Monday, January 31, 2011

I'd Love To Turn You on #26 - Aqua – Aquarium (1997 – MCA Records)

“Hiya Barbie
Hi Ken!
You wanna go for a ride?
Sure, Ken!
Jump in!”
Aqua's Aquarium is, for many, one of the defining albums of late 90's pop. From the instant (and over played) classic “Barbie Girl” to the anthem-esque “Roses are Red” or the bouncy, beat-dropping “Lollipop (Candyman)” this album is filled to the brim with classic late 90's dance production that can be considered on first listen as “cheesy,” but given the right volume setting and enough room to dance, one can enjoy this album as 90's pop at its very best!
Aqua's roots go back to 1989 when they were called Joyspeed. By 1994 they had their first record deal and were renamed as Aqua. After a failed single, and much disappointment, they were finally able to get a major record deal with Universal Denmark in 1996. By February 1997 they released their first complete album, Aquarium. The album was a huge success for the band. It made number one in the United Kingdom for four weeks, in Australia for three weeks, and even managed to make the top ten of the Billboard Top 100 - something rarely achieved at the time by European pop acts.
The best-known song on this album is, of course, “Barbie Girl.” The song's success was due not only to its melody and drum machine driven beats, but also to its controversial content. The track, while suggesting that it’s about a child's toy, offers sexual undertones such as "You can brush my hair, undress me everywhere," "You can touch, you can play," and "Kiss me here, touch me there, hanky-panky.” The association of sexuality with a toy and the blatant social commentary immediately put the band under a great deal of international criticism; so much so that Barbie manufacturer Mattel decided to file a lawsuit against Aqua in 2002 claiming that the song had “damaged the reputation of the Barbie brand.” Luckily, the lawsuit was later thrown out of court.
Aquarium, however, goes far beyond just “Barbie Girl.” The album is, for the most part, fast-paced and full of electric pop energy that only the Danish can provide. It also takes breaks for some slower, silly pop hits like “Be a Man,” a “serious” pop ballad, or “Turn Back Time,” a contemplative look at the passing of years, as only 90's pop can tell. The rest of the album, however, is full of synthesizers and drum machines, nasal, happy vocals and a sense of hyper pop energy that can only be matched by its own exaggerated, cute and at times melodramatic lyrics, that were not always what they seemed at be at first listen.
Aquarium is a classic pop album that just gets better with time. It may be the increasing level of “cheese” it collects over the years that makes it fun, or it may be that it's nice to listen to a pop album from a time when pop seemed to be a bit more simple and didn't take itself so seriously. Or maybe it's just that Aqua really knew how to make a truly amazing pop album true to the genre's characteristics. Regardless of why, this album is amazing.
If you're willing to step out of your shell for an hour and take yourself a little less seriously, try taking a listen to this album. It's sure to have you smiling, laughing and dancing around like a fool. A definite for a small dance party with friends. I dare you to grab this album, blare it in your car, or while you're cleaning your house and try not to sing along or bounce around!
- Chris Berstler

