Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The Boss

Some of my favorite Springsteen LPs

In 1974 the son of one of my father’s friends stayed at our house in Denver on a drive from New York to California. He was a music student and only liked classical and jazz. Much of the weekend was spent with me saying “What about The Rolling Stones?” “What about Yes?” He would invariably reply “crap!” Exasperated, I finally asked him if he thought any rock and roll was good. He thought for a minute - then pronounced, “Springsteen.” He told me that he had seen Springsteen in a club in New York and that his band provided the greatest show our friend had ever seen. He said, “That band can do anything, and Springsteen is a true bandleader.” I had heard a handful of Springsteen’s songs on the radio - “Spirit in the Night,” “For You,” “Blinded by the Light,” etc. I liked him, but had not considered him one of the greats. Within a year that would all change.
Deluxe CD box sets

I remember walking into Budget Tapes and Records on Colorado Blvd. and seeing the cover. Born to Run changed my world. Starting with the image on the cover-that beautiful photo symbolizing both rock idealism and racial détente. It was a startling cover. Then when I got the record home, every song exploded out of the speakers with the kind of excitement that the big hits of the mid-60’s conveyed. Yearning, youthful enthusiasm, the restless belief that there was something special for me out there - if I could just break out. Born to Run tapped into my dreams in a big way. It provided a road map for emotional growth, and offered courage in the face of an uncaring adult world. Not only did I love every song, but it drove me back to his first two albums and I found those to be filled with a treasure chest of amazing songs. Bruce was quickly becoming one of my favorites.

Autographed Born in the USA

Fast forward to 1978. It’s the end of my first year of college. Springsteen has released a follow-up to
Born to Run called Darkness on the Edge of Town and it is just as good as the first three albums. This guy is on a roll! Then, The Denver Post includes the concert schedule for the summer, and there on June 20th was Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band at Red Rocks - no opening act. Oh man was I excited. I had no idea how important this night would be to me going forward. It turned out to be one of the great concert experiences of my life. For three hours the band gave voice to every fear, desire and aspiration I had experienced in my 19 years. Total rock and roll abandon. Soaring anthems, street poetry, balzout rockers - Springsteen delivered it all, ending his show with joyous covers of "I Fought the Law" and “Quarter To Three.” It was one of those formative nights you never forget. I walked out of Red Rocks with my head swimming. The next day everything seemed more alive yet less exciting. I had been charged like a battery and wanted more.
Entire E Street Band on stage at Red Rocks 1978
I continued to see Springsteen every time he came to Colorado - more nights at Red Rocks, multiple shows at McNichols Arena, even the stadium. He never disappointed live, even though I felt like none of the following albums quite matched up to the first four. Life moved on.

Autographed book & Springsteen on Broadway merch
Then 9/11 happened and everybody in the sane world was wounded. I felt like I couldn’t get over it, or get in touch with my feelings. Finally, nine months later, Springsteen released The Rising which was one of the first major works of art to deal with the tragedy in a grown-up way. Bruce was back for me. It was exhilarating to rediscover him, to familiarize myself with all the albums he had released and to feast on all his great songs. And live - he had lost nothing. Now in his 40’s, Springsteen had matured into a thoughtful writer and parent, but on stage he was still a youthful tornado. His shows have remained, to this day, marathon forces of nature. There is no performer who gives more to his audience night after night than Springsteen.
Jill and Me outside the theater on Broadway
The Boss with The Boss!

More highlights of my Springsteen career came a couple of years ago when The Boss came to The Tattered Cover to sign his autobiography. I stood in line for 4 hours like a real fan boy to shake his hand and get a signed book. Believe it or not, it was worth it. When I finally got to the front of the line and saw this guy I had loved for so long, and there he was, small, fragile, human, smiling, hand outstretched, it really meant something to me. A few months later, Jill and I went to New York to see Springsteen on Broadway. For a year, Springsteen took to the small stage and gave audiences a rare opportunity to spend an intimate evening with the man. He was again very human and fragile. It wasn’t the huge, stadium-sized fist-pumping fun of his regular concerts. This was being in the room with an introspective middle-aged man taking stock of his life. It was brilliant. I couldn’t imagine another artist of his stature opening himself up so honestly.
Marquee on display at Twist
Marquee in 1978
Signed guitar from Barry Fey's collection

