Monday, December 11, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #194 - Fred Frith – Gravity

When I lived in New York City, I used to hit about a dozen record stores in a ten block radius in and around Greenwich Village, all of which had their own niche focus that made it so I *had* to go to them all to make sure I had the best possible chance of finding what I wanted. One of these stores, Lunch For Your Ears, focused on avant-garde jazz and experimental music from around the world, and as my tastes expanded outward I found myself going there occasionally. The owner was Manny, a notoriously cranky record store guy. Manny was intimidating - he seemingly knew everything about the music I was just learning about, scoffed at a lot of the more mainstream stuff I enjoyed, and in classic NYC style was a pretty thorny person - on the outside. But if you got past the exterior, he was a passionate and broad-minded music lover with a deep knowledge of tons of hard to categorize music - jazz-ish improvisors, noise rock of varying stripes, art-music in all subgenres, international musicians, and so forth - lots of whom played at the (then) nearby Knitting Factory, and many of whom frequented his store and were on a first name basis with him.
One time my friend Dave and I were killing time at the store, looking at records without any specific need to buy one. Manny noticed Dave looking at a King Crimson album and asked him if he was a fan. Dave tentatively said “sure” and Manny said “You guys have some time?” and proceeded to turn off the lights, close the door to his shop, sit us down in a couple chairs, and play us an eight-minute segment of a live King Crimson video with a stunning, acoustic Robert Fripp solo. Another customer tried to come in during this and he wouldn’t let him in, telling him that he was busy with us and he could come in in a bit. Once the video had played, he simply and reverentially said (to the air more than to either of us specifically) “And they say the man is just a master of electric guitar…” turned the lights on and resumed normal business - as normal as he got anyway. That was Manny in a nutshell - so invested in the actual music that he couldn’t be bothered to let a customer in because he wanted to share the music he loved with another customer. And Dave bought Larks’ Tongues in Aspic.
Another time, based on the strength of the album Gravity, I was getting deep into the daunting catalog of Fred Frith - the English guitarist/violinist/composer who was one of the mainstays of art-rockers Henry Cow and about dozen other bands (including John Zorn’s thrash-noise-jazz outfit Naked City) that I would soon learn about - and I needed to get my hands on whatever I could afford. I went to the obvious spot to find this kind of music - Lunch For Your Ears - and was a little disappointed to find that the store wasn’t open (though I knew I had limited funds anyway) and the steel gate was most of the way down. Looking in the window and turning to leave, Manny suddenly appeared behind the metal shutter and asked me “What are you looking for? I know every record I have in here.” I was taken aback and said “Ummm… Fred Frith I guess?” He asked what my favorite album of his was, since Frith covered so much territory in his music. The instrumental album Gravity was my answer, and Manny quickly countered that he preferred the subsequent (and more challengingly spiky) album Speechless then rattled off about a dozen in-stock titles off the top of his head, including the just-released Naked City EP Torture Garden. It was the only thing under ten bucks, so I bought it. I might have bought more over time at the store, but Manny made me a little nervous. So for the time being I stuck to Gravity and (less-frequently) Speechless and the pure WTF-ness of the Naked City record.
            And there’s no question about it - whatever Frith’s reputation as experimentalist, as avant-gardist, and no matter how many different types of records he releases - Gravity is something special and very different in his catalog. Where much avant-garde is challenging, deliberately off-putting, humorless, here was a record that had hallmarks of experimental music - odd time signatures, dissonance - but was also catchy, danceable, and just plain fun to listen to. It kicks off with Frith’s high-pitched laugh at the beginning of “The Boy Beats The Rams,” as if to signal his intentional break with the seriousness and intensity of Henry Cow, then an insistent drumbeat starts to fill in the space between the ambient noises and Frith’s fiddle. This drives forward into the light, gentle “Spring Any Day Now,” which disguises its tricky bossa nove –inspired rhythms with a catchy guitar melody that sticks in the craw. The (album) side progresses through the deliberate rhythmic shifts of “Don’t Cry For Me,” the speedy tempos and gypsy violin improvisations of “Hands of the Juggler,” and the heavier guitar riffing of “Norrgården Nyvla” before closing out on the show-stopping drumming and oddball circus feel of “Year of the Monkey.” This is not the avant-garde that’s difficult and off-putting, this is the kind that welcomes you in, that invites you to enjoy song structures and melody rather than eschewing them. And even though Frith switches bands for the second half of the record, it’s still of a piece with the first, giving us some more challenging art rock in a vaguely Beefheart-ish mode a couple times, a tune that sounds like the theme for a late 60s TV cop show, and a playfully disrespectful cover of “Dancing In the Street” before taking in another fiddle tune with a heavy Scottish influence and a lovely and calming piano solo with light percussion that closes out the record on an almost lullaby-like feel.
            The whole thing is catchy, rhythmically propulsive (even when they go for more challenging meters), and very user-friendly. And if someone like Manny has intimidated you into thinking that experimental music is inaccessible or over your head, I’m here to tell you that Gravity is a key to accessing a lot of different things: art-rock, largely improvised music, international musics of varying stripes, and the variety of Fred Frith’s work as well. It did that for me, pushing me off in a dozen directions at once and opening a lot of doors for me, musically speaking. Manny’s right, Speechless is great too, but Gravity is the easier in for sure. And we can talk about Naked City’s Torture Garden another time.
(Note: Manny closed Lunch For Your Ears in the early 90s and joined up with another Lower East Side guy, Bruce Gallanter, to open the similarly-stocked Downtown Music Gallery, which still operates in Chinatown. Check ‘em out if you’re there!)

