Friday, December 29, 2017

2017 Best Of Lists from Friends of Twist & Shout! Part 1

Record Exchange, Boise, ID
List: HERE
Website: HERE

Omega Music, Dayton, OH
List: HERE
Website: HERE

Terry Currier, Music Millennium 
3158 E Burnside St. in Portland, OR

Taylor Townes, Merge Records
North Carolina 

Laetitia Sadier Source Ensemble - Finding Me Finding You
Bitchin Bajas - Bajas Fresh
Joshua Abrams / Natural Information Society - Simultonality
Brooklyn Raga Massive - In C
Wand - Plum
Circuit Des Yeux - Reaching for Indigo
Laraaji - Bring On the Sun
Chuck Johnson - Balsams
Mind Over Mirrors - Undying Color
Cate Le Bon - Rock Pool
A. Savage - Thawing Dawn 
Reissues: Midori Takada - Through the Looking Glass & Hiroshi Yoshimura - Music for Nine Postcards

Monday, December 25, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #195 - Kenny Rankin - Silver Morning

Here’s a gift for the holiday - something rare, warm and beautiful. You may have never heard of Kenny Rankin - he was never a top ten artist, he garnered little airplay, and he barely penetrated public consciousness. However, if you were among those lucky enough to have discovered this artist of uncommon gifts during his heyday in the 1970’s, (although his career stretched from the mid-60’s to ’07) you were given a mighty respite from tumultuous times. Kenny Rankin’s magic was very simple for me. His music evokes a state of calm. His voice is a magnificent instrument of sooth and healing, and his music is inviting and approachable. My favorite album by Kenny is 1974’s wondrous Silver Morning, because it so beautifully balances his own compositions with world class covers and exudes the gauzy comfort of happier times. While clearly of another time, there is paradoxically, a timeless quality about this album. It always seems to make emotional sense.

Kenny Rankin’s greatest gift was his angelic voice. One of the great interpreters of song in the rock era, his versions of Beatles songs endeared him greatly to the authors, with his version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” being played at George Harrison’s memorial service. On Silver Morning he takes on both “Blackbird” and “Penny Lane” to amazing effect, turning them into patented jazzy vocal swingers. He reimagines complex arrangements into equally complex different arrangements which replace many instruments with the power of his own voice. But Kenny Rankin did not skimp on musical muscle. The performances are lush and full featuring the cream of 70’s jazz and rock session cats. Rankin has a way of getting inside the most iconic songs’ melodic core and adding his own cool sensibility to it, giving it life outside of its classic original. Take his amazing version of Curtis Mayfield’s undeniable “People Get Ready.” Rankin takes the song to a place of folk-soul bliss, mellower than Mayfield’s, yet with a new sheen of beauty driven by John Sebastian’s beautiful harmonica playing and Rankin’s own nylon-string guitar strumming. Also covered on this album are Baden Powell’s lovely “Berimbau,” Gordon Lightfoot’s “Pussywillows Cattails” and a sublime version of Frankie Lymon’s “Why Do Fools Fall In Love?”

However, my greatest affection is for the Rankin originals on this album. The title track “Silver Morning” is an orchestral ballad that never fails to lift my spirits. It is the musical equivalent of a warm patch of sunlight on a Persian rug during the dead of winter. It is a welcome and comforting presence in the room. Equally beautiful is “Killed A Cat,” a downbeat memoir of his youth growing up in New York City. And no song on this album has thrilled me more over the years than the exhiliratng “In The Name Of Love.” The first time I heard this song, shortly after getting my first acoustic guitar, I just about lost my mind. This guy was doing everything I could have aspired to accomplish in the cultural open-wound that was the early 1970’s; he played like a demon (Dylan had used him on some mid-60’s sessions), he had a voice that was like mercury coated with honey: controlled yet liquid, and his arranging sensibilities were both honoring the past and totally forward-looking. This song was really something, and it still feels that way when I listen to it 43 years later. Nothing else is quite like this, and very few albums have had such a consistently tranquil effect on my psyche as Silver Morning has. Need a remedy for today’s political nightmare? Take Kenny Rankin and call me in the morning.

