Monday, August 22, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #161 - Sonny Sharrock - Ask The Ages

There is not much footage of Sonny Sharrock, but what exists is revealing. If you go to Youtube and watch Sonny “Live at The Knitting Factory from 1988” you get a pretty good idea what this amazing talent was like. He appears on stage, a middle-aged, slightly portly, jovial African-American gentleman cradling an electric guitar. His accompanists begin a throbbing, jazzy beat and Sonny smiles and closes his eyes. He isn’t particularly worried about playing a song, or structuring a solo. He is a bird standing on a branch, waiting for the right triangulation of bait, breeze and inspiration to lift him into flight. It happens and, eyes still closed, smile switching to a grimace of concentration, he takes off. Sonny Sharrock’s solos are not technical marvels, but rather highly emotional excursions into his psyche. He claimed that he never really wanted to play guitar, rather that he was a frustrated horn player chasing the elusive sound of his hero John Coltrane. This schism is evident in his playing as he voices solos that are fat and chordal in tone, but leap into wild single-note improvisational runs, much as Coltrane did, especially in his final period. Sonny had a long history of learning his style, starting in the 1960’s appearing on Pharoah Sanders Tauhid, and (legendarily) some uncredited playing on Miles Davis’ guitar feast Tribute To Jack Johnson, then joining Herbie Mann’s groundbreaking band for the latter’s strongest run of albums. He toiled in the jazz underground in the 70’s releasing several amazing, avant-garde records, but seemingly disappeared until bassist Bill Laswell tracked him down and mentored him out of obscurity and into the spotlight where his reputation as one of the most thrilling and unique voices in jazz increased until his untimely death from heart failure in 1994.

Sharrock’s sound and catalog are not easy to get your arms around. His early work on the Herbie Mann albums is hard to spot because of the nature of his solos. One has to train their ear to listen for him, because his early work tends to blend (self-consciously one would imagine) into the overall framework of the songs. By the time of his difficult to obtain 70’s solo work, he is fully immersed in avant-garde stylings and though those albums contain some of his best playing, sometimes the music was too extreme for many listeners. Once he came back in the 80’s he branched out in many directions (and on many labels) including some heavy metal style playing with the band Machine Gun. Like other enticing figures skirting the edges along jazz, rock, avant-garde, and free-form, Sonny Sharrock is like a rare orchid: sightings are seldom, but unforgettable.

This difficulty in stylistically pinning him down is what makes 1991’s Ask The Ages the essential way “in” to Sonny Sharrock. It is a beautiful, hypnotic, intense album that fulfills the promise of a guitar player who plays his guitar like Coltrane played his sax. Produced by Bill Laswell and Sonny himself, Ask The Ages reunites Sharrock with Pharoah Sanders and throws jazz greats Elvin Jones (another Coltrane alumnus) on drums and Charnett Moffett on bass into the mix. The results are completely thrilling as Sanders and Sharrock take turns soloing in a variety of sympathetic styles. Each of the 6 songs is a universe of complex rhythm and spectacular soloing to discover. Sanders fills the role of Coltrane well on some numbers like “Who Does She Hope To Be” but each song finds its center within Sonny Sharrock’s completely un-copyable style of guitar playing. Take the final number “Once Upon A Time” where he plays beautifully melodic single lines over his own crunchy power-chording. It is a thrilling exercise in musical freedom. It feels set loose from the bonds of genre, geography or financial concern as the musicians bravely explore the outside of modern music. This is something the label Axiom specialized in, and we can thank Bill Laswell for creating a place for Sonny Sharrock and many other groundbreaking musicians. Although it lasted less than a decade in its original incarnation, Axiom was one of the great labels of the modern era, and virtually everything they released is worth hearing.

It’s really hard to compare Sonny Sharrock to any other musician because of his utterly singular take on soloing, and his lack of adherence to any “school” of jazz thought. He brings to his music the same thrilling individuality and untrained freshness that Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker or even Keith Moon brought. The excitement of finding an artist so in love with their instrument and the idea of making music that even their lack of training will not stop them is one of the fundamental reasons I listen to music. It is the promise of human individuality and meaning given flesh.

-         Paul Epstein

Monday, August 15, 2016

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #146 – Mo’ Better Blues (1990, dir. Spike Lee)

How do you follow up a film like Do the Right Thing? A film that Variety, the New York Times, the American Film Institute, and the National Society of Film Critics – to name only four such publications or organizations – call one of the greatest films ever made? And even if that’s hyperbole to you, it appeared on most serious critics’ top 10s for 1989 and was called one of the best films of the 80s by both Siskel and Ebert, among others. So how does one follow that? Well, if you’re Spike Lee, you scale back a little to tell the story of a jazz trumpeter.

