Monday 26 May 2014


All Saints Church, Hove, Thurs 15th May

As the record shows, we the undersigned were much taken with Will Gregory's co-authored live score to the classic movie 'The Passion of Joan of Arc', three Festivals back. And now here he is again, in a performance which promised eight Moog synthesisters a-beeping, “to create new sounds and reinvent old ones”.

Let's take those two declarations in reverse order.

They started the first half with a synthesised rendition of Handel and an excerpt from 1968's 'Switched On Bach'. As the man said, meh. Synthesising the classical always feels to me like string quartets trying to approximate rock tracks, something trying to be something it's not. With a predictable neither/nor result. The appeal of classic instruments lies largely in their rich timbres. Synthesisers are neither well-equipt to emulate that, nor are they exploring things they can uniquely do themselves. This was made all the more galling by the salubrious Church setting, and the silent presence of huge yet unused organ pipes rising up above the folks hunched over tiny boxes.

Gregory seemed to take such criticisms head-on, insisting more than one they were “poor relations to real things”. Leading me to imagine they weren't doing what they were doing badly, it was just something in which I had little interest.

I suspect that, while my eyes sezied on the word “synth” in the Festival brochure, the key term to them was “Moog”. They seemed keen to explore the Moog's deficiencies over its possibilities, it's retro appeal. To them it was a piece of Seventies culture, like sideburns, bottles of Blue Nun or rickets. Gregory compared one model to a Ford Escort. Yet to me, it's tinny efforts aren't really 'off' enough to be humorous or strange.

And if acoustic instruments are like sailboats, there to take you to foreign shores, synths are like space rockets, able to reach much more distant destinations – new worlds and new civilizations. (My first hearing electronic music in the context of SF soundtracks may of course have had some effect here.)

While this first half was highly eclectic, taking in both Bach and Bacharach, they seemed most at home during the 'Escape From New York' soundtrack. And, true, there is something to that era. Of course it was spurred by film studios realizing a geek with a keyboard came up with a score much more cheaply than an orchestra full of Musician's Union members. The result was usually gravitas on the cheap.

But, as ever, restrictions enable. Something like Moroder's classic 'Clockwork Orange' soundtrack creatively exploits the distinction between a Beethoven-blasting orchestra and the hollow grandeur of the synths. It conjurs up a dystopian future, simultaneously opulent and barren. I'm just not sure any of that made it into a set more concerned with novelty sideburns.

The second half, the promised section of “new sounds”, was given over to a Gregory composition, a live score to the film 'The Service of Tim Henman'. Some might claim this was as Eighties as 'Escape From New York', and it sounded at times like New Order with a higher staffing level.

But, you know, I like New Order. And it was in its own way more adventurous and successful. The pieces were essentially composed of overlaid rhythm tracks, formally at least following the conventions of beat music. Yet that's a restrictive, bean-counting way to listen to music, too fixated on formal innovation. The magic lies more in the detail. By dispensing with a lot of the traditional aural 'handholds' of instruments, such as pitch, the dish is something more richly rewarding than the recipe might suggest. Us old folks remember the days of LPs and turntables, and the warped sounds that emerged if you got the play speed wrong. Whereas with this music the tempo never sounds quite right. Its like it could be speeded or slowed quite considerably, and rather than going wrong it would just become something new.

Despite my SF analogies of earlier, when I listen to this music my mind's eye doesn't picture the de rigeur starfields. The music's more like a geometric abstract by, say, Malevich somehow rendered into sound, a landscape of shapes floating above and around one another.

But if visuals too closely match the music they become superfluous, reiterating what's already going on, they bring nothing to the party. The super-slo-mo film of Henman racket-raising worked much better by initially appearing unexpected, but soon becoming fitting. It took something we think we know, and defamiliarised it to the point where a whole new space opened up. And if like me you're a nerdy non-sports fan, who has probably never previously concentrated on the tennis, that just added to the effect.

