Monday, October 24, 2016

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #151 – From Beyond (1986, dir. Stuart Gordon)

In the 1980’s Hollywood rediscovered the horror genre. After several decades of murderers, biker gangs, hillbillies and mutually assured nuclear destruction, Hollywood rediscovered monsters. Special effects were back in a big way, and this last pre-C.G.I. period of make-up innovation is, in some ways the most thrilling iteration of the squishiest art. Riding high on the success of his first major film Re-Animator, director Stuart Gordon re-gathered the same stars (Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton) and some tempting source material in a seven-page H.P. Lovecraft story, and headed to a studio in Rome to make a real old-fashioned monster movie. He succeeded in grand fashion.

The basic premise of the film is a scientific experiment gone horribly awry. Dr. Edward Pretorius (Ted Sorel, and yes, that is the same name as the mad scientist in Bride Of Frankenstein) has invented a machine, the resonator, which, when activated, stimulates the human pineal gland, which grows and becomes a “third eye.” Once engaged, the resonator allows people to see into another dimension - and also allows the inhabitants of that dimension access to ours. Once the veil between the everyday world and “the beyond” is ripped away, things really start to happen. This alternate dimension seems to be the place where the most disturbing aspects of human behavior reside. Not only are there translucent eels with huge teeth floating around in the air, plague-like swarms of flesh-eating bees, gigantic tape worms, and indescribable humanoid slime beasts, but, under the influence of the resonator, people on our side of the dimensional divide experience heightened sexual arousal. Thus the scientists and psychiatrists involved in experiments with the resonator are exposed to the horrors of another dimension as well as their own repressed sexuality: a toxic and highly entertaining combination.

The majority of From Beyond takes place over a couple of nights while psychiatrist Dr. Katherine McMichaels (Barbara Crampton) forces Pretorius’ assistant, Crawford Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs) to recreate the experiments he and his mentor performed with the resonator. The results predictably get out of control almost immediately…strike that…immediately, and we are exposed to every manner of sliming, oozing, biting, brain-eating (greatest brain-eating scenes ever!), dismembering grotesquerie known to film. The erotic subtext adds an even more enticing/repulsive element to the proceedings as we are treated to some of the best blonde-on-monster sex scenes ever caught on celluloid. The monstrous eroticism of some of the scenes are on a par with those in Alien. Eventually the resonator starts to show signs of sentience, and the opening between “here” and “beyond” is in danger of becoming permanently opened. To save the world, and stop herself from her own basest instincts, Dr. McMichaels destroys the resonator.

From Beyond succeeds so well because it is entirely unflinching in its exploration of the darkest themes. It doesn’t turn away from any of the most disturbing gross-outs. When a film does this it can go one of two ways; either we turn away in disgust and anger, or we hoot in appreciation and wonderment. For me, From Beyond is in the second category. The era of great horror movies that arose in the 80’s is best defined by this very struggle: how far is too far? The deciding factor is, surprisingly, humor. Like Re-Animator, this film also keeps a wink-wink attitude about the horrors unfolding on screen, allowing the viewer to be in on the joke instead of the butt of it. Stuart Gordon helped define where the line was in the modern era, probably to the overall detriment of the craft; however witnessing the cutting edge in its most visceral form is quite a thrill. From Lovecraft’s thought-provoking premise, to Gordon’s unflinching realization, to the over-the-top special effects, to the garish lighting and music, From Beyond is at the top of the heap of extreme(ly) scary movies.

-         Paul Epstein

Monday, October 17, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #164 - New York Dolls - In Too Much Too Soon

