Monday, May 23, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #141 - The Man Who Would Be King (1975, dir. John Huston)

John Huston’s 1975 adventure tale almost defies description. It so filled with important themes (power corrupts absolutely, British imperialism in India was a huge mistake, loyalty to any dogma - religious, historical, political - is dangerous, an adventurous spirit can overcome any obstacle), magnificent scenery (filmed in Morocco), fantastic acting (Christopher Plummer, Sean Connery, Michael Caine), intelligent exposition (John Huston’s script) and great adventure (Rudyard Kipling’s original story) that it almost seems like one is talking about multiple movies. In a sense that is appropriate, because director Huston put everything he had into this film. All his abilities as a storyteller and visual artist are at their zenith for the making of this epic picture. Each scene is a stunning set piece of beautiful landscapes; sympathetic lighting and music; and plot or character development. The Man Who Would Be King is dense with all the details that make for great movies, and it is an enormously entertaining and thought-provoking cautionary tale as relevant today as it was when Kipling wrote it (1888). In many ways it is a summation of Huston’s career, which was already extraordinary by anyone’s reckoning.

Taking place in turn of 19th century India, Christopher Plummer plays young journalist Rudyard Kipling, who befriends two con-men who, when decommissioned from the British army, find themselves adrift and looking for adventure. They strike upon a plan to travel to Kafiristan (mountainous Afghanistan) where they will befriend local tribal leaders, help them vanquish their enemies, and then themselves subvert power and become kings of this primitive land. Huston leads them through an escalating series of adventures, filmed with genuine skill and on-location panache, landing them finally in remote tribal areas. The years since September 11, 2001 have only lent a greater element of risk and mystery to this region of the world making it seem even more likely to contain secrets unknown to the Western world. Amazingly, the two adventurers (Connery as Daniel Dravot and Caine as Peachey Carnehan) actually start to realize their far-fetched plan. Through a series of unlikely but believable coincidences the local pagan tribespeople accept Daniel Dravot as their king, and eventually as the second coming of their God Sikander (who turns out to have been Alexander The Great). On the verge of getting away with the largest treasure on earth, Dravot starts to believe his own hype. He first asks Peachey to bow before him like all the other tribespeople (“just for appearances”) and before long, he has convinced himself that he is indeed some kind of reincarnation of Alexander and that he will eventually gain his rightful place as one of the great rulers of earth.

It certainly doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this is going to go horribly wrong, and it does in spectacular fashion. As power clouds Daniel’s vision, his ego takes the lead position and begins to drive the whole train off the cliff (figuratively and literally). The last half hour of the film unfolds in such a precise reading of human failing that it almost feels as if it is in slow motion. We wince as Daniel falls prey to his own weakness. Not that either of the lead characters have projected much humanity. They are, for the most part, despicable thieves who get precisely what they deserve. It is a tribute to both actors that these characters are simultaneously compelling and humorous while embodying all that is detestable in human nature. There are shocks and surprises aplenty, so it is best to stop the plot summary and encourage you to see it…on as big a screen as you can find. I hadn’t seen this movie in over a decade, but scene after scene came back to me as though they were slide shows of my own life: so indelible are Huston’s images. In today’s world of computer-generated, outer space scenery, it is entirely thrilling to remember what great film making was all about. John Huston plies his craft with such confident expertise that it is literally breathtaking. His story takes in the scope of human ambition and failure and he tells it with the visual majesty of nature itself. It is as big and great as movie-making gets.

-         Paul Epstein

Monday, May 16, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #154 - Ween – Quebec

Ween released Quebec in August of 2003, when I first worked at Manifest Discs & Tapes in Greenville, South Carolina. At that time, Manifest’s in-store music came from a CD player equipped with a one hundred disc carousel containing a selection of the best recent releases. Usually, managers would press “random” at the beginning of each shift and we’d start listening to a newly configured arrangement of those albums. I’ll never forget the feeling of walking the floor, helping customers, restocking the bins, and alphabetizing each genre while listening to new albums all the way through. This album played probably five times before I realized that it wasn’t a compilation of various artists and when I did, I was shocked to learn that Ween was the band behind all of these songs.

Quebec snuck up out of nowhere and suddenly reminded me of the bent, brilliant alchemy at the core of Ween’s best work. I had listened to some Ween albums with friends over the years, but I didn’t feel informed enough to consider myself a fan. I can understand very well why I initially mistook Quebec for a movie soundtrack or some other kind of compilation looking back at the three opening songs. The album starts off strong with “It’s Gonna Be a Long Night,” a hard driving, blues-rock rager containing the inspired threat, “don’t call your mother - don’t call your priest - don’t call your doctor - call the police.” Many have heard elements of Motörhead in this song, but upon my first listen, it called to mind the handiwork of an imaginary supergroup composed of Jimi Hendrix and Body Count-era Ice-T. Following with a complete change of pace, tone, and direction comes a dreamy, warped synth-pop bossa nova tribute to Ween’s antidepressant of choice. Simulating the serene, artificial calm brought on by SSRIs, “Zoloft” acquaints the audience with Quebec’s mercurial nature. Rounding out the trio of openers, “Transdermal Celebration” first struck my ears as one of the best Foo Fighters songs I’d ever heard. I was sure that I was hearing well-produced, radio-ready, guitar-based alt-rock that would soon be a Top 40 hit. As Quebec progresses, songs begin to fall into more familiar patterns for Ween by holding down left field novelty territory with “Happy Colored Marbles” and “Fancy Pants” while exploring the band’s penchant for seemingly sincere folk-rock and psychedelia in the form of “I Don’t Want It,” “Tried & True,” and “Captain.” A highlight from the album’s second half, “The Fucked Jam,” would probably top a number of people’s lists for “most annoying song ever” with its stop/start gimmick, but for some reason I have grown to love it. Composed of only a propulsive bass line, a minimalist drum track, and something that sounds like a small robotic rodent rapping indecipherably, this song epitomizes Ween’s knack for spinning great songs from unlikely elements on Quebec.

