Monday, December 11, 2017

Review: The Beatles' Christmas Records Box & the 'Sgt. Pepper's' Picture Disc

In December of 1963, UK kids received their biggest reward for joining the Beatles’ Official Fan Club: a flexi-disc arrived in the post containing messages of good will and “Happy Crimble” from the Fab Four. Each year throughout The Beatles’ brief career, fan-club devotees received such a holiday record from their fave group.

For their first Holiday platter dished out on December 6, 1963, The Beatles grunt “Good King Wenceslas” and whistle “God Save the Queen” as John Lennon gives a neat recap of the first phase of his band’s success and says “gear” more times than a John Lennon impersonator. Paul McCartney begs for a moratorium on the chucking of Jelly Babies, Ringo Starr reprises “Wenceslas” like a lounge lizard, and George Harrison gets silly before all four fabs mangle “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” while plugging another famous schnoz into the lyrics.

In 1964, Beatlemania officially spread from the UK to the rest of the globe, and the boys’ recent discovery of Ms. Mary Jane seems to be the fuel on their Yule-log flame. The banter is a bit more lackadaisical than on their first Holiday Record. Or perhaps they were just exhausted. They do sound as knackered as they looked on the cover of the recently released Beatles For Sale… well, at least until the brief but frenzied piano demolition that ends this year’s message.

The Beatles’ 1965 message gets started with a rowdy knees-up of their latest rowdy number, “Yesterday”, before getting on to their usual heartfelt holiday messages. Taking some time out from recording Rubber Soul, John voices his appreciation for some rather original gifts he received from fans, then sings silly songs in an…ummm, I don’t know? Scottish accent? Next up is a reference to a George Harrison B-side that wouldn’t be released for another three years, a quick Four Tops parody, and a deranged version of “Auld Lang Sine” sung with Dylan-esque gravitas. Finally they all get sucked down some sort of reverb-laden vortex, no doubt gearing up for a New Year of acid experimentation and being bigger than that guy allegedly born on December 25th.

Not their most well-remembered holiday carol, “Everywhere It’s Christmas” (sung like the Upperclass Twit of the Year) begins the record shipped to fan club members in December, 1966. What follows is a far more elaborate production than those featured on previous holiday records, with the boys enacting a surreal holiday story complete with weird chorales and George’s memorable portrayal of Podgy the Bear.
 1967 saw release of the most famous Beatles’ fan club record thanks to the inclusion of their first and only full-band holiday song: “Christmastime (Is Here Again)”,  a number as tunefully frothy as their recent number one hit, “Hello, Goodbye”. Inter-cut within the song are snippets from a broadcast on Radio LSD, which features that beloved World War II chestnut “Plenty of Jam Jars” by The Ravelers.

To commemorate 1968, Paul McCartney does a “Blackbird”-reminiscent improv, John name-drops his new paramour amidst his usual verbal gobbledygook, Ringo goes insane, and a very stoned-sounding George pals around with Tiny Tim, who lays down a characteristically shrill version of “Nowhere Man” on his uke! All of this is glued together with some avant garde tape-tomfoolery straight out of “Revolution 9”. Freaky.

Sure, The Beatles couldn’t stand each other by 1969, but that neither stopped them from tossing together another holiday record or kept Yoko Ono—who sloshes through the snow with her new hubby and sings like a Disney thrush—from getting in on the fun. A bit of “The End” played beneath this recording gives a good idea of where The Beatles’ heads were in late ’69. Ringo plugs his burgeoning acting career, perhaps because he knows he’ll soon be without a job. However, a little X-Mas ditty by Paul provides an unexpectedly sweet holiday treat.

