Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Bad Weather California Record Release Party

Last Saturday night, local heroes Bad Weather California took to the stage at the Hi-Dive to celebrate the release of their brand new album Sunkissed.  The evening opened with comedy courtesy of the Fine Gentlemen's Club, followed by some fine indie-pop from the youngsters in Sauna.  Nigh of Joy were up next and played a great set - definitely a band to watch on the Denver scene.  But the night belonged to the headliners and BWC did not disappoint.  Opening like so many BWC shows with "Let It Shine," the band managed their unique combination of being energetic while also relaxed and jammy.  On this tune and several others the band was joined by saxophonist Andy Wild.  As good as they are on their own, the addition of Wild's wild sax always brings the music up a notch.  The lead single "I'll Reach Out My Hand" had guitarist Adam Baumeister sitting down on pedal steel, always a nice sound.  Joe Sampson and Logan Corcoran are an always solid and innovative rhythm section, but the stage truly belongs to frontman Chris Adolph.  He is totally in his element leading the crowd in sing-a-longs and driving the band through the twists and turns of his songs.

BWC just got back from a highly successful east coast tour with their friends and mentors in Akron/Family.  They'll soon be heading out on a west coast tour, but if you can't wait to see them again here in Denver, then definitely pick up their new album Sunkissed.  Produced by Akron/Family's Seth Olinsky and the debut release on A/F's new Family Tree label, Sunkissed manages the rare feat of capturing a strong live band in the studio with all their strengths intact.  "Let It Shine" appears in a different arrangement yet is still the standout track.  "I Feel Like Dancing" and "You're My Friend" also compare favorably to their live performances.  And then there are the two short and fast numbers, "Skate or Try" and "Freaks and Geeks," to remind you of their punk rock roots.  Big things are happening for Bad Weather California so be sure to pick up their album and catch them live whenever you can.

Adam R.

Monday, February 27, 2012

I'd Love To Turn You On #51 - Matthew Sweet 100% Fun

        When Matthew Sweet's name is mentioned most people cite the 1991 album Girlfriend as his definitive statement. While Girlfriend has some outstanding songs in "I've Been Waiting," "Evangeline," and the breakthrough title track, what doesn't get mentioned is its overlong and underwhelming second half. In retrospect Sweet was still searching with Girlfriend and though there were some hits, his 1995 release100% Fun is a more consistent record and easily stands as his best. 

The album opens strongly with "Sick of Myself," "Not When I Need It," and "We're The Same." Taking cues from the Beach Boys and Big Star, Sweet deftly weaves heart-on-sleeve melancholia with sublime vocal and guitar lines. After a slight dip in the action on the next three tracks, "Come To Love" marks the beginning of a stellar second half, the pinnacle of which is the unlikely ballad "I Almost Forgot." From the opening cry of the pedal steel "I Almost Forgot" strips bare the underlying longing throughout all of Sweet's career. Its poignancy is arresting but not unexpected considering Sweet's lyrical preoccupations. From here the album closes solidly with guitar freakout "Super Baby," comforting "Get Older" and the towering ballad "Smog Moon."
Sweet's all-star cast of players is in full form on the record, most notably lead guitarists Robert Quine (co-founder of Richard Hell & The Voidoids and Lou Reed's lead guitarist on The Blue Mask) and Richard Lloyd of Television. Their razor sharp and chaotically unbridled solos prove the perfect foil to Sweet's sugary sensibilities. 

90s rock presented a hefty amount of grit, from the slacker atonality of Pavement to the sonic assault of Jesus Lizard, but a large part of the decade's rock music was steeped in pop. From The Lemondheads to Weezer to *cough* The Gin Blossoms, pop melodies were king. As a document, 100% Fun exemplifies some of the best intelligent pop the decade had to offer and deserves a listen, if only to reveal its superiority to Girlfriend

--- Paul Custer ---

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Several Species of Reconstruction: Hard Rain

