Monday, March 20, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #175 - Slim Harpo - The Excello Singles Anthology

So when did Rock And Roll actually begin? There are more than a few answers. Every couple of years someone comes up with a new discovery that seems to prove that some one-hit wonder was actually the first example of primal rock. It seems clear that it happened somewhere between the late 1940’s and the mid-1950’s, and, fueled by the excitement of artists like Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Elvis Presley, became recognizable as its own genre with a growing worldwide following somewhere in the mid-50’s. The very wide-ranging nature of that answer shows that there was no single song or artist who can take full credit, but rather that there was a gradual shift in sound and subject matter toward what we now understand as the ocean of Rock. The streams that ran into that ocean came from all over the place (regionalism) and represented a number of genres; Pop, R&B, Blues, Country, Jazz. Each of these genres had a number of artists who sounded like they were on the verge of breaking out and rocking! Slim Harpo (James Moore), was one such artist. Skirting the line between R&B and Blues in the late 1950’s, he is an excellent example of an artist breaking down the walls of expectation and creating something new.

Influenced himself by the urban blues stylings of Jimmy Reed, Harpo took the electric guitar and lead harmonica style into the stratosphere with the addition of his laconic, pinched vocals, reverb drenched guitar solos (usually courtesy of Guitar Gable, Rudolph Richard or Jimmy Johnson), and unfailing turn of a clever phrase. This 2 CD set contains all his singles (A&B sides). Every cut he recorded was worth hearing, but this set really covers the meat of his best material. And oh man is the good stuff good! I guess there’s an argument to be made that you could start and end with the first single and its fabulous flip. “I’m A King Bee / I Got Love If You Want It.” In these two songs, one can clearly hear what must have grabbed Lennon, Page, Jagger and Richards by their ears. Both songs have an almost alien-sounding vocal and guitar paired with a string of sophisticated yet suggestive amorous overtures which have become part of popular lexicon ever since. Think about that accomplishment alone - writing multiple songs that, 60 years later, are part of modern consciousness. The recordings themselves are that classic “stacked” sound of late 50’s recordings. The vocal, guitar and harmonica are directly in your face, while keyboards, bass and drums churn below, striving for attention. Occasionally an organ fill, slapping snare or tambourine rise to the surface, but for the most part the backing is like the ocean lapping on the shore. That lopsided sound is what gave so many of these early R&B singles such an exciting and dramatic feel. Harpo’s voice was already an amazing instrument, but when it is coming at you, claustrophobically on top of the mix, like a torpedo in a bathtub, you have to pay attention.

Harpo continued to release strong and distinctive singles for the next few years, which were all eclipsed by his 1960 hit single (even though it was originally the B-side) “Rainin’ In My Heart.” A melancholy masterpiece, it lives in a stylistic world of its own - floating somewhere between a country ballad and an R&B torch song. It is soaked in echoey guitar, a rolling rhythm section and Harpo’s world-weary vocal. A great song if there ever was one.

Harpo left Excello for a brief period in 1965 but returned later that year for another burst of fantastic late-career singles. “Baby Scratch My Back,” “Shake Your Hips,” “Tip On In (parts 1 & 2)” and the irresistible “Te-Ni-Nee-Ni-Nu” are all classics of the style that Slim Harpo shared with almost nobody else. The insistent rhythm of “Baby Scratch My Back” and “Shake Your Hips” find Harpo now clearly making Rock And Roll, or rather defining what that term would mean for The Rolling Stones and many others. It is insidious and more than a little dangerous. It also has a cool, slinky tempo that defines the restraint that Rock would start to develop as it matured. So, Slim Harpo not only helped define the original sound of Rock, he predicted where it would go in the future. Slim Harpo The Excello Singles Anthology belongs in the collection of any serious student of modern music and anyone who likes cuttin’ a rug.

-                     Paul Epstein

Monday, March 13, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #161 – Paprika (2006, dir. Satoshi Kon)

Movies share such a deep connection with dreams that we describe our dreams in cinematic terms as often as filmmakers conjure up evocative and memorable dream sequences. Many films have depicted the elusive dimension of our dreams, but few have explored this territory with as much style, nerve, and imagination as Satoshi Kon’s Paprika. In just ninety minutes, Paprika weaves together a hard-boiled noir mystery complete with a world-weary detective, a sci-fi thriller in which a group of scientists race to retrieve a dangerous new technology, and an exhilarating visual expression of the limitless frontiers of dreams. With this remarkable blend of gripping genre narrative and non-linear elements, Kon draws the connection between dreams and films even tighter by melding his dream-focused masterpiece with a love letter to the magic of filmmaking.

