Tuesday, April 28, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #114 - Blackboard Jungle (1955, dir. Richard Brooks)

Blackboard Jungle is the first “teacher-with-a-heart-of-gold saves a classroom full of no-goodniks” film. It gave birth to an entire sub-genre of films such as To Sir With Love and Stand And Deliver. As I watched this movie, trying to determine what it was that struck me so when I was a kid, it occurred to me that Blackboard Jungle is the most compelling reason I can think of that explains why the 1960’s HAD to happen.   When it was made in 1955, one year before Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel” became his first major single, the entire societal apparatus turned on the thoughts and needs of “The Greatest Generation.” Within the next five years the world started to change. In 1955, the audience was expected to wink at the square, well-intentioned teachers and be horrified by the delinquent young men in the class, but from the opening notes of Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock” (the first use of a Rock and Roll song in a major movie) at some level, we find ourselves rooting for the kids. The kids are led by two adult actors, Sidney Poitier and Vic Morrow, who, compared to the painfully stiff teacher (Glenn Ford) offer a much more compelling option. I guess that’s unfair. It is impossible to view this movie with the eyes of someone in 1955 now. So much has happened to both justify Glenn Ford’s desire for order and discipline and to explain the kids’ need to break out of the stifling black and white world of the 1950’s. With Kennedy, Vietnam, LSD, The Sexual Revolution and Martin Luther King right around the corner, the teachers’ point of view seems like a quaint, sad throw back to another time. This very fact lends great poignancy to a modern viewing of the film. Much like watching The Andy Griffith Show, one laughs both with and at the small-town rubes.

None of this is to suggest that watching Blackboard Jungle is anything less than totally enjoyable. Vic Morrow’s portrayal of a sadistic kid, bent on mischief and revenge and headed nowhere but jail is chilling, and Sidney Poitier might as well have been doing research for his role a decade later in To Sir With Love, when he, in the teacher’s role that time, was far more successful at relating to his students. But that brings me back to the main point, which is that this movie’s greatest achievement is to inadvertently illustrate the looming “generation gap” on the horizon. In its clumsy way, the film treats the youth as something less than human. They are the “other” and not what we fought to protect in WWII. It is not a gigantic leap to beatniks, hippies, yippies, punks and so on. As each generation feels its oats, the previous must take it on the chin. No scene illustrates this more perfectly than when one of Glenn Ford’s idealistic young colleagues brings in his prized collection of jazz 78 RPM records to share with his students. Instead of a Socratic sharing of his knowledge with his students, Vic Morrow leads his gang in smashing the records and mocking the teacher to his face. It is a painful scene (especially for a record collector) but ultimately it once again points to the widening gulf in the life experiences of those who lived through the Great Depression and war and those who were about to usher in the modern age.

Blackboard Jungle closes, as it opened, with the pulse quickening guitar and horn driven excitement of Bill Haley’s rock and roll masterpiece and as the credits roll, you can’t help but feel for the entirety of Glenn Ford’s generation. In the blink of an eye, they would go from being the heroes of the 20th Century to “never trust anyone over 30.” This movie is an important glimpse into one of the major turning points in modern history.

- Paul Epstein

Monday, April 20, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #127 - Amon Duul II - Tanz Der Lemminge

Tanz Der Lemminge, the third album by Amon Duul II from 1971, is, ridiculously, considered their first accessible album after two wildly freeform psychedelic freakouts. I say “ridiculously” because, while Tanz Der Lemminge may be a bit more conventional than the first two LPs, it is a far cry from normal. Split into four major side-long pieces, Tanz Der Lemminge embodies all the characteristics of the Krautrock movement; complex, long-form compositions punctuated by long stretches of wild improvisation, strange, sci-fi lyrical themes and no fear of playing what might be considered fairly extreme music. Musically, Amon Duul II shares much ground with both Can and Atom Heart Mother-era Pink Floyd. There are waves of organ, piano and mellotron, crashing on beaches of throbbing basslines, while reverb soaked guitars skronk like birds above the fray. This is cosmic music, make no mistake about it!

