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.

Classic Albums: Rush - 2112 & Moving Pictures

Written by Dos Cervezas

2010 is turning out to be a very good year for Rush fans. So far we have been treated to the first in-depth documentary film about the band, Beyond The Lighted Stage, and a sold-out tour that is receiving rave reviews. And now the great VH1 series Classic Albums has stepped in to honor them. I think you would be hard pressed to find anyone who disagrees with the two albums spotlighted here, because 2112 and Moving Pictures are two undeniable classics.

When it came time to record album number four, Rush were really feeling the pressure from their label. In fact, they were almost dropped, until the managers stepped in and promised that the new music would be much more commercial this time around. One of the things Rush fans like so much about the band was their response to all of this. Since they knew there was no way they could compete for Fleetwood Mac or Doobie Bros. listeners, they went all the way the other way, with the side-long suite “2112.”

During the new interviews that were conducted for the program, it is fun to watch the three of them talk about the time. Neil Peart in particular mentions how angry the whole commercialization business made them, and how they were able to channel that into what became 2112.

was a huge turning point for Rush, they went from perennial openers to headliners, and started selling records in large quantities for the first time. But their 1981 LP Moving Pictures was the one that broke them wide open. It remains their biggest seller to date, and contains their anthem “Tom Sawyer.“ They even played the album in its entirety on this year's tour. As long time manager Ray Daniels put it, “After Moving Pictures, we knew we were never going back to where we came from.“

Released just five years after 2112, Moving Pictures was a quantum leap forward for the band. Now they were writing songs that were being played (and still being played) on radio. In fact, it is almost wall-to-wall hits, including the aforementioned “Tom Sawyer,” plus others such as “Limelight,” “Red Barchetta,” and the show-stopping “YYZ.”

The extras on the DVD add up to an additional 54 minutes of interviews with the band that were not included in the broadcast. In these segments, the three talk about a variety of subjects including discussions of their influences, Neil’s reasons for writing “Red Barchetta,” and how the “2112 Overture” came about.

While Classic Albums: 2112 & Moving Pictures is nowhere near as ambitious as Beyond The Lighted Stage, it provides some fascinating insights into how each of the records came together. It goes without saying that the hardcore fans will want it, but I think the DVD will appeal to the casual listener as well. The Classic Albums people have done another superlative job with this one.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Framing Hanley - A Promise to Burn

Written by Pirata Hermosa

The second album from the five-member band from Nashville, Tennessee will be in stores on July 6th. Having spent the last few years touring with bands like Saving Abel, Red Jumpsuit Apparatus, Hinder, and Hollywood Undead, the band has had plenty of time to mesh together and come up with a more refined sound with new guitarist Ryan Belcher who took over for Tim Huskinson in 2008.

After just one listening of the album, two things immediately stand out. The first is that the band has a good sound and overall it’s very enjoyable. The second is that you can’t recall what any of the songs actually sounded like. There doesn’t appear to be anything with a real hook, nothing that leaves you humming any of the melodies. In fact, with many of the songs it’s difficult to determine what was the chorus and what were the verses. Thankfully, I was taking notes the first time I played it so I could go back later on and see what my first experience was and if anything changed over subsequent listenings.

"Intro" is just some creepy piano music. It doesn’t really add anything to the album and could have just as easily been the start of track #2. After hearing this a few times, it’s just as easy to skip over it. There has never been an "Intro" that was worth listening to more than a couple of times. "The Promise" is sort of a cross between a Coheed & Cambria song and Fallout Boy but a little slower. It is very guitar-oriented and doesn’t seem to have much of a chorus.

"Wake Up" is finally the first song on the album that has some kind of life. It’s a little more commercial than some of the others and has good vocal harmony. It has a little bit of a Rooney flavor to it. "Bittersweet Sundown" is a decent song, but seems to have an overwhelming large amount of chorus compared to the verses and leaves the song somewhat unbalanced. But after a number of hearings, you might actually find yourself humming this in the grocery store.

"Warzone" is the best song on the album. It was the only song that stuck out even slightly at first. It has a standard verse, bridge, and chorus formation and has lots of stops, starts, and changes throughout. This song just seems to get better and better the more you listen to it. "You Stupid Girl" starts off with a slow, almost whispering style voice where the music sounds darker and could have used a deeper more sinister vocal arrangement. But the tempo quickly picks up and other than the initial vocals, ends up being one of the best songs on the album.

