Monday, August 14, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #172 - Putney Swope (1969, dir. Robert Downey Sr.)

Years ago, I was working as a bartender at a music venue in my hometown of Dubuque, Iowa. One of my regular barflies, Paul, and I ended up striking up an acquaintance over time due to our similar tastes. When the bar was slow, we would sit for hours getting shitfaced and discussing music, books, films and many other things. During one of these conversations, it was discovered that I had never seen Robert Downey Sr.’s breakthrough film Putney Swope. In fact, I didn’t know anything about it. I mean, I had heard of it. I knew that some of my heroes, Louis C.K. and the Coen Brothers, had cited the film as hugely influential. But I had never gotten around to seeing it or even really hearing much about it. Paul made it his mission to make sure I saw this movie. He brought me a flash drive containing a bad transfer of the film and I watched it the same night. And then I watched it again. Since then, the film has become one of my all-time favorites and I can’t believe it took me until well into my thirties to see it.

The film centers on a New York advertising agency whose chairman unexpectedly drops dead in the middle of a board meeting. While his body lay lifeless on the table, the remaining board members take a vote on who should become the new chairman. Each board member, prohibited from voting for themselves, accidentally (and by an overwhelming majority) vote in the sole black man on the board, Putney Swope. Swope immediately fires nearly the entire staff (save for one “token” white man) and hires an idealistic and politically militant all-black staff, renaming the agency Truth & Soul, Inc. Swope and his staff’s new business approach is actual TRUTH in advertising, their new motto “rockin’ the boat’s a drag, you gotta SINK the boat.” They only accept cash as payment and they refuse to take on clients who sell alcohol, tobacco or war-related toys. Almost immediately, their approach becomes so popular that companies start paying a million dollars per campaign just to become clients. The agency becomes such a success that they catch the attention of the diminutive President Mimeo and his administration. Eventually, the entire agency falls to corruption, including Swope himself.

And beyond the plot, which doesn’t necessarily sound that outrageous in and of itself, it’s hard to specify exactly the best way to describe Putney Swope. It is equal parts farce, satire, exploitation, black comedy (no pun intended) and cult masterpiece. It’s predominantly filmed in black and white, with the occasional colorized fake commercial for pimple cream, breakfast cereal and other products from the Truth & Soul client roster. The commercials are hysterical and came nearly a full decade before sketch comedy shows like Saturday Night Live and SCTV set the standard for commercial parodies.

The titular character, Putney Swope, is played flawlessly by Arnold Johnson, who would go on to play many bit parts in sitcoms like The Jeffersons, Roc and Sanford and Son. The most surreal thing about his performance, however, is that the voice provided for Swope was not that of Johnson’s, but of Downey’s himself. This led to some speculation that Downey was a racist or somehow unfair toward Johnson on the set. Quite to the contrary, Johnson, evidently, had difficulty remembering and delivering his lines. Out of desperation (and rightly not wanting to re-cast the role) Downey voiced in the lines later. Watching the film, this fact could not be more obvious and glaring but it actually adds another layer of quirkiness to the already eccentric nature of the film. Antonio Fargas (future Car Wash and Starsky & Hutch star) plays The Arab, a sort of second-in-command at Truth & Soul, who butts heads with Swope for nearly the entire film. This dynamic helps to somewhat keep Swope’s new position from going to his head (or at least slow it down). The president and first lady are played by dwarf actors, who engage in a threesome with a photographer who intermittently shows up to show his credentials. An awkward courier (who just happens to be a dead ringer for Mark David Chapman) keeps showing up at the agency, only to constantly be cast off to the “freight elevator” by Swope and his associates. Swope starts dressing like Fidel Castro at some point for no rhyme or reason... there really is a lot going on in the 85-minute runtime of the film and not a whole lot of it makes sense. Still, one can’t help but be drawn in by the film, either by its sheer ridiculousness or by its hipper-than-thou vibe.

Putney Swope’s legacy lives on in its vast cult following and through the work of other filmmakers (Paul Thomas Anderson, for example, directly referenced the film three times in his own cult classic film Boogie Nights) yet it remains a highly underappreciated gem. If you haven’t already seen it, now is your chance to do like I did and right this wrong now. And by the way, thank you Paul for being such a chatty drinking buddy.

-         Jonathan Eagle

Monday, August 7, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #185 - The 24-Carat Black – Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth (Stax/Enterprise, 1973)

One thing that came with the territory of having been an avid record collector all my life was the benefit of an education in history through music. Buying and absorbing as much music as possible, from Beethoven to Cannibal Corpse, for over two decades now has given me insight into things like politics, race relations, pop culture and many other facets of history in a way that years of sitting in a classroom never could. By simply hearing, say, Bruce Springsteen or Marvin Gaye sing their own words regarding American socioeconomic or political discourse, I got more of a sense of how historical events may have affected the average American at the time. Such was the case with the phenomenal Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth, the sole record by obscure Stax Records alumni group the 24-Carat Black.

