Monday, October 16, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #190 - Todd Snider – East Nashville Skyline

I didn't know Todd Snider’s music until the summer of 2014. I'd heard his name, seen his CDs coming through the store over the years, but heard him variously tagged as “folk” or “singer-songwriter” or “Americana” - areas of music that aren't  necessarily my thing so much so I didn’t pay close attention. I respect the craft and skill that goes into these, and once in a while someone in one of these areas hits in on the head in a way that makes me realize that I need to pay attention to music in every genre, not just the arty and weird areas that usually draw my ear. It was with some surprise then, when Twist & Shout hosted the Hard Working Americans for an in-store back in July 2014, that on a stage with notables like flashy guitarist Neal Casal, drummer Duane Trucks, and big guy bassist (and regular Twist shopper when he's in town) Dave Schools of Widespread Panic, my eyes were locked on Snider. He was barefooted, eccentric, twitchy, singing in a raspy drawl that betrayed years of, um, interesting life choices, and he was magnetic to watch – even when he wasn’t singing I always wanted to see what he was doing on stage. And of course, this lead to me wanting to check out the records….

And that began here. I took critic Robert Christgau's advice and chose between three albums he gave an 'A' grade to – this one, 2006's The Devil You Know (currently out of print, but it's great and turns up used regularly) and Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables from 2012 (also great, but too recent to be eligible for this column). In addition to being readily available and having a cheeky nod to Dylan in the album’s name, this had the added bonus of a song title that grabbed me outright: “Conservative Christian, Right-Wing Republican, Straight, White, American Males” – how does one have a title like that and not have it grab me? But as it turned out, the reality of the song was even better. Snider mixes big doses of humor in with his more serious (and very down-to-earth) political side, and not only is the song smart and catchy, it's funny as hell too. But he’s funny (and serious and smart and catchy) all over the record even before that one, which is track 8. Right from the get-go, “Age Like Wine,” he’s self-deprecating enough to sing “my new stuff is nothing like my old stuff was / and neither one is much when compared to the show / which will not be as good as another one you saw” and mean it. And he notes, in lyrics that chart his self-destructive tendencies as readily as his self-deprecating ones, that he never thought he’d live to be as old as he is and that it’s “too late to die young now” as he’s knocking on 40’s door. And he moves directly from there into a story that helps illuminate this idea, “Tillamook County Jail,” where he came “down on vacation / gonna leave on probation” and is hoping of his girlfriend that “she's not so mad now that she doesn't even pay my bail.”

And though common-man stories of drinking and hell-raising run throughout the record (and his career), it’s not all he does, as in the album’s centerpiece and probably its best song, “The Ballad of the Kingsmen.” The song refers back to the public scare about the supposedly obscene words of the Kinsgmen’s classic “Louie Louie” that went all the way up to an FBI investigation and draws that forward to Columbine and the tendency of many pundits to blame youth violence on music and the arts. In addition to his own copyrights, all of which are worth hearing and which I’ll leave you to discover on your own (and make a special quick note for the great “Sunshine”), Snider nails three covers here. In ascending order of favorites: Billy Joe Shaver’s “Good News Blues,” as funny/catchy as any of Snider’s songs with a great intro thanking Shaver personally for saving him from getting shot in a dive bar; Fred Eaglesmith’s “Alcohol and Pills,” a great tune that finds Snider again copping to a lifestyle that claimed Hank Williams, Elvis, Jimi, Janis, and others; and “Enjoy Yourself,” the album’s closer and summary statement, a hit for Guy Lombardo in 1950 that follows on the heels of “Sunshine” and takes that song (and this album)’s note of moving beyond the bad shit in your life and remembering to – you guessed it – “enjoy yourself while you’re still in the pink.” It’s a lovely memento mori to close things out – light, not somber, funny and smart.

Now I’ve seen Snider three more times solo, plus once more with the Hard Working Americans, I’ve got all the albums – including an essential pair of live ones that give you a taste of his between-song patter that’s often as good as the songs themselves – and I’m totally sold. I even bought his autobiography, which once you’re familiar with the personality that’s behind the songs you really will want to check out. And the other records Christgau gave an ‘A’ to – The Devil You Know and Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables – both as good as this one, or maybe even a hair better. Check ‘em out. But the next record might be different and better than the last one, and probably neither of them is much compared to the live show….

