Wednesday, December 30, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #144 - Tom Lehrer – That Was The Year That Was

Superlatives like ‘genius’ are often thrown around as casually as a baseball in modern culture, but very few folks are deserving of such high praise. Tom Lehrer is one of those people actually deserving of that title and set the benchmark high for what a “Renaissance Man” looks like in contemporary times.

I’ve always said that for someone to appreciate and understand what it is that they’re listening to, well, they have to know what it is that they’re listening to. In this instance, one needs to understand who Tom Lehrer is to really appreciate this record. Lehrer was considered a child prodigy who entered into Harvard University at age 15 to study math and also began writing comedic songs to entertain his peers. Following the completion of his Master’s, Lehrer took time off of working on his doctoral degree to serve in the U.S. military as a researcher at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory with the National Security Agency.  During this time, as a means of circumventing liquor restrictions, Lehrer would smuggle alcohol by mixing it with Jell-O and consequently invented the Jell-O shot.  I’ll say it again; this man invented the Jell-O shot! In 1960, Lehrer left his military career to return to his studies at Harvard. He would continue a career in academia as a professor at MIT and UC Santa Cruz teaching courses on political science, mathematics, and musical theatre.

With that in mind, on to That Was The Year That Was. Recorded at the hungry i Theatre in San Francisco in 1965, Lehrer performed a number of satirical songs taken from the NBC series That Was The Week That Was, an American spin-off of the BBC series of the same name. With only Lehrer on piano, his humorous, sociopolitical ditties did just what biting comedy should do - outrage and delight its audience alike. Keep in mind this was the United States in 1965; Lyndon B. Johnson and Leonid Brezhnev were in office while the Cold War and nuclear obliteration loomed over people’s heads, the war in Vietnam was unpopular and troop numbers were ramping up, religious faith was strong, and race tensions were as high as they had ever been in the country’s history.  People were understandably on edge, but Lehrer addressed all of these subjects head on and did so in a frank, witty manner. The album is certainly dated in this sense, but many of the songs’ undertones and messages still hold true to debates ongoing in today’s landscape.

The first cut of the album, “National Brotherhood Week,” addresses a week-long program sponsored by the National Conference for Community and Justice to promote social equality, but, as Lehrer points out, on the first day of it in 1965 Malcolm X was killed, “which gives you an idea of how effective the whole thing is….” “Send in the Marines,” a song about how “America always has this number one instrument of diplomacy to fall back on,” is critical of the United States’ overt use of militarism in foreign policy dealings, and strikes a chord even today when examining the United States’ military undertakings in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now with the Islamic State in Syria. “New Math” examines the ridiculous teaching trends during the 1960s that were done away with about as fast as they were conceived. “Alma” details the romps of Alma Mahler, a Viennese-born socialite and composer who became the wife, successively, of composer Gustav Mahler, architect Walter Gropius, and novelist Franz Werfel, as well as the consort of several other prominent men. Finally, one of my personal favorites, “The Vatican Rag,” a tune poking fun at the Second Vatican Council and the reform of Roman Catholic liturgy. During this album’s recording, actor Ricardo Montalban, a staunch and loyal Catholic, was in the audience and became so enraged upon hearing the song that he shouted from the audience, “How dare you make fun of my religion! I love my religion! I will die for my religion!" To which Lehrer responded, "That's fine with me, as long as you don't do it here."

Tom Lehrer is a once in a generation talent, the true embodiment of a Renaissance man. He was so far ahead of his time that his messages still hold true on an album recorded in 1965, a timeless masterpiece that is just as funny and sharp now as it was then  Have a listen to this and enjoy!

-         Kevin Powers

Monday, December 28, 2015

Twist and Shout Presents: Top Things List 2015

As at the end of every year, we ask our employees to share their favorite releases of the year. Herein are the results of our end of year employee poll. We gave each employee a sheet suggesting ten titles on different formats but weren’t strict about how the numbers broke down and also weren’t strict about what format, whether titles were new, or whether it was even music, so there’s a lot of variety here.

