Monday, 30 December 2013

2013: Year of the American Black Man and his Voice

The weirdest exchange has taken place: Britain successfully exported retro pop acts like Amy Winehouse and Adele to America while the US has actively developed classic funk and soul artists that have made greater waves in Europe than at home.
2013 produced some amazing American funk and soul tracks that instantly register as classic tunes, only they were produced and recorded over the last twelve months. It should be every American’s patriotic duty to celebrate the brilliance of such marvellous home-grown music.
Myron & E’s If I Gave you my Love
Sat here in Britain, South Central LA is to us the home of drive –by shootings, Death Row Records and violent ghetto movies of the early ‘90s. It turns out that the ineffably soulful Myron is from those very ghetto fabulous streets of Los Angeles while his singing partner, E, hails from the mean streets of Newark, New Jersey (that place also produced ghetto fabulously violent movies like New Jersey Drive). Together they evoke the kind of sounds that must make Martin Scorsese want to call up Robert De Niro and get another mobster movie going. This is good stuff, and because I like you so much, you can have it for free.

Charles Bradley’s Victim of Love
Bradley was mentioned on this blog early on in 2013, but his cache in Europe has gotten even bigger. The singer spent much of his life abandoned and homeless, receiving a late career opportunity as a James Brown impersonator in California. It was thanks to the clever guys at Daptone Records that Bradley actually got his start as a recording artist in his own right and began producing original material. This clip is taken from a live recording at the Fluxbau in Berlin and the crowd’s adoration of Bradley’s performance easily conveys just how much he’s won over European fans in the last few years.

Booker T's Watch you Sleeping
It's probably a miscalculation adding the legendary Booker T to this list of largely unknowns, but one can't resist because it's likely this song was largely overlooked in America. Booker T teamed up with Kori Withers for this one and produced a modern day classic. The song would play on British radio last summer, totally befitting the warmest season we've had in six years. Considering that Booker T stopped making albums in 1989, the last few years has seen him firing on all cylinders, producing no less than three records in four years. This track is gorgeous.

Roman GianArthur’s I-69
Roman GianArthur is of the Wondaland Arts Society movement which is the stable of notable funk acts like Janelle Monàe and Terrence Brown. Wondaland has a pretty magnificent manifesto in which it postulates that its artists must wear tuxedos every day, jump into pools during performances, wear Civil War hats at all times and rock vintage Jordans when in public. It’s no surprise that Wondaland is rocking it in Europe as its radical policies seems way better than the inept politics that has strangled our union in what must be the most prolonged economic maelstrom in living memory. The video underneath demonstrates why GianArthur’s talents will corner the market in coolness. This cat is the epitome of smooth and reminds me so much of myself (tongue is firmly in cheek).

Sunday, 22 December 2013

-Music Videos on my Mind- Metronomy's "I'm Aquarius"

Electronic music has strangely enough superseded rock ‘n’ roll as the youths’ sound of choice. Guys that were bullied at school for spending too much time indoors playing with technology have become aspirational, while those that revelled in sex and drugs have become un-cool. In a topsy-turvy turn of events, the former commands millions to spin records in hip clubs across the world and the latter struggles to land a record deal. How did that happen?
With a video echoing outer space B-movie kitsch and featuring creepy furless cats, Metronomy’s Im Aquarius plays like an art student’s final year film presentation. It’s a serviceable piece but hardly launches the group in exciting new directions.
Then again, there is no direction to change because as the lead single from the group’s second album, I’m Aquarius signals that Metronomy aren’t willing to tinker too much with a successful formula which last time resulted in major acclaim and lucrative remix commissions from Lady Gaga and Lykke Li. This kind of monotony is paying off in spades.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

British Music Ends the Year in Style

It is always a point of credulity when a music blogger puts their neck out at the beginning of the year and declares that the following 12 months will be festooned with white guys with guitars reclaiming their rightful place at the top of the music food chain.
Instead British music in 2013 was a more omnivorous affair with lots of different things happening. Below is a scant snapshot of the range on offer this month. It seems the future of British music (note to one’s self) will be protean and unpredictable, but also pretty exciting.

A Year of British Rap
Ghostpoet’s Season Change
Ghostpoet is equal parts chameleon, Corinthian and caricature. He is a rapper from Coventry, a post-industrial multicultural city that was the home of landmark British acts like The Specials and The Selecter. Like the latter two acts, Ghostpoet’s animated inventiveness is countered with despondent lyrics about life’s unremitting daily grind. There’s a jolting anxiety and uneasiness to his work that makes one realise he has very real things to say about the human condition. His work with African Express this year made for a Malian rhythm infused record that blends tribal drums with anachronistic arcade game sounds. The lyrics are desperate and needy, yearning for change and redemption – very much echoing the plights of both the disenfranchised underclassmen of Britain and the war torn peoples of central Africa where Season Change was recorded.

A Year of British Rock
Royal Blood’s Out of the Black
Even though British guitar music failed to deliver in big ways this year, there was some good stuff. One group that registered is Royal Blood, a two-piece rock act from Brighton that manages to create an epic sound despite only consisting of a bass guitar and drums. Locked somewhere between the anger of Rage Against the Machine and the sheen of Muse, Royal Blood isn’t just raucous noise, there is a great deal of skill at play here, much of it inspired by everyone from Led Zeppelin to The Pixies.