"Weight Of The World" is a little schizophrenic as initially it’s a piano ballad song mixed with acoustic guitar as lead singer Kenneth Nixon sings a love ballad. However, the chorus saves the song when all the electric guitars and drums kick in. It also ends up having the only catchy chorus on the album. "Fool with Dreams" comes across as a really sappy ballad. It’s not a bad song, but there is an added sound effect on the track that sounds like a helicopter throughout the entire song. And that helicopter just seems to stand out more and more each time you listen to it.

"Back To Go Again" sounds like it was written by the Jonas Brothers. It has a very pop sound to it, and when the line “This isn’t a song about candy, but we’re still suckers the same,” is sung you can’t help but think of bubblegum pop music. "Livin’ So Divine" just gets lost on the album. By the time you’ve gotten this far, you really need something to stand out, and it just doesn’t. The only surprise is that you hear the first and only real scream on the album.

"You" is the worst song on the album. It starts off with an acoustic guitar and Nixon singing after he drank a bottle of scotch and gargled some razor blades. The beginning is incredibly painful to listen to. And it doesn’t get better when he decides to sing in his normal voice because the song is very whiney. After just a couple of times of listening to this song, you’ll skip this track every time.

"Photographs and Gasoline" has an interesting flavor to it. It’s got a good sound, a little bit of techno mixed in and if not for its placement between too crappy songs, it might be a little more memorable. Of course, the fact that they tack on a goofy intro for the final song of the album doesn’t help at all either. It’s the sound of someone flicking a lighter, then some piano comes in, and the lines “Jack be nimble/ Jack be quick/ Jack sent to Hell with a candlestick/ oh it will be/ oh it will be a hot time in the old town tonight,” is recited over it.

After listening to the ridiculous intro to "The Burn" and it’s over-the-top orchestral beginning, this song is a huge disappointment. It just comes across as some super-egotistical, pompous song about burning Hollywood to the ground. It leaves you with such a bad taste in your mouth that it’s only bearable to listen to the first couple of times. And it’s too bad, because there is some really good guitar work on it.

The DVD that comes along with the new album says that it’s going to be about the creation of the album and their experience sequestered in Soundmine Recording Studios in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. After watching just a few moments of the band saying that they have nothing to do up there and are just playing some of the songs with no kind of insight or real commentary from anyone, it appears that the DVD is a huge waste of time. But thankfully just as you are about to turn it off it suddenly changes and focuses on the band’s history, previous tours, and even does a short spotlight of each member.

Compared to the first album, it’s obvious to see that the band has come a long way. The music is tighter and much more professional, but at the same time something is lost as it sounds almost over processed and the songs themselves really lack the initial hooks to draw in listeners quickly.

And in the music industry it’s crucial to have that immediate draw. The music is good and the songs will grow on you, but most of the time people give it one listen, and if they aren’t captured by something right away they are going to toss it in the pile and never listen to it again.

Article first published as Music Review: Framing Hanley - A Promise to Burn on Blogcritics.

Classic Albums Makes Paranoid Fun

Written by Sombra Blanca

It’s hard to believe the song "Paranoid" was an afterthought for Black Sabbath. The title track from their seminal 1970 album was also the last to be added, created in 20 minutes and, along with "Iron Man," has come to define the four lads from Aston, England. Band members Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Bill Ward and Terry "Geezer" Butler all share the tale of the creation of "Paranoid", both the song and the album, during the Classic Albums documentary series.

A wonderful concept, the series lets those who created some of music’s most important modern albums — Dark Side of the Moon, Songs in the Key of Life, The Joshua Tree and Graceland, for example — give in essence a play-by-play for the origins of each song. Series producers also bring in the assorted cast of critics and musicians for praise of the music and its place in history.

One of the great things about the Black Sabbath documentary, compared to some of the others, is all four original band members are still around to discuss Paranoid, giving even dedicated "Sabbath-teurs" some new insight into a band that changed rock 'n' roll, and arguably created heavy metal.

