We’ve gone and started a blog specifically for our movie reviewers here. Take a look.
I’m not sure when Mystic River will be released on DVD, but I’m looking very forward to seeing it again. It impressed me more than any other American film in 2003. To call it controversial would probably be something of a misnomer or, at best, only half-true, but few films provoked as much critical in-fighting last year.
Following my initial viewing of the film, I wrote:
I feel exhausted from having sat through this movie…
I’m not sure when Mystic River will be released on DVD, but I’m looking very forward to seeing it again. It impressed me more than any other American film in 2003. To call it controversial would probably be something of a misnomer or, at best, only half-true, but few films provoked as much critical in-fighting last year.
Following my initial viewing of the film, I wrote:
I feel exhausted from having sat through this movie, physically drained and utterly depressed. Compared with Mystic River, In the Bedroom would be a feel-good movie.
This, kids, is drama, nay, tragedy, so superbly, naturally played and orchestrated that its Shakespearean shadings end up feeling largely like archetypal coincidence.
As Jonathan Rosenbaum observed in his blurb, “deterministic” is certainly the word, no doubt about it. At one point in the film, Kevin Bacon’s character cynically mutters “Sending killers to jail is sending them where they’ve been headed their whole damn, pathetic lives. The dead stay dead.” Eastwood’s film is unrelentingly bleak and, at times, down-right unbearable. Its prologue is harrowing, its mid-section heart-wrenching, its final act gut-wrenching, in the most literal sense; my stomach sank and knotted during the film’s climactic cross-cut sequence and especially the devestating, revelatory encounter between two characters afterward–perhaps the best-acted scene in Mystic River, which is certainly saying something.
Indeed, this is the best ensemble in a film this year, all but one of whom are working easily within range of their best work if not at their dramatic peak. Sean Penn’s Jimmy is truly one of the tragic characters of our time, comparable to Michael Corleone in the second Godfather film. While his work might be less showy than that of most of his co-stars, Kevin Bacon has never been better and proves once and for all that he can be a damn-fine actor when he feels like actually putting it out there. Tim Robbins’ performance plays a very large part in making Mystic River such a profoundly disturbing and haunting film–and also why you’ll be quite shocked if you make the mistake of assuming that Eastwood’s film is a relatively conventional policier. Laurence Fishbourne’s character is perhaps the only one with little to lose in the film’s increasingly high emotional stakes; he deserves praise, as well, for transcending his limiting, necessary, mood-lightening role and instead creating a more multi-dimensional character than was probably written into the script. As wife to Robbins’ character, Marcia Gay Harden devoles, before our eyes, into a paranoid, deeply conflicted emotional wreck of a woman. In her scenes opposite Penn, she proves worthy of any accolades awarded her. Laura Linney is mostly fine, but her big scene, a Lady MaCBeth-like speech delivered to her husband (Penn), is, it seems to me, the film’s only significant misstep. While her reassurance of Jimmy might seem natural enough, the darker territory she eventually treads into feels like unnecessary additional weight for Eastwood and his audience to have to shoulder.
Mystic River is a great film, maybe even a rival to Unforgiven as Eastwood’s masterpiece. But it’s anything but an easy movie to sit through or, for that matter, to live with afterward. It gets under your skin.
After seeing it a second time and giving it a considerable amount of thought, I followed up, writing:
It’s been bugging me ever since I saw Mystic River what the purpose of Laura Linney’s Lady MacBeth scene might possibly be–and, no, I won’t buy the mere fact that it was in the book (don’t know whether it is or isn’t–haven’t read it) as a valid excuse. I went and saw the film tonight and a possible explaination finally dawned on me.
I think that the characters of Annabeth, Celeste, and to a lesser extent, Laura, Kevin Bacon’s estranged wife, function as examples of the way that women tend to react to different sorts of men. Tim Robbins’ character, Dave, is sulky, extremely passive-agressive and, I think it would be fair to say, somewhat psychotic (or “disturbed”). His wife, Celeste, is increasingly suspicious and even down-right frightened of him. Certainly the way he’s behaving has a large part to do with this, but I also think that men who are so fragile and moody have a harder time maintaining trust from their women because they don’t provide the sense of security that women *supposedly* desire. (I know: “If you men only new…”). Sean Penn’s character is bold, a born leader, and a sort of noble outlaw (at least in his tragically misled act of vigilante justice). He’s the sort of man that would provide that strong-armed broad-shouldered security and dependability that Robbins’ character sorely lacks. Kevin Bacon’s character is remote, emotionally restrained. His performance is mannered and subtle compared with the tremendous physicality of those of Penn and Robbins.
I think the key point of contrast here is the scenes where these three men confess, apologize, or attempt to apologize. Jimmy forces Dave to confess to murdering his daughter–a crime he did not commit–and when Dave outright lies in order to save his life, Jimmy executes him anyway, despite promising to spare his life if he confessed. Only when Kevin Bacon’s character apologizes for being remote does his wife finally talk to him over the phone. Finally, Jimmy admits to Annabeth that he has killed the wrong man, but before he can apologize or show remorse, Linney’s character reassures him that he has done the right thing.
It’s all about what can and cannot be excused by our individual nature and, also, I think, the way that married couples gradually grow similar in many respects. (Or maybe it’s not opposites that attract, after all.) Dave and Celeste are both weak, fragile people who crumble under pressure, which is why Annabeth goes so far during her speech as to rest the blame for Dave’s death on Celeste’s head rather than her husband’s. Just as he falsely admits to killing Katie, Celeste does indeed seal his fate by telling Jimmy that she believes her husand did kill Katie. Jimmy and Annabeth are both power-hungry and view revenge as a credible brand of justice. Both Bacon’s character and his wife are apparently distant emotionally and the physical distance between them (during one one-way conversation, he says that he can tell by the traffic that she’s in Brooklyn, while he’s in Boston) is represantive of this. Sure, it’s a bit of an obvious metaphor but I think it works nevertheless.