A Year of British Country
Ned Roberts’ Blues #6
Britain makes country music? No, not really, though there is a movement called Cowboys for Country Music that pickets major broadcasting headquarters and line-dances in front of them in an effort to make UK radio stations play more mainstream American country music. Country music is seen as far too removed from British culture, but Ned Roberts is a figure that sounds like the reincarnation of Tex Owens. To be fair, our Ned is American by birth but he has made his home here in England and draws as much inspiration from the bucolic wilderness of Wiltshire as he does the wild west of Wyoming.

A Year of British Electronic Dance
Jon Hopkins’ Collider
Dance music flows through the veins of Europeans. It belongs to us and has been a mainstay of our music culture for decades. Dance music is what brings Europe together, a unifying backdrop that enables us to engage in common equanimity. Before dance music came about we were constantly warring with each other, but now we get down in shared appreciation of binary rhythms and beats. While the Americans insist on cheapening the brand by proclaiming cheesy EDM as their saviour, we Europeans know real dance music when we hear it. Britain’s Jon Hopkins has produced the kind of record that does something familiar but adds melodic touches and flourishes you don’t see coming. This is a thinking person’s dance music and has one heck of a music video accompanying it.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Is Jennifer Lawrence a Movie Star?

Sandwiched between the phenomenal successes of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and this month’s awards’ baiting release of American Hustle, it seems an apt moment to ask ourselves if Jennifer Lawrence is the real deal?

The British cultural academic Richard Dyer wrote a seminal book in 1979 called Stars, in which he theorised the notion that audiences will engage with a film on the basis of our pre-existing perceptions of a celebrated movie star. Dyer’s book was the first proper intellectual exploration of how movie marketing and reviews hinge around the cultural sway of a movie star, focussing on the significance of stardom in American cinema.
Dyer in film academia is the man that brought forward the idea of star theory and provided the tools necessary for analysing how an actor’s constructed identity meshes with the performance given. By this definition, films live and breathe through what movie stars bring to them. Our idolisation of a movie star is what primarily attracts us to the picture, with us wanting to see the story play out through the living embodiment of the actor, making themes, morals, ideas and messages more effectively communicable due to the fact that we can relate better with the stars acting in it. For this very reason we will rush to see Tom Cruise acting in a movie in which he dramatises the harrowing experiences of a Vietnam vet paralysed by war injuries, and pay good money to see Tom Hanks star in a picture in which he plays a homosexual AIDS sufferer on the cusp of death but battling against his former employers for unfair dismissal. Movie stars enable instant communication and appeal of a given film. Without movie stars you have no film industry.
So how does Jennifer Lawrence fit into this? Most will argue that she is the epitome of Dyer’s star theory, but one is not instantly convinced. You see, Lawrence seems an icon of our times, but whether she has the pull of attracting audiences to see her in challenging roles is up for debate. Her break out role was in Winter’s Bone in which her performance as a troubled teenager in rural Ozarks attempting to prevent her family from eviction by trying to locate their missing father garnered much praise and an Oscar nomination. As a result, her ‘star’ power quickly intensified, with Lawrence winning coveted roles in X-Men and as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. Earlier this year she won Best Actress at the Academy Awards for her performance as the kooky young widow Tiffany Maxwell in Silver Linings Playbook. If anything, the last three years both prove and justify Jennifer Lawrence’s range, respect and reliability, warranting all claims of her being a movie star whom elevates the standing of any film she stars in.

But will Jennifer Lawrence’s name really guarantee box-office success? In truth, Silver Linings Playbook made more than $100 million at the American box-office in spite of its odd premise, but it was aided by a stellar ensemble cast that appealed to a mass demographic, a well-respected director at the helm, and the marketing muscle of the Weinstein Company. Ultimately, Silver Linings Playbook worked because underneath its awkward veneer it’s basically a feel good film with attractive leads.

On the other hand, Sandra Bullock is a true female movie star. She is someone audiences connect with. Never has an American actress made a succession of rotten movies and still managed to conjure billions in box-office revenues the way Bullock has. In a career consisting of crap like Demolition Man, The Net, Practical Magic and The Proposal (to name a few), Bullock has managed to spend the last twenty years bouncing from one unremarkable picture to the next, all watermarked with her persona of unquestionable beauty and affable quirkiness. Bullock has pretty much given the same performance in every film she’s made, retaining a lucrative and charming formula that has resulted in a career which has endured the usual pitfalls actresses of a certain age befall. Her turn in this autumn’s Gravity was basically Sandra Bullock lost in space, though her performance was technically satisfactory and serviced a truly cinematic event. Gravity has been a huge success because of the innovation on offer, but its saleability is essentially due to the fact that audiences identify and care about Sandra Bullock. Gravity initially played best to a 30+ audience, with word of mouth about its amazing artistry and technicalities filtering down to younger markets. Gravity is an event picture but it’s anchored by Bullock’s reliability as a movie star. Even if all else failed, older audiences that adore Bullock would have been there. As long as Bullock remains the movie star she is, her audience will remain loyal.
Many genuinely believe that Jennifer Lawrence is a once in a generation movie star, with young audiences loving her grounded personality and devil-may-care attitude. She’s adorable and talented, but can she open a movie? The Hunger Games franchise certainly benefits from Lawrence’s inclusion, but it was a publishing phenomenon even before she came on board. The X-Men franchise was massive prior to her taking on the latest incarnation of Mystique, and will be instantly recast if she ever relinquishes the role. American Hustle, much like Silver Linings Playbook, is an ensemble piece in which many constituent parts provide star wattage. The notion that audiences will flock to any old crap Lawrence puts her name to the way Bullock can remains untested, and for that reason her stardom is questionable.

