Monday, June 29, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #132 - Morphine - Cure for Pain

David O. Russell’s 1994 debut film, Spanking the Monkey, features, among other more controversial elements, five songs from Morphine’s 1993 sophomore album, Cure for Pain. Those songs comprise the film’s entire soundtrack and they are instrumental in building the film’s mood. When I first came across the film and Morphine’s music in the fall of 1994, I felt like I’d lucked upon a dual discovery. In one shot, I had found a director who challenged and entertained me along with a solid set of songs that piqued my curiosity. The songs in the film make up nearly half of Cure for Pain and include some of the album’s best material. Twenty years ago, I felt confident that the creative talents coupled in this film would each go onto fruitful careers. Well, I was half right.  

In the last five years, David O. Russell’s films The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle have earned him five Oscar nominations while three actors he directed in those films have won Oscars for their performances. Recently, as Russell’s star has risen so prominently, I have reflected on his debut and its inextricable connection to Morphine’s music. I find myself asking how it can be that David O. Russell is well on his way to becoming a household name, but Morphine’s music seems all but forgotten. The most direct answer stems from the fact the band’s nine-year life span ended resolutely when lead singer Mark Sandman collapsed on stage in the summer of 1999 and died of a heart attack, but the story does not end there. Morphine released five studio albums, but their greatest legacy remains the warm, complex, and rewarding Cure for Pain.   

Spanking the Monkey spoke to me in a way few films have, but Morphine’s music pulled my interest in a very different direction. The film, though stirring and powerful, still conformed to my concept of independent cinema, but Morphine’s music resisted easy categorization. When I explored Morphine’s music further, I realized that despite their differences from their alternative rock peers, they were achieving increasing levels of critical and popular success. Unlike other bands active in Boston from the same era like the Pixies or Galaxie 500, Morphine did not base its sound around guitar or post-punk derivations. Built more like a jazz trio, Morphine created their sound from baritone sax, slide bass, drums, and Sandman’s deep, resonant voice. Well into his thirties by the time the band formed, Sandman’s vocal delivery contributed a decidedly adult component to Morphine’s music. Clear, knowing, and unhurried, Sandman’s voice sounded worlds apart from many of the vocalists I was obsessed with at that point. Although the band’s makeup might seem an exercise in minimalism, Cure for Pain conjures lush textures and atmospheres from its stripped down pieces. Moving from raucous tales of excess to delicate moments of introspection, the album contains all of the great songs featured in Russell’s film, like “Sheila” and “Thursday,” but places them in a context that allows them to achieve a greater, collective level of meaning and significance.  

Cure for Pain remains a marvel of sequencing and structure, in part, because it pulls together such a diverse array of song tempos, lyrical devices, and applications of each band member’s considerable talents. Opening and closing with two brief, instrumental tracks, the album bears the markers of a lifespan. “Dawna” consists of just two elements: Dana Colley’s saxophone and a sustained note played on an organ. The saxophone’s notes played in slow progression fade in volume throughout the track’s short running time. Serving as an announcement and a bit of stage setting, “Dawna” provides the album a calm awakening to morning or, just as easily, a birth. Arriving about 35 minutes later, “Miles Davis’ Funeral” supplies the album its end, or death, by way of a haunting sound collage featuring the album’s most prominent use of guitar. Hand drumming, acoustic guitar, and textured percussion provide the foundation for a highly processed, yet plaintive electric guitar solo. The experimental quality of the solo could be a tilt of the hat to Davis’ fearless exploration of sound, but the song upholds the overall tone of an earnest elegy. Cure for Pain arrived almost exactly two years after Miles Davis’ death and this timing lends “Miles Davis’ Funeral” an odd sense of relevance. After two years, those who had something to say or play about Davis’ passing must have had plenty of opportunities to do so, but this comes along two years later; a short, beautiful album closer that hints at Davis’ legacy and raises more questions than it answers.  

In between these markers, Sandman’s lyrics apply a warts-and-all openness to songs encapsulating the ups and downs that attend life. Addiction, heartbreak, joy, fear, infidelity, regret, desire, guilt, and notions of self-worth all weave into the fabric of the album. “In Spite of Me” serves as the album’s midpoint, quietest moment, and its emotional heart. Accompanied by mandolin and sparse percussion, Sandman’s voice hovers just over a whisper as he addresses his subject; someone who has gone on to much greater things after the two of them spent time together. Placing this patently mid-life song squarely in the middle of the album reinforces the overall structure and allows a moment of reflection within the flow of songs. Like the songs that bookend the album, “In Spite of Me” works outside of the band’s usual trio arrangement, in this case: no saxophone and barely any percussion. This shift thrusts the listener’s attention to the speaker’s hushed, humbled contemplation of the realization that someone is likely much better off without him. As a centerpiece, this song highlights how well Cure for Pain manages to balance the pain of living with a true sense of wonder.

