Monday, November 28, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #167 - Stevie Wonder - Music of My Mind

Music of My Mind highlights a key moment in Stevie Wonder’s transition from child prodigy and Motown star to independent adult artist responsible for some of the best music of the 1970s. Wonder’s previous album, 1971’s Where I’m Coming From, exhibited his increasing willingness to break free from the Motown mold, but it was with this album that Wonder defined the hallmarks of his imminent run of classic albums: extraordinary pop song craft, idiosyncratic humor, social commentary, technological innovation, unparalleled music virtuosity, and unbridled creative expression. Music of My Mind documents the sound of a young genius gearing up for a legendary string of critically and commercially successful albums that stand alongside the best works of modern pop music.

Stevie Wonder opens Music of My Mind with “Love Having You Around” and “Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You),” two expansive songs that explode the expectations and limitations he had grown up with as a part of the Motown family in the 1960s. By the time these two songs have finished, Stevie has treated us to over fifteen minutes of music that provide him ample opportunity to warm up, stretch out, and set the terms of his career as an independent artist. Up next, “I Love Every Little Thing about You” finds Wonder returning to the virtues of the joyful, three-to-four-minute pop song and demonstrating how to do it just right. Wonder’s frequent collaborator and one-time wife, Syreeta, would go on to kick off her 1974 sophomore album, Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta, with a ramped up and fully embellished cover of this gem. The impressive pacing of Music of My Mind falters somewhat with the fourth song, “Sweet Little Girl,” a stop/start study in the kind of characterization that Wonder would use much more effectively on later songs like “Living For The City.” Whether or not Wonder’s experiment with this lonely/drunk rebuffed suitor character really works, the song has some fun moments like when he drops a reference to Melvin Van Peebles’ 1971 film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. “Happier Than the Morning Sun” establishes Wonder’s knack for sweet, bright intimations of love and devotion and might just be one of his best, most underrated songs. “Keep on Running” injects a heady dose of funk and energy into the album’s second side and presages Wonder’s forthcoming heavy funk classics like “Superstition,” “Higher Ground,” and “You Haven’t Done Nothin’.” Although Wonder would refine the focus of his social commentary in the next few years, “Evil” allows a young, gifted artist to rail against the fundamental injustice of the world with confidence, anger, and righteousness. “Evil” concludes this remarkable album on the kind of sobering yet optimistic note that would come to define so much of Wonder’s work throughout the rest of the decade.

Just weeks after arriving at the White House in 2009, President Obama presented Stevie Wonder with The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, formally recognizing and celebrating Wonder’s cultural contributions and legacy. At the time, I hoped this achievement would inspire people to explore Wonder’s amazing, but surprisingly overlooked body of work. Wonder released Music of My Mind in March of 1972, just seven months before the first entry into his stretch of quintessential albums, Talking Book. Although Talking Book often tops lists of Wonder’s best albums, Music of My Mind unfortunately tends to fall by the wayside. If you’re looking for a point of entry for Wonder’s music in the 1970s, I strongly recommend spending some time with this warm, rambling, and powerful collection of songs.

-         John Parsell

Monday, November 21, 2016

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #153 – Superman Returns (2006, dir. Bryan Singer)

After setting the bar for modern comic book movies with X-Men and X-Men 2, Bryan Singer abandoned the third installment of that series to direct a new Superman movie. Singer chose to pick up where Richard Donner and Richard Lester left off with Superman and Superman II over twenty-five years before and cemented connections to those films by securing the rights to John Williams’ unforgettable theme music and accessing unused footage of Marlon Brando as Superman’s father. Despite commercial and critical disappointment, the resulting movie, Superman Returns, prevails as a curious experiment in recent blockbuster movies, an unfinished chapter of a superhero’s legend, and a testament to the appeal of Superman.

