Monday, January 14, 2019

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #209 - In A Lonely Place (1950, dir. Nicholas Ray)

In 1950, Humphrey Bogart was one of the top-grossing film stars in the country and had just established his own Santana Productions film company to create interesting work outside the rigid Hollywood studio system (though still relying on studios for distribution) after being known the industry as a somewhat willful star to work with. At the same time, director Nicholas Ray had made three moderately successful films (one of them via Santana Productions) and his star was rising; his biggest success, Rebel Without A Cause, still lay years ahead of him. Ray was in a tempestuous marriage with actress Gloria Grahame, also an up-and-comer with several supporting roles to her credit, but her only starring role to date had come a couple years earlier in the film noir Crossfire. These three strong artistic personalities found themselves together to create the best film Santana Productions made - and also one of the best works any of the three produced in their careers - the noir-ish drama In A Lonely Place, adapted from the Dorothy B. Hughes novel of the same name.
            Bogart stars in one of his all-time best performances as Dixon Steele, a screenwriter who hasn’t had a hit since “before the War,” whose violent temper we see erupt three separate times in only the first six minutes of the film, and whose penchant for drinking doesn’t help matters. Gloria Grahame plays Laurel Gray, a neighbor in the same apartment complex who’s seen Steele (usually called “Dix” in the film) around and when he’s accused of murdering a young woman who left his apartment after going there to help him work on a script - a story the police hardly believe - she provides his alibi, though official suspicion is still aimed squarely at him. As Laurel and Dix get to know each other, romance blossoms and his writer’s block begins to lift, but as Laurel learns more about his explosive temperament, she (and the audience) begins to wonder if she did the right thing in helping him - and if perhaps her own life might be in danger. Nicholas Ray, who advocated for his wife to play the role after both Lauren Bacall and Ginger Rogers proved unavailable, has an unerring eye and ear for the tone of the film, which starts out like a whodunit and then quickly loses interest in the murder mystery as the principles fall for each other and the film instead drifts into the turbulent waters of their relationship (though the murder always lurks in the background). There’s never been a more threatening ‘love scene’ than when Dix is making breakfast for the increasingly suspicious Laurel, with the dialogue standard romantic fare but the body language and the absolutely perfect tone of Grahame’s delivery reading as pure terror.
In fact, it’s hardly a noir at all, even though it’s tagged as such on most film sites, and even though a murder sets things in motion. Nowhere are the shadowy, high-contrast cityscapes of noir, the standard femme fatale (instead we may have noir’s first homme fatale), the greed and cynicism driving most of the great noirs - instead we have an examination of a delicate, fragile relationship, one that’s constantly under threat of being blown apart by Dix’s behavior. This examination of the relationship of outsiders, and especially of masculine stereotypes, is common to Ray’s films - think of James Dean in Rebel, fighting against the school gang leader for honor and disappointed in his father’s inability to stand up to his mother, think of James Mason in Bigger Than Life, undermining the role of paternal protector to his family as his addiction spirals out of control, think of Johnny Guitar and its inversion of gender roles wherein women play the respective heads of a town in roles usually doled out to male actors and Sterling Hayden’s titular character is just an ex-flame and hired gun to Joan Crawford. And right in this line we have In A Lonely Place and Dix Steele, supposedly a successful artist in Hollywood, but also a heavy drinker, and a brawler when provoked - and he gets provoked at the drop of a hat. His masculine ego simply can’t take it when he feels attacked, rightly or wrongly, and as the film progresses and he gets closer to Laurel Gray, he gets more paranoid and jealous, rather than more intimate and trusting. It’s an unsettling examination of toxic masculinity decades before that phrase was even coined.
As it was in the script, so it was in life. Actress and writer Louise Brooks wrote in Sight & Sound magazine about Bogart’s performance that “In a Lonely Place gave him a role that he could play with complexity because the character's pride in his art, his selfishness, his drunkenness, his lack of energy stabbed with lightning strokes of violence, were shared equally by the real Bogart.” And the relationship of Dix and Laurel gets closer and closer in the first half of the film, then slowly falls apart for the second half, mirroring that of Ray (who was also a heavy drinker) and Grahame, who separated during the filming and who divorced two years later. Ray, after filming the original script’s ending, decided it didn’t ring true and created an improvised new ending with Grahame, Bogart, and co-star Art Smith. The ending, which I won’t spoil for you, replaced the noir-styled downer finale of the novel with a more devastating and unexpected one that gives the film its lasting sting and resonance.
            Time hasn’t been as kind to Ray’s work as when he was revered by French critics of the 50s and 60s, but In A Lonely Place has endured, his only film to place on the most recent once-a-decade international critics’ poll in Sight and Sound magazine. He’s got a lot of great work but this film, with its personal resonance for the three key artists involved in its making, cuts the deepest of any of his films.
-          Patrick Brown

