Sunday, 30 March 2008

Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago

Bon Iver - Flume

We've all had that feeling; when things get on top of you and you wish you could escape somewhere and shut the world away. After the break up of his long time band, DeYarmond Edison, Justin Vernon removed himself to a remote cabin in the woods of Northwestern Wisconsin for four months over winter. He spent his days splitting wood and generally working the land and in this isolation and contemplation recorded the bulk of this extraordinary album.

Bon Iver is a corruption of the French for 'good winter' and the recording of this album has clearly been a cathartic experience for Vernon. It is filled with love, loss and emotion and with its starting point of a man alone with his thoughts and a guitar the album actually builds into something far larger. I mean this literally with the addition of extra vocals and instruments on tracks like Flume and For Emma but elsewhere, with the layering of his own voice Vernon creates a surprisingly full sound and with necessity the mother of invention the album contains some musical surprises too, this isn't just an album of folky guitar strumming.

On most tracks Vernon employs a falsetto but his range is much wider on tracks like Skinny Love. The Wolves (Acts I and II) has a soulful and, dare I say it, funky feel to the vocals as he repeats 'What might have been lost'. Blindsided begins with a single note repeated but from this he weaves layer upon layer of voice to create something surprisingly complex. Lyrically the album can be a little obtuse but on some tracks there is total clarity. Closing track re:stacks is a beautiful finish in which, despite my talk of catharsis, he sings ' This is not the sound of a new man or crispy realization/It's the sound of the unlocking and the lift away/Your love will be/Safe with me'

So if you ever get that feeling I mentioned earlier and you can't get away to the country, take the phone off the hook, put this album on and enjoy, there isn't a weak track on it.


Saturday, 29 March 2008

suburban survivalist

by David Gates

American literature is populated by plenty of male narrators, charting the pressure placed on American values and ideals by the simple course of living a life. John Updike's Rabbit novels, Philip Roth's Zuckerman books and Richard Ford's recently completed trilogy featuring Frank Bascombe stand as shining examples of total character; men who feel as real, more real perhaps, than people we may actually know. David Gates first novel published in 1991 doesn't add another name to that list so much as start a new one; the American anti-hero, not an Everyman but rather the kind of man you're damn glad you aren't (and if you are, well, good luck).

Peter Jernigan is a drunk. The novel opens with him making his way to a friend's empty trailer in the dead of winter. He will be rescued by the state police after falling into a drunken stupor and lose his thumb and forefinger in the process but as he tells us '...the essential man was, and is, still intact. Which is the big thing, right, the essential man? Jernigan'.

Jernigan is a widower. A year ago his wife, an alcoholic herself, made a scene at a party, removed her bathing suit, got into the car and backed out of the drive into the path of an oncoming truck. Since then he has limped along in a state of limbo and it is his teenage son Danny who attempts to kick start him again socially when he invites him to join a party at his girlfriend's house. There, after a few too many glasses of moonshine, he ends up staying the night with her mother, and slowly finds himself there again and again until, almost without meaning to, he moves in to this ready-built nuclear family.

But this is a far from conventional setup, the moonshine is a hint towards the alternative outlook that Martha has towards life. Down in her basement she breeds rabbits for meat and her friend is the man behind a magazine , Suburban Survivalist, which is filled with articles showing how to enjoy the benfits of suburbia without any of the soul crushing conformity. Martha and her daughter have their own problems too but Jernigan's inability to deal with even the basics of his own life mean he's very far from the stable male influence Martha was hoping him to be.