The notion that a machine capable of capturing dreams would become a potentially dangerous and extremely valuable device runs through films like Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World and Christopher Nolan’s Inception, but Paprika allows this idea to blossom and thrive in a singularly captivating manner. The film’s mind-bending opening sequence establishes the DC Mini, an experimental technology that allows therapists to enter the dreams of their patients. After this introduction, the team of scientists who developed the DC Mini realize that someone has stolen it. With this team, Satoshi Kon creates a dynamic group of idiosyncratic characters who revere the awesome potential of their discovery as much as they fear the consequences of the DC Mini falling into the wrong hands. Just as the film’s characters caution each other about the risks of exploring the dreams of others, Kon demonstrates a similar respect in his depictions of the subconscious mind. Yes, the screen repeatedly fills with psychedelic images of gleefully uninhibited minds running rampant, but the dreams in Paprika aren’t simply gorgeous set pieces. These dreams are not only essential to the film’s tricky plot, but they also offer the audience insight into the motivations, fears, and desires of the main characters. Kon references many films (including his own works) throughout the dream sequences in Paprika and celebrates the dreamer as a creative hero equal to any lauded filmmaker. Early in the film, the character of Paprika establishes this sentiment by declaring, “REM sleep that occurs later during the sleep cycle is longer and easier to analyze. If earlier cycles are, say, artsy film shorts, later cycles are like feature-length blockbuster movies.” With nods to screen icons like Tarzan and James Bond as well as tributes to master filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa and Walt Disney, Kon draws out the intangible links between the creative domains of dreams and films.

Satoshi Kon’s innovative animation techniques allow for fluid transitions between the characters’ kinetic, stylized reality and the boisterously warped terrain of their subconscious minds. This approach taps into the stunning beauty and uniquely disturbing realms of dreams in a manner nearly unrivaled in modern cinema. Where other filmmakers have resorted to distant, flickering tableaus or stunning, but leaden special effects to portray unconscious visions, Kon explodes our expectations with unbridled flurries of fantastic images that fall into the uncanny rhythm and logic present only in dreams. Sadly, Paprika became Kon’s fourth and final film before his death at the age of 46, but this film endures as an achievement in the artistic investigation into the timeless mysteries and enchantments we encounter when we sleep.

-          John Parsell

Monday, March 6, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #174 - Nils Petter Molvaer – Khmer

Back in the 1990s, well before EDM made inroads into mainstream popular culture, the European electronic music scene was something that any musician with open ears was paying attention to. Rock and pop musicians were (sometimes reluctantly) getting remixed by famous electronic producers, DJs were becoming superstars, and so forth. So where better than jazz, a syncretic genre that is always taking in influences from the entire world of music, for this to take an early and lasting root? And who better than Nils Petter Molvaer, a Norwegian trumpeter/multi-instrumentalist (he’s also credited here with bass, sampler, treatments, guitar, and percussion) born in 1960, to cotton to the sounds his generation of European musicians were making and find a way to make it blend seamlessly with his kind of jazz?

Of course the music is not without precedent. It’s easy to point to Miles Davis’ similar groundbreaking experiments in the 1970s that fused jazz improvisation with popular rhythms to the consternation of the jazz establishment, or the worldly ethno-ambient records that Jon Hassell laid down in the 1980s (both with and without Brian Eno collaborating). But Molvaer is doing something different - the rhythms are frequently based on the then-contemporary dance beats of the drum & bass scene, but they're less aggressive than what Miles essayed on an album like On the Corner, venturing frequently into ambient territory. And where Miles played with a muscular assertiveness and Hassell drew on Middle Eastern tonalities for his treated trumpet sounds, Molvaer is somewhere else again, playing it cooler than Miles, with shorter phrases than the runs of the Miles of the early 70s, but also playing around with the rhythm a lot, not as much in the abstracted territory of sound that Hassell sometimes occupies. And though maybe I’m putting too much into it by associating his cool middle register tones and subtle phrasing with his Norwegian island upbringing, the record often fits the image of a chilly Scandinavian landscape – but certainly one where you can find Miles Davis albums to listen to.

