Wednesday, December 30, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #144 - Tom Lehrer – That Was The Year That Was

Superlatives like ‘genius’ are often thrown around as casually as a baseball in modern culture, but very few folks are deserving of such high praise. Tom Lehrer is one of those people actually deserving of that title and set the benchmark high for what a “Renaissance Man” looks like in contemporary times.

I’ve always said that for someone to appreciate and understand what it is that they’re listening to, well, they have to know what it is that they’re listening to. In this instance, one needs to understand who Tom Lehrer is to really appreciate this record. Lehrer was considered a child prodigy who entered into Harvard University at age 15 to study math and also began writing comedic songs to entertain his peers. Following the completion of his Master’s, Lehrer took time off of working on his doctoral degree to serve in the U.S. military as a researcher at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory with the National Security Agency.  During this time, as a means of circumventing liquor restrictions, Lehrer would smuggle alcohol by mixing it with Jell-O and consequently invented the Jell-O shot.  I’ll say it again; this man invented the Jell-O shot! In 1960, Lehrer left his military career to return to his studies at Harvard. He would continue a career in academia as a professor at MIT and UC Santa Cruz teaching courses on political science, mathematics, and musical theatre.

With that in mind, on to That Was The Year That Was. Recorded at the hungry i Theatre in San Francisco in 1965, Lehrer performed a number of satirical songs taken from the NBC series That Was The Week That Was, an American spin-off of the BBC series of the same name. With only Lehrer on piano, his humorous, sociopolitical ditties did just what biting comedy should do - outrage and delight its audience alike. Keep in mind this was the United States in 1965; Lyndon B. Johnson and Leonid Brezhnev were in office while the Cold War and nuclear obliteration loomed over people’s heads, the war in Vietnam was unpopular and troop numbers were ramping up, religious faith was strong, and race tensions were as high as they had ever been in the country’s history.  People were understandably on edge, but Lehrer addressed all of these subjects head on and did so in a frank, witty manner. The album is certainly dated in this sense, but many of the songs’ undertones and messages still hold true to debates ongoing in today’s landscape.

The first cut of the album, “National Brotherhood Week,” addresses a week-long program sponsored by the National Conference for Community and Justice to promote social equality, but, as Lehrer points out, on the first day of it in 1965 Malcolm X was killed, “which gives you an idea of how effective the whole thing is….” “Send in the Marines,” a song about how “America always has this number one instrument of diplomacy to fall back on,” is critical of the United States’ overt use of militarism in foreign policy dealings, and strikes a chord even today when examining the United States’ military undertakings in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now with the Islamic State in Syria. “New Math” examines the ridiculous teaching trends during the 1960s that were done away with about as fast as they were conceived. “Alma” details the romps of Alma Mahler, a Viennese-born socialite and composer who became the wife, successively, of composer Gustav Mahler, architect Walter Gropius, and novelist Franz Werfel, as well as the consort of several other prominent men. Finally, one of my personal favorites, “The Vatican Rag,” a tune poking fun at the Second Vatican Council and the reform of Roman Catholic liturgy. During this album’s recording, actor Ricardo Montalban, a staunch and loyal Catholic, was in the audience and became so enraged upon hearing the song that he shouted from the audience, “How dare you make fun of my religion! I love my religion! I will die for my religion!" To which Lehrer responded, "That's fine with me, as long as you don't do it here."

Tom Lehrer is a once in a generation talent, the true embodiment of a Renaissance man. He was so far ahead of his time that his messages still hold true on an album recorded in 1965, a timeless masterpiece that is just as funny and sharp now as it was then  Have a listen to this and enjoy!

-         Kevin Powers

Monday, December 28, 2015

Twist and Shout Presents: Top Things List 2015

As at the end of every year, we ask our employees to share their favorite releases of the year. Herein are the results of our end of year employee poll. We gave each employee a sheet suggesting ten titles on different formats but weren’t strict about how the numbers broke down and also weren’t strict about what format, whether titles were new, or whether it was even music, so there’s a lot of variety here.

This year had the most votes for a leader that we’ve had in years – D’Angelo’s album Black Messiah, which came out last December after we’d already polled the staff for 2014. It garnered votes from over a third of the staff, the most-widely picked title since Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots back in 2002! But before it became clear that no official 2015 release was gonna catch it, Tame Impala’s Currents, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, and Sleater-Kinney’s No Cities to Love all were in there pitching and each of them seemed like contenders for the top spot. And all four are worthwhile albums, to boot. Check out our individual lists and see what your favorite employee voted for, find that person whose tastes are in line with yours, or the one who can point you to some great new music that you’ve never heard before.

We’ve tallied the music releases that appeared on three or more employee lists to make a snapshot of Twist & Shout’s best-loved music (and also movies) of 2015. Rather than delineate by format, a vote for a release on any format specified by the employee counted toward the total. Enjoy the entire tallied votes and each employee's personal lists HERE.

Monday, December 21, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #130 - The Iron Giant (1999, dir. Brad Bird)

I first watched The Iron Giant in the fall of 1999, just a few months after graduating from college. Had I seen this film between the ages of seven and twelve, it would be one of my top ten all-time favorites. As it stands, this film still ranks very high for me and my opinion of it only improves with additional viewings. Despite the fact that The Iron Giant failed to find an audience upon its release sixteen years ago, time has shown that Brad Bird’s debut film succeeds as both an enduring story of childhood adventure and an entertaining comment on recent history and political science.  

Bird introduces the film’s tone of Cold War paranoia by setting it in the fall of 1957 and opening with an establishing shot of Earth from space as a newly launched Sputnik whizzes by in orbit. A moment later, something streaks past the camera, races toward Earth, and plummets into a raging storm. Who or what fell remains ambiguous during this sequence, but the mystery won’t last long. Once the action settles into the small, coastal town of Rockwell, Maine, we meet Hogarth, a precocious boy hungry for friendship and excitement. Hogarth soon follows signs that something in the woods is eating metal and he stumbles upon the giant metal robot that fell from space. Hogarth’s discovery fills him with joy but he knows he must exercise caution as he teaches this Iron Giant to survive on Earth. Hogarth, who himself is in need of a role model, takes on the task of modeling his behavior for the Giant. During these sequences Bird captures restless and avid boyhood just as I remember it. In one of the film’s best moments Hogarth shares his comic books with the Giant and casually establishes a hero/villain dynamic between Hogarth’s favorite, Superman, and a killer robot named Atomo, who resembles the Giant. Saddled with this confusing paradigm, Hogarth assures the Giant that he’s a good guy and restates the film’s mantra, “you are who you choose to be.” It’s worth noting that Vin Diesel’s effective yet minimal voice performance as the Giant predates his work as the beloved ambulatory tree, Groot, from last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy by fifteen years. Although Bird loves the style of the late 1950s and early 1960s, The Iron Giant delves into social and political themes of the day with greater depth and nuance than you might expect from a “kids’ movie.” Undercutting Hogarth’s fascination with science fiction daydreams, Bird recreates a “Duck and Cover” film for elementary school students and demonstrates the deadly fear of nuclear war and flimsy comforts under which this generation of children lived and learned. The character of Dean, a beatnik sculptor, voices repeatedly the need to embrace those who don’t conform to society’s expectations. Weaving xenophobic hysteria together with an over-zealous show of force from the government and military, the story serves as a cautionary tale that resonates strongly in this country’s current political environment. Is this strange visitor really a child’s friend or a threat to our way of life? The film’s powerful ending and refusal to shy away from the high stakes of the story function as indicators of a confident director with substance, vision, and style who was just getting started.  