-          Patrick Brown

Monday, December 4, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #180 - Radio Days (1987, dir. Woody Allen)

In 1987 when Woody Allen made Radio Days, he waxed nostalgic for the days before television, when memories were formed and commemorated at the pace set by weekly radio programs, yet he could scarcely have conceived of the world of social media we inhabit now, where truth is lie and memories are discarded as soon as they are made. His incredibly heartfelt and masterful tribute to a slower time, when families sat together in living rooms and experienced life together as it crackled out of old vacuum tubes, feels like a prehistoric cave drawing compared to today’s reality. With hindsight, Radio Days is one of Woody Allen’s greatest achievements, and the movie that most exposes his sentimental attachment to his own childhood.

Taking place in the early 1940’s as World War II begins to permeate the consciousness of all Americans, our hero, Joe (clearly Woody as a child) narrates the story of his family’s combative but close living situation. An extended family of first generation Jews inhabiting tight quarters in Rockaway, Long Island, they, by physical necessity, experience everything together. No influence is more prevalent or central to their existence than the
constant warm glow of the radio. News of the day binds them emotionally, while talk shows and serials light their imaginations. No aspect though, is more present than the musical hits of the day. Along with the miraculous cast which includes Dianne Wiest, Mia Farrow, Julie Kavner and Michael Tucker (with cameos by everyone from Diane Keaton to Wallace Shawn to Larry David), the most present character in the movie is the delightful and memorable soundtrack. Filled with heart-tugging melodies and hilariously obscure novelty songs, Allen weaves them into the plot of his movie in a unique fashion - they don’t just accent the action, they predict, dictate and drive it forward. The songs propel the plot and color the most memorable scenes with unimaginable emotional impact. And emotional impact is where Woody Allen is heading with this movie. This is not one of his slapstick outings, nor is it a philosophical treatise on Man’s existential search for meaning, nor is it a fantasy. In fact, it stands alone in his canon as a beautifully honest and wistful autobiographical depiction of family and childhood.

Radio Days is blessed with a simultaneously linear and random plot line. Like memory itself, which boils the endless moments of life down to certain indelible images and an overall emotional “flavor,” this movie is episodic, and each episode is deeply imbued with rich details of family life and unforeseen emotional outcomes. Through it all is Joe’s childish narration, reminding us that the events which move history have deep resonance on the family and individual levels. The romantic life of Joe’s perpetually single Aunt Bea (Wiest) feels like another episode of his Mother’s favorite show, Breakfast With Roger And Irene. Allen’s script completes this circle in such an artistically satisfying fashion, weaving the lives of the actors of those shows into Joe’s life. In the end, as Joe melancholically bemoans the loss of radio, and ultimately the loss of youth, innocence and familial connection, we can’t help but share his sadness. In losing the details of our childhoods: the shows, the actors, the classrooms, the holiday dinners, the lives of our parents, we ourselves actually start to disappear, in real time, as we approach our own demise.

In a career defined by such artistic greatness and equally by such personal and public failure, Radio Days stands out in Woody Allen’s filmography as one of his purest artistic expressions. He masterfully creates a series of touching, jewel-like moments from life, which will ring true to anyone with a heart, and then he creates narrative connective tissue with the sounds of the radio and the unbreakable bonds of family. It is his most emotionally satisfying film.