I first came upon this record in my early to mid-20s at a record store I working at, CDs-4-Change. I started working there long before the current vinyl boom, and CDs were still dominating physical media sales. So, as the name of the store suggests, our inventory was mostly CDs and not a whole lot of vinyl. But people would often come in and sell us theirs or their parents’ record collections that they had sitting around. And since nobody really expected much for vintage vinyl at the time, we bought everything that came through the door, usually for a steal. I miss these days a lot because this was the time when I could inexpensively pad my collection with great stuff. On once such occasion, I came across Ghetto in a box with, if I’m remembering correctly, nothing particularly special: Peggy Lee, Carpenters, Gene Pitney, the 5th Dimension, the occasional Elvis comp and maybe a Kansas record or two… not much to get excited about. But then there was this. Before I’d even heard a single note, I was immediately struck by it. The cover art, the album title… all of it. Even the group’s name, “24-Carat Black,” sounded important.

In the early 1970s, conservatory-trained violinist and former Motown strings arranger Dale Warren was hired by Stax to orchestrate Isaac Hayes’ early records, including the highly revered Hot Buttered Soul. Around this time, he befriended the unknown Cincinnati, Ohio group The Ditalians. Warren took the young group under his wing and proceeded to work in the studio with them where they recorded over thirty tracks. Culled from these sessions are the tracks that would eventually become the first and only official 24-Carat Black album, Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth. Of the rest of the sessions, only a handful survived and were finally released in 2009 by the Numero label as an unofficial second album. But back to the album at hand.

Ghetto is a concept album about the struggle of inner city life in 1970s America. Kicking off with “In the Ghetto,” a largely spoken piano ballad that pleads with “our so-called leaders” to let the poor’s voice be heard, the tone is set for what is to come. “Poverty’s Paradise” is a 12-minute-plus epic that tries to make sense of a world in which a seemingly endless expanse of people goes to bed hungry. The female lead, Princess Hearn, delivers her vocals with such forlorn intensity, focusing so much more on the words than the performance, that at one point you can her voice crack. This part always gives me chills. These longer, more conscientious opuses like the aforementioned “Poverty’s Paradise” or the 10-minute “Mother’s Day” are where the 14-piece group really shine, dramatizing the ideological and psychological turmoil that was life in the ghetto. Misfortune’s Wealth is not all bleak and hopeless though. In between songs of destitution and social tumult are some of the funkiest instrumentals ever committed to wax. These tracks serve to provide a light-hearted optimism to the otherwise bleak outlook of the record, much like a Norman Lear TV show.

Though it initially sold poorly, Ghetto has become something of a sought-after item among record collectors over the years. Many of the tracks here may be somewhat familiar to you already, having been extensively sampled by modern hip hop giants like Dr. Dre, Eric B. and Jay-Z to name a few.

When I first decided to write about this album, I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to say about it. And as I spent more time with the album over these past few weeks in preparation for this article, I realized I had no idea what I wanted to say. I just knew that I loved it and I wanted other people to love it. It didn’t occur to me until I sat down to write this that, having unearthed this record way back when, I got yet another history lesson from my record collection. Ghetto is essentially a timepiece, directly representing the parallels of racial and economic inequality of its time and ever since.

-         Jonathan Eagle

Monday, July 31, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #171 - Zodiac (2007, dir. David Fincher)

When Zodiac came out in the spring of 2007, I had grown very fatigued with the trends of the time for forensic procedurals and entertainment based around true crime. I avoided a lot of crime-based movies and TV shows during this time because I felt that the fascination for increasingly graphic representations of grisly homicides had lured mainstream entertainment down a dark alley with no way out. With Zodiac, David Fincher broke new ground in a heavily exploited genre by commanding an incredible ensemble cast anchored by three career-standout performances, embracing an unorthodox structure that beautifully fits the narrative, and creating an unforgettable statement on the interplay of crime, journalism, and entertainment that has come to dominate U.S. American culture in the last fifty years.

David Fincher prefaces Zodiac with the uncommon, yet highly accurate statement, “what follows is based on actual case files,” before dropping the audience into the middle of an engrossing, stylish depiction of the night of the first Zodiac murder on July 4, 1969. The next scene unfolds four weeks later when the first coded letter from the Zodiac Killer arrives at the offices of the San Francisco Chronicle and attracts the attention of crime reporter Paul Avery and editorial cartoonist Robert Graysmith. A few weeks later Detective David Toschi and his partner drive to the scene of the next murder as the mystery, terror, and spectacle of the Zodiac case pull the Bay Area’s police departments, newspapers, and general populace into a legendary and unprecedented state of alert. Just a year before Robert Downey Jr.’s career skyrocketed into resurgence with Iron Man, he injects bravado and a charismatic zeal into his portrayal of Paul Avery, but also layers his performance with a self-destructive pathos that deepens as the film progresses. In the role of Robert Graysmith, Jake Gyllenhaal plays upon his boyish good looks, but also conveys a dogged sense of innocence and curiosity in his representation of the former Boy Scout and one-time cartoonist whose tireless obsession with this case resulted in the best-selling book on which this film is based. Mark Ruffalo adds a slight lilt to his voice and a disarming, gentle demeanor to his depiction of homicide detective David Toschi, who served as the model for Steve McQueen’s character in the 1968 film Bullitt. Through warmth, compassion, and a constant craving for animal crackers, Ruffalo’s rendering of Toschi confounds many of the clichés of seasoned homicide detectives that populate Hollywood movies. Brian Cox contributes a delightful cameo as celebrity lawyer Melvin Belli and delivers one of the film’s most surreal moments as Belli discusses his recent guest performance on Star Trek with a local news anchor before a televised conversation with the Zodiac Killer. As Robert Graysmith’s wife Melanie, Chloë Sevigny builds a knowing determination and empathy into her portrait of a woman whose marriage and family slowly fall to pieces as her husband follows the cryptic and labyrinthine path left by the Zodiac Killer.

