Monday, March 28, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #137 - The Missouri Breaks (1976, dir. Arthur Penn)

Think about the extraordinary turn Marlon Brando’s career was taking in the 1970’s.  After stalling a bit in the late 60’s he came roaring back in 1972 - jowly, greying at the temple and more potent than ever in The Godfather and Last Tango In Paris. Two braver explorations of middle age could not be imagined, then… silence, until 1976 when he returned – greyer still, jowlier yet, but no less intense and seeming to have tapped into some sort of cosmic awareness that made him a real-life cross between con-man, genius, artist, shaman and fool. It was also impossible to take your eyes off of him in what could be considered his last great role of substance in The Missouri Breaks (I love Apocalypse Now, but it is hard to call what Brando did in it as “substantive.” Memorable yes, substantive maybe less so.).  Director Arthur Penn created a stylish western in the classic mode, which is elevated to something truly memorable by Marlon Brando’s inexplicable performance. From the moment he appears on screen as Robert E. Lee Clayton he is magnetic - both compelling and terrifying at the same time. He is a regulator (a legal assassin) who has been brought from Wyoming to Montana to help rancher David Braxton (John McLiam) and his attractive daughter Jane (Kathleen Lloyd) deal with a band of horse rustlers (Jack Nicholson, Harry Dean Stanton, Randy Quaid and more) who have been causing trouble. Brando enters the action as an exotic swashbuckler; fringed leather jacket, long hair and an Irish accent. He immediately shows himself as a man not to be trifled with, appraising Nicholson as the thief and beginning to exact punishment on the gang. His speed and deadly accuracy prove his reputation as an uncontrollable, but ultimately successful executioner.
With the central conflict established, Penn goes about turning the movie into a philosophical treatise on the difference between being a thief and a killer, and if either of those is morally worse than being a bad person on the right side of the law. David Braxton, it turns out, is a world-class creep who deserves whatever he gets, while Nicholson seems to be a more three-dimensional man than his designation as horse rustler might indicate. He yearns for the honest life - or at least the love of a woman who has lived the honest life - available in the person of Braxton’s daughter. Brando’s character Clayton appears more and more like a scorched earth psychopath, hell-bent on destroying his prey as violently as possible, letting no one - including those who hired him - stand in the way. His inhumanity grows with each scene as Nicholson becomes an increasingly sympathetic protagonist. As Clayton’s killings take on greater cruelty with each victim, Clayton’s personality takes on more complexity. He begins shifting accents from Irish to Southern, to female (complete with unforgettable drag costume) and back to Irish. His performance is always on the edge of hallucinatory, the cutting edge of menace and hilarity. In spite of it being one of his least famous movies, I believe The Missouri Breaks contains one of Brando’s most beguiling performances. By the end of the movie, he is a truly frightening presence - unpredictable, deadly and unstoppable - beyond the control of laws or bullets. The shocking twist at the end remains a great cinematic trick, never failing to surprise.

In the 34 years that have passed since I last saw this movie, I had forgotten almost everything about it. So the panoramic cinematography, realistic take on the Old West setting, excellent music and funny dialogue were all a welcome re-acquaintance. It is Marlon Brando’s terrifying depiction which I had not forgotten, and it was, in fact, even more potent than I remembered. He has had one of the most terminally appraised careers in the history of film, yet his depiction of Robert E. Lee Clayton does much to justify his genius reputation.

-         Paul Epstein

Friday, March 25, 2016

Deadheads Unite!

ListenUp will be hosting their annual Music Matters event on April 5th and 6th at their 685 So. Pearl location (right across from our old location). This is always a very cool event, where consumers can be exposed to the best new products for their home systems and hear from some of the best names in current audiophile thought. This year is extra special for Deadheads however, as famed Boulder-based audio Engineer David Glasser will be a special guest. Glasser has worked on countless Grateful Dead projects including the landmark Europe ’72 box set and, more recently, the epic Thirty Trips Around The Sun box set. He is a true authority on The Grateful Dead’s recordings and their efforts to bring them to the public. Around the time of The Complete Europe ’72 box I interviewed Dave about working on Grateful Dead projects. In honor of ListenUp’s upcoming event, we present it here again. Click here ( to learn more about Music Matters and enjoy the interview (excerpted below, you can read the full interview HERE).

