Monday, June 27, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #157 - Joanna Newsom - The Milk-Eyed Mender

Since Joanna Newsom released her debut album The Milk-Eyed Mender in the spring of 2004, she has become a highly divisive figure in popular music. Just as Newsom began to find a following of devoted fans appreciative of her unique artistic contributions, she simultaneously amassed a legion of detractors eager to dismiss her because of what they perceived as indulgent eccentricities. One bright Sunday morning in the fall of 2004, a couple of friends played The Milk-Eyed Mender for me for the first time over brunch at their apartment. The allure and warmth of these songs have merged with the rest of my memories of that pleasant autumn morning. This introduction to Joanna Newsom’s music sheltered me from the debate over her significance in contemporary music and allowed me to behold the lyrical depth, musical complexity, and singular appeal of this extraordinary album.

The idea that anyone has established a critically acclaimed career in modern indie rock as a highly literate, classically trained harpist still blows my mind and I’ve been watching her career for over a decade. One thing most of Newsom’s critics miss is her remarkable sense of humor, which runs through her entire catalog and figures prominently in the best songs on The Milk-Eyed Mender. “Bridges and Balloons” opens Newsom’s debut album with two lines on the harp gently fading in for twenty seconds before she begins to share a highly detailed account of an incredible journey. Upon closing the narrative, Newsom allows the two lines of the harp to dance together hypnotically for over a minute before the songs fades out like it faded in. A couple songs later, “The Book of Right-on” exhibits Newsom’s flair for absurd humor against a showcase of her musical prowess while she interlaces a prominent bassline with highly rhythmic high end figures on the harp. The first time I heard the lyric, “I killed my dinner with karate,” I was convinced that I’d misheard it, but I came to better understand the scope of her humor. Oddly enough, The Roots sampled this song’s chorus and bassline to create the surprisingly successful throwback jam, “Right On” on their 2010 album, How I Got Over. As I became more familiar with The Milk-Eyed Mender, I liked many of the songs, but “Inflammatory Writ” was the first one I loved. Upon my first close listen, I thought I was hearing a talent show performance by a secret love child of Bob Dylan and Dolly Parton. Whirling by in just under three minutes and guided by the stiffly paced ramble of piano accompaniment, Newsom delivers an eviscerating satire of songwriters’ self-absorption. By mocking herself, her peers, and her role models with such zeal and style, Newsom acknowledges to her audience that she isn’t taking herself too seriously.

Since The Milk-Eyed Mender, Newsom has released three albums and each one has deepened her artistic vision, heightened the quality of her storytelling, and expanded her musical palette. In the fall of 2007, I saw Newsom perform with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in support of Ys, her ambitious breakthrough sophomore album. Just a few months ago, I attended her show at the Boulder Theater on the tour for her most recent album, Divers. Both times, Newsom highlighted her newest material, but revisited several songs from her first album. I was already familiar with these songs, but watching them unfold first hand instilled within me a sense of awe, admiration, and wonder. In fewer than fifteen years, Newsom has built an impressive, innovative, and unprecedented career in popular music and it all started with The Milk-Eyed Mender.

-          John Parsell

Monday, June 20, 2016

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #142 – Bad Boys (1983, dir. Rick Rosenthal)

Sean Penn is a great actor. A lot of people don’t think he’s a great person, but I don’t care about that. In the early 80s, while the actors of the “Brat Pack” were making lightly comic dramas aimed at teen audiences, Penn dipped his toes in those waters once (as Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High) and then continued on a career of mostly intense, serious roles, making one indelible performance after another. His big screen debut was in Taps, where he easily held his own with Oscar winner Timothy Hutton, his scene-stealing role of Spicoli came next, and then this film, a taut, violent crime drama in which he plays a tough stickup kid sent to an even tougher juvenile detention center.

After some introductory sequences designed to let us know who the main characters are – Penn as Mick O’Brien, Ally Sheedy as his girlfriend J.C., Esai Morales as the equally tough Paco Moreno (his nemesis, of course) – the film moves into the tightly constructed suspense of a drug deal gone very wrong. Penn and his friend intend to watch the deal go down, then hold up the people walking away with the cash. But things go south fast, people die – one at Penn’s hand, albeit unintentionally – and O’Brien ends up in the rehabilitation facility where he’ll spend the rest of the film. Here we are introduced to a new cast of characters – O’Brien’s cellmate Horowitz (Eric Gurry), and the pair of toughs who run the center, Tweety and The Viking (Robert Lee Rush and Clancy Brown) – and Penn has to quickly learn the ropes of how things work in the center. There are adult supervisors there whose admixtures of toughness, world-weariness, and sympathy toward the youths give them a very tenuous control of the facility. But the real deal is in how things are run from the inside, and the film gives a fairly unblinking look at the black market of the institution and the violence that underpins things, all right under the adults’ noses. But it also sees the way that friendships are formed under these circumstances, the crippling lack of education, of resources, that keeps many of the youth locked in the place rather than pulling themselves up in Horatio Alger fashion. But it’s no 50s “social problem” film, bemoaning these poor wayward youth. It doesn’t linger on moralistic hand-wringing. The film, like the adults in it, has sympathy for the people it’s showing us and that’s where its heart lies.

