Monday, October 29, 2012

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #51 - The Wicker Man (1973, dir. Robin Hardy)

Gather round children and I will tell you the tale of a ghostly book: a book that wrote itself with no regard for the truth. It was the scariest…What’s that? Oh Wicker not Wiki…. Yes well The Wicker Man is just as unpredictable, but actually is a terrifying and wonderful movie. It is a horror movie, but it clings to none of the trappings of the typical monster flick. In fact the monsters in The Wicker Man are history and human nature.

The Wicker Man begins with a conservative, buttoned-down police officer in Scotland setting off to an isolated island to investigate the disappearance of a little girl. Immediately upon landing on the picturesque Summerisle, Sergeant Howie is met with a stonewalling local populace that not only deny the existence of the missing girl but also openly engage in strange, sexually explicit practices. In fact the entirety of the local color seems to be made up of sex, preparing for sex or teaching the children about sexual practices and generally behaving like pagan libertines. This is not far from the truth. It quickly dawns on Sergeant Howie that there is something strange beyond the disappearance of a girl named Rowan Morrison. All activity in Summerisle is ritualized and relates to the natural cycle of sex, death and rebirth. Summerisle is famous for growing delicious apples - itself a seeming impossibility based on the climate of the island, and yet Sergeant Howie finds no apples on the island. 1+1+1 start to add up to at least 3 and it begins to dawn on Howie that the activities on this island are all connected to the barren apple harvest, and he starts to suspect that Rowan Morrison was or will be a sacrifice to the “old gods” in an attempt to improve the next year’s harvest.

Howie takes his theory to Lord Summerisle, played with delicious depravity by the great Christopher Lee. Lord Summerisle, looking and acting like a cross between Baron Frankenstein and Hugh Hefner, confirms Howie’s theories suggesting that these rituals are a benign way to keep the locals happily employed and invested in the harvest. Like everything he observes on the island, Howie is further outraged by Summerisle’s seeming nonchalance about matters of pagan sacrifice and prehistoric ritual among his subjects. When he finds his transport back to the mainland has mysteriously stopped working, Howie decides he will personally crack this case without the aid of reinforcements. Events hurtle toward a completely unexpected, surprise ending. I will not give it away, because it is truly one of the emotional and visual highlights of modern horror.
What makes The Wicker Man so special is the way it brings the audience along on the path of discovery with Sergeant Howie, revealing the truth to us only when it is revealed to Howie. Thus we are part of the shocking ending. In addition, every detail about the locations, costumes, and characters in this movie are nearly perfect. The villagers of Summerisle are some seasoned actors intermingled with lots of actual residents of the filming locales. The veracity of these characters makes their confusing, inappropriate behavior believable. The real actors in addition to Christopher Lee are all ideal. Britt Ekland offers what could be her sexiest (and most flesh revealing) role as the innkeeper’s lascivious daughter. Ekland, like most of the adult women characters in the movie, become living symbols of female sexuality and fertility. Edward Woodward as Sergeant Howie strikes the ideal balance between virginal innocent and judgmental prude, allowing us to both wish he’d leave the island folk alone, and to relate, in some way, to his sense of moral outrage and disgust at the actions of these strange people.

The Wicker Man succeeds on almost every level. The script is taut and moves quickly and inexorably towards the horrifying conclusion. The scenery and characters are wonderfully authentic, the soundtrack music is appropriate and stands on its own as a great achievement, and the payoff at the end stands as one of the most shocking and genuinely frightening conclusions to any movie. The Wicker Man is not just a great horror movie it is a great movie - period.
Paul Epstein

Monday, October 22, 2012

I'd Love to Turn You On #67 - Stiff Little Fingers - Go For It

Let’s just start with “Silver Lining.” This song has everything a punk rock song should have. It comes galloping out of the speakers with a heroic drum riff and perfectly skanking horn section (courtesy of British band The Q-Tips) like the national anthem of Punktopia and levels a series of socially conscious, class warfare lyrical accusations at the listener ultimately offering hope and a silver lining (get it?). Upon first hearing this song I felt like there was more to punk than just The Sex Pistols and The Ramones. This was substantive, hard-hitting commentary played with absolute punk authority. Coming out of Belfast, Ireland in 1977 Stiff Little Fingers really hit their stride with this, their third album in 1981. They claim they were trying to produce an album of all singles, and in a perfect world, every one of these songs would be a chart smash. Stiff Little Fingers never made much of a dent on the charts Stateside, and, truth be known, they were never a first tier band in the U.K. as history would have it. Damn though, listening to Go For It now it is hard to understand why this band didn’t rule the earth.

