Pop Culture Gadabout
Wednesday, March 07, 2007
      ( 3/07/2007 10:39:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"NEVER MORE TO BE FREE" – Ten minutes after I posted last week's Dressy Bessy mid-week music vid, I realized that I'd put up energy-themed videos for two weeks in a row. So why not go with the electrical flow? Here's Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark's classic "Electricity":

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Tuesday, March 06, 2007
      ( 3/06/2007 05:35:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"SET YOUR MIND FOR A CHANCE TO BE HAPPY" - (In which we continue our reconsideration of Collector's Choice Music's recent reissue of a bunch of 4 Seasons discs.)

The Seventies And Beyond

If Genuine Imitation Life Gazette was the 4 Seasons' failed attempt at garnering hip cred, follow-up Half & Half (1970) can perhaps be seen at the core Seasons' swansong. (Founding members Tommy DeVito & Bob Gaudio both retired from live performing before the release of 1972's Chameleon, the group's sole Motown release.) Per the title, the album is only half a 4 Seasons record. Alternating group tracks with cuts designed to build from lead singer Valli's '67 solo success with "Can't Take My Eyes Off You," it pretty much lives up to its billing as a sporadically satisfying record: half pop and half schlock. Though it's tempting to draw a thick line of demarcation 'tween the Seasons songs and the Valli songs (especially when listening to an egregious bit of "inspirational" hokum like Valli's "To Make My Father Proud"), the fact is both sides stumble in their piecemeal pursuit for a seventies hit. Listening to the attempts at early seventies sweetening (hey, there's the obligatory pedal steel guitar!), at times it all sounds more than a little desperate. And did we really need to end the album with a version of "Oh, Happy Day"?

Still, Half/Half contains two sweetly done minor hits: a great remake of Della Reese's 1957 pop hit "And That Reminds Me" which is comparable to the Beach Boys' remake of the Ronettes' "I Can Hear Music," plus "Patch of Blue." Both tracks effectively pit Valli's lead against the other Seasons' soaring harmonies. Album opener "Emily," a solo take on the Laura Nyro song, is also plenty fine, even if its frantic conclusion can't hold up to Nyro's original version, while a group sing written by Chip "Wild Thing" Taylor entitled "Sorry" is engagingly campy in a sixties Cali pop kinda way. (With its sitar outro, it sounds like a track that might've accidentally left off Gazette.) But a few smooth tracks can't mask the fact that this once mighty hit machine was no longer working up to full capacity.

Disco saved the boys' asses, of course. After bumping up against the faux naturelle sounds of the singer/songwriter seventies, the plastic urbanity of disco proved the Seasons' salvation. Even if Gaudio was no longer touring with the Seasons, he soldiered on as the group's core songwriter and studio maven: it was he who co-wrote their boys' two big dance club hits: "Who Loves You" and "December 1963 (Oh, What A Night)," which would prove to be the Seasons' longest chart-topper. CCM's batch of reissues doesn't include the studio elpee which featured both singles (1975's Who Loves You), though both songs are showcased on the 1980 concert set, Reunited Live, that is a part of the series. But, before we consider that record, we need to take in the second half of the Half & Half/Helicon reissue, originally released in 1977.

While Half divided its tracks between group and solo, Helicon is only marginally Valli's: only one track features him as solo lead (the seriously sappy closer "I Believe in You"), while relative newcomers Gerry Polci and Don "Mister Dieingly Sad" Ciccone take the lead on tracks like "If We Should Lose Our Love" and "Let's Get It Right." The results – if you'll forgive one last Beach Boys comparison – are rather like listening to Bruce Johnston or Blondie Chaplin handling vocals in the years Brian Wilson was incommunicado: pleasant enough but nowhere near the group at their most exciting. And at its worst, the elpee sounds like some unholy blending of Air Supply and the Doobie Brothers. The only time Helicon truly flies is in Gaudio's buoyant disco track, "Rhapsody," featuring both Valli and Ciccone on vocals plus a sessioning Duane Allman on the Hammond keybs. When the song hits an extended instrumental break and Frankie's falsetto zooms in over it, the rush is almost enough to elevate the rest of this MOR placeholder.

Valli temporarily quit the group in '77, but three years later, he reunited with members of the disco era Seasons for a two-record Warner Bros. live set. Not surprisingly, given the group's personnel, the emphasis in Reunited Live is on the disco biggies – along with those solo tracks Valli also made hits in the same era: "Swearin' to God," "My Eyes Adored You" and Barry Gibb's "Grease." The early sixties hits get crammed into a trio of medleys, primarily creating the impression that these once mighty singles are little more than a series of catchy li'l choruses. While this tack may be satisfying in a live setting, it's much less so in a recording of that concert – especially for listeners like myself who have taken the early songs' "stories" to heart. For fans who primarily love the group for its mid-seventies stuff, though, Reunited is probably the Collector's Choice reissue to get. The boys' well-oiled performances are danceliciously crowd-pleasing, though leaving "Rhapsody" off the set is a minor disappointment.

