Monday, December 31, 2012

I'd Love to Turn You On #72 - Morphine - Yes

Most people who mention Morphine cite 1993's Cure for Pain as their peak. While Cure for Pain should be counted among the classics, I find myself reaching for their lesser mentioned 1995 follow up, Yes, more often. Cure For Pain, while unique and consistent, is a relatively safe record. Every note, whether it be from Dana Colley's twin sax attack or Sandman's sultry baritone, is sweet and pleasing. That's its appeal. Yes ups the ante by taking this formula and adding a healthy amount of experimentation into the mix. As a result, Yes finds Morphine reclaiming a sense of rawness that normally diminishes over a band's catalog while at the same time sounding more in tune with one another than ever before.
            Yes can almost be split into two disparate, but equally satisfying halves. On one hand are the straight ahead pop songs of the type that can be heard on Cure for Pain. Tracks like "Scratch," "Whisper" and "All Your Way" would not be out of place on that record. The other half of Yes introduces experiments with dissonance, spoken word, and the use of space to create tension.
             Some of the experimentation on Yes is subtle and sprinkled in to create unexpected detours. An example is in "Radar," where Sandman plays with spoken word and the use of empty space to step out of the time signature. He seems to relish in this new found freedom by drawing out his unaccompanied "I've got all the time in the world…I've got all the time in the world…to spare" before the band hops back on and rides the groove home.

            But for all of the subtlety, there are a handful of out and out curve balls like "The Jury" and "Sharks." On these songs, you can hear Sandman's adoration for the Beat poets not only in his delivery but also in his imagery. On "The Jury" Sandman plays a judge who struggles in the sentencing of a beautiful woman by wavering between whispered, serene images of "candlelight, red wine, Caesar salad" and the commanding, sterile language of a courtroom. Behind him, Dana Colley creates the perfect musical counterpart evoking the image of an irresistible woman while Sandman doles out intermittent bass stabs to indicate a sinister intent.
            The experimentation isn't relegated to the vocals as the band can be heard pushing personal boundaries as well as those of the group. Examples can be heard in the pummeling sax solo on "Free Love" and the reckless abandon displayed by the band in the choruses of "Sharks" and "Super Sex."
            The songs on Yes are darker and less predictable than those on Cure For Pain, and sexier as a result. This can be attributed to the late great Mark Sandman, whose restlessness consistently paid off. Truly, there will never be another band quite like Morphine, and Yes will remain a compelling document to behold for years to come.
            - Paul Custer

Monday, December 24, 2012

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #55 - Ed Wood (1994, dir. Tim Burton)

