Monday, November 16, 2009

Paul McCartney - Good Evening New York City CD/DVD Review

Written by General Jabbo

When the Beatles played Shea Stadium in 1965, it revolutionized the concert industry. Rock bands didn’t play baseball stadiums and though you could barely hear the band over the drone of screaming girls, it set the tone for bands such as The Rolling Stones, The Who, and Led Zeppelin.

Now 44 years later, Shea Stadium is gone, but the Mets have a new stadium and who better than Paul McCartney to christen its concert stage? Captured over three nights at Citi Field in 2009, Good Evening New York City is an excellent document of these historic shows.

Containing two CDs and one DVD, Good Evening New York City offers a healthy cross-section of McCartney classics old and new — from “I Saw Her Standing There” with New York-native Billy Joel guesting on vocals and piano to “Sing the Changes” from McCartney’s critically acclaimed Fireman album, Electric Arguments — the latter featuring images of Barack Obama on the video screen during the performance.

As has been the case in recent tours, Paul pays tribute to both John Lennon and George Harrison by performing “Here Today,” the song he wrote after Lennon’s passing and “Something” for George, featuring Paul on ukulele for the first part of the song. McCartney gets visibly choked up during “Here Today” and his voice cracks, only adding to the song’s poignancy.

McCartney has also taken to performing Lennon-written songs in recent years with “Day Tripper” and “A Day In The Life/Give Peace a Chance” getting the nod here. With Lennon and Harrison gone, McCartney has effectively become the curator of the Beatles legacy.

“I’m Down” was added to the set list as a nod to the Shea Stadium show from 1965. While the CD features the unedited audio of the performance, the DVD has a mash-up of both footage and audio with the Beatles’ performance and McCartney’s. It’s a clever touch and very well done.

It’s not all hits either. Obscure gems such as “Mrs. Vanderbilt” from Band on the Run and “Calico Skies” from 1997’s Flaming Pie sit nicely in between the better known “Blackbird” and “Eleanor Rigby.” In addition, the limited number of shows McCartney does these days has done wonders for his voice, as it is the strongest it has been in years.

Fans have been clamoring for a McCartney DVD release that offers a straight performance without interruptions, interviews, cuts to different shows and the like. Good Evening New York City delivers in this regard, focusing on the New York show, without too much audience hamming or rapid-fire MTV-style editing. In a clever touch, many in the crowd were handed handheld flip cameras to film whatever they wanted. Some of that footage is included in the DVD, which has a 5.1 DTS Surround Sound mix as well as standard stereo.

For fans of Paul McCartney, Wings and The Beatles, Good Evening New York City offers something for everyone. These are timeless songs, played by an energized McCartney with a crack band. What’s not to like?

Monday, November 9, 2009

Chickenfoot - Deluxe Limited Edition CD Review

Written by General Jabbo

It’s been a great first year for the super group Chickenfoot. With a critically acclaimed album and tour and a Gold Certified record, it’s been as good a start as former Van Halen members Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony, Red Hot Chili Pepper Chad Smith and guitar virtuoso Joe Satriani could have asked for.

Now the band is giving something back to the fans by releasing a deluxe, limited-edition version of their CD exclusively through Best Buy. The CD contains the original album, as well as the previously only available through iTunes and vinyl bonus track “Bitten by the Wolf” — a heavy blues track that would be at home on the acoustic side of Led Zeppelin III with its distorted vocals and slide guitar.

In addition to the CD is an hour-long DVD filled with studio footage, interviews, live clips and the full-length music video for “Soap On A Rope.” The band intros all of the clips by singing a variation of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” substituting Chickenfoot for the word Christmas and with each band member setting up the footage. It’s clear from these clips, as well as the other studio footage and interviews that these guys love being in a band together, which is refreshing to see, especially considering the sometimes rocky internal politics of both Van Halen and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Live footage is taken from a number of locations, most notably the band’s appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival, though additional audio was taken from Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut and the House of Blues in Atlantic City. While the studio versions of these tracks are strong, live is where Chickenfoot really shines, extending solos and driving the songs much harder than on CD.

While some fans may accuse the band of double dipping by rereleasing their album, the CD is limited edition and the DVD is worth the price alone. Chickenfoot is a band whose members play purely for the love of music and it shows. After a successful album and tour, the future looks bright for the band.

Monday, November 2, 2009

REO Speedwagon - Not So Silent Night CD Review

Written by General Jabbo

It’s been a busy few years for veteran rockers REO Speedwagon. From releasing their first album in more than a decade, one that had the band rediscovering its rock roots — 2007’s Find Your Own Way Home — to nonstop touring with the likes of Styx, Journey, and Night Ranger, the band has worked at a harder pace than many bands half their age.

Now, nearly 40 years after their debut, REO is releasing its first Christmas album. Not So Silent Night mixes traditional Christmas carols, obscure gems, and a cover of John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” with the classic REO sound — big, melodic choruses and guitars.

The album begins sweetly with a short, melodic version of “The First Noel,” before segueing into a bluesy “Winter Wonderland.” ‘Silent Night” and “Children Go Where I Send Thee” show the band in a surprisingly gospel vein and prove to be highlights of the disc with the former done as a ballad with choir and the latter as an up-tempo number.

For a band most famous for its ballads, the fact the slower material works better here is not surprising. “The White Snows of Winter” in particular stands out and should prove to be a favorite of fans of the band’s softer side.

The Lennon cover is by the numbers and while not an improvement over the classic original is still a strong track. In keeping with the holiday spirit, all proceeds from this track go to the John Lennon Foundation. The band’s cover of “Blue Christmas” finds them veering off into country territory in surprisingly convincing fashion

While the band rocks up their versions of “Deck The Halls” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman,” these versions come off as forced and aren’t to the same standard as the rest of the CD. Still the positives outweigh the negatives here.

REO Speedwagon may not be the first band people think of when it comes to recording a Christmas album, but they make it work. Fans of the band and of Christmas music should enjoy this release for years to come.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Transformers: Season Two, Volume One (25th Anniversary Edition) DVD Review

Written by General Jabbo

After the success of the initial 16 episodes of The Transformers, the show was renewed for a whopping 49 episodes, 28 of which are collected on The Transformers: Season Two, Volume One. As the show’s main purpose was to sell toys, season two introduced a number of new characters, including Autobots: Omega Supreme, Beachcomber, and Cosmos, and Decepticons: Dirge, Ramjet, and Thrust. In addition, a number of combining robots were introduced (several robots that combined to form one large robot) including the Aerialbots, Protectobots, Stunticons and Combaticons. New human characters were introduced as well, including Carly, Spike’s girlfriend.

When the Dinobots are deemed too dangerous to keep at Autobot headquarters, they are sent to train at Dinobot Island, which was also the name for this two-part episode. The Autobots discover an energy field in the middle of the ocean coming from the island. When they investigate, they find the island to be inhabited by real dinosaurs, making it a perfect place to send the Dinobots. The island is also rich in energy, which Decepticon leader Megatron is keen to steal. In spite of Starscream’s warnings, Megatron steals the energy, which causes a time rift. Portals open and out come cavemen on wooly mammoths, pirates, and cowboys from the old west. The Autobots soon discover they need to release the energy to restore time to its normal state.

In “Enter the Nightbird,” the Decepticons capture a human-made ninja robot named Nightbird and reprogram her to fight the Autobots. She breaks into Autobot headquarters and steals the World Energy Source. Though Optimus Prime vowed to protect the robot, he has no choice but to attack her to foil the Decepticon's plans.

“Autobot Spike” finds Sparkplug creating Autobot X out of spare Autobot parts. When Megatron attacks Bumblebee and Spike though, Wheeljack transfers Spike’s mind into Autobot X so they can save Spike’s body. Spike is horrified by his new form and, after seeing Frankenstein on TV, believes he is no different from the monster. Megatron seeks to exploit Spike’s anger by trying to turn him against the Autobots.

