Archive for the ‘dvd’ Category

Blu-ray Review: Elliott Smith — Heaven Adores You

Monday, July 20th, 2015

The life and music of Elliott Smith bears some superficial similarities to Nick Drake: a quiet, introspective songwriter who never quite seemed at ease, and whose life ended tragically maybe or maybe not by his own hand – at a far too young age. But while Drake didn’t achieve anything approaching stardom during his lifetime, Smith was catapulted int othe spotlight.

A new film, Heaven Adores You, explores Smith’s life and music. Over the course of an hour and forty minutes, the film charts his life and career. Remarkably little footage of Smith talking or being interviewed surfaces in the film; whether that was an aesthetic choice or due to such material simply not existing, the effect is to render Smith as a ghostly, enigmatic figure who’s sort of half present, half not.

And that ambience seems to suit the subject very well. As some of those relatively rare audio interviews show, Elliott Smith didn’t want to (or perhaps could not) reveal much of himself in conversation. During an interview for KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic, Smith is asked why he had relocated – years earlier – from Dallas, Texas to Portland, Orgeon. He begins to answer, and then thinks the better of it. The tension hangs in the air until the subject changes back to music.

Heaven Adores You draws upon interviews with friends, family and musical associates. Many of them remain visibly moved by the thought of Smith, and there’s a fair amount of holding-back-tears onscreen. This is one of those stories where most viewers know how it ends before they see it, and director Nickolas Rossi wisely starts the narrative at the end. Only once that part of the story is covered does he wind back to the beginning.

The film has a distinctive visual style. High resolution, shallow depth-of-field camera work is used, and the camera lens lingers on its subjects – trains in yards and at crossings; traffic at night; buildings – for unusually long periods. The subjects (or elements within the frame) move, sometimes via time-lapse techniques, but there’s a quiet, forlorn and meditative feel to the visuals. That feel – heightened by the directorial choice to eliminate the audio tracks from those scenes – provides a pleasing backdrop for the musical and narrative audio that moves the story forward. Heaven Adores You isn’t exactly an “arty” film, but it’s an artful one, a film in which the visual approach fits the story like a glove.

Viewers familiar with Smith’s work will find many gems; the soundtrack is packed with music form all phases of his career, including some unreleased material. Those who know Elliott Smith only from his work on the Good Will Hunting soundtrack are in for a treat. And those who know only his acoustic side may be intrigued to discover his much more rocking side, most notably with the band Heatmiser.

But it’s not necessary to know anything at all about the singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist (he was a fine and expressive pianist, by the way) to enjoy Heaven Adores You.

Video Review: Genesis — Sum of the Parts

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2015

One could say that The Beatles did it first, and thus set the tone and standard for future official biographies. Their Anthology documentary series afforded them the opportunity to tell their story the way they wanted: they could put in what they wanted in, and leave out what they didn’t care to discuss. Creative control coupled with hey-we-were-there access to archival material made for a very satisfying and comprehensive historical document.

It’s fitting that Genesis would get around to mounting a similar project of their own. Though the band splintered several times – they went so far to as call attention to it by titling one of their albums And Then There Were Three… – they seem to have remained on relatively cordial terms with one another.

And so it is that Tony Banks (keyboards), Phil Collins (drums), Peter Gabriel (flute, vocals), Steve Hackett (guitar), and Mike Rutherford (bass, and later, guitar) came together to star in, and oversee, Sum of the Parts. Released theatrically and then on DVD and Blu-Ray, this documentary covers the band’s history, its fractiousness, and its popularity. As Tony Banks is quoted in the accompanying liner notes booklet, “Let’s just put it all out there and people can make up their own minds.”

The film provides plenty of content to allow viewers to do just that. Speeding through the group’s formation and early days, the film chronicles – in chronological order – the band’s history. The footage of the Gabriel-era band is fascinating; truly odd stuff that – whether one likes the music or not (and I very much do) – must be recognized for its adventurous, often groundbreaking nature.

For the most part, Sum of the Parts is a rather candid look at the stress points within the band, issues that would hasten the departures of (most notably) Gabriel and Hackett. When current-day footage of the reunited group (reunited for the film, not to make music) is shown, there’s a pretty clear remaining undercurrent of tension between Banks and…well, the rest of the band. It’s handled with a typical English understatement and reserve, but it remains palpable.

Since their 1974 double LP The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway looms so large in the band’s legend, it makes sense that so much time is spent in the film discussing the album, its development, its tour, and its eventual fallout. The band’s earlier and later material all gets comparatively less screen time. The solo career of Peter Gabriel (who these days looks to all the world like Burl Ives‘ snowman in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer) gets some discussion, but Collins’ solo work is covered in greater depth. That, too, makes perfect sense, since Collins released his solo albums while remaining in Genesis. (Prog jazz fans: if you’re wondering, Sum of the Parts makes no mention of Brand X.)