Monday, January 7, 2019

I'd Love to Turn You On #222 - Tune-Yards - Bird-Brains

 2009 was an interesting year for music. There were no real game-changers in 2009, but there was at least one album that presaged a dominant mode of music-making in the 2010’s: Tune-Yards’ Bird-Brains. The debut record from Merrill Garbus’ discordant pop outfit is an outstanding record, not only for how it set the stage for Tune-Yards’ continued growth, but also for how it weaves the mid-00’s indie rock sensibilities with the out-there, lo-fi, rhythmic production styles that rose to even greater prominence in the recent teens. Add in some seriously engaging political rhetoric, and it’s easy to see that Bird-Brains is well worth your time.
            Recorded entirely on a handheld voice recorder (and then released initially on recycled cassette tapes), Bird-Brains has a distinctly tinny feeling. Garbus’s music offers steady, thumping rhythms that put the listener into a sort of tranced, zoned state and while the instrumentation is danceable, the lyrics are anything but; throughout the album, Garbus sings of gendered injustices, motherhood, and problems of self-image. “Hatari,” the album’s lead single, is dangerous in how much it makes you want to groove while ignoring the injustices being sung about. The lyrics and instrumentation hit that perfect sweet spot between frictional and lovely, making it easy to understand Bird-Brains as an album of contradictions and double-standards; it’s a deceptively complicated album filled with elements both harsh and tender that force the listener to listen without passivity.
Consider, for example, the interminably groovy mid-album cut “Jumping Jack.” The bass is crunchy, the xylophone seems to be hitting the upper register limits of the recorder, and the simple drum-fill takes on a Madlib-esque vocal quality. Like other great Tune-Yards songs, the lyrics rework a nursery rhyme (“Jack and Jill” here) into a modern feminist anthem that provides ample catharsis in a world overwhelmed by patriarchal standards: “Driving past in his fast car / Jill says man you are bizarre / Trying to tell me what to do / Watch out cause I’ll knock you out,” Garbus sings simply and softly, weaponizing her traditionally feminine musical impulses over the more traditionally masculine instrumentation. Garbus forces us to recognize how she’s using these musical impulses, and how the gendered presuppositions of them is ultimately a negative aspect that the music industry stands to grow from.
            There are moments like this feminist catharsis on nearly every song on Bird-Brains, and the album is better for it. “Fiya,” the album’s most well-known track, offers a nuanced, understated perspective on feminine image issues that is equal parts bitter sadness and incredible rage. Likewise, “News” attempts to critique the inherent gendered power dynamic with the act of getting pregnant; “I can get real pregnant from men and birds / Who sing much prettier than you,” Garbus conveys, undermining the masculine figure’s potential. Garbus’s lyrics are never quite heavy-handed, but neither are they understated – just like all of the gonzo rhythmic palettes throughout the album.
Yet, Bird-Brains is not entirely angry; there is a certain sweetness that pervades even the record’s harshest moments, one that, for all the rage and dissatisfaction, still envisions a better world. That stage is set by the album’s opening track, “For You,” which has Garbus sing an empathetic four bars over a tender acoustic guitar to a young girl. After she’s done singing, we hear that young girl enthusiastically playing with blueberries; there’s discovery here, an innocence yet untarnished by the overwhelmingly negative world so prominent on the rest of the album. It should come as no surprise that that young girl never comes back on Bird-Brains. Garbus could only protect her from the realities of our world for so long, but the album she made for her – whoever she is – offers a steady, helpful, groovy guide to this overwhelmingly shitty world.
So do the rest of the works in Tune-Yards’ discography. W H O K I L L, 2011’s follow-up, is a defining record of the 21st century, expanding in interesting ways on the groundwork set by Bird-Brains. Most recently, Garbus scored one of the most emphatically political films of 2018, Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, which viciously, hysterically points out the myriad of flaws in our capitalist society. Likewise, Tune-Yards’ most recent record, I can feel you creep into my private life, finds Garbus confronting the ways that she could be a better political citizen, all the while combining the powerful rhetoric with rhythmic, exuberant, groovy instrumentation. With Tune-Yards, being angry takes on a certain fun quality.
-          Harry Todd

Monday, December 31, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #208 - Hot Fuzz (2007, dir. Edgar Wright)

