 book Afghanistan: A Darkness Visible is perhaps his most famous work. In it, his unflinching camera captures some brilliantly haunting images of the war torn land. A Darkness Visible is not “simply” a series of photos of a country ravaged by war though. It tells a story through the camera. We begin with images of a very old land with a very deep history, which has been in many ways undisturbed for centuries. Then his unflinching lens is turned towards the ravages of the war. It is a disturbing, and genuinely powerful book.

For an artist of PJ Harvey’s undeniable creative force, the choice of Seamus Murphy to film “videos” for her songs makes perfect sense. The resulting DVD turned out to be a brilliant combination of music and imagery.

I found the accompanying text by Mr. Murphy to be a wonderful addition to the package. In it, he writes a few paragraphs for each song, and the choices he made to accompany them. It provides a rare insight into the creative process, and although not particularly “necessary” to enjoy the DVD - it does add a very illuminating element to the set.

I found the combination of PJ Harvey and Seamus Murphy on Let England Shake: 12 Short Films by Seamus Murphy to be an unqualified success. Their respective talents compliment each other in ways that are both natural, and often surprising.

Taken together, this is a collection that works fantastically well for both artists, and one which is well worth seeking out.

Article first published as Music DVD Review: PJ Harvey & Seamus Murphy - Let England Shake: 12 Short Films by Seamus Murphy on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Book Review: The Future Remembered: The 1962 Seattle World's Fair And Its Legacy by Paula Becker and Alan J. Stein

For starters, I just have to say that The Future Remembered: The 1962 Seattle World’s Fair And Its Legacy is an absolutely gorgeous book. For area residents such as myself, the book has an obvious appeal. But it is much more than simply a beautiful memento of a huge event in local history. Although the Cold War was in many ways at its “hottest” point in 1962, there was also an incredible sense of optimism about the future. The Century 21 Exposition (as the Fair was officially called) reflected this.

The most lasting monument to all that the Expo represented is The Space Needle. Long before Starbucks, Microsoft, or grunge, when most people thought about Seattle (if at all), it was the Space Needle that probably came to mind. As silly as it sounds, it is our Eiffel Tower — even if it does look like it was lifted straight out of The Jetsons.

Although The Future Remembered is an over-sized, coffee-table book, there is plenty of text, and the story of how the Seattle World’s Fair came to be is quite a tale. The initial impetus for it goes all the way back to 1955, with plans to celebrate the golden anniversary of the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. It was to be a relatively small-scale “Festival of the West,” set to occur in 1959.

The world changed on October 4, 1957 with the Soviet’s launch of Sputnik. The sudden realization that the Cold War had entered a new and much more frightening phase was lost on nobody. The acronym MAD, which stood for "Mutually Assured Destruction" was appropriate, because that is where the world stood. While I in no way mean to minimize the very real casualties of war in Korea, Vietnam, and other disputed areas, a great deal of The Cold War was a war of propaganda as well. The Space Race was on.

The Seattle World's Fair went from being something of a celebration of the growth of the Western United States, to the Century 21 Exposition — where our dominance of all things “futuristic” was to be shown off. The project quickly grew into an opportunity to present the U.S. as the world’s leader in technology. With this new focus in mind, big Federal dollars started rolling in — and things that the city of Seattle itself would never have been able to fund alone, started to be considered

Besides the Space Needle, the Monorail remains a lasting Century 21 Exposition addition to the city. For all intents and purposes, it is pointless. The Monorail runs on elevated lines, for a little over a mile — from the Seattle Center, to Westlake Center (which is a downtown mall), and back. It is undeniably cool, but serves no real purpose other than as a tourist attraction.

The Seattle Center itself serves in many ways as our version of New York's Central Park. It is 74 acres in size, and while not quite in the center of Seattle, it is close enough to warrant the designation. Key Arena (which was originally called The Coliseum) has hosted thousands of concerts over the years, as well being the former home as our sadly departed Seattle SuperSonics basketball team. The Pacific Science Center is another wonderful legacy of the Exposition.