One afternoon while visiting my father a year after I first saw Superman Returns, I handed him a recent issue of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s excellent comic book series, All-Star Superman. Later, I asked my dad what he thought about the comic book and with a furrowed brow he replied, “Well, I don’t mean to slight these creators, but I stopped reading Superman comics when I was teenager in the ‘50s and reading this one I felt like I was able to pick back up without missing a beat. Surely, something should have changed in fifty years.” I reframed my dad’s critique and told him that Morrison and Quitely would probably be delighted to hear that their story achieved this manner of timelessness. With Superman Returns, and all of its ties to the first two Christopher Reeve movies, Singer aimed for a similar kind of endurance. From Brando’s posthumous performance, Singer forged new dramatic vitality and threaded a powerful theme of father/son relationships that propelled Brandon Routh’s Superman into uncharted territory for the character and anchored the most successful elements of Superman Returns. However, the links to the previous Superman movies proved to be troublesome by inviting comparisons, especially among the principal actors, that distracted from what worked in this movie. Brandon Routh and Kate Bosworth were not Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder and they certainly did not share the same kind of chemistry, but Singer created a more subtle universe that allowed Clark Kent/Superman and Lois Lane to live and struggle with greater dimension than their earlier counterparts. Unfortunately, Superman Returns laid the groundwork for a new series that would never see the light of day, but deserved at least as much of a chance for continuation as another unexpected and highly scrutinized DC Comics adaptation from the previous year, Christopher Nolan’s first segment of The Dark Knight Trilogy, Batman Begins. The true essence of Superman may remain elusive throughout this movie, but the nobility of Singer’s efforts deserve recognition and, most importantly, by the time the credits roll, Superman Returns looks, sounds, and feels like a Superman movie.

In the summer of 2013, just a few months after my father’s death, I watched Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot, Man of Steel, and came away feeling bludgeoned by a grim and joyless movie that bore little connection to a character who can inspire so much wonder, hope, and awe. Superman has had such a challenging recent history with big screen appearances because he isn’t just a character from another planet, he’s from another time, as well. Wolverine and Batman may thrive in morally ambiguous quagmires, but Superman’s idealism and goodness have fallen out of step with the demands of today’s Hollywood blockbusters. Maybe it’s time to go back to comics like All-Star Superman for a reminder of what still makes Superman so great and why we need him now more than ever.

-         John Parsell

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #166 - Shelly Manne & His Men – At the Black Hawk Vol. 1

Ornette Coleman Quartet at the Five Spot. John Coltrane at the Village Vanguard. Miles Davis Quintet at the Plugged Nickel. And... Shelly Manne & His Men at the Black Hawk? Why doesn’t that seem to fit when we’re looking at historic runs of jazz groups playing live at clubs? Mainly because West Coast jazz gets short shrift when histories of jazz are written up. To be fair, it’s also because many jazzers move to New York City to make their mark, seeing as it was (and remains) the center of the jazz recording industry and maintains a thriving culture for the music. And thinking through that list, you go down the famous sidemen with these groups – Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, Elvin Jones, Eric Dolphy, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and, um, Joe Gordon? Monty Budwig? Hmmm… another disparity there. Maybe it’s time for some introduction.

Shelly Manne cut his teeth in the 1940s in New York with harder swing music, but the bebop revolution fired him up, and his work playing alongside many of the bop greats and regularly in Woody Herman’s group allowed him the ability to play the music. He also worked in Stan Kenton’s progressive group, which gave him the ability to sharpen his skills in a very different style. But in the early 50’s Manne packed up and moved near L.A., becoming a vital force in West Coast jazz and bringing his firsthand experience with bebop to the scene. He was also the drummer on Ornette’s second album Tomorrow Is the Question!, from before Ornette made the opposite trip across the country that Manne had made a few years earlier. But in September 1959 he took his exciting new hard bop group out of town to San Francisco and immediately phoned his label, Contemporary, to tell them that they ought to get up to the Black Hawk and record the group. From the liner notes: “The original intent was to make one album. Later, in Los Angeles, listening to the playback, it was apparent that the performances were so consistent any choice would be arbitrary and whatever was left out of the album would be just as good as what went in.” So one LP became four LPs and then a few decades later, four LPs became five CDs, with bonus tracks. It should also be noted that the sound, for something done on the fly, is exemplary throughout, and also represents one of the first times a jazz group was documented extensively in a club setting.

And who are His Men that created such excitement for the label? First up, we’ve got Joe Gordon on trumpet. He’s another East Coast émigré, trained in bebop through his work in Dizzy Gillespie’s big band, who moved to L.A. in the mid-50’s and joined Manne’s Men in early 1959. Then we’ve got Richie Kamuca on tenor sax. Like Manne, he’d worked with both Herman and Kenton before moving to the West Coast. He also joined Manne in early ’59. Next up we’ve got Victor Feldman on piano. Feldman is a UK-born pianist and percussionist who moved to the States in the mid-50s. He too passed through Herman’s band en route to the West Coast where he lead his own groups and also worked with Manne’s group. Feldman went on to work with Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis and others before branching out into other genres that included work with Frank Zappa, Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits (again, following the lead of Manne, who’d recorded on Waits’ jazziest album, Small Change years before Feldman played alongside him), and others. Last but not least is bassist Monty Budwig, who in addition to a lengthy tenure with Manne, also played in Vince Guaraldi’s trio and may or may not be the bass you hear on one of the best selling-jazz albums of all time: A Charlie Brown Christmas.

