Monday, September 25, 2017

Review: 'Soulsville U.S.A.: A Celebration of Stax'


How do you condense fifteen years of arguably the most important soul label (and Motown is the only reason it’s arguable) down to 60 songs? The new triple-disc comp Soulsville U.S.A.:  A Celebration of Stax has the pluck to answer this question, and the answer is “as best as you can.” The label’s most vital artists—among them: Sam & Dave, The Staple Singers, William Bell, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Isaac Hayes, Eddie Floyd, Booker T. & The M.G.’s, the immortal Otis Redding—are present with their very best-known records. You don’t have to check the track listing to know that “Dock of the Bay”, “Soul Man”, “Walking the Dog”, “Theme from Shaft”, “Green Onions”, Mr. Big Stuff”, “Knock on Wood”, “Gee Whiz”, Ill Take You There”, and “Soul Finger” are on board, which is the best one can hope for when a CD set has to take on what Soulsville U.S.A. takes on. Just be sure to manage your expectations when hunting out your favorite oddities, because the ones I had my fingers crossed for—The Astors’ “In the Twilight Zone”, Wendy Rene’s “Bar B-Q”, Rufus’s “Jump Back”, to name a few—didn’t make the cut. But that’s just a testament to the greatness of the rawest, wildest soul label, because capturing its greatness in any completely satisfying way can only be accomplished by a massive undertaking like the 28-disc Complete Stax/Volt Singles Collection series. As far as distillations go, Soulsville U.S.A. completes the task with an unbreakable parade of essential hits and powerful sound (loud but not quite brick-walled) that keeps it mono until well into 1968.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

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


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

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

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

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Review: Two Judee Sill Reissues


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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Coming to Blu-ray December 5


Complete Monterey Pop Festival Coming to Blu-ray

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

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Review: 'Steve Miller Band Ultimate Hits'


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

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

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

Monday, September 11, 2017

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



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

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

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

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

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