In addition to The Iron Giant’s triumph as a single film, it also serves as a statement of purpose for one of the most innovative mainstream directors of the last 20 years. Elements of The Iron Giant run throughout Bird’s four subsequent films. Bird’s two Pixar films, The Incredibles and Ratatouille, both champion challenging conventional wisdom and underscore the value of listening to disenfranchised characters. For Bird’s first live action feature, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, he revives the series by returning to a Cold War antagonism with Russian villains and a missing nuclear weapon. Tomorrowland, which opened this summer, features characters facing the future with a choice highly reminiscent of the mantra Hogarth shares with the Giant. The Iron Giant manages the rare accomplishment of rekindling the exuberance of childhood and examining the absurdity of adulthood while telling a story that is as timeless as it is rewatchable.       

-         John Parsell

Monday, December 14, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #143 - Caitlin Cary & Thad Cockrell - Begonias

The sub-genre of alt-country has always seemed a fitful and inadequate label for the music it contains. Although part of this tension stems from corralling very different bands and artists, some of this friction appears to come from within these bands themselves. Two of the most influential alt-country bands, Uncle Tupelo and Whiskeytown, not only defined (and defied) the sub-genre during their relatively brief tenures, but also balanced, however tenuously, the wills of two strong voices and artistic visions. With Uncle Tupelo’s collapse, Jeff Tweedy began the ever expanding, genre-confounding project of Wilco, while Jay Farrar refined his take on Americana with Son Volt. Upon Whiskeytown’s dissolution, Ryan Adams’ voracious creative appetite launched a lucrative solo career almost as prolific as it is inconsistent, while Caitlin Cary’s willingness to continue forging fruitful collaborations has yielded a handful of solo albums and side-projects that have enriched the state of modern independent country music. Cary’s 2005 album with Thad Cockrell, Begonias, serves as an excellent example of her post-Whiskeytown work by delivering a timeless set of songs about the rougher, sadder side of love.

Cary and Cockrell’s success on this album derives from how beautifully their partnership cuts through the drama and mixed messages that often accompany alt-country music. In many ways, this album is an unapologetically old fashioned country record featuring great musicians ruminating on heartache and heartbreak and having a good time while doing so. In Thad Cockrell, Cary finds a highly compatible voice, a like-minded songwriting partner, and a skilled performer adept at the kind of role-playing these songs encourage. The album breaks out confidently with a trio of great songs that each address the central theme: the inevitable imbalance that occurs when love doesn’t play out the way you were hoping. A nearly mathematical logic presides over these three songs and establishes the album’s focus on those who come out on the losing side of love’s equations. Following an enticing acoustic guitar flourish, “Two Different Things” eases into a medium tempo as Cockrell gently opens the narrative of a lover slowly coming to accept that his relationship no longer matches his desires. After joining Cockrell for the chorus, Cary takes the next verse and assures us that neither lover in this union feels any satisfaction. As both characters open up about their love failing to meet their expectations, the bitter-sweet tone folds into a wordless chorus showing off how beautifully these two can sing together. “Something Less Than Something More” features Cary in the lead role and introduces a tone of melancholy directly into the album by way of a distant, plaintive pedal steel guitar performance and Cockrell’s haunting backup vocal. Cary’s speaker engages in a similar kind of introspection as the previous song, but this time her loneliness echoes as she alone wonders whether she’s fooling herself. Rounding out the trio of openers, “Second Option” teases through a brief intro of a loping drum beat accented by a meandering organ part before kicking into gear as the album’s most rocking number. The song’s energy and drive fit nicely with the speaker’s defiance toward an indecisive lover. Cockrell takes the lead here and gives the song a strong sense of independence and hard-earned self-worth. Saving the best nearly for last, “Conversations About A Friend (Who’s in Love with Katie)” runs nearly twice as long as the other songs, but uses this time wisely to tell the story of one lover leaving another for new opportunities. Highlighting Cary and Cockrell’s considerable chemistry as both singers and storytellers as well as the remarkable talents of their band, “Conversations About A Friend” breathes life into both the beleaguered genre of country and the contentious sub-genre of alt-country.

For all of the stories about losing in love contained in this collection, Begonias is anything but a downer. Modern perspectives on love, relationships, and human psychology shape these updated takes on the archetypal country song about a broken heart. Yes, these songs focus on loneliness, loss, rejection, and longing, but a strong sense of hope and survival holds the album together. The unwillingness to give up showcased in these songs resonates nicely with Cary’s career after Whiskeytown. After forming a critically acclaimed, ground-breaking band that broke up just as they were beginning to hit it big, Cary has survived creatively by establishing rewarding partnerships like this one and her group with Lynn Blakey and Tonya Lamm, Tres Chicas. Cary’s solo career stands apart from her former band-mate’s as well as those of her peers from Uncle Tupelo because she has returned to the origins of country music instead of viewing it as just a launching point. Begonias pulls off the nifty feat of enlivening the essential virtues of country music while at same time demonstrating that there is life (and love) after alt-country.

-John Parsell

Monday, December 7, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #129 - High Fidelity (2000, dir. Stephen Frears)

"What came first, the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?"

So, in 2001, when I was 15, I ventured to the local Blockbuster and purchased a previously viewed VHS copy of this film for 10 dollars (yes, I spent $10 on a used VHS!) and my life was forever altered. In sitting down to attempt to write a review that even scratches the surface of just how crazy awesome and enlightening this movie is, I am at a loss. The story, the script, the casting choices, the pacing, and the brilliant story telling tropes all culminate in what is one of the perfect films not only about working in a record store, but about the complexities of life and relationships.

Rob: "Laura didn't even want to get married. That's not what happens now."
Rob's Mom: "Oh, I don't know what happens now, except you meet a girl, you move in, she goes! You meet a girl, you move in, SHE GOES!"
Rob: "Aw, SHUT UP, MOM!"
[Slams the phone receiver down, then muttering]
Rob: "God d@#n, that's some cold S!*t!"

Just to give a super brief summary of the story, Rob (played brilliantly and relatably by John Cusack) owns a record store and he has issues. The plot begins with Rob's intense breakup with his current girlfriend, Laura (Iben Hjejle), then the camera pans to Rob who breaks the fourth wall to tell us about it. Thus begins our relationship with Rob as he tells stories, smokes cigarettes, waxes intellectual, remarks sarcastically, and drops some seriously insightful thoughts on life. We follow him through his everyday life and in the in-between moments he relates the stories of his "all time top five" worst break ups. With each past relationship we learn a little more about the character and how he became who he is. At some point he decides to try and talk to the women on the top of his worst break ups list in order to put them behind him, and hilarity ensues. That is the simplest summary of the plot - a record snob's journey of self discovery. Originally a novel written by Nick Hornby (which is also incredible), this story is a work of casual genius. While it is easy to write the film off as a romantic comedy, and it IS incredibly funny and realistically romantic, there are some life lessons shared through this little quick snapshot of Rob's life.