-          Paul Epstein

Monday, November 27, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #193 - Slint – Spiderland (Touch & Go, 1991)


When I was in high school, I was obsessed with what my friends and I called “noise rock.” Really, this was just an umbrella term for anything angular, dissonant and somewhat difficult to listen to. It may have started when my older cousin introduced me to one of my first favorite bands, the Butthole Surfers, before I was even old enough to shave, but it really took root in my teenage years. I immersed myself in all things Amphetamine Reptile, Boner Records, Sub Pop and so many more. The Touch & Go label out of Chicago was, in addition to being home to the Butthole Surfers at the time, one of my go-to fixations. I bought as many Touch & Go releases as I could get my hands on. And even in those pre-internet days, this wasn’t that difficult. Each T&G release came with a full fold-out catalog with all their releases and the releases from all their subsidiary labels. I bet I had one of those catalogs in my pocket at all times throughout the ‘90s. I used them as a kind of checklist of records to buy and artists to check out. The T&G catalog not only gave me an education on current roster giants like the Jesus Lizard, Urge Overkill and Tortoise, but also hipped me to legends like Glenn Branca, the Virgin Prunes and Chrome whose reissues and new material had found homes on the label. One band that always stood out from the rest to me was Louisville, Kentucky’s Slint.

Unless you’ve never read anything to do with music ever, you’ve probably at least seen the name Slint come up in print at some point in your life. They only put out two full-length records and an EP in their short time as a band, yet they are one of the most influential and important bands in the history of rock. Though they were only teenagers when they started the band, they were already kind of scenester veterans, having formed out of the ashes of hardcore punk band Squirrel Bait. Slint’s debut, Tweez, is a masterpiece in its own right, but it’s their second and final album, 1991’s Spiderland, that really garners them the attention that they so richly deserve.

Spiderland came two years after the group’s debut. Back to back, the records sound like two completely different bands. It’s as though in those two years, the members of Slint all went through profound and possibly traumatic personal changes and wrote an album to go along with them. Let’s start with the lyrics, which were actually written during the recording of the sessions at the last minute. The songs deal with topics such as loss, alienation, guilt and paranoia. And, ho-lee shit, can you ever hear that shine through! The vocals are mostly hushed, ominous whispers or nervous spoken bits, alternated with occasional volcanic outbursts of austere shouting and desperate screaming. These dramatic dynamic shifts, combined with the group’s love of odd time signatures, add to the unease that is felt throughout the album. The tension begins immediately, as the harmonic bursts of opener “Breadcrumb Trail” begin an odd tale of carnival folk. “Nosferatu Man,” another high point in the record, is inspired by the F.W. Murnau silent film Nosferatu and could have served well as a soundtrack piece to the film with its jagged, dissonant lead riff and its crawling 5/4 time signature. The album’s closer, “Good Morning, Captain” is perhaps the absolute pinnacle of Slintosity, as it recalls a story of a sunken ship from the vessel’s only survivor. The lyrics are of course delivered in (guitarist/vocalist) Brian McMahan’s trademark mumbled monotone, but the song culminates in the album’s bleakest moment: the band explodes into a feedback-drenched cacophony while McMahan desperately screams “I miss you” over and over.

Spiderland was recorded in four days. Steve Albini, who recorded Tweez, was not called back in to man the boards. Instead, the band opted for Brian Paulson, known for his “live sound” recording technique. The creation of Spiderland was said to be so difficult and grueling an experience for the band that at least one member rumored to have checked himself into a psychiatric hospital upon the album’s completion. Slint themselves disbanded completely before the album even hit store shelves. Even the black and white cover photo (shot by friend of the band Will Oldham) of the four band members treading water up to their necks while wearing somewhat deranged grins suggests that something dark and unusual is contained within.

Spiderland’s legacy continues to grow even today. It is, after all, the album that basically invented modern day “post-rock” in all of its forms (post-metal, post-hardcore, post-whatever the hell). And if you don’t believe that, just listen to the album. Upon repeated listens, it will start to make sense to you why Explosions in the Sky and Godspeed You! Black Emperor are often lumped into the same category as vastly different bands like Pelican and Isis. You can hear all of those bands in Slint’s Spiderland. There is a famous quote regarding The Velvet Underground, stating that (and I’m paraphrasing because I don’t feel like looking up the exact quote) not many copies of the Velvet’s debut sold, but everyone who bought one started a band. I think the same could apply to Slint. They didn’t make a huge splash at the time, but the ripples from that small splash can still be felt today.

-         Jonathan Eagle

Monday, November 20, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #179 - Broken Embraces (Los abrazos rotos) (2009, dir. Pedro Almodóvar)


“For years, Mateo Blanco and Harry Caine shared the same body, mine. But a moment came when suddenly I could only be Harry Caine. I became my pseudonym. A self-made writer made by himself. There was just one unforseen detail. Harry Caine would be a blind writer.”


