Monday, June 29, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #132 - Morphine - Cure for Pain

David O. Russell’s 1994 debut film, Spanking the Monkey, features, among other more controversial elements, five songs from Morphine’s 1993 sophomore album, Cure for Pain. Those songs comprise the film’s entire soundtrack and they are instrumental in building the film’s mood. When I first came across the film and Morphine’s music in the fall of 1994, I felt like I’d lucked upon a dual discovery. In one shot, I had found a director who challenged and entertained me along with a solid set of songs that piqued my curiosity. The songs in the film make up nearly half of Cure for Pain and include some of the album’s best material. Twenty years ago, I felt confident that the creative talents coupled in this film would each go onto fruitful careers. Well, I was half right.  

In the last five years, David O. Russell’s films The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle have earned him five Oscar nominations while three actors he directed in those films have won Oscars for their performances. Recently, as Russell’s star has risen so prominently, I have reflected on his debut and its inextricable connection to Morphine’s music. I find myself asking how it can be that David O. Russell is well on his way to becoming a household name, but Morphine’s music seems all but forgotten. The most direct answer stems from the fact the band’s nine-year life span ended resolutely when lead singer Mark Sandman collapsed on stage in the summer of 1999 and died of a heart attack, but the story does not end there. Morphine released five studio albums, but their greatest legacy remains the warm, complex, and rewarding Cure for Pain.   

Spanking the Monkey spoke to me in a way few films have, but Morphine’s music pulled my interest in a very different direction. The film, though stirring and powerful, still conformed to my concept of independent cinema, but Morphine’s music resisted easy categorization. When I explored Morphine’s music further, I realized that despite their differences from their alternative rock peers, they were achieving increasing levels of critical and popular success. Unlike other bands active in Boston from the same era like the Pixies or Galaxie 500, Morphine did not base its sound around guitar or post-punk derivations. Built more like a jazz trio, Morphine created their sound from baritone sax, slide bass, drums, and Sandman’s deep, resonant voice. Well into his thirties by the time the band formed, Sandman’s vocal delivery contributed a decidedly adult component to Morphine’s music. Clear, knowing, and unhurried, Sandman’s voice sounded worlds apart from many of the vocalists I was obsessed with at that point. Although the band’s makeup might seem an exercise in minimalism, Cure for Pain conjures lush textures and atmospheres from its stripped down pieces. Moving from raucous tales of excess to delicate moments of introspection, the album contains all of the great songs featured in Russell’s film, like “Sheila” and “Thursday,” but places them in a context that allows them to achieve a greater, collective level of meaning and significance.  

Cure for Pain remains a marvel of sequencing and structure, in part, because it pulls together such a diverse array of song tempos, lyrical devices, and applications of each band member’s considerable talents. Opening and closing with two brief, instrumental tracks, the album bears the markers of a lifespan. “Dawna” consists of just two elements: Dana Colley’s saxophone and a sustained note played on an organ. The saxophone’s notes played in slow progression fade in volume throughout the track’s short running time. Serving as an announcement and a bit of stage setting, “Dawna” provides the album a calm awakening to morning or, just as easily, a birth. Arriving about 35 minutes later, “Miles Davis’ Funeral” supplies the album its end, or death, by way of a haunting sound collage featuring the album’s most prominent use of guitar. Hand drumming, acoustic guitar, and textured percussion provide the foundation for a highly processed, yet plaintive electric guitar solo. The experimental quality of the solo could be a tilt of the hat to Davis’ fearless exploration of sound, but the song upholds the overall tone of an earnest elegy. Cure for Pain arrived almost exactly two years after Miles Davis’ death and this timing lends “Miles Davis’ Funeral” an odd sense of relevance. After two years, those who had something to say or play about Davis’ passing must have had plenty of opportunities to do so, but this comes along two years later; a short, beautiful album closer that hints at Davis’ legacy and raises more questions than it answers.  

