Thursday, April 25, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On #80 - Sonic Youth - A Thousand Leaves

It's sad but true.  After 30 years, Sonic Youth appears to be done, Thurston Moore & Kim Gordon's domestic split having doomed the band as well.  If this is indeed the end, they have left behind one of the most remarkable and consistently excellent catalogs in rock music.  Has anyone else been so good for so long?  Of course, this is not the rock that blasts from radios and fills stadiums.  It's experimental, often noisy, occasionally spacey, yet mostly rocks the way the best rock does.  The albums Sister and Daydream Nation are acknowledged classics while Goo and Dirty were semi-popular in the alterna-grunge explosion of the early 90s.  But as the decade wore on and trends faded, Sonic Youth continued to explore, taking their music further out and expanding their sound.  1998's A Thousand Leaves is full of long songs and moody moments as the band stretches out and explores.

Long songs are nothing new for Sonic Youth.  A decade before, they made Daydream Nation a double LP in order to hold several songs that stretched to 7 or 8 minutes.  On A Thousand Leaves, they use the CD format to expand even further.  The album starts off with perhaps its most experimental track, "Contre le Sexisme," which finds Kim Gordon doing what appears to be stream-of-conscious spoken word over moody atmospherics.  This is followed by its most straight-forward rocker, the catchy "Sunday."  Things really start to grow with the epic "Wild Flower Soul."  Starting with a blast of noise, the song then retreats back to quieter yet catchy verses that slowly build to a dramatic climax.  This is big, epic rock as filtered through SY's unique sensibility.

The album's other long songs go in different directions as well.  "Hits of Sunshine" is dedicated to the then-recently departed Allen Ginsberg and is appropriately rambling, jammy and poetic, the perfect tribute to the poet who bridged the gap between the beats, hippies and punks.  Lee Ranaldo's "Karen Koltrane" is another long rambler, but with the atmospheric noise that has often characterized Ranaldo's contributions to the band.  The album concludes with a pair of quiet yet catchy numbers.  Moore's "Snare, Girl" has a light, bouncy feel.  Gordon closes things out with the soaring "Heather Angel."  A Thousand Leaves may not have the reputation of Sonic Youth's better known works, but it is every bit as good and a reminder of just how amazing this band could be.  Though they may be done, Ranaldo's recent solo album and Moore's Chelsea Light Moving project prove the members are still making engaging, challenging music.  And their catalog is full of excellent albums to explore and experience.

- Adam Reshotko

Monday, April 22, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #64 - Glengarry Glen Ross (1992, dir. James Foley)

When I moved to Denver in 1968 and was enrolled in Denver Public Schools a weird thing happened one day when our class was interrupted and a tall man with oily black hair, large pores and a strong southern accent came into our classroom and gave us a pitch about selling his line of plastic combs to our families and neighbors. He told us we could win prizes and that the experience would build character. I might be wrong, but I don’t think it was ever made clear to us kids what the ostensible school-related or charitable reason was that this frightening scumbag was allowed into our school day. We were pretty much forced to participate and I remember not doing that well and my Dad being pissed that he had to buy these crappy red combs. That experience stuck with me for the rest of my life. I have met many salesmen over the years and some have been very nice people, but that “type,” that brand of peculiarly American snake-oil salesman remains a reality in modern life and is still to be regularly encountered. No movie has ever quite gotten this phenomenon as perfectly as Glengarry Glen Ross. Combining the greatest ensemble cast since Twelve Angry Men with David Mamet’s precise, biting, insightful and torturous dialogue and director James Foley’s claustrophobic filming, Glengarry Glen Ross is a modern masterpiece of existential angst.
Are you familiar with Gil Gunderson, the character on The Simpsons who is perpetually at the end of line at another dead end job? Gil is a caricature of Jack Lemmon’s character in Glengarry. Lemmon is Shelly “The Machine” Levine the most pitiful, washed-up, sad excuse for a salesman since Willy Loman in Death Of A Salesman, whose plight, along with three other losers (Alan Arkin, Ed Harris and Al Pacino) are trying to complete high pressure sales of bad real-estate developments to confused old people and cold call victims. They exist in a high-pressure office environment run by a lizard of a man brilliantly played by Kevin Spacey, where they are subjected to threats, abuse and a competitive system that threatens their job at all times. The movie begins with one of the greatest scenes ever as Alec Baldwin comes to the office to give a “motivational” speech. He lays out the incentive package thusly; “first prize is a Cadillac, second prize is a set of steak knives, third prize is you’re fired.” It is with this pressure that we crawl under a rock with these men and see how bad a job can be. Pacino is riveting as the egotistical Rickie Roma, a man with the ability to figure out people’s particular weaknesses and then exploit that information to sell them something they don’t want. He’s despicable but it is impossible to take your eyes off him. It is one of his great performances on screen. In fact, each actor offers a once-in-a-lifetime performance. The movie lives with the men as they inhabit this office, trying to arrange what they call “sits” where they actually get with their prospective client and wear them down until they sign a contract to buy one of their housing developments which carry names like Glengarry Estates. The outside world is treated like just another nasty character, bringing either pouring rain or blinding light. Their life is a pitiful string of lies, exaggerations and affronts on the bottom of the investment chain.
To give away the specifics of the plot would spoil the film as it unwinds into a bleak void of bad intentions and even worse results. It is a cautionary tale about how greed and the drive to gain money can put people on a slippery slope to reprehensible behavior. There are no good guys and everyone involved gets covered in monkey stink by the end. Glengarry Glen Ross achieves greatness through the pressure cooker environment it creates as these sad men try to claw their way to the top of a very small hill. David Mamet is perhaps the greatest practitioner of biting, tough language filled with soliloquy, which gets straight to the underbelly of the American dream. I find watching this movie to be a devastating experience. I can only take it about once a decade, but I find it must be seen repeatedly. Whenever I question my career decisions or the path my life has taken, Glengarry Glen Ross becomes a useful point of reference.

