Monday, March 19, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #201 - Wayne Shorter - Juju

Looking at contemporary jazz saxophone I believe one can trace the influences back to three saxophone players from the late fifties and early sixties. Those players are John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and Wayne Shorter. John Coltrane studied and played with Ornette Coleman, as Wayne Shorter studied with John Coltrane. It is amazing how they took each other into consideration rather than trying to evolve inside a vacuum. Juju is a glimpse of Wayne Shorter dealing with the evolving legacy of John Coltrane’s impact upon jazz. As he was developing as an artist he had to assimilate, process, and learn to mature with the musicians around him. The result is one of his most powerful Blue Note releases, recorded in 1964 and released in 1965. I chose Juju for I’d Love To Turn You On because I think it is a great portrait of an artist as he is growing and evolving, reaching for that next step. This is what makes Wayne Shorter such a vibrant player, from his days with Art Blakey through his days with Miles Davis and up until today. He continues to make relevant music, lending a rounded perspective that few can match.

The band of McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums, and Reggie Workman on double bass is two thirds of the classic Coltrane Quartet. Elvin Jones has a rolling and bubbling swing that interacts perfectly with Tyner’s bombastic chords on the first song “Juju,” laying a perfect bed for the melody. It is only after a few times through the harmonic structure that the frame of the tune, which is fairly simple and repetitive, becomes evident. This reveals the skill of the players, this ability to conceive of dense interlocking textures from simple source material and lay a cohesive bed that Shorter and McCoy Tyner can both solo in. Shorter’s solo seems patient to explore long tones at points, then work long phrases, and then hover on one note, not going any one place. It is the tone of the playing that makes the solo worthy of keeping; even if the solo is a little directionless the spirit of the playing has great zest. The spirit is in the exploration.             

Deluge,” the second tune, is a textbook Blue Note Swing. After the first somber statement by Shorter the entire band joins in for a cohesive, unstoppable demonstration of mid-sixties jazz. Elvin Jones in particular seems to be at the height of his powers, so relaxed that the drumsticks can just bounce on the snare or toms and do no wrong, while at the same time laying down a thick wall of impenetrable cymbals. Shorter then starts a solo with lengthy statements, taking his time working out his ideas and leaving time for the rhythm section to respond and fill space. The quarter note lock-up underneath Tyner’s solo between Reggie Workman and Jones’ ride cymbal is perfect, allowing Tyner to play single note fills or lay down big pedal point chords with his left hand and cascade massive fills with his right hand. The pocket on this tune is so great anything could happen.

“House of Jade” is a downtempo number that eventually picks up a little more speed. It has a ballad feel and the bridge, or middle part of the song, has a pedal point where the harmonic motion holds still in the rhythm section. This allows for increased activity on the melody instrument. It functions much the same way a zoom lens might, to bring greater detail to a certain part of a photo or frame in a picture or movie. The drums eventually double time under the sax solo propelling the rhythmic motion forward even when it drops back to the original time.

“Mahjong” starts with a playful drum solo and piano statement and then Shorter plays the melody which is supported by Tyner’s trademark quartal tones. Tyner is really the perfect piano player for these type of tunes because he can fill the space in songs that have two or three chordal areas in them and still make it interesting. As Tyner fills the space, Shorter plays the melody, and then this happens again. They play a bridge, restate the original melody and then repeat the whole thing. Tyner supplies a thick texture of harmony for his own solo that he can nestle in. While McCoy Tyner fills the space, it might be the opposite of what Shorter was experiencing in Miles Davis’ group where Herbie Hancock would boil a piano voicing down to one or two notes, a chord cluster, or lay out and let space and Tony Williams take over.

“Yes or No” is a real burner of a tune. The melody starts out with a flurry and ends with Shorter holding a long tone as Tyner, Workman, and Jones cruise below it banging out comping chords and flurries of color. This motif repeats several times before the bridge, in which Shorter plays out the song’s title in an up-and-down and back-and-forth manner. Jones’ ride cymbal is a constant North Star of precision during this song, one that all can look to as a guide in direction and meter. Shorter warms up on the first chorus but after that really opens up and plays his most technically demanding and passionate choruses of the record. Tyner takes over but takes a minute to regain the intensity of where Shorter left off, as if maybe he was not ready for Shorter to actually end his solo and was caught off guard having to begin his. A definite high point of the record. They end the record with “Twelve More Bars to Go,” a hard-swinging modified blues. Shorter really works the changes from inside to out. He is the only soloist and the band sounds great. In terms of innovation this has to be the most standard tune on the album. It doesn't have the passion of “Yes and No” or the catchiness of some of Shorter’s other tunes.

