Saturday 26 April 2008

easy peasy

Oh yes. I have been trying to find this for ages. On one of those evenings when I was watching any old rubbish on the TV and they used to show weird short films I came across this French short called Argent Content (Easy Money). It's a chase sequence with a plot tagged on but, wow, what a chase sequence. I can't seem to get it to embed properly here so follow this link and enjoy.


Monday 21 April 2008

Jamie Lidell - Jim

Jamie Lidell - Another Day

Jamie Lidell's 2005 album Multiply showcased his extraordinary voice together with music which combined old school soul and funk with more modern dance sounds. It was a Gonzalez remix of the title track with its simple piano accompaniment which showed the real strength: the voice. Jamie Lidell is a white guy from England who lives in Berlin and sounds like a combination of Stevie Wonder, Prince and Otis Redding. Marvellous.

New album Jim plays to these strengths opening with piano on the glorious Another Day before full backing comes in. Wait For Me bounces along with fantastic backing vocals and the soulful sound continues complete with handclapping chorus on Out Of My System. All I Wanna Do is a gorgeous, heartfelt ballad, Lidell's voice placed layer upon layer to build the backing. It's all about the voice rather than fussy production this time around. Which isn't to say that the dance influence isn't there; first single Little Bit Of Feelgood is a funky floorfiller and Figured Me Out has some crazy keyboards which reminded me of Doctor Fink (who played with Prince). There are even guitars to lead in the stomping Hurricane before things get a disco tinge on Green Light. It's Jamie and piano again on Where D'You Go? before the album finishes with the beautiful Rope of Sand, another stunning ballad with simple orchestration.

That's a very brief rundown. The production really focuses in on the voice and it's the kind of scrutiny that many singers would crumble under but on this personally titled album 'Jim' is revelling in his gift. The only way to know for sure how good he is, is to buy the album and enjoy.


Saturday 19 April 2008

dEUS - Vantage Point

dEUS - When She Comes Down

Belgian rock bands. How many can you name? Any? Alright, I'll give you dEUS for free if you haven't heard of them already. Back in the days of Britpop you could have been excused for thinking we were the only country making music worth listening to; but you'd have been wrong. Along with Trappist ales and steel Belgium were exporting some excellent music in the form of dEUS whose 1999 album The Ideal Crash I still play regularly. The follow-up Pocket Revolution was quietly released in 2005 and was a bit of a disappointment if I'm honest. Does new album Vantage Point see a return to form?

Things get off to a good start with When She Comes Down, filled with the kind of grandeur you might expect, keyboards coming in to augment the instrumentation. Oh Your God comes at you much harder; reverbed guitars, punchy drums and hand claps and spoken vocals which soar into a big chorus. Eternal Woman is a beautiful ballad, with dreamy female backing vocals from Lies Lorquet of fellow Belgian band Mintzkov, which reminds me of some of their earlier work. Things darken again with Favourite Game's grungy sounding sinister guitars and chanted chorus. Slow starts well, featuring guest vocals from The Knife's Karin Dreijer Andersson, before descending into prog rock territory and a rather robotic sounding chorus and the album's other big track, The Architect, takes Buckminster Fuller, who developed the geodesic dome (think The Eden Project) amongst other things, as it's unlikely protagonist but it's multi voiced chorus makes them sound worryingly like a boy-band. Is A Robot has some of the extended instrumentals that made The Ideal Crash such a great album. That album also benefited from its quieter, thoughtful moments and Smokers Reflect is another great example of what dEUS do well. Guy Garvey from Elbow lends his vocals to The Vanishing of Maria Schneid another powerful track. Closer Popular Culture has a similar grandeur to the albums beginning, a singalong chorus featuring what sounds like a children's choir but featuring some of the worst scanning lyrics I've ever heard.

All in all it's a mixed bag. dEUS have always been a genre bending band and how much you like this album may depend on which dEUS you prefer. Personally I could have done with more of the beauty and less of the bombast, but after several changes of line-up it's gratifying to see the band filled with confidence again.


Wednesday 16 April 2008

Clinic - Do It!

