Monday, January 26, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #121 - The Dream Syndicate – The Medicine Show

Looking for a rock and roll hero who has had a career for decades, never “sold out,” never made a shitty record, never been, er… spoiled by great success (read: never got really famous)? Look no further than Steve Wynn. He is still out there (sometimes with a reunited Dream Syndicate) playing his brand of heroic music, equally in thrall to the late 60’s and late 70’s underground (think Velvet Underground meets Standells meets Television with lots of guitar based jamming in the live show and you start to get the picture.) Lyrically, Dream Syndicate were in the beatnik/Patti Smith tradition of literary, thoughtful anthems. The Medicine Show was their second album and first for a major label, so expectation in the 1984 underground was very high for this album. With big-time producer Sandy Pearlman (The Clash, Blue Oyster Cult) on board, it seemed like these brainy L.A. Paisley Underground heroes might break through to the mainstream and change the face of modern pop (pretty bad at that time) for the better. As it turned out, history frowned on the whole Paisley Underground movement (it would have gone gangbusters now) and almost all of the great bands from that era (Opal, Rain Parade, The Long Ryders etc.) are no more than a footnote. However, at that particular moment in time I remember being blown away by this thoughtful, intense album.

The heart of all Dream Syndicate music lies in the juxtaposition of their lyrical ambition, with their fearless guitar workouts. Somewhere between Neil Young’s ferocity and Tom Verlaine’s stinging precision, lead guitarist Karl Precoda laid it down for the ages on this album. Snaking in and out of Wynn’s snarling vocals on songs like “Bullet With My Name On It” or the title track, his guitar coils in waiting for the opportunity to strike with lethal force, biting with venomous lethality. One of the unsung guitar heroes of the modern era, Precoda is as distinctive as he is reminiscent of the greats. On the song “Medicine Show,” and the incomparable “John Coltrane Stereo Blues” Wynn’s brains and Precoda’s brawn provide the exact raw elements needed to combine and produce a musical explosion. The first time I heard “Coltrane” I could not believe a rock band had the ballsy effrontery to name a song after one of the great musical geniuses of the era and then just OWN it as powerfully as The Dream Syndicate did. After Wynn sets the stage with his hipster verses about 20th century musical ennui, he and Precoda tear into an absolutely, joyously dangerous cat and mouse game with verses and guitar breaks, building in intensity to a psychedelic punk frenzy that’ll grow some hair on your chest. Live, the band would take this song to sometimes-ridiculous lengths, but the album version is just right.

The album comes to a close with a reminder of Wynn’s superb songwriting on the Springsteen-like “Merritville.”  Pearlman’s intelligent production lends the band the gleam and restraint they needed to smooth their raw edges, yet he keeps their spiky, punk vitality completely intact. Precoda rips into a meaty, noisy solo between Wynn’s honest verses on American life. Springsteen, Michael Jackson and Prince all topped the charts in 1984, and when one listens to The Medicine Show in that context, it is both a wonder that it wasn’t a hit, and a reminder that in any given year, much of the cultural and intellectual vitality of our society is well hidden from the public eye.

- Paul Epstein

Monday, January 19, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #108 - Wait Until Dark (1967, dir. Terence Young)

What makes a movie scary is a very subjective thing. For instance, when I first saw The Exorcist, the scene that scared me the most (and the whole thing scared me profoundly) involved a character walking into a kitchen and the lights in the room were blinking inexplicably. For some reason I found the unnaturally blinking lights more terrifying than the adolescent Linda Blair spewing pea soup on the priest. In most cases I find more explicit, violence-based frights - blood-soaked exercises in graphic shock - to be less effective than being slowly seduced into fear through a series of incongruities or subtle shifts in mood. The factor that made the original Alien so scary, and all the sequels so NOT scary, was the simple technique of building suspense by not showing the audience the monster until the last possible moment. Each encounter uncovered another small glimpse into the horror to come because the imagination is so much scarier than any reality could ever be. In many ways Wait Until Dark uses this exact technique to brilliant effect, by slowly uncovering the depths of evil the antagonist of the film (Alan Arkin) is capable of while simultaneously building our appreciation of the protagonist (an almost irresistible Audrey Hepburn) as a woman of almost genius ingenuity.