Friday, January 28, 2011

Several Species Of Small Furry Thoughts - Wanda Jackson

It is tempting to base a review of the stunning new Wanda Jackson album The Party Ain’t Over entirely on its producer and guiding spirit Jack White, but Miss Jackson herself is so compelling a figure that she actually outshines White’s light. It is also almost impossible to NOT compare this album to Van Lear Rose, the album White produced for another country legend, Loretta Lynn, in 2004. While Van Lear Rose was a sweeping, epic, ballads album, The Party Ain’t Over is a claustrophobic, jumpin’ good-time album, where the stars of the show - Miss Jackson’s incredible, cartoonish voice, and White’s revved up guitar sound - are inches from you face and everything is squeezed up tight into the middle of the sonic field stimulating that maximum excitement. Just like hits in the 50’s and early 60’s used to sound. They knew how to make that single, mono speaker in the middle of your dashboard sound like heaven back then and Jack White in his Third Man Studio really knows how to get that sound.
It’s not really correct to call Wanda Jackson country because even though her roots are clearly in that genre, she is truly the queen of rockabilly. Her first hits (in 1955) are a groundbreaking fusion of country and early rock and roll that make Elvis look like a stroll in the park. She had a gutsy vocal style and an appreciation for pulse-quickening tempos that made her a true pioneer. And, amazingly, she seems to have lost none of her fire. On The Party Ain’t Over White helps her choose a perfect program of classic and modern rockers that just light up the speakers. Kicking off with the great Johnny Kidd and The Pirates hit “Shakin’ All Over” it is clear that Jackson still has her pipes and has surrounded herself with a young kick-ass band that can really rock. Numbers like “Rip It Up,” “Nervous Breakdown,” “Rum and Coca Cola” and “Busted” really play to her obvious strengths, allowing her the comfort and room to stretch out her phrasing and make the songs her own. White’s production is so completely on the money - paying tribute to her heritage while yanking her into the present - that you have to wonder how he figured it all out. I’ve always hated when adults talk to kids like they are stupid and can’t understand what you are saying. Likewise, I have hated when young people show older, more experienced folks too much deference, denying their viability as still active members of the human race. That line is walked with such gentle precision on this album that one has to say bravo! Jack White, bravo! He gets how special this woman is, but that’s not going to stop him from turning it up to 11 and doing what he knows his fans want.
Possibly the two greatest performances on The Party Ain’t Over are covers of Bob Dylan and Amy Winehouse, respectively. On Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good” Jackson takes a completely modern lyric and tune and makes them feel like they were always hers. She inhabits the bittersweet lyrics and finds a ray of optimism in an otherwise bleak tune. The real masterpiece here though is her completely wild take on Dylan’s “Thunder On The Mountain” from his Modern Times album. Propelled by a punchy horn chart and White’s stinging lead guitar, the song explodes with energy and joy - things that used to regularly be part of rock music. Jackson cleverly changes Dylan’s name check of “Alicia Keys” to “Jerry Lee” in a perfect nod to her place in history. Apparently her old friend Bob Dylan was the one who suggested she do this tune, and it is an absolute stroke of genius.
The Party Ain’t Over is such an unexpected blast of pure rock fun, that it is tempting to doubt its veracity. It’s for real folks! Check this video of “Thunder On The Mountain” (below). If that doesn’t get you excited and wanting this album, better check your pulse.
-Paul Epstein

Monday, January 24, 2011

I'd Love To Turn You On - At The Movies #5 - Heaven Help Us (1985, dir. Michael Dinner)

Heaven Help Us seemed to slip by relatively unnoticed amongst the other hit movies of 1985 (Goonies, Back To the Future, Breakfast Club), but is a quality film nonetheless. The movie has a great combination of serious drama and rated R humor with a brief and semi-tragic love story, set in Brooklyn, 1965, at an all-boys Catholic school that uses corporal punishment to help enforce their strict religious teaching. A core group of five misfits find trouble often while trying to fit in, which brings hilarity and can show the harsh punishment that follows. It is directed by Michael Dinner, who is mostly known for TV work like The Wonder Years and Chicago Hope.
The cast: a young Andrew McCarthy, Mary Stuart Masterson (very cute and likable), Donald Sutherland, a great early role for Kevin Dillon (Entourage), Dana Barron (Audrey in the original National Lampoon's Vacation), Yeardley Smith (voice of Lisa Simpson), a pre-McDreamy Patrick Dempsey and even Wallace Shawn (Princess Bride) who has a great pre-dance speech about LUST! Inconceivable.
The music: some classic '60s soul from Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops, Smokey Robinson, The Temptations and the great Otis Redding doing “I've Been Loving You Too Long.” The slow dance scene goes perfectly with this song and made me really 'hear' it and give proper attention to Otis' music. A great movie overall that I find myself watching every few months.