Cliffjumper accuses Mirage of being a traitor to the Autobots for not reporting electro cells he found. In reality, he was trying to trick the Decepticons. His plan backfires though when Megatron, thinking the Insecticons have set him up by stealing his energon cubes, fires on them. The Insecticons decide to make Mirage their slave via a brain chip and it is up to the Autobots to save him. Every character — Autobot, Decepticon and Insecticon — is under suspicion in one of the highlight episodes of season two.

It’s disappointing that season two has been spit up into volumes (There’s a complete set of the show’s entire run available for those who can’t wait) and there are no bonus features on the discs. One can hope the bonus features will appear on Season Two, Volume Two. The enclosed episodes are treated with the same loving restoration as season one though and the extra episodes, as well as the fast-paced action make The Transformers: Season Two, Volume One a winner.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Ace Frehley — Anomaly CD Review

Written by General Jabbo

After the release of his classic album, Trouble Walkin, Ace Frehley repeatedly promised fans its follow-up was imminent. Well, 20 years and one KISS reunion later, Anomaly is here, featuring all-new material, save for a rocking cover of Sweet’s “Fox on the Run” and “Sister,” a song that dates back to the mid 1990s that Frehley debuted on tour before reuniting with KISS.

The album starts strong with the driving “Foxy & Free,” referencing Hendrix, and “Outer Space,” which covers Frehley’s typical sci-fi themes. These are strong, heavy tunes that would be at home on Frehley’s 1978 solo album and both feature some excellent lead guitar work by Ace and drumming from Ace Frehley/ KISS/David Letterman show band alumni Anton Fig.

Ace channels his inner Zeppelin with the mostly instrumental “Genghis Khan,” whose bombastic drums and exotic tones recall “Kashmir,” while he reprises his “Fractured” series with the album-closing instrumental “Fractured Quantum.” The title of the instrumental, “Space Bear,” refers to the legendary The Tomorrow Show interview KISS did in 1979 where a very inebriated Frehley created a space bear by putting his KISS costume pieces on a teddy bear he found on the set, much to Gene Simmons’ chagrin.

That was the old Ace, however. In the last few years, Frehley has gotten sober and many of the lyrics reflect a more mature outlook on life. On the introspective “Change the World” he sings, “When I was young, I played. I had lots of fun, but now I can see it’s time for a change.” Frehley is more direct on the acoustic “A Little Below the Angels,” “Alcohol was a friend of mine. It almost got me dead. I crashed some cars, got into fights, some things I now regret.” The song features a somewhat cheesy spoken-word part, but this is a changed man baring his soul, and it’s obvious he is being sincere. Frehley celebrates his survival and sobriety on “It’s a Great Life,” a surprisingly groove-oriented song from the guitarist.

Anomaly does have a couple clunkers, most notably “Pain in the Neck” with its dissonant chorus and “Too Many Faces,” which seems disjointed. That’s disappointing news for fans waiting 20 years for this album, as it should be all killer, no filler. There’s plenty of killer though and Anomaly is definitely an album that gets better after repeated listens. Besides, it’s nice to hear Frehley taking chances, even if they don’t all work as well as he had hoped.

There are a few nods to Frehley’s 1978 solo album in the packaging — from the original artwork being used with new artwork on top of it to the back cover with its dedications. The inner packaging folds into a cool prism and harkens back to the days when KISS included fun extras in their releases. These touches, along with a number of rocking tracks, should please both Ace and KISS fans alike.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Two and a Half Men - Season 6 DVD Review

Written by General Jabbo

Season six of Two and a Half Men brings more of the usual antics from drunken womanizer Charlie (Charlie Sheen), his neurotic brother Alan (Jon Cryer), and Alan’s dimwitted son, Jake (Angus T. Jones) but offers some twists. Charlie finds a girlfriend named Chelsea (Jennifer Bini Taylor) who tried her best to reign in the eternal playboy, Alan considers patching things up with his ex-wife Judith (Marin Hinkle), and Jake ponders college and a cooking career of all things after his grandmother Evelyn (Holland Taylor) offers to pay for his college.

In the first episode, Charlie runs into an old flame who doesn’t want anything to do with him. Problem is, she has a son who looks and dresses just like Charlie and even plays the piano like him. Charlie is desperate to know if this is his son and ends up having a nightmare that he has hundreds of children running around. Finally, out of guilt, he offers financial support to the child’s mother, but is he really the father?

Alan decides that rather than start from scratch every time he breaks up with a woman, he’ll just date two at a time. He figures if Charlie can do it, so can he. He finds it’s not as easy as he thinks though. Meanwhile Jake, who is now 14, misunderstands the advice Charlie gives him about drinking and gets a man named Satellite Jack to buy him beer at a party store with $20 Alan had given him.

When Charlie’s friend and old partner-in-crime, Andy (Emilio Estevez), dies while visiting Charlie, it causes Charlie to rethink his own life, buying gifts for everyone except Alan and nearly proposing to Rose (Melanie Lynskey). He tells Alan that Andy was like the brother he never had, which is ironic, of course, as Estevez is his real-life brother. While at Andy’s funeral, he nods off and imagines his own funeral. Alan has inherited everything as Charlie left no will, James Earl Jones delivered the eulogy for $25,000 and a succession of Charlie’s ex-girlfriends line up to spit in his casket.

After Judith breaks up with Herb (Ryan Stiles), Alan visits Judith and ends up sleeping with her. Judith tries to act nice and patch things up with Alan until a disagreement about kissing brings out the old Judith. Turns out she wanted Alan to kiss more like Herb, who she welcomes back. Later, she drops a bombshell that she’s pregnant. Alan wonders whether the baby is his.

Chelsea makes her debut in the “Pinocchio’s Mouth” episode and remains a fixture for much of the second half of the season. This marks the fourth character Taylor has played on the show, but the first with any longevity. This episode finds her upset that Charlie never stays at her place. Reluctantly, he agrees, but complains about everything from sleeping on the wrong side of the bed to not having his personal pillow. Finally, he brings all of his belongings over for one night and Chelsea, not wanting to deal with him anymore, decides she will always stay at his place. Chelsea appears in 10 episodes, but can Charlie stay committed to one woman? To make matters worse, another ex-girlfriend, Mia, returns in the last episode leaving Charlie torn.

Extras on the DVD include “Two and a Half Men: Growing Up Harper” about the evolution of the Jake character, “The Women of Two and Half Men,” and a gag reel.

In spite of the love-hate relationship some viewers seem to have with the show due to its juvenile sense of humor, Two and a Half Men remains very popular and both Sheen and Cryer were nominated for Primetime Emmy Awards for this season. For those who enjoy the humor of Men, Season Six is another winner.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Elvis - The Ed Sullivan Show: The Classic Performances DVD Review

Written by General Jabbo

1956 is often viewed as the “Big Bang” year for rock 'n' roll and no star made a bigger bang than a young man from Tupelo, MS named Elvis Presley. Presley’s appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show shattered TV records with 72 million viewers, making millions of girls swoon and inspiring countless musicians in the process. Those performances are collected on Elvis - The Ed Sullivan Show: The Classic Performances.

Ironically, these performances almost never happened. Sullivan wasn’t interested in booking Presley and it wasn’t until his appearance on The Steve Allen Show killed Sullivan in the ratings that he booked him for three appearances for a then unheard of $50,000. Presley won over Sullivan though by being easy to work with and a gentleman and Sullivan essentially apologized to his audience for typecasting him in the first place.

While this material has been previously released as Elvis - The Ed Sullivan Shows, those DVDs featured the entire broadcasts as they originally appeared. For fans who just want the Elvis portions, this is the DVD to get. The songs are complete and the picture quality is excellent.

And what performances they were. Elvis and his legendary original band featuring Scotty Moore on guitar, Bill Black on bass, and DJ Fontana on drums, along with the Jordanaires on backup vocals delivered 15 classic performances that ranged from pop (“Don’t Be Cruel”) to tender ballads (“Love Me Tender”) to rockers (“Hound Dog,” “Ready Teddy”) and even gospel (“Peace in the Valley”). These songs caused such a frenzy that Elvis’ third appearance in January of 1957 was famously filmed from the waist up. This was rock 'n' roll at its most primal and it scared parents.

