Monday, July 16, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #196 - Trees Lounge (1996, dir. Steve Buscemi)

In the mid-to-late 1990s, Steve Buscemi had one of the most ubiquitous mugs in show business. He showed up in the films of everyone from the Coen Brothers to Quentin Tarantino and seemingly every indie film in between. With his wiry frame and excitable bug-eyed demeanor, Buscemi played the perfect tough-guy henchman-type. His presence is always striking, and he’s been one of my favorite actors since the first time I saw him in Reservoir Dogs. In Trees Lounge, Buscemi takes on the role of screenwriter and director in addition to the lead role. The result is a bleak portrait of the life of a small-town alcoholic.
Buscemi plays Tommy Basilio, the protagonist, who has recently lost his job and his girlfriend of eight years to his former best friend. Tommy lives in a gritty section of Long Island in a small, run-down apartment above a bar called Trees Lounge where he spends just about every waking moment of his life drinking and chatting with the bar’s other regulars. One day, Tommy learns that his Uncle Al (Seymour Cassel), the local ice cream man, has died of a heart attack. Al’s funeral not only brings together a family who has so obviously drifted apart from one another, but also gives Tommy an employment opportunity to take over Al’s rounds. Business is slow at first, as Tommy does not prove to be as likeable to the neighborhood kids as Al was. But eventually, he enlists the help of Debbie (Chloe Sevigny), his former girlfriend’s teenage niece. This blossoms into a minor romance, further complicating things in Tommy’s life and confusing the naïve Debbie.
Throughout the course of Trees Lounge, Tommy’s presence has a King Midas-in-reverse effect on everything and everyone around him. The more he drinks and closes in on himself, the more he pushes away the only people around that genuinely want to help him. Tommy’s life, at his own doing, spirals more and more out of control, the crux of which lies at this small dive bar that acts as a metaphor for the lives of Tommy and the other patrons. The staff, the décor and the jukebox selections have never been changed. They stay constant, stagnant; much like the people, the ghosts, that inhabit it. The opening credits scene of the film perfectly portrays the kind of place Trees Lounge is when it focuses on one of its regular barflies, Bill, an elderly man who never leaves his bar stool, ordering a double shot of bourbon and staring blankly into space. Bill is a fixture at “The Trees” all throughout the film, sitting silently by himself at the same stool and occasionally barking at someone to leave him alone. This juxtaposes perfectly with the final scene, in which Bill is ominously absent, recently hospitalized because he “just stopped breathing.” Tommy, sitting in Bill’s stool, learns of this news and asks the other barflies why no one is with him. They all assure him they’re going “after this drink.” Tommy, realizing where he is headed, stares blankly in exactly the same way Bill does at the onset of the film.
This film has come to mean a lot to me over the years. I am intimately familiar with this life. I mean, I was in high school when I first saw it, so I hadn’t really experienced life yet. But over time, it’s become not just one of my favorite films, but the film that I perhaps relate to the most. Alcoholism runs rampant in my family. I myself have struggled with it for decades. More specifically, I have lived the life of the small town daily saloon drinker. I know these characters well. I know the feeling of hopelessness and pessimism that leads one to remain in such a comfort zone and say, “well, fuck it. I guess I’ll go drink again.” Buscemi captures this working-class alcoholism more realistically than anything I’ve ever seen. But more than that, he also perfectly captures the self-destructive nature that can often come with family and relationship rifts. Buscemi himself has stated that the film is a sort of hypothetical autobiography, saying that had he not left his small Long Island neighborhood of Valley Stream and begun his acting career, this is the life for which he was headed. In a lot of ways, my recent move to Colorado parallels that idea.
If it feels like I’m explaining a film that is very heavy, it’s because I am. But, please don’t let that keep you from checking Trees Lounge out. While it may not be a feel-good sensation, Buscemi’s directorial debut is extremely funny at times. It’s very dialogue-driven, almost more like a theatrical production than a feature film. Another thing that sets it apart from, say, Barfly or Leaving Las Vegas is that it’s not all dark and depressing. There are actually some very touching moments between Buscemi’s Tommy and the various other characters. Maybe not everyone can relate to the material the same way I do, but I really do feel that it’s possibly Buscemi’s finest film, acting, directing or otherwise.

-         Jonathan Eagle

Monday, July 9, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #209 - Hailu Mergia – Tche Belew