This year had the most votes for a leader that we’ve had in years – D’Angelo’s album Black Messiah, which came out last December after we’d already polled the staff for 2014. It garnered votes from over a third of the staff, the most-widely picked title since Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots back in 2002! But before it became clear that no official 2015 release was gonna catch it, Tame Impala’s Currents, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, and Sleater-Kinney’s No Cities to Love all were in there pitching and each of them seemed like contenders for the top spot. And all four are worthwhile albums, to boot. Check out our individual lists and see what your favorite employee voted for, find that person whose tastes are in line with yours, or the one who can point you to some great new music that you’ve never heard before.

We’ve tallied the music releases that appeared on three or more employee lists to make a snapshot of Twist & Shout’s best-loved music (and also movies) of 2015. Rather than delineate by format, a vote for a release on any format specified by the employee counted toward the total. Enjoy the entire tallied votes and each employee's personal lists HERE.

Monday, December 21, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #130 - The Iron Giant (1999, dir. Brad Bird)

I first watched The Iron Giant in the fall of 1999, just a few months after graduating from college. Had I seen this film between the ages of seven and twelve, it would be one of my top ten all-time favorites. As it stands, this film still ranks very high for me and my opinion of it only improves with additional viewings. Despite the fact that The Iron Giant failed to find an audience upon its release sixteen years ago, time has shown that Brad Bird’s debut film succeeds as both an enduring story of childhood adventure and an entertaining comment on recent history and political science.  

Bird introduces the film’s tone of Cold War paranoia by setting it in the fall of 1957 and opening with an establishing shot of Earth from space as a newly launched Sputnik whizzes by in orbit. A moment later, something streaks past the camera, races toward Earth, and plummets into a raging storm. Who or what fell remains ambiguous during this sequence, but the mystery won’t last long. Once the action settles into the small, coastal town of Rockwell, Maine, we meet Hogarth, a precocious boy hungry for friendship and excitement. Hogarth soon follows signs that something in the woods is eating metal and he stumbles upon the giant metal robot that fell from space. Hogarth’s discovery fills him with joy but he knows he must exercise caution as he teaches this Iron Giant to survive on Earth. Hogarth, who himself is in need of a role model, takes on the task of modeling his behavior for the Giant. During these sequences Bird captures restless and avid boyhood just as I remember it. In one of the film’s best moments Hogarth shares his comic books with the Giant and casually establishes a hero/villain dynamic between Hogarth’s favorite, Superman, and a killer robot named Atomo, who resembles the Giant. Saddled with this confusing paradigm, Hogarth assures the Giant that he’s a good guy and restates the film’s mantra, “you are who you choose to be.” It’s worth noting that Vin Diesel’s effective yet minimal voice performance as the Giant predates his work as the beloved ambulatory tree, Groot, from last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy by fifteen years. Although Bird loves the style of the late 1950s and early 1960s, The Iron Giant delves into social and political themes of the day with greater depth and nuance than you might expect from a “kids’ movie.” Undercutting Hogarth’s fascination with science fiction daydreams, Bird recreates a “Duck and Cover” film for elementary school students and demonstrates the deadly fear of nuclear war and flimsy comforts under which this generation of children lived and learned. The character of Dean, a beatnik sculptor, voices repeatedly the need to embrace those who don’t conform to society’s expectations. Weaving xenophobic hysteria together with an over-zealous show of force from the government and military, the story serves as a cautionary tale that resonates strongly in this country’s current political environment. Is this strange visitor really a child’s friend or a threat to our way of life? The film’s powerful ending and refusal to shy away from the high stakes of the story function as indicators of a confident director with substance, vision, and style who was just getting started.  

In addition to The Iron Giant’s triumph as a single film, it also serves as a statement of purpose for one of the most innovative mainstream directors of the last 20 years. Elements of The Iron Giant run throughout Bird’s four subsequent films. Bird’s two Pixar films, The Incredibles and Ratatouille, both champion challenging conventional wisdom and underscore the value of listening to disenfranchised characters. For Bird’s first live action feature, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, he revives the series by returning to a Cold War antagonism with Russian villains and a missing nuclear weapon. Tomorrowland, which opened this summer, features characters facing the future with a choice highly reminiscent of the mantra Hogarth shares with the Giant. The Iron Giant manages the rare accomplishment of rekindling the exuberance of childhood and examining the absurdity of adulthood while telling a story that is as timeless as it is rewatchable.       