In many ways, The Seattle Center is the beating heart of Seattle. There have been far too many additions and subtractions to go into here, and that information is more appropriate for a study of the city as a whole, rather than in this celebration of the 21st Century Exposition. Still, The Future Remembered does discuss the ongoing role the Fair continues to have on the city.

There is a story told here that is fascinating in scope. Part of this is the historical context, which is written in an informative, yet very entertaining style. The other is the plethora of photos, diagrams, and ephemera that fill the 300 large-sized pages. Whether one's interest is simply a well-written discussion of the origins of a local landmark, or as the best source for information regarding a very specific time and era that Seattle found itself a major part of, The Future Remembered covers it all.

For these reasons — and more — this history of the Century 21 Exposition is indispensable. It is available from a number of sources, one of them being the publisher HistoryLink , whose full catalog is worth taking a look at as well.

Article first published as Book Review: The Future Remembered: The 1962 Seattle World's Fair And Its Legacy by Paula Becker and Alan J. Stein on Blogcritics.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Music Review: The Michael Nyman Band - Michael Nyman

Michael Nyman is probably best known to the general public as the composer of the soundtrack to the acclaimed film The Piano (1993). Nyman had been composing and recording for years prior to The Piano, and the debut of the Michael Nyman Band - simply titled Michael Nyman, was originally released in 1981. The LP has been out of print for years, and mint-condition copies of it have been trading for big bucks in the collector’s market for a long time now. I have no idea why it has taken so long, but Michael Nyman has finally been released on CD. For one thing, the release proves that the album’s stellar reputation over the years was well-deserved. It also shows just how well these types of reissue projects can be done, if the people behind them care enough to do it right.

Mr. Nyman’s music employs a wide variety of stylistic approaches. Michael Nyman is at times soothing, adventurous, and always intriguing. While it is thoroughly enjoyable on its own terms, there is a depth to the compositions that adds a powerful element. The original vinyl release was broken up with five songs on side one, and the 21:09 “M-Work” filled the second side.

It was no mere happenstance that Michael Nyman was chosen to compose the soundtrack of The Piano, for he had been scoring films for years. One of the more celebrated directors he has worked with is Peter Greenaway. A great deal of the music on Michael Nyman comes from his work on the early films Greenaway directed. Then there is “In Re Don Giovanni,” which as the title indicates - references Mozart’s Don Giovanni. It is a curious deconstruction of the “Catalogue Aria” from Amadeus’ famous opera.

As previously mentioned, Michael Nyman contains a variety of different musical forms, but it is by no means a “difficult” listen. I know that some people are put off by the very idea of classical music, thinking that it is too demanding, and necessitates a great deal of knowledge to fully appreciate. Let me state categorically that this is not the case with Michael Nyman. Knowing some of the history and sources of the compositions is nice, but certainly not a requirement to fully enjoy this recording.

The CD has been issued on the aptly titled MN Records label, and is distributed by the Harmonia Mundi company in the United States. The packaging is noteworthy also. The digi-pak case is a tri-fold affair, and contains an informative booklet, along with reproductions of the two posters which accompanied the original LP release.

For those of us who have been curious about this album for years, but not quite willing to pay collector’s prices to hear it, the CD release of Michael Nyman is a welcome event. For those so inclined,
MN Records
has quite a number of other releases by the artist, and is worth a look.

I have been looking forward to the opportunity to hear this fine album for some time now. The reissue kicks off 2012 in style, and is a recording which should appeal to a wide variety of listeners. It is a very impressive album, both in the music, and in the packaging.

Michael Nyman is set for release on January 10, 2010.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Feral House: The Only Books That Matter

Sure, it’s a take on old slogan CBS Records once used to describe The Clash. I’ll never forget the sticker on Sandinista!, which described the group as “The Only Band That Matters.” Well, screw ‘em, I doubt they are going to sue me over recycling it. In the case of Feral House, that cliché is probably going to taken as an insult though. The books they publish certainly “matter,” but they go far beyond that silly term. As a publisher, Adam Parfrey is absolutely fearless in what he chooses to release. Daniel Ellsberg was once called “The Most Dangerous Man in America.” That’s a little closer to what J. Edgar might have said about Parfrey, but who knows? The old cross-dresser may have had him locked up on general principles by now.