Denzel Washington stars as trumpeter Bleek Gilliam, the cool leader of a popular quintet that packs the house every night they play. His childhood friend Giant (played by Spike Lee) manages the group but is chronically unable to get more money for them (or to pay his gambling debts). Other members of the group – notably Wesley Snipes as Shadow Henderson as his sax-playing friend/rival – are fed up with Giant’s management, with being underpaid, and with Bleek’s complacent unwillingness to fire his friend and hire someone who’ll get them better work. Bleek’s so focused on making his music that he’s unwilling to commit to the mundane work of getting a new manager to get them out of a bad contract. He’s also unwilling to commit to either of the women he’s dating (played by Cynda Williams and Joie Lee). And the drama of the film – as pointed and focused as any Lee’s ever directed – starts to spiral out of these conflicts. There are fights and ego battles within the band, Bleek’s juggling of two women begins to take a toll, and Giant’s gambling debts start to endanger his health.

There are two remarkable scenes in the film that stand out: when things come to a head between Bleek and his women, Indigo and Clarke. Without giving too much away, the scene is cut between Bleek talking to Indigo and talking to Clarke, and at the center of it, the sometimes callous underpinnings of his devotion to his music comes to the fore. In another scene, Lee and editor Samuel D. Pollard again cut between two events – Bleek on stage and playing with intense verve and fire alternates with Giant’s confrontation with his bookie’s collection men outside in the alley. Both of them are as powerful, well-conceived, and brilliantly executed as anything Lee has ever shot. Additionally, the performances are superb from the entire ensemble, but special nods must go to Washington and Snipes for bringing to life both the tensions and friendships in the band, and to Cynda Williams and Joie Lee for creating two fully fleshed out, believable women as the objects of Bleek’s desire. And it should be noted that even though the film itself is really a drama about an artist wrapping himself up so deeply in his work that he can’t give the relationships in his life the attention they deserve, it’s still a jazz lover’s dream, filled with classics from Mingus, Miles, Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Cannonball Adderley and more. And that’s not even to mention the terrific original performances throughout by the Branford Marsalis group featuring Terence Blanchard on trumpet (performing as Bleek’s group).

Though Spike Lee has been unafraid of controversy throughout his career, it felt like after Do the Right Thing he might have taken a break from it with Mo’ Better Blues. It’s a perfectly sound artistic choice and he made the most of it with this excellent drama (and also returned right back to it with Jungle Fever immediately afterward).

-         Patrick Brown

Monday, August 8, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #160 - Superchunk – Come Pick Me Up

While I was in high school in the early-mid 1990s, my taste in popular music exploded as Nirvana’s unprecedented success ushered in a surge of “alternative music.” I grew up in the southeast and Superchunk, from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, quickly became one of my favorite bands by embodying the DIY ideals of non-mainstream music like no one else in the region. In addition to Superchunk’s accomplishments as one of the best indie rock bands of its time, lead singer/guitarist Mac McCaughan and bassist Laura Ballance also founded Merge Records in 1989. Although many predicted that Superchunk would become “the next big thing,” the band never became the next Nirvana. In 1999, years after Superchunk’s alleged shot at the big time had passed, the band teamed up with producer Jim O’Rourke to create Come Pick Me Up, an album that crowns their decade-long run of great records, finds the band eager to experiment, and finally allows them to have fun like nobody's watching.

After Superchunk established a singular take on punk-inflected indie rock with their first five albums, they began branching out with 1997’s Indoor Living. While the album certainly has some great songs, Indoor Living ultimately carries the burden of intentional and abrupt changes to a reliable formula. With the opening moments of Come Pick Me Up, Superchunk announces to listeners that they have come back for this album rejuvenated, inspired, and ready to test themselves. The first song, “So Convinced,” greets us with the delightful cacophony of a distinctive drum beat processed through distortion and effects. The song quickly breaks into an upbeat stride that builds on the band’s strengths while pushing into new territory in terms of composition, songwriting, and instrumentation. Arriving halfway through the album, “Pink Clouds” provides Come Pick Me Up with a centerpiece and showcases Superchunk’s joyfully creative explorations with producer O’Rourke. At this point the band had established a knack for ending many of their songs with dueling guitar solos from McCaughan and guitarist Jim Wilbur. On “Pink Clouds,” O’Rourke elevates this signature element of Superchunk’s sound by replacing the guitars with a saxophone and trombone and allowing the intertwining horn solos to peel off into a cathartic fervor that closes out the song on a surprising, triumphant note. A few songs later, “Tiny Bombs” demonstrates the band’s comfort with stylistic flourishes as it grows from a familiar little guitar figure into sprawling, confident march replete with sunny harmony vocals and handclaps.