The album kicks off with the title cut which fades in slowly, leading with a melodic line from the guitar that is then answered by Molvaer’s trumpet. A sampled bass thump plays in one channel while a more acoustic-sounding bass (also sampled) interlocks with it in the other. Percussion (performed live, not sampled) is light, fast, and skittering, right in the wheelhouse of the drum & bass music of the time, playing it both fast and slow simultaneously, though considerably less heavy than the real stuff. With the rhythmic groundwork laid, Molvaer’s trumpet and Eivind Aarset’s guitar trade solos mostly in a laid back, almost ambient mode until Molvaer starts playing longer lines and using the higher register of the trumpet, at which point it promptly fades into track two, “Tlon,” which starts mellow as well, Molvaer’s trumpet cutting like a foghorn through the electronic blips and heavy bass that surround it. Then guitar, trumpet, and an oddly perfect talkbox start a dialogue before the beats kick in to very directly link this to the contemporary electronic music world. But that’s before Morten Mølster’s treated guitar creates a squalor that would derail the goodwill that had been generated by any DJ playing this to a crowded dancefloor.

And so it continues, bouncing between more contemplative numbers like “On Stream” with its trumpet, bass, and mellow guitars over sampled percussion performing the most plainly lovely thing here, and songs like “Access/Song of Sand 1” or “Platonic Years” which start out quietly before rhythm starts to move to the fore and push the guitars and trumpet into more rhythmically choppy waters to match. “Song of Sand 2” and “Exit” close things out with the nosiest and quietest songs in the program, respectively.

Taken as a whole, this is a remarkable record, finding a way to take in haunting beauty, propulsive rhythm, improvisation, and the experimental sound manipulations, and meld them into a cohesive and entertaining whole. It’s something of a shock that it’s on the ECM label, primarily known (especially then) for exquisitely recorded small group chamber jazz, but good for them – it opened up the label to a new audience and it broadened the label’s outlook on what they could release. Also be sure to seek out Molvaer’s equally compelling second ECM album, Solid Ether, and then just start exploring – he has yet to put out a record I haven’t enjoyed.

-         Patrick Brown

Monday, February 27, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #160 – Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai (1999, dir. Jim Jarmusch)

Ghost Dog, Jim Jarmusch’s beguiling 1999 mash-up of genres and styles might just be the best movie in an exceptionally eclectic and historically relevant career. Jarmusch has made many films that walk the line between filmic tribute and cutting-edge cultural critique, and Ghost Dog does so with style and energy. In one of his greatest roles, Forest Whitaker is Ghost Dog, an urban assassin, who, in a lifelong debt to an old-school Mafioso, carries out gangland hits using the philosophy and techniques of the Japanese samurai as portrayed in the classic Japanese text Hagakure. By night he murders gangsters, but by day he is an eccentric, yet integral part of his community. It is precisely this humanizing conflict that makes this film rise high above its inherent stylistic limitations and enter the class of groundbreaking modern film.

Ghost Dog succeeds on many levels, but they are all thanks to Jim Jarmusch and Forest Whitaker. Whitaker’s Ghost Dog is a complex mountain of a character, whose lethal understanding of murder is matched by his authentically tender relationships with others in his neighborhood (in an unnamed, gritty, East-Coast city). He carries on a telepathically satisfying friendship with the local ice cream salesman in spite of the fact that they don’t speak the same language, bonds with a young girl through books, earns the respect of the local gang-bangers and, most interestingly, he cares for a flock of pigeons, using them for communication while showing them a humanity he denies his victims. In a performance of very few words Whitaker conveys a colorful palette of emotions through his expressive eyes, world-weary bearing and delicately menacing physical enormity. The true samurai, he glides through the city invisible to his enemies, but surprisingly approachable to the folks in the ‘hood.

For his part writer/director Jim Jarmusch has created a modern classic. While occasionally veering into the Tarantino school of style-over-substance-hyper-violence, he keeps an eye to the moral center and fills the motivations of the central character with such convincing ambiguity that the reprehensible moral choices he makes seem somehow understandable. Through his terse dialogue and the creation of an atmospheric world for Ghost Dog to inhabit, the characters and events feel like real life (or maybe dream life). That world is the other uncredited star of this film. Ghost Dog pulses with the sights and sounds of the city. There are dark urban realities juxtaposed with beautiful, ponderous shots of the moon or birds in flight. And then there is the music. Jarmusch masterfully weaves together deep soul and reggae cuts with the brilliant beats and insistent rhymes of the original music created by The RZA (who makes an effective cameo himself toward the end of the movie). Like many of Jarmusch’s best movies, the soundtrack almost becomes a character in itself.

