Thursday, April 8, 2021

Ken Sharp's Marvelous "Miniatures"


Ken Sharp, the talented artist behind a number of terrific power pop records, including 1301 Highland Avenue and Beauty in the Backseat, has just released a phenomenal new album entitled Miniatures. What’s unique about the record is that the all of the songs are under two minutes in duration. This emotionally driven album is a heartfelt song cycle focused on life, love and friendship. Even though the thirty-two tracks on the record have a brief running time, they’ll have a lasting impact on you as a listener.


Songs like “Perfect Sun” and “Lorelei” will appeal to fans of the baroque pop sound of bands like The Zombies, The Left Banke, Belle and Sebastian and Arcade Fire. There’s also more than a passing nod to the Pet Sounds era work of Brian Wilson on “Jeanne I Will Remember” and “Susannah Silently Shining,” among others. Sharp hasn’t lost sight of his power pop roots, which you’ll find in the DNA of songs such as the British Invasion sounds on "Something’s Happening" and the Big Star essence of “Drivin.”


Sharp evokes a confessional, singer-songwriter vibe throughout the album, which has touches of pop, jazz and even a hint of folk. There’s a deep 1970s mood on songs like “Growing Up So Fast” and “You’ll Be Known,” and you'll definitely encounter stylistic echoes of Todd Rundgren and Laura Nyro. Miniatures is an intimate, low-key and acoustic-based affair, and thanks to the terrific production work by Sharp, there’s a marvelous array of instruments on display, including harpsichord, ebow, organ and mellotron. His expressive vocals and masterful guitar work are aided and augmented by special guests Fernando Perdomo and Kaitlin Wolfberg.


Embarking on a personal project like this can often have its drawbacks. When an truly artist bares his soul, the music sometimes doesn't connect with listeners. There are no such issues with Miniatures. Sharp’s thoughtful, introspective songs are instantly accessible and absolutely unforgettable. The beautiful tunes on Miniatures will touch your heart, make you smile and energize your soul. This wonderful album is one of Ken Sharp’s best works. Miniatures sounds better every time you listen to it.  I highly recommend checking out the record, as well as the other albums and singles in Ken's discography. Follow this link, https://kensharp.bandcamp.com/album/miniatures, to the album's bandcamp page, and this one, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MTIP3DW1Ju4, will bring you to the video for the song “Susannah Silently Shining.”


Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Hollywood Eden: An Absorbing Look at California Rock in the Early-Mid 1960s

There are a plethora of stories regarding the music that exploded out of the California pop/rock scene from the late 1950s through the mid-1960s, which was one of the more fertile periods in rock and roll history. Author Joel Selvin has written a unique and insightful chronicle of the singers, songwriters, producers, impresarios and (sometimes) shady hangers-on that inhabited the recording studios, bars, concert venues and nightclubs during that bygone era, which brought us unforgettable music from groups like The Crystals, Jan and Dean, The Beach Boys, and The Mamas and The Papas. Hollywood Eden: Electric Guitars, Fast Cars and the Myth of the California Paradise weaves a riveting, inter-connected tale of these artists, beginning at the point where a number of them first crossed paths in their high school years, where they first became obsessed with fast cars, girls and rock and roll music.

Hollywood Eden features fascinating details about the creation of songs like “Surf City” and “He’s A Rebel,” but the book isn't just about the music, it also tells the colorful stories of the people behind the songs. Selvin’s narrative features in-depth portraits of Phil Spector, Nancy Sinatra, Kim Fowley, Herb Alpert and teen idol Tommy Sands. Others float in and out of the compelling narrative, including Kathy Kohner, the real-life inspiration for Gidget, Jill Gibson (who briefly replaced Michelle Phillips in the Mamas and The Papas) and Barry Keenan, who engineered the kidnapping of Frank Sinatra, Jr. There’s a lot less than six degrees of separation between many of these supporting characters and Brian Wilson, Jan and Dean, Glen Campbell and Herb Alpert  than you might think, and Selvin connects the dots in compelling fashion.

Not everyone in Hollywood Eden comes off looking like a great guy, or gal. Some of the movers and shakers featured in the book would fit comfortably into the cast of a film noir flick. There's a dark side to the sun-dappled California dream, and Selvin's absorbing chronicle doesn't shy away from those details, while saluting the genius of musical innovators like Brian Wilson and Lee Hazlewood. Selvin has written extensively about rock and roll and the music business in previous books such as Here Comes The Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Burns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues, and Fare Thee Well: The Final Chapter of the Grateful Dead's Long Strange, Trip, and he really knows his subject matter. 

