Saturday, 27 November 2010

CINE-CITY 1: THE AMERICAN/ RARE EXPORTS - A CHRISTMAS TALE

The first of a series of posts on this year's Cine-City Festival


THE AMERICAN
Dir. Aton Corbijn, USA

This film is named after the lead character. If that’s actually a name. He’s a mystery wrapped in an enigma played by George Clooney. George, you see, is an American. Only not in America. Which is deep. Or that sort of thing, anyway.

Who knows who he is or what he does? Even he seems to have forgotten. So he travels from Sweden to Italy. Maybe he’s hoping to bump into himself so he can tell him. Instead he meets a priest. We wonder if the priest is a plotline. It feels like we could do with one by now. But instead, the priest is Significant.

George hires a prostitute to fall in love with him. She does, but she brings her gun. Which is a plotline. Oh wait... no, it isn’t. She gets her kit off. Only... you know... artistically. Then Sweden catches up with him even though he is in Italy. From that point the film carries on just the way it always has...

Overall, there is murder, intrigue and rumination on what it means to be George Clooney in Italy with very little dialogue. Sometimes there is symbolism. (Is that deep? Probably.) Mostly, though, there is landscape porn. Poor people turn out to make a charming backdrop.

Things end badly. Which is deep. But kind of inevitable, seeing as things have been going badly all the way through.


RARE EXPORTS: A CHRISTMAS TALE
Dir. Jalmari Helander, Finland

Sheer gormlessness on my part led to me missing the beginning of this, so I can’t offer a proper review. But... a black Finnish horror comedy where the Devil is awoken from the deeps. Except the Devil is actually Santa.

I mean, what’s not to like?

Thursday, 25 November 2010

WORDS THAT GIVE CHEER



"After two chaotic student protests in the space of a fortnight, the question police will be asking is: who are the new rebel leaders? The unfortunate answer for them is that there are none."
The Guardian today

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

DOCTOR WHO ANNIVERSARY



It was forty-seven years ago today...

(Of course 'Doctor Who' hasn't been broadcast continually since 23rd November 1963, and there's been whole periods when it's been on the air when we've collectively wished it wasn't! But when it's been good it's been very, very good... so may the good Doctor have many more faces!)

Sunday, 21 November 2010

FURTHER GIG-GOING ADVENTURES: !!!/ SUN ARAW


!!!
Concorde 2, Brighton, 3rd November

We could start by calling !!! (aka Chk Chk Chk) punk-funk, except they’re not entirely enamoured of the term. “It’s always a bit upsetting when you set out to do something original and someone can just put a simple label on it,” Nic Offer laments. Perhaps the frontman protests too much. You can, after all, belong to a genre without being generic. And yet, slapping down the term as if it explains everything, as if it’s a formula not a tag, can conceal the spectrum going on within.

“Any two-dimensional tags and comparisons with bands like A Certain Ratio were poorly misjudged,” claims Ian Roullier in the same interview. Ironically, I saw A Certain Ratio in the self-same venue less than a year ago, and can’t see comparisons to them as damning. There were certainly similarities between the bands, even down to their line-up. (Both had a black woman providing backing vocals, something about which does strike me as slightly creepy. Like they’re saying, “look, an honest-to-God black person, with their sense of rhythm and everything!”)

But it’s true that there’s also important differences. There’s something essentially British about A Certain Ratio, wrapping funky rhythms with their post-punk cool like a baked Alaska. !!! are definitely hot! And despite so many American bands who drank deeply from Gang Of Four (everyone from the Chilli Peppers to Fugazi), that influence doesn’t really fit !!! either. (A cocktail of punk and funk, in roughly equal measures.) The guitar often echoes the clicky licks of Talking Heads and, while the comparison’s far from exact, the expanded Heads of Stop Making Sense might make a better comparison. They sound too darn funky for other analogies to fit. They’re like punks playing funk, infecting the music with punk energy. (Some punks persist in thinking theirs is the only music with urgency and vitality. That ain't necessarily so! It just happens that here it is...)

