Tuesday, August 26, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On #112 - Terry Riley - A Rainbow in Curved Air

My friend (and former co-worker) Ben and I were recently discussing similarities across several different types of music that he likes to call “Trance Music.” His boundaries on the music – long, repetitive pieces with minimal chord or tempo changes – encompasses a lot of music that happens to be my favorite music in the world: extended pieces of African music like those of Fela Kuti or the longer soukous workouts of Franco and Tabu Ley Rochereau; Miles Davis’ extended 1970’s electric music; James Brown’s stretched out funk; the artier side of the Velvet Underground in pieces like “Sister Ray” and “European Son”; minimal techno and house music or much of the disco that preceded it; Kraftwerk styled electronics; Fripp & Eno ambient drones. All of these (and much more) seem to fall under a certain idea of repeating and slowly evolving patterns, but the daddy of all these styles has to be the minimalism that grew out of experimental American classical music of the late 60’s, a style for which composer/performer Terry Riley is often tagged as one of the founders (along with the great LaMonte Young).
            But Riley, whose music stands in contrast to some of the more austere works by folks like Steve Reich and Philip Glass, was interested in Indian classical music and also with jazz, all of which (and more) was channeled into his early works. Here he’s tapped into the burgeoning psychedelic music scene as well, playing two pieces that took up one side each of the original LP; one a bubbling fantasia for keyboards and percussion, the other a shorter example of what he was playing at his all night live concerts of the late 60’s, featuring him playing soprano sax and keyboards with echoing delay effects that tapped into the “turned on” audiences very nicely. The keyboard and saxophone improvisations reflect his interest in jazz while drones and percussive devices throughout reflect the Indian music he was about to study in depth shortly after this album.
            On the title cut, we kick off quickly into speedy, overdubbed keyboards that provide a constant rhythmic drive and pulse while Riley delivers some blindingly fast runs over the top of the drones that underpin it. And just when it seems like you’re gonna get the hang of what he’ll do for the whole piece, a percussive interlude around the 6:40 mark introduces elements (tambourine and the African dumbec) that change up the flavor and expand the piece into new territory. It mellows for a bit, but has again picked up the pace after the 11-minute mark as the dumbec enters the picture in second half and begins to be the dominant voice in the work. On the second cut, “Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band,” the sound slowly emerges like some giant beast rising out of the sea. And at first it seems like it’s just a drone, though there seem to be a thousand small pieces making up the total sound. Like the first piece it takes a little bit to let us know what it’s doing, then about five minutes in the music switches gears to let us know it’s got more tricks up its sleeve as it reveals that drone as the infinite echo of who knows how many saxophones laid on top of each other. Those thousands of pieces are actually sax lines that have been played and echoed with a decay, then over the echoed playback Riley has improvised a new line in harmony or counterpoint with the first, which is then also echoed and played against for the next line. And once the music has shown its structure, it shifts again when the keyboard drone takes a front seat over the soprano sax, and Riley begins to play back and forth between the two instruments for the remainder of the piece.
            All in all, it’s a heady mix of things – different styles at play, simple-seeming structural elements creating a complex whole – but even if you’re not picking it apart by structure (as I have had years and dozens or maybe hundreds of listens to do), it’s a great album that sounds like nothing else in the world (even Riley’s other famed works like the earlier In C sound more in the classical Minimalist mode than this, though the later Shri Camel mines some similar territories). And the influence of Riley and this album is felt all over to this day: The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” is named in tribute to him (and Meher Baba) and its famous keyboard intro approximates Riley’s style; Riley and the Velvet Underground’s John Cale made a 1971 album together; in the 1970’s he met and began working with David Harrington, founder and leader of the Kronos Quartet, and has made more than a dozen works in conjunction with them since; and this album’s title track was even featured in the video game Grand Theft Auto IV. But when it boils down to it, even more than its influence or its specific artistic value, this is simply a great album to immerse yourself and get lost in. As Ben would say, it’s great Trance Music.

