Saturday, July 26, 2014


This week is Comic Con International, the largest, most talked about comic book convention of the year.  40 years ago, it was a more low key affair, but featured as guests men who were considered legends even then.  Granddaddy among them was Milton Caniff, then age 67 and over a quarter century into "Steve Canyon."  Caniff did the cover program, which featured Poteet Canyon, Bitsy Beekman, Steve and Summer Canyon.  The costumes are a little far out, but show that Caniff was hip to the scene.

Each guest had their own profile page.  Caniff took the opportunity to spotlight two other members of his cast - Oley Olson (son of Summer) and Stalky Schweisenberger (Oley's girl, who spoke only in one word sentences.  The profile of Caniff includes his bio from "Who's Who in America" as well as a personal account from Con co-founder Shel Dorf.

Dorf appears elsewhere in the program with his message to attendees.  I presume it was this con experience that solidified Caniff's relationship with Dorf, seeing him as more than a fan, but a pro doing his part to run a convention.  Dorf would accept Caniff's invitation to letter the "Canyon" strip in 1977. On either side of Dorf's column are illustrated well-wishes from two artists - "Jeff Cobb" artist Pete Hoffman and legendary Disney Duck comic book artist Carl Barks in a pseudo-self portrait.  "Cobb" would leave the funny papers in 1975.

As a fan of Charles Schulz since I could read, it boggles my mind to think that I could have met him and more recent hero Caniff at the same place!

Ok, throw in Russ Manning, too.  Wow!  Here's a guy who just now seems to be getting his due for turning out solid, clean, dynamic artwork for decades.  Check out his "Korak" and "Magnus Robot Fighter" comic book reprints from Dark Horse, or the Library of American Comics' "Tarzan" reprints.  Volume 3 comes out on Tuesday.

More spot illos and well-wishes from the program.  Fantasy artist Phil Garris and comic/animation artist Doug Wildey.  This Wildey picture confuses me, as I didn't know his Western character Rio predated the early '80s, when he appeared in Eclipse Monthly.  I wonder why he didn't use his then-running strip "Ambler."

Cracked Magazine's Sylvester P. Smythe by John Severin and Will Eisner's Spirit.  Cracked was probably at its peak circulation at this time, and The Spirit magazine was being published by Warren.

An evocative note from Alex Toth that makes you want to leave the con and hit the beach.  Genius, Animated, the third and final part of the Toth biography from the Library of American Comics, came out last month.

I'll leave you with one last illustration - the center spread from the program.  This is possibly the oddest jam drawing of all time.  Russell Myers' comic strip witch Broom Hilda faces off against Jack Kirby's Demon, with Schulz's Snoopy and Linus caught in the middle.  I've seen this one make the web rounds before, but it's so bizarre it's worth repeating.

Thursday, June 19, 2014


photo by Chad Frye

Russ Heath was the recipient of the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2014 Reubens.  The Reuben Awards Weekend is held every year by the National Cartoonists Society.  This year's weekend was held May 23-25 in San Diego.  Heath has had several health issues the last few years, which forced him to cancel a convention appearance in 2013.  Fortunately, Heath was able to attend, accept and be the subject of a panel moderated by Mark Evanier.  Sergio Aragones presented the award to Heath, in recognition of his long art career.  Heath told the Washington Post that he's been humbled and honored to be recognized by his peers.  

Morrie Turner, the 2003 recipient of the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award, passed away on January 25th at age 90.  Turner was the creator of "Wee Pals", a comic strip that had an integrated cast of minority and white children.  He began the strip in 1965, growing in readers and papers as his message of racial inclusion matched up with the zeitgeist.  He continued to draw the strip up until his death.  If you're a fan, "Wee Pals" originals frequently turn up on eBay, usually selling for under $10.

