Friday, January 25, 2013

Fables of the Reconstruction: Low-Hanging Fruit, Pt. 3

More cheap thrills from the used vinyl bins…

Jesse Colin Young – Together
This is a no-frills early-70s downhome hippy-rock record that goes just right with a beer at the end of a hard day, or a bong hit at the start of an easy one. The opener is “Good Times,” a sweet reminiscence of the summers of love in San Fran, and the remaining ten songs range from blues to boogie-woogie to country to folk, a near-even mix of covers and originals, all tied together with Young’s smooth, mellow-my-mind voice. Seriously, his singing is right up there with the very best, whether it’s a tender love song, like the title track, or the relentlessly happy “Lovely Day,” or “Peace Song,” which is every bit as idealistic and hopeful and love-inspiring as “Get Together” was. I got this record for $2.99 at Twist and Shout and it plays with hardly a crackle. I listen to it often.

Emerson Lake and Palmer – Tarkus
Side one is a rock symphony called this:
Tarkus- Eruption
- Stones of Years
- Iconoclast
- Manticore
- Battlefield
- Aquatarkus
And, as the name suggests, it’s 20 minutes of prog awesomeness. Hard to describe without making weird noises with a high-pitched voice and a spastic tongue. Drum solos, bass solos, keyboard solos, all soloing at full speed at the same time, in perfect sync, and a climactic, soaring guitar solo near the end. Honestly, I’m kind of hinky on ELP because they were such good musicians and, judging from the film footage I’ve seen of them in concert, they were insufferably arrogant about it. And on some of their records they sound a little too safe for me. But not this one. It’s exactly the kind of balls-out pretentiousness I want when I reach for prog.

Tom Tom Club – Close to the Bone
Unexpectedly trippy. Like Remain in Light trippy, but happy, and way more danceable. There are lots of beats that weave in and out and bounce all across the stereo, super synthed-up with echoes and cosmic curviness. No kidding, these dance tracks are as atmospheric and complex as the Talking Heads at their early-80s best. This record stands as a solid companion to Speaking in Tongues, released the same year. I don’t remember this band being so good. When I was in my teens and always hunting for freaky shit, I thought Tom Tom Club was just better than average synth-dance-pop, and that wasn’t really my thing. But if I’d only known just how far out this record gets in a tight universe of butt-bumping boogie, I would’ve jumped in and boogied too, maybe even gotten laid. (“He’s the man with the four-way hips!”) This record isn’t better than average. It’s where this kind of music went when it died. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

Fables of the Reconstruction: Low-Hanging Fruit Pt. 2

When I got back into collecting vinyl, my first impulse was to buy back all the stuff I owned before I went digital. The classics. But once I’d collected most of those, I wanted more, more, more. I’m not rich, so this means buying cheap – stuff that’s in abundance in the used bins and in relatively low demand. (And some of which is not even available on CD.) I call this bounty low-hanging fruit. Last week I shared a few of my recent favorite finds. Here are some more:

Nilsson – Pussy Cats
If you believe the documentary Who Is Harry Nilsson?, the late great singer/songwriter peaked with Nilsson Schmilsson and then binged his way through a bunch of mediocre-to-bad albums to oblivion. His tenth album, Pussycats, is singled out as a particularly low moment: party buddy John Lennon pushed him past the edge and blew out his beautiful voice. Which is true, except it leaves out the fact that it’s flat-out gorgeous. I mean, come on. This is rock and roll. Destruction is an essential part of the aesthetic. And what else would you expect from Lennon (the man who took acid everyday for like a year or something as part of a conscious quest to destroy his ego, and who, by his own admission, succeeded) directing Nilsson (the man who’d ask friends out for a drink and they’d come home three days later without a clue of where they’d been or what they’d done). It’s a spectacular mess of an album, and so weird. Yes, his voice cracks. There’s only about three seconds of his unworldly high-pitched smoothness. And at times he actually sounds like Lennon on parts of Imagine and Plastic Ono Band. But he’s raw in the best rock and roll way – like Sam Cooke at the Harlem Club or Joe Strummer or Bruce or any other gravel throat who’s ever ripped the guts right out of your solar plexus. And he’s surrounded with Lennon’s fuzzed-out trippy pop arrangements. Mine cost twelve bucks, which is a little high for a low-fruit designation, but I’d have paid three more for it, even without the double gatefold full of mid-session snapshots of Nilsson and Lennon and everyone else who joined the party.

