Thursday, December 29, 2011

My Review of Joel Gilbert's ELVIS FOUND ALIVE

In 2010, Joel Gilbert set out to prove that Paul McCartney is dead.  Now, with Elvis Found Alive, he sets out to prove that the King of Rock and Roll isn’t.

Actually, proving that seems to have been the easy part.  In the film’s first few minutes, with nothing more than a box of heavily but insufficiently redacted Freedom of Information documents, Gilbert and his film crew trace Elvis Presley to a modest, suburban home in which he has apparently been living for quite some time under his longtime alias “Jon Burrows.” 

What was probably hard was verifying the details that the interview subsequently granted by the outed Presley.  Speaking in shadowed profile (the better to protect the anonymity he has been enjoying as a member of the federal Witness Protection Program), Presley supplies a two-hour narrative rife with so many cultural and political footnotes that only an intrepid and indefatigable researcher could have fact-checked them all.

About half of Presley’s tale, the part covering his official lifespan, will be familiar to most rock-and-roll fans.  The latter half, however, not only connects many well-known Presley dots (his incessant performing and Col. Parker’s gambling debts, his Memphis Mafia and the actual Mafia, his identification with Captain Marvel, Jr., and his choice of stage apparel) but also supplies many new and even more explosive ones, including but not limited to Presley’s role in Bob Dylan’s conversion to Christianity, his role in stopping the Weather Underground, his failure to stop the ascension of either its leader Bill Ayers or Ayer’s close friend, Barack Obama (or, as Presley prefers to call him, “Barry Soetoro”), and the conditions under which he’ll make yet another comeback.

But for all of the answers that the film supplies, it raises at least one troubling question.  Present among Gilbert’s crew is the actress Celeste Yarnall, Presley’s co-star in his 1968 film Live a Little, Love a Little, and her on-camera reunion with her former screen partner is touching indeed.  Unfortunately, no one asks her why on July 2, 2010, she married a man named “Nazim Artist.” 

In light of his declaration at one point in Elvis Found Alive that Presley considers himself Jewish, it’s a question that someone--perhaps Gilbert in his next documentary--should definitely investigate. 

Saturday, December 10, 2011

My 2011 Illinois Entertainer Reviews: H-K


“I’m dead to the world,” Joe Henry sang in 1993, and in 2011 he sounds it.  Not once during the hour it takes these fourteen songs to drag past does he up the tempo.  And while the smoky, detritus-strewn, crap-bar atmosphere he and his band create suits his eloquent introspection (think Leonard Cohen for the early-Tom Waits claque), his voice doesn’t.  That it’s gritty as sandpaper isn’t the problem.  Lines like “Some take wine for water, / some make bread from stone, / some take love for granted like they’ll never be alone” (“Dark Tears”) are particularly convincing coming from someone who sounds hungover.  But his voice is thin as sandpaper too.  And when he comes on extra soulful, even his sharpest lyrics can rub you the wrong way.

Mockingbird Time

As birds of a feather, it was inevitable that Gary Louris and Mark Olson, the two wings with which the Jayhawks originally took flight but who’ve been estranged since 1995, would reunite.  But did Louris have to count his chickens prematurely by telling Rolling Stone that his and Olson’s “goal” was “to make the best Jayhawks album that’s ever been done”?  Carefully constructed though Mockingbird Time is, it isn’t the best Jayhawks album that’s ever been done.  Rather, its hooks and lyrics feel as tentative as you’d expect from songwriters learning to collaborate again after a long separation.  In other words, although Louris and Olson still skillfully blend the Eagles and the Brothers Everly and Flying Burrito, they have a way to go in terms of blending with each other again. 

Clancy's Tavern
(Show Dog/Universal)

If this album is any indication (and with a lead cut called “Made in America” it had better be), Toby Keith’s Southern “blue dawg” Democrat politics are simply what would’ve passed for ordinary national sentiments back when his grandmother, the bar-tending “Clancy” of the title track, was making the “regular Joes of the world” happy by keeping their beer glasses full and their ashtrays emptied.  The church-going neighbors probably considered the tavern a den of iniquity, but Keith remembers it as a macrocosm of a democratic bonhomie unique to the country he loves.  And not only do the rest of his latest songs keep that spirit alive, but the best of them (“Tryin’ to Fall in Love,” “Beers Ago,” “Red Solo Cup”) might’ve even qualified for Clancy’s jukebox. 

