Friday, November 04, 2005

Pornography and Death - A Winning Combination!

I’ve been quite fortunate in 2005 to catch some significant bands in their debut appearance on these shores – not least the remarkable Arcade Fire gig at King’s College. Tonight was the turn of the marvellous supergroup The New Pornographers, their first time in London at the wonderful Borderline venue for what turned out to be a very sweaty gig. That both bands should be Canadian is a happy coincidence – but one that hints at the quality and invention of the current crop of independent bands from that particular country. Some of the Canadians in the crowd tonight were clearly proud to be flying the Maple Leaf flag, despite being berated as ‘nerdy’ by lead vocalist Carl Newman. Fortunately for them, he checked himself – ‘don’t worry, it’s the kind of nerdiness that will get you laid every single night!’

First, a few words about the opening act, Immaculate Machine, who featured the talents of erstwhile New Pornographer Katheryn Calder, along with guitarist/co-vocalist Brooke Gallupe and demented drummer Luke Kozlowski. They turned in a set so bristling with energy and enthusiasm that even the NP’s own supercharged blitz seemed sedate in comparison. Their taut yet exuberant sound shared elements with the NP’s infectious, yet meticulously arranged music, although if anything they amplified some of the quirkier dimensions to this pop confection. With intricate harmonies set against the thunderous and unrestrained clatter of the drumming and some Marc Ribot-esque excoriating guitar they provided both volume and intelligence. There are some remarkable songs here too that span from the immediate and infectious (‘Phone No.’) to the more wiry and angular (‘No Such Thing As The Future’) via the deliberately insistent (‘So Cynical’).

Sadly, they currently have no distribution in the UK, but their excellent ‘Ones and Zeroes’ album is well worth investigating should an import copy crop up anywhere. The recorded sound is a little less colossal, but the songs still stand up well. They are possibly the best support act I’ve seen this year.

It’s tremendous credit to the New Pornographers that they manage to perform such a ferocious and engaging set, despite the absence of two crucial members. Dan Bejar, whose songs contribute a more contrived (in the original, positive sense of the word) dimension to their work, does not tour with the band. The enticingly glamorous Neko Case was absent from these European dates, apparently due to scheduling conflicts. Perhaps she was busy putting the finishing touched to her forthcoming album, expected early in 2006. It’s therefore a bit less of a supergroup than on record, and one that perhaps loses some of its range, albeit none of its bite.

It’s a show that mostly focuses on the songwriting talents of AC Newman, and he delivers his increasingly unpredictable pop songs with considerable gusto. It’s always a bit of an obvious tactic to open a show with the first track on your new album, but ‘Twin Cinema’ sounds so commandingly jagged tonight that it’s difficult to see an alternative selection. It’s also difficult to imagine a more captivating opening three than the aforementioned opener, followed by ‘Use It’ and the brilliantly compelling ‘Mass Romantic’. These are fabulously constructed pop songs, which sound both crisply comforting and uniquely ambitious. Calder does a confident job handling Neko Case’s vocal parts on the latter.

There are some rough edges, including some botched harmonies and an apparent uncertainty over the set list, but these only serve to add charm to an already blistering performance. Intelligently, they draw from all three of their albums, but for me the newest material sounds the most refreshing. ‘Twin Cinema’ is an album with many listens in it – its unusual songs twist and turn in numerous unexpected directions. ‘Jackie Dressed In Cobras’ is particularly unconventional, whilst ‘Sing Me Spanish Techno’ has a gleeful melodic playfulness as its focus. Tonight’s performances enhances its more aggressive, attacking qualities and reminds me that it will be due a high place in my increasingly crowded albums of 2005 list.

This was a gritty, convincing show – just a shame that it all seemed to be over so quickly.

The same could not be said of the wonderful HBO TV series Six Feet Under, which after five seasons of overwhelming, convincingly portrayed trials and tribulations, has become a regular delight that I’ve almost taken for granted. Tonight on E4, we were treated to its concluding episode. There will now be no more – a wise decision, for many of these things are recommissioned to tedium, whereby they lose their original impact and descend into pseudo soap operas. By ending before the inevitable rot could set in – Six Feet Under may well secure its place as a classic of modern American television.

This is not to say that the show was without its flaws. It suffered from a tendency to stereotype minor characters, we well as occasionally drifting into overplayed histrionics. Yet it could survive its more hysterical, or even its more whimsical-surrealist moments, because its central characters, with their inherent contradictions and self-righteous traits, were so convincingly human.

In a TV world dominated by endless generic sitcoms and hospital and police dramas, Six Feet Under seemed bracingly original. It’s difficult to imagine any UK writers pitching a show about a family business, let alone a family of funeral directors. In skilfully interweaving each episode’s self-contained personal story surrounding a particular death with the continuing journeys of its central characters, the show sustained quality and interest remarkably well.

This final series has been particularly effective, drawing on some of the show’s familiar themes and concerns without seeming repetitive, as each of the characters has moved to some sort of resolution. The performances have remained superb, particularly from the complex female roles. Rachel Griffiths has managed to make the turbulent Brenda sympathetic and repulsive in equal measure, and this series has been brilliant in detailing her mixed emotions towards Nate. Frances Conroy treads the fine line between regal presence and innate vulnerability masterfully as the matriarch Ruth Fisher – it’s her performances that will be most missed. Her brief turn in Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers suggest that film roles may still await her. Best of all in this series has been Lauren Ambrose as the extreme and passionately rebellious Claire Fisher. In finally confronting both her need for escape and her need for something more regular, she achieves perhaps the toughest transition of all. Her unlikely relationship with Republican lawyer Ted was played out with plausible tenderness and compassion.

The final episode was perhaps not the greatest – with its obligatory tying up of all the remaining loose ends. It did, however, realise a convincing unity within the Fisher family and their associates – perhaps the first time all dysfunction and frayed emotions had been cast aside to give ‘a toast to Nate’ (brilliantly, his death earlier in the series had been the terrible catalyst for change). This would have made for a resoundingly positive ending, which the writers resisted. The camera then cut to an hilarious dream sequence with Peter Krause’s Nate in a pop promo from the heavens that completely shattered the mood. The remaining few minutes dealt mostly with Claire’s departure for a new life in New York. Leaving by car, her journey down the open road was intercut with a montage sequence illustrating the future deaths of all the major characters. A neat idea in theory – but the terrible make-up designed to show the ageing process undercut the pathos with a perhaps unintentional comedy. Six Feet Under has certainly always had a black comic streak – particularly in its tendency to always make the unthinkable happen. Yet, this didn’t quite work somehow. It reminded me a little of the ending of Spike Lee’s disastrous 25th Hour. Perhaps a more ambiguous final scene might have been better. If not that, then the episode centred on Nate’s funeral was so brilliantly handled that it might have made for a superior parting shot. That being said, it’s typical of this wonderful show to leave its audience not knowing whether to laugh or cry.


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