Monday, June 30, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On #108 - Gentle Giant - Octopus

Many rock bands have either tried to play with classical musicians or play like they are classical musicians – mostly with dismal results. Gentle Giant played music that was firmly in the rock idiom, but they played with such virtuosity and composed music with such complexity that they are at the top of an extremely small list (along with maybe just Zappa) of those who successfully played rock music like they actually were classical musicians. Titled Octopus as a play on the idea that the band was composing 8 songs, each about a different member of the band or crew, each song is its own wildly ambitious symphony of musical ideas and masterful execution. Perhaps no song is more symbolic in their entire career (12 albums over a decade) than “Knots,” a miraculous number in which they employ the Madrigal (unaccompanied vocal composition) form to begin a song that then bursts into complex changes and time signatures hinting at jazz, classical, rock and avant-garde all at once. Every track on Octopus is equally sophisticated. This is not light music for the faint of heart. While every song bristles with musical invention and enough musical changes to give a careful listener whiplash, there is always a melodic core, as well as beautiful and complex vocals, and some rock star-worthy instrumental fireworks – although never at the expense of compositional integrity. This is one band that never jammed mindlessly.

Another factor that really sets Gentle Giant apart is their intensely personal, philosophical and literary lyrics. Hugely influenced by the works of several philosophers/authors the band always imbued their lyrics with an intellectual humanism that escaped most of their contemporaries. Take for example “A Cry For Everyone” which was influenced by the writings of Albert Camus. Demonstrating a sensibility far elevated from the typical rock fare the lyric warns:
“One day everyone dies
If only to justify life.
Live. I’ve lived a thousand lives: And anyone is the right, the just life.
If I could cry, I’d cry for everyone.”
Gentle Giant’s lyrics are filled with thought provoking insights and moral quandaries –some resolved, some left hanging. This alone makes their work worth exploring, and none of their albums is quite as cohesively successful as Octopus.

My first exposure to Gentle Giant was a strange and jarring one. In 1976 they were the opening act on Paul Simon’s tour for Still Crazy After All These Years. What marketing genius thought this pairing would be a good idea should have been fired immediately for surely most of the audience was baffled and/or annoyed by this frenetic prog-rock freak show. They did however convert one person. When they finished their set (which included a medley of songs from Octopus) I remember sitting there with my mouth hanging open wondering what I had just seen. I had no idea rock musicians were allowed to play with such accomplished fury. They weren’t goofing around up there, they were executing musical mazes which required the highest level of rehearsal and professional dexterity. I could barely pay attention to Paul Simon’s set (which I’m sure was great). I had to hear more from this band. I have cherished Gentle Giant’s albums since and hold them in a rare place of musical reverence, but I understand that this music is not for everyone. To illustrate this fact, vocalist/saxophone player Derek Shulman (one of three Shulman brothers in the band) became a respected A&R man for a well-known record label after the band broke up. He famously said (I paraphrase) “I would never sign a band like Gentle Giant.” It seems that sometimes even the most ambitious artists understand themselves that they are making music for the few and not the many. What better endorsement do you need?
- Paul Epstein

Monday, June 23, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #93 - Contact (1997, dir. Robert Zemeckis)

For Science Fiction to work for me it has to meet two criteria; 1) It must have a premise that seems plausible, and 2) it must preserve some sense of wonder. These are seemingly incompatible requirements, yet the best science fiction (Blade Runner, 2001 A Space Odyssey, The Time Machine, etc.) strikes this very balance, making us stare in amazement like a child, yet forcing us to ponder bigger questions of science, sociology and philosophy. Contact follows Eleanor Arroway (Jodie Foster at her wide-eyed, pre-tortured best) as a scientist whose early loss of her parents drives her to search for life outside of earth. We come to understand her obsession is in some ways a method of searching for her lost father. She’s scanning the heavens for aliens, but her heart wants a reunion with her dead parent. Manning a lonely array of radar towers in the desert of New Mexico, Arroway picks up a faint sound – she has made contact! The movie takes a good long time to get to this point. In the meantime we are introduced to Matthew McConaughey’s character: Palmer Joss, a religious man who advises presidents and falls for Arroway. In what will become a career of vacuous hunks, he sets the standard with this one, although his role is crucial in that he sets up the central conflict of the film: which posits that a belief in unproven science is a similar to the leap one takes to believe in an unseen god. It is an important part in the film, but overall one can’t help but think that McConaughey’s role was expanded because of his unbearable hunkiness. The movie really succeeds when it makes Arroway’s discovery real.

