28 January 2009

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

About a decade ago, I spied on my younger brother as he furtively watched and rewound Kate Winslet’s nude scene in Titanic, him repeating this process to the extent that said scene is now unwatchably fuzzy due to his pre-pubescent yearnings. It’s not especially hard to imagine him reliving the process with a scene from Woody Allen’s latest, as María-Elena (Penélope Cruz) strokes Cristina’s (Scarlett Johansson) apple-cheeked face with smouldering seduction in the velvety red hues of a photographic darkroom, and the two embrace, dropping out of shot to make love. Given Allen’s lascivious history, you’d be forgiven for thinking that he might exploit the moment’s lust, but fortunately (perhaps surprisingly), the kiss is part of a rich, sympathetic tapestry exploring the dynamics of love in its every form – repressed, unrequited, desire and anti-desire, monogamy and polygamy.

The lead females blaze through Spain – Vicky (Rebecca Hall), engaged to be married, and pursuing a Masters in Catalan Identity (which conversely enough, unearths her own), and Cristina following in the pursuit of love and discovering her desires. She enjoys the work of Gaudi - the architect’s unfinished works, much like herself, alive with the vivacity of their lauded curvature – and impulsively decides to follow painter Juan Antonio to an historical village, setting off a chain of emotionally and physically explosive events which make both girls re-evaluate what they held dear.

The film starts off oddly charm- and quirkless, seeming as though it’s going to be a perfectly obvious rom-com and continuing evidence that Allen’s losing his touch, with (Don) Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) the chancing charlatan, and the female leads acting mock-coy whilst swirling enormous, clichéd wine glasses – but it develops into a sensual, sensitive portrait of sexual experimentation with the arrival of Juan Antonio’s passionately erratic artist ex-wife, María-Elena, equal parts spiteful and seductive, spitting her words with hysterical fury and jealousy at Cristina’s usurping of her position.

In ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona’, Allen riles against the conventions of love, the expectations and nomenclature that surround it, and only seeks to criticise Doug, Vicky’s smarmy, stereotypically yuppie fiancé, who longs for a life of expensive suburbia and bridge games, refusing to open his mind to the idea that love isn’t just marriage and financial security. Although ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona’ may not be one of Allen’s finest, it’s sure to be considerably more poignant and lasting than anything else you’re likely to see at the cinema this Valentine’s Day. Let’s just hope you’re not sat next to my brother…


Under the Influence: Lykke Li

"I don’t normally get influenced by a song or a beat. If I hear a tragic story, someone talking about something that went wrong, that’s what influences me, broken destinies and broken souls. I can’t listen to anybody for long, everything from hip hop to jazz and soul, the Velvet Underground and that kind music, but I don’t have any pop artists that I think are amazing. I love Lauren Hill, but I don’t think of her when I write a song. I’d like Usher to remix one of my songs. It’d be really funny to hear.

I’m listening to Bon Iver a lot at the moment, I’m a big fan. For the next record, I think I’m going to lock myself out from the outside world, drink whisky, and take it slowly, like Justin did.

I like On the Road, The Catcher in the Rye, biographies – I read Edith Piaf and Nina Simone’s – some Paulo Coehlo when I was younger and trying to find myself. I read a lot of the classics too, the Master and the Margarita.

My first records were the typical Madonna, Michael Jackson, probably some shitty mix music compilation.

Everyone asks me about Madonna – I liked her when I was seven – everyone did – so I don’t want to cite her as one of my influences, as she’s not. I think she’s a completely other person now than she was then.

I’ve always had such a strong desire about myself – I think it was mostly that which inspired be to become a musician. I’d like Usher to cover one of my songs."

The Day the Earth Stood Still

If there were an award for the most ridiculously overblown environmentally-conscious film of the year, The Day the Earth Stood Still would be a strong contender to knobble The Happening from its throne. Keanu Reeves phones it in as Klaatu, reprising his role as a bland slimy embryonic automaton, hellbent on saving the earth from the vaguely hinted-at traumas that we’ve inflicted upon it (despite at no point conveying the sagacious solution he seems to possess). Jaden Smith is bratty and annoying, and Jennifer Connolly’s turn as scientist Helen Benson is about as emotionally rewarding as the incessant product placement which undermines the scarcest chance of engagement in each scene. One of the film’s most eye-rollingly, inadvertently comical moments comes when the ever po-faced Klaatu orders Helen to pull over, to decide the fate of the world in a McDonalds, whose logo, specific meals and drinks radiate from the screen.

