Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Eyes On The Prize

Look, Stranger! – EP (Self-released CDR, 2009) and live at 93 Feet East 22nd September 2009

Look, Stranger! are clearly a generous band. Having just recorded a meticulously arranged and pristine sounding EP with engineer Charles ‘Chicky’ Reeves, they’re now giving it away free at their first headline London show. This might well be something artists are compelled to do in the future, given the current devaluing of music as a product. Indeed, if Spotify ever does start to generate profit, the very concept of music ownership might be up for contention. For now though, it’s just a kind gesture to their burgeoning audience. I’m reminded of that great moment at Porchester Hall, when Arcade Fire’s Win Butler snuck two bemused ticketless fans in through the stage door. The bands that build through word of mouth share their experience with their audience.

Look, Stranger! radiate the same warm and ingratiating qualities onstage as well as off, inviting the audience further forward and engaging in jovial interaction. Whilst their songs are not without a small degree of youthful pretention, or at least a modest theatricality, there seems to be a determination not to incorporate this into their stage performance. They deliver their songs with commitment and charm, impressively faithful to their carefully plotted recorded counterparts.

There’s a sense that Look, Stranger! are venturing into what is now becoming a crowded marketplace. There is a substantial group of bands, from both sides of the Atlantic, including the likes of Battles, Dirty Projectors, Mew, and Three Trapped Tigers, who are reinjecting the virtues of arrangement and composition into rock music. Look, Stranger! seem to share these preoccupations, but with a greater deference to melody, harmony and the timeless impact of the human voice. There’s a palpable, widescreen ambition in songs like ‘She Will Not Rest’ and ‘Nova Zembla’ and the group are not averse to the occasional odd time signature.

If at times it threatens to get a little grandiose (Sheinman half-jokingly describes ‘Nova Zembla’ as the band’s response to the new Muse album), then there are moments of unashamed fun that dilute the danger. ‘She Will Not Rest’ unpredictably explodes into a careering, driving mix of heavy bass synths and stuttering drums. ‘Where Horses Roam’ could be the band’s finest moment, a three minute pop song with a nagging lyricless hook and an angular Grizzly Bear-go-to-studio-54 groove. It has the potential to really capture the imagination – surely it’s only a matter of time before large audiences are chanting ‘woah-hoah-hoah’ along with the band - and then quite possibly to become an albatross around the group’s collective neck.

Most impressive for me is ‘To The River’, where Sheinman’s voice is at its most personable and relaxed and the music is at its most evocative. The integration of electronic and acoustic drums in the rhythm track undoubtedly owes a debt to Radiohead, but the languorous melody also hints at the more emotional territory of Elbow or Sweet Billy Pilgrim. This lush, slow-building terrain, well crafted but also honest and direct is where the band are at their strongest.

This is the work of a sophisticated band. The most transparent evidence of this is in the well executed vocal arrangements and the group’s assured and sensitive handling of dynamics. The overall effect is also enhanced by an excellent rhythm section – bassist Ali Wedderburn and drummer Thom Hosken sit very tightly and play expressively but never contribute any more than is necessary for each particular song’s mood. Hosken is that rarest of things – a drummer with a very light touch who might just, at times, be too quiet! Crucially, Look, Stranger! sound like a real ensemble – there’s also much to enjoy in David Isaacs’ combination of Reichian minimalism and ornate flourish at the keys and in Tim Sheinman’s shimmering guitar lines.

At 93 Feet East the band bring out a more whimsical side to complement their ambition in songs like ‘Lady Godiva’ and also in the playful encore, which features a whistling solo from Wedderburn and sees band members depart from the stage one by one. That the band manage to marry their ambition with qualities of intimacy and immediacy is impressive. There are some minor kinks to be ironed out, some slightly tentative vocal pitching suggesting the group could yet grow in confidence – but this is clearly a band to watch.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Flight From Convention

Flaming Lips – Embryonic (Warner Bros, 2009)
David Sylvian – Manafon (Samadhi Sound, 2009)

A new Flaming Lips album is always going to be a talking point. It’s unsurprising then that the nature and character of ‘Embryonic’ has already been well documented in publicity and interviews. It’s a massive double album, constructed largely from ‘jams’ in the studio, a move supposedly taken to liberate the group from the restrictions of the song form and to stop them from repeating themselves.