A few characters outside the band do weigh in with their onscreen contributions. None is so out of place, however, as Jonathan King. Though the impresario was an important part of the band’s early days, his reputation is so tarnished (Google him if you must) that his appearance onscreen competes with making that “I Can’t Dance” video for MTV as the worst idea the group has ever had.

Lots of live footage and archival photographs help tell the story. Even for those with only a passing interest in the band, Sum of the Parts never drags. The latter-day lineup (specifically Collins, Rutherford and Banks) get just a tad defensive on the subject of having largely ditched their progressive musical approach in favor of a (some would say cynically) radio-ready sound and image (complete with those dreadful MTV-era videos), but it’s hard to see what other approach they could have taken in the film. They couldn’t very well ignore the subject, could they now?

Good question. A wag might suggest that this video would be more accurately titled SOME of the Parts: no mention at all is made – not even in passing – of the group’s 1997 album Calling All Stations. Ray Wilson had taken Collins’ place as vocalist, and guest drummers (including Nick D’Virgilio of Spock’s Beard) took Collins’ place on the throne. But despite the fact that Genesis mounted a 47-date European tour in the first half of 1998, the entire era – and most notably, Wilson’s name – seems to have been purged from the group’s collective memory bank.

Instead, Sum of the Parts blithely skips over the period between 1992 and 2007 (as if to say, “and then – suddenly! – fifteen years passed”) and lands on the group’s semi-reunion tour and live album featuring the Banks-Rutherford-Collins trio plus longtime Genesis drummer Chester Thompson and guitarist Daryl Steurmer. To the band’s credit, both get some additional screen time.

That mild criticism notwithstanding, for fans of the band – or, really, anyone with an interest rock music’s arc of history in the 1970s and beyond – Sum of the Parts is a satisfying, engaging and entertaining video.

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DVD Review: Freak Jazz, Movie Madness and Another Mothers

Thursday, April 9th, 2015

The back catalog of Frank Zappa is massive, and massively intimating. Never the most commercially-minded of artists, the virtuoso Zappa recorded and released more than fifty albums during his lifetime. (His estate has more than doubled his catalog, with all manner of posthumous releases; his so-called “100th album” is due out soon.) With albums that explored everything from doo-wop to fusion, from big band jazz to musique concrète – not to mention a lot of scatological lyrical content – Zappa’s oeurve could easily scare off (or even repel) the casual listener.

None of which seemed to bother him in the least. Zappa was a restless innovator, and what that often meant in practical terms is that he’d make what could seem (especially at the time) as one musical left-turn after another. Just when you’ve gotten used to the early Mothers records, exemplified by We’re Only in it For the Money, Zappa fires the entire band and makes a weird orchestral album (Lumpy Gravy) and then a blues/jazz LP (Hot Rats).

To make dealing with his vast catalog a bit easier, fans, critics and the like have attempted to divide Zappa’s work – his so-called “project/object” – into eras. There’s certainly overlap between some of those era – his work doesn’t lend itself to neat classification – but it’s a worthy endeavor to break Zappa’s music into more easily-digestible pieces.

And the piece that remains most controversial among his fans is what one might call the Flo and Eddie years. From around 1970 until 1971, Zappa’s band was fronted by a pair of vocalists who – for contractual reasons – called themselves The Phlorescent Leech and Eddie. Better known as Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, the duo had come to fame as the front men of The Turtles. The Turtles were always known for their sense of humor and lively stage personae, so on some level, they were a good fit for Zappa. Enlisting top-notch musicians who were able to play the increasingly complicated music that he was composing, Zappa brought Flo and Eddie on board to handle vocals, a task that was not among the strongest qualities of the original Mothers.

Taking a detailed and incisive look at this period requires backing up a bit to provide proper context. And that is why the new documentary Freak Jazz, Movie Madness and Another Mothers covers the period 1969-1973. Beginning with a quick history of the Mothers up to the start of that era, the lengthy (more than two hours) documentary seeks to put the work of the Flo and Eddie period into its proper historical perspective.

Another in the long series of music documentary DVDs from the Sexy Intellectual team, Freak Jazz relies on true experts to weave its narrative. Some of these are faces familiar to those who’ve screened other documentaries from the team: Zappa biographer Billy James and Mojo Magazine‘s Mark Paytress weigh in with their own informed perspectives. And a number of players and Zappa associates from that era provide their own accounts: Ian Underwood, Jeff Simmons, Aynsley Dunbar, and (most notably) the late George Duke all get a good amount of screen time to tell their stories.

Two hours and forty minutes might seem like a long time, but it breezes by when watching Freak Jazz. The knotty twists and turns that Zappa’s music, band and personal life took during this period require a good bit of explaining, and this DVD does just that in an exceedingly expert fashion. The filmmakers rightly hold Zappa’s work to a high standard, and the onscreen commenters are unafraid to criticize what they see as ill-advised (say, “Billy the Mountain”) or just plain lousy musical output.

