Monday, May 27, 2019

I'd Love to Turn You On #232 - Willie Nelson - Red Headed Stranger

Like Willie Nelson himself, Red Headed Stranger holds a unique place in the history of country music. Willie is the country artist who most stretches the boundaries of what it means to be a country artist, while Red Headed Stranger completely flips the script on what country music was supposed to sound and feel like. Coming from the traditions of lushly produced and orchestrated hits, Willie strips away the pretense and offers an album equally split between original material and covers, but one that hangs together as a fully realized concept album telling a story of remarkable emotional complexity. Willie was making the first album of a new contract with Columbia Records that gave him complete artistic control and he flummoxed executives when he delivered an album of stripped-down arrangements that focused on his voice and guitar, his sister Bobbie’s piano and embellishment from Mickey Raphael’s harmonica, (which can sound like anything from an accordion to a crying baby). The results are unforgettable.
Initially rejected by the executives, Willie stood his ground and the album came out in 1975, burning up the charts ("Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain" was Willie’s first #1), giving the “Outlaw Country” movement its crossover flashpoint, and cementing Willie’s reputation as an American musical icon, mentioned in the same breath as Sinatra, Dylan or Guthrie. He has since become the most reliable standard bearer for American song, turning every cover he touches to gold, and continuing to write songs that define that cross-section of the American psyche where rural wisdom meets city sophistication. He is the thinking man’s cowboy and proof that there is intellectual life running down every Main Street of this country.
The album itself goes by like a dream, but is structured like a book. The narrative of betrayal, lost love, revenge and redemption is told directly, yet the narrator’s emotional state is illustrated by the use of other people’s songs. The action is broken up like chapters by several evocative instrumental passages. The result is total immersion in the story, giving the listener the illusion of living this cowboy love story with Willie. The dust, the whiskey, lipstick traces, the bitter regret are all as palpable as the mud on Willie’s boots. There are few country albums that tell a story so coherently and offer such musical satisfaction at the same time. The simple arrangements make the true star of the show so apparent. Willie Nelson has THE voice. If any doubt remains in your mind about what an American voice can and should sound like, and that this man is the possessor of that voice, one listen to Red Headed Stranger will remove any lingering confusion. He sings in a way nobody else can, but he gives the illusion that anybody could do this, and his natural magnetism invites all to sing along. What a gift! His guitar playing has a similar quality. His beautifully articulated, single note lines encourage all players with their simplicity yet confound experts with the structure and tone from his battered guitar named Trigger. In a career packed with accomplishment and great albums, this one rises above because of its narrative strength and musical excellence.
There is another aspect of Red Headed Stranger that makes it close to my heart. It has deep connections to our state. Allegedly, Willie wrote the album while driving from a ski trip in Aspen back to Austin to begin recording. It’s hard to describe, but the album has a certain Colorado-ness that really resonates with me.  Side two begins with the song "Denver," which opens “The bright lights of Denver are shining like diamonds, like 10,000 jewels in the sky” Every time I hear this line, I am reminded of standing at Red Rocks on a warm night looking out over the lights and pondering my future and fortunes. Yes, this album goes deep for me, and if you give it a good listen I can’t help but believe you will feel the same way.
-         Paul Epstein

Monday, May 20, 2019

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #218 - Kicking and Screaming (1995, dir. Noah Baumbach)