-         Patrick Brown

Monday, October 9, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #176 - The Prestige (2006, dir. Christopher Nolan)

One of the best ways to flummox movie audiences is to release two very similar movies within a few months of each other. At some point, a majority will pick one Truman Capote, one asteroid headed for Earth, one erupting volcano, or one talking pig. Although success, either commercial or critical, can help tandem movies like these break away from the association with another film, some of these works languish forever in a blurry region of pop cultural memory. As odd as it may sound, two different, stylish movies about magicians set in Europe during the late 1800s arrived in theaters in the fall of 2006. Whereas The Illusionist amounts to little more than a predictable, yet pleasant looking vehicle for Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti, The Prestige holds up as an absorbing statement on obsession and sacrifice, a well-paced and riveting mystery, and one of Christopher Nolan’s most satisfying films.

Just over a year after Christopher Nolan kicked off his Dark Knight Trilogy with Batman Begins, he recruited Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman to play the leads in an adaptation of Christopher Priest’s novel about rival magicians. Bale and Jackman earned their reputations as charismatic, bankable action stars as the two most important characters of the modern era of comic book movies. As Batman and Wolverine, respectively, these actors set the bar for portraying the kind of flawed, morally ambiguous heroes who have become the standard for contemporary action movies. Nolan leveraged the talent and range of these actors by challenging them with roles that stretched beyond their well-known characters and allowed both actors to add distinctive, new performances to their bodies of work. As Alfred Borden, the industrious, working class magician who blends technical mastery of his craft with a willingness to take risks, Christian Bale creates a character who can shift from sympathetic and admirable in one scene to emotionally distant and ruthless in the next. In the role of Robert Angier, a mysterious performer with a flair for showmanship that compensates for his humble talents in magic, Hugh Jackman depicts an enterprising dreamer whose considerable ambition slowly gives way to an all-consuming desire to prevail over his adversary. Borden and Angier begin working together as assistants for a successful, yet complacent magician, but a pivotal, tragic event during a show causes a rift between them that sparks the epic competition that comes to dominate the rest of their lives. Michael Caine lends his remarkable abilities to the role of Cutter, a magician’s engineer who serves as a mentor to both Borden and Angier, and supplies the film with its conscience. As Sarah, Rebecca Hall gives the film its heart by demonstrating the true cost of Borden and Angier’s conflict through a harrowing, memorable, and nuanced breakout performance.

Although The Prestige is a work of fiction, it draws upon historical details like Nikola Tesla’s scientific experiments in Colorado Springs, Colorado. This element of the plot not only allows Nolan to include several beautiful sequences filmed in Colorado, but also gives David Bowie the opportunity to inhabit the role of the brilliant, otherworldly Tesla. Although a cameo like this could easily distract from the rest of the movie, Bowie’s presence enhances the whole film and endures as one of his last great acting roles. When I went out one cool Friday evening in Vermont eleven years ago to see this movie, I wasn’t entirely sure what I might experience. At that point I had seen a couple of Nolan’s other films, but I didn’t have any notable preconceptions of him as a director. That night, The Prestige presented me with one of my favorite of life’s simple, yet elusive pleasures: the unexpected.

-         John Parsell

Monday, October 2, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #189 - Townes Van Zandt – Flyin’ Shoes (Tomato, 1978)

My introduction to Townes Van Zandt came in 1998 when I first saw the Coen Brothers’ film The Big Lebowski. Lebowski’s incredible soundtrack featured Townes’ cover of the Rolling Stones hit “Dead Flowers” over the end credits. It’s the only example of one of my favorite songs being covered infinitely better than the original. The song was a revelation of sorts for a teenaged me. At the time, I was mostly into metal and abrasive noise rock. Townes showed me that folk music could be just as punk rock as, say, Black Flag or Minor Threat. Townes dealt with subject matter that I related to, such as addiction and loss, in such a brutal and intense way that it is often hard to listen to without becoming emotional. I immediately bought as many of his records as I could get my hands on. One of my favorites, and one that in my opinion often gets overlooked, is his 1978 studio album Flyin’ Shoes.

Much of Flyin’ Shoes’ material was actually recorded in 1973 for 7 Come 11, the record that was supposed to be the follow-up to The Late Great Townes Van Zandt. This record was shelved, however, due to a financial dispute between the head of Townes’ label, Poppy Records and the producer of the album. This fact, coupled with the folding of Poppy Records that same year caused Townes to detach from the music industry, withdrawing further and further into drugs and alcohol. When Flyin’ Shoes did come out, it was Townes’ first offering of new original material in five years, and due to continued struggles with his addiction it would be another nine years after that before he would release another one.

