Skyscraper Magazine » 2011
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When you talk about bastions of the Twin Cities punk scene, there are few people this side of Patrick Costello that can claim more Minnesota scene cred than Nate Gangelhoff. Coming up initially in the much loved turn of the century punk rocktet Rivethead (with Ryan and Zack of current TCSU franchise Off With Their Heads and Half-Pint from Dear Landlord), and currently bassing for Banner Pilot and The Gateway District, Gangelhoff also made two forays into the zine world with in that time, first with You Idiot and then more briefly with Whiskey Plus.

All of the early Ganglehoff writing was recently compiled in the appropriately titled You Idiot: The First Book. The consistency leaves something to be desired, but given the teen age of the author, the high points of You Idiot, like the Practice Space band reviews and He-Man message board invasion, are to be held in high praise. Crackpot religious purveyors and karaoke are not spared the lash, either. While satire always makes for an entertaining read, let us not forget that shit talking is a professional sideline for every band and the players therein. Formidable mic banterers like Paddy Costello and Bob Weston are the frosting on the beater at their respective live shows and have set the bar high, but judging by his written output, Gangelhoff is probably a pretty good time in the van.

Snarky in-jokes are a good time for the average punk fan, but recent years have fostered the interesting trend of punks writing full-on prose – novels even! The first I can remember was Dr. Frank (Portman) from MTX, who released his debut King Dork to some acclaim. Other scene folk like Jon Resh and Aimee Cooper have followed suit in more recent history, and paging through all of them I wrestle with the same issue: do I need to read books about shit I’ve already gone through? I guess if you are an aging (ex-) punk and want an avenue into basking into nostalgia, so be it. But as I grow older, this whole punk rock nostalgia fiction thing starts to look as circuitous as a dormroom Dali poster.

Hit The Ground Stumbling is our dear Mr. Gangelhoff throwing his hat into the ring with his own fictionalized account of his misbegotten youth and the friendship he shared in that time with a troubled teen he calls Rick Denton. Gangelhoff recounted tales of Rick in his zines previously, through a handful of stories that pretty safely establish the obfuscatory surname as an homage to Cyrus from the Mountain Goats tune “The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton.”  It is safe to say that everybody has had a Rick Denton in their life at one time or another. Hell, many of you probably are Rick Denton to someone. In this metaphor, Gangelhoff plays Jeff, a rebellious but ultimately better off all-around guy who spends time in Rick’s orbit.

Whether you were personally a Goofus or a Gallant, there are a number of touchstones that will be familiar to anyone 30 or older in the punk scene. Dungeons and Dragons, shoplifting, smoking weed, and of course, the punk rock are all covered herein. As such, Hit The Ground Stumbling is a touching remembrance of misbegotten youth, equal parts light and dark, with a little bit of a He-Man-esque morality play to close out the proceedings. I’m not a fiction guy, and I think I still prefer Nate on bass rather than computer keyboard. However, I still found Hit The Ground Stumbling to be an entertaining read that will appeal to lovers of punk and prose.

From the Archives: this review first appeared on the old Skyscraper Magazine site in April 2010. It is being republished here for your reading pleasure.

When Rosanne Cash began working on her 2009 country covers album, The List, she gave veteran music writer Michael Streissguth unprecedented access to her recording world and freedom for openhearted, wide ranging conversation. The result is Always Been There: Rosanne Cash, The List, and the Spirit of Southern Music. Streissguth’s remarkably detailed 222-page book uses a literate, storytelling mode to examine Cash’s relationships with her famous father, other Cash/Carter family members, her personal and career choices as well as her sometimes precarious kinship to country music. For those unfamiliar with the album, Cash’s The List (2009) is a 12-track record culled from a 100-song essential country music list Johnny Cash imparted to his then teenage daughter in 1973. Cash’s decision to produce a project based on that list wasn’t an easy one and Streissguth intimately moves readers into the step-by-step undertaking: song selection, doing demos, meticulously reworking material and a brief but revealing European tour when Cash tried out music in front of audiences. Streissguth goes deeper than most typical making-of bios and crafts a portrait signposting Cash’s personality, spirit and legacy.

“It’s part of a lexicon of American music, it’s a responsibility and an honor,” Cash explains during the second chapter of the book, referring to her translations of tunes by Hank Snow, Patsy Cline, Bob Dylan and others. That sense of history and heritage permeates Always Been There and the importance of bringing pieces like “I’m Movin’ On” and “Long Black Veil” to new listeners as well as fashioning a fresh framework for classics and standards.