My 2011 Illinois Entertainer Reviews: L

My 2011 Illinois Entertainer Reviews: L

Four the Record
(Sony Nashville/RCA)

If only for the energy, humor, and intelligent sympathy that Lambert, her studio hands, and her co-writers put into it, this album deserves its acclaim.  But it’s not quite energetic, funny, or intelligently sympathetic enough to justify its fifty-seven-minute length.  In other words, it doesn’t provide the jolt that the twice-as-lean new album by Lambert’s side project, Pistol Annies, does, in part because the Annies are also twice as mean and somehow (therefore?) more country.  Still, Lambert solo is country enough to have benefitted from playing by country’s rules, one of which is that if you can’t bowl ’em over inside half an hour minutes, maybe you deserve to be passed over by posterity for the music that Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette were making at your age. 

Let Them Talk
(Warner Bros.)

Just what we need--an album of blues and jazz classics for people too busy watching House to discover the dozens, if not hundreds, of better versions available for the downloading.  (Not for nothing, one suspects, does the disc lead off with “St. James Infirmary.”)  As a vocalist, Laurie isn’t bad.  With his ability to carry a tune in a battered bucket, he certainly does better by this material than Bruce Willis did by his in the 1980s.  But Laurie still sings like someone who’s famous for acting, i.e., like someone who’d be doing well to land a steady gig in a French Quarter dive were he not better at playing doctor.  Would you leave change in his tip jar?  Yep, but probably not as much as this album costs.

Labour of Lust
(Yep Roc)

Whereas “instant classic” usually puts the “moron” in "oxymoron," this pub-rock tour de force has been proving itself worthy of the term for thirty-two years. And, as this reissue adds the previously U.K.-only “Endless Grey Ribbon” and the previously B-side-only “Basing Street,” it’s more classic now than ever. It’s also more instant. Lowe’s decision to keep Terry Williams’ drumming high in the mix provides sterner reproof to the Age of Digital Compression than it did to the Age of the Aphex Aural Exciter, and, now as then, the hooks and wit just keep on coming. Lovers of the former will enjoy discovering that the oft-anthologized “Cruel to Be Kind” gets stiff competition from the never-anthologized “Skin Deep.” As for lovers of wit, they get bawdy punch lines out the wazoo. 
My 2011 Illinois Entertainer Reviews: N-P

My 2011 Illinois Entertainer Reviews: N-P

Here We Go Again: Celebrating the Genius of Ray Charles
(Blue Note)

Classy but in touch with their roots, Wynton Marsalis and his jazz quintet are the ideal musicians to recreate the vibe of a vintage Ray Charles gig. And NYC’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, where this album was recorded, is exactly the kind of place Charles would be playing today were he alive. But it would be hard to find singers less worthy of “celebrating” his impassioned soul-gospel vocal style than Willie Nelson and Norah Jones. At least Nelson is comfortable with the material. Jones, on the other hand, except maybe on “Makin’ Whoopee,” is doing well even to sound fully awake. Thank heaven then for Marsalis, who, singer though he isn’t, keeps the evening interesting with vocal turns on “Hit the Road Jack,” “Busted,” and “What’d I Say.” 

Profanation: Preparation for a Coming Darkness
(M.O.D. Technologies)

One good thing about avant-garde noise is that it never really sounds dated, which is especially fortunate for this apocalyptically roiling space-metal funk album by Bill Laswell (bass), Buckethead (guitar), and Brain (drums). First set to come out in 2005, it wasn’t released until 2008 and then only in Japan. Has it been worth the wait? Fans of Iggy Pop, Serj Tankian, and Mike Patton, each of whom makes a cameo, will probably think so. But it’s the recently deceased Rammellzee who steals the show. “I was reading the Bible backwards and upside down as usual,” he deadpans in “Revelations Part 2.” “And I came across a passage that said, ‘Loop-loop-de-loo.’” The music sounds upside down and backwards too--that is, when it doesn’t sound backwards and upside down.

Young Man with the Big Beat: The Complete ’ 56 Elvis Presley Masters
(Sony Legacy)

One probably shouldn’t encourage this kind of thing.  If this box does well, you just know that Sony will release one dedicated to every year of Elvis’s corporeal career, right up to Fat Man with the Big Sideburns: The Complete ’77 Elvis Presley Masters.  But if you’ve got $100 to spare, you really could do worse than to splurge on this five-disc set.  Yes, the alternate takes and live cuts on Discs Three and Four are as comically superfluous as the interviews on Disc Five are heartbreaking: The world was his oyster, only he didn’t know that clams sometimes slam shut.  But if the nearly two studio hours of Discs One and Two were all that Elvis recorded, his status as rock-and-roll’s greatest singer would still be secure. 

My Illinois Entertainer Reviews: Q 

My Illinois Entertainer Reviews: Q

Queen II
Sheer Heat Attack
A Night At The Opera
A Day At The Races
Greatest Hits II

In 1991 Hollywood Records acquired the rights to Queen’s catalog in the U.S. and began reissuing digitally remastered, bonus-remix-enhanced 20th-anniversary editions of the group’s albums.  Not surprisingly, people in the U.S., where Queen CDs had been available only as pricey imports, bought them.  

