Monday, October 26, 2009

New Folk Pathways

Volcano Choir - Unmap (Jagjaguwar, 2009)

Following a critically acclaimed debut is never an easy task but Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon has made it look easy by refusing to play the waiting game. It seemed plausible that ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ could have been one of those great one-off successes but the ‘Blood Bank’ EP suggested new possibilities, from Reichian minimalism to the unexpected vocodered splendour of ‘The Woods’. Now Vernon has made another intriguing sidestep by teaming up with instrumental group Collections of Colonies of Bees for a collaborative project. Those approaching Volcano Choir in search of more of the cabin intimacy that made ‘For Emma’ so beguiling may well be bemused by this music. This is perhaps a more calculated and less nakedly emotional beast, but its challenges are coupled with rewards.

The focus here is not on words, but on sound, texture and mood. Where lyrics are present, they are difficult to discern and are clearly not intended as the main source of meaning. Carried over from ‘For Emma’ is the use of Vernon’s voice as a presiding, haunting presence, but there is less of a sense of thematic unity. Instead, Volcano Choir feels like an artistic experiment, with a collective ensemble feeling for ideas, sometimes tentatively but more often with confidence and combined expertise.

The opening trio of tracks is particularly effective, with the subtle expressive strokes on ‘Husks and Shells’ giving way to enticing rhythmic games on ‘Seeplymouth’ and the brilliant ‘Island, IS’. This emphasis on rhythm immediately distances ‘Unmap’ from Vernon’s work as Bon Iver. ‘Island, IS’ might even be said to be founded on an angular groove, its seemingly mechanised instrumentation anchored and humanised by some delicate but physical drumming. A similar airiness pervades much of ‘Seeplymouth’ and allows space for the track’s compelling crescendos. Particularly fascinating on these tracks is the way the individual parts interlock in a way that seems almost scientific.

‘Dote’ begins with warm tones that hint at the peculiar mood pieces of Stars of the Lid, before a more unnerving fuzz drifts in, along with Vernon’s manipulated voice. It ends with something close to aggression, before suddenly drifting into the near-joyful handclaps and vocal punctuations of ‘And Gather’. It’s an unpredictable and thrilling transition.

Occasionally, things don’t quite work. ‘Cool Knowledge’ represents a potentially quirky and charming diversion into doo-wop influenced vocal layering, but it gets ruthlessly truncated before it really gets going. ‘Mbira in the Morass’ feels noticeably less comfortable than most of the material here – a rather sheepish toe being dipped into the waters of what sounds like free improvisation. It has some common features with David Sylvian’s ‘Manofon’, but lacks that record’s steely self belief and sense of space. ‘Still’ takes those wonderful vocoder-altered vocals from Bon Iver’s ‘The Woods’ and adds instrumentation, but the effect of the new drones and sounds is sadly to cause unnecessary clutter and undermine the devastating impact of the original track.

‘Unmap’ is rounded off beautifully and contemplatively with ‘Youlogy’. The crass wordplay of the title doesn’t quite do justice its carefully crafted serenity. More so than the rest of the album, it hints at the common ground between Bon Iver and this project – and also demonstrates that the more systematic, collaborative approach can still yield emotionally rich results – without recourse to something as limiting as language.

Friday, October 23, 2009

A Grim Journey

Katalin Varga (dir Peter Strickland, 2009)

NB This review necessarily contains plot spoilers.

Writing about British director Peter Strickland’s debut feature, filmed in Romania without a drop of funding from the UK film council, poses some interesting challenges. If the audience yields to its dramatic conceits, it can be argued to be a well-crafted film that generates some teasing moral ambiguities. It’s also infused with tension and suspense, and benefits greatly from an entrancing attention to detail in its sound design. The film takes place in an environment mysteriously divorced from time – the use of mobile phones reminds us that the setting is contemporary and not medieval. Perhaps its greatest strength is a reminder that the existence of social attitudes far removed from our own greatly restrict people’s life choices in many parts of the world.

However, for many, such a positive appraisal would depend on some pretty colossal logical and emotional leaps. In the most positive reviews, the film has been described as a tragedy, but the concept only works when an audience can empathise with the central characters. By the film’s gruesome (and arguably rather crass) conclusion, I had rather lost patience with everyone except the innocent child at its centre.