Annabeth’s validation of revenge is the important thing here. Dave’s innocence is an unfortunate but ultimately irrelevant by-product of Jimmy attempting to do what he felt was right. She surely subscribes to the dubious Kantian notion that it’s our intentions rather than their consequences that determine our moral character. I think it is here that Mystic River presents its most biting critique of vigilante justice (or “pre-emptive strikes”) because just as Kant’s philosophy runs in direct opposition with the way things function in reality (we ARE held responsible for the consequences that result from our actions not the intentions that inspire them), Dave, Jimmy’s childhood pal, IS dead and WAS innocent, period. What Eastwood correctly nails as being the key component is Jimmy’s action (murder) not his intentions (to avenge his daughter’s death) nor the tragic consequences. His point is that hot-headedly shooting first and asking questions later is always immoral, regardless of the shooter’s intentions and though an outcome like the one here can clearly intensify the sense of wrongdoing, wrong would have been done even if the person executed was guilty of their crime.
I later started quite a shitstorm over at the Oscarwatch.com forums (more than one person on there responded simply with a “fuck you”) with this post, contrasting the critical reception of Lost in Translation and American Splendor with that of Mystic River:
I’ve been thinking about the enormous critical success of two films that I liked, but didn’t love, that struck me as good, but not not great, and the more I ponder them, the more their critical kudos make sense.
Both are films that really appeal to (and flatter) two key critical demographics: cooler-than-thou hipster kids and jaded, mid-life-crisis-afflicted boomers. In fact, Lost in Translation’s two leads fulfill these two niches quite uncannily. Scarlett Johansson’s character is a smart, but cynical young lady who feels suffocated by her transparently hip husband (this personal subtext interests more than any other facet of the film); she lives a priviliged life, but seems bored by it. In this respect, Coppola doesn’t really confront Life per se so much as the shallow hypocrisy of hipsterdom, which is somewhat commendable, I suppose, but Ghost World did that far better anyway, while, through implication of what might be called negative social spage, speaking on the world outside of Enid’s more or less self-imposed cultural margin.
Bill Murray’s character is what draws in the jaded boomers because he is just that. He, too, is unhappy with his marriage, but more likely because it’s come to a sort of dispassionate stand-still, because all of the excitement and maybe love has been slowly drained out of it, perhaps largely due to distance, both literal and emotional. For Murray and the film’s older admirers, Lost in Translation is surely a lucrative fantasy, where the middle-aged, not particularly good-looking guy plays the quasi-romantic interest to the gorgeous young gamine. No less, rather than even attempt to criticize her characters’ self-centered brooding (much less their insular cultural condescension), Coppola thoroughly romanticizes (if not fetishizes) them. She presents Murray’s Bob as a veritable font of age-acquired wisdom, while Scarlett’s Charlotte is a vaguely idealistic young lady coping with equally vague disappointment. This is a film where the filmmaker’s preference for poetics negates any of the essential bite it might have otherwise possessed.
American Splendor’s appeal among hipsters and boomers alike is no less evident. The film’s two lead characters are prematurely cynical would-be hipsters (they’re certainly hopelessly hip, in retrospect, if not necessarily for their own day) who evolve progressively, and oh so naturally, into boomers, whose cynicism seems to be viewed by the filmmakers as simply an amusing rite of maturation. (Also, like Ghost World, the film is based on an underground comic, a definite hipster plus.) The film seems in love with its characters’ insufferable crankiness, and, in this regard, its even more dubiously reverent than Lost in Translation.
Mystic River is a film that holds no such appeals. Its style and sensibility are definitely studio, rather than indie (though when a Dreamworks Oscar drama is up for Indepdent Spirt awards, this has ultimately become a purely rhetoricial distinction), eliminating any sort of cool quotient. It’s a hard-nosed, rough-edged film, so fiercely critical of its characters that it’s difficult, if not down-right impossible, for viewers to cuddle up next to any of them. It’s cold in its harsh determism, while, at the same, uncomfortably emotional and truly tragic in a way so few American films are. Unlike American Splendor and Lost in Translation, it will probably never achieve a cult following because it’s an exhausting experience, by no means a pleasure to sit through.
Mystic River is also an unmistakably adult film, not just one that happens to center on adult characters. Eastwood is maybe too wise for his own good and perhaps a little world-weary, too, but he’s thankfully not complacement, and has made a film as thematically ambitious, if minorly flawed, as Lost in Translation and American Splendor are neatly wrapped in their instantly digestible little packagle. Digestible is another thing that Mystic River certainly is not. It leaves one feeling something like indigestion, because it provokes more questions than its able or ready to answer, and forces you to deal things that most films, Hollywood or indie, would surely shy away from.
These, for me, are some of the key aspects that distinguish great films from mere good ones.
A little while back, I received an email from Carloss Chamberlin, commenting on my “lonely defense/exploration of the ambiguities in Mystic River” and my “willingness to keep pushing in the face of the consensus.” He kindly sent me the link to his Mystic River piece over at Senses of Cinema: http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/04/30/mystic_river.html It is an absolute must-read–hands-down the best thing I’ve seen written anywhere on the film.
This guitar boosted “She wants to move” features a mini Native Tongues reunion.
Now he’s post Badu, Common seems to have a new lease of life, his rhyming much improved after the expansioning agenda of Electric Circus. But even more impressive are De La, with Pos stealing the show flowing over a new vocal melody.
Q-Tip can’t really follow this, as his vocals are badly doubled up and end up obscuring his verse slightly.
Who needs Ludacris?
The planets must not be properly aligned.
I went to see the new Coen bros. movie, The Ladykillers (a remake of a 1955 British black comedy starring Alec Guinness–which I haven’t seen) , without the thought even crossing my mind that it might possibly be sold out. It was. (Glad I got there a little early!) What I suppose I failed to take into account is that it’s also the new Tom Hanks movie, which obviously means a great deal more from a box-office standpoint.
Personally, I’ve never been much of a Hanks fan. I dislike Philapdelphia, despise Forrest Gump, and infinitely prefer Malick’s The Thin Red Line to Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. On the other hand, I’ve always dug the Coens’ work. Barton Fink’s my personal favorite, but there isn’t a film in their ouevre that I haven’t at least gotten an aesthetic kick out of.
The Ladykillers is no exception, but it’d run neck-in-neck with The Hudsucker Proxy as my least-favorite Coens’ movie. More surprisingly, though, I LOVED (not liked, not appreciated–LOVED!) Hanks’ performance as an Edgar Allan Poe-reciting Southern “professor”/criminal mastermind. It’s far and away the most interesting performance Hanks has ever given. He’s hilariously droll, charming in that distinctly Southern sort of way, despite his oddball mannerisms, and so much fun to watch every minute he’s on screen.
