Monday, October 28, 2019

I'd Love to Turn You On #243 - Serge Gainsbourg - Histoire De Melody Nelson (1971)

  Melody Nelson lived fourteen autumns and fifteen summers when she was struck by the front end of a Silver Ghost. The driver, who we can only assume is some extension of the artist in question, was met with confusion and inexplicable lust. Melody survives the incident, but not without being subjected to the narrator’s bizarre, Nabokavian tendencies. Gainsbourg, with the help of partner Jean-Claude Vannier and guest musicians Alan Parker and Dave Richmond among others, spends just under 28 minutes unfolding a musical narrative to which there are many dark, euphoric, and ambiguous sides.
 Histoire De Melody Nelson is a landmark record looked upon by countless musicians as a sonic reference point, and by critics as a benchmark in the field of concept albums. It is perhaps the most influential French rock album ever released and has been covered, and to some extent copied countless times in the 48 years since its release. Beck, who notably paid homage to the album’s title track on his 2003 breakup bummer, Sea Change, called the album “one of the greatest marriages of rock band and orchestra” he’d ever heard. Upon listening, it’s not difficult to understand why. The record opens with a plodding, quiet bassline over jagged guitar riffs that are soon met with the sinister vocal delivery of Serge Gainsbourg relaying in spoken word the story of hitting Melody on her bicycle as he (or the narrator) haplessly drives his Rolls Royce. The darkness of it all becomes quickly euphoric as a swelling orchestra builds over the track’s otherwise brooding atmosphere. Highlighted by production that’s as rich as it is spacious, each musician is given their chance to shine here, but no one instrument distracts from or overshadows its counterparts. The tracks that follow act as vignettes, conveying the narrator’s increasing affinity for the album’s title character.
While the bookend tracks take most of the glory, the sheer musicianship flourishes throughout, without the end product feeling like homework or something that takes itself too seriously. The album’s studio playfulness leads to wonderful, slightly less musical moments. On the track “En Melody,” bursts of maniacal laughter break out over a ferocious drum beat as Gainsbourg relates the story of a plane crash that ultimately takes the life of young Melody. Violinist Jean-Luc Ponty adds a set of strings to the mix as tensions rise toward the fatal crash. The laughter coming from the voice of the titular character, played here by Gainsbourg’s then-wife Jane Birkin, was achieved by Birkin being tickled in the recording booth during the session. Her cackles add a layer of palpable anxiousness as Melody’s short story comes to a bloody, abrupt end.
Below the surface, Melody Nelson is a tremendously complicated exploration of masculinity and its dark, inherent sexuality viewed through the lens of tragedy - though Gainsbourg doesn’t really to seem to offer answers to this complexity here. Melody Nelson, like the strange relationship that unfolds through the album’s story, is another question mark in the life of the story’s recounter. Gainsbourg makes a point to state from the beginning that the story’s central characters are involved in this accident through naivety; in terms of childlike innocence via the story’s victim and by contrast, age and recklessness via its narrator. In the middle somewhere lie love and lust: two timeless themes that have been endlessly tackled by musician after musician. Perhaps Gainsbourg understood this to be heavily trod thematic ground and saw an opportunity to disclose a side of these feelings not often explored, and its provocativeness is nothing more than that. Or maybe the story is somewhat autobiographical and we’re getting a real look into the sinister, paranoid world of the musician in question. Ultimately that truth wouldn’t serve or enhance anyone’s understanding of the album, and its moral ambiguity factors heavily into the atmosphere of it all. The underlying story plays more of a supporting role to Gainsbourg and his band than it does actually try to say something about its subjects and their interactions.
The record’s cinematic nature was, at the time of release, unparalleled by anything else in its genre. While Melody Nelson isn’t exactly a rock opera in comparison to something like The Who’s Tommy, it does a brilliant job of creating a mood to match its subject and creates fertile ground for linear storytelling.

- Blake Britton (Initials B.B.)