It’s dismally generic, using every tried-and-tested disaster movie technique from shots of TV news reports to US government types waffling technical war/science jargon in an attempt to lend the film credibility. As is the wont of most big-budget remakes/blockbusters this year, The Day the Earth Stood Still is rendered ever more bland and lifeless by the CGI that infests each scene – from the swirling balls of gas which pop up across the world, extending needlessly to entire cityscapes, and robots which look so low budget they wouldn’t even pass an audition to star in Doctor Who. There are so many gaping plot faults that it’s hard to know where to start, the most startlingly obvious being the abject lack of day to night consistency as the characters move from in- to outdoors. And most typically of all, despite the colossal disaster engulfing the world, the day is saved by a handy, seemingly deus ex machina change of mind on Klaatu’s behalf. Avoid at all costs… 

Beirut - March of the Zapotec/Realpeople Holland

Zapotec/Realpeople is a total identity crisis of a record, which deepens the furrows of the conundrum surrouding Zac Condon – is he a genuinely talented, tortured artist, yet to find himself in any corner of the world? Or, should the spell of his truly glorious first album, ‘The Gulag Orkestar’, be lifted, would he be nothing more than a disaffected rich kid, traveling the world in search of indigenous musical dialects to pilfer and plagiarise as his own? On ‘March of the Zapotec’ (named after a Mesoamerican people) a rambunctious, carnivalesque array of trumpets and percussion erupt on ‘El Zocalo’ as if leading a merry band down a sunlit dusty Mexican street, while ‘La Llorona’ deepens to more sophisticated, crepuscular tones, Condon’s languid voice swimming amongst elephantine horns in search of a girl, and ‘The Akara’ wordlessly mourns a nameless monarch in the court of Beirut, before a picaresque ukelele flamencos in. Take away the traditional Mexican band on this EP, and it’s hard to know what the songs would otherwise amount to. ‘My Night with the Prostitute from Marseille’, the first track from ‘Realpeople Holland’, is a whole different kettle of fish – magpie-attracting charms of the glimmeringly electronic, sleepy Eurodance beneath contrast interestingly with Condon’s sympathetic, fathoms-deep élan – it’s not dissimilar to the Postal Service gone Europop. Closer ‘No Dice’ could be the demure cousin of post ‘Hissing Fauna…’ of Montreal, a thumping, engulfing assault of reverberating drums, pretty camp, and were it not for the picture on the sleeve, entirely unrecognizable as Beirut. Desirable as it is to be objective, it’s extraordinarily difficult not to be won over by the self-effacing charm of this picaresque young gentleman.

27 January 2009

Andrew Bird - Noble Beast

Andrew Bird is as delightfully neurotic about musical perfectionism as they come. Over the last nine months or so, he blogged meticulously for the New York Times about the gestation period of his 11th album, ‘Noble Beast’ – partially recorded in Wilco’s studio, inspired by the helplessness of children crying on planes, and deliciously obsessed with the consonance of words, even making them up, if need be, to rumble pleasingly down his ornate, violin-led beautiful songs.

As the sun rises over opener ‘Oh No’ (influenced by aforementioned child), it becomes clear that the production on ‘Noble Beasts’ is towed by clarity; crisp and nurturing of the warmly defined sounds within, particularly the percussion – every kick-drum thump resonates accordingly, and every ting tickles the ear, whilst its idyllic, vintage string opening conjures images Van Dyke Parks soundtracking a 1940s Disney film. ‘Masterswarm’ could be Rufus Wainright covering Nick Drake’s ‘Bryter Layter’ era, powered by ticking handclaps and a skittering violin, in constant conversation with the more grounded, mature cello parts. “This is sure to misspell disaster”, he eloquently mumbles, highlighting his flair for clever (but never clichéd) lyrics.