Ween established a reputation for crafting unpredictably creative and enjoyably perverse music over seven albums from 1990-2000 and simultaneously locked in a devoted cult following. In the last fifteen years, Ween has released only two studio albums: Quebec and 2007’s La Cucaracha. On account of this timing, Quebec falls outside of the window most listeners consider to be peak Ween, but it works equally well as an introduction to Ween’s offbeat magic and as a victory lap for fans more familiar with the albums from the ‘90s. Unlike some of Ween’s best loved albums like 12 Golden Country Hits or The Mollusk, Quebec lacks a unifying concept or stylistic thrust, but more than makes up for it with the range, variety, and quality of this rewarding collection of songs.

- John Parsell

Monday, May 9, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #140 - Multiplicity (1996, dir. Harold Ramis)

Doug 2 (talking on the phone with Doug 1) “Who the hell is this?”
Doug 1 “It’s me, it’s you know, it’s you, it’s us. You know who it is”

Have you ever wondered what it would be like if you could clone yourself and be able to literally be in two places at once? While you’re at it why not make it three places at once, or four for that matter! If you answered yes to that query then I have the movie for you. Harold Ramis’ comedy from 1996, Multiplicity, explores the real world consequences of just such a situation. This popcorn flick is quite possibly one of the most entertaining and overlooked masterpieces of 90’s comedy.

The story follows Doug Kinney (Michael Keaton), an overworked contractor who is having serious issues juggling his work life, his family life, and his desperate need for alone time. Right from the beginning of the film Doug is being forced into taking on even more than he was currently doing. He’s missing milestone events in his children’s lives. He can’t keep an eye on all of his issues at work. His wife, Laura (Andie MacDowell), isn’t happy with the amount of time he has to spend with her and the kids, and he can’t seem to fix the water heater. As his life is fumbling toward a train wreck – one that I think we can all relate to – a solution presents itself at the Gemini Institute. He’s working on a renovation of a scientific research facility when he has a bit of a breakdown. After his meltdown he's approached by a scientist who, after listening to his problems for a brief moment, offers him a “miracle.” He offers to clone him which could give him the “miracle of time” by basically Xeroxing him.

With very little coaxing Doug is completely on board and after a brief science montage Doug 2 is born. The first interaction between the two is the gloriously comedic grappling with the question of which which is which? Who is the real Doug? On the first day with Doug 2, Doug finds that his clone has taken the initiative and control of his job, giving him the time to watch his son play football (even ending up coaching), cook dinner, and even some extra time to spend with his wife. After a month or so Doug realizes that while Doug 2 goes to work he is basically doing all of the house work and keeping the kids under control, which is still leaving him with no alone time and he is just as stressed out as before. The first clone worked out so well that Doug decides that life could be even better with another clone, thus Doug 3 is brought into the picture. Just as before, this new clone takes more pressure off of Doug, but it isn't long before the logistics of having more than one of himself catches up with him and everything starts to spiral out of control quickly (and hilariously) and Doug starts to wonder where he fits into this new life.

One of the strengths of the film is the fact that although it is a comedy, it does tackle the existential questions that arise from the concept of cloning fairly well. As we get to know the clones a little better they seem to be representations of certain parts of Doug's psyche; his masculine side, his feminine side, etc. While the clones are copies of Doug they seem to be more segmented aspects of Doug’s entire personality, and thus they execute Doug's life the way that that part of his inner dialogue would, which creates a variety of interesting and hilarious issues for Doug.

While the premise and the execution of the narrative are fantastic, the real power of the film lies in the acting, more specifically Michael Keaton's insane ability to play four (yes four - you will have to see the movie to find out...) different aspects of the same character. As far as the other actors and actresses, Andie MacDowell is fantastic as Doug's wife Laura, Harris Yulin is perfect as the somewhat hair-brained "mad" genetic scientist, John de Lancie is completely annoying as Doug’s work nemesis Ted, and Eugene Levy provides some amazing humor and levity as the constantly tardy and haphazard contractor Vic. While all of these supporting characters are superbly crafted and well-acted the true power of the film lies in Michael Keaton’s ability to sell all of the different clones and the original Doug. Keaton’s portrayal of the different Dougs is fascinating and captivating, by creating subtle differences within each clone's character they truly start to become their own separate person and it is crazy to watch!

An art film Multiplicity is not, but if you are a fan of any of Harold Ramis' work - Caddyshack (1980), Ghostbusters (1984), or Groundhog Day (1993) (to name a few of his masterpieces) - or any number of other amazing comedies that he wrote and/or directed, then this is a film to be missed at your own peril. Multiplicity is a perfectly executed comedic journey through the trials and tribulations of dealing with cloning in order to have more time. It sounds outlandish, but in execution you barely think about just how ridiculous the entire concept is because the issues are just too easy to relate to, and I can't recommend this film enough! So pick it up and learn the answers to all of the logistical questions that arise from literally being able to be in two or more places at once!