Juju was released in 1965 and recorded in 1964. Speak No Evil was released in 1966 and also recorded in late 1964. These are both great Wayne Shorter records. I think they are notable because they illustrate the process of one contemporary dealing with the legacy of another contemporary successfully. By this time John Coltrane was recording Crescent and A Love Supreme so he was continuing to innovate. Both of these artists are moving forward on their separate journeys. Shorter would have more Blue Note records and Miles Davis recordings, and then he would eventually become a founding member of Weather Report.

Hopefully I am turning you on to the fact that yes, Juju itself is great, but looking at it in context of Wayne Shorter’s evolution is the truly fun part. For me that has always been the amazing part of jazz records is how they link together, historically, via recording labels, or band personnel. Have fun listening!

-         Doug Anderson

Monday, March 12, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #187 - Honkytonk Man (1982, dir. Clint Eastwood)

I’ve mentioned in previous posts here my affinity for the Western genre. When I was little, my brothers and I would spend entire weekends watching them on television with my father. At the time, I don’t think I really paid much attention to them and didn’t really care either way. But Westerns on the TV meant Saturdays with my dad, and those were pretty special to me. Eventually, I grew to appreciate them for what they are and now when I watch them, I tend to get transported back to third or fourth grade, staring at our giant old wood-framed console TV that didn’t have a remote. I wasn’t in fifth grade in the 60s or anything, this is just the dirtball TV we had in 1986. But that is neither here nor there.

The point is, I loved to sit around watching Westerns with my dad and among our favorites were Clint Eastwood movies. But I’m not going to talk about The Man with No Name franchise, as the point of this column is to suggest things that you, the reader, may have missed. It’s not very likely that you’re a fan of Westerns and have never heard of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Nor am I even going to talk about an Eastwood Western film for that matter, because if you’re like me, if you even think the word “Western,” an image of Clint as the titular Outlaw Josey Wales probably pops into your head. Today I’m going to talk about Clint’s 1982 film Honkytonk Man.

It took me a while to come around to Honkytonk Man, actually. For the most part, I preferred Clint Eastwood as a Western outlaw. Even the Dirty Harry series, which I love now, I had a hard time with for a while. I just didn’t have any interest in seeing him try to be tough guy in the modern world, I guess. But Honkytonk Man was the first movie I remember enjoying Clint in that wasn’t a Western.

Set in the 1930s during the Great Depression, Clint plays Red Stovall, a singer-songwriter and alcoholic drifter who is trying like hell to get to Nashville so he can try out for the Grand Ol’ Opry as a country singer. In the opening scene, Red drunkenly careens up onto the front lawn of a rural Oklahoma farm house just moments after it is hit with an aggressive dust storm. The farm belongs to his sister and her family who are all too familiar with this kind of behavior from Red. The family, discovering that Red has an advanced case of tuberculosis, take him in. While there, he forms a bond with his nephew Whit, played by Clint’s son Kyle Eastwood in his film debut. Red decides to take Whit with him on a road trip to Nashville so that Red can finally pursue his dream. The two share a series of adventures, including robbing a poker game, performing at a juke joint, a brothel visit, and a jailbreak. When they finally reach the Opry, Red is too sick to finish, botching his audition with a series of coughing fits. The performance is, however, caught by a record executive who offers Red studio time to record his songs.

What I love about this film, aside from the killer country soundtrack by the likes of Porter Wagoner, Ray Price, Marty Robbins and Eastwood himself, is that the character of Red is such a different kind of role for Clint. While he does have some of that familiar gruff, icy exterior (particularly when sleeping off a hangover), there is a vulnerability to the dying man that really sets Red apart from other Eastwood characters. A child of the Depression himself, perhaps Clint saw something in the story that struck a chord with his own childhood when he decided to take on the role (and the director’s chair). Whatever the reason, Eastwood brings the melancholy of this character to life with the help of his evolving relationship with the young boy. Red gets the boy involved in some unsavory practices, but there is a real family bond there that is at times very touching. In Honkytonk Man, Clint is given the chance to prove to the world that there is more to his acting than just violent thuggery.

As a director, Clint really shines here as well. The film is visually stunning, filmed on location in various parts of Northern California and Nevada, which act as the Middle America backdrop for the duo’s family road trip. Again, in every way, the film is very different from the usual gun porn fodder that Clint is known for, but take a chance on Honkytonk Man. It’s a true character study of the traveling troubadour, perhaps a character you’ve heard about before in some of the best country songs.

