28 February 2009

Review: Amadou & Mariam, Bristol Academy, 26.02.09

As a grinning bongo player slaps out a hummingbird rhythm with oceanic force, the Jean Réno-lookalike bassist (who’s oozes French cool from his wide meerkat eyes and jazzy head jerking) seduces a puissant groove from his bass, and the girls on backing vocals shimmy with ululating physicality, Mariam stands peacefully still at the heart of it all in a sight that’s almost sad to behold. Amadou and Mariam met in 1974 at an institute for blind young people in Bamako, Mali, married in 1980, and have been making infinitely joyous music ever since, blending traditional African sounds with electric blues, les chansons françaises, and poignantly simple messages about unity and trust in human kind. For them to not be able to behold the carefree celebration and unabashed dancing of people of all ages that their music provokes seems almost an injustice, despite the fact that there would be none of this jubilation had they been able to see. However, where their disadvantage lies in sight, the majority of the audience’s lies in language - “the blind couple from Mali” sing mainly in French, but the power of their message, and cheesy as it sounds, of their love, bursts through communicative barriers with glittering, kaleidoscopic aplomb as the stage becomes a truly synaesthetic experience – the sense-assaulting storm of their sound marries with the vivid pink of their robes, reflecting off Amadou’s gold telecaster to translate into whoops of joy from the crowd, and back into wide smiles from the couple. “Est-ce que ça va?” booms Amadou. “Do you feel alri-ight?” And as shivers rattle down spines across the room, there’s no doubt about that we do.

There’s something about the natural cool and sweet tactile interaction of Amadou and Mariam that means they can get away with songs such as ‘I Follow You’, an English-language track from their latest album, ‘Welcome to Mali’ whose lyrics are disarmingly simple, and all the more affecting for it– “I think of you, every time, everywhere,” he faultlessly sings to his wife, as she strokes his head, swaying her hips, poised as the proud matriarch of the stage. Amadou falls to his knees for a tongue-in-cheek guitar solo that’s so impressive for a 54 year-old man even he seems surprised, bending its sound between jaunty regularity and a skittering jam so euphoric that even the roadies are high-fiving. He’s led off to deservedly rest by the side of the stage as Mariam performs an astonishing version of ‘Sabali’ (named by Pitchfork as one of their 100 Best Tracks of 2008), whose introductory notes are so high-pitched that I’d assumed they were processed on the record, but she sings unaided, like an equatorial sunrise, before ‘Ce n’est pas bon’ plink-plonks in like dew drops on a glass xylophone, and Amadou returns to sing, “Bonheur, bonheur pour le people” (wellbeing for the people) in earthy, rallying tones. After an ecstatic, carnival-spirit version of ‘La Realité’ from the album, ‘Dimanche à Bamako’, the duo return alone for the encore to sing ‘Je pense à toi’, a touching tribute from each to the other that sums up the message of the evening – their music seems to destroy silly cares and trivialities, and unite crowds spiritually. The musicianship this evening rings as if choreographed by some divine being, magical and glittering, with Amadou and Mariam at the centre of it all, gold-rimmed sunglasses glinting with pride as simple messages from Mali soar into consciousnesses the world over. 

27 February 2009

Live: Elmore Judd, Bristol Academy, 26.02.09

Any band that even contemplates the risky business of covering Can is alright by our book, so for Elmore Judd to tease ‘Vitamin C’ into a Teutonic tryst between lovers in a David Lynch film noir set on the first spaceship to leave earth is oh-so-welcome. Up there with Fujiya & Miyagi and Jamie Lidell when it comes to stamping their names on offbeat genres, nonchalantly cool keyboardist Jesse Hackett croons like Alexis Taylor blowing Prince geometric kisses, the band perverting African coconut-tapped rhythms with no-wave New York bass and bent synths that glide like smoke trails from illicit substances across an inter-planetary Serengeti. 

