Monday, December 9, 2019

I'd Love to Turn You On #245 - Michael Hurley, the Unholy Modal Rounders, Jeffery Frederick & the Clamtones - Have Moicy! (1976)

Back in late 1975 two folk scene stalwarts, Michael Hurley and Peter Stampfel (on hiatus from the Holy Modal Rounders at this point), got together with younger singer-songwriter Jeffery Frederick to make an album that ended up being more consistently entertaining - and more consistently goofy - than anything I’ve ever heard by any of them separately. This is why the record is, clumsily but accurately, credited to "Michael Hurley, the Unholy Modal Rounders, Jeffery Frederick & the Clamtones" - though that gives the impression that three bands got together to put out a compilation, rather than the sympathetic communal wackiness that's actually on display here.
The three main (vocal) personalities at play here are as follows:
1. Peter Stampfel, 37 year-old co-founder of Greenwich Village folk scene regulars The Holy Modal Rounders (who you may know from "If You Want To Be A Bird" on the Easy Rider soundtrack). He's a weirdo and a seeker of music who digs into deep Americana to find songs to cover, rip off, or sometimes just inform his own writing. And he sings with a wild enthusiasm that's hard to match (or resist), even if that enthusiasm does not often translate to any kind of musical accuracy.
2. Michael Hurley, the easy-going 34 year-old "outsider folk" prodigy who began writing and recording in his early teens, but didn't get a career rolling until his 20s due to illness, and then began a slow outpouring of his laid-back, almost soulful folky ease. Only by having Stampfel next to him does he seem like a normal musician.
3. Jeffery Frederick, at 25, the baby of the bunch, an East Coaster relocated to Oregon, who approaches the musical side of things somewhat more professionally - relatively speaking - but his words are every bit as wacko as his confreres.
Lyrically, Stampfel will sing about bidets, Paris, wine, young people in love, dancing, and the freak party on the edge of town; Hurley tells us about spaghetti, dirty dishes in the sink, heartbreak, the blues, and oral sex; Frederick tells us about robbing banks, hamburgers, the blues (also), and a heart attack. Among other things. Musically, it flows beginning to end, from the Parisian wine at the beginning to the Thunderbird wine (and a pound of hash) that closes things, with members of each leader's band performing alongside each other throughout the album creating the kind of musical consistency that's rare in any collaborative project like this. Special kudos go to the fiddler and mandolin player credited solely as Robin here, though the fine work of the understated but supportive drummer known as Frog should also be mentioned.
            The album passes singing and songwriting duties around from track to track like the joints they no doubt shared during the record's creation, and the result is a melodic, good-natured, hilarious exploration of what happened to "The Scene" of the late-60s by the time we got to the mid-70s. Rather than becoming wistful for the past, as many of the older guys' contemporaries were already doing by then, they found their joy in smaller pleasures like those detailed above. It kicks off with "Midnight In Paris," a 1935 pop tune turned all banjo-and-mandolin bluegrass style here, where Stampfel (credited as "Pierre" instead of Peter for this track) gets the ball rolling in his best American-ese "You wear my bee-ray/and I'll use your bee-day/I'll be clean and you'll be free." And then they take off from there, straight into Frederick's "Robbin' Banks," a song about exactly what it says, supposedly inspired by his bank robbing grandfather, but just to prove his freak bona fides, he throws in lines like “If you get scared and run you bastard, I’ll break your arm.” Up next is Hurley, with "Slurf Song," where he envisions a feast for all his pals, but laments the cleaning up afterward, and follows the feast right through to its (bio)logical end.
            And so it goes. Other highlights include Stampfel's "Griselda," written by the Greenwich village folk scene musician Antonia who introduced him and the other Holy Modal rounder founder Steve Weber back in the 60s, Jeffery Frederick's "What Made My Hamburger Disappear?" which sounds silly (and was supposedly performed on Sesame Street) but is written from the point of view of a burger eater having a heart attack, Hurley's slyly naughty "Driving Wheel," and the killer Antonia-penned capper "Hoodoo Bash," which may as well be describing the freak party that is this album.
            Of course, if you can't attenuate Stampfel's vocals into something your ear can easily digest, if you want your folk music all serious and stately instead of lively and of-the-people, if you like your freaks a little more toned-down than these guys, maybe this record isn't for you. For anyone who's in it for the fun though, dig in. You won't regret it.
            - Patrick Brown

Monday, December 2, 2019

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #232 - Blow Out (1981, dir. Brian De Palma)

