Monday, October 31, 2011

I'd Love To Turn You On - At The Movies #25 - Carnival of Souls (1962, dir. Herk Harvey)

There used to be a Friday night show in Denver called Creature Features. It was essentially a vehicle for a local channel to show low-budget monster flicks. Each week it began with atmospheric footage of ghost towns and cemeteries in the mountains and then a creepy host (Mr. First Nighter) introducing the film. There was nothing really scary about Mr. First Nighter, but I remember whenever that footage of mountain cemeteries would come on I would get scared. I was in my late childhood and not all that experienced with horror, but those weird scenes of deserted, shadowy graves just scared the hell out of me. It was around this time that I was first exposed to Carnival Of Souls. Late night and half-asleep is the way to view this movie. More than anything it is a dark mood piece, which makes up in atmosphere what it lacks in plot. Made in 1962 by an industrial filmmaker, the original idea came to director/star Herk Harvey when he passed the abandoned Salt Air amusement park by the Great Salt Lake on a cross-country trip. The abandoned pavilion is indeed a mysterious sight - kind of a Moorish castle sitting dark and brooding on the shores of this immense inland body of water. He drove home to Lawrence, Kansas and described the scene to an author friend of his who then set about writing a script.

The story itself is somewhat irrelevant. It is the overwhelming mood of dread and fear that pervades every frame of this film that makes it so memorable. The protagonist, Mary Henry (played by Candace Hilligoss) is an attractive young woman who begins the film involved in an illegal drag race that goes wrong and the car she is in plunges over a bridge. Thus ends any normal plot conventions. We have every reason to believe she and everyone else in the car has died, yet Mary emerges from the water dazed and covered in mud. We then learn that she is a church organ player who is relocating to Salt Lake City. As soon as she hits the road, the weirdness begins. She sees a monstrous visage; a chalk white man, disheveled and malevolent, peering in her car window, stalking her. On her way into town she passes the Salt Air pavilion and is fascinated and drawn to the gothic edifice. As the movie hurtles toward its inevitable showdown, Mary sees the chalk-white man and other zombie-like people more and more frequently. It is never clearly stated, but we start to realize that Mary has been in some state between life and death and these terrifying apparitions beckon her to join them in the pavilion for the Carnival Of Souls. Apparently, when you die you go to abandoned amusement parks and participate in pagan dance rituals - kinda makes sense. As I stated, the particulars of the plot are somewhat irrelevant; what makes this movie so special are the beautiful use of light, the well-chosen shooting locations and the ever-present and somewhat remarkable organ score which keeps the viewer on edge the whole time. The overall effect of the movie is a chill that runs down your spine and causes you to look over your shoulder.
By today’s standards there is absolutely nothing scary about this movie. There is no blood, no explicit violence, no bad language - in fact there are really no bad people in this movie; just dead people who leer at Mary and creep her out. Carnival Of Souls asks if there is a place between the shadows of living and dying and answers: yes, there is - it’s just outside Salt Lake City. This is the perfect movie to play at your Halloween party. People will find themselves mysteriously drawn to the screen as the weird images flicker on the screen in glorious black and white.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Interview: Mike Doughty

We want to buy your Yes and Also Yes listening kit. What’s the chance it’ll become a reality? Where’d you get the idea for it? And how do collapsible cardboard speakers sound? 

This I don't know. Hoping people would be interested enough to buy it. It's pretty much the definition of a specialty item. I'd be happy just to see them on shelves. The box looks amazing. (hoping you guys print a pic of the box!) 

The cardboard speakers actually sound pretty alright. I've bought 'em from Muji, and they're fun. Not world-shattering hi-def, of course. 

But, then, I like some pretty weird sounding things. I was in a cab in Ethiopia once, and there was this music playing, Ethiopian pop chanteuse, and it sounded spectacular. I found the CD, and it didn't sound as good as it did in the cab's tiny, messed-up, distorted speakers--they sounded like somebody jammed a pencil into the speaker cone. 

The collapsible cardboard speakers sound WAY better than those in the Ethiopian cab. I promise.

I asked Megaforce, Snack Bar's distributor, to put it out on cassette--I was stunned when they said yes--and then realized that I don't--nor does any friend of mine--own a cassette player. I'm sure there's some busted Coby walkman in a closet somewhere, but still. And I think even if you had never owned a cassette player, it'd be groovy to assemble the cassette player, and the speakers, and listen to the cassette. Bizarre, but special.

What are the biggest differences and similarities between Yes and Also Yes and Sad Man Happy Man, both in how they came to be and how they sound?

There were more people involved in Y.A.A.Y.--Sad Man was just me, Pat Dillett (the producer), and Andrew "Scrap" Livingston playing cello and bass. For this one, we kept calling people into the studio, one by one, and having them track improvised parts on lots of tunes. Carolin Pook, on violin, Thomas Bartlett, aka Doveman, on piano and organ. And Scrap, naturally. Sat them down by themselves at an instrument and just rolled multiple songs past them.

