Monday, February 23, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #123 - Meat Puppets – Up On The Sun

Meat Puppets first burst out of the Arizona desert in the early 80s as one of the key bands on legendary punk label SST.  But while they started out loud and fast, they were never really punk.  Growing up outside of any scene that would constrain them, they were free to indulge in whatever influence sparked their fancy.  Brothers Curt and Cris Kirkwood, along with drummer Derrick Bostrom, brewed up a psychedelic stew of punk, country, and classic rock that found an audience among the freaks and weirdos of the emerging alternative nation.  Many of them formed bands of their own.  Some of them became huge, most prominently Kurt Cobain who turned over a whole segment of Nirvana's Unplugged appearance to a sit-in with Curt and Cris.  All the songs they played on Unplugged came from the Pups' legendary second album Meat Puppets II.  As great as that album is, its follow-up, 1985's Up On the Sun, is even better.  This is where the Meat Puppets truly come into their own, creating intricate compositions with the talent to back them up, yet still retaining a garage band feel.

The title song is a beautiful laid-back jam, meandering in the best way possible.  It might seem strange to kick off an album with its most mellow tune, especially for a band still considered punk at the time, but "Up On the Sun" perfectly sets the tone for everything to come.  They follow with the instrumental "Maiden's Milk" and the song's intro showcases the band's talent for tricky compositions with Cris' hyperactive basswork leading the way.  The song relaxes into a pleasant groove, complete with whistling, and some nice guitar leads from Curt.  The band's complex side also comes through later in the album on "Enchanted Pork Fist," which jumps from light-speed prog-fusion to an infectious arena rock chorus and back again, all within two and half minutes.  The band also knows how to get funky with Cris and Derrick forming a super tight rhythm section on "Away" and "Bucket Head."  If there's any song that deserves all-time classic status, it's the country-flavored "Swimming Ground."  A relaxed reminiscence of summer days of yore, one can easily picture this tune covered by a clever bluegrass ensemble or jam band, though it's hard to picture anyone besting the original.  The album closes with a pair of reflective songs, the pastoral "Two Rivers" and the metaphysical "Creator."

Meat Puppets continued to make great music for SST throughout the 80s, and moved up to a major label at the dawn of the 90s.  Their music may have gotten more mainstream but always retained a uniquely skewed point of view.  The Unplugged appearance, as well as the alternative music explosion, exposed them to a wide audience for the first time and they even scored a couple of hits.  But substance abuse and personal issues caused the band to fall apart by decade's end.  And then, in the late 2000s, came a miraculous return.  They've made several great records recently and tour constantly.  The material from Up On the Sun is still part of their repertoire, in fact they played a fantastic 10 minute version of the title track at the Bluebird a few years back.  Whether you're an old fan or new, a Meat Puppets show is always a good time.  And Up On the Sun is a great album to either check out for the first time or revisit after a long absence.  It's one of those that just never gets old.

            - Adam Reshotko

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #110 - Jules and Jim (1962, dir. François Truffaut)

François Truffaut pulls out all the cinematic stops in his 1962 masterpiece, Jules and Jim: voice over, dolly shots, aerials, pans, wipes, masking, freeze frames, photographic stills, newsreel footage. It’s like an overflowing portfolio of the possibilities of film. And it’s a great story: two good friends, Jules and Jim, a German and Frenchman, live the bohemian life in Paris before World War I, drinking wine in cafes, talking about art, looking for love. A friend gives them a slide show of ancient statues and they’re both taken by a marble portrait of a woman with a mysterious smile. A few days later, they meet a woman named Catherine who looks just like the sculpture, and so begins a 25-year saga in which both men are in love and obsessed with her, and their triangular relationship shifts dramatically over the years. It’s storytelling at its most sophisticated, with an almost musical quality, more like a symphony than a movie. At times, years go by in a breathless whir, as the narrator spins the yarn of the increasing complexity of the trio’s love. Other times the pace suddenly slows, often to a complete stop, with a freeze frame of the lovely Catherine, her blond hair backlit by the sun. Or it’ll linger on a seemingly mundane scene, maybe Catherine and Jim packing a suitcase, or the three of them drinking wine in a meadow, or riding their bikes on a tree-lined lane. It’s all so beautiful, and all of it together—the fast parts, the slow parts, the panacea of motion picture technique—gives the film a fullness that’s rare in movies.
The film won the Grand Prix (predecessor to the Palme d’Or) at Cannes, and is often included on lists of the best movies of all times. It’s inspired generations of filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese, who specifically hailed it as a precursor of the riveting pace of Goodfellas. In a gushing review, Roger Ebert wrote, “Jules and Jim was perhaps the most influential and arguably the best of (the French New Wave’s) first astonishing films that broke with the past. There is joy in the filmmaking that feels fresh today and felt audacious at the time.” Indeed, it still feels like cutting-edge art, despite being more than 50 years old and in black and white. And not just stylistically. Even though the story is set in the early 20th Century, and the film came out a few years before the sexual revolution of the late 1960s, the tragic romance feels contemporary, and infidelity abounds. Catherine is as liberated and self-assured as any character who might grace the screen today, in many ways even more so. And that’s what makes this film a true classic, its timelessness. In another fifty years, Jules and Jim will no doubt be as poignant as it was when it came out, and as it is now.