With the band’s now 40-year influence still present, so much of what they created seemed to just materialize out of thin air, or perhaps fermented liquid and pungent herbs. The documentary provides just enough discussion about the band’s history, which of course started with an emulation of the Beatles, as well as their self-titled first album. That’s key because the viewer hears about gigs at the Star Club, where the Fab Four got their start. Black Sabbath had eight 45-minute time slots each day, but only eight songs, so each set was a 45-minute jam of one song.

One could, and perhaps should, be punched in the face for calling Black Sabbath a jam band. Yet it was that experience through which the band not only became a four-piece juggernaut, but also developed much of the material for the first two albums. "It just flowed out with the riffs," Geezer says. "We all played together like each of us knew what was coming next."

The documentary takes us into the studio with the band and sound engineer Tom Allom, who worked under producer Roger Bain. Bain had seen the band live and wanted to recreate that sound – all in two 12-hour sessions.

But it’s mainly awesome for two reasons: each of the three bandmates, except for Ozzy, all play their parts at one time or another while discussing the songs. We watch and listen to Iommi on the origin of the "Iron Man" riff, and Geezer gets his due, showing how "Mars" from Holst’s The Planets suite evolved into the bassline for the song "Black Sabbath."

The other reason is Allom, who mans the production boards and singles out instruments with some of the songs – playing each individually on "Paranoid", for example. That includes Ozzy’s vocals – and not the ones you hear on the album.

The funniest part of this documentary is listening to Ozzy adlib "Paranoid" while trying to figure out how to compliment the music. But it’s nice to hear Geezer talk about Ozzy’s contribution when, even though he didn’t write the lyrics, Ozzy had a knack for coming up with harmonies on the spot, or singing exactly in tune with the guitar and bass.

As far as the outsiders’ perspective, it adds the most to "Iron Man" mainly because of what Henry Rollins has to say, especially about recreating the riff at the end of the song. While Rollins is his usual eloquent and just-plain-cool self, it’s unfortunate he’s the only musician brought in to discuss the album. The rest are historians and music writers and editors. It would’ve been nice to see those influenced by Sabbath talking about Paranoid, even if it’s the stoned-to-"Planet-Caravan" kind of stories.

As the band members and Allom explained, the song "Paranoid" sprung from the need to fill the last three or four minutes of the album and came together on a dime after the band returned from the pub. Iommi picked up the guitar, plucked the strings for the now-legendary riff, and "we all started scrambling for our instruments," Ward said. The song not only went to the top of the charts, but was also the second and final choice for the album title.

What some times gets lost in the power of the music itself — several used the word "menace" — is the overtly political and social lyrics mainly written by Butler. As he explains in his soft-spoken, always smirking style, the peace movement and the hippies had mostly overrun popular music. Although I’d disagree with Butler that nobody was really singing about the war and other, occasionally controversial issues, it was important to the band to bring that element into their music. So the documentary puts Geezers lyrics into a context fans of classic rock radio might not yet understand.

These were four guys from middle-class homes in working-class neighborhoods outside of Birmingham, and their environment didn’t inspire flower power. Butler, at the same time, developed an interest "in the occult and astral planing and all that cobblers," and his interest spread to the other band mates. He was quick to point out there was no Satanism, other than Walpurgis, the satanic Christmas that was changed to "War Pigs." The lyrics that evolved delved into politics and war, drug abuse and a celebration of drugs, and even racism — the latter creeping into "Fairies Wear Boots" after Ozzy’s confrontation with a skinhead gang in England. What makes the Classic Albums series unique, though, is hearing Geezer and Ozzy explain how there weren’t enough skinhead lyrics to finish the song, so the singer just made something up about LSD.

Again, these are tales coming straight from the band members, and that is the best part about the documentary. The critics and historians, nuts to them. It’s just fun to hear Ozzy talk about his first royalty check, and Paranoid is full of those fun moments.

The special features really could be called deleted scenes, because it’s more background told by the same people. But the band does talk about its first U.S. tour and the difficulties of moving across the pond, and expands on their influences aside from The Beatles.

Not every band deserves this type of treatment, to delve into their lives and music. But this is Black Sabbath. Enough said.