To entice those consumers who are still alive into buying these 40th-anniversary editions, Hollywood has, with the exception of the 1981-1991-spanning Greatest Hits II, added bonus EPs containing demos, BBC sessions, live versions (some previously released), instrumental tracks, a cappella mixes, the recently completed “Mad the Swine”--you get the idea.  Oh, and “2011 digital remastering” that sounds a lot like the digital remastering of yesteryear.  Not surprisingly, people in the U.S. are wondering whether they should buy these discs or hold out for the fiftieth-anniversary editions sure to come in 2021.

Heck, buy these.  If like many Queen fans you’re about to observe your own fiftieth anniversary, there’s no guarantee you’ll have kept yourself alive (what with the increased likelihood of sheer heart attacks and all) ten years from now anyway.

Now for a disc-by-disc breakdown (2011 Hindsight Version): Queen (1973) and Queen II (1974) are the main reason critics originally dismissed Queen as a hodgepodge of Zeppelin and Bowie.  Signs of the camp-metal, artfully overdubbed glories to come abound, but essentially Freddie and the boys were aiming at a conceptual target and falling wide or short of the mark.  

They solved that problem on Sheer Heart Attack (1974), not by reducing the flamboyance or the uniqueness of their Zep-Bowie blend but by unifying it into a more pop-friendly--well, formula.  The guitar solo of the lead track, “Brighton Rock,” became a staple of the group’s concerts, and “Killer Queen,” the bona fide hit, brought Queen to the attention of U.S. DJs, thus paving the way for the acceptance one year later of the reason God put them on this earth…

A Night at the Opera, specifically its penultimate track, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the culmination of ten years’ worth of multi-segmented, studio-created epics that had begun with “Good Vibrations,” continued with “River Deep, Mountain High,” and ended with “Stairway to Heaven.”  Only it hadn’t.      

A Day at the Races followed in 1976, and, man, did it follow, adhering so closely to A Night at the Opera’s template that it went almost as many times platinum.  

Then, ten months later, they were the champions of the world. 

My 2011 Illinois Entertainer Reviews: S

My 2011 Illinois Entertainer Reviews: S

Crack My Bones
(Southern Fried) 

Power-pop fans will be forgiven for taking umbrage at the nerve of Guillaume and Benalways, two French producer types who simply by adding a “The” to their moniker have co-opted the name of one of that power pop’s greatest bands.  What next?  The Big Star?  The Cheap Trick?  (The The The?)  Eventually, however, even power-pop fans--who after all love nothing more than a killer hook--will warm up to these techno tunes.  By enlisting vocalists far less annoying than Tom Bailey and Dave Gahan, for instance, Guillaume and Benalways make it easy to appreciate what is in many respects an effervescent reconfiguring of Thompson Twins and Depeche Mode.  And by adding abundant fizz of their own, they’ve come up with music worthy of being called “soda pop” if anyone’s is.  


Rhino’s reissuing the first eight Smiths albums in a box is as good a reason as any to assess their place in pop-music history.  But first let’s assess the box’s place in box-set history.

By including Hatful of Hollow (BBC-recorded alternate versions and both sides of two singles circa 1984), The World Won’t Listen (the first of two Smiths 1987 compilations), Louder Than Bombs (the second), and Rank (a 1988 live album), Complete presents seven songs three times and twenty-nine songs twice.  And most of the overlap sounds the same even when it isn’t.   

So unless you really like songs about ballerina-skirt-wearing priests (“Vicar in a Tutu”), suns that shine out of behinds (“Hand in Glove”), or walking on the Wilde side (“Cemetry Gates”), their popping up repeatedly can make you want to accept Morrissey’s invitation on “Is It Really So Strange?” and kick him, punch him, butt him, and break his face.  One wants to shout at him, “There’s no I in ‘Smiths.’”  Only there is--and, unfortunately, there’s one in “Morrissey” too.  

Only five of the titles on Complete start with “I,” but four other titles contain it, and two contain “Me” and “My.”  Nine songs begin with it.  In “Bigmouth Strikes Again” Morrissey reproaches himself for hurting someone else then compares his feelings of guilt to the agonies of Joan of Arc at the stake. You get the idea.

Still, on most of the Smiths’ songs, the metallic jangle and drone of Johnny Marr’s guitar rode catchily propulsive rhythms even when it couldn’t override Morrissey.  And, yes, a pretty good compilation of Smiths songs for Smiths haters can be carved from their oeuvre.  