Also, Y.A.A.Y. was largely written at an artists' colony, Yaddo, up in Saratoga Springs, NY. I wrote 21 songs in a period of just over a month. That's a pretty intense way to cook up a batch of songs.

Judging by your lyrics, you seem to be a very intelligent, educated and sensitive fellow. How does that reconcile with the rock and roll lifestyle and mindset? Or do we have that wrong? Are we just making assumptions because you wear glasses?

Aaaah, I don't know if I have a rock and roll mindset. What is a rock and roll mindset? Like, you feel like a member of 38 Special in 1981? I listen to a whole lot of Black Sabbath (seriously, I do, what an amazingly weird rhythm section)--does that indicate a dollop of rock and roll in my mindset?

My historic interest in opiates I'd prefer to see as more of a Lenny Bruce and/or John Coltrane mindset. 

Educated I'm not--I mostly took poetry and playwriting classes in college, and conned my way through the literature courses. Actually, I've been reading a lot of those books lately--the ones I faked my way through term papers about.

Are you still writing poetry? From a writer’s perspective, what do you see as main the difference between poetry and song writing?

I wrote an epic poem for a literary magazine...last year? Reasonably recently. I don't generally write poems--I was commissioned to do that one. I'm mulling over a kind of theater piece that'll be more or less written in verse. But not in a horrible terrible awful way, as you'd think when somebody says "a theatrical piece written in verse". But who knows? Operationally, there really isn't much of a difference. Writing prose is a different gig, but poetry and songwriting, at least text-wise, aren't that dissimilar.

Your memoir, The Book of Drugs, is scheduled for release early next year. Kind of a dumb question, given the title, but what might we expect from it?

It's about drugs and music. It's sad and comical, there are few tales of glamorous debauchery, or bad-assery. Strange, wistful, and often funny in moments where it shouldn't be.

If you were to write a memoir using nothing but LPs by artists other than yourself, what would they be?

I'm really not an LP guy. I'm a song guy. As far as LPs, I like A Tribe Called Quest's The Low End Theory and Led Zeppelin IV--but just the first side. Those are maybe the only albums I listen to in their entirety. The rest I just skip around to the songs I love--always have. Recent artists I've become obsessed with, like Bon Iver, and Jose Gonzales, I've listened to the entire album repeatedly, and then selected a few individual tunes that'll become my repeat-players.

Best (or most memorable) concert-in-Denver memory?

I think it may have been at the Ogden. Very hot woman jumped onstage and tried to dance with me, but it was supremely awkward, she didn't know what to do, she kind of put her arm around me in a hey-we're-pals position. I didn't kick her offstage, but she left after a few tunes. Then, post-show, she asked me to buy her a plane ticket to wherever I was playing next. 

I met David J from Bauhaus and Love and Rockets at the Bluebird, some kind of multi-band bill, and he was effusively complimentary. Very exciting, because I spent my teen years getting high with goths.

Mike Doughty will perform live at Twist and Shout on Tuesday, November 1, 6 pm.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

I'd Love to Turn You On #42 - Minutemen – Double Nickels on the Dime

I was watching a documentary about the Minutemen on Netflix the other night (We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen) and toward the end of it a guy said Double Nickels on the Dime is “the greatest record of all time,” and I was kind of taken aback because that’s a bold, borderline ridiculous statement for any album, much less a double LP that was recorded for next to nothing over the span of a few weeks during the height of the Reagan years. But the comment stuck with me like a challenge. So I played it a few dozen times, listening closely and giving the matter a lot of thought, and I have to say I think he’s right.
My case for the greatness of the Minutemen’s third LP is based on a simple logical conclusion: If rock and roll is the art of the young, and the greatest rock records tend to be made early in artists’ careers, then the greatest example of youthful rock and roll brilliance must be, in turn, the greatest album of all time. And I can’t think of a better example of youthful rock and roll brilliance than Double Nickels. It came about as a kind of a dare. The band was in the middle of making an album when they learned that their label mates Hüsker Dü were about to release a double record. Not to be outdone, the three-man band from San Pedro, California, knuckled down and wrote 20+ new songs in a matter of days, ordered up a second disk, and wrote in the liner notes, “Take that, Hüskers!” And the songs are all fantastic. They’re short and catchy, full of energy, but weird, too -- off-kilter arrangements, and pithy, naïve and idealistic lyrics about everything from Bob Dylan and Michael Jackson to Central American politics and control-freak roommates. They’re songs that give the finger to the notion that the song is a limited art form, that you can’t really do anything new with it, because here are 40 or so numbers that are completely unlike any song that’s been written before or since. Yet they’re very much songs, not just noise or a bunch of strange sounds -- they have choruses and bridges and guitar solos, and you can dance to them and sing along.  
If I were forced to name a “sounds like,” I’d have to say Creedence Clearwater Revival, a la “Up Around the Bend.” Most of the tunes on Double Nickels are built like that: a unique, punchy riff broken up with a pounding bridge and a shoutable chorus. Indeed, the band idolized Creedence; side one even has a cover of “Don’t Look Now (It Ain’t You Or Me).” And D. Boon’s guitar work is reminiscent of Fogerty’s at times – bright and sassy. But from there the comparisons drop off. The Minutemen were a punk band, not major-label hitmakers, so they’re a lot rougher around the edges. (“We jam econo!” Boon declares in “The Politics of Time.”) But they don’t exactly sound punk, either; they’re not your prototypical one-chord, spastic-drum slam-dance band. At any given point, Double Nickels sounds funky, jazzy, folksy, bluesy, metalish, chaotic, Martian, you name it. This eclecticness is due largely to the fact that these guys could really play; bassist Mike Watt is all over the fretboard and George Hurley could hold his own with the best jazz ensembles. But even more so, it’s about attitude. In 1984, this band was utterly ignorant and/or defiant of constraint – like youth and the best of what it means to be young. 
In the documentary, Hurley says of Double Nickels, “You do things when you’re young that sometimes you look back and it’s kind of amazing. I don’t think I‘ve gotten any better.” 
I don’t think rock and roll has either. 