So these are Manne’s Men. And in the time they’d been playing together through 1959, they developed the kind of rapport that makes any of the other groups mentioned so special – they’re perfectly in sync, know how to listen to and complement each other, and best of all, they all kick ass. The first tune on this disc is the well-worn “Summertime.” Once they state the primary melodic themes of the tune, the band keeps the song’s ballad feel in a series of solos that show off the sensitive communication of the group. Next up is “Our Delight,” which ups the tempo considerably. This is where Manne, with his bop background, shines, playing a supportive role but also throwing in so many accents, rolls, and fills of his own that he’s essentially soloing alongside the main melodic soloist without ever showing him up. “Poinciana,” the third track, is the show stopper – everyone here is on fire, but Manne slyly steals the show with his fire and Budwig’s bass right in line with him. And as fine as Gordon, Kamuca, and Feldman play, the ear keeps going back to Manne’s dazzling performance. But I mean, it IS his group after all! Lastly (not counting the 17-second closer), we get two versions of “Blue Daniel” – another lovely slow one in waltz time. There is little to choose between the two versions, but that only speaks to the uniform excellence of the entire set.

I mentioned it before, but I’m as impressed with the entire set as the label was. Is four volumes too much? Five? Absolutely not. Start here, but recognize that this is only the tip of the iceberg of this great group. So how do those other groups stack up? Ornette at the Five Spot in November ‘59? We’ll never know, because Atlantic didn’t have the foresight to record it. Coltrane at the Vanguard in November ’61? Stellar and out of this world. Miles Davis’ great Second Quintet at the Plugged Nickel in December 1965? Amazing deconstructive work as well. Shelly Manne & His Men at the Black Hawk in Sept. 1959? A perfect living specimen of Hard Bop at its finest. And Manne, it might be noted, did it first.

-         Patrick Brown

Monday, November 7, 2016

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #152 – Wings Of Desire (1987, dir. Wim Wenders)

Damiel: When the child was a child, it was the time of these questions. Why am I me, and why not you? Why am I here, and why not there? When did time begin, and where does space end? Isn't life under the sun just a dream? Isn't what I see, hear, and smell just the mirage of a world before the world? Does evil actually exist, and are there people who are really evil? How can it be that I, who am I, wasn't before I was, and that sometime I, the one I am, no longer will be the one I am?

Wings of Desire is Wim Wenders’ gorgeous, philosophical, poetic love note to humanity. When I first stumbled upon this film I was in a very strange place in my life, trying to find my footing and direction, and working toward a somewhat unknown goal of the future. The tone, tenor and the inquisitive yet hopeful nature of this film resonated with me on an unforeseen level. The beauty of human kind is that we all have a story, and that the journey, filled with good, bad, and everything in between, is what makes life worth living. The preceding lofty statement is what Wenders successfully attempts to encapsulate in this beautiful and timeless piece.

The narrative follows Damiel, an angel constantly in love with humanity and engaging in the intense mental battle of whether to fall and become a human to create his own narrative. Damiel is accompanied on his journey through Berlin (during the tumultuous time before the fall of the wall) by another angel named Cassiel. Both of the angels are tasked with observing and cataloging the day-to-day lives of humankind as they walk unseen among them, listening to each person’s every thought. They spend time discussing the simplest, seemingly mundane activities with an infectious adoration. The film follows the angels as they observe a number of interesting characters. There is Homer, “The Aged Poet,” who wanders pondering the great mysteries of life and what lies ahead for him as he nears the end of his life; Peter Falk (playing himself) is an actor shooting a film set in WWII Nazi Germany and questioning the nature of art and his place in the world; and finally there is Marion, the beautiful trapeze artist who steals Damiel’s heart through her poetic ruminations on life and love.

The film, which was shot by Henri Alekan, strikingly moves in between stunning black and white representing the world of the angels and luscious color representing the world of mankind. This creates an amazing dynamic that mirrors the idea that Damiel, Cassiel, and the rest of the angels are merely there to observe and cannot affect the work around them, or fully experience or appreciate human life/existence. This visual cue/metaphor is incredibly effective in creating that divide, which is key to the motivations of Damiel.

