Monday, May 30, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #155 - Mississippi John Hurt Avalon Blues The Complete 1928 Okeh Sessions

71WLNaFucKL._SL1092_ This CD (originally released in 1996) contains the entire original recorded output of John Hurt, who, after recording these sessions (mostly in one day in 1928) returned to his home in Avalon, Mississippi and was not heard from again until he was re-discovered in the 1960’s. What he left behind is one of the most extraordinarily moving legacies in modern musical history. The 13 songs on this disc offer a perfectly clear window into the world Mississippi John Hurt occupied in a time that now seems impossibly far away. Possessed of an angelic voice and face and a soothing, smooth style of fingerpicked guitar, Hurt’s songs initially seem to bear no resemblance to the excited, rough playing of Charlie Patton, or the blinding speed and precision of Robert Johnson, but Hurt, who apparently had no role models or teachers, plays in a style that is as definitive as any of his peers. Primarily utilizing a three-finger picking style with his thumb providing an almost machine rhythm, the overall impression he leaves is of a Zen-like master of vocal and guitar technique. However, when one looks slightly below the surface, it becomes clear that John Hurt is as possessed by demons as he is by kinder spirits.

e8b1c1d65726096a31623e1c83677ef8Each of the first nine songs on Avalon Blues are, in one way or another, about either fightin’ or fuckin’- there’s really no other way to say it. Even though he sounds like a man in control, he finds himself on the wrong end of a bottle or a cheatin’ woman on each of these songs. The result, more often than not, is gun and/or knife play and someone ending up “six feet under the clay.” Within these tales are the genetic goo of all blues and then rock to come. “Frankie” and Albert are there. “Stagger Lee” (“Stack O’ Lee” here) who would become one of the most enduring popular culture myths makes his definitive appearance, the tragic “Louis Collins” is laid away by the angels for the first of many times. The Candyman, who would slip in back doors for the rest of musical history, shows up for the first time. It quickly becomes clear that Mississippi John Hurt is one of the founders and originators of all the music that would follow him into the 20th century and beyond. Not only did he write these songs and seemingly snatch this guitar style from the ether, his versions of what are now standards are by far the best.

MississippiJohnHurt-1024x761Then, at the end of his December 28, 1928 session in New York City, Hurt takes a left turn and plays four songs that show a much different side to the man. “Blessed Be The Name” and “Praying On The Old Camp Ground” show Hurt to be a man with heavenly concerns to balance his earthier tastes. His voice softens even more on these songs, and he coos and moans his way through two beautiful spirituals. Then, he ends with my two favorite songs, which show him as a real man of the earth - not a dangerous lothario, not a preacher, but a simple man who needs to work so he can live. “Blue Harvest Blues” is about a farmer facing a bad harvest (“harvest time is comin’ / will catch me unprepared”), who has no family, nothing. “Blues are on my shoulder / Blues are all around my head / with my heavy burden, lord I wished that I was dead” he sings, and anyone who has had a streak of bad luck can relate. The set ends with one of the greatest of all blues songs, “Spike Driver Blues,” which reads like the original “Take This Job And Shove It,” whereby Hurt compares himself to the story of yet another lynchpin of American folklore, John Henry, but in this case he says “take this hammer and carry it to the captain / tell him I’m gone tell him I’m gone, tell him I’m gone” John Hurt wisely takes the path of least resistance.

What makes Mississippi John Hurt’s early recordings so important transcends his wonderfully controlled and expressive voice, it transcends his groundbreaking and defining guitar style, it is that very modern mixing and mastery of subject matters which shows him to be an exemplar of the complex human spirit. Rather than being a museum piece, he is a beacon for how to behave in the future. Mississippi John Hurt’s Avalon Blues is an essential key to unlocking the modern psyche.