            Hailu Mergia is an Ethiopian keyboardist/arranger who worked in various bands and as a solo artist, coming to prominence in early 1970s Addis Ababa as a bandleader after forming his seminal Walias Band. In the wake of the coup d'état by the military Derg that overthrew Haile Selassie in 1974, bands in Addis were mostly either state-sponsored or tied economically to a club or hotel who owned the band’s equipment and merely hired the players to perform nightly. Mergia and the Walias Band were in in unusual situation in that they worked under their own terms - they owned their instruments, they decided where and when they would perform and record, and were not in the position of promoting either a specific club or a government-approved music program (though they did run into occasional censorship troubles).
After a string of successful singles, Mergia decided to tap his band’s talents to create an all-instrumental LP - an unprecedented move in the vocal-centered Ethiopian music scene. Mergia was influenced in his keyboard playing by jazz organist Jimmy Smith (Mergia favored the Farfisa and Godwin organs of the day) and his blues-rooted, funky jazz styles, but combined this influence with traditional Ethiopian melodies and scales for a unique blend of contemporary up-to-the-minute jazz-funk spiced with rich, traditional roots. For this record, in addition to his own work, he tapped his band’s talents for writing and arranging (plus the talents of guest vibraphonist Mulatu Astatke who appears on several tracks).
Walias Band
            To get a taste of how this sounds, start right at the beginning with the title cut. The song is propulsively funky, leading with Melakie Gabrie’s prominent bassline, Temare Haregu’s in-the-pocket drums, slightly distorted guitar from Mahmmud Aman, and Girma Beyene’s piano chords before the horn charts come in (accompanied by a wordless chorus (including singers Aster Aweke and Getachew Kassa who’d come to later fame as solo artists)) to introduce the song. After the intro, Mergia takes the front seat with his lightly psychedelic organ solo punctuated by horns and a restatement of the theme. Next comes a sax solo (by either Moges Habte or Abebe Kassa) rendered in Ethiopian scales; meanwhile the churning, rhythmic background never stops, nor do the rest of the horn section’s comments throughout the song. After the theme restatement, Mergia again takes over with another organ solo which is then handed back to the saxophone again until the fade.
Walias Band
If you’re ready to be fully hooked, proceed immediately to the album’s hit single - “Musicawi Silt,” track 4 - to hear both the catchiest and most covered thing here. Maybe you’ve heard it already; it’s been covered by Dutch avant-rockers The Ex and Ethiopian saxophonist Getatchew Mekuria, by American avant-rockers Secret Chiefs 3, by Brooklyn-based band Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, and many others. But you don’t need to be avant-leaning yourself to enjoy this one. It’s simply a great dance tune hooked by an irresistible melody. Once you hit the main theme you’ll understand both why it was a huge hit on release and why so many bands have wanted to cover it. Mergia takes a solo with a more straightforward organ sound and shorter phrases than the dreamier lines of the first cut, but there’s an interesting feature in that you can hear the keys of his organ clacking along with the solo - at first I thought this was some eccentric guitar comping or percussive accompaniment, but after many listens I’m pretty sure it’s all Mergia. After another theme statement, Mulatu Astatke comes in for a vibes solo that is unfortunately cut short by the (way too early!) fade of the song. Still - it’s an indelible classic, early fade and all.
Mergia and the Dhalak Band
Things proceed immediately from there into “Lomi Tera-Tera,” a bright, sunny tune featuring a lovely, major key organ solo and a percussive showcase that sounds great for a lazy hot day (like today), a boat ride on a lake in the sun, an early morning drive - anything that’s not exerting yourself too much where you’re just gonna lay back and let the music wash over you! And though everything on the album sounds terrific, I’d also want to bring your attention to track 9, “Eti Gual Blenai,” written (I think) by Astatke and marked by a dramatic intro that segues immediately into a great galloping beat that’s all low drums (props again to drummer Temare Haregu), when it’s not grooving in a loose, jazzy feel up on higher-pitched percussion. It’s almost a duet between Mergia’s organ and Haregu’s drums punctuated by horn statements until Astatke takes it into a spacier middle segment for his solo, but the entire cut is a remarkable demonstration of the versatility and talent of the whole group.
The Walias gigged around Addis Ababa and other parts of Ethiopia for years, but due to the harsh political climate at home, when they took their first tour outside Ethiopia, half the band stayed in the United States during an early 80s tour, where Mergia took a job as a Washington D.C. cab driver. To this day, half the band is in D.C. and half remains in Addis, but with the reissue of this album (plus another 70s group album Wede Harer Guzo and Mergia’s oddball mid-80s Hailu Mergia and His Classical Instrument which finds him overdubbing himself on drum machine, Rhodes piano, Yamaha DX7, and
Mergia in 2017
accordion) Mergia has started making music again, releasing a very good new 2018 album (Lala Belu) and organizing a tour of Europe and the States in the coming months.  All four of his albums available domestically (released through the auspices of the well-named label Awesome Tapes From Africa) are worth your listens, but this one’s the easiest “in” to his career and very possibly his best.
-          Patrick Brown

Monday, July 2, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #195 - Persepolis (2007, dir. Marjane Satrapi/Vincent Paronnaud)

Shortly after moving to Portland, Oregon in early 2008, I went to a theater downtown one Saturday night and saw the film adaptation of Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel, Persepolis. The theater was full and the audience was buzzing with anticipation. This was during the final year of George W. Bush’s second term and something about viewing this film that night felt like a collective act of defiance. A couple years later I was working as a para-educator for Portland Public Schools in a program that served at-risk youth. A teacher and I worked in a single classroom with a group of high school aged girls who all lived together in the same group home. When the teacher went on maternity leave for the last quarter of the school year, she gave me the opportunity to choose a book for the Language Arts portion of the curriculum. Persepolis seemed like an obvious choice to me at the time and I was excited to introduce the students to this challenging, rich, and enlightening story.
Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s 95-minute adaptation of Satrapi’s nearly 350-page novel represents the ideal form for a film based on an existing literary work. The film not only gets straight to the heart of Satrapi’s coming-of-age story set against the historical backdrop of the Iranian Revolution, but it also breathes, bristles, and blossoms with a life of its own that doesn’t exist in the pages of the original. The directors condense, focus, and present Satrapi’s direct, episodic comic-strip novel through a stark, mostly monochromatic style of animation that quickly pulls the audience into the narrative. Persepolis flows with warmth and humor as the audience watches Marjane grow up, live through a revolution, survive a war, and strike out on her own as a young woman going to school in Europe. As heavy as this may sound (and it does get very heavy), Satrapi touches on the seemingly universal themes of family identity, homesickness, personal integrity, and a grandmother’s love in a refreshing, life-affirming, and unvarnished way. In both the French and English versions, real life mother and daughter, Catherine Deneuve and Chiara Mastroianni voice the characters of Marjane’s mother and Marjane, respectively. Deneuve and Mastroianni’s natural chemistry and biological connection lend these characters a knowing intimacy that enhances the emotional depth of Marjane’s story. As a book, Persepolis has a lot in common with Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus, but as a film, I can’t think of anything else that accomplishes what Persepolis does in the same way.
Looking back on teaching Persepolis, I recall both the headaches and the rewards of the process. Before leaving for the term, the teacher I worked with expressed concerns about my choice and suggested I opt for a more mainstream and less demanding book. Then, the substitute teacher who came in for the remainder of the year feared that the students wouldn’t understand the context of the book and undermined my lessons with superfluous (and laughable) attempts to make Iranian geopolitics more relevant to the students. It didn’t help matters that the class hated the first half of the book, which focuses on Marjane’s childhood. During these frustrating moments, I thought back to when I first saw this movie and remembered that such a remarkable and vital work of art was well worth the difficulties. As soon as we got into the second half of the book when Marjane is a young woman, the students fell in love with Persepolis and suddenly Language Arts became a lot more enjoyable. By the time we watched Persepolis in class, these young women, who my colleagues didn’t think would understand the source material, felt a profound connection to Marjane Satrapi’s story that surprised even me.
-         John Parsell

