Monday, July 25, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #159 - Coasters – The Very Best of the Coasters

Cult filmmaker John Waters once called the Beatles “those honky Beatles who ruined rock and roll” and while I think that’s absurd (but funny) to say, I get his point. Before the Beatles made rock respectable with strings and orchestral backing, fancy time signatures and chord changes, song suites and concept albums, there was a youthful exuberance and transgressive energy that was traded in for that respectability. And The Coasters (along with their primary songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller) represented that pre-Beatles rock and rock style more than just about any group on the planet.

As songwriters and producers, Lieber and Stoller were pure gold, creating 26 U.S. top 40 hits from 1954 – 1963. To put those numbers in perspective, check this: Motown powerhouses Holland Dozier Holland wrote 30 charting hits from 1963 – 1970, and the Rolling Stones had 24 top 40 hits in a comparable span from 1964 to 1973 – and Jagger/Richard didn’t even write them all. And that figure doesn’t include hit covers of these songs that the duo didn’t work directly on, like a little Elvis song called “Hound Dog,” or Dion’s #2 remake of The Drifters’ #10 “Ruby Baby.”

The Coasters began their life as The Robins, an L.A. based vocal group that Lieber and Stoller had written some hits for – most notably “Riot in Cell Block #9” and “Smokey Joe’s Café,” both included here – before relocating to Atlantic Records’ home of New York City with a slightly altered lineup. The Robins and the Coasters hits comprised a dozen of those 26 Lieber and Stoller songs to climb to the top 40. And in 1987, The Coasters became the first group (as opposed to individual or duo) to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The same year, Lieber and Stoller were also inducted for their contributions to the music.

So surely you’ve heard many of these – the #1 hit “Yakety Yak” or the #2 “Charlie Brown” (which they insist had no relation to the Charles Schulz comic strip) almost certainly, probably their first top ten “Down In Mexico” – but have you dug past the comic surface of them to get to the smarts and brilliant musicality underneath? Dig on the voices first because that’s easy: founders Carl Gardner and Billy Guy, bass men Bobby Nunn (early) and Will “Dub” Jones (after the 1957 relocation to NYC), tenor Leon Hughes (early) and Cornell Gunter (also after 1957). Dig on guitarist Adolph Jacobs, who played a vital role up through 1959 when he left to pursue a solo career. Dig on sax player King Curtis who played on many of the NYC sessions and whose sax breaks were written out for him verbatim by Lieber and Stoller. And then loop back around to realize how much musicality goes in to writing tight rock and roll songs like these: how the timing of the voices is pretty much perfect due to both the group’s talent and Lieber and Stoller’s legendary perfectionism, how Jacobs’ guitar rocks as hard as anyone of his day, how the low, honking sax in “I’m A Hog For You” is the exact right way to express the sentiment of the song. Dig how the lyrics are slyly funny throughout, yes, but also speak directly to the day to day realities of the young audience – pre-respectability, mind you – who’d be listening to this music: bad TV serials, doing your homework and chores, that cut-up Charlie Brown from school, that rock and roll nonsense your parents hate so much, and so forth. Adults making music that’s smart and sympathetic to a teen audience without condescending to them are a rare breed.

There’s not a bad cut here – hell, there’s not even a “good” cut here. From the top 10 smashes right down to minor chart hits like “I’m A Hog For You” or (my personal fave) “Shoppin' for Clothes” this is classic stuff beginning to end. Rock and roll was once synonymous with fun, and this is an instructive lesson in why.

-         Patrick Brown

Monday, July 18, 2016

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #144 – Akira (1988, dir. Katsuhiro Otomo)

"The future is not a straight line. It is filled with many crossroads. There must be a future that we can choose for ourselves." -Kiyoko

Widely considered to be one the most important and influential anime films of all time, Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira is a one of a kind work of art. Released in 1988, Akira was one of the main anime films to break the genre into the American market. But all of that aside, this is one of the most interesting, beautiful, and down right cool animated films in existence. The animation is gorgeous, the plot is engaging and complex, the characters are well developed and relatable, and the action is almost unparalleled. If you are in the mood for a lighthearted, child-friendly animated movie this is most definitely not the film for you, but if you're looking for a fantastic and intriguing film that happens to be beautifully animated then by all means please don't skip this masterpiece of animated cinema.