The signal Arroway picks up turns out to be instructions from another civilization that, when followed, will allow mankind to build a machine to travel to the Vega star. The construction and views of the machine are the movie’s greatest strength. The machine, sitting offshore at NASA in Florida is awe-inspiring. I have literally gone back to the scenes with the machine over and over. They hold the magic ingredient that Hollywood directors seek. It is like the scene at the end of Planet Of The Apes when Charleton Heston comes upon the destroyed Statue Of Liberty in the sand. It is familiar and fantastic all at once and the images sear themselves into the viewer’s mind, becoming part of your consciousness forever. The space travel machine in Contact is possibly my favorite special effect ever, because it seems possibly real while taking your breath away with its scale and function.

Through a series of plot twists involving a stellar supporting cast (James Woods and Tom Skerritt both playing variations on the devil) our heroine Eleanor Arroway ends up getting to pilot the machine for its inaugural voyage. In another series of beautifully realized visual miracles, director Robert Zemeckis sends Foster through a series of wormholes ending up in a different galaxy where she is greeted as an ambassador from a new planet. The machine is the first step in helping civilizations understand space travel, and Arroway is just the tip of the spear. We are assured there will be future exploration. Unfortunately, to those watching Arroway’s journey on earth, it appears as though it only took seconds and that nothing really happened. Ah - there’s the rub! Now we see: Arroway trying to convince an unbelieving populace about space travel they can’t see is just like Palmer Joss trying to convince the non-believing Arroway that a god she can’t see exists. It is not a surprise that the movie is based upon a story written by the great scientist Carl Sagan. Sagan understands the nuanced arguments that tie science and faith together at a very fundamental level. Until we see with our own eyes, we tend to not believe, unless that peculiarity of human behavior – faith – takes over. In the end we find an optimistic Arroway encouraging school kids to look to the stars. She has become a preacher for science, and we are left with our own struggles and beliefs.
- Paul Epstein

Monday, June 16, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On #107 - Loudon Wainwright III - Attempted Mustache

Loudon Wainwright III has always been an odd bird.  As a singer-songwriter, he's well aware of folk music traditions and incorporates them into his music.  Yet he never pretends to be someone he's not.  He's never been a hard travelin' hobo or rough and tumble laborer.  He comes from an upper class New England family and he sings about what he knows.  He also has a quirky and sometimes dark sense of humor.  All of this adds up to a recipe for a cult artist and Wainwright certainly could be classified as such.  But as occasionally happens with cult artists, some scrap of their weird sensibility connects with the mainstream.  That happened to Wainwright in 1972 when his oddball single "Dead Skunk" suddenly became a hit.  How would he follow that up?  By doing what he damn well pleases, of course, which brings us to 1973's Attempted Mustache.
The album opens with a fantastic folk/pop confection called "The Swimming Song."  Wainwright himself plucks a banjo throughout and Cajun fiddler Doug Kershaw pops in at the end.  The lyrics are either incredibly silly or strikingly poignant depending on your point of view.  "A.M. World" takes a sardonic view of his recently acquired fame.  Wainwright goes back to his childhood for the brief a cappella tune "Liza," a reminiscence about an old playmate who just happened to grow up to be Liza Minnelli.   "I Am the Way" is recorded live and displays Wainwright's penchant for iconoclasm.  He takes the tune of Woody Guthrie's "New York Town" and sings from the perspective of a sacrilegious Jesus, giving a gentle ribbing to two revered legends.  Folk singers could rock too and Wainwright certainly does on "Clockwork Chartreuse."  This song contains one of his most controversial lyrics as it sarcastically takes the view of a violent misogynist.  Some have claimed the song to be an endorsement of such behavior.  Those who understand satire know otherwise.
For "Down Drinking at the Bar" Wainwright gets rowdy and bluesy on an ode to exactly what the title promises.  Next comes the album's centerpiece, the dark acoustic song "The Man Who Couldn't Cry."  It's a vivid and poetic tale of a misunderstood outcast and has become one of Wainwright's best known songs, partially thank to Johnny Cash's excellent cover version.  But the original is a powerful classic of its own.  At the time, Wainwright had just married Kate McGarrigle, another up and coming folksinger, and here he presents a gorgeous version of her song "Come a Long Way."  "Nocturnal Stumblebutt" is another rocker, this one is about waking up in the middle of the night to try and find a cigarette.  The Wainwright home life is again referenced in "Dilated to Meet You," an ode to Loudon and Kate's newborn son Rufus who himself would grow up to be an acclaimed singer and performer.  The album concludes with "Lullaby."  Of course, Wainwright's idea of a lullaby opens with the line "Shut up and go to bed."  He references Rufus in the lyrics but in the album's liner notes explains that he's really singing to himself.  Loudon Wainwright III has made a career of always being slightly out of step.  For those attuned to his way of thinking, Attempted Mustache provides plenty of great tunes and odd turns.
            - Adam Reshotko 