Monday, June 25, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #208 - Dead Can Dance – Within the Realm of a Dying Sun

          I’m not exactly proud of what I’m about to tell you. But, there are certain bands that I cannot think about without also thinking about this particular time in my life. When I was in high school two of my best friends and I used to walk around downtown Dubuque, Iowa from pawn shop to pawn shop, shoplifting CDs, cassettes, VHS tapes and just about anything else you can think of. Not to brag, but over time, we got really, really good at it. We did it just about every weekend for what seems like two or three years straight, never getting caught and always coming away with a huge bounty. We even called ourselves the Pawn Shop Bandits, because we had so many foolproof ways to steal shit. We would steal so much in one day that I look back and truly don’t know exactly how we hid it all on our bodies. Again, not my finest accomplishment, but these thieving sessions gave us a unique opportunity to collect complete catalogs of albums by bands we were interested in. Think internet piracy but before there was an internet. So each week, the three of us would come home with entire discographies of bands like the Cure, the Ramones, R.E.M, Ministry and so many more.
            I bring this up because whenever I think about Dead Can Dance, I think about those days. They weren’t really one of “my bands” exactly (I think I maybe had one or two of their albums then), but one of my fellow PSB’s got really into them at the time and managed to collect just about all of their albums from these weekend outings. So I heard them a lot growing up and eventually they became one of my very favorite bands. My band, New Standards Men, even covered one of their songs for a spell. The album that grabbed my attention the most was their third album, 1987’s Within the Realm of a Dying Sun.
            To be honest, I think what finally brought me around to Dead Can Dance was the fact that many of the death and doom metal bands I was listening to at the time cited them as a huge influence. And this is absolutely the most evident in the sound of Dying Sun. It’s ominous without being too gloomy. It’s dark without being heavy, which at 14 years old I didn’t know was possible.
            Recorded in 1985 when the band was essentially just the duo of Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry (with drummer Peter Ulrich filling in), Dying Sun feels almost like a split solo record between the band’s two members. The A side is made up almost entirely of Perry compositions, while the B side is made up predominantly of Gerrard’s work. Some think that this song layout is a detriment to the album, adding a sudden and jarring shift between the two’s vastly different singing styles. I actually think that this works in the album’s favor, giving it an interesting diversity between sides. The result is both savagely beautiful and darkly ethereal. While I think the album is near flawless, personally, I probably prefer Gerrard’s songs over Perry’s. Gerrard’s vocal range is incredibly vast and she really showcases that on this album, able to go effortlessly from a deep, low range like in the gorgeous “Persephone” to a high, atmospheric pitch as in “Dawn of the Iconoclast.”
            Another thing I love about Dying Sun is that it seems to mark a kind of change in direction for the band. Gone now were the days of the simple gothic post-punk sound of their self-titled debut, as the duo began using odd instrumentation and time signatures to create a blend of neo-classical and chamber pop added to their post-rock base, a sound they hinted at on their previous album, Spleen and Ideal. Also, the band seemed more eager to take musical chances on this album, even writing songs like their iconic “Cantara,” that are, dare I say, “upbeat.”
            Again, the Pawn Shop Bandits days was admittedly not my finest hour, but I do look back on those days rather fondly. It was perhaps the time in my life when I discovered most of the music that I would later come to adore. And the way I see it, pawn shops are kind of known for ripping people off so maybe ripping them off was my way of getting even with them. Or maybe I’m an awful person. Either way, I’ve made peace with it.

-         Jonathan Eagle

Monday, June 18, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #194 - Festival (1967, dir. Murray Lerner)