In between these markers, Sandman’s lyrics apply a warts-and-all openness to songs encapsulating the ups and downs that attend life. Addiction, heartbreak, joy, fear, infidelity, regret, desire, guilt, and notions of self-worth all weave into the fabric of the album. “In Spite of Me” serves as the album’s midpoint, quietest moment, and its emotional heart. Accompanied by mandolin and sparse percussion, Sandman’s voice hovers just over a whisper as he addresses his subject; someone who has gone on to much greater things after the two of them spent time together. Placing this patently mid-life song squarely in the middle of the album reinforces the overall structure and allows a moment of reflection within the flow of songs. Like the songs that bookend the album, “In Spite of Me” works outside of the band’s usual trio arrangement, in this case: no saxophone and barely any percussion. This shift thrusts the listener’s attention to the speaker’s hushed, humbled contemplation of the realization that someone is likely much better off without him. As a centerpiece, this song highlights how well Cure for Pain manages to balance the pain of living with a true sense of wonder.

Morphine’s four other studio albums each have their strengths, but none of them possess the cohesion, resonance, or chemistry of Cure for Pain. In 1997, Morphine graduated to a major label with the release of Like Swimming (their last before Sandman’s death) and although their albums had garnered consistently positive reviews and their fanbase grew over the decade, they never attained mainstream success. In 1996, I saw Morphine perform at the 40 Watt in Athens, Georgia and it was a joy to watch these three musicians create such remarkable music. As frontman, Sandman put on a hell of a show and impressed me with his versatility, humor, and poise. The untimely death of a lead singer casts a melancholy shadow over any band and this is especially the case for Morphine both because their music addressed the struggles of life and mystery of death so directly and because they disbanded promptly after Sandman’s death. For a brief time, Morphine contributed something to music that no one had ever really done before and Cure for Pain exhibits this band at the height of their powers. Listening to this album may not, in fact, cure all that ails you, but its many pleasures remain potent and gratifying reminders of the beauty of life’s endeavor.

            - John Parsell

Monday, June 15, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #131 - Philip Glass - The Photographer

Philip Glass from a 1983 interview in re: Minimalism: “The trouble with the word is that it no longer accurately describes what you’re gonna hear.”

Repetition is a form of change – statement on a card from Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies deck

There’s a joke that goes like this: “Knock Knock. Who’s there? Knock Knock. Who’s there? Knock Knock. Who’s there? Knock Knock. Who’s there? Philip Glass.”
That’s the edited version that I cut in half from where I found it and it’s funny because it’s (kind of) true. Glass uses repetition in his music sure, but in reality it’s never quite as redundant or as minimal as all that.
But let’s start here – for those unfamiliar with the works of Philip Glass, it’s common to hear his name associated with the minimalist movement in 1960s and 1970s classical music, though he has distanced himself from the term for his work after the mid-70s, preferring to say that he makes “music with repetitive structures.” The difference may sound academic, but it’s crucial in the case of an album like The Photographer. Where minimalism employs fewer instruments and less overall movement, Glass’s music here is decidedly maximal, with the final piece especially an intense, breathtaking climax to the album.
The record began its life as a theatrical piece that premiered in 1982, examining the life of 19th century photographic innovator Eadweard Muybridge who pioneered techniques that would ultimately be used in film. Muybridge shot and killed a man he believed was having an affair with his wife, was acquitted, and ended up raising the child who was a product of his wife’s affair – all the kind of melodrama ripe for an operatic/theatrical work. Glass and co-writer Robert Coe reworked an existing play into a performance piece in three parts, with Part 1 a theater piece, Part 2 a concert, and Part 3 a dance, and perhaps it’s best to look at the album that way.
“Act I: ‘A Gentleman's Honor’” was originally centered around a poem Muybridge had written, but Glass noted that Muybridge was perhaps more influential in the photographic arts than the poetic ones so he asked David Byrne to help out with the words using transcripts of the trial. Byrne obliged and used snippets for the vocalists to sing to create the piece heard here. It’s performed by the ensemble as a short prelude and instrumental reprise around the longer “Act II” – the “concert” portion of the program.
“Act II,” as noted, comes on more like a typical orchestral concert, where in front of a collection of Muybridge’s photographs the full ensemble of 26 credited players (including the Colorado Symphony’s own Marin Alsop) perform Glass’s “repetitive structures” which offer up snippets and ideas and then take them away, only to have them recur at dramatically appropriate moments later in the work. One of the best ideas here is the guest solo violin of Paul Zukofsky, whose sawed motif somehow evokes both a hoedown and classical precision at once and manages to grab my ears each time it comes back into the fold.
            “Act III” is the dance portion, which starts out slow but works up to a head of steam that can drive you nuts if repetition and variation isn’t your thing. But there is definitely variation – while motives are played a few times, dropped, and then come back there are very few (if any) bars of this music that are actually identical. And though it starts mellow, it heats up around the 3 ½ minute mark, kicks it up another notch at about 7 minutes, and from about 8 ½ minutes it’s a full-on boil until the end with nothing other than a momentary breather to relieve the relentless rhythmic drive of the strings, horns, keyboards, and vocalists singing their phonemes.
            For the album, Glass assumed (rightly) that most listeners would not have seen the full work and so scaled down the pieces and cut the theatre portion of the work most significantly. But the concert and dance segments – Acts II and III – are spectacular and the shortened parts of Act I nicely set up the bigger set pieces. There are those who won’t respond to the way it keeps moving and rearranging and repeating pieces to build up to the last few climactic minutes – and you know who you are – but for those whose tastes run toward the build of rhythm that can be found across music as diverse as house music, African music, and for that matter some of the best rock and roll, you should play this as loud as you (or your neighbors) can stand it and drink in the beauty of the quiet parts and the intensity of the rest of it.
            - Patrick Brown