- Joe Miller

Friday, October 21, 2011

I'd Love To Turn You On - At The Movies #24 - Tears of the Black Tiger (2000, dir. Wisit Sasanatieng)

The longstanding tradition of American film paying homage or remaking foreign classics gets turned on its head with this Thai salute to spaghetti westerns and Technicolor-soaked love stories in Wisit Sasanatieng’s avant-garde western Tears of the Black Tiger. Employing a simple plot that is equal parts loving tribute and fun parody, Tears introduces us to Dum, known by reputation as Black Tiger for his quick reflexes and sly demeanor. Dum lives in the employ of local crime boss Fei, who also employs his best friend Mahesuan and often sends the young hood around to dispatch his boss’s enemies. While on his latest job Dum discovers that the man he is being paid to kill has recently become engaged to sweet beauty Rumpoey, who happens to have been the childhood love of our film’s hero. What’s a gun for hire with an easy trigger finger and an easier plucked heart to do?
The most delightful thing in Tears that speaks volumes to its magic is Sasanatieng’s mastery of visual style that has the familiarity of Technicolor epics past but becomes wholly its own beast. The film makes great use of giant, elaborately painted backdrops that aren’t realistic but instead create a dreamlike state that spins the world of the characters into a vibrant pastel candy land that raises its many action sequences to wild Chuck Jones-esque stature while equally creating a soft hand-painted feel that covers every frame of film.
Going back to that action and its cartoon like feel, Tears blows most homages out of the water by going full-tilt-boogie in its dispatch. Gunfights aren’t limited to pistols - machine guns and grenade launchers add to the melee of wounds that spray candy apple red blood geysers; thousands of bullets fly but miraculously never hit our heroes; and more wild bullet POV shots are used than needed but it’s an opera of overkill that keeps the film so sweet.
Lest you think that the film is all bullets and blood, fear not - Tears does a great job with the love story at its hero’s core. Dum and Rumpoey’s reintroduction and subtle dance around their childhood seduction becomes a thing of melodramatic joy. It’s loaded with luscious parting glances and wistful stares out of windows into skylines filled with the loving faces of a couple that should be together but due to their newfound lots in life, may never get the chance to see what their future could hold.
Few movies, and even fewer of them foreign titles, can succeed with a stew of pastiche from genre classics and make it so delicious like Tears of the Black Tiger does, especially given just how far the film rides the red line of over the top with so much of its style. Between the wild sets, sappy melodrama and crazy violence Tears should topple over on itself at just about every turn but instead becomes so enjoyable that you never really want it to end. By the time the closing credits roll and the final song plays out you may just be crying your own tears over this Black Tiger and find yourself hitting play one more time.

