Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Fables of the Reconstruction: Nevermind

Twenty years ago, on my 23rd birthday, I went with some friends to see Dinosaur Jr. at the Gothic Theater. I knew there were two other bands on the bill but I had never heard of them so we showed up late, after the first band had played. Soon after we got there, the second band came on. It was a three-piece with a tall, short-haired guy on bass, and a short, long-haired guy on guitar and lead vocals. They started playing, the crowd surged forward and we all sort of melded into one another and became a giant throbbing beast with a screaming grungy blonde guitar player for a head. It was rock concert as transcendence, one of the few times in my life that I’d reached such heights through live music, and I had no idea who I was watching.
During the break before Dinosaur Jr.’s set, a buddy and I went to the lobby and deduced from the designs on the T-shirts at the merchandise stand that the band was called Nirvana. My friend bought a black one with “BLEACH” written across it. We went back into the theater proper and were surprised to find the place noticeably less crowded. In my memory’s eye, it’s practically empty, but that seems unlikely now. One thing I know is that I was able to shimmy freely around the dance floor while J. Mascis whipped up monstrous clouds of super-loud guitar noise, whereas during Nirvana I was pinned in place by the press of bodies. Clearly, everyone had come out to see the opening act, and I had missed the memo.
My roommate bought Bleach on CD the following week, and we listened to it all summer. Then, soon after school started up again in the fall, I walked past one of several music stores that were on The Hill in Boulder at the time and I noticed a poster in the window for Nirvana’s new record, Nevermind. I immediately walked in and bought a copy on cassette, took it home and popped in the tape deck, where it remained for at least a month. I drove one of CU’s dorm buses back then, and I would play music on a little jam box while I drove, and when I had Nevermind on I swore I could feel my passengers getting infected by it. When I looked in the rear view mirror I could see students sitting up a little straighter, more alert, not cringing the way they often did when I would play, say, the Butthole Surfers’ Locust Abortion Technician or Sonic Youth’s Confusion Is Sex. One day, a really hot girl came up to the front of the bus while I was driving and shouted over the blare, “Is this Nirvana?!” That never happened when I was cranking the Buttholes.
The album very quickly became a monster hit, of course, and I like to think I played a role in it, like I was one of the pied pipers who lured the masses into the gales of feedback of the post-punk underground, a revolutionary who helped dirty up the Top 40. The Nirvana show at the Gothic and the release of Nevermind combined to form my rock-and-roll moment, the only time I was there at the exact moment when lightning struck and the whole world seemed to change course and travel along for a little while in tandem with my interests, and I cherish it as much as any of the other great moments in my life, like graduation and marriage and losing my virginity.
I told this story recently to an acquaintance from Seattle, and he said something like, “Oh, that’s nothing, I saw them a bunch of times in all these little clubs up and down the Northwest coast.” And I’m sure there are a few people reading this who caught the Nirvana bug long before I did. All those other people pushing toward the stage at the Gothic, pumping their fists in the air, obviously knew something I didn’t. Maybe they’d caught them at the Gothic a couple of years earlier, a concert that can be relived today on YouTube (to the extent than anything can be lived via streaming video). So yeah, my grunge hipster credentials aren’t the most impressive on earth. I’ve always floated somewhere between the avant-garde and the masses. But still, I was there on the opening date of Nirvana’s fabled tour warming up for Dinosaur Jr. at a time when the universe was lining up to make them the biggest superstars of the decade, and it’s now a sturdy pillar in my cathedral of experience. And part of what is driving me back into music collecting is the knowledge that there might be similar singular events waiting in the next bin at my favorite record store or ready to take the stage and warm up the crowd for some better-known band.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Wrap-Up for the Wood Brothers Live at Twist and Shout September 23rd

The Wood Brothers thrilled long time fans with a high energy acoustic performance September 23rd.  Ninety fans came out for a great free show, and many picked up the new album Smoke Ring Halo to get signed by the band afterwards.  The band was as friendly and upbeat as ever.  We enjoyed the crowd that came to support these super talented brothers, they were a fun bunch and there were lots of hugs that night.  The sound was deep and warm, filling up the store with a communal vibe.  Some of my favorite experiences at these in-stores is watching children dance and feel the music, there were a lot of happy children at this one!  It was a one of those evenings where everything went just right and there was even a beautiful sunset as the band went across the street to play at the L2 Arts and Culture Center.  We look forward to the next time the Wood Brothers play at our store, they are truly some of the nicest folks you will meet.

