Thursday, September 21, 2017

Review: Reissue of Murray Head's 'Nigel Lived'

Murray Head recorded one excellent single (“She Was Perfection”) for Andrew Oldham’s Immediate label in 1967, but he didn’t really find his unique voice until landing a role in a stage production of Hair and voicing Judas Iscariot on the album version of Jesus Christ Superstar in 1970. Those musicals’ union of pop and theater carried over to Head’s first solo album in 1972.  

Nigel Lived tells the story of an aspiring singer who leaves the safety of home to find stardom in the big bad, big black smoke. Instead of achieving success, Nigel succumbs to London’s vices and ends up hooked on junk. Reactionary? Absolutely, but Nigel Lived is still one of the more successful progeny of Tommy because of its eclectic arrangements and styles (Head dabbles in everything from funk to acoustic balladry to straight Rock & Roll to blues to chamber pop to a sort of avant garde pop), its excellent production values, and Head’s expressive voice, which veers from a Peter Gabriel-esque croon to a blue-eyed soul howl. The one thing Nigel Lived lacks is consistently strong songwriting. Things like “Pacing on the Station”, Ruthie”, and “When You Wake Up in the Morning” are good little numbers, but a couple of the more experimental pieces—the pseudo hymn “Pity the Poor Consumer” and the choppy and overlong “Junk”—are kind of bad. However, there are two genuinely superb standouts. Head manages to boil down the best of circa-1966 McCartney into “Nigel, Nigel” and recycles his own “She Was Perfection” for the lovely “Religion”. If nothing else, you have to admire the guy for trying different things regardless of whether or not they always work.

Audiophile label Intervention Records is now reissuing Nigel Lived with above-and-beyond care. The music is captured on two 180 gram records that play at 45 RPMs for maximum fidelity. Mastered from the original analog tapes, it sounds warm with crystal clear high ends and powerful lows that never get muddy. The super-quiet vinyl is particularly necessary for this release since Head paints large portions of Nigel Lived in near silence. Equal attention has been lavished on the packaging, which reproduces the original lyric sheet (with pages from Nigel’s diary to help you navigate the story line) in a heavyweight gatefold.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Review: Two Judee Sill Reissues

There’s no question that Judee Sill’s back story is fascinating and disturbing. The biological daughter of a man who imported exotic animals for films, she emerged from a violent home life with a step dad who animated Tom and Jerry cartoons to become an armed robber, drug addict, prostitute, scam artist, and convict. Then she apparently discovered Jesus and became a recording artist.

While her lyrics take the occasional glimpse into the shadows (most fearlessly on “The Lamb Ran Away with the Crown”), Sill’s first recordings fail to reflect her harrowing experiences. Her voice is full bodied and pitch perfect, but it does not exactly exude emotion, making her sound like she should be serenading kids on The Magic Garden and leaving folky compositions such as “Crayon Angels” and “Jesus Was a Cross-Maker” pleasant but not terribly moving. The religiousness of her lyrics won’t appeal to everyone either. Without a doubt the most striking song on Judee Sill is the heart-rending “Lady-O”, which The Turtles recorded with more acute emotion in 1969. These songs all appear on Sill’s 1971 self-titled debut co-produced by Graham Nash. The inoffensive acoustic arrangements are in line with Nash’s work with CSN’s softer songs. The Paul Buckmaster-esque string arrangement on “Lopin’ Along Through the Cosmos” is the one unquestionably potent ingredient in an otherwise bland stew.

On her second album, 1973’s Heart Food, Sill taps into her experiences more effectively with country-ish arrangements that place her work in that genre’s tradition of hard living. More of the grand string arrangements that were the highlights of Judee Sill prevent the Heart Food  from ever feeling like mere rural pastiche. Most importantly, Sill lets down her guard in front of the mic. The inherent quality of her voice is still very present, but by allowing it to droop into audible despair, to soar with intensity, to bend and even crack, she bridges the emotional gap that made her debut feel distant. The most explicitly religious thing here is an epic called The Donor yet it is so breath-taking that even we heathens can dig it. There’s nothing as recognizable as “Jesus Was a Cross-Maker” or “Lady-O” on Heart Food, but it is most definitely the superior album.

Intervention Records is now giving the only two records Judee Sill completed before her death in 1979 deluxe treatment with a new audiophile reissue that splits each album between two 180 gram, 45-rpm records. True to advertising, the vinyl is whisper quiet and the all-analog masters are exceptionally present and detailed. Some of the music is merely pretty but the presentation is consistently beautiful.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Coming to Blu-ray December 5