The rest of the movie is less remarkable. I don’t want to go so far as to say it’s phoned-in, but The Ladykillers is clearly a slight Coens’ effort. One violent sight gag, for instance, is ripped straight from their last movie, Intolerable Cruelty, a much finer and funnier film that used the gag much more effectively. If that’s not laziness, then I don’t know what is! Still, even a lesser Coen comedy is vastly preferable to most of what’s playing at the ‘plexes right now, and, to give credit where it’s due, The Ladykillers, while one of the Coens’ most decidedly mainstream offerings, nonetheless possesses their singularly bizarre sensibility, plus lush-as-always Roger Deakins cinematography. It’s a bit of a mess and ultimately less than the sum its parts, but, hey, it’s a hell of a lot more fun than The Passion of the Christ.
Welcome to The Projector, Stylus Magazine’s movie blog.
(part 4 of a suddenly far less occasional series)
ROACHFORD - Cuddly Toy
Right, that last bugger took me through from 1 a.m. to a quarter to six of this, on initial appearances, reasonable enough Friday morning. So, why not?
What you have here is 80’s Brit-soul hopeful Andrew Roachford coming up with a chat-up line that, depending upon personal opinion, is either genius or fucked. Put simply, Roachford is trying to entice his intended by getting her to sympathise with the fact that when he’s at home “a cuddly toy, that’s my only joy,” i.e. ROACHFORD IS SICK OF WANKING. “Feeeeeeel for me baby!”
What you also have here is the greatest single Pharrell will NEVER make. In a fight between the way Roachford goes “Wum-awwwn” and the way Pharrell goes “Sexy!”, Jamie Cullum’s New Best Friend is getting the kicking of a lifetime. And there’s the guitar and the bass going just that bit too fast, so Roachford, he’s a bit surprised, but no, he’s Roachford, he’s a professional, so he’s just going to have to hurry it up a bit to keep up is all, so he does, and cos he’s going faster, he’s getting more urgent, more and more urgent, and the song’s not fucking slowing down! Everytime Andrew thinks he can have a breather, it doesn’t notice, so he’s away again! “Feeeeeeeeeel for me baby!”
There is no tempo change at all. It starts fast. It ends fast. In between, it’s fast, and there’s a really big synth guitar solo somewhere along the line too, just in case you haven’t quite realised how very much in need Roachford is. If she wasn’t feeling for him before, one can only hope that’s changed now. Poor bugger had seven hits after this, none of which got top ten, never mind #4 (this got there in January 1989, as a re-issue, but Everyhit doesn’t have any notes other than that). As to whether any of them were ever quite as wonderful as this… no idea. For some reason, I’m not holding out much hope.
I went to a club night the other night, which played alternating songs from the eighties and the noughties. This wasn’t played, but ‘Hands Up (Give Me Your Heart)’ was. Feel for him, baby. FEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEL!
(n.b. it was a good night apart from that, mind)
(n.b. also - I am very much aware there’s loads of songs that are better than Pharrell will ever be, but this one seems closest to what he reckons he sounds like but is just not great enough to sound like, so there. If Pharrell ever decides he’s going to try and sound like The Delgados, though… fucker is going DOWN!)
(part 3 in what is becoming a seriously fucking occasional series)
MINT ROYALE ft. LAUREN LAVERNE - Don’t Falter
First things first - I have finally purchased a Pop Will Eat Itself record. And I do indeed think it’s very good. It’s the best of, entitled ‘Wise Up, Suckers’, and it’s currently retailing at the dead reasonable price of Ł6.99 in an excessively big music monolith near you (in Britain).
Which in no way links to our third subject. But hey.
In their own little way, we find ourselves confronted by a pairing of chronic underachievers here. Mint Royale could be described as the archetypal bog-standard late-nineties-early-noughties British coffee-table dance act, except that’s Groove Armada. In fact, Mint Royale aren’t even that high up in the pecking order, being as they are even less famous than Zero 7 or Lemon Jelly or that bloke you see in the town centre sometimes who says that he likes Kruder & Dorfmeister as if that in some way makes him The Shit. Might want to reconsider the definitiveness of that article there.
To illustrate - The Royale have achieved no top 40 albums, and three top 40 singles. One, ‘Blue Song’, I can’t remember a single thing about. Before that we have ‘The Sexiest Man In Jamaica’, which sampled Prince Buster singing “Round about now… I Am The Sexiest Man In Jamaica… and the girls all love me…” and seemed more than destined to be a gigantic smash hit. It charted at number 20 in September 2002, quite possibly behind 3SL’s cover of ‘Touch Me, Tease Me’ and Nickelback’s Second Single.
And then we have Our Sainted Lady Of The Laverne. Ah man… has anyone this great ever associated themselves with so many things that are so rubbish? To illustrate, this is a quote from an interview with the face that’s been put on this page here:
Lauren, for the last 15 months, has been courted by The Terrifying World Of TV Presenting. Number of programmes desperate for her dextrous verbal gifts: “at one point, four a day” (including The Big Breakfast after Denise Van Outen’s getaway). Reaction to destiny as tooth-licious Media Celebrity: “I would fucking kill myself.”
Johnny Vaughan’s house band. XFM ‘drivetime’. Loves Like A Dog. This Week Only. Whatever the fuck this is meant to be… Why, Laverne, why?
Throwing these two together, then, could only have had two possible outcomes - XFM C-List cannon fodder designed solely to be sandwiched between A Red Hot Chilli Peppers Single and ‘Bittersweet Symphony’…
… or arguably the best thing either of them had ever done.
‘Don’t Falter’ charted at #14 in February 2000. Course, at that time none of the stuff I mentioned above had happened - Mint Royale were actually more famous than Groove Armada, after their remix of ‘Tequila’ had propelled Terrorvision to the previously unthinkable heights of #2 the month before (kept off #1 by ‘Pretty Fly For A White Guy’), whereas Laverne was still (to some extent) The Flopsies’ Sweetheart, having not really done anything since Kenickie had split to sour the memory that much.