The venue seemed oddly half-full, especially given the well-received show they gave only a few years ago. This didn’t dampen the band’s ardour, but perhaps led to a little overcompensation. Offer perhaps pulled the trick of vaulting down into the audience once too often, as if trying to convince us we were at a smaller and more intimate venue than we were.

Last time he seemed something of a tranced-out Jim Morrison figure, looking at something beyond the room. (He passed out at the show’s end, and a sheepish colleague had to come back out to explain there wouldn’t be an encore.) This time he was more an entertainer, parlaying with the audience, coining silly dances.

It was a good enough gig. But I guess I liked the Jim Morrison figure better.



SUN ARAW
Hector’s House, Brighton,18th November


Sun Araw is Cameron Stallones when working solo from Southern Californian psychedelic trancers Magic Lantern. Nope, I’d never heard of any of this either, but something attracted me to the flier given out at the recent Melt-Banana gig, enough for me to check them out on-line.

A sound-bite description might be ‘dubby electronica meets surf guitar, with a hefty side-order of psychedelia’. But let’s go for something a little more poetic... Imagine the echoes of some long-gone beach party, the bongos and guitars caught on the breeze, drifting in and out with the waves - but passing through time instead of space, and never quite fading out. The travelling has distorted them, mixed them with an undercurrent of everything that’s happened subsequently.

What’s attractive is the way the music builds on the residue of the past to do something new, without being mere postmodern pastiche. Surf’s not being referenced from inside some ‘ironic’ quotation marks, like a hipster sampling something he found in a yard sale, a curiousity he’s actually disconnected to. Instead it’s assumed to still be bleeding into the present. The result is an elegy for a world half-forgotten... or perhaps entirely forgotten, and we’re now just wrapping a cargo cult around its echoes. The present is often seen as a barrier to tapping into past music, something to unlearn in a fool’s quest for authenticty. Here the interplay is the focus.

The palindromic name suggests this two-way perspective between past and present. Forwards it sounds like a sun greeting, chanted in some Tahitian dialect. Yet backwards... well, just try it backwards.

I did, however, wonder how such music might come over live.

I’m still kind of wondering.

A small and irregularly used venue, Hector’s rather rudimentary sound system did present problems for the sonic spread. Stallones abruptly stopped the first attempt at a track, pronouncing it “not cool”. And, middle-aged as I now am, I did at times find his hipster-slacker persona grating. (Though I warmed to his description of going down to the sea before his set, as if drawing on its power.) Nevertheless it was enthralling to watch the layers built up before your eyes - each element almost ludicrously simple, but combining into a rich mosaic. And those dubby lines can’t help but stir an audience to movement...

A film archivist by day, Stallones is influenced by visual art. While I’m not too taken by the VR gadgetry which seems to accompany most of the vids on YouTube, perhaps such evocative music would be enhanced by looped videos. (I’m guessing this lo-fi act couldn’t easily take such a thing on the road, but it would be a sight to see...)

Though the winter setting for this video is almost audaciously wrong, it does convey the free-floating quality of the music with admirable simplicity. (As well as remind me of the classic Pere Ubu description of “dub housing”.) It also accentuates Stallones’ comparison here of his music to long-take, deep-field filming.




I’m slightly hesitant about posting this gig snapshot, as the sound quality was better than reproduced here. But it does show the layers in creation, and maybe give a sense of verite...


Saturday, 20 November 2010

YARBLES! A CHILDREN'S TREASURY OF MARK E SMITH VERSE


I'm not quite sure what it is that makes this site so compelling, taking lyrics the inimitable Mark E Smith wrote for the Fall and combining them with quaint old children's book illustrations. Smith's lyrics are often beguiling, screeds which hint at a sense that is just at this moment beyond you. Similarly, this combination isn't really the intentional juxtaposition so familiar (and tiresome) a feature of collage... the two things really belong together somehow! Just like his lyrics, I keep coming back to it...

(Not sure whether the site's generated a lot of traffic or just has a low bandwidth, but it was down earlier today. If you find you can't open it, it is worth persevering...)