Complete Monterey Pop Festival Coming to Blu-ray

Just in time to qualify as a 50th Anniversary release, The Complete Monterey Pop Festival is coming  to blu-ray courtesy of the Criterion Collection this December 12. Aside from new interviews with concert producer Lou Adler and director D.A. Pennebaker and the inclusion of a short film called Chiefs which played with Monterey Pop! upon its 1968 release, this is a straight 16-bit, 4K upgrade of Criterion's 2002 DVD set. This is still reason to get excited anew since that set was a stupendous one, including not just Pennebaker's documentary of the 1967 festival featuring The Who, Hendrix, Redding, Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Shankar, and a bunch of other A-listers, but also the feature-length outtakes performances film (featuring groups such as The Byrds, The Association, and Laura Nyro who were absent from the main feature), and full sets by Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix. The Redding and Hendrix films are omitted from an alternative budget blu-ray simply called Monterey Pop.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Review: 'Steve Miller Band Ultimate Hits'

The Steve Miller Band made some of the most simplistically pleasurable hits of the seventies.  Yet Steve Millers career is a complicated wad of contradictions. Before becoming a superstar for making zillions with conservative pop like “The Joker”, “Jet Airliner”, and “Take the Money and Run”, he was a cosmic bluesman in the West Coast underground scene. He became a major superstar despite being almost completely faceless. Although his songs have shamelessly ripped off Cream, Joe Walsh, The Mamas and the Papas, Free, and even himself (“Fly Like an Eagle” recycles the riff of 1969’s “My Dark Hour”, and “Take the Money and Run” recycles everything but the lyrics of 1969’s “Kow Kow Calculator), the songs somehow transcend that issue. In other words, listening to “Rocky Mountain Way” doesn’t really scratch the same itch that “The Stake” does. Despite the fact that his music doesn’t even have the emotional core of hits by similar seventies megastars such as Fleetwood Mac and Elton John, those songs have connected with millions of people. Seemingly everyone born before 1975 has had the original Steve Miller Band’s Greatest Hits 1974-78 in her or his record collection at some time.

The interesting thing about the new compilation Ultimate Hits is how it attempts to sort through those contradictions. The set attempts to put a face on Miller by beginning not with his hits, but his personal history and voice. It begins with a short audio clip recorded during his childhood in which an older relative tells him he has a great voice and will find great success with it (the tuneless “la la las” that follow drop a hilarious punch line on the clip). Next up is a live version of “Gangster of Love” that begins with three minutes of Miller’s personal monologue on a background that is actually quite extraordinary: his godfather was Les Paul, who taught Miller his first few cords, and T Bone Walker continued that education.

After those four minutes of speech that effectively humanizes the hit machine, we get into a semi-chronological trip through the early psychedelic blues (though much of it is presented in live versions from later in his career), hey-day hits, slightly new wavey eighties period, and more recent recordings that forces listeners to hear beyond the 1974-78 radio-focused compartmentalization of the old Greatest Hits. Miller does not emerge from this set on the same level as the most individual artists of his generation, nor even as potent as Fleetwood Mac or Elton John—he’s too dependent on the musical ideas of others and too emotionless for that—but it does draw a more complete portrait of the real human behind the hits than any previous compilation. And more importantly, “The Joker”, “Jet Airliner”, “Take the Money and Run”, and the rest are still pleasing to hear forty years on.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Review: 'David Lynch: The Art Life' Blu-ray Review

David Lynch the filmmaker has been the subject of such documentaries as Toby Keeler’s Pretty As a Picture and Jason S.’s Lynch 1 and Lynch 2. These films were fascinating opportunities to watch Lynch work despite his notorious reluctance to explain the meanings behind his cryptic works. Lynch has also shied away from talking about his personal life aside from a few stock stories, such as his disturbing sighting of a naked, battered woman when he was a child and the violent nightmarishness of his time in Philadelphia. These tales primarily serve as all the explanation he’ll give about the inspirations behind Blue Velvet and Eraserhead respectively.

Director Jon Nguyen and cinematographer Jason S.’s recent documentary David Lynch: The Art Life manages to finally dig deeper into the artist’s origins. Jason S. had apparently been living with Lynch since making Lynch 1 in 2007, allowing him greater access to Lynch’s work, thoughts, and trust. The fruit of this is a revealing story that goes well beyond the stock ones. We learn that Lynch was not just an “Eagle Scout,” as his Twin Peaks-era bio read in full. He also went through a phase as a Bobby Briggs-style J.D., drinking and causing trouble with a bad crowd. He has discussed his parents in stock stories about Donald Lynch’s habit of walking to work in his “ten gallon hat” every day and Edwina Lynch’s refusal to allow her son to use coloring books since she thought it stifled true creativity. In The Art Life he goes beyond those stories to discuss a dad who was deeply disturbed to witness his son’s approach to art that sometimes involves rotting plants and dead animals and a mom who encouraged her son’s creativity but withheld more physical affections. Some stories, such as one involving a neighbor named “Mr. Smith,” are too painful to tell, and he leaves them hanging and elliptical like so much of his film work.

Those films do not get much attention. Lynch’s “pre-professional” movies The Alphabet, The Grandmother, and Eraserhead are discussed briefly, leaving the focus more on his work as a painter and sculptor. His artworks can be very revealing regarding his film work, though. Those who were captivated by Twin Peaks: The Return will be thrilled to see how much of his non-filmic artwork reflects imagery from his recent 18-hour film.