The film opens on a silent aerial shot of Tokyo 1988 as a giant explosion occurs. We then jump to 2019 (30 years after WWIII) in Neo-Tokyo and the film takes off and doesn't stop. We are slyly introduced to the main characters of the film, who happen to be the rag tag teenage members of a biker gang led by a smooth character named Kaneda. In the first scene where we meet him and the rest of the gang, there is an obvious loving tension between him and one of the other members of the gang, Tetsuo. Kaneda is tough and commands respect, he razzes Tetsuo a little about the fact that he wasn't experienced enough to handle his bigger, impressive bike. This scene sets the tone for these two characters’ relationship throughout the film as they become the main protagonist and antagonist of the narrative. They take off and engage in an epic biker battle with their rival gang, the Clowns. After a long chase Tetsuo gets separated from the rest of the gang as he goes after a couple of the clown gang members. At this point we also get a glimpse of a strange figure running from some unseen group. He has obviously been shot and is dragging a strange looking child behind him. The tension of this situation heats up parallel to that of Tetsuo's predicament. In an odd and unexplained series of events the boy that the man was pulling along with him ends up appearing in the street in front of Tetsuo's bike. Just as Tetsuo is about to hit the boy, he is thrown from the bike and it explodes. As Kaneda and the rest of the gang find Tetsuo, a group of shady government figures, the ones who were presumably chasing after the boy, find them all. They arrest the bikers and take the boy and Tetsuo to an undisclosed location. From this point everything gets progressively more complex as we learn of the psychic powers of the strange looking boy, Takashi, and his two compatriots, Kiyoko and Masaru, and some strange and powerful change occurring within Tetsuo. And, this change has something to do with a mysterious figure named Akira.

"Heh, heh... what's happened to me? I must be dreaming. I feel like I can take out the world." - Tetsuo

This is the basic framework of the plot, however, there are a number of complex sub-plots that feed into the narrative. Tetsuo and the three psychic children, The Espers, are secluded from the rest of the characters in a strange government-run facility. They are being monitored and experimented on by a scientist while an important military Colonel keeps watch and reports to a council of politicians. Kaneda and the rest of the gang find themselves becoming involved with a mysterious group of revolutionaries, including a beautiful woman, Kei, who Kaneda has fallen for. This severe group is seeking to uncover the government secrets behind The Espers and Akira. Nothing in the film is quite what it seems. As in real life, the characters are all incredibly complex and it's hard to fully categorize any of the characters as purely protagonists or antagonists. At the heart of it this is a film about human nature and the struggle for freedom and power. Otomo who wrote and directed the film also wrote the Manga upon which the film is based, and it is obvious that he went to great length to make sure that every detail was perfectly crafted, and a film that tackles such grand topics and narratives turns out to be a brilliant success.

Taking a step back from the more heady reasons to turn you onto this film, the animation and fluidity of the action is indescribably stunning. The opening biker battle scene sets the bar for how awe-inspiring the action sequences throughout the film will be and the rest of the action consistently hits that mark. Additionally the color is vibrant, the dreary-future set designs are spectacularly crafted and the painstaking detail put into all of the characters and psychedelic, strange, and often gruesome visuals is almost beyond compare. Overall this is just one of the most amazingly animated films ever created.

In conclusion, I would love to turn you on to Akira because it is insanely awesome! Every aspect of the film, from its multifaceted, detailed, and enigmatic plot to the characters, action, and animation, truly culminates into one of the most important works of the anime genre. If you haven't had a chance to dig into the world of anime this might just be the film to pique your interest, and I certainly hope that it is because I cannot praise this film enough!

-         Edward Hill

Monday, July 11, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #158 - Frank Zappa - Lumpy Gravy

