24 December 2017

Warmer in the Winter

Warmer in the Winter a Pleasant Listen Indeed
by Kristin Battestella

Violinist Lindsey Stirling's 2017 holiday release Warmer in the Winter uses surprisingly modern arrangements to bring a fireside medieval wink, opening the whimsy with the sharp youthful notes of Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. There are some sophisticated, intense moments amid the edgy ad libs, but this remains a recognizable welcome and festive rendition before You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch featuring Sabrina Carpenter. This is cute – it doesn't seem like an adult song and that fits the swanky, toe tapping millennial pop. The instrumental orchestration works almost in duet with the modern vocals, creating groovy rock that matures the cartoon lyrics. Likewise Stirling's original Christmas C'mon with Becky G is pleasant and catchy, if a little too contemporary holiday pop generic. This bubble gum style is not my favorite, and this sounds like something you can hear any time of year despite the seasonal phrases. I dare say there was no need for any guest vocalists on Warmer in the Winter. Shaking up the instrumentals with voice distracts from the swift violin and spirited concert magic. I also wish the ominous medieval seriousness of Carol of the Bells was longer. The rousing titular chimes invoke a magical sprinkle as the impressive strings build the familiar crescendos.

The violin also takes on the voice of Angels We Have Heard on High, and the longest track on Warmer in the Winter hooks the listener with its backing choirs as the heavenly melody hits home the glory. Sometimes the ad libs away from the traditional notes stray into something unrecognizable – you momentarily stop and check the track title to confirm this is still the same song. Thankfully, the aura is so pleasant regardless, and the big notes come around beautifully. Although it is the shortest track, I Saw Three Ships is a lively, festive little jig enticing us to clap along, tap our toes, and break into some Lord of the Dance if we knew how. This rendition also segues into some medieval badassery with a Game of Thrones meets “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” interlude. However, the medley's so fun its okay. A tune can be reverent and still have a little fresh winter intensity. It's a pity though that the tracks aren't titled to reflect when there are a few carols intermixed in one tune. Let It Snow continues the idyllic charm with the strings again mirroring the breezy lyrics so listeners can sway or hum along. The traditional Old World meets modern unusual ritzes up the orchestration with Big Band styling – showing Stirling's talented range and instrumentation. A whiff of “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer” peppers the track before a “New York, New York” topper in the big finish. The titular Warmer in the Winter with Trombone Shorty is another original with all the merry talk of cookies, pajamas, and snuggling up. The brass is catchy and the tags will get stuck in your head. There's nothing wrong with these vocal tracks – all of them are worthy of plenty holiday air play. Unfortunately, they aren't the standout tracks of the album, probably because they try so hard to be, and the violin concertos are just better at the seasonal spirit than the pop.

The still resonance of What Child is This is simply lovely, with each lingering note invoking its medieval origins. Without lyrics, this can be “Greensleeves” or the Creche, and the sweeping concert movement tugs our heartstrings either way. This may be the best of Warmer in the Winter, as it encapsulates the Old World cum new musical technology without being bombastic or over the top. The instrumental simplicity lets the meaning of the music speak for itself and that's an amen. Maybe it's surprising to hear the more recent All I Want for Christmas as an instrumental – because let's be honest, the Mariah original is a pretty unbeatable gem. We know the refrains, and the violin again becomes the voice to which we can sing along as we dance about the tree. This lively again succeeds better than the Stirling and Co. Time to Fall in Love featuring Alex Gaskarth. The millennial delivery immediately dates the song to a generic holiday hip interchangeable with the other originals despite the different guest stars. The unique violin rhythms would have better served more of the edgy instrumental carols, and Warmer in the Winter proves you can have serious musical reverence and kick it up a notch. The breezy nostalgia of Jingle Bell Rock updates the mid century jive for listeners young and old, doing the hip timeless right with a touch of “The Man with the Bag” before going full swing with a whiff of “Sing Sing Sing” to the Bell Rock.

Silent Night is a worthy finale closing Warmer in the Winter with backing arias and quiet but no less stirring violin strength building the candlelit emotion of the season. Of course, as albums often do these days, different exclusives are available on the Target deluxe edition including We Three Gentlemen – a refreshed “We Three Kings” with a hint of “Carol of the Bells” mixing the gothic mood with more ethnic beats for impressive ancient meets millennial medley. Likewise O Come Emmanuel harkens the season with backing octaves and mellow strings holding the big notes. It's an interesting add on to finish Warmer in the Winter with this traditional Advent invitation, but this bonus finale is also fitting. The jolly is over and now the rousing reverence has begun. Despite some soundalike holiday pop, this fifty minutes flies by with a well paced mix of something festive for everyone. The chart topping seasonal pleasantries, merry holiday tunes, and spirited carol strings make Warmer in the Winter the perfect soundtrack for one and all to wrap, bake, and trim the tree.

