Monday, December 30, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On #96 - The Wild Tchoupitoulas - The Wild Tchoupitoulas

Sometime in the mid-70’s I was watching TV with my father when we stumbled across a documentary on PBS about a strange and little known (outside of New Orleans) tradition of dressing up like Indians and parading during Mardi Gras. We watched with fascination and learned about the practice of sewing elaborate suits of feathers and beads, parading with your tribe or gang and, most importantly, about the incredible music that went with the practice. The best I can figure out was that the show was part of a series called American Patchwork and the particular episode might have been called “Feets Don’t Fail Me Now - Mardi Gras Indians.” My eyes were opened. This was the most exotic sound I had ever heard come out of an American mouth. When they showed the Indians, who I later found out were The Wild Tchoupitoulas in full regalia, dancing and playing “Meet De Boys On The Battlefront” with its memorable line “The Wild Tchoupitoulas gonna stomp some romp” I just about flipped. Here was something that was uniquely American but was completely foreign to me. They might as well have been performing a Chinese opera in Finnish for all I could tell. It was completely new and completely wonderful to me. The next day I went to good old King Bee Records on Evans and when I asked for something with New Orleans Indians on it, he seemed to know what I was talking about and pointed me toward The Wild Tchoupitoulas’ one and only album.

Released in 1976, The Wild Tchoupitoulas is a collaboration of the Indian gang (Big Chief Jolly, Spy Boy, Flag Boy, Trail Chief and Second Chief) accompanied by Big Chief Jolly’s nephews, some of whom happened to be members of The Meters. The rest of them, after this experience, formed The Neville Brothers and became legends in their own right. If there is a Rosetta Stone that connects all New Orleans tradition with the modern world of recording The Wild Tchoupitoulas is it. It is as exciting to listen to this album in 2013 as it was in 1976. It remains absolutely unlike anything else.

The music contained on The Wild Tchoupitoulas is equal parts rock and funk, but the lyrics have more in common with the nursery rhyme tradition or even “the dozens,” the African-American boasting game that ultimately led to Hip-Hop. The Indians sing about their practices leading up to Mardi Gras, but the majority of the songs are modified chants which allow the gang to boast and taunt the other gangs while parading during Mardi Gras. It is an amazing and beautiful thing to see. It embodies some very important American values: pride, craftsmanship and fun. The men who participate in the gang are normal, family men the rest of the year, but during this period they become benevolent warrior kings preparing for a ritualistic battle. Of course, the spoils of this war are all for fun. It’s really about a strong sense of community and pride of place. The Mardi Gras Indian tradition is an incredibly colorful and tuneful version of the Rotary Club or The Shriners. There are mysterious, portentous, historic, quasi-religious references and secrets, but ultimately it’s a bunch of guys dressing up and playing in the streets. As expected, the New Orleans version has the best music.

The Songs are all winners, and many have become standards of the American festivity tradition. “Brother John (Iko Iko),” “Hey Pock A-Way,” “Indian Red” and “Hey Mama (Indians Comin’)” will probably be familiar to you, as they have been covered by countless bands and have entered into the American Songbook as surely as “Jimmy Crack Corn,” “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer” or “Johnny B. Goode” have. The less known songs like “Meet De Boys” and “Big Chief Got A Golden Crown” are just as infectious and still maintain their air of the exotic. They are filled with terms and situations that while not familiar sound like such a good time. The Neville Brothers/Meters band shine through on every track and are as much the story here as the Indians, providing both lead and backing vocals and playing with economy and soul. But it is ultimately the discovery of a cultural tradition so different and so appealing that draws me back to this funky wonder.
            -Paul Epstein

Monday, December 23, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #80 - Fort Apache (1948, dir. John Ford)

“I can’t see him. All I can see is the flags.” – Mrs. Emily Collingwood
       John Ford is without a doubt, one of the most well-respected American film directors of all time. Most would agree with such lofty praise; but I often find myself in discussions with fellow film lovers, having to defend Mr. Ford against allegations of casual racism, xenophobia, damaging classicism and a general worship of Manifest Destiny. With a number of his films, it is quite a feat to put down all of the charges. Luckily Ford made many a film to give us ammunition; films with much to say about all the aforementioned topics, what they mean and how to approach them whilst still making a rip-roaring Western very often set in Monument Valley.
         Possibly Ford’s most subversive extravaganza, Fort Apache, begins with one of my favorite bait and switch tricks in cinema history. The opening credits give us a triumphant horn-driven score any time our heroes (U.S. Cavalry) are on screen, and then quickly segues into an odd, vaguely “native” sounding battle march any time the Native Americans show up. Ford is being exceptionally misleading here, for what’s to come is perhaps his least simple representation of the white man as hero and the red man as villain.
            Many directors (occasionally including Ford) working in the Western genre were guilty of painting the world in blacks and whites. Fort Apache for the most part offers up a world of gray, where the Lt. Col. Thursday, played oh so complicated-ly by Henry Fonda, is anything but a simple good guy. Playing against Fonda’s usual nice guy character, Ford gives us a messy, confused individual whose penchant for never changing causes potentially avoidable problems many times. John Wayne (in one of his few inarguably fantastic performances) is great here, playing the knowledgeable but lower ranking soldier who knows better, but cannot get through Fonda’s thick skull.
            Ford, through Wayne’s character, puts us on the side of the Natives. We meet the completely useless man who sells cheap goods and booze on the reservations to keep the Natives under his control. When we meet the Native American chief Cochise, he is shown as regal, respectable, absolutely right and full of pride (mind you, not to the damning extent of Lt. Thursday).
            Perhaps I’m not making this film sound all that appealing, given that there’s a complex relationship here that’s often dumbed down in Westerns to make them easier to digest. But I promise, if you enjoy Westerns in any way, shape or form, you will absolutely love Fort Apache. Although Ford certainly has subversion on the mind this time around, he never skimps on the classical ideals that make the Western genre worth enjoying in the first place.

