Monday, May 29, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #180 - Nas – Illmatic

Over the years as I have worked on and off at independent record stores, I’ve tried my best to learn more about music from my co-workers. In 2004, my assistant manager, Eric, doubled as the store’s hip-hop guru in addition to working as a producer on the side. After working together for a few months, I began a conversation with him about getting back into hip-hop after falling out of touch for a while. Eric’s guidance was key in helping me navigate the work of OutKast, Common, Aesop Rock, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, The Roots, and Immortal Technique, just to name a few. After we had been talking about hip-hop for a while, I asked him if there were any other albums I should check out and he stated that Illmatic by Nas was his favorite hip-hop album of all time.

Since its release in 1994, Illmatic has won a fair amount of praise and credit, but somehow it just doesn’t seem like enough. A lot of other hip-hop albums from the mid-nineties tend to top lists for the decade’s best music, but none of those albums possess the integrity, cohesion, and flawless appeal of Illmatic. Following Eric’s recommendation, I picked up a copy of the album’s tenth anniversary edition and began exploring Nas’ astonishing, yet nuanced debut. “The Genesis” sets the stage for Nas’ storytelling on Illmatic by melding a clip of dialogue from the 1983 movie Wild Style with a conversation among Nas and his peers about life, music, and credibility. Aside from this slice of life introduction, the album flows seamlessly for forty minutes without any interruptions common to hip-hop albums of the era like skits and gags. Over the nine remaining tracks, Nas teams up with a group of producers including DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Large Professor, and Q-Tip to deliver a singular approach to hip-hop that has aged far more gracefully than much of what was on the radio in 1994. The second track, “N.Y. State of Mind,” begins the album in earnest with a nearly breathless account of the world Nas sees around him. Nas pulls this point of view narrative into sharp focus with the kind of unforgettable wordplay that sets him apart from his peers. The line “I ran like a cheetah with thoughts of an assassin,” blends imagery with psychology in a way that feels so intuitive, yet profoundly unique. Later on in the song, Nas establishes the theme of survival against all odds with the lyrics “I never sleep, ‘cause sleep is the cousin of death” and “Life is parallel to hell, but I must maintain and be prosperous.” Illmatic ends on an incredibly high note with “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” as Large Professor deconstructs Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” and assembles new musical and rhythmic potential out of samples of various elements of the original song. Against this backdrop, Nas’ voice resonates with the confidence and knowledge that he’s delivering the valedictory statement of his masterpiece.

Through the course of ten more albums over the last twenty plus years, Nas hasn’t been able to top Illmatic, but that doesn’t diminish the power of his debut or the quality of his career. Nas has persevered on the course he set with Illmatic and, in doing so, has carved out a distinctive niche for himself in hip-hop. Perhaps Illmatic’s greatest strength draws from how well it has aged. A surprising number of highly rated hip-hop albums of this era now sound clumsy, ugly, and outdated. Illmatic has been compared many times to another debut from a gifted East Coast rapper from the same year, The Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die. Both men were in their early twenties when they released these albums, which cover nearly identical subject material and even share notable visual elements on their albums covers. I’ve listened to both albums repeatedly in the last several years, but just as I grow tired of the nihilism, brutality, and fatalism of Ready to Die, I find myself pulling closer to the resilience, humor, and imagination of Illmatic.

-         John Parsell

Monday, May 22, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #166 - Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005, dir. Jon Favreau)

As a kid, I was drawn to science fiction like a moth to a flame. Star Wars premiered the same month I was born and my favorite after school entertainment in the 1980s consisted of reruns of the original Star Trek. In elementary and middle school, I scoured the shelves of my local video rental shops for science fiction movies I hadn’t seen yet. At the age of ten, I remember feeling caught between sci-fi kids’ movies like Flight of the Navigator, which left me feeling bored and unsatisfied, and classics of the genre like 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I knew I was way too young to appreciate or understand fully. A few years ago, I came across Zathura: A Space Adventure and suddenly felt like I had stumbled upon a secret portal to my childhood.

Opening on a sunny summer day, Zathura sets a brisk pace and introduces us to Walter and Danny, two brothers competing for their father’s attention and fighting against the ultimate scourge of childhood: boredom. Soon, the boys learn that they will have to spend the afternoon together and younger brother Danny discovers an antiquated board game titled, Zathura: A Space Adventure. Walter reluctantly joins Danny in playing the game and almost immediately the brothers find themselves navigating a realm in which the game’s dilemmas like meteor showers, defective robots, and alien attacks feel all too real. If the plot sounds more than a little bit familiar, it’s helpful to know that the author of the source material, Chris Van Allsburg, also wrote Jumanji. This adaptation of Van Allsburg’s work blasts off into an imaginative realm of palpable risk and excitement where the 1995 movie version of Jumanji gets mired down in a swamp of muddled computer graphics and flat performances. Director Jon Favreau brings Zathura sparking to life through a reliance on practical special effects, a focus on ensemble acting with a young, gifted cast, and a script crackling with snappy dialogue. Favreau began his Hollywood career as an actor in the 1990s with a breakout role in the indie hit, Swingers, but has since switched trades and established himself as a dependable director of distinctive, successful mainstream films like Elf, Iron Man, and the recent live action version of The Jungle Book. Just as Zathura the board game offers the boys experiences with which video games and TV cannot possibly compete, this movie provides visceral thrills that far outperform the scores of contemporary family movies that lean too heavily on weak narratives and computer generated effects. Favreau taps into the heart of Van Allsburg’s book, expands the scope of the original story, and delivers one of the most satisfying family-friendly sci-fi movies of this century.  

As a book, Zathura covers just thirty pages, but Favreau targets the key elements of why it has become a modern classic of children’s literature and embellishes this adaptation with style and substance. Favreau pulls off the tricky feat of taking a well-loved kids’ book and fashioning it into a funny, boisterous movie that packs an emotional punch and succeeds on its own. In 2009, Spike Jonze attempted something similar with his take on Maurice Sendak’s almost universally adored book, Where the Wild Things Are, but ended up making a movie that bewildered audiences and bore very little resemblance to the enchanting power of the original. Zathura was Favreau’s third project as a director, but with it he established the kinetic, vibrant, and irreverent elements that would come to define his work. By infusing Iron Man and Iron Man 2 with his stylistic trademarks, Favreau set the tone for the sprawling multi-media franchise known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A lot of people missed Zathura when it hit theaters in 2005, but now is as a good a time as any to take your chances and see where this adventure will take you.

-         John Parsell

Monday, May 15, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #179 - Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen - Lost In The Ozone

After the multi-colored explosion of counter-culture and youth exaltation that took place in mid to late 1960’s America, there was a desire for something maybe a little less experimental, maybe a little less world-changing and maybe a little more…fun. In the world of popular music there was a small but meaningful group of bands who were (re)discovering the joy and heritage of American roots music. Groups like Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, N.R.B.Q., Asleep at the Wheel and The New Riders of the Purple Sage were discovering the past and finding that it was a blast to play this kind of music. Audiences were equally desperate for something that required less thinking and more dancing. In thrall of classic outfits like Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, Louis Jordan and His Tympani Five, Tex Ritter, and The Johnny Otis Revue, these bands were finding that they were not the first musicians to jump in a bus and travel across the land bringing high times to the people. One of the most legendary and hard partying of these bands was Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. Starting in Michigan and landing in the Bay Area, they released their first album Lost In The Ozone in 1971. Like the aforementioned American big bands and revues, The Airmen brought a joyous repertoire of originals and classic Americana to the stage and gave the hippies a much-needed emotional break.

There is nothing fancy, tricky, artsy or fartsy about The Airmen’s music. It is basically revved-up country and western with a bit of R&B thrown in. The Commander himself (George Frayne IV) was a trained painter and sculptor whose love of boogie-woogie piano led him to leave the academic path (he has doubled a college professor) and hit the road with a crack eight-piece big band to give the people what they want. And boy could they deliver! The album kicks off with a clear statement of purpose, “Back To Tennessee,” “Wine Do Yer Stuff” and “Seeds And Stems (Again)” tell us with no uncertainty that these boys want to get back to the country and start the Par-Tay! And that is exactly what they do. They do not let up. The hallmarks of this great band were the Commander’s pumping boogie-woogie, Billy C. Farlow’s authentic vocal stylings, Bill Kirchin’s world-class guitar picking and the addition of non-traditional rock instruments like pedal-steel guitar, fiddle and the occasional horns. The original material makes the dichotomy of country/hippie life clear, and then the raucous cover versions that round out the album bridge that gulf in fine form.

About halfway through, starting with title cut “Lost In The Ozone,” the album kicks into high gear. Any young person who had made it through the late 60’s and into the politically charged atmosphere of the early 70’s could relate to the feelings suggested by this song’s title and sentiment. “Midnight Shift” and “20 Flight Rock” offer a clear reference back to early rock and roll, but the Charlie Ryan classic “Hot Rod Lincoln” provided The Airmen with their biggest and longest lasting hit and neatly crystallizes their aesthetic. It rocks in a way the fan of rock and roll can appreciate, but it is an absolute retro blast. Originally a hit in 1951, it reflects the moment in our history when popular American music was turning from regionalism to the monolith known as rock and roll. Within a few years, everything would change for good.

The album ends with an uproarious live version of “Beat Me Daddy Eight To The Bar,” one of the greatest songs about the joy of making and listening to music. A big band hit going back to 1941, it was a wonderful reminder to contemporary audiences of the fundamental importance music can play in lifting our spirits from the mundane or cruel realities of day to day life. With Vietnam about to crest and Watergate on the near horizon that wasn’t the worst thing.

“When He Jams It’s A Ball, He’s The Daddy Of Them All!
The Rhythm He Play Puts Those Cats In A Trance, Nobody There Bothers To Dance.
When They Jam With A Bass And Guitar, They Holler: Oh Beat Me Daddy Eight To The Bar!”

-         Paul Epstein

Monday, May 8, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #165 - Nosferatu and Nosferatu The Vampyre

Two movies, 55 years apart, and yet they are the bookends of the cinema vampire phenomenon. F.W. Murnau’s 1922 “Symphony Of Horror” set the template for the entire style. Herzog’s 1979 homage to the original effectively closes the book on the genre. There have been and will be more vampire movies after Murnau’s and Herzog’s, however, none will make our Transylvanian friend a more humanely drawn or eerily depicted monster than those portrayed in these landmark films.

The plot of both these films should be familiar to all fans of the genre. A mysterious count (Orlok in Murnau’s, Dracula in Herzog’s) contacts a real estate firm to find him a castle. A hapless agent (Hutter and Harker respectively) is sent to the Count’s castle in Transylvania to consummate a deal, and both find themselves immediately drawn into the nightmarish world of a being who must consume the blood of other humans in order to live - a vampire. Murnau’s film almost defies description. Because it is silent and utilizes arcane film equipment and technology, it inherently has a dreamy quality. Count Orlok, as portrayed by the great German actor Max Schreck is more animal than human. His rat-like teeth, ears, long fingernails and hairless head make him as much bat as man. When Hutter arrives at Orlok’s castle, there is no pretense of normalcy, as the count lunges for human blood and wonders aloud at how beautiful Hutter’s fiancé is (especially her neck). Schreck’s appearance is the stuff of nightmares, and has remained so throughout the years. Even more than Bela Lugosi’s worldly seducer, Schreck’s appearance is what comes to mind when I think of vampires. Orlock makes his way to his new home and goes about seducing Hutter’s wife. After bringing death and madness to her town, Hutter’s wife tricks Orlock into staying with her until sunrise, thus causing him to vaporize with the first rays of the morning sun. Max Schreck’s make-up and movements remain one of the landmark performances in film. He is terrifying and mysterious, and truly the stuff of nightmares.

Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake, Nosferatu The Vampyre,  puts much more explanation and psychological depth into his depiction of the vampire (played by the incomparable Klaus Kinski), and yet, it almost feels like an extension of the original, as opposed to a rewriting. Herzog invests more humanity into his protagonists, real-estate agent Jonathan Harker and his stunning wife Lucy (depicted with intense beauty by Isabelle Adjani). They are genuinely in love, and we share their sadness at being apart. Jonathan is delayed for weeks at Dracula’s castle, and when he finally does return he is devoid of all memory and personality. Dracula has stolen his soul and now has come to his home town to steal his wife and leave all he encounters in ruins.

Throughout Herzog’s film, there is a dread sense of natural disorder. With Dracula comes the plague and swarms of rats. Harker’s town of Wismar, Germany becomes a nightmarish hell of burning corpses, the few remaining townsfolk descending into madness. Rats are everywhere as the town falls prey to Dracula’s spell. Again, it is Harker’s wife, Lucy who determines that only she can stop Dracula – at the cost of her own life – by seducing him past the crack of dawn. Kinski’s depiction of Dracula differs from Shrek’s only in terms of technology. Because Herzog’s film is shot in sumptuous color, with languorous shots of natural beauty and horror, it feels as though we have a much more personal relationship with the vampire. His pitiful pleas of eternal loneliness seem almost sympathetic. Kinski is literally nauseating as the pale, groaning, insectoid loser. He seems more like a sniveling pest than a world-dominating immortal. Perhaps this is the greatest achievement of Herzog’s film; he lends some humanity to one of the world’s great monsters.

There’s no fully understanding the Vampire genre without these two movies. They depict the monster as an aberration of the natural order as opposed to a dapper Count using his powers for seduction. While the earlier cuts a more mysterious figure, the latter is believable as an example of nature gone awry.

-          Paul Epstein

Monday, May 1, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #178 - Raphael Saadiq – The Way I See It

Typically for I’d Love to Turn You On we wait until an album is ten years old before it becomes eligible for the column - it has to be something largely passed over in its initial release to qualify, and with time we’re better able to assess whether it holds water in the long run, rather just having an impressive initial impact that fades quickly. But this album turns nine in 2017 and I can’t wait until 2018 for it to officially be eligible.

Raphael Saadiq was a member of and the primary songwriter for the late 80s/early 90s neo-soul outfit Tony! Toni! Toné!, who scored a number of hits with their modern/retro soul before he left the group to pursue his own vision. His solo records in the wake of the group followed a similar pattern - classic soul influence with modern production styles and genre excursions to stay afloat in the current music field. However, in preparing this record he went decidedly old school. This unabashed throwback shows not just in the songwriting style - songs are kept as short and punchy as prime Motown - but even down to mike placement, recording equipment, and engineering approach (he studied records and session information of both Motown and The Beatles to help approximate the feel of the classic recordings). And Saadiq created the songs in the same one-man-band fashion that Stevie Wonder did – recording layers by playing the instruments (a typical song’s credits reads “Raphael Saadiq - vocals, guitar, bass, drums”), then embellishing the results with session players (strings, horns, percussion, occasional other instruments) and a high-profile guest here and there (Joss Stone, Jay-Z, and Wonder himself).

But all the recording technique and study in the world would mean nothing if Saadiq had not written great songs – and he has, twelve of them in fact. This is his finest album, solo or with his former group, and he honors the musicians he studied by producing an album that can hold its own against the classics. It kicks off right with one of the album’s best and catchiest cuts, “Sure Hope You Mean It,” a gorgeous uptempo number which leads right into “100 Yard Dash,” another fast, catchy one that continues the first song’s love longings with a stronger beat pushing it along. He shifts gears slightly for “Keep Marchin’” which from the title sounds like it could be an homage to the Civil Rights Era music that he’s drawing on, but paints a broader stroke lyrically as a song of uplift in the face of adversity, like the regular album’s superb closer “Sometimes.” The time warp we’ve experienced thus far in feeling like we could be listening to an album straight out of 1965 shifts slightly with “Big Easy.” Not in sound – Saadiq is still deep in his Holland-Dozier-Holland craft – but in the lyrics, which tell of a love lost in New Orleans, his baby not coming back. Even that could’ve been from the past, but the setting isn’t just New Orleans, it’s New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, and the song is a heartbreaker because his baby may not be coming back for the most devastating of reasons. And so it proceeds: “Just One Kiss,” “Love That Girl,” “Let’s Take A Walk,” “Never Give You Up” – all as melodic, direct and forthright as the classic love songs they evoke. “Calling” is the first time he plays his hand a little differently, with Rocio Mendoza’s Spanish-language verses uncommon for the era that most of the record evokes but just right for 2008. And a couple other times small touches take us out of the vibe – the sitar on the great “Oh Girl” puts us up toward 1973 or so, and Jay-Z’s cameo on the bonus remix of the same song couldn’t have come at any time other than the 2000s. And then there’s “Staying in Love,” which he claims is about music and staying true to your own artistic vision, but certainly could be grouped with the above love songs for most of us.

But mainly, Saadiq decided to cast a spell to transport us backward and it works beautifully, beginning to end. It works because he wrote terrific songs; it works because he did his homework to make them sound superb – as crisp, clear, and catchy as their predecessors; and it works because he’s musician enough to pull off the one-man-band trick that R&B geniuses from Stevie Wonder to Prince mastered before him. He followed this masterstroke three years later with the excellent Stone Rollin’ (which takes us from 1965 to somewhere more like 1971) but he hasn’t released a solo album since, preferring to focus his talents on soundtrack work (Luke Cage and the TV series Empire among others) and songwriting and production work for others (recently on Solange Knowles’ widely acclaimed A Seat At the Table). For now though, we’ve got this album and it’s tided me over just fine for just about nine years already.

-         Patrick Brown