Monday, September 19, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #162 - Smog - A River Ain’t Too Much to Love

Since the early 1990s, Bill Callahan has been creating the kind of idiosyncratic folk-rock that established the brand of his longtime label, Drag City, and built the foundation for the growing influence and popularity of indie rock over the last twenty years. For the bulk of Callahan’s career he recorded and toured as Smog and released eleven albums in thirteen years. With 2005’s A River Ain’t Too Much to Love, Callahan closed out Smog on a high note before retiring the moniker, created a contemporary indie-folk masterpiece, and set a template for wry, evocative songwriting about self-acceptance, loss, and redemption that has served him well for the rest of his career.

The album’s opener, “Palimpsest,” functions as a haunting prologue by setting the stage with spare instrumentation and Callahan’s strong, sonorous voice declaring that he feels like “a southern bird that stayed north too long.” The second song, “Say Valley Maker,” supplies the album’s statement of purpose as the speaker describes a river and outlines themes of heartache, longing for family, and rebirth while an acoustic ensemble slowly builds the song up to a gratifying release. “The Well” injects a welcome lightheartedness when the speaker breaks into a rambling, highly visual story-song about the consequences of acting impulsively when feeling frustrated. At seven minutes, “The Well” is the album’s longest song, but Callahan’s joyful energy makes the journey worthwhile. “Rock Bottom Riser” unfolds into a stately ode of gratitude and returns to the imagery of a river as the speaker details the impact of his loss and struggle on his family. “I Feel Like the Mother of the World” balances the album’s lushest musical interlude with an anguished, revealing reflection on the lasting damage of sibling turmoil. The final two songs adjust the album’s trajectory toward a cautious sense of hope for the future while acknowledging the toll of the past. Anchored by a spritely finger-picked guitar part, “I’m New Here” offers a refreshingly sly nod to facing the challenges that come with having to start over. In 2010, Gil Scott-Heron covered “I’m New Here” and borrowed the title for his critically acclaimed late-career album, I’m New Here. Callahan’s words fit so beautifully with Scott-Heron’s voice that the song feels equally at home on both albums. Scott-Heron died just over a year after releasing I’m New Here and the influence of Callahan’s signature humor adds buoyancy to an album that might otherwise feel burdened by Scott-Heron’s mortality. “Let Me See the Colts” parallels the structure of “Say Valley Maker” and concludes A River Ain’t Too Much to Love on a note of beleaguered optimism as the worn out speaker asks to see the horses “that will run next year” while the song gently progresses into a cathartic, forward-moving crescendo.

Bill Callahan has released four albums under his name since 2007 and each one has broadened the pattern he formed with A River Ain’t Too Much to Love. After I fell in love with this album, I wasn’t sure Callahan could top himself, so his excellent 2009 album Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle came as a wonderful surprise. On Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle, Callahan brings a gentle full-color glow to the themes and imagery he rendered as black and white sketches on A River Ain’t Too Much to Love. Over the last three decades, Bill Callahan has charted new territory in a well-traveled genre and A River Ain’t Too Much to Love lasts both as a career landmark and a point of embarkation for further exploration of Callahan’s exceptional artistry.    

-          John Parsell

Monday, September 12, 2016

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #148 – Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps and Human Highway

Neil Young gave us the best description of himself and his music in the title of his 1968 song “I Am A Child.” The magic and genius of Neil Young is that the child-like sense of wonder and fun never left him or his music. Not then, not now (listen to his superbly weird new album Earth for proof of that) and certainly not in 1978 when he filmed Rust Never Sleeps and began principle filming of Human Highway. Both of these films are direct references to Young’s childhood. They are depictions of a man-child adrift in a confusing world of corrupt adult motivations. Neil sees himself as a little boy alone in an oversized world of dangerous machines and corrupt values. He wields his guitar and his voice (like the sharp cutting tools they are) against the inconsistencies and absurdities of the world: environmental genocide, slimy record label creeps, military-industrial capitalists, even the double-edged sword of his own fame. The movies outwardly seem like they are totally different, but a close look shows them to be two views of the same scene.