-         Jonathan Eagle

Monday, March 5, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #200 - Mountain - Climbing

Let’s talk about hard rock and heavy metal. Exactly where and when it started is a subject of much debate, and there is probably not a real definitive answer. In England, most indications seem to point pretty clearly to Cream, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath as the forefathers, but here in the U.S. of A things aren’t quite as clear. In the late 60’s The Stooges, MC5 and especially Blue Cheer made some critical first steps, but the more recognized conventions of heavy music started to come into focus around 1969 and 70 when two bands in particular started to forge the raw materials into something now very familiar. From Texas, Z.Z. Top emphasized a blues-based form of the guitar fronted trio. Billy Gibbons’ guitar style and tone would help define the southern strain of hard rock until this day. From the stage at Woodstock though, came an East Coast band whose incendiary, guitar-driven sound mixed with a headier style of songwriting to make Mountain a potential peer to the best of the English bands.

Although lead vocalist and certified guitar monster Leslie West had already released a solo album entitled Mountain in 1969, the album Climbing (released in 1970) was the first album with the band itself (now featuring well-known producer Felix Pappalardi on bass and double bass drum pioneer Corky Laing on very muscular drums) now going under the name Mountain. With Pappalardi (and then-wife, later murderer) Gail Collins’ sophisticated songwriting and experienced and intelligent production, Mountain quickly transcends the competition to offer one of the great hard rock albums of all time.

Opening with a bona fide anthem, “Mississippi Queen” is THE song about which the much discussed penchant for cowbell in hard rock comes from. No song has used it better (except maybe “Low Rider"by War), and combined it with the almost Zeppelin-esque crunch of a classic lead guitar riff. “Mississippi Queen” really doesn’t need a lot of discussion because of its unquestioned status as a classic of all rock. Used effectively in movies and T.V. advertising, it has passed beyond the mortal sphere. And that would be that, except for the fact that is followed up by a far more ambitious and equally iconic song by Cream bassist Jack Bruce. “Theme For An Imaginary Western” is another stone classic with mysterious lyrics, a great arrangement enhanced dramatically by Steve Knight’s able Hammond organ work and, of course, thunderous guitar work and mournful vocals by West. Again, this song is followed by another heavy classic. Leslie West unleashes a master class of heavy guitar and really exercises his unique vocal howl, which would be copied by virtually every metal singer in decades to come. “Never In My Life” would fit in on records coming out now - it does not feel dated yet it is years ahead of its time. Side 1 of the original LP closes out and side 2 opens with songs that would have fit beautifully on a Traffic or Procol Harum album. “Silver Paper” and the gorgeous Woodstock memory “For Yasgur's Farm” are both smart, melodic songs benefitting much from Pappalardi’s experience producing Cream (among others) to allow him to create songs that transcend any genre. “To My Friend” finds West proving his acoustic chops ala Zeppelin’s “White Summer.” The album remains strong to the end, with “The Laird” especially offering some prime navel-gazing opportunity. Yes, Mountain does fit the bill as proto-metal based largely on West’s guitar work and shrieking vocals, but no, they were no one trick pony. Climbing ticks many other boxes. Like their British counterparts, Mountain were reaching for the stars.

In the end, perhaps it is the fact that Climbing satisfies the specifics of so many genres - hard rock, soft rock, psych, pop - and even produced a stadium-rock anthem, which makes it such an enduring album to my ears. The totally boss image on the back cover of Felix Pappalardi, the more experienced music legend, giving Leslie West a congratulatory hand slap really says it all: job well done!

-         Paul Epstein

Monday, February 26, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #186 - Brick (2005, dir. Rian Johnson)

For a couple of years I lived in a small town in southern Vermont within walking distance of the Latchis Theater, an art deco movie house built in 1938. The Latchis remains one of the coolest, most inviting, and remarkable theaters where I’ve regularly watched movies. During that time I saw a lot of movies at the Latchis, but an offbeat mystery from a first-time director left one of the strongest impressions on me. Despite my best efforts to enter any movie theater knowing as little as possible beforehand, I must have known on some level that Brick would combine the genres and styles of film noir and high school movies, but that knowledge did not prepare me for what I was about to experience. Rian Johnson’s directorial debut isn’t merely an exercise in style and form; through merging film noir with the tropes of teen movies established in the 1980s, Brick prevails as something far more substantial, engrossing, and memorable than the sum of its parts.

