Friday, April 23, 2010


Lonelady - Nerve Up (Warp)

This album ticks so many hipster boxes that I ought really to despise it. There’s the moody, enigmatic monochrome cover shot. It’s one of Warp records’ increasingly frequent ventures outside the world of intelligent electronica. The musical reference points are specific and fashionable – a bit of wiry Gang of Four scratchy guitar, the jangle of early REM or the skeletal funk of ESG. Julie Campbell is from Manchester – the sound of the Factory era clearly also still resonates with her. Surely, ‘Nerve Up’ is simply traversing old, very familiar ground?

Beneath the surface though, there’s actually something a little out of the ordinary about ‘Nerve Up’. Perhaps it’s that Julie Campbell has had the audacity to cherry pick from all these influences, rather than focusing too tightly on a tired punk-funk agenda. More significantly, it’s that the music, thanks in part to Campbell’s songwriting, mostly rises above mere facsimile. It is taut and exciting – with a nervous itchiness of its own.

It’s rare to find a female solo artist that sounds so solitary and alienated. Usually, we get the sensual, idiosyncratic, fantastic personalities of the likes of Kate Bush, Bjork, PJ Harvey or Joanna Newsom. Lonelady does not belong in that world. Her voice is strange, slippery and beguiling. Her music is precise, rigid and austere rather than flighty and wild.

It’s odd that the twitchy, anxious outsider position that Campbell has assumed became such a male pursuit. One of the most exciting things about Nerve Up is hearing Campbell’s distinctive thin but intoxicating voice set against this resolute, propulsive music. The Byrdsian twang of ‘Immaterial’ might hint back at Murmur-era REM, but Campbell’s voice also adds a fairytale sense of mystery and enchantment.

Everything here is minimal, perhaps even slightly desolate. There’s scratchy guitar, a drum machine and Campbell’s voice. The title track particularly succeeds in building a detailed impression with a rigorous approach. There are very few constituent elements. What further overdubs there are always serve the tense, nervous mood. On tracks like ‘Army’ and ‘Intuition’, there’s also an irrepressible and irresistible urgency.

Campbell won’t be able to repeat this trick too often. Yet the closing ‘Fear No More’ betrays a softer core. Whilst it’s not in itself entirely successful, it at least demonstrates another dimension to Campbell’s world and hints at other paths that she could follow. In the meantime, ‘Nerve Up’ is an authoritative, surprisingly satisfying work.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Dive In

Pantha du Prince - Black Noise (Rough Trade)
Caribou - Swim (City Slang)

There's already a sense that 2010 is shaping up to be a particularly fine year for electronic music. We've already enjoyed superb albums from Four Tet and Hot Chip, and there have been a number of releases I haven't yet managed to digest (including Autechre). Although there's an argument that his debut album 'This Bliss' (released in 2007) is even better, Pantha du Prince's 'Black Noise' adds to the list by virtue of being a lush, compelling piece of work. Like its predecessor, it's a rapturous and immersive experience.

This is spare and minimal music that still finds room for a warmth and beauty amidst the mechanical precision. It's repetitive and relentless but in a pleasingly hypnotic, rather than irritating way. The overarching atmosphere is rather magical. A number of the titles are almost onomatopaeic in their aptness ('Lay in a Shimmer', 'The Splendour', 'Bohemian Forest') such is the glimmering, haunting effect of the music.

Much of this is achieved through percussion sounds - be it the clicks and clatters in the background or the steel pan and glockenspiel sounds that yield the subtle but charming melodic lines. The music unfolds slowly and delicately, somehow achieving an effect that is both melancholic and euphoric, reflective and uplifting.

The last album from Caribou, aka Dan Snaith and the artist formerly known as Manitoba, 'Andorra', won Canada's equivalent of the Mercury Music Prize whilst continuing his preference for bucolic, hazy psychedelia and chaotic, cluttered percussion. It was an appealing, summery set but one that hinted that Snaith's sound, however distinctive, may have run its course.

Pleasingly, he has refreshed and refined his approach on 'Swim', which manages to combine some familiar elements of the Caribou sound with at least one eye firmly fixed back on the dancefloor. This is certainly the grooviest album Snaith has made yet - his rhythms have been stripped back to their most essential elements and a lot of the dense noise has been removed. This doesn't mean there isn't room for ambition - towards its conclusion on tracks like 'Hannibal' and 'Jamelia' have bold, expansive arrangements that suggest Snaith may have been listening to Ennio Morricone or David Axelrod.

