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Her Best

Posted : 13 hours, 16 minutes ago on 20 April 2018 04:08 (A review of Her Best - The Chess 50th Anniversary Collection)

There’s plenty of bigger, badder collections of Etta James’ genre-bending blues growl out there, but if all you want is the cream of the crop from Miss Peaches then this collection is what you’re looking for. Her Best gathers up the essential moments from her Chess Records period, her most fertile, dynamic, and impactful era, into twenty songs of grit, bluesy turmoil, and triumph.

 

It all begins and ends with that voice. A thing that tremendous elasticity and power, at once capable of tenderly caressing as in the opening swoon of “At Last” as it is of storming in biblical might as in the climax of “Two Sides to Every Story.” James was never one for merely showing off her vocal dynamics just for the hell of it, no, she wanted to communicate the emotional truth of whatever she was singing.

 

She can bounce back and forth between guttural, nearly obscene carnality on some songs then do a completely believable turnaround on her finessed readings of ballads. Her instrument is one that defies easy classification. Is she blues, jazz, pop, soul, gospel, or rock? To answer to that question is yes, she’s all of it. She often makes the backup singers supporting her sound like automatons merely going through the motions in comparison to the emotional exorcism she’s giving.

 

Much of the first half of Her Best is occupied by selections from At Last! Not a surprising choice as that remains a definitive album and her greatest recording to date. “A Sunday Kind of Love,” “All I Could Do Is Cry,” and the yearning duet with Harvey Fuqua, “If I Can’t Have You,” haven’t lost their ability to grab hold of you after all these decades. Her Best is a great starting point, but make sure you go back and listen to all of At Last!

 

But it’s after the well-known recordings that the surprises pop-up, including a live cover of Jimmy Reed’s “Baby, What Do You Want Me to Do” that bursts with energy. The template for her career was set with her first album, but the permutations of it are quite pleasing. After all, James’ shocking touches of vulnerability and innocence make a song like “Pushover” just as believable as the inviting “Tell Mama” or the rapturous “Something’s Got a Hold on Me.”

 

For Chess’ 50th anniversary, they released several of these collections: Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, just to name a few. It’s a reminder that James is just as essential and as much of a powerhouse artist as any of those guys. The opening notes of “At Last” have toppled many a strong singer, and if that isn’t enough to knock you out, Her Best has nineteen more reasons for that argument.

 

DOWNLOAD: “Something’s Got a Hold on Me,” “Fool That I Am,” “Tell Mama”



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The Ultimate Collection

Posted : 1 week ago on 13 April 2018 07:21 (A review of The Ultimate Collection)

You want a single disc assortment of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ combination of tear-stained love songs and straight-up party starters? Then seek out The Ultimate Collection, a compilation of twenty-five songs covering all the biggest hits, some lesser known greats, and a smattering of smartly chosen rarities. The Ultimate Collection was a series of seventeen albums covering the biggest, best of Motown’s enviable staple of artists, but Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ entry may tower above the others with its sheer artistic dominance.

 

The Ultimate Collection also makes one hell of an argument, backed up with plenty of evidence, for Smokey Robinson as one of the great writers of the rock era. He’s a man who belongs in the same breath as canonized Lennon/McCartney, Brian Wilson, and the acknowledge might of the Brill Building writers. Not that Smokey is hurting for deserved acclaim or praise for his artistry, legacy, and enduring works, but his placement needs a higher look. He could make a lovelorn lyric sing, flip, or dance depending on the moment.

 

Going to a Go-Go, the greatest studio album the group released, gets a deserving five selections, all of them classics (“The Tracks of My Tears,” “Ooo Baby Baby,” “Choosey Beggar,” “Going to a Go-Go,” “My Girl Has Gone”). It’d be easy to just list these five songs off as both reason enough to seek this out and throw in a few randomly chosen selections like “The Tears of a Clown” or “I Second That Emotion,” but that would be a disservice to so many of the other jewels just waiting to make you boogey or cry along.

