Monday, October 21, 2019

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #229 - The Emigrants / The New Land (1971/1972, dir. Jan Troell)

When these two 3-hour Swedish films opened in Denver in the early 1970’s I would have been about 14. I honestly can’t believe my parents thought it was a good idea to take me to six hours of subtitled historical drama, but it is even more surprising that I sat through it, and remembered it fondly. I was thrilled to see that Criterion released them together in one package, and, that after three decades I would be able to revisit this experience. I spent the better part of my day off with Swedish farmer Karl Oskar (Max Von Sydow) and his bride Kristina (Liv Ullman) as they try to succeed in their native Sweden, but failing that, emigrate to mid-1800’s America and help settle Minnesota.
The first movie The Emigrants finds Karl Oskar toiling on his Father’s farm working like a dog, barely making ends meet, and finding it almost impossible to feed his new and growing family. At the same time, his brother Robert and other relatives are finding the Swedish environment of conservativism and religious piety oppressive. They start talking and reading about North America and the promise of freedom and success in the United States. Braving the emotional and financial consequences, a group of them decide to leave their home and make the voyage to America. That’s a neat little synopsis of the first three hours, but it does nothing to convey the overwhelming beauty and power of this great movie. Filmed with loving attention to detail, director Jan Troell puts the dirt under your fingernails, makes you smell the bread baking, and puts the thought in your mind and belly that this will be the last bread of the winter because the harvest is bad. Troell’s movie is in a class by itself. It’s hard to think of another movie that so vividly takes the audience into the lives of simple people so effectively. There is little romanticizing of their plight, everything is shown with a matter-of-fact clarity which conveys both the pain and drudgery of their existence, but also offers a fleeting, bittersweet glimpse at a not so distant past free of technological intrusion and environmental annihilation. The scenes and one’s emotions fly from backbreaking toil to exhilarating natural beauty with the fluency of life itself. The cinematic achievement is profound. Like so few movies (Boyhood is one of the only others that comes to mind), The Emigrants and its sequel The New Land actually capture the huge artistic ambition of showing a life lived.
The lengths of these movies might seem gratuitous, but as they unfold, it becomes clear that this is the only way to portray such overwhelming scale. The sequence showing the boat journey from Sweden to New York is forty minutes of harrowing aquatic nightmare, and when it ends you feel a physical relief as the actors set foot on solid ground. Likewise, the final scenes of The Emigrants show Karl Oskar trekking through unsettled Minnesota looking for the perfect spot to settle. Without any dialogue, it is actually possible to lose yourself in the fantasy of discovering America. It is one of so many beautiful and emotional moments. If you love this country, and believe its inherent greatness is connected to its natural beauty and those who first settled it, this is a rare experience.
 Many social issues are also tackled in these movies. Especially in The New Land, timely themes of immigration, racism, sexuality, class warfare, dirty business and Native American rights are shown, again with the seemingly spontaneous intrusion of true life. Perhaps because everything is from the Swedish perspective, rather than the jingoism we often see in modern Hollywood, it is possible to reflect upon these issues from multiple perspectives. The story climaxes with twin tragedies. First, younger brother Robert heads west to participate in the gold rush. He is exposed to greed, disease, theft, and death, before returning to the disapproval of his own family. It is the Horatio Alger myth in reverse. Then comes the controversial telling of a massacre (part of the Dakota Wars) of many of the settlers by the Native Americans who originally inhabited the land the Swedes were settling. A series of horrifying scenes of violence, retribution and execution bring in to focus one of the more unsettling aspects of the founding of our country and the treatment of its first citizens. Again, it is the non-Hollywood perspective that lends these scenes such veracity and makes them so hard to ignore or forget.
The Emigrants and The New Land are incredibly important films to see at this particular moment in America’s history. The ambitions of these films are as big as America’s endless horizons, yet they focus on the small details of humanity we all share. The endless vistas of this new country tamed by the tiny voice yearning for home.

- Paul Epstein

Monday, October 14, 2019

I'd Love to Turn You On #242 - The Cure - Disintegration (1989)

