Monday, June 25, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #208 - Dead Can Dance – Within the Realm of a Dying Sun

          I’m not exactly proud of what I’m about to tell you. But, there are certain bands that I cannot think about without also thinking about this particular time in my life. When I was in high school two of my best friends and I used to walk around downtown Dubuque, Iowa from pawn shop to pawn shop, shoplifting CDs, cassettes, VHS tapes and just about anything else you can think of. Not to brag, but over time, we got really, really good at it. We did it just about every weekend for what seems like two or three years straight, never getting caught and always coming away with a huge bounty. We even called ourselves the Pawn Shop Bandits, because we had so many foolproof ways to steal shit. We would steal so much in one day that I look back and truly don’t know exactly how we hid it all on our bodies. Again, not my finest accomplishment, but these thieving sessions gave us a unique opportunity to collect complete catalogs of albums by bands we were interested in. Think internet piracy but before there was an internet. So each week, the three of us would come home with entire discographies of bands like the Cure, the Ramones, R.E.M, Ministry and so many more.
            I bring this up because whenever I think about Dead Can Dance, I think about those days. They weren’t really one of “my bands” exactly (I think I maybe had one or two of their albums then), but one of my fellow PSB’s got really into them at the time and managed to collect just about all of their albums from these weekend outings. So I heard them a lot growing up and eventually they became one of my very favorite bands. My band, New Standards Men, even covered one of their songs for a spell. The album that grabbed my attention the most was their third album, 1987’s Within the Realm of a Dying Sun.
            To be honest, I think what finally brought me around to Dead Can Dance was the fact that many of the death and doom metal bands I was listening to at the time cited them as a huge influence. And this is absolutely the most evident in the sound of Dying Sun. It’s ominous without being too gloomy. It’s dark without being heavy, which at 14 years old I didn’t know was possible.
            Recorded in 1985 when the band was essentially just the duo of Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry (with drummer Peter Ulrich filling in), Dying Sun feels almost like a split solo record between the band’s two members. The A side is made up almost entirely of Perry compositions, while the B side is made up predominantly of Gerrard’s work. Some think that this song layout is a detriment to the album, adding a sudden and jarring shift between the two’s vastly different singing styles. I actually think that this works in the album’s favor, giving it an interesting diversity between sides. The result is both savagely beautiful and darkly ethereal. While I think the album is near flawless, personally, I probably prefer Gerrard’s songs over Perry’s. Gerrard’s vocal range is incredibly vast and she really showcases that on this album, able to go effortlessly from a deep, low range like in the gorgeous “Persephone” to a high, atmospheric pitch as in “Dawn of the Iconoclast.”
            Another thing I love about Dying Sun is that it seems to mark a kind of change in direction for the band. Gone now were the days of the simple gothic post-punk sound of their self-titled debut, as the duo began using odd instrumentation and time signatures to create a blend of neo-classical and chamber pop added to their post-rock base, a sound they hinted at on their previous album, Spleen and Ideal. Also, the band seemed more eager to take musical chances on this album, even writing songs like their iconic “Cantara,” that are, dare I say, “upbeat.”
            Again, the Pawn Shop Bandits days was admittedly not my finest hour, but I do look back on those days rather fondly. It was perhaps the time in my life when I discovered most of the music that I would later come to adore. And the way I see it, pawn shops are kind of known for ripping people off so maybe ripping them off was my way of getting even with them. Or maybe I’m an awful person. Either way, I’ve made peace with it.

-         Jonathan Eagle

Monday, June 18, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #194 - Festival (1967, dir. Murray Lerner)

