Monday, November 27, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #193 - Slint – Spiderland (Touch & Go, 1991)

When I was in high school, I was obsessed with what my friends and I called “noise rock.” Really, this was just an umbrella term for anything angular, dissonant and somewhat difficult to listen to. It may have started when my older cousin introduced me to one of my first favorite bands, the Butthole Surfers, before I was even old enough to shave, but it really took root in my teenage years. I immersed myself in all things Amphetamine Reptile, Boner Records, Sub Pop and so many more. The Touch & Go label out of Chicago was, in addition to being home to the Butthole Surfers at the time, one of my go-to fixations. I bought as many Touch & Go releases as I could get my hands on. And even in those pre-internet days, this wasn’t that difficult. Each T&G release came with a full fold-out catalog with all their releases and the releases from all their subsidiary labels. I bet I had one of those catalogs in my pocket at all times throughout the ‘90s. I used them as a kind of checklist of records to buy and artists to check out. The T&G catalog not only gave me an education on current roster giants like the Jesus Lizard, Urge Overkill and Tortoise, but also hipped me to legends like Glenn Branca, the Virgin Prunes and Chrome whose reissues and new material had found homes on the label. One band that always stood out from the rest to me was Louisville, Kentucky’s Slint.

Unless you’ve never read anything to do with music ever, you’ve probably at least seen the name Slint come up in print at some point in your life. They only put out two full-length records and an EP in their short time as a band, yet they are one of the most influential and important bands in the history of rock. Though they were only teenagers when they started the band, they were already kind of scenester veterans, having formed out of the ashes of hardcore punk band Squirrel Bait. Slint’s debut, Tweez, is a masterpiece in its own right, but it’s their second and final album, 1991’s Spiderland, that really garners them the attention that they so richly deserve.

Spiderland came two years after the group’s debut. Back to back, the records sound like two completely different bands. It’s as though in those two years, the members of Slint all went through profound and possibly traumatic personal changes and wrote an album to go along with them. Let’s start with the lyrics, which were actually written during the recording of the sessions at the last minute. The songs deal with topics such as loss, alienation, guilt and paranoia. And, ho-lee shit, can you ever hear that shine through! The vocals are mostly hushed, ominous whispers or nervous spoken bits, alternated with occasional volcanic outbursts of austere shouting and desperate screaming. These dramatic dynamic shifts, combined with the group’s love of odd time signatures, add to the unease that is felt throughout the album. The tension begins immediately, as the harmonic bursts of opener “Breadcrumb Trail” begin an odd tale of carnival folk. “Nosferatu Man,” another high point in the record, is inspired by the F.W. Murnau silent film Nosferatu and could have served well as a soundtrack piece to the film with its jagged, dissonant lead riff and its crawling 5/4 time signature. The album’s closer, “Good Morning, Captain” is perhaps the absolute pinnacle of Slintosity, as it recalls a story of a sunken ship from the vessel’s only survivor. The lyrics are of course delivered in (guitarist/vocalist) Brian McMahan’s trademark mumbled monotone, but the song culminates in the album’s bleakest moment: the band explodes into a feedback-drenched cacophony while McMahan desperately screams “I miss you” over and over.

Spiderland was recorded in four days. Steve Albini, who recorded Tweez, was not called back in to man the boards. Instead, the band opted for Brian Paulson, known for his “live sound” recording technique. The creation of Spiderland was said to be so difficult and grueling an experience for the band that at least one member rumored to have checked himself into a psychiatric hospital upon the album’s completion. Slint themselves disbanded completely before the album even hit store shelves. Even the black and white cover photo (shot by friend of the band Will Oldham) of the four band members treading water up to their necks while wearing somewhat deranged grins suggests that something dark and unusual is contained within.

Spiderland’s legacy continues to grow even today. It is, after all, the album that basically invented modern day “post-rock” in all of its forms (post-metal, post-hardcore, post-whatever the hell). And if you don’t believe that, just listen to the album. Upon repeated listens, it will start to make sense to you why Explosions in the Sky and Godspeed You! Black Emperor are often lumped into the same category as vastly different bands like Pelican and Isis. You can hear all of those bands in Slint’s Spiderland. There is a famous quote regarding The Velvet Underground, stating that (and I’m paraphrasing because I don’t feel like looking up the exact quote) not many copies of the Velvet’s debut sold, but everyone who bought one started a band. I think the same could apply to Slint. They didn’t make a huge splash at the time, but the ripples from that small splash can still be felt today.

