Sunday, January 31, 2016

"The X-Files" Returns With New Episodes

For 9 seasons & 2 movies, FBI agents Fox Mulder & Dana Scully investigated UFO conspiracies, weird creatures and strange events on The X-Files. The show (which premiered in 1993) went from cult favorite during its first couple of seasons, to television phenomenon & fan favorite by the time it ended its run in 2002. Now everyone’s favorite FBI agents are back in a six-episode mini-series. Can the magic of the series’ best episodes be recaptured? Based on the first two chapters of this mini-revival, I’d say the answer is a yes. The premiere, which aired January 24, was entitled “My Struggle.” Scully is working as a doctor/surgeon at a Catholic hospital, which is where we last saw her in the 2008 movie, The X-Files: I Want To Believe.  Meanwhile, Mulder is essentially in hiding, and narrates the beginning of the episode with a catch up on previous events for fans, and for those new to the show. It’s also clear the couple have separated sometime after the conclusion of that 2008 film.

Mulder & Scully are reunited & drawn into a case involving a woman named Seta (a strong performance by Annet Mehendru of The Americans) who claims to have been abducted by & experimented on by aliens. An online conspiracy theorist (nicely played by Joel McHale) leads the agents to the woman, but there appears to be more to the story than just a simple case of alien abduction. It also seems the conspiracy maven may have an agenda of his own. What is interesting (and a little frustrating) about the plot is it ultimately throws a curve into the series long-running government conspiracy/alien storyline. It’s one of those clever twists that seem to negate some of the stories that came before, but only time will tell if this new angle will provide us some true closure to the show's longest running plot thread. But what is undeniable is that the two leads quickly fall back into their wonderful onscreen chemistry, and it’s fantastic to see these characters again. Of course, Mitch Pileggi returns as Walter Skinner, the agents’ boss & sometime ally, and William B. Davis is back as the sinister Cigarette Smoking Man, who apparently survived his death at the end of the original series.

The revival’s second outing aired on this past Monday (the time slot where the rest of the miniseries will be seen in the coming weeks) with a much stronger entry entitled “Founder’s Mutation.” This story was more akin to the original series’ standalone or “Monster of the Week” episodes, though it still managed to tie into some of the show’s overall themes & arcs. The agents (now re-activated by Skinner) investigate the possible suicide of a scientist, and find out that his death is not as simple as it looks. This leads them to a government project that is working with children suffering from genetic mutations, and it brings back memories for both agents regarding their son, William. We last saw William at the end of the TV series when he was given up for adoption for his own safety. Is he a product of the same genetic manipulation as the kids seen in the episode? Was Dana implanted with alien DNA when she was abducted during the show’s original run? It’s clear that this miniseries is going to look at some of these issues, if not answer all the questions.

While the first episode wasn’t bad, and had some entertaining moments, I’d say the second episode was much more satisfying as a whole. The second entry has a much stronger plot than the first, and the dialogue and situations feel very much akin to what we saw on the original show. One of the best things about the revival is that Chris Carter (the creator of the series) is back at the helm, along with several of the series’ best writers, including Glen & Darin Morgan and James Wong. I have to admit, as a long-time fan of the series, it is a real kick to see it back on the air. In fact, most online reviews have pointed out that the upcoming third entry, “Mulder & Scully Meet The Were-Monster,” which airs tomorrow, is the best episode thus far. One interesting fact about this third outing it is if you look at the previews, there’s a quick glimpse of a character that looks very much like Carl Kolchak from The Night Stalker, which was one of Carter’s main inspirations for creating the show in the first place. Is it just a cool Easter Egg or something more? Tune in tomorrow and find out! Here’s a link to the trailer for the the mini-series:

2/2/16: Update: I've now seen “Mulder & Scully Meet The Were-Monster,” and it's the best episode of this mini-revival thus far. This humorous tale about the hunt for a mysterious creature is filled with in-jokes, easter eggs, and subtle (and not so subtle) nods to X-Files history. It's a wonderful valentine to long-time fans, and Duchovny & Anderson have a ball with their characters in this entertaining story, written & directed by Darin Morgan, who penned the classic  "Jose Chung's From Outer Space" for the original series. Let's hope the rest of the episodes of the miniseries are this good. Highly recommended. 

Sunday, January 24, 2016

A Look Back at the "History of The Eagles"

With the sad passing of rocker Glenn Frey on January 18, I thought I’d re-post a previous review (with some minor updates) of the excellent documentary, History of The Eagles, which was originally released in 2013. RIP, Glenn, and thanks for the music.

The Eagles flew out from the shadows of serving as Linda Ronstadt’s backing band, and soared into the spotlight to become rock superstars. They had a string of hits, including “Take It Easy, One of These Nights, and Take It To The Limit.” While never a critic's favorite, the band had a legion of fans who loved their music. They hit their peak with 1976’s Hotel California, one of the most successful rock albums of all time. Then the cracks started to show, as internal conflicts, too much partying & the pressures of fame began to unravel the band. The group broke up in 1980, but resurfaced in 1994 with an MTV special, album & eventual tour called Hell Freezes Over. They’ve reunited on and off ever since. The two part documentary History of the Eagles charts their meteoric rise, fall & eventual reunion.

