Monday, November 20, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #179 - Broken Embraces (Los abrazos rotos) (2009, dir. Pedro Almodóvar)

“For years, Mateo Blanco and Harry Caine shared the same body, mine. But a moment came when suddenly I could only be Harry Caine. I became my pseudonym. A self-made writer made by himself. There was just one unforseen detail. Harry Caine would be a blind writer.”

In 2009, when Broken Embraces was released, I was nearing the end of my degree in film studies, yet I hadn’t found my way to the films of Pedro Almodóvar. Having heard amazing things about the director I decided to go and see what all of the fuss was about, and I was certainly not disappointed. The delicate way that Almodóvar dealt with such a complex and inherently human narrative blew me away and thus began my love affair with the director.

The story begins toward the end of the storyline, introducing us to Harry Caine (Lluís Homar), a blind screenwriter with a penchant for beautiful women and spinning intricate storylines. As a seemingly unimportant news story comes up in conversation, Almodóvar takes the story back in time to 1992, where we meet Lena (Penélope Cruz) and her seemingly stern yet benevolent boss Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez). Lena’s father is quite sick, and through a series of quick events, Ernesto comes to Lena’s rescue to provide her father with the best possible care thus sparking the evolution of their relationship. Bouncing back and forth from 2008 and 1994 we slowly learn more about Harry, his friend and representative Judit (Blanca Portillo), her son/Harry’s writing assistant Diego (Tamar Novas), and the ways that all of their lives are more connected to each other and the scenes from the past than initially seemed. Lena always hoped to be an actress, and after years of living with Ernesto, she decides to try and pursue that dream. She ends up at the office of screenwriter and director Mateo Blanco (Who we also know as Harry Caine). Blanco sees something in Lena and decides to cast her in the lead of the film he is about to begin shooting. The two begin to fall for each other thus creating a complicated web of affairs that leaves the viewer yearning for more reveals through the jumps in time.

The density of the narrative could easily get away from a lesser director yet Pedro Almodóvar masterfully and gently weaves this tale with a doting attention to detail and understanding of the subtleties inherent in the human condition.  Coupled with stunning performances from the entire cast, but especially Homar, Cruz, Gómez, and Portillo, Broken Embraces is a fantastic tale of love, loss, and the ability to move forward despite epic tragedy.

What makes this film such a triumph, in my humble opinion, is the fact that the weight of the drama of the film is balanced with the levity, tenderness, and humor that truly makes life enjoyable. I can’t recommend this film enough, as it is a truly gorgeously woven tale of the human condition in all of its facets. Check it out and see for yourself, you will not be sorry you did!

-          Edward Hill

Monday, November 13, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #192 - Mos Def / Talib Kweli - Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star

In November of 2011, I saw Mos Def and Talib Kweli perform as Black Star at the Roseland Theater in Portland, Oregon. The opening act, Shabazz Palaces, made an already impressive event feel even more remarkable. By the time I attended that concert, I had been following Mos Def and Talib Kweli’s solo careers for years, but I first became acquainted with each of them through their breakout 1998 album, Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star. That performance blossomed into a celebration of the bond between these two artists and highlighted the chemistry they share. Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star prevails as an introduction to two exceptional talents in which they bring out the best in each other, a bold statement of purpose that influenced the course of its genre, and easily one of the greatest hip-hop albums of the last twenty years.

Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star moves with such an effortless flow over its fifty minute running time that it’s easy to forget how much it accomplishes in terms of expressing values, meaningful ideas, and artistic integrity. For as thoughtful and relevant as Black Star can be, the joy shared between these artists offsets any burden of seriousness that could weigh down the proceedings. Both Mos Def and Kweli possess lyrically dense, idiosyncratic, and inventive vocal styles, but a major part of the success of this album stems from their ability to draw off of each other’s stylistic strengths while establishing their respective individual voices as rappers. Running back-to-back in the first half of the album, the tone-setting one-two punch of “Definition” and “RE: DEFinition” establish Mos Def’s melodic, humorous, and elastic wordplay as well as Kweli’s rhythmic, cerebral, and urgent verbalism. Opening with a revealing and amusing clip of dialogue from the film Chameleon Street, “Brown Skin Lady” tilts into a bass heavy groove as Mos Def and Kweli extol the natural beauty of women of color. The song’s loose energy and warm mood make it the album’s most appealing track while its positive, respectful message stands in stark contrast to the misogyny and objectification of women especially prevalent to mainstream hip-hop of the era. Layering an excerpt from the 1983 hip-hop documentary Style Wars with a repeating loop of a woman whispering “escúchela, la ciudad respirando,” “Respiration” begins as a sound collage and places the listener at the heart of a bustling urban setting. Mos Def, Kweli, and guest vocalist Common soon populate this environment and begin trading vivid, overlapping tales of life in the city and pull off the album’s most ambitious moment. Being the product of a rich and fruitful partnership, Black Star holds up to frequent and repeated listening and has matured incredibly well for a hip-hop album from the late 1990s.

