Wednesday, November 17, 2010

An Evening With Frank Zappa During Which…The Torture Never Stops

Written by Miembro Amargo

Frank Zappa was an iconoclastic artist for over 30 years and he created a seemingly endless string of studio and live records. Zappa's music has been as much of a tribute to the styles he explored as well as a complete deconstruction of those idioms. Whether it was doo-wop, rock, orchestra compositions, jazz, blues, electronic, surf music, sound collages, or country, he always put his own humorous twist to the music and is one of the great avant-garde composers of the 20th century. Unfortunately, Zappa died of prostate cancer at the age of 52 in 1993. Fortunately, he recorded or filmed just about everything he did and his family has continued his legacy by sharing the gems from the wealth of this material.

An Evening With Frank Zappa During Which…The Torture Never Stops is the latest DVD release by the Zappa Family Trust via Eagle Rock Entertainment. It presents live concert footage from the NYC Palladium on Halloween night, edited and produced in its entirety by Frank Zappa for airing on MTV back in 1981.

Over the years Zappa’s band lineup changed often but always consisted of top-notch musicians and this is no exception. With Ray White (vocal, guitar), Steve Vai (guitar, vocal), Bobby Martin (keyboard, sax, vocal), Tommy Mars (keyboard, vocal), Ed Mann (percussion, vocal), Scott Thunes (bass, vocal), and Chad Wackerman (drums), this band delivers.

The concert was filmed around the same time as the release of You Are What You Is and many of the songs on the DVD come from that album. True to Zappa form, “Harder Then Your Husband” lampoons a country song about an extramarital affair coming apart. “Beauty Knows No Pain” utilizes syncopated and off-kilter rock riffs and is about the price of vanity and the commodity of beauty. “The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing” lambastes religion and evangelism. Of course with a running time of 120 minutes Zappa was able to put in many of his classic songs like “Montana,” “Easy Meat,” “Broken Hearts Are For Assholes,” and “The Torture Never Stops” assuring a diverse, eclectic, and, with Zappa, always eccentric set.

This DVD gives you everything you would want from one of Zappa’s rock bands. From face-melting leads, improvisations, comedy, social satirical lyrics, rock riffs, melody, composition, rock deconstruction, stunt musicianship, and endless innovation, this show packs in a lot of music. The band never takes a break going from one song into the next without even a pause for the audience to show its appreciation. Zappa shifts throughout the show from playing guitar, singing, and grabbing his baton to lead the band thru more complex and orchestrated parts of the show.

Fans of Zappa’s lead playing will enjoy the dueling guitar leads between Zappa and Vai at the end of the song “Stevie’s Spanking.” Zappa is known for his stage antics, and I assumed since the show fell on Halloween it would consist of some sort of mischief. But on this night he was all about the music and the band didn’t even wear costumes unless Vai’s skintight leopard-print shirt counts. Over all, the sound is great, the band is tight, and the show is endlessly entertaining.

The disc also contains some bonus features, which consist of two additional performances from the concert, one short film, and a photo gallery. Why the performances were separated from the rest of the concert is anybody's guess. “Teenage Prostitute” is relentlessly rocking, and since its inception, “City of Tiny Lights” has always been a Zappa concert staple. The short film is a music video for the song “You Are What You Is”. The video was banned from MTV because it showed a Ronald Reagan look-alike strapped into an electric chair.

An Evening With... is but yet another great example of Frank Zappa’s endless creativity and individuality as a composer and performer. It is a must for any Zappa fan and a good place to start for those who wish to become more familiar with him and his music. Arf.

Article first published as Music DVD Review: Frank Zappa - An Evening With Frank Zappa During Which...The Torture Never Stops on Blogcritics.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Iggy Pop & James Williamson - Kill City

Written By Dos Cervezas

The largely untold story of Kill City makes it the most fascinating album Iggy Pop ever recorded. It is also one of his best. Thanks to an effective campaign, not a lot of people really know what Kill City actually is. To set the record straight, it is the “lost” fourth album from The Stooges.