Wrap-Up For Eric D. Johnson of Fruit Bats and Andy Cabic of Vetiver Live at T&S 9/22

We had the honor of hosting an in-store performance with Eric D. Johnson of Fruit Bats and Andy Cabic of Vetiver with another pair of members of their bands.  They joined forces to blow the fans away with a collaborative, stripped down, semi-acoustic set.  Each took turns playing each others songs.  Some they had never played before - you could hear them calling out chord changes at points - but as an outsider you would have had no idea because their intereaction was seamless and beautiful.  Their voices work wonderfully together and from any point in the store people were lifted up by the sweetness of the harmonies.  The crowd of 70 folks enjoyed an intimate and unique set and were able to get posters, CDs and LPs signed.  We were not only grateful for a wonderful sounding set, but you couldn't have asked for a cooler group to visit our store.  They were kind, and funny and true music lovers.  I can't wait to see these guys again.

I'd Love to Turn You On #39 - Frank Black – Teenager of the Year

Some critics tend to discount the last two Pixies’ albums (Bossanova and Trompe Le Monde) as the dying sputters of a band on its last leg. To indulge these opinions is unfortunate as these two albums show chief songwriter and vocalist Black Francis continuing to sharpen his focus and abilities. In hindsight, Bossanova and Trompe Le Monde foreshadowed the departure of Black Francis the Pixie, and the rise of Frank Black the solo artist. Black’s path is one any fan of the Pixies should follow and one that eventually leads to the sprawling 1994 masterpiece Teenager of the Year.
At 22 tracks, Teenager might seem daunting or potentially bloated with filler, but there is an astounding lack of misses. From the blistering one-two punch of “Whatever Happened To Pong?” and “Thalassocracy” to the playful use of Spanglish in “Calistan” and “Olé Mulholland,” fans of the Pixies will see it’s all here. Black’s lyrical obsession with space, science-fiction and the desert landscape of the Southwestern United States are everywhere in songs like “Fazer Eyes,” “Space Is Gonna Do Me Good,” and “Sir Rockaby.” Musically, the album shows Black fleshing out his unique vision and playing with his trademark styles – surf, rockabilly, punk and acoustic-driven rock – and throwing in a heavy dose of rip-roaring leads (a few of which are contributed by Pixies veteran Joey Santiago). Black even attempts piano-driven reggae on “Fiddle Riddle” and pulls it off with aplomb.
More can be said about Teenager of the Year and Frank Black’s influence on contemporary rock music, but pontificating would ultimately distract from the point. Simply put: If you are a fan of the Pixies and you haven’t heard this album, I highly recommend it.
Paul Custer

