Monday, April 30, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #204 - Nellie McKay - Normal As Blueberry Pie: A Tribute to Doris Day

Nellie McKay is a jazz-schooled, showtune-raised singer-songwriter whose stylistic tour-de-force debut double-album Get Away From Me was recorded when she was only 21 (or possibly just 19, depending on what reports you read), released by Sony Music after a bidding competition with other labels, with the Beatles’ engineer Geoff Emerick producing. That’s a lot to live down on future releases. And sure enough, the failure of the album to go gold despite the record’s widespread acclaim and dazzling diversity (or maddeningly hyperactive eclecticism, depending on your point of view) meant that she wouldn’t coast as readily into a music career as her talents deserved.
And talented she definitely is - a multi-instrumentalist and piano player with jazz chops, a singer of pure and natural ease and a big voice, a lyricist with sarcastic wit and strong feminist and progressive ideas, a songwriter who knows jazz, Broadway, varied styles of pop from classic to modern, and yet isn’t averse to dropping rock and rap into her music when it suits her. But her métier is the classic pop vernacular where songsmiths use whatever means they choose to get their point across - melded, of course, with her interest in jazz and pre-rock era pop music.
After fighting her label to release her first album a double album, she fought yet again to make the second a double album and Sony balked – one double album that could’ve fit on a single CD was made by the label under duress, but they weren’t about to do it again and they dropped her, so she released it on her own label. The next time out she tightened things up to an excellent single disc, Obligatory Villagers, tightened the arrangements as well, and traded in pop guests from the last album, like Cyndi Lauper and kd lang, for jazz cats, like saxophonist Dave Liebman and the sadly, recently deceased pianist/vocalist Bob Dorough (best known nowadays for his work on Schoolhouse Rock). And it seemed like a perfect fit – her crafty, jazz-school arrangements and witty, smart lyrics were tailor-made for musicians like these, but the album still didn’t break her through.
It was after the release of this album that I saw McKay live at the now-defunct Trilogy Lounge in Boulder. After three albums of her eccentricity I wasn’t sure what to expect, and I got this (if memory serves): McKay with keyboard and ukulele only, a great voice, great song selection across all three albums, and a kookiness that bordered on ADD behavior, her mind and between-song banter flitting from topic to topic until she lost her train of thought and got back on with the next song where she focused her energy until the next break. During one break she called her brother on her cell to wish him a happy birthday – or pretended to maybe as a piece of performance art? Hard to say for sure, but it’s what she does – jumps from idea to idea, never sitting still long enough to get pigeonholed. So what came next in her career? A tribute to Doris Day, naturally, released by the jazz-associated Verve label, which had put in a bid for McKay’s contract in the first place.
How does Doris Day’s image as a mild and complacent Midwestern housewife fit in with McKay’s world of parental advisory stickers, hip-hop influence, and explicit feminism though? Aside from a love for the verbal wit of classic pop (as well as a longtime commitment to animal activism), McKay’s got a basic love of melody and the voice to pull off the kinds of tunes that Day wrapped her big voice around. Taking on a dozen songs that Day recorded during her long career (only one of them, “Sentimental Journey,” was a big hit for Day) and adding one original, McKay tackles tunes from such lauded songsmiths as Rodgers and Hammerstein, George & Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer and others, and, unexpectedly enough, plays it straight throughout. She’s not here to mock, but to celebrate the direct beauty of these melodies, the craft and (sometimes) sentimentality of these words. In short, she’s playing it “normal as blueberry pie” here and it sounds great. If you compare to Doris Day’s versions, Nellie McKay’s are sleeker, wilder and looser, unburdened of Day’s orchestral backings and given jazzier, more rhythmically exciting readings, but readings where McKay shares Day’s clear diction and enunciation and, of course, her big voice putting the songs across. So from love songs like “The Very Thought of You” (on which McKay plays every instrument), “Mean to Me” and the album-highlight “Wonderful Guy” over to dance tunes like “Crazy Rhythm” and “Dig It” to a novelty tune like Calamity Jane’s “Black Hills of Dakota,” Nellie McKay doesn’t update, undercut, or do anything but sing (and arrange, and perform) these tunes. Maybe there’s a wink here and there, as in the sotto voce asides in “Dig It” but she’s never making fun – she’s just loving the songs. This puts the focus on the songs and the words themselves, which means that those coming to this expecting a sendup can learn not only what made these songs popular, but also what made Day popular – there’s a smart, strong woman performing them and she’s easy to identify with. And though McKay’s arrangements may go further than Day could or would have gone with them at the time, they do no disrespect.
            And where has Nellie McKay gone since then? Another album of originals for Verve (Home Sweet Mobile Home) followed in 2010, then McKay disappeared for a bit, returning in 2015 on yet another label with an excellent album of renditions of 60’s classics, My Weekly Reader. She was quiet again for a while but I got inspired to write this up only to find while I was writing that her new album, Sister Orchid (a collection of jazz standards on, again, another label), comes out in three weeks. Be sure to check it out, but start here with what may well be her best album.
-         Patrick Brown