Adam Parfrey has been kicking at the barn doors for some time. The only problem is that most of the sheep inside are content to watch Two And A Half Men or the occasional “political” debate. You know, the ones where we pretend there is a difference between the Republicans and the Democrats.

Judging from a few of Feral House’s titles, my guess is that Parfrey sees right through the political show, and knows full well who really runs the country. Of course books such as Babylon’s Banksters and Inside The Shadow Government are always dismissed as paranoid conspiracy theories - and the authors are painted as dangerously demented. Or they are simply killed, as was apparently the case with Danny Casolaro - who was researching what he termed The Octopus. This was to be his connect-the-dots expose of the ongoing vast conspiracy between government, industry, and all sorts of free-lance mercenaries. Feral House’s The Octopus: The Life and Death of Danny Casolaro is just one of the many “must reads” in their catalog.

My apologies for the digression. The number of Feral House’s books in-print is over 100, and each one could be called a “must-read” for various reasons. This is beginning to sound like a lengthy advertisement for the company, but I assure you - I have never even met Adam Parfrey. I did talk to him on the phone once, for about 30 seconds, and it was pretty clear he was extremely busy filling orders and such. So there's the old "full disclosure" business - out and in the open. Regardless of any of that though, I have read at least ten Feral House books, and can say without reservation that each one has exceeded my expectations. A couple of links to my reviews here might help illustrate this:

American Hardcore: A Tribal History by Stephen Blush

Speed, Speed, Speedfreak: A Fast History of Methamphetamine by Mick Farren

Since this is an entry in my personal blog, I get to say whatever the hell I want, without worrying about what or how an “editor” might deem appropriate. So I am going to take a moment to explain where the interest, and this resulting piece came from.
Does anyone remember The Church of the SubGenius, “led” by Rev. Ivan Stang? In 1988 he published a book titled High Weirdness by Mail - A Directory of The Fringe: Mad Prophets, Crackpots, Kooks & True Visionaries. Today it would be called High Weirdness by E-Mail, but back then, you actually wrote out letters to the places that interested you, and requested info and items from them. I went nuts - must have sent off at least 50 inquiries, some with a dollar or two inside - most of them with nothing but a return address.

My mailbox became a treasure trove of truly strange fun. Hell, I even subscribed to the Flat Earth News for a while.

This is where I discovered Amok Press, who published a book I had been searching out for a long time. You Can’t Win by Jack Black is one of the greatest tales I have ever read. William Burroughs called it his all- time favorite book, which was what set me out "on the trail" initially. I must confess to having read that book a good ten times over the past 20 or so years. I’m not going to review it here - just trust me on this one. It is fantastic.

Anyway, since I was so impressed with that purchase, I decided to order another Amok item: Apocalypse Culture - edited by Adam Parfrey, and featuring an awesome cover painting by Joe Coleman. It is another five-star item, and there is even a second volume, which I intend to order one of these days.

Besides the discovery of Amok, High Weirdness also introduced me to the dearly departed, but beyond description Loompanics catalog. I am a life-long resident of the Seattle area, and when I found out that Loompanics were based in Port Townsend, WA - I was thrilled. That small, very artistic community is only a ferry-boat ride away. Or you can drive the roughly 50 miles to it over the Narrows Bridge.

About a year ago, I interviewed J.G. Thirlwell aka Foetus (among many other pseudonyms) here. We talked off the record for a while, and Adam Parfrey’s name came up (as a friend of Thirlwell’s). I was shocked to discover that he had located Feral House (he calls it “Feral Acres”) in Port Townsend, WA. Not that it matters, but I wonder - out of all the possible spots he could have based his business at, why there? Maybe it has something to do with Loompanics, or maybe not. Who knows, and basically who cares? Just fodder to fill my blog with I guess.