Monday, October 21, 2019

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #229 - The Emigrants / The New Land (1971/1972, dir. Jan Troell)

When these two 3-hour Swedish films opened in Denver in the early 1970’s I would have been about 14. I honestly can’t believe my parents thought it was a good idea to take me to six hours of subtitled historical drama, but it is even more surprising that I sat through it, and remembered it fondly. I was thrilled to see that Criterion released them together in one package, and, that after three decades I would be able to revisit this experience. I spent the better part of my day off with Swedish farmer Karl Oskar (Max Von Sydow) and his bride Kristina (Liv Ullman) as they try to succeed in their native Sweden, but failing that, emigrate to mid-1800’s America and help settle Minnesota.
The first movie The Emigrants finds Karl Oskar toiling on his Father’s farm working like a dog, barely making ends meet, and finding it almost impossible to feed his new and growing family. At the same time, his brother Robert and other relatives are finding the Swedish environment of conservativism and religious piety oppressive. They start talking and reading about North America and the promise of freedom and success in the United States. Braving the emotional and financial consequences, a group of them decide to leave their home and make the voyage to America. That’s a neat little synopsis of the first three hours, but it does nothing to convey the overwhelming beauty and power of this great movie. Filmed with loving attention to detail, director Jan Troell puts the dirt under your fingernails, makes you smell the bread baking, and puts the thought in your mind and belly that this will be the last bread of the winter because the harvest is bad. Troell’s movie is in a class by itself. It’s hard to think of another movie that so vividly takes the audience into the lives of simple people so effectively. There is little romanticizing of their plight, everything is shown with a matter-of-fact clarity which conveys both the pain and drudgery of their existence, but also offers a fleeting, bittersweet glimpse at a not so distant past free of technological intrusion and environmental annihilation. The scenes and one’s emotions fly from backbreaking toil to exhilarating natural beauty with the fluency of life itself. The cinematic achievement is profound. Like so few movies (Boyhood is one of the only others that comes to mind), The Emigrants and its sequel The New Land actually capture the huge artistic ambition of showing a life lived.
The lengths of these movies might seem gratuitous, but as they unfold, it becomes clear that this is the only way to portray such overwhelming scale. The sequence showing the boat journey from Sweden to New York is forty minutes of harrowing aquatic nightmare, and when it ends you feel a physical relief as the actors set foot on solid ground. Likewise, the final scenes of The Emigrants show Karl Oskar trekking through unsettled Minnesota looking for the perfect spot to settle. Without any dialogue, it is actually possible to lose yourself in the fantasy of discovering America. It is one of so many beautiful and emotional moments. If you love this country, and believe its inherent greatness is connected to its natural beauty and those who first settled it, this is a rare experience.
 Many social issues are also tackled in these movies. Especially in The New Land, timely themes of immigration, racism, sexuality, class warfare, dirty business and Native American rights are shown, again with the seemingly spontaneous intrusion of true life. Perhaps because everything is from the Swedish perspective, rather than the jingoism we often see in modern Hollywood, it is possible to reflect upon these issues from multiple perspectives. The story climaxes with twin tragedies. First, younger brother Robert heads west to participate in the gold rush. He is exposed to greed, disease, theft, and death, before returning to the disapproval of his own family. It is the Horatio Alger myth in reverse. Then comes the controversial telling of a massacre (part of the Dakota Wars) of many of the settlers by the Native Americans who originally inhabited the land the Swedes were settling. A series of horrifying scenes of violence, retribution and execution bring in to focus one of the more unsettling aspects of the founding of our country and the treatment of its first citizens. Again, it is the non-Hollywood perspective that lends these scenes such veracity and makes them so hard to ignore or forget.
The Emigrants and The New Land are incredibly important films to see at this particular moment in America’s history. The ambitions of these films are as big as America’s endless horizons, yet they focus on the small details of humanity we all share. The endless vistas of this new country tamed by the tiny voice yearning for home.

- Paul Epstein

Monday, October 14, 2019

I'd Love to Turn You On #242 - The Cure - Disintegration (1989)