Much of the difficulty with punk (and rock in general) sustaining itself is that so much of the driving force is based on youth and dissatisfaction and any band that hangs around long enough to get good at songwriting and performing loses that angry spark that was the genesis of the whole thing. Stiff Little Fingers have, to this day, toiled in a kind of working-class netherworld of pubs and gigs that has kept them remarkably focused on their original sound. Go For It is just brimming with great, anthemic songs. Opening with “Roots Radicals Rockers and Reggae,” their revved up version of a Bunny Wailer song, it is obvious that this was the very punky reggae party that Bob Marley sang about on his hit; a group of working-class white kids turned on by the elevated consciousness of the exotic Rastaman. They follow with songs about relationships (abusive and otherwise), politics, homesickness, pissing off the neighbors and many of the subjects that informed Irish youth culture at the time. Songwriting mainstay Jake Burns is an insightful yet self-deprecating songwriter with the common man’s touch. Although they have been compared to The Clash for many years, in American terms they have the urgency and writing chops of bands like X or The Blasters. There is something comforting about listening to a band with something on their mind.

Musically, Go For It betrays a group of seasoned and skilled musicians making highly energetic and catchy music in an era when punk was fading and new wave was ascendant. Like their contemporaries The Saints, Television or Magazine, Stiff Little Fingers were making music for a thoughtful world audience, yet they remained a relatively regional phenomenon true to their punk-rock roots.
            - Paul Epstein

Thursday, October 18, 2012

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #50 - Drugstore Cowboy (1989, dir. Gus Van Sant)

For several days after I first saw Drugstore Cowboy I was high with fantasies about being a junkie. Which is weird because on the surface it’s a bleak film about addiction: Matt Dillon plays a dude named Bob who runs a little two-couple crew that robs pharmacies across the Pacific Northwest and shoots their loot into their veins. It’s 1971, cloudy pretty much all the time, and during the first act the protagonists stumble into a bit of bad luck that gets worse and worse. But still the film is beautiful, and when it ends I want to escape back into it and live it. It’s Gus Van Sant’s second film, but his first to reach a real audience, and it showcases his style as well as anything else he’s ever made; he’s one of the best of the slow, subtle story tellers, and his cinematography is art gallery caliber. What got me jonesing after Drugstore Cowboy was how he zooms in on the whole ritual aspect of addiction, so close that at times the screen fills with nothing but the tip of a needle drawing liquid out of a spoon, or a streak of blood coiling into the chamber of a syringe, or the sizzling end of a cigarette, all of these edited together in rapid-fire succession. It’s just plain gorgeous, and seductive.
            There are also super-high/dream sequences where cows and hats and bubbles float across the screen and Matt Dillon’s face, and there are time lapses of clouds and the moon. But it’s not a pro-drug movie any more than an anti-drug one. The story is too cool and detached to take a moral stance one way or the other. Bob is a philosophical junkie with a talent for spinning far-out aphorisms like, “You can buck the system but you can't buck the dark forces that lie hidden beneath the surface,” and, “Most people don't know how they're gonna feel from one moment to the next. But a dope fiend has a pretty good idea. All you gotta do is look at the labels on the little bottles.” He sees the world as a game of chance, and the druggie adventures form an allegory for an indifferent universe where good forces and bad forces rule in equal degree, where good and bad are interchangeable depending on the angle from which they’re viewed. He’s a great character, and the script and the pacing of the plot make for a contemplative viewing experience that, like the beauty of the images and the editing, leaves you wanting to come back for more.
            The acting? It’s not bad, but it’s not the movie’s strong suit. Dillon is good, but not at the level of skill he’s brought to other roles. He has moments, usually when he’s alone on screen in stoned-out reverie. But his co-star, Kelly Lynch, never seems like quite the right match for her role as an addict, and she seems to throw him off his game. The supporting roles, on the other hand, are quite well-acted, especially the character of Nadine, a young, innocent-looking girl played by Heather Graham in one of her earliest film parts. And then there’s William S. Burroughs, who appears late in the film as an aging junkie priest. He’s just great, with his weird, high-pitched, raspy voice, and his bony, hunched-over back. He brings the specter of religion into the story’s mix, and subtly pushes the story beyond the high and lows of a drug life to something that represents life itself. So maybe that’s why the movie left me craving something I’ve never even tried. It’s not the pharmaceuticals and needles I wanted, but rather that something, as Bob said, that people reach for “Something to relieve the pressures of their everyday life, like having to tie their shoes.”
            - Joe Miller