While the story is incredible and the script truly brings story to life, it would be nothing without the cast that signed on to be involved. While there is a certain amazing and indescribable quality to John Cusack (who also helped write the script), the supporting cast is what really makes this movie so special. The list of talented people in this film includes: Todd Louiso, Lisa Bonet, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Joan Cusack, Tim Robbins, Lili Taylor, Sara Gilbert, Jack Black and many many more! This is in fact the film that made me fall in love with the over the top comedic performances of Jack Black and I think I will always see him as the sloppy, crazed, angsty record snob.

"Yeah, seriously, you're totally elitist. You feel like the unappreciated scholars, so you shit onto people who know less than you."

But getting to the heart of why I love this film SOOOOOO much, it's because I see myself in all of the characters. The depth of character development truly lets you relate to and feel akin to the people of Championship Vinyl (and the local universe surrounding the store). The way that the story unfolds and the pacing are so perfect that every time you sit down to watch this movie is like having a beer with an old friend (someone who you are/were so close to that you can finish each other’s sentences). One of the aspects of the narrative that really sells this feeling is the fact that Rob actually is talking directly to US, the viewers, and in some scenes ACTUALLY IS having a beer with us! Though this could very easily have been an ineffective method and proven trite, the way that John Cusack plays Rob makes it incredibly effective.

So in conclusion, this film is charming, funny, insightful and you should most definitely own it. Out of all of the films that I have written about for this series this is the one that I have spent the most time with, and the one that I return to the most. Not a year goes by that I don't revisit this film, and it gets even better with age. While it may seem obvious that I would like this movie as it has a direct relation to my life, I would bet my life savings (which is a few hundred doll-hairs) that you, whoever you might be, will find this story and the characters just as charming as I do.

-         Edward Hill

Monday, November 30, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #143 - Youssou N’Dour & Étoile de Dakar – The Rough Guide to Youssou N’Dour & Étoile de Dakar

Formed from members of two of Dakar, Senegal’s most popular nightclub bands, Étoile de Dakar – fronted by vocalist Youssou N’Dour – took the city by storm, soon becoming the most popular band in all of Senegal and revitalizing its music industry, and quickly one of the most popular in all of Africa. They lasted for three years and only a few albums before conflicts within the group made it splinter into several offshoots and Youssou N’Dour catapulted to fame on an international stage. They took the Latin-tinged music popular in West Africa and imbued it with Senegalese roots, creating a music called mbalax, a term coined by Youssou from the Wolof word for “rhythm,” and rhythm is what it’s all about, creating a fast, ferocious groove that shifts regularly and willfully throughout the songs, making them sometimes hard to grasp on one shot, but riveting and rewarding for multiple listens.

And this collection, selected by Graeme Ewens, author of several excellent books on African music, is as good a way to introduce yourself to the band as any that exists. Or at least, it’s a good way to introduce yourself to Youssou N’Dour’s vision of the band, since all the songs are written by N’Dour and two of them are from his post-Étoile group Super Étoile de Dakar. The record kicks off with one of the group’s finest moments, “Absa Gueye” which introduces you right off the bat to the most important things in the band: the song starts with a guitar rhythm after which the bass comes in to lock in with it, followed by a second guitar augmenting the swift rhythms. Then come the drums, a deeper sabar drum and one of the band’s most notable features, the tama drum, pounding sometimes in tandem with the rest of the group, sometimes making a staccato solo statement on top of them. These are all followed by the ace horn section bleating out a hooky riff. And then the voices come in. You’ll notice Youssou’s tenor right away – he’s in the right channel – because he’s got the strongest voice, but you can’t miss El Hadji Faye’s high wail in the other speaker or Eric M'Backe Doye packed in the middle. Again, they sometimes sing together, sometimes comment on each other’s words, sometimes tail off into different harmonies at the same time. But “Absa Gueye” ends in relatively short order and leads to “Jalo,” the mellowest thing here, and also a good way to experience the voices with the least clutter going on around them. For this group, this is a relatively mellow beginning, and the third track, the 12-minute “Thiapatholy,” starts slower before suddenly erupting into high gear and we’re off to the races.

            Maybe instead of easing into the waters, you should dive right into the deep end with “Thiapathioly,” a masterpiece of mbalax that can seem forbidding at first, but tells you about everything that their music is in one, shifting, ever-accelerating piece. It starts out slower, but then at the 0:50 mark the horns blow out a riff and the rhythm takes off at a gallop. Lead guitarist Badou N'Diaye kicks out a solo for about a minute after that (unfortunately it’s a little low in the mix). At about 3:15 the horns play the riff that will repeat the most in the song while the tama drum beats out an insistent pattern with them and then its own pulse in the moments between riffs. Shortly after, the vocals join in the fray as well, singing together, declaiming individually, trading off phrases, but all feeling the rhythm. At 5:53 a new horn riff and rhythm set up for a moment then at 6:09 the rhythm shifts again to something even faster. A little shy of the 7-minute mark there’s another new horn riff, then quickly a faster reappearance of the old riff from earlier in the song and the tama and sabar drums step up to the speed we’re at now.  Vocals drop out for a moment while the horns, guitars and bass riff and the percussion takes a lead for a while. Youssou returns at 9:00 and at this point everyone in the band is going nuts. At 10:35ish, the rhythm shifts again to a trickier pattern, slows down a touch to a more swinging groove at 10:55 and rides that to the vocal finale of the song, just shy of 12 minutes. It’s an epic song in the true sense, and runs you through the finest that mbalax has to offer.

            Other songs throughout highlight their guitars (“Diokhama Say Ne Ne” especially), their gifted horn section (most of the songs), and their remarkably sure sense of (fast, danceable) rhythm even when the songs get dense and complex. But if the youthful drive of several virtuoso players jockeying for lead space sounds exhausting, maybe try the later cuts like “Youssou” which might be the best place to start if you’re not ready to dive into the deep end with “Thiapathioly.” It’s slightly slower, has fewer changes (and less jarring ones at that), great singing – maybe the vocal high point of the disc here – and another terrific horn riff. And there’s a moment when N’Dour hands the reins to the guitarist when he says “C'est ça” and the guitar rips out one of the best (and most clearly recorded) solos of the entire set. It’s a great one. The collection ends with two cuts from N’Dour’s Super Étoile de Dakar, who he took to Europe with him to tour and begin a new phase of his career. These two are directly in the spirit of the Étoile de Dakar that we’ve just heard – which makes sense since N’Dour wrote and sang lead on every cut here.

