Monday, September 26, 2016

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #149 – Sneakers (1992, dir. Phil Alden Robinson)

In the fall of 1992, the writers of WarGames, the director of Field of Dreams, and an incredible ensemble cast created an irresistible combination of suspense, adventure, and comedy. Sneakers tells the story of Martin Bishop, who, as a student in the late ‘60s, dabbled in proto-hacking and political prankery just enough to attract the attention of the police, which triggered him to go underground to avoid capture. To make a living Bishop assembles an unlikely team of highly skilled individuals with similar histories with law enforcement to help him test security systems of Bay Area businesses and organizations. Bishop and his team start working for a mysterious new client who throws them into the middle of a conspiracy to possess a technology that threatens to destroy the ability to keep any information secret.

Director Phil Alden Robinson guides the extraordinary cast through an expertly paced adventure based on Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes’ sharp script, which is enriched with details drawn from the worlds of information technology, hacking, and espionage. Although Lasker and Parkes mined very similar territory in 1983 with their novel Cold War tale WarGames, they create a very prescient depiction of the new geopolitical realities forming after the Cold War. Two movie stars from the ‘60s and ‘70s - Robert Redford and Sidney Poitier - anchor the cast with nuanced portrayals of aging men devoted to a hazardous but rewarding line of work. Redford delivers his most appealing and relaxed mid-to-late career work as Martin Bishop, a man haunted as much by his past as by his potential. In the role of retired CIA operative Donald Crease, Poitier supplies a sobering intensity and a meticulous sense of awareness as the risk level escalates for Bishop and his colleagues. Dan Aykroyd and River Phoenix, who both racked up individual box office successes in the years leading up to this movie, contribute their notable talents to a movie that demands a company of great actors with shared chemistry. The role of Mother, a conspiracy theory-obsessed burglar, remains the most appealing and least broadly comic role of Aykroyd’s career. Phoenix brings a highly internal and sweetly awkward nature to Carl, the nineteen year-old computer prodigy and newest member of Bishop’s team. Mary McDonnell and David Strathairn, who established their careers working frequently with director John Sayles, stretch the cast outside of conventional Hollywood norms of the time with skills honed in smaller, independent films. McDonnell, tasked with the unfortunate responsibility of playing the movie’s lone principal female character Liz, injects an irreverent, brainy independence into what could have been a two-dimensional part. Strathairn’s portrayal of Whistler ranks as one of the most accurate, well-rounded, and compassionate on-screen representations of a person with a disability by an able-bodied person. Two great actors known for their range and gravitas, James Earl Jones and Ben Kingsley, round out the cast with crucial supporting roles that heighten the sense of danger, but still allow both of them to get in on the fun everyone else is having.

With Sneakers, the filmmakers create a world in which Bishop and his team have believable pasts while a streak of playful energy balances the deadly consequences at stake. Sure, this movie is susceptible to the kind of inconsistencies common to many Hollywood films, but Sneakers feels far more grounded than most espionage adventure films of the last twenty-five years. Also, it’s hard not to love a film that contains both a game of Scrabble that is pivotal to the plot and a brief, joyful dance sequence that develops the characters!

-         John Parsell

Monday, September 19, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #162 - Smog - A River Ain’t Too Much to Love

Since the early 1990s, Bill Callahan has been creating the kind of idiosyncratic folk-rock that established the brand of his longtime label, Drag City, and built the foundation for the growing influence and popularity of indie rock over the last twenty years. For the bulk of Callahan’s career he recorded and toured as Smog and released eleven albums in thirteen years. With 2005’s A River Ain’t Too Much to Love, Callahan closed out Smog on a high note before retiring the moniker, created a contemporary indie-folk masterpiece, and set a template for wry, evocative songwriting about self-acceptance, loss, and redemption that has served him well for the rest of his career.