Anyway, I just wanted to tell a very long story about how and why I think Feral House is so cool. My blog gets oh… maybe one reader a day - but thanks, I wish I had something to offer you, maybe an old issue of The Flat Earth Society newsletter, huh?

If you have had your fill of Oprah’s Picks (or what the fuck ever), The Fringe is a pretty cool place to visit. From what I can tell, Feral House is the best place to go for the “out of the ordinary” type of material that I crave.

There is actually much more to the story of Amok, Adam Parfrey, and the whole underground scene he continues to be a major part of. His connection to J.G. Thirlwell is obviously something interesting, and from what I understand, there is also another publishing firm under the “Feral Acres” umbrella. We get a lot of rainy Sunday afternoons here in Seattle, which tend to entice me to write more about what I consider to be a very unique time in the "underground" 20 or so years ago. Check back in, and check out Feral House. as well.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Music Review: Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here SACD (Limited Edition)

The term SACD is short for Super Audio Compact Disc. I realize that people often wonder whether such audiophile products are worth the additional expense, or are simply a marketing ploy. After listening to the new SACD edition of Pink Floyd’s classic Wish You Were Here, I can say that without a doubt, there is very noticeable improvement over the sound of my original “regular” copy of the disc. It is really quite remarkable, even on my thoroughly average-priced equipment.

To quickly lay out the basics of what the SACD has to off, I will quote from the Amazon.com site’s explanation of the format: “The SACD layer of hybrid SACDs offers much higher fidelity than regular compact discs, containing up to four times the musical information. Hybrid SACDs are designed for CD-quality playback on conventional systems, including home and car stereos, portable CD players, computer CD- and DVD-ROM drives, and DVD players.”

Those are obviously the type of officially-sanctioned words that nobody uses in actual conversation. “Is SACD really worth the extra money?” is the significant question. Based on both the sound quality, and the exquisite packaging it is presented in is a resounding “Yes.” In my opinion, the APO Company, who have licensed the album for this SACD release - have done an outstanding job.

When it comes to superstar bands, few are bigger than Pink Floyd. Both Dark Side of The Moon and The Wall continue to sell in incredible numbers. Between those two blockbusters came the relatively lesser-known Wish You Were Here and Animals. Both of those albums sold quite well also, but there is a reason Pink Floyd is sometimes referred to as “the biggest cult band in the world.” I would argue that for both the subject matter, and the music itself, Wish You Were Here is the ultimate Pink Floyd “cult“ artifact.

With a band of Floyd’s stature, their history is pretty well-known. By 1975, they were a very different group than the one they began as in 1967. They formed in 1965 around the incredibly charismatic Syd Barrett (1946-2006), and released their debut The Piper at the Gates of Dawn in 1967. Whether due to Barrett’s prodigious LSD intake, or latent mental illness, (most likely a combination of the two), he broke down, and was replaced by David Gilmour in 1968. The specter of their founding “lost genius” haunted Pink Floyd for the rest of their days. In fact, much of The Dark Side of the Moon dealt with madness.

Wish You Were Here confronts “the subject of Syd” straight on. The nine-part “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” opens and closes the album, and accounts for over two-thirds of its running time. The “Crazy Diamond” is Syd Barrett, and the lyrics are heart-breaking;

“Remember when you were young, you shone like the sun. Shine on you crazy diamond. Now there’s a look in your eyes, like black holes in the skies. Shine on you crazy diamond.”

The music evokes both a sense of melancholy and virtuosity. David Gilmour’s first guitar solo, at around the 7:50 mark during the first part, is magnificent. It expresses the sadness the members feel at having reached such heights without their original visionary - better than the words themselves. The majority of “Shine On” is musical, there are but three stanzas in which Roger Waters expresses his thoughts on his lost friend. Guest appearances on Floyd albums were rare, but saxophonist Dick Parry was asked to add his sax to the closing portion of “Shine On (Part 5)”. He had previously appeared on the Dark Side tracks “Money,“ and “Us And Them.“

Parry’s sax leads us out of the internal madness of Syd Barrett and into the lunacy of the “real” world in “Welcome To the Machine.” This is another amazing Pink Floyd track, from the crystal-clear mechanized sounds that open the song up, to Gilmour’s strummed acoustic guitar, to the synthesized rushes that carry us inexorably along. It again references Barrett, although a bit more obliquely this time;

“You dreamed of a big star, he played a mean guitar. He always at in the Steak Bar, he loved to drive in his Jaguar.”

