Monday, May 29, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #180 - Nas – Illmatic

Over the years as I have worked on and off at independent record stores, I’ve tried my best to learn more about music from my co-workers. In 2004, my assistant manager, Eric, doubled as the store’s hip-hop guru in addition to working as a producer on the side. After working together for a few months, I began a conversation with him about getting back into hip-hop after falling out of touch for a while. Eric’s guidance was key in helping me navigate the work of OutKast, Common, Aesop Rock, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, The Roots, and Immortal Technique, just to name a few. After we had been talking about hip-hop for a while, I asked him if there were any other albums I should check out and he stated that Illmatic by Nas was his favorite hip-hop album of all time.

Since its release in 1994, Illmatic has won a fair amount of praise and credit, but somehow it just doesn’t seem like enough. A lot of other hip-hop albums from the mid-nineties tend to top lists for the decade’s best music, but none of those albums possess the integrity, cohesion, and flawless appeal of Illmatic. Following Eric’s recommendation, I picked up a copy of the album’s tenth anniversary edition and began exploring Nas’ astonishing, yet nuanced debut. “The Genesis” sets the stage for Nas’ storytelling on Illmatic by melding a clip of dialogue from the 1983 movie Wild Style with a conversation among Nas and his peers about life, music, and credibility. Aside from this slice of life introduction, the album flows seamlessly for forty minutes without any interruptions common to hip-hop albums of the era like skits and gags. Over the nine remaining tracks, Nas teams up with a group of producers including DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Large Professor, and Q-Tip to deliver a singular approach to hip-hop that has aged far more gracefully than much of what was on the radio in 1994. The second track, “N.Y. State of Mind,” begins the album in earnest with a nearly breathless account of the world Nas sees around him. Nas pulls this point of view narrative into sharp focus with the kind of unforgettable wordplay that sets him apart from his peers. The line “I ran like a cheetah with thoughts of an assassin,” blends imagery with psychology in a way that feels so intuitive, yet profoundly unique. Later on in the song, Nas establishes the theme of survival against all odds with the lyrics “I never sleep, ‘cause sleep is the cousin of death” and “Life is parallel to hell, but I must maintain and be prosperous.” Illmatic ends on an incredibly high note with “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” as Large Professor deconstructs Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” and assembles new musical and rhythmic potential out of samples of various elements of the original song. Against this backdrop, Nas’ voice resonates with the confidence and knowledge that he’s delivering the valedictory statement of his masterpiece.

Through the course of ten more albums over the last twenty plus years, Nas hasn’t been able to top Illmatic, but that doesn’t diminish the power of his debut or the quality of his career. Nas has persevered on the course he set with Illmatic and, in doing so, has carved out a distinctive niche for himself in hip-hop. Perhaps Illmatic’s greatest strength draws from how well it has aged. A surprising number of highly rated hip-hop albums of this era now sound clumsy, ugly, and outdated. Illmatic has been compared many times to another debut from a gifted East Coast rapper from the same year, The Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die. Both men were in their early twenties when they released these albums, which cover nearly identical subject material and even share notable visual elements on their albums covers. I’ve listened to both albums repeatedly in the last several years, but just as I grow tired of the nihilism, brutality, and fatalism of Ready to Die, I find myself pulling closer to the resilience, humor, and imagination of Illmatic.

-         John Parsell

Monday, May 22, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #166 - Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005, dir. Jon Favreau)

As a kid, I was drawn to science fiction like a moth to a flame. Star Wars premiered the same month I was born and my favorite after school entertainment in the 1980s consisted of reruns of the original Star Trek. In elementary and middle school, I scoured the shelves of my local video rental shops for science fiction movies I hadn’t seen yet. At the age of ten, I remember feeling caught between sci-fi kids’ movies like Flight of the Navigator, which left me feeling bored and unsatisfied, and classics of the genre like 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I knew I was way too young to appreciate or understand fully. A few years ago, I came across Zathura: A Space Adventure and suddenly felt like I had stumbled upon a secret portal to my childhood.