Grace Slick and Paul Kantner – Sunfighter
When I look at the cover of this album, I wonder what it was like being the daughter of a couple as freaky as Kantner and Slick. Baby China appears on the cover naked and chubby, held up toward the sun on the hands of her mom and dad, which are rising out of the sea. The gatefold opens to a photo collage of cosmic explosions, and the inner sleeve has a picture of Kantner and Slick side by side, both of them young kids -- him standing erect in his military uniform, her at a piano, sitting as straight as an Aryan, in her officer coat and tails. On the other side is a dystopian poem called “Pets.” It’s a very odd artifact in celebration of a newborn child, and it’s made stranger still by the fact that it was mass-produced and sold around the world. I had a huge crush on China when I was in high school and she was an MTV VJ, and now, 41 years later, I own a copy of her baby album that I got for $2.99 from Twist and Shout. It has heavy ring wear and the initials “JB” in the upper left hand corner. As for the music, it’s all eminently listenable, if not consistently memorable: solid, somewhat hard-driving, early 70s rock, with some acoustic strands woven in here and there, and lots of Kantner fantasy/sci-fi lyrics about wizards and lizards and the like. But the album has stellar high points. Side one breaks down halfway through into a wonderful wash of outer space freakiness. And side two features “China,” Slick’s ode to her daughter, which begins, “She’ll suck on anything you give her.” It’s just piano and swells of strings toward the end, and Slick’s voice is magnificent as she sings of her child and the world: “It all comes in, so fast, it all comes in.” Surely China has a fondness for that one.

Steve Hackett – Voyage of the Acolyte and Please Don’t Touch!
Records by ex-Genesis ax man Hackett abound in the used vinyl racks, and they really put the old “don’t judge a book by its cover” credo to the test, because almost all of them have hideously cheesy artwork. But some are full of great music, and are worth much more than their miniscule asking price. Odds are you can get a bunch for less than $20. Voyage of the Acolyte is generally agreed to be his best, and it’s certainly the most psychedelic. One good friend described it to me as “blobular.” Hackett’s main gift, other than his stratospheric guitar playing, is his ability to craft complex and epic arrangements, and Voyage takes your ears around the world forward and backward through time. So does his second solo effort, Please Don’t Touch!, the first to feature his mastery of a Roland GR-500 Guitar Synthesizer. The sounds shift from stuff that would be perfect for a sci-fi movie soundtrack, full of amplified drama and tension and weird sounds, to lovely strains of classical-inspired acoustic guitar, to late-70s guitar-god pop. The vocal tracks, few and far between, are a bit unexpected. They feature guest singers Richie Havens, Steve Walsh of Kansas and R&B siren Randy Crawford, a trio whose voices are so distinct that they would give the record a various-artists feel, were it not for the connective thread of Hackett’s considerable composition talents.

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #57 - Julia (2008, dir Erick Zonca)