 - Keith Garcia
Denver FilmCenter Programming Manager

Monday, October 17, 2011

Fables of the Reconstruction: Real Estate

Thursday, October 13
I’m straining to not listen to the new Real Estate album. It’s been dangling out there on the Internet in its full 10-song glory for the better part of a week, and I’m dying to listen. I ordered it in late August, directly from the label, because they were offering a special two-record deal with a live recording of the same record. So I got the rush of buying but not the consummate rush of opening and listening. A week after I made the purchase, I started feeling a little lift every time I walked to the mailbox, thinking that maybe the record company might have made some kind of mistake and accidently sent it out two months ahead of schedule, or that maybe I got the release date wrong and it’s coming out today. And I check the mail everyday same as everybody else, so this little lift began to compound on itself and metastasize with the accompanying disappointment and I was positively bug-eyed by the time I got the cryptic email from that read, “A package was shipped to you.” That was three days ago. Now it’s sitting in a mail sorting facility in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Meanwhile, the Real Estate buzz machine has been heating up and making more and more noise. They’re on the cover of The Fader. Insound has videoof them jamming in studio. Some food blog has bassist Alex Bleeker talkingabout a fried chicken restaurant called Pies 'N Thighs where he worked as a busboy until very recently. And I’m going crazy, I want to listen to this album so fucking bad. I got back on Twitter after having sworn off it eight months ago, and every couple of hours I check all the band members’ feeds, and it doesn’t satisfy, only makes it worse because they’re saying things like, “May The Buzz Gods bless Real Estate on this Upcoming Album Cycle,” so I’m not only aching to get my hands on this new record, I’m desperate for these three guys from New Jersey to make it big.
Truth be told, I’ve already listened to the first single, “It’s Real,” a few dozen times since June. And I broke down a few days ago and played “Green Aisles” for about 30 seconds before I forced myself to turn it off. It sounded good, actually -- the same infectious, laid-back and dreamy pop sound as their first LP, but with far better production. Even on crappy speakers I could tell the difference. The first album was recorded in an attic, giving it that lo-fi, DIY sound that’s all over the underground these days, but the songs on it are so strong, they would still sound great if they’d been recorded on microcassette, pressed in lacquer, rubbed with sandpaper and played on a hand-cranked Victrola with a nail for a needle. When I bought it the record store clerk told me it would sound like the Grateful Dead, which of course it didn’t; nothing ever does. Except both bands seem to operate under the same laws of musical physics. Real Estate doesn’t play melody so much as suggest it, playing all around it, filling in the negative space with wisps of echoing notes and bits of loosely arranged scales. Their music is most often described as “surf pop,” which confused me at first because they don’t sound at all like the Ventures or Jan and Dean or early Beach Boys, but I paid closer attention to their lyrics and they all seem to be about the beach and dazzling summer days, and their relaxed rhythms and jangling chords feel a lot like how it feels to wander barefoot in the sand on a perfect day and sway to the sound of the waves and feel satisfied and sad that life doesn’t get any better than this.
I’ve listened to it so many times that the tunes play over and over in my head as I fall asleep at night. For months and months and months I’ve ached for more. But relief is held hostage in a warehouse 443 miles away.

Friday, October 14
When I check USPS tracking first thing in the morning it says the record is still in North Carolina. Then I get a text from my wife a little before noon saying a package has arrived. I don’t open it right away when I get home. I leave it on the bureau in the hallway while we go out to get a good bottle of wine and the makings of a nice meal. While she unpacks the groceries, I grab a knife and slice through the packing tape. “It’s a gatefold,” I say as I pull it out of the box. I lean it against my makeshift entertainment center, unopened, displayed like a work of art, and while we cook and crack open the wine and finally sit down to eat I play every Real Estate record I own – the debut LP, the Reality EP that came out in early 2009 and a handful of out-of-print singles, one of which has rough, poorly recorded versions of two songs from the LP and cost me 20 bucks.
In the story in The Fader, Martin Courtney says, “I have a lot of problems with a lot of the older Real Estate records. Especially the first one. I think it’s good, and I feel like I’m really proud of it on a certain level, but on another level I’m like, This sounds like shit.” It’s true. The EP has the hiss of a tenth-generation Dead bootleg, and while the songs have sophisticated compositions that seem to float in the room and shift shapes in the most pleasant ways, the band sounds like they’re barely up to the task of playing them. Which only makes these early releases all the more wonderful -- artifacts of the band’s rise from the Jersey suburbs to being the New York darlings of the autumn big-release season. And the more I listen, the more my anticipation for the new record grows into the most exquisite ache. One of the music blogs out there recently asked, “Can Real Estate become a top tier indie band? Do u dig the new album? Is it a lock for 'top 10' of 2k11?” I haven’t even listened yet, but I’m thinking yes, yes and yes.
When the dishes are finally done and the second glass of wine is poured, I stab my thumbnail into the plastic and split the seam. It’s a 180-gram pressing with a smooth and rounded edge. It feels heavy in my hands as I set it in place on the Dual. I run a brush across it for a couple of spins, gently lower the needle into the groove, and dim the lights.

Saturday, October 15
Midmorning and I’m still in pajamas, on my second cup of coffee, listening to Real Estate’s Days for the sixth time, grateful for every long and wonderfully miserable second of wait, confident that this is the best record of the year, by far, and hoping that this consummate rush will last and last and grow to be a classic.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Wrap up for The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart October 12th

Last night we had a real rock show here at Twist and Shout.  The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart gave us a high energy show you would expect to see at the best of venues.  There was nothing stripped down or acoustic about this in-store, it was loud and fiery.  We had 60 happy fans gather for this event and it was clear to us that we had a lot of music lovers in our store.  People left with piles of music, signed posters and big smiles.  The band was shopping here on and off throughout the day, they are clearly vinyl junkies and a great bunch of people.  Their music was a treat for our crew - a lot of us are fans and we had a blast.  All I could think was I wish more of my friends had made it out to this one, because they missed a special night here at Twist and Shout.