Many would say that Flyin’ Shoes suffers from overproduction and studio trickery. I don’t disagree. It definitely isn’t his best sounding album and tends to lean more toward the country & western side of his talents than the folk music side. But what it lacks in rawness it more than makes up for in songwriting. Townes pens some of his cleverest lyrics in such songs as the ambiguously funny “Snake Song,” or the album’s opener, “Loretta,” an ode to a “barroom girl” whom we have all probably met at some point. Flyin’ Shoes also offers plenty of Townes’ trademark melancholy on songs like the despairing love song “When She Don’t Need Me” or the title track.

Besides his penchant for brilliant lyrics, Townes also has a knack for creating some of the most beautiful melodies ever recorded. “No Place to Fall” and “Dollar Bill Blues for instance are among the best songs he’s ever recorded with melodies that stay with you. Personally I think the record only really has one weak spot and that is his cover of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love?” which really isn’t bad so much as it is just kind of unnecessary and sort of disrupts the natural flow of the record. But again, this is a personal and very minor gripe, barely noticeable when listening to the record as a whole.

In 2007, I was on tour with my band at the time and we played a show in Oxford, Mississippi. Oxford is home to Fat Possum Records, who we were playing a showcase for that night. They had just recently released a slew of Townes Van Zandt reissues and we got paid for the show in promo copies. After our show we were offered a place to stay by some locals who were in attendance. They lived in this development where there was a common courtyard-type area where all the neighbors would sit around in lawn chairs and drink. We partied there well into the morning and at a certain point I got up and went into someone’s house and crashed on the couch. I was sleeping maybe 40 minutes when I was awakened by Flyin’ Shoes being blasted at the loudest volume I’ve ever heard a stereo be capable of. Our hosts had found our “payment” for that night’s show. I tell this story not only because it’s amusing but also to illustrate that even at an unacceptable volume during an aggressive hangover Flyin’ Shoes got me back up and partying again.

-         Jonathan Eagle

Monday, September 25, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #175 - Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964, dir. Byron Haskin)

I’ve been home sick for a few days and it has given me a great opportunity to get caught up on a bunch of movies, new and old. Yesterday I watched modern master Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant which was ultra-modern, hyper-scary, mega-suspenseful. It was masterful science fiction/horror of the highest order, bringing together all the technological and storytelling finesse that can make these genres so appealing when done well. The achievements were clearly of this time: in other words, there is no way this movie - with its hellish visions literally made flesh -could have been made in a different era. It got me thinking about those different eras and the shifting sands of audience expectation and context that makes our appreciation of such movies possible.
Robinson Crusoe On Mars was made in 1964, a full year before the first images from Mariner 4 started to show the world what the Red Planet actually looked like. Thus any verisimilitude or failure can be placed on the makers of the film and not on contemporary scientific understanding. Even under this difficult stricture, this movie holds up well. The film is based faithfully on Daniel Defoe’s 18th century adventure classic which tells the tale of a man shipwrecked on an island and forced, with the help of a native companion named Friday, to find food, water, shelter and ultimately meaning in a lonely and confusing life. The “On Mars” version obviously updates the story to put the wayward traveler (square-jawed Paul Mantee) out in space and stranded on Mars instead of an island in the South Pacific. The movie opens as Mantee, his co-pilot (a young and completely un-smarmy Adam West) and a woolly monkey named Mona are passing Mars on an observation mission when an errant meteor forces them off course and into Mars’ gravitational pull. Crash landing, Mantee, named Captain Kit Draper, quickly realizes his only human companionship has perished and he is now stuck on a faraway planet with nothing but a space-suit wearing Monkey for companionship. Much like Defoe’s Crusoe, Draper must begin the slow, lonely process of finding, shelter, food, water, and in this alien environment, oxygen. Through a series of alternately plausible and laughable eventualities he does manage to secure all these needs for himself. It’s worth reminding at this point that within the parameters of our contemporary understanding of the facts, his discoveries all seemed pretty plausible. In fact, in general this movie does a remarkable job of creating possibilities out of scant information. With hindsight, more than a few of the solutions Draper comes up with are remarkably prescient.
A little more than halfway through the movie we are introduced to Friday, who in this version is an alien slave forced to mine on Mars by another, dominant alien culture. Director Byron Haskin had previously directed The War Of The Worlds in 1953 and the dominant species’ vessels are remarkably similar to those in his other film, but this fact does not distract from the eeriness of their ominous presence. Friday has escaped from his slave labor but can still be tracked through wristbands he is forced to wear, thus outrunning the hostile spaceships and their deadly laser blasts becomes Draper, Friday and Mona’s reason to start traveling across Mars to the polar ice caps. They make it, they free Friday and they eventually get rescued. For its time it is as realistic as Matt Damon’s The Martian and twice as fun.

