THE WHO - THIRTY YEARS OF MAXIMUM R&B
The Who have never been shy about releasing their rare material. The Odds and Sods and Pete Townshend's Scoop collections contain much of the best of the Who's collectors items. There have also been two Who's Missing compilations of various B-sides and live cuts and the group has also put out several (largely unnecessary) live albums from later in their career. There are more rarities included on the Thirty Years of Maximum R & B box set, which has been in the planning stages for years. Was it worth the wait? Well... If all four of the discs were as good as the first disc and most of the second disc of this set, we would really have something here. Everything that you look for in a collection like this can be found on these first two discs, with an interesting mix of previously unreleased material along with tracks from albums and singles. The rare material includes early songs by the group when they were known as the High Numbers (in amazing sound quality), outtakes that I've read about but have never heard ("Early Morning Cold Taxi" and "Fortune Teller") and outtakes that I've never heard of before ("Girl's Eyes"). The selection of the previously released songs is often surprising as well. I didn't expect the Who Sell Out album to be so well represented and one of my favorite overlooked Who songs is even included. Not many people would probably rank "So Sad About Us" as one of the Who's best songs, but I've always liked it's Searchers-like chord progression and it's naive, youthful energy. For me, the excitement starts to wane a bit at the end of disc two with the Tommy selections. It's not that I don't like these songs, I do very much, it just that the songs are predictable choices. The same can be said about the third and fourth discs of the set. With tracks from Who's Next and Quadrophenia, plus classic singles like "Join Together" and "Relay", the music could hardly be anything but great. It just seems like there are fewer surprises that jump out at you the further you get into this collection. After the Beatles, The Who were the second band that I fell for when I started listening to music, so maybe I'm overly familiar with their material to be really objective about this set. So, for me anyway, the set is good but I wouldn't call it essential.
THE BEACH BOYS - GOOD VIBRATIONS
Perhaps because of my unfamiliarity with much of the Beach Boys' music, this set has been a box of revelations and surprises for me. I still don't care for some of their early sixties material or their more recent songs (like "Kokomo") but fortunately the bulk of what's here is not from either of these eras. Nearly half of the five CDs cover the Beach Boys from the mid sixties through the beginning of the seventies and this is an amazing and under appreciated phase of their career. This phase includes the Pet Sounds album tracks and some of the mythological Smile sessions. Do the Smile sessions live up to the myth? Yes, I think very much so. What do they sound like? I'm reminded somewhat of Randy Newman's very early work and maybe Nilsson gone psychedelic but these pieces of an unfinished work definitely have Brian Wilson's stamp on them. The production is characteristically complex and the songs have a child like charm to them. It really is an experience to hear this music for the first time. (I've heard a whole album of these sessions is going to be released. I can hardly wait!) It's generally thought that after Smile was aborted, Brian stopped making music but disc three proves otherwise. This material may not have been as commercially successful as the hits but there is plenty of wonderful stuff here nonetheless. A lot of what is on the third disc is as adventurous as the Smile pieces but with a more subtle touch. Just listen to "Let the Wind Blow", which is kind of a rough waltz that builds in intensity then backs off again. The set has even made me appreciate what little of the Beach Boys' music that I was familiar with all the more. I've never liked "California Girls" but now I realize the song has a beautiful instrumental introduction which I hadn't noticed before. I've also discovered new instrumental revelations in the title hit "Good Vibrations." I love the drums when they come in (Bada ba, BOOM! Bada ba, BOOM!) and the ascending and descending bass riff. Starting with the Pet Sounds album, Brian has presented works based on his idea that music can be spiritually enriching. This is a tough order to fill and it may be at least part of the reason that he has been stifled in recent years. He has produced some gorgeous music by way of his theory though and much of it can be found on these five CDs. Listening to these songs could make you believe in the healing power of music yourself.
THE FLATLANDERS - NOW AGAIN
Imagine if the Beatles released their first album Please Please Me in the early 1960s and instead of becoming a commercial success, the album got buried for whatever reason. Discouraged, the group then breaks up, with the individual members each achieving a moderate level of success on their own over the next three decades. In the meantime, the first Beatle album becomes a lost cult classic and eventually the band reunites and records another album, say, called Revolver.
When considering the quality of their work, the Flatlanders are often regarded as the Beatles of the Texas music scene and their story is much like the scenario described above. Three musicians from Lubbock, Texas, Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock, somehow finagled a record deal from Sun Records in the early 1970s. The songs they recorded were an unearthly blend of country, folk and blues, mixed with a tinge of psychedelia. A musical saw player only added to the strange quality of their sound. In the end, Sun had no idea what to do with the group, released one single and reportedly issued the album only on 8-track tape. The band splintered. Ely recorded a number of hard-hitting, rockabilly-infused albums, and often seemed just on the verge of a commercial breakthrough, which never happened. Gilmore quit music for a time to study eastern religion, but eventually returned as one of the most unique voices and song interpreters in Texas. Hancock became something of a Renaissance man, dabbling in photography and other artistic pursuits, besides being a prolific songwriter.
Around 1990, the Flatlanders tapes were reissued, sparking interest in the group and raising questions about a possible reunion. Ely, Gilmore and Hancock were somewhat bemused at all the attention focused on a group that never played a gig outside of Texas and recorded one barely released album. To them, the Flatlanders were just old friends that made some music together a long time ago. They did reunite occasionally, usually for benefit shows or impromptu appearances at the end of solo concerts, but nothing permanent was ever planned. However, in 1998 the group contributed a song for The Horsewhisperer movie soundtrack and they had so much fun writing and recording "The South Wind of Summer" that it led to a couple of national tours over the next few years. They also kept on recording, but maintained that it wasn't specifically for an album, only just to see what happened. Well, something did happen, because now we have Now Again.
Where Gilmore's vocals and Hancock's songwriting dominated the Flatlanders' first recordings, Now Again sounds like a true collaborative effort. All three members share vocal duties and writing credits on most of the new songs. "Down in the Light of the Melon Moon" is a cinematic dreamscape that perfectly suits the mysterious quality of the Flatlanders' music. The surreal love song "Julia" features Hancock's trademark wordplay, such as the line, "Sundogs barkin' / Barkin' through my dreams," which won't leave my head alone. "I Thought the Wreck Was Over" brings Joe Ely's tough swagger to the proceedings, while "Yesterday Was Judgement Day" displays Gilmore's slightly off-kilter philosophical world-view. "Pay the Alligator" manages to be a both goofy and foreboding retelling of the old "pay the piper" adage. Oh yes, the saw player even makes a welcome return, though is used more sparingly. What more could you ask for from a Flatlanders album? Worth the thirty-year wait!
LONESOME BOB - THINGS CHANGE
Slice-of-life stories wrapped in roots rock and country tunes. Lonesome Bob surveys the human condition with humorous and often devastating results. "Heather's All Bummed Out" is a look at modern loneliness, "Dying Breed" doesn't flinch from the horrors of addiction and "I Get Smarter Every Drink" portrays someone we've all met in the neighborhood bar. The title track is a moving tribute to Lonesome Bob's son, who passed away shortly after father and son had reconnected. Surprise bonus track: a great cover of the country-soul tearjerker "Patches."
TOM WAITS - ALICE/BLOOD MONEY
Actually two separate albums released on the same day. Both are made up of songs that Waits composed for stage plays. Alice leans toward a dream-like atmosphere, full of piano-backed ballads. Blood Money is rougher, more experimental. Both show Waits in top form and are in turn nightmarish and poignant.
BOB DYLAN - LIVE 1975: BOOTLEG SERIES VOL. 5
Bob Dylan took to the road with a ragtag bunch of his friends and fellow musicians in 1975 as the Rolling Thunder Revue. The music they played rivaled the intensity of Dylan's 1966 electric tour. Fans may quibble that this two-disc set taken from previously unreleased tapes from this 1975 tour is a compilation from several shows, rather than one complete concert, but the result is still some of the most powerful performances ever heard from the singer-songwriter. You can feel that Dylan was just aching to play these songs in front of an audience. He practically explodes off the discs. A bonus DVD has live footage of Dylan in whiteface playing "Tangled Up in Blue" and "Isis," both absolutely riveting (though curiously, the film is not in the best condition, which makes one worry about how other materials in the Dylan archives are being stored).
RANDY NEWMAN - GOOD OLD BOYS (DELUXE EDITION)
The remastering and reissue of Randy Newman's 1974 album Good Old Boys is reason enough to celebrate, but what really makes this release special is the bonus disc, which contains Newman's demos for the project. Originally titled Johnny Cutler's Birthday, not only does it have eight songs that didn't make the final album, Newman also provides between song narration detailing the story told by the song cycle. Ultimately, the final version works better, but it's fascinating to have what is essentially a "composers commentary" for this classic album.
MICKEY NEWBURY - A LONG ROAD HOME
I first read about songwriter Mickey Newbury in No Depression magazine a few years ago. Newbury is best known for his recording of the "American Trilogy," which Elvis Presley covered and made popular, and for writing one of Kenny Rodgers first hits "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)." He recorded a number of albums in the 1970s and 1980s, but eventually tired of the music business and retired to a farm in Oregon. Newbury continued to make music, only on his own terms, performing a handful of live dates when he wanted to and issuing recordings on his own label, including a box set containing his first ten albums. It was a review of this box set that caught my attention. I wasn't sure I wanted to plunk down $100 for an artist that I'd never heard, but my interest was certainly piqued.
Last year I stumbled across vinyl copies of three of Newbury's albums and decided that this was a far less expensive way to check out his music. Well, I probably should have sprung for the box set because this is truly amazing stuff. Newbury's successes as a songwriter don't prepare you for his own recordings. He may get lumped into the "progressive country" category with Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson, but Newbury is closer in spirit to someone like Leonard Cohen. His lyrics portray lost souls haunted by regrets, while his arrangements often utilize a string section to set the melancholy atmosphere. There is something mesmerizing about Newbury's work that once you hear it, you're hooked. And I am!
When No Depression called Newbury's latest album A Long Road Home one of his best, this time I didn't hesitate buying it. The album is a sprawling work full of heartbreak and moody arrangements (of course), but there is something different here too. Bookending the album are songs that show Newbury reviewing his past, not with regret, but with a certain amount of pride. The opening "In '59" is an epic, reminiscent of Springsteen's early work, which has Newbury recalling his struggles as a songwriter and humbly declaring himself victorious. The title track, followed by "116 Westfield Street," ends the album with warm remembrances of family and childhood. In these songs, Newbury finally sounds like a contented man.
One thing about the album that I found disconcerting was the condition of Newbury's voice. After listening to his early albums, I was surprised how out of breath he sounded on this new one. I found out that due to a lung ailment, he's been on oxygen for the last few years, so it must have been a struggle for him to record A Long Road Home. Perhaps not too surprisingly, only a few months after I discovered his music, Mickey Newbury passed away. In an obituary published in No Depression, musician Michael Fracasso comments about A Long Road Home saying, "It takes a brave man to sing his own epitaph." I agree, and what a beautiful epitaph it is.
