Monday, December 31, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #208 - Hot Fuzz (2007, dir. Edgar Wright)

Hot Fuzz, the second release in writer/director Edgar Wright’s loosely correlated “Cornetto Trilogy” is, for my money, one of the funniest comedies of the 2000s. Conceived as an homage to the likes of such ‘90s box office smashes Point Break and Bad Boys, the film places Wright’s longtime collaborators Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in a buddy-cop dynamic in the British countryside. Pegg plays Nicholas Angel, an all-business, no-bullshit cop recently transferred from London in a political ploy from the higher ups; Frost is his new oaf of a partner, Frank Butterman. Together, the two make an all-too-perfect straight man and foil dynamic, with Wright almost too referential (and reverential) for the comedic forebears he quotes throughout the film.
            Almost. It’s a miracle Hot Fuzz can sustain itself under the barrage of references, quotes, and gags it throws at the audience on a minute by minute basis, but, like the other films in the Cornetto Trilogy, Shaun of the Dead and The World’s End, what makes Hot Fuzz work is Wright’s commitment to developing actual characters with flaws and motivations amid all the jokes. Likewise, the mystery present in Hot Fuzz – which centers around a series of murders related to property development and a local cult – is actually interesting, and, better yet, has a nuanced perspective on topics such as gentrification, class dynamics, and citizen surveillance. Pegg and Frost are believable in their overblown roles, as is Timothy Dalton in his sleazy turn as Simon Skinner, the grocery store magnate at the center of Hot Fuzz’s mystery. The extended members of the Sanford Police Department each have their own moment in the spotlight, and some of the funniest gags are given to characters whose names you’ll likely not remember as the credits roll.
            Indeed, the writing is superb, but what makes Hot Fuzz shine is the same thing that makes all of Wright’s movies great - the editing. Somehow, despite intricate plot threads, joke set-ups, and a breakneck pace, the viewer never gets lost in the film. Visual gags are given time to unfold in long shots and rapid editing alike, and never is Wright content with delivering a joke through just sound. It always has to be visual, and Hot Fuzz is a better film because of this mentality. Everything feels manageable in Hot Fuzz, and there’s even some eloquent storytelling done via the editing, a rarity in modern comedies. In other words, what Wright and editor Chris Dickens hone in on here is the same spirit that defined the slapstick greats of early cinema; make sure the gag makes sense, and never – never! – take the easy route.
            The camerawork is likewise impressive throughout the film. Wright is a meticulous stylist who obeys strict conventions of cinema and art; his frames are always perfectly balanced, and he weaponizes the rule-of-thirds in the same way a stand-up comedian uses the rule of threes. Every visual element in Hot Fuzz serves a purpose; to talk about just the spoken jokes would be to ignore half the jokes in the film. I love, for example, the fence gag, in which Simon Pegg sprints at a series of fences and eloquently hops them; Butterman, the aforementioned oaf of a partner, opts instead to just plow straight through the fences, all in one clean, agile shot. It’s a silly joke, certainly, but it comes at the end of an inspired chase sequence that both deifies and subverts the hallmarks of great action filmmaking.
            In an alternate post for Hot Fuzz, I might’ve just listed all my favorite jokes and barked at you about why they’re so funny. I could talk, extensively, about how funny I find a one-off impersonation Pegg does of the way another character says “Yarp,” for example, or how the antagonistic other members of the Police Department are always entering the shots in funny ways. Hot Fuzz is so much more than just being funny though, it’s got an engaging mystery and some real societal critique, all of which is heightened by Wright’s signature style. I’ve forced countless friends and family members to watch it, and I’m sure I’ll force so many more in the years to come. Hot Fuzz is an utter delight to watch – and rewatch, and rewatch, and rewatch.
-          Harry Todd

Monday, December 24, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #221 - Bonobo - Black Sands

