Thursday, January 30, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On #98 - Steve Hackett - Voyage of the Acolyte

Much like Yes’ masterwork Close to the Edge, Voyage of the Acolyte begins with the eruption of sound from silence. Waves and blobs of prog magnificence crash on the beach of your eardrums, Hackett playing his precision acoustic underlay while synths and laser-like lead guitar build to a big finish. Track two, “Hands Of The Priestess (part 1)” takes the music in a more pastoral direction with Hackett’s brother John’s flute line leading the song into a memorable place where prog rock, English folk and classical music blend easily and beautifully.

Coming from one of the pillars of early 70’s English prog, Genesis, Steve Hackett had much to prove with his first solo album from 1975. Peter Gabriel had delivered his masterpiece (The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway) and left the band to find a new direction and lead singer. Remarkably, Phil Collins stepped out from behind the drums, opened his mouth and made Genesis one of the most popular bands of the late 70’s and on through the 90’s. An incredible second act for an eccentric band that had absolutely no business going anywhere near the pop charts. However, on the song “Star Of Sirius” we can hear exactly where Genesis was coming from and where it was going. Hackett gently brings forth billowy textures of melody with synths, Mellotron, all manner of guitar and percussion while Phil Collins, literally, finds his legs as a vocalist. Historically speaking it is an important moment in a lot of musicians’ careers. As the song stretches to seven minutes with a sublime acoustic guitar and synthesizer duet before bursting back to the central theme, it feels like the grand summing up of early 70’s prog-rock, while simultaneously pulling the curtain back on the next ten years of popular music.

The album concludes with its boldest statement, the 11-minute epic “Shadow Of The Hierophant” (all the song titles are references to cards in the Tarot deck). Sally Oldfield sings a beautiful set of lyrics over Hackett’s carefully unwinding musical story. Like the best of Genesis’ early music this piece is musically complex, with long passages showcasing various aspects of Hackett’s musical strong suits. About five minutes in, his guitar is swirling around with Zeppelin-esque bravado and then suddenly gives way to a soft harmonium-led interlude, once again building into an epic tour-de-force to restate the main theme with an orchestra of modern instrumentation. And make no mistake about it: Voyage of the Acolyte is a prog album, not a pop album. These are long songs, carefully crafted into moody movements, large swaths of musical inspiration. This is recommended for fans of bands like Yes, Renaissance, Pink Floyd and, of course Gabriel-era Genesis.

Steve Hackett went on to make many good records after this one, and his contribution to Genesis’ greatest works is undeniable, but he truly found his sweet spot with Voyage of the Acolyte. From the evocative cover art, to the ambitious and ever-changing soundscapes he creates, to his restrained but masterful musicianship this is his greatest achievement and most personal album.
- Paul Epstein

Friday, January 24, 2014

On The Cover # 6: 5 Things I Learned from Elvis Costello’s First Two Albums by Justin Couch

On January 29, 2014, my band, Quantum Creep, will be covering Elvis Costello’s first two albums, My Aim is True and This Year’s Model, at The Hi-Dive as part of the On The Cover series, hosted by Josiah Hesse with Joshua Novak opening the show.
Playing cover songs is nothing new to us. However, in learning the 26 songs on these two albums, I learned a lot more than chords and lyrics. Here are just a few nuggets of wisdom I've gleaned from Costello.

5. When you run out of things to say, either change or stop the song
I tend to write long. I wouldn’t say there's a method I follow every time when writing a song, but generally if the music is coming first, I try to find the most interesting part and play that section way too many times. The best parts of Costello songs only happen once, and then they’re gone.
Listen to the second verse of “(The Angels Want to Wear my) Red Shoes.” There’s a call and response part that totally makes the song. Musically, the chords seem basically the same as the chorus, but they’re not. These two albums are full of those little details that you probably don’t pick up on by casually listening. In “Blame it on Cain,” there’s a chord at the end of the verse that gets longer each time it comes around. In “Pump it Up,” the second verse is one line shorter than all the others. Little changes like that break up the monotony of songs and keep them fresh for repeated listens.
Since learning all of these Costello songs, I’ve done a line-wide edit on all of my songs to pare them down and keep them interesting. “Welcome to the Working Week,” the opening shot of My Aim is True (and one of the best lead-off tracks of all-time) clocks in at under 1:30 – yet still manages to have an intro, two and a half choruses, two verses, and a bridge. Damn. Shorter is often better in pop songs.