Human Highway was ultimately released in 1982 to little or no fanfare. It was given a brief art-house and midnight movie run and then essentially shelved for a long time. The negative public and critical reception at the time of its release is not surprising because it is a kaleidoscopic mash-up of ideas and images loosely held together with a cartoonish plot about a small town loser named Lionel Switch who…does some stuff and uh, meets some people and uh….yeah - what happens doesn’t really matter because the overall effect of the movie is that of an 80 minute MTV-style video starring Young, Devo and a number of Hollywood B-listers, (Dennis Hopper, Dean Stockwell, Sally Kirkland) romping around colorful sets and singing weird songs and making vaguely political statements about nuclear energy and dangerous militarism during the heart of the cold war. The movie is actually quite entertaining if you like Neil Young, and possibly unbearable if you don’t. Although there are a few set pieces like the hilarious “Worried Man Blues” or Neil and Devo performing a wild version of “Hey Hey, My My,” the movie’s real value is as a backdrop to Rust Never Sleeps, the concert documentary Young was filming at the same time he was working on Human Highway.

Upon release, Rust Never Sleeps was universally acclaimed as one of the best concert movies ever made and absolutely nothing has happened in the ensuing 38 years to do anything but enhance that reputation. It remains a completely riveting portrait of an artist at the height of his creativity; simultaneously reveling in past glory and coming to grips with the historical crossroads that will place him directly in the crosshairs of a cultural battle.

Like many of his generation, Neil Young was viewed with skepticism by the punk rock world, and in turn the baby boom generation that Young had so eloquently represented in his earlier years cast a suspicious eye on the nihilistic tendencies of the punks. But unlike so many others, Young did not shy away from the subject, writing an anthem for that crossroads generation, “Hey Hey, My My” (“Out Of The Blue/Into The Black”), which challenged them (and himself) to either get into it or get out of the way. It was bold and a little shocking to many longtime listeners. He also imbued his latest music, highlighted in the movie, with a manic punk-like energy fans had never seen before. Songs like “Sedan Delivery,” “Welfare Mothers” and “Hey Hey, My My” scream with a fury that belies Young’s status as one of the major figures of mellow contemporary rock. In fact every aspect of the performances in this movie show an artist ready to move forward instead of rely on past glory. Even many of his most iconic songs like “Tonight’s The Night,” “When You Dance,” “The Loner” and especially “Cortez The Killer” are given a reinvigorated treatment.

Rust Never Sleeps doesn’t only succeed as a concert documentary, it is also a high concept film with the narrative again revolving around Neil’s own view of himself as a child in a grown-up world. The normal stage gear: amplifiers, tuners, microphones etc. are all covered with oversized prop versions of themselves which dwarf the band. Neil himself opens the show lying on top of an amplifier in a giant sleeping bag like a kid waking up in the back yard.  The set is peppered with gags about being a child, and soundbites from the movie, Woodstock, which further the agenda of a little boy lost in an oversized environment. From the opening acoustic strums of “Sugar Mountain” and “I Am A Child” through to the final crunching riffs of “Like A Hurricane” and “Tonight’s The Night,” Neil and Crazy Horse deliver like never before. It is an absolute primer on why Neil Young is so great.

Taken as bookends to Neil’s momentous 1978, these two movies present one of the strongest arguments for creative freedom. Given control of his own destiny, Neil Young was able to produce a lasting monument to growth and the creative process.

-         Paul Epstein

Monday, September 5, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #162 - Pere Ubu - Dub Housing

The first thing you hear in the first song “Navvy” is the guitar playing a melody. Then a counter melody joins it, followed by a strange scratching sound provided by the synth player. Then the rhythm section kicks in with a thudding beat and singer David Thomas (neither the Wendy’s guy nor the Bob & Doug McKenzie guy) starts singing “I got these arms and legs that flip flop, flip flop” over and over and it immediately positions the band as something different. There were already the synthetic sounds that Allen Ravenstine was producing to make the song sound slightly off, but between that and Thomas’s strange crowing and lyrics, Pere Ubu set themselves apart from what anybody else was doing in rock music. But a bit about their history first.