Along the way, Streissguth contextualizes Cash’s latest offering, showing philosophical and persistent links to previous long players like Rules of Travel (2003) and Black Cadillac (2006), which touch on universal subjects like grief, loss, affection and acceptance.

“I felt like I was planting seeds for the future, and at the same time reconnecting with the past,” Cash explains after a concert  detailing the process of comprehensive correlation to Streissguth.

2009 was a boon for fans of Southern-inclined music what with Dylan’s Together Through Life, Steve Earle’s Townes Van Zandt memorial and a long player from Wilco. As Streissguth’s book makes plain, though, there’s no end to the meaningfulness of rediscovering what’s come before and creating contributions impacting coming generations.

Sampledelica – that pure craziness of giving up on linearity and letting music run as a land – is a category that has already acquired its classics. The Grey Album is capable of bringing up all the contradictions in copyright law and the brilliance of mash-ups, but as a field copyleft is perhaps better defined by those illicit shares that bring up just how crazy or monotnous jumping genres can be. Law has forbidden cut-ups from legitimate release, hence the field is truly populated by the audiophile. Any MP3 sharing program can provide hours of mash-ups. The bigger question with mash-ups is quality and not politics. Sample sources and talent become paramount to producing an album, but does Welcome Abroad still have a story to tell about the politics of sampling? Let’s take a look at those samples.

What are the sources that People Like Us borrow from? Soul, psychedlica, musicals, and soundtracks. Their use of these sources comes with the distancing of copying; despite the complete feasibility of making a band that can combine Mary Poppins and Dione Warwick, indie records have left us without such a music maker. In its place copylefters are frequently pulling on nostalgia in order to remind us of the extremity of the law. These tracks are populated by pop’s sweetest muses, most reslient soul moments, uplifting extremes of orchesration forbidden from replicating. The sweetness of pop these copyists make cries out for repition, replication, identification. It is a layer cake of overly sweet moments and invention, and terribly hummable.

It will leave a juicy pirate stain in your computer. I like the idea of an album that is being hunted, on the run from DRM patrol. You can’t even play it on your iPad because Apple won’t sell it on iTunes – run people like us! Run! How much do the fantasies they borrow from cost in seconds? Who would have ever guessed we could count music by such a speed. It’s a fun album, but it’s the fact that something as simple, enjoyable, and frankly everyday as copying contemporary culture has become an illegal act that makes it such fun. Memory, which samples play upon, is the only recording format that the major copyright holders don’t seem to feel breaks with current intellectual property right laws. Yet these products which accidentally acquired such restrictive legislation stay with us even if we don’t purchase them. The same labels fighting digital copies are working as hard as possible to ensure your brain does copy them. Welcome Abroad contains samples from songs I only remember through forced commercial repetition and others that simply are so engrained from childhood that I will always remember them. If the labels are working this hard t0 make their product stick, why aren’t they thrilled that someone is playing with this stickiness?

The problems of copyright and music-making is that music is a spiritual part of human beings. It simply cannot work in the confines provided. That the universals behind a select set of laws have impaired the ability of music to conjure and multipy its spirits, that the ghosts in sounds are imprisoned in intellectual property is a major problem. Music is as close as people get to the ephemeral currency of desire that underlies how the world really works, and that desire doesn’t care to pay pennies for each replay or device it ends up on. The spiritual machine is at odds with the legal one. People Like Us do not make these politics sonically confrontable, rather they prefer to huggle with all their cute little samples. The effect is that of an illegal My Little Pony prancing away through a landscape, innocent and loveable – it is only that we know that somewhere out there the law wants to put our pony down that makes the album a tragedy. People Like Us eleborate their politics of collaboration by makng their borrowings so lovable; as a statement it won’t move Capitol Hill, but it will charm your ear drums and make you want to make more.

Listeners can (and do) associate music with just about everything. Whether it’s on purpose or a result of random factors, many times music ends up soundtracking personal memories, seasons, moods, situations, and just about everything else in life. I’m not going out on a limb by making such statements. It’s just that, this past summer, like last summer, one album had gotten more play by me than others. Technically, this summer, that album was probably Take Care, Take Care, Take Care by Explosions In The Sky. But in terms of active listening and soundtracking my summer, it was easily Wasting Light by Foo Fighters.