The film is undoubtedly promising, but I wonder about the extent to which critics often exaggerate the originality and impact of first time directors. The film’s plot and mood bear more than an incidental resemblance to Bergman’s The Virgin Spring and the well reserves of arthouse cliché (shaky camera footage, self-consciously symbolic images, slow tracking shots and, yes, the obligatory rain storms) are drained yet further to inform Strickland’s cinematic language. Some have cited Bela Tarr as a key influence, but there’s little of Tarr’s icy weirdness here. A more transparent inspiration for me would be the bewilderingly overrated Mexican director Carlos Reygadas. I was also, at times, reminded of Andrei Zwygantsev’s vastly superior ‘The Return’.

Some have seen the film’s central secret as an elaborate mystery, but there seems little avoiding the fact that ‘Katalin Varga’ has that grinding inevitable misery common to this style of film-making. Sensible and insightful viewers will probably be aware from the start that Katalin has been grievously abused, with or without the aid of plot spoilers. It’s possible that the desire for revenge after such a terrible act must be overwhelming – what is much harder to accept is that any woman would be so reckless as to so endanger their ten year old child.

The bond between mother and son imbues this film with moments of real charm and grace, yet we’re expected to square these images and scenes with Katalin’s brutal and calculated behaviour and her repeated abandoning of her child. Where exactly is Orban when Katalin recounts her grim tale in all its loathsome detail on that boat trip? It’s a bizarre scene, but one that seems to service the film’s internal poetry more than it does a believable storyline. Katalin maintains an unflinching stance when reunited with her attackers which possibly stretches the bounds of credulity.

It is difficult for me to put myself in the position of either a violated woman or that of a rapist – but this film demands that we do both in order to comprehend the unbearably tense situation that unfolds towards its conclusion. Would a rapist and his sidekick really both completely fail to recognise the woman they attacked? Would an abused woman be able to maintain such brutal poise when confronting her attackers? Would she really endanger her child in the process? The extent to which the film is convincing depends on your answers to these questions.

Strickland’s film is undoubtedly provocative – and, particularly interesting in light of the recent Polanski arrest is its portrayal of an unpunished criminal reminded of his actions ten years after the event. I initially felt winningly hypnotised by the film’s peculiar mix of suspense and contemplation but the final third ratchets up the brutality and violence to an extent that seems self-conscious. I was left with the nagging sense that, rather than showing us a strong woman enacting her revenge, Strickland in fact risks joining the club of directors that revel in female suffering.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Leaving The Nest?

The Hidden Cameras - Origin: Orphan (Arts and Crafts, 2009)

The Hidden Cameras remain a band close to my heart, even though they mostly make the kind of sugary indie-pop that I listen to sparingly these days. There’s still something very admirable in Joel Gibb’s way of fashioning nagging and infectious melodies from very conventional, limited and predictable musical building blocks. All too often, their songs deliver a great burst of joy that is impossible to resist.

That these songs have often come with subversive intent (Gibb’s candid lyrics deal not just with homosexuality and attendant desires – but with the physical mechanics of sexual activity) adds a defiance and triumphalism so often absent from a genre more concerned with nostalgia and whimsy. Gibb seems to have gained a reputation as a miserable interviewee, but when I interviewed him on the band’s first visit to the UK, I found him engaging and unflinching. He wasn’t in the slightest bit worried that anyone should be put off by the frankness of his songs – he was only interested in the open-minded.

‘Origin:Orphan’ is perhaps the first album where Gibb sounds a little confused over his identity. A number of the tracks hark back to the ‘gay folk church’ sound of ‘The Smell of Our Own’ but do so with arrangements that have been embellished even further. Elsewhere, Gibb branches out in rather different directions. Few could have expected a Hidden Cameras album to begin with a two minute drone, or for its title track to sound like a cross between Spiritualized and Depeche Mode.

Sometimes these experiments are done on a budget. Some reviews have compared ‘Do I Belong?’ or ‘Underage’ with ‘new wave techno’ (whatever that is – did techno have a ‘new wave’?). Actually, the former sounds about as cutting edge as Queen’s ‘I Want To Break Free’ played on a Bontempi organ and the latter sounds like ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ as performed by Tight Fit. How on earth does Gibb manage to make these simplistic, arguably tacky, undeniably dated performances so enervating and thrilling? Even though he’s at his most melancholy on the former (even to the extent of ‘sitting by the phone waiting for you to call’), there’s still a mischievousness and playfulness at the heart of these songs.