Two years after Come Pick Me Up, Superchunk’s eighth album, Here’s To Shutting Up, happened to come out one week after the September 11th attacks. Both that album and the subsequent tour got lost in the aftermath of the tragedy. After that, Superchunk went on an extended, indefinite hiatus that felt, for long-time fans, like a quiet and unassuming end to a dynamic and energetic band. During this time, Merge Records blossomed into maturity under the guidance of McCaughan and Ballance as bands like Spoon and Arcade Fire reached new heights of critical and popular success. In 2010, Superchunk surprised a lot of people when they released Majesty Shredding, their first album in nearly a decade. Three years later, Superchunk followed up with their tenth album, I Hate Music. Both of these albums serve as reminders of Superchunk’s vitality and relevance while contributing notably to their catalog. Superchunk has been writing the book on independent music for over 25 years and Come Pick Me Up may well contain its most curious and captivating chapter.

-         John Parsell

Monday, August 1, 2016

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #145 – The Good Shepherd (2006, dir. Robert DeNiro)

 Many people know that Robert De Niro has earned the reputation as one of the greatest actors of his generation, but fewer realize that he has also directed two films, both worth watching. De Niro’s 1993 directorial debut, A Bronx Tale, tells the story of a father competing with a local gangster for his son’s loyalty and fits easily into De Niro’s career, which includes many nuanced depictions of criminals. De Niro’s sophomore effort in 2006, however, does not line up as neatly with his body of work. The Good Shepherd provides a history of the Central Intelligence Agency and a reflection on how the CIA’s operations have often run against democratic principles and this nation’s core values. With The Good Shepherd, De Niro demonstrates what he has learned from the great filmmakers who have directed him, supplies Matt Damon with a pivotal and challenging lead role, and incorporates a fantastic ensemble of actors to shed light on this country’s most powerful and mysterious institution. 

De Niro structures this intricate saga by intercutting a day-by-day account of the week in 1961 that followed the C.I.A.’s greatest failure, The Bay of Pigs Invasion, with flashbacks to crucial moments in the life of Edward Wilson, the agency’s founding director of counterintelligence. On balance, The Good Shepherd feels more reminiscent of Francis Ford Coppola’s work than that of Martin Scorsese with its decade-spanning scope, patient character building, and evocative art direction. Elements of The Godfather and The Conversation float through the film, but its portrayal of Edward Wilson and his primary Soviet adversary (code named Ulysses) recalls Al Pacino and Robert De Niro’s relationship in Michael Mann’s Heat. Despite these influences, De Niro maintains a singular verve and a trenchant sense of humor throughout the nearly three hour running time. As Edward Wilson, Damon broadens his range significantly by investing a complicated, highly internalized, and subtle power in his performance as a man who has learned the grievous consequences of knowing too much and losing the trust of the intelligence community. While Wilson works ceaselessly to solve the puzzle of the agency’s defeat in Cuba, he negotiates a series of antagonistic relationships that define his life’s work. Lee Pace delivers an easy, well-mannered malice as Wilson’s Yale classmate and agency rival. Oleg Stefan conveys a worldly, respectful, and ominous presence as Wilson’s formidable opponent, Ulysses. A delightfully worn-in Alec Baldwin imparts a crass humanity as Wilson’s contact in the FBI. Michael Gambon, William Hurt, John Turturro, Billy Crudup, Joe Pesci, and Martina Gedeck round out the cast of Wilson’s professional associations. Angelina Jolie, Eddie Redmayne, Tammy Blanchard, and Timothy Hutton contribute notable dimension to the film as Wilson’s family and loved ones. De Niro tops off this ensemble by casting himself as the general who oversees the CIA’s creation while confessing to Wilson, “I see this as America’s eyes and ears; I don’t want it to become its heart and soul.”

Throughout The Good Shepherd runs an indictment of the prejudices of the English and U.S. American elite that shaped the global politics of the 20th century. De Niro levels an especially blunt critique against the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, Ivy League educated U.S. American aristocracy who attempted to shape the world in their image. The film’s release coincided aptly with the final stretch of the second presidential term of Yale alumnus George W. Bush, during which his administration plummeted in popularity amid rampant reports of CIA overreach and the widespread implementation of torture in the War on Terror.