The album’s opener, “Palimpsest,” functions as a haunting prologue by setting the stage with spare instrumentation and Callahan’s strong, sonorous voice declaring that he feels like “a southern bird that stayed north too long.” The second song, “Say Valley Maker,” supplies the album’s statement of purpose as the speaker describes a river and outlines themes of heartache, longing for family, and rebirth while an acoustic ensemble slowly builds the song up to a gratifying release. “The Well” injects a welcome lightheartedness when the speaker breaks into a rambling, highly visual story-song about the consequences of acting impulsively when feeling frustrated. At seven minutes, “The Well” is the album’s longest song, but Callahan’s joyful energy makes the journey worthwhile. “Rock Bottom Riser” unfolds into a stately ode of gratitude and returns to the imagery of a river as the speaker details the impact of his loss and struggle on his family. “I Feel Like the Mother of the World” balances the album’s lushest musical interlude with an anguished, revealing reflection on the lasting damage of sibling turmoil. The final two songs adjust the album’s trajectory toward a cautious sense of hope for the future while acknowledging the toll of the past. Anchored by a spritely finger-picked guitar part, “I’m New Here” offers a refreshingly sly nod to facing the challenges that come with having to start over. In 2010, Gil Scott-Heron covered “I’m New Here” and borrowed the title for his critically acclaimed late-career album, I’m New Here. Callahan’s words fit so beautifully with Scott-Heron’s voice that the song feels equally at home on both albums. Scott-Heron died just over a year after releasing I’m New Here and the influence of Callahan’s signature humor adds buoyancy to an album that might otherwise feel burdened by Scott-Heron’s mortality. “Let Me See the Colts” parallels the structure of “Say Valley Maker” and concludes A River Ain’t Too Much to Love on a note of beleaguered optimism as the worn out speaker asks to see the horses “that will run next year” while the song gently progresses into a cathartic, forward-moving crescendo.

Bill Callahan has released four albums under his name since 2007 and each one has broadened the pattern he formed with A River Ain’t Too Much to Love. After I fell in love with this album, I wasn’t sure Callahan could top himself, so his excellent 2009 album Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle came as a wonderful surprise. On Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle, Callahan brings a gentle full-color glow to the themes and imagery he rendered as black and white sketches on A River Ain’t Too Much to Love. Over the last three decades, Bill Callahan has charted new territory in a well-traveled genre and A River Ain’t Too Much to Love lasts both as a career landmark and a point of embarkation for further exploration of Callahan’s exceptional artistry.    

-          John Parsell

Monday, September 12, 2016

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #148 – Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps and Human Highway

Neil Young gave us the best description of himself and his music in the title of his 1968 song “I Am A Child.” The magic and genius of Neil Young is that the child-like sense of wonder and fun never left him or his music. Not then, not now (listen to his superbly weird new album Earth for proof of that) and certainly not in 1978 when he filmed Rust Never Sleeps and began principle filming of Human Highway. Both of these films are direct references to Young’s childhood. They are depictions of a man-child adrift in a confusing world of corrupt adult motivations. Neil sees himself as a little boy alone in an oversized world of dangerous machines and corrupt values. He wields his guitar and his voice (like the sharp cutting tools they are) against the inconsistencies and absurdities of the world: environmental genocide, slimy record label creeps, military-industrial capitalists, even the double-edged sword of his own fame. The movies outwardly seem like they are totally different, but a close look shows them to be two views of the same scene.

Human Highway was ultimately released in 1982 to little or no fanfare. It was given a brief art-house and midnight movie run and then essentially shelved for a long time. The negative public and critical reception at the time of its release is not surprising because it is a kaleidoscopic mash-up of ideas and images loosely held together with a cartoonish plot about a small town loser named Lionel Switch who…does some stuff and uh, meets some people and uh….yeah - what happens doesn’t really matter because the overall effect of the movie is that of an 80 minute MTV-style video starring Young, Devo and a number of Hollywood B-listers, (Dennis Hopper, Dean Stockwell, Sally Kirkland) romping around colorful sets and singing weird songs and making vaguely political statements about nuclear energy and dangerous militarism during the heart of the cold war. The movie is actually quite entertaining if you like Neil Young, and possibly unbearable if you don’t. Although there are a few set pieces like the hilarious “Worried Man Blues” or Neil and Devo performing a wild version of “Hey Hey, My My,” the movie’s real value is as a backdrop to Rust Never Sleeps, the concert documentary Young was filming at the same time he was working on Human Highway.