In 1973, the New York Dolls debuted with their self-titled album, acclaimed as a success by many who loved their live presence on the New York scene and cited as proof that “you had to be there” by detractors who felt that the band’s manic energy was dulled by producer Todd Rundgren. It’s tough, in listening now, to understand what these detractors were hearing – it’s a raw, roaring album, cleanly recorded and yet still a challenging listen because the guitars are so loud and upfront. After the album failed to light up the charts the way the band (and their label) had hoped, they were given another shot, enlisting producer George “Shadow” Morton, best known for his work with girl group the Shangri-Las (especially the sound-effects laden hits “Remember (Walking in the Sand)” and “Leader of the Pack”), but also the early Janis Ian hit “Society’s Child” and albums by Vanilla Fudge. His intermittent work as an outsider in the music industry and diverse tastes (plus his sense of humor) made him an ideal choice to produce the Dolls for their follow up album In Too Much Too Soon. In his words: “The Dolls had energy, sort of a disciplined weirdness. I took them into the room as a challenge. I was bored with the music and the business. The Dolls can certainly snap you out of boredom.”
            Morton did several things in producing that Rundgren didn’t in his approach to recording the Dolls: making their sound poppier (to the disdain of some and the delight of others), moving David Johansen’s vocals up and leveling the still-raw guitars out in the mix, advising the band not to settle with a competent take and to push themselves (this despite his saying “I let them do what they naturally did and merely tried to catch some of it on tape”), and, crucially, bringing his own history to bear on the music, adding sound effects, humor, and his direct connection to 60s classics the Dolls loved and grew up on. So if the band came up short on new material for their sophomore effort, the group and Morton where quick to follow the lead of the first album’s ace Bo Diddley cover (“Pills”) and find another batch of songs that could’ve been tailor-made for them to round out the record to feature length around the reworked demos and new cuts they were recording. And it’s here that both band and producer shine. As good as revived older Dolls songs like “Babylon,” “Puss ‘n’ Boots,” and especially the closing “Human Being” (plus Johnny Thunders’ excellent new contribution
New York Dolls in 1974
“Chatterbox”) are, they’re given a run for their money by the way the band fully inhabits the four cover songs here: “Bad Detective” (originally by The Coasters), “Stranded in the Jungle” (originally by The Jay Hawks), “Don’t Start Me Talkin’” (originally by Sonny Boy Williamson), and “(There's Gonna Be A) Showdown” (originally by Archie Bell). With Johansen up in the mix, he doesn’t sound like he’s trying to outshout the guitars and his vocal flexibility is on display throughout, particularly when he gets into the character of one of the covers. But that’s not to say that the guitars (Sylvain Sylvain and Johnny Thunders (who also takes a great, sneering vocal on his tune)) are pushed down too far – the album still retains a rawness and energy despite the more professional sheen Morton imbues the recording with. And throughout, the band’s writing continues the ideas put forth on the debut in classics like “Personality Crisis” and “Trash” – ideas that put them in line with the coming wave of punk rock. If the rest of society considers them “Trash” who cares? They know that they’re worth a damn and still a “Human Being” who demand your respect – and it’s this all-embracing humanity that powers their music through two classic albums and even into their mid-2000s reunion (but that’s another story…).
Shadow Morton with New York Dolls
            There’s a reason their early albums, after failing to break through as hits, have remained touchstones for decades – mainly because they’re great, but also because Johansen and co. really had something worthwhile to say. On the debut, sometimes this is obscured by Todd Rundgren’s insistence on delivering the raw product he’d seen in the band’s live performance. Here, with In Too Much Too Soon, Shadow Morton finds a way to retain that edge and yet sweeten things enough to make an even more memorable recording. They’re both classics, but for the uninitiated, In Too Much Too Soon is the easier way in and in the long run, it may end up remembered as the better record.

-          Patrick Brown

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Concert Review: Lampedusa: Concerts for Refugees 10/6/16 at the Boulder Theater

Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Buddy Miller, and the Milk Carton Kids kicked off their 11-stop “Lampedusa: Concerts for Refugees” tour with a tremendous, intimate performance Thursday night at the Boulder Theater. Seated together on stage, the artists swapped stories, played one another’s songs, and joked with the audience giving the show a balanced atmosphere of lightheartedness while still addressing the more serious purpose of the tour: shedding light on the continuing global refugee crisis of over 65 million people forcibly displaced from their homes.  After spending time in Ethiopia last year with the Jesuit Refugee Service, Emmylou Harris took it upon herself to champion this critical cause and even named the tour after the Italian island Lampedusa off the Sicilian coast that serves as a waypoint for refugees from North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia wanting to enter Europe. 

Taking turns playing songs by themselves and at times together, Emmylou Harris was as ravishing and fantastic as I’ve ever seen her, Earle sounded terrific especially in a beautiful performance of “Pilgrim,” Buddy Miller’s guitar playing was magnificent, and the Milk Carton kids were an excellent complement to their storied counterparts, bringing a gorgeous acoustic sound and sprinkling in witty banter that had the audience and fellow artists laughing throughout the entirety of the evening.  Hearing this lineup together on stage was truly a treat and a unique experience that will likely never happen again in quite the same manner.  This short tour through the month of October is surely one not to be missed and is a terrific opportunity to support an organization working to address a serious and deadly humanitarian crisis.