A good amount of time is spent discussing the film 200 Motels, and while there are very few clips from the actual movie (likely due to licensing issues), some behind-the-scenes footage helps tell the story. And while Howard Kaylan isn’t involved in the documentary, Mark Volman provides the Flo and Eddie perspective. Rarely-seen photos and onstage footage make Freak Jazz essential for the hardcore Zappaphile, but the conversational tone of the DVD makes it recommended viewing for even the most casual Zappa fan.

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Blu-ray Review: Syncopation

Monday, March 23rd, 2015

Spend any time reading online forums discussing what currently-unavailable motion pictures deserve a proper reissue/restoration, and you’ll likely come across the title Syncopation. This 1942 black-and-white film is at its heart a conventional love story – in fact one with little conflict – but it has gone down in history as a legendary title thanks to the setting of that story, and to some noteworthy guest stars.

By then a young adult, former child actor Jackie Cooper is the leading man in this tale of a young woman (to be played as an adult by Bonita Granville) named Kit, born and raised in dawn-of-the-20th-century New Orleans. To the (mild) consternation of her (presumably widowed) father (played by Adolphe Menjou), piano-playing Kit has developed a deep love for jazz. The son of Kit’s nursemaid/nanny is a young African American boy of her age (played as an adult by Todd Duncan), who discovers that though his “unschooled” musical approach won’t get him anywhere in formal musical studies, it gets him a good jazz gig.

After father, daughter and nanny relocate to Chicago (and the calendar flips over a decade or so), Kit wanders out one night, meeting a young man (Cooper) on the sidewalk. The two wander into a rent party, where Kit hears another kind of music that stirs her soul. It’s not quite like New Orleans jazz, but it’s jazz all the same. Mild hilarity ensues when Kit takes over on piano, causing a riot that eventually lands her in juvenile court. (She gets off scot-free after an impromptu performance that sets the jury’s feet a-tapping.)

The breezy, lighthearted story takes a few additional twists and turns, and ends on a predictably happy, hopeful note (this was ’42, after all). But the setting for the decidedly lightweight (if well-acted) story is what makes Syncopation noteworthy. Starting with a wordless montage of scenes that show African villagers being sold by their leader into slavery, Syncopation sets out with no less a lofty goal than to chart the development of the American musical form of jazz. That it manages to do so within the context of a pop culture romance film is nothing short of extraordinary. And – as modern-day audiences will surely take note – the film treats African Americans in a manner not often seen onscreen in that era, especially in a film populated by plenty of white actors.

No, lifelong friends Kit Latimer and Rex Tearbone never embrace upon meeting, but their arms’-length friendship is nonetheless palpable, without even a whiff of white-over-black superiority. Even Rex’s mother’s character (the nanny) is portrayed in what by 1940s standards must have been a very dignified manner. Black and white characters almost (but don’t quite) mix onscreen, yet there’s a sensibility throughout Syncopation that seeks to depict African Americans as different but not in any way inferior to their white counterparts. And the film all but insists that the music favored by the black musicians (and, to his credit, Cooper’s Johnny Schumacher) is better than the stiff white pop music.

One of the film’s most effective moments is the scene in which Johnny finds himself frustrated playing regimented, dull classical music as part of a large ensemble. He stares at the sheet music in front of him, and (in a sort of dream sequence), the staves and notes become three-dimensional, with Johnny helplessly entwined inside them, like an animal gored on a barbed-wire fence.

Syncopation was (and is) billed for a lineup of “stars” that is billed collectively as the poll-winning All-American Dance Band. Their all-music, no dialogue, no-acting sequence is tacked onto the film’s end, and has little if anything to do with what has come before. And though it’s quite brief, it remains worthwhile. The band includes manic, show-stealing drummer Gene Krupa, clarinetist Benny Goodman, trumpeter Harry James, saxophonist Charles Barnet, and even steel guitarist Alvino Rey.

The restored film print for the 2015 Blu-ray reissue of Syncopation is stunning in its clarity; the visual detail is staggering. A very few scenes (totaling well under a minute) seem to be sourced from a lower-quality dub, but most viewers won’t notice, instead focusing on the rich visual detail and the superb sound. The latter is equally important, because while Syncopation isn’t really a musical (although Connee Boswell does burst into song near the film’s close), it’s chock full of music.

A long list of bonus features deserves mention, too. Ten Columbia “soundies,” each starring a giant of jazz (a young Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, etc.) aren’t directly related to the RKO Syncopation, but by subject matter alone they’re wholly relevant.

Director William Dieterle‘s Syncopation sets a high standard for the care in which older films should be brought to modern-day audiences. A delightful little film that has more on its mind that the main plot would suggest, Syncopation is recommended viewing for anyone with at least a passing interest in jazz.

