Lots to write about at the moment – especially as posts have become infrequent due to photoshoots, rehearsing and housewarming parties amongst other things.
I’ll start with two absolutely splendid gigs. I thought I’d written about the Broken Family Band so many times that a review for their Green Man warm up show at The King’s Head in Crouch End would be entirely superfluous. Not entirely – as this proved to be pretty much the best BFB gig I’ve seen outside Cambridge’s Strawberry Fair festival, where they always earn their rapturous reception. They were on home turf of sorts here too, as singer Steve Adams now lives ‘just round the corner’ from the North London venue, more well-known as a comedy club but increasingly home to some fine music-themed evenings. Adams was on top form throughout the gig, his trademark dry, borderline-misanthropic humour almost being overworked.
The augmentation of the band to a six-piece really made the evening special. BFB gigs always come deliriously alive when Timothy Victor joins them to play banjo, perhaps somewhat oddly, as he is probably the least animated member of the band onstage. He does however seem to galvanise them into reaching a higher level of energy and enthusiasm, and tonight saw the band channel their ragged, carefree abandon into something highly entertaining. Also joining the band was a girl accordion player (sadly I’ve completely forgotten her name), who added richness and depth to the sound. Also in evidence was a carefully selected setlist, incorporating more songs from the excellent ‘Jesus Songs’ mini-LP, which is too frequently given short thrift. After a visceral reading of ‘Mother O’Jesus’, Steve Adams admitted that they don’t often play the song, perhaps because of the potentially alienating harsh falsetto shriek of the chorus melody. It was a pleasing surprise for me. Some older songs were brought out of retirement too, including the more reflective ‘Song For Robots’ and ‘Gone Dark’ which provided effective balance for the more raucous and unrestrained quality of the newer songs (‘The Booze and The Drugs’ and ‘You’re Like A Woman’ already seem to be live favourites). They also reprised their madcap cover version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Diamonds In The Mine’, a song they truly make their own. Wonderful stuff.
From a tiny pub basement to what some people have (unfairly in my view) described as a ‘Victorian monstrosity’ and a ‘shed’, Alexandra Palace. Why do people have such a problem with this venue? For large shows, it’s a much more satisfying location than Wembley Arena (hardly less isolated after all) or the hideous Earl’s Court. Whilst the notoriously muffled sound isn’t ideal, to my ears it’s really no worse than the problematic Brixton Academy. Certainly a venue of this nature requires a performer to command the stage and involve the crowd, which is exactly what Nick Cave did last Thursday night. Some rather pious longstanding followers of The Bad Seeds have declared it the worst Nick Cave gig ever on his messageboard, some of them denying those (such as myself) for whom this was a first viewing of Nick Cave any right to have an opinion on the event. I’ve been meaning to see The Bad Seeds for years, but time, money and circumstances have always conspired against me.
For my money, this was an excellent show. Cave is perhaps less ponderous and detached a songwriter than he once was, even embracing self-effacing humour on the recent double set ‘Abattoir Blues’ and ‘The Lyre Of Orpheus’, excellent albums which unsurprisingly provided the bulk of the material for this one-off show. He’s also a magnetic and compelling performer, with limbs flailing everywhere and a now powerful voice that frequently veers (mostly effectively) away from the well-trodden path of conventional melody. Behind him, the band (featuring two of more or less everything, including drummers) cook up a storm. The absence of recently departed Blixa Bargeld is felt much less keenly than one might expect. The combination of the two reaches its zenith with the frighteningly apocalyptic gospel of ‘Hiding All Way’ and ‘There She Goes My Beautiful World’, where the gospel backing vocalists add a touch of soul to the proceedings. The former ends with a violent pronouncement – ‘There is a WAR coming!’ which sounds both chilling and thrilling at the same time. Another clear highlight was the strangely infectious and gripping ‘Come Into My Sleep’, which worked very well indeed.
Most of the gripes seem to have been with the setlist, which certainly favoured the most familiar material from the back catalogue. This wasn’t an intimate club show though and in front of the broadest audience he has yet managed to attract, Cave wisely opted to perform his most enduringly popular songs. What made them powerful were the subtle changes in arrangement, often to incorporate the gospel choir. The melody for the moving ‘Ship Song’ was subtly recrafted (‘a song about ships-n-history-n-shit’ according to Cave), whilst Warren Ellis’ wildly inventive violin playing re-animated ‘The Weeping Song’. ‘Red Right Hand’ was dispensed with surprisingly early in the set, but seemingly with undiminished enthusiasm and commitment.
