Monday, November 30, 2020

CD Reviews: November 2020

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2020
Images from the Internet

CD Reviews: November 2020

Dalia Davis
Keep a Clean Engine
Teal Power Records /
Davis is a Boston-area veteran singer-songwriter who has released this collection of mostly original multi-genre tunes. When she sings, what she brings up to me is the solo singers from Britain during the 1960s, like Celia Black, Lulu, and a bit of Dusty Springfield. This is especially true for her cover of the standard, “When Sunny Gets Blue,” which is a highlight here, with its lite jazz tones. For some reason, this comes across to me, especially on the bridges. Speaking of which, one of my fave cuts is “Beatles Bridges,” which is exactly what it claims to be, a bunch of bridges from Beatles classics into a bluesy, mostly cohesive song, even though the content is all over the emotional map. She starts of strong with “The Power of One,” sliding into the gospel-tinged “Don’t Give Up the Fight.” The harmony vocals enhance the sounds nicely as they are right up front, often equal to Davis. The title track is a nice, almost Jacque Brel-ish type melody that swirls around the sound, without going dark. Another highlight is the gospel and doo-wop infused “Wash Away.”


Jack Phillips
Night and Day
Magnolia Group Records
Jack has a nice musical sound that is somewhere between Billy Joel and Elton John, as in the opening original “I Love New York,” mixed with a bit of New Orleans jazz, especially on the likes of “The Old Grey Hat,” and maybe even some soft Southern Rock with “No One’s Home.” The second half of the CD (aka “the flip side”) is mostly jazz/standard sounding, such as “Let’s Drink to Us” and “Take Them to Manhattan.” A more commercial rockin’ sound is given in “No More Waitin’,” one of the better cuts here. The album concludes with a I-IV-V instrumental that relies on a ragin’ guitar by Caleb Quaye on “Down in the Jungle Room” (assuming that’s a Graceland reference). Phillips’ voice is a bit rough at times, but it is unique and actually works really well with the styles he brings forward, which I would say is a highly boogie, almost Cajun-focused sound, with a deep southern tone. It’s an enjoyable listen, especially when he gets his soft jazz boots on.