            -Kevin Powers

Monday, October 10, 2016

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #150 – Slam (1998, dir. Marc Levin)

That’s “slam” as in “poetry slam” but it’s also “slam” as in “the slammer,” and this 1998 film that won the Camera d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival (the award for Best first feature) and the Grand Jury Prize for dramatic film at Sundance invests considerable energy in both of those locales. Slam tells the story of Ray Joshua (played by the charismatic Saul Williams), a resident of the projects near Washington D.C. who writes rhymes in his spare time but has no specific aspiration to do anything more than write and remain a low-level drug dealer to make ends meet.

Finding himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, he winds up going to jail, accused of murder, and here the film takes off. Where prior to this we’ve seen him as a gentle soul in a rough area – several early scenes find him reciting his poetry to the neighborhood children and encouraging them to create their own work – he’s suddenly thrown into a very hard situation. As he’s being processed he quickly gets the lowdown on the harsh realities of prison life as he’s brought into the system. The lawyer assigned to his case lays out the options – none of them remotely fair – and sums up his situation with the brutal, direct lines “you’re a victim, brother. You’re black, you’re young, you come from Southeast, you’re in the inner city. You don’t have a chance.” This scene is followed immediately by a similar one with a prison guard laying out statistics of incarcerated black men in the D.C. area and bluntly telling him that he has no friends inside and that he will stay alive only if he keeps his head down and minds his own business. But it’s not all hopeless – after a time negotiating the clutches of rival prison gangs he finds that his words help him out of a sticky situation and into a writing class taught by Lauren Bell (played by Sonja Sohn), who recognizes his talent and encourages him, when he is released, to seek out the slam poetry scene where she’s found her own shot of redemption.

After a deus ex machina gets Ray back on the streets, he spends time with Bell, learning about her own hard past and how she’s used it as material for her present as a teacher and poet and helped vault herself out of the traps in which she had found herself. He’s inspired by her scene and her story – and her. And as the film works toward its climactic poetry reading – how often can you say that this is where the dramatic thrust of a film is pointed? – it dances around the complications of their relationship. What happens if he ends up back in prison on the charges leveled against him? What if he doesn’t? Is she ready to engage in a serious relationship with him? It’s here that the film invests the least of its energy, perhaps because it knew that to make the relationship scenes as serious, as realistic as its prison and poetry scenes it would have to believe in them the way it does in those. And maybe it doesn’t, but it smartly avoids the inherent problems by keeping them ambiguous and offering no easy solutions, even while its optimism and belief in the power of art remain the engine that powers the film.

The film moves from one strength to another, its earnestness worn guilelessly on its sleeve as it transitions from the hard realism of the prison sequence to the documentary vibe of the later poetry slams. And Williams is magnetic throughout, both in his street/gang persona earlier and believable as a man transformed by poetry in the film’s later scenes. Director Marc Levin keeps things simple and mostly lets his actors and the script he co-wrote with Williams (and three others) do the talking – and he’s rewarded with superb performances from Williams and Sohn especially, though other characters filling out the film (many of them acquaintances of Williams through the slam scene) have their shining moments as well. The film is smart in its avoidance of easy answers, it avoids clichéd character progressions and conflicts (even if it sometimes feels less believable as a result – I doubt poetry could end inter-prison conflicts or gang warfare outside) and it knows what its strengths are and puts its energies there to create a bracing, entertaining, and even inspirational film.

-         Patrick Brown

Monday, October 3, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #163 - Savoy Brown – Hellbound Train

In 1972, the expectation of most rock groups was that they would produce upbeat, hit-oriented records which record labels could introduce to teenyboppers through radio play. Savoy Brown had succeeded at exactly this formula with their 1971 album Street Corner Talking, with its irresistible radio hit “Tell Mama. They had transcended their reputation as a serious English, blues-boogie band in the vein of Ten Years After or early Fleetwood Mac, and reached the charts with a killer slide guitar driven floor-filler that never fails to quicken the pulse - even today. So, one would be forgiven for expecting their next (7th) album to follow this lead with more hits. You would be wrong, because leader/guitarist/songwriter Kim Simmonds instead offers up one of the darkest, moodiest blues rock albums of the entire era. Clearly disturbed by the Vietnam War and the direction of the culture, Simmonds gives us seven visions of a world on the edge of apocalypse.