It would have been great had the set been slightly longer (just over 90 minutes always seems like a bit of a scrimp from an artist with such a substantial catalogue to chose from). This might have allowed for some selections from ‘The Boatman’s Call’ or ‘Nocturama’, two of the many Cave albums left entirely ignored tonight. I also found my attention momentarily wandering around the time Mick Harvey strapped on an acoustic guitar, with a particularly slow ‘O Children’ and a slightly lightweight ‘Breathless’ not quite able to compete with the frenzy and fervour of the more relentless songs. Clearly the intention was to provide balance – again this might have been more effectively achieved with songs like ‘He Wants You’ (from ‘Nocturama’) or ‘Brompton Oratory’ (‘The Boatman’s Call’). Order was restored with a blisteringly intense version of ‘The Mercy Seat’.
These minor concerns seemed like quibbles after a wonderful encore, which managed to effortlessly combine new material (‘The Lyre Of Orpheus’ with amusing audience participation) with older classics (‘Do You Love Me’) and surprise selections (‘Darker With The Day’) ending with a brutal, excoriating version of ‘Stagger Lee’, with Cave shrieking and kicking his legs like a demented banshee, leaving everyone in stunned awe. If the end is nigh, it’s better to end on a high.
There are also a handful of new albums that I’ve yet to cover, starting with the outstanding ‘Leaders Of The Free World’ from Elbow. Just three albums into their career, Elbow’s great skill so far has been in crafting significant variations and developments in their sound whilst retaining a distinctive and recognisable character. Much of that character comes directly from the dour but dryly humorous vocals and lyrics of Guy Garvey – and his development continues apace here. Musically, ‘Leaders…’ is substantially less abrasive and rhythmically chaotic than ‘Cast Of Thousands’, instead opting to emphasise the band’s talent for layered arrangements, melancholy atmospherics and flowing, effortless melodies. There is a preference for acoustic instruments here, whether it be the delicate guitar lines of ‘The Everthere’, the restrained strum of ‘An Imagined Affair’ or the more unusual plucked strings of the marvellously titled ‘Picky Bugger’.
These are consistently high quality, emotionally captivating, slow-burning songs of the kind that Chris Martin simply cannot write. Garvey is completely engaged with sense experience, emotional feelings and, particularly on the title track, with global politics as well. Here, he combines feelings of personal frustration with anger at ‘the commander-in-chief’. Garvey claims that ‘The leaders of the free world are just little boys throwing stones/and it’s easy to ignore until they’re knocking on the doors of your homes’. The song goes beyond critique and into the realms of palpable menace, particularly with its chilling closing lines (‘passing the gun from father to feckless son/We’re climbing a landslide where only the good die young’). It has an epic quality and tremendous power.
Elsewhere there’s a lingering melancholy perfectly captured in quietly affecting opener ‘Station Approach’ with its delicately chiming chords. Better still is the brilliant first single ‘Forget Myself’, which has a massive chorus for which even the overused adjective ‘soaring’ might actually be appropriate. It’s songs this striking that should catapult them into the mainstream. Memories of the hauntingly beautiful ‘Switching Off’ (one of the highlights of ‘Casts Of Thousands’) are conjured by the gradual swell of ‘The Stops’ and ‘Great Expectations’ is wonderfully evocative, relating an unwitting exchanging of vows on the 135 bus to Bury.
It’s mostly restrained and controlled, but its brilliantly consistent and frequently touching. Only on the twitchy ‘Mexican Standoff’ do they really attempt to recreate the unpredictable stuttering rhythms that characterised parts of ‘Cast Of Thousands’. Liberally ‘borrowing’ the riff from Radiohead’s ‘National Anthem’, it marries Morrissey-esque murderous self-deprecation (‘Your sweet reassurances don’t change the fact that he’s better looking than me/Yet he’d look ideal ‘neath the wheels of a car’) with a relentless, turbulent energy. It serves as reverse respite from the mournful balladry that characterises much of the rest of the album.
‘Leaders of The Free World’ continues and expands the band’s talent for atmospherics and arrangements. Somehow, even when they resort to a plodding chug they manage to imbue it with real depth and vision. They may not have a chance of deposing the leaders of the free world, but Doves and even Radiohead might do well to check their mirrors – Elbow have made a strong bid for the epic rock crown.