To be honest, movie stars don’t matter as much as they used to. Personalities count for less than brand recognition. Lawrence, timid of things like Twitter and celebrity, wants her performances to define her, but we live in a different era. Her hairstyles and fashion choices gain traction on the blogosphere, but she remains cagey about how much access she gives. Her greatest asset is that she doesn’t take herself seriously, which separates her from the annoyingness of Anne Hathaway and the blandness of say Lily Collins. Lawrence is doing everything better than anyone else in the game, but it still may not be enough because the concept of movie stardom isn’t what it was.
Richard Dyer’s mantra on movie stars is that without them you cannot really have a film industry. Nowadays it costs more money to sell a film than to actually make it. Furthermore, audiences are historically less discerning than they have ever been in the past. As Hollywood focuses on flogging branded concepts without nurturing the next generation of movie stars, it may mark the death of cinema as we know it, and Lawrence may be the last twinkling hope in an industry teetering on the brink of irrelevance.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

-Music Videos on my Mind- Placebo’s “Loud Like Love”

Placebo is a lot like Muse. I mean, here are two bands that were actually considered kind of cool when they first released records, but then very quickly became naff and boring as their popularities burgeoned. It’s easy to forget how good Muse sounded when its debut album Showbiz came out in 1999; likewise one shouldn’t discount the quality of Placebo’s first eponymous studio album released in 1996. The problem was that both bands have pretty much coasted their entire careers, putting out records that sound near enough identical to everything else they’ve done. The unfamiliar has become all too familiar.
Placebo’s lead singer, Brian Molko, was such an androgynously pretty specimen of a young man when he started out, evoking the glam-rock splendour of Bowie during his 1970s heyday. Now a middle-aged recovering heroin addict, Molko ain’t what he used to be, and Placebo is just some band that puts out interchangeable records every few years or so. However, much like Muse, they’ll very occasionally release a single that makes one remember just why we all liked them at one time or another. Loud Like Love exemplifies what I’m on about.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

-Music Videos on my Mind- Shreya Ghoshal’s “Nagada Sang Dhol”

Flicking through the cornucopia of digital television channels in Britain, I chanced upon a feature for an Indian song that was a part of a movie called Ram-leela that seemed to be a rustic Bollywood retelling of a Shakespearean tale. The feature deconstructed the painstaking development and rehearsals for a song number called Nagada Sang Dhol that involved teams of artists and craftsmen planning and structuring the music and choreography for a sequence. It was almost like watching the DVD extras for a Hollywood movie in which they illustrate the pre-vis compositing and subsequent digital rendering of a complex special-effects shot, only this was an organic dance number in which dancers’ ankles gave way and tendons got snapped in efforts to bring the song to life. The end result is breathtaking.
The sensory scale and sumptuous production design of this video is almost intoxicating. It’s such a passionate orgy of Indian folk madness that MIA must wish it was the music video for her new track. There are only a few cultures in the world that can do stuff like this.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

-Music Videos on my Mind- Yuck’s “Lose my Breath”

There you are: this indie rock band straight out of north London, consisting of hip Jewish kids with crazy hair and tipped for big things; that is until your lead singer decides to evacuate his calling after just one album, thus rendering them a unit without a front man. This was the fate of Yuck after lead singer Daniel Blumberg called it a day. But this industrious bunch took it on the chin and sauntered guitarist Max Bloom into pole position and decided to carry on as if nothing had happened.
In a style of true Jewish resilience, Yuck has come back with new music that sounds as good as the old stuff - perhaps even better. Continuing on as if the slacker movement that came out of America in the early ‘90s never went away; Yuck sound as cool as they look. The video may be simple but the music is good.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

The British Film Industry Continues to Undersell Black Talent

There’s a British period costume drama that has been doing the rounds at various international film festivals this autumn. Ordinarily such movies are an annoying cultural fixture in the British film industry: staid pictures that pander to the United Kingdom’s obsession with celebrating antiquated Victorian values.
And then this trailer came along and made things seem kind of different.
Belle is doing something that, to my knowledge, British cinema has hitherto never attempted: portrayed the experiences of a black woman during Victorian times, yet depicted it with all the stately production values the genre is known for. It has a solid cast and scored enough attention at festivals to attract the backing of a major Hollywood studio (Fox Searchlight) to come on board and distribute the movie in key international territories. But what is perhaps the most amazing aspect of Belle is that a British black woman directed it.