            You’ve almost certainly heard of the Cure. And you’ve almost certainly heard at least one song off their 1989 album Disintegration. It’s hardly obscure; after all, we’re talking about the album that brought us “Lovesong.” But there’s nothing quite like listening to the whole thing all the way through for the first time. It’s brooding. It’s melancholy. It’s like watching a thunderstorm happen in reverse. This album is quintessential for the Cure; it combines the darker, moodier feeling of early albums like Faith and Pornography with the accessibility of albums like Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me. There’s a reason this album is a classic, which still earns acclaim thirty years after its release. If you’re gonna get into the Cure, this is the album to start with.
            Disintegration was written at a rather turbulent time for the Cure. During its production, the band’s keyboardist and one of its founding members, Lol Tolhurst, left the band and was replaced by touring keyboardist Roger O’Donnell. Robert Smith, the band’s frontman, was suffering from depression and turned to psychedelic drugs to cope. His introspection about turning 30, and about the legacy of the band, also influenced the album; they’d begun writing poppy tunes to avoid being pigeonholed as simply a Goth band, but Smith now wanted to get back to their roots. This resulted in an album which kept some pop elements, but returned to a darker sound.
            To start with, there’s the opening track, “Plainsong.” It starts out quiet, with gently ringing bells, and then explodes rather suddenly into an atmospheric, warm, shimmery intro that hits like the first burst of sunlight through the clouds at the end of a storm. Then comes the guitar, dripping with melody. By the time the vocals hit, you’re fully immersed. Their echoes complement the atmosphere of the song perfectly, and Smith’s voice blends in, rather than being sung over the rest of it.
            After “Plainsong” is “Pictures of You.” Like much of the album, the keys, the shimmers, and guitar sounds from “Plainsong” carry over to this track, but Smith’s vocals take on more of a leading role. Then comes “Closedown,” which continues the feeling, but brings in more of Simon Gallup’s bass and Boris Williams’ drums. By this point you can tell the album has been building up to something, but you’re not sure what.
            And then there’s “Lovesong.” It’s an achingly sweet declaration of love, written as a wedding present to Smith’s wife (and high school sweetheart), Mary Poole. With its heart-melting lyrics and yearning melody, it’s easy to see why this song is so well-loved by fans and casual listeners alike. I can’t hear it without wanting to sing along; it’s beautiful. It starts out softer and subtler than previous tracks on the album, with a catchy bass line and quiet keys. Then come the vocals and the iconic guitar and keyboard riffs, adding a new energy to the album and giving it new depth. This song is where Disintegration goes from good to great.
            "Lovesong" is followed up by “Last Dance,” a heart-shattering track that brings back the shimmery atmosphere from earlier in the album, but makes it colder and sadder. The tender nostalgia in the lyrics is matched by Simon Gallup’s melodic bass and the reverb-heavy guitar that seems to drift down like snow over the listener. There’s a subtle desperation conveyed that sticks with you long after the song ends.
            And then there’s “Lullaby,” easily one of the top three tracks on Disintegration. It’s a bit of a departure from the earlier sound of the album, but it’s a perfect fit. The frantic, paranoid vocals are whispered rather than sung, fitting perfectly with the eerie lyrics, which describe being eaten by a spider man in a nightmare. It’s isolation, it’s terror, it’s helplessness, and it’s so strangely pretty you can’t help but listen again.
            Next comes “Fascination Street.” The reverb-laden guitars are back, echoing in a kind of organized chaos over the bass that draws you in. It’s a while before the vocals come in, which gives the listener a chance to get used to the building tension. But when the vocals hit, the tension only continues to build, which keeps the listener engaged and yearning for more.
This leads into the angst-ridden “Prayers for Rain,” a dark, gloomy track, with bleak imagery in its lyrics and simple but captivating guitar. Of all the tracks on Disintegration, this one is the closest to the deliciously nihilistic, desolate sound on earlier albums like Pornography. It’s one of my favorite tracks on the album. The way it takes the warm elements of earlier tracks on the album and darkens them keeps me coming back to this track over and over again.
“The Same Deep Water As You” starts out with the sound of thunder and rain, which sets the pleasant but melancholy tone for the whole song. It’s not as dark as “Prayers for Rain.” Instead it’s a warm and mellow type of yearning, in striking opposition to the next song on the album, “Disintegration,” like the calm before a storm. It has a way of washing over the listener, bringing back the shimmering atmosphere that characterizes so much of this masterpiece of an album.
The title track, “Disintegration,” is much more fast-paced. It has a frantic, desperate feel to it, which persists until the last chord. It’s about selfishness, deception, and endings, and you can’t help being pulled into the narrative by Robert Smith’s deeply emotional vocals. The album has felt like it was building up to something, and with this track, it finally comes to a head.
After this is “Homesick,” for which Lol Tulhurst provided the basis before he left the band. It’s full of dramatic, aching sadness. Like most of the Cure’s work, it’s melody-driven. Disintegration feels like a breakup album, and this feels like the aftermath to the ending “Disintegration” represents.
Finally, the album ends with “Untitled.” It has a happier, warmer tone, in contrast to “Disintegration” and “Homesick.” This provides some closure, and ensures the listener doesn’t leave feeling too broken down. It’s still sad, but it’s less intense, and the lyrics echo back to the perception of unreality expressed in “Pictures of You.”
The Cure were one of the biggest bands of their era, transcending genre and crafting a legacy that will endure for generations. Disintegration is an album that captures all their best elements, and it’s the album that changed me from a casual listener to a fan. It’s melancholy and it can be dark, but it’s intensely beautiful. Is there really any better album for when you’re feeling down?
- Madden Ott

Monday, October 7, 2019

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #228 - The Host (2006, dir. Bong Joon-ho)


            Meet the Park family, proprietors of a snack stand along the touristy Han River in the South Korean capital of Seoul:
Gang-Du, the eldest son of the generous and caring widower Hie-bong, Gang-Du’s wife left him with their precocious young daughter Hyun-seo years ago and left him emotionally arrested at that stage in his life.
Nam-Joo, Hie-bong’s youngest, a champion archer with a penchant for choking when the pressure is on.
Nam-il, the educated activist middle child who has been unable to find gainful employment despite his education and who drinks to cover up his anger.
Hie-bong, the gentle patriarch who is struggling to care for his family economically, and who is ready to fight to hold them together.
Hyun-seo, youngest of the Park clan, trying to succeed in school despite a difficult upbringing and a father who, though he tries his best, fails her in many ways.