The song’s about Laverne’s then-boyfriend, Malcolm Middleton of Arab Strap (”And as long as we’ve/Got each other/It’s gonna be/Officially summer”). In the back, it’s Big Beat Dunn Rite, it is properly sunny and light and bouncy/floaty, as opposed to “Hey! Afros!” Plethora of distorted strings and trumpets, with one line of them (can’t tell if it’s strings or trumpets, so we’ll go for synths instead) mirroring Laverne’s springy “ba-dooh ba-ba” hook in the chorus, like rabbits bouncing along in the fields of the Cadbury’s Caramel advert in heaven. Twee? Nah, d’you reckon?
And up front, putting the bums on seats, it’s Our Lauren, demonstrating what people regularly forget to point out about her - she has actually got a really nice voice. She tries singing falsetto in the chorus and she sort of stalls a bit, which makes her sound like Lush, WHICH IS A GOOD THING (people keep telling me it isn’t, people are stupid, it’s in capitals, jesus h…). Plus, she sort of rounds the end of her words every now and then, so it feels like they’ve dropped from her mouth, and that works just beautifully here. She basically sounds like that picture of her with the cream cake all the way through, and it’s bloody marvellous. She skips through the daisies with her Wee Beardie Man, the sun is out, the buttercups are ludicrously yellow, sparrows look at each other approvingly, children play football in accordance with the spirit of the game and don’t get all arsey about the offside rule… if they’d put this song as the closing number of Grease 2, it would’ve been enough to make it vaguely watchable.
From then on, their futures didn’t quite pan out, but it wasn’t that terrible. Mint Royale, when they’re not busy being shit, are more than capable of putting together a decent single, particularly their collaboration with Pos from De La Soul, ‘Show Me’. And Laverne, when she’s not busy being the Steve Buscemi to British twentysomething media’s Major Motion Picture, found time to do her lovely soft cooing on the chorus to the Divine Comedy’s new single ‘Come Home Billy Bird’, which is also rather good and in with a shout of charting in the top 20 this week. Go out and get yourself a copy, and while you’re at it, get ‘At The Club’ too. Cos when she was good, she was fantastic…
Hell. Jess Harvell, when prompted on ILM to come up with a nice, curt nickname for this bunch — The Ferds? Franzes? FF? Franzinand? — has got a name for them: shit. Lyrics about murdered archbishops and political figureheads and then they tell Spin Magazine they’re too good for pedals. They’re like this friend of mine: fuck all the production noise. “If you don’t got the tunes,” lead singer tells us, “no point in using them pedals!” Or as Coxon told us: can’t polish a turd! Then we’re told what they sound like: Interpol meets The Rapture! A car crash between The Strokes and Radio 4! Nevermind that Jules is the only of the bunch that writes songs about honesty and gets to the point — what the fuck, Obstacle 1? — and that the gang cheats using kool production — by spliffing fancy pedals! Guitars vs the keyboards! Well of course we’ll be nifty with the latter — because even though that’s exactly what this Scottish lout wish they did, it’s intrinsic in their very nature to never be able to. They’ll never make it anywhere with that attitude: like the director who tells you that he’s been cheating all his life and now it’s time to make movies without sets, Franz Ferdinand wants to be the next real thing. In no way is the only song I’ve heard of theirs malicious (”Take Me Out”), and they even make a nice job of lending sweet-sounding chord changes vs the standard-issue blues progression (a bit on that in a bit). But they’ve gone about it the wrong way: dance-punk! Let’s make it honest and real again! Thifty to throw in a tempo breakdown and squiggle about the blues — black folks’ music! They were the ones who suffered! (Funny you mention that, boys; the first World War began when your namesake got blow’d up and then the bluesmen got press’d into service without the faintest equal pardon from the big men) — and make it all work, especially, ooh, especially with none of those synthesizers. Dancing is simple again. Dancing — ultimate liberation! — and now anyone with a few Rickenbackers can be part of the new community, too. To hell with good intentions! Get a life you sonsofbitches. Look at me, listening to your music, eye to eye, tell me this is what you want.
I don’t hate this band because the NME likes them and they’re rich. I hate this band because they’re brilliant tunesmiths who are still awful cunts. “Take Me Out” is fucking catchy like syphillis, and hence negates the previous four hundred words.
Let me begin by saying that Seven Swans is a fabulous album, about on par with Michigan, with a more digestible running time on its side. The album is structured quite purposefully, especially for a release that, in essence, is composed of outtakes from a recording session. The first three songs introduce the hope and beauty Stevens describes throughout Seven Swans, after which four songs bookend the album’s glorious centerpiece, “Sister”, and three songs remain to conclude the disc (most memorably as a chorus rises into a haunting chant of “He is our Lord” on the penultimate title track).
Two of the three songs that open and close the album strike me particularly each time I listen to the album, those being “The Dress Looks Nice On You” and “In the Devil’s Territory” at the beginning, and “Seven Swans” and “The Transfiguration” at the end. For now, I’ll discuss the former pair, which, taken as a couple, encapsulate Seven Swans‘ overall dynamic, with “The Dress Looks Nice On You” covering the lighter acoustic/banjo side of Stevens and “In the Devil’s Territory” exhibiting his more dynamic side through its complex instrumentation (theremins!).
“The Dress Looks Nice On You” exemplifies the notion that art is fundamentally a suggestive medium. Here, nothing is spelled out for the listener; the lyrics are too vague to speak to anything in particular, although they are quite evocative. Stevens’ words, though, unlike too many singer/songwriters’, do not hide under the guise of inscrutability in order to hint, not tell. Rather than point at a specific meaning which is nearly impossible to grasp, Stevens alludes to certain moods (rejuvenation, promise/hope) that apply in manifold situations, making his messages universal while still keeping much a secret.
The music, meanwhile, must be described more simply: it is blissful, heavenly, marvelous. A simple finger-picking pattern repeats on an acoustic guitar every five seconds, three notes standing out as the song’s basic chord progression, and one especially high note emerging twice each time around, beautifully lifting the song. Stevens finds an appropriate medium with his voice, which is more than “soothing”, but less than “uplifting”. The opening lines to the song are, in their simplicity, some of my favorite lyrics of the year so far: “I can see a lot of life in you / I can see a lot of bright in you / And I think the dress looks nice on you“. A minute into the song, the banjos enter with a countermelody to the guitar’s continual plucking, interrupted briefly by the bridge, and returning before the song ends after only two minutes and a half.