-         Edward Hill

Monday, May 2, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #153 - Amy Rigby – 18 Again

Have you heard of Amy Rigby? If so, you’re in a rare 1% - probably less, actually - of discerning rock music listeners of the late 1990s. If not, welcome to her world of relationships gone sour, mod housewives, chronic underemployment, the travails of aging and motherhood, and bookstore crushes. Rigby, born in Pittsburgh before relocating to New York City as a teenager, married and had a daughter with dB’s drummer Will Rigby, played in a couple bands (The Last Roundup, The Shams) that got some notice, divorced, and eventually remarried singer-songwriter Wreckless Eric, with whom she now lives in upstate New York. I mention this data because this feeds directly into what she does with her music and how she makes it. From the liner notes of her own acclaimed but little-heard solo debut album Diary of a Mod Housewife Rigby puts it this way: "I've been a mod housewife since 1993, when I decided I was not going to get down on my hands and knees and scrub the bathroom floor unless I could get up on stage and sing about it. I didn't want to fight about sex and laundry with my husband unless I could turn it into a song. Somehow going to work at a crappy job made more sense if I could look at it as... research. Oh, I'd played music for years, but that was with friends, for fun. This was sanity."

She recorded three albums for Koch Records in the wake of her divorce with Will Rigby – Diary of a Mod Housewife (1996), Middlescence (1998), and The Sugar Tree (2000) – all which are currently out of print, and have been collapsed to this handy guide that pulls just about evenly from all three. It was released when they were in print with a notice on the cover to trumpet a new song and alternate version contained within – both excellent – as bait to get you to buy these 18 songs again, but it’s now most valuable for being the primary artifact available containing music from that era. Back then, she was inaccurately tagged as alt-country, and while it’s true that she copped from country tunes as much as anyone – a favorite set of lyrics of hers goes: “Summertime in 83, the last time I took LSD/ listening to Patsy Cline and Skeeter Davis really blew my mind” – she’s only alt-country by association. She likes the storytelling and the harmonies sure, but her bag of tricks (and her gift for lyrics) is way bigger than most songwriters coming from country or folk, or just about anywhere really. With her strong voice – as plain and natural, expressive and unhistrionic as Bill Withers, but like him observing the everyday in her songs, though for a very different time and mindset – she bounces from the faux-lounge number “Cynically Yours” to copping Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm” for her own “20 Questions” to the jazzy tune about being an accessory to murder “Keep It To Yourself” to waxing Beatles-esque about family life on “What I Need” to rocking out all over the place, often aided by crafty production from Eliot Easton of The Cars.

If you’ve never heard her, start right now by checking out “Cynically Yours” – probably the funniest song she’s yet written (though, honestly, there’s a lot of competition). It’s the real bait to hook you in to the album nowadays with those other albums gone, all 3:15 of it. But it’s more than just funny, it skewers the dysfunctional romantic malaise of many smart young people in love. And it’s also nice to see her recognizing and desiring to outgrow that cynicism in “Time for Me to Come Down,” where she’s learning how to get out of her protective emotional shell. And if for some reason “Cynically Yours” doesn’t grab you, try the next cut, the shoulda-been-a-hit “Beer and Kisses,” one of the reasons people think of her as country-related. A chorus that goes “Get home from work, put on the light,” (and in a later verse, ‘get in a fight’) “sit on the couch, spend the whole night there” is aimed straight at the heart of the middle class, but spun with a touch of wit that most mainstream singers rarely risk in their songs except as the climax of a tune. Poppier writers tend to hinge their songs on one line as good as that, but like John Prine, who she resembles in a few ways, Rigby’s songs are teeming with lyrics that bring a smile to the lips even as she’s saying something real. But honestly you can start anywhere here, and why not right at the beginning? “All I Want” is Amy in a nutshell – she’s in love, her man’s not treating her as well as she deserves, and she’s gonna sing about it in a song less hopeful but every bit as ambivalent take on romance as Joni Mitchell’s song of the same title.

After her three records for Koch, Rigby switched labels and released two more great ones - Til the Wheels Fall Off (2003), which features delights like “Are We Ever Gonna Have Sex Again?” and the poignant “Don’t Ever Change” and “All the Way to Heaven,” and Little Fugitive (2005), home to the classic “Dancing With Joey Ramone,” plus her continued analysis of adult relationships with “The Trouble With Jeanie” (in which the trouble is that she really likes her ex’s new girlfriend a lot), “So Now You Know” and so forth. She married Wreckless Eric – a gifted singer and songwriter of no small wit himself – in 2008, followed shortly the release of the lo-fi Wreckless Eric & Amy Rigby that same year, 2010’s all-covers Two-Way Family Favourites, and 2012’s A Working Museum, each of which (except the covers album of course) split songwriting between the two, and all currently out of print as well. And like her own solo works, each one of the albums (except the covers album maybe) is excellent and worth tracking down. Village Voice critic Robert Christgau said in his review of her fifth album, Little Fugitive: “It really is quite simple--no one of any gender or generation has written as many good songs in Rigby's realistic postfolk mode since she launched Diary of a Mod Housewife in 1996.” He’s right. You can’t step wrong with any album that’s got her name on the cover, but start here and then work your way out to the rest.
-         Patrick Brown

Monday, April 25, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #139 - The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986, dir. Tobe Hooper)

