The following music reviews were originally slated for publication in the February 2007 issue of az magazine. They appear here in unrevised form:
Pernice Brothers‘ beautifully crafted pop has gotten play on TV fare such as Six Feet Under and The Gilmore Girls. The group’s music nicely complements the tone of both shows: sweet on the outside, bitter and ironic on the inside. The sixth and latest Pernice album, Live a Little (Ashmont), augments the creamy melodies of previous efforts with a string section (not heard since 1998’s Overcome by Happiness). They’re not reinventing the wheel here, but on the other hand why mess with brilliance? Worth getting for the caustic lyrics and Joe Pernice’s fascinating voice, as light and ethereal as an extended sigh.
Nanci Griffith has always been a singer-songwriter proudly unbound by categories (Is she Country? Pop? Folk?), which makes whatever she’s currently involved in all the more intriguing. With her all-covers collection Ruby’s Torch (Rounder), Griffith saunters through compositions by Tom Waits and Jimmy Webb, Frank Sinatra’s “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” and even the ’70s MOR standby “Bluer than Blue”. She creates a consistent mood with her smoky, authoritative voice — making this effort a perfect “nighttime wine sipping on the veranda” disc.
Brooklyn’s The Hold Steady emerged from obscurity and delivered one of 2006’s most critically acclaimed albums with the unapologetically fun Boys and Girls in America (Vagrant). The band strikes just the right combination of tight and rowdy rock ‘n roll and evocative lyrics on barflies, bad girlfriends, and disillusioned youth just aching to have a good time. If that description sounds like the Bruce Springsteen of thirty years ago, you have the right idea. Proving their depth, the group supplements this mostly upbeat set with a couple of first-rate ballads (“First Night” and “Citrus”).
The screenshot below illustrates what I’ve been working at all day. Tell me, designers, have you ever had to deal with a bitmap file with an unwanted halftone pattern in the background? The only method to get rid of said pattern is to painstakingly chip away at it with an eraser in extreme close-up. It’s a bitch.
Going through the 1973-74 episodes on Sesame Street Old School Vol. 1 gave me some of the weirdest “deja vu” feelings. Cartoons and skits buried in the subconscious for thirty years flashed back as if I just saw them yesterday. Case in point is the following clip of two muppets singing “Me/Yo,” a perky tribute to the ‘Lil Narcissist in all of us. Ayn Rand would approve, I’m sure. I can appreciate the quality and craftsmanship that went into these things much more as an adult — and really, Joe Rapaso must’ve written these tunes in his sleep, they’re so great. The only bad part lies in how once the song enters your head, it has a tough time leaving.
I’m proud to be a part of the first issue of LAB magazine, a new online and print publication (you can download a pdf at the site). According to the intro from editor Joseph Robertson, the magazine will focus on various independent creative types — “a new breed who are actively creating what they want to see in the media and in the market, not content to sit still and passively consume the same old slop.” Gnarly, huh? I contributed a comic titled “My Workday” detailing a typical day in this freelance designer’s life. The comic stands as somewhat of an exaggeration, but not really — you’ll have to see it. This inagural issue is jam-packed with interviews and articles on people like Derek Powazek, Ray Fenwick and my bestest friend Julie Jackson of Subversive Cross Stich fame (her piece is illustrated with the S.C.S. mascot I created for her, a lady we informally call “retrohead gal”). Nice work, Joseph!
Bad news: my monthly music review column for a local magazine (which I wrote about here) has been cancelled. In laying out the first issue, the editors decided that music reviews (along with book reviews, which were to be written by Christopher) didn’t fit in with the rest of the content of this magazine. I’m saddened, but having worked in the business for a time I know that stories and pieces get shelved all the time for all sorts of reasons, logical and not. The thing to concentrate on now is what to do with what’s already been completed. The two batches of three reviews I’ve written will end up getting posted here in the future — to a smaller but more appreciative audience! I also have new and upcoming releases by The Shins, The Autumn Defense, Sondre Lerche and Dean & Britta in the pike to write about. Those’ll end up getting covered here, too.
