Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Music Review: Liza Minnelli: The Complete A&M Recordings (2-Disc Set)

First Time on CD


You'd think that being born to two Oscar winning parents-- the legendary actress and singer Judy Garland (The Wizard of Oz) and director Vincente Minnelli (Meet Me in St. Louis)-- that their daughter Liza Minnelli would've naturally aspired to work in film yet as Scott Schechter writes in "Pre-'Z' (Liza Before the "Z")" in this album's liner notes, originally young Liza was most interested in ice skating and dancing on the Broadway stage. Quickly ascertaining she'd need to be at least a double threat by singing as well-- soon she became a triple one, singing, acting, and dancing in order to fulfill her goal to perform in the theatre.

While her big break came in a highly acclaimed off-Broadway award-winning performance in The Forward which found her appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show, it wasn't until her first solo ballad (originally performed on her mother's Judy Garland Show) was turned into her debut record "You Are for Loving," that Minnelli sold 500,000 copies, making the music industry sit up and take notice. Although initially, she worked with Capitol Records and performed numerous standards and old favorites written well before her time, making the young woman's fanbase much older, when she moved to A&M Records, the company, Liza as well as her then husband-- the singer/songwriter Peter Allen (recently made famous by Hugh Jackman in the Tony winning The Boy From Oz)-- decided to try and reintroduce her to a bigger market of listeners of all ages by showing off the singer's range.

Over the course of four albums including, the 1968 self-titled Liza Minnelli, 1969's Come Saturday Morning, 1970's New Feelin' and her final A&M work Liza Minnelli Live at the Olympia in Paris in 1972, Minnelli tackled every genre from bluegrass to gospel to soul to country to rock to the Broadway showtunes, ballads and standards she's still identified most with today.

In Liza Minnelli: The Complete A&M Recordings, the album producers restored and remastered her work from the original session tapes of the actual A&M studio recordings for the first time ever on CD. And in the 2-disc set, the four albums along with countless rare outtakes, one single, and interesting arrangements of cover songs included on the landmark records (which have been painstakingly preserved in their "24-bit digital splendor") were just issued last month by Collector's Choice Music to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first self-titled disc.

Especially fascinating since the recordings mark the evolution of Minnelli's talent just before she was launched into superstardom with her Oscar winning turn in Bob Fosse's brilliant Cabaret and the Emmy winning television special Liza With a "Z" and far before she'd become both a Broadway icon and often dubbed twentieth century master entertainer in her own right, for listeners who are mostly accustomed to her post-Cabaret work (like this reviewer), at first the 2-disc set takes some getting used to.

Very indicative of their time with some overly intricate '70s funk arrangements that take the charm out of classic tracks like "Come Rain or Come Shine," yet despite this, I was pleasantly surprised by some of the bursts of early humor we'd later associate with her as well as her ease of slipping into the various character of whatever song she was singing. While I preferred the second disc and two later albums as they were a bit more upbeat and gleefully '70s, there were also some particular standouts (including rare or previously unreleased tunes) on the first album that fans should definitely seek out.

Beginning with her '68 record, the first disc opens
with songwriter Randy Newman's "The Debutante's Ball," which Schechter notes still remains one of Minnelli's favorites and also includes Peter and Chris Allen's memorable "(The Tragedy of) Butterfly McHeart," along with the terrific Mancini like "Waiting for My Friend," the carousel styled "The Happy Time" (from Kander & Ebb's musical of the same name) and her wondrous "My Mammy." Additionally, pay particular attention to the unreleased outtakes including the bossa nova "Alicinha" and a whistfully minimalist "I'm Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover" that gives her the freedom to play with the vocals to unique effect.

The second half of the first disc, centering on Come Saturday Morning opens with the Oscar nominated title track from director Alan J. Pakula's feature filmmaking debut The Sterile Cuckoo which coincidentally earned Minnelli her first Oscar nomination as well and gives us a glimpse of the singer's penchant for mixing humor and melancholy together for bittersweet effect.

Although it contains such famous covers and tracks such as "On a Slow Boat to China," "Don't Let Me Lose This Dream," "Leavin' on a Jet Plane," and "MacArthur Park/ Didn't We?" my two favorites from the 1969 album were definitely Harry Nilsson's very '60s and delicate "Wailing of the Willow" as well as the awe-inspiring cabaret torch song styled "Nevertheless," that seems to foreshadow the way that Minnelli would belt it out to the cheap seats as Sally Bowles in Fosse's Cabaret.

With a modern photograph used for the cover of her 1970 album New Feelin', Minnelli's third A&M album reunited her with the classic fare she always did best but provided the tracks with modern productions by inserting strange (and some unsuccessful '70s era soul/bluegrass/early disco/funk) arrangements to some of America's best-loved standards. While I'm mixed on the venture, when it works, she succeeds brilliantly with the combination of country twang and gosepl tinged soul for "Stormy Weather" and "Lazy Bones," which Minnelli performed at the Grand Old Opry where she was introduced by Johnny Cash who Schechter acknowledges even admitted onstage was going to be singing songs that were "different, and I bet you're gonna like it."

