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Posted : 1 week, 3 days ago on 5 January 2021 10:03 (A review of Singles)

I vividly remembering my older cousins playing this album a lot in the mid-90s during their teenage years. A memory which would eventually go on to become my own teenage action. Yes, I moped around in my bedroom while doing Algebra II homework as Morrissey whined, and Johnny Marr’s guitar jangled out magic. That isn’t to say this music should only exist in your teenage years, but there is a certain kind of synchronicity between Morrissey’s verbose, witty lyrics and adolescent exasperation.


Look, it’s no secret that the Smiths were a band that loved to release compilation albums as stopgaps between studio albums, they had as many compilations as studio albums during their brief heyday in the 80s, but this one stands above the pack for the simplest of reasons. By no means the lone Smiths album you should own, but a perfect primer for the band, Singles tells their story cleanly, succinctly, and is endlessly listenable. The focus here is on the UK 45s, and that somehow seems like the correct point-of-focus. If this gets you interested in where to go next, then there are rarities albums like Hatful of Hollow and Louder Than Bombs, my personal favorite Smiths release.


Singles underscores that the Smiths were a fabulous singles act. One of the best guitar bands to ever come out of England and one that launched a thousand indie disciples, the Smiths are one of the greatest. Here are there biggest, brightest jewels in a catalogue full of them. Nothing major seems to be missing here and a complete picture of the band’s various moods and tones is present. “Hand in Glove” comes right out the gate with Marr’s guitar roiling around Morrissey’s croon as it regales us with a tale of forbidden, probably queer, love.  You can hear their progression as a band so that songs like “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish” and “Bigmouth Strikes Again” sound like the logical outcome of their words and sound.


Given the plethora of compilations from this group, if you can’t find this one then The Sound of the Smiths would work just as well. That one replicates this with an additional five album tracks and a two-disc deluxe edition that features an entire disc of rarities. So, there’s options out there, is what I’m trying to say. I still maintain that this is one of the albums that belongs in just about everyone’s collection in some way, shape, or form.


Download: “This Charming Man,” “How Soon Is Now?,” “Ask”

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Posted : 1 week, 3 days ago on 5 January 2021 10:01 (A review of Changesbowie)

Replacing both Changesonebowie and Changestwobowie for the CD era, Changesbowie essentially jams the two together and adds in the major hits from the rest of the albums the Thin White Duke released prior to 1990. The results? One of the most comprehensive and greatest collection of music that not only defined its eras and genres but redefined them at the same time. Chameleonic to the core, Changesbowie is both a mission statement and an accurate assessment of the ever mercurial and experimental artist. Here are eighteen reasons to love David Bowie’s musical output, and there is not a dud in this bunch. A perfect single-disc introduction to the great artist with two minor complaints: that cover art is an atrocious middle-school art project collage and the inclusion of “Fame 90,” an inferior remix in comparison to the funked-out menace of the original. Not enough to dissuade me from telling you to listen to it, but enough to dock some points. A grand introduction for the uninitiated and curious. And you should be curious.


Download: “Rebel Rebel,” “Ziggy Stardust,” “Changes”

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Posted : 1 week, 3 days ago on 5 January 2021 10:00 (A review of Changesonebowie)

David Bowie’s first greatest hits collection remains one of his best. Yes, it’s only eleven tracks and it only covers about five albums, but the sheer genius on display and musical invention is astounding. The alien-folk rock of “Space Oddity” will not prepare you for the coked out soul crooner of “Golden Years,” but its cynical and detached vocals and heavy keyboards works as a bridge to the avant-garde Low, his next studio release. Everything in-between is an envious collection of cabaret folk, plastic soul, avant-garde rock, proto-punk and early New Wave. In these songs you can hear the sounds and trajectory of the upcoming alternative rock scenes of the 70s and 80s. An essential collection if there ever was one. And how about that gorgeous album art?