Collecting Springsteen has also been fun. I’ve managed to get some really cool stuff over the years - no item bigger or better than the marquee from the Capitol Theatre for his 29th birthday shows in September of 1978. I got it from a customer and ultimate Springsteen fan named Elliott. It has garnered a lot of attention, and I look at it with pride every day when I’m in the store. Then there’s the autographed guitar that sits next to the marquee - it came from legendary promoter Barry Fey’s collection. Like Dylan, like The Beatles, like The Stones and a few others, Bruce Springsteen rises above for me. His songs have illustrated periods of my life, and his concerts have consistently thrilled beyond reasonable expectation. Last year’s Western Stars album just continued the streak - I thought it was his best album in years. Springsteen is a major chapter in my musical book.
My friend Elliott in the foreground with The Boss and his wife
 Patty on stage in the background-Broadway

- Paul Epstein

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

The Blues

Somewhere in the mid-70’s when I was working at the Century 21 Theatre on Colorado Blvd. as an usher, I established the weekly habit of getting off my night shift, taking my paycheck to Safeway to cash and then going to Peaches records on Downing and Evans before they closed at midnight and perusing their cut-out bins. Filled with mysterious, colorful covers, I really learned how to explore music there. It’s where I turned myself on to Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Gene Autry, Lefty Frizzell, Professor Longhair, Gatemouth Brown, John Lee Hooker and Lightnin’ Hopkins. The cutout bins were the final resting place for the cast-off legacy of our own cultural highpoints. The radio was filled with Journey and REO Speedwagon, and I was finding myself drawn to Burl Ives and Champion Jack Dupree. The cut-out bins were a refuge from the modern world and a doorway to the secret history of an American life completely different than the one I knew. Once I stepped through, I never fully came back through that doorway. I found myself more comfortable in the past. The things I heard there changed everything I heard in the present. Every guitar player had to stand up to Blind Blake, every songwriter had to match Jimmie Rodgers, and every legend be as mysterious as Robert Johnson; obviously, an impossibility. But here in the cut-out bins, I could lose myself in big black vinyl slabs of another era.
Around this same time I got my first electric guitar. I got a few instruction books, and a few friends showed me a couple of things, but my real course of study was to listen to B.B. King records and try to copy his playing. In spite of how simple it sounded, I found it was very hard to sound like he did. When I got to see him live, I realized how much of his sound was connected to the vibrato he created with his left hand, as well as the overwhelming physicality he put into every moment of his performance. I was obsessed with the mystery of the blues and dove into the deep end.
Of course, the deep end is the pre-war period of blues captured largely on 78 rpm records. I quickly realized that a) these original records were rare as shit, and I couldn’t afford them, and b) the cutout bins were filled with reissues of the early stuff and c) some of the original guys and many of the great post-war guys were actually still alive and available to see at clubs and festivals. I started building a relationship with the genre and the people who shaped it. I bought a lot of records by blues rock bands like Led Zeppelin, Cream, ZZ Top and Hendrix which all ended up pointing me to the source. Slowly I built a collection and started understanding the different sub-genres and stylistic variations of the blues.

