Monday, October 29, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #217 - The Books - The Lemon of Pink

Of the many admirable qualities of The Books’ 2003 album The Lemon of Pink, the most prevalent in my mind is its fragmentary nature; songs open and close, shift, deconstruct themselves and recohere on a minute-by-minute basis, creating some of the most interesting and dynamic listening experiences I’ve had with any single album. Its fragments are abundant; from the start-stop nature of its dense sampling to the oft-incoherent song titles, The Lemon of Pink wants you to consistently think about the nature of its construction. More than just being an exercise in self-indulgence though, The Lemon of Pink wants you to think about your own personal growth – what’s made you the way that you are? How did you get here?
            Luckily, the aesthetic journey of the album is as interesting as the personal. Songs on the album are constructed of a near-indecipherable mix of obscure samples, Paul de Jong’s bass-y and rhythmic cello, and Nick Zammuto’s understated vocals. Traditional song structures – found most often in de Jong’s penchant for thematic rhymes in his cello – are buried under the layers of samples. We hear pre-recorded voiceover from a derelict airline, musings on the rhizomatics of temporality, interviews with Einstein, among others; somehow, de Jong and Zammuto are able to find the harmony of such wildly disparate elements.
The album opens with two eponymous tracks that act as an overture, a tuning – a banjo plucking, a cello finding its home note, fragmented vocals in various languages finding a message. “All’s well that ends well,” we’re told amid it all, a comfort found just before the music really kicks in. The remainder of the opening tracks emphasizes the album’s operative mode: folk. The banjo and cello – which sound like they could’ve been found in a bin of long-lost Arthur Russell demos or Appalachian field recordings – harmonize with one another, leading us directly into the album’s adventurous middle run of songs. After “Tokyo” starts, the album doesn’t cease to move in every which way; it wants you to explore, to discover, to experience. But, like all great folk music, The Lemon of Pink wants you to feel grounded in both the good and the bad.
            The clearest encapsulation of the album’s emotional fragmentation comes in the centerpiece track, “Take Time.” Rhythmic banjos and cello underscore musings on temporality – a sample that, in reality, is a severely chopped recording of a politician reading bible verses. Between the screwball vocals and the twangy, pulsing banjos, “Take Time” is bursting with an optimistic energy – until it starts reaching its conclusion. In the final moments of the track, layers upon layers of instrumentation and vocals are slowly cut, ending with simply a harmonized vocal sample repeating the title, the same way the song began. The ending retains the opening’s energy, but modifies it to be a bit more melancholic; life moves fast, the song says. Moments become memories. Take time to crystallize them.
The back half of the record operates in a similar mood. “Don’t Even Sing About It” conjures adolescent repression, while “The Future, Wouldn’t That Be Nice” complicates youthful optimism by reminding one of the overwhelming weight of having so much more life to live. “The True Story of a Story of True Love” gives way to the crushing nature of emotional experience, letting noise consume everything else; the instrumentals get mastered louder than the vocals until the verbalized memory dissipates entirely. And then, the album resets. “That Right Ain’t Shit,” the album’s true ending, feels like a reversal; not only does the song feature an instrument being played literally backwards, but the song utilizes warm folk instrumentation to cast a hazy, summery nostalgia on the gloom that populates the second half of the album.
It’s no wonder to me, then, that on every re-listen of the album I’m reminded of something else. A dark, humid college room; the muted greens and greys of Finland’s countryside; the pains of an impending break-up; the comfort of returning home. I feel all of these things when I listen to the record, which has remained in heavy rotation since I first listened to it years ago. I feel other things when I listen to it, too. The Lemon of Pink encourages it all, helping us to crystallize the fragments worth revisiting.
-          Harry Todd

Monday, October 22, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #203 - Rawhead Rex (1986, dir. George Pavlou)