            Many of the films I’ve written about on this blog I’ve done so because something about it is immediately familiar to me. Perhaps this is why I don’t often choose to write about horror films or sci-fi films or fantasy films. It’s not because I don’t like them, per se (although I am very picky about the ones that I do like), but the movies I tend to hold the dearest are the ones that remind me of people, places or times in my own life. I don’t think that I necessarily set out to do that when choosing films that I want to write about, but I also don’t think that it is entirely unintentional either. Growing up, some of my favorite shit to do was sit around with friends smoking cigarettes, discussing music, art, and pop culture under the influence of some sort of stimulant. So naturally the films that I enjoyed the most back then - those of Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino, for instance - tended to be the ones with copious amounts of dialogue. Noah Baumbach’s first film Kicking and Screaming (not to be confused with the Will Ferrell soccer movie of the same name) is just such a film.
            Kicking and Screaming revolves around a group of friends who have just graduated college and, unsure (or rather, terrified) of what lies ahead, decide to hang around the campus an extra year. The main storyline follows Grover (Josh Hamilton) whose girlfriend Jane (Olivia D’Abo) has just dumped him and moved to Prague. Heartbroken, he seeks solace in the company of his best friends Max (Chris Eigeman), Otis (Carlos Jacott) and Skippy (Jason Wiles). The group spends hours at bars and parties, drinking and talking about art, pop culture, and academics and generally avoiding facing their impending futures.
            I’ve tried to turn people onto this movie a lot over the years. I’ve played it for friends and significant others and even tried writing about it in school once or twice. A common talking point that inevitably comes up, whether in conversation or in reviews I’ve read, is that Kicking and Screaming doesn’t really have a plot. On the one hand, there are those who think that this is a detriment to the film, and it can’t be saved by the unique script. Others say that the film’s aimlessness works for it, acting as a symbol for the aimlessness of the characters and that the snappy dialogue just drives it forward. I guess I agree with latter partially, but with one major caveat: I don’t think that the film is plotless at all. I think that the idea of being terrified to face the real world when the only world you’ve ever really known as an adult is your academic pursuits is a very real dilemma. Each and every one of the main characters deals with this problem differently, but the outcome is the same for all. The aforementioned Grover reacts to his girlfriend’s news of her opportunity in Prague not with pride and praise, but with disdain and bitterness. He is angry that she is not going to live with him in Brooklyn as they had planned and, almost in defiance of her success, doesn’t follow through on his own pursuits, opting instead to stick around campus to waste time with his friends where it’s “safe.”
Otis, who in the first scene of the film, we are told “has two moods: testy and antsy,” gets all the way to the airport, headed toward grad school in Milwaukee. Minutes later, he shows back up at their house, announcing that he has deferred his enrollment to the following year. No one tries to stop him or drive him back. In fact, it is glossed over so quickly that it almost seems as though they were expecting it. As we get to know Otis’ character, we realize that he stayed because he is terrified of a world away from the only people who truly know him. No one knows this feeling better than Max, whose tough, wise-ass exterior masks a real vulnerability that often comes out when he is drinking. In one scene, an intoxicated Max looks at himself in the mirror and actually says “you do nothing. Max Belmont does nothing.” It’s such a tender scene I have trouble watching it sometimes. I’ve been in that very situation more times than I can remember. Finally, there’s Skippy, the least mature of the bunch. Skippy’s girlfriend Miami, played by the amazing Parker Posey, has a year left of school before she graduates. So rather than moving on, or even getting a job and waiting for her to finish, Skippy re-enrolls in school, despite having graduated. He is so scared of losing her that he feels re-enrolling is the only way to keep her. At the same time, he uses her as an excuse to do exactly what his friends have all decided to do: stick around and do nothing.
These are four very distinct ways of dealing with the inevitable and I believe that I have employed them all to postpone my own future from time to time. Perhaps that’s what drew me to this film so quickly in the first place. When I first saw Kicking and Screaming, I was a senior in high school, just a few years away from the crossroads at which the characters in the film find themselves. Possibly even closer, considering in my hometown it was not uncommon to skip college after high school and go straight into settling for a shithole career of some sort. And in order to deal with my own self-consciousness or self-doubt, I turned to the only things that made me feel better: my friends. If you’ve ever felt unsure of the future or afraid to take a risk, this just might be a film for you. And hey, at the very least there’s a lot of really funny dialogue.
-         Jonathan Eagle

Monday, May 13, 2019

I'd Love to Turn You On #231 - Negativland - Helter Stupid

            There are great albums that stand as collections of the finest songwriting and performance that their makers have to offer. There are great albums where the studio and production techniques have been used as tools to take the basic musical material and transform it into something greater than it was when performed in the studio itself. And then there is this great album, which is neither of those things.
            Negativland is an avant-garde group - calling what they do “music” is stretching it; “audio-based art” is more appropriate - founded in the Bay Area in the late 70s. In their recordings, they find (and seek) audio from mass media, from field recordings, from pirate radio signals, from sampling of existing records, and from myriad other sources (yes, including actual music performed by the group sometimes) and make audio collages - often referred to as the style known as “Plunderphonics” - that are strange, funny, noisy, and particularly with this album, cuttingly satirical about mass culture.
            The album is divided into two sequences: the 18-minute title track with 4-minute prologue that sets it up, and “The Perfect Cut,” a suite of seven connected tracks. In “Helter Stupid” the band explores what happens when they send out a bogus press release about a canceled tour and an earlier song of theirs, “Christianity Is Stupid,” being implicated in a murder investigation and don’t confirm or deny any of the questions that come their way from the media, allowing the story to snowball. “The Perfect Cut” works around the theme of formulaic mainstream radio programming, laden with 70s radio trade ads and focusing on samples from a company that sells jingles and hooks to commercial radio outlets to push their “product” to their listeners. Though these seem on the surface to be very different ideas, the way that the band’s not-entirely-innocent joke began to manipulate real world television media is like the flip side of the coin of how the formulas of commercial radio are also molded and manipulated behind the scenes. Both of these take a look at mass media - TV news and pop radio, respectively - and give you a smart, funny, and somewhat unnerving glimpse of how the sausage is made.
            “Helter Stupid” kicks off with a prologue, mostly taken straight from a local news report that picked up their story from the press release suggesting that a Minnesota murder investigation may have ties to “Christianity Is Stupid,” seemingly without any questioning or fact-checking, and ran with it as a lead story. The reporter flatly states “They say federal authorities asked them to cancel a long-planned 17-city tour and eliminate live performances until the conclusion of the investigation” followed immediately by “Negativland’s music is highly critical of the mass media, nuclear war, and handguns.” Only one of these statements is true. The group then launches into its exploration of how the media exploits sensational stories, about the oversaturation of media in our lives, and, as they say in the liner notes, keeping in mind that “any media experience consists only of one-way, edited representations of reality.” It’s a tour-de-force of audio art, loaded with humor and an incisive view of TV's obsession with sensational stories.
            “The Perfect Cut” would seemingly suffer by comparison, and indeed it feels lighter - pop radio and the music industry vs. a multiple murder is a definite lightening of content - but if you’re following through the group’s ideas, the two pieces are complementary in their skewed, humorous examinations of media. With “Dick Vaughn’s Moribund Music of the 70s” undergirding each of these pieces, they take a look at the music industry as a whole - and if you’ve never given thought to the machinations of business and industry that back your favorite records, that dictates what’s determined to be new and cool on the radio, it can be just as unsettling as the title piece. Just as the title cut isn’t really about axe murders, but about media representation, this isn’t about pop music or making fun of the 70s music they use, but about how the wheels of industry distressingly interlock with art.
            The album follows their great, more song-like Escape From Noise (which contains “Christianity Is Stupid” and is highly recommended in its own right), and presages what might be their greatest work, the U2 EP, which landed them on the receiving end of a lawsuit from Island Records, U2, and Casey Kasem (who appears here repeatedly throughout “The Perfect Cut”), and though it’s way out of print, is well worth seeking out. But as an album, Helter Stupid stands as their finest work, and one of the most entertaining and humorous examples of the intersection of pop culture and avant-garde art out there.
-          Patrick Brown