There is, of course, a third act in which through an implausible set of circumstances Paco Moreno ends up in the same facility as O’Brien and then traces through to its inevitable showdown between them. And there are those who criticize this facet of the film, but I don’t find it troubling at all – it’s earned rather than tacked on, and the care with which it has drawn out the prison life and the people within it makes the final act feel real, even if it’s something we’ve probably seen before in other films. I should also note that the film takes great care with its younger actors – there isn’t a performance here that isn’t spot-on – but as with so many films focused on youth it doesn’t spend a lot of time getting to know its adults. Again for me it doesn’t matter; the film is fantastic at drawing us a realistic portrait of its prison life, a world where the adults are ostensibly in control, but only containing the chaos of the interior world by the barest of margins. And it also gives us a plethora of fantastic performances, most notably one of Sean Penn’s best early roles. And again, while many of his contemporaries gave us light entertainment through the rest of the decade, Penn turned in one great acting job after another – in Colors, in At Close Range, in Casualties of War, in The Falcon and the Snowman, in Racing With the Moon. It would be over 20 years before the Academy would award his work with a statuette for Mystic River. But it’s this film and others of the era that contain some of his best work.

- Patrick Brown

Monday, June 13, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #156 - Wussy – Wussy

Maybe you’ve heard (or at least heard of) Cincinnati’s best rock band Wussy but, unfortunately, you probably haven’t. They’ve avoided tangling with major labels and their promotional budgets that help get bands heard since bandleader Chuck Cleaver’s experience with his previous band Ass Ponys. Reflecting on his major label experience in an interview contemporary with the release of this album, Cleaver noted "I didn't mind being on a major label, but I never really thought much about making money. I'm . . . attached to where I'm from." That rootedness in his local region, which his bandmate, co-lyricist, and former romantic partner Lisa Walker calls "that spot between the North and the South," is why they’re generally called Cincinnati’s best rock band, rather than what critic Robert Christgau calls them: the best band in America. And if maybe I don’t agree with him 100%, I’d certainly be willing to think it through on the merits of the band. Hardly anyone else out there writes songs this good, makes albums this good, or writes words this good. Or at least, not as consistently as Wussy has over their six regular studio albums (and assorted live releases, outtakes, and other recorded detritus). And that consistency over six excellent albums – the out of print debut Funeral Dress, the gender-equalled Left For Dead, this pained third album, the simultaneously noisier and poppier Strawberry, the masterpiece Attica!, and their noisy new one Forever Sounds – just might give them that top spot if I thought hard about it. But that kind of thing is silly – there’s no “best band,” there’s just the one you want to hear right now, and I pretty much always want to hear Wussy.
But what do they sound like? Well, they’re a little hard to pin down. They value noise and guitar drones and distortion in equal measure to how much they value melodic hooks, vocal harmonies, and rhythmic drive. Tune matches noise stroke for stroke throughout their catalog with neither the clear winner. They come on at times like Pavement or Sonic Youth or Yo La Tengo’s rockier side without any of the self-conscious artiness; or maybe like grunge minus the fastest tempos and youthful angst. It’s just rock and roll, period. And they don’t value any of the musical qualities more than they value their words. All the music they write is credited to the entire band, but the words are the domain of Cleaver and Walker. They’re literate, but not necessarily literary; not like quoting Proust, but maybe literary as in Cleaver could be writing novels about Middle America if he wasn’t in a rock band. So it’s a damn good thing he loves guitars. And another damn good thing that Walker is his equal with lyrics. Also literary like they’re really good at making words that evoke a feeling or an image but hold out ambiguities that can be examined, thought about, or interpreted in different ways, evoking local color like drinking in fields, like mentioning a “Mother daughter banquet at the Bethel Baptist Church.” In their focus on the lives of average, Middle Americans - territory most commonly plumbed by the country music they sometimes pay an oblique homage to by bringing out pedal steel guy John Erhardt - they come off like John Dos Passos minus the politics, like Faulkner without the South or the streams of conscious. Both Cleaver and Walker are plainspoken, strong, unshowy singers, with Chuck more rough and ragged, Lisa sometimes deigning to be pretty but not making that a priority, unafraid to make noise with voice or guitar.
And then there’s this album – they don’t have a bad one, but this is one of my faves, certainly in the top three of their six records. It’s the last one with drummer Dawn Burman in the group holding down the steady rush in sync with utility hitter Mark Messerly, who’s credited with eight instruments and backing vocals. Robert Christgau calls it “as brutal a relationship album as Richard & Linda Thompson's Shoot Out the Lights.” But he fails to note that it’s tinged with hope, even in its darker moments. (And that, in turn, fails to note that the couple is now decidedly split as romantic partners, but thankfully not as musical ones.) Two of the four opening songs – “Happiness Bleeds” and “Muscle Cars” – note the possibility of happiness for the couple, but it’s also hard not to notice that in one of those other four, Lisa sings “Well, honey, you’re the pain and the antidote,” summing up succinctly the ups and downs of their relationship. The band goes off in other directions too, indulging Chuck’s occasional preoccupation with mortality in “Scream and Scream Again” – the words “Time is seldom on your side” open the song, and throughout he assures you that you WILL die someday (“when it comes you’ll scream and scream again”) – whether you choose to take that with a measure of grace or not is your call. But as the record progresses, it’s clear this relationship really is in troubled waters – “Magic Words” and “Dreadful Sorry” both paint dark portraits of things and those two are followed by “This Will Not End Well,” a rocker with great lyrics, a ripping guitar solo in the middle, and the ominous lyrics “Call me a killjoy / but I don’t think I hear those wedding bells. / This will not end well.” But again, as they close things out on Lisa’s slow, mournful “Las Vegas” the last line before a closing chorus speaks of “a story we could live to tell” if they could pull out of their troubles. As noted, they didn’t – but it says something about them as people and musicians that even in dark times, they looked toward how to make it work.
I’ve said it twice already, but I’ll reiterate – Wussy doesn’t have a bad album. They’re a great band – maybe even the best band in America. Wussy, as its title suggests, is a great way to get to know them, but don’t stop there. And if you happen to have next Wednesday night free, check them out at the Moon Room at the Summit Music Hall. Last time they were here they played to next-to-nobody and still rocked it, so here’s hoping we can bring them the audience they deserve this time around. (