By sticking to eye witness accounts of the Zodiac Killer’s crimes, David Fincher builds a true crime story that subverts many of the genre’s conventions by digging into the minute details of the case’s logistical and legal challenges, jurisdictional conflicts, media sensationalism, false leads, and copycat trends. In addition to these unusual narrative elements, Zodiac plays further against genre by focusing more directly on the people pursuing the killer than the killer himself. Fincher tops off an already excellent film by embracing pop culture connections like the case’s tricky relationship with Dirty Harry, while simultaneously paying homage to modern classics from the era as divergent and distinctive as The Conversation, Jaws, and All the President’s Men.

-          John Parsell

Monday, July 24, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #184 - Grizzly Bear – Yellow House

In the fall of 2006, I struggled through the last year of my twenties trying to balance the demands of graduate school and the collapse of a five-year-long relationship in a small town in Vermont. Despite the exquisite autumn foliage, quaint locales, and charming New England characters surrounding me, I found myself at a low point with few breaks from the pressure, frustration, and loneliness I felt. Throughout my life, music has provided an outlet from my troubles and a path toward healing. Around this time, TV on the Radio released their second album, Return to Cookie Mountain, and offered the gift of an intense, gorgeous, and complicated album that soon became a personal favorite. Speaking of gifts, a few weeks later a friend bought me a ticket to see TV on the Radio in Boston. Preparing for the show, I noted the name of the opening band, Grizzly Bear, and wondered what they would sound like.  

The trip to Boston allowed me a much needed interlude from Vermont and once I entered the venue I felt energized by the evening’s potential. Shortly after I arrived four young men took to the stage, announced themselves as Grizzly Bear and conjured an intricate, haunting, and mesmerizing collection of songs. All four band members contributed to the lush vocal harmonies woven into the songs and they cycled through a range instruments including clarinet, autoharp, banjo, and xylophone. At the end of their set, the band announced that they would be selling copies of their brand new sophomore album, Yellow House, at the merch table. TV on the Radio came on soon after and put on a brilliant performance that far surpassed my expectations. That night stands as one of the best combinations of opening act and headliner I’ve ever witnessed. After the show, I took Grizzly Bear up on their suggestion and bought a copy of Yellow House. The whole band worked the table and their enthusiasm for their new album was infectious. Return to Cookie Mountain had given me a vibrant, cathartic push through a tough fall, but Yellow House invited me to explore the elusive and delicate possibilities of the near future as I prepared for winter in Vermont. Each of the ten songs on Yellow House possesses a distinct identity, but I think of the album as a whole. The opening song “Easier” slowly builds through an evolution of disparate elements for over a full minute before coalescing into a spritely paced, densely layered introduction to the band’s unusual and compelling songcraft. Although the album begins with an airy feeling and light instrumentation, the closing song, “Colorado,” stirs low, heavy piano notes and pulsing percussion into a heavy, meditative storm as the phrase, “Colorado, what now?” repeats like an invocation until the song slowly reduces to the hushed, persistent beat of a drum.

In 2007, I saw Grizzly Bear tour in support of Yellow House two more times and each time I felt like I learned more about the songs and how they worked so well together. Two years later upon the release of their breakout third album, Veckatimest, the band played in a much larger venue and it was thrilling to see them thriving and enjoying the success of their hard work. In just a few weeks, Grizzly Bear will release their fifth studio album, Painted Ruins, and I’m eager to hear how the band has evolved in the five years since their last album, Shields. After I first became acquainted with Yellow House in New England, I lived in Oregon and back in my hometown in South Carolina before moving to Colorado a few years ago. Nearly eleven years later, I still feel like Yellow House has new things to tell me and I must admit that more and more I find myself wondering, “Colorado, what now?”  