Back in 1981, director Brian De Palma followed up his hit thriller Dressed To Kill with something darker and grimmer, gave John Travolta his best on screen role ever (that's right, ever), took a none-too-unbelievable look at American politics, and created his finest film. That film is 1981’s Blow Out, and despite critical acclaim at the time of its release, it was a box office failure, probably in large part due to the film’s bleak outlook - and probably also, as Nancy Allen suggests in the bonus materials contained in the Criterion release of the film, that an intellectual, personal, and political work was released and expected to compete in summer blockbuster season, rather than in the fall, when “critics’ films” tend to come out. But time has been kind to the film, and it's shown itself to be among the smartest and best-made of the run of 1970s political thrillers. It might help that it actually came after the end of the 70s, with Watergate and its aftermath in the rear-view mirror, rather than being released in the thick of it when everything was still unfolding; the kind of behind-the-scenes machinations that power Blow Out no longer seemed like far-fetched paranoia.
The film starts out as a cheesy horror flick, quickly revealed to be a screening of Co-Ed Frenzy, a low-budget slasher film-within-the-film for which cop-turned-soundman Jack Terry (John Travolta) needs to record new sound effects (and which provides a running joke that turns gut-wrenching in the film’s final moments). Out at night recording, he hears (and records) a blow out and sees a car careen off a bridge and plunge underwater. Diving in to save the woman inside, Sally (Nancy Allen), he becomes embroiled in a plot to derail the upcoming presidential election, but due to the constant movement of the shadowy antagonist Burke (John Lithgow) he finds it difficult to convince others that a conspiracy may be afoot.
The film is De Palma's finest - the place where his thematic ideas about voyeurism and watching (and here, listening) and systemic violence perpetrated against women mesh with his virtuoso filmmaking in a dazzling array of traveling Steadicam work, split screen, slo-mo, 360 degree pans, and other effects that all heighten and work in service of the story being told, rather than merely drawing attention to themselves. And beyond his famous camerawork, the sound design of the film is marvelous - as befits a movie about a soundman - with the visuals we see and the sounds that accompany them often providing an ironic complement or counterpoint. Even in the seemingly innocuous opening credits sequence where Jack is cataloging his stock effects - gunshots, glass breaking, a body falling to the ground, and so forth - these are played over a split screen montage of a TV broadcast of an event for a presidential hopeful whose car is, unbeknownst to him, about to end up at the bottom of a river, and the entire sequence conveys a lot more than the names of the crew. And later in the film, the disparity between TV news reportage and events we've seen firsthand always provides a chuckle.
And as fine as Travolta is in the film, he's matched scene for scene by Nancy Allen, who as Sally attempts to control her own destiny only to be swept away by forces beyond her control, and those of Travolta’s attempts to protect her. And it would be a disservice to not tip the hat to De Palma regular John Lithgow, whose chameleon-like bow as the villainous Burke keeps the film's seemingly implausible menace feeling very real indeed, or to another De Palma fave Dennis Franz, perfectly sleazy as photographer Manny Karp.
If the film were merely a clever thriller, it would be enough to recommend it, but it's more than that, refracting recent political history - Watergate and Chappaquiddick particularly - through De Palma's ideas to arrive at a fully integrated - dare I say it? - work of art. The film looks at sordid post-Watergate closed-door dealings, with the subsequent mistrust of government coloring the cynical proceedings in a film that endlessly looks outward to the modern political landscape and reflects it darkly back on itself. One wonders what sort of grim thriller could be made out of the raw material of today’s political events.
- Patrick Brown

Monday, November 25, 2019

I'd Love to Turn You On #244 - Ghostface Killah – Supreme Clientele (2000)

            Lately I’ve been getting caught up in the Hulu show Wu-Tang: An American Saga. Even though it’s kind of a shitty show, it’s reminded me that revisiting my love of the Wu-Tang Clan is something I need to do occasionally. I’m certain I’m not alone in my assessment that when the Wu-Tang Clan came to prominence, they were a cut above the rest in terms of the hip-hop of the ‘90s. They quickly became one of my favorites and it didn’t take long for me to start tracking down every solo album by every solo rapper even tangentially related to the Wu.
            Among the masterpieces to grace the world at the turn of the new millennium was Supreme Clientele, the second solo record by the inimitable Ghostface Killah. Released at a time when most Wu-Tang members had either already ventured off onto their own solo paths or were about to, de facto leader RZA could not oversee production on all of them, and it often showed. He did, however, opt to man the boards (and contribute some rhymes) for Supreme Clientele, enlisting the help of a small team of other RZA disciples. Incorporating the sexiest of obscure R&B samples (the cover photo of Ghost crooning into a retro microphone makes it even look like it could be a 1970s Jerry Butler record or something) into the sleaziest of beats and loops, to produce a result that is pure Staten Island sound: pure Wu-Tang. Ghost’s lyrics provide vivid narrative structures emboldened by deep personal introspection while laced with abstract, ostensibly nonsensical poetic liberties. Many of the lyrics on Supreme Clientele were written while Ghost was on a several month-long trip to Africa, incorporating much of his experience with the culture there (and his subsequent disdain for American consumerism) into his words. And the flow doesn’t stop with just Ghost. In fact, not only is he joined by RZA but other fellow Wu members Cappadonna, GZA, Masta Killa and Raekwon pop in and out to take a verse or two, making it just about as close to Wu-Tang-Proper as it gets.
            The thing about Supreme Clientele is that it’s quite notoriously one of the most-loved, if not the most-loved of the non-Wu-Tang Wu-Tang projects. At least one of the highest charting ones, if I’m not mistaken. And deservedly so. It’s not only a step up creatively from its predecessor, Ghost’s powerful debut Ironman (which is also great), but production-wise too. Supreme Clientele is stamped front to back with that unmistakable RZA sound which, by 2000, just wasn’t as ubiquitous as it once was. In the 19 years since this record came out, the world of hip-hop has only gotten more incredible and complex and the landscape is constantly changing. There are countless talented emcees and DJs out there and with Soundcloud and Bandcamp and the like, it’s easier than ever for some of the lesser-known talented acts to be heard. Even Ghostface himself has gone on to release material that far surpasses that of Supreme Clientele. In fact, 2006’s Fishscale is high in the running for best hip-hop record ever, in my opinion. But this… this is the one. This is, I think, the reference point that people will point to when talking about solo Wu-Tang albums. When this record came out, I could not get enough of it. And now, listening back to it as much as I did in preparation to write this, it still sounds as fresh and exciting as it did when I first bought it.
            Honestly, I wouldn’t ordinarily choose to write about a record that’s already received as much critical and commercial praise as Supreme Clientele has received. I mean, theoretically it’s already had so much smoke blown up its ass over the years that I couldn’t possibly have anything to add that would be useful. And anyway, the point of these reviews is to “turn you on” to something you may have otherwise missed. It’s just that I truly believe that this record still needs to be talked about because it’s a god damn masterpiece. Whether you’re new school or old school, there’s something on Supreme Clientele for every hip-hop fan.
            - Jonathan Eagle