Hermes Press finally released "Terry and the Pirates by George Wunder: Volume One 1946-1948".
finally released.  Originally announced for July 2012, the book came out in February.  The dates on the cover and a previous press release were slightly deceiving.  The book does not reprint a complete two years of strips, as in the Caniff Terry volumes from the Library of American Comics.  Wunder's first strip was December 30th, 1946.  So, we get two days of 1946.  Then the book ends on February 15th, 1948 when the third storyline wraps up.

Focusing on the positive, the material that is here is beautifully reprinted, particularly the color Sundays.  There is a brief text piece from comics historian Ron Goulart, as well as pages reprinting examples of Wunder's original art.  As for the stories, Wunder patterns his art and storytelling after Caniff, gradually making the strip his own vehicle.  While he does bring back old favorite characters, the focus is on the new ones he's created.  This is good and bad, as Pat Ryan, once a co-star, becomes an afterthought, and three's a crowd in what's essentially a buddy strip for Terry Lee and Hotshot Charlie.  Overall, I appreciate Wunder's skill in handling a near impossible task - following the greatest adventure strip artist of all time.

No word yet on a volume 2, but there is hope.  Amazon is almost out of copies, so perhaps this was a good seller.

The April 2014 issue of Comics Revue is out.  This issue reprints "Steve Canyon" strips from Jan/Feb 1973.  It's the beginning of a story that takes Steve to Israel to investigate an archaeological dig that may double as a secret military installation.  The issue includes Mac Raboy's "Flash Gordon," Krazy Kat and much more!

Two Milton Caniff originals of "Terry and the Pirates" Sunday pages are part of a new art exhibit.  The exhibit is called Eye of the Cartoonist.  It is at the Wexner Center for the Arts, which is right next to the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum.  We told you about this exhibit, and it's sister exhibit "Modern Cartoonist: the Art of Dan Clowes" in our last issue.  "Modern Cartoonist" features the work of Clowes, and "Eye of the Cartoonist" showcases artists from the Cartoon Library who had an influence on Clowes.

The first piece is from July 4th, 1943 and it features military nurse Taffy Tucker in a sequence that provocatively features her nude in silhouette.  To read about the (fully clothed) nurse who inspired Taffy, click here.  The second piece is from October , 1941 and is from one of Caniff's most famous Terry story lines - the Death of Raven Sherman.

Saturday, May 31, 2014


After reading books by Daniel Clowes and seeing this -

and this -

one thing came to mind - I have to know what makes this guy tick!  Fortunately for Daniel Clowes fans, an exhibit of his work just opened at the Wexner Center for the Arts at the Ohio State University in Columbus.  The Wex is the next door neighbor of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum.  It's a feast for comic fans in Columbus, with comic art exhibits at both the Ireland and the Wex.

There are two Clowes-centric exhibits: "Modern Cartoonist: The Art of Daniel Clowes" and "Eye of the Cartoonist: Daniel Clowes' Selections from Comics History."

"Modern Cartoonist"features original pages and covers by Clowes from throughout his career of 25+ years.  Viewers see not only the development of his art, but also the variety of comics styles he's explored over the years.  Cinephiles take note that it includes pages from his comics-turned-movies "Ghost World" and "Art School Confidential."  An interesting immersion in the work of this compelling cartoonist.

In the companion exhibit - "Eye of the Cartoonist" - Clowes was given free reign to explore the holdings of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum.  He picked out examples of art from 22 cartoonists he considers influences and inspirations.  One of those he chose was Milton Caniff, represented by two "Terry and the Pirates" Sunday pages.

On May 17th, I attended a conversation between Dan Clowes and Hillary Chute, a college professor and author of two books examining comics as a narrative form.  Clowes spoke thoughtfully of his work and humorously of his artistic trials.  I also learned that his name rhymes with "cows" and not "hose" as I've been pronouncing it all this time.  I think it's too late for my brain to switch.