-         John Parsell

Monday, July 25, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #159 - Coasters – The Very Best of the Coasters

Cult filmmaker John Waters once called the Beatles “those honky Beatles who ruined rock and roll” and while I think that’s absurd (but funny) to say, I get his point. Before the Beatles made rock respectable with strings and orchestral backing, fancy time signatures and chord changes, song suites and concept albums, there was a youthful exuberance and transgressive energy that was traded in for that respectability. And The Coasters (along with their primary songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller) represented that pre-Beatles rock and rock style more than just about any group on the planet.

As songwriters and producers, Lieber and Stoller were pure gold, creating 26 U.S. top 40 hits from 1954 – 1963. To put those numbers in perspective, check this: Motown powerhouses Holland Dozier Holland wrote 30 charting hits from 1963 – 1970, and the Rolling Stones had 24 top 40 hits in a comparable span from 1964 to 1973 – and Jagger/Richard didn’t even write them all. And that figure doesn’t include hit covers of these songs that the duo didn’t work directly on, like a little Elvis song called “Hound Dog,” or Dion’s #2 remake of The Drifters’ #10 “Ruby Baby.”

The Coasters began their life as The Robins, an L.A. based vocal group that Lieber and Stoller had written some hits for – most notably “Riot in Cell Block #9” and “Smokey Joe’s Café,” both included here – before relocating to Atlantic Records’ home of New York City with a slightly altered lineup. The Robins and the Coasters hits comprised a dozen of those 26 Lieber and Stoller songs to climb to the top 40. And in 1987, The Coasters became the first group (as opposed to individual or duo) to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The same year, Lieber and Stoller were also inducted for their contributions to the music.

So surely you’ve heard many of these – the #1 hit “Yakety Yak” or the #2 “Charlie Brown” (which they insist had no relation to the Charles Schulz comic strip) almost certainly, probably their first top ten “Down In Mexico” – but have you dug past the comic surface of them to get to the smarts and brilliant musicality underneath? Dig on the voices first because that’s easy: founders Carl Gardner and Billy Guy, bass men Bobby Nunn (early) and Will “Dub” Jones (after the 1957 relocation to NYC), tenor Leon Hughes (early) and Cornell Gunter (also after 1957). Dig on guitarist Adolph Jacobs, who played a vital role up through 1959 when he left to pursue a solo career. Dig on sax player King Curtis who played on many of the NYC sessions and whose sax breaks were written out for him verbatim by Lieber and Stoller. And then loop back around to realize how much musicality goes in to writing tight rock and roll songs like these: how the timing of the voices is pretty much perfect due to both the group’s talent and Lieber and Stoller’s legendary perfectionism, how Jacobs’ guitar rocks as hard as anyone of his day, how the low, honking sax in “I’m A Hog For You” is the exact right way to express the sentiment of the song. Dig how the lyrics are slyly funny throughout, yes, but also speak directly to the day to day realities of the young audience – pre-respectability, mind you – who’d be listening to this music: bad TV serials, doing your homework and chores, that cut-up Charlie Brown from school, that rock and roll nonsense your parents hate so much, and so forth. Adults making music that’s smart and sympathetic to a teen audience without condescending to them are a rare breed.

There’s not a bad cut here – hell, there’s not even a “good” cut here. From the top 10 smashes right down to minor chart hits like “I’m A Hog For You” or (my personal fave) “Shoppin' for Clothes” this is classic stuff beginning to end. Rock and roll was once synonymous with fun, and this is an instructive lesson in why.

-         Patrick Brown

Monday, July 18, 2016

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #144 – Akira (1988, dir. Katsuhiro Otomo)

"The future is not a straight line. It is filled with many crossroads. There must be a future that we can choose for ourselves." -Kiyoko

Widely considered to be one the most important and influential anime films of all time, Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira is a one of a kind work of art. Released in 1988, Akira was one of the main anime films to break the genre into the American market. But all of that aside, this is one of the most interesting, beautiful, and down right cool animated films in existence. The animation is gorgeous, the plot is engaging and complex, the characters are well developed and relatable, and the action is almost unparalleled. If you are in the mood for a lighthearted, child-friendly animated movie this is most definitely not the film for you, but if you're looking for a fantastic and intriguing film that happens to be beautifully animated then by all means please don't skip this masterpiece of animated cinema.