THEA GILMORE - RULES FOR JOKERS
This young British folk-rocker may have a cool, relaxed vocal style, but her lyrics and melodies cut like a knife. Dare I say that her keen observations backed by acoustic and electric instruments remind me of prime 1965 Dylan. Definitely keep an ear on this artist.
FANNY - FIRST TIME IN A LONG TIME: THE REPRISE RECORDINGS
Fanny was touted as the first all-female band signed to a major label that wrote their own songs and played their own instruments. I remember reading about them in Rolling Stone in the early 1970s, so when Rhino Handmade issued a lavish box set of their work, I splurged and bought it (learning my lesson from my Mickey Newbury experience). Part glam rock (remember, this was the early 1970s), part hard rock, part pop, Fanny's four main albums show them to be one of the great overlooked bands of modern music history. All four albums contain catchy original tunes, as well as a handful of inspired covers. The first album Fanny included Cream's "Badge," while later efforts featured Randy Newman's "Last Night I Had a Dream" and a great version of the Beatles' "Hey Bulldog" (listen to that guitar solo).
In fact, there are quite a few interesting connections between the Beatles and Fanny. They recorded their third album Fanny Hill at Apple Studios. They appear uncredited on Ringo's self-titled album. Ringo recorded a Fanny song titled "Solid Gold" for another one of his records (it also appeared on Keith Moon's solo album with members of Fanny among the backing musicians). They were big fans of another Apple band Badfinger and wanted to record their song "Without You," but producer Richard Perry gave it to Nilsson instead. Now that I think about it, Fanny does sound like a slightly funkier Badfinger. I count this set as one of the year's most enjoyable and fascinating finds.
GEORGE HARRISON - BRAINWASHED
George Harrison's final album, which he was working on before he died, isn't perfect, but it shows off his wit, humility and, most of all, fine guitar playing. Many of the songs here are beautiful and very moving, especially "Stuck Inside a Cloud." However, other than "P2 Vatican Blues," Harrison's barbed poke at the Catholic Church, the album has an overall low-key vibe to it. I can't help wishing for one or two additional full-out rockers to pick things up a bit. Oh well, George probably didn't feel much like rocking out. Still, Brainwashed ranks among Harrison's best work and is a touching farewell from an old friend.
LINDA THOMPSON - FASHIONABLY LATE
Even though most of the songs are originals written or co-written by Linda Thompson and her son Teddy, Fashionably Late feels like a traditional British folk album. The production is simple, keeping out of the way of Linda's exquisite voice and letting it highlight the engaging melodies and sharp lyrics. An amazing return to form after a 17-year absence from music making.
THE BEATLES - MYTHOLOGY VOLUME ONE 1962-1964
MYTHOLOGY VOLUME TWO 1964-1966
It's hard to get too excited about new Beatle bootlegs these days, since many of them simply recycle previously booted material. But the Mythology series at least presents complete versions of familiar recordings with some new material in a unique format. The discs vividly chronicle what the Beatlemania years were like by compiling live recordings, radio and television appearances, interviews and a selection of a few of the more uncommon studio outtakes and demos. Highlights include an amusing radio performance of "Tie Me Kangaroo Down" with Rolph Harris and outtakes from the Beatles for Sale sessions, which I had never heard before. The least enjoyable disc is the one that covers 1966. It primarily contains a German concert and press conference, both in awful quality. However, the concert tape is still revealing, in that the audience isn't as overwhelming as the usual screaming mob heard at Beatle shows and unexpectedly start singing along to the chorus of "Daytripper"! The press conference is sad, because it's obvious that the Beatles are growing weary of playing the game at this point. Even the PR savvy McCartney sounds as if he's going to punch the next reporter that asks him if he's married for the millionth time. Still, Mythology is an interesting peek back in time to when the Beatles went from being national celebrities to a worldwide phenomenon.
PAUL McCARTNEY - GIJON, SPAIN, MAY 25, 2004
The first concert of McCartney's 2004 European tour holds some surprises when compared to his previous live appearances. He really mines his past on this tour and the results are quite enjoyable. The most recent song is 1997's "Calico Skies," itself an unusual choice. Of course audience favorites such as "Let It Be," "Hey Jude" and "Yesterday" are trotted out again, but this time out Paul gets a bit more obscure. The setlist includes one of the first Beatle recordings "In Spite of All Danger," and other deep catalog selections like "You Won't See Me," "I've Got a Feeling," and "Helter Skelter," along with a beautiful version of George Harrison's "All Things Must Pass." Even with the noisy audience that constantly chants as if at a football game, this recording makes it clear that McCartney's current backing band is one of the tightest, most rocking he's ever employed. In fact, the drummer might be a little too good. His style is more complex than Ringo's solid beat on some of the Beatle tunes, which sometimes sounds strange. But this is a minor quibble. It's great to hear Paul mixing things up and getting away from his concert standards.
NEIL YOUNG - CHICAGO, IL, NOVEMBER 15, 1976
AMSTERDAM, DECEMBER 10, 1989
There's only one way to put this. Neil Young's 1976 Chicago concert is one sneaky motherfucker of a show. According to Young's stage patter, this is the second show of the evening, and it sounds as if he's had some "herbal refreshment" during his time between the performances. I've heard many Neil Young bootlegs, but this is the first time I've heard him sneak into the songs. He absently strums his guitar and then eventually realizes that, "Oh yeah, I'm playing a song here." Among the tunes receiving this loose treatment are "Too Far Gone" (somehow appropriate, I'd say), the still unreleased "Give Me Strength," an electric "Peace of Mind" and an otherworldly "Like a Hurricane." Young unveiled "Hurricane" earlier in the year, most notably at a Japanese concert recorded for an unrealized live album, which may be the definitive version of the song. But the Chicago 1976 performance is wonderful too, in a completely different way. Neil begins the introductory guitar riff, abruptly stops, then noodles around and noodles some more, until suddenly he's in the song. Even Young's vocal phrasing is off-kilter. It almost sounds like he's singing a counter melody instead of the original one. The whole thing teeters on the verge of falling apart, but somehow never does.
After the woozy heights of Chicago, the 1989 Amsterdam solo acoustic show is a bit of a let down. It's a good, solid performance, but Neil comes off too professional in comparison.
BOB DYLAN - MANCHESTER, TN, JUNE 11, 2004
If you're a trainspotting Dylan fan like I am, it's easy to get jaded about his performances sometimes. It's true that he does mix up his setlists quite frequently, but Dylan seems to go through phases where he selects from the same 50 or so songs, as is recently the case. So, it's always a delight when things change. For whatever reason, Dylan decided to throw in some ringers to spice things up for the crowd at the Bonnaroo Festival in Manchester, Tennessee, this spring. Perhaps in homage to some of his favorite country and blues artists, the set included Rev. Gary Davis's "Samson and Delilah," "You Win Again" by Hank Williams (perhaps a tribute to Ray Charles, who recorded a hit version himself?), Merle Haggard's "Sing Me Back Home" and "Pancho and Lefty" from legendary Texas songwriter Townes Van Zandt. As if to seal the concert's veneration theme, Dylan even pulled out his own bluesman appreciation, "Blind Willie McTell. In typical Dylan style, none of these covers has made an appearance in any show since, which makes this one all the more special.
RICHARD & LINDA THOMPSON - STRANGE AFFAIR
Richard Thompson has said on his website that not many live tapes exist of performances with his ex-wife Linda. However, enterprising bootleggers have unearthed two discs of quality material from 1977, 1978 and 1980 by folk rock's penultimate couple. There are some real surprises on this set, even for long-time fans. Early versions of "Just the Motion," "Wall of Death" and "Wong Heartbeat," all of which would turn up on later albums, are among the highlights. An unusual selection of covers includes The Crystals' "And Then He Kissed Me," The Everly Brothers' "Crying in the Rain" and a jazzy instrumental take of "Sweet Georgia Brown." Of course there are lots of finger-blistering guitar solos from Richard, especially on the monumental "Pour Down Like Silver."
VIC CHESNUTT - SILVER LAKE
Vic Chesnutt is one of America's most literate songwriters. He says more in one line than most other musicians say in whole albums. Even at his most lyrically austere, such as the litany of contrasting statements often used by males and females in the song "Girls Say," Chesnutt skewers both sexes with humorous precision. Add some awesome musical hooks and Silver Lake is a thinking listener's masterpiece.
ANDY PRATT - NEW RESOLUTIONS
Boston-based singer-songwriter Andy Pratt scored an FM radio hit in the early 1970s with his great Who-like anthem "Avenging Annie." Critics praised Pratt's 1976 album Resolution, an intriguing blend of tender piano and orchestral ballads, and tough rockers that echoed the Stones at their best. He recorded a few more albums, each reflecting the slick studio production favored in the disco-dominated late-1970s. After the appearance of Fun In the First World, a self-released EP that returned Pratt to the rougher, but still melodic style of his earlier work, the musician seemed to vanish from the face of the earth. A few months ago, I looked Pratt up on the Internet and discovered his website, which informed his fans that he had spent the last 15 years as a social worker and minister in the Netherlands. Now living in Nashville, Pratt has revived his musical career with a vengeance, not only reissuing all his previous albums, but offering not just one, but several brand new collections as well. I ordered the auspiciously titled New Resolutions and found myself playing it more than any other album all year. It gathers together some new material, a few live tracks and a representative sampling of his past albums. Pratt hasn't lost his touch at all. "Whatcha Gonna Do" is a bitter putdown in the vein of Dylan's "Positively Fourth Street," while "Remember Me" and "I Will Buy Your Broken Heart" show his masterful tender side. There are a few surprises here too. "Grey Chick and Malda" is an uncharacteristic, but tuneful funky folk number and Pratt manages to add some trip-hop rhythms to Jimmy Cliff's reggae classic "The Harder They Come" without embarrassment.
WARREN ZEVON - THE WIND
Of course knowing that Warren Zevon recorded his final album shortly after being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer adds to its poignancy, but The Wind succeeds because it's one of his strongest efforts. His condition did provide him with one great recording opportunity, however. Who else could cover Dylan's "Knocking on Heaven's Door" and make it sound serious and wryly humorous at the same time? As he intones, Open up! Open up!," you honestly don't know whether to laugh with him or marvel at his strength. Among the many highlights is "Disorder in the House," which finds old pal Bruce Springsteen sounding looser than he has in at least a decade as he backs Zevon on vocals and guitar. Even if real life events hadn't made it a dignified farewell to family and friends, "Keep Me in Your Heart" would still be considered one of Zevon's finest ballads. As a fan for almost three decades, I'm going to miss the man's mordant wit.