Opening on a sunny summer day, Zathura sets a brisk pace and introduces us to Walter and Danny, two brothers competing for their father’s attention and fighting against the ultimate scourge of childhood: boredom. Soon, the boys learn that they will have to spend the afternoon together and younger brother Danny discovers an antiquated board game titled, Zathura: A Space Adventure. Walter reluctantly joins Danny in playing the game and almost immediately the brothers find themselves navigating a realm in which the game’s dilemmas like meteor showers, defective robots, and alien attacks feel all too real. If the plot sounds more than a little bit familiar, it’s helpful to know that the author of the source material, Chris Van Allsburg, also wrote Jumanji. This adaptation of Van Allsburg’s work blasts off into an imaginative realm of palpable risk and excitement where the 1995 movie version of Jumanji gets mired down in a swamp of muddled computer graphics and flat performances. Director Jon Favreau brings Zathura sparking to life through a reliance on practical special effects, a focus on ensemble acting with a young, gifted cast, and a script crackling with snappy dialogue. Favreau began his Hollywood career as an actor in the 1990s with a breakout role in the indie hit, Swingers, but has since switched trades and established himself as a dependable director of distinctive, successful mainstream films like Elf, Iron Man, and the recent live action version of The Jungle Book. Just as Zathura the board game offers the boys experiences with which video games and TV cannot possibly compete, this movie provides visceral thrills that far outperform the scores of contemporary family movies that lean too heavily on weak narratives and computer generated effects. Favreau taps into the heart of Van Allsburg’s book, expands the scope of the original story, and delivers one of the most satisfying family-friendly sci-fi movies of this century.  

As a book, Zathura covers just thirty pages, but Favreau targets the key elements of why it has become a modern classic of children’s literature and embellishes this adaptation with style and substance. Favreau pulls off the tricky feat of taking a well-loved kids’ book and fashioning it into a funny, boisterous movie that packs an emotional punch and succeeds on its own. In 2009, Spike Jonze attempted something similar with his take on Maurice Sendak’s almost universally adored book, Where the Wild Things Are, but ended up making a movie that bewildered audiences and bore very little resemblance to the enchanting power of the original. Zathura was Favreau’s third project as a director, but with it he established the kinetic, vibrant, and irreverent elements that would come to define his work. By infusing Iron Man and Iron Man 2 with his stylistic trademarks, Favreau set the tone for the sprawling multi-media franchise known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A lot of people missed Zathura when it hit theaters in 2005, but now is as a good a time as any to take your chances and see where this adventure will take you.

-         John Parsell

Monday, May 15, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #179 - Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen - Lost In The Ozone

After the multi-colored explosion of counter-culture and youth exaltation that took place in mid to late 1960’s America, there was a desire for something maybe a little less experimental, maybe a little less world-changing and maybe a little more…fun. In the world of popular music there was a small but meaningful group of bands who were (re)discovering the joy and heritage of American roots music. Groups like Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, N.R.B.Q., Asleep at the Wheel and The New Riders of the Purple Sage were discovering the past and finding that it was a blast to play this kind of music. Audiences were equally desperate for something that required less thinking and more dancing. In thrall of classic outfits like Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, Louis Jordan and His Tympani Five, Tex Ritter, and The Johnny Otis Revue, these bands were finding that they were not the first musicians to jump in a bus and travel across the land bringing high times to the people. One of the most legendary and hard partying of these bands was Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. Starting in Michigan and landing in the Bay Area, they released their first album Lost In The Ozone in 1971. Like the aforementioned American big bands and revues, The Airmen brought a joyous repertoire of originals and classic Americana to the stage and gave the hippies a much-needed emotional break.

There is nothing fancy, tricky, artsy or fartsy about The Airmen’s music. It is basically revved-up country and western with a bit of R&B thrown in. The Commander himself (George Frayne IV) was a trained painter and sculptor whose love of boogie-woogie piano led him to leave the academic path (he has doubled a college professor) and hit the road with a crack eight-piece big band to give the people what they want. And boy could they deliver! The album kicks off with a clear statement of purpose, “Back To Tennessee,” “Wine Do Yer Stuff” and “Seeds And Stems (Again)” tell us with no uncertainty that these boys want to get back to the country and start the Par-Tay! And that is exactly what they do. They do not let up. The hallmarks of this great band were the Commander’s pumping boogie-woogie, Billy C. Farlow’s authentic vocal stylings, Bill Kirchin’s world-class guitar picking and the addition of non-traditional rock instruments like pedal-steel guitar, fiddle and the occasional horns. The original material makes the dichotomy of country/hippie life clear, and then the raucous cover versions that round out the album bridge that gulf in fine form.

About halfway through, starting with title cut “Lost In The Ozone,” the album kicks into high gear. Any young person who had made it through the late 60’s and into the politically charged atmosphere of the early 70’s could relate to the feelings suggested by this song’s title and sentiment. “Midnight Shift” and “20 Flight Rock” offer a clear reference back to early rock and roll, but the Charlie Ryan classic “Hot Rod Lincoln” provided The Airmen with their biggest and longest lasting hit and neatly crystallizes their aesthetic. It rocks in a way the fan of rock and roll can appreciate, but it is an absolute retro blast. Originally a hit in 1951, it reflects the moment in our history when popular American music was turning from regionalism to the monolith known as rock and roll. Within a few years, everything would change for good.