- Paul Epstein

The big archival news in the Grateful Dead world is the unprecedented Europe ’72 - The Complete Recordings box set. Containing all 22 shows of this greatest of all Dead tours, there’s not a dud show in the bunch; in fact there are very few dud songs. The band never played tighter or more inspired than on this tour. They also never toured behind such an abundance of great new material. They were playing many the songs from Weir’s then-new Ace album, Garcia’s first solo album plus about a dozen new Grateful Dead songs (“Ramble On Rose,” He’s Gone,” “Tennessee Jed,” Mr. Charlie,” Chinatown Shuffle,” etc.) and fresh covers (“Sing Me Back Home,” “You Win Again,”) and when combining them with some of their longer, jammier songs from the past (“Dark Star,” “The Other One,” “Truckin’,” “Lovelight”) they offered up an exciting marathon show every night of the tour. To add to the special nature of the tour was the fact that they were playing many beautiful, historic concert venues on a continent that was new to the band members and rich with historic and cultural significance to their hippie sensibilities. They were also dragging around a recording truck to every venue to insure their ability to pay for the whole trip. Remarkably, the recordings are outstanding, even by modern standards. There is a full, rich warmth to the sound that just reflects the warmth on stage. The huge, deluxe “steamer trunk” box set is sold out, but there is a superb new compilation called, appropriately enough,Europe ’72 Volume 2 that is out now on Rhino Records. It is packed with great moments from the tour including memorable takes on “Playin’ In The Band,” a huge Pigpen-led “Good Lovin’,” a great early version of “Sugaree” and a “Dark Star” that goes to outer space and back in 30 minutes. It is a wonderful keepsake, and we have it on sale for only $10.99. It’s the cheapest way you’re going to get into this tour. 

