Monday, June 27, 2016

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

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

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

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

-          John Parsell

Monday, June 20, 2016

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

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

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

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

- Patrick Brown

Monday, June 13, 2016

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

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

-         Patrick Brown

Monday, June 6, 2016

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

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

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

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

-          John Parsell

Monday, May 30, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

- Paul Epstein

Monday, May 23, 2016

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

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

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

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

-         Paul Epstein

Monday, May 16, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #154 - Ween – Quebec

Ween released Quebec in August of 2003, when I first worked at Manifest Discs & Tapes in Greenville, South Carolina. At that time, Manifest’s in-store music came from a CD player equipped with a one hundred disc carousel containing a selection of the best recent releases. Usually, managers would press “random” at the beginning of each shift and we’d start listening to a newly configured arrangement of those albums. I’ll never forget the feeling of walking the floor, helping customers, restocking the bins, and alphabetizing each genre while listening to new albums all the way through. This album played probably five times before I realized that it wasn’t a compilation of various artists and when I did, I was shocked to learn that Ween was the band behind all of these songs.

Quebec snuck up out of nowhere and suddenly reminded me of the bent, brilliant alchemy at the core of Ween’s best work. I had listened to some Ween albums with friends over the years, but I didn’t feel informed enough to consider myself a fan. I can understand very well why I initially mistook Quebec for a movie soundtrack or some other kind of compilation looking back at the three opening songs. The album starts off strong with “It’s Gonna Be a Long Night,” a hard driving, blues-rock rager containing the inspired threat, “don’t call your mother - don’t call your priest - don’t call your doctor - call the police.” Many have heard elements of Motörhead in this song, but upon my first listen, it called to mind the handiwork of an imaginary supergroup composed of Jimi Hendrix and Body Count-era Ice-T. Following with a complete change of pace, tone, and direction comes a dreamy, warped synth-pop bossa nova tribute to Ween’s antidepressant of choice. Simulating the serene, artificial calm brought on by SSRIs, “Zoloft” acquaints the audience with Quebec’s mercurial nature. Rounding out the trio of openers, “Transdermal Celebration” first struck my ears as one of the best Foo Fighters songs I’d ever heard. I was sure that I was hearing well-produced, radio-ready, guitar-based alt-rock that would soon be a Top 40 hit. As Quebec progresses, songs begin to fall into more familiar patterns for Ween by holding down left field novelty territory with “Happy Colored Marbles” and “Fancy Pants” while exploring the band’s penchant for seemingly sincere folk-rock and psychedelia in the form of “I Don’t Want It,” “Tried & True,” and “Captain.” A highlight from the album’s second half, “The Fucked Jam,” would probably top a number of people’s lists for “most annoying song ever” with its stop/start gimmick, but for some reason I have grown to love it. Composed of only a propulsive bass line, a minimalist drum track, and something that sounds like a small robotic rodent rapping indecipherably, this song epitomizes Ween’s knack for spinning great songs from unlikely elements on Quebec.

Ween established a reputation for crafting unpredictably creative and enjoyably perverse music over seven albums from 1990-2000 and simultaneously locked in a devoted cult following. In the last fifteen years, Ween has released only two studio albums: Quebec and 2007’s La Cucaracha. On account of this timing, Quebec falls outside of the window most listeners consider to be peak Ween, but it works equally well as an introduction to Ween’s offbeat magic and as a victory lap for fans more familiar with the albums from the ‘90s. Unlike some of Ween’s best loved albums like 12 Golden Country Hits or The Mollusk, Quebec lacks a unifying concept or stylistic thrust, but more than makes up for it with the range, variety, and quality of this rewarding collection of songs.

- John Parsell

Monday, May 9, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #140 - Multiplicity (1996, dir. Harold Ramis)

Doug 2 (talking on the phone with Doug 1) “Who the hell is this?”
Doug 1 “It’s me, it’s you know, it’s you, it’s us. You know who it is”

Have you ever wondered what it would be like if you could clone yourself and be able to literally be in two places at once? While you’re at it why not make it three places at once, or four for that matter! If you answered yes to that query then I have the movie for you. Harold Ramis’ comedy from 1996, Multiplicity, explores the real world consequences of just such a situation. This popcorn flick is quite possibly one of the most entertaining and overlooked masterpieces of 90’s comedy.