-         John Parsell

Monday, December 14, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #143 - Caitlin Cary & Thad Cockrell - Begonias

The sub-genre of alt-country has always seemed a fitful and inadequate label for the music it contains. Although part of this tension stems from corralling very different bands and artists, some of this friction appears to come from within these bands themselves. Two of the most influential alt-country bands, Uncle Tupelo and Whiskeytown, not only defined (and defied) the sub-genre during their relatively brief tenures, but also balanced, however tenuously, the wills of two strong voices and artistic visions. With Uncle Tupelo’s collapse, Jeff Tweedy began the ever expanding, genre-confounding project of Wilco, while Jay Farrar refined his take on Americana with Son Volt. Upon Whiskeytown’s dissolution, Ryan Adams’ voracious creative appetite launched a lucrative solo career almost as prolific as it is inconsistent, while Caitlin Cary’s willingness to continue forging fruitful collaborations has yielded a handful of solo albums and side-projects that have enriched the state of modern independent country music. Cary’s 2005 album with Thad Cockrell, Begonias, serves as an excellent example of her post-Whiskeytown work by delivering a timeless set of songs about the rougher, sadder side of love.

Cary and Cockrell’s success on this album derives from how beautifully their partnership cuts through the drama and mixed messages that often accompany alt-country music. In many ways, this album is an unapologetically old fashioned country record featuring great musicians ruminating on heartache and heartbreak and having a good time while doing so. In Thad Cockrell, Cary finds a highly compatible voice, a like-minded songwriting partner, and a skilled performer adept at the kind of role-playing these songs encourage. The album breaks out confidently with a trio of great songs that each address the central theme: the inevitable imbalance that occurs when love doesn’t play out the way you were hoping. A nearly mathematical logic presides over these three songs and establishes the album’s focus on those who come out on the losing side of love’s equations. Following an enticing acoustic guitar flourish, “Two Different Things” eases into a medium tempo as Cockrell gently opens the narrative of a lover slowly coming to accept that his relationship no longer matches his desires. After joining Cockrell for the chorus, Cary takes the next verse and assures us that neither lover in this union feels any satisfaction. As both characters open up about their love failing to meet their expectations, the bitter-sweet tone folds into a wordless chorus showing off how beautifully these two can sing together. “Something Less Than Something More” features Cary in the lead role and introduces a tone of melancholy directly into the album by way of a distant, plaintive pedal steel guitar performance and Cockrell’s haunting backup vocal. Cary’s speaker engages in a similar kind of introspection as the previous song, but this time her loneliness echoes as she alone wonders whether she’s fooling herself. Rounding out the trio of openers, “Second Option” teases through a brief intro of a loping drum beat accented by a meandering organ part before kicking into gear as the album’s most rocking number. The song’s energy and drive fit nicely with the speaker’s defiance toward an indecisive lover. Cockrell takes the lead here and gives the song a strong sense of independence and hard-earned self-worth. Saving the best nearly for last, “Conversations About A Friend (Who’s in Love with Katie)” runs nearly twice as long as the other songs, but uses this time wisely to tell the story of one lover leaving another for new opportunities. Highlighting Cary and Cockrell’s considerable chemistry as both singers and storytellers as well as the remarkable talents of their band, “Conversations About A Friend” breathes life into both the beleaguered genre of country and the contentious sub-genre of alt-country.

For all of the stories about losing in love contained in this collection, Begonias is anything but a downer. Modern perspectives on love, relationships, and human psychology shape these updated takes on the archetypal country song about a broken heart. Yes, these songs focus on loneliness, loss, rejection, and longing, but a strong sense of hope and survival holds the album together. The unwillingness to give up showcased in these songs resonates nicely with Cary’s career after Whiskeytown. After forming a critically acclaimed, ground-breaking band that broke up just as they were beginning to hit it big, Cary has survived creatively by establishing rewarding partnerships like this one and her group with Lynn Blakey and Tonya Lamm, Tres Chicas. Cary’s solo career stands apart from her former band-mate’s as well as those of her peers from Uncle Tupelo because she has returned to the origins of country music instead of viewing it as just a launching point. Begonias pulls off the nifty feat of enlivening the essential virtues of country music while at same time demonstrating that there is life (and love) after alt-country.