22 December 2017

Top Ten: The Bee Gees!


Welcome to the last of our Top Tens series in celebration of I Think, Therefore I Review's Tenth Anniversary!

These monthly countdowns highlight special themes and topics from our extensive archive of reviews, and now we end this celebratory year back where our critiquing began as this time I Think, Therefore I Review presents in chronological order...

Our Top Ten Bee Gees albums!

Please see our Bee Gees tag for much, much more or browse our Music label for further analysis! 

I Think, Therefore I Review began as the blog home for previously published reviews and reprinted critiques by horror author Kristin Battestella. Naturally older articles linked here may be out of date and codes or formatting may be broken. Please excuse any errors and remember our Top Tens will generally only include films, shows, books, or music previously reviewed at I Think, Therefore I Review


Big Jake

Big Jake a Fun if Flawed Romp
by Kristin Battestella

John Fain (Richard Boone) and his gang – featuring fast gun O'Brien (Glenn Corbett), crusty Pop Dawson (Harry Carey Jr.), and the machete wielding John Goodfellow (Gregg Palmer) – injure Jeffrey McCandles (Bobby Vinton) and abduct his son Little Jake (Ethan Wayne) after a violent massacre at the McCandles ranch to open 1971's Big Jake. Matriarch Martha (Maureen O'Hara) knows this kidnapping is more than the army or the Texas Rangers can handle, so she telegrams her estranged husband Big Jake McCandles (John Wayne), who sets out to find the young boy along with his bitter older son James (Patrick Wayne), the progressive, motorcycle riding younger son Michael (Christopher Mitchum), longtime Apache tracker Sam Sharpnose (Bruce Cabot), and his dog...Dog.

Photo slides, black and white footage, and newsreel style narration fill the audience in on Big Jake's 1909 setting, for the cosmopolitan East has moved into the twentieth century while the lawless Old West is still populated with desperate men living in the past. As a sophisticated pillar of the community wealthy with staff, finery, and new technology such as 1911 experimental pistols, the McCandles spread is an easy target for the lingering hang 'em now and ask questions later gunslinger infamy. The similarly crusty versus next generation attitudes also have several interesting dramatic clashes – the pups are ready to leave all the old ways behind but lovely conversations on when the West was free and buffalo plentiful recall the fading pioneer spirit. The trouble with Big Jake is that the picture never decides if it is going to be a gritty, regretful piece or a teach these youngin's a lesson comedy. Brutal violence and bloody action set pieces are meant to lure younger audiences with explosive automobiles, motorcycle feats, and wild shootouts. The picture doesn't stay this way, however, but trades the western aggression for a seventies audience with a humorous horseback road trip where quips are rampant and every son takes a humble on the chin – no matter how old he is. Neither of these schools is bad at all. Sure, the choreography is at times nonsensical and the gore uneven, but the stunts are entertaining. Those quips also, are to die for – from every “Dog!” to the repeated response to Big Jake as “I thought you were dead?” (“The next person who says that, I'm going to shoot, so help me.”) Familiar John Ford company casting and real life father and sons interplay add to the winks as horror worthy scary zooms and escalating score elevate the knife wielding violence. Unfortunately, all of these elements just don't quite go together. Big Jake may have had too many cooks in the kitchen with aging director George Sherman (The Comacheros) and John Wayne's behind the scenes influence. Wayne is said to have directed when Sherman could not, and it's believable thanks to the film's polarizing tones – which also seem bent on recapturing McLintock's past success with confusing ties to 1970's Chisum and Rio Lobo thanks to repeated Batjac cast and crew. Big Jake's ending is also incredibly abrupt with no resolution to any of the violence or deaths and no return follow through compared to the lengthy McCandles Ranch assault that started everything. The rousing action score is woefully out of place in swelling over the final still frame – an all smiles portrait that would have us believe Big Jake was a happy family bonding experience. Fortunately, the individual confrontations and rivalry moments rescue the uneven pace and mixed narrative with Big Jake remaining infinitely watchable so long as you enjoy the pieces rather than analyze the whole.

