Monday, January 25, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #146 - Devo - Duty Now For the Future

You probably know something about the art project/guerrilla theater/rock band from Akron, OH known as Devo, The De-Evolutionary Band. After years of underground touring to go with handmade films and other forms of art-propaganda they finally released their debut album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are DEVO! in 1978. It was produced by Brian Eno (along with David Bowie an early supporter of the band) and is considered a post-punk classic. Two years later, their third album, Freedom of Choice, became a new wave smash, propelled by the hit single "Whip It." It is both perverse and inevitable that a band like Devo would score a big mainstream hit. Yet it also fits in with the band's philosophy and methodology, critiquing the excessive consumerism of modern Western society. Was this part of the plan all along? For Devo to first break through to the mainstream and then years later be considered yet another disposable one-hit wonder seems like it could have been the master plot of Devo masterminds Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale.

But we're not here to talk about all that today. For between the landmark debut and the massive breakthrough came the difficult second album, Duty Now For the Future. The twist, and there always is one with Devo, is that this often overlooked album is nearly as good as the first one, with lots of hidden gems and lost classics. Opening with the synthesized fanfare of the "Devo Corporate Anthem," the album picks up in earnest with the energetic "Clockout." This critique of corporate office work reminds us that the best part of the workday is often the end of it. Another short instrumental, "Timing X," displays the band's musical chops, particularly those of drummer Alan Myers. Devo's talent as musicians is rarely acknowledged, even by hardcore Devo-tees, yet they could always work their way around the tricky arrangements they created for themselves. "Wiggly World" is a great high energy rocker with some musical twists of its own. Lyrically, it provides advice for navigating a strange world where "It's never straight up and down." "Blockhead" is clearly a cousin of the first album's "Mongoloid" but is also a great song in its own right. After charging through at full speed for most of the album so far, Devo slows things down a bit for the moody and creepy "S.I.B. (Swelling Itching Brain)."

The inward turn continues with the start of the album's second half. "Triumph of the Will" uncomfortably combines fascist imagery with relationship trauma. Things pick up again with the cheery sounds of "The Day My Baby Gave Me a Surprize." "Pink Pussycat" is a nice bouncy pop tune which leaves the listener to wonder if Devo are indulging in cheap juvenile jokes or mocking them. Probably a little bit of both. Perhaps the album's best known song is "Secret Agent Man." This cover/parody of the hit 60s TV theme song had been in the band's repertoire since their earliest days. The additional lyrics play up the absurdity of undercover spy as pop culture hero. Even Devo know how to rock out and they do on the album highlight "Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA." The lyrics further deepen the band's philosophy and mythology that they had previously established on their debut album and underground films like The Truth About De-Evolution. Musically, the band charge through traditional rock song structure even including a couple instrumental breaks that show off the guitar work of Bob Mothersbaugh while Myers again brings strong drumming. The album concludes with the high energy synth-driven "Red Eye." The current CD edition includes a generous helping of bonus tracks. A pair of singles included here, "Soo Bawlz" and "Be Stiff," are just as good as anything on the album.

As the years roll on, Devo's achievements continue to gain recognition and their influence continues to grow. In the past year, right here in Denver, the Museum of Contemporary Art hosted an exhibition of Mark Mothersbaugh's visual works. He's also been one of the top film composers of the past few decades, particularly known for his work with Wes Anderson. The art and message of Devo have always taken on multiple formats. Yet their great run of studio albums has always been their core and the best way for newcomers to enter their wiggly world. When diving into this world, be sure not to overlook Duty Now For the Future.  It's one of the best.

-          Adam Reshotko

Monday, January 18, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #132 - Monsoon Wedding (2001, dir. Mira Nair)

Simply put, Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding is a romantic comedy of great substance! What on the outside would seem to be a straightforward story of an extended family and their friends preparing for the wedding of their daughter becomes something much more multifaceted and captivating. In the true fashion of a Shakespearian comedy the central storyline is complicated and littered with an array of side stories that vary from directly related to almost completely unrelated to the central story and therein lies the true charm of this film. Additionally what makes this film important is the way that Nair and writer Sabrina Dhawan have crafted a film that highlights and plays with the conventions and traditions of the Indian culture and its evolving place in the modern world.