The thing that originally drew me to Tanz Der Lemminge was the amazing cover. I was actually at the store – Underground Records – that I would buy about 15 years later and turn into Twist and Shout, when I looked up at the wall and saw import copies of Can’s Tago Mago and Tanz Der Lemminge for what seemed like a lot of money at the time. The cover of The Amon Duul II album was irresistible to me. Even though I had never heard of the band or their music, I took all my spare cash out and forked it over for a completely unknown quantity. It wasn’t that I was completely unprepared. I was a veteran listener of Pink Floyd, Yes, King Crimson, even Brian Eno, Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk, so the idea of long-form compositions and electronic improvisation was not something new to me. I was, however, unprepared for the sustained ferocity of Amon Duul II. Much like King Crimson’s attack, they just pounded away with abandon, but they were stylistically agnostic, slipping easily from highly arranged prog-rock, to totally free spacerock, to gentle acoustic freak-folk, but all effortlessly and with the group mind of the best west-coast American psych bands. At times, like “Stumbling Over Melted Moonlight,” they almost sound like Quicksilver Messenger Service, but then will morph into insectoid drone patterns as soon as you think you have a handle on where they are going. Over the years, I have never gotten comfortable with Amon Duul’s work in the sense that I know what to expect, or where it’s going. Even though I have owned Tanz Der Lemminge for decades, each time I play it is like a new beginning and a revelatory one at that. I am constantly searching for new bands that can take me somewhere I’ve never been. Bands like Amon Duul II.

- Paul Epstein

Monday, April 13, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #113 - Mallrats (1995, dir. Kevin Smith)

Brodie: There is something out there that can help us ease our simultaneous double loss.
T.S. Quint: What? Ritual suicide?
Brodie: No, you idiot, the f*#@ing mall!
T.S. Quint: I'd prefer ritual suicide.
Brodie: Oh come on man it'll be great. They have these new cookies at the cookie stand, you have to try 'em. They're awesome.

When ruminating upon films to write about I initially skipped over everything by Kevin Smith simply because I assumed that everyone had already seen them, however when I thought about it a little more about it I decided it’s time for people take a bit of a closer look at Mallrats. If you have seen this film before then you probably know how quirky, quotable, and fun it is; if you haven’t seen it there is a chance that you were in a coma through the nineties and it is time you got caught up (apologies to anyone who actually was in a coma… my bad). The truth about this film is that it is a perfect distillation of a generation of mall-walking nerd scholars of the nineties, and the result is straight up enjoyable.

While I have had a tendency to try and turn you on to more obscure and often esoteric masterworks of cinema, I, like everyone else, have a soft spot in my heart for a well-crafted comedy. While Smith’s dialogue and the acting can be a little rough around the edges, on the whole the movie plays out like a crass, sophomoric version of a Woody Allen film. The central figures, Brodie and T.C., have just been dumped by their respective significant others. T.C. (played by Jeremy London) was dumped for being stubborn when his girlfriend Brandi (Claire Forlani) had to cancel their trip to Florida (he WAS going to propose when Jaws popped out of the water), and Brodie (Jason Lee) was dropped by Rene (Shannen Doherty) for simply being an aimless and oblivious nerd. Joining forces, the two of them convene at the mall to ease their heartache (“I love the smell of commerce in the morning”). The rest of the film follows these two characters as they meander through the mall and engage in witty, although often crude, dialogue and stumble into a number of slapstick happenstances.

As the plot ambles along our heroes both put into play different strategies to prove their love to their former partners and win them back. T.C. hatches a number of different plans to stop Brandi’s father’s dating game show that Brandi is now the reluctant star of, while Brodie takes the long road to realizing that he wants Rene back. Luckily for them, and the plot of the film, most everything in the mid-nineties centered on the mall, the game show is happening in the mall and Rene is currently on a date with Brodie’s unseemly arch-nemesis at (where else?) the mall. The film’s climax happens as everything comes together on the stage of the live screening of Brandi’s father’s dating game, but you will have to watch to find out how this film ends.

The key thing that makes this film so enjoyable is the fact that as the two main characters walk the mall they run across a series of crazy side characters that keep the plot moving and add a certain comedic charm. As this is the second film in Kevin Smith’s “View Askewniverse” series there are a number of connections to its predecessor Clerks (1994) – notably the fact that Jay and Silent Bob play a prominent comedic role (nooch!). In addition to the undeniably likeable stoner duo, there are a number of other reoccurring characters, most importantly a sloppy large man that can’t see the sailboat in the magic eye poster (“When lord! When the hell do I get to see the goddamn sailboat!”), Ben Affleck playing a deplorable manager of The Fashionable Male who has a hot temper and a penchant for a certain sexual deviation, and a number of quick but poignant cameos from none other than Stan Lee!

Taking a step back, and separating the movie from my nostalgic attachment to this quick-witted hour and a half, the cinematography is good but nothing to write home about (another connection that can be drawn to a lot of Woody Allen flicks) and the direction can be a tad lack-luster or a bit heavy handed. However, if you can look past its minor shortcomings, the charm and wit of the writing and the appeal of the naïve acting of the entire cast will certainly win you over. It has been a while since I have watched anything directed by Kevin Smith (and on a side note this film turns 20 this year… AHH!), so I decided to do it right, crack a cold beer, and sit back to see if I enjoyed it as much as I used to. And, of course, it was just as I remembered it - a quick amusing ride. Masterpiece cinema it may not be, but an extremely enjoyable popcorn flick it certainly is! So unless you have recently been screwed in a very uncomfortable place (like the back of a Volkswagen?) and lost your sense of humor you will most likely find yourself charmed by this super fun nineties flick, so, CHECK IT!