It is hard to imagine a music documentary that is more historically important than Festival. Filmed over three years (1963-1965) at the Newport Folk Festival, this documentary not only offers life-changing glimpses of three generations of American musicians, but it actually captures some of the moments that see the American cultural, social and intellectual landscape shifting from 1950’s black and white to 1960’s technicolor. Hard to believe, right? When the movie opens on a scene of Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band performing casually backstage and director Murray Lerner begins to question them on the importance of folk music and the meaning of the festival, harmonica player and future cult leader Mel Lyman launches into some wild-eyed rapping about this music’s place in current society, and in those few minutes you can almost see the scales falling from society’s eyes as one generation of highly educated, idealistic youth takes the baton of cultural relevance and runs akimbo toward an uncertain finish line and the mushroom cloud that lay beyond it. It, and so many other moments in this incredible documentary, provides insights of such societal prescience that it is almost forgivable to forget the multi-generational panoply of great American music also playing out on screen. That, ultimately, is what makes Festival different and better than so many music documentaries; it is the fact that Murray Lerner took years of work to get the balance between music and society just right.
Other than Bob Dylan’s historic first electric performance of “Maggie’s Farm” from 1965, there are no full songs presented in Festival. Rather, Lerner skillfully allows us to float through three years of festivals - the music, the crowd, the conversations, the styles, the unreal cars (if you love cool cars from the 60’s, it’s worth watching the movie for the brief glimpses of Corvettes, Mustangs and Jaguars that the seemingly endless sea of middle-class white kids arrive in), and the overall gestalt of the times. It is an inescapable fact that the audience is almost entirely white, collegiate and representative of all the historical advantages post WWII America has come to represent. The seeds of the mid- to late-60’s cultural revolution awaiting are blowing throughout this film. There are no hippies, no revolutionaries (except on stage), no bomb throwers, but the potential to become just that is clear in each earnest pronouncement the post-beatnik audience members mouth with heartbreaking innocence. Because the film jumps around so willfully and with such artistic intent (largely thanks to editor Howard Alk, who would go on to work on a number of important music films), it avoids most of the traps of other concert films, remaining interesting and unpredictable throughout. No obligatory drum solos, sycophantic journalistic talking heads or music video collage tricks to take the realism and grit out of the music. And ultimately, the beautiful music is what makes this film so special.
Festival, by the simple act of letting events play out before the camera, manages to capture and contrast three distinct generations of American musicians. First are the heritage acts that have always inhabited this festival. However, because this was the mid 60’s, those acts were primarily made up of musicians whose history stretched back to the pre-war age of American regionalism. Thus artists like The Blue Ridge Mountain Dancers, Eck Robertson, The Swan Silvertones and most importantly, the bluesmen like Howlin’ Wolf, Son House and Mississippi John Hurt provide a priceless glimpse into a lost America. There isn’t really one authentic bit of this “old weird America” as Greil Marcus called it left in 2018 - not one bit! That fact alone makes these images indispensable. The second, and most prevalent category of performer represented, is the one that most closely mirrors the audience - the contemporaneous stars of the folk and infant folk-rock boom. Peter, Paul & Mary, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Johnny Cash, Odetta and Pete Seeger among others offer proof of the sincerity of their music and their message. It is clear why each would go on to forge distinctly important careers. They are young and at the peak of their powers. The sight of Johnny Cash’s profile or the sound of Odetta’s powerful voice are enough to take your breath away. And these moments happen over and over in this film.
Of course the unspoken but clear sub-context is the fact that all this “real,” “homespun “ music was about to come crashing up against the cultural tidal wave that that the next five years of American history would prove to be. That wave is represented in the person of one Bob Dylan, whose appearances at all three festivals provide increasing levels of hysteria amongst the audience, and culminate with his 1965 electric set. Director Murray Lerner later went back and created a full-length documentary on just Dylan’s part called The Other Side of the Mirror. I highly recommend watching it as well; however, there is a magic poignancy to Dylan’s appearances within the context of the other two categories of performer outlined above. Having hindsight, knowing what we know now, it is indeed touching and fascinating to see Dylan paying tribute to and breaking the mold in the same moment. It adds the perfect air of suffocating inevitability to the seemingly joyous proceedings. Optimism ruled the day, but dark clouds gathered on the horizon. Completely essential viewing!

-         Paul Epstein

Monday, June 11, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #207 - Cat Power – You Are Free

