Tuesday, March 26, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On #78 - Freddie Hubbard – Red Clay

To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of Freddie Hubbard. He’s a remarkable player and a brilliant technician, but I have found his records to be a little lacking somehow. But since he played on seminal recordings by a couple of my all-time faves in the jazz world – Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz and John Coltrane’s Ascension – I persevered with him. Didn’t help his case with me that he dismissed these albums I love as chaotic free-for-alls rather than the remarkable statements they were and are. But all it took was a listen to this album, recorded in January 1970, to turn me around on the man – or at least on this record.
First off, he’s surrounded by a great band and that helps things considerably. With two of Miles Davis’ 1960’s sidemen, Herbie Hancock (on electric piano and organ) and Ron Carter (on bass), backing him Hubbard’s music is sure to groove in the fashion of such then-contemporary late 60’s Miles albums as Miles in the Sky and Filles de Kilimanjaro, all lengthy workouts that take their time to develop, sometimes playing it laid back and cool, and other times erupting with the fire Hubbard commands so readily. Nice too that drummer Lenny White, another Davis alum fresh off the previous summer’s sessions for the not-yet released Bitches Brew album, knows his way around the kinds of contemporary rhythms that Hubbard was seeking here. And also quite nice that Hubbard has tapped the chameleonic tenor sax player Joe Henderson as his front line partner, given that Henderson could fit into any surroundings from straight ahead swing to some pretty “out” jazz.
But it’s all grounded by Hubbard himself, who has found a framework for his spectacular playing and also written a batch of tunes that showcase him and his band to their best. The first half is very much in the mode of the times, ushering in the 1970’s with the title cut’s relaxed grooving and “Delphia,” a waltz-time ballad that develops into something more mid-tempo. In both of these cuts, it’s odd how Herbie Hancock’s keyboards quietly comp their way into the forefront of the sound, even while the trumpet and saxophone takes flights of fancy over the top of the rhythms. The second half is something more akin to the hard bop that Hubbard is most associated with. “Suite Sioux” is a fast burner, with tangly solos from both Hubbard and the consummate sideman Henderson over the lightning rhythms, while “The Intrepid Fox” uses tricky changes to close out the regular album. Closing out this CD though are a pair of bonus cuts – a fine alternate take of the title cut and a take on John Lennon’s “Cold Turkey” that starts out as raw and off-puttingly harrowing as the original, but settles into a groove more in the style of the rest of the record.
I’ll admit it – Hubbard rubbed me the wrong way at first and I still cringe at his comments about great records he participated in that he failed to see the worth of, but if I had gone in blind on the evidence of this record, it never would’ve taken me as long to learn what his strengths are.
- Patrick Brown

Friday, March 22, 2013

I'd Love to Make You Laugh #2 - Tim Northern - Second CD

Welcome readers to the second installment in the I'd Love To Make You Laugh portion of Spork where I will be reviewing the latest and greatest in the stand-up comedy world. This time I will be reviewing National club comedian Tim Northern's second CD, Second CD.

Mr. Northern is a veteran in the college and comedy club scene nationally as well as a finalist on CBS's Star Search. He can be heard here locally on Denver's own Comedy 103.1, where he has not only been highlighted as a performer but as host as well.

Word play! That is the best way for me to describe Tim Northern's laid-back yet cerebral approach to stand-up comedy. Ben Stein has been quoted as saying, "I love the fact that he assumes his audience has a brain." Mr. Northern himself has stated, "That's what I'm striving for. I provide two-thirds of the joke, and you provide the other third. It's like 'do-it-yourself comedy." This sort of delivery is brave as it relies on a crowd that is open to and ready to do some thinking.

The first thing I must point out about Tim Northern's Second CD is the track listing. Do not pay attention to it as an indicator of things to come as they are a joke in themselves and not reflective of the material. Tim starts this set by giving the crowd a personal standing ovation for being out on a Sunday night. He then begins to spin his magic at word play by indicating to the crowd that he has just learned to read and while finding it frustrating, ultimately jokes: "reading is cool man."

Things really get going with Tim's now famous take on Dr. Seuss's Green Eggs and Ham and his musings on his newly found reading skills. Observations on his midget brother the professional Foosball player, rat poison intolerance, his deep love of pancakes and going on the "patch" keep the listener’s mind working in tune with the audience.

Not only does Tim excel at word play but his impressions of Richard Pryor, Samuel L. Jackson, Dyslexic Italians and others are truly a fresh take on the "impression" genre. Tim's love life, issues with the Internet and working in the community are next up as his famous "Tits for Tats for Tots" campaign is born.

