Monday, October 30, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #191 - Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians - Fegmania

It’s almost impossible to compare Robyn Hitchcock to any modern artist. The most fitting comparisons are all in the past: Syd Barrett, John Lennon and Bob Dylan are the most obvious, and it is hard to imagine any artist who wouldn’t be thrilled by the comparisons. In most cases such comparisons would be laughably ambitious, however in the case of Robyn Hitchcock, he lives up to them. Yet, having begun his recording career in 1979 (with A Can Of Bees by his early group The Soft Boys), he clearly is part of the modern world. I remember I first found out about him when he appeared on the cover of some long-forgotten magazine which featured articles about other bands I was interested in (Jesus and Mary Chain and Sonic Youth if I’m not mistaken). The article about him spurred my interest and I started down the road. Almost 40 years later, Hitchcock remains entirely relevant, fresh and one of my favorite artists.

Fegmania, released in 1985, was Hitchcock’s fourth album under his own name and his first with The Egyptians as his backing band. Essentially a rearranged version of The Soft Boys, these players provided his most sympathetic backing and found their way to making one of the finest albums of the 80’s. Fegmania is the perfect place to start with this artist. He has a large, unwieldy catalog spread out over a number of labels. Opening with “Egyptian Cream” we are presented with a perfect slice of retro pop-psych; a hook that gets in your head, lyrics that are at once mysterious, heartbreaking and hilarious. In case you didn’t know, Robyn Hitchcock is the most erudite and surreal lyricist of his generation. Gifted with the Anglophile whimsy of his heroes Lennon and Barrett, he is also in possession of one of the most astounding improvisational poetic minds imaginable. In the live setting he regularly launches into long, extemporaneous orations that fall somewhere between Lewis Carroll, Shakespeare and Thomas Pynchon. It is not a typical mind we are dealing with here. If you like your songs to not provoke thought, look elsewhere; this is an artist of substance. Song three, “I’m Only You,” beautifully illustrates this as he reels off one beautiful line after another in an angelic voice with a Byrdsian wall of acoustic and electric guitars and rumbling drums propelling it forward into a chaotic ending worthy of The Doors. Elsewhere on “My Wife And My Dead Wife” and “The Man With The Lightbulb Head” he channels the style of John Lennon’s writing in his books A Spaniard In The Works and In His Own Write. It is simultaneously, hip, knowing, childlike and sweet. These are often conflicting impulses, yet Hitchcock has always walked that fine line with artistry and aplomb.

Musically, The Egyptians are a totally modern band with current production values. While they utilize and master countless Beatley tricks of harmony as well as complex rhythms and tempo shifts within songs, their music never feels nostalgic. “Goodnight I Say,” “Strawberry Mind” and “Heaven” are songs which seem unglued in time. They feel appropriate next to modern FM hits, yet there is an undeniable “classic” feel to them.

So many albums from the 1980s have lost much of their sparkle because of the horrendous production values employed and the MTV-ready insipidness of the songs’ subject matter. Fegmania on the other hand is a serious and colorful work of art - free of any era-based foolishness and filled with memorable music and poetic imagery.

-         Paul Epstein

Monday, October 23, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #177 - The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988, dir. Wes Craven)

Right off the bat, I’d like to say that I really am not a “horror movie-guy.” And all due respect, but if you are one, you know who you are: you can rattle off obscure B-movie horror actors and directors without batting an eye, you talk about things like blood spatter and creature make-up like it’s an artform unto itself and just generally have a real affinity for the horror and slasher genres. That’s not me. I don’t dislike horror movies, I just generally don’t choose to watch them and thus don’t usually have much to say about them. I’m more of a comedy kind of fella. However, like with any genre, I have my handful that I love and repeatedly return to (and many of those are even more comedy than horror, such as Shaun of the Dead or the Evil Dead series). But with Halloween right around the corner, I thought it appropriate to write up a horror film that I do adore.

So I’d like to discuss Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow because I feel that among a seemingly never ending sea of horror films, it stands out as one of the best. Many of the greatest films, horror or otherwise, are often based somewhat in fact. The Serpent and the Rainbow was not necessarily based entirely on fact, but was inspired by the 1985 book of the same name by Harvard research scientist Wade Davis. The book details Davis’ travels to Haiti to investigate a voodoo society that utilizes mysterious drugs that lower a person’s metabolic processes to the point where they appear dead, are buried alive and resurrected later, having been aware of everything they’d been through. Leave it to Wes Craven to turn what is essentially a scientific and fact-based document (albeit a disturbing one) and turn it into one of the most terrifying experiences of my life.

