Sunday, 28 December 2014

The Smashing Pumpkins Need Love

The year ends and the music charts remain woeful. While there is no shortage of incredible new music available, the notion of such material connecting in a mainstream sense is at its most woebegone state. Music aficionados, young and old, will hopefully agree with that sentiment.
The American rocker Billy Corgan, he of the seminal alternative band The Smashing Pumpkins, has been in the UK of late spitting venom at the people of Blighty, chastising them for everything from the crap weather to complaining about how this nation has never given his band proper dues.
All this comes in the light of the Pumpkins’ ninth studio album Monuments to an Elegy flopping this month. It did badly in the UK but it was the album’s terrible performance in the States that got Corgan’s ire. Pumpkins’ albums went Top 10 in the UK as long as Corgan was accompanied with a member from the original band line-up, but the USA was always more accommodating to new changes – willing to buy into the brand regardless of vicissitudes.

The Smashing Pumpkins, at least in its original incarnation, was one of the most important bands in the history of popular music. It was an alternative band that was both multicultural and gender-mixed, producing songs and music videos that defined a generation. There has not been another band since that original line-up who comes close to matching their uniqueness and impact. But honestly speaking, the Pumpkins ceased being the Pumpkins after guitarist James Iha and bassist D'arcy Wretzky jumped ship. 2007’s Zeitgeist was the last Pumpkins’ album featuring original drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, and in that sense it was the last record that had moments of brilliance, though nothing that came close to former releases. However much the Pumpkins was Corgan’s property, there was obviously some kind of fantastic influence the original band members cast on those albums that can’t be recaptured.
Corgan gave a seriously bizarre interview to The Guardian’s Tim Jonze last week where he pulled no punches. Corgan said: “I thought for sure I would get really strong reviews for our new album based on all the feedback I was getting. But I’m getting the same reviews I got back in the day, these kind of middling, muddling reviews that just won’t fucking say ’This is a fucking brilliant album from a brilliant artist.’” The singer-songwriter added: “…I realise now I’m not going to get my due.”
It’d be fair to say that the British press has often been mean to Corgan. But Corgan’s erratic chagrin speaks more about an aging rocker trying to make sense of how his relevance became progressively questionable. It also sheds light on how music is no longer the primary means of youth identification. Youth identification has become more about branded concepts and personalised social media trends. Depressingly, music just ain’t that vital anymore.
Corgan’s muddled angst at the current music scene, or at least the disappointment at his lack of importance in it, fails to account for just how disposable music is in 2014. For an American teenager digging music circa 1974 wouldn’t have been vastly different from the 1994 teenage equivalent. The music charts back then were riddled with stadium guitar bands, you still frequented your local record emporium to purchase stuff, and radio airplay still mattered. The entire scenario has altered in unprecedented ways since then, and the actuality that music is no longer at the core of youth identification has been something many can’t accept. We’re now living in a culture where a kid can listen to a pop song they enjoy and repeat it endlessly on their gadget. The idea of tuning into a radio station to listen to a playlist curated by someone else, where one may have to endure twenty songs they dislike until something new and enjoyable plays, just isn’t how things work today. We have greater and more affordable access to music than ever before, but we’re more limited in what we’re actually open to. If everything sounds the same then we’re totally happy with that.
Corgan was very keen to highlight America’s current “pop menace,” pinpointing that as the reason why alternative music is surplus to requirement. The States is in the grip of a meaningless mainstream culture and, unfortunately, much of it has seeped onto these shores. If Corgan was considered pretentious by UK standards twenty years ago then, suffice to say, there’s no reason for that to change now, especially when his album is titled Monuments to an Elegy. But rather than ridicule Corgan, let’s give him the benefit of doubt.

2015 is days away. We’re at the midway point of this decade; a period for what these times will be remembered. And its crap. The state of the world is horrid. The movies are lame. The television shows are bloated. The reading of books has somehow become a specialist activity. The music is rubbish.
While Billy Corgan licks the wounds to his ego and makes another attempt for us to accept his genius by readying the band's tenth studio album Day for Night for sometime in 2015, perhaps this coming year will mark a turning point. Even if Corgan’s career remains on the skids, maybe now is the moment―be it in alternative or urban music―that a sea change occurs. Maybe from now on things will get seriously cool.
But then again, this blog makes similar prognostications every year and ends up looking foolish. Truthfully, a change will come and it will happen when least expected, catching everyone by surprise because it will not be foreseen. It may not even come from Europe or America and might not be any form of music we currently envisage, but it’ll be phenomenal. At least that’s mine and Billy’s hope, though, whether he has any place in it will be seen.

