Friday, November 28, 2008

The Years Fly By But End Slowly

So, the albums of the year lists are starting to arrive, still before we’ve even hit December although mercifully that little bit later this year. This still means there will be some notable late-release omissions though (Fennesz’s ‘Black Sea’ appears to be creeping out next week). This year, MOJO has got in first – and no surprise that its album of the year gong goes to the increasingly ubiquitous Fleet Foxes. I like the record a lot - although it won’t top my list - but I wonder whether it isn’t one of those debuts so fully formed that its creators will struggle to progress any further with the next one. We will have to wait and see.

As ever, MOJO indulges itself with some ludicrous selections. Anyone who considers Weller’s ’22 Dreams’ to be avant-garde and original simply hasn’t heard the Alice Coltrane music that supposedly inspired him. The Last Shadow Puppets is an endearing record, but if it’s the second best album of the year then we are really living in creatively moribund times. Elsewhere, there’s much worse – the turgid Glasvegas at 7, the ghastly Oasis propping up the list at 50 (a token entry for which there is no coherent argument provided), Mercury Rev’s twee ‘Snowflake Midnight’ at 22,Goldfrapp at 38, the overrated MGMT at 36.

It must be conceded that some choices are genuinely surprising though. There’s Goldmund’s haunting minimal piano sketches at 44 (although I’d argue that Max Richter merited an entry too), The Neil Cowley Trio at 49 (not my favourite jazz record of the year but it’s good to see a nod to it), Flying Lotus at 47, Gavin Bryars as reworked by Philip Jeck at 37 (although Jeck’s own sublime ‘Sand’ probably deserves a mention too), Kasai Allstars at 33 (so much better than the disappointing Amadou and Mariam record, placed higher at 21), The Bug at 9.

Uncut again wins the award for best review of the year package – with its lavish collection of lists of just about everything, padded out by voluminous banality and trivia. It’s all quite fun of course. It’s particularly helpful for its comprehensive polls on reissues and compilations, books (both fiction and music) and films as well as the usual Top 50 of the year. I used to like Uncut more when it was as devoted to film and literature as it was to music.

Once again, the main magazine’s list goes somewhat against the critical grain, and it’s gratifying to see that some people have noticed just what a superb, uncompromising triumph Portishead’s ‘Third’ is. Much like their choice of LCD Soundsystem last year, it seems to challenge the ingrained prejudices of both the magazine’s editor (whose unsurprising personal choice was The Hold Steady) and its core readership. This is a good thing, and its democratic polling procedures and open-mindedness should be encouraged. MOJO has probably had the bolder cover features and better articles – but Uncut has the edge on the criticism at the moment. Other intriguing and pleasing selections include TV On The Radio at 3 (I initially thought ‘Dear Science’ was overrated but it's growing on me), Neon Neon at 7, James Blackshaw at 13 (a wonderful boost for this niche artist), Hot Chip at 15, Shearwater at 19 (a record I’ve been pointed towards but haven’t actually heard), Gnarls Barkley at 30 (a superb mainstream pop record ignored elsewhere), Earth at 36, Toumani Diabate at 35, F*ck Buttons at 34, The Week That Was at 40. That’s a refreshingly diverse cross-section from the year.

Of course, the list is not free from its moments of insanity. Surely MGMT are just a flash-in-the-pan hype band? I still fail to see much merit at all in the turgid plodding of Glasvegas or the ‘bucolic’ irritations of the Goldfrapp record. It also looks like Weller’s supposed ‘return to form’ is going to grace yet more top tens. I also can’t help feeling that Stephen Malkmus’ current emphasis on noodling guitar solos is a distraction from his core qualities as a quirky songwriter. I can’t summon much enthusiasm for Sigur Ros anymore either, although I've heard intriguing reports about their recent Alexandra Palace concerts.

Omissions from both lists are too numerous to mention and I hope my own work-in-progress top 100 will point some people towards some of the more idiosyncratic and brave releases of the year. It’s certainly odd to find Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy absent from these polls – especially as Will Oldham has been responsible for two excellent albums of his own this year, as well as guesting on another (Susanna’s ‘Flower of Evil’). One significant point on omissions – if their writers can call Elvis Costello’s ‘Momofuku’ a ‘return to form’ in their comments on the Jenny Lewis album - why has it not been included in the list? With due respect to Jenny Lewis (whose ‘Acid Tongue’ I like more than most it seems), it’s a better record than hers. Regular readers will also be aware of my increasing exasperation at the use of the dread phrase ‘return to form’. You’ll have to wait until the closing stages of next month to find out where Costello, Susanna and many other overlooked curios feature in my list.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

London Jazz Festival 2008

As ever, the London Jazz Festival offers a mouth-watering array of musical treats this year. Sadly, time constraints have left me only able to attend a handful of gigs, missing many of the main attractions. I would particularly have liked to see Bill Frisell’s performance soundtracking silent cinema. Never mind though – one of the undoubted plus points of this year’s festival has been the opportunity to wander off the beaten track a little, or to select gigs I wouldn’t otherwise have attended, such as Courtney Pine’s virtuosic and engaging performance.