“The Dress Looks Nice On You”’s abrupt halt, however, is appropriate; this way, “In the Devil’s Territory” serves to complete it, to lend it the climax it was not given. Guitar, banjo, and piano weave together powerfully as Stevens describes the “long, long time” he stayed in the devil’s territory “to see you, to meet you at last”. As with “The Dress Looks Nice Into You”, the lyrics never solidify into something entirely tangible, but they expressively examine specific moods (temptation/desire, fear, searching). The songs differ most notably, though, as the song climaxes two-and-a-half minutes in, with a theremin and keyboard rising together, before the female voice enters again with the same lines as before, until, again, the theremin enters, this time with bass, and the song closes in dissipated, almost estranged beauty before the album progresses into its next phase.
These two songs (and the rest of the album) are evidence that Stevens is one of the most focused singer/songwriters of our time. He has proven that he can churn out song after song of brilliant material, working at the consistently impressive pace of a Stephin Merritt, yet maintaining the precision of a Joni Mitchell. Truth be told, if anyone is going to write an album for each United State of America, it will be him.
My alternative heading was ‘Morri-ssey, Morri-do’ so everyone got off quite lightly, really. Anyway, he’s back! And he’s going on and on about Englishness again!
Thanks must be extended to the information-hyper-cycle-path-by-the-river for enabling me to hear the KROQ airing of “Irish Blood, English Heart” as if I were an actual real American type person, with an actual real American type radio. I’m not though, I’m a rain-soaked Brit - existing purely on a diet of fish ‘n chips and doffing my flat-cap as I trudge wearily through the industrial streets of our Northern wastelands. By eck, ‘tis glum.
Err… sorry, I appear to have wigged out a bit there. Listening to Morrissey always creates images of old Hovis adverts in my brain-like area. He’s up to his old ‘romantic view of English times past, present and future’ shenanigans, you see. Lyrically, Moz seems to be idealising a kind of fluffy patriotism that switches racist imperialism for .. uh.. kittens, or something. He’s also blaming Oliver Cromwell for the stagnant state of current British politics. I think. Which to me seems somewhat harsh, but it does tend to suggest that Moz is keen to usher in the dictatorial rule of a zombified King Charles I. This is excellent news. Cower before our mighty galleons - they’re stuffed to the crows nest with undead hordes, just like those ones you saw in Pirates of the Caribbean! Britain will rule the waves once again! Huzzah!
Meanwhile, the musical portion of the track blasts along happily in a slightly over-produced kind of way. Someone pressed the ‘large guitar sounds’ button for this one, which is fine and dandy by me. I think I detect a hint of wooshy flange effect too (favourite of giggling schoolboys everywhere.)
I am rather excited. This is Morrissey in encouraging form; lively, loud and longing for an England that can never be.
I still read the NME, at least online, although the days when I could do this without periodicly wincing are long gone. Partly them, partly me. But when Pete Cashmore jizzed all over Coxon’s new single, I figured it was worth a download. After all, the stuff discussed - good guitar, good chorus, all that - is stuff I tend to like.
And then the MP3 I grabbed (I’m Canadian, so a hearty laugh in the direction of the RIAA) starts with forty seconds of Steve Lamacq raving about the song.
So it’s a bit of a let down when ‘Freakin’ Out’ is merely good. The lyrics are… functional, the delivery is slightly Blur-esque (although it’s got enough rock music in its DNA that may be a mirage), and it’s not a bad big dumb rock song. I don’t think the guitars are all that hot shit, to be honest. But the chorus is singalongable, I’m sure this would sound amazing live, and I’ll probably even keep a copy. It is definitely miles better, and much catchier, than I (and many others I’m sure) expected out of Coxon post-Blur.
But still, given that Damon was supposed to be the pop one and Graham the difficult one, who could have foreseen ‘Freakin’ Out’ versus, say, ‘Gene By Gene’ or ‘Caravan’? Or even ‘Ambulance’? I love all of those songs, but compared to the riff-rawk monster of ‘Freakin’ Out’ they seem awfully obtuse.
(PS: Interesting to note that when Lamacq solicits text messages guessing the identity of the performer, the Vines, John Lydon and Green Day are all guessed)
Where the fuck did this come from?! It starts with absolutely nothing, less than nothing, a feeble strum that’s hardly audible, a distant roll of piano and Tweedy being miserable and quiet (”I thought it was cute / for you to kiss / my purple blackeye”), and then, on 1:59, what the fuck is that?! Guitar? Loud? And drums and bass too, and after thirty seconds or so of warming up whoever it is (certainly not Jeff, no fucking way) starts playing, properly playing, fuzzed and rude and tuneful too, scouring into distortion, straight into the red, but carrying you along. And it keeps going, and going and going and it’s great; it’s the kidn of thrill I used to get from guitars, way back when. This is what I wanted John Squire solo to sound like. And it keeps going. And keeps going, until five minutes in, when it stops, and the tune winds down, and that’s it. A Ghost Is Born. Well I never.
Way to change direction. Or is it? It’s been three years since Hot Shots II; who’s to say there hasn’t been a slow evolution in sound since then, a series of trends rather than a definite fulcrum leading them here?
Hot Shots II, of course, is the album they made to apologise for their eponymous debut, which reneged on the promise of those infamous, glorious early EPs by being largely shit. Lazy journalists did the “wow, these guys have got so many crazy ideas; the must be on drugs” routine and were met with spite from Steve Mason. Rightly so: how would you like to have your honest day’s work viewed as the ramblings of a stoned idiot? If you work fucking hard you want the credit you deserve.
So after the futurist r&b rock of HSII (an album they wanted The Neptunes to produce, and which did that psychedelic technologically friendly wide-eyed wonder thing much better than Yoshimi could even dream of), they’ve gone post-punk, sort of. Thump-thump-thump-snap go the drums, dead metronome style, and some jaggedy guitar motif gets reverbed across the speakers. Mason, as ever, sounds a million miles away, stretches harmonies with himself into interstellar space at the end of each line. “Sometimes / I feel / [something] / [something]” and even though the words are indecipherable the yearning is tangible. Post-punk? Spacey? Yearning? Noise? Is this Disco Inferno? No. It’s The Stone Roses, sort of. Or The Beta Band. “From the sea / to the beach / to the land…” On three minutes there’s a drum roll that Manitoba nicked before its conception, some more guitar, some space noise, the tune moves to a thousand miles away from the microphone, and then… the trumpets! Oh my! Chaotic fanfares. Brilliant? Brilliant. From zeroes to heroes. Again.