Although Mos Def and Talib Kweli have collaborated on individual songs and performed on stage together over the last nineteen years, they have recorded only one album as Black Star. Within a few years of Black Star’s release, Mos Def and Talib Kweli appeared as guests on one another’s early albums. Kweli adds a playful, yet compelling dynamic to the maximalist jam “Know That” from Mos Def’s excellent solo debut, Black on Both Sides. Mos Def plays an empathetic, supporting role on “Joy,” Kweli’s ode to the challenges and rewards of parenthood from his first-rate sophomore album, Quality. Of these later collaborations, the song that best recaptures the magic of Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star appears on Mos Def’s crucial 2011 album, The Ecstatic. “History” features a J Dilla production and flies by in just under two and a half minutes as Mos Def and Kweli hold forth on their personal, professional, and shared histories.

-          John Parsell

Monday, November 6, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #178 - Daughters of the Dust (1991, dir. Julie Dash)

2017 represents a milestone for two of the most significant films in African-American cinema history. It’s the 40th anniversary of Charles Burnett’s landmark Killer of Sheep, an episodic, loose narrative centered around a slaughterhouse worker, and it’s also the year that Julie Dash’s 1991 film Daughters of the Dust – the first feature film ever distributed in the U.S. that was directed (and also written and produced) by an African-American woman - enjoyed a re-release in theaters and an upgraded remastering on DVD and blu-ray.

Dash’s film got much-deserved notice as the remastering work (done in 2016) coincided with the 25th anniversary of the film, but it got a huge bump in attention when Beyoncé borrowed imagery from the film for her visual album Lemonade (there are a number of online articles noting similarities), and that helped the film see not only a remastering, but a re-release in theaters this year as well. But the accolades would mean little if Dash’s enigmatic, sumptuous film did not hold up to repeat viewings – a test it passes with flying colors.

Daughters of the Dust is set in 1902 on the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina as the Peazant family, a community of Gullahs – free descendants of African slaves – prepare to move to the mainland and head north for more opportunity. Because of the Gullahs’ isolation, they’ve retained a distinct dialect and unique culture, rooted in the African traditions passed down through generations and married to the New World. In fact, more than any specific plot points (though the intertwining relationships of the characters is also important), that is the theme of the film: the future and the past are related, and a community’s history is a living thing to be carried by the present generation and passed on to the future. Early in the film, matriarch Nana (Cora Lee Day) says this outright “The ancestor and the womb – they one, they the same” and this is the film’s central idea. It’s why an as-yet-unborn narrator remembers things from before her birth and appears in a photograph documenting the Gullahs before they leave the island. Some have found the film’s dialect challenging to understand, but close listening makes all but the most obscure language clear, and while the relationships of some of the characters can also be challenging to work out, again it comes back to the idea that the film is about a community, and a straight linear story is not on the agenda. Instead we’re immersed in this community and allowed the privilege of observing a set of customs long gone in the real world, but retained in all their vitality in Dash’s gorgeously photographed and acted film.

