Sunday, February 28, 2016

Lake Street Dive's Genre Hopping Party

Lake Street Dive, a band fronted by lead vocalist Rachael Price, has been thrilling fans since 2004 with their unique sound at energetic live shows and a series of widely seen internet performance videos. Their current disc, Side Pony, is an enjoyable disc featuring an array of styles encompassing rock & roll, jazz, soul & even a hint of funk & disco. The album kicks off with “Godawful Things,” a jazzy, upbeat number that showcases Price’s powerful voice and features support from Bridget Kearney’s spirited bass playing, and Mike Calabrese’s sometimes rhythmic & solid as a rock drums. Things get even more spirited from there: the funky “Call Off Your Dogs” and “Can’t Stop” are sweet slices of 70s dance grooves with an r&b sheen. There's also an emotional ballad entitled "So Long" & the jazz/pop-infused, innuendo-laden title track.

The soulful vibes continue on “How Good It Feels” and "Mistake" and then “Hell Yeah” turns up the volume with a rocking number featuring great guitar work from Mike "McDuck" Olson, who’s also showcased on “I Don’t Care About You” & “Spectacular Failure.” Price’s vocals are strong & powerful, and in a few instances, they remind me of Bonnie Raitt or Grace Potter. However, she also retains her own unique style. This is a band that's tight & focused, and yet also feels as if they’re loose & spontaneous. A very difficult trick to pull off, and Lake Street Dive does it very successfully. Side Pony follows their fine 2014 release Bad Self Portraits, and it sounds like the band is having a hell of a lot of fun. You will, too. Side Pony is now available in stores & at online music sites. Here are links to the videos for the songs “Call Off Your Dogs,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OMEPgLxvNPk"I Don't Care About You," https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PotrCGpwqLIand a cover of the Hall & Oates classic “Rich Girl” from 2013: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=89Oc1UE7SS4.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Jeff Lynne's ELO: Alone In The Universe

Jeff Lynne has been making great music since his days with British bands like The Idle Race & The Move in the 1960s. But he’s best known in the USA for fronting Electric Light Orchestra, and for being a member of the supergroup The Traveling Wilburys, along with Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, George Harrison & Roy Orbison. You probably know his music, but maybe not his name: As one of my friends recently noted "Jeff Lynne is one of the unsung heroes of rock & roll." Lynne hasn’t recorded an album under the ELO name since 2001’s underrated Zoom; his last solo disc, 2012’s Long Wave, was a collection of covers. But in November of 2015, he released Alone In The Universe, billed as Jeff Lynne’s ELO. If you love the layered vocals & production (backed with shimmering guitars) of ELO's 70s & 80s albums, Alone In The Universe will be a special treat.

The album kicks off with “When I Was A Boy,” Lynne’s paean to his younger days, listening to music on the radio, and being inspired to become a musician. That song sets the tone for the rest of the disc, which features recognizable touches of the classic ELO sound, but also hints of pop & soul, and even a bit of reggae, on “When The Night Comes.” In fact, these tunes could also fit comfortably on some of the albums that Lynne has produced for other artists, including former Wilbury band mates Petty & Harrison, as well as other rockers like Joe Walsh & Dave Edmunds. This is a true one man effort, with Lynne doing most of the vocals & playing all the instruments, except backing vocals by his daughter Laura & some percussion by engineer Steve Jay. The classic ELO sound is probably most evident on the aforementioned "When I Was A Boy," as well as "One Step At A Time" and the title track.

Other highlights include the soulful “Love & Rain,” the lovely ballad “The Sun Will Shine On You” & the Orbison-esque “I’m Leaving You.” The album features only ten tracks (twelve if you buy the deluxe edition) but it definitely shows that Lynne still knows his way around a good rock/pop song, and the disc doesn’t stray too far from the style we associate with his best work, on albums such as ELO’s Out Of The Blue & his 1990 solo effort, Armchair Theatre. It’s an enjoyable record that should please longtime fans. The other good news is that Lynne is planning a full tour in Europe and the USA later this year, with a band that includes longtime ELO member Richard Tandy. If you like ELO, or Lynne’s work with other artists, Alone In The Universe will be a great addition to your music library. Here are links to the video for “When I Was A Boy” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tM34A80RTv4, and a recent television performance of the ELO classic “Evil Woman” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W6DUEpsVQ4A.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Retro Movie: The Monster Squad

What do you do when Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, The Wolf Man, The Mummy & The Creature from the Black Lagoon all descend upon your town? You call The Monster Squad for help! This delightful movie follows the adventures of grade schooler Sean Crenshaw and his best pal Patrick, who love classic monsters, and have a club devoted to them. They're a lovable group of misfits who don't seem to fit in with the rest of the kids. When strange things begin to happen, and the real Dracula shows up, in search of a mystical amulet that will allow him to rule the world, its up to Sean, Patrick and the rest of their friends to stop him. Director Fred Dekker’s 1987 film is a cross between The Goonies & Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, with a dash of The Little Rascals thrown in for good measure. And just like in that classic horror comedy, the scares here are serious.