The real reason I mentioned being home sick is that the first time I saw this movie (as a TV rerun in the early 1970’s) I was in the exact same situation. I was in elementary school, home with a fever and given the luxury of our black and white Zenith being wheeled into my bedroom so I could recuperate under the healing powers of the boob tube (as my father angrily called it). I recall drifting in and out of this magical movie, with clear memories of the Martian environment, the scary alien ships, the sense of loneliness and fear, and that monkey! Yes, for me, Mona The Monkey (actually an animal named Barney with fur covered underwear to stop gender confusion) stands out in memory in the most adorable little monkey-sized space suit. I never forgot it, and when I returned to the movie as an adult, it was even more memorable than I thought. The monkey in the space suit remains my favorite detail of the movie, but with fresh eyes I was blown away by the beauty and forward-thinking vision of the sets, the colorfully tinted and ever changing skies (couldn’t see any of that on the old Zenith), the fascinating views into old technology trying to look modern - dig the early computers and especially the amazing primitive video camera, which ultimately provides one of the most magical sequences in the movie. There are plot holes and anachronisms that might make you guffaw, but if you tend toward this type of entertainment and can appreciate historical perspective as the inevitability that it is, Robinson Crusoe On Mars is an entirely satisfying and sweetly nostalgic trip to another place and time.

-          Paul Epstein

Monday, September 18, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #188 - My Morning Jacket – It Still Moves

Every time I hear “Mahgeetah,” the first song on My Morning Jacket’s It Still Moves, I see rays of golden afternoon sunlight flooding into the long windows of an old brick gymnasium from my childhood. Presented with such a remarkable and gorgeous soundscape, my mind creates a likely setting from which this music could come to life. Something in the alchemy of that song evokes a very powerful sensory experience that I don’t feel all that often. Upon its release in the fall of 2003, I wasn’t looking for this album, but it found me and it hasn’t left my side for too long since. It Still Moves, My Morning Jacket’s third full-length release, captures a young, hungry band making a play for the big time, offers a revealing document of five years of hard work on tour, and endures as one of the strongest, most satisfying rock albums of the last twenty years.

It Still Moves hums with an inclusive intimacy that makes the listeners feel like they are along for the ride, bearing witness to the band’s triumphs and failures while appreciating all of the inside jokes and observations generated along the way. As I’ve already mentioned, “Mahgeetah” opens the album and promptly introduces a distinctive, bracing tone that carries all the way through. The band built a custom studio and recorded lead singer Jim James’ performances in a converted grain silo. The effect lends James’ already dynamic voice an otherworldly power and gives “Mahgeetah” an irresistible grandeur. Up next, “Dance Floors” breaks into an easy, natural mix of country-rock and Muscle Shoals-style R&B before igniting into a blistering showcase for the band’s visiting horn section, Willie Mitchell’s Fabulous Memphis Horns. “Golden” continues the streak of strong openers by slowing down the pace and highlighting the subtler elements of the band’s sound. The lyrical sentiment echoes the kind of touring musician’s ennui explored in Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Lodi,” but James’ songwriting and delivery elevate the song above a travelogue of soul searching remorse. All twelve songs on It Still Moves prove My Morning Jacket’s strength as an inventive, tight ensemble breathing new life into the forms of classic rock established in the early seventies, but few songs demonstrate the band’s skill for potent and expressive guitar playing as capably as “Run Through.” The final song, “One in the Same,” feels like a moment shared among close friends gathered around a fire in the wee hours of the morning after a memorable party. James’ plaintive voice, accompanied only by a heavily strummed acoustic guitar, guides us somewhere between elegy and reckoning and closes out the album on a note of weary warmth that lets us in on one last joke before bidding us farewell.  