I like the Foo Fighters. I guess I always have. I just haven’t listened to them very much (if at all) in recent years. That changed with the release of Wasting Light. It took this album to remind me how much I like the band. It’d be easy and cliche to write something like: “This album makes me feel young again!” It would also be lame and incorrect. But more than anything, this album feels familiar.  I was 14 when the band’s first album came out, in the summer of 1995. The release of The Colour and the Shape two years later only cemented my love of the band, as I’m sure it did for many, many other listeners.

I caught the band live on that tour. It’s no surprise to me now what a showman Dave Grohl was at that time, despite the gig only having been in support of the band’s second album. The dude had already toured the world behind the kit of another, more famous band. Live is how I first heard the band’s new album. The group played it straight through at the Ed Sullivan Theater earlier this year. Then, as if that weren’t enough, the guys followed the 50-minutes of new material with another near hour-long set of hits. To hear so many of the band’s most popular songs played back-to-back with Wasting Light was the best of all possible ways to first take in this new material. Performed together, as one long set, new songs like “Arlandria” didn’t seem out of place being followed by”Big Me” or “Learn To Fly.”

Wasting Light (thankfully) doesn’t find Foo Fighters trying to further their sound or incorporate new musical styles. The group’s not known for being genre-hopping masters. No, they do one thing and they do it decently well. Since debuting a decade-and-a-half ago, Grohl and company have become known for their driving, post-grunge radio rock sound. More than anything, Wasting Light feels like the resulting well-honed results of five guys who have been at this long enough to know what they want their music to sound like. It’s straightforward rock with that loud/quiet/loud dynamic and generic enough anthemic appeal to make it both commercially popular as well as genuinely meaningful to so many listeners.

From the first 35-seconds of guitar riff on “Burning Bridge,” which opens the album, to Grohl’s catharting-sounding chant of “I never want to die” on the song “Walk,” which closes Wasting Light, the band sounds at their best here. There’s also the band’s typical ordering of songs, which also maybe works to make it feel so familiar, with the album’s slowburner “I Should Have Known” coming second-to-last, a la “X-Static” and “Walking After You.”

Roberto Clemente is a name that pops up in almost any and every bit of baseball writing from about 1955 onward. It seems incredible now, but in 1955 there were only a handful of non-white men in Major League Baseball. The “segregated” game mentality of the dead ball era and Negro Leagues still clung to the sport. Some owners had an inkling of the wellspring of talent available in the Caribbean, Mexico, and South America, but it took time. Branch Rickie, who along with the great Jackie Robinson integrated the major leagues in 1947, was with Pittsburgh in 1950.

The Pirates drafted Clemente from the Dodger farm system in 1955. Within two years, he became the nucleus of the championship Pirate teams of the 1960s. It had been eight years since Jackie Robinson had signed with the Dodgers, and like him, Clemente had to endure taunting racial shouts from the stands. To make things worse, he spoke little English. Over time, he learned the language, but in the meantime he spoke baseball, and spoke it well. During 18 seasons in Pittsburgh, in some 2,400 games, he amassed 3,000 hits, 12 Gold Gloves, 2 Most Valuable Player awards, 12 All-Star appearances, and the list goes on. Hall of Fame stuff, without a doubt. Then his life – and career – was tragically cut short in a plane crash in 1972.

All this leads up to the biographical graphic novel 21: The Story of Roberto Clemente by Wilfred Santiago. Personally, this was my first experience with the graphic novel format, and I indeed found that a different reading style is needed. With prose (i.e. novels, essays), you form pictures in your mind; however, with the graphic novel format the pictures are already there. I found myself turning back and re-examining the pages often, digging through the many details that the words and images delivered.

The story unfolds in earth tone – sepia illustrations, not gaudy, in keeping with the artist’s respect for the story and the subject. Clemente’s early life is here and one gets a real feel for his family and friends, and not without humor. As a lifelong Yankees fan, I found myself laughing aloud at his depiction of the hated Bronx rivals in the 1960 World Series. This book should appeal to graphic novel fans, baseball fans,  anyone who likes a great “bigger then fiction” story, and many others.

