Friday, November 24, 2023

A Psyche-Pop Christmas with The Grip Weeds

I'm a big fan of New Jersey's psyche pop heroes The Grip Weeds. I've previously raved about their work both at this blog, and in my other writing gig over at CultureSonar, https://www.culturesonar.com/. If you haven't yet heard their music, which is a spectacular mix of psychedelia, power pop and garage rock, it's time to check out superb albums such as How I Won The War, Trip Around The Sun, and their wonderful covers record,  DiG. The band's supremely talented lineup features Kurt Reil on drums and vocals, Kristin Pinell Reil on lead guitar and vocals, Rick Reil on guitar and vocals and Dave DeSantis on bass. With the holidays coming soon, you should also experience their musical brilliance on the recently released re-issue of their fabulous album, Under The Influence of Christmas, which is now available on JEM Records.

There are a plethora of Christmas records out there, but how many of them offer you that perfect mix of rocking originals, inspired re-workings of traditional classics, and fantastic reinterpretations of some well-known rock and roll holiday tunes? The Grip Weeds' Christmas celebration kicks off with the guitar-driven original "Christmas Dream," a terrific selection that wouldn't sound out of place on 1960s pop/rock radio during the holiday season. That's followed  by another Grip Weeds composition, the hard-rocking "Santa Make Me Good," which includes guest appearances by Mark Lindsay of Paul Revere and the Raiders, as well as Myke Scavone and Dar Francis of The Doughboys. This high-energy tune will have you playing air guitar and dancing around the room while you put up your holiday decorations. 

One of the best tracks on the album is an ethereal cover of one of my personal Yuletide favorites, "2000 Miles." The heartfelt rendition of this modern rock classic (originally recorded by The Pretenders) includes guest appearances by Jim Babjak and the late Pat DiNizio of The SmithereensVince Grogan of Buzzed Meg and Third of Never is featured on an acoustic-tinged version of Jethro Tull's "A Christmas Song" and The Left Banke's George Cameron checks in on "For The Holidays," another marvelous Grip Weeds original. Of course, no ultra cool holiday party would be complete without a psyche pop guest star, so Peter Horvath of The Anderson Council is along for the ride on a sensational garage rock run-through of "Welcome Christmas," from How The Grinch Stole Christmas which could turn even the Grinch himself into a power pop fan.

Under The Influence of Christmas also features The Grip Weeds' psychedelic flavored renditions of the holiday perennials "Hark The Herald Angels Sing" and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" which are infused with heavenly vocals and jangly Byrds-esque guitars, touched off with some brilliant production work by Kurt Reil. This must have holiday record also includes the band's cover of Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas," Vince Montana's "Merry Christmas All" and the magical, positive energy filled original "Christmas, Bring Us." Under The Influence of Christmas is an extraordinary album from a phenomenal band. If you don't enjoy this dazzling record, your rock and roll heart must be two sizes too small! Under The Influence of Christmas is out now on JEM Records. For more about The Grip Weeds, head over to https://www.jemrecordings.com/, or https://www.gripweeds.com/. Here's a link to the promo video for the album release: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zrMz_o0KFo4.

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Retro Movie: Occult Terror in "Equinox"

Edward Connell and Barbara Hewitt in Equinox

There are films that leave a lasting impression on you, especially if you first saw them as a young monster movie fan. Even if the film isn't considered a classic, like King Kong or The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, there are movies that remain in your memory, because there's something about them that captures your imagination. For me, one such movie is Equinox (1970), a frightening tale of the supernatural that began life as a short film directed by Dennis Muren, who later worked on the special effects for films like Star Wars, The Abyss and Jurassic Park. Along with his friends Jim Danforth and Dave Allen (both of whom also went on to produce effects work for a number of films and TV series), Muren created a film titled The Equinox: A Journey Into The Supernatural (1967), which featured some excellent stop-motion animation, inspired by the celebrated work of Ray Harryhausen. The script for the film was penned by another member of Muren's circle, Mark Thomas McGee.

After an independent film company showed interest in distributing the movie, producer Jack H. Harris (The Blob, The 4D Man) hired director Jack Woods to shoot additional footage to expand the short film to feature length. The cast includes Edward Connell, Barbara Hewitt, Robin Christopher, and Frank Boers, aka Frank Bonner, who later co-starred on WKRP in Cincinnati. Fantasy author Fritz Lieber and director Woods also appear in supporting roles. Released in 1970, and retitled simply Equinox, the film concerns two couples who have a frightening encounter with the supernatural. As the film opens, a reporter visits David Fielding, a patient at a psychiatric facility. The reporter wants to interview him about a series of events that took place a year earlier, which led to the deaths of David's three friends, and left him in a catatonic state.