There’s an impressive array of exciting talent on offer at Jazz on 3’s special late night festival launch gig at Ronnie Scott’s. It seems appropriate that Tom Cawley’s Curios, BBC Jazz Award winners, should open the entire festival with their short set tonight. Cawley’s piano playing is delicate, lucid and emotional, with a remarkable range of timbre and effect. Just as revelatory is the drumming of prodigious virtuoso Josh Blackmore, who not only has impressive technique but also possesses the sheer musicality and creativity to craft dramatic and suspenseful phrases across the drum kit. He must be one of the most exciting and original talents to emerge in London for many years and how encouraging it is that Cawley has acknowledged his potential. Cawley’s compositions are both playful and cerebral and whilst twenty minutes is by no means long enough to showcase the trio’s breathtaking interaction, it is more than long enough to demonstrate the sophistication and charm of their music.

Vincent Herring’s group, who had also performed the main official set earlier in the evening, were less impressive by some distance. They opened with some generic if mildly enjoyable fusion but follow it with dated synth pads and bland melodies that veered far closer to the lite jazz of Grover Washington and George Benson than is comfortable for me. Somehow it all became tremendously bland and disengaging with alarming rapidity. I rather liked the observation of one of my friends in the audience: ‘To play a synth like that is bad enough, but to play it when there’s a Fender Rhodes underneath it is a criminal offence!’ Another friend’s observation about the uncommon situation of the band being all black musicians save for a white drummer sparked a lengthy conversation about race issues in jazz history which proved considerably more stimulating than the group’s music.

Steve Bernstein’s piano-less Millenial Territory Band had a playful quality that somehow managed to treat the American jazz tradition with both respect and gleeful irreverance. The performance came with a peculiar ragged charm and a general sense of off-the-cuff disorganisation. They concluded with a wryly amusing and rousing arrangement of The Beatles’ ‘All You Need Is Love’. This proved that even one of the most overplayed songs from one of the most over-exposed groups can still be delivered with fresh vigour when the context is refreshed.

The unrelenting assault provided by the new trio of Ken Vandermark, Barry Guy and Mark Sanders probably offended anyone with an aversion to free improvisation but, for me, was a visceral and thrilling example of spontaneous alchemy. This is not music completely devoid of rules or strategy, but rather a music whereby a map is being charted in front of our very eyes and ears. In this case, it had a lot to do with experimenting with sound and colour. Sanders manages to get pitched notes from meticulously controlled cymbal scrapes, whilst Guy can vary the mood by oscillating between deep, rich, long notes, bowed bass and a sharp, staccato, attacking voice. Vandermark is a master of the aggressive, angry, volatile form of playing. Perhaps this fiery form of expression could benefit from more tenderness but with such short set times, there’s really not enough space to unravel its full potential.

Even Camden’s tiny but wonderful Green Note venue has been getting in on the Festival action this year, with a mouth-watering line-up of fresh talent. Huw Jones’ Neon Bedroom had a dream line-up, benefitting from the muscular saxophone of Tom Challenger, the expressive but empathetic drumming of Josh Morrison and the warm sound and creative improvising of Freddie Gavita. If the improvising is sometimes uncharacteristically tentative from these more frequently questing young musicians, the compositions are sophisticated and compelling. There’s a niggling sense that a certain spark or dynamism is missing, but this will surely develop over more performances. Following the group is a new quartet lead by saxophonist Pete Fraser which is a thrilling demonstration of exposition and spontaneity. The themes are mostly spacious and the creative playing of the group (which includes Nick Ramm of Oriole and Fulborn Teversham on keys and the outstanding drummer Tom Skinner) brings spirit and charisma to the occasion. It’s an auspicious start for what will hopefully become an established, successful and challenging group.

The pairing of Courtney Pine and Empirical made sense for more than the obvious reason that Empirical are signings to Pine’s label. Both groups seem to be going through a stage of looking back in order to move forward. Empirical now have a new line-up and have changed radically as a result (vibes player Lewis Wright replaces prodigious pianist Kit Downes). Their set tonight is built from their current project researching and arranging the music of Eric Dolphy – as such, it’s a much more liberated group than the hip swinging band of last year. It’s a technically accomplished performance but one that also remains very much in touch with the blues. Perhaps a little more fire and certainty would have been appreciated. A surprising lack of confidence is evident in the lengthy, ill-judged onstage chat, perhaps suggesting that the group have been elevated to a massive commercial prospect a little too early.