When do you “know”? What does it feel like to “get it”? Why only sometimes does it all “feel all right”? Life is a funny thing, a color with its own shade depending on the view. It’s definitively indefinable. But sometimes someone has something to help those who can plug in a way to help us all understand. That’s why we have art. One of the branches of that tree is music. A few leaves from that arboretum mean a whole lot in the scheme of Things. They don’t come along often, but when they do, there is no mistaking it.

Welcome to Bon Iver, Bon Iver.

If that introduction seems a bit boastful, bombastic, and a bit melodramatic – wait until you hear the album. It’s that good. Bon Iver’s sophomore outing, sort of doubly self-titled with its Bon Iver, Bon Iver label, opens with the soft sway of loose wind chime-age and an eye-opening guitar riff on “Perth.”  After a rigid drum roll sneaks into play, the now famous lead man Justin Vernon’s falsetto breathes life into the instrumental exploration into our ears: “Move dust through the light / To fide your name / It’s something fane… This is not a place, not yet awake.”

The theme of the abstract lyrics – pairing words together that aren’t even words – to construct a harmonious dream-like song state begins here and flows through the rest of this album. It’s an album that is more like a misty mountaintop in the mind or a hidden cove of consciousness than just a music record. The first song flows into the next, never stopping, just reassessing its mood. Into the unconscious aura and synthesized organs and strings of “Minnesota, WI,” and then into the angelic instrumental and vocal pulsations like an oncoming realization in “Holocene” and the sly, syncopated lyrical delivery over a setting of bells and horns on “Michicant.” He sings: “Hung up in the ivory / Both were climbing for a finer cause…” and “Love can hardly leave the room… With your heart.”

And then, at the end, Bon Iver makes sure you’ve been listening. The final two tunes on the album change gears for a solemn sampling story told through thick synthesized structure that brings out all the emotiveness and ethereal landscapes of the mind, body, and soul. They sit together, look in each other’s eyes, and listen. The swooping pad opener of “Calgary” summons all the spaces between the closure of eyes and the opening of the mind, breaking into a soundscape mixing tribal drums and swirling strings. “Sold, I’m Ever… Open ears and open eyes / Wake up to your starboard bride / Who goes in and then stays inside… Oh the demons come, they can subside.”

Finally, we arrive at “Beth/Rest.” Citing some of his favorite songwriters, Bruce Hornsby and Bonnie Rait, the track opens with a heart-wrenchingly epic and synthesized piano riff straight from the soundtrack to the coming-of-age movie they never made about your life. A cocktail of soulfully sweet vocals, electric guitar licks, and those telling keys, Vernon sends his heart to you with his words yet again. This time it’s for good, clasping your hand through your ears straight through the radio speakers. Like when you listened to music in high school, this one speaks right to you. He finishes halfway through the runtime, letting the sounds carry you back home. “Our Love is a star, sure some hazardry… For the light before and after most indefinitely.”

It’s the end of an epic that no listener who understands it will soon forget. The last time something this true and right happened was Radiohead’s Kid A in 2000 – what a way to open the millenium. Now that it’s happened again on Bon Iver, Bon Iver, it’s only fitting it’s a decade later. Times have changed, but sounding this good hasn’t. And “knowing,” “getting it” and “feeling all right” always will.

Why a quote from Juxtapoz seems appropriate on the cover of Steven Blush’s American Hardcore: A Tribal History will forever remain a mystery. But it’s there and points to the tremendous audience the book’s picked up since first being printed in 2001, then being turned into Sony Pictures distributed documentary film.

There are, no doubt, droves of readers and film-goers who take issue with the figures included and dismissed in the first edition of the book. So, as remediation – and to make a few dollars, no doubt – Paper Magazine music editor and former fanzine writer Blush, along with the folks up there in Washington at anarchist punk publisher Feral House, went back and added-in hundreds of bands that didn’t make the cut during the first go ‘round. Of course, if those bands were given short shrift to begin with, there’s little likelihood any mattered too much beyond their native town’s borders. But that’s the point, even if listing those newly included groups in a boring, bolded type setting at the end of each chapter was the answer. Separating this edition of American Hardcore from its initial run, apart from those tacked on historical notes, is a bit difficult. The cover’s got yellow on it this time and a different picture on the back. Unfortunately, that’s it. Whatever the case, Blush’s prose and design prowess aren’t what readers are here for; coaxing stories and insight from people who ran labels, headed-up scenes, and booked shows is what makes this work worth a read.