This happened and I think someone should say something. It’s really scary that over 200 mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, wives, husbands and friends had to die because of the wishes of terrorists. And by allowing terrorists to act and determine an election (when some countries do it by blaming senior citizen’s inability to work a ballot) is giving in to them. Letting them get away with it allows them to realise terror works. I live in the city that is the next obvious target, and I travel everyday in the bullseye of that target. We need to stop worrying so much about insignificant shit and start being outraged by things that really matter. Let’s all pull an Aretha and say a little prayer for those people who died because they got the train to work one Thursday morning.
Guitars, for a start, which quite confused me for a second until I remembered the whole thing about Original Pirate Material being about the death of dance culture, which made it logical that Mike Skinner would crack out the guitars for his new record. The rhythm of the play put me in mind of The Specials, but the chug is far less ska than post-grunge US alt-punk. It’s doubtless ripped off something else, making it ironic that the versions flying around P2P networks consist of 5-minutes of the same 20-second snippet of chorus looped, because Skinner himself (or his record company) don’t want him being ripped off (smoking dope is as illegal as copyright infringement, Mike), taking the incongruously posh-sounding “my gosh” in the chorus seem like some kind of anti-profanity mantra and causing me to wonder if he’s ever actually sworn on record - he must have, surely?
Of course, for the first thirty seconds, his faux-mockney (is it faux? is it mockney?) uber-Anglo-drawl makes me want to punch him in the face, but then he pauses for a split-second before the phrase “white-shirted man”, making it clear that he hates Ben Sherman as much as anyone else, and the chorus rolls around again and this time you finally catch onto the phrasing and delivery - “I’m not trying to pull you / even though I would like to / I think you are really fit / you’re fit but my gosh don’t you know it” - and it becomes the greatest thing to sing along with ever. Or at least since you were last in a school playground legally. His trick, or schtick, or gimmick, or thing is still the fact that he voices all the petty, jealous, pathetic, adolescent desires, frustrations and idiotic epiphanies that everyone of a certain age finds themselves afflicted with as they enter the stage of suspended adultescence that is the early-20s, however much they try to behave like a real grown-up. By the time the chorus is chopped-up into two (and a bit) words for the finale (”you’re fit! you’re fit! you’re fit! you’re fit!”), the song is a proper playground chant. Little boys never grow up.
I’ve been revisiting all my old Neil Young albums, and was reminded by just how fantastic the pacing for Young’s Everybody Knows This is Nowhere is. It’s not quite the simplistic fast-slow dynamic that so many albums seem to fall into, but a rather steady foray into both paces that pieces together perfectly. As the album nears its end, and you’ve already been blistered by “Cinnamon Girl” and “Down By The River,” Young eases up on the reins with the absolutely gorgeous “Losing End (When You’re On)”, one of his best ballads of all-time. A loping country lament, it’s a potent tale of love-gone-sour, and it gives just enough space to prepare for the epic finale “Cowgirl in the Sand” two songs later. Sadly, when compared to much of the material on After The Goldrush and even his overlooked self-titled debut, it’s never received its proper due as one of the simplest, most painstakingly direct ballads Young ever wrote.
As you may have noticed, we’ve recently dropped the decimal points for the scores given in Stylus reviews; this is for myriad reasons, almost all of them interminably dull. (One reason might be because I’ve lost my ten-sided die, and thus can’t make them up anymore.)
After a great deal of brain-picking and discussion, we’ve also re-defined what the numbers given out actually mean, which may mean that reviewers appear more mealy-mouthed and tight-fisted with the scores than they actually are. For the sake of clarification, here’s a brief breakdown of how the scores should pan out;
10 = Perfect
8 = Really great
2 = Shite
As you can see, while this might mean many records receive a lower numerical mark, it gives more room for manoeuvre at the top-end of the scale in terms of differentiating ‘quality’ (whatever that is). Hopefully this should result in 10s and 9s being very rare and wonderous marks, only awarded to albums of unique brilliance and not just any old flavour-of-the-month (likewise 1s and 2s should only be awarded to really offensive tripe). As for the semantics of the difference between ‘great’ and ‘really great’ or ‘poor’ and ‘really poor’… well, that’s for the reviewers to decide.
(part 2 in an occasional series)
MARC ALMOND & GENE PITNEY - Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart
Firstly, yes, this was meant to be ‘Probably A Robbery’ by Renegade Soundwave. But I’ve not had a chance to listen to that properly yet. I’m now more wary of not posting about stuff without having really got a good feel for it (possibly read: without having conned myself into liking it), cos I’ve been listening to the Pop Will Eat Itself track more recently, and have found myself really learning to love it quite a bit, possibly enough to re-appraise it on here in the future.
Instead, though, we have this. Now, this might be a bit of a longshot, but are you listening Sam & Mark? Cos if you are - this song, this song here - you are never going to be this good. Never. Yes, like your only single thus far, it got to #1. Also, like you, it features vocals by two men, both of whom aren’t that fantastic at dancing. It seems a bit obvious to say that this is where the similarities end, but only because it is obviously true.
Let’s start with the way in which neither of you are, or ever will be, Gene Pitney. It more or less goes without saying you will never be associated with anything approaching the quality of his hits that I have heard, which would appear to be ‘Twenty-Four Hours From Tulsa’ and ‘Hello Mary Lou’ (which he wrote and Ricky Nelson had a hit with) but I’d hazard a guess that you won’t ever be as good as the songs that I haven’t heard of his, either.
And sweet fuck you ain’t ever gonna be able to sing like him. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine that any modern pop type could, the only potential candidate I can think of being fellow Pop Idol alumnus Will Young, oddly enough. But he’s not close. This voice… it sounds like Cotton Hill out of King Of The Hill, but not the same, not permanently irate, but rather permanently tormented and anguished. This song has incredible tension to it, especially in the middle of its five minutes, primarily due to the hammering lone drum pulse that runs throughout it, but Pitney has more than a little to do with it too. He’s impossibly dramatic right from the very first note he sings, every vowel sounding like it could simultaneously implode or explode, like every syllable he sings must be accompanied by hand gestures of the most sweeping and violent kind. He’s alternately pleading and proclaiming, from one to the other, like he’s raging on the ramparts as they get stormed by the siege engines. He strangulates, squashes and marmalises every word, and it feels like if anyone else did it it’d be fucking silly, but not here, not here, no, this is fucking incredible.