While the Parks work their snack stand, miles away an American military scientist examines the contents of his laboratory with his Korean assistant, sees hundreds of bottles of chemicals he deems to be spoiled, and has a conversation that culminates in the words “That’s right, let’s dump them in the Han River” - we know this can’t be good. Sure enough, shortly the local fisherman begin to notice fewer fish, and some of the ones they catch seem… different, perhaps with more tails than they usually have, and also perhaps a little more bite-y than usual. A man preparing to jump off a bridge sees a huge black shape moving in the water but can’t tell what it is.
And instead of spending half the film building up to the reveal of the monster as in most monster classics (Alien, Jaws, King Kong), we’re suddenly right into the thick of it - a mutated, amphibious monster that resembles a giant, dangerous tadpole with legs and too many teeth is running rampant along the walkways of the Han, crushing and flinging aside onlookers, grabbing some with its mouth or its tail, going in and out of the water. Naturally this happens right by the Park family stand at the most crowded and busy time of day, and as the monster runs wild through the crowd Gang-Du sees young Hyun-seo in danger and springs into action intent on protecting his family, one of the few onlookers who dares to assault the beast instead of running away screaming. But the monster nabs Hyun-seo with its tail, flees back to the water and off to its lair. Shortly afterward those who have come into contact with the monster are quarantined by the military because of their exposure to a virus the beast is carrying, and this includes the entire Park family. And so begins the meat of the film - the family coming together over their longstanding personal difficulties to find Hyun-seo. Which means that they not only have to find the monster's hidden lair in the city, but also evade the authorities who want them locked up and away from the general populace as they prepare to test a new chemical agent to destroy the beast - and possibly sell it for chemical warfare in the future.
Gang-Du (Bong regular Kang-ho Song) is both funny and touching as the eldest son, a slacker father lamenting his departed wife and dotingly focused on his daughter Hyun-seo (superbly played by Ko Asung), suddenly awakened out of his torpor to rescue his captured child. The film follows out many threads of the progress of different family members - Gang-du’s younger archer sister, his activist younger brother, and his father Hie-bong trying to keep them all together (and who, like his surprisingly active slacker son, is a real fighter when it comes to the monster). And of course there's resourceful young Hyun-seo, cool-headed under threat of being eaten by the mutant tadpole threatening all of Seoul.
Bong Joon-Ho's ease in genre - and also rejection of it - is a major plus here. Like all his films (that I've seen), he starts with what appears to be a straightforward genre piece and slowly sends it off the rails until it's something else entirely. Is this a thriller about a government cover-up? A family drama? A giant monster horror film? A black comedy? The answer is yes to all of those things. And the reason I've spent so much time talking about the family is because Bong took the time to think about them as well - he invests what could be a tawdry CGI-centric genre piece with real, flawed, believable people (helped immensely by an excellent cast who make us care about their foibles, about their problems), and helps us believe it when a giant killer tadpole snatches their daughter to its hidden lair to be eaten at a later time.
If you need a great horror film for your October viewing, check this one. If you need to see the earlier work of this year's Palme d'Or winning director, check this one (and also check out the superb Memories of Murder, itself another genre-defying genre film - this time a police procedural) before you go see the excellent Parasite when it opens. But really, Bong Joon-Ho hasn't stepped wrong in anything I've yet seen - I started with The Host and have yet to be disappointed, and you won't be either.
-         Patrick Brown

Monday, September 30, 2019

I'd Love to Turn You On #241 - Iron Maiden - Piece of Mind (1983)

Entering into the world of Iron Maiden can be very intimidating from the outside, you rarely meet a fan who isn’t a die hard, or someone who doesn’t love this band more than some of their own family. They’ve been around long enough where they’ve been passed down from parents to children, aunt and uncle to nephew and niece, but still have the appeal to be able to get the attention of the teenager who feels like they don’t fit in. How can a band with a zombie-like mascot that is on every album cover sell out arenas across the world? It’s very strange, but it shows how far good songwriting, melody, and work ethic go in the music business.
 Most bands have something very special about their first couple of albums - there is something so raw, hungry, and primal that you cannot ignore them. Iron Maiden embodied that with their self-titled debut and sophomore album Killers. Those albums were recorded with their original singer Paul Di’Anno, and most metal fans will defend those albums until they’re blue in the face, but there is so much gold to be found deeper in the well. After Killers, the band decided to hire vocalist Bruce Dickinson, and he brought the band to the next level - they were able to soar over every other band’s vocal abilities. His debut was on The Number of The Beast, which is a classic from the very beginning to the last guitar solo, but following that classic up was the hard part. Luckily for metal fans all over they nailed it with Piece of Mind, their fourth album, stuck the landing, and cemented themselves as a major piece of rock history, even outside of metal. They feel like a brand new band and they aren’t letting their past define them. Piece of Mind is an album presented by a band that is completely confident in what they’re doing. Their main song writer - bass player Steve Harris - now has a few albums under his belt and a new voice to really complete his vision, and he uses that to his full advantage.
            The album starts off with a powerful drum intro for the song "Where Eagles Dare" (a song based on the Clint Eastwood movie of the same name), after which the guitars just pummel you with their power, and the bass is crisp, clear, and forward in the mix, which you don’t hear a lot of in metal at this time. It's followed by "Revelations," "The Flight of Icarus," and "Die With Your Boots On," where the lyrics start to go a little deeper than movie references. Diving into literature of Crowley and Greek mythology, listening to this as a freshman in high school it opened up this whole world of wonder. These stories and themes now felt way more accessible instead of being homework. Nothing makes Greek mythology cooler than Iron Maiden as the soundtrack, and that’s a fact! At the time I first heard this I was also pretty heavily into hardcore punk, being able to pull out the themes from songs like “Die With Your Boots On,” and comparing it to the more straightforward lyrics in Gorilla Biscuits' “Hold Your Ground,” they felt like the same song to me. Right in the middle of the album they throw in what might be their biggest hit, “The Trooper.” At this point it feels like this song is bigger than the band itself; it is the song that even if you don’t like the band, you know this song. This band has a heavy emphasis on bass, but it feels like the bass is carrying this song more than any other. It’s the kind of song that makes you want to play bass instead of guitar - even as I’m writing this and listening to the album again I took a brief break to grab my bass to play along with the song; I couldn’t help myself, it just has that effect on people.
How this album ebbs and flows is a very important part of it too. After the exhilarating highs of "The Trooper," they have a cryptic, reversed spoken word into for "Still Life," which is a song that has more gradual build up, keeping the momentum going until the last song. With the songs "Quest for Fire," "Sun and Steel," and the finale "To Tame a Land," they really show off how fantastic their production is, with high-flying shredding going on between the dual guitars, and the bass also carving itself a comfortable spot in the mix. The vocals lay on top of all of it like a blanket and the drums are so precise that it never feels like there is a single hit out of place.  They just nail every bit of it.
This album has the perfect mix of hits and deep cuts, they're still in their prime as a band and creative force. They keep the momentum going with three more great albums that are just as good as this album, even if they don’t have hits like "The Trooper." Once you start listening to this band you become branded for life; it becomes a gateway into a whole other world of great, heavy music. You never stop being an Iron Maiden fan when you grow up - you may listen to them less, but you never stop being a fan.