Monday, November 18, 2019

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #231 - Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997, dir. Clint Eastwood)

         Anyone who knows me isn’t even a little bit surprised I’m writing a review about Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. It’s got all the things I love: true crime, the occult, John Cusack, and it’s set in the South. Based on John Berendt’s non-fiction book of the same name and directed by Clint Eastwood, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil brings all the southern charm Savannah, Georgia has to offer - along with all of its dirty laundry.
The basic plot of the film is as follows. John Kelso (John Cusack), is sent to Savannah to write a 500-word article on a Christmas party held by eccentric local Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey). When Williams kills Billy Hanson (a baby-faced Jude Law) in what Williams said was an “act of self-defense,” Kelso decides to stay and cover the trial. Kelso gets sucked into the drama of the trial and Savanah itself, describing it as “Gone with the Wind on mescaline.” It’s the local characters that Kelso meets during his time in Savannah that really make the film.
 Mandy Nicholls (Allison Eastwood, Clint Eastwood’s daughter) is a love interest of sorts for Kelso, as well as helping him break into the morgue to solve the mystery of what actually happened the night Billy Hanson was shot. Sonny Seiler (Jack Thompson), Williams' attorney and the owner of the University of Georgia mascot - a long line of English bulldogs named Uga (pronounced “UGH – uh”), adds that unique Southern charm that only Savannah natives can offer. Fun fact about the film - the real life Sonny Seiler plays the judge in the murder trial. Kelso and Williams make a trip to Bonaventure Cemetery to see voodoo practitioner Minerva (Irma P. Hall) in an attempt to communicate with and help calm Billy Hanson’s spirit. Kelso is skeptical to say the least, and Cusack’s scenes with Minerva are some his best acting in the film; he seems genuinely bewildered by what she says and does. But in the end she gives him some great advice - “to understand the living you gotta commune with the dead.” Quite possibly the strangest character Kelso comes into contact with is Luther Driggers (Geoffrey Lewis), a man who keeps flies on strings attached to a shirt and threatens to poison the water supply almost daily with a mystery substance he keeps in a vial that goes with him everywhere, even while he eats his lunch at Clary’s Café. If he enjoys his lunch he will put the vial back in his pocket and be on his way while the entire café breathes a sigh of relief. Last, but certainly not least, playing herself because there isn’t another human on this planet that could do it, The Lady Chablis, a transgender club performer and all around iconic Southern Lady. Kelso comes into contact with her after learning she may have some information about Hanson’s relationship with Williams. The Lady Chablis has her fun with Kelso, making him take her along as his date to a debutante ball he is attending and delivering the best life advice and the best line in the film: “Two tears in a bucket, motherfuck it.” I quote it all the time and most people don’t have a clue where it comes from.
            I can’t talk about this movie without talking about the music. The real Jim Williams lived in famed songwriter Johnny Mercer’s house and Eastwood chose to use the real house in the film (which is now called the Mercer-Williams House and is open for public tours). Hell, I even made my parents take me on a tour of the Mercer-Williams House on a family trip to Savannah. Yes, that’s right, I’ve been in the room where all this went down. This is the reason every song used in the film is a song written by Johnny Mercer. It opens with an absolutely haunting version of “Skylark” sung by k.d. lang. Rosemary Clooney, Cassandra Wilson, Tony Bennett, Allison Eastwood and even director Clint Eastwood contribute covers of some of Mercer's most iconic songs. It keeps that theme of Southern charm going throughout the entire film.
What is most striking about this film is Eastwood cast as many real life people as he could, The Lady Chablis and Sonny Seiler are just a couple of them. It’s what makes the film, which is already based on a true story, work. What better to make something feel more authentic than casting the real life people who were involved? The entire film is a good romp around Savannah, and Eastwood made use of this unique southern town, highlighting many of its most iconic landmarks and colorful locals. I find it to be a highly entertaining film, perfect for a lazy afternoon watch full of laughs, voodoo, an invisible dog being walked on a leash, murder, and a whole lot of Southern charm.

