Friday, January 29, 2021

Book Review: Zap Comix #16 (2016)

When the Reverend was a wee teen back in the dark ages of the early ‘70s, I was enamored of underground comix. I had been raised on a steady diet of Marvel and DC superheroes (Daredevil, Black Panther, The Avengers, and Batman) during my single-digit years, so it wasn’t such a large leap to dive headfirst into characters like Mr. Natural, the Checkered Demon, and the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. The day that I discovered Zap Comix is the day that my life took a left turn into a surrealist anti-authoritarianism that I’ve dragged with me well into (late) middle age.

After seeing an advertisement in the back of an issue looking for people to sell comix, I contacted all the major underground publishers and soon became Nashville’s resident “college sales rep” for The Print Mint, Last Gasp, and Rip Off Press. I fed my own growing comix addiction by placing new issues on consignment at Hillsboro Village head shops near Vanderbilt University, using the profits to pay for my own comix. It was a pretty good gig for a year or so as the publishers were cranking out new issues at a prolific rate. About the time that I graduated from high school in 1975, the bottom fell out of the underground comix biz and I drifted into other hustles (like writing…).

Zap Comix No. 16

Zap Comix was the granddaddy of all undergrounds, the ground-breaking, earth-shaking first shot across the bow that proved that comix were a legit art form, and funny books were not just for kids anymore. Artist/writer Robert Crumb published Zap #1 in 1968, selling copies out of a baby buggy on the streets of San Francisco. The success of the first issue led to Crumb enlisting a number of talented friends to contribute to the second issue. Thus was the Zap collective created – ringleader Crumb along with artists S. Clay Wilson, Spain Rodriguez, Gilbert Shelton, Robert Williams, Victor Moscoso, and Rick Griffin – all of whom would be responsible for creating and carrying Zap Comix into the new millennium.

Through the decades, new issues of Zap Comix would appear more sporadically, often at three-to-five-year intervals between issues, some seven years elapsing between issues fourteen and fifteen. Griffen died in 1991, and artist Paul Mavrides was added to the team when Crumb announced that he no longer wanted to do Zap. The revolutionary publication was honored in December 2014 when a deluxe box set collecting all seventeen issues of Zap Comix was published by Fantagraphics Books. A previously unpublished final issue – Zap Comix No. 16 – was included in the box set as a bonus, and has since been published as a stand-alone graphic novel with fetching Robert Crumb cover art.

Unable to cough up nearly $500 for The Complete Zap Comix Box Set, it was with great anticipation that I ordered up a copy of Zap Comix No. 16. Since I’d owned and/or read virtually the entire run of the publication, I knew that the zine could be spotty and inconsistent – Victor Moscoso’s work generally bored me, and S. Clay Wilson’s shotgun approach to pen ‘n’ ink hits the target as often as it misses – but nothing could have prepared me for the mess that is Zap Comix No. 16. The first issue to include material from all eight Zap artist between two covers, it should have been glorious, but the results often make one wish that some of these guys had retired earlier.

Wonder Warthog & The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers

Zap Comix #1
First on the chopping block is Crumb, who readily admits that he’s out of practice on these strips drawn in 2003 and 2004, and it certainly looks it (the book’s cover, drawn in 2014, is a fine return to form, however). Although Crumb’s storytelling skills remain intact, his art here is crude and hesitant, lacking his characteristic energy and on-page charisma. Sneaking his wife Aline Kominsky-Crumb into the book as its first female artist is less subversive than it is lazy, a way to flesh out autobiographical stories with her flat, unattractive, one-dimensional artwork shoehorned into the panels. I have nothing again distaff artists, but if Crumb wanted to include a woman’s work in this final Zap in order to combat the book’s often-criticized misogyny, perhaps he could have found somebody other than his wife, who jokes that she’s the “Yoko Ono” of underground comix.  

Worse yet are S. Clay Wilson’s contributions to this final issue of Zap Comix. Wilson’s long-running characters like the Checkered Demon and Captain Pissgums were seldom the epitome of subtlety, drawn in a rude and crude B&W style that matched Wilson’s raw but spellbinding storytelling. But the strips here, dated 2006, 2007, and 2009, showcase a significant deterioration of the man’s skills. Wilson suffered severe brain trauma in a 2008 accident, and he has been plagued with health issues since that have left him unable to draw. His 2009 efforts, though, are just bad; simplistic and uglier than normal. One guesses that they were included in order to generate some royalties for the tragically sidelined artist.    