The central conflict of the film comes from the fact that in the execution of one of Whitaker’s scheduled hits something goes wrong, and suddenly the hunter becomes the hunted. The mob now has a hit out on Ghost Dog and thus, as they say on the street, “it’s on!” Lots of blood gets spilled in a very short period of time in the last quarter of this movie, and yet an equal or even greater care is given over to showing Ghost Dog as a man of honor and thought. He lays the seeds in his neighborhood for those he cares about to sprout new growth.

Like all movies which busy themselves with the feelings of the killers, rather than those of the victims (which is virtually ALL modern movies), I question the believability of some of the characters, or why I should give a rat’s ass about them, but the overall effect of Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai is like that of an epic poem. Forest Whitaker is a modern Odysseus trying to make it home through a world filled with evil to a place of moral serenity. He gets there, but if he’s better off for it is for you to decide.

-         Paul Epstein

Monday, February 20, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #173 - Rufus Wainwright – Want One

After Leonard Cohen died in November, I re-watched the documentary, Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man. This 2005 film combines performances from two tribute concerts and interviews with artists participating in the events as well as with Leonard Cohen himself. Rufus Wainwright stands out performing alongside his sister, Martha Wainwright, and his mother and aunt, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, among artists including Beth Orton, Nick Cave, and Jarvis Cocker. Rufus Wainwright contributes compelling, singular takes on the Cohen classics “Everybody Knows,” “Hallelujah,” and “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” on stage while sharing charming stories of his personal relationship with one of his idols in interviews. Watching the film again, I reflected on Rufus Wainwright’s deep, passionate, and personal connection to the craft of songwriting. Wainwright’s third album, Want One, released just two years prior to this film, captures him at his creative peak and delivers his defining artistic statement.

The son of folk music stars Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III, Rufus Wainwright drew from his parents’ talents but set off in a direction beyond the boundaries of folk music. Wainwright’s performances in Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man yield a representative impression of his abilities by ranging from knowing and playful to soaring and anthemic to heartfelt and wistful. The fourteen songs on Want One cover very similar territory, but allow Wainwright to delve into the fearless, stylistic voraciousness that has come to define him as an artist. “Oh What a World” opens the album with a distant, hummed melody before blossoming into a sprawling rumination on modern life that quotes Ravel’s Boléro as it climaxes. Up next, “I Don’t Know What It Is” settles into a more restrained mode of pop maximalism while Wainwright considers the necessity of exploring the unknown. Supported by minimalist orchestral accompaniment on “Vibrate,” Wainwright delights in pitching modern anachronisms like “my phone’s on vibrate for you” and “I tried to dance to Britney Spears” against the staid, classical backdrop. The next song, “14th Street,” launches into a full-throated ballad that begs the question, “But why’d you have to break all my heart / Couldn’t you have saved a little bit of it?” This show stopper supplies Want One’s centerpiece while functioning as a family reunion with Martha Wainwright singing backing vocals on the charging chorus and Kate McGarrigle contributing the song’s plaintive banjo outro. “11:11,” begins with a hushed mandolin figure and unfolds into a bracing tempo as Wainwright takes stock of the world he finds upon waking up late one morning; it endures as the album’s catchiest, most appealing moment. “Dinner at Eight” closes out the album on an emotionally resonant note as Wainwright grapples with the aching, confounding conflict at the core of a doomed love while his tender piano playing expands into ornate swells of strings.

A year after Want One, Wainwright followed up with another release from the same sessions, Want Two, and although it contained the wonderfully overblown nine-minute romp, “Old Whore’s Diet,” it lacked the cohesion, quality, and vision of its predecessor. Over the last several years, Wainwright’s adventurousness has taken him in a number of directions including a song-for-song tribute to Judy Garland’s 1961 album, Judy at Carnegie Hall, and last year’s Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespeare Sonnets. With Want One, Wainwright composed a lasting testament to his extraordinary, idiosyncratic love of songwriting and performance and earned himself a place alongside his teachers and heroes.

-John Parsell

Monday, February 13, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #159 – Battle Royale (2000, dir. Kinji Fukasaku)

Teacher Kitano: Life is a game. So fight for survival and see if you're worth it.