Friday, September 23, 2011

Several Species Of Small Furry Thoughts - Piles of New Stuff

I can’t believe how much stuff is coming out this month. Here are reviews of a handful
Wynton Marsalis & Eric Clapton - Play The Blues
I have traditionally been very hard on both these guys. It is hard to not let your cynical inclinations overtake you when faced with two guys who have kind of done a lot to make the blues acceptable and wipe away the gritty regionalism that actually makes the form great. I, for one, don’t appreciate that. The blues idiom as it originally sounded has pretty much disappeared from the popular landscape and been replaced by white rock stars blasting out hackneyed, amped-up guitar solos that follow the chord progression of the blues, but actually bear no relation to the spirit and lifestyle it originally represented.
However I was pleasantly surprised to find that on this collaboration these two world-class musicians take the blues to a different place. Marsalis and Clapton, with the aid of the Lincoln Center Jazz Band and the great Taj Mahal take the blues to its jazz roots, back to the way it was played by Louis Armstrong, King Oliver and Jellyroll Morton. This is a totally legitimate and in this case successful concept. There is a sense of reverence in these performances that can’t be denied as the two principles offer up perfect solo after perfect solo. Clapton’s singing is restrained and appropriate, rarely straying into any phony blues growling. The material is perfectly chosen and actually encompasses many eras and regions of blues. Clapton betrays his encyclopedic knowledge in every solo he plays and in his rhythm playing as well. As expected, Marsalis also displays an uncanny understanding of jazz and blues history, playing with impeccable tone and brevity. In spite of the appearance of Clapton’s signature song “Layla” (done up as a New Orleans style funeral march) the band (all acoustic - horns, drums, bass, Clapton associate Chris Stainton on piano and the legendary Don Vappie on banjo) never defaults to any rock and roll clichés. This is a straight blues record done in a traditional way with no showboating.
I came to Wynton Marsalis & Eric Clapton Play The Blues with a pretty bad attitude, I left it with a huge smile on my face, which is what great music is supposed to do. The great understanding and facility both of these men have for the blues comes pouring out of every note on the album. 
Jonathan Wilson - Gentle Spirit
Another record store owner told me to check this guy out. He said, “This is something YOU will like.”  Usually when people say that in the way like they know something about me (wink wink) they are dead wrong and I don’t like it. Not this time. Jonathan Wilson is exactly what I have been looking for. He lives in Laurel Canyon surrounded by the ghosts of the great music created by Joni, Neil, Jackson, The Mothers and The Byrds when they lived there. Gentle Spirit is a totally modern sounding album, but it is deeply imbued with the lyrical themes of that earlier era, and the music surrounds like a familiar warm blanket. Folky for the most part, but loaded with snaky, evocative guitar solos, exotic percussion and smoky organ fills, there is a communal, loose feel to the music that makes it immediately familiar and comforting. But there is substance too. Jonathan Wilson has captured the ear of a lot of his heroes and contemporaries. He regularly hosts jam sessions that include the likes of Jackson Browne, members of Wilco, Dawes and The Jayhawks. There is something going on up there in Laurel Canyon again-and it feels like home to me. Check out the song “Desert Raven” and it will take you to a golden summer place that you won’t want to leave.
SuperHeavy - SuperHeavy
How can a supergroup not suck in 2011? Well, I guess the answer is have the ego-free Dave Stewart behind the scenes keeping the egos of the three superstars fronting the band in check. Oh, and have a secret weapon in the form of Indian music composer A.R. Rahman slyly inserting his worldly influence on every song. The real trick here is the skillful control and release job done with the three oversize vocalists. Damien Marley immediately brings any song he appears on to Jamaica, Joss Stone grounds a song to her somewhat over-polished R&B wail and Mick Jagger is just Mick Jagger and immediately brings his own set of talents and baggage to any appearance. You may be wondering how such a disparate group could possibly unify into one coherent sound. Well, they really don’t. SuperHeavy succeeds on its own terms, sounding pretty much unlike anything else. Each song is an experimental international mash-up. The vocalists trade off verses on every song with dizzying regularity, never letting the listener get complacent or bored. The music shifts and lurches from guitar based blues to swirling orchestral fugues to Marley’s house-style rapping and back again all within one song (“One Day One Night’). Even what seems to be a straightforward Jagger ballad “Never Gonna Change” features a sly keyboard figure by A.R. Rahman that takes it out of the ordinary. Not everything works. Sometimes the songs are lost in too many ideas, or Joss Stone’s oversouled performance but the overall impression of SuperHeavy is that of a group for the 21st century. They are not tied to any style or era, they have their ears open and are experimenting freely.
I’m not a betting man, but if were going to, I’d be willing to bet that this group will be moderately successful in America but that this album will have a huge impact on the world stage. I can see this album filling dance floors worldwide because the songs are infectious, optimistic and unpretentious and the predominant mood is fun.