On ‘Tenousness’ (one of his many experiments with word construction), Bird comes across like the late Arthur Russell, making African-influenced guitar twangs chatter with pastoral English-sounding folk, whilst still remaining the intrinsic, yet trickily indefinable qualities of intelligent American alternative music. He often plays a trick that chews its way into the depths of your soul, without you being able to articulate why such a simple guitar line has such an effect – take ‘Anonanimal’, where his biological mutterings lollop into each other, an elegiac, sophisticated tongue-twister atop a pensive drum and needle sharp xylophone and strings.

Equally affecting is ‘Souverian’, which Bird himself confessed to Drowned in Sound that it remained a mystery to him – his master instrument shudders as he whistles across a desolate landscape that Cormac McCarthy might be proud of, breaking into a conversational piano line which knows it’s all over; Souverian has gone. His ability to transform language burns to a piercing, mournful cry; his Chicago accent filtering through like smoke trails. Although ‘Noble Beast’ was born from Bird’s neuroses and uncertainty, he should rest easy that it’s certain to grow gratefully-received into the lives of many.


18 January 2009

Interview/Review: Franz Ferdinand

Although ‘Tonight: Franz Ferdinand’ hasn’t been a long time coming in the ‘Chinese Democracy’ stakes, the nigh-on four years between ‘You Could Have it So Much Better’ and its follow up mean that the band are jumping into the depths of an unfamiliar scene – no longer are they the doyens of the charts, atop every NME reader’s cultural compass. When they assaulted the charts with ‘Take Me Out’ in 2003, they sat alongside Razorlight and Keane as part of a triumvrate of intelligent (that might be generous with regard to Razorlight…) alternative music set to rescue the charts from manufactured pop pap, but as frontman Alex Kapranos sighs, “when we first appeared there weren’t many guitar bands in the chart, just a lot of formulaic pop music, and now, there seems to be a degree of formulaic guitar bands kicking around.” The question seems to be, will the dandified, articulate Glaswegian quartet be able to stand out in a scene of brash, meatheated dirty ladrock?

As the ominous, seductively arch bassline of ‘Ulysses’ kicks in, it’s quite apparent that the pastoral tendencies we saw Franz exhibit on their last album have been left to lie fallow for a while. “Let’s get high,” pouts Kapranos, making way for a filthy, indignant 8-bit electronic riff which writhes contorted like a straightjacketed dancer. The band described their last album as “teenagers having sex” – “magic, but frantic and over quite quickly” - you get the impression they’re trying to restrain themselves, attempting to hold back on a magnificent climax (and boy do they come later on…).

“The story of Ulysses or Odysseus is a great tale, and you can still read it two and a half thousand years later – you really empathise with his characters, and get the feeling he’s never going home – there are always times in your life when you feel a bit like that, certainly when you’re in a band,” says Kapranos. “If you let that get you down, it’s a disaster, but if you can see it as an adventure, then great. It’s more about how you can consider yourself to be a hero when you’re not.”

Unfortunately, they seem to have acquired a horrible production habit on this song which manifests itself throughout the album – disconnected, jarring, echoey middle-eights, with all the panache and subtlety of a horror B-movie. It crops up again on ‘No You Girls’, and ‘Live Alone’, the latter of which is the type of mid-tempo Franz song which just really doesn’t work, straight disco which could have been prised directly from the monochrome bars of Blondie’s ‘Parallel Lines’ LP.

The build-up to this album almost broke the rumour mill – ‘Franz Ferdinand make Afrobeat album’, ‘Franz to record pop album with Xenomania’, but they’re quick to correct the record on the influences which have been foisted upon them.

“When we came offstage from African Express, someone asked me if we like African music, so I said, “of course we do, we’re playing with a bunch of African guys, of course we like African music,” and then that, through a series of Chinese whispers, and the internet, became, ‘Franz Ferdinand to make African album’,” says Alex.

This fatigue with the press reveals itself on ‘What She Came For’ – “I’ve got a question for ya, where d’ya get your name from?” snarls Alex, mocking journalists’ lack of imagination. Unfortunately for the band, ‘What She Came For’, although biting in message, is one of the record’s weakest tracks – Kapranos’ delivery is affected and whiny, and the chorus breaks into what’s seemingly the band’s unconfident-sounding attempt at a football terrace shoutalong chorus – if the rest of the songs on the album weren’t so strong, you could be forgiven for thinking this song a glib attempt at staying relevant.

