Monday, June 24, 2019

I'd Love to Turn You On #234 - Jaco Pastorius - Jaco Pastorius

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            Starting your debut album off with a cover is a bold move no matter who you are, especially when it gets flipped completely upside down and becomes a minimalist piece. Jaco Pastorius starts off his first solo effort with a bass guitar rendition of Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee,” which lays down a foundation for a career unlike anything else. Immediately you gravitate to the melody and with only conga drums in the background there is nothing to distract you from how gorgeous and rich just a fretless bass guitar can be. It’s very easy to get distracted by the immense skill that is presented on this album. Jaco made a name for himself being the absolute best, in a different universe from everyone else; he didn’t think of a bass like a bass, it was just an extension of his being. He displays his foundation of strong skills, a sense of melody on a non-melodic instrument, and appreciation for what came before all within the first two and a half minutes.
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           After “Donna Lee” graces your ears, they get blown out with the opening horns of “Come On, Come Over” which is more like a standard funk song of the time, except the bass is the star. All the drums and grooves on this album come from a heavy influence of his Florida surroundings and Latin and Cuban music, but the way they tie into the solo bass pieces that are so gentle and have an intensity to them is a lot more human and emotional than any other bass player I’ve heard. Then you get flung right back into the funk side of things with “Kuru/Speak Like a Child.” Herbie Hancock makes an appearance here that is the equivalent to a rap feature, his presence is massive but him and Jaco going back and forth on this song is as exciting as Andre 3000 and Big Boi of Outkast trading verses. They play well together, nobody stepping on the other’s feet, and it’s never so much that it detracts from the song as a whole. The pattern of rich and warm ballads, then undeniable funk masterpieces continues with the harmonic “Portrait of Tracy,” which has become one of Jaco’s signature songs, floating through your mind and reminding you of young love like no other instrumental can. “Opus Pocus,” "Okonkolé Y Trompa," and "(Used to Be a) Cha-Cha" take you from this earth into an unknown dimension of groove and funk that I’ve not experienced anywhere else. It’s not quite the same place that bands like Parliament or Sly and the Family Stone were taking you to, this was funk in Jaco’s mind taking place in a space that we are able to visit for a short time.

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Jaco has been called the Jimi Hendrix of bass, and this album is his Are You Experienced? The contents of this album opened up a door for bass players around the world - you suddenly didn’t have to be a background instrument that is just there to elevate the guitar, singer, or anybody else. The "Bass of Doom" and Jaco were the stars. He had a spell book that nobody else has been able to get access to since. There are people that can replicate what he does on a technical level, but none of it compares to how he plays. All of the technical stuff is really cool, but none of it really matters if the song doesn’t groove, move, and make you feel like dancing - which is the dynamic of this record, with the tight grooves that are so relaxed. The band is perfectly behind the beat at times where it’s so chill you want to lounge around with a margarita on a summer day. Then they come back around to being as tight and precise as any of the prog guys at the time.
There is so much to dig into on this album; it’s incredibly dense, but incredibly digestible. You don’t need to be a bass expert or know who Charlie Parker is to make this a great listen. This album reveals all of Jaco’s colors, which is appropriate because the cover is a black and white portrait of him looking right into the camera, no smile, nothing, which makes opening it up and hearing how colorful this album is that much more exciting.
-         Max Kafuman

Monday, June 17, 2019

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #220 - Word Is Out (1977, directed by The Mariposa Group: Peter Adair, Nancy Adair, Rob Epstein, Andrew Brown, Lucy Massie Phenix, Veronica Selver)