Pine’s set surprised me with its vitality, wit and warmth. Whilst I’ve always respected his virtuosic talents, some of his recordings have drifted a little too far into the middle of the road for my tastes. Tonight, perhaps paradoxically, saw him push back to the edges by rediscovering the tradition of the music. His latest project is partially a tribute to the music of Sidney Bechet and, as such, is steeped in the rhythms and nuances of New Orleans. Drummer Robert Forger, with his varied passions for swing and hip hop, is a master of the groove, and Pine plays with renewed vigour. Performing only on soprano sax and bass clarinet, Pine frequently defies the laws of physics in some of the sounds he draws from each. In his hands, the clarinet really does become like a drum. Omar Puente’s violin enhances the free spirited, folksy vibe of the performance and Alex Wilson’s latin-tinged Piano is, as always, rhythmically adventurous, although he could have been afforded more soloing space. Indeed, perhaps the only quibble with this fiery, energetic performance is that there is a little too much of Pine’s dexterity, and not enough individual contributions from his excellent band. The gig ends with something approaching a lecture from Pine, after his group have left the stage – ostensibly to promote the new CD, but also to draw attention to the worthiness of British jazz and the vital role of played by the LJF in promoting it.

The final gig of my festival certainly provided something completely different. A collaboration between the Homemade Orchestra (itself a meeting of minds between jazz saxophonist Tim Whitehead and composer Colin Riley) and children’s poet Michael Rosen, this gig proved not just hysterically funny but also creatively sophisticated. Rosen’s nonsense poems are ostensibly expressions of the simple joys of inventive rhyming, but many of them are not as nonsensical as they might first appear. Their scheming wordplay and sharp observations on commercialism and chaotic modern life offer food for thought for grown-ups too. Whitehead and Riley’s music is sophisticated, but in an apposite way – it is by turns slithery, slimy, frantic and mischievous. The quotations from Match of the Day and The Simpsons theme raise a smile, but the hilarious deployment of various toys and gizmos, combined with unashamedly physical playing provide both support and a neat counterpoint to Rosen’s exaggerated readings. Whilst space for improvising is understandably limited, this provided a brilliant introduction to the worlds of jazz and contemporary composition for the younger members of the audience as well as breathtaking entertainment for all.

So, whilst it seems a shame to have missed the likes of Chick Corea and John McLaughlin, Bill Frisell and Jack de Johnette, this slightly less predictable pathway through the festival proved remarkably rewarding. It’s good to find that the festival continues to offer variety and excitement for a dedicated audience.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Austerity and Sadness

Susanna - Flower of Evil (Rune Grammofon, 2008)

Susanna Wallumrod is one of the most prolific and uncompromising artists currently at work, with four albums in as many years to her name. Whilst last year’s ‘Sonata Mix Dwarf Cosmos’ focussed on her own writing, ‘Flower of Evil’ represents a return to the interpretative role she first adopted with her Magical Orchestra, although the orchestra is now no longer credited. Wallumrod remains remorselessly single-minded in her approach. Anyone hoping for a change of style or pace from her previous work, which veered between the melancholy and funereal, will not find it here. She seems very much dedicated to ploughing the same meticulous furrow with every release.

There are, however, some subtle nuances and variations to her method here that help her sustain a process that might otherwise have run dry. There’s now less focus on wispy electronics and more on Susanna’s own glacial piano playing, which makes for a more organic sound. The texture is enhanced and moods heightened by the guitar playing of Supersilent’s Helge Sten.

Luckily, this means she hasn’t suddenly embraced showy virtuosity either – the X Factor school of singing is never even hinted at here. Instead, there’s a kind of dignified restraint – an icy exterior that barely conceals untold depths of emotion. One of Susanna’s great skills as a singer is to alter the impact and perception of a song so radically as to make it her own. There are some extremely judicious song selections on ‘Flower of Evil’ that really play to her strengths.

Turning Thin Lizzy’s macho ‘Jailbreak’ into a heartbreaking ballad seems like one of her most perverse moves to date. Like her version of AC/DC’s ‘It’s A Long Way To The Top’, it succeeds not so much in feminising the song (she still refers to ‘me and the boys’) but in locating the vulnerability, inadequacy, perhaps even the impotence inherent in male aggression. It becomes a song of frustration, anguish and repression in her hands.

Even better is her extraordinary reading of Abba’s ‘Lay All Your Love On Me’, which draws out the full extent of the desperation in the lyric. It becomes less about desire and much more about possession and control. It’s a reminder that for all their garish, giddy, camp appeal, Abba’s most significant achievement was often to set tremendously painful words to music so infectious that it became imprisoned in the brain. Their music really was a form of mental torture.

Perhaps ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’ is a step too far into the realms of greatness, for no amount of remodelling could really improve on Sandy Denny’s peerless delivery. Having said that, I understand that Cat Power also took on the song for the ‘Jukebox’ sessions, no doubt straying wildly away from the original melody in the process. Susanna’s version simply re-emphasises the cautious beauty of the original, and has made me want to return to those wonderful Fairport Convention and Sandy Denny albums, really some of the best examples of British popular music.

Elsewhere, there are some less ubiquitous, more recherch√© choices, as well as two thematically and musically connected original compositions. ‘Dance On’ is an unusual, underrated choice of Prince song, whilst takes on Tom Petty’s ‘Don’t Come Around Here No More’ and Black Sabbath’s ‘Changes’ both soften the source material and provide new, spidery intricacies. It’s also good to hear her take on the mysterious, difficult terrain of a Will Oldham song with ‘Joy and Jubilee’.