Review: Polly Scattergood - S/T

It’s despicable to lump female singers into one sexually defined genre, but there’s something so intentionally pathetic, so little girl lost that only a big strong man can save Brit School graduate Polly Scattergood from her brain-numbing misery that it’s jolly well the only categorization she deserves. On the absurdly MOR ‘Unforgiving Arms’, she comatosely intones, “I try my best to make him happy, but it’s not a piece of cake”, in spoken tones that are less independent glassiness, more double glazing housewife doldrums that would make Emily Pankhurst turn in her grave. Opener, ‘I Hate the Way’ is a tortured SEVEN MINUTE trudge through her nursery rhyme Evanescence emotions, wallowing in a kind of cheap Muse-on-helium lullaby that wouldn’t pass GCSE music. Her desperation to be a metropolitan Bat for Lashes is so palpable that you can practically hear the percussive ping of her gold American Apparel headband under the thin, tinny instrumentation, where cackhanded violins jab over micro electropop so dull and inconsequential that La Roux could no doubt burp a better tune. Her lyrics are a stream of self-obsessed, empty metaphor twitters that only pick up on the bizarre ‘Bunny Club’, a jarringly sleazy number inviting someone to “spit on my French knickers” in a voice that’s part pre-pubescent orphan Oliver, part Sweeney Todd’s Mrs Lovett narrating a Rampant Rabbit instruction manual for fey indie kids who give their genitalia pet names and cry during intercourse. Sadly for us listeners, the only carnal pleasure inherent in the record comes from trying to work out whether "you tell me what the sunset looks like from your brother's back yard" is some kind of euphemism…


23 February 2009

Filthy Dukes @ Thekla, 15.02.09

Review: Wendy & Lucy

Director Kelly Reichardt’s second full-length film is a shy, poetic but not optimistic vignette of a young woman travelling without moving through the fringes of backwater America. Played with piercing tact by Michelle Williams, determined drifter Wendy gets stuck in a tumbleweed Oregon town en route to Alaska, where she hopes to find employment. At her side is dog Lucy, her best friend and emotional anchor, whose disappearance, along with Wendy’s deepening financial straits, derails the young Indiana woman’s journey.

Despite weighing in at only 80 minutes, ‘Wendy & Lucy’ is no blink-and-you’ll-miss-it affair, nor does it suffer from a lack of closure. It’s paradoxically bolstered by its slow pace (which does occasionally border on becoming dull) – Wendy’s every eyelid flicker emphasizes the slow tick of time in this backwater town, where she’s slowly becoming a cog in the tedious machinations needed to get through these groundhog days. With its soundtrack-free, honest documentation of a town in stasis, ‘Wendy & Lucy’ is matter-of-factly political in its examination of monotonous, grey small-town life, silently questioning how places like this and its inhabitants survive – even the fruit in the supermarket has despaired of its vibrancy. It also takes a timely shot at the bureaucracy of employment – “you can’t get a job without an address; you can’t get an address without an address,” mocks the car-park attendant that Wendy encounters.

Made by a different director, ‘Wendy & Lucy’ might have ended up a clichéd portrait of a vibrant young woman lighting up a small town ‘Little Miss Sunshine’-style, or an emotionally-overwrought revelation of the kindness of strangers to the tearful tune of Bon Iver, but Reichardt’s minimalist direction and Williams’ vulnerable but dignified performance make for a sympathetic treatment of an aborted road movie.

‘Wendy & Lucy’ is an engaging examination of the human condition in times of utter hopelessness. As slow as it is, the film nor its protagonist never wallow in self-pity, or manipulate with overwrought emotionality or closure; if ‘Marley & Me’ was canine cinema’s prize poodle, then ‘Wendy & Lucy’ is its trusty sheepdog, revealing a seldom-tapped side to female companionship.


18 February 2009

Review: Confessions of a Shopaholic

When ‘Confessions of a Shopaholic’ asks its friend, “how do I look?”, said faithfully kooky, wisecracking BFF will say without hesitation, “oh hun, you look like a visual orgasm of delectable, sensual and frivolous femininity doing what you do best: reassuring despondent women everywhere that shopping need not be a myth in these tricky economic times.” It’s at this point that you can only wish ‘…Shopaholic’ had friends like Carrie, Samantha and Miranda (and that’s coming from an ardent SATC hater) to straight-talk it out of such delusions. Without any reservation or doubt, ‘Confessions of a Shopaholic’ is utter claptrap, its painful attempts to encompass every chick-flick cliché resulting in an almost misogynistic portrait of women at their worst.