Upon release, Rust Never Sleeps was universally acclaimed as one of the best concert movies ever made and absolutely nothing has happened in the ensuing 38 years to do anything but enhance that reputation. It remains a completely riveting portrait of an artist at the height of his creativity; simultaneously reveling in past glory and coming to grips with the historical crossroads that will place him directly in the crosshairs of a cultural battle.

Like many of his generation, Neil Young was viewed with skepticism by the punk rock world, and in turn the baby boom generation that Young had so eloquently represented in his earlier years cast a suspicious eye on the nihilistic tendencies of the punks. But unlike so many others, Young did not shy away from the subject, writing an anthem for that crossroads generation, “Hey Hey, My My” (“Out Of The Blue/Into The Black”), which challenged them (and himself) to either get into it or get out of the way. It was bold and a little shocking to many longtime listeners. He also imbued his latest music, highlighted in the movie, with a manic punk-like energy fans had never seen before. Songs like “Sedan Delivery,” “Welfare Mothers” and “Hey Hey, My My” scream with a fury that belies Young’s status as one of the major figures of mellow contemporary rock. In fact every aspect of the performances in this movie show an artist ready to move forward instead of rely on past glory. Even many of his most iconic songs like “Tonight’s The Night,” “When You Dance,” “The Loner” and especially “Cortez The Killer” are given a reinvigorated treatment.

Rust Never Sleeps doesn’t only succeed as a concert documentary, it is also a high concept film with the narrative again revolving around Neil’s own view of himself as a child in a grown-up world. The normal stage gear: amplifiers, tuners, microphones etc. are all covered with oversized prop versions of themselves which dwarf the band. Neil himself opens the show lying on top of an amplifier in a giant sleeping bag like a kid waking up in the back yard.  The set is peppered with gags about being a child, and soundbites from the movie, Woodstock, which further the agenda of a little boy lost in an oversized environment. From the opening acoustic strums of “Sugar Mountain” and “I Am A Child” through to the final crunching riffs of “Like A Hurricane” and “Tonight’s The Night,” Neil and Crazy Horse deliver like never before. It is an absolute primer on why Neil Young is so great.

Taken as bookends to Neil’s momentous 1978, these two movies present one of the strongest arguments for creative freedom. Given control of his own destiny, Neil Young was able to produce a lasting monument to growth and the creative process.

-         Paul Epstein

Monday, September 5, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #162 - Pere Ubu - Dub Housing

The first thing you hear in the first song “Navvy” is the guitar playing a melody. Then a counter melody joins it, followed by a strange scratching sound provided by the synth player. Then the rhythm section kicks in with a thudding beat and singer David Thomas (neither the Wendy’s guy nor the Bob & Doug McKenzie guy) starts singing “I got these arms and legs that flip flop, flip flop” over and over and it immediately positions the band as something different. There were already the synthetic sounds that Allen Ravenstine was producing to make the song sound slightly off, but between that and Thomas’s strange crowing and lyrics, Pere Ubu set themselves apart from what anybody else was doing in rock music. But a bit about their history first.