Hot Fuzz, the second release in writer/director Edgar Wright’s loosely correlated “Cornetto Trilogy” is, for my money, one of the funniest comedies of the 2000s. Conceived as an homage to the likes of such ‘90s box office smashes Point Break and Bad Boys, the film places Wright’s longtime collaborators Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in a buddy-cop dynamic in the British countryside. Pegg plays Nicholas Angel, an all-business, no-bullshit cop recently transferred from London in a political ploy from the higher ups; Frost is his new oaf of a partner, Frank Butterman. Together, the two make an all-too-perfect straight man and foil dynamic, with Wright almost too referential (and reverential) for the comedic forebears he quotes throughout the film.
            Almost. It’s a miracle Hot Fuzz can sustain itself under the barrage of references, quotes, and gags it throws at the audience on a minute by minute basis, but, like the other films in the Cornetto Trilogy, Shaun of the Dead and The World’s End, what makes Hot Fuzz work is Wright’s commitment to developing actual characters with flaws and motivations amid all the jokes. Likewise, the mystery present in Hot Fuzz – which centers around a series of murders related to property development and a local cult – is actually interesting, and, better yet, has a nuanced perspective on topics such as gentrification, class dynamics, and citizen surveillance. Pegg and Frost are believable in their overblown roles, as is Timothy Dalton in his sleazy turn as Simon Skinner, the grocery store magnate at the center of Hot Fuzz’s mystery. The extended members of the Sanford Police Department each have their own moment in the spotlight, and some of the funniest gags are given to characters whose names you’ll likely not remember as the credits roll.
            Indeed, the writing is superb, but what makes Hot Fuzz shine is the same thing that makes all of Wright’s movies great - the editing. Somehow, despite intricate plot threads, joke set-ups, and a breakneck pace, the viewer never gets lost in the film. Visual gags are given time to unfold in long shots and rapid editing alike, and never is Wright content with delivering a joke through just sound. It always has to be visual, and Hot Fuzz is a better film because of this mentality. Everything feels manageable in Hot Fuzz, and there’s even some eloquent storytelling done via the editing, a rarity in modern comedies. In other words, what Wright and editor Chris Dickens hone in on here is the same spirit that defined the slapstick greats of early cinema; make sure the gag makes sense, and never – never! – take the easy route.
            The camerawork is likewise impressive throughout the film. Wright is a meticulous stylist who obeys strict conventions of cinema and art; his frames are always perfectly balanced, and he weaponizes the rule-of-thirds in the same way a stand-up comedian uses the rule of threes. Every visual element in Hot Fuzz serves a purpose; to talk about just the spoken jokes would be to ignore half the jokes in the film. I love, for example, the fence gag, in which Simon Pegg sprints at a series of fences and eloquently hops them; Butterman, the aforementioned oaf of a partner, opts instead to just plow straight through the fences, all in one clean, agile shot. It’s a silly joke, certainly, but it comes at the end of an inspired chase sequence that both deifies and subverts the hallmarks of great action filmmaking.
            In an alternate post for Hot Fuzz, I might’ve just listed all my favorite jokes and barked at you about why they’re so funny. I could talk, extensively, about how funny I find a one-off impersonation Pegg does of the way another character says “Yarp,” for example, or how the antagonistic other members of the Police Department are always entering the shots in funny ways. Hot Fuzz is so much more than just being funny though, it’s got an engaging mystery and some real societal critique, all of which is heightened by Wright’s signature style. I’ve forced countless friends and family members to watch it, and I’m sure I’ll force so many more in the years to come. Hot Fuzz is an utter delight to watch – and rewatch, and rewatch, and rewatch.
-          Harry Todd

Monday, December 24, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #221 - Bonobo - Black Sands

Bonobo’s record Black Sands was released in 2010 and is his fourth record. Issued on the Ninja Tune label it shows a surprising amount of sonic depth. The first track, "Prelude," introduces a variety of instruments and develops a rich theme with lovely orchestration. The sophistication of the orchestration quickly informs us that our ears are in for a treat. When I think of electronic music, rarely does a product this polished, refined, or intricate come to mind. I’d love to turn you on to Black Sands!
"Kiara," the second track, is an interesting bit of layering in which the song progresses and evolves by combining and featuring different parts. At times it will expose aspects to allow certain parts to be featured and for the song to evolve. It begins with a suspended tone and a shimmering electronic tone struck together, these tones hover and the pitch bends just a moment before the beat eases in with the bass line. At times the bass and drums are faded out while Bonobo introduces slight variations, or different combinations of melody and texture. Keeping track of what is happening becomes a pleasant game for the ear. What combinations have happened? What change will occur next? It also takes what could be potentially overwhelming for the ear and thins it out, letting him control the tension and release by subtly orchestrating these themes and variations. "Kong," the third song, while having different melodic content than "Kiara" could be a different result of a strict set of the same procedural guidelines that both songs seem to follow. Once again Bonobo shows us textures, motifs, and snippets of recurring melodies that layer and combine in different aspects to develop and release tension.
On "Eyesdown" the vocalist Andreya Triana has a chance to take over. She has a relaxed, calm vibe that fits over a hazy and shimmering keyboard line and bass progression. This simple chord progression shows off Triana’s vocal skill and Bonobo’s production skills. While the overall production is cloudy and thick, the percussion is clear and punctuated by cymbal bell hits, snare rim shots, and cymbal slides that produce haunting and shrieking sounds, all subtly buried in the mix.
"El Toro" starts out with a semi-bossa nova groove and introduces a melody fragmented between violin and different wind instruments. The melody thickens into a bigger horn and orchestral section as the phrase builds. It repeats, seemingly folding in on itself, gaining complexity and momentum. This then yields to horn hits trading with percussion breaks. Eventually the rhythm section gives way and the strings and horns are left in an ostinato pattern exposed, repeating and briefly creating a quick transition to the next song. It is an interesting effect, by exposing the horns and strings and removing the rhythm section the listener's ear is drawn to it, and the introduction motif of the next song is quickly inserted. It acts as a palate cleanser, or an audio redirection.
"We Could Forever" is the next song. I think this title speaks to the groove of the song. It wants to put the listener in a place where they are satisfied and do not want to leave. The song starts out with a high-hat pattern and recurring guitar riff. A deep bass progression that eases us thru the tune is introduced, along with other samples. These atmospheric samples of reverb-drenched sax and wood flute over a bed of Rhodes keyboard and guitar are great. Enough variation is used so that the ear is not bored but the vibe is not ruined.
"All In Forms" introduces a sample of Pisces' song "Elephant Eyes" and elaborates upon it. A vocal sample from the Six Boys In Trouble song "Why Can’t I Get It Too?" is also repeated through the song. These elements seem to be the framework on which other sonic explorations are hung. Shimmering pads are panned to one side of a stereo mix, faint percussion fades in and out, and suspended tones are experimented with. It seems to be variation upon a central theme, with certain unifying plot lines that guide the song, keeping the mood and context intact while allowing for sonic exploration.
The next two songs once again feature Andreya Triana. "The Keeper" begins with xylophone and drums in a laid back groove. Bass and guitar are added, establishing an impressive polyphony that is catchy and restrained. As the singing enters, the xylophone and guitar drop out to momentarily to feature the vocals. It is this level of detail and production finesse that makes these songs fun and rewarding repeated listening. New details expose themselves with additional study. Andreya Triana has a great voice for this contemporary R&B style. "Stay The Same" is a more straightforward song rather than some of the theme-and-develop pieces that are on the album. This shows Bonobo’s ability to compose in a more traditional verse/chorus/verse/chorus format while featuring a vocalist, rather than the theme-and-variation content which makes up much of this record.
"Animals" starts out with a light cymbal rim hits and is joined by a guitar ostinato and a bass clarinet playing a melody on top of it. Bass joins in next, adding up to a really unique and great texture. This song unfolds like many on the record, but around the 3:30 mark it stops to rebuild in a slightly different feel. Before it a was 4/4 time signature and it becomes more of a 12/8 triplet-heavy, Afro-jazz feel with an oboe solo. This eventually gives way to drums and screeching waves of sound which fade out.
Black Sands becomes in essence Program Music, or music that strives to render an extra-musical narrative. Yes, you have the musical themes, interesting instrumentation, and development, all done excellently, but what is it saying? It becomes up to the listener to interpret. What does the imagery of the sounds make you feel? For me it evokes emotions and questions - I wonder what Black Sands meant to Bonobo. I feel melancholy and longing, I wonder where the Black Sands are, I wonder when they were. I think that anytime an artist can produce this level of emotional reaction their endeavor has been a success. I’d Love To Turn You On to Black Sands and I hope you take the time to check it out if it’s not already in your collection.
 - Doug Anderson

