Monday, March 28, 2011

I'd Love to Turn You on #29 - Yo La Tengo - And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (Matador Records)

Way back in the summer of 2000, I heard advance word of a new Yo La Tengo album and I was worried.  I should have been excited that one of my favorite bands had a new album coming out.  But the description I read gave me pause.  It seemed this was going to be a "quiet" album, filled with slower songs and ballads.  Now at this point I had been a serious YLT fan for about five or six years and what drew me most to the band was their diversity.  Sure I liked the quieter songs they had done in the past, but I didn't want a full album of them.  I still bought the cryptically titled And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out on its release day, went home, put it on and for the next 77 minutes was totally enthralled.  It was just as diverse as anything they've done and, more importantly, every one of the 13 songs was, and still is, excellent.
I think I may have been hooked right when the haunting bass line of opener "Everyday" kicked in.  This song perfectly captures the dreamy quality of the album as a whole.  In fact, the first four songs set the tone for what is to come.  The country-flavored "Our Way to Fall" comes next followed by "Saturday," a moody number with electronic enhancement.  The pace gets picked up a bit by the funky, organ-driven "Let's Save Tony Orlando's House," its title an obscure Simpsons reference.  This is probably the best example of the album's ability to weld a variety of styles without sacrificing the overall mood of quiet reflection.
"Last Days of Disco" follows and is one of the album's standout tracks.  A tender tale of shy, hesitant first love set to a dreamy background, it’s one of the band's finest moments both musically and lyrically.  "Tears Are In Your Eyes" is a work of heartbreaking beauty and has been one of the few songs from the album to make it into the band's regular live repertoire of the past decade.  The quiet mood is briefly broken by "Cherry Chapstick," a Sonic Youth-styled guitar rave-up.  Yet it still manages to fit in with everything that surrounds it and does not sound out of place at all.  Further examples of YLT's ability to get funky come with a cover of the obscure George McRae song "You Can Have It All" and the great instrumental "Tired Hippo."
The album concludes with the absolutely stunning, 17-minute "Night Falls On Hoboken."  Yo La Tengo does long, psychedelic jams as well as anyone.  Extended songs like "Blue Line Swinger" and "I Heard You Looking" are what initially drew me to the band.  Here they have created another worthy addition to that tradition while still maintaining the overall mood of the album.  "Hoboken" opens as a fairly standard mid-tempo ballad, then after the last chorus they settle into a haunting groove provided by James McNew on bass and Georgia Hubley on drums.  Ira Kaplan first plays a lovely acoustic guitar solo followed by a more edgy electric solo.  Some trippy keyboard and electronic effects lead into fine drum work by Hubley.  Eventually, it all settles into a quiet drone that fades out, providing the song and the album with a most appropriate conclusion.
And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out is a remarkable achievement by a remarkable band.  While many of its songs are just as great individually, it is best experienced as a whole.  The lesson I learned is to always have faith in my favorite artists.  Just when you least expect it, they will surprise you with a masterpiece.  
- Adam Reshotko

Friday, March 25, 2011

I'd Love To Turn You On - At The Movies #9 - Belle de Jour (1967, dir. Luis Buñuel)