The film opens on a silent aerial shot of Tokyo 1988 as a giant explosion occurs. We then jump to 2019 (30 years after WWIII) in Neo-Tokyo and the film takes off and doesn't stop. We are slyly introduced to the main characters of the film, who happen to be the rag tag teenage members of a biker gang led by a smooth character named Kaneda. In the first scene where we meet him and the rest of the gang, there is an obvious loving tension between him and one of the other members of the gang, Tetsuo. Kaneda is tough and commands respect, he razzes Tetsuo a little about the fact that he wasn't experienced enough to handle his bigger, impressive bike. This scene sets the tone for these two characters’ relationship throughout the film as they become the main protagonist and antagonist of the narrative. They take off and engage in an epic biker battle with their rival gang, the Clowns. After a long chase Tetsuo gets separated from the rest of the gang as he goes after a couple of the clown gang members. At this point we also get a glimpse of a strange figure running from some unseen group. He has obviously been shot and is dragging a strange looking child behind him. The tension of this situation heats up parallel to that of Tetsuo's predicament. In an odd and unexplained series of events the boy that the man was pulling along with him ends up appearing in the street in front of Tetsuo's bike. Just as Tetsuo is about to hit the boy, he is thrown from the bike and it explodes. As Kaneda and the rest of the gang find Tetsuo, a group of shady government figures, the ones who were presumably chasing after the boy, find them all. They arrest the bikers and take the boy and Tetsuo to an undisclosed location. From this point everything gets progressively more complex as we learn of the psychic powers of the strange looking boy, Takashi, and his two compatriots, Kiyoko and Masaru, and some strange and powerful change occurring within Tetsuo. And, this change has something to do with a mysterious figure named Akira.

"Heh, heh... what's happened to me? I must be dreaming. I feel like I can take out the world." - Tetsuo

This is the basic framework of the plot, however, there are a number of complex sub-plots that feed into the narrative. Tetsuo and the three psychic children, The Espers, are secluded from the rest of the characters in a strange government-run facility. They are being monitored and experimented on by a scientist while an important military Colonel keeps watch and reports to a council of politicians. Kaneda and the rest of the gang find themselves becoming involved with a mysterious group of revolutionaries, including a beautiful woman, Kei, who Kaneda has fallen for. This severe group is seeking to uncover the government secrets behind The Espers and Akira. Nothing in the film is quite what it seems. As in real life, the characters are all incredibly complex and it's hard to fully categorize any of the characters as purely protagonists or antagonists. At the heart of it this is a film about human nature and the struggle for freedom and power. Otomo who wrote and directed the film also wrote the Manga upon which the film is based, and it is obvious that he went to great length to make sure that every detail was perfectly crafted, and a film that tackles such grand topics and narratives turns out to be a brilliant success.

Taking a step back from the more heady reasons to turn you onto this film, the animation and fluidity of the action is indescribably stunning. The opening biker battle scene sets the bar for how awe-inspiring the action sequences throughout the film will be and the rest of the action consistently hits that mark. Additionally the color is vibrant, the dreary-future set designs are spectacularly crafted and the painstaking detail put into all of the characters and psychedelic, strange, and often gruesome visuals is almost beyond compare. Overall this is just one of the most amazingly animated films ever created.

In conclusion, I would love to turn you on to Akira because it is insanely awesome! Every aspect of the film, from its multifaceted, detailed, and enigmatic plot to the characters, action, and animation, truly culminates into one of the most important works of the anime genre. If you haven't had a chance to dig into the world of anime this might just be the film to pique your interest, and I certainly hope that it is because I cannot praise this film enough!

-         Edward Hill

Monday, July 11, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #158 - Frank Zappa - Lumpy Gravy