Monday, May 6, 2019

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #217 - The Harder They Come (1972, dir. Perry Henzell)

            When The Harder They Come first appeared in America in 1972 it had to have been met with bewilderment. While filled with an almost intoxicating first look at real life on the Island of Jamaica and blessed with one of the best soundtracks in the history of film, the movie presents its narrative and action in such a herky-jerky fashion, and the patois of the characters is so thick, that the typical westerner would be forgiven for requiring subtitles to even follow the plot. In fact, on its first runs through America the film was indeed shown with subtitles. I had not seen The Harder They Come in at least twenty years, and I freely admit that putting subtitles on made this my most rewarding watch of this extraordinary film. My memories of the movie were as cloudy as the ganja that filled the room the first time I saw it. There were strong memories of certain scenes, but my recall of the actual plot was dim. This time, from the first scene, I found The Harder They Come to be a fully absorbing and heartbreaking tale about the grinding effect of systems on human endeavor. Our hero, Ivanhoe Martin (based on a real character) is played with elemental realism by Jimmy Cliff who brings such burning intensity to his portrayal, that one can’t help but feel he is telling his own story at some level. When his grandmother dies, Ivanhoe, an aspiring singer, is forced to leave his country home and go to the city to stay with his mother. Finding nothing but poverty and disinterest in his music, he finds ways to get by-being a bike messenger, then entering the dangerous ganja trade. When he is told to deliver a package to a music studio he tries in earnest to sell his talent to the only producer on the island who can make his dreams come true. When his song only brings him 20 dollars, his disillusionment with the music business starts coming into focus.

            Through a series of events, all of which illustrate the corrupt nature of a system that takes advantage of poverty, ignorance and innocence, Ivanhoe becomes a notorious figure and does indeed find the fame he seeks. He finds a way out of the ghetto and straight to the top. It’s just not the way he wanted to get there. As the events of Ivan’s life ultimately lead him toward a violent conclusion, we are given an amazing look into the inner workings of the Jamaican music business (hint - it’s just as corrupt as it is here), and the marijuana business, and ultimately, the machinery that keeps poor people poor. The fundamental corruption of any system is explored (much as it was later on The Wire). We can feel that Ivan’s dreams will not come true the way he expected as the events of his life tumble inexorably toward chaos. The final acts of the film capture a fateful inevitability that is reminiscent of Bonnie And Clyde. This narrative is played out against the real stars of The Harder They Come: the exotic and exciting views of actual Jamaican life, which initially thrilled Jamaican audiences, and ultimately acted as the greatest calling card the island ever received, and of course the miraculous soundtrack which, along with Bob Marley and The Wailers’ Catch A Fire turned the rest of the world on to reggae music. Throughout the movie, the songs act as a narrative device, driving and describing the action playing out on screen. Reggae legends Toots and The Maytals are responsible for two of the best scenes. In one, their classic Pressure Drop provides the perfect driver for a breathless chase scene through a crowded ghetto. For me though, the most magical scene in the movie takes place as Ivanhoe gets his first look inside the recording studio during a Toots session for the song Sweet and Dandy. Cliff stares at the scene, wide-eyed and in wonder, and we share his thrill and desire to be part of the charismatic magic Toots is laying down. It is one of the most effective scenes about the making of music that I’ve seen. So few movies get the musician side of things right. Director Perry Henzel nails it with this scene.

            Bob Dylan wrote “You’ll find out when you reach the top / You’re on the bottom.” The Harder They Come brings this axiom to life vividly. Ivanhoe Martin dreams of leaving his country boy roots and becoming famous in the big city. He makes his dream come true, and it turns out to be a nightmare. His story is a cautionary tale as well as a lesson about the harsh realities of life for those whom the chips are stacked against. Although this message is depressing, the experience of watching The Harder They Come is ultimately uplifting, because the sounds and sights unfolding are so genuinely thrilling.
                     - Paul Epstein