By this point in his career, Luis Buñuel had earned the license to range far and wide in his films and basically do whatever he wanted. So it's interesting that this film - adapted by Buñuel and co-screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrire from a novel I have not read - is so relatively straightforward (relative to his other films, that is). It came right on the heels of the eccentric short Simon of the Desert and precedes the oddball, picaresque tour of heresies in The Milky Way and so could very easily have been one of his films where the plot is merely an excuse to string a group of his obsessive fantasies over. But it actually - despite sometimes unheralded dreams and fantasies - falls into a relatively simple story pattern.
Séverine (played with brilliant understatement by a beautiful and young Catherine Deneuve) is a woman married to a handsome young doctor. She's frigid and unable to give him any real emotional or physical warmth, despite constant reassurances that she will do so soon. It's slowly revealed in flashbacks (that are not announced as such) that she may have been sexually abused as a child and that this is likely the source of her frigidity and also her fantasies of sexual debasement. It's also what piques her curiosity when she learns that an acquaintance - an upper class woman like Séverine - is prostituting herself during the day for a high-class madame. Séverine goes to meet another madame, Madame Anais, and in a heartbeat is christened Belle de Jour for her new day job, where she surprisingly finds herself able to express herself emotionally and sexually in a way she can't with her husband. This of course leads directly to emotional entanglements and complications she wasn’t expecting – unable to lead a double life when her fantasy life begins to cross over into her real life, she finds it’s not as easy to simply withdraw from the lifestyle as she thought.
Buñuel plays out this scenario more or less deadpan – things that seem like his old surrealist jokes turn out to have direct significance on the events that unfold, and what at first appears to be his absurdist sense of humor at play proves to be just another layer of the story he and Carriere have constructed. Also working toward the total effect of the film is Sacha Vierny’s evenly lit and unadorned cinematography. Unlike many film masters, Buñuel is not known for his camerawork – when he can make it simple, he does – and the Vierny adapts well to this cool style. The last piece of the puzzle – well, the last one I’m going to mention anyway, to tell you everything about the film would ruin the delight of simply watching a master filmmaker at work – is a nod to the performances – not just Deneuve’s Séverine/Belle, but Jean Sorel as her eternally patient husband, Pierre Clémenti as the dangerous criminal Marcel, and Michel Piccoli and Pierre’s friend Henri Husson, whom Séverine has a long-standing dislike for. All of them hit exactly the right pitch in their performances that keeps the film believable, and keeps in a realistic realm what could easily have turned into a sordid melodrama. This is one of Buñuel’s finest accomplishments – the perfect marriage of his explorations of the surrealist concept of l’amour fou and a drama that can engage anyone.

Monday, March 14, 2011

I'd Love to Turn You on #28 - Dusty Springfield – Dusty in Memphis

Dusty is the single greatest female singer to have ever emerged from the UK, and is also the greatest white soul singer to ever walk on this earth, male or female. She made a lot of brilliant singles during her peak, and a few great albums. Clearly however, the one truly great album is her 1969 LP Dusty in Memphis. It's not quite a “white soul” album, although that is part of it. It is a pure pop masterpiece; orchestrated, lush, sensual and perfectly gorgeous.

In mid-60s England, Dusty had been a huge star. She specialized in melodramatic songs with dramatic production, the only thing bigger than her hits was her beehive and mascara. But, as with other artists of the era, there came a time to evolve. As the Beatles and the Stones had shown us, it was change and grow or be left behind. By 1968, in danger of becoming a Cliff Richard-like relic, Dusty understood it was time to become a credible contemporary artist. In Dusty's case, this meant discovering her classic American pop and R&B roots. This quest brought her straight to the source: Atlantic Records in Memphis, Tennessee.

It's well known that Dusty was crippled with anxiety and self doubt during the recording sessions. Feeling as if she were under the shadow of her idol Aretha Franklin, she felt as if nothing was good enough. Listening to this classic now, it's hard to see what the problem was. Dusty could never match Aretha's lung-busting power, but she has a grace and softness that Aretha can't touch. Only early Dionne Warwick has that same quality, and these days, Dusty is the only white singer that can sensibly be named in the same breath as those great soul legends.

Only two songs on the album are local. The famous "Son of a Preacher Man" and the super-sexy "Breakfast in Bed" are from Memphis writers, and are the two tracks that can really be called "soul." "The Windmills of Your Mind" from the recent (then) film Thomas Crown Affair is the only track on the album with a particular exotic quality, and also the single nod to psychedelia on the LP. The rest of the tunes are slices of pure pop heaven penned by famed New York staff writers Mann/Weil, Bacharach/David and Randy Newman, with 4/11ths of the record dedicated to Gerry Goffin/Carole King compositions. And gems they are: "Just a Little Lovin'," "Just one Smile" and "I Can't Make It Alone" are mature, sexually charged songs that simply ache with Dusty's reading. Best of all is Goffin/King's "No Easy Way Down" showing once again that it does not get better than when Dusty sings Carole.

Dusty in Memphis was ranked #9 in Rolling Stone magazine's "50 Coolest Records" and
was included in Mojo magazine's 100 greatest albums ever made list. It's a classic that belongs in every record collection.