            I know I’ve mentioned this before, but I feel as though I need to qualify this at the beginning of any article I write about a horror film… I give next to no shits about horror movies. I don’t really watch them, I don’t find them that enjoyable and most of the time, instead of getting scared by them, I just get pissed because I sat through another horror film. There are exceptions, obviously, but for the most part horror films are just too silly for me. So naturally, I’m going to discuss a horror film and try to convince you that it’s worth watching. Today, that film is the delightfully low-budget 1986 monster movie Rawhead Rex.
            I would have thought that Rawhead Rex would be pretty hated in horror circles, but most of the horror buffs I’ve talked to absolutely adore it. In fact, the person that turned me onto it is perhaps the biggest horror fan that I know. The film, directed by George Pavlou, is the second in a pair of hilariously disastrous attempts to adapt a Clive Barker short story into a full-length feature film (the first being Transmutations, which apparently was just as awful, though I’ve yet to see it). Clive Barker himself has notoriously disowned the film, calling the titular monster “Miss Piggy in battle fatigues.” He was so unhappy with Pavlou’s interpretations of his scripts that he decided from there on to direct his own screenplays, starting the following year with the first Hellraiser film.
            Although it couldn’t possibly matter less, the plot revolves around Howard (David Dukes) an American writer visiting Ireland with his family to do some research. While there a farmer, after a long and desperate struggle, uproots a giant, phallic-looking rock from his field so he can have a harvest and actually make a living. When he does this, lightning predictably strikes the rock, it falls down and out of the dirt crawls Rawhead (I don’t know where the “Rex” comes from because he’s never called that once), a “demon” that looks like a cross between a sentient patchwork quilt and a Cinco de Mayo parade float. The creature then tears off through the sleepy Irish village, brutally picking off its inhabitants one by one. After several botched attempts to stop the monster by the police, the church and the townsfolk, Howard decides to get involved, losing his son to the monster in the process.
            The original short story revolved around the awakening of a Pagan god that wreaks havoc through the countryside. While the film does explore the religious element of the story a bit by making Howard a researcher of artifacts and locations of religious significance and setting a good portion of the story in the local church, there just is no way to surmise this fact from the film. The script is utter nonsense and makes very little sense. If it sounds like I’m being negative about the film, I assure you I’m not. The film’s total lack of direction makes for moments of genuine hilarity. Besides, without a discernible plot, you are free to sit back and focus on all the things the film does excel at: gratuitous gore and blasphemy (in a downright sacri-LICIOUS scene, we are treated to the Verger of the church getting drenched in piss by Rawhead in a kind of weird, gross baptism).
            One thing that still stands out to me after all these years is the acting. The actors in the film are all surprisingly good, which is usually not the case in low budget horror films. The lead actor, David Dukes particularly shines in the “stranger in a strange land”-type situation. The rest of the largely unknown supporting cast all play their parts straight and to great dramatic effect - no easy task, I imagine, when you’re supposed to act terrified of an eight-foot pile of laundry with a wet Halloween mask on top. Plus the dialogue that many of the characters must perform can get downright absurd. The exception, perhaps, is the aforementioned church Verger, Declan O’Brien, played by Niall Toibin, who hams up his character’s actions to such ridiculous levels it borders on unbearable.
            Rex just recently got the 4K restoration treatment in the form of brand-new Blu-Ray and DVD releases. A strange choice for this kind of upgrade, but it actually does help sharpen up the picture, particularly if you’re used to watching a beat-up VHS copy with tracking problems. These new re-releases are loaded with fun extras too, including new commentaries, cast interviews and more. For the most part, Rawhead Rex is just a fun way to kill an hour and a half. It’s not a great film, by any means. Hell, it’s not even a good one. Don’t expect to be scared, because it is anything but scary. But I guarantee it will keep you entertained for its duration.
-         Jonathan Eagle

Monday, October 15, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #216 - Dexter Gordon - Go!