"Can't Help Lovin' That Man of Mine" and "The Man I Love," are also above average but Cabaret devotees will want to move right to a far more guitar driven take on the musical's "Maybe This Time." While the outtakes from the album contain two penned by her then husband Peter Allen (which are ironically the weakest of the quartet), she really nails "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" and "This Girl's In Love With You," which makes the ideal lead-in to the fourth live album that begins with a terrific medley until it ventures onto her trademark theme song "Liza With a 'Z.'"

Although it ends with another one of her classics-- the title song from Kander & Ebb's Cabaret-- I was especially moved by her English language version of "I Will Wait for You," originally made famous in Jacques Demy's French New Wave romantic musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg that makes the ideal selection for an album recorded live in Paris.

Having given us decades of music, while you can find various versions of her most famous songs on countless compilations and greatest hits collections and those with only a passing interest in Minnelli's music may do best to stick with those tried and true favorites-- still, for residents of "Liza Land," it's spectacular to revisit the four transitional albums in their entirety. This is especially the case with this set that also contains never before released tracks as well as a remarkable fact and photograph filled booklet to get a much richer musical portrait of the legend as she graduated from one phase to the next, always thinking "Maybe This Time," this was it (whether in life, love, or in song).

Monday, December 29, 2008

Interview & Film News: Jonathan Blitstein's "Let Them Chirp Awhile"


Although you can still occasionally catch him in a vintage video at two in the morning on public access television in Illinois, filmmaker and NYU graduate Jonathan Blitstein has come a long from rapping in MC Hammer pants to urge his second grade classroom to recycle.

For now-- roughly two decades later, he’s been able to add the title of "award-winning filmmaker" to his resume with Blitstein’s impressive feature-length debut, Let Them Chirp Awhile which is making its way into select cities following a successful run via the film festival circuit.

While the child who grew up longing to explore the heartland like Mark Twain, film an epic like Tim Burton or Steven Spielberg, or journey through New York as though he were a character in song by Bob Dylan still jokes that growing up in the Midwest led to his development of a “really strange imagination,” he knew that given his budget, he wouldn’t be able to film “Close Encounters of 3rd Avenue.”

Moving away from the tradition of the grand, big budget and effects driven films he cherished as a child, he penned a tale that was not only easier to finance and film but also far more personal in his work that centered on three artists (all with varying levels of insecurities and success) struggling to make it in New York City.

Initially opening with a seemingly Woody Allen inspired voice over and fantasy sequence involving people dressed as pigeons, quickly the film evolves into an earnest view at man/woman post-graduate relationships and the fear of what it takes to risk financially and personally to try and craft great art as our main character Bobby (Justin Rice) works himself into a neurotic frenzy constantly comparing his own plight to write a screenplay to the scribes who came before him, his best friend Scott (Brendan Sexton III) finds his love life getting in the way of his music, and the sleazy sell-out Hart (Zach Galligan) tries to cash in on 9/11 in a crude way by plagiarizing others including Bobby.

Although some critics and others have taken a narrow view of the film’s preoccupation with the twentsomething “me generation” and “walk and talk” style as just another work from the Mumblecore movement-- especially considering that it stars Andrew Bujalski’s frequent early leading man Justin Rice (Mutual Appreciation)-- the film is surprisingly humorous and sets a fast pace with a plot-filled structure and wears its literary influences proudly. Additionally, it sounds incredible as it's elevated by an inspired whimsical score from award-winning jazz composer and musician Giulio Carmassi and original pop songs by Bryan Scary.

Likewise, it has a specific and audacious cinematic style for each scene. Whether it’s in the employment of fast motion, odd angles, and an intriguing emphasis on multiple-character voice over that goes perfectly in sync with its tale of characters that primarily live in their minds while struggling to create—it only takes a few scenes to begin realizing that you’re viewing something quite different than run-of-the-mill “Mumblecore.”

Shot in just 18 breakneck days that were so “stressful and filled with anxiety” that Blitstein wound up in the hospital on day 11 where he was shocked to discover he “was born with one kidney,” the filmmaker’s pre-production preparation involving roughly 450 story boards to “pre-edit the film... before shooting” led to an impressive final cut that stayed nearly “95% accurate to what” he had drawn previously.

Tackling his “dream shots” head on which he likened to being a kid “throwing different colored paint on a canvas” by using his “fairly straight forward” script as a jumping off point to work in the type of visual style he admired from masters like Fellini, Hitchcock, Welles and others, with Chrip Blitstein made the decision that he “wanted very much to play in my sandbox” and also “stand out from other talky movies.”

Having cold-called agents of actors he admired, including Rice who was suggested by the professor and film scholar Ray Carney who pointed him the direction of the Mutual Appreciation website and Rice’s photo (which perfectly matched the “Jason Schwartzman” neurotic feel he wanted to incorporate), he also managed to cast an old Illinois acquaintance Anthony Rapp (Adventures in Babysitting, Rent) for a hilarious, understated cameo, inspired a new line of dialogue from Mr. Neil LaBute himself, and incorporated Tchaikovsky’s beautiful “Waltz of the Flowers” in his Fellini-esque expressionist ending.