In 1974, director Tobe Hooper released The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a nightmarish and intense horror film about a family of murderous cannibals that, with a budget of less than $100,000, raked in over $30 million in the U.S. alone and now stands high on almost any list of the all-time great horror films. Despite the film’s reputation (and title) its on-screen violence is actually quite mild – the makers had hoped to secure a PG rating – with the very effective result of leaving the more brutal aspects of the film’s violence to the viewer’s imagination. Hooper has long insisted that the film is a dark comedy, but because of the harrowing intensity that ended up earning it an R rating it can be hard for some viewers to laugh – except maybe as a release of tension. The success of the film lead Hooper and his co-screenwriter to start thinking up a sequel, but it kept getting back-burnered, shelved, and otherwise delayed until Hooper scrapped his initial sequel idea, connected with the producers of the notorious Cannon Films, and brought on a new screenwriter to create The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.

For some reason, this film is decidedly less well-liked by most than the original. Not me though. Situated right in the middle of the 80s as the slasher (and sequel) era was giving way to some great horror-comedy (Re-Animator, Evil Dead 2, Return of the Living Dead, etc.) and featuring a promotional poster that mocked the then-hot film The Breakfast Club and bore the tagline “After a decade of silence… the buzzz is back,” the sequel seemed poised to be a worthy box office draw honoring the original classic. Add to this that it also utilized the talents of screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson (star of the 60s underground hit David Holman’s Diary, writer/director of the Dennis Hopper semi-documentary The American Dreamer, and writer of 1984’s Paris, Texas) and brought original director Tobe Hooper back into the fold along with actor Jim Siedow (reprising his role of The Cook from the original film). Carson took the comedic subtext of Hooper’s earlier film into something that openly satirized things that Hooper had been implicitly referring to – the Vietnam War (and now, its aftermath), The Cook ranting about how hard the competition is in capitalism for a working class chef, and so forth. Both are subtext in the 1974 film but very much on the surface here. And where the performances of the original strove for documentary-like realism, here the murderous family (plus Dennis Hopper as the avenging angel Lefty) are portrayed as over-the-top, seemingly designed solely to bring chuckles – or at least incredulity – throughout. And then there’s the blood – lots of it. This being the 80s, Hooper enlisted special effects master Tom Savini to provide the requisite amount of gore for the film (in addition to subtler work, like the aged face of the 137 year-old Grandpa), distributed in an equally over-the-top show to match the unhinged performances on tap.

And yet – even with its decidedly unrealistic tones, even with its over-the-top gore, even with its satirical flair, the film manages to be nearly as unnerving as the original. And that’s mainly due to our central character, the radio DJ Stretch (Caroline Williams in a mostly thankless role). She’s a late-night DJ who unwittingly overhears a murder by the family and is subsequently stalked by them. Her down-to-earth performance grounds the film from flying off into becoming the “geek show” that Roger Ebert (who hated it) saw in it. When she’s in danger, we’re scared. When a couple of the family members visit her at the radio station, it’s terrifyingly creepy. As the film progresses and she tracks the family to their underground lair it becomes something of an amped up remake of the first film’s climactic scenes (and a flash forward to Rob Zombie’s far less effective homage, House of 1000 Corpses), in which she’s imprisoned, tormented, and tries to escape while pursued by the chainsaw wielding killer Leatherface and his deranged brother. It’s easy to laugh it off if you want, but if you let it the film gets under your skin and becomes nearly as effective as the blunt nightmare of the original film.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 was plagued with issues during its creation – money to make the film ebbed and flowed with the fortunes of producers Golan and Globus of Cannon Films (a low-budget studio that’s the subject of the entertaining documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films). Hooper delivered a film he figured was in line with the violence quotient of the day but was slapped with an X by the ratings board, choosing to release the film unrated which lead to its distribution being severely hampered in the process. So in the same year that the utterly mediocre Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI managed to draw nearly 20 million out of the pockets of filmgoers, this one – with intelligent (if not exactly artistic) ambitions – barely scraped out enough to make its budget back and make a few extra bucks. Dennis Hopper – right then in the middle of a run of films that included an Academy Award nomination for Hoosiers and other honors for his role in Blue Velvet – is alleged to have said that this was the worst film he’d ever been in. By contrast, Bill Moseley, who had the role of Leatherface’s brother Chop-Top, has named the role as his favorite of his own. I’m definitely in Moseley’s camp – not only does he turn in a truly effective performance, the film as a whole finds the perfect pitch of dark humor and nightmarish terror and stands as one of the highlights of 1980s horror/comedies.

-         Patrick Brown

Monday, April 18, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #152 - Hubert Laws – Crying Song

Three things to talk about here; the phenomenon of jazz/rock, the specific jazz subgenre “flute-jazz” and the label CTI. In the late 60’s and early 70’s the movers and shakers in jazz were trying to keep their format relevant to the exploding rock audience which was accounting for stratospheric sales figures and the deification of the stars. The rock audience was not having bebop, they were demanding jazz be played with electric instruments and concern itself with topical subject matter. The obvious answer was “jazz/rock,” a subgenre that rearranged popular music for jazz instruments and, in turn, resulted in some jazz records selling the kind of numbers expected from rock releases. Miles Davis is perhaps the most successful merger of these two genres, actually creating an entirely new music free of the time constraints of rock and the staid instrumentation and conventions of jazz, offering an exciting electric amalgam of the two. Hubert Laws did not do what Miles did, but he did make a few really great jazz/rock albums of which Crying Song is the most far-reaching. Consisting of five rock covers and two jazz originals, Laws leads his crack band (with Bob James, George Benson, Grady Tate and Ron Carter among others) on beautiful flute-led excursions into the near cosmos. “Flute-jazz” is a very specific and groovy type of music. The flute has both an exciting and calming quality that can only be described as beatific. Each instrument has a different effect on the listener, but there is none with the exact mood enhancing qualities of the flute. In the hands of a master like Hubert Laws, it conveys a greater spectrum of emotion than almost any other instrument. Crying Song covers the emotional gamut.