The film can be a challenge, yes, particularly if you’re hung up on everything being clearly explained to you or a plot that moves steadily from A to B to C, but it’s absolutely worth the effort – there’s simply nothing else like it in cinema. Dash reached into her own family’s history to tell the story of “the adult-born-free African-American person, the first generation of free-borns making decisions about their future” and she assembled a cast and a crew around her to help realize her work beautifully. The cinematography is simply ravishing from beginning to end, and Dash’s decision to allow the women’s conversations and decisions be the driving force of the film is absolutely the right choice. From Nana’s resistance to the move north to Yellow Mary’s (Barbara O) return to the scorn of much of her family and realization how much her roots mean to her to Eula’s (Alva Rogers) fears about her unborn child and her heart-rending final speech, “We carry too many scars from the past. Our past own us. We wear our scars like armor…” the stories interwoven into the totality of the film are absolutely compelling and deserving of multiple viewings. The film is an underseen masterpiece of American filmmaking and deserving of the widest possible audience.

-Patrick Brown

Monday, October 30, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #191 - Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians - Fegmania

It’s almost impossible to compare Robyn Hitchcock to any modern artist. The most fitting comparisons are all in the past: Syd Barrett, John Lennon and Bob Dylan are the most obvious, and it is hard to imagine any artist who wouldn’t be thrilled by the comparisons. In most cases such comparisons would be laughably ambitious, however in the case of Robyn Hitchcock, he lives up to them. Yet, having begun his recording career in 1979 (with A Can Of Bees by his early group The Soft Boys), he clearly is part of the modern world. I remember I first found out about him when he appeared on the cover of some long-forgotten magazine which featured articles about other bands I was interested in (Jesus and Mary Chain and Sonic Youth if I’m not mistaken). The article about him spurred my interest and I started down the road. Almost 40 years later, Hitchcock remains entirely relevant, fresh and one of my favorite artists.

Fegmania, released in 1985, was Hitchcock’s fourth album under his own name and his first with The Egyptians as his backing band. Essentially a rearranged version of The Soft Boys, these players provided his most sympathetic backing and found their way to making one of the finest albums of the 80’s. Fegmania is the perfect place to start with this artist. He has a large, unwieldy catalog spread out over a number of labels. Opening with “Egyptian Cream” we are presented with a perfect slice of retro pop-psych; a hook that gets in your head, lyrics that are at once mysterious, heartbreaking and hilarious. In case you didn’t know, Robyn Hitchcock is the most erudite and surreal lyricist of his generation. Gifted with the Anglophile whimsy of his heroes Lennon and Barrett, he is also in possession of one of the most astounding improvisational poetic minds imaginable. In the live setting he regularly launches into long, extemporaneous orations that fall somewhere between Lewis Carroll, Shakespeare and Thomas Pynchon. It is not a typical mind we are dealing with here. If you like your songs to not provoke thought, look elsewhere; this is an artist of substance. Song three, “I’m Only You,” beautifully illustrates this as he reels off one beautiful line after another in an angelic voice with a Byrdsian wall of acoustic and electric guitars and rumbling drums propelling it forward into a chaotic ending worthy of The Doors. Elsewhere on “My Wife And My Dead Wife” and “The Man With The Lightbulb Head” he channels the style of John Lennon’s writing in his books A Spaniard In The Works and In His Own Write. It is simultaneously, hip, knowing, childlike and sweet. These are often conflicting impulses, yet Hitchcock has always walked that fine line with artistry and aplomb.

Musically, The Egyptians are a totally modern band with current production values. While they utilize and master countless Beatley tricks of harmony as well as complex rhythms and tempo shifts within songs, their music never feels nostalgic. “Goodnight I Say,” “Strawberry Mind” and “Heaven” are songs which seem unglued in time. They feel appropriate next to modern FM hits, yet there is an undeniable “classic” feel to them.

So many albums from the 1980s have lost much of their sparkle because of the horrendous production values employed and the MTV-ready insipidness of the songs’ subject matter. Fegmania on the other hand is a serious and colorful work of art - free of any era-based foolishness and filled with memorable music and poetic imagery.

-         Paul Epstein

Monday, October 23, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #177 - The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988, dir. Wes Craven)

Right off the bat, I’d like to say that I really am not a “horror movie-guy.” And all due respect, but if you are one, you know who you are: you can rattle off obscure B-movie horror actors and directors without batting an eye, you talk about things like blood spatter and creature make-up like it’s an artform unto itself and just generally have a real affinity for the horror and slasher genres. That’s not me. I don’t dislike horror movies, I just generally don’t choose to watch them and thus don’t usually have much to say about them. I’m more of a comedy kind of fella. However, like with any genre, I have my handful that I love and repeatedly return to (and many of those are even more comedy than horror, such as Shaun of the Dead or the Evil Dead series). But with Halloween right around the corner, I thought it appropriate to write up a horror film that I do adore.