The album ends with an uproarious live version of “Beat Me Daddy Eight To The Bar,” one of the greatest songs about the joy of making and listening to music. A big band hit going back to 1941, it was a wonderful reminder to contemporary audiences of the fundamental importance music can play in lifting our spirits from the mundane or cruel realities of day to day life. With Vietnam about to crest and Watergate on the near horizon that wasn’t the worst thing.

“When He Jams It’s A Ball, He’s The Daddy Of Them All!
The Rhythm He Play Puts Those Cats In A Trance, Nobody There Bothers To Dance.
When They Jam With A Bass And Guitar, They Holler: Oh Beat Me Daddy Eight To The Bar!”

-         Paul Epstein

Monday, May 8, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #165 - Nosferatu and Nosferatu The Vampyre

Two movies, 55 years apart, and yet they are the bookends of the cinema vampire phenomenon. F.W. Murnau’s 1922 “Symphony Of Horror” set the template for the entire style. Herzog’s 1979 homage to the original effectively closes the book on the genre. There have been and will be more vampire movies after Murnau’s and Herzog’s, however, none will make our Transylvanian friend a more humanely drawn or eerily depicted monster than those portrayed in these landmark films.

The plot of both these films should be familiar to all fans of the genre. A mysterious count (Orlok in Murnau’s, Dracula in Herzog’s) contacts a real estate firm to find him a castle. A hapless agent (Hutter and Harker respectively) is sent to the Count’s castle in Transylvania to consummate a deal, and both find themselves immediately drawn into the nightmarish world of a being who must consume the blood of other humans in order to live - a vampire. Murnau’s film almost defies description. Because it is silent and utilizes arcane film equipment and technology, it inherently has a dreamy quality. Count Orlok, as portrayed by the great German actor Max Schreck is more animal than human. His rat-like teeth, ears, long fingernails and hairless head make him as much bat as man. When Hutter arrives at Orlok’s castle, there is no pretense of normalcy, as the count lunges for human blood and wonders aloud at how beautiful Hutter’s fiancé is (especially her neck). Schreck’s appearance is the stuff of nightmares, and has remained so throughout the years. Even more than Bela Lugosi’s worldly seducer, Schreck’s appearance is what comes to mind when I think of vampires. Orlock makes his way to his new home and goes about seducing Hutter’s wife. After bringing death and madness to her town, Hutter’s wife tricks Orlock into staying with her until sunrise, thus causing him to vaporize with the first rays of the morning sun. Max Schreck’s make-up and movements remain one of the landmark performances in film. He is terrifying and mysterious, and truly the stuff of nightmares.

Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake, Nosferatu The Vampyre,  puts much more explanation and psychological depth into his depiction of the vampire (played by the incomparable Klaus Kinski), and yet, it almost feels like an extension of the original, as opposed to a rewriting. Herzog invests more humanity into his protagonists, real-estate agent Jonathan Harker and his stunning wife Lucy (depicted with intense beauty by Isabelle Adjani). They are genuinely in love, and we share their sadness at being apart. Jonathan is delayed for weeks at Dracula’s castle, and when he finally does return he is devoid of all memory and personality. Dracula has stolen his soul and now has come to his home town to steal his wife and leave all he encounters in ruins.

Throughout Herzog’s film, there is a dread sense of natural disorder. With Dracula comes the plague and swarms of rats. Harker’s town of Wismar, Germany becomes a nightmarish hell of burning corpses, the few remaining townsfolk descending into madness. Rats are everywhere as the town falls prey to Dracula’s spell. Again, it is Harker’s wife, Lucy who determines that only she can stop Dracula – at the cost of her own life – by seducing him past the crack of dawn. Kinski’s depiction of Dracula differs from Shrek’s only in terms of technology. Because Herzog’s film is shot in sumptuous color, with languorous shots of natural beauty and horror, it feels as though we have a much more personal relationship with the vampire. His pitiful pleas of eternal loneliness seem almost sympathetic. Kinski is literally nauseating as the pale, groaning, insectoid loser. He seems more like a sniveling pest than a world-dominating immortal. Perhaps this is the greatest achievement of Herzog’s film; he lends some humanity to one of the world’s great monsters.

There’s no fully understanding the Vampire genre without these two movies. They depict the monster as an aberration of the natural order as opposed to a dapper Count using his powers for seduction. While the earlier cuts a more mysterious figure, the latter is believable as an example of nature gone awry.

-          Paul Epstein

Monday, May 1, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #178 - Raphael Saadiq – The Way I See It

Typically for I’d Love to Turn You On we wait until an album is ten years old before it becomes eligible for the column - it has to be something largely passed over in its initial release to qualify, and with time we’re better able to assess whether it holds water in the long run, rather just having an impressive initial impact that fades quickly. But this album turns nine in 2017 and I can’t wait until 2018 for it to officially be eligible.