Indeed, for all Susanna’s undoubted individual talents, perhaps this album’s most major coup is the presence of Will Oldham himself on a couple of tracks. He not only lends his voice to the aforementioned ‘Jailbreak’ but also to a mordant, reflective and highly moving rendition of Badfinger’s ‘Without You’. In all honesty, I’ve never really liked this song – particularly since Mariah Carey’s histrionic caterwauling made it so thoroughly dislikeable. Yet there’s something very different about this version. The dynamic never gets above a hushed whisper and the whole atmosphere seems both muted and haunted. There’s also something profound and deeply felt in the way Susanna and Oldham begin by singing separate parts but find their voices interweaved and eventually inseparable as the song progresses. This structural device brings out the song’s theme in a way that no amount of false emoting and vocal power ever could.

This last thought brings me neatly on to what I consider the essence of Susanna’s artistry. Though her voice occasionally quivers, it is completely devoid of the usual tricks and conventions deployed to try and move an audience – it is totally without artifice. Whilst the result of this is a certain kind of coldness or austerity, it is by no means without feeling. Indeed, her version of Kiss’ ‘Crazy Crazy Nights’ remains one of the saddest, most affecting pieces of music I’ve heard in the last few years, and the versions of ‘Jailbreak’, ‘Without You’ and ‘Lay All Your Love On Me’ included here come close to matching that song’s faded grandeur.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Three Cheers For Self-Indulgence!

Max Tundra - Parallax Error Beheads You (Domino, 2008)

We’ve been waiting for six long years for Ben Jacobs to follow-up the exquisite ‘Mastered By Guy At The Exchange’ but now we finally have another helping of his ingeniously quirky electro. ‘Parallax Error Beheads You’ is an irony-laden confection, full of unpredictable twists and turbulent, spasmodic rhythms. It’s something you will either find unbearably grating or frantically, deliriously entertaining.

Jacobs has a penchant for synth sounds that might well sound dated or even irrelevant in any other context (‘The Entertainment’ isn’t all that far from 2 Unlimited if we’re honest). Luckily, he’s also crafted his own fiendishly intricate editing and compositional process (everything is produced on an outmoded Amiga), which subordinates some of his more questionable tastes to a broader musical intuition. Jacobs also has the kind of silky, saccharine voice that makes this irreverent subversion of pop completely irresistible. He shares the subdued softness of Green Gartside.

Jacobs’ elaborate, unstoppable music works in much the same way as the writing of the late great David Foster Wallace (indeed titling one song ‘The Entertainment’ suggests he may have immersed himself in Wallace’s magnum opus ‘Infinite Jest’). It’s restless, indulgent and, at least on the surface, chaotic and random – but it’s also insightful, richly humorous and based on its own unique systems. There’s a sense here that no volume of ideas is ever too much – that this music can be extravagantly dense and still somehow mesmerising. With the added element of self-deprecating comedy, Max Tundra comes across as something like an electronic Frank Zappa.

I’m most drawn to the tracks where the melodies are as imaginative as the glitchy, unpredictable rhythms in the backing tracks. The bouncy ‘Which Song’ comes with barrels of charm and is the closest Jacobs comes here to replicating the classic Scritti Politti sound. ‘Number Our Days’ somehow manages to make nihilism sound cheery, whilst ‘Glycaemic Index Blues’ veers out on numerous stimulating tangents.

The self-mocking lyrics match the twitchy neuroses of the music. ‘Will Get Fooled Again’, a rapid, overheated dissection of online relationships (‘I met the girl on Google Image Search/She was in the background of a picture of a church’) sounds so nervous that it might explode. Elsewhere, there’s plenty of quasi-geeky ruminations on lack of success with women and perennial singledom. One song is even an ode of love to his keyboard (‘Nord Lead Three’ – it’s good to know he’s got good taste).

The epic 11-minute finale ‘Until We Die’ is utterly shameless in owing as much of a debt to ELO as Squarepusher. It has some of the archness of Daft Punk’s ‘Discovery’ album. Its languid mid-section is also the only point on ‘Parallax Error…’ where Jacobs allows the intense pace to dissipate a little, and for some space to creep in. But even this is rendered in an asymmetrical time signature.

It’s hard to believe that an album that indulges its creator’s every whim could possibly be quite as enjoyable as ‘Parallax Error…’ undoubtedly is. It is a rampant, near-rabid document of a frenzied mind that seemingly cannot be contained. Hearing these outpourings is like death by chocolate.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Never Likely To Be Lost For Words

Okkervil River - Shepherd's Bush Empire 11/11/08

Will Sheff isn’t wasting any time tonight. He introduces the first song but then directs his band towards blasting through a number of songs in quick succession without so much as a pause. He’s every bit as intense and melodramatic in performance as even a casual listen to Okkervil River’s dense, verbose, highly dramatic songs might suggest. He loosens his tie, flirts with the microphone and bursts on to the drum riser to have a fiery stare off with the drummer. Every gesture is exaggerated and overstated, to the extent that his genuine debt of gratitude to the audience could be misinterpreted as mocking insincerity.