As writer and director Rian Johnson pitches the language and look of Brick squarely between hardboiled crime dramas of the 1940s and sunny, southern California teen movies of the late twentieth century. The characters speak in a clipped, idiosyncratic lingo that may seem anachronistic, but mimics the impenetrable local slang of a high school’s in-crowd and adds to the movie’s snappy pacing. Johnson grew up in San Clemente, California and filmed Brick at locations throughout the area including the high school he attended. Johnson seeks out the forgettable, in-between spaces that tend to attract groups of bored teenagers and frames his story within the sidelines of this sprawling, shabby ocean-side town. When Joseph Gordon-Levitt made Brick, he was nearing the point in his twenties (and in his career) when he was about to age out of teen roles but playing the protagonist Brendan allowed him to demonstrate that he was fully capable of tackling challenging, dynamic, and emotionally complex roles. As Brendan, Gordon-Levitt renders himself almost unrecognizable through a physical bearing marked by a clenched jaw, tousled hair, hunched shoulders, and relentless forward motion. Gordon-Levitt beautifully inhabits the pent-up posture of the high school misfit with a chip on his shoulder and a list of grievances that remain a mystery to all but himself. By setting a murder mystery within the realm of the frenetic solipsism of youth, Johnson somehow manages to amplify the sense that his characters are facing matters of life and death. As heavy as things get (and they do get pretty heavy), Johnson inserts playfully sly humor into the proceedings like a delightfully satisfying confrontation between Brendan and an assistant vice principal played by Richard Roundtree.

Over a decade after Brick’s release, it persists as the kind of movie that can be summed up in just a few words, but lingers powerfully in the minds of many who have seen it. Rian Johnson spent several years working on his debut and you can tell that he was staking his forthcoming career on both this novel concept as well as his distinctive, efficient skills as a filmmaker. Johnson’s sophomore effort, The Brothers Bloom, differs greatly from Brick in nearly every observable way. In contrast to Brick’s taut stylistic minimalism and succinct narrative, Johnson embraces a busy and bright extravagance to tell the rambling, globe-trotting tale of The Brothers Bloom. In 2012 Johnson teamed up with Joseph Gordon-Levitt again and aligned his ambitions more directly with some of the most successful elements of Brick for the existential time-travel crime thriller Looper. A couple of months ago, I went to the theater to watch Johnson’s fourth film, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and despite the forty years of franchise history, I picked up on the kinds of themes and artistic choices that make Brick such a breathtaking experience. 

 -         John Parsell

Monday, February 19, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #199 - James Booker - Resurrection of the Bayou Maharajah

It’s 1982. Let’s say you’re visiting New Orleans and you want to get out of the touristy French Quarter, past the scammers telling you they know where you got your shoes and into some less dressed up version of the city. Maybe you find yourself heading a little bit west to the Uptown neighborhood of Carrollton and you drop into the legendary Maple Leaf Bar on Oak Street. Maybe you weren’t even planning to do it, but the sounds of a piano spilling out into the street and a wild, high, bluesy voice drew you in. And there, inside the small and loosely crowded bar, a vocally enthusiastic crowd is swinging, clapping, and snapping to the loopy rhythms of a skinny man with an eye patch seated at the piano. That man, you find out, is James Booker, and he’s been the house pianist here from the mid-70s until today.

Asking around a bit you find out that he is, to be kind, a bit of an eccentric with a widely-acknowledged drug problem. Sometimes he’ll stop mid-song and stare forward at something nobody else can see, sometimes he won’t touch the piano but will sit there talking into the mic (much to the consternation of the crowd who are there to hear him play), sometimes he doesn’t show up at all. But tonight he’s there showing off his prodigious, classically-schooled chops and it’s a hot set, bouncing from classics like “Junco Partner” (which he absolutely owns and could’ve written about himself) and “St. James Infirmary” to Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona to Chopin’s “Minute Waltz” in the blink of an eye. And those are just the songs he plays in their entirety; there are also the medleys.

Normally, you’d think, a medley is a showcase meant to edit down familiar hits the artist is tired of playing to satisfy their regular fans. Not so, here - they’re the highlights, with Booker’s broad tastes (and humor, definitely his sense of humor) in full effect as he makes associations that lead him through a nearly 10-minute grouping that hits two Larry Williams tunes, a Stax staple followed by a Motown staple, and then ends on his own “Classified.” The title? - “Medley: Slow Down/Bony Maronie/Knock On Wood/I Heard It Through The Grapevine/Classified.” And it’s a glorious demonstration of his dazzling timing, his vocals that veer from resolutely soulful to a wild yodel, his ornately filigreed piano style, and once again, his timing, with its deep-in-the-pocket funk even when it’s lurching or careening forward at a rocketing tempo. And that crowd, oh, the crowd – they’re with him for every beat, eating right out of the palm of his hand. It’s a masterful way to kick off the album and it rolls right into the seven and a half equally rollicking minutes of “Tico Tico” mixed with Booker’s own terrific “Papa Was A Rascal.” And then it just keeps going for 72 minutes total.