So I’d like to discuss Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow because I feel that among a seemingly never ending sea of horror films, it stands out as one of the best. Many of the greatest films, horror or otherwise, are often based somewhat in fact. The Serpent and the Rainbow was not necessarily based entirely on fact, but was inspired by the 1985 book of the same name by Harvard research scientist Wade Davis. The book details Davis’ travels to Haiti to investigate a voodoo society that utilizes mysterious drugs that lower a person’s metabolic processes to the point where they appear dead, are buried alive and resurrected later, having been aware of everything they’d been through. Leave it to Wes Craven to turn what is essentially a scientific and fact-based document (albeit a disturbing one) and turn it into one of the most terrifying experiences of my life.

In the film, Bill Pullman plays the protagonist Dennis Allen, a Harvard researcher who, like Davis, goes to Haiti to look into these “zombification” drugs in hopes of utilizing their anesthetic qualities. In his investigation Allen, assisted by Dr. Marielle Duchamp (Cathy Tyson), enters deep into the world of the Voodoo religion and black magic. He discovers that the drug he is looking for is the reason behind many people being presumed dead and buried alive. During his investigation he is often thwarted by his main antagonist, one of the most utterly upsetting characters to ever be put on screen, Dargent Peytraud. Peytraud is the head of the Haitian militia group the Tonton Macoute and a powerful Voodoo priest, who arrests, taunts, tortures and frames Dr. Allen for murder in order to protect the secrets of his religion and the zombification drugs. Peytraud is always wearing an eerie toothy grin and can appear in dreams and visions to manipulate people’s minds and nightmares because Wes Craven determined that I don’t need to sleep at night. He uses these powers to his brutally creepy advantage, creating nightmarish and paralyzing trances in various characters.

Much of the entire film seems like it could really happen because, to an extent, some of it did really happen. People were buried alive because of a weird voodoo drug. People do still practice voodoo and black magic. However, the beauty in The Serpent and the Rainbow lies more with Craven’s ability to perfectly marry the realistic with the surrealistic. The film is definitely classic Craven, as it eases between dream and reality much like in A Nightmare on Elm Street. But it differs from much of his other work in that it is deeply rooted in realistic premises. I mean, yes, the film was inspired by real events, but even some of the less plausible scenes in the movie, such as the way Peytraud is able to manipulate nightmares, are shot in such a way that it does not seem farfetched, making The Serpent and the Rainbow essentially the most realistic zombie film there is. And that realism is what makes it a great horror film. I’m confident that even the most steadfast of horror fanatics can’t really argue with that.

So, do me a favor and humor me, scream queens and slasher fiends. If you haven’t already, set some time aside to check out Craven’s film and prepare to lose a couple of nights sleep. And Happy Halloween everyone.

-         Jonathan Eagle

Monday, October 16, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #190 - Todd Snider – East Nashville Skyline

I didn't know Todd Snider’s music until the summer of 2014. I'd heard his name, seen his CDs coming through the store over the years, but heard him variously tagged as “folk” or “singer-songwriter” or “Americana” - areas of music that aren't  necessarily my thing so much so I didn’t pay close attention. I respect the craft and skill that goes into these, and once in a while someone in one of these areas hits in on the head in a way that makes me realize that I need to pay attention to music in every genre, not just the arty and weird areas that usually draw my ear. It was with some surprise then, when Twist & Shout hosted the Hard Working Americans for an in-store back in July 2014, that on a stage with notables like flashy guitarist Neal Casal, drummer Duane Trucks, and big guy bassist (and regular Twist shopper when he's in town) Dave Schools of Widespread Panic, my eyes were locked on Snider. He was barefooted, eccentric, twitchy, singing in a raspy drawl that betrayed years of, um, interesting life choices, and he was magnetic to watch – even when he wasn’t singing I always wanted to see what he was doing on stage. And of course, this lead to me wanting to check out the records….