Last year, My Morning Jacket released a deluxe edition of It Still Moves featuring a remastered version of the album and a bonus disc of demos and outtakes. I tend to be fairly neutral when it comes to remastered reissues of albums I already love because the quality of the processes and results can vary so greatly, but I’m quite impressed with the enhanced edition of this album. In general, the entire album sounds much sharper and the individual instruments are far more distinct, but I really appreciate how much better I can hear the horn parts on “Dance Floors” and “Easy Morning Rebel.” Although I’m familiar with a few other albums by My Morning Jacket, none of them have had anywhere near the same impact on me as this one. With It Still Moves, My Morning Jacket distilled the essence of their many influences, summoned their considerable aspirations and ambitions, and created a collection of songs that belongs right beside their musical heroes’ best albums.

-         John Parsell

Monday, September 11, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #174 - Big Trouble In Little China (1986, dir. John Carpenter)

“Like Ol’ Jack always says… What the hell.”

If you are looking for a deep art flick then this is probably the point at which you can stop reading this review. However, while John Carpenter’s 1986 Sci-fi Action thriller is certainly no art film it is one of the most enjoyable films of its niche genre. Starting from a western film style storyline, this film is a mish-mash of genre and style, and then ends up perfectly coalescing into an incredibly fun film. It has an intriguing plot, some killer star power, a stylish look, an amazing score by Carpenter himself (which if you know anything about horror film scores you know this is definitely a plus), and it has just enough of the cheese factor to make it completely enjoyable.

The plot surrounds Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) and Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) as they attempt to rescue Chi’s green-eyed fiancé, Miao Yin, from an evil sorcerer, David Lo Pan (James Hong), who had been cursed to live disembodied until he marries a woman with green eyes. With the help of lawyer Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) and bus driving apprentice sorcerer Egg Shen (Victor Wong) they battle through an array of obstacles in order to try and defeat Pan and rescue Yin, who was kidnapped upon her arrival in San Francisco from China. The film’s narrative is punctuated by battles with ninjas, monsters, gangsters, and an assortment of other nuisances. While it seems like a rather straightforward plot, it’s actually much more complex than I’m making it seem. While it is a pretty simple action film, the way that they splice different supernatural folklore-ish aspects (both rooted in ancient legend and some created for the film itself) creates an amazing narrative backdrop over which the story plays out. One of the most interesting examples of this interweaving/marrying of invented and existing myths is the unnerving concept of the underworld, which is a confusing, topsy-turvy descent into a crazed dimension with all sorts of fascinating elements in story for the characters. All of these Sci-fi and folklore aspects are then driven by the genre conventions of a traditional Western, creating an all-new type of film.

In addition to the complex and killer storyline, the film really plays with a lot of the different genre and gender conventions. Jack is kind of (well - totally) a blowhard, bubbling with massive machismo that doesn’t really do him any favors. He tends to fumble into action late and often slips up when he needs to shine (while this does sometimes work in his favor). So while he is a very traditional western “hero,” he’s much more flawed and human than the John Wayne characters that he was obviously modeled after. Additionally the supporting characters, while they are fairly conventional, also find ways to spin those conventions, and at times turn them on their head.

While there certainly are interesting and compelling aspects of the film, and as someone who tends to overthink even the simplest of entertainment I generally focus on those when writing these reviews, in the end this is simply just an amazingly fun and adventurous ride to take with Carpenter and the cast! I originally watched this film as a part of a film group that I was a member of and ended up falling in love with it, which has happened with a good number of other Carpenter flicks (Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and Halloween (1978) being my personal favs). I would say that if you are looking to dig into an interesting thrill ride of an action film and you also enjoy a healthy helping of humor with your action, this is a perfect film for you, and you simply must pick up the especially awesome re-mastered blu-ray release of one of the best films of the genre (all of the genres that it embodies)!

-         Edward Hill

Monday, September 4, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #187 - Snooks Eaglin - New Orleans Street Singer

In the 1980’s, when I started in the music business, the state of the Blues was somewhat woeful. There were a lot of frustrated white rock dudes playing amped up boogie and calling it Blues. One guy that did penetrate however, was Snooks Eaglin and his series of good-time albums on labels like Black Top. In the ocean of mediocrity, here was an island of authenticity and originality. Shortly thereafter former Twist & Shout employee (and renowned New Orleans music authority) Pietro Fassoli laid a cassette tape on me of Snooks’ earlier music and I happily discovered one of the truly unique musicians of the 20th century.