On a more positive note, I recently bought a couple of excellent “Free” releases for entirely personal, not professional, reasons. The first was the re-release of The Free Design’s trippy 1970 masterpiece Stars/Time/Bubbles/Love by Light In The Attic Records. My friend Ion tipped me that all of the F.D. reissues were just made available for download on eMusic, so I immediately signed up and snatched this one. For those who don’t know, The Free Design was a brilliant but hitless easy-pop combo who plied original songs (courtesy of founding member Chris Dedrick) and gorgeous harmonies on several 1967-73 albums. Part of their appeal was in how the jewel-perfect, swingin’ ’60s production of Enoch Light often masked the imperfect underbelly of the songs. For example, the magificently dense “Bubbles” seems bouncy and cute enough on the surface, but it also revolves around the lyrics “Bubblegum kinda keeps my heart from gettin’ heavy and crying.” The tears of a clown, indeed!
My second purchase was an expensive impulse buy of the 1996 Japanese compilation Free Soul: Vibes. The Free Soul collections were put together by Toru Hashimoto (who also did the wonderful Cafe Apres Midi discs) with an accent on smooth ‘n funky ’70s obscurities. We’re talking really obscure here, with some songs that have never appeared on CD anywhere else. For instance, this edition leads off with a track by girl group The Fuzz. Logically it would have been their only hit (the dreamy “I Love You For All Seasons”) represented here, but instead we have a cut buried on side 2 of their one album (“Search Your Mind”). And it’s excellent! Note that this disc contains two tracks from one-hit-wonders Blue Swede, and yet it never sounds cheezy. Lots of goodies here and considering its 77-minute length, a bargain. Check this Japanese fansite for the other Free Souls.
Recently I re-watched Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star, a documentary included on the Mildred Pierce DVD, and marvelled at how well-made it was. It made me think about how tricky it is to make a good doc, especially with a subject matter where most of the participants are no longer with us. With many vintage film DVDs, it’s a logical choice to have documentaries on the star or the director (or even the technical process; see the great Technicolor doc included on The Adventures of Robin Hood). What are your favorite DVD “Making Of”s? I have a few of mine, along with a couple of notoriously bad ones, listed below — note that I’m just including older films here, since they’re more challenging to make than the typical recent Hollywood product.
Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star (on Warner’s Mildred Pierce) Nicely made doc goes a long way to disprove Joan’s “Mommie Dearest” image, even with interviews from daughter Christina (who, after all, knew JC pretty well).
Cleopatra: The Film That Changed Hollywood (on Fox’s Cleopatra: Five Star Collection) This was a two-hour special which originally aired on the pre-crap edition of the AMC channel. Watching it is like viewing a train wreck in slow motion — and it’s refreshing that the makers acknowledge that this is a flawed film with a fascinating production history.
Preston Sturges: The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer (on Criterion’s Sullivan’s Travels) Kind of cheating here since this one originally aired as part of PBS’s Great Performances, but this one was beautifully produced and delved into every facet of Sturges’ life.
The Making of American Graffiti (on Universal’s American Graffiti: Collector’s Edition) What impressed me about this one is how just about everyone connected to this film got involved with loving recollections — even the reclusive Harrison Ford and bit players Suzanne Somers and Kathleen Quinland.
Freaks: Sideshow Cinema (on Warner’s Freaks) Notable for being longer than the film it covers, this one did not have the benefit of interviews with anyone involved (since they’re all dead) but nevertheless has a lot of neat tidbits on the production. It leaves you in awe that a film this utterly unique was ever completed.
All About The Birds (on Universal’s The Birds) This might be a nostalgic choice, since The Birds counted among the very first DVDs in my collection. But it’s another excellent production, long but not overlong, with choice recollections from Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, Veronica Cartwright and Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia.
Destination Hitchcock: The Making of North By Northwest (on Warner’s North By Northwest) Another one that was very enthralling and expertly made.
Memories of Giant and Return to Giant (on Warner’s Giant: Two Disc Special Edition) Rock and James are deceased and Elizabeth wasn’t talking, so all were left with is ramblings from supporting and bit players in two docs as spiritless and boring as the Texas landscape portrayed in the film.
Celebrating Dumbo (on Disney’s Dumbo: Big Top Edition) For such an innocuous film, Dumbo actually had an interesting and thorny production — but you’d never know it from the endless, superficial puffery in this doc. Yeah, we already know it’s a good movie. Jeez.