There are, for instance, the instrumentals “Oscillate Wildly,” “The Draize Train,” and “Money Changes Everything” (not Cyndi Lauper’s).  And medleying “Rusholm Ruffians” with Elvis Presley’s “His Latest Flame” (on Rank) took Morrissey out of himself, as did “Girlfriend in a Coma,” “Girl Afraid,” “Golden Lights,” and “Accept Yourself.”  Amid such company, even “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” and “I Want the One I Can’t Have” wouldn’t seem insufferable.  

But the highlights would be “How Soon Is Now?,” the jittery ferocity of which nipped comparisons between the Smiths and R.E.M. in the bud, and “What Difference Does It Make,” on which Marr did override Morrissey. 

The title of this public service?  Not That There’s Anything Wrong with That--or, better yet, Narrowsmith.   

My 2011 Illinois Entertainer Reviews: T

Saturday, December 3, 2011

My 2011 Illinois Entertainer Reviews: T

Carrion Crawler/The Dream
(In The Red)

Thee Oh Sees don’t rock.  They careen.  And on this double-titled single disc, they careen harder than they do on their other 2011 releases (Castlemania, Singles Vol. 1 + 2).  By Track Two--the double-titled single song “Contraption/Soul Desert”--the San Francisco foursome is barreling full throttle down a boulevard of broken flashbacks in a psychobilly hot rod fueled by dirty water, and the other songs recreate the sensation.  From amid the din, John Dwyer and his sidekick Brigid Dawson sing in unison, but it’s hard to make out what because, as at their shows, the drums, guitar, bass, and keyboard are mixed as high as the vocals.  Some have categorized the band as “garage rock,” but in garages cars stand still.  “Yerba Buena Tunnel rock,” anyone? 

Jailbreak (Deluxe Edition)
Johnny the Fox (Deluxe Edition)

In 1976, with Bruce Springsteen in litigation limbo and Jimi Hendrix in Rock-and-Roll Heaven, Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott came off like a reasonable-enough facsimile of the two to be worth settling for, especially if by “settling” one meant relishing a hard-rock apotheosis like “The Boys Are Back in Town” a dozen times a day on the radio. The result? Jailbreak, Lizzy’s sixth album, went gold, and the follow-up, Johnny the Fox–well, didn’t. Yep, it was over that fast, at least in the U.S. Maybe Lynott was just too bloody Irish (“Fools Gold” even cites the Great Potato Famine). Or maybe because, as these rarities-enhanced reissues inadvertently prove, “The Boys Are Back in Town” was as good as Lizzy got, and fans quickly spread the word around. 

2011 Illinois Entertainer reviews, W-Z

My 2011 Illinois Entertainer Reviews: W-Z


Here’s the story: In 1970 a Philly band whose members would go on to success in Baby Grand and the Hooters (Rob Hyman) or just Baby Grand (David Kagan) or producing Cyndi Lauper and Joan Osborne (Rick Chertoff) or managing oldies acts (Rick Levy) enters a studio and plays twelve songs totaling an hour while the tape rolls. Then the label goes belly up, the album goes unreleased, and the tapes go missing. Then, forty years later, the omnipresent John Kalodner finds them, and the album finally gets released right after the band’s bassist (Beau Jones) dies. So how’s the music? A freewheelingly funky mélange of boogie, prog rock, and other ingredients that would eventually characterize album-oriented ’70s FM playlists. Best line: “I have laughed myself silly reading Edgar Allan Poe.”

Madly Love
(Five Head Entertainment)

If ever you need an example of too many influences spoiling the broth, this album will do just fine.  Whalen and-or her publicists have cited this album’s literary sources (Victorian literature, Richard Brautigan, an antique Children’s World Book Encyclopedia), musical sources (early jazz and folk), and human sources (Whalen’s own life) as if by providing such footnotes they could persuade listeners to doubt what their own ears will tell them--namely, that all but the simplest of these ten songs (“Roses and Pine,” “When I Dream,” “With You”) is more convoluted and cluttered than any style of pop need be.  And whereas someone with a more straightforward vocal approach might be able to cut through the murk, Whalen’s eccentric mannerisms (Judy Garland doing Chrissie Hynde?) make even the easy stuff sound hard.

Live in Germany 1980

Eagle sure knows how to milk this gig.  Originally filmed at one of the “rock nights” sponsored and broadcast by the German TV show Rockpalast, it was released in 2009 as a twenty-two-track DVD and again in 2010 as the first half of the two-DVD Double Down Live.  And now we get it again--minus the visuals and seven songs (“I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide” and “Tube Snake Boogie” among them).  Of course, the fifteen surviving cuts (“Cheap Sunglasses,” “La Grange,” and “Tush” among them) smoke: With Gibbon’s, Hill’s, and Beard’s ascension to iconic status via MTV still three years off, they had to make sure their white-trash-compacted amalgam of hard rock and barbecued blues got over on its own merits.  But this particular show is beginning to feel refried.