Amma Asante is a former child actor that left acting to peruse a career in scriptwriting. Her writing was so compelling that producers encouraged Asante to try her hand at directing. Her debut feature, A Way of Life, was one of the most ferocious and powerful British films to have been released in the last ten years. Whereas many black filmmakers would’ve made their first film something that focuses on black experiences of British life, Asante instead told the story of an underclass white teenage mother called Leigh-Anne who engages in callous and unforgivable acts. She terrorises her Turkish neighbours, prostitutes a teenage virgin in order to pay for heating, orchestrates chaos, and, ultimately, takes things so far that it culminates in the brutal murder of an immigrant living in her Welsh community. It is an incendiary picture, though, a million miles from the world depicted in Belle. Despite that, A Way of Life is rich in complexity and pathos: all the ingredients that make for excellent drama.
It’s been almost nine years since A Way of Life was released. In that time Asante had a project fall apart due to financial issues, but it seems shameful that the British film industry has not capitalised on an exciting young talent who ought to have better backing and support.
This begs the question of whether the British film industry is capable of nurturing and developing the careers of black filmmakers? Belle loosely tells the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, an illegitimate mixed race daughter of a Royal Navy Admiral in late 18th Century England that grew up in a society where she had the benefits of wealth but lacked the civil opportunities afforded to her white counterparts. (Because so little is known about the real Dido, Asante very cleverly embellishes the story by inventing plotlines where the protagonist is involved with dealings relating to the Zong massacre, abolitionism, horrors of the Middle Passage; therefore, generating greater understanding about the politics that shaped Britain’s attitude to black people.)
The story seems a very apt comparator to how things are for black actors and filmmakers in Britain currently. There are initiatives and schemes established to support creative ethnic talent, but the results are patchy. The most exciting creative minority voices in British cinema are not necessarily those from South Asian or oriental backgrounds, they are often those coming from the black communities, yet because of Britain’s myopic mindset, such individuals are either emigrating to America or will do so if we don’t change our ways.
The character of Belle is played by the beautiful and gifted actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw who is a graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. In the theatre world she has played the roles of Shakespeare’s Juliet and Cleopatra to great acclaim, yet television and cinema has not figured out the best way to utilise her evident skills. What is most disheartening is her admission to Screen International that “As a mixed race actress from the UK it is difficult when all your friends are cast in period adaptations of Dickens and Jane Austen, for example. I wasn’t sure how I would get cast in those wonderful stories”. It is this very statement that makes me wonder just how meritocratic Britain is.
We’re at a juncture in Britain where foresight is in short supply and that means as a nation we are really missing a trick. The filmmaker Steve McQueen, he of 12 Years a Slave acclaim, has made his last two films American based stories. Actors like Idris Elba and Chiwetel Ejiofor made their mark in American productions before Britain decided to develop things for them to star in. If this trend continues then Asante and Mbatha-Raw will likely go stateside and embrace opportunities over there rather than stay here.

Although Belle may be courting the right sort of attention, it still may not prove fortuitous. It’s difficult to imagine that the dependable middle-English audiences for costume dramas will flock to something that is an unknown property. Whether British ethnic audiences will be drawn to it is difficult to gage. American audiences, however, may actually be the most dependable market for Belle as the film caters to lovers of Anglo-heritage and characterises the experiences of a woman of colour existing in circumstances previously unrepresented.
Asante stated recently that although Belle’s prospects seem prosperous, the film’s atypical nature may work against it.  She said: “The pressure I feel is to be able to prove that a black character can carry a period movie like this so that we don’t have financiers saying in future ‘oh well we tried that, and it didn’t work.’”
It seems important that we as British audiences greet change. If we actually prove that showcasing stories about unique experiences, even within the tried and tested paradigms of elegant costume dramas proves appealing to us, then that may make British cinema a more interesting place.

Belle may be the portrayal of a mixed race woman’s stoicism and strength, but that hopefully will not make for mixed fortunes. It’s important that British cinema comes of age, even if that means it has to look back to its past for clarity. After all, the only existing image of Dido Elizabeth Belle is a pioneering portrait by Johann Zoffany―a painting that portrays a black female subject on an equal eye-line with a white aristocrat. If that isn’t an inspirational signifier then we are truly lost as a nation.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

-Music Videos on my Mind- British Sea Power's “Monsters of Sunderland”

British Sea Power is one of those undervalued English bands that seem to have more importance than we give credit. They’ve only been around for ten years yet whenever a credible radio station does a countdown of greatest British songs of the last fifty years; a few BSP tracks usually crop up.
The thing is BSP exists under the radar. When their first album hit in 2003 it was a flop. Yet sustained word of mouth resulted in the album shifting 60,000 units by 2005, which guaranteed sold out concerts in big venues across the UK. Six albums in, BSP is hardly a household name, but they consistently sell near enough the same amount of records every time, which means they’re popularity is consistent. They have a loyal fan base that isn’t growing, yet isn’t faltering. That’s pretty impressive considering how ephemeral pop music is by nature.
And because it’s Halloween, this video seems very seasonally pertinent.