-         Paul Epstein

Monday, December 18, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #181 - Mirrormask – (2005, dir. Dave McKean)

When I was in a freshman in high school in the early nineties, I wanted to hang out in T-Court, an outdoor space carved out between the junction of three academic buildings where all of the weird, creative older students ate lunch. These students traded cassette tapes by Bauhaus and Sonic Youth, talked about movies like The Fisher King and Edward Scissorhands, and read comics like Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. From that point forward, I felt a deep connection between Neil Gaiman’s work and what it means to be young, strange, and drawn to the less explored corners of life. Dave McKean’s off-kilter, evocative cover illustrations for The Sandman series provided an influential touchstone for the decade’s non-mainstream style. In 2005, Gaiman and McKean teamed up with The Jim Henson Company to create Mirrormask, a coming-of-age movie that bristles with all of the emotional intensity and unbridled imagination of an adolescent fever dream.

While an inventive credits sequence establishes the visual language of the film, Gaiman and McKean drop the audience into an unfolding domestic drama within minutes of the opening curtain for The Campbell Family Circus. The performers are busy warming up, but Helena, the daughter of the couple who own and run the circus, sits in her trailer amusing herself with an improvised sock puppet show. As the circus begins, Helena’s mother rushes to her daughter’s locked trailer and pleads, “All of those kids in there, they want to run away and join the circus.” In real life!” Helena’s fight with her mother escalates and she yells out something hurtful that she might regret instantly, but certainly feels a deep, growing sense of remorse when he mother falls ill during that night’s performance. By the next morning, Helena and her father are facing the mounting challenges of medical bills, the fate of the circus, and the uncertainty of her mother’s health problems. One night during this stressful, traumatic week, Helena falls asleep and wakes up in world that quickly reveals itself to be a skewed reflection of the life she knows. Mirrormask proceeds with an idiosyncratic fluidity that blurs the distinction between the images in an artist’s sketchbook and dreams that inspired them. Before this movie, Gaiman and McKean had been working together for years on collaborative projects that honed their complementary artistic styles. Adding The Jim Henson Company to bring this shared vision to life on screen feels like an inevitable choice. Stephanie Leonidas, although no longer in her teens during production, brings a surprisingly authentic innocence, churlishness, and honesty to her performance of Helena, a teenager facing a crisis while balancing just on the edge of impending adulthood. Gina McKee and Rob Brydon, two great, veteran supporting actors from British film and television play Helena’s parents and provide the film’s generous heart as well as its wicked sense of danger.

Mirrormask shares more than a few similarities with Jim Henson’s 1986 coming-of-age fantasy romp, Labyrinth, but something about this movie feels like a secret and it possesses a delicate intimacy absent from the earlier movie. Gaiman offsets his masterful fantasy world-building skills with a wry, literate sense of humor while McKean and The Jim Henson Company push the bounds of CGI to create moments that feel like walking through a living abstract sculpture exhibit. When I first saw this movie, I realized that Helena reminded me of the kids who hung out in T-Court. Helena feels like a real teenager coping with massive changes in her life and struggling to make sense of what’s happening. In portraying Helena’s journey so beautifully, Gaiman and McKean achieve an unflinching emotional impact unusual for a movie aimed at young people.

-          John Parsell

Monday, December 11, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #194 - Fred Frith – Gravity