Juggling $45,000 worth of debt on 8 credit cards following his 47 day period editing the film together on a 12” Mac laptop “that crashed over and over again,” by creating his very “own film studio in my apartment, my own Cine-citta” in the tradition of Herzog, Cassavetes, and Kubrick, Blitstein added yet another hat becoming his “post-production producer” supervising color correction during the lab print process. In the end, he turned a film he’d initially assumed would simply be “a black and white 16mm film shot in my apartment” into a full-fledged “real 35mm motion picture… [that he] could be proud of.”

Although there’s been interest as the film expands wider both nationally and internationally for a DVD release (which will be handled via a distributor, giving Blitstein a much needed break), the young filmmaker isn’t sure exactly what’s next for him creatively, going so far to joke that he’s even uncertain about how he’ll pay for his rent once 2009 hits as the door to becoming a law student has closed by now.

While I’m unsure if he can receive any royalties on that whole Hammer recycling video, this delightfully charming and smart indie that manages to tap right into the mindset of the nervous twentysomethings all striving to find employment and happiness in the economy and contemporary society wouldn’t have been half as authentic, if we didn’t believe that it was coming from a place that was very real—more specifically from Blitstein’s own thoughts and feelings as "one of us."

With an auspicious debut under his belt and a relentless passion for his vocation that overflows from his heart as a recent interview conducted via e-mail left me with my eyes swimming in priceless type-written pages of humble anecdotes. Something tells me that given his self-deprecating humor, scholarly insights, cinematic articulation, along with an underlying thread that he himself is still trying to wrap his head around the work that has consumed him for years-- while Blitstein’s characters need to Chirp Awhile to figure things out, the resourceful and affable filmmaker has only offered us another drop of birdseed of what will come.

Note: In the course of the two-part interview, Blitstein generously listed a great number of films, books, and music that he considered early favorites and influences and since great art shouldn't be ignored, I wanted to include some of these below so spin the carousels and take a look.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Soundtrack Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button -- Music From the Motion Picture (2 CD Set)

View the Trailer


Adapted from F. Scott Fitzgerald's intriguing short story about a child who is born elderly and then ages backwards for director David Fincher (Zodiac, Fight Club, Seven) by Forrest Gump and Munich screenwriter Eric Roth, the critically acclaimed big screen version of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button will arrive in theatres on Christmas Day.

A sweeping epic with a running time nearing the three hour mark, Button stars Brad Pitt in the titular role alongside the multiple award-winning cast including Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, Julia Ormond and Elias Koteas. While the circular nature of time and aging calls up images of clocks and mirrors to such an extent that mirror images abound throughout the 2-Disc beautifully packaged CD soundtrack set as Pitt and Blanchett are on opposite sides of the cover and the CDs themselves look like exact opposites with Disc 1 appearing with normal left to right font and Disc 2 presented with a backwards label, it's perhaps most intriguing that a composer also decided to also use this motif musically throughout.

The talented Oscar nominated and Award-winning Parisian born Alexandre Desplat (who has also crafted superb soundtracks for The Painted Veil, Lust Caution, Casanova and The Queen) is already generating as much Oscar buzz to equal the other talented involved in Fincher's film including the actors, screenwriter, and director. Highly sophisticated and classy, Desplat's score echoes the best loved cinematic soundtracks of the twentieth century by instantly transporting the listener to the various times and places that exist in the course of Button's life which spans from his birth at the end of World War I and death just before Hurricaine Katrina strikes New Orleans.

Reminiscent of the scores utilized in some of Hitchock's most romantic yet intriguing work like Rear Window and Vertigo along with the scores that caused the tears to flow heavily in the '50s films of director Douglas Sirk, Desplat's unique creation was composed with his strict goal to remain "powerful, yet very silent... delicate and prudent-- never showing off-- while always conveying the character's underlying emotions... [such as Benjamin Button's] great empathy with his situation as it illuminates his moments of sadness and questioning."

While the first disc is comprised entirely of Desplat's original score which was also conducted and produced by the composer along with Executive Album Producer and Sound Designer Ren Klycee who helped him "enlist... 87 exceptional musicians of the Hollywood Studio Symphony." Released by Concord Music Group, the remarkable transfer quality of the score is first rate and manages to avoid the trappings typical for soundtracks of forcing listeners to crank the volume up to ear piercing levels to catch the faintest sound of a bow on a violin string before the orchestra joins in.

As Pitt's character meets Blanchett's Daisy in "Meeting Daisy," Desplat begins the unabashedly romantic and old fashioned score that segues perfectly into the Sirk-like "A New Life," before humor and mystery arrive in the Hitchcockian "Love in Murmansk." Fitting for the enigmatic main character, "Mr. Button," sounds perfectly mysterious and Desplat grows livelier in various compositions that compliment the action listed in the track titles such as "Children's Games," and "Growing Younger" (which you can stream here in .qtl or .asx).

However, the standout of the album is the amazingly elegant and piano heavy closing track, "Benjamin and Daisy" (stream here via .qtl or .asx) that again makes you sense the mirror motif used throughout as each hand playing the keys acts as the perfect mate of the other.

In fact as the Concord release notes, "to mirror Benjamin's retrograde existence, Desplat created a main theme that can be played backwards as well as forwards," as likewise "other themes come and go, and chords switch from major to minor, as the clock ticks and characters disappear from the story."