Thursday, December 20, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #207 - Miller’s Crossing (1990, dir. Joel Coen)

            The Coen Brothers get a lot of love around here. Their films have been written about three times before. In fact, I myself wrote about my love of their films when I reviewed A Serious Man just this past May. So it’s only fitting that I write about another of their films for my last Spork entry of 2018. Today, I’m going to talk about another of their oft-overlooked films, the 1990 gangster-noir film Miller’s Crossing.
            Like many of the Coens’ films, Miller’s Crossing is steeped in snappy dialogue, sometimes making it hard to follow the relatively simple plot. But the gist is this - Tom Reagan (played by Gabriel Byrne) is second in command to a powerful Irish mob boss, Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney) in Prohibition-era America. At the onset of the film, Tom acts as a kind of mediator between Leo and rival Italian kingpin Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) when the two men meet to discuss business. Caspar wants to have Bernie (John Turturro), a small-time bookie, killed for divulging secrets about Caspar’s organization. Bernie, however, pays for protection, and Leo refuses to give him up. This causes Caspar to become extremely angry, spewing a diatribe about ethics and threatening all-out war. After Caspar leaves, Tom tries to convince Leo that giving up Bernie to avoid a turf war is the smarter move. It is then revealed that Leo has another reason for not giving up Bernie - he is romantically involved with Bernie’s sister Verna (Marcia Gay-Harden). Leo’s refusal to budge does end up starting a war, beginning with a failed attempt on Leo’s life. This prompts Tom to try again to reason with Leo about handing over Bernie to Caspar. This time, he reveals to Leo that Verna is not worth protecting Bernie for as she has been stepping out on him… with Tom. Leo reacts violently, kicking the shit out of Tom and throwing him out of his establishment. Tom then begins working for Caspar, acting as a catalyst for the ongoing war between the sides.
            Having already dipped their toes in the film noir genre with their debut Blood Simple, by the release of Miller’s Crossing the Coens had the genre perfected. With this film, however, they stumbled upon something different. Cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld (pre-directing days) shot the film, making full use of darkness and shadow to create a somber and paranoid atmosphere where no one can be trusted. For all intents and purposes, Miller’s Crossing should have been the film that made the Coens a household name. They put a lot of grit and soul into getting the film made, even struggling with writer’s block during the screenwriting process for a three week stretch. On top of that, their original choice for the role of Leo O’Bannon, Trey Wilson (Nathan Arizona from their previous film Raising Arizona) died of a brain hemorrhage just two days before shooting began, opening the door for last minute fill-in Finney. Unfortunately, the film was a total bomb in the box office, only grossing about $5 million. This pattern would continue to plague them until the release of Fargo in 1996.
On the bright side, Miller’s Crossing has since become something of a cult classic and has garnered a lot in home video and DVD/Blu-ray sales. It’s the Coens’ third film, early enough in their careers that I hadn’t yet become the fanatic for their films that I am now. Having been completely blown away by Raising Arizona, as far as I knew these filmmakers excelled at making screwball comedies. I immediately loved Miller’s Crossing though, and it’s been one of my favorite films of theirs and in general ever since. It perfectly combines their trademark subtle wit with a hint of The Godfather and a dash of Double Indemnity. Their casting is always spot-on, but I was particularly taken with J.E. Freeman’s portrayal of Caspar’s majordomo Eddie Dane (or simply “The Dane”). There is something so menacing about that character, yet somehow kind of calming or soothing about his demeanor. It’s a performance that still hasn’t been topped in any of their films. And Byrne’s acting, in my observations, can sometimes feel a little flat, but in this film, he absolutely shines as the scheming, manipulative and perpetually drunk Tom. It is bar-none his best role.
The brothers have made some of the most unforgettable and amazing films of the last two decades. I recently watched them all in order back to back, ending with their most recent Netflix vehicle The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Each of their films truly has a unique voice of its own, but there is something about Miller’s Crossing that stands out even among an entire career’s worth of pure gems. I watched that one twice.
-         Jonathan Eagle

