Sunday, December 21, 2014

Fun for the Holidays: Select Offerings in Music, Collections, Books, DVDs and Magazines

Real World 25, from Peter Gabriel's Real World label is one of many great gift possibilities this holiday season.

It’s the holidays, the stressful time of year when you scurry about trying to match the right gift with the right person. There’s so much to choose from out there, in music, books, collections and DVDs... so where do you begin? Here are some selections I think you’ll like, something for every kind of taste.

Music: I recently wrote about The Rough Guide CD label and its 25th anniversary. Another world music label has also just celebrated 25 years. Real World was founded by musician Peter Gabriel in 1989. Its mandate: to find new and veteran artists who stand out in the genre of world music and record albums with them that will have lasting influence and appeal. Gabriel is quoted as saying he read that the avenge album is played just 1.2 times before being discarded and he intended Real World's music to do better than that. With over 200 albums to date, it’s done just that, I think, and its new offering, Real World 25 is a fine three disc set which brings the cream of its crop to the fore.

Encompassing 48 songs, the CD collection is divided into three parts; disc one presents some of its most famous artists, such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Peter Gabriel himself (with a track from his superb 1989 album Passion album, with music composed for but released after the controversial movie The Last Temptation of Christ), The Blind Boys of Alabama and Dub Colossus, among others. Disc two delves deeper into tracks that Gabriel and company indicate are less likely to be known by world music fans and the third CD includes tracks and artists picked by the fans. Normally that last one could be a dud, but the songs by the likes of Afro Celt Sound System and Martyn Bennett, among them, are decent choices. But the whole collection stands out with any number of artists performing stellar work. I never heard of Kenyan artist Ayub Ogada or American group Little Axe before, but their tracks on Real World 25, "Kothbiro" and "If I Had My Way" respectively, are fantastic. With a varied lineup of songs, heavy on U.K. based artists (as you might expect from a British music label), but also ranging from all over Africa, Asia and North America, Real World does itself proud. The sounds may be more modern than some world music we’re used (Gabriel’s’ fondness for electronica is paramount on many of the songs chosen for Real World 25) but the distinctive cultural source material still shines through. It’s all good.

Commemorating 40 years since this (in)famous Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young reunion tour, never before heard on CD, CSNY 1974 culls the best bits from ten different concerts (nine in the U.S., one in London, England) performed by the rock group between August and December of that year. The set, three CDs and one DVD, covers the gamut of CSNY’s hits as well as Neil Young’s solo output – everything from seminal classics like "Old Man" (always a favourite of mine), "Helpless," "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes," "Teach Your Children," and "Ohio" to lesser known tracks like "Almost Cut My Hair" and Young’s "On the Beach," which is particularly potent here. (There is also a Pure Audio Blu-ray disc and a Blu-Ray DVD and a pricier packaged deluxe edition of six vinyl records, the Blu-ray discs and a coffee table book, besides. There’s also a sixteen-track single CD available if you just want to skim the surface.) CSNY’s four main figures – David Crosby, Stephen Sills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young – were never the closest of pals, or at least only some of them were, and Young for one, the prickliest of the group, is on record disparaging the 1974 CSNY tour, but nevertheless all of the musicians co-operated in the release of the box set, which was produced by Graham Nash and Joel Bernstein.

Considering that it was not entirely enthusiastic reunion tour by men who still (always) had outstanding issues among themselves and reports that Crosby and Stills weren’t necessarily sober all the way through, CSNY 1974 is generally quite a successful box set, even if some of the political tunes ("Goodbye Dick," about President Richard M. Nixon’s ignominious departure from office) are dated. Others such as "Ohio," about the killing of students by the National Guard at Kent State University, still pack a punch. You can tell the group is somewhat out of practice – Stills in the lavish booklet accompanying CSNY 1974 is quoted as saying the group always under-rehearsed anyway – and the rendition of some of the 40 songs on tap, in three sets, are ragged. But who wants a perfectly pitched live show that feels like it was composed in the studio anyway? (The discs' sound is very good.) Most of CSNY 1974 is great, comprised of powerfully composed and performed tunes that pack an emotional and musical impact and, courtesy of Young, with a gratifying (for this Canadian) dollop of local references, too. This is powerhouse rock and roll by one the best groups of the '70s. Whether you’re a long time fan of CSNY, or new to their output, this is one CD box set well worth your while.