Friday, June 12, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #117 - Barry Lyndon (1975, dir. Stanley Kubrick)

During my high school years I worked at what was, at the time, the nicest movie theatre in Denver, The Century 21. In 1975 I remember a great deal of consternation among the management when they found out we were getting the new Stanley Kubrick movie. It ran over three hours plus a 15 minute intermission. We usually showed movies four or five times a day, but Barry Lyndon would only allow two showings a day. This made it a money loser for the theatre. In addition, reviews were luke-warm and crowds were slim. We ushers had a lot of time on our hands. When I wasn’t hitting on the popcorn girls, or sweeping the lobby I spent hour upon hour staring at the screen absorbing what I now believe is Kubrick’s greatest movie. I should mention that I consider Kubrick the greatest modern director, and a man with very few peers in the history of cinema. He approached his movies with such fearless individuality and ferocious technique that only names like Hitchcock, Welles and Malick can be mentioned as equals. Barry Lyndon is his ultimate expression of visual storytelling. Never did Kubrick invest more care in the realization of his theme. Even A Clockwork Orange feels restrained in its execution compared to Barry Lyndon’s extraordinary success.
            Based on a novel by Victorian satirist William Makepeace Thackeray, Barry Lyndon tells the story of Redmond Barry, a young Irish man of very modest background whose stated goal of rising in society seems impossible for someone of such little ambition and questionable moral fiber. However, young Redmond moves throughout his early life with no direction, floating like a leaf on a stream in a society filled with uncertainty, danger and opportunity. In the first two hours of the film he experiences love, lust, betrayal, duels, highwaymen, The Seven Years' War, desertion, the lowest lows and, finally, a taste of the good life as he becomes a gentleman gambler skirting the edges of European high society. It is at the gambling table that he comes in contact with Lady Lyndon, a fabulously wealthy woman who is fantastically beautiful and married to a miserable old goat who is ready to die and pave the way for Redmond Barry to become Barry Lyndon. The last third of the movie shows Barry’s rise and fall in English society. His life becomes a cruel, inexorable march toward weakness, despair and loss. Throughout, Barry’s own lack of morality is mirrored by the larger society he inhabits. Everyone he encounters seems somewhat malevelont, and events swirl in the maelstrom of history with little predictability or reward. In this way, Kubrick brilliantly puts his finger on the modern condition. The more refined the society, the thinner the veil between chaos and order.