Raphael Saadiq was a member of and the primary songwriter for the late 80s/early 90s neo-soul outfit Tony! Toni! Toné!, who scored a number of hits with their modern/retro soul before he left the group to pursue his own vision. His solo records in the wake of the group followed a similar pattern - classic soul influence with modern production styles and genre excursions to stay afloat in the current music field. However, in preparing this record he went decidedly old school. This unabashed throwback shows not just in the songwriting style - songs are kept as short and punchy as prime Motown - but even down to mike placement, recording equipment, and engineering approach (he studied records and session information of both Motown and The Beatles to help approximate the feel of the classic recordings). And Saadiq created the songs in the same one-man-band fashion that Stevie Wonder did – recording layers by playing the instruments (a typical song’s credits reads “Raphael Saadiq - vocals, guitar, bass, drums”), then embellishing the results with session players (strings, horns, percussion, occasional other instruments) and a high-profile guest here and there (Joss Stone, Jay-Z, and Wonder himself).

But all the recording technique and study in the world would mean nothing if Saadiq had not written great songs – and he has, twelve of them in fact. This is his finest album, solo or with his former group, and he honors the musicians he studied by producing an album that can hold its own against the classics. It kicks off right with one of the album’s best and catchiest cuts, “Sure Hope You Mean It,” a gorgeous uptempo number which leads right into “100 Yard Dash,” another fast, catchy one that continues the first song’s love longings with a stronger beat pushing it along. He shifts gears slightly for “Keep Marchin’” which from the title sounds like it could be an homage to the Civil Rights Era music that he’s drawing on, but paints a broader stroke lyrically as a song of uplift in the face of adversity, like the regular album’s superb closer “Sometimes.” The time warp we’ve experienced thus far in feeling like we could be listening to an album straight out of 1965 shifts slightly with “Big Easy.” Not in sound – Saadiq is still deep in his Holland-Dozier-Holland craft – but in the lyrics, which tell of a love lost in New Orleans, his baby not coming back. Even that could’ve been from the past, but the setting isn’t just New Orleans, it’s New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, and the song is a heartbreaker because his baby may not be coming back for the most devastating of reasons. And so it proceeds: “Just One Kiss,” “Love That Girl,” “Let’s Take A Walk,” “Never Give You Up” – all as melodic, direct and forthright as the classic love songs they evoke. “Calling” is the first time he plays his hand a little differently, with Rocio Mendoza’s Spanish-language verses uncommon for the era that most of the record evokes but just right for 2008. And a couple other times small touches take us out of the vibe – the sitar on the great “Oh Girl” puts us up toward 1973 or so, and Jay-Z’s cameo on the bonus remix of the same song couldn’t have come at any time other than the 2000s. And then there’s “Staying in Love,” which he claims is about music and staying true to your own artistic vision, but certainly could be grouped with the above love songs for most of us.

But mainly, Saadiq decided to cast a spell to transport us backward and it works beautifully, beginning to end. It works because he wrote terrific songs; it works because he did his homework to make them sound superb – as crisp, clear, and catchy as their predecessors; and it works because he’s musician enough to pull off the one-man-band trick that R&B geniuses from Stevie Wonder to Prince mastered before him. He followed this masterstroke three years later with the excellent Stone Rollin’ (which takes us from 1965 to somewhere more like 1971) but he hasn’t released a solo album since, preferring to focus his talents on soundtrack work (Luke Cage and the TV series Empire among others) and songwriting and production work for others (recently on Solange Knowles’ widely acclaimed A Seat At the Table). For now though, we’ve got this album and it’s tided me over just fine for just about nine years already.

-         Patrick Brown

Monday, April 24, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #164 - Sweetie (1989, dir. Jane Campion)

Kay: “What if it does die?”
Louis: “What?”
Kay: “The tree.”
Louis: “Well, we’ll get another one.”
Kay: “Yeah, but this is our tree.”
Louis: “Look, it’s not gonna die. The roots grow really strong. They can split concrete.”

Years before Jane Campion would make a name for herself with such films as Bright Star (2009), In The Cut (2003), and probably most famously the Oscar winning The Piano (1993), she wrote and directed this brilliant psychological drama that stunningly explores the inner workings of a small, yet utterly complex family. Sweetie was Campion’s debut feature length film and with it she immediately proved her worth as a writer (the film was co-written by her and Gerard Lee) and director, and revealed her unique narrative and aesthetic vision. I was exposed to this film during a class on female directors during my first undergrad, and was immediately drawn to this odd, visually stunning tale, flush with metaphor and depth.