Bonobo’s record Black Sands was released in 2010 and is his fourth record. Issued on the Ninja Tune label it shows a surprising amount of sonic depth. The first track, "Prelude," introduces a variety of instruments and develops a rich theme with lovely orchestration. The sophistication of the orchestration quickly informs us that our ears are in for a treat. When I think of electronic music, rarely does a product this polished, refined, or intricate come to mind. I’d love to turn you on to Black Sands!
"Kiara," the second track, is an interesting bit of layering in which the song progresses and evolves by combining and featuring different parts. At times it will expose aspects to allow certain parts to be featured and for the song to evolve. It begins with a suspended tone and a shimmering electronic tone struck together, these tones hover and the pitch bends just a moment before the beat eases in with the bass line. At times the bass and drums are faded out while Bonobo introduces slight variations, or different combinations of melody and texture. Keeping track of what is happening becomes a pleasant game for the ear. What combinations have happened? What change will occur next? It also takes what could be potentially overwhelming for the ear and thins it out, letting him control the tension and release by subtly orchestrating these themes and variations. "Kong," the third song, while having different melodic content than "Kiara" could be a different result of a strict set of the same procedural guidelines that both songs seem to follow. Once again Bonobo shows us textures, motifs, and snippets of recurring melodies that layer and combine in different aspects to develop and release tension.
On "Eyesdown" the vocalist Andreya Triana has a chance to take over. She has a relaxed, calm vibe that fits over a hazy and shimmering keyboard line and bass progression. This simple chord progression shows off Triana’s vocal skill and Bonobo’s production skills. While the overall production is cloudy and thick, the percussion is clear and punctuated by cymbal bell hits, snare rim shots, and cymbal slides that produce haunting and shrieking sounds, all subtly buried in the mix.
"El Toro" starts out with a semi-bossa nova groove and introduces a melody fragmented between violin and different wind instruments. The melody thickens into a bigger horn and orchestral section as the phrase builds. It repeats, seemingly folding in on itself, gaining complexity and momentum. This then yields to horn hits trading with percussion breaks. Eventually the rhythm section gives way and the strings and horns are left in an ostinato pattern exposed, repeating and briefly creating a quick transition to the next song. It is an interesting effect, by exposing the horns and strings and removing the rhythm section the listener's ear is drawn to it, and the introduction motif of the next song is quickly inserted. It acts as a palate cleanser, or an audio redirection.
"We Could Forever" is the next song. I think this title speaks to the groove of the song. It wants to put the listener in a place where they are satisfied and do not want to leave. The song starts out with a high-hat pattern and recurring guitar riff. A deep bass progression that eases us thru the tune is introduced, along with other samples. These atmospheric samples of reverb-drenched sax and wood flute over a bed of Rhodes keyboard and guitar are great. Enough variation is used so that the ear is not bored but the vibe is not ruined.
"All In Forms" introduces a sample of Pisces' song "Elephant Eyes" and elaborates upon it. A vocal sample from the Six Boys In Trouble song "Why Can’t I Get It Too?" is also repeated through the song. These elements seem to be the framework on which other sonic explorations are hung. Shimmering pads are panned to one side of a stereo mix, faint percussion fades in and out, and suspended tones are experimented with. It seems to be variation upon a central theme, with certain unifying plot lines that guide the song, keeping the mood and context intact while allowing for sonic exploration.
The next two songs once again feature Andreya Triana. "The Keeper" begins with xylophone and drums in a laid back groove. Bass and guitar are added, establishing an impressive polyphony that is catchy and restrained. As the singing enters, the xylophone and guitar drop out to momentarily to feature the vocals. It is this level of detail and production finesse that makes these songs fun and rewarding repeated listening. New details expose themselves with additional study. Andreya Triana has a great voice for this contemporary R&B style. "Stay The Same" is a more straightforward song rather than some of the theme-and-develop pieces that are on the album. This shows Bonobo’s ability to compose in a more traditional verse/chorus/verse/chorus format while featuring a vocalist, rather than the theme-and-variation content which makes up much of this record.
"Animals" starts out with a light cymbal rim hits and is joined by a guitar ostinato and a bass clarinet playing a melody on top of it. Bass joins in next, adding up to a really unique and great texture. This song unfolds like many on the record, but around the 3:30 mark it stops to rebuild in a slightly different feel. Before it a was 4/4 time signature and it becomes more of a 12/8 triplet-heavy, Afro-jazz feel with an oboe solo. This eventually gives way to drums and screeching waves of sound which fade out.
Black Sands becomes in essence Program Music, or music that strives to render an extra-musical narrative. Yes, you have the musical themes, interesting instrumentation, and development, all done excellently, but what is it saying? It becomes up to the listener to interpret. What does the imagery of the sounds make you feel? For me it evokes emotions and questions - I wonder what Black Sands meant to Bonobo. I feel melancholy and longing, I wonder where the Black Sands are, I wonder when they were. I think that anytime an artist can produce this level of emotional reaction their endeavor has been a success. I’d Love To Turn You On to Black Sands and I hope you take the time to check it out if it’s not already in your collection.
 - Doug Anderson