Prepare yourself for one of the most complicated and interesting stories in the history of modern popular music. In 1967 an executive from Capitol Records, impressed with The Mothers Of Invention’s first two albums, approached head Mother Frank Zappa about writing and conducting a piece of classical music for Capitol Records. The thinking was, if Zappa just conducted but didn’t play on the album he would not be in violation of his existing recording contract with MGM Records. This was extremely optimistic thinking on their part and presaged a professional life marked by almost constant lawsuits for Zappa. But I get ahead of myself. Back in 1967, Zappa took the challenge and wrote a complicated, dense, brilliant, highly listenable piece of modern classical music. He entered Capitol’s studios with a group of over 30 of the finest jazz, classical and session musicians in Los Angeles (dubbed “Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra and Chorus”) and in short order recorded and edited the music down to about 23 minutes of masterpiece. It is arguably the greatest piece ever realized by Zappa. It has so many signature Zappa moments - wild leaps of time ala John Cage, matterhorns of percussion inspired by his hero Edgard Varese, jazzy interludes, soundtrack music for films never made - all edited together by Zappa with his patented disregard for standard measures of song. It simply flows from idea to idea, yet it all feels wonderfully a part of some cosmic whole. Capitol released it as a promotional 4-track tape to reviewers and industry insiders and were, of course, immediately slapped with a cease and desist order from MGM Records. (Now you want to talk about a REAL collectible - something the top Zappa collectors in the world drool over -that original 4-track tape is RARE! Hardly any of them exist and it is next to impossible to find.) So, to avoid a protracted lawsuit, Zappa takes the tapes of his masterwork and begins to reassemble them into a new and different work. He edits in some surf music, sound effects and the results of an experiment he conducted whereby various friends (including Eric Clapton and Tim Buckley) stuck their heads inside a piano and spoke closely enough to the strings that they vibrated in a strange and sympathetic way. Different parts of these weird, echo-y recordings would appear on Zappa records until the end of his life, but this is their first and most effective use. The new, re-edited version is released to the world in 1968 as Lumpy Gravy, while the original classical piece becomes the subject of rumor and desire.

Throughout the years, I have found Lumpy Gravy to be the most interesting and confounding of all Zappa releases. Re-edited, his original work is wildly audacious. He changed it from a classical piece with avant-garde leanings to an avant-garde suite that nods to classical. It is no less great. Lumpy Gravy stands alongside the most ambitious albums produced in the 1960’s in any genre. As it was released in 1968, it makes perfect sense in the arc of Zappa’s career; it is a completely weird exercise in musique concrète, but with a hip edge brought by the spoken word parts, which link the album clearly to the first Mothers Of Invention releases. In a strange way, the legal restraint of the original classical piece may have saved Zappa’s career (such as it was). If that primal composition had been given wide release, it might have been too confusing for the record buying public and in some way changed the course Zappa took moving forward. He was forced to recast the music in a more Mothers-friendly fashion, and thus, though the album is still incredibly weird, it fits in with other releases of the day.

Why have I expended so much ink discussing a project you can’t hear? Well, thanks to the Zappa family archives you can hear it now. With the release of Lumpy Money we can now hear that original piece, alongside hours of other Lumpy Gravy and We’re Only In It For The Money related materials from the sessions. In addition to that groundbreaking original classical piece, there are hard to find mixes of both albums, interviews, live cuts, extra session work - it is literally a treasure trove of prime-era Zappa goods. I believe this release is the most essential purchase in the entire Zappa catalog (now numbering 103 official releases). It shows Zappa as a completely self-possessed artist at only 26. He had vaulting ambition and, unbelievably, the talent and drive to see his vision come to reality (twice in this case). If however, this seems like too much to digest at once, I suggest just picking up Lumpy Gravy. It has much of what makes Frank Zappa great in the rock and roll universe, but it also shows very clearly why he simultaneously ruled other universes at the same time. He was, quite simply a one-of-a-kind musical genius with no peer, and Lumpy Gravy is ample proof.

-         Paul Epstein

Monday, July 4, 2016

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #143 – Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942, dir. Michael Curtiz)

People who know me know me to be fairly cynical. People who know me really well know me to have a sentimental streak a mile wide. If left to my own devices, I would probably choose to dwell exclusively in the past. Which past? A difficult question. But if push came to shove, I might just choose the past portrayed in Yankee Doodle Dandy. A biopic about the great American songwriter and entertainer George M. Cohan, Yankee Doodle Dandy is a sweet form of entertainment which has nothing to do with the pain, destruction and coarse realities of the modern world; it is an old-school story of American determinism and exceptionalism. The movie opens with a neat device as an older Cohan, in the midst of playing Franklin Delano Roosevelt on stage, in a play called I’d Rather Be Right, is summoned to The White House by the actual Roosevelt to be given the first Congressional Medal of Honor awarded an entertainer. After accepting the award, Cohan (played by James Cagney) tells the president his life story, and so the movie unwinds as Cohan’s early life as part of a family vaudeville act plays out. He is an unbelievably talented person from earliest childhood. But with that talent comes arrogance. He is an arrogant fool, whose foolishness is made tolerable by his talent. George quickly becomes the leader of his family act, but his hubris leads to them being shut out of work opportunities. Ultimately, the family act must break up. It is here that George M. Cohan, and the movie, begin to hit their stride. He begins to find his way and the successes start mounting up. As Cohan becomes more successful the movie becomes a vehicle for high-budget production numbers -recreations of Cohan’s original stage work - a more innocent form of entertainment than we are used to today. If you don’t like patriotic hokum, exit now.