Clinic - Emotions

When I went to see Radiohead many moons ago in Victoria Park they were supported by Clinic who had recently released their debut album. I wasn't quite sure what to make of them that day, there was something rather comical about the way lead singer Ade Blackburn kept playing his melodica (one of those hand-held keyboards that you blow into). It was a bit like watching a band fronted by an angry 8 year old. The follow up album Walking With Thee showed the band had a haunting, quieter side to their 60's/70's influenced psychedelic indie rock. There have been a further two albums since then which have passed me by (and judging by some reviews I haven't missed much) but I have been listening to their latest for the last few days and there's lots to enjoy.

Clinic aren't a band who appear to want to break the mould. Many tracks on this album have a familiar sound to debut Internal Wrangler. The melodica is back on Tomorrow and the minor chords on High Coin, but there is a renewed vigour to proceedings and occasional glimpses of a new direction or two. There's a stomping beginning with Memories. An organ soften things as Blackburn sings 'Memories are your pieces of gold' and the percussion rattles like a snake behind him. The bouncy pace continues on The Witch (Made To Measure). First single Free Not Free sounds like a slow dance number complete with flute and ooo-wee-ooo backing vocals which are interrupted by a sinister guitar riff just in case you thought they were going all soft on you. It's a trick they pull again on Emotions. Things go a bit bonkers on Shopping Bag; thrashed guitars and the return of the angry 8 year old, this time on what sounds like a toy saxophone. There's no doubting the energy. Corpus Christi creates a sinister atmosphere with its whispered refrain until that saxophone appears again. Mary and Eddie begins like a proper folk song until it's bizarrely interrupted by a massive foghorn. I'm not quite sure how that song might play live but I'm loving the idea of the angry 8 year old striking again with such a powerful instrument.

In the fanfare like Coda at the end we are told that this album is a celebration of the 600 year old anniversary of the Bristol Charter. I've tried to find out what that might be about but no luck so far. What this album does celebrate though is a band reinvigorated. In the same year that Liverpool is European City of Culture one of its bands is showing not only the importance of its musical heritage but the hope for its musical future.


Tuesday 15 April 2008

it's the end of the world as we know it

Gods Behaving Badly
by Marie Phillips

With Dawkins, Hitchens and Gray et al getting stuck into religion of late it's thankful that fiction writers have the opportunity to lighten the tone somewhat. Remember those Greek Gods for example, whatever happened to them? In Marie Phillips comic debut novel they're alive and well. Well, not so well actually; and not so much alive as immortal, but certainly living in London and struggling to find a place in a world that doesn't believe in them anymore.

Apollo is a TV mystic, Aphrodite a telephone sex worker and Artemis a professional dog-walker (hunting and chastity having taken a bit of pummeling in the 21st century). The family now live in a dilapidated house in north London and the simple fact of the matter is that their once great powers are waning. Apollo's insatiable appetites will set in motion a series of events that will put the very future of life on earth at risk as he causes conflict amongst his fellow deities. As Aphrodite says 'All gods do revenge' and just as in the past it is us humans who are left counting the cost as collateral damage whilst the gods spar. Mild mannered Neil and the object of his affection Alice, a cleaner hired by Artemis, will become a modern day Orpheus and Eurydice, journeying to the underworld (via Angel tube station) and back again in their efforts to be together and save the world into the bargain.

Phillips has a lot of fun placing the classics in a modern world. Some work better than others and this is a fairly light comedy rather than a biting satire of modern life. Ben Stiller's production company have reportedly snapped up the rights for a TV adaptation. It's been quite a journey for Phillips herself who was working in a bookshop not so long ago but is now travelling the world promoting this novel. One might almost suspect divine intervention.

Marie Phillips also writes a very entertaining blog where she writes about all sorts, but mainly how much she fancies David Tennant.


Monday 14 April 2008

trial by seperation

Preston Falls
by David Gates

After the fall and fall of the eponymous Jernigan in David Gates' debut novel we have another anti-hero in Willis, or Doug Willis to give him his full name (although nobody else does). A copy-writer for a drinks firm in New York he takes a two month leave of absence in order to halt the approach of his mid-life crisis and get some space away from the pressures of his family. A farmhouse ('in need of some work' as the say) in the rural backwater of Preston Falls provides the perfect opportunity for some manual labour and the peace and quiet required to immerse himself in Dickens and meditative nights under the stars.