The opportunity to watch Lynch create such works is invigorating too. They are three-dimensional pieces very much in the physical realm, and he creates them using thick, almost alive materials, grabbing and pulling them and spreading them on boards with his hands. I personally found Twin Peaks: The Return to be the most stimulating piece of art I’ve encountered since Lynch’s previous film, Inland Empire, in 2006. Watching him create is equally stimulating. So is hearing him speak. Lynch’s awkwardness and reluctance as a speaker is well known, but that somehow also makes him a mesmerizing communicator, and his is the only voice we hear in the film.

David Lynch: The Art Life comes to blu-ray from the Criterion Collection. The film looks great, making the deliberately Lynchian booth from which he speaks (Ribbon mic. Green trees. Red light) pop off the screen. Of course, it is the less pristine footage of him as a child and teenager, his parents, and behind the scenes footage of his early films that is most electrifying. This disc is oddly short on supplements for an installment in the Criterion Collection, especially considering how much outtake footage Jason S. must have accumulated over ten years, but an interview with director Jon Nguyen makes the main feature even richer and more revealing.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Stones Release Promo Video for Another 'Satanic' Track

Not without cause, the Rolling Stones have a reputation as misogynists, but a new promo for their lovely "She's a Rainbow" culled from the band's least misogynistic album, Their Satanic Majesties Request, is a "celebration of women through the ages from all walks of life." This promo by Lucy Dawkins and Tom Readdy of Yes Please Productions follows on the heels of the company's recent new promo for "2000 Light Years from Home", also created to promote the 50th Anniversary Edition of Satanic Majesties

View the "She's a Rainbow" clip on Vevo here, and keep your fingers crossed that a promo for "Citadel" or "Gomper" is currently in the works.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Review: 'The Lost World (1925)' Blu-ray

No movie has been more influential on the still-popular giant monster genre than King Kong, and no movie was more influential on King Kong than Harry O. Hoyt’s 1925 adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. A band of adventurers journey to a mysterious jungle where they encounter a menagerie of stop-motion dinosaurs that menace and fascinate the folks. They manage to bring one of the giant creatures (an Apatosaurus, not a giant gorilla) back to the big city (London, not NYC) where it runs amok on a major monument (London Bridge, not the Empire State Building). There’s even an amorous primate who only has eyes for the leading lady.

One of the big differences between The Lost World and King Kong is that the characters are motivated by love rather than the thirst for fame and glory. Lloyd Hughes’s Ed Malone joins the expedition because his completely caring and not at all sociopathic fiancĂ© will only marry him if he has had strange adventures that involve risking his life. Bessie Love’s Paula White gets on board because she wants to save her father who had been marooned in the lost world during a previous expedition. This makes the characters more likable than King Kong’s cast of misogynistic butt heads. Jules Cowes’s servant in black face is painful to watch—you can’t expect to watch a silent-era jungle picture without at least one extremely offensive characterization—but the film is sweet as a whole despite the dangers posed by a leering ape man (his toothy makeup suggesting that The Lost World was influential on another key horror classic: Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), a fire-spewing volcano, and those prehistoric beasties.

And let’s not get too hung up on our human cast, because it’s clear who the real stars of The Lost World are. Allosaurus, apatosaurus, edmontosaurus, triceratops…oh my! While primitive compared to the more polished stop motion in Kong, the special effects of The Lost World which include work by Kong’s main animator, Willis O’Brien remain a joy to behold.

The film itself is also more of a joy to behold than it has been in eons since much footage seemingly stranded in the cinematic lost world has been recovered. Once only available in a meager and allegedly less-than-coherent hour-long cut, the film is now basically back to its original length (apparently, only a cannibal sequence remains missing). The restoration looks great on Flicker Alley’s new blu-ray release of The Lost World. Some sequences are pretty scratched up, but most are relatively clean and some are downright pristine, which is good news for a near 100-year-old movie, half of which has spent most of that time in limbo.

Flicker Alley gives this landmark release its due respect with a bestiary of bonus features. There are nine minutes of “deleted scenes,” though these are more like animation tests that find the various dinosaurs simply going about their business rather than anything that expands the narrative or action of the film. The most fascinating bits of this bonus involve brief stills of the animators in shot setting up the dino models. There are also two complete short films with animation by Willis O’Brien. The cooler of the two is the completely animated, nine-minute R.F.D., 10,000 B.C., a sort of Flintstones precursor in which prehistoric people tool around in dinosaur-drawn carts. There’s also the thirteen-minute Ghost of Slumber Mountain, in which a guy encounters a ghost, a giant bird, and more dinosaurs during a camping trip. Most historically significant is five minutes of O’Brien’s legendarily incomplete film Creation. This is the footage that got him the King Kong gig. Audio commentary by film historian Nicholas Ciccone, an image gallery, and booklet essay round out a lovingly assembled package.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Specs on the Upcoming 'Old Dark House' Blu-ray

A couple of weeks ago Psychobabble announced that Cohen Media Group will be releasing a 4k restoration of James Whales' horror classic The Old Dark House on Blu-ray on October 24. However, specs were not available yet. Now they are. 