Monday, June 9, 2014

Several Species Of Small Furry Thoughts - My Journey Home With Neil Young

When I first heard Neil Young’s latest album A Letter Home I was taken aback by this faint sounding bunch of covers. It was clearly Neil, and these were songs I was happy to hear him play, but the quality of the recording was so primitive. I just couldn’t get over it. Why would he do this? I had only listened to the LP at this point and there lies the crux of the problem. To fully "get" this album, one has to get the deluxe version and watch the DVD. As soon as the video comes to life, one enters a very special session where Neil Young and Jack White embark on an emotional and technological voyage together. Somehow Jack White has managed to get the world’s only working example of a “Record Your Voice” booth; a boardwalk attraction from the 1920’s that looks like a phone booth and allows any person to sing a song and leave with a hastily pressed record. The records that the booth itself produced (which also come in the deluxe version) sound even worse than the LP but are interesting artifacts. So here is this piece of ancient technology, and Neil Young decides to record a bunch of old favorite songs on it. Seems simple enough.

When you pop in the DVD however, there is a seamless mixture of black and white footage whenever Neil is in the booth, but as soon as he steps out it turns to sumptuous color footage. The audio is also much better. Neil essentially takes you through the process with him. We see that his songs are too long to fit on the little automatic records, thus they are running a line out of the booth so some editing can take place. Suddenly I realized I was loving this album. Going inside the creative process with these two great musicians is a rare and wonderful privilege. And make no mistake – Jack White’s imprint is all over this album. He joins Neil on a couple of songs, singing harmony, playing piano even playing lead guitar on one song. He is also clearly playing the role of chief engineer and producer. His deep involvement makes this an essential item for Jack White fans as much as Neil Young lovers.

As for the material; it is really hard to find fault with songs like Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain” or “If You Could Read My Mind,” Phil Ochs’ “Changes,” Tim Hardin’s “Reason To Believe,” Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind,” etc. The songs all clearly mean a lot to Neil and for the most part he plays them straight and folksy without doing much to make them modern. And the direct connection to his earlier days is really the point here. Perhaps the most poignant and important parts of the whole recording are the two spoken-word pieces he includes. They are short letters to his dead mother. He explains what he and Jack are doing; playing the songs he used to play when he lived with her on Grosvenor Ave. as a teen in Canada. In the most touching moments Neil asks his mother to talk to his father in heaven. They were divorced long before their deaths, but Neil is trying to fix things for them in the afterlife. “Remember to talk to Daddy” he pleads. This is a very important milestone in Neil Young’s career. In a totally non-commercial move he tips his hat to his heroes, his own past and tries to fill some holes in a broken heart.
- Paul Epstein

