Contributors: W.K Heron, Brian Smith, Michael Jackman, Bill Holdship, Michael Gallucci, Nathan Phillips, Megan O’Neil, Dennis Shea, Norene Smith, Tim Hill, Travis R. Wright, Bret McCabe
Funk & Soul Covers
Joaquim Paulo and Julius Wiedemann
Taschen, $40, 432 pages
You want to get a gift for someone who loves music, but it's like they've already heard or own everything you throw at them. They're kind of funky. They own a record player. When they hear the name Foxy Brown, they think voluptuous '70s sultress Pam Grier, not the ill-fated '90s rap nymph. Though they know her catalog too. If you were in New York and wound up on the trivia show Cash Cab and didn't know the answer to a music-related question, this person would obviously be your "phone a friend" selection. They need this funktastic collection. It's another hardbound home run hit from Taschen. The book has more than 500 phenomenal funk and soul record covers to consider. We get the art and the story behind it. Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson are covered, as are the Temptations, Earth, Wind & Fire, James Brown, Prince, P-Funk and many more. These records were produced in an era when albums were king, and their 12 inch-by-12 inch canvases served as a visual gateway to the music. With the digitization that permeates modern music today, it's no wonder that vinyl is seeing a resurgence. What's more, the book features interviews with industry figures, including performers, producers, designers and writers, in an attempt to purport a cultural context while analyzing design decisions for each iconic cover. It's soul-satisfying. —TW
The Magnetic Fields
69 Love Songs [2010 Vinyl Remaster]
Here's the perfect gift for your turntable-owning indie lover. 69 Love Songs, the Magnetic Fields' seminal sixth album, is a relic of the CD era that seemed nutty in 1999, spread over three discs and packaged with a thick booklet. Triple albums were not an option for bands who weren't the Clash, but cantankerous songsmith Stephin Merritt wouldn't budge. When the record turned out to be brilliant, acclaim and legend followed. 69 became popular enough that tiny Merge Records couldn't keep it stocked, and finally so popular that Merge was no longer tiny.
This beautiful vinyl revamp adds considerable class without violating the presentation's musty, homemade charm. Now on six 10" discs, it still looks vaguely like a bootleg, but a lovingly made bootleg that is conscious of its ingratiating secrets. The listener will be thrilled at the new dimension in the remastered songs, and the booklet remains a treat, encompassing a lengthy interview with Merritt by Fields accordionist Daniel Handler, soon to be rechristened Lemony Snicket.
Merritt's sixty-nine songs arrive from the school of ABBA, Pet Shop Boys, and Cole Porter — simplistic emotion eloquently, perhaps sardonically, expressed. His lyrics have the temperance of a man determined not to be caught with irrational feelings — "The book of love is long and boring," he drones — but on masterworks like "All My Little Words" and "When My Boy Walks Down the Street," the debate of sincerity versus sarcasm becomes irrelevant. "Amazing, he's a whole new form of life/Blue eyes blazing, and he's going to be my wife." It sounds so sweetly direct and fragile that its absolute truth doesn't matter. That's the way a love song should be.—Nathan Phillips
Rock Band 3
Is this the best music game ever? It sure seems like it. Long after rhythm games lost their foothold, Rock Band strikes back with a terrific outing (for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and the Wii) that features bigger drums, more vocals, and — drum roll, please — keyboards! All of which make the Cure, Devo and Tears for Fears songs more awesome. Whip this, Guitar Hero. —MG
H.L. Mencken: Prejudices: The Complete Series
by H.L. Mencken
Library of America, $70, 1,408 pp.
Though reading Mencken's endless skewering of the buffoons, charlatans and pretenders who populated the country's political and intellectual scene in the 1920s and '30s has a palliative effect — damn, we've been here before, haven't we? — it's hard to imagine a man of his intellect getting a word in edgewise today. Back then, Mencken could use an obituary to savagely dress down a figure like William Jennings Bryan — as he did in one of the more famous essays in Prejudices, the collection of editorials, essays and articles recently published by the Library of America — and it would have a ripple effect. In today's logic- and debate-deprived climate, a Bryanish character like Glenn Beck could simply box Mencken as an atheistic, out-of-touch East Coast snob and that'd be the end of it. You could buy this elegantly republished two-volume collection for yourself or for someone who'd appreciate the caustic (and, indeed, rather prejudiced) Mencken, or you could send it to thatbombastic, e-mail-forwarding boob in your family, and wait for the fireworks — if they get around to reading it. —TH
Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original
by Robin D.G. Kelley
Free Press, $18, 624 pp.
