Monday, February 24, 2020

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #236 - In the Heat of the Night (1967, dir. Norman Jewison)

            I grew up watching the In the Heat of the Night television series all through the ‘80s with my parents. As police procedurals go, there wasn’t anything that particularly stood out about it (I’ve seen every episode multiple times and I couldn’t tell you the plot to any of them) other than it starred the genius Carroll O’Connor who we already knew and loved from playing Archie Bunker for all those years, so we just, as a family, liked it a lot. It would be years before I learned not only that there was a film version produced two decades earlier, but that said film version was, oh I dunno, a hundred million trillion times better than the show.
            For one thing the film, directed by Norman Jewison, is not just an effective whodunit, but it also acts as a lesson in civility. It was released in 1967, a time when the Civil Rights Movement was largely just starting to take shape with regards to actual effective legislation. Some sections of the United States, many in the South, were still rife with racial tension and uneasiness from all citizens. For Jewison, a Canadian, to come along and, in a way, hold a mirror up to those areas by portraying the small Mississippi town of Sparta as a cold, intolerant place was kind of a badass move. Sidney Poitier plays the well-read Philadelphia homicide detective Virgil Tibbs who, while visiting his mother in Sparta, is picked up by a small-time deputy (Warren Oates) as a suspect in the murder of a prominent industrialist. He isn’t doing anything suspicious mind you - other than being black - but again, this is the ‘60s in the deep South so that’s enough. He is taken back to the police headquarters where he meets the other officers and the surly chief of police, Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) who is only too eager to assume Tibbs’ guilt as well. Once Tibbs’s alibi is cleared up by his own superior officer, he is asked to assist the Sparta department in their murder investigation; a request he reluctantly agrees to. This is essentially the plot to the pilot episode of the series as well, as they are both based on a novel by John Ball. But that’s really where the similarities end. After the pilot, the series just becomes another yawner prime-time buddy cop drama. The film, a much darker affair, really showcases those racial tensions between the two lead characters, and thus, again, given the time period during which it was released, showcasing the racial tensions in the country at the time. While there is a mutual respect that builds between the two men over the course of the film, they are still not going to be friends. We, the viewers, don’t get the impression at the end that these two are going to even keep in touch, much less continue working together.
            I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the acting in In the Heat of the Night, which is also top notch. It presents a cast made up of both seasoned veterans and relative newcomers alike. Poitier breathes an ambitious and determined fire into his portrayal of Ball’s Tibbs character, prompting two lesser known but still kind of charming sequels. In some ways, we can see why Gillespie doesn’t like Tibbs. He is arrogant and stubborn, something Gillespie calls him out on almost immediately. Tibbs is supposedly a genius homicide detective, yet he is at first unwilling to help on a case he knows that he can solve. Gillespie only responds with racist remarks because it’s the only defense he knows. And can we just talk about Rod Steiger for a second? Holy shit, that guy, right? It takes a lot for me to prefer an actor over my beloved Carroll O’Connor, but Steiger’s Chief Gillespie is truly one of the greatest characters in film history, something his Best Actor Oscar that he received for it supports. He’s got such a seemingly despicable disposition at the beginning of the film, yet we still kind of root for him because we can tell that, deep down, he is a good law man, a fact that Tibbs also begrudgingly recognizes. By the end of the film, we witness a very real change in him as he becomes more empathetic and more tolerant.
Given that the country continues to struggle with issues of bigotry and racism, especially involving law enforcement, In the Heat of the Night remains an important film with an important message that still resonates in America today. Though some of the ways in which it delivers this message can be a bit dated and gratuitous, it’s still a message that bears repeating.
  - Jonathan Eagle

Monday, February 17, 2020

I'd Love to Turn You On #250: Godspeed You! Black Emperor - F#A#∞ (1997)