-Anna Lathem  

Monday, November 11, 2019

I'd Love to Turn You On #243 - The Killers - Sam's Town (2006)

            When The Killers' debut album Hot Fuss came out in 2004 I begged and begged my dad to take me to see them at City Stages in Birmingham the next year. They played the entire album and I was hooked instantly; I became a forever fan and my poor dad had to stand there with a screaming teenage girl. I still wear the t-shirt I got at the show and am amazed it still fits me. I guess it’s just that Killers magic. When their second studio album Sam’s Town came out the year after that I instantly went out and bought the CD and later when I got my first turntable it was the first new record I bought with my own money. It was a departure from the synth and auto-tune featured heavily in Hot Fuss, while still being very much a Killers album at its core. It’s a love letter to Las Vegas - where the members either grew up or moved to when they were young, and where the band formed.
            I guess a little background on the band will make their love of Las Vegas and the Sam’s Town Hotel and Gambling Hall make a little more sense. Lead singer Brandon Flowers, drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr. and bassist Mark Stoermer grew up in Las Vegas while guitarist Dave Keuning moved there in his early 20’s. But all four of them met in the City of Sin under the bright lights and formed The Killers in 2001. As a child Stoermer could see the Sam’s Town Hotel and Gambling Hall sign from his bedroom window. Las Vegas gave them an edge that they couldn’t have gotten anywhere else. The album was even recorded in Las Vegas. With Vegas in their hearts and minds they as a group decided to move away from the new wave Brit-pop sound of Hot Fuss and record an album that sounded more like where they came from.
            Sam’s Town kicks off with the title track, a larger than life rock anthem. It gives you the feeling of walking down the Las Vegas Strip at night soaking in all of the bright lights and big sounds. It comes from a place in Flowers' heart, because he grew up doing just that. Two of my favorite things about Sam’s Town are the “Enterlude” and “Exitlude” tracks bookending the album. You can imagine Flowers as a lounge singer in a casino, welcoming in patrons as the night begins and softly letting them know it’s time to go when the sun comes up. My other two favorites off Sam’s Town, “Uncle Johnny” and “Bones,” fill in the sex and drugs part of “sex, drugs and rock & roll” for the album. “Uncle Johnny” is raw and feels like a person strung out on cocaine while living it up in Las Vegas. “Bones” is a throwback to the synth-pop sound from Hot Fuss, but with a little more Mojave Desert dirt mixed in. Both tracks don’t hold anything back and that is what makes them stand out on this album.
The Killers didn’t hold anything back when making this album, and while most reviews of the album were not stellar, the album holds true to their Las Vegas roots and that desert sound. It isn’t flashy, it doesn’t try to copy their sound from Hot Fuss, and it stands alone in the pantheon of Killers albums. It’s raw, it’s dusty and it’s very Las Vegas. While Hot Fuss tends to get all the glory, Sam’s Town in my opinion is a truly Killers album. They made it the way they wanted, they recorded it where they wanted and to me it works, even if the rest of the world didn’t seem to think so.
P.S. Brandon Flowers' debut solo album Flamingo is also a beautiful heartfelt love letter to the city of Las Vegas and is well worth a listen.
- Anna Lathem

Monday, November 4, 2019

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #230 - Ed and His Dead Mother (1993, dir. Jonathan Wacks)