The story follows Doug Kinney (Michael Keaton), an overworked contractor who is having serious issues juggling his work life, his family life, and his desperate need for alone time. Right from the beginning of the film Doug is being forced into taking on even more than he was currently doing. He’s missing milestone events in his children’s lives. He can’t keep an eye on all of his issues at work. His wife, Laura (Andie MacDowell), isn’t happy with the amount of time he has to spend with her and the kids, and he can’t seem to fix the water heater. As his life is fumbling toward a train wreck – one that I think we can all relate to – a solution presents itself at the Gemini Institute. He’s working on a renovation of a scientific research facility when he has a bit of a breakdown. After his meltdown he's approached by a scientist who, after listening to his problems for a brief moment, offers him a “miracle.” He offers to clone him which could give him the “miracle of time” by basically Xeroxing him.

With very little coaxing Doug is completely on board and after a brief science montage Doug 2 is born. The first interaction between the two is the gloriously comedic grappling with the question of which which is which? Who is the real Doug? On the first day with Doug 2, Doug finds that his clone has taken the initiative and control of his job, giving him the time to watch his son play football (even ending up coaching), cook dinner, and even some extra time to spend with his wife. After a month or so Doug realizes that while Doug 2 goes to work he is basically doing all of the house work and keeping the kids under control, which is still leaving him with no alone time and he is just as stressed out as before. The first clone worked out so well that Doug decides that life could be even better with another clone, thus Doug 3 is brought into the picture. Just as before, this new clone takes more pressure off of Doug, but it isn't long before the logistics of having more than one of himself catches up with him and everything starts to spiral out of control quickly (and hilariously) and Doug starts to wonder where he fits into this new life.

One of the strengths of the film is the fact that although it is a comedy, it does tackle the existential questions that arise from the concept of cloning fairly well. As we get to know the clones a little better they seem to be representations of certain parts of Doug's psyche; his masculine side, his feminine side, etc. While the clones are copies of Doug they seem to be more segmented aspects of Doug’s entire personality, and thus they execute Doug's life the way that that part of his inner dialogue would, which creates a variety of interesting and hilarious issues for Doug.

While the premise and the execution of the narrative are fantastic, the real power of the film lies in the acting, more specifically Michael Keaton's insane ability to play four (yes four - you will have to see the movie to find out...) different aspects of the same character. As far as the other actors and actresses, Andie MacDowell is fantastic as Doug's wife Laura, Harris Yulin is perfect as the somewhat hair-brained "mad" genetic scientist, John de Lancie is completely annoying as Doug’s work nemesis Ted, and Eugene Levy provides some amazing humor and levity as the constantly tardy and haphazard contractor Vic. While all of these supporting characters are superbly crafted and well-acted the true power of the film lies in Michael Keaton’s ability to sell all of the different clones and the original Doug. Keaton’s portrayal of the different Dougs is fascinating and captivating, by creating subtle differences within each clone's character they truly start to become their own separate person and it is crazy to watch!

An art film Multiplicity is not, but if you are a fan of any of Harold Ramis' work - Caddyshack (1980), Ghostbusters (1984), or Groundhog Day (1993) (to name a few of his masterpieces) - or any number of other amazing comedies that he wrote and/or directed, then this is a film to be missed at your own peril. Multiplicity is a perfectly executed comedic journey through the trials and tribulations of dealing with cloning in order to have more time. It sounds outlandish, but in execution you barely think about just how ridiculous the entire concept is because the issues are just too easy to relate to, and I can't recommend this film enough! So pick it up and learn the answers to all of the logistical questions that arise from literally being able to be in two or more places at once!

-         Edward Hill

Monday, May 2, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #153 - Amy Rigby – 18 Again

Have you heard of Amy Rigby? If so, you’re in a rare 1% - probably less, actually - of discerning rock music listeners of the late 1990s. If not, welcome to her world of relationships gone sour, mod housewives, chronic underemployment, the travails of aging and motherhood, and bookstore crushes. Rigby, born in Pittsburgh before relocating to New York City as a teenager, married and had a daughter with dB’s drummer Will Rigby, played in a couple bands (The Last Roundup, The Shams) that got some notice, divorced, and eventually remarried singer-songwriter Wreckless Eric, with whom she now lives in upstate New York. I mention this data because this feeds directly into what she does with her music and how she makes it. From the liner notes of her own acclaimed but little-heard solo debut album Diary of a Mod Housewife Rigby puts it this way: "I've been a mod housewife since 1993, when I decided I was not going to get down on my hands and knees and scrub the bathroom floor unless I could get up on stage and sing about it. I didn't want to fight about sex and laundry with my husband unless I could turn it into a song. Somehow going to work at a crappy job made more sense if I could look at it as... research. Oh, I'd played music for years, but that was with friends, for fun. This was sanity."