Julia is a movie about an alcoholic (and pretty much everyone around her) making a lot of bad decisions and then the fallout of those decisions leading to worse consequences. It’s something like a thriller, because it keeps a high level of tension throughout the film as it moves into a seedy criminal underworld, but it’s also a drama about this sad messed-up woman. And yet, in spite of its seriousness and intensity there are some darkly comic moments, usually delivered because you can see Julia’s alcoholic brain thinking hard, trying to find the quickest way out of a situation and usually deciding on a course of action that you already know is going to solve an immediate problem and yet create another, which of course she can never see. In Mexico, where about half the film takes place, it was known as Crimen Repentino, which translates as “Sudden Crime” and this may very well convey better a sense of what the film’s like, moving quickly from one bad situation to another, and then when we think there’s a respite, we’re quickly back in the thick of it based on yet more bad decisions Julia’s made: the way she flirts almost automatically when she senses it might give her some advantage, the way she lies compulsively to avoid taking the blame for any of her actions.
Then again, maybe the English title conveys the idea of the film best, because it is definitively centered on the tour de force performance by Tilda Swinton as Julia. She manages to draw you into Julia’s world, creating a thoroughly unlikable woman who you still manage to have sympathy for – a tricky act to pull. But that’s probably got something to do with the kid, too, but more about that in a second. The start of the chain of events of the film, which I can only tell a little bit of so as not to give anything key away, is that Julia has lost another job because of her drinking. Her friend, trying to help her get her life together, tells her that the only way she’ll get continued help from him is to attend AA meetings which she’s got no patience for. But knowing a good thing when she sees it and not wanting to cut off his support, she goes. There she meets a woman who we immediately sense is a little odd – and so does Julia – who asks Julia for help. You see, she’s Julia’s neighbor and has seen her before. She’s got a son named Tom whose evil grandfather, she explains, won’t let her see him. It would be simple, she explains to an eye-rolling, agitated and bored Julia, to simply kidnap Tom when he’s out on a picnic and zip off to her family home in Mexico where there’s tons of money and a perfect life just waiting for her – and for Julia too if she’s willing to help out. At first Julia says the same thing we do – “Are you nuts?” – but then she starts to see that maybe it could work, she could help out for a little bit and get a huge payoff for merely driving a car. And that’s as much as you can know before watching it because part of the major interest of the film is watching how Julia’s terrible judgment – but also her quick-witted thinking – keeps things moving.
 And once things start to roll, there’s no stopping it. Julia moves from one situation to the next, behaving badly and foolishly in a way that’s sometimes uncomfortable to watch, sometimes perversely funny as when she slurs to the kid she’s trying to kidnap “I can see you’re mad at me.” The movie could easily have been a generic road-movie comedy with an edge – there are a lot of films with a grouchy adult paired with an annoying kid where we come to like both of them by the end – but this is not that movie. It pulls inspiration from John Cassavetes’ 1980 film Gloria, where Gena Rowlands is a gangster’s former flame who ends up protecting a kid when the mob wipes out his family but misses him. For me, this film is even better than its inspiration, and that’s largely due to Swinton’s amazing performance which, again, puts you in a position of sympathy with a woman you probably shouldn’t be sympathizing with. She simply nails the mind and mannerisms of an alcoholic, constantly assessing the way to use her assets to turn any situation to her best immediate advantage, which proves to be what keeps her alive and moving in the film as things go from bad to worse.
- Patrick Brown

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On #73 - Lou Reed – The Blue Mask

This is where Mr. Heroin grows up. There had been increasingly overt hints that he might go this way on his previous three albums, but here he’s fully engaged with opening up his adult side rather than merely flirting with the idea. Which is not to say that he’s given up the extremes of his youth. Or rather, he may have given them up – when the album was recorded he was clean and sober, had married and settled into a home in New Jersey – but he hadn’t forgotten those extremes. Maybe he wasn’t the reporter filling us in on the seedy underbelly of New York nightlife anymore, but his writing stemmed from that base even if he wasn’t sending his reports from the gutter. Predictably, fans of his early sex/drugs/rock & roll phase have had strong reactions against the album, connecting only with the music at its most brutal as in the harrowing title cut’s examination of a masochist that makes “Venus in Furs” seem like a naïvely decadent tale and in the illumination of a paranoid drug addict’s mindset in “Waves of Fear,” featuring a brilliantly splintery and abstract solo from co-guitarist Robert Quine. Some may also connect with the straightforward examination of the alcoholic of “Underneath the Bottle” or the disturbingly deadpan delivery of “The Gun,” recalling his unjudgmental tales of squalor from the early Velvet Underground days.
But the claque of fans expecting him to live out their sordid fantasies for the rest his career don’t get Lou. And since the record’s release in 1982 they’ve had a hard time understanding the simple beauty and delicacy of songs like “My House,” celebrating his friend and mentor Delmore Schwartz, or "Women," in which he extols Bach, poetry and wine with his sex, and "Heavenly Arms," in which he extols the virtues of then-wife Sylvia. And there’s no parallel in his catalog for the direct, adult rumination of something like “The Day John Kennedy Died,” featuring Doane Perry’s light touch on the drums and Fernando Saunders’ evocative fretless bass work, both of which help define the sound of this album. Of course Perry and Saunders can also rise to the occasion to meet the muscular drive of “The Blue Mask” or “Waves of Fear” on command but it’s the way the band interacts across the board in all modes here that defines the way Lou’s career would move from this album forward. It’s not that he’d never married delicacy and noise, he did that from the very first Velvets album, but he’d never written things in such a direct and straightforwardly adult manner before. He’d also never delivered a vocal performance like this, putting aside the “flat bark” and sneer Lester Bangs identified in his 1970’s albums in favor of a vocal with real strength and reach, especially on the two powerhouse cuts, and made all the more affecting because of the simple beauty and understatement of his love songs.
Sure, there’s some rough stuff here, but it’s something Lou is decidedly positing as part of his past, and it’s that dichotomy between the rockers and the ballads that more than ever in his career throws people for a loop. From here, he’d continue to mine this vein of material for several more albums, most notably this one’s terrific follow-up, the (presently) import only Legendary Hearts, culminating in his most likeable album, New York. But The Blue Mask is where he first drew together the threads of his 70’s and with a new, great group in tow knotted them into one of his best ever albums that would point a new way forward for his career. -Patrick