            You’ve almost certainly heard of the Cure. And you’ve almost certainly heard at least one song off their 1989 album Disintegration. It’s hardly obscure; after all, we’re talking about the album that brought us “Lovesong.” But there’s nothing quite like listening to the whole thing all the way through for the first time. It’s brooding. It’s melancholy. It’s like watching a thunderstorm happen in reverse. This album is quintessential for the Cure; it combines the darker, moodier feeling of early albums like Faith and Pornography with the accessibility of albums like Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me. There’s a reason this album is a classic, which still earns acclaim thirty years after its release. If you’re gonna get into the Cure, this is the album to start with.
            Disintegration was written at a rather turbulent time for the Cure. During its production, the band’s keyboardist and one of its founding members, Lol Tolhurst, left the band and was replaced by touring keyboardist Roger O’Donnell. Robert Smith, the band’s frontman, was suffering from depression and turned to psychedelic drugs to cope. His introspection about turning 30, and about the legacy of the band, also influenced the album; they’d begun writing poppy tunes to avoid being pigeonholed as simply a Goth band, but Smith now wanted to get back to their roots. This resulted in an album which kept some pop elements, but returned to a darker sound.
            To start with, there’s the opening track, “Plainsong.” It starts out quiet, with gently ringing bells, and then explodes rather suddenly into an atmospheric, warm, shimmery intro that hits like the first burst of sunlight through the clouds at the end of a storm. Then comes the guitar, dripping with melody. By the time the vocals hit, you’re fully immersed. Their echoes complement the atmosphere of the song perfectly, and Smith’s voice blends in, rather than being sung over the rest of it.
            After “Plainsong” is “Pictures of You.” Like much of the album, the keys, the shimmers, and guitar sounds from “Plainsong” carry over to this track, but Smith’s vocals take on more of a leading role. Then comes “Closedown,” which continues the feeling, but brings in more of Simon Gallup’s bass and Boris Williams’ drums. By this point you can tell the album has been building up to something, but you’re not sure what.
            And then there’s “Lovesong.” It’s an achingly sweet declaration of love, written as a wedding present to Smith’s wife (and high school sweetheart), Mary Poole. With its heart-melting lyrics and yearning melody, it’s easy to see why this song is so well-loved by fans and casual listeners alike. I can’t hear it without wanting to sing along; it’s beautiful. It starts out softer and subtler than previous tracks on the album, with a catchy bass line and quiet keys. Then come the vocals and the iconic guitar and keyboard riffs, adding a new energy to the album and giving it new depth. This song is where Disintegration goes from good to great.
            "Lovesong" is followed up by “Last Dance,” a heart-shattering track that brings back the shimmery atmosphere from earlier in the album, but makes it colder and sadder. The tender nostalgia in the lyrics is matched by Simon Gallup’s melodic bass and the reverb-heavy guitar that seems to drift down like snow over the listener. There’s a subtle desperation conveyed that sticks with you long after the song ends.
            And then there’s “Lullaby,” easily one of the top three tracks on Disintegration. It’s a bit of a departure from the earlier sound of the album, but it’s a perfect fit. The frantic, paranoid vocals are whispered rather than sung, fitting perfectly with the eerie lyrics, which describe being eaten by a spider man in a nightmare. It’s isolation, it’s terror, it’s helplessness, and it’s so strangely pretty you can’t help but listen again.
            Next comes “Fascination Street.” The reverb-laden guitars are back, echoing in a kind of organized chaos over the bass that draws you in. It’s a while before the vocals come in, which gives the listener a chance to get used to the building tension. But when the vocals hit, the tension only continues to build, which keeps the listener engaged and yearning for more.
This leads into the angst-ridden “Prayers for Rain,” a dark, gloomy track, with bleak imagery in its lyrics and simple but captivating guitar. Of all the tracks on Disintegration, this one is the closest to the deliciously nihilistic, desolate sound on earlier albums like Pornography. It’s one of my favorite tracks on the album. The way it takes the warm elements of earlier tracks on the album and darkens them keeps me coming back to this track over and over again.
“The Same Deep Water As You” starts out with the sound of thunder and rain, which sets the pleasant but melancholy tone for the whole song. It’s not as dark as “Prayers for Rain.” Instead it’s a warm and mellow type of yearning, in striking opposition to the next song on the album, “Disintegration,” like the calm before a storm. It has a way of washing over the listener, bringing back the shimmering atmosphere that characterizes so much of this masterpiece of an album.
The title track, “Disintegration,” is much more fast-paced. It has a frantic, desperate feel to it, which persists until the last chord. It’s about selfishness, deception, and endings, and you can’t help being pulled into the narrative by Robert Smith’s deeply emotional vocals. The album has felt like it was building up to something, and with this track, it finally comes to a head.
After this is “Homesick,” for which Lol Tulhurst provided the basis before he left the band. It’s full of dramatic, aching sadness. Like most of the Cure’s work, it’s melody-driven. Disintegration feels like a breakup album, and this feels like the aftermath to the ending “Disintegration” represents.
Finally, the album ends with “Untitled.” It has a happier, warmer tone, in contrast to “Disintegration” and “Homesick.” This provides some closure, and ensures the listener doesn’t leave feeling too broken down. It’s still sad, but it’s less intense, and the lyrics echo back to the perception of unreality expressed in “Pictures of You.”
The Cure were one of the biggest bands of their era, transcending genre and crafting a legacy that will endure for generations. Disintegration is an album that captures all their best elements, and it’s the album that changed me from a casual listener to a fan. It’s melancholy and it can be dark, but it’s intensely beautiful. Is there really any better album for when you’re feeling down?
- Madden Ott