Ultimately, Yankee Doodle Dandy is about the songs and their presentation. The cornball old songs like “Mary,” “Give My Regards To Broadway,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and of course the title song, will bring you to tears and the dance routines are literally breathtaking. But it is through these songs that Cohan’s larger message becomes clear. If one looks beyond the patriotic populism and flag-waving, these songs get to the root of American life. Topics as varied as immigration, family loyalty, humility, romantic love, and finally the American dream itself are tackled. In addition, Yankee Doodle Dandy is one of very few movies to successfully show the creation of music. We see Cohan’s inspiration, listening to a marching band on the street which, when mixed with his innate love of country and songwriting talent, produces another one of his masterpieces, “Over There.”

Most important in Yankee Doodle Dandy is James Cagney’s life-changing performance. Life-changing for himself and his audience. Shortly before this movie, Cagney, a known progressive, had been questioned by the government about possible communist sympathies. The experience left Cagney shaken. He wanted to prove his patriotism and Cohan’s story was the perfect vehicle. In addition, while making the movie in 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked, putting America into another deadly conflict. Cagney’s sincerity and true patriotism burn in every frame of this movie. I recognize that it is not “cool” to love your country anymore, but not long ago, it was not only cool, it was inspirational. Cagney gives it all he has. His dancing is a revelation, as he moves with a masculine physicality that leaves him in his own category. Cohan’s rise to the top is one of the great American success stories, and Yankee Doodle Dandy gives us that story in such a romantic, golden-age-of-Hollywood fashion, it is literally irresistible.

Ultimately, we see Cohan retire to a quiet life until he has a hilariously dated encounter with a carload of young hipsters who make him feel old, and drive him out of retirement. We are now full-circle, as Cohan finishes telling his life story to F.D.R. and starts leaving The White House. In one of the greatest scenes in Hollywood history, Cagney tap-dances down the steps of The White House before running into a marching band, leading a parade with a rousing version of “Over There.” As the country heads off to yet another World War, Cagney falls into step with the parade and we are assured that he has made a difference. It is a tremendously emotional scene and a perfect way to end this movie. Both the form of entertainment depicted and the style of movie-making are antiquated here, however none of that takes away from its overall impact. As we approach one of the most uncertain elections in American history, it feels like just the right time for a reminder of the people we once were.

-         Paul Epstein

Monday, June 27, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #157 - Joanna Newsom - The Milk-Eyed Mender

Since Joanna Newsom released her debut album The Milk-Eyed Mender in the spring of 2004, she has become a highly divisive figure in popular music. Just as Newsom began to find a following of devoted fans appreciative of her unique artistic contributions, she simultaneously amassed a legion of detractors eager to dismiss her because of what they perceived as indulgent eccentricities. One bright Sunday morning in the fall of 2004, a couple of friends played The Milk-Eyed Mender for me for the first time over brunch at their apartment. The allure and warmth of these songs have merged with the rest of my memories of that pleasant autumn morning. This introduction to Joanna Newsom’s music sheltered me from the debate over her significance in contemporary music and allowed me to behold the lyrical depth, musical complexity, and singular appeal of this extraordinary album.