In the film, Bill Pullman plays the protagonist Dennis Allen, a Harvard researcher who, like Davis, goes to Haiti to look into these “zombification” drugs in hopes of utilizing their anesthetic qualities. In his investigation Allen, assisted by Dr. Marielle Duchamp (Cathy Tyson), enters deep into the world of the Voodoo religion and black magic. He discovers that the drug he is looking for is the reason behind many people being presumed dead and buried alive. During his investigation he is often thwarted by his main antagonist, one of the most utterly upsetting characters to ever be put on screen, Dargent Peytraud. Peytraud is the head of the Haitian militia group the Tonton Macoute and a powerful Voodoo priest, who arrests, taunts, tortures and frames Dr. Allen for murder in order to protect the secrets of his religion and the zombification drugs. Peytraud is always wearing an eerie toothy grin and can appear in dreams and visions to manipulate people’s minds and nightmares because Wes Craven determined that I don’t need to sleep at night. He uses these powers to his brutally creepy advantage, creating nightmarish and paralyzing trances in various characters.

Much of the entire film seems like it could really happen because, to an extent, some of it did really happen. People were buried alive because of a weird voodoo drug. People do still practice voodoo and black magic. However, the beauty in The Serpent and the Rainbow lies more with Craven’s ability to perfectly marry the realistic with the surrealistic. The film is definitely classic Craven, as it eases between dream and reality much like in A Nightmare on Elm Street. But it differs from much of his other work in that it is deeply rooted in realistic premises. I mean, yes, the film was inspired by real events, but even some of the less plausible scenes in the movie, such as the way Peytraud is able to manipulate nightmares, are shot in such a way that it does not seem farfetched, making The Serpent and the Rainbow essentially the most realistic zombie film there is. And that realism is what makes it a great horror film. I’m confident that even the most steadfast of horror fanatics can’t really argue with that.

So, do me a favor and humor me, scream queens and slasher fiends. If you haven’t already, set some time aside to check out Craven’s film and prepare to lose a couple of nights sleep. And Happy Halloween everyone.

-         Jonathan Eagle

Monday, October 16, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #190 - Todd Snider – East Nashville Skyline

I didn't know Todd Snider’s music until the summer of 2014. I'd heard his name, seen his CDs coming through the store over the years, but heard him variously tagged as “folk” or “singer-songwriter” or “Americana” - areas of music that aren't  necessarily my thing so much so I didn’t pay close attention. I respect the craft and skill that goes into these, and once in a while someone in one of these areas hits it on the head in a way that makes me realize that I need to pay attention to music in every genre, not just the arty and weird areas that usually draw my ear. It was with some surprise then, when Twist & Shout hosted the Hard Working Americans for an in-store back in July 2014, that on a stage with notables like flashy guitarist Neal Casal, drummer Duane Trucks, and big guy bassist (and regular Twist shopper when he's in town) Dave Schools of Widespread Panic, my eyes were locked on Snider. He was barefooted, eccentric, twitchy, singing in a raspy drawl that betrayed years of, um, interesting life choices, and he was magnetic to watch – even when he wasn’t singing I always wanted to see what he was doing on stage. And of course, this lead to me wanting to check out the records….

And that began here. I took critic Robert Christgau's advice and chose between three albums he gave an 'A' grade to – this one, 2006's The Devil You Know (currently out of print, but it's great and turns up used regularly) and Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables from 2012 (also great, but too recent to be eligible for this column). In addition to being readily available and having a cheeky nod to Dylan in the album’s name, this had the added bonus of a song title that grabbed me outright: “Conservative Christian, Right-Wing Republican, Straight, White, American Males” – how does one have a title like that and not have it grab me? But as it turned out, the reality of the song was even better. Snider mixes big doses of humor in with his more serious (and very down-to-earth) political side, and not only is the song smart and catchy, it's funny as hell too. But he’s funny (and serious and smart and catchy) all over the record even before that one, which is track 8. Right from the get-go, “Age Like Wine,” he’s self-deprecating enough to sing “my new stuff is nothing like my old stuff was / and neither one is much when compared to the show / which will not be as good as another one you saw” and mean it. And he notes, in lyrics that chart his self-destructive tendencies as readily as his self-deprecating ones, that he never thought he’d live to be as old as he is and that it’s “too late to die young now” as he’s knocking on 40’s door. And he moves directly from there into a story that helps illuminate this idea, “Tillamook County Jail,” where he came “down on vacation / gonna leave on probation” and is hoping of his girlfriend that “she's not so mad now that she doesn't even pay my bail.”