-          John Parsell

Monday, July 17, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #170 - Five Easy Pieces (1970, dir. Bob Rafelson)

Why does this movie have a reflective hold on my mind and soul? It is flawed and dated, and yet, the underlying theme of a confused man’s search for meaning in modern America holds truer than almost any other movie of the era. Released in 1970, Five Easy Pieces is THE movie that sums up the confusing malaise that settled upon the survivors of the 60’s as the far bleaker 1970’s rose on the horizon like the glow of an errant atomic blast. The secret to the movie, however is not the hefty cultural baggage it carries with it, but the career defining performance by Jack Nicholson and, to a lesser degree, Karen Black. Nicholson’s Bobby Eroica Dupea is a Russian nesting doll of psychological complexity, whose tormented path through life slowly reveals itself as the confused details of his past and the uncertain direction of his future come colliding in on him during an unwelcome family reckoning.

The movie opens on a Bobby Dupea who is easily recognizable to most of us: a working stiff with a dead-end job, a loveless relationship and a nonexistent piece of the American dream. He works in the oil fields with his buddy Elton, drinks beer at night and barely tolerates his attractive but dim girlfriend, Rayette Dipesto, a waitress with hopes of being a country singer ala Tammy Wynette (whose songs effectively provide much of the movie’s soundtrack.) Bobby’s life seems to be going nowhere, and when he quits his job we feel like this is just another step on his way down to utter failure. This first part of the movie is shot with a simple beauty that betrays none of the complexity of character that will follow.

We next see Bobby incongruously dressed in a suit and wandering into a recording studio in Hollywood. He is here to see his sister, Partita, an eccentric classical pianist (modeled on Glen Gould) whose presence immediately starts filling in gaps of our understanding of who this man really is. She tells him their father is ill and Bobby should visit. We come to understand that Bobby is from a family of musical prodigies, and that his relationship is fractured and removed from the reality he once lived. Bobby’s journey home to his family compound on a private island signals a change in tone and temperament for Five Easy Pieces as it changes from a study of characters to a character study. Once Bobby is back among the wealth, education, privilege and expectations of his family, his lifestyle choices, as depicted in the first half of the movie, become understandable. The Dupea family, including the mute, stroke-damaged patriarch represent everything the 60’s rebelled against: pompous, over-bred, classist creeps, impotent in their achievement, yet certain they are above it all. Bobby sets his sights on his brother’s girlfriend Catherine (Susan Anspach) and seduces her in an uncomfortable clash of cultures that signals a final break within the family. In the pivotal scene of the movie, Bobby pours his heart out to his unspeaking father. He breaks down and shares his feelings of worthlessness and regret. It is the single greatest moment of Jack Nicholson’s career and one of the most affecting scenes in all of American cinema. It is hard to imagine a person in post-euphoric America who would not be affected by this moment. This masterful scene illustrates the moment in every young person’s life when artifice and swagger turn to actual emotion.

As the movie comes to its conclusion, Bobby introduces Rayette to his family, including Catherine, and the difference between the two women is as stark as the two lives they live.  It is Bobby’s discontent that cuts through both of them with stinging realism - both sides are broadly drawn to the point of being caricatures, with Bobby being the believable “everyman.” Bobby’s experience implies that there was no answer to American life - the tradition of European-style intellectualism was ultimately as hollow as working in the oil fields to Bobby. The schism between 60’s and 70’s intellectuals and the common man was gulfed with expectation and disappointment.

Five Easy Pieces is much more than its plot indicates. In a way it is a turning point for American cinema and national self-reflection. The reality is that American life is simultaneously a rich and beautiful panoply as well as being totally dead at its core. It is Bobby’s internal struggle that has the most relevance to me. The scenes that have the most cultural resonance are disposable (the famous luncheonette scene); rather the heart of the movie rests in Nicholson’s quiet and understated portrayal of a man with depth, and his rejection of that depth for what he considers a “real” existence. It ultimately points to the hollowness of ALL American life. The film ends with Bobby once again running out on his responsibilities and leaving it all behind in an existential turning away from all expectation in modern society - free to be a drifter - yet shackled to his own sense of failure and meaninglessness. With nearly fifty years of American experience since this film was made, its enigmatic message feels more relevant than ever.

-         Paul Epstein

Monday, July 10, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #183 - Leon Russell - Leon Live

When Leon Russell recorded this massive 3 LP (or 2 CD) set in 1972, it seemed like he was riding a never-cresting wave of popularity and hipness. He was way more than a triple threat: he was a singer, songwriter, performer, arranger, producer and, as many saw in Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs And Englishmen, he was a guru of sorts - “the master of space and time.” His field of vision took in everything that rock was all about: raging R&B, swinging country and the life-changing properties of gospel. That’s right, much of Leon’s shtick came straight from the fire and brimstone preachers he experienced as a young person. The results were explosive. For a short few years, Leon ruled concert stages like few others. His bands were filled with serious rock and gospel session players who helped craft the contemporary sound as it existed at the time. But he brought something else to the stage as well. He was truly a proselytizer for the powers of rock and roll.