Musically, Hellbound Train takes a bold step back from the band’s previously guitar-heavy approach. It leans much more heavily on Paul Raymond’s Hammond organ playing, Andy Silvester’s melodic bass lines and Dave Walker’s Fogerty-esque vocals. In fact, more than anything else, Hellbound Train reminds me of a sludgy Bayou Country, with its longish songs that take you to a dark, yet familiar place. Standout tracks “Troubled By These Days and Times,” “It’ll Make You Happy” and “If I Could See An End” advance the themes of societal dread, relationships breaking apart and end times approaching. Simmonds’ guitar playing remains restrained and tasteful, avoiding the heroics he had become famous for earlier in his career. He doesn’t really fully bust out until the 9-minute title track which immediately takes its place among a small group of songs that define a specific genre of rock music. What is that genre called? Fuckin’ Awesome!

The song “Hellbound Train” shares the dais with other songs like “Stairway To Heaven,” “Layla,” “Loan Me A Dime” or “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” in that it is immediately “epic” in theme, structure and length, lending an air of expectation and gravitas. Savoy Brown does not disappoint as the song slowly rises from a swamp of organ and a plodding drum beat into a frightening tale of a train on an out of control ride to the netherworld (U.S. involvement in South East Asia). Amazingly Simmonds, who was not really known for his restraint as an arranger, builds this song masterfully; first establishing the slow theme before ceding the spotlight to an ominous organ solo, during which there is a sly boost in the overall volume of the track. Throughout the first five minutes the tempo slowly rises until it bursts forth into a frightening gallop as Simmonds finally steps up with an amazing, wiry, echoey, guitar solo that drives the song into an explosive jam. He seems to be getting further and further out to the point of mania when the song falls off the cliff into a black hole of silence - just like the end of side one of Abbey Road. It is a profoundly jarring moment, and an amazingly apt metaphor for the end of the 60’s dream.

Unlike Abbey Road, Hellbound Train is not a brightly polished gem with million dollar engineers and the best possible production. No, Hellbound Train is a unique view of the end of an era through a dark and muddy prism. Savoy Brown was a hard charging blues outfit (still touring with Kim Simmonds in the lead) with a decidedly working class view of the world. It is precisely this non-exalted viewpoint that makes their take on things such a singular one. They were looking at heavy stuff from an average guy’s point of view and somehow they came up with an album that is both heavy and completely understandable.

-         Paul Epstein

Monday, September 26, 2016

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #149 – Sneakers (1992, dir. Phil Alden Robinson)

In the fall of 1992, the writers of WarGames, the director of Field of Dreams, and an incredible ensemble cast created an irresistible combination of suspense, adventure, and comedy. Sneakers tells the story of Martin Bishop, who, as a student in the late ‘60s, dabbled in proto-hacking and political prankery just enough to attract the attention of the police, which triggered him to go underground to avoid capture. To make a living Bishop assembles an unlikely team of highly skilled individuals with similar histories with law enforcement to help him test security systems of Bay Area businesses and organizations. Bishop and his team start working for a mysterious new client who throws them into the middle of a conspiracy to possess a technology that threatens to destroy the ability to keep any information secret.

Director Phil Alden Robinson guides the extraordinary cast through an expertly paced adventure based on Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes’ sharp script, which is enriched with details drawn from the worlds of information technology, hacking, and espionage. Although Lasker and Parkes mined very similar territory in 1983 with their novel Cold War tale WarGames, they create a very prescient depiction of the new geopolitical realities forming after the Cold War. Two movie stars from the ‘60s and ‘70s - Robert Redford and Sidney Poitier - anchor the cast with nuanced portrayals of aging men devoted to a hazardous but rewarding line of work. Redford delivers his most appealing and relaxed mid-to-late career work as Martin Bishop, a man haunted as much by his past as by his potential. In the role of retired CIA operative Donald Crease, Poitier supplies a sobering intensity and a meticulous sense of awareness as the risk level escalates for Bishop and his colleagues. Dan Aykroyd and River Phoenix, who both racked up individual box office successes in the years leading up to this movie, contribute their notable talents to a movie that demands a company of great actors with shared chemistry. The role of Mother, a conspiracy theory-obsessed burglar, remains the most appealing and least broadly comic role of Aykroyd’s career. Phoenix brings a highly internal and sweetly awkward nature to Carl, the nineteen year-old computer prodigy and newest member of Bishop’s team. Mary McDonnell and David Strathairn, who established their careers working frequently with director John Sayles, stretch the cast outside of conventional Hollywood norms of the time with skills honed in smaller, independent films. McDonnell, tasked with the unfortunate responsibility of playing the movie’s lone principal female character Liz, injects an irreverent, brainy independence into what could have been a two-dimensional part. Strathairn’s portrayal of Whistler ranks as one of the most accurate, well-rounded, and compassionate on-screen representations of a person with a disability by an able-bodied person. Two great actors known for their range and gravitas, James Earl Jones and Ben Kingsley, round out the cast with crucial supporting roles that heighten the sense of danger, but still allow both of them to get in on the fun everyone else is having.