And now it’s 2018. This CD, with every aforementioned performance (and more), was released 25 years ago, collected from over 60 hours of performances recorded on the Maple Leaf’s house system between 1977 and 1982, the year before Booker passed away at only 43. Somewhere in there while playing at the club Booker met Harry Connick Sr. and took a very young Harry Connick Jr. under his wing as a student and protégé, teaching him piano technique, sometimes inviting him up to play alongside him on the piano bench. Dr. John was once heard to describe him as "the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced." And though his recording career was sporadic - a few studio sessions and some live (mostly) European dates interrupted by stretches in jail - Resurrection of the Bayou Maharajah (and its nearly-as-good all-instrumental companion piece Spiders on the Keys) showcase Booker’s genius in a succession of high points without the inconsistencies that nearly everyone who talks fondly about Booker notes as a result of his problems with drugs and alcohol. It’s how you can imagine he would be on a good night, and you can easily put yourself right into the Maple Leaf on a warm night in 1982, listening to him masterfully work the keyboard with his over-the-top flourishes skirting right on the edge of absurdity, but somehow keeping it all right in the pocket. It’s a beautiful thing and a great tribute to this troubled genius.

-         Patrick Brown

Monday, February 12, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #185 - My Dog Skip (2000, dir. Jay Russell)

The qualities of a great family movie are very different than those required to make a film primarily for adults. Many of the conventions associated with “serious” movies simply don’t apply to a movie meant to appeal equally to children and their parents. Needless to say most films land wide of the mark. My Dog Skip is a movie that speaks clearly in the syntactical language of children, but it lands a mighty emotional wallop to any adult with a beating heart. The thing that My Dog Skip gets so beautifully right is that the sad details of our childhoods can be made right for the rest of our lives by the presence of one true friend. Of course, as many of us know, there is no friend like a dog.

Based on the memoir of acclaimed author Willie Morris, young actor Frankie Muniz (at the same moment he was breaking out as Malcolm In The Middle - 2000) is perfectly cast as Willie, a scrawny, shy, only child in WWII-era Yazoo, Mississippi. His Father (Kevin Bacon) lost his leg in the Spanish-American War and young Willie finds himself without a strong mentor. His next-door neighbor Dink (Luke Wilson) is the local sports hero, whom Willie idolizes, but he too is made unavailable to Willie when drafted. Willie’s insightful Mother (Diane Lane) overrides his Father’s objections and gives Willie a Jack Russell puppy for his ninth birthday. From the moment the dog enters the scene things start looking up for Willie. Problems don’t go away, but having a companion offering unconditional love makes anyone’s load easier to bear. In addition, Willie starts to see that his dog, Skip, helps him navigate many socially and emotionally difficult situations. In one fashion or another, Skip helps Willie deal with bullying, meeting girls, understanding racism, finding empathy for his own and other peoples’ frailties, and even breaking up a gang of bootleggers. The details are dealt with superficially and only somewhat believably, but it is entirely beside the point. Because, as these things happen, the bond between Willie and Skip becomes more and more believable. Towards the end of the movie, Willie loses his temper and hits Skip in front of the whole town and Skip runs away. This pivotal moment forces Willie to recognize exactly what he has in Skip. He muses, “I was an only child and Skip was an only dog.” Any person who has experienced loneliness, or a fractured parental relationship, or confusion about his social station, or the love and then loss of a best friend can relate to Willie’s agony as he frantically rides his bike around town looking for his lost dog. He finds him, but while helping bust up the bootlegging operation, Skip is badly injured. Get the hankies out folks. The movie’s tone becomes more serious at this point. Skip survives and Willie fully realizes what he has, yet a sweet melancholy creeps in as Willie (and the audience) begin to recognize the inevitable. Willie will grow up and go away to college, and Skip will stay behind and eventually disappear.

The things that work in My Dog Skip work so spectacularly well that it falls into the classic category to me. The story is told in a warm voiceover supplied by Harry Connick Jr. which, when combined with the nostalgic view of a lost small town America, swelling music, and honeyed lighting, reminds one of the most heartrending aspects of To Kill A Mockingbird. Casting is fantastic. Skip himself is the perfect screen match of sentience and doggishness, irresistibly guileless and conniving. Some of his human counterparts do alright as well. Kevin Bacon and Diane Lane can add their fine and nuanced performances here to resumes already filled with memorable characters, and Frankie Muniz gives a remarkably sophisticated and complex performance of a little boy - clearly a testament to his and the director Jay Russell’s talents. As the movie winds toward its inevitably poignant conclusion, there is an overwhelming sense of loss in the viewer. Like any successful art, good movies make us yearn for the past or aspire toward the future. My Dog Skip is the former. It will make you pine for your childhood, miss the loving dog that was your best friend, and ultimately, an America that was better, or at least kinder, than the one we have now.

