Monday, November 26, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #219 - Eric B. & Rakim - Don’t Sweat the Technique

            Conventional wisdom tells you that Eric B. & Rakim debuted strong in 1987 with their greatest work, Paid in Full, and then released three more albums of slightly diminishing returns before breaking up (and then reuniting 25 years later for a live tour, but that’s another story). But my ears tell me different. They tell me that the duo started good and kept getting better as album makers, and that the classic status accorded to their first two albums rests on the strength of their (admittedly, absolutely classic) singles but not so much the rest of the songs, whereas the lesser status of the other albums is because they aren’t thought to have singles in the same league as “I Know You Got Soul” and “Follow the Leader” - this is also a false assumption. Paid In Full’s minimal beats-and-groove topped by Rakim’s speedy, word-heavy flow was a revolution in the sound of rap, taking Run-D.M.C.’s innovations a step further. Follow the Leader upped the ante by fleshing out the music. Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em was a tentative move in the direction of expanding their music, and their forward progress culminated in Don’t Sweat the Technique, their fullest, jazziest, and most consistent of their four albums.
            The duo's music was a huge influence on rap. Though Rakim gets the lion's share of the praise, it's not just their influence on major MCs from Nas to Ghostface Killah to Eminem, but also on beatmakers and producers - it’s hard to imagine the RZA’s minimal, fragmented beats for the Wu-Tang Clan empire or the Bomb Squad's relentless productions for Public Enemy without Eric B. having done this first. But by 1992 when this record was released rap was expanding in so many directions at once - the Native Tongues movement and Public Enemy and Beastie Boys in NYC alone changing the sound of modern hip-hop, and Dr. Dre and Ice Cube redefining the West Coast sound (not to mention other regional variants) - that it got lost in the shuffle, their first (and only) regular album that didn’t go gold. Fans at the time were disappointed that they didn't stick to the tried-and-true. But Eric B (born Eric Barrier) says that they group wanted to stay on top of things. In a 2016 interview with The Combat Jack Show he notes his awareness of up-and-comers who could easily turn the group "old school" - "These guys were really right on our heels—the Nas’s and the guys coming up. So we had to go into the studio and separate ourselves on the next level." And that they did.
But it's not just the fact that the album is more diverse than its predecessors that sets it apart - it's simply a solid listen, beginning to end, in a way that the previous records aren't. The album is a mix of narrative-leaning pieces like the romantic “What’s On Your Mind?” and the Desert Storm PTSD nightmare “Casualties of War” with Rakim's more typical stream of consciousness word flow pieces like “Pass the Hand Grenade” and the title cut. But in either mode, Rakim just never stops, his flow fast, clear, and assured, augmented by Eric B.'s expanded palette of jazz bass, horn hooks, soul backup choruses, and so forth that mark each song in the memory. And if Eric B.'s hooks are what draw me back, Rakim's words are what give the album its never-ending depths. He throws down so many that I’m still deciphering parts 26 years later - not that I can’t understand what he says, just that part of the joy of this music is letting the dizzying rush of words go by, focusing in occasionally to zero in on a song’s subject, or one of Rakim’s brilliantly rhymed phrases that I just noticed this time around (as in this couplet from “The Punisher”: “Go manufacture a mask, show me after / a glass of a master that has to make musical massacre”).
Oh yeah, those killer singles I mentioned earlier? "Know the Ledge" and "Don't Sweat the Technique" have actually become acknowledged as great tracks by the duo, but "Casualties of War" and (the non-single) "The Punisher" - all in the group's faster/harder mode - are on par as well. That's four great ones right there (same as on Paid In Full), without even counting that "Relax With Pep," "Rest Assured," "Pass the Hand Grenade," and "Kick Along" smoke any of the filler cuts on the debut - or noting that there are four more solid ones beyond even those, and they may not even be your faves the way they're mine. Back on one of the duo's greatest songs, "Follow the Leader," Rakim says "Rap is rhythm and poetry, cuts create sound effects" - this is the album where they prove it in the most diverse and consistent way.
-         Patrick Brown

Monday, November 19, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #205 - Autumn Sonata (1978, dir. Ingmar Bergman)