Collections: How to describe Gary Larson and his Far Side cartoons? Surreal doesn’t quite cut it; they’re weirder than anything Dali ever conceived of. Nor is funny apt enough; they’re hysterical on a level nothing else comes close to fulfilling. I ask because The Complete Far Side: 1980–1994 (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2014) has now come out in a handsomely packaged three-volume paperback slipcase collection (the two-volume hard cover edition dates back to 2003). It contains every single Far Side cartoon Larson ever penned in daily newspapers, which ran from January 1, 1980 to January 1, 1995 when he retired, as well as 19 more created afterwards, more than 4,000 in all. Suffice it to say his world of anthropomorphic animals, strange humans and puns that are more original than any I can think of only begin to scratch the surface. A man opens his fridge and sees various condiments, mustard, ketchup etc., with their ‘hands’ up. The caption: ‘When potato salad goes bad.” Larson delivered typically unique and skewed cartoons like this for fifteen years and it’s a mark of his wide, diverse readership that various of his collections have had forewords written by, among others, the late comedian Robin Williams and anthropologist Jane Goodall. (Comedian Steve Martin, who sometimes approaches the lunacy of Larson in some of his skits, introduces this compilation.) There really was no one ever like Larson in newspaper comic strips and the beauty of The Complete Far Side is that his voice is heard outside of the cartoons, in his introductory essays to the package’s individual chapters as well as in an essay which "explains" the meaning of the cartoons. Also included: some hate mail and queries form Larson’s besotted, befuddled and occasionally angry readers. Owning this collection is a real treat.

So is acquiring Bill Watterson’s The Complete Calvin and Hobbes (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2012), a four-volume paperback edition from the same publishers as The Complete Far Side. Watterson’s comic tales of a six-year-old boy Calvin and his stuffed tiger Hobbes (stuffed to everyone else that is; Calvin sees and talks to it like it’s alive, which for him it is) are a hoot. The two are named after theologian John Calvin and philosopher Thomas Hobbes (who penned the expression that “life is nasty, brutish and short") so you can imagine the underpinnings of the conversations Calvin and Hobbes routinely have. And while Calvin can do nasty things, he does them with such glee that you can’t help but laugh. Whether it’s facing off against his parents whom he drives nuts with his antics and persistent queries and observations, his long suffering babysitter who can’t control him or Susie, the girl he torments unmercifully with his boyish antics, Calvin and Hobbes, which ran from 1985-95, was imaginative humour with a jaded, cynical edge. Calvin and Hobbes is like Charles Schulz’s Peanuts with adults included, but with Calvin, unlike Charlie Brown, often coming out on top – though never against the infinitely wiser and cleverer Hobbes. Smart and compelling, Calvin and Hobbes was as good as comic strips ever get. (For the record, in my humble estimation, the only other brilliant strips besides The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes were Peanuts (but only in the '60s), Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury (through the late '70s) and Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County (1980-89) and Opus (2003-08).)

Books: Along with alternate histories and dystopias, time travel remains one of my favourite science fiction tropes. The idea of travelling backwards in time with all its inherent paradoxes – Can you kill your ancestor and still be born? What if you meet yourself in the past? Can you change history when you time travel?– is endlessly fascinating. If you doubt that, check out The Time Traveler’s Almanac (Tor, 2013), a superb and massive science fiction anthology which came out in paperback earlier this year. It contains 72 stories in all, dating back to the very first time travel story ever published (Edward Page Mitchell’s inventive "The Clock That Went Backward" from 1881) and forward to various tales published in recent years. Editors Ann and Jeff Vandermeer have outdone themselves with their selection of stories, which I am still working through. But I certainly am familiar with some of the classics contained within the pages, including Ray Bradbury’s seminal 1952 short story "A Sound of Thunder," where one misstep changes everything; Norman Spinrad’s trippy "The Weed of Time" (1973); Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore’s 1946 "Vintage Season," still one of the finest, if not the best time travel tales ever written; Richard Matheson’s chilling "Death Ship" (1953) and Michael Swanwick’s moving "Triceratops Summer" (2005).

The Time Traveler’s Almanac also includes stories by any number of great and/or well known writers, such as Robert Silverberg, Isaac Asimov, Theodore Sturgeon, Joe Lansdale, William Gibson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Douglas Adams, Harry Turtledove, Michael Moorcock, Kim Newman, and Gene Wolfe. And of course, H.G. Wells is represented with a brief excerpt from The Time Machine (1895), still the most famous time travel novel of them all. There are so many other (new and old) authors, too, in an anthology that really ranges farther and wider than most. Bookended by fanciful and clever ‘non-fiction’ pieces (i.e.: "Top Ten Tips for Time Travelers,", "Music for Time Travelers"), with a savvy introduction by Rian Johnson (the Vandermeers also offer a preface in the book) and divided into four smart segments, Experiments, Reactionaries and Revolutionaries, Mazes and Traps and Communiqu├ęs, The Time Traveler’s Almanac gives you everything you ever wanted to know about time travel and more. Even in a genre represented annually by fine anthologies, this one stands out.