Which all makes it sound rather serious and whilst it does have its moments this is primarily a dark comedy with the extraordinary Jernigan at the centre. A man with education and intelligence who finds it increasingly difficult to make those witty leaps into punning wordplay as the book progresses his frequent interruptions into the narrative are hilarious. 'Now what kind of thing was that to say.' he interjects after hurling yet another hurtful phrase. His contempt for those around him, especially when fuelled by alcohol, causes him to keep lashing out at those who want to help. Later, in a desperate attempt to feel something, he takes a gun and shoots himself in the hand. 'That's Jernigan all over: first you swallow a bunch of drugstore anodynes and then you want to feel something and then you bitch and moan because it hurts'. As the book progresses Gates shows the crumbling state of our hero as his sentences start to break down, thoughts remain unfinished, sentences sputter to an end, you can almost hear the brain cells dying with each gulp of alcohol.

Full bloodied and noisy, Jernigan's voice is compelling, a little like being held hostage by a talkative drunk in a bar. As much as you might wish that things had gone differently for him you can't help being gripped as he recounts the car crash that is his life.


Thursday, 27 March 2008

Foals - Antidotes

Foals - The French Open

Another day, another debut album groaning under the weight of hype and expectation. Foals have a slightly stronger pedigree than some of the other hot new bands for 2008 with a string of singles released last year. The decision not to include Hummer and Mathletics on their debut album shows some confidence in the new material, a confidence which isn't always backed up. So is it math rock, afro rock or even perhaps just pop?

The answer to the question above may well be all three. The album begins with The French Open's horns and staccato guitars which soon develop into a jumpy afro infused pop chorus. New single Cassius is a stomping floor filler, a trick they pull again on Two Steps, Twice to great effect, building the complex layers of rhythm and guitar like a piece of dance music. The problem is that Yannis Philippakis doesn't have the kind of voice you exactly fall in love with. Like Kele Okereke of Bloc Party with whom the band have been compared, his upper register shout is not to all tastes and the quieter attempts on this album expose its weaknesses. Some tracks like Heavy Water never quite gel leaving you with an album which feels a little less than the sum of its parts.

That said there are some effective moments like the much darker Electric Bloom which conjures some haunting images ' An empty morgue with gurning hearts and hollowed crowns/And all I see is marching bands/... It's just another hospital'. And Foals clearly know how to get a live crowd on their feet and dancing away. Perhaps their second album will see Foals grow into a band who can fulfill their promise.


Wednesday, 26 March 2008

a midsummer night's dream

The Feast Of Love
by Charles Baxter

Strong recommendations are hard to ignore. They don't always pan out, often the books which others feel most strongly about will disappoint when you read them but I always try. And a good thing too. The ever enthusiastic Scott Pack recommended I try this novel before the film version arrives on our shores and I have to say that having now seen the trailer (below) I'm glad that I did.

A writer called Charlie Baxter wakes one midsummer's night from a bad dream and goes for a stroll through his neighbourhood in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He walks to the University football stadium and from his seat in the stands sees a young couple making love on the fifty-yard line (a not uncommon experience apparently). Later he sees a friend, Bradley Smith, sitting on a bench. Smith tells him what his next book should be about and proceeds to tell him some tales of love. The rest of the novel hears tales from those others in his life, his philosophy teaching neighbour, two young lovebirds who work in his coffee shop and two soon-to-be-ex-wives along the way. There is a lot of humour to be found in such a universal subject, especially in the often sad figure of Smith. As described by Chloe, his employee, he is '...a gentleman, and sweet, and he's so smart you can tell thinking bothers him and takes up a great deal of his time'. In one hilarious episode he is forced to steal his own dog back from his sister after she refuses to return it after a period of care. The dog, also named Bradley, is his only source of love after the split from his first wife who embarks on a lesbian relationship. It is her who, after telling Baxter her side of the story, points out that:

You think that what I've just told you is an anecdote. But really it isn't. It's my whole life. It's the only story I have.

Baxter doesn't settle for just a humorous rendition of love. His neighbour, Harry Ginsberg, and his wife have a fractious relationship with their youngest son Aaron. Frequently he calls to shout abuse and accusation down the phone and then to demand money which Harry dutifully sends. He does after all love his son regardless. But his attempt to break this cycle of destructive behaviour ends in eventual silence from his prodigal son.

