Monday, April 29, 2019

I'd Love to Turn You On #230 - Marnie Stern - In Advance of the Broken Arm

            New York guitar virtuoso Marnie Stern is something of an enigma. She plays jagged, erratic noisy pop that is hard to characterize as anything other than “math rock.” But it’s different than many artists that have had the math rock designation assigned to them. Like its older and equally as polarizing cousin, “prog,” it’s almost as though much of it is defying you to like it. For one thing, it never stops moving. Like a shark feeding frenzy, it’s all over you immediately out of the gate and doesn’t let up. It revels in its own excess, actually defying you NOT to like it. Like when Jon Spencer name-drops his own band in 75% of the songs on a Blues Explosion record, it insists upon itself in the most endearing way possible. It’s bragging without saying a word. It’s hard to imagine anyone not getting immediately excited within seconds of their first listen to Stern’s 2007 debut record, In Advance of the Broken Arm.
            Stern came seemingly out of nowhere with this debut, having suddenly inked a deal with Kill Rock Stars after they heard a demo of songs that she wrote in her bedroom over the previous two years. The album showcases Ms. Stern’s angular finger-tapping style, over her own reverb-laden vocals and washes of discordant synth, then adds in some of the most hyperactive drums ever recorded, courtesy of fellow noise rock mainstay, Hella’s Zach Hill, who also produced the album. What sets this record and Stern’s subsequent output apart is her ability to take this chaotic sound and create killer pop hooks that are as heavy as they are catchy.
            I cannot reiterate enough just how Stern’s proficiency on the guitar really makes this record come alive. She genuinely shreds, for lack of a better term. Think Robert Fripp-level mastery combined with the complex time signatures of Don Caballero or Oxes and you might get a slight idea of what’s in store for you here. “Plato’s Fucked Up Cave,” for example, offers a bouncing, progressive rock guitar pattern with a Hill drumbeat that sort of staggers ahead drunkenly. In the opener “Vibrational Match,” Stern demonstrates a repeated finger-tapped riff with definite nods to the NYC no wave movement. “Every Single Line Means Something” is a stomping rocker akin to Sleater-Kinney (one of her biggest influences) and “Put All Your Eggs in One Basket and Then Watch That Basket,” is a simple pop offering with vocal refrains that sound almost ‘60s girl group-anthemic.
            There was a time there in my late teens and early 20’s when I was a kind of a math rock fanatic. I listened to bands like Don Caballero, Melt-Banana, Dysrhythmia and the Boredoms fairly religiously, but by 2007 I had sort of moved away from like that. When this record came out, it brought me right back in. Marnie Stern has released some of the most interesting and intricate guitar-based music of the 2000s and even though In Advance of the Broken Arm is by no means her strongest effort, it is a very strong debut. And it’s an indication as to what would become of her songwriting as she matured from record to record. She really isn’t discussed near as much as she deserves, which is a shame because this girl can shred like very few others can shred. But her music is about much more than just showing off her wankery. It’s about rock n’ roll excess and at the same time about undeniable pop sensibility. It’s about the song first and foremost. The wankery is just gravy.
            - Jonathan Eagle

Monday, April 22, 2019

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #216 - The Devil, Probably (1977, dir. Robert Bresson)