The DVD includes a number of bonus features, including a silent home movie of a 1955 Elvis performance from Houston, TX (The earliest known footage of the King), interviews with Sun Records founder Sam Phillips and TV personality Wink Martindale, home movies of Elvis and Priscilla, and original Ed Sullivan clips promoting the show.

Elvis defined a generation with his sound and his look. His music influenced countless artists, including the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, literally paving the way for rock as we know it today. The importance of these performances cannot be underestimated. For fans that wonder why they call Elvis "the King," this DVD offers ample proof.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Elvis Presley - From Elvis in Memphis: Legacy Edition CD Review

Written by General Jabbo

While it may be difficult to believe now, Elvis Presley’s career in the late 1960s prior to his triumphant ’68 Comeback Special was on the skids. Presley had been starring in increasingly bland “Elvis Movies” with increasingly bland soundtrack albums. The hits were drying up and the music world was passing him by. Even the Comeback Special wasn’t a sure thing at first — the Colonel originally wanted it to be a Christmas special, which the show’s producers Bones Howe and Steve Binder fought against and won. They saw the show as an opportunity for Presley to regain his throne as King and he agreed. The rest, as they say, is history as Presley electrified the world as he had done in the 1950s.

The next step was to cash in on this momentum. With Presley’s renewed interest in his recording career, he decided to return to Memphis to record for the first time since he had left Sun Records. He chose Chips Moman’s American Studios and from January to February 1969 recorded some of the most vital music of his career. These sessions are collected on the two-disc From Elvis in Memphis: Legacy Edition.

Like he had done so often in the early days, Presley blended rock, rhythm and blues, and country into a mix uniquely his. Gone were songs such as “Do the Clam,” replaced instead by ace singles including “Suspicious Minds” (Presley’s last U.S. number-one single), “Kentucky Rain,” and “In the Ghetto.” He was relevant and vital again.

Album cuts such as “Any Day Now” and “Long Black Limousine” showed an urgency missing from so much of Presley’s mid-1960s work while “Only the Strong Survive” and “I’m Movin’ On” sounded of the times. One wonders how many more albums like this he could have released had he decided to retake his career sooner.

The sessions were so productive, they yielded material for two complete albums (plus some songs that made it onto future releases). After a successful return to live performances in Las Vegas, Presley released From Memphis to Vegas/From Vegas to Memphis, a two-record set that was half live, half studio. The studio cuts are collected here and the material is arguably as strong as From Elvis in Memphis, with standout cuts including the bluesy “Stranger in My Hometown,” “You’ll Think of Me” and the yearning “Without Love (There is Nothing).

As good as this material is, it has never received the proper treatment on CD. That is all changed on this Legacy Edition. In addition, ten mono singles are included as bonus tracks. While there was room on the discs for the stereo versions of some of these singles, they have been released numerous times on other CDs and the mono tracks are something of a rarity in this digital age. With great packaging, great sound and great songs, From Elvis in Memphis: Legacy Edition is a powerful reminder of why Elvis Presley was the King.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Watchmen (Director's Cut) DVD review

Written by General Jabbo

When Watchmen was first conceived, it was designed to be something unfilmable — or certainly not something that could be contained in a standard two-hour movie. Writer Alan Moore has a general disdain for Hollywood adaptations of comic books (his name is omitted from the DVD credits) and he, along with artist Dave Gibbons created a story that was dense and involved both visually and textually — in other words unfilmable. Rumors persisted on how or if the film would be made and what format it would take (full-length movie, TV miniseries, etc.) and numerous names were attached to the film including Terry Gilliam until finally Zack Snyder (300) got the gig.

The story takes place in 1985 in a very different America. Term limits have been repealed and Nixon is still president after America was victorious in Vietnam thanks to the godlike Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup). Manhattan is one of only three active “super heroes” left in the country along with Edward Blake, aka the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) after costumed heroes were outlawed in 1977. While Manhattan and the Comedian work for the government though, Rorschach refuses to and as such is considered a fugitive.

When Blake is murdered, Rorschach investigates and discovers Blake was the Comedian, causing Rorschach to fear someone is after the costumed heroes. Rorschach warns his former teammates, including Manhattan; Laurie Jupiter, aka Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman); Dan Dreiberg, aka Night Owl II (Patrick Wilson) and Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) to no avail. Laurie’s character is the daughter of the original Silk Spectre while Dan has taken up the Night Owl moniker after the original Night Owl, Hollis Mason (Stephen McHattie), has retired. Meanwhile, Manhattan is accused of causing those close to him to all get cancer. Unable, or unwilling to dispel the rumors, Manhattan exiles himself on Mars during which Russia, sensing a weakened United States, moves in to attack Afghanistan, moving the Doomsday Clock ever closer to midnight

Rorschach later gets framed for murder, and Laurie and Dan break him out of prison, after which Laurie is confronted by Manhattan who takes her to Mars with him. While there, Laurie convinces Manhattan to believe in humanity again and to return to Earth to try to save it from certain doom.

In spite of the excellent title sequence, which shows a series of flashbacks taking the viewer to the present, Watchmen takes a certain understanding of the source material to fully understand what is going on. This is one of the film's flaws. It is too close to the graphic novel for non-fans to fully understand, but too much of the film has been changed from the graphic novel to keep the comic geeks happy (the ending is different, there’s no Tales of the Black Freighter, and the team is called the Watchmen instead of the Minutemen for instance). In addition, a lot of the story gets condensed. While the first hour of Watchmen is essentially the first issue of the comic, the next two hours cover the remaining 11 issues. That’s a lot of material to squeeze into two hours and while Snyder does an admirable job of trying, he still doesn’t get it all in. Still, there is a lot to like about the film, from the casting (the characters all look and act like their comic counterparts) to the costumes to the special effects. While Watchmen is not perfect, it does its best to capture the spirit of the graphic novel.

The DVD includes a number of extras, including 24 additional minutes in the actual movie, 11 Watchmen video journals, a documentary about the original comic, and a music video from My Chemical Romance.

Monday, July 20, 2009

American Gladiators (The Original Series) - The Battle Begins DVD Review

Written by General Jabbo

When American Gladiators debuted in 1989, it took advantage of the popularity of professional wrestling sweeping America at the time. Little did anyone know that American Gladiators would spark a phenomenon of its own, going on for seven seasons and spawning a spin-off in 2008. Every episode of season one is collected in the new DVD, American Gladiators (The Original Series) — The Battle Begins.

The premise of Gladiators was simple: each week, two teams — one male and one female — competed in a series of athletic competitions not unlike those seen more recently on Most Extreme Elimination Challenge against a group of Gladiators, with the winners in the final round taking home a $35,000 prize. The muscular, athletic Gladiators were the real stars of the show, however. With their flamboyant costumes and colorful names such as Blaze, Lace, Laser and Zap, the American Gladiators created an illusion of super athletes — people to root against as average Joes tried to compete against them.

The DVD includes a recap episode with hosts Mike Adamle and football great Joe Theismann, as well as all of the actual episodes. The second half of season one featured only Adamle as host and also introduced an event called The Wall, where contestants had to scale a rock climber’s wall while a Gladiator chased after him or her. The enclosed booklet features biographies of all of the Gladiators, as well as an interview with alumni champion Cheryl Ann Silich. Also included are DVD commentaries from Gladiators Dan “Nitro” Clark, Raye “Zap” Hollitt, and Jim “Laser” Starr as well as an interview with contestant and The Lost Boys actor Billy Wirth.

American Gladiators (The Original Series) — The Battle Begins is a fine collection, allowing fans of the show the opportunity to relive the excitement of season one. The bonus features, while not in abundance, offer some insight to the popularity of the show.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Transformers: The Complete First Season (25th Anniversary Edition) DVD Review

Written by General Jabbo

Coming off the heels of two blockbuster live-action movies, and timed to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the Transformers inception, Shout! Factory brings to DVD Transformers: The Complete First Season.