- Paul Epstein

Monday, May 23, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #141 - The Man Who Would Be King (1975, dir. John Huston)

John Huston’s 1975 adventure tale almost defies description. It so filled with important themes (power corrupts absolutely, British imperialism in India was a huge mistake, loyalty to any dogma - religious, historical, political - is dangerous, an adventurous spirit can overcome any obstacle), magnificent scenery (filmed in Morocco), fantastic acting (Christopher Plummer, Sean Connery, Michael Caine), intelligent exposition (John Huston’s script) and great adventure (Rudyard Kipling’s original story) that it almost seems like one is talking about multiple movies. In a sense that is appropriate, because director Huston put everything he had into this film. All his abilities as a storyteller and visual artist are at their zenith for the making of this epic picture. Each scene is a stunning set piece of beautiful landscapes; sympathetic lighting and music; and plot or character development. The Man Who Would Be King is dense with all the details that make for great movies, and it is an enormously entertaining and thought-provoking cautionary tale as relevant today as it was when Kipling wrote it (1888). In many ways it is a summation of Huston’s career, which was already extraordinary by anyone’s reckoning.

Taking place in turn of 19th century India, Christopher Plummer plays young journalist Rudyard Kipling, who befriends two con-men who, when decommissioned from the British army, find themselves adrift and looking for adventure. They strike upon a plan to travel to Kafiristan (mountainous Afghanistan) where they will befriend local tribal leaders, help them vanquish their enemies, and then themselves subvert power and become kings of this primitive land. Huston leads them through an escalating series of adventures, filmed with genuine skill and on-location panache, landing them finally in remote tribal areas. The years since September 11, 2001 have only lent a greater element of risk and mystery to this region of the world making it seem even more likely to contain secrets unknown to the Western world. Amazingly, the two adventurers (Connery as Daniel Dravot and Caine as Peachey Carnehan) actually start to realize their far-fetched plan. Through a series of unlikely but believable coincidences the local pagan tribespeople accept Daniel Dravot as their king, and eventually as the second coming of their God Sikander (who turns out to have been Alexander The Great). On the verge of getting away with the largest treasure on earth, Dravot starts to believe his own hype. He first asks Peachey to bow before him like all the other tribespeople (“just for appearances”) and before long, he has convinced himself that he is indeed some kind of reincarnation of Alexander and that he will eventually gain his rightful place as one of the great rulers of earth.

It certainly doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this is going to go horribly wrong, and it does in spectacular fashion. As power clouds Daniel’s vision, his ego takes the lead position and begins to drive the whole train off the cliff (figuratively and literally). The last half hour of the film unfolds in such a precise reading of human failing that it almost feels as if it is in slow motion. We wince as Daniel falls prey to his own weakness. Not that either of the lead characters have projected much humanity. They are, for the most part, despicable thieves who get precisely what they deserve. It is a tribute to both actors that these characters are simultaneously compelling and humorous while embodying all that is detestable in human nature. There are shocks and surprises aplenty, so it is best to stop the plot summary and encourage you to see it…on as big a screen as you can find. I hadn’t seen this movie in over a decade, but scene after scene came back to me as though they were slide shows of my own life: so indelible are Huston’s images. In today’s world of computer-generated, outer space scenery, it is entirely thrilling to remember what great film making was all about. John Huston plies his craft with such confident expertise that it is literally breathtaking. His story takes in the scope of human ambition and failure and he tells it with the visual majesty of nature itself. It is as big and great as movie-making gets.

-         Paul Epstein

Monday, May 16, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #154 - Ween – Quebec

Ween released Quebec in August of 2003, when I first worked at Manifest Discs & Tapes in Greenville, South Carolina. At that time, Manifest’s in-store music came from a CD player equipped with a one hundred disc carousel containing a selection of the best recent releases. Usually, managers would press “random” at the beginning of each shift and we’d start listening to a newly configured arrangement of those albums. I’ll never forget the feeling of walking the floor, helping customers, restocking the bins, and alphabetizing each genre while listening to new albums all the way through. This album played probably five times before I realized that it wasn’t a compilation of various artists and when I did, I was shocked to learn that Ween was the band behind all of these songs.