Bits such as Dyslexic Bob, getting healthy in the non-smoky mountains with bi-polar bears, doing a show at the zoo and a Dead Poet's Society Basketball game help round out a truly thought provoking 16 track CD. As a bonus let the last track run and hear some hilarious out takes with Tim Northern and son!

Recorded in front of an all-ages crowd in Louisville, Kentucky by Joe "Dookie" Dutkiewicz and edited by Ross Duncliffe. Tim Northern's Second CD is a must own for fans of clean cerebral comedy with great word play. Available NOW in comedy section at Twist & Shout!

            - Jeff Albright

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #61 - Scarface (1932, dir. Howard Hawks)

There once was a gangster film about an ambitious crime lord and his ruthless and violent rise to power trafficking in illegal substances. He was played with consummate skill by a chameleonic actor of the first rank, who many claimed exaggerated the character’s non-American accent to the point of parody. The film was exceedingly violent, simultaneously drawing the ire of censorship boards and thrilling audiences seeking an exciting glimpse into the network of the criminal underworld. That film is Scarface. But I’m not talking about the one with Al Pacino, I’m talking about the 1932 one with Paul Muni from which director Brian DePalma and screenwriter Oliver Stone took big chunks in their 1983 homage to director Howard Hawks and screenwriter Ben Hecht’s groundbreaking film based loosely on the life of Al Capone (here named Tony Carmonte). And where DePalma’s film goes gleefully over the top in tandem with its lead character, Hawks’ film is more restrained, more tightly controlled, and probably more thrilling in the long run – but no less violent in intent.
            Producer Howard Hughes, who had previously bankrolled the drama Hell’s Angels, featuring the most spectacular plane stunts ever put on film to that date (or perhaps ever), wanted to comment on what he felt was a scourge undermining the country during Prohibition – organized crime – and decided to make the most realistic and upsetting portrait of it ever put on film, pushing the violence of great earlier crime films like Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, and Underworld to the limit. And push it he did. Along with director Howard Hawks, they fashioned a crime epic that in no way undercut the viciousness, the brutality of the crime world of the day, even though their alleged glamorizing of the criminal lifestyle tied them up in battles with censors that delayed the release of the film for nearly a year. With Hawks’ fast, mobile camera crafting a lithe and exciting film, it’s hard not to get swept up in the rush of the rise of Tony Carmonte, though it’s hard to see how the censors could find anything likeable or relatable about his sociopathic violence or his inevitable fall that would be perceived as glamorous. In response to the censors, Hawks and Hughes fashioned a scene in which concerned citizens get to vent to police and government officials their frustration with the mob violence on the streets (including a representative Italian immigrant decrying how these gangsters are giving his people a bad name) and it’s the film’s only bum note, a moralizing aside that only interrupts the flow of an otherwise terrific film.
            Paul Muni as Carmonte is remarkable, playing him in the early scenes as uneducated but not dumb, with an arrogant insouciance that comes from his unshakeable belief that he’s going straight to the top. And he’s right, of course. And in the grand Hawks tradition, there’s a brilliant ensemble cast at work around him: Osgood Perkins (Anthony Perkins’ father) as mob leader Johnny Lovo, Carmonte’s boss; Karen Morley as gangster’s moll Poppy, moving to whoever has the power and money to keep her in style; Ann Dvorak as Tony’s sister Cesca, playing her as flirty but experienced teenager with whom Tony is creepily obsessed; and Boris Karloff as North Side rival boss Gaffney. Hawks’ taut direction (plus the hand of Hughes wanting to push the film further) is also at play in the action scenes, with an terrific nighttime high-speed car chase later in the film that finds Tony shooting it out with some would-be assassins only one of many such scenes. And he’s also got his hand in one of the film’s signatures – a visual “X” motif marking any impending scene of violence, as when a scene recreating the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre moves from seven X’s in the rafters down to a wall showing the shadows of the Massacre taking place. The film moves breathlessly through Carmonte’s rise and fall, and Muni treads a perfect line of nailing this anti-hero whose life is fascinating and repellent in equal measure. It’s a trick that DePalma, Pacino, and Stone would recreate with success in 1983, pushing the envelope for the time of what could be put on screen, but it was done first, and equally well if not better, way back in 1932.
            - Patrick Brown