Where previous DVD releases left something to be desired (remastered picture, but art missing, characters with the wrong colors, bad audio, and other subtle changes), this collection restores the original broadcast masters, complete with commercial bumpers and next episode previews. While this occasionally leads to some “soft” animation, as the original masters were not of the same quality as the remastered ones, Shout! Factory has color corrected these masters and blended them with the restored masters to present Transformers in a way not seen since these episodes were first broadcast. In addition, the sound is superb, as new stereo masters have been created from the original audio.

All sixteen episodes are included and they tell the story about how the Autobots and Decepticons, in search of energy for their planet Cybertron and to save their race, crash-landed on Earth four million years ago, only to be reactivated to begin their quest anew in modern times.

Highlights include the three-part “More Than Meets the Eye,” which tells the origins of the Transformers; “Transport to Oblivion,” where Megatron returns to form a space bridge in an attempt to transfer Earth’s energy to Cybertron; “S.O.S. Dinobots,” where Autobots Ratchet and Wheeljack create the Dinobots after being inspired by real dinosaur skeletons; and the three-part “The Ultimate Doom,” which finds Megatron brainwashing the humans and bringing Cybertron into Earth’s orbit to try and steal Earth’s energy.

The three-disc set includes one disc of bonus features, including a 20-minute documentary “Triple Changer: From Toy to Comic to Screen — the Origins of the Transformers” which describes how Hasbro in the U.S., along with Marvel Comics, took the Transformers toy idea from Takara (who they worked with on new designs) in Japan, gave it a back story that kids could relate to, and turned that into a toy, comic and television empire. It’s an interesting documentary, but at 20 minutes, much too short for such a pop-culture phenomenon. Also included are a rare PSA ad, as well as some Hasbro toy commercials, and a printable script for the “Transport to Oblivion” episode. The DVD is a little thin on extras, but presumably there will be more seasons coming, so there is time to rectify that. The main focus here is the episodes and those are great.

These episodes are finally back the way Gen-Xers remember them as kids and in a concise, affordable package. Fans of the robots in disguise will be hard pressed to find a better way to enjoy this classic cartoon.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Let It Roll: Songs by George Harrison CD Review

Written by General Jabbo

The quiet Beatle gets the best of treatment on the career-spanning Let it Roll: Songs by George Harrison. At a single disc however, the problem with this collection isn’t what was included — it’s with what wasn’t.

While Harrison’s legendary All Things Must Pass LP is heavily represented with five of the 19 tracks, the CD selects “The Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let it Roll)” over “Wah Wah” and “If Not For You.” Similarly, “Devil’s Radio” from the Cloud 9 album is nowhere to be found. Other notable omissions include “Crackerbox Palace” and “Not Guilty,” the latter of which was originally written during Harrison’s time in the Beatles. For a collection that seems to want to remind listeners of Harrison’s time with the Fab Four, its non-inclusion seems strange. Perhaps the biggest track left off the CD though is “Bangladesh.” With The Concert for Bangladesh, Harrison practically invented the modern benefit show and for that reason alone it should be included here. No songs from either Traveling Wilburys release are on the CD either.

What is included though is prime Harrison material that is vital to any fan’s collection of his music. From the opening “Got My Mind Set On You” — the last number-one single by any Beatle in the United States — to the spiritual “My Sweet Lord” and “All Things Must Pass” to the pure pop of “Blow Away,” Harrison was a diverse artist whose music didn’t really sound like anyone else’s.

Of course the reason Harrison had a solo career to begin with is due to his time in the Beatles, and three live versions of Beatles tracks from The Concert For Bangladesh are included here. In addition, both of his Beatles tributes — “All Those Years Ago,” which featured both Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr and “When We Was Fab,” which featured Starr, are included here as well.

Let it Roll includes three songs from Harrison’s posthumous release Brainwashed, including the beautiful “Marwa Blues,” which showcased his unique style of slide-guitar playing. Also included are two soundtrack songs — “I Don’t Want to Do it” from Porky’s Revenge and “Cheer Down” from Lethal Weapon 2.

While long-time fans will have most or all of these tracks, Let it Roll is a nice introduction to the music of George Harrison for new listeners. Still, for an artist of his stature, an extra disc would have been more than appropriate.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Deep Purple - History, Hits & Highlights '68-'76 DVD Review

Written by General Jabbo

Few bands have managed to have as much success with as many lineups as Deep Purple. From the frilly shirts and swinging ‘60s vibe of the MK I lineup to the proto-metal MK II version to the more soulful MK III and IV lineups, Deep Purple has always been an exciting and interesting band, especially live. The band’s essential first period from 1968-1976 is covered on the two-DVD set, Deep Purple – History, Hits & Highlights ’68-’76.

Disc one opens with a short documentary of the band, showing highlights from 1968-1976 before going into a rare promo video of MK I’s cover of the Beatles “Help!” A performance of “Hush” from Playboy After Dark follows along with some studio footage of “Mandrake Root.” While the video quality is excellent, the PAD footage is oddly edited, with part of it on disc two and the disc one footage beginning at the end of a Jon Lord interview that is started on disc two. A minor quibble in an excellent set, but a strange oversight nonetheless.

Not surprisingly, the legendary MK II version with Ian Gillan on vocals and Roger Glover on bass gets the most coverage on the set with more than 20 songs. Highlights include killer performances of “Demon’s Eye,” “No No No,” and a version of “Highway Star” with different lyrics. The band’s signature song, “Smoke on the Water,” is, of course, included, though it seems a better version could have been chosen. While Gillan sounds fine, Ritchie Blackmore starts the song out of tune and appears disinterested. This wasn’t long before Gillan left the band, so tension on Blackmore’s part was likely. Disc two includes some rare rehearsal footage of “No No No” from the Beat Club that shows off Purple’s live prowess. These clips are mistakenly labeled as being from Rockpalast on the DVD sleeve.

When Gillan and Glover left, they were replaced by then-unknown David Coverdale on vocals and Glenn Hughes on bass. This lineup represented a bluesier, more soulful version of Deep Purple and they recorded two albums before Blackmore tired of their direction and quit his own band. “Burn” from the Leeds Polytech Student project in 1974 and “Mistreated” from the California Jam (the entire show of which is available on DVD) document this period of the band. For whatever reason, the same performance of “Burn” is repeated on disc two.

After Blackmore, came Tommy Bolin, who recorded one album with the band before their split in 1976. Bolin was hooked on heroin and later overdosed and his live shows were erratic at best. Still, “Love Child” and “You Keep on Moving” make an appearance here.

The DVD includes a fine book that reads like a scrapbook, with photos and newspaper clippings from all lineups of the band. Disc one fails to mention where any of the performances are from which, along with some of the other sloppy editing, keeps this from being a perfect Deep Purple collection. However the positives greatly outweigh the negatives, the footage is in great condition and the two DVDs contain nearly five hours of prime-era Deep Purple, making this a must-own for any fan of the band.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Big Star - #1 Record/Radio City CD Review

Written by General Jabbo

Big Star is one of those bands whose massive influence never translated into massive success. Bands such as R.E.M. and the Replacements worshipped the ground these guys walked on, yet many music fans have never heard of them. The re-release of the band’s first two albums, #1 Record and Radio City on one CD aims to change that.

Singer/guitarist Alex Chilton cut his teeth as the singer of the Box Tops, who hit number one with “The Letter” in 1967. Frustrated at just being the mouthpiece (the band didn’t write their own material), Chilton quit and headed to New York before returning to his native Memphis. At the same time, his friend of many years, Chris Bell, had formed a trio with fellow future Big Star members Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens called Ice Water. After Chilton’s failure in New York, he was persuaded to join Ice Water, who quickly renamed themselves Big Star after a local grocery store chain.

While Memphis was known for blues, soul, and R&B, and much of the rest of the rock world featured much heavier tunes, Big Star’s sound was firmly rooted in 1960s pop. Bell’s love for the Beatles inspired the Bell/Chilton writing credit on every song ala Lennon/McCartney and the band sounded like mid-period Beatles meet the Byrds with a little of the Kinks for good measure. Not many bands sounded like this in 1972 or even wanted to, and that may have hurt Big Star at the time, but they were very good at what they did.