Article first published as DVD Review: Classic Albums Makes Paranoid Fun on Blogcritics.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Vince Guaraldi - Peanuts Portraits: The Classic Character Themes

Written by Fantasma el Rey

When Charlie Brown and the rest of Charles M. Schulz' Peanuts gang hit television for the first time in December 1965, Vince Guaraldi’s music was their theme. As A Charlie Brown Christmas animated our comic friends, Guaraldi’s music further brought life to those characters. Schulz and Peanuts had been ruling comic strips since 1950 and now with Gauraldi’s help they began a successful run with T.V. specials. Now available from Concord Music is Vince Guaraldi’s Peanuts Portraits.

Vince Guaraldi had his own style of jazz by the time he ran into the Peanuts gang. His cheerful piano, plucky bass and steady, easy-does-it brush drumming with slight Latin overtones were mellow, cool and very playful. All those elements made up his signature sound and would breathe further fantastic life into the characters we all love and know so well.

The eleven-track set kicks off with the very familiar “Linus And Lucy,” which has become the "Peanuts" theme song over the years. This catchy little ditty was based on the Van Pelt siblings. His blue blanket always at his side, Linus is most known as Charlie Brown’s best friend. Meanwhile Lucy is a “fuss budget” who constantly refers to Charlie as a blockhead and swipes the football as he attempts to kick it.

Cool, jazzy blues plays a major part in these portraits. “Sally’s Blues” is a playful, mellow blues named after Charlie’s baby sister and long admirer of Linus. Good ol’ Charlie Brown is himself represented in two blues pieces, both variations of “Charlie’s Blues.” The first is “Blue Charlie Brown (Version #2),” which is a bit slower than the slightly more upbeat “Charlie’s Blues,” presented here in a variation of the original version.

Two other girls in the "Peanuts" gang are represented on disc here as well in “Peppermint Patty” and “Frieda (With The Naturally Curly Hair).” “Peppermint Patty,” the tomboy of the bunch who fancies Charlie, is captured here in the dreamy tune of here own name. “Frieda” is a lively run that illustrates the bounce in the natural curls of a little girl. An odd note is that while Frieda the character had a relatively short life in the comic strip her song clocks in at the longest at just over six minutes.

Rounding out the tracks are “Joe Cool,” “Schroeder” and “Little Birdie.” “Joe Cool” is the up-tempo horn-filled rant about Snoopy, the mischievous beagle loved worldwide, in one of his classic roles. “Little Birdie” features Guaraldi on vocals and is a funky jam centered on Snoopy’s friend the little yellow bird, Woodstock. Then we have “Schroeder,” a beautiful piano piece that no doubt the character himself would have played on that toy piano of his with ease and grace.

Closing the CD are two Gauraldi tracks played by George Winston, “The Masked Marvel” and another version of “Linus And Lucy.” “The Masked Marvel” is another tune Guaraldi put down with Snoopy in mind and is playing in the background when Snoopy licks Lucy’s face to win a wrist-wrestling match.

Peanuts Portraits also contains great liner notes filled with info on the music and the classic character that inspired the songs. A great CD with great music from the man who captured the Peanuts gang like no one but Schulz did.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Texas Tornados - Esta Bueno!

Written by Fantasma el Rey

The Texas Tornados have touched down for the first time in over a decade and the result is Esta Bueno! Surviving members Flaco Jimenez and Augie Meyers have teamed with the son of Doug Sahm, Shawn, and have managed to keep the Texas Tornados' Tex-Mex flame burning bright. The new album boasts five previously unreleased Freddy Fender songs and the last vocal recording by Doug Sahm, which keeps the album popping with the original Tornados' flair.

The original line-up of Doug Sahm, Freddy Fender (both sadly gone from this world), Flaco Jimenez, and Augie Meyers come about in early 1990. The band's brand of Tex-Mex music was catchy, quirky and all-out fun. Sahm and Meyers had been playing together since their days in Sahm’s Sir Douglas Quintet, a Chicano-flavored counter to the British invasion. Fender was long known for his Mexican/American rock ‘n’ roll and country hits while Jimenez had been turning out conjunto hits on his accordion for decades.

The “old guys in the street” earned a Grammy in 1990 for best Mexican/American performance and continued until the passing of founder Doug in 1999. In 2006 Freddy Fender also passed but all the while Shawn was preparing to put something together by the remaining members. So fours years and many hours of fine-tuning later, we have the finished, fantastic result that is Esta Bueno!