Fables of the Reconstruction: Ry Cooder

Ry Cooder has a new record out and it’s getting rave reviews all over the globe, just like all his other records have. To be honest, he’s an artist I didn’t understand until recently. His soundtrack for Paris, Texas has been part of my collection in one form or another since the late 80s, and his slide work on it has never failed to mesmerize me, but I have to admit I was kind of stunned when I saw him clocking in at #8 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 greatest guitar players of all time. Too much technique and not enough oomph, I thought. Too NPR-friendly. Too PC. Then I inherited a big chunk of my uncle’s record collection -- lifelong guitar player’s stack of wax, loaded with all the gods from Django to Jimi and beyond -- and in the middle of it are Ry Cooder’s first two albums, and I have to say, I think old Rolling Stone got it right.
I listen to his self-titled 1970 debut and 1972’s Into the Purple Valley constantly now. True, he’s not a scorching guitar player. He doesn’t make his axe scream, so he might not leap to mind when you’re compiling a canon of rock. His sound is so laid back it’s easy to miss the amazing fretwork behind it. But it’s there, so smooth it’s like liquid, but not so smooth that it loses its rock-and-roll slouch and punch. His maiden and sophomore LPs are my go-to records when I’m looking for the musical equivalent of a cold beer and a back rub. They’re filled almost entirely with songs Cooder unearthed from the American songbook, some of which were buried quite deep, and they’re all reworked a little bit to bring them in line with the times, but not so much that they shed their antique exoticness. Both records have a populist feel that complements and nicely contrasts Cooder’s latest, Pull Up Some Dust and Have a Seat, a wide-ranging condemnation of the corruption that has fueled the current economic crisis. They’re like hitchhiking across the country during harder times and getting a far different sense of America than you might get reading the morning paper or watching the evening news. Some of the stories are the same: from “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?” to “Taxes on the Farmer Feeds Us All,” which begins, “We worked through Spring and Winter, through Summer and through Fall, but the mortgage worked the hardest and the steadiest of us all.” But because they’re all from the point of view of the common man, they have a warmth and sense of hope about them that’s truly priceless. My two favorites are “F.D.R. in Trinidad” and Dickey Doo and the Don’ts’ “Teardrops Will Fall,” both on side one of Purple Valley -- the former because it’s such an odd take on the New Deal, an upbeat and awkwardly worded account of the president’s visit to the island nation, and the latter because it’s a peerless specimen of American roots music, a song so cozy it makes me feel warm inside every time I hear it, despite the heartbreak lyrics.
Both records end with shining examples of Cooder’s slide-guitar skills, Purple Valley with a foreboding recast of Woody Guthrie’s “Vigilante Man,” and his debut with Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark is the Night,” the song he’d later use as the thematic foundation of his Paris, Texas soundtrack. Cooder conjures the depths and complexities of human emotion with his six strings on that number with a masterfulness that’s on par with any great artist in any medium across the ages, let alone guitarists.

Monday, October 10, 2011

I'd Love to Turn You On #41 - Tom Waits – Mule Variations

In 1999, Tom Waits changed record labels for the second time in his career.  This time, he was jumping from Island, the once innovative label founded by Chris Blackwell that had since become just another major label imprint, to Anti-, a fledgling offshoot of legendary punk label Epitaph.  Anti- has since gone on to become one of the most respected and successful indie labels around and much of that success can be attributed to the work of Tom Waits, starting with what just might be his best album, Mule Variations.
The album seems to encapsulate Waits' entire career up to that point, from the experimental to the sentimental.  In fact, it plays almost like a greatest hits album comprised entirely of new material, similar in scope to the compilation Beautiful Maladies released the year before.  The variety of Mule Variations is noticeable right in the first four songs.  "Big In Japan" starts things off with funk-rock backing from Primus and sax squonks from long time collaborator Ralph Carney.  Next comes one of the album's more experimental tracks, "Lowside of the Road."  This song recalls the primitive percussion of the Bone Machine album.  It makes perfect sense, in the Tom Waits world, that the next track would be the most commercial sounding, the beautiful "Hold On."  This song also marks the first appearance of guitarist Marc Ribot, a frequent Waits collaborator and a brilliant artist in his own right.  "Get Behind the Mule" is the album's almost title track and provides the album with its heart and center.  It's a chugging bluesy number accentuated by the harmonica of the legendary Charlie Musselwhite.  Musselwhite pops up on several songs as does his blues harp contemporary John Hammond.
Throughout the album's 70 minutes and 16 songs we are introduced to the usual Waits assortment of oddball characters and the stylistic jumps continue.  Several gorgeous ballads are included and range from the elegant ("Picture in a Frame") to the heartbreaking ("Georgia Lee").  Waits employs a turntablist on a number of tracks bringing a contemporary angle to his usual rustic sensibilities.  "Filipino Box Spring Hog" has a particular hip-hop feel to it, yet is still firmly a Waits creation.  And then there's "What's He Building?," a mix of spoken word and sound effects that could well be Waits' own interpretation of how others see him.  "Come on Up to the House" is a most appropriate closer, both joyous and iconoclastic, a great sing-a-long for all the lovable freaks of the Tom Waits universe.  
Mule Variations is a wonderful creation that sums up everything great about Tom Waits.  It almost seems like putting a cap on a long and distinguished career, but fortunately Waits has continued to make the great music (he's got a new album coming out in the fall) that only he can make.
- Adam Reshotko