In the early ‘90s, after falling completely in love with his character Mr. Pink in Reservoir Dogs, I became sort of fixated on consuming all the other films in which Steve Buscemi starred. That included a lot of late-1980s/early-1990s independent vehicles that were very hit and miss. Ed and His Dead Mother was one of the hits for me. It was one of the first Buscemi flicks that I watched period, let alone one of the first ones that I saw where Buscemi played a (relatively) normal schlub and not a psychotic, violent creep. Ed is also a comedy, which was (and really still is) my forte; my first love. And even though Buscemi was absolutely hilarious in most of his roles, he didn’t do a lot of comedic movies in his early days - at least not that I had seen. Buscemi’s turn as Ed, a sweetly naïve hardware salesman from small town Iowa is simultaneously charming and disturbing.
Ed is the third and final effort by American director Jonathan Wacks. Wacks is perhaps best known for his first film, the George Harrison (yes, THAT George Harrison) co-produced Powwow Highway, or for producing the cult favorite Repo Man. Buscemi plays the titular Ed Chilton, the ultimate mama’s boy. Ed receives a visit from a kind of shifty snake oil salesman (John Glover) from a company called Happy People, Ltd., who offer to reanimate his dead mother for a fee. After some consideration and a lot of resistance from his live-in Uncle Benny (Ned Beatty), Ed decides to go through with it. At first Ed is thrilled to have his mother back, as she picks up where she left off when she died, cooking and cleaning and generally helping Ed keep his life in order. But over time, as her behavior grows more and more irrational and bizarre, (hunting and killing living things for sustenance, for example), Ed must make a decision on what to do about mother.
The film itself is any indie film nut’s darling. In addition to Beatty, Glover and Buscemi himself, the film also stars a handful of other fairly well-known character actors, like Miriam Margolyes, Gary Farmer, Eric Christmas and especially Rance Howard, father of Ronnie and Clint, who plays the town preacher shopping at Ed’s store for tools to use to murder his unfaithful wife. The film also has one of the more curious set design choices I’ve ever seen. For the most part, the film looks like 1993, when it comes to wardrobe and hairstyles and things like that, but location-wise, the small Iowa town that’s supposed to be being portrayed here looks almost more 1953. Whether this was a conscious decision or a happy accident is beyond me, but somehow it works, adding yet another layer of strange to an already eccentric film.
Steve Buscemi is still one of my all-time favorites and I still tend to try to watch everything he appears in. Wacks, on the other hand, never directed another full length after Ed and His Dead Mother was released, most likely due to the poor box office activity of all three of his feature films. This would also explain why, up until 2018, the DVD was long out-of-print as well. This is a shame too, because I consider Ed to be kind of an indie classic. A deep cut that never tries to be anything it’s not. It’s just a quirky little comedy, in the tradition of Floundering or Living in Oblivion, with a little bit of a dark and macabre edge to it. Not a zombie film per se, but definitely a seasonally-appropriate film that offers a fresh take on portraying the undead.

- Jonathan Eagle

Monday, October 28, 2019

I'd Love to Turn You On #243 - Serge Gainsbourg - Histoire De Melody Nelson (1971)

  Melody Nelson lived fourteen autumns and fifteen summers when she was struck by the front end of a Silver Ghost. The driver, who we can only assume is some extension of the artist in question, was met with confusion and inexplicable lust. Melody survives the incident, but not without being subjected to the narrator’s bizarre, Nabokavian tendencies. Gainsbourg, with the help of partner Jean-Claude Vannier and guest musicians Alan Parker and Dave Richmond among others, spends just under 28 minutes unfolding a musical narrative to which there are many dark, euphoric, and ambiguous sides.
 Histoire De Melody Nelson is a landmark record looked upon by countless musicians as a sonic reference point, and by critics as a benchmark in the field of concept albums. It is perhaps the most influential French rock album ever released and has been covered, and to some extent copied countless times in the 48 years since its release. Beck, who notably paid homage to the album’s title track on his 2003 breakup bummer, Sea Change, called the album “one of the greatest marriages of rock band and orchestra” he’d ever heard. Upon listening, it’s not difficult to understand why. The record opens with a plodding, quiet bassline over jagged guitar riffs that are soon met with the sinister vocal delivery of Serge Gainsbourg relaying in spoken word the story of hitting Melody on her bicycle as he (or the narrator) haplessly drives his Rolls Royce. The darkness of it all becomes quickly euphoric as a swelling orchestra builds over the track’s otherwise brooding atmosphere. Highlighted by production that’s as rich as it is spacious, each musician is given their chance to shine here, but no one instrument distracts from or overshadows its counterparts. The tracks that follow act as vignettes, conveying the narrator’s increasing affinity for the album’s title character.
While the bookend tracks take most of the glory, the sheer musicianship flourishes throughout, without the end product feeling like homework or something that takes itself too seriously. The album’s studio playfulness leads to wonderful, slightly less musical moments. On the track “En Melody,” bursts of maniacal laughter break out over a ferocious drum beat as Gainsbourg relates the story of a plane crash that ultimately takes the life of young Melody. Violinist Jean-Luc Ponty adds a set of strings to the mix as tensions rise toward the fatal crash. The laughter coming from the voice of the titular character, played here by Gainsbourg’s then-wife Jane Birkin, was achieved by Birkin being tickled in the recording booth during the session. Her cackles add a layer of palpable anxiousness as Melody’s short story comes to a bloody, abrupt end.
Below the surface, Melody Nelson is a tremendously complicated exploration of masculinity and its dark, inherent sexuality viewed through the lens of tragedy - though Gainsbourg doesn’t really to seem to offer answers to this complexity here. Melody Nelson, like the strange relationship that unfolds through the album’s story, is another question mark in the life of the story’s recounter. Gainsbourg makes a point to state from the beginning that the story’s central characters are involved in this accident through naivety; in terms of childlike innocence via the story’s victim and by contrast, age and recklessness via its narrator. In the middle somewhere lie love and lust: two timeless themes that have been endlessly tackled by musician after musician. Perhaps Gainsbourg understood this to be heavily trod thematic ground and saw an opportunity to disclose a side of these feelings not often explored, and its provocativeness is nothing more than that. Or maybe the story is somewhat autobiographical and we’re getting a real look into the sinister, paranoid world of the musician in question. Ultimately that truth wouldn’t serve or enhance anyone’s understanding of the album, and its moral ambiguity factors heavily into the atmosphere of it all. The underlying story plays more of a supporting role to Gainsbourg and his band than it does actually try to say something about its subjects and their interactions.
The record’s cinematic nature was, at the time of release, unparalleled by anything else in its genre. While Melody Nelson isn’t exactly a rock opera in comparison to something like The Who’s Tommy, it does a brilliant job of creating a mood to match its subject and creates fertile ground for linear storytelling.

