Monday, June 26, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #182 - Orchestra Baobab - Made in Dakar

Orchestra Baobab formed in 1970 out of the ashes of the legendary Star Band in Dakar, Senegal’s capital city. Singers Balla Sidibe, Rudy Gomis and Laye Mboup were among the founding members of the group, and over the next couple years before their first recording they picked up key members Ndiouga Dieng (vocals), Togolese law student and guitar genius Barthélémy Attisso, and Issa Cissoko on saxophone (an equally dominant instrumental voice with Attisso in the group), along with many other members over time. They quickly rose to the top of the city’s highly competitive club scene, putting on electrifying live shows in which they’d mix modernized traditional tunes and their own originals, often with a heavy influence of Afro-Cuban music. They released about a dozen albums by the end of the decade, despite losing Mboup in an auto accident in 1974. But also by the end of the decade, they began to lose ground as Dakar’s top draw, when another group founded by Star Band alumni formed a new style of music and began gaining in popularity. This group, Étoile de Dakar, had hired the young singer Youssou N’Dour, and between his remarkable talent and charisma and their new mbalax style of music, their popularity rocketed to the top, making N’Dour an international superstar. Orchestra Baobab’s mixture of West African traditional rhythms and melodies mixed with Afro-Cuban music and modern guitar no longer seemed so cutting edge. By 1987, Baobab disbanded.

But their legend persisted. In 1982, they had recorded Pirates Choice, released by the World Circuit label in Europe in 1989 after the band had broken up, reissued again worldwide with bonus material in 2001, renewing interest in the group. Between this interest and encouragement from none other than Youssou N’Dour, the band decided to reform, getting Attisso to put his law practice on hold and pick up his guitar for the first time in over a decade and join them in the studio with N’Dour and label owner Nick Gold producing. The result was Specialist in All Styles, which found the group revisiting some of their own classics along with new material for an album that was as good as anything in their lengthy discography – better even, perhaps, because they were better musicians and the production was crystalline. It’s a great album that’s unfortunately currently out of print, like much of their earlier material. The reunion album and tours were such a rousing success that the group got back into the studio again a few years later to make Made in Dakar, which proved to be yet another autumnal triumph from the group, featuring the same 11 main players from the classic lineup who’d recorded the previous album.

Gold again produced, the sound is again superb, and the band is exceptional - where Specialist in All Styles was made by a band burning to prove they could still make great music after a lengthy hiatus, here they know what they can do and waste no time doing it. They don’t mind here flexing their muscles a bit, there settling into a leisurely pace that only a group that knows each other’s every move could do.

Things are great from the get-go - on the lead cut “Papa Ndiaye” (an older song revived for the session, like many here) things open with Barthélémy Attisso’s guitar underpinned with a tight, driving rhythm. Before long, the great horn section comes in, harmonized vocals follow, and then Assane Mboup takes the wailing lead vocal. Issa Cissoko’s sax kicks in after the chorus, and the picture of the band is basically complete with this - on rhythms fast or slow the group always moves as one unit, vocals from one or more of the five lead vocalists (three of whom also play percussion) sing the tunes, and Attisso or (slightly less often) Cissoko takes a searing solo. Sometimes a guest jumps in (Youssou N’Dour again makes a cameo here, singing co-lead with Mboup on the second cut, the great “Nijaay”; trumpeter Ibou Konate gets a couple solo turns), but usually it’s Attisso or Cissoko making the most waves (or bouncing off each other, as in “Nijaay”), with vocals only coming in second in the mind because the duties are split amongst so many equals. After Mboup kills on the first two cuts, Balla Sidibe takes the lead vocal on “Beni Baraale,” copped from Guinea’s famed group Bembeya Jazz and featuring a beefed up horn section, then Rudy Gomis takes a great lead in Portuguese Creole before handing the solo spotlight to Cissoko on the relentlessly driving, salsa-inflected “Ami Kita Bay.” Things slow down with the leisurely, Cuban-styled “Cabral” (featuring co-lead vocals by Sidibe and Gomis), and then picks right back up with “Sibam,” another revival out of their extensive catalog and possibly the vocal highlight of the entire set thanks to Medoune Diallo’s beyond-perfect voice.

As things roll into the latter part of the album, it takes on a more characteristically Senegalese flavor in the mbalax-styled “Ndéleng Ndéleng” (with its extended Attisso solo) and “Jirim,” in which Attisso is paying homage in his playing to the American country music he heard growing up and Cissoko gives nods to his idol King Curtis, while vocalist Ndiouga Dieng steps up for his first lead vocal. The record closes with “Colette,” originally conceived as a danceable instrumental in the style of Blue Note groovers of the 60s, before Dieng and Gomis added improvised vocals in rehearsals for this album. It’s another showcase for Attisso, whose semi-psychedelic solo is dedicated to Carlos Santana, and it’s fitting to give him the solo space, seeing as Attisso stepped out of a comfortable life to rejoin the band. And perhaps it’s even more fitting to name it that, given that the Colette being honored is Attisso’s wife, who allowed him to pursue this.

Orchestra Baobab again went on hiatus after this record, released in Europe in 2007 and in the States the next year. But now, ten years later, they’ve returned with a new album, Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng, who passed away last year. Issa Cissoko, Rudy Gomis, Balla Sidibe, and bassist Charlie Ndiaye (whose lithe, powerful, driving lines I neglected to mention above), have all returned for an album that’s more an acoustic affair, centered often around Abdoulaye Cissoko’s (no relation to Issa) kora playing. It’s beautiful, often exciting, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that for me the spark of Attisso’s leads were not missed. Definitely worth hearing, especially if your tastes run toward the mellower than mine do, but for me Made In Dakar and Specialist in All Styles remain the band’s great 21st century albums – so far.

-         Patrick Brown

Monday, June 19, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #168 - An Autumn Afternoon (1962, dir. Yasujirō Ozu)

A film by Yasujirō Ozu is not like a film by any other filmmaker. He has one of the most unique and easily identifiable stylistic signatures of any international director, noted for his unmoving camera, low angle shots simulating the view from a Japanese tatami mat, actors facing directly into the camera in dialogue, ellipses of plot leaving out seemingly important details, and visually intricate compositions. He’s been referred to as “the most Japanese director” of all, but in his specificity the universal can be found. He worked subtle variations on a handful of themes that interested him for his entire career (and in that is not unlike any major director spinning variations on their ideas in film after film): familial conflicts (usually between generations), the institution of arranged marriages, encroaching Westernization of Japan in his post-war films, financial woes of the middle class families that populate most of his films, and more. His films usually have many comic moments, but there’s almost always an undercurrent of melancholy to them as well.

Everything said above could apply to a few dozen of Ozu’s films, but they all apply in full force for what proved to be the final film of his life, An Autumn Afternoon. It’s a seemingly simple story of a widower, Shūhei Hirayama (played by Ozu regular Chishū Ryū), who lives with his son Kazuo and daughter Michiko, with his older son moved out and married, frequently squabbling with his wife about borrowing money to try to lend him the appearance of prosperity at work. Hirayama is chided repeatedly by his friends about arranging a marriage for his daughter before she becomes a spinster. Neither Hirayama nor his daughter have given much thought to the matter, perfectly content to live as they have been doing, but once he and his drinking buddies run into an old teacher of theirs, Sakuma (nicknamed “The Gourd”), and arrange an evening’s tribute to him, he begins to think more about it. There are many comic scenes of Hirayama and his friends drinking; old men reminiscing about war, women, school, old friends and so forth, but things begin to be tinged with a sadder tone when their tribute to The Gourd ends with the teacher too drunk and needing to be taken home where they see what’s become of his life.

The Gourd’s daughter has remained unmarried in circumstances very similar to what Hirayama has experienced, he’s now running a low-rent noodle shop, and his daughter complains that “he’s always doing this” when they bring him home drunk. Over the course of several episodes in the film, The Gourd blames his own selfishness for ruining her chances at a successful marriage, having kept her close to home because he doesn’t want to suffer the loss of another family member. The Gourd’s plight resonates with Hirayama, and he resolves to start pushing Michiko toward marriage. And though Hirayama is the central focus of the film, Michiko’s resistance to an arranged marriage and her own ideas about how her life should be lived of course come into play.

As is typical in his films, Ozu and his longtime screenwriting partner Kôgo Noda come to the conflict with a perfectly tuned ear for dialogue and an empathy and understanding for both sides – not only will the father be left lonely if his vibrant and loving daughter should move out of the house, but in arranging her marriage he’s also potentially taking away her happiness should he not choose a good partner for her, and if she remains unmarried, she runs the risk of becoming an embittered spinster. He wants to do what’s right for her even under increasing societal pressure and his concerns of ending up a sad, lonely drunk like The Gourd, spouting lines like “In the end we spend our lives alone.” It’s a similar scenario to Ozu’s 1949 masterpiece Late Spring, in which Ryu was again the widowed father living with his daughter (played by the exquisite and ebullient Setsuko Hara), but here the focus falls more on the father’s plight than on the daughter’s. Where Late Spring hinged on a single moment when Hara’s famous smile fell as she acquiesced to her father’s requests, this one hinges on Hirayama’s trip to take his teacher home, seeing a potential future where both father and daughter have ended up sad and lonely.

The film is not just a continuation of Ozu’s ideas, but another collaboration with many of his longtime partners – writer Kôgo Noda is credited alongside Ozu on his very first film, from 1927, while Chishū Ryū and cinematographer Yûharu Atsuta are both featured on his second film from the next year. With a regular cast and crew familiar with his working methods and style, it’s no wonder that the film is one of his subtlest and most beautiful triumphs. Atsuta’s cinematography, his fourth of Ozu’s six films in color, is spectacular, with both director and cinematographer having found a way to perfectly integrate color into the stunning framing and composition that Ozu is best known for. He’s one of the most masterful artists in cinema history, and any frame of one of his films is rich with details you can get lost in, with An Autumn Afternoon one of his very best creations, both in the plotted segments and the famous “pillow shots” of random areas and items (laundry hanging out to dry, factory smokestacks, and trains passing are some faves of his) that break up the narrative sections. It’s also a great entry point into one of the most stellar careers in cinema.

-         Patrick Brown

Monday, June 12, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #181 - The Afghan Whigs – Congregation (Sub Pop, 1992)

The 1990’s were kind of a magical time for me, in retrospect. I started junior high, high school and college in the 90s. I had my first steady girlfriend, lost my virginity and had my first pregnancy scare, all in the 90s. I started smoking. I started drinking. I started experimenting with drugs. It was a time for new and exciting journeys for me, from one extreme to the other. I literally started the decade not even a teenager yet and turned 21 in 1999, the final year of the 90s. No other decade in the near-40 years that I’ve been alive has had as much of a hand in shaping the person I am today. Interests, people, jobs and events came and went, and the music that I discovered throughout was the most constant and important part of this progression.

I wish I could discuss every band that I discovered in the 90s that eventually became a favorite, but that would make for a much longer piece. However, I do want to talk about one band in particular that influenced me in more ways than I can count. The Afghan Whigs’ 1993 major label debut, Gentlemen, was, besides being my entry point to their music, critical in both my creative and personal life. Simultaneously sexy and misanthropic, the Whigs’ melding of indie rock with R&B and other African-American influences set them apart from most of their contemporaries. The band have remained critical darlings over the years and Gentlemen was the landmark that brought them this notoriety. That said, this article is NOT about Gentlemen.

By the time Gentlemen was released, the Whigs already had three records under their belt. Upon finding this out, I had to investigate. “What kind of sordid past could such a band have had to develop into this amalgam of dark rock & roll and sultry soul?” I thought. The first two albums, while certainly showing signs of future brilliance, were not much more than bratty college rock - think The Replacements minus balls. Their third album (and second for Sub Pop Records), Congregation, is the point when the band began its transformation. Congregation still possesses some of the noisy grit of the early records but adds layers of influences from the band’s members. Chief songwriter Greg Dulli’s affinity for R&B and blues is perhaps most prominent, but also evident is lead guitarist Rick McCollum’s interest in free jazz and world music.

Dulli’s lyrics tend to be unsettling, as he touches on addiction, guilt, intimacy and sexual deviancy interchangeably, sometimes within the same song. He sings of being both predator (as in the record’s first single “Conjure Me,” or the boozy, after-hours-style ballad “Tonight”) and prey (as in the desperate “I’m Her Slave”). Congregation also seems to have a darkly religious theme running throughout the album. “I am your creator, come with me my congregation,” Dulli sings on the title track, delivered from the point of view of a hostile deity (“get up, I’ll smack you back down”). Further tying into this theme is the cover version of “The Temple” from the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, of which Dulli was an avid fan. Dulli’s lyrics and voice are perfectly juxtaposed with the rock/soul hybrid of the band. McCollum’s leads are dissonant and jagged in the vein of early Fugazi, but he adds a kind of funk swagger to his playing that recalls the Bar-Kays or Curtis Mayfield’s finest moments. Adding to this atmosphere is the tribal-style drumming of Steve Earle (not that Steve Earle - the Whigs’ regular drummer), who would influence a teenaged me in my own creative pursuits. The band’s influences really come together on the hidden track “Miles Iz Dead,” a last-minute tribute song added to the album when news of Miles Davis’ passing reached Dulli while in the studio.

Congregation was largely recorded in 1991, a time when the Whigs’ label, Sub Pop, was struggling financially. If it weren’t for a certain trio from Aberdeen, Washington releasing their breakthrough album Nevermind and effectively saving the label from bankruptcy, Congregation may never have become a thing. Perhaps this is just me, but the “album-that-almost-wasn’t” aspect of this record adds to the mystique of the Afghan Whigs as well.

I know that many who are familiar with the band are mostly familiar with Gentlemen, or the other latter day major label albums that brought the band to the mainstream. And that is okay, because those records are killer. But this is the record that kick-started that journey for the band. Even Dulli himself says about Congregation that it’s “the record where we came into our own.” It’s the perfect bridge between the raw aggression of their early material and the sexy soulfulness of their later career. Honestly, I could go on and on about the album, and the Afghan Whigs in general. They coaxed me into manhood in a way that no other band did. To have them be one of the most important bands to me during my formative years gives this stepping stone album an extremely special place in my heart. So, no amount of adjective-slinging will capture that magic that is Congregation. In other words, don’t take my word for it. Listen to the record.

-         Jonathan Eagle

Monday, June 5, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #167 - Three Fugitives (1989, dir. Francis Veber)

One of my dad’s favorite movies when I was growing up was 48 Hrs. He loved it and I would often hear him quote lines from it to his buddies. Since I thought my dad was the funniest dude in the world in those days, I became obsessed with seeing the movie. Due to its “R” rating, however, neither of my parents would let me watch it. Except for my memorizing of the film synopsis on the back of the VHS box and occasionally sneaking downstairs late at night while my parents were watching the film to see 30- to 40-second clips here and there, I never got familiar with 48 Hrs. until much later in life. But I was obsessed with it, and I would quote those same lines that my dad would quote to my own friends at school. For all intents and purposes, it was “my favorite movie” and I had never even seen it. What made the film so appealing to me was not only the presence of Eddie Murphy (although I was already a giant fan of his stand-up comedy records, unbeknownst to my parents), but the other leading man: Nick Nolte. I loved his roguish good looks and his gruff cigarette smoker’s voice. I loved his large and looming stature. I loved that he would use verbal and physical jabs at his film counterpart when he became frustrated with him (which was often) like some kind of modern-day Moe Howard. Nick Nolte became my first favorite actor and I wanted to see everything he’d ever done.

In 1989, when I was eleven years old, a little film called Three Fugitives was released in theaters. Directed by Francis Veber, it pairs Nolte with Martin Short. The film is a remake of the French film Les Fugitifs, also directed by Veber. As a comedy fan, I was excited by the fact that Mr. Ed Grimley himself was starring in a new film with my favorite actor. I was even more excited by the film’s “PG-13” rating. I bothered my parents for weeks to take me to the movie, but alas it came and went in theaters and I never got to go. And back then, it seemed to take ten years between theatrical release and home video release. When I finally saw the film, it was worth the wait. I instantly loved it and has become a go-to movie for me ever since.

Nolte plays Daniel Lucas, an ex-con who was just released from prison after serving five years of a ten-year sentence for armed robbery. On the day he is released, Lucas goes to the nearest bank with his prison payroll check to open a savings account. While inside, an armed man (Short) comes in and holds the place up. The robber is inept and clumsy and barely bungles through the robbery. When the police are notified, the robber decides to take a hostage and picks Lucas. Due to Lucas’ past, the police assume that he and the robber are working together. After eluding the police and accidentally shooting Lucas in the leg, the robber identifies himself as Ned Perry, an unemployed widower who robbed the bank to provide for his six-year-old daughter, Meg, who has been mute since the death of her mother. After Ned enlists the help of his senile veterinarian friend to tend to Lucas’ wound, Lucas, Ned and Meg all go on the lam, much to Lucas’ chagrin. The trio end up forming an unlikely family-type bond in the process.

The film seems to be widely disliked by viewers and critics. Its Rotten Tomatoes score is so embarrassingly low that I don’t even want to say what it is here. User comments tend to range from “unfunny, dated” to “irredeemably uneven.” While I do think that those words are a trifle harsh, I’m not going to argue and tell you that it’s a groundbreaking piece of cinema or anything like that. It just isn’t. However, I can say that it’s a warm story with a hilarious cast that works very well together. The scenes between Nolte and the little girl are particularly touching. When the two get separated from Ned, it is up to the reluctant Lucas to watch over Meg as they track her father down. Meg becomes so fond of her temporary guardian that when they do find her father and Lucas decides to part ways with them, Meg breaks her years-long silent spell and utters the words, “don’t go.” The scene is so heart-wrenching that I get close to tearing up every time I see it. Even Lucas and Ned’s relationship starts out violent and angry and forms into a close friendship (still with some occasional violence). It reminds me very much of Nolte’s prior on-screen dynamic with Eddie Murphy in 48 Hrs.

Call it nostalgia or sentimentality, but my cockles still get all warm watching this movie. When I was re-watching it recently for this article, I felt like eleven-year old Jon again. I laughed at the same dumb jokes and slapstick moments from the film’s leading men. I got excited at the more action-oriented scenes. Most of all, I was reminded what it was like to be a kid obsessed with a movie star. I don’t expect this reaction from most viewers; the film hasn’t aged super well, after all. But I do think that if you grew up in the ‘80s and are a fan of buddy-style crime comedies, Three Fugitives might just be right up your alley.

-         Jonathan Eagle