Prepare yourself for one of the most complicated and interesting stories in the history of modern popular music. In 1967 an executive from Capitol Records, impressed with The Mothers Of Invention’s first two albums, approached head Mother Frank Zappa about writing and conducting a piece of classical music for Capitol Records. The thinking was, if Zappa just conducted but didn’t play on the album he would not be in violation of his existing recording contract with MGM Records. This was extremely optimistic thinking on their part and presaged a professional life marked by almost constant lawsuits for Zappa. But I get ahead of myself. Back in 1967, Zappa took the challenge and wrote a complicated, dense, brilliant, highly listenable piece of modern classical music. He entered Capitol’s studios with a group of over 30 of the finest jazz, classical and session musicians in Los Angeles (dubbed “Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra and Chorus”) and in short order recorded and edited the music down to about 23 minutes of masterpiece. It is arguably the greatest piece ever realized by Zappa. It has so many signature Zappa moments - wild leaps of time ala John Cage, matterhorns of percussion inspired by his hero Edgard Varese, jazzy interludes, soundtrack music for films never made - all edited together by Zappa with his patented disregard for standard measures of song. It simply flows from idea to idea, yet it all feels wonderfully a part of some cosmic whole. Capitol released it as a promotional 4-track tape to reviewers and industry insiders and were, of course, immediately slapped with a cease and desist order from MGM Records. (Now you want to talk about a REAL collectible - something the top Zappa collectors in the world drool over -that original 4-track tape is RARE! Hardly any of them exist and it is next to impossible to find.) So, to avoid a protracted lawsuit, Zappa takes the tapes of his masterwork and begins to reassemble them into a new and different work. He edits in some surf music, sound effects and the results of an experiment he conducted whereby various friends (including Eric Clapton and Tim Buckley) stuck their heads inside a piano and spoke closely enough to the strings that they vibrated in a strange and sympathetic way. Different parts of these weird, echo-y recordings would appear on Zappa records until the end of his life, but this is their first and most effective use. The new, re-edited version is released to the world in 1968 as Lumpy Gravy, while the original classical piece becomes the subject of rumor and desire.

Throughout the years, I have found Lumpy Gravy to be the most interesting and confounding of all Zappa releases. Re-edited, his original work is wildly audacious. He changed it from a classical piece with avant-garde leanings to an avant-garde suite that nods to classical. It is no less great. Lumpy Gravy stands alongside the most ambitious albums produced in the 1960’s in any genre. As it was released in 1968, it makes perfect sense in the arc of Zappa’s career; it is a completely weird exercise in musique concrète, but with a hip edge brought by the spoken word parts, which link the album clearly to the first Mothers Of Invention releases. In a strange way, the legal restraint of the original classical piece may have saved Zappa’s career (such as it was). If that primal composition had been given wide release, it might have been too confusing for the record buying public and in some way changed the course Zappa took moving forward. He was forced to recast the music in a more Mothers-friendly fashion, and thus, though the album is still incredibly weird, it fits in with other releases of the day.

Why have I expended so much ink discussing a project you can’t hear? Well, thanks to the Zappa family archives you can hear it now. With the release of Lumpy Money we can now hear that original piece, alongside hours of other Lumpy Gravy and We’re Only In It For The Money related materials from the sessions. In addition to that groundbreaking original classical piece, there are hard to find mixes of both albums, interviews, live cuts, extra session work - it is literally a treasure trove of prime-era Zappa goods. I believe this release is the most essential purchase in the entire Zappa catalog (now numbering 103 official releases). It shows Zappa as a completely self-possessed artist at only 26. He had vaulting ambition and, unbelievably, the talent and drive to see his vision come to reality (twice in this case). If however, this seems like too much to digest at once, I suggest just picking up Lumpy Gravy. It has much of what makes Frank Zappa great in the rock and roll universe, but it also shows very clearly why he simultaneously ruled other universes at the same time. He was, quite simply a one-of-a-kind musical genius with no peer, and Lumpy Gravy is ample proof.

-         Paul Epstein

Monday, July 4, 2016

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #143 – Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942, dir. Michael Curtiz)

People who know me know me to be fairly cynical. People who know me really well know me to have a sentimental streak a mile wide. If left to my own devices, I would probably choose to dwell exclusively in the past. Which past? A difficult question. But if push came to shove, I might just choose the past portrayed in Yankee Doodle Dandy. A biopic about the great American songwriter and entertainer George M. Cohan, Yankee Doodle Dandy is a sweet form of entertainment which has nothing to do with the pain, destruction and coarse realities of the modern world; it is an old-school story of American determinism and exceptionalism. The movie opens with a neat device as an older Cohan, in the midst of playing Franklin Delano Roosevelt on stage, in a play called I’d Rather Be Right, is summoned to The White House by the actual Roosevelt to be given the first Congressional Medal of Honor awarded an entertainer. After accepting the award, Cohan (played by James Cagney) tells the president his life story, and so the movie unwinds as Cohan’s early life as part of a family vaudeville act plays out. He is an unbelievably talented person from earliest childhood. But with that talent comes arrogance. He is an arrogant fool, whose foolishness is made tolerable by his talent. George quickly becomes the leader of his family act, but his hubris leads to them being shut out of work opportunities. Ultimately, the family act must break up. It is here that George M. Cohan, and the movie, begin to hit their stride. He begins to find his way and the successes start mounting up. As Cohan becomes more successful the movie becomes a vehicle for high-budget production numbers -recreations of Cohan’s original stage work - a more innocent form of entertainment than we are used to today. If you don’t like patriotic hokum, exit now.