It looks like beyond a new interview with the daughter of star Boris Karloff, the bonus material had all been previously released on Kino Video's DVD from 1999 (the still gallery included on that DVD is not among the Blu-ray supplements). 

So this new release will include:
  • New video interview with Sara Karloff
  • Feature length audio commentary by actor Gloria Stuart
  • Feature length audio commentary by James Whale biographer James Curtis
  • Interview with director Curtis Harrington on the rediscovery of this once thought-lost film
  • Re-release restoration trailer

Thursday, August 31, 2017

New Promo Video for Stones' "2000 Light Years from Home"

As part of the promotion for the new 50th Anniversary Edition of The Rolling Stones' Their Satanic Majesties Request, Yes Please Productions has created a new promo for that album's masterpiece (and my personal fave Stones song) "2000 Light Years from Home". The animation is inspired by/based on the album's inner gatefold and has more than a whiff of Terry Gilliam's signature work. Watch it here:

However, if you are disappointed by the lack of Mick Jagger in druid headdress, you can always check out the track's original promo vid here:

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Review: 50th Anniversary Edition of The Rolling Stones''Their Satanic Majesties Request'

In his liner notes to last year’s Rolling Stones in Mono box set, David Fricke wrote that Their Satanic Majesties Request “is no one’s favorite Rolling Stones album of the 1960s.” Loyal Psychobabble readers know that I take great issue with that conclusion. Not only is the Stones’ one concentrated trip into dizzying psychedelia my favorite Rolling Stones album of the 1960s, but it is also my favorite Rolling Stones album, period. I find it endlessly more alluring than the album to which it is endlessly compared: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I do not see it as an aberration as so many critics do. I do not dismiss it as nothing more than a stepping stone to the Stones’ “peak” period of 1968-1972. I see it as the peak.

If Fricke had done a little research, he might have concluded that I’m not completely alone in this opinion (one of my favorite defenses of the album is a blog comment left by Captain Sensible of my favorite punk band, The Damned). Still, it is not a particularly popular opinion, so when I saw the press release for a multi-disc, fiftieth anniversary edition of Their Satanic Majesties Request, I literally gasped. My delight turned to disappointment when I saw that the four-disc package was to contain remasters of the original stereo and mono mixes spread over two LPs and two hybrid SACD/CDs and nothing else. This struck me as a major missed opportunity considering how much fascinating material could have been appended to this set. There are a few outtakes, such as the winding instrumental listed on bootlegs as “5 Part Jam”, the Procol Harum-esque “Majesty Honky Tonk”, and the bluesy (though less interesting) “Gold Painted Nails”. The Satanic sessions also produced such interesting items as takes that really showcase the Mellotron in “Citadel” and “2000 Light Years from Home”, early acoustic takes of “Jigsaw Puzzle” and “Child of the Moon” (though some estimates place these tracks in the Beggars Banquet era), and most revelatory of all, the fifteen-minute jam that was ultimately edited down to create the two versions of “Sing This All Together” on the completed album. The period single “We Love You” b/w “Dandelion” and its sundry sessions and alternates (including the famed “Sometimes Happy, Sometimes Blue” demo of “Dandelion”) could have also found a place in a truly deluxe Satanic Majesties Request.

That is not the edition we received though, so let’s look at what is here instead of what isn’t. Mastering was not performed through an analog process but with Direct Stream Digital, which is very faithful as far as digital processes go. Compared to 1967 stereo vinyl and 2002 stereo SACD/CD release, this remaster is louder though not brick walled, with pleasing high ends and much more dynamic bass. That bass could get a tad overpowering at times on punchier tracks such as Citadel” and 2000 Man”, but it sounds good overall and didn’t give me a headache. To my naked ear, the mono vinyl sounds identical to the one included in the Rolling Stones in Mono set so I’ll assume that the CDs are the same too.

The heavy-duty packaging is a major improvement over any version of Satanic Majesties since the original release. This fiftieth anniversary edition is the first since the mid-seventies to restore the 3D, lenticular cover, though the image is slightly bigger yet also slightly cropped compared to the original. While the low-quality, misproportioned, 2D cover included in The Rolling Stones in Mono held a plain, white inner sleeve, the deluxe set reproduces the clouds-on-a-red background sleeve of the original release for the mono LP and a blue version similar to the front-cover border for the stereo disc. Unfortunately, it’s a tight fit and a bit of a chore to get the vinyl in and out of the sleeves.