Monday, September 19, 2011

I'd Love To Turn You On - At the Movies #22 - Over the Edge (1979, dir. Jonathan Kaplan)

Matt Dillon’s film career started in Denver. Aurora, to be precise. A sprawling subdivision called Mission Viejo, to be even more precise. That’s where the 1979 teen-sex-drugs-vandalism-explosions-and-rock-and-roll exploitation movie Over the Edge was filmed. A very young, long-haired Dillon plays Ritchie, a suburban hoodlum who lives by one law: “A kid who tells on another kid is a dead kid.” He was about 14 when the film was made, and he looks as cute as can be as he struts around the screen in a sleeveless shirt, bell-bottom jeans and a leather wristband on his left arm.
Much of what makes this so terrific is that it’s a supreme historical document. In addition to capturing a Hollywood superstar at a moment he’d probably prefer would remain hidden, it’s a shameless parade of what might well be the best-worst fashion faze of the last half century – a frenzy of feathered hair, high-waist jeans and ring-neck T-shirts with glittered tigers on the front. The cars are all boxy and big and painted in drab colors (the dad of one of the main characters runs a Cadillac dealership). And the soundtrack pulsates with power chords and screaming guitar licks: Hendrix, Van Halen, the Ramones and, of course, Cheap Trick; lots and lots of Cheap Trick. 
And all of this is happening in the eastern suburbs of Denver at a time when there was still more prairie than housing out there. The Mission Viejo subdivision where most of the action takes place is a stone’s throw from Smoky Hill High School, which opened a couple of years before the movie came out. It’s funny to see its split-level homes and boxy apartment complexes staged as a high-end real estate, because it has since become decidedly more low-rent. There are a few scenes at Cherry Creek Reservior, both on and below the dam, a shot of the old Stapleton runway that went over I-70 and a yellow taxicab with an Elitch Gardens signboard advertising a wax museum. How long’s it been since they had one of those?
Oh, and there’s a plot, too, and a fairly well developed theme. The grown-ups who created an oasis away from the city on the Plains forgot that a quarter of their residents would be kids, so there’s nothing for the youngins to do except hang out at a Quonset hut rec center until it closes at six at night, then spend the night getting high, screwing and breaking stuff – and dodging Sgt. Doberman, an asshole cop who gets off on throwing kids up against his squad car and frisking them. To make matters worse, a long-promised bowling alley/skating rink/movie theater is jettisoned to make way for an industrial park. Then, near the end of act one, a gun appears, almost inexplicably, sending the whole story careening down the road toward all-out teenage bedlam.
- Joe Miller

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Fables of the Reconstruction: R.E.M.

The simple truth is that R.E.M. saved my life. I first heard them when I was in junior high, on a new wave radio show I found when I was spinning the dial on a Sunday afternoon. They played “Carnival of Sorts (Boxcars)”, and I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever heard, and I begged my mom to take me out to the mall to buy a copy of their debut EP, Chronic Town. Their first full-length LP, Murmur, came out less than a year later and I snatched it up right away, and scratched it all to hell lifting and dropping the needle with my thumb over and over again to listen to “Radio Free Europe” and “Sitting Still” nonstop. For the former, I’d jump around the room playing air guitar, and for the latter I’d hold an invisible microphone to my mouth, close my eyes and try to blend in with harmony on the chorus – “I-I-I believe” – and waves of well-being would cascade up and down my spine. It was like being hugged by God.