First and foremost, as with my Videodrome review I must state that this film is not safe for the children or work. Now with that out of the way, have you ever wondered what Hunger Games would be like if it were actually an extreme/violent Japanese film? Well, if you have wondered that, or if now that I have put such a thought into your mind you’re intrigued, this is most definitely a flick for you! Kinji Fukasaku’s 2000 adaptation of Koushun Takami’s novel Battle Royale is a multi-layered masterpiece of modern Japanese cinema. Through the combination of a multifaceted plot, a multitude of relatable/human characters, beautifully choreographed violence, and a dash of black humor, Takami and Fukasaku have created a classic!

At the heart of it Battle Royale is an intense psychological thriller that follows 42 middle school students pitted against each other by the government and forced to fight to the death. In Takami/Fukasaku’s future, Japan has fallen upon hard times and with an immense amount of their population unemployed the government passed legislation that created the “BR” or “Battle Royale” initiative. Through this program, one graduating middle school class is taken to an island and forced to kill their classmates, with one strict rule... only one could survive.

Under the guise of one last class trip the students are knocked out and wake up in a strange place with metal collars on their necks. As they begin to come to they are joined by their incredibly sadistic, vindictive, and crazily sarcastic former teacher, Kitano-sensei (played by Takeshi Kitano). Kitano-sensei proceeds to explain the facts of the situation and warn that if any of them were to step out of line, or if more than one person was left after the three days, their metal collar would explode, instantly killing them. This fact is then quickly demonstrated on a kid that had wronged the twisted teacher years prior. As the students’ terrifying introduction to their predicament comes to a close they are introduced to two mean looking “transfer” students who’ve been chosen to make the game more interesting, given a random weapon (some as useful as a gun or GPS tracker, some as useless as a pan lid), and sent out on their own to fight to survive.

One of the aspects of Battle Royale that makes it such a remarkable film is the fact that you quickly find yourself invested in the stories of all of the students even though you spend relatively little time with them. Each student has their own back story, told through flashback, which leads us to fully empathize with them. Additionally, throughout the film we receive little pieces of the class's collective story providing us with a better understanding of their group dynamic. In the end you really feel as if you’ve shared in their experiences, which makes the violent and casualty-filled journey just that much more impactful. While you empathize with all of the characters in one way or another, the innocent love story of Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Noriko Nakagawa (Aki Maeda) aided by the previous survivor Shôgo Kawada (Tarô Yamamoto) (one of the mean looking transfer students) provides the incredibly affecting main story arc.

The truth of the matter is that, while the plot stems from a rather simple concept, the narrative itself is incredibly complex, and while I attempt to write a brief synopsis I find myself constantly saying, "Oh don't forget that part," and "Oh man, that is one of the best parts!" There is just so much packed into this two-hour flick that you just have to watch it to fully understand. On top of the fact that this is a glorious and expansive narrative, the action, gore, and tension are all incredible! After the kids are released into the wild every turn that they take could lead to a fatal battle, and as the viewer you feel that sensation. However, even though the plot and mood of the film is rather severe, the way that it is written and acted adds a certain natural black comedy to the tragedy that surprisingly enough doesn't seem forced.

In summation, if you like complex, brutal thrillers and have always wanted to see a more realistic and less stylized version of Hunger Games I would recommend that you check out this extraordinary film! Not only is it incredibly engaging, with some intense battle sequences, but it is beautiful, touching, and at parts comical... just like real life. So, if you would allow me, I would love to turn you on to this film because, well, it's just a killer flick!

- Edward Hill

Monday, February 6, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #172 - Procol Harum - Grand Hotel

When I was in junior high, there was a kid named John Kelly who I really bonded with over music. We would talk about our favorite bands and songs and album covers. One day he showed me his writings about music. He would describe in florid, accurate, detail songs that he’d heard with his ears or in his head. For instance, he would describe the musical introduction to a song like: “a ripple of horns burst forth and give way to a lead guitar that sounds like Leslie West on ‘Nantucket Sleighride.’” So, he was using the non-technical language at his disposal to describe the magic he heard with his ears. He also would do the same thing with songs he made up himself. I thought this was incredibly cool and creative and started doing it myself. I thought I might be remembering the guy and the whole thing wrong, so I broke out my Merrill Jr. High Yearbooks from the early 70’s and there was his picture, just like I remembered him. He had signed it “See Ya Kid-J.K.” I wonder what happened to him? Anyway, we started going over to each other’s houses after school and listening to records. We turned each other on to tons of records that are still among my favorites. The one that stands out the most for me though is Procol Harum’s majestic Grand Hotel.