-          Paul Epstein

Monday, February 5, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #198 - The Jesus Lizard – Liar (1992)

In the summer of 1993, I finally mustered up the courage to ask this girl I had been crushing on for a long time out on a date. To my surprise and discomfort, she actually agreed to it. The day of the date, I was so nervous and uneasy I didn’t know what to do. As a fourteen-year-old, I hadn’t exactly been the Casanova that I clearly am now, and I had convinced myself that asking was the hard part. But now I actually had to go on the date and be engaging. I was terrified. Usually, I could put on some music to put myself at ease, but for some reason, nothing in my collection was doing the trick. I decided to head down to the coffee shop where I was supposed to meet her. I was early but there was a record store downstairs in the basement of the building, so I figured I’d kill some time beforehand with my favorite pastime, record shopping. (Coincidental side note: This is the same building in which I would eventually open my own record store twenty years later and two floors up.) Anyway, the impending date was still giving me butterflies and I was kind of angry at my music collection for not pulling through for me. So, I decided I was going to buy something new. I picked up a Flaming Lips album I had read about in Alternative Press and a cassette copy of Liar, the newest release by a band I wasn’t familiar with, The Jesus Lizard. I went outside to smoke and put the tape into my Walkman.

I can’t really explain what happened next. One thing is for sure, though. My life was changed indefinitely in that moment. Liar, though it may not be my favorite Jesus Lizard album, will forever be the most important one to me as it was my entry point into their world. You see, musically-speaking, I was a bit torn in the early 1990s. Having grown up to that point as a die-hard metal kid, the newer “grunge” bands (as the radio and MTV were calling them) were killing my beloved’s reign. On the other hand, there was something about the Nirvanas and the Alice in Chainses of the world that I truly could not deny. Still… it seemed like something was missing. I was at a musical crossroads. When I hit play on that Walkman, suddenly I had it figured out. And I do mean suddenly, because right out of the gate, Liar takes off at breakneck speed with “Boilermaker,” perhaps one of the heaviest songs ever written. This segues into “Gladiator” and “The Art of Self-Defense” for a violent one-two-three punch. Side A ends with one of the highlights of the album, the phenomenal “Puss,” which would also later appear on a split 7” with Nirvana.

This was exactly what I was looking for. It was heavy, but it wasn’t metal. It was angular and strange, the guitar tone was bizarre and machine-like, the rhythm section was more precise than anything I’d ever listened to. And then there was Yow. The frontman to end all frontmen. Hoo boy… I don’t even know where to begin describing him. David Yow’s vocal delivery is not so much sung as it is retched at you, hollering with a kind of terrifying urgency about such topics as mental depravity and chemical dependency (yes, there are actual lyrics in there). Yow sounds like a man in trouble. Guitarist Duane Denison’s leads have a personality all their own on this album, ranging from the jackhammer speed of “Rope” to the slow, Slint-like crawl of the album’s closer “Zachariah.”

I just spent two paragraphs describing Liar to you and I still feel as though I haven’t done it (or the band, for that matter) enough justice. The truth is, I’ve never known how to describe The Jesus Lizard. They’re noise-rock, sure, but that label wasn’t even really around when I first discovered this album. In a way, they kind of represented a middle ground between the metal I adored so much as a kid and the “grunge” that inevitably usurped the limelight from them.

In case you’re wondering, the date went really well. I was charming and funny, and I even got to make out with her a little at the end. Had I not bought Liar immediately beforehand, who knows? I may have still been stressed out about the date, pacing back and forth in my room trying to mellow out to my Tool records or something. But any reason that I had for being nervous was out the window the second I heard that first note of “Boilermaker.” I bet I listened to the album three times in a row that day. The Jesus Lizard are one of my all-time favorite bands still, 25 years later, and I feel very fortunate that every time I listen to them I get to recount this story.

-         Jonathan Eagle

Monday, January 29, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #184 - Ghost World (2001, dir. Terry Zwigoff, Written by Daniel Clowes & Terry Zwigoff)

Rebecca: This is so bad it’s almost good.
Enid: This is so bad it’s gone past good and back to bad again.