At the heart of it, this is the story of an arranged marriage. But when you take a step back after the first few scenes it becomes obvious just how many different plotlines are working to tell this seemingly straightforward story. Of course there is the central love story of the arranged couple, Hemant Rai (Parvin Dabas) and Aditi Verma (Vasundhara Das ), and all of the complications therein, including (but certainly not limited to) Aditi's prior (and somewhat current...) love affair with the married talk-show host Vikram Mehta (Sameer Arya). While this is certainly an engaging story arc the most engaging stories are those that happen around this central tale. There is the stressful story of a father, Lalit Verma (Naseeruddin Shah), and mother, Pimmi Verma (Lillete Dubey), planning the wedding that relatives and friends from all around the world are flying in to attend; the humorous dealings of Lalit with the lovable fool of a wedding planner "P.K." Dubey (Vijay Raaz); P.K.'s own love story with the housekeeper Alice (Tillotama Shome); and a number of additional love stories sprinkled in for good measure and tumultuous issues bubbling just under the surface. While most of the stories described above are cheerful and exciting with a hint of drama, there is another brooding story of familial and monetary obligation and a family friend's abuse of power to exploit the daughters of his friend.

This is most definitely a film that focuses on the tensions involved in life, and by zeroing in on one very stressful and happy moment in the life of a family, Nair and Dhawan are able to portray not only the surface but the thoughts, emotions, secrets, joys, and sorrows that make us human. And the success of the film truly hinges of the way in which the story is told. The dialogue is succinct and subtle and the yet the way that the actors deliver the lines says way more about what is going on than the simple text would lead you to believe. In this film, as in life, it is all about subtext and reading between the lines. The way that the film was written and directed as well as the way that the actors portray their characters brings an undeniable, humanist element to every aspect of the narrative.

In addition to the complex and relatable Shakespearian story and amazing dialogue, two other things that make this film so special are the performances from all of the actors and the way that it was shot. Nair wanted to use several non-actors for the film as well as some seasoned and extremely talented Indian actors and actresses, which serves to amplify the human element of the film as many of the performances seem untouched by the craft of acting, lending a more "real" quality to some of the performances. Additionally, what really rounds out the humanity of this story is the fact that it was shot in around 40 days on handheld camera (with cinematography by Declan Quinn). While this technique isn't always effective, here, as in Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration, it places the viewer squarely in the action and we feel as if we are a part of this family. We are there with them witnessing their triumphant celebrations as well as moments of defeat and desperation.

While this entry got quite wordy quickly, I assure you this is one of the most purely enjoyable, relatable, and engrossing films that I will have a chance to write about for this blog. Within the first half hour of the movie I can almost guarantee that you will absorbed in the plot and waiting with bated breath to see what happens next. So consider this your cordial invitation to Monsoon Wedding.

-         Edward Hill

Monday, January 11, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #145 - Harry Nilsson - The Point

Harry Nilsson's The Point, released as both an album and full-length animated T.V. special in 1971 succeeds on two different levels. It is another in a string of fantastic Nilsson records which were about to reach their apotheosis with 1972's Nilsson Schmilsson. Because of that album's overwhelming commercial and artistic success, The Point sometimes gets minimized. For me, being 12 years old upon its release, it was actually a far more impactful album at the time. As nearly as I can tell, Nilsson wrote the songs first, pitched the idea for an animated special to an ABC executive, got it green-lighted and the animation got made, then Nilsson himself kind of wrestled it into its final cinematic form. The original television broadcast in February of 1971 was a pretty big prime-time deal, which included Dustin Hoffman narrating the story - appropriate considering Hoffman’s tangential role in Nilsson’s career as the star of Midnight Cowboy, which included Nilsson’s version of the hit song “Everybody's Talkin'.” There are also scenes in The Point that feel oddly similar to Hoffman's breakout role in The Graduate. On the DVD version, the narration is supplied by Ringo Starr, also appropriate due to the ex-Beatle’s longtime friendship with Nilsson. The other voices include Mike Lookinland (Bobby Brady) and the great character actor Paul Frees, whose presence is almost miraculously recognizable and comforting from countless appearances in 1960's children's entertainment. All these points of cultural convergence lend an even greater emotional poignancy and historical weight to the film and album. It is inextricably linked to the decade it followed, and in a way, feels like one of the really clean, unsullied representations of the childlike sweetness of much of the 60’s experience.