After I got Twist And Shout and the CD reissue market took off, the massive body of rare recordings from the 20’s and 30’s started to become available and affordable. I continued to get original LPS and even a few 78’s where I could, but I remain grateful for the access labels like JSP, Document, Shanachie and Yazoo provided me to the Blues on CD. At some point in the 90’s we were selling music at a blues festival in the Golden Triangle. Our tent ended up being next to the tent of a man named Dick Waterman, a fascinating nut and world-class photographer who had helped rediscover a number of lost bluesmen in the 1960’s and then documented them with a rare and insightful eye. I befriended Dick and ended up buying a bunch of his beautiful photographs.
Three events in the early 2000’s helped keep my love alive. The first was release of the documentary Desperate Man Blues about 78 rpm collector Joe Bussard, a true curmudgeon and laser-focused aesthetician, which brought into focus my own beliefs about music before the age of mass media. Regionalism is what makes different kinds of music special. There are forces at play nowadays that make music an entirely different thing. Next was getting my 1946 Seeburg 78 RPM jukebox.
With this restored beauty in my life I had a vehicle worthy of taking those rare 78s out for a drive. Finally, it was the purchase of a large collection of 78s I did a few years ago. The records were amazing - all rare blues, gospel and r&b from the 20’s through the early 60’s. The only problem was they were soaked in urine and many of them were scratched beyond play. Still, I embarked upon cleaning and salvaging as many as I could. There were many surprises and lots of classic blues. About half way through the collection I got to the end of a stack and there it was staring back at me.
The Masked Marvel (Charley Patton) "Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues" an incredibly rare 78 from 1929. With trembling hands I placed it on the turntable. It was so scratched, it sounded like Charley Patton was singing on Mars. But just the act of holding the record and letting the 80-year old grooves unwind in my presence was a moment of intense clarity for me. I realized how important the blues have been in my development as a music enthusiast, collector and retailer. Few things protect me from the effects of modern malaise more than the protection of The Masked Marvel.
- Paul Epstein

Monday, March 16, 2020

I'd Love to Turn You On #252: Kings of Leon - Aha Shake Heartbreak (2004)

            In 2004 Kings of Leon (brothers Caleb, Nathan and Jared Followill plus cousin Matthew Followill) weren’t the Kings of Leon we came to know in 2008 after MTV got their grubby corporate hands on them, made them cut their hair, take a shower and hit it big with “Sex on Fire” off their fourth studio album. In 2004 the sons of a Pentecostal preacher were dirty, long-haired dudes in their early twenties (one of them even a teenager) living in Nashville, and Aha Shake Heartbreak is their rebellion album. They wanted to make an album that just came to them, without a record label breathing down their necks. So they made Aha Shake Heartbreak, an all-out jangly garage rock album with mostly unintelligible and a little bit questionable lyrics. 
            Aha Shake Heartbreak is the only Kings of Leon album with a parental advisory label. You may not be able to understand most of what lead singer Caleb Followill is singing but believe me, it deserves that parental advisory. I had been listening to this album on repeat for years before I looked up the lyrics, I had always just sung along with what I thought he was saying. I was in for quite the surprise when looking up lyrics to some of my favorite tracks off the album. If y’all thought “Sex on Fire” was vulgar just take a look at “Soft” - never knew he was singing about perfect nipples, being “passed out in your garden” and umm…soft. Or “Rememo,” which I always saw as a swinging, twangy slow jam about nothing. Turns out it’s about the flirty girls they encountered on tour in Europe, some of which may have been young - but there was a 17 year old in the band. Or my personal favorite “Taper Jean Girl” - this song was my morning alarm for all of high school, one of the only things that would be loud enough to wake me up (the other being an air horn but that's a story for another time). It also has that word that rhymes with punt that shouldn’t be used in mixed company, which blew my mind when I found out they were saying it. If Caleb wasn’t singing, I think people would be way more in tune with just how dirty the songs on this album are, but he is and I can’t even begin to imagine what it would sound like if he wasn’t. He is all over the damn place and I love it. The rest of the band just seem to feed off of his rollercoaster singing, responding with their own out of control sound. There are many points in this album where it seems like everything is going to go off the rails, like in “Soft,” or “Razz” where you get this all-out freakout that makes you just want to just flail around, or “Taper Jean Girl,” which kicks off with a wall of sound lead by a big bass line. Even “King of the Rodeo” has such a good beat that it’s perfect for two stepping, as shown in the music video, or just flailing around, as shown in my car. All in all I love this album for the sound way more than the lyrics. I liked the chaotic noise, which I would say sounds best blasting out of a car stereo. It’s the kind of album you listen to on a road trip when you are trying to stay awake; I know this because I’ve done that with great success.
            I’ve never seen Kings of Leon live, and to be really honest, I don’t think I want to. Unless someone invents a time machine and I can go back to 2004 and see them at Exit/In in Nashville, cause I would do that in a heartbeat. It sucked seeing the Kings of Leon I knew, dirty long haired boys, get turned into a clean-shaven, cookie cutter, man-band. There was something charming about those quirky, dirty, long-haired boys that was gone not that long after Aha Shake Heartbreak came out. You can see hints of the weird on their third album - mostly in the first two tracks “Charmer” and “Knocked Up” - but they had cut their hair and started dating supermodels at that point. I’d like to think if 2004 Kings of Leon met 2020 Kings of Leon they would probably beat the crap out of them. I think it would be a fair beating.