This is not to say that all of Zap Comix No. 16 is bad, as there are a few gems to be found among the sludge. Spain Rodriguez’s stories feature the sort of dense, detailed art and gritty storytelling that he’s long been known for, and his tales of the Road Vultures Motorcycle Club are always welcome. Disturbingly, though, Rodriguez’s art is cluttered with un-erased pencil lines for some reason, and faces in some panels were left inexplicitly un-inked. The final Wonder Warthog story by the legendary Gilbert Shelton is one of the book’s color sections and it’s a real hoot, as is Crumb’s four-color “The Unbearable Tediousness of Being,” which displays a spark of his talent. Shelton’s Furry Freak Brothers story – “Phineas Becomes A Suicide Bomber” – was inked by the artist for the deluxe box set but this version was inked by Paul Mavrides. Either way, it’s a classic Freak Brothers farce with the ever-serious Phineas, as always, as the fool.  

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Overall, I’d have to say that Zap Comix No. 16 is a mediocre collection that might have been so much more. Perhaps his own less-than-stellar work is what caused Crumb to shelf the issue in the first place, and maybe it’s merely the last gasp from a formerly revolutionary group of artists and writers that have long since been eclipsed by the subsequent generations they influenced and inspired to pick up pen and ink.

The trade paperback format is perfect for this sort of collection, and I’d love to see Fantagraphics publish the other fifteen issues of Zap in similar graphic novel form (three or four issues per book) for those of us who can’t cough up half-a-yard for the limited-edition box set. Considering the uninspired mix of material found in Zap Comix No. 16, I can only recommend the book for hardcore comix collectors. The rest of you should instead dig up some of the early issues to find out why Crumb called his Zap brethren “the baddest gang of cartoonists ever to wield their crow quills together.” Grade: C (Fantagraphics Book, published February 22, 2016)

Friday, January 22, 2021

Archive Review: Otis Taylor's Double V (2004)

Otis Taylor's Double V
Contemporary blues artists mostly tend to fall into one of two categories. There are those who are strictly bound by tradition, following either the Delta or Chicago school of thought, with their individual and inevitable limitations. Then there are those who genuflect at the altar of Stevie Ray, guitar heroes and wannabes channeling the spirit of Jimi through endless blooze-rock exercises. Otis Taylor, on the other hand, falls into neither category. A unique and exciting artist following his own muse, Taylor infuses his music with life and energy, odd instrumentation and rhythmic meter supporting his intelligent lyrics.

Otis Taylor sounds like no bluesman you’ve ever heard before. Perhaps it’s because Taylor spent almost 20 years outside of the music industry, or maybe it’s because his musical education includes liberal doses of both rock ‘n’ roll (playing with Tommy Bolin back in the day) and folk (courtesy of the Denver Folklore Center). His songs blend elements of blues, traditional folk, and rock music with erudite lyrics that often offer edgy social commentary or historical morality tales recreated for a modern audience. The resulting mix is invigorating, Taylor’s imaginative and sometimes-reckless instrumentation satisfying your soul while his brilliant, thought-provoking wordplay massages your brain.

Otis Taylor’s Double V

Double V is Taylor’s second album for indie blues/jazz specialists Telarc and his sixth effort since ending his self-imposed exile from music. The album is not entirely unlike previous award-winning efforts such as White African or Respect the Dead, although it is a bit more ambitious. With Double V, Taylor forsakes the potent band that he’s used since returning to music. Using sparse instrumentation on Double V to highlight each song’s vocals and lyrics, Taylor’s mix of guitar, banjo and mandolin is supported by his daughter Cassie’s steady bass rhythm and augmented by the odd horn or cello. Each song on Double V is thus provided its own canvas, at times stark and at other times quite beautiful.