America, as everyone knows, is large enough to lose a child in...As the tongue goes to the missing tooth, so do we poke and pry at his absence. He is our null.

Perhaps the best example of the success with which Baxter mixes the tone of his writing, making it bittersweet, is in Bradley's recounting of his second honeymoon. In two pages Baxter surpasses the whole of On Chesil Beach. Through the seemingly simple language of a husband and wife discussing what love means to them whilst in post-coital slumber, you know that this marriage is doomed from the start.

I had my hand cupped around her breast, and she had her hand on my cheek, and we were having an argument, though still making it sound like love talk. "Bradley, what are we going to do here?"...You can have good sex on your honeymoon and still suspect there's something fishy going on.

The book also conceals its most powerful emotional hit in its young lovers, they have the most to learn of course, but the extent to which fate intervenes is unexpected even when it has been made painfully clear earlier on and Baxter skillfully brings his characters together near the novels close.

It is a surprisingly beautiful read and one I would recommend over the film which as you'll see below may not have the variety of tone and depth with which Baxter paints his picture of everyday lives.


Monday, 24 March 2008

Portishead - Third

Portishead - The Rip

It is amazing to think that it was over a decade ago that Portishead's Dummy landed almost from another planet and transformed my student listening. It is easy to forget that before it became middle-class dinner party music their debut was a confident, fully formed and exciting new sound. The band have always been honest about the difficulties in maintaining that impact with subsequent work but by any measure it has been a long time to wait for a follow up to the eponymous Portishead album. There have been hints about a more aggressive sound and there is certainly something harder, harsher and menacing about this album. Beth Gibbons work away from the band has shown the wide range her voice is capable of and so I am gald to her some of that in evidence on this new album.

Opener Silence has skittering drums and menacing guitars which slowly build and it is over two minutes before Gibbons' unmistakeable voice comes in. This is definitely a darker sound. Hunter lulls us in with that familiar Barry-esque film score sound and then subverts it with dark guitar chords. Nylon Smile has a more familiar ring to it, albeit with faster drums and Gibbons' plaintive cry 'I don't know what I've done to deserve you/ I don't know what I'd do without you'. It is a much softer voice which begins The Rip with acoustic guitar and that melatron but then halfway through an amazingingly held note brings in synths and drums to take it somewhere else. Plastic is a track which sounds like it is being hunted by a helicopter overhead, very unsettling. And that menace continues onto Carry On with a sound like an alarm and an almost tribal drum beat under the dissonant melody. As the track builds, in drops a bass guitar riff that Peter Hook would be proud of. That is followed by Deep Water, a short ditty on ukelele with a bluesey vocal sample which seems to have evaded Moby's clutches. Then we're straight back into staccato beats with Machine Gun a track which shows the continuing influence of 80's synths on today's music. Small is nearly a ballad until 70's organ stabs come in and guitars. Magic Doors has an almost eastern like flavour to it and the album finishes with the superb Threads, its beautiful melody surrounded by those menacing guitars again. 'I'm always so unsure' sings Gibbons before it turns into a holler which is replaced by a synth's repeated note like that vast bass note used to communicate with aliens in 'Close Encounters Of The Third Kind'.

I'd love to see the middle classes try to use this as dinner party backing music. It isn't easy listening, which isn't to say it's hard, far from it. But it's good to hear Portishead back and sounding confident once again. It was always going to be a must have for Portishead fans but this album might just interest a new generation in their individual sound. I look forward to an appearance on Later...with Jools Holland especially because that will bring me right back to that moment I first heard them all those years ago.


Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Snack Daddy

by Gary Shteyngart

In A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole created one of literature's greatest comic characters in the bloated form of Ignatius J. Reilly. As you can see from the picture above Simon Schama feels that Gary Shteyngart has repeated the feat with his hero Misha Vainberg, aka Snack Daddy. Son of the 1,238th richest man in Russia and weighing in at 325 pounds (just over 23 stone in old money) he is certainly a striking figure. In thrall to Western values and culture he longs for nothing more than a return to the United States and his love Rouenna, but with a visa out of the question after his father's involvement in the murder of an American citizen he has to resort to slightly more convoluted measures to get what he wants.

Or I think that's how it goes, because I couldn't finish it. I got about 135 pages in and I simply wasn't getting the laughs or 'scathing satire' that had been promised on the blurb. The humour was pretty puerile, the satire a little old and tired and there was something soft about the target, the whole East/West politics/oil exploitation thing has reached self-paordying proportions by now. So maybe I just came to the book too late (although it was only published last year) but I couldn't really be bothered to carry on. But if anyone tells me that things really get going on page 136 I can always try again.


Monday, 17 March 2008

Gavin and Stacey

Last night saw the welcome return of Gavin and Stacey to BBC3 (although how many awards do you have to win to get put on one of the two main channels these days?). There are several reasons why this programme is brilliant. Firstly and most importantly it is funny. Genuinely laugh-out-loud funny (So that having got a baby off to sleep just before it started I had to try and limit my volume resulting in a kind of Muttley-style wheeze). It sits somewhere between your standard sitcom (minus the canned laughter) and the cringing comedy of recent years (minus Ricky Gervais). None of the characters feel caricatured and even Rob Brydon and Alison Steadman who can grate a little at times are both brilliant. But it also has heart, not simply between Gavin and Stacey themselves but in the development between Nessa and Smithy we have an affecting relationship to rival those you might expect to find in any drama. Ruth Jones and James Corden have not only written the funniest programme on TV at the moment, they're stealing some of the best lines. But the real strength of the show is that there aren't any weak links, it's real ensemble stuff. I just worry what might happen if the Americans get their hands on it.


Sunday, 16 March 2008

the sincerest form of flattery

The Guinness 'Tipping Point' commercial is the most expensive ad ever made (a reported £10 million).

I reckon this pisstake cost a little less.


Saturday, 15 March 2008

Elbow - The Seldom Seen Kid

Elbow - Weather To Fly

I first heard Elbow on one of those late night car journeys listening to the radio. The track was Any Day Now and I thought it was amazing. Slightly dissonant, almost like a medieval chant and it stuck in my head for days. There have been a further two albums since that debut which are both filled with consistently interesting tracks and increasingly honest lyrics dealing with Guy Garvey's relationships and emotions. Why anyone would bother listening to a band like Coldplay when they could have Elbow instead is beyond me but there we go. The band have said that this may be their last album proper with future work released on ep's and singles so is it a fitting farewell (of sorts)?

The album begins with Starlings; a cacophony of sound which suddenly cuts out to reveal a quiet glockenspiel punctured with loud horns and eventually Guy Garvey's voice sounding as heartfelt as ever. Bones Of You takes its starting point from the power of a song to transport you back in time to a memory - 'And I'm five years ago/And three thousand miles away' but we should realise that Garvey is not a rose tinted spectacles kind of guy. Mirrorball is a great example of what Elbow do well; a gorgeous ballad with piano, drums, soaring strings and Garvey's voice up close and personal, filled with emotion ' When we make the moon our mirror ball/the street's an empty stage;/the city sirens - violins./Everything has changed.' The tempo lifts with first single Grounds For Divorce, a down and dirty, bluesey, western influenced anthem with a kick. And then we have Audience With The Pope, a challenge to religion which with its Russian sounding melody comes on like a Bond theme 'I've an audience with the Pope/And I'm saving the world at eight/But if she says she needs me/Everybody's gonna have to wait'. Weather to Fly has a simple melody and three verses which go round in a similar way to Any Day Now, building in intensity, a beautiful track about the band's wish to follow their own course. Then we have the huge Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver a song which soars lyrically, vocally and musically. Richard Hawley guest duets with Garvey on The Fix, a real character piece which is steeped in smoky, after hours atmosphere. Some Riot is a quiet song, a plaintive cry to a friend in trouble. The big crowd pleaser One Day Like This is the penultimate track, filled with strings and a rousing chorus, sure to be a festival and live favourite with it's chorus of 'It's looking like a beautiful day'. The closing track Friend Of Ours is a heartfelt tribute to the seldom seen kid of the title, Bryan Glancy, a friend of the band who died two years ago. 'Never very good at goodbyes/So gentle shoulder charge.../Love you mate.' Touching stuff.