And that began here. I took critic Robert Christgau's advice and chose between three albums he gave an 'A' grade to – this one, 2006's The Devil You Know (currently out of print, but it's great and turns up used regularly) and Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables from 2012 (also great, but too recent to be eligible for this column). In addition to being readily available and having a cheeky nod to Dylan in the album’s name, this had the added bonus of a song title that grabbed me outright: “Conservative Christian, Right-Wing Republican, Straight, White, American Males” – how does one have a title like that and not have it grab me? But as it turned out, the reality of the song was even better. Snider mixes big doses of humor in with his more serious (and very down-to-earth) political side, and not only is the song smart and catchy, it's funny as hell too. But he’s funny (and serious and smart and catchy) all over the record even before that one, which is track 8. Right from the get-go, “Age Like Wine,” he’s self-deprecating enough to sing “my new stuff is nothing like my old stuff was / and neither one is much when compared to the show / which will not be as good as another one you saw” and mean it. And he notes, in lyrics that chart his self-destructive tendencies as readily as his self-deprecating ones, that he never thought he’d live to be as old as he is and that it’s “too late to die young now” as he’s knocking on 40’s door. And he moves directly from there into a story that helps illuminate this idea, “Tillamook County Jail,” where he came “down on vacation / gonna leave on probation” and is hoping of his girlfriend that “she's not so mad now that she doesn't even pay my bail.”

And though common-man stories of drinking and hell-raising run throughout the record (and his career), it’s not all he does, as in the album’s centerpiece and probably its best song, “The Ballad of the Kingsmen.” The song refers back to the public scare about the supposedly obscene words of the Kinsgmen’s classic “Louie Louie” that went all the way up to an FBI investigation and draws that forward to Columbine and the tendency of many pundits to blame youth violence on music and the arts. In addition to his own copyrights, all of which are worth hearing and which I’ll leave you to discover on your own (and make a special quick note for the great “Sunshine”), Snider nails three covers here. In ascending order of favorites: Billy Joe Shaver’s “Good News Blues,” as funny/catchy as any of Snider’s songs with a great intro thanking Shaver personally for saving him from getting shot in a dive bar; Fred Eaglesmith’s “Alcohol and Pills,” a great tune that finds Snider again copping to a lifestyle that claimed Hank Williams, Elvis, Jimi, Janis, and others; and “Enjoy Yourself,” the album’s closer and summary statement, a hit for Guy Lombardo in 1950 that follows on the heels of “Sunshine” and takes that song (and this album)’s note of moving beyond the bad shit in your life and remembering to – you guessed it – “enjoy yourself while you’re still in the pink.” It’s a lovely memento mori to close things out – light, not somber, funny and smart.

Now I’ve seen Snider three more times solo, plus once more with the Hard Working Americans, I’ve got all the albums – including an essential pair of live ones that give you a taste of his between-song patter that’s often as good as the songs themselves – and I’m totally sold. I even bought his autobiography, which once you’re familiar with the personality that’s behind the songs you really will want to check out. And the other records Christgau gave an ‘A’ to – The Devil You Know and Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables – both as good as this one, or maybe even a hair better. Check ‘em out. But the next record might be different and better than the last one, and probably neither of them is much compared to the live show….

-         Patrick Brown

Monday, October 9, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #176 - The Prestige (2006, dir. Christopher Nolan)

One of the best ways to flummox movie audiences is to release two very similar movies within a few months of each other. At some point, a majority will pick one Truman Capote, one asteroid headed for Earth, one erupting volcano, or one talking pig. Although success, either commercial or critical, can help tandem movies like these break away from the association with another film, some of these works languish forever in a blurry region of pop cultural memory. As odd as it may sound, two different, stylish movies about magicians set in Europe during the late 1800s arrived in theaters in the fall of 2006. Whereas The Illusionist amounts to little more than a predictable, yet pleasant looking vehicle for Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti, The Prestige holds up as an absorbing statement on obsession and sacrifice, a well-paced and riveting mystery, and one of Christopher Nolan’s most satisfying films.

