Monday, May 28, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #206 - Gang Starr – Hard to Earn

If I explain what I love about rap it would be captured in “Mostly Tha Voice.” Take some great drums, add a James Brown bass line from “Give it up or Turnit A Loose,” insert a great voice and some masterful rhymes, and let the DJ scratch and add some flavor - it’s a magic combination. “It’s mostly tha voice, That gets you up/ It’s mostly tha voice, That makes you buck/ A lot of rappers got flavor, and some got skillz/ But if your voice ain’t dope, You need to chill.” Guru had one of the most incredible and instantly identifiable voices in rap. His raspy style never felt rushed or uncertain, and he always delivered great lyrics. DJ Premier would often use a spoken word phrase from another rap song and scratch it up as a chorus or an intro, as he does at several points on this record. Hard to Earn was the fourth Gang Starr record and it was released in 1994.
The first full length song, “Alongwaytogo,” is set up in an interesting tension/release cycle by DJ Premier. He starts out by using a springy sample taken from the Quincy Jones song “Snow Creatures” along with a vocal sample from A Tribe Called Quest’s “Check The Rhime.” When Guru is rhyming in the verse DJ Premier sustains a long, tense tone over the beat. This suspended tone provides pressure which can be released at the chorus. Once the chorus arrives he releases the sustained tone and slices up one of his trademark vocal samples (“How far must you go to gain respect?”). These clearly marked sections are not only a hallmark of Gang Starr’s style but also a sign of how well designed the songs are.
“Code Of The Streets” starts out with a sample of Monk Higgins’ “Little Green
Apples.” It is a descending chord progression that loops throughout the song. DJ Premier has reprogrammed the drums underneath the sample to have a more bouncy and lilting feel than the original Blue Note record. The lyrics explore stealing cars. “Take this for example young brothers want rep/ Cause in the life they’re living, you can’t half step/ It starts with the young ones doing crime for fun/ And if you ain’t down you’ll get played out son.” “Brainstorm” is a pure exhibition of rhyme and DJ skill. The beat is very stripped down and Guru is throwing out rhymes as DJ Premier scratches records and fades them in and out. It is another example of Gang Starr’s strength and cohesiveness as a duo stripped down to the bare boned essentials.
Currently “This Is America,” Childish Gambino’s hit single/video, has millions of views on YouTube addressing many of the same issues that “Tonz O Gunz” presented in 1994. This song contains a sample of the Isaac Hayes song “Breakthrough” and starts off with an excerpt from a Malcolm X speech. “Tonz O Gunz” is about guns flooding into poor neighborhoods and the black on black violence that happens as a result. “The Planet” uses Steve Davis’ “It’s All Because She’s Gone” as a rhythmic and melodic bed for Guru’s story of moving to New York. Once you hear the original sample it’s amazing to hear what it is transformed into. It is sped up slightly and the drums are reprogrammed underneath it giving it a springy and bouncy feel. Guru tells the tale of his moving to Brooklyn and the challenges that it presented in a cohesive narrative that is wrapped around a catchy chorus. “Boom bash dash, I had to break, I had to getaway/ Packed my bags, to leave for good, it was a Monday/ Kissed my mother, gave my Pops a pound/ Then he hugged me, then he turned around.”
Another high point for the record is “DWYCK.” It features the duo Nice & Smooth and the sample of the drums is a simple bed of bass, snare and high-hat from the first few seconds of Melvin Bliss’ “Synthetic Substitution.” Mass Appeal” loops a guitar lick from the Vic Juris record “Horizon Drive” to be the recurring motive for its melodic content. Once again DJ Premier breaks up the verse by scratching a spoken word version of the chorus. This time he is scratching a vocal sample from Da Youngsta’s song “Pass Da Mic.” One of the impressive things about DJ Premier’s sample selections is the variety. Jazz records, blues records, and R&B all make appearances, but in addition how about the Malcolm X sample, Gong, or even sampling a line from one of their own records? This record is dense with samples and lengthy at 17 tracks. I wish I could go into detail about each song but that would make this brief essay too long. Instead I’ll try and impress upon you that the basis of each song is a choice sample or three, and that the rhyming is top notch. Guru has a voice that is one of the best in rap, and the chemistry and cohesiveness of this duo should not be missed. The song topics may fall solidly within a predictable genre and variety of topics, but it should be taken into consideration that this is prototypical New York rap in the 1990’s. The listener must contemplate the execution and the atmosphere. DJ Premier takes classic samples, often combines them with then contemporary influences of peers, and tailors beats for Guru to inhabit and show his skills within.