            Then things changed very quickly for me. My mom got a job in Denver, and when I boarded the bus for my first day of school in the big city, everyone laughed at me. This was a time when every teen movie had a pathetic nerd in it, and with my big horned-rim glasses, I looked the part. Laughter followed me through the halls of school, and the other kids called me “Waldorf” and “Melvin.” I had to do something about it, so I went punk. I made my mom drive me to Wax Trax to buy a bunch of T-shirts and I took my jeans and ground them against the pavement in front of our house to make holes in the knees and I stopped combing my hair. I started smoking pot. My buddy Andy and I formed a punk band called Rellik (“killer” spelled backward). Andy played guitar and I gyrated and screamed. We went without a drummer and bass player for the better part of the summer, and when we finally found a couple competent players we celebrated by smoking a whole bunch of weed that I’m pretty sure was laced with PCP, which turned out to be a lot more than my 16-year-old psyche could handle. While the band played, I sat on the dining room table in Andy’s house staring at my reflection in a plate-glass window, watching it melt and transform into versions of myself at all the different ages of my life – little boy, teenager, old man – and at each stage I was a pathetic fool. The nightmare didn’t end when I came down. I started my sophomore year literally unable to bear the sight of my own shadow. I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror, couldn’t stand the sound of my voice, and I tried not to be alone for any significant stretch of time out of fear of what I might do to myself. The only things that brought relief were music, and writing and making art. I pulled out the banged up copy of Murmur that I’d neglected during my punk-only phase, played “Sitting Still” incessantly, wailing along with such determination that the “I-I-I believe!” chorus began to ring true.
            I picked up a copy of Reckoning, and it was a godsend. I could not stop listening to it. When I was at school or away from of my record player for more than a few hours, I’d start to crave it, especially the beginning, the way “Harborcoat” burst into its driving beat and jangling guitar riff and the soaring harmony of the chorus. The vocals are so strong on that album that even when you’re not singing along it feels as though the words and notes are rising out of your solar plexus. R.E.M. played at Macky Auditorium that fall, and I drove up there from Aurora in my little blue bug, listening to Peter Buck guest deejay on KBCO. I remember he played a tune by The Band, and the deejay asked him why, and he said something like, “Because they’re the great American band,” and I made a mental note to check them out. Every day, I’d listen to Reckoning constantly and draw or write stories for the school newspaper, where I’d struck up a friendship with the editors, a couple of sexy senior girls named Allison and Rachel. They had good taste in music, too, and Rachel shared my love for R.E.M., and pretty soon she was listening to it with me in my room, and we’d stop making out only long enough to flip the record over. She was my first girlfriend, and I regained my ability to look myself in the mirror the moment we first kissed.
            I wish I could say I’ve been a loyal R.E.M. fan ever since, but I abandoned them my junior year, when I went all-in for acid rock. They rolled through Boulder again in autumn of that year, right at the cusp of my transformation, and a friend of mine scored front-row seats. I went on two hits of acid, and I kept wishing that Jim Morrison or Jimi Hendrix would step onto the stage. It wasn’t until I started buying vinyl again that I got back into them. On Record Store Day this year, I picked up a copy of Reckoning for the nostalgia of it and I discovered all over again that it’s an amazing record. When I moved to Georgia in late July, I found myself listening to it a lot, along with Fables of the Reconstruction, and staring out the windows at the kudzu vines and the magnolia trees, feeling the spirit of this great and strange state brought to life in this gorgeous music. So I got all their other records from the 80s, and I’ve been listening to them all weekend, reliving a decade of music that I missed the first time around, thrilled at the prospect of the new life that lies ahead.   

Monday, September 12, 2011

I'd Love to Turn You On #40 - The Flying Burrito Brothers - Gilded Palace of Sin

The Flying Burrito Brothers’ Gilded Palace of Sin is the quintessential country rock album – even more so than the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Radio, the album that’s believed to be the first substantial document of hippies adventuring into Hickville. I favor the Burritos’ album because it’s got a little more rock energy to it; the vocals are a bit louder, edgier, full of attitude, and there are psychedelic flourishes here and there, like on the opening track, “Christina’s Song,” where they run the pedal steel guitar through a fuzz box. And the lyrics are downright weird in spots, most notably on the title track, an acid-soaked redemption song with a chorus that laments how “on the 31st floor, a gold-plated door, won’t keep out the Lord’s burning rain.” Yet the record remains true to the simple but wondrous form of the country song, which is really what the whole country-rock movement is all about: conjuring far-out, spectacularly beautiful sounds from within the cozy confines of good old American melody and harmony.
There’s a direct connection between Gilded Palace of Sin and Sweetheart of the Rodeo, of course: Gram Parsons was a new addition to the Byrds and a driving force behind the band’s fulsome embrace of country, and he broke off with Chris Hillman after Sweetheart to form the Burritos. Parsons is a tough guy to admire. The history books paint him as a spoiled rich kid who couldn’t handle his booze and drugs. He’s the one on the cover of Gilded Palace in a suit adorned with sequined pot leaves, poppies and pills. He OD’d at 27 in a motel in the California desert, and the output on his short career was inconsistent, which is apparent in the CD double release on which Gilded Palace is paired with the band’s second release, Burrito Deluxe, an album that’s good but not stellar, due in large part to stoned-out infighting within the band. (If you’ve got a record player, splurge for the 180-gram reissue of Gilded Palace; it sounds fantastic.) Still, when I listen to Gilded Palace, I’ve got to hand it to Parsons. He had moments of genius, especially during “Dark End of the Street,” a cover of a soul song about cheating that was a hit in 1967 for James Carr. It’s truly one of the greatest performances in the history of modern music. The whole notion of taking a contemporary R&B hit and bending it into the then-new genre of country rock is radical and novel to begin with, but it’s the way Parsons sings it that sends it over the top. His voice has a Southern twang that’s outright stoic in places, as though he’s playing the role of a country deacon who’s caught up in an affair and powerless against it. And at the same time, there’s just a hint of echo on his mic that brings some extra color to the aura of dreamy rock star that surrounded him in those heady days before the booze and powders really started getting the best of him. He really belts it out, too – so much so that he captures the anguish and ecstasy of doing something no good, of committing the kind of sin that you know will hurt like hell when the bill comes due, but you do it anyway because it feels so goddamned good.