“Undemanding viewers can simply enjoy it for its depiction of a Wild West where the cavalry fought the Indians, supposedly to the glory of the United States. Those who take the time to really peer beneath the surface will find a completely different film, one which exposes and even undermines the mythology of the hero and which questions the whole notion that history is written by the victors.” - Jeffrey Kauffman

            - Will Morris, House Manager, Sie Film Center

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On #95 - Linton Kwesi Johnson - Forces of Victory

            Linton Kwesi Johnson is one of the unsung greats of reggae. Maybe he’s not as well known these days because he veers further afield from the dominant reggae ideas than many performers of his era. While others responded to the positive vibes, ganja, and Jah that run through reggae, Johnson was moved by its political messages and saw untapped potential the
re for more great music.
Johnson was born in Jamaica and moved with his family to England in 1963 when he was 11. After earning a degree in sociology, he began performing his poetry publicly, backed by musicians playing the reggae that he grew up with and loved. He is generally considered the founder of dub poetry, a style of reggae in which prepared poetry – as opposed to the more improvised toasting style of reggae vocals - is recited over dub music. Once he connected with performer/bandleader/producer Dennis “Blackbeard” Bovell all the pieces were set in place and Johnson debuted with his 1978 album Dread Beat an’ Blood (credited to Poet and the Roots). With lyrics written in Jamaican patois, one of Johnson’s most brilliant features is his ability to condense intellectual and social analysis to the slang of the music he loves and of his people.
But lyrics are not his only strength – in fact, for someone who puts so much care into the words he has a remarkable gift for music and melody, anchoring songs with hooks that are married to the lyrics to drive home his messages. He kicks the album off with “Want Fi Goh Rave,” a song about young people barely scraping by to survive – by begging, stealing, violence – but not giving up hope. And once the song’s hard message has made its point the music takes over halfway through, as is common with Johnson because he takes it as seriously as his words, and the band is co-equal to his work, not merely there to support or back his words, brilliant though they are. The music here is more dialed in than the great debut, and he’d get even better as well, with 1984’s Making History.
Though every track makes itself felt, the album is marked with three of the best tunes Johnson ever wrote. First up is “Sonny’s Lettah (Anti-Sus Poem)” in which Sonny is writing to his mother from jail after getting into a fight with police who harassed he and his brother on suspicion (“sus” – shades of New York’s current “stop and frisk” situation) of vagrancy. The lyrics in the chorus of the great “Reality Poem” explain pretty clearly why Jah isn’t mentioned in Johnson’s catalog: “This is the age of science and technology / This is the age of decision / So let's let go of religion / So let's let go of mythology.” And in my favorite track, “Fite Dem Back,” Johnson calls out racist terrorizers for what they are – fascists – and includes my favorite lines he ever wrote as his program for a counter attack to drive them back: “Smash dere brains in / cos dey ain’t got nuffin in em.”
And like all great political artists, Johnson’s work is both time-specific, speaking to the particulars of his situation and those of people around him, and universal, placing these issues in a broader analysis and social framework – the Anti-Sus Poem speaks to the exact situation in NYC 34 years later. Forces of Victory is propulsive, smart, catchy, and politically charged – it’s everything I like in music in one package, like so much of LKJ’s best. Seek out whatever you can find – it’ll be worth it.

- Patrick Brown

Monday, December 9, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #79 - Angel Heart (1987, dir. Alan Parker)

In many ways Angel Heart is two different movies. On the one hand it is homage to the 1940’s noir detective genre. In this one Mickey Rourke, at the top of his game, plays the “Sam Spade” role to great effect. On the other hand, it is a supernatural thriller that brings occult, voodoo and the devil himself (in the very coiffed person of Robert De Niro) into play. Angel Heart skirts these two worlds, satisfying the needs of both.