Thursday, December 20, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #207 - Miller’s Crossing (1990, dir. Joel Coen)

            The Coen Brothers get a lot of love around here. Their films have been written about three times before. In fact, I myself wrote about my love of their films when I reviewed A Serious Man just this past May. So it’s only fitting that I write about another of their films for my last Spork entry of 2018. Today, I’m going to talk about another of their oft-overlooked films, the 1990 gangster-noir film Miller’s Crossing.
            Like many of the Coens’ films, Miller’s Crossing is steeped in snappy dialogue, sometimes making it hard to follow the relatively simple plot. But the gist is this - Tom Reagan (played by Gabriel Byrne) is second in command to a powerful Irish mob boss, Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney) in Prohibition-era America. At the onset of the film, Tom acts as a kind of mediator between Leo and rival Italian kingpin Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) when the two men meet to discuss business. Caspar wants to have Bernie (John Turturro), a small-time bookie, killed for divulging secrets about Caspar’s organization. Bernie, however, pays for protection, and Leo refuses to give him up. This causes Caspar to become extremely angry, spewing a diatribe about ethics and threatening all-out war. After Caspar leaves, Tom tries to convince Leo that giving up Bernie to avoid a turf war is the smarter move. It is then revealed that Leo has another reason for not giving up Bernie - he is romantically involved with Bernie’s sister Verna (Marcia Gay-Harden). Leo’s refusal to budge does end up starting a war, beginning with a failed attempt on Leo’s life. This prompts Tom to try again to reason with Leo about handing over Bernie to Caspar. This time, he reveals to Leo that Verna is not worth protecting Bernie for as she has been stepping out on him… with Tom. Leo reacts violently, kicking the shit out of Tom and throwing him out of his establishment. Tom then begins working for Caspar, acting as a catalyst for the ongoing war between the sides.
            Having already dipped their toes in the film noir genre with their debut Blood Simple, by the release of Miller’s Crossing the Coens had the genre perfected. With this film, however, they stumbled upon something different. Cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld (pre-directing days) shot the film, making full use of darkness and shadow to create a somber and paranoid atmosphere where no one can be trusted. For all intents and purposes, Miller’s Crossing should have been the film that made the Coens a household name. They put a lot of grit and soul into getting the film made, even struggling with writer’s block during the screenwriting process for a three week stretch. On top of that, their original choice for the role of Leo O’Bannon, Trey Wilson (Nathan Arizona from their previous film Raising Arizona) died of a brain hemorrhage just two days before shooting began, opening the door for last minute fill-in Finney. Unfortunately, the film was a total bomb in the box office, only grossing about $5 million. This pattern would continue to plague them until the release of Fargo in 1996.
On the bright side, Miller’s Crossing has since become something of a cult classic and has garnered a lot in home video and DVD/Blu-ray sales. It’s the Coens’ third film, early enough in their careers that I hadn’t yet become the fanatic for their films that I am now. Having been completely blown away by Raising Arizona, as far as I knew these filmmakers excelled at making screwball comedies. I immediately loved Miller’s Crossing though, and it’s been one of my favorite films of theirs and in general ever since. It perfectly combines their trademark subtle wit with a hint of The Godfather and a dash of Double Indemnity. Their casting is always spot-on, but I was particularly taken with J.E. Freeman’s portrayal of Caspar’s majordomo Eddie Dane (or simply “The Dane”). There is something so menacing about that character, yet somehow kind of calming or soothing about his demeanor. It’s a performance that still hasn’t been topped in any of their films. And Byrne’s acting, in my observations, can sometimes feel a little flat, but in this film, he absolutely shines as the scheming, manipulative and perpetually drunk Tom. It is bar-none his best role.
The brothers have made some of the most unforgettable and amazing films of the last two decades. I recently watched them all in order back to back, ending with their most recent Netflix vehicle The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Each of their films truly has a unique voice of its own, but there is something about Miller’s Crossing that stands out even among an entire career’s worth of pure gems. I watched that one twice.
-         Jonathan Eagle