Friday, March 15, 2013

Fables of the Reconstruction: Herbcraft & MV+EE

Herbcraft has come a long way in the two years since their first album, Herbcraft Discovers the Bitter Water of Agartha. That one was a gem of the DIY psychedelic scene, a terrific concept – a portrait of an imaginary long-lost concept album from 1973. Matt LaJoie, the man behind Herbcraft, recorded it in his bedroom in Portland, Maine, over the course of a snowy weekend. It was one of those great ideas that catches your attention and is executed well enough to hold it through both sides. It’s a little thin and wobbly, sure, but that’s part of its charm. But now, with Herbcraft’s third LP release, The Astral Body Electric, LaJoie is playing with a full band, and the sound is nicely muscled and steady. It’s a major advance down the path to psychedelic godliness. The most dramatic improvement comes with the addition of drums, which were the most conspicuous missing element from the first two records. There’s also some flute and organ mixed in to give it a 60s-Renaissance-Star Trek sort of feel here and there, and LaJoie’s voice is fuller, more confident. Together these new dimensions make this album feel less like a third album and more like a stunning debut. But it’s still Herbcraft. If you liked space-jet-around-the-roomiverse guitar sound of Ashram to the Stars you should be happy here because this record’s full of weird noises. And if you like the plodding-spiritual-pilgrim plot of Agartha, you’ll be happy, too. The Astral Body Electric has that same Third-World-in-outer-space sound. It pulses with a vaguely Middle-Eastern rhythm that would’ve worked well as the soundtrack for just about any scene in The Last Temptation of Christ, and these beats pull the record together like a loop of thread. The structure’s not constricting - quite the opposite - it allows Herbcraft to roam further than they ever have.
            The other thing about The Astral Body Electric is that it was mastered by Matt Valentine of MV+EE, and this factors hugely into its quantum-leap-ness. Valentine uses a technique called Spectrasound. It makes the music sound like it’s coming from all corners of the room. For instance, if you’ve listened to MV+EE’s 2012 release Space Homestead on a good system, you probably noticed that there’s this part where it sounds like someone’s knocking on the walls, outside, across from where your speakers are. That’s Spectrasound. It finds spaces beyond the reaches of the balance knob and fills them with sound. At one point while listening to the new Herbcraft album I got up to see if the washing machine was going berserk way off in the laundry room, but it was just something I was hearing in the music and the Spectrasound. I have no idea how Spectrasound works. I’ve emailed Valentine and asked him. I told him about the wall knocking. All he said was, “it's in the walls alright, heh heh...crackin' me up.” And on the internet the only explanation I could find was this: “MV’s production technique places tones dancing all around the stereo sound field.” Whatever it is, it’s psych-O-delic. Especially on MV+EE’s newest, Fuzzweed. It’s like being in the wormhole Jodi Foster went through at the end of Contact, except it’s low-gravity and slower than the speed of light, and it’ll only get you as far as the sofa and the fridge and back, 40 minutes, round-trip. It’s all good, but side two is the masterpiece: a 20-minute three-parter that starts off as a ghostly folk tune and then just goes off, everywhere, into spiral galaxies ruled by Iron Man and inner spaces made of slide-guitar plumes, and so on, and so forth. I’ve tried to describe it at another site and failed. The best I can do here is to say that if you’ve listened to the last track on Space Homestead, “Porchlight>Leaves,” and dug it, you’ll dig this. That track, the trippiest highlight of that record, is but a road report from the journey to this freaktastic Spectrasymphony.

Monday, March 11, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On #77 - War - The World Is A Ghetto