Robin D.G. Kelley's gripping biography of Thelonious Monk (1917-1982) is so detailed that if you're a fan you half expect to run across yourself buying your first Thelonious Monk record. Branford Marsalis gave the book a hearty endorsement from the stage of last summer's Detroit Jazz Festival, praising Kelley for relying on facts not anecdotes, but, in fact, the book actually brims with anecdotes — the thing is that they're of the vetted, questioned and contextualized variety. Myths, though, he cuts to pieces.
A groundbreaking historian of topics from labor to black liberation movements, Kelley is all about context, and if ever a musician's life needed context it's Monk's. And not just the context of his fellow musicians that Monk's life requires — Dizzy and Miles, Sonny and Trane are all here, as well as promoters, producers, publicists, record execs and the like. As Kelley makes clear, Monk's achievements are virtually unimaginable but for the supportive circle of the close-knit mother-headed family he was born into, a family that expanded with his marriage to his hard-working working-class wife, Nellie. Later came the well-heeled Baroness (seriously) Pannonica de Koenigswarter, whose closeness, too, made her, for practical purposes, family as well. The Monk family gave Kelley unparalleled access, and he's rightly made the book very much about them as well.
Monk may have marched to his own drummer, but it took this village to enable him on the road to brilliance (and ultimately success), what with clashes with cops, jail time, jobless stretches, house fires, and the obstinacy of Monk himself ... and then there's the mental illness. One of Kelley's constant balancing acts is in dealing with Monk's eccentricities, press and press agents prone to magnify them (and trivialize the man), and dealing with the fact that, through much of his life, Monk was, indeed, deteriorating mentally. (Bipolar disorder seems the most likely culprit, but a clear diagnosis was never rendered.)
Casual jazz fans recognize Monk's classic — written when he was in his early 20s — "Round Midnight." Moderately serious jazz fans know Monk as the music's second great composer after the Ellington-Strayhorn team, and that the estimation rests on a mere 70-odd songs to their thousands. Monk's improvisational style was as powerful as his compositional pen, and both profoundly influenced the course of jazz. Given Monk's import, this won't be the last word on interpreting his life and art — and sometimes one wishes Kelley would give us more synthesis for the mass of details — but it seems clear that those who follow will be riffing on Kelley's research for a long, long time. Released in hardcover last year, it has now been reissued in paperback. (And the book site monkbook.com, by the way, is far more than a promotion site, and a true resource worth the time of anyone interested in Monk or the book.) —WKH
Doctor Who: The Complete Fifth Series
Sci-fi fans love this British TV show about a time-traveling doc and his hot companion. And it's easy to see why: plenty of in-jokes, apocalyptic storylines and mind-warping theories about busting through the time-space continuum. This six-disc set includes 13 episodes, plus extras (like outtakes) that will have geeks drooling all over their space modulators. —MG
George, Nicholas and Wilhelm: Three Royal Cousins and the Road to World War I
by Miranda Carter
Knopf, $30, 500 pp.
Nowadays, we take the irrelevance of monarchy for granted. Miranda Carter's George, Nicholas and Wilhelm looks at pre-World War I Europe, a time of yet some influence of the English king, and the Russian and German emperors. The three were cousins, each a grandson of England's Queen Victoria. Their cover photos show (as Carter says of King George) "melancholy, direct stares and unflinchingly upright deportment." The three dabbled in diplomacy and politics, though only the temperamental Wilhelm did so willingly.
One message of the book is how ordinary people (the royals) found themselves over their heads as "superior, high-bred" royalty. And their aides fed their illusions to maintain their own positions. The mystical, withdrawn Nicholas ended up with Rasputin as a guide. George loved nearly full-time shooting of birds and stamp collecting. Hence the irrelevant monarchy.
In July 1917, George changed his German-sounding surname, Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, to the neutral, made-up Windsor (then enjoyed some freedom fries?). George is credited with remaking the British monarchy into a domestic, ceremonial, symbolic institution.
Carter is thorough, some have said scholarly — the book front includes four pages of the overlapping family trees of the European monarchies — but she's also modern, with knowing, flip comments on many absurdities of the royals. Details on controversies, wars and nationalism of the time maintain interest because of the personalities involved. These monarchs often co-operated and opposed each other to fulfill their desires ... to preen in military uniforms: British naval, Royal Dragoons, Scottish army duds (with kilts!). They loved 'em.
Imagine the three on the paparazzi TV show TMZ: George in his favored naval uniform and hard stare, Wilhelm, alternately cloying and conspiratorial, and Nicholas, a country bumpkin type, but with regal calm. Disbelieving comments are provoked. Rolling of eyes is assumed.