James Williamson had taken over Stooges’ guitar on Raw Power, and his style fit the music perfectly. When he and Pop sat down to write the next one, the songs came quickly. But not quickly enough, because CBS had already dropped them. In the summer of 1975 they began recording demo versions of the songs, to help find a new label with. On weekends Iggy was riding a bus to the studio to lay down his vocals. The rest of his time was spent in a mental hospital, kicking heroin.

The sad truth was that no other labels were interested either. Not long after this, Iggy famously joined David Bowie in Berlin, where his “comeback” would be engineered. Presumably, Williamson had paid for the Kill City studio time, and owned the tapes. Not that ownership seemed to matter much, as the project had been abandoned.

But with Iggy’s star ascendent thanks to Bowie, pioneering indie label Bomp Records became interested in the demos. Williamson was given an advance to get the songs into releasable condition. They were mixed, and various overdubs were added. In November 1977, Kill City was released on Bomp, on vivid green vinyl. The critical reception ranged from complete silence to outright hostility. And that has pretty much been the “official” line ever since. Iggy himself was very likely the main foe, he probably saw Kill City as unwanted competition to Bowie-produced albums The Idiot and Lust For Life.

I am absolutely certain that if Kill City had been properly recorded, it would now be considered a classic. In fact, all of the hosannas that greeted Raw Power’s reissue would have been recycled for Kill City‘s: “Ahead of their time,” “A band at the peak of their powers,” “Godfathers of Punk,” and so on.

Even with the cards stacked against it in so many ways, Kill City is still pretty amazing. Disregarding the three instrumental tracks, there are eight solid Pop/Williamson songs, and every one of them stands with Iggy’s best.

The CD leads off with “Kill City,” picking up right where “Search And Destroy” left off. You could not ask for a better way to begin the follow-up to Raw Power. As “Sell Your Love” shows though, Iggy had more on his mind than just repeating previous triumphs. This is a vicious ballad with lines like, “With any luck I’m sure that you will rise from slut to prostitute.” The thing is, the song seems like Iggy talking to himself more than anyone else.

“Beyond The Law” returns to the explosive style they are so known for, with some great outlaw imagery. “I Got Nothin’” is another step forward, the tune uses wild dynamics and changes tempos at will. Williamson gets off a nice solo midway through it too.

The brilliant “Johanna” is next, and it is simply one of the best songs Iggy Pop has ever recorded. Fellow Detroit madman Alice Cooper’s “I’m Eighteen” gets a nod. But it is the addition of some Albert Ayler-inspired sax, ala Funhouse — that pushes this track over the top. Iggy is at an artistic peak, there is no question about it. This song alone makes the album better than pretty much anything that came after 1980, and that includes a lot of records.

On the LP, side one closed, and side two opened with a short instrumental piece called “Night Theme.” Then comes another good-time rocker “Consolation Prize” followed by the mid-tempo “No Sense Of Crime.“ Both seem autobiographical, like “Sell Your Love,” but only Iggy would know for sure, and it doesn‘t seem like he is talking.

“Lucky Monkey” is Iggy’s ode to L. A. starfuckers, and it’s a pretty funny one at that. Finally, there is an instrumental titled “Master Charge.”

Kill City is the most underrated album of Iggy’s career. Conventional wisdom has always held that the album is fatally flawed. Don’t believe it for a second. Any fan of Raw Power-era Stooges is going to find a lot to like on Kill City. It is definitely a reissue worth checking out.

Monday, October 18, 2010


Written by Sombra Blanca

Time Life’s Soul Train set worth the trip.

The comparisons to Dick Clark’s American Bandstand are inevitable. But Don Cornelius, the “conductor” of Soul Train, long surpassed his cracker counterpart, creating a showcase for black entertainers that would become the longest-running, first-run syndicated program in television history.

With more than 1,100 episodes between 1971 and 2006, where does one start to dig in and dig the sights and sounds of Soul Train? Time Life has done some of the work for you with an eight-volume best of set that is labeled “the hippest trip in America.” Or, as the show’s infamous animated opening declares, “60 non-stop minutes across the tracks of your mind into the exciting world of soul.”

Exciting, indeed, and the curators put together a well-rounded selection for Volume 1 (the only one viewed so far by this author, although I’m anxious to delve into the rest).