- Max Kaufman

Monday, September 23, 2019

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #227 - The Social Network (2010, dir. David Fincher)

My freshman year in college I somehow got my hands on a screener copy of The Social Network. I think a friend of a friend was in film school at Auburn or maybe it just magically appeared in my apartment, I'm not sure. One thing I am sure of is that I watched the hell out of it. It grew on me the more I watched it. It is after all a movie about Facebook. But not just about Facebook, it's about all of the people Mark Zuckerberg stepped on the heads of on the way to the top. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin weaves two complicated legal cases into an epic story scored by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. The cast is all over the place and yet somehow it works perfectly to tell this story. In the end, it might just show you that if more people had stopped, watched this film and looked into the deceitful things Zuckerberg did to make Facebook, some of you wouldn’t have been so surprised when Facebook itself became a deceitful thing.
            The first thing that won me over about The Social Network was that Aaron Sorkin wrote the script. As a massive fan of The West Wing, I love a good Aaron Sorkin walk-n-talk peppered with iconic lines. What better than for him to write about than a bunch of nerds arguing in court over who came up with what. There is a reason he won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Sorkin adapted Ben Mezrich’s book Accidental Billionaires into an amazing script that was easy to follow, interesting and still had enough tech lingo to be not dumbed down for the masses.
This film has a massive cast, some big names and some unknowns at the time. Jesse Eisenberg plays insufferable nerd Mark Zuckerberg like a super villain with absolutely no regard for people other than himself. Watching him tell an attorney for the Winklevoss twins that he doesn’t deserve his attention with not one single human emotion on his face was insane, seeing as I had only seen him in Adventureland before this. In the role of Eduardo Saverin (AKA best friend and cash cow for Zuckerberg), is the adorable Andrew Garfield, who even with his adorable face he still does the job of showing just how far Zuckerberg went to get to the top. You understand his frustration with the situation - Zuckerberg made him not a part of Facebook. Armie Hammer - man if only there really was two of him. But alas, there isn't. He plays the Winkelvoss twins as two big dumb (but not that dumb, because they go to Harvard) jocks and still gives each twin their own personality. Who better to play Napster founder and all around douchebag Sean Parker than Justin Timberlake, a musician who was definitely affected by the creation of Napster? He did an amazing job of playing Parker as the paranoid bad businessman that he was. 
And finally, the music. If the score wasn’t super-duper out of print I think I could do an entire review about it. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross - Boy, what a team! I wouldn't have passed a few college classes if it weren’t for this score. As soon as I saw the film I had the music stuck in my head and to this day it's my go-to study/get things done music. It’s honestly worth a listen on its own, but hearing it woven into this complicated story is really something. “Hand Covers Bruise,” a melancholy tune that you can hear throughout the film, is also my favorite of the tunes. An intense, strange version of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” sets an even stranger mood for the Henley Royal Regatta where the Winklevoss Twins lose the race. Again, there is a reason this won an Academy Award for Best Original Score. While the score dominates the film it is opened and closed with two great song choices. Opening the film in a crowded college bar is The White Stripes' “Ball and Biscuit,” which sets a mood for the verbal beating Zuckerberg is about to receive from a soon to be ex-girlfriend. Closing out the film with The Beatles “Baby, You’re A Rich Man” while Zuckerberg sits alone after a deposition refreshing his Facebook page, waiting to see if the same ex-girlfriend from the beginning accepts his friend request is just the icing on this cake to an already fantastic sounding film. 
I find it kinda funny that this blog will be posted on the Twist & Shout Facebook page. The version of Facebook in The Social Network isn’t the same Facebook as today. In The Social Network it was exactly that, a network for socializing, that isn't the case anymore. Today it’s for arguments and weird relatives that overshare among other things. Around the time I was obsessed with The Social Network I also stopped putting every second of my life on Facebook. I don’t know if I was just bored with it or if the film made me see it in a different light. All I can say is that I am not one single bit surprised by all of the chaos Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook have created in the decade since the film was released.