Morphine’s four other studio albums each have their strengths, but none of them possess the cohesion, resonance, or chemistry of Cure for Pain. In 1997, Morphine graduated to a major label with the release of Like Swimming (their last before Sandman’s death) and although their albums had garnered consistently positive reviews and their fanbase grew over the decade, they never attained mainstream success. In 1996, I saw Morphine perform at the 40 Watt in Athens, Georgia and it was a joy to watch these three musicians create such remarkable music. As frontman, Sandman put on a hell of a show and impressed me with his versatility, humor, and poise. The untimely death of a lead singer casts a melancholy shadow over any band and this is especially the case for Morphine both because their music addressed the struggles of life and mystery of death so directly and because they disbanded promptly after Sandman’s death. For a brief time, Morphine contributed something to music that no one had ever really done before and Cure for Pain exhibits this band at the height of their powers. Listening to this album may not, in fact, cure all that ails you, but its many pleasures remain potent and gratifying reminders of the beauty of life’s endeavor.

            - John Parsell

Monday, June 15, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #131 - Philip Glass - The Photographer

Philip Glass from a 1983 interview in re: Minimalism: “The trouble with the word is that it no longer accurately describes what you’re gonna hear.”

Repetition is a form of change – statement on a card from Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies deck

There’s a joke that goes like this: “Knock Knock. Who’s there? Knock Knock. Who’s there? Knock Knock. Who’s there? Knock Knock. Who’s there? Philip Glass.”
That’s the edited version that I cut in half from where I found it and it’s funny because it’s (kind of) true. Glass uses repetition in his music sure, but in reality it’s never quite as redundant or as minimal as all that.
But let’s start here – for those unfamiliar with the works of Philip Glass, it’s common to hear his name associated with the minimalist movement in 1960s and 1970s classical music, though he has distanced himself from the term for his work after the mid-70s, preferring to say that he makes “music with repetitive structures.” The difference may sound academic, but it’s crucial in the case of an album like The Photographer. Where minimalism employs fewer instruments and less overall movement, Glass’s music here is decidedly maximal, with the final piece especially an intense, breathtaking climax to the album.
The record began its life as a theatrical piece that premiered in 1982, examining the life of 19th century photographic innovator Eadweard Muybridge who pioneered techniques that would ultimately be used in film. Muybridge shot and killed a man he believed was having an affair with his wife, was acquitted, and ended up raising the child who was a product of his wife’s affair – all the kind of melodrama ripe for an operatic/theatrical work. Glass and co-writer Robert Coe reworked an existing play into a performance piece in three parts, with Part 1 a theater piece, Part 2 a concert, and Part 3 a dance, and perhaps it’s best to look at the album that way.
“Act I: ‘A Gentleman's Honor’” was originally centered around a poem Muybridge had written, but Glass noted that Muybridge was perhaps more influential in the photographic arts than the poetic ones so he asked David Byrne to help out with the words using transcripts of the trial. Byrne obliged and used snippets for the vocalists to sing to create the piece heard here. It’s performed by the ensemble as a short prelude and instrumental reprise around the longer “Act II” – the “concert” portion of the program.
“Act II,” as noted, comes on more like a typical orchestral concert, where in front of a collection of Muybridge’s photographs the full ensemble of 26 credited players (including the Colorado Symphony’s own Marin Alsop) perform Glass’s “repetitive structures” which offer up snippets and ideas and then take them away, only to have them recur at dramatically appropriate moments later in the work. One of the best ideas here is the guest solo violin of Paul Zukofsky, whose sawed motif somehow evokes both a hoedown and classical precision at once and manages to grab my ears each time it comes back into the fold.
            “Act III” is the dance portion, which starts out slow but works up to a head of steam that can drive you nuts if repetition and variation isn’t your thing. But there is definitely variation – while motives are played a few times, dropped, and then come back there are very few (if any) bars of this music that are actually identical. And though it starts mellow, it heats up around the 3 ½ minute mark, kicks it up another notch at about 7 minutes, and from about 8 ½ minutes it’s a full-on boil until the end with nothing other than a momentary breather to relieve the relentless rhythmic drive of the strings, horns, keyboards, and vocalists singing their phonemes.
            For the album, Glass assumed (rightly) that most listeners would not have seen the full work and so scaled down the pieces and cut the theatre portion of the work most significantly. But the concert and dance segments – Acts II and III – are spectacular and the shortened parts of Act I nicely set up the bigger set pieces. There are those who won’t respond to the way it keeps moving and rearranging and repeating pieces to build up to the last few climactic minutes – and you know who you are – but for those whose tastes run toward the build of rhythm that can be found across music as diverse as house music, African music, and for that matter some of the best rock and roll, you should play this as loud as you (or your neighbors) can stand it and drink in the beauty of the quiet parts and the intensity of the rest of it.
            - Patrick Brown

Friday, June 12, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #117 - Barry Lyndon (1975, dir. Stanley Kubrick)