Dub Housing is Pere Ubu’s second album. They’d actually already set themselves apart from what anyone was doing with their 1975 and 1976 singles and their first album The Modern Dance, which was recorded in 1976 and 1977 and released on a small independent label in early 1978, but many tied the singles and parts of The Modern Dance to the burgeoning punk scene because of abrasive textures and the speedier rush of some of the songs. Not so much with Dub Housing, which ventures confidently into waters that only Ubu knew how to navigate. They have long called their music “avant-garage” since it stems from the same jamming garage rock ethos that spawned a thousand punk bands in the wake of The Stooges, but is also heavily indebted to avant-garde music and art ranging from the Velvet Underground to Brian Eno to Alfred Jarry’s proto-absurdist play from which they took their name. It’s probably also worth mentioning that while so much of American punk happening at this time is tied to the CBGB’s scene, Pere Ubu was based in Cleveland and evolved a very different type of music. It’s additionally worth noting for context that the same year Ubu released this album sophomore albums by Talking Heads, Wire, and Elvis Costello hit the shelves, Blondie put out their classic third album Parallel Lines (like Ubu, it was their second 1978 release), Captain Beefheart returned from a few disappointing years with the great Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), Devo, X-Ray Spex, and The Cars released their debut albums, and Brian Eno began his first official venture into ambient music with Music For Airports. Something was in the air and a lot of people were drinking deeply from the same stream. Back to Dub Housing now.

“Navvy” sounds like rock, yes, but what’s up with this singer? Those who find David Byrne’s delivery too eccentric will quickly learn that he’s relatively calm by comparison. Why does Thomas keep repeating “I got these arms and legs that flip flop, flip flop” and then follow it with “I have desire!” and a voice from above telling him “Boy, that sound swell!” Well, first of all, because it sounds good and he’s got a great sense of rhythm, but secondly, maybe it’s not as weird as all that. If a navvy is defined as “a worker who does very hard physical labor” (especially used in the context of large-scale industrial projects), it’s entirely possible that these words aren’t just weird, but that the song is about a working class stiff, swept around by currents of the world he has no control over, asserting his own creative identity in a 1970’s industrial city beleaguered by financial depression – almost sounds like punk, no? More poetic than your usual punk approach, but still born of the same spirit. Doesn’t hurt that halfway through the song guitarist Tom Herman tears loose with a great solo. Herman is an unsung hero of American rock. Unless you ask me to make such a list, he’s simply not on the lips of people making “top ten guitarists” lists, but he’s got a unique style that falls somewhere between aleatoric noise and effects, and a strong, rhythmic lead. He’s also buoyed (and simultaneously lifted) by the rhythm team of bassist Tony Maimone and drummer Scott Krauss, who are – for me – the finest rhythm section in American rock of the 70s other than their peers in Television. And then there’s synthesizer player Allen Ravenstine, who doesn’t use synths as glorified keyboards but uses them for their own qualities as producers of weird noises. So when the group gets together for some real avant-garage strangeness – as they do here especially on “Thriller!” and “Blow Daddy-O” – it can get pretty out there. But even on those, they’re grounded by Maimone and Krauss, which allows Ravenstine to layer strange sounds and effects into a musique concrete soundscape on the former song, and gives Herman space to stretch out a themeless, non-melodic solo on the latter that stands as his finest 3 ½ minutes or so on record. And the rest of the songs – even with their odd qualities – bear more of a relationship to rock as most of us know it. “I, Will Wait” reads as a paean to the underground music scene with lines like “The sun never sets on this world I have found” and the pragmatic/optimistic DIY thought “I believe in practicalities/practicalities are possibilities” and then nods back to Roxy Music’s first album when Ravenstine unleashes a “solo” full of bleeps and blips that recalls Eno’s work on “Re-Make Re-model.”

The album offers so many different moods – from the oddball optimism of “I, Will Wait” and “Navvy” to the playful tone of “Blow Daddy-O” to the more ominous “Thriller!” or the obsessive closing track “Codex” that it keeps you on your toes, shifting hither and yon along the same currents that buffet the protagonist of “Navvy.” But it speaks to the magic of Pere Ubu that they make something of the strange times they live in and respond with a recognizable, yet compelling, strange and unique vision. They’ve never voiced it more compellingly than they did on Dub Housing.

-         Patrick Brown