With Sneakers, the filmmakers create a world in which Bishop and his team have believable pasts while a streak of playful energy balances the deadly consequences at stake. Sure, this movie is susceptible to the kind of inconsistencies common to many Hollywood films, but Sneakers feels far more grounded than most espionage adventure films of the last twenty-five years. Also, it’s hard not to love a film that contains both a game of Scrabble that is pivotal to the plot and a brief, joyful dance sequence that develops the characters!

-         John Parsell

Monday, September 19, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #162 - Smog - A River Ain’t Too Much to Love

Since the early 1990s, Bill Callahan has been creating the kind of idiosyncratic folk-rock that established the brand of his longtime label, Drag City, and built the foundation for the growing influence and popularity of indie rock over the last twenty years. For the bulk of Callahan’s career he recorded and toured as Smog and released eleven albums in thirteen years. With 2005’s A River Ain’t Too Much to Love, Callahan closed out Smog on a high note before retiring the moniker, created a contemporary indie-folk masterpiece, and set a template for wry, evocative songwriting about self-acceptance, loss, and redemption that has served him well for the rest of his career.

The album’s opener, “Palimpsest,” functions as a haunting prologue by setting the stage with spare instrumentation and Callahan’s strong, sonorous voice declaring that he feels like “a southern bird that stayed north too long.” The second song, “Say Valley Maker,” supplies the album’s statement of purpose as the speaker describes a river and outlines themes of heartache, longing for family, and rebirth while an acoustic ensemble slowly builds the song up to a gratifying release. “The Well” injects a welcome lightheartedness when the speaker breaks into a rambling, highly visual story-song about the consequences of acting impulsively when feeling frustrated. At seven minutes, “The Well” is the album’s longest song, but Callahan’s joyful energy makes the journey worthwhile. “Rock Bottom Riser” unfolds into a stately ode of gratitude and returns to the imagery of a river as the speaker details the impact of his loss and struggle on his family. “I Feel Like the Mother of the World” balances the album’s lushest musical interlude with an anguished, revealing reflection on the lasting damage of sibling turmoil. The final two songs adjust the album’s trajectory toward a cautious sense of hope for the future while acknowledging the toll of the past. Anchored by a spritely finger-picked guitar part, “I’m New Here” offers a refreshingly sly nod to facing the challenges that come with having to start over. In 2010, Gil Scott-Heron covered “I’m New Here” and borrowed the title for his critically acclaimed late-career album, I’m New Here. Callahan’s words fit so beautifully with Scott-Heron’s voice that the song feels equally at home on both albums. Scott-Heron died just over a year after releasing I’m New Here and the influence of Callahan’s signature humor adds buoyancy to an album that might otherwise feel burdened by Scott-Heron’s mortality. “Let Me See the Colts” parallels the structure of “Say Valley Maker” and concludes A River Ain’t Too Much to Love on a note of beleaguered optimism as the worn out speaker asks to see the horses “that will run next year” while the song gently progresses into a cathartic, forward-moving crescendo.

Bill Callahan has released four albums under his name since 2007 and each one has broadened the pattern he formed with A River Ain’t Too Much to Love. After I fell in love with this album, I wasn’t sure Callahan could top himself, so his excellent 2009 album Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle came as a wonderful surprise. On Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle, Callahan brings a gentle full-color glow to the themes and imagery he rendered as black and white sketches on A River Ain’t Too Much to Love. Over the last three decades, Bill Callahan has charted new territory in a well-traveled genre and A River Ain’t Too Much to Love lasts both as a career landmark and a point of embarkation for further exploration of Callahan’s exceptional artistry.    