Describing the experience as giving him "everything that a film can offer to a composer: A humanistic script by Eric Roth of a man's epic journey living his life biologically in reverse through a century, a heartbreaking love story played with intensity by two of the most glamorous and gifted actors of our times, the pulse of jazz in the city where he was born, a twist of witty humor, the metaphysical question of death, and the pure visual magic created by a genius director."

And it's precisely those ingredients including the pulse of magical jazz of New Orleans that make up the far more spirited and eclectic second disc of songs. Weaving in the dialogue of Pitt (in character) as well as other actors and actual historical sources (including FDR's "a date which will live in infamy") to establish the timeline, Button's second CD is filled with blues, jazz, Dixie, Big Band, standards, and '50s classics that kick off right away with the New Orleans sounding "We Shall Walk Through the Streets of the City," and followed up by some terrific cuts including the fun "Ostrich Walk," the sounds of tap shoes accentuating the beat of The Boswell Sisters' "That's How Rhythm Was Born," before it moves into cool and moodier blues territory with the Dixie-esque "Freight Train Blues" (which is not included in the film) and "Basin Street Blues."

Also providing some sultry and playful works by Louis Armstrong including "If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight)" and the wonderful "Dear Old Southland," a few of my other favorites included the remarkable and bittersweet "Out of Nowhere" by Sidney Bechet that follows up Pitt's dialogue marvelously in giving us a better insight to the character's loneliness and struggle to return home along with the lively Latin optimistic rhythms of "Skokiaan."

Additionally featuring the beautiful piano piece "Arabeske," as well as the heartbreaking and yearning "My Prayer" by The Platters before closing with "Bethena (A Concert Waltz)," it serves as a far reaching and wonderfully fulfilling musical experience for the listener by serving up such a mesmerizing musical variety that helps us-- even before we see the film-- try to gather all of the facts to solve David Fincher's Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Disc 1: Score
(Original Score Composed, Conducted and Produced by Alexandre Desplat)
1. Postcards (2:51)
2. Mr. Gateau (3:02)
3. Meeting Daisy (1:22)
4. A New Life (3:39)
5. Love in Murmansk (3:53)
6. Meeting Again (2:41)
7. Mr. Button (2:05)
8. "Little Man" Oti (2:02)
9. Alone at Night (2:33)
10. It Was Nice to Have Met You (1:43)
11. Children’s Games (4:10)
12. Submarine Attack (2:40)
13. The Hummingbird (2:35)
14. Sunrise on Lake Pontchartrain (3:33)
15. Daisy’s Ballet Career (2:03)
16. The Accident (2:38)
17. Stay Out of My Life (1:44)
18. Nothing Lasts (2:54)
19. Some Things You Never Forget (1:36)
20. Growing Younger (2:14)
21. Dying Away (2:58)
22. Love Returns (1:44)
23. Benjamin and Daisy (2:32)

Disc 2: Songs
1. “My name is Benjamin” – Benjamin Button (:27)
2. We Shall Walk Through the Streets of the City – Doc Paulin’s Marching Band (3:17)
Courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Records
3. “Some days I feel different” – Queenie & Benjamin Button (:21)
4. Ostrich Walk – Frank Trumbauer and His Orchestra featuring Bix Beiderbecke (3:12)
(Edwin Edwards/James La Rocca/H.N. Ragas/Anthony Sbarbaro/Larry Shields)
5. “How old are you?” – Benjamin Button & The Preacher (:11)
6. That's How Rhythm Was Born – The Boswell Sisters (2:57)
(Nat Burton/J.C. Johnson/George Whiting)
7. “When was the last time you had a woman?” – Benjamin Button & Captain Mike (:18)
8. Freight Train Blues – Billie & DeDe Pierce (5:34)
(Traditional) Arranged by Billie Pierce
9. Basin Street Blues – Preservation Hall Jazz Band (7:36)
(Spencer Williams)
Edwin H. Morris & Co., Inc. (ASCAP)
10. “Thanksgiving, 1930” – Benjamin Button (:07)
11. If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight) – Louis Armstrong and His Sebastian New Cotton Club Orchestra (3:36) (Henry Creamer/James Johnson)
12. “What's YOUR secret?” – Captain Mike & Benjamin Button (:28)
13. Chanson Sur Staline – Choeur de la Cathedral de la Rue Daru, Paris XVII (3:09)
(Matvey Blanter/Alexej Surkov)
14. “A date which will live in infamy...” – Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1941 (:19)
15. Arabeske for Piano in C Major Op. 18 (3:23)
(Robert Schumann)
16. “Coming home” – Benjamin Button (:12)
17. Out of Nowhere – Sidney Bechet (3:04)
(Johnny Green/Edward Heyman)
18. Dear Old Southland – Louis Armstrong (3:19)
(Henry Creamer/Turner Layton)
19. “Defined by opportunities” – Benjamin Button (:05)
20. “Skokiaan- Perez Prado & His Orchestra (2:38)
21. “Things Are Becoming Different For Me…”- Benjamin Button (:17)
22. “My Prayer”- The Platters (2:46)
23: “Bethena (A Concert Waltz)- Randy Kerber (5:43)

Monday, December 22, 2008

Soundtrack Review: Defiance -- Music from the Motion Picture

Own It


Although world renowned violinist Joshua Bell notes that he doesn't normally contribute to many film scores, filmmaker Edward Zwick's upcoming World War II film Defiance held a personal interest for the virtuoso.