But this is a novel by David Gates so I have already learnt that things aren't going to go that smoothly. The family significantly set off for the long drive in seperate cars, Willis alone in his beaten up old truck ('his fuck-you to the Volvos in the commuter lot at Chesterton station') after his attempt at a male bonding ride with son Roger is prevented by his simple response, 'I don't want to'. It's Labour Day weekend, the traffic is terrible, and they finally arrive at one in the morning. The next day's attempt at a simple family barbecue with Willis' brother Champ and girlfiend Tina ends with Willis cooking under shelter as rain pours and thunder claps. This long weekend is still to get a whole lot longer. Gates' dialogue is superb, each characters voice brilliantly delineated and the subtle warfare of mid-life point scoring well realised. Constantly tense exchanges between him and his wife Jean lead her to take the kids away to the lake. Willis realises this isn't the way to leave things before his sabbatical so he heads down to join them. But a spiky word or two with the man on the gate eventually leads to Willis being arrested, in front of his family, and carted away to the cells.

The rest of Willis' break sees him getting deeper and deeper into the mire. Drink and drugs, guitars, disasterous attempts at home improvement, drug running, guns and more run-ins with the police will all follow as Willis' attempt to put himself back together comes apart at the seams. Gates skill is to make some of these outlandish sounding escapades seem mundane and almost inevitable. Willis' refusal to compromise his atagonistic nature is his undoing. He carries some of the tropes of a mid-life crisis; a collection of guitars and a wish to jam, a roving eye, but most importantly an adolescent nature which puts the grunts and sighs of his own son into the shade. If there's a problem it's that it's difficult to feel much sympathy for someone who behaves like a petulant solipsist. He lacks the humour or compassion that might make us get behind him. His childish complaint later of, 'How can this be happening to someone so well read?' speaks volumes. When the focus shifts to his wife and kids back home you might expect our sympathy to find a place to rest but she's not all that likeable either.

Gates has skillfully written about another man's decline but Willis lacks the pyrotechnics that made Jernigan such a compelling character.


Monday 7 April 2008

Snowbound by Ciaran McConville - Trafalgar Studios 2

Ok, first of all the disclaimer: This play was directed by my wife. But what follows is a genuine review of the production; we try to be very honest with each other you see.

Tom and Alex are two brothers. Alex is a bit special, or 'mental' as his brother puts it. Aspergers Syndrome makes it difficult for him to connect with other people, so whilst their sister makes a life for herself at Oxford it is Tom who cares for his brother. The gift of a camcorder from family friend and GP Gerry helps Alex to make those connections, acting like a filter as he interviews people about love. Meanwhile Tom has his own experience of love when he meets Mary, who offers him the opportunity to make that break and do something with his life. Running alongside this we see how Gerry's attachment to this surrogate family impacts on his own marriage to Janet. 'Am I collateral damage?' she asks during one of their many barbed exchanges.

To write a play which asks 'What is love?' seems a hefty undertaking, one which you couldn't possibly fulfill satisfactorily. The play spans 10 years which makes for some slightly confusing jumps in time, often clumsily signposted, but the actors show skillfully the subtle changes in their development. Karl Davies in his sensitive portrayal of Alex shows the slow growth in confidence that comes with his film making and in fact it will be he who helps his brother later in the play. Sarah Beck Mather as the sister who exploits his condition to further her own career is brave in her unsympathetic portrayal of naked ambition. Sam Hazeldine as Tom is beautifully understated. He's so used to being a carer that when he meets Katherine Manners' inspired Mary it is years before he can fully allow himself to be loved back. In one scene which hits you right in the gut, doing nothing more than laying a table for a dinner party, he shows how he has been utterly altered by the plays events. In fact the cast is uniformly strong, I only wished to see Mary's mother Clara, who got the two biggest laughs of the night, developed further than the two scenes she is allowed and as convincing as Gerry and Janet's crumbling marriage is, it never feels more than a sub-plot.