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Album Review: Todd Rundgren — At the BBC 1972-1982

Friday, March 20th, 2015

Several years back, Todd Rundgren took a proactive approach to the myriad live recordings that exist documenting his long and varied career. A true renaissance man who engenders fierce loyalty in his fan base, Rundgren may still be a “cult artist,” but he’s one of the most well-documented ones. For many years (during the tape- and CD-trading era) a surprisingly large network of Rundgren fans recorded, collected, cleaned-up and traded recordings of nearly every show the man ever did. So there’s a massive list of live shows dating back to the very early 1970s, and including Rundgren’s various guises: solo artist, member of the early progressive-phase Utopia, member of the more pop-leaning Utopia lineup, collaborator with Bourgeois Tagg, Hello People, Ian Hunter, Joe Jackson and many others…on and on.

But there aren’t just audience bootlegs out there. From his earliest post-Nazz days, Rundgren has appreciated and embraced television and radio performances as a means for reaching potential fans. As such, there are “board tapes” and/or professionally recorded documents of pretty much every tour he’s ever done. And as he sought to have the best among these released officially, the trading market has somewhat died down (by and large, Rundgren’s fans are an ethical lot; they want him to profit from his work).

The latest entry in the “Todd Rundgren Archive Series” is a near-comprehensive collection of his work for the British Broadcasting Corporation. At the BBC 1972-1982 is a 3CD + 1 DVD set documenting four concerts (three in audio, one audiovisually) and various other related bits and bobs.

The first disc showcases an early solo gig Rundgren did for BBC’s Radio One. An excellent quality mono recording from 1972 finds Rundgren at the piano, using backing tapes to accompany himself. An experienced studio rat even then, he created “karaoke” versions of his hits, allowing him to present them in a live onstage manner that combined the precision and arrangement of a recording with the spontaneity of a live show. Of course such an approach is old-hat now, and has been since the dawn of MIDI (musical instrument digital interface), a digital means of syncing multiple sounds sequences. But in 1972 it was innovative stuff.

Even with the confining nature of the backing tapes, Rundgren delivers an off-the-cuff, intimate performance, most notably on the Something/Anything? tune “Piss Aaron.” Few would count the tune among Rundgren’s best, but his onstage delivery of it is undeniably entertaining. And the inclusion of “Be Nice to Me” from his early album The Ballad of Todd Rundgren is a rare and welcome delight. Rundgren even rocks out at the end, turning in a performance of “Black Maria.”

The first disc also includes two songs from the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test television program(me). These feature the seven-piece Utopia in 1975, performing “Real Man” from his solo album Initiation) and “The Seven Rays,” a highlight of the Utopia Another Live LP (The package’s DVD also features a/v versions of these same two performances).

Speaking of Another Live, the second disc of At the BBC 1972-1982 is similar but expands upon the content of that set. Utopia’s set of the time (1975) included material from Rundgren’s solo albums in addition to their own songs. The BBC disc features a full concert (or at least something approaching one) in excellent stereo, and as such includes songs that weren’t on the single LP Another Live set (recorded elsewhere). Rundgren introduces “Freedom Fighters” as “the first Utopia single” that was never released. The studio version of the tune was on the group’s debut LP; at nearly six minutes, the live reading here is nearly half again as long as its studio version. Live versions of “The Last Ride” and “Sons of 1984” showed up on other Rundgren albums (Back to the Bars and Todd, respectively), but here they’re presented in the context of a full Utopia concert. And “Sunset Boulevard / Le Feel Internacionale” from A Wizard / A True Star hasn’t been released in a live version before (possibly excepting other archival releases), and it’s a highlight of this set.

By 1977 and time of the Utopia Radio One “In Concert” set documented on disc three, Utopia had pared down to a foursome: Rundgren on guitar, Roger Powell on synthesizer, John “Willie” Wilcox on drums, and Kasim Sulton replacing John Siegler on bass (“all four boys sing,” as they say). Touring to promote both the transitional album Ra and the more mainstream-rock oriented Oops! Wrong Planet, the group performed newer material from those albums, with a quick dip into Rundgren’s solo catalog (“Love of the Common Man” from Faithful) and the set closer “Utopia Theme.” The tighter, compact lineup meant an emphasis upon shorter, more concise songs, but the band still stretches out instrumentally on some longer pieces.

As previously mentioned, the fourth disc in the At the BBC 1972-1982 box set is a DVD. All three sets included are sourced from the TV show The Old Grey Whistle Test. The first (mentioned above) features two songs from a 1975 broadcast. The second (from May 1978” documents “The Bearsville Picnic” (the Albert Grossman-headed Bearsville Records was Todd’s and Utopia’s label at the time) and features the extended “Singring and the Glass Guitar (An Electrified Fairy Tale)” from the proggy Ra album.