Because I was so blown away by the sound of these recordings, I thought it would be cool if we could ask Boulder resident David Glasser of Air Show Mastering some questions about the process of mastering this gigantic project. A Grammy Award winner, Glasser is one of the hidden gems of the Colorado music scene. Air Show has worked on countless albums you’ve heard of and continues to be one of the premier mastering facilities in the country. The Grateful Dead are legendary for their attention to detail when it comes to the sound and packaging of their releases, so their choice of Glasser is no accident. Glasser, as usual, was generous with his time and thoughtful in his answers.
Questions for David Glasser at Airshow Mastering regarding the Mastering of The Grateful Dead’s entire Europe ’72 tour.
Briefly explain the process of mastering.
• Mastering is simply the step - the last in the creative studio process - where the final adjustments and tweaks are made. It's akin to what a colorist does in the film world - making sure that the sound matches the vision of the producer and artist, and presenting the mixes in the best possible light. Usually that involves adjusting the song levels and overall level of the disc and using tools like EQ and compression to shape the sound (does it need to be brighter? punchier? less muddy? etc).
How is mastering an archival recording different than mastering a new, technically modern recording?
• Often archival recordings already exist in an aesthetic context that listeners are familiar with. This was certainly the case with the Europe 72 project. The 1972 LP is an iconic album - both the songs, and the sound. There are also several other official releases of E72 material, plus audience and soundboard tapes that have circulated for decades. So before starting I gathered together the original Europe 72,Steppin' Out, and Rockin' the Rhein, plus the first show that was mixed for this project. To my horror and dismay, they all sounded quite different! Jeffrey Norman and I discussed this at length and we agreed that the approach to this release was a "live-r," less "polished" presentation. We wanted to showcase the Dead as they sounded onstage at these shows. 
What is unique about mastering The Grateful Dead as opposed to other bands?
• Probably the fact that often they don't function as a typical rhythm section + soloists and singers like much popular music does. At any time, any one of the players could be driving the music, and it's constantly shifting. Phil's bass is another lead instrument along with the two guitarists. As a result, the music is often more dynamic. More like a jazz band - think Bitches Brew by Miles Davis. The goal is to mix and master so you can "see" into the music.
Describe your history with the recordings of The Grateful Dead. What was your first job mastering their recordings?
• My first Grateful Dead project was mastering the DVD release of The Grateful Dead Movie. Jeffrey Norman was looking for a place to master his surround mixes; "Dr." Don Pearson introduced us after visiting the studio with acoustician Sam Berkow. The Grateful Dead Movie was a huge project. I think there were 12 hours of music when you added up the stereo mix, the bonus material and the two surround versions. It took us two long weeks. After that Jeffrey returned with the Truckin' Up To Buffalo and the Rockin' The Cradle DVDs. There have been several others, for which I am forever grateful, pun intended. I've been listening to the Dead, and attending shows, since 1970.
Describe the process of working with The Grateful Dead organization. Who do you work with? How exacting are they? Does the record label (Rhino) get involved on your end at all?
• Working with the Grateful Dead's production team is an absolute pleasure. I wish all of my clients were this easy to work with. My contacts are Producer/Archivist David Lemieux and engineer Jeffrey Norman. Everyone has very high and exacting standards, but nobody is breathing down each other’s throat. The communication is very open. I think everyone really respects the creative process and everyone's contribution. Rhino is definitely involved in the tail end of my mastering work, as that's where we send the final masters.
Were there specific challenges involved with a project this large? 
• The challenges were chiefly organizational - how to keep track of so much material and insure quality and constancy from beginning to end.  We modified our in-house database for more efficient searching within the E72 project, and we designed a workflow that covered every aspect of our involvement with the project: from receiving Jeffrey's mixes, to naming files, to cross checking show-to-show, to sending references for approval, and creating the final masters for Rhino.
Did each show have a unique personality to you?
• Absolutely! The shows in the great concert halls like the Concertgebouw and Paris' Olympia Theater have a very open warm sound and I think the players were hearing the nice acoustics and hearing each other very well; it's reflected in the playing. The halls definitely influenced the playing. The Bickershaw show, which was an outdoor festival, sounds much different - the musicians are reacting to the cold weather and perhaps playing more deliberately. But the results are great - the “Dark Star/Other One” sequence was a standout, and is included in the Europe ‘72 Volume 2 release.
How about the individual personalities of the musicians in the band? 
• It's cool how the band can transform itself from song to song. When Pigpen steps out front, his blues and R & B attitude can change the whole vibe. And Bobby's country songs really inspire Garcia's Don Rich-style picking.
Did you gain a greater appreciation for, or did you have any revelations about the individual talents in the band?
• One of the cool things about listening to multiple versions of the same songs is that the personalities do come across. You can hear that Garcia is constantly exploring ways to express a solo, and his solos during this era are really well constructed, and they usually have a well-formed arc to them. As I worked on each show, I always referenced other versions of several songs to make sure the sound was consistent (or appropriately consistent). It's clear that the Dead were very well rehearsed, and the performances and even some of the solos of the first set type of songs were often identical over several nights. As the tour progressed, you can hear them refining arrangements. Bob Weir's playing is especially impressive. I think many people think his distinctive leads were played by Garcia - I know I used to!
Did you learn anything about what makes the Grateful Dead unique in the world of Rock from this project?
• I think we've all long appreciated that the Grateful Dead cut a wide swath through the landscape of American music. It sounds utterly natural to hear them go from a Marty Robbins cowboy song to a Bobby Blue Bland rave-up, to a jam Coltrane would admire, to a gorgeous Merle Haggard ballad, and end on Chuck Berry. What other band can do this?
Do you think the fact that the band was playing in small, largely opera-worthy venues on that tour made a difference in the way the band played and the way the recordings ultimately came out?
• I was fortunate to have seen the Dead in December 1971 in a concert hall setting, and in March 1972 in a mid-size theater (on my birthday!). I've always thought those kind of halls were the perfect size for this kind of music - large enough to get the energy flowing, and small enough for the band to play off the vibe of the hall and the crowd. I think that the Europe 72 recordings are a confirmation of this (though the larger gigs like Bickershaw really kick-ass).
Can you point to a couple of musical highlights of the tour? Where would you send a novice? Where would you send a hard-core fan?
• I think that David Lemieux did a great job in choosing the songs for the Europe ‘72 Volume 2 set. That and the original Europe ‘72 are a good starting point. Outside of those, I especially like “Dark Star” from the second Copenhagen show; “Two Souls in Communion” from Amsterdam, anything from the two Paris shows, and the first and last Lyceum shows. The Beat Club TV broadcast is also pretty cool, and the Aarhus concert, in a tiny 300 seat room has a nice intimate feel that you don't often hear.