With the success of Dark Side of the Moon, the members of Pink Floyd had certainly reached the level of Rock Stars. The phoniness of it all is the subject of the next cut, “Have A Cigar.” A year later, snarling punk-rockers would point to this song as Exhibit A in their diatribes against “whining, spoilt rock stars.”

Fair enough, but “Have A Cigar” is a scathing indictment of the corporate music world. The best Pink Floyd “in-joke” is contained in the line “Oh by the way, which one’s Pink?” The little-known Roy Harper was probably the ultimate “musician’s musician” in England in the seventies. Led Zeppelin paid specific tribute to him on their third album, with the song “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper.” Pink Floyd went even further. For the first time in their career, they brought in an outside vocalist to sing one of their songs. It is not David Gilmour or Roger Waters singing “Have A Cigar,” it is Roy Harper.

The plaintive title track is next. While it could be construed as the description of a disintegrating marriage with lines such as “We’re just two lost souls, swimming in a fish bowl, year after year,” my perception is that it goes much deeper. It seems unlikely that the words “So, so you think you can tell heaven from hell, blue skies from pain,” as being directed at anyone other than Syd Barrett. The catch in the voice during the line “How I wish, how I wish you were here,” confirms this impression for me.

Parts 1-5 of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” open the record, and run 13:38. The 12:29 of Parts 6-9 close Wish You Were Here out, and bring us back to where it all began. But not really. There is a completely different energy to this portion of the piece than to that of the first. Just as a side note, for whatever mysterious reason - Syd Barrett actually showed up at the studio while the group were recording the track. It was the first time they had seen him in eight years. Spooky, huh?

For a classic example of record company stupidity, check out their attempt to put all of “Shine On” together as one long song. On the 2001 two-CD compilation Echoes: The Best of Pink Floyd, the piece was edited down to a single 17:32 track, titled “Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts I-VII).“

I would argue that even more so than Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here is a fully realized suite with an internal logic that makes very little sense when taken apart. Sure, FM radio (and later Classic Rock radio) picked out “Welcome To The Machine,” “Have A Cigar,” and “Wish You Were Here” to play as stand-alone tracks. And those songs actually work just fine that way. But “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” was not designed as a stand-alone song. It really cannot be heard properly when taken out of the context it was originally presented in.

As previously mentioned, the SACD sound quality is light-years beyond the previously available versions. But the packaging of this set is worthy of mention as well. The Hipgnosis studio designed the original artwork for Wish You Were Here, and the images they came up with were brilliant. To me, the loss of the graphics which used to accompany albums is the biggest drawback of the digital age.

For the Wish You Were Here SACD release, this loss has been mitigated by some very creative thinking on the part of the people at APO. The oversized package contains six postcard sized reproductions of the famous artwork which was featured on the LP. There is also an eight-page booklet, with more pictures, the lyrics, and the credits. It is a very nice work-around to the inherent problem of reproducing the original intent and impact of the album as a whole in this smaller scale.

Wish You Were Here defines the “most popular cult band in the world” because out of the over two hundred million records the group has sold over the course of their career, very few really know of the real-life Greek tragedy Wish You Were Here represents. This is one of the deepest, saddest records I have ever heard. And every note of it rings absolutely true.

The limited-edition Wish You Were Here SACD will be available this Tuesday, and is an excellent example of a record company actually “getting it right” for a change. If you are fortunate enough to even have a local record store in your area anymore, they might even bring in a copy. If not, Harmonia Mundi is the U.S. distributor, and are worth checking out for this, and many other exemplary items.