The high points of the album are the rock covers – specifically two Pink Floyd songs, “Crying Song” and “Cymbaline,” a Monkees song, “Listen To The Band,” a Traffic song, “Feelin’ Alright,” and The Bee Gees’ “I’ve Gotta Get A Message To You.” Laws remains true to the basic structures of these songs but adds horns and strings to lay down a bed for jazz soloing on the melodies. It works beautifully and is virtually irresistible for rock fans who like jazz. Hearing Pink Floyd’s aching “Cymbaline” without the cosmic lyrics fundamentally changes the song, but it does not diminish its beauty in any way. Laws plays the central theme with the correct tone and precision to please Floyd fanatics, but he swings in a way jazz aficionados will appreciate. Alternately, on “Crying Song” from Pink Floyd’s More soundtrack, he lets the band run wild in a pretty free-form excursion to the outside.

The label that released this lovely record was called CTI, standing for Creed Taylor International. Producer Creed Taylor started his label in 1967 as a partnership with A&M Records, but in 1970 broke off on his own and Crying Song was the first album he released on his new imprint. CTI Records built a reputation as a label with a specific sound and look. Many people credit (or blame) Creed Taylor and his chief arranger Don Sebesky for inventing and perfecting what became known as smooth jazz, however in 1970 when Crying Song was released it was just cool, mellow flute/jazz with songs that a rock audience liked and performances a jazz audience could respect. This should have been and was a very winning formula. CTI forged a reputation for stunningly recorded albums by first rate players that struck a chord equally with rock and jazz audiences. The covers were often graced with memorable images by photographer Pete Turner. Even though I prefer the overall output of labels like Blue Note or Prestige, CTI has a very special place in my heart and my collection. In fact it is the only label-group that I have segregated from its genre. At the end of my jazz section of vinyl I have a CTI section because it is so special and unique. Albums released on CTI have such a specific set of aesthetic principles at work that they belong in their own category. When I am in the mood for a certain kind of laid-back sophistication only CTI will do, and Hubert Laws’ Crying Song is top of the heap.

-         Paul Epstein

Monday, April 11, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #138 - The Conversation (1974, dir. Francis Ford Coppola)

In the early 1970s, Francis Ford Coppola worked at such a prolific rate that he not only released The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II within a span of two and a half years, but also wrote and directed The Conversation in between them. Of the four films Coppola directed in the 1970s, The Conversation somehow falls in the shadows of the first two entries in The Godfather series as well as his sprawling Vietnam War epic, Apocalypse Now. This unfortunate circumstance results in a lack of awareness and appreciation of one of Coppola’s strongest works. Over forty years after its release, The Conversation endures as a minimalist masterpiece of the suspense genre, contains an unforgettable performance from Gene Hackman, and imparts a lasting meditation of the consequences of surveillance culture.

Coppola wastes no time by opening The Conversation in the middle of the film’s central focus: a discussion between a young woman and man walking around a public square in the middle of the day in downtown San Francisco. While these two talk Harry Caul, a surveillance expert, and his associates work clandestinely to record the discussion despite technical challenges presented by the outdoor setting and the speakers’ shifting locations. After Caul and his colleagues have finished taping he returns to his loft workspace to get down to the business of merging the various tapes of the incomplete recording to yield a master document of the conversation. While filling in the gaps of the conversation and deciphering the recording Caul quiets his assistant’s growing curiosity over the conversation’s content by declaring, “I don’t care what they’re talking about. All I want is a nice fat recording.” As Caul begins to realize that this recording may carry significant danger if it falls into the wrong hands, his adherence to this discipline fades. Together Coppola and Hackman create Harry Caul who, unlike the protagonists of kindred films like Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up and Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, is not a young, attractive, innocent bystander. Caul looks all too much like a man who has devoted himself single-mindedly to the task of listening to others while trying desperately not to be noticed while he does it. Coppola and Hackman imbue a sense of irony and humor into the character of Caul and the impotence of his attempts to control what happens around him. In spite of Caul’s cold professionalism and preposterous personal life he serves as a very human and sympathetic character as the mystery of the recording consumes him. Hackman provides the film’s complex main character but he’s not alone because The Conversation also features an excellent supporting cast including John Cazale, Terri Garr, Harrison Ford, Cindy Williams, Frederic Forrest, Allen Garfield, and Robert Duvall, who supplies a particularly chilling cameo as the Director.

The Conversation debuted just months before Richard Nixon resigned from office amid the Watergate scandal and bears some influence from those events, but the film’s powerful depiction of the perils of surveillance, not only for a society but also for an individual’s humanity, still functions as a timely warning today. Through Harry Caul the audience witnesses the true cost of this kind of surveillance, a cost which resonates deeply with both Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA surveillance programs in 2013 as well as the FBI’s recent legal tangle with Apple over gaining access to the content of an iPhone. With The Conversation, Coppola spins fiction from the front page and creates a beautiful, absorbing, and cautionary tale that speaks volumes about where unchecked curiosity inevitably takes us.