Quebec snuck up out of nowhere and suddenly reminded me of the bent, brilliant alchemy at the core of Ween’s best work. I had listened to some Ween albums with friends over the years, but I didn’t feel informed enough to consider myself a fan. I can understand very well why I initially mistook Quebec for a movie soundtrack or some other kind of compilation looking back at the three opening songs. The album starts off strong with “It’s Gonna Be a Long Night,” a hard driving, blues-rock rager containing the inspired threat, “don’t call your mother - don’t call your priest - don’t call your doctor - call the police.” Many have heard elements of Motörhead in this song, but upon my first listen, it called to mind the handiwork of an imaginary supergroup composed of Jimi Hendrix and Body Count-era Ice-T. Following with a complete change of pace, tone, and direction comes a dreamy, warped synth-pop bossa nova tribute to Ween’s antidepressant of choice. Simulating the serene, artificial calm brought on by SSRIs, “Zoloft” acquaints the audience with Quebec’s mercurial nature. Rounding out the trio of openers, “Transdermal Celebration” first struck my ears as one of the best Foo Fighters songs I’d ever heard. I was sure that I was hearing well-produced, radio-ready, guitar-based alt-rock that would soon be a Top 40 hit. As Quebec progresses, songs begin to fall into more familiar patterns for Ween by holding down left field novelty territory with “Happy Colored Marbles” and “Fancy Pants” while exploring the band’s penchant for seemingly sincere folk-rock and psychedelia in the form of “I Don’t Want It,” “Tried & True,” and “Captain.” A highlight from the album’s second half, “The Fucked Jam,” would probably top a number of people’s lists for “most annoying song ever” with its stop/start gimmick, but for some reason I have grown to love it. Composed of only a propulsive bass line, a minimalist drum track, and something that sounds like a small robotic rodent rapping indecipherably, this song epitomizes Ween’s knack for spinning great songs from unlikely elements on Quebec.

Ween established a reputation for crafting unpredictably creative and enjoyably perverse music over seven albums from 1990-2000 and simultaneously locked in a devoted cult following. In the last fifteen years, Ween has released only two studio albums: Quebec and 2007’s La Cucaracha. On account of this timing, Quebec falls outside of the window most listeners consider to be peak Ween, but it works equally well as an introduction to Ween’s offbeat magic and as a victory lap for fans more familiar with the albums from the ‘90s. Unlike some of Ween’s best loved albums like 12 Golden Country Hits or The Mollusk, Quebec lacks a unifying concept or stylistic thrust, but more than makes up for it with the range, variety, and quality of this rewarding collection of songs.

- John Parsell

Monday, May 9, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #140 - Multiplicity (1996, dir. Harold Ramis)

Doug 2 (talking on the phone with Doug 1) “Who the hell is this?”
Doug 1 “It’s me, it’s you know, it’s you, it’s us. You know who it is”

Have you ever wondered what it would be like if you could clone yourself and be able to literally be in two places at once? While you’re at it why not make it three places at once, or four for that matter! If you answered yes to that query then I have the movie for you. Harold Ramis’ comedy from 1996, Multiplicity, explores the real world consequences of just such a situation. This popcorn flick is quite possibly one of the most entertaining and overlooked masterpieces of 90’s comedy.

The story follows Doug Kinney (Michael Keaton), an overworked contractor who is having serious issues juggling his work life, his family life, and his desperate need for alone time. Right from the beginning of the film Doug is being forced into taking on even more than he was currently doing. He’s missing milestone events in his children’s lives. He can’t keep an eye on all of his issues at work. His wife, Laura (Andie MacDowell), isn’t happy with the amount of time he has to spend with her and the kids, and he can’t seem to fix the water heater. As his life is fumbling toward a train wreck – one that I think we can all relate to – a solution presents itself at the Gemini Institute. He’s working on a renovation of a scientific research facility when he has a bit of a breakdown. After his meltdown he's approached by a scientist who, after listening to his problems for a brief moment, offers him a “miracle.” He offers to clone him which could give him the “miracle of time” by basically Xeroxing him.