But don’t forget, this here’s a duet, boys. Like you do, in so far as it’s sung by two people. But the voices aren’t the same, not even close to sounding like each other. You can tell these two apart - it’s called ‘character’. And Almond’s voice, no, it’s not as dramatic as Pitney’s, not quite so distinctive, but in the context of this song it works perfectly. It’s… it feels wrong to describe this as ‘cool’, cos he’s clearly investing a ton of emotion in the venture, but his singing is smoother, yet not necessarily lesser - Pitney’s far more of a show-stopper, but Alomnd’s far from dull himself. And the voices do go together, they back each other up brilliantly, they take the solo verses on fantastically, they pick through the start, get their heads of steam going, then launch themselves together towards the finish, as the strings get louder, Gene’s cracks and tics get even stronger, Almond’s voice just gets bolder and bolder, and it feels like the fastest five minutes of your life. The end comes and is a bit of a disappointment, just falling away, and it’s over all too quickly.
I hadn’t listened to this in a decade before this weekend. I can be a right wally sometimes.
Why are so many of today’s popular singers seemingly oblivious of the power of restraint? In their hands, a song becomes little more than an excuse for tasteless vocal acrobatics, the singer attempting to exude soulfulness by indulging in the most over-the-top and self-aggrandizing treatment of the song imaginable. In former eras, masters of understatement like Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra conveyed a song’s essence with masterful ease, but seldom are we met with similar artistry today. However, one recent recording, the new Rune Grammofon release List of Lights and Buoys by Susanna and the Magical Orchestra, demonstrates that such nuanced singing is still very much alive. While Susanna Wallumrřd’s vocals are strong throughout, it’s her cover of Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’ that is the album’s peak. The song’s a desperate plea from one woman to another to not take her man away from her. During its four magisterial minutes, Susanna’s whispered utterance imbues the song with a palpable heartache that’s devastating. And most notably, these deep wells of sadness are plumbed because she sings it in a plain style that’s free of embellishment. It’s a glorious moment made even more special by being so rare.
Appearing on The Turntable for one week only!
As I can’t figure out the scoring mechanism, am having my emails to William B. Swygart rejected because I’m not polite enough, and have lost control of my senses, we shall forgo keeping tabs on how the two teams are doing today. Suffice to say that after this week’s somewhat erratic choices by the Yanks I fully expect the Brits to pull away in Monday’s results. Or I would, if seemingly half the contestants hadn’t chosen this week to take a bye, the scallywags. Anyway, here’s Gavin’s insanalist commentary on his picks…
1. Britney Spears - Toxic [NEW ENTRY]
2. Busted - Who’s David
3. Sam & Mark - A Little Help From My Friends
4. Keane - Somewhere Only We Know
5. Westlife - Obvious [NEW ENTRY]
6. Twista - Slow Jamz [NEW ENTRY]
7. LMC vs U2 - Take Me To The Clouds Above
8. Raghav - Can’t Get Enough
9. Outkast - Hey Ya!
10. Deepest Blue - Give It Away
And here are the picks from the rest of the crew…
Todd Burns – bye [Our beloved captain is moving house and thus absent, something the American team may regret because the rest of them are insanalists with no idea about the British charts this week – Ed.]
Jon Brandt – bye
Dom Passantino – bye [Dom is running for election this week; last I heard he’d taken California – Ed.]
William B. Swygart – bye [William’s already seen the midweeks, and considers voting after this fact to be tantamount to cheating; fool, I say! – Ed.]
Alright, let’s slough off all of pretenses here for a moment. I admit it. I’m a Neil Diamond fan. I own three of his albums. As a matter of fact, at work yesterday, I was listening to Tap Root Manuscript, kicking forth with “Cracklin’ Rosie,” moving along to the suite of the album’s second side, with its children’s choruses and African rhythms. Whaddafuc?! The lone slip-up is the cover of “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” a song I’ve never had much of a taste for since the Hollies’ version of it. It’s the kind of album you pause when somebody walks into the office, and you get a good reading on whether or not it’s safe to continue. Yes, truly, an album that causes sweaty remorse in the listener, but such a damn guilty pleasure that I can’t resist popping it in on many rainy spring days to come. . .
If you ignore the chorus of “I’ll be around” (feat Timbaland) we could be hearing the 33 version of Lil Ms. Plastic surgery herself’s “The Jump Off”.
Luda perfectly suits the looney tunes beats of “Childz Play”, his voice going up and down all over the track. Coincidentally I had “What’s your fantasy?” on in the car today and although it doesn’t have lyrics of any real greatness, but he has a really ‘entertaining flow’ if you know what I mean.
An oft used comparison but “All Day Love Affair” really does have a real Sly Stone old school charm with those live horns. Reminds me of Tom Waits’ “I can’t get off Work to see my Baby” for some reason, probably because both songs are ####### great. My language is getting atrocious these days BTW.
Where “The Art of Noise” has a real band N.E.R.D. feel (a la “She wants to Move”) and is a bit shite, the other Pharrell track “Let’s Stay Together” (sadly, not a cover) has thick studio Tina Turner soul synths and its artificiality and clomping rhythm actually helps. Smooth as a muhfucka (…sorry).
I’m not really into Cee-Lo, his voices grates like sand in my foreskin, but theres a handful of tunes here for the Summer.
It’s like a crescendo that never ends – the tentative release dates, the whispers that he would be completing it at last. In the nearly forty years since Brian Wilson began work on Smile, the never-finished record has come to be seen as no mere turning point in The Beach Boys’ career, but a defining “fork in the road” for popular music. As envisaged in Lew Shiner’s ode to mid(dling)-life crisis, Glimpses, it’s a window into some kind of Alternate Pop Universe – a world where #1 records are bursting with boundless creativity. To these fans, Smile’s ambitious incorporation of Schubert’s lyricism, Ives’ experimentalism and Twain’s wry wit was about the possibilities of pop music to reach people and inspire them.