With 1985's Streetfighter (check out that cover photo of Frankie and the gang lookin' all menacing!), producer Gaudio and songwriter Sandy Linzer turned toward the then-prevailing synth-heavy New Wave sound for their sonic pallet, and the results were surprisingly effective. The boys' remake of "Book of Love" even deliberately recalls ABC's "Look of Love" in its tongue-in-cheek opener, while throbbingly infectious tracks like Linzer & Irwin Levine's (the man behind many of Tony Orlando's hits) "Veronica" or Corbetta/Crew's "Commitment" (sounds like the title for a Spandau Ballet song, doesn't it?) could've probably been hits if they'd been tackled by dapper video-friendly young guys instead. And as the cover hints, you can even hear an attempt at returning to the Jersey Boys' hardscrabble roots in some of the lyrics, most notably the title song wherein our narrator recalls bringing a baseball bat to school to fend off bullies and brags about his ability to hot-wire a car. Not that far removed from the street braggadocio of rappers-to-be, when you think about it.

1993's Hope + Glory maintains the same sense of synth plasticity and, more importantly, features Valli more consistently stepping into the vocal forefront – and even tosses in a brief (regrettable) snippet of rap into the mix ("Just the Way You Make Love"). If the results aren't stellar, it's still somewhat comforting to hear the man holding onto the lead and showing that he still hit the high notes, even if the first track (the discoid "Love Has A Mind of Its Own") opens up by making him sound like he's about to sing the extended version of a Duran Duran song. Best track is the finale, Gaudio & Linzer's "The Naked I," which adds a thoroughly acceptable hint of moody Euro-disco into the mix. In terms of potential musical direction, the approach was promising, but, unfortunately, the main thing the future held for Frankie Valli & the 4 Seasons was remixes, oldies' tours, Greatest Hits collections and the fossilization of a Broadway tribute.

Of the eleven albums resurrected by Collector's Choice Music, few could probably be considered essential to an understanding of the 4 Seasons and their music. Their early hits, as noted, came out in an era where albums were largely considered afterthoughts, while the bulk of their releases produced during the heyday of album oriented rock was the work of a band looking every which way to recapture the limelight. But great pop groups don't endure without producing an abundance of tracks as good as the ones which comprise the Official Greatest Hits Package – and the 4 Seasons were a great pop group. For many hard-core fans, I suspect these releases will provide welcome relief to their collection of overplayed vinyl; me, I'm happy to have a copy of Gazette back on the shelves where it belongs.

Hey, CCM, any chance of re-releasing the trumped-up Battle of the Bands album, The Beatles Versus The Four Seasons, that came out during the height of Beatlemania? Or is that 'un too much of a licensing nightmare?
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Monday, March 05, 2007
      ( 3/05/2007 01:15:00 PM ) Bill S.  

AN AIM NOT SO TRUE – Saddest sight of the weekend (and I watched A Series of Unfortunate Events on Sunday!): seeing Rob Corddry work overtime for the tepid chuckles on Fox's new Seth MacFarlane Get A Life updating, The Winner, which has to set a new low for the most irritating laff-track in contemporary sitcoms, not to mention the most blatant misuse to date of both an Elvis Costello song and comedian Lenny Clarke . . .
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Sunday, March 04, 2007
      ( 3/04/2007 07:23:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"WASH AWAY MY SHAME" – Another periodic Lost pop thought: watching this week's ep over the weekend (a definite step up from the previous week's Jack-centric outing), I was struck by the apt use of Three Dog Night's "Shambala" in Hurley's flashback (not to mention it's none-too-coincidental appearance on a Dharma van 8-track tape). The song captures the character's out-of-step Cali pop hippiness and desire for redemption beautifully . . .
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Friday, March 02, 2007
      ( 3/02/2007 01:53:00 PM ) Bill S.  

HELPING BEAGLE – Lookin' 'round the web for a birthday present for my lovely spouse, Becky, I found myself reading up on the legal shenanigans surrounding author Peter S. Beagle and the animated movie version of his classic novel, The Last Unicorn. Due to contractual hi-jinks, Beagle has received no moneys from the sale of the crummy 2004 DVD that was first released of the flick – and has been in extensive legal wranglings against Granada Media, the company which presently owns the film, for money contractually owed him as both the original author and writer of the movie's screenplay. (Why are we not surprised to read that the producer who originally reneged on the promise to pay the writer more than just a "consulting fee" for the Unicorn movie script was Saul "Can't Dance" Zaentz?) With a new 25th Anniversary Edition of the film being released on DVD, Conlan Press (in collaboration with Lionsgate, which is responsible for the new disc version) is offering copies of the DVD for sale with more than 50% of each sale going straight to Beagle and his projects. They're also offering autographed copies of the disc for $24.98.