Monday, October 7, 2019

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #228 - The Host (2006, dir. Bong Joon-ho)

            Meet the Park family, proprietors of a snack stand along the touristy Han River in the South Korean capital of Seoul:
Gang-Du, the eldest son of the generous and caring widower Hie-bong, Gang-Du’s wife left him with their precocious young daughter Hyun-seo years ago and left him emotionally arrested at that stage in his life.
Nam-Joo, Hie-bong’s youngest, a champion archer with a penchant for choking when the pressure is on.
Nam-il, the educated activist middle child who has been unable to find gainful employment despite his education and who drinks to cover up his anger.
Hie-bong, the gentle patriarch who is struggling to care for his family economically, and who is ready to fight to hold them together.
Hyun-seo, youngest of the Park clan, trying to succeed in school despite a difficult upbringing and a father who, though he tries his best, fails her in many ways.

While the Parks work their snack stand, miles away an American military scientist examines the contents of his laboratory with his Korean assistant, sees hundreds of bottles of chemicals he deems to be spoiled, and has a conversation that culminates in the words “That’s right, let’s dump them in the Han River” - we know this can’t be good. Sure enough, shortly the local fisherman begin to notice fewer fish, and some of the ones they catch seem… different, perhaps with more tails than they usually have, and also perhaps a little more bite-y than usual. A man preparing to jump off a bridge sees a huge black shape moving in the water but can’t tell what it is.
And instead of spending half the film building up to the reveal of the monster as in most monster classics (Alien, Jaws, King Kong), we’re suddenly right into the thick of it - a mutated, amphibious monster that resembles a giant, dangerous tadpole with legs and too many teeth is running rampant along the walkways of the Han, crushing and flinging aside onlookers, grabbing some with its mouth or its tail, going in and out of the water. Naturally this happens right by the Park family stand at the most crowded and busy time of day, and as the monster runs wild through the crowd Gang-Du sees young Hyun-seo in danger and springs into action intent on protecting his family, one of the few onlookers who dares to assault the beast instead of running away screaming. But the monster nabs Hyun-seo with its tail, flees back to the water and off to its lair. Shortly afterward those who have come into contact with the monster are quarantined by the military because of their exposure to a virus the beast is carrying, and this includes the entire Park family. And so begins the meat of the film - the family coming together over their longstanding personal difficulties to find Hyun-seo. Which means that they not only have to find the monster's hidden lair in the city, but also evade the authorities who want them locked up and away from the general populace as they prepare to test a new chemical agent to destroy the beast - and possibly sell it for chemical warfare in the future.
Gang-Du (Bong regular Kang-ho Song) is both funny and touching as the eldest son, a slacker father lamenting his departed wife and dotingly focused on his daughter Hyun-seo (superbly played by Ko Asung), suddenly awakened out of his torpor to rescue his captured child. The film follows out many threads of the progress of different family members - Gang-du’s younger archer sister, his activist younger brother, and his father Hie-bong trying to keep them all together (and who, like his surprisingly active slacker son, is a real fighter when it comes to the monster). And of course there's resourceful young Hyun-seo, cool-headed under threat of being eaten by the mutant tadpole threatening all of Seoul.
Bong Joon-Ho's ease in genre - and also rejection of it - is a major plus here. Like all his films (that I've seen), he starts with what appears to be a straightforward genre piece and slowly sends it off the rails until it's something else entirely. Is this a thriller about a government cover-up? A family drama? A giant monster horror film? A black comedy? The answer is yes to all of those things. And the reason I've spent so much time talking about the family is because Bong took the time to think about them as well - he invests what could be a tawdry CGI-centric genre piece with real, flawed, believable people (helped immensely by an excellent cast who make us care about their foibles, about their problems), and helps us believe it when a giant killer tadpole snatches their daughter to its hidden lair to be eaten at a later time.
If you need a great horror film for your October viewing, check this one. If you need to see the earlier work of this year's Palme d'Or winning director, check this one (and also check out the superb Memories of Murder, itself another genre-defying genre film - this time a police procedural) before you go see the excellent Parasite when it opens. But really, Bong Joon-Ho hasn't stepped wrong in anything I've yet seen - I started with The Host and have yet to be disappointed, and you won't be either.
-         Patrick Brown