Ultimately, Yankee Doodle Dandy is about the songs and their presentation. The cornball old songs like “Mary,” “Give My Regards To Broadway,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and of course the title song, will bring you to tears and the dance routines are literally breathtaking. But it is through these songs that Cohan’s larger message becomes clear. If one looks beyond the patriotic populism and flag-waving, these songs get to the root of American life. Topics as varied as immigration, family loyalty, humility, romantic love, and finally the American dream itself are tackled. In addition, Yankee Doodle Dandy is one of very few movies to successfully show the creation of music. We see Cohan’s inspiration, listening to a marching band on the street which, when mixed with his innate love of country and songwriting talent, produces another one of his masterpieces, “Over There.”

Most important in Yankee Doodle Dandy is James Cagney’s life-changing performance. Life-changing for himself and his audience. Shortly before this movie, Cagney, a known progressive, had been questioned by the government about possible communist sympathies. The experience left Cagney shaken. He wanted to prove his patriotism and Cohan’s story was the perfect vehicle. In addition, while making the movie in 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked, putting America into another deadly conflict. Cagney’s sincerity and true patriotism burn in every frame of this movie. I recognize that it is not “cool” to love your country anymore, but not long ago, it was not only cool, it was inspirational. Cagney gives it all he has. His dancing is a revelation, as he moves with a masculine physicality that leaves him in his own category. Cohan’s rise to the top is one of the great American success stories, and Yankee Doodle Dandy gives us that story in such a romantic, golden-age-of-Hollywood fashion, it is literally irresistible.

Ultimately, we see Cohan retire to a quiet life until he has a hilariously dated encounter with a carload of young hipsters who make him feel old, and drive him out of retirement. We are now full-circle, as Cohan finishes telling his life story to F.D.R. and starts leaving The White House. In one of the greatest scenes in Hollywood history, Cagney tap-dances down the steps of The White House before running into a marching band, leading a parade with a rousing version of “Over There.” As the country heads off to yet another World War, Cagney falls into step with the parade and we are assured that he has made a difference. It is a tremendously emotional scene and a perfect way to end this movie. Both the form of entertainment depicted and the style of movie-making are antiquated here, however none of that takes away from its overall impact. As we approach one of the most uncertain elections in American history, it feels like just the right time for a reminder of the people we once were.

-         Paul Epstein

Monday, June 27, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #157 - Joanna Newsom - The Milk-Eyed Mender

Since Joanna Newsom released her debut album The Milk-Eyed Mender in the spring of 2004, she has become a highly divisive figure in popular music. Just as Newsom began to find a following of devoted fans appreciative of her unique artistic contributions, she simultaneously amassed a legion of detractors eager to dismiss her because of what they perceived as indulgent eccentricities. One bright Sunday morning in the fall of 2004, a couple of friends played The Milk-Eyed Mender for me for the first time over brunch at their apartment. The allure and warmth of these songs have merged with the rest of my memories of that pleasant autumn morning. This introduction to Joanna Newsom’s music sheltered me from the debate over her significance in contemporary music and allowed me to behold the lyrical depth, musical complexity, and singular appeal of this extraordinary album.

The idea that anyone has established a critically acclaimed career in modern indie rock as a highly literate, classically trained harpist still blows my mind and I’ve been watching her career for over a decade. One thing most of Newsom’s critics miss is her remarkable sense of humor, which runs through her entire catalog and figures prominently in the best songs on The Milk-Eyed Mender. “Bridges and Balloons” opens Newsom’s debut album with two lines on the harp gently fading in for twenty seconds before she begins to share a highly detailed account of an incredible journey. Upon closing the narrative, Newsom allows the two lines of the harp to dance together hypnotically for over a minute before the songs fades out like it faded in. A couple songs later, “The Book of Right-on” exhibits Newsom’s flair for absurd humor against a showcase of her musical prowess while she interlaces a prominent bassline with highly rhythmic high end figures on the harp. The first time I heard the lyric, “I killed my dinner with karate,” I was convinced that I’d misheard it, but I came to better understand the scope of her humor. Oddly enough, The Roots sampled this song’s chorus and bassline to create the surprisingly successful throwback jam, “Right On” on their 2010 album, How I Got Over. As I became more familiar with The Milk-Eyed Mender, I liked many of the songs, but “Inflammatory Writ” was the first one I loved. Upon my first close listen, I thought I was hearing a talent show performance by a secret love child of Bob Dylan and Dolly Parton. Whirling by in just under three minutes and guided by the stiffly paced ramble of piano accompaniment, Newsom delivers an eviscerating satire of songwriters’ self-absorption. By mocking herself, her peers, and her role models with such zeal and style, Newsom acknowledges to her audience that she isn’t taking herself too seriously.