            - Patrick Brown

Monday, August 18, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #97 - Adaptation. (2002, dir. Spike Jonze)

Susan Orlean: “There are too many ideas and things and people. Too many directions to go. I was starting to believe the reason it matters to care passionately about something, is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size.”

            The film I have chosen to turn you onto in this, my latest installment, is Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze’s loose adaptation of Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief, entitled Adaptation. To properly introduce such a sprawling, inventive, and enigmatic movie, I will attempt a brief explanation of the structure. I won’t go too far into the details as unpacking the configuration of the script as you watch is a large part of the enjoyment of the movie, but the fact of the matter is that this movie, which is in essence an adaptation of a book about flowers, blooms into a film about the creative process of adaptation in general.
We are shown multiple layers of characters in a variety of different story lines. We have Charlie Kaufman, the actual person, adapting the book, his twin brother and all of the people in his circle (his agent, publicist, girl friend etc.), and we watch as he struggles with such a complex and original adaptation. Then we also follow Susan Orlean, John Laroche, and all of the other satellite characters involved in the book he is adapting. The fun of the film is the fact that as the plot develops the worlds of the two begin to merge and levels of fiction seep into the story to the point where it is the viewer’s task to either give into the developing story or try to decide where the lines of fact and fiction are blended.
One of the reasons I fell completely head over heels for this film is the brilliant way in which Kaufman (the writer not the character… or wait both I guess) has woven these two story arcs based in reality, where almost no immense action happens into one overblown and immense film experience. Early in the film the character of Charlie Kaufman is speaking to his publisher about the adaptation and the possibility of a love interest: “Okay. But, I'm saying, it's like, I don't want to cram in sex or guns or car chases, you know... or characters, you know, learning profound life lessons or growing or coming to like each other or overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end, you know. I mean... The book isn't like that, and life isn't like that. You know, it just isn't. And... I feel very strongly about this.” The battle of creating a story that is true to this statement is in essence the main focus of the film. However there is a very surprising and climactic ending lurking in the wings (but I won’t go too far into that…).
While the plot, characters, and dark comedic wit are the main focus and what truly makes this film one that I can enjoy over and over, there are certainly other reasons I can pull in an attempt to turn you on to Adaptation. if you aren’t hooked already. Charlie Kaufman (who also wrote Being John Malkovich (1999), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), and wrote and directed Synecdoche, New York (2008)) wrote the film and his work is always infused with a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor. Spike Jonze (known also for directing Being John Malkovich, Where the Wild Things Are (2009), Her (2013) and countless amazing music videos) then took the script and directed it into the amazing amalgamation it is. On top of these two creative masterminds the always-stunning Lance Accord then shot it – you may remember my ruminating on the magic of his eye in my essays about Marie Antoinette (2006) and Buffalo ’66 (1998). So the people behind the lens are incredibly well chosen. Then on top of this the acting is fantastic. Nicolas Cage luminously pays both of the Kaufman brothers (I know: Nicolas Cage! I’m as surprised as you!), Meryl Streep is fantastic (as usual) as New Yorker writer Susan Orlean, and Chris Cooper perfectly embodies the perplexing character of John Laroche. So those working in front of the lens are equally adept.
In a brief review and conclusion as to why you should buy and watch (re-watch) this film: the plot is imaginative and inventive, the direction and cinematography are spot on, the acting raises the bar of the story, and just to reiterate I cannot stress the fun and excitement of the story development. Watching this movie again in prep for this essay I was again immediately enveloped in the worlds of the story and couldn’t pull myself away from the screen. So give it a shot and if you hate it you can come in and find me to tell me why – but that’s not going to happen. You’ll love it.
- Edward Hill

Monday, August 11, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On #111 - The Byrds - Ballad of Easy Rider