Just over a year after Christopher Nolan kicked off his Dark Knight Trilogy with Batman Begins, he recruited Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman to play the leads in an adaptation of Christopher Priest’s novel about rival magicians. Bale and Jackman earned their reputations as charismatic, bankable action stars as the two most important characters of the modern era of comic book movies. As Batman and Wolverine, respectively, these actors set the bar for portraying the kind of flawed, morally ambiguous heroes who have become the standard for contemporary action movies. Nolan leveraged the talent and range of these actors by challenging them with roles that stretched beyond their well-known characters and allowed both actors to add distinctive, new performances to their bodies of work. As Alfred Borden, the industrious, working class magician who blends technical mastery of his craft with a willingness to take risks, Christian Bale creates a character who can shift from sympathetic and admirable in one scene to emotionally distant and ruthless in the next. In the role of Robert Angier, a mysterious performer with a flair for showmanship that compensates for his humble talents in magic, Hugh Jackman depicts an enterprising dreamer whose considerable ambition slowly gives way to an all-consuming desire to prevail over his adversary. Borden and Angier begin working together as assistants for a successful, yet complacent magician, but a pivotal, tragic event during a show causes a rift between them that sparks the epic competition that comes to dominate the rest of their lives. Michael Caine lends his remarkable abilities to the role of Cutter, a magician’s engineer who serves as a mentor to both Borden and Angier, and supplies the film with its conscience. As Sarah, Rebecca Hall gives the film its heart by demonstrating the true cost of Borden and Angier’s conflict through a harrowing, memorable, and nuanced breakout performance.

Although The Prestige is a work of fiction, it draws upon historical details like Nikola Tesla’s scientific experiments in Colorado Springs, Colorado. This element of the plot not only allows Nolan to include several beautiful sequences filmed in Colorado, but also gives David Bowie the opportunity to inhabit the role of the brilliant, otherworldly Tesla. Although a cameo like this could easily distract from the rest of the movie, Bowie’s presence enhances the whole film and endures as one of his last great acting roles. When I went out one cool Friday evening in Vermont eleven years ago to see this movie, I wasn’t entirely sure what I might experience. At that point I had seen a couple of Nolan’s other films, but I didn’t have any notable preconceptions of him as a director. That night, The Prestige presented me with one of my favorite of life’s simple, yet elusive pleasures: the unexpected.

-         John Parsell

Monday, October 2, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #189 - Townes Van Zandt – Flyin’ Shoes (Tomato, 1978)

My introduction to Townes Van Zandt came in 1998 when I first saw the Coen Brothers’ film The Big Lebowski. Lebowski’s incredible soundtrack featured Townes’ cover of the Rolling Stones hit “Dead Flowers” over the end credits. It’s the only example of one of my favorite songs being covered infinitely better than the original. The song was a revelation of sorts for a teenaged me. At the time, I was mostly into metal and abrasive noise rock. Townes showed me that folk music could be just as punk rock as, say, Black Flag or Minor Threat. Townes dealt with subject matter that I related to, such as addiction and loss, in such a brutal and intense way that it is often hard to listen to without becoming emotional. I immediately bought as many of his records as I could get my hands on. One of my favorites, and one that in my opinion often gets overlooked, is his 1978 studio album Flyin’ Shoes.

Much of Flyin’ Shoes’ material was actually recorded in 1973 for 7 Come 11, the record that was supposed to be the follow-up to The Late Great Townes Van Zandt. This record was shelved, however, due to a financial dispute between the head of Townes’ label, Poppy Records and the producer of the album. This fact, coupled with the folding of Poppy Records that same year caused Townes to detach from the music industry, withdrawing further and further into drugs and alcohol. When Flyin’ Shoes did come out, it was Townes’ first offering of new original material in five years, and due to continued struggles with his addiction it would be another nine years after that before he would release another one.

Many would say that Flyin’ Shoes suffers from overproduction and studio trickery. I don’t disagree. It definitely isn’t his best sounding album and tends to lean more toward the country & western side of his talents than the folk music side. But what it lacks in rawness it more than makes up for in songwriting. Townes pens some of his cleverest lyrics in such songs as the ambiguously funny “Snake Song,” or the album’s opener, “Loretta,” an ode to a “barroom girl” whom we have all probably met at some point. Flyin’ Shoes also offers plenty of Townes’ trademark melancholy on songs like the despairing love song “When She Don’t Need Me” or the title track.