-         John Parsell

Monday, April 4, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #151 - The Roots - The Tipping Point

Since drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and rapper Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter formed The Roots nearly thirty years ago while attending Philadelphia’s Creative and Performing Arts high school, the complicated, symbiotic, and fruitful relationship between these artists has defined the group’s rise from underground phenomenon to household name with their current gig as house band on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. The tension between the balance of critical and commercial success flows from the DNA of The Roots and has resulted in the creation of some of the best hip-hop albums of the last twenty years. The Tipping Point, their sixth studio album, demonstrates this tension more fully than any other album in the group’s catalog, reveals a compelling stage of the group’s evolution, and reflects major upheavals in the music industry circa 2004.

Following the back-to-back break-out successes of The Roots’ fourth and fifth studio albums (1999’s Things Fall Apart and 2002’s Phrenology), the group was well poised to build on this momentum when they released The Tipping Point in the summer of 2004. Forces both internal and external to the group during the album’s gestation supplied ample challenges to maintaining this momentum. Within the group, Questlove represents the aspiration to engage critics and fellow musicians while Black Thought symbolizes the desire toward moving and satisfying a popular audience. After the scattered, almost indulgent sprawl of Phrenology under Questlove’s guidance, The Roots chose to let the pendulum swing into Black Thought’s domain with The Tipping Point. At the same time, economic conditions and unprecedented uncertainties within the music industry caused the collapse of MCA, home to The Roots for their last two albums. The Roots landed at Interscope, helmed by industry veteran (and current Beats impresario) Jimmy Iovine, and quickly felt a new sense of obligation to deliver radio hits. To a degree, Interscope’s pressure to push The Roots into more commercial territory resulted in an album that upon its release satisfied neither mainstream hip-hop fans nor long-time fans of the group, but for very different reasons. The Roots’ relationship with Interscope began and ended with The Tipping Point and resulted in the group’s subsequent move to their home since 2006, Def Jam Recordings, under the leadership of none other than Jay-Z. Despite the conflicting forces present during its development, The Tipping Point contains some of The Roots’ best studio work, especially the great one-two punch showcase for Black Thought’s verbal prowess, “Web” and “Boom!” Also, two of the album’s most enjoyable moments are unlisted, hidden tracks that play after the final song, including a loose, energetic crew jam “In Love with the Mic” featuring comedian Dave Chappelle and a cover of “Din Da Da” by German electronic producer George Kranz.

In Questlove’s memoir Mo’ Meta Blues, while describing the choice to name this album after Malcolm Gladwell’s book, he admits, “With most of the records, we wanted the titles to work on three levels: as a reflection of our own career, as a reflection of the hip-hop scene, and as a reflection of the world at large.” Questlove and company may not have realized twelve years ago that this title would take on additional layers of meaning over time. In truth, The Tipping Point is not as strong as the albums that directly precede or follow it, but it remains one of The Roots’ most important albums because it supplies a fulcrum within their catalog by establishing a higher level of production, creating a stylistic template for their following albums, and hinting at the social/political statements to come on their next three albums, Game Theory (2006), Rising Down (2008), and How I Got Over (2010). These albums form a trilogy documenting the nation’s journey from the lowest moments of George W. Bush’s second term to the promise of hope signaled by Barack Obama’s first term and achieve a career high point for the group, which may not have been possible had The Roots not learned the lessons they did while crafting The Tipping Point.

-         John Parsell

Monday, March 28, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #137 - The Missouri Breaks (1976, dir. Arthur Penn)

Think about the extraordinary turn Marlon Brando’s career was taking in the 1970’s.  After stalling a bit in the late 60’s he came roaring back in 1972 - jowly, greying at the temple and more potent than ever in The Godfather and Last Tango In Paris. Two braver explorations of middle age could not be imagined, then… silence, until 1976 when he returned – greyer still, jowlier yet, but no less intense and seeming to have tapped into some sort of cosmic awareness that made him a real-life cross between con-man, genius, artist, shaman and fool. It was also impossible to take your eyes off of him in what could be considered his last great role of substance in The Missouri Breaks (I love Apocalypse Now, but it is hard to call what Brando did in it as “substantive.” Memorable yes, substantive maybe less so.).  Director Arthur Penn created a stylish western in the classic mode, which is elevated to something truly memorable by Marlon Brando’s inexplicable performance. From the moment he appears on screen as Robert E. Lee Clayton he is magnetic - both compelling and terrifying at the same time. He is a regulator (a legal assassin) who has been brought from Wyoming to Montana to help rancher David Braxton (John McLiam) and his attractive daughter Jane (Kathleen Lloyd) deal with a band of horse rustlers (Jack Nicholson, Harry Dean Stanton, Randy Quaid and more) who have been causing trouble. Brando enters the action as an exotic swashbuckler; fringed leather jacket, long hair and an Irish accent. He immediately shows himself as a man not to be trifled with, appraising Nicholson as the thief and beginning to exact punishment on the gang. His speed and deadly accuracy prove his reputation as an uncontrollable, but ultimately successful executioner.
With the central conflict established, Penn goes about turning the movie into a philosophical treatise on the difference between being a thief and a killer, and if either of those is morally worse than being a bad person on the right side of the law. David Braxton, it turns out, is a world-class creep who deserves whatever he gets, while Nicholson seems to be a more three-dimensional man than his designation as horse rustler might indicate. He yearns for the honest life - or at least the love of a woman who has lived the honest life - available in the person of Braxton’s daughter. Brando’s character Clayton appears more and more like a scorched earth psychopath, hell-bent on destroying his prey as violently as possible, letting no one - including those who hired him - stand in the way. His inhumanity grows with each scene as Nicholson becomes an increasingly sympathetic protagonist. As Clayton’s killings take on greater cruelty with each victim, Clayton’s personality takes on more complexity. He begins shifting accents from Irish to Southern, to female (complete with unforgettable drag costume) and back to Irish. His performance is always on the edge of hallucinatory, the cutting edge of menace and hilarity. In spite of it being one of his least famous movies, I believe The Missouri Breaks contains one of Brando’s most beguiling performances. By the end of the movie, he is a truly frightening presence - unpredictable, deadly and unstoppable - beyond the control of laws or bullets. The shocking twist at the end remains a great cinematic trick, never failing to surprise.