At the heart of it, this film is about a subtly neurotic and superstitious woman, Kay (Karen Colston), who’s attempting to forge her way as an independent adult. She has very few friends and everyone around her seems to think her quite eccentric. After a reading from her psychic she finds herself in the awkward situation of having to steal a co-worker’s fiancé, Louis (Tom Lycos), as she believes that they were destined to be together. From this moment we fast-forward with the couple, seeing only a few important moments in the development of their relationship until the moment that Lou planted a tree for Kay in their back yard. Believing that the tree could prove some sort of omen for their relationship she rejects it, snaps, and uproots the tree, hiding it underneath the bed in the spare room before anything bad can happen. Although she then moves into the spare bedroom to guard the decaying sapling, everything seems reasonably fine; however their relationship issues are increasingly bubbling underneath the surface. Though the tensions in their relationship seems to be stuck at a simmer, it begins to boil over with the arrival of Kay’s unhinged punk rock sister, Dawn, AKA ‘Sweetie’ (Geneviève Lemon), and her drug addled ‘manager’ Bob.

From this point Sweetie, as well as the rest of Kay’s family, begins to unravel the stability of Kay’s life and her relationship with Louis. The trials and tribulations of the family, Louis, and Bob, beautifully mirror real life’s propensity to be filled with comedy, drama, pain, and revelation. The dysfunction inherent in all of the relationships comes to light but in a remarkable fashion. While many of the issues addressed or hinted at have often been used as fodder for film and literary plots, the way that Campion addresses them skirts cliché and demonstrates a level of finesse and skill not often seen in a debut feature. The talent that shines through in Sweetie most definitely portends Campion's gifts that she would expound upon in her later works.

Aside from the fascinating off-kilter story of this peculiar familial system, and the splendid way that Campion deals with such issues, let me enumerate a few other reasons that I feel compelled to turn you on to this fantastic film. First and foremost, the way that the film was shot is brilliant! The use of out of the ordinary framing and composition for scenes is incredibly engaging and it would often seem that there is something that can be read underneath the surface of every scene. Secondly, and something that goes hand in hand with the aesthetics of the film, Campion imbued this film with an incredible amount of metaphorical layers. There is a certain almost indescribable depth to the film that forces me to question everything and read into all of the subtle context in order to gain a more complete understanding of the somewhat simple story. Third, and finally, the acting is glorious. Geneviève Lemon and Karen Colston in particular effortlessly embody their roles as utterly opposing sibling personalities. The one reserved (Kay) and the other an unapologetic train wreck (Sweetie), they seem to have been made for these roles and their interaction with each other truly makes you believe that they have been embroiled in this strange sibling rivalry all their lives.

It is for all of the aforementioned reasons and more that I implore you to check out this fantastic film, I promise that you won't regret it. Plus, the Criterion Collection's beautiful release of Sweetie happens to come with some amazing extras, such as Campion's early short films and much more, that will further give you a glimpse into the creative process of an amazing writer/director.

- Edward Hill

Monday, April 17, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #177 - Megadeth – Rust in Peace (Capitol, 1990)

These days, if one talks about Megadeth, it’s more likely to be a conversation about what a pompous prick frontman Dave Mustaine publicly continues to be than about the actual music. However, once upon a time, Megadeth released the heaviest, most technically sound thrash metal record of the 1990s (and possibly of all time). I am here to tell you fine Spork readers why, regardless of your position on metal, you need this record in your life.

First of all, a short history lesson for those novices among us. Dave Mustaine was an original member of Metallica. Since all four of my grandparents had heard of Metallica and used them as an entry point for trying to relate to me when I was a pre-teen, I’m going to assume I don’t need to explain who they are. Mustaine was thrown out of Metallica for being too drunk and terrible all the time, itself an impressive feat considering Metallica had been given the nickname ‘Alcoholica’ by friends and press. Defeated but undeterred, Mustaine formed Megadeth with bass player and friend David Ellefson.

Mustaine and Ellefson spent much of the mid-to-late ‘80s trying to match Metallica’s success, Metallica always remaining three steps ahead. Perhaps it was the rampant drug abuse or the semi-frequent personnel changes that kept them from receiving the level of acclaim that Mustaine’s former band was receiving. Finally in 1990, just as thrash metal was beginning to fade into obscurity, Megadeth released their fourth album Rust in Peace, and in doing so took thrash to a whole new level.