- Anna Lathem

Monday, September 16, 2019

I'd Love to Turn You On #240 - John Coltrane - Blue Train (1957)


Blue Train, the only record by John Coltrane on Blue Note records, came out in 1958. The personnel is an all-star lineup, with members from Miles Davis’s and Art Blakey’s bands. John Coltrane was a creative force, having just working with Miles Davis, and being in the process of working with Thelonious Monk while Blue Train was being recorded. He would go on to put out some of his most influential music, including the landmark record Giant Steps on the Atlantic label, shortly after recording Blue Train. This album consists of all original material with the exception of one standard, "I’m Old Fashioned." John’s Coltrane’s creative energy was on full display for this session, not only as a composer but as an improviser.
One of my favorite things about this record is the arrangements. The band is big enough to function as a multi-timbral ensemble, smaller than a big band and larger than a traditional trio or quartet. It displays a fullness and lushness in the arrangements, yet it is lean enough to let each of the members shine as soloists. Curtis Fuller adds not only sonic dimension on the trombone but crystal clear solo lines. Handling trumpet duties is Lee Morgan. He was propelled to fame with a series of hit records for Blue Note after this session. Both He and Fuller were playing with Art Blakey at the time. The rhythm section consists of Paul Chambers on bass and Philly Joe Jones, both of whom had played with Miles. Finally, on the keyboards Kenny Drew harmonically glues this talented band together.
"Blue Train" is the first track, and the opening melody is one of the things that will keep you coming back to this record. It is simple, catchy, and bluesy. After the melody is stated a couple of times Trane takes the first solo on the 12 bar blues. His impressive technique allows him to surprise us with unexpected turns of phrase. The choices he makes are inventive and innovative, and the energy he brings to each solo is impressive. As Trane ends his solo it provides a perfect simmering point for Morgan to come in a play it cool for a little bit. The sax has been playing super energetic jam-packed lines, so in contrast Lee Morgan starts his solo by playing some cool repeated note motifs. The ensemble supports in various ways. Philly Joe Jones energizes the soloists at times by switching to a double time feel, drawing them into denser rhythmic activity. In other places the horn ensemble unites to provide background textures as support for the soloists.
"Moment's Notice" is a cool midtempo swing tune. It starts out featuring the quartet of Coltrane, Chambers, Drew, and Philly Joe in a broken down version of the ensemble playing the initial statement of the melody. Philly Joe Jones’s hi-hat work is amazing - he compliments and punctuates the melody. The melody is eventually supported with the full ensemble using the horns as rhythmic and melodic thickeners. This tune could work as a quartet arrangement but this elaborate architecture is a treat for the ears. Eventually a harmonic pedal point is established and Trane begins his solo. Trane’s three choruses are packed full of ideas, already showing glimpses of how he would further develop his approach to harmony. He is incorporating massive amounts of material, working on developing his own language. Curtis Fuller’s choruses, perhaps some of his best on this record, are precise and technical, a model of post-bebop. Lee Morgan plays technical ideas but utilizes more repeated note motifs, bluesy bends, and wide interval leaps. It's more of a showy style, while still being hard bop.
"Locomotion" is a blistering call and answer between the trumpet and trombone with Coltrane playing shorter solo response phrases. It is a great example of how Coltrane’s musical energy can propel a rhythm section. With Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones, the rhythm can have a laid back feel at times, but with Coltrane taking a solo at this tempo listeners can definitely feel him leading this band with a musical dexterity and intensity that lives up to his legend as a larger than life performer. As Trane works his way through the first chorus you can feel the groove settle in. Curtis Fuller is next up, and I love the way his solo is introduced over an 8-bar drop out by everybody else. His use of sequence or recurring ideas similar ideas, such as the chord change, is a highlight of the solo. Lee Morgan once again dazzles with his proficiency. This solo highlights one of the great things about Lee Morgan's playing. Even in an uptempo tune while playing fast lines he can make certain notes pop and stand out. It really is a cool aspect of his playing, not only are the lines melodically working their way around the harmony but at the same time he is adding another dimension to the dynamics by attacking and easing off certain notes.
The ballad "I’m Old Fashioned" is next. In this thinner texture where Trane plays the melody, Paul Chambers' excellent bass work can be appreciated. As Curtis Fuller takes the first solo Philly Joe moves from ½ time to straight quarter notes on the ride cymbal providing a perfect solo bed for Fuller to work in. For Kenny Drew’s understated piano solo Philly Joe switches to just brushes on the snare. It is here that you can hear the synergy between the piano, bass, and drums, as they just relax in the groove. Morgan follows with a sultry solo, eventually resolving to the melody to end the tune. "Lazy Bird" finds Morgan introducing the melody after a brief introduction by Drew on piano. At the bridge horns play harmony hits before Morgan restates the melody. Morgan takes the first solo, navigating the song with his typical fleet-footedness. He is followed by Fuller, whose brief solo gives way to John Coltrane’s solo. Trane has a way of using variation within his improvisation that avoids direct repetition. He might use something close to a motif, but it will rarely be the exact thing twice. He also uses unexpected starting and stopping places along with dense phrases that make it hard to predict what he might attempt to play. His choice of using harmony that exists within the chord structures or incorporating outside harmonic tones belonging to his developing vocabulary was another factor in his growing sound. One of the joys of listening to him play is the unexpected nature of his performances.
I think this record is a must have for a Coltrane fan. It sits firmly as a marker between the Prestige recordings and the Impulse recordings. It has iconic cover art - a contemplative Coltrane with that classic blue filter over it - all the sidemen are playing out of their minds, and the songs are all very catchy. As far as Coltrane’s playing he is giving it everything he has. His tone is balanced and even, his ideas are focused and evolving, and his energy as a band leader produces a true classic.
-         Doug Anderson