In the 34 years that have passed since I last saw this movie, I had forgotten almost everything about it. So the panoramic cinematography, realistic take on the Old West setting, excellent music and funny dialogue were all a welcome re-acquaintance. It is Marlon Brando’s terrifying depiction which I had not forgotten, and it was, in fact, even more potent than I remembered. He has had one of the most terminally appraised careers in the history of film, yet his depiction of Robert E. Lee Clayton does much to justify his genius reputation.

-         Paul Epstein

Friday, March 25, 2016

Deadheads Unite!

ListenUp will be hosting their annual Music Matters event on April 5th and 6th at their 685 So. Pearl location (right across from our old location). This is always a very cool event, where consumers can be exposed to the best new products for their home systems and hear from some of the best names in current audiophile thought. This year is extra special for Deadheads however, as famed Boulder-based audio Engineer David Glasser will be a special guest. Glasser has worked on countless Grateful Dead projects including the landmark Europe ’72 box set and, more recently, the epic Thirty Trips Around The Sun box set. He is a true authority on The Grateful Dead’s recordings and their efforts to bring them to the public. Around the time of The Complete Europe ’72 box I interviewed Dave about working on Grateful Dead projects. In honor of ListenUp’s upcoming event, we present it here again. Click here ( to learn more about Music Matters and enjoy the interview (excerpted below, you can read the full interview HERE).

- Paul Epstein

The big archival news in the Grateful Dead world is the unprecedented Europe ’72 - The Complete Recordings box set. Containing all 22 shows of this greatest of all Dead tours, there’s not a dud show in the bunch; in fact there are very few dud songs. The band never played tighter or more inspired than on this tour. They also never toured behind such an abundance of great new material. They were playing many the songs from Weir’s then-new Ace album, Garcia’s first solo album plus about a dozen new Grateful Dead songs (“Ramble On Rose,” He’s Gone,” “Tennessee Jed,” Mr. Charlie,” Chinatown Shuffle,” etc.) and fresh covers (“Sing Me Back Home,” “You Win Again,”) and when combining them with some of their longer, jammier songs from the past (“Dark Star,” “The Other One,” “Truckin’,” “Lovelight”) they offered up an exciting marathon show every night of the tour. To add to the special nature of the tour was the fact that they were playing many beautiful, historic concert venues on a continent that was new to the band members and rich with historic and cultural significance to their hippie sensibilities. They were also dragging around a recording truck to every venue to insure their ability to pay for the whole trip. Remarkably, the recordings are outstanding, even by modern standards. There is a full, rich warmth to the sound that just reflects the warmth on stage. The huge, deluxe “steamer trunk” box set is sold out, but there is a superb new compilation called, appropriately enough,Europe ’72 Volume 2 that is out now on Rhino Records. It is packed with great moments from the tour including memorable takes on “Playin’ In The Band,” a huge Pigpen-led “Good Lovin’,” a great early version of “Sugaree” and a “Dark Star” that goes to outer space and back in 30 minutes. It is a wonderful keepsake, and we have it on sale for only $10.99. It’s the cheapest way you’re going to get into this tour. 