It’s not exactly clear how Okkervil River now manage to fill out venues of the size and grandeur of the Shepherd’s Bush Empire. They haven’t exactly received vast amounts of column inches in the UK, although Uncut’s editor Allan Jones and his wife are visibly enjoying the show from a prime vantage point on the first level balcony. Perhaps it’s the Pitchfork effect (the band’s breakthrough album ‘Black Sheep Boy’ received a justifiably rapturous review from the influential taste-making website) or perhaps it’s simply good old fashioned word of mouth. I’m certainly surprised by the relative youth of the audience – one might expect this rather unhip and literary brand of songwriting to have a slightly older demographic.

Tonight’s performance isn’t perfect – but then Okkervil River is a band that depends on a kind of ragged glory for its impact. The vocal harmonies could do with a bit of work and there are times when Sheff’s lack of patience threatens to undermine the performance – he seems to begin singing ‘The Latest Toughs’ in a completely different key from the rest of the band. The nuances of the songs are also occasionally threatened by one of those drummers who seem to view drumming as method acting. He rarely plays anything particularly adventurous but still seems to make the basic act of keeping time look as physically demanding as running a marathon. He also has a very limited dynamic range – hard and loud to extremely hard and loud. There are times when the group look in danger of becoming a rather conventional soft rock ensemble, anchored by an occasionally leaden pace. It’s inevitable that a smaller working band would miss some of the lavish flourishes of their more ornate studio arrangements – but sometimes this level of bludgeoning is too extravagant.

Nevertheless, when Sheff is in full flight, he brings these extraordinary songs to vivid and cinematic life. He luxuriates in the spellbinding power of language, using each song to tell a story, sometimes pausing simply to linger on the pattern and flow of his words. Even songs which are based largely on an intellectual conceit (the opening ‘Plus Ones’ is based on a string of references to songs with numbers in their titles, adding an extra number to the original – ’97 Tears’, ‘The 51st way to leave your lover’, ‘8 Chinese Brothers’ etc) become something insightful and devastating in his hands. Best of all is his rare willingness to write from a female perspective (the astonishingly beautiful ‘Starry Stairs’ and ‘On Tour with Zykos’). There are some examples of women writing from a male vantage point (the excellent Sylvie Lewis springs immediately to mind), but fewer from the other way around. Sadly not performed tonight, the early Okkervil song ‘Red’ related the story of a female dance yearning for her separated daughter.

The set list is judiciously selected, with most of the key tracks from ‘The Stage Names’ and its more recent sequel ‘The Stand-Ins’ getting welcome airings (although the stellar ‘Calling and Not Calling My Ex’ is a notable omission). For me, though, the performance provided a timely reminder of just how excellent ‘Black Sheep Boy’ was, by comparison barely registering in this country. Sheff’s stripped back performance of ‘A Stone’ (during which he sadly has to command the audience to stop yacking) is supremely moving. The more aggressive ‘Black’ and ‘For Real’ (the latter notable for its visceral stop-start stabs from the band) pack a more muscular punch. Dipping into the back catalogue, Sheff also delivers the morally complex and remarkable ‘The War Criminal Rises and Speaks’ (‘Does the heart want to atone? Oh, I believe that it’s so, because if I could climb back through time I’d restore their lives and give back my own…’).

Sheff’s best songs alternate between an affecting melancholy and a rousing spirit of adventure. The very best ones combine the two, as on the wonderful ‘Lost Coastlines’, which uses seafaring metaphors to detail the perilous experience of being in a touring band. It’s one of the few such self-referential songs to manage to be moving in a much wider sense. It gives a strong sense of human relationships – the way being in a band, where everyone’s greatest passions, not to mention their finances, are at stake, can be unpredictable and dangerous, yet also thrilling. It’s a situation where the bonds of friendship can be severely tested but are most often repaired. It becomes a big audience singalong tonight. During the closing ‘Unless It’s Kicks’, Sheff has no shame in commanding the audience to raise their hands and clap with vigour. In fact, the show’s closing 20 minute stretch is as invigorating and uplifting as I’ve experienced this year.

Even better still is the encore. There’s the haunting, mesmerising ‘Girl In Port’, followed by two much earlier songs featuring two of Sheff’s most compelling narratives. ‘Okkervil River Song’ is about as keening and convincing a description of young lovers as I can remember, whilst ‘Westfall’, inspired by the Austin, Texas Yogurt Shop murders, talks of motiveless killing with dispassionate frankness. It ends with some chilling words: ‘Now, with all these cameras focused on my face you’d have thought they could see it through my skin/They’re looking for evil, thinking they can trace it, but evil don’t look like anything…’ It’s a strange choice of fan favourite.