While original individual copies of these rare discs fetch as much as $600 today, a new box containing the entire set of these rather bizarre and often hilarious discs is now available for a fraction of that cost, and instead of crackly, wafer-thin flexi discs, they are on proper and rather heavy vinyl in a multitude of festive colors courtesy of Universal Music. There is quite a bit of sound variation due to the different sources from which the messages were pulled. According to the notes, some of the discs were sourced from the flexi-discs, and I'd wager that these include 1963, 1966, and 1969. While the crackling is shockingly mild on the 1963 record, the others sound considerably rougher. 1965 sounds like it was pulled from a cassette. The others sound much cleaner, which means that the most significant piece of music in the set, “Christmastime (Is Here Again)”, sounds nice. However, there are some distortions that likely result from the lo-fi way the original recordings were made, and be sure to take note that the 1964 record revolves at 45 RPMs rather than 33 1/3 or risk hearing the Fabs either sound like some sort of Satanic Santa.

The package is suitably lush. Each record comes in a shrink-wrapped picture sleeve with the original artwork (which because increasingly psychedelic as the sixties progress). The lot of them is encased in a gift box that’s only missing the paper and bow. There’s also a slim but nice booklet with a short introductory essay by Kevin Howlett, repros of each fan club newsletter shipped with each disc from 1963 through 1967, additional photos, and a note about the creation of each record. Gear!

As a nifty stocking stuffing bonus, UMe is also issuing Giles Martin’s recent 50th Anniversary stereo remix of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as a picture disc depicting the original cover on Side A and the custom Sgt. Pepper’s bass drum head on Side B. Picture discs have a reputation for crackly, dull sound, and while this pressing surely isn’t as crisp and vibrant as the CDs in the box set released last spring, and the bass is still overbearing, it still delivers generally good sound.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Review: 'Bang! The Bert Burns Story: Official Soundtrack'

Producer/composer Bert Bern’s role in the Rock & Roll conversation tends to be limited to discussions of Van Morrison and Neil Diamond’s early career, but there’s a lot more to his legacy than “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Cherry, Cherry”. Berns wrote or co-wrote such timeless tunes as Solomon Burke’s “Cry to Me” and “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love”, Them’s “Here Comes the Night”, Freddie Scott’s “Am I Grooving You”, and Erma Franklin/ Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart”. He also produced such major records as The Jarmels’ “A Little Bit of Soap”, The Isley Brothers’ The Exciters’ “Tell Him”, “Twist and Shout”, The Strangeloves’ “I Want Candy”, and The McCoy’s “Hang on Sloopy”. That there is one impressive track record, my friends.

A new documentary called Bang! The Bert Burns Story apparently sets the record straight by telling Burns’s story, while its soundtrack is a stunning sustained blast of why that story is worth telling. There is not one bum track on this 20-track double LP. There isn’t even one track that deserves anything less than a sincere “Wow!” Relative obscurities such as two tracks by The Pussycats (making their long-playing debut), Morrison’s funky “Chick-A-Boom”, Lorraine Ellison’s gospel-like “Heart Be Still”, Bobby Harris’s “Mr. Success”, and Kenny Hamber’s “Show Me Your Monkey” join most of the classics mentioned above. The absence of any of Diamond’s early sides for Berns’s Bang Records seems a somewhat glaring oversight, but that does nothing to change the fact that Bang! The Bert Burns Story: Official Soundtrack is a knock out pop and soul compilation.

Review: 'Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series' DVD

Twin Peaks is my favorite piece of pop culture, so I anticipated its return as a “Limited Event Series” on Showtime fervently. At the same time I was surprised that an artist of David Lynch’s caliber wanted to get in on a sequel-series trend that included the likes of Fuller House. While Lynch obsessively revisits motifs and even structures of his previous works, this would be the first time he’d revisit a specific work. Of course, if he was to revisit a work, Twin Peaks would be the one to revisit both because of a painful cliffhanger that even the feature film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me refused to resolve and because Twin Peaks is Lynch’s most popular production. I’d wager that part of the reason it is so popular is that Lynch’s experimentalism was watered down by Network desires and the fact that he shared duties with a slew of less experimental writers and directors. Had he made, say, Eraserhead: The Series!, it probably would not have endured as the Twin Peaks we knew and loved has.