The album can be broken into three categories of performance; first a primer of great original songs by one of the best. Leon classics “Shoot Out on the Plantation,” “Dixie Lullabye,” “Roll Away the Stone,” “Prince of Peace,” “Stranger in a Strange Land,” “Out in the Woods” and “Delta Lady” are all delivered with screaming rock and roll authority. His ten-piece band (including four-piece gospel combo Black Grass) burns down the barn from the first cut - an amazing medley of the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There” / The Coasters’ “Idol With The Golden Head” / the gospel classic “I Serve A Living Savior” / and Dylan’s “The Mighty Quinn” - through to the final song, a revival tent workout of “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.” This mind-melting meld of songs is the second category of performance found on the album. For reasons understood only to him, Leon Russell was able to take disparate songs and recast them through his own kaleidoscopic musical world view into new parts of a different whole. Most notoriously he did this with The Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and The Coasters’ “Young Blood” at George Harrison’s The Concert For Bangladesh in 1970. The duo of songs brought the house down and on Leon Live he repeats the feat with an even crazier 16-minute version that drives the audience bananas. On this medley, Russell employs the third type of performance while delivering the second. That third type is true gospel. Antithetical as it may seem to the party-time spirit of rock and roll, gospel is actually at the root of almost all American song, and Leon Russell embraced that concept wholeheartedly on this album. He hands the stage over to Black Grass a number of times and lets them bring the spirit while he undoubtedly rested his pipes for the next showstopper. But when he does sing, his vocal delivery is clearly influenced by the cadence and exclamatory emphasis of the clergy and it is thrilling in a way that few rockers have ever attempted.

It is indeed the unbelievable string of show-stopping moments that distinguishes Leon Live from many other live albums of the era. With an almost religious fervor (ah, there’s that gospel thing again) Leon and his killer band rock the house with peak moment after peak moment. Every song seems like an appropriate place to end the show because the band just gives it all they have every single time. By the time the show winds into a medley of two anthemic originals about self-determination - “Of Thee I Sing/Yes I Am” - the listener would be forgiven for wondering if what they were hearing was actually recorded at just one concert or not. It was. Night after night Leon and his band delivered this endless extravaganza in world-class fashion and changed hearts and minds along the way.

Rock music used to be more than a convenient soundtrack to corporate marketing efforts! It used to be a tent on the outskirts of town, where kids could meet and observe ancient and spirit-altering rituals taking place in front of their eyes, but out of sight of their parents. I used to leave concerts with a fire in my belly to change the world; now the fire is dealt with by antacids.

-         Paul Epstein

Monday, July 3, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #169 - Notting Hill (1999, dir. Roger Mitchell, writer Richard Curtis)

William: “It's as if I've taken love heroin, and now I can't ever have it again.”

Recently I found myself watching a much-overlooked 2013 film called About Time, which was written and directed by Richard Curtis. Curtis famously wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Love Actually (2003, which he also directed), Pirate Radio (2009), as well as Notting Hill. After finishing About Time, which ended up being one of the better flicks that I’ve seen recently, I felt the overwhelming urge to return to some of Curtis’ earlier work, which of course began with my return to a favorite romantic comedy of mine, Notting Hill. While on the surface Curtis’ film from the late nineties starring rom-com staples Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant seems as if it would be just another throwaway popcorn film from an era littered with such entertainment, Curtis successfully elevates the genre through fantastic dialog, performances, and the twists and turns of an almost Shakespearean narrative.

The story follows the relationship between William Thacker (Grant), the owner of a Travel Bookstore (not a Traveling book store, a Bookstore that only sells travel books), and Anna Scott (Roberts), the movie star who William randomly spills juice upon. After an initial fumbled first encounter and a few quick-witted flirtations, Scott decides to explore the potential of being with a mostly normal guy. Asking if he would like to go on a date, Scott ends up accompanying William to his sister’s birthday party, which is only awkward for a brief moment before everyone just accepts her for who she is and the two have an amazing first date. Upon returning to Scott’s hotel, they find her famous movie star boyfriend waiting for them to foil their date. This is merely the beginning of the rollercoaster of a Shakespearean comedy. Time passes and the two continue to bump into each other, both by happenstance and design, and share a number of moments, always having those moments dashed by reality. While both of them try to move past their mutual attraction, they seem to be drawn to each other in an odd way, but will they ever truly find each other?

While the plot is reasonably simple, the charm of this film, as with most all of Richard Curtis’ films, is in the dialog and the way that he is able to create an immersive world, brilliantly transporting the audience through a narrative that stunningly reflects the complexity of life. Every aspect of Notting Hill has been perfectly crafted in order to create this narrative, and while the direction and cinematography tends toward a more basic and restrained style, that only allows the dialog, narrative flow, and the performances from Grant, Roberts, and the entire supporting cast to shine through, producing a film that begs for repeated viewings. I saw the film shortly after it was released in 1999, and have since found myself drawn back to Notting Hill, usually annually.

In the end, the real reason that I wish to turn you onto this movie is the fact that it a perfectly successful romantic comedy, which in my experience (yeah, I’ve watched hundreds of bad rom-coms) is rare and should be celebrated! The performances are charming, the dialog is witty and engaging, and the story is enchanting. Oh, and I’ve gotten this far into this review and forgotten to say that it is hilarious! So, if you’re looking to sit back, relax, and enjoy a killer love story that will have you uncontrollably smiling ear-to-ear throughout, then this is the perfect movie for you to take home today!