Monday, December 10, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #220 - The Abyssinians - Satta Massagana

For me, studying reggae has been similar to studying the classic R&B recordings of Atlantic or Stax, the legendary blues sessions on Chess or the wide-ranging recordings on Sun Records. The label exists as a framework for all the great music that was released under its imprimatur. The various studio players that orbited the studio became part of the sound, the specific engineers and producers, even the tape-op guys associated with that particular label would come to define the artistic and commercial decisions made in the production of their albums. The classic era of reggae (from approximately 1960 until the mid to late 70’s) was produced in the relatively homogeneous environments of Jamaica and England. The communities of musicians and engineers who were responsible for the classic sound were relatively few in number and thus, as one studies this great music, it becomes clear that many of the same people played on many of the best records and that they were produced by only a handful of technicians in just a few studios. This is why, to the uninitiated, much reggae sounds confoundingly similar. Like the R&B on Atlantic, the deep pleasure and understanding of this music comes from an overarching appreciation of the traditions and techniques used and then an understanding of the individual strengths of each singer. With reggae, there is a deep history of beats, riddims and lyrical insights which can be followed and understood as the foundation, and then there is unlimited joy to be found in the varying vocal deliveries of each individual or group. The Abyssinians were in the tradition of other Jamaican vocal groups like The Paragons, The Heptones, The Mighty Diamonds and Culture who twisted the vocal harmony styles of Doo-Wop and early R&B into the hypnotic vocal attack of conscious roots reggae.
Satta Massagana - both the song and the album - are at the very pinnacle of reggae. The song has become recognized as the national anthem of reggae, and the album embodies everything one could wish for in reggae - it is inspirational, deep and danceable. All the elements are here: the lyrics are serious, political, spiritual and poetic, the band is filled with the absolute cream of Jamaica’s best (Sly & Robbie, Chinna Smith, Tyrone Downie, Mikey Chung et al.) and the three-part vocals by principles Donald and Lynford Manning and lead vocalist Bernard Collins are heavenly. If the band had only recorded "Satta Massagana" and no other song, their reputation would still be as solid. It is one of the most recognizable and wholly satisfying songs of its era; not just reggae - all songs. Everything from its righteous lyric filled with equal parts supplication and inspiration so beautifully sung and harmonized by the vocalists, to the tough, punchy horns, the perfect guitar riddim, and burbling keyboard - it all works wonderfully. In addition, there is the use of words and phrases from the Amharic language adding an even greater air of philosophical mystery. In the age of the internet it is easy to find out what these words mean, but when the album was first released in 1976 (the single was recorded in 1969) hearing these words so lovingly integrated into the song filled the listener with many questions and hinted at deeper meanings than those we were used to in top 40 rock music. These guys were tapping in to something ancient and profound while creating music that seemed unmoored from any specific time period. Listening to it in 2018 has changed nothing at all - this album still sounds fresh. And "Satta Massagana" is not the only masterpiece. The entire album is filled with miraculous songs. Each one a perfectly crafted piece of golden-era reggae, as well a lyrical triumph, nourishing spirit and intellect. "Declaration Of Rights," "Know Jah Today," "Abendigo," "African Race" or "Leggo Beast" are all equal to the title track, and the entire album rewards endless listening.
If diving into reggae seems daunting to you and you have no idea where to start, Satta Massagana is the perfect entry point. It is fantastic music that transcends any genre, yet it is also a perfect exemplar of what reggae can and should be. The world is filled with great music, but music that rises above fashion to “life-changing” - now that is worth pursuing.
-         Paul Epstein

Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Moody Blues – In Search Of The Lost Chord (50th Anniversary Edition Boxset) Universal Music (Polydor) 2018

     As the second of the classic seven Moody Blues albums released between 1967 and 1972, this album while still great has perhaps aged the most. The use of psychedelic trappings such as sitars and swirling stereo mixes plus songs about Eastern religion and the drug culture feels far removed from the world of 2018.  That actually may be the charm of listening to …Chord, however, as it takes you back to another era. While Justin Hayward had shone brightest on Days Of Future Passed (“Tuesday Afternoon” and “Nights In White Satin”), Ray Thomas (“Legend Of A Mind”) and John Lodge (“Ride My See-Saw”) have the best tracks this time. This new five disc boxset continues the expansion of the original twelve-track 1968 Deram LP adding some elements that may make the extra price worth it for Moodies obsessives (but likely will keep it on the shelf for casual fans).
     In 1997 a straight reissue labelled “digitally remastered” was released and frankly sounds muddy. The only thing making this version worth keeping is a nice interview with the band in the booklet about making the album; otherwise it is not the version to own. In 2006, a two CD set came out labelled as “Deluxe Edition” on the plastic slipcase. Disc one was the original album while disc two was fifteen tracks of alternate mixes (“The Word” [Mellotron mix]” for example), single songs (“A Simple Game”, etc.) and a nice five song BBC session. The packaging was great, being a quad folder with a fine photo-filled booklet featuring an essay by Mark Powell. The booklet also had short discussions about all the bonus tracks. The sound was much better than the ’97 version with more treble and less mud in the middle frequencies. A single disc remaster version with only nine bonus tracks (minus the BBC set) was released in 2008 as well.
     With the 2018 fiftieth anniversary of the original album upon us, this new boxset makes sense if you need everything you can get your hands on by the classic version of the Moody Blues. Disc one is the original album appended with five single mixes (including a never released mono mix of “Legend Of A Mind”) and otherwise sounds the same as the 2006 CD. Disc two has a new stereo mix of the old album plus the Justin Hayward sung version of single B-side “A Simple Game” (previously on the 2006 CD too). It is pretty hard to hear much difference in the mixes, frankly, than the ones on disc one. There is slight movement of elements, but not enough to make it entertainingly unique. Disc three is almost the same as the bonus disc with the 2006 version only adding the track “Gimme A Little Somethin’.” Disc four gives you a 5.1 surround mix that seems to be underwhelming folks that actually have a player (but truthfully yours truly hasn’t heard it not owing a player). For this reviewer, disc five is the main reason to own this new box as it is a 19 track visual DVD of mostly unavailable TV performances from that era. While the camera work is typically terrible 1960s musical coverage on the French TV songs (you get to see a lot of audience and virtually nothing of keyboard player Mike Pinder for instance), it does show that they could sing and play this material pretty well (drummer Graeme Edge is especially good). It is really interesting to see this more classical version of the band playing totally odd songs like “Bye Bye Bird” and the Animals track “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” Seven of the songs come from a color BBC production that has them miming (though at times it appears they are singing live). The other reason to buy this box is the expanded packaging which includes a nice soft-cover seventy-two page book and a fun reduced-size reprint of the “Ride My See-Saw” sheet music. The essay is nearly a word for word reprint of Mark Powell’s original in the 2006 version while the book does include many more pictures, old record covers and lyrics. What’s omitted from the 2006 booklet is any discussion of each of the bonus tracks and curiously the original back LP cover (photo elements as in the book, but not the whole cover).
     To sum up, buy the 2006 or 2008 versions if you aren’t a completest and just want a great CD. Buy the box for the visuals or if you need a 5.1 mix. That being said, it is a shock to report (as a confirmed CD lover) that in playing each version side by side with a pristine copy of the old vinyl, the original black rotating version actually wins out for this reviewer for the best overall sound (unless you prefer your sound with a thicker middle which the CD does have).
- Doc Krieger