The best place to start with the first volume is the interview with the man himself, Mr. Cornelius, in the bonus features of the first of three discs. Cornelius tells of how he wanted to get away from insurance sales and the news business and work his way into music, and he even explains how the “train” concept came about. It’s a bit hard to believe his claim Soul Train did not emulate American Bandstand, but Cornelius settles the matter by contradicting himself soon after.

The interviews with Smokey Robinson, Jody Watley, Brian McKnight and others are pretty standard “I grew up on it, it paved the way for black entertainers, it was great” fare. The reason why Soul Train was such a success is the music, and Volumes 1-3 deliver some great, though occasionally fake, performances from shows between 1972 and 1991.

Personally, I thought the Isley Brothers, Sly & The Family Stone, and Soul Brother #1, James Brown, were the standouts. Ernie Isley has some wonderful guitar moments, even though his getup is stolen from Hendrix. (Ironic, since Hendrix got his start with the Isleys.) There’s also great call-and-response with Sly and the Godfather. Mr. Barry White – complete with the full Love Unlimited Orchestra – and Bill Withers also put in some strong performances that can’t be seen elsewhere.

All of the above stand out because they were actually live. For reasons that aren’t really explained, some of the performances had to be lip-synched, which is unfortunate. The result is studio versions of “Superfly” with Curtis Mayfield pretending, and three tracks from Marvin Gaye. At least Gaye still engaged the crowd, and manages to call out Cornelius on the fakery.

Also fun to see is the six-year difference between an Afro-Aretha Franklin in 1973, belting out the extra funky “Rock Steady,” and the toned-down Disco Aretha from ’79. But it the latter version, and her collaboration with Smokey Robinson, is one of the moments that make this best-of collection worth watching.

Aside from the musicians, there is, of course, the Soul Train dancers. If Time Life edited Soul Train shows from ’71 to 1976, with just the dancers, I’d be first in line. Beautiful afros and other natural hair styles, and the fashion is, to use a back-in-the-day term, really together. The dancers get just enough attention to round out the shows, including the occasional, and now famous, Soul Train line where couples dance down the human gauntlet to strut their moves and their threads. Their Q and A sessions with the musicians gives the young crowd a chance to ask questions Cornelius doesn’t try, such as why James Brown voted for Nixon and Marvin Gaye’s hobbies away from music. Thrown in for good measure in this collection are commercials from long-time sponsors Ultra Sheen and Afro Sheen, which aren’t quite as funny as the Coming to America Soul Glo spot, but a nice piece of nostalgia nonetheless.

All in all, if you are a fan of soul, R&B and funk music, Time Life and Don Cornelius have put together a strong package important for music, history and television buffs. To paraphrase Mr. Cornelius’ signoff, “You can bet your last money it’s a stone gas.”

Saturday, October 16, 2010

American Hardcore: A Tribal History (Second Edition) by Steven Blush

Written By Dos Cervezas

The 2001 publication of American Hardcore: A Tribal History was a welcome event for aged former punks like myself. Prior to its appearance, the prospect of an in-depth analysis of the hardcore (HC) punk world seemed remote at best. HC was a culture that existed well below the radar of most of Americans. If the average Joe knew anything about the scene at all, it was likely the “punk rock riot” stories the press breathlessly reported.

The significance, and ongoing influence of HC on the culture at large, had never been articulated as well as it was in American Hardcore. Author Steven Blush’s experiences as a HC promoter in Washington D.C. (or HarDCore) proved invaluable to the writing. Not only did Blush witness key events first-hand, he met practically everyone who was involved in the scene. American Hardcore was recognized as the definitive word on HC, and it seemed likely to hold that position for some time to come.

With the just-published second edition of American Hardcore, Blush has delivered a book that is superior to the first in nearly every way. All of the chapters have been updated, and a new one titled “Destroy Babylon” has been added. Blush conducted over twenty-five fresh interviews, has included loads of previously unseen artwork, drafted two hundred band bios, and dramatically increased the discography section. The bottom line? The original 328 pages have grown to 408, and most of the text has been substantially rewritten.