Their debut mixed Bell rockers such as “Feel,” with its Robert Plant-like vocals, the urgent ‘Don’t Lie To Me” and “In The Street” (known more recently from the fine Cheap Trick cover used on “That 70s Show”) with the more wistful Chilton numbers, including the George Harrison-sounding “The Ballad of El Goodo” and “Thirteen,” a look back at Chilton and Bell’s childhood. It’s a well-crafted, layered piece of pop perfection, with perhaps the only misstep being Hummel’s “The India Song.”

The good times wouldn’t last, however. Bell was battling depression and drug dependency and the poor sales of #1 Record didn’t help this any. He quit the band during the sessions for Radio City and while it is reported he worked on a few songs (“O My Soul” and “Back of a Car”) he is not credited on the disc.

That’s a shame as Radio City more than lives up to its predecessor. Chilton, now firmly in control, plays and sings as if his career depended on it and the tension of a band falling apart is noticeable. The song “September Gurls “ alone makes Radio City essential, as it is one of the all-time great power pop songs with its memorable chorus and chiming guitars. Sadly, Hummel left after Radio City, and Bell died a few years later in a car accident; his rock dreams never fully realized.

The CD is nearly a straight reissue of the previous two-fer, including liner notes from 1986 and 1992, but does include the single mixes of “In the Street” and “O My Soul.” With a Big Star box set in the works, one can speculate that the record label is holding off on bonus tracks for that reason. Still, if you are to own any Big Star, this is the disc to own. Chilton trots out a new version of Big Star every now and then, but it is the songs on #1 Record/Radio City that have cemented he and Bell’s legend forever.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Frank Sinatra - Classic Sinatra II CD Review

Written by General Jabbo

Nine years after the double-platinum Classic Sinatra, Capitol/EMI is following up that popular release with Classic Sinatra II. The CD covers Sinatra’s Capitol years of 1954-1961 — considered among his best by most fans — and features 21 tracks, including the previously unreleased “This Can’t Be Love.”

Sinatra’s Capitol years were so strong that one could take virtually any 20 tracks and put together a great compilation, but Classic Sinatra II offers a nice overview of the period with songs from 15 of Frank’s classic concept albums. The CD leads off with the up-tempo “Something’s Gotta Give” from Come Dance With Me!, a frantic song from one of Frank’s most swinging albums.

Four songs are included from Songs For Swingin’ Lovers, including “Too Marvelous For Words,” “I Thought About You,” “Pennies from Heaven,” and “Love is Here to Stay.” Sinatra’s albums have often been poorly mastered onto CD, with unnecessary compression or too much echo added. That is not the case here as these songs in particular sound as good as they ever have in the CD format thanks to the fine mastering by Dave McEowen.

Other Sinatra favorites included are “Love and Marriage,” which many fans will remember as the theme song for Married…With Children, and “High Hopes,” a single which Sinatra later reworked to be the campaign song for John Kennedy’s presidential bid. “Moonlight in Vermont” is in mono and sounds fantastic. The original mix of Come Fly With Me, the album it comes from, has never been issued on CD, so perhaps this is a sign of good things to come. The last song before the bonus track is “Angel Eyes,” from Sinatra’s legendary ballads album, Only the Lonely. Sinatra was at his best with this kind of material and it is a fitting way to end the CD.

Long-time collectors will have these songs — save for the excellent bonus track — but not in this quality unless they own clean copies of the original vinyl. For that reason alone, Classic Sinatra II is worth owning. The CD also serves as a nice companion piece for fans who already own Classic Sinatra; and helps give a nice overview of some of Sinatra’s best years.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Chickenfoot - CD Review

Written by General Jabbo

Earlier this decade, when the chances of reuniting with Van Halen seemed remote at best, Sammy Hagar put together a supergroup consisting of himself, former Van Halen bandmate Michael Anthony, and Neal Schon and Deen Castronovo from Journey. The group was called Planet Us and made a few appearances, even jamming with guitar legend Joe Satriani. Then, in 2004, the Van Halen reunion happened and Planet Us was put on the backburner. History tells us Hagar’s second go-around with Van Halen ended worse than the first one and he was back to being a solo artist. With Schon and Castronovo back with Journey full time, Hagar once again called upon Anthony and Satriani and, on drums, Chad Smith from the Red Hot Chili Peppers — a friend of Hagar’s and frequent guest at his Cabo Wabo Cantina. The band wrote some songs and decided to go into the studio, but they needed a name. As a joke, the name Chickenfoot was thrown out with the intention of a “better” name being picked later. Well, Chickenfoot stuck and the supergroup has unleashed their self-titled debut on the world.

Any band with two former Van Halen members and Eddie Van Halen-disciple Satriani on guitar will naturally draw comparisons to them, and sure enough, there are some Van Halen-sounding cuts on the album. “Soap on a Rope” could easily fit on For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge or Balance with its sleazy riff, big chorus, and innuendo-laden lyrics. “Runnin’ Out” has a bluesy groove not unlike “Finish What Ya Started,” while “Down the Drain” sounds like Roth-era VH, something the band often shied away from when Hagar fronted them.

It’s not all Van Halen imitation going on here. The opening cut, “Avenida Revolution” features a menacing Satriani riff and the driving rhythm section of Anthony and Smith. Smith’s funk chops are all over the disc and Anthony really gets to shine now that he is out of Eddie’s shadow (Anthony played little to no bass on the last several Van Halen releases) as the drum/bass breakdown on “Avenida Revolution” shows.

Other hard-driving cuts include “Get it Up” featuring blistering lead work from Satriani, and “Turnin’ Left” with a sinister funk groove and dark guitar work recalling George Lynch. While Hagar’s post-Van Halen records are fun, party albums, he is at his best when he has something to prove (as on 1997’s Marching to Mars). He sounds inspired to be working with world-class musicians again. Satriani has said in interviews that he always wanted to play in a band situation, but never found the right one. He may have with Chickenfoot, as his playing and tone are positively monstrous throughout.

Chickenfoot is the sound of four veteran musicians having fun together. There’s only one ballad and the band rocks hard through the other 10 tracks. They’ve certainly upped the ante, and one can’t imagine Eddie Van Halen not trying to top this album with his own rumored Van Halen record. Chickenfoot plans to tour and if the live shows are half as thunderous as the CD, fans will be in for a treat.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Valkyrie - Two Disc Special Edition DVD Review

Written by General Jabbo

During his time in power during World War II, there were numerous failed attempts to take Adolf Hitler’s life. Among the most notable was Operation Valkyrie, led by German Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the events of which are documented in the film Valkyrie.

Directed by Bryan Singer (X-Men, Superman Returns, The Usual Suspects), Valkyrie stars Tom Cruise as Stauffenberg. The film starts out in German with subtitles, before morphing into English. The majority of the soldiers speak with a British, rather than German accent. For his part, Cruise speaks in his normal voice. While this caused some controversy, Singer was more concerned with the performances of his actors, and they delivered.

History tells us this assassination attempt, like all the others, failed, yet Valkyrie manages to be suspenseful. It’s easy to feel the tension running through the characters while wondering how or why they’d eventually fail. The movie begins with Stauffenberg stationed in northern Africa, where he was severely injured in an Allied attack, losing his right hand, two fingers from his left hand, and one of his eyes. Stauffenberg wants to avoid any further destruction of Germany and disapproves of Hitler’s methods so strongly he wants him dead, even if he has to do it himself.

After a failed attempt by Major-General Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh) to kill Hitler via an explosive set in a whiskey bottle on an airplane, the conspirators recruit Stauffenberg to take over their mission. While at a secret meeting, Stauffenberg meets his fellow conspirators, including Dr Goerdeler (Kevin McNally) — the man who’d become chancellor of Germany if the plan worked and General Beck (Terrence Stamp), who’d be in charge of the military.

With Tresckow now assigned to the frontlines, Stauffenberg takes over the operation and suggests they implement Operation Valkyrie, a safeguard Hitler had put in place where the SS would take over should he be assassinated. Stauffenberg rewrites Valkyrie to exclude the SS and instead give power to the reserve army. As he is now General Fromm’s (Tom Wilkinson) chief of staff, Hitler trusts him. Hitler notices his injuries and declares Stauffenberg the ideal German soldier, signing the document without reading it, as he was sure the changes were adequate. David Bamber plays a creepy, if paranoid Hitler in the film.