Monday, December 10, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #220 - The Abyssinians - Satta Massagana

For me, studying reggae has been similar to studying the classic R&B recordings of Atlantic or Stax, the legendary blues sessions on Chess or the wide-ranging recordings on Sun Records. The label exists as a framework for all the great music that was released under its imprimatur. The various studio players that orbited the studio became part of the sound, the specific engineers and producers, even the tape-op guys associated with that particular label would come to define the artistic and commercial decisions made in the production of their albums. The classic era of reggae (from approximately 1960 until the mid to late 70’s) was produced in the relatively homogeneous environments of Jamaica and England. The communities of musicians and engineers who were responsible for the classic sound were relatively few in number and thus, as one studies this great music, it becomes clear that many of the same people played on many of the best records and that they were produced by only a handful of technicians in just a few studios. This is why, to the uninitiated, much reggae sounds confoundingly similar. Like the R&B on Atlantic, the deep pleasure and understanding of this music comes from an overarching appreciation of the traditions and techniques used and then an understanding of the individual strengths of each singer. With reggae, there is a deep history of beats, riddims and lyrical insights which can be followed and understood as the foundation, and then there is unlimited joy to be found in the varying vocal deliveries of each individual or group. The Abyssinians were in the tradition of other Jamaican vocal groups like The Paragons, The Heptones, The Mighty Diamonds and Culture who twisted the vocal harmony styles of Doo-Wop and early R&B into the hypnotic vocal attack of conscious roots reggae.
Satta Massagana - both the song and the album - are at the very pinnacle of reggae. The song has become recognized as the national anthem of reggae, and the album embodies everything one could wish for in reggae - it is inspirational, deep and danceable. All the elements are here: the lyrics are serious, political, spiritual and poetic, the band is filled with the absolute cream of Jamaica’s best (Sly & Robbie, Chinna Smith, Tyrone Downie, Mikey Chung et al.) and the three-part vocals by principles Donald and Lynford Manning and lead vocalist Bernard Collins are heavenly. If the band had only recorded "Satta Massagana" and no other song, their reputation would still be as solid. It is one of the most recognizable and wholly satisfying songs of its era; not just reggae - all songs. Everything from its righteous lyric filled with equal parts supplication and inspiration so beautifully sung and harmonized by the vocalists, to the tough, punchy horns, the perfect guitar riddim, and burbling keyboard - it all works wonderfully. In addition, there is the use of words and phrases from the Amharic language adding an even greater air of philosophical mystery. In the age of the internet it is easy to find out what these words mean, but when the album was first released in 1976 (the single was recorded in 1969) hearing these words so lovingly integrated into the song filled the listener with many questions and hinted at deeper meanings than those we were used to in top 40 rock music. These guys were tapping in to something ancient and profound while creating music that seemed unmoored from any specific time period. Listening to it in 2018 has changed nothing at all - this album still sounds fresh. And "Satta Massagana" is not the only masterpiece. The entire album is filled with miraculous songs. Each one a perfectly crafted piece of golden-era reggae, as well a lyrical triumph, nourishing spirit and intellect. "Declaration Of Rights," "Know Jah Today," "Abendigo," "African Race" or "Leggo Beast" are all equal to the title track, and the entire album rewards endless listening.
If diving into reggae seems daunting to you and you have no idea where to start, Satta Massagana is the perfect entry point. It is fantastic music that transcends any genre, yet it is also a perfect exemplar of what reggae can and should be. The world is filled with great music, but music that rises above fashion to “life-changing” - now that is worth pursuing.
-         Paul Epstein

Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Moody Blues – In Search Of The Lost Chord (50th Anniversary Edition Boxset) Universal Music (Polydor) 2018