Memories of a Wet Day - May 23, 1976

Thirty-six years ago, let’s see that would have made me 17 years old - a junior at Thomas Jefferson High School in Denver. I heard on the radio (KFML? KAZY? KBCO?) that something called the Rolling Thunder Review which featured Bob Dylan would be playing at Hughes Stadium in Fort Collins. Weird. Why Fort Collins? Why was Dylan playing with other people? One has to remember that in 1976, there was no internet, no instant access to information; making a long-distance call was a big, expensive deal and the next issue of Rolling Stone might be two months away from your local store. Yes, there was still some mystery and searching left in the world. It made experiences much fuller when you didn’t know what to expect. Somehow my best friend Joel Berk and I talked our parents into letting us go. It was a Sunday, and we had school (not just school, but finals) the next day. Unbelievably, Joel’s parents gave us the use of their Cadillac (Joel’s dad was a doctor) to set out on the adventure of our lives. Part of the selling point to my parents was that the show started at noon, and thus would have to be over by nightfall - so we would be home at a reasonable hour.
The day arrived and we set off at about 8:00 a.m. not knowing how long it would take us to get to Fort Collins. About an hour and a half later we pulled into Fort Collins, which in 1976 was a pretty sleepy, rural college town. It was Boulder’s hayseed cousin. Kinda dumb, kinda bucktoothed, but beautiful and alluring just the same. We drove around aimlessly for a while until we found a sign pointing to Hughes Stadium. Have I mentioned the weather yet? Completely cloudy! But in that very threatening high-altitude, not gray but green way. We sort of knew we were in for something. We got to the stadium at about 10:00 a.m. and were allowed in with very little security and no lines. Hughes Stadium was pretty small and plain compared to Mile High Stadium or Folsom Field. It was now sprinkling a light rain as we headed onto the field, which was already starting to turn muddy. We decided we would go to the sloping grassy area at the back of the field, looking straight at the stage. We hunkered down while it steadily rained… harder and harder. Around 11:00 the sound system burst to life with The Beatles. Some genius took pity on us and put on the Red Album (1962-1966). I can’t adequately describe how wonderful this was. Up until this point there were maybe a thousand or two people in the stadium, wondering what the hell they were doing there, standing in the rain. Now we had a purpose, a reason to live! God bless The Beatles. People started streaming in and in the next hour or so the stadium filled up with 1976-style Colorado hippies. It wasn’t full, but by 12:30 there must have been at least ten thousand people in the rain.
The stage was obscured by a white canvas curtain festooned with Dylan paintings (which we didn’t know at the time, they just seemed like funny, whimsical, childlike drawings). Suddenly, the Beatles stopped and the curtain rose to a group of bandana wearing musicians. I honestly don’t remember the exact order that things happened, but I do clearly remember that for the next 5 or 6 hours there was a (in my memory) non-stop parade of people on stage. I distinctly remember Kinky Friedman’s set early in the afternoon being outrageously funny and naughty, and the band played a weird, loping countrified rock and roll that would lurch with woozy, ragged harmonies. T-Bone Burnett and Bobby Neuwirth were clearly at the helm, but Mick Ronson’s wild lead guitar took center stage weaving in and out of pedal steel by David Mansfield and Rob Stoner’s overwhelming bass playing. Perhaps the most alluring figure was Scarlet Rivera in a colorful headscarf sawing out these totally memorable violin lines. The band ran through lots of songs with someone different taking lead vocal each time. Ramblin’ Jack Elliot made an appearance and I remember Allen Ginsberg addressing the crowd at some point, but my memory comes into far clearer focus when Dylan finally strolled on stage with a white Arab headscarf on.
The rain hadn’t stopped - not for one second - and the crowd looked like drowned rats. Dylan had an acoustic guitar on and he played a perfect, solo version of “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Honestly, I could have gone home right then. It was exactly what I wanted from Dylan. I had seen him with The Band in ’74 and it was great, but it was oddly unemotional. I found it hard to connect to the songs. Maybe it was just me, but this, this was IT: Dylan, alone onstage in the rain, playing one of his greatest songs to a bunch of drowned rats. He followed with another solo acoustic performance, “It Ain’t Me Babe,” again letter perfect. Then, responding to someone in the crowd he said “What rain? Fuck the rain” as the rest of the band joined him onstage for a song I didn’t know about “one of our heroes.” The song was “(Where Did) Vincent Van Gogh.” The band was playing that drunken country punk again, except this time they were backing Dylan on an outrageous, wailing version of “Maggie’s Farm.” It kept going, building in intensity as the rain poured and the afternoon wore on. The set reached an amazing highlight when Dylan delivered a devastating, almost proto-metal version of his mysterious love song “Isis.” The band leaves the stage, and out walks Joan Baez, who completely blows everyone’s mind by joining Dylan for a near-perfect rendition of “Blowin’ in The Wind.” Is this real? Is that Bob and Joan onstage together after all these years, cheek to cheek singing “Blowin’” and strumming their acoustic guitars in unison. Yes, and now they are playing the old folk song “Railroad Boy.” The band is back with them and they are just ripping through songs I barely recognize. Some of the old stuff was done with acoustic reverence, but the electric stuff is crackling with energy and totally rearranged. “Shelter From The Storm” has become a total barnstormer, and “Oh Sister” hits like a sledgehammer. Dylan departs the stage.
It is probably about 2 or 3 in the afternoon and the clouds are going nowhere - it is still raining like hell. There is a short break, and the music starts up again. The band is playing more songs I don’t know, and for a while they back Joan for a short set that really got the crowd going. I think she played “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and, surprisingly, her bittersweet love song to Dylan “Diamonds and Rust.” The curtain comes down and there is another short break. The curtain rises again and Dylan is again alone on stage. He plays “I Want You” and it stands in my memory as one of my favorite songs of the day. More wildly imagined band arrangements follow; “Tangled Up In Blue,” “You’re A Big Girl Now,” “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” is made a high-spirited country duet with Joan. Somewhere in there, Roger McGuinn takes center stage and provides another highlight of the day, playing his menacing “Cardiff Rose” and miraculously making the rain stop for a couple of minutes during his Byrds classic “Chestnut Mare.” Dylan returns and the light is getting dim. Night approaches and the audience is soaked and exhausted. The band cranks into what is to be the final stretch of the show. “Lay Lady Lay” is completely reformed into a screaming rocker. It was always one of my least favorite Dylan songs, but this arrangement made it more interesting to me. As the temperature drops, Joel and I decide to get up close to the stage for the finale of the show. The band plays a completely ominous obscurity from Planet Waves, “Going Going Gone” and then lurches into “Idiot Wind” which is delivered with such force and venom towards his soon to be ex-wife Sara (who it turns out was backstage with his mother and kids to surprise him for his birthday) that it was downright scary. Dylan is ferocious - he seems like a man possessed as he screams out the lyrics. As the show climaxes Dylan leads the band through “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” letting McGuinn take a verse. The band leaves the stage and the curtain falls once again. It rises on the obvious encore “A Hard-Rain’s-A-Gonna-Fall” which had the audience singing along in miserable solidarity. And then, it was over. We were left in the stadium klieg lights with our breath forming clouds in the air. We looked at each other and realized we had hardly spoken for the last 5 hours. We had been baptized by rock and roll - in a very real sense.
My throat hurt and the drive back seemed like it took forever. I was numb for the next few days. I got a C on a really important final. We really didn’t know what to make of our experience. In a very real way, this was my Woodstock, or whatever thing it is that acts as the turning point in your life. I knew after that experience that I could hang with the big boys in the concert world. If you made it through this show, you could make it through anything. This concert has never left me. The fact that Dylan released part of it as the live document of the tour (the album and TV special Hard Rain) kept it in front of me. I later sought out recordings of every show I could find of The Rolling Thunder Review, and it has become something of an obsession. The show still stands as my favorite concert experience. The adversity of the rain, the innocence of my expectations, and the gigantic reality of the show itself truly make it the stuff of legend. It was not a typical Dylan show for the time though. The songs, the arrangements, the weird, druggy energy made this such an anomaly at that point of Dylan’s career. I thought it was magic, but I often wonder how someone who wasn’t there would have heard it.