Sunday, 14 November 2010

SWANS (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES CONTINUED)


(Brighton Concorde, Oct. 27th)


Since abandoning my original punkish intransigence against seeing reformed bands, my life has become much more complicated. When you stick to the defiant but simplistic notion that all reunions suck, you’re not likely to be disappointed. After all, if the gig did turn out to be great, you weren’t there to know what you were missing. This way, you need to intuit who’s re-raising the mantle and who’s simply cashing in.

In some ways it’s not so bad if you never saw the band back in the day, as you’re taking up your one chance to take them in. But I did see Swans (in or around ’87) and have a blistering memory of being part-entranced and part quite genuinely scared. Frontman Gira seemed fully psychotic, in a trance fury, playing out frenzied rituals as if he was only just about managing to rein his demon-unleashing into the medium of music. He radiated the weird energy of someone you’d instinctively avoid on the street. I can vividly remember punters staking out the back of the hall, where things felt a little safer.

In those early days, they epitomised more than any other band the negativity of the New York Noise scene. They weren’t dystopian in some broad socio-political sense, so much as aggressively nihilistic. Inside and against a genre dedicated to Saturday night release, to letting it all out, they’d pound at their sound with single-minded intensity - like all the sentimentality had to be scorched away, until we were left looking at the bare structures of power and domination which underpinned society.

Listening to their relentlessly crashing chords, at levels of volume so excessive that shows were often stopped, was like being clubbed by sound. Their very relationship to their audience felt almost as abusive as the ones they took for their subject matter.

Their stripped-down sound was almost literally one-note, which proved to be first a boon but soon an albatross. You go to extreme places to explore them, but fools rush in to build hotels there, rather than find their own routes. Pretty soon, there was a slew of bands in their wake, like a horror movie spawning a hyper-inflation of ever-more-excessive sequels. Nihilism had become the next hipster fad, ‘transgressive’ the most tedious word in music and the result was shock fatigue. (It’s notable that the majority of decent No Wave bands were exceptionally short-lived.)

Swans, however, sidestepped these diminishing returns by broadening their sound from the earlier barrage of brutality. Rhythms remained edgy and angular, but became more unsettling than all-aout assault. Gira’s voice became as much intonatory as declamatory. Jarboe joined as the Brix Smith of the band, whose tremulous voice steered them to more melodic waters. However, unlike many industrial acts (who they in some ways felt akin to), they never actually abandoned that underlying sense of brutality so much as set it in a more ceremonial context. They still sounded like getting clubbed, only this time it was like it was happening inside a cathedral.

Indeed, to follow this narrative, you might well have to have heard the sheer darkness of the early years, just to spot the cracks of light they allowed to pass through their black-bellied clouds. Gira would now hint in his lyrics at some kind of redemption. As Cracked Machine put it: “in the early days...Gira's intention was to create a music so loud and overpowering that it would destroy his body. The final Swans incarnation were every bit as powerful but transcendence of the body was the goal, a far loftier and more difficult aim than mere destruction.”

However, it often seemed that the price of embracing the all was the need to extinguish the self. (I’ve used the picture of Gira above because of its shifting Francis Bacon quality, as if it’s a figure trying to shake off its own form.)

Following dissolution in ’97, this reformation comes shorn of Jarboe. This set consequently cuts out the whole middle of their career. It’s the early battering-ram songs which reappear - but entirely reworked, their once-spartan nature fleshed out. Rather than running some nostalgia revue for nihilists, this is an outfit that can’t get old even when they’re being old! (Gira has often commented that “when we do old songs...they’ll be completely reinvented in ways that have very little to do with the originals.”) While I’m yet to hear the current album, I’ve read reviews which have suggested the new songs are already being reworked – a cool development if true!