Flaming Lips’ Freak Out 2011

For the last five years or so, my wife and I have stayed in on New Year’s Eve. But not this year. To celebrate what we hope will be an important, breakthrough year for us, Allie and I packed up the car and drove down to Oklahoma City to catch the annual Flaming Lips’ Freak Out.
The prospect of this adventure reminded me of one I took 24 years ago to Oakland to see the Grateful Dead for the first time in my life. The story’s worth repeating here because it (briefly) involves a certain high school teacher who went on to own a certain kick ass record store. I lied to my mom to get her permission to go, telling her my friend Dave was going with me. I went alone. I was 18. At the first show of the four-night stand I sat front row center in the balcony at the Henry J. Kaiser Auditorium. I kept thinking I was dropping stuff out of my pockets. So did the guy sitting next to me. But when we looked under our seats, we saw nothing. Also, my lap melted. I kept hoping to run into my teacher, but I didn’t until the last night, New Year’s Eve. I ran up to him, all skinny and out of breath, wearing a very loud button down shirt I’d made my mom buy for me on a trip to the Aurora Mall. We only talked for about 15 seconds, but I’m quite certain I succeeded in adding an unexpected and abiding level of terror to my teacher’s night. 
Anyway, the Lips’ Freak Out was an amazing trip from start to finish. From before the start, actually. It takes about six hours to drive from Kansas City to Oklahoma City. On the morning of our trip, an ice storm had passed the Flint Hills between Emporia and Wichita. The sun broke through the clouds just as Allie and I arrived there and it backlit the frozen grass, making the countryside glow. We found a classical music station with a signal that spanned the entire state. 
After checking into our hotel and eating Chinese food, we drove a long, two-lane city street into downtown Oklahoma City. As we got closer, a skyscraper emerged from dark horizon with its windows lit in the form of a cross. Then a second cross-bearing tower appeared. There was road construction everywhere, traffic beacons flashing orange light. It felt as if we were sneaking past a post-apocalypse Mount Cavalry to participate in a semi-clandestine cosmo-pagan ritual.  
We had to park a few blocks away from the concert. We walked toward what we thought was the concert venue, a hulking arena that glowed dramatically, but a security guard directed us to a squat and boxy convention hall. There were no ticket takers at the door. We entered a long hall full of people milling around, some in winter coats, some with glittery green cardboard hats. A man with a cowboy hat stood near an escalator singing and playing guitar. Doors along the left side of the hallway opened to several large ballrooms, each with a stage at the end of it. One room was full of junior-high-aged kids, another was full of black families. An easel placed outside one of the rooms held a placard that read, “Meridians New Year’s Celebration.” We caught glimpses through the doorways on the right side of the hall of a spectacular light show and we could hear the muffled throbbing of a rock and roll show. 
I can’t overemphasize how weird this was. To walk into a familiar space, a generic convention space in need of a remodel, and to find among the normal and mundane festivities a space that is completely overtaken by unbridled strangeness—my god, it was beautiful.
Inside, Allie spotted a bunny. I saw Jesus dressed in red Converse high tops. Just about every other person wore a necklace with a green strobe light amulet. We grabbed a couple of beers, found our seats, and settled in to take in the scene. The arena lights were dimmed and Miles Davis’s On the Corner was cranked on the sound system. Great big balloons bounced on the crowd in front of the stage. Giant smiling flowers and caterpillars wandered around near the sound board. On stage, men in prison jumpsuits checked wire connections and every once in a while one of the members of the Flaming Lips would come out and fiddle with an instrument. Michael Ivins thumbed a handful of low notes that shook the air and drowned out Miles. Wayne Coyne grabbed a confetti gun and shot it into the air. He tested a camera that was attached to his microphone. The half-circle screen behind the stage filled with the image of his face. He said, “Just so everybody has an idea of what’s going to happen, we’re going to come out and play until right before midnight, then we’re gonna sort of stop; we’re basking in a sort of New Year’s glow and love and we’re floating in this room together. Then we’ll come back out and play The Soft Bulletin.” 
“He’s like a pre-school teacher,” Allie said.