When I lived in New York City, I used to hit about a dozen record stores in a ten block radius in and around Greenwich Village, all of which had their own niche focus that made it so I *had* to go to them all to make sure I had the best possible chance of finding what I wanted. One of these stores, Lunch For Your Ears, focused on avant-garde jazz and experimental music from around the world, and as my tastes expanded outward I found myself going there occasionally. The owner was Manny, a notoriously cranky record store guy. Manny was intimidating - he seemingly knew everything about the music I was just learning about, scoffed at a lot of the more mainstream stuff I enjoyed, and in classic NYC style was a pretty thorny person - on the outside. But if you got past the exterior, he was a passionate and broad-minded music lover with a deep knowledge of tons of hard to categorize music - jazz-ish improvisors, noise rock of varying stripes, art-music in all subgenres, international musicians, and so forth - lots of whom played at the (then) nearby Knitting Factory, and many of whom frequented his store and were on a first name basis with him.
One time my friend Dave and I were killing time at the store, looking at records without any specific need to buy one. Manny noticed Dave looking at a King Crimson album and asked him if he was a fan. Dave tentatively said “sure” and Manny said “You guys have some time?” and proceeded to turn off the lights, close the door to his shop, sit us down in a couple chairs, and play us an eight-minute segment of a live King Crimson video with a stunning, acoustic Robert Fripp solo. Another customer tried to come in during this and he wouldn’t let him in, telling him that he was busy with us and he could come in in a bit. Once the video had played, he simply and reverentially said (to the air more than to either of us specifically) “And they say the man is just a master of electric guitar…” turned the lights on and resumed normal business - as normal as he got anyway. That was Manny in a nutshell - so invested in the actual music that he couldn’t be bothered to let a customer in because he wanted to share the music he loved with another customer. And Dave bought Larks’ Tongues in Aspic.
Another time, based on the strength of the album Gravity, I was getting deep into the daunting catalog of Fred Frith - the English guitarist/violinist/composer who was one of the mainstays of art-rockers Henry Cow and about dozen other bands (including John Zorn’s thrash-noise-jazz outfit Naked City) that I would soon learn about - and I needed to get my hands on whatever I could afford. I went to the obvious spot to find this kind of music - Lunch For Your Ears - and was a little disappointed to find that the store wasn’t open (though I knew I had limited funds anyway) and the steel gate was most of the way down. Looking in the window and turning to leave, Manny suddenly appeared behind the metal shutter and asked me “What are you looking for? I know every record I have in here.” I was taken aback and said “Ummm… Fred Frith I guess?” He asked what my favorite album of his was, since Frith covered so much territory in his music. The instrumental album Gravity was my answer, and Manny quickly countered that he preferred the subsequent (and more challengingly spiky) album Speechless then rattled off about a dozen in-stock titles off the top of his head, including the just-released Naked City EP Torture Garden. It was the only thing under ten bucks, so I bought it. I might have bought more over time at the store, but Manny made me a little nervous. So for the time being I stuck to Gravity and (less-frequently) Speechless and the pure WTF-ness of the Naked City record.
            And there’s no question about it - whatever Frith’s reputation as experimentalist, as avant-gardist, and no matter how many different types of records he releases - Gravity is something special and very different in his catalog. Where much avant-garde is challenging, deliberately off-putting, humorless, here was a record that had hallmarks of experimental music - odd time signatures, dissonance - but was also catchy, danceable, and just plain fun to listen to. It kicks off with Frith’s high-pitched laugh at the beginning of “The Boy Beats The Rams,” as if to signal his intentional break with the seriousness and intensity of Henry Cow, then an insistent drumbeat starts to fill in the space between the ambient noises and Frith’s fiddle. This drives forward into the light, gentle “Spring Any Day Now,” which disguises its tricky bossa nova –inspired rhythms with a catchy guitar melody that sticks in the craw. The (album) side progresses through the deliberate rhythmic shifts of “Don’t Cry For Me,” the speedy tempos and gypsy violin improvisations of “Hands of the Juggler,” and the heavier guitar riffing of “Norrgården Nyvla” before closing out on the show-stopping drumming and oddball circus feel of “Year of the Monkey.” This is not the avant-garde that’s difficult and off-putting, this is the kind that welcomes you in, that invites you to enjoy song structures and melody rather than eschewing them. And even though Frith switches bands for the second half of the record, it’s still of a piece with the first, giving us some more challenging art rock in a vaguely Beefheart-ish mode a couple times, a tune that sounds like the theme for a late 60s TV cop show, and a playfully disrespectful cover of “Dancing In the Street” before taking in another fiddle tune with a heavy Scottish influence and a lovely and calming piano solo with light percussion that closes out the record on an almost lullaby-like feel.
            The whole thing is catchy, rhythmically propulsive (even when they go for more challenging meters), and very user-friendly. And if someone like Manny has intimidated you into thinking that experimental music is inaccessible or over your head, I’m here to tell you that Gravity is a key to accessing a lot of different things: art-rock, largely improvised music, international musics of varying stripes, and the variety of Fred Frith’s work as well. It did that for me, pushing me off in a dozen directions at once and opening a lot of doors for me, musically speaking. Manny’s right, Speechless is great too, but Gravity is the easier in for sure. And we can talk about Naked City’s Torture Garden another time.
(Note: Manny closed Lunch For Your Ears in the early 90s and joined up with another Lower East Side guy, Bruce Gallanter, to open the similarly-stocked Downtown Music Gallery, which still operates in Chinatown. Check ‘em out if you’re there!)