I’ve listened to Hard Rain more than any other Bob Dylan record – by far. In fact, I’ve listened to it more than almost any other record, period. I’ll even go so far as to say it’s my all-time favorite live album, above even the Stones’ Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! and the Dead’s Europe ’72. It’s that good, and it rocks my soul every time.
            I should probably qualify my statements. I love Dylan, but I’m not a fanatic, at least not yet. I have nine of his records in my collection, more than I have by most other artists. But considering that he’s released 70 or so, and that there are hundreds, maybe even thousands of bootlegs on top of that, my Dylan cache is hardly definitive. Most of my nine albums are iconic works from the 60s – The Times They Are a’Changin, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding. I’m trepidatious about exploring his later works because there are so many and they’re so wide ranging. Choosing one feels a little too much like gambling; I’m still such a Dylan neophyte that when I buy a Dylan record I want it to sound like DYLAN, the paragon of the 60s. So it’s kind of funny that the Dylan record I most love is one that shatters the Dylan mold, and one that was panned by critics.
Hard Rain is a real scorcher of a rock record. It’s not hard rock per se, though the guitars are loud and grungy and the drums are fast furious at times. It’s got a raw, lost-in-the-70s rock-and-roll feel to it that demands high-volume listening. It’s full of emotion and energy, most of which emanates from Dylan’s voice: he really belts it out. Quieter standards like “Lay Lady Lay,” “One Too Many Mornings” and “I Threw It All Away” become anguished cries, while more up-tempo numbers like “Maggie’s Farm” and “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” are played at near-punk speeds, with Dylan bellowing every line at full blast. It’s like he’s pissed off, but not so pissed that he can’t find the beauty of the melody and the nuance of sentiment in the words. Likewise, his band seems to be playing with reckless abandon, like garage buddies who are deep into their second case of beer. But here too everyone’s hitting all the notes they need to hit in order to not only maintain the songs’ integrity but to squeeze from them a deeper meaning than can be found in their original versions. And there are moments on the record when the band’s ruckus and Dylan’s blaring vocals reach such heights that they have no option but to collapse in on one another, fall to silence, and pick up the song again. Like in “You’re a Big Girl Now,” when he wails, “I'm going out of my mind, with a pain that stops and starts, like a corkscrew to my heart!” and pauses for a long moment before muttering, “Ever since we've been apart.” And “Oh Sister,” when his voice escalates through, “We grew up together, from the cradle to the grave,” until he’s practically screaming when he sings, “We died and were reborn, and then mysteriously saved!” And the band stops, a guitar breaks the silence, the drums and bass join in, and Dylan begins again with his heartbreaking poetry: “Oh sister when I come to knock on your door, don't turn away you'll create sorrow. Time is an ocean but it ends at the shore. You may not see me tomorrow.”
Hard Rain is full of solar-plexus-socking moments like that, and it begs to be heard and felt again and again. True, it doesn’t fit the archetype that critics and connoisseurs have conjured around Dylan. But damn, it’s kick ass rock and roll.

- Paul Epstein / Joe Miller

Monday, February 20, 2012

I'd Love To Turn You On - At The Movies #33 - Chocolate (2008, dir. Prachya Pinkaew)