- Blake Britton (Initials B.B.)

Monday, October 21, 2019

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #229 - The Emigrants / The New Land (1971/1972, dir. Jan Troell)

When these two 3-hour Swedish films opened in Denver in the early 1970’s I would have been about 14. I honestly can’t believe my parents thought it was a good idea to take me to six hours of subtitled historical drama, but it is even more surprising that I sat through it, and remembered it fondly. I was thrilled to see that Criterion released them together in one package, and, that after three decades I would be able to revisit this experience. I spent the better part of my day off with Swedish farmer Karl Oskar (Max Von Sydow) and his bride Kristina (Liv Ullman) as they try to succeed in their native Sweden, but failing that, emigrate to mid-1800’s America and help settle Minnesota.
The first movie The Emigrants finds Karl Oskar toiling on his Father’s farm working like a dog, barely making ends meet, and finding it almost impossible to feed his new and growing family. At the same time, his brother Robert and other relatives are finding the Swedish environment of conservativism and religious piety oppressive. They start talking and reading about North America and the promise of freedom and success in the United States. Braving the emotional and financial consequences, a group of them decide to leave their home and make the voyage to America. That’s a neat little synopsis of the first three hours, but it does nothing to convey the overwhelming beauty and power of this great movie. Filmed with loving attention to detail, director Jan Troell puts the dirt under your fingernails, makes you smell the bread baking, and puts the thought in your mind and belly that this will be the last bread of the winter because the harvest is bad. Troell’s movie is in a class by itself. It’s hard to think of another movie that so vividly takes the audience into the lives of simple people so effectively. There is little romanticizing of their plight, everything is shown with a matter-of-fact clarity which conveys both the pain and drudgery of their existence, but also offers a fleeting, bittersweet glimpse at a not so distant past free of technological intrusion and environmental annihilation. The scenes and one’s emotions fly from backbreaking toil to exhilarating natural beauty with the fluency of life itself. The cinematic achievement is profound. Like so few movies (Boyhood is one of the only others that comes to mind), The Emigrants and its sequel The New Land actually capture the huge artistic ambition of showing a life lived.
The lengths of these movies might seem gratuitous, but as they unfold, it becomes clear that this is the only way to portray such overwhelming scale. The sequence showing the boat journey from Sweden to New York is forty minutes of harrowing aquatic nightmare, and when it ends you feel a physical relief as the actors set foot on solid ground. Likewise, the final scenes of The Emigrants show Karl Oskar trekking through unsettled Minnesota looking for the perfect spot to settle. Without any dialogue, it is actually possible to lose yourself in the fantasy of discovering America. It is one of so many beautiful and emotional moments. If you love this country, and believe its inherent greatness is connected to its natural beauty and those who first settled it, this is a rare experience.
 Many social issues are also tackled in these movies. Especially in The New Land, timely themes of immigration, racism, sexuality, class warfare, dirty business and Native American rights are shown, again with the seemingly spontaneous intrusion of true life. Perhaps because everything is from the Swedish perspective, rather than the jingoism we often see in modern Hollywood, it is possible to reflect upon these issues from multiple perspectives. The story climaxes with twin tragedies. First, younger brother Robert heads west to participate in the gold rush. He is exposed to greed, disease, theft, and death, before returning to the disapproval of his own family. It is the Horatio Alger myth in reverse. Then comes the controversial telling of a massacre (part of the Dakota Wars) of many of the settlers by the Native Americans who originally inhabited the land the Swedes were settling. A series of horrifying scenes of violence, retribution and execution bring in to focus one of the more unsettling aspects of the founding of our country and the treatment of its first citizens. Again, it is the non-Hollywood perspective that lends these scenes such veracity and makes them so hard to ignore or forget.
The Emigrants and The New Land are incredibly important films to see at this particular moment in America’s history. The ambitions of these films are as big as America’s endless horizons, yet they focus on the small details of humanity we all share. The endless vistas of this new country tamed by the tiny voice yearning for home.