Dexter Gordon’s 1962 Blue Note record Go! is the kind of record that you can give to your friends who say they don’t understand jazz and they will love it. Like Kind of Blue by Miles Davis, or Song for My Father by Horace Silver it crosses genre lines and rises into classic territory. It has an energy and a quality to it that make it special. It features Dexter Gordon on the saxophone, Billy Higgins on the drums, Sonny Clark on piano, and Butch Warren on bass.
The first track "Cheese Cake" is a great example of some of the aspects that make this session so special. Billy Higgins is an expert of propulsion, knowing exactly when to switch between nudging with the hi-hat and snare into high gear with the ride cymbal. Sonny Clark provides great harmonic support on the piano with precise and short clustered chord voicings. When Sonny’s solo come around he switches to a single note style that weaves in and out of the changes. Dexter confidently plays the melody and the first solo displaying the sureness and swagger that makes this this record famous. As if the first solo was not enough after Sonny Clark takes his piano solo Dexter comes back for more. His ideas are exact and followed thru logically. Throughout, his improvisations are enabled by flawless technique and a bold tone. He seems to be creating and not just striving to recreate a previous great performance, open to new ideas and genuinely improvising at a master level.
In the next song, "I Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out To Dry," Dexter explores the sentiment of a ballad without becoming sappy or flashy. The melody is straightforward and heartfelt. Even during the improvisation the melody is never very far away. The ballad seems to be an emotional vehicle, a way to convey feelings and mood rather than a technical showcase. Butch Warren provides excellent harmonic support while Billy Higgins showcases the lost art of drum brushwork. Once again Sonny Clark gives great support for Mr. Gordon until he is called upon to briefly solo over the bridge of the tune.
"Second Balcony Jump" is another midtempo number that starts out in a half time feel by the rhythm section during the melody and then opens up to a 4/4 feel as the soloists start to play. This provides an excellent springboard for the energy when Dexter gets to his solo, moving from a laid back feel to a hard swinging affair. Dexter is surely at his most impressive on this solo. He could be blazing thru hard bop licks, laying on repeated note motifs, or inserting familiar quotes (in this case “Mona Lisa”), and seem at home in his playing style. His solo is followed up by Sonny Clark, and then he trades solo ideas with the able Billy Higgins. The amazing thing about Higgins' drumming is how appropriate everything is to the music. His technique is able, but never overtly flashy. His choices always just feel correct for the music.
Higgins opens the next tune "Love For Sale" with a punchy yet relaxed pseudo-Latin feel. Sonny Clark provides a warm chordal bed for Dexter Gordon to play the melody. The rhythm switches from Latin to straight ahead swing at the bridge providing contrast and energy. In segues such as this you can hear the singularity and purpose that infuses this session. All the transitions are crisp and precise. The group is stylistically united and provides one of the prime examples of what would become known as the Blue Note sound. Dexter plays a blistering solo! He is followed by Sonny Clark on piano, and this is one of his high points on the record as well. Butch Warren ventures his walking bass lines into the higher register to compliment and intensify Clark's solo, while Billy Higgins never fails to keep a steady sense of swing and bounce to the song. That ride cymbal is pure magic, being the engine that that keeps the entire train running.
"Where Are You" is a great interpretation of a jazz ballad. It is unadorned and pure without being overly sweet or sentimental. The solos are relatively short and elegant. It is on a song like this that a listener can hear the magic of the engineer Rudy Van Gelder. Everything has its own sonic space and separation. You can hear the definition and pitch of all the instruments, including the texture of the drums, cymbals, and brushes. He is a fifth member of the band. Rudy Van Gelder records the sounds and captures them on the record for Blue Note, defining the Blue Note sound as much as any of their instrumental artists.
"Three O’Clock in the Morning" starts off with the familiar piano introduction of "If I Were a Bell" from Miles Davis’ arrangement recorded on the Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet record, but then gives way to the song "Three O’Clock in the Morning" - a clever bit of arranging to draw your focus one way before having it redirected back to the material at hand. Once again the rhythm section starts out in half time before perfectly stepping on the gas in unison to support Dexter. The easy swinging solo allows the listener to savor Dexter’s superb note choice and motivic development. Sonny Clark follows with a blues-influenced solo that leads back to Dexter taking a brief solo statement. This leads to the melody and the band plays the song out ending on the "If I Were a Bell" intro.
On the record Go! all the stars are aligning. Dexter and his band are at peak form, playing great songs while informing and crafting a stylistic language. Dexter himself is technically proficient but not playing so much that it is not musical or catchy, which has always been a barrier to jazz for some. Finally you have one of the best engineers of the century, Rudy Van Gelder, capturing the sounds for preservation in an artful and distinctive manner that deserves its own recognition, but that is for a different space. It all combines to make one the best Blue Note classics and a record I Would Love To Turn You On to.
-         Doug Anderson

Monday, October 8, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #202 - Chinatown (1974, dir. Roman Polanski)

