Wednesday, March 19, 2014

HISTORY OF MUSIC #12: Men at Work Pt. 2 - Cargo

The following review appeared in a slightly different form as a cassette review at Reglar Wiglar Magazine.

MEN AT WORK
Cargo
(CBS) 1983

Business as Usual was a monster hit for these Aussie lads at the beginning of the 1980s. They won a Grammy in 1982 for "Best New Artist" (aka The Kiss of Death) and it was all down hill from there. There was Cargo though. I was a Men at Work fan in '82 and '83. After Queen, they were probably my favorite band in junior high school. "Down Under" was a favorite among my Dungeons & Dragons playing friends. How that song ties into role playing games, I couldn't tell you, but it did. The "Down Under" single, backed with "Crazy", was one of the first forty-fives I ever bought.  In my 7th grade homeroom class (taught by Mrs. Popp, no lie), we got to bring in records every Friday to play for the class. We only got one side. I brought in "Down Under" but spun the b-side instead. You could hear "Down Under" on the radio 24 times a day, but I wanted to turn some heads onto the other sounds of Men at Work—a hipster DJ in the making!

Cargo saw four singles released. "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" is a decent enough tune. It's not on par with any of the hits of its Business predecessor, but it was good enough to warrant release as a single. "Overkill," "It's a Mistake" and "High Wire" were the other three. Again, not the same caliber of stuff that made Business resonate with the public or made the cash registers ring, but the best of a batch of mediocre stuff nevertheless. The rest of Cargo is pretty forgettable and signaled the end of the Men's career as hit makers.

Cargo would be followed by Two Hearts in '85. That album was met with the critical and commercial disappointment it almost surely deserved.

Discography:
Business As Usual (CBS) 1982
Cargo (CBS) 1983 
Two Hearts (Sony) 1985
It's a Mistake (Kiosk) 1997
Brazil (Columbia) 1998

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Thursday, March 13, 2014

COMICS REVIEW: Couch Tag

COUCH TAG
Jesse Reklaw [Fantagraphics]

Couch Tag is a new graphic memoir from the artist Jesse Reklaw, his first. While this may be Jesse's debut in this format, this is hardly his first contribution to the world of comics. Jesse has been drawing and self-publishing comics for several decades. His strip, Slow Wave, in which he translated reader-submitted dreams into surreal comic strips has been published widely in both print and on the web and his daily comics diary, Ten Thousand Things To Do was published by Microcosm in 2010.

Couch Tag  relates the story of the author's childhood growing up in typical dysfunctional fashion. Jesse’s nuclear family consists of his sister, himself and his hippie parents. Although the word hippie can imply, perhaps some sort of a political leaning or communal way of life, for Jesse's family, at least for his father, it seems to be more about being shiftless. Shiftless, yet strict. Jesse’s father is portrayed as a heavy drinker, a pot smoker and a bit of a dick—not a sympathetic figure. His mother goes along to get along until she doesn't anymore and the two split up. Jesse floats around or above it all, trying to figure out his place in the world.

Couch Tag is a game that Jesse and his childhood pals made up where the floor is pretended to be covered in hot lava, or some such deadly substance, and one must navigate their way around the room stepping only on furniture.  The book is broken up into five separate sections that all deal with Jesse’s past. In "Thirteen Cats" (featured in The Best American Comics), Jesse recounts some of the furry past friends of the family. The cats, like the family's homes, seem to be abandoned and changed fairly easily and in quick succession. "Toys I Loved" features recollections of stuffed animals, security blankets and a Stretch Armstrong doll—a  goo-filled toy from the '70s that could be stretched to almost impossible lengths. "The Fred Robinson Story" is the entertaining tale of two creative teenagers who decide to focus their energies on lightly torturing a random citizen named Fred Robinson. It’s the harmless prank phone call taken to an extreme level with comics, songs (and one would almost expect a musical adaptation) all devoted to the speculated life of a stranger named Fred. "The Stacked Deck," is told through the explanation or observation of various card games that Jesse remembers from his childhood. "Lessoned," is when things start going off the rails. The artwork gets noticeably more chaotic. The paintings and white out of this last chapter depict a whirlwind of confusion, depression and drug experimentation as Jesse attempts to come to terms with his inner demons through an alphabetical list of past trauma, grievances and lessons learned.