The big, unexpected boon of this set is Rob Bowman’s essay in the booklet slipped inside the gatefold. There are no apologies in this essay. No dismissals. Bowman treats Their Satanic Majesties Request like the psychedelic royalty it is, providing history, a track-by-track analysis, and some truly valuable nuggets of trivia that answered some of my own questions about the pinging sounds on Citadel”, the weird backing vocals on Shes a Rainbow and other behind-the-scenes details. I could read an entire book of this stuff (get cracking, Rob). The booklet also contains some very groovy photos of the Stones trying on their wizard costumes and constructing the fantasy tableau on the front cover.

So while this might not be ideal as a deluxe edition of Their Satanic Majesties Request, its a very nice fiftieth anniversary re-release, and really, Im just grateful that this thing exists at all. Spotlighting Their Satanic Majesties Request with any kind of special edition will hopefully draw more attention to it, win some new fans, and make opinions like David Fricke’s even more inaccurate and irrelevant.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Celebrate the New Year with the 'Suspiria' Blu-ray

With its intensely vibrant palette and equally intense cult following, Dario Argento's Suspiria has been ripe for an HD release since the dawn of the Blu-ray era. The film will finally receive the deluxe Blu-ray treatment courtesy of Synapse Films this December 31--just in time to call this a 50th Anniversary release. 

The triple-disc set will include the uncut version of the 1977 Grand Guignol, a Blu-ray of extras, and a CD of Goblin's soundtrack with bonus tracks. Here's the full run-down of the set from

  • Limited edition of only 6000 units produced
  • Exclusive Steelbook packaging and collector's o-card sleeve, featuring artwork from Malleus, Van Orton Design, Juan JosĂ© Saldarriaga & Chris MacGibbon
  • Three disc [Two Blu-rays + One CD] limited collector’s edition (only 6000 units) containing a new 4K restoration of the original uncut, uncensored Italian 35mm camera negative exclusively done by Synapse Films, with color correction supervised and approved by SUSPIRIA Director of Photography, Luciano Tovoli
  • Original 4.0 1977 English language LCRS sound mix not heard since the theatrical release in 1977, presented in high-resolution DTS-HD MA 96 Khz/24-bit audio
  • Italian 5.1 surround sound mix
  • Two audio commentaries by authors and Argento scholars, Derek Botelho, David Del Valle & Troy Howarth
  • Do You Know Anything About Witches? - 30 minute SUSPIRIA visual essay written, edited and narrated by Michael Mackenzie
  • Suzy in Nazi Germany – Featurette on the German locations from SUSPIRIA
  • A Sigh from the Depths: 40 Years of SUSPIRIA – All-new anniversary retrospective on the making of the film and its influence on cinema
  • Olga’s Story – Interview with star Barbara Magnolfi
  • Original theatrical trailers, TV spots and radio spots
  • Special Collector Edition Booklet containing an American Cinematographer interview with Luciano Tovoli, liner notes by Derek Botelho and restoration notes by Vincent Pereira & Don May, Jr. Cover artwork by Matthew Therrien Illustration
  • “International Classics” English “Breathing Letters” opening credit sequence from U.S. release version
  • Alternate All-English opening and closing credits sequences, playable via seamless branching
  • Newly translated, removable English SDH subtitles for the English language version
  • Newly translated, removable English subtitles for the Italian language version
  • Exclusive CD remaster of Goblin’s SUSPIRIA motion picture soundtrack, containing additional tracks not included on the original 1977 soundtrack release

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

'The Old Dark House' Coming to Blu-Ray This Halloween Season

The Old Dark House is one of Universal's best and most underrated horror films of the 1930s. It's the movie on which director James Whale really started exploring the humor that would blossom in his twin masterworks The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein, and features a killer cast that includes Boris Karloff, Ernest Thesiger, Charles Laughton, Gloria Stuart, and Melvyn Douglas. 

This October 24, Cohen Media Groups will give this underrated picture its due with the first Blu-ray presentation of The Old Dark House. No word on the bonus features yet, but a 4K restoration of this ooky, kooky classic is reason to start celebrating now. Have a potato!

Monday, August 14, 2017

Review: Deluxe Edition of Chris Bell's 'I Am the Cosmos'

In the mid-seventies, Chris Bell was messing with hard drugs and Jesus and exploring his own music apart from Big Star. Like Third/Sister Lovers, Bell’s new music was troubled, sometimes preachy, sometimes a sheer mess, and almost always lovely. Although he was working with Geoff Emerick, who’d engineered so many of Bell’s beloved Beatles records, the production rarely reflected the Fabs’ polish—“Get Away” being a particularly defiant mass of echo-chamber noise. However, the melodies were consistently enchanting even as the songs were as eclectic as the jumbled production approach. Bell whipped up some bleary psychedelia (“I Am the Cosmos”), spare intimacy (“You and Your Sister”), crashing Rock & Roll (“I Got Kinda Lost”), and burbling bluesy funk (“Fight at the Table”). Bell’s recordings amounted to the finest marriage of Rock and religion since George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, another chunk of poppy testifying that even an old atheist like me can love.