My wife's a big fan of the novel, and we both enjoy the 1982 limited animation flick, which – if memory serves – was the first time either of us got an extensive look at early Japanimation beyond the occasional half hour Speed Racer. (Many of the artists who worked for the Japanese studio which produced Unicorn would soon leave to work for Hayao Miyazaki.) Visually and dramatically, the movie did a smooth job capturing the essence of Beagle's novel, the only sticking point being the unnecessary addition of some thoroughly unmemorable Jimmy Webb tunes onto the soundtrack. (Hey, it's a cartoon feature – it has to have songs in it, right?) Still, the voice work is fun (Alan Arkin is Schmendrick), and there are some great, long-lasting images in it.

A chance to get a decent copy of an early date flick, a purchase that actively benefits the author? . . . think I've found a birthday present . . .
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Thursday, March 01, 2007
      ( 3/01/2007 02:07:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"WE ALL DO WHAT WE CAN NOT TO THINK ABOUT LIFE!" – Francesco Dellamorte (Rupert Everett), the title hero of Michele Soavi's Cemetery Man (1993), is a busy guy. Hired as a "watchman" at the Buffalora Cemetery, it's his job to dispatch the pesky rising dead who persistently pop back up seven days after they've been buried. Confronted with a newly revived corpse, Francesco is almost apologetic when he's forced to kill 'em a second time. "I know you've heard this before," he says as he prepares to split the zombie's head, "but this time it's forever: Rest in Peace!"

Based on a novel by Italian comic writer Tiziano Sclavi, Cemetery Man (a.k.a. Dellamorte Dellamore, though Anchor Bay's DVD uses the American title) is a serio-absurdist zombie flick which owes as much to Luis Bunuel as it does George Romero. In it, Everett's watchman (who other characters keep inexplicably referring to as an "engineer") sees his job as just another grind – like the intergalactic garbagemen in John Carpenter's Dark Star, his place in a fantastic setting is just one piece of a largely mundane life. "At a certain point in life," he notes, "you realize you know more dead people than living." It's his misfortune to've come that stage in life early.

Assisted by a mute, seemingly retarded gravedigger named Gnaghi (Francois Hadji Lazaro), Franceso goes about his nights snuffing Returners until he meets a beautiful widow (Anna Falchi): "the most beautiful living woman I've ever seen," he says, and we can't help noting the distinction he's made. Giving her a tour of the cemetery's ossuary, he attempts to seduce her, first surrounded by piles of skulls and bones, then later atop the buried husband's grave as blue-flames dance around them. (A sign of the era in which this movie was lensed: you occasionally can see wires on the dancing igneous lights. Nowadays, the FX guys'd probably use cheap CGI.) But before the apparently impotent(!) Francesco can get too far, the pissed-off husband rises ahead of schedule and chomps on his widow. Though the bite appears fatal, Falchi's femme shows up two more times to befuddle Francesco in different womanly guises: there's more than one way to stay undead, apparently.

Soavi's film shifts from Raimi-esque slapstick (a living severed head that's capable of propelling itself across the room) to existential dread and splatterific shocks with wild abandon. Holding it all together are Everett's lived-in hero and a gorgeously constructed cemetery set that is exploited for maximum visual potential. If a few of the movie's horror moments prove unbelievable even by the loose standards of zombie tales (e.g., a motorcycle-riding zombie who bursts from his grave like something off the cover to a crappy heavy metal elpee), there are plenty of convincing outlandish moments. My personal fave features a troop of zombie boy scouts who attack our hero while he's in the (of course!) shower, but the severed head that Gnaghi foolishly attempts to romance was a close second.

Though he's our entry point to the world of Buffalora Cemetery, Everett's Francesco is a fairly unreliable guide. At one point, for instance, he tells Falchi's widow that he has a degree in biology, only to later confess that he never even graduated high school, and what starts out as simple shaky background info ultimately turns into whole scenes where we're not entirely sure if what we're watching is even happening or not. Later, our hero is visited by a personification of Death who chastises Dellamorte for taking away his job. "If you don't want the dead coming back to life, why don't you just kill the living?" Death noodges. "Shoot them in the head!" Our hero seemingly takes this strange advice to heart, driving into town to shoot a bunch of local layabouts in the town square, but since no one seems to accept his later admissions of guilt, we start to doubt if what we saw really happened. (There's a surgery scene in the latter part of the movie that most males in the audience definitely wanna place in the didn't-really-happen category.) By movie’s end, when Francesco & Gnaghi depart their village for the literal End of the World, Dellamorte Dellamore has become so slippery that even our duo's identities prove malleable . . . and the only thing we know for certain is we've seen a whole lot more than just another cheesy Euro zombie flick.
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      ( 3/01/2007 05:45:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"FIVE YEARS . . . MY BRAIN HURTS A LOT!" – Wulp, today's the day the Pop Culture Gadabout celebrates a complete five years of existence: the past year's been a somewhat rocky one at the old homestead, but as I type this tiny celebratory note – with a cuppa coffee and a package of cheese crackers w./ peanut butter by the keyboard – the world feels cautiously okay. Got some reviews in the hopper (including – choke! – at least one comics piece), some non-blog writing projects initiated, two goofy dogs sitting and watching me at the keyboard and a recuperating wife sleeping in the bedroom. Not a bad place to be, early on a Thursday morning . . .
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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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