Monday, September 9, 2019

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #226 - Suicide Kings (1997, dir. Peter O'Fallon)

           The 1990s were a time in cinema when Quentin Tarantino-clone directors ran rampant, particularly clogging up the box office in the late ‘90s on the heels of QT’s Pulp Fiction. It seemed like everyone, with varying degrees of success, made a crime comedy with witty banter spoken between criminals and overly glorified gun violence. Speaking as a fan of the man’s work, this isn’t necessarily a complaint. While there were a significant amount of these copycat films that missed the mark, many of them were excellent and continued to develop this type of cinematic storytelling style initially forged by Tarantino.
            In 1997, longtime television director Peter O’Fallon (Party of Five, thirtysomething, etc.) threw his hat in the ring as a feature filmmaker. The result, Suicide Kings, is a strong debut and an enjoyable action-comedy that works on many levels. To hear Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes tell it, I’m a complete moron who wouldn’t know Citizen Kane from Citizen Ruth, but hear me out here, because I really think that if you like these types of films this one might tickle your fancy.
For one thing, it’s got a phenomenal ensemble cast made up of both established stars and talented young actors who would later become stars. The always amazing Christopher Walken plays retired mob boss Carlo Bartolucci (or Charlie Barrett, as he is now known) who wanders into his regular restaurant and becomes the unlikely victim of a kidnapping by spoiled, rich prep school post-grads Max (Sean Patrick-Flannery), Avery (Henry Thomas) and Brett (Jay Mohr). Charlie is chloroformed and taken to a private mansion where he is duct taped to a chair and held captive. When he comes to, the men, joined by another friend T.K. (Jeremy Sisto), explain to him that Avery’s sister (and Max’s fiancé) Elise (Laura Harris) has been kidnapped and her captors have demanded a $2 million ransom. To show their degree of seriousness, her captors have apparently cut off one of Elise’s fingers. Upon hearing this, Charlie realizes that these men have done the same to him, promising to mirror his condition with Elise’s.
The men go on to explain that even though they don’t suspect Charlie being involved, they do plan to exploit Charlie’s connections and ask him to put up the ransom money. After much resistance, Charlie finally agrees to help them and begins making phone calls. Further adding to the complications of the boys’ plan is the arrival of another of their classmates, Ira (Johnny Galecki), whose father owns the house. Ira is a hilariously neurotic and whiny extrovert who is terrified of what his vacationing father will do if he finds out they’ve been in the house at all, much less with a gangster held hostage and bleeding on the floor. So he spends much of the time nitpicking his friends’ behavior, kissing up to Charlie (so he’ll “go easy on him”), and cleaning up his friends’ messes. While captive, Charlie gets to know each of his captors, eventually pitting them against one another when he learns that the kidnapping may have an “inside player” involved. Meanwhile, Charlie gets in touch with his right-hand man Lono, played by ‘90s outlaw comic Denis Leary, who spends his time roughing up wiseguys and ranting a mile a minute to his partner Mickey (Louis Lombardi) about footwear, golf equipment and his nagging wife. Fans of Leary will no doubt be delighted to learn that he improvised many of his lines during these scenes.
            The plot, though simple, goes through many twists and turns that I don’t want to spoil here so you’ll just have to watch it to see to where it meanders. The dialogue is sharp and fast-paced, adding to the Tarantino-esque style. Walken, as usual, is able to practically carry the entire film with his menacing presence, even though in this movie he is essentially incapacitated the whole time. This film is filled with all the things you want in a comedic crime film. It’s one of those buddy films that is instantly quotable, filled with maybe a bit too much male bravado, but never failing to keep the viewer entertained.
-         Jonathan Eagle

Monday, September 2, 2019

I'd Love to Turn You On #239 - Brian Eno - Before And After Science (1977)