-Paul Epstein

Monday, March 21, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #150 - Drive-By Truckers – The Dirty South

This is the best entry point to the Drive-By Truckers’ world. For this album they’ve got three-count-‘em-three songwriters working at a peak, the band is operating at a high level throughout, and some of their most indelible tunes are here. It’s also not perfect – as none of their albums are – so it’s not gonna set up unreasonable expectations of a batch of masterpieces for the unwary listener. This isn’t to say that they don’t have great albums (they have four by my count and three or four more a notch below those) or that you wouldn’t do almost as well jumping in with the album before this, Decoration Day, or being introduced to them via the (great) concept double album Southern Rock Opera, it’s just that, well, this one just feels right – less commitment than the double album and simply better overall than Decoration Day. But they’ve been around since the 90s, they’re headlining Red Rocks this summer for the first time, and starting with this record they haven’t failed to crack Billboard’s Top 200 album chart with any of their releases, so maybe you don’t need an intro and just need a reminder.

Or maybe you do need an intro – chart success or no, they’ve never had a song that hit the top 40, the only Grammy they’ve been associated with was as the backing band for Booker T’s album Potato Hole, and they’ve never had a gold record, which means only a select group of fans are buying their records. So take these 70 minutes of prime DBT and drink it in. It’s an album rife with working class stories of hard living below and around the poverty line, of lowlifes, crime and corruption, of some of the great purveyors of the very Americana that influences the Truckers themselves, and of “Goddamn Lonely Love.” Maybe start with the best thing on the album – lead guy Patterson Hood’s “Puttin’ People on the Moon,” about a Reagan-era family man struggling to get by while the local NASA affiliate spends who knows how much on pie in the sky ideas of putting people into space. This couplet has never failed to get a cheer from the audience in the ten years I’ve been seeing them perform live: “and all them politicians/they’re all lyin’ sacks of shit” and that’s followed shortly by “and the preacher on the TV says it ain’t too late for me/but I bet he drives a Cadillac and I’m broke with hungry mouths to feed.” But he’s not just being clever – the song’s angry, rife with cancer, no money for health care, “double digit unemployment” and more, so when Hood lets out a scratchy falsetto at the song’s climax, it’s a genuinely anguished moment. From there, proceed either to Mike Cooley’s lighter “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac,” about Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, or on to his intense, grim “Cottonseed” about a hired killer who specializes in making people disappear when the men who influence the law need them to disappear. It’s the centerpiece of the record both literally (falls in the middle of a trilogy of songs elucidating the other side of the true story that was turned into the movie Walking Tall) and mood-wise. Then maybe it’s time for Isbell’s rousing “We Ain’t Never Gonna Change,” an anthemic cry of Southern pride without any of the bullshit that can come with the territory, and a rival to “Sweet Home Alabama” in the rocking, melodic sing-along department. But then check out what Isbell is best known for – his slow, melancholy numbers, like “Danko/Manuel” about two casualties of The Band, or the closer “Goddamn Lonely Love” which is about exactly what it says and showcases Isbell’s aching vocals – a league away from Cooley’s drawl and Hood’s gruff story-songs. But find your way back to Hood too, his sad, goddamn lonely (and ultimately class-bound, like most of the album) “Lookout Mountain,” and his touching “The Sands of Iwo Jima” which pokes holes in the myth just like his pair of Walking Tall songs do. And then you might quickly note that I’ve mentioned every song except three – Cooley’s terrific, father-son opening salvo, “Where the Devil Won’t Stay” (which the liner notes say is “based on a poem by Ed Cooley,” Mike’s uncle), his other father-son tune “Daddy’s Cup” and another of Patterson Hood’s bits of true local color, “Tornadoes.”