- Joe Miller

Monday, February 9, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #122 - Lennie Tristano – Lennie Tristano

Lennie Tristano is a jazz pianist whose small body of recorded work does not do justice to his influence on the music, which is audible in the works of such piano legends as Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett (each of whom have gone on to become major influences on other musicians in their own right) and those who worked directly with him, like saxophonists Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh. Tristano, blind by age 10, began studying music at a young age and somewhere in the late 1940’s became influenced in his playing by the bebop revolution, especially the music of Charlie Parker and Bud Powell. But his own approach was different – while he liked the rapidity and complexity of bebop, he was attracted to the structural and rhythmic elements more than the emotive, “bluesy” elements. This has, unfortunately, lead many to dismiss his music and cold or cerebral, when nothing could be further from the truth. In Tristano’s own words: “I can never think and play at the same time. It’s emotionally impossible.”
            So even though in his conception of the music he instructed his horn players (especially Konitz and Marsh) to use an uninflected and neutral tone to better concentrate on the structure and form of their solos, the guiding principle is still expression via improvisation, one of the core ideas of jazz. So when people accuse him of “cheating” or violating some principle of jazz for using techniques that eventually became commonplace in jazz (such as overdubbing and tape manipulation), in addition to the crime of using intellectual means to focus his music, I would reply that one need listen to only one minute of this record’s “Requiem,” a piano solo tribute to the recently deceased Charlie Parker, to understand that this music is intensely emotional, and of course improvisational – in short, that it’s most assuredly jazz.
Though there are earlier studio recordings dating to the mid-40’s, this 1956 album marks what will probably stand as Tristano’s major recorded statement, a record that divides neatly into two halves – one set of studio cuts that outline his approach (and his then-controversial studio techniques) clearly and one group of ballad standards recorded live that show his ideas in practice in a more conventional jazz setting. Fans of the studio cuts often dismiss the live material as lighter weight, and indeed it’s definitely more traditionally beautiful and less challenging, with Lee Konitz and Tristano trading solos over the relatively anonymous rhythm support of Gene Ramey and Art Taylor. But the studio works that define the album (and lead it off) help show how to understand the second part more deeply.
The first track is “Line Up” in which bassist Peter Ind and drummer Jeff Morton tick off a steady (and studio-manipulated) rhythm over which Tristano solos continuously, offering up no set theme and just letting one idea flow from the previous one until the song eventually fades out. Next is “Requiem,” which after its classical-styled intro drops into a bluesy tribute, but is full of constantly changing rhythmic attacks from Tristano’s improvisations, marrying his logical approach to an undeniably emotional content. It’s gorgeous, warm, touching, perfect, and it too, fades out. Next up is another piano piece (plus somebody shaking a maraca to tick off time), “Turkish Mambo,” (neither Turkish in origin, nor a mambo, but a great title regardless!), in which he lays one piano rhythm down, lays another track of piano over it in counterpoint, and then adds a third overdub in which he solos on the complex, shifting rhythms that he’s set up with the other tracks. And again, a fade.
Why the fades, you may wonder? Well, my theory is this – he’s set up a structural approach (most clearly in “Turkish Mambo”) in which he could keep improvising forward forever on the rhythmic lines he’s made. In my mind it’s analogous to a comment King Sunny Ade once made about his approach to his own music: “the rhythm is basically simple and, once you hook it up, it flows endlessly.” Tristano’s rhythms are sometimes trickier and his varied approach to them keeps it feeling like a moving beast, but the idea is the same – set up a solid rhythmic base and then go as long as you need over it. The last studio cut, “East Thirty Second” brings Ind and Morton back in for a number very similar in sound to “Line Up” with Tristano soloing over their foundation. And of course, it fades out. Then come the ballads, which all sport the traditional theme-and-solos approach, have endings rather than intimations of infinity, and all hit a slower tempo than most of what’s preceded them. But after hearing the studio work a few times, it’s obvious that in these Konitz and Tristano could’ve kept rolling out their ideas for as long as the audience would be there to listen if they’d chosen to. The approach remains the same even if the feel of the second half is very different.
And of course there are those who find the first half, with its “cheating” approach to jazz hard to take, but who generally find the lovely second half quite endearing and simply gorgeous – not at all the cerebral coldness that Tristano is accused of. Me, I love both parts, especially given the paucity of recordings of Tristano on the market. It’s a great album and the diversity of it only makes it stronger in my ears.