RICHARD THOMPSON - THE OLD KIT BAG
If you're a fan of Richard Thompson, it's almost boring reviewing his albums because he rarely makes a musical misstep. The tunes aren't quite as memorable as on his last album, but The Old Kit Bag remains a winning showcase for Thompson's dark wit and blazing guitar technique. By the way, his website is going strong and offers a number of official live bootleg albums. They are a bit pricey, but the four I've bought have been well worth it. Check out the 1000 Years of Popular Music collection for a real kick.
THE WHO - WHO'S NEXT (DELUXE EDITION)
I managed to avoid all the previous reissues of the Who classic, but they finally caught me with this one. The original album does sound quite good here, and the package adds some studio outtakes and a whole other disc that includes a live performance from the era. Really, I have no complaints.
RANDY NEWMAN - SONGBOOK VOL. 1
Fans have been waiting for a project like this for years: Newman alone at the piano, revisiting songs spanning his entire career. In turn, it's touching, bitingly sarcastic and keenly observant. In other words, everything a Randy Newman album should be.
MATTHEW RYAN - REGRET OVER THE WIRES
Matthew Ryan washes his folk-based tunes with moody ambient production. His hoarse whisper wraps around lyrics that open up the vistas of a lonely heart. Among the backing musicians is former Dylan sideman Bucky Baxter, who most notably supplies a spooky violin jig to "May Your God Have Mercy on Mine."
SAM PHILLIPS - MARTINIS & BIKINIS
I stumbled upon this 1994 album on a list of Tom Waits's favorite records posted on the Internet and it's easy to hear why he likes it so much. Waits is drawn to unusual sonicscapes and T-Bone Burnette's production imbues Phillips's sultry songs with an experimental vibe reminiscent of 1966-1967-era Beatles. Its psychedelic tone isn't mere imitation, however. This overlooked album brings back sense of adventure and excitement heard in much of the music of the 1960s as well.
JOSH ROUSE - 1972
How did a white folksinger from Nebraska manage to channel the spirit of Marvin Gaye and Al Green, along with early 1970s-era Van Morrison and Bruce Springsteen? Josh Rouse's 1972 is a quietly psychedelic pop-soul album. Sometimes jazzy, other times funky and always tuneful, this album is the left-field surprise of the year.
JOE STRUMMER - STREETCORE
The first thing that struck me when listening to Joe Strummer's final album Streetcore was Joe's voice. As great as his rough-but-right vocals with the Clash were, nothing prepared me for this album's passionate, yet subtle singing. The music matches the vocal style, coming across as street-wise melodic folk mixed with rock and hip-hop elements. Nothing here approaches the raw power of the Clash, but that's OK. This is the portrait of a performer maturing gracefully, making one wonder what Strummer would have achieved if he stayed around a little longer.
ALEJANDRO ESCOVEDO - BOOTLEG SERIES VOL. 8
Alejandro Escovedo is difficult man pin down musically. He's taken the stage in a multitude of guises. A solo acoustic performer, a member of a garage punk band called Buick MacKane, a soulful balladeer backed by an intimate group of cellos and violins and a bandleader directing a whole orchestra featuring brass and percussion sections. This two-disc live "official bootleg" released by the Blue Rose label in Germany captures Escovedo backed by keyboards, guitar, drums and cello, providing a taste of all his different styles. I have several recordings of Escovedo's concerts and this one comes closest to the magic that I've experienced at his shows. It doesn't hurt that Escovedo kicks things off with my favorite song, "Way It Goes," which he never seems to have rehearsed whenever I request it.
THE BEATLES - LET IT BE. . . NAKED
This has to be the strangest Beatle release ever. It definitely has the worst title of any Beatle album. It's not even of historical or archival interest, since engineers have digitally created "new" versions of several songs by melding different versions together. What's next in this revisionist view of Beatle history? A one-disc version of the White Album? That said, I enjoyed Let It Be. .. .Naked far more than I thought I would simply because it sounds great. For perhaps the first time, you feel that you are hearing the Beatles as they actually sounded in the studio. It's funny that one of the most artificially produced albums ends up sounding the most natural.
NEIL YOUNG - GREENDALE
Neil Young's concept album about the town of Greendale and the Green family shouldn't work, and a lot of the time it doesn't. It's pretentious, unfocused and musically repetitious. But I've found myself playing it quite a bit. Young's work with his band Crazy Horse is usually an excuse to turn up the amps and shake the house down, but Greendale presents the musicians in a rather restrained setting, which may be what I like about the album. It immerses the listener in a unique flowing groove that doesn't let up. It's not Young's best work, but still worth a visit.
HONEYDOGS - 10,000 YEARS
Imagine Wilco recording a science-fiction concept album, complete with psychedelic Beatle influences, with a touch of Randy Newman's ragtime irony and Nilsson's tuneful whimsy. This pretty much describes the Honeydogs' latest effort 10,000 Years. The story line appears to resemble Terminator, in which a woman's pregnancy produces the savior of a post-apocalyptic world (or something like that. The CD booklet contains more details in tiny print, which I don't have the patience to try and read. I hate CD packaging!). Anyway, don't be all that concerned with the concept. All that's important is that the guitars jangle relentlessly, the melodies ring irresistibly and the numerous hooks arrive monstrously. Hey, sometimes that's all I need!
TOM WAITS - REAL GONE
For the past 20 years, Tom Waits has mined his own unique subterranean niche, producing music that often sounds like a kid banging on everything he can find in an overstuffed utility closet. With his new album, the closet materials are somewhat sparser, but the kid is, well, Real Gone. This is Waits's roughest work yet by a longshot. There are no tender piano ballads here. In fact, there is no piano at all. The rhythmic bedrock for many of the songs consists of tape loops of Waits's voice, which elicits a uniformly creepy atmosphere. His lead vocals are often distorted. Hell, the guitars, drums, everything is distorted. A few of the melodies and riffs are a little too familiar from past songs, but Waits keeps the listener on their toes by mixing up sonic and rhythmic ideas mid-tune. The biggest shakeup on the album is the final track, "The Day After Tomorrow," a subdued soldier's lament that may be one of Waits's most beautiful ballads (I said no piano ballads). Real Gone may scare off novice fans, but seasoned pros will willingly follow Waits on his latest bumpy but exhilarating ride.
LAURA VEIRS - CARBON GLACIER
Earlier this year, I opened the British music magazine Uncut and came upon a large photo of Laura Veirs, accompanied by a five-star feature review of her new album Carbon Glacier. I was surprised and impressed, especially since Veirs is a local Seattle musician, whom I've seen perform in clubs several times (once she even got a chair for me so I could sit in front of the stage). The same month, another British publication, MOJO, also gave the album a glowing review. It seems the Brits love our Laura! In truth, one reason for all this overseas attention is that the album was only available in Europe initially, until Nonesuch eventually picked it up for US distribution. It's not all that surprising that the British should identify with her music, though. The UK has a very similar climate to the Pacific Northwest and Veirs's work often reflects its cold drizzle and lone seagulls. Although she often appears solo at her live shows, Carbon Glacier features ambient guitar, keyboard and percussion accompanying Laura's own acoustic guitar and singing. Her sound somehow reminds me of a more basic, folk-oriented version of Peter Gabriel, if that makes any sense. It's a sound to curl up inside of, as you watch the rain come down and the clouds roll by.
BRIAN WILSON - SMiLE
I honestly thought I'd never see the release of this album. Brian Wilson first conceived SMiLE as an ambitious suite to follow the Beach Boys' 1966 pop masterpiece Pet Sounds. A variety of factors, ranging from tensions within the Beach Boys' camp, to Brian's mental health and drug use, caused the project to be aborted. Bootlegs of the sessions, along with a 30- minute section officially issued on the Beach Boys box set, revealed SMiLE as a complex, ornate, but frustratingly incomplete work. Every now and then, rumors surfaced about a legitimate release, but Wilson, not wanting to revisit what was obviously a troubled time for him, always nixed such plans. Wilson's successful return to live performing in recent years prompted his bandleader, Darian Sahanaja, to coax him into considering SMiLE as potential concert material. Brian warmed to the idea, and in the beginning of 2004, SMiLE received its live premiere in London, followed by the album release in the fall. For listeners familiar with the bootlegs, a few new musical links and previously unheard lyrics by original SMiLE collaborator Van Dyke Parks are somewhat startling, but the newly recorded version replicates the 1960s session arrangements almost note for note. The three-part song cycle combines an Americana theme with childlike innocence, conveyed by awe-inspiring melodies and vocal harmonies. Does SMiLE live up to its legend? Was it worth the 37-year wait? Absolutely on both counts!
ALEJANDRO ESCOVEDO - POR VIDA (LIMITED EDITION LIVE ALBUM)
POR VIDA: A TRIBUTE TO THE SONGS OF ALEJANDRO ESCOVEDO
13 WAYS TO LIVE
There were two albums called Por Vida this year, both involving Texas singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo. The first is a limited edition live album compiled by Alejandro and offered through his website. It primarily consists of excellent concert performances from 2001, including the long-time concert favorite "Sad and Dreamy," a song that Al and fellow songwriter Michael Fracasso created with an elementary school class at a songwriting workshop. This collection is a must for fans, although I can't help feeling that the official bootleg album released in Germany last year, which features a complete Alejandro show, steals some of Por Vida's thunder.
Por Vida: A Tribute to the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo is a two-disc set put together to raise funds to cover Al's medical expenses after he fell ill from complications due to Hepatitis C in 2003. The astounding cross section of artists contributing to the compilation is a testament to how highly regarded Al is in the music community. The roster includes many of Al's friends and Texas colleagues such as Lucinda Williams, Steve Earl, Rosie Flores, Ruben Ramos, Charlie Sexton and John Dee Graham. Some of Al's musical idols and influences appear too. John Cale delivers an eerie "She Doesn't Live Here Anymore," Ian Hunter passionately renders "One More Time" with his patent glam-rock energy, while "Wedding Day" gets a rough-but-right treatment from Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan. Por Vida also spotlights the malleability of Escovedo's songs, effortlessly hopping genres. Jennifer Warnes turns "Pissed Off 2 AM" into a sultry lounge ballad, Los Lonely Boys tear into "Castanets" with punk fervor and M. Ward and Vic Chesnutt transform "Way It Goes" into an easy-going country lope. I'm sorry to say that the only artists who drop the ball covering Al's songs are some of his own family members. Brother Pete Escovedo and niece Sheila E. saddle "The Ballad of the Sun and the Moon" with an overly slick jazz-pop arrangement, while another sibling Mario sings "Gravity" painfully out of tune. But even these are presented with a lot of heart. It's easy to get jaded about tribute albums, but Por Vida demands attention as a solid example of how they should be done.