As the decade of the 1960s moved forward, songs like Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” and the music of The Byrds helped steer rock and roll in new directions. Artists, songwriters and producers began to adapt their work to the evolving times. Selvin notes these changes, marking a turning point in the era with Jan Berry's life-changing 1966 car crash, which occurred not far from the location of Jan and Dean's hit song "Deadman's Curve." This insightful, revealing and powerful book will open your eyes to both the light and the darkness inherent in the California dream, and the business of rock and roll. Hollywood Eden: Electric Guitars, Fast Cars and the Myth of the California Paradise (which will be released on April 6) is an engrossing history of the pre-psychedelic California rock scene, and it's a must read for fans of the genre.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Thriller's Uncanny "The Grim Reaper"

The 1950s and 1960s were a golden age for fantastical anthology shows on TV. Series such as The Twilight Zone, Science-Fiction Theater, Way Out, and The Outer Limits told memorable stories within the science-fiction, horror and fantasy genres. Even Alfred Hitchcock Presents dipped its toe into the horror end of the pool on occasion. One of the best shows of this type was Thriller, hosted by Boris Karloff, which ran on NBC from 1960-62. Thriller started out telling tales of suspense, crime and murder (akin to the Hitchcock series), but later in its first season the show took a sharp left turn, emphasizing tales of horror and the supernatural, adapting tales by Edgar Allan Poe, Richard Matheson, Cornell Woolrich, August Derleth and Robert E. Howard, and airing haunting original stories as well. While Thriller had a brief life on broadcast television, the series made a lasting impression on many viewers with its dark and intense stories, and gained a new generation of fans when reruns of the show aired in syndication on local stations. That’s where I first discovered the series in the 1970s, as a young science-fiction and horror fan.

One of the best episodes of Thriller is The Grim Reaper, the final entry in the series’ first season. The story grabs you right from the start: the prologue is set in the 1800s, when the father of a missing painter discovers that his son has killed himself after completing a very lifelike painting of that spectral harbinger of death, The Grim Reaper. After a sardonic introduction by Karloff, which ends with him walking towards the camera brandishing a scythe (!) the episode moves forward in time to the present. The story opens at the estate of the successful mystery writer Beatrice Graves, who is visited by her nephew, Paul. She introduces Paul to her new husband, a much younger man named Gerald, and her assistant, Dorothy. The wealthy Bea has a ghoulish sense of humor, having bought a hearse to use as her preferred mode of transport. She’s also re-christened her home with the name Graves End. Bea shows Paul her latest acquisition, the very painting of The Grim Reaper we saw in the prologue!

Paul tells his aunt that the painting is the reason for his visit. It has a cursed history, and many of its previous owners have died under mysterious and violent circumstances. He insists she should get rid of it, and informs her, Gerald and Dorothy that in the past, the painting has started to bleed just before its previous owners met their ends. Bea scoffs at the notion of a curse, and tells Paul she only bought the painting for the publicity, much like her hearse. Her nephew touches the painting, gasps, and turns back to the group, holding up his fingers, which are wet. There’s blood on the scythe! Is the painting really cursed? Is Bea fated to be its next victim? Before this chilling episode has ended, there will be some murderous twists to the tale, several of our main characters will be dead, and the grim visage of The Grim Reaper just hangs there, looking down on everyone….or does it?

The Grim Reaper
has an eerie and claustrophobic feel, thanks to the excellent cinematography by Bud Thackery, as well as the taut direction by television and film veteran Herschel Daugherty. Most of the story takes place inside the house, and there’s a palpable sense of dread whenever the unearthly painting is onscreen. Thanks to the inventive camera work, it really does seem like it’s alive throughout the story. The dark and moody tone of the episode is aided immeasurably by Jerry Goldsmith’s atmospheric music score, one of the veteran composer’s very best efforts. The teleplay for The Grim Reaper was written by Robert Bloch, author of Psycho. Bloch adapted the story “The Black Madonna” by Harold Lawlor. He updated the original tale a bit, changing the character in the title painting, as well as adding some of his trademark macabre humor. It’s one of his best efforts in both television or film.