The album opens with “Who’s To Blame, Senorita” a tune by Shawn and Doug that carries the vibe of the Tornados' early hit “Who Were You Thinking Of,” with more polished-sounding harmony vocals and lead by Shawn. Listen closely to the end of the song and you can hear a nod to the Sir Douglas Quintet in the organ. The song selection by Shawn is perfect as the album eventually closes with the last recording by his dad, “Girl Going Nowhere.” It's a beautiful ballad filled with strings as well as the classic vox organ and Doug’s plaintive, Chicano-flavored vocals.

Freddy Fender's five songs are classic Fender, Chicano rock ‘n’ roll with Texas roots. His “If I Only Could” sounds like a classic 1950s grinder and clocks in at just over three minutes. Horns and piano à la the Fats Domino band abound as Flaco cuts through with his accordion to remind you that it’s a Tex-Mex tune, and you should grab your girl and dance! Fender shows his rockin’ fun side with the instant classic “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like I Like,” which highlights the Tornados' comic side. This track is Fender’s look at the modern girl from a 1950s kid’s viewpoint. The song is total fun and stays clear of being offensive; never losing the fact that it’s a joke and the band is having a blast.

“Ahora Yo Voy” is an all-Spanish tune that has Fender and the boys in rockin’ tribute to the Sir Douglas Quintet. In a way, the tune is a true tribute to the missing founding members and a great choice to include on the disc. “Another Shot Of Ambition” is a song Fender has cut on a previous album but Shawn had the “old guys” spin it Tornados' style and gave it new life. The sensual salsa track “Llevame,” written by guitarist Louie Ortega is Fender’s final performance on the album and he nails it with his passionate vocals.

Augie Meyers lends a hand with his fine writing turning in the hard rocking tunes “My Sugar Blue,” “Velma From Selma,” and the title track “Esta Bueno.” Augie’s lighthearted comic gift shines through on the latter two. The kicker on “Velma” is how Augie can sing about getting his ass kicked by his girlfriend’s father in perfect harmony and timing. Like a true Mexican corrido, he can sing of tragedy and violence and make it seem a fun, rockin’ good time. “Esta Bueno” is three and a half minutes of laugher at the pain of Augie’s eating too many powerful jalapenos that come back to get him in the “end.”

Flaco Jimenez not only provides the kick-ass accordion throughout Esta Bueno! but also turns in some fine vocals to boot. Taking leads on Doug’s “Chicano” which the two had originally recorded back in 1973. Flaco’s broken English is perfect as he sings the verses in both English and Spanish. Flaco’s second turn at the mic is the wonderful duet with Augie, “In Heaven There Is No Beer,” which finds Flaco tearing the house down with that accordion of his.

For forty solid minutes, Esta Bueno! brims with all the life and love that the Texas Tornados bring to anything they play. The vocals from our missing friends, the humor from a prolific pen, and the energy from the accordion make this a perfect fit into the Texas Tornados' catalog. Each original member’s style shines bright throughout the CD. Shawn Sahm has done a wonderful job taking the production reigns and has turned out an album that would have made his dad and Freddy Fender proud. Fans of the Texas Tornados won’t be let down at all by this one.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Elvis Presely - Elvis 75: Good Rockin' Tonight

Written by Fantasma el Rey

Elvis Aron Presley would have been 75 years rocking on January 8th 2010 and to celebrate RCA has issued Elvis 75: Good Rockin’ Tonight through their Legacy series. The four-disc box set contains 100 songs from Elvis’ hit-filled career, spanning 1953 to1977. The set is a good overview of Elvis’ music and includes well-known hits and some album cuts that many folks may have never heard or knew existed, all remastered for superior sound. An 80-page booklet provides photos and track information that make the set an even better chronicle of the work put out by the “king of rock ‘n’ roll.”

Disc one covers the years 1953-57 and looks at his early rockabilly days and rise to all out rock ‘n’ roll star. We get some of his first recordings on the Sun label, which saw Elvis lay down some killer rockabilly versions of blues and country classics, “That’s All Right,” “Blue Moon Of Kentucky,” and “Good Rockin’ Tonight.” Disc one then moves into his early records for RCA and covers his frantic rock ‘n’ roll hits like “Jailhouse Rock” and “I Got A Women,” and the tender ballads “I Was The One” and “Love Me Tender.” Elvis began to record original material on RCA with help from the team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller as well as Otis Blackwell among others. Well covered ground here for most fans but some may have never heard “My Happiness,” the tune Elvis says he made for his mama. Disc one also gives us a taste of the gospel songs Elvis loved all his life, such as “(There Will Be) Peace In The Valley,” and includes his holiday classic “Blue Christmas.”