In the nineties Daniel Clowes had a run of his comic Eightball entitled “Ghost World” that, among others, featured the odd stories of recent high school grads Enid and Rebecca. Clowes’ series was a cult classic in the comic world and as the “Ghost World” narrative gained popularity, Terry Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes turned the story into the crazily rad film that I have the pleasure to attempt to turn you onto for this post! I’ve always been a bit of a comic nerd with a penchant for the underground and alternative stories, so I fell in love with Clowes’ Eightball (at the same time as I found the Hernandez Brothers Love & Rockets series). With that in mind, I was extremely pleased when the film, in an abnormal turn of events, happened to live up to the insane awesomeness of the comic.

The story follows Enid (Thora Birch) as she and her best friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson), having just graduated high school, embark on the beginning of the rest of their lives. All seems well as they follow Satanists from their favorite haunt to the “like, Taj Mahal of fake 50’s diner’s,” mess with their ‘friend’ Josh at his convenience store job, and Enid dryly fumbles through her remedial art class, however life becomes much more complex as the both of them deal with the ennui of the real world in different ways.

While reading through the personal ads in the paper, they come across a “missed connection” (pre-Craig and his list) of a man who believed he had a connection with a woman who he had randomly helped. The two decide that it would be fun to mess with the guy, make a date with him and watch as he is “stood up.” Fast-forward; as Enid watches the man sit and sip his vanilla milk shake an interest is piqued within her. Having followed the man home they began stalking him, eventually discovering that the man, Seymour (Steve Buscemi), runs a makeshift record store out of his garage on Saturdays. Enid picks up a 33RPM compilation of old Blues 78’s and her interest begins to become an obsession (thanks to Skip James’ “Devil Got My Woman”). While Enid further falls down the rabbit hole of Seymour’s anti-glamorous life and escapes further into defensive sarcasm, Rebecca begins to embrace the real world working at a coffee shop and looking for an apartment. And from there, well, the story evolves.

Seymour: I can't relate to 99% of humanity.

One of the things that hits me most about Ghost World is the fact that every time I watch this film (or read the comics or graphic novel compilation) I see it from a different perspective. The root of the film is transition. Enid and the rest of the characters are all going through major changes and transitions in their lives and the ways that they deal with them are extremely relatable and human. All of the characters offer a different perspective on change and evolution of self, which make the film/comic endlessly fascinating.  The story/comic is gorgeously imbued with this relatability, and the film under less capable direction and with less committed performers could have easily fallen flat. Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, and Steve Buscemi prove to be such perfect live action representations of their much-beloved characters that it almost seems as if Clowes had written/drawn the characters for those particular people.

While I have certainly focused more upon what makes this a remarkable and important film, I can’t express enough how enjoyable and hilarious the movie truly is! The trials and tribulations of Enid’s life in transition, while at time heartwarming/breaking, are often hysterical and the sardonic sense of humor of the main character permeates the entirety of the film. Being a new addition to the Criterion Collection I can’t say enough about Ghost World and knowing that words won’t fully be able to describe the appeal of this eccentric gem, I will end this edition of “I’d Love To Turn You On,” so you can go and experience it for yourself!

-         Edward Hill

Monday, January 22, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #197 - Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings - 100 Days, 100 Nights

In the fall of 2007, I moved back to my hometown in upstate South Carolina after a couple of years in New England marked by academic stress and upheaval in my personal life. My father was preparing to retire from nearly forty years of teaching and I thought it would be a good idea to get some time with him while I figured out what direction my life would take next. Shortly after returning home, I started picking up shifts at the local record store where I’d worked before and grew up shopping. While I was in school, I hadn’t been able to stay current with new releases and up-and-coming artists. Working at a record store again gave me a welcome opportunity to explore music with frequency and depth. At the end of November, I took a memorable day trip to Asheville, North Carolina and listened to some new music I’d recently acquired. The album that most stood out on that drive was 100 Days, 100 Nights by Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings.

Leading up to that fall, I had heard about a soul revival group that was building up a loyal following with explosive performances and restless touring, but 100 Days, 100 Nights served as my introduction to Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings. Sharon Jones had worked for years as a backup singer, but didn’t experience success on her own until her forties and fifties with the Dap-Kings. When I first listened to 100 Days, 100 Nights, I noticed not only the one-two punch of the superb musicianship and studied songcraft, but also the combination of Jones’ incredible voice and her lived-in, knowing delivery. Although The Dap-Kings worked on reviving the kind soul music that Motown, “the sound of young America,” popularized in the 1960s, they featured a lead singer who embraced middle age and all of the wisdom that comes with it. I had just turned thirty earlier that year, was still taking notes on some life lessons I’d recently learned, and appreciated these songs in a way I might not have a few years before. The title track, “100 Days, 100 Nights,” establishes the key elements of the album’s sound with a descending horn figure that quickly gives way to the full power of Jones’ voice as she guides the band through a workout and imparts the insight she has gained from a lifetime of love and loss. Later on, the album highlight, “Something’s Changed,” flies by in just under three minutes, but in that time it practically glows with warmth and reverb as Jones and company offer a master class in how to pull off a flawless pop song. Near the end of the album, “Keep on Looking” underscores the value of years of touring that honed the band into a taut, yet flexible entity able to complement Jones’ passionate, multi-layered performance with an urgent, responsive arrangement. Closing out the album, “Answer Me,” borrows the structure and content of a gospel song, but this satisfying sinner’s lament ends up feeling like a night out drinking while you’re still wearing your church clothes.