This is a fantastic collection of songs, not the kind of watered down pop that will make them a chart success like Coldplay or Snow Patrol but the sound of a band confident in their abilities (this album was self-produced for the first time). They have always been good at creating depth musically, and with the honesty of some of the lyrics and Garvey given full range with his voice this is a fitting tribute not only to Glancy but to the band themselves for following their own direction.


Friday, 14 March 2008

leaving Las Vegas

by Willy Vlautin

Willy Vlautin is the singer and main songwriter of the band Ricmond Fontaine. Who I have never heard of before. But this novel comes with a CD, an original soundtrack recorded by him and Paul Brainard which I thought was rather lovely. I have included the first track so you can listen along as you read this review of the novel. (I quite like this idea and might try it again in the future)

Willy Vlautin and Paul Brainard - Northline Main Theme

Alison Johnson is a young woman who has lost her way. Not only is she trapped in a cycle of violence with her racist boyfriend Jimmy Bodie but she struggles with alcohol, having a habit of passing out at parties (on one occasion like this Jimmy locks her in the trunk of his car and leaves her there all night). Finally she plucks up the courage to leave him and Las Vegas and flees to Reno. It turns out that she is also fleeing something else, a trauma from when she was younger which has left her vulnerable and in the damaged state we find her. She finds solace in the films of Paul Newman, conducting imaginary conversations with him in her darker moments to help lift her out of them. She explains one important scene to a work colleague from Fort Apache, The Bronx where he falls in love with a nurse ('she's a junkie... but she's a good person, she's just had a hard life'):

There's this scene where the nurse and him are together, and she's really exhausted so he makes her a bath. He puts bubbles in it and shakes the water so the bubbles get extra bubbly and he sits with her while she lays in the water. It's hard to explain, but it just kills me.

In Reno there is something she has to deal with first; her pregnancy. She decides to allow her baby to be adopted and saves the stipend she receives from the prospective parents to help begin a new life. She gets a job and through this meets people who through their small acts of kindness show her that a new life is possible. Circling menacingly is the prospect of Jimmy finding her again as he explains in a letter:

I've decided I really am gonna be moving North. Like I always wanted. Just draw a line and go. A Northline. The farther north, the better. Away from everyone...I figure the farther North you go, the better it'll be. A place saner and normal. Simpler.

But with help from those she meets and one man in particular we hope that she can finally lay some of the ghosts from her past to rest.

Vlautin writes with great humanity about these people living on the margins of society, those that inhabit the dive bars, work the graveyard shift. His supporting cast of characters are brilliantly drawn. It reminded me of reading Denis Johnson's Angels which inhabits a similar area, although in a much darker vein. Having such a passive heroine in Alison can make her feel like an empty vessel at times, but as the book develops we see the various traumas that have left her that way, her personality dampened by experience, and it is the prospect of it being reawakened that invokes our empathy and hope.


Wednesday, 12 March 2008

voice of the nation

The Time of Our Singing
by Richard Powers

I have a lot of time for Richard Powers (and with the size of some of his novels you need it). The Goldbug Variations remains one of the most stimulating books I have read. Stimulating because through its dense prose and heavy science there was so much that got my brain firing and all of it structured perfectly with the precision and beauty of a piece of music. Reading his other books has always been an educational experience but they have always seemed to fall short of the emotion and transcendence achieved in that first one I read. I was hoping that a return to music would provide me with an opportunity to sing his praises anew. I should first say that this is a vast book, bursting with ideas and with a non-linear structure, thus making a cogent, comprehensive review almost impossible. So bear with me.