In this photo, they're discussing the font he created for the "Art School Confidential" movie, for which he also wrote the screenplay.  There was a Q&A as part of the program.  I asked him how he picked the Caniff pieces.  He said he laid several out on a table and squinted to see which had the greatest contrast of black and white, which he feels is Caniff's strength.  He said looking at Caniff art gives him that visceral feeling of wanting to put ink to paper.

Both Clowes exhibits run through August 3rd.  Click here for the hours.


To learn more about Dan Clowes, the Library of Matt recommends these books to our readers 18 and over:

Wilson by Daniel Clowes (2010, Drawn and Quarterly)

The Daniel Clowes Reader (2013, Fantagraphics)

These and many other interesting books are available at your local library and comic book store.  Visit them.  They'll be happy to help you read more about it.

Saturday, May 10, 2014


The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum had an exhibit of MAD Magazine art in 2005.  As part of the exhibit, they brought in longtime MAD editor Al Feldstein to give a speech at the opening.  My wife and I attended both, and it was my first encounter with this energetic force of a man.  He talked about his life and career at MAD, giving the inside dirt on the departure of MAD's founding editor Harvey Kurtzman.  Kurtzman, who founded MAD as a comic book, still garnered most of the critical kudos, even though he left after four years.  This still nagged at Feldstein, who went on to lead MAD for nearly three decades, presiding over its greatest popularity and its synonymy with subversive satire.

I got to meet and talk with Feldstein after the talk and at the opening.  I brought my copy of 'Foul Play' for him to sign.  'Foul Play' is Grant Geissman's history of EC Comics, of which Feldstein was an editor, writer and artist.  The book had just come out at the time of our meeting, and Feldstein hadn't received his copy yet.  Feldstein eagerly thumbed through my copy, enjoying the fresh take on work he had done fifty years previous.  It was gratifying to share the experience with him.

I next met Feldstein at a comic convention, probably a Mid-Ohio, either later that year or in '06.  He gave another talk, this time paired with a slideshow of his art work.  He not only included his recent landscape and wildlife art, but that he was giving it equal weight.  He clearly wanted to show he was retired but not dead, that his creative life didn't end when his comics' work did. I saw him again at a later convention, vibrant as ever and happy to greet fans and talk on any subject.  We talked briefly, but that was the last time I saw him.  He did send me an invitation two years ago to connect with him on LinkedIn.  I accepted.

Feldstein died on April 29th at his home in Paradise Valley, Montana.  He leaves behind as a legacy his hand in EC, perhaps the most revered line of comics ever created, and the fond MAD memories of the 12-year old boy in all of us.


To learn more about Al Feldstein, the Library of Matt suggests these books:

FELDSTEIN: The Mad Life and Fantastic Life of Al Feldstein! by Grant Geissman (2013, IDW)

Child of Tomorrow and other stories by Al Feldstein (the EC Comics Library) (2013, Fantagraphics)

These and many other interesting books are available at your local library and comic book store.  Visit them.  They'll be happy to help you read more about it.

Photo Credits:
2005 photo of Al Feldstein from the GLyph, the website of the Great Lakes chapter of the National Cartoonists Society
Al Feldstein's Owl painting, the Angelo Torres drawing of Al behind his MAD editor desk, and Feldstein's panel of he and Bill Gaines are all from FELDSTEIN: The Mad Life and Fantastic Art of Al Feldstein! by Grant Geissman.

Monday, April 28, 2014


Apparently when she wasn't torturing her kids or pushing Pepsi on everybody, Joan Crawford was a heckuva nice gal.  She had a friendly relationship with Milton Caniff, who often cited her as an inspiration for his most famous femme fatale - the Dragon Lady.

Here's a better look at the drawing Caniff was giving to Ms. Crawford in 1964.  It sold at auction last year for $2100.

Here's another drawing he did for her in 1965.  I'm not sure of the dimensions or what the occasion was, but it resembles his "chalk talk" style.

Their friendliness continued.  Here's Caniff's response to a letter from Crawford in 1973.  She had written him earlier that year regarding the ending of "Terry and the Pirates", after the death of George Wunder.