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Ron Miles - Quiver Review

When you say the three names of Ron Miles, Bill Frisell, and
Brian Blade the ears of jazz fans are going to perk up. Bill Frisell
has been the biggest jazz guitarist in the genre for the last 10 and arguable longer years. In terms of tone and style he has been monumentally influential. Brian Blade has made a name by drumming with his band the Brian Blade Fellowship, he has also played with Daniel Lanois, and has recently been earning critical acclaim with the Mama Rosa singer/songwriter project. All bring a serious reputation, but that alone is not always enough. They also have the key ingredient of
chemistry and a unified conception of how this music should sound and feel. Ron Miles has worked in Frisell's groups and the two also made a
duet record called Heaven in 2002. Their relationship has deepened, and
they have added Blade to the mixture. He brings a wide range of feels and
a synergy to the openness that the group is establishing. The trio lit up Dazzle last September, and some of these album tracks are taken from live recordings of those sets while others are studio recordings.There is a wide variety of tunes on the new record including swing/bop, blues, folk, and country. Along with a great version of "The Days of Wine and Roses" there is a couple of other tunes that come from
the older canon of Jazz tunes like "There Ain't No Sweet Man That's Worth the Salt of My Tears." and "Doin' the Voom Voom". What makes the record a success is how flexible each of the players are. This is evident from the first track "Bruise" in which the rhythmic head is repeated by Frisell on guitar while Miles solos and repeats the
bass parts under Frisell. Really exercising his ability to change roles
and timbre in the piece.
A direct compare and contrast can be made on "Just Married" to figure out what kind of dynamic Brian Blade adds on the drums, since it
first appeared on the duet album Heaven. "Queen B" will make you
recall Frisell's quartet album, not that it belongs on that record, but
tonally something about the opening strains are familiar. When everyone
has ears this big and facility to pull off whatever they might want to do
we are the beneficiaries. Some of the best moments are the individual spaces that each player gets a chance to explore. The album does not have a rushed feel to it, the musician's take time developing each song and pick no fruit before it's time, as is especially evident on the elegantly paced "Guest of Honor". From the post bop of "Rudy-Go-Round" to the lovely solo trumpet opening strains of "Mr. Kevin" this record has a little bit of everything. Chip Stern has done a great job with the liner notes. He talks about the album as a whole, and really dives into the specifics of some of the songs and the concepts behind the playing. It is a brave group of men that draw back the curtain and say "look, this is by design." In an age when a drum machine can set up something that can pass for music to cut back the veil and make bare every choice is brave. To have such great success is ever rarer. In all the players you can hear the tradition, individual style, and respect for melody and the moment. We are reminded by this record how lucky we are to hold among us Ron Miles in the Mile High Jazz Community.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Several Species Of Small Furry Thoughts

I had a great weekend last week. I went to Cleveland and saw The Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame. It is hard to describe what a powerful and exhilarating experience this was. Two things made me want to go in the first place. Fist was I recently read the late Harvey Pekar’s chronicle of the history of Cleveland and found it fascinating. I also noticed that the Rock Hall was doing a major exhibit on The Grateful Dead that was ending in January. I wanted to see that, and when I saw Neil Young and Crazy Horse had a date in Cleveland in October I decided it was time to do it. The Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame is something that every one of you should put on your list of things to see. If you are a Dead Head make it quick before their exhibit ends. The Dead Exhibit had all kinds of stuff you’ve never seen; Jerry’s stage outfit from Monterey Pop, handwritten lyrics of the unreleased song “Equinox,” four of Jerry’s guitars, the original paintings used for the covers of Live Dead, “Tiger Rose” and the back cover of Workingman’s Dead, the poster from the first show of The Warlocks, the Ampex Reels of 2-14-70 - and on and on- two whole rooms dedicated to rare and unseen memorabilia. And the rest of the Hall was, for me, the experience of a lifetime. I’m not going to bother telling you about individual displays (well John Lennon’s Mellotron was pretty special), but after walking around for over 6 hours I felt like I did when I was first discovering Rock music. It was amazing to see all the stuff that means so much to me being presented in a completely respectful and adult fashion. From the I.M. Pei building, to the interactive displays, to the thoughtful movie presentations in the Hall’s three theatres to endless amounts of historic, cultural and fetishistic artifacts, it was one gigantic hug and thumbs–up to music fans. It was like the real world saying - “Yes, you were right, Rock and Roll IS here to stay, and here’s the proof.” I just can’t recommend it enough.
 Next up, it was Neil Young and Crazy Horse. I was curious how the show would compare to his masterful set at Red Rocks in July. I also had just finished Neil’s autobiography Waging Heavy Peace so I was extra psyched-up to see him again. The show was musically very similar to Red Rocks, with a few new songs from his forthcoming album Psychedelic Pill (out October 30th) replaced with different new songs, but overall it was another feedback-drenched electric fest that largely revolved around the half-dozen or so new songs he was obviously excited to play. The big difference was the stage setting, which incorporated oversized props from the Rust Never Sleeps, Weld and Rusted Out Garage tours to lend the proceedings a surreal, childlike ambience. These new songs are some of his most autobiographical and heartfelt in a long while. The process of writing the book obviously had a big effect on him, and the album almost seems like a companion piece, or an illustration of the things he talks about in the book.