Let me tell those of you who aren’t already fans a secret about martial arts films – the appeal does not really lie in the stories, which is what a lot of people (often rightly) key in on as arbitrary, or even silly, it’s in the choreography. It’s in the way the filmmakers use the camera to frame and track the movement of the performers, in a manner not unlike the best movie musicals. The plot itself is primarily a reason to maneuver the characters into place – not that it’s without any merit, but in typical action film form it’s there mainly to move us from action set piece to set piece. And these set pieces are cinema worth seeing for anyone interested in watching the sort of choreography of movement of actors and camera that I mention above.
For starters, let’s talk about the plot and get that out of the way. It centers on a woman, Zin (Ammara Siripong) who used to be involved with the criminal underworld of Bangkok, hanging around a gangster, No. 8 (Pongpat Wachirabunjong) who becomes jealous of her when she leaves him to become romantically involved with a Japanese gangster, Masashi (Hiroshi Abe). No. 8 orders the two to separate and never see each other again, Masashi returning to Japan, Zin banished to a poor neighborhood with her autistic daughter Zen (JeeJa Yanin). When Zin tries to contact Masashi, No.8 punishes her for her transgression, which fixes him as an enemy in her daughter’s mind. Flash forward to Zen as an older girl, watching the martial arts studio next door (plus an endless succession of kung fu films) and absorbing and imitating their work. Flash forward again to Zen as a teenager, with her mother now poor, sick, in a hospital and in need of serious professional care and medicine but unable to pay. Enter Zen’s friend Moom (Taphon Phopwandee), who uses her martial arts skills to busk and make money in front of crowds until he happens upon a book listing Zin’s gangster debts that she’s unwilling to collect on her own. We’re now about a half hour into the film, with a small taste of Zen’s martial arts prowess having been displayed, and the remaining hour-plus is largely dedicated to the tightly choreographed fighting that is the real reason to watch the film.
Zen and Moom go to collect from old gangsters to pay for Zin’s medical bills, with Zen’s autistic singularity of mind focused only on getting the money to help her mom. And when she enters a lair of criminals in an ice factory, a direct homage to Bruce Lee in The Big Boss (AKA Fists of Fury), we know from having seen Zen’s skills who’s going to come out on top, no matter how the odds are stacked. But it’s the movement, the physical prowess, the manipulation of props on the set, and, oh yes, the humor, can’t forget the humor, that makes the scene more than just a quick fight scene or a Lee rip-off. It’s elevated by these elements and one more beyond. Not only is the purely physical grace of actress JeeJa Yanin something wonderful to watch (and it’s time here for a special nod to stunt coordinator Panna Rittikrai who helped create all the fight scenes with director and actors), but it’s also worth noting that where many martial arts films use wires or computer graphics to make their actors fly and make impossible stunts happen on screen, here there are no wires and no CGI effects, so when Yanin leaps over a hallway and lands in a splits on top of a row of lockers, it’s something she’s actually done, and for me a scene like this is as entertaining and impressive as synchronized movements of Gene Kelly with Cyd Charisse or Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It’s also hugely entertaining to watch her acting performance, a twitchy combination of Bruce Lee as Rain Man, constantly absorbing new information, new fighting styles and incorporating them into her repertoire in which she’s always making unexpected moves, kicking where a punch is expected, falling back when she’s moving forward. And here it’s time to give a nod to director Prachya Pinkaew (director of the equally enjoyable Ong-Bak). One of his best tricks in the film is to show only enough to make you think a sequence is hitting a dead end, only to whiz the camera back to reveal a new space that expands the area for the movement to take place, thus extending the opportunities for the more of Yanin’s movements, or for a new set of gags that he, Yanin, and Rittikrai have in store.
And back to the plot – Zen collects money in a few terrific fight scenes, but starts to get noticed by the mob, who make their moves. There’s a pause for some plot development to get the characters in place for the inevitable final showdown, a spectacular and constantly changing battle that occupies approximately the last thirty minutes of the film. It should be noted, incidentally, that the fight scenes are of increasing levels of violence, for those who are sensitive to such things. For those who can simply tune in on the remarkable movement not just of our lead actress, but of the challengers who have to coordinate their often painful-looking falls around her punches and kicks, those who can enjoy the incredible craft that goes into telling this story that could be a fairly generic revenge fantasy if it didn’t have such unique touches, this is one of the best films of its type in the last decade. Enjoy.
- Patrick Brown

Friday, February 17, 2012

Fables of the Reconstruction: Harry Nilsson

Harry Nilsson made me weird. He got to me at a very young age and scrambled my little brains with his lovely, twisted songs. It started with Nilsson Schmilsson. I was three years old when that record came out, and my parents owned a copy. I loved “Coconut” because it’s so silly. It goes: “She put de lime in de coconut, she drink 'em bot' up” over and over, with an ever widening cast of funny voices chiming in. By the end I’d always be a giggling mess on the floor. The song seemed even funnier knowing that it came from the guy on the cover of the album, dressed in a bathrobe, his bed hair going every which way. I liked the other songs, too; Nilsson’s melodies were irresistible to my kiddie ears, and even then I could appreciate the beauty of his voice, especially on the slower tunes like “Moonbeam Song” and “Without You,” which was constantly on the radio back then. I remember my stepdad singing “Gotta Get Up” to me when I was slow to move in the morning. It’s a record that captures a sweet, happy and innocent moment in my life.
My weirdification came a year or so later, when my parents bought me Nilsson’s follow-up to his blockbuster, Son of Schmilsson, along with my first record player, which was shaped like a ladybug. To this day I have no idea why they got it for me. I’ve even gone so far as to ask my mom, and she can’t recall, can’t even remember the record itself. Whatever the reason, they bought a decidedly adult album and gave it to a four-year-old. Side one begins with an anguished cry to a groupie (“I sang my balls off for you baby!”) and ends with a bitter break-up song (“You’re breaking my heart, you’re tearing it apart, so fuck you!”). In between there’s a visitation by a ghost, a lovely song about memories, a country spoof and a meta love song that implores the person it’s written for to listen to it on the radio, all of which completely fucked with my head. At that age, I had only the simplest, most straightforward understanding of the world. I had no concept of irony or sarcasm or parody. So when I heard Nilsson sing “turn on your record player, listen to my song,” I took it at face value and I felt confused: How can the person turn on the record player if it’s already on? Or if it’s not already on, how would they know to turn it on, since they wouldn’t be able to turn on the song? It sounds simple now, but this was a serious puzzle to me at the time. And that’s a relatively uncomplicated passage on the album. Consider being four and hearing this:

Now, if you haven't got an answer, you'd never have a question
And if you never had a question, then you'd never have a problem
But if you never had a problem, well everyone would be happy
But if everyone was happy, there'd never be a love song

Allmusic calls it “an incredibly schizoid album … just about the weirdest record to reach number 12 and go gold.” Musically, it’s all over the place, from hard-edged rock to the softest love songs to country to a full-orchestra ode to “the most beautiful world in the world” to a choir of old people singing “I’d rather be dead than wet my bed.” Midway through side two, Nilsson sings the beginning of one of the pretty songs from side one and then belches loudly and the band breaks into a hot rock riff and there’s the sound of applause. I had no idea how records were made, so I thought there was an audience that had been quiet through the recording of all the other songs, but when the band started rocking out, they simply couldn’t contain themselves. And at this ignorant, highly impressive age, I listened to the record continuously. I studied it, learned from it, mutated with it. Some of the lessons weren’t contained in the record’s grooves. Like when I was cranking the “you’re breaking my heart so fuck you” song, my stepdad barged into my room and angrily told me to turn it off. Hurt, I said, “But you bought it for me. And you and mom cuss at each other all the time.” - and thus an early introduction to grown-up hypocrisy.
Over the years, I let Son of Schmilsson drift away, and I all but forgot about it as I continued along the weird trajectory it sent me on. But luckily I remembered it when I decided to get a record player, and I resolved to make it the first record in my reconstructed collection. I found a used copy for four bucks. It holds up well after all these years. True, it’s schizoid, but it’s all tied together by Nilsson’s voice, easily one of the best white singers of all time, and by the amazing musicianship and solid production. Some of the best session players in the business helped make the record – Bobby Keys, Nicky Hopkins, Lowell George, Peter Frampton. And Nilsson’s song writing is top-notch, if incredibly odd. I’ve watched the Harry Nilsson documentary and I’ve heard all his friends talk about how Son of Schmilsson was a let-down after Nilsson Schmilsson, which everyone seems to think is his best. Son was the beginning of the end for him, they say, a crazy dive off of the peak of his career. In terms of popularity and Grammies, that’s probably true. But is that really what rock and roll’s about? Not for me. My rock life has been about flipping the bird and belching at normalcy. Nilsson taught me that.

Monday, February 13, 2012

I'd Love To Turn You On #50 - Gong – Camembert Electrique

People seem to forget that the 60s and early 70s were not all peace and love - this was the height of the Angry Brigade and Baader-Meinhof gangs and the Anti-Vietnam movement after all, and in their early days, Gong embody this spirit of the confrontational hippy. The band was formed during the Paris riots in '68, and by the time this album was recorded that militant communistic ethos still hung heavy in the air. So, despite the reputation of this band in the post-punk era, there is little about this album that is airy-fairy or wishy-washy.
In those days, Gong belonged to a scene of like minded bands such as The Deviants, The Pink Fairies and Hawkwind - all commune living freaks who produced crazed music not totally unlike punk and post-punk in the later 70s. However, Gong have another dimension which separates them from these bands - the ability to play intricate, tricky arrangements with a playful sense of fun. Unlike many other Anarcho-rock bands of the early 70s, Gong also had the most fabulous hooks and even the odd delightful melody. This is why I am writing about this particular album, and not say, an album by another great Space Rock group - Amon Duul II or Ash Ra Tempel. There is even, among the heavier cuts, a certifiable pop song in “Tried So Hard.”
Daevid Allen and Gilli Smyth - the two vocalists in Gong - are both unconventional. Daevid goofily spouts all manner of beatnik weirdness in a stoned stream of consciousness while Gilli adds a layer of space whispers, half sinister, half erotic. The rest of the band is made up of misfits who often took names from the Allen-created Gong mythology: Didier Malherbe (AKA Bloomdido Bad de Grass – sax), Christian Tritsch (AKA The Submarine Captain – bass) and Pip Pyle (drums). Daevid and Gilli became Bert Camembert and Shakti Yoni respectively.
Musically, Camembert is all over the place; an eclectic mix of acid rock, jazzy riffs, trance-like space jams and some good old silliness - all thrown at you in a wild sonic barrage. The album begins with a sound montage (the first of several dotted throughout the album) and then kicks into Allen's protest anthem “You Can't Kill Me.” An iconic track in the space-rock canon, it's a kaleidoscope of mad sax and drums, vicious wah-wah guitar and fuzz bass. Gilli's flaky vocals accompany Daevid at his most defiant. Brilliant stuff.
After that is a hymn of sorts “I've Bin Stone Before”; quirky but oddly touching, followed by the hilarious riff roller coaster “Mister Long Shanks” - all tremendous. Side one ends on a high with the medley “Dynamite: I Am Your Animal” which opens with an aggressively dissonant prog riff and monstrous Pink Floyd-ish spacey guitar - this is 70s rock at its best. This gives way to the most gorgeous moment on the LP, with Gilli's serene and sensual vocalisings proving she was the equal of Annette Peacock or Yoko Ono as far as idiosyncratic female singers goes. Side two doesn't disappoint, with a pair of space-rock epics as monolithic bookends. These aren't pointless acid ramblings though. Monster bass riffs and Allen's signature “glissando” guitar are to the fore - this is thrilling stuff. In between all that are moments of beauty, baffling weirdness and pure pop confection. Something for (almost) everyone!
Welcome to the world of Gong - it's a much nicer place to live than the real one.