Dracula & friends are up to no good in The Monster Squad
The movie was director & co-writer Dekker’s second effort after his debut, 1986’s Night of the Creeps, an homage to 50s sci-fi & horror films. It’s co-written by Shane Black, best known for writing the original Lethal Weapon. The monster designs were created by a team lead by Stan Winston, who went on to work on Aliens, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Jurassic Park, among many others. The Monster Squad is done with an obvious affection for the classic Universal Monsters, and the actors portraying the creatures of the night all play it relatively straight, which adds to the film’s overall effectiveness. Duncan Regehr, who plays Dracula, and Tom Noonan, who plays The Frankenstein Monster, have some great moments interacting with the kids. The young performers who portray the members of the title club (including Andre Gower and Robby Kiger) are all appealing, and you’ll find yourself rooting for this band of young heroes to defeat Dracula and his fellow creatures of the night. But they'd better work fast, because the end of the world is coming.

The movie was not a great success upon its original theatrical run, but gained a cult following (much like Night of the Creeps) through constant airings on cable, and its later VHS release. The film continued to gain fans, and in 2007 a 20th Anniversary edition was released on DVD (and later on Blu-ray) with a ton of extras, including a making of documentary, deleted scenes and more. That edition is now out of print, but a movie-only Blu-ray was released in 2013. If you’re a fan of classic horror films, 80s flicks or those “motley group of kids team up to save the town” stories, you’ll truly get a kick out of The Monster Squad. It’s a fast-paced, fun little movie that runs just under 90 minutes, so it doesn’t wear out its welcome. It’s also a film that you can watch with the whole family on movie night, as there’s no real objectionable content. Here’s a link the film’s trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TeZs0B0mjXY.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Harold & Maude: A Cult Film With Heart

This week, we revisit a 2012 post (with some slight edits) about one of my favorite offbeat movies: this entry wasn't as frequently visited as some others on the site, and since 2016 is the blog's 5th anniversary, I'm bringing this fine film to people's attention once again.

The term “cult movie” is used to define a variety of films that have a devoted following, including the one & only The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), noir classics like Out of The Past (1947) and offbeat comedies like 1968’s The Producers. One of the most interesting films to have earned cult status (and deservedly so) is director Hal Ashby’s Harold & Maude  (1971), starring Bud Cort & Ruth Gordon as a most unlikely couple. Cort plays Harold, a young man who’s very obsessed with death. He stages fake (but realistic looking) suicides, trying to gain the attention of his socialite mother, who doesn’t understand him, or support him. She’s tried to send him to therapists, and even set him up on dates, with little or no success. But she just doesn’t get her son, or make a real effort to communicate with him. Harold struggles to be loved & accepted for who he is, not who his mother wants him to be.

One day, Harold meets Maude: a much older woman who has a free-spirited outlook on life. She is, in her own way, as obsessed with life as Harold is with death. The two form a bond and have a few whimsical adventures together. They also have some philosophical conversations about life & love, as Maude becomes Harold’s friend, mentor…and finally, something much more. He decides he’s in love with her, and despite their age difference, wants to marry her. But Maude has a secret; she has other plans, and she’ll teach Harold one more lesson before they part ways.

From that brief description you might be saying: Fake suicides? A 20-something man falls in love with a 70-something woman? I’m sure most filmgoers back in 1971 felt the same way. The movie was not a success on its original release, but the film’s reputation grew through showings on college campuses, midnight movie screenings & word of mouth. As its popularity grew, there were stage versions mounted in several countries, and a French television remake was also produced. I actually saw the film for the first time on a local New York television station’s late night movie in the mid 1980s, and immediately fell in love with it.

This is a wonderful, quirky movie with a great screenplay by Colin Higgins, who went on to script Foul Play & Silver Streak and wrote & directed Nine to Five. The understated, solid direction by Ashby, who also helmed Shampoo, Bound For Glory and Coming Home, is perfect for the material. The performances by Cort & Gordon are revelatory; they really have a wonderful chemistry, and are amazing in their roles. Another factor in the movie’s success is its excellent song score by Cat Stevens. The music fits the mood of the story and adds background, color and atmosphere to the film. Stevens had just experienced his first taste of US success (with the album Tea for the Tillerman), as the movie was being made & released, and Ashby campaigned to use his songs in the film.

The Criterion Collection released an impressive special edition of this wonderful movie on Blu-ray & DVD in 2012. In addition to an excellent new transfer of the film, extras include an audio commentary by Ashby’s biographer Nick Dawson and the film’s producer, Charles B. Mulvehill, as well as illustrated audio excerpts from interviews with the late Higgins and Ashby. There’s also a chat with Cat Stevens, and an informative booklet featuring several articles and essays related to the production, including interviews with star Cort & cinematographer John Alonzo (Chinatown), who also did some fine work on the movie.

The film has some great scenes & dialogue; it’s about two very different people coming together who celebrate each other's differences, and who also discover they have more in common than they first imagined. Harold & Maude is a very un-Hollywood sort of love story; two people falling in love with each other because of what’s in their heads as much as what’s in their hearts, and ending up as true soul mates. There are moments of black comedy, drama, joy & sorrow in this moving, one of a kind film. I recommend it to those seeking an out of the ordinary movie experience. You won’t soon forget Harold & Maude. Here’s a link to The Criterion Collection’s page for their edition of the film: http://www.criterion.com/films/27896-harold-and-maude, which includes their “Three Reasons” trailer.

Harold: Maude?
Maude: Hmm?
Harold: Do you pray?
Maude: Pray? No. I communicate.
Harold: With God?
Maude: With Life.  
- From Harold & Maude (1971)