During my high school years I worked at what was, at the time, the nicest movie theatre in Denver, The Century 21. In 1975 I remember a great deal of consternation among the management when they found out we were getting the new Stanley Kubrick movie. It ran over three hours plus a 15 minute intermission. We usually showed movies four or five times a day, but Barry Lyndon would only allow two showings a day. This made it a money loser for the theatre. In addition, reviews were luke-warm and crowds were slim. We ushers had a lot of time on our hands. When I wasn’t hitting on the popcorn girls, or sweeping the lobby I spent hour upon hour staring at the screen absorbing what I now believe is Kubrick’s greatest movie. I should mention that I consider Kubrick the greatest modern director, and a man with very few peers in the history of cinema. He approached his movies with such fearless individuality and ferocious technique that only names like Hitchcock, Welles and Malick can be mentioned as equals. Barry Lyndon is his ultimate expression of visual storytelling. Never did Kubrick invest more care in the realization of his theme. Even A Clockwork Orange feels restrained in its execution compared to Barry Lyndon’s extraordinary success.
            Based on a novel by Victorian satirist William Makepeace Thackeray, Barry Lyndon tells the story of Redmond Barry, a young Irish man of very modest background whose stated goal of rising in society seems impossible for someone of such little ambition and questionable moral fiber. However, young Redmond moves throughout his early life with no direction, floating like a leaf on a stream in a society filled with uncertainty, danger and opportunity. In the first two hours of the film he experiences love, lust, betrayal, duels, highwaymen, The Seven Years' War, desertion, the lowest lows and, finally, a taste of the good life as he becomes a gentleman gambler skirting the edges of European high society. It is at the gambling table that he comes in contact with Lady Lyndon, a fabulously wealthy woman who is fantastically beautiful and married to a miserable old goat who is ready to die and pave the way for Redmond Barry to become Barry Lyndon. The last third of the movie shows Barry’s rise and fall in English society. His life becomes a cruel, inexorable march toward weakness, despair and loss. Throughout, Barry’s own lack of morality is mirrored by the larger society he inhabits. Everyone he encounters seems somewhat malevelont, and events swirl in the maelstrom of history with little predictability or reward. In this way, Kubrick brilliantly puts his finger on the modern condition. The more refined the society, the thinner the veil between chaos and order.

Kubrick had complete, auteur-like control over the execution of this film, investing literally years and millions of dollars in the lighting, lenses, locations and music. The result is what has to be THE MOST BEAUTIFUL FILM EVER MADE. Seriously, I just can’t think of another movie that is more visually rewarding than Barry Lyndon. Each and every scene is a breathtaking set-piece, more like an old-master painting than a movie. I found myself going back to scenes to convince myself that it was a real scene, but there is no trickery in this movie. When a scene is lit by candlelight, it is actually filmed in candlelight. When the French and British armies approach each other, firing and falling by the hundred, it is actually hordes of meticulously dressed extras walking through a smoke-filled, dawn-lit battlefield. Every detail is filled with the most extraordinary level of detailed directorial obsession that it is truly possible to lose yourself in this film. It feels like being in a time machine and walking around in the past. Kubrick used every iota of technical and creative ability he had to bring this vision to life and he succeeds beyond his wildest expectations. The casting is impeccable with Ryan O’Neil showing why Farrah Fawcett chose him over every other man in the world, and Marisa Berenson providing the most restrained portrayal of icy beauty in the history of the movies. Every single second of Barry Lyndon is impossibly gorgeous, rewarding your faith in the artistic vision of director Stanley Kubrick and the art of film in general. It is long and slow and lovely and ugly and hopeful and scary and memorable and over too fast…just like life.

- Paul Epstein

Monday, June 1, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #130 - Fred Neil - The Other Side Of This Life

There is a pretty good argument to be made that Fred Neil is the quintessential, mysterious, cult figure in modern music history. Gifted with a most memorable and resonant voice, the ability to toss off masterpieces casually and a magnetic, yet unattainable poet’s soul, he was a profound influence on countless other musicians (Dylan, Stills, Tim Buckley, Airplane, Spoonful, etc.), and most amazingly, he only made four albums before taking his life into his own hands and backing away from stardom. He wrote a handful of standards: one, “Everybody’s Talkin’,” among the 10 most played songs on modern radio - a classic by anyone’s measure. His first three albums Bleecker and MacDougal, Fred Neil and Sessions are all out of print on CD, thus making The Other Side Of This Life the de facto choice for review. I highly recommend the first two albums as they represent Neil’s best work and some of the best American folk/rock ever recorded. Sessions shows Neil succumbing to the excess of the day, and while interesting, is just too scattered and stoned to be of much use.  Which leaves us with The Other Side Of This Life.