-         Patrick Brown

Monday, June 6, 2016

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #142 – The Fall (2006, dir. Tarsem)

In 1991, Tarsem directed the most popular and acclaimed music video of its era, R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion,” and helped catapult the band into pop stardom. Although R.E.M. soon became a household name Tarsem, a chief architect of their breakthrough success, would go on to experience a level of relative obscurity that persists to this day. With “Losing My Religion” Tarsem ushered in an unparalleled period of visual creativity, nonlinear narrative, and unorthodox style that would transform MTV into a proving ground for innovative directors on the rise. David Fincher and Spike Jonze are just two of Tarsem’s contemporaries who benefited from his efforts and turned MTV tenures into flourishing careers as film directors, so it stands to reason that these two “present” Tarsem’s sophomore feature-length film, The Fall. With this film, Tarsem seizes upon the considerable potential for visual storytelling he first demonstrated with “Losing My Religion” and creates an engrossing meditation on storytelling, friendship, imagination, and redemption.

Appropriately enough, Tarsem begins his tale of a storyteller with the statement, “Los Angeles - Once Upon a Time.” As these words fade, a breathtaking, silent, slow motion segment shot in black and white details the chaotic aftermath of a terrible accident during the filming of a movie in the early days of Hollywood. The next scene opens in sepia-tinged color on a quiet hospital where we meet Alexandria, the precocious five year old daughter of Romanian migrant workers who broke her arm picking oranges in the nearby groves. Alexandria should be in school or playing with friends, but instead wanders the halls of the hospital with her awkward cast and goes where her curiosity takes her. Soon, Alexandria’s explorations bring her to Roy, the stuntman injured in the film’s opening segment, as he begins a slow, troublesome recovery. Roy captures Alexandria’s interest with a vivid, outlandish story and asks her to come back and visit him soon so he can keep telling her the story. Alexandria returns the next day and their relationship begins to deepen while Roy’s fantastic story grows a life of its own with Alexandria’s imagination. Tarsem spent four years creating Roy and Alexandria’s sprawling, boundless narrative while traveling the world and filming dozens of the planet’s most gorgeous and spellbinding locations. While the images of the story certainly entice the eye, The Fall’s potent emotional resonance derives from the relationship between Alexandria and Roy. Lee Pace delivers an unforgettably vulnerable and textured performance as Roy and shares an uncanny chemistry with Cantica Untaru who brings a wondrous, guileless charm to her portrayal of Alexandria.

“Losing My Religion” and The Fall both bounce between a lush, old-fashioned setting for their principal subjects and a fervently stylized, dreamlike realm that balances the sacred and the profane as beautiful images inspired by classical masterpieces exist alongside slapstick comedy and bizarre anachronisms. After a flawed and peculiar debut, The Cell (a now forgotten Jennifer Lopez procedural from 2000), Tarsem chose to adapt an obscure 1981 Bulgarian film, Yo Ho Ho, for his next project. In the adaptation that became The Fall, Tarsem wisely switched the actor’s profession from the stage to the silent film era allowing him to reflect on the formative years of cinema with a mix affection, awe, and concern. With The Fall, Tarsem not only achieves the greatest statement of his wholly unique artistic vision, but also creates a movie that reminds of us of the irresistible magic of incredible filmmaking.  

-          John Parsell