The movie itself is an explosion of primary watercolor, with an animation style somewhere between Yellow Submarine and the cartoons found in The New Yorker. It is reminiscent of the best of the 1960's Saturday morning cartoons, but with the lysergic undercurrent of a Fillmore light show. It’s a simple tale of a boy named Oblio who is born different from everybody else in his world, because his head has no point. He has a round head, and everybody in the land of point must have a point. Sadly, Oblio and his faithful dog Arrow are banished to the pointless forest. Here they meet a variety of colorful characters who provide neat metaphors or solutions to the modern dilemmas of growing up and fitting in. During his experiences, we come to recognize Oblio as a classic alienated youth. He confronts and comes to grips with the generation gap, conformity, freedom, independence, identity and, when his parents knuckle under to society's expectations instead of supporting their son, the concept of “never trust anyone over 30,” before triumphantly returning home to show the rest of the world that under the shape of your head, we are all the same - an important lesson for all children (and adults). After more than 30 years of working in record stores, I have come to the conclusion that The Point was an elemental experience for many people who were lucky enough to experience it upon its initial airing. I've had so many conversations about it where people's eyes just glaze over with giddy nostalgia as they quietly breathe "Oh I just LOVED The Point when I first saw it." The film impacted many in a positive way. It was cool and it packed a strong moral wallop -perfect for the post-60's hangover.

Musically, this might be the easiest way “in” to Nilsson’s work. The songs are classic Nilsson - whimsicality with a heightened sense of innocence in consideration of his intended audience. As always his voice is a wonder - silky smooth and soaring. The album version breezes along much more quickly than the movie. Harry Nilsson himself provides an abbreviated, and thus somewhat more coherent narrative. He skips most of the dialogue, and just frames the plot succinctly, lending just the right amount of context to make this feel like a children's fable instead of another Harry Nilsson album. The songs themselves are some of his most touching and memorable. “Everything's Got 'Em,” “Me And My Arrow,” “Down To The Valley,” “Think About Your Troubles” and “Are You Sleeping?” are absolute classics of that most elusive of genres: kid appropriate rock which is as good as adult appropriate rock. The real treasure lies in two ballads: “Life Line” and the beautiful “Think About Your Troubles.”  Any Nilsson fan will love this record, and the record or the film can turn almost anyone into a Nilsson fan. As a separate entity the animated movie The Point is both a classic kid's film and full of psychedelic imagery, but the greatness of it all rests squarely on Harry Nilsson's wonderful songs.

-         Paul Epstein

Monday, January 4, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #131 - Stop Making Sense (1984, dir. Jonathan Demme)

I assumed that anyone who had an interest would have seen this film by now, but I keep meeting people who haven’t seen it – fans of the Talking Heads even – so it felt necessary to write it up. If you’ve seen the film, you know about its irresistible energy, the joyous feel of the music (even when the band gets strange), the magnetic wonder of David Byrne’s performance. But maybe it’s been a while since you’ve seen it, or maybe you’ve never seen it. If so, this review is for you.