I always thought Copper Calhoon, the villainess from "Steve Canyon", looked more like Joan.  It appears in the press photo that she was flattered by Caniff, though she likely gently reminded him, "No wire hangers!"

The press photo at the top of this post came from an article on Caniff by his nephew, Harry Guyton.  You can find that article at the Animation Resources website.

Friday, April 18, 2014


Earlier this month I took my boys to Gem City Comic Con in Dayton.  This was my second year attending a fun show with good guests and amazing deals.

The guests were the focus of my 'to do' list.  First up, writer Mike Barr, co-creator of the Outsiders, we'll remembered for his years writing Batman and Star Trek comics.  Mike still freelances, recently for Bongo Comics and for Star Wars magazine (on stands now).

Mark Waid is one of the best comics writers around.  He currently writes Daredevil and Hulk.  I thanked him for the two times he saved Captain America, having taken over from mediocre or downright awful writers and bringing new vitality to the book.

I had Waid sign my copy of Superman: The Golden Age Sundays 1943-1946, for which he wrote the forward.  I learned his more important contribution to the book was that the strips reprinted in the book came from his personal collection.  He had long been hoping for a way to archive or protect these strips, as of all of his collection they were the hardest thing to replace.  Now they are not only preserved but enjoyed by the world.

photo by Noah (age 6)

The big treat for me was meeting comics artist/writer/historian Trina Robbins (though she calls herself an 'herstorian').  Robbins' greatest contribution, in my view, is as champion/documenter of the women cartoonists who came before her.  These women had to fight hard to get recognized in the boys' club of cartoonists.  Without Robbins' works, like "A Century of Women Cartoonists" or Pretty in Ink, many of these names might have been lost to obscurity.  Robbins is still writing new graphic novels as well, which you can read more about at her site.

Robbins started out as an artist in underground comix in the 1970s, in such feminist titles as "Wimmen's Comix" and "Girl Fight Comics."  These comics not only presented a woman's point of view in a male-dominated industry, but also explored female sexuality (see, didn't I say that nicely?).  She signed copy of "Wet Satin" #1 by writing - "To Matt, Best X-Rated wishes - Trina Robbins."  Now, you may ask, is it a little awkward to have a 75 year old woman sign her old nudie comics for you?  Yes.  Yes it is.

Scrounging for some good reads worked out for me as well.  I was happy to find some Disney comics drawn by Al Hubbard, an underrated Disney artist.  My best find was "Abraham Stone," a 1991 Joe Kubert graphic novel that I passed over in my youthful ignorance.

The boys were with me, too.  They had a good time, but mainly because somebody was selling Legos!