Godspeed You! Black Emperor (or GY!BE) are well known for their long, instrumental post-rock compositions. GY!BE has been described as cinematic in their approach to music; their songs and albums seem to tell stories and there are times when their music wouldn’t feel out of place as the soundtrack to some unconventional work of genius. Their extensive discography is also notable for the artistic statements it makes on events, politics, and ideas, which is rather impressive when you consider the fact that there are no lyrics to almost anything they’ve written (although they do include audio samples of people talking as part of songs on most of their albums). Listeners should note that the CD and vinyl versions of this album are not quite the same; the order of the music is different. In this review, I will be talking about the CD version.
What makes GY!BE stand out is that they’re able to blend innovative experimental sounds with musical storytelling and deep, powerful emotion. Emotion dominates this album; it draws you back again and again. It’s expressed in a way that can only be accomplished with music. The fact that there are no lyrics allows for an exploration of feeling that words simply can’t articulate in the same way. This is an album that will manipulate your emotions.
This album, on first listen, was very clearly made by GY!BE, but it immediately stands out from their other work because it begins with a very distinctive spoken-word segment that gradually blends into the music. "Dead Flag Blues," the first song on the hour-long, three-song album, tells a bleak story about the end of the world. It’s sad, but it’s the kind of sad that’s oddly comforting, and the story it tells feels as relevant as ever two decades after its release. Whether or not you agree with the band’s anarchist and anti-capitalist stance, you can’t deny there’s something that cuts very deep in a world like this one about the imagery of leering billboards and flags “dead at the top of their poles.” It’s eerie, it’s sad, and it’s beautiful in a pleasantly disconcerting way. It sticks with you. The melancholy music puts you at ease; it’s dreamlike and comforting, and you don’t really want it to end.
Part two of "Dead Flag Blues" begins with the sound of a train and the distinctive feeling of falling. It maintains the dreamlike feeling from the first part as it transitions into something reverb-heavy and Western-sounding, like a cowboy’s eulogy for the city that burned in part one. As long as this song is, it’s not something you’ll get bored listening to; there are clear transitions that bring each part together in a way that feels natural, like changing scenes in a movie. There’s a moment of falling in the immediate aftermath of the disaster at the beginning, then a period of mourning, and then at the end a happy and upbeat segment that gives the listener a feeling of hope; the story the song seems to tell is that the world ends, we mourn it, and then at the end we begin to recover and build something better from the ashes.
"East Hastings," the second song on the album, begins with the sound of bagpipes playing a variation of the riff from part one of "Dead Flag Blues" over the sound of a street preacher. This fades into a segment of quiet and mournful guitar played over a tense, uneasy background. The tension builds gradually along with the volume. You can feel something bigger coming, but you’re not sure what; all you know is that it’s getting closer. It’s incredible how much variety in sound can be accomplished with the relatively simply riffs and the addition of a violin and a cello; the dynamics shift constantly. Part two of "East Hastings" tells an entire story in itself. The song’s mood then shifts to something strange, like a dream dissolving in several directions at once.
As you realize you have no idea what’s going to happen next, "East Hastings" ends and "Providence," the longest song on the album, begins. There’s an audio sample that echoes the themes of the two previous songs: it’s two people discussing the end of the world and what the preacher has to say about it. Then a haziness seems to settle over the music, and it feels like a dream again for a while before something new starts. You’re left thinking about what’s been said so far by this hypnotic album.
Then a new segment begins that feels like movement and liminality; the light rhythm in the background is constant, but it doesn’t want you to stay in one place. Things are happening; the world is changing in this part of the story. Sound and tension build once more (something GY!BE are very good at) and guitar is joined by drums, horns, and glockenspiel. It ends abruptly. A ghostly, echoing voice enters unaccompanied with what fans will recognize as a melody teased in GY!BE’s 2000 album, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven. It sounds like an old folk or gospel song; one you’re hearing in your sleep.
But then the melody ends as abruptly as it began and a militant, drum-driven segment begins. Somehow, the juxtaposition between the peaceful, ghostly folk-gospel melody and the aggression of the drumming seems to make perfect sense. But just as the drumming seems to reach a sort of climax, a haunting voice begins to ask, “Where are you going?” and a mournful droning begins that feels like the aftermath of a war. Once again, you begin to think about the story the album is telling. How did the world end? It’s never explicitly stated. But the distant sounds in the background are reminiscent of bombs and battle.
The sound fades. All is quiet for a few minutes. You have a chance to process. The album is almost over. It’s been like watching a movie, the way the scenes shifted and the tension built at various points. Just when you think it’s over, an ethereal echo begins – a hidden track, or a post-credits scene. You can hear a guitar, but it sounds distant, like something heard through a cloud. Then the drums come back. Everything is echoing but there’s a melody now. Once again, the tension builds. It all comes together at the end.
It’s strange to think of an album like this coming out in the mid-1990s. It feels so relevant to the present. As long and strange as F#A# is, it’s not difficult to listen to. On the contrary, it’s deeply emotional and engaging and the long tracks are split into shorter segments that only go on for as long as they need to. With very little dialogue, this album tells a story. The details of the story aren’t important; what’s important is that the world as we know it ends, and it’s our fault, but it’s not necessarily the end of everything; there are moments of hope.