In 2009, when Broken Embraces was released, I was nearing the end of my degree in film studies, yet I hadn’t found my way to the films of Pedro Almodóvar. Having heard amazing things about the director I decided to go and see what all of the fuss was about, and I was certainly not disappointed. The delicate way that Almodóvar dealt with such a complex and inherently human narrative blew me away and thus began my love affair with the director.


The story begins toward the end of the storyline, introducing us to Harry Caine (Lluís Homar), a blind screenwriter with a penchant for beautiful women and spinning intricate storylines. As a seemingly unimportant news story comes up in conversation, Almodóvar takes the story back in time to 1992, where we meet Lena (Penélope Cruz) and her seemingly stern yet benevolent boss Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez). Lena’s father is quite sick, and through a series of quick events, Ernesto comes to Lena’s rescue to provide her father with the best possible care thus sparking the evolution of their relationship. Bouncing back and forth from 2008 and 1994 we slowly learn more about Harry, his friend and representative Judit (Blanca Portillo), her son/Harry’s writing assistant Diego (Tamar Novas), and the ways that all of their lives are more connected to each other and the scenes from the past than initially seemed. Lena always hoped to be an actress, and after years of living with Ernesto, she decides to try and pursue that dream. She ends up at the office of screenwriter and director Mateo Blanco (Who we also know as Harry Caine). Blanco sees something in Lena and decides to cast her in the lead of the film he is about to begin shooting. The two begin to fall for each other thus creating a complicated web of affairs that leaves the viewer yearning for more reveals through the jumps in time.


The density of the narrative could easily get away from a lesser director yet Pedro Almodóvar masterfully and gently weaves this tale with a doting attention to detail and understanding of the subtleties inherent in the human condition.  Coupled with stunning performances from the entire cast, but especially Homar, Cruz, Gómez, and Portillo, Broken Embraces is a fantastic tale of love, loss, and the ability to move forward despite epic tragedy.


What makes this film such a triumph, in my humble opinion, is the fact that the weight of the drama of the film is balanced with the levity, tenderness, and humor that truly makes life enjoyable. I can’t recommend this film enough, as it is a truly gorgeously woven tale of the human condition in all of its facets. Check it out and see for yourself, you will not be sorry you did!

-          Edward Hill

Monday, November 13, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #192 - Mos Def / Talib Kweli - Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star


In November of 2011, I saw Mos Def and Talib Kweli perform as Black Star at the Roseland Theater in Portland, Oregon. The opening act, Shabazz Palaces, made an already impressive event feel even more remarkable. By the time I attended that concert, I had been following Mos Def and Talib Kweli’s solo careers for years, but I first became acquainted with each of them through their breakout 1998 album, Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star. That performance blossomed into a celebration of the bond between these two artists and highlighted the chemistry they share. Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star prevails as an introduction to two exceptional talents in which they bring out the best in each other, a bold statement of purpose that influenced the course of its genre, and easily one of the greatest hip-hop albums of the last twenty years.

Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star moves with such an effortless flow over its fifty minute running time that it’s easy to forget how much it accomplishes in terms of expressing values, meaningful ideas, and artistic integrity. For as thoughtful and relevant as Black Star can be, the joy shared between these artists offsets any burden of seriousness that could weigh down the proceedings. Both Mos Def and Kweli possess lyrically dense, idiosyncratic, and inventive vocal styles, but a major part of the success of this album stems from their ability to draw off of each other’s stylistic strengths while establishing their respective individual voices as rappers. Running back-to-back in the first half of the album, the tone-setting one-two punch of “Definition” and “RE: DEFinition” establish Mos Def’s melodic, humorous, and elastic wordplay as well as Kweli’s rhythmic, cerebral, and urgent verbalism. Opening with a revealing and amusing clip of dialogue from the film Chameleon Street, “Brown Skin Lady” tilts into a bass heavy groove as Mos Def and Kweli extol the natural beauty of women of color. The song’s loose energy and warm mood make it the album’s most appealing track while its positive, respectful message stands in stark contrast to the misogyny and objectification of women especially prevalent to mainstream hip-hop of the era. Layering an excerpt from the 1983 hip-hop documentary Style Wars with a repeating loop of a woman whispering “escúchela, la ciudad respirando,” “Respiration” begins as a sound collage and places the listener at the heart of a bustling urban setting. Mos Def, Kweli, and guest vocalist Common soon populate this environment and begin trading vivid, overlapping tales of life in the city and pull off the album’s most ambitious moment. Being the product of a rich and fruitful partnership, Black Star holds up to frequent and repeated listening and has matured incredibly well for a hip-hop album from the late 1990s.

