Tuesday, February 26, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On #76 - Bob Dylan - Oh Mercy

1989.  A year a lot of people were waiting for, waiting for the 80s to end.  Yes, there were some good times in that decade, but many of us who lived through it couldn't wait for it to be over, envisioning a much more radical 1990s and the count up to a millennium that would either bring the end of the world or a new era of growth and change.  For me, 1989 was also the year I graduated high school.  I was more than ready to throw off the bonds of conformity and complacency and move on to life's next chapter.  High school had more than a few good times of its own and I had my own personal coping devices to get me through.  A major one, probably the biggest, was the music of Bob Dylan.  I got into Dylan just as high school was starting.  There weren't too many other Dylan fans at my school and when we found each other it was like exchanging a secret handshake.  Of course, why would 80s high schoolers care about Dylan in the first place?  He was a relic from a previous era who wasn't making much relevant music at the time.  The Dylan albums I obsessed over were some 20 years old, primarily Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited.  Like most artists of his time, Dylan spent most of the 80s making slick, over-produced albums of sub-par material.  And as the contemporary bands I listened to, like The Replacements and Husker Du, were primarily ignored by the public at large, it seemed like I was living in an era where rock and roll was dead or dying.  We needed to desperately slam the door on the 80s and try again in the 90s.  Lo and behold, Bob Dylan played a major part in slamming that door shut.  He released an album called Oh Mercy.
Now Dylan's previous 80s albums weren't all terrible.  1983's Infidels is pretty good and there are some gems to be found digging through Down in the Groove.  What he really needed were sympathetic collaborators to help get him out of his rut.  Bono from U2 suggested he hook up with producer Daniel Lanois.  Dylan wisely took this advice and headed down to New Orleans to meet up with Lanois and a group of local musicians.  It didn't hurt that he brought with him his best batch of songs since the mid-70s.  The album opens with the fiery thrust of "Political World."  This angry, impassioned number flew in the face of the entire previous decade.  Everything is not alright, the captain is asleep at the switch, and the ship is going down.  The bluesy "Everything Is Broken" echoes this message.  But all is not doom and gloom.  The hopeful and uplifting "Ring Them Bells" follows.  It has a spiritual feel to it and is much more effective than the dogmatic Christian records he released in the late 70s and early 80s.  It's been covered many times and old flame Joan Baez even used it as the title song for her 1995 album.
Another oft-covered song is the far more darker "The Man in the Long Black Coat."  Corruption and temptation are given the form of a demonic creature who nonetheless converts all he encounters into following his wicked ways.  But is it this mysterious stranger who is at fault, or those all too eager to follow?   Perhaps the album's most haunting track is "Most of the Time."  Dylan has been an expert at crafting infectious songs out of sexual politics since his classic mid-60s recordings.  Here he confronts the lies we tell ourselves when a relationship goes sour and the longing that never seems to go away.  It stands as one of the all time great Dylan songs of loss and regret.  Self-doubt seems to dominate the rest of the album from the sparse "What Good Am I?" to the quietly funky "What Was It You Wanted?"  The album closes with the poignant "Shooting Star" which assesses Dylan's perception of his own place in the world as a legend who may or may not have anything left to offer the world.
As it turns out, Dylan still had a lot to offer and still does to this day.  His comeback wasn't firmly cemented with Oh Mercy as his next few releases were another mixed bag.  But he reteamed with Lanois again in 1997 for Time Out of Mind, which may actually be an even better album, and hasn't looked back since.  He has been as relevant to modern times as he was in his 60s heyday.  High school kids even listen to him.  And they have the advantage of having current Dylan music to call their own, in addition to all the great material from the past 50 years.  There were several other cultural touchstones that came along in 1989 to help usher the decade out the door.  Neil Young had his own comeback album Freedom.  Faith No More and Nine Inch Nails released albums that would soon break through into the mainstream, heralding the alternative rock explosion of the early 90s.  Yes, real rock & roll was back in vogue.  No, the 90s weren't perfect and had plenty of problems of their own.  But for me, I was in college, had a group of friends I could really relate to (and are still friends to this day), and didn't get weird looks when I told people what music I listened to.  And that included saying that my all-time favorite artist is Bob Dylan.
            - Adam Reshotko