Alejandro participates in another charity album titled 13 Ways to Live, produced by an ensemble called Screen Door Music to provide humanitarian aid for the people of Iraq. Screen Door Music, made up of cellist Brian Standefer, guitarist Robbie Gjersoe and keyboardist Bukka Allen, back a stable of stellar Texas musicians, who all contribute new songs that often address the issue of war. Despite the diversity of talent, the use of the same backing musicians for every song gives the album a wonderful cohesiveness, making 13 Ways to Live an excellent Texas music primer. The album effortlessly moves from the earthy folk of Eliza Gilkyson and sparkling strings-and-piano ballad of Patty Griffin, to Abra Moore's pop sheen and Ian Moore's majestic hard guitar rock. Even Richard Buckner, whom I usually find a droning bore, turns in a fine hymn-like waltz on his "The Song of the Low." The best turn here may be "The Damage Done" by Lubbock's own wordsmith Butch Hancock. His lyrical acrobatics deftly draw a portrait of the post-911 worldscape that is both humorous and poignant. All 13 ways presented on this disc are well worth living (and hearing).
MICHAEL FRACASSO - A POCKETFUL OF RAIN
"I don't want to meet Bob Dylan/He's too big of a personality/If I never converse with that man of verse/Yeah, that'll be just fine with me." It's ironic that one of America's most literate songwriters should mention Dylan, since if I were a big-time rock critic, I might saddle Michael Fracasso with the dreaded "New Dylan" mantle. Fracasso doesn't aim for Dylan-sized greatness though, and it doesn't diminish his talents one bit. His latest album, A Pocketful of Rain, is a tapestry of melodic, easy-going folk and blues, framed by Fracasso's smooth, high tenor vocals. Fracasso's magic really lies in his lyrics, however. He hones in on everyday details, from lazy cats sleeping in the moonlight to the breakfast dishes left by a departed lover, and accentuates the emotions surrounding them. A Pocketful of Rain isn't as dazzling as Fracasso's last studio album, the eccentric 1998 masterpiece World In a Drop of Water, but it is still a subtly engaging view of the world through the sights, sounds and feelings of a master songwriter.
A good selection of songs from World In a Drop of Water, along with the rest of Fracasso's back catalog, is included on the new Retrospective collection. It also features a handful of songs from an unreleased album produced by former Dylan sideman Charlie Sexton. The set's bonus disc also features Sexton backing Fracasso in an intimate, spellbinding live performance from the Blue Door club in Oklahoma City. The highlight of the show is a song titled "The 1950s," which takes the listener on a compelling kaleidoscopic journey spanning several generations. The way the words and images tumble out nonstop comes close to being, dare I say, Dylanesque. Both Retrospective and A Pocketful of Rain hold many such rewards that reveal revelations through life's quiet happenings.
JOSH ROUSE - NASHVILLE
Josh Rouse's last album, 1972, was a sparkling, melodic pop tribute to the music of the early 1970s. Nashville, his latest release, presents the singer-songwriter in a less self-conscious and more reflective light. The songs are darker, resonating with the breakup of Rouse's marriage and his departure from his home in Nashville for residence in Spain. The lyrics address loneliness, but never sink into self-pity, and hold out hope for a new beginning. Rouse's melodies are in turn haunting and seductive. The only distraction is Rouse's occasional tendency to sound as if he has clogged sinuses, which I don't recall noticing in his earlier work. After awhile it merely becomes an endearing affectation on an otherwise superb album.
VIC CHESNUTT - GHETTO BELLS
Chesnutt follows his most accessible release, Silver Lake, with perhaps his most inscrutable work ever. Ghetto Bells teams the incisive, black-humored songwriter with keyboardist Van Dyke Parks and guitarist Bill Frisell to produce a rich, dreamy sonic palate. The lyrics don't jump out and ambush this time around. Rather, the listener is often left feeling uneasy and unsure of Chesnutt's lyrical intent, "like a puppy on a trampoline," as he sings in "What Do You Mean?". Ghetto Bells is an eclectic work that reveals its charms gradually through repeated listenings.
STEVE BARTON - CHARM OFFENSIVE
Translator was a band from San Francisco that combined the melodicism of the Beatles and Byrds with a touch of the Talking Heads' New Wave cerebral cool. They released four critically acclaimed albums in the mid-1980s before splitting up due to lack of any real commercial success. The group's vocalist/songwriter/guitarist Steve Barton returns with Charm Offensive, his second solo outing in almost twenty years. He hasn't lost his knack for melodic hooks, but Barton's sound here is harder, more garage rock-influenced. Indeed, he tackles the Beatles' "She's Leaving Home" and transforms the once haunting ballad into a full-blown raging rocker. He can still write thought-provoking, unusual lyrics too ("Narcolepsy Baby"). At a mere 35 minutes, Charm Offensive leaves one wanting more. But that's OK. Barton's songs are so visceral and concise that any more of them might be too much of a good thing.
ELVIS PRESLEY - ELVIS AT SUN
Yet another reissue of Elvis Presley's classic recordings for Sun Records. Apparently, when RCA Records bought Elvis's contract from Sun and released these 1954-55 sides themselves, they added another layer of echo. This new collection utilizes the original pre-RCA sources and the clarity of many of the songs is nothing short of stunning. It's a little disconcerting at first, too, since one of the hallmarks of the Sun sound was thought to be the studio's use of "slapback" echo, and here we have some of their most famous recordings without it. Previous editions of the Sun material are more complete, with alternate takes and such, but for a revelatory listening experience, Elvis at Sun is the one to get. Elvis has rarely sounded so up-close and intimate.
THE BEST OF SHEL SILVERSTEIN: HIS WORDS, HIS SONGS, HIS FRIENDS
Shel Silverstein was a cartoonist for Playboy, an author of children's books, a recording artist and songwriter, penning many country, folk, pop and rock hits for other musicians. This new album bravely attempts to present as many sides as possible of Silverstein's schizophrenic career in one coherent package. I've dreamed of a collection like this, but I imagine its diversity might be difficult going for many casual listeners. Included are Silverstein's spoken-word recordings ("Monsters I've Met," "Homework Machine," "Peanut-Butter Sandwich"), and songs performed by himself ("A Front Row Seat to Hear Ol' Johnny Sing," "Plastic") and other artists (Johnny Cash's "A Boy Named Sue," the Irish Rovers' "The Unicorn," Dr. Hook's "Cover of the Rolling Stone" and "Sylvia's Mother"). It would have been cool if Bob Dylan's unreleased take of "A Couple More Years" was here, but we do get Willie Nelson's version, which may be the definitive one. It's funny to read the reviews on Amazon from parents who bought this CD for their three-year-olds and found some of Silverstein's more scatological material shocking. Really, the only adult-themed songs are "Freakin' at the Freakers' Ball" and "I Got Stoned and I Missed It," and their drug and sex references would probably go over most kids' heads anyway. Sure, this disc is a jumble of various genres crammed together, perhaps a little uncomfortably, but Silverstein's wonderful wordplay and wit tie it all together.
IAN HUNTER - STRINGS ATTACHED
Mott the Hoople remains a band that is difficult to pin down. They were hard rockers that flirted with glam (David Bowie wrote their hit "All the Young Dudes"), yet were fronted by Ian Hunter, a Bob Dylan obsessive who wrote beautiful earnest ballads. Hunter's live album Strings Attached shows the veteran musician is still a master at playing rock 'n' roll with a huge heart pinned to its sleeve. It features Hunter effortlessly performing old and new material with the help of a band and string section during concerts staged in Oslo in 2002. Although some songs are hard-hitting (especially "Rollerball"), the often subtle instrumentation provides the perfect setting for Hunter's less noisy tunes ("Irene Wilde," "Waterlow," "I Wish I Was Your Mother"). Strings Attached is the best Ian Hunter collection I've heard so far and would make a great introduction for anyone unfamiliar with his rock 'n' roll love letters.
SARAH LEE GUTHRIE & JOHNNY IRION - EXPLORATION
Exploration exudes a relaxed charm all its own. Maybe it has to do with the fact that Sarah Lee Guthrie is the daughter of Arlo and granddaughter of Woody. She seems to share the laid-back, freewheelin' spirit of her relatives and puts a unique modern spin on it. What struck me at first was how similar she and her husband Johnny Irion sounded to the ultimate alt-country duo of Graham Parsons and Emmy Lou Harris. Then I listened a little further and discovered the Neil Youngish grunge of "Gervais" and "Gotta Prove." There's also "Dr. King," a brand new song by folk music icon Pete Seeger. Exploration is filled with fiery passion, revealed at such a leisurely pace that the power of its songs doesn't immediately register. This off-kilter album leaves an indelible impression.
CHARLIE SEXTON - CRUEL AND GENTLE THINGS
It's been a decade since Charlie Sexton's last album, the sweeping masterpiece Under the Wishing Tree. For Cruel and Gentle Things, the guitarist/producer from Austin changes gear and takes an introspective, intimate approach. The opening track "Gospel" sets the reflective, brooding tone as Sexton muses, "Don't you look out your window / Don't you peek through the door / 'Cause you just might find the thing that scares you most / I ain't talking 'bout the government / I ain't talking 'bout ghosts / Just that shapeless thing that acts as sorrow's host." "Dillingham Lane," co-written with Steve Earl, is a fond, but unsentimental reminiscence of childhood, while "The Daily Grind" matches a work-a-day world lament to a hook-filled melody. The album's softer folk-based sound might seem less ambitious than Wishing Tree, but Sexton has merely focused his songwriting to produce a collection of songs that is more subtle, but ultimately just as satisfying as his earlier work.
SOUTH SAN GABRIEL - THE CARLTON CHRONICLES
For the past couple of years, it seems as if my "best of" lists have included at least one concept album. This year's entry in that category is The Carlton Chronicles, which concerns the adventures of the titular cat. The story is a feline version of Wizard of Oz, in which Carlton is scolded by his owner for killing a bird, runs away, finds out the world is a scary place and learns that there's no place like home. Austin-based band South San Gabriel relates the story through music reminiscent of the laid-back groove of Son Volt or Neil Young at his most mellow. Cat lovers will eat this up, since they'll recognize all manner of cat behavior in the songs: the hunt ("Predatory King Today"), looking cute to butter up your owner ("Affection's the Pay"), pride ("I Am Six Pounds of Dynamite") and fear ("I Feel Too Young to Die"). And many of the musical hooks have a distinct "meow" lilt to them, too. The Carlton Chronicles is a surprisingly moving and unique experience that feels as cozy as your favorite feline friend snuggled up by your side.
RICHARD THOMPSON - FRONT PARLOUR BALLADS
Rather than merely making another excellent, but "standard," Richard Thompson album with backing musicians, the guitarist/songwriter tries something a little different on his latest effort. Front Parlour Ballads is largely a solo work recorded at Thompson's home studio. It features a stripped down sound, highlighting the often complex melodies that push Thompson to deliver some of his finest vocal performances of his career. The lyrics portray a roster of unsavory characters, darkly amusing or tragically lost (ahh, the return of the "untrustworthy narrator"!). Oh yes, there's some great guitar picking too. All this adds up to create one of Thompson's most memorable efforts.