The Boston Rock & Roll Anthology Chapter 21
Valrulven /
Joe Viglione has been putting out compilation albums, generally for bands coming out of the Boston/New England area (although this one is more far reaching), for decades, in various forms, such as his Anthology and The Demos that Got the Deal series. And with this, his documenting rock’n’roll history continues. The 21 tracks start off with heavy rocking duo (guitar and drums) 3D that originated in the 1980s (not to be confused with New York’s 3-D from the same period), with the anti-drug song, “Anything But Peace.” Pamela Ruby Russell’s first cut, “Space and Time,” has almost a hymnal tone with a military-paced back beat that works together beautifully. Her voice is sweet and the overdubbing with itself works, to give it a powerful punch; her second cut shows off her voice even more. Here she has a Judy Collins intonation, which really operates for her. The production is also quite enjoyable, being full without feeling over-kneaded. Working with the likes of Peter Calo and Andy Pratt certainly give her an extra zing. Karmacar – Heidi Jo Hines and Nico’s “As It Is” has a bit of a 1970s New Agey feel to it, though I believe it would have been stronger without the self-overdubbing and just let Heidi’s voice be by itself; their other cut on the CD, “Who’s Foolin’ Who?”, gives a better example of her voice, and is superior of the two, with a catchy melody and improves on the catchy harmonies. On a more esoteric note is the next two cuts – “Downtime” by the Complaints and “Faraday” by Phil DaRosa – which use a bit more electronica to posit their songs, especially the latter, which is kind of long in the tooth at nearly 6 minutes. The former has a mild Beatleseque tone. Kitoto Sunshine Love spreads the smooth ‘70s soul sound in the beautiful “Proud Soul Heritage.” Worth checking out; her second track, “Love You,” is equally as strong and arguably shows off her voice even more than the first cut, which was thoroughly enjoyable. Yeah, I would buy an album by her. Fittingly, Slapback follows with its lite funk “Guardian Angel (Radio Mix)” that is cheerful and fluffy in a good way. Hard rockers Empty County Band have been reviewed on this blog before. Their first track, “Until the End,” is a slow grinder and burner, but the vocals need to be a bit more up front in the mix; “Skeptical” is much stronger all around and a better listen, but both are good. Joe Black leads a guitar-centric metal group that wails with “Blackenstein.” If you like the guitar god sound, this mostly instrumental screamer is for you; for “Monster,” Black is joined on vocals by Jeffrey Baker. This cut is a more traditional rocker that switches between slow burner to a wild ride, which should please any metalhead. The lyrics are a bit silly (especially the chorus), but the guitar makes up for it. Tom Mitch, Jr.’s soulful “Table Scraps” reminds me a bit of Joe Tex, which is a compliment. Harmonious pop rockers Greg Walsh’s New Ghosts presents “Counting Down to Zero (From 1),” which has a late ‘60s sound mixed with early ‘80s echoey production styles. Mad Painter’s exuberant “The Letter” (not to be confused with the Box Tops song) has a bit of a Mod sound mixed with Ian Whitcomb’s bounciness, especially in Alex Gitlan’s vocals. As a note, a personal fave of mine from the Boston scene, my pal Kenne Highland, plays bass. Next up – and rightfully so – is a cut by the man himself, Joe Viglione, with his original “Thought About You.” Backed up by Jay and Scott Couper (who played with Denny Laine in the ‘80s), Joe presents one of the better songs I’ve heard from him in a while (and I like his stuff). It’s light without being sophomoric, and has a harmonious catch that could easily play on the radio and have people singing the chorus with him. Following is Boston musical veteran Dalia Davis, with “Eleven and a Half.” Reminding me of Harriet Shock here, Davis shines in a song about reminiscences. Fire in the Field’s “Bossman,” has a bit of an ‘80s rock sound that works, but somewhat harmless and generic, with harmonies and a cowbell sound. Concluding is “The Ballad of the Rock Star,” by Matty O’. This is a nice way to end, with a smooth Irish rock sound that fits well into the collection. Matty gets a couple of opportunities to show off his voice, which is appealing. Overall? This is a pretty damn decent collection of different styles, from singer-songwriter to heavy metal wailing, and it all works together. You can tell Viglione worked hard on the order of presentation of the songs, and he has a nice flow going so there isn’t an equivalent of a film’s jump cut. Everything flows pretty smoothly, and as a collection, it all meshes well. And if that wasn't enough, there is a really well thought-out glossy booklet that comes with it that is full of artist and song info and nice color pictures. Stunningly done.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Documentary Review: Physical Media Lives

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2020
Images from the Internet

Physical Media Lives
Directed by Tony Newton
Tony Newton Productions; Vestra Pictures
130 minutes, 2020

In 2008, I wrote a blog about collecting records (vinyl, CDs, etc.), called “Reflections on Being a Record Collector (HERE)  that is a philosophical look at what it is like to collect records, which I have done in my life. It is also transferable to film aggregation (VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, etc.).

There are also a number of documentaries on the topic of amassing, such as I Need That Record (2010), 24 x 36: A Movie About Movie Posters (2018), Records Collecting Dust (2015) and its sequel (2018), and even the recent The Vinyl Revival: A Film About Why the Tables are Turning Again (2020). Note that all but one of these have been reviewed on this blog if you search for them.

The point is, whether it’s vinyl, posters, fanzines, or in this case physical media (PM) versions of films, it’s a crossover that can be a mixture of addiction, obsession or a personal, physical (adrenaline/dopamine) rush.