She recorded three albums for Koch Records in the wake of her divorce with Will Rigby – Diary of a Mod Housewife (1996), Middlescence (1998), and The Sugar Tree (2000) – all which are currently out of print, and have been collapsed to this handy guide that pulls just about evenly from all three. It was released when they were in print with a notice on the cover to trumpet a new song and alternate version contained within – both excellent – as bait to get you to buy these 18 songs again, but it’s now most valuable for being the primary artifact available containing music from that era. Back then, she was inaccurately tagged as alt-country, and while it’s true that she copped from country tunes as much as anyone – a favorite set of lyrics of hers goes: “Summertime in 83, the last time I took LSD/ listening to Patsy Cline and Skeeter Davis really blew my mind” – she’s only alt-country by association. She likes the storytelling and the harmonies sure, but her bag of tricks (and her gift for lyrics) is way bigger than most songwriters coming from country or folk, or just about anywhere really. With her strong voice – as plain and natural, expressive and unhistrionic as Bill Withers, but like him observing the everyday in her songs, though for a very different time and mindset – she bounces from the faux-lounge number “Cynically Yours” to copping Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm” for her own “20 Questions” to the jazzy tune about being an accessory to murder “Keep It To Yourself” to waxing Beatles-esque about family life on “What I Need” to rocking out all over the place, often aided by crafty production from Eliot Easton of The Cars.

If you’ve never heard her, start right now by checking out “Cynically Yours” – probably the funniest song she’s yet written (though, honestly, there’s a lot of competition). It’s the real bait to hook you in to the album nowadays with those other albums gone, all 3:15 of it. But it’s more than just funny, it skewers the dysfunctional romantic malaise of many smart young people in love. And it’s also nice to see her recognizing and desiring to outgrow that cynicism in “Time for Me to Come Down,” where she’s learning how to get out of her protective emotional shell. And if for some reason “Cynically Yours” doesn’t grab you, try the next cut, the shoulda-been-a-hit “Beer and Kisses,” one of the reasons people think of her as country-related. A chorus that goes “Get home from work, put on the light,” (and in a later verse, ‘get in a fight’) “sit on the couch, spend the whole night there” is aimed straight at the heart of the middle class, but spun with a touch of wit that most mainstream singers rarely risk in their songs except as the climax of a tune. Poppier writers tend to hinge their songs on one line as good as that, but like John Prine, who she resembles in a few ways, Rigby’s songs are teeming with lyrics that bring a smile to the lips even as she’s saying something real. But honestly you can start anywhere here, and why not right at the beginning? “All I Want” is Amy in a nutshell – she’s in love, her man’s not treating her as well as she deserves, and she’s gonna sing about it in a song less hopeful but every bit as ambivalent take on romance as Joni Mitchell’s song of the same title.

After her three records for Koch, Rigby switched labels and released two more great ones - Til the Wheels Fall Off (2003), which features delights like “Are We Ever Gonna Have Sex Again?” and the poignant “Don’t Ever Change” and “All the Way to Heaven,” and Little Fugitive (2005), home to the classic “Dancing With Joey Ramone,” plus her continued analysis of adult relationships with “The Trouble With Jeanie” (in which the trouble is that she really likes her ex’s new girlfriend a lot), “So Now You Know” and so forth. She married Wreckless Eric – a gifted singer and songwriter of no small wit himself – in 2008, followed shortly the release of the lo-fi Wreckless Eric & Amy Rigby that same year, 2010’s all-covers Two-Way Family Favourites, and 2012’s A Working Museum, each of which (except the covers album of course) split songwriting between the two, and all currently out of print as well. And like her own solo works, each one of the albums (except the covers album maybe) is excellent and worth tracking down. Village Voice critic Robert Christgau said in his review of her fifth album, Little Fugitive: “It really is quite simple--no one of any gender or generation has written as many good songs in Rigby's realistic postfolk mode since she launched Diary of a Mod Housewife in 1996.” He’s right. You can’t step wrong with any album that’s got her name on the cover, but start here and then work your way out to the rest.
-         Patrick Brown

Monday, April 25, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #139 - The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986, dir. Tobe Hooper)