- Anna Lathem

Monday, March 9, 2020

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #237 - Romy and Michele's High School Reunion (1997, dir. David Mirkin)

            Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, if you weren’t in your teens or twenties in the late 90’s I bet you didn’t see it. It was Mean Girls before Mean Girls. It’s the story of two twenty-something overblown Valley Girls scheming up a plan to wow all the assholes who made fun of them in high school at their upcoming reunion - what’s not to love?
            I have a confession to make, I haven’t seen all of Friends. I know, shame on me I guess. I knew Lisa Kudrow as Michele before I knew her as Phoebe, even though Friends was a constant on television my entire childhood. I just saw this movie way more than I watched Friends. There just couldn’t be another Michele, just like no one else could be Romy but Mira Sorvino. They are the perfect combo of lovable idiots. And their friendship is so pure, you believe anything they say to each other. Romy and Michele have an eye for fashion - it might be the most outrageous eye for fashion but they have it. From the first time you meet them, lying in bed making fun of Pretty Woman decked out in neon colors like they are about to hit the club all the way to the baby pink and blue dresses they made for the reunion there are some seriously insane outfits. The catalyst for their epic life makeover is a chance encounter with former classmate, Heather Mooney (played by the one and only Janeane Garofalo). Now, Heather here is what one might call a stone cold bitch, and she has every right to be a chain-smoking, all-black-wearing, cursing bitch. She is the literal opposite of Romy and Michele. Like Romy and Michele she had a pretty shitty experience in high school thanks to the “A-Group” lead by Christie Masters (Julia Campbell) and her gaggle of dumb cheerleader friends. Heather also had a big time crush on big time nerd Sandy Frink (Alan Cummings), who had a big time crush on Michele. 
            Romy and Michele decide they can’t just show up to the reunion as their underachieving selves. They have to show up with new fancy jobs and hot boyfriends, but the best they can do is borrowing a fancy car and making their own outfits. So they hit the road, come up with the idea to tell everyone they invented Post-its, have a falling out, and then reach the reunion. Not surprisingly the Post-it scheme doesn’t work out, but the good news is they prove to Christie Masters and her bimbo jock husband Billy Christiansen that maybe their lives turned out for the better - even if they didn’t invent Post-its and get called out on it in front of everyone at the reunion. But then here comes Sandy Frink to save the day, showing up in a dang helicopter. Surprise! - turns out the nerd everyone restlessly made fun of in high school is super rich now and comes to the reunion to win Michele's heart with a dance - which Michele only agrees to if Romy can join them because it’s not Michele and Sandy’s high school reunion, it’s Romy and Michele’s high school reunion. Who knew Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time" would turn out to be the perfect tune for three weirdos to do an even weirder interpretive dance to in front of everyone they went to high school with? Romy and Michele are truly ride-or-die best friends who end up with their own little clothing boutique in L.A. funded by Sandy. In the end they get the life that is perfect for them. 
            This may come as a surprise but Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion is based on a play called Ladies Room by Robin Schiff. Schiff, a member of the Groundlings, also wrote the screenplay for and co-produced the movie. Lisa Kudrow played Michele on stage before she did in the movie, maybe that’s why she is so perfect for this part. She lived with Michele for longer than just the filming of the movie. Dim-witted dry humor saturates the film; it sneaks into every scene. Like when Romy asks Heather, who literally has a cigarette in her hand every time you see her, if anyone has ever told her that smoking can kill you, Heather stares right back at her and responds dripping with sarcasm and a little bit of sincerity “No. No one. Thank You.” Romy goes on thinking she had maybe made a difference in Heather's life, and Heather just goes about her life. It’s what makes the movie great, everything just rolls off Romy and Michele, they don’t take themselves or anything they do too seriously. 
- Anna Lathem 