Download: “John, I’m Only Dancing”

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Greatest Hits

Posted : 3 weeks, 1 day ago on 24 December 2020 07:02 (A review of The Cure - Greatest Hits)

With a career as expansive and varied as the Cure’s it is nearly a fool’s errand to try and sum up their career on a single-disc retrospective. There’s just too many various moods and styles that they’ve covered over the years, but this 2001 disc is a perfectly fine sampler platter. Think of it less as a definitive document detailing Robert Smith and company’s whimsical darkness and fine pop mopery, and more like an introductory course.


Greatest Hits gives too short a shift to their spiky early days, so brilliantly heard on Staring at the Sea, which encapsulated their first decade, and perhaps leans too heavily on tracks already found on Galore, which condensed their next. Sure, songs like “Just Like a Heaven” and “Pictures of You” are their best-known and beloved ones now, but no love for “10:15 Saturday Night,” “Primary,” and “Play for Today”? I suppose something like this is made to cater to the widest, biggest potential audience so it focuses more heavily on their gothic pop mastermind years at the expense of their post-punk years.


The two new songs “Cut Here” and “Just Say Yes,” the latter a duet with Republica’s Saffron, are two examples of the band’s diametric modes. “Just Say Yes” is one of the swirling, colorful pieces of high-camp pop in the mood of something on the likes of Wish. While “Cut Here” finds the band in a form that wouldn’t have sounded entirely out of place on Faith.


Some versions came with a second disc that repeated the entire track list but performed acoustically. Greatest Hits is worth buying just to hear Smith and the rest tear through these eighteen songs in an unplugged manner. There’s a playfulness in the performances that is quite catching. If you haven’t already been converted to the grandiose and dark pop world of the Cure, then this is a nice launching off point for their stellar discography.


Download: “Lets Go to Bed,” “Cut Here,” “Just Say Yes”

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The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album

Posted : 3 weeks, 1 day ago on 24 December 2020 07:01 (A review of The Beach Boys' Christmas Album)

A bit of a drone but those vocals are heavenly. The standards they cover prove that their vocal prowess could extend beyond the teenage dreams of surf, girls, and hot rods of their earliest singles, but the musical arrangements are lacking in the joy and spirit of their best singles and albums. The best part is the string of five originals that launch the album with humor, verve, and adding glorious sunniness to a nominally chilly affair. But listen to those beautiful harmonies on “White Christmas,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” and “We Three Kings of Orient Are” and you can hear the gestation of Pet Sounds, Smiley Smile, and Sunflower’s beautiful, layered vocals and complex arrangements. The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album may not be a standout classic in their discography, but it is a charming enough 30+ minutes of yuletide standards, old and new.


Download: “Little Saint Nick” 

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You Make It Feel Like Christmas (2020 Edition)

Posted : 1 month, 2 weeks ago on 2 December 2020 07:35 (A review of You Make It Feel Like Christmas (Deluxe Edition - 2020))

Another year, another deluxe edition of this Christmas album. This time around it is to coincide with the Hallmark Channel using the OneRepublic written ditty, “Here This Christmas,” as the official theme of their onslaught of cliché holiday-themed romances. Throw in one additional bonus track, “Sleigh Ride” which is played traditionally and not in the more raucous Ronettes mode, and the whole thing now runs nearly an hour and nineteen songs.


If this sounds like I am complaining about the present state of her career as being merely seasonal and seemingly incapable of moving beyond a now three-year-old album, then maybe just a tiny bit. I always welcome new music from her, and I do tend to blast this album multiple times a year when the season strikes, but I’m ready for something else. Anything else, really.


Having said all that, this 2020 edition doesn’t change much from the previous 2018 edition. Sure, there’s two new songs, but that’s about it. The only noticeable change is in the production of these new songs. Gone is the lush, full sound of the original as producer Busbee sadly died last year. Add in a global pandemic, and I somehow doubt it would be easy to coordinate the recording of numerous live instruments and orchestrations. The two new songs sound too synthetic at times but generally work within the structure of the original album’s scope and vibe.