The film is filled with excellent behind the scenes footage, photos & performance clips from throughout the group’s career. In addition to interviews with current & former band members, there are also appearances by Ronstadt, Jackson Browne & Bob Seger. Part One traces the band’s beginnings through their split in 1980, and Part Two charts the road to their reunion and comeback. The band (including Don Henley, Glenn Frey & Joe Walsh) is remarkably candid about the good times & the bad times that occurred during the group’s heyday. The guys are open (and quite emotional) about their opinions, and sometimes they don’t always come off in a positive light. But Frey reportedly wanted the full story to be told, warts & all, and encouraged the filmmakers to not shy away from the tougher parts of the band’s history. It’s also interesting to see what former members like Bernie Leadon & Don Felder (who wrote a tell-all memoir about his tenure in the band) have to say about their time in the group. Because of Frey's recent passing, the his comments, this of his bandmates (and the entire film) take on an additional level of poignacy.

The band, whose Greatest Hits, Vol 1., 1971-1975 was named the best selling album of the 20th Century by the Recording Industry Association of America, have an amazing body of work and History of the Eagles reminds us of their enduring catalog of classic songs. It also gives us a glimpse of the band’s then current lineup, which now includes Felder’s replacement, guitarist Stueart Smith. There's also footage of the group working on their most recent (and now possibly final) disc of original music, 2007’s Long Road Out of Eden. I wish there were some complete vintage performance clips featured as extras, but there is a bonus disc included (on both the DVD and Blu-ray versions) with an hour’s worth of performances from a 1977 concert at the Capital Centre, though it’s not the complete show.

 Director Alison Ellwood has done a remarkable job with this film; the three-hour plus running time of the documentary gives her ample time to really tell the band’s story, though Part One is a good deal longer than Part Two. This is a fascinating chronicle of the rise, fall (and return) of one of rock’s most memorable groups, and if you’re a fan of the band, and enjoy ‘70s rock or the country rock genre, the film is essential viewing. The movie originally aired on Showtime, but is available on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download. Here’s a link to the film's trailer: and a vintage performance of “Take It Easy” : Aside from listening to their music, watching this fine film is a fitting tribute to Glenn Frey’s (and the band’s) legacy.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Retro Tribute CDs, Part 2: Right To Chews: Bubblegum Classics Revisited

Last week, I took a look at a 1995 CD release called Saturday Morning Cartoons’ Greatest Hits, which featured alternative artists doing their versions of the theme songs from some classic animated series. This week, let’s review another cool album, this one focused on the bubblegum pop genre. Right To Chews: Bubblegum Classics Revisited, released by (the late, lamented) Not Lame Records in 2002, is a groovy disc that features indie artists covering songs from bands that run the gamut from well known acts like The Jackson 5 & The Osmonds to one hit wonders like White Plains & Daniel Boone. Its 25 tracks worth of stellar AM radio pop goodness from the late 60s & early-mid 70s, with those hummable tunes & “can’t get it out of your head” choruses. The record kicks off with The Rubinoos version of “Bubblegum Music” originally recorded by the Rock & Roll Dubble Bubble Trading Card Company of Philadelphia. It’s a rallying cry for the rest of the album, detailing the joys of listening to the bubblegum genre.

The rest of the disc features more well-remembered hits like The Flying Machine’s “Smile A Little Smile For Me” faithfully rendered by Chris Von Sniedern, and the catchy “Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)” ably re-done by the band Beagle. Some of the covers punch up the original tune, like Teen Machine’s rocking take on The Ohio Express hit “Yummy Yummy Yummy,” and Doug Powell’s power-popped up version of The Partridge Family’s “I Woke Up In Love This Morning.” There are also some more obscure tracks from the period on the album, including Linus of Hollywood’s excellent reading of The Banana Splits’ tune “I Enjoy Being A Boy (In Love With You)” and Superstone’s romp through The Archies’ B-side “Melody Hill.” I also really dig Tammy & The Lords of Misrule’s version of The Sweet’s “Wig Wam Bam,” The Mitch Easter Sound’s awesome cover of Crazy Elephant’s “Gimme Gimme Good Lovin,” Cliff Hillis jamming on Tommy Roe's "Dizzy," and Marykate O’Neil’s romp through Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Get Down.”