An argument could be made - and I’ve made it - that Brian Eno is the most pivotal artist of the rock era. If one lays his output on a graph with music history it seems like he has been constantly either breaking up the past or predicting the future. His work with Roxy Music took a hatchet to rock and prog convention, making concept over technique a willful and meaningful choice. His first four solo albums played with the idea that pop music could be more challenging than we had been led to believe. Combining a love for rhythm, heavy beats, and prog instrumentation with avant production he created a body of work that stands up well next to Bowie and Can as the tip of the spear of what might have been called cutting edge in the mid-1970’s. With Before And After Science he reached a new level of tea leaf reading. Released in 1977, this album is split into two parts: side A is angular, joyous proto-New Wave, and side B is a gentle and beautiful preamble to his ambient period which would preoccupy the next decade or so of his solo releases. This album took Eno two years to complete, and the ten songs included were whittled down from one hundred he wrote during this period. Each one of the chosen songs feels momentous and integral to the whole.
Also relevant to Before And After Science is the fact that it was the first album in which Eno employed his recently invented Oblique Strategies cards. These production tools were a series of “oracle cards” which when drawn from a deck at random would make suggestions like “Go slowly all the way round the outside.” Eno and his fellow musicians would attempt to act on these instructions without question. This method of creation shares DNA with William Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s Cut Up method of writing. There was intentional art, and there was entrusting the process to the whim of the universe, and each of these ideas was given equal merit. The result was magnificent as nothing on Before And After Science is predictable and everything sounds new and unexpected.
Opening with the chaotic rhythms and phased vocals of "No One Receiving" we are immediately thrown into a woozy world of off-kilter cadences that seem to come out of the mix like lead instruments instead of their usual background position. With accompaniment by members of Cluster, Brand X, King Crimson, Can and Roxy Music among others, Eno finds the perfect musicians for his vision. With minimal instrumentation he creates a symphonic version of rock music. Infallible melodies are coaxed out of the barest use of drums, bass and synths. No matter how carefully one examines the songs and their instrumentation there remains a certain magical Eno-ness to each number that gives it immediate and permanent mnemonic properties. You can’t exactly tell why, but they live in your head forever. "Kurt’s Rejoinder" will make you feel like you are in a pop music house of mirrors as synths soar above crazy time signatures with unforgettable Lewis Carroll-like lyrics. Track four, "Energy Fools The Magician," is the first hint of the ambience to come - a slinky instrumental led by Percy Jones’ slippery bassline and Fred Frith’s spooky guitar. Side One comes to a close with what I have always considered one of the first punk songs. "King’s Lead Hat" (an anagram for Talking Heads, whom he had just seen for the first time and would go on to produce) storms out of the gates with Andy Fraser’s crashing drums, marching handclaps, and clanging metal, and is punctuated by a deranged Fripp guitar solo. It bristles with spiky energy that would have fit in on a Magazine or Buzzcocks album.
If side A is a sonic report on rock’s contemporaneous state, side two is a never ending dream balm. Faultlessly melodic, "Here He Comes" is a beautiful and simple song with Phil Manzanera’s guitar and Paul Rudolph’s fretless bass solo playing off each other ecstatically. As side B progresses, we can hear Eno working his way toward ambiance. "Julie With" is a whisper of a song whose lyrics evoke beauty, eroticism and dread equally. Nothing but sparse keyboards, droning guitar and bass provide the gentle background. Eno intones "I am on an open sea, just drifting as the hours go slowly by/ Julie with her open blouse is gazing up into the empty sky." It is the audio equivalent of a Renoir painting - hazy, dreamlike, lovely. The album closes with the sublime "Spider And I" which finds Eno alone with synth waves, moody bass and the lines "We sleep in the morning, we dream of a ship that sails away…a thousand miles away." Eno’s muse was about to set sail. When Eno followed this album with more than half a dozen contemplative instrumental albums which plumbed the quiet recesses of modern art, it should have surprised no one at all. Side two of Before And After Science sounds like a man quietly slipping under the inky surface of his own artistic impulses with no intention of breaking the surface anytime soon. It is a sublimely quiet and singular listening experience. My highest endorsement is that for years I would go to sleep to side two of Before And After Science, and I never had any nightmares.
- Paul Epstein

Monday, August 26, 2019

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #225 - The Twelve Chairs (1970, dir. Mel Brooks)

In 1970 Mel Brooks was something of a new kid on the scene. His first movie, The Producers, had been a big hit on Broadway and a successful movie so expectation was high. His second movie The Twelve Chairs proved he was both as funny and as talented as he seemed. Set in the post-revolution USSR, the film plays on the historical realities of the newly minted communist government as it obliterates the life known by the former aristocratic class. Ron Moody plays Vorobyaninov, a once rich man who now works as a clerk in a government office. We meet him as he visits his mother-in-law’s death bed. She informs him that before the revolution she sewed a fortune of jewels into the lining of a dining room chair. Unfortunately, she also tells the town priest Father Fyodor, played with wicked glee by Dom DeLuise. Thus we are off on a chase across the USSR to find the missing chair with the missing fortune inside. This is the perfect setup for Mel Brooks to ply his madcap trade of pratfalls, visual humor and Semitic in-jokes. And ply he does. Along with Blazing Saddles, Brooks finds his comedic stride most effectively in The Twelve Chairs. However, he also is surprisingly effective in creating a real relationship between the main characters, who, in spite of their reprehensible greed, actually evoke something resembling pathos by the end of the film.
Immediately upon learning of the chair, Vorobyaninov is joined by handsome con-man Ostap Bender (Frank Langella) who acts as the straight man throughout the movie as Dom DeLuise and Ron Moody offer a master’s class on physical comedy. DeLuise is one of the great clowns of modern film. His physical performance in The Twelve Chairs ranks as one of the best of his career. His rubbery face, loose-limbed movements, and schoolboy goofiness were never used to greater effect. Mel Brooks also offers a brief but hilarious cameo as the drunken servant Tikhon. Ultimately the film belongs to Ron Moody though. His outrage at his lowered social station is palpable and it manifests in a series of physical and verbal tics and twitches that anyone who has experienced loss can relate to. He also is a master of the lost art of the slow burn. His rage and frustration grow and increase throughout the film exploding as he repeatedly fails to get the right chair.
The Twelve Chairs succeeds wildly on this slapstick level, but there is much more to this film. The most surprising element is how effective Brooks is at creating scale and meaning. Filmed in Yugoslavia, Brooks does an admirable job of capturing the post-Revolution Russia, a country suspended between rural village life, old-world aristocratic highs, and the coming bureaucratic lows of the USSR. Brooks succeeds in conveying an epic feel to the landscape and the journey the main characters make across this huge country in search of their chairs. Every one of Brooks strengths is on full display here. The journey for treasure feels like Chaplin’s The Gold Rush while the beautiful travelogue elements are obviously influenced by (or maybe making fun of) Dr. Zhivago. Drawing those comparisons may seem far-fetched, but I’m not sure Mel Brooks’ first five or so films don’t represent the funniest body of work in the second half of the century. His combination of Marx Brothers-like chaotic action and sound filmic technique could be seen as a bridge between old and new Hollywood. There’s more to this great comedy than initially meets the eye.
-         Paul Epstein