DWIGHT TWILLEY - 47 MOONS
Ever since his 1975 hit "I'm On Fire," Dwight Twilley has tirelessly pursued his unique hybrid of Beatlesque pop and rockabilly raunch. His new album 47 Moons continues his power pop quest and reunites the Tulsa, Oklahoma native with original Dwight Twilley Band member Bill Pitcock. The guitarist is a perfect foil for Twilley, since Pitcock can emulate the British Invasion and Sun Records sound effortlessly. The title track's lush, acoustic guitar-driven backing makes the simplistic chorus ("Jupiter has 47 moons / We only have one") seem profound. "Better Watch Out" and "Chance of a Lifetime" are classic Twilley rockers, bolstered by his echo-laden hiccup vocals and irresistible melodies. One of the album's missteps is "Jackie Naked in the Window," a piece of voyeuristic juvenilia that sounds plain embarrassing coming from a fifty-something Twilley. A few of the songs also rely on cheesy 1980s-style electronic keyboards, which make one yearn for the sound of a real piano or organ. But if you're a sucker for Twilley's brand of pop, as I am, these are minor quibbles. I fall for his sound and style every time, and 47 Moons is no different.
THE ROLLING STONES - A BIGGER BANG
The Stones rarely stand up to much serious analysis, so I'll keep this simple. A Bigger Bang is the best Rolling Stones album in perhaps two decades. Is it a masterpiece on par with Let It Bleed, Beggar's Banquet or Sticky Fingers? No way, but were you expecting it to be? It rocks. It's not embarrassing (well, maybe the lyrics on two Keith tracks are a bit squirm-inducing. "Baby, bare your breasts"? Oh, c'mon, Keith! Can't we age with a little grace?). The album is too long and could lose two or three songs, but really, these guys may never sound this good again. Just turn it up and enjoy.
THE FACES - FIVE GUYS WALK INTO A BAR. . .
Most box sets collect an artist's best material from albums and singles, and throw in a handful of previously unreleased recordings to satisfy the fans. Few such collections actually expand an artist's musical legacy, but that's exactly what Five Guys Walk into a Bar. . . does for the Faces. With Rod Stewart now crooning old standards, it's easy to forget the he was once considered one of rock's finest vocalists. Look no further than this four-disc set for proof. Stewart was the lead singer for the Faces, a British quintet that also included Ronnie Lane on bass, guitarist Ron Wood, drummer Kenney Jones and Ian McLagan on keyboards. They recorded four albums in the early 1970s, but never had many hits (the only song I remember hearing on the radio was their live rendition of Paul McCartney's "Maybe I'm Amazed"). The Faces built their reputation by tirelessly touring the US and becoming an enormously popular live act. Five Guys. . . features a generous helping of live cuts that exudes the rollicking atmosphere of the Faces' shows, something that their studio albums never quite captured. Along with the concert recordings, unreleased and alternate takes, plus radio and television performances represent over half of the set's selections. It might appear that the inclusion of so much rare material panders more to the hardcore fan, but if you wish to hear Rod Stewart in his prime, or have never experienced the heartrending beauty of Ronnie Lane's songwriting, Five Guys. . . is an excellent place to start, too.
HEY NOSTRADAMUS!: A NOVEL by Douglas Coupland
A Columbine-like event takes place at a Vancouver, BC, high school, and is seen through the eyes of four characters. The most vivid narrative is by one of the murdered victims, Cheryl, who remembers details such as the feeling of the morning sun on the day of the tragedy. Coupland's prose captures the way terrible events make memory so acute. Cheryl is secretly married to Jason, who survives the attack and is blamed for Cheryl's death. Jason's partner Heather picks up the story, bringing in elements of a mystery. Finally, Jason's puritanical father Reg, the least convincing character in the book, provides the last installment, answering a few questions, but leaving many others unresolved, just as in life. Small actions in one section later resonate with a greater significance in another. Coupland uses this unique structure to tell a genuinely moving tale full of compelling twists and turns.
AND NOW YOU MAY GO by Vendela Vida
Ellis, a Columbia University student, is held-up at gunpoint while sitting on a park bench one afternoon. She escapes unharmed and seems relatively unaffected by the incident. In fact, she is more preoccupied with one small detail of her attacker - the model of his eyeglasses - than the potential danger of the event itself. The people around Ellis are more alarmed over what happened than she is. Life's big events don't phase Ellis. Lovers come and go, while she's more annoyed over her roommate leaving reminder notes for her to clean the apartment. She travels to the Philippines with her mother to help the poor and remains largely unaffected by their plight, concentrating instead on the interactions of a blind woman and her children. Even the capture of Ellis's attacker passes by like just another day. Some readers may think nothing much happens after the story's initial excitement, but that's the point Vida makes with And Now You May Go. Some people walk through life more concerned with the mundane than the big picture.
A DISFUNCTIONAL SUCCESS: THE WRECKLESS ERIC MANUAL by Eric Goulden
When I was a young boy
My mama said to me
There's only one girl in the world for you
And she probably lives in Tahiti
So goes the first verse of "Whole Wide World," Wreckless Eric's first and only hit single. In the mid-1970s, Eric signed to Stiff Records, the early home of Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and Ian Dury, and cut some terrific records before slipping into obscurity by the 1980s. When I first heard his songs, I loved his irreverent humor, and I'm happy to report that Eric's wit is still very much in evidence in his new autobiography. Right up front, he states that he wanted to avoid writing the usual rock musician biography, "the sort that documents the early struggle for fame, works through a successful middle period, and chronicles the downfall via a collection of lurid drug-related episodes and boring contractual details. . . Unfortunately, I think that may well be exactly what I've done, but mine has much more textured wallpaper. . . " Eric's, uh, descriptive "wallpaper" is often breathtakingly hilarious. For example, he portrays characters by having their eyeglasses express emotion, as in "his glasses looked worried," which conjures up a vivid cartoonish image. He also details the many dead-end jobs he had to take on just to survive (everything from working in the coffee bar at Butlins resorts to being a Quality Control Inspector at a lemonade factory), the laughable series of vehicles he's purchased (all of which seem to fall apart bit by bit), the exhilaration of writing his first song and the abject terror of playing his first gig. And he doesn't even cover his time in a psychiatric hospital, so I think ol' Eric may have another book in him somewhere. In the meantime, pick up a Wreckless Eric album and seek out this compact little tome. Right now, it's only available as an import, but I found a used copy at half price. It's well worth the time and effort.
THE MUSIC OF GEORGE HARRISON: WHILE MY GUITAR GENTLY WEEPS by Simon Leng
George Harrison himself was always slightly bitter about being overshadowed by the talents of Lennon and McCartney. Indeed, there have been volumes written about the work of his former partners, yet very little written about Harrison as a musician and songwriter. Simon Leng's critical analysis of Harrison finally gives the guitarist his due. Not only does Leng examine all of Harrison's solo albums, he also interviews many of the people who worked with him to show how he worked as a musician, songwriter and producer. John Barham, a classical musician and a friend of Harrison, talks about his collaborations with the quiet one, which date back to the Beatle days. One of the most interesting facts I learned was that Harrison was not an improviser, but rather, he preferred every guitar line and melody meticulously worked out before hand. Throughout the 1970s, Harrison produced many albums by other artists for both the Apple and Dark Horse labels. Some of these artists, such as soul singer Doris Troy (who just passed away this year) and members of Splinter, give extensive interviews, though I would have liked to read even more about George's production work. (The album he made with the Five Stairsteps, a lost classic, is hardly mentioned.) Unfortunately, Leng finished the book shortly before the release of Harrison's final album Brainwashed, so it's only given a cursory overview. The book would have been the ultimate comprehensive guide to Harrison's music if Leng had been able to cover these last sessions. Still, despite a few minor shortcomings, Leng provides a fascinating and insightful delve into the body of work left by the most overlooked Beatle.
A SIMPLE TWIST OF FATE: BOB DYLAN AND THE MAKING OF BLOOD ON THE TRACKS by Andy Gill and Kevin Odegard
It's September 1974, and Bob Dylan enters a recording studio in New York City and quickly records his new batch of tunes with a group of session musicians. Even though most of the musicians are startled by Dylan's penchant for tearing into the songs one by one with barely a thought about rehearsal, Dylan seems happy with the result, and his next album, Blood On the Tracks, is scheduled for release before the end of the year. However, during a family visit to Minneapolis over Christmas, Dylan starts to have second thoughts about the New York sessions and hastily arranges to rerecord some of the songs in a Minneapolis studio with local musicians. These sessions last only two days, but are most productive. Dylan even takes a few suggestions from the players this time. He asks guitarist Kevin Odegard what he thinks of one of the songs titled "Tangled Up In Blue," and Odegard hesitantly replies, "It's . . . passable." Dylan repeats "Passable??," and gives him that squinting, incredulous look that has withered many a person over the years. Odegard quickly suggests trying the tune in a different key. Dylan nods and says, "Let's try it," and the song is transformed into one of the album's highlights. Despite all their contributions, the Minneapolis musicians are not included in the album credits, since the covers were already printed at the time of the sessions. Curiously, they've never been credited, not even on the recent remaster of Blood On the Tracks. A friend once said that he'd like to sit down with Dylan and discuss his lyrics with him. My guess is that such a meeting would be unrevealing. I think one would learn more about Dylan by watching him work. The book Tangled Up In Blue places the reader in the studio as Dylan paints one of his masterpieces and that's a once in a lifetime experience.
MICKEY NEWBURY: CRYSTAL & STONE by Joe Ziemer
Songwriter Mickey Newbury is one of the best known enigmas in American music. More than 500 artists have covered his songs, enabling Newbury to become the only tunesmith to have his work on four different charts, pop/rock, easy listening, R&B and country, simultaneously. His admirers and friends include Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Roger Miller and Bob Dylan, and he helped launch the careers of others, such as Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earl. Yet Newbury's own recorded work, numbering some 29 albums, is known only to his peers and a devoted cult following.
Joe Ziemer's Crystal & Stone is the first extensive biography of the American mystery that is Mickey Newbury, and it is in turn, a fascinating and frustrating effort. The days living in a car as a struggling songwriter in Nashville, the potentially lucrative deals that were turned down, and an obsessive attention to detail in both his writing and recording, all show Newbury to be the ultimate uncompromising artist. He's also presented as one of the most generous people on the planet, often answering queries from fans personally by letter, telephone or email and giving other songwriters encouragement and advice. Ziemer doesn't use the book to dig up dirt on his subject. About the only skeleton in Newbury's closet, if you can even call it that, is a 20-year-old illegitimate son that turns up on his doorstep one day. Without hesitation, Newbury welcomes him into his family.