After living outside of the United States for three years, I went back home to upstate South Carolina in 2003 and worked at the independent record store I shopped at growing up. Following that lengthy break from U.S. pop culture, I spent a lot of the summer catching up on recent developments in pop and independent music. Although I may have had a passing awareness of Cat Power (the stage name of Chan Marshall) in the late 1990s, I felt like she became an unavoidable entity in indie rock in the summer of 2003. I kept drifting into conversations with coworkers and customers about a recent Cat Power show in the region characterized by an exhilarating, yet unpredictable performance. Earlier in the year, Cat Power released You Are Free, an album that provides an excellent entry point for the work of this exceptional, vital artist.
 You Are Free opens with “I Don’t Blame You,” as a stately piano figure structures Marshall’s sensitive and direct address to a musician who struggled with the cost of success. The song highlights Marshall’s skill at evocative songwriting as it blends equal parts elegy for a kindred spirit and personal declaration of defiance. “I Don’t Blame You” introduces the album’s theme of Marshall reflecting on the notion of success, the life of an artist, and her choice to pursue this life. At this pivotal stage of Cat Power’s career, Marshall draws out this conflict between wanting to be a rock star and dealing with the consequences of the attendant success. This conflict has defined Marshall’s work and has often played out in real time in front of audiences all over the world. In this context, “I Don’t Blame You” feels like an act of bravery and a commitment to go forward despite the risks. The second song, “Free,” continues with the topic of songs about music, but breaks away from the thoughtful character study of the first song and jumps into a hypnotic guitar rhythm that sets the stage for lyrics that feel like free association about the unfettered joy music can bring into our lives. Up next, “Good Woman” offers the point of view from one side of a love that has begun to fall apart. Although the speaker states her resolve to leave, the song echoes with her confession, “I will miss your heart so tender.” The song begins with a sober guitar line that Warren Ellis soon accents with an aching and beautiful violin performance. As Marshall’s voice grows from fragile to confident, “Good Woman” blossoms into one of the album’s finest moments complete with a children’s chorus and backing vocals from Eddie Vedder. “Evolution,” the album’s final song, features a piano part reminiscent enough of “I Don’t Blame You” to provide the album with bookends of a sort, but this song delivers something far more elusive than the straightforward narrative of the first song. This haunting, enigmatic final note confounds as much as the first song invites and it ensures that the listener will soon return to this collection of songs.

A year and a half after the release of You Are Free, Chan Marshall worked with Handsome Boy Modeling School on their sophomore album, White People, and contributed the album’s most enchanting and surprising collaboration in the form of the sultry R&B workout, “I’ve Been Thinking.” The song’s polished production and nonchalant sex appeal hint at the kind of territory Marshall would explore in greater depth a couple years later on her next studio album and career breakout, The Greatest. In 2012, Marshall finally released a proper follow-up to The Greatest with Sun, a restless and adventurous studio album of original material that finds her embracing both her rock star charisma and her weirder inclinations with confidence and joy. You Are Free strikes an excellent balance between Cat Power’s spartan and engrossing early recordings and the richer, more nuanced sounds Marshall would delve into in the second half of her career.

-         John Parsell

Monday, June 4, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #193 - Q: The Winged Serpent (1982, dir. Larry Cohen)