Disc two takes us from 1958 to1962 and provides big hits from solid rockers, “Hard Headed Women” and “Little Sister” to rocking ballads “Return To Sender” and “(Marie’s The Name) His Latest Flame.” These are the years that produced the heartfelt love songs we know so well, “(Now And Then There’s) A Fool Such As I,” “It's Now Or Never,” and “Can’t Help Falling In Love.” Elvis also covered “Reconsider Baby” and “I Feel So Bad,” good blues/R&B tunes that show his continued interest in what other artists put out. Some songs not heard so often are the doo-wop inspired “Thrill Of Your Love” and “Doin’ The Best I Can,” the rocking “Judy,” the quiet “There’s Always Me,” and the “Suspicion”-like “Pocketful Of Rainbows.” Some nice gems mixed with major hits make this disc enjoyable.

Disc three spans 1963-69, the years that Elvis spent concentrating on making silly movies instead of turning out solid music, but some of those movie tracks stand out and are included here, “Bossa Nova Baby” from Fun In Acapulco and of course “Viva Las Vegas.” Lucky for us, Elvis 75 avoids too many soundtrack songs and instead pulls tracks that were buried on those albums or released as B-sides. Bob Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is A Long Time” stands tall as does Elvis’ version of Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business” and covers of “Guitar Man” and “Big Boss Man.”

The last half of disc three highlights the strong material that came from Elvis’ ‘68 Comeback Special and the albums he made in ‘69, where his focus was turned back to music. His song selection took a more somber tone and shows more depth than the throwaway stuff he’d done for films. Songs like “If I Can Dream,” “Memories,” “Don’t Cry Daddy,” and “In The Ghetto” announce that the artist is growing and his vocals are getting stronger. His songs “Stranger In My Own Home Town,” “Kentucky Rain,” and “Only The Strong Survive” carry a Memphis soul vibe complete with horns, solid drums, and thick bass lines.

Disc four, 1970-77 takes us through Elvis’ live recordings and right up to his last hurrahs before his sad passing in August of ’77. Swamp rock crept into his songs alongside the Memphis soul around this time too as “Polk Salad Annie” and “Promised Land” display. From “I Just Can’t Help Believing” and “An American Trilogy” we get just a taste of the kinds of songs he was doing in his live act and the kind of stage show he put on and the humor he possessed. “Always On My Mind,” “T-R-O-U-B-L-E,” and “Way Down” represent the kinds of rock that an Elvis album consisted of at that time. “The Fool,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” and “Steamroller Blues” display the fact that Elvis never lost or strayed too far from his country or blues roots.

The last two tracks represent the parody the man became on one hand and his lasting power and influence on the other. The sadly operatic “Unchained Melody” brings to mind every jumpsuit-clad, bad, fat Elvis impersonator that would spring up to pay “tribute” to the fallen king. To counter this “A Little Less Conversation” the JLX remix proves that the world still loves Elvis and that his music will last as that mix became a worldwide hit in 2002, over twenty years after his death.

Most everyone knows Elvis’ general story and history: the poor country boy who became “king” of a new music genre that set the world on fire in the mid 1950s. His distinct looks, generosity, and the controversy he stirred with his hips is legendary and well documented as is his music in more in-depth, multi-disc sets but here we have a chronological breakdown of the songs that stand out the most and represent his career best.

From his early primitive, greasy rockabilly to his over-the-top operatic vocals Elvis 75 has it all for you to sample and decide which phase of the man’s career you like best. Elvis may not have written his songs but the songs he selected fit him well as he made them his own and he could speak through them, whether rockin’ hard or pining for his love. He’s our raucous party buddy, wise old pal offering advice, and a friend that picks us up when we’re down. Listen again and you can hear the distinct vocal phases and hear the punk kid become a strong, powerful-voiced man in whose music and sincerity we find comfort, hope, and inspiration.