The amazing thing about the Showtime revival is that Lynch has, in a sense, made Eraserhead: The Series! In other words, instead of servicing our collective nostalgia and desires to spend more time munching on cherry pie and guzzling coffee, Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost took the raw materials of Twin Peaks and took it to places that even the highly abstract Fire Walk with Me did not walk. This certainly was not the Twin Peaks that fans expected, but it truly justified both Lynch’s return to Twin Peaks and his return to filmmaking after a decade-plus absence. While I’m sure I would have enjoyed a nostalgic return to the feel of the original series, I probably would not have spent much time thinking about it. And thinking is something that the third season of Twin Peaks has provoked in me like no other series in our current Golden Age of Television. As brilliant as series such as Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Americans are, none hijacked my thoughts like the third season of Twin Peaks, none provoked so much deep discussion, frustration, obsession, and wonder. It’s been said before by others who have valiantly but futilely attempted to pick through the layers of the Limited Event Series, but it bears repeating—Lynch and Frost may not have given us the Twin Peaks we wanted, but they surely gave us the one we needed and deserved as intelligent people. 

Revisiting this revisitation on Showtime Entertainment/CBS’s new DVD set, Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series retains all of its power to mystify and intrigue. One major positive of knowing what’s coming next is that scenes that felt endless upon first viewing now don’t seem so maddening since I’m no longer dying to find out what happens next. So, for example, I can just relax and groove to “Green Onions” as some random guy sweeps the floor of the Road House without finding it indulgent or unnecessary. It provides a moment (or several moments) to reflect on what has happened and what will happen next. Also, now that we know the cruel fates of certain characters, we can better enjoy those who have satisfying conclusions, and those satisfying conclusions should help dispel feelings that Lynch and Frost had some sort of axe to grind against their audience.

Yet, they creators do everything in their power to level the original series that we know and love, so the Limited Event Series may be best viewed as a self-contained work rather than a proper continuation of something we don’t really want to see leveled. And perhaps it is another nice thing about the recent series that it can be viewed in so many different ways, interpreted in so many different ways. The fact that it allows for such options are part of what makes Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series such a thoroughly intellectually stimulating work of art. I can’t wait to find out how it influences future television series now that it has blown the medium wide open… assuming anyone dares to follow in its footsteps.

For those who are drooling for more time with the Peaks crowd, this new DVD set comes with almost five hours of supplemental material. Much like the series itself, the lengthy “Impressions: A Journey Behind the Scenes of Twin Peaks” is open to interpretation. For David Lynch—a guy who notoriously refuses to discuss the meaning of his work, illuminate his process with DVD commentary tracks, or explain how he made that bizarre Eraserhead baby—this is an unprecedented look at the way he makes movies. For some viewers, this will be endlessly fascinating stuff. For others, it will be a bit too illuminating and could break the spell of a peerlessly spellbinding piece of television. Enter at your own risk.

Less risky is a fun Twin Peaks panel at this year’s comic con hosted by Damon Lindelof (Lost; The Leftovers) and featuring Peaks stars Kyle MacLachlan, Naomi Watts, Dana Ashbrook, Everett McGill, Kimmy Robertson, James Marshall, Don Murray, Matthew Lillard, and Tim Roth in top spirits. There are also minor features such as a 14-minute mini-documentary called “Phenomenon” that previously aired on Showtime in three parts, a series of seven short promos, and a photo gallery.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Review: 'The Complete Monterey Pop Festival' Blu-ray

