January 8, 2008
DISC OF THE MONTH
Unplugged In New York
Just as Gen-Xers were once wary of Woodstock retrospectives—all with the same, smug "You shoulda been there!" message—today's kids might approach Unplugged In New York with some trepidation. Nirvana's mesmerizing 1993 appearance on MTV Unplugged went from merely being the series' best episode to becoming an eerily powerful epitaph for the era's defining rock band. An annoying 15-minute documentary included in the new DVD release is heavy on the kind of "most amazing, amazing show ever!" talk that used to come from self-reverential baby boomers still hung up on The Jefferson Airplane. As for the 56-minute performance (available in uncut and original broadcast versions), it still packs an emotional wallop, as much for the music as for the tragedy just around the corner. Cobain is tired, bored-looking, but undeniably charismatic throughout, finding solace by indulging his inner fan with a selection of well-chosen, death-obsessed covers. The terrifying version of Leadbelly's "In The Pines" (renamed "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?") finds Cobain trying to scream his demons away—taking a moment to gather his strength before the song's heart-stopping final line, he kept them at bay for a little while longer. —Steven Hyden Grade: A
Although it's packaged in the same type of stereoscopic-viewer case that accompanied 2006's 10,000 Days, Tool's new DVD Vicarious (Jive) sticks to a single video clip from Days. But as with all things Tool, surface appearances conceal a wealth of more interesting content. The accompanying documentary offers not only a close-up of the team assembled by Tool guitarist Adam Jones to bring the dream-like, apocalyptic imagery in "Vicarious" to life, it also provides the richest look yet at how Jones' background as a sculptor and special-effects artist has influenced Tool's public image. But the audio commentary by David Cross—not at all an unlikely pick, considering that singer Maynard James Keenan's Puscifer side project grew out of a Mr. Show skit—is the best feature here. Through it, we're reminded that a surprisingly rich sense of humor and self-effacement have been as essential as third-person, dead-serious video clips to crafting Tool's mystique. Grade: B+
Most artists identify strongly with their places of origin, but few define their homes as clearly as Iceland's Sigur Ros: The band's icy, epic music paints musical pictures of glaciers and geysers. In 2006, the group toured the tiny country with a film crew in tow; the result is Heima (XL), a magical documentary that finds them playing everywhere from tiny beer halls to impromptu gigs in the shadows of mountains. It's all very homey and endearing, even as the music itself sounds completely otherworldly. As a travel doc alone, Heima is worth a look; add the sounds of Sigur Ros, and it becomes unmissable. Grade: A-
What's stranger? That retro-Hollywood dandy Peter Bogdanovich directed a documentary about the life and career of scraggly roots-rock act Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers, or that he made it four hours long? Reportedly, Petty sought Bogdanovich out because he's a movie buff, and a big fan of the director's The Last Picture Show, which makes Runnin' Down A Dream (Warner Bros.) more of a Petty project than a Bogdanovich project. But that's okay, because Petty's a famously reticent dude, and he's apparently comfortable enough with Bogdanovich to open up about his rough childhood in Florida, his decade-long grind to the top, and the squabbles that almost tore his band apart a dozen times over. The length of Runnin' Down A Dream makes it a fans-only proposition—they're the only ones who could bear to look at Petty's chemically altered iguana-face for four hours—and Bogdanovich should've made it less of a hagiography by interviewing some Petty skeptics like rock critic Robert Christgau. But the first half of the movie in particular is invaluable for the way it places The Heartbreakers in the context of the punk and new wave scenes that came close to embracing him, and describes how the influence of industry players like Jimmy Iovine quicky beefed up the band's sound to platinum proportions. Grade: B+
The Who's rise through the UK mod scene to arena-filling rock god status has already been well-documented in Jeff Stein's 1979 documentary The Kids Are Alright, although that film was primarily a series of performance clips, with very little contextual material. Amazing Journey: The Story Of The Who (Universal) makes a worthy companion to Stein's film, because while it doesn't add much in the way of revelatory new footage—aside from some electrifying film of the band's "High Numbers" days, and a thrilling rendition of "Won't Get Fooled Again" at the post-9/11 Concert For New York—Amazing Journey does feature the voices of Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, telling their own story. A lot of their anecdotes will be familiar to Who fans, but what's new is the sense of reflectiveness, on the dumb luck and strange alchemy that has made them good partners, and over the years had made them grudging friends. Grade: A-