Let's admit John Wayne is old and looking past his prime in Big Jake, but that's on form for the eponymous character Рwho still has enough wallop to his punch, point to his aim, discipline for his sons, and chess game versus the bad guys. Jacob McCandles knows what he is doing has risks but he will do it to save a kidnapped boy. He acts gruff, but Big Jake has an underlying tender, as seen in his rescue of a lynched sheep herder and his embarrassment over wearing reading glasses. Big Jake is surprised to hear his grandson is named after him and takes pride in his sons' respective grit Рdifferent grades though each of them may be. Wayne has several great one on ones in the battle of wills with Boone, and point blank there should have been more of the criminally underused Maureen O'Hara as Martha McCandles. Rather than an ongoing wink at their film partnership in the likes of Rio Grande, The Quiet Man, and McLintock, the briefly seen rocky McCandles' relationship becomes more like stunt casting a la mellow crooner Bobby Vinton as the third but essentially forgotten by the end of the movie McCandles son. Bruce Cabot's (King Kong) lovely Apache Sam Sharpnose starts cliché as if this were a John Ford cavalry picture from twenty years prior. However, Sam becomes realistic in his wear and tear. He's old, catching one of his quarry but not both. Sam remembers the buffalo and the good old days but has enough crafty up his sleeve when Big Jake needs it. He's loyal, reliable, and essential to this mission. Big Jake might have been neat as just a buddy picture Рone last hurrah with an appearance from good old Hank Worden (The Searchers) of course. And seriously, shout out to the two collies from the Lassie/Weatherwax family who portrayed Dog. The animal choreography is well done, enabling Dog to assist Big Jake honorably with his own special canine zeal.

Gang leader John Fain has a plan, a darn good plan, and poncho wearing Richard Boone (Have Gun, Will Travel) is delightful in this last outlaw heist. It looks like he's succeeding at this cat and mouse for most of Big Jake, too. He's calling the shots and is always one step ahead. We believe his ruthless – Fain's black hat stands up to Big Jake's long shadow as two relics of an earlier age. It's great to see their tactics and threats turned, and fellow John Ford Stock Company veteran Harry Carey Jr. (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) is unrecognizable as Fain's icky old henchman Pop Dawson. Pop is the nasty flip side to good old Sam, however, this villainous gang is both reasonably big enough for its killer kidnapping task as well as unfortunately too big to feature all of its members. Glenn Corbett (Route 66) is in only a handful of unnecessary scenes, adding some kind of angry “half-breed” history to Big Jake that goes nowhere while wonderfully nasty machete man Gregg Palmer (The Shootist) also has precious few scenes to develop his vile. After the opening violence, both gang members seem absent for most of the movie until featured moments in the final act that have these supposedly so bads quickly and easily dismissed. It might have been interesting if Corbett's O'Brien had some kind of personal enemy history with Patrick Wayne's James McCandles, mirroring each troop's members while further developing each son's parental issues. The two played brothers in Shenandoah, but sadly, their late fast draw duel becomes a blink and you miss it moment in the rushed finale.

Speaking of Patrick Wayne, as a kid I loved him in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger and The People That Time Forgot. He was good looking, had charisma, and did branch out into other roles, but unfortunately Patrick Wayne will probably always be considered as getting a free pass just for being John Wayne's son. That's perhaps never more so than here with Patrick playing Big Jake's angry elder son, and the family in joke adds a lot of cranky fun. James sarcastically calls Jake “Daddy” and mocks his reputation as a womanizer as difficult to believe. We understand why he has a chip on his shoulder, and there is some character development as James goes from being embarrassed by his dad tossing him in the mud puddle (“Since you don't have any respect for your elders, it's time somebody taught you to respect your betters!”) to mastering the prototype pistol and fighting side by side with Big Jake. Of course, there is no resolution to the bonding – we don't know if Jake stayed on the ranch assisting James or if the sons joined their father roaming the remnants of the West. Though I loved Christopher Mitchum (Rio Lobo) for a hot minute, too, it's easy to suspect his out of place casting was likewise because he's Robert Mitchum's son. His Michael is the younger, hip child with the latest gadgets and style, but his delivery is out of sync with everyone else. Michael learns how to get rough and tumble with his weaponry in their quest, but teaching him to kill and beating him up a few times seems like a backward journey for the character. Honestly, there should have been only two or even one McCandles son – imagine Big Jake on the trail with a progressive son who is at angry at him and willing to get radical with his neat gear to save his own kidnapped son. That's tension!