I must confess that I’m having a little trouble appreciating ‘Love Kraft’, the latest from the dependable Super Furry Animals, despite some well-intentioned perseverance on my part. There is a clear consensus that the Super Furries have ‘matured’ since the neo-psychedelic excess of ‘Rings Around The World’. On their last album, 2004’s ‘Phantom Power’, this meant for an album of breezier, less riotous pop songs. That album rewarded patience to some extent, but there’s something of a paradoxical oppressiveness in the consistently relaxed, hazy vibe that pervades ‘Love Kraft’. The tempos are consistently slow (and frequently plodding), and there is perhaps an over-dependance on ‘Surf’s Up’-era Beach Boys influences, with lush arrangements and mellifluous harmonies predominating. Given that ‘Love Kraft’ is the band’s most democratic effort to date, with Gruff Rhys frequently deferring on lead vocal duties, it’s odd that it’s also probably their most one-dimensional record too.
This is not to say that ‘Love Kraft’ is without its fair share of impressive moments. ‘Lazer Beam’ is loose and funky, a close relation to both ‘Juxtaposed With U’ and ‘Ice Hockey Hair’. The opening ‘Zoom!’ is spectacular, offering more than 8 minutes of choirs, strange electronics and slippery melodies. If ‘Atomik Lust’ were the only slow song on the album, it would stand out as a highlight by virtue of its bizarre switches from infectious pastoral whimsy to freaky distorted chug. It demonstrates once again that SFA can frequently throw more ideas into one song than most bands have in their entire careers. The lyrical sentiment also seems to echo the new ‘maturity’ of their sound in its desire to abandon the confusion of hedonism for something more stable and comforting. This theme is deftly encapsulated in the seemingly throwaway line about wanting to see the end of Citizen Kane. Of the latter tracks ‘Psyclone!’ stands out, perhaps because it has a slightly playful quality.
Recorded in Catalonia, ‘Love Kraft’ maintains a lazy summery haze throughout (‘Ohio Heat’ may be its defining track). It’s musically impressive, with Sean O’ Hagan’s string arrangements underpinning the thickly textured arrangements, many of which repay close attention (if the soporific mood hasn’t already taken effect). Nevertheless, there’s also the lingering sense that it’s all a bit laboured, and much less instinctive than the esoteric sensibility that fuelled their earlier material. Much of ‘Love Kraft’ is very pleasant, particularly when digested in smaller doses, but will SFA ever record something as exuberant and thrilling as ‘Ice Hockey Hair’ again?
By way of contrast, ‘Twin Cinema’, the third album from Canadian supergroup The New Pornographers sees the band expanding their reach beyond a straightforward power-pop brief into something more angular and consistently rewarding. Despite the presence of Destroyer’s Dan Bejar and the beguiling Neko Case, this once again seems to be Carl Newman’s project. Any fears that he used up all his best songs for last year’s solo album ‘The Slow Wonder’ are very quickly assuaged. ‘Twin Cinema’ is simply a superb collection of turbulent, unpredictable pop songs.
The ramshackle, highly energetic opener quickly sets the tone, its puchy call-and-response vocals adding to its sense of urgency. Elsewhere, Newman’s penchant for infectiously melodic, relentlessly upbeat songs is indulged with the crisp ‘Use It’, ‘Star Bodies’ and the utterly outstanding ‘Sing Me Spanish Techno’, as composed and inventive a song as he has yet written. Neko Case shares vocal duties with two other female vocalists and isn’t provided with anything quite as rollicking as ‘Mass Romantic’, instead opting for the more measured delivery evident on ‘These Are The Fables’.
What makes ‘Twin Cinema’ so distinctive is the more angular, edgy quality to many of the songs. ‘Three Or Four’ is jerky, whilst ‘The Jessica Numbers’ seems to veer in several different directions at once. Dan Bejar’s songs are usually more wilfully obscure, but ‘Jackie, Dressed In Cobras’ has vibrant energy as well as structural complexity. On listening to ‘Twin Cinema’ for the first time, I felt that Dave Fridmann surely must have had a production credit somewhere along the line, such were the colossal, clattering nature of the drums. The sound is raw, but also somehow considered. The chaotic sound of Kurt Dahle’s drumming really works against Newman and Bejar’s quirky melodies. File with Low’s ‘The Great Destroyer’ and Sleater Kinney’s ‘The Woods’ in the small pool of 2005 exhibiting indie groups with established sounds branching out from their self-imposed restrictions.
Remarkably, this weekend also left time to watch a couple of new DVDs – two of the most challenging and unconventional films of the year so far, Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation and Fatih Akin’s Head-On. Both movies seem to be made to a very specific aesthetic. The former was supposedly edited entirely on Apple’s iMovie software and essentially one man’s entire life and family history exposed on film, the latter a corrosive and extreme portrait of doomed love among the Turkish community in Germany. Both make for severely uncomfortable yet grimly compelling viewing.