Word Is Out is the first feature-length documentary about lesbian and gay identity made by lesbian and gay filmmakers. There is a long history of queer cinema leading up to it - much of it rife with tragic narratives - and a flowering of the genre and queer filmmakers in the years that followed, but this landmark, released after the beginnings of the modern gay rights movement and before the AIDS crisis, really started the ball rolling.
The film was the brainchild of director/producer Peter Adair, who assembled a group of filmmakers - most of them completely inexperienced - around him to help create the film. The six filmmakers - three men and three women who ended up working in every aspect of the production and are all listed as co-directors under the umbrella name of The Mariposa Group (after the San Francisco street where they were headquartered) - interviewed hundreds of Americans who openly identified as gay or lesbian* from all over the country, from different racial and socio-economic backgrounds, and ranging in age from 18 years old to 77 years old (the oldest participant was born in 1898!). These were then narrowed down to the 26 who appear in film, and to a person they are engaging, warm, and articulate in sharing their thoughts about their status as gays and lesbians in 1970's America.
Each of the interviewees discuss various topics, ranging from first awareness of their sexuality, to coming out, to personal struggles, to reacting to societal norms and institutional pressures, to legal difficulties, and many other topics. As expected, the experiences are as diverse as the participants, each of their lives shaped by a unique set of circumstances; some had full support of their families and in some cases even spouses they separated from, others had families going ballistic, children taken away from them, or institutionalization (including shock therapy) to “cure” them. The film takes pains to make the uniqueness of the individuals clear - these are the stories of 26 individuals, not meant to be taken as a symbol of gays and lesbians as a whole; the subtitle of the film is even "Stories of Some of Our Lives" (italics mine), and within the first few minutes of the film one of the interviewees states “Even as a black lesbian, I wouldn’t want to be seen as ‘This is how black lesbians ARE’ I happen to be a black lesbian and there are so many of us - of black lesbians - who live their lives in so many different kinds of ways that I was hoping the film would be able to give, you know, a broader spectrum of a black lesbian than just me.”
But as fascinating as the differences are the commonalities - stories of the repression of the 1950s that many of them lived through as young (or even slightly older) adults coming to terms with their sexuality, stories of both family turmoil and familial love, and the same internal conflicts across the generations. And this holds true not just within the film and between participants, but for modern viewers outside the film as well. It’s startling to hear a voice from the mid-70s articulate a legal or religious struggle that still goes on today (even if perhaps in a slightly different form), affirming to hear that the same feelings and ideas - both positive and negative - that the participants grappled with decades ago are many of the same ones faced in our contemporary world.
Word Is Out premiered in 1977, got a wider release and was broadcast on PBS in early 1978, making the film widely available to thousands of viewers who might not have had the opportunity (or the courage) to see the film in the theater. The filmmakers’ PO Box in the credits was flooded with letters after its premiere, with many people crediting the film with literally saving their lives, letting them know that they were not alone in the world, that others have shared their struggles and come out OK. In intent, in concept, the film embodies the very meaning of Pride: showing those who haven’t yet found the courage to come out that it can be done, and that whatever challenges they may face in doing so, the end result is worth it. Representation, as shown with these 26 individuals whose diverse stories resonated with thousands of viewers then and continue to do so over the decades, matters.
The filmmaking collective only made this one film together, but several of them continued to make films - notably Peter Adair and Rob Epstein (whose next film The Times of Harvey Milk won the Oscar for best documentary), both of whom stuck to making films on LGBTQ* themes. And though the film summed up a history of representation on film and in the media and opened doors for LGBTQ* filmmaking in the future, there’s still nothing quite like this doc, no film I’ve seen on the topic that draws you in to its subjects so warmly and openly. And it’s that warmth, that delight in just listening to the interviewees, that makes it such a great film, even setting aside its landmark historical importance.
- Patrick Brown
* - in this review I refer specifically to gay and lesbian subjects, which is the stated subject matter of the film itself. The film’s creation predates the acronym LGBTQ, which came to prominence in the 1990s. However, there is one interviewee in the film who identifies as a gay male, but speaks of feeling in between genders, predating the modern ideas of gender fluidity and non-binary gender.