The idea behind Operation Valkyrie was to plant a bomb in a strategy meeting, killing Hitler, Heinrich Himmler and the rest of Hitler’s inner circle. After confirmation of Hitler’s death, Valkyrie would go into effect and the SS and Nazis would be arrested and Germany would negotiate a cease-fire with the Allies. While we know this plot eventually failed, the film still does a good job in making the viewer believe that it just might work.

The DVD includes a number of bonus features, including commentary by Cruise, Singer, and Christopher McQuarrie; another commentary by McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander; “The Journey to Valkyrie;” and “The ‘Valkyrie’ Legacy,” a documentary of the event with archival footage.

Tom Cruise delivers an excellent performance, free of the over acting he is typically accused of. Valkyrie is a fine document of an important event in world history and worth a look.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: The Criterion Collection - DVD Review

Written by General Jabbo

How would life be if you were to age backwards? How could you sustain a normal relationship? These are among the questions pondered in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Directed by David Fincher (Fight Club, Se7en), Button stars Brad Pitt as the title character, whose story is told in a series of flashbacks. The love of his life, Daisy (Cate Blanchett) is in the hospital dying with her daughter Caroline (Julia Ormand) by her side. Daisy asks Caroline to read from Benjamin’s diary, which she had kept all these years. Daisy tells Caroline a story of a blind clockmaker who was working on a clock for Grand Central terminal in New York. After his only son died during World War I, he continued to work on the clock, finally revealing it with Theodore Roosevelt in attendance. What the unsuspecting crowd didn’t know, was that he designed the clock to go backward, so that the soldiers who lost their lives might have a chance to live again. Perhaps Benjamin was living proof his clock really worked?

The movie then cuts to New Orleans during World War I where Benjamin was born. His mother dies shortly after childbirth, but asks his father Thomas (Jason Flemyng) to make sure he has a place in the world. When he looks upon the baby, he is shocked to see he has the appearance of a man in his 80s even though he was a newborn baby. Distraught, he runs off with Benjamin, eventually leaving him on the steps of a retirement home where Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), despite the protests of her husband, takes him in. A doctor examines him and determines he doesn’t have long to live. Queenie, who is unable to have children, takes him in, as he is still one of God’s children.

While Benjamin was a child, he still looked elderly, yet often acted as a child would. He was about seven when he first met Daisy, the granddaughter of one of the people at the home. It was his first crush and she realized that even though he looked older, there was something about him that made him seem like a child. The pair instantly bonded.

As a teen, he sets off to sea to work on a tugboat, where he reveals to Captain Mike (Jared Harris) that he’s not as old as he looks and that he’s never been with a woman. After Captain Mike takes him to a brothel, Benjamin’s father spots him leaving and realizes it is his son. He takes him out for his first drink, never revealing who he is.

After returning home from another tour on the tugboat — this time to help with the war effort during World War II — Benjamin encounters an adult Daisy who is now a dancer in New York. She attempts to seduce him, but he declines, leaving Daisy crushed. A few years later, realizing his error, he goes to New York to see Daisy, only to find she now has a boyfriend. He later gets a message wired to him that Daisy, now in Paris, has been hit by a taxi and is in the hospital. He goes to visit her, but she sends him away, not wanting him to see her like that.

As the years go by, Benjamin’s appearance keeps getting younger and he now looks like a man in his 40s. He eventually reunites with Daisy and they have a child together. After a few years though, he tells Daisy he needs to leave before their child knows him as he wants her to have a father, not a playmate and that Daisy could not take care of both of them. Daisy initially misinterprets this for Benjamin no longer being attracted to her as she was aging while he was getting younger. It’s a heartbreaking scene as he clearly loves her, but wants what’s best for his child before he himself becomes one. Yet, what will happen to Benjamin in his final years?

In keeping with the Criterion Collection’s usual high standards, Button comes with a second disc loaded with extras. Among these is a three-hour documentary about the making of the film entitled The Curious Birth of Benjamin Button, trailers, and stills galleries. Disc one features a commentary from Fincher.

The central theme of the film is that nothing lasts forever and to grab your opportunity when you can. It is a well-acted story of two people who, regardless of what else was going on in their lives, never stopped loving each other.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Galaxy Quest: Deluxe Edition - DVD Review

Written by General Jabbo

With the new Star Trek film in theaters, what better time than to re-release the DVD of the movie that lampooned it so well 10 years ago? Now in a deluxe edition, Galaxy Quest is back and better than ever.

Galaxy Quest tells the story of the cast of the television show of the same name. It is now 20 years since the show was cancelled and the actors have fallen on hard times, making appearances at Galaxy Quest conventions and opening electronics stores in full costume. The actors are at each other’s throats and especially resent Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen essentially playing William Shatner) for his ego and nonchalant attitude.

Nesmith’s opinion of himself changes though when he overhears some fans badmouthing him while he is in a bathroom stall. The fans are unaware he is there, but their message hits home and Nesmith ends up going on a drinking binge.

It is then that Nesmith is visited by a group of aliens known as Thermians and beamed aboard their ship. They have mistaken transmissions of the Galaxy Quest television show to be historical documents of life on Earth and patterned their entire culture after it. Nesmith initially thinks the Thermians are actors and that he was filming a scene for them. Once they beam him down, he realizes they really were aliens.

Back on Earth, Nesmith manages to convince the cast to join him on the mission. They are skeptical of any of it being real, but need the work and decide to go along. They are beamed aboard the ship and unwittingly sucked into a war with Thermian nemesis General Sarris (Robin Sachs).

Allen leads a crack cast including Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Tony Shalhoub, and Enrico Colantoni that seems to be enjoying themselves. It is this enthusiasm that helps make Galaxy Quest a lighthearted tribute to Star Trek. It pokes fun, but does so lovingly — not in a mean-spirited way.

The DVD has a number of special features, including: “Historical Documents: The Story of Galaxy Quest” — a documentary about the making of the film; “Never Give Up. Never Surrender: The Intrepid Crew of the NSEA Protector”; “By Grabthar’s Hammer, What Amazing Effects”; “Alien School: Creating the Thermian Race”; “Sigourney Weaver Raps,” which has to be seen to be believed; three deleted scenes; and a host of other extras.

For fans of the sci-fi genre, Galaxy Quest offers feel-good fun with actors who are into their roles 100 percent. Think of it as the This is Spinal Tap for sci-fi geeks. Never give up. Never surrender.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Frank Sinatra - Live at the Meadowlands CD Review

Written by General Jabbo

At 70 years old, most singers are long retired — or should be — which makes Frank Sinatra’s inspired performance on Live at the Meadowlands all the more impressive. Recorded in East Rutherford, NJ at the Brendan Byrne Arena in the Meadowlands Sports Complex on March 14, 1986, the album is a triumphant homecoming gig for ‘Ol Blue Eyes.

Backed by a crack band including long-time pianist (and at this show, orchestra conductor) Bill Miller, guitarist Tony Mottola, bassist Don Baldini, and drummer Irv Cottler, Sinatra thrills the crowd with nearly 50 years of his recorded history.

Appropriately enough, the show begins with “Without a Song,” which Sinatra describes as one of the songs that got him started in his days with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. The crowd is enthusiastic; Sinatra seems energized by them and happy they came out on what was a rainy night. Next, Sinatra delivers a spirited performance on “Where or When,” a song he describes as “belonging to you and me and every audience and myself.”

Sinatra reflects on his age in “It Was a Very Good Year,” saying “Holy jeez, seventeen,” and “Change Partners” features an up-tempo arrangement unlike the studio version. On “The Gal That Got Away,” Sinatra comments about how it was “brought to life by the great Judy Garland originally,” crediting the performers and arrangers who worked on these songs as he often did.