Side one is a live set comprised of his three biggest hits (“The Other Side Of This Life,” “The Dolphins” and “Everybody's Talkin'”) his hippest song (“That's The Bag I'm In”) and two blues covers all delivered in his laconic, yet authoritative manner. That is the secret to Fred Neil, he is always laid back in his delivery, but just below the surface are brilliant songs, an incredible voice and a jazzy twelve-string technique that put many of his peers to shame. Neil can be heard giggling to himself between songs and fooling around with the audience, but make no mistake, when he lets loose on “The Other Side Of This Life” or “The Dolphins” his vocal delivery still pins your ears back in awe. Neil is in relaxed mode, but the tunes and vocal delivery are life changing. Side two is more of a hodgepodge, gathering together a handful of interesting tracks highlighted by two incredible ballads. The first, “Ya Don’t Miss Your Water,” is a well-known gospel/soul standard, here played as a duet with another quixotic 1960’s figure, Gram Parsons. The combination of these two woozy voices wrapping around this great tune is irresistible. Parsons is the perfect tenor counterpoint to Neil’s elongated baritone, and they deliver it somewhere between St. Peter and Bacchus. The album ends with a stripped down version of another of Neil’s greatest songs, “Felicity,” which is both uplifting and heartbreaking; the very essence of the singer/songwriter tradition, and it embodies the duality that Fred Neil excelled at like nobody else.

If you haven’t yet, discovering Fred Neil is one of the great pleasures left in collecting 1960’s music. I was aware of Nilsson’s hit version of “Everybody’s Talkin’” and The Jefferson Airplane’s version of “The Other Side Of This Life” and of course Tim Buckley's haunted “The Dolphins,” but discovering the real item was one of the most thrilling revelations ever. Here was what seemed to be the Rosetta Stone of folk/rock music. Seemingly, every cool musician of the early 60’s either crossed paths with or was influenced by Fred Neil. He remained mysterious, staying out of the public eye for the last 30 years of his life, never succumbing to the siren call of comeback or tribute or tour, instead quietly living his life and letting his incredible legacy of song and performance speak for itself. How could there be no whiff of sellout whatsoever? How could such an important figure come through the 70’s 80’s and 90’s (he died in 2001) with his reputation completely untarnished and his public awareness so under the radar? I honestly don’t have an answer, but listen to him, love him, and then keep it to yourself. Some things are better kept just between you and me.

- Paul Epstein

Monday, May 25, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #116 - The 39 Steps (1935, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

“How old is Mae West?!?”

            The world may never know how old Mae West was (or rather they will, as this IS the age of the internet), but this film is packed with a wide array of other perplexing mysteries. Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps is widely considered to be one of the integral films that sparked the Master of Suspense’s career, and with good reason. While he had been making films for some time (this being his 22nd), The 39 Steps was one of the great films that catapulted Hitchcock into the spotlight and paved the way for his later masterworks. But that’s enough about the prophetic nature of the film. Let’s get down to brass tacks – this movie is fantastic! From the beginning of the opening sequence until the very end Hitchcock strategically places his audience in a tense state and he never fully reveals exactly what's going on (or does he...?).

            Put very simply the film’s plot is about a grave accusation of murder landing upon a completely innocent bystander. Hannay, played by Robert Donat, comes in coincidental contact with a mysterious female spy, "Miss Smith" (Lucie Mannheim). Providing her asylum in his apartment overnight he awakens to find her stumbling into his bedroom after being stabbed in the back and warning that he is next. After a brief commotion he realizes that he is now the target of her murderers as well as the police who have been alerted to the murder in his apartment. From this point, out of sheer necessity, Hannay himself becomes entangled in the espionage that got Miss Smith killed in the first place. Picking up where she left off he rushes to Scotland in an attempt to solve the mystery and exonerate himself. Along the way he runs into an obstinate yet beautiful woman on a train, Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), who turns him in to the authorities. After narrowly escaping the police at this turn, he seeks who he believes to be a friend of Miss Smith’s who as it turns out might not be so friendly. At this point in the plot everything becomes beautifully convoluted and the mystery enters its ascent to the climax. Needless to say much of what we know at this point changes and our obstinate beauty, Pamela, will certainly return to become an integral part of the film.
            While this is most certainly an early film for Hitchcock, originally released in 1935, it provides the viewer with a perfect roadmap into the mind of an amazing and enigmatic auteur. The viewer is left with a good number of questions at the end and spends the entirety of the film on the edge of their seats. Aided by the shadowy noir-ish cinematography, the use of odd close ups that seem to allude to something (dun-dun-duuuunnnn!), and the lack at any point of a FULL reveal, Hitchcock is able to build tension like no one else. In addition to the brilliant building of tension and the constant suspense, in true Hitchcockian tradition the director completely breeds a deep audience mistrust of all of the characters on screen (aside from the hero of course). These techniques, which will become vitally important to Hitchcock’s oeuvre, are perfectly demonstrated in this early classic.