Monday, April 23, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #190 - Pink Floyd - Live At Pompeii

     When first released in America in 1973, Pink Floyd Live At Pompeii was a moderate success, playing in art theatres, on campuses and at midnight movie showings. That was where I first saw it - at the Vogue Theatre on old South Pearl Street (now condos) at a midnight showing. Beginning with a heartbeat pulse in blackness, the scene finally opens with a camera shot above the ancient ruins of the amphitheater at Pompeii. The title wasn’t hyperbole or poetic nonsense -this was actually psychedelic, art-rock rock band Pink Floyd playing in the audience-free remains of a 6th Century Italian ruin – an absolutely mind-blowing conceit from the word go. The ruins themselves make for the most cosmic of backdrops, yet director Adrian Maben goes further, filming Pompeii’s famous active volcano spewing lava and boiling mud, and having the members of Pink Floyd stroll through this alien landscape. Maben also includes shots of the world-class statues, tiles and frescos (some highly erotic) found in the ruins of Pompeii. These elements, along with some additional footage of the band playing in a French studio are masterfully woven together to encapsulate everything that Pink Floyd was at this time; inventive, powerful, ambitious, and uniquely standing on the precipice of world superstardom. Yes, remember, this was before their groundbreaking Dark Side Of The Moon album. In fact, in some ways, the overwhelming success of that album blunted some of the movie’s impact on public consciousness. The director’s cut of the movie includes extended scenes of the band working on Dark Side in the studio, which, while fascinating, change the vibe of the film.
For me, it is the original hour-long version of the film that I go back to over and over. It is an important milestone in my personal understanding of why, ultimately, rock music matters. To see one of my favorite bands, and one that has stood the test of time, in this context, shoulder to shoulder with the great artifacts of Western art and culture was both humbling and thrilling. Musically, Pink Floyd play some of their most adventurous music with authority and improvisational abandon. Numbers like “Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun” and “Careful With That Axe Eugene” are the perfect combination of musical convention and cutting-edge, avant experimentation to match the timeless setting. The scene during the song “A Saucerful Of Secrets” where Roger Waters stands in front of and strikes giant gong as the sun sets behind him in the ruins of an ancient stadium while guitarist Dave Gilmour sits barefoot and shirtless in the ancient dirt of Pompeii drawing the most extraordinary sounds out of his instrument are about as memorable and historically impactful as any scene in any music movie.
The musical heart of Pink Floyd Live At Pompeii are the three numbers drawn from their 1971 masterpiece Meddle. The film is bookended with their side long epic “Echoes” which pretty much defines forward-thinking ambition in modern music at this point in history. Again, the historical surroundings meld perfectly with Floyd’s intense, throbbing composition. “One Of These Days” finds the production team down to one working camera, thus the shots revolve around drummer Nick Mason, providing a dizzying swirl of movement that beautifully illustrates the excitement of the song.
I definitely recommend watching the entire director’s cut of this film, because it offers such a rare glimpse into the studio magic (and sometimes tedium) that goes into making a classic album, but, ultimately, it is the actual footage of Pink Floyd playing in the ruins of Pompeii that provides the life-altering experience in this movie. I’ve never gotten over it. To this day, every time I hear that heartbeat opening I am transported back to the body of a 16 year-old sitting in a darkened theatre about to be shown that popular music could be about something deeper than “ooh baby I love you.”

-         Paul Epstein

Monday, April 16, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #203 - Jamie Lidell - Multiply