Dub Housing is Pere Ubu’s second album. They’d actually already set themselves apart from what anyone was doing with their 1975 and 1976 singles and their first album The Modern Dance, which was recorded in 1976 and 1977 and released on a small independent label in early 1978, but many tied the singles and parts of The Modern Dance to the burgeoning punk scene because of abrasive textures and the speedier rush of some of the songs. Not so much with Dub Housing, which ventures confidently into waters that only Ubu knew how to navigate. They have long called their music “avant-garage” since it stems from the same jamming garage rock ethos that spawned a thousand punk bands in the wake of The Stooges, but is also heavily indebted to avant-garde music and art ranging from the Velvet Underground to Brian Eno to Alfred Jarry’s proto-absurdist play from which they took their name. It’s probably also worth mentioning that while so much of American punk happening at this time is tied to the CBGB’s scene, Pere Ubu was based in Cleveland and evolved a very different type of music. It’s additionally worth noting for context that the same year Ubu released this album sophomore albums by Talking Heads, Wire, and Elvis Costello hit the shelves, Blondie put out their classic third album Parallel Lines (like Ubu, it was their second 1978 release), Captain Beefheart returned from a few disappointing years with the great Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), Devo, X-Ray Spex, and The Cars released their debut albums, and Brian Eno began his first official venture into ambient music with Music For Airports. Something was in the air and a lot of people were drinking deeply from the same stream. Back to Dub Housing now.

“Navvy” sounds like rock, yes, but what’s up with this singer? Those who find David Byrne’s delivery too eccentric will quickly learn that he’s relatively calm by comparison. Why does Thomas keep repeating “I got these arms and legs that flip flop, flip flop” and then follow it with “I have desire!” and a voice from above telling him “Boy, that sound swell!” Well, first of all, because it sounds good and he’s got a great sense of rhythm, but secondly, maybe it’s not as weird as all that. If a navvy is defined as “a worker who does very hard physical labor” (especially used in the context of large-scale industrial projects), it’s entirely possible that these words aren’t just weird, but that the song is about a working class stiff, swept around by currents of the world he has no control over, asserting his own creative identity in a 1970’s industrial city beleaguered by financial depression – almost sounds like punk, no? More poetic than your usual punk approach, but still born of the same spirit. Doesn’t hurt that halfway through the song guitarist Tom Herman tears loose with a great solo. Herman is an unsung hero of American rock. Unless you ask me to make such a list, he’s simply not on the lips of people making “top ten guitarists” lists, but he’s got a unique style that falls somewhere between aleatoric noise and effects, and a strong, rhythmic lead. He’s also buoyed (and simultaneously lifted) by the rhythm team of bassist Tony Maimone and drummer Scott Krauss, who are – for me – the finest rhythm section in American rock of the 70s other than their peers in Television. And then there’s synthesizer player Allen Ravenstine, who doesn’t use synths as glorified keyboards but uses them for their own qualities as producers of weird noises. So when the group gets together for some real avant-garage strangeness – as they do here especially on “Thriller!” and “Blow Daddy-O” – it can get pretty out there. But even on those, they’re grounded by Maimone and Krauss, which allows Ravenstine to layer strange sounds and effects into a musique concrete soundscape on the former song, and gives Herman space to stretch out a themeless, non-melodic solo on the latter that stands as his finest 3 ½ minutes or so on record. And the rest of the songs – even with their odd qualities – bear more of a relationship to rock as most of us know it. “I, Will Wait” reads as a paean to the underground music scene with lines like “The sun never sets on this world I have found” and the pragmatic/optimistic DIY thought “I believe in practicalities/practicalities are possibilities” and then nods back to Roxy Music’s first album when Ravenstine unleashes a “solo” full of bleeps and blips that recalls Eno’s work on “Re-Make Re-model.”