            But what makes this film, as well as other early/early-mid Hitchcock films, so magnetically engaging is the fact that while he perfectly weaves tension and mistrust into the psyche of the viewer there remains a healthy dose of sly comedy. While we know very little about the hero of this story, Hannay, one thing is sure – he is a quick wit and an amusing gentleman. For example, as Hannay has been captured and rides in the back of the detective’s car, they run into a flock of sheep in the road at which point he quips, "Hello, what are we stopping for? Oh it's a whole flock of detectives." With such amazing and well timed sarcatic one liners the viewer is provided with just enough comedy to catch them off guard when the next plot twist drops (and there are more twists dropped in this film than bass drops in a Skrillex song).

            So what else can I say, you simply must take this ride for yourself. Ride the rails though every twist and turn and see if you can put together the puzzle that is The 39 Steps. What exactly is/are the 39 steps? Who is the real "bad guy"? Who can Hannay and Pamela trust? What will happen in the end? How old is Mae West?! What causes Pip in poultry?!?! These questions and many more are proposed by and possibly answered in this fantastic film from the mid 30's; do yourself a favor and check it out.

- Edward Hill

Monday, May 18, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #129 - Steely Dan – Countdown to Ecstasy

Once upon a time, there was a band called Steely Dan. A real band, with a regular lineup, they even went on tour. The era of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker crafting exquisite studio-only productions was just around the corner, but in 1973 they were as close to being a regular rock & roll band as they ever were. Though plenty of studio musicians still augmented the albums, the core was not just Becker and Fagen but guitarists Jeff "Skunk" Baxter and Denny Dias plus drummer Jim Hodder. This was the lineup that cut the second Dan album Countdown to Ecstasy. I'll say this is my personal favorite Steely Dan album but I won't say it's their best. That's because their initial run of 6 albums in 6 years, 1972-1977, from Can't Buy a Thrill to Aja, is absolutely perfect. Every song, every arrangement, every note played and sung, everything is exactly as it should be. Yet there's still passion, verve, and even soul behind the slick sounds and ironic detachment of the lyrics. The best is whichever one is playing at the time. But I can only write about one, so Countdown it is. 
The album starts off with what just might be the most kick-ass rock track in the Dan repertoire, "Bodhisattva." As Fagen croons cheesy westernizations of eastern philosophy, the band kicks up a blues-rock ruckus highlighted by some blistering guitar from Skunk Baxter. After that things quiet down a little bit for the jazzy "Razor Boy." This one takes on a more traditional feel than the smoothed out jazz that would dominate the group's later work. The pace is slowly built back up with the building climax of "The Boston Rag." More cryptic lyrics from Fagen, apparently chronicling some sort of drugged out debauchery, are married to a slow building rocker that leads to a great sing-a-long chorus. The bottom drops out for a piano break, then builds again to a dramatic finale. Next it's time to jam, with "Your Gold Teeth" providing a funky, latin-jazz dance party. The musicians have a chance to spread out on this one, keeping a loose vibe while still hitting all the notes like a Steely Dan combo should.

The second half kicks of with the slide guitar of guest Rick Derringer and another of the Dan's more rocking numbers, "Show Biz Kids." Fagen calls out the privileged and self-obsessed culture of fame while making self-referential mention of "Steely Dan t-shirts" and even dropping an f-bomb for added emphasis. On "My Old School," Fagen and Becker reminisce not so fondly about their days at Bard College. This is probably the best-known track on the album and with its jaunty horns and catchy chorus, it's easy to see why. "My Old School" is one of the best examples of Steely Dan's oft-noted penchant for melding biting lyrics to infectious tunes. Another breather comes with the gorgeous "Pearl of the Quarter." Could this actually be a straightforward love song? Is there something more going on that I'm missing? Either way, it's another brilliant, catchy song. The album concludes with "King of the World," as propulsive synths end things with a futuristic vibe. Of course, that future is surely of the dystopian variety.

  As previously noted, Steely Dan would continue their streak of perfection throughout the 70s. Yes, things would get a lot slicker but the quality of songwriting and performance were never overshadowed by the production. Cracks started to show with 1980's Gaucho, which still had a few great songs but also seemed to show Becker and Fagen running out of gas after their greatest success. Steely Dan would then disappear for a while with no activity at all throughout the super-slick 80s, an irony surely worthy of a Donald Fagen lyric. Then, miracle of miracles, Fagen and Becker reunited in the mid-90s and, in another great irony, turned Steely Dan into a touring machine who have been active ever since. They even played this year's Coachella festival. Yes, the strange and winding career of Steely Dan could all really just be the subject of a Steely Dan song. Chew on that for a little while. And listen to Countdown to Ecstasy while you're doing so.
            - Adam Reshotko

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #115 - Fresh (1994, dir. Boaz Yakin)