-          John Parsell

Monday, September 12, 2016

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #148 – Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps and Human Highway

Neil Young gave us the best description of himself and his music in the title of his 1968 song “I Am A Child.” The magic and genius of Neil Young is that the child-like sense of wonder and fun never left him or his music. Not then, not now (listen to his superbly weird new album Earth for proof of that) and certainly not in 1978 when he filmed Rust Never Sleeps and began principle filming of Human Highway. Both of these films are direct references to Young’s childhood. They are depictions of a man-child adrift in a confusing world of corrupt adult motivations. Neil sees himself as a little boy alone in an oversized world of dangerous machines and corrupt values. He wields his guitar and his voice (like the sharp cutting tools they are) against the inconsistencies and absurdities of the world: environmental genocide, slimy record label creeps, military-industrial capitalists, even the double-edged sword of his own fame. The movies outwardly seem like they are totally different, but a close look shows them to be two views of the same scene.

Human Highway was ultimately released in 1982 to little or no fanfare. It was given a brief art-house and midnight movie run and then essentially shelved for a long time. The negative public and critical reception at the time of its release is not surprising because it is a kaleidoscopic mash-up of ideas and images loosely held together with a cartoonish plot about a small town loser named Lionel Switch who…does some stuff and uh, meets some people and uh….yeah - what happens doesn’t really matter because the overall effect of the movie is that of an 80 minute MTV-style video starring Young, Devo and a number of Hollywood B-listers, (Dennis Hopper, Dean Stockwell, Sally Kirkland) romping around colorful sets and singing weird songs and making vaguely political statements about nuclear energy and dangerous militarism during the heart of the cold war. The movie is actually quite entertaining if you like Neil Young, and possibly unbearable if you don’t. Although there are a few set pieces like the hilarious “Worried Man Blues” or Neil and Devo performing a wild version of “Hey Hey, My My,” the movie’s real value is as a backdrop to Rust Never Sleeps, the concert documentary Young was filming at the same time he was working on Human Highway.

Upon release, Rust Never Sleeps was universally acclaimed as one of the best concert movies ever made and absolutely nothing has happened in the ensuing 38 years to do anything but enhance that reputation. It remains a completely riveting portrait of an artist at the height of his creativity; simultaneously reveling in past glory and coming to grips with the historical crossroads that will place him directly in the crosshairs of a cultural battle.

Like many of his generation, Neil Young was viewed with skepticism by the punk rock world, and in turn the baby boom generation that Young had so eloquently represented in his earlier years cast a suspicious eye on the nihilistic tendencies of the punks. But unlike so many others, Young did not shy away from the subject, writing an anthem for that crossroads generation, “Hey Hey, My My” (“Out Of The Blue/Into The Black”), which challenged them (and himself) to either get into it or get out of the way. It was bold and a little shocking to many longtime listeners. He also imbued his latest music, highlighted in the movie, with a manic punk-like energy fans had never seen before. Songs like “Sedan Delivery,” “Welfare Mothers” and “Hey Hey, My My” scream with a fury that belies Young’s status as one of the major figures of mellow contemporary rock. In fact every aspect of the performances in this movie show an artist ready to move forward instead of rely on past glory. Even many of his most iconic songs like “Tonight’s The Night,” “When You Dance,” “The Loner” and especially “Cortez The Killer” are given a reinvigorated treatment.

Rust Never Sleeps doesn’t only succeed as a concert documentary, it is also a high concept film with the narrative again revolving around Neil’s own view of himself as a child in a grown-up world. The normal stage gear: amplifiers, tuners, microphones etc. are all covered with oversized prop versions of themselves which dwarf the band. Neil himself opens the show lying on top of an amplifier in a giant sleeping bag like a kid waking up in the back yard.  The set is peppered with gags about being a child, and soundbites from the movie, Woodstock, which further the agenda of a little boy lost in an oversized environment. From the opening acoustic strums of “Sugar Mountain” and “I Am A Child” through to the final crunching riffs of “Like A Hurricane” and “Tonight’s The Night,” Neil and Crazy Horse deliver like never before. It is an absolute primer on why Neil Young is so great.

Taken as bookends to Neil’s momentous 1978, these two movies present one of the strongest arguments for creative freedom. Given control of his own destiny, Neil Young was able to produce a lasting monument to growth and the creative process.