The arena went dark and the screen behind the stage filled with the image of a naked woman who glowed bright. She danced. A point of light emanated from her vagina and grew in size and intensity as she laid down and spread her legs toward the audience and so that the members of the band could emerge from her one after another. A clear membrane rose from the center of the stage with Coyne struggling inside, pushing against the sides of it, forcing it into the shape of a bubble. He stood and walked toward the edge of the stage, the bubble rolling under his steps like a hamster ball, and he stepped off onto the crowd. The audience’s hands glowed green under the stage lights. Allie told me she thought it looked like a sea creature.
They played “She Don’t Use Jelly,” “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots Pt. 2,” a bunch of cuts from Embryonic. The flowers and giant bugs we’d seen earlier stood in clusters on both sides of the stage and danced. Coyne told us “There are people at home at their computers wishing they were you.” A bear picked him up and carried him around on its shoulders while he sang, and then whispered in his ear as a man and woman dressed in luminescent garments walked out onto the stage. “Mr. Bear told me these people are here to be married by the Flaming Lips,” Coyne said. The woman wore a green veil and the man had a long, white beard. “By the power vested in me as the unofficial master of my universe,” Coyne said, raising a hand like a preacher, “I hereby do proclaim that this man and woman realize they’re floating in space.” The Lips closed the set with the song the “floating in space” line comes from, during which I looked around and saw a man a few rows back dressed in a corduroy blazer with streaks of tears running down his face. A woman grabbed his hands and squeezed them tightly. 
At a few minutes before twelve, huge balloons came cascading down the risers behind the stage and onto the crowd. Coyne told us, “The balloons could not wait to come down and join the fucking party.” He said that it was time to sing a song. “We don’t know the words to this song,” he said. “But you’ve got to sing this song every New Year’s Eve. Come on.” After we all sang, countdown clock filled the screen and it ticked off sixty seconds, at the end of which I kissed Allie, and then the numbers counted upward from zero to 2011. As the numbers flashed, Allie and I thought of all the epochs of history that we could remember. At 1968 I shouted, “I was born.” At 1973, “You were born!” 2000: “We met!” 2007: “We were married!” 2011, “Happy New Year!” That moment, we later learned from someone with an iPhone, was the actual stroke of midnight. 
The Lips came back on at about 12:30 to play The Soft Bulletin, an album I’d always liked but had never loved in the way I love Yoshimi and Embryonic. In this setting, though, it was entirely new. They began with a prelude, a soft and lovely variation of the opening riff of “Race for the Prize.” Coyne told us that they could never make another album like this one because it was made during a period of extreme highs and lows and artistic exploration that can only happen once in a lifetime. Throughout the performance of the album he paused to tell tales from that time and to give insight to the songs. Before each verse in “The Spiderbite Song” he told the story behind it and professed his love to his bandmates, both of whom nearly died during the time the album was being made. When he did this the screen behind was filled with his face so we could all see his sincerity starkly. During “What is the Light?” the whole place went dark. Drops of light dripped from the ceiling and the stage filled with a galaxy of starlight that exploded outward, swirled around and collapsed into itself to form the words of the song, one word at a time.
When we got back to the hotel we found a Twilight Zone marathon on the SyFy Channel. It was still going the next morning. In the free-breakfast room by the lobby I eavesdropped on some kids who had driven down from suburban Kansas City to catch the show. A couple of them said they’d left early. The Soft Bulletin isn’t their favorite record, one of them explained. That night, when we got home, Allie and I listened to the album and it was as if I’d never heard it before. I always thought it sounded thin compared to their later works. Genius in aspiration, I thought, but played by a band not yet accomplished enough to realize their vision. But this time, on a new (for me) stereo, it revealed itself as the perfect masterpiece that it is. I thought back to the concert, remembering how it felt to hold Allie and sway with her to the music. In Oklahoma City, I kept wishing that they would release a live recording of the show, preferably on vinyl. And that would be great. But unnecessary. 
All that’s left for me to do now is to by it on LP to — as an old high school teacher of mine once said — “properly consummate the relationship.”