The plot of Wait Until Dark is labyrinthine and almost irrelevant. It also unfolds in such a way that giving any but the most rudimentary details could spoil the movie. Suffice to say that Audrey Hepburn plays a blind woman who finds herself in the possession of a doll that is stuffed with heroin and Alan Arkin is a criminal who wants - and is going to get - that doll. He employs the help of two hapless low level crooks (Richard Crenna and Jack Weston: both great) to enact an elaborate subterfuge to get into the blind woman’s confidence and thus retrieve the heroin. Arkin offers up what has to be one of the most menacing performances in film history, morphing from a slimy hipster to mad-dog killer in the blink of an eye. His transformation is so sudden and violent that he becomes the stuff of nightmares. Hepburn, on the other hand, is gorgeous and innocent, yet totally believable as a woman driven to the edges of her own sanity; forced to test the limits of her own strength and courage in the face of unthinkable terror. The movie develops in a way that slowly builds tension as we gradually understand how much danger Hepburn is in, how utterly despicable Arkin is, and how he will stop at nothing to achieve his goal. Not only is Hepburn’s life in danger, but her virtue as well.

Everything boils down to the last fifteen gripping minutes, as Hepburn fights for her life in a white-knuckle ride that takes us inside the mind and emotions of a blind person struggling to level the playing field in a world of darkness. This ultimately is the hook, if you will, that makes Wait Until Dark an unforgettable classic. The shift in perspective is remarkably effective as the darkness starts (as the veil it is to all sighted people) and actually becomes illumination as the situation changes. Filmed in a composed, Hitchcock-esque style, with a masterful, hair-raising score by Henry Mancini, this is a classy, old school thriller that terrifies the audience as much by what it sees as by what is left hidden.

- Paul Epstein

Monday, January 12, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #120 - Mott the Hoople – Mott

So the legend goes, Mott the Hoople were about to break up after four albums and not much to show for them. Then, famous fan David Bowie gave them one of his very best songs, "All the Young Dudes," and they suddenly achieved the success that had previously eluded them. They followed up All the Young Dudes (the album) with one simply titled Mott. Unlike the previous album, this new one contained all original material and established Ian Hunter as one of rock's greatest songwriters. It's also one of the all-time great albums about Rock & Roll. Hunter contrasts the joy and excitement of listening to and playing music with the weariness of life on the road. Rock & Roll may be a losing game, but if you get your kicks from guitar licks it's all worth it.

"All the Way From Memphis" is as great an opener as an album could have - great lyrics, awesome piano and guitar interplay, and guest sax from Roxy Music's Andy Mackay.  "Whizz Kid" is another super catchy rocker. "Honaloochie Boogie" may be the album's shortest track but it's also the most joyous, one of the hidden gems of the Mott catalog. The band flexes their old school rock muscle on "Violence" and "Driving Sister." Though their association with Bowie brought them over to the growing glam rock scene, they remained rough and tumble street rockers at heart. "I'm a Cadillac/El Camino Dolo Roso" is the obligatory showcase for guitarist Mick Ralphs, who would soon leave the band, and the glam scene, for the straight up rock of Bad Company.

As great as the rockin' tunes are, the album's true heart and soul lies in the slower numbers. "Hymn for the Dudes" is a tribute to the fans, reminding them "You are not alone." The centerpiece is, of course, "The Ballad of Mott the Hoople." Here is where everything comes together, Hunter with his heart on his sleeve, confessing he feels he let his fans down yet still soldiering on to the next gig because that's all he knows how to do and wouldn't want it any other way. He also memorably name checks the rest of the band; "Buffin lost his childlike dreams and Mick lost his guitar/And Verden grew a line or two and Overend's just a rock & roll star." The album closes with the heartbreaking "I Wish I Was Your Mother," another of Hunter's classic tunes. The current CD edition adds a handful of bonus tracks including the B-side "Rose" which is as good as anything on the album itself.

Mott only had one more album in them after Mott, appropriately called The Hoople.  Ian Hunter went on to a moderately successful solo career and served as an inspiration to all sorts of rockers, punks, power poppers, metalheads and more.  The pinnacle of his career and that of his band continues to be Mott.  If you love rock & roll, you'll love this album.

            - Adam Reshotko

Friday, January 9, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #107 - Melancholia (2011, dir. Lars von Trier)

Claire: “What's going on Justine?”
Justine: “I'm trudging through this gray woolly yarn, it’s clinging to my legs, it's really heavy to drag along.”