Article first published as Music Review: Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here SACD (Limited Edition) on Blogcritics.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Music Review: The Girls from Petticoat Junction - Sixties Sounds

Petticoat Junction belonged to a television world so vastly different than that of today, it is almost unimaginable. The series ran from 1963 to 1970 on the CBS Network. With the huge success of The Andy Griffith Show (which debuted in 1960), the network began programming all sorts of “rural” sitcoms. These included The Beverly Hillibillies, Green Acres, Petticoat Junction, and TAGS’s replacement, Mayberry R.F.D. Then occurred what has become known as the Rural Purge. CBS cancelled all of those whimsical series in 1970, to embrace a new, more socially-relevant type of television.

Petticoat Junction’s slot on Saturday nights at 9:30 was filled by The Mary Tyler Moore Show, beginning in September 1970. I bring all of this history up as background to one of the more curious releases to come along in the waning days of 2011. The Real Gone Music label has just issued The Girls from Petticoat Junction: Sixties Sounds on CD, and it is as much a blast from the past as the TV show itself.

The connection between television and music has been a long and fruitful one. We need look no further than The Beatles’ appearances on Ed Sullivan to confirm this. But prior to that, there was plenty of what we now call synergy between the two. Besides the other variety shows, and American Bandstand, Ricky Nelson’s career had been launched on The Adventures Of Ozzie And Harriet back in 1957.

The Girls from Petticoat Junction were Linda Kay Henning (Betty Jo Bradley), Meredith MacRae (Billie Jo Bradley) and Lori Saunders (Bobbie Jo Bradley). These attractive young women were definitely the “eye-candy” of the show, and they all acquit themselves quite well as vocalists. The 30-minute disc contains 11 tracks, including the “bonus” Petticoat Junction theme. Surprisingly enough, this is the first appearance of much of the material. Initially, I had assumed that this was a re-release of a long deleted LP. Not so, however; after the poor chart showing of the first couple of singles, Imperial Records shelved the project and all of the recordings have sat in the vaults until now.

The first single was “I’m So Glad That You Found Me” b/w “If You Could Only Be Me,” released in 1968. It was a flop, although both songs are an effervescent breath of late Sixties AM radio pop. Undaunted, Imperial and The Girls tried again, with something a little closer to the spirit of the show, “Wheeling, West Virginia” b/w “Thirty Days Hath September” is from 1969. The 45 came and went quickly as well, although “Wheeling, West Virginia” itself is quite good, and was written by the team of Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield.

Unsurprisingly, Imperial Records cut their losses at this point, and those four tracks represent the entire recorded legacy of the trio. Since the project was initially conceived as an album, though, there were also a few solo recordings made, which have remained unreleased until now. The oddest of these has to be Lori Saunders’ take on The Beatles’ “Rain.” She also turns in a credible version of The Youngbloods’ “Get Together.“ Linda Kay Henning took a shot at another established hit with her version of the 5th Dimension’s “Up, Up & Away.” Linda also recorded a song titled “There’s Got To Be A Word,” written by Don Ciccone.

Prior to all of this, Meredith MacRae had recorded some material for Capitol Records - most likely based on the fact that she had appeared in the Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello beach movies. Her big single “Who Needs Memories Of Him” b/w “Goodbye Love” came out in 1967, and was even promoted on Petticoat Junction. Curt Massey’s full 2:13 single “Petticoat Junction” wraps up this collection nicely.

Although The Girls from Petticoat Junction is obviously a curio item, it holds together quite well. Phil Spector’s famous Wrecking Crew group of studio musicians provided the background for many of the tunes, and the songs sound much better than their poor chart performances might suggest. Like the TV show itself, this album is an enjoyable reminder of a very different time in TV-Land.

Article first published as Music Review: The Girls from Petticoat Junction - Sixties Sounds on Blogcritics.

Book Review: What If They Lived: Hollywood's Lost Stars by Phil Hall

The premise of What If They Lived? is pretty straightforward. Authors Phil Hall and Rory Leighton Aronsky profile 48 film stars who died prematurely, and speculate on their careers had they lived. This is a game anyone can play — indeed many of us probably have. For one thing, there is no wrong answer as to what Heath Ledger or James Dean might have accomplished had they lived past 30. For another, it is something of a dark pleasure to think of what might have been.