Monday, 28 October 2013

-Music Videos on my Mind- Young’s “The Paper Kites”

Argh! This video needs to come with a public health warning. Though the Australian band’s deceptively soothing melody draws one in, the frenetic editing will make peoples’ brains melt. The video consists of 350+ faces taken over 7 days shooting time, with 10 days of assembling time for 4000+ photos, all blended together at blinding speed. It is an amazing technical accomplishment, and because the band realises it’s not an easy watch, they’re rewarding viewers with a free copy of the song for their endurance.
Just focus on the mouth or else you’ll end up in casualty.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

-Music Videos on my Mind- Tired Pony’s “The Creak in the Floorboards”

Blimey, supergroup Tired Pony is the music equivalent of a comic book superhero team up. You’ve got Gary Lightbody (he of Snow Patrol), Peter Buck (he of R.E.M.), Scott McCaughey (he also of R.E.M.), Richard Colburn (he of Belle and Sebastian), Iain Archer (he that is a mega-successful songwriter) Jacknife Lee (he that has produced numerously well-received albums of the last decade) and Troy Stewart (whoever he is), all brought together in the love of creating good music.
Even with the American talent involved, Tired Pony seems a British-led act that is very much inspired by country music and Americana in general. It’s our interpretation of the sounds and feelings of a culture that we grew up tapping into, but is shaped by the isolation of existing in a tiny, rainy island in north Europe. Because of that, it sounds special.
With such a top-tier music ensemble that all have other ongoing active commitments, coordinating the logistics of making a music video must be too complicated. Therefore, this is the best that can be done.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

-Music Videos on my mind- Local Natives’ “Ceilings”

They say that one of the main attractions of joining the army has to do with being able to see the world. The occupational hazards are manifold, but the idea of going places is the greatest reward in itself.
The rewards of being in a band that tours the world and gets to perform songs to fans across the globe is the option that sounds more appealing, especially when you consider that travelling is perhaps the greatest creative stimulant imaginable.
California’s Local Natives’ new music video exhibits a band dumbstruck and savouring being in a position where making music has opened the world to them. Consisting of footage shot on smartphones by touring band members during downtime and sound checks, Ceilings is an intimate song made all the more effective because of its minimalist video. There’s a dreamy quality to it, almost as if shots of historic relics, abandoned foreign factories, prosaic hotel rooms and massive international festival crowds is something that seems mightily unreal to a bunch of lads that can’t believe their luck.

Friday, 11 October 2013

RIP Bombay Bronx

Bombay Bronx is allegedly no more. Apparently the actuality that some desi clientele cannot handle their drink, and Muslim and Sikh groups cannot keep from violently attacking each other in social situations, has resulted in this club night becoming too much of a liability to host.

Monday, 7 October 2013

-Music Videos on my Mind- RjD2’’s “Her Majesty’s Socialist Request”

RjD2 is an American hip-hop producer who makes largely instrumental records that eschew the trend of employing brand name all-singing pop stars to boost sales.
After starting his music career when his dance teacher mother supplied him with the cash to purchase some used turntables off a friend, RjD2 has become the thinking person’s hip-hop producer of choice. He’s so highly regarded that the clever guys at AMC decided his track A Beautiful Mine would be the ideal music for the opening of Mad Men.
The title Her Majesty’s Socialist Request may have derived some inspiration from America’s current Tea Party belligerence towards Obamacare (one can hear aggressive capitalist chants of “buy” and “sell” masterfully laced around jolting breakbeats), but this tune is classic US hip-hop to a tee. The video is among the very best of 2013―something that is perhaps a tribute to the dance-loving mother who nurtured RjD2’s love of music and movement.
If this is what socialism sounds like then America deserves more it.

Monday, 30 September 2013

Indie White Girls Dance Back

You have to give it to indie white girls. At a time when their male peers are pandering to expectations by putting out music that don’t mean much (I’ll include Arctic Monkey and Kings of Leon as examples because both released routinely rubbish records this month), the comparative indie white girls almost realise that the industry will not take them as seriously as the pop star sisterhood and rock god brotherhood. Therefore, indie white girls have made this September a month of much appreciated uniqueness.

Waxahatchee’s Misery over Dispute
God, this is a song that is criminally teasing. It’s startlingly stark and crushingly effective, but at less than two minutes long (of which five seconds is wasted in titles), Brooklyn’s Waxahatchee (Katie Crutchfield to her mum) has created the core of a stupendously good song that ought to have gone on for at least 177 seconds more. With a person that looks as cool as Waxahatchee, and moves so mesmerizingly, it seems a shame that she hasn’t got her own syndicated dance show.

Alice Boman’s Waiting
Sweden’s Alice Boman is analogue in a digital world. If Icona Pop is the Swedish music equivalent of Michael Bay, then our Alice is Ingmar Bergman. She creates hauntingly evocative songs, the kind that is recorded on magnetic tape where lo-fidelity hiss and imperfections is part of the emotive experience. This is exquisitely intimate music, almost like she’s rerecording the song exclusively for the person listening to it. Much like Waxahatchee, our Alice also has her indie white girl dance moves down pat.