Sadly, Bell only got the chance to release a mere single from his clutch of recordings before he died in a late-1978 car crash. The rest would not release until Rykodisc’s 1992 collection I Am the Cosmos. Seventeen years later, Rhino expanded that 15-track disc to a 27-track deluxe edition with tracks by Bell’s pre-Big Star groups Icewater and Rock City and numerous alternate versions and mixes of his solo material. Now Omnivore Recordings is expanding it further (though losing the Icewater and Rock City tracks, which Omnivore recently reissued on a comp called Looking Forward: The Roots of Big Star) with a double-disc edition of I Am the Cosmos. The new additions include more alternate mixes, which often strip away most of the electric instrumentation to reveal simpler, cleaner renditions, and a couple of good instrumentals. These extras are nice but not as essential as the missing Icewater and Rock City tracks. Nevertheless, the core album remains an ecstatic listen in any format.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Review: 'The Comic Book History of Comics'

The history of comics told in comic format is such a simple concept that it seems deceptively obvious, yet there’s little that’s simple about that history and little that’s obvious about The Comic Book History of Comics. Perhaps the most impressive thing about this book (which collects a previously published six-issue comic series) is how much stuff writer Fred Van Lente crams into its 150 pages, tracing the history of storytelling through pictures all the way back to prehistoric cave paintings through the first political cartoons to “The Yellow Kid” to cinematic animation to the superhero era to the congressional inquiry on the effects of comics on juvenile delinquency to the pop-art sixties and finally ending with the underground comics of the seventies. Within this story is genuine drama as Max Fleischer and Walt Disney vie for the crown of animation king and the clash between Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.

Van Lente’s storytelling has a definite perspective, and one that may rankle comics freaks as he sneers at some of the medium’s more revered figures (Stan Lee; William Gaines) while taking an unfashionably even view of the man who may be its easiest-target villain, noting the numerous accomplishments of Fredric Wertham that have nothing to do with that guy’s dopey crusade against comic books. Most welcome is the isolated profiles of a number of women in the comics industry, since women are generally shut out of this story’s primary arch for the usual patriarchal reasons.

Ryan Dunlavey’s artwork is sometimes a bit too cutesy for my tastes, but I liked his outlandish tendency to fuse creators with creations, as when he imagines Disney as a mutant man-faced Mickey Mouse, and there are some clever visual references and in jokes. The cutesiness also gets downright subversive when Dunlavey depicts beheadings, lynchings, and Adam West and Frank Gorshin yucking it up at an orgy.

Review: 'Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction'

So you just took a nice leisurely ride in the front seat of a shopping cart and successfully fooled your mom into buying you a box of teeth-rotting Fruit Brute. Things have been going pretty well during this supermarket outing. But then, just as you’re about to leave, you catch sight of a young girl’s face absolutely bulging with terror as she peers through a tiny die-cut window. What could be destroying this child’s nerves? As your mom rummages in her handbag for a ten-cents-off Palmolive coupon, you pull the cover open and are assaulted by the terrifying image of that girl in the arms of some sort of skeleton-faced demon.

These days, the scariest thing you’re likely to see at the checkout counter is the latest issue of The Enquirer. In the seventies and eighties, genuinely frightening artwork was splattered across the covers of cheap paperbacks by the likes of Peter Saxon, V.C. Andrews, and other “literary” conglomerates. In the wake of the success of Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Others, the (super)market was flooded with tales that promised to be more terrifying, more traumatizing, more soul shattering than these three acknowledged classics. While works such as Satan’s Love Child and Crabs: The Human Sacrifice weren’t necessarily scarier than what Ira Levin and William Peter Blatty unleashed, they managed to up the level of outrageousness. Ehren M. Ehly’s The Obelisk stars a “were-Egyptian” who hangs severed dicks off a Central Park landmark and eats orangutans. The hero of James Herbert’s Rats takes care of the swarming rodents by punching them to death between rounds of playing “football with a severed head.” The title characters of John Christopher’s The Little People are Nazi leprechauns with a yen for S&M.

The sheer absurdity of these tales is not lost on Grady Hendrix, who has composed a loving tribute in Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction. The great value of this book is that Hendrix has done all the hard work for us. His summaries of these monstrosities are hilarious…and probably a lot more fun than actually reading things like Dogkill, The Face That Must Die, and tales that sound as though they were written by ultra-conservatives during spring break from the fourth grade.

Paperbacks from Hell also doesn’t skimp on the other essential element of these books: their wild cover art. The book overflows with full-cover images of giants worms slithering around Big Ben, monster bunnies, skeletons galore, and yes, whip-wielding Nazi leprechauns. In the case of some of these covers, such as Jim Thiesen’s truly scary monster-bride sculpture for the cover of The Gilgul, they achieve a real artfulness. So does Hendrix’s prose, which will have you rolling in the checkout aisle.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Psychobabble's Ten Greatest Albums of 1997!