Capturing Rock & Roll at a more experimental phase than The T.A.M.I. Show did, but not as self-indulgent and drab as Woodstock, or as depressing as Gimme Shelter, D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop is the greatest multi-artist concert film. With a wide selection of some of the era’s most thrilling artists to include in his feature, Pennebaker created a nice sampler of all that made 1967 Rock’s most dazzling year. There’s a whole lot of soul (Otis), raga (17 minutes of Ravi Shankar flooring the crowd), jazz (Hugh Masekela), blues (Janis, Canned Heat), pacific pop (Simon & Garfunkel, The Mamas & The Papas) proto-punk (The Who), and of course, psychedelic Rock (The Animals, Country Joe, the Airplane, Hendrix and his Experience). The performances are as electric as they are eclectic, and Pennbaker’s shadowy cinematography creates nearly as much mood as the vibrant music.
In 2002, The Criterion Collection put together a triple-disc package called The Complete Monterey Pop Festival that built an already monumental film to skyscraper proportions. The set included the original film, as well as complete performances from Otis Redding and The Jimi Hendrix Experience and the feature-length Outtakes Performances. This is just as essential as Pennebaker’s 1968 film, recovering additional performances from The Who, Simon & Garfunkel, Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother & The Holding Company, The Mamas & The Papas, and Country Joe & The Fish, as well as footage of some major artists who didn’t make the cut of the original picture, such as The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Laura Nyro (whose spellbinding rendition of “Poverty Train” dispels rumors that she fumbled the gig), The Association (who provide a charmingly mainstream moment amidst all the heavy underground activity), and others. In addition to the three major supplements were a plethora of commentaries, interviews, trailers, and booklet essays.
In 2009, Criterion upgraded the 2002 DVD for Blu-ray without offering anything beyond the 2002 supplements. For the festival’s 50th Anniversary, Criterion has given the video a 4K buffing and added several extra features, such as new onscreen interviews with Pennebaker (who discusses the filming and the acts) and festival producer Lou Adler (who discusses a 50th Anniversary festival staged on the site of the 1967 one, the original film’s lack of explicit politics, and other matters) and a general new essay about the film by Michael Chaiken (however, text by Pennebaker and Jann Wenner from the 2002 edition have been lost in translation). Much more historically significant are some extra outtake performances from The Steve Miller Band, Moby Grape, and The Grateful Dead. 

Criterion’s new 4K restoration of Monterey Pop delivers splendid colors and appropriately crunchy grain. Some shots are a bit soft, but that is likely a consequence of the lo-fi conditions under which Pennebaker and his crew made the movie (we often see them working the focus in the middle of a shot). Jimi Plays Monterey, Shake! Otis at Monterey, and The Outtakes Performances are presented in the same 1080p transfers used for the 2009 Blu-ray release, but the Hendrix and Otis mini-movies have been newly restored according to the back-cover copy

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Review: 'Hendrix: The Illustrated Story'

Jimi Hendrix is the nearly unanimously acknowledged master of the electric guitar and one of the key Rock & Roll artists in general, so volumes have naturally been written on his life, work, and artistry. For casual fans who don’t have to patience to sift through all that stuff and want to get an eye-load of the man in all his wizard finery, a book such as Gillian G. Gaar’s Hendrix: The Illustrated Story gets the job done.

There’s not much depth to plumb in 200 pages, and the reliance on previously published sources means that new revelations are absent, but that’s not really the point of a book like this. Gaar delivers the essentials of Hendrix’s story, gratefully not pretending that the hideous moments in it didn’t exist (his relationship with an underage prostitute; his battery of a woman in his entourage; etc.), and buffers the text with lots of fabulous photos. Yet for such a short biography, there’s too much day-to-day data about the places he toured and the TV shows on which he appeared. Also, the writing lacks pizzazz considering her flamboyant subject matter. Gaar is at her liveliest when discussing Hendrix’s music in a supplemental essay on Are You Experienced?, but she leaves additional LP surveys to guest writers. In her discussion of Electric Ladyland, Jaan Uhelszki does a much flashier job of reflecting Hendrix’s vividness and made me wish that the rest of the book were as punchy. Gaars narrative is most compulsively readable when events are dramatic enough to carry the story, as it is when she discusses Hendrix’s tumultuous final days.