For those who like to argue, Blush offers plenty of opportunities. Not in the facts department, the man clearly knows his stuff when it comes to basics like band names, members, and gigs. But when it comes time for a critical appraisal of the music, he loses it. Like assholes, everybody has an opinion. A great many of Blush’s seem to come straight out of the Politically Correct Punk Rock Bible. I would wager that every reader will find something they disagree with in here. What’s more, I have a sneaking suspicion that is exactly what the author’s intentions were.

Still, I had to wonder sometimes if Blush liked any of the bands at all. For starters, everyone who “went metal” in the mid-eighties are dismissed as sell outs, and will forever suck. Groups who signed with major labels, like Husker Du and The Replacements, are obviously worthless. And in regards to the few remaining bands who pass muster, most were never worth a damn in the first place it seems.

This crotchety old punk rocker is like that geezer Andy Rooney with a Mohawk. With the glory days of HC becoming an ever distant memory, maybe 60 Minutes will do a feature. If so, the second edition of American Hardcore is the only reference they would need. It is the definitive word on HC, and should remain so for quite a while. Or at least until Blush decides to do another update.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Various Artists - We Wish You A Metal Xmas & A Headbanging New Year

Written by Dos Cervezas

Take a good look at Santa Claus and you will see his dirty little secret. The dude is an old-school metal head. Just like Robert Plant, he’s trying to hide it, but all the tell-tale signs are there. Long white hair? Check. Monsterous ZZ Top-style beard? Yup. Beer gut? You betcha. And most tellingly of all, is he wearing the exact same clothes as the last time you saw him? Jackpot! Why it took the metal community so long to recognize a fellow traveler is beyond me, but the situation has been rectified with the new We Wish You A Metal Xmas & A Headbanging New Year collection.

This two-disc, 16-song collection of Christmas classics gone metal is about as various as various-artist compilations get. Rather than choosing a bunch of different bands to submit their versions of the tunes, the producers took things a step further. With one exception, none of the line-ups on this set have ever previously recorded together. You may find that a couple of the individual musicians have played together before, but not the group as a whole.

In most cases, it is the signature vocals that define each cut. There is no mistaking Lemmy’s sandpaper growl on “Run Rudolph Run,” for example. And Chuck Billy from Testament shreds his vocal cords in trademark thrash style during the aptly chosen “Silent Night.” Even Hard-Hearted Alice (Cooper) joins the fun with “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.”

I was pretty happy to discover that the late, and truly great Ronnie James Dio was included. On “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,“ we not only get Dio, but the guitar of Tony Iommi as well. The group is rounded out with a couple of old friends and former Dio bandmembers, Rudy Sarzo on bass, and Simon Wright on the drums. The presence of Dio and Iommi is too powerful to sound like anything other than Heaven And Hell, making it something of an exception to the rule. For me, this track alone makes the collection a must.

There are plenty of other highlights as well. Another memorable grouping goes the classic power-trio route. On the aforementioned “Run Rudolph Run” Lemmy is joined by ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons on guitar, along with the guy who used to drum for Nirvana, Dave Grohl. Probably the funniest (or saddest) combination finds former Ratt-man Steven Pearcy teamed with professional Sunset Strip gargoyle Tracii Guns on “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer.”

While there are plenty of egg-nog-sipping Christmas songs present, there is only one headbanging New Year’s one. But it is a great choice, and could be set on auto-repeat for hours if need be. We’re talking about the one and only Girlschool, who lay into “Auld Lang Syne” with a vengeance.

The executive producer is Wendy Dio, and there is information in the liner notes about the “Ronnie James Dio Stand Up And Shout Cancer Fund.” It does not say whether the proceeds of this collection will go to the fund or not, but my guess is that at least some of them will.

Turn the volume up to eleven for We Wish You A Metal Xmas’ screaming guitars and louder-than-God vocals. That too old to rock ’n roll, too young to die Santa dude will appreciate it, even if your neighbors won’t.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Everly Brothers - Reunion Concert: Live at the Royal Albert Hall

Written by Hombre Divertido

Good music, poor presentation

After an incredibly successful career, Phil and Don Everly split up in 1973 and according to many reports, did not speak to each other for ten years. In 1983 this legendary duo reunited at London’s Royal Albert Hall. On September 14th, Eagle Records re-released the concert on DVD. Though the concert has been released in many formats over the years, this release includes the documentary Rock and Roll Odyssey.