Whatever claws underground rock seemed to have in the mainstream since the beginning of the nineties were effectively dislodged by 1997. That year saw Gavin Rossdale turn Nirvana into a toothless advert for high cheek bones, Elton John and Sean Combs score the year’s two biggest hits by recycling a couple of old hits for smarmy eulogies, No Doubt get play on 120 Minutes with the Miami Sound Machine-sound-alike “Don’t Speak”, and the rise of Hanson and The Spice Girls. Despite the tide of shit overwhelming pop music, 1997 also produced some of the best albums of the decade, including one that defined the second-half of the nineties as dramatically as Nevermind defined its first half. Here’s that disc and nine others that defiantly bucked the mindlessness that defined 1997. 

10. Dig Me Out by Sleater-Kinney
Sleater Kinney’s third album continues the double-six string/double-voice attack of Call the Doctor with the new addition of Janet Weiss’s crisp drumming. The sour and sweet counterpoint between Corin Tucker’s anguished bleat and Carrie Brownstein’s controlled speak-singing continues to be the most exciting musical element, reaching a toe-tingling peak on the gotta-sing-along “Little Babies”. With its sneering satire of the traditional female role in the patriarchy, it is also the only song that clearly makes good on Dig Me Out’s reputation for having a pointed feminist pov, but perhaps the mighty attack of the band’s three women does that regardless of what they’re signing about. Without doubt there was a fair share of women who decided to band together and elbow their way into the male-dominated rock world after hearing Dig Me Out. Nevertheless, its songs mainly mine more archetypal pop themes of romantic relationships healthy and otherwise and the recuperative powers of playing and hearing great Rock & Roll. With its wild, liberating guitars and voices, Dig Me Out has its own recuperative powers. Plus that Kink Kontroversy homage on the cover is the most. 
9. Eight Arms to Hold You by Veruca Salt

Monday, July 31, 2017

New Edition of Stones' 'Satanic Majesties' Coming Soon

With critical opinion of The Rolling Stones' most controversial disc swaying toward the positive in recent years, and this year marking its fiftieth anniversary, the time is right for a deluxe edition of Their Satanic Majesties Request (aka: Psychobabble's favorite Stones album). On September 22, Universal Music will issue a double-SACD/double-vinyl set dedicated to the Stones' alluring descent into psychedelia. Unfortunately, the wealth of outtakes and sessions available on bootlegs such as Cosmic Christmas and Satanic Sessions, or even the complimentary "We Love You" b/w"Dandelion" single, won't be part of a package that only consists of the album's already-available stereo and mono mixes. However, it is being newly remastered, though there's no word yet about whether or not it will be an exclusively analog process, just that Bob Ludwig is doing the work at Gateway Mastering and Sean Magee is cutting the lacquer at Abbey Road , according to Super Deluxe

The packaging seems like it will be a step up after the treatment Satanic received in last year's Rolling Stones in Mono box set. While that set included a bad, digitized image with the 2-D photo of the band blown up to weirdly large proportions, this new edition will revive the original lenticular cover for the first time in 50 years (Super Deluxe Edition mistakenly reports that the lenticular cover was used on the 2002 SACD, but that cover was just holographic, not lenticular). There will also be a 20-page booklet with period photos and essays.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Review: 'Pop Sixties: Shindig!, Dick Clark, Beach Party, and Photographs from the Donna Loren Archives'

Donna Loren’s resume isn’t super substantial but it does swing. She was a regular on Shindig!, did guest appearances on the sixties’ too coolest series—Batman and The Monkees—, sang fun surf pop tunes, shimmied in goofy beach flicks, and shilled for delicious Dr. Pepper. Her new book Pop Sixties: Shindig!, Dick Clark, Beach Party, and Photographs from the Donna Loren Archives is similarly slight and groovy. She contributes some quotations and photo captions, but her biggest text load is a skimpy eight-page memoir. However, it is a juicy one as she explains how her parents essentially forced her into show business, forced her to get a nose job to look less “ethnic” (ugh), and wouldn’t allow her out of the house without makeup. Loren discusses such semi-dark material with the kind of cheerful you’d expect from a Pepper, though she clearly realizes her upbringing was messed up. She did make the most of it though, and the proof of that is in an abundance of fab B&W and color photos that find her rubbing elbows with The Supremes, Teri Garr, Davy Jones, Adam West, Burt Ward, The Dixie Cups, Brenda Holloway, La La Brooks, Dick Dale, Tina Turner, The Righteous Brothers, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and a bunch of other people cooler than anyone you or I will ever meet. Loren is groovy and photogenic enough on her own to carry the book when she isn’t flanked by her fellow pop stars. I can’t say this skinny 148-page volume exactly justifies its heavy $34.95 cover price, especially since both her Batman and Monkees stints are represented by mere two-page spreads, but it’s definitely fun to flip through. Bobby Sherman contributes the foreword and ace Sunset Strip historian Domenic Priore assists with the history and captions.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Farewell, June Foray

Without her Talky Tina wouldn't have talked. Neither would hundreds of other characters, because June Foray was one of the busiest voice actors in the business. She is best known as the voice of Rocky the Flying Squirrel, who always served as a sensible counterpart to the flightier Bullwinkle's. More befitting Psychobabble's creepier sensibilities, Foray gave voice to the hair-pin shedding  Looney Tune Witch Hazel and the most terrifying killer hunk of plastic in the Twilight Zone, Talky Tina (based on her own recordings for the Chatty Cathy doll).