The aforementioned violence in Big Jake is also bemusingly uneven. People rise up from a perfectly safe hidden location to take aim at the bad guy who's ready and waiting to shoot. Sometimes the resulting gunfire is bloody with superfluous blow back and exaggerated destruction, yet other casualties merely slump over with no clear wounds indicating injury. Is it a technical error or uncertainly about what was allowed in a post-The Wild Bunch genre? Bandaged legs and arms in slings look worse then they are with injured men immediately up and running back into the fray. Fortunately, all the western styling is here with fitting ranches, stables, horses, and rugged Northern Mexico scenery. O'Hara's lovely Gibson Girl frocks, feathers, and parasols invoke a turn of the century modern, but the sweet new supposedly better than horses automobiles turn out to be none too practical for the roughness on the Mexican border. That motorcycle leaping over quarry and skirting enemy mounts is dandy, but not knowing how to handle that gas pistol isn't. Even Little Jake is dressed in one of those tiny Fauntleroy suits – giving cowboy hat wearing Big Jake a double take when he sees him. Despite the back and forth and weak conclusion, Big Jake does tie the old versus new together well with veteran wit, fast draws, and sharpshooting plans coming together amid the traditional western knock 'em drag out. The seemingly serious kidnapping plot, violence, bloody shootouts, and machete implications may be tough viewing for super young audiences. However, the lack of dramatic resolution means Big Jake isn't the dark, heavy western it initially appears to be. Personality, zingers, and lighthearted moments put the big names head to head in charming, if not properly strung together vignettes that remain entertaining. Flaws and uneven tone aside, Big Jake is an enjoyable piece for John Wayne fans, western audiences, and movie lovers looking for some old school cool.

15 December 2017

Old School Music Documentaries

Old School Music Documentaries
by Kristin Battestella

This trio of recent music documentaries highlighting classic cool subjects is all about sex, drugs, and rock n roll – with some vinyl, music genius, depression, and shop talk bandied about for good measure.

The Beach Boys: Making Pet Sounds – This fiftieth anniversary hour revisits the 1966 album's inception, recording, and legacy with Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston, and David Marks amid interviews with fellow musicians, engineers, and music historians. Surfboards, classic cars, and board shorts add to California Sound nostalgia, and familiar notes from the likes of “Surfin' Safari,” “Little Deuce Scoop,” “Surfer Girl,” and “California Girls” anchor the archive photos and video footage with the late Carl and Dennis Wilson as conversations at the piano and chatting in studio revisit childhood inspirations, early harmonizing, surf hits, and rigorous touring. Such tough travel broke Brian Wilson down, thrusting him into the studio at home for the titular sessions that would turn the group from sunny pop to something more serious with my favorite “Wouldn't It Be Nice,” “God Only Knows,” “Sloop John B,” “I Just Wasn't Made for These Times,” “Here Today,” and more. This mostly track by track story is told quickly without a narrator slowing the intimate pacing, first hand facts, and reflections waxing on the musical experimentation, complex songwriting, and sixties influences like The Kingston Trio, Rubber Soul, and the Spector Wall of Sound. Original recording samples and isolated vocals or backing tracks break down the song constructs while debating the significance of that term 'musical genius' and dabbling with acid or LSD. Band arguments about the concept album as art rather than sticking to the repetitive commercial formula are also recalled amid the then progressive use of female studio musicians, unique sound developments, lyrical impressiveness, and sublime expressions of self in song. Mismarketing mistakes and lack of company support hampered the eponymous release at the time, however it's interesting to hear British music experts discussing The Beach Boys now respected legacy and influence – because we probably tend to thing Brits in the sixties were preoccupied with that other group that begins with The Bea... Perhaps viewers need to be familiar with Brian Wilson and Co. or mid century music trends before The British Invasion to keep up with the reflective dialogue and album timelines, but there are some great insights to disprove millennials who may dismiss this music as nothing more than Kokomo, John Stamos on the Bongos, or that Beach Boys Baywatch episode. This feature gives newer listeners a tip of the iceberg education in how rock and roll became a 'religious experience' while escorting longtime fans and baby boomer down memory lane.