-John Parsell

Monday, December 7, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #129 - High Fidelity (2000, dir. Stephen Frears)

"What came first, the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?"

So, in 2001, when I was 15, I ventured to the local Blockbuster and purchased a previously viewed VHS copy of this film for 10 dollars (yes, I spent $10 on a used VHS!) and my life was forever altered. In sitting down to attempt to write a review that even scratches the surface of just how crazy awesome and enlightening this movie is, I am at a loss. The story, the script, the casting choices, the pacing, and the brilliant story telling tropes all culminate in what is one of the perfect films not only about working in a record store, but about the complexities of life and relationships.

Rob: "Laura didn't even want to get married. That's not what happens now."
Rob's Mom: "Oh, I don't know what happens now, except you meet a girl, you move in, she goes! You meet a girl, you move in, SHE GOES!"
Rob: "Aw, SHUT UP, MOM!"
[Slams the phone receiver down, then muttering]
Rob: "God d@#n, that's some cold S!*t!"

Just to give a super brief summary of the story, Rob (played brilliantly and relatably by John Cusack) owns a record store and he has issues. The plot begins with Rob's intense breakup with his current girlfriend, Laura (Iben Hjejle), then the camera pans to Rob who breaks the fourth wall to tell us about it. Thus begins our relationship with Rob as he tells stories, smokes cigarettes, waxes intellectual, remarks sarcastically, and drops some seriously insightful thoughts on life. We follow him through his everyday life and in the in-between moments he relates the stories of his "all time top five" worst break ups. With each past relationship we learn a little more about the character and how he became who he is. At some point he decides to try and talk to the women on the top of his worst break ups list in order to put them behind him, and hilarity ensues. That is the simplest summary of the plot - a record snob's journey of self discovery. Originally a novel written by Nick Hornby (which is also incredible), this story is a work of casual genius. While it is easy to write the film off as a romantic comedy, and it IS incredibly funny and realistically romantic, there are some life lessons shared through this little quick snapshot of Rob's life.

While the story is incredible and the script truly brings story to life, it would be nothing without the cast that signed on to be involved. While there is a certain amazing and indescribable quality to John Cusack (who also helped write the script), the supporting cast is what really makes this movie so special. The list of talented people in this film includes: Todd Louiso, Lisa Bonet, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Joan Cusack, Tim Robbins, Lili Taylor, Sara Gilbert, Jack Black and many many more! This is in fact the film that made me fall in love with the over the top comedic performances of Jack Black and I think I will always see him as the sloppy, crazed, angsty record snob.

"Yeah, seriously, you're totally elitist. You feel like the unappreciated scholars, so you shit onto people who know less than you."

But getting to the heart of why I love this film SOOOOOO much, it's because I see myself in all of the characters. The depth of character development truly lets you relate to and feel akin to the people of Championship Vinyl (and the local universe surrounding the store). The way that the story unfolds and the pacing are so perfect that every time you sit down to watch this movie is like having a beer with an old friend (someone who you are/were so close to that you can finish each other’s sentences). One of the aspects of the narrative that really sells this feeling is the fact that Rob actually is talking directly to US, the viewers, and in some scenes ACTUALLY IS having a beer with us! Though this could very easily have been an ineffective method and proven trite, the way that John Cusack plays Rob makes it incredibly effective.

So in conclusion, this film is charming, funny, insightful and you should most definitely own it. Out of all of the films that I have written about for this series this is the one that I have spent the most time with, and the one that I return to the most. Not a year goes by that I don't revisit this film, and it gets even better with age. While it may seem obvious that I would like this movie as it has a direct relation to my life, I would bet my life savings (which is a few hundred doll-hairs) that you, whoever you might be, will find this story and the characters just as charming as I do.

-         Edward Hill