I certainly applaud the band’s willingness to adapt, although it is starting to look as if those brilliant companion albums ‘Zaireeka’ and ‘The Soft Bulletin’ might become twin albatrosses around the group’s collective neck. ‘Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots’ has not, at least for me, endured all that well – relying too much on quirks and production tricks. ‘At War With The Mystics’ may well have been a better record, but it felt dense and impenetrable in places.

Perhaps ‘Embryonic’ might have come as more of a shock if Wayne Coyne hadn’t already explained and justified it so thoroughly. Now that he has, its sound is relatively unsurprising – full of fuzzy noise, propulsive drum grooves (still reliant on that colossal, distorted Dave Fridmann sound) and heavily inspired by the likes of Can and the electric period Miles Davis groups.

Melody is clearly not a priority for the group here, and one of the most interesting changes is the way Wayne Coyne’s voice has now been subsumed into the overall texture of the music. On ‘The Soft Bulletin’, they made a clear virtue of his shaky pitch, presenting him as the very vulnerable, human heart experiencing a sense of cosmic awe. Now he sounds like a background figure, somewhat overwhelmed by the unhinged chaos surrounding him.

As a result, it’s the moments where everything relaxes and the music sleepwalks into a laconic drift that are most surprising. ‘Evil’ is eerie and appropriately sinister, whilst ‘I Can Be A Frog’ is tender and barmy in equal measure, albeit slightly undermined by unsubtle interjecting sound effects. Even better is ‘If’, which sounds like a more aquatic version of Neil Young’s theme from ‘Philadelphia’.

Elsewhere, there is much to enjoy, if you have the patience to trudge through the whole thing. There’s something gleeful and delirious about the chanting on ‘Worm Mountain’ and the opening ‘Convinced By The Hex’ makes for a suitably warped and disconcerting introduction. The frantic, glorious rush of ‘Silver Trembling Hands’ and the way it melts beautifully into its frazzled half-time chorus, is a definite highlight.

Sometimes, though, it has to be conceded that ‘Embryonic’ exposes the limitations of this approach to music making. For improvisation to work, it has to be unselfconscious, with inspired music emerging as a result of a natural, unforced interplay between the members of the ensemble. Yet this is not really what the Flaming Lips do. Their reputation has been built on careful orchestration and meticulous studio processes. In concert, when they are not busy with gesticulation and gimmicky showmanship, their performances consist of near-perfect facsimiles of the studio recordings. It would perhaps be too much to expect them to abandon this aesthetic entirely.

As a result, much of the supposed ‘randomness’ of ‘Embryonic’ sounds meticulously plotted and pre-ordained. When at its least successful, it sounds like a number of, well, ‘embryonic’ ideas stitched together. Yet there are so many ideas here – some worthwhile, whilst others lead the group up cul-de-sacs. At the very least, it invites careful repeated listening. It’s the sort of album that will inspire and frustrate in equal measure.

Embryonic is currently streaming at

By way of contrast, David Sylvian is an artist who has been on a path away from the conventional song form for quite some time now. His output has been sporadic, but has always seemed like the result of a clear and driven mission, if not of complete repudiation of his past, then at least in search of radical new directions. It worked brilliantly on ‘Blemish’, a genuinely caustic and provocative record, on which Sylvian sought some kind of catharsis following the collapse of his marriage. It featured contributions from the late, brilliant avant-garde guitarist Derek Bailey and from electronic artist Christian Fennesz.

One of the major characteristics of Sylvian’s recent work has been an attempt to escape from the restrictions of time and rhythm. Like ‘Blemish’, ‘Manafon’ has no drums or percussion, and has a floaty, dreamy atmosphere. Some might argue that Sylvian is more interested in ‘pure sound’ than music here and, as such, ‘Manafon’ does seem more like the product of an art installation than a studio collaboration between experienced musicians. All this reminds me of Ian Carr’s warnings about the limitations of a certain approach to free improvisation. Whilst he had great admiration for the likes of Evan Parker, he also claimed that attempting to avoid time was usually futile – ‘as soon as you play a group of notes, you’re playing in time’.