Because I was so blown away by the sound of these recordings, I thought it would be cool if we could ask Boulder resident David Glasser of Air Show Mastering some questions about the process of mastering this gigantic project. A Grammy Award winner, Glasser is one of the hidden gems of the Colorado music scene. Air Show has worked on countless albums you’ve heard of and continues to be one of the premier mastering facilities in the country. The Grateful Dead are legendary for their attention to detail when it comes to the sound and packaging of their releases, so their choice of Glasser is no accident. Glasser, as usual, was generous with his time and thoughtful in his answers.
Questions for David Glasser at Airshow Mastering regarding the Mastering of The Grateful Dead’s entire Europe ’72 tour.
Briefly explain the process of mastering.
• Mastering is simply the step - the last in the creative studio process - where the final adjustments and tweaks are made. It's akin to what a colorist does in the film world - making sure that the sound matches the vision of the producer and artist, and presenting the mixes in the best possible light. Usually that involves adjusting the song levels and overall level of the disc and using tools like EQ and compression to shape the sound (does it need to be brighter? punchier? less muddy? etc).
How is mastering an archival recording different than mastering a new, technically modern recording?
• Often archival recordings already exist in an aesthetic context that listeners are familiar with. This was certainly the case with the Europe 72 project. The 1972 LP is an iconic album - both the songs, and the sound. There are also several other official releases of E72 material, plus audience and soundboard tapes that have circulated for decades. So before starting I gathered together the original Europe 72,Steppin' Out, and Rockin' the Rhein, plus the first show that was mixed for this project. To my horror and dismay, they all sounded quite different! Jeffrey Norman and I discussed this at length and we agreed that the approach to this release was a "live-r," less "polished" presentation. We wanted to showcase the Dead as they sounded onstage at these shows. 
What is unique about mastering The Grateful Dead as opposed to other bands?
• Probably the fact that often they don't function as a typical rhythm section + soloists and singers like much popular music does. At any time, any one of the players could be driving the music, and it's constantly shifting. Phil's bass is another lead instrument along with the two guitarists. As a result, the music is often more dynamic. More like a jazz band - think Bitches Brew by Miles Davis. The goal is to mix and master so you can "see" into the music.
Describe your history with the recordings of The Grateful Dead. What was your first job mastering their recordings?
• My first Grateful Dead project was mastering the DVD release of The Grateful Dead Movie. Jeffrey Norman was looking for a place to master his surround mixes; "Dr." Don Pearson introduced us after visiting the studio with acoustician Sam Berkow. The Grateful Dead Movie was a huge project. I think there were 12 hours of music when you added up the stereo mix, the bonus material and the two surround versions. It took us two long weeks. After that Jeffrey returned with the Truckin' Up To Buffalo and the Rockin' The Cradle DVDs. There have been several others, for which I am forever grateful, pun intended. I've been listening to the Dead, and attending shows, since 1970.
Describe the process of working with The Grateful Dead organization. Who do you work with? How exacting are they? Does the record label (Rhino) get involved on your end at all?
• Working with the Grateful Dead's production team is an absolute pleasure. I wish all of my clients were this easy to work with. My contacts are Producer/Archivist David Lemieux and engineer Jeffrey Norman. Everyone has very high and exacting standards, but nobody is breathing down each other’s throat. The communication is very open. I think everyone really respects the creative process and everyone's contribution. Rhino is definitely involved in the tail end of my mastering work, as that's where we send the final masters.
Were there specific challenges involved with a project this large? 
• The challenges were chiefly organizational - how to keep track of so much material and insure quality and constancy from beginning to end.  We modified our in-house database for more efficient searching within the E72 project, and we designed a workflow that covered every aspect of our involvement with the project: from receiving Jeffrey's mixes, to naming files, to cross checking show-to-show, to sending references for approval, and creating the final masters for Rhino.
Did each show have a unique personality to you?
• Absolutely! The shows in the great concert halls like the Concertgebouw and Paris' Olympia Theater have a very open warm sound and I think the players were hearing the nice acoustics and hearing each other very well; it's reflected in the playing. The halls definitely influenced the playing. The Bickershaw show, which was an outdoor festival, sounds much different - the musicians are reacting to the cold weather and perhaps playing more deliberately. But the results are great - the “Dark Star/Other One” sequence was a standout, and is included in the Europe ‘72 Volume 2 release.
How about the individual personalities of the musicians in the band? 
• It's cool how the band can transform itself from song to song. When Pigpen steps out front, his blues and R & B attitude can change the whole vibe. And Bobby's country songs really inspire Garcia's Don Rich-style picking.
Did you gain a greater appreciation for, or did you have any revelations about the individual talents in the band?
• One of the cool things about listening to multiple versions of the same songs is that the personalities do come across. You can hear that Garcia is constantly exploring ways to express a solo, and his solos during this era are really well constructed, and they usually have a well-formed arc to them. As I worked on each show, I always referenced other versions of several songs to make sure the sound was consistent (or appropriately consistent). It's clear that the Dead were very well rehearsed, and the performances and even some of the solos of the first set type of songs were often identical over several nights. As the tour progressed, you can hear them refining arrangements. Bob Weir's playing is especially impressive. I think many people think his distinctive leads were played by Garcia - I know I used to!
Did you learn anything about what makes the Grateful Dead unique in the world of Rock from this project?
• I think we've all long appreciated that the Grateful Dead cut a wide swath through the landscape of American music. It sounds utterly natural to hear them go from a Marty Robbins cowboy song to a Bobby Blue Bland rave-up, to a jam Coltrane would admire, to a gorgeous Merle Haggard ballad, and end on Chuck Berry. What other band can do this?
Do you think the fact that the band was playing in small, largely opera-worthy venues on that tour made a difference in the way the band played and the way the recordings ultimately came out?
• I was fortunate to have seen the Dead in December 1971 in a concert hall setting, and in March 1972 in a mid-size theater (on my birthday!). I've always thought those kind of halls were the perfect size for this kind of music - large enough to get the energy flowing, and small enough for the band to play off the vibe of the hall and the crowd. I think that the Europe 72 recordings are a confirmation of this (though the larger gigs like Bickershaw really kick-ass).
Can you point to a couple of musical highlights of the tour? Where would you send a novice? Where would you send a hard-core fan?
• I think that David Lemieux did a great job in choosing the songs for the Europe ‘72 Volume 2 set. That and the original Europe ‘72 are a good starting point. Outside of those, I especially like “Dark Star” from the second Copenhagen show; “Two Souls in Communion” from Amsterdam, anything from the two Paris shows, and the first and last Lyceum shows. The Beat Club TV broadcast is also pretty cool, and the Aarhus concert, in a tiny 300 seat room has a nice intimate feel that you don't often hear.

-Paul Epstein