DVDs: Contrary to popular wisdom, not everything has come out on DVD. One influential TV show that has only now seen its first two seasons recently put out on disc is the Emmy Award-winning L.A. Law, created by Steven Bochco (Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue) and Terry Louise Fisher. The series, which ran for eight seasons from 1986-94, was typical Bochco fare, with its complex storylines, hot button and topical issue-oriented material and quirky characters, similar to Bochco’s earlier and highly acclaimed Hill Street Blues but a little lighter and sunnier in tone, as befits its California setting. It also offered David E. Kelley (Picket Fences, Chicago Hope, The Practice, Ally McBeal), his first big break on TV (as writer and story editor and later executive producer on the show). The New York Times wrote about L.A. Law that it was "television's most serious attempt to date to portray American law and the people who practice it ... L.A. Law, perhaps more than any other force, has come to shape public perceptions about lawyers and the legal system." But fans of the show might just take its funny/serious tone and great cast as their best memories of the series. Considering how good the actors were, it’s puzzling to me how so many of them, including Susan Dey (as Grace van Owen, aka Laurie Partridge for you older readers), Jill Eikenberry (Ann Kelsey), Susan Ruttan (Roxanne Melman) and Corbin Bernsen (office lothario Arnie Becker) didn’t really go on to anything else significant after L.A. Law went off the air. Other cast members like Jimmy Smits (Victor Sifuentes) and John Spencer (Tommy Mullaney) did make their marks on later series; Smits in NYPD Blue and The West Wing and Spencer also on The West Wing. Blair Underwood (Jonathan Rollins) is also well known from such series as The New Adventures of Old Christine and the ill-fated remake of Ironside. British actress Amanda Donohoe (The Lair of the White Worm, Paper Mask), also appeared as controversial bisexual lawyer “C.J.” Lamb on the series, sharing a (chaste) same sex kiss with fellow lawyer Abby Perkins (played by Michel Greene), though the reported lesbian relationship between the two women never materialized, a rare example of the show chickening out. At its best, however, L.A. Law was groundbreaking, adult and very entertaining. I’m glad it’s finally seeing the new light of day on DVD.

And speaking of Hill Street Blues, the entire series – seven seasons in all (1981-87) – has been released in a box set as The Complete Hill Street Blues. It remains one of television’s finest achievements, the gritty show without which ensuing cable police dramas like The Shield and The Wire would not exist. I loved the first three seasons but found the remaining ones a little less riveting – partly because it copped out when it refused to kill off a key character, whom we had to believe survived putting a gun to his head in a suicide attempt when the bullets were replaced with blanks. (As actor Jon-Erik Hexum found out in an on-set accident that killed him in 1984, blanks can still be lethal.) Yet for all its creative faults – a risk for most dramas – and a bit of softening when it came to its main cast  (though one other member was killed off later on in the series), Hill Street Blues still had much to offer, including memorable stints by Dennis Franz (NYPD Blue) as corrupt cop Norman Buntz and Jennifer Tilly as Lt. Henry Goldblume’s sexy love interest. If you don’t know the show, you really should – and since most of its episodes, even the lesser ones later on, are worth a look, this is still one rewarding box set.

Magazines: Finally, it’s that time of the year when the latest annual Southern Music Issue of the literary American magazine The Oxford American hits the stores and news stands, complete with a nifty extra: a fine CD devoted to the music of a specific Southern state. This time around it’s a single disc, comprising 25 tracks, concentrating on the music of Texas (last year saw a two-disc collection of the music of Tennessee), from Kinky Friedman to Waylon Jennings, Buddy Holly to Ornette Coleman, Freddy Fender to Lee Ann Womack and spanning all genres of music. One caveat: recent editorial changes have meant that under the auspices of music editor Rick Clark, the songs are not explored in as much depth as in previous issues – the liner notes are stripped down to the basic info on the tracks and replaced by lengthy pieces on all aspects of music, including features on Arhoolie Records founder Chris Strachwitz, a tribute to Austin’s eclectic music scene and profiles of musicians, featured on the disc, like Guy Clark, also on the cover, and those, like Roy Orbison, who aren’t. I may prefer the old editorial emphasis, but I can’t deny that the magazine’s high standards are still intact. This reasonably priced package ($12.95) makes for a great stocking stuffer. Happy Holidays!

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he just finished teaching a course My Favourite Movies – And Why. Tuesdays in January, he will be giving four lectures on The Image of the Jew in Film and Television at the Bernard Betel Centre in Toronto.

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