Au Revoir Simone’s Crazy
One had to be told that this video is a spoof of Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (not good for a film blog, I know). If anything, it looks like a parody of me at my big sister’s wedding in 1998. Au Revoir Simone makes enjoyable kooky pop songs and this track is no different. You want to listen it again and again and again until you’re dizzy with glee. This is proper feel good pop music that is more intricate than appears. It’s a lot of fun, even if the video is sorely bereft of moody monochrome and classic indie white girl dance moves.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Mazzy Star Returns with an Album the World Needs

Mazzy Star’s music is like the most gorgeous sleep imaginable. It’s the stuff dreams are made of, the sounds of starlight crumbling into stardust. It exists on another plane of unreality, the kind of music millions love but is unique to one band. There isn’t another artist that sounds like Mazzy Star, and their sound cannot be replicated by imitators no matter how hard they might try. There is no other. Mazzy Star is Mazzy Star.

Because Mazzy Star has not issued an album since 1996, this week’s release of their first LP in seventeen years, Seasons of Your Day, is nothing short of a true music event. It’s a big deal because the world of music has changed so much since 1996, not just in terms of the nature of popular music, but also because of how music is made and distributed. A band returning to this new world may feel inclined to adopt new methodologies and upgrades in order to justify a comeback, but Mazzy Star isn’t that kind of band. Instead, they’re releasing an album that picks up exactly where they left off.

This is timeless music, the type that mattered as much in the late 1980s as it will thirty years from now. Mazzy Star’s music can never go out of fashion, much in the way it never was in fashion to begin with. Mazzy Star is perhaps a band that was never supposed to be famous, becoming popular because of one song that proved irresistible to advertisers, Hollywood studio executives, television producers and MTV programmers everywhere: Fade into You. Even though the band had lost faith in the music industry, they’ve never doubted the enduring brilliance Fade into You or any of their other compositions, with lead singer Hope Sandoval recently declaring "I think a lot of our songs are good". This is about as high praise one can get from a taciturn band known for, according to British music journalist Dorian Lynskey, its “cancelled tours, interview walkouts and profound, belligerent silences”. Like we said, Mazzy Star is Mazzy Star.

This year has seen sleeping music legends like Mazzy Star, Soundgarden, Pixies, Luscious Jackson, My Bloody Valentine and Sebadoh make returns after decades of inactivity. Why they’ve all come back at the same time is unknown, though it most likely has to do with natural timing than anything other. These bands have nothing to prove or much to gain by courting a new generation fans. They simply faded into silence and came back brightly when they had something new to share.

That’s the craziest thing about making records; you can spend years thinking, travelling, romancing, self-destructing and living a life that has nothing to do with what you’re creating and then an album comes together within a matter weeks. It’s hard to think of another art form that’s so painstaking yet spontaneous.

Seasons of Your Day can be streamed track by track here or listen in whole below.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

An Animated Autumn in Music Videos

As the music industry’s major labels scale back on investing in interesting new artists, emerging musicians will often take promotional matters into their own hands, devising bespoke campaigns to get their music heard. Digital technology has reduced the price of creating artistically ambitious music videos, though quality often veers from inspired to enfeebled.
But it’s the presence of animated music videos that has been of interest this autumn, mainly because these musicians are new artists signed to small independent labels, yet their videos are admirably designed and not lacking creative intent. Whereas Coldplay can pillage the loaded wallets of EMI for its expensive animated shorts, the artists featured below probably sought out neophyte animators for their own music videos. The results are of varied quality, but there’s no doubt that the people that made them are driven by energy, enthusiasm and passion. More importantly, each song is a winner.
Caracol’s Shiver
Canadians are like Europeans, aren’t they? After all, they share many of the same values as us and can speak a range of our languages. Carole Facal is a Canadian singer-songwriter who usually sings in French but is branching out into English. She goes by the stage name of Carcol and has produced a catchy indie pop song that is enjoyable enough to play on mainstream radio but cool in ways that preserve a sense of playful hipness.  The video toys with live performance and animation, though it's the latter that works best.
In true Canadian style, Carcol has opted to forsake the countless income she could generate by selling such a pleasing track via iTunes and has chosen instead to give it away for free. That is what you call sonic philanthropy.

Lanterns on the Lake’s Until the Colours Run
Lanterns on the Lake is a Bella Union act that has acquired a devoted fan base over the last five years. Their debut album Gracious Tide, Take Me Home was a critical smash in 2011, and Monday’s release of the follow up LP Until the Colours Run is getting some of the best reviews this year.
The title track from the album features an animated video that is just as cacophonous and beautifully strange as the song. Lanterns on the Lake’s music blends rock, folk and electronic beats in fascinating ways, making them one of the most interesting British acts of now. The band hails from the wastelands of Newcastle-upon-tyne; their ethereal music often entwined with political lyrics about industrial inertia and working-class attrition. This is the kind of music that engages one’s intellect and senses, something that seems hard to come by these days.