     As the second of the classic seven Moody Blues albums released between 1967 and 1972, this album while still great has perhaps aged the most. The use of psychedelic trappings such as sitars and swirling stereo mixes plus songs about Eastern religion and the drug culture feels far removed from the world of 2018.  That actually may be the charm of listening to …Chord, however, as it takes you back to another era. While Justin Hayward had shone brightest on Days Of Future Passed (“Tuesday Afternoon” and “Nights In White Satin”), Ray Thomas (“Legend Of A Mind”) and John Lodge (“Ride My See-Saw”) have the best tracks this time. This new five disc boxset continues the expansion of the original twelve-track 1968 Deram LP adding some elements that may make the extra price worth it for Moodies obsessives (but likely will keep it on the shelf for casual fans).
     In 1997 a straight reissue labelled “digitally remastered” was released and frankly sounds muddy. The only thing making this version worth keeping is a nice interview with the band in the booklet about making the album; otherwise it is not the version to own. In 2006, a two CD set came out labelled as “Deluxe Edition” on the plastic slipcase. Disc one was the original album while disc two was fifteen tracks of alternate mixes (“The Word” [Mellotron mix]” for example), single songs (“A Simple Game”, etc.) and a nice five song BBC session. The packaging was great, being a quad folder with a fine photo-filled booklet featuring an essay by Mark Powell. The booklet also had short discussions about all the bonus tracks. The sound was much better than the ’97 version with more treble and less mud in the middle frequencies. A single disc remaster version with only nine bonus tracks (minus the BBC set) was released in 2008 as well.
     With the 2018 fiftieth anniversary of the original album upon us, this new boxset makes sense if you need everything you can get your hands on by the classic version of the Moody Blues. Disc one is the original album appended with five single mixes (including a never released mono mix of “Legend Of A Mind”) and otherwise sounds the same as the 2006 CD. Disc two has a new stereo mix of the old album plus the Justin Hayward sung version of single B-side “A Simple Game” (previously on the 2006 CD too). It is pretty hard to hear much difference in the mixes, frankly, than the ones on disc one. There is slight movement of elements, but not enough to make it entertainingly unique. Disc three is almost the same as the bonus disc with the 2006 version only adding the track “Gimme A Little Somethin’.” Disc four gives you a 5.1 surround mix that seems to be underwhelming folks that actually have a player (but truthfully yours truly hasn’t heard it not owing a player). For this reviewer, disc five is the main reason to own this new box as it is a 19 track visual DVD of mostly unavailable TV performances from that era. While the camera work is typically terrible 1960s musical coverage on the French TV songs (you get to see a lot of audience and virtually nothing of keyboard player Mike Pinder for instance), it does show that they could sing and play this material pretty well (drummer Graeme Edge is especially good). It is really interesting to see this more classical version of the band playing totally odd songs like “Bye Bye Bird” and the Animals track “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” Seven of the songs come from a color BBC production that has them miming (though at times it appears they are singing live). The other reason to buy this box is the expanded packaging which includes a nice soft-cover seventy-two page book and a fun reduced-size reprint of the “Ride My See-Saw” sheet music. The essay is nearly a word for word reprint of Mark Powell’s original in the 2006 version while the book does include many more pictures, old record covers and lyrics. What’s omitted from the 2006 booklet is any discussion of each of the bonus tracks and curiously the original back LP cover (photo elements as in the book, but not the whole cover).
     To sum up, buy the 2006 or 2008 versions if you aren’t a completest and just want a great CD. Buy the box for the visuals or if you need a 5.1 mix. That being said, it is a shock to report (as a confirmed CD lover) that in playing each version side by side with a pristine copy of the old vinyl, the original black rotating version actually wins out for this reviewer for the best overall sound (unless you prefer your sound with a thicker middle which the CD does have).
- Doc Krieger

Monday, December 3, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #206 - The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse (1933, dir. Fritz Lang)

Director Fritz Lang seemed to have an incredible knack for predicting the future, imagining modern cities ruled by technology in Metropolis, the era of media-driven serial murderers in M, and both the rise of fascism and the role terrorism would play in modern life in his masterful 1933 suspense film The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse. Lang began a series of Dr. Mabuse movies in 1922 with his silent Dr. Mabuse The Gambler. Mabuse was a “Moriarity” type evil genius character whose criminal schemes go beyond the lust for riches and veer into concepts of world domination and mind control. Mabuse uses telepathy and projection to control people, and while it doesn’t succumb to pure fantasy, there is an edge of the unreal to this film that makes it succeed as both mystery and science fiction.
The character of Dr. Mabuse and his nefarious abilities to bend people to his will and make them commit unspeakable acts is the secret to what makes the movie so compelling. Locked in a mental institution after the crimes he committed in the first movie, we come to understand that Mabuse has created a network of evildoers to do his bidding through the use of trickery and intimidation. Mabuse’s plot involves creating societal havoc - blowing up chemical factories, poisoning water, destroying crops - so that he can bend the populace to his will and rule the world. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that a German director in 1933 sharing his fears about a violent dictator might be referencing the looming shadows of Hitler’s Third Reich, and everything that happens in the movie lends credulity to this theory as Mabuse rejects profit in exchange for sowing anarchy. In the midst of the growth of the Nazi party, the movie’s theme rings frighteningly true. Mabuse convinces common thieves and those he can blackmail to his side, convincing them that society must be brought to its knees so he can impose his vision of totalitarian rule. To the outside world Mabuse is a madman sitting in a padded cell endlessly scribbling his plans for conquest on pieces of paper. To those inside his cadre of creeps, he is an evil genius leading them to some unholy victory over the rest of mankind.
How Lang achieves the heightened levels of fear and paranoia we experience in this film are the secrets to his craft as one of the great filmmakers of the 20th century. Lang belonged to a rare class of directors who successfully made the leap from silent to sound film. Many simply could not leave the purely visual medium and incorporate sound and dialogue into their bag of tricks. Lang in fact used exactly those challenges to make his films so successful. His use of sound is overwhelming. It feels like a new medium to explore and that’s exactly what it was. The pounding of machines, the wailing of sirens, the relatively new mechanized sounds of the industrial revolution were the raw materials Lang forged into the glowing outline of his story. The same for visual effects and lighting; Lang beautifully predicts much of the lexicon and tradition of film-noir before it exists. His shadows have a life of their own, and unknown worlds lurk just beyond the saturated light of the frame. Few directors can move the viewer so completely with just the suggestion of emotion.
Perhaps no aspect of The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse rings truer than the chilling spectre of global terrorism that it raises. When we learn the entirety of Mabuse’s fiendish plot, it is not a stretch to imagine the same sentiments coming from Osama Bin Laden’s mouth. Mabuse’s nihilistic desire to tear the flesh of civilization away from the bones of society is remarkably on target and modern. Like Professor Moriarity in the Sherlock Holmes series, Mabuse seems to come to an end in each film, yet his brand of evil is not dependent on corporeal existence, he represents the evil in all men’s souls, a malignance we must fight every day.
-         Paul Epstein