Reality hit the three with the progress and end of World War I: Nicholas killed gruesomely in 1917; Wilhelm fleeing to neutral Holland; George's face lined and bagged with care, his stare ubiquitous. Fifteen pages of minute synopsis on the start of the war explain events and connections for baffled history buffs. And, once again, we can say, "Never again."—DS
Leica D-LUX 5
No doubt, this is a big-ticket item. To put it in economical perspective, you could buy this classically styled yet state-of-the-art digital camera with HD video capability, or you could jump on the chance to scoop up a 1985 Chevy Celebrity wagon with 90,000 miles, new head gaskets and a relatively clean interior (well, at least you could find it on Craigslist the other day). But think about it: To the tune of 800 bones, you have an artistic tool almost 100 years in the making. Since 1913, Leica has produced innovative cameras with particularly magnificent lenses — that's a hot piece of glass. The aptly titled D-Lux is a slick digital single reflex (d-slr) camera. It's also notably compact for a camera that produces such high-quality photos. Rivaling professional DSLR cameras, the D-Lux shoots 10.1 megapixels, with an über fast f/2-3.3 DC Vario-Summicron 24 to 90 millimeter lens (equivalent to 35mm) lens, with an ISO as high as 12800. If those specs mean nothing to you, just know they're awesome enough to those in the know. The camera has also garnered high marks for a very bright, high resolution, three-inch LCD display. And if this baby weren't already sexy enough, Leica is throwing in Adobe Lightroom 3 for processing. If you got the dough, look no mo'. —TW
A Very Irregular Head: The Life of Syd Barrett
by Rob Chapman
Da Capo, $28, 480 pp.
Syd Barrett was Pink Floyd's original singer, a drug-popping space cadet who sang about cats, gnomes and other things that were a million miles away from the dark side of the moon. He became a famous drug casualty, too whacked-out to perform. Rob Chapman tells his tragic story with help from friends and the singer's work. And you thought The Wall was messed up. —MG
Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes
by Stephen Sondheim
Knopf, $39.95, 480 pp.
Come for the lyrics, stay for the commentary. Besides being able to mouth all the words to the melodies in your head — and who doesn't have a few of those — you'll learn that they were likely written with a Blackwing pencil on a yellow 32-line legal pad — out of production, but he has his lifetime stockpile — while reclining on a couch, the better for napping when the going gets rough. You'll learn that he considers Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd the only successful translation of his work for the big screen, and the story of Sondheim's could-have-been collaboration with Ingmar Bergman. You'll learn that "Anyone Can Whistle" is not autobiographical — and he wishes people would stop claiming it is — that "Ladies Who Lunch" was supposed to stop the show and somehow didn't, that he hates being called a lyricist, and he much more enjoys writing music than putting in the word work, about which you'll learn a great deal, because Sondheim is probingly critical of both his own work and his predecessors. Lorenz Hart gets the title of "laziest of the pre-eminent lyricists"; Ira Gershwin's lyrics are often warped by "his passion for rhyming": Yip Harburg, Cole Porter and Ira Berlin are "the most brilliant technicians of the Golden Age." There's insight to be had into his craft when he laments that the most notable note in the opening of "Somewhere" goes to a nothing word: "There's aaaaaa place for us." Ahhh, what a waste. And these insights abound. In another spot, he points proudly to the simple shift from "and" to "to" in otherwise parallel lines of "Losing My Mind" as underscoring the singer's obsession — "a nice example of the subtle power of the English language." For anyone who appreciates that subtle power, the book has plenty of pointers. And it's OK if you can't stand the artifices of musical theater — neither, Sondheim explains, can he. —WKH
In Motion: The Experience of Travel
by Tony Hiss
Knopf, $27.95, 352 pp.
Who hasn't had those transporting moments when the world and everything in it seems new? Maybe through travel, or maybe through happenstance that lets the home turf be seen under a new light — you know the moments when they luckily arrive. But what's really going on? Former New Yorker staff writer and New York University visiting scholar Tony Hiss has spent a lot of time trying to figure it out, and he's downright utopian when it comes to the notion of cultivating these fleeting modes of mind as "a launchpad and catapult for lifting the human spirit." And to that end he envisions a movement — and he already has the website (howwetravel.org, though it seemed little-used as of last week). When he looks forward to the day when even our mundane trips should be as "fundamentally rewarding and nurturing as eating, sleeping and friendship," you suspect he's living in some alternative universe without fast food outlets on every major thoroughfare and where Sominex commercials don't have an audience.