The year is 1955, and World War II is more than just a memory. It still is the event that that splits the century. Things happened before, during or after the war, and Rourke’s Harry Angel is haunted by his time there. We don’t know what happened, but something happened to Angel right as he returned from the war. Now he is back in New York running his low-rent detective agency fairly unsuccessfully when he is visited by a strange lawyer who represents an even stranger man (De Niro) named Louis Cyphre (Lucifer - get it?) who has a special job for Angel that will take him from the streets of Harlem to the swamps and back alleys of New Orleans searching for a singer named Johnny Favourite, who “owes” Mr. Cyphre something and now can’t be found. Harry Angel is given money and the task of finding out what happened to the wayward singer.
The movie moves forward with Angel searching for clues while the world around him gets stranger and stranger. As the facts unfold, it is clear Mr. Favourite’s story was not typical. He returned from the war a shell of a man and was placed in an institution. Removed from the institution by a doctor for mysterious reasons, the trail leads to New Orleans where it runs into a supernatural brick wall. Angel becomes embroiled in a subculture of voodoo and arcane religious practices involving ritual and ultimately sacrifice. He also comes into contact with Lisa Bonet in her first post-Cosby role. Bonet’s character is pivotal and memorable as the stunning 19 year old essentially never appears fully clothed. She is unbelievably sexy and at the same time frightening. She appears like a wild animal: untamed, erotic and dangerous.

Like everyone Harry Angel comes in contact with, Bonet’s character (Epiphany Proudfoot) ends up horribly and undeniably dead. It seems as though this job is more than just a search for a missing person, it is Harry Angel’s personal trip to hell. The twists, turns and shocks come fast and furious in the last part of the movie, and to give any of it away would ruin the fun, but rest assured, the getting there is the real fun of Angel Heart. Director Alan Parker has created a feast for the senses. The movie looks and feels unlike anything I have ever seen. Without explicitly showing details, Parker creates a mysterious sense of dread that is hard to describe. The city of New Orleans becomes a character itself, wet, steaming and fertile with danger. The few scenes with De Niro are unforgettable as he exudes a quiet, powerful evil that is very unlike any role he has played. He memorably uses his long fingernails to peel a hardboiled egg and then eats it with such an air of menace, that one must applaud the director’s sense of restraint and pacing. Throughout the movie, Parker takes commonplace items - fans, elevators, chickens, phones etc. - and imbues them with an indefinable quality of the macabre: the audience looking over its shoulder, stomach in knots and unsure of anything it is seeing. Ultimately, this is the great accomplishment of Angel Heart: to rip away the veil that separates the natural world from the unexplained leaving its characters shivering in the glare of confusion and doubt along with the audience.
            - Paul Epstein

Monday, December 2, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On #94 - Fairport Convention - Liege & Lief

As the owner of a record store I spend a lot of time thinking about genres of music. What is this? Where should we file it? Why? What style, country, audience, etc? On one level it is essential to being able to navigate the store and it can be an indispensable tool to help people discover music they enjoy. On another level, it seems like it is a distraction to an unfettered appreciation of music. Fairport Convention’s 1969 album certainly backs this last thought up. It is an album of unparalleled beauty and accomplishment, played by rock musicians in a British folk idiom, yet these different variables ultimately defy genre and leave Liege & Lief an unclassifiable masterpiece.

At the center of my appreciation of Fairport Convention are the twin charms of Sandy Denny’s powerful voice and Richard Thompson’s thoughtful guitar playing. While Richard Thompson has continued to grow in virtuosity and reputation for over four decades, Denny released only a few enticing solo albums before her untimely death in 1978, and her three original albums with Fairport Convention represent her greatest work, culminating in Liege & Lief when her voice soared with control, confidence and beauty. Dominated by traditional British folk tunes with a handful of their own compositions, this album occupies a magical territory where the traditional lyrical substance of songs like “Matty Groves” or “Tam Lin” merges with the rock sensibilities of the players to come unglued from the moorings of time and culture and drift freely in a sea of genre-free musical greatness. “Tam Lin” illustrates what is great about the entire album as the band take an ancient Scottish ballad and turns it into a 7-minute powerhouse of instrumental and vocal brilliance. Denny’s voice is perfectly suited to the lyrics of fairie queens and virgin princesses, soaring and dipping with complete grace and control. Thompson wrenches more and more intense lead lines out of his electric guitar, all the while driving duet counterpoint to Dave Swarbrick’s high-energy violin playing. It is a breathtaking recording that stands up with any version of a song that has been recorded literally hundreds of times over the years.

In its own way, each song on Liege & Lief is a perfect representation of what went right for this band on their fourth album. The material, whether traditional like the high energy medley of fiddle tunes that follows “Tam Lin” or Denny’s upbeat album opener “Come All Ye” which sets the stage for the multi-genre feast to come, flows with such natural grace and comfort that if you didn’t have the credits in your hands you wouldn’t be able to distinguish the traditional material from the contemporary: it all has the authority and natural grace of  “standards.” Liege & Lief, because it succeeds so effortlessly on each level, is a classic album and takes its place in history because it so deftly and artistically avoids genre pitfalls. It is simply great music.
- Paul Epstein