Thursday, March 20, 2014


Recent Releases of Note
  • Beach Boys - The Big Beat 1963 [iTunes exclusive]
  • Beatles - The BBC Archives: 1962-1970 [book w/ transcripts of the BBC appearances]
  • Beatles - All These Years: Tune In [volume 1 of 3 of the Mark Lewisohn biography]
  • Beatles - On the Air: Live at the BBC, Volume 2 [2-CD set]
  • Beatles - Live at the BBC [reissue of 1994 2-CD set]
  • Beatles - Bootleg Recordings 1963 [iTunes exclusive]
  • Beatles - The U.S. Albums [13-CD box set]
  • Beck - Gimme [single]
  • Beck - Morning Phase
  • Billie Joe + Norah - foreverly
  • Eric Clapton - Unplugged [2-CD/1-DVD reissue w/ bonus tracks]
  • Eric Clapton - Give Me Strength: The '74/'75 Recordings [5-CD/1 Blu-Ray]
  • David Crosby - Croz 
  • Bob Dylan - The Bootleg Series, Vol. 10 - Another Self Portrait (1969-1971) [2-CD or 4-CD sets]
  • Steve Hackett - Genesis Revisited: Live at Hammersmith [3-CD/2-DVD]
  • Dhani Harrison - For You Blue [charity single]
  • John Hiatt - Here to Stay - Best of 2000-2012
  • Elton John - The Diving Board
  • John Lennon - The Bermuda Tapes [Interactive App]
  • Julian Lennon - Through the Picture Window [DVD]
  • Nick Lowe - Quality Street
  • Eleni Mandell - Let's Fly a Kite
  • Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers featuring Edie Brickell - Live 
  • Paul McCartney - New
  • Mike + the Mechanics - The Singles (1986-2013) [2-CD]
  • Graham Nash - Wild Tales [autobiography]
  • Willie Nelson - To All the Girls...
  • P!nk - The Truth About Love Tour: Live from Melbourne [DVD]
  • Mike Rutherford - The Living Years [memoir]
  • Rutles - Rutles Anthology [2-DVD]
  • William Shatner - Ponder the Mystery
  • Paul Simon - Complete Album Collection [15-CD box set]
  • Paul Simon - Over the Bridge of Time [compilation]
  • Frank Sinatra - Sinatra, with Love
  • Smithereens - The Smithereeens Play the Beatles Washington, D.C. February 11th, 1964 Concert
  • Bruce Springsteen - High Hopes
  • Ringo Starr - Octopus's Garden [children's book]
  • Benmont Tench - You Should Be So Lucky
  • Andy Williams - The Complete Christmas Recordings [2-CD]
  • Neil Young - Live at the Cellar Door
  • various - American Hustle [soundtrack featuring Jeff Lynne]
  • various - Bob Dylan: The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration [2-CD reissue or first time on DVD and Blu-ray]
  • various - The 78 Project, Vol. 1 [vinyl or download, feat. Loudon Wainwright III]
  • various - Sweet Relief III: Pennies from Heaven [charity album featuring Eleni Mandell]
  • various - This is the Town: A Tribute to Harry Nilsson

Upcoming Releases
  • Beatles - A Hard Day's Night [Criterion DVD [1 disc] or Blu-ray [3-disc] release [6/24]
  • Laurie Berkner - Lullabies [4/8]
  • Johnny Cash - Out Among the Stars [unreleased 1980 project][3/25]
  • Billy Joel - A Matter of Trust: The Bridge to Russia [2-CD/1-DVD set][5/20]
  • Elton John - Goodbye Yellow Brick Road [3/25]
    • Super Deluxe Edition - Album reissue, rarities & covers disc, 2-disc live from 1973, DVD documentary
    • Deluxe Edition - Album reissue with rarities & covers disc
    • Single disc Edition - album reissue only
  • Led Zeppelin - reissue of first three albums remastered [6/3]
    • Single disc editions for each album
    • Deluxe editions for each, featuring live and unreleased material
      • 3-CD for the debut, then 2-CD each for II & III
    • Vinyl versions of the deluxe editions
    • Super Deluxe Edition with the CDs, vinyl + download code, a 70-page book and original press kit replica
  • Mike + the Mechanics - Living Years: 25th Anniversary Edition [4/8]
    • 2-CD w/ bonus and live cuts
  • Roy Orbison - Mystery Girl 25th Anniversary Edition [5/16]
    • CD/DVD w/ 5 bonus tracks
  • Neil Young - A Letter Home [mid-2014]
  • various - Country Boy: A Bluegrass Tribute to John Denver [3/25]

