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.