But despite the overreaching, despite the sometimes tortured schema he tries to impose on these evanescent experiences, Hiss' travels through relevant readings — from literature to history to paleontology to geophysics to neurosciences — are always entertaining (if this is your idea of entertainment). Hiss wants us to think about our place in the universe: planet rotating on its axis, planet revolving around the sun, sun bobbing "like a phonograph needle on an old vinyl record" within the spinning galaxy, galaxy headed for "the Great Attractor." And then he wants us to think about the ground moving under our feet, the North American continent drifting about four inches a year, about the velocity of fingernail growth. He wants us to think about bipedalism (what it meant for our ancestors to rear up on two legs) and sedentism (settled life, thought to have begun with the Natufians 14,000 years or so ago). And then he wants us to think about what's going on in our heads. ... Come for theory and stay for the factoids. —WKH
Mountains Come Out of the Sky: The Illustrated History of Prog Rock
by Will Romano
Backbeat, $24.95, 300 pp.
We love to make fun of prog-rock, for obvious reasons. But we also love staring at prog-rock album covers. Like, for hours. This book is loaded with pictures of guys with long, chick hair and rows and rows of decked-out synthesizers. It's also filled with lots of big colorful dragons and far-out galaxies that would look totally cool on the side of your van. Pass the bong. —MG
Blue Snowball USB Condenser Microphone (w/ shock mount & accessory pack)
Home recordings aren't what they used to be. When, from 1937 to 1942, musical archivist Alan Lomax had the title "Assistant in Charge of the Archive of Folk Songs for the Library of Congress," recording the likes of Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie, he'd have to record straight to hot vinyl on the spot, in the field. Multiple takes were incredibly limited. The equipment was weighty and rough, the process was time-consuming, and often done in sweltering conditions. Frankly, it was a bitch. Today, with a pair of headphones, a laptop with some basic music software (like GarageBand) and a Blue Snowball condenser mic, a musician (or promising podcaster) can release sonically serious work in a matter of minutes. This mic can transition from single or omni-directional pick up, and is known to harness uncanny clarity in recording not only vocals and guitar, but drums, amps and pretty much any instrument imaginable. Blue's technology includes more headroom than most any other USB mic, drastically decreasing distortion when recording super-loud jams. The Pearstone metal pop filter (with a 5.5-inch diameter and a 13.5-inch attached gooseneck for easy positioning on stands) eliminates annoying pops while "The Ringer" mount uses elastics to suspend the mic when mounted, reducing low frequency vibrations from passing trucks, thunder or nagging girlfriends. Now kick out those jams, emeffer. —TW
Trespass: A History of Uncommissioned Urban Art
by Carlo McCormick, Marc and Sara Schiller, and Ethel Seno
Taschen, $40, 320 pp.
Uncommissioned art is what you'd call graffiti fit for galleries, if you were trying to explain it. This new collection from Taschen was put together by Marc and Sara Schiller, the Brooklyn husband and wife who run the reputed street art archival website Wooster Collective. That's like a universal stamp of approval. Tresspass isn't just another book pulled from Taschen's spouting well of spectacular hardbounds. The book could be used in the classroom, and at some point probably will — it's that comprehensive. The photography is as on-point as the research, so it's really a visual and textual testament to the history of midbrow street art. At the least, it's an obligatory crash course on the medium for any Detroiter bit by this summer's Banksy bug. Work from him and more than 150 other important artists are available to investigate throughout these pages. You'd expect such a book would be organized by year or artist; instead the work is grouped by esoteric themes such as "Public Memory, Private Secrets," "Conquest of Space" and "Rules of the Game." It's a very contemporary collection, but there are also dozens of previously unpublished photographs of long-lost works, old-school urban art that set off current trends in modern hieroglyphs. You'll discover unpublished images of street art by NYC luminaries the likes of Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, as well as unpublished photographs by subway art icon Martha Cooper. —TW
Mad's Greatest Artists: Sergio Aragonés
Running Press, $30, 271 pp.