Monday, March 7, 2011

I'd Love To Turn You On - At The Movies #8 - Green Pastures (1936, dir. Mark Connelly/William Keighley)

"God appears in many forms to those who believe in Him.  Thousands of Negros in the Deep South visualize God and Heaven in terms of people and things they know in their everyday life.  The Green Pastures is an attempt to portray that humble, reverent conception."

This written "Foreward," shown immediately before the credits, sets the scene for The Green Pastures.  Several children in the Deep South walk to their Sunday school lesson in the company of the teacher, where he promises a lesson "straight from Genesis."  However, the lesson turns from the written word to the various questions the children have - in particular, what things were like before there was an Earth.  (My questions during Sunday school were significantly less heady.)  As the preacher and kids begin suggesting that maybe it was "good times" for God and the angels, they begin describing these "good times" in reference to what their idea of good times involve - fish fries, "boil'd custard," and ten cent cigars "for the adults."

Zoom to a child's face in wonderment, zoom out of focus, cue the gospel choir.  And the movie proper begins - a series of vignettes designed to attempt to portray how Biblical characters and stories might be envisioned by rural African-American children.  And, as the set-up suggests, this extends not just to the use of African-Americans in the roles of the biblical characters, but in (then) contemporary dress, speech patterns and behaviors for all the characters, as well.

(Warner Brothers puts a disclaimer at the outset of the DVD, stating that although these mannerisms and ways of speaking may have been common in the past, that WB certainly doesn't think that's what African-Americans are all about now.  I'd like to think movie companies would feel us sufficiently intelligent to not come to such a realization, but there you be.)

The fact that this movie was made at all, let alone well, is something of a miracle.  The entire cast and crew for the feature was African-American, and in the mid-30s, there can't have been that many who had a lot of professional film-making experience.  Despite this fact, this film is anything but an amateur production.  If anything in the film seems a bit hokey or amateurish, it's the same sort of things that you might see in any Hollywood production from the same time period.  After a couple of scenes, I found myself slipping into the spirit of the film, enjoying seeing these "well-known characters" in a new light.  The accents were occasionally thick enough (and the slang occasionally obscure enough) that I did better with the closed-captioning feature turned on, but I certainly didn't find this any sort of handicap.  Although not a Christian nor a student of African-American studies, I came away from this feature feeling as though I really did see something special and unique.  My only real complaint - the excellent gospel music by the Hall Johnson Choir isn't available on CD.  Presumably this just means I'll end up watching the movie more often.  There certainly are worse fates.

- Alf

Friday, March 4, 2011

Several Species Of Small Furry Thoughts - Marley

Bob Marley is a complicated figure. For millions of people who experienced him and his powerful, uplifting music during his lifetime he remains a touchstone to a spiritual high-water mark in our lives. I know that might sound like hyperbole, but it is really true. At a very important time in my life (right as I entered adulthood) Bob Marley’s music was one of the only things I had found in my life that dealt with spiritual matters in a non-judgmental, non-dogmatic fashion. Marley was clearly a man who believed in a higher power, but his messages were universal, addressing issues as unifying as hunger, freedom, family and brotherly love. He was a remarkable songwriter, whose repertoire lives on in the hearts of millions around the world. He is also one of the very few artists who can honestly be called a world-superstar. He was really the first to transcend race and culture and speak a universally understood language.

On the other hand, there is an entire generation of people who see Marley as the inspiration for way too many stupid frat-boy keggers. His fans seemed a smug, self-righteous bunch of Trustafarians who had swapped Marley’s easily digestible messages for any semblance of critical thought. As usual it is wrong, but unavoidable to see an artist tainted by his most foolish fans. Reggae in general has not fared well on the modern musical landscape. After Bob Marley and Peter Tosh’s tragic deaths the genre seemed to sink under the weight of the tragedy and just lose steam. For a shining few moments in the 1970’s though, Bob Marley and The Wailers seemed as if they might be on the cusp of a wave of an unparalleled spiritual awakening in the world. He appeared above politicians and seemed untainted by the corrupting forces of the modern world. Of course, we now know this was not exactly true. He had feet of clay like all men, but the music he created during his career does indeed stand the test of time as the new release Bob Marley and the Wailers Live Forever: The Stanley Theatre, Pittsburgh PA September 23, 1980 beautifully illustrates. This is the final stage appearance by Bob Marley, and he was dead from the cancer that had weakened him within a year of this concert. Yet when one listens to this incredible document there is little sign of impending doom.