---Ben Sumner

Monday, February 6, 2012

Fables of the Reconstruction: Ma Rainey

Early 20th Century recordings can sound faint and frail to 21st Century ears, like it’s made by paper dolls in a cardboard box or something, so on first listen the hundred or so songs that Gertrude “Ma” Rainey recorded over the course of four years in the 1920s might give the impression of a woman who is small and thin. But she was a mountain of a woman who dominated every room she ever sang in, from cramped juke joints to cavernous opera houses. And she was a superstar at a time when being a superstar must’ve really meant something because America was living it up, blissfully unaware of the Great Depression lurking around the corner. What’s more, she was a black superstar at a time when the Ku Klux Klan were at the apex of their power and most black women would’ve been happy just to be considered human, much less an American idol. Rainey wasn’t afraid to flaunt it either. She wore brightly colored silks and boas and necklaces made out of diamonds and solid gold coins, and gold capped the teeth in her broad smile. Her live shows were legendary, often beginning with her singing inside of a giant Victrola from which she’d emerge festooned with ostrich feathers, her jewelry shimmering under the stage lights, her skin made up to look like glittery gold.
            I recently moved to the Southern city Rainey called home and bought a house just a few blocks from her home, which has been turned into a museum. It’s in what used to be the black business district but is now surrounded by shotgun shacks, empty lots, AME churches and a big housing project. The house stands two stories high, by far the biggest in the area, and her queen-sized tigerwood bed and her piano are on the first floor, right where they were when she was host of the hoppingest house in town; black touring musicians and entertainers would often stay with her because they weren’t allowed to stay at nearby hotels. There are a few pictures of her on the walls, but only a few, because that’s all she ever allowed to be taken of her. She thought of herself as ugly, an opinion most others seemed to share with her, even her own bandmates: Gatemouth Moore, who toured with her for a number of years, has been quoted as saying,  “She wasn’t a good lookin’ woman. I won’t call her ugly, but what a terrible face!” Still, she had a lot of sex appeal; she’s said to have had a lot of lovers, many of them women. You can feel that allure in her music. It’s early blues with a full jazz band treatment - smoky and sultry. In fact, hers are the earliest black blues recordings we have. She was the first to ever record the song that Elvis opened his concerts with, known in her time as “See See Rider Blues.” She’s often called the “Mother of the Blues” because she was the first to put her voice to record, in 1923. By that time, she’d already been playing the minstrel and Vaudeville circuit for more than 20 years, and the white record execs went into the venture with skepticism because she was believed to be on the decline. But her records sold like crazy and she almost single-handedly broke open a market for “race records,” 78s of black artists marketed mainly to black audiences. Her band was the launching pad for a stunning list of artists, including Coleman Hawkins, Louis Armstrong and “the Father of Black Gospel Music,” Thomas Dorsey.
            There are a lot of CD collections of Ma Rainey recordings, and all of them are wonderful. Yes, the recording value is awful, and you can often hear the scratches on the old shellac they were recorded from. But for me they began to sound magnificent after I toured her house and learned more about her -- learned, for instance, that when she began her career as a teenager at the turn-of-the-century microphones and PA systems weren’t readily available, so she made a star of herself by filling huge rooms with the sound of her captivating voice and her commanding presence. Or that the way these recordings were made was by her standing in front of her full band and belting it out into a great big cone. Knowing these things, her music suggests the rarest of artists, the sort of genius whose talents and skills seem to lie outside the realm of human ability. The more closely I listen, the more I hear subtlety and artistry in her voice. Same thing with the band. There are moments where they verge on the psychedelic, especially when they throw in a bit of trumpet wah-wah, or kazoo, or a saw, which sounds exactly like a theremin, very sci-fi and weird. These songs might sound meek and reedy by today’s hi-fi standards, but in fact they’re monumental, and huge enough to be heard and felt all the way across a century.

I'd Love To Turn You On - At The Movies #32 - Portrait of Jennie (1948, dir. William Dieterle) and Out of Sight (1998, dir. Steven Soderbergh)