- Paul Epstein

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Fables of the Reconstruction: Low-Hanging Fruit Pt. 4 - Gatefolds

If you really want to get into the spirit of Record Store Day, squeeze through the used aisles and pick up a few gatefolds. These oversized works of mass-produced art are the quintessential vinyl experience. They say you can’t roll a joint on a digital download. But you can eat an entire midnight munchies meal off of an open gatefold. And many of them are cheap cheap cheap. Some of my favorites were a mere $2.99. Like the three Carole King albums I own, Tapestry, Music, and Rhymes & Reasons. All together they cost me less than the price of a good sandwich, and they’re classic specimens, especially the latter two: great big pictures of Carole at a grand piano with her husky at her side and sunlight warming through the window; soft close-ups of her smiling and lost in thought. They’ve got a matte finish with a linen texture that feels nice on your fingers. It’s intimate, like you’re in Carole’s house and sipping tea as she sings to you. And I’m not ashamed to say I love Carole King, gatefold or no. I was a little kid when her music was everywhere and it couldn’t help but shape my mind and soul. “So Far Away” gets me every time, even when Johnny Rivers sings it, which he does quite well on Home Grown, his best, in my opinion. Here the guy who sang “Secret Agent Man” goes on a jag through sunny early 70s commune-esque spirituality. This record also comes in a gatefold. Another matte finish, faux linen, but with lots of pictures of Johnny with a bushy beard, smiling, in meadows full of tall grass and flowers. He sings the hell out of some of the best songs of that era – “Our Lady of the Well,” “Rock Me On the Water,” “Fire and Rain.” Just a gorgeous record.
            Some classic gatefolds don’t qualify as low-hanging fruit because they’re expensive, such as the Rolling Stones Their Satanic Majesties Request, arguably the greatest album cover of all time, at least for people who have taken a lot of acid. A 3D photo of the band in wizard costumes is not easily topped. Inside is a maze and a crazy collage. I got my copy for 70 bucks in Atlanta – the exact same pressing of the one I got for Christmas my junior year in high school, brand new in the shrink-wrap. Probably cost $10 back then. No, what we’re interested in here is art for the poor man: Santana’s Caravanserai – big orange sun over a dark blue sky and desert and camels, inside a gloriously blurry sunset over the ocean; Allman Brothers Eat A Peach – peaches and melons the size of truck beds on the front and back, opens to a vast panorama of Magic Mushroom Land; Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Visions of the Emerald Beyond – mirrored pyramids that rise lengthwise, up and down, one to sunrise, the other to night; Gentle Giant’s Acquiring the Taste looks like a tongue licking an ass until you open and see it’s just a delicious peach; and all those Yes covers by Roger Dean, especially Close To the Edge, which is their best musically, too (even if you hate Yes you should own a Yes/Roger Dean gatefold, it’s an obligation of the hobby). There are so many.