Ingmar Bergman is one of the all-time greats of world cinema, the Swedish director whose name is for many synonymous with capital-A Art in film for exploring both complex spiritual and psychological themes and unflinchingly observing the difficulties of human relationships. If he hadn’t passed away in 2007 at age 89, he’d be celebrating his centennial year in 2018, and in honor of his legacy the Criterion Collection has released Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema, a handsome box set containing 39 of his films. (Don't worry, I'm not reviewing all 39.) Ingrid Bergman, had cancer not claimed her in 1982, would’ve celebrated her centenary in 2015. One of Hollywood’s biggest stars of the 1940s due to celebrated performances for Alfred Hitchcock, as Joan of Arc, and in a little film called Casablanca, Bergman came from Sweden to the United States, left her family here to go to Italy in a scandalous affair and marriage (and several great films) with director Roberto Rossellini, and later returned triumphantly to the States and Hollywood. Though the Bergmans share a name, they are unrelated, and they worked together exactly once, on 1978's Autumn Sonata, which would prove to be Ingrid’s final feature film and the first time she had made a film in Swedish in over a decade.
Though Autumn Sonata received mixed reviews on its initial release, time has been exceptionally kind to it, and today I think it can be seen as one of the highlights of Ingmar Bergman’s family dramas - more down-to-earth than his period piece Cries and Whispers, less excessive than the 5+ hour televised cuts of other dramas like Scenes From A Marriage and the later Fanny and Alexander - though no less intense than any of them. Film historian Peter Cowie in an essay on Criterion’s website even goes so far as to say “As a tour de force of screen acting, Autumn Sonata stands unchallenged as the finest work of Ingmar Bergman’s last few years as a movie director.”
The story is simple: internationally acclaimed concert pianist Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman) is invited by her daughter, Eva (Liv Ullmann), whom she hasn’t seen in years to stay with her in her rural home after the passing of her Charlotte’s longtime companion. They banter a bit upon arrival, Charlotte breezing in, used to being the center of attention, hijacking an accomplishment Eva, looking girlish and mousy despite the almost 40-year old Ullmann’s beauty, tries to relate about a local piano recital she’s given by topping her story with one of sold out shows in L.A. Then Eva reveals the first of several surprises she has in store for her mother: Charlotte’s other daughter Helena (Lena Nyman), who suffers from a degenerative nerve disease and who had been moved to a nursing home, is now living with Eva and her husband. This unexpected news cracks Charlotte’s glittery facade, and there’s a mildly malicious delight as Eva relates to her husband how she expects her mother to handle herself now that she’s seen Helena again. They also talk in the nursery of Eva’s deceased son, who was born and died at age 4 without Charlotte ever having met him. But this is only a prelude as they have a chilly dinner followed by Eva playing a piano piece for her mother who can’t hold back a pedantic tongue - though to be fair Eva asks her for her honest opinion. Once they retire to bed Charlotte awakens from a nightmare and goes downstairs to find Eva already there, awoken by her nighttime cries. The two begin talking and the film settles in for its central movement. An angry Eva starts things off simply and directly enough by asking “Do you like me?” and they’re off, Eva accusing Charlotte of never being there for the family, telling of her deep love and admiration that was never returned by her mother, angry about Charlotte abandoning Helena to her fate, and more. Charlotte, for her part, defends herself, and what at first seems like righteous accusations from Eva grow into anger and memories twisted by their years of buried and repressed resentments into something unfair, bigger even than Charlotte could have done to her if she’d deliberately tried to psychologically damage her.
The delight of the film is in watching these two actors at the height of their powers bringing to life Ingmar Bergman’s deeply incisive dialogue (the film was nominated for Best Screenplay). Each pulls our sympathy and our disdain at points, and each of them undoubtedly dug deeply into their own lives to inhabit these characters. Ullmann had written a year earlier of her own shortcomings as a parent to her daughter Linn (whose father was Ingmar Bergman), while Ingrid Bergman’s earlier public scandal stemmed from having abandoned her husband and daughter to go to Italy to make films with (and marry) Rossellini. And Ingmar, for his part, once boasted to a biographer about not knowing his own children’s ages, but dating his life by his films. Together, these three - plus key acting support from both Lena Nyman as the disabled daughter and Halvar Björk as Eva’s husband, passively observing parts of the tempest and acting as Eva’s pillar (also setting up for viewers Eva's deep insecurities in an address directly to the camera which opens the film), create a chamber drama of withering intensity and seriousness, without even Ingmar Bergman’s occasional experimental tendencies to lighten the drama. And it would be criminal to leave out the name of cinematographer Sven Nykvist, whose 19th collaboration with the director this was, and who was always uniquely able to render Bergman’s interior worlds in light and images, here all warm, subtle tones befitting the title and underscoring the brutal emotional storm that passes through the home that night.
This 45th feature he directed was Ingmar Bergman’s final film made expressly for theaters; it would be Ingrid Bergman’s final theatrical film as well (one for which she received her 7th Academy Award nomination) - both would do work for television after this, but it is the culmination of two stellar careers in cinema. Three, actually, because it’s also one of Liv Ullmann’s great performances. Put Nykvist in there as well, and let’s call it four. It's a great one. Back in 1978, the critics just got it wrong.
-          Patrick Brown