Monday, 22 December 2014

-Music Videos on my Mind- Nadine Shah’s “Stealing Cars”

This is the second time this blog has discussed the British-Pakistani, singer-songwriter, goddess-among-ordinaries, Nadine Shah. To be true, the first post I wrote last year on Shah’s song Dreary Town cannot be topped. In a more just world it should’ve gotten a Pulitzer but, as we know, justice is seldom served and the post went largely unnoticed.
As much as one loves Shah’s music, Dreary Town had a laboured music video not to my liking and I was quite forthright in my criticisms. Shah must’ve taken note because she’s come back with a music video for Stealing Cars that, in her words, “[Is] really simple to give the song room to breathe. The idea was to show anxiety through the use of repetitive images. We took a lot of inspiration aesthetically from '70s horror films.”
That all must be because of me, man.

Friday, 12 December 2014

-Music Videos on my Mind- Viet Cong’s “Continental Shelf”

Canada was very much against the Vietnam War. Although Canada was vital in its part in the Paris Peace Accords with the hope of instigating geopolitical amity, the country remained hugely critical of America’s actions in Vietnam. It is said that Canada gave refuge to more than 60,000 young American men looking to dodge mandatory conscription, though, it should be noted that the Canadian economy made billions through the sales of war armaments and essential weaponry to American forces. It can be argued that Canada did pretty well out of the Vietnam War.
The information above has absolutely no relevance to this post other than the band featured is called Viet Cong and hails from Alberta, Canada. The song is wicked but the music video is seriously weird, sort of like echoing a 1970s European horror vibe that may prove too esoteric to most. But still, at least it allowed this blog to get all-educational for a momement.

Friday, 5 December 2014

-Music Videos on my Mind- Baxter Dury’s “Lips”

Baxter Dury is the son of the late Ian Dury. The latter was in a band called the Blockheads, and was a big enough deal in Britain to have had a biopic made about his life and music.
Baxter’s similarities to his father are uncanny. The bloke looks like his dad and sings like him too, which in many ways hinders his abilities to forge a stage persona of his own. Ian Dury was a big influence on Baxter, so much that the biopic Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll focuses a lot on the father-son relationship.
Lips is a heck of a good song. One assumes a music video won’t happen which means that this live clip taken from a French entertainment show on Canal+ must suffice. The good news is that it’s a very good live recording and demonstrates Baxter’s strong collaborative skills with his rhythmic team. There’s a stunning sense that everyone’s adding unique  touches and building something grander than merely a solo artist performing with a bunch of hired hands.

Friday, 28 November 2014

-Music Videos on my Mind- Tuff Love’s “Slammer”

Hype, hype, hype and more hype. The British music press is the world’s greatest at over-inflating the importance of bands they want you to like. This often means that when other countries take notice they ultimately feel underwhelmed, most often it's  the American music media that start taking pot shots at our ability to take something pretty routine and present it as revolutionary. Likewise, no other press has the terrifying knack for building up things only to destroy them like the UK media does.
In the case of Scotland’s Tuff Love, one believes that Julie Eisenstein (guitar, vocals) and Suse Bear’s (bass, vocals) handy tribute to American alternative lo-fi guitar music may prove attractive to the international market, especially to the country which developed and then largely abandoned this sort of thing.
It’d be grand if Tuff Love became massive. One can never have enough white girls’ with guitar bands around, and we so desperately need a paradigm shift when it comes to pop music.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

-Music Videos on my Mind- LoneLady’s “Groove it Out”

One is convinced that if an advanced alien civilization is monitoring activity on Earth then they’ll make additional efforts to tune into our sound waves.  It’s at this point they’ll focus greater attention on the astounding sonic frequencies emanating from Manchester, England, and will make it their prime objective to somehow get there. Should that happen then they’ll be in for the most astronomical of anticlimaxes because instead of the cosmically hip environs they thought will greet them, they’ll be confronted with urban privation and monumental grimness.
Nonetheless, our alien admirers will most certainly keep their faith in Manchester being the greatest rock city in the world. LoneLady (our kid, Julie Ann Campbell) is another of Manchester’s sonically gifted daughters who, if she keeps on making tracks like this, is going to be huge. LoneLady is an adequate stage sobriquet for Ms. Campbell because she records and produces everything herself. She is the ultimate bedroom artist and demonstrates just how amazingly effective and accessible modern technology is if the person using it has proper talent.
Groove it Out is a giant of an alternative pop song, though; this ongoing trend for not commissioning cool music videos is most frustrating. Wrap Records, who actually also make movies, ought to have realised that this track is destined for European domination and should’ve put together something pronto. Our alien mates won’t be impressed by their laziness.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