You Make It Feel Like Christmas remains an affectionately retro confection, one that is more than capable of imbuing the season with the appropriate atmosphere. I’ll just be happy when we can all take a break from the retread of this album’s slow drip of new songs and move onto a new phase. Hey, are the boys in your old band doing anything right about now? It’s not like this year was a twenty-fifth anniversary of a certain album or anything.  


Download: “Under the Christmas Lights,” “My Gift Is You,” “Here This Christmas”  

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Just Can’t Get Enough: New Wave Dance Hits

Posted : 1 month, 2 weeks ago on 2 December 2020 07:34 (A review of Just Can't Get Enough: New Wave Dance Hits Of The '80s)

Not exactly a genre lacking in danceable singles from a variety of acts, but this version of Just Can’t Get Enough decided that remixes was the way to go. Instead of populating it with songs by the likes of the B-52’s, Yaz, or early Depeche Mode, New Wave Dance Hits finds the likes of the Jam, Love and Rockets, and Blondie in disco remixes and extended cuts. None of which are particularly illuminating or redefining of the originals, and many of them feel more bloated than anything. I’d trade several of them for songs like M’s “Pop Muzik,” ABC’s “The Look of Love,” Soft Cell’s “Sex Dwarf,” and nearly anything by New Order, Human League, Thompson Twins, and Pet Shop Boys. There’s still a modicum of pleasure to be found in these curios from the era even if it doesn’t entirely live up to the promise of the title.


Download: Bush Tetras’ “Too Many Creeps”

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Just Can’t Get Enough: New Wave Women

Posted : 1 month, 2 weeks ago on 2 December 2020 07:33 (A review of Just Can't Get Enough: New Wave Women)

A bit too obvious at times? Sure, but this is some primo assemblage. Not only do we get hallowed icons of the genre like Chrissie Hynde, Annie Lennox, the Go-Go’s, but they’re jammed alongside some fun discoveries like Altered Images, the Belle Stars, and the Pandoras. Sure, there’s probably better/most interesting choices than Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy” or the Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian,” but it’s still a lot of fun to hear them back-to-back-to-back. The first half is loaded with the established giants and one-hit wonders, then things get progressively weird in the second half.


If there are any knocks against this compilation, they are: a series of glaring omissions and two inclusions. No one would argue against Joan Armatrading as a talented musician, but a folkie dabbling in a genre exercise isn’t exactly representative of the best of that movement’s output. Couldn’t drop that track for figures like Blondie, the Motels, or the B-52’s? Stranger even is Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman (For Massenet).” Not really a New Wave song so much as it is one of Anderson’s experimental spoken-word pieces weaved through with a vocoder and layered synths. I suppose if you squint at it right, it will qualify, but its eight-minutes take of time that could’ve been distributed elsewhere.


What’s fascinating about these choices is how many of them are laced with female sexual agency. From the Pretenders’ “Brass in Pocket” where Chrissie Hynde begs for your attention, to Berlin’s “Sex (I’m A…)” where Teri Nunn plays dress-up in a series of kinky poses, to the Divinyls “I Touch Myself” which needs no explanation, to Animotion’s “Obsession” which asks the question about what is needed to have sex with the singer, New Wave Women finds that sisters are doing it for themselves. Just can’t get enough? Indeed.


A good enough reason for the collection to exist? I suppose so. Imperfect as it is, it is a really good way to spend an hour. Breakout the stripes, skinny ties, Vans, and buttons and dance the night away with some of the best songs from the distaff side of the genre.