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Fables of the Reconstruction: Low-Hanging Fruit, Pt. 1

For the past couple of months I’ve been feeding on low-hanging fruit -- stuff that’s plentiful in the used vinyl bins, and cheap. I like to go to the record store with a hundred bucks or so and come home with more records than I can hold in my arms. The trick is to like music that other people have liked enough to buy but not enough to keep. Lots of other people. Big-label stuff from the halcyon days of the record business, the 70s and 80s. Records that sold by the thousands and hundreds of thousands but never became universally accepted as must-haves. There are a lot of wonderful things to be found within these broad parameters. Here are a few of my recent favorites.

Gentle Giant – Free Hand and Interview
These records came out near the end of the band’s life, when they were at the peak of their creativity and skill, and they’re unlike any records made by any artists before or after. They weren’t the big breakout hits the band hoped they’d be, but they sold better than anything else they’d done, though they’re less sought after today than their earlier records. They’re less like collections of rock tunes than compositions of abstract aural patterns. Which is not to say they’re muddy mélanges of free-form psychedelia and noise; weird as the arrangements are, they’re always accessible and often infectious. The same can be said of Gentle Giant’s earlier records, with their mix of hard-rock edginess and the complexities of classical music, but what makes these stand out in my collection (besides their cheap price) is how far they lean forward, especially Interview, which weaves strands of as-yet undefined new wave into the pastiche, particularly on track two, “Give It Back,” with its odd electrified and heavily layered polyrhythmic reggae vibe. I’ve listened to this record many times and every time it surprises me. It’s just some of the most unusual and unusually well done music in my collection.

Kinks – Soap Opera and Schoolboys in Disgrace
If you put any stock in the ratings on AllMusic, you’re bound to think the Kinks hit a low in the mid-1970s, at the tail end of their run of concept records. Don’t believe them. Reading the reviews for Soap Opera and its immediate predecessor Schoolboys in Disgrace (which earned one and two stars respectively) I expected a couple of pretentious, sprawling, incoherent, prog-rock wannabe pieces of crap. Nothing could be further from the truth. They’re both tight collections jam-packed with high-quality, hard-rocking pop songs – relentlessly fun, catchy and danceable. And funny. Especially Soap Opera, a tale of a rock star who changes places with an everyday bloke and gets trapped in his boring, miserable life. The poor chap has to drink to get some relief from the relentless monotony of it all and, in one of the funniest rock songs of all time, “Ducks on the Wall,” he falls into sexual frustration because of his new wife’s turn-off taste in interior design (“I love you baby, but I just can’t ball with those ducks on the wall!”). Great stuff to crank when you’re cleaning the house or drunk.

Fleetwood Mac – Tusk
With the possible exception of Son of Schmilsson, this is the weirdest high-budget, major-studio, top-40 album of all time. It came on the heels of the band’s biggest success, Rumours, and it was said to have cost a million dollars to produce. For most of the record it sounds like they spent that much: flawless late-70s pop, densely layered with lovely sounds from all kinds of different instruments, and dreamy harmony vocals, every note tucked into one another so perfectly that it’s endlessly airy and light. But some of the songs are strangely lo-fi, with fuzzed-out bass lines and guitar solos and spastic beats that sound like they were made with electrified rubber and a bunch of shiny new metal trash cans. And the title track is perhaps the strangest song ever to hit the Billboard top ten, with its marching band core shrouded in echoing crowd sounds and overlays of jungle sounds (“ooga agga ooga”). Back and forth this album goes from the lovely lovelorn dream pop of Christine McVie to the Wiccan crystal melodies of Stevie Nicks to the frantic break-all-the-rules genius of Lindsey Buckingham. Two LPs packed in double inner sleeves made from thick, shiny paper, covered with elaborate and dreamy art inspired by coke, Colombian weed and Cutty Sark. It’s a peerless artifact of a gloriously decadent time. It’s been reissued on heavy audiophile vinyl, but if you’re lucky, like I was, you might just find a pristine copy for six bucks – or less.