-Music Videos on my Mind- Bahamas’ “All the Time”

Bahamas is more than a paradise holiday destination; it’s the stage name of a Canadian nu-folk artist called Afie Jurvanen who makes happy-clappy pop songs swimming in blissed-out grooves and melodic eccentricities. Jurvanen is in the UK at present and one hopes that his heavily British influenced sound will score well with Blighty audiences. After all, All the Time has ELO written all over it, though, lest we forget, ELO happened to be one of those rare British bands that were massively popular in the States and pretty overlooked at home.
Here’s hoping Jurvanen’s success works in reverse and the UK warms to his cast ashore soundscapes and sun-kissed harmonies.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

-Music Videos on my Mind- Rozi Plain’s “Jogalong”

It’s surprising that a song featuring such a bizarrely amateurish music video has become a BBC radio hit. Shows as varied as prime time middle-aged evening slots, to Saturday seriously early morning alternative club culture wind down shows, have chosen Rozi Plain’s soothing Jogalong as their tune of the moment.
London based Rozi is another addition to the ever popular genre of music I call nu-folk. Nu-folk is positively crap at the best of times, but it’s Rozi’s no-frills approach that is most welcome in this era of rubbish stadium embracing banjo acts like Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers. Rozi, for now, is keen for her songs to take centre stage, eschewing the desire to incorporate stylised professionalism and grossly heightened levels of theatrics. This is simple and honest song writing that mines the interesting interior life of its creator.
There is also something admirably UK about it all in that it’s dour and dowdy. That’s meant as a compliment because there’s something so truly British about keeping things depressingly simple. Also, Jogalong’s melody harkens back to the type of music featured in 1980s educational programmes, which perhaps explains why the BBC is all over it.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Music Videos on my Mind- Slaves’ “Hey”

Slaves are a two-piece band that comes from Kent, England. They are loud, like seriously angry and loud, but it’s done with such self-aware gusto that you smile at the comedy of it.
The music video for Hey is drenched in swathes of lacquered black humour, instantly registering as one of the most entertaining clips to be produced by the UK music industry this year. Its tongue is firmly in cheek as band mates Laurie and Isaac accost some smugly suited thirtysomething in a demented assault of verbal and visual intimidation.
Think of it as counterculture millennials getting their own back on the Gen X sell-outs.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

-Music Videos on my Mind- Young Fathers’ “Low”

A year and one day ago, Scotland’s Young Fathers released the music video for their song Low to little fanfare.
366 days later, we’ve seen this odd music outfit go from tiny steps to big treads. Their album Dead is nominated for the prestigious Mercury Prize and the power trio has acquired the novel description of being Britain’s first "Liberian/Nigerian/Scottish psychedelic hip-hop electro boy band".
This is where the uncommon oddness of Young Fathers is further accentuated. Drawing heavily on the African heritage of members Alloysious Massaquoi and Kayus Bankole ('G' Hastings is the third non-African contributor), Young Fathers mesh the urban realism of their surroundings in Edinburgh with the faraway vibes of Soweto's Shangaan electro dance scene. It’s mad but somehow it works fantastically well.
This is highly original British hip-hop, with smatterings of fuzzy shoegaze reverb and mainstream pop hooks thrown in for maximum rhythmic effect.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Hollywood Adult Blockbusters Deserve Respect

Legendary European director Paul Verheoven is making another movie next year. In January 2015 the Dutch auteur will film Elle, an adaptation of Philllippe Dijan’s novel Oh…, a psychological victim-to-vindicator thriller in which a violated businesswoman plots revenge against the assailant who stalked and raped her. The film stars Isabelle Huppert and will be Verheoven’s first feature since 2006’s sensational Dutch thriller Black Book, becoming his debut French-language production. The pulpy premise seems entirely fitting to Verheoven’s skill set, and the casting of Huppert reminds us just how much the filmmaker is able to recruit big stars in controversial projects.
Those with a passion for cinema will know that even though Verheoven is a European director who made his name making provocative films in his native Holland, it’s his work in the 1980s and 1990s as an A-list Hollywood director that resonates most strongly. Verheoven’s canon of adult blockbusters during this period, some being the most expensive movies produced at the time, were cultural sensations drenched in ultra violence and explicit sex. Yet what was wondrous about his output is how layered the movies are: on the surface obscenely entertaining but functioning on another level imbued with highly intelligent political, ideological, psychological and theological subtexts. Not every movie Verheoven made in Hollywood struck gold, but when he did it created an impact, consequently auguring millions for studios. RoboCop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Showgirls and Starship Troopers are just some of Verheoven’s classics.