With very little coaxing Doug is completely on board and after a brief science montage Doug 2 is born. The first interaction between the two is the gloriously comedic grappling with the question of which which is which? Who is the real Doug? On the first day with Doug 2, Doug finds that his clone has taken the initiative and control of his job, giving him the time to watch his son play football (even ending up coaching), cook dinner, and even some extra time to spend with his wife. After a month or so Doug realizes that while Doug 2 goes to work he is basically doing all of the house work and keeping the kids under control, which is still leaving him with no alone time and he is just as stressed out as before. The first clone worked out so well that Doug decides that life could be even better with another clone, thus Doug 3 is brought into the picture. Just as before, this new clone takes more pressure off of Doug, but it isn't long before the logistics of having more than one of himself catches up with him and everything starts to spiral out of control quickly (and hilariously) and Doug starts to wonder where he fits into this new life.

One of the strengths of the film is the fact that although it is a comedy, it does tackle the existential questions that arise from the concept of cloning fairly well. As we get to know the clones a little better they seem to be representations of certain parts of Doug's psyche; his masculine side, his feminine side, etc. While the clones are copies of Doug they seem to be more segmented aspects of Doug’s entire personality, and thus they execute Doug's life the way that that part of his inner dialogue would, which creates a variety of interesting and hilarious issues for Doug.

While the premise and the execution of the narrative are fantastic, the real power of the film lies in the acting, more specifically Michael Keaton's insane ability to play four (yes four - you will have to see the movie to find out...) different aspects of the same character. As far as the other actors and actresses, Andie MacDowell is fantastic as Doug's wife Laura, Harris Yulin is perfect as the somewhat hair-brained "mad" genetic scientist, John de Lancie is completely annoying as Doug’s work nemesis Ted, and Eugene Levy provides some amazing humor and levity as the constantly tardy and haphazard contractor Vic. While all of these supporting characters are superbly crafted and well-acted the true power of the film lies in Michael Keaton’s ability to sell all of the different clones and the original Doug. Keaton’s portrayal of the different Dougs is fascinating and captivating, by creating subtle differences within each clone's character they truly start to become their own separate person and it is crazy to watch!

An art film Multiplicity is not, but if you are a fan of any of Harold Ramis' work - Caddyshack (1980), Ghostbusters (1984), or Groundhog Day (1993) (to name a few of his masterpieces) - or any number of other amazing comedies that he wrote and/or directed, then this is a film to be missed at your own peril. Multiplicity is a perfectly executed comedic journey through the trials and tribulations of dealing with cloning in order to have more time. It sounds outlandish, but in execution you barely think about just how ridiculous the entire concept is because the issues are just too easy to relate to, and I can't recommend this film enough! So pick it up and learn the answers to all of the logistical questions that arise from literally being able to be in two or more places at once!

-         Edward Hill

Monday, May 2, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #153 - Amy Rigby – 18 Again

Have you heard of Amy Rigby? If so, you’re in a rare 1% - probably less, actually - of discerning rock music listeners of the late 1990s. If not, welcome to her world of relationships gone sour, mod housewives, chronic underemployment, the travails of aging and motherhood, and bookstore crushes. Rigby, born in Pittsburgh before relocating to New York City as a teenager, married and had a daughter with dB’s drummer Will Rigby, played in a couple bands (The Last Roundup, The Shams) that got some notice, divorced, and eventually remarried singer-songwriter Wreckless Eric, with whom she now lives in upstate New York. I mention this data because this feeds directly into what she does with her music and how she makes it. From the liner notes of her own acclaimed but little-heard solo debut album Diary of a Mod Housewife Rigby puts it this way: "I've been a mod housewife since 1993, when I decided I was not going to get down on my hands and knees and scrub the bathroom floor unless I could get up on stage and sing about it. I didn't want to fight about sex and laundry with my husband unless I could turn it into a song. Somehow going to work at a crappy job made more sense if I could look at it as... research. Oh, I'd played music for years, but that was with friends, for fun. This was sanity."