Janis: Little Girl Blue – Music as creation, imagination, and rhythm quotes accent archive footage and feisty concert video to open this 2015 feature length documentary. However, the zany performances and fashion flair are countered with speeches on loneliness and voiceover letters debating talent versus ambition and the need to be loved or proud of yourself. Tearful recollections with family and friends mirror our subject's sad turn aways from the camera and disliking of her appearance as childhood photos, personal writings, and rare artwork anchor tales of bucking the old fashioned southern ways with a brash beatnik personality. The early Austin scene had its own bullying and lack of acceptance with Joplin voted winner of an ugliest man contest. Pain already influenced her songs – creating a constant need for a tight knit group of friends to tell her she was 'hot shit.' Moving to San Francisco in 1963 leads to Monterey encounters with Bob Dylan and Otis Redding, but bad boyfriends and conflicted lesbian leanings spiral into drug use, interventions, heartbreaking love letters unanswered, and a desperate seeking of happiness in any form. Additional writings apologize to her parents for not being who they wanted her to be, but Joplin finds counterculture camaraderie with Big Brother and the Holding Company and being true to herself on stage. Music journalists, sixties compatriots, and rare confessions from Dick Cavett recount bad record contracts, dalliances, rifts with the bad, and trouble to stay sober before Joplin's breakout at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. Stunning renditions of “Ball and Chain,” “Piece of My Heart,” “Summertime,” “Trust in Me Baby,” “Work Me Lord,” “I Need A Man to Love,” “Cry Baby,” and of course “Me and Bobby McGee” define her quest to be a star alongside studio behind the scenes, concert montages, and constant pressure to prove herself with difficult touring, hotels, and out of control heroin. All was right with the world while on stage – but what happens when the performance is over and you are alone with no audience cheering your name? Romance and healing travels can't stave off enablers, burning the torch at both ends at Woodstock, and a difficult Texas return. Joplin had an intuitive need to go on singing everybody's blues because she thought nobody cared anyway. If you somehow don't know how her story ends, viewers can tell it won't end well despite the sweet, sweet music along the way. This is a personal retelling sans narrator with a superb finale – a bittersweet biography always worth revisiting to appreciate the pain and sadness behind great rock and roll.

Last Shop Standing: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of the Independent Record Shop – This 2013 British hour based on the book of same name chronicles the resilience of the mom and pop music shop from the early days of 78s and mass copies of Elvis, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones to the rise of Punk Rock, The Clash, independent record distribution, and recent retail upheavals. The conversational style recalls the popular hang outs, listening booths, and allowances spent on singles with rivalries over too many shops in the same town before the eighties hype salesmen and manipulating chart sales changing who was hot and what stock to order. The record business was good even into the nineties, and interviewees make an interesting case on whether it was wise to decrease the quality of vinyl and kill records all together in favor of the supposedly sounding better, unbreakable, and space saving Compact Disc rather than just letting the mediums coexist. Because, of course, physical CD sales are down now and records are back – and the niche market never really left if you knew where to shop. Small profits, expensive overhead, and the advent of streaming in the new millennium led to shuttered shops amid big box store price wars and the ease of instantaneous music. Listeners now think in terms of cheap, even free or illegal individual songs rather than the expense of an entire album, however vinyl stores still cater to customers with their personality and knowledgeability, appreciating the difference between discovering a treasure to love instead of the intangible cloud. Some of the business talk or British slang might be confusing to some, but this is a very informative recounting of the industry history as, pun intended, what comes around goes around – chain stores weigh music sales on price versus floor space and often don't have what consumers want. While some indie record stores are surviving, others featured here closed during filming and the fate of any stand alone shop remains uncertain even as music companies are re-releasing vinyl or issuing new music on deluxe LPs and popularity increases with connections on social media and Record Store Day celebrations. This might have been neat as a longer series touring the shops seen here, but it's a nice snapshot of the music business in the last forty years with a unique spin on appreciating the ongoing vinyl legacy.

12 December 2017

Top Ten: Christmas Albums!

Welcome to our new Top Tens series in celebration of I Think, Therefore I Review's Tenth Anniversary! These monthly lists will highlight special themes and topics from our extensive archive of reviews.

This time a festive I Think, Therefore I Review presents...

Our Top Ten Christmas Albums!

Please see our Christmas tag for more holiday spirit or our Vinyl Records label for ye olde yule reviews!