            By 1981, they’d had enough of each other, with El Hadji Faye, Eric M'Backe Doye, and Badou N'Diaye splitting to form Étoile 2000, who made one worthy (and hard to find – snap it up if you see it) album before splitting up yet again, and Youssou, tama drummer Assane Thiam, percussionist Babacar Faye, and animateur Alla Seck (the rough equivalent to a hype man – think Flavor Flav), forming Super Étoile de Dakar and conquering Europe. Since the regular albums (all worthwhile) are long out of print, this may be your best - and is certainly the most economical - route to find out about one of the most exciting bands on the planet. You could grab the more balanced two-disc collection Once Upon A Time in Senegal, which more thoroughly goes through their catalog, featuring the many other songwriters who did work for the group and overlapping with only five of the cuts here. Or get them both. You won’t be sorry.

-         Patrick Brown

Monday, November 23, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #128 - Alice’s Restaurant (1969, dir. Arthur Penn)

Ostensibly a light-hearted adaptation of Arlo Guthrie’s folk-rock, FM classic song, starring Guthrie himself, nothing could be further from the truth about this historically accurate, heavy-hearted farewell to 60’s idealism that it actually turns out to be. Hot on the heels of his blockbuster Bonnie and Clyde, director Arthur Penn creates a heartfelt but ultimately melancholy look at the youth culture of the era. The story mixes the actual events of Arlo Guthrie’s life (such as the protracted death of his father Woody from Huntington’s Chorea) and his life as a struggling singer/songwriter trying to forge his own identity as an artist with events of his song “Alice’s Restaurant,” and Penn’s own screenplay to create a kaleidoscopic view of the late-60’s malaise settling in as the realization that “selling out” and “growing up” were essentially the same thing.

Arlo Guthrie himself is entirely charming as he recreates what are undoubtedly many of his own experiences coming of age with a very hip and famous last name in the 1960’s. We follow as he tries out college in Montana, gets kicked out for smoking pot and being a long-hair, and then drifts back to the East Coast, where he lands at the commune-like home of Ray Brock and his wife Alice (she of the restaurant). Ray and Alice are older than the large group of hippies who call Ray’s converted church home. They have cultivated a party-time, familial vibe, where not only are the kids sheltered and fed, but there is an unspoken understanding that their emotional needs will also be met. This kind of works out until, like in all utopian communities, the human frailties of the people at the top start to poison the well. Once Arlo gets back to the Connecticut commune, the movie takes on a far darker tone. I’m not sure if it was intentional or not. Like so many the best relics of the 60’s, I find them unbearably poignant because of the unwitting sadness they portray. The folly of my own youth and some of the less flattering aspects of the 1960’s subculture are meant to be seen as sympathetic or even heroic, yet it is their juxtaposition with the sad realities of the world as it actually exists today that give the movie its greatest resonance to a modern audience. All the ills of society exist in Ray and Alice’s world, it’s just that there are no parents telling you what to do. Ray and Alice nurture and care for the kids, but then things get a little weird when they sleep with some of them, and look the other way while another lapses into mental illness and addiction. During all this, Arlo goes back and forth to a hospital in New Jersey where his father, Woody Guthrie (played by Joseph Boley) lays mute in painful deterioration. We get a good sense of Guthrie’s love for, and confusion about his father. Between these two worlds, Arlo is seeing the disintegration of his biological family and his adopted group of peers. The film reaches its denouement as Arlo rushes to his father’s bedside only to miss his death by minutes, at the same time that his friend is being buried after over-dosing. Director Penn handles this beautifully and sets a bleak tone that sees the film through to its conclusion.

During the last third of the movie the majority of the events in Arlo’s famous song take place. These scenes, involving a small-town cop busting Arlo for littering on Thanksgiving Day and his subsequent adventures in jail and at the New York City Draft Board, are light hearted and probably account for the movie’s initial popularity, and its lasting status as a cult film. However, considering the last movement of the film, they seem almost irrelevant. The Brocks decide to renew their wedding vows in an attempt to bring themselves, and their adoptive family back together. The wedding ceremony starts as a glorious day filled with music, food, partying and dancing, but things start to turn sadly sinister as Ray’s drunken behavior becomes increasingly outlandish and hurtful to Alice. As the embarrassed kids start to drift away, Ray embarks on a futile speech intended to inspire his following. He panders to their utopian instincts, but it is too late…the dream is over, as Lennon would proclaim around the same time.

Alice’s Restaurant ends with a profoundly sad Alice Brock, standing alone next to her home, now literally and figuratively devoid of life and happiness. There couldn’t be a more effective metaphor for the end of the dream that was the 1960’s. While this movie may not succeed at the somewhat modest and unambitious goal of bringing Guthrie’s cartoonish song to life, it succeeds like no other film at bringing down the curtain on a tremendously important, but equally confusing decade in American history.
-          Paul Epstein

Monday, November 16, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #142 - Sun Ra - Angels and Demons at Play/The Nubians of Plutonia

If ever there were an artist in need of a "where do you start" type guide, it's Sun Ra. The legendary and mysterious jazz figure has been claimed as an influence by diverse artists from the Stooges and MC5 to Sonic Youth and Phish. He even popped up on MTV in the early 90s. So many folks who would otherwise never venture into the jazz section might be tempted to check this cat out. But what do you do when you get there? There are literally hundreds of releases by Sun Ra and his Arkestra. During his lifetime he released albums independently on his own Saturn label but also put out material on a variety of other labels. There have been numerous live recordings that have cropped up throughout the years, many being released after Sun Ra's death in 1993. And then there's the wide variety of music that Sun Ra composed and performed, ranging from traditional big band to early experiments with electronics and avant-garde works. Even someone well versed in jazz and/or experimental music can get intimidated by it all. Did I mention Sun Ra claimed to be a visitor from Saturn?

Recently, Strut Records has attempted to create a few entry points with compilations chosen by Ra associates and acolytes. Last year gave us In the Orbit of Ra hand-picked by longtime sideman Marshall Allen, who still leads the Arkestra to this day. Earlier this year came To Those of Earth...and Other Worlds, compiled by longtime BBC DJ and musicologist Gilles Peterson. I'd like to talk to you about my own first Ra purchase. I wanted to listen to Sun Ra but was clueless about where to start when I stumbled upon a compilation called Music Futurists that was put out by Wired magazine and Rhino Records. It had a bunch of artists I already liked, like Devo, Can, and Brian Eno, and had a Sun Ra track called "Plutonian Nights." I liked that track enough to seek out the album it came from, The Nubians of Plutonia. The CD release combined that album with another,Angels and Demons at Play. Evidence Records, primarily a blues label, released about 20 albums from the Saturn catalog on CD in the early 90s, many of them two albums on one disc.

Now I'd like to make clear that I am certainly no expert on jazz and can't really talk about the music in an academic or theoretical context. I can just tell you what I like - and I like all the music on this CD. The Angels and Demons album actually covers two separate recording sessions from 1956 and 1960. The first four tracks are from 1960 and are somewhat mellow but also show the Afro-centrist influence that has always been a part of the Sun Ra experience. The next four tracks, from 1956, are more traditional big band jazz, played with energy and joy. The remaining tracks are the Nubians album and show the beginnings of Ra and the Arkestra delving into African music and culture. This is particularly apparent on extended numbers like "Nubia" and "Aiethopia." I liked this album enough to dive into other Evidence releases, some covering a similar time period, like Super Sonic Jazz, and others from much later like 1978's Lanquidity. There are still many more miles to go on my trek through the Sun Ra universe but the Angels/Nubians twofer is where my journey began. Maybe it will be yours as well.