Portrait of Jennie (1948, dir. William Dieterle)
There is no more covered subject in the artistic world than love. Maybe violence, but if the actual references could be added up, I’m sure love would come out on top. That is why it is so difficult to make a movie about love that offers something new. So often love stories just default to two beautiful actors making googoo eyes at each other, living through some ridiculous plot twists and ending up where we knew they belonged: in each other’s arms. Portrait Of Jennie is different. It is a love story, but it is a love story that intersects with an exploration of what drives an artist. Of course the obvious answer is: love. So what’s to talk about? Portrait of Jennie takes the notion of the muse and treats it both metaphorically and literally. In the form of the always-reliable Joseph Cotton, Portrait Of Jennie follows struggling artist Eben Adams as he seeks inspiration and an audience for his landscape paintings. Everyone agrees he is good, but not great. While walking through a wintry Central Park (the entire movie is gloriously shot on locations in and around New York) he chances upon a girl. We aren’t sure how old she is, but she’s young enough to be childlike and old enough to be beguiling. They strike up a conversation, but Eben quickly realizes this is no ordinary girl. She tells him they will be together always. He laughs because she is just a child. She sings a song to him and when he turns his back for a moment she is gone. He is curious, and he can’t get the song she sang out of his head, but he doesn’t make too much of it…until he runs into her again a short time later (we’re not really sure how long) and he is amazed how much older she looks. She has left childhood and is a teenager now. Again their meeting is short and mysterious, but she insists he must wait for her to grow up so they can be together forever. This continues to happen: each meeting finding Jennie (actress Jennifer Jones at her sweetest and most lovely) at a different milestone; graduating high school, college, etc. and Eben finding himself more and more in love. Jennie is the perfect muse; mysterious, inspiring and just out of reach, and Eben finds that his paintings are starting to find an audience. He is becoming a famous artist, and he begins working on his masterpiece: you guessed it, a Portrait Of Jennie.
So at this point it seems as though the movie has veered into supernatural territory, with a woman who magically ages and can disappear at will, but at the same time, the story of Eben’s art persuades us that this might just be metaphor. It really doesn’t matter, because you see, ultimately Portrait Of Jennie is just tremendously entertaining. While telling this love story and following the progress of an itinerant artist, the movie also successfully ponders such subtexts as: the nature of art, the lure of the supernatural, the renewal of spring, the finality of winter, the inevitability of loss and the beauty of the natural world. We watch as fate draws the two lovers together through the years in spite of the fact that one of them may not even be real. Spoiling the end would be both cruel and difficult, because the supernatural vein continues as the plot hurtles toward a spectacular, and inevitable end. In spite of the unreal elements we come away from Portrait Of Jennie with insights about both love and art.
In addition to the dreamy, unforgettable story and the beautiful actors, the film itself holds many delights. Many of the scenes employ a special effect that makes the beginning of the scene look like a painting, which slowly morphs into film. There are also a number of subtle optical effects that make the movie seem surreal. It is this sense of “otherness” that ultimately makes Portrait Of Jennie transcend the love story genre and allows it to stand in a class by itself. There is a magical quality to this movie. Like love itself, it is complex, not prone to easy explanations, and once it gets under your skin, it is impossible to forget.
- Paul Epstein

Out of Sight (1998, dir. Steven Soderbergh)

Director Steven Soderbergh has made a major splash on the film world ever since he shook up a little film festival in Park City, Utah with his 1989 indie classic Sex, Lies, and Videotape. That film quickly established Soderbergh as a director to watch who had a way with actors and a tight script. His subsequent films, including Kafka, King of the Hill and Gray’s Anatomy, showed his refusal to get pigeonholed into any particular genre or filmmaking style. Soderbergh just makes solid movies, period.

So when the novels of writer Elmore Leonard began rolling around in Hollywood, beginning with Barry Sonnenfeld’s Get Shorty and Quentin Tarantino’s superb Jackie Brown, it made perfect sense for Soderbergh to be at the helm of one of his most exciting novels yet, Out of Sight.

It should be known from the get go that on top of being a great crime comedy the film version of Out of Sight also has the honor of capturing one of the greatest on-screen romantic pairings, just juicy with as much chemistry as Bacall and Bogey, in the performances of actor George Clooney (still freshly planted in his fame from the TV show ER) and flygirl turned singer turned actress Jennifer Lopez (with a rising star and some good roles already behind her). It’s this pairing that makes the film, which is already chock full of enough solid film treats.

Clooney plays Jack Foley, a career bank robber who is put away in the slammer after his latest job gets him pinched in the most humiliating of ways.  While in jail he befriends an old associate (Ving Rhames) and the two plot to bust out of jail and get back to doing one major last job. But while escaping prison they cross the path of beautiful but tough as nails US Marshal Karen Cisco (Lopez) and Foley spends a long time locked in a car trunk with her, sparking a bizarre but hot little spark. After a safe return Karen finds herself conflicted about her feelings for Jack especially after she is put on the case to bring him and his cohorts down or face the disapproval of her Marshal father (Dennis Farina). What’s a tazer gun-wielding Marshal in love to do?
On the whole Out of Sight is chock-a-block with all of the ingredients that Soderbergh needs to pull off a slam-dunk. It boasts a tight script written by Scott Frank (Get Shorty) that’s absent of fat and very faithful to its source material in that it keeps the action coming and allows plenty of room for a twisty story AND fosters a fine and fully developed romance that gives the whole package some tasty depth. The film also has a cast to die for which includes (alongside Clooney, Lopez, Rhames and Farina): Don Cheadle, Catherine Keener, Steve Zhan, Albert Brooks, Luiz Guzman, Viola Davis and, in a brief return to form, the lovely Nancy Allen who really makes you wonder why she ever left the big screen for such an extended time. Add to that a lovely tip of the hat to Tarantino by casting Michael Keaton to reprise his role from Jackie Brown as cocky police man Ray Nicolette in a brief cameo and you have yourself a tasty film stew.
And then there’s that romance and the amazing and unexpected chemistry between Clooney and Lopez! Beginning with an intimate and brilliant meet-cute in the trunk of a getaway car, the banter and sizzle that Soderbergh captured can truly be added to the history of cinema as one of the greatest scenes ever. What ends up on screen was a re-shoot that began with dozens of static shots and morphed into the masterpiece that it was. Though only about 1/48 of the final film, that scene is the hot glue that keeps the picture together. It’s the piece of the puzzle that makes sense to the totality of the film and keeps the action and the stakes at a comfortable yet dizzying high.
So pick up Out of Sight and surprise your loved one with an evening of smart, and yes, sexy, romantic thrills and laughs for this Valentine’s Day. You just might get a kiss as a reward and, if you’re lucky, some handcuffs.
Also note that Out of Sight will be screening on Friday the 10th and Saturday the 11th at Denver FilmCenter/Colfax at 10PM as part of The Watching Hour series.
- Keith Garcia, Programming Manager, Denver Film Society