I Think, Therefore I Review began as the blog home for previously published reviews and reprinted critiques by horror author Kristin Battestella. Naturally older articles linked here may be out of date and codes or formatting may be broken. Please excuse any errors and remember our Top Tens will generally only include films, shows, books, or music previously reviewed at I Think, Therefore I Review


11 December 2017

Luther Vandross: The Classic Christmas Album

Luther Vandross: The Classic Christmas Album a Smooth Holiday Winner
by Kristin Battestella

The 2012 Luther Vandross: The Classic Christmas Album compilation is a smooth collection of mellow holiday standards, new hits, and rare recordings beginning with a sophisticated adult welcome in The Christmas Song. This track was originally included on A Very Special Christmas 2 in 1992, and it's perfect for a contemporary cocktail party or effortless office holiday radio play. My Favorite Things likewise takes a ditty with somewhat juvenile if charming lyrics and makes it mature. Although some of the keyboard orchestration is dated and the song goes on for too long at almost six minutes, rather than something comical this brims with grown up nostalgia reminiscing on all the sweets, treats, and seasonal magic. Of course, the mellow Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas is on point with recognizable piano melodies and slow measures befitting the blossoming long notes and sad brass interlude for a breathy big finish.

Those of us who were around then will enjoy the hip holiday original The Mistletoe Jam (Everybody Kiss Somebody), however younger audiences might not appreciate this dated mid nineties groove that's also a little out of place between two slower tracks. I keep thinking rude millennials would lol wut at the opening dialogue about kissing under the mistletoe leading to having twins. Fortunately, this remains toe tapping for some dad dancing about the tree trimming or an impromptu Electric Slide after too much egg nog. The tender With a Christmas Heart references all the seasonal staples – angels, love, gifts, togetherness – with big octaves and smooth crescendos. The near operatic bellows and soft spoken dialogue balance the tearful weight before the lighthearted fun of the I Listen to the Bells duet with Darlene Love. This is the longest tune on The Classic Christmas Album at over six minutes, and that is all right with me as the upbeat festive refrains and contrasting holiday break up lyrics standout as a distinctive sixties but no less timeless sound. It's surprising Vandross only did one Christmas album and television special, as today there would be a streaming live Event for all the biggest holiday duets with each of the top vocal ladies, a double CD special, and deluxe LP to match. Damn that would have been sweet

A Kiss for Christmas continues the seasonal soul and winter romance with more mood for audiences of a certain age. The nineties styling is again slightly repetitive – too much of the orchestration sounds too alike on several tracks. However the chorus and ad libs are still darn catchy. Every Year, Every Christmas better captures the lovelorn December blues with a unique, effortless melody from frequent collaborator Richard Marx. It's easy to sway to the beat as your lip trembles at this bittersweet single, making for a great combination of holiday lyrics and any time of year power balladry. Sing it, Luther! This Is Christmas adds more Christmas spirit with hallelujahs, healing, and love because this is the perfect time of year to do so. Uplifting choir heights and heaps of sentimental positivity bring gospel glory and the first religious power to The Classic Christmas Album. In contrast, Please Come Home for Christmas is the shortest track here, and it feels like we just hear this same saccharin plea two songs ago. It's a lovely little holiday invitation for a love reunion continuing the mature, adults only theme of the album – Vandross knows his lovelorn wheelhouse and sticks to it. It's ironic then that the songs branching away from the formula are the best ones on The Classic Christmas Album.

Lone carol O' Come All Ye Faithful originally concluded 1995's This is Christmas, of which The Classic Christmas Album is sort of a reissue along with the previously re-released Home for Christmas. Fitting big notes, backing choirs, and gospel arrangements combine with the Vandross velvet pacing for a proper reverence. I wish there were more carols just to hear them so breathy smooth tenor – especially if they would all sound like this! Stay with me now, however, as all three of these holiday albums have different track listings, with “This is Christmas,” “Mistletoe Jam,” “Every Year, Every Christmas,” and “A Kiss for Christmas” not appearing on the shorter Home for Christmas. “The Christmas Song” is not on This is Christmas, nor are the three bonuses concluding The Classic Christmas Album, beginning with the previously unreleased Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas live duet with Chaka Khan. No listener is going to mind having the same song twice because hot damn. That is all that needs to be said on that one, and a gain, I'm shocked no one ever thought of capitalizing on Luther's duet popularity with an entire Christmas album of big duos.