In 1986 I got a book called RE/SEARCH: Incredibly Strange Films. I had been a lifelong film buff and even worked in movie theatres throughout my high school years, yet this book opened my eyes to an entire world of directors and actors I had never heard of. I grew up with drive-ins, midnight movies and late-night television reruns so I was familiar with b-movies, and a few of the films in the book were ones I had seen, but this marvelous book gave the b, c, d and z- movies of the world critical and intellectual credence. It offered complete videographic information and approached the movies not with ridicule but with an eye toward understanding their place in the cultural and aesthetic landscape of modern film. There was a chapter in this book about a director named Ed Wood, that described him as the maker of the worst movie ever made - Plan 9 From Outer Space - as well as other legendary turkeys including a groundbreakingly bad film about Woods’ own proclivity toward transvestitism called Glen Or Glenda. I ended up seeing most of his movies over the next few years and figured I was pretty much alone in my appreciation of this weirdo outsider.
I was thus surprised in 1994 when popular director Tim Burton released a movie called Ed Wood starring Johnny Depp as Wood and Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi. Ed Wood focuses on the period of Wood’s life when he created his most well known films. Although he never achieved critical or financial success of any sort he managed to surround himself with a retinue of eccentric Hollywood types desperate enough to star in or work on his movies for little money. He also was able to convince a series of people to minimally finance his movies. His films got distribution and were seen by some and remembered by few. They listed Ed Wood as the director, producer, writer and occasional actor. And that fact is the compelling reason to care about Ed Wood the person and Ed Wood the movie. The thing that made him fascinating and that got his films made was his unshakeable belief in his own abilities. Wood idolized and fancied himself a peer of the great auteur Orson Welles. The only difference between them was Wood’s overwhelming lack of talent. Although he had doubtful skill as a writer or director of movies, he somehow completed a handful of pictures with recognizable actors. His rudimentary skills and world-class enthusiasm allowed him some level of infamy.
Burton’s movie uses Wood as a symbol for the optimism and creative energy of the 1950’s and early 60’s Hollywood dream factory. It was a tarnished dream in a broken-down factory, but it lived on in Wood’s breast and he was willing to do almost anything to get behind a camera. Filmed in black and white, Burton employs the same flimsy, homemade techniques that Wood used to create his sets and the result is that Burton’s film has some of the same low-rent ambience as Wood’s did. The film’s primary focus is Ed’s relationship with Bela Lugosi whom he happens to meet and befriend as the once great actor is entering the terminal phases of washed-upness. The secondary story involves the women who lived with Wood and dealt with his predilection to dress in their clothes. A decades-long addiction to morphine and methadone had left Lugosi sick, shriveled and unreliable, yet Wood is so thrilled to meet a genuine movie star that he becomes Lugosi’s final director and caretaker during the vampire’s sad last days. This relationship is at the heart of the movie, and Landau’s performance as Lugosi is so sadly on-target that he won an Academy Award for it. In fact the movie is filled with extraordinary performances; Bill Murray as openly gay actor Bunny Breckinridge, wrestler turned actor George “The Animal” Steele as wrestler turned actor Tor Johnson, Sarah Jessica Parker as Wood’s first wife who utters the single greatest line of her career when she asks “did he really say I look like a horse?” But Depp is the star of this show and he offers one of the strangest (and that IS saying something) and ultimately most touching performances of his career. Depp embodies the very schism that provides the dramatic tension to the story. Ed Wood bought into the Hollywood dream, but Hollywood didn’t buy into him. He plowed forward through adversity and indifference, making movies that were so low budget, so poorly conceived, so badly executed that they ultimately had to be recognized as some kind of achievement. This optimism in the face of abject failure is at the heart of Depp’s performance (and the American dream) and is the duality that makes Ed Wood such a fun and rewarding movie experience. One can’t help but root for Depp’s ebullient Ed Wood. Who among us hasn’t watched a movie, a rock band, a basketball player and said “I could do that?” Ed Wood took it to the next level, and Tim Burton tells his story with sympathy and obvious affection.
- Paul Epstein

Friday, December 21, 2012

Devotchka with the Colorado Symphony Live at Twist and Shout 12/18

Last night we had a huge crowd of over 300 people for Devotchka. They were joined for this special occasion by six members of the Colorado Symphony.  The room was buzzing with excitement as the band worked through a greatest hits set .  With only five days to promote this show, we are extremely happy with the successful turn-out.  Thanks to the band, the Symphony and music fans of Denver the word of mouth spread like wild fire. This was a holiday treat for both customers and staff.  There is a true beauty to music when it is fleshed out with strings and horns.  The romantic quality to Devotchka takes on a higher level when they are surrounded by Symphony players.  Though there were only six members from the Colorado Symphony it was a big sound and a great introduction for those fans that may have missed their summer concerts.  After the show most of the crowd stayed to get CDs,LPS, and posters signed.  People were jovial and fun to talk to while they waited in line.  The band had friends and family here, and the staff was enamored by Nick Urata's little girl.  There was a coming together last night that makes these type of events truly special.  Everyone here had a wonderful time, and we are super proud to have Devotchka represent the Denver music community.