At one point, Blush tosses out a bit of tangential political theory, making mention of syndicalism. While a haughty phrase meant for the academic set, the idea of creating an insular, sustainable culture was at the heart of hardcore’s push. The fact that teenaged bands ran around the country, scaring yokels and inspiring other kids while taking care of each other seems like a far cry from whatever the indie-landscape is today. Sure, there are bands relentlessly performing day after day, releasing music of its own volition on a spate of low-rent, hard to suss labels. But there’s not a concerted feel to any of it. Hardcore, for a brief sliver of time, represented what a constituency of people wanted. And despite the ardent distaste for hippie-types, hardcore’s culture, in its purest form, was the realization and application of all those drop out spots that cropped up during the late 1960s and then soon disappeared. Some of the music hasn’t aged all that well, but if American Hardcore makes one reader reassess D.R.I., it was a success.

Mick Harvey has always been a consummate sideman. A multi-instrumentalist with particular penchant for serving others’ muses as if they were his own, he’s shadowed legendary songwriters and performers like Nick Cave, PJ Harvey, Simon Bonney (Crime & The City Solution), Roland S. Howard, and Anita Lane. When he finally ventured into producing his own solo efforts in the 1990s, he opted to translate and reinterpret the songs of Serge Gainsbourg for his first two albums rather than creating songs of his own. His third and fourth albums – One Man’s Treasure (Mute, 2005) and Two of Diamonds (Mute, 2007) – consisted mostly of cover songs, with only two originals on each. In all, this track record might indicate either a lack of confidence or disinterest in taking the role of songwriter and instead remaining a musical custodian.

With Sketches From the Book of the Dead, Harvey has stepped out of the shadows to prove that he is an able songwriter in his own right, penning all of the album’s 11 songs. As you’d expect, the songs are as fittingly dark and richly mellifluous as we’ve come to expect of his myriad collaborations. The only shortcoming, however – and also a big one – is that while all of his solo albums have embodied that workmanlike character for which he’s known, there’s little dramatic intensity nor much sense of vulnerability with which we can connect in Harvey’s solo work. In all of his collaborations, he’s worked with extremely charismatic vocalists who transform the typically placid music with their juxtaposed vocal histrionics. If we were to assume that he’s deliberately intending to avoid the grandstanding of his other musical partners, the only unfortunate conclusion is that he’s not an able conveyor of emotion.

This album began loosely as a meditation on death and the various things that we all leave behind in our passing – artifacts, unfinished conversations, et cetera. Yet, sadly, it doesn’t seem to convey any sense of emotional investment at all. I’m not looking for any sort of emotive posturing or trite drama, but the fact that his voice never alternates from a sedate, sing-song tone tends to make the album as a whole seem lacking in any sort of passion. And, this is truly unfortunate given that Sketches is, in fact, such a deeply personal work for him, ruminating on previous losses of friends and family that culminated with the death of his friend and longtime bandmate, Roland S. Howard, in 2009. There are moments of lyrical profundity – “there was nothing left to see there”, he sings, “that gave me any sense/ Of what once was, so I took your things/ Back to the present tense” (“Two Paintings”) – and deeply personal sentiments. So, it’s strange that Harvey’s delivery of the songs sounds so detached. Leonard Cohen’s notoriously dry vocal delivery has always succeeded due to his mastery of phrasing and giving the proper inflection to his words that conveys their emotional significance to the singer. While Harvey perfectly adorns his strong lyrics with delicate instrumentation, he somehow lacks the vocal cadence that makes Cohen’s songs so striking.

Vocals aside, it’s a work as musically rich as we’ve come to expect from Harvey. Mostly acoustic based, with tasteful flourishes of organ, violin, accordion, and piano, the songs flow throughout with a soothing dignity. Opener “October Boy” pays homage to Lee Hazlewood’s “Friday’s Child” with a similar 6/8 waltz rhythm and vocals declaring the attributes of the song’s protagonist (which, one would assume, is Rowland Howard). Harvey intones, “If I write you a song in my book of the dead / Should I make it carefree or make it sad? / If I write you a song in that book of the dead / Will it matter at all what’s left unsaid?” Elsewhere, “Rhymeless” is a somber lament led by a delicate piano line as Harvey sings, “All the songs that you never sang to your little ones / Like ghosts at the end of their beds.” Other tracks venture through beautiful melodies, hooks and lyrics that nicely cover similar subject matter with a fresh storytelling perspective on each that never comes across as contrived or cloying. “How Would I Leave You?” addresses the difficult question: if I could choose the season and setting of my passing, how would I want it to be? Harvey sings of the idyllic sensations of each season in a manner that’s essentially a wish for those he’d leave behind to perceive the beauty around them in the inevitable tragedy of death. In the sadness of our grief, the dying person’s wish is for our loved ones to appreciate the beauty of all that remains in the living.