Lyrically, Sheff is without doubt in the highest league. In fact, this seems to be a particularly exciting time for American alternative rock groups with literary imaginations – Iron and Wine, The Decemberists, The Mountain Goats – all share an unconventional and wordy writing style with OR.

Nick Golding remarked to me on the way home that the sound balance was unusually clear and carefully mixed. Whilst I sometimes struggled to hear Scott Bracken’s trumpet, it’s certainly true that Sheff’s voice came through booming with disarming clarity. It’s far too frequent a problem at gigs that so much reverb is applied to a lead singer’s voice that any attempt at enunciation is obscured. Mercifully, this was not the case tonight. Perhaps this made Sheff’s occasional pitching issues more conspicuous – but this is a small price to pay for being able to hear and understand his lucid, brave and highly original words.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

O No

Maybe I'm being irrational, but I really find this infuriating:

http://www.nme.com/news/various-artists/40887

It's bad enough that every live music experience must now be branded with something (I take great pleasure in going to Carling sponsored venues and purchasing any lager other than Carling). Now the fact that I don't use the O2 network might disadvantage me in terms of getting tickets for concerts I have just as much right as anyone else to see. I'm not someone who thinks that all corporate sponsorship is evil - and by all means offer special discounts to O2 customers as a marketing ploy. But this priority booking scheme just strikes me as unfair. I hope they will only put a limited number of tickets into the O2 pre-sales.

On the other hand, perhaps there's no difference in principle between this and the BFI offering priority booking for the London Film Festival to its paying members, something I don't seem to have strong feelings about.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Sweet Nostalgia and the Shock of the New

Of Time and the City (Terence Davies, 2008)

How gratifying it is, after having written much on these pages about how Terence Davies has been shamefully neglected by the British film establishment, suddenly finding myself a mere drop in a very big pond of publicity for his return to active film making. Following its success at this year’s Cannes film festival, ‘Of Time and the City’ has subsequently been screened at more than thirty other festivals and has revived international interest in the man now commonly accepted as ‘Britain’s greatest living film-maker’. Present at this screening to answer questions, Davies is given a roaring standing ovation from a satisfyingly sold out NFT 1 and is visibly emotional as he leaves the stage. He claims he still has three films left in him. On this evidence, let’s hope he gets to complete them.

‘Of Time and The City’ has been described as Davies’ first documentary but this is more than a little misleading. Davies himself refers to it as a ‘subjective documentary’, subjective very much being the operative word in that description. Davies has always been an unashamedly autobiographical film-maker and by writing and orating (to describe it as reading would hardly be adequate) the voiceover in his exaggerated baritone, he makes himself as much the film’s subject as the city of Liverpool.

With its preoccupations with Catholic guilt and frustrated homosexuality, ‘Of Time and The City’ ought to seem like a gross indulgence from a film-maker commissioned and funded to make a film about Liverpool. So how and why does it become so haunting? Is it just that the mere experience of watching a new Davies film when it once looked like he might never work again is enough? Is it simply that Davies is such a cinematic artist that we are prepared to forgive any degree of self-obsession?

I would argue that ‘Of Time and City’ actually succeeds in transcending these concerns. It is an elegy, a visual poem, openly in thrall to the language of both words and images and rapturous over an old England that has now been lost. Like his earlier feature films ‘Distant Voices, Still Lives’ and ‘The Long Day Closes’, it is about the power of memory and the tragedy of loss. Davies muses on his own memories, his childhood, his hopes and his fears, but subsumes this into a broader visual narrative about the passing of time and changing states. Most often, it is when he realises the images do not require any verbal explanation that the film exercises its most powerful muscles. The sequence that juxtaposes images of high rise blocks with Peggy Lee singing ‘The Folks That Live On The Hill’ is heartbreaking, as are the images of urban decay set to Mahler’s imperious 2nd Symphony.

You’d have to be churlish in the extreme not to enjoy Davies’ voiceover though. He reads from Housman, Coleridge and Eliot, as well as having the audacity to include his own languid poetry. He quotes from major thinkers, philosophers and psychologists. Perhaps most provocative of all though are his own prickly, sardonic, often contestable proclamations. He brilliantly portrays the innocence and wonder of childhood, the strong sense of community and family life but he also captures the absurdity of England’s prejudices too (the gay men imprisoned for not just committing an ‘act of gross indecency’, but ‘for doing so under one of Britain’s most beautiful bridges’). He dismisses The Beatles as being like ‘a firm of provincial solicitors’, sneering over footage of them with rancorous glee. He is full of righteous anger when talking about the privilege and waste of the monarchy, and he sends them up with an almost royal pride. Then there are his passions – for music, for radio broadcasts (the clips of Julian and Sandy from Round The Horne are a reminder of what ‘edgy’ comedy used to be about) and, most importantly, for the cinema – a love that began with seeing Singing In The Rain as a child.