Photos above are by Michael McGrath (

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

I'd Love to Turn You On #71 - Tom Zé – Brazil Classics 4: The Best of Tom Zé

Most Brazilian pop we hear up north here comes at you two ways – either in its subtle, silky smooth bossa nova style, or in the drum-heavy, rhythmically charged sambas of the urban centers. But once upon a time in the late-60’s there was a group of musicians who called themselves tropicalistas. They dubbed their movement Tropicália, a youth-lead movement that incorporated hidden political lyrics and any sounds they liked into their music – especially American and British Rock and R&B, but also including the bossas and sambas of Brazil, even if they sometimes thumbed their noses at tradition. But where many of the others in the group stuck closer to Brazilian tradition or to rock and roll, Tom Zé utilized his schooling in music theory plus his love of traditional musics to create something altogether odder, utilizing not only the music he grew up with, but also advanced Western classical music. What’s unique about Zé is that for all his experimental impulses – which included building his own musical devices that incorporated such non-musical-seeming pieces as blenders and typewriters – he’s remarkably catchy, even in his loopy, angular eccentricity. He was considered too eccentric in his heyday to achieve the popularity (or notoriety) of his compatriots, and between 1978 and the 1990 release of this collection, he released only one album, living in relative obscurity.
All that changed when David Byrne took a late 80’s trip to Brazil and picked up one of Zé’s albums on a whim and was struck by the curiously catchy sounds he heard there. He tracked down Tom Zé and reissued cuts from several records as this release (with its ironic subtitle: Massive Hits) on his then-new Luaka Bop label. Since then Zé has found the audience for his work internationally (and has achieved a revival and recognition at home as well) and resumed his recording career, which has continued steadily through his latest release, a 2012 album (Tropicália Lixo Lógico) which has yet to find a domestic distributor.
            And in listening to this wonderful collection – drawn from the early/mid-1970’s and largely from his brilliant (and sadly out of print) 1976 album Estudando o Samba – it’s hard to imagine what was so upsettingly odd about the music. Surely he didn’t adhere as closely to tradition as others, but today, as in 1990, these sound like a slightly bent, personal take on the pop – meaning Brazilian pop, of course – norms. Even the loopy stuff, like the lead track “Mā” and its answer bookending the album, “Nave Maria” with their syncopated, dissonant rhythm guitars churning out an irresistible rhythm, or the short, fragmentary bites of “Um "oh!" e um "ah!"” or “Complexo de Épico” are infectious as all get-out. And for real pop hooks, try “Hein?” (simple, catchy) or “Dói” (with its horn section emerging late to give an extra punch to the samba feel of the piece) for starters and wonder yet again how his work could be neglected as too odd. And when he chooses to bend himself to tradition instead of the other way around, he can come up with a piece as openly lovely as his cover of Jobim’s gorgeous “A Felicidade.” Give it a try and see if you’re not drawn inexorably into Tom Zé’s weird, funny, catchy, moving world. It’s a great place to visit.

            - Patrick Brown

Monday, December 10, 2012

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #54 - The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, dir. Robert Wise)

The Day the Earth Stood Still is my pick for the best science fiction film of all time. There have been other movies with more realistic special effects, more believable plots, better acting, but I can’t think of any, except maybe 2001, that are as profound.
            Released in 1951, The Day the Earth Stood Still is first and foremost a classic of space-age campiness. An alien descends to earth in a flying saucer that looks more like a hubcap than a vehicle of intergalactic travel. The ship lands in middle of Washington D.C. Crowds of people and cops and military men with guns and tanks surround it and watch as a human-like figure emerges and says he’s come in peace. He slowly reaches into the breast pocket of his skin-tight space suit and retrieves a long skinny object. A soldier shoots, the space being falls to the ground, and a giant robot emerges from the ship and shoots laser beams from his eyes that disintegrate all the earthlings’ weapons. The wounded alien orders the robot to cease fire and, in a voice of deep disappointment, informs the trigger-happy humans that the object, now shattered on the ground, was a gift for the president, a device that would’ve revealed the secrets of the universe. The rest of the movie hinges on the question of whether or not the visitor will allow the earth and its inhabitants to survive. He’s come, we learn, because our celestial neighbors have grown concerned about our newfound mastery of atomic power and our choice to harness it as a destructive force. There’s not a lot of action, and for long stretches there are no special effects or weird sci-fi flourishes. But the film seethes with tension. The alien escapes his military captors and slips out into the world like a spy passing as a human to understand what makes earthlings tick and observes the paranoia and distrust of The Other that permeates society. It’s more a socio-psychological thriller than a blow-your-mind orgy of impossible science, and it’s riveting.
            In terms of what’s commonly agreed upon great cinema, The Day the Earth Stood Still doesn’t much compare to 2001, which is virtually tied for first place on my list of sci-fi classics. It’s full of plot twists that are laughably absurd, hokey special effects and improbable characters (i.e. a grade-school boy who idolizes scientists instead of baseball players). But to me these are essential components of the golden age of sci-fi, when movies with crudely superimposed laser beams and trippy theremin soundtracks spun allegories about nuclear doom, the Red Menace and the liberating power of science and together formed a treasure trove for future generations to stumble upon while stoned and channel-surfing in the wee-morning hours. What makes this film better than all the others is that it gets at the fundamental human qualities that drive the very dangers that threaten humanity: fear, suspicion, greed, ignorance, the hunger for power. The Day the Earth Stood Still is, in my estimation, one of the greatest examples of a common genre raised to the level of art, because it’s true to its genre even as it transcends.
            - Joe Miller