Frank playfully teases a female member of the audience, saying “yeah, I know what you want to hear, baby” before charging into the late-period classic, the “Theme From New York, New York.” After a beautiful “Moonlight in Vermont,” Sinatra offers a smooth version of the then recent “L.A. is My Lady” from the album of the same name.

In an album filled with great moments, perhaps the greatest is on ”the daddy of saloon songs,” “One For My Baby (And One More For the Road),” backed by the great Bill Miller on piano. Another L.A. is My Lady track, “Mack the Knife,” closes the show in the same exciting fashion as it opened.

As the original concert ran over 90 minutes — longer than what will fit on a single CD — three songs were cut from the performance. Those songs are: “The Best is Yet to Come,” “April in Paris,” and “It’s All Right With Me.” While it would be nice to have the full show, the performance, packaging, and sound quality on this Concord Records release are top-notch and make Live at the Meadowlands a must-own CD for any Sinatra fan.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Frank Sinatra - My Way CD Review

Written by General Jabbo

In 1968, Frank Sinatra took a stab at modern pop rock with his album Cycles. While the results were a mixed bag, that didn’t stop Sinatra from trying again. In 1969, he released My Way, which successfully blended his beloved standards with modern pop-rock songs.

The album opens with the laid-back swing of “Watch What Happens,” with Sinatra in fine voice and Don Costa’s arrangements driving the song while “Didn’t We” is a tender ballad brimming with optimism.

The pop-rock cuts, for the most part, work. Sinatra delivers a bluesy, swinging take on Ray Charles’ “Hallelujah I Love Her So,” and, at age 53, when he sings “Suddenly, I’m not half the man I used to be” on his cover of “Yesterday,” the line takes on an entirely different meaning than when Paul McCartney sang it. “Mrs. Robinson” with its changed lyrics and swinging arrangement falls flat however.

My Way includes two staples of Sinatra’s later concert career — the legendary title track, which would also serve as a sort of theme song for the singer and “For Once in My Life,” also made famous by Stevie Wonder.

Long out of print, Concord Records has reissued the classic album with remastered sound and liner notes by U2’s Bono. To Concord’s credit, the album is well mastered and not “brick walled” as so many modern CDs are, allowing the dynamics of the album to shine through. The quiet parts are as they should be — quiet. As a result, when the orchestra kicks in, you really feel it.

Concord has also added two bonus tracks, a rehearsal take of “For Once in My Life” recorded at the NBC Studio in Burbank, CA in 1969 and a live rendition of “My Way” recorded at Reunion Arena in Dallas, TX in October of 1987.

It’s a shame more of Sinatra’s remarkable catalog is not in print save for digital downloads. One can hope that this release will be the catalyst for future Sinatra CD releases. In the meantime, My Way offers an enjoyable listen of an interesting point in Sinatra’s storied career.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Jeff Beck - Performing This Week...Live at Ronnie Scott's DVD Review

Written by General Jabbo

It’s not often a legendary guitarist at the height of his powers plays an intimate show, let alone a week’s worth of them, but that’s exactly what happened when Jeff Beck took a week-long residency at London’s famous Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in November of 2007, the opening night of which was captured for Performing This Week…Live at Ronnie Scott’s.

Backed by his crack band, including Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, Jason Rebello on keyboards, and young virtuoso Tal Wilkenfeld on bass, Beck takes the crowd on a musical journey spanning 40 years and covering all aspects of his career.

The set opens with “Beck’s Bolero,” the song that originally served as the prototype for Led Zeppelin and a song Beck put at the beginning because it was one people know. Beck’s moody, psychedelic slide playing sets up the rocking middle section nicely. The Stevie Wonder classic “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers” finds Beck at his most emotive, while Wilkenfeld delivers a bass solo that had Beck bowing in reverence.

“Behind the Veil” and “Blanket,” the latter of which features guest star Imogen Heap on vocals, have Beck diving into reggae territory while “You Never Know” is a Jan Hammer-written party funk tune. Throughout the different styles, Beck still maintains a guitar style that is uniquely his. He doesn’t use a pick and as such, is able to use his entire picking hand to manipulate the strings, tremolo arm, and volume control in an effortless display of fret-board mastery.

Joss Stone guests on vocals for a moving version of “People Get Ready,” on which Beck first had a hit with Rod Stewart, and Eric Clapton jams with Beck on the blues classics “Little Brown Bird” and “You Need Love.” As Jimmy Page and Robert Plant were both in the audience, it’s possible “You Need Love” – the song that inspired “Whole Lotta Love” – was played as a tribute.

The band goes all out on the appropriately titled “Scatterbrain,” but the real highlight is Beck’s moving instrumental rendition of the Beatles masterpiece “A Day in the Life.”

The DVD includes a number of sound options, including Dolby Digital Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS Surround Sound. Also included are interviews with Jeff Beck about playing at Ronnie Scotts, his band, the set list, and the guest stars of the show. In addition, his band mates are interviewed about playing the shows and playing Jeff’s music in general

For fans of the guitarist, Performing This Week…Live at Ronnie Scott’s is a must-own. It shows that even at this stage of his career, Jeff Beck still pushes the boundaries of what is possible with the electric guitar.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Star Wars - The Clone Wars: A Galaxy Divided DVD Review

Written by General Jabbo

After the dismal reviews of the animated film Star Wars - The Clone Wars, fans didn’t expect much from the TV show spun off from the movie. While billed for kids, The Clone Wars was almost too childish, from Jabba’s son being called “Stinky” to Anakin Skywalker being called “Sky Guy” (both courtesy of Anakin’s do-no-wrong Padawan Ashoka Tano) to Anakin calling Ashoka “Snips.” Even the excellent animation couldn’t save the movie from its lame plot and horrid (even by Star Wars standards) dialogue. And while the movie featured some of the big name actors from the live-action films reprising their roles (Samuel Jackson and Christopher Lee in particular), the TV show would use voice actors instead, save for Anthony Daniels as C-3PO. So with all this against it, the show was bound to be bad, right?

Wrong. The Clone Wars TV series brings back the fun of the original trilogy with good stories and excellent animation. So much of the live-action films are CGI anyhow that many of the space scenes in the TV show don’t look all that different. While Hayden Christensen was often stiff and lifeless as Anakin in Episodes II and III, Matt Lanter brings likability to the character in the TV show. Even Ashoka has been toned down and is far less annoying than in the animated movie. The battle droids take on a comic-relief role, uttering one groaner after another, but they are never as annoying as say Jar Jar Binks.

In season one, Republic and Separatist armies vie for the allegiance of the neutral planets. Meanwhile, Yoda wants to build a Republic supply base in the system of Tedoria. Count Dooku gets word of this and send his apprentice Asajj Ventress and an army of battle droids after him. Yoda and Ventress work out a deal with King Katuunko with the winner getting the right to defend him and his people.

Other episodes find Anakin searching for General Grievous’ secret weapon as well as Jedi Plo Koon, who was thought to be lost in battle to Grievous. Anakin later goes after Grievous with a squadron of ships as he has kidnapped Senator Amidala from Naboo. The four episodes are fast-paced and filled with action. The problem is that there are only four episodes.

It seems that Star Wars - The Clone Wars: A Galaxy Divided is merely a teaser for a full-season DVD release to come later. It is as bare bones as it gets with no extras, save for language tracks. That’s disappointing as it mars what could be a fine release from a fine show. One can hope that after season one is released properly that this practice doesn’t continue for season two.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Never Say Never Again Collector's Edition DVD Review

Written by General Jabbo

After 12 years away from the role, Sean Connery returned as James Bond in 1983’s Never Say Never Again, the title of which came from Connery’s wife after he claimed he’d never play 007 again. The film is a loose remake of Thunderball, which producer Kevin McClory and screenwriter Jack Whittingham had successfully sued Ian Fleming over after he did not credit them for their contributions to the Thunderball novel.

Much like Connery, who was in his early 50s at the time, Never Say Never Again finds an aging Bond who is past his prime. After a training exercise goes poorly, he is sent to a health spa to get in shape and eliminate his free radicals.