Monday, February 18, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #59 -‘Round Midnight (1986, dir. Bertrand Tavernier)

I have always maintained that there are very few movies about music that actually get it right. For a variety of reasons, Hollywood needs to dumb down the artistic and human aspects of musicians the same way it does with cops, cowboys and young lovers. It all just comes across as phony. ‘Round Midnight on the other hand takes a far more prosaic, realistic and human turn, presenting the story of a jazz musician who is three-dimensional, fraught with weakness and utterly believable. In one of the greatest casting coups in film history, director Bertrand Tavernier cast real-life jazz giant Dexter Gordon as the pro/ant-agonist of his melancholy character study that perfectly captures the grey-hued realities of an artistic life reaching its natural denouement.
Dexter Gordon’s character, Dale Turner, is a composite of Bud Powell, Lester Young and Gordon himself. The movie takes place in 1959 Paris, the same year that Bud Powell and Lester Young lived and played there and when Gordon himself performed a famous session with Powell, observing first hand the decline of a once great player. This very intermingling of fact, fiction and insight is ultimately what makes ‘Round Midnight so successful. Dale Turner is living and playing in Paris to small, adoring audiences, but his life is a shambles: he is a hopeless alcoholic, he suffers from crippling depression, he is broke and alone in the world and as he proclaims “I’m tired of everything but the music.” This is much the same state both Young and Powell found themselves in during this time period. Bud Powell met and befriended a Frenchman named Francis Paudras who became his caretaker and savior in many ways. It is in this historical detail that the movie finds its central theme. The relationship that Dale Turner and Francis develop; slowly, carefully, poignantly growing from hero worship to co-dependence, to nurturance is drawn with such aching realism that it almost transcends the movie’s many other virtues. Francis saves Turner’s life, returns some sense of pride to the wounded warrior and in exchange Turner opens his heart and mind to Francis and his young daughter as they struggle to become some kind of fractured family unit. The stability of family and a temporary respite from drink allow Turner to play with renewed vitality, and it is in the music that ‘Round Midnight finds its other pillar of greatness. With a who’s who of 60’s and 70’s jazz greats led by music director Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, Ron Carter, Billy Higgins, John McLaughlin, and many other top-notch players give the movie absolute musical veracity. The band plays tight, perfect arrangements as Dexter carefully lays out his patented solos with unimaginable tone and restraint. The director gives the music enough time to seep into the fabric of the movie. It isn’t a movie with a soundtrack, it is a movie where the music is one of the stars.
As Turner comes back to life, he is inexorably drawn back to America. Francis takes him to New York City where temptation, corruption and more sadness await. They part, Francis returning to Paris to fix his own life and relationships, Dale Turner to sadly go down in flames much as Lester Young and Bud Powell did. The sad arc of the action never feels clichéd because it is all based on true life stories.
The real miracle of ‘Round Midnight is Dexter Gordon’s enchanting, heartbreaking, almost mystical performance as Dale Turner. He fills every frame with honesty and pathos that could only be born of hard experience. He doesn’t play it for cheap sentiment either; we see him as an incorrigible alcoholic, an uninvolved parent, and a drifter without home. But, at the same time we are shown a man of rare artistic temperament, deeply sensitive to his own muse and living for one thing; he states near the end of the movie, “I’m dying of everything…except music,” and it is clear that what he really means is he is living only for music.
Compared to other movies about legendary musicians, ‘Round Midnight succeeds as a complex, nuanced exploration of the artistic impulse and its double-edged sword: talent. Instead of wallowing in heroic cliché or romantic bullshit it attempts to look gritty reality square in the eye. ‘Round Midnight strikes true as an exploration of music, musicians and those who circle their orbit. It is an unforgettable look at a unique time and place in the history of jazz.
            - Paul Epstein

Friday, February 15, 2013

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On #75 - Beastie Boys - Hello Nasty