Whilst ‘Manafon’ adopts a similar approach to Blemish, with Fennesz returning to play a greater role on laptop and guitar, it’s a notably calmer work. Even amidst its references to tortured poets and ‘random acts of senseless violence’, it’s Sylvian’s voice, with its hint of vibrato, that’s placed firmly in the foreground, representing a peculiar sort of serenity. Here is someone who has, at least supposedly, abandoned false idols in search of something pure and crystalline.

This music is pregnant with silence, space and air. The musical contributions from Evan Parker amongst others are quiet and mysterious rather than furious or wild. It’s not fair to say that this music lacks melody – it’s more a case of the improvised backdrops inspiring Sylvian to improvise his own melodies. When these integrate well with the music, as on the opening ‘Small Metal Gods’ and ‘Emily Dickinson’, the results are hypnotic. On the longer pieces, though, any sense of shape or flow tends to dissipate, and the results are rather opaque mood pieces.

‘Manafon’ would have worked brilliantly as an EP or a mini-album. But with the entire full length album adopting this delicate, brush stroke approach consistently, it sounds much more like one continuous, overlong piece than a set of individual songs. I deeply admire the emphasis on space, but can’t help longing for some sort of contrast or surprise.

It could certainly be argued that ‘Manafon’ requires one hundred per cent total immersion and concentration to deliver its full rewards. But the individual statements of the musicians, however subtle and controlled, are fleeting and transient, over which Sylvian’s incantations are clearly intended to be transcendent. His intellectual and philosophical musings don’t always offer anything to connect with emotionally, a problem that did not afflict ‘Blemish’.

One has to admire Sylvian’s audacity. Like Scott Walker, he has distanced himself so thoroughly from his former life as a pop star that one now has to expect something challenging and deeply unconventional with every release. His last release with Nine Horses was a smoky treat – and his record label Samedhi Sound is beginning to establish itself as a source of stimulating, powerful music, not least the haunting, beautiful music of Mercury nominated Sweet Billy Pilgrim. Yet in his search for a transcendental, spiritual response to the dangers and chaos of the world, Sylvian may have produced a work which is ultimately rather difficult to enjoy and appreciate. It’s almost as if his music has been so purified that any sense of humanity – any rage, anger, love, passion has been excised in favour of a detached, impartial gaze. It’s arguable that he has done this very thoroughly and successfully but there will be divergent schools of thought as to whether this is a musical goal worth aspiring to or not.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Captive States

Fish Tank (Dir: Andrea Arnold, 2009)
Afterschool (Dir: Antonio Campos, 2009)

Britain’s Andrea Arnold could be an amazingly resourceful woman, someone with impressive connections or just someone to whom very fortunate things happen. She’s certainly a promising talent, but not all talented people win Oscars for their first short films and get their first two features shown in competition at Cannes. Perhaps her earlier career as a presenter on those ITV Saturday morning shows that I do not remember fondly – No. 73 and Motormouth – did her less harm than one might expect. However she’s got to her current position as pre-eminent British auteur, she’s clearly in a league of her own.

Seeing her in conversation at the London Film Festival a couple of years ago for a special screening of her first feature ‘Red Road’, I was a little disappointed at how inarticulate she appeared. ‘Red Road’ had, it transpired, emerged from a collaborative project in which Lars Von Trier’s Zoetrope company had played a dominant role, and Arnold had been given a list of characters around which she would have to craft her film. She seemed to have little else to say about it and, perhaps understandably, seemed frustrated at some of the audience’s more banal questions.

Luckily, Von Trier’s trademark combination of provocation and pretention were nowhere to be found in Arnold’s finished product, which seemed like a murky, disorientating product of the real world. Arnold had elicited some tremendous performances from an unstarry cast and the cinematography and pacing of the film conspired to create a distinctive, claustrophobic atmosphere.