Monday, June 10, 2019

I'd Love to Turn You On #233 - Bibio - Ambivalence Avenue

Bibio’s 2009 record Ambivalence Avenue is a great blending of electronic and folk elements. Bibio takes a surprising number of influences and blends them into a uniquely listenable experience. He is comfortable in multiple genres. He gently sings and strums, he creates ethereal sound collages, he uses naturalistic ambient samples, and he recreates the slinky funk of Sly and the Family Stone to be the rhythmic bed of a song. The impressive feat is that Ambivalence Avenue is comprehensive as a whole while containing a variety of styles, yet does not come off as scattered or rambling. The acoustic tracks feel warm, positive, and summery, and the electronic tracks are cool, groovy, and sonically searching. Ambivalence Avenue is a record that alternates between acoustic singer-songwriter type tracks and more dance-influenced instrumentals. The instrumentals focus on textural variations and explorations, while the singer-songwriter songs focus on universal human themes.
The song "Ambivalence Avenue" opens the record. It is a loping happy song describing an idealistic avenue with white hotels, trees, and an amber colored sun. “Watching ourselves as if seeing our future” - we are not exactly sure who is with the singer, but they are greeted by strangers who seem to be friends. Then they were escorted thru a Red Door Bibio goes on to say, but that is where his daydream ends. A quick look into the symbolism of a red door will tell us that it means welcome in the Eastern philosophy of Feng Shui, in early American culture, or means protection in Biblical times. It seems very in line with the theme of welcoming friends. The music is joyous and comforting, with melodies answering sung verses. After Bibio sings of his daydream ending the song plays on instrumentally for a minute or so.
"Jealous of the Roses" has a Sly and the Family Stone groove to it, but speaks of a melancholy soul, who is, as the title says, “Jealous of the Roses” and believes in specific times and places for happiness. The R&B groove contrasts with pensive lyrics which also contrast thematically with the first song. The first song talks of welcoming and friendship in a wishful daydream state. The second song speaks to jealousy, unhappiness, and to love as conformity. The second song uses the pronoun “you” so it seems clear that Bibio is speaking to someone else and that these views are not his own. This song is a great example of Bibio’s subtlety. The feel of the song pulling in a slightly different direction than the lyrical content. "All the Flowers" is an acoustic song with guitars and vocals. The song uses a flower as a symbol of being present in the current moment, and not caught up in the past or future. This can be taken as a statement on “mindfulness” that seems to be sweeping our culture currently but it may also reflect an underlying Eastern philosophy in Bibio when taken into consideration with the Red Door in track one.
"Fire Ant" is a sonic mish-mash of samples and sounds intricately woven into a groove. It begins using an ambient sample of children playing with music heard faintly in the background. A rhythmic foundation is introduced and different sounds are interjected above the groove. His choices of sounds truly are abstract and random. It is using repetition as a tool of development that we as listeners begin to be comfortable with these sounds as part of Bibio’s musical language. It sounds as if different vowel sounds such as "e," "a," and the words "ahh," "la," and "ga," have been sampled, treated with vibrato effects and made to duel each other. Eventually the groove cuts out and it is replaced with a single line, reverb-drenched synth plucking haphazardly along.
"Haikuesque (When She Laughs)" is an introspective song made up of a string of haikus. Some of the haikus are naturalistic, some of them are observational, and some of them repeated. The haiku that the title refers to goes: When she laughs/ The piano in the hall/ Plays a quiet note, comparing a woman’s laughter to music in an indirect, but poetic way. Another favorite of mine is Rocking chair/Is still without a rocker/But is still a chair. It has a sense of questioning: why is the chair still, because nobody is rocking it, no entity, or is it referring to the bottom arch that allows the chair to rock? The questioning, the duality, and the searching are all aspects that appear in multiple places throughout the record. The music for this song is more acoustic than electronic providing a gentle bed for the lyrics.
The next track "Sugarette" is a contrasting chugging, electronic piece with cut up vocals buried far in the mix. The texture consists of bubbling and gurgling mechanical beeps and bloops. It seems to be a sonic palette cleanser from the acoustic song that preceded it. The name seems to be a reference to this, but the question of how it functions within the diorama of Ambivalence Avenue must be guessed at since the meaning of the lyrics are so buried and disguised. How is it intended to function? My theory is that Bibio expresses emotional connection with lyrics and naturalistic sounds, and lets the programmed songs represent a more removed and less emotional space. These spaces are more about energy and movement, and less about some of the emotions that are involved in the songs with lyrics.
"Lovers’ Carvings" is an acoustic, lyrical track with a two-minute instrumental introduction. The content of the lyrics points to the enduring nature of love. The carvings may fade like a set of initials carved in a bench or a tree, but always remain and can be found to exist many years later. The music starts out with a guitar developing a theme in a solo context and after a bit a percussive cowbell sets a slightly faster tempo and the song is fleshed out with a rhythm section and vocals. This track has such a great feel to it, and just adds layers and builds up until the end. The concept is simple but the execution is impressive. "The Palm of Your Wave" is a melancholy last look back. Bibio uses the iconic imagery of waiting for a train in cold weather. How many movies has this played out in? A last wave from a cold train station. And the last thing I save is the palm oh you wave/ Oh, This moment please be forever. It seems to be an idealistic way to remember or reach out to a memory or a loved one. The music once again is a just a guitar and a voice.
"Cry! Baby!" and "Dwrcan" are both instrumental songs with masterful production. They both further point to an aspect of duality within the record - Bibio can be a producer and programmer, and also a singer-songwriter who tackles complex emotional themes. Why the duality in sounds? What does each represent? If separated perhaps two separate albums could be made, one of acoustic songs with lyrics, and one of programmed beats. Two songs might overlap, but instead of making two records Bibio has chosen to combine all the tracks on Ambivalence Avenue.
I originally started listening to this record because of the electronic tracks. I have to admit that after many repeated listens the lyrics have won me over and I now enjoy the introspective acoustic tracks more than the instrumentals. They have a wistfulness to them, almost like an old black and white film. Daydreaming of welcoming friends, jealousy, laughter, timeless love, and longingly looking to the past, these songs examine some universal themes. If you’re not already a fan I’d love to turn you on to Bibio’s Ambivalence Avenue.
-          Doug Anderson