            - Edward Hill

Monday, April 6, 2015

Otis Taylor – Hey Joe Opus Red Meat

Want to be proud of something from Colorado? Check out Colorado’s real blues legend’s new album. Recorded in Colorado at Immersive Studios and mastered by David Glasser at Airshow, this 2LP, 200 gram, 45RPM audiophile recording is an absolute showcase of everything good about our music scene. Not only is Colorado exploding with young, fresh talent, but we also have world-class engineering facilities and a legacy artist who is legitimately one of a handful of REAL blues artists left on earth. Otis Taylor is the real deal in so many different ways; he is a fiercely independent musician who makes the music in his head come out in a totally unique way. He has no precedent or antecedent. Like any of the great bluesmen, one listens to Otis and has to wonder where this came from. Hey Joe might very well be Otis’ greatest album. It is singular in his catalog. It flows like one long dream sequence. Blues, rock, jazz, trance - it all appears from a boiling stew of angst and slices of the human condition. Somehow, Otis expands the basic plot and theme of the classic song “Hey Joe” into various meditations on everything from love to hate to tranvestitism. Yes, like all of Otis Taylor’s albums it is unpredictable. Just like the various guest artists who pop up; Ron Miles sounding like Miles Davis in a Sergio Leone movie, Warren Haynes plays a couple of scorching solos, Billy Nershi picks some sweet acoustic, Langhorne Slim adds subtle vocals, but the star remains the Cumulus Nimbus of emotion and talent that is Otis Taylor. He really is unlike any other performer alive and he’s ours. And his new LP is OURS. For the time being, Twist and Shout is the only place this beautiful and collectible LP is available. I cannot recommend this album highly enough. It is a superlative listening experience, and an important addition to the blues legacy.
- Paul Epstein

I'd Love to Turn You On #126 - Trans Am - Futureworld

Trans Am never seemed like a band built for the long haul, but here we are, 20 years and 10 albums later. Turns out that Kraftwerk-meets-Rush schtick wasn't really schtick at all. Yes, they've always had a tongue in cheek approach to their mix of krautrock, new wave, prog, electronica, and whatever else they've thrown into the mix, but the band is also super-talented and come up with some really great songs. Trans Am was initially pegged as part of the post-rock movement that emerged in the mid-90s, primarily due to their association with Thrill Jockey Records, which emerged as the center of the scene. However, they had little in common with post-rock giants like Tortoise and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. One the main features that sets them apart is the superb drumming of Sebastian Thomson. He can keep down a solid motorik beat in the manner of Klaus Dinger, handle quirky time signatures and fills a la Neil Peart, and just bash it out, John Bonham style. Multi-instrumentalists Phil Manley and Nathan Means are no slouches either, moving from keyboards and electronics to guitar and bass with ease.
The band peaked with 1999's Futureworld, which stands as not just their best but one of the very best indie albums of the late 90s. It was also their first album with vocals, though all are sung through a vocoder. After starting with the mood setting instrumental "1999" (not a Prince cover), Thomson kicks up a solid beat and the band launches into "Television Eyes." It's one of the more rocking tracks in an album that covers a lot of ground. The epic title track comes next and moves in quite a few directions itself. From a driving intro to a thrash-like chorus, everything suddenly bottoms out in the middle. After a spacey bridge, a funky bass theme emerges and they ride this out till the end of the song. "AM Rhein" ends the first part of the album with a building, anthemic slice of stadium rock. The second half of the album is mostly electronic oriented, starting with the retro-dance grooves of "Cocaine Computer." "Runners Standing Still" slows things down a little bit but still has a gorgeous melody. "Futureworld II" and "Positron" are the album's most experimental tracks providing a pair of electronic soundscapes. The band switches back into rock mode for album closer "Sad and Young." It starts out slow and quiet, yet slowly builds to a loud and dramatic climax. This is the closest Trans Am ever gets to a traditional post-rock sound, particularly that which Explosions in the Sky would have so much success with a few years later. Yet it sounds like Trans Am all the way and proves an epic conclusion to an epic album.
After Futerworld, Trans Am would expand their sound and ambition even further with the great double album Red Line. Other strong entries to their catalog include 2007's Sex Change and last year's Volume X. One of the great things about indie music of the past 20-25 years is that a support system exists for quirky, unclassifiable bands to have long careers where they evolve and change. Trans Am have gone in many different directions while still maintaining their unique sound and vision. Futureworld is both a classic for long time fans and great entry point for beginners.

            - Adam Reshotko