Rust in Peace wasn’t just about heaviness and speed. It had those things in spades, but what set Rust in Peace apart from many of the other thrash records of the day was its melodicism and its technical efficiency. Mustaine stepped up the creativity that we all knew he had (if the riffs he wrote on Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All are any indication), got clean and sober (relatively speaking) and wrote some of the most personal songs of his career, dealing with such topics as war, alien conspiracies and his own chemical addiction. The songs themselves tended to be longer with frequent and abrupt time changes. Newly added lead guitarist Marty Friedman, himself an accomplished virtuoso, helped up the intensity and progressive nature of the songs. The record is so filled with guitar solos that it can sometimes feel like a call-and-response wank-fest between Mustaine and Friedman. However, structurally the solos fit well within the epic proportions of the compositions.

Another reason this record is so mind-blowingly incredible is the addition of drummer Nick Menza. Menza was the drum tech for former drummer Chuck Behler and ended up taking over his job when Behler was fired. A former session drummer, Menza had experience in not only metal but gospel and funk as well. These influences all shine through on Rust in Peace, as his style is both angular and jazzy in addition to being lightning fast. Hiring Friedman and Menza was the smartest decision Mustaine ever made or would ever make again. This lineup would be known as the “classic lineup” and would remain together for three more records, the longest any incarnation of Megadeth has ever stayed together.

I had already been playing drums myself for a year or two when Rust in Peace was released. I was a Megadeth fan, but I wouldn’t say I was crazy about them at the time. One day, I was watching a VHS tape of MTV’s The Headbangers’ Ball that I recorded off the TV the night before. When the video for the single “Holy Wars… The Punishment Due” came on, it instantly changed my life. I went out and bought the album that day, and it’s remained one of my favorite albums not just in metal, but overall. Menza’s playing in particular changed both the way I listen to and the way I play music. I maintain that you need not be a metal fan to regard Rust in Peace as an instant classic or at the very least a genre milestone. Its release spawned many tech-metal bands coming out of the woodwork and its influence can even be heard in many recorded works from seasoned veterans such as Slayer and Carcass.

Shortly after Rust in Peace came out metal in general suffered a lapse in popularity with the rise of grunge and “Buzz Bin” bands. Many bands faded away, while others (*cough* Metallica *cough*) would embarrassingly try to embrace the change in the mainstream landscape and release their own version of it. Megadeth even had their share of flops and mishaps in later years. But Rust in Peace will always stand as a true masterpiece and, above all, the point in history when Megadeth finally outdid their biggest rivals.

-         Jonathan Eagle

Monday, April 10, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #163 - Tristana (1970, dir. Luis Buñuel)

Luis Buñuel’s relationship with his home country of Spain was a complicated one – it informed his work and was the root of his uniquely skewed outlook on the world, but he spent most of his life out of the country and made only three films there during his career. Born in the mountain town of Calanda in 1900, he moved with his family to the rural region of Aragon and its capital city Zaragoza when he was young. Attending college in Madrid, he became close friends with Salvador Dalí and Federico García Lorca, moving to France after graduation and joining the Surrealist group with Dalí, ultimately creating one of his most famous works with him, the short film Un Chien Andalou. He made another film (the scandalous L’Age d’Or) with Dalí before their friendship dissolved, then returned to Spain during the turbulent years leading up to the Spanish Civil War. Back in Spain, Buñuel made another short film, Las Hurdes, a semi-documentary about a poverty-stricken mountainous region of Spain near the Portuguese border. The film provoked an uproar with Spanish officials for its brutal depiction of extreme poverty and was banned in Spain from 1933 to 1936, and then again by Francisco Franco’s regime when he came to power after the Civil War. Buñuel left the country when Civil War broke out, departing for the U.S. and then Mexico, where he settled for the rest of his life.

After re-establishing himself as a filmmaker of note in Mexico, Buñuel was invited by Spain to make a film funded by the government, presumably looking to call Spain’s filmmaking son back to his homeland. But the film he made, Viridiana (based on a novel by the author Benito Pérez Galdós), contained scenes considered blasphemous and subversive – despite the script being approved by censors. Franco attempted to have the film destroyed and recalled from its entry at the Cannes film festival, but Buñuel had already left the country with his film. It was immediately banned in Spain, but won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and pushed Buñuel to the upper ranks of international directors, allowing him to make some of his seminal works throughout the 60s.

With these two films created in Spain behind him, it was with some trepidation that the Spanish government again allowed Buñuel to make a third film, Tristana. Could another film made with Franco still in power, be trusted in the hands of Buñuel, the man who said of his surrealist days “Scandal was a potent agent of revelation, capable of exposing such social crimes as the exploitation of one man by another, colonialist imperialism, religious tyranny - in sum, all the secret and odious underpinnings of a system that had to be destroyed.”? Apparently so!