This is Part 4 of the VHS Lives documentary series by British horror genre historian Tony Newton, who directed this documentary. Through a series of interviews, collectors of films discuss what it means to them to physically own the objects as opposed to streaming versions, as their collections are proudly displayed behind them, or in one case, as the collector walks around a maze of shelving units that holds both films and CDs. The collecting bug is a strong mistress.

Just as we used to prowl record stores and outlets like the Sally-Ann (aka the Salvation Army), the film collectors will file through flats of cases in stores from high end retail shops to the discount bins at places like Walmart. And yes, Sally-Ann, flea markets and on-line sources (e.g., eBay, Facebook), as well. Film and record collecting are two different sides of the same coin and mindset. In fact, some of the people interviewed here focus on both vinyl and PM.

Informally, the film is broken up into section topics, such as favorite kind of medium, be it VHS, laser disc, etc., varieties of genres (most are horror, which is no surprise), how their collecting habits were initiated (often with showing the film that started it all), and the role of nostalgia.

What I find interesting, and this is also true for LPs as well, the majority of the collectors are male; of the dozens interviewed, two or three are female. The people who share their stories here range from independent cinema directors, actors, vlog reviewers, and pure collectors, including, noteworthily, actors/vloggers Shawn C. Phillips (who also helped produced the documentary) and Dave Parker (aka Mrparka).

Most record collectors I know also accumulated gig flyers, band posters and tee-shirts, and multiple print fanzines. Lord knows I have a basement full of most of these. An interesting aspect for me here is that there is also a spillover for film collectors, usually in toys, such as action figures, prop copies (e.g., Freddy Kruger’s glove, Jason Voorhees hockey masks), and posters (including theatrical art or images of favorite characters, such as the IT clown – both generations – or slasher icons).

Another interesting aspect to me is the discussion between PM and online streaming, and how similar it is to record collectors pining for the LPs where you have the product artwork and literally being able to hold something in your hand, as opposed to it being in the Cloud. One reverse aspect, humorously, is that with record collectors, many like the analog sound of LPs over digital, but with those collecting films, they tend to like the sharpness and clarity of the new media (4K Blu-ray, for example) over the old grainy ones (VHS), with some exceptions, such as those espoused by Newton.

Streaming versus PM is a common topic here. The fear of streaming – and rightfully so – is that anything can happen to the stream, be it the company going under, buffering, or a glitch, and you can lose everything. I lost a lot of images when Webshots went under, for example. Yes, with discs, you own them, but one thing I have learned as a Media Ecologist is that all technology is temporal, and in time, the medium will progress, and old technology will become obsolete. Remember the floppy disc? Try and find a computer that has a slot for it now. It is difficult to find a VHS player these days other than a garage sale because companies have stopped making them.

Pretty soon, DVD players will be swamped under the Blu-ray technology (yes, right now you can play DVDs on Blu-rays, but I’m trying to make a point, so cut me some slack, Jack). Think of all the people, including some here, that state they had the film in DVD and switched them out for Blu-ray. And as someone else here says, who knows what will come after that. Imagine having 4000+ DVDs and Blu-rays, and nothing to play them on. That’s my big fear. It’s hard enough to find a new turntable or stylus that is decent. Yes, sometimes they come back, such as vinyl (as at least one interviewee points out in the film) because, as Marshal McLuhan said, when a technology becomes obsolete, it comes back as art. But it is not the same when it comes to the technology that plays them. In one of the interviews near the very end, Newton discusses this possibility.

Occasionally interspersed among the interviews are some cool commercials and even a trailer for a B-film. That was fun. While the documentary remains interesting throughout, it does feel a bit long at over two hours, with bits that certainly could have been in a DVD/Blu-ray’s “Deleted Scenes” section. Hey, extras mean a lot to these collectors as so many of them mentioned them. Overall, though, it was a thoroughly enjoyable watch.