It is hard to imagine a music documentary that is more historically important than Festival. Filmed over three years (1963-1965) at the Newport Folk Festival, this documentary not only offers life-changing glimpses of three generations of American musicians, but it actually captures some of the moments that see the American cultural, social and intellectual landscape shifting from 1950’s black and white to 1960’s technicolor. Hard to believe, right? When the movie opens on a scene of Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band performing casually backstage and director Murray Lerner begins to question them on the importance of folk music and the meaning of the festival, harmonica player and future cult leader Mel Lyman launches into some wild-eyed rapping about this music’s place in current society, and in those few minutes you can almost see the scales falling from society’s eyes as one generation of highly educated, idealistic youth takes the baton of cultural relevance and runs akimbo toward an uncertain finish line and the mushroom cloud that lay beyond it. It, and so many other moments in this incredible documentary, provides insights of such societal prescience that it is almost forgivable to forget the multi-generational panoply of great American music also playing out on screen. That, ultimately, is what makes Festival different and better than so many music documentaries; it is the fact that Murray Lerner took years of work to get the balance between music and society just right.
Other than Bob Dylan’s historic first electric performance of “Maggie’s Farm” from 1965, there are no full songs presented in Festival. Rather, Lerner skillfully allows us to float through three years of festivals - the music, the crowd, the conversations, the styles, the unreal cars (if you love cool cars from the 60’s, it’s worth watching the movie for the brief glimpses of Corvettes, Mustangs and Jaguars that the seemingly endless sea of middle-class white kids arrive in), and the overall gestalt of the times. It is an inescapable fact that the audience is almost entirely white, collegiate and representative of all the historical advantages post WWII America has come to represent. The seeds of the mid- to late-60’s cultural revolution awaiting are blowing throughout this film. There are no hippies, no revolutionaries (except on stage), no bomb throwers, but the potential to become just that is clear in each earnest pronouncement the post-beatnik audience members mouth with heartbreaking innocence. Because the film jumps around so willfully and with such artistic intent (largely thanks to editor Howard Alk, who would go on to work on a number of important music films), it avoids most of the traps of other concert films, remaining interesting and unpredictable throughout. No obligatory drum solos, sycophantic journalistic talking heads or music video collage tricks to take the realism and grit out of the music. And ultimately, the beautiful music is what makes this film so special.
Festival, by the simple act of letting events play out before the camera, manages to capture and contrast three distinct generations of American musicians. First are the heritage acts that have always inhabited this festival. However, because this was the mid 60’s, those acts were primarily made up of musicians whose history stretched back to the pre-war age of American regionalism. Thus artists like The Blue Ridge Mountain Dancers, Eck Robertson, The Swan Silvertones and most importantly, the bluesmen like Howlin’ Wolf, Son House and Mississippi John Hurt provide a priceless glimpse into a lost America. There isn’t really one authentic bit of this “old weird America” as Greil Marcus called it left in 2018 - not one bit! That fact alone makes these images indispensable. The second, and most prevalent category of performer represented, is the one that most closely mirrors the audience - the contemporaneous stars of the folk and infant folk-rock boom. Peter, Paul & Mary, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Johnny Cash, Odetta and Pete Seeger among others offer proof of the sincerity of their music and their message. It is clear why each would go on to forge distinctly important careers. They are young and at the peak of their powers. The sight of Johnny Cash’s profile or the sound of Odetta’s powerful voice are enough to take your breath away. And these moments happen over and over in this film.
Of course the unspoken but clear sub-context is the fact that all this “real,” “homespun “ music was about to come crashing up against the cultural tidal wave that that the next five years of American history would prove to be. That wave is represented in the person of one Bob Dylan, whose appearances at all three festivals provide increasing levels of hysteria amongst the audience, and culminate with his 1965 electric set. Director Murray Lerner later went back and created a full-length documentary on just Dylan’s part called The Other Side of the Mirror. I highly recommend watching it as well; however, there is a magic poignancy to Dylan’s appearances within the context of the other two categories of performer outlined above. Having hindsight, knowing what we know now, it is indeed touching and fascinating to see Dylan paying tribute to and breaking the mold in the same moment. It adds the perfect air of suffocating inevitability to the seemingly joyous proceedings. Optimism ruled the day, but dark clouds gathered on the horizon. Completely essential viewing!

-         Paul Epstein

Monday, June 11, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #207 - Cat Power – You Are Free

After living outside of the United States for three years, I went back home to upstate South Carolina in 2003 and worked at the independent record store I shopped at growing up. Following that lengthy break from U.S. pop culture, I spent a lot of the summer catching up on recent developments in pop and independent music. Although I may have had a passing awareness of Cat Power (the stage name of Chan Marshall) in the late 1990s, I felt like she became an unavoidable entity in indie rock in the summer of 2003. I kept drifting into conversations with coworkers and customers about a recent Cat Power show in the region characterized by an exhilarating, yet unpredictable performance. Earlier in the year, Cat Power released You Are Free, an album that provides an excellent entry point for the work of this exceptional, vital artist.
 You Are Free opens with “I Don’t Blame You,” as a stately piano figure structures Marshall’s sensitive and direct address to a musician who struggled with the cost of success. The song highlights Marshall’s skill at evocative songwriting as it blends equal parts elegy for a kindred spirit and personal declaration of defiance. “I Don’t Blame You” introduces the album’s theme of Marshall reflecting on the notion of success, the life of an artist, and her choice to pursue this life. At this pivotal stage of Cat Power’s career, Marshall draws out this conflict between wanting to be a rock star and dealing with the consequences of the attendant success. This conflict has defined Marshall’s work and has often played out in real time in front of audiences all over the world. In this context, “I Don’t Blame You” feels like an act of bravery and a commitment to go forward despite the risks. The second song, “Free,” continues with the topic of songs about music, but breaks away from the thoughtful character study of the first song and jumps into a hypnotic guitar rhythm that sets the stage for lyrics that feel like free association about the unfettered joy music can bring into our lives. Up next, “Good Woman” offers the point of view from one side of a love that has begun to fall apart. Although the speaker states her resolve to leave, the song echoes with her confession, “I will miss your heart so tender.” The song begins with a sober guitar line that Warren Ellis soon accents with an aching and beautiful violin performance. As Marshall’s voice grows from fragile to confident, “Good Woman” blossoms into one of the album’s finest moments complete with a children’s chorus and backing vocals from Eddie Vedder. “Evolution,” the album’s final song, features a piano part reminiscent enough of “I Don’t Blame You” to provide the album with bookends of a sort, but this song delivers something far more elusive than the straightforward narrative of the first song. This haunting, enigmatic final note confounds as much as the first song invites and it ensures that the listener will soon return to this collection of songs.