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #92 - James and the Giant Peach (1996, dir. Henry Selick)

I guess I’ll start this attempt to ‘turn you on’ to Henry Selick’s James and the Giant Peach with a simple question: do you like The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)? Chances are, if you’ve seen it the answer is yes! Now what if I follow that question with: who directed Nightmare Before Christmas? I would venture to guess the majority of you would answer with a resounding “Tim Burton!” You would be incorrect – Henry Selick, the director of the film that I wish to turn you on to, is actually the director of that brilliantly dark children’s flick. With James and the Giant Peach (his second film and follow-up to the aforementioned Nightmare), Selick tackles a novel from one of the most imaginative children’s writers, Roald Dahl, and mixes both live action and the brilliant and meticulous stop motion animation seen in Nightmare. So before I get into the meat of my argument for this fantastical film let us recap: this film is from the director of the cult classic Nightmare Before Christmas (often wrongly attributed to Tim Burton!) AND it’s based on a book written by one of the most beloved and imaginative children’s authors, Roald Dahl (most famous for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory)! WHOA! However, I digress, it’s time to tell you why this particular film is SO great!
     Our story opens on James, an unfortunate child recently orphaned. His parents were killed in a freak rhinoceros attack and he was sent to live with his two grotesque and evil aunts, Sponge and Spiker. Unsure if he will ever escape, he runs into a strange man while attempting to save a spider from his nasty aunts. This man offers James an escape from the dregs he is currently stuck in by giving him a bag of magic crocodile tongues. Excited to see what enchanted future lies ahead of him he accidentally trips up the stairs, losing all of his squirmy mysterious tongues as they burrow into the ground. Deflated and upset James is discovered by his gruesome twosome of aunts, but just as he is about to be unjustly punished once again something amazing happens – a peach begins to grow on the barren tree in their yard. All three of them stop dead in their tracks and watch as this amazing peach swells and grows to an enormous size right before their eyes.
Thus begins the fantasy that lies ahead. Little did James know that an adventure of insane proportions is ahead of him, for inside this giant peach are a centipede, a glow worm, a ladybug, an old grasshopper, an earthworm, and the very spider that he had saved minutes before, all growing to human size. The remainder of the film is the story of a boy and his giant bug (and one arachnid) friends trying to make it to New York (the place James’ parents told him they were going just before the rhino took them from him). They hole up in their giant peach and find fun and ingenious ways to utilize their giant fruit for transportation along the way.
So other than the extraordinarily inspired narrative why should you purchase this film and run home to watch it (by yourself, with your significant other, or, maybe especially, with your children)? How about the darkly whimsical visual style and flare that Selick brings to all of his films? If you aren’t familiar with the look of stop motion animation, let me be the first to tell you it is quite possibly the most visually stunning form of animation. The animators create a completely detailed world within which they bring painstakingly designed puppets to life, frame by frame. The result of the hours poured into this medium results in the one of the most eccentric and fanciful visual phenomena. I know the visual nature of film is usually a large part of my argument, but with a film created in this medium it is hard not to rave about the visionary character and set design and the creative and enveloping world that is unrivaled in it’s ability to stun with childlike eccentricity. Taking a step back, the cast of the film is also exquisite. With child non-actor Paul Terry as the lead, Joanna Lumley and Miriam Margolyes (who has double duty voicing the Glow worm) as the cheeky aunts, and the glorious voice cast of the bugs, Jane Leeves, Richard Dreyfuss, Simon Callow, David Thewlis, and Susan Sarandon.
So to bring it all back and tie it up into a nice bow of ‘turned you on-ness’ – the story, the look, the cast. I’ve been watching this film since I was 10 years old so maybe I am a little biased but I would have to say that Roald Dahl’s story is incredible, as is his nature. No matter who you are the story is easy to fall into and get caught up in. So crawl into the peach and join in the journey to the unknown. If you know nothing about this movie or the story you are in for a serious treat.
            - Edward Hill