-         Paul Epstein

Monday, September 5, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #162 - Pere Ubu - Dub Housing

The first thing you hear in the first song “Navvy” is the guitar playing a melody. Then a counter melody joins it, followed by a strange scratching sound provided by the synth player. Then the rhythm section kicks in with a thudding beat and singer David Thomas (neither the Wendy’s guy nor the Bob & Doug McKenzie guy) starts singing “I got these arms and legs that flip flop, flip flop” over and over and it immediately positions the band as something different. There were already the synthetic sounds that Allen Ravenstine was producing to make the song sound slightly off, but between that and Thomas’s strange crowing and lyrics, Pere Ubu set themselves apart from what anybody else was doing in rock music. But a bit about their history first.

Dub Housing is Pere Ubu’s second album. They’d actually already set themselves apart from what anyone was doing with their 1975 and 1976 singles and their first album The Modern Dance, which was recorded in 1976 and 1977 and released on a small independent label in early 1978, but many tied the singles and parts of The Modern Dance to the burgeoning punk scene because of abrasive textures and the speedier rush of some of the songs. Not so much with Dub Housing, which ventures confidently into waters that only Ubu knew how to navigate. They have long called their music “avant-garage” since it stems from the same jamming garage rock ethos that spawned a thousand punk bands in the wake of The Stooges, but is also heavily indebted to avant-garde music and art ranging from the Velvet Underground to Brian Eno to Alfred Jarry’s proto-absurdist play from which they took their name. It’s probably also worth mentioning that while so much of American punk happening at this time is tied to the CBGB’s scene, Pere Ubu was based in Cleveland and evolved a very different type of music. It’s additionally worth noting for context that the same year Ubu released this album sophomore albums by Talking Heads, Wire, and Elvis Costello hit the shelves, Blondie put out their classic third album Parallel Lines (like Ubu, it was their second 1978 release), Captain Beefheart returned from a few disappointing years with the great Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), Devo, X-Ray Spex, and The Cars released their debut albums, and Brian Eno began his first official venture into ambient music with Music For Airports. Something was in the air and a lot of people were drinking deeply from the same stream. Back to Dub Housing now.

“Navvy” sounds like rock, yes, but what’s up with this singer? Those who find David Byrne’s delivery too eccentric will quickly learn that he’s relatively calm by comparison. Why does Thomas keep repeating “I got these arms and legs that flip flop, flip flop” and then follow it with “I have desire!” and a voice from above telling him “Boy, that sound swell!” Well, first of all, because it sounds good and he’s got a great sense of rhythm, but secondly, maybe it’s not as weird as all that. If a navvy is defined as “a worker who does very hard physical labor” (especially used in the context of large-scale industrial projects), it’s entirely possible that these words aren’t just weird, but that the song is about a working class stiff, swept around by currents of the world he has no control over, asserting his own creative identity in a 1970’s industrial city beleaguered by financial depression – almost sounds like punk, no? More poetic than your usual punk approach, but still born of the same spirit. Doesn’t hurt that halfway through the song guitarist Tom Herman tears loose with a great solo. Herman is an unsung hero of American rock. Unless you ask me to make such a list, he’s simply not on the lips of people making “top ten guitarists” lists, but he’s got a unique style that falls somewhere between aleatoric noise and effects, and a strong, rhythmic lead. He’s also buoyed (and simultaneously lifted) by the rhythm team of bassist Tony Maimone and drummer Scott Krauss, who are – for me – the finest rhythm section in American rock of the 70s other than their peers in Television. And then there’s synthesizer player Allen Ravenstine, who doesn’t use synths as glorified keyboards but uses them for their own qualities as producers of weird noises. So when the group gets together for some real avant-garage strangeness – as they do here especially on “Thriller!” and “Blow Daddy-O” – it can get pretty out there. But even on those, they’re grounded by Maimone and Krauss, which allows Ravenstine to layer strange sounds and effects into a musique concrete soundscape on the former song, and gives Herman space to stretch out a themeless, non-melodic solo on the latter that stands as his finest 3 ½ minutes or so on record. And the rest of the songs – even with their odd qualities – bear more of a relationship to rock as most of us know it. “I, Will Wait” reads as a paean to the underground music scene with lines like “The sun never sets on this world I have found” and the pragmatic/optimistic DIY thought “I believe in practicalities/practicalities are possibilities” and then nods back to Roxy Music’s first album when Ravenstine unleashes a “solo” full of bleeps and blips that recalls Eno’s work on “Re-Make Re-model.”