"I come from a Jewish heritage," he explained in the Sony BMG press release, elaborating that, "my grandmother lived very close to where the story takes place-- yet I was shocked that I'd never heard this story. It was eye opening for me."

To score the epic true story of three brothers (played by Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell) who escape massacre and decide to "avenge the deaths of their loved ones by saving thousands of others," filmmaker Edward Zwick called upon the seven-time Oscar nominated composer James Newton Howard, with whom he'd collaborated on a previous film, Blood Diamond.

To honor the lost artists who perished during the Holocaust, Zwick made a decision to strive for a score "that was not only appropriate historically but also emotionally appropriate." And as "the sound of the violin is central to Eastern European Jewish culture; it is the sound of what was lost. And so it became the centerpiece, with everything else embroidered around it."

Taking what he described as "a minimalist approach, with the score's melodies rooted in simple harmonies," Howard found precisely the right musician to use his bow to elicit great sadness, unexpected joy, romance, courage and more with Bell who agreed with Zwick's importance on the instrument for this story in particular, observing that the strings of a violin produce "a sound that goes straight to the heart."

Yet while Howard is modest about his work, claiming that Bell "took the score and made it a thousand times beter," by offering up solos in all but two of the fifteen tracks included on the Sony soundtrack, intriguingly on the first listen, I didn't do any research beforehand and discovered that the track that had the greatest impact on me as a listener was "The Bielski Otriad," which incidentally is one of the two that does not feature a Bell solo.

An epic piece of composition that works in movements, satisfying our ears by providing numerous phrases which are used elsewhere on the album but putting them together to craft a more complicated work-- it begins with an eerie, dark foreshadowing that's followed by a peculiar use of high timpani or bells until it builds into identifiable rhythm that welcomes the rushing strings which join in nearly three minutes into the track, changing emotional tone numerous times throughout.

Yet, as promised-- the violin is the major star of the album with Bell incorporating his most contemplative and mournful sound in the all too brief second track "Survivors" (sadly one of many that-- true to the soundtrack form-- end far too quickly). Using what seems to be external ambient noises like a train or ticking, Howard surprises us throughout, which is a benefit as unfortunately a few too many of the tracks sound way too similar and even with the best speakers, you'll need to crank the album fairly loudly to distinguish one from the next.

While overall, it's a somber and extremely serious sounding score that fits in well with its cinematic companion as we can nearly picture some of the intense action occuring as "Bella and Zus" begins with a somber masculine bass that evolves into a beautiful blend of other orchestral instruments and percussion until the anticipation pushes the piece to a driving climax that ends abruptly, with the much more romantic yet bittersweet "Exodus" taking over.

Returning to some of the main themes heard earlier in "Nothing is Impossible,"somehow the music has become far more soulful as it nears its conclusion and due to the gravity of the piece, it's perhaps not an album you'd want to listen to too many times as it seems both hauntingly beautiful yet equally mororse. However, it's still an outstanding achievement and collaboration of Howard and Bell that's a treat for their mutual and definatly dedicated fans.

Track Listing:
Violin Solos by Joshua Bell (except tracks 5 & 8)
1. Defiance Main Titles
2. Survivors
3. Make Them Count
4. Your Wife
5. The Bielski Otriad
6. Bella and Zus
7. Exodus
8. Camp Montage
9. The Wedding
10. Winter
11. Escaping the Ghetto
12. Police Station
13. Tuvia Kisses Lilka
14. Nothing is Impossible
15. The Bielski Brothers/Ikh Bin A Mame

Music DVD Review: The Story of The Yardbirds

"Dazed & Confused"
And With a "Heart Full of Soul":
Own The Story of The Yardbirds


When Mick Jagger and the rest of The Rolling Stones left their steady gig rocking the feisty crowds of young Brits at Giorgio Gomelsky's Crawdaddy Club, Gomelsky surprised everyone by deciding he wouldn't move along to manage The Stones.

Instead, he realized he had an audible rock and soul hole to fill in putting together a new house band. And in 1963, he took it upon himself to become the earliest manager by helping to form the next British Invasion sensation, The Yardbirds.

Although they would get lost in the international shuffle with The Rolling Stones and The Beatles dominating the charts, thankfully it seems that many decades later we're finally realizing just how important they were as a band with their unique blend of soul, R&B and later early psychedelic rock that became the group's signature.

Consider the talent that was involved in one time or another as Parke Puterbaugh wrote in his Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 liner notes, "By now, everyone knows the Yardbirds legend, if not their music; the band graduated three of the great Ph.D.s of rock guitar: Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page."

In their brief five year period, the band became a regular musical fixture in the West End of London club scene and cranked out a remarkable number of hits including "For Your Love," "Heart Full of Soul, "I'm a Man," "I Wish You Would," "Shapes of Things," "My Girl Sloopy," "Train Kept Rolling," "Over, Under, Sideways, Down," and "Dazed and Confused," which band-mate Jimmy Page later made even more famous with Led Zeppelin ("whose original moniker was the New Yardbirds" as the DVD booklet notes).