            Concerns about increasing Russian/American tensions, ecological disasters at the hands of corporations interested only in profit, an overriding fear of nuclear war, an ineffective political left, a church that has lost touch with its ability to speak to the masses - if these were the central set of concerns of a film, when (and where) would you guess it was from? Because while this film could certainly be made here today and be 100% relevant, these are the main ideas that thread throughout French director Robert Bresson’s 1977 drama The Devil, Probably. At that year’s Berlin Film Festival, director Rainer Werner Fassbinder uttered some prescient words about the film, which took the jury prize: “...this film will be more important than all the rubbish which is now considered important but which never really goes deep enough. The questions Bresson asks will never be unimportant." And no less an authority than Richard Hell called it “the most punk movie ever made.”
            It’s certainly not a happy film - it’s a furiously angry one; but the times warranted it then and maybe today’s world does as well. If Luis Buñuel, considered one of the most pessimistic filmmakers in cinema history and two years older than Robert Bresson, ultimately resigned himself to a pattern by the 1970s of making films satirizing the things he used to attack more mercilessly in his early work, Bresson, a filmmaker usually noted for his austerity and profoundly spiritual themes, worked up an angry head of steam at the injustices of the world that got more savage as he went on, culminating perhaps with this, his penultimate film, released when he was 76 years old and one of the most ruthlessly despairing films about the contemporary world ever made.
          The film opens with a newspaper headline telling us about the suicide of a young man in Paris. Then another headline follows, saying that the alleged suicide was in fact a murder. Then we jump back six months to find out how this young man, Charles, got there. Charles - like all of the “models” in Bresson’s films - walks around Paris with a disaffected air. While this seems like flat acting, it’s a constant technique throughout Bresson’s works. He called his actors “models” because he simply wanted them to unemotionally recite their lines, eliminating the normal dramatics of capital-A acting and allowing the words, the sounds, and the situations his characters are in to come to the fore. His films are perfect demonstrations of the famous Kuleshov effect, in which the same film segment of a Russian actor was intercut with different images, leading viewers to believe that his expression had changed because of what he was “looking” at, projecting a new meaning out of the juxtaposition of the two images even though the clip was the same in all cases. Similarly, Bresson’s models offer no inflections or reactions while wandering through the world, which in Bresson’s script provides enough horrors that there’s no need for a trained actor to underscore them with hand-wringing histrionics. Charles drifts around the city, hanging out with other disaffected youths, attending political rallies, dating two women, going to church, trying to drop out with drugs, attending classes, searching for some meaning in his life, and ultimately we come to see how he has died, after finding most of his experiences empty, fleeting, and shallow. These are also underscored with repeated visits to a group of conservationists logging horrifying footage of ecological disasters, including the needless slaughter of animals (trigger warning for those who can't abide animal cruelty). All of these are at some point in the film mentioned in service of money - from a church that does not adapt to its constituents’ spiritual needs but protects its wealth (“A Christianity without religion” one of the flock calls it), to the therapist who is more concerned that his patient pay than helping him heal (Charles - “If my aim was money and profit, everyone would respect me.”), to the eco-disasters and animal slaughter in the name of corporate profits, to the war machine then building between the U.S. and Russia.
            These scenes are shot in a way that no other filmmaker could have done them. In a film so wrought with existential horrors, one would expect the drama of the scenes to be highlighted, but Bresson uses his typically elliptical approach, omitting standard methods of building drama or tension and focusing instead on the rhythm of a scene, highlighting movement, editing, and sound to recreate that Kuleshov effect over and over - we aren’t given everything to explain a scene, and neither music nor acting are there to underscore how we should feel about it, but our minds fill in the gaps and flesh things out as Bresson’s models speak their lines, and he lets the juxtaposition and rhythm of his images and sound do the work to create something far greater than the sum of its parts. His camera is often centered on objects rather than individuals, suggesting that the trappings of modern life are as much a part of the problem of the world as the bigger targets he’s referring to. There’s a famous scene on a city bus where the passengers collectively engage in a dialogue about the modern world, intercut with the machinery and sounds of the bus - the cash machine, the opening and closing doors, the air brake - and one passenger asks “Who’s leading us by the nose?” He’s answered by another, who provides the film’s title - “The Devil, probably.” Though Bresson would never admit to a reading so direct, it’s not too much of a stretch to think that the Devil in question is the greed that drives everything in the film. In his next (and final) film, a forged 500-franc bill ruins the lives of everyone it is passed to. The title of that film? - L’Argent, or in English, Money. He could easily have switched the titles of these two films and they'd carry the same meaning.
-          Patrick Brown