I had their greatest hits LP, knew their big songs, and always really liked how different they sounded from pretty much every other rock band I had listened to. They had biting, intelligent lyrics, great guitar solos, a huge keyboard sound and a lead singer who sent chills up your spine the minute he opened his mouth. John Kelly showed me his written description of Grand Hotel at school, and at his house one day I asked him to play the one where he described a female, classical singer duetting with the regular vocalist. He put on the song “Fires (Which Burn Brightly)” and my jaw immediately hit the floor. There, after a brief piano intro, came a heavenly voice I was totally familiar with. It was Christiane Legrand of the Swingle Singers, a sophisticated jazz vocal group who became very popular in the era for rearranging classical masterpieces as poppy, scat confections. My dad, a total classical snob, loved them and played them around the house all the time. In the 5:09 minutes it took for this song to run out, my mind was completely changed about a lot of things. Two seemingly incongruous things in my 13-year old life - my taste (rock music) and my dad’s taste (classical music - albeit a light form of it here) - came crashing together in a beautiful moment of happy revelation. I said to John, “Let me borrow this record so I can play it for my dad.” We used to lend each other records back then and he gladly handed it over. As I recall, my father was nonplussed by this (and all) rock music. While I didn’t exactly have the meeting of the minds I was hoping for with him, it had an enormous, lasting effect on me. It was the first time I started to see that musicians of wildly different disciplines could meet in the song and make perfect sense. This was one of the major locks to be opened for me: that real musicians dug each other simply based on the fact that they both spoke the same artistic language. I started listening to Grand Hotel obsessively. I was greatly rewarded.

“Fires (Which Burn Brightly)” remains a high water mark for me. Christiane Legrand’s vocal at the end soars like few things in rock and it still makes me totally weak in the knees to hear it. But the rest of this album is equally wonderful. It might be the album where you can best hear the mesh of Procol Harum’s sound: the elegant grand piano and Hammond organ playing at the same time, B.J. Wilson’s fantastic, understated drumming, Brooker’s soulful growl and grand orchestrations (including strings, choirs, and the aforementioned Legrand), and most importantly on this album, the mysteriously intelligent words lyricist Keith Reid offered up for Procol’s sixth album. Covering economic disparity, alcohol, drugs, T.V. addiction, immoral officials, love, work, venereal disease and everything else relevant in 1973, Reid does it gently and with a Baroque sense of humor that is equal parts Lord Byron and Bob Dylan. He is truly one of the most underappreciated lyricists in rock.

Every single cut on this album is a monster, with special attention going to the first two songs. The title song “Grand Hotel” is indeed grand with a classic Procol Harum opening of piano and Hammond organ which soon gives way to a huge production, including a sweeping orchestra and choir mixing with the band as Brooker describes an opulent stay at the fanciest hotel in the world. The music feels like the greatest ballroom entry of all time. The second song, “Toujours L’Amour,” returns the band to familiar Procol territory as a propulsive drum kicks the guitar-driven song forward. By the time Mick Grabham wrenches his second great solo out of his guitar the song has reached a delirious frenzy.

Each song builds upon the last leaving this as possibly Procol Harum’s best overall album. I miss Robin Trower’s guitar and Matthew Fisher’s memorable organ playing, but their replacements perform admirably, and they really sound like the same band they were in the beginning, but with much better production. Grand Hotel was an enormously influential album in my musical development, and every single time I hear it I am further impressed with its excellence. It surprises me that I liked it as a junior high school kid. Often when I revisit many albums I loved as a kid, I am embarrassed by what I hear. It wasn’t until high school that I actually started developing an ear. I really have to thank John Kelly. That kid had a good ear early on.

-         Paul Epstein

Monday, January 30, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #158 – Kes (1969, dir. Ken Loach)

In the late 1960s in England there was a film movement known as British New Wave, which focused on middle and working class characters rather than the upper crust British subjects who had largely dominated the country’s cinema. Director Ken Loach and his producing partner Tony Garnett, who’d been making topical dramas for the BBC, felt like even the British New Wave films that were being made avoided the harsher realities of working class concerns, and set about raising money to adapt a recent novel by author Barry Hines, A Kestrel for a Knave, to the screen for their feature film debut.