Monday, June 3, 2019

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #219 - Practical Magic (1998, dir. Griffin Dunne)

I don’t remember the first time I saw Practical Magic, it’s just always been in my memory. I was seven when the film came out, a little too young to see it in theaters but just old enough for it to become part of the regular rotation of films I rented from the local Movie Gallery. If I wasn’t renting Practical Magic it was Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil or Interview with the Vampire - I couldn’t get enough of all things spooky. Over the years I continued to go back to Practical Magic, I even read the Alice Hoffman book the film is based on. It’s just one of those movies that has stuck around from my childhood. From a very young age I was introduced to all kinds of things that go bump in the night, so this story of cursed lovesick witches and a murder investigation was perfect for me.
A pair of sisters, Sally and Gillian, come to live with their eccentric - and by eccentric I mean they are clearly witches of the Stevie Nicks variety - maternal aunts after the death of their parents. Aunt Frances (Stockard Channing) and Aunt Jet (Dianne Wiest) tell them of their family history: 1) that they come from a long line of witches and 2) there is a family curse - any man who falls in love with an Owens woman will die. Sandra Bullock plays the assertive, driven, Sally, the sister who wanted to never be in love, and she casts a spell for a man that couldn’t possibly exist to protect her from ever falling in love. But she eventually falls victim to the Owens family love curse, meeting a man, having children and then losing him. Nicole Kidman, who had just finished filming Eyes Wide Shut, was at the top of her game. She knew just how cool she was, and played Gillian as a wild child, always getting into trouble and falling in love with all the wrong men - like ultimate bad boy Jimmy Angelov (Goran Visnjic), who gets what's coming to him in the end. Visnjic is so good at playing a slimy sleazy creature that even after all these years if I ever see him in anything, I just think of Jimmy.
Aidan Quinn plays Gary Hallett, an investigator from Arizona who starts asking the sisters questions when Jimmy goes missing. He is stern but soft, and when Sally can’t seem to lie to him about what happened to Jimmy he confesses he had been reading a letter she wrote to Gillian, and that was part of the reason he came to investigate was so that he could meet her. Is he her impossible man? Or maybe just trying to get her to tell the truth about Jimmy? Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest really steal the show with their outlandish flowing witch outfits and their quick witted back-and-forth banter. It’s best shown in scenes where the aunts have midnight margaritas, then dance along to Harry Nilsson’s “Coconut,” or when they hilariously welcome a large group of townswomen into their grand Victorian witches' house. These are the same townswomen who, despite their fear of the Owens women, band together to help Sally rescue Gillian from Jimmy's evil spirit, Channing and Wiest guiding them all the way. Even the aunts' house could be considered a character, a Victorian home filled to the brim with antiques and every kind of knick knack you would expect two spinster witches to have, perched on a cliff overlooking some unnamed majestic body of water. The kitchen, garden and conservatory are as grand and spooky as you would expect in a witch's house - so grand that if I ever win the lottery you better believe I’m building a house with replicas of them. The film also has some choice late 90’s hits, including Faith Hill’s “This Kiss,” not one but two Stevie Nicks songs, and we can’t forget Elvis Presley’s “Always on My Mind,” making more than one appearance sung drunkenly by more than one character.
Even after all these years the film is still as magical and practical as it was when I was a kid. It was just spooky enough to really draw me in. The cast is pretty outstanding for a late 90’s movie - you got your superstars (Bullock and Kidman), handsome leading men (Quinn and Visnjic) and veteran actresses (Channing and Wiest). The film has plenty of moments that are spooky but it is also filled with light-hearted moments and an overall feeling of sisterhood, not just between biological siblings but all of the women of the small town who come together at the end. It is a wonderful introduction to witches, in a very innocent and fun way. To me the film is filled with bits of nostalgia, not just bits of pop culture from my childhood, but the nostalgic feeling of a film that was one of my first introductions to all things spooky and creepy. Without Practical Magic I don’t know that I would have ended up loving things that go bump in the night.
-         Anna Lathem