It’s his songwriting on which Taylor has built his well-deserved reputation, and Double V meet the high standard set by his earlier work. “Please Come Home Before It Rains” offers an upbeat soundtrack as a sailor reads a letter from his wife and reminisces of the things that he’s seen and the family that he misses. “Mama’s Selling Heroin” is semi-autobiographical, dark instrumentation and haunting vocals underlining the story of Taylor’s mother, serving as an allegory for the pain and heartbreak that drugs have brought to the African-American community. The ravages of poverty are explored on “Plastic Spoon,” an elderly couple forced to choose between medicine and food, opting for cheap dog chow to save money. Taylor tackles domestic abuse with “505 Train,” homelessness with “Reindeer Meat” and the slavery-like imprisonment of African-Americans under the U.S. justice system with “Sounds Of Attica.”

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Lest you think that Double V is overly dour and depressing, Taylor ends the album with the uplifting “Buy Myself Some Freedom.” Sung in an ethereal whisper by daughter Cassie, this tale of a young girl searching for a better life is filled with hope and dignity. It’s a fitting end to a solid collection of songs that present reality as a minefield of tragedy, emotion, and triumph over adversity. Even as it veers from tradition, Double V further cements Taylor’s reputation as a great, groundbreaking bluesman of keen insight and considerable vision. By redefining the sound of the blues, Taylor is also extending the tradition beyond its Delta roots into the 21st century. (Telarc Records, released May 21, 2004)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2004

Buy the CD from Otis Taylor’s Double V

Friday, January 15, 2021

Classic Rock Review: Tommy Bolin's Teaser (1975)

Tommy Bolin's Teaser
Six-string wunderkind Tommy Bolin made his bones as a teenager playing with the blues-rock band Zephyr in Boulder, Colorado. Although he provided his stellar fretwork to that band’s self-titled 1969 debut album (Bolin was only 18), his restless muse prompted the guitarist to leave the band shortly after the release of their 1971 album, Going Back To Colorado

Bolin subsequently forming the jazz-rock fusion outfit Energy (which never recorded an album) before his immense talents would lead to high-profile gigs with the James Gang and Deep Purple during the mid-to-late ‘70s. Bolin also worked on sessions with fusion pioneers Billy Cobham (1973’s Spectrum LP) and Alphonse Mouzon (1974’s Mind Transplant) and provided guitar solos for Canadian hard rock outfit Moxy’s 1975 self-titled debut.

When it came time for Bolin to record his first solo album, 1975’s Teaser, it was only natural that he’d infuse the performances with elements of all of his disparate musical influences – hard rock, blues, jazz fusion – with the results varying entirely on your taste for what Tommy was dishing up. Recorded just prior to working on Deep Purple’s Come Taste the Band, Teaser is, first and foremost, a showcase for Bolin’s unique steel-string pyrotechnics. As such, it’s a somewhat schizo affair, with the guitarist often changing stylistic directions even within a song with whiplash accuracy.

Still, Teaser is an entertaining, if uneven, collection of period rock ‘n’ roll. Album opener “The Grind” is a boogie-flecked barrelhouse rocker with backing vocal harmonies, rollicking instrumentation, and an overall ‘70s era musical sound and feel. By contrast, “Homeward Strut” masterfully blends a hard rock soundtrack with funky rhythms and a little jazzy swagger to create a lively instrumental with definite New Orleans vibes. “Dreamer” skews a little too far into Elton John territory for my taste, probably due to David Foster’s wimpy piano playing while “Savannah Woman,” with its rhythmic Latin undercurrent, is a ‘yacht rock’ attempt at making the charts better left to folks like Toto (whose Jeff Porcaro plays drums on nearly every song on Teaser EXCEPT “Savannah Woman,” where the stool is occupied by the Tubes’ Prairie Prince).

Thankfully, the album’s title track mainlines some steroids with a hard rock soundtrack upon which Bolin embroiders his fluid, razor-sharp guitarplay. The soulful “People, People” displays Bolin’s emotional, albeit under-powered vocals, the guitarist bringing in a bunch of jazz dogs like synth wizard Jan Hammer and saxophonist Dave Sanborn to brass up the arrangement, which offers only the slightest of six-string shadings. Bolin dives into the depths of jazz fusion with “Marching Powder,” which brings in drummer Michael Waldon alongside Hammer and Sanborn for a cacophonic instrumental that wouldn’t have been out-of-place on a Cobham or Mouzon LP. Although the closer “Lotus” starts out deceptively soft and kinda mushy, it soon powers up with a soaring guitar solo before veering off again into more pastoral acoustic guitar strum and then exploding once more with switchblade flash.