Monday, January 7, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #56 - Desperately Seeking Susan (1985, dir. Susan Seidelman)

It’s hard to believe that almost 30 years ago America was in the throes of a love affair with a spunky little upstart pop artist who burst out of the underground club scene and called herself by one mysterious name: Madonna.
Riding a wave of infectious pop hits and mastering the art of the newfound medium of the music video Madonna very quickly built the first floor of her empire on her look, attitude, confidence and charm. Her bra-baring and bangled body were on the cover of every magazine, every television screen and it was only a matter of time until she was set for conquering the biggest screen of all in movie theatres all over the world. At just the right moment in time Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan came around and captured a moment, and more importantly an icon, on film forever.
Seidelman herself had popped out of the underground film world in 1982 with a funky little film called Smithereens that chronicled a young woman’s voyage into the abyss of the New York City punk scene as she danced and romanced her way to infamy. So it seemed like a marriage made in heaven that Madonna would be hand-picked to star opposite Rosanna Arquette in Seidelman’s second film about a housewife named Roberta (Arquette) who, through some unfortunate amnesia and mix-ups, is mistaken for a free spirited NYC drifter (Madonna) named Susan who’s caught up in a jam herself. The film itself is a perfect 80’s romp and would’ve been decent with anyone cast in the lead roles (though extra kudos go to casting a young Aidan Quinn as a hot film projectionist who falls in love with the Susan side of Roberta) but as expected, Madonna steals the show and it’s not such a bad thing.  With Madonna simply existing as “Susan” the young star becomes that person that a bored housewife would love to switch places with and walk a mile in her shoes, or in this case, her jacket.
But just as perfect as Madonna is as Susan (but really as Madonna) her role in Desperately Seeking Susan did an unfortunate thing for the rest of her acting career. It is from this point on that Madonna will never reach the high that she did as Susan because the film does such a great job of capturing not just the time period where Madonna ruled the world but actually casting her in cinematic wax forever as the Madonna that swept us all off of our feet with her spunk and joie de vivre. All of Madonna’s roles post-Susan aimed to turn Madonna into an “actress” who could encompass a variety of different women but sadly, in order to win over America’s cinematic hearts Madonna can only ever be herself.
Don’t cry for her though, Argentina, Desperately Seeking Susan works specifically for its unique time capsule charm just as much as the greatest Madonna video that ever existed. It also contains one of the greatest meta-cinematic scenes for an 80’s comedy when (in a moment of great cross promotion as well) we see Susan leaning up against a jukebox in a club, sipping a drink, as Madonna’s “Get Into The Groove” comes on and fills the room. Coyly trying to flirt with Roberta’s husband, who is looking for her, Susan convinces him to join her on the dance floor for a little story exposition. This scene is delicious in its own self awareness of the star that they got to play herself, playing herself as someone else while helping to find someone who is playing her, all while they dance to the soon to be iconic song by the star just playing herself.
Try not to get dizzy and just get into the groove and watch this awesome film.

- Keith Garcia, Programming Manager Denver Film Society

Friday, January 4, 2013

Soundtribe Sector Nine Live at Twist and Shout December 28th, 2012

Last Friday we had an in-store performance with Sound Tribe Sector Nine (also known as STS9). State Farm Insurance ran a nationwide contest where approximately twenty-two people plus their guests won the chance to see STS9 in our store. The event would be a private, after-hours performance for just a few lucky winners. The grand prize winner won a five hundred dollar gift card and got to do some shopping with the band members. The contest winners were a mix of regular customers and first time visitors, but all the winners were excited to see one of their favorite bands close up in such a small setting. All of the winners got a meet and greet with a signed CD, so it was a very fun atmosphere leading up to the performance. We started the concert right after closing and the band played for less than sixty people. The crowd consisted of winners, friends of the band, band wives, plus Twist and Shout crew. This intimate show rocked with STS9 playing tunes they were not going to play during their three day stint at the Fillmore to celebrate New Year's. It was a truly special treat for these super fans, because most of them had bought three-day passes to the NYE shows. The sound was amazing and the band gave great energy to the dancing fans. They are an instrumental band that plays a hybrid of funk, jazz, jam and electronic music which has been tagged as "Livetronica". Their normal set is bombastic and a huge production, so by STS9 standards this was a stripped down and almost acoustic version of a regular show. It was a pleasure to host such a unique event and we enjoyed watching the fans as they got a chance to meet their favorite band. It was a joy to work with members of Sound Tribe Sector Nine, they were warm and sincere with all of us and we are hopeful that we can have them back for a public event!

Grand Prize winner with bass player David Murphy

STS9 signed our giant turntable in the vinyl room.