‘Origin:Orphan’ is often more audacious though. ‘In The NA’ retains Gibb’s trademark melodic sense, and is therefore recognisably a Hidden Cameras song – but it’s combination of synths and clattering percussion are a new addition. It then cascades into a chorus that is plucked straight from the REM songbook. The opening ‘Ratify The New’ is darker and more mysterious, with what sound like an Indian influence. ‘Origin Orphan’ is a rare detour into slower paced territory, with distorted guitars and programmed drums. Best of all is ‘Walk On’ which bolsters its essentially repetitive form with a colossal Spector-ish wall of sound. Gibb’s vocals are often heavily reverb-laden and double tracked which adds to the grandiose atmosphere. Another frequent characteristic is the extended outro – over which Gibb indulges his love of vocal ticks and yelps (often sounding more like a wolf or a dog than a human being), albeit with less irritating impact than has sometimes been the case in the past.

For the most part, Gibb follows the trend set by 2006’s ‘Awoo’ in keeping the lyrics more restrained and focusing more on emotions. The album ends with a song in this vein, and one of the group’s greatest to date, ‘Silence Can Be a Headline’, an epic ballad somewhere in between The Righteous Brothers, The Platters, REM’s ‘Everybody Hurts’ and Roy Orbison.

A couple of tracks see him returning to more provocative themes, not least the hilarious ‘Underage’ (‘let’s do it like we’re underage…’I’ll pretend you’re seven and you’ll pretend I’m eight’….’you have the most beautiful young thing I’ve ever seen’ – eek!). If the Daily Mail were to pick up on this, the band would gain a whole lot more publicity! ‘The Little Bit’ manages to throw every trick in Gibb’s book into one two minute slice of string and brass laden pomp-pop (‘a little bit of spittle and a little bit of blood’ – niiiice). All par for the course, but I’m beginning to prefer Gibb in more tender mode (‘Kingdom Come’ is particularly wonderful). Even after ‘Awoo’, it still remains

‘Origin: Orphan’ perhaps sees Gibb dipping a toe in the water – only partially leaving his roots. Whilst it is at times brave, it’s no radical departure from the honeyed melodic template. Its greatest strength, aside from the chamber pop arrangements, remains Gibb’s voice, which carries exactly the combination of pure clarity and dirty nasal whine that his lyrics demand – that always appealing mix of sacred and profane. The sequencing is inevitably a little haphazard and there are some moments, joyful as they are, where Gibb is clearly repeating earlier achievements (‘He Falls to Me’, ‘Colour of a Man’ – the latter is a sweet melody in search of another section or chorus). Yet, on balance, it’s further evidence of Gibb’s talents, and a firm suggestion that he is far from losing inspiration. There is much here to relish and enjoy.

Friday, October 09, 2009

In Praise of Progress

Sian Alice Group – Troubled, Shaken Etc (Social Registry, 2009)
HEALTH – Get Color (City Slang, 2009)
Tara Jane O’ Neil – A Ways Away (K, 2009)

Such is the heavy pressure to produce easily promoted, mind-blowing debuts these days, that it’s easy to let those acts that manage to develop slip under the radar. I admired ‘59’59”’, the debut album from Sian Alice Group, for its comfortable assimilation of various genres, for its attention to detail and for its hypnotic, repetitive moods. ‘Troubled, Shaken Etc’ really is a massive leap on from that record though. Here, the band return to some of the concerns they only fleetingly addressed on their debut, and explore them in greater depth, with far greater confidence.

It’s immediate from the opening ‘Love That Moves The Sun’ that Sian is allowing herself to stretch out a bit, her voice given a great deal more prominence. A lot of the lyrics remain indecipherable, but there’s a combination of assertion and melancholy that establishes her as a reedier, sleeker PJ Harvey. The song has some elements of a traditional song – arpeggiated guitar chords and a reverb-laden sound – but the unpredictable shape of the melody, playful textural variation and the informed looseness of the ensemble take it somewhere far less familiar. Something similar can be said for ‘Grow, Again, Repeat’, which starts out as a straightforwardly haunting ballad, before moving towards something more unsettling.

The album’s highlight is the shimmering, pulsating ‘Close To The Ground’, which unfolds lengthily over seven minutes, its motorik pulse underpinning a labyrinth of menace and sinister intent. The vibraphone introduction owes a considerable debt to Steve Reich, but the main body of the track has its own steely ebb and flow. It’s an enticing combination of grace and danger, austerity and charm.