        The only thing I knew about Jamie Lidell in 2005 was that he was on Warp Records and he made a lot of bleep-bloop electronic music that was not for me. I liked a few artists on Warp at the time (like, Autechre and Aphex Twin and that’s pretty much it), but for the most part, that style of electronic music did nothing for me. Still does nothing for me, really. So when Multiply came out in that year, I decided to put it on for in-store play at the record store where I worked at the time. I figured that it would be filled with random computer noises that I could easily ignore, and maybe we’d sell a copy in the process. Little did I know that when I hit play that day that it would become one of my most listened to albums of all-time.
Allow me to explain: Multiply is not just a change in direction for Lidell. With one prior solo full-length under his belt and a handful of releases from his duo Super_Collider with fellow electronic artist Christian Vogel, Lidell had already made a name for himself in techno and electronica circles. However, on Multiply, he makes a complete 180-degree turn into a new genre with the addition of vocals to these new compositions. What makes this addition so striking is that the man had evidently been hiding an incredibly soulful crooning voice and a knack for writing clever lyrics all these years, giving this album the soul and spirit of classic Motown or Stax. He puts these hitherto unknown skills to use with a dynamic blend of acoustic and electronic instrumentation, while still retaining his unique ear for modern dance styles.
            It takes a minute. The opener, “You Got Me Up,” is a short little dance number with some effective disco-style vocals. But it’s not enough of a departure to really predict what’s in store with the rest of the album. It’s only when the second track, the stellar and infectious title cut, kicks in with its abrupt drum break intro that you realize that this guy is decidedly not fucking around. The influences here span across decades and across genres. There are elements of Funkadelic (“When I Come Back Around”), Otis Redding (“What Is It This Time?”), Night Beat-era Sam Cooke (“Game for Fools”) and Prince (“New Me”). Where his prior talent as a turntablist/laptop artist really comes into play are in tracks like “A Little Bit More” where he effectively uses a loop of his own vocals to act as a layer of percussion throughout the song. The Motown-esque “Music Will Not Last” showcases his uncanny ability to harmonize (albeit, with himself), and the closing track “Game for Fools” is quite possibly a better version of an Al Green ballad than even the Reverend himself could do these days.
            And let’s back up a second. Again, a mere three years before the release of Multiply, Lidell was pretty much doing straight-up IDM exclusively and playing second stage on festivals like Sonar with no name DJs. Since Multiply, he’s released four more phenomenal neo-soul records that would put Harry Connick Jr. to shame. On his most recent, 2016’s Building a Beginning, he’s even ditched the electronic instruments altogether in favor of a live band.
These days, you can’t spit without hitting a nerdy-looking white guy trying to sound like a classic soul singer.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a new release within the last few years that sounded like Rufus or like Cameo, and then looked up the artist and found that he was a bespectacled white dude mugging to the camera like a total asshole. It would be kind of funny if it wasn’t so infuriating, even more so when I find myself actually digging some of these artists. I’m not saying that in 2005 there wasn’t any of this. Hell, Sean Tillman was doing his Sean Na Na/Har Mar Superstar thing long before 2005. Nor am I saying that Jamie Lidell was the first to successfully mix electronic music and R&B. There was a time in the 90s when I couldn’t get away from that shitty Jamiroquai song to save my life. What I am saying is that Multiply spoke to me in a way that I hadn’t to been spoken to before. And I am forever grateful that I gave this album a chance and didn’t see the Warp Records logo on the back of the album and ignore it like I’d done so many times before.
-         Jonathan Eagle

Monday, April 9, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #189 - Elevator to the Gallows (1958, dir. Louis Malle)

"Anything's good for an alibi. Wives, girlfriends, bartenders, childhood friends, deceived husbands - but not an elevator. That's ridiculous. It's totally harebrained."
 - Commissaire de police

The most succinct way to express how I feel about Elevator to the Gallows, Louis Malle's feature length directorial debut, is to say that it exudes the essence of cool. It can often be difficult for a director, especially a new director, to innovate within a strict genre such as that of Film Noir. Often such directors will simply rest on the easy and clichéd conventions inherent to the "noir." However, Malle seems to have effortlessly skirted the traps of the genre and created one of the most brilliant and beautiful noir films of all time (I know, I know, a very bold statement, however it's true...).
Within the first 15 minutes of the film a few very specific events occur and choices are made that trigger all of the dark events to follow. Thrown into the middle of our story, the film opens on Florence Carala (stunningly portrayed by Jeanne Moreau) as she professes her love for Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet). Through reading the clues left for us we discover that the two are lovers, and they have concocted a plot to kill her husband (Simon Carala, played by Jean Wall), who also happens to be an arms dealer and Tavernier's boss. After they get off the phone Tavernier leaps into action, stealthily making his way to his boss’ office under the guise of giving him a report. He then pulls a gun (Carala's own gun) and kills him, staging the scene to look like a suicide and sneaks back into his office just in time to leave with the only other two people left in the office. In the moment that he is about to be home free and drive to meet up with his love, he notices that he's left the hook and rope that he used to scale the wall to get into his boss’ office, thus negating the carefully left suicide scene. He rushes back into the building, leaving his car running, to try and grab the evidence, only to be trapped in the elevator as the attendant shuts down the power. Just as he is being trapped, a small time thief, Louis (Georges Poujouly), and his girlfriend Veronique (played by Yori Bertin, who has a bit of a crush on Julien/Mr. Tavernier) hop in his car and take off, running away to their own absurd sequence of events, but not before Florence sees Julien's car driving away with a young girl in the passenger seat.
In that brief few minutes three separate yet surreally tied narratives commence; Julien Tavernier stuck in the elevator frantically working against time as it seems to stand still, Louis/Veronique as they descend madly into their criminal downward spiral, and Florence as she walks sullenly through her desolate thoughts and fears. The future of all of them is uncertain, the only certainty is the inevitable passage of time. I won't spoil the suspense for you, you'll simply have to watch to see what comes of these three intertwined stories.
Other than this fantastic and brilliantly peculiar story and Malle's masterful development of the tale, there are many other reasons that this film has made its way firmly into my personal top ten. However, in the interest of brevity I will only elaborate on a few of those things. First and most prominently, the film was shot by the French cinematographer Henri Decaë, who crafted a gritty and yet luminous aesthetic, playing with the conventions of noir while metaphorically utilizing a novel lens. Secondly Jeanne Moreau's portrayal of a reflective woman scorned, which has become one of the most lauded performances of this era of French cinema. Thirdly, though the use of music is somewhat sparing, it is certainly impactful when utilized, since it happened to be improvised by none other than Miles Davis and a few other musicians in the heat of a single night in Paris. If you look further into the story behind the soundtrack it only solidifies that this film exudes "cool." Fourth, and finally, I love the fact that I always find myself at the edge of my seat the entire time as the characters are hurled blindly through the insane narrative, the suspense in this film is killer and you can practically cut the tension with a knife!
In the end, this is a film that screams to be seen. I can't fully provide a sufficient description of why you must see Elevator to the Gallows so I will simply wrap up this edition of I'd Love To Turn You On-At The Movies. I implore you to take the time to watch this important film!
-          Edward Hill