Those strengths reveal themselves when Franz are at their sparsely arranged best - on ‘Turn It On’, the bass kicks its pointed-toe brogues under call and response vocals, and a screeching, cricket-like alarm sound. The sessions with Xenomania obviously paid off – it’s not hard to imagine Girls Aloud covering this track in the Live Lounge, nor ‘Can’t Stop Feeling’, with its dub bassline contrasting stylishly with Kapranos’ purred Scottish brogue. ‘Bit Hard’ is all pseudonyms and kissers, regrets and revelations, stalkers and dirty looks on the dancefloor. “I won’t resort to kissing your photo,” they sing, proving that we can always rely on Franz Ferdinand for decadent dandified aesthetics in an instance where Arctic Monkeys might bookmark your Myspace photos.

The imagery of the lyrics is as rich as ever – ‘Send Him Away’ sounds influenced by Merseybeat, which works well, and it’s imbued with rich jealous scenes, to the extent that you can almost feel “his breath in your hair”, the Wurlitzer jittering like an envious hand trying to focus all its energies on holding a glass as you watch someone muscle in on your girlfriend. ‘No You Girls’ wouldn’t sound out of place on their first album, with its film noir imagery put through a 21st century art-pop wrangler. “Kiss me, lick your cigarette then kiss me,” say Alex’s louche vocals, under an insouciant metronic ting. Built around simple motifs, the bassline could fit under ‘Take Me Out’, and the massive chorus and sexual frisson could amount to a kind of modern day ‘Girls and Boys’. Despite these rich images, however, the band have taken a step away from the Russian construtivist artwork which bound their first two records.

“We definitely wanted to change our aesthetic this time around, just because those first two records really reflected the sound of the music, that bold geometry – it looked like the record sounded, those strong jerky movements. This record has a different feel to it, there’s a dirtier, nighttime vibe,” says Alex.

Although whether the record is a massive departure from their previous work is contentious, ‘Tonight’ does mark the band’s first foray into the concept record, supposedly soundtracking the events of an evening out, climaxing in ‘Lucid Dreams’, a massively unpredictable departure from their usual work. Starting as a sickly, heartthrob ballad, it’s a great experiment with structure, an uncharacteristic wall of sound bursting at the seams. Just as Gregor Samsa awoke metamorphosed one morning from troubled dreams, it seems that Franz have undergone an equally profound transformation on this seven minute track. It’s the least lucid, most frenetic, worrying of dreams, chopping and changing every few minutes – from standard Franz, to a kickdrum worthy of a Grace Jones track – it’s not hard to imagine her singing over the crazy electronic ending of the song, sounding like Kraftwerk playing Pong with Kernkraft in the midst of the sort of ear pounding club confusion that we’re all familiar with. Simmering down to an almost minimal techno ending, the closing notes of the song sound as though they’re gasping for breath over a pounding heartbeat. What Kitsuné Maison’s cohort will make of this, I cannot wait to hear. It’s undoubtedly the best song the band have ever made. However, despite ‘Dream Again’ acting as a kind of hazy, hungover epilogue to ‘Lucid Dreams’, any suggestion that this is a subtle hint to the next album being equally experimental was sadly refuted.

It was supposed to represet the idea of a night out, and ‘Lucid Dreams’ has that climax, where it really comes up, and the come-down is ‘Dream Again’ and ‘Katherine Kiss Me’,” says Alex. “With both of those songs, the lyrics and the music, we wanted to give them a dreamlike quality – but different types of dream. ‘Lucid Dreams’ is obviously that kind of chaotic, semi-nightmare of a dream, whereas ‘Dream Again’ is much more positive.” ‘Dream Again’’s romanticized, out of focus vocals, and mildly psychedelic synths lend ‘Tonight’ the feeling of a really complete pop album, the notion of which the band are eager to protect.