Ziemer does uncover a "dark side," although the disclosure that Newbury was bipolar should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the moody, melancholy tone of most of his songs. He spent "up" periods playing golf and sailing. Depressive times were reserved solely for songwriting, or "Robbing the Dragon" as Newbury called it. Fascinating stuff, perhaps the most interesting part of the story, but Ziemer reveals these facts as if they were deep, dark secrets, rather than simple human frailty. Crystal & Stone sometimes reads as a fawning fan publication, and essentially, it is, published by a vanity press. Publication by a small press shouldn't matter, but in this case, the text contains numerous typos and obviously lacks the touch of an expert editor that a major publishing house would bring to the project. More annoying is Ziemer's overuse of lyrical quotes. He cites relevant passages from Newbury's songs every few paragraphs. Those familiar with the lyrics will probably start skipping these excerpts, like I did, about half way through. Rather than overwhelming neophytes with one quote after another, it might have been better if Ziemer inspired them to check out Newbury's music for themselves. But Ziemer's writing style, while enthusiastic, is rather flat and uncompelling.
Mickey Newbury's untimely death from lung disease in 2002 did little to expand his notoriety. A few obituaries in the music press mentioned his two biggest hits -- The First Edition's "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)" and "An American Trilogy," made popular by Elvis Presley - but said little else. An original artist like Newbury is overdue for a definitive biography and overview of his catalog. Unfortunately, Crystal & Stone isn't it. Fans may enjoy Ziemer's labor of love, but the uninitiated are advised to go straight to Newbury's eclectic, mournfully beautiful albums instead.
EIGHT ARMS TO HOLD YOU: THE SOLO BEATLES COMPENDIUM by Chip Madinger and Mark Easter
Like Crystal & Stone, this is another self-published item, but one that delivers more than it promises. Coming in at over 700 pages, the hefty tome documents the minutia of the Beatles' solo careers through the year 2000. Thirty years of recording sessions and session personnel, record releases, radio and television appearances, tours and other live appearances are detailed for each one of the former Fabs. Just having all this information available all in one place would make Eight Arms an essential reference book, though Madinger and Easter don't stop at presenting the dry facts. They also critically assess the music and performances with the insight and humor of true fans. They know the painful embarrassment of seeing Ringo on Arsenio Hall and Oprah or hearing Linda McCartney's solo recordings! Even the simple cover design, which pictures the vinyl copy spines of the solo albums, speaks to the hearts of Beatle fanatics and collectors.
A book like Eight Arms makes it easy to compare and contrast each of the solo Beatles and two overall points struck me while perusing its text. The Beatles' breakup hardly phased John and George, while Paul and Ringo were lost and devastated by it. George especially was more than ready to go out on his own and rarely looked back. John was more interested in working with Yoko, though I think he often missed the Beatles more than he let on. It says a lot about how much Ringo needed the others that his most commercially and musically successful album was made with a little help from his former bandmates. Paul almost immediately formed his band Wings (a substitute Beatles?) and started touring just like in the old days. Which brings me to the second point. John, George and Ringo all took time off to pursue other interests (or stay drunk for a decade, in Ringo's case) sometime during their solo years, but Paul hardly ever stopped being the consummate showman. Only Linda's illness and death seemed to diminish his seemingly insatiable appetite for the limelight for a short time.
Together, John, Paul, George and Ringo changed the world. Apart, their impact lessened, but as Madinger and Easter show, the details of their individual careers are no less fascinating and entertaining.
COME CLOSER by Sara Gran
Amanda, a successful, happily married architect, is not quite herself these days. She's left nasty notes on her boss's desk. She's burned her husband with a cigarette for no apparent reason. She's been having dreams about a woman with sharp, fang-like teeth. And then there's that mysterious tap-tapping sound in her apartment.
Sara Gran's nifty little novel is reminiscent of The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby, in that it lets evil seep into mundane daily life until everything is stained blood red. This is a great summer read that can be finished in one sitting. Just don't loose track of time and end up alone at night, listening for that strange tapping sound in your apartment.
BIG STAR: THE STORY OF ROCK'S FORGOTTEN BAND by Rob Jovanovic
I always dreamed about writing a book about one of my favorite bands, Big Star, but now it looks like Rob Jovanovic has beaten me to it.. At least he's done a fantastic job of telling the story of one of rock music's most influential cult groups. Big Star formed in the early 1970s when former Box Tops frontman Alex Chilton joined up with Memphis musicians Chris Bell and Jody Stephens. They recorded three albums worth of Beatlesque melodies fused with a dark lyrical edge that were critically acclaimed, but commercially ignored. The death of Chris Bell and the lack of success contributed to the band splintering apart just a few short years after they began. Jovanovic tells their turbulent saga through exclusive interviews with most of the surviving principals, along with their family and friends. I say "most" of the band members, since the usually skittish Chilton ignored Jovanovic when they met, forcing him to rely on existing interviews of the mercurial musician. Big Star may not have received the recognition they deserved when they arrived on the Memphis music scene, but their influence is heard in the work of such artists as REM, the Posies and countless other bands. It's about time the Big Star story was told. I just wish I was the one who told it. (A footnote: Alex Chilton has been listed among the missing in New Orleans. There have been reports he's been seen in a bar in the French Quarter, but nothing has been confirmed yet.) (An update: He's now listed as found. Alex can be hard to find even without disasters, so this is good news.)
Most reviewers have said this amazing documentary is about how one man learns to deal with being brought up in the world's most dysfunctional family. Well, yes it is but I think this is only a superficial assessment of what the film is about. Robert Crumb is only the most well-known and successful member of the Crumb family. His two brothers and mother are just as disturbing, sad and finally fascinating as the more famous Crumb. Without a doubt, there are many families just as dysfunctional as this one is but very few of them are probably this interesting. It may be significant that the film's title is Crumb and not R. Crumb. The film is really about a family and how some members cope with what life throws at them and how other members choose not to cope at all.
DAWN OF THE DEAD (DIRECTOR'S CUT)
Soon after I got this disc, I learned that another deluxe edition had just been released with audio commentary tracks, deleted scenes and other nifty extras. Even though I would love to have such added features, I really don't mind settling for the less fancy version since it's such a good movie. (And my downscale edition does include 15 minutes of additional footage not in the original theatrical release anyway.) George Romaro's sequel to his classic Night of the Living Dead is even more outrageous than the first installment. The dead are still coming back to life and still have an appetite for human flesh but this time there is more gore, humor and social satire in the mix. A group of survivors hole themselves up in a mall where the zombies still roam "by instinct" as one of my favorite lines of dialogue explains. Pretty soon, not only do the survivors have the undead to worry about, they start battling among themselves for control of the consumer haven. A very scary and very darkly funny movie.
EASY RIDER (SPECIAL EDITION)
Some extras do come with this disc. It has a second audio track with commentary by Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda. One of the more interesting facts pointed out in the commentary is the unusual editing style used in the film. Instead of scenes dissolving into each other, a series of quick cuts alternating between two scenes is used. I'd never noticed this technique before. Hopper can't think of any other film before or since that has used this effect and neither can I. Do I even need to mention how much fun it is to watch Jack Nicholson play the role that virtually became the blueprint for the rest of his career? Perhaps some of it seems a bit dated and naive these days but when I'm in the right mood, Easy Rider still makes me want to throw away my watch and hit the road.
I'm going to add my voice to the chorus of praises that Fargo has already received. It's amazing to me how many people like this movie which is really quite offbeat in many ways. My co-workers' taste in movies run toward the Stallone/Schwarzenagger genre and they loved this Coen brothers' picture. There are familiar elements from their first film Blood Simple here: Trying to dispose of a body on a lonely stretch of road in the dead of night just as a car happens to pass by. And, once again, flat, vast, deserted landscapes are favored. But there are some big differences between the two works also. Many of the characters in Blood Simple come off as rather bland, almost as if they are overwhelmed by the extraordinary circumstances that they find themselves in. Nearly every character in Fargo is vividly drawn and memorable. Even minor roles like Marge's husband and her old high school classmate add wonderful little details to the story. The brothers still show off their unique camera style but now it has become more mature. While the camera work in Blood Simple is frenetic, the tone it sets in Fargo is one of quiet grandeur. Not only do I think Fargo is the Coens' best picture, it is quite simply one of the best motion pictures ever made.
I'm very fussy about how rock musicians and their music are portrayed in the movies. Most movies about rock 'n' roll feel phony to me. For one thing, more often than not, the music in such movies is lousy. Many film makers seem to lack any understanding of what makes good rock music. But Georgia feels right to me. Not only is the music very good, the story and the characters that populate it all feel real to me as well. Marie Winningham plays Georgia, a successful country/folk singer. Jennifer Jason Leigh as her sister Sadie, also wants to be a singer and has the passion but not the discipline to make her dreams come true. Georgia, who has a husband and kids, has played it safe throughout her life, while Sadie has always been a rebel and troublemaker. With a character like Sadie, it would have been easy to go over the top with clichés of the rock 'n' roll life. But Georgia is far too smart to make such a mistake. There is drug use but it is treated very subtly. No graphic scenes of shooting up are shown. Rather, we only see how drugs affect Sadie and the people around her. The musical details in the movie also ring true. John Doe is Sadie's ex-boyfriend and the leader of a band that plays some great Velvet Underground covers. And Georgia's big "hit" song is "Hard Times," a song Bob Dylan covered on his Good As I Been to You album. (Perhaps the film's musical authenticity is helped by the fact that the music producer is Steven Soles, a musician who has played in a couple of Dylan's touring bands.) It would have been easy to portray Sadie as just a talentless wannabe but once again Georgia rises above the expected conventions of movie making. At one point, Sadie performs an intense version of a Van Morrison song in concert. It's rough, of course, but in the end it feels right and that makes it work. She makes the song her own. Georgia is embarrassed by her sister's performance since it isn't "perfect" and tries to save Sadie by joining her onstage. But Sadie knows, we know, and most importantly the film makers know that she doesn't need any help with her song (but she does need help with other aspects of her life which Georgia may or may not be able to give her). And I think that's what makes Georgia special. It understands that sometimes heart is more important than perfection in making great music. Georgia's rock 'n' roll heart is in the right place.
THE JOHN LENNON COLLECTION
A nice compilation of Lennon's music videos, some of them made especially for this collection. The later videos occasionally get a little tedious since they rely on the same archival home movie footage shown over and over but most of what is here is fun to listen to and watch. It was a most pleasant surprise to find a rare TV appearance performance of "Imagine" included as a bonus track on the disc too. An added bonus for me is to be able to see my friend Paul Williams in the "Give Peace a Chance" video. In nearly every shot of John, there is a young Williams sitting right in front of the camera and really getting into the music. And all these years I wondered who this guy was....