The cast for the episode is excellent. If you only know Natalie Schafer from her role as Mrs. Howell on Gilligan’s Island, you’re in for a surprise. Schafer is terrific in The Grim Reaper, giving a superb performance that is filled with equal portions of humor and pathos, topped off a touch of élan. William Shatner, who plays Paul, is quite good as well, and his scenes with Schafer crackle with energy. There’s just a touch here of the “Shatner-isms” we’ve all come to know and love, but he chooses those over the top moments well. There’s a scene (spoiler ahead) where he gets to turn on a dime and is revealed to villainous, and it’s some of his best work as an actor. The fine supporting cast includes Elizabeth Allen as Dorothy, Scott Merrill as Gerald, genre stalwart Robert Cornthwaite as a lawyer, and veteran actor Henry Daniell, who portrays the father of the ill-fated painter in the prologue. Allen also appeared with Shatner in The Hungry Glass, an earlier episode of Thriller which was also scripted by Robert Bloch.

The Grim Reaper really draws you in with its slow burning sense of impending doom. Along with several other celebrated tales, such as “Pigeons From Hell,” “The Cheaters” and “A Wig for Miss Devore” and the aforementioned “The Hungry Glass,” it’s one of the strongest episodes of Thriller, a show that aired some of the most frightening tales of terror ever to grace a television screen. The show both creeped me out and delighted me when I first viewed the series in my younger days, and it remains one of my favorites. Thriller is definitely a series that’s worth digging into, especially if you haven’t seen it before, The show is currently available on Hulu, and there’s also a wonderful box set of the entire series that came out a while back, which is still available at retailers like Amazon. This post is part of The 7th Annual Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon, hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts. Follow this link for more information, and to check out all of the excellent entries by my fellow bloggers: https://mercurie.blogspot.com/2021/03/the-7th-annual-favourite-tv-show.html.

Friday, March 5, 2021

The Haunting of "The Only Good Indians"

Stories about the sins of a character’s past coming back to haunt them are commonplace in horror fiction, but they’re rarely as well-crafted as Stephen Graham Jones’s novel, The Only Good Indians. This dark and powerful book is an atmospheric tale of a group of Native American men who are pursued by an entity intent upon ending their lives. When they were younger, four friends hunted elk in an area restricted to tribal elders, and their actions resulted in a tragic event. Years later, a relentless spirit hunts the men down, intent upon taking revenge upon them for their past misdeeds.

The main characters in the story are members of the Blackfeet tribe, and Jone's masterful writing illuminates modern Native American culture in insightful and fascinating ways. In addition to the spine-tingling horror elements inherent in the novel, Jones tells an enthralling story about the younger generations of Native American tribes, and how they're torn between honoring their traditions and finding a place in the modern world. In fact, ignoring a tribal tradition is what sets these four friends on a path to their destruction.

As the story progresses, the malevolent entity takes down the men, each in more a violent way, until there is only one of them left standing. The horror sequences in the novel are creepy and unsettling, and will send chills down your spine. Jones often draws out the tension until a scene explodes into a terrifying and violent conclusion. Even if you're a seasoned horror fan who thinks they've seen it all, there are some disturbing and truly surprising moments throughout the story. The novel's climax features a bravura showdown between the vengeful entity and one of the main character's daughters, which ends in a way you might not expect.

If you're a fan of tales of ghostly revenge and retribution like Peter Straub's Ghost Story, you should really enjoy The Only Good Indians. Jones has written several excellent novels, including Growing Up Dead In Texas, and The Bird Is Gone. This compelling book might just be his best work yet. If you're looking to get lost in a moody, deeply frightening novel featuring well-developed characters and an absorbing story, set in a world you may not be familiar with, check out The Only Good Indians. Highly recommended for horror fans. 

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Never Surrender: A Tale of Galaxy Quest

A group of actors from a beloved science-fiction television series make ends meet by appearing at conventions that salute their show. Some of the cast members are a little fed up with continually celebrating their long-ago cancelled series, while others get a charge out of the adulation of their adoring fans. Sound a little familiar? If you're thinking this sounds a lot like Star Trek, you're not too far off the mark. Galaxy Quest (1999), an entertaining sci-fi adventure film, takes the concept one step further. What if a group of actual aliens has viewed transmissions of the television series Galaxy Quest, and think they're watching real-life adventures? These aliens want the heroic crew to help them defeat an interstellar villain threatening their race with extinction.