Monday, August 19, 2019

I'd Love to Turn You On #238 - Guelewar Band of Banjul - Warteef Jigeen (1981)


            I often get asked why I listen to African music when I can't understand the language. It's pretty simple, really - when the music is compelling enough, the words simply don't matter. And often enough I find out that the words are also compelling when I can dig up English translations, but I don't really seek them out, because at its best the music slays all by itself. That's certainly the case here, with this album sung in the Wolof language. The band - Guelewar Band of Banjul (or just Guelewar on some records) - doesn't have a lot written about them and I know only slightly more about the group than about the words.
Bandleader Laye N'Gom started his musical career in the late 1960s, eventually finding his way in the 70s to the successful band The Alligators. After the departure of several members, the Alligators fused with the Super Eagles to become Super Alligators. By 1973, after more personnel changes, they renamed themselves Guelewar (Wolof for "noble warrior") and began infusing their sound with the Western influences of rock, funk, and soul. In 1975 they broke up, reforming a year later with yet more new members and finally released their first recordings in 1977. In 1979, two more albums followed - Warteef Jigeen was one of them - and the band continued through 1982 when they seem to have disbanded and Laye N'Gom (now known as Abdel Kabirr) went on to a solo career. It's more complicated than that too - I'm not even sure what's accurate in this data. N'Gom provides the dates I mentioned in one reissue's liner notes, but the fairly authoritative Discogs site pegs their first album as 1980 and this one as 1981, so either they got released in The Gambia and maybe also surrounding Senegal earlier (and N'gom is correct) but elsewhere later (and so Discogs could also be correct). Or N'gom's memory of things that happened almost 40 years ago is hazy. Or whoever entered the data in Discogs is just wrong. This helps point up why I don't sweat little details like understanding the language - you can never really get to the bottom of it anyway, so why worry?
So let's now talk about what we do know. The killer title cut - the shortest thing on the album at a mere 6:51 - starts off the album strong with the horn blast of two saxophones (Laye Salla and Bass Lo Fara Biram) supported by a supple bassline (Malick Njock Njie), with drums (Adama Sall Adu) and percussion (Alieu Chan N’Gom and Koto Biram N’Gom) clattering funkily in the pocket in the background to kick things off before Moussa N’Gom’s soulful vocal comes in. The saxes drop out, and the voice and rhythm section (plus some restrained guitar from Moussa Njobdi Njie) take things for a few with an occasional sax commentary. At about the four-minute mark, Laye N’Gom’s buzzy synthesizer makes its first showing in the proceedings in a fine solo and the horns return in a grand fashion, then everything comes together for the last minute to take things out. Twice again on the album they return to this kind of driving funk - on "N.T.C. The Gambia," which features fuzz guitar, more enticing synth, and a sax solo in addition to the usual unison horn lines, and "Jilanna" which follows right on the heels of "N.T.C." and makes for a killer 17+ consecutive minutes of the album.
Around this they also essay a slow groover with "Leen Te Koun," which throws heavy emphasis on the 1, just like George Clinton would have it, and provides a showcase again for Moussa N'Gom's vocals trading off with Bass Lo Fara Biram, who sets aside his sax for a bit to take the mic. There's also the 12:01 of the slow ballad "Mamadu Bitike," another feature for both vocalists that finds everyone in the band working toward the total moody effect of the music rather than flashy soloing for the first two-thirds of the song before the percussionists come in at about 8:15 and things kick into a high gear and cut loose. The record closes on " President Diawara" which though I don't speak Wolof, I have to assume is in honor of the first President of The Gambia, Dawda Jawara (Diawara in some Anglicized spellings), under whose leadership as Prime Minister The Gambia achieved independence from the British before the country created the office of President, to which he was elected. This song has the most guitar-y solos of the album from Moussa Njobdi Njie (who elsewhere mostly works in deference to the song), plus Laye’s weird synths and more solo sax - everything they the group has done throughout the album is pulled out again at the end to recap what we’ve heard.
All accounts I've read piece together a view of Guelewar as an influence on music throughout The Gambia and Senegal - their early live shows helping form the blueprint for the Senegambian music that would come to be known as mbalax, and those shows were also an acknowledged influence on the primary superstar of mbalax, Youssou N'Dour. Their recordings, hard to find for decades but this one recently reissued by the Austrian PMG label, show them to be one of the most consistent recording acts of the time, with not only Warteef Jigeen out there, but a (now out of print) compilation called Touki Ba Banjul : Acid Trip From Banjul To Dakar that cops the faster half of this album both superb, and a live album of material from 1982 released by Teranga Beat in 2011 only lesser by virtue of slightly inferior (though by no means bad) sound. Do I understand what's being sung about? No. Do I still after picking up these three releases have a clear picture of the band's history? No. Does it matter? Not a bit; not when the music speaks this clearly.
-         Patrick Brown