Monday, November 26, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #219 - Eric B. & Rakim - Don’t Sweat the Technique

            Conventional wisdom tells you that Eric B. & Rakim debuted strong in 1987 with their greatest work, Paid in Full, and then released three more albums of slightly diminishing returns before breaking up (and then reuniting 25 years later for a live tour, but that’s another story). But my ears tell me different. They tell me that the duo started good and kept getting better as album makers, and that the classic status accorded to their first two albums rests on the strength of their (admittedly, absolutely classic) singles but not so much the rest of the songs, whereas the lesser status of the other albums is because they aren’t thought to have singles in the same league as “I Know You Got Soul” and “Follow the Leader” - this is also a false assumption. Paid In Full’s minimal beats-and-groove topped by Rakim’s speedy, word-heavy flow was a revolution in the sound of rap, taking Run-D.M.C.’s innovations a step further. Follow the Leader upped the ante by fleshing out the music. Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em was a tentative move in the direction of expanding their music, and their forward progress culminated in Don’t Sweat the Technique, their fullest, jazziest, and most consistent of their four albums.
            The duo's music was a huge influence on rap. Though Rakim gets the lion's share of the praise, it's not just their influence on major MCs from Nas to Ghostface Killah to Eminem, but also on beatmakers and producers - it’s hard to imagine the RZA’s minimal, fragmented beats for the Wu-Tang Clan empire or the Bomb Squad's relentless productions for Public Enemy without Eric B. having done this first. But by 1992 when this record was released rap was expanding in so many directions at once - the Native Tongues movement and Public Enemy and Beastie Boys in NYC alone changing the sound of modern hip-hop, and Dr. Dre and Ice Cube redefining the West Coast sound (not to mention other regional variants) - that it got lost in the shuffle, their first (and only) regular album that didn’t go gold. Fans at the time were disappointed that they didn't stick to the tried-and-true. But Eric B (born Eric Barrier) says that they group wanted to stay on top of things. In a 2016 interview with The Combat Jack Show he notes his awareness of up-and-comers who could easily turn the group "old school" - "These guys were really right on our heels—the Nas’s and the guys coming up. So we had to go into the studio and separate ourselves on the next level." And that they did.
But it's not just the fact that the album is more diverse than its predecessors that sets it apart - it's simply a solid listen, beginning to end, in a way that the previous records aren't. The album is a mix of narrative-leaning pieces like the romantic “What’s On Your Mind?” and the Desert Storm PTSD nightmare “Casualties of War” with Rakim's more typical stream of consciousness word flow pieces like “Pass the Hand Grenade” and the title cut. But in either mode, Rakim just never stops, his flow fast, clear, and assured, augmented by Eric B.'s expanded palette of jazz bass, horn hooks, soul backup choruses, and so forth that mark each song in the memory. And if Eric B.'s hooks are what draw me back, Rakim's words are what give the album its never-ending depths. He throws down so many that I’m still deciphering parts 26 years later - not that I can’t understand what he says, just that part of the joy of this music is letting the dizzying rush of words go by, focusing in occasionally to zero in on a song’s subject, or one of Rakim’s brilliantly rhymed phrases that I just noticed this time around (as in this couplet from “The Punisher”: “Go manufacture a mask, show me after / a glass of a master that has to make musical massacre”).
Oh yeah, those killer singles I mentioned earlier? "Know the Ledge" and "Don't Sweat the Technique" have actually become acknowledged as great tracks by the duo, but "Casualties of War" and (the non-single) "The Punisher" - all in the group's faster/harder mode - are on par as well. That's four great ones right there (same as on Paid In Full), without even counting that "Relax With Pep," "Rest Assured," "Pass the Hand Grenade," and "Kick Along" smoke any of the filler cuts on the debut - or noting that there are four more solid ones beyond even those, and they may not even be your faves the way they're mine. Back on one of the duo's greatest songs, "Follow the Leader," Rakim says "Rap is rhythm and poetry, cuts create sound effects" - this is the album where they prove it in the most diverse and consistent way.
-         Patrick Brown

Monday, November 19, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #205 - Autumn Sonata (1978, dir. Ingmar Bergman)