The album offers so many different moods – from the oddball optimism of “I, Will Wait” and “Navvy” to the playful tone of “Blow Daddy-O” to the more ominous “Thriller!” or the obsessive closing track “Codex” that it keeps you on your toes, shifting hither and yon along the same currents that buffet the protagonist of “Navvy.” But it speaks to the magic of Pere Ubu that they make something of the strange times they live in and respond with a recognizable, yet compelling, strange and unique vision. They’ve never voiced it more compellingly than they did on Dub Housing.

-         Patrick Brown

Monday, August 29, 2016

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #147 – The Devil's Backbone (2001, dir. Guillermo del Toro)

Casares: What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.

Before Guillermo del Toro would become a household name working on such franchises as Blade, Hellboy, The Hobbit and had the opportunity to craft such films as Pan’s Labyrinth and Crimson Peak he wrote and directed a smaller but equally affecting ghost story titled The Devil’s Backbone. While this film is certainly less flashy than any of the aforementioned films (not to mention the insane blockbuster, Pacific Rim) del Toro’s flair for fantastic realism and incredible ability to create gorgeously engulfing worlds are still extremely strong on this compelling early passion project.

The story begins with an enigmatic scene splicing between the death of a young boy and scenes of bombs being dropped. After a gorgeous title sequence the narrative begins with the main character, Carlos (Fernando Tielve) being dropped off at an orphanage in the middle of nowhere. It seems that his father has been killed (though he is unaware of this fact) in the Spanish Civil War and his tutor is dropping him off in order to fight for the Republican cause. As Carlos is exploring his surroundings he becomes fascinated with a large bomb in the middle of the courtyard that had fallen and not exploded on the night of the opening sequence. Thus begins Carlos' exposure to the eerie aspects of his new home. Almost immediately after he settles in he finds himself being followed by “the one who wheezes,” a ghost child haunting the orphanage. While Carlos deals with the trials and tribulations of his new living situation, bullies, lovingly stern teachers, and a monster of a groundskeeper, the secrets and mysteries of the orphanage, both supernatural and human in nature, begin to unfold.

One of del Toro’s strengths that shines through in this film is his ability create a realistic yet beautiful setting in which the supernatural seems almost normal. The fact that this is a ghost story is almost secondary to the drama and narrative of Carlos and the boys/adults who inhabit the orphanage. While the setting is beautifully shot and carefully constructed in a cinematic way, the fantastic elements seem to fit seamlessly into the more historical and real world of rural Spain circa 1939.

Another area where this film shines is the way in which del Toro tells the story from the perspective of Carlos and the other children. Similarly to Louis Malle’s Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987) and Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher (1999) del Toro is able to beautifully and honestly capture what it is like to be young during a specific time and place. For Malle the backdrop was WWII, for Ramsay it was the Glasgow Dustmen strike, and for del Toro it’s the Spanish Civil War. All three films beautifully show the ways that children naïvely yet poignantly deal with intense circumstances. Another thing that all of these films have in common is the fact that the children who portray the leads are all perfectly cast and play the characters in a way that feel raw, emotional, yet subtle. Specifically Fernando Tielve, who plays Carlos, and Inigo Garces, who plays the complicated bully Jaime, do an amazing job of bringing their character to relatable and believable life.

On top of the fact that the film is a beautifully crafted piece about children in extreme circumstances, it is an extremely creepy and thrilling ghost story and mystery. A certain eeriness stalks the viewer through the entire film, keeping you on the edge of your seat, always wondering what hides in the shadows. In the opening sequence of the film we see Jaime, distraught, as a young boy has been killed. The details of this scene and the mystery of the ghost boy slowly come to light as the film plays on, and all of the answers come to light in an unexpected and intense crescendo.

Simply put, I would love to turn you onto this film because it is not only one of the most fantastic and enigmatic ghost stories of our time, but it is also a poignant portrayal of youth in time of strife. When a film comes around that transcends genre in order to be not only a good horror film or a good drama or a great historical fiction, that is the hallmark of a brilliant film. That is what del Toro's The Devil's Backbone is, a brilliant film. Check it out, you will not regret it!

-  Edward Hill

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