-         Edward Hill

Monday, June 26, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #182 - Orchestra Baobab - Made in Dakar

Orchestra Baobab formed in 1970 out of the ashes of the legendary Star Band in Dakar, Senegal’s capital city. Singers Balla Sidibe, Rudy Gomis and Laye Mboup were among the founding members of the group, and over the next couple years before their first recording they picked up key members Ndiouga Dieng (vocals), Togolese law student and guitar genius Barthélémy Attisso, and Issa Cissoko on saxophone (an equally dominant instrumental voice with Attisso in the group), along with many other members over time. They quickly rose to the top of the city’s highly competitive club scene, putting on electrifying live shows in which they’d mix modernized traditional tunes and their own originals, often with a heavy influence of Afro-Cuban music. They released about a dozen albums by the end of the decade, despite losing Mboup in an auto accident in 1974. But also by the end of the decade, they began to lose ground as Dakar’s top draw, when another group founded by Star Band alumni formed a new style of music and began gaining in popularity. This group, Étoile de Dakar, had hired the young singer Youssou N’Dour, and between his remarkable talent and charisma and their new mbalax style of music, their popularity rocketed to the top, making N’Dour an international superstar. Orchestra Baobab’s mixture of West African traditional rhythms and melodies mixed with Afro-Cuban music and modern guitar no longer seemed so cutting edge. By 1987, Baobab disbanded.

But their legend persisted. In 1982, they had recorded Pirates Choice, released by the World Circuit label in Europe in 1989 after the band had broken up, reissued again worldwide with bonus material in 2001, renewing interest in the group. Between this interest and encouragement from none other than Youssou N’Dour, the band decided to reform, getting Attisso to put his law practice on hold and pick up his guitar for the first time in over a decade and join them in the studio with N’Dour and label owner Nick Gold producing. The result was Specialist in All Styles, which found the group revisiting some of their own classics along with new material for an album that was as good as anything in their lengthy discography – better even, perhaps, because they were better musicians and the production was crystalline. It’s a great album that’s unfortunately currently out of print, like much of their earlier material. The reunion album and tours were such a rousing success that the group got back into the studio again a few years later to make Made in Dakar, which proved to be yet another autumnal triumph from the group, featuring the same 11 main players from the classic lineup who’d recorded the previous album.

Gold again produced, the sound is again superb, and the band is exceptional - where Specialist in All Styles was made by a band burning to prove they could still make great music after a lengthy hiatus, here they know what they can do and waste no time doing it. They don’t mind here flexing their muscles a bit, there settling into a leisurely pace that only a group that knows each other’s every move could do.

Things are great from the get-go - on the lead cut “Pada Ndiaye” (an older song revived for the session, like many here) things open with Barthélémy Attisso’s guitar underpinned with a tight, driving rhythm. Before long, the great horn section comes in, harmonized vocals follow, and then Assane Mboup takes the wailing lead vocal. Issa Cissoko’s sax kicks in after the chorus, and the picture of the band is basically complete with this - on rhythms fast or slow the group always moves as one unit, vocals from one or more of the five lead vocalists (three of whom also play percussion) sing the tunes, and Attisso or (slightly less often) Cissoko takes a searing solo. Sometimes a guest jumps in (Youssou N’Dour again makes a cameo here, singing co-lead with Mboup on the second cut, the great “Nijaay”; trumpeter Ibou Konate gets a couple solo turns), but usually it’s Attisso or Cissoko making the most waves (or bouncing off each other, as in “Nijaay”), with vocals only coming in second in the mind because the duties are split amongst so many equals. After Mboup kills on the first two cuts, Balla Sidibe takes the lead vocal on “Beni Baraale,” copped from Guinea’s famed group Bembeya Jazz and featuring a beefed up horn section, then Rudy Gomis takes a great lead in Portuguese Creole before handing the solo spotlight to Cissoko on the relentlessly driving, salsa-inflected “Ami Kita Bay.” Things slow down with the leisurely, Cuban-styled “Cabral” (featuring co-lead vocals by Sidibe and Gomis), and then picks right back up with “Sibam,” another revival out of their extensive catalog and possibly the vocal highlight of the entire set thanks to Medoune Diallo’s beyond-perfect voice.

As things roll into the latter part of the album, it takes on a more characteristically Senegalese flavor in the mbalax-styled “Ndéleng Ndéleng” (with its extended Attisso solo) and “Jirim,” in which Attisso is paying homage in his playing to the American country music he heard growing up and Cissoko gives nods to his idol King Curtis, while vocalist Ndiouga Dieng steps up for his first lead vocal. The record closes with “Colette,” originally conceived as a danceable instrumental in the style of Blue Note groovers of the 60s, before Dieng and Gomis added improvised vocals in rehearsals for this album. It’s another showcase for Attisso, whose semi-psychedelic solo is dedicated to Carlos Santana, and it’s a fitting to give him the solo space, seeing as Attisso stepped out of a comfortable life to rejoin the band. And perhaps it’s even more fitting to name it that, given that the Colette being honored is Attisso’s wife, who allowed him to pursue this.