Blind from the age of 1, Snooks Eaglin was performing by the time he was 11. Despite the nature of New Orleans Street Singer (solo acoustic) he was known as an electric guitar player of rare feeling and a vocalist possessed of an earthy yet totally expressive instrument. He had a long history of playing with New Orleans R&B bands (like The Flamingos with Allen Toussaint) and later of fronting his own band until his death in 1989. However this record is entirely different and incredibly special. Originally released in 1959, New Orleans Street Singer was an attempt to make Eaglin fit into the current folk boom sweeping college campuses and coffee houses nationwide. In reality, playing solo acoustic guitar was something Eaglin did more for recreation than as his primary source of income. All that aside, taken on its own musical merits, this album is as powerful a statement of American music as I can imagine.

The fascination with Eaglin is multi-faceted. First, he is a startling guitar player. He could accompany himself on literally thousands of songs of every genre and apply his own energetic stamp on each one. He played what has been termed a New Orleans Flamenco style which involved wild, frenzied guitar licks to embellish lyrics and then when he really took a solo, his attack was somewhere between Charlie Patton and Django Reinhart. I know, it seems unlikely, but Snooks is truly one of the guitar originators in the modern age. Like Lonnie Johnson or Professor Longhair or Joseph Spence, he invented his own style of playing. Listen to “Careless Love” to hear him in full flight. Or “High Society” to check out some more sophisticated playing. His strumming is always forceful and his solos on virtually every song are memorable. If you are trying to become a better-than-average guitar player, you could do worse than studying Snooks Eaglin. Secondly, Snooks was a marvelously expressive singer, whose regionally thick speech patterns and laconic approach to putting songs across was unforgettable. The authority he brings to songs like “One Room Country Shack,” “Drifting Blues,” “Mean Old World,” or “Every Day I Have The Blues,” rivals any of the pre-war Blues masters, and yet he is equally effective on more modern fare like “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer,” “Mean Old Frisco” or “Mama Don’t You Tear My Clothes.” Which brings us to the third and main point about Snooks; the guy could play any type of song in any style and OWN IT. Plenty of musicians learn lots of covers and can play in many styles, but Snooks Eaglin was a true originator. Every song he played, he made his own, and upon hearing it, one can immediately identify who it is. He’s as recognizable as Willie Nelson or Bing Crosby or Robert Johnson.

It is precisely the combination of these elements that makes New Orleans Street Singer such a total winner. When an artist can startle you with his musicianship, break your heart with his voice and keep you enthralled with his dynamic and eclectic choice of material: that is indeed an artist worth exploring.

-         Paul Epstein

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #173 - Still Walking (2008, dir. Hirokazu Koreeda)

Sometimes family issues don’t get resolved. Instead they get buried, simmering under the surface, peaking out at inopportune moments, and then submerging again until the next time the simmer works up to a boil. So goes the plot of Hirokazu Koreeda’s masterpiece Still Walking, which traces a day (and a little) at an annual family memorial.
As the film begins the Yokoyama family is gathering at the home of the parents (father Kyohei and mother Toshiko) in a seaside town south of Tokyo. Their son Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) and daughter Chinami (You) bring their families for the annual event, whose purpose slowly becomes clear – the family meets once a year to honor their eldest son Junpei, who drowned trying to save a child. In the early scenes, everything is lightness and camaraderie as the family makes food together, chats, and catches up, though there’s a notably curt “Oh, you’re here” from the father as Ryota and his wife and stepson arrive. Slowly, as the meaning of the event is known, the family relationships begin to become clear – Chinami and her husband hope to move into the family home, but this means the clearing out Junpei’s belongings, and the parents aren’t quite ready for that. Kyohei (played with stern demeanor 
by Yoshio Harada) hoped to leave his medical practice in the care of Junpei, and when Ryota chose to leave the pursuit to become an art restorer, Kyohei’s dreams of passing on his legacy died with them. Meanwhile the slightly comical Toshiko (played beautifully by Koreeda regular Kirin Kiki), lets out her vulnerable and wounded sides as the film progresses, letting the buried pains of several events of her past to the surface through her normally cheerful outlook.