            Melancholia, the second film in director Lars Von Trier’s ‘Trilogy of Depression’ (which also includes 2009’s Antichrist and 2013’s Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 & Vol. 2), delves deeply into the human psyche and the resulting film is gorgeous, beguiling, and enigmatic. While it certainly isn’t quite as abrasive as its predecessor Antichrist, which also stars Charlotte Gainsbourg, it certainly pulls no punches when it comes to its presentation of the human condition. What this film lacks in the blunt shock and awe that Von Trier has been infamous for it makes up for in pure, raw, unadulterated, and often awkward, emotion. Personally I hadn’t watched this film since seeing it in theaters three years ago but as I sat back to re-view it for this edition of I’d Love To Turn You On I found myself remembering the slow, epic roller coaster I was about to re-live.
            In true Von Trier fashion we are thrown immediately into the action in a magnificent yet puzzling slow motion sequence that alludes to the events to come. After a large cryptic planet crashes into the earth the events truly begin. The film is broken up into two parts: part one if focused upon Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst, and part two is centers around Justine’s sister Claire, Charlotte Gainsbourg. The two parts are very different at first glance and yet upon further examination they seem to be connected by the thread of dealing with depression (as should seem obvious as it is part of Von Trier’s ‘Trilogy of Depression’). In the first part of the film Justine is getting married to Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) and the two attend a grand party thrown by Claire and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). While all seems fine at first, Justine’s smile slowly fades as she tires of the whole charade. She then begins a destructive downward spiral into a depressed state as she sheds layer after layer of false airs. I won’t go too far into the details for fear of spoiling the entire first part. However the second part of the film focuses upon Claire’s descent into depression brought on by both her sister’s emotional state and an immense fear of the approaching planet Melancholia, which is slated to pass right by the earth. Both sisters fell into a melancholic depression but in very different ways providing the film with two distinctive yet connected parts that culminate in a magnificent climax.

“The Red Star’s missing from Scorpio and Taurus is no longer there.”

            Thus ends the quick synopsis of an incredibly subtle film and for me the key to this film, as with many great films, lies in the subtleties. First and foremost, even more so than many other films that strive to achieve the same goal, Melancholia creates an alternate universe that still feels eerily familiar. At its core this film is science fiction, since it centers on a strange scientific event (the passing of a mysterious planet), yet it convincingly feels like the present. What is more important in this film is that the approaching planet is an impetus for the events to follow. The key to success for this aspect of Melancholia is that time, both in the sense of date and duration, has little or no importance as the events are merely strung together. Melancholia is in essence a science fiction film masked as a serious drama, or a serious drama with the backdrop of a strange alternate science fiction world.
            Along this vein of subtlety, the most important aspect of a film so focused upon the inner workings of human depression is of course the actors’ portrayal of their characters. While Charlotte Gainsbourg (who is always stunning) and the supporting cast were truly amazing, the real stand out of the film is Kirsten Dunst. Von Trier is known to do anything and everything to get the performance that he needs from his leads; he drug Justine through the depths and Dunst flawlessly rose to the occasion. Justine flew through the gamut of emotions and Dunst brought life to the character and made it seem effortless. Moving through so many emotional states in such a short period of a time in a film could very easily end up forced and ineffective but through the direction of Von Trier, Dunst succeeded brilliantly in her portrayal. With Gainsbourg and Dunst impeccably depicting their respective characters’ distinctive mental fragilities this simple film comes alive.
            If you have read any of my other attempts to ‘turn you on’ to film, you might have noticed that I have a particular affinity for aesthetics and I love a good cinematographer and Manuel Alberto Claro most certainly stepped up on this film. The visual aesthetic of the film is simply stunning! In addition to this, the use of special effects is also subtle, understated and perfectly integrated in a way that added to the world created rather than distracting from the story. Overall this is a beautiful yet somewhat understated film. In addition to this the soundtracks relies heavily upon excerpts from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde to heighten the drama and grandiose nature of the story at hand.
            So to quickly sum up why you should take a 12-dollar chance on this DVD for your movie night, that is if you aren’t already drawn to the works of Lars Von Trier, this is a really beautiful and subtle journey into melancholic depression. But if you aren’t really into the whole serious drama thing, don’t forget that there is the odd sci-fi aspect to the film… there IS a planet headed for earth… WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN!?!? So, this film has it all: tension, drama, intrigue, and a touch of action. Take a chance and enjoy this experience artfully crafted for you by Lars Von Trier.

            - Edward Hill