'Swim' is most surprising when at its simplest and most direct. There's a touch of Prince to the propulsive but light disco of 'Odessa' that makes it both fluffy and infectious and curiously intelligent. On 'Sun', some of Snaith's recognisable concerns reappear, but it's a much more shimmering and aquatic creation, with plenty of breathing space. Perhaps most impressive of all is 'Bowls', the album's stunning, wonderfully linear centrepiece.

Snaith is not blessed with the world's greatest singing voice and there are plenty of borderline Caribou admirers who might well be completely converted were Snaith to abandon singing entirely. 'Odessa' at least hints at a use of his voice that is both more sensible and more creative - the delivery is largely conversational. It's when he attempts to make his vocal the melodic heart of his music that it risks descending into fragile whimsy. Still, the music that dominates 'Swim' is so resonant and so elegantly constructed that this is ultimately a minor concern. This is one of 2010's most enjoyable and adventurous albums so far.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Identity Crisis

I Am Love (dir: Luca Guadagnino)

Perhaps this movie’s very title, pretentious and grandiose as it is, should have been a giveaway, but I’d read enough positive thoughts on this film (not least Jonathan Romney’s rapturous piece in ‘Sight & Sound’) to believe it might be a bold and exciting piece of cinema. Whilst the film begins with considerable promise, the final impression is one of incoherence and catastrophic misjudgement. Ultimately, ‘I Am Love’ is exhausting and infuriating.

Film critics are now so frequently blinded by technical skill. As a result, directors such as Carlos Reygadas are all too easily indulged for pompous and didactic work. There is certainly enough technical accomplishment in ‘I Am Love’ to suggest that Luca Guadagnino is a promising director. The names of many Italian masters have been used as reference points – not least film-makers as different from each other as Visconti and Antonioni. In the early stages of the film, with its superb family dinner sequence, and with some elegant, meticulously framed shots of the Recchi family’s extraordinary mansion home (particularly of Tilda Swinton’s graceful walks up and down the staircase), I felt a more transparent influence was the great Orson Welles.

The film begins as what appears to be a subtle, restrained but simultaneously poised family saga. When the retiring grandfather unexpectedly bequeaths the family textile empire to both his son and grandson to share, it sets the scene for an intriguing and compelling power struggle. Yet this becomes simply the restrictive and repressive context for the film’s central concern – the tragedy that accompanies Emma Recchi’s sexual awakening and discovering of her true self.

There are some positive aspects to this film. Daughter Betta’s lesbianism (a no doubt still shocking and unacceptable thing to a wealthy Italian family such as this) is handled with great tenderness, and there are some delightful scenes between her and Emma. Swinton is every bit as majestic as you might expect – brilliantly capturing the conflict between social duty and inner desire.

Also impressive is the way the film withholds crucial information until quite late in its running time. We only find out Emma’s personal history through the course of her affair with Antonio, and this is the film’s one intriguing and original device. Unfortunately, it is only really used to inform the film’s hackneyed and rather muddled theme of personal identity.

However, this is most certainly a film with fatal flaws that sadly linger long in the mind. Many critics have praised the film’s exploration of the sensual aspects of food – but I found this crass. Guadagnino and Swinton seem keen to browbeat the audience with culinary eroticism. Had they left this notion implied or understated, it could have been much more interesting. Instead, these scenes come across more like a piece of gastropornography from a Nigella Lawson programme.

Even worse is the film’s handling of sex itself. Emma and Antonio’s lengthy soft focus al fresco love scene might have been better placed in one of the Emmanuelle films, so horribly clichéd is its cutting between the building natural elements and the moving bodies. The close-ups of skin are unusual in contemporary cinema and could have been quite erotic if left on their own, but the opening scene of Resnais’ ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ achieved so much more to this effect.

Perhaps more fatally is the way that, in spite of the film’s overlong two hour running time, characters and plot strands are left undeveloped. Given his youthful energy, natural talent and passion for food, it’s easy to see why Emma might be attracted to Antonio, but less easy to see why she would fall in love with him. It’s even harder to accept that this love would endure the terrible, cataclysmic event that befalls her family as an indirect result of her actions.

It is perhaps suggested that Emma’s son and heir to the business Eduardo may too have affections for Antonio (‘when I first tasted this man’s cooking, I fell in love with him’), but we are supposed to accept that Emma is completely impervious to this closeness. Similarly, we are expected to accept that Antonio would be completely careless in his attitude towards protecting the secrecy of his relationship with Emma (the ultimate revelation, inevitably, involves food).