            When Hello Nasty was released in 1999, I think it was the victim of heightened expectations. Most fans liked it OK, but adjudged it a major letdown after Check Your Head and Ill Communication. For me, it’s better than either of its immediate predecessors and time has shown that it pointed the direction the group would end up heading for the rest of their career. And more than that – where Check Your Head, to the delight of many fans, found the band putting their dusty old instruments back in their hands to jam with the inspired amateurism that’s the hallmark of punk rock, it also set them on the wrong-headed idea that they could do no wrong as that rambling album became noted as a landmark and a new direction. And it was a new direction, I suppose, but it just wasn’t as good as what’s they’d done before. Ill Communication was a refinement of the ideas there and in some ways a move to break away from Check Your Head, but it wasn’t until they enlisted turntablist DJ Mixmaster Mike and settled on a decidedly retro/electro sound for Hello Nasty that the group righted the drift of the last couple albums and put them back on par with the denser, subtler work they essayed with Paul’s Boutique.
            For a little enlightenment about the record, I would direct you past the songs that I hope you already understand and enjoy - "Intergalactic" (and its great video) and "Body Movin'" and "Three MC's and One DJ" - to two other, subtler tracks that absolutely kill - "Flowin' Prose" and the Lee 'Scratch' Perry feature "Dr. Lee, PhD" where the great dub artist fits right in the varied, catchy picture (and also, probably joking, calls them the Beastly Boys). Subtle is the key word for this album. Beyond “Intergalactic” (which marks the last time the Boys were in the Billboard top 30), this album doesn’t jump out at you with a “Fight For Your Right to Party,” a “Sabotage,” a “Hey Ladies.” It marks their move to a more mature sound and style, even while keeping a youthful freshness to the proceedings. “Flowin’ Prose” does just what the title promises while “Dr. Lee, PhD” jokes back and forth with Perry as peers, not students. Well, maybe T.A.’s in the Doctor’s master class, but still, it’s not a one-sided collaboration by any means. Maybe these two don't prove anything. Maybe the album's too long (though I can't find a cut I would want nixed). Maybe people just still wanted that stand up bass sound they had when they played at being a "live" band. Maybe I don't know what people want. But I do know one thing for sure - this album works for me from beginning to end. Throw it on, let the prose flows go, and you’re sure to get the spirit. And unlike both Check Your Head and Ill Communication before it, it doesn’t tail off at the end.
- Patrick Brown

Friday, February 8, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #58 - Dillinger (1973, dir. John Milius)