About 6 and half minutes into the 13-minute, instrumental, cinematic epic “City, Country, City” the listener can’t help but be carried away to a place of all-enveloping grooviness. No matter when you were born, it is immediately “back in the day” and it is summer and everything is cool. War has that effect on a lot of people, and their finest album The World Is A Ghetto is the quickest passport I can think of to that wonderful land of used to be. Considering that The World Is A Ghetto was the best selling album of 1973 according to Billboard, War has been relegated to a historical handful of hip bands that fit into a skin-tight bag of soul/rock that has been, if not forgotten, at least given short shrift by the historical/journalistic arbiters of history. War, like Sly and The Family Stone or Parliament/Funkadelic, sat as comfortably in the record collections of the 1970’s next to The Beatles or Joni Mitchell or The Allman Brothers as they did rubbing shoulders with Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder and James Brown. In other words, War had that rare and uncanny ability to cross the lines of race, class and culture. I don’t mean like in that publicly acceptable Michael Jackson, mass appeal way, I mean that on a Friday night in the mid-70’s no matter what part of town you were from, War was likely to make an appearance on the turntable at some point. Additionally, War became a particular favorite of the Latin culture. At a time when few Latin stars crossed paths with the charts, War spoke directly to that experience, offering up such La Raza classics as “The Cisco Kid,” which opens The World Is A Ghetto, and “Low Rider” a few years later.
Musically, The World Is A Ghetto ticks all the boxes of a conscious, stoner soul classic. Everyone in the band shares in the percussion and vocal duties, which ensures that this band has rhythm and harmony down. In fact, one of the distinctive features of War was that they had a uniquely communal identity (fortunate because they changed personnel over the years) that allowed them to forge a recognizable sound, but not be tied to the relative skills of any one front man. If there was a visual front man it was the only white guy in the group, harmonica player Lee Oskar. With his huge afro, gunslinger’s belt of harmonicas and perpetual motion in time to the music he was great to watch as the band chugged out their sophisticated blend of rock, jazz and soul. The songs are layered with fat bass lines, heavy organ, beds of congas, bongos, timbales, wah-wah guitars and Oskar’s harmonica lines weaving on top of it all with sax player Charlie Miller’s jazzy explorations. This is truly an “all the way through” album. There isn’t a weak cut. From the classic funk riff of “The Cisco Kid” to the ultimate down-tempo stoned contemplation “Four Cornered Room,” to the epic 10 minute title cut, to the album-closing upbeat jam “Beetles In The Bog,” each song is a template for what a band can accomplish with some great songs, some seasoned players and time enough to jam in the studio. You remember; the good old days.
            - Paul Epstein

Monday, March 4, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #60 - Flirting With Disaster (1996, dir. David O. Russell)

Before all the hubbub surrounding his latest Oscar-nominated release in theatres, The Silver Linings Playbook, director David O. Russell has built a career coming from hearty film stock with a slant towards the risk-taking side of being born from independent film. Despite the high caliber releases of such films as Three Kings (which paired him with George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg), The Fighter (Wahlberg again along with Christian Bale) Russell has always circumvented the typical rules of making a Hollywood picture and been one of the few lucky filmmakers (like Soderbergh alongside him) with a Sundance Film Festival teething ring to cut his own swath in mainstream cinema.
But of his earliest films, which includes the hilarious and shocking mother/son incest romp Spanking The Monkey, it is perhaps his second feature, Flirting With Disaster, that packs the most punch as a film merely for the fact that it is one of the greatest filmed comedies of the independent film movement (and probably the best comedy ever released by the Weinstein lorded Miramax films).
In the film we meet Mel and Nancy Coplin (played by a winning Ben Stiller and Patricia Arquette) a young couple with a newborn son that Mel, trying to subvert an identity crisis due to being adopted and having no connection to his roots, refuses to name until he can find his birth parents and find some clarity. Enter Tina Kalb (an always appreciated Tea Leoni) who comes on from the adoption agency as his caseworker (and part-time psychology student) who suggests she join the Coplins in a road trip to meet his birth parents. This plan not only unsettles Nancy, who notices an obvious connection with the pair, but Mel’s adopted parents as well (an amazing Mary Tyler Moore and George Segal) who feel slighted by Mel’s quest and can’t understand how they raised such an ungrateful child. Despite everyone’s pleading Mel & co. set off looking for the Schlichting clan that, due to Tina’s own newbiness, is not as easy as expected. Along the way an old flame of Nancy’s pops up, now a gay cop and seeking to adopt a child with his cop/partner (both played by the great Josh Brolin and Richard Jenkins), which irks Mel beyond words. When everything comes to a boil the time comes to meet the Schlichtings and let’s just say that the true best of this great film is saved for last.
For only being his second feature film Russell pulls some masterful moves with Flirting With Disaster. He hands his shining and hilarious writing to a game cast (there literally isn’t one bad apple in the whole bunch) and builds a house of cards that, the bigger and taller it gets, we can’t wait to watch collapse and fall apart.
After Flirting Russell took a semi-serious turn in his Three Kings but returned to broad comedy with the delicious and perplexing I Heart Huckabees that will remind you of Flirting’s bananas nature and comic genius even more. If there is one thing to find sentimental in Flirting it is simply that we seem to be long past a time when even a risk-taker like Miramax would produce a film as nuanced and honest as this one. The Silver Linings Playbook is great but continues to note a seriousness that often takes away from its fun, but Flirting has nothing to prove except that it exists to make you laugh and remember that a quality comedy isn’t that easy to come by anymore.

Keith Garcia
Programming Manager
Denver Film Society