- Adam Reshotko

Monday, November 9, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #127 - Black Caesar (1973, dir. Larry Cohen)

                Black Caesar is the second film directed by noted independent/low budget director Larry Cohen, and also his second to deal with race and class. Viewed another way, it was his first “Blaxpolitation” film, a chronicle of the rapid rise and sad fall of Tommy Gibbs, an ambitious and ruthless black gangster, the “Godfather of Harlem.” Cohen has made a name for himself in the 1970s and 80s as a maker of quick, inexpensive exploitation films in disreputable genres (usually crime and horror films like It’s Alive, Q: The Winged Serpent, The Stuff and others) but has always packed his films full of bigger ideas. And if he didn’t work so hurriedly and cheaply and in these genres – the very things that give his films their loose, rough charm – he’d probably be considered a major American stylist in the vein of Scorsese and his generation of filmmakers (which Cohen is, technically, part of). I once said to a few friends “I wish his films were just 17% better than they are because then they’d be considered masterpieces instead of just a lot of fun.” - but fun they are, no less for their ambition and reach than for what they actually put across in the final cut.

                As noted, the film chronicles the life of Tommy Gibbs (played by former football player Fred Williamson) from his young days as a shoeshine boy trying to hustle his way ahead and learn the ways of the mobsters who rule his neighborhood to his time as the man ruling that neighborhood himself. Early in the film we see a young version of Tommy helping out a hitman and running hush money to a racist cop who ends up beating him and giving him a permanent limp. Flash forward to years later when Tommy decides that he doesn’t need to see white gangsters ruling his neighborhood when he’s perfectly capable of the task. A great montage sequence about 15 minutes into the film succinctly shows his rise to power while the James Brown soundtrack does its work, setting the mood and commenting on the action. Once he’s at the top – or near it anyway – his past starts to come back to haunt him: his previously absent father returns to make amends in a particularly uncomfortable, weird, and sad scene, and this, combined with his mother’s passing, cracks the hardened and ruthless exterior Tommy’s displayed for the whole film to this point. And once he proves that he has humanity underneath that, he begins to unravel. His rise was swift but his fall is more protracted as everyone slowly turns their back on him.
What’s unusual – though not unprecedented – is the way that Gibbs is portrayed in the film as very nearly unlikeable and his slow defeat sucks any glamour out of the portrayal of the gangster lifestyle until he ends up, literally, surrounded by garbage. Cohen is telling a classic “crime doesn’t pay” gangland story with its rising and falling dramatic arc, but updating the material to 1973 standards with smarts and savvy, hitting contemporary topical issues along the way. And even now, over 40 years later, it still feels fresh because of Cohen’s techniques – using hand held cameras on the streets to achieve a documentary vibe of the times (NYC bystanders and pedestrians are often staring at either Tommy’s flashy style or at the camera, clearly unaware they’re about to be in a movie), hiring stunt players but still improvising things on the fly, as when he has a driver roll up on the sidewalk to escape potential assassins (in a previous edition’s commentary track Cohen claims he didn’t bother with permits, just drove on the sidewalk and got done filming before he could get in trouble). Fred Willliamson had starred the previous year in the minor hit Hammer but this one solidified his status as one of the leading tough guys of the Blaxploitation movement – the film was successful enough that Cohen shot and released a sequel, Hell Up in Harlem, before the year was out (and as a side note, shot that on weekends while spending weekdays working on his next project It’s Alive). And the film’s scenes and ideas have had an impact beyond strengthening Williamson’s cache – both the massacre of some Italian rivals (in a scene that feels more comic than horrific/exciting) and the confrontation of Tommy’s girlfriend and best friend flash forward to scenes in Brian De Palma’s Scarface remake (though they’re played out differently there).
And again, there’s a classic “crime doesn’t pay” story on top, but right there mixed up with it – not even bubbling underneath as subtext – there’s also a barbed look at class and race that’s most definitely sympathetic and understanding to Tommy even if he’s still portrayed as a bad guy. If a viewer were to note, for example, that a corrupt cop holding a gun on Tommy in a corrupt lawyer’s office decided to humiliate him by forcing him to again shine his shoes, and that right when he says “give me a shine like you used to” there’s an edit to the shoeshine kit underneath an American flag, and wanted to make the association that Cohen is perhaps suggesting that the law and corrupt money in American politics combine to keep African Americans down, one could certainly do that. Or one could watch the movie and leave that kind of reading alone. It’s one of Cohen’s best films no matter which way you choose to watch it.

-          Patrick Brown

Monday, November 2, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #141 - Phoebe Snow – Phoebe Snow

There is a phenomenon of the debut album. The theory is that many great artists have about oh…one great album in them, and that the process of developing into an artist is the gestation period that the one masterpiece in them needs to prepare for birth. This is obviously an oversimplification, which gives short shrift to the artistic process and to the ongoing accomplishments of many important artists. Yet, there does seem to be some abiding truth to the fact that some artists spend their early lives so deeply in visualization and preparation, that when the debut album does come out, it is an overwhelming and defining creative statement, containing the individuals’ most realized work. Such is the case with Phoebe Snow’s magnificent self-titled 1974 debut. She had a long and distinguished career with many highlights, yet she never seemed to transcend this first, fully-formed artistic statement.

Possessed of a voice that defies categorization or genre, she was equal parts Billie Holiday, Laura Nyro and Bessie Smith. Her tone is clear and perfect with a jazzy quaver, yet her performances are all deeply informed by the blues she loved so. Her writing produced heartfelt, poetic and intelligent songs of artistic ideation and lost love. Heartbreak is her constant companion, and would remain so for the rest of her life as she fought for the health of her daughter and eventually herself, in a career marked by tragedy and lost opportunity. And yet Phoebe Snow stands as one of the absolutely great first albums. There are no weak songs, including her two covers, “Let The Good Times Roll” and “San Francisco Bay Blues,” and the best of her originals – “Poetry Man,” “Harpo’s Blues,” “Either or Both,” “I Don’t Want The Night To End” and “Take Your Children Home” - succeed as poetry and song. Take for example “Harpo’s Blues,” her tribute to an early lover who died tragically. The lyrics are a beautifully sustained balance of reference and original thought:

I wish I was a soft refrain
When the lights were out
I’d play and be your friend
I strut and fret my hour
Upon the stage
The hour is up
I have to run and hide my rage

With her own substantial guitar chops and unearthly voice, she is accompanied by Zoot Sims, Bob James and others to create an unbelievably poignant and lovely recording. I don't usually buy into lists, but if I had to make a desert island compilation of songs, this one would be on it. It falls into a small category of gerascophobic songs, or songs about the fear of growing up. In the final verse she sings:

I'd like to be a willow, a lover, a mountain
or a soft refrain
But I'd hate to be a grownup
and have to try to bear
my life in pain

It's hard to put into words how strongly this song and this album affected me as a 17-year old, however the acid test here is that I find it even more affecting now. In fact, there has never been a time that I've listened to this album that I haven't come away with a deeper appreciation for the singer and her songs, and that is incredibly rare.