The times weren’t all bad, however, and these nostalgic stories are lined with happy times here and there, even as friends, houses and cats change, and there are sure to be many more chapters to come—Chris Auman 

Read the Reglar Wiglar interview with Jesse Reklaw.

Friday, February 28, 2014

COMICS REVIEW: Nova Phase

NOVA PHASE
by Matt Ritter & Adam Elbatimy
[Slave Labor Graphics]

Nova Phase is a part of a six issue series of comics that are being released through Slave Labor Graphics. The story is being billed as a “treasure hunt in space with old school video game graphics!” It certainly delivers on the promise of pixelated panels. You can see the bits and almost here blips and bleeps.  

Nova Phase tells the story of Veronica Darkwater, a bounty hunter with a good heart. Maybe too good—not a good trait in a bounty hunter. Even Han Solo ran into a bit of trouble in this area, despite the image he wished to project. Veronica is set up against a ruthless military antagonist  who, like all ruthless military antagonists, is on a quest for absolute power at any cost—at all costs!

If the story sounds like something from a late eighties/early 90s video game, that is hardly a coincidence. The arcade-style art and classic storyline is meant to pay homage to the 8-bit past.

A print version of the first two issues will be collected for sale through the SLG website and Amazon.

Nova Phase Blog:
http://8-bitspacewestern.blogspot.com
https://www.facebook.co/8bitspacewestern


Sunday, February 23, 2014

HISTORY OF MUSIC #11: Thompson Twins - Into the Gap

THOMPSON TWINS
Into the Gap
(Arista) 1984

About six years ago, before moving for the second time in less than nine months, I gave away a good portion of my collection of 80s pop records: Culture Club, Thompson Twins, Altered States, et al. I was thankful for not having to schlep a few more boxes, but after I was moved into my new place, I regretted the decision. Even if I never listened to any of those records again, it was somewhat comforting just to own them. The 80s dayglo colors of record covers like Into The Gap, Colour By Numbers and She's So Unusual —I mean, the future was so bright, we had to wear shades for godsake! That’s what Timbuk 3 advised anyway. Nowadays, the future is not so bright and shiny.

Since that time, I have determined that much of my record buying present and future will be involved in reclaiming my record owning past. Which brings me to a recent thrift store discovery, the aforementioned Into The Gap. Into the Gap was Thompson Twin’s 1984 chart topper. What the three twins produced in this release is a great pop record by any decade’s standards. It didn’t hurt that they  had, not only a firm grasp on 80s fashion, but the means to capitalize on it. They did it so well, in fact, that their many detractors thought they were simply flash and fluff with no substance. Into the Gap proves those assertions wrong. The record is full of great synth hooks, danceable beats and soaring vocals backed with great harmonies.

The Thompson Twin’s had both style and substance by way of good songwriting chops. The album's two certified hits, "Hold Me Now" and “Doctor! Doctor!" are still radio mainstays but deeper cuts like “The Gap," "Sisters of Mercy," and "You Take Me Up" were equally worthy of 80s chart success. Class dismissed!

HISTORY OF MUSIC #10: The Ramones - Too Tough to Die

THE RAMONES
Too Tough to Die
(Sire) 1984

Not the greatest Ramones record ever ever, but really, have they ever made a bad one? With the Ramones you have to embrace their faults, idiosyncracies, and quirks and love them wart hogs and all. Considering the personalities and disorders at play in the band, any release seems like a miracle in hindsight. Plus, we got Tommy Ramone back in his spot at the controls, so there's that. While most of the tunes on Too Tough to Die won't have you jumping to your feet, shaking your fist in a beat-on-the-brat kinda way, it does have its moments. Like "Wart Hog," for example—a Dee Dee punk rock gem with a very infectious chorus. This was Dee Dee's answer to the hardcore of the day, but he just couldn't help making it a catchy tune. "Endless Vacation" is another Dee Dee attempt to play hardcore which succeeds in the brainless and tunelessness a lot of hardcore aspired to in the mid 80s. In fact, Too Tough to Die is a mostly Dee Dee affair with the bass player contributing nine out of thirteen tracks. Non Dee Dee songs like "Chasing the Night," and "Howling at the Moon (Sha-La-La)" are classic 60s ala Ramones pop songs. There are some throwaways sure, like "Planet Earth 1988" (still four years away at this point), and "Danger Zone," a forgettable if not forgivable bland rock attempt. All in all, Too Tough to Die is a return to form and remains a solid brick in the house that the Ramones built.  