A year and a half after the release of You Are Free, Chan Marshall worked with Handsome Boy Modeling School on their sophomore album, White People, and contributed the album’s most enchanting and surprising collaboration in the form of the sultry R&B workout, “I’ve Been Thinking.” The song’s polished production and nonchalant sex appeal hint at the kind of territory Marshall would explore in greater depth a couple years later on her next studio album and career breakout, The Greatest. In 2012, Marshall finally released a proper follow-up to The Greatest with Sun, a restless and adventurous studio album of original material that finds her embracing both her rock star charisma and her weirder inclinations with confidence and joy. You Are Free strikes an excellent balance between Cat Power’s spartan and engrossing early recordings and the richer, more nuanced sounds Marshall would delve into in the second half of her career.

-         John Parsell

Monday, June 4, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #193 - Q: The Winged Serpent (1982, dir. Larry Cohen)

Poking around other reviews of this 80’s horror/comedy cult fave I found one written by Jason Hernandez on his site The Constant Bleeder that starts out “Writer/director Larry Cohen is a huge weirdo. So is lead actor Michael Moriarty.” And though I don't generally like quoting other reviews in my own, it’s hard to get around the fact that he’s zeroed in on the key thing I like about this film, and Cohen’s work in general - this guy’s a weirdo. He’s a funny weirdo. He’s a smart weirdo. And a weirdo who understands cinema. And a weirdo whose approach to filmmaking - rough and loose as it is - is like nobody else’s.
            Cohen began his career in television, writing for many genre-based series - westerns, detective/cop shows, thrillers, sci-fi, courtroom dramas - often creating episodes or entire series from eccentric blends of genres that undercut generic conventions. And though well-paid as a writer, he wanted to direct features. But feature films are expensive, and his eccentricity made it difficult to slot his concepts into niches that would be easy to advertise and to sell. Take his first feature, Bone, in which Yaphet Kotto plays a man who insinuates himself into the home of a Beverly Hills couple who are falling apart already partly due to the fallout of their Vietnam vet son who’s become an addict. Kotto demands that the husband retrieve money (that he believes they have but they don’t because the husband has squandered it unbeknownst to the wife) while he holds the wife hostage. The husband sees an opportunity to get out of his marriage and life, the wife waits at home with her kidnapper while her husband is off attempting retrieve money they don’t have (little knowing that he may not return), and she talks to and gets to know and perhaps even fall for Kotto’s kidnapper. What kind of film is that? It’s a drama, but can hardly be put into the more exaggerated superhero types of the then-new “Blaxploitation” genre; it’s comically satirical, but not laugh-out-loud funny; it comments side-wise on Vietnam but isn’t a Vietnam film. As the studio marketing person, how do you sell this film to audiences?
            And so it is with the rest of his work - he puts so many different things in them that they never fit neatly into a niche, they’re hard to pin down, and they don’t often satisfy those coming to them looking for the simple, straightforward genre pieces they appear to be. However, those who appreciate the way he confounds category, mixes up genres, elicits great performances from actors, and generally works intelligence and humor into every frame find much to enjoy in his films. And that’s where Q: The Winged Serpent comes in. On the surface, this is a simple monster movie – the artwork shows a sinister flying serpent hovering over the Chrysler Building holding a bikini-clad beauty – but it’s so much more than that. Taking off from ideas of 50s/early 60s horror films like It Conquered the World, The Amazing Colossal Man, Monster of Terror and the like, Cohen interjects a story of would-be-lounge-singer-turned-petty-criminal Jimmy Quinn (played beautifully by Michael Moriarty) into the mix.
The film opens with an Empire State Building window washer (played by an actual window washer on the Empire State Building, naturally) getting his head chomped off by the flying lizard. Quinn then sits down with mobsters to plan a jewelry store robbery. We get more chomping action from the lizard (which rains blood down on to unsuspecting NYC pedestrians) then we see perhaps why Quinn isn’t working as a singer as he bombs an audition (with a jazzy number improvised by Moriarty himself) that Captain Shepard (David Carradine) happens to catch. Next, Quinn is off with his mob acquaintances for the robbery, which of course goes disastrously wrong, and he flees the pursuing police, running into the Chrysler Building where he discovers a giant nest at the top of the building. Shepard and his partner Powell (Richard Roundtree) meanwhile, are investigating a murder committed in what appears to be a ritualistic style reminiscent of ancient Aztec sacrifices in which the victim gives himself willingly to bring forth Quetzalcoatl, a flying serpent god. Is it possible that the ritualistic murders are connected to the flying lizard plucking victims off of New York City’s rooftops? If so, can Captain Shepard convince his superiors that an ancient Aztec serpent god has been raised and is wreaking havoc on 1980s New York City? Can Jimmy Quinn extricate himself from the mobsters who are looking for the stolen diamonds? Will there be a half dozen more absurd questions like these that raise themselves when you actually watch the film? The answer is a resounding YES for the last one, but I don’t wanna spoil any of the others for you! Watching the plot unfold in many directions at once is part of the fun of the film, but the real fun is watching the actors play it deadpan serious.
According to writer/director Larry Cohen’s hugely entertaining (and highly recommended) commentary, Moriarty got more interested in the film after learning Cohen’s way of working on the fly – only a few notes would be written about a scene to shoot, with dialogue often laid down on the spot and allowing for maximum improvisation; finding a location, showing up with cast and crew at the ready and knocking on the door to ask if it was available to shoot at – in ten minutes – and blocking out the action as soon as the location was secured, and so forth. It’s the exact opposite of every-shot-planned-out-to-the-last-detail directors like Kubrick and Hitchcock and gives Cohen the room to change things, improvise (and improve) scenes, dialogue, and ideas as the film is being created. Everywhere Moriarty seems smaller than his 6’4” frame as he inhabits this slouchy, hunched-over loser who’s very much an echo of the can’t-win characters Richard Widmark played in Night in the City and Pickup on South Street. David Carradine agreed to work with Cohen again (they’d worked together in Cohen’s TV days) sight unseen, and arrived direct from the airport for his first day of shooting knowing nothing about his character or the film he was about to make, only having been told by Cohen “Wear a suit.” And this film, with its special effects, many interlocking story threads, was put together in about a week, and shot in less than three – after Cohen was fired from a bigger budget production of I, The Jury he turned around, knocked out this script he’d been holding on to and made Q. Cohen found an ideal producer in Samuel Z. Arkoff, producer of all three of the 50’s horror/sci-fi “classics” above, and for whom the idea of a flying lizard god over Manhattan was right up his alley (upon meeting Rex Reed after a screening at Cannes and hearing him gush: “All that dreck--and right in the middle of it, a great Method performance by Michael Moriarty!” Arkoff deadpanned “The dreck was my idea.”). And the New York of 1981 is as much a character in the film as any actor – it’s as much a New York piece as any Lou Reed album.
Films like this just aren’t made any more – it’s simply not possible to get together a film for just over a million bucks and get it into mainstream theaters anymore. It’s a continuation of the B movies of the 30s – 50s –cheaper, shorter films meant to support a big budget “A” film on a double feature – that were largely given over to the “exploitation film” boom of the 50s and 60s. By the 1970s, producers like Arkoff and Roger Corman had brought these films to mainstream theaters – manufactured at a fraction of a mainstream film’s cost – but by the 80s this style of film was already being pushed out following the blockbuster successes of Jaws and Star Wars with studios’ eyes firmly set on massive money, not modest, well-crafted, profit-turners like Q. And now it’s big budget, big studio versions of films like this that seem to dominate the box office and mainstream theaters, and in this field Cohen seems to be forgotten, not having written or directed a film in over 8 years after a hugely productive 70s and 80s. But these newer films almost never have the verve, love, guts, brains, or humor of Cohen’s best work – and they *never* have the low budget!
-          Patrick Brown