Much like the entirety of Tommy Bolin’s too-short career (he would O.D. the following year after the release of his sophomore effort, Private Eyes), the guitarist’s debut album couldn’t figure out what direction it wanted to go, so instead it veered all over the road. It makes for a thrilling, if somewhat unsatisfying ride, but I’d still recommend either of Bolin’s solo albums for listeners looking for a challenging perspective on guitar rock. (Nemporer Records, 1975)

Buy the CD from Tommy Bolin's Teaser

Friday, January 8, 2021

Archive Review: Stevie Ray Vaughan's Texas Hurricane (2014)

Stevie Ray Vaughan's Texas Hurricane
Many think that the growing fascination with vinyl records by music lovers is nothing more than the hipster trend du jour. But as sales of vinyl LPs continues to grow from year to year and the major vinyl pressing plants expand their operations, it’s clear that the old fashioned record album isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Besides, if the so-called industry pundits and prophets took the time to talk to a few fans in the 15-25 year old demographic, they’d realize that there’s a growing dissatisfaction with modern music formats like crappy mp3 files. Young listeners just discovering their fave new bands are addressing this dissatisfaction by (re)turning to vinyl.

The major labels have begun to wise up somewhat, releasing a few classic titles on vinyl, trying to catch up with those forward-thinking indie labels that have been releasing new music in multiple formats for several years now. Jack White’s Third Man Records label has become a trend-setter in this regard with its dazzling array (and constant stream) of 45rpm records, live LPs, and vinyl blues reissues (Charley Patton, Blind Willie McTell, and the Mississippi Sheiks’ Paramount Records catalogs). The mainstream blues world has been underserved so far, an oversight that is somewhat redeemed by the release of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble’s Texas Hurricane on vinyl by Chad Kassem’s Analogue Productions.

Texas Hurricane

Vaughan’s Texas Hurricane is a six-album box set that revisits the beloved guitarist’s studio recordings, beginning with 1983’s Texas Flood and including the following year’s sophomore effort, Couldn’t Stand the Weather; 1985’s Soul To Soul; 1989’s In Step; 1990’s Family Style, a collaboration with brother Jimmie Vaughan; and The Sky Is Crying, an odds ‘n’ sods collection of unreleased studio tracks released in 1991, shortly after Vaughan’s death. Each album has been carefully re-mastered from the original half-inch analog master tapes and masterfully etched into thick, high-quality 200 gram vinyl.

To say that Texas Flood was a revelation upon its release would be an understatement. Blues music had all but assumed room temperature by ’83, and although bands like the Nighthawks, George Thorogood and the Destroyers, and Roomful of Blues cracked the door open a bit, it was SRV and his Double Trouble gang – veteran bassist Tommy Shannon and drummer Chris Layton – that would kick it in, smash all the windows, and paint the walls blue. While original songs like “Love Struck Baby” and “Pride and Joy” struck a chord with blues-starved fans, covers of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Tell Me” and Buddy Guy’s “Mary Had A Little Lamb” cemented Vaughan’s blues bona fides. Texas Hurricane recaptures the magic of that debut album’s original ten songs with vibrant sound and remarkable clarity.  

Couldn’t Stand The Weather

Stevie Ray Vaughan's Couldn't Stand the Weather
Texas Flood inched into the Top 40 on its way to double Platinum™ sales status, opening up the blues world to mainstream audiences and setting the stage for subsequent successes by talents like Robert Cray and the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Many questioned what Stevie Ray would do for an encore, and he answered with 1984’s Couldn’t Stand the Weather. Although the album is, perhaps, a notch less revolutionary than its predecessor, it further showcased the guitarist’s immense skills. With only eight songs, Vaughan had to make a case for his stardom, something he achieved with the blues monster “Cold Shot,” recorded as a favor to his mentor, songwriter and bluesman W.C. Clark. Dynamic instrumentals like “Scuttle Buttin’” and “Stang’s Swang” highlight Vaughan’s jazzy, B.B. King/Lonnie Johnson influences while a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” pushes the song into the stratosphere.