While some hardcore comic cats will check Sergio Aragonés' name as creator of the Groo the Wanderer series with a snort and forefinger eyewear readjustment, casual purveyors might only recognize his style from Mad magazine. "Oh, he's that guy!" we say. "I love his stuff." It's true, we do. Aragonés takes us out of our heads. If Mad played its way into your upbringing, the characters of Aragonés, from his features to his marginals (those tiny cartoons found in Mad's margins), are as funny as they are familiar. This Running Press collection features the illustrator's hand-picked faves. Mad editor Nick Meglin interviews Aragonés inside, and we learn of his start as an architecture major in college and follow him into the Madhouse. But you put your nose into this one for cartoons, of which there are thousands. The artist actually found time to draw new illustrations exclusively for this book — along with a poster packed with more than 500 of Sergio's favorite marginals. —TW
EA Sports MMA
This bare-knuckle brawler for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 lets you play as famous fighters, but we prefer creating our own kick-ass dude and taking him through the ranks. You'll be mashing a lot of buttons if you want to execute the perfect winning move, but there are very few things in life as satisfying as hearing your opponent break after you land the perfect combo. —MG
Fallout: New Vegas
Fallout 3 was one of 2008's best. This sequel (for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3) brings the action to Las Vegas — a perfect setting for the post-apocalyptic wastelands you'll be trudging through. Not much has changed with the story or gameplay; there's just more of it. This is role-playing at its most addictive. Sorta like Vegas, but without the all-you-can-eat buffets. —MG
Zoom Q3HD Handy
Handheld HD Video Recorder
Redefining the "handy man" for 2011, this little handheld digital video camera not only captures pristine hi-def video (720p and 1080p), but it's specifically manufactured to record audio just as well. Unless you're a musician who's lost hours of your life moseying about the pro-audio section at Guitar Center, you're probably not going to be familiar with the Zoom brand. Ask a friend who has and you'll find they're totally legit, even if their guitar effects boards are sort of corny. Here's something that's anything but: The Q3HD's two tweakable condenser mics are the same as are found on Zoom's pro-industry H4n field recorder. You can shoot concerts or play Ira Glass. The recorder is more versatile than it appears to be, with options for "Concert Lighting," which adjusts automatically for dramatic shifts in light. The "Night" option brings out light when there appears to be none for a low-light, cinematic feel. On the audio tip, you can play with reverb effects and EQ levels to find the perfect sound. Mac users will find that the Q3HD easily integrates with iMovie as well as Adobe Final Cut, if you're getting down like that. For a few more buckaroos, you can purchase a package that includes a soft shell case, windscreen, AC adapter, HDMI and AV cable, and a tripod. It's heavily suggested, and if your givee is a music festival freak, consider it required. —TW
Pinkerton (Deluxe Edition)
You can thank Weezer's second album, from 1996, for kick-starting every single emo songwriter you've had to endure over the past decade. It's still a great record, amped up with B-sides, live cuts and acoustic songs on this two-disc reissue. There's some bloat here, but the original album's 10 songs remain a core inspiration for anxious, zit-speckled kids across the nation. —MG
ContourHD 1080p HD Helmet Camera
What do you get the guy or girl who has everything? An HD helmet-cam, obviously. As far as tech-porn gadgets go, this cam is an easy pleaser. And easy to use too! Any kid (no matter how old, if you're using this you're obviously in touch with your inner-child) with a taste for adventure and a prescription for Ritalin wants one of these, even if they don't know it. A full battery charge gives you as much as four hours of uninterrupted HD recording, and a 16-gig memory card holds as much as eight hours of video. That's a day's venture in the can. With winter sports on the horizon and winter gloves on fingers, the Contour is easy to use with simple buttons. Set inside a water-, shock-, vibration- and impact-resistant anodized aluminum body, the camera is durable and light, at only 4.3 ounces. It's not just about fun and games, the fixed-focus 135-degree lens sees entire scenes in focus without distorting the frame, and there's a built-in microphone to capture sound. Contrast, exposure, metering and microphone sensitivity are all customizable. At the least, just think about the ways this thing is going to change the homemade sex tape. ... —TW
The Original Mono Recordings
It's nearly implausible how Bob Dylan could, on consecutive albums, and before he was 26, spin yarns so knowing, so direct, so sad and sometimes so name-droppingly naive. It's also implausible to think you can hear said songs in seemingly different ways 40-plus years on, and you don't have to be old or a hardcore Dylan fan to appreciate it.
This beautiful limited-edition box set includes the first eight Dylan albums in their glorious mono mixes — from the original mono mix-down tapes (very clean with no added compression in mastering) — set in heavy-stock cardboard mini-LP replica sleeves (down to the inner dust jacket), housed with a hefty 60-page, full-color book that's packed with telling, occasionally tender photos and Greil Marcus' weighty essaying, all in a rigid little box.
What's great is most songs here don't simply sound like folded-down stereo mixes, they've a quality, a life, of their own. In other words, there are certain urgencies on these albums that you don't detect on their stereo counterparts; rising tambourines, suddenly soaring acoustics and vocals, texture-changing reverb on Dylan's voice (particularly on Another Side), organs and guitars that chug like straight-up rock 'n' roll instead of drift like folk. Mono mixes from the '60s can do that.