What we are left with is a rather didactic and unsubtle divide in the family between socially repressed women allying themselves in self-discovery, and authoritarian, conforming men. This might well be an entirely fair and observant comment on wealthy Italian society – but it is hardly in itself original. The film’s final descent into melodrama merely serves to bludgeon the audience with this point, with entirely embarrassing results.

The confrontation between Tancredi (who is a stereotyped sexless regal male throughout) and Emma in the cathedral, complete with the obligatory baptismal rainstorm, is screamingly awful. However impressive an actress Swinton is, she cannot rise above this level of cliché and heavy-handed direction. Whilst the nature of the tragic event that destroys the family is in itself shocking and unexpected, the film’s treatment of its immediate aftermath is completely lacking in nuance or understanding.

If the melodramatic final scenes, complete with religious symbolism (a post-credits coda shows Emma and Antonio entwined in a cave) are supposed to betray the influence of Douglas Sirk, the only plausible response is to highlight how superior a homage Todd Haynes made with the wonderful ‘Far From Heaven’. Many have praised the use of the bombastic music of American composer John Adams here, but I found it intrusive and unpleasant. Whilst I could just about tolerate its role in the sequence where Emma follows Antonio through the streets of San Remo (where the film achieves an enjoyable albeit decidedly Hitchcockian balance of tension and playfulness), the grandiose music that accompanies the final moments is cloying and overblown.

The problem is precisely that ‘I Am Love’ tries so hard to achieve a grand operatic sweep. This is a film crying out for a little more intimacy, reflection and care. In fact, its precisely in its more tender, less provocative moments that this picture is at its best. In trying to make theatrical gestures and romantic statements from the idea of self-discovery, it conspicuously fails to engage with what self-discovery actually entails, or even what it might mean, save for the inevitable collapse of one wealthy family. I am also deeply suspicious of the film’s implied sense that the discovery of a dormant true identity is a purely feminine thing – why are all the male characters left so stilted and underwritten? It’s entirely reasonable to make a film about female subjugation in Italian society – but it is necessary to do much more than simply render the male characters as cardboard cut-outs.

Given the response this film has had elsewhere, I know there will be people stumbling across this review who passionately disagree with me. Yet the very fact that Guadagnino and Swinton spent seven years working on this project betrays that it is, at its core, a vanity project no more worthy of serious attention than those of Mel Gibson. I honestly find it hard to defend a film that is such an inherent stylistic mess and that so thoroughly botches all its themes.

It is not enough to throw together a disparate array of knowing references for the benefit of cinephiles, nor is it enough to try to make weak material transcendent through the use of melodrama. If we accept films like this, however impressive the photography, acting and staging may be, as the best modern cinema has to offer, we are doing audiences, the art of criticism and the medium of cinema itself a huge disservice. That is simply not good enough.

Saturday, April 03, 2010


Field Music - (Measure) (Memphis Industries)

The story of Field Music is one of the more interesting industry sagas of recent years, and a refreshing example of how a combination of imagination and sheer persistence can reap rewards. Unfairly written off as an inferior cousin to The Futureheads, there's now plenty of evidence that Field Music were always the better band - a group with an unusual ability to be as inventive as possible with the traditional rock group set-up. Perhaps their quirky, angular, constantly shifting approach to classic pop was never likely to have mass appeal, but the excellent 'Tones of Town' album was cruelly overlooked both by critics and the public. Meeting with such indifference, Field Music announced an indefinite hiatus, but rather than abandoning their musical dreams altogether, the Brewis brothers sub-divided into two separate projects, School of Language and The Week That Was. Both yielded outstanding results and had distinctive individual identities.

With their profile now duly raised by this clever musical and promotional game playing, the Brewis brothers return as Field Music with a substantial double album demonstrating their ambition, if not quite the full scope of their interests. As if by way of atonement, '(Measure)' has received ecstatic featured reviews in the monthly rock press. Critics are correct to eulogise the Brewis' melodic and rhythmic gifts - and '(Measure)' is unsurprisingly filled with structural intelligence and exceedingly clever writing. At times, it also sounds remarkably taut - the sound of a well-rehearsed, carefully arranged small unit.

There is much to admire on '(Measure)', from the nimble chamber-pop of the title track to the insistent, spiky adrenaline rush of 'Effortlessly' or the infectious chime of 'Them That Do Nothing'. Many of these songs are astute lessons in how to produce guitar based pop with sophistication and clarity. The Brewis brothers work brilliantly together, and their refined vocal harmonies are a major feature of the group's sound. Similarly, they design their songs to feature intricate, complementary guitar parts. They rarely resort to bland strumming or the simple marking of time. This is often what makes their songs stand out as exciting.