Friday, December 7, 2012

Several Species Of Small Furry Thoughts - The Great Beatles Vinyl Experiment

When the new batch of Beatles vinyl came out a few weeks ago I took home Sgt. Pepper’s and Magical Mystery Tour to check them out. My first impression was sort of ho-hum. I played my American Apple pressings and by comparison they seemed better, but just sort of. Then I started seeing various reports in the press about how either good or bad they were. There seemed to be no consensus about how these highly anticipated reissues really fared compared to other issues on vinyl. So, Twist and Shout’s vinyl guru Ben Sumner and myself decided to subject the reissues to some clinical testing and determine what we really thought. We went over to my house to avail ourselves of a decent stereo and then I subjected Ben to a blind listening of five different Peppers and four Mystery Tours. To avoid fatigue, we chose to listen to just a limited amount of music from each album. We played “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “With A little Help From My Friends” from the former and “Strawberry Fields Forever” from the latter. We fortified ourselves with pizza and some red wine and then dove in.

With Pepper, we played two different American Apple pressings, the new version, Ben’s first pressing British Parlophone version and finally the CD from the ’09 box set. We found that we agreed across the board with each other and the results were interesting and a bit unexpected. Both of the American Apples had a louder, more compressed and more radio-ready, exciting sound. When we played the original British copy it is safe to say it was a revelation comparatively. The field of sound broadened, there was more space between the instruments and the lows seemed lower. It was subtler and showed the album to be the avant-garde masterpiece it was. In my notes abut the American versions I wrote “No wonder America fell in love with the Beatles.” Those louder, slightly more compressed versions somehow took your attention away from the nuances and pushed these great songs to the front of the sonic field sounding like instant hits. When we played the new version in direct comparison, it fell squarely in between these two experiences. It lacked the beautiful delicacy of the original British and it also toned down some of the over-amped excitement of the American mixes. The down side was some of the vocals and drums sounded a bit muffled, but the positive side was we both agreed that these were actually pretty good versions that the average consumer could comfortably buy knowing they are getting a very respectable version of this classic material.

The Mystery Tours were an original American Capitol version, the new version, the highly coveted German, Apple (Horzu) version and again the CD to finish it off. By choosing “Strawberry Fields Forever,” which has always been in true stereo, we sidestepped the whole stereo vs. duo phonic debate. Our results were similar to the Pepper experiment. The original Capitol jumped out of the speakers, again tamping down the subtlety and pumping up the excitement. The real revelation of the entire evening was the German version, which offered this psychedelic masterpiece in the most detailed and gorgeous presentation I’ve ever heard. It captured that ineffable quality that vinyl buyers crave. Some call it warmth, Ben says it is just a heightened space between the instruments, but it is the thing that lovers of the medium crave and seek out. It is also the thing that many digitally produced modern albums lack. Once again the new version fared pretty well also. It lacked the jaw dropping delicacy of the German, but it was a better sounding record than my original Capitol.