Nowadays, we talk about downloads rather than albums – this is supposed to be listened to in the order it’s put together. A lot of work goes into building the dynamic within a song, and the same amount goes into an album – it’s like making a compilation for somebody, you can tell how much someone loves you by how good the compilation they make for you is, whether it flows well,” says Alex.

The record’s coda, ‘Katherine Kiss Me’ might be to Franz Ferdinand what ‘Songbird’ was to Oasis – a surprisingly sweet, honest take on love which avoids the nightclub bravado of its album predecessors. It’s a sister song to ‘No You Girls’, as Alex explained:

“Both songs are about the same event – kissing somebody for the first time. We’re trying to show how we recall big emotional events in our lives depending on the circumstances in which we recount them, and who we’re telling them to. ‘No You Girls’ is how you might tell it to your friends in the pub, where you exaggerate something, everything becomes more glamorous, you make a story out of it. Whereas ‘Katherine Kiss Me’ came from the same events, where you remember how emotionally fragile it was, and how you felt.”

The gorgeous, almost Kinks-esque acoustic ballad features rolling lyrical contradictions – “yes I love you, I mean, yes, I’d love to get to know you”, and the fragility of “how the boy feels” is a welcome shy away from their usual enigmatic bravado.

During the writing of the album, they played the club circuit, testing out new material on audiences to see if they approved, and amending accordingly. The band are about to begin touring the new material in its finite form, supported by Metronomy. Despite the homogenization of London venues in particular, and the current economic climate, the band are optimistic about the future of live music.

“I think people will always want to hear live music,” says Alex. “There have always been press stories about the death of live music – I’m sure they were doing it in 1962 or whenever the jukebox was introduced. I don’t like seeing the homogenization of the venues – that’s definitely happening with Live Nation. It’s nice when you come to a town, and it’s got these quirky little venues that you wouldn’t see anywhere else.”

“Someone asked me earlier today if streaming live gigs on the internet meant the death of live music,” adds Paul. “I thought, “you don’t go to many live gigs, do you…””

After a drop in form with ‘You Could Have it So Much Better’, ‘Tonight’, and in particular ‘Lucid Dreams’ seem as though they’re not only going to be a saving grace for the band, but “formulaic guitar music” in general. From a personal perspective, I’ll never forget the excitement I felt when Franz Ferdinand came around the first time – they were undoubtedly many tentative teenage music fans’ first foray into guitar music, a band to be admired with their defined aesthetics and cerebral knowing. Hopefully, ‘Tonight’ will inspire a whole new generation of music fans to abandon generic scally rock for something significantly more fulfilling.

2 January 2009

Bon Iver - Blood Bank EP

It’s hard to write about Bon Iver without disintegrating into plaid shirt cliches and log cabin metaphors (not to mention melancholy), but there’s something so whiskey-hazed warm and familiar about the opening hymnal notes of ‘Blood Bank’ that it’s hard not to. Throw in some trademark gruff falsetto crooning about kisses in the snow and the creak of Christmas morning, and you’ve pretty much got a Pitchfork reader’s wet dream right there. But all crassness aside, this is the kind of EP that makes you want to embrace under the covers all weekend, avoiding the harsh chilling bite of reality whilst swooning to the ‘Wolves Pt. I & III’-esque “I know you well” refrain. The identikit reviews which trailed ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ labelled it as being haunting, but rather than pressing you to confront ghosts and skeletons that you’d rather forget, ‘Blood Bank EP’ is more akin to the comforting spirit of a lost friend, there to hold you through lock and key protected feelings and make you realise that it’s not so bad after all. The folorn romantic of Justin Vernon’s debut remains only in tone (there’s seemingly a Mrs Iver on the scene), as he heavily accepts the reproductive purpose of humans on ‘Babys’ (sic), which opens with a peculiarly detached cinematic feel. It’s only ‘Woods’ that jars, a vocoder-ed baying at the moon that’s so uncharacteristically Bon Iver that you wonder whether it’s a flippant musical two fingers up to the critics who pigeonholed his debut. But that aside, anyone who’s spent 2008 holed up in their bedroom trying to stop tears falling into their keyboard whilst listening to ‘For Emma…’ isn’t about to be granted a reprieve with ‘Blood Bank’.