This novel combines the themes of race, music and the general theory of relativity in a narrative which jumps back and forth through time almost to demonstrate the ability of time to fold back on itself. At its core it is a family saga, a family created from the unlikely pairing of David Strom, a German Jew, lucky to have escaped his homeland in the run up to war and Delia Daley a young black woman. They meet in 1939 during the concert performance of Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial. It seems a fitting event for them to meet at a performance itself the result of racial prejudice. The spirit it embodies will have an impact on how they chose to live their lives together during this period of American history so important in terms of race and civil rights.

"A lightness rises, a way point in this gathering sea of dark, the darkness that belonging itself has made. For a moment, here, now, stretching down the length of the reflecting pool, bending along an arc from the shaft of the Washington Monument to the base of the Lincoln Memorial, curling down the banks of the Potomac behind her, a state takes shape, ad hoc, improvised, revolutionary, free - a notion, a nation that, for a few measures, in song at least, is everything it claims to be. This is the place her voice creates. The one in the words that come back to her at last. That sweet, elusive thee. Of thee I sing."

Delia is a singer, barred from professional success due to her colour but together with David she begins a family that they hope to raise 'beyond colour' schooling them at home. Jonah, the eldest boy, is a prodigiously talented singer. His brother Joe becomes his accompanist and baby Ruth is also a talented singer. But these three children will take very different trajectories in life. The two boys forge a career in lieder recitals and Ruth rejects her talents after a family tragedy and becomes politicised, joining the Black Panthers. There is conflict along the way between Delia and her parents about her methods of raising her family and this comes to a head when her father, Dr Daley, takes exception to David's involvement in the development of the atom bomb (the use of which he sees as a racist act). It is a split from which they never recover. Powers shows later with gut wrenching emotion the consequences of this divide between Delia's parents.

Following such a period of history means that we witness those landmark events such as the Watts riots, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and the Kennedy brothers, the Million Man March and the fall out from the Rodney King beating and trial. Powers works hard to conflate these experiences to show that history is ever present. David tells his sons 'the secret of time': 'Now is nothing but a very clever lie'. This results in a brave and original ending to the novel which brilliantly brings the story full circle, tiying it together within the fabric of time itself.

This is not a book free of faults. It is too long, but I can imagine an editor finding it hard to know where to apply the red pen. Powers could also never be accused of being a beautiful prose stylist but he certainly has his moments, particularly when describing those flash points of violence, or the power and emotion contained in mass gatherings. He also writes well as I have said before about music and there is plenty of it here, again covering a vast period of time from medieval chants to modern day rap. But perhaps the stongest parts of the book are where he succesfully connects to the full emotions contained within any family which suffers division, disappointment and grief. The three Strom children, raised initially in a self contained paradise, safe from the attacks of prejudice, are all affected in different ways by America's struggle through time to deal with race in all its colours.

When David and Delia first meet she tells him 'how it's all impossible, their seeing each other again. A mistake, to think any story ever finishes.' and Powers shows quite brilliantly in this extraordinary novel how progress; both socially, politically and through time itself is an illusory concept. But it doesn't stop us trying. As David, a man who has lost his entire family before the book begins, tells his sons 'You two will be anyone you want.'


Tuesday, 11 March 2008

MGMT - Oracular Spectacular

Along with Vampire Weekend, whose album I reviewed here, MGMT have been garnering plenty of praise and column inches for their debut album Oracular Spectacular. The music press seems to have it all sewn up at the moment, we're told at the beginning of the year which bands are going to be big and we dutifully go out and buy the albums and hey presto they're big (until the second album comes along usually) so do MGMT measure up?