And the final set of performances on this set brings things full circle in a way, featuring Todd solo in 1982, this time without the gimmicky backing as he winds his way through a solo material set. The performance – featuring Todd variously on acoustic piano and 12-strong acoustic guitar, and even electric “Fool” Gibson SG on “Tiny Demons” – highlights songs from his Hermit of Mink Hollow LP, and includes the innovative “Time Heals” promo video, one of the earliest clips ever broadcast on MTV (the cable channel had premiered the previous fall). Two songs are included that were recorded but cut from the original broadcast: “The Song of the Viking” (originally on Something/Anything?) and “Lysistrata” (a full group performance of which could be found on Utopia’s Swing to the Right album). His reading of “Compassion” (one of his best but least-known songs) is a highlight. Because of the vintage of the video material, it is presented in old format (4:3 ratio) as it was originally broadcast.

Each of the four discs is encased in a mini-LP style sleeve, and the whole affair is in a box slightly larger than a double-CD. A sixteen-page booklet includes photos and an informative essay by Mark Powell.

Taken as a whole, At the BBC 1972-1982 is essential for the Rundgren fan who must have it all, and recommended equally to the relative novitiate looking for an entry point into Rundgren and Utopia’s large catalog.

You may also enjoy: my career-spanning critical look at all of Todd Rundgren’s output (now quite outdated, but worthwhile nonetheless).

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DVD Review: Scarred But Smarter

Friday, February 20th, 2015

Plenty of bands have but one good album in them. In the old days – when record companies were still a thing – it went like this: band forms, usually around the songwriting skills of one or more member. Band gigs hard in obscurity. Band develops local following. Band gets noticed. Band gets signed. Band records album full of songs they’ve been honing to a sharp point for ages. Band releases album, tours heavily (perhaps as opening act) to promote album. Album sells, so band is rushed back into studio to record the followup.

If you follow rock music at all, you can probably write the next few sentences. There’s a reason that phrases like “the difficult second album” and “sophomore slump” exist. As the saying goes, you have your whole like to write the songs for your first album, and then ten months to write the songs for the second one.

Atlanta-based Drivin N Cryin somehow managed to avoid that particular pitfall. After releasing their debut – 1986′s Scarred but Smarter, a title that would presciently sum up their career over the ensuing thirty years – they followed up with Whisper Tames the Lion, an equally satisfying album.

Of course things began to go wrong with their third album. By their fifth, they had made some fundamental changes in their style, and for their trouble gained their highest profile to date. But while from an objective point of view (or at least one that doesn’t figure in the band’s earlier material) the harder-rocking sound of Fly Me Courageous is an excellent album, it started the band down a path that they would find unsustainable. To say that they crashed and burned with the next album (1993′s Smoke) is an understatement.

That could have been the end of the band. And it almost was. But they got their shit together, came back more focused than ever, and resumed a career – on their own terms, for the first time in a long time – and continue today.

Sure, summed up like that, the Drivin N Cryin story reads a bit like a VH-1 Behind the Music. And it could be, if told in a manner adhering to that arc: fame, fall, redemption. But in his documentary on the band, Eric von Haessler goes deeper. Scarred But Smarter is a film-length rumination on the nature of fame, a meditation on what is important and why. It’s not overly philosophical in tone, but a mature undercurrent informs the film.

A parade of personalities better known than anyone in the band help tell the story: R.E.M.‘s Peter Buck, guys from southern rock sensation Blackberry Smoke, David Lowery (Camper Van Beethoven, Cracker), renowned producer Anton Fier. And for those (like me) who grew up in Atlanta, many familiar faces and places show up in the film: Michelle Malone, notoriously prickly music critic/book store clerk David T. Lindsay (mentioned but not seen), The Nightporters (Tim Nielsen‘s pre-Drivin N Cryin band), Ty Pennington (a local Drivin’ N Cryin’ fan who’d later make it big as a TV personality), the famous 688 Club. Von Haessler eschews narration, letting the people involved tell the story. Ex-members explain on why they left (or were kicked out), and pretty much everyone takes an unflinching, no-holds-barred approach to recounting their stories. The director weaves it all together with a minimum of visual gimmickry.

There’s lots of music in Scarred But Smarter. And for those new to the band, the selections will help drive home a fundamental truth behind the band’s lack of (by conventional standards) success: they’re all over the place. As Kinney relates near the film’s end, it’s near impossible to pin Drivin N Cryin down stylistically. Folk? Rock? College/indie rock? Hard rock? Southern rock? Yes and no to each of those. One onscreen personality calls them a “punk band,” but that’s probably overreach. What they were and remain is very good, and very underrated. Their 2009 album The Great American Bubble Factor is a winner, and the series of EPs that followed it played to perhaps the band’s greatest strength: their skill in a wide variety of musical idioms.

If there’s a lesson to be learned from the story of Kevn Kinney and his band mates, it’s one similar to the lessons your parents tried to teach you when you were a kid (if you were lucky). Don’t follow the example of the kool kids (read: record company executives). Don’t get involved in dangerous drugs (read: dangerous drugs). Follow your muse, do what you love, and you’ll find success on your own terms. At its heart, that’s the positive message of Scarred But Smarter.