The album offers so many different moods – from the oddball optimism of “I, Will Wait” and “Navvy” to the playful tone of “Blow Daddy-O” to the more ominous “Thriller!” or the obsessive closing track “Codex” that it keeps you on your toes, shifting hither and yon along the same currents that buffet the protagonist of “Navvy.” But it speaks to the magic of Pere Ubu that they make something of the strange times they live in and respond with a recognizable, yet compelling, strange and unique vision. They’ve never voiced it more compellingly than they did on Dub Housing.

-         Patrick Brown

Monday, August 29, 2016

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #147 – The Devil's Backbone (2001, dir. Guillermo del Toro)

Casares: What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.

Before Guillermo del Toro would become a household name working on such franchises as Blade, Hellboy, The Hobbit and had the opportunity to craft such films as Pan’s Labyrinth and Crimson Peak he wrote and directed a smaller but equally affecting ghost story titled The Devil’s Backbone. While this film is certainly less flashy than any of the aforementioned films (not to mention the insane blockbuster, Pacific Rim) del Toro’s flair for fantastic realism and incredible ability to create gorgeously engulfing worlds are still extremely strong on this compelling early passion project.

The story begins with an enigmatic scene splicing between the death of a young boy and scenes of bombs being dropped. After a gorgeous title sequence the narrative begins with the main character, Carlos (Fernando Tielve) being dropped off at an orphanage in the middle of nowhere. It seems that his father has been killed (though he is unaware of this fact) in the Spanish Civil War and his tutor is dropping him off in order to fight for the Republican cause. As Carlos is exploring his surroundings he becomes fascinated with a large bomb in the middle of the courtyard that had fallen and not exploded on the night of the opening sequence. Thus begins Carlos' exposure to the eerie aspects of his new home. Almost immediately after he settles in he finds himself being followed by “the one who wheezes,” a ghost child haunting the orphanage. While Carlos deals with the trials and tribulations of his new living situation, bullies, lovingly stern teachers, and a monster of a groundskeeper, the secrets and mysteries of the orphanage, both supernatural and human in nature, begin to unfold.

One of del Toro’s strengths that shines through in this film is his ability create a realistic yet beautiful setting in which the supernatural seems almost normal. The fact that this is a ghost story is almost secondary to the drama and narrative of Carlos and the boys/adults who inhabit the orphanage. While the setting is beautifully shot and carefully constructed in a cinematic way, the fantastic elements seem to fit seamlessly into the more historical and real world of rural Spain circa 1939.

Another area where this film shines is the way in which del Toro tells the story from the perspective of Carlos and the other children. Similarly to Louis Malle’s Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987) and Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher (1999) del Toro is able to beautifully and honestly capture what it is like to be young during a specific time and place. For Malle the backdrop was WWII, for Ramsay it was the Glasgow Dustmen strike, and for del Toro it’s the Spanish Civil War. All three films beautifully show the ways that children naïvely yet poignantly deal with intense circumstances. Another thing that all of these films have in common is the fact that the children who portray the leads are all perfectly cast and play the characters in a way that feel raw, emotional, yet subtle. Specifically Fernando Tielve, who plays Carlos, and Inigo Garces, who plays the complicated bully Jaime, do an amazing job of bringing their character to relatable and believable life.

On top of the fact that the film is a beautifully crafted piece about children in extreme circumstances, it is an extremely creepy and thrilling ghost story and mystery. A certain eeriness stalks the viewer through the entire film, keeping you on the edge of your seat, always wondering what hides in the shadows. In the opening sequence of the film we see Jaime, distraught, as a young boy has been killed. The details of this scene and the mystery of the ghost boy slowly come to light as the film plays on, and all of the answers come to light in an unexpected and intense crescendo.

Simply put, I would love to turn you onto this film because it is not only one of the most fantastic and enigmatic ghost stories of our time, but it is also a poignant portrayal of youth in time of strife. When a film comes around that transcends genre in order to be not only a good horror film or a good drama or a great historical fiction, that is the hallmark of a brilliant film. That is what del Toro's The Devil's Backbone is, a brilliant film. Check it out, you will not regret it!

-  Edward Hill