This 1959 British film about a serial killer who photographs his victims as he kills them was so reviled by critics at the time that it ruined the career of the director Michael Powell. On a superficial level, compared to the slasher movies of today, Peeping Tom might look quite tame. But look deeper and it is still a disturbing film. It brings up some intriguing questions about the role of movies. Are we the viewers, who watch the killer murder his victims, any better than the killer who gets off watching his own films of the murders? Powell's vision may be a disturbing one but it isn't without humor. A Hitchcock-type macabre wit is displayed throughout the film and his wicked portrayal of the British film industry as totally inept is very comical (and most likely accurate, considering how this film was treated). As the informative commentary by film theorist Laura Mulvey explains, the film has rarely been seen for decades and is now regarded as a classic. A must see for anyone interested in the horror genre.
SHORT CUTS (CRITERION EDITION)
Just about all the people that I know who have seen this Robert Altman film have expressed their disappointment in it. Coming after the razor sharp Hollywood send-up of The Player, it's understandable that this sprawling slice of life tapestry, based on the stories of Raymond Carver, would leave many viewers cold. Even though I liked Short Cuts the first time I saw it, I was left feeling a bit disappointed afterwards too. But then something happened. My mind kept returning, over and over, to certain scenes in the movie. Like when the little boy gets hit by a car. Instead of showing a close up of the boy actually getting knocked down, the scene is shot at a distance from behind the car. We hear the sickening thud of the impact but all we see is the car screeching to a halt. The camera then follows the boy as he appears from around the front of the car and starts slowly walking back home. The driver of the car walks with him, asking if she could take him to the doctor. The boy refuses, saying that he is not allowed to take rides from strangers. The scene is haunting, charming, chilling and sad all at the same time. (It turns out that the boy is very seriously injured.) It is one of the most memorable scenes I've ever encountered in any film. And I think if you let Short Cuts sink in for awhile, other characters and moments will float to the top of your consciousness as well. Different stories and characters intersect, crash into each other, then go their own ways, only to collide again with different results later on. As in life, people in Short Cuts sometimes meet the person that can change their lives. Other times, such a person is out there but is never found. Short Cuts may be uneven at times, somewhat contrived (especially the ending) and not as accessible as The Player is, but I still think it is a remarkable and lasting piece of film making. The Criterion edition of the laserdisc includes deleted scenes, a behind the scenes documentary, a surprisingly critical interview with Pauline Kael about the film, as well as the complete text of all the original Carver stories used, plus much more.
THIS IS SPINAL TAP (CRITERION EDITION)
Spinal Tap may poke fun at rock 'n' roll but it is so true to life that it remains a favorite among musicians who undoubtedly can identify with everything that happens in this pseudo doc-, no, rockumentary. It goes without saying that it is one of my all-time favorite films and Criterion has given it the deluxe treatment it deserves on their edition of the laserdisc. It includes two separate audio commentaries, one with director Rob Reiner, the other with "the band," Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer. The commentaries reveal that the original cut of the film was four hours long (It is rumored that John Belushi had a bootleg copy of this in the room when he died.) and 80 minutes worth of outtakes that didn't make the final cut are presented here. (My favorite outtake: The band gets their chauffeur, played by Bruno Kirby, stoned and he starts singing Frank Sinatra songs, using a pizza crust as a microphone.) The original short film that spawned the movie, an early TV appearance and tons of script notes and photos are all included too. I don't think I've even looked at it all yet. Using a scale from 1 to 10, my rating for the whole package goes to 11. (You saw that one coming, didn't you?)
Another laserdisc where I just missed out on the deluxe version with all the bells and whistles. Terry Gilliam once again presents a bleak picture of the future as he did in another one of my favorite films Brazil. The earlier film relied more on black humor and fantasy. 12 Monkeys is more of a straight-forward time travel science fiction story and, though it is still dark at times, one is left with a taste of sweetness at the end. It also uses Tom Waits' song "Underground" to great effect.
TOM WAITS: BIG TIME
Part concert film, part theatrical performance, Big Time takes live concert footage from 1987 and intersperses it with staged sequences. Sometimes the non-concert interludes interrupt the flow of the music. Other times they stand on their own, as in the visually arresting vignette that shows Waits standing in the rain holding an umbrella which, as the camera pans back, is revealed to be in flames. It's the music that is special here though. For the past decade, Waits has produced some of his best music and it's wonderful to have a visual record of some of his now rare live performances of it. From Marc Ribot's atonal guitaring to the junk yard percussion effects and Waits' own amazingly expressive sandpaper and whiskey voice, Waits creates his own unique sonic landscape. Apparently, Waits has retired from the concert stage, so this Japanese import laserdisc is now one of the only ways to see the artist in his prime at work.
NEIL YOUNG: RUST NEVER SLEEPS & THE COMPLEX SESSIONS
The late seventies were a great time to first start getting into Neil Young's music as I did. Not only did he release what could be considered his best work, the Rust Never Sleeps album in 1978, a short time afterwards he released a full length concert movie under the same name. I was such a fan at the time I went to see the movie several times during it's short run in Spokane. (I'm amazed that it played at all in Spokane, although the fact that Neil plays here fairly regularly may have something to do with it.) Being a relatively new fan, I and had no idea what Neil Young and his band Crazy Horse were like in concert, so I was awe struck by the film. If you love Young's music, everything you'll want is here: It starts off with a lovely solo acoustic set that includes such favorites as "Sugar Mountain" and "Comes a Time," then it progresses to a devastating full-tilt, full-band set with rockers like "Powderfinger," "Like A Hurricane" and perhaps the best ever "Cortez the Killer," complete with a heavy metal reggae interlude. Watching the film now, some of the between song antics of the "Road Eyes" (Rust Never Sleeps is billed as a "rock 'n' roll fantasy" after all) occasionally go on too long, as the hooded, red-eyed Star Wars-like creatures scurry about the stage setting up props and equipment. The passing of time hasn't diminished the magic of the musical performances of the movie at all though. Another more recent video release is even better. Nearly twenty years after Rust Never Sleeps, Jonathan Demme, maker of the Talking Heads' concert film Stop Making Sense, captures Neil and Crazy Horse live in the studio on The Complex Sessions. This home video was quietly released with very little publicity, which is a shame since in a lot of ways, it's better than Rust Never Sleeps. It features 30 minutes of music from the Sleeps With Angels album, making it considerably shorter than the previous film. (And way overpriced too. The laserdisc cost me a dollar a minute!!) But as a whole, it is better paced and photographed more imaginatively than the earlier work. The camera focuses on Young's face and hands as he sits at the piano for the hushed first song titled "My Heart." Demme's camera work had me captivated from the start since it takes the time to linger on images rather than switching to different shots every few seconds. In fact, now that I think about it, "My Heart" may be made up of one single uninterrupted shot. "Prime of Life" brings in the rest of the band and coolly picks up the pace with some passionate guitar solos from Neil. Sharp guitar work from both Young and rhythm guitarist Frank Sampedro, along with some dramatic but subtle lighting effects, turn the intensity up a notch higher on the majestic "Change Your Mind." And everything ends on the wildest note of all with the visually and aurally messy "Piece of Crap." The Complex Sessions is an overlooked masterpiece.
LOST IN TRANSLATION
Critics raved over Sofia Coppola's Lost In Translation, but according to the reviews left by customers on Netflix and Amazon, the public's reaction to the film is divided. People seem to either love or hate it. Asking friends who've seen the movie for their opinion generated a dismissive, "Eh, it's OK." So I rented the DVD to see for myself.
My first reaction after watching the disc? Eh, it's OK. Yet despite my initial impression, Lost In Translation has seeped into my consciousness and won't let go. I can't stop thinking about this film.
The plot barely exists. Bill Murray plays an actor visiting Tokyo to work on an ad campaign. His haggard demeanor faultlessly exhibits his weariness towards his job and marriage. Scarlett Johansson plays a lonely young married woman abandoned by her busy husband. These two strangers in a strange land find each other for a moment (or perhaps a little longer?). That's it. The conventional Hollywood screenplay would make this a full-blown affair, consummated by sex, followed by love and/or guilt. Lost In Translation is far more subtle. Viewers expecting the usual romantic storyline were probably confused. Although he does have some very funny scenes, this is also not the usual Bill Murray comedy, which most likely bewildered audiences further.
What Coppola's film is is a visual and atmospheric feast to lose yourself in. The cinematography is sumptuous, vividly displaying the electric sheen of downtown Tokyo and the quiet solitude of the Japanese countryside. (I think one of the barriers for some viewers is that these visuals may not translate as well to the small screen.) However, even during its quiet moments, as when Johansson watches a Buddhist ceremony, there is an overwhelming sense of alienation and disorientation. Once she and Murray meet and get to know each other, the feeling of relief at finally encountering a glimmer of something familiar is palpable.
Perhaps Lost In Translation haunts me because I'm a bit lost myself these days and identify with its two lost and found souls. I plan to revisit the film's bittersweet emotional vistas again sometime (hopefully on the big screen).
THE MAYOR OF THE SUNSET STRIP
Every music fan will see a little of themselves in Rodney Bingenheimer, the subject of the documentary Mayor of the Sunset Strip. Somehow, beginning in the late 1960s, this lonely, geeky kid from Mountain View, California, became the West Coast version of Andy Warhol. Rodney loved rock 'n' roll and liked to hang around the people who made it. Through all his contacts, he eventually became one of L.A's biggest tastemakers. Bingenheimer was the first to introduce David Bowie, Blondie, the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, Nirvana and many other artists to US listeners.
His story is told through interviews with family members, friends and many of the celebrities Rodney has encountered over the last four decades. What emerges is more than a personal history. The film is also an examination of the cult of celebrity. With reality TV shows making virtually everyone a star, is there a place in society for people like Rodney today? Bingenheimer would say yes, since he states his only goal has been to help his friends and make people happy. He's never exploited his status for any substantial financial gain. It's hard not to feel sad for Rodney as his radio show gets cut back and relegated to the 12 to 3 a.m. shift, or when the love of his life reveals on camera that they are really "just friends." There is certainly a price for the life that he's led, but Rodney says he's had a blast along the way. He remains the eternal enthusiastic fan, living the dream that many people secretly desire.
Kathy and I had our own little horror film series in October, courtesy of Netflix DVD rentals. One of the more interesting selections was a 1997 independent film titled Habit. Writer/director Larry Fessenden is Sam, an alcoholic bar owner who has recently lost his father and broken up with his girlfriend. Sam's luck appears to change when he meets a beguiling, mysterious woman named Anna at a Halloween party. The morning after their first date, he strangely awakens in the park with his pants undone and a bloody lip. His infatuation grows, helped by the fact that Anna seems to unexpectedly appear wherever Sam goes. Sex becomes wilder with each encounter, but always culminates with the unnerving practice of Anna biting Sam and drawing blood. When his health begins to deteriorate, Sam starts to suspect Anna might be a vampire, while his friends wonder if he is cracking up.