Asheville readers: Drivin N Cryin will play The Altamont on Saturday, March 7. See you there.

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Capsule DVD Reviews, January 2015 Part 2

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015

Picking up where I left off yesterday, here are four more brief DVD reviews.

Rockin’ the Wall
Most people will agree that the communist regimes that ruled on the other side of the so-called Iron Curtain were repressive. What they may or may not agree on is the contention of this film: the manner in which rock’n'roll helped bring about the demise of that system. The fact that rock music was all but banned in Eastern Europe is well-documented; there’s little doubt that the whole rock’n'roll aesthetic was a threat to the power of those repressive governments. The film explores the ways in which that paranoia manifested itself, employing firsthand interviews with people who lived in the then-communist bloc countries. All that said, just why the film chooses as its “rock experts” seems to have more to do with who the filmmakers knew and/or could get ahold of, rather than any specific relevance. How else to explain Mark Stein and Vinny Martell of Vanilla Fudge, Toto‘s David Paich, a guy from Quiet Riot, and members of Atlanta funk band Mother’s Finest? Their contributions are entertaining, but decidedly lightweight when set against the contributions of the people who lived under the communist regimes. Still worth a look.

Carl Palmer – Decade 10th Anniversary
Drummer Carl Palmer is the youngest among the ELP trio; at just shy of 65, he’s five years younger than Keith Emerson, two years younger than Greg Lake. And though all three former member remains busy, it’s Palmer who performs the most. After a long stint in Asia (one that continues to this day) Palmer launched a performing project of his own, called ELP Legacy. As one would expect, this group (The Carl Palmer Band) features Palmer and tow other guys whose names you won’t recognize, and they play music from ELP’s catalog. This DVD documents a 2011 concert in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, part of a music festival. To Palmer’s (and his young bandmates’) credit, the group doesn’t attempt to ape the original versions. First off, there’s no keyboards. So what audiences get instead are interpretations of ELP music in classic power trio format. Lots of thunderous bass, shredding guitar (reinterpreting Emerson’s lightning runs on piano, organ and synthesizer), and – as you’d fully expect form a project with the drummer’s name out front – Carl Palmer front and center. These fresh takes on ELP are welcome, and fans of the band – or at least those with an open mind – should enjoy the show.

Suzanne Vega – Solitude Standing Live
This one’s a bit odd, and I’ve seen the word “semi-official” used to describe its status. In 2012, Suzanne Vega released a CD titled Solitude Standing: Live at the Barbican. That concert CD documented a performance from the 25th anniversary of the release of the Solitude Standing album, among Vega’s most admired works. This is not a DVD from that tour. Instead it’s a 2003 concert from Rome, Italy. Yes, Vega does perform “Luka” and “Tom’s Diner,” but so does she at pretty much every show. But once you understand what this DVD is and isn’t, you can enjoy an excellent (and excellently shot and recorded) concert in which Vega fronts a band,sometimes perform solo, and often contextualizes the songs with monologues. It’s a bit annoying for English-only speakers to sit idly by when – after Vega finishes each monologue – a translator repeats it in its entirety in Italian while the singer/guitarist stands patiently. Her acoustic-based readings of such tunes as “When Heroes Go Down” (from her underrated 99°F) have a wholly different feel than their studio counterparts, but they remain excellent. A couple spoken-word pieces show that Vega’s talents extend far beyond mere music.

The Point
In the very early 1970s, animator Fred Wolf put together an animated television special called The Point. Ostensibly aimed at children, The Point was sophisticated enough to appeal to adults as well. While the animation style is crude by 21st century standards, it possesses an undeniable charm. Featuring narration by one Ringo Starr and original songs composed and performed by his pal Harry Nilsson, The Point was a critical and commercial success. The original story came to Nilsson during an acid trip, and while the animated feature is no Yellow Submarine, it has the hip feel of the era’s pop culture animations. “Me and My Arrow” was a big hit single, too. This DVD verion is billed a “Definitive Collector’s Edition,” but (like every version of the film except its original TV broadcast), Dustin Hoffman‘s vocal parts have been wiped and replaced by Ringo. The print is of reasonably good quality, and the story is timeless and endearing. Some brief bonus features discuss the genesis of the project; there’s even a plug for the Who is Harry Nilsson? DVD (I did an extensive interview with that film’s director; click here to read it).

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Capsule DVD Reviews, January 2015 Part 1

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015

Every so often, I do a set of capsule reviews. Those short-take looks at CDs are a way of clearing my backlog. There’s so much good music out there – so much that I want to tell readers about – that it’s impossible to get to all of it. So the capsule reviews help a bit.