As the early conversations keep turning to the absent Junpei, the film digs in deeper. Rather than becoming a mournful or melodramatic tract about a dead son taken too soon, it works into broader territories that all families face – jealousies and resentments, disappointments long held, strains between siblings and between the younger and older generations, and so forth. After setting up an ensemble cast, Koreeda continually pairs and groups off his characters to have conversations that deepen our understanding of their relationships. And rather than resolving everything in a dramatic wrap-up, the film does the out of the ordinary and leaves issues unresolved – Kyohei’s disappointment with Ryota’s life choices may be slightly mitigated and changed by their final scene together, but they’re not settled, moved past, or put aside.
Koreeda, as is usual for him, has exceptional insight in his writing, with the characters all so realistic, so well inhabited by the actors, that we could believe we’re watching a documentary about a family rather than a narrative film. He’s also got a brilliant touch with young actors, and though they’re not put front and center here as they are in his films like I Wish or Nobody Knows, the roles given to children here (particularly Shohei Tanaka as Ryota’s stepson Atsushi, who is given an especially poignant scene) are superb. And his camera technique and editing style are unobtrusive – allowing the actors and dialogue to unfold in a natural rhythm in front of the camera without drawing attention to themselves despite his gift for composition. He’s a humanist
filmmaker of the highest level, on par with Ozu (to whom he’s frequently compared for his films of families in generational conflict), though he’s got an additional measure of adding familial trauma and its aftermath into the mix. He’s directed eleven narrative films (and a number of documentaries as well); of the nine that I’ve seen, I’d call six of them great or better, and the rest good to very good. You can’t go wrong with Koreeda, but Still Walking might be the easiest starting point to see his powers on full display.

-          Patrick Brown

Monday, August 21, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #186 - M.I.A. - Kala

Released exactly ten years and seven days ago was M.I.A.’s sophomore album Kala. Her first album, Arular (named after her father), was a spare, beat-heavy mixture of rap, electronic music, international sounds, rock attitude, punk-ish abrasiveness and politics, and more. Kala (named after her mother), expands in every direction, fleshing out everything implicated on the first album and trading in Arulars spareness for a densely layered sound that still has me discovering sounds and words in the mix after a decade of regular listening. Maybe you’ve never heard this one, or maybe you have and set it by the wayside, in which case it’s a good time to pay the album another visit. Or maybe it only fleetingly entered your consciousness when the single “Paper Planes” (which was included on the soundtrack to Slumdog Millionaire) worked its way up the Billboard charts to #4 over a year after the album was released.

Paper Planes,” built on a Clash sample, only scratches the surface of the record, though its stories of hustlers, drug dealers, and forgers cut right to the heart of the world M.I.A. is telling us about throughout most of the record. But “Paper Planes” turns up at track 11; we go through a lot of worlds before arriving there. The record kicks off with “Bamboo Banga” which takes off from Jonathan Richman’s “Road Runner,” lays a Bollywood sample over it, and declares her “a world runner,” which she’ll spend the rest of the record proving, starting immediately with the percussive firestorm of the next two tracks. “Bird Flu” and “Boyz” both pile on layers and layers of sounds - percussion, electronic beats, snatches of keyboard melodies, quick samples from Bollywood and elsewhere, deep bass depth charges - and up on top M.I.A. herself, putting a unique spin on the “coming up from the underground” stories of so much hip-hop and taking the same boyz who’d spin such tales to task in the next song with lines like “How many no money boys are rowdy? How many start a war?” Even the next song, “Jimmy” a Bollywood cover from a 1982 film called Disco Dancer is a seemingly a flippant disco tune, but M.I.A. and producer/co-writer Switch have rewritten a longing love song so it kicks off with the unsettling lines “When you go Rwanda, Congo / Take me on your genocide tour” leading the listener to think that perhaps the song’s protagonist is in love with a terrorist, or mercenary for hire. It’d certainly fit with the snapshots of “Third World” poverty and violence that M.I.A. provides in her lyrics throughout both of her first albums.

And so it goes throughout the rest of the album - in the spectacular “Hussel” over a great rhythm and buzzy keybs M.I.A. asks why so many people are addicted to the hustle of trying to scrounge money, though noting that it's often to send money home to support their families (with intimations that it many come from illicit ventures). She then gives 18-year old rapper Afrikan Boy space to recount his “hussel” selling merch on the side of the road and avoiding police to not get deported; “Mango Pickle Down River” remixes a community youth project of indigenous Australian youth; “20 Dollar” interpolates the Pixies into a tune that explores how war impacts on the civilian populace; and before long, we’re back at “Paper Planes,” bringing her tales of international strife and strength full circle before closing out with a Timbaland-produced tune that sounds like the most mainstream thing on the record until you zero in on lines like “Gold and diamond, gems and jade/Ride up on our tanks – invade!/Blow up things to save our name.”