Friday, October 7, 2011

Several Species of Small Furry Thoughts - Furthur, Europe ’72 and an interview with David Glasser

Lots of Dead activity this month! Furthur played three sold out shows at Red Rocks last weekend and once again proved that they are the band to see when you want a hit of Dead energy. All three shows were outstanding with their own personality and highlights. The first night was made memorable by a three-song segment featuring special guest Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes, who really shone on the Pigpen obscurity “The Stranger.” The second night featured a monster second set that included most of the great late-60’s psych classics such as “Dark Star,” “St. Stephen,” “The Eleven,” “Morning Dew” and a great and timely cover of Pink Floyd’s “Eclipse.” The third night was surprisingly high energy with bone-shaking versions of “Shakedown Street,” “Help On The Way,” “Slipknot” and “Franklin’s Tower” that had the audience going nuts. It is really amazing that Phil Lesh and Bob Weir are still playing such long, satisfying shows at their ages. Things are played at a somewhat more leisurely pace, and even with John Kadlecik getting better and better, one is always aware of Jerry’s absence. His guitar and voice were so singular and his musical presence drove the band tempo-wise and spiritually. It is still a pleasure to see this band, and the things that always shine through are Bob Weir and Phil Lesh’s completely unique and awe-inspiring playing style, and the time-defying greatness of their original material. There is no bass player like Phil Lesh - he just leaves everyone else in the dust - even at the age of 70! His tone, attack and note articulation sound more like a guitar player’s and his melodic sense moves the band forward.
The big archival news in the Grateful Dead world is the unprecedented Europe ’72 - The Complete Recordings box set. Containing all 22 shows of this greatest of all Dead tours, there’s not a dud show in the bunch; in fact there are very few dud songs. The band never played tighter or more inspired than on this tour. They also never toured behind such an abundance of great new material. They were playing many the songs from Weir’s then-new Ace album, Garcia’s first solo album plus about a dozen new Grateful Dead songs (“Ramble On Rose,” He’s Gone,” “Tennessee Jed,” Mr. Charlie,” Chinatown Shuffle,” etc.) and fresh covers (“Sing Me Back Home,” “You Win Again,”) and when combining them with some of their longer, jammier songs from the past (“Dark Star,” “The Other One,” “Truckin’,” “Lovelight”) they offered up an exciting marathon show every night of the tour. To add to the special nature of the tour was the fact that they were playing many beautiful, historic concert venues on a continent that was new to the band members and rich with historic and cultural significance to their hippie sensibilities. They were also dragging around a recording truck to every venue to insure their ability to pay for the whole trip. Remarkably, the recordings are outstanding, even by modern standards. There is a full, rich warmth to the sound that just reflects the warmth on stage. The huge, deluxe “steamer trunk” box set is sold out, but there is a superb new compilation called, appropriately enough, Europe ’72 Volume 2 that is out now on Rhino Records. It is packed with great moments from the tour including memorable takes on “Playin’ In The Band,” a huge Pigpen-led “Good Lovin’,” a great early version of “Sugaree” and a “Dark Star” that goes to outer space and back in 30 minutes. It is a wonderful keepsake, and we have it on sale for only $10.99. It’s the cheapest way you’re going to get into this tour. 