She recorded three albums for Koch Records in the wake of her divorce with Will Rigby – Diary of a Mod Housewife (1996), Middlescence (1998), and The Sugar Tree (2000) – all which are currently out of print, and have been collapsed to this handy guide that pulls just about evenly from all three. It was released when they were in print with a notice on the cover to trumpet a new song and alternate version contained within – both excellent – as bait to get you to buy these 18 songs again, but it’s now most valuable for being the primary artifact available containing music from that era. Back then, she was inaccurately tagged as alt-country, and while it’s true that she copped from country tunes as much as anyone – a favorite set of lyrics of hers goes: “Summertime in 83, the last time I took LSD/ listening to Patsy Cline and Skeeter Davis really blew my mind” – she’s only alt-country by association. She likes the storytelling and the harmonies sure, but her bag of tricks (and her gift for lyrics) is way bigger than most songwriters coming from country or folk, or just about anywhere really. With her strong voice – as plain and natural, expressive and unhistrionic as Bill Withers, but like him observing the everyday in her songs, though for a very different time and mindset – she bounces from the faux-lounge number “Cynically Yours” to copping Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm” for her own “20 Questions” to the jazzy tune about being an accessory to murder “Keep It To Yourself” to waxing Beatles-esque about family life on “What I Need” to rocking out all over the place, often aided by crafty production from Eliot Easton of The Cars.

If you’ve never heard her, start right now by checking out “Cynically Yours” – probably the funniest song she’s yet written (though, honestly, there’s a lot of competition). It’s the real bait to hook you in to the album nowadays with those other albums gone, all 3:15 of it. But it’s more than just funny, it skewers the dysfunctional romantic malaise of many smart young people in love. And it’s also nice to see her recognizing and desiring to outgrow that cynicism in “Time for Me to Come Down,” where she’s learning how to get out of her protective emotional shell. And if for some reason “Cynically Yours” doesn’t grab you, try the next cut, the shoulda-been-a-hit “Beer and Kisses,” one of the reasons people think of her as country-related. A chorus that goes “Get home from work, put on the light,” (and in a later verse, ‘get in a fight’) “sit on the couch, spend the whole night there” is aimed straight at the heart of the middle class, but spun with a touch of wit that most mainstream singers rarely risk in their songs except as the climax of a tune. Poppier writers tend to hinge their songs on one line as good as that, but like John Prine, who she resembles in a few ways, Rigby’s songs are teeming with lyrics that bring a smile to the lips even as she’s saying something real. But honestly you can start anywhere here, and why not right at the beginning? “All I Want” is Amy in a nutshell – she’s in love, her man’s not treating her as well as she deserves, and she’s gonna sing about it in a song less hopeful but every bit as ambivalent take on romance as Joni Mitchell’s song of the same title.

After her three records for Koch, Rigby switched labels and released two more great ones - Til the Wheels Fall Off (2003), which features delights like “Are We Ever Gonna Have Sex Again?” and the poignant “Don’t Ever Change” and “All the Way to Heaven,” and Little Fugitive (2005), home to the classic “Dancing With Joey Ramone,” plus her continued analysis of adult relationships with “The Trouble With Jeanie” (in which the trouble is that she really likes her ex’s new girlfriend a lot), “So Now You Know” and so forth. She married Wreckless Eric – a gifted singer and songwriter of no small wit himself – in 2008, followed shortly the release of the lo-fi Wreckless Eric & Amy Rigby that same year, 2010’s all-covers Two-Way Family Favourites, and 2012’s A Working Museum, each of which (except the covers album of course) split songwriting between the two, and all currently out of print as well. And like her own solo works, each one of the albums (except the covers album maybe) is excellent and worth tracking down. Village Voice critic Robert Christgau said in his review of her fifth album, Little Fugitive: “It really is quite simple--no one of any gender or generation has written as many good songs in Rigby's realistic postfolk mode since she launched Diary of a Mod Housewife in 1996.” He’s right. You can’t step wrong with any album that’s got her name on the cover, but start here and then work your way out to the rest.
-         Patrick Brown