-         Doug Anderson

Monday, May 21, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #192 - A Serious Man (2009, dir. Joel & Ethan Coen)

          Joel and Ethan Coen have been my favorite filmmakers for almost my entire life, whether I knew it or not. I’m pretty sure that I had watched 1987’s Raising Arizona around fifty times when I was a kid, before I had any interest in who created it. Later, I became obsessed with their nineties films. Fargo, which came out when I was in high school, was a real stepping stone for me as it was probably the reason for my interest in the deeper aspects of filmmaking and for my eventual foray into film as an academic pursuit. And, as cliché as it may be for a male of my age, 1998’s The Big Lebowski is one of my all-time favorite films, if not my all-time favorite. My point is, the Coens have been with me for the better part of my life, seemingly putting out a new film for every phase I’ve gone through. I’ve studied them closely over the years and almost consider them friends that I grew up with. And for this reason alone, I feel qualified to talk about their work.
            Writing about A Serious Man technically breaks the rules of this blog as it’s just under 10 years old. But of all the brothers’ works, I wanted to write about this film the most because it’s not only possibly the most overlooked film in the Coens’ oeuvre, it’s also a film whose subject matter I simultaneously relate to yet know very little about. More on that later. A Serious Man revolves around a Jewish family living in a small Minnesota suburb in 1967, all details that pertain directly to the Coens’ upbringing. So while not strictly autobiographical, these are characters and surroundings that are familiar to the brothers. The always phenomenal Michael Stuhlbarg plays the film’s protagonist Larry Gopnik, a college physics professor whose life begins unraveling when his wife announces she is leaving him for his best friend. This forces him to take a closer look at his life and notice the flaws that he hadn’t previously seen. His son is acting out in Hebrew School, his daughter steals money from him all the time, his unemployed brother-in-law is leeching off of him and he is being simultaneously bribed and blackmailed by one of his students for a more satisfactory grade. When everything goes wrong for Larry, he seeks the guidance of three rabbis to help him get through his crisis and gain a better understanding of his place in the world. The rabbis unfortunately are no help to him, as one lacks the life experience to relate to Larry’s problems, one just offers irrelevant parables that confuse more than they teach and the last one refuses to even see Larry. He begins questioning his faith and wondering whether God is testing him.
            I think part of what makes this film such an underappreciated part of the Coens’ filmography is that, coming out on the heels of Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men just two years prior, A Serious Man is more of a labor of love than their usual undertaking. While the film’s dark humor is pure Coens, it seems like it could be a story that the brothers have had kicking around for years, perhaps dating back to their own days as young Jewish Midwesterners. The cast is made up of largely unknown actors, relatively speaking, and even the way it’s shot seems different than that of their usual cinematography, almost more like a thriller than a comedy. While these facts may deter some from seeing the movie, opting for one of the Coens’ more critically acclaimed titles instead, I think these are reasons to see the film, reasons that A Serious Man might be one of their best. It’s the film that most mirrors what their own lives may have been like, which is fascinating in and of itself. But it also seems like a film they’ve always wanted to create and show the world, and perhaps winning the Best Picture Oscar finally afforded them the creative freedom to do it.
            As I said, I really wanted to write about this film because even though I am not Jewish and do not identify with really any religious customs, I understand reaching crisis mode. As I approach forty next month and have recently gone through a break-up of my own, I’ve done a lot of reflecting recently myself. I do know what it feels like to question whether the universe is testing you or punishing you and the Coens’ have eloquently written this feeling into the character of Larry Gopnik. Larry is just an average guy, trying to be “a serious man” while the world continuously shits on him. Yet he takes it all in stride because of his faith. A Serious Man is also a story about when those limits are tested and where the breaking point is in each person. One doesn’t have to be religious to identify with that.