Monday, April 15, 2019

I'd Love to Turn You On #229 - Jeff Beck - Wired

Jeff Beck is the most interesting guitar player to come out of the 1960’s. More than anyone that played in the Yardbirds before, with, or after, he really made his guitar a voice that cannot be replicated. You see people playing in Led Zeppelin cover bands and people doing Cream covers, and they can copy their specific guitar tones and styles easily. But nobody ever does Jeff Beck Group songs, nor do you hear “That guy can play guitar just like Jeff Beck.” It just doesn’t happen, because it can’t be done. His sound kept evolving in a more unique way which led him right into jazz-fusion. As while his peers were expressing their devotion to blues, jazz is what excited Beck and pushed his guitar playing to the next level, rather than plateauing at a certain skill level.
This isn’t really a jazz album though - to me it’s the purest definition of jazz fusion, which was essential for me crossing over from listening to over-the-top prog rock and punk right into the warm embrace of jazz. The guitar on this album goes from sounding like several different horns to being the main melodic force that a singer would bring to the table; but it is still unmistakably a guitar, a force flying over the rest of the band instead of plowing through the middle. As much as this album is focused on six strings, the rest of the band that Beck hired were really at his level if not higher. Max Middleton (who had played with Beck for years at this point) on Fender Rhodes and Clavinet, Wilbur Bascomb on bass, and Narada Michael Walden on drums are all names you might not know because they’ve had their careers mostly behind the scenes rather than in front of the curtain, but these are the men with most of the songwriting credits on the album, with six out of the eight - Jeff Beck doesn’t have a single writing credit on this album, just his name on the front cover. The other credits go to Jan Hammer, who wrote and plays synthesizers on the song "Blue Wind," and right in the middle of the first side, a rendition of Charles Mingus’ "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," that if you’re not careful might just cause you to shed a tear.
Track by track this album is all killer and no filler, clocking in at a super tight 38 minutes, and it feels like you got chewed up and spit out by the end of it. The opening track "Led Boots" starts with a slightly off drum groove that fades in backed by big chords, then punches you with the main bass line and theme. The guitar comes in and sounds like a fighter plane flying over the field before a baseball game, spraying all the stuff into the air to make the colored clouds. It stands the test of time as a great album opener and cements the tone of the album. "Come Dancing" keeps the feel going, laying more on the back side of the beat rather than being in your face. How a song that grooves the way it does and yet flows seamlessly into "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" still amazes me. Their rendition of the classic Mingus track is something to marvel in. This was the first time I had heard anything written by the prolific bassist, and to say it changed me is an understatement. I had no idea it was a jazz classic the first time I heard this version, to me it was just the best rock ballad I’d heard at the time. The guitar and keys melt into a stew of sonic pleasure and tone that play to each other’s strengths unlike anything else. The feedback of the guitar plays a major role - it is the atmosphere and aroma that take make you want to sit down and enjoy the musical meal the band just put all of their emotion into. It’s tough to imagine ending an album after this song - though Mingus did the same thing, put it on the first side of the record right in the middle - but before this side is over there is the undeniable bass playing on "Head for the Backstage." The bass playing on both of those tracks starts along the same path of Larry Graham, but it took a detour, got lost, and came back with treasure.
Unfortunately the back half isn’t as visceral as the first, but there is still so much that you can’t deny on this album. "Blue Wind" starts off side two and it’s got a slightly slower, but way brighter, Deep Purple feel with its driving energy. On the last few tracks, "Sophie" and "Play With Me" are derivative of Funkadelic in the best ways, and "Love is Green" lets you down lightly after you’ve been shaken by the funk madness.
This album has been my favorite Jeff Beck for as long as I can remember because there is so much of the human element in it. It’s still easy to be able to hear how hungry he is, and how he doesn’t want to settle for what he’s already done. The direction he chose may not have brought him the same success as his other Yardbirds graduates, but his voice is richer and more flavorful than every other guitar player out there.
-         Max Kaufman

Monday, April 8, 2019

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #215 - All About My Mother (1999, dir. Pedro Almodovar)

When I first encountered Pedro Almodóvar’s work, I was instantly fed up with it. To my eyes, he had all the makings of someone trying too hard to brand themselves as an auteur without necessarily doing the work to earn the title: showy cinematography, meta-narratives, and obtuse storytelling devices. I noticed, too, that he had dropped his first name from the credits of his films; “A Film by Almodóvar,” the titles read, eliciting an immediate groan from me. He, like several other directors that I actively dislike, seemed more focused on inserting himself into his movies than actually giving them the life that they needed.
            And then, by the good graces of a college professor, I was forced to watch All About My Mother. I loved it. I love it. It immediately made me reconsider his filmography and what I didn’t like about it, somehow turning the issues I had with his other work into positive qualities here. All About My Mother is indeed showy and has a stubbornly meta-narrative; worst of all, it uses my most-hated cinematic device, voiceover narration. Every instinct in me tells me to hate All About My Mother. I can’t.
            All About My Mother follows Manuela, a single mother that loses her teenage son Esteban in the film’s early minutes. Following his death, Manuela moves to Barcelona in an attempt to reconnect with her son’s father Lola, a trans woman who never knew about Esteban. In the process, Manuela meets other trans and queer characters, many of whom have contracted AIDS, and All About My Mother suddenly shifts from being about encountering grief to working past it. Manuela becomes a mother figure to a few other characters, and we start to understand how Almodóvar envisions matronly characters: as saints. In particular, Manuela meets Rosa, a young nun that is pregnant with Lola’s next child; Manuela steps in to guide her through the process, and ultimately help with Rosa’s newly HIV positive lifestyle. In Almodóvar’s earlier work, one of my primary problems was how he treated his characters with manipulative cynicism; here, he extends a humane hand, using coincidence and luck as a guiding light that fosters genuine emotional connection among his characters.
            So much of my appreciation of this movie stems from how genuinely Almodóvar handles questions of gender, sexuality, and identity; released in 1999, All About My Mother tackles these themes and topics with a shocking grace, interrogating the complexities of parenthood, femininity, and trauma with ease. But there’s more to All About My Mother than just its thematic content; the film is bright and colorful, given a playful color palette to juxtapose the immediacy of its gloomy narrative content. The filmmaking is showy, but never in service of just the director; shots are beautifully framed to underline the film’s thematic questions of identity and lineage. Even the meta-narrative - which follows the very actress that Esteban ran into the street to follow before dying - is likewise used to implicate the viewer in compelling ways, ultimately dropping the curtains before the film’s closing credits roll.
            There’s much to admire about All About My Mother - I haven’t been able to hit at it all. I wouldn’t want to, even if I could. This is a straightforward movie, one that gets to the point without squandering its bluntness; it’s a celebration of motherhood, of femininity, and of women around the world, and it handles the film’s political context with deftness and ease, envisioning a more supportive world for individuals in queer and other disenfranchised communities. I’m thankful that I was forced to watch it in college - it made me reconsider Almodóvar’s work, which I now see as similarly humane and warm, rather than the cold and austere perception I had of it going into this film. All About My Mother, in other words, is deeply empathetic. It’ll make you want to give your loved ones a hug in the moments immediately after - and maybe you should.
-         Harry Todd