            And if a gatefold isn’t enough, there are double gatefolds, too, and gatefolds with inserts, booklets, and records that aren’t even gatefolds, they just have odd shapes, like The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys and Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory by Traffic, which have two corners cut out and the art is an optical illusion of a 3D box that looks very real if you stare at it long enough. This kind of super packaging is generally the domain of superstars like Elton John, Jefferson Airplane, Harry Nilsson, Joni Mitchell, artists with big budgets and a fondness for excess. After Nilsson Schmilsson, Nilsson was all gatefold for the rest of the 70s. Pussy Cats and Duit On Mon Dei are both triple folds with lyrics on one spread and on the other, collages of snapshots taken during the making of the album, both of which appear to have been outrageous parties. Mitchell uses the double gatefold for her underrated tour de force Mingus to give it more of an art book feel, with her paintings of Charles in fields of white with delicate lines of text here and there. But few can top Elton and the Airplane (and still qualify as low-hanging fruit). Their more elaborately packaged albums are like mixed-media happenings you can hold in your very hands. Elton’s albums have a Hollywood flair. Tumbleweed Connection comes with a twelve-page sepia-tone booklet full of 19th Century old West etchings - trains and riverboats and guns, shots of Elton and his band and lyricist brooding dramatically. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road folds out three ways like one of those reflective things people used to hold up across their chests to get a darker tan. All the lyrics are splayed across in all different colors and each one has its own little illustration, like those old time movie posters with drawings of the actors and the most dramatic scenes. And the whole concept of Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player is a night at the picture show. The cover shows a couple buying tickets at a theater with album’s title across the marquee. Inside, on the left panel, the song titles and album credits are laid out just like a movie poster, and on the right is a big picture of Elton holding his hand out like a stop sign. It’s all colorized and cool looking, and so are all the other photos in the booklet it opens up to. Page after page of groovy cool-colored pictures. It’s just a wonderful artifact. I think mine cost $4. And Jefferson Airplane. Volunteers and Bark: two of the best covers ever made, and both relatively inexpensive. Bark comes in a paper bag with JA printed on the front, just like the old A&P logo. Open it up and on the other side are freak-comic portraits of the band in thick-black ink. The bag is folded over a standard record cover with picture of a dead fish wrapped in paper and tied in string with a bow. And inside is a fold-open lyric sheet printed in red and black, and on the back is a list of things you can do with the bag. A long list and, as you might imagine, some of the suggestions are quite unusual. I love this record, even though it’s not the record I reach for when I want to really listen to the Jefferson Airplane (I play it when I want to hear early, very well done hard rock). When I want the Airplane in its fullest revolutionary glory, it’s gotta be Volunteers, a Woodstock-era masterpiece with the freakiest and coolest mega-gatefold of all times. It’s done up like a newspaper published in Mescaline Land, with phony stories and lots of pictures. It has so much going on, you can stare it for hours. And that’s really what the gatefold is all about – sitting and staring and listening, slowing down, paying attention, making an event out of a collection of music. And isn’t that precisely what we celebrate when we celebrate RSD?

Monday, April 15, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #63 - Mommie Dearest (1981, dir. Frank Perry)