Monday, May 28, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #206 - Gang Starr – Hard to Earn

If I explain what I love about rap it would be captured in “Mostly Tha Voice.” Take some great drums, add a James Brown bass line from “Give it up or Turnit A Loose,” insert a great voice and some masterful rhymes, and let the DJ scratch and add some flavor - it’s a magic combination. “It’s mostly tha voice, That gets you up/ It’s mostly tha voice, That makes you buck/ A lot of rappers got flavor, and some got skillz/ But if your voice ain’t dope, You need to chill.” Guru had one of the most incredible and instantly identifiable voices in rap. His raspy style never felt rushed or uncertain, and he always delivered great lyrics. DJ Premier would often use a spoken word phrase from another rap song and scratch it up as a chorus or an intro, as he does at several points on this record. Hard to Earn was the fourth Gang Starr record and it was released in 1994.
The first full length song, “Alongwaytogo,” is set up in an interesting tension/release cycle by DJ Premier. He starts out by using a springy sample taken from the Quincy Jones song “Snow Creatures” along with a vocal sample from A Tribe Called Quest’s “Check The Rhime.” When Guru is rhyming in the verse DJ Premier sustains a long, tense tone over the beat. This suspended tone provides pressure which can be released at the chorus. Once the chorus arrives he releases the sustained tone and slices up one of his trademark vocal samples (“How far must you go to gain respect?”). These clearly marked sections are not only a hallmark of Gang Starr’s style but also a sign of how well designed the songs are.
“Code Of The Streets” starts out with a sample of Monk Higgins’ “Little Green
Apples.” It is a descending chord progression that loops throughout the song. DJ Premier has reprogrammed the drums underneath the sample to have a more bouncy and lilting feel than the original Blue Note record. The lyrics explore stealing cars. “Take this for example young brothers want rep/ Cause in the life they’re living, you can’t half step/ It starts with the young ones doing crime for fun/ And if you ain’t down you’ll get played out son.” “Brainstorm” is a pure exhibition of rhyme and DJ skill. The beat is very stripped down and Guru is throwing out rhymes as DJ Premier scratches records and fades them in and out. It is another example of Gang Starr’s strength and cohesiveness as a duo stripped down to the bare boned essentials.
Currently “This Is America,” Childish Gambino’s hit single/video, has millions of views on YouTube addressing many of the same issues that “Tonz O Gunz” presented in 1994. This song contains a sample of the Isaac Hayes song “Breakthrough” and starts off with an excerpt from a Malcolm X speech. “Tonz O Gunz” is about guns flooding into poor neighborhoods and the black on black violence that happens as a result. “The Planet” uses Steve Davis’ “It’s All Because She’s Gone” as a rhythmic and melodic bed for Guru’s story of moving to New York. Once you hear the original sample it’s amazing to hear what it is transformed into. It is sped up slightly and the drums are reprogrammed underneath it giving it a springy and bouncy feel. Guru tells the tale of his moving to Brooklyn and the challenges that it presented in a cohesive narrative that is wrapped around a catchy chorus. “Boom bash dash, I had to break, I had to getaway/ Packed my bags, to leave for good, it was a Monday/ Kissed my mother, gave my Pops a pound/ Then he hugged me, then he turned around.”
Another high point for the record is “DWYCK.” It features the duo Nice & Smooth and the sample of the drums is a simple bed of bass, snare and high-hat from the first few seconds of Melvin Bliss’ “Synthetic Substitution.” Mass Appeal” loops a guitar lick from the Vic Juris record “Horizon Drive” to be the recurring motive for its melodic content. Once again DJ Premier breaks up the verse by scratching a spoken word version of the chorus. This time he is scratching a vocal sample from Da Youngsta’s song “Pass Da Mic.” One of the impressive things about DJ Premier’s sample selections is the variety. Jazz records, blues records, and R&B all make appearances, but in addition how about the Malcolm X sample, Gong, or even sampling a line from one of their own records? This record is dense with samples and lengthy at 17 tracks. I wish I could go into detail about each song but that would make this brief essay too long. Instead I’ll try and impress upon you that the basis of each song is a choice sample or three, and that the rhyming is top notch. Guru has a voice that is one of the best in rap, and the chemistry and cohesiveness of this duo should not be missed. The song topics may fall solidly within a predictable genre and variety of topics, but it should be taken into consideration that this is prototypical New York rap in the 1990’s. The listener must contemplate the execution and the atmosphere. DJ Premier takes classic samples, often combines them with then contemporary influences of peers, and tailors beats for Guru to inhabit and show his skills within.