Outfit’s House on Fire
The Beatles were perhaps the worst thing to happen to Liverpool. That band’s mythical shadow looms so heavy that we fail to recognise just what an amazing rock city it remains, producing marvellously progressive bands that are as important as anything to come out of Manchester or Sheffield.
Outfit is of the same ilk as that other excellent Liverpudlian post-punk act Clinic, but newer in terms of currency. Room on Fire is rhythmically charged, but there is an intense quality to its sound that unnerves whilst also making you want to dance. That’s not an easy thing to achieve. The video’s surreal animation contributes to its weirdness, amplifying its overall sense of gratifying oddness.

Saturday, 31 August 2013

-Music Videos on my Mind- Night Beds’ “Romona”

It’s pretty admirable when a music video elicits an emotional response, especially when it manages to do it within less than four minutes. I scarcely know anything about this video’s director and even less about Night Beds, other than the latter purports to be a country music band and the former is a filmmaker working in Virginia.  The thing is that the European concept of country music abides to cowboy hats and bad mullets situated in rodeo parlours, though, methinks such notions are probably outdated at best.
Night Beds’ new song is gorgeous. It has such lyrical and rhythmical depth, operating on a level that is both achingly sweet and tenderly bitter. The video elevates the music to another level, presenting a snapshot that manages to evoke an entire lifetime’s broken heartedness of its unnamed protagonist. Tom Waits has never looked so sad.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

-Music Videos on my Mind- Emilíana Torrini’s “Speed of Dark”

Gosh, listening to Emilíana Torrini’s new song conjures up images of plastic VHS tapes strewn across a carpeted floor, and kids riding on BMX bikes in the suburban streets outside. This is a track that wouldn’t be out of place in scenes of Daniel LaRusso being chased by karate jocks wearing skeleton costumes, or redolent of some cynical passage in a Bret Easton Ellis novel concerning disenfranchised young yuppies. This is a tune Athena poster shops would have played to enhance its retail ambiance experience; a song that a hairsprayed generation grieving about the ozone layer will have kicked back to. In short: Speed of Dark is a sublime throwback to 1980s synthesised pop music.
Though all the above references are distinctly American (exception of Athena being British), Emilíana Torrini is actually Icelandic. She has been residing in the UK and putting out records since 1999, though her output hasn’t made much of a dent even in our country. Her latest single is ever so brilliant that one hopes it at least stands a chance of being labelled a one-hit-wonder, if only because it perfectly captures the mood of a surprisingly balmy British summer.
Despite the fact that Speed of Dark has invoked so much in the way of memories and images, it’s nothing but deplorable for Rough Trade records not to have issued an official music video. It may get one in the next month or so, but this is too good to sit on till then. I adore it.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

-Music Videos on my Mind- The Orwells’ “Who Needs You”

Let me try and make sense of this:
>>> Americans consider George Orwell to be the greatest cultural chronicler of the 20th century <<<>>> George Orwell never really did like Americans and thought them uncouth <<<>>> American band, The Orwells, love George Orwell so much he became their namesake <<<>>> America has shown very little respect to The Orwells, this despite MTV naming them one of the most criminally overlooked bands of last year<<<
Nonetheless, this Chicago group of kids that only graduated from high school this year may actually buck the trend of white guys with guitars being ignored by American music consumers because their new song is an explosive mix of youthful energy and alarmingly astute political playmaking. Who Needs You reflects the ideas of a bunch of boys growing up in an austere and militarily manipulated America, though the music they’re creating preserves the everlasting spirit of classic Americana rock 'n' roll. It’s good.

Monday, 5 August 2013

How we all Became American Teenage Girls

The notion of modern youth culture is not something that came about overnight. Nay, it was a hard fought and tremendously tumultuous journey to recognition.
Having just completed reading Jon Savage’s fascinating book Teenage: The Creation of Youth 1875-1945, it transpires that young people were largely ignored as complex beings for more than sixty years. More often than not, teenagers were abused creatures, manipulated by mendacious adult figures that would cajole them into fighting deadly wars or deprive them of liveable wages during austere periods (seems like we’re almost going back to square one there). Teenagers needed to create a voice that would acquire recognition and understanding, but the louder they yelled, the less they were heard. This was a global problem, with autonomous youth groups creating isolated units of collectivism, but these very groups would often form into either violent fascist organisations or decadent hedonistic revellers that burnt out within moments of starting up.
But it was America that lay claim to the truly relatable and identifiable image of the teenager. The precursor of the Hitler Youth movement in Germany perceived American popular culture as clownish and stupid, while British intelligentsia abhorred America’s unsophisticated youth identity, with George Orwell arguing that “up until 1930 nearly all ‘cultivated’ people loathed the U.S.A., which was regarded as the vulgarizer [sic] of England and Europe.” Yet both of these respective cultures eventually adopted the American teen image as the adolescent identity of choice.
Orwell was certainly no fan of America, but WW2 changed much of the scepticism targeted towards that
country. Without America’s militaristic participation during the war, Europe was destined to implode. American soldiers were largely handsome, healthy and looked like movie stars, while the British equivalent was an emaciated, bucktoothed loser marred by years of imposed wartime malnutrition and poverty. Americans had glamour and it was this vital ingredient that would forge its enduring hegemony on popular culture for the next century. To be young and American was to be prosperous. (There is also the actuality that America’s diverse social melting pot led to greater human cross-pollination which resulted in a more robust and dynamic gene pool; while centuries of marooned inbreeding gave the British islanders teeth that put the fear of God into the rest of the world.)