The book is set in (unnamed) Barnsley, a depressed coal mining city in the northern Yorkshire region of England where Hines was raised, and focuses on a young man, Billy Casper, who’s shy, withdrawn, and picked on at school and at home. He has an interest in training falcons and, upon finding a nest, decides to train one himself. Loach and Garnett worked with Hines to adapt his novel to a screenplay, found the money to shoot a low budget adaptation and began casting. For this, they largely drew on locals and schoolchildren who were attending the schools that Hines himself had attended growing up in the region, lending the film an air of authenticity to the point that it can at times almost be mistaken for a documentary. This, in addition to hiring a cinematographer who had largely worked in documentaries, was a conscious decision on the part of Loach and Garnett to give it the appropriate feel.

Cast in the lead role, 15 year-old David Bradley is remarkable as Billy, bringing his own personal experiences of a troubled family life and living in a city with few prospects for young people to bear on his performance. There’s never a moment where you don’t believe him, where the seams of Acting show through to take you out of the moment. So when he’s killing time after school, wandering through the woods and doing nothing in particular, it’s dead-on, drawing the interior life of this young boy who has clearly spent more time in his head than out playing with friends. This gets him into trouble at school, where he’s often busy daydreaming and not listening in class. But in the tender scenes where he’s found his kestrel and begun training it, a film that could have been a deadening experience shows that his interior life is something fascinating; and Billy himself comes to life on screen when halfway through the film Mr. Farthing, the solitary teacher at his school who is portrayed as sympathetic to him, asks him to tell the class about his falcon and he becomes a subject of interest to the class rather than an outsider to be mocked. Things are still rough for him though – his father is absent, his brother is abusive and alcoholic, his mother indifferent and too caught up in her own life to lend the necessary support to the boy she refers to as a “hopeless case.” Teachers and fellow students alike pick on him and isolate him for being poor, for daydreaming in class, for not fitting in. In some respects it’s a tough film, but like everything Loach does, it’s keyed on respect for its working class heroes, however downtrodden they may be.

The film is a beautiful portrait of youth in difficult circumstances, filled with a love for its central character that spills over into larger concerns about fostering the interests of youth rather than discarding them when they don’t fit a certain mold. The heavy accents of the locals may require for some viewing the film with subtitles – as in several Loach films, he doesn’t generally try to “clean up” the accents of his characters for mass distribution and there’s a story that when the film was screened for American film executives at United Artists they left the screening stating that they could understand Hungarian better than the accents here. Still, the film’s ideas are universal, and the film itself has only gained in stature since its release, currently ranking seventh in the British Film Institute’s Top Ten British Films. And Loach has continued his working class concerns throughout his career, from his BBC films that tackled hot button issues like abortion (Up the Junction) and homelessness (the excellent Cathy Come Home, included in this DVD set), up through his Palme d’Or winning films The Wind That Shakes the Barley and last year’s I, Daniel Blake. He’s one of the giants of British film, and his debut is as good a place as any to start exploring his work.

-         Patrick Brown

Monday, January 23, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #171 - Minutemen – Double Nickels on the Dime

I chose to write about this album because I wish someone had turned me on to it when I first began exploring punk music. I was a freshman in high school in the fall of 1991 when Nirvana’s Nevermind busted open my expectations about music and set me on the course of discovering what else was out there. If I had found Double Nickels on the Dime by The Minutemen when I was fourteen, it would probably be one of my top five all-time favorite records. Instead, I came across this album the year I turned thirty and it prompted me to reassess what great music I had missed up until that point. When the Minutemen released Double Nickels on the Dime in 1984, they created a classic album in American independent music, a testament to a beautiful friendship, and a blueprint for how a few regular people can come together and make something extraordinary.

When I first went looking for punk music, I gravitated toward the two American punk bands that people around me talked about the most: Black Flag and Minor Threat. In each band’s music, I found elements that I liked, but neither one felt like something that really included someone like me. When I eventually heard Double Nickels on the Dime, I found myself in this album in a way I had never experienced with a punk band. When I listened to his album, I recognized core elements of myself that didn’t always seem at home in punk music like goofiness, thoughtfulness, weirdness, and idealism. Guitarist and singer D. Boon, bassist Mike Watt, and drummer George Hurley grew up in working class San Pedro, California and formed the Minutemen as an alternative to the bleak prospects of their hometown. All three band members were close and shared chemistry as musicians, but D. Boon and Mike Watt were lifelong friends whose bond informed nearly every meaningful aspect of the Minutemen’s existence. On “History Lesson, Pt. 2,” one of the best songs on Double Nickels on the Dime, D. Boon simply tells the story of two friends discovering punk music and learning how to do it for and by themselves. This album of more than forty songs documents a fiercely unique, independent band at the height of their powers taking on as much as they possibly could. Double Nickels on the Dime remains the Minutemen’s greatest achievement and its influence can be traced throughout a prominent branch of indie rock including one of 2016’s best albums, Human Performance by Parquet Courts.