Following in the awesome recent tradition of double-disc DVDs devoted to archival footage of the likes of David Bowie and The Jam, The Ramones' set It's Alive 1974-1996 (Rhino) rounds up TV appearances and publicity films featuring the New York punk icons, from an early incarnation of the band that played CBGB's in 1974—when Joey Ramone gyrated more than he bounced—to the still-tight but more family-friendly version that emerged towards the end of The Ramones' run. Given the repetition of songs across eras, It's Alive isn't really a watch-from-start-to-finish kind of DVD, but it's impossible to overstate how cool it is to check out an ear-splitting performance at Max's Kansas City in 1976 one minute, and then see The Ramones clown around with Sha Na Na on a syndicated variety show the next. Grade: A-
Johnny Thunders pre-dated The Ramones on the NYC club scene by a few years, though once Thunders' New York Dolls broke up, he and his new band The Heartbreakers chased the same punk market as every other rocker in the Bowery. Those days were long past by the time Thunders played the show recorded on Who's Been Talking? (MVD), and yet the guitarist's slovenly spirit is replicated by the smeary video footage, as Thunders romps in front of Japanese audience, backed by a tight touring band. Who's Been Talking? was shot towards the end of Thunders' life, spanning his too-brief recorded career, and while the music has been smoothed-out some, Thunders' passion remains. He comes off here like some rock 'n' roll ringmaster. Grade: B
The concert captured on Cro-Mags' Live At CBGBs (MVD) is billed as the hardcore stalwarts' "last performance," though the band that still tours around under the name "Cro-Mags" would likely call that false advertising. Regardless, this May 30, 2001 show is a decent example of the act that helped fuse the testosterone-fueled aggression of heavy metal with the DIY ethos of punk. The video is dimly lit—revealing little more than sweat glistening off pools of tattoo ink—and the sound is tinny and monotone. But the sheer chaos on-stage and in the audience gives a good sense of what hardcore matinees everywhere have nearly always been like. Grade: B
As polished as video and audio recording has become in recent years, there's something to be said for the overall murk of videotaped footage from the late '70s and early '80s. Certainly the look and sound of the Lene Lovich concert preserved on Live From New York At Studio 54 (MVD) is probably closer to what it was like to be there at that show in 1981, dancing alongside an audience decked out in their New Wave finest, while the avant-clownish Lovich chirped her way through herky-jerky anti-pop. Frankly, a little of Lovich goes a long way, but it's fun to watch a young Thomas Dolby peck away at his synthesizer in the background while Lovich sings the terrific "New Toy," the UK hit he wrote for her. Grade: B-
The DVD Norman Granz Presents…Improvisation (Eagle Eye) contains a long-thought-lost film—shot by Granz and Gjon Mili in 1950—featuring a studio performance by Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Ella Fitzgerald, Lester Young, Hank Jones, Ray Brown and Buddy Rich. The camera holds on Hawkins and Parker while they sit still and play, and smile with satisfaction as each takes his solos. The two-disc set is fleshed out with bonus footage from the 1950 session and a handful of other Granz/Mili films shot at jazz festivals and clubs in the '40s and '70s. The performances here aren't necessarily about showmanship or stragecraft—though Rich certainly bears watching when his arms start flailing—but the intimate, unfussy photography allows jazz fans to watch the players' hands and faces closely, and that's where the action is anyway. Grade: A-
VIDEO OF THE YEAR
Field Music, "In Context"
Technically, this clip was available in late 2006, but since it's from an album that came out in the U.S. in early 2007—and was generally overlooked—it's worth bringing it back here at the end of the year. The faux-freehand drawing in this clip is neat enough in and of itself, but it also matches Field Music's jittery guitar sound, just as the ultimate picture revealed encapsulates Tones Of Town's vision of how workaday angst alternately inspires and stifles the creative impulse.
RETRIEVED FROM EARLY MORNING
Biz's Beat Of The Day, from Yo Gabba Gabba
Since late-night TV has been dormant lately, this month's channel-surfing lands on Nick Jr., and the gloriously bizarre kiddie show Yo Gabba Gabba. Pitched as much to aging indie-rock kids as to their actual children, YGG finds the wide-eyed fun and sunny '70s nostalgia always integral to the '90s underground pop scene, and puts it into a cheerfully uncomplicated package. A tweak or two to the left, and this show could become Wonder Showzen. As it is, it's plenty odd.
Screaming Blue Messiahs, "Someone To Talk To" (from The Old Grey Whistle Test)
Because the Screaming Blue Messiahs' discography has been out of print for over a decade, rock history has all-but-forgotten the futurist rockabilly that Bill Carter and company sent blazing across two great albums. (And, true, one not-so-great one.) This 1985 performance catches the band in full frenzy, with a sweaty Carter spitting into the microphone like a street corner preacher, and sliding around the stage while he pummels his guitar. Ladies and gentlemen, let's make 2008 the start of the SBM revival, yes?