Orchestra Baobab again went on hiatus after this record, released in Europe in 2007 and in the States the next year. But now, ten years later, they’ve returned with a new album, Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng, who passed away last year. Issa Cissoko, Rudy Gomis, Balla Sidibe, and bassist Charlie Ndiaye (whose lithe, powerful, driving lines I neglected to mention above), have all returned for an album that’s more an acoustic affair, centered often around Abdoulaye Cissoko’s (no relation to Issa) kora playing. It’s beautiful, often exciting, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that for me the spark of Attisso’s leads were not missed. Definitely worth hearing, especially if your tastes run toward the mellower than mine do, but for me Made In Dakar and Specialist in All Styles remain the band’s great 21st century albums – so far.

-         Patrick Brown

Monday, June 19, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #168 - An Autumn Afternoon (1962, dir. Yasujirō Ozu)

A film by Yasujirō Ozu is not like a film by any other filmmaker. He has one of the most unique and easily identifiable stylistic signatures of any international director, noted for his unmoving camera, low angle shots simulating the view from a Japanese tatami mat, actors facing directly into the camera in dialogue, ellipses of plot leaving out seemingly important details, and visually intricate compositions. He’s been referred to as “the most Japanese director” of all, but in his specificity the universal can be found. He worked subtle variations on a handful of themes that interested him for his entire career (and in that is not unlike any major director spinning variations on their ideas in film after film): familial conflicts (usually between generations), the institution of arranged marriages, encroaching Westernization of Japan in his post-war films, financial woes of the middle class families that populate most of his films, and more. His films usually have many comic moments, but there’s almost always an undercurrent of melancholy to them as well.

Everything said above could apply to a few dozen of Ozu’s films, but they all apply in full force for what proved to be the final film of his life, An Autumn Afternoon. It’s a seemingly simple story of a widower, Shūhei Hirayama (played by Ozu regular Chishū Ryū), who lives with his son Kazuo and daughter Michiko, with his older son moved out and married, frequently squabbling with his wife about borrowing money to try to lend him the appearance of prosperity at work. Hirayama is chided repeatedly by his friends about arranging a marriage for his daughter before she becomes a spinster. Neither Hirayama nor his daughter have given much thought to the matter, perfectly content to live as they have been doing, but once he and his drinking buddies run into an old teacher of theirs, Sakuma (nicknamed “The Gourd”), and arrange an evening’s tribute to him, he begins to think more about it. There are many comic scenes of Hirayama and his friends drinking; old men reminiscing about war, women, school, old friends and so forth, but things begin to be tinged with a sadder tone when their tribute to The Gourd ends with the teacher too drunk and needing to be taken home where they see what’s become of his life.

The Gourd’s daughter has remained unmarried in circumstances very similar to what Hirayama has experienced, he’s now running a low-rent noodle shop, and his daughter complains that “he’s always doing this” when they bring him home drunk. Over the course of several episodes in the film, The Gourd blames his own selfishness for ruining her chances at a successful marriage, having kept her close to home because he doesn’t want to suffer the loss of another family member. The Gourd’s plight resonates with Hirayama, and he resolves to start pushing Michiko toward marriage. And though Hirayama is the central focus of the film, Michiko’s resistance to an arranged marriage and her own ideas about how her life should be lived of course come into play.

As is typical in his films, Ozu and his longtime screenwriting partner Kôgo Noda come to the conflict with a perfectly tuned ear for dialogue and an empathy and understanding for both sides – not only will the father be left lonely if his vibrant and loving daughter should move out of the house, but in arranging her marriage he’s also potentially taking away her happiness should he not choose a good partner for her, and if she remains unmarried, she runs the risk of becoming an embittered spinster. He wants to do what’s right for her even under increasing societal pressure and his concerns of ending up a sad, lonely drunk like The Gourd, spouting lines like “In the end we spend our lives alone.” It’s a similar scenario to Ozu’s 1949 masterpiece Late Spring, in which Ryu was again the widowed father living with his daughter (played by the exquisite and ebullient Setsuko Hara), but here the focus falls more on the father’s plight than on the daughter’s. Where Late Spring hinged on a single moment when Hara’s famous smile fell as she acquiesced to her father’s requests, this one hinges on Hirayama’s trip to take his teacher home, seeing a potential future where both father and daughter have ended up sad and lonely.