Life was moving pretty fast for Vaughan in the mid-1980s: Couldn’t Stand the Weather improved slightly but markedly upon the debut’s chart position, hitting #31 on the Billboard Top 200 albums chart. Videos from both albums were in heavy rotation on MTV and the band touring constantly. With the 1985 release of Soul To Soul, Vaughan expanded his band, adding keyboardist Reese Wynans, and his sound, by incorporating greater soul and R&B influences into his gutbucket blues sound. Vaughan still struggled to come up with original material, although the Southern funk of “Say What” has since taken on classic status, and by enlisting Texas music icon Doyle Bramhall to pen a couple of raucous numbers, Vaughan cleverly sidestepped the songwriting question. Covers of the Hank Ballard gem “Little Sister” and Willie Dixon’s “You’ll Be Mine” round out a solid album that nonetheless felt like a step backwards.   

Stevie Ray Vaughan’s In Step     

Part of the problem with Soul To Soul’s backsliding can be attributed to developing chemistry with Wynans, but the lion’s share of the blame can be laid directly at Vaughan’s feet. His growing drug and alcohol abuse threatened to derail his career, and after a minor accident in 1986, Vaughan entered rehab and took a couple years away from the fray. By the time he returned, with 1989’s classic In Step, Vaughan had found both sobriety and his songwriting voice, co-writing four tunes for the album with Bramhall while applying his newfound vision to covers like Buddy Guy’s “Leave My Girl Alone” and Willie Dixon’s “Let Me Love You Baby.” Originals like “Tightrope” and “Wall of Denial” highlight the artist’s freedom from addiction, while the group-written “Crossfire” would top the rock chart and become a fan favorite. In Step earned Vaughan his first Grammy® Award for “Best Contemporary Blues Album.”

Sadly, In Step was fated to be Vaughan’s last album with Double Trouble. Released in June 1989, slightly more than a year later the guitarist would meet his tragic, accidental death. Before that sad day in August 1990, though, Vaughan would fulfill a lifelong dream by recording an album with his older brother Jimmie. Credited to The Vaughan Brothers, Family Style was produced by Nile Rodgers (with whom Vaughan worked, pre-fame, on David Bowie’s Let’s Dance album) and recorded in Memphis. By eschewing the use of either guitarist’s bands – although they did include friends like Bramhall and former Thunderbirds bassist Preston Hubbard – the brothers achieved a fresh sound that mimicked neither man’s previous album but broke new ground with its mix of blues, soul, and rock ‘n’ roll.     

The Sky Is Crying    

Stevie Ray Vaughan's The Sky Is Crying
Although Family Style is often overlooked in favor of other albums from either artist’s catalogs, Stevie Ray and Jimmie sound like they’re having a great time together and Rodgers’ steady hand on the console enhances the funky strut inherent in the performances, and the mix of covers and originals blends together almost seamlessly. The brothers would earn hits with both the Bramhall/Stevie Ray co-write “Telephone Song” and the Jimmie Vaughan/Nile Rodgers’ track “Tick Tock.” Released a month after Stevie Ray’s death, Family Style shot up the charts to peak at #7 on its way to multi-Platinum™ status and a pair of Grammy® Awards for the brothers.

The posthumously-released final Stevie Ray studio album The Sky Is Crying is a collection of studio outtakes and alternate takes culled from across Vaughan’s meteoric but too-short career. Put together by brother Jimmie, the heart of the album is the guitarist’s incredible take on Elmore James’ title track, “The Sky Is Crying.” Overall, the album is an excellent representation of both Stevie Ray’s musical influences as well as his incredible dexterity as a performer and instrumentalist. From the howlin’ country funk of Lonnie Mack’s “Wham” and the muscular blues-rock of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” to the jazz-flaked instrumental “Chitlins con Carne” and impressive originals like “Empty Arms,” The Sky Is Crying was not only a fitting swansong for the beloved guitarist, but a comprehensive and creative album in its own right that would earn Vaughan another pair of Grammy® Awards.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