Known as "The Most Blueswailing Band," the group initially fought to get out of the limelight of The Rolling Stones by distinguishing themselves as something entirely different in a series of successful live shows. However, because they were such a club sensation, The Yardbirds struggled with taking the faster, harder, and louder atmosphere of their live raucous recordings and transfer that same energy to a record.

Using a rigid twelve-bar blues sequence-- The Yardbirds, much like The Animals later-- employed a remarkably unique and very soulful sound to their work. And in the Yardbirds' case, it was accentuated by their bluesy reliance on a harmonica and inventive rock guitar riffs whether it was using a violin bow or testing the limits of their short-lived guitarist Eric Clapton, along with Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page who would all go on to create legendary bands of their own.

While the lineup would change, their commitment to the music reigned supreme as they designed more impressive hooks and as Puterbaugh shared, they served as "the bridge betwen the tributary white R&B of early-sixties London and the pastures of fuzz-toned pschedlia and power-chord heavy metal plowed much later in the decade and throughout the seventies."

And indeed, just by watching this fascinating roughly hour long documentary that utilizes rare interview footage, archival performances, and candid details from numerous members including Jeff Beck, you can see the vast influence that the varying guitarists had on the landscape of music. Although I must admit that it was bittersweet when you realize that the band's voice and frontman-- harmonica extraordinaire Keith Relf has passed away (from an electric guitar shock at home in the '70s) since you can't imagine anyone else singing "I'm a Man... I spell M-A-N... man."

Despite this, it's wonderful to explore their musical contributions that are so easily lumped together with other '60s British bands and overshadowed by the main two-- The Beatles and The Stones. And while it's highly recommended to anyone who loves classic rock-- the best part of the DVD was actual hidden mong its bonus footage as we witness a live concert filmed on March 31, 1967 for German TV.

Originally shot for the program "Beat -- Beat -- Beat", this concert reveals their stamina and power as we watch the guys command an audience who doesn't speak their language (and indeed the intro and commentator rattles away in German without subtitles) by quickly jumping into an awesome fourteen minute set of songs featuring Page on guitar that'll leave you breathless and eager to try and track down their albums.

Of course, it'd be a dream if all the British Invasion bands would be given the crisp audio and digital DVD and CD treatment in a fan friendly box set, in the meantime, guitar enthusiasts, fans of Page, Clapton, and Beck, as well as the rest of the 'Birds won't want to let this one fly out of the yard.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Concert DVD Review: Nickelback -- Live at Sturgis 2006


In one of their many poignant rock ballads about the complexities of romantic relationships and what happens when love turns from a "paperback novel" into "Hollywood horror," Nickelback frontman Chad Kroeger vocalizes, "these five words in my head scream "are we having fun yet?" And when it comes to seeing Nickelback live and in concert, he and his three other band-mates not only want to make sure everyone is "having fun," but shortly after their 2006 "Rockin' The Rally" show in Sturgis, South Dakota begins, " he yells out a question to the sold-out, adoring and rabid fanbase of 35,000 screaming participants by asking them if they're "ready to have a good f***in' time tonight?!"

However, since this Sturgis show was being filmed for the band's first live DVD release in six years for an exclusive patronage of Walmart shoppers, Chad's language is cleaned up with the obligatory over-dubs of silent blanks to camoflauge his love of the f-bomb not to mention the many, many young women who inexplicably felt the need to party like it's Woodstock in 1969 by flashing their breasts which are also blocked from sight in the twelve song DVD concert.

So while it's not an authentic Nickelback experience the likes of which my enthusiast brother has shared stories of with me for months since seeing them live, it's the next best thing to see the guys in all of their guitar metal and pyrotechnic glory rocking it hard and fast for a select 35,000 member crowd lucky enough to score tickets out of the 500,000 bikers who rev into the otherwise "sleepy town of Sturgis" for one week in August every single year for "Rockin' the Rally" and Sturgis Bike Week events.

With a crowd filled with enough leather to send a PETA spokesperson into a nervous breakdown and enough piercings and tattoos to make any suburban mother hit still pause and warn their daughter that she's never supposed to bring one of those bad boys home for dinner, the band rips into some of their greatest hits including their first big radio friendly smash "How You Remind Me" that played nonstop during the year of 2001 as well as other favorites including "Photograph," "Someday," and "Savin' Me," all of which get the audience singing along.

Alternating between their power ballads and fast-living and loving, they journey into their darker territory with tunes like "Never Again," which-- while performed well-- manages to hit a sour note by following up Chad Kroeger's compliment to the beautiful female breasts being flashed his direction with its segue into a song about horrific physical abuse.

Filmed with fifteen high definition cameras including one poor cameraman literally hanging out of a helicopter to get the shots he wanted as he flies above the concert-- the picture and sound quality is second to none, giving DVD buyers the opportunity to watch it with four different sound options including DTS, Dolby 5.1 Digital Surround Sound, Stero, and SRS Circle Surround. In fact, it was such an impressive transfer that seemed like so much painstaking technical work had been involved in its creation that I was only surprised to discover that it wasn't released in the Blu-ray option as well to guarantee the highest definition in picture quality.