In truth, I was one of those people. I came to see the record’s collapse as signaling the death of that ideal – and with its replacement by the frankly-inferior Sgt. Peppers’ (and its token nods to classical and pop art) as the definitive album of 1967, the dream had ended. Whether it was merely coincidence or reflective of an evolving culture and industry, a good case could be made that Ambition—the kind with a capital A—no longer had a place in popular music once Smile fell apart.
And so, upon learning that Wilson would be taking the late, great album on tour, it can be said that I approached the news with a rather serious measure of caution. Aside from my Red Soxian skepticism that it would even happen at all, the mere idea that “The Definitive Lost Album,” as Stylus recently deemed it, would receive its premiere not with an official release, but rather a live performance by an artist so far past his prime struck me as, well, kind of anticlimactic, if not outright depressing. For one, I’d had virtually no interest in seeing Wilson’s performance of Pet Sounds Live a few years ago, preferring to let my associations with the original remain unencumbered by the impression of a catatonic old man bleating tunelessly in front of a crack orchestra.
This time, however, the stakes seemed a little higher; indeed, part of what made Smile so compelling was its very lack of definition – the way its brilliant vignettes, melodic and vocal fragments sort of floated in the ether in an unknown state of completion, only vaguely attached to any gravity-inducing framework. How did all those modular fragments fit into Wilson’s vision of “Heroes and Villains” anyway? Was “Wind Chimes” really the “Air” section of the “Elements Suite” or was it the rumored (and never heard) atmospheric piano snippet Wilson claimed? With so many unsolved mysteries still fueling endless debate among the ever-growing numbers of faithful, the tour had the potential to not only demythologize the record, ruining what is essentially one of the most gorgeous uncut diamonds in the history of popular music.
Lest we get overly dramatic, suffice it to say those concerns are largely unfounded.
I’ll leave it up to the endless debates at fan-site Cabinessence and BrianWilson.com to debate the particulars—of what fits where and so forth—but on the basis of a bootleg that appeared on the Internet within hours of the first show’s performance, Wilson’s SMiLE tour (new capitalizations and all) is really quite a remarkable achievement, leaving the record’s conceptual integrity intact. Yes, Wilson’s voice sounds worn. Yes, this project never would have happened without musician/admirers like original lyricist Van Dyke Parks driving the project creatively. And yes, giving Smile formal definition (if not definitive definition) does diminish the unknowable magic of the surviving recordings some.
But its revelations replenish that well and then some. For one, the performance is fairly brilliant, with the arrangements of what were extraordinarily complex studio recordings stunningly recreated. And Wilson’s voice, while by no means the angelic instrument it once was, generally rises to the occasion (and where it can’t, as on “Surf’s Up” remarkable vocal appoggiatura, he gets help from the band). He sounds energized, which in turn energizes the music itself.
And, of course, there’s the much-ballyhooed smattering of newly completed lyrics and melodies Wilson wrote with Parks. Among them, the once-skeletal “Do You Like Worms?” and “I Love To Say Dada” benefit the most, with the former gaining a vocal “Woo-woo!” choo-choo train chorus in and a new verse about an ocean liner. The latter’s Lord’s Prayer-esque lyrics during the creepy “Water Chant” section are slightly more dodgy (perhaps too explicitly referencing brother Dennis’s 1983 drowning). But overall, none really distract.
Largely, though, it’s just the same brilliant music Smile always was, here organized sensibly and compellingly. The show divides the songs into three mini-suites: the first based on “Heroes and Villains”, the second’s theme the “Changing of the Guard”, and the last being the Elements suite. The first incorporates all the Americana material, folding the manifest destiny premise of “Do You Like Worms?” into the industrialization themes of “Cabinessence.” The second suite collects the childlike wondermint (heh) of “Wonderful” and “Child Is the Father of the Man,” with Parks’ stunning torch-passing prose on the epic “Surf’s Up”. The last is the least conceptually coherent, as it starts with the Elements material, like the furious “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow” fire section, using the absurdist health ditty “Vege-tables” to pivot onto Brian’s “fitness” songs, like “I’m In Great Shape”.
Does the result, as one Internet poster mused, end up sounding like a “High School Play written by a very talented 16-year-old”? Given the structure, which certainly boxes Wilson’s ambition in some, perhaps more so now than before. But this is one play I wouldn’t leave once my kid’s scenes were over (besides, I’ve never heard any high-schooler write a melody like “Wonderful” or “Surf’s Up”).
And in any event, this particular high school play is being performed by a 62 year-old man with enough mental problems to place him out of senior year psych. Putting aside for a few moments the whole “Definitive Lost Album” stuff, the mere fact that this is happening at all—that Wilson was able to find a way to put aside all his demons, personal and legal, to make this tour happen—is nothing short of astonishing. Because by all rights, this ought to be terrible. It’s not, though. In fact, it’s pretty damned good.
Does all this make up for lost time? Hardly. The same soul-killing music industry that for all intents and purposes killed Wilson in 1967 is far worse now, one reason I’m not holding my breath that the newly completed recordings will be seeing the light of day anytime soon. But this does nicely, serving as a friendly reminder that Ambition does have a place in pop music after all – it’s just not on the radio. For us Yanks, here’s to hoping that place isn’t just Britain.
Went to see said band last night in Manchester, and found myself excited, yes - excited - by what I saw and heard. I’d been slightly disappointed by the last couple of major gigs I’d gone to; despite performances being top-class and everything, they just lacked that special something that means so very much to the gig-going community.
I’d certainly felt like this about the Polyphonic Spree last year (there was a buzz if ever I saw one), but jeez - these boys were on fire. Missed the support act, whoever they were - some NME-sponsored half-arsed garage-rock claptrap I assume; I didn’t lose any sleep. The Libertines were much more than this though: an hour and a quarter of pure velocity, steaming through most of the album and new stuff, not forgetting to provide a snapshot of what looks like a newly-strengthened bond between joint-frontmen Pete Doherty and Carl Barat.
Was slightly surprised/alarmed/disgusted by the amount of hippy throwbacks in the crowd, given the nature of the band’s music - but who cares about those poor, deluded fools? Put short I haven’t had so much fun in a long time, and all thanks to my NME-devotee friend Dave, who booked me a ticket on the grounds that I wouldn’t object when I heard their album was produced by Mick Jones.
Cheers Dave, you did me proud.