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