4. Punk is about more than playing or dressing a certain way
Was Elvis Costello a punk? He was certainly co-opted by their movement to a certain extent. This Year’s Model shows a definite manic energy shared by his contemporaries in The Clash, The Buzzcocks, and The Jam; however, the songs are more complex and the lyrical content is very different. My Aim is True owes much more to the tradition of Pub Rock and Northern Soul. Aim was also produced by the great Nick Lowe some months before he did The Damned’s fantastic album, Damned Damned Damned, considered by some to be the first proper British punk album.
I’m into trivia, context, and stories about my favorite musicians. I see punk in Costello’s case as being more of a glass slipper a la Cinderella. When he was writing My Aim is True, Costello was working as a computer tech at an Elizabeth Arden make-up factory. He hated his job and played local shows at night; a reality all-too familiar to myself and many of my friends playing up and down Broadway each week. Costello says that he had been playing music for about 7 years before he was discovered. His initial advance matched his salary for the few days that he would be recording his album. It unexpectedly took off and the rest is history.
Was he in the right place at the right time and part of an A&R punk feeding frenzy? Was it that his song-writing brilliance was finally appreciated? I guess it doesn’t really matter. There are certainly punk moments on Aim, but songs like “Mystery Dance” have more in common with a Chuck Berry rave-up than a Ramones girl-group melt down. Elvis Costello is about substance more than style, which may be one reason why he’s still putting out albums while so many of his peers aren’t. He didn’t wear leather or patches and safety pins, he dressed like the computer nerd he was -- which I guess is pretty punk.

3. Pop music is all about finding new ways to say the same thing
There are 26 songs between these two albums, counting the non-album singles that are generally associated with them. As near as I can tell, there are only 4 topics covered: girls, the end of the world, the dangers of fascism, and why the radio sucks. Songs about girls make up the extreme bulk of the albums. That said, the overriding emotion isn’t love or even really desire, but frustration. Frustration about the girl who won’t return your affections, frustration about your ex, frustration that the girl you want is in a relationship already, frustration that you’re in the friend-zone, frustration that you know she’s bad for you but you can’t stop.
Musically, the songs share some similarities as well. Nearly all the songs on Aim are in the same key. “Sneaky Feelings” and “Pay it Back” are practically the same song. But again, you don’t necessarily notice this listening to it - both are good songs. What I’m getting at is if you were going to break down the typical Elvis Costello song on these two albums to its basic elements, it might look like this “girls cause trouble/bad feelings.” I don’t mean that as a dig at all. Basically all of my songs share the same DNA. What I am saying is how remarkable it is that there are so many deft variations on these themes.

2. Being specific is better than being general
The only song on either album that even approaches a love song is “Alison.” And I’m not even convinced that it is one. The song is a stone cold classic. Everyone loves it. I think the reason for this is because the lyrics are so specific, it paradoxically manages to speak to so many people. Costello is cagey about whether the song is autobiographical or not, but it seems like it would have to be. It seems to play out like a chance run in with an old flame, or more likely an old infatuation.
“Alison” is littered with details: “I heard you let that little friend of mine take off your party dress,” and “Did he leave your pretty fingers lying in the wedding cake?” The totality of all the images evokes a way stronger emotional response than if it had been vague and general. It’s so specific that the meaning of the song can drastically change depending on who is singing it. Take Linda Ronstadt’s (kind of awful) cover. When she sings it, it becomes less of a weird confrontation between two people and something more like sisterly advice. I guess she could have renamed the song, “Al,” or something, but swapping genders like that would cause an even more thorough gutting of the song. I think of other cross-gender reinterpretations of songs like Cyndi Lauper’s cover of Prince’s “When U were Mine,” and even that isn’t as weird as Linda’s cover of “Alison.”

1. Honesty is the key to good lyrics
I am a huge fan of confessional lyrics. It’s something that informs my songwriting. Most male songwriters tend to posture more than simply tell it like it is. Costello strikes the right balance between the bleeding-heart emo-ness of a Conor Oberst and the drunken truth-telling of The Afghan Whigs. The biggest criticism leveled at Costello during this time period is that his songs are very bitter. You feel the grind of the work week and the dissatisfying weekends filled with failed romantics. Some people don’t like or appreciate Costello’s lyrical cleverness either. But it serves to temper the bitterness. Little jokes abound, such as this little gem from “Red Shoes”: “I said, ‘I’m so happy I could die.’ She said, ‘Drop dead,’ and left with another guy.”
Lyrical devices like this have the ability to reveal mixed feelings, from “Pump it Up”: “You want to torture her, you want to talk to her,” or from “The Beat”: “I don’t want to be your lover, I just want to be your victim.” Costello shows us that he can be earnest, caring, and deeply flawed. Even 37 years later, it’s still refreshing and the reason these albums have stood the test of time.