Because I was so blown away by the sound of these recordings, I thought it would be cool if we could ask Boulder resident David Glasser of Air Show Mastering some questions about the process of mastering this gigantic project. A Grammy Award winner, Glasser is one of the hidden gems of the Colorado music scene. Air Show has worked on countless albums you’ve heard of and continues to be one of the premier mastering facilities in the country. The Grateful Dead are legendary for their attention to detail when it comes to the sound and packaging of their releases, so their choice of Glasser is no accident. Glasser, as usual, was generous with his time and thoughtful in his answers.
Questions for David Glasser at Airshow Mastering regarding the Mastering of The Grateful Dead’s entire Europe ’72 tour.
Briefly explain the process of mastering.
• Mastering is simply the step - the last in the creative studio process - where the final adjustments and tweaks are made. It's akin to what a colorist does in the film world - making sure that the sound matches the vision of the producer and artist, and presenting the mixes in the best possible light. Usually that involves adjusting the song levels and overall level of the disc and using tools like EQ and compression to shape the sound (does it need to be brighter? punchier? less muddy? etc).
How is mastering an archival recording different than mastering a new, technically modern recording?
• Often archival recordings already exist in an aesthetic context that listeners are familiar with. This was certainly the case with the Europe 72 project. The 1972 LP is an iconic album - both the songs, and the sound. There are also several other official releases of E72 material, plus audience and soundboard tapes that have circulated for decades. So before starting I gathered together the original Europe 72, Steppin' Out, and Rockin' the Rhein, plus the first show that was mixed for this project. To my horror and dismay, they all sounded quite different! Jeffrey Norman and I discussed this at length and we agreed that the approach to this release was a "live-r," less "polished" presentation. We wanted to showcase the Dead as they sounded onstage at these shows. 
What is unique about mastering The Grateful Dead as opposed to other bands?
• Probably the fact that often they don't function as a typical rhythm section + soloists and singers like much popular music does. At any time, any one of the players could be driving the music, and it's constantly shifting. Phil's bass is another lead instrument along with the two guitarists. As a result, the music is often more dynamic. More like a jazz band - think Bitches Brew by Miles Davis. The goal is to mix and master so you can "see" into the music.
Describe your history with the recordings of The Grateful Dead. What was your first job mastering their recordings?
• My first Grateful Dead project was mastering the DVD release of The Grateful Dead Movie. Jeffrey Norman was looking for a place to master his surround mixes; "Dr." Don Pearson introduced us after visiting the studio with acoustician Sam Berkow. The Grateful Dead Movie was a huge project. I think there were 12 hours of music when you added up the stereo mix, the bonus material and the two surround versions. It took us two long weeks. After that Jeffrey returned with the Truckin' Up To Buffalo and the Rockin' The Cradle DVDs. There have been several others, for which I am forever grateful, pun intended. I've been listening to the Dead, and attending shows, since 1970.
Describe the process of working with The Grateful Dead organization. Who do you work with? How exacting are they? Does the record label (Rhino) get involved on your end at all?
• Working with the Grateful Dead's production team is an absolute pleasure. I wish all of my clients were this easy to work with. My contacts are Producer/Archivist David Lemieux and engineer Jeffrey Norman. Everyone has very high and exacting standards, but nobody is breathing down each other’s throat. The communication is very open. I think everyone really respects the creative process and everyone's contribution. Rhino is definitely involved in the tail end of my mastering work, as that's where we send the final masters.
Were there specific challenges involved with a project this large? 
• The challenges were chiefly organizational - how to keep track of so much material and insure quality and constancy from beginning to end.  We modified our in-house database for more efficient searching within the E72 project, and we designed a workflow that covered every aspect of our involvement with the project: from receiving Jeffrey's mixes, to naming files, to cross checking show-to-show, to sending references for approval, and creating the final masters for Rhino.
Did each show have a unique personality to you?
• Absolutely! The shows in the great concert halls like the Concertgebouw and Paris' Olympia Theater have a very open warm sound and I think the players were hearing the nice acoustics and hearing each other very well; it's reflected in the playing. The halls definitely influenced the playing. The Bickershaw show, which was an outdoor festival, sounds much different - the musicians are reacting to the cold weather and perhaps playing more deliberately. But the results are great - the “Dark Star/Other One” sequence was a standout, and is included in the Europe ‘72 Volume 2 release.
How about the individual personalities of the musicians in the band? 
• It's cool how the band can transform itself from song to song. When Pigpen steps out front, his blues and R & B attitude can change the whole vibe. And Bobby's country songs really inspire Garcia's Don Rich-style picking.
Did you gain a greater appreciation for, or did you have any revelations about the individual talents in the band?
• One of the cool things about listening to multiple versions of the same songs is that the personalities do come across. You can hear that Garcia is constantly exploring ways to express a solo, and his solos during this era are really well constructed, and they usually have a well-formed arc to them. As I worked on each show, I always referenced other versions of several songs to make sure the sound was consistent (or appropriately consistent). It's clear that the Dead were very well rehearsed, and the performances and even some of the solos of the first set type of songs were often identical over several nights. As the tour progressed, you can hear them refining arrangements. Bob Weir's playing is especially impressive. I think many people think his distinctive leads were played by Garcia - I know I used to!
Did you learn anything about what makes the Grateful Dead unique in the world of Rock from this project?
• I think we've all long appreciated that the Grateful Dead cut a wide swath through the landscape of American music. It sounds utterly natural to hear them go from a Marty Robbins cowboy song to a Bobby Blue Bland rave-up, to a jam Coltrane would admire, to a gorgeous Merle Haggard ballad, and end on Chuck Berry. What other band can do this?
Do you think the fact that the band was playing in small, largely opera-worthy venues on that tour made a difference in the way the band played and the way the recordings ultimately came out?
• I was fortunate to have seen the Dead in December 1971 in a concert hall setting, and in March 1972 in a mid-size theater (on my birthday!). I've always thought those kind of halls were the perfect size for this kind of music - large enough to get the energy flowing, and small enough for the band to play off the vibe of the hall and the crowd. I think that the Europe 72 recordings are a confirmation of this (though the larger gigs like Bickershaw really kick-ass).
Can you point to a couple of musical highlights of the tour? Where would you send a novice? Where would you send a hard-core fan?
• I think that David Lemieux did a great job in choosing the songs for the Europe ‘72 Volume 2 set. That and the original Europe ‘72 are a good starting point. Outside of those, I especially like “Dark Star” from the second Copenhagen show; “Two Souls in Communion” from Amsterdam, anything from the two Paris shows, and the first and last Lyceum shows. The Beat Club TV broadcast is also pretty cool, and the Aarhus concert, in a tiny 300 seat room has a nice intimate feel that you don't often hear.