“Hysterical,” an adjective meaning both “prone to excessive or uncontrollable emotion” and “extremely funny,” is probably the best word that can describe the cult film Mommie Dearest, the dramatic interpretation of Christina Crawford’s 1978 tell-all autobiography about life with her glamorous movie star mother Joan Crawford, played by Faye Dunaway.
The story begins at an awkward point in Joan Crawford’s career when she was old enough to be widely respected as an actress, but too old to actually get any meaty roles. After some legal finessing, Crawford upped her publicity by adopting a baby girl she named Christina (AKA “Christina Darrrr-ling”). Christina was promised a perfect existence and grew up with all the things Joan never had, like pony-filled birthday parties, an Olympic sized swimming pool, designer clothing and a large, very clean Art Deco mansion. But growing up with a neurotic single mother who just happens to be a perfectionist Hollywood megastar with major OCD tendencies would take a toll on anybody, and Christina quickly and repeatedly learned that it was Mommie’s meticulously ideal way or the highway. (Here “highway” translates into “forced into a remote convent school for several years” and “nocturnal coat hanger beatings.”) But somehow through the bumps, bruises, and traumatizing night terrors, Christina attempted to accept Joan’s strange way of showing her motherly love -- until, of course, the not-so-shocking-but-still-pretty-shocking ending to the story that prompted the writing of Mommie Dearest, a book which remained on the New York Times Bestseller list for 42 weeks.
This particular DVD release, “The Hollywood Royalty” edition, is peppered with fantastic special features that will delight both the hardcore Mommie fans and uninitiated viewers. One of my most favorite people in the world, cult director John Waters, blesses us with a hilarious yet sympathetic commentary track to really highlight the film’s many strengths and point out where a few weaknesses might be hiding. (Spoiler alert: they’re mostly in the rose garden and the closet.) Three short documentaries take you on the set and behind the scenes, featuring interviews with producer/writer Frank Yablans as well as cast members like the wonderful Diana Scarwid, who talks candidly about her emotionally charged performance as adult Christina and the enduring legacy of the movie. Another welcome voice is Joan Crawford enthusiast and impersonator John Epperson, AKA Lypsinka, interviewed in the Joan Lives On feature along with additional comments from John Waters on the film’s cult following.
Although marginalized by audiences and thoroughly lambasted by critics upon its release, this lavish biopic remains one of the most memorable portraits of a movie actress ever seen depicted on screen. How much of it is factually accurate we’ll never know, but hey – it still makes for some fine watching if you take it all with a huge grain of salt. In addition to getting a helping hand from gay and drag queen audiences keeping it in the limelight, Mommie Dearest has withstood the test of time for some darn reason, and I’d like to think it’s because the film is actually good. I recall seeing Mommie Dearest on television for the first time and being absolutely amazed -- not because the censors let the film’s sole F-bomb slip by, but because the performances, sets, costumes and overall power of the whole production impressed me even as a nine-year-old. (Yes, nine. I was even inspired enough to play-act pretend Mommie Dearest scenes. Don’t ask.)

In the words of the great John Waters, Mommie Dearest is “not a movie that’s ‘so bad it’s good’… it’s a movie that’s ‘so good it’s perfect.’”

Fun Fact! Faye Dunaway was convinced during filming she would win an Oscar® nomination for her performance. Today she not only refuses to speak about this film in interviews, but also has an aversion to letting her suitcases touch hotel room floors.

--Shove M., used buyer and resident grab-bag decorator

Monday, April 8, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On #79 - Boz Scaggs - Boz Scaggs

For what seemed like months in 1974, but was probably more like a couple of days, the first American Boz Scaggs album (originally released in 1969) never left my turntable. It was one of those albums that would just get flipped over and over, never reaching saturation point. The album, which was deleted for a number of years, was reissued by Atlantic in 1978 in an effort to cash in on Duane Allman’s ever growing reputation for history making guitar solos. The penultimate cut on the album, an incredible, churning, thirteen-minute guitar and horn driven blues called “Loan Me A Dime” was getting some FM radio play and it caught my ear and Boz Scaggs immediately came out of the stacks and became one of my favorite albums again. “Loan Me A Dime” is a bona-fide classic building in an inexorable journey to musical nirvana with the Muscle Shoals horns creating a pounding background for Duane Allman’s lead guitar to take center stage and drive the song in a completely heroic series of solos to one of the great, big finishes in rock history. “Loan Me A Dime” got me in the door, but I was soon smitten with the subtler joys of this wonderful album.

While “Loan Me A Dime” is a total winner that justifies the purchase of the album alone, over the years it has been the ballads and slower country numbers on the album that have really grown on me and made me go back over and over on those cloudy days that threaten emotional rain at every turn. Kicking off with the upbeat “I’m Easy” it is immediately obvious that this is no ordinary singer. Boz Scaggs has a completely unique voice; throaty, smooth and soulful, he is truly the American version of Van Morrison (in fact I sat next to him once at a Bay-area Morrison show and he was as much a fan as the rest of the audience). It is with the second cut on the album, the moody “I’ll Be Long Gone” that Scaggs really shows what he does best – wrap those velvet pipes around some melodious melancholia and deliver the way great singers throughout history have done. Scaggs has the enviable ability to actually convey emotion in his voice. It isn’t just the words he chooses, or the relative volume control he exercises, he actually makes the listener feel what he is feeling. One would think this is an obvious equation, but I am constantly alarmed to hear singers who might as well be singing words out of the phone book for all the emotional impact their performance imparts.  Followed up by another slow and sad number “Another Day (Another Letter)” one starts to become increasingly aware of the superb backing on every song. It is the cream of Muscle Shoals with Duane Allman leading the way on track after track, playing some of his most memorable and satisfying accompaniment. He plays signature leads on slide and dobro and offers some of his best work outside his own band. For instance, check out his moving accompaniment on “Finding Her.” He perfectly matches Scaggs’ own masterful vocal performance echoing the sentiments being voiced with a haunting slide punctuating each line. It might be Allman’s most delicate playing on record.