I must here confess to not being as familiar as I might with Swans’ end-days, or Gira’s later and more song-based outfit Angels of Light, so apologies if this supposition is off-beam. But more recognisable songs (perhaps more akin to Angels of Light) were often nested inside the vast (and more Swans-like) soundscapes, described by Gira as “huge vistas of music.” Where once blow was laid upon blow, now there is truly very little telling what is coming next. Gira directs the band through these changes with firm and decisive gestures, more gangmaster than conductor.

They open with a lengthy drone and tubular bells pattern, held until you’re heavily trancing off, whereupon they kick in with a sonic assault. Partly this dispels the overworn “hello Wembly” gig-opening for something more ceremonial, but there’s more to it. It marks out a measuredness to the fury which makes it all the more compelling. They’re not like red hot anger, striking out blindly and knocking things over, but white hot anger – glowing with menace, iridescent but calculating.

It was also interesting to compare Gira’s stage personality across the two occasions. While I’m still fairly certain I wouldn’t pick a fight with him, this time around he’d thank the audience and occasionally crack a smile. He even cheerily signed CDs and chatted to punters after the show! It may be that, having parted company with major labels rather acrimoniously and now self-releasing, he has a quite compelling need to press the flesh a little more. Or perhaps he’s just reached an age where he doesn’t feel the need to be ‘in character’ all the time. But I’d like to imagine all those years of releasing demons have worked out for him somehow...

As John Hillcoat predicted, this year has been a little thin for decent films. Be thankful, then, that there’s been so many stellar gigs! I have more to attend, but it’s doubtful that anything coming up will rival The Ex, Brian Eno, Wolf Eyes or this dose of the reinvigorated Swans.

Compare and contrast! First, the band back in the days of nihilism-served-neat...


...and then... a slice of that opening number(not from Brighton but the same tour)...

Monday, 8 November 2010

BOOKMARK THIS, COMIC FANS! THE RETURN OF SWEET 'FA'!


Middle-aged comic fans –rejoice! Youngsters – catch up on what you’ve been missing! For the late, lamented ’FA’ comics zine has now undergone an online rebirth! (Check out http://comiczine-fa.com.)

Though the zine pre-existed the editorship of Martin Skidmore (then labouring under the lame appendage ‘Fantasy Advertiser’), it was during his ’84-’89 tenure that things took off! Martin extended the zine’s range from superhero and fantasy comics to as many forms as the pagecount could carry, upped the quality of writing and increased the circulation in one fell swoop. (His only significant error was to publish my youthful rantings. Fortunately, these were written under a long-dropped pseudonym so I can now deny all knowledge!) Back then, ’FA ‘ truly was my guidebook! I literally couldn’t list all the creators I discovered purely because ’FA ‘ told me that I needed to...

My only counter to this cheering would be to note that these are different times. Believe it or not, but back then debate raged over whether comics were an artform at all! (Which, as we always argued, was like asking whether apples were fruits or not.) Meanwhile, though associatedly, critical writing over comics (instead of mere fannish exultations) was rare.

Yet contributor Peter Campbell opens his first piece to remark on “the journey over the last twenty years where the perception of comics has changed from the point where they were routinely made the objects of denigration ... to their current status where they have infiltrated the mainstream, are regularly reviewed in the broadsheets, and no book shop can be without its graphic novel section.”

But victory can bring yet more battles. It was so much easier to shine in those duller days. Whether FA can still set the bar remains to be seen, but I for one will be keen to find out! Favourites of mine already up include Andrew Littlefield on a recent Schultz biography and the aforementioned Peter Campbell piece on ’Raw’.

Disclaimer! I may, if time allows and Martin’s standards are slack enough, write again myself for ’FA’ at some point or other. (So you can call this whole screed advertorial if you choose...)

More reminiscences by me on the FA days of yore here...

Friday, 5 November 2010

“I CALLED THIS NUMBER THREE TIMES ALREADY TODAY”: FURTHER EVIDENCE OF THE GODLIKE GENIUS OF JONATHAN RICHMAN DISCOVERED


”Look, just tell me why don't ya...
...if I'm out of place."