It’s a mature, intelligent work from a major talent, but also unfortunately indicative that his talents are best served in support of more charismatic vocalists.

Those still pining for the avant-wack-pop slant lounge act of defunct Chicago weirdos U.S. Maple need not look further. Enter Dead Rider, formerly known under the less awesomer moniker D Rider. Helmed by ex-U.S. Maple guitarist Todd Rittman, he’s updated his old band’s rhythmic stutters and nervous tics for latter-era Tortoise post-rock percussive clattering (think Beacons of Ancestorship’s drums action), funk jolts, and a breathy, bizarro-sexy dork croon, an apt microcosm of ex-bandmate/singer Al Johnson’s scratchy purr that personified U.S. Maple’s anti-rock.

Not nearly as ominous as the creepy skull on the cover of The Raw Dents, Dead Rider effortlessly melds a smoky and sinister art-pop fusion that, unlike U.S. Maple’s infamous deconstruction of rock music, bleeds an esoteric spookiness and just drips of hooks. But it’s Rittman — who as guitarist in U.S. Maple paid close attention to Johnson’s oddball frontman schtick — and his throaty howl and unsettled whispers and catchy tunes that distinguishes Dead Rider from his former band. 1990s-era John McEntire-influenced Thrill Jockey label post-rockisms dominate The Raw Dents: swirly synths, sax skronk, and funk-heavy drums grooves, which the Beefheart fanatics in U.S. Maple tended to avoid.

However, Dead Rider is not without its disturbing quirks. Lurking behind the guitar shred and funk of “Mothers Meat” are tortured screams. “Feb 5” breaks in on an uncharacteristically mellow folksy acoustic boy-girl interlude before switching into high art-rock gear. “Stop Motion” builds on repetitive guitar squall, while Rittman goes off on a tangent like a madman. “2 Nonfictional Lawyers” has some dude cackling laughter in the background like an effin psycho.

Dead Rider has filled in the void left by U.S. Maple with an equally avant-fucked eye but come out with unexpectedly catchy and killer tunes.

English singer-songwriter Kate Bush is an enigma. She was one of the most successful English solo female performers of the end of the 20th century (e.g. she became the first woman to reach number one on the UK charts with a self-penned song, her 1978 debut single “Wuthering Heights”). Although Bush cites Pink Floyd (guitarist David Gilmour has been a good friend for decades), Elton John, and The Beatles as influences, Bush has steadfastly maintained an individual musical style that touches on art rock, alt-rock, and world music. To date, she has not granted access to any biographers. Her only tour was in 1979 (which was filmed for the BBC and released on VHS as Kate Bush: Live at Hammersmith Odeon, but has never been reissued for the DVD/BluRay market). She released her first full-length debut The Kick Inside in 1978 (EMI) and gradually over the course of her music career took longer and longer to issue subsequent albums: her all-original, double-album Ariel (EMI, 2005) came out 12 years after The Red Shoes (EMI, 1993).  This year Bush produced Director’s Cut (Fish People/EMI, 2011), a reworking of older songs which puzzled and confounded fans and critics. Despite or perhaps because of the mysterious quality of her characteristic creativity, Bush remains a popular figure in England and a widely-regarded cult personality elsewhere.

The double DVD-only package Kate Bush – A Life of Surprises: The Story So Far (there is no director listed) attempts to tell Kate Bush’s tale from her start as a precocious teenage musician up to 2005. But caveat emptor – buyer beware – this is set was not authorized by Bush and she does not participate, although older tidbits from recorded interviews are strewn throughout both DVDs. Another important buying consideration is this is a compilation of the previously circulated DVD-only titles Kate Bush: Under Review – An Independent Critical Analysis (Sexy Intellectual, 2005) and Hounds of Love: A Classic Album Under Review (which came out in America in 2009 via Pride, and in Britain in 2006 via Sexy Intellectual, and is still in print in the US). No new footage or other information has been added to this boxed set.