Sometimes, I suspect, it makes their music seem more adventurous than it actually is. '(Measure)' is very much rooted in classic British pop - and for much of its duration it seems like a more progressive reformulation of the essential ingredients of pop music as defined by the great acts of the 60s and 70s. Perhaps as a result, it does occasionally drift into slightly plodding, guitar-rock formula ('Lights Up'). As much as I enjoy it (and I really do), I can't help feeling it's a less intriguing project than either the School of Language or The Week That Was albums. Those albums had strong conceptual foundations and drew from a less obvious array of musical influences.

'(Measure)' works best when it hints at this broader knowledge - the superb minimal synth and percussion workout of 'Let's Write A Book' or the Afro-Cuban informed coda to 'All You'd Ever Need To Say'. The latter is a good example of another frustrating tendency here - occasionally, the Brewis brothers have great ideas which they simply throw in loosely and fail to develop. Still, there's no doubting the Brewis brothers have major talent and an appetite for adventure - and it's great to see their peculiar business model sustaining them. This should set the benchmark for British rock bands. It provides clear evidence that it is possible to play classic rock music with a pioneering spirit.

Friday, April 02, 2010

New Directions

Polar Bear - Peepers (Leaf)

I don't always admire the work of Paul Morley, but his current Guardian video series investigating the nature of modern jazz in Britain is fascinating and important. So often, jazz cocoons itself in existential worries ('is this jazz?' 'is it too accessible?') and shields itself from other forms. Yet in this country right now, there is a very vibrant scene of improvising musicians forging connections across the contemporary musical spectrum. It was pleasing to see Polar Bear's Sebastian Rochford and Pete Wareham, in conversation with Morley, highlighting the likes of Zed-U and TrioVD, but also recognise that adventurous, compositional rock bands such as Grizzly Bear might offer inspiration to the aspiring jazz musician.

Rochford appears to see jazz as more of a concept or approach than a sound - it doesn't have to swing, but it does have to be 'liberating', confident and prepared to take risks. Rochford is something of an old-fashioned collector of music who enjoys making new discoveries in independent record shops. He has absorbed a massive range of music yet the result of his avid listening is a remarkably distinctive compositional voice. Perhaps there was a danger of this developing into a formula - many will probably feel that 'Peepers', a relatively concise and focused set, is exactly what was required after the dense, sprawling exploration of their previous self-titled work (for the record, I loved that album too).

There are two central relationships crucial to Polar Bear's alchemy - the powerful connection between Rochford and Tom Herbert, which is both steady and dynamic, and the relationship between saxophonists Mark Lockheart and Pete Wareham, as contrasting and complementary a frontline as you could hope to find. 'Peepers' sees Rochford now using this foundation to branch out into new territory. Electronics wizard Leafcutter John plays guitar on a number of tracks, giving the band harmonic accompaniment for the first time. If anything, though, the effect is largely rhythmic or atmospheric, either producing ska-infused choppiness or surprising tenderness.

The exhilarating burst of unashamed joy on the opening 'Happy For You' will be familiar to long time Polar Bear fans, as will the lurching groove Rochford deploys on the hugely enjoyable 'Drunken Pharoah'. These are unselfconcious pieces of music, rich in character and humour, but with a strong musical understanding and interplay cementing them. What will be less familiar are the moments of delicacy and vulnarability that mark 'Peepers' out as Polar Bear's most varied and immersing work so far. 'The Love Don't Go Anywhere' is an impressionistic piece tinged with sadness and regret, whilst 'A New Morning Will Come' is a shimmering delight.

Perhaps my favourite moment on the album is the subtle 'Want To Believe Everything', on which the internal dynamics of Rochford's drumming are brilliantly controlled. The piece takes Polar Bear's familiar off-kilter groove and plays it out in a lighter, more airy setting. The gentle closer 'All Here' has something of an inspirational feel - like a soft prayer. It sounds like a Stax soul ballad - a Mavis Staples song as played by a jazz ensemble. This is new territory for the group, and certainly not unwelcome.

'Peepers', contrary to its title, is not the sound of a band tentatively peeping at another direction. It's a confident, assured opening of new doors. It has a raw, unpolished sound that may infuriate some but which delights me - it sounds like a real band playing intuitively.