 

It would be too easy to just write at great length about these songs and that particular album. It’s one of the greatest ever released, and a personal favorite of mine. In order to give more shine to songs not off of Going to a Go-Go, I’m going to highlight other choices for the standout tracks. There’s more than enough gorgeous, lush music to choose from that not recommending “The Tracks of My Tears” or “Ooo Baby Baby” won’t feel like some kind of slight.  

 

One of the oldest songs here is “Way Over There,” one of the first proper Motown releases and produced by Berry Gordy, is a glimpse of the genius to come. Robinson’s vocals are impassioned with his voice frequently breaking into a pleasing rasp or swooping into a desperate falsetto. Claudette Robinson answers his pleas with a honey-sweet “come to me, baby,” and “Way Over There” is the first genius pop song from a man who would go on to write dozens and dozens more for himself and numerous others.

 

But it’s not all silver-tongued romanticism from the Miracles. Anyone who’s watched their set during The TAMI Show knows that they could throw a scorching party. “Mickey’s Monkey” is a comical little ditty that still boogies. The handclaps, call-and-response vocals, and the demands to do “the Monkey” dance mark it as an essential piece of early-60s dance anthems.

 

This portion of the Miracles output gets lesser audio time, but that makes sense. After all, Robinson was at his best when playing debonair romantic. The heart wrenching nature of “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” and “We’ve Come Too Far to End It Now” finds Robinson sobbing and the Miracles acting as a chorus of misery. These are the hits that made his legacy, and it makes sense that the tear-stained ballads and flirty love songs get the biggest chunk of time here. A better title for this would be Essential Listening.

 

DOWNLOAD: “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” “Mickey’s Monkey,” “We’ve Come Too Far to End It Now”



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We Are the 80s

Posted : 1 week ago on 13 April 2018 04:19 (A review of We Are the '80s)

They were created by music impresario Malcolm McLauren, he who also created the Sex Pistols and managed/advised groups like the Slits and New York Dolls, crafted Bow Wow Wow in 1980 after several members of the Ants left Adam Ant behind. He found a then-teenaged Annabella Lwin singing at a dry cleaners she worked at part-time and auditioned for the group’s lead singer. The rest is New Wave history. Well, minor history. Bow Wow Wow had a few hits, but they’re mostly known for their cover of the Strangeloves’ garage rock classic “I Want Candy.”

 

They were a novelty, sure, but they performed their surf-punk ditties with a world beat swagger. Lwin was never much of a singer, but what she lacked in technique she made up for in push power and a certain ability to alternate between camp princess and girlish squeal. Look at how she does a mean punk sneer on debut single “C30, C60, C90, Go” then practically sticks her tongue in both cheeks at the same time to deliver the brazen “Louis Quatorze” later on. In-between the boys pound away at a furious pace that only pauses long enough for Lwin to encourage us to join the “Mile High Club.” Wait, isn’t she underage here?

 

Adolescent sexual fantasies are kept to a minimum, but there’s lots of big hooks, bit beats, and aggressive posing to keep things from being too icky. We Are the 80s distills a brief career down to the essentials and clocks in at a brisk 44 minutes. Not too bad for a band that only lasted three years and whose best albums was already a compilation, 1982’s I Want Candy.

 

DOWNLOAD: “C30, C60, C90, Go”



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Nuggets From Nuggets

Posted : 1 week ago on 13 April 2018 03:34 (A review of Nuggets From Nuggets: Choice Artyfacts From The First Psychedelic Era)

Before he was part of Patti Smith’s seminal punk group, Lenny Kaye assembled Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965 – 1968 for Elektra Records. Kaye was a music writer and producer at the time, and his vision for Nuggets was a series of eight installments focusing on different regions of the US, but the label wanted something more manageable. Nuggets’ first saw life as a double-album in 1972, then ballooned out to a four-disc box set in the late 90s before this twenty-track distillation was released in 2000.