David's doctor plays the reporter a tape of an interview he conducted with the young man. David, his friend Jim Hudson, and their girlfriends Susan and Vicki, ventured into the woods to see Dr. Waterman, David's college professor. Waterman had asked David to visit, so he could share a discovery with him. The quartet don't find Dr. Waterman at first, but they do discover that his cabin is in ruins, and they find a mysterious book which seems to be able to conjure up dark, supernatural forces. There's a creepy park ranger named Asmodeus, who keeps following them around, and several monstrous creatures appear to terrorize our heroes. As a result of these chilling encounters, only David survives, and Asmodeus promises that, in a year and a day, David will also succumb to the forces of evil. It just so happens that the reporter is visiting David to talk about these experiences exactly one year and a day later!

Equinox displays its low-budget origins, and the cast sometimes shows its inexperience, but the film is eerie and atmospheric, and the effects sequences by Muren, Danforth and Allen are excellent. I first saw the movie in my younger days when it was shown on a late-night horror film showcase in the New York area. The movie has gained a solid cult following in the ensuing years, and both George Lucas and the late Ray Harryhausen, among others, have declared themselves fans of the film. In 2006, the movie was released on a two-disc special edition DVD as part of the prestigious Criterion Collection. In addition to showcasing the early work of a group of modern masters of special effects, Equinox definitely feels like a precursor and spiritual forefather to the original The Evil Dead (1981), directed by Sam Raimi. Here's a look at a vintage trailer for the film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tctHCMAi8jw.

Sunday, November 5, 2023

"Hit The Main Drag" with The Gold Needles

If you're missing the warmer weather and the recently ended good times of summer, why not cheer yourself up with a dose of rock and roll sunshine by listening to "Hit The Main Drag," the new single from The Gold Needles, recently released by JEM Records. This sparkling tune is a fantastic blast of energetic rock/pop from the band who dazzled us with the wonderful album What's Tomorrow Ever Done For You? back in 2021. This high energy song is firmly entrenched in the sounds of 70s and 80s power pop, entwined with the cool vibes of a classic rock and roll road tune. "Hit The Main Drag" is absolutely worth adding to your "cruising in the car" playlist.

The Gold Needles are based in England, and boast a talented lineup featuring Dave Burbage on lead and rhythm guitars, Mark English on synthesizers, Simon Dowson, vocals and rhythm guitars, Carl Slaughter on bass, and Will Jones on drums. "Hit The Main Drag," was penned by Burbage, Dowson and English, who came up with the melody and the chorus for the infectious tune. Download this outstanding track to your favorite device, and turn it up. You'll find yourself in a much brighter mood in no time! Check out the song by following this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YkAsoViAuws. You can also head over to https://www.jemrecordings.com/ to find out more about the band, and learn about some of the other marvelous artists on JEM Records.

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Flanagan's Grand Guignol "House of Usher"

Bruce Greenwood in The Fall of the House of Usher

If you're a fan (as I am) of writer-director Mike Flanagan's previous work in the horror genre, which includes chilling series such as
The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting of Bly Manor and Midnight Mass, and eerie films like Oculus, Gerald's Game and Doctor Sleep, then have I got a Halloween treat for you. After providing us with superb re-imaginings of the literary tales of authors like Shirley Jackson, Henry James and Stephen King, Flanagan's latest project, The Fall of the House of Usher, takes a deep dive into the Gothic fiction of Edgar Allan Poe. It's a fantastic miniseries that proves once again that Flanagan is a modern master of the horror genre.

The Fall of the House of Usher centers on the Usher family, headed by siblings Roderick and Madeline. Roderick has built a financial empire based on the success of his company, Fortunato Pharmaceuticals. However, both he and Madeline share several secrets that have begun to tear their family, and their world, apart. Roderick's six children are being systematically killed by a supernatural force that appears to be taking revenge on him for his past misdeeds. The story of his family's downfall is told in flashback by Roderick to District Attorney C. Auguste Dupin, who's dedicated his life to exposing the corruption within Roderick's company. Dupin's name, is of course, just one of a myriad of references to Poe stories and characters throughout the series. The show is filled with easter eggs, nods and visual representations of Poe's work, both overt and more subtle in nature.