Monday, March 2, 2020

I'd Love to Turn You On #251: Rupa - Disco Jazz (1982)

            Rupa’s Disco Jazz didn’t gain a ton of traction upon its initial release in 1982. Born as the brainchild of the now Grammy Award-winning musician Aashish Khan, the record sold very few copies in its native country and was quickly forgotten about as the weeks passed. Rupa Biswas, the record’s titular and charismatic vocalist completely put the memory of recording the album in the rearview as the years went on. It was only after her son rediscovered the album in his mother’s attic that the family would go on to find out Disco Jazz had become a grail item for record collectors across the world. While its grooves are oriented in something that could feel dated to the average listener, its instrumental and vocal idiosyncrasies make the album an enjoyable and impactful listening experience. It’s for this reason that Disco Jazz not only stands as a testament to the talent of Rupa and the collaborators that made this record possible but also to the strange relationship of the album format and time itself.
            Disco aside, there seem to be both spiritual and psychedelic influences at play across the album and musician Aashish Khan is likely to thank for this. Khan’s performance on the sarod as well as his credits as both the producer and arranger of the record suggest he had strong creative influence over Disco Jazz’s four tracks, each of which makes an impression on the listener. His expertise on the sarod, which makes an appearance on every track, is the glue that holds the charm and beauty of the album together. The opening cut “Moja Bhari Moja'' borrows the core of its elements from standard late seventies and early eighties disco, but one doesn’t have to listen too long to be sucked in by the stark contrast of its transcendent breakdown, which slowly and brilliantly melds the sarod and Geoff Bell’s tremolo-drenched synthesizer in beautiful harmony. “Aaj Shanibar,” perhaps the album’s most well-known track, also dabbles in the realm of psychedelia with its sleek bassline and near jam-band guitar solo. The highlight of the track is the falsetto vocal from Rupa as she sings along note for note with Aashish Khan’s rhythmic, instrumental triplet. Aashish’s brother Pranesh Khan makes an appearance on this track as well as the album’s closer, complementing the track's lush production with his table playing.
            The album has its fair share of floor killer elements as well. “East West Shuffle,” the album’s bounciest and funkiest cut, is carried by the booming drum sound of percussionist Robin Tufts, whose polyrhythmic tendencies keep the track's repetitive and hypnotic bassline moving through its duration. The rock-inspired chorus of “Moja Bhari Moja” somehow fits just as much on the dancefloor as it would on any Yes album before 1972. “Ayee Morshume Be-Reham Duniya,” the album's sprawling, 15-minute closing cut, wraps up the listening experience perfectly, bringing together the best elements of side one into one epic mega track. Rupa's vocal melody over the Western funk of the Khan brothers’ instrumentation makes for some of the album’s most captivating moments. The hypnotic and pulsing refrain sucks you in and when you’re finally lost in the world the album has created for its listener, you feel as though the track could have gone on for another 15 minutes.
Disco Jazz could have been more appropriately titled Disco Psych, but the album gloriously lives up to the potential its moniker suggests. Rupa Biswas never made another album and never fully got to realize her musical prowess as the years went on, but the recent resurgence of her singular effort has revitalized her career and made her of a cult figure in some circles. If the story of Rupa proves anything, it’s that it’s never too late to make an impact and that genius is sometimes never recognized until decades later.