I don't think I'm alone in this, because “Poetry Man” was covered by many and remains a beloved folk/rock staple, however, because Phoebe Snow was forced to turn her back on fame, she has been forgotten by many and has been relegated to the historical back shelf. Her debut album is a stunner from start to finish combining a truly original voice, all the magic that professional recording studios and ace musicians of the era could bring, and a truly great set of songs, combining to make this one of the albums that built my emotional life and my store.

-                Paul Epstein

Monday, October 26, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #126 - Little Shop of Horrors (1986, dir. Frank Oz)

Little Shop of Horrors is a film adaptation of an Off-Broadway musical adaptation of a grade “B” horror-comedy film from 1960 about a man-eating plant. It was directed by a person best known at the time for playing Miss Piggy, Yoda, and Bert of Bert & Ernie. If this all sounds like a mess, it serves as a reminder of how strange and unlikely the whole enterprise of this film was upon its release. Perhaps it’s time for full disclosure. I cannot stand most musicals, but I love this film and I have loved it since I first saw it in the theater at the age of nine in the fall of 1986. There’s just something wonderful about the chemistry of the lead cast, the incredible selection of supporting actors, and the choice of director that conjures a rewarding viewing experience with few equals in mainstream film of the last few decades.

            With strong leads complemented by Second City and Saturday Night Live alumni in cameos and walk-ons, this groups of players could be considered an all-star cast. As Seymour, the flower shop clerk who discovers a strange new plant species, Rick Moranis turns in the best performance of his career, elevating the kind of dweeby character for which he almost become typecast into a complicated and appealing underdog. Ellen Greene revisits the role of Audrey, which she pioneered in the original Off-Broadway production, and establishes a one of a kind leading lady and love interest. Audrey’s meek and insecure speaking voice falls away as she begins to sing and Greene’s powerful and passionate voice express everything the character is holding back and bottling up. Levi Stubbs, lead singer of the Four Tops, provides the voice of Audrey II, and in doing so contributes a key ingredient in creating one of the most memorable movie monsters of the 1980’s. Stubbs’ voice, when speaking as well as singing, spans an impressive dynamic range giving Audrey II an intensity, dimension, and unpredictability that generates an unavoidable and irresistible screen presence. Vincent Gardenia’s layered, lived-in weariness brings humanity and depth to the role of shop owner Mr. Mushnik that could seem two-dimensional in the hands of a lesser actor. Sporting a leather jacket and a black wig, Steve Martin hands in one of his goofiest, most out-of-character, and most disturbing performances as Orin Scrivello, the sadistic, motorcycle-riding dentist and abusive boyfriend of Audrey.

            In terms of supporting characters, one of the most important elements of this film comes not from one character, but from three. Acting as a kind of Greek chorus that breaks the “fourth wall” and addresses the audience, Crystal, Ronette, and Chiffon (whose names all derive from 1960’s girl groups) set the scene with style while presiding over the action decked out in beautiful, era appropriate costumes. In these roles, Tichina Arnold, Michelle Weeks, and Tisha Campbell supply the film’s smart, energetic pacing.
  The cameos and walk-ons I mentioned earlier add to the film’s irreverent, clever tone by giving these comic talents opportunities to have fun with the story’s setting. With Christopher Guest as the enthusiastic, vapid first customer to see Audrey II, John Candy as the hokey morning radio DJ who brings Seymour and Audrey II onto his show, and James Belushi as the pushy franchise salesman eager to sell little Audrey II plants across the country, these characters round out the film’s world. Watching seasoned comedy veterans turn in these performances, you get the feeling that each of them is sending up the kinds of adults they grew up around in the early in 1960’s. Bill Murray’s inspired performance as the masochistic dental patient stands apart from these other bit parts and nearly threatens to steal the show, but ultimately builds on the film’s delightfully twisted spirit.
This was Frank Oz’s third directing job and his first apart from Jim Henson and the Muppets. Little Shop of Horrors makes extensive use of puppets but no one would mistake Audrey II, the audacious carnivorous plant from the far reaches of space, for a resident of Sesame Street. Oz’s background in theater and film production with the Muppets serves him well as he fabricates the fantastic, terrifying, and multi-faceted world in which these characters live, struggle, sing, and face death.
Admittedly, this film balances many distinct pieces and any one of them could have easily tipped the whole project toward disaster. Little Shop of Horrors’ disparate elements combine to make a final product that works far better than many other musical theater adaptations of the last thirty years. Like all of the best examples of Off-Broadway cult phenomena, Little Shop of Horrors creates an exciting, fun, and perverse viewing experience that speaks to the outsider in all of us.  

             - John Parsell

Monday, October 19, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #140 - Hayden - Elk-Lake Serenade

In my experience as a music lover, I have learned that sometimes I find albums and sometimes albums find me. Hayden’s fourth album, Elk-Lake Serenade, found me just a few years after its 2004 release and I am very glad that it did. At the time, I was going through a rough winter in a small Vermont town and this collection of songs helped me keep going. The loose, inviting, and natural tone of Elk-Lake Serenade creates a strong contrast to Hayden’s intense, arresting, and cathartic 1996 debut, Everything I Long For. Despite notable differences in overall attitude and vocal delivery, these two albums share many of Hayden’s hallmark artistic strengths including thought provoking varieties of subject matter, unusual song structures, and inventive narrative perspectives. With Elk-Lake Serenade, Hayden made good on the promise he showed early in his career by crafting a mature, distinct, and adventurous album that contributes to and advances the canon of great folk-rock albums.

Elk-Lake Serenade opens with a trio of songs that set the stage for the album’s well-paced mix of relatively brief songs of varying tempo and energy that cover a range of tones from warm, funny, and earnest to haunting, heart-breaking, and absurd. The album opens with “Wide Eyes,” a stately, surprisingly formal ballad decorated with string flourishes and anchored by a stern piano figure that serves as a reminder of Hayden’s knack for minimalist storytelling. Just as the last notes of piano fade into silence, “Home by Saturday” kicks into gear with a mid-tempo folk-rock arrangement, beautifully offset by a great pedal steel guitar part, that grants the speaker confidence as he reassures his lover that he won’t succumb to the lures of going on tour while addressing with empathy the challenges they each face while he is away. Beginning with a gentle, chiming guitar progression, “Woody” expands quickly into a sweet little folk song dominated by acoustic guitar strumming and harmonica. On the first listen, you might not catch that this song is about Hayden’s pet cat because the bemused, resigned, yet loving spirit of the song could just as easily apply to feelings toward a close friend or a family member. Closer to the middle of the set, “Hollywood Ending” provides the album its strongest uptempo number while taking the cake for oddball concepts by illustrating what could be a fever dream or just a clever rumination on the cultural obsession with mainstream entertainment. In the second half of the album, two songs offer unique perspectives on domestic life that highlight Hayden’s ability to eschew the platitudes common to many songs about life at home. “Through The Rads” clips along a pretty good pace with subtle percussion and textured instrumentation as the speaker describes the unease, conflict, and apathy he feels hearing his neighbors fight through the radiators of the house they share. “My Wife” features a driving tempo that balances nicely with the speaker’s defiant, protective, and scathing rebuke to an old friend visiting town who would benefit greatly from moving on and growing up. Both of these songs demonstrate Hayden’s brevity and concision as a writer that is consistent throughout the album. Hayden makes his point, moves on, and ensures that no song wears out its welcome. Somehow, despite the tonal shifts and seemingly abrupt changes in subject matter, the album’s center holds.