The idea that anyone has established a critically acclaimed career in modern indie rock as a highly literate, classically trained harpist still blows my mind and I’ve been watching her career for over a decade. One thing most of Newsom’s critics miss is her remarkable sense of humor, which runs through her entire catalog and figures prominently in the best songs on The Milk-Eyed Mender. “Bridges and Balloons” opens Newsom’s debut album with two lines on the harp gently fading in for twenty seconds before she begins to share a highly detailed account of an incredible journey. Upon closing the narrative, Newsom allows the two lines of the harp to dance together hypnotically for over a minute before the songs fades out like it faded in. A couple songs later, “The Book of Right-on” exhibits Newsom’s flair for absurd humor against a showcase of her musical prowess while she interlaces a prominent bassline with highly rhythmic high end figures on the harp. The first time I heard the lyric, “I killed my dinner with karate,” I was convinced that I’d misheard it, but I came to better understand the scope of her humor. Oddly enough, The Roots sampled this song’s chorus and bassline to create the surprisingly successful throwback jam, “Right On” on their 2010 album, How I Got Over. As I became more familiar with The Milk-Eyed Mender, I liked many of the songs, but “Inflammatory Writ” was the first one I loved. Upon my first close listen, I thought I was hearing a talent show performance by a secret love child of Bob Dylan and Dolly Parton. Whirling by in just under three minutes and guided by the stiffly paced ramble of piano accompaniment, Newsom delivers an eviscerating satire of songwriters’ self-absorption. By mocking herself, her peers, and her role models with such zeal and style, Newsom acknowledges to her audience that she isn’t taking herself too seriously.

Since The Milk-Eyed Mender, Newsom has released three albums and each one has deepened her artistic vision, heightened the quality of her storytelling, and expanded her musical palette. In the fall of 2007, I saw Newsom perform with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in support of Ys, her ambitious breakthrough sophomore album. Just a few months ago, I attended her show at the Boulder Theater on the tour for her most recent album, Divers. Both times, Newsom highlighted her newest material, but revisited several songs from her first album. I was already familiar with these songs, but watching them unfold first hand instilled within me a sense of awe, admiration, and wonder. In fewer than fifteen years, Newsom has built an impressive, innovative, and unprecedented career in popular music and it all started with The Milk-Eyed Mender.

-          John Parsell

Monday, June 20, 2016

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #142 – Bad Boys (1983, dir. Rick Rosenthal)

Sean Penn is a great actor. A lot of people don’t think he’s a great person, but I don’t care about that. In the early 80s, while the actors of the “Brat Pack” were making lightly comic dramas aimed at teen audiences, Penn dipped his toes in those waters once (as Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High) and then continued on a career of mostly intense, serious roles, making one indelible performance after another. His big screen debut was in Taps, where he easily held his own with Oscar winner Timothy Hutton, his scene-stealing role of Spicoli came next, and then this film, a taut, violent crime drama in which he plays a tough stickup kid sent to an even tougher juvenile detention center.

After some introductory sequences designed to let us know who the main characters are – Penn as Mick O’Brien, Ally Sheedy as his girlfriend J.C., Esai Morales as the equally tough Paco Moreno (his nemesis, of course) – the film moves into the tightly constructed suspense of a drug deal gone very wrong. Penn and his friend intend to watch the deal go down, then hold up the people walking away with the cash. But things go south fast, people die – one at Penn’s hand, albeit unintentionally – and O’Brien ends up in the rehabilitation facility where he’ll spend the rest of the film. Here we are introduced to a new cast of characters – O’Brien’s cellmate Horowitz (Eric Gurry), and the pair of toughs who run the center, Tweety and The Viking (Robert Lee Rush and Clancy Brown) – and Penn has to quickly learn the ropes of how things work in the center. There are adult supervisors there whose admixtures of toughness, world-weariness, and sympathy toward the youths give them a very tenuous control of the facility. But the real deal is in how things are run from the inside, and the film gives a fairly unblinking look at the black market of the institution and the violence that underpins things, all right under the adults’ noses. But it also sees the way that friendships are formed under these circumstances, the crippling lack of education, of resources, that keeps many of the youth locked in the place rather than pulling themselves up in Horatio Alger fashion. But it’s no 50s “social problem” film, bemoaning these poor wayward youth. It doesn’t linger on moralistic hand-wringing. The film, like the adults in it, has sympathy for the people it’s showing us and that’s where its heart lies.