If anything, this is a film as much about the art and mystery of cinema as it is about Liverpool or Davies himself. This broader theme is hinted at with the film’s wonderful opening, shot in an old cinema (the only one where the screen rises from the floor). Davies beckons us to follow him, and we hear the melancholy haunting sounds of Liszt piano music. Davies seems to realise that whilst words, music and images are all powerful by themselves, it is the unique possibility of cinema to juxtapose and combine them that makes it a sublime art form, with the ability to move and inspire its audiences.

Whilst the film is suffused with memories from Davies’ youth, some wonderfully specific (the ‘gobstoppers that would last until your middle age’ at New Brighton), it features relatively little drama from Liverpool’s rich social and political history. One member of the audience perceptively recognised that, despite his commitment to the poetry of the working classes (and his insistence that the phrase ‘working class’ is itself still valid), there was no mention of any Union or radical political movements in the film. I suspect this is largely because Davies’ view of history rejects any sense of chronology – he is more interested in the emotional connection between thoughts, how memories pull us in unexpected directions and govern our feelings. Actually, he goes to great lengths in this film to emphasise the grandeur and courage inherent in ordinary working lives. There’s a wonderful moment when an old man is captured slowly walking, soundtracked by portentous classical music. Davies sees the tragedy in lives that end up forgotten, but has made his own attempt at expressing the triumph inherent in individual ordinary lives. It is clear that he sees the failure of the clearance of Liverpool’s slums and their replacement with estates as a huge betrayal – something carried out with the best of intentions, but with dreadful unintended consequences.

‘Of Time and The City’ presents Davies as returning to a land he had left behind, now very much an outsider looking in. Someone in the audience who had clearly studied too much cultural and social theory referred to this as the ‘essential queerness’ of the film. Maybe Davies, by his own admission still not comfortable with his homosexuality, would have appreciated this terminology, but I can’t help finding the connection of sexuality and ‘otherness’ to be about as quaint as much of Davies’ lost England must seem to many younger viewers. Yet there’s something beautiful and poignant about Davies’ struggle to understand the new world and how he might fit into it that suggests there is something significant about questions of identity, or at least a sense of belonging. He certainly won’t appreciate the comparison with Tony Blair, but like our former leader, Davies frequently seems powerless in the face of modernity.

The film is full of melancholy over what is lost, but it also leaves many questions unanswered as to whether or not this loss has been accompanied by progress. Whilst the film’s form, essentially a collage of newly shot and impressively edited archive footage, is uncomplicated, its nuances and resonances are many and intricate. He isn’t reductive enough to point the blame for his sense of loss directly at, say, immigration, or even the decline in manufacturing and industry. Maybe these intelligent ambiguities, along with a brave and unfashionable exposition of the importance of childhood, are the film’s greatest strengths. The children Davies’ camera lingers on in modern Liverpool’s bustling shopping centres encapsulate the film’s key themes. What will the city be like when they reach their 60s? What will they gain? What will they lose?

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Force of Nature

Grace Jones - Hurricane (Wall of Sound/PIAS, 2008)

I can’t help feeling that the positive but reserved reviews meted out to this album have somewhat underrated the potency of Grace Jones’ comeback to proper star status (which is of course the only place a theatrical exhibitionist of her calibre would feel comfortable). Some have written it off as a throwback to the sleek reggae-infused sound of her glorious Compass Point period. To some extent it is, not least because it features the considerable rhythm section talents of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. But if this is a retrogressive step, it is more important for what it represents in practical terms. ‘Hurricane’ is very much a return to a confident and clear identity – Grace as the archetypal art-performer.

In light of having watched Terence Davies’ superb film ‘Of Time and The City’ at the weekend (more on that later), my girlfriend and I had an interesting discussion about dichotomies in popular music. Davies provocatively and spitefully dismisses The Beatles as having been ‘like a provincial firm of solicitors’. This got us considering whether The Beatles had really been untouchable innovators (the one pop band, it’s acceptable for the classical elite to appreciate, arguably now joined by Radiohead) or whether they had simply been among the first pure pop stars. I posited the claim that the divisions between ‘pop’ personalities and creative adventurers were perhaps non-existent then and certainly not as firmly entrenched as they are now. Artists like Grace Jones, although very much more performer than musician (indeed, producers of her early disco tracks bemoaned her inability to pitch a note), did much to challenge the assumed divides between entertainment and art that became starker in the 70s and 80s. She has always been able to combine musical excitement, particularly through intelligent interpretations (her versions of ‘Private Life’, ‘Warm Leatherette’ and ‘Love is the Drug’ are all very much her own) with as many costume changes as she has songs.

It’s great that the faith of the Wall of Sound label has enabled her to put this all together in front of substantial audiences again. With ‘Hurricane’, she has more than repaid their faith. The main reason I think this record is more than merely a regurgitation of ideas she already expressed concisely on classic albums such as ‘Nightclubbing’ is that her personal stamp is more clearly felt here than on any of her previous works. She had a hand in writing all the tracks (there are no cover versions this time) and some of them put her own life in the frame very much for the first time.