Thursday, November 15, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #218 - Mötley Crüe - Motley Crue (Elektra, 1994)

I grew up in the 1980s, the decade of excess, and many of my tastes (from music and films to food and clothing) were shaped during that decade. It’s no surprise then that, given its ubiquity on radio and MTV, that I developed a serious love for heavy metal and hard rock. I not only decided that I wanted to play music like this, I also wanted to live the hard-partying lifestyle that my musical heroes lived. That’s neither here nor there. And while many people grow out of the music they loved as a kid, “hair metal,” for lack of a better term, has never stopped meaning a lot to me. And no artist exemplified the hedonism of the ‘80s better than my favorite band at the time, Mötley Crüe.
Cut to the 1990s: a decidedly tough time for many formerly successful metal and hard rock bands. While some completely faded away, others tried rather misguidedly (looking at you, Metallica) to glom onto the rising trend of “grunge” and “alternative” music. Still others, like Winger and Cinderella, put out some of the best, most focused records of their career in the ‘90s and they sadly went almost completely unnoticed. The Crüe fell into this latter category with the release of their self-titled album in 1994. But first, a bit of history.
In 1991, The Crüe released their first official career retrospective, Decade of Decadence ’81-’91 and with it, three new songs. Of those three songs, the first single was called “Primal Scream” and it was possibly the heaviest and best written song they’d ever recorded up to that point. It was a good time to be a Crüe fan and, naturally, I was excited to see if they would continue in this direction for the next proper album. The band enlisted engineer Bob Rock, who had worked with The Crüe on the hugely successful 1989 album Dr. Feelgood and set to work on its follow up. During these sessions, the band had a rather public falling-out with frontman Vince Neil which resulted in his being fired from the band. Or he quit. Neither camp can exactly remember this rather large detail correctly - and who really gives a shit now? But this left the Crüe in the rather unenviable position of replacing the widely adored voice and face of the band for the past 12 years.
Enter John Corabi, vocalist for the fellow L.A. band The Scream, of whom bassist and chief Crüe songwriter Nikki Sixx was a huge fan. Corabi brought a fresh new element to the band with his gravelly, Rod Stewart-esque voice and his rhythm guitar capabilities. This was in stark contrast to Vince Neil’s high-pitched whine and limited musical ability. Lead guitarist Mick Mars said at the time that he appreciated being able to work with a second guitarist for a change as it allowed him more room to experiment with his riffs and solos rather than “having to focus on just keeping the rhythm.” Corabi also was a competent lyricist, bringing a few of his own songs to the sessions with lyrics tackling much darker and more thoughtful topics than those to which Sixx was accustomed. “Droppin’ Like Flies,” for example, deals with environmental issues of the day and “Uncle Jack” is a scathing track about Corabi’s own uncle, a convicted child molester. The material was such a drastic departure that they even dropped the trademark umlauts from their name for the first and last time ever.
Sonically, Motley Crue (or MC94 as some fans call it) is even bigger and grittier than Metallica’s “Black Album,” making it a career defining moment for Bob Rock as well. Tommy Lee’s drumming on this album is better and heavier than it’s ever been, with pummeling beats and interesting, complicated fills, particularly on the album’s lead single “Hooligan’s Holiday.” The album still boasts the rock swagger that the Crüe are known for, like in the glam rocker “Poison Apples,” but for the most part it’s almost completely unrecognizable as a Crüe product. Songs like “Smoke the Sky” or “Hammered” would be at home on a Bay Area thrash or speed metal album, and Mars ventures into Jimmy Page territory with his lead riff on the killer “Welcome to the Numb,” my personal favorite track on the album.
           The album sold about as well as could be expected. Fans and critics alike were not ready to embrace such a drastic change from the band’s sound and, in particular, Corabi himself. That goes for myself too, by the way. I had nothing against Corabi personally. I even owned the Scream album. But I was very pro-Vince at the time and refused to buy MC94 for the longest time (even though I did secretly think “Hooligan’s Holiday” was a killer song when I first saw the video on MTV). Although the record did make it to number seven on the Billboard charts, the sales rapidly declined to the point that the ensuing world tour had to be re-booked from large arena venues to small clubs and theaters. Eventually, the tour was cancelled altogether. A far cry from the band’s ‘80s heyday.
J. Eagle - a 9-year old Crue fan
            Ultimately, MC94 is the only album that the band would make with John Corabi, as he was fired shortly after its release to allow Vince Neil to return to the fold. On the one hand, as a fan of the band’s classic material, this made me happy. On the other hand, the eventual “reunion album” that they put out in 1997, Generation Swine, is without a doubt the biggest piece of shit they’ve ever released, so it was a bittersweet reunion to say the least. In retrospect, I wish I would have given the album more of a chance but now I’m taking this opportunity to turn others onto this incredibly underappreciated gem.