Following the astounding successes of the SATC film and ‘Mamma Mia’, it’s no surprise that cheesemonger Jerry Bruckheimer decided to capitalise on the rise of female cinema-going by developing author Sophie Kinsella’s bestselling tales of one woman and her credit card into the ultimate chick-flick. However, not only does he capitalise thereon, but unashamedly steals the trademarks of iconic female characters who paved the way for this dungheap of a film – the seemingly ditsy girl outsmarting a seasoned businessman à la ‘Legally Blonde’? Check. Bridget Jones-style waggling of peachy bottom in the charming Grant/Firth-style boss’ face? Right on cue. And cat-fighting over dresses in a scene straight out of ‘Friends’? They’re all there, along with nods to the infinitely more intelligent ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ that are as unsubtle as some of Becky’s hideously garish outfits. Although she can’t be blamed for their physical similarities, Isla Fisher’s portrayal of Rebecca Bloomwood is an unsophisticated bastardization of Amy Adams’ excellent turn as naive Giselle in Disney’s ‘Enchanted’ – stumbling slapstick into every glass door, and simpering nauseatingly as an excuse for not knowing simple answers.

The film is an insult to women on so many levels – it paints its lead as hysterically and blindly addicted to consumerism without thought for the consequences, downtrodden and unmotivated in the face of male rejection, and despite any supposed university education, as having a distinct lack of social or professional skills. The female protagonists shriek and fawn sickeningly at every designer label, and despite a flimsy moral to the story it’s indubitable that Bruckheimer’s release schedule couldn’t have been much more distastefully timed. Despite its attempts to paint shopping as a divine occupation, ‘…Shopaholic’ is little more than a Pandora’s Box of hideous vices and ridiculous stereotypes.


12 February 2009

Bashing it out...

In news that’s hardly about to delight your neighbours, landlords and housemates, scientists and therapists have recently been highlighting the health benefits of drumming on mental and physical wellbeing. Experts and musicians alike have been singing its praises, with former drummer for The Clash, Nick “Topper” Headon, citing percussion as being partially responsible for his recovery from heroin addiction. He recently told BBC News, “Its a physical activity, it stimulates parts of the brain keeping the four limbs doing something different, and it is primeval as well - drums were the first instrument: before music, people were banging things together."

From group sessions patting out gentle African djembe rhythms to letting rip with high hat-assaulting punk, it is believed that drumming reduces stress, thus lowers blood pressure, and can also trigger specific brainwaves which foster clear thinking. It’s nigh-on impossible to sit behind a drum kit and not want to bash out a cack-handed fill, possibly stemming from bashing on saucepans with childish abandon all the way back to a more primitive, primal instinct. Indeed, Dr Bobby Bittman, neurologist and CEO of the Yamaha and Wellness Institute in Pennsylvania, believes that we are born with an inherent musical ability. “I believe we are hard-wired for music. There is evidence that even in the womb, the foetus has rhythm,” he said.

Of course, the idea of music as therapy is nothing new – testimonials of music’s effect on the psyche are innumerable, and evident in any part of daily life – revising to calm music, throwing shapes to 120bpm tracks, and amplifying a wallowing mood with equally downbeat music. But research undertaken by Guys Marsh prison near Shaftesbury, Dorset, puts forward the idea that music therapy can be strongly linked to reoffending rates amongst prisoners – the average prisoner is 61% likely to reoffend upon release, whereas, according to the study, the rate drops to around 15% with regard to prisoners who regularly attend music therapy sessions. Evidence has shown that self-expression via music and positive activity increases confidence, and helps offenders associate with crowds outside of troubled social spectrums.

Upon discovering this information, folk legend Billy Bragg established Jail Guitar Doors, an initiative intended to provide HMP prisoners with instruments. Named after a Clash b-side, one of the initiative’s most financially successful gigs paid tribute to the fifth anniversary of Joe Strummer’s death. Bragg said, “Hearing the Clash as a 19 year old had changed my life, so I guess I was looking for a project that underscored the transformative power of music.” Since its conception at the 2007 NME Awards, Jail Guitar Doors has donated instruments to more than 20 detention centres, at a cost of just under £500 per prison.

Although Daily Mail readers might be quick to cite the number of times that Pete Doherty has dragged his battered acoustic through Pentonville’s doors, Bragg’s project has seen some undeniable success stories. Theone Coleman, a former Guys Marsh inmate, was awarded the Young Achiever of the Year award from the Prince’s Trust, for his work in establishing and running a youth music project in Bournemouth. So next time you’re feeling frustrated or at loggerheads with the world, try sitting down, rollling up your sleeves, and bashing out a different kind of relief.