Hayden’s first album left a strong impression on a close friend of mine in the late 1990’s and I enjoyed the songs I heard from it, but I lost track of his music after that. When Elk-Lake Serenade found me, I felt like I had run into an old friend I hadn’t seen in years. In many ways, the differences between Hayden’s first and fourth albums bear the marks of his respective ages when he made each of them. Everything I Long For sounds like a smart, emotionally complex twenty-five year old working through, among other things, being an angry young man in much the same way that Elk-Lake Serenade sounds like a smart, contemplative person in his early-thirties taking a moment to reflect on the bizarre, beautiful, and confounding world around him. Elk-Lake Serenade found me in a lonely town during a harsh winter while I was working through a very challenging time in my life, but listening to these songs made those cold nights pass a little more easily. Listening to this album feels like sharing an evening with a good friend you haven’t seen for a while. The conversation rambles into directions you may have never predicted, but the stories are great and it all reminds you of why you have been friends for so long. I may have been short on friends where I was living when this album found me, but listening to it, then and now, reminds me of the tremendous value of both lasting friendship and wonderful music.   

            - John Parsell

Monday, October 12, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #125 - An American Werewolf In London (1981, dir. John Landis)

I love horror movies. To me, there is nothing better than the original Universal version of Frankenstein. It combines the best elements of storytelling, make-up, acting, music, shadow and light to create an unexpected, synergistic element of the unknown. It gives flesh to the promise of cinema in the first place. Unfortunately, when we moved into the color age, and the expectation for ever-more explicit thrills advanced, the art of fear became the act of shock, and much of the appeal of horror went away – at least for me. The modern era has exchanged fright for torture. Watching one human inflict carnage upon others is a different thing than jumping at shadows. It loses the element of fun. While An American Werewolf In London director John Landis does succumb to modern bloodlust, he also manages to make a classic horror film that is hilarious and both honors and advances the genre.

The story begins with two American college students starting a hitchhiking trip of Europe on the moors of Scotland. The action begins almost immediately as they get lost, attacked by a wolf, and one of them is killed. The other, unknown TV actor David Naughton, wakes up in a hospital in London. He is being attended to by a suspicious doctor (John Woodvine) and a gorgeous nurse (Jenny Agutter). He is tortured by horrifying dreams and then he is repeatedly haunted by his decaying dead companion (Griffin Dunne), who warns David that he was bitten by a werewolf and that he would now turn into one himself when the moon is full. This is all in the first 20 minutes of the film. Landis does not screw around. He gets right to the heart of the matter. Before you can say lycanthropy our hero has entered into a love affair with the nurse, is staying at her house, and finds himself alone as the full moon rises. And then comes “the scene.” There are some moments in film history that are so completely new and groundbreaking that they not only define that particular film, they actually come to represent an entire genre. In full, clear, neon light, David strips his clothes off and the camera does not flinch or look away as his body starts to stretch and change in front of our eyes. Hair sprouts from his torso, his limbs morph from arms and legs to haunches and paws, and in a final horror, his face stretches into a muzzle as he becomes a howling hellhound. It is an absolutely amazing scene, and even though 35 years of filmmaking has passed since this film was made, this scene has not been bested. It is a testament to make-up genius Rick Baker’s lasting impact on the genre. Baker represents the last great make-up innovator (the DVD comes with several excellent featurettes about Rick Baker and the special effects processes he pioneered). Shortly after this film, computer generated effects became the de facto method of showing the impossible and something very special about the art of film was lost. But that was AFTER this movie.

For the remainder of An American Werewolf In London however, we are treated to one thrill after another as our hero runs amok in London, killing people, and letting us see exactly what it would look like to have a real monster, fully lit, in a modern city. It is a true thrill. A scene in a deserted tube station is as genuinely chilling as any I can think of. The movie leads to its climax as David finds himself back in human form, sitting in a pornographic movie theatre, once again talking to a now skeletal Griffin Dunne, while a ridiculous porno plays. It is truly one of the more uproariously funny and surreal scenes in the horror genre. The scene ends with the inevitable, however, as David, once again goes through the transition, and wreaks havoc in the movie theatre and then moves out into a mobbed Piccadilly Square for the film’s climax.

All the boxes get checked with this film. It is fabulously entertaining, provides real shocks, breaks new ground and simultaneously pays tribute to the horror tradition. Director John Landis strikes the perfect balance between star-struck fan boy and seasoned insider, making the monster movie he – and we – always wanted to see.

- Paul Epstein

Monday, October 5, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #139 - Magnetic Fields – 69 Love Songs Vol. 1

Once upon a time in the 90’s there was this place in New York City called the Lower East Side. Along with its neighboring area, The East Village, it presented itself as an eccentric haven for artists, hipsters, punks, and bohemians of all stripes. Don’t go looking for it now because it’s been transformed into something else, but back then it was a land of dive bars, of art galleries, of weird little stores and great, cheap restaurants, a place that had a sketchy energy that’s totally gone now. And Stephin Merritt, the leader, songwriter, and primary vocalist for The Magnetic Fields, in the liner notes to the 69 Love Songs box set also calls the Lower East Side “the epicenter of songwriting history in the 20th century” – mainly due to the fact that Irving Berlin grew up there. And that’s a connection that resonates throughout the works of The Magnetic Fields – though the band recorded on the North Carolina indie rock label Merge, Merritt’s group is more an heir to the lineage of songwriters like Berlin and Cole Porter than part of the scene of indie rock and pop of label mates like Superchuck, Spoon, or even the artier Arcade Fire.

And though the magical wonderland that was the Lower East Side is gone now, The Magnetic Fields have left behind a document of that time and particularly of the people who populated it – the 3CD set 69 Love Songs. Merritt is quick to distinguish that only some of these songs are “true” songs – meaning that they’re about his own lived experience – but they’re most assuredly true in the sense that even if he hasn’t lived them, someone has. His characters bounce around this wonderland trying to connect, looking for love in 69 different ways (only 23 of which are, of course, documented on Vol. 1), many of them sad and bleak, which is Merritt’s métier, but all of them also imbued with a droll and deadpan sense of humor that keeps the songs out of the realms of the overly dolorous. For example, in “I Don’t Believe in the Sun” one of his lovers is unable to find a suitable object of romance since a breakup and notes “The Moon to whom the poets croon/has given up and died” which could easily pass for a couplet from some Goth band’s oeuvre, but then he adds (drolly and drily): “Astronomy
will have to be revised,” a line that would never occur to the gloom merchants. Similarly, “A pretty girl is like a violent crime/if you do it wrong you could do time/but if you do it right it is sublime” is hardly any kind of normal love song fare, but it’s part and parcel of The Magnetic Fields’ world. Musically speaking, Merritt handles synthesizer and ukulele duties, along with a number of other more obscure instruments he doesn’t list, while his cohorts appear on the more conventional support of piano, guitar, drums, banjo, cello and other instruments. And then there are the guests – friends picked up in and around the Lower East Side of the time brought in to contribute to the scene report herein. Some of them Merritt found in other bands, others working the door of bars he frequented – both of which are true of Dudley Klute, who contributes the entire set’s finest vocal performance in “The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side” (also noted in the lyrics as “the ugliest guy on the Lower East Side” who happens to have an edge on the competition because he’s got a car). The guests add variety to make the set what it is – Merritt’s own dolorous baritone is cut with other voices beyond even those of other members of The Magnetic Fields to make the funniest, catchiest, and far and away the best album ever essayed by this talented group.