-         Doug Anderson

Monday, May 21, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #192 - A Serious Man (2009, dir. Joel & Ethan Coen)

          Joel and Ethan Coen have been my favorite filmmakers for almost my entire life, whether I knew it or not. I’m pretty sure that I had watched 1987’s Raising Arizona around fifty times when I was a kid, before I had any interest in who created it. Later, I became obsessed with their nineties films. Fargo, which came out when I was in high school, was a real stepping stone for me as it was probably the reason for my interest in the deeper aspects of filmmaking and for my eventual foray into film as an academic pursuit. And, as cliché as it may be for a male of my age, 1998’s The Big Lebowski is one of my all-time favorite films, if not my all-time favorite. My point is, the Coens have been with me for the better part of my life, seemingly putting out a new film for every phase I’ve gone through. I’ve studied them closely over the years and almost consider them friends that I grew up with. And for this reason alone, I feel qualified to talk about their work.
            Writing about A Serious Man technically breaks the rules of this blog as it’s just under 10 years old. But of all the brothers’ works, I wanted to write about this film the most because it’s not only possibly the most overlooked film in the Coens’ oeuvre, it’s also a film whose subject matter I simultaneously relate to yet know very little about. More on that later. A Serious Man revolves around a Jewish family living in a small Minnesota suburb in 1967, all details that pertain directly to the Coens’ upbringing. So while not strictly autobiographical, these are characters and surroundings that are familiar to the brothers. The always phenomenal Michael Stuhlbarg plays the film’s protagonist Larry Gopnik, a college physics professor whose life begins unraveling when his wife announces she is leaving him for his best friend. This forces him to take a closer look at his life and notice the flaws that he hadn’t previously seen. His son is acting out in Hebrew School, his daughter steals money from him all the time, his unemployed brother-in-law is leeching off of him and he is being simultaneously bribed and blackmailed by one of his students for a more satisfactory grade. When everything goes wrong for Larry, he seeks the guidance of three rabbis to help him get through his crisis and gain a better understanding of his place in the world. The rabbis unfortunately are no help to him, as one lacks the life experience to relate to Larry’s problems, one just offers irrelevant parables that confuse more than they teach and the last one refuses to even see Larry. He begins questioning his faith and wondering whether God is testing him.
            I think part of what makes this film such an underappreciated part of the Coens’ filmography is that, coming out on the heels of Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men just two years prior, A Serious Man is more of a labor of love than their usual undertaking. While the film’s dark humor is pure Coens, it seems like it could be a story that the brothers have had kicking around for years, perhaps dating back to their own days as young Jewish Midwesterners. The cast is made up of largely unknown actors, relatively speaking, and even the way it’s shot seems different than that of their usual cinematography, almost more like a thriller than a comedy. While these facts may deter some from seeing the movie, opting for one of the Coens’ more critically acclaimed titles instead, I think these are reasons to see the film, reasons that A Serious Man might be one of their best. It’s the film that most mirrors what their own lives may have been like, which is fascinating in and of itself. But it also seems like a film they’ve always wanted to create and show the world, and perhaps winning the Best Picture Oscar finally afforded them the creative freedom to do it.
            As I said, I really wanted to write about this film because even though I am not Jewish and do not identify with really any religious customs, I understand reaching crisis mode. As I approach forty next month and have recently gone through a break-up of my own, I’ve done a lot of reflecting recently myself. I do know what it feels like to question whether the universe is testing you or punishing you and the Coens’ have eloquently written this feeling into the character of Larry Gopnik. Larry is just an average guy, trying to be “a serious man” while the world continuously shits on him. Yet he takes it all in stride because of his faith. A Serious Man is also a story about when those limits are tested and where the breaking point is in each person. One doesn’t have to be religious to identify with that.