Bizarrely, a review on Pitchfork accused Sian Alice Group of ‘avoiding rhythm’ on this album. Some of the tracks certainly have a gentle lilt, or a sense of freedom (the gorgeous closing ballad ‘Salt Water’ or some of the interludes), but then there’s the percussive drive of ‘Close To The Ground’ or the marvellous ‘Vanishing’, which is built on what is effectively a breakbeat. The all-too-brief ‘Longstrakt’ sound like the basis for a Kompakt-esque piece of minimal techno. Rhythm is certainly not absent from these tracks, and the result is that they provide a pleasing contrast with the group’s more aquatic moments. In fact, the use of sophisticated percussion arrangements strikes me as one of this album’s key characteristics.

‘Troubled, Shaken Etc’ is every bit as minimal, economical, cautious and restrained as its predecessor. Yet there’s a more concentrated focus on texture and effect here that adds a sense of tentative adventure. Skeletal templates are developed into haunting, elaborate mood pieces. The effect, particularly on the near-empty title track, is both disorientating and enchanting. This strikes me as a high achieving album, both challenging and enjoyable, and near-perfectly sequenced, which will no doubt go completely unnoticed by the increasingly conservative UK music press.

I can’t say the rather scattershot first album from HEALTH made much of an impression on me, but a firm recommendation of their second ‘Get Color’ (sic) from Three Trapped Tigers’ Tom Rogerson has to carry some weight. So, indeed, it transpires, on listening to this colossal combination of abrasive noise and soft, detached vocals. For all its sonic assaulting, this is also extremely artful music. Although it often explodes into brutality and savagery, it also seems carefully regimented and constructed. Rather than a series of random lurches, these tracks seem like plotted maps for difficult terrain. After a few listens, it becomes clear that we should expect the unexpected.

Importantly, on ‘Get Color’, the band has developed a distinctive and coherent sound, working independently without the use of a producer. Some of their wilful obscurities have been restrained and the template seems to work whether at its most furious and insistent (the double punch of ‘Severin’ and ‘Eat Flesh’) or on something approaching relative tenderness (‘In Violet’). Loud drums are a constant characteristic, and they serve both to anchor the music (with a regular quarter note kick drum pulse) and to stretch it (with elaborate rapid fills and phrasing).

Set against this are barrages of distorted synths and guitars, in carefully orchestrated bursts of noise, both visceral and energising. More important than all of this though are the weirdly androgynous vocals, heavily disguised and distant, but somehow still providing an element of warmth and feeling. It’s a strange, heady mix, but the results are subtly melodic on ‘Before Tigers’ or even arguably anthemic on the insistent, almost industrial clang of ‘Die Slow’. The album is just long enough to state its case and short enough to leave us wanting more.

Tara Jane O’Neil might best be categorised as a folk singer, but such commonplace terminology doesn’t really do justice to the strange and unnerving space her music occupies. This is actually her fifth album as a solo artist, but it’s the first time I’ve ventured into her weird and wonderful world, thanks largely to a positive and intriguing review over at Mapsadaisical.

The songs here are simple, often built on drones and unhurried chord changes, but the devil is most definitely in the details. O’Neil’s production is exquisite, from the layered harmonies on ‘In Tall Grass’ that add to the sense of awe and beauty, or the shaking bells on ‘Dig In’ providing an underlying sense of creepy unease (a consistent factor throughout the record). Perhaps most impressive of all is ‘Howl’, where a sense of personal vulnerability is allowed to seep in, its circular theme getting progressively more intense with each reiteration.

‘A Ways Away’ sounds like a coherent set of music rather than a gathering of isolated songs. It subverts our traditional expectations of singer-songwriters by capturing both a sense of worldly beauty and a sense of fear. This distinctive world is not something that could ever be described as twee. O’Neil realises it through her delicate balance between acoustic vulnerability and an odd kind of distance through fuzzy electric intervention.

By all accounts, this seems to be quite a development from earlier albums and it’s the sort of music that could easily reach a much wider audience in light of the success of Bon Iver. Sadly, the lack of mythical backstory probably means that few will pay attention. Also, there’s something significant in what O’Neil holds back. Whilst this is a frequently intimate and poignant album, it’s not a heart-on-sleeves backwoods confessional in the Bon Iver mould. It’s a good deal more mysterious and ghostly.