Two odd singles from 1976 finish The Classic Christmas Album, and May Christmas Bring You Happiness is most definitely mid seventies. Fortunately, it's Hustle-esque orchestration fits the holiday love missive with an upbeat, almost tropical carefree. This could have been in the middle of the session, breaking up the heavy nineties sound with a different jingle to the jazzy. Likewise At Christmas Time has an older but no less sweet soul with Luther inviting us to hug close and turn the holiday lights down low. Are there more unreleased or lost holiday tunes from Vandross? If so, someone needs to make another Christmas album re-issue ASAP. This isn't a set to which we sing along but rather a late night December listen for when mom and dad have put the kids to bed. The Classic Christmas Album is longer than previous Luther holiday releases, and although This is Christmas is also available for streaming and download, this collection feels like the more complete album. At over an hour, Luther Vandross: The Classic Christmas Album has more than enough holiday élan for a candlelit dinner or any other sophisticated festivities.

07 December 2017

A Literary Extravaganza!

It's a Literary Extravaganza!
By Kristin Battestella

Stateside or British, these Victorian, turn of the last century, and post war dramatizations, documentaries, and biographies have heaps of period decorum, famous names, and family friendly bookishness thanks to Agatha, Emily, Louisa, and Sherlock.

Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women – This American Masters ninety minute documentary separates the fact from fiction with first hand accounts, re-enactments, and historical scenery. To the camera recitations add realism while narrations and scholarly interviews create a balanced point/counterpoint detailing Louisa's wild girl childhood and radical upbringing – The Alcotts believed in abolition, women's rights, transcendentalism, and equal education to bloom a child's mind rather than break young spirits. Such religious and racial taboos outcast the family onto tough times and their nineteenth century hippies on a commune Utopian intellectualism leads to starvation, humiliation, small pox, slums, and poverty as the cost of their reform. Louisa wrote of her overworked mother before Concord happiness and hobnobbing with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau – experiences high and low inspiring her determination. Early short stories and attempts at the stage come amid her sister Beth's terrible death, and this depressing time and subsequent gruesome, traumatizing Civil War nursing and suicidal thoughts are reflected in her later fiction. Alcott declined marriage proposals to keep her independence, and therapeutic writings led to literary success in new magazines and paying newspapers looking for her anonymous, fast turn around, serialized thrillers. Louisa herself preferred the vicariously lurid on the page to her mercenary children's literature – women weren't supposed to write that sort of thing and most of this adult material went undiscovered until after her death with evidence of yet more lost works. Trips to Europe and potential flings in Paris become inspirations for some of her famed characters while questions of possible bipolar disorders, manic depression, or undiagnosed lupus linger thanks to her extreme periods of creativity between months of physical inability. The surprise success of Little Women allowed her to enjoy later laurels, but opium, morphine, and other alternative medicinal cures did little to curb the nonetheless prolific Alcott's declining health at thirty-eight. This in depth documentary makes the semi-autobiographical tag of Little Women seem like a small, saccharin sampling, as there is far more to the author indeed.

Mr. Holmes – Ian McKellan's (Lord of the Rings) ninety-three year old detective pursues the case that got away in this 2015 tale opening with superb locomotives, vintage automobiles, quaint cottages, and country mood. The eponymous crusty old passenger is a relic, with bleak music matching the weary toll after a long trip to Japan. There's a hunch to his back, a cane, and a grovel to his voice – feeble friends have gone to live with family but Mr. Holmes is still sharp. He notices a decrease in his bee population and evidence on the stair steps, digging into vintage photographs and cursive notes as he writes down memories he is forgetting and tries to recall one particular client. Holmes is writing the story we see in flashbacks to thirty years prior – but these snippets represent the confused mind, a blurring of fact and fiction as the film also goes back to the recent Japanese quest. Is Holmes forgetting the details or not telling what he knows as he dispels myths about his famous cap and pipe? One must identify the problem and solve it, and if he can't, then is it time to move to a care home? The past shows us a younger, distinguished detective charming his way into a room, smoothing both clients and witnesses and remaining swift even as people doubt the real man because he doesn't match the detective on the page. Despite a terrible accent, housekeeper Laura Linney (The Big C) doesn't want her son too attached to Holmes – an increasingly difficult old man with liver spots once so suave in a top hat but now idle in striped pajamas and clinging to dignity by writing forgotten names on his inner left cuff. The hard facts of a case don't explain a client's behavior or feelings, and upsetting moments help Holmes learn how his acerbic thoroughness isn't always what a person needs. This regret of old and final growth before one's inevitable completion is not an introductory piece. Viewers should be familiar with the character, and the timeline back and forth may be confusing to audiences who can't tell the post war settings apart. The unreliable narrator fictionalizing a past account with other point of views within may also be a frame too many, and some of the storylines are uneven in a busy patchwork of illicit meetings, poisons, false drawer bottoms, and hidden gloves. The art imitating life vice versa works better with Holmes reading Watson's dreadful prose and going to see stereotypical Sherlock Holmes adaptations on the silver screen – putting him face to face with his mortality as he weeps at his inability to recall the truth. Palm readings and the scandalous touching a lady's bare hand are vividly shot as the bittersweet detective looks directly at the screen to say he can't remember it. Such old Father Christmas passing the torch to the New Year babe mature is meant for adult viewers who can understand the frailty, child loss, old habits dying hard, and last piece of unfinished business. Though somewhat flawed in its constructs, the period touches and layered nuance from McKellan keep this little drama charming.