It’s even tougher with music-related DVDs. At least with CDs, I can listen (to a certain extent) while doing other things. But with DVDs, it’s pretty much a case of watching and doing little else. As a result, I have far too many DVDs and Blu-ray discs still awaiting review. To help clear that backlog, I’m applying the capsule review approach to a pile of DVDs that have been languishing far too long on my desk. My standard disclaimer applies: all of these titles deserve a fuller analysis, but it’s this or nothing.

Oil City Confidential: The Story of Dr Feelgood
Pub rockers Dr Feelgood are all but unknown in the USA. Though their musical style led to the rise of new wave (but not really to punk), the defiantly British sensibility of the group pretty much pecluded their sound transating to American ears. The band’s no-bullshit straight-ahead sound is sort of a missing link between, say, The Faces and Graham Parker. Julien Temple brings high production values to this documentary about the band, largely told though they eyes (and ears, and voice) of Wilko Johnson. Temple weaves in film from other sources – archival footage, old British movies – but does so in a way that makes them feel relevant to what’s being discussed. As one of the band recalls, “Bearing in mind what was around at the time – Gary Glitter, Sweet – we must have stuck out like sore thumbs: ‘Oo’s this lot?’” There are no great revelations in the film beyond a sense that Dr Feelgood deserved better. Oil City Confidential is a well-deserved look at the place in history occupied by this overlooked band.

Blowing Fuses Left & Right
Three hours is a rather long running time for a DVD of interviews, but when those interviews are with Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton (who passed away in 2009), MC5 singer Rob Tyner (who died in 1991) and MC5 drummer Dennis Thompson (who’s still alive), then the run time is warranted. Those guys didn’t do a whole lot of interviews. In the late 1980s, a young fan of Detroit hard rock – 19-year-old Gil Margulis — made a low-budget documentary about the historic Detroit rockers of the late 60s and early 70s. This DVD isn’t that film; instead, it’s a compilation of the interviews with Tyner, Asheton and Thompson. Production values are near-nonexistent: for the most part, a tripod-mounted camera and cheap mic capture the interviews. The subject is nearly-full-frame, and the questions are off-camera and sometimes off-mic. A bit of location shooting shows the the camera operator’s lack of experience. But none of that will matter much to those interested in firsthand recollections of the era.

Tribute to Ron Asheton
In the wake of Ron Asheton ( see above) dying in 2009, his Stooges bandmates mounted a memorial concert in his hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan. This DVD documents that April 2011 concert, and adds in reminiscences from Stooges members, musical guest Deniz Tek (Radio Birdman), and Henry Rollins. The concert is well-shot, and the audio is crystalline, showcasing the (ahem) raw power of Asheton’s surviving bandmates. Something’s lacking, of course, without Asheton’s signature guitar style, but the concert is worthwhile nonetheless. The addition of a string section(!) on a few tracks may strike viewers as odd – it certainly did me – but it works better than one might expect.

Eric Clapton: The 1970s Review
I would never advocate that a musician descend into hard drug use in search of his or her muse. And getting clean after years of drug addiction can only be a good thing. That said, for me, Eric Clapton‘s music lost its power after Derek and the Dominos; his subsequent solo work is for me far too lachrymose and lazy. Naturally, this documentary picks up where Eric Clapton: The 1960s Review leaves off. It begins with the Layla material and continues forward, giving the music a fresh new look, and – to my mind – giving it a more studied and thoughtful treatment than it generally deserves. The DVD gives evenhanded, unblinking coverage to Clapton’s drug addiction and subsequent recovery. And as the deacde was peppered with some good work from the guitarist – his work with Delaney and Bonnie, for example – the film is interesting. The Sexy Intellectual people are responsible for a very long list of this kind of documentary, and The 1970s Review is to their high standards. And though the producers didn’t secure Clapton’s cooperation, some archival interview footage tells at least part of the story in his words.

More DVD reviews tomorrow.

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DVD Review: The Complete Truth About De-evolution

Tuesday, January 13th, 2015

Beginning in the 1970s, DEVO established themselves as among the most effective artists using using the creative tool of video in the musical idiom. Contrasting starkly with the the myth-making and glamor of most other music videos, the work of DEVO is deeply unsettling and provocative. Twenty DEVO music video clips (plus some relevant extras) have been compiled on The Complete Truth About De-evolution.

DEVO’s philosophical sensibility is shot through all of the band’s video work. The concept of de-evolution as used by the group (and from whence comes their name) holds as its central concept the idea that humankind is no longer evolving in a forward direction; instead, we’re on the decline. DEVO has always been as much an art installation as a band; in keeping with the punk aesthetic (the band’s first video clip debuted in 1976) the band employed a DIY musical aesthetic that eschewed virtuosity in favor of a harsh, brittle, discordant and often deceptively simplistic sound. That approach would have certainly been part of the appeal to fellow musical outsider Brian Eno; he produced their first album.