Habit is pretty classy looking for an independent production. Its subtle special effects convey the ambiguity of the film's premise, while the sharp on-location NYC cinematography provides a suitably dark, gritty atmosphere. The one element that belies Habit's low budget, however, is its stilted acting. Fessenden is decent playing the wasted, junkie-like Sam, but the rest of the cast, including the quietly alluring Anna, is often amateurish at best. Sam's best friend Nick is especially bad, delivering several much too earnest and unwittingly hilarious performances. Despite this rather major flaw, Habit is still an effective psychological horror story that offers a unique spin on the standard vampire tale and chillingly examines the question of reality versus madness.
THE WHO - THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT
Finally! Finally! Finally! Previous home video versions of this landmark music documentary were a mess. Scenes were chopped out of the theatrical print and some of the archival footage actually played at the wrong speed. This DVD restores everything back to its original state. The extras aren't essential, but they are fun: Full live versions of "Baba O'Riley" and "Won't Get Fooled Again" feature multi-angle capability, so the viewer can choose from different camera angles as the songs play. Another function isolates bass player John Entwistle in the mix, which is fairly revelatory. I knew he was quite an astounding bassist, but not this astounding!
THE ROLLING STONES - FOUR FLICKS
I haven't paid much attention to the Rolling Stones in the last 20 years, but I've enjoyed this giant live DVD set from their most recent tour. The four discs present three shows, each performed in a different size venue, arena, stadium and club, along with two documentaries, commentaries and multi-angle functions. I still haven't gotten all the way through everything. Say what you will about their ages and the quality of their recent albums, but the Stones still can put on one hell of a show.
GEORGE HARRISON - THE DARK HORSE YEARS 1976-1992
This DVD was originally issued as an extra bonus included in a boxset of Harrison's albums on the Dark Horse label. Now that it's been issued separately, the disc still feels like exactly what it is: Bonus material. The collection could have been a comprehensive look at Harrison's post-Apple years. Instead, we get a rather brief grab bag of video clips, interviews and live performances. The bulk of the DVD consists of videos for songs from the Dark Horse albums, and while "Crackerbox Palace," "This Song" and "When We Was Fab" feature George's Monty Pythonesque wit, most of the others aren't sterling examples of the artform. Two videos, "Blow Away" and "All Those Years Ago," are even missing. These videos are no great shakes either, but it would have been nice to at least have a complete collection. The highlight of the disc is a four-song glimpse at Harrison's 1992 concerts in Japan. The performances included on the album from this tour sounded somewhat workman-like. The addition of visuals shows George having fun onstage, which enhances the experience considerably. It's a pity that more footage from these shows isn't included. Harrison fans will find enough here to enjoy, but The Dark Horse Years could have offered so much more and is ultimately a missed opportunity.
THE WHO - LIVE IN BOSTON
When bass player John Entwistle passed away on the eve of The Who's 2002 US tour, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey decided to hit the road anyway. Some fans and critics thought it a brave move, others thought it foolhardy. On the basis of this live DVD, the remaining members of The Who have nothing to be ashamed about. The performance here shows a powerful ensemble running through a fine set of hits and other favorites. Daltrey's vocals are often the band's weakest link in concert, but his voice is in good shape on Live in Boston. Townshend seems to be in a slightly pissy mood, apparently bothered by comments from the audience, which elicits a fiery performance out of him. Pino Palladino tackles the nearly impossible task of filling Entwistle's shoes with aplomb, though he's mixed at about half the volume of ol' Thunderfingers. Taking over for Keith Moon is Zak Starkey, the only drummer in the world that comes close to matching the original member's manic energy. Also included on the disc are interviews with Townshend and Daltrey, where they each give differing accounts of how they decided to carry on with the tour. Even with only two original members left, The Who is as contradictory as ever. Perhaps that's what keeps them vital, as they are on Live in Boston.
THE JOB: THE COMPLETE SERIES
I was never a big fan of comedian Denis Leary, so I was surprised at how much I liked his show The Job when it appeared in 2001. Leary plays a New York City detective who lies, cheats and steals, and generally causes grief for himself and everyone around him. The Job pushes the boundaries of both situation comedies and cop shows. Fans of dark comedies such as The Larry Sanders Show and Curb Your Enthusiasm will find plenty to howl at here. The series wasn't all that successful, lasting only a little more than one season. Interestingly, I caught two episodes of Leary's new show titled Rescue Me while I was in the hospital, and it appears that he's transplanted the idea behind The Job into a firehouse setting, garnering great ratings and a second season. He even uses many of the same actors. So if you like Rescue Me, by all means check out The Job on DVD. The set includes promos for the series, including Leary's takeoff on Bob Dylan's classic "Subterranean Homesick Blues" video from 1965, only providing me with another reason to love this show.
TOM DOWD AND THE LANGUAGE OF MUSIC
In the age of muckraking programs such as Behind the Music, it's refreshing to see a documentary that focuses on the sheer joy and excitement behind music making for once. Tom Dowd and the Language of Music is a breezy portrait of a producer and recording engineer who loved his job and received little recognition or financial gain for his groundbreaking efforts. Dowd's career spanned over sixty years and included sessions with Thelonius Monk, Otis Redding, Ray Charles, Cream, Eric Clapton, the Allman Brothers and countless other musicians. The film primarily consists of interviews with Dowd and people that he's worked with over the years, effectively conveying the enthusiasm he had for his job. Other fascinating aspects of Dowd's life are revealed as well, such as the fact that he started as a physics student at Columbia University and was part of a network of scientists that worked on the Manhattan Project in the 1940s. After World War II, Dowd planned on finishing his degree, but discovered that the research he conducted was far more advanced than the classes he had to complete, so he went into recording engineering instead. The DVD includes over an hour of additional interviews and clips. Especially touching is a meeting between Dowd and Ray Charles, filmed shortly before they both passed away. The kind of affection for each other and the music they made resonates throughout Tom Dowd and the Language of Music, making it a joy to watch (and hear!).
MUSIC SCENE: THE BEST OF 1969-1970
Back in the 1960s, decades before the advent of MTV, it was a big deal when your favorite musicians appeared on TV, which is why I devoured Music Scene as a kid. It was a total blast viewing this DVD of highlights from the short-lived variety show from the late 1960s. One side of the disc features four complete shows, while the flipside has over an hour of various musical performances from the series. "Variety" is the operative word here. It's hard to imagine one show presenting such a diverse lineup of talent today: Sly & the Family Stone, Crosby Stills, Nash & Young (performing "Down by the River" from their "upcoming album"??), James Brown, Steve Lawrence, Tom Jones, Bobby Sherman (appearing three times! I'd forgotten about his song "Little Woman" for three decades and would now like to forget it again), Three Dog Night, the Rascals and the Grass Roots, just to name a few. David Steinberg hosts the show, along with members of the comedy troupe The Committee. Unlike much of the music, their comedy skits have not aged well and fall flat today. More amusing is Michael Cole (remember The Mod Squad? I thought he was so cool!) as guest host, inserting the phrase "like, man" into every sentence he utters. Ahh, only in the '60s! So, like, man, check out this Music Scene disc for the totally groovy music clips, at least.
LOS LOBOS - LIVE AT THE FILLMORE
Other than some early MTV exposure and their huge hit cover of "La Bamba," Los Lobos have been slogging away for thirty years without much mainstream recognition. Those familiar with the band know that their live shows are legendary, featuring sets that can include everything from Neil Young's "Like a Hurricane" and the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows," to traditional Spanish and Mexican tunes. It is surprising that it's taken Los Lobos so long to release an official live document. Live at the Fillmore does the job nicely, presenting the group on stage at the venerable San Francisco venue in July 2004. For nearly two hours, Los Lobos survey songs from throughout their lengthy career, with emphasis on group's last two albums, Good Morning Aztlan and The Ride (not having heard these, my unfamiliarity with the songs only added to my viewing and listening pleasure). About all that's missing is a couple of those unique covers, although the CD version includes a moving run-through of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On." How does "The Wolf" survive thirty years on the road? The answer is right here. The DVD shows Los Lobos clearly having a blast playing in front of an enraptured crowd. They simply still love what they do.
THE RIGHT SPECTACLE: THE VERY BEST OF ELVIS COSTELLO
This DVD collects all of Elvis Costello's videos, from the crude, simply-shot clips of "Radio, Radio" and "(I Don't Want to) Go to Chelsea," to the more ambitious concepts of "Veronica" and "This Town." It even includes a discarded alternate version of "The Only Flame in Town," which outstrips the goofy official video that features Daryl Hall. The most startling moment here is the video for "I Wanna Be Loved." Elvis's cover of the Teacher's Edition soul tune is rather unremarkable, but the video itself is eerily fascinating. It shows Elvis sitting in a photo booth singing along with the vocal track (he's not lip-syncing, you can hear him singing), while various people stick their heads in to kiss him on the cheek. According to the optional commentary track (Costello's pithy, but entertaining remarks are available for all the videos on the disc), Elvis breaks down on camera several times, unnerved by the situation due to exhaustion and stress. Besides the commentaries, the DVD extras include over an hour of live television appearances that show Costello and the Attractions in all their raging glory. The Right Spectacle is an absolute must for fans.
BRIAN WILSON PRESENTS SMiLE
The video of Brian Wilson's opus SMiLE may be more impressive than the audio-only version. Why? The sight of Wilson and his ensemble of about 20 musicians recreating its intricate sound live on a Los Angeles soundstage is amazing in itself. The only unsettling aspect of the performance is the slightly glazed smile that Brian wears throughout, almost as if the director ordered him to keep the title of the piece in mind for all his close-ups. I suppose we should be relieved Brian looks happy at all considering what he went through to bring SMiLE back to life. The accompanying documentary, Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of Smile, addresses this troubled history through archival footage and contemporary interviews. Even though it glosses over Brian's drug use and mental illness somewhat (the film says Wilson suffered from "undiagnosed depression," but Brian later says he still hears voices in his head), Beautiful Dreamer is still an interesting and often moving look behind the scenes. It shows how difficult it was for Wilson to resurrect SMiLE. Brian looks terrified in footage of the first rehearsals. He can barely speak to the band members and eventually has to leave the room. (His wife reveals he ended up in the hospital.) Conversely, Wilson seems in full control of the recording sessions as he instructs the musicians over the music's tiniest nuances, and he is excited and in good humor by the time of the London premiere concerts. After the first show, the sense of relief and joy that they pulled it off is palpable. It's wonderful that Brian's lost masterpiece finally has a happy ending that can be enjoyed by all.
RICHARD THOMPSON - LIVE IN PROVIDENCE
There's nothing fancy here. Live in Providence is a straightforward concert video shot during Richard Thompson's 2003 tour behind his Old Kit Bag album. The editing is simple with no flashy video effects to get in the way as Thompson and his three piece band tear into favorites such as "Shoot Out the Lights," "Walking On a Wire" and "Gethsemane." Only avid RT concertgoers will miss some of Richard's humorous onstage patter and witty asides excised from the performance. Extras include a few television and concert clips from the 1980s, plus a two-song teaser from Thompson's 2001 Austin City Limits appearance, which is also available on DVD.
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