            - Madden Ott

Monday, February 3, 2020

I'd Love to Turn You On #249: Yes - The Yes Album (1971)

The Yes Album is a very hard one for me to start reviewing because there are so many things I can talk about with it. This album has not only been something I’ve been listening to since I first started playing guitar and bass; it’s not just an album that has started conversations with people who would become some of my best friends; it’s not just a weird album cover that you can stare at forever and still not understand it. This album is all that and more than I ever thought it could be. I don’t remember the first time I listened to this - it got lost in the brains of 14 year-old me - but I haven’t forgotten a note of it, and I still try to sing along to it even though I know I will never get close to Jon Anderson’s voice.
Starting an album with “Yours Is No Disgrace” seems so obvious - the opening hits trick you into thinking you know what’s coming on this album. Rarely do you hear all the instruments so crazily defined in the mix, with them all acting as one giant, speeding bus that they call a chord progression; but once you’re in for the ride they don’t let go because this song is just shy of ten minutes long and barely feels like it. It moves so freely that you don’t even feel exhausted by the end of it. The next song feels like it’s the complete opposite of what you’d hear on a classic prog rock album - solo acoustic guitar, courtesy of Steve Howe, with “The Clap.” It’s a piece that is just about three minutes of straight fire coming out of Steve’s fingers, a blend of classical, jazz, and traditional blues guitar styles all put in the stew of a kinda rock song - an odd choice for the second song on an album but it’s a very nice comedown from the extravagance that is “Yours Is No Disgrace.” “Starship Trooper” is really where this album takes off - that little bass part that kicks in when this song hits means as much to me as any two seconds of music ever has. Everything they were doing on the first track is executed perfectly here - the various melodies of the vocals, guitar, and bass all get stuck in your head as separate parts but you can’t have one without the others. It helps that the lyrics are inspired by the 1959 book of the same name, which was also the basis for the amazing movie of the same name (I’m still mad they never used the song in the movie). For as tight a band as Yes is, this song sometimes feels like it’s about to fall apart, but right when that moment comes they tighten up and become a much more cohesive unit, one that went on to take on the world.
Flipping the record over and dropping the needle on “I’ve Seen All Good People” is always going to be a therapeutic moment for me. It’s very clearly the first time I heard a musical Easter egg - the background choir singing “All we are saying, is give peace a chance” - that I haven’t been able to unhear since. My dad brought me up on The Beatles and Lennon, so I already knew that phrase and melodic line, but even just the simple line “Send an instant karma to me” was something I didn’t know you could do in music; it was so revelatory, and subconsciously made me interested in knowing what the bands I liked listened to. References like that make the music so much more personal, especially when some of the extreme metal bands I listen to now will have long extended solos and for a moment - blink and you’ll miss it - you’ll hear these bands do Yes riffs, ripped straight from this album, in their crazy distorted madness. It’s a moment that makes you feel connected to the band on a personal level and oddly makes some of these people more approachable, both in skill and personality. 
Outside of the music, this album has been a beacon in my life; it’s an album that my dad always said was one of his favorites ever, by one of his favorite bands ever. He took me to see what remained of Yes in 2012, far from the prime of this band, and most diehard fans wouldn’t want to see this version, but it was still so magical. This is the album that I had the cover of hanging next to my bed throughout middle school and high school - not a poster, the actual sleeve of the album with record still in it. It’s an album that I've been lucky enough to not only be able to share with the people I love, but use as jumping off points for things that some of my best friends and I first talked about, still talk about, and will always talk about.
- Max Kaufman