Although Mos Def and Talib Kweli have collaborated on individual songs and performed on stage together over the last nineteen years, they have recorded only one album as Black Star. Within a few years of Black Star’s release, Mos Def and Talib Kweli appeared as guests on one another’s early albums. Kweli adds a playful, yet compelling dynamic to the maximalist jam “Know That” from Mos Def’s excellent solo debut, Black on Both Sides. Mos Def plays an empathetic, supporting role on “Joy,” Kweli’s ode to the challenges and rewards of parenthood from his first-rate sophomore album, Quality. Of these later collaborations, the song that best recaptures the magic of Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star appears on Mos Def’s crucial 2011 album, The Ecstatic. “History” features a J Dilla production and flies by in just under two and a half minutes as Mos Def and Kweli hold forth on their personal, professional, and shared histories.

-          John Parsell

Monday, November 6, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #178 - Daughters of the Dust (1991, dir. Julie Dash)


2017 represents a milestone for two of the most significant films in African-American cinema history. It’s the 40th anniversary of Charles Burnett’s landmark Killer of Sheep, an episodic, loose narrative centered around a slaughterhouse worker, and it’s also the year that Julie Dash’s 1991 film Daughters of the Dust – the first feature film ever distributed in the U.S. that was directed (and also written and produced) by an African-American woman - enjoyed a re-release in theaters and an upgraded remastering on DVD and blu-ray.

Dash’s film got much-deserved notice as the remastering work (done in 2016) coincided with the 25th anniversary of the film, but it got a huge bump in attention when Beyoncé borrowed imagery from the film for her visual album Lemonade (there are a number of online articles noting similarities), and that helped the film see not only a remastering, but a re-release in theaters this year as well. But the accolades would mean little if Dash’s enigmatic, sumptuous film did not hold up to repeat viewings – a test it passes with flying colors.

Daughters of the Dust is set in 1902 on the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina as the Peazant family, a community of Gullahs – free descendants of African slaves – prepare to move to the mainland and head north for more opportunity. Because of the Gullahs’ isolation, they’ve retained a distinct dialect and unique culture, rooted in the African traditions passed down through generations and married to the New World. In fact, more than any specific plot points (though the intertwining relationships of the characters is also important), that is the theme of the film: the future and the past are related, and a community’s history is a living thing to be carried by the present generation and passed on to the future. Early in the film, matriarch Nana (Cora Lee Day) says this outright “The ancestor and the womb – they one, they the same” and this is the film’s central idea. It’s why an as-yet-unborn narrator remembers things from before her birth and appears in a photograph documenting the Gullahs before they leave the island. Some have found the film’s dialect challenging to understand, but close listening makes all but the most obscure language clear, and while the relationships of some of the characters can also be challenging to work out, again it comes back to the idea that the film is about a community, and a straight linear story is not on the agenda. Instead we’re immersed in this community and allowed the privilege of observing a set of customs long gone in the real world, but retained in all their vitality in Dash’s gorgeously photographed and acted film.


The film can be a challenge, yes, particularly if you’re hung up on everything being clearly explained to you or a plot that moves steadily from A to B to C, but it’s absolutely worth the effort – there’s simply nothing else like it in cinema. Dash reached into her own family’s history to tell the story of “the adult-born-free African-American person, the first generation of free-borns making decisions about their future” and she assembled a cast and a crew around her to help realize her work beautifully. The cinematography is simply ravishing from beginning to end, and Dash’s decision to allow the women’s conversations and decisions be the driving force of the film is absolutely the right choice. From Nana’s resistance to the move north to Yellow Mary’s (Barbara O) return to the scorn of much of her family and realization how much her roots mean to her to Eula’s (Alva Rogers) fears about her unborn child and her heart-rending final speech, “We carry too many scars from the past. Our past own us. We wear our scars like armor…” the stories interwoven into the totality of the film are absolutely compelling and deserving of multiple viewings. The film is an underseen masterpiece of American filmmaking and deserving of the widest possible audience.

-Patrick Brown

Monday, October 30, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #191 - Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians - Fegmania

It’s almost impossible to compare Robyn Hitchcock to any modern artist. The most fitting comparisons are all in the past: Syd Barrett, John Lennon and Bob Dylan are the most obvious, and it is hard to imagine any artist who wouldn’t be thrilled by the comparisons. In most cases such comparisons would be laughably ambitious, however in the case of Robyn Hitchcock, he lives up to them. Yet, having begun his recording career in 1979 (with A Can Of Bees by his early group The Soft Boys), he clearly is part of the modern world. I remember I first found out about him when he appeared on the cover of some long-forgotten magazine which featured articles about other bands I was interested in (Jesus and Mary Chain and Sonic Youth if I’m not mistaken). The article about him spurred my interest and I started down the road. Almost 40 years later, Hitchcock remains entirely relevant, fresh and one of my favorite artists.