What’s not to like about Texas Hurricane? The six individual albums are all pressed on luxurious high-quality vinyl, thick slabs o’ black wax with deep grooves that capture every bit of the music with unbelievable, crystalline clarity. Each 12” hockey puck is lovingly wrapped in an archival quality, non-scratching, anti-static sleeve that is subsequently slipped into full-sized cardboard sleeves. Not some cheap-o, cheap-o simple reproduction, but a wonderful gatefold sleeve sporting the original cover artwork in brilliant full color, song lyrics, rare photos, and full credits. The albums are packaged in a giant-sized box with faux-leather graphics and the set includes a 24-page, album-sized booklet with (a lot) more photos, and insightful liner notes for each album penned by Guitar World magazine Senior Editor Andy Aledort.

The music stands on its own merits – Stevie Ray Vaughan forever influenced the evolution of blues guitar and extended the music’s popularity to the present day. With its obsessive attention to quality in all aspects, the presentation provided these classic albums by Texas Hurricane fits the status of the music itself. While a pricey box set like Texas Hurricane may appeal mostly to the well-heeled fan or hardcore collector, it’s definitely worth the money if you have the coin…this is Stevie Ray Vaughan as you’ve never heard him before. (Analogue Productions, released April 8, 2014)

Friday, January 1, 2021

Classic Rock Review: Be-Bop Deluxe's Futurama (1975)

Be-Bop Deluxe's Futurama

The bottles were all empty and the lights were being turned out by the time that Be-Bop Deluxe made their way to the early ‘70s British glam-rock party. The band released its critically-acclaimed debut album Axe Victim during the summer of 1974 and, while they had the musical chops and cool song titles like “Jet Silver and the Dolls of Venus,” “Night Creatures,” and “Rocket Cathedrals,” it had been a couple years since Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust masterwork, three since Marc Bolan’s T. Rex breakthrough Electric Warrior, and Mott the Hoople were on the verge of breaking up. Glam-rock had begun to assume room temperature…

Be-Bop Deluxe frontman Bill Nelson evidently agreed, as he booted the entire Axe Victim band, stripped Be-Bop down to a power trio with new guys Charlie Tumahai (bass) and Simon Fox (drums), and re-forged the trademark Be-Bop sound to a curious mix of shimmering fretwork; unusual song structure; and oblique lyrics that often had the band venturing, often dangerously, into proggy art-rock turf not dissimilar to what Queen was pursuing at the time. In my humble opinion, Be-Bop Deluxe did it better. Listening to “Maid In Heaven,” from the band’s sophomore effort Futurama, my mind goes back to first hearing the song on Nashville’s WKDF-FM radio during my senior year in high school. Nelson’s wiry, melodic leads are balanced by a rough, scraped guitar lick, the band’s masterful vocal harmonies, and the sort of fantastical lyrics that would appeal to an erudite 17-year-old rock geek.

Nelson didn’t stop with “Maid In Heaven,” which became a minor FM radio hit stateside, delivering a knockout punch with the mesmerizing “Sister Seagull.” Offering up some of the most exotic six-string pyrotechnics of the era, the song matches a lofty melody with hard-rocking rhythms that are guaranteed to take your head to places that only ‘shrooms or old-school LSD could travel…call it a “new psychedelia” for a modern age. Nelson’s stunning guitarplay would bring an otherworldly vibe to every song on Futurama, from the lush, radio-friendly “Music In Dreamland,” with its lofty pop echoes to the Spanish-flavored guitar strum of “Jean Cocteau” or the alluring cacophony of “Between the Worlds.” Little has been recorded to match Futurama for sheer reckless abandon, and fewer still are the songwriters who could match Nelson in vision and ambition.

Be-Bop Deluxe would enjoy a short, but impactful career – a mere five studio albums and a stellar live set – over a too-short four-year span circa 1974-78 before Nelson packed it in and launched a solo career that continues to this day and best expresses his restless musical ideas. Still, you can’t go wrong with any Be-Bop LP, and after Futurama, I’d heartily recommend Sunburst Finish and Modern Music, both of which display differing facets of Bill Nelson’s talents and wandering muse. (Harvest Records, 1975)

Buy the CD from Be-Bop Deluxe’s Futurama [Deluxe Edition]