What sets the book apart from the purely speculative about these stars’ pre-empted lives are the detailed biographies of each. The 48 entries are broken down into a simple format. There is an introductory piece as to the overall impact the actor or actress had on Hollywood, then a discussion of their life and career, followed by the big question “What if they lived?”

The book is presented in chronological order, thus we begin with Robert Harron (April 12, 1893 - September 5, 1920). Harron’s most famous role was in D.W. Griffith’s landmark The Birth Of A Nation (1916). The final entry is Natasha Richardson (May 11, 1963 - March 18, 2009). Richardson is probably best remembered for her role in the Lindsey Lohan remake of The Parent Trap (1998).

As far as notable films go however, Heath Ledger’s Academy award winning performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008) is the latest entry in the book. There is quite a gulf between the silent Birth Of A Nation and The Dark Knight, and What If They Lived? tells the story of the intervening years through the abbreviated lives of some of Hollywood’s finest performers.

Some of the more intriguing stories are those of Lon Chaney, Ernie Kovacs, and Leslie Howard. All three men died tragically — and while their careers were in full bloom. Chaney was cut down by throat cancer in 1930, Howard is believed to have been shot down by German fighter planes in 1943. Kovacs was senselessly lost in an auto accident following a party at Milton Berle’s house in 1962.

In addition to these sad and tragic losses there are of course the notorious and scandalous deaths as well. The first of these is the woeful tale of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Wrongly accused of murder, Arbuckle was worn down and blacklisted by an incessant campaign of innuendo, spurred on by the Hearst newspaper chain. He died penniless of a heart attack at the age of 46.

Three of the most famous Hollywood deaths belong to women. The deaths of Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, and Anna Nicole Smith are all explored in some detail. Hall and Aronsky’s speculations on what these women might have achieved had they lived are interesting, if not particularly groundbreaking.

What If They Lived? is a very enjoyable read. The bite-sized entries are nice, stand-alone pieces, perfect for browsing randomly, or read cover to cover. Especially in the case of the silent film era stars, there is a wealth of information easily accessible to the casual fan. Far from being sensationalist, What If They Lived? is a solid Hollywood history told through a unique perspective. It is definitely an enjoyable and thought-provoking read.

Article first published as Book Review: What If They Lived? by Phil Hall and Rory Leighton Aronsky on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Music Review: Joachim Nordwall - Ignition

Joachim Nordwall is a musician who works in the self-described genre of “Psychic Broadcasting.” Ok, I am the first to agree with anyone who thinks that description is more than a little pretentious. The term most people would probably apply here is “ambient.” And again, there are a lot of music fans out there who consider the very idea of ambient music pretty damned pretentious as well. As I think is abundantly clear, it is practically impossible to give a quick, shorthand name to what Mr. Nordwall’s music is. Despite these semantic challenges, I have to say that his recent Ignition CD is an outstanding piece of work that would appeal to a wide variety of music fans - if only they had a chance to hear it.

Contrary to popular belief, Brian Eno did not invent ambient music, although he did coin the term, and his description of what he had in mind is still the most concise definition I have heard; “It can be either be actively listened to with attention or as easily ignored, depending on the choice of the listener."

I have found myself in both frames of mind while listening to Ignition. For the purposes of this review, I listened closely to all 49:22 of the single title track that makes up the CD. What I found were actually at least three seemingly full compositions, seamlessly blended into each other. Only Joachim Nordwall knows exactly what his intentions were - I am going by what I hear.

The way the album plays to me is like a three-act play. And within each act there are three distinct components. Basic stuff; a beginning, a middle, and an end. The longest segment is the first, which runs for approximately the first twenty minutes. He may well disagree, but this section seems to be a fully realized piece. Back in the old vinyl days, I am certain it would have occupied all of side one of an LP.

Depending on how you hear it, the remaining nearly half-hour of music could be divided into two, three, or even four clearly identifiable pieces. However it breaks down is clearly up to the individual listener, and as is obvious by the presentation, Joachim intended the entire 49:22 piece to be listened to as a whole.