Physical Media Lives Trailer: TBD

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Review: Picture My Face: The Story of Teenage Head

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2020
Images from the Internet

Picture My Face: The Story of Teenage Head
Directed by Douglas Arrowsmith
Felt Film; TVO Films
86 minutes, 2020


Every city’s music scene has a band (or bands) that turned the knob to the next notch. For the Glam-to-Punk phase of the 1970s in New York, it was the New York Dolls. In Boston, it was arguably Willie Loco Alexander and the Boom Boom Band. And for the Toronto-Hamilton area, Ontario, there was Teenage Head, who took their name from an album by a West Coast version of this same principle, the Flamin’ Groovies.

Thanks to then-rock-writer Dawn Eden, a friend who also wrote for my ‘zine, I got to see the Hamilton-based Teenage Head play in a small club called Tramps in New York in the late-1980s, though it was after original lead singer Frankie Venom left the band and was replaced by the effervescent Dave Rave (aka Dave Desroches), who still does the vocals to this day (along with his many other projects) and appears with his ever changing hair length in this documentary on the band.

 It’s hard to explain just how important Teenage Head was to the Toronto metropolitan scene. Without them, there may not have been the Diodes, the Viletones, and so many others (check of Liz Worth’s excellent 2009 oral history of the Toronto scene, Treat Me Like Dirt after you watch this film).

You say you’ve never heard of Teenage Head? Well, first of all, this is your clarion call to go and check out their amazing catalog, including my fave cut, “You’re Tearing Me Apart” (which is not used here). But more importantly, whether directly or indirectly, much like Johnny Thunders, the sound of their influence goes beyond their name, especially for bands in Eastern Canada.

The film opens up with archival footage of the band playing at the Heatwave Festival in the heat of summer of 1980 in Bowmanville, Ontario, just west of Toronto, before delving into the history of the band’s formation. What I like about this approach, is that rather than a series of talking heads (more later), we meet the band as people rather than either super rock stars or seriously flawed humans (think of docs you’ve seen about, say, Janis, Jimi or even Sid V.). The band convenes at late lead singer Frankie Venom Kerr's grave (d. 2008; cancer) as we are introduced to guitarist Gord Lewis, bassist Steve Mahon, and current members vocalist Dave Rave and drummer Gene Champaign.

There is some loose chronology to the documentary, as it follows along their near-fame trajectory that was sidelined first by a highway crash that temporarily paralyzed Gord, which took them out of their touring mode and the recording of their third album, as other bands filled the spot that was meant for them (but not as well).

A large portion of the film deals with Gord’s struggle with depression following Frankie’s passing, the second major hit the band took. This reminded me of the film New York Doll (2005), which focused on Doll’s bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane’s similar issues. The fact that his back was shattered in that crash which caused the band to slip out of momentary prominence I’m sure is part of that as well.

As I said, the film does not glorify the band, nor vilifies them, but rather shows them dealing with adversity while being incredibly talented musicians who just never got the wide-scale recognition they deserved through no direct fault of their own. I believe that this documentary is all the more captivating because it makes it identifiable, not with some pie-in-the-sky lifestyle that most can never achieve, but by bringing it down to both the human scale and the humane.

There are some talking head interviews thrown in, including Nina Antonia who arguably wrote the definitive books on The New York Dolls (Too Much Too Soon, 2005) and Johnny Thunders (In Cold Blood, 1987), and rock writer Jon Savage, author of the British punk history England’s Dreaming (2004). Showing up sporatically is Marky Ramone, who worked with the band on their 2008 CD Teenage Head with Marky Ramone. He states at one point, “Frankie Venom was like Johnny Rotten,” but I respectfully beg to differ, as I feel Frankie was closer in movement and ferocity to Stiv Bators. Rotten would lean into the mic and roam around like an angry bull, but Stiv would be all over the stage and was oft jumping in the air, much like Frankie. Also making an appearance is guitarist Rob Baker of the Kingston band The Tragically Hip, who gives some insights into what it’s like when your lead singer is gone, with the passing of the Hip’s vox-meister Gord Downie in 2017.