Friday, January 21, 2011

Several Species Of Small Furry Thoughts - Gregg Allman

Gregg Allman has always been a complicated figure. Initially under the shadow of big brother Duane, he seemed like the perennially shy, reluctant frontman. After Duane’s death, his reluctance never subsided. Within the Allman Brothers cosmology he has always allowed others - Dickie Betts, Chuck Leavell, Warren Haynes, Derek Trucks - to stand in the spotlight while he stays off to the side and anchors the band’s soul with his earthy Hammond playing and gritty vocals. His solo career has been characterized by “few and far between.” None of his solo albums have revealed the depths of Gregg’s heart to his fans. None until now! His new album, Low Country Blues finally delivers on the promise of Gregg Allman. Under the careful guidance of producer T-Bone Burnett, Gregg is surrounded by a simple and sympathetic band (highlighted by Dr. John on piano and Doyle Bramhall II and Mr. Burnett on guitars, as well as superb rhythm section Jay Bellarose on drums and Dennis Crouch on acoustic bass) and leads them through a program of blues and soul that showcases all his strengths. Allman’s vocals have always been remarkable. He is one of very few white people who can legitimately sing the blues and not sound affected. His approach is always slow and deep. He never partakes in the over-souled histrionics of his contemporaries; instead delivering songs with a laconic authority that can’t be learned. Of all his peers, Allman has always seemed like he had come the closest to the fires of Hell, and rather than brag about it, he has hidden his knowledge in the painful sincerity of his delivery. There is never any fake white-boy growl in his voice, instead, like on Amos Milburn’s “Tears Tears Tears” he merely seems to open his mouth a little wider, and like a lion his roar is natural and unaffected. 
Throughout the 11 covers and one original on this album, the listener never questions Allman’s right to this material. He tackles, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Otis Rush, Sleepy John Estes, Skip James and others, and delivers on every single track. The best are those when T-Bone Burnett is able to capture a simple, haunting beat and let Allman’s other-worldly vocals take center stage. They succeed to greatest effect on Skip James’ “Devil Got My Woman,” Muddy’s “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and a couple of public domain numbers, “I Believe I’ll Go Back Home” and “Rollin’ Stone” which features a haunting Dobro part by Colin Linden. 

Gregg Allman has always been a natural for the enjoyable blues rock of The Allman Brothers Band, but many have suspected that below the surface their lurked a darker soul and more profound talent. Low Country Blues shows that that talent is indeed there, flowing in the same river as his heroes. He is part of the continuum of American Roots Music that he has always paid tribute to. He is home. 

Thursday, January 20, 2011

I'd Love To Turn You on #25 - Al Green - The Belle Album

Over the course of ten albums in seven years, Al Green and producer Willie Mitchell turned Hi Records from a Stax-wannabe into the R&B label others tried to emulate, a reputation staked largely on Green’s recordings. Though other artists – notably Ann Peebles – were also the beneficiaries of Mitchell’s ideas, it was Green’s sensuous voice coupled with Mitchell’s lush productions and their pairing as a songwriting team that catapulted Hi to the commercial forefront. It would seem downright foolish to break up such a worthy partnership, but that’s exactly what happened at Hi for album eleven as Al’s previous three albums saw declining sales and fewer hit singles and public favor began to turn to disco, funk, and other forms of R&B, supplanting Green and Mitchell’s slow, sultry soul. Needing a shake-up, Mitchell was out and Green himself took the production reins, gathered a new band, and created his strongest album in years and very possibly his greatest album after the immortal Call Me.
Where most of Green’s albums hook you with their most up-front cuts and then over time work their way into you, this one uncharacteristically reaches out and shakes you up, an odd result when he goes largely acoustic and goes for more or less the same subtle grooves that he’d pursued for most of his career. It’s probably significant that Green had recently decided he needed a philosophical shift in his life, matched here by this musical shift. While God was never absent from Al's previous albums, here He's moved front and center thematically with Al leading the album telling Belle that it's her that he wants, "but Him that I need." From there things stay largely secular, though often tinged with the idea - especially in "Chariots of Fire" - that other realms are never far from Al's mind and even can be read into some of the other lyrics. Musically it's more assured (and varied) than Al's last few records - stronger and more consistent as a whole than anything since Call Me in fact - and in "Georgia Boy" he's found the perfect hot, hazy groove that feels all too short at seven minutes. But from the laid-back funk of “Georgia Boy” to the disco-tinged “I Feel Good” and back to the brilliant ballad “Belle” on down to the languorous “Dream” he makes one of his strongest album statements here.
Rather than signaling a commercial restart for Green, The Belle Album was his lowest charting record at Hi, “Belle” failed to chart as a single, and Green only made one more secular album, the 26-minute Truth N’ Time, before devoting himself fully to spiritual music for the better part of two decades. While he made some fascinating religious music and has since made a credible return to secular music, he has never again hit the heights of this terrific album.
Patrick Brown