There is, of course, a third act in which through an implausible set of circumstances Paco Moreno ends up in the same facility as O’Brien and then traces through to its inevitable showdown between them. And there are those who criticize this facet of the film, but I don’t find it troubling at all – it’s earned rather than tacked on, and the care with which it has drawn out the prison life and the people within it makes the final act feel real, even if it’s something we’ve probably seen before in other films. I should also note that the film takes great care with its younger actors – there isn’t a performance here that isn’t spot-on – but as with so many films focused on youth it doesn’t spend a lot of time getting to know its adults. Again for me it doesn’t matter; the film is fantastic at drawing us a realistic portrait of its prison life, a world where the adults are ostensibly in control, but only containing the chaos of the interior world by the barest of margins. And it also gives us a plethora of fantastic performances, most notably one of Sean Penn’s best early roles. And again, while many of his contemporaries gave us light entertainment through the rest of the decade, Penn turned in one great acting job after another – in Colors, in At Close Range, in Casualties of War, in The Falcon and the Snowman, in Racing With the Moon. It would be over 20 years before the Academy would award his work with a statuette for Mystic River. But it’s this film and others of the era that contain some of his best work.

- Patrick Brown

Monday, June 13, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #156 - Wussy – Wussy

Maybe you’ve heard (or at least heard of) Cincinnati’s best rock band Wussy but, unfortunately, you probably haven’t. They’ve avoided tangling with major labels and their promotional budgets that help get bands heard since bandleader Chuck Cleaver’s experience with his previous band Ass Ponys. Reflecting on his major label experience in an interview contemporary with the release of this album, Cleaver noted "I didn't mind being on a major label, but I never really thought much about making money. I'm . . . attached to where I'm from." That rootedness in his local region, which his bandmate, co-lyricist, and former romantic partner Lisa Walker calls "that spot between the North and the South," is why they’re generally called Cincinnati’s best rock band, rather than what critic Robert Christgau calls them: the best band in America. And if maybe I don’t agree with him 100%, I’d certainly be willing to think it through on the merits of the band. Hardly anyone else out there writes songs this good, makes albums this good, or writes words this good. Or at least, not as consistently as Wussy has over their six regular studio albums (and assorted live releases, outtakes, and other recorded detritus). And that consistency over six excellent albums – the out of print debut Funeral Dress, the gender-equalled Left For Dead, this pained third album, the simultaneously noisier and poppier Strawberry, the masterpiece Attica!, and their noisy new one Forever Sounds – just might give them that top spot if I thought hard about it. But that kind of thing is silly – there’s no “best band,” there’s just the one you want to hear right now, and I pretty much always want to hear Wussy.
But what do they sound like? Well, they’re a little hard to pin down. They value noise and guitar drones and distortion in equal measure to how much they value melodic hooks, vocal harmonies, and rhythmic drive. Tune matches noise stroke for stroke throughout their catalog with neither the clear winner. They come on at times like Pavement or Sonic Youth or Yo La Tengo’s rockier side without any of the self-conscious artiness; or maybe like grunge minus the fastest tempos and youthful angst. It’s just rock and roll, period. And they don’t value any of the musical qualities more than they value their words. All the music they write is credited to the entire band, but the words are the domain of Cleaver and Walker. They’re literate, but not necessarily literary; not like quoting Proust, but maybe literary as in Cleaver could be writing novels about Middle America if he wasn’t in a rock band. So it’s a damn good thing he loves guitars. And another damn good thing that Walker is his equal with lyrics. Also literary like they’re really good at making words that evoke a feeling or an image but hold out ambiguities that can be examined, thought about, or interpreted in different ways, evoking local color like drinking in fields, like mentioning a “Mother daughter banquet at the Bethel Baptist Church.” In their focus on the lives of average, Middle Americans - territory most commonly plumbed by the country music they sometimes pay an oblique homage to by bringing out pedal steel guy John Erhardt - they come off like John Dos Passos minus the politics, like Faulkner without the South or the streams of conscious. Both Cleaver and Walker are plainspoken, strong, unshowy singers, with Chuck more rough and ragged, Lisa sometimes deigning to be pretty but not making that a priority, unafraid to make noise with voice or guitar.
And then there’s this album – they don’t have a bad one, but this is one of my faves, certainly in the top three of their six records. It’s the last one with drummer Dawn Burman in the group holding down the steady rush in sync with utility hitter Mark Messerly, who’s credited with eight instruments and backing vocals. Robert Christgau calls it “as brutal a relationship album as Richard & Linda Thompson's Shoot Out the Lights.” But he fails to note that it’s tinged with hope, even in its darker moments. (And that, in turn, fails to note that the couple is now decidedly split as romantic partners, but thankfully not as musical ones.) Two of the four opening songs – “Happiness Bleeds” and “Muscle Cars” – note the possibility of happiness for the couple, but it’s also hard not to notice that in one of those other four, Lisa sings “Well, honey, you’re the pain and the antidote,” summing up succinctly the ups and downs of their relationship. The band goes off in other directions too, indulging Chuck’s occasional preoccupation with mortality in “Scream and Scream Again” – the words “Time is seldom on your side” open the song, and throughout he assures you that you WILL die someday (“when it comes you’ll scream and scream again”) – whether you choose to take that with a measure of grace or not is your call. But as the record progresses, it’s clear this relationship really is in troubled waters – “Magic Words” and “Dreadful Sorry” both paint dark portraits of things and those two are followed by “This Will Not End Well,” a rocker with great lyrics, a ripping guitar solo in the middle, and the ominous lyrics “Call me a killjoy / but I don’t think I hear those wedding bells. / This will not end well.” But again, as they close things out on Lisa’s slow, mournful “Las Vegas” the last line before a closing chorus speaks of “a story we could live to tell” if they could pull out of their troubles. As noted, they didn’t – but it says something about them as people and musicians that even in dark times, they looked toward how to make it work.
I’ve said it twice already, but I’ll reiterate – Wussy doesn’t have a bad album. They’re a great band – maybe even the best band in America. Wussy, as its title suggests, is a great way to get to know them, but don’t stop there. And if you happen to have next Wednesday night free, check them out at the Moon Room at the Summit Music Hall. Last time they were here they played to next-to-nobody and still rocked it, so here’s hoping we can bring them the audience they deserve this time around. (