Fegmania, released in 1985, was Hitchcock’s fourth album under his own name and his first with The Egyptians as his backing band. Essentially a rearranged version of The Soft Boys, these players provided his most sympathetic backing and found their way to making one of the finest albums of the 80’s. Fegmania is the perfect place to start with this artist. He has a large, unwieldy catalog spread out over a number of labels. Opening with “Egyptian Cream” we are presented with a perfect slice of retro pop-psych; a hook that gets in your head, lyrics that are at once mysterious, heartbreaking and hilarious. In case you didn’t know, Robyn Hitchcock is the most erudite and surreal lyricist of his generation. Gifted with the Anglophile whimsy of his heroes Lennon and Barrett, he is also in possession of one of the most astounding improvisational poetic minds imaginable. In the live setting he regularly launches into long, extemporaneous orations that fall somewhere between Lewis Carroll, Shakespeare and Thomas Pynchon. It is not a typical mind we are dealing with here. If you like your songs to not provoke thought, look elsewhere; this is an artist of substance. Song three, “I’m Only You,” beautifully illustrates this as he reels off one beautiful line after another in an angelic voice with a Byrdsian wall of acoustic and electric guitars and rumbling drums propelling it forward into a chaotic ending worthy of The Doors. Elsewhere on “My Wife And My Dead Wife” and “The Man With The Lightbulb Head” he channels the style of John Lennon’s writing in his books A Spaniard In The Works and In His Own Write. It is simultaneously, hip, knowing, childlike and sweet. These are often conflicting impulses, yet Hitchcock has always walked that fine line with artistry and aplomb.

Musically, The Egyptians are a totally modern band with current production values. While they utilize and master countless Beatley tricks of harmony as well as complex rhythms and tempo shifts within songs, their music never feels nostalgic. “Goodnight I Say,” “Strawberry Mind” and “Heaven” are songs which seem unglued in time. They feel appropriate next to modern FM hits, yet there is an undeniable “classic” feel to them.

So many albums from the 1980s have lost much of their sparkle because of the horrendous production values employed and the MTV-ready insipidness of the songs’ subject matter. Fegmania on the other hand is a serious and colorful work of art - free of any era-based foolishness and filled with memorable music and poetic imagery.

-         Paul Epstein

Monday, October 23, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #177 - The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988, dir. Wes Craven)


Right off the bat, I’d like to say that I really am not a “horror movie-guy.” And all due respect, but if you are one, you know who you are: you can rattle off obscure B-movie horror actors and directors without batting an eye, you talk about things like blood spatter and creature make-up like it’s an artform unto itself and just generally have a real affinity for the horror and slasher genres. That’s not me. I don’t dislike horror movies, I just generally don’t choose to watch them and thus don’t usually have much to say about them. I’m more of a comedy kind of fella. However, like with any genre, I have my handful that I love and repeatedly return to (and many of those are even more comedy than horror, such as Shaun of the Dead or the Evil Dead series). But with Halloween right around the corner, I thought it appropriate to write up a horror film that I do adore.

So I’d like to discuss Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow because I feel that among a seemingly never ending sea of horror films, it stands out as one of the best. Many of the greatest films, horror or otherwise, are often based somewhat in fact. The Serpent and the Rainbow was not necessarily based entirely on fact, but was inspired by the 1985 book of the same name by Harvard research scientist Wade Davis. The book details Davis’ travels to Haiti to investigate a voodoo society that utilizes mysterious drugs that lower a person’s metabolic processes to the point where they appear dead, are buried alive and resurrected later, having been aware of everything they’d been through. Leave it to Wes Craven to turn what is essentially a scientific and fact-based document (albeit a disturbing one) and turn it into one of the most terrifying experiences of my life.