Three years after its release, the album crept up to a gold sales award, but each subsequent album was met with indifference by fans (though I’ve liked every one of them). And maybe that’s because Kala remains her high-water mark, the peak she’ll continue working to meet.

- Patrick Brown

Monday, August 14, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #172 - Putney Swope (1969, dir. Robert Downey Sr.)

Years ago, I was working as a bartender at a music venue in my hometown of Dubuque, Iowa. One of my regular barflies, Paul, and I ended up striking up an acquaintance over time due to our similar tastes. When the bar was slow, we would sit for hours getting shitfaced and discussing music, books, films and many other things. During one of these conversations, it was discovered that I had never seen Robert Downey Sr.’s breakthrough film Putney Swope. In fact, I didn’t know anything about it. I mean, I had heard of it. I knew that some of my heroes, Louis C.K. and the Coen Brothers, had cited the film as hugely influential. But I had never gotten around to seeing it or even really hearing much about it. Paul made it his mission to make sure I saw this movie. He brought me a flash drive containing a bad transfer of the film and I watched it the same night. And then I watched it again. Since then, the film has become one of my all-time favorites and I can’t believe it took me until well into my thirties to see it.

The film centers on a New York advertising agency whose chairman unexpectedly drops dead in the middle of a board meeting. While his body lay lifeless on the table, the remaining board members take a vote on who should become the new chairman. Each board member, prohibited from voting for themselves, accidentally (and by an overwhelming majority) vote in the sole black man on the board, Putney Swope. Swope immediately fires nearly the entire staff (save for one “token” white man) and hires an idealistic and politically militant all-black staff, renaming the agency Truth & Soul, Inc. Swope and his staff’s new business approach is actual TRUTH in advertising, their new motto “rockin’ the boat’s a drag, you gotta SINK the boat.” They only accept cash as payment and they refuse to take on clients who sell alcohol, tobacco or war-related toys. Almost immediately, their approach becomes so popular that companies start paying a million dollars per campaign just to become clients. The agency becomes such a success that they catch the attention of the diminutive President Mimeo and his administration. Eventually, the entire agency falls to corruption, including Swope himself.

And beyond the plot, which doesn’t necessarily sound that outrageous in and of itself, it’s hard to specify exactly the best way to describe Putney Swope. It is equal parts farce, satire, exploitation, black comedy (no pun intended) and cult masterpiece. It’s predominantly filmed in black and white, with the occasional colorized fake commercial for pimple cream, breakfast cereal and other products from the Truth & Soul client roster. The commercials are hysterical and came nearly a full decade before sketch comedy shows like Saturday Night Live and SCTV set the standard for commercial parodies.

The titular character, Putney Swope, is played flawlessly by Arnold Johnson, who would go on to play many bit parts in sitcoms like The Jeffersons, Roc and Sanford and Son. The most surreal thing about his performance, however, is that the voice provided for Swope was not that of Johnson’s, but of Downey’s himself. This led to some speculation that Downey was a racist or somehow unfair toward Johnson on the set. Quite to the contrary, Johnson, evidently, had difficulty remembering and delivering his lines. Out of desperation (and rightly not wanting to re-cast the role) Downey voiced in the lines later. Watching the film, this fact could not be more obvious and glaring but it actually adds another layer of quirkiness to the already eccentric nature of the film. Antonio Fargas (future Car Wash and Starsky & Hutch star) plays The Arab, a sort of second-in-command at Truth & Soul, who butts heads with Swope for nearly the entire film. This dynamic helps to somewhat keep Swope’s new position from going to his head (or at least slow it down). The president and first lady are played by dwarf actors, who engage in a threesome with a photographer who intermittently shows up to show his credentials. An awkward courier (who just happens to be a dead ringer for Mark David Chapman) keeps showing up at the agency, only to constantly be cast off to the “freight elevator” by Swope and his associates. Swope starts dressing like Fidel Castro at some point for no rhyme or reason... there really is a lot going on in the 85-minute runtime of the film and not a whole lot of it makes sense. Still, one can’t help but be drawn in by the film, either by its sheer ridiculousness or by its hipper-than-thou vibe.

Putney Swope’s legacy lives on in its vast cult following and through the work of other filmmakers (Paul Thomas Anderson, for example, directly referenced the film three times in his own cult classic film Boogie Nights) yet it remains a highly underappreciated gem. If you haven’t already seen it, now is your chance to do like I did and right this wrong now. And by the way, thank you Paul for being such a chatty drinking buddy.

-         Jonathan Eagle