The feel of Blonde on Blonde is, for instance, completely different (but where's that pic of lovely Claudia Cardinale?), and you hear the Stones influence more than ever. Al Kooper's organ and Joe South's thud-spud bass on "Stuck in Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again" roll straight at you like an Alabama night train; Dylan's harmonica on "Absolutely Sweet Marie" can sweetly take the top of your head off. His post-motorcycle crash masterstroke John Wesley Harding reveals so many nuances in the singer's vocals and right-hand guitar rhythm that it often sounds like completely different recording sessions; the timing is different, the swing is different, the mood is different. Same on The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, and in mono he's more present than before, not in volume but in feel, and melodies recapture your attention — a wonderful thing for "Girl From the North Country." And thank Christ there's no off-time stereo panning in "Bob Dylan's Blues"!
Mono might be the best way to listen to these albums, most of which are making their CD debut. In fact, this is how Dylan and the various producers wanted folks to hear his music — it was created that way — and the early stereo versions by comparison sound somewhat cockeyed, like music burdened by new technology. This is one man, one voice, one channel. —BS
West Coast Seattle Boy box
Just when you thought your rock 'n' roll man (or woman) had all the Hendrix he or she could handle, along comes this flabbergastingly solid collection of previously unreleased material from Sony Legacy. Yes, that's Hendrix laying down the licks on the Isley Brothers' 1964 "Testify." Yes, that's Hendrix backing Little Richard on the gorgeous ballad "I Don't Know What You've Got, But It's Got Me." And, damn, that's Hendrix putting the serious hip shake into King Curtis' "Instant Groove." And that's just the first CD of this four-CD/DVD box set (also available as eight LPs). Break out the silk headscarves and velvet pants: It's gonna be a very groovy holiday. —BM
Working Words: Punching the Clock and Kicking Out the Jams
M.L. Liebler, Editor
Coffee House Press, $22, 470 pages.
At a time when political and economic factors are ripping "working" out of the working class, this anthology of literature by the people and for the people is a wake-up call. Detroit's literary advocate M.L. Liebler has assembled a simple and beautiful collection of poetry, songs, short fiction, essays and memoirs that sprawl from the Motor City to every city whose spine is an assembly line, whose throat is a smoke stack.
Working Words is a smoggy tour of blue-collar America. From Bob Dylan's swamped murder ballad "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," to Bonnie Jo Campbell's short tale of rusted-out dreams, "King Cole's American Salvage," the gears turn with honesty, humility and grit. Liebler has laid out this vast and eclectic group so that the lyricism and storytelling are all knotted up with a spirit of consciousness-raising activism. Picture Emily Dickinson, the White Stripes, Amiri Baraka, Eminem, Woody Guthrie and Willa Cather all standing elbow-to-elbow at the same protest rally. If that seems impossible, picture them all listening to Jan Beatty reading "My Father Teaches Me to Dream," especially the lines that say:
You want to know what work is?
I'll tell you what work is:
Work is work ...
There's no handouts in this life.
All this other stuff you're looking for —
it ain't there. —NS
The Complete Novus and Columbia Recordings of Henry Threadgill & Air
Henry Threadgill and Air
For more than a decade, the sax-bass-drums trio Air was one of the most exciting things going. Sonny Rollins in the 1950s had proved a combo could play "Night in Tunisia," for instance, without a piano or guitar to sound the chords of a composition: freedom was achieved via subtraction. Air in the 1970s and '80s was all about widening the possibilities of what you could do with the remaining three instruments, getting away from the idea that the bass and drums were the "rhythm section" supporting the horn, finding ways all three instrumentalists could dance around one another, create, sustain and resolve tension; and compositions from their chief writer, saxophonist Henry Threadgill, even then, often involved more complexity than the typical theme-solo-theme format. Hearing Threadgill with bassist Fred Hopkins and drummer Steve McCall, one imagined them as a lifetime group, an out-there MJQ. But with the demise of Air, Threadgill, who proved he could do much with a small instrumental palette, has proved over and over again that more can indeed be more. And thanks to the shuffling of the record industry deck, works by Air and a large selection of his work through the mid-'90s are under one corporate umbrella, allowing this staggering collection. From Air there's a live date (Montreux