The DVD also features a music video for their newer hit "Rockstar," a twelve page gorgeous oversized booklet of photos and information, a roughly seventeen minute documentary that takes you behind-the-scenes as the guys discuss life rocking audiences a la Groundhog Day with the same circus over and over again until a" switch flips" and they go into "muscle memory" to give an energetic show (also helped by B-12 shots), along with a Sturgis 101 Vignette, and Photo Gallery.

While the length of the show transferred to DVD is disapointing as it only boasts twelve songs especially considering it's the first live DVD release since 2002 and die-hard purists will be disappointed by the censorship of Kroeger and the female flashers, it's a great celebration of their power as a performance band to fire-up that many people within seconds as well as a testament of their musical diversity when you realize the intracacies of the lyrics of some of the song where the drums, bass, and dueling guitars threaten to overpower the words.

Available exclusively at Walmart although there are some DVDs also popping up from sellers via Amazon, Nickelback Live at Sturgis 2006 makes a nice companion disc to ensure their fans are "having fun yet" alongside their November 18 CD release of their newest album Dark Horse, which the guys collaborated on with the legendary Robert John "Mutt" Lange.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Soundtrack Review: Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket -- Short Film Soundtrack (Digital Only Release)

Read the Feature Film Review

Highly Recommended: (A Film Intuition Favorite)


Proof of the inaccuracy of test audience screenings, director Wes Anderson’s first film Bottle Rocket, co-written and starring his college classmate (a then unknown) Owen Wilson, received the worst test screenings point scores of any film in the history of Columbia Pictures at the time of its release, according to IMDb. Now a cult favorite, Bottle Rocket-- a remake of Anderson’s short film of the same name-- developed a small loyal following that grew successively with the release of Anderson’s follow-up films Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums.

Winner of the MTV Movie Award for Best New Filmmaker and numerous accolades for the debuts of Wes, Owen and co-star Luke Wilson, Anderson also received a double honor for both Rocket and his next film Rushmore from the LA Film Critics Association.

, which benefits from a highly intelligent, offbeat and genuinely funny screenplay—complete with unexpected warmth and heart (that would become their trademark as evidenced in Tenenbaums) was produced by director James L. Brooks (Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets) and Polly Platt (producer of The Last Picture Show).

Owen is terrific as aimless slacker Dignan, who, at the start of the film helps plan the “escape” for his friend Anthony’s release from a voluntary mental hospital in Arizona where Anthony had checked himself in for exhaustion, despite-- as his kid sister points out-- the fact that he’s never actually worked a day in his life.

Once back in Texas, Dignan, Anthony and their wealthy friend Bob (who joins the gang simply because he has a license and access to a car) concoct a plot to rob a local bookstore for no apparent reason other than boredom, although in the mind of Dignan, the robbery is the start of a grand plan to live a lucrative life of crime, working for his former landscaping company boss Mr. Henry (James Caan).

Once on the lam, the three have differences in priority as Anthony finds love with a beautiful maid, Bob feels a sense of familial obligation when his brother Future Man (another Wilson brother) is apprehended, and Dignan tries to get everyone else interested in hiding their identities and moving on to an even bigger score.

Innovative, hip and delightfully nerdy—one critic called Bottle Rocket “Reservoir Geeks,” which, while an admitted understatement, does make sense as the film relishes in its laid-back approach to crime, with characters who are earnest and na├»ve as opposed to Elmore Leonard rip-off cardboard cut-outs spouting pop culture, anger and exposition. Simply put they are three basic twenty-somethings trying to get on with their lives and it’s a delightful treat to watch.

While Tenenbaums is their undisputed masterpiece, Bottle Rocket is still my favorite Anderson film for frequent viewings and helps set up the cinematic promise and mastery produced in the others.

Side Note: The film also gained a fan in director Martin Scorsese who, when a guest critic on Ebert’s TV show selected the film as one of his personal favorites from the 1990’s.

Now in 2008, with the release of Rocket from those technological wizards at the Criterion Collection who'd also released Anderson's other masterpieces including Tenenbaums and Rushmore as part of their impressive library-- they're finally giving the original opus the Criterion treatment to Rocket in both DVD and Blu-ray form. While I have yet to experience the product, I was especially intrigued upon learning that the original short film that Anderson crafted which inspired his cult hit would also be included in the Criterion set.

As music has always played a tremendously vital role in the work of the filmmaker as some of his most cinematic moments have been strengthened by the usage of some truly amazing music (such as the Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzbaum rivalry set to The Who in Rushmore and the bird flying high up into the sky to The Beatles at the start of Tenenbaums), it's only fitting that finally the music from the Bottle Rocket short film has been issued as well.

As his longtime musical supervisor Randall Poster astutely observed, Anderson has "managed to turn people on to music that was undervalued and overlooked," with not only his "wonderful taste" but also his "great instincts for using music and choreographing it with stunning imagery and great emotion."