The truth is the modern teenage archetypes that youths’ aspire to be were actually facilitated by a female contingent. America’s monopoly on youth culture was thanks to girls buying into the then modern image of peer collectivism. For the first time teenagers were people that seriously mattered because they could now be quantified as a consumer market.  Nothing signified this moment better than the arrival of Seventeen magazine in 1944, a publication that treated American teenage girls as quasi-adults, talking to them instead of down at them. Packed with features on beauty, fashion, music, movies, ideas and people, Seventeen mobilised the American teenager as the most unacknowledged consumer force hitherto unrecognised.

Ultimately, the salvation of American youth was its economic ferocity. Even back in 1944, a pre-launch ad copy of Seventeen advised potential advertisers that American youth had an estimated spending capacity of $750 million. Untold riches awaited all those wanting tap into this market. If the American superstructure had largely dismissed its youth as surplus to requirement during the Great Depression and war, it was now a tantalisingly formidable subculture purely on the basis that teenagers will buy products and lifestyle choices specifically targeted at them. Essentially, teenagers were nothing until a bunch of middle-aged people realised they can make colossal amounts of money off them. As with any lucrative market, a philosophy aimed at defending teenagers’ interests and lobbying for its welfare became tantamount.
And now we’re in 2013, a period in which the American teenage girl holds the most global cultural capital imaginable. The pop charts are awash with divas that teenage girls adore; the bestseller lists are festooned with YA books teenage girls respond to; and cinemas are governed by movies that court teenage girls’ adorations on the basis that this is a market loyal to both stars and brands. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of teenage youth culture is that of individuals beyond that age bracket still wanting to buy into it. Everyone is trying to perpetuate their youth, with most of us intent on preserving our sense of adolescence way past what was previously permissible. Teenage culture now belongs to everyone that can afford it. Teenagers are only important as a social demographic as long as its purchasing power remains intact. With economic gloom factoring into every element of modern life, it’s no surprise that the young have borne the brunt of this with widespread youth unemployment and exorbitant university debts. Trend makers have shrewdly expanded the parameters of what constitutes youth, meaning those that maintain ‘youthfulness’ via products and attitudes are more than welcome to buy into it. Youth has become less a period of time and more a state of mind, almost as if we grow old before we grow up.
So where are we right now? The American teenage girl remains viable as ever but her image has become mangled and benign. American cinema expertly satirised its female teenage contingent’s viscosity and emptiness this summer through two very well produced features. Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring and Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers revelled in depicting American youth’s meretricious antics, holding a mirror to how dangerous and pathetic its pleasure-seeking pursuits can be. We are presented with scenarios in which adolescents run wild in efforts to detach from reality and live in denial of who and what they are. Rather than reading about an unattainable celebrity lifestyle in the pages of magazines like Seventeen, the modern American teenage girl is willing to go to toxic lengths in order to live the dream. It is now widely believed that such aspirations are readily attainable just by pure want. The concept of hard work and talent is meaningless because one can have it for the taking. Just look at the plethora of disposable celebrities churned out by reality television shows that offer grating wannabes the opportunity of fleeting recognition for all the wrong reasons, only to have it mercilessly snatched away from them just as quick. The American teenage girl ceases to be a pillar of inquisitive development and has simply become a parody of our times.

The teenager has ostensibly come a long way since its precarious beginnings, yet it has not fundamentally changed in well over seventy years. It remains a client label, appreciated because its consistent consumer potency remains valuable as ever.

As Jon Savage acknowledges in his book, perhaps the most enduring and complex figure of adolescent girlhood remains Anne Frank, who was, ironically, incarcerated in Bergen-Blesen extermination camp the very week the New York Times published “A Teenage Bill of Rights”. Also, Seventeen had ran articles on how “Anti-Semitism” and “Anti-Negroism” were a menace to American society and must not be tolerated by its readership, but such intelligent discourse is perhaps considered too preachy by modern magazine publishers aiming articles of interest at teenage girls. Seventeen’s imploration of tolerance and equality came too late for Anne Frank, who had attempted to contextualise her own fears and complexities of being a teenager in her diary, aching to be understood by unfair and contemptuous social systems that subsequently slaughtered her for the most incomprehensible reasons. In that sense she remains the most important teenager ever documented: tragic, stoic and perennially promising in equal measures.
Teenage movements existed long before Anne Frank came into being, only those movements weren’t homogenised, commoditised and sold to the masses. In that sense, we are all allowed to be teenagers only because we’ve devalued it as a social status. It stands for little and advocates even less. It’s just a label that invokes not much more than marketing opportunities.


These things run in cycles and there is every reason to think teenagers in the near future may return to a more tangible and real system of connectivity. There is too much happening in our world which is littered with international terrorism and economic woebegone. Technology and distractions infiltrate our everyday sense of reality, which makes it harder to step back and see where we are as a society. When the dust settles, one can’t help feel that the youth may be compelled to take a long hard look at itself and force through a change. Youth history is riddled with such occurrences and a renaissance of honest teenage existentialism seems long overdue.