Ingmar Bergman is one of the all-time greats of world cinema, the Swedish director whose name is for many synonymous with capital-A Art in film for exploring both complex spiritual and psychological themes and unflinchingly observing the difficulties of human relationships. If he hadn’t passed away in 2007 at age 89, he’d be celebrating his centennial year in 2018, and in honor of his legacy the Criterion Collection has released Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema, a handsome box set containing 39 of his films. (Don't worry, I'm not reviewing all 39.) Ingrid Bergman, had cancer not claimed her in 1982, would’ve celebrated her centenary in 2015. One of Hollywood’s biggest stars of the 1940s due to celebrated performances for Alfred Hitchcock, as Joan of Arc, and in a little film called Casablanca, Bergman came from Sweden to the United States, left her family here to go to Italy in a scandalous affair and marriage (and several great films) with director Roberto Rossellini, and later returned triumphantly to the States and Hollywood. Though the Bergmans share a name, they are unrelated, and they worked together exactly once, on 1978's Autumn Sonata, which would prove to be Ingrid’s final feature film and the first time she had made a film in Swedish in over a decade.
Though Autumn Sonata received mixed reviews on its initial release, time has been exceptionally kind to it, and today I think it can be seen as one of the highlights of Ingmar Bergman’s family dramas - more down-to-earth than his period piece Cries and Whispers, less excessive than the 5+ hour televised cuts of other dramas like Scenes From A Marriage and the later Fanny and Alexander - though no less intense than any of them. Film historian Peter Cowie in an essay on Criterion’s website even goes so far as to say “As a tour de force of screen acting, Autumn Sonata stands unchallenged as the finest work of Ingmar Bergman’s last few years as a movie director.”
The story is simple: internationally acclaimed concert pianist Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman) is invited by her daughter, Eva (Liv Ullmann), whom she hasn’t seen in years to stay with her in her rural home after the passing of her Charlotte’s longtime companion. They banter a bit upon arrival, Charlotte breezing in, used to being the center of attention, hijacking an accomplishment Eva, looking girlish and mousy despite the almost 40-year old Ullmann’s beauty, tries to relate about a local piano recital she’s given by topping her story with one of sold out shows in L.A. Then Eva reveals the first of several surprises she has in store for her mother: Charlotte’s other daughter Helena (Lena Nyman), who suffers from a degenerative nerve disease and who had been moved to a nursing home, is now living with Eva and her husband. This unexpected news cracks Charlotte’s glittery facade, and there’s a mildly malicious delight as Eva relates to her husband how she expects her mother to handle herself now that she’s seen Helena again. They also talk in the nursery of Eva’s deceased son, who was born and died at age 4 without Charlotte ever having met him. But this is only a prelude as they have a chilly dinner followed by Eva playing a piano piece for her mother who can’t hold back a pedantic tongue - though to be fair Eva asks her for her honest opinion. Once they retire to bed Charlotte awakens from a nightmare and goes downstairs to find Eva already there, awoken by her nighttime cries. The two begin talking and the film settles in for its central movement. An angry Eva starts things off simply and directly enough by asking “Do you like me?” and they’re off, Eva accusing Charlotte of never being there for the family, telling of her deep love and admiration that was never returned by her mother, angry about Charlotte abandoning Helena to her fate, and more. Charlotte, for her part, defends herself, and what at first seems like righteous accusations from Eva grow into anger and memories twisted by their years of buried and repressed resentments into something unfair, bigger even than Charlotte could have done to her if she’d deliberately tried to psychologically damage her.
The delight of the film is in watching these two actors at the height of their powers bringing to life Ingmar Bergman’s deeply incisive dialogue (the film was nominated for Best Screenplay). Each pulls our sympathy and our disdain at points, and each of them undoubtedly dug deeply into their own lives to inhabit these characters. Ullmann had written a year earlier of her own shortcomings as a parent to her daughter Linn (whose father was Ingmar Bergman), while Ingrid Bergman’s earlier public scandal stemmed from having abandoned her husband and daughter to go to Italy to make films with (and marry) Rossellini. And Ingmar, for his part, once boasted to a biographer about not knowing his own children’s ages, but dating his life by his films. Together, these three - plus key acting support from both Lena Nyman as the disabled daughter and Halvar Björk as Eva’s husband, passively observing parts of the tempest and acting as Eva’s pillar (also setting up for viewers Eva's deep insecurities in an address directly to the camera which opens the film), create a chamber drama of withering intensity and seriousness, without even Ingmar Bergman’s occasional experimental tendencies to lighten the drama. And it would be criminal to leave out the name of cinematographer Sven Nykvist, whose 19th collaboration with the director this was, and who was always uniquely able to render Bergman’s interior worlds in light and images, here all warm, subtle tones befitting the title and underscoring the brutal emotional storm that passes through the home that night.
This 45th feature he directed was Ingmar Bergman’s final film made expressly for theaters; it would be Ingrid Bergman’s final theatrical film as well (one for which she received her 7th Academy Award nomination) - both would do work for television after this, but it is the culmination of two stellar careers in cinema. Three, actually, because it’s also one of Liv Ullmann’s great performances. Put Nykvist in there as well, and let’s call it four. It's a great one. Back in 1978, the critics just got it wrong.
-          Patrick Brown