Finally delivered in a digital only release via Amazon and iTunes-- it's an eclectic mixture of jazz that would show up later in his films and a far cry from the predominantly pop heavy tracks (by The Proclaimers and Rolling Stones, etc.) in the feature-film which was scored by former Devo performer Mark Mothersbaugh.

Since "the studio didn't want us to use jazz in the feature version," as Anderson recalled, the release of this album finally allows the filmmaker who didn't have the money to pay for the song rights when he was starting out the opportunity to finally "put out this [particular] soundtrack... and present the music properly."

Serving up eight tracks which equal more than thirty minutes of listening time-- more than double the length of the thirteen minute short-- as soon as the soundtrack begins, we feel as though we've wandered into a late '50s and early '60s Greenwich Village jazz club. "Inspired by the use of American jazz in French new wave movies like Breathless," as Anderson notes in the press release, the director and Randall Poster weave a wonderfully diverse and eclectic rhythmic tapestry "of some of my favorite jazz music" as Anderson notes.

Beginning with Artie Shaw's "The Chant," which offered a terrific showcase for the dubbed "King of the Clarinet" who was known for using "stringed instruments to fuse classical and jazz music, [which] delved into hard driving bebop" in his formation of "'chamber jazz,'" the opening track makes one long to each reach for a hula-hoop or snap your fingers like you're an extra in West Side Story. Visually the peppy tune seems to recall the work of director Woody Allen and makes a wonderful choice to choreograph action to before the soundtrack moves into tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins' experimental "Old Devil Moon."

Clocking in at a little over eight minutes and introducing listeners to Rollins the improvisational virtuoso whose "trademarks became a caustic, often humorous style of melodic invention," the song has an interesting personality that seems like it's especially in tune with the scheming characters of Rocket.

Venturing down "The Route" with Chet Baker and Art Pepper which takes the piano keys and moves it into a boogie until it adds in horn and percussion almost ninety seconds in, the real piano standout hits us in the fourth track. An Anderson favorite whose music has shown up throughout the director's work in tribute to the man "best known for composing music for animated adaptations of the Peanuts Comic Strip," Vince Guaraldi''s insanely beautiful musical contradiction of power and delicacy-- "Skating" floats into the mix as the first of two inclusions by the composer.

While he'd return with the sophisticated romantic track "Happiness Is," which recalls "It's Almost Like Being in Love," a few tracks later, it's "Skating" that marks the album's standout and you can stream it here (in either .qtl or .asx). A song where the pretty sounding key impressions seem to evoke thoughts of piano based raindrops strengthened with a wispy percussion-- Vince Guaraldi skates up and down the keyboard as a mixture of the rebellion and innocence of the characters who personify the Anderson universe.

Additionally, the album from Fantasy Records also offers choice cuts from Duke Ellington and John Coltrane ("Stevie") and the Zoot Sims Quartet, who end the soundtrack with the deep and fast "Jane-O" (which can also be streamed .qtl or .asx). Yet, another highlight comes in the form of Horace Silver Trio's "Nothing But the Soul," which boasts an incredibly wild yet instantly addictive drum performance by the legendary Art Blakey.

An irresistible chance "to hear the seeds of" the filmmaker's musical passion and creativity as Poster explains, it's especially impressive to hear these compositions on any soundtrack, let alone one that would mark a directorial debut and ultimately the man's "starting point." And this is all the more paramount as over a decade later we still find him returning to intriguing musical exploration throughout his career, with the most recent embrace of classic Indian scores for The Darjeeling Limited.

While the ultimate gift to Anderson fans would be the Criterion Collection which showcases both versions of his groundbreaking smash which launched not just his own career but introduced the world to the Wilson Brothers as well-- be sure to give your CD storage cabinet a much needed rest by looking for this exclusive digital release which flies like a Rocket crashing right back into the heart of American jazz of yesteryear.

Track Listing
(Download on iTunes)

1) "The Chant"
(Artie Shaw)
Artie Shaw - Bottle Rocket (Short Film Soundtrack) - The Chant

2) "Old Devil Moon"
(Sonny Rollins)
Sonny Rollins - Bottle Rocket (Short Film Soundtrack) - Old Devil Moon

3) "The Route"
(Chet Baker & Art Pepper)
Chet Baker & Art Pepper - Bottle Rocket (Short Film Soundtrack) - The Route

4) "Skating"
(Vince Guaraldi Trio)
Vince Guaraldi Trio - Bottle Rocket (Short Film Soundtrack) - Skating

5) "Stevie"
(Duke Ellington & John Coltrane)
John Coltrane & Duke Ellington - Bottle Rocket (Short Film Soundtrack) - Stevie

6) "Nothing But the Soul"
(Horace Silver Trio)
Horace Silver - Bottle Rocket (Short Film Soundtrack) - Nothing But the Soul

7) "Happiness Is"
(Vince Guaraldi Trio)
Vince Guaraldi Trio - Bottle Rocket (Short Film Soundtrack) - Happiness Is

8) "Jane-O"
(Zoot Sims Quartet)
Zoot Sims Quartet - Bottle Rocket (Short Film Soundtrack) - Jane-O

Wes Anderson:
The Feature Film Soundtracks

Bottle Rocket

Visit the Official Website

The Trailer

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