Besides his penchant for brilliant lyrics, Townes also has a knack for creating some of the most beautiful melodies ever recorded. “No Place to Fall” and “Dollar Bill Blues for instance are among the best songs he’s ever recorded with melodies that stay with you. Personally I think the record only really has one weak spot and that is his cover of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love?” which really isn’t bad so much as it is just kind of unnecessary and sort of disrupts the natural flow of the record. But again, this is a personal and very minor gripe, barely noticeable when listening to the record as a whole.

In 2007, I was on tour with my band at the time and we played a show in Oxford, Mississippi. Oxford is home to Fat Possum Records, who we were playing a showcase for that night. They had just recently released a slew of Townes Van Zandt reissues and we got paid for the show in promo copies. After our show we were offered a place to stay by some locals who were in attendance. They lived in this development where there was a common courtyard-type area where all the neighbors would sit around in lawn chairs and drink. We partied there well into the morning and at a certain point I got up and went into someone’s house and crashed on the couch. I was sleeping maybe 40 minutes when I was awakened by Flyin’ Shoes being blasted at the loudest volume I’ve ever heard a stereo be capable of. Our hosts had found our “payment” for that night’s show. I tell this story not only because it’s amusing but also to illustrate that even at an unacceptable volume during an aggressive hangover Flyin’ Shoes got me back up and partying again.

-         Jonathan Eagle

Monday, September 25, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #175 - Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964, dir. Byron Haskin)

I’ve been home sick for a few days and it has given me a great opportunity to get caught up on a bunch of movies, new and old. Yesterday I watched modern master Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant which was ultra-modern, hyper-scary, mega-suspenseful. It was masterful science fiction/horror of the highest order, bringing together all the technological and storytelling finesse that can make these genres so appealing when done well. The achievements were clearly of this time: in other words, there is no way this movie - with its hellish visions literally made flesh -could have been made in a different era. It got me thinking about those different eras and the shifting sands of audience expectation and context that makes our appreciation of such movies possible.
Robinson Crusoe On Mars was made in 1964, a full year before the first images from Mariner 4 started to show the world what the Red Planet actually looked like. Thus any verisimilitude or failure can be placed on the makers of the film and not on contemporary scientific understanding. Even under this difficult stricture, this movie holds up well. The film is based faithfully on Daniel Defoe’s 18th century adventure classic which tells the tale of a man shipwrecked on an island and forced, with the help of a native companion named Friday, to find food, water, shelter and ultimately meaning in a lonely and confusing life. The “On Mars” version obviously updates the story to put the wayward traveler (square-jawed Paul Mantee) out in space and stranded on Mars instead of an island in the South Pacific. The movie opens as Mantee, his co-pilot (a young and completely un-smarmy Adam West) and a woolly monkey named Mona are passing Mars on an observation mission when an errant meteor forces them off course and into Mars’ gravitational pull. Crash landing, Mantee, named Captain Kit Draper, quickly realizes his only human companionship has perished and he is now stuck on a faraway planet with nothing but a space-suit wearing Monkey for companionship. Much like Defoe’s Crusoe, Draper must begin the slow, lonely process of finding, shelter, food, water, and in this alien environment, oxygen. Through a series of alternately plausible and laughable eventualities he does manage to secure all these needs for himself. It’s worth reminding at this point that within the parameters of our contemporary understanding of the facts, his discoveries all seemed pretty plausible. In fact, in general this movie does a remarkable job of creating possibilities out of scant information. With hindsight, more than a few of the solutions Draper comes up with are remarkably prescient.
A little more than halfway through the movie we are introduced to Friday, who in this version is an alien slave forced to mine on Mars by another, dominant alien culture. Director Byron Haskin had previously directed The War Of The Worlds in 1953 and the dominant species’ vessels are remarkably similar to those in his other film, but this fact does not distract from the eeriness of their ominous presence. Friday has escaped from his slave labor but can still be tracked through wristbands he is forced to wear, thus outrunning the hostile spaceships and their deadly laser blasts becomes Draper, Friday and Mona’s reason to start traveling across Mars to the polar ice caps. They make it, they free Friday and they eventually get rescued. For its time it is as realistic as Matt Damon’s The Martian and twice as fun.