Things changed in 2000 with the release of Verheoven’s Hollow Man, a state of the art loose reimagining of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man, the film thematically playing on Plato’s Ring of Gyges conceit whereby the philosophiser posits the notion that powers of invisibility may compel even righteous people to commit felonious crimes. The movie cost a fortune ($95 million), the budget mainly devoted to stellar visual effects. Hollow Man was Verheoven’s biggest hit since Basic Instinct ($190 million worldwide), but neither the filmmaker nor Hollywood was entirely satisfied. The mood was changing. Adult blockbusters were proving too expensive and risky to produce. Verheoven returned to Europe and Hollywood limited its commitment to adult blockbusters.
Back then there was a clear distinction between what movies offered and what television provided: the two mediums strangely swapping places in recent years. Almost fifty years ago the Motion Picture Association of America campaigned to do away with the puritanical enforcement of the 1930s Hays Code in favour of a more modern film ratings system which is still in operation today. The argument was that conservative limitations imposed by the Hays Code infringed America’s right to freedoms of expression and compromised artistic integrity, though it more likely had a lot to do with American cinema’s perpetual fear of competing with television. Television was a threat and the only way around it was giving audiences something they couldn’t get at home. The 1970s to 1980s saw Hollywood produce movies rife with style, sex and violence, all in the service of catering to a more liberal viewership than previous eras. Even though these films were adult-orientated, the rating systems weirdly enough allowed people under the age of seventeen permission to watch adult movies if accompanied by a grownup. The aim was to maximise Hollywood’s income and this new system ensured that. Adult blockbusters were for everyone, regardless of whether it was appropriate.

The adult blockbuster was a powerhouse at the American box-office. Audiences flocked to see movies that revelled in heightened aggression and machismo. This is best demonstrated by Rambo: First Blood Part II which blitzed The Goonies at the summer box-office in 1985, the former making almost double what the perennial kids’ classic achieved during its run. American audiences wanted to see things suited to adult sensibilities; demanding movies loaded in excess but executed with serious attitude.
Even up until fifteen years ago Hollywood was still keen on producing adult blockbusters made with sizable budgets. The Matrix, Fight Club, Sleepy Hollow, Eyes Wide Shut, The Insider and The Green Mile were all major studio productions, none budgeted at less than $60 million each (unadjusted for inflation!), released intact with adult skewing certifications. Hollywood had thrived on adult blockbusters for the past thirty years and the assumption was that families stayed at home to watch cutesy things on television but came to theatres to see stuff broadcasters wouldn’t dare commission.

Fifteen years ago also saw the theatrical release of American Beauty and the television series The Sopranos air on HBO. American Beauty was a studio produced adult drama that won Oscars and made over $350 million internationally, while The Sopranos became an adult drama that was referred to as the greatest television series of all time, winning even more plaudits and changing our expectations of television’s dramatic capabilities. Watching American Beauty today one can safely assume that it was the last of its kind; a Hollywood adult blockbuster which would now be more at home on television rather than produced as a standalone feature film. Television has become the home of adult drama while cinema has courted family attendance by providing expensive animated films and pricy PG-13 action flicks. The adult blockbuster has been thrown under the bus in favour of four-quadrant movies.
The last few years has seen Hollywood engage in a system of insipid sequels and creatively bereft reboots. Brands have become vital signifiers, the notion being that recognisable cinematic products generate greater revenues than untested original ideas. Paul Verheoven’s original adult blockbusters like RoboCop and Total Recall have been remade as PG-13 family-friendly products. The remakes are just as violent but the depiction of blood and gore is limited to facilitate a more dishonest vision of brutality, all the while eradicating intelligent subtext to appease less demanding tastes. Even Verheoven’s seminal sci-fi epic Starship Troopers, which used fascist imagery to cleverly point out certain aspects of jingoism in American society, is undergoing a brainless remake proposition that will remove political satire to accommodate a more patriotic agenda.

The Hollywood adult blockbuster cannot die just yet, not if studios fail to recognise the fact that society is getting older and those with economic prospects are choosing to delay starting families. This ought to mean that the demand