Since The Milk-Eyed Mender, Newsom has released three albums and each one has deepened her artistic vision, heightened the quality of her storytelling, and expanded her musical palette. In the fall of 2007, I saw Newsom perform with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in support of Ys, her ambitious breakthrough sophomore album. Just a few months ago, I attended her show at the Boulder Theater on the tour for her most recent album, Divers. Both times, Newsom highlighted her newest material, but revisited several songs from her first album. I was already familiar with these songs, but watching them unfold first hand instilled within me a sense of awe, admiration, and wonder. In fewer than fifteen years, Newsom has built an impressive, innovative, and unprecedented career in popular music and it all started with The Milk-Eyed Mender.

-          John Parsell

Monday, June 20, 2016

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #142 – Bad Boys (1983, dir. Rick Rosenthal)

Sean Penn is a great actor. A lot of people don’t think he’s a great person, but I don’t care about that. In the early 80s, while the actors of the “Brat Pack” were making lightly comic dramas aimed at teen audiences, Penn dipped his toes in those waters once (as Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High) and then continued on a career of mostly intense, serious roles, making one indelible performance after another. His big screen debut was in Taps, where he easily held his own with Oscar winner Timothy Hutton, his scene-stealing role of Spicoli came next, and then this film, a taut, violent crime drama in which he plays a tough stickup kid sent to an even tougher juvenile detention center.

After some introductory sequences designed to let us know who the main characters are – Penn as Mick O’Brien, Ally Sheedy as his girlfriend J.C., Esai Morales as the equally tough Paco Moreno (his nemesis, of course) – the film moves into the tightly constructed suspense of a drug deal gone very wrong. Penn and his friend intend to watch the deal go down, then hold up the people walking away with the cash. But things go south fast, people die – one at Penn’s hand, albeit unintentionally – and O’Brien ends up in the rehabilitation facility where he’ll spend the rest of the film. Here we are introduced to a new cast of characters – O’Brien’s cellmate Horowitz (Eric Gurry), and the pair of toughs who run the center, Tweety and The Viking (Robert Lee Rush and Clancy Brown) – and Penn has to quickly learn the ropes of how things work in the center. There are adult supervisors there whose admixtures of toughness, world-weariness, and sympathy toward the youths give them a very tenuous control of the facility. But the real deal is in how things are run from the inside, and the film gives a fairly unblinking look at the black market of the institution and the violence that underpins things, all right under the adults’ noses. But it also sees the way that friendships are formed under these circumstances, the crippling lack of education, of resources, that keeps many of the youth locked in the place rather than pulling themselves up in Horatio Alger fashion. But it’s no 50s “social problem” film, bemoaning these poor wayward youth. It doesn’t linger on moralistic hand-wringing. The film, like the adults in it, has sympathy for the people it’s showing us and that’s where its heart lies.

There is, of course, a third act in which through an implausible set of circumstances Paco Moreno ends up in the same facility as O’Brien and then traces through to its inevitable showdown between them. And there are those who criticize this facet of the film, but I don’t find it troubling at all – it’s earned rather than tacked on, and the care with which it has drawn out the prison life and the people within it makes the final act feel real, even if it’s something we’ve probably seen before in other films. I should also note that the film takes great care with its younger actors – there isn’t a performance here that isn’t spot-on – but as with so many films focused on youth it doesn’t spend a lot of time getting to know its adults. Again for me it doesn’t matter; the film is fantastic at drawing us a realistic portrait of its prison life, a world where the adults are ostensibly in control, but only containing the chaos of the interior world by the barest of margins. And it also gives us a plethora of fantastic performances, most notably one of Sean Penn’s best early roles. And again, while many of his contemporaries gave us light entertainment through the rest of the decade, Penn turned in one great acting job after another – in Colors, in At Close Range, in Casualties of War, in The Falcon and the Snowman, in Racing With the Moon. It would be over 20 years before the Academy would award his work with a statuette for Mystic River. But it’s this film and others of the era that contain some of his best work.

- Patrick Brown