-         Jonathan Eagle

Monday, November 20, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #179 - Broken Embraces (Los abrazos rotos) (2009, dir. Pedro Almodóvar)

“For years, Mateo Blanco and Harry Caine shared the same body, mine. But a moment came when suddenly I could only be Harry Caine. I became my pseudonym. A self-made writer made by himself. There was just one unforseen detail. Harry Caine would be a blind writer.”

In 2009, when Broken Embraces was released, I was nearing the end of my degree in film studies, yet I hadn’t found my way to the films of Pedro Almodóvar. Having heard amazing things about the director I decided to go and see what all of the fuss was about, and I was certainly not disappointed. The delicate way that Almodóvar dealt with such a complex and inherently human narrative blew me away and thus began my love affair with the director.

The story begins toward the end of the storyline, introducing us to Harry Caine (Lluís Homar), a blind screenwriter with a penchant for beautiful women and spinning intricate storylines. As a seemingly unimportant news story comes up in conversation, Almodóvar takes the story back in time to 1992, where we meet Lena (Penélope Cruz) and her seemingly stern yet benevolent boss Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez). Lena’s father is quite sick, and through a series of quick events, Ernesto comes to Lena’s rescue to provide her father with the best possible care thus sparking the evolution of their relationship. Bouncing back and forth from 2008 and 1994 we slowly learn more about Harry, his friend and representative Judit (Blanca Portillo), her son/Harry’s writing assistant Diego (Tamar Novas), and the ways that all of their lives are more connected to each other and the scenes from the past than initially seemed. Lena always hoped to be an actress, and after years of living with Ernesto, she decides to try and pursue that dream. She ends up at the office of screenwriter and director Mateo Blanco (Who we also know as Harry Caine). Blanco sees something in Lena and decides to cast her in the lead of the film he is about to begin shooting. The two begin to fall for each other thus creating a complicated web of affairs that leaves the viewer yearning for more reveals through the jumps in time.

The density of the narrative could easily get away from a lesser director yet Pedro Almodóvar masterfully and gently weaves this tale with a doting attention to detail and understanding of the subtleties inherent in the human condition.  Coupled with stunning performances from the entire cast, but especially Homar, Cruz, Gómez, and Portillo, Broken Embraces is a fantastic tale of love, loss, and the ability to move forward despite epic tragedy.

What makes this film such a triumph, in my humble opinion, is the fact that the weight of the drama of the film is balanced with the levity, tenderness, and humor that truly makes life enjoyable. I can’t recommend this film enough, as it is a truly gorgeously woven tale of the human condition in all of its facets. Check it out and see for yourself, you will not be sorry you did!

-          Edward Hill

Monday, November 13, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #192 - Mos Def / Talib Kweli - Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star

In November of 2011, I saw Mos Def and Talib Kweli perform as Black Star at the Roseland Theater in Portland, Oregon. The opening act, Shabazz Palaces, made an already impressive event feel even more remarkable. By the time I attended that concert, I had been following Mos Def and Talib Kweli’s solo careers for years, but I first became acquainted with each of them through their breakout 1998 album, Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star. That performance blossomed into a celebration of the bond between these two artists and highlighted the chemistry they share. Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star prevails as an introduction to two exceptional talents in which they bring out the best in each other, a bold statement of purpose that influenced the course of its genre, and easily one of the greatest hip-hop albums of the last twenty years.

Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star moves with such an effortless flow over its fifty minute running time that it’s easy to forget how much it accomplishes in terms of expressing values, meaningful ideas, and artistic integrity. For as thoughtful and relevant as Black Star can be, the joy shared between these artists offsets any burden of seriousness that could weigh down the proceedings. Both Mos Def and Kweli possess lyrically dense, idiosyncratic, and inventive vocal styles, but a major part of the success of this album stems from their ability to draw off of each other’s stylistic strengths while establishing their respective individual voices as rappers. Running back-to-back in the first half of the album, the tone-setting one-two punch of “Definition” and “RE: DEFinition” establish Mos Def’s melodic, humorous, and elastic wordplay as well as Kweli’s rhythmic, cerebral, and urgent verbalism. Opening with a revealing and amusing clip of dialogue from the film Chameleon Street, “Brown Skin Lady” tilts into a bass heavy groove as Mos Def and Kweli extol the natural beauty of women of color. The song’s loose energy and warm mood make it the album’s most appealing track while its positive, respectful message stands in stark contrast to the misogyny and objectification of women especially prevalent to mainstream hip-hop of the era. Layering an excerpt from the 1983 hip-hop documentary Style Wars with a repeating loop of a woman whispering “escúchela, la ciudad respirando,” “Respiration” begins as a sound collage and places the listener at the heart of a bustling urban setting. Mos Def, Kweli, and guest vocalist Common soon populate this environment and begin trading vivid, overlapping tales of life in the city and pull off the album’s most ambitious moment. Being the product of a rich and fruitful partnership, Black Star holds up to frequent and repeated listening and has matured incredibly well for a hip-hop album from the late 1990s.