Justin Couch sings and plays guitar in Quantum Creep. They are covering Elvis Costello’s My Aim is True and This Year’s Model album in their entirety at Josiah Hesse's On The Cover series (with opening act Joshua Novak) at The Hi-Dive, Wednesday January 29th. $7.


Friday, January 17, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #82 - Slap Shot (1977, dir. George Roy Hill)

Out of all the movies that Paul Newman made, from his debut in The Silver Chalice in 1954 to his final role as narrator of The Meercats, through the blockbuster hits and the award winners and all the good and not-so-good movies in between, his favorite, the one he had the most fun doing, was a foul-mouthed, goofy sports movie: Slap Shot. And it shows. Newman always had an enviable ease and confidence on screen, but in this movie he’s at his coolest, even when he’s getting punched in the face and he’s covered in blood. So if you’re a fan of his, even a casual one, this is a good one to have.
            He plays Reggie "Reg" Dunlop, a former NHL star who’s now player/coach for a fledgling minor league team in a fictional Iron Belt city called Charlestown. The team is bad and the stands are almost empty at their home matches, and when word arrives that the town’s mill will be shuttered the team’s future seems in doubt. With the charm and cunning of a conman, Dunlop manipulates his players into becoming a violent goon squad. The gambit works: they hit a winning streak and start selling out games.
            He gets some help from three new additions to the team: The Hanson Brothers. They’re a trio of strapping, square-jawed, long-haired knuckleheads with black-rimmed, Coke-bottle glasses who’ll pick a fight with anyone who dares skate near them. The long hair and glasses makes them look cool as hell, more like over grown present-day hipsters than knuckle-dragging jocks, and every time they appear on screen they ramp up the movie’s energy. In their debut with the Charlestown Chiefs, they hook, trip, slap, pummel and punch all the other players, and by their third game the official can’t even drop the puck for face-off because of a bench-clearing brawl. In one scene, a fan throws a set of keys into the rink, belts one of the Hanson Brothers in the head, and all three of them leap into the crowd and start pounding on fans indiscriminately. Off the ice, they’re dumb as rocks and unapologetically so—grown men, they travel suitcases full of toy cars.
It all seems over the top and improbable, but much of it’s based on true stories. Nancy Dowd, the screenwriter (who would later win an Academy Award for Coming Home), based the story on the real life adventures of her brother, Ned, who for years played in the minor leagues in the Northeast. Ned makes an appearance in the film as a notorious Syracuse stickman, Ogie Ogilthorpe, and many of the other characters are played by real hockey players, including the Hanson Brothers, played by actual hockey-playing brothers. Legend has it that this is partly why Newman loved the role so much—a fan of the game, he had a blast hanging around with low-ranking hockey players and getting a feel for the life. And this gives the movie a feel of genuineness that makes it a blast to watch.
- Joe Miller

Monday, January 13, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On #97 - Lucinda Williams – Sweet Old World

Quick – what’s the most uplifting album you know with at least three songs about suicide on it? Well, if you didn’t answer Sweet Old World, you and I either don’t see eye-to-eye about Lucinda Williams’ gifts or you just haven’t heard it. Some people I know think Lucinda's a drag, but for me she's the opposite – someone whose experience with heartache and pain has made her feel her joy and love all the more acutely. And some people don’t know that she’d been recording for nearly 20 years before her breakthrough with Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.
On her earlier albums – one a 1979 album of covers and traditional songs where she shows off her taste and range and established herself as a solid singer/performer, two after that that she made eight years apart that are full of originals and established her as a great writer – she synthesizes as many strains of American roots music as she can fit into her songs. Blues, folk, country, rock and roll and many more – when she's on her game, she makes all of them work for her without kowtowing to any of them. But it was only with the record before this (Lucinda Williams, released four years before this 1992 classic, and reissued this week after being long out of print) that sparks of her real genius appeared in some songs. And this one’s even better, even with all the death and downtrodden folks on it.
So when she's singing about a relationship that coulda been but probably won't be, when she's singing about an abused kid grown up to be a mixed-up guy, when she's singing about a friend who committed suicide, the songs don't wallow in misery as they easily could have. She wants her listeners to know about this “sweet old world” we all live in; know that there’s pain and heartache but that these are not permanent conditions. Unlike some music that strives for uplift but doesn’t seem to have experienced anything real to buoy it, Lucinda’s got a great eye for the detail that lets you know she’s been there and made peace with things. And of course it helps that in addition to writing well about sad stuff, she can write equally enthusiastically and convincingly about "Hot Blood" and how much she loves the "Lines Around Your Eyes." And the way she puts these across is the same – with strong, heartfelt vocals that augment her melodies with simple, unforced beauty. So “Something About What Happens When We Talk” – one of her best ever – comes on in the lyrics like a lament for a relationship that didn’t happen, but the vocals make sure it isn’t sad about it, just wistful, full of thoughts of what could’ve been. And when she’s talking to her friend who killed himself, she simply catalog the little things that make life worth living and asks him directly “Didn’t you think you were worth anything?” The whole record makes me glad to be alive, just as she intended.
            - Patrick Brown.