It is possible that Roman Polanski’s Chinatown is one of the few movies that has absolutely everything. Beginning with a labyrinthine script by Robert Towne, which simultaneously deals with issues of public policy, water rights in California, entitlement among the wealthy, murder and even incest, all within the rich cloak of a stylish noir mystery. For his part, Polanski treats each scene like an individual work of art, utilizing his skill in set, light, movement, music and performance to make each plot twist an indispensable piece of a larger puzzle, which inexorably leads to the emotionally shocking and politically relevant conclusion. The casting and performances are world-class with Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway offering the best performances of their careers and veteran John Huston offering one of the most understated studies of evil in the history of film.
Jack Nicholson is J.J. Gittes, a Los Angeles private detective who has made a name for himself as a high profile cheating spouse catcher. His routine is disrupted when he gets hired to investigate the commissioner of water and power in Los Angeles who is suspected of cheating on his wife. A seemingly normal “Sam Spade” type mystery quickly goes off the rails into much more politically treacherous territory as Gittes’ subject, Hollis Mulwray, becomes embroiled in a controversial plan to divert water to Los Angeles county at the same time he is suspected of carrying on an extra-marital affair, and then, suspiciously, ends up dead shortly thereafter. I have seen this movie at least half a dozen times and this time I REALLY paid attention to the details of the plot, and I have to say, it is extremely hard to keep them all straight. This doesn’t take away from the excitement of trying to figure it out. There are so many levels to this mystery that figuring any of it out before the end of the movie is an accomplishment. The water rights issue is relevant to today’s world as much as it was in 1937 (when the movie takes place), as are issues of land usage, real-estate manipulation and county zoning - all seemingly boring topics that Polanski masterfully turns into a breathtaking mystery. You will literally not be able to guess what is going on until the final scenes, but you will be on the edge of your seat getting there. Running parallel courses throughout the film are the complex and disturbing relationships between Mulwray, his supposed girlfriend, his wife (Dunaway), and her ultra-wealthy father (John Huston). An adequate synopsis of this plot would take pages there are so many twists and turns in both the story of stolen water and in the dysfunctional family/marriage/sex/incest sub-plot. Ultimately, the solution is not as important as how we got there.

The title of the movie refers to J.J. Gittes’ past life as a police detective in the Chinatown neighborhood of Los Angeles. As a younger man he experienced a lawless and anarchic subset of society that comes to act as a metaphor for past sins in this movie. Everyone in the movie has their past “Chinatown” that they would rather forget, or at least not admit to. Similarly, many people in real life have done things in order to get what they wanted which they might now regret. Towards the end of the movie John Huston tells Gittes that in the right circumstances people are capable of almost anything. This turns out to be tragically true for the characters in Chinatown as the movie moves speeds like a train headed for a downed bridge. We know this is going to end badly for everybody, but we simply can’t guess the ghastly truths that make up the characters’ secret motivations. When the truth comes out in a series of scenes that are as revelatory as they are disturbing, we come to understand the depths of depravity involved here. Ending with the classic line “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown,” the viewer feels sucked down into the moral vortex with Gittes.
Every single thing works in Chinatown. It is a suspenseful and ultimately rewarding story, filmed with a master’s eye toward the traditions of film-noir, and acted by an ensemble cast for the ages. This is a mystery that keeps you guessing and leaves you scratching your head when it’s over. So few films are this intelligent and unpredictable, yet Chinatown succeeds in keeping us guessing and then offering a believable and shocking conclusion.
- Paul Epstein

Monday, October 1, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #215 - Neil Young – On The Beach

Neil Young’s 1974 album On The Beach marked the middle of what has become known as his “ditch trilogy,” whereby he deliberately drove his career (on a major high after the one-two punches of CSNY and his own top 10 album Harvest) off the road to success and into a ditch of excess. Although recorded after the even bleaker Tonight’s The Night (his most controversial and emotionally raw album), and the somewhat baffling live album Time Fades Away (which contained all new material played in a ragged, almost haphazard style), On The Beach was released before, thus preparing the public for the darkness to come. While the production was comparatively crude, and Neil’s voice sometimes reduced to a pained howl, I have always found On The Beach to be one of Neil’s most honest and personally affecting albums. In many ways, the startling image on the cover tells much of the story. We see Neil, dressed in a thrift store leisure suit, his back to the camera, facing the ocean of Zuma Beach, while in the foreground are the accoutrement of a burned-out, artificial and pointless society: a potted palm, gaudy patio furniture, a crumpled newspaper with the headline Senator Buckley Wants Nixon To Resign, the back fins of a vintage Cadillac stick out of the sand like some weirdo, hipster version of the Statue Of Liberty from Planet Of The Apes and a couple of Coors tall-boys stand by like dead soldiers. Surreal in the extreme, the image also seems to sum up an age of Watergate, Vietnam, disillusion and the shattered hippie dream with tremendous clarity. It remains my favorite album cover.
As for the music - its stature grows in my mind’s ear with each passing year. On The Beach contains some of Neil Young’s most reflective and intelligent songs, set in rough-hewn settings that are alternately fragile to the point of breaking or roar with the anguish of a lost soul screaming in the wilderness. Let’s look at it song by song.