Summer tinged with sadness

Laura Veirs - July Flame (Bella Union)

Laura Veirs is the sort of singer-songwriter it's all too easy to take for granted, releasing new albums of dependable quality at regular intervals without really making radical shifts in direction. Amidst all the noise currently being made around female talents (the elaborate fantasias of Joanna Newsom or the supposed prodigious maturity of Laura Marling), it would be easy for 'July Flame' to fall by the wayside. This would be a real shame, for there's definitely an argument to be made that 'July Flame' is Veirs' most accomplished work.

As its title suggests, 'July Flame' works as a warmer, brighter flipside to the icy charm of her previous career watermark 'Carbon Glacier'. The albums Veirs has released in between the two have all been good, but maybe burdened by the weight of one or two standout songs apiece. 'July Flame' is a good deal more consistent - brimming with largely simple, unaffected but strikingly beautiful songwriting. The arrangements are mostly minimal but characterised by delightful textural nuances.

Veirs continues to work with producer Tucker Martine and 'July Flame' contains the finest results yet from this fruitful collaboration. I became tremendously excited when I heard the news that REM were recording new demos with Martine, for he is exactly the sort of producer to reinject some mystery into that band - but it seems they have returned to the ugly, hyper-compressed commercialism of Jacknife Lee for their forthcoming album. What a shame because judging by what Veirs and Martine have achieved here - an unassuming, home recorded work still full of richness and beauty - a Martine-helmed REM might have been something both surprising and special.

'July Flame' delicately unfolds into a mission of quiet discovery. There's the gentle reverb (applied carefully and thoughtfully) that renders 'I Can See Your Tracks' a mesmerising introduction. There's the otherwordly, slightly woozy waltz of 'Little Deschutes' and the southern gothic tapestry of 'Where Are You Driving?'. Veirs seems to have ironed out some of the harshness from her voice and, whilst these songs are not without her trademark wistful melacholy, they do seem to have a warmer, more enchanted gaze. Perhaps best of all is the sensual, rapturous but avowedly linear title track.

Veirs comes across as a disarmingly modest writer and performer (and her humility comes across in her sincere tribute to legendary session bassist Carol Kaye), but also a meticulously honest one - and this is perhaps why she appears to have so many admirers. Colin Meloy from the Decemberists campaigned for 'July Flame' to get a proper release when Nonesuch records declined to put it out (did they learn nothing from the 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot' farce?) and Jim James from My Morning Jacket provides some suitably spectral vocal harmonies. It's good to hear James' voice in a more sympathetic context after the uncomfortable fusions of 'Evil Urges'. I suspect 'July Flame' will be one of the albums I listen to most this year, such is its winning combination of adventure and accessibility.

The Return

I've not been able to blog in some time now. My life is taking all sorts of interesting twists and turns at the moment, involving plenty of uncertainty but also, I hope, some new opportunities. I hope, slowly but surely, to ease back into regular writing again.

Whilst I've been busy working and planning for the future, plenty seems to have happened in the world of music, not least the sad loss of two figures personally significant for me (and many others). Along with John Peel, Charlie Gillett was surely one of the two most important voices in British broadcasting. He treated his listeners with respect, trusting them to have the same keen and adventurous ears that he had. His style was totally and refreshingly unshowy and unpretentious, allowing the music to speak for itself whilst also communicating his enthusiasm and passion for it in a naturalistic, almost effortless manner. He was a broadcaster of real integrity - compromising his own tastes and interests in the service of his career would have been unthinkable. Compare this with the excitable preaching of Zane Lowe and it's easy to see what has been lost to the tradition of radio with Charlie's passing. He can't be replaced - but I do hope the World Service continues to devote a small part of its schedule to sharing music from around the world.

Alex Chilton was a more tricksy character but, at his best, undeniably one of the great pop songwriters. Big Star were a band that sounded like they ought to have had hit after hit but, in the end, they remained a cult concern. It's worth remembering that, over time, cult interest bands have considerable impact on a wide range of people - and the many tributes to Alex on Twitter are testament to the fact that conventional, commercial measures of popularity often serve to marginalise immensely significant players. 'The Ballad of El Goodo', 'September Gurls', 'Thirteen', 'Thank You Friends', 'Kanga Roo' rank among some of the finest songs I know. As a solo artist, Chilton was wayward and unpredictable - although there are those for whom the ragged charm of 'Like Flies on Sherbert' holds more interest than the more polished sound of the first two Big Star albums. There's definitely a sense that, middling quality of the recent Big Star album notwithstanding, Chilton had more to offer.

I now have a large task on my hands attempting to catch up on everything I've been enjoying recently. Blogging will probably remain intermittent as I start a month of new work on Tuesday and I really hope to get the best out of a short amount of time.