Although Mos Def and Talib Kweli have collaborated on individual songs and performed on stage together over the last nineteen years, they have recorded only one album as Black Star. Within a few years of Black Star’s release, Mos Def and Talib Kweli appeared as guests on one another’s early albums. Kweli adds a playful, yet compelling dynamic to the maximalist jam “Know That” from Mos Def’s excellent solo debut, Black on Both Sides. Mos Def plays an empathetic, supporting role on “Joy,” Kweli’s ode to the challenges and rewards of parenthood from his first-rate sophomore album, Quality. Of these later collaborations, the song that best recaptures the magic of Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star appears on Mos Def’s crucial 2011 album, The Ecstatic. “History” features a J Dilla production and flies by in just under two and a half minutes as Mos Def and Kweli hold forth on their personal, professional, and shared histories.

-          John Parsell

Monday, November 6, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #178 - Daughters of the Dust (1991, dir. Julie Dash)

2017 represents a milestone for two of the most significant films in African-American cinema history. It’s the 40th anniversary of Charles Burnett’s landmark Killer of Sheep, an episodic, loose narrative centered around a slaughterhouse worker, and it’s also the year that Julie Dash’s 1991 film Daughters of the Dust – the first feature film ever distributed in the U.S. that was directed (and also written and produced) by an African-American woman - enjoyed a re-release in theaters and an upgraded remastering on DVD and blu-ray.

Dash’s film got much-deserved notice as the remastering work (done in 2016) coincided with the 25th anniversary of the film, but it got a huge bump in attention when Beyoncé borrowed imagery from the film for her visual album Lemonade (there are a number of online articles noting similarities), and that helped the film see not only a remastering, but a re-release in theaters this year as well. But the accolades would mean little if Dash’s enigmatic, sumptuous film did not hold up to repeat viewings – a test it passes with flying colors.

Daughters of the Dust is set in 1902 on the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina as the Peazant family, a community of Gullahs – free descendants of African slaves – prepare to move to the mainland and head north for more opportunity. Because of the Gullahs’ isolation, they’ve retained a distinct dialect and unique culture, rooted in the African traditions passed down through generations and married to the New World. In fact, more than any specific plot points (though the intertwining relationships of the characters is also important), that is the theme of the film: the future and the past are related, and a community’s history is a living thing to be carried by the present generation and passed on to the future. Early in the film, matriarch Nana (Cora Lee Day) says this outright “The ancestor and the womb – they one, they the same” and this is the film’s central idea. It’s why an as-yet-unborn narrator remembers things from before her birth and appears in a photograph documenting the Gullahs before they leave the island. Some have found the film’s dialect challenging to understand, but close listening makes all but the most obscure language clear, and while the relationships of some of the characters can also be challenging to work out, again it comes back to the idea that the film is about a community, and a straight linear story is not on the agenda. Instead we’re immersed in this community and allowed the privilege of observing a set of customs long gone in the real world, but retained in all their vitality in Dash’s gorgeously photographed and acted film.

The film can be a challenge, yes, particularly if you’re hung up on everything being clearly explained to you or a plot that moves steadily from A to B to C, but it’s absolutely worth the effort – there’s simply nothing else like it in cinema. Dash reached into her own family’s history to tell the story of “the adult-born-free African-American person, the first generation of free-borns making decisions about their future” and she assembled a cast and a crew around her to help realize her work beautifully. The cinematography is simply ravishing from beginning to end, and Dash’s decision to allow the women’s conversations and decisions be the driving force of the film is absolutely the right choice. From Nana’s resistance to the move north to Yellow Mary’s (Barbara O) return to the scorn of much of her family and realization how much her roots mean to her to Eula’s (Alva Rogers) fears about her unborn child and her heart-rending final speech, “We carry too many scars from the past. Our past own us. We wear our scars like armor…” the stories interwoven into the totality of the film are absolutely compelling and deserving of multiple viewings. The film is an underseen masterpiece of American filmmaking and deserving of the widest possible audience.

-Patrick Brown