            - Patrick Brown

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #109 - Bad Day at Black Rock (1955, dir. John Sturges)

Director John Sturges is noted for a 30-year career of slam-bang action films, usually starring tough (or at least manly) guys in the lead role – he worked with John Wayne, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, and Clint Eastwood among others – acting out macho fantasies – Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, The Great Escape, and The Magnificent Seven are three of his best-known films. It’s not all he did – he’s got a couple straight dramas, an anomalous comedy, and a couple later sci-fi films to his credit – but it’s the reputation he holds today, and deservedly so since it’s his specialty.
Bad Day at Black Rock falls about ten years into his career, which at the time consisted largely of action-oriented westerns and crime films knocked out fast and cheap, and it’s the film that made enough money for MGM that it put him on the map and gave him the ability to establish an independent production company in 1959. But even so, Bad Day at Black Rock started no different from any number of B-movie cheapies he’d made before it – he shot it in three weeks from material that could have made for a dubious film (the producer almost canned the film, believing it to be “subversive”). And if the action isn’t exactly “slam-bang” the tension is methodically ratcheted up like very few of his films managed. And I doubt that anybody thinks of Black Rock’s star Spencer Tracy when the word “macho” comes up in relation to actors. But for my money, this is the finest film by Sturges that I’ve seen (he’s got over 40 to his credit), and certainly his subtlest. Allegedly the film’s writers, not sure they would be able to land Tracy in the role, rewrote is as a one-armed man with the idea that no actor can resist playing a character with a physical impairment. Tracy would go on to get an Oscar nomination for his performance here, his first since his heyday.
Bad Day at Black Rock is the story of war veteran John Macreedy (Tracy) going to the small town of Black Rock (which consists of no more than a dozen buildings) to visit an army buddy’s father, the Japanese-American Komoko, to give him important news but nobody in the small town seems especially ready to help him find Komoko. In fact, they range from coolly silent to downright hostile to see him there snooping around town, an outsider who should just mind his own business and move along. As the train rolls into town the townspeople all look up at the unusual occurrence of a stranger coming to town, with one of them even commenting aloud “first time the Streamliner’s stopped here in four years.”
What happens from there is a master class in slowly simmering tension, as Macreedy keeps asking around about Komoko’s whereabouts without giving up his intentions while the townspeople get increasingly frustrated with his unflappable calm and nervous about him and his unexpected and unwanted visit. He shortly meets Reno Smith (played by the great Robert Ryan), who seems smarter and more level headed than most of the others in town – that is until Macreedy starts asking too many questions. Forty minutes in to the film, Smith and Macreedy have a confrontation that’s all understated feinting around each other until Smith starts to show his hand about his xenophobic anti-Japanese attitude. Macreedy then mentions that maybe the fallow land at Komoko’s place could be used for a graveyard, shoots Ryan a significant look, and shows his hand that he knows that the place may have someone buried there – perhaps not human, but perhaps human. And from there on it’s open – yet still understated and tense – warfare between Macreedy and his few allies against the rest of the town, hiding their shame, guilt, and complicity in whatever may have happened by lashing out at Macreedy, who proves perfectly able to handle himself, as in the scene where Coley Trimble (a bullishly belligerent Ernest Borgnine) tries to cold cock him in a diner and Macreedy neatly disposes of him.
Bad Day at Black Rock is a perfect example of how classic Hollywood used to work when things were right – take a major star (Tracy was a few years past his main box office draw, but still well known) surrounded by an able cast (that also includes the great Walter Brennan, Lee Marvin, and Dean Jagger), take a solid script and add a few twists, and put a knowledgeable director at the helm to streamline things. The result – a wickedly efficient dramatic thriller. 

            - Patrick Brown