In the film, Bill Pullman plays the protagonist Dennis Allen, a Harvard researcher who, like Davis, goes to Haiti to look into these “zombification” drugs in hopes of utilizing their anesthetic qualities. In his investigation Allen, assisted by Dr. Marielle Duchamp (Cathy Tyson), enters deep into the world of the Voodoo religion and black magic. He discovers that the drug he is looking for is the reason behind many people being presumed dead and buried alive. During his investigation he is often thwarted by his main antagonist, one of the most utterly upsetting characters to ever be put on screen, Dargent Peytraud. Peytraud is the head of the Haitian militia group the Tonton Macoute and a powerful Voodoo priest, who arrests, taunts, tortures and frames Dr. Allen for murder in order to protect the secrets of his religion and the zombification drugs. Peytraud is always wearing an eerie toothy grin and can appear in dreams and visions to manipulate people’s minds and nightmares because Wes Craven determined that I don’t need to sleep at night. He uses these powers to his brutally creepy advantage, creating nightmarish and paralyzing trances in various characters.

Much of the entire film seems like it could really happen because, to an extent, some of it did really happen. People were buried alive because of a weird voodoo drug. People do still practice voodoo and black magic. However, the beauty in The Serpent and the Rainbow lies more with Craven’s ability to perfectly marry the realistic with the surrealistic. The film is definitely classic Craven, as it eases between dream and reality much like in A Nightmare on Elm Street. But it differs from much of his other work in that it is deeply rooted in realistic premises. I mean, yes, the film was inspired by real events, but even some of the less plausible scenes in the movie, such as the way Peytraud is able to manipulate nightmares, are shot in such a way that it does not seem farfetched, making The Serpent and the Rainbow essentially the most realistic zombie film there is. And that realism is what makes it a great horror film. I’m confident that even the most steadfast of horror fanatics can’t really argue with that.

So, do me a favor and humor me, scream queens and slasher fiends. If you haven’t already, set some time aside to check out Craven’s film and prepare to lose a couple of nights sleep. And Happy Halloween everyone.

-         Jonathan Eagle

Monday, October 16, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #190 - Todd Snider – East Nashville Skyline


I didn't know Todd Snider’s music until the summer of 2014. I'd heard his name, seen his CDs coming through the store over the years, but heard him variously tagged as “folk” or “singer-songwriter” or “Americana” - areas of music that aren't  necessarily my thing so much so I didn’t pay close attention. I respect the craft and skill that goes into these, and once in a while someone in one of these areas hits in on the head in a way that makes me realize that I need to pay attention to music in every genre, not just the arty and weird areas that usually draw my ear. It was with some surprise then, when Twist & Shout hosted the Hard Working Americans for an in-store back in July 2014, that on a stage with notables like flashy guitarist Neal Casal, drummer Duane Trucks, and big guy bassist (and regular Twist shopper when he's in town) Dave Schools of Widespread Panic, my eyes were locked on Snider. He was barefooted, eccentric, twitchy, singing in a raspy drawl that betrayed years of, um, interesting life choices, and he was magnetic to watch – even when he wasn’t singing I always wanted to see what he was doing on stage. And of course, this lead to me wanting to check out the records….

And that began here. I took critic Robert Christgau's advice and chose between three albums he gave an 'A' grade to – this one, 2006's The Devil You Know (currently out of print, but it's great and turns up used regularly) and Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables from 2012 (also great, but too recent to be eligible for this column). In addition to being readily available and having a cheeky nod to Dylan in the album’s name, this had the added bonus of a song title that grabbed me outright: “Conservative Christian, Right-Wing Republican, Straight, White, American Males” – how does one have a title like that and not have it grab me? But as it turned out, the reality of the song was even better. Snider mixes big doses of humor in with his more serious (and very down-to-earth) political side, and not only is the song smart and catchy, it's funny as hell too. But he’s funny (and serious and smart and catchy) all over the record even before that one, which is track 8. Right from the get-go, “Age Like Wine,” he’s self-deprecating enough to sing “my new stuff is nothing like my old stuff was / and neither one is much when compared to the show / which will not be as good as another one you saw” and mean it. And he notes, in lyrics that chart his self-destructive tendencies as readily as his self-deprecating ones, that he never thought he’d live to be as old as he is and that it’s “too late to die young now” as he’s knocking on 40’s door. And he moves directly from there into a story that helps illuminate this idea, “Tillamook County Jail,” where he came “down on vacation / gonna leave on probation” and is hoping of his girlfriend that “she's not so mad now that she doesn't even pay my bail.”