At the root of it all is a recording that I would call a sound-sculpture. Although the press release prominently mentions drone as a big part of the music, I disagree. There are works by OM, Current 93, and even Ravi Shankar where I consider the drone to be a major factor. That is not really the case with Ignition. What I hear much more prominently is the type of background environments that Kim Cascone provided for The Heavenly Music Corporation, or even what Brian Eno himself did.

All of that is to say that drone is not really the term I would use in describing the music of Ignition. The picture I would use to best describe this music is that of a wave. Although the music is markedly different, the Polygon Window (aka Aphex Twin, aka Richard T. James) album Surfing on Sine Waves is as apt a profile as anything I can come up with.

There is a depth, and (dare I say it) adventurousness to this record that is not easily categorized. For anyone who already is familiar with music like this, I will say that Ignition absolutely belongs in the exalted company of the artists previously mentioned.

For those who may be curious, my recommendation is whole-hearted. By its very nature, Ignition is a word of mouth item - but isn’t that the type of cool thing to discover once in a while? Ignition has been released on Joachim Nordwall’s Ash International record label. Since there are about 12 record stores left in the entire United States, you might want to check out Nordwall’s distributor Forced Exposure for sales info.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Book Review: Frank: The Voice by James Kaplan

There have been a couple of books about Frank Sinatra (1915-1998) published over the years. Well, more than a couple. Type his name into Amazon’s database, and you will come up with an astonishing 4,860 available titles. What more could possibly remain to be said about him? In Frank: The Voice author James Kaplan begins by presenting a side of Sinatra that is too often ignored. Namely, that the man was a musical genius.

He often referred to himself as nothing more than a “saloon singer.” How hilarious. Sinatra was many things, but humble? Please. As a life-long fan, I have often wondered what exactly made Frank Sinatra’s music so special. As it turns out, it was good old-fashioned hard work. He had a fantastic voice, without question. But he would read through the lyrics, word by word, to inhabit them. It was the type of dedication that someone like Horowitz brought to the piano, or Segovia to his guitar. The fact that Frank made it look so effortless was especially impressive, considering just how seriously he took his work.

I found the descriptions of Sinatra’s process fascinating. Despite his recognition as perhaps the greatest singer of the twentieth century, so many other books barely acknowledge it. And when his music is discussed, it is almost always about his collaborations with Nelson Riddle on Capitol or his later Reprise/Warner Bros. recordings. As fantastic as that material is, the fact is that it was all recorded after he had reached the magic age of 40.

In contrast, the narrative of the new 786-page book Frank: The Voice ends in 1954, when he was just 38 years old. The climactic event was his winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Maggio in From Here To Eternity (1953)

It was a bold move by the author, and one that certainly sets The Voice apart from the usual Sinatra biographies. Probably the most famous previous Sinatra book was Kitty Kelley’s His Way (1988). The two could not be more different, in fact to even compare them to each other is a bit of a joke. Kelley’s stock in trade is salacious gossip, and there is no question that Sinatra’s life provided plenty of fodder, even without juicing it up. Kaplan does not shy away from this aspect of “Frankie’s” life either, although it is presented in a far less hysterical manner.

The life of Frank Sinatra was many things, but dull was never one of them. The career arc alone is a fascinating story. Reading about the early days when nobody took him seriously, to the “bobby-soxer” era, then his fall from grace serves to humanize the icon. Then there is the dark side. His abandonment of his family for Ava Gardner, the friendships with various Mafiosi and other bits are not pleasant. Topping it off with fabulous wealth which was spent so recklessly that most of the time he was practically bankrupt, and we are presented with one hell of a tale.

Maybe the wildest aspect of all is the fact that Sinatra still had another 50 years to go after he won that Academy Award. Kaplan has done a marvelous job of making this biography a real page-turner. The man was incredibly complex, and The Voice reflects it all. Here’s hoping that Mr. Kaplan decides to write the rest of the story, because he did a hell of a job with part one.

Article first published as Book Review: Frank: The Voice by James Kaplan on Blogcritics.