Friday, February 3, 2012

Several Species Of Small Furry Thoughts - Harry, Barry and Larry

       In my role as a member of the board of The Colorado Music Hall Of Fame I spend a good amount of time thinking about Colorado music and the people involved in its creation and promotion. Thus, I am proud to promote the next fundraising event for the hall. On February 12, we will honor and induct musician, historian, teacher and purveyor of The Denver Folklore Center Harry Tuft, and one of the most important rock promoters of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, Barry Fey. Both of these guys have made an indelible mark on both Colorado, but also on the bigger world of music. Harry has done so much to champion and nurture folk music over the years. His store has been a touchstone for thousands of traveling musicians and he is a living repository of musical knowledge and wisdom. He’s also a really nice guy. Barry, on the other hand has made his reputation as one tough bastard, a guy who would do anything to get the show, book the tour, grab the gate. He entered a business that barely existed in the early 60’s, and over the next couple of decades he, along with a few other guys, pioneered a huge industry and put Colorado on the map as a concert location. These guys are both legends, and it will be fun and appropriate to see them inducted.

The event is something that shouldn’t be missed. The ticket price benefits the Hall Of Fame, and for your money you get an amazing spread from Pasta Jays and music from the likes of Rob Drabkin, Otis Taylor and Firefall. The place will be lousy with Colorado music type people and it is a really good time. Check the details here, and see you there.
I just got back from a funeral. This has been happening a lot lately. I’m really getting tired of it. This was a guy many people in the Denver music/arts community knew: Lawrence Epstein. He was someone I’d been friendly with since junior high (they call it middle school now). He was a fellow public school teacher, a lover of music, a great guitar player, and one of the most inquisitive and alert people I’ve ever met. He was never there when you expected him, but he remained in my life for over 30 years and always showed up at an unexpected time with an unbelievable story and an incredible zeal for living. I used to say to him: “Tell me something wild that happened to you recently so I can live vicariously.” He always obliged. In recent times darkness started to descend on him. He thought the best was over and he didn’t have anything to look forward to anymore. I saw him a few weeks ago and he was still energized - but not about living unfortunately. He took his own life a few days ago and his funeral this morning was filled with hundreds of hipsters, tripsters, students and family in spite of a raging snowstorm. The room was heavy with grief, and not surprisingly, some laughter.
So farewell Lawrence, Awrence, Lonely Lonely Lars, Larry, Bolt-savage Nazi Hunter, Schwa and all the other wonderful people you were. I’ll miss all of them.
Paul Epstein

Thursday, February 2, 2012

I'd Love To Turn You On #49 - Gabor Szabo - The Sorcerer/More Sorcery

Gypsy jazz goes psychedelic.  That's the short explanation of the work of Hungarian-born guitar master Gabor Szabo.  Szabo was both in touch with the traditions of the past and the exciting possibilities of the mid-60s.  This made him a natural fit for the great jazz label Impulse!  The adventurous label had been putting out groundbreaking jazz sides for several years when Szabo came aboard.  His two live albums from 1967, The Sorcerer and More Sorcery have recently been reissued as a twofer CD, part of an extensive series of Impulse! reissues.  Szabo and his crew run through an eclectic selection of pop hits, jazz standards and original compositions.
The Sorcerer leads off with a funky take on Sonny & Cher's hit "The Beat Goes On."  It's a great way to start off, giving the listener something familiar and then taking it to bold new directions.  The following track, "Little Boat," adds a Latin vibe and features a stunning break from the percussion team of Marty Morell and Hal Gordon.  Morell and Gordon shine throughout, as do bassist Lajos Kabok and rhythm guitarist Jimmy Stewart.  But Szabo is the real star and he really gets to show his chops on two originals, "Space" and "Mizrab."  "Space," as the title implies, is a truly psychedelic affair, fully in touch with the spirit of the times.  The eastern flavored "Mizrab" has some remarkable guitar work, at times similar to the live sound of the Velvet Underground.
More Sorcery is not as successful as its predecessor, yet still has some great moments.   The extended original "Los Matadoros" provides room for the whole ensemble to stretch out and explore.  Yet the real special performance is a fantastic take on "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds."  This was recorded just a few months after The Beatles has unleashed Sgt Pepper on the world and Szabo proves himself firmly in touch with their visionary pop music.  The song is expanded in a natural and appropriate way, adding a new dimension to what was already being seen as a masterpiece.
Gabor Szabo is rarely mentioned among the jazz greats or guitar heroes.  However, his work is truly special for those who take the time to discover it.  This generous collection is a great first step.
- Adam Reshotko