With a film that is so philosophical, where the majority of the dialog is in thought, the actors are truly put to the test. Being able to convey certain emotions without actually speaking any line (except that of the mental voiceover) can be difficult to do without falling into the trap of overacting. This is yet another facet where this film shines. Bruno Ganz, as Damiel, and Otto Sander, as Cassiel, are perfect in the roles as the pensive but lovingly optimistic angels. Curt Bois brilliantly plays the aged poet with reserve and subtlety; Peter Falk brings some well-placed levity to the story; and Solveig Dommartin is perfectly seductive as the melancholic yet hopeful goth-rocking trapeze artist. There is true depth to the acting talent in this film.

To recap, this is quite possibly one of the most poignant and poetic cinematic love letters to human kind. It’s beautifully shot and acted, the narrative is brilliant but pensive, and if you need any more of a push to check out this film there is an awesome cameo from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. It’s hard for me to fully express how much this film means to me, but I would just honestly love to turn you on to this movie, so please check it out!

-         Edward Hill

Monday, October 31, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #165 - Deltron 3030 – Deltron 3030

In 2009, I worked with at-risk youth in a public school program in Portland, Oregon. Music provided a touchstone for both staff and students but my coworkers and I often struggled to find music that everyone could agree on that was also appropriate for a classroom setting. My friend and colleague Jim once recommended an album that he found to be a great fit for our unique circumstances: Deltron 3030. Oddly enough, this sci-fi tinged concept album featuring producer Dan the Automator, turntablist Kid Koala, and left-field rapper Del tha Funkee Homosapien proved to work incredibly well in our classrooms. Deltron 3030 dropped in the spring of 2000 but I knew nothing about it until Jim enlightened me and now this post gives me an opportunity to extend this favor to you. Shortly after its release, Deltron 3030 became a cult-classic for underground hip-hop, established a high point for each artist’s career, and just happened to lay much of the groundwork for the next year’s debut album by Gorillaz.

Following a bit of exposition about the album’s vision of the future with “State of the Nation,” Deltron 3030 begins in earnest as “3030” slowly builds steam and evolves into a sprawling-but-fleet seven-and-a-half-minute declaration of purpose, style, and absurdity. Running back to back, “Virus” and “Upgrade (A Brymar College Course)” establish the album’s stride while offering irresistibly catchy choruses, sumptuous sonic textures, and compelling beats. My conversation with Jim about this album actually started with “Upgrade” because he thought its chorus, “upgrade your gray matter, because one day it may matter,” offered an excellent theme song for our classrooms. Arriving about halfway through the album, “Madness” allows our protagonist Deltron Zero to reframe his quest for survival as a battle against the forces of complacency and conformity that doubles as a commentary on the state of hip-hop around the year 2000. With a cameo from Damon Albarn, “Time Keeps on Slipping” unites the team that would soon go on to create the virtual band Gorillaz and unveils the sonic blueprint for that project’s very successful first album. Punctuated by an assertive fanfare and featuring a vocal hook from Sean Lennon, “Memory Loss” serves ably as the album’s final full-length song and functions nicely as a bookend with “3030.” Short interludes, announcements, and advertisements make up nine of the album’s twenty-one tracks and deftly balance Kid Koala and Dan the Automator’s highly evocative, dense arrangements and Del tha Funkee Homosapien’s rambling, verbose, and heroic vocal performance.

While this album shares multiple connections to similar projects like Dr. Octagon, Handsome Boy Modeling School, and Gorillaz, Deltron 3030 stands apart because of the remarkable synergy these three artists achieved. The influence of Deltron 3030’s singular take on Afro-futurism extends beyond the genre of underground hip-hop and the various projects of its members and filters into Janelle Monáe’s music, especially her 2013 sophomore album, The Electric Lady. Two years ago, all three members of Deltron 3030 reunited to release their sophomore album, Event 2, which felt at moments like an attempt to catch lightning in a bottle...again. Intentionally or not, this follow-up served as a reminder that a large part of the first album’s success derived from the fact that at the time very few people had any idea what these three artists could accomplish together. Although I can’t be sure that this is what music will sound like in a thousand years, Deltron 3030 remains certainly well ahead of its time and still feels like a future time capsule just waiting for discovery.

-         John Parsell

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