-         Jonathan Eagle

Monday, May 14, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #205 - Sly & The Family Stone - There’s A Riot Goin’ On

There are certain records that for a variety of reasons fall into the category of inexplicable. Something in the writing or the recording process makes it live outside the rules by which we normally judge albums. What are some examples? Can’s Tago Mago, Brian Eno’s mid-70’s vocal albums, Bob Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind, Spiritualized’s Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, D’Angelo’s Black Messiah to name a few (although admittedly these albums are few and far between, which is ultimately why they are inexplicable). The king daddy of this type of record though is Sly & The Family Stone’s 1971 masterpiece There’s A Riot Goin’ On.
From the very first notes, we realize we are in an alternate universe. Thick, warm, analogue (this is an album to listen to on vinyl if you can get it) notes burble out like velvet, pouring from your speakers, as Sly straddles the universes of soul and rock, essentially inventing funk as we listen (we’ll let James Brown and George Clinton in there too). The songs all seem like clouds passing in front of Sly’s window that he is trying to grab, but they dissipate just as he gets his arms around them. The hits on this album – “Family Affair,” “You Caught Me Smilin’,” and “Runnin’ Away” – clock in at about 3 minutes each, yet each one feels like an epochal leap forward in the evolution of conscious soul. That’s part of the inexplicable nature of this album - time seems to come unglued; there is no sense of normal song length and structure, even though most of the actual songs (save two) are short. By all accounts the recording process was chaos, with Sly, rolling in dough and high as a kite, inviting friends (like Miles Davis, Bobby Womack and Billy Preston) to his rented home studio for days-long sessions that seemingly were producing nothing but enormous studio bills. Credits were not kept, tapes were erased, Sly himself overdubbed other people’s parts. However, Sly was indeed sly and as one of the most experienced and talented producers of the 1960’s, he took this molten insanity and turned it into a cohesive work of startling originality. There are no credits on the album, just a bunch of photos that capture the era, and this just adds to the inexplicability of the album.
Every single song on this album is worth inspection, so let’s look at each one:

“Luv N’ Haight” – a wink-wink to the counterculture - it was issued as a single, and it sets the stage beautifully for this album. Disembodied vocals and keyboard jabs punctuate the roiling bass line. Like many of the songs on the album, it lacks traditional song structure, but rather takes a pounding beat and turns it into a statement.
“Just Like A Baby” - a bit more conventional structure, but still way out. A ballad with a classic slow funk burn. It highlights Sly’s incredible sense of restraint and subtlety. He doesn’t let the languid beat out of his sight for one second. And he resists every temptation to rev the song up into something other than what it is: perfection.
“Poet” - Sly was using a primitive drum machine on some tracks, and it is remarkably effective in combination with the airy sense of the songs and his spare keyboard parts. Again he shows amazing restraint in keeping a lid on this track. It feels like it could explode at any second, but instead it keeps an amazing shuffle groove going under the self-referential lyrics.
“Family Affair” - One of Sly’s greatest hits, it touches on issues of race and love and relationships in a poetic and beautiful way. The backing track boils along like a coffee percolator, with Sly giving a great vocal and his sister Rose providing amazing counterpoint vocals. A true classic.

“Africa Talks To You ‘The Asphalt Jungle’” - Side one closes with this almost 9-minute titanic shot of funk. All the parts lock together like some crazy psychedelic jigsaw puzzle, amazing bass playing up front competes with Sly’s woozy vocals as guitar scratches and tasty keyboard fills lurk around every corner. Like a Miles Davis cut, this sounds like it was extracted from some other endless jam, and in its own context succeeds magnificently as mountain of rock-solid funk. Once again, the theme of this album is restraint. For someone taking mountains of drugs, Sly had an incredibly cohesive vision for what this album was going to sound like. And as such, it stands as an album like no other he made. It isn’t a collection of songs - it is a sound statement.

“Brave & Strong” - Side two starts upbeat with a lurching bass line playing hide and seek with punchy horns and a typically indescribable Sly vocal. More than any singer I can think of Sly influenced a new generation of singers. He, like James Brown, reveled in his own unique ethnic brilliance. He wasn’t trying to fit in mainstream society, he was pointing to a place of pride in who you actually were.

“(You Caught Me) Smilin’” – The most irresistible track on the album, it also jumps like an actual hit single. Slap bass, one of his best “up” lyrics, horns that seem to come from the heavens like heralding angels, and classic Sly keyboard work. When I want to turn somebody onto this artist, this is one of the first songs I play them.

“Time” - Another slow, one might even say torturous, ballad. This song again shows off Sly’s vocal mastery above a simple drum machine beat and subtly placed keyboards, proving that less is more.