Foray was kept busiest putting words in the mouths of Bullwinkle's nemesis Natasha Fatale, Tweety's Granny, Cindy Lou Who, Raggedy Ann, numerous Smurfs, the "voice" of Itchy and Scratchy, and other cartoon creations, but she also dubbed live actors on occasion, including the little girl in the "Bewitchin' Pool" episode of The Twilight Zone, and fascinatingly enough, both of Chief Brody's kids in Jaws. She even made a handful of onscreen appearances in shows such as Bewitched, Green Acres, and Get Smart, but she'll always be best remembered for the sounds she made over her rich, 71-year career. June Foray died yesterday at the age of 99.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Review: 'Reed Crandall: Illustrator of the Comics'

In a time when fine artists were more likely to thumb their noses at comics than take jobs drawing them, Reed Crandall was happy to get the work. The fine sense of form and movement that informed his elegant and eclectic paintings, sculptures, and illustrations served him well when drafting Captain America, Blackhawk, and Doll Man to make ends meet. While his early work was usually anonymous, he began to make a name for himself when he started receiving his due credit while working for E.C. Comics, depicting some of the company’s most memorable crypt tales, such as “Carrion Death” and “Only Skin Deep”.

Reed Crandall’s art was exceptional, but based on Roger Hill’s new illustrated biography Reed Crandall: Illustrator of the Comics, the man may have been a bit of a blank slate. Hill describes the varied beats of Crandall’s history, but only the most essential ones of the man’s life get a mention, and Crandall’s personality remains frustratingly aloof. On occasion, a friend or acquaintance briefly describes Crandall as nice, humble, and a bit insecure about his work while dwelling on his art in far greater detail. The fixation on his work implies there wasn’t much to the man when he wasn’t at the drafting table. That could have been the case, but I doubt most people can be reduced so glibly. This also leaves Hill’s text a bit lacking in substance since so much of it is spent synopsizing plots of comics Crandall illustrated or describing Crandall’s artwork (textually, the book is more satisfying as a history of the early comics industry than a biography). The copious color and B&W illustrations included in this volume—which includes both Crandall’s comics work and his fine arts work— speak much louder about the artist’s talent. A flawless counterfeit of a King of Hearts card will make you gasp when you realize Crandall created it when he was only ten years old. That the man was such a master of his medium may overshadow his inner self in Reed Crandall: Illustrator of the Comics, but his mastery also makes the book a constant marvel to gaze at.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Review: 'It’s Alive! Classic Horror and Sci-Fi Movie Posters from the Kirk Hammett Collection'

In an age when lazily staged poses and perfunctorily photo-shopped images are regularly used to promote major motion pictures, it is halting to revisit the art once used to sell movies regarded as junk for the matinee crowd. Even films as chintzy as The Angry Red Planet and The Crawling Eye were hawked with striking graphics and paintings. Artworks for more prestigious pictures, such as Lionel Reiss’s bold art deco piece advertising The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and an uncredited work for The Invisible Man so haunting and striking and innately nightmarish that text was barely deemed necessary, are—no exaggeration— museum quality.

Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett has long recognized the artfulness, power, and fun of classic horror and sci-fi movie posters, amassing an impressive collection being exhibited in a show called It’s Alive! Classic Horror and Sci-Fi Movie Posters from the Kirk Hammett Collection at the Peabody Essex Museum in (appropriately enough) Salem, Massachusetts, and in a tie-in book of the same name.

The book combines oddities such as the aforementioned Caligari poster, Roland Coudon’s funeral procession tableaux for Frankenstein, and a Karoly Grosz Mummy poster that spotlights the film’s human cast members with a lot of more common promos for pictures such as Dracula’s Daughter, Barbarella, Mystery of the Wax Museum, and Island of Lost Souls. Hammett favors pre-sixties posters, though there is a scattering of later day ones for movies such as Alien, Rosemary’s Baby, Blacula, and of course, It’s Alive. It’s an impressive collection.

It’s Alive! also features a few interesting essays on the history and craft of horror promo posters, the fear reaction as explained through neuroscience and psychology, and Hammett’s own relationship with horror films and their adverts. Hammett is only quoted in that latter essay, so he generally allows his artworks to assume the starring role in this book. However, a shot of him grinning like a kid surrounded by his collection of other creepy toys, records, magazines, comics, models, and props really makes me wish this book had expanded its scope more beyond often familiar poster artwork to encompass the complete Kirk Hammett Horror Collection.
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