But in telling you about all the songwriting smarts on display, I’m failing the band. I haven’t said how then-new bassist Shonna Tucker is already in perfect sync with drummer Brad Morgan, who takes his cue from Charlie Watts in that other rock band by simply, unflashily supporting and driving the band at all times. I’m not telling how the three songwriters’ guitars speak louder than their voices here and are the best that the Hood-Cooley-Isbell lineup ever laid down on albums. And I’m not telling how the flow of the album from Cooley’s lead cut to Isbell’s sad, slow closer is a trip worth taking in order, rather than the sampling suggested above.

The Drive-By Truckers have soldiered on after this record through personnel shifts and personal crises. Their last studio album, English Oceans, is one of their best, a surprising rebound from a pair whose quality many fans questioned. They’ve got a new one in the can slated for a fall 2016 release. Jason Isbell will also be headlining at Red Rocks this summer and walked home with a pair of Grammys for his most recent album, Something More Than Free. Catch both of those shows if you can – Isbell muscles up his tunes live and the Truckers themselves always deliver – but if you don’t know the records start here. Just promise that you’ll continue on from here to more – Southern Rock Opera, English Oceans, Decoration Day, or my personal fave, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark. And then you’ll come back to this one and remember just how great it is.

-         Patrick Brown

Monday, March 14, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #136 - 2046 (2004, dir. Wong Kar-wai)

Chow Mo Wan: Take care. Maybe one day you'll escape your past. If you do, look for me.

Wong Kar-wai is one of the most accomplished and respected directors working in film today and there is no doubt in my mind that he deserves all of the reverence heaped upon him. This film, 2046, which is an odd, round-about sequel to his masterpieces Days of Being Wild (1990) and In the Mood for Love (2000), is certainly a testament to the talents of this director. The enthrallingly complex story, the gorgeous visuals, and the portrayals of the perfectly handpicked cast culminate in what is certainly a film that warrants multiple viewings and will most assuredly steal your heart as it has mine.

Weaving adeptly between the past, present, and a fictional science-fiction future (informed directly by the past) the story follows author Chow Mo-wan (Tony Chiu Wai Leung) through a variety of different periods of his life as well as the life of the fictional character that he writes for his series of "2046" stories. The plot is entirely too complex and full of beautiful nuance to truly do it justice in such a short synopsis. The only way that I might perhaps be able to describe the film in an attempt to advocate for its narrative is to try and convey just how engaging and successful Wong Kar-wai was in crafting a world (or worlds in this case) in which you, the viewer, are invited to spend some time. The film is both firmly rooted in a time period, yet timeless, and it is inhabited by fascinating characters that are equal parts elegant and human. When I reflect upon my time spent in the universe of 2046, I am hit equally by an intense empathetic remembrance of the emotions evoked by the characters throughout the story and my memory of the sheer elegance and splendor of the visuals of the setting that Wong Kar-Wai has created for his characters.

These two aspects are brought to life through the amazing performances of the actors and actresses and the beautiful cinematography by Christopher Doyle and Pung-Leung Kwan. In addition to the captivating and commanding performance of Tony Chiu Wai Leung as our leading man, Li Gong, Faye Wong (who was the enchanting co-lead again with Tony Chiu Wai Leung in Wong Kar-Wai's fantastic romantic comedy, Chungking Express (1994)), Takuya Kimura, Ziyi Zhang, Carina Lau and many others provide skillfully nuanced performances that bring life to the beautiful scenery. While an amazing lead performance is certainly necessary, it is the strength of the supporting cast that makes the story of our leading man truly worth following. This immense story of love and loss, and humanity's often unhealthy worship of and escape to the past would be nothing without the hypnotic performances of all of the actors and actresses in this film.

Often when I think about the films of Wong Kar-wai my mind is immediately drawn to just how magnificently they are shot and the fact that I can't help but be swept into the plot of a film that inhabits such a lush, wondrous and striking space. My experience with Kar-Wai’s films has been rather strange as 2046 was the first of his films that I saw and it directly and tacitly references two of his more venerated works. Initially after seeing the trailer for the film and the poster/design campaign behind the film, I was drawn to the set design, costume design, art direction, and sheer exquisiteness of every detail of the movie. I then decided that I needed to watch the film and see what it was all about, it was then that the true power of the story and multifaceted narrative took me over. After that I insatiably sought out as much of the director’s work as I could find, beginning with In the Mood for Love and Chungking Express (and then on to many others).