As he tells the tale of each of his children's grisly demise to Dupin, Roderick also relates stories of his and Madeline's younger years, and the questionable things the siblings did to achieve success. All of these flashbacks are skillfully tied together into a tapestry which features elements of many of Poe's classic short stories and poems, including The Black Cat, The Raven, and The Masque of the Red Death. To give too much away would spoil the many pleasures and surprises of this magnificently produced, well-crafted series. Let's just say if you're a fan of Gothic horror, and frightening set-pieces which include some memorable jump scares, and over the top terror, then The Fall of the House of Usher is definitely in your wheelhouse.

The cast is excellent, with many of Mike Flanagan's repertory company from previous productions returning in various roles for the series, including Henry Thomas, Kate Siegel, T'Nia Miller, Rahul Koli and Bruce Greenwood, who gives a great performance as Roderick. Carl Lumbly provides strong work as Dupin, Mary McDonnell is terrific as Madeline, and Michael Trucco is solid as a smarmy Fortunato executive who tangles with Roderick and Madeline, much to his eventual regret. Everyone is marvelous, but top honors for scene-stealing have to go to Mark Hamill as Arthur Pym, the Usher family's coldly efficient lawyer/fixer (whose character name is yet another tip of the hat to Poe), and Carla Gugino (also a Flanagan veteran) as Verna, a mysterious woman with deep ties to Roderick and Madeline's past, who appears to be something other than human, and who knows all of the Usher secrets.

The writing on the series is superb, with great dialogue provided for the actors by Flanagan and his co-writers, including Emily Grinwis and Justina Ireland. The show is visually striking, and brilliantly directed by Flanagan and Michael Fimongari, who also provided the cinematography for the series. The Fall of the House of Usher is a bit more wild and over the top than some of Flanagan's previous efforts, like The Haunting of Hill House, which, while it had its share of jump scares, often utilized a slow and subtle build up to its more terrifying moments. This series is a bit more Grand Guignol (by design) but it's no less well-crafted, or less effective, than Flanagan's other work. If you've enjoyed his other shows, such as the recent series The Midnight Club, then I think you'll dig The Fall of the House of Usher, which is currently streaming on Netflix. Here's a look at the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yvuAWVzP6wI.


 

Monday, October 23, 2023

Retro Movie: A Different Side of Jekyll & Hyde

Martine Beswick & Gerald Sim

In the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, England's Hammer Films made a name for themselves as one of the preeminent purveyors of horror tales. Hammer created their own versions of the classic Universal monsters of the 1930s and 1940s, releasing films featuring Dracula, Frankenstein's monster and The Mummy. During the 1970s, the studio had fallen on hard times, and tried amping up the sex and violence quotient with titles like Countess Dracula and The Vampire Lovers to bring audiences back into the theaters. The studio also issued some original takes on their tried and true horror formula, with films such as Demons of the Mind, Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter and Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde. 

Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde spins the story of Dr. Henry Jekyll, an intelligent and forward thinking researcher who's trying to find a universal cure for most of the illnesses suffered by mankind. His cavalier friend Professor Robertson thinks he should get out and enjoy life more. Jekyll''s new neighbor Susan Spencer has a romantic interest in him, but he's too obsessed with his studies to notice. Jekyll reaches a compelling breakthrough in his work, but not the one he expected. He turns from curing illness to creating an elixir of life, using female hormones, since it seems to him that women live longer than men. When Jekyll drinks his elixir, he transforms into a seductive female named Edwina Hyde.

Edwina is a predatory, powerful woman and her strong persona overwhelms the weaker Jekyll, who ends up committing murder to obtain more hormones for his elixir. Ms. Hyde starts to gain control for longer periods, and she wants to become the dominant personality, eliminating Jekyll. Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde is an entertaining variation on the Jekyll/Hyde tale, featuring a good performance by Ralph Bates as Jekyll, and a dark, sensual one from former Bond girl and Hammer veteran Martine Beswick as Ms. Hyde. The clever script by Brian Clemens (who also penned Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter) manages to insert real life corpse snatchers Burke and Hare, as well as the Jack the Ripper killings, into the story of Jekyll and Hyde, and toss a murderous female alter ego for Jekyll into the proceedings as well.

Roy Ward Baker's strong direction, the evocative score by David Whitaker, and the atmospheric cinematography of Norman Warwick combine to make the film one of one of the better variations on Robert Louis Stevenson's classic tale. The solid supporting cast includes Gerald Sim, Lewis Fiander and Virginia Wetherall. Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde is an intriguing, offbeat entry in the latter day Hammer horror cycle, and it's worth checking out. The film is available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory, and is currently available for streaming on Peacock. Here's a look at the trailer for the film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ylWRtdfcMLk.