 

Nuggets from Nuggets is true to the aims and spirits of the original double-album with twenty of the best known hits, obscurities, cult hits, and novelties from the four-disc version repeated here. If you all you need is a single-disc of 60s garage rock, psychedelic rock, and proto-punk, then Nuggets from Nuggets is an ideal choice. Personally, I just recreated the track list as an iTunes playlist from the four-disc behemoth as a time and space saver, but I can’t say enough great things about the four-disc box.

 

Back to this collection, you won’t find a single weak link here. “I Want Candy,” “Louie, Louie,” “Incense and Peppermints,” “Nobody But Me,” and “Time Won’t Let Me” are just a randomly chosen sample of the songs on here. This thing rocks just as hard as anything coming out of CBGBs or the English punk scenes just a few years later, and not just because it’s a foundational text for that movement. No, these garage rock classics zip by with energy, nerve, and gusto to spare. The kind of assured and lunatic songwriting and playing that can only come from people purposefully trying to expand rock beyond the British Invasion and into something else.

 

My only complaint, and this goes back to the box set as well, is the absence of ? and the Mysterians’ “96 Tears.” That’s a rock classic if there ever was one and its omission stings a bit, but in its place we get plenty of snarling, bratty, brash tunes that make up for it. The full-scale Nuggets is punk’s equivalent to the Anthology of American Folk Music, and this distilled version plays out like a Wikipedia entry for the genre. That’s not an insult. Pop this in, crank up the volume, and smell the carbon monoxide wafting out of the speakers.     

 

DOWNLOAD: The 13th Floor Elevators – “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” The Electric Prunes – “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night),” Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs – “Wooly Bully”



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Get Out

Posted : 3 weeks, 2 days ago on 28 March 2018 09:34 (A review of Get Out)

Look, just because Get Out is a dark satire about white supremacy doesn’t mean that it should be classified as a “comedy.” You hear my Golden Globes voters? Sure, there’s comedic elements, but there’s also too many psychological torments, scenes of abstract and real horrors, and a reckoning with America’s racial politics that reaches all the way back to the days of slavery in its scope. All of this is to say that Get Out was one of the great discoveries of 2017, and it came from the unlikeliest of sources, veteran sketch comedy artist Jordan Peele.

 

Peele has given himself an extraordinary task for his debut feature film, an essay of American racial tensions that must deftly float between escalating terror, psychological unease, motor-mouthed comedy, and twisted satire. He not only manages to balance all of those various pieces, but he makes for a coherent, entertaining work that has me excited for what his next film will be. Get Out is a confident debut, the likes of which announce an actor as a legitimate director with a distinct perspective and artistry to spare.

 

We meet Chris (Daniel Kaluuya in a star making performance) as he’s planning on spending the weekend meeting the family of his girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams, what an unnerving film debut). Despite living in upstate New York, these affluent white liberals live in a house that teeters uncomfortably towards a plantation. You get the immediate sense that things are “off” long before you meet the family’s black servants who operate more like androids than anything recognizably human.

 

If your hackles are raised in these opening moments, then you’re clearly clued into Get Out’s wavelength. The air is rich with racial anxiety and tension, no matter how much Rose’s parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) proclaim their liberal bona fides, be it their belief that they’d vote for Obama for a third term or praise for Tiger Woods. They believe what they’re selling, but they’re clearly uncomfortable with any form of blackness that can’t be held at a distance or commodified, controlled, or used for their benefit.

 

One of Peele’s best inventions is a gathering at the family home that initially plays like a gathering of the moneyed elites having fancy sandwiches and tea, but quickly takes on darker intonations. Chris is deluged with a series of interactions that range from commentary based purely in stereotypes to the merely inane to the straight-up patronizing. The entire sequence feels like it comes from a very real place, and Peele manages to make it both hilarious and unnerving in equal measure. This gathering is soon revealed as an auction for Chris’ body and Get Out’s flirtations with slave imagery comes to fruition. It’s a powerful gut-punch and bait-and-switch.