- Paul Epstein

Monday, October 14, 2019

I'd Love to Turn You On #242 - The Cure - Disintegration (1989)

            You’ve almost certainly heard of the Cure. And you’ve almost certainly heard at least one song off their 1989 album Disintegration. It’s hardly obscure; after all, we’re talking about the album that brought us “Lovesong.” But there’s nothing quite like listening to the whole thing all the way through for the first time. It’s brooding. It’s melancholy. It’s like watching a thunderstorm happen in reverse. This album is quintessential for the Cure; it combines the darker, moodier feeling of early albums like Faith and Pornography with the accessibility of albums like Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me. There’s a reason this album is a classic, which still earns acclaim thirty years after its release. If you’re gonna get into the Cure, this is the album to start with.
            Disintegration was written at a rather turbulent time for the Cure. During its production, the band’s keyboardist and one of its founding members, Lol Tolhurst, left the band and was replaced by touring keyboardist Roger O’Donnell. Robert Smith, the band’s frontman, was suffering from depression and turned to psychedelic drugs to cope. His introspection about turning 30, and about the legacy of the band, also influenced the album; they’d begun writing poppy tunes to avoid being pigeonholed as simply a Goth band, but Smith now wanted to get back to their roots. This resulted in an album which kept some pop elements, but returned to a darker sound.
            To start with, there’s the opening track, “Plainsong.” It starts out quiet, with gently ringing bells, and then explodes rather suddenly into an atmospheric, warm, shimmery intro that hits like the first burst of sunlight through the clouds at the end of a storm. Then comes the guitar, dripping with melody. By the time the vocals hit, you’re fully immersed. Their echoes complement the atmosphere of the song perfectly, and Smith’s voice blends in, rather than being sung over the rest of it.
            After “Plainsong” is “Pictures of You.” Like much of the album, the keys, the shimmers, and guitar sounds from “Plainsong” carry over to this track, but Smith’s vocals take on more of a leading role. Then comes “Closedown,” which continues the feeling, but brings in more of Simon Gallup’s bass and Boris Williams’ drums. By this point you can tell the album has been building up to something, but you’re not sure what.
            And then there’s “Lovesong.” It’s an achingly sweet declaration of love, written as a wedding present to Smith’s wife (and high school sweetheart), Mary Poole. With its heart-melting lyrics and yearning melody, it’s easy to see why this song is so well-loved by fans and casual listeners alike. I can’t hear it without wanting to sing along; it’s beautiful. It starts out softer and subtler than previous tracks on the album, with a catchy bass line and quiet keys. Then come the vocals and the iconic guitar and keyboard riffs, adding a new energy to the album and giving it new depth. This song is where Disintegration goes from good to great.
            "Lovesong" is followed up by “Last Dance,” a heart-shattering track that brings back the shimmery atmosphere from earlier in the album, but makes it colder and sadder. The tender nostalgia in the lyrics is matched by Simon Gallup’s melodic bass and the reverb-heavy guitar that seems to drift down like snow over the listener. There’s a subtle desperation conveyed that sticks with you long after the song ends.
            And then there’s “Lullaby,” easily one of the top three tracks on Disintegration. It’s a bit of a departure from the earlier sound of the album, but it’s a perfect fit. The frantic, paranoid vocals are whispered rather than sung, fitting perfectly with the eerie lyrics, which describe being eaten by a spider man in a nightmare. It’s isolation, it’s terror, it’s helplessness, and it’s so strangely pretty you can’t help but listen again.
            Next comes “Fascination Street.” The reverb-laden guitars are back, echoing in a kind of organized chaos over the bass that draws you in. It’s a while before the vocals come in, which gives the listener a chance to get used to the building tension. But when the vocals hit, the tension only continues to build, which keeps the listener engaged and yearning for more.
This leads into the angst-ridden “Prayers for Rain,” a dark, gloomy track, with bleak imagery in its lyrics and simple but captivating guitar. Of all the tracks on Disintegration, this one is the closest to the deliciously nihilistic, desolate sound on earlier albums like Pornography. It’s one of my favorite tracks on the album. The way it takes the warm elements of earlier tracks on the album and darkens them keeps me coming back to this track over and over again.
“The Same Deep Water As You” starts out with the sound of thunder and rain, which sets the pleasant but melancholy tone for the whole song. It’s not as dark as “Prayers for Rain.” Instead it’s a warm and mellow type of yearning, in striking opposition to the next song on the album, “Disintegration,” like the calm before a storm. It has a way of washing over the listener, bringing back the shimmering atmosphere that characterizes so much of this masterpiece of an album.
The title track, “Disintegration,” is much more fast-paced. It has a frantic, desperate feel to it, which persists until the last chord. It’s about selfishness, deception, and endings, and you can’t help being pulled into the narrative by Robert Smith’s deeply emotional vocals. The album has felt like it was building up to something, and with this track, it finally comes to a head.
After this is “Homesick,” for which Lol Tulhurst provided the basis before he left the band. It’s full of dramatic, aching sadness. Like most of the Cure’s work, it’s melody-driven. Disintegration feels like a breakup album, and this feels like the aftermath to the ending “Disintegration” represents.
Finally, the album ends with “Untitled.” It has a happier, warmer tone, in contrast to “Disintegration” and “Homesick.” This provides some closure, and ensures the listener doesn’t leave feeling too broken down. It’s still sad, but it’s less intense, and the lyrics echo back to the perception of unreality expressed in “Pictures of You.”
The Cure were one of the biggest bands of their era, transcending genre and crafting a legacy that will endure for generations. Disintegration is an album that captures all their best elements, and it’s the album that changed me from a casual listener to a fan. It’s melancholy and it can be dark, but it’s intensely beautiful. Is there really any better album for when you’re feeling down?
- Madden Ott