‘Tarnation’ has won Best Documentary awards but the term ‘documentary’ doesn’t really apply here. It would not be exaggerating to stress the originality of Tarnation’s composition – it is like a cinematic autobiography comprising cleverly manipulated still images, home video footage, student film clips and, most importantly, samples of the films and music that most influenced the life and work of its director. The latter is particularly well deployed, from the childhood memories soundtracked by Dolly Parton and Glen Campbell to the haunting elegies of Mimi Parker and Low, via his relationship with boyfriend David, soundtracked with the appropriately giddy Magnetic Fields song ‘Strange Powers’. The resulting collage of sound and image is powerful, occasionally even gut-wrenching.
If the film is to be taken at face value, then Caouette has clearly had a pretty hellish existence – his mother fell and injured herself at a young age and subsequently suffered depression. Her parents followed flawed advice to send her for electric shock therapy, which seems to have left her devoid of any sense of self or sanity. Caouette claims to have been physically and emotionally abused in a serious of foster homes, before returning to his grandparents, with whom he clearly has an ambivalent relationship. The footage of Caouette interrogating his mother and grandparents makes for the most unsetting moments of the film – simply because his subjects do not appear to give their consent to his filming them. At what point did amateur home video become part of this wider project? Is it morally justifiable to expose the suffering of an entire family in this way? The fact that Caouette clearly cares deeply for his mother, despite everything, perhaps serves as his own justification.
Mercifully, ‘Tarnation’ isn’t only about familial dysfunction – it also encompasses Caouette’s fascination with underground and outsider art, his precocious homosexuality (established at a young age – Caouette claims to have disguised himself as a woman to attend New York gay clubs from the age of thirteen). It demonstrates his development as an artist, from hilarious footage of him hamming it up for the camera as a child, via student zombie movies towards a final finished product. ‘Tarnation’ is interesting as much for its insider commentary on artistic development as it is for the harrowing story it has to tell.
I’m not sure that I’d like this film to act as any kind of precedent. Whilst its remarkable and exciting that it has last demonstrated that DIY initiative can result in success (at least if you manage to secure Gus Van Sant as your Executive Producer), it would be easy for the independent market to become saturated with candid, real-life memoirs such as this. For the moment, though, Caouette’s film is worth cherishing for its searing honesty, as well as for its deceptively simple, highly effective cinematic vision.
‘Head-On’ is violently intense film-making that would make for an intriguing double bill with ‘Tarnation’. It’s a fictional story, but it doesn’t seem any less frighteningly real. It begins with a car crash and ends in quiet tragedy and in between there is a whole wealth of doom and gloom. There are sudden and shocking scenes of self harm, rape and assault sequences, as well as a devastating act of jealous rage.
Where ‘Head-On’ succeeds is in its entirely plausible depiction of its central relationship. After both attempting suicide, Cahit and Sibel, both Turkish and living in Hamburg, meet at a psychiatric clinic. Sibel is desperate to escape the restrictive clutches of her family, who prevent her from having free relationships but will accept a marriage to a Turk, no matter who he is. She asks Cahit to marry her, on the basis that she will act merely as a room-mate. She will be free to have sex with anyone she choses, as will he. All he must do is agree to meet her parents on a regular basis and pretend that their marriage is going well.
A lesser film may have given us a conventional narrative in which the two realise they love each other after all and it all ends happily. The realisation of love is actually merely glanced over in the film, with Akin preferring to concentrate on the trauma that follows. Following a jealous act of violence, Cahit ends up in jail and Sibel ends up in Istanbul, where she rejects a safe life in favour of torrid hedonism. The scene where she is assaulted and stabbed is made all the more shocking because, having realised she is under threat, Sibel seems to provoke the inevitable by picking a fight herself. It is extravagantly cruel. Cahit suffers similar cruelty at the film’s conclusion, although chance plays its role here and the suffering is emotional rather than physical. The central performances throughout are naturalistic and convincing, resisting the obvious temptation to over-perform.
‘Head-On’ is not without its flaws. Sometimes it feels too much like it is an attempt to recapture the punk aesthetic of the mid-seventies, as its kinetic camerawork and boomingly loud soundtrack attest. Some of the characters are poorly drawn – we actually learn very little about Sibel’s family other than that they live by judgemental and restrictive conventions. Still, the film has a raw power and gritty reality that make it impossible to ignore, although it offers very little in the way of hope.