When D. Boon died in 1985, the Minutemen ended, but the band’s legacy grew consistently over the following decades. In 2001, Minutemen figured prominently in Michael Azerrad’s indispensable book, Our Band Could Be Your Life. Azerrad featured Minutemen as the second profile in the book, derived the title from a lyric in “History Lesson, Pt. 2,” and dedicated the book, in part, to D. Boon. In 2005, Tim Irwin’s great documentary, We Jam Econo: The Story of The Minutemen, brought the band’s story to an even larger audience. The band’s music, especially Double Nickels on the Dime, became a touchstone for the expanding world of indie rock. Eclectic indie rock band Calexico established a rousing cover of “Corona” as part of their live shows before recording it for their 2004 EP, Convict Pool. In 2006, indie folk singer Bonnie “Prince” Billy and post-rock instrumentalists Tortoise released a covers album, The Brave and the Bold, and offered up a monolithic, but faithful rendition of “It’s Expected I’m Gone.” As I’ve learned, it’s never too late to get started with an album as essential as Double Nickels on the Dime, but for your sake I recommend that you start soon.

-         John Parsell

Monday, January 16, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #157 – Munich (2005, dir. Steven Spielberg)

Controversies surrounding films can swirl up like clouds of dust and debris obscuring a film’s content from its potential audience. Munich, Steven Spielberg’s account of the impact of the terror attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games, prompted a flurry of contradictory reports about the film’s highly incendiary topic. Unfortunately, this storm of confusion and hearsay as well as Steven Spielberg’s avoidance of promotion and interviews stifled Munich’s box office performance and critical reception. Over eleven years later, now that the debates attending its release have subsided, Munich reveals itself as one the most powerful and nuanced films about terrorism since the September 11th attacks, a profound reflection on the consequences of revenge, and Steven Spielberg’s greatest film of the last twenty years.

In the fall of 2005, within the formative years of George W. Bush’s War on Terror, Steven Spielberg adapted a novel about the Israeli government’s alleged covert operation to target and assassinate members of the Palestinian terrorist organization, Black September, responsible for planning the murder of eleven Israeli athletes participating in the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany. Opening the film with the first of four segments documenting the Black September massacre, Spielberg masterfully blends a heart-pounding reconstruction of the ambush on the Israeli dormitory with a montage of people all over the world observing the events unfold on live television. During a meeting among Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and her advisors following the Munich attack, she sanctions a secret retaliation mission by announcing, “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.” Eric Bana portrays Avner, a member of the Israeli secret service, Mossad, and Meir’s former bodyguard in a performance that should have propelled him into mainstream success. Meir and her advisors select Avner to lead a small group of covert operatives who will carry out assassinations on Black September targets living in Western Europe. Geoffrey Rush plays Ephraim, Avner’s contact within the Israeli government, and tucks a dry, cynical humor into his efficient explanation and analysis of Avner’s task. Spielberg draws out themes of family and community with multiple scenes of meals shared among Avner, his team, and his contacts. The film swells with a warm, delicate intimacy that belies the deadly nature of Avner’s mission. As an audience we face both the calculated brutality of the attack on the Israeli athletes as well as the methodical assassinations of Black September operatives. Through the actions of Avner’s team and the resulting consequences of those actions, we witness the true price of a life lived in the service of revenge.

With Munich, Spielberg confidently tackles a sprawling epic focusing on the geopolitical realities of a pivotal moment in the twentieth century, but enriches his story with a loving and cautious eye for the details that make our families, homes, and values worth living and dying for. A bracing vitality pushes through Munich as Spielberg operates at the top of his game and delivers a film of consequence that manages to be both deeply personal and searingly relevant to the state of the world. A prominent Jewish American director broaching the topic of the Israel/Palestine conflict and framing a story around a very real terrorist attack and an unconfirmed retaliation plot may have been a tough sell for audiences and critics in 2005, but in taking on this project, Spielberg allows us the opportunity to reflect on what happens when we compromise the values that define us as a people.

- John Parsell