As for the book, I found it to be one of the most enjoyable rock books I’ve read. Not because it was a shocking tell-all or because it revealed so many facts about Neil Young I didn’t know, but rather because it is told in such a straight-forward and clear narrative voice. No doubt Neil wrote every word of this book. There are two major take-aways from Waging Heavy Peace; Neil Young is a very uncomplicated guy, and Neil Young is a very complicated guy. Yes - his actions are sometimes hard to understand, but through the clear prose and emotional directness of his writing, Neil takes the reader on a trip through his own hobbies, obsessions, regrets and joys (all of which are pretty direct) and draws a picture of a thoughtful, brilliant, stubborn, eccentric but ultimately normal guy. Early on he realized he was serving the music not vice-versa and this realization and his ability to hold on to that thought seems to explain his remarkable career. He is an ordinary guy with average guy desires who has forged an extraordinary life of above-average dreams. He has stuck to his guns and as a result he is the envy of almost every other musician. Every musician wishes they could dictate their own career the way Neil Young does, and almost none have matched his sustained genius at making records and mounting tours. He is singular in his achievement, yet he seems just like you or me when he talks about his joys and sorrows as a working man, a family man, a nostalgic man, bound and determined to move into the future with purpose. Like almost everything he has done in his career, Waging Heavy Peace does not fully represent Neil Young, or explain what makes him so magical, but it is one more piece of the puzzle to an endlessly fascinating man.
Paul Epstein

Thursday, October 11, 2012

I'd Love to Turn You On #66 - King Crimson - Red

Let's talk about this thing called "progressive rock" for a moment.  Like "alternative" and "jam band," it's a term that has lost any real meaning and has come to describe a very particular type of music.  There are plenty of prog bands but how many are truly progressive?  King Crimson was one of the first wave of prog bands whose debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King, practically invented the genre.  Yet Crimson actually progressed throughout the years, often the result of an ever-shifting lineup.  Guitarist Robert Fripp has been the one constant and his distinct playing ties the many eras, sounds and lineups together. 

1974's Red is often cited as a highlight in the Crimson catalog and for good reason.  At this point, the band was officially down to a trio of Fripp, bassist/vocalist John Wetton and drummer Bill Bruford, though the recording is augmented by several additional musicians.  This lineup had developed a sound much heavier than most other prog bands of the time and was also prone to extended improvisation of a sort few other bands of the era would attempt.  Red opens up with the heavily stomping instrumental title track.  While this song was never performed live by this incarnation of the band, it would become a staple of the band's repertoire in the 80s and 90s and is one of the all-time Crimson classics.  This is followed by two relatively straightforward rockers, "Fallen Angel" and "One More Red Nightmare."  Odd time signatures keep them slightly off-kilter as even when they're rocking out Crimson will toss in unusual elements.

"Providence" is the most challenging track on the album, an excerpt of a long improvised piece recorded live in, where else?, Providence, Rhode Island.  This comes from the time when violin/mellotron player David Cross was still in the band and his presence is definitely felt.  The piece moves from a moody, ambient soundscape into a full band rock jam.  While many bands of the time were playing extended jams and prog bands were writing long compositions, Crimson were one of the few, along with the Grateful Dead and Can, who were taking improvisation to such levels, actually creating new compositions out of thin air.  The album concludes with the epic number "Starless," which had been a live staple for well over a year at the time of this release.  While it’s a 12-minute track that moves through three distinct phases, it's very different from the composed, multi-part epics that most prog bands of the time were producing.  It starts off as a nice mid-tempo number with Wetton giving one of his best vocal performances.  Next comes a long passage built around an infectious, repetitive bassline and Fripp's minimalist guitar "solo" where he essentially plays the same note over and over.  Bruford increases the tension by amping up the percussion till it all explodes in a hard rocking frenzy that repeats the musical themes of the first segment.  A pair of former Crimson members, Mel Collins and Ian McDonald, contribute some great woodwind solos.