Friday, January 14, 2011

Kylesa-Spiral Shadow

There's been a wealth of quality, innovative hard and heavy bands coming up from the South in recent years. Hailing from Savannah, GA, Kylesa joins the ranks of bands like Mastodon and Baroness in creating exciting new avenues for heavy rock music. Their latest album, Spiral Shadow, shows a deft mix of prog-metal, psych jams, and doomy riffs all powered by a two drummer attack. The vocal interplay between the gruff Phillip Cope and the dreamy Laura Pleasants is another unique aspect of the band's sound. The album is highlighted by the anthemic "Don't Look Back," which could end up as the metal equivalent of the Arcade Fire's "Wake Up." Kylesa is one of the strongest bands around right now and Spiral Shadow is one of 2010's top releases.
-Adam R.

Monday, January 10, 2011

I'd Love To Turn You On: At the Movies #4 - The Last Detail – (dir. Hal Ashby, 1973)

Sometime in the early 1970’s, Jack Nicholson went from being a competent character actor, specializing in edgy, creepy misfits, to being the most respected American actor of several decades. I’ve always pegged this change as falling between Five Easy Pieces and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. The Last Detail is right in the middle of this period (1973) and it marks one of Nicholson’s most deceptively complex roles. In it, he plays a hardened Navy lifer named “Badass” Buddusky who, along with another M.P. (military police), “Mule” Mulhall (the fine actor Otis Young) must transport a young criminal (Randy Quaid) to a military prison on the other side of the country. Within the first few minutes we learn that Quaid is a guileless schnook who is being made an example of to satisfy a general’s wife. Badass and Mule begin their journey in typical military fashion, but quickly realize their job, or detail, is not just another case of following orders.
Nicholson immediately distinguishes himself in this role. He goes from explosive asshole to sensitive realist as he starts to grasp the enormity of the injustice being heaped on this poor sap he is transporting. Randy Quaid as Seaman First Class Meadows is heartbreakingly convincing. He is a troubled, stupid kid who has gotten bad breaks his whole life. He isn’t “everyman,” he is “everyscapegoat” representing all sensitive kids who ever got destroyed by the rule-spouting machine that is the military.
The beauty of The Last Detail comes in the subtle changes in Nicholson’s character, as he has to confront issues of duty, justice and ultimately his own humanity. The more time he spends with Meadows, the more he realizes the questionable morality of his actions. Pity starts to turn to empathy when the men stop in Meadows’ home- town. The three look into the home Meadows grew up in, and as they survey the squalid, sad reality of it, the scales of rank and circumstance start to fall from their eyes and the two guards see themselves in Meadows. From here, the attempts to show Meadows a good time before he goes up the river become increasingly frantic, and ultimately sadder and sadder. Nicholson insists they take him to a prostitute, and the encounter (with a young, dark-eyed Carol Kane) is painfully realistic. They encounter a group of Buddhists and end up at a party that is so tremendously uncomfortable and inappropriate that the viewer is crawling out of his skin to get out of there.
Ultimately the two guards are faced with the sad reality that this poor kid is going away to have his life ruined forever. They know he will be eaten alive at the tough Marine prison. The saddest scene comes near the end of the film as Meadows is unceremoniously taken away by Marine guards and he and Badass and Mule do not exchange a word or even so much as a look. It is a devastatingly inhumane experience. Mule and Badass leave the prison under a cloudy sky and the cruelty and futility of this “detail” is written all over their faces.
The Last Detail was originally billed as a comedy, which is hard for me to understand. Nicholson displays some classic, salty ribaldry and uses the f-word a record number of times, but there is ultimately nothing funny about this movie. It is a small, carefully drawn tale that explores the kind of slow changes in understanding that have to occur to make a difference in one’s basic humanity. One doesn’t believe that Nicholson is going to change his name to “Sweetass” Buddusky after this experience, but we feel sure that it has changed him in some fundamental way. Director Hal Ashby uses a deft hand in showing us the changes in Buddusky’s character, and it is the touching subtlety of this slow shift that makes The Last Detail such a compelling movie.
-Paul Epstein