-         Jonathan Eagle

Monday, May 14, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #205 - Sly & The Family Stone - There’s A Riot Goin’ On

There are certain records that for a variety of reasons fall into the category of inexplicable. Something in the writing or the recording process makes it live outside the rules by which we normally judge albums. What are some examples? Can’s Tago Mago, Brian Eno’s mid-70’s vocal albums, Bob Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind, Spiritualized’s Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, D’Angelo’s Black Messiah to name a few (although admittedly these albums are few and far between, which is ultimately why they are inexplicable). The king daddy of this type of record though is Sly & The Family Stone’s 1971 masterpiece There’s A Riot Goin’ On.
From the very first notes, we realize we are in an alternate universe. Thick, warm, analogue (this is an album to listen to on vinyl if you can get it) notes burble out like velvet, pouring from your speakers, as Sly straddles the universes of soul and rock, essentially inventing funk as we listen (we’ll let James Brown and George Clinton in there too). The songs all seem like clouds passing in front of Sly’s window that he is trying to grab, but they dissipate just as he gets his arms around them. The hits on this album – “Family Affair,” “You Caught Me Smilin’,” and “Runnin’ Away” – clock in at about 3 minutes each, yet each one feels like an epochal leap forward in the evolution of conscious soul. That’s part of the inexplicable nature of this album - time seems to come unglued; there is no sense of normal song length and structure, even though most of the actual songs (save two) are short. By all accounts the recording process was chaos, with Sly, rolling in dough and high as a kite, inviting friends (like Miles Davis, Bobby Womack and Billy Preston) to his rented home studio for days-long sessions that seemingly were producing nothing but enormous studio bills. Credits were not kept, tapes were erased, Sly himself overdubbed other people’s parts. However, Sly was indeed sly and as one of the most experienced and talented producers of the 1960’s, he took this molten insanity and turned it into a cohesive work of startling originality. There are no credits on the album, just a bunch of photos that capture the era, and this just adds to the inexplicability of the album.
Every single song on this album is worth inspection, so let’s look at each one:

“Luv N’ Haight” – a wink-wink to the counterculture - it was issued as a single, and it sets the stage beautifully for this album. Disembodied vocals and keyboard jabs punctuate the roiling bass line. Like many of the songs on the album, it lacks traditional song structure, but rather takes a pounding beat and turns it into a statement.
“Just Like A Baby” - a bit more conventional structure, but still way out. A ballad with a classic slow funk burn. It highlights Sly’s incredible sense of restraint and subtlety. He doesn’t let the languid beat out of his sight for one second. And he resists every temptation to rev the song up into something other than what it is: perfection.
“Poet” - Sly was using a primitive drum machine on some tracks, and it is remarkably effective in combination with the airy sense of the songs and his spare keyboard parts. Again he shows amazing restraint in keeping a lid on this track. It feels like it could explode at any second, but instead it keeps an amazing shuffle groove going under the self-referential lyrics.
“Family Affair” - One of Sly’s greatest hits, it touches on issues of race and love and relationships in a poetic and beautiful way. The backing track boils along like a coffee percolator, with Sly giving a great vocal and his sister Rose providing amazing counterpoint vocals. A true classic.

“Africa Talks To You ‘The Asphalt Jungle’” - Side one closes with this almost 9-minute titanic shot of funk. All the parts lock together like some crazy psychedelic jigsaw puzzle, amazing bass playing up front competes with Sly’s woozy vocals as guitar scratches and tasty keyboard fills lurk around every corner. Like a Miles Davis cut, this sounds like it was extracted from some other endless jam, and in its own context succeeds magnificently as mountain of rock-solid funk. Once again, the theme of this album is restraint. For someone taking mountains of drugs, Sly had an incredibly cohesive vision for what this album was going to sound like. And as such, it stands as an album like no other he made. It isn’t a collection of songs - it is a sound statement.

“Brave & Strong” - Side two starts upbeat with a lurching bass line playing hide and seek with punchy horns and a typically indescribable Sly vocal. More than any singer I can think of Sly influenced a new generation of singers. He, like James Brown, reveled in his own unique ethnic brilliance. He wasn’t trying to fit in mainstream society, he was pointing to a place of pride in who you actually were.

“(You Caught Me) Smilin’” – The most irresistible track on the album, it also jumps like an actual hit single. Slap bass, one of his best “up” lyrics, horns that seem to come from the heavens like heralding angels, and classic Sly keyboard work. When I want to turn somebody onto this artist, this is one of the first songs I play them.

“Time” - Another slow, one might even say torturous, ballad. This song again shows off Sly’s vocal mastery above a simple drum machine beat and subtly placed keyboards, proving that less is more.

“Spaced Cowboy” - The most fun track on the album, and possibly in his entire catalogue, this song contains one of the most hilariously deranged vocals (including the great “soul-yodel”) placed squarely over a driving funk beat. An absolute must for mix tapes.

“Runnin’ Away” – irresistible, guitar-driven little ditty that is deceptive in its simplicity. It is actually an incredibly clever bit of writing that might not have sounded out of place on a Fifth Dimension album. Prescient lyrics that seem more relevant today than ever.

“Thank You For Talkin’ To Me Africa” - A monster! This is the demo version of Sly’s earlier hit “Thank You For Lettin’ Me Be Mice Elf Agin.” It is over seven minutes of pounding, perfect funk. Poppin’ bass, funky clavinet, a loping beat and Sly giving his best half-lidded hipster vocals. It is a foundation piece of all funk.

The overall effect of this album is like getting in a time machine and ending up in 1970 Los Angeles, wandering down a street at dusk, soul music blares from a window here, the thud of a truck there, raw emotional feelings of race, sex, drugs, politics seems to bubble up from the pavement. You drop to one knee, stick your ear to the ground and the inexplicable sound you hear is There’s A Riot Goin’ On.
-         Paul Epstein