While he is there, M16 gets word that SPECTRE agent Maximilian Largo (Klaus Maria Brandauer), with the help of a sleeper agent, has stolen two nuclear warheads that SPECTRE head Ernst Blofeld (Max Von Sydow) plans to detonate if his huge ransom demand from all the NATO countries is not met. Reluctantly, M16 reactivates the 00’s and Bond is sent after Largo to try to stop him.

Largo sends the ruthless, if not crazy Fatima Blush (Barbara Carrera) to kill Bond. Like Largo, Blush is unpredictable, making her a deadly foe. Bond encounters Largo’s girlfriend Domino (Kim Basinger), who learns of Largo’s plot and his betrayal of her family through Bond and ends up helping Bond along with CIA agent Felix Leiter (Bernie Casey).

Never Say Never Again features some fine action sequences, including a motorcycle chase and an underwater fight. It also unfortunately features a bland score by Michel Legrand (blame Connery for that as he was his choice). For his part, Connery seems into the role, as if reclaiming the character and Von Sydow and Brandauer are excellent in their villainous portrayals.

The film is by no means the best Bond movie, but it certainly isn’t the worst (Moonraker anyone?). It was a refreshing change after 10 years of increasingly campy Roger Moore Bond films. In fact, it was released the same year as Octopussy and while grossing slightly less, still did very well at the box office. Moore was still the “official” Bond at that point, making the films for EON Productions. Never Say Never Again was not an official film, thus it was not allowed to use the trademark intro of Bond turning and shooting nor was it allowed to use the traditional Bond music. The film suffers a little for this, but is still a fun ride.

Extras on the DVD include commentary with director Irvin Kershner and James Bond historian Steven Jay Rubin; and featurettes entitled “The Big Gamble,” which talked about the legal troubles of getting the film made; “Sean is Back” about the return of Connery; and “The Girls of Never Say Never Again.” Also included are the original theatrical trailer and a photo gallery.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Quantum of Solace 2-Disc Special Edition DVD Review

Written by General Jabbo

Daniel Craig’s gritty take on James Bond gets a second go-around in Quantum of Solace, the 22nd film in the long-running franchise. It begins minutes after 2006’s excellent Casino Royale ends with Bond in a high-speed car chase. He has Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), who he shot in the leg at the end of the previous film tied up and locked in the trunk with White’s henchmen in pursuit. Bond takes White to M (Judi Dench) at an M16 safe house and attempts to interrogate him. White was responsible for the death of Bond’s former love interest, Vesper Lynd, as well as her boyfriend, Yusef Kabira and, in spite of what he says to M, Bond wants revenge. While this sort of continuity is rare, albeit somewhat refreshing in a Bond film, it definitely requires the viewer to have seen Casino Royale to fully understand what is going on.

As Bond interrogates White, it is discovered that he has sleeper agents within M16, including M’s bodyguard Craig Mitchell (Glenn Foster). A skirmish ensues and White manages to elude Bond again. Bond’s search for White leads him to Port Au Prince, Haiti and Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), the head of Greene Planet, a utility company that builds eco-parks.

While in Haiti, he meets Camille (Olga Kurylenko), who thinks he is a geologist she has been waiting for. Camille is a different kind of Bond girl in that she is more than just a pretty face. She is a dangerous force out for revenge against Bolivian General Medrano (Joaquin Cosio) for committing atrocities against her family. Medrano is working with Greene to stage a coup in Bolivia, with Medrano getting power in return for giving control of the desert to Greene. Camille uses Greene to get to Medrano. The film does a nice job of parallelism between Bond and Camille, two characters bent on revenge no matter the cost. Their fury has them not thinking clearly, with Greene referring to both of them as “damaged goods” at one point. Greene for his part plays the stereotypical power-hungry Bond villain with a cold arrogance.

Along the way, Bond’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic, with M16 thinking he is becoming a liability, going as far as to cancel his credit cards and passport. This is where Craig’s Bond loses a lot of the charm of his predecessors. While Bond has always caused a lot of property damage, he has never been this reckless. Also gone is much of the Bond dry wit and bad puns, a staple of the franchise. Hard times call for hard actions, but even in the worst possible situations, previous Bonds would have attempted to make light of their situation. One can hope this will prove to be an exception, rather the rule. Casino Royale proved Craig could be a tough Bond, but still charming.

When Bond’s pursuit lands him in Bolivia, he encounters Strawberry Fields (Gemma Arterton) from the British Consulate who is there to ensure Bond turns around and heads back to England. Instead Bond (of course) sleeps with her and takes her to a fundraiser for one of Greene’s eco-parks. This is one of the few sequences in the film that feels like an old Bond movie instead of just a generic, Bourne-inspired action film. Bond movies have a certain feel to them and shouldn’t have to conform to modern standards. That’s not what the majority of the audience is going to see the film for.

After Bond gets the indirect blame for Strawberry’s demise (which has her covered in oil in an obvious nod to Goldfinger), M has had enough and orders Bond to turn in his badge. Some M16 guards take him away and he makes quick work of them, taking their weapons when he learns from a surprised M that some crooked CIA agents have a hit out on him. Bond escapes and continues his search for Greene, eventually tracking him down in the desert.

While Quantum of Solace is a fine action film in its own right, it really requires the viewer to have seen Casino Royale for it to fully make sense and would be incomplete without it. Craig makes a good Bond, but this is an edgier take on the role, devoid of the charm and wit usually found with the character. Also, there is no Q character or any of the fun gadgets that go along with it. These are things at least this Bond fan goes to see and it is always fun to see what cool toy he will play with next. He is a spy after all. Let’s hope some of that is back in the next film. Quantum of Solace captures all of the action, but only some of the fun that made Bond great to begin with.

The DVD includes a number of extras, including the music video for “Another Way to Die” by Jack White and Alicia Keys and two theatrical teaser trailers on Disc One while Disc Two has “Bond on Location,” “Start of Shooting,” “On Location,” “Olga Kurylenko and the Boat Chase,” “Director Marc Forster,” “The Music” and very extensive “Crew Files.”

Monday, February 2, 2009

Bruce Springsteen - Working on a Dream CD Review

Written by General Jabbo

While on tour for his excellent 2007 album Magic, Bruce Springsteen quickly realized the fabled E Street Band was playing some of the best shows of its career. Wanting to catch lightning in a bottle, he gathered the band together during breaks on the tour to record his next batch of songs. Those songs became Working on a Dream.

The album opens with “Outlaw Pete,” a sprawling eight-minute epic with western overtones, classic Springsteen harmonica, and a big, layered sound not unlike many of the songs on Magic. It’s classic Bruce and as good as anything he’s written.

“My Lucky Day” is an all-out rocker that would be at home on The River or Born in the U.S.A. The album’s first single, the title track, blends lush melodies over a chorus that would make Roy Orbison envious.

On “Queen of the Supermarket,” Springsteen longs for the attractive woman behind the checkout counter. It’s orchestrated ‘60s pop and sounds like classic ‘70s Bruce. While others may find the content creepy, we don’t know the age of the woman he is lusting for or the age of the protagonist in the song. It’s no worse than a mid-‘30s Brian Wilson writing “Roller Skating Child” at least.

The melody of “What Love Can Do” borrows from Fountains of Wayne’s “Amity Gardens” but veers into harder-rocking territory while “This Life” invokes Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. “Tomorrow Never Knows,” not to be confused with the Beatles’ track of the same name, is an up-tempo country folk tune with fiddles. One could easily imagine Bob Dylan signing it.

The jangly guitars of “Surprise, Surprise” recall the Byrds at the height of their mid-‘60s powers, while “The Last Carnival” pays tribute to fallen bandmate Danny Federici, whose son Jason plays accordion on the track.

The album closes with a bonus track — the Golden Globe-winning title song from The Wrestler about a broken-down athlete in which Springsteen plays all the instruments.

Working on a Dream was produced by Brendan O’Brien, who also produced The Rising and Magic. As such, the albums all have a sense of continuity. O’Brien understands Springsteen’s vision and has brought out some of the best work of his career. Springsteen is at an age when most artists become oldies acts or simply fade away, yet Working on a Dream shows the Boss is as vital as ever.