Normally, we avoid recommending pricy
collections and films in I’d Love to Turn You On. Who are we to, on the strength of our words alone, suggest that you should drop 20 or 30 bucks sound-unheard on a record or movie? We try to keep it reasonable and cheap. But that, and only that, is the reason I’m recommending Vol. 1, rather than the entire 3CD set, which is really the proper way to experience this music (plus you get a great booklet with a lengthy interview with Stephin Merritt detailing each track). I count 12 great songs of the 23 included on this disc, with the other 11 ranging from amusing to very good. And it includes “The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side” which is the greatest song of the entire set. Well, except maybe for “Papa Was a Rodeo” (one of Merritt’s faux-country tunes later covered by Bright Eyes, Kelly Hogan, and The Magic Numbers, among others) or “The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure” (critic Robert Christgau’s favorite). Really – if you have the slightest interest, you’ll need the whole set, but if you want to dip your toes in to test the water first, Vol. 1 has the highest concentration of greats – Vol. 2 and 3 each count 10 great ones for me, though your personal mileage may vary. The whole thing is never less than entertaining, often far better than that, and great for 30 songs (by my count) out of 69, which as a batting average is better than the greatest hitter ever in MLB. Additionally, due to popular demand, Merge is reissuing the set in a limited 10”vinyl box set on November 6th, so you vinyl enthusiasts should mark your calendars.

            - Patrick Brown

Monday, September 28, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #124 - The Fountain (2006, dir. Darren Aronofsky)

Izzi: "It's all done except the last chapter. I want you to help me. Finish it..."

Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain is a sprawling narrative that spans the past, present, and future (perhaps metaphorical). In just a short hour an a half Aronofsky fully engages and seemingly works through the pain and mystery of death while simultaneously rejecting any attempt to fully grasp such a concept. This is a truly beautiful and moving film that seamlessly weaves back and forth between three vast narratives that are infinitely intertwined. While the three stories might at first seem unrelated they are in essence different incarnations of the same basic human struggle, coming to grips with the inevitable reality of death.

In an attempt to give you a brief snapshot of the immense story (or stories) within this film, I will try and boil each of the three narratives to its essence. In the main narrative, that of present day experimental medical researcher Tommy (Hugh Jackman) is racing to find a cure for a cancer that is rapidly consuming his beloved wife Izzi (Rachel Weisz). We follow Tommy as he makes headway and suffers setbacks in his research, but more importantly we see the struggle of both Tommy and Izzi as they work through the changing dynamics of their life as they come to terms with, or refuse to come to terms with, the inevitable. While Tommy buries himself in his work frantically looking for a solution, an answer, a cure, Izzi grows more serenely accepting of life and death. In the film Izzi has written a book entitled The Fountain, and this book provides the past narrative which follows Tomas (also played by Jackman) as he quests to find the "Tree of Life" that will provide him and his Queen Isabel (also played by Weisz) with eternal life. Driven by his love for his Queen, Tomas braves the treacherous South American rainforest where he encounters Mayan forces that bar his path to the infamous Tree. Then in the future (or more metaphorical narrative) we follow Tom Cero (also Jackman) as he floats through space in a clear sphere with a tree and his thoughts, dreams, and memories to keep him company on his journey to Xibalba the place where he believes he will be reborn and his tree will be saved. This narrative is often used to connect all of the narratives as Tom Cero seems to be almost haunted by visions of Izzi and Isabel. As he flies through space he rehashes certain pivotal moments that then shift back to the present or the past. All of the three narratives trace the arcs of Tom-Tommy-Tomas as he fights against, struggles with, and comes to terms with death.

Lord of Xibalba: "Death is the road to awe."

That is certainly a brief introduction to all three of the much more rich narratives that develop through this film, and I cannot stress enough just how beautifully each narrative is illustrated and the extraordinary way in which each of the stories are woven into each other. Through beautiful camerawork (shot by Aronofsky’s go-to cinematographer, Matthew Libatique) and an intense, almost Kubrick-ian, control of scene and setting The Fountain's story comes to life. There are many subtle, self-referential scenes and sequences that connect the story arcs not merely through narrative similarities but also through nuanced visual cues. Additionally the entire film has a very distinctive visual style that carries through the different stories, and all three are linked through the visuals of Xibalba, the dazzling, dying star. These visuals are yet another aspect of the film that sets it on a higher level. Rather than resting on the abilities of CGI graphics to create this realm, Aronofsky decided to film chemical reactions at a microscopic level and use these slowed down reactions as the visual representation of the mysterious Xibalba. The fact that he utilized this microscopic beauty to visualize something so macroscopic in scale and mystery adds an extra level to the aesthetic of the film, and keeps every aspect of the film grounded in the physical, terrestrial world.

However, none of this would matter if we as an audience don't care about our protagonists, and therein lies another incredibly strong aspect of this film, the acting. Both Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz prove incredibly versatile as they are forced to play a number of different characters. While Weisz is embodies her characters in a way that you can't help but fall in love with, Jackman's portrayal of Tomas-Tommy-Tom is really the star in this film. Through the different characters (or incarnations of the same character) Jackman is forced to confront, convey and successfully command such a range of emotion. A lesser actor might have overdone the subtlety necessary to embody the human condition, but Hugh Jackman came through hugely and the strength and weight of his performance cannot be overstated. On top of the beautiful and masterfully crafted visuals, intriguing interconnected narratives, and amazing performances from the actors, the film is also has a phenomenal soundtrack composed by Clint Mansell and played by The Kronos Quartet and Mogwai. The soundtrack is another uniting force through the narratives and is in essence one beautiful slow build throughout the film to an epic closing crescendo.

So just to sum all of this up – and I seriously haven't even begun to scratch the surface – this is a seriously one-of-a-kind film that investigates the human condition and the way that we struggle with and come to terms with the reality of what it means to be mortal. It is a beautifully shot and realized masterwork that conveys a strong and monumentally immense narrative in a very concise and emotional way. Why would I love to turn you on to this film? Because even after seeing it as many times as I have, I am affected by it as much now as I was the first time I watched it. You simply have to see for yourself, and after you do I highly recommend looking into all of the different theories about the meaning and the views on the characters and different narratives!
- Edward Hill