- Blake Britton

Monday, February 24, 2020

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #236 - In the Heat of the Night (1967, dir. Norman Jewison)

            I grew up watching the In the Heat of the Night television series all through the ‘80s with my parents. As police procedurals go, there wasn’t anything that particularly stood out about it (I’ve seen every episode multiple times and I couldn’t tell you the plot to any of them) other than it starred the genius Carroll O’Connor who we already knew and loved from playing Archie Bunker for all those years, so we just, as a family, liked it a lot. It would be years before I learned not only that there was a film version produced two decades earlier, but that said film version was, oh I dunno, a hundred million trillion times better than the show.
            For one thing the film, directed by Norman Jewison, is not just an effective whodunit, but it also acts as a lesson in civility. It was released in 1967, a time when the Civil Rights Movement was largely just starting to take shape with regards to actual effective legislation. Some sections of the United States, many in the South, were still rife with racial tension and uneasiness from all citizens. For Jewison, a Canadian, to come along and, in a way, hold a mirror up to those areas by portraying the small Mississippi town of Sparta as a cold, intolerant place was kind of a badass move. Sidney Poitier plays the well-read Philadelphia homicide detective Virgil Tibbs who, while visiting his mother in Sparta, is picked up by a small-time deputy (Warren Oates) as a suspect in the murder of a prominent industrialist. He isn’t doing anything suspicious mind you - other than being black - but again, this is the ‘60s in the deep South so that’s enough. He is taken back to the police headquarters where he meets the other officers and the surly chief of police, Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) who is only too eager to assume Tibbs’ guilt as well. Once Tibbs’s alibi is cleared up by his own superior officer, he is asked to assist the Sparta department in their murder investigation; a request he reluctantly agrees to. This is essentially the plot to the pilot episode of the series as well, as they are both based on a novel by John Ball. But that’s really where the similarities end. After the pilot, the series just becomes another yawner prime-time buddy cop drama. The film, a much darker affair, really showcases those racial tensions between the two lead characters, and thus, again, given the time period during which it was released, showcasing the racial tensions in the country at the time. While there is a mutual respect that builds between the two men over the course of the film, they are still not going to be friends. We, the viewers, don’t get the impression at the end that these two are going to even keep in touch, much less continue working together.
            I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the acting in In the Heat of the Night, which is also top notch. It presents a cast made up of both seasoned veterans and relative newcomers alike. Poitier breathes an ambitious and determined fire into his portrayal of Ball’s Tibbs character, prompting two lesser known but still kind of charming sequels. In some ways, we can see why Gillespie doesn’t like Tibbs. He is arrogant and stubborn, something Gillespie calls him out on almost immediately. Tibbs is supposedly a genius homicide detective, yet he is at first unwilling to help on a case he knows that he can solve. Gillespie only responds with racist remarks because it’s the only defense he knows. And can we just talk about Rod Steiger for a second? Holy shit, that guy, right? It takes a lot for me to prefer an actor over my beloved Carroll O’Connor, but Steiger’s Chief Gillespie is truly one of the greatest characters in film history, something his Best Actor Oscar that he received for it supports. He’s got such a seemingly despicable disposition at the beginning of the film, yet we still kind of root for him because we can tell that, deep down, he is a good law man, a fact that Tibbs also begrudgingly recognizes. By the end of the film, we witness a very real change in him as he becomes more empathetic and more tolerant.
Given that the country continues to struggle with issues of bigotry and racism, especially involving law enforcement, In the Heat of the Night remains an important film with an important message that still resonates in America today. Though some of the ways in which it delivers this message can be a bit dated and gratuitous, it’s still a message that bears repeating.
  - Jonathan Eagle

Monday, February 17, 2020

I'd Love to Turn You On #250: Godspeed You! Black Emperor - F#A#∞ (1997)