                                                                              -         Jonathan Eagle

Monday, November 5, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #204 - Diva (1981, dir. Jean-Jacques Beineix)

 About two thirds of the way through Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 1981 film Diva, our hero, Jules, is being chased through a Paris Metro station on his moped by a police officer. He’s wearing all red, tabla music is fading in and out, and the shifting camera angles constantly break the 180-degree rule. It’s a disorienting, beautiful sequence, one that seems so preoccupied with creating a feeling of psychedelia out of context that it prompts the viewer to forget that it makes sense narratively. Depending on your point of view, that’s a critique that could be levied at the rest of the film, too; but the magic of Diva is that it does work in spite of all its massively disparate impulses, plot threads, and philosophical interests.
            At its core, Diva is obsessed with Walter Benjamin’s conception of the “aura”; an individual piece of art, Benjamin says, has a particular aura that one can only truly understand when viewing the original. This posed a problem when art – namely, music and film – was being reproduced on a mass scale. Auras can’t necessarily be replicated, Benjamin says. Cynthia Hawkins, the American opera singer unknowingly involved in Diva’s crime narrative, is aware of that. She stalwartly refuses to record her performances, saying that the beauty of an opera performance is in the collaboration between singer, symphony, and audience on any given night. When Cynthia’s performance in Paris is expertly bootlegged by Jules, a series of events is set in motion that soon embroils her, Jules, the chief of police, some Taiwanese gangsters, and two young bohemians in a thriller more interested in discussing the role of art than delivering high-octane delights.
            Unsurprisingly, then, Diva is just plain beautiful to look at. Shot compositions are painterly, and Beineix’s emphatic use of color throughout the film offers impressionistic sequences that make the viewer feel like they’ve been stuck in a museum for far longer than they’d intended. In a quiet moment halfway through the film, Jules courts Cynthia as they walk through the Tuileries Gardens outside the Louvre. In one of my favorite shots of the film, Jules and Cynthia sit facing away from one another, on different sides of the frame. Jules moves closer to her, transgressing the boundary that divides them, and she smiles. Cynthia, the eponymous diva, is initially reluctant to engage with Jules, a lowly postman, but is so persuaded by his charms that she can’t resist. It’s a beautiful sequence that manages to offer narrative development while highlighting the philosophical interests at the heart of the film.
            I find it hard not to read too deeply into this postmodern dichotomy on display both here and in other threads throughout the film. Jules, the young French sophist bootlegger, courts Cynthia, an American classicist. The police are chasing after a tape that ultimately indicts their chief, but that tape gets confused with the bootlegged recording. The film cleverly – and constantly! – tricks the audience into thinking they’re hearing the commentative, diegetic score to the film, only to pull the rug out from under the viewer and make it clear that the characters are hearing the same noise. Worth noting, too, is how the film’s score expertly blends opera, classical, tabla, and cornball ‘80s synth into one amazing soundtrack. Likewise, the abundant references to both the French New Wave and Hollywood low-brow films that are peppered throughout neutralizes critical discourse in a way that postmodernists will surely love. Its influences all over the place, but Beineix combines them into a singular vision.
             Amid all the philosophical treatises and dissertations in Diva, the film never gets too heady and still manages to deliver a solid caper. There are twists and narrative contrivances aplenty, and there’s a certain, undefinable quality to the characters that makes them just eminently watchable, even if some of the characterization leaves the viewer wanting. Diva marked the beginning of a new micromovement in French filmmaking – the “Cinema du Look” – which is often criticized for being a movement more focused on delivering style before substance. I struggle to see how that critique applies to Diva; this is a film that is rich with thematic interest, impressively timely sociopolitical discourse, and bundles of style. It’s got an aura all its own.
-          Harry Todd