Suisse Air), arguably their best disc (Open Air Suit) and their best-known collection (Air Lore, featuring Jelly Roll Morton revisions). Concurrently with Air, Threadgill recorded with a four-bass, four reeds-woodwinds (and sometimes voice) ensemble X-75, and we have here their sole LP and three previously unreleased cuts. Then comes his seven-member "Sextett," his most openly populist format, with twisted Threadgillian allusions to blues, balladry, reggae, Sousa and big-band avalanches. His "fusion" era changed the formula by using, along with drums, electric guitars and lead horns, two tuba players in place of the usual electric bass. Accordion plays prominently in his final group, Make a Move. The eight CDs here are simply the most significant anthology of its kind since the label's box a few years ago of Threadgill's Chicago contemporary Anthony Braxton. (As to what he's up to more recently, this brings us to, Vol. II by Henry Threadgill Zooid is yet a further extension, and highly recommended.) —WKH
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II
The follow-up to one of the best Star Wars videogames continues the saga of Darth Vader's apprentice Starkiller. And like its predecessor, this game (for pretty much every system) puts much focus on storytelling. There aren't as many revelatory moments here, but Star Wars fans will love the narrative. Game fans will love the fluid play. Both will love the dual light-saber battles. —MG
The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story
This three-CD, three-DVD retrospective, housed in an 80-page spiral notebook replicating Springsteen's recording notes and lyrics, comprises one of the most spectacular and fulfilling rock 'n' roll boxed sets to date. With 32 years of hindsight, most critics now agree that Darkness is Springsteen's greatest album, although some writers were initially confused by its dark overtones in the wake of the more romantic Born to Run. But the new remastering manages to be revelatory all over again; it's never sounded this full in any format. And, really, does any moment in recorded music make one feel a sense of what redemption might be about any more than the instrumental break, highlighted by Clarence Clemons' sax solo, of "The Promised Land" does?
During the three years he was sidelined by legal issues (examined in the DVD documentary about the album's making, also recently on HBO), Springsteen and the band famously recorded 70 songs, only 10 of which made the album. The two CDs titled The Promise (also available separately from the box) present 21 of those tracks, and as Springsteen has noted, they don't constitute "outtakes" so much as a complete double album of roots-influenced rock that stands on its own. Some of the songs will be unfamiliar to even obsessives, a few known via other artists, including "Rendezvous" (Greg Kihn), "Because the Night" (Patti Smith), "Fire" (written for Elvis but recorded by Robert Gordon and the Pointer Sisters), "Ain't Good Enough for You" (as "This Little Girl Is Mine" by Gary "US" Bonds) and the incredible "Talk to Me," which surpasses the already terrific, better-known version by Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes.
The subsequent tour was the one that really branded this band as "the greatest rock 'n' roll show on earth" — and the DVD of one of those marathon three-hour concerts from '78 in Houston doesn't disappoint. It's wonderful, and frequently guitar heaven. Still more vintage full-song live clips from the era follow a haunting 2009 performance of the entire Darkness album in an empty Asbury Park theater. Although much older men, with one deceased, are now performing these great tunes, it demonstrates that the material resonates as much now as it did in the America of three decades ago. For many mid-period boomers, being able to own this material is akin to ... well, hell, Christmas morning. —BH
Band on the Run
Paul McCartney & Wings
McCartney's best album, from 1973, gets the deluxe treatment here — three discs (two CDs, one DVD) loaded with his strongest post-Beatles material. The second CD includes different versions of songs from the first disc. The real gold is on the DVD, which includes old music videos and a look at the album-cover shoot with badass actors James Coburn and Christopher Lee. This version has never sounded better. —MG
Twentieth Century Fox
Six discs with all four Alien movies, plus a bunch of cool other stuff? Yes, please! The films get soggy after the first two genre-defining classics. But this massive Blu-ray set puts them in perspective with two discs of extras, including art galleries, screenplay drafts, and tons of behind-the-scenes footage. The HD transfers shed new light on all the dark, spooky corners. —MG
The Looney Tunes Treasury: Includes Amazing Interactive Treasures from the Warner Bros. Vault!
by Andrew Farago
Running Press, $45, 144 pp.