On Valentine’s Day 2014, I finally saw Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings for the first and only time at the Orange Peel in Asheville, North Carolina, of all places. It was a cold night in the Blue Ridge Mountains, but Jones and the band heated up the room and put on one hell of a show, easily living up to their reputation. This tour occurred in between Jones’ two bouts with cancer, but I couldn’t tell that she was anything less than one hundred percent that night. Sharon Jones continued to perform and record until her death on November 18, 2016; her final album, Soul of a Woman, was released almost exactly one year later. Sharon Jones won over audiences with her generosity of spirit and I’m thankful for the ways she has reminded that how we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life. 100 Days, 100 Nights provides a wonderful introduction to Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings and belongs in the collection of any music lover who has experienced the inevitable heartbreak of life, but isn’t willing to give up.

-         John Parsell

Monday, January 15, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #183 - Odd Man Out (1947, dir. Carol Reed)

Carol Reed was a British director best known for a series of dramatic thrillers, culminating in his best-known work, 1949’s The Third Man. Prior to that, he’d worked on ‘B’ pictures in the 1930s and embarked on a run of good-to-excellent films throughout the 1940s, beginning in 1940 with the Hitchcockian wartime thriller Night Train to Munich (widely seen as a sequel of sorts to Hitchcock’s hit The Lady Vanishes). But the “good” run turned to “excellent” in 1947 with Odd Man Out.

Like Night Train to Munich, the film is a thriller that uses a political situation as a backdrop for its drama, not as its actual subject. The film opens with a prologue declaring its lack of political intent as it launches into its tale of Johnny McQueen (the superb James Mason in one of his finest roles), the regional leader of “The Organization” (a thinly-veiled IRA), who has recently escaped from prison and has been in hiding. He’s helped put together a robbery to finance the group and is venturing out for the first time since his escape, despite a weakened physical condition. During the event, things go wrong and he’s wounded, left on his own to escape, with his comrades trying to discreetly locate and help him while a very public police manhunt is underway.

The rest of the film finds Johnny dazed, barely able to move, and closing in on death, encountering different people throughout his travels across Belfast who variously decide to help him or shun him, not wanting to “get mixed up in that sort of thing.” And from the friendly dowager, to the English nurses, to the sympathetic cab driver, to the wary bar owner, to the eccentric and philosophical/artistic trio living in a ruined Victorian mansion, to the priest hoping to save his soul, each interaction with the regular populace of the city gives the characters an opportunity to display their reasons for helping him (or not) – and gives each actor in the cast (many drawn from Dublin’s Abbey Theatre) a chance to turn in superb work as well.

Despite the great acting all around, the main thrust of the film is Johnny’s relationship with Kathleen (Kathleen Ryan), the young woman who loves him both for his cause and as a man, even against the advice of Grannie (Kitty Kirwan) who tells her not to waste her youth on a doomed hero. She continues to try to find and help him when others have given up and, in one of the more startling scenes, offers to take both Johnny and herself to the afterlife before she’d let the police get him.

The film opens on a city clock chiming the time and church bells and clocktowers continue to chime throughout the film, taking on an increasingly doomy overtone as the night progresses and Johnny’s condition worsens. As he loses blood and can’t find respite, the events of his life get increasingly disjointed and the film’s tone turns more grimly philosophical, with the artist trio late in the film offering up the lines: “It’s the truth about us all. He’s doomed.” “So are we all.” And Reed, along with cinematographer Robert Krasker (who also filmed The Third Man), continue to push the film’s opening realism further and further into abstract territory, with the familiar canted angles, backlit chases, and sharp divisions of darkness and light seen in the later film present here and used equally effectively.

In short, the film is a powerhouse of a dramatic crime thriller, anchored by a remarkable performance by Mason – even more remarkable perhaps because he is often a silent witness to the goings-on around him in which others decide his fate – and the continual thread of Kathleen Ryan’s righteous pursuit to save the man she loves.

-         Patrick Brown