The film is not just a continuation of Ozu’s ideas, but another collaboration with many of his longtime partners – writer Kôgo Noda is credited alongside Ozu on his very first film, from 1927, while Chishū Ryū and cinematographer Yûharu Atsuta are both featured on his second film from the next year. With a regular cast and crew familiar with his working methods and style, it’s no wonder that the film is one of his subtlest and most beautiful triumphs. Atsuta’s cinematography, his fourth of Ozu’s six films in color, is spectacular, with both director and cinematographer having found a way to perfectly integrate color into the stunning framing and composition that Ozu is best known for. He’s one of the most masterful artists in cinema history, and any frame of one of his films is rich with details you can get lost in, with An Autumn Afternoon one of his very best creations, both in the plotted segments and the famous “pillow shots” of random areas and items (laundry hanging out to dry, factory smokestacks, and trains passing are some faves of his) that break up the narrative sections. It’s also a great entry point into one of the most stellar careers in cinema.

-         Patrick Brown

Monday, June 12, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #181 - The Afghan Whigs – Congregation (Sub Pop, 1992)

The 1990’s were kind of a magical time for me, in retrospect. I started junior high, high school and college in the 90s. I had my first steady girlfriend, lost my virginity and had my first pregnancy scare, all in the 90s. I started smoking. I started drinking. I started experimenting with drugs. It was a time for new and exciting journeys for me, from one extreme to the other. I literally started the decade not even a teenager yet and turned 21 in 1999, the final year of the 90s. No other decade in the near-40 years that I’ve been alive has had as much of a hand in shaping the person I am today. Interests, people, jobs and events came and went, and the music that I discovered throughout was the most constant and important part of this progression.

I wish I could discuss every band that I discovered in the 90s that eventually became a favorite, but that would make for a much longer piece. However, I do want to talk about one band in particular that influenced me in more ways than I can count. The Afghan Whigs’ 1993 major label debut, Gentlemen, was, besides being my entry point to their music, critical in both my creative and personal life. Simultaneously sexy and misanthropic, the Whigs’ melding of indie rock with R&B and other African-American influences set them apart from most of their contemporaries. The band have remained critical darlings over the years and Gentlemen was the landmark that brought them this notoriety. That said, this article is NOT about Gentlemen.

By the time Gentlemen was released, the Whigs already had three records under their belt. Upon finding this out, I had to investigate. “What kind of sordid past could such a band have had to develop into this amalgam of dark rock & roll and sultry soul?” I thought. The first two albums, while certainly showing signs of future brilliance, were not much more than bratty college rock - think The Replacements minus balls. Their third album (and second for Sub Pop Records), Congregation, is the point when the band began its transformation. Congregation still possesses some of the noisy grit of the early records but adds layers of influences from the band’s members. Chief songwriter Greg Dulli’s affinity for R&B and blues is perhaps most prominent, but also evident is lead guitarist Rick McCollum’s interest in free jazz and world music.

Dulli’s lyrics tend to be unsettling, as he touches on addiction, guilt, intimacy and sexual deviancy interchangeably, sometimes within the same song. He sings of being both predator (as in the record’s first single “Conjure Me,” or the boozy, after-hours-style ballad “Tonight”) and prey (as in the desperate “I’m Her Slave”). Congregation also seems to have a darkly religious theme running throughout the album. “I am your creator, come with me my congregation,” Dulli sings on the title track, delivered from the point of view of a hostile deity (“get up, I’ll smack you back down”). Further tying into this theme is the cover version of “The Temple” from the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, of which Dulli was an avid fan. Dulli’s lyrics and voice are perfectly juxtaposed with the rock/soul hybrid of the band. McCollum’s leads are dissonant and jagged in the vein of early Fugazi, but he adds a kind of funk swagger to his playing that recalls the Bar-Kays or Curtis Mayfield’s finest moments. Adding to this atmosphere is the tribal-style drumming of Steve Earle (not that Steve Earle - the Whigs’ regular drummer), who would influence a teenaged me in my own creative pursuits. The band’s influences really come together on the hidden track “Miles Iz Dead,” a last-minute tribute song added to the album when news of Miles Davis’ passing reached Dulli while in the studio.

Congregation was largely recorded in 1991, a time when the Whigs’ label, Sub Pop, was struggling financially. If it weren’t for a certain trio from Aberdeen, Washington releasing their breakthrough album Nevermind and effectively saving the label from bankruptcy, Congregation may never have become a thing. Perhaps this is just me, but the “album-that-almost-wasn’t” aspect of this record adds to the mystique of the Afghan Whigs as well.

I know that many who are familiar with the band are mostly familiar with Gentlemen, or the other latter day major label albums that brought the band to the mainstream. And that is okay, because those records are killer. But this is the record that kick-started that journey for the band. Even Dulli himself says about Congregation that it’s “the record where we came into our own.” It’s the perfect bridge between the raw aggression of their early material and the sexy soulfulness of their later career. Honestly, I could go on and on about the album, and the Afghan Whigs in general. They coaxed me into manhood in a way that no other band did. To have them be one of the most important bands to me during my formative years gives this stepping stone album an extremely special place in my heart. So, no amount of adjective-slinging will capture that magic that is Congregation. In other words, don’t take my word for it. Listen to the record.

-         Jonathan Eagle