Of course, a lot of readers will check out Hendrix: The Illustrated Story less for the story and more for the illustrations, and groovy shots of Hendrix getting his hair done while perusing MAD or dolled up as a psychedelic Santa are major selling points. The faux velvet black light poster-style cover is a gas too.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Review: Rush's 'A Farewell to Kings' Deluxe Edition

After three spotty albums that found them fumbling between beery hard rockers to intellectual prog noodlings, Rush cracked the nut on 2112. The band’s resident thinker Neil Peart settled in as chief lyricist, the whole band started writing music worthy of their epic concepts, and their shorter songs tightened up too (even if none of them reached the heights of “Fly by Night”). Now that they had their act down, Rush could start perfecting the new format. With A Farewell to Kings, they came pretty close to doing that. The exciting title track, the looming “Cinderella Man”, and “Closer to the Heart”, the power ballad that launched a zillion Zippos, were miles beyond any of the short numbers on Side B of 2112. “Xanadu” was not as ambitious as the “2112” suite, but it was more melodic and stands as one of Rush’s very best long songs. “Madrigal” is winsome, but the corny lyrics suggest that love songs don’t fit comfortably into Rush’s sci-fi and sorcery universe (no biggy), and “Cygnus X-1” is a bit of a return to the muddled narratives of Caress of Steel, though it’s better than its mixed reputation suggests and the middle section (“I set a course just east of Lyra…”) rocks with that old Labatt’s-brewed fury. More importantly, it is the necessary first act of the even less penetrable yet stunningly beautiful “Cygnus X-1: Book Two” that would be the focal point of Rush’s next album.

On its fortieth anniversary, A Farewell to Kings is getting deluxe treatment via Universal Music. The core album is the same remaster released on vinyl in 2015, and the most startling thing about this remaster on CD is that it is significantly quieter than the album’s first CD incarnation released in the eighties. So the big boon of the triple-disc edition is that it includes a complete concert recorded at the Hammersmith Odeon in London in February 1978. The quality of the recording is much higher than any of the live material on UMe’s deluxe 2112 set, and the choice of songs is excellent with every Farewell track but “Madrigal” represented. There’s the occasional glitch, like a buzzing mic at the beginning of “A Farewell to Kings” and Geddy Lee sometimes has a bit of a frog in his throat in addition to the usual leprechaun, but this is a very release-worthy concert recording.

Finishing off the deluxe edition are four minutes of the weird noises that begin “Cygnus X-1” and pointlessly faithful cover versions of four of the album’s six tracks. As I wrote in my review of Universal’s deluxe edition of 2112, I’m not sure if fans are really going to want material from other artists on a Rush album, but at least these covers are more like bonus tracks tacked at the end of the concert than the centerpiece of a disc as they were on the 2112 set. I’m also not sure how fans will feel about the fact that the album’s original cover has been replaced with new digitally rendered artwork that makes A Farewell to Kings look like a Dream Theater album. Considering that Dream Theater is one of the contributors to this Rush album, that might be intentional.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Review: 'The Best of Muddy Waters' Vinyl Reissue

The term Rock & Roll wasn’t on anyone’s lips in 1948 when Muddy Waters released the malicious “I Can’t Be Satisfied”. With its pulsing rhythm and a title that The Rolling Stones would alter to create a genre-defining disc seven years later, it’s hard not to view “I Can’t Be Satisfied” as the birth of something. The connection between Muddy’s blues and the rockers who worshiped him would get even sharper when he plugged in with records such as “Rollin’ Stone” and “Honey Bee”. Keith stole his sting. Mick stole his yowl. But unlike so many artists who ceded the things they originated to those who took them and cashed in, Muddy always remained Muddy: an originator, a legend, and a true Rock & Roller.

One thing that wasn’t too Rock & Roll about Muddy Waters’s earliest records was the format. While the 45 would be the Rock & Roll format, Waters’s discs rotated at 78 rpms. In 1958, Chess Records glued together twelve of those key cuts and spewed them back out on LP for the first time.

The Best of Muddy Waters remains a bracing listen both for the power of the man’s voice and guitar and for the eerie atmosphere that transcends the usual notions of 1950s Rock & Roll. Most potent of all is an explicit sexiness that burns hotter than perhaps anything any other artist produced in Rock or the blues. Muddy Waters expresses the shit that Jagger and Robert Plant can only pretend to feel.

Universal Music has just reissued The Best of Muddy Waters on heavy, super quiet vinyl that makes the music sound like it was cut yesterday and may make you itch to hear some of those old pops and crackles… but I’m sure you’ll have no trouble making some of your own.
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