Tristana, unlike Buñuel’s previous Spanish films, did not provoke outrage or scandal and was not banned in Spain (or elsewhere, to my knowledge) – but it could have been. Buñuel turned again to a Galdós novel as source material and found a work that’s very similar in tone to Viridiana – a young woman is taken in by an older gentleman after her parents’ passing and he takes more than a paternal interest in her. The gentleman, Don Lope, is again played by Fernando Rey (in his second of four collaborations with Buñuel), and the young woman Tristana is played by Catherine Deneuve, who Buñuel had worked with to great effect in Belle de Jour. Their relationship in the film is complex and always shifting – Tristana starts the film naïve and meek, a religious woman still mourning the loss of her family, while Don Lope is an atheistic, anti-capitalistic, mostly leftist gentleman who nevertheless retains some archaic notions of honor (very similar to Buñuel himself, in fact). Though Tristana is repulsed by his advances she still remains under his care and as the film continues she begins to assert her independence and a shift begins. Tristana slowly adopts the hardened exterior of her guardian while his strong postures fade away and he becomes the helpless ward. Ironically, it’s Don Lope’s regular talk of the assertion of freedom and individual will that powers Tristana’s bids for autonomy that leave him an emotional wreck.

While the film doesn’t have the outré shock value of Buñuel’s earlier work, it’s a deeply weird and complex film underneath, simultaneously condemning and offering sympathy for Don Lope in his doomed desires for young Tristana (he is referred to throughout the film by various characters as old and hence unattractive), and similarly finding outrage in how Tristana is treated when she’s young, only have her behave monstrously later in life. It wouldn’t be too difficult for Spanish censors who had been upset by Viridiana’s suggestive relationship with her cousin in the earlier film to find in this film a full-bore attack on traditional and family values, frequently showing Don Lope’s moralism as out of touch and his relationship with Tristana considerably more unchaste than the one depicted in Viridiana. And Tristana herself even voices Don Lope’s ideals of remaining unmarried, a free agent in the world of romance able to choose who she wishes to be with and when.

In Buñuel’s universe, boundaries placed on desire are always under attack, and Tristana’s undermining of family values and portrait of marriage as a corrupt institution should, in theory, have been upsetting to Spanish censors. But for some reason, perhaps because rising stars Catherine Deneuve and Franco Nero were cast to help the film toward international success and nobody involved on the Spanish side of the production wanted to seem to be as out of touch as Don Lope, the film passed without friction. It’s as mysterious, challenging, sardonic, and strangely beautiful as any film in Buñuel’s catalog.

-         Patrick Brown

Monday, April 3, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #176 - Richard Buckner - Dents and Shells

The academic year of 1995-1996 figures prominently in my personal history with music. As a college freshman that fall, I joined the staff of WPLS and began hosting my first radio show. Weeks later, I attended my first eighteen-and-over concert: Superchunk at Be Here Now in Asheville, NC. At the end of my freshman year, my friend Simms invited me up to Asheville to see a folk concert. Dar Williams was the headliner at Be Here Now that night, but I came away with a strong impression of the opening act, a big, shambly guy who played a stirring, stripped down cover of Pavement’s “Here.” About a decade later, as I was delving into the furrowed beauty of Richard Buckner’s Dents and Shells, I realized that he was that big, shambly guy and I experienced the kind of epiphany that comes from a life of listening to music you love.

Richard Buckner’s eighth album and his second on Merge Records, Dents and Shells, showcases his distinctive take on the singer-songwriter tradition and serves as a great introduction to this hard-working, underrated artist. Throughout the album, Buckner’s weathered, intimate voice combines with the instrumentation of the era’s alt-country sound, but the result hews closely enough to indie rock that it still feels at home on Merge. “A Chance Counsel” kicks off the album as a strummed acoustic guitar opens into a mid-tempo arrangement and Buckner drops us into the middle of one of his signature highly detailed, small-scale narratives. Blending the sweetness of nostalgia with the bitterness of regret, Buckner sets the album’s themes of missed opportunities, loss, and survival. Coalescing out of a soft, repeated piano figure, “Her” balances a haunting sense of melancholy with a resigned acceptance of the here and now. Offering up the album’s strongest moment, “Her” blossoms into a poignant expression of emotional reckoning nuanced with swells of fiddle and tinges of pedal steel guitar. Later in the album, “Rafters” breaks into a swift tempo while Buckner gives us just enough hints to know he’s singing about the kind of night we all remember when things change forever. The strength of Buckner’s delivery and the lack of resolution in his lyrics in “Rafters” signal a respect for his audience’s intelligence that feels rare and refreshing for the genre and timeframe. “As the Waves Will Always Roll” closes out the album on a somber, yet inspiring note as a cymbal flourish gives way to a brooding organ performance and thunderous crashes of percussion. This musical backdrop slyly offsets Buckner’s nearly hushed voice and although the song rises to almost epic proportions it still feels grounded, immediate, and true like all Buckner’s best songs.