From the cover, picturing Scaggs looking like a sepia-toned cross between a hippie and a riverboat captain, there is a deep Americana in the marrow of this record. It stands with The Band’s self-titled album and Workingman’s Dead as a glimpse into a uniquely identifiable ironic patriotism that existed in the late 60’s. It was cool to embrace American tradition and history, while protesting current American policy. It was a way to claim the country as yours while remaining above the political fray. No track illustrates this better than Scaggs’ take on Jimmie Rodgers’ “Waiting For A Train” which features Allman on pitch-perfect dobro and Boz singing it like he’s recording inside a boxcar. It is another heart-warming and authentic performance on an album filled with them. Scaggs would go on to much greater success with later albums and really catch lightning in a bottle with his multi-platinum soul masterpiece Silk Degrees, but for my money, this album is his most significant contribution to the great American songbook.
            - Paul Epstein

Monday, April 1, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #62 - High Plains Drifter (1973, dir. Clint Eastwood)

It’s hard to watch High Plains Drifter, and not think of Clint Eastwood, the film’s star and director, forty years later, speaking to an empty chair at the Republican National Convention. The movie is full of twisted American right-wing ideology that wasn’t apparent to me the first time I saw the film on the late, late show, when I was in high school. Back then I just thought it was a trip, full of spaghetti western spaciness: long, well composed shots of sweaty, road-worn men riding across the windswept desert, an eerie soundtrack a la Ennio Morricone, and the surreality of the low budget sound effects, the boots of the swaggering gunslingers scratching out a hypnotic rhythm across the dirt of Main Street, the ever howling wind. In the end Eastwood has a whole town painted red and writes hell across the welcome sign, which is one of the best plot twists in the history of the genre. It’s still all that when I watch it now, but it’s also a glimpse into the still-forming psyche of a GOP nut.
            The whole sociopolitical head-trip begins early in the film when Eastwood’s character, a nameless stranger and ostensibly the protagonist, rapes a woman in a horse stable. It’s clearly a rape. She’s screaming and slapping at him as he drags her through the dirt, throws her into a pile of hay, and mounts her, but after a while she seems to be enjoying it. Throughout the movie the woman reappears several times, and in each instance she’s enraged at having been raped, shouting and begging the townspeople to punish the man, but they shrug her off, say she wanted it, that she’s only mad because he didn’t come back and give it to her again. Of course all this brought to mind those two recent Republican Senate candidates who lost because they said a pregnancy caused by rape is god’s will, which isn’t exactly a Republican ideal, but still. No, the right-wing themes become more apparent in the way the townspeople react to him and how he reacts to them. Instead of throwing Eastwood in jail or driving him out of town, they enlist him as their protector against three violent bad guys who are about to get out of jail who will certainly come and destroy the town. At first, Eastwood turns them down, but they offer him anything and everything he wants, so he promptly promotes a midget to sheriff and mayor, and goes around redistributing all the wealth, making the bar owner provide free liquor to everyone, the cobbler give away free boots, and so on. In other words, he’s a Communist dictator, albeit an ironic one. In truth he’s a true American, a rugged individualist; he just steps into the role of a Lenin or a Stalin to teach them all a lesson, because in the end they’re just namby-pamby liberals, too weak and fearful and corrupt to take matters into their own hands. Communism-by-way-of-rapist-tyrant is what they deserve.
            The movie came out to strong reviews, and it maintains a high rating at Rotten Tomatoes, but not everyone is a fan, not even all those who lean to the right. Upon its release, John Wayne, an outspoken SoCal Reaganite, groused, “That isn't what the West was all about. That isn't the American people who settled this country.” And while the same could be said of every one of Wayne’s films, it’s beside the point: Westerns aren’t about the time of the Great West, they’re about the time in which they were made, and this came out in the summer of 1973, when the world was closing in on Nixon and his 18 minutes of missing tape. It’s a peculiar time for Hollywood. Anti-heroes and unhappy endings were very much in vogue, and while this reflects a very real feeling that American society was falling apart, it also shows a time when Americans’ distrust of government was nearing its peak. Eastwood stepped into this climate and delivered a tour de force of macho bleakness, which might well have been what he intended to recapture when he stepped out on the stage in Tampa and, after declaring himself a “conservative” and not a “left winger… left of Lenin,” says, to a chair, “We own this country. We -- we own it. It is not you owning it, and not politicians owning it. Politicians are employees of ours.”
            - Joe Miller