Record Store Day - April 19th
  • ABBA - Waterloo [7" single]
  • Byrds - Straight for the Sun [2-LP 1971 live concert]
  • Johnny Cash - With His Hot & Blue Guitar [reissue of 1957 debut LP, limited to 3000]
  • Sam Cooke - Ain't That Good News [reissue of Cooke's last studio LP]
  • Creedence Clearwater Revival - The '69 Singles [10" record]
  • Everly Brothers - Roots [LP reissue]
  • Everly Brothers - Songs Our Daddy Taught Us [LP reissue]
  • Fleetwood Mac - Dragonfly [7" single from 1970]
  • Genesis - From Genesis to Revelation [LP reissue]
  • Norman Greenbaum - Spirit in the Sky [LP reissue]
  • Idle Race - The Birthday Party [reissue of 1968 debut on gold vinyl]
  • Gordon Lightfoot - Sundown [LP audiophile reissue]
  • Dean Martin - Dream with Dean [reissue of 1964 LP]
  • Randy Newman - Randy Newman [LP reissue of debut album]
  • Jimmy Page & the Black Crowes - Live at the Greek [3 LP on colored vinyl]
  • Jill Sobule - Dottie's Charms [new album that will debut on LP, released on digital and CD in May]
  • Ronnie Spector & the E Street Band - Say Goodbye to Hollywood [reissue of 1977 single]
  • Regina Spektor - You've Got Time [7" single on orange vinyl]
  • Bruce Springsteen - American Beauty [12" 4 song EP]
  • Hank Williams - The Garden Spot Programs, 1950 [10" vinyl EP]
  • various - The Folk Box [reissue of 4-LP box set originally released by Elektra in 1964]

On Tour in the Tri-State
  • America
    • Louisville - 8/16
  • Aziz Ansari
    • Cincinnati - 4/25; Columbus - 4/26
  • Beck
    • Cleveland - 6/19; Columbus - 6/20
  • Dan Bern
    • Cleveland - 3/24; Newport - 3/25
  • Mike Birbiglia
    • Columbus - 3/19
  • Chubby Checker
    • Rising Sun - 3/22
  • Chicago
    • Louisville - 5/17; Cleveland - 5/20; Evansville - 5/21; Indy - 8/10; Cincinnati - 8/13
  • Miley Cyrus 
    • Columbus - 4/13; Louisville - 4/19
  • Jay Farrar
    • Louisville - 4/30; Indy - 5/1
  • Jim Gaffigan
    • Ft. Wayne - 3/23; Toledo - 3/24; Cleveland - 3/28
  • Indigo Girls
    • Lexington - 4/7; Columbus - 4/26
  • Billy Joel
    • Louisville - 4/6
  • Laurence Juber
    • Eaton - 5/22; Louisville - 5/25
  • Alison Krauss & Willie Nelson
    • Murray - 5/1; Columbus - 5/14; Toledo - 7/18; Cincinnati - 7/19
  • Gordon Lightfoot
    • Lexington - 6/26
  • Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers featuring Edie Brickell
    • Louisville - 6/6
  • Don McLean
    • Cleveland - 6/11
  • Steve Miller Band
    • Indy - 6/28; Cleveland - 7/8
  • Monkees
    • Cleveland - 6/7
  • Willie Nelson
    • Indy - 8/23
  • Over the Rhine
    • Indy - 3/28; Cincinnati - 4/25, 4/26
  • John Prine
    • Cleveland - 5/17
  • Pure Prairie League
    • Newport - 4/11
  • Amy Ray
    • Indy - 5/2
  • Brian Regan
    • Cleveland - 5/3
  • John Sebastian
    • Pomeroy - 4/12; Louisville - 5/24-25
  • Jerry Seinfeld
    • Indy - 4/11
  • Bruce Springsteen
    • Cincinnati - 4/8; Columbus - 4/15
  • Ringo Starr & his All-Starr Band
    • Cleveland - 6/29
  • Styx
    • Cincinnati - 6/5; Louisville - 8/15


Shout! - Gov’t Mule (Blue Note)
by guest reviewer Jim Bates

Gov’t Mule has always struck me as a southern amalgamation of Crazy Horse and Humble Pie:  plodding jammy blues rock with a heavy guitar tone and a rhythm section covered in sludge.  The Mule started out as a power trio side project of Allman Brothers guitarist Warren Haynes.  After the death of bass player Allen Woody, they’ve expanded their sonic pallet with a keyboard player.  Working with Big Sugar impresario Gordie Johnson has also injected an occasional reggae and dub vibe into the proceedings.