The real reason I mentioned being home sick is that the first time I saw this movie (as a TV rerun in the early 1970’s) I was in the exact same situation. I was in elementary school, home with a fever and given the luxury of our black and white Zenith being wheeled into my bedroom so I could recuperate under the healing powers of the boob tube (as my father angrily called it). I recall drifting in and out of this magical movie, with clear memories of the Martian environment, the scary alien ships, the sense of loneliness and fear, and that monkey! Yes, for me, Mona The Monkey (actually an animal named Barney with fur covered underwear to stop gender confusion) stands out in memory in the most adorable little monkey-sized space suit. I never forgot it, and when I returned to the movie as an adult, it was even more memorable than I thought. The monkey in the space suit remains my favorite detail of the movie, but with fresh eyes I was blown away by the beauty and forward-thinking vision of the sets, the colorfully tinted and ever changing skies (couldn’t see any of that on the old Zenith), the fascinating views into old technology trying to look modern - dig the early computers and especially the amazing primitive video camera, which ultimately provides one of the most magical sequences in the movie. There are plot holes and anachronisms that might make you guffaw, but if you tend toward this type of entertainment and can appreciate historical perspective as the inevitability that it is, Robinson Crusoe On Mars is an entirely satisfying and sweetly nostalgic trip to another place and time.

-          Paul Epstein

Monday, September 18, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #188 - My Morning Jacket – It Still Moves

Every time I hear “Mahgeetah,” the first song on My Morning Jacket’s It Still Moves, I see rays of golden afternoon sunlight flooding into the long windows of an old brick gymnasium from my childhood. Presented with such a remarkable and gorgeous soundscape, my mind creates a likely setting from which this music could come to life. Something in the alchemy of that song evokes a very powerful sensory experience that I don’t feel all that often. Upon its release in the fall of 2003, I wasn’t looking for this album, but it found me and it hasn’t left my side for too long since. It Still Moves, My Morning Jacket’s third full-length release, captures a young, hungry band making a play for the big time, offers a revealing document of five years of hard work on tour, and endures as one of the strongest, most satisfying rock albums of the last twenty years.

It Still Moves hums with an inclusive intimacy that makes the listeners feel like they are along for the ride, bearing witness to the band’s triumphs and failures while appreciating all of the inside jokes and observations generated along the way. As I’ve already mentioned, “Mahgeetah” opens the album and promptly introduces a distinctive, bracing tone that carries all the way through. The band built a custom studio and recorded lead singer Jim James’ performances in a converted grain silo. The effect lends James’ already dynamic voice an otherworldly power and gives “Mahgeetah” an irresistible grandeur. Up next, “Dance Floors” breaks into an easy, natural mix of country-rock and Muscle Shoals-style R&B before igniting into a blistering showcase for the band’s visiting horn section, Willie Mitchell’s Fabulous Memphis Horns. “Golden” continues the streak of strong openers by slowing down the pace and highlighting the subtler elements of the band’s sound. The lyrical sentiment echoes the kind of touring musician’s ennui explored in Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Lodi,” but James’ songwriting and delivery elevate the song above a travelogue of soul searching remorse. All twelve songs on It Still Moves prove My Morning Jacket’s strength as an inventive, tight ensemble breathing new life into the forms of classic rock established in the early seventies, but few songs demonstrate the band’s skill for potent and expressive guitar playing as capably as “Run Through.” The final song, “One in the Same,” feels like a moment shared among close friends gathered around a fire in the wee hours of the morning after a memorable party. James’ plaintive voice, accompanied only by a heavily strummed acoustic guitar, guides us somewhere between elegy and reckoning and closes out the album on a note of weary warmth that lets us in on one last joke before bidding us farewell.  

Last year, My Morning Jacket released a deluxe edition of It Still Moves featuring a remastered version of the album and a bonus disc of demos and outtakes. I tend to be fairly neutral when it comes to remastered reissues of albums I already love because the quality of the processes and results can vary so greatly, but I’m quite impressed with the enhanced edition of this album. In general, the entire album sounds much sharper and the individual instruments are far more distinct, but I really appreciate how much better I can hear the horn parts on “Dance Floors” and “Easy Morning Rebel.” Although I’m familiar with a few other albums by My Morning Jacket, none of them have had anywhere near the same impact on me as this one. With It Still Moves, My Morning Jacket distilled the essence of their many influences, summoned their considerable aspirations and ambitions, and created a collection of songs that belongs right beside their musical heroes’ best albums.

-         John Parsell