Back in 1994, this film arrived with a bit of a buzz from the awards it won at Sundance. It was being marketed in the wake of gangsta films like Boyz n the Hood and Menace II Society (because that’s what distributors do with films is cash in on what’s popular), but, reviews noted, there was something different about this drama. True, our central character, nicknamed Fresh (played by Sean Nelson), is a 12-year old runner for drug dealers around town – particularly Esteban (played by Giancarlo Esposito), a heroin dealer who takes a nearly paternal interest in Fresh’s development because he can see his maturity and intelligence – but even so, this film has very different aims from the juiced up melodrama of the so-called ‘hood films of the early 90’s.
The film was the brainchild of writer-director Boaz Yakin, who, after working on mainstream Hollywood films (The Rookie and The Punisher, for example) for years, decided that he wasn’t doing what he wanted to in the industry. Instead of fighting in the system to scrape forward toward a compromised version of his vision, he moved to Paris, vowing to return when he had something to day and was able to exercise a reasonable amount of control over how it got made. And though maybe he wasn’t able to continue that principle later in his career (he’s also credited with writing Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, which makes me sad), he got it right here for sure. The film constantly feels emotionally dead-on and has a great ear for street dialogue, both at the adult level and of the kids in the film.
Fresh is a smart kid alright, but he’s helped immeasurably by his alcoholic father (played by Samuel L. Jackson) who Fresh mostly finds hustling chess in Washington Square Park. He’s the anchor for Fresh, teaching him to think strategically, plan ahead, to watch and listen rather than leap into action. So when he has to make his own way because his aunt can’t handle raising 11 kids in her small apartment, when a friend is murdered in front of his eyes, when his sister’s drug habit starts to endanger her life, Fresh uses his dad’s lessons to try to extricate himself from the life he’s found himself stuck in.
In addition to Yakin’s terrific script, he’s gotten terrific performances from almost all the central kids in the plot, from Jackson, and especially from Esposito, who combines the right touch of human tenderness with his violent ruthlessness. And then there’s Sean Nelson as Fresh himself – a kid who seems wise beyond his years often from the simple act of keeping quiet, listening and letting other people (meaning the adults around him) show their hand. I’m not sure how much is the writing and how much is Nelson’s work, but the role is great.
The film is intelligent, tense, gritty, and sporadically violent (but not excessively or graphically so). It’s shot by cinematographer Adam Holender, who’s something of an NYC grit specialist, having shot Midnight Cowboy, Panic in Needle Park, Smoke, and Street Smart, to name a few. He knows the streets of the city from before the Guiliani whitewash of New York that makes it feel so different today compared to the era of this film. And at pretty much every level, it feels like the love and care Yakin took to make a film that meant something to him is shared by cast and crew alike, because all the participants turn in A-level work here.
If you feel like you’ve seen enough “hood” films but haven’t seen this one, make room for one more, because it’s not like any of the others. If you’ve seen it, but like me coming back to this, it’s been 20 years or so, it’s most assuredly worth revisiting – it hold up beautifully. A great, small, personal film of the type that made indie cinema such an exciting idea once upon a time.

- Patrick Brown

Monday, May 4, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #128 - Miles Davis - Agharta