Side One
"Walk On" - The closest thing resembling a pop song on the album, this irresistible gem has a perfectly crushing guitar hook, exquisite slide guitar by Ben Keith and a rock-solid rhythm section provided by Crazy Horse alums Ralph Molina and Billy Talbot. The lyrics are an anthem for the disaffected hippies facing the cold realities of a new decade.

"See The Sky About To Rain" - A lovely ballad dominated by Neil’s cracked falsetto, memorable Wurlitzer playing, and, again, Ben Keith’s sympathetic steel. An ominous sentiment of lost dreams almost anyone can understand. Neil has an uncanny ability to poetically conflate natural phenomena with manmade turmoil. He never did it better than this one.

"Revolution Blues" - The most strident song on the album, this tale of an apocalyptic L.A. filled with psycho murderers (“10 million dune buggies coming down the mountain.” “I’m a barrel of laughs with my carbine on”) and a doomed, vacuous celebrity culture (“well I heard that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars/well I hate them worse than lepers and I’ll kill them in their cars”). There’s obviously some insider-baseball irony here as he had recently married his second Hollywood starlet. The rancor feels real and fresh here though. Musically, the song is a barnburner with David Crosby and Young going on the warpath guitar-wise, while Rick Danko’s fretless bass slides the song along like mercury.

"For The Turnstiles" - A harrowing plea for sanity and understanding in a world that makes no sense. A spare recording of just Neil’s banjo and Ben Keith’s lonesome dobro and the two of them yelping like scalded dogs.

"Vampire Blues" - One of the fuller productions on the album, it features a classic, nerve-shattering guitar solo by Neil and some woozy organ work by Ben Keith, who, you may have noticed by now is the secret weapon on this album. Neil decries the petroleum industry as vampires “suckin’ blood from the earth.” The song is both moving and incredibly prescient. Oh yeah, and it rocks hard.

Side Two
"On The Beach" - One of the most hypnotic songs he ever committed to wax, Neil weighs the relative pros and cons of fame and fortune, discovering that’s it all pretty much nowheresville (“I went to the radio interview, but I ended up alone here at the microphone.”)  In the meantime the song staggers along like a lonely drunk in a dark alleyway. Neil lets loose with a couple of last-shred-of-sanity guitar solos and guess who adds the crucial backing with a simple hand drum part? Ben Keith of course.

"Motion Pictures (For Carrie)" - No question what this one is about. His relationship with actress Carrie Snodgrass had hit the skids, and he was broken. A beautifully touching ballad informed with equal parts heartbreak and scorn (“all those headlines they just bore me now”). Gently acoustic with a lovely harmonica solo and some great slide guitar by Rusty Kershaw.

"Ambulance Blues" - “Back in the old folkie days/The air was magic when we played” Neil comes to grips with the passage of time in this epic tale of days and friends lost. “Old Mother Goose, she’s on the skids” he moans as he contemplates lost innocence and the reality of now. “I guess I’ll call it sickness gone/It’s hard to say the meaning of this song/An ambulance can only go so fast/It’s easy to get buried in the past/When you try to make a good thing last.” Not that many artists have looked at their own lives and legacies with such an honest and jaundiced eye. But he’s not just tough on himself: “So all you critics sit alone/ You’re no better than me for what you’ve shown/ With your stomach pump and your hook and ladder dreams/ We could get together for some scenes.” It’s hard to imagine an artist who actually likes critics, but Neil spares no quarter in eviscerating them. In one song, he closes the curtain on the magic trick of 60’s idealism. A profoundly disturbing yet highly enlightening song.

On The Beach ends on that bleak and honest assessment of Neil Young’s own self-worth and place in the popular music cosmology. While not exactly uplifting in subject matter, the album succeeds wildly in terms of being an accurate snapshot of a great artist at a pivotal point in his career. This is not the only time he has done this, in fact it could be argued that more than any other modern artist, Neil Young has honestly bared his soul to his public for better or worse. He doesn’t shy away from the reality of his feelings, and, remarkably, the music he produces reflects that reality with clarity and beauty, lifting it from the merely confessional to the profoundly artistic.
- Paul Epstein