Friday, October 13, 2023

The Weeklings Salute "Brian Jones"

The Weeklings, those New Jersey based power pop maestros, have already given us a pair of excellent releases during the past year. Their magnificent version of the Beatles classic "I've Just Seen A Face," and its accompanying music video became fan favorites during the winter months, and the group's brilliant re-imagining of Bruce Springsteen's "I'm On Fire" as a rockabilly rave-up wowed us all this past summer. But if you thought The Weeklings were done dazzling us after that dynamic one-two punch, you couldn't be more wrong. The band has just released a terrific new single saluting the late Brian Jones, one of the founding members of The Rolling Stones.

"Brian Jones" is a bluesy, harmonica infused tune paying tribute to Jones, who for many longtime Stones fans was the heart, soul and driving force of the band's early years. The song, co-written by Bob Burger and Glen Burtnik, aka Zeek and Lefty Weekling, also features the exquisite harmonies that are a hallmark of The Weeklings sound, as well as some groovy guitar, bass and drum work by the group. With the Stones releasing a new album this month, interest in the band is high, so The Weeklings couldn't have picked a better time to release this fantastic tune, their third fabulous release in a row this year! 

The phenomenal lineup of The Weeklings consists of Zeek, aka Bob Burger, on lead vocals, harmonica, and guitar; Lefty aka Glen Burtnik, on bass and background vocals; Rocky, aka John Merjave, on guitar and background vocals, and Smokestack, aka Joe Bellia, on drums. If you dig "I've Just Seen A Face," "I'm On Fire" and the rest of the splendiferous music of The Weeklings, then you'll absolutely love "Brian Jones." It's an outstanding tribute to a rock and roll icon from a phenomenal band. Here's a link to the fabulous video for the song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=abAFKBANq0I.

Monday, October 2, 2023

Songs & Stories at BFVCC with Thomas Walsh

Thomas Walsh at Best Video

Thomas Walsh is a tremendously talented singer and songwriter who, since the 1990s, has created wonderful music as the founder of Pugwash, an Irish band whose songs have echoes of XTC, ELO, The Beatles and The Beach Boys. While Pugwash's music does indeed recall the sound of those much beloved bands, their music also stands on its own, showcasing Thomas' knack for crafting marvelous pop/rock songs combining enchanting music with memorable lyrics. This month, Walsh is releasing his first solo disc, The Rest Is History. On Sunday, October 1st, he performed a show at the Best Video Film & Cultural Center in Hamden, Connecticut, to promote the album.

The show was outstanding, featuring a generous helping of tunes from Pugwash, a couple of selections from The Duckworth Lewis Method, his cricket themed band (with Neil Hannon), and some terrific covers including songs by The Bee Gees, The Move, The Kinks and Michael Penn. He also previewed several tracks from The Rest Is History, including the fantastic "A Good Day For Me" and the lovely "We Knew." Thomas is a phenomenal performer, whose affable personality, playful sense of humor and positive energy shone through not only in his singing and playing, but in the stories he shared about the origin of his songs, and his encounters with the likes of Jeff Lynne and Brian Wilson.

Thomas was in excellent voice, offering us glorious versions of Pugwash gems such as "Take Me Away", "Fall Down" and "The Perfect Summer," as well as heartfelt renditions of songs he loves, such as The Bee Gees "Birdie Told Me," and Michael Penn's "Coal."  It was a special treat to hear these wonderful songs performed "unplugged"style, and Walsh's expert guitar playing perfectly matched his heartfelt vocals. From the emotional "Here" to the light-hearted Duckworth Lewis Method track "Meeting Mr. Miandad," His joy in performing these tunes was palpable. The intimate nature of the space at Best Video and the enthusiastic audience also added to the show's positive vibe.

Another delightful thing about Thomas is that like ourselves, he's a music fan.  His unabashed affection for the artists and bands he loves, such as XTC was evident when he would break into an impromptu rendition of their song "Grass," The Kinks tune "Animal Farm" or a snippet of George Harrison's "Blow Away." Thomas Walsh creates magnificent pop/rock music, and performs it with wit, heart and passion. As a long time fan of his work, I feel very lucky to have seen him perform at a venue like Best Video Film & Cultural Center, which is the home of so many great music and film related events in this area. If you're fan of pop, power pop and melodic rock, I strongly recommend checking out Thomas' fantastic music, and if you get the chance, head out to see him perform live.

With Thomas after the show