In both cases the new versions were nice pressings that obviously had the least surface noise and offered the least distracting vinyl listen. We both felt totally comfortable recommending these new pressings as a great way to get into the repertoire, knowing that there are still some collecting holy grails out there that can lead the diligent searcher to even more rarified listening experiences. Another affirmation was, that no matter what Neil Young says about CDs being an inferior listening experience, the ’09 CD versions are superb sounding and are a completely wonderful way to enjoy the Beatles. In addition to the expected loudness and clarity, they offered subtlety and nuance as well. The CDs will continue to be my go-to for the majority of my Beatles listening. One last thing that may seem obvious after all these years, but still mystifies me is how definitively great The Beatles were: as songwriters, performers and capturers of lightning in a bottle. The 60’s gestalt is encapsulated in these songs better than any other physical manifestation I can think of. If history favors any music from the rock era, The Beatles are sure to be on the top of the heap.
-Paul Epstein 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Fables of the Reconstruction: Woods

Woods are my favorite contemporary band for a lot of reasons, but the two biggest are their song writing chops and the weird sounds they weave throughout them. I don’t know enough about music to be sure exactly how they do it, but their tunes seem to reside in the major and minor keys simultaneously, if that’s even possible – they’re happy and sad all at the same time. And they’re infectious, highly hummable. As for the weird sounds, it all comes from the way they record: straight-up analogue. Inspired by records from the 60s and early 70s, the band has sought to recapture that sound by recording on the same old-school tape systems their idols did. Jarvis Taveniere, who along with Jeremy Earl forms the core of the group, said once in an interview, “when I began to develop my ear and have a more defined opinion on sound, I realized most of my favorite albums didn't sound expensive. I knew we couldn't play like The Byrds, but ‘Eight Miles High’ didn't seem sonically out of reach.” Woods go for those warm, cosmic sounds that creep into classic albums, like part on “I Wasn’t Born to Follow” from The Notorious Byrd Brothers (and the Easy Rider soundtrack) where the melody seems to get sucked into an oscillating jet engine, or the washed-out euphoria of “Shine a Light,” near the close of Exile on Main Street, or every second of Their Satanic Majesties Request. But they’re not a retro band. Despite the nods to the past, they’re a very current band. They’re like how music from the 60s would be if time had gone in reverse and punk had come first.
            They’re also Dead Heads, or at least Earl is, and for years I’ve been trying to get an old Dead Head friend of mine into them. At my urging, he checked out their 2010 release, At Echo Lake, and didn’t much like it; he thought the playing was subpar and the vocals were grating (“sloppy and hoarse,” is how he described them). It’s true, Earl has an unusual high-pitched voice, and it tends to polarize music fans: some love it, some cringe. And it’s true, too, that their musical skills have been evolving. Much as I love them, I rarely listen to their earliest records because, although they show some promise they’re not particularly well-executed. But with their last four records, starting with 2009’s Songs of Shame, they’ve steadily improved on all fronts: song writing, playing, recording technique, even singing. And with this year’s release, Bend Beyond, I think they’ve made a record that’ll ring nicely in my friend’s discriminating ears. The vocals are much smoother, and they’re nicely stacked in rich harmonies.     The songs are catchy and deceptively simple, masterfully played, but not slick—they’ve maintained their DIY edge. Indie music blogs are hailing it as their “most approachable gateway yet,” a cleaner presentation of their loose and lovable sound, and the band is forthright about the more deliberate approach they took in making it, spending more time crafting the songs in their home studios, moving away from the more spontaneous, devil-may-care policy that drove their earlier releases. A good comparison for this release is the records put out last year by Real Estate and Kurt Vile. Both artists had started in the low-fi quadrant of the underground music cosmos, and both had early releases on Earl’s label, Woodsist. Their 2011 releases were their first pro studio albums on big labels. Among the two, I’d place Bend Beyond nearer to the Kurt Vile end of the spectrum. It’s cleaner, yes, and more professional, but their sound has lost little if any of their weirdness and uniqueness, and I have to admit I can’t say the same about Real Estate’s Days, which was a bit too polished. What lifts Woods’ new record above the ones by their friends is that they did it themselves. Near as I can tell, they aim to keep doing so, and I believe they’ll keep getting better and better.