Monday, April 2, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #202 - Elliott Smith - From a Basement on the Hill

I was very much a latecomer to Elliott Smith’s music. I’d been aware of his rise in popularity in the late 1990s and had a lot of friends who loved his music but for whatever reason it didn’t appeal to me then. Working at an independent record store in fall of 2004 during the release of Smith’s final and posthumous album, From a Basement on the Hill, proved to be a surreal and transformative time for me. The album came out almost exactly a year after Smith’s tragic and mysterious death and in some ways I felt like an usher at a funeral; I’d guide customers to Smith’s last album and listen as they discussed their sense of loss and connection to his music. A few customers even confessed that during the era of rampant downloading they felt compelled to come into their local record store and buy a physical copy of the album. That experience introduced me to From a Basement on the Hill, a heavy, messy, and ultimately beautiful document of Smith’s artistry that has survived as one of the best rock albums of the last twenty years.

A few weeks ago in preparation for writing this post, I sat down and listened to From a Basement on the Hill from start to finish and came away not only impressed once more with the strength of all of the songs on the album, but also excited to have the chance to celebrate this remarkable work. Unfortunately a lingering, limiting perception of Elliott Smith’s music that has become increasingly common is that it is sad and only sad. The album’s opener, “Coast to Coast,” subverts this view by slowly building from an abstract introduction of soaring, overlapping notes into an arresting, ramshackle tempo before Smith launches into a defiant assertion of independence. At the end of the song, Smith’s righteous willfulness slowly gives way to a morass of dueling voices that could belong to poets, preachers, or talk radio hosts. This device allows Smith an opportunity to reflect humorously on his music getting lost in the commentary of others as well as to establish the album’s sound-collage aesthetic that binds and unites these fifteen songs. A few songs later “Don’t Go Down” stutters through a false start and then coalesces into a spiraling guitar riff before Smith kicks off a narrative of a doomed relationship with a brazen, devastating opening couplet: “I met a girl, snowball in hell. She was hard and as cracked as the Liberty Bell.” Later on, “King’s Crossing” ambles through over a minute of interwoven conversation, ambient instrumentation, and dissonance before culminating into a piano figure and layers of wordless harmony. This subdued preamble soon gives way to playful, yet nightmarish imagery reminiscent of Charles Bukowski’s writing as Smith’s ragged, distorted guitar amplifies the proceedings into one of the album’s most powerful moments. Although I’ve highlighted a few of the album’s heavier and more deconstructed songs, From a Basement on the Hill finds its enduring balance with a number of Smith’s gentler and more conventional songs including “Let’s Get Lost,” “A Fond Farewell,” “A Passing Feeling,” and “Memory Lane.”

Posthumous albums will always be a dodgy proposition in part because we as listeners will never know if the artist would have wanted us to hear this music. The already tricky equation of posthumously released music became even more suspect in 1990s and early 2000s after a trend of frequent releases by recently deceased artists that often seemed more commercially calculated than artistically substantial. Ultimately once these works have been released, it’s up to the listener to judge the music’s merit, but untimely death can cast a shadow of confusion and doubt over the album’s release. At the time of Elliott Smith’s death, From a Basement on the Hill was a work in progress, but it wasn’t finished. It is very possible that this may not be the album Elliott Smith would have released had he lived, but fourteen years later it’s hard for me to imagine life without this album.

-         John Parsell