Download: The Belle Stars “Sign of the Times,” Lene Lovich’s “New Toy,” Altered Images’ “I Could Be Happy”  

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Criss Cross

Posted : 2 months ago on 17 November 2020 02:32 (A review of Criss Cross)

A near nihilistic obsession with fatalism pervades noir as whole but particularly in the branch of “heist gone wrong.” The Killing practically announces its failed central conceit from the outset, The Asphalt Jungle follows all its thieves as they die, and into this gloomy outlook comes Criss Cross. This one not only follows the tragic outlines of those films but throws in reunited exes for good measure.


If nothing else, Criss Cross is a bit like drinking in noir straight from the hose. I mean, not only is Burt Lancaster the lead, but there’s Dan Duryea, best remembered for Scarlet Street and The Woman in the Window, and a pre-Munsters Yvonne De Carlo. There’s also Robert Siodmak behind the camera, best known for launching Lancaster’s movie career with The Killers, incidentally, and a Latin dance sequence that bursts with sensual promise and suspense.


In short, the journey of Criss Cross nearly doesn’t matter as everything here seems engineered from the start to provide an enthralling noir experience. And so, it does even if the episodic structure can become a bit thin at times. De Carlo’s vamp was once married to Lancaster but is now with Duryea, De Carlo and Lancaster reunite, Duryea pulls him in on an armored car heist, and things spiral out from there.


It nearly doesn’t matter what happens as every moment is seemingly signaling towards a very bleak end for all involved. But it’s the tiny details and juicy parts for character actors along the way that you remember. Alan Napier, Alfred from the Adam West Batman, and Percy Helton, for example, provide a lot of color in their brief roles. But nothing tops the sight of De Carlo’s sweaty dancing to Esy Morales’ band with an uncredited Tony Curtis, in his first role. The camera lingers on her face and body and practically signifies one of the male gaze’s profound truths: that the female body in motion can ensnare the heterosexual male psyche like nothing else.

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The Phantom Lady

Posted : 2 months ago on 17 November 2020 02:32 (A review of Phantom Lady)

B-picture director extraordinaire, Robert Siodmak, crafts this taunt little thriller about a devoted secretary (Ella Raines) going above and beyond to clear the name of her framed boss. That’s essentially the beginning and the end of the film aside from a few sequences of tremendous visual and tonal power. Phantom Lady isn’t exactly an undercover gem waiting for rediscovery and extraction, but it’s better than its limited reputation would suggest.


The opening scenes suggest the oncoming post-war malaise and loneliness that would flourish in films like In a Lonely Place. And soon we’re in familiar realm – the wronged man getting framed for the crime and a plucky amateur detective figuring out the subterranean intrigue swirling all around them. Phantom Lady has this in spades, and the structure does begin to feel largely episodic and thin after a while.


But the film bursts into vivid, disturbing life in a handful of sequences. Raines’ secretary follows the lead provided by Elisha Cook Jr.’s drummer and we’re treated to the best scene in the film. Cook Jr.’s drummer begins a frenzied, erotically charged solo that also functions as a seduction. But who is seducing who throughout this scene as Raines alternates between the real and fictional persona on a dime? The combination of extreme angles, rapid editing, and outsized acting combines into something dangerous and sexy, something that rapidly runs away from the rest of the film and the rest of the film never quite recovers.


The other great scenes involve Franchot Tone and the eventual reveal of the actual murderer. It isn’t just the revelation and the mounting tension as Raines plots her escape, but the monologue the character is given about hands and their propensity for doing good or harm. Tone taps into that oily entitlement that remained just below the surface in his glossy romances with Jean Harlow in the early ‘30s.


It is here that line from Phantom Lady and the, if not compassionate than at least not heavily judgmental, eventual ascension of films from the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Brian De Palma, and numerous others. Here is a film from 1944 that openly admitted its killer’s motivation as a sense of emasculation from the female sex, and that is fascinating as a bit of historical perspective. From the “dizzy spelled” killer here to Norman Bates and beyond, Phantom Lady winds up taking a central place in the depictions of the fragility of the male ego destroying the feminine body over perceived threats.

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