And though common-man stories of drinking and hell-raising run throughout the record (and his career), it’s not all he does, as in the album’s centerpiece and probably its best song, “The Ballad of the Kingsmen.” The song refers back to the public scare about the supposedly obscene words of the Kinsgmen’s classic “Louie Louie” that went all the way up to an FBI investigation and draws that forward to Columbine and the tendency of many pundits to blame youth violence on music and the arts. In addition to his own copyrights, all of which are worth hearing and which I’ll leave you to discover on your own (and make a special quick note for the great “Sunshine”), Snider nails three covers here. In ascending order of favorites: Billy Joe Shaver’s “Good News Blues,” as funny/catchy as any of Snider’s songs with a great intro thanking Shaver personally for saving him from getting shot in a dive bar; Fred Eaglesmith’s “Alcohol and Pills,” a great tune that finds Snider again copping to a lifestyle that claimed Hank Williams, Elvis, Jimi, Janis, and others; and “Enjoy Yourself,” the album’s closer and summary statement, a hit for Guy Lombardo in 1950 that follows on the heels of “Sunshine” and takes that song (and this album)’s note of moving beyond the bad shit in your life and remembering to – you guessed it – “enjoy yourself while you’re still in the pink.” It’s a lovely memento mori to close things out – light, not somber, funny and smart.

Now I’ve seen Snider three more times solo, plus once more with the Hard Working Americans, I’ve got all the albums – including an essential pair of live ones that give you a taste of his between-song patter that’s often as good as the songs themselves – and I’m totally sold. I even bought his autobiography, which once you’re familiar with the personality that’s behind the songs you really will want to check out. And the other records Christgau gave an ‘A’ to – The Devil You Know and Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables – both as good as this one, or maybe even a hair better. Check ‘em out. But the next record might be different and better than the last one, and probably neither of them is much compared to the live show….

-         Patrick Brown

Monday, October 9, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #176 - The Prestige (2006, dir. Christopher Nolan)


One of the best ways to flummox movie audiences is to release two very similar movies within a few months of each other. At some point, a majority will pick one Truman Capote, one asteroid headed for Earth, one erupting volcano, or one talking pig. Although success, either commercial or critical, can help tandem movies like these break away from the association with another film, some of these works languish forever in a blurry region of pop cultural memory. As odd as it may sound, two different, stylish movies about magicians set in Europe during the late 1800s arrived in theaters in the fall of 2006. Whereas The Illusionist amounts to little more than a predictable, yet pleasant looking vehicle for Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti, The Prestige holds up as an absorbing statement on obsession and sacrifice, a well-paced and riveting mystery, and one of Christopher Nolan’s most satisfying films.

Just over a year after Christopher Nolan kicked off his Dark Knight Trilogy with Batman Begins, he recruited Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman to play the leads in an adaptation of Christopher Priest’s novel about rival magicians. Bale and Jackman earned their reputations as charismatic, bankable action stars as the two most important characters of the modern era of comic book movies. As Batman and Wolverine, respectively, these actors set the bar for portraying the kind of flawed, morally ambiguous heroes who have become the standard for contemporary action movies. Nolan leveraged the talent and range of these actors by challenging them with roles that stretched beyond their well-known characters and allowed both actors to add distinctive, new performances to their bodies of work. As Alfred Borden, the industrious, working class magician who blends technical mastery of his craft with a willingness to take risks, Christian Bale creates a character who can shift from sympathetic and admirable in one scene to emotionally distant and ruthless in the next. In the role of Robert Angier, a mysterious performer with a flair for showmanship that compensates for his humble talents in magic, Hugh Jackman depicts an enterprising dreamer whose considerable ambition slowly gives way to an all-consuming desire to prevail over his adversary. Borden and Angier begin working together as assistants for a successful, yet complacent magician, but a pivotal, tragic event during a show causes a rift between them that sparks the epic competition that comes to dominate the rest of their lives. Michael Caine lends his remarkable abilities to the role of Cutter, a magician’s engineer who serves as a mentor to both Borden and Angier, and supplies the film with its conscience. As Sarah, Rebecca Hall gives the film its heart by demonstrating the true cost of Borden and Angier’s conflict through a harrowing, memorable, and nuanced breakout performance.

Although The Prestige is a work of fiction, it draws upon historical details like Nikola Tesla’s scientific experiments in Colorado Springs, Colorado. This element of the plot not only allows Nolan to include several beautiful sequences filmed in Colorado, but also gives David Bowie the opportunity to inhabit the role of the brilliant, otherworldly Tesla. Although a cameo like this could easily distract from the rest of the movie, Bowie’s presence enhances the whole film and endures as one of his last great acting roles. When I went out one cool Friday evening in Vermont eleven years ago to see this movie, I wasn’t entirely sure what I might experience. At that point I had seen a couple of Nolan’s other films, but I didn’t have any notable preconceptions of him as a director. That night, The Prestige presented me with one of my favorite of life’s simple, yet elusive pleasures: the unexpected.

-         John Parsell