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Saturday, February 22, 2014

HISTORY OF MUSIC #9: The Police - Synchronicity

THE POLICE

The fifth studio album from The Police was a monster seller in all formats. Synchronicity, (pretentiously titled after a book which name-checks a term coined by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung) turned these three blonds from super stars into super duper stars. The synchronicity concept—whereby two seemingly unrelated events occur simultaneously for some purpose—seemed to be a theme connecting the songs on this album. I guess. Maybe not. Ask Sting. The only evidence of this theory seems to be the two pretentiously-titled tracks “Synchronicity I” and “Synchronicity II”. In keeping with the theme as well, I suppose, are the two seemingly unrelated events of Copeland’s “Miss Gradenko” and Summer’s almost-unlistenable “Mother,” both lumped together on side A along with songs about dinosaurs, God and biscuit-taking and the aforementioned Synchronicitys. The B side delivers the goods though giving us no less than three hit songs as well as a song about desert tea drinking.

Synchronicity
would become The Police's biggest selling album and their last. What do you expect? These guys were on a nonstop, whirlwind touring and recording schedule and the end was bound to come sooner or later. Allegedly, Copeland and Sting came to blows during the recording. Copeland obviously didn’t punch Sting hard enough because he was able to carry on and release such pretentiously-titled future albums like The Dream of the Blue Turtles becoming a world music and tantric dork.

A lot of critics (aka nerds) like to get bunched undies when bands featuring mostly white people incorporate different styles of the music of nonwhite people into their own. This of course, ignores the fact that very little music played on this planet in the 80s or today was created in a vacuum and the origin of rock music, should they take the time to remember, was a multicultural hodgepodge of country and blues. While this fact should make them want to give up writing and actually try to enjoy music like most humans, nothing will deter them from trying to kill everyone's buzz one band at a time. (Vampire Weekend is a recent example of how this pointless argument resurfaces every few years.) They must have been relieved then when Sting opted to forgo the reggae and island rhythms of records past in favor of the more experimental approach of throwing horns at everything.

The question is whether Synchronicity deserves a place on such a high pedestal. Maybe yes, but mainly for the cultural impact it had on us back then. I will say, I was down with the Synchro in 7th grade like I was down with Thriller and Business as Usual. I rolled with the trends back then. Listening to this record many decades later, however, and after becoming a fan of earlier Police records like the pretentiously-titled Outlandos d’Amour and Reggatta de Blanc, this record is certainly not as exciting as those first efforts. Sure, it delivered the hits in spades, but it’s a dark record and kind of a bummer to listen to and nobody wants to spend that much time in Sting's head anyway. Not even Sting.

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HISTORY OF MUSIC #8: Huey Lewis Overview by Patrick Bateman

"Do you like Huey Lewis & The News? Their early work was a little too 'new-wave' for my taste, but when Sports came out in '83, I think they really came into their own - both commercially and artistically. The whole album has a clear, crisp sound, and a new sheen of consummate professionalism that really gives the songs a big boost. He's been compared to Elvis Costello, but I think Huey has a far more bitter, cynical sense of humor. In '87, Huey released this, Fore, their most accomplished album. I think their undisputed masterpiece is 'Hip To Be Square', a song so catchy most people probably don't listen to the lyrics - but they should! Because it's not just about the pleasures of conformity, and the importance of trends, it's also a personal statement about the band itself! Hey Paul!"—Patrick Bateman, American Psycho

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