After the release of Red, Fripp broke up the band and claimed he was retiring from music.  This retirement lasted only a couple of years before he came back with a variety of projects, all of which eventually led to the return of King Crimson in 1981.  Again, there was a new lineup and a new sound.  The band would split up and reform several times throughout the years, but was always moving forward and always progressive in the truest sense of the word.

            - Adam Reshotko

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #49 - Top Hat (1935, dir. Mark Sandrich)

            The fourth Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers pairing is justifiably the most famous, because it’s their best. But today, in this age of “romantic comedy” being used as a term of dismissal and contempt by cinephiles and the movie musical barely alive as a popular form, it may be a hard sell. But I would hope that watching the first few scenes of the film would convince even the most cynical viewer otherwise. After a credit sequence introduces us to Astaire and Rogers’ feet and legs dancing as their names appear on screen, the action moves to a silent and stuffy London smoking parlor where American dance star Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire) is waiting for his show-producing friend Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton), who’s running late. And from this mostly wordless opening scene of Astaire thumbing his nose at the stuffed shirts we can see the subtlety and humor that Astaire brings to the performance with his discreet looks and movements – both of which extend to his dancing as well as to the film’s dialogue and situational humor.
            The next scene finds him dancing a tap routine in his friend’s hotel room and awakening the downstairs neighbor Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers) and then apologizing with a shuffling lullaby, followed the next day by a room full of flowers, a stolen cart taking her to ride horses, and a dance in the rain. And it’s here, with the dance during “Isn’t It A Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain),” that the famous Astaire-Rogers chemistry – evident from their first scene together – enters its full blossom. It’s also where the plot – an extended riff of mistaken identity – takes off, as she mistakes Astaire for the husband of her best friend Madge (Helen Broderick), who happens, in fact, to be married to Jerry’s manager Horace. And though the plot seems absurd, the cast makes the most of it; knowing full well that they’re skirting the edge of ridiculous, they have fun with it rather than trying to sell the audience on the dramatic tension. And they’re free to do this because they know that they’re all in a musical comedy-romance, after all. And like the best musicals, the songs and dances emerge from the narrative, even if they are really just there to be extravagant set pieces.
            And luckily they’ve got the finest on all counts helping bring this fantasy to life. Choreographer Hermes Pan, who worked with Astaire throughout his career and on all 10 Rogers-Astaire collaborations, helped the star to bring to life all his ideas here and elsewhere; designer Carroll Clark put his visual flair to use designing gorgeous Art Deco sets that, like the plot, never work too hard to be taken seriously, but still look just great; composer Irving Berlin, one of the most renowned composers of popular American song, contributed a fine batch of songs, most notably the indelible classic “Cheek To Cheek,” a song that would long be associated with Astaire; screenwriter Allan Scott, whose sharp dialogue is humorous and quippy in the way of many of the best films of the early sound-film era of the 1930’s; director Mark Sandrich fell in with the team on their previous collaboration The Gay Divorcee and fit so well with Astaire’s ideas that he continued on to make several more films with him. And of course tying it all together is Astaire, a star given nearly complete creative control, who worked tightly with director, cameraman, and scriptwriters to help decide the overall flow of the film. It was Astaire who decided to make dancers the stars of his films, encouraging longer takes taking in the whole scene and having the camera follow the dancer, not performing some sleight of lens with quick cutting that makes anyone look like a good dancer. Even when there are Busby Berkeley-esque geometric patterns of dancers in “The Piccolino” it’s never taken to the abstract level that Berkeley is known for, the dance ensemble is shown in full bodied shots. And of course it’s Ginger Rogers, keeping pace with him tap for tap and nuance for nuance, joke for joke, making sure that acting remained at the fore of what the couple did to hold the audience with their romantic travails. And of course it’s also the supporting players - Edward Everett Horton and Helen Broderick are both superb comic foils to the leads, while even the third string players here – Erik Rhodes as dress designer Alberto Beddini and Eric Blore as first-person-plural manservant Bates – get their scene-stealing moments. And then again it all comes back to Astaire and Rogers – to their dance in the rain, however preposterous the circumstances that put them there together, to their feather-laden “Cheek to Cheek” dance, to their show-stopping dance emerging from the ensemble of “The Piccolino,” to their simple good humor and grace together. Katherine Hepburn once reportedly said of the pair that “He gives her class and she gives him sex appeal.” Find out here, better than anywhere else, how true that is.
            - Patrick Brown