In 1974, director Tobe Hooper released The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a nightmarish and intense horror film about a family of murderous cannibals that, with a budget of less than $100,000, raked in over $30 million in the U.S. alone and now stands high on almost any list of the all-time great horror films. Despite the film’s reputation (and title) its on-screen violence is actually quite mild – the makers had hoped to secure a PG rating – with the very effective result of leaving the more brutal aspects of the film’s violence to the viewer’s imagination. Hooper has long insisted that the film is a dark comedy, but because of the harrowing intensity that ended up earning it an R rating it can be hard for some viewers to laugh – except maybe as a release of tension. The success of the film lead Hooper and his co-screenwriter to start thinking up a sequel, but it kept getting back-burnered, shelved, and otherwise delayed until Hooper scrapped his initial sequel idea, connected with the producers of the notorious Cannon Films, and brought on a new screenwriter to create The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.

For some reason, this film is decidedly less well-liked by most than the original. Not me though. Situated right in the middle of the 80s as the slasher (and sequel) era was giving way to some great horror-comedy (Re-Animator, Evil Dead 2, Return of the Living Dead, etc.) and featuring a promotional poster that mocked the then-hot film The Breakfast Club and bore the tagline “After a decade of silence… the buzzz is back,” the sequel seemed poised to be a worthy box office draw honoring the original classic. Add to this that it also utilized the talents of screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson (star of the 60s underground hit David Holman’s Diary, writer/director of the Dennis Hopper semi-documentary The American Dreamer, and writer of 1984’s Paris, Texas) and brought original director Tobe Hooper back into the fold along with actor Jim Siedow (reprising his role of The Cook from the original film). Carson took the comedic subtext of Hooper’s earlier film into something that openly satirized things that Hooper had been implicitly referring to – the Vietnam War (and now, its aftermath), The Cook ranting about how hard the competition is in capitalism for a working class chef, and so forth. Both are subtext in the 1974 film but very much on the surface here. And where the performances of the original strove for documentary-like realism, here the murderous family (plus Dennis Hopper as the avenging angel Lefty) are portrayed as over-the-top, seemingly designed solely to bring chuckles – or at least incredulity – throughout. And then there’s the blood – lots of it. This being the 80s, Hooper enlisted special effects master Tom Savini to provide the requisite amount of gore for the film (in addition to subtler work, like the aged face of the 137 year-old Grandpa), distributed in an equally over-the-top show to match the unhinged performances on tap.

And yet – even with its decidedly unrealistic tones, even with its over-the-top gore, even with its satirical flair, the film manages to be nearly as unnerving as the original. And that’s mainly due to our central character, the radio DJ Stretch (Caroline Williams in a mostly thankless role). She’s a late-night DJ who unwittingly overhears a murder by the family and is subsequently stalked by them. Her down-to-earth performance grounds the film from flying off into becoming the “geek show” that Roger Ebert (who hated it) saw in it. When she’s in danger, we’re scared. When a couple of the family members visit her at the radio station, it’s terrifyingly creepy. As the film progresses and she tracks the family to their underground lair it becomes something of an amped up remake of the first film’s climactic scenes (and a flash forward to Rob Zombie’s far less effective homage, House of 1000 Corpses), in which she’s imprisoned, tormented, and tries to escape while pursued by the chainsaw wielding killer Leatherface and his deranged brother. It’s easy to laugh it off if you want, but if you let it the film gets under your skin and becomes nearly as effective as the blunt nightmare of the original film.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 was plagued with issues during its creation – money to make the film ebbed and flowed with the fortunes of producers Golan and Globus of Cannon Films (a low-budget studio that’s the subject of the entertaining documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films). Hooper delivered a film he figured was in line with the violence quotient of the day but was slapped with an X by the ratings board, choosing to release the film unrated which lead to its distribution being severely hampered in the process. So in the same year that the utterly mediocre Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI managed to draw nearly 20 million out of the pockets of filmgoers, this one – with intelligent (if not exactly artistic) ambitions – barely scraped out enough to make its budget back and make a few extra bucks. Dennis Hopper – right then in the middle of a run of films that included an Academy Award nomination for Hoosiers and other honors for his role in Blue Velvet – is alleged to have said that this was the worst film he’d ever been in. By contrast, Bill Moseley, who had the role of Leatherface’s brother Chop-Top, has named the role as his favorite of his own. I’m definitely in Moseley’s camp – not only does he turn in a truly effective performance, the film as a whole finds the perfect pitch of dark humor and nightmarish terror and stands as one of the highlights of 1980s horror/comedies.

-         Patrick Brown