 

The full extent of the duplicity and villainy of Rose and her family is slowly doled out until it all comes bursting through in the third act. Get Out is careful to unravel its central conceit until this moment, and it manages to do so with the slow drip-drip-drip of escalating unease and tension. It’s a brainy concept for a horror film, white liberals auction off black bodies so that elderly white people can transplant themselves into them as a way of prolonging life or stealing their gifts, and also manages to make a tea spoon’s tinging against the cup into a terrifying sound on par with the alien screech Donald Sutherland unleashes in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

 

Each plot twist must orbit around Chris, and Daniel Kaluuya’s performance is a wonder. He was rightly nominated for a slew of best actor awards for his work here. Whether it’s his tear-filled stare at a television screen, a heady mixture of abject terror and mind-bending disbelief, or the frustrated smile of yet another patronizing comment, Kaluuya’s reactive performance is a masterful bit of an actor in complete control. His best work may be a quick glimpse of betrayal and heartbreak as he realizes Rose lured him here like a lamb to slaughter. Get Out’s entire conceit needed a strong leading role to ensure it worked in addition to a confident directorial presence. Peele nailed it.



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Mudbound

Posted : 3 weeks, 2 days ago on 28 March 2018 04:41 (A review of Mudbound)

Mudbound is the sight of a filmmaker evoking the power and fury of William Faulkner’s prose. Not only in the ways that the land itself becomes a harsh character, both unmovable by the sorrows of its characters and unrelenting in its unending withholding, but in its intense examination of generational and racial conflicts. These differing fractions both within the familial units and outside of it swirl around each other, bumping into each other before the big explosive climax. Mudbound is the Southern Gothic style operating at its artistic zenith.

 

Economic devastation is built into the framework of southern living in certain quarters, most especially in the literature which alternates between the poverty stricken and wealthy families going to rot. Mudbound includes both in a white family that finds itself on the harsh terrain typically reserved for black sharecroppers through poor financial choices, and a black family that’s inherited the land post-Reconstruction. We step into an already volatile situation long before the cantankerous, openly racist grandfather (Jonathan Banks) seeks to entrench a social order through violent means.

 

Mudbound’s expansive narrative is told through the interior monologues of several characters, and equal time is presented to both the white and black families giving a full-range of voices and experiences to poverty and racism. Henry McAllen (Jason Clarke) uprooted his family from Memphis to a parcel of land out in the country, only to find that he was swindled and is forced to live in the same area as the black sharecroppers. He takes this as a humiliating blow, and frequently speaks of how cruel the land is to him and his life.

 

In contrast, there’s Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan), patriarch of the black family that becomes the, well, not quite friends, but find themselves tied up with the McAllens. Hap finds pride and joy in working the land that his ancestors tilled and harvested in bondage because it is now his own. He takes his sense of ownership and pride as proof that things have improved for himself and his family.

 

We also get the disparate world views of their wives. Laura (Carey Mulligan) is clearly too smart for her husband, and one senses that she settled for him out of a fear of becoming a spinster through societal pressures. There’s clearly tension between them as she holds onto vestiges of their old life and societal standing. She can clearly see the thin line separating her from the poor white trash of the area, and the even thinner line demarcating her privileged existence over that of her black neighbors. Much like her husband, she’s never outwardly aggressive or openly racist but she tells more than she asks and demands more than she gives in return.

 

For all of Laura’s tenuous grasps on keeping her family together and holding onto middle-class signifiers, Florence (Mary J. Blige) is actually a giving, suffering, equal partner in her life and marriage. She and Hap both know that they walk a precarious line around white folks of any economic status, and the change between their public and private selves is seamless through years of practice and generations of ingrained lessons. In her most private moments and thoughts, Florence is a woman with a rich inner life and potential that is clearly going under realized through racial roles and social stasis.