-         Patrick Brown

Monday, June 6, 2016

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #142 – The Fall (2006, dir. Tarsem)

In 1991, Tarsem directed the most popular and acclaimed music video of its era, R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion,” and helped catapult the band into pop stardom. Although R.E.M. soon became a household name Tarsem, a chief architect of their breakthrough success, would go on to experience a level of relative obscurity that persists to this day. With “Losing My Religion” Tarsem ushered in an unparalleled period of visual creativity, nonlinear narrative, and unorthodox style that would transform MTV into a proving ground for innovative directors on the rise. David Fincher and Spike Jonze are just two of Tarsem’s contemporaries who benefited from his efforts and turned MTV tenures into flourishing careers as film directors, so it stands to reason that these two “present” Tarsem’s sophomore feature-length film, The Fall. With this film, Tarsem seizes upon the considerable potential for visual storytelling he first demonstrated with “Losing My Religion” and creates an engrossing meditation on storytelling, friendship, imagination, and redemption.

Appropriately enough, Tarsem begins his tale of a storyteller with the statement, “Los Angeles - Once Upon a Time.” As these words fade, a breathtaking, silent, slow motion segment shot in black and white details the chaotic aftermath of a terrible accident during the filming of a movie in the early days of Hollywood. The next scene opens in sepia-tinged color on a quiet hospital where we meet Alexandria, the precocious five year old daughter of Romanian migrant workers who broke her arm picking oranges in the nearby groves. Alexandria should be in school or playing with friends, but instead wanders the halls of the hospital with her awkward cast and goes where her curiosity takes her. Soon, Alexandria’s explorations bring her to Roy, the stuntman injured in the film’s opening segment, as he begins a slow, troublesome recovery. Roy captures Alexandria’s interest with a vivid, outlandish story and asks her to come back and visit him soon so he can keep telling her the story. Alexandria returns the next day and their relationship begins to deepen while Roy’s fantastic story grows a life of its own with Alexandria’s imagination. Tarsem spent four years creating Roy and Alexandria’s sprawling, boundless narrative while traveling the world and filming dozens of the planet’s most gorgeous and spellbinding locations. While the images of the story certainly entice the eye, The Fall’s potent emotional resonance derives from the relationship between Alexandria and Roy. Lee Pace delivers an unforgettably vulnerable and textured performance as Roy and shares an uncanny chemistry with Cantica Untaru who brings a wondrous, guileless charm to her portrayal of Alexandria.