Poking around other reviews of this 80’s horror/comedy cult fave I found one written by Jason Hernandez on his site The Constant Bleeder that starts out “Writer/director Larry Cohen is a huge weirdo. So is lead actor Michael Moriarty.” And though I don't generally like quoting other reviews in my own, it’s hard to get around the fact that he’s zeroed in on the key thing I like about this film, and Cohen’s work in general - this guy’s a weirdo. He’s a funny weirdo. He’s a smart weirdo. And a weirdo who understands cinema. And a weirdo whose approach to filmmaking - rough and loose as it is - is like nobody else’s.
            Cohen began his career in television, writing for many genre-based series - westerns, detective/cop shows, thrillers, sci-fi, courtroom dramas - often creating episodes or entire series from eccentric blends of genres that undercut generic conventions. And though well-paid as a writer, he wanted to direct features. But feature films are expensive, and his eccentricity made it difficult to slot his concepts into niches that would be easy to advertise and to sell. Take his first feature, Bone, in which Yaphet Kotto plays a man who insinuates himself into the home of a Beverly Hills couple who are falling apart already partly due to the fallout of their Vietnam vet son who’s become an addict. Kotto demands that the husband retrieve money (that he believes they have but they don’t because the husband has squandered it unbeknownst to the wife) while he holds the wife hostage. The husband sees an opportunity to get out of his marriage and life, the wife waits at home with her kidnapper while her husband is off attempting retrieve money they don’t have (little knowing that he may not return), and she talks to and gets to know and perhaps even fall for Kotto’s kidnapper. What kind of film is that? It’s a drama, but can hardly be put into the more exaggerated superhero types of the then-new “Blaxploitation” genre; it’s comically satirical, but not laugh-out-loud funny; it comments side-wise on Vietnam but isn’t a Vietnam film. As the studio marketing person, how do you sell this film to audiences?
            And so it is with the rest of his work - he puts so many different things in them that they never fit neatly into a niche, they’re hard to pin down, and they don’t often satisfy those coming to them looking for the simple, straightforward genre pieces they appear to be. However, those who appreciate the way he confounds category, mixes up genres, elicits great performances from actors, and generally works intelligence and humor into every frame find much to enjoy in his films. And that’s where Q: The Winged Serpent comes in. On the surface, this is a simple monster movie – the artwork shows a sinister flying serpent hovering over the Chrysler Building holding a bikini-clad beauty – but it’s so much more than that. Taking off from ideas of 50s/early 60s horror films like It Conquered the World, The Amazing Colossal Man, Monster of Terror and the like, Cohen interjects a story of would-be-lounge-singer-turned-petty-criminal Jimmy Quinn (played beautifully by Michael Moriarty) into the mix.
The film opens with an Empire State Building window washer (played by an actual window washer on the Empire State Building, naturally) getting his head chomped off by the flying lizard. Quinn then sits down with mobsters to plan a jewelry store robbery. We get more chomping action from the lizard (which rains blood down on to unsuspecting NYC pedestrians) then we see perhaps why Quinn isn’t working as a singer as he bombs an audition (with a jazzy number improvised by Moriarty himself) that Captain Shepard (David Carradine) happens to catch. Next, Quinn is off with his mob acquaintances for the robbery, which of course goes disastrously wrong, and he flees the pursuing police, running into the Chrysler Building where he discovers a giant nest at the top of the building. Shepard and his partner Powell (Richard Roundtree) meanwhile, are investigating a murder committed in what appears to be a ritualistic style reminiscent of ancient Aztec sacrifices in which the victim gives himself willingly to bring forth Quetzalcoatl, a flying serpent god. Is it possible that the ritualistic murders are connected to the flying lizard plucking victims off of New York City’s rooftops? If so, can Captain Shepard convince his superiors that an ancient Aztec serpent god has been raised and is wreaking havoc on 1980s New York City? Can Jimmy Quinn extricate himself from the mobsters who are looking for the stolen diamonds? Will there be a half dozen more absurd questions like these that raise themselves when you actually watch the film? The answer is a resounding YES for the last one, but I don’t wanna spoil any of the others for you! Watching the plot unfold in many directions at once is part of the fun of the film, but the real fun is watching the actors play it deadpan serious.
According to writer/director Larry Cohen’s hugely entertaining (and highly recommended) commentary, Moriarty got more interested in the film after learning Cohen’s way of working on the fly – only a few notes would be written about a scene to shoot, with dialogue often laid down on the spot and allowing for maximum improvisation; finding a location, showing up with cast and crew at the ready and knocking on the door to ask if it was available to shoot at – in ten minutes – and blocking out the action as soon as the location was secured, and so forth. It’s the exact opposite of every-shot-planned-out-to-the-last-detail directors like Kubrick and Hitchcock and gives Cohen the room to change things, improvise (and improve) scenes, dialogue, and ideas as the film is being created. Everywhere Moriarty seems smaller than his 6’4” frame as he inhabits this slouchy, hunched-over loser who’s very much an echo of the can’t-win characters Richard Widmark played in Night in the City and Pickup on South Street. David Carradine agreed to work with Cohen again (they’d worked together in Cohen’s TV days) sight unseen, and arrived direct from the airport for his first day of shooting knowing nothing about his character or the film he was about to make, only having been told by Cohen “Wear a suit.” And this film, with its special effects, many interlocking story threads, was put together in about a week, and shot in less than three – after Cohen was fired from a bigger budget production of I, The Jury he turned around, knocked out this script he’d been holding on to and made Q. Cohen found an ideal producer in Samuel Z. Arkoff, producer of all three of the 50’s horror/sci-fi “classics” above, and for whom the idea of a flying lizard god over Manhattan was right up his alley (upon meeting Rex Reed after a screening at Cannes and hearing him gush: “All that dreck--and right in the middle of it, a great Method performance by Michael Moriarty!” Arkoff deadpanned “The dreck was my idea.”). And the New York of 1981 is as much a character in the film as any actor – it’s as much a New York piece as any Lou Reed album.
Films like this just aren’t made any more – it’s simply not possible to get together a film for just over a million bucks and get it into mainstream theaters anymore. It’s a continuation of the B movies of the 30s – 50s –cheaper, shorter films meant to support a big budget “A” film on a double feature – that were largely given over to the “exploitation film” boom of the 50s and 60s. By the 1970s, producers like Arkoff and Roger Corman had brought these films to mainstream theaters – manufactured at a fraction of a mainstream film’s cost – but by the 80s this style of film was already being pushed out following the blockbuster successes of Jaws and Star Wars with studios’ eyes firmly set on massive money, not modest, well-crafted, profit-turners like Q. And now it’s big budget, big studio versions of films like this that seem to dominate the box office and mainstream theaters, and in this field Cohen seems to be forgotten, not having written or directed a film in over 8 years after a hugely productive 70s and 80s. But these newer films almost never have the verve, love, guts, brains, or humor of Cohen’s best work – and they *never* have the low budget!
-          Patrick Brown