Monday, December 3, 2012

I'd Love to Turn You On #70 - Lee Morgan - Cornbread

About 25 years ago after we first started Twist and Shout I was standing behind the counter one evening when a guy walked in whom I recognized as one of the guys who ran Kingbee records in the 70’s. I frequented that store as a bashful youth and thus held this guy in fairly high esteem. He traded in some CDs and we started chatting about personal history and music. He claimed he remembered me as a customer but I seriously doubted it. I was playing some Charles Mingus when he came in and he seemed to be digging it pretty well. He pulled a CD out of the stack he was selling and told me to listen to it if I liked jazz. I said “oh yeah …good?” He made a motion with his hand like his fingers were lit matches that needed to be shaken out. I listened to Lee Morgan’s Cornbread that night and a quarter of century later I’m still talking about it.
It is first worth mentioning that when this record was made in 1965, Blue Note Records was riding a wave of success that had been getting bigger and bigger for a number of years and had in many ways come to define the sound of jazz in the late 50’s and 60’s. With a legacy dating back to the late 30’s, Blue Note was home to many of the hippest players on the scene and with the legendary Rudy Van Gelder engineering the bulk of their releases and a cool, understated look to the album covers Blue Note is one of the few labels in history that transcends industry circles and permeates public consciousness. Blue Note records look and sound unlike any others. The original pressings of this era of Blue Note LPs are highly prized by vinyl collectors because they are sonically nonpareil. Van Gelder was so adept at setting up and recording the tiny room in New Jersey they used for the majority of these albums that nothing quite sounds like them. The instruments all lay in the recording field with lots of space around them. Every instrument is discreet in the mix the whole time yet one really feels as though you are standing in a room with a live band playing at full volume. It was an era when recording technique was as much a part of the art as the music itself.
That said, this was my first entrée to the label and my first experience with Lee Morgan. The album opens with the title track, and for me, it was love at the first notes. “Cornbread” bops out with Larry Ridley’s pumping bass line introducing one of the great horn sections of all time; Lee on trumpet, Jackie McLean on alto sax and Morgan’s long time sparring partner Hank Mobley on tenor sax. The other monumental personnel on this date are Herbie Hancock on piano and the great Billy Higgins on drums. “Cornbread” is nine minutes of bliss chugging along with Morgan taking the first solo and immediately proving his status playing with excitement, wit and technical brilliance. He pays tribute to his hero Clifford Brown by approximating Brown’s tone and punchy delivery, but the ultimate effect is all Morgan. Lee Morgan was one of the most relatable and melodic trumpet players ever. His style is immediately recognizable and his generous band leading style led the best players to his sessions. Each track is a master class of perfectly constructed material allowing different members of the band to shine as a soloist and to perform in one of the great ensembles of the era. Take, for instance, Morgan’s lovely composition “Ceora” a mid-tempo number with a Bossa Nova beat that allows Herbie Hancock to dominate the mood of the song with his dream-like soloing, yet also sees him beautifully backing the soloing by Morgan and McLean. “Our Man Higgins” sees Morgan again soloing his ass off, but he leaves plenty of room for the other horn players to take memorable outings and for the outstanding rhythm section to show some muscle. Throughout his tremendously long and esteemed career Billy Higgins proved himself among the greatest straight-ahead jazz drummers - the ultimate accompanist.
If you are looking for one of “those” jazz albums - one that fits the mood perfectly, whether it’s a rocking house party or a contemplative rainy afternoon - Lee Morgan’s Cornbread has something for you. Each cut is a journey to an Elysian Field of masterful performances, arranging and recording. This has remained one of my go-to albums for 25 years and has lost none of its luster since that night it was put into my hands, appropriately enough, by another record store guy. If you want to really experience a mind-blowing audiophile experience, seek out the original mono LP. It’ll be hard to get and cost a lot, but it is one of those times when you will be able to say, “it’s like hearing music for the first time.”
- Paul Epstein