Let's chalk it up as another example of slow being the new fast. Disruptions to timescale work in a similar fashion to disruptions in spatial scale. When what's 'normal' to us is taken away, the human eye can have trouble differentiating an aerial view across a vast landscape from a vastly magnified close-up. It only takes in the vastness. Similarly, the human brain associates the stretching of a short sequence with time lapse photography – of flowers blooming in Spring and the like. If it's not the entirely new, its the familiar from an unfamiliar angle.

All in all, perhaps not quite the hoped-for evening of life not as we know it. But after an uninspiring start it came to feature life not as we normally see it. Which, I think you'll agree, is pretty cool.

There now follows a short instructional video...

The Prince Albert, Brighton, Wed 14th May

There are three things to note about this gig by punk 'survivor' Wreckless Eric...

Firstly, he tells us with some glee they're starting off by playing the whole of an album no-one liked much when it came out, which he describes as “the musical equivalent of a comb-over”. (Well this is the guy who found he was “too maverick for punk”.)
Not being as acquainted with the Wreckless oeuvre as I should be, it's not an album I know. I'm not even entirely sure I previously knew it existed.

Also, his personal and musical partner Ann Rigby follows up by describing them as “the budget Paul and Linda McCartney”. And indeed 'Le Beat Group Electrique' is an album of a Sixties stripe.

Thirdly, the drummer plays a cardboard box which some suspect covered a real drum beneath. And wasn't the whole of punk like that? Its poorly concealed secret was that beneath the “no Beatles, no Stones” rhetoric it marked a return to the stripped-down beat music of the Sixties. And woe betide anyone who admitted any of that at the time. Eric however was initially part of the Stiff records scene, a slightly later growth less fixated on combing over those roots and happier to admit that songwriting was going on. And here he is with music which very much revels in the drum under the box. (Yeah, okay, in actuality they kept the box. Just go with the metaphor, will you?)

The essence of Sixties beat music was to blend the raucous with the melodic. Which is why it always needed two bands to headline it, the Beatles and the Stones. In fact songs here pretty much split evenly between Beatles-like and Stonesy, neat-haircut harmonies alternating with slurry drawling. (Bassist Andre Barreau was in fact a founder of the Bootleg Beatles.) A structure which may get a little schematic, when the point was more to mix the two things up. And while the jury remains permanently out on that whole Beatles vs. Stones thing overall, here it's definitely the Stonesy songs which win out. They sound spirited, while the Beatles-like can stray towards the pastichy.

A bit like the phrase 'just gay enough', in some ways it feels 'just post-modern enough'. It's neither an ape-like Oasis mimicking, nor some smartarse deconstruction. It's a knowing and witty take, while still tearing into the music with gusto. It's perhaps best summed up by the lyric “I'm a boy, of course/And you're a girl” - the two words “of course” giving the thing a slight twist. Plus there's the extra level of us listening to this now, to songs of long-gone hot summers.

The later part of the set was, stylistically at least, more familiar. Of the three times I've seen him, it may be the first where he actually played his hit 'Whole Wide World'. I'd enjoyed the last time I'd seen him playing alongside Rigby, their musical styles complementing one another. So it was perhaps a shame she only got one song here. He comments, amused but apparently seriously, they he recently got a record contract but she didn't.

And while we're on the subject of the Bootleg Beatles, I was never quite sure how all that worked. Did they start their sets in collar-less suits, then take psychedelic drugs in the interval and come back on with tuning-up symphony orchestras? And wouldn't they have to grow their hair during the interval, too? Perhaps they had some Getafix-style potion...

Footage from London a few days later. For the attentive, subtle clues are scattered as to Eric's age. (His birthday was actually the day after, but close enough.) And they're playing... oh, you guessed...

Brighton Dome, Fri 23rd May

Emmylou Harris' status as a great of country music was cemented, at least in my mind, by her inclusion in Gillian Welch's 'I Dream A Highway', a song which (among many other things) sets out a subjective alternative history of country. “You be Emmylou and I'll be Gram” refers to her early duets with Gram Parsons, the first in an almost stellar list of collaborations which took in Bob Dylan and Neil Young. Most probably, and like many people, I chiefly know her through those collaborations. But it's never too late and now here she is in town...