-          Patrick Brown

Monday, December 4, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #180 - Radio Days (1987, dir. Woody Allen)

In 1987 when Woody Allen made Radio Days, he waxed nostalgic for the days before television, when memories were formed and commemorated at the pace set by weekly radio programs, yet he could scarcely have conceived of the world of social media we inhabit now, where truth is lie and memories are discarded as soon as they are made. His incredibly heartfelt and masterful tribute to a slower time, when families sat together in living rooms and experienced life together as it crackled out of old vacuum tubes, feels like a prehistoric cave drawing compared to today’s reality. With hindsight, Radio Days is one of Woody Allen’s greatest achievements, and the movie that most exposes his sentimental attachment to his own childhood.

Taking place in the early 1940’s as World War II begins to permeate the consciousness of all Americans, our hero, Joe (clearly Woody as a child) narrates the story of his family’s combative but close living situation. An extended family of first generation Jews inhabiting tight quarters in Rockaway, Long Island, they, by physical necessity, experience everything together. No influence is more prevalent or central to their existence than the
constant warm glow of the radio. News of the day binds them emotionally, while talk shows and serials light their imaginations. No aspect though, is more present than the musical hits of the day. Along with the miraculous cast which includes Dianne Wiest, Mia Farrow, Julie Kavner and Michael Tucker (with cameos by everyone from Diane Keaton to Wallace Shawn to Larry David), the most present character in the movie is the delightful and memorable soundtrack. Filled with heart-tugging melodies and hilariously obscure novelty songs, Allen weaves them into the plot of his movie in a unique fashion - they don’t just accent the action, they predict, dictate and drive it forward. The songs propel the plot and color the most memorable scenes with unimaginable emotional impact. And emotional impact is where Woody Allen is heading with this movie. This is not one of his slapstick outings, nor is it a philosophical treatise on Man’s existential search for meaning, nor is it a fantasy. In fact, it stands alone in his canon as a beautifully honest and wistful autobiographical depiction of family and childhood.

Radio Days is blessed with a simultaneously linear and random plot line. Like memory itself, which boils the endless moments of life down to certain indelible images and an overall emotional “flavor,” this movie is episodic, and each episode is deeply imbued with rich details of family life and unforeseen emotional outcomes. Through it all is Joe’s childish narration, reminding us that the events which move history have deep resonance on the family and individual levels. The romantic life of Joe’s perpetually single Aunt Bea (Wiest) feels like another episode of his Mother’s favorite show, Breakfast With Roger And Irene. Allen’s script completes this circle in such an artistically satisfying fashion, weaving the lives of the actors of those shows into Joe’s life. In the end, as Joe melancholically bemoans the loss of radio, and ultimately the loss of youth, innocence and familial connection, we can’t help but share his sadness. In losing the details of our childhoods: the shows, the actors, the classrooms, the holiday dinners, the lives of our parents, we ourselves actually start to disappear, in real time, as we approach our own demise.

In a career defined by such artistic greatness and equally by such personal and public failure, Radio Days stands out in Woody Allen’s filmography as one of his purest artistic expressions. He masterfully creates a series of touching, jewel-like moments from life, which will ring true to anyone with a heart, and then he creates narrative connective tissue with the sounds of the radio and the unbreakable bonds of family. It is his most emotionally satisfying film.

-          Paul Epstein