The Byrds are a legendary band that always seemed to be falling apart. After their initial success, Gene Clark first left to seek his fortune elsewhere, followed soon by David Crosby. The Gram Parsons whirlwind swept in then swept out, taking Chris Hillman with him. By the late 60s, Roger McGuinn was the only original member left, but he had put together a solid lineup with ace guitarist Clarence White and the crack rhythm section of Skip Batten and Gene (no relation to Gram) Parsons. This outfit wasn't out to change the world, they just wanted to make good music. Ballad of Easy Rider carries a laid back, country-folk vibe that would soon come to dominate pop music. But the tunes on this album are as good as any in the band's formidable catalog and the playing is always clear and sharp, never lazy.
Like most Byrds albums, writing contributions come from several band members mixed with a selection of covers and traditional songs. The title song, however, comes from McGuinn himself and is the album's best known song. The theme from the iconic movie, and supposedly co-written by an uncredited Bob Dylan, the song is both simple and infectious. "Fido" is a slice of country funk penned by former band member John York.  With a nice little percussion breakdown in the middle, it's a cool jam session condensed down to a neat 2:40. The band tackles a pair of traditional folk tunes with "Oil in My Lamp," a catchy sing-a-long, and the sea chantey "Jack Tarr the Sailor." They also turn in a nice pair of country covers with "Tulsa County" and a beautiful rendition of Vern Gosdin's "There Must Be Someone (I Can Turn To)."
The oddest track on the album just might be "Jesus Is Just Alright."  The band takes a short, little gospel song and gives it a trippy, psychedelic backing, the only real bit of psychedelia on the album. The Doobie Brothers would score a hit with their version a few years later, but the Byrds' take is the one to hear. Every incarnation of the Byrds has turned to Bob Dylan's songbook for inspiration and this album is no different. This fantastic version of "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" ranks as one of their best Dylan covers. They also take on Dylan's hero Woody Guthrie with a moving take on "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)." McGuinn's mournful vocal is one of his most powerful performances. Gene Parsons proves his songwriting chops as well with the catchy, relaxed vibe of "Gunga Din." The album concludes with a short tribute the Apollo astronauts "Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins." While lacking the hits of their early career, Ballad of Easy Rider is a strong entry in The Byrds' catalog. It's an overlooked classic well worth checking out.
            - Adam Reshotko

Monday, August 4, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #96 - Clay Pigeons (1998, dir. David Dobkin)

“Could you not poke the body with a stick, please?”
Clay Pigeons

            The intent of this article isn’t to convince you that you’ve somehow missed the greatest overlooked film of all time. Rather, I simply hope to bring a couple more humans to the fold of Clay Pigeons. A film unfairly and largely ignored, surely because of the amount of “big indie films” that came out the same year (1998) – Rushmore and The Big Lebowski being the two taking the most publicity.
            Clay Pigeons is a little gem that packs more punch, unpredictability and macabre humor into its brisk running time then near anything else from the late 90s in North America. This of course, excludes Fargo, the film most often compared to David Dobkin’s only actual good film to this day (although moments of Old School are quite humorous). Simply calling Clay Pigeons a Fargo rip-off is a gross disservice to both films, as they are different creatures altogether.
Clay Pigeons offers up a young (but routinely excellent) Joaquin Phoenix, a reliably hilarious Janeane Garofalo (rumored to have taken the role solely because she felt the violence against women in the film needed a strong female character to play against), an atypically unpredictable, sultry, slyly comical and genuinely funny Vince Vaughn and a score from John Lurie of the Lounge Lizards and Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law.
            The film begins with a seemingly innocuous afternoon of beer consumption and subsequent destruction of said beer bottles with handguns. What unfolds in those opening five minutes sets us down an increasingly bizarre path of accidents and cover ups leading to mountains more of both.  Phoenix’ main character is refreshing because he very much functions in the grey. He is certainly not a good man, but he’s also not necessarily a horrible human - perhaps a product of his environment more than himself, although one shouldn’t be quick to label him as intelligent.
            Clay Pigeons plays best for those looking for a nasty little film that has plenty of twists and turns, vicious black humor and slightly juvenile characterizations on the periphery. Moment to moment, things change so quickly (sometimes drastically) that one must simply give in to the ride they have boarded. Simply delight in the decadence and melodramatic musings offered up by the uber-entertaining, tough-as-nails/sweet-as-pie, overlooked little gem that is this film.
            - Will Morris, House Manager, Sie Film Center