Samantha Potter's moving production moves swiftly from scene to scene, and the second half builds with such relentless emotional force that as the lights came up at the end there was some frantic wiping of eyes. I haven't seen anything like it since I went to Blood Brothers and it is a credit to the production that they were able to reduce the famously composed British audience to tears. Kerry Bradley's design transforms the small space of Studio 2, white covers are draped over the seats like dustsheets or even snowfall and the entire back wall is covered with framed family photos, memories of love past. As we entered the auditorium and during some scene changes snippets of Alex's film are projected onto this wall. This is an inspired addition, people candidly confessing their thoughts, such as a love for Richard Branson or chocolate whilst others with their silence or rumination show how difficult it really is to say what love is.

And if you don't believe me, The Independent made Snowbound one of its top 5 plays last week.

Snowbound runs until April 19th at Trafalgar Studios 2. Click here for the website or call the Box Office on 0870 060 6632


Sunday 6 April 2008

sometimes it snows in April

When you wake up and see a sight like this in April ...

...there's only one song for it.

Prince and The Revolution - Sometimes It Snows In April


Friday 4 April 2008

everything is connected

Sputnik Caledonia
by Andrew Crumey

When I was a kid I wanted to go into space, there was only one type of Lego I wanted (the mostly grey kind), and above all else I wanted an X-wing fighter from Star Wars. So I can totally relate to Robbie Coyle, a 12 year old boy growing up in 1970's Scotland, who has a similar yearning for the cosmos in Andrew Crumey's latest novel. The cupboard under the sink is his space capsule and the radiogram in his room is his

'mission control centre, its every city a planet, and simply by pressing one of the waveband buttons he could transport himself across the galaxy at the speed of light.'

This vivid imagination causes Robbie to go on wild flights of fancy whilst the real world carries on around him. It is a charming portrait of boyhood coupling his childish fantasies with the genuine learning from library books on relativity and the constant lessons from his didactic father. Mr Coyle's instruction is steeped in his Socialism, even Aristotle gets it in the neck for believing everything in the world has its place, 'that's rubbish...We're all equal, Robbie; you and me, we're as good as anybody'. Needless to say he longs for the revolution.

And in a way he gets it. The second part of the book is set in an alternative British Democratic Republic. Allied with Russia after the war Britain developed its nuclear deterrent at The Installation, a military compound and community which has a dystopian feel you might expect from J G Ballard. Here, Robbie Coyle has become Robert Coyle, a 19 year old soldier who has volunteered for a mission. Dr Kaupff, father of the Bomb, who has an unorthodox approach combining science with literature, is heading a mission to a 'frozen star' or black hole which is heading towards Earth. This middle section is filled with politics, paranoia, sex and power. Coyle is a guinea pig in a game he doesn't understand as he is told by Kaupff's sexualised assistant,

'You're dead already. As soon as you passed the perimeter fence, as soon as you entered the Installation, that's when your life ended. Because this place is hell, and you're never getting out of it.'

It is Kaupff who expresses the books central theme.

'Everything in the universe both determines and is determined by everything else. Everything is connected. To understand the part we must perceive the whole.'

For there is a third part to this novel. We are back in the more recognisable Kenzie of the first section but 25 years later. Mr Coyle's main obsession now is the price he has to pay for the parsley he makes into a drink each day (you'll have to read it for that to make any more sense). But he is also a man deeply affected by the death of his son Robbie aged 19. I won't go into any more detail but suffice to say that Crumey brilliantly links the three sections; character names are repeated, themes are continued and echoes of speech can be picked up through the static. If you're looking for resolution you may be disappointed and despite the heavy sounding themes of relativity, quantum gravity, multiple universes and psychic space travel this isn't quite the brain burning workout I expected. In fact the books strengths actually lie in the far more down to earth realms of childhood exuberance and the touching decline of a man who misses his son.