“Spaced Cowboy” - The most fun track on the album, and possibly in his entire catalogue, this song contains one of the most hilariously deranged vocals (including the great “soul-yodel”) placed squarely over a driving funk beat. An absolute must for mix tapes.

“Runnin’ Away” – irresistible, guitar-driven little ditty that is deceptive in its simplicity. It is actually an incredibly clever bit of writing that might not have sounded out of place on a Fifth Dimension album. Prescient lyrics that seem more relevant today than ever.

“Thank You For Talkin’ To Me Africa” - A monster! This is the demo version of Sly’s earlier hit “Thank You For Lettin’ Me Be Mice Elf Agin.” It is over seven minutes of pounding, perfect funk. Poppin’ bass, funky clavinet, a loping beat and Sly giving his best half-lidded hipster vocals. It is a foundation piece of all funk.

The overall effect of this album is like getting in a time machine and ending up in 1970 Los Angeles, wandering down a street at dusk, soul music blares from a window here, the thud of a truck there, raw emotional feelings of race, sex, drugs, politics seems to bubble up from the pavement. You drop to one knee, stick your ear to the ground and the inexplicable sound you hear is There’s A Riot Goin’ On.
-         Paul Epstein

Monday, May 7, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #191 - Brazil (1985, dir. Terry Gilliam)

Just before my senior year in high school I kept coming across references to a relatively obscure, yet influential movie from 1985 called Brazil. I didn’t know a lot about it, but I knew that Terry Gilliam had directed it and that musicians I liked and people I respected spoke highly of it. At the time, I had become familiar with some of Gilliam’s work and I had enjoyed movies of his like The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and The Fisher King. However, none of this prepared me for what I was about to see. Brazil bursts forth with an unbridled visual creativity while telling a story of dystopian horror that savors details of mundane beauty and absurdity. The summer I turned seventeen, Brazil exploded my expectations of what a movie can be, affirmed my love of art that surprises me, and reminded me of what we all stand to lose in a technology-addled society that prizes conformity and obedience above all else. 
In the performance of a lifetime, Jonathan Pryce combines a guileless charm with a sometimes frantic physicality for the lead role of Sam Lowery, who is part everyman and part Walter Mitty. In his job as a lowly records clerk, Sam discovers an error in the system that sets in motion a series of events that takes him far from the routine drudgery of his nondescript life up to that point. Veteran character actor Ian Holm showcases his strong comic abilities with the role of Sam’s inept and spineless superior in the records department, Mr. Kurtzmann. Michael Palin (Gilliam’s Monty Python colleague) plays upon his intrinsic good-natured amicability to deliver a devastating portrayal of Sam’s friend and professional rival, Jack Lint, who specializes in the deceptively titled practice of “information retrieval.” Best known for irreverent, matronly roles on TV shows like Soap and Who’s the Boss?, Katherine Helmond brings charisma and gusto to her depiction of Ida Lowery, Sam’s outlandish, vain, and controlling mother. Sam’s path crosses with Jill Layton, a truck driver who witnesses the results of the system’s error, and Sam begins to confuse her with a gauzy, angelic figure who floats through his recurring dreams. As Jill, Kim Greist injects an unorthodox, tense energy into what could otherwise remain a thankless love interest role. One of the screenwriters’ best inventions in the entire film is the character of Harry Tuttle, an anarchist heating engineer who serves as the story’s valiant rogue and ignites within Sam a notion of resistance. As Tuttle, Robert De Niro almost steals the show with a robust and droll performance that endures as one of the most captivating, distinctive supporting roles of his career. The cast also includes two memorable supporting turns from longtime character actors who would both go on to much greater notoriety: Bob Hoskins as a dubious Central Services agent and Jim Broadbent as the star plastic surgeon of Sam’s mother’s social circle.

Terry Gilliam put everything he had into making Brazil and because of this, it’s a movie that rewards repeated viewings (I watched it twice in one day in preparation for this post and to be honest, I kind of want to watch it again right now). Working with playwright Tom Stoppard and actor Charles McKeown (who also plays a minor adversary of Sam’s), Gilliam created a totalitarian culture tilted just enough from our own reality that we can still laugh at the absurdity of it all. This trio of writers had a field day with exploring the way euphemisms, bureaucracy, and propaganda can define our relationships, values, and lives. Brazil has inspired a lot of movies over the last thirty plus years, but I’ve never found another one that comes close to reaching the same range of comedic heights and emotional depths.
-          John Parsell