Godspeed You! Black Emperor (or GY!BE) are well known for their long, instrumental post-rock compositions. GY!BE has been described as cinematic in their approach to music; their songs and albums seem to tell stories and there are times when their music wouldn’t feel out of place as the soundtrack to some unconventional work of genius. Their extensive discography is also notable for the artistic statements it makes on events, politics, and ideas, which is rather impressive when you consider the fact that there are no lyrics to almost anything they’ve written (although they do include audio samples of people talking as part of songs on most of their albums). Listeners should note that the CD and vinyl versions of this album are not quite the same; the order of the music is different. In this review, I will be talking about the CD version.
What makes GY!BE stand out is that they’re able to blend innovative experimental sounds with musical storytelling and deep, powerful emotion. Emotion dominates this album; it draws you back again and again. It’s expressed in a way that can only be accomplished with music. The fact that there are no lyrics allows for an exploration of feeling that words simply can’t articulate in the same way. This is an album that will manipulate your emotions.
This album, on first listen, was very clearly made by GY!BE, but it immediately stands out from their other work because it begins with a very distinctive spoken-word segment that gradually blends into the music. "Dead Flag Blues," the first song on the hour-long, three-song album, tells a bleak story about the end of the world. It’s sad, but it’s the kind of sad that’s oddly comforting, and the story it tells feels as relevant as ever two decades after its release. Whether or not you agree with the band’s anarchist and anti-capitalist stance, you can’t deny there’s something that cuts very deep in a world like this one about the imagery of leering billboards and flags “dead at the top of their poles.” It’s eerie, it’s sad, and it’s beautiful in a pleasantly disconcerting way. It sticks with you. The melancholy music puts you at ease; it’s dreamlike and comforting, and you don’t really want it to end.
Part two of "Dead Flag Blues" begins with the sound of a train and the distinctive feeling of falling. It maintains the dreamlike feeling from the first part as it transitions into something reverb-heavy and Western-sounding, like a cowboy’s eulogy for the city that burned in part one. As long as this song is, it’s not something you’ll get bored listening to; there are clear transitions that bring each part together in a way that feels natural, like changing scenes in a movie. There’s a moment of falling in the immediate aftermath of the disaster at the beginning, then a period of mourning, and then at the end a happy and upbeat segment that gives the listener a feeling of hope; the story the song seems to tell is that the world ends, we mourn it, and then at the end we begin to recover and build something better from the ashes.
"East Hastings," the second song on the album, begins with the sound of bagpipes playing a variation of the riff from part one of "Dead Flag Blues" over the sound of a street preacher. This fades into a segment of quiet and mournful guitar played over a tense, uneasy background. The tension builds gradually along with the volume. You can feel something bigger coming, but you’re not sure what; all you know is that it’s getting closer. It’s incredible how much variety in sound can be accomplished with the relatively simply riffs and the addition of a violin and a cello; the dynamics shift constantly. Part two of "East Hastings" tells an entire story in itself. The song’s mood then shifts to something strange, like a dream dissolving in several directions at once.
As you realize you have no idea what’s going to happen next, "East Hastings" ends and "Providence," the longest song on the album, begins. There’s an audio sample that echoes the themes of the two previous songs: it’s two people discussing the end of the world and what the preacher has to say about it. Then a haziness seems to settle over the music, and it feels like a dream again for a while before something new starts. You’re left thinking about what’s been said so far by this hypnotic album.
Then a new segment begins that feels like movement and liminality; the light rhythm in the background is constant, but it doesn’t want you to stay in one place. Things are happening; the world is changing in this part of the story. Sound and tension build once more (something GY!BE are very good at) and guitar is joined by drums, horns, and glockenspiel. It ends abruptly. A ghostly, echoing voice enters unaccompanied with what fans will recognize as a melody teased in GY!BE’s 2000 album, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven. It sounds like an old folk or gospel song; one you’re hearing in your sleep.
But then the melody ends as abruptly as it began and a militant, drum-driven segment begins. Somehow, the juxtaposition between the peaceful, ghostly folk-gospel melody and the aggression of the drumming seems to make perfect sense. But just as the drumming seems to reach a sort of climax, a haunting voice begins to ask, “Where are you going?” and a mournful droning begins that feels like the aftermath of a war. Once again, you begin to think about the story the album is telling. How did the world end? It’s never explicitly stated. But the distant sounds in the background are reminiscent of bombs and battle.
The sound fades. All is quiet for a few minutes. You have a chance to process. The album is almost over. It’s been like watching a movie, the way the scenes shifted and the tension built at various points. Just when you think it’s over, an ethereal echo begins – a hidden track, or a post-credits scene. You can hear a guitar, but it sounds distant, like something heard through a cloud. Then the drums come back. Everything is echoing but there’s a melody now. Once again, the tension builds. It all comes together at the end.
It’s strange to think of an album like this coming out in the mid-1990s. It feels so relevant to the present. As long and strange as F#A# is, it’s not difficult to listen to. On the contrary, it’s deeply emotional and engaging and the long tracks are split into shorter segments that only go on for as long as they need to. With very little dialogue, this album tells a story. The details of the story aren’t important; what’s important is that the world as we know it ends, and it’s our fault, but it’s not necessarily the end of everything; there are moments of hope.