Even though this film is in many ways a strange sort of sequel to a couple of Wong Kar-wai's films, I wouldn't say that I regret watching the pieces in reverse order, so if you have or haven't seen Days of Being Wild and/or In the Mood for Love I would recommend this film regardless. For me this film was the gateway to the world of an amazingly talented director and I would be delighted if I was able to assist in turning you on to this film.
Edward Hill

Monday, March 7, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #149 - The Blues Project - Projections

I can put myself in the late 1960’s and remember being a pre-teen looking at the cover of Projections by The Blues Project. I stared at bassist/flautist Andy Kulberg - the guy in the front - and thought; as a Jewish kid, that’s probably about as cool as I could ever hope to look. The corduroy jacket and matching pants. The double-collared shirt, flowered tie and tousled hair - oh man this guy looked hip. In fact they all looked cool standing on Haight Street in San Francisco - Al Kooper wearing a military surplus jacket, Danny Kalb with his flowered shirt and early rock and roll combover - they looked like they were waiting for history to come over and tap them on the shoulder: “Excuse me gentlemen, are you prepared to make a singular, great album and then essentially disappear from history, leaving a few half-baked reunions, but really just this one, era-defining masterpiece and then gone to the sands of time?” Surely their answer would have been “No! We are going to be huge, with hit after hit and a gigantic fan base.” They would have been wrong, because The Blues Project did make a couple more albums with revolving line-ups, but Projections remains the album they are defined by, and with good reason.

Released in 1966 and produced by the great Tom Wilson (Dylan, Zappa, Simon & Garfunkel), Projections is way ahead of its time, encompassing several genres of music: pop, blues, jazz, all with instrumental chops and performing prowess that few of their peers matched. The Blues Project were both crafty songwriters and arrangers, offering up smart pop confections like their take on Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me,” or “Cheryl’s Going Home” and “Fly Away,” but they also excelled at taking blues numbers and stretching them out, like “Caress Me Baby” or their masterful take on Muddy Waters’ “Two Trains Running,” which at eleven and a half minutes is a real late night classic, winding through memorable guitar and keyboard improvisations and climaxing with a classic train wreck of sound. It is a great example of a slow build, which required a listening patience that many pop fans in this era didn’t possess. I certainly credit “Two Trains Running” equally with Fairport Convention’s “A Sailor’s Tale” or The Grateful Dead’s “Dark Star” for expanding my own musical horizons and helping me understand forms that expanded beyond standard pop conventions. This led me ultimately to jazz, classical, and a larger understanding of music and its possibilities. Projections also has a couple of anomalous compositions that further opened my eyes. Both “Steve’s Song” and “Flute Thing” take the popular music form to even stranger places by dispensing with vocals and creating something entirely more contemplative. Before I really started to understand jazz, “Flute Thing,” with its repetitive and hypnotic melody circling around Kooper’s smart keyboard parts, served as my rudimentary introduction to the genre. It was eye-opening and intellectually liberating to hear young musicians unafraid to step outside the rules of AM radio.

There are only a handful of records I can point to that changed the way I think about music, but Projections is surely one of them. In spite of the fact that The Beatles were using more sophisticated song structures with lots of fancy chords, and Dylan was expressing very elevated sentiments in his lyrics, The Blues Project were also briefly successful at filling the dancefloors of psychedelic ballrooms with extended groovy tunes. There is a simple joy in the making of and equally in the listening to this music which reminds me of why I originally fell for it in the first place. It’s really well-played, exuberant music that thrills me to this day. Only Al Kooper went on to have a tremendously successful career after The Blues Project, but all of the performances on this album are first rate and show all the musicians to be top-notch. Projections is a definitive 1960’s rock album in that its feet are firmly planted in Chicago blues and the top 10 charts while its head is deep in the cosmos.

-         Paul Epstein