Monday, December 3, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #206 - The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse (1933, dir. Fritz Lang)

Director Fritz Lang seemed to have an incredible knack for predicting the future, imagining modern cities ruled by technology in Metropolis, the era of media-driven serial murderers in M, and both the rise of fascism and the role terrorism would play in modern life in his masterful 1933 suspense film The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse. Lang began a series of Dr. Mabuse movies in 1922 with his silent Dr. Mabuse The Gambler. Mabuse was a “Moriarity” type evil genius character whose criminal schemes go beyond the lust for riches and veer into concepts of world domination and mind control. Mabuse uses telepathy and projection to control people, and while it doesn’t succumb to pure fantasy, there is an edge of the unreal to this film that makes it succeed as both mystery and science fiction.
The character of Dr. Mabuse and his nefarious abilities to bend people to his will and make them commit unspeakable acts is the secret to what makes the movie so compelling. Locked in a mental institution after the crimes he committed in the first movie, we come to understand that Mabuse has created a network of evildoers to do his bidding through the use of trickery and intimidation. Mabuse’s plot involves creating societal havoc - blowing up chemical factories, poisoning water, destroying crops - so that he can bend the populace to his will and rule the world. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that a German director in 1933 sharing his fears about a violent dictator might be referencing the looming shadows of Hitler’s Third Reich, and everything that happens in the movie lends credulity to this theory as Mabuse rejects profit in exchange for sowing anarchy. In the midst of the growth of the Nazi party, the movie’s theme rings frighteningly true. Mabuse convinces common thieves and those he can blackmail to his side, convincing them that society must be brought to its knees so he can impose his vision of totalitarian rule. To the outside world Mabuse is a madman sitting in a padded cell endlessly scribbling his plans for conquest on pieces of paper. To those inside his cadre of creeps, he is an evil genius leading them to some unholy victory over the rest of mankind.
How Lang achieves the heightened levels of fear and paranoia we experience in this film are the secrets to his craft as one of the great filmmakers of the 20th century. Lang belonged to a rare class of directors who successfully made the leap from silent to sound film. Many simply could not leave the purely visual medium and incorporate sound and dialogue into their bag of tricks. Lang in fact used exactly those challenges to make his films so successful. His use of sound is overwhelming. It feels like a new medium to explore and that’s exactly what it was. The pounding of machines, the wailing of sirens, the relatively new mechanized sounds of the industrial revolution were the raw materials Lang forged into the glowing outline of his story. The same for visual effects and lighting; Lang beautifully predicts much of the lexicon and tradition of film-noir before it exists. His shadows have a life of their own, and unknown worlds lurk just beyond the saturated light of the frame. Few directors can move the viewer so completely with just the suggestion of emotion.
Perhaps no aspect of The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse rings truer than the chilling spectre of global terrorism that it raises. When we learn the entirety of Mabuse’s fiendish plot, it is not a stretch to imagine the same sentiments coming from Osama Bin Laden’s mouth. Mabuse’s nihilistic desire to tear the flesh of civilization away from the bones of society is remarkably on target and modern. Like Professor Moriarity in the Sherlock Holmes series, Mabuse seems to come to an end in each film, yet his brand of evil is not dependent on corporeal existence, he represents the evil in all men’s souls, a malignance we must fight every day.
-         Paul Epstein