In the spring of 2014, I had a unique opportunity to reflect on my then twenty-year-long relationship with Merge Records, the independent record label founded by two members of one of my favorite bands, Superchunk. That April, I saw Arcade Fire play the Pepsi Center in Denver as part of their Reflektor World Tour, easily the biggest concert by a Merge Records band I’ve witnessed. The next month, I traveled back to my hometown of Greenville, SC and attended the most intimate concert I’ve seen by a Merge Records artist, a house show featuring Richard Buckner hosted by my friend and former record store co-worker, Brian. Sitting in Brian’s living room, I once again felt drawn into Buckner’s warmth, intensity, and vulnerability. Hearing Buckner perform songs from this album with him sitting just a few feet from me, time fell away as I felt anchored by music’s ability to transcend all that can so easily consume and distract us.

-          John Parsell

Monday, March 27, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #162 – Diner (1982, dir. Barry Levinson)

Barry Levinson’s impressive resume includes such award-winning films as Rain Man, Bugsy and Good Morning, Vietnam. Before any of those films however, there was Diner, his 1982 directorial debut. Although a critical success at the time, it barely made a splash at the box office and was ill-recognized by the Academy save for one nomination for Best Original Screenplay. However, its young cast would all go on to have significant careers and its cultural impact on both the big and small screen is undeniable to this day.

Set in 1959 Baltimore, the film revolves around a group of young men a year or two out of high school and their frequent late night trips to their local favorite hangout, Fell’s Point Diner. Billy (Timothy Daly) makes a special trip home from college to be the best man in his best friend’s wedding. Baltimore Colts-obsessed Eddie (Steve Guttenberg), the groom-to-be, has such reservations about his impending courtship that he has demanded that his fiancé score 65% or higher on a test that he created about football. Shrevie (Daniel Stern), another of the pals, has fallen, perhaps too early, into a dysfunctional marriage to Beth (Ellen Barkin). In one vulnerable moment he confides to his buddies that he has trouble having a conversation with his wife for more than five minutes. Suave ladies’ man and chronic gambler Boogey (Mickey Rourke) meanwhile is in debt to local bookmakers and can’t seem to keep from getting in further over his head, taking bets on everything from sports games to his own sex life. Rounding out the crew are the habitual wisecracker Modell (Paul Reiser) and drunken trouble maker Fenwick (Kevin Bacon).

The characters are all flawed in their own way, but honestly that isn’t the most interesting thing about this film. Levinson, a Baltimore native, wrote the screenplay as an autobiographical document. He knows these characters. They are his friends, his family… his people. And what makes Diner stand out from, say, Porky’s or American Graffiti as more than just another 50’s rock n’ roll nostalgia film is the way the characters interact with each other. With Diner, Levinson essentially created a style of cinema that is arguably one of the most frequently used styles even today, the concept of “no concept.” Diner has a plot, but the plot is an afterthought. What makes it such a masterpiece is the fact that the film is largely made up of snappy, clever dialogue. Literally, men are sitting having conversations about music, film, girls, pop culture, sandwiches... really, nothing in particular.

A decade later, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld would debut their “show about nothing,” expanding on Levinson’s focus on the mundane aspects of conversation. Seinfeld was one of the most popular television shows of the 1990s and it built its entire premise on the fact that it didn’t have to have a premise. It even had similar characters as Diner. Reiser’s neurotic and fidgety Modell in particular could be considered an early blueprint of the character of Jerry. A whole generation of filmmakers from Noah Baumbach to Jon Favreau to Judd Apatow have made their livings showcasing male interactions and friendships that are almost identical to the ones portrayed in Diner. One of the most successful and important filmmakers of the last thirty years, Quentin Tarantino, even owes a debt to Levinson. Each of his films are masterpieces of violence and intrigue. What sets his movies apart from other blockbuster action films is their intense focus on dialogue and pop culture. Of course, those films had some of the most brutal violence in the history of film. I don’t know about you, but what springs to mind faster for me are the lines and lines of quotable dialogue. Give me the scene in Reservoir Dogs where the bank robbers sit around the table talking about Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” or Jules and Vincent from Pulp Fiction sitting at the coffee shop discussing whether “that Arnold from Green Acres” is a filthy animal over the shoot-em-up scenes any day.

If you’re a fan of buddy films, comedic dramas or any of the directors I just mentioned, you should check out Diner. Particularly if you are a fan of Levinson’s work in general and somehow missed this one. Not only is it interesting to explore where a career as illustrious as Levinson’s got started, it is also a film that changed the way screenplays are written forever.

-         Jonathan Eagle