Ironically, it wasn’t the underwhelming experience of seeing Jonathan Richman live but the YouTube clip Mike Taylor posted to my Comments, that had me listening to his music all over again.
While Richman may be best known for songs of childlike exuberance, the early Modern Lovers sang as ably about teenage awkwardness – not ramped up or shot through with wish-fulfillment, but that state of bedroom incomprehension at the world nailed straight. The love songs are all wanna-be love songs, chronicles of hopeless crushes, the girlfriend in ’Girlfriend’ about as accessible as the Cezannes in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

This song, ’I’m Straight’, perfectly captures that pained befuddlement over seeing girls going for somebody else - oblivious to the fact that I’m such a nice guy. The music perfectly matches the words, vulnerable, hesitant, fractured yet repetitive, and at exactly the same time compellingly catchy. Almost every note sounds out of place, which is why it all ultimately fits together so well.

Despite the “three times already” opening you know this is only a phone conversation in his own mind, ”I've watched you walk around here” leaving you wondering whether he’s ever spoken to the girl he’s singing about. “Now look, I like him too” is so absurdly moderate a line as to be hilarious, but also absolutely accurate. And the way it builds into a chorus (“tell the world now”) while losing not one whit of its outsiderness... genuis!!!

The custom-made video’s pretty fitting too, with the period setting, the insistent looping of the petty scenes echoing the repetition of the lyrics. (The poster comments “I wanted to put this song up as my facebook status.”)

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

JONATHAN RICHMAN (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES STRIKE BACK!)


Brighton Coalition, 7th Oct


The recent Subway Sect review flirted with the notion that maybe punk wasn’t a plot-driven narrative but more of a character piece. Gigs are performed and records released, but only to give those characters a place to hang out - like theatre sets being built just so the actors can stand in front of them.

Jonathan Richman might have been a handy figure to carry that argument on, if he hadn’t spent most of his time trying to slip even that super-loose definition of punk. He started out with the classic Velvets-drenched punk outfit the Modern Lovers, but even then had figured the most punk thing to do was the most un-punk and was soon singing songs about loving his parents.

His parents won over the power chords, and pretty soon he’d split the band for softer musical climes. The explanation given at the time was rejection of volume. (He was concerned about making music which might “hurt the ears of tiny babies”.) But I wonder if it was as much against regimentation. Typically, freewheeelin’ and tale-spinnin’ delta blues singers electrified and formed bands, then found they had to conform to song structures. Richman did the reverse, first turning and then stripping his band down.

Tonight he’s accompanied only by his own acoustic guitar and an impassive drummer, playing so minimally that at times it’s little more than a click track. Songs, accompanied anecdotes and audience chat shift and blend into one another. In short, the stage is stark and we’re left with little more than the man’s character.

It would be hard not to warm to Richman’s charm. He wears a permanent expression of dewy-eyed wonder, like a father who’s just seen his first-born child. And of course it takes skill and effort to sound this simple and naive. In yet another homespun tale, he recounts nights in with his wife in salacious detail: “She likes to read out loud... and I like to listen!”

We like to think that artists should be given carte blanche, that they’re the best arbiters of what they should be doing. We don’t like to read of albums being tampered with or musical directions quoshed by change-resistant record execs. But, like all romantic notions, it’s not actually as right as we’d like it to be. Nick Drake never wanted string accompaniments on his albums. Joy Division initially disliked Martin Hannett’s production, which was nevertheless imposed upon them. Being given your head can be a poisoned chalice.

Similarly, Richman has found what he most wants to do, like settling down in an easy chair and not feeling minded to get up again. Yet is it what we most want to listen to? Songs about loving your parents, served up with punk energy, have a creative friction to them, an arresting quality, an enticing edge. Songs about staying in with your wife, delivered as languidly as if that’s what you’re doing right now, can be as warm and comforting as Horlicks. It slips down easily, but it leaves little of an aftertaste. After the volume and the band, perhaps the next thing to go for Richman is the audience. Perhaps we should quietly slide shut his porch door, tiptoe out and leave him be...

Some classic Richman from back in the day...