Of course, she's in possession of one of the great characterful voices of country, simultaneously tremulous and sinewy. It's a little like the distinction between a good-looking face and a merely pretty one, pleasing in its blandness. Harris has one of the great good-looking voices.

And her voice is chiefly known for harmonising, something I'm never sure I've really got to the bottom of. Strong voices are usually like malt whiskies, best served neat. But here it's often when set against the backing vocals that her voice is set off the strongest.

Perhaps deriving from that voice, the key word for the set might be 'organic'. You can't imagine these songs being composed, annotated or arranged. They just seem to appear, in the moment, tumbling out one after another. Even as you exalt in how good they are, you half-imagine they're simply making them up on the spot.

It seems to me people can have a strange blind spot over country music. I'm often asked if this-or-that piece of music would appeal to those who don't normally go for country. I honestly don't know what they're talking about. But, before I'm asked, I really can't imagine a music lover not taking to this gig. If I wasn't one of the amassed hardened fans eagerly clapping the start of each number, I was joining in with them at the end.

For the second time in two weeks, the bulk of the set's given over to a track-list-order recital – this time of 'Wrecking Ball', now one year shy of its twentieth anniversary. And it sounds a pretty fine album indeed. Though that didn't stop one audience member briefly halting proceedings by protesting this. (Harris responded with her best Southern manners, but notably without budging an inch.) Now it may be a little late in the day to protest a set-list once the gig's already underway. It kind of presumes bands show up with a back-up plan, in case their first option gets voted down. And as in neither case did I know the albums beforehand, over-familiarity was scarcely likely to bother me. But overall it's not a fashion I'm keen on, even if I don't choose to shout about it in crowded rooms. It leads to, as Harris said herself, “no surprises”. And I can get no surprises without even leaving the flat.

But rather than ending on that flatter note, let's go out with a demonstration of how good the gig really was. After telling you two things about the gig, that it was all songs off one album, and that Harris exels most when harmonising, here's 'Pancho and Lefty' - which exhibits neither of those things. It's still a great clip. It goes a bit 'director's cut' in the middle, but the sound quality is good. So much of it is in the bittersweet way she sings “it was a kindness, I suppose”...

Saturday 17 May 2014


Face front, true believers! Plot spoilers below!

“On your left.”

Granted, Captain America's opening line is more likely intended literally than as some kind of political metaphor. But as Peter Bradshaw wrote in the Guardian “advocates of the 'liberal Hollywood' conspiracy will find plenty of ammunition here.” It's much closer to the 'Dark Knight Rises' that the fulminating Tea Party thought they were watching than anything that actually happened in that film. The conceit, as set up at the end of the previous instalment, is that a handy plot device transports Cap from the clear-cut square-jawed Forties to today's sinkhole of moral ambiguity. And finds it wanting.

As co-director Anthony Russo states “We were all reading the articles that were coming out questioning drone strikes, pre-emptive strikes, civil liberties — Obama talking about who they would kill... We wanted to put all of that into the film because it would be a contrast to [Cap]'s greatest-generation [way of thinking]." It could almost carry a screen credit “based on an original idea leaked by Edward Snowden”.

How come? How did the most straight-laced Marvel hero, the one with a military title embedded in his name, the one who made his costume out of the American flag, get first billing in a superhero movie that overtakes the others from the left? Actually, to those of us who know our comics history, its not so surprising. As Tony Keen argued in 'Captain America: Sentinel of Liberalism', Cap was created not to represent a white-faced conformist America but a liberal, inclusive one. The little guy who got beefed up by that super-serum never forgot the other little guys. His brief McCarthyite existence as 'Captain America Commie Smasher' has since been retconned out of existence. It's scarcely a co-incidence that his chief allies here are a black guy and a woman.