Monday, January 6, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #81 - Mandingo (1975, dir. Richard Fleischer)

I haven’t seen 12 Years A Slave yet. I’m pretty sure that it’s a good film, based on everything I’ve read. But I don’t think it will knock me out, because everything I have heard and read about its intensity, brutality, ugliness, and cold, clear eye about the realities of slavery was already done nearly 40 years ago in another film – Mandingo. That’s not to say that the new film won’t be worthwhile – the story’s completely different of course and there can never be enough serious films about major injustices of the world – but those claiming that there’s never been another film like it or that it took a European director to air out our American dirty laundry simply haven’t done their research. And, just as a side note, the director of 12 Years A Slave has a habit in his earlier films of using some very arty tactics that, for me, pull you out of the narrative he’s telling, where the approach in Mandingo is almost certainly far more blunt and direct.
            Of course there are also some of the techniques of melodrama at play in Mandingo, which is presumably why the reigning opinion of the film has been that it is an “overheated potboiler,” as Leonard Maltin called it in his book, Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide. But I wasn’t laughing here. The film opens with a slave trader buying human chattel from a plantation owner, Warren Maxwell (played by James Mason), on his slowly decaying plantation. He dutifully examines every detail of their bodies, pulling their mouths open to inspect their teeth, and even checking for hemorrhoids. Once the trader has purchased his human goods, we shift the focus to the film’s central character – Warren’s son Hammond (Ham) Maxwell (played by Perry King). Ham walks with a limp he’s had since an accident in his youth, but is described by the slave trader as a “stud” who performs the “Master’s duty to pleasure the wenches” on the plantation. But Ham is noted as “strange” for “caring what a white man do to a wench.” And when he’s encouraged to marry a white woman (Blanche, played by Susan George) to carry on the family’s lineage, his sexual and emotional preference for slaves becomes a major issue in the house.
            Because the sexual truths of the film are treated as realistically as the violence, the film has acquired its unfair reputation as a “potboiler” but it’s central to the film’s strategy. The film posits the institution of slavery as one that corrupts and debases everyone it touches, from the obvious injustice to the slaves themselves by their white owners, to the masters’ view of women as property (above the slaves, but still explicitly and clearly beneath the white men), and on down the chain to where Blanche starts to self-destruct and act out in the one place she does have power – over the slaves – and further down to infighting between the slaves themselves. We’re offered some incredibly uncomfortable scenes here that ring true to me – an intensely brutal fight between two slaves, Ham’s callous and hypocritical judgments about Blanche’s virginity where he has none about his “wenches,” the horrific punishments dealt out to the house Negro Agamemnon for reading – and the film doesn’t flinch from showing them (and others) any more than 12 Years A Slave surely does. And ultimately, even though Ham is at times a sympathetic character, the film doesn’t balk at showing that the institution of slavery corrupts everyone it touches – there’s no such thing as a kind and gentle slave owner, even one as “strange” as Ham, who proves himself as cold and brutal a slave owner as any.
            I don’t mean to take anything away from what is undoubtedly a batch of much-deserved praise for Steven McQueen’s new film. I’m sure it’s great, challenging, and serious in its own way. But those who claim it’s the first, or best film ever to deal so bluntly, realistically and directly with slavery simply haven’t done their homework. Director Richard Fleischer (Soylent Green, Fantastic Voyage) and screenwriter Norman Wexler (Serpico, Saturday Night Fever) together with a dedicated cast fashioned a masterpiece on the subject several decades ago, and I haven’t met anyone who’s seen it recently who doesn’t take the film more seriously than Leonard Maltin.
            - Patrick Brown