Galaxy Quest is a funny, action-filled and often touching tale that's become something of a cult classic in the years since its original release. While the movie resonates most strongly with Star Trek fans, it's also garnered its own group of devoted followers, who celebrate the film's clever allusions to science-fiction fandom. Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest Documentary (2019), takes an in-depth look at the making of the movie, and features interviews with the cast and crew, including actors Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Enrico Colantoni, and Sam Rockwell, director Dean Parisot, screenwriter Robert Gordon, and producer Mark Johnson.

The making of Galaxy Quest is covered in detail, from early script concepts to the film's eventual release. The documentary features a lot of fascinating stories about the production, including the fact that Harold Ramis was originally set to direct the film, which at the time was set to be even more brash and comedic in tone. There's also intriguing information and behind the scenes details about the film's casting, music and special effects. The cast and crew are fairly candid about DreamWorks Pictures, whose post-production mandate was that the producers should tone down some of the film's language and content, thus making it more family friendly.

In addition to the comments from the cast and crew, there are some delightful interviews with famous fans of the film, such as Trek cast members Brent Spiner and Will Wheaton, as well as writer-producers Damon Lindelof (Lost) and Greg Berlanti (ArrowThe Flash). Many fans consider Galaxy Quest to be a sort of honorary Star Trek film, and in fact it's been voted "one of the best Trek movies" on many online fan surveys and polls. Several of the interviewees note that Galaxy Quest predates the explosion of "comic book, sci-fi and nerd culture" that now sees comic book and sci-fi films and television series appealing to a wider audience. In a way, the movie was ahead of its time.

Never Surrender also follows a group of Galaxy Quest fans who are attending a convention, and participate in cosplay as the film's characters. They talk about their love for the film, and what its characters and themes have meant to them. Their heartfelt comments help to bring this delightful documentary full circle. Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest Documentary (2019), is a loving and insightful tribute to a movie that has become a favorite of many science-fiction fans. Never Surrender is currently available for streaming on Amazon Prime, and is well worth your time. As a bonus, you'll get to see Brent Spiner's terrific Patrick Stewart impression! Here's a link to the film's trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=39cVvN28UXE.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Retro Movie: Flynn's "Rolling Thunder"

There have been many films which examine the experiences of the returning Vietnam veteran, from introspective stories such as Coming Home and Born on the Fourth of July, to dark and surreal tales like Platoon and Apocalypse Now. On the other end of the spectrum are movies like Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo films, and Chuck Norris’ Missing in Action series, which tend to be straightforward action stories, though First Blood, the initial entry in the Rambo series, tried to be a little something more than just another shoot ‘em up flick. Somewhere in between these types of movies is Rolling Thunder (1977), directed by John Flynn. The film stars William Devane as Major Charles Rane, who returns home to San Antonio after several years as a POW in Vietnam. He learns that his wife has taken up with another man, and also finds that his young son barely remembers him. Rane is haunted by memories of the torture he suffered during the war, but he tries to adjust to civilian life in a world that feels much different than the one he left behind. 

Rane’s hometown hosts a celebration honoring his return. They award him a brand new Cadillac, as well a set of silver dollars, one for every day he was a captive. Linda Forchet, a local woman who wore his ID bracelet in his honor while he was held prisoner, presents him with the car and the money. She offers to buy him a drink at the bar where she works as a waitress. She makes a pass at him, but he initially rejects her advances. He also has a tense meeting with Cliff, the man who’s taken up with his wife. Cliff is a local deputy, and has become something of a surrogate father to Rane's son. While Rane becomes resigned to the fact that his marriage is over, he makes a real effort to build a relationship with his son.

One day, after returning home from having a drink with Linda, a group of men are waiting for Rane. They’re bandits who want the silver dollars that were given to him. Rane attempts to fight them off, but they brutally beat him, and kill his wife and son. He survives, but his hand is mangled as a result of it being pushed into a garbage disposal by the thieves. While Rane is recuperating in the hospital, he’s visited by both Linda and Johnny Vohden, a fellow soldier who is also having trouble adjusting to life as a civilian. Johnny tells him he’s signed up again, and will be leaving soon. After Rane is released, he picks up Linda, telling her he wants to take a trip to Mexico. However, this is no romantic getaway. He plans to exact revenge on the men who wounded him and killed his family, and enlists Johnny to help him.