The plotline of course echoes the original comics, where wartime Cap woke up one day in the Sixties. Except the 'current day' here owes as much to the film world of the Seventies as to news articles. Producer Kevin Feige has statedwe really want to make a '70s political thriller masquerading as a big superhero movie,” citing films such as 'Three Days of the Condor', 'The Parallax View' and 'Marathon Man.' Casting Robert Redford, who starred in 'Condor' and 'All the President's Men', who is almost the poster boy of Hollywood liberalism, seems a deliberate tip to the audience to look in that direction. And casting him counter-intuitively as turncoat bad guy Alexander Pierce... well, we'll get to that.

Of course it references those political thrillers the way pop songs sometimes filch from symphonies, it takes the big thumping themes but leaves behind the complex structures and counter-melodies. It's all summed up in one exchange - “How do we tell the good guys from the bad guys?” “If they're shooting at you, they're bad.” There's a memorable scene in a lift at SHIELD's corporate-looking HQ, finding tension and paranoia in tiny details. Then as soon as the slugfest starts they could be fighting anywhere over anything.

A classic example of the need for jeopardy rigging the debate is when the big guns of the Helicarriers get locked and loaded. Its implied they're trained on actual or nascent superheroes, without any corresponding suggestion they might be taking in any super-villains. (Let alone your actual common-or-garden terrorists.) To the fan those guns don't represent a pointed debate between security and liberty, they threaten something more fundamental – preventing the making of any more superhero films. Yet even a dyed-in-the-wool state-hatin' civil liberties champion like me would concede that terrorists exist. Many of them are already in government, true. But not all. And I don't really want to get blown up on the London tube.

This structure also resides on the quaint notion that the Allies fought the War adhering rigidly to the Hayes code, and black ops are some recent arrival on the American landscape. That atom bomb was presumably dropped by someone else, then. The closest this comes to a head is where Cap admits to Fury they may have bent the rules back then, but “we never struck, until someone hit us first”. In other words the simplistic 'clear blue sky' myth that still hangs over Pearl Harbour.

You're probably better off not thinking of any of that. You're probably better off imagining some 'Purple Rose of Cairo' scenario, in which Cap steps not out of an actual past but down from one of those propaganda images on show at the Smithsonian – with their peculiar blend of primary colours and sepia. Which was more the way Marvel first brought him back. He'd then been out of the comic pages for more than a decade. Combined with the general young age of the readership, that effectively made him a long-lost figure from history, rather than from another film we all went to see a couple of years ago.

But there's a deeper structural flaw. How did SHIELD get warped into a sword? There's a moment in the end credits where its emblem is reflected as Hydra's, effectively encapsulating the plot. Hydra's infiltration of SHIELD is clearly meant to represent corruption at SHIELD. We became the people we fought. Yet language can be slippery stuff. The signified needs a signifier by definition, but then sometimes that signifier can just plain get in the way. At one point Rogers spits at Fury “You're not part of Hydra, but you had the same ideas as they did!” Which most likely represents the film's intent. But it often slips into implying that all of SHIELD's problems were external. There wasn't an excess of power, it just fell into the wrong hands. Pierce's plan, at root, seems to be to create a climate of fear which will allow him to rule more easily. If he'd genuinely believed his own rhetoric about assuring security, the film may well have been bolder and richer.

This is all pretty much summed up by the film's treatment of Nick Fury. The most radical idea it comes up with is that Fury himself might somehow be implicated. But this notion is only really flirted with, and it soon becomes obvious the bad guys' plot centres around bumping Fury off. Their failure to achieve this becomes their overall failure. Yet the comics were, after all, called 'Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD'. Nick Fury is SHIELD as far as we the viewers are concerned. They're the guy with the eyepatch plus his mates. If he was never corrupted then SHIELD never really was.

The dichotomy between Fury and Pierce also suggests that the split lies between the 'suits' and the 'agents' – those who make Powerpoint slideshows of strategic directions and those who do the actual work. Fury partly defeats Pierce through using the imprint of his bad eye, which of course he got in battle.