Monday, June 2, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On #106 - Arto Lindsay – Salt

Back in the 90’s and early 2000’s, Arto Lindsay seemed poised to make some kind of breakthrough that never quite happened, taking a lengthy hiatus from recording (under his own name) after his great 2004 album Salt. While his eccentric synthesis of traditional Brazilian music, noisy downtown New York art rock, and experimental electronic music wasn’t likely to hit the charts Nirvana-style, he was at least operating in a post-Nirvana world where labels were willing to bankroll these kinds of experiments. And in that environment he delivered six good-to-great albums in a row starting with the uncharacteristically mellow O Corpo Sutil (The Subtle Body) through the (sadly out of print) masterpiece Mundo Civilizado and on through a series of albums for Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe label (he was the first artist other than Ani to record for the label), ending with this one, among his best releases ever.
But let’s back up a bit. Back in the late 1970’s, after CBGB’s had already been established as the nexus of the New York’s punk scene – or at least its slightly artier and more diverse wing – along came something called “No Wave,” a noisy reaction to the New Wave music of the day slicking up the punk impulse and turning it into something easily commodified. And that’s where the U.S.-born and Brazil-raised Lindsay found his first musical footing with his avant-noise trio DNA. They appeared on the crucial noise-rock document No New York and worked for a while longer before he broke up the group after releasing only one EP and one single under their own name. But at least he had a plan – after DNA staked out their territory (called “horrible noise” and “skronk” by my two favorite music critics) he took a sharp turn, surprising fans by unveiling his new group Ambitious Lovers in 1984. The Lovers featured a heavy Brazilian vibe mixed with the skronk and most surprisingly included a club-ready dance tune called “Let’s Be Adult” and a cover of Dorival Caymmi’s lovely ballad “Dora.” After two more (great) records with the Lovers and several high profile production jobs – for Caetano Veloso, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Marisa Monte among others – he returned to records of his own on the trajectory noted above.
Which brings us back to Salt, the most recent entry in his bossa-electro-skronk catalog. Things kick off with “Habite Em Mim,” setting up an electronic rhythm over which Arto flips back and forth between Portuguese and English, setting the tone for the rest of the album to come. But where other artists often use electronics to highlight their alienation and gun for an affected modernism, Arto strives for the more organic feelings he and his band can muster. In this he’s aided immeasurably by bassist/programmer Melvin Gibbs, who helps fulfill the role on most of these records that keyboardist Peter Scherer did in the Ambitious Lovers – and this is keeping the rhythm at the fore. Arto’s a man of contrasts, so his guitar squalor somehow fits within the gentleness of the Bossa Nova, the electronic beats never feel processed and computerized, they’re always a match for the earthy sensuality of his vocals and lyrics. Every song has subtle or not-so-subtle drums and percussion pushing the song along when Arto decides to go quiet. Even on “De Lama Lâmina,” the artiest cut here, there’s still a propulsive drive thanks to Lindsay and Gibbs’s insistence on making things compellingly danceable. On the super-catchy “Personagem,” Arto lets out what in an alternative universe not dominated by Soundscan could’ve been a chart hit, while on the great “Combustivel” he employs extra percussion and backing vocals to create my favorite piece on the album.
What you bring to the table may help decide how you read this music – a friend 12 years older than me was reminded of the 1970’s Latin jazz lite of Michael Franks while another 20 years younger than me said it brought to mind Thom Yorke’s solo excursions – but there’s no denying that Arto’s a real original. Also out now is a collection of Lindsay’s music entitled Encyclopedia of Arto, a 2 CD set with a batch of his 1996-2004 tunes (selected by Arto himself) on disc 1, and a 2012 live performance featuring just his voice and guitar on disc 2. The first disc gives a great overview of the period that culminated in Salt, while disc 2 shows that he hasn’t lost his penchant for discord – it’s the noisiest thing he’s put his name on since the days of DNA. Both of them are great in their own way, but Salt is a more unified show, bringing the two extremes in together to create something utterly unique.
- Patrick Brown