I was working on a short movie when I was in film school and I needed the sound of gun shot, so I went to Video Station and rented Dillinger, the 70s version, directed by John Milius. I chose it because I remembered watching it in high school and being astounded by the endless shootout scenes. They were riotous cacophonies of nonstop gunfire – pistols, shotguns, machine guns. So understand that first: this is a violent film. In addition to being shot, people get beat up and run over by cars. But it’s a rather beautiful film, too, with carefully composed and atmospheric shots showing the Midwest as it might have looked in the Great Depression. And between the outbursts of riotous violence, there are scenes of almost hypnotic quiet and artful pacing. The influence of the great Italian cinema of the 60s, most notably Antonioni and Bertolucci, seems clear here, and Milius is in this 1973 movie no doubt trying to keep pace with the young American auteurs of the “New Hollywood” – Terrence Malick, Arthur Penn, John Schlesinger. And Francis Ford Coppola, with whom Milius would later collaborate on Apocalypse Now. I caught it on a late show when my parents were out of town and I had the whole house to myself, and I was absolutely mesmerized by it, which, considering that I had a powerful stereo and a dozen or so other cable channels vying for my attention says a lot, I think, about its aesthetic appeal.
Still, I can’t overstress that this is a violent and macho film that’s not even remotely politically correct – the women characters are beaten often and hard, and their only reaction, other than tears, is a sort of resigned gratitude, and in one scene the movie’s lone black character gets angry but is offered chicken and he calms down right away. Despite his work on Apocalypse Now, which would seem to suggest an artistic bent, Milius’s career milieu has stayed more or less in the realm of adventure, violence and manliness, and Dillinger fits right in. Dillinger, played brilliantly Warren Oates, is an anti-hero whose lack of classic handsomeness is compensated for with undiluted confidence and unlawful bravery. All his life he wanted to not only be a bank robber but to be the best one America had ever seen – a legend. He’s pursued by Melvin Pervis, the original FBI “G-Man,” played by Ben Johnson (whose performance calls to mind Hank Hill of King of the Hill, only a lot meaner). His sole aim is to shoot Dillinger himself in vengeance for the death of a friend and colleague in the legendary Kansas City Massacre, and to smoke a cigar over his dying body. Yet this is Milius’s big attempt at art cinema, and beyond the plot and the Hollywood shoot-em-up conventions there’s a kind of cinematic music going on in the images and editing and the texture and mood of the scenes. Though not consistently gorgeous throughout, the way other great films of the time were (Godfather, Godfather II, Badlands), it has moments, many of them, as well as some terrific montages of black-and-whites of those very hard times.
Also, like almost all movies from bygone days about bygone days, the film offers an interesting perspective on the changing times. Watching it recently, I couldn’t help but think about the current debate on gun laws, in no small part because of the many references in the film to the NRA – the New Deal one, the National Recovery Administration. It was the very real gun battles that this film is was based on that that lead to our country’s earliest gun control measures, the ban on machine guns from the general public. As I watched I wondered if the stories in this film are what today’s NRA have in mind they talk about the Second Amendment as a safeguard against a tyranny, if this is the kind of the world they want us to go back to (remember that it was a long succession of Republicans in the White House who lead us to the Great Depression). Maybe the violence between the feds and the freedom-loving bad guys that makes this film so exciting and loud, maybe that’s the kind of America Wayne LaPierre wants us to live in again.
- Joe Miller

Friday, February 1, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On #74 - Stereolab - Emperor Tomato Ketchup

Stereolab is the band that defines the seemingly contradictory concept of retro-futurism.  Odd elements of the past collide with visions of the future with the dream of creating a better present.  Bob Moog guides the music, Karl Marx inspires the lyrics.  Krautrock meets sunshine pop as lyrics switch from English to French, though the dreamy vocals make it easy to forget any content behind the loveliness.  Stereolab had been doing their thing since the dawn of the 90s but it all came together with 1996's Emperor Tomato Ketchup.  Led by the musical and romantic partnership of Tim Gane and Laetitia Sadier, the band's lineup and sound was constantly expanding throughout the decade.  The guitar-based sound of their earliest recordings was now enhanced by vintage synths, vibes, percussion, strings and other odds and ends, all combined with catchy melodies and the incomparable vocals of Sadier and the late, great Mary Hansen.
The album kicks off with "Metronomic Underground" and there couldn't be a more appropriate way to start.  A simple, funky drumbeat backed by primitive electronic noises is soon joined by an infectious bassline.  More and more instruments join in as well as looping vocals as the jam grows for nearly eight minutes.  This is followed by the string-enhanced pop of "Cybele's Reverie," still one of the band's most popular songs.  Throughout the album, the band manages to move in different directions while maintaining a distinct sound of their own.  The sunshine pop of "Spark Plug" gives way to the motorik beat of "OLV 26."  "The Noise of Carpet" is a guitar-based rocker that was released as a single in the U.S.  It didn't burn up the charts here as it's not exactly the grunge-alternative sound that dominated radio at the time.  But looking back, it fits right in with the direction bands like Radiohead were heading.  The back half of the album is loaded with gems too, like the organ driven "Motoroller Scalatron" and the haunting closer "Anonymous Collective."
Stereolab continued to grow and evolve.  Albums such as Dots and Loops and Sound-Dust are also excellent.  Unfortunately, the group was dealt a serious blow when Mary Hansen was killed in a bicycle accident in 2002.  They continued to make good music but a key spark was definitely missing.  The band is now on an indefinite hiatus but has left a huge catalog of great music waiting to be discovered.  Emperor Tomato Ketchup is the best place to start, then move both forwards and backwards in time, as such non-linear movement is what Stereolab is all about.
            - Adam Reshotko