Having previously complained that Jane Foster got little to do in 'Thor', and that the Black Widow was somewhat under-used in 'The Avengers', my happier task here is to tell you that the Black Widow plays quite an integral role. Peter Bradshaw goes as far as to say that she “at least gets to be an actual character this time.”

If she was paired up much with Cap in the comics, it was after my mainstream-reading days. But she makes a good foil for him, to quote Bradshaw again, “chipping away at [his] old-school earnestness and trying to fix him up with a date.” Some of this is schematic. (Cap won't push a bad guy off a roof to make him talk. But she will because she's, like, a badass herself, yeah?) And this date-pushing business is doubtless only going one way. But there's genuine sparks in the scenes between them. And they're pretty much fired by her to his straight man.

Now the alert reader may already have noticed my talking about this relationship rather one-directionally – what she does for Cap. He's certainly the moral centre of the film, around whom all the other characters need to reorient themselves. (While he just needs to catch up on modern cuisine and Marvin Gaye.) Her reformed criminal role is not only repeatedly referred to, but in many ways reprised. The film is bookend by scenes of her uploading data. The first time she's uploading from, going off-mission to rescue info rather than people and consequently raising Cap's ire. But then she uploads to, to the people, spilling those black op beans like a one-woman Wikileaks.

But she's so much like Selina Kyle from 'Dark Knight Rises' I could almost cut and paste what I said back then about her. While you probably don't want to picture me sporting the costume, I would rather be the Black Widow than the pious, serious-minded Cap any day of the week. Unsurprisingly, she's sexy. But she's also smart, sassy and just enough on the right side to not be goody-goody. And it's not just me who things so. In his review at the FA site, Will Morgan comments: “in comic stores, or at least the one I run, we had numerous girls and young women coming into the shop asking for 'Black Widow' comics, because they’d finally seen an on-screen Marvel heroine who wasn’t insipid, leaden or flat-out embarrassing.”

Superhero films commonly suffer from overcrowding, and its true the two-way banter between Cap and the Widow leave the Falcon as something of a gooseberry. Look at his comparatively minor contribution to winning the final battle. At one point he even points to Cap and says “don't look at me. I do what he does - just slower.” And it's funny because it's true. At times you feel he's there so there can be a black character for Cap to be racially inclusive to.

Which is perhaps true to the comics. For most of the Seventies the cover was double-billed 'Captain America and the Falcon' ('71 to '78). While Marvel comics in many ways pioneered black characters in mainstream comics and often ran overtly anti-racist storylines, there was also a tendency to pair them with a more suburban-friendly white face when it came time to sell the unit. There was also 'Power Man and Iron Fist' ('78 to '86). (Disclaimer: Power Man started out with sole billing, and the Black Panther had his own title from time to time.)

But it's the other double-biller, the Winter Solider, who really feels double-booked. You could easily imagine the plot running without him, suggesting he was spliced in at some stage or other. It might have been better to hold him back more in this film, perhaps just hinting at his actual identity, then give him more screen space in the third instalment. (A mid-credits teaser tells us he's returning.)

It would, its true, be fairly easy to come up on this film's left. But in a way, it would be too easy. If, ultimately, it's not terribly radical its coming up on those other blockbusters' left still seems notable. Could you ask for more than this? Yes, of course you could. But we're not used to blockbuster films even having an agenda. Normally they're stewed by too many cooks and too wary of alienating any sections of the audience, the ellipses and caveats effectively driving 'Dark Knight Rises' into incoherence. Perhaps it could be taken of an indicator of the way the Snowdon revelations have been taken more seriously in the States than here in the UK. Even baby steps in the right direction might bode well.

Saturday 10 May 2014


My (somewhat intermittent) series of photos of Sicily closes on Catania. Samples below

...full Sicilian set viewable on Flickr here.

So the answer to that title question is, finally, yes? Actually, it's no. For I voyaged back to that fairest of Meditteranean isles the following year, so have a whole new set of photos to post! (This time the North and West coasts.) I may well break things up with pics of other places before embarking on those, though...