Thursday 3 April 2008

DeVotchKa - A Mad And Faithful Telling

DeVotchKa - Transliterator

DeVotchKa for anyone who's read A Clockwork Orange means 'little girl' in Nadsat, Burgess' slang language. The Eastern roots of this word are fitting for this four piece band who, whilst playing music with Romani, Slavic and Mariachi influences, actually hail from Denver. They originally worked as a backing band for burlesque shows apparently, working with Dita Von Teese. Recently they have received a little boost after providing much of the soundtrack to last years indie hit Little Miss Sunshine, as well as riding on the recent wave of enthusiasm for groups like Gogol Bordello.

Their new album has plenty of Gogol Bordello's energy but also something a little deeper. On several tracks lead singer Nick Urata shows a much softer and more involving side which provides something beyond the kitsch appeal of gypsy-punk. On tracks like Along The Way and Undone I was reminded of Radiohead's Thom Yorke, a comparison to which he doesn't match up obviously, his voice a little strained, but there's no doubting the sincerity. Elsewhere there is vibrant playing of instruments like the bouzouki and sousaphone as well as the trumpet and violin by the other band members which really bring tracks like Basso Profundo and Comrade Z to life. In fact the album is musically really interesting, blending the eclectic influences rather than wearing them as badges of recognition and, with tracks like Transliterator and New World, at times hitting the same eclectic heights of Arcade Fire.


Tuesday 1 April 2008

Top Gunski

by Jed Mercurio

After penning TV medical drama Cardiac Arrest and hospital based book Bodies (afterwards made into a TV series) who could have guessed that Mercurio's next bit of fiction would be a thrilling depiction of Ace fighter pilots and an alternative version of the space race? Not me, that's for sure.

The story of Yefgenii Yeremin begins at the end of the Great Patriotic War. His entire family dead, he is sent to an orphanage where he endures brutal treatment at the hands of one particular boy. But from this inauspicious start he begins his ascent. During the Korean War, as part of the Soviet Union's secret force, he becomes an ace pilot. It is here that Mercurio's descriptions of dogfights and air battles really bring this novel to life. As he pushes his MiG to the limit you can almost feel the G-forces pressing down on you, the smell of sweat in the cockpit and that alienated thrill as another American jet trails black smoke and plunges to the earth.

'The aircraft fitted him and he fitted it. The picture outside the cockpit represented a universe in its most comfortable and understandable aspect: a patchwork land below, a sky above, and in between a sport of death and survival for men to play.'

But due to the hidden nature of the Soviet involvement 'Ivan the Terrible' receives glory only whilst the war continues and only amongst his colleagues (and that begrudgingly due to the competitive nature of ace pilots). At its end he is shipped off to Franz Josef Land, a freezing exile from which he will be saved when the man from the Space Committee comes calling. As he joins the race to put men first in orbit and then to the moon itself we feel the real pressures of pulling off so difficult a challenge. Mercurio conveys this even more effectively by making Yeremin by this stage a man past his absolute prime. His body is wracked by pains from his past and with weight limits playing such an important part in crew selection we see him training with the dedication of a sportsman and rejecting food itself in an effort to bring his weight down to an acceptable limit. With the Russians falling ever further behind as the Apollo missions progress how far will the programme and Yeremin be prepared to go?

I read this novel with the kind of zeal you only feel as a child. There is something a bit boys own about it all which may mean that the novel has limited appeal to women, especially as the solitary female character is underdeveloped and only ever referred to as 'the widow'. But for sheer thrills and page turning excitement it can't be beaten. Imagine a combination of Top Gun, The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 and you'll have a fair idea. Yeremin is an interesting hero, damaged like the country itself at the outset, his desire to rise through the ranks and achieve glory in the name of his country, even one that treats him as a mere subject, means that we empathise with a man who can seem distanced and cold when it comes to personal relationships. His physical flaws mean that there is no sense of inevitability to his successes which keeps us always involved. The final sections of the book are incredibly focused; it's just you and him and his predicament. If you're a nail-biter don't expect to have any left by the final page. Mercurio includes just the right amount of technical info without it becoming boring but it's his ability to convey the excitement of being airborne, the impossibility of men conquering that realm to which we don't belong, which really makes this book soar.


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