- Joe Miller

Friday, September 9, 2011

I'd Love To Turn You On - At the Movies #21 - Altered States (dir. Ken Russell, 1980)

Ken Russell is a madman. I’ve seen almost every film he’s made and that is the conclusion I’ve drawn. Altered States is no exception and it is his most conventional film. Based on a Paddy Chayevsky novel the real kernel of the film goes back to a short story by H. P. Lovecraft called “Back There.” In it, a man discovers a way to access the genetic history inherent in all our brains and become, essentially, a caveman. In Altered States Harvard Professor Eddie Jessup (William Hurt in his first film role) conducts experiments with graduate students that combine strong hallucinogenic drugs with sessions in an isolation tank. The results start to get weird and, being a man of science in 1967, Professor Jessup decides he needs to try it for himself. He does so and the results are startling. Eddie is a big question kind of guy, and his experiences floating in total sensory deprivation lead to incredible hallucinations involving his religious upbringing, his feelings towards his wife (played with doe-eyed beauty by Blair Brown - whatever happened to her?), and his desire to understand and be part of a more primitive state of being. He finds out about a tribe of Indians in Mexico who use a mushroom to induce common visions of ancestral creation. Jessup visits them and has a powerful trip that leaves him naked on a hillside with a dead lizard next to him. He decides he must combine this mushroom with the isolation tank. And this is all in the first 20 minutes of the movie!
Ken Russell attacks the subject with such vigor and visual flair that one hardly questions what is happening. It is only after Jessup returns to his experiments and enhances them with the mushroom extract, which he somehow talked the Indians out of, that things really start to get weird. His colleagues at Harvard are starting to think he is a flake and his wife is ready to take the kids and leave. His sessions find him physically regressing and actually becoming a primitive man. Although the film has been moving at a fast clip up to this point, it is now that the special effects really take over and the film goes into hyperdrive. Jessup ultimately takes the experiment as far as it can go, physically mutating into a dangerous ape like creature. To learn how he gets out of this state will require you seeing the movie. It is very worth the journey because Russell is such a fearless and personal director. Tackling hallucinations on film has historically proven to be a dicey business. Many directors less talented than Russell have failed miserably. While some of his techniques are dated, there is a colorful brilliance to these sequences that justify the price of admission. The movie keeps to a dark palette of colors during the rest of the action, so the hallucination scenes nearly explode off the screen. Filled with flying sparks, religio-sexual imagery, and cells breaking down into DNA it is all great fun, and Russell’s own sense of authority in the fields of both asking the big questions and tripping balls are obvious in every frame.

Walking the line between serious science fiction and action-filled crowd pleasing is a perilous task. It is so easy to undermine the important thematic elements of a film by making the action too bread and circus-y. Altered States takes it as far as one can go in both directions without splitting in two. Ken Russell’s film is both intellectually rewarding and filled with enough pulse-pounding to keep even the most primitive human engaged.