And though common-man stories of drinking and hell-raising run throughout the record (and his career), it’s not all he does, as in the album’s centerpiece and probably its best song, “The Ballad of the Kingsmen.” The song refers back to the public scare about the supposedly obscene words of the Kinsgmen’s classic “Louie Louie” that went all the way up to an FBI investigation and draws that forward to Columbine and the tendency of many pundits to blame youth violence on music and the arts. In addition to his own copyrights, all of which are worth hearing and which I’ll leave you to discover on your own (and make a special quick note for the great “Sunshine”), Snider nails three covers here. In ascending order of favorites: Billy Joe Shaver’s “Good News Blues,” as funny/catchy as any of Snider’s songs with a great intro thanking Shaver personally for saving him from getting shot in a dive bar; Fred Eaglesmith’s “Alcohol and Pills,” a great tune that finds Snider again copping to a lifestyle that claimed Hank Williams, Elvis, Jimi, Janis, and others; and “Enjoy Yourself,” the album’s closer and summary statement, a hit for Guy Lombardo in 1950 that follows on the heels of “Sunshine” and takes that song (and this album)’s note of moving beyond the bad shit in your life and remembering to – you guessed it – “enjoy yourself while you’re still in the pink.” It’s a lovely memento mori to close things out – light, not somber, funny and smart.

Now I’ve seen Snider three more times solo, plus once more with the Hard Working Americans, I’ve got all the albums – including an essential pair of live ones that give you a taste of his between-song patter that’s often as good as the songs themselves – and I’m totally sold. I even bought his autobiography, which once you’re familiar with the personality that’s behind the songs you really will want to check out. And the other records Christgau gave an ‘A’ to – The Devil You Know and Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables – both as good as this one, or maybe even a hair better. Check ‘em out. But the next record might be different and better than the last one, and probably neither of them is much compared to the live show….

-         Patrick Brown

Monday, October 9, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #176 - The Prestige (2006, dir. Christopher Nolan)

One of the best ways to flummox movie audiences is to release two very similar movies within a few months of each other. At some point, a majority will pick one Truman Capote, one asteroid headed for Earth, one erupting volcano, or one talking pig. Although success, either commercial or critical, can help tandem movies like these break away from the association with another film, some of these works languish forever in a blurry region of pop cultural memory. As odd as it may sound, two different, stylish movies about magicians set in Europe during the late 1800s arrived in theaters in the fall of 2006. Whereas The Illusionist amounts to little more than a predictable, yet pleasant looking vehicle for Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti, The Prestige holds up as an absorbing statement on obsession and sacrifice, a well-paced and riveting mystery, and one of Christopher Nolan’s most satisfying films.

Just over a year after Christopher Nolan kicked off his Dark Knight Trilogy with Batman Begins, he recruited Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman to play the leads in an adaptation of Christopher Priest’s novel about rival magicians. Bale and Jackman earned their reputations as charismatic, bankable action stars as the two most important characters of the modern era of comic book movies. As Batman and Wolverine, respectively, these actors set the bar for portraying the kind of flawed, morally ambiguous heroes who have become the standard for contemporary action movies. Nolan leveraged the talent and range of these actors by challenging them with roles that stretched beyond their well-known characters and allowed both actors to add distinctive, new performances to their bodies of work. As Alfred Borden, the industrious, working class magician who blends technical mastery of his craft with a willingness to take risks, Christian Bale creates a character who can shift from sympathetic and admirable in one scene to emotionally distant and ruthless in the next. In the role of Robert Angier, a mysterious performer with a flair for showmanship that compensates for his humble talents in magic, Hugh Jackman depicts an enterprising dreamer whose considerable ambition slowly gives way to an all-consuming desire to prevail over his adversary. Borden and Angier begin working together as assistants for a successful, yet complacent magician, but a pivotal, tragic event during a show causes a rift between them that sparks the epic competition that comes to dominate the rest of their lives. Michael Caine lends his remarkable abilities to the role of Cutter, a magician’s engineer who serves as a mentor to both Borden and Angier, and supplies the film with its conscience. As Sarah, Rebecca Hall gives the film its heart by demonstrating the true cost of Borden and Angier’s conflict through a harrowing, memorable, and nuanced breakout performance.