 

Mudbound’s most unique and engaging relationship is through the friendship that forms between Jamie McAllen (Garrett Hedlund), Henry’s younger brother, and Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell), Hap and Florence’s oldest son. They meet while serving in World War II, and reignite a tenuous friendship when they return home. While the Confederacy may have fallen, the hideous specter of the Civil War and Jim Crow lingers in the air throughout Mudbound. Their friendship, no matter how benign, is considered an affront to a caste system that should’ve been washed out long ago.

 

Dee Rees has made a film of startling power and impact here. Not only does she get stellar work from her cast, the biggest surprise being Mary J. Blige’s transformative performance that digs deep into a dramatic prowess no one saw coming and Jason Mitchell’s star-in-the-making work, but she gives them a wealth of material to play both externally and internally. One of the joys of the film is watching as Rees’ camera lingers on her actors faces in close-up in the full gamut of human emotion. The sight of Blige washing Mitchell’s injured and bleeding body late in the film is remarkable for the complicated emotions Blige manages to telegraph to the viewer.

 

Mudbound’s final scene is set in post-war Germany, as the country reconciles its atrocities and Ronsel returns to his wartime lover after escaping the present-day violence of America’s sins and entrenched social conditions. It’s a scene of hope and a bleak smack in the face for the ways it accuses America of not taking a good, hard look at itself. This scene, like so many others, is just a part of the reason why Mudbound was one of the best films of 2017.



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North Sea Texas

Posted : 3 weeks, 2 days ago on 28 March 2018 03:10 (A review of North Sea Texas)

Never has coming out been such a non-event as it is in North Sea Texas. There’s something refreshing about that, but that’s also part of the problem. Despite there being a pileup of occurrences and incident, nothing seems to matter in the life of the main character, Pim (Jelle Florizoone).

 

He’s a silent observer throughout his life, never reacting too much to what happens in spite of repeated parental abandonment, unrequited love, and the suffocation of small town life in the 1950s. The Belgian town presented here brushes up to the edges of magical realism in the ways that nothing seems to matter beyond the internal pressures of Pim. He experiences little to no homophobia, winds up with a happy ending, and ends up for the better when his neglectful mother runs off with a travelling carny. Is it realistic? No, but it’s certainly lulling in its quietness and profuseness of kitsch.

 

North Sea Texas does excel in creating beautiful images and a lovely atmosphere, especially in scenes of erotic tenderness and exploration between Pim and Gino (Mathias Vergels). It manages to create an entirely hermetic world that seems to exist alternately outside and within Pim’s imagination, like he’s some kind of benevolent god creating order and stability in the face of opposition and chaos.

 

Yet this doesn’t make for a compelling viewing experience as the characters remain in stasis, as if we’re watching them try to emote through amber. Pim is one-note and a bit of a waste of Florizoone’s clear talents as a performer. North Sea Texas is clearly aiming for some kind of emotional catharsis or rapture in its final moments, but it falls limp as its failed to give voice to Pim’s frustration. He’s a dreamer wafting through his gloom in pretty lighting and ambient music playing in the background.



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The Crystals Sing the Greatest Hits, Volume 1

Posted : 3 weeks, 3 days ago on 27 March 2018 08:18 (A review of The Crystals Sing The Greatest Hits Vol. 1)

The Crystals Sing the Greatest Hits, Volume 1 sure enough lives up to that mouth-full of a title, but ol’ Phil is at it again. A whopping four songs here are actually the Ronettes, and there’s no mistaking Ronnie’s voice as a heretofore anonymous member of the group suddenly thrust to the lead. (They songs are “Hot Pastrami,” “Mashed Potato Time,” “The Twist,” and “The Wah Watusi,” which features Nedra Talley on lead.) The two Darlene Love led hits are present as well. How could they not be?