Well the album gets off to a thumping start. Time to Pretend with its heavy synths and drums makes their intentions clear: to live fast and die young, 'Let's make some music/Make some money/Get some models for wives'. It's not just hedonistic excess though. The Youth is a call to arms filled with optimism about change which brings in strings to its arm waving chorus. As a Prince fan I was very pleased to hear his influence all over the funky Electric Feel.

The rest of the album is soaked in 1970's influences like Bowie, The Rolling Stones, prog rock and lots of others that I'm far too young to name accurately so your enjoyment of this album may depend on how much you liked them the first time around. Produced by Mercury Rev’s Dave Fridmann it has a wide soundscape filled with warmth and depth. But most importantly it is filled with invention, humour and the vigour of youth ( having seem them on telly the other day they look about 15 years old, god I'm getting old).

MGMT - Electric Feel


Saturday, 8 March 2008

shock horror

Those Face Trumpet boys are back again. Click here for some context and then enjoy their latest video Abney Park below. God help us all.


Friday, 7 March 2008

let me in

My apologies for the lack of book reviewing going on recently. The reason for this is twofold. Firstly I am primary carer for a 4 month old baby at the moment and literally can't find time to pick up a book. Secondly the book I'm reading is taking forever. But more on that later. In the meantime Simon Tofield, who created the wake up cat sketch, which will ring bells for any cat owners out there, has created another installment. The cat returns...


Thursday, 6 March 2008

The Spotlight Project - Una Stubbs

A series of portraits where I reunite actors with their first ever headshot.

Go on, you know you're thinking it: Aunt Sally. No? Till Death Us Do Part? Summer Holiday perhaps? Ah, you may be showing your age there. It's rather unfair of me to mention these early roles I suppose given the rennaisance her career has enjoyed recently in the theatre but I was rather excited in a slightly childish way to meet Una Stubbs. She has the kind of career which means that entire decades can be recalled with one of her iconic portrayals.

She was in rehearsals at The National Theatre at the time I met her and it is worth mentioning straight away that she looks amazing for a woman who has recently turned 70. Not only stylish but incredibly funny we had a great time with the shoot, which hopefully you can see below. The picture itself is one of the publicity stills from Summer Holiday and it seems that Una has lost none of her capacity to enjoy life from her days as a young ingenue.

Click here to see other portraits from The Spotlight Project.


Tuesday, 4 March 2008

The Spotlight Project - Lynda Bellingham

A series of portraits where I reunite actors with their first ever headshot.

There was something unique about my afternoon with Lynda Bellingham. Perhaps it was the fact that she was in the process of writing her autobiography (whose publication is mired at the moment in legal action) but more than anyone else I photographed, seeing this photo again brought back a flood of very vivid memories and emotions. She was able to recall so much about the time the picture was taken and then a few things that happened in later life, all of it inspired by seeing this early image of herself, part of what I was hoping this project could achieve.

(I'd love to say more but given the spectre of legal action it's probably best if I don't. Suffice to say real life has not always provided the kind of domestic bliss you might see in, say, an Oxo commercial)

Click here to see other portraits from The Spotlight Project.


Monday, 3 March 2008

Mad Men - episode 1

First episodes are tough to get right. You don't want it to be a roll call of characters or pure exposition but you have to set the scene and get people interested enough to tune in next week. On the whole Mad Men did pretty well. It was certainly very clear about setting the scene. It was the early 1960's so everyone smoked. A lot. All the time. Even the doctor whilst he was examining young Peggy. The men were all 'men' (apart from Salvatore who you may have noticed was subtly homosexual). Which means misogynists. One great line: 'We need to show them what kind of men we are so that they know what kind of women to be.' And the women were all more interesting than the men. The femme fatale Joan Hollaway acting as a kind of guide to new girl Peggy, who showed in this one episode what she was prepared to do to succeed.