Monday, April 1, 2019

I'd Love to Turn You On #228 - MF Doom - MM...Food

            It’s hard to decide where to start writing about MF Doom’s 2004 hip hop masterpiece MM…FOOD. Do I start by introducing MF Doom, an artist who spent the better part of his career cultivating an enigmatic presence? Or do I kick this post off with grandiose statements regarding the influence of MM...FOOD on contemporary hip hop? Both options seem to stand at odds with the rapper’s mission, which has always seemed more concerned with digging up obscure samples and crafting a character than elevating the man behind the mask.
The only way that I feel like I can really honor this album is to compare it to a really fucking good meal. MM...FOOD is like good barbeque; it’s messy, with lots of sides, but rich with flavor. Every time you get tired of the sides, there’s always more of that tangy, delicious Doom that convinces you - just one more bite. By the end of your time with the album, you’re too full, thinking that maybe you’ll never eat at this restaurant again, but three months later, you’re back, salivating for more. All of this is to say that MM...FOOD is not full of itself. It seems designed to be served and enjoyed on a paper plate, thrown out, and linger on the back of your palate for days to come.
            Doom’s bars are never showy, with a flow as tender and easy as slow-cooked pork. Across his entire career, Doom spits some of his hardest verses on this album, making food-based insults that, taken out of context, could sound like a corny warning from the FDA; “I suggest you change your diet / It can lead to high blood pressure if you fry it / Or even a stroke, heart attack, heart disease / It ain’t no starting back once the arteries start to squeeze,” he raps on album opener “Beef Rap.” Reading this verse, I can only imagine that you are unimpressed; hearing these words from Doom sound so utterly vicious though, weaponizing the all-too-real (and very uncool) threat of a bad diet into something genuinely intimidating. His lyrics feel somehow familiar yet off the cuff, like turning Mom’s leftovers into something new.
            And yet, Doom’s rapping takes a backseat to his production. MM...FOOD is sublimely produced almost entirely by Doom himself, with only the occasional assist from longtime collaborators Madlib and Count Bass D. Songs on MM...FOOD are typically constructed around a single sample, a jazzy track that’s been chopped and screwed and layered with drum fills; Doom’s a chef working in a fully stocked kitchen. He saves his strongest production for the back half of the album, replicating that deeply complicated feeling of eating something delicious too fast. The back-to-back tracks “Rapp Snitch Knishes” and “Vomitspit” highlight Doom at his most accessible, with deeply groovy and intriguing samples that wiggle their way into your head relentlessly. The early album cut “Potholderz,” meanwhile, is one of the most impeccably produced rap songs I’ve ever heard, comprised in equal parts of turntabling, an earworm-y bass line, and hard verses from Doom and Count Bass D. This album is painstakingly catchy, sometimes standing at odds with the monotone - and sometimes intentionally tone deaf - cadence that Doom raps.
            This being an MF Doom album, there are countless references to supervillians, comic books, and radical politics. These are the sides that populate the album, and to many listeners, they might come as a take-em-or-leave-em characteristic. These fit into a larger tendency across Doom’s discography, which is filled to the brim with mythos and world-building, sometimes to the detriment of the album; here, though, you can’t help but laugh at the exasperated screams of civilians shouting their need for food. MF Doom, the character, is a villain; he’s hoarding all the food, only serving the civilians when he sees fit. To me, though, this man is a hero, a genuine innovator in the world of hip-hop. If I could award him a James Beard award, I would; I think he’d hate that, though.
-         Harry Todd