The first sounds you hear on this two-disc live set are notes from Miles’s Yamaha electric organ before they’re joined by a dense, chugging, funky groove from the rest of the band until about the 1:30 mark when Miles blasts the sound with a dissonant cluster of notes on the organ. In this opening, a far cry from the delicacy of “So What,” the textured beauty of the orchestral albums with Gil Evans or even the fractured bop stylings of the second quintet, you get an immediate sense of what kind of sound you can expect from this record. Even if you’ve been following his notorious 1970’s electric period through to this point, this record still provides something new and challenging compared to the murky strangeness of Bitches Brew, the relentlessly nagging rhythms of On the Corner or the muscular bravura of Live-Evil. I own every record Miles released in the 70’s and I like this one better than any named above – and almost any of his albums of the electric era, period (though 1970’s Tribute to Jack Johnson or 1969’s In A Silent Way might give me some pause). Miles changed quickly at this time in his career and never looked back, so liking one record gives you no guarantee that the next one will be to your tastes. And that first couple minutes will let you know right away if this work is for you. It won’t tell you everywhere it’s gonna take you on the ride, but you know from the get-go that the protean Mr. Davis has changed his sound drastically yet again here.
As always, what Miles is doing is much more than just playing trumpet and writing or adapting musical themes – as much as any bandleader in jazz, he’s utilizing the unique skills of his players and “playing” the ensemble. So after he comes in and solos relatively quietly through a wah-wah pedal for several minutes starting around the 2:30 mark – hardly the delicate beauty of his 50’s solos or the robust open horn playing of only a few years before – he hands the reins over to Sonny Fortune’s alto sax. It’s something he’s unafraid to do throughout the record (and throughout his career, actually) – allow other players to take the spotlight even knowing that they may outshine him. And Fortune sounds great here, though after a bit Miles decides that his solo is done by signaling with another blast from the organ that tells Pete Cosey it’s time for his guitar to come in. Let’s talk about Cosey for a minute.
Prior to joining Miles’s group in 1973, Pete Cosey was a session man at Chess Records, playing on records by Fontella Bass, Howlin’ Wolf, Etta James, and Rotary Connection, among others. But the only one that really gives an inkling of the music that would start coming from his guitar under Miles’ tutelage is the much-maligned Muddy Waters album Electric Mud, where the untamed noise he’d soon be issuing started to peek its head out. Among Miles aficionados, the septet that Miles worked with from 1973 until his temporary retirement in 1975 is often referred to in shorthand as “the Pete Cosey Band” because of the prominence of Cosey’s scouring guitar solos, compared in one stroke by jazz critic Greg Tate to both Hendrix for his use of distortion and effects and Cecil Taylor for his harmonic construction and the “out”-ness of his soloing.
So Fortune comes in and solos, but not without Miles continuing to work with the rest of the group, shifting the dynamics behind him and pulling the rest of the musicians out entirely at one point, leaving Fortune solo in the truest sense of the word. And then Cosey comes in and something else happens. The dense funk behind him is suddenly on fire – if the electric sounds leading up to this point were operating at a strong 100 volts, Cosey pushes it to 500 – probably not enough to kill you, but enough to break the skin for sure. And his solo here is a marvel, a wild, bluesy, psychedelic, noise-drenched beast with the band tightly wound underneath him. Once his excoriating turn is done, a mellower groove kicks in, with Davis’s prickly keyboards shining out through the ensemble before he picks up his horn again.
After more of the lead cut, the band moves into “Maiysha,” a piece that first appeared on the 1974 album Get Up With It, and it lessens the intensity a touch as Fortune switches to flute – but Cosey still rips into it with a solo even more “out” than the freaky one he derails the studio version with. And even so, “Maiysha” provides a beautiful, laid-back groove over which Miles takes a more lyrical solo than on the previous track – before Cosey steps in, of course. The piece then tails off towards texture and quiet near the end of the disc.
Disc two – a continuous medley of music broken into two titles here – kicks off at a rocketing tempo with the “Theme From Jack Johnson” (mislabeled as “Interlude”) and shortly works into a Fortune alto solo. Percussionist Mtume is much more prominent here than the first disc, especially when Miles is soloing. The two had a close musical kinship and when Miles solos, it’s worth putting your attention toward how sensitive and responsive Mtume is to Davis’s playing. The beat unexpectedly changes to a shuffle behind a Cosey solo then cools down for Miles’ solo, probably his best and most lyrical on the record, a reward for those who’ve been waiting to hear him solo like this after so much sound and fury – including much interaction with Mtume up in the mix. Miles ends his solo a little after the 13-minute mark, when bassist Michael Henderson drops in the bass riff from “So What” as Pete Cosey takes on a milder and also more lyrical solo, proving that he’s not just a noisy effects man. “So What” is repeated more obviously after the 17-minute mark before Fortune starts a flute solo and the band moves into an eerie, slower part of the music full of jungle menace and weird synth sounds. (I listened to it once at the Tropical Discovery exhibit at the Denver Zoo and it was the perfect soundtrack!) As it gains rhythmic force, they hit a new groove, and there’s a brief guitar solo that may be rhythm guitarist Reggie Lucas (I haven’t been able to confirm this with any of the Miles scholars I know, but I believe it to be true). Things cool back down again for a textural interlude before a majestic, heavy, and melancholy Cosey solo. This corresponds very closely to one Cosey plays in about the same spot on Agharta’s companion piece PangaeaAgharta documents an afternoon concert, Pangaea was the evening show – and the Pangaea solo is probably the best bit of Cosey’s work of all four discs (followed closely by Agharta’s first disc one solo). The record mellows again after that, with Miles on organ getting funky for a little bit a little after the 44-minute mark until the band closes the whole thing on a mysterious fade out with Cosey’s sparking feedback, Fortune’s floating flute, and Miles having left the stage.
            I understand those who don’t like this music – it’s too noisy for some, too difficult to discern the structure of the long, loosely organized pieces for others. Critics at the time mostly reacted badly to it as well, though it’s gotten a reappraisal lately (even by some who initially trashed it) and is rightly seen as a highlight in a career filled with many transcendent peaks. But here’s the deal – it’s ensemble music, not necessarily soloist’s music, despite my descriptions above of many great solos. It’s a dense weave of sound that challenges the way we’re supposed to hear “jazz.” Is it even jazz at all? Who cares!? If there’s a problem there, it’s with the word “jazz,” which isn’t broad enough to contain music like this, not with the music herein.