Monday, October 7, 2019

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #228 - The Host (2006, dir. Bong Joon-ho)

            Meet the Park family, proprietors of a snack stand along the touristy Han River in the South Korean capital of Seoul:
Gang-Du, the eldest son of the generous and caring widower Hie-bong, Gang-Du’s wife left him with their precocious young daughter Hyun-seo years ago and left him emotionally arrested at that stage in his life.
Nam-Joo, Hie-bong’s youngest, a champion archer with a penchant for choking when the pressure is on.
Nam-il, the educated activist middle child who has been unable to find gainful employment despite his education and who drinks to cover up his anger.
Hie-bong, the gentle patriarch who is struggling to care for his family economically, and who is ready to fight to hold them together.
Hyun-seo, youngest of the Park clan, trying to succeed in school despite a difficult upbringing and a father who, though he tries his best, fails her in many ways.

While the Parks work their snack stand, miles away an American military scientist examines the contents of his laboratory with his Korean assistant, sees hundreds of bottles of chemicals he deems to be spoiled, and has a conversation that culminates in the words “That’s right, let’s dump them in the Han River” - we know this can’t be good. Sure enough, shortly the local fisherman begin to notice fewer fish, and some of the ones they catch seem… different, perhaps with more tails than they usually have, and also perhaps a little more bite-y than usual. A man preparing to jump off a bridge sees a huge black shape moving in the water but can’t tell what it is.
And instead of spending half the film building up to the reveal of the monster as in most monster classics (Alien, Jaws, King Kong), we’re suddenly right into the thick of it - a mutated, amphibious monster that resembles a giant, dangerous tadpole with legs and too many teeth is running rampant along the walkways of the Han, crushing and flinging aside onlookers, grabbing some with its mouth or its tail, going in and out of the water. Naturally this happens right by the Park family stand at the most crowded and busy time of day, and as the monster runs wild through the crowd Gang-Du sees young Hyun-seo in danger and springs into action intent on protecting his family, one of the few onlookers who dares to assault the beast instead of running away screaming. But the monster nabs Hyun-seo with its tail, flees back to the water and off to its lair. Shortly afterward those who have come into contact with the monster are quarantined by the military because of their exposure to a virus the beast is carrying, and this includes the entire Park family. And so begins the meat of the film - the family coming together over their longstanding personal difficulties to find Hyun-seo. Which means that they not only have to find the monster's hidden lair in the city, but also evade the authorities who want them locked up and away from the general populace as they prepare to test a new chemical agent to destroy the beast - and possibly sell it for chemical warfare in the future.
Gang-Du (Bong regular Kang-ho Song) is both funny and touching as the eldest son, a slacker father lamenting his departed wife and dotingly focused on his daughter Hyun-seo (superbly played by Ko Asung), suddenly awakened out of his torpor to rescue his captured child. The film follows out many threads of the progress of different family members - Gang-du’s younger archer sister, his activist younger brother, and his father Hie-bong trying to keep them all together (and who, like his surprisingly active slacker son, is a real fighter when it comes to the monster). And of course there's resourceful young Hyun-seo, cool-headed under threat of being eaten by the mutant tadpole threatening all of Seoul.
Bong Joon-Ho's ease in genre - and also rejection of it - is a major plus here. Like all his films (that I've seen), he starts with what appears to be a straightforward genre piece and slowly sends it off the rails until it's something else entirely. Is this a thriller about a government cover-up? A family drama? A giant monster horror film? A black comedy? The answer is yes to all of those things. And the reason I've spent so much time talking about the family is because Bong took the time to think about them as well - he invests what could be a tawdry CGI-centric genre piece with real, flawed, believable people (helped immensely by an excellent cast who make us care about their foibles, about their problems), and helps us believe it when a giant killer tadpole snatches their daughter to its hidden lair to be eaten at a later time.
If you need a great horror film for your October viewing, check this one. If you need to see the earlier work of this year's Palme d'Or winning director, check this one (and also check out the superb Memories of Murder, itself another genre-defying genre film - this time a police procedural) before you go see the excellent Parasite when it opens. But really, Bong Joon-Ho hasn't stepped wrong in anything I've yet seen - I started with The Host and have yet to be disappointed, and you won't be either.
-         Patrick Brown