In late 1983, the Talking Heads were riding their most successful album to date – Speaking in Tongues – which charted higher than any of their previous albums and contained their first top ten hit with “Burning Down the House.” With these accomplishments under their collective belt they decided it was time to make a concert film to document the band in one of its most exciting incarnations. To take the directing reins they hired Jonathan Demme, who worked with Byrne and the group to design a film that, unlike most rock docs, almost never takes us out of the performance for interviews, audience shots, or extraneous images. They also spent a lot of the film’s budget (raised by the band) on recording the sound with then-new digital technology and the expenditure paid off handsomely – this hardly sounds live at all and it takes full advantage of the audio capabilities of both DVD and Blu-ray. The core of the group is of course the quartet – David Byrne, Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz, and Jerry Harrison (in that order, as we shall see) – but here they’re augmented by extra percussion (courtesy of Steve Scales) extra guitar (Alex Weir sometimes chugging rhythm, sometimes playing the Adrian Belew role, sometimes shredding in his own style), extra keyboards (P-Funk’s synth wizard Bernie Worrell), and extra vocal support (Edna Holt and Lynn Mabry singing backing and harmony vocals). And Demme (along with cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, famed for his work on Blade Runner) have a gift for staying out of the way of the band while still putting us right in their faces to capture the energy of the performances. Demme also made the wise decision in the editing process to favor long takes and hand held camera to keep you in the moment – against the grain of the current MTV era of rapid fire, quick cut video editing.

The film begins with a shot of the floor at the front of what we’ll soon find out is a barren stage. A pair of sneakers – belonging to David Byrne – walk into the frame. The camera follows then to a mic stand and a boombox is set down next to the mic. Byrne’s voice announces “I have something I want to play for you” and he presses play, starting a rhythm over which his voice and guitar start to play “Psycho Killer” as he sometimes stands at the mic, sometimes stumbles and dances goofily around the stage. When he’s done Tina Weymouth walks out on stage, bass in hand, and joins him for a duet on the great song “Heaven.” As the song nears its end, roadies roll out risers and a drum kit and then Chris Frantz comes out – in his blue polo shirt, the only one not dressed in the industrial, neutral colored outfits that the rest of the performers are – and bounds up behind his kit to fire up the early Heads song “Thank You For Sending Me An Angel” as the trio that the band originally was. After the group had worked a while as trio, Jerry Harrison joined to make them a quartet and to signify it he’s out on stage next on guitar to join them for “Found A Job.” After they finish most of the rest of the band comes out, the curtain drops, blocking the open background for the first time and they kick into “Slippery People” from the then-new Speaking in Tongues album. Meanwhile Byrne gets goofy, dancing with the other singers, and everyone on stage feels the rhythm. For “Burning Down the House,” the last of the performers hit the stage and the full band kicks into high gear, with Byrne even running laps around the risers for the next tune. Though Byrne’s twitchy energy is often the focus, Demme wisely cuts away to give everyone featured time onscreen because they’re all clearly having a blast and the energy from all quarters is infectious. At the midpoint, Byrne yells into the mic “Thank you! Does anybody have any questions?” and there’s a quick fade to black. The film fades back up on a series of visual projections and the show is now in a higher gear too – adding in an additional visual component to augment the music. It hits a high during “What A Day That Was” (from Byrne’s excellent 1981 solo album The Catherine Wheel) where the band is lit from below by strong lights that cast giant moving shadows behind them. The focus is on Bernie Worrell later as they roll into “Once In A Lifetime” but Byrne’s eccentric movements (partially recreated from the video) again pull the focus up to the front line. As the film rolls out to a close, the energy remains high, going through a Tom Tom Club solo spot, Byrne wearing (and then slowly discarding) the film’s famous “Big Suit” during “Girlfriend Is Better,” an extended workout on their version of Al Green’s “Take Me To the River” and the closer, “Crosseyed and Painless,” which ends things on an energetic high before fading back down to the sounds of the boombox beats from “Psycho Killer” as the credits roll.

Writing about it can’t possibly do it justice. It’s a viscerally exciting audio-visual experience from beginning to end and if you haven’t seen it you owe it to yourself to witness what film critic Leonard Maltin (in one of the few times I agree with him) called “one of the greatest rock movies ever made” and critic Pauline Kael called “close to perfection.” They’re right - I can’t think of a better concert film that exists, rock or otherwise.

-Patrick Brown