            - Patrick Brown

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #114 - Blackboard Jungle (1955, dir. Richard Brooks)

Blackboard Jungle is the first “teacher-with-a-heart-of-gold saves a classroom full of no-goodniks” film. It gave birth to an entire sub-genre of films such as To Sir With Love and Stand And Deliver. As I watched this movie, trying to determine what it was that struck me so when I was a kid, it occurred to me that Blackboard Jungle is the most compelling reason I can think of that explains why the 1960’s HAD to happen.   When it was made in 1955, one year before Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel” became his first major single, the entire societal apparatus turned on the thoughts and needs of “The Greatest Generation.” Within the next five years the world started to change. In 1955, the audience was expected to wink at the square, well-intentioned teachers and be horrified by the delinquent young men in the class, but from the opening notes of Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock” (the first use of a Rock and Roll song in a major movie) at some level, we find ourselves rooting for the kids. The kids are led by two adult actors, Sidney Poitier and Vic Morrow, who, compared to the painfully stiff teacher (Glenn Ford) offer a much more compelling option. I guess that’s unfair. It is impossible to view this movie with the eyes of someone in 1955 now. So much has happened to both justify Glenn Ford’s desire for order and discipline and to explain the kids’ need to break out of the stifling black and white world of the 1950’s. With Kennedy, Vietnam, LSD, The Sexual Revolution and Martin Luther King right around the corner, the teachers’ point of view seems like a quaint, sad throw back to another time. This very fact lends great poignancy to a modern viewing of the film. Much like watching The Andy Griffith Show, one laughs both with and at the small-town rubes.

None of this is to suggest that watching Blackboard Jungle is anything less than totally enjoyable. Vic Morrow’s portrayal of a sadistic kid, bent on mischief and revenge and headed nowhere but jail is chilling, and Sidney Poitier might as well have been doing research for his role a decade later in To Sir With Love, when he, in the teacher’s role that time, was far more successful at relating to his students. But that brings me back to the main point, which is that this movie’s greatest achievement is to inadvertently illustrate the looming “generation gap” on the horizon. In its clumsy way, the film treats the youth as something less than human. They are the “other” and not what we fought to protect in WWII. It is not a gigantic leap to beatniks, hippies, yippies, punks and so on. As each generation feels its oats, the previous must take it on the chin. No scene illustrates this more perfectly than when one of Glenn Ford’s idealistic young colleagues brings in his prized collection of jazz 78 RPM records to share with his students. Instead of a Socratic sharing of his knowledge with his students, Vic Morrow leads his gang in smashing the records and mocking the teacher to his face. It is a painful scene (especially for a record collector) but ultimately it once again points to the widening gulf in the life experiences of those who lived through the Great Depression and war and those who were about to usher in the modern age.

Blackboard Jungle closes, as it opened, with the pulse quickening guitar and horn driven excitement of Bill Haley’s rock and roll masterpiece and as the credits roll, you can’t help but feel for the entirety of Glenn Ford’s generation. In the blink of an eye, they would go from being the heroes of the 20th Century to “never trust anyone over 30.” This movie is an important glimpse into one of the major turning points in modern history.

- Paul Epstein

Monday, April 20, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #127 - Amon Duul II - Tanz Der Lemminge

Tanz Der Lemminge, the third album by Amon Duul II from 1971, is, ridiculously, considered their first accessible album after two wildly freeform psychedelic freakouts. I say “ridiculously” because, while Tanz Der Lemminge may be a bit more conventional than the first two LPs, it is a far cry from normal. Split into four major side-long pieces, Tanz Der Lemminge embodies all the characteristics of the Krautrock movement; complex, long-form compositions punctuated by long stretches of wild improvisation, strange, sci-fi lyrical themes and no fear of playing what might be considered fairly extreme music. Musically, Amon Duul II shares much ground with both Can and Atom Heart Mother-era Pink Floyd. There are waves of organ, piano and mellotron, crashing on beaches of throbbing basslines, while reverb soaked guitars skronk like birds above the fray. This is cosmic music, make no mistake about it!

The thing that originally drew me to Tanz Der Lemminge was the amazing cover. I was actually at the store – Underground Records – that I would buy about 15 years later and turn into Twist and Shout, when I looked up at the wall and saw import copies of Can’s Tago Mago and Tanz Der Lemminge for what seemed like a lot of money at the time. The cover of The Amon Duul II album was irresistible to me. Even though I had never heard of the band or their music, I took all my spare cash out and forked it over for a completely unknown quantity. It wasn’t that I was completely unprepared. I was a veteran listener of Pink Floyd, Yes, King Crimson, even Brian Eno, Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk, so the idea of long-form compositions and electronic improvisation was not something new to me. I was, however, unprepared for the sustained ferocity of Amon Duul II. Much like King Crimson’s attack, they just pounded away with abandon, but they were stylistically agnostic, slipping easily from highly arranged prog-rock, to totally free spacerock, to gentle acoustic freak-folk, but all effortlessly and with the group mind of the best west-coast American psych bands. At times, like “Stumbling Over Melted Moonlight,” they almost sound like Quicksilver Messenger Service, but then will morph into insectoid drone patterns as soon as you think you have a handle on where they are going. Over the years, I have never gotten comfortable with Amon Duul’s work in the sense that I know what to expect, or where it’s going. Even though I have owned Tanz Der Lemminge for decades, each time I play it is like a new beginning and a revelatory one at that. I am constantly searching for new bands that can take me somewhere I’ve never been. Bands like Amon Duul II.

- Paul Epstein