Kubrick had complete, auteur-like control over the execution of this film, investing literally years and millions of dollars in the lighting, lenses, locations and music. The result is what has to be THE MOST BEAUTIFUL FILM EVER MADE. Seriously, I just can’t think of another movie that is more visually rewarding than Barry Lyndon. Each and every scene is a breathtaking set-piece, more like an old-master painting than a movie. I found myself going back to scenes to convince myself that it was a real scene, but there is no trickery in this movie. When a scene is lit by candlelight, it is actually filmed in candlelight. When the French and British armies approach each other, firing and falling by the hundred, it is actually hordes of meticulously dressed extras walking through a smoke-filled, dawn-lit battlefield. Every detail is filled with the most extraordinary level of detailed directorial obsession that it is truly possible to lose yourself in this film. It feels like being in a time machine and walking around in the past. Kubrick used every iota of technical and creative ability he had to bring this vision to life and he succeeds beyond his wildest expectations. The casting is impeccable with Ryan O’Neil showing why Farrah Fawcett chose him over every other man in the world, and Marisa Berenson providing the most restrained portrayal of icy beauty in the history of the movies. Every single second of Barry Lyndon is impossibly gorgeous, rewarding your faith in the artistic vision of director Stanley Kubrick and the art of film in general. It is long and slow and lovely and ugly and hopeful and scary and memorable and over too fast…just like life.

- Paul Epstein

Monday, June 1, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #130 - Fred Neil - The Other Side Of This Life

There is a pretty good argument to be made that Fred Neil is the quintessential, mysterious, cult figure in modern music history. Gifted with a most memorable and resonant voice, the ability to toss off masterpieces casually and a magnetic, yet unattainable poet’s soul, he was a profound influence on countless other musicians (Dylan, Stills, Tim Buckley, Airplane, Spoonful, etc.), and most amazingly, he only made four albums before taking his life into his own hands and backing away from stardom. He wrote a handful of standards: one, “Everybody’s Talkin’,” among the 10 most played songs on modern radio - a classic by anyone’s measure. His first three albums Bleecker and MacDougal, Fred Neil and Sessions are all out of print on CD, thus making The Other Side Of This Life the de facto choice for review. I highly recommend the first two albums as they represent Neil’s best work and some of the best American folk/rock ever recorded. Sessions shows Neil succumbing to the excess of the day, and while interesting, is just too scattered and stoned to be of much use.  Which leaves us with The Other Side Of This Life.

Side one is a live set comprised of his three biggest hits (“The Other Side Of This Life,” “The Dolphins” and “Everybody's Talkin'”) his hippest song (“That's The Bag I'm In”) and two blues covers all delivered in his laconic, yet authoritative manner. That is the secret to Fred Neil, he is always laid back in his delivery, but just below the surface are brilliant songs, an incredible voice and a jazzy twelve-string technique that put many of his peers to shame. Neil can be heard giggling to himself between songs and fooling around with the audience, but make no mistake, when he lets loose on “The Other Side Of This Life” or “The Dolphins” his vocal delivery still pins your ears back in awe. Neil is in relaxed mode, but the tunes and vocal delivery are life changing. Side two is more of a hodgepodge, gathering together a handful of interesting tracks highlighted by two incredible ballads. The first, “Ya Don’t Miss Your Water,” is a well-known gospel/soul standard, here played as a duet with another quixotic 1960’s figure, Gram Parsons. The combination of these two woozy voices wrapping around this great tune is irresistible. Parsons is the perfect tenor counterpoint to Neil’s elongated baritone, and they deliver it somewhere between St. Peter and Bacchus. The album ends with a stripped down version of another of Neil’s greatest songs, “Felicity,” which is both uplifting and heartbreaking; the very essence of the singer/songwriter tradition, and it embodies the duality that Fred Neil excelled at like nobody else.

If you haven’t yet, discovering Fred Neil is one of the great pleasures left in collecting 1960’s music. I was aware of Nilsson’s hit version of “Everybody’s Talkin’” and The Jefferson Airplane’s version of “The Other Side Of This Life” and of course Tim Buckley's haunted “The Dolphins,” but discovering the real item was one of the most thrilling revelations ever. Here was what seemed to be the Rosetta Stone of folk/rock music. Seemingly, every cool musician of the early 60’s either crossed paths with or was influenced by Fred Neil. He remained mysterious, staying out of the public eye for the last 30 years of his life, never succumbing to the siren call of comeback or tribute or tour, instead quietly living his life and letting his incredible legacy of song and performance speak for itself. How could there be no whiff of sellout whatsoever? How could such an important figure come through the 70’s 80’s and 90’s (he died in 2001) with his reputation completely untarnished and his public awareness so under the radar? I honestly don’t have an answer, but listen to him, love him, and then keep it to yourself. Some things are better kept just between you and me.

- Paul Epstein