The Mystery of Agatha ChristiePoirot star David Suchet hosts this 2014 documentary hour taking a deeper look at the woman behind the best selling author via lovely on location scenery, tours of the Christie Archive, and sit down interviews with family, historians, and biographers. Private photographs, childhood poems, handwritten notes, and original typed short stories add to the inside nostalgia alongside home movie screenings, memoir readings, and quotes from Christie's writings defining the recluse versus the crime queen. Sit down chats with Suchet and experts waxing on Christie's nightmares and love of swimming are grounded with rare video interviews, audio clips, and drives to the Devon beaches in vintage cars as period newspapers and slides follow the time line from her unusual upbringing at Ashfield and financial difficulties after her father's death to coming out parties, marriage, and wartime nursing in Torquay. Dartmoor inspirations, learning to surf, and the birth of her daughter Rosalind become defining experiences amid the first Poirot publications and future mystery staples such as poison breaking the rules of the detective genre. Christie's global travel is well documented, however the dark emotional crisis stemming from the Nancy Neil affair and the death of her mother remains unexplained in Christie's autobiography, and Suchet and Co. debate her Mary Westmacott novels and the infamous ten day disappearance before Christie's rebirth in Istanbul and subsequent literary heights. The Miss Marple stories and mixing of exotic tales with English comfort helped heal the nation during World War II, followed by renewed paperback masses and more recent manuscript discoveries. One and all describe Christie with warmth, kindness, and gratitude – yet she remains an enigma. The segments here don't go chapter by chapter and book by book, but focus on the insights into the person rather than the literature. Although this may not be anything new for Agatha enthusiasts, this pleasing compliment to the author provides an intimate, personal touch in spite of its shorter, classroom perfect run time. For more fun, also see David Suchet on the Orient Express.

An Unfortunate Skip

A Quiet Passion – Colorful interiors, lovely firelight, charming costumes, and early photography set off Cynthia Nixon (Sex and the City) as Emily Dickinson in this 2016 biopic from writer and director Terence Davies (The Deep Blue Sea). Unfortunately, the trying to be ye olde dialogue is immediately wooden and pretentious. Reading Victorian text isn't the same as speaking it, and every pursed lips conversation is unintentionally humorous with one heavy handed religious browbeating after another dragging the pace. The first twenty minutes of redundant precociousness could have been cut as the so called ungrateful Emily is continually chastised into the adult transition scenes. The unnecessary sassy sounding board BFF says they are trying to be ironic, but the tone is thick with oppression, obnoxious women, and fussiness. The audience feels the bitter we read from Dickinson, however nothing happens to intrigue the viewer – no scandalous publication nor shocking lesbianism. Some pains and health issues are mentioned, but the inconsequential in her own life Emily merely watches time go by amid awkward family marriages or falling flat war drama. Subtly defiant moments are far better, such as Emily asking her father to stay up at night to write in the quiet or smashing his dirty plate because it can't be soiled if it is broken. Voiceover rejections of her too common womanly rhyme lead to feverish writing with one acceptance and an anonymous publication, yet the poetry is apparently not the point of this piece? Should be funny tea with the water only minister's wife and witty arguments about Longfellow or The Brontes are too few and far between, disservicing Nixon by never fully letting the bittersweet come across. Emily's unloved stoicism and ugly feelings because no one wants her poetry anchor the final forty minutes as the eccentricities come to the forefront, and the poetry narrations answer as others question why she thinks her life is so bad, complains about them leaving, doesn't go anywhere, and pushes people away. The dream sequence/veiled masturbation interlude is a bit much, and time transitions leave large life gaps – unless we are to believe that her brother's affair is the most important thing to ever happen to Emily Dickinson. Viewers can't come into this expecting answers, and simply put, reading about Dickinson and her work does far more.