As much as this is a film about their history, including some great live footage and archival interviews with Venom, this is also about their reformation 40 years after they started, now with Dave Rave out front (whom I’ve had the honor to know casually over the years), thanks to Warner Bros releasing to some success a collection of lost tapes from when the band was at its peak, Fun Comes Fast, in 2017.

We watch them prep to play at a bar I had always wanted to visit in Hamilton, This Ain’t Hollywood, which closed during the summer of 2020. But as the film begins with the huge Heatwave Festival in 1980, it concludes with the gigantic CFL Labour Day Classic Halftime Show (Hamilton vs. Toronto) in 2019.

This is certainly not the feel-good film of the year as far as the cult of celebrity goes, but it is important. Teenage Head are a band that deserves recognition, both for their sound and also their non-music history. They are four dudes trying to make the best of their lives, and that message is presented in a palpable form that is neither depressing nor exalting, which is the perfect pitch. Great job.


Thursday, November 5, 2020

PiL: In Concert [1980]

Text by David G / FFanzeen 1980
Introduction by Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2020
Images from the Internet

This article was originally published in FFanzeen, issue 4, dated May/June 1980. It was written by David G, whose musical tastes ran towards the avant-garde, especially British.

As much as the Sex Pistols were known to enflame their audience with antagonism via their antics, PiL were no better; but with the latter, it seems their hostile stance was more of a void than a taunt. In an infamous gig at the Ritz, for example, PiL infamously stood behind a curtain, so the audience could only see their silhouettes, while canned music played. This caused a riot.

All things considered, when one looks at Lydon’s artistic/philosophical heroes, the very act of antagonism is art. This also explains most of the interviews he has given, be it print or on-air.  – RBF, 2020

Johnny Lydon (nee Rotten) is continuing the work he began with the Sex Pistols, the crusade to realign the music public’s consciousness, in Public Image Limited (PiL). Now, with the release of Metal Box (the second PiL album, called Second Edition in the States), Lydon has decided once again to take to the American stage. He originally wanted to do Roseland, but he got the Palladium instead. And it was an event.

After a muddy sounding, but forceful set by Ornette Coleman disciple James “Blood” Ulmer, PiL’s drummer Marty Atkins and bassist Jah Wobble walked on stage and immediately established the pulse: that dark, brooding rhythm that runs through most of PiL’s music. The bass, fat and prominent like on a dub record, wove a serpentine pattern around the crowd’s growing anticipation.

Unannounced, Lydon, followed closely by guitarist Keith Levene, bounded onstage. A rush of near hysteria swept the crowd, their screams mingling with the random cries of the synthesizer Levene casually stroked. The pulse became “Memories,” from Metal Box, with Lydon painfully screeching the lyrics. Despite profound differences between the Sex Pistols and PiL on record, on stage Lydon is once again Johnny Rotten, a moving, screaming bundle of intense anger and energy. His charisma was very much in evidence at the Palladium, but it didn’t last long.

Two songs into the set, Levene’s amp gave out, the time needed to replace it filled with bass and drum coping. Lydon/Rotten took this opportunity to hand the mic over to the audience, who didn’t do a bad job approximating his anguished wails.

All fixed, Levene went back into “Memories,” but Lydon/Rotten decided to lengthen his cigarette break by inviting a few punters on stage for more impromptu vocalizing. This practice was curtailed when Rotten/Lydon led an overly enthusiastic loon on stage who was duly removed by security.

Temporarily repossessing the mic, our hero sang another song or two and demonstrated some dance steps he copped from Bob Marley, before once again bringing some audience members on stage. After a little coaching, Rotten, with guitarist Levene in tow, left the stage.

Wobble and Atkins, still on stage, continued to dispense the pulse. After mumbling something to the audience, they too left the stage. The confused and slightly dazed audience slowly began to applaud. When a moment later, the lights went up, a few boos and much grumbling was heard. No more music was forthcoming.

Leaving the Palladium, I noticed it had rained during the show.