Nevertheless, I expressed some reservations about the film. I speculated as to whether some of the actions of Arnold’s central female character were completely convincing (although I would have to concede I’m not best placed to judge), perhaps enough to undermine the film's central dramatic conceit. I also felt slightly cheated that Arnold had set up the very engaging and timely CCTV scenario only to sidestep the entire issue in favour of a more conventional revenge thriller with an unsatisfactory denouement.

‘Fish Tank’ is perhaps less original but a good deal more assured. It takes Arnold’s natural feel for location and mood and applies them to something which could be described as a social realist genre piece. Arnold not only brilliantly establishes the tension and frustration of a life in enclosed space and with limited opportunity, but also contrasts this with some brilliantly composed images of the wilder, unforgiving Essex countryside.

In the manner of Ken Loach, Arnold again draws terrific performances from her cast, particularly from the established Michael Fassbender and from untrained newcomer Katie Jarvis. Jarvis, who got the role after being spotted mouthing off at a railway station, is certainly a bright spark and one hopes that she is guided to more acting opportunities in the future. Fassbender, who is clearly becoming more selective with his roles now, just goes from strength to strength.

The story focuses on Mia, a prickly, obtuse and naïve fifteen-year-old living in an Essex council estate with her drunken, disinterested mother and her audacious younger sister. Her appetite for confrontation and adventure places her in difficult situations – getting in trouble for breaking another girl's nose with a deft headbutt or ending up in danger when trying to rescue a captive horse. The latter situation is a none-too-subtle but nevertheless affecting metaphor for Mia’s own desire for freedom.

Her life begins to change irrevocably with the appearance of Conor (played by Fassbender) who begins a relationship with her mother. Conor pierces their world with an attractive casual insouciance which masks his secrets and motivations. The first thing he does is to praise Mia, claiming ‘you dance like a black…I mean it as a compliment’. It’s doubtful whether anyone has even noticed Mia’s passion for urban dance before, never mind encouraged it. It represents mysterious new territory for a young girl with little experience of warmth or love.

At first, Mia is confused about how to react and oscillates between reciprocating Conor’s affection (which seems sincere) and flatly rejecting him. There’s a brilliant scene in which Conor takes the whole family to some marshes and catches a fish. Mia’s mother and sister cower on the bank but Mia bravely follows Conor into the water. She cuts her foot in the process and Conor carries her back to the car, but the warm atmosphere quickly reverts to something unbearably tense.

Arnold establishes a sort of grim inevitability to her narrative arc. She’s not in the least bit subtle in establishing the erotic tension between Conor and Mia and it’s hardly a great plot spoiler to reveal that, after a night of heavy drinking, they end up having rather sordid sex. I’m a little agnostic as to whether this inevitability heightens the sense of claustrophobia or whether it actually undercuts the drama. Either way, I can’t help feeling the film suffers a little for occasionally resorting to arthouse cliche. The use of slow motion and heavy breathing on the soundtrack whenever Conor and Mia are in close proximity seems a little simplistic. It risks glamorising the transgression, of which Conor is painfully aware, but which Mia does not recognise until it is too late.

The relationship, of course, is actually a good deal more complicated than this crass eroticism suggests. Mia desperately needs a father figure, and ends up conflating this in her own mind with sexual attraction. Following their encounter, and Conor’s predictable abrupt departure, the film shifts gear as Mia delves for more information, uncovering some shocking truths and, in one brilliant moment at a ‘dance’ audition, finding a real sense of integrity and self belief. This, combined with the escape at the end of the film (whether temporary or permanent) demonstrates Arnold’s essential optimism, and provides a much needed glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak landscape.

At one point towards the end, it looks like the film might drift into ‘Red Road’ style revenge territory. Thankfully, Arnold holds back brilliantly, merely flirting with this theme in a manner which is entirely in keeping with Mia’s character. During this sequence, she ratchets up the tension and very quickly removes it – a sure sign that she has many more mature films to come.