-Paul Epstein

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

I'd Love To Turn You On - At The Movies #23 - Fast Cheap & Out of Control (1997, dir. Errol Morris)

Errol Morris mostly makes documentaries. But like any good documentary filmmaker he’s still telling a story, just using true parts instead of things he made up. Morris has been responsible for some of the most interesting and thought provoking docs of our time – not just political bludgeons like what passes for a documentary in the wake of Michael Moore’s films, but docs designed as films first, tell
ing their unique stories and letting the viewer think about the topics brought up in the process. He’s covered subjects as diverse as pet cemeteries and the meanings of them for the pet owners, a convicted murderer whose case left a lot of gray area (so much so that the ruling was later overturned and the man freed based largely on compelling evidence and a confession brought forth in Morris’s film), physicist/cosmologist Stephen Hawking, former secretary of defense Robert S. McNamara, and others. What unites his films is not a set of ideas he keeps going to, but a process of discovery. A question is posed early on – Why are pet cemeteries important to these people? Is there really enough evidence on hand to put this man to death? What drives Stephen Hawking? Is McNamara really the architect of the Vietnam War that he’s portrayed to be? – and then he asks a lot of questions around the topic, rather than going in to find a preconceived conclusion.
When many people have approached Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, it’s with a measure of confusion. Here we have four different people doing four totally unrelated jobs. Morris takes his usual thorough approach to digging into their work and what drives them, but keeps cutting in between them, not offering obvious signifiers of why the four are put together in the same film. It’s referred to throughout the IMDB reviews with a slew of words trying to say without saying outright that it’s an odd film, referring to the “unconventional” structure, the cast of “misfits,” it being “about the thin line between genius and madness,” or using adjectives like “unusual,” “quirky,” “arbitrary,” “disjointed,” when they don’t just come right out and say that it’s weird. I think a lot of what’s hard to get a handle on is that the film is not merely trying to present a simple story of different four peop
le here. In fact, it’s probably the subtlest and most entertaining examination of the philosophical treatise of what it means to be human ever put on film. I know that’s reaching pretty far, especially when the material you’re using to make that leap is examining the careers of four eccentrics, all of whom study behaviors to varying ends. In the film we meet Dale Hoover, the
Lion Trainer, George Mendonça, the Topiary Gardener, Ray Mendez, the Mole-rat Specialist (and former entomologist), and Rodney Brooks, the Robot Scientist, and each of them spends a roughly equal amount of time telling us about their work and their thoughts about it.

The way they’re edited together in the film – which is a mixture of film, video, cartoons, mediocre serial films from the 40’s, TV shows, and comic book images – one talks for a little, then another talks for a little, each advancing their own story bit by bit in a non-linear progression. Sometimes these interviews are laid over images of a different interviewee’s work, sometimes over their own. And bit by bit, their interviews start to connect ideas, which makes the juxtapositions that at first seem so odd – one recurring set of shots under varied narrations is of the audiences at the Lion Trainer’s circus – start to make sense. While the Mole-Rat Specialist, who has devoted himself to studying the behaviors of the insect-like communities of one particular mammal, theorizes not about his beloved subterranean rats, but the spectators who see displays of his work at zoos: "They're looking to find a common ground... they're constantly trying to find themselves in another social animal” and the Robot Scientist says of his job that he is "Understanding life by building something that is life-like" the Lion Trainer and the Topiary Gardener live in the thick of the natural and social organizations that the other two theorize about, but unknowingly reaffirm their ideas with unprompted lines like "They're all different though. They're like people” and "You can't control them any more" - referring to wild animals and plants, respectively. As the film moves on, it keeps drawing lines that are then unwittingly picked up from another one of our narrators – the Robot Scientist studies behaviors and thought processes and speculates about the differences between man and machine; the Mole-rat Specialist works in areas about the social organization of a “hive” of the small mammals and extrapolates those ideas to human social organizations; the Lion Trainer constantly anthropomorphizes his big cats and other animals, giving insight into the behaviors of some mammals higher up the evolutionary ladder; and the Topiary Gardener brings it all back to the earth, opining that with his plants – or here you could substitute any life – "It's a touchy situation. You're fighting the elements... It's a constant battle all the time." Parallels are constantly drawn between the human, animal, and plant kingdoms – as when we see humans walking on balls after seeing bears do the same earlier – and the urge of man to tame nature crops up over and over.

I like to think of the film as an examination of order vs. chaos in four parts. The brilliance of how Morris overlays his interviews and images deepens the relations between those parts and shows his mastery of the medium, finding philosophy in the most unlikely quarters and asking a lot of questions without going in to find a pre-formed answer – just letting the questions themselves make for the meat of the film, and inspire new questions in turn. And drawing things up to a completely untidy closing, our Topiary Gardener offers this final line of the film: "As long as I live,
I'll take care of it. I don't know what'll happen after that." He’s in for the haul of life, and who knows what happens after that? That’s a question for another film.
- Patrick Brown