 

The other six selections? Uniformly great songs from the (actual) Crystals catalog, including the towering “Da Doo Ron Ron,” a song where the nonsense lyrics work as both the euphoria of young love and a wink/nudge towards more carnal possibilities between the enforced chastity of the genre. To listen to this is to hear the Wall of Sound erect itself around the voices of Barbara Alston, naïve and sweet, and LaLa Brooks, tough but tender. 


(If you’re wondering why I didn’t highlight that as the standout track, it’s because I don’t like to double-dip choices when I can avoid it. I’m also very fond of their cover of “On Broadway,” and apparently so was Spector as he kept releasing on various Crystals albums.)

 

DOWNLOAD: “On Broadway”  



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He's a Rebel

Posted : 3 weeks, 3 days ago on 27 March 2018 07:46 (A review of He's a Rebel)

Twist Uptown, both the Crystals and Phil Spector’s first full-length album, was released in early 1962. In 1963, the album was repackaged with the smash hit “He’s a Rebel,” strong follow-up “He’s Sure the Boy I Love,” and aborted single “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)” replacing some of the other songs on the original album. Funny thing about “He’s a Rebel,” despite being released under the group’s name none of the vocals belong to any of the actual Crystals. It’s all Darlene Love and the Blossoms, same with “He’s Sure the Boy I Love.” If you enjoyed Twist Uptown, then you’ll equally enjoy He’s a Rebel, even if some of the songs aren’t actually the Crystals.

 

DOWNLOAD: “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)”



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Twist Uptown

Posted : 3 weeks, 3 days ago on 27 March 2018 07:34 (A review of Twist Uptown)

It’s not quite the Wall of Sound just yet, but the foundations are clearly being scoped and the bricks picked out. Twist Uptown was the first full-length album from super-producer Phil Spector, and it’s a solid historical document as well as being a uniformly strong pop album. Not quite a masterpiece on par with Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica or A Christmas Gift for You, but damn fine nonetheless.

 

Songs like “There’s No Other (Like My Baby” and “Uptown” are the earliest glimpses of Spector’s producing genius as he manages to leave ample space for Barbara Alston’s tender vocals to shine in addition to a Spanish-style guitar lick or thundering drum. Harmonies by the other girls in the group enrich the environs of these songs, look at how deepen the ache of “Please Hurt Me” or add a hallucinatory texture to “On Broadway.” The Drifters made that one a classic, but the Crystals turn it from a joyous big-dreamer ideal to a haunted, ethereal dream appearing through the mind’s fog.

 

There’s plenty of songs on here that reappear on albums like Da Doo Ron Ron: The Best of the Crystals, yet it’s the ones that only appear here that immediately pop out to me. Perhaps it’s because they’re less familiar, or maybe it’s just from the strangeness of a few of them. “Frankenstein Twist” is a hoot as led by LaLa Brooks’ rougher vocals as she demands we all do the title dance. Same goes for “Gee Whiz Look at His Eyes (Twist),” which is one of the many “little symphonies for the kids,” as Spector infamously described his creations, found on here.

 

If there’s any downside to Twist Uptown it’s this, before the Crystals confidently engaged in both nonsense (“Da Doo Ron Ron”), anthems (“He’s a Rebel”), or winking provocations (“Then He Kissed Me”) they were downbeat romantic pessimists. “I Love You Eddie” finds Alston in love with a boy and competing for his affections with another girl. “Another Country – Another World” keeps the Homefront fires burning while her boyfriend is shipped off overseas, and Alston’s yearning approaches mythic proportions of grief and partial hope. Girl group pop never sounded quite as doomed as it can here.

 

Still, Twist Uptown proves that Spector’s description of a typical album, something along the lines of two hits singles and ten pieces of junk, was an outright lie. Twist Uptown is both a remarkably strong pop album of sweet/tough vocals and expanding production technique. It’s the growing pains of the Wall of Sound as Spector is just starting to take the recording studio into strange, new territories with his first great pop group. The Crystals would go on to release bigger, better classics, but this remains a strong introduction to the group.

 

DOWNLOAD: “There’s No Other (Like My Baby)”  



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