And then there was Don Draper. There is something perfect about that character's name. The best creative man at the agency and a man who despite having a beautiful wife and children at home finds solace in another woman's bed and lives 'like there's no tomorrow. Because there isn't'. In one scene we saw him looking at a war medal. That's what I call planting something to pique your interest. He promises to be an interesting man to follow.

Sure, it was a little over-written, some of the speeches too well crafted perhaps, but it's ten times better than anything else I've watched recently and I so want something to get hooked on. Like those damn Luckies. It's Toasted.


The Spotlight Project - Maureen Lipman

A series of portraits where I reunite actors with their first ever headshot.

Little did I know as I pulled up to Maureen Lipman's house that this shoot would end up being so traumatic. Not due to any thing she did; as with all the actors I photographed she was warm, welcoming and makes a fine cup of tea. No, it was the hardware that was to cause the stress. As I set up my stuff in her garden (at the bottom of which, as you can see below, she has a London postbox and old red telephone booth- perhaps a kickback from those BT ads) I had no idea that my camera was suffering a fault. I know everyone has gone digital these days but I'm a bit old fashioned in my use of film, chemicals and paper. What this means of course is that there's no way of checking as you go along that everything is working perfectly. To cut a long story short my lens only actually opened on about ten of the pictures I took, so I was greatly relieved that I got anything usable for the project.

Maureen pointed out that she thought she had one portrait earlier than this which I have since found so perhaps if we get the chance we could try again with my now fully functioning camera. Which also provides the perfect excuse for another cup of tea.
Click on any image to see a larger version.

Click here to see other portraits from The Spotlight Project.


Sunday, 2 March 2008

Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds - Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!

The last album from Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, 'The Lyre of Orpheus/Abbatoir Blues' was amazing. Given the space of a double album we got to hear their full range from the gospel choir backed Get Ready For Love to the tender Babe, You Turn Me On. I played it again and again, consistently amazed by the sheer energy captured. I used to think Nick Cave was a bit rubbish once upon a time. I'd only seen him a couple of times, once duetting with Kylie Minogue, and to my ears he seemed to be having trouble hitting the notes. Talk about missing the point. Cave may not have the best voice in the world but, boy, does he know how to deliver a song. He also writes some of the best lyrics going, real storytelling through song, and a wicked sense of humour running through it all.

So now that the man himself has turned 50 what should we expect from the latest studio album? A maturing outlook, an album of reflection, a pipe and slippers? Of course not. This new album is a little harder in sound, influenced by last years Grinderman project. The title track gets things underway with a swagger and the risen Lazarus now in modern day New York and, by the end of the track, a dope fiend. As Cave shouts, 'He never asked to be raised up from the tomb'. Night Of The Lotus Eaters has an extraordinary bass line, reminiscent of the kind of backing Tricky used to great effect on his early albums building a sense of rhythmic unease. The same kind of repetitive beat is used on We Call Upon The Author, a lyrically adventurous rant about the very act of writing which uses one of The Bad Seeds great strengths the choral shout, the call to listeners which involves you in the music you're listening to.

It isn't all garage rock. Hold On To Yourself sounds much more like the gentle brilliance of The Lyre Of Orpheus and Jesus Of The Moon is quite beautiful, hiding an emotional 'punch in the heart' amongst its simple strings and flute. The range of playing, especially from the multi-talented Warren Ellis, is as exciting as that previous double album and what it lacks in depth it almost makes up for in brilliant lyrics and sheer sense of humour. Nick Cave has the kind of creative momentum and confidence going at the moment that bands a fraction of his age would kill for. Happy 50th!

Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds - Jesus Of The Moon


Saturday, 1 March 2008

the new Sopranos?

At the end of my piece on The Sopranos I asked what on earth I was supposed to watch next after having been spoiled so rotten by some of the best that TV can offer. Well from tomorrow we have Mad Men, another award winning drama from the States, created by Matthew Weiner who was writer and Executive Producer on the last 3 seasons of The Sopranos. Please be good. Please.


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