If one were to judge Bob Marley solely on the songs performed at this concert, it would offer pretty compelling evidence of his greatness. The songs read like a page from the book of human aspiration; “Positive Vibration,” “Zion Train,” War/No More Trouble.” “No Woman No Cry,” “Redemption Song,” “Is This Love,” “Get Up Stand Up” to name just a few. It is a magnificent 20-song program of great songs and bravura performances. The Wailers were just unstoppable at this point. They knew how to deliver a show that drove modern rock audiences nuts with huge arrangements, heavy on Al Anderson and Junior Marvin’s great lead guitar work and anchored by Carlton and Family Man Barrett’s crushing rhythm section. For his part, Marley shows no outward signs of weakness, delivering with his trademark intensity, buoyed by the I-Threes backing vocals, he sounds like he could go on forever. But alas, it was not to be. This was the end of his performing career and the world would soon lose one of its best poets of hope.

It saddens me that Marley’s greatness has been placed into question in some people’s minds by the unforgiving passage of time. To me, he is in the category of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan or John Lennon. He is a musician who made a difference in the course of human events, and a human who made music for the ages. Live Forever is a wonderful reminder of this fact.

Ryan Bingham at the Ogden 2/25/11

After the in-store at Twist & Shout, Ryan Bingham and the Dead Horses greeted another packed house at the Ogden where their performance was anything but laconic. The Silent Comedy, who must have walked out of a turn-of-the-century ghost town, heated the stage. Their revivalist-gone-cabaret style cycloned the crowd into a frenzy as Liam Gerner, the young Australian singer-songwriter, and members of the Dead Horses joined them on stage and in-crowd for their last night on tour. Then, out came the unassuming Ryan Bingham crew. With the same humble greetings and down-cast eyes he presented at Twist, Bingham, now in cowboy boots and a vest, proceeded to rock the house.

The band played from all albums, but with the intensity and glow of performers who have figured out how their music plays live. The mellow tunes from Junky Star, including the most recognized “Hallelujah” and “Depression,” were delivered intensely and passionately and songs from the old albums, Roadhouse Sun and Mescalito, roared out from the stage. After a brief solo-performance where Bingham sang the long-awaited “The Weary Kind,” the band came back on stage to toast the Denver crowd and finish out their long and powerful set. Judging from the reactions of a few in-store folks who came to see Ryan Bingham with no idea who he was, the band surely had their share of converts and re-baptized those who have been following them since their dusty days in the southwest.

And maybe that was the greatest aspect of the show – how an incredibly diverse crowd that sprawled across age and social barriers – all heard something fresh and exhilarating. Before the show started, a cadre of cougars guarded their seats with the fierceness of den mothers, a few guys with shaved heads pushed each other around, and young men guarded their doe-eyed mates, in fear of the magnetic Bingham charisma. Watching all this, a security guard remarked, “Yup, there’ll be lots of fights tonight.” Yet, as everyone realized that this is a band that exceeds all expectations, that this is band that is made of “Bread and Water,” not just “The Weary Kind,” everyone finally settled in, beers were raised, whiskey slung, and the band took us all on a crazy ride.

- Lindsay Christopher

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Ryan Bingham Live at Twist & Shout 2/25/11

When one of my employees came in and said “There’s a bunch of cars in the lot with Wyoming license plates” I knew something was up. Usually when we have an in-store everybody shows up at the last minute. For this up-and-coming country star though, people were here at least an hour before show time. By the time the unassuming Mr. Bingham strolled on stage and looked kind of bemused by the size of the crowd there were close to 300 people packing the vinyl room. Ryan did not disappoint. He played about a half hour of his world-weary country blues. I really didn’t know what to expect, but by the time it was over I realized this guy was the real deal - in a Townes Van Zandt kinda way. He has real presence, although absolutely no pretensions whatsoever. His songwriting and laconic delivery shine as the star of the show. He was tremendously nice to the many people who stayed around to get stuff autographed. Unfortunately for us, all the fans seemed to own all three of his excellent albums already - so sales were a bit peckish, but when an artist plays with this much heart and soul and his fans come out in such force, we would be foolish to complain.