‘Fish Tank’ is not, as some have suggested, a masterpiece. If we are rash in bestowing good films with such status, then we are doing a disservice both to audiences and to cinema. There are clear flaws – from the aforementioned stylistic stereotypes to some parts being a little underwritten. What it is though is an extremely promising and confident work, more controlled and communicative than its predecessor, which proves that there is still great space for expression in the field of social realism.

Young director Antonio Campos is arguably emerging as something of a Stateside counterpart to Arnold. He caused something of a stir with his short film ‘Buy It Now!’, about a teenage girl auctioning her virginity on ebay. With ‘Afterschool’, he has crafted one of the year’s more eye-catching and acclaimed features, albeit one that wears its influences proudly on its sleeve. With its preoccupation with video and high levels of tension, ‘Afterschool’ has been compared with Michael Haneke’s ‘Hidden’, although the ghostly school corridors of Gus Van Sant’s ‘Elephant’ may have exerted an even greater influence. Campos has at least had the grace to develop his own affectations – much of ‘Afterschool’ is framed in a very unconventional manner, leaving heads and faces curiously out of shot.

I often comment that school is the most political environment we experience in our lives – more so than any workplace or indeed any explicitly political institution. Campos goes much further than this in establishing it as a chilling, alienating place repressing expression and feeling. So completely dispiriting is this portrait that it seems more like a depiction of a prison. With its harsh lighting and creepy sound design, ‘Afterschool’ is distinctive chiefly for being the coldest, most austere film I have seen in some time. This at times makes it quite challenging to watch.

The film’s protagonist Rob, played appropriately listlessly by Ezra Miller, is compulsively addicted to some of the internet’s darker offerings, from violent pornography to confrontational clips on YouTube. He is interested, he says in slices of ‘things that seem real’. Rob is inarticulate, clumsy and unconfident, particularly in his relationships with girls, and appears to inhabit a world where drugs, both illegal and prescribed are commonplace. Actually, rather than bring him closer to the real world, his immersion in video serves to detach him further from reality.

Rob joins an after school video club to learn filming techniques and perhaps to get closer to a girl. Whilst working on a project, he inadvertently captures the school’s leading lights, glamorous and popular blonde twins, collapsing and dying after snorting cocaine that may have been cut with rat poison. His response to this traumatic experience is affectless and dulled, although it inevitably provokes the well-intentioned but naïve concern of all the adults around him.

Indeed, one of my major misgivings with ‘Afterschool’ is its treatment of the adult community of the school, from its patronising counsellor to its foolish headteacher. The latter shows extraordinary depths of idiocy by assigning Rob to make a video diary in memory of the girls and then being shocked by the unflinchingly honest product with which he is presented (Robert’s film eschews both diplomacy and production values). Predictably Rob’s mother, heard only in a terse telephone conversation in the school common room, is similarly witless and lacking in understanding. Whilst these portrayals don’t quite hit the levels of adult caricature favoured by Channel 4’s Skins, they do fail in the need to capture the complexity of relationships between teenagers and adults (something Andrea Arnold obviously confronts more explicitly in ‘Fish Tank’). Adults can of course seem distant or unhelpful at that age – but usually some are able to bridge the perceived divide and find some common ground. Perhaps these uncomplicated roles were simply necessary for Campos to establish his sense of alienation and confusion.

There are some convincing touches – from Rob’s fumbling and apparently unsatisfying first sexual encounter to his simmering resentment at his room-mate stealing his girlfriend. Campos also does an assured job in realising the real and significant impact such a tragic event would have on a school community. Rob actually captures this in his video, but the headteacher would, understandably, prefer to present the bereaved family with benign platitudes set to appropriate music.

The film’s brutal aesthetic is sustained throughout – an impressive achievement, although one which leaves critical judgment somewhat in the service of personal taste. There is a great deal to admire about ‘Afterschool’, perhaps a little less to like. The film poses intriguing and important questions about guilt and complicity and leaves them tantalisingly unresolved.

One final thought – if ‘Afterschool’ has been so admired on both sides of the Atlantic (in the UK, it received a feature review in Sight and Sound, and broadly positive assessments from Peter Bradshaw and Philip French, widely believed to be our most influential broadsheet critics) – why has it only been showing in one screen in London?!