“Losing My Religion” and The Fall both bounce between a lush, old-fashioned setting for their principal subjects and a fervently stylized, dreamlike realm that balances the sacred and the profane as beautiful images inspired by classical masterpieces exist alongside slapstick comedy and bizarre anachronisms. After a flawed and peculiar debut, The Cell (a now forgotten Jennifer Lopez procedural from 2000), Tarsem chose to adapt an obscure 1981 Bulgarian film, Yo Ho Ho, for his next project. In the adaptation that became The Fall, Tarsem wisely switched the actor’s profession from the stage to the silent film era allowing him to reflect on the formative years of cinema with a mix affection, awe, and concern. With The Fall, Tarsem not only achieves the greatest statement of his wholly unique artistic vision, but also creates a movie that reminds of us of the irresistible magic of incredible filmmaking.  

-          John Parsell

Monday, May 30, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #155 - Mississippi John Hurt Avalon Blues The Complete 1928 Okeh Sessions

71WLNaFucKL._SL1092_ This CD (originally released in 1996) contains the entire original recorded output of John Hurt, who, after recording these sessions (mostly in one day in 1928) returned to his home in Avalon, Mississippi and was not heard from again until he was re-discovered in the 1960’s. What he left behind is one of the most extraordinarily moving legacies in modern musical history. The 13 songs on this disc offer a perfectly clear window into the world Mississippi John Hurt occupied in a time that now seems impossibly far away. Possessed of an angelic voice and face and a soothing, smooth style of fingerpicked guitar, Hurt’s songs initially seem to bear no resemblance to the excited, rough playing of Charlie Patton, or the blinding speed and precision of Robert Johnson, but Hurt, who apparently had no role models or teachers, plays in a style that is as definitive as any of his peers. Primarily utilizing a three-finger picking style with his thumb providing an almost machine rhythm, the overall impression he leaves is of a Zen-like master of vocal and guitar technique. However, when one looks slightly below the surface, it becomes clear that John Hurt is as possessed by demons as he is by kinder spirits.

e8b1c1d65726096a31623e1c83677ef8Each of the first nine songs on Avalon Blues are, in one way or another, about either fightin’ or fuckin’- there’s really no other way to say it. Even though he sounds like a man in control, he finds himself on the wrong end of a bottle or a cheatin’ woman on each of these songs. The result, more often than not, is gun and/or knife play and someone ending up “six feet under the clay.” Within these tales are the genetic goo of all blues and then rock to come. “Frankie” and Albert are there. “Stagger Lee” (“Stack O’ Lee” here) who would become one of the most enduring popular culture myths makes his definitive appearance, the tragic “Louis Collins” is laid away by the angels for the first of many times. The Candyman, who would slip in back doors for the rest of musical history, shows up for the first time. It quickly becomes clear that Mississippi John Hurt is one of the founders and originators of all the music that would follow him into the 20th century and beyond. Not only did he write these songs and seemingly snatch this guitar style from the ether, his versions of what are now standards are by far the best.

MississippiJohnHurt-1024x761Then, at the end of his December 28, 1928 session in New York City, Hurt takes a left turn and plays four songs that show a much different side to the man. “Blessed Be The Name” and “Praying On The Old Camp Ground” show Hurt to be a man with heavenly concerns to balance his earthier tastes. His voice softens even more on these songs, and he coos and moans his way through two beautiful spirituals. Then, he ends with my two favorite songs, which show him as a real man of the earth - not a dangerous lothario, not a preacher, but a simple man who needs to work so he can live. “Blue Harvest Blues” is about a farmer facing a bad harvest (“harvest time is comin’ / will catch me unprepared”), who has no family, nothing. “Blues are on my shoulder / Blues are all around my head / with my heavy burden, lord I wished that I was dead” he sings, and anyone who has had a streak of bad luck can relate. The set ends with one of the greatest of all blues songs, “Spike Driver Blues,” which reads like the original “Take This Job And Shove It,” whereby Hurt compares himself to the story of yet another lynchpin of American folklore, John Henry, but in this case he says “take this hammer and carry it to the captain / tell him I’m gone tell him I’m gone, tell him I’m gone” John Hurt wisely takes the path of least resistance.

What makes Mississippi John Hurt’s early recordings so important transcends his wonderfully controlled and expressive voice, it transcends his groundbreaking and defining guitar style, it is that very modern mixing and mastery of subject matters which shows him to be an exemplar of the complex human spirit. Rather than being a museum piece, he is a beacon for how to behave in the future. Mississippi John Hurt’s Avalon Blues is an essential key to unlocking the modern psyche.

- Paul Epstein

Monday, May 23, 2016

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

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

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

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

-         Paul Epstein