            - Madden Ott

Monday, February 3, 2020

I'd Love to Turn You On #249: Yes - The Yes Album (1971)

The Yes Album is a very hard one for me to start reviewing because there are so many things I can talk about with it. This album has not only been something I’ve been listening to since I first started playing guitar and bass; it’s not just an album that has started conversations with people who would become some of my best friends; it’s not just a weird album cover that you can stare at forever and still not understand it. This album is all that and more than I ever thought it could be. I don’t remember the first time I listened to this - it got lost in the brains of 14 year-old me - but I haven’t forgotten a note of it, and I still try to sing along to it even though I know I will never get close to Jon Anderson’s voice.
Starting an album with “Yours Is No Disgrace” seems so obvious - the opening hits trick you into thinking you know what’s coming on this album. Rarely do you hear all the instruments so crazily defined in the mix, with them all acting as one giant, speeding bus that they call a chord progression; but once you’re in for the ride they don’t let go because this song is just shy of ten minutes long and barely feels like it. It moves so freely that you don’t even feel exhausted by the end of it. The next song feels like it’s the complete opposite of what you’d hear on a classic prog rock album - solo acoustic guitar, courtesy of Steve Howe, with “The Clap.” It’s a piece that is just about three minutes of straight fire coming out of Steve’s fingers, a blend of classical, jazz, and traditional blues guitar styles all put in the stew of a kinda rock song - an odd choice for the second song on an album but it’s a very nice comedown from the extravagance that is “Yours Is No Disgrace.” “Starship Trooper” is really where this album takes off - that little bass part that kicks in when this song hits means as much to me as any two seconds of music ever has. Everything they were doing on the first track is executed perfectly here - the various melodies of the vocals, guitar, and bass all get stuck in your head as separate parts but you can’t have one without the others. It helps that the lyrics are inspired by the 1959 book of the same name, which was also the basis for the amazing movie of the same name (I’m still mad they never used the song in the movie). For as tight a band as Yes is, this song sometimes feels like it’s about to fall apart, but right when that moment comes they tighten up and become a much more cohesive unit, one that went on to take on the world.
Flipping the record over and dropping the needle on “I’ve Seen All Good People” is always going to be a therapeutic moment for me. It’s very clearly the first time I heard a musical Easter egg - the background choir singing “All we are saying, is give peace a chance” - that I haven’t been able to unhear since. My dad brought me up on The Beatles and Lennon, so I already knew that phrase and melodic line, but even just the simple line “Send an instant karma to me” was something I didn’t know you could do in music; it was so revelatory, and subconsciously made me interested in knowing what the bands I liked listened to. References like that make the music so much more personal, especially when some of the extreme metal bands I listen to now will have long extended solos and for a moment - blink and you’ll miss it - you’ll hear these bands do Yes riffs, ripped straight from this album, in their crazy distorted madness. It’s a moment that makes you feel connected to the band on a personal level and oddly makes some of these people more approachable, both in skill and personality. 
Outside of the music, this album has been a beacon in my life; it’s an album that my dad always said was one of his favorites ever, by one of his favorite bands ever. He took me to see what remained of Yes in 2012, far from the prime of this band, and most diehard fans wouldn’t want to see this version, but it was still so magical. This is the album that I had the cover of hanging next to my bed throughout middle school and high school - not a poster, the actual sleeve of the album with record still in it. It’s an album that I've been lucky enough to not only be able to share with the people I love, but use as jumping off points for things that some of my best friends and I first talked about, still talk about, and will always talk about.
- Max Kaufman