Most of the video clips as collected on The Complete Truth About De-evolution are low-budget affairs; even when the band hit it big and had a Warner Brothers-financed budget, their more costly videos still had an intentionally homegrown look about them. Though professionally executed, the stop-motion sections of “Love Without Anger” (oddly enough, a staple of early 80s MTV) are reminiscent of the crude animation found on early DEVO clips.

And what all of the group’s videos share is that world view that concedes – no, celebrates, really – the idea that everything is shit, that we’re headed for the dustbin of history. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in what may well be DEVO’s finest video clip, the one made to support the song “Beautiful World.” Thick with irony (or sarcasm; your choice), the video displays police beatings, KKK rallies, and atomic detonations, all providing a visual backdrop for lyrics that (on the surface, at least) express what a “sweet romantic place” the world is. With DEVO, satire is always a central element, or at least a tool that’s kept handy.

The early clips – that is, the ones that predate MTV’s summer 1981 launch – have gotten much less exposure, though some of them surfaced on the USA cable network’s night time music-centric program Night Flight. Still, most casual viewers won’t have known that these clips (such as “DEVO Corporate Anthem” and “Jocko Homo”) even exist. And while they’re very different from later, more commercially-oriented material like the tres bizarre “Whip It” video, the band’s bent approach is consistent through all of the clips.

And as seems to be true with most any established band one would care to name, the later songs (“Theme From Doctor Detroit,” for example) don’t measure up to earlier efforts; but with DEVO the quality of the videos never flags. Certainly not “easy viewing” in the manner of easy listening, DEVO music video clips are thought-provoking, entertaining in their own awkward way, and always exceedingly strange. For those qualities along, The Complete Truth About De-evolution is worth viewing. For fans of the band – and/or aficionados of the strange – this DVD is a must-own.

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DVD Review: Looking for Johnny

Monday, January 5th, 2015

One of the less appealing qualities of music culture –both in rock and jazz, at least – is a tendency toward romanticizing certain fallen characters. While there’s no denying the massive contributions of such figures as Jim Morrison and Elvis Presley, in death they have assumed oversize reputations that their lives and musical output don’t always justify.

And some figures are lionized in a fashion wholly outsized relative to their deserved stature. Though he’s considered by many a “legend,” the Sex Pistols‘ second bassist Sid Vicious could barely play his instrument, as a singer he wasn’t real great, and as a composer…he simply wasn’t. But it’s part of the punk ethos that he was still somehow great.

That punk mythologizing extends to Johnny Thunders (neé Genzale), but at least in his case – in relative terms – it’s somewhat deserving. Thunders wasn’t a technically gifted guitarist, but he did what he did quite well. What he did was filter Keith Richards-style playing and riffage through a New York punk sensibility, bringing a sharp-edged sound to his work, first with The New York Dolls, then as a solo artist, with The Heartbreakers (no relation to Tom Petty) and briefly with MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer in Gang War.

The title of a new documentary film, Looking for Johnny: The Legend of Johnny Thunders, would suggest an attempt to make Thunders into a legend, assuming interested parties aren’t already convinced he is one. But in reality, the film takes a reasonably objective look at the man and his work. Looking for Johnny relies to a great deal upon actual audiovisual footage of Thunders (onstage and in interviews) to construct a history that avoids becoming a hagiography. The film never shies away from highlighting Thunders’ serious and seemingly nonstop problems with substance abuse, and avoids romanticizing the drug use into some sort of creative fuel for his art. And it deals relatively straightforwardly and unapologetically with his failings as a human, a spouse, and a band member.

Through interviews with those who knew him well (or as well as anyone could know him), Looking for Johnny attempts to fill in the blanks in the man’s history, to ask and answer the important and too-infrequently asked questions. A few figures, however, are most conspicuous in their absence: New York Dolls lead singer/frontman David Johansen appears nowhere in the film, save in live onstage archival footage.

The so-called mystery surrounding Thunders’ 1991 death in New Orleans is given ample screen time. True or not, the filmmakers want viewers to at least consider the possibility that his death came about at least in part due to his leukemia. The thing is, dead is dead, and avoiding the more lurid rumors surrounding his death in favor of a we’re-not-sure-how point of view doesn’t change the fact that Thunders died at the age of 38.

The filmmaking style is unadorned and largely free of cliché. There are a good number of live and studio performances cut into the film, balancing nicely with the chat. And the no-narrator approach works well, letting the onscreen characters (including Lenny Kaye and Bob Gruen) tell the story from their points of view. Perhaps oddly, all three of Thunders’ managers — Marty Thau, Leee Black Childers and Malcolm McLaren – are now, like Thunders himself, deceased. Thau and Childers died in 2014, so their sessions for Spanish filmmaker Danny Garcia remain among their final onscreen appearances.

Looking for Johnny: The Legend of Johnny Thunders is an unpolished, low-budget affair, and it looks like one, but somehow that’s a fitting manner in which to chronicle the life, music and death of a punk icon. Or, if you prefer, a legend.

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