Most of the acts featured on the disc are from the power pop genre, and they infuse these tunes with their own special brand of pop/rock energy. These artists are clearly bubblegum fans, and the disc is so well-done that I think you’ll find yourself re-playing it for a long while after your first spin. Hopefully, you'll also be inspired to check out some of the original music by the artists featured on the compilation. Sadly, this album is long out of print, but with a bit of searching on the internet, you should be able to hunt down a copy, or at least listen to some of the tracks. If you do find a copy of the disc, make sure to read the excellent liner notes included with the CD. By the way, the cover is an homage to Herb Alpert’s classic 1960s album Whipped Cream & Other Delights. This may not be the greatest tribute album ever released, but it's certainly one of the most fun. Here are links to Einstein's Sister's take on "My Baby Loves Lovin" Hillis with his cover of "Dizzy" and Beagle’s version of “Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)”, from the album.

Here’s the track list from the CD:
1. Bubblegum Music - The Rubinoos
2. Yummy, Yummy, Yummy - Teen Machine
3. Smile A Little Smile For Me - Chris Von Sneidern
4. Goodie Good Ice Cream Man - The Andersons!
5. I Want You Back - Sparkle*Jets U.K.
6. Dizzy - Cliff Hillis
7. Gimme Gimme Good Lovin' - The Mitch Easter Sound!
8. I Enjoy Being A Boy (In Love With You) - Linus Of Hollywood
9. Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes) - Beagle
10. Goody Goody Gumdrops - Receiver
11. I Woke Up In Love This Morning - Doug Powell
12. Time To Change - Michael Carpenter
13. Goin' Home - Stingray Green
14. Feelin' So Good (S.K.O.O.B.Y. D.O.O.) - The Lolas
15. 1,2,3, Red Light - Joyride
16. Saturday Night - The Oranges
17. My Baby Loves Lovin' - Einstein's Sister
18. Little Bit 'O Soul - Walter Clevenger & The Dairy Kings
19. Get Down - Marykate O'Neil
20. May I Take A Giant Step (Into Your Heart) - Jim Laspesa & Michael Quercio
21. Down By The Lazy River - Wonderboy
22. Beautiful Sunday - The Popdudes
23. Superman - The Beatifics
24. Wig-Wam Bam - Tammy & The Lords Of Misrule
25. Melody Hill - Superstone

Monday, January 11, 2016

Retro Tribute CDs, Part 1: Saturday Morning Cartoons' Greatest Hits

The bands all seem to be having a grand time: Matthew Sweet romps through “Scooby Doo, Where Are You?” and Mary Lou Lord & Semisonic give “Sugar Sugar” by The Archies even more of a candy coating than the original. The matchups of theme & artist are pretty cool: Violent Femmes take on "Epp Ook Ork Ah-Ah” from The Jetsons, and Sublime revs up the title song to “Hong Kong Phooey.” The music will bring back memories of sitting down on Saturday morning, munching on cereal & Pop Tarts, and watching your favorite shows. Where else can you hear Collective Soul cover The Bugaloos, Helmet sing about giant robots with Gigantor or The Ramones (the elder statesmen of this collection) power through the “Spider-Man” theme in their signature style. The one nod to modern animated shows is Wax’s version of “Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy” from Ren & Stimpy.

This is one of the more clever tribute albums to come out during this period. It's a fun disc that will bring back a lot of memories if you’re in the right age group, or the right frame of mind. There was also a VHS (hey, it was 1995, remember?) release of music videos from the album (hosted by Drew Barrymore) and an accompanying comic book, published by Marvel. While the videotape & the comic are a bit hard to find these days, the CD (while out of print) is still readily available online. It’s worth seeking out if you’re a fan of the bands involved, or have fond memories of enjoying all those classic cartoon shows in your younger days. Here are links to the covers of “Sugar, Sugar” by Mary Lou Lord & Semisonic,, The Ramones with  “Spider-Man”, and Juliana Hatfield & Tanya Donelly performing "Josie & The Pussycats" from the album.

Here's the tracklist from the the CD:

1. Liz Phair With Material Issue – The Tra La La Song (One Banana, Two Banana)
2. Sponge – Go Speed Racer Go
3. Mary Lou Lord With Semisonic – Sugar Sugar
4. Matthew Sweet – Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?
5. Juliana Hatfield And Tanya Donelly – Josie And The Pussycats
6. Collective Soul – The Bugaloos
7. Butthole Surfers – Underdog
8. Helmet – Gigantor
9. Ramones – Spider-Man
10. Reverend Horton Heat – Jonny Quest / Stop That Pigeon
11. Frente! – Open Up Your Heart And Let The Sun Shine In (from The Flinstones)
12. Violent Femmes – Eep Opp Ork Ah-Ah (Means I Love You) (from The Jetsons)
13. Dig – Fat Albert Theme
14. Face To Face – I’m Popeye The Sailor Man
15. Tripping Daisy – Friends / Sigmund And The Sea Monsters
16. Toadies – Goolie Get-Together
17. Sublime – Hong Kong Phooey
18. Murmurs – H. R. Pufnstuf
19. Wax – Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy (from Ren & Stimpy)

Next week: A look at another "far out" tribute disc.