 

Rolling Thunder is part drama, part revenge thriller and part action film. The movie has a more thoughtful vibe than most B movies or exploitation movies. Devane is excellent in the lead role. He does a fine job conveying the character’s emotional struggle. Rane can’t shake the memories of what he went through in Vietnam, and feels uncomfortable in his “normal” life. When his family is killed, he uses the skills he learned in the war to punish the men responsible. The fine supporting cast features a lot of familiar faces, including Dabney Coleman, James Best, Cassie Yates and Luke Askew. Linda Haynes, a veteran of several 1970s B movies, gives an excellent performance as Linda, turning what could have been a standard female role of the period into a full-bodied character. Her scenes with Devane are touching and well-acted. Director John Flynn really gives Devane and Haynes room to build their characters throughout the film. We get a real sense of these two lost souls slowly opening up to one another.

 

The script for the film is by Paul Schrader and Heywood Gould, from Schrader's original story. Schrader, who also wrote Taxi Driver, has noted in interviews that his original draft was significantly altered by the time it reached the screen. But his trademark mix of well-drawn characters and violent action is very much in evidence. Director John Flynn does a nice job of balancing the character oriented aspects of the film with its action scenes. Flynn had a solid career as a director, helming tough-minded action films like The Outfit and Best Seller. Rolling Thunder is a favorite of Quentin Tarantino, who named a company he founded, which specialized in re-releasing noteworthy B movies of the 1970s, after the film. Rolling Thunder is a solid thriller with strong performances. It's an interesting and offbeat entry in the cycle of Vietnam films. Heres a link to the trailer for the movie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FwAcWb5K3HM.

Monday, February 8, 2021

"Start Walkin" Honors Nancy Sinatra

Nancy Sinatra is one of the most iconic performers to come out of the 1960s pop music scene. She was (and is) an independent-minded artist and a strong woman who forged her own path in an often male-dominated industry. As part of a year-long celebration of Nancy’s career, Light in the Attic Records has released Nancy Sinatra: Start Walkin’ 1965-1976, a new collection featuring 23 of her best songs. She made her television debut on Welcome Home Elvis, a variety show hosted by her famous father Frank, which marked the King of Rock and Roll's return to the United States after his military service in Germany. She also appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, and released several singles. But her early releases didn't reflect the kind of music she really wanted to make. It was time for a change.

Fast forward a bit, and Nancy's label hooks her up with Lee Hazlewood, a songwriter and producer who had found success penning songs for artists like Duane Eddy. Hazlewood introduced Nancy to some of his music, including a tune called “These Boots Are Made For Walkin.” Nancy took the song, which Hazlewood had originally intended to record himself, and turned it into a powerful rallying cry for women everywhere. Instead of commenting on a relationship from the male perspective, “These Boots Are Made For Walkin” became a statement of female empowerment. Along with the other terrific pop songs on her debut album, the Hazlewood produced Boots, her music showcased a smart, sassy, and confident performer at the top of her game. Boots was the beginning of a fruitful professional partnership with Hazlewood, which produced several more albums, including the bona fide classic Nancy & Lee


Hazlewood's offbeat lyrics and unique production style, paired with Nancy's warm, sensual voice, are fully evident on a string of hits, including "Sugar Town," "Bang Bang" and their duets "Summer Wine," "Some Velvet Morning," and "Jackson." Nancy also performed the title song to the James Bond film "You Only Live Twice." Her collaborations with Hazlewood continued into the 1970s, when the duo released Nancy & Lee Again. Nancy wasn't just a musical force of nature, she also became a fashion icon, thanks to her distinctive fashion sense and cool ensemble, which included a mix of sweaters, miniskirts, and of course, boots. She also appeared in films such as Speedway, where she co-starred with Elvis, and television shows like The Man From U.N.C.L.E, as well as her own variety specials, including Movin' With Nancy.


Start Walkin’ is an outstanding collection. It's a great way to start exploring Nancy's music if you haven't heard it before. Once you listen you'll quickly discover why she has many famous fans, including U2 and Lana Del Rey. If you're already a convert, you'll appreciate these lovingly remastered versions of her most memorable songs. The anthology also includes a 64 page booklet, featuring an essay by Amanda Petrusich, an interview with Nancy conducted by co-producer Hunter Lea, and many never before seen photos. As part of their year-long tribute to Nancy's work, Light In The Attic Records will also be releasing expanded editions of Boots and Nancy & Lee. For more information on Start Walkin' 1965-1976, follow this link to the page on the Light In The Attic site: https://lightintheattic.net/releases/7266-start-walkin-1965-1976.