The first disc, which is 73 minutes long, is tiresome and plodding, although both DVDs suffer from too many talking heads, static pictures and clips from official videos, and brief – often substandard (VHS quality) – vintage television interviews and taped live performances. The disc one documentary opens with a breakdown of Bush’s early records The Kick Inside and Lionheart (both EMI, 1978) and Never for Ever (EMI, 1980). Trivia note: Never for Ever was the first-ever album by a British female solo artist to go to number one on the UK album chart. These three records introduced Bush’s literate songwriting and included compositions about the aftereffects of nuclear war (“Breathing,” told from the viewpoint of a baby dying in a mother’s womb), a wife’s struggle to get her husband to notice her (the woman-in-disguise narrative “Babushka”), and of course “Wuthering Heights,” based on Emily Bronte’s novel. Two DVD chapters deal with Bush’s most inspired record, Hounds of Love (EMI, 1985), which was partially inspired by the poetry of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Here and elsewhere English journalists such as Lucy O’Brien, Phil Sutcliffe, and Nigel Williamson expound on why they consider Hounds of Love a compelling achievement and why it has remained a fan favorite. The documentary wraps up with information on how music from Bulgaria, Ireland, and other environs shaped Bush’s later outings, such as The Sensual World (EMI, 1989), which was stimulated by James Joyce’s Ulysses. Bush wanted to set Joyce’s landmark work to music but the idea was squashed by Joyce’s estate. Bush’s only 1990s venture, The Red Shoes (EMI, 1993), partly sparked by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1948 motion picture of the same name, is also mentioned. This record was notable for its guests (Prince, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and others) and for Bush’s horribly inept 45-minute, long-form promotional film, The Line, the Cross and the Curve, which starred Bush and a young Miranda Richardson. The featurette has never been officially released digitally and has since been disowned by Bush (years later she stated it was “a load of bollocks”). The DVD ends with interviewee remarks on Ariel. DVD extras include a three-minute anecdote from English radio personality Paul Gambaccini about a time in the 1980s when Bush selected music for one of his radio shows (she baffled her audience by choosing eclectic artists such as Captain Beefheart); footage of Bush accepting a music award (also from the 1980s); boring interviewee bios; and an interactive Kate Bush quiz.

The 92-minute Hounds of Love DVD is more interesting for dedicated Bush enthusiasts because it offers in-depth, track-by-track analysis and scrutinizes how the album evolved, how it was produced, its release (Hounds of Love crested the UK charts, knocking Madonna’s Like a Virgin from the number one position, and has been reissued a couple of times, with remastered sound and bonus tracks), and its impact. This second documentary has better interview subjects, notably musicologist Ron Moy and one of Kate’s drummers, Charlie Morgan. Both manage to invigorate the proceedings: Moy utilizes piano and Morgan his drum kit to physically demonstrate Bush’s innovative uses of layered percussion, early digital electronics, and melodic chords. Writer Lucy O’Brien, who appears in the first film, is one of five Bush experts also featured on the second documentary. There is also an examination of some of the old movies, such as Jacques Tourneur’s 1957 British horror film Night of the Demon (also known as Curse of the Demon), which helped Bush develop some of her lyrics and imagery. Unfortunately, viewers only get glimpses of the pioneering music videos Bush created to help advertise Hounds of Love, such as the one for “Cloudbusting,” which co-stars Donald Sutherland. The sole bonus is a 12-minute segment which has part of a Kate Bush audio conversation with journalist Kris Needs. The audio is so atrociously bad the DVD producers should have put in subtitles.

While the focus of Kate Bush – A Life of Surprises: The Story So Far should be firmly on Kate Bush, due to her lack of involvement and the substantial use of journalistic and academic interviewees, viewers only get a fleeting sample of what Bush thinks about her music and related projects. The edited concert footage, shortened bits from official music videos and some condensed teasers from previously recorded Bush interviews do not add up to a satisfying portrait. Long-term fans looking for an exhaustive study and biography of Bush might be better off reading Graeme Thomson’s unauthorized biography Kate Bush: Under the Ivy (Omnibus Press, 2010), the foremost comprehensive study of Kate Bush’s life and career, which covers much of the same ground as this DVD collection, with further information and much more depth. Sad to say, but this DVD package appears to be little more than an attempt to make more money from old product.