This massive volume is like an interactive museum dedicated to the cartoon legends. All of them are here: Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Tweety, Sylvester, Yosemite Sam. Treasury contains more than 200 artifacts, including original artwork and sketches. It's also stuffed with collector's items, like scripts, comic book covers, and a Tasmanian Devil mask. That's not all, folks. —MG
The Bootleg Series No. 9 — The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964
Each "Bootleg Series" release has been superb — and this ninth volume maintains that fine tradition. These 47 songs are all demo versions the young Dylan recorded for M. Witmark & Sons, the publishing company that signed him in '62. He was thus recording these songs to present and "sell" to other artists; in other words, these are the versions Peter, Paul & Mary would've first heard. Some of the songs are familiar to everyone but in quite different versions here — i.e., "Don't Think Twice" sans harmonica with alternate vocal inflections, or "Mr. Tambourine Man" solely on piano. Only three of the recordings have been officially released; 15 of the songs have never been released in any form. Concluding with "I'll Keep It with Mine," later recorded by Nico and a song pointing toward a new surrealism, the track came just after Another Side of Bob Dylan, his final "folk" album. From a historical perspective, then, this album fascinatingly pinpoints where the entire old Tin Pan Alley method of songwriting began changing forevermore. And the brilliance of the material also illustrates that those pinheads who booed when he went electric at least had some basis for their ire. —BH
Groovesville USA: The Detroit Soul and R&B Index
by Keith Rylatt
Groovesville USA, $20.50, 320 pp.
Former Detroit drummer Leonard King turned us on to this treasure trove of info on the non-Motown music scene by a British enthusiast (to put it mildly). The point isn't to knock Motown, but to delve into just how much music existed in the top label's shadow. For instance, Rylatt lists something like 20 pages of Detroit labels other than Motown: Act IV, Adell, AFUB and A Go Go to Groove City and Groovesville to Zap King, Zebra and Zodiac. The main biographical listings are often no more than name, labels and bio snippet: "Gibson, Johnny (Fortune) Probably an Irish show band" or "Girls from Syracuse (Palmer) Gladys Horton, Jeanette & Juanita McClafin and Rosemary Wells, soon to evolve into the Marvelettes." Plenty of entries are more extensive (the aforementioned Leonard King & Soul Messengers, for instance, or Willie Horton, who put out a post-riot spoken word disc on a city of Detroit label), and there are dozen of multipage entries on figures such as George Clinton, label owner Ollie McLaughlin (who was involved in Del Shannon's early career and later hit it big with the Capitols' "Cool Jerk" on his Karen label) and Johnnie Mae Matthews (a label owner headlined as "The Godmother of Detroit Soul"). Amazing stuff available only through the website groovesvilleusa.com. —WKH
Star Wars: The Clone Wars: The Complete Season Two
The Cartoon Network hit got deeper and darker during its second season, pulling together storylines that lead up to the climatic purge that shook a galaxy far, far away. The three discs here (way more awesome in Blu-ray) gather all 22 episodes, as well as an extensive Jedi Temple Archives database of geeky stuff for fanboys. Best of all, Boba Fett returns! —MG
Once the definition of hip, Miles Davis in the '60s was falling behind a world going hippie. Then came the alternately spacey and surging In a Silent Way session in February 1969, which hardly foretold the August and November sessions for the masterpiece at hand: two to three electric keyboards shimmered in layers (with Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock among the players); Harvey Brooks dropped an electric bass anchor in the sea of funk while Dave Holland's acoustic danced on the waves; Jack DeJohnette and Lenny White stormed on drums while Don Alias and Jumma Santos added percussive detailing; John McLaughlin crackled on electric guitar; Bennie Maupin (with his snaking bass clarinet) joined the Davis-Wayne Shorter horn team; producer Teo Macero pushed the limits of looping and splicing to shape a work of art. Still relevant — and revelatory! — for its 40th anniversary reissue, it's the grand portal between jazz and the parallel universe of Hendrix, the Beatles, Sly and Motown. In the Legacy edition, Greg Tate's notes give historical context (hailing Betty Davis as catalytic muse); alternate takes and single versions extend the music; a DVD captures a transitional quintet between the August and November Brew sessions. The collector's edition adds such goodies as audiophile vinyl and a CD of a Davis septet from August 1970, still in transition. Come to think, after 1969, Davis' music would be in transition for the next six years without musical rest — up until 1975 when he began a six-year withdrawal from the scene. But that's another story — and three more box sets, so far. —WKH
The Hangover: Extreme Edition
One of the decade's funniest movies gets super-sized, complete with both the unrated and theatrical versions. There's also commentary by the movie's stars and director, songs, a gag reel, an interactive tour of Vegas landmarks, and seven-plus minutes of Ken Jeong unchained. Plus, remember all those great photos from the end credits? There's a lot more of them now. —MG
Parrot & Olivier in America
by Peter Carey
Knopf, $26.95, 383 pp.
This comic novel by an Australian is set in early 19th century America; one of the characters is modeled on Alexis de Tocqueville. The maybe two-in-ten Americans who'll think this book is funny are men who a) read only while standing, in the middle of their living rooms at a lectern holding the Oxford English Dictionary, or b) take such pride in their English literarity they only eat soup with feathers in it. —DS