The Everly Brothers had an amazing career that included 26 Billboard Top 40 Singles. They were among the first ten artists inducted into the Rock and toll Hall of Fame, and received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997. Many artists of the fifties and sixties credit Phil and Don with being an influence on their music including The Bee Gees, the Beach Boys, and the Beatles.

For a duo with this much talent to go silent for ten years, a reunion was a huge event, and it certainly was in 1983. Twenty-seven years after the fact; the event has lost a bit of its cache. Sure, this is an enjoyable way to spend some time if you have not already seen it, but most people already have. These two men are amazing, and they sound great here, but there is not a lot going on to watch as the two stand side by side with their acoustic guitars and sing the classics. There is little banter, much less movement, and the stage lighting is somewhat annoying, and so it makes a better show to listen to than to watch.

The production seems to have missed some obvious opportunities. As the show opens with the two men entering the performance area through the audience, one cannot help but wonder where the behind-the-scenes shots are. Pre-show performer and audience interviews are fairly standard on concert films as are performer arrivals, accelerated shots of the auditorium filling up, etc. What you get here is the concert. Not a bad product, but one that certainly fails to capture the excitement of the event.

The draw here should be Rock and Roll Odyssey the documentary which is touted on the packaging as telling “the whole story of the Everly Brothers rise, fall, and renaissance.” Unfortunately the documentary fails to live up to the hype. Rock and Roll Odyssey is nothing more than a collection of poorly recorded segments that lack continuity and provides little information or entertainment.

Recommendation: If there are Everly Brothers fans out there that do not own this concert, this will be a great purchase. Don and Phil look and sound great on this DVD and the sound quality is excellent. Those looking for more insight into the career of one of the greatest musical duos of all time by owning the documentary Rock and Roll Odyssey are sure to be disappointed.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Barclay James Harvest - Berlin: A Concert For The People

Written by Dos Cervezas

They were called “The poor man’s Moody Blues” by some critics back in the early seventies, an appellation not without merit at the time. But Barclay James Harvest managed to tough it out through various lineup changes, label changes, and musical changes over the course of the decade. In doing so they managed to become a big enough deal to headline this massive open-air Berlin festival in 1980.

They never really caught on in the United States, which is why the appearance of this DVD is such a treat for some of us. BJH were what you might call an “acquired taste,” for many, as their music was never played on radio, and the magazines had very little to say about them. I actually bought my first BJH album in the local cut-out bin, knowing nothing about them except that I liked the cover.

Based on the nine songs performed here, the group were at a real high point in 1980. While their music is considered prog, by this time they had tightened things up considerably. In fact it is a little surprising that they were unable to pull off any crossover success in this period.. Their music reminds me a lot of what contemporaries such as The Alan Parsons Project and Genesis were charting with that year.

Besides the nine songs recorded live in concert, there is also an interesting item included from 1975 titled “Time Honored Ghosts.” This five-song sequence of promotional clips (early videos) is from the album of the same name, and has never been previously released. There is plenty to chuckle at regarding to the band’s fashion sense, and the dated effects don‘t help. But this was arguably their best album, and getting to see these vintage clips is something fans like myself will certainly appreciate. The five songs are: “Jonathan,” “Titles,” “Moongirl,” “One Night,” and “Beyond The Grave.”

The video quality is average, reflecting the state of the technology at the time, but it is acceptable. There is a very nice booklet included, which illuminates the events that led up to this appearance, along with photos of the huge crowd. The show captured on Berlin: A Concert For The People turned out to be their biggest ever, so it is nice that the cameras were there that day.

Including “Time Honored Ghosts” the DVD runs 79 minutes. While Berlin is clearly meant for BJH fans, I think it could appeal to anyone who enjoyed the mellower prog sounds of the era. And the outfits they sport really are to die for.