Their latest album - "Shout!" - is an interesting concept: a two disc set with one disc of the songs played by Gov’t Mule and the second disc with the Mule backing up a myriad of guest singers on the same songs.  

Listening to the Mule disc, you can correctly guess who will sing on the second disc.  I pegged the reggaesque “Scared to Live” as perfect for Toots Hibbert, “Stoop So Low” as the Dr. John tune, Whisper in Your Soul” had Grace Potter written all over it, and “Captured” reeked of Jim James.  As usual, Gov’t Mule jam these songs out, with the shortest being 4:55 and “Bring on the Music” topping the scale at over 11 minutes.  They’re clearly in no hurry and enjoy the sludge.  The highlights are Warren’s guitar tone, his solos, his rugged vocals, and Matt Abt's drums.  The lyrics are often obvious in that blues tradition kinda way.  Some wish that the Mule would go back to their power trio days, but I enjoy the tasty additions of the keyboards, especially the clavinet.   About the only misstep is “Done Got Wise”, not because it’s a bad song, but because it’s such a Zeppelin pastiche that I'm worried Jimmy Page might sue.

Thankfully, the songs with the guests are re-recordings, not just the same tracks with new vocals.  Outside of Dr. John’s “Stoop So Low” - an awesome cut which totally rocks - they tend to be more succinct and less jammy.  While still being the Mule, here they adapt to complement their lead vocalist rather than just jamming away.  Most of the singers make sense, as they are fellow souls, but I prefer the originals.  It is interesting to hear Elvis Costello fronting Gov’t Mule.  I really wanted to prefer the Grace Potter cover of “Whisper in Your Soul”, but that is probably only because my girlfriend and I disagree on whether or not she’s actually hot.  I could do without Dave Matthews, but that is just me.  And who the heck are Glenn Hughes and Ty Taylor?  Overall, this album is a neat concept, but I see myself listening to the Mule disc more often than the guest disc.

Elton John - The Diving Board (Capitol) - I hadn't bought an Elton studio album since being disappointed by "The Big Picture" in 1997.  It was so dull I lost my copy in a rental car 10 years ago and never bothered to replace it.  I wasn't alone, as the three subsequent albums were all billed as a 'return to classic Elton form.'  This new album, hyped the same way, is the first time I bit, prodded by the albums pedigree of super-producer T-Bone Burnett.  There are some standout, memorable tracks, but the album suffers from an overall mid-tempo sameness.  Clocking in at nearly an hour, it would have benefitted from some editing.

Willie Nelson - To All the Girls... (Legacy) - Like last year's "Let's Face the Music and Dance", this album of duets is a lazy stroll through a comfortable catalog.  No stranger to duets, Willie pairs with a different female country singer on each of the 18 tracks.  There are old friends (Emmylou, Dolly and Loretta) and newer voices (Brandi Carlile, the Secret Sisters).  At nearly 70 minutes the album has a certain sameness to it, though he finds a different vibe to host Mavis Staples on "Grandma's Hands" and manages to cut loose on one track ("Bloody Mary Morning").  Plenty to like, but like mac and cheese, you only need so much.

William Shatner - Ponder the Mystery (Cleopatra) - What is this thing?  Shatner does his sing-talking act again, only this time with Billy Sherwood, a prog rocker and ex-member of Yes.  Sherwood handles the production, as well as backing vocals and most of the instruments.  Shatner handles the lyrics (i.e., odd Shat-man poetry) and emoting.  Shatner ponders they mystery of life in twilight, pushing to life life to the fullest and time slips away.  This one had to grow on me, unlike 2004's "Has Been" (one of my all-time favorite albums) and 2011's "Seeking Major Tom" (a fun novelty record, despite its loftier intentions).  Not for the faint of heart.