Sometimes, in doing this, she treads a fine line between the confessional and the sentimental. ‘I’m Crying (Mother’s Tears)’ manages to stay just on the right side, largely because of its hypnotic dubby accompaniment and because Jones’ vocal steers admirably clear of histrionics. Even better though is the strident ‘Williams’ Blood’, a gospel song written in collaboration with Wendy and Lisa that details Jones’ rejection of her father’s religious path (although the album is dedicated to him) and embracing of talents and traits inherited from her mother.

Those surprised and unnerved by this candid vulnerability might find more familiar solace in the likes of ‘Corporate Cannibal’ and the opening ‘This Is…’, where scary Grace is very much in full effect. The latter is little more than a list song, but the charismatic and icy delivery elevates it into something both teasing and threatening. ‘Corporate Cannibal’ is an assault on consumer and media capitalism delivered with raspy relish and perhaps appropriate in light of the current financial situation. It doesn’t exactly sound staggeringly new (indeed, its industrial clamour would have placed it quite comfortably on Massive Attack’s ‘Mezzanine’, an album released eleven years ago) but it does sound appropriately confrontational and imperious.

The epic title track, with Grace’s voice striking and laced with reverb, is mysterious and captivating, gradually encircling the listener in its peculiar minimalist embrace. There are more powerful melodies elsewhere on the album (the infectious ‘Well Well Well’ and ‘Love You To Life’ especially), but this is its magisterial centrepiece. Its processed bassline at least gives a playful nod to more recent musical developments – most specifically the ascendancy of grime and dubstep.

The debate will no doubt continue as to whether ‘Hurricane’ is a dated recapitulation or a bold new statement. What’s more significant is that the worlds of fashion, art, entertainment and music are once again intertwining meaningfully. As very few other performers are managing this now (Madonna has been coasting for some time, Janet Jackson no longer has the production and songwriting talent behind her that she desperately needs), Grace’s return is very much welcome.

Impressive Chops

Lambchop - Union Chapel, London 3/11/2008

I perhaps don’t need to write too extensively about Lambchop’s Union Chapel performance given my earlier comments about Kurt Wagner’s solo gig at Club Uncut last month. Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed this concert, it has perhaps bolstered the opinions I expressed tentatively in that article. During Lambchop’s career post-‘Nixon’, Wagner’s vocal delivery and performing personality have become ever more compelling and idiosyncratic, whilst the sound of his group has drifted towards the polite and understated. Again, the songs from ‘OH(Ohio)’ (played in its entirety in sequence tonight, interrupted only by a lovely Bob Dylan cover, familiar to anyone who attended the Club Uncut gig) come to more vivid life in live performance, but there remains a sense that the band’s tasteful backing is diminishing rather than supporting their individuality.

Perhaps this is because Lambchop have settled into a more conventional group structure. Where once they benefited from contributions from Pauls Burch and Niehaus on Vibes and Pedal Steel respectively and also had the novelty of two bass players and a baritone saxophonist, they are now a comparatively streamlined seven-piece rock group. Admittedly, this is still a group with a lightness of touch and nuanced understanding of what makes music soulful and moving, but William Tyler’s pretty guitar figures often end up rendering the music less multi-faceted.

Their tranquillity remains deceptive though – and the moments when their coiled intensity unravels provide some of the thrilling highlights of this concert. There’s a sprawling ‘National Talk Like A Pirate Day’ and, perhaps most surprisingly, a barnstorming medley of Wagner’s X-Press 2 collaboration with Talking Heads’ ‘Once in A Lifetime’. Perhaps the latter serves as recognition that David Byrne also collaborated with X-Press 2 on a dance track, or maybe it repays the compliment for his stirring cover of ‘The Man Who Loved Beer’ (which, pleasingly, gets a rare airing towards the end of the set). There’s also a tetchy, irritable version of ‘Up With People’ that closes the main set. Initially, this sounds like Wagner just wants to get it over with – but the additional aggression with which he delivers the words serves as a powerful call to arms on the eve of the US Presidential election. Pianist Tony Crow’s bizarre moments of, erm, ‘sit-down’ comedy suggest that the band, like many other commentators, see this election as an epochal one.

The new songs represent a return to the sound of Lambchop’s earliest albums, so it's perhaps unsurprising to find the few older songs they play tonight revisiting that period. I particularly enjoyed the brisk, energetic take on ‘All Smiles and Mariachi’. The new material once again demonstrates Wagner’s originality and vitality as a lyricist, so it’s pleasing to again be able to discern the words (a real problem with the studio versions). ‘A Hold On You’ and ‘Please Stand’ emerge tonight as the set’s most moving selections.

Wagner ends the set with a gloved fist raised into the air triumphantly, before walking through the Union Chapel’s aisles towards the far exit. He expresses his gratefulness to the audience with transparent sincerity – and one of his many virtues is his ability to build bridges between his group and their listeners. I still wonder whether it might be time for a new phase in his career though.