Although The Prestige is a work of fiction, it draws upon historical details like Nikola Tesla’s scientific experiments in Colorado Springs, Colorado. This element of the plot not only allows Nolan to include several beautiful sequences filmed in Colorado, but also gives David Bowie the opportunity to inhabit the role of the brilliant, otherworldly Tesla. Although a cameo like this could easily distract from the rest of the movie, Bowie’s presence enhances the whole film and endures as one of his last great acting roles. When I went out one cool Friday evening in Vermont eleven years ago to see this movie, I wasn’t entirely sure what I might experience. At that point I had seen a couple of Nolan’s other films, but I didn’t have any notable preconceptions of him as a director. That night, The Prestige presented me with one of my favorite of life’s simple, yet elusive pleasures: the unexpected.

-         John Parsell

Monday, October 2, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #189 - Townes Van Zandt – Flyin’ Shoes (Tomato, 1978)

My introduction to Townes Van Zandt came in 1998 when I first saw the Coen Brothers’ film The Big Lebowski. Lebowski’s incredible soundtrack featured Townes’ cover of the Rolling Stones hit “Dead Flowers” over the end credits. It’s the only example of one of my favorite songs being covered infinitely better than the original. The song was a revelation of sorts for a teenaged me. At the time, I was mostly into metal and abrasive noise rock. Townes showed me that folk music could be just as punk rock as, say, Black Flag or Minor Threat. Townes dealt with subject matter that I related to, such as addiction and loss, in such a brutal and intense way that it is often hard to listen to without becoming emotional. I immediately bought as many of his records as I could get my hands on. One of my favorites, and one that in my opinion often gets overlooked, is his 1978 studio album Flyin’ Shoes.

Much of Flyin’ Shoes’ material was actually recorded in 1973 for 7 Come 11, the record that was supposed to be the follow-up to The Late Great Townes Van Zandt. This record was shelved, however, due to a financial dispute between the head of Townes’ label, Poppy Records and the producer of the album. This fact, coupled with the folding of Poppy Records that same year caused Townes to detach from the music industry, withdrawing further and further into drugs and alcohol. When Flyin’ Shoes did come out, it was Townes’ first offering of new original material in five years, and due to continued struggles with his addiction it would be another nine years after that before he would release another one.

Many would say that Flyin’ Shoes suffers from overproduction and studio trickery. I don’t disagree. It definitely isn’t his best sounding album and tends to lean more toward the country & western side of his talents than the folk music side. But what it lacks in rawness it more than makes up for in songwriting. Townes pens some of his cleverest lyrics in such songs as the ambiguously funny “Snake Song,” or the album’s opener, “Loretta,” an ode to a “barroom girl” whom we have all probably met at some point. Flyin’ Shoes also offers plenty of Townes’ trademark melancholy on songs like the despairing love song “When She Don’t Need Me” or the title track.

Besides his penchant for brilliant lyrics, Townes also has a knack for creating some of the most beautiful melodies ever recorded. “No Place to Fall” and “Dollar Bill Blues for instance are among the best songs he’s ever recorded with melodies that stay with you. Personally I think the record only really has one weak spot and that is his cover of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love?” which really isn’t bad so much as it is just kind of unnecessary and sort of disrupts the natural flow of the record. But again, this is a personal and very minor gripe, barely noticeable when listening to the record as a whole.

In 2007, I was on tour with my band at the time and we played a show in Oxford, Mississippi. Oxford is home to Fat Possum Records, who we were playing a showcase for that night. They had just recently released a slew of Townes Van Zandt reissues and we got paid for the show in promo copies. After our show we were offered a place to stay by some locals who were in attendance. They lived in this development where there was a common courtyard-type area where all the neighbors would sit around in lawn chairs and drink. We partied there well into the morning and at a certain point I got up and went into someone’s house and crashed on the couch. I was sleeping maybe 40 minutes when I was awakened by Flyin’ Shoes being blasted at the loudest volume I’ve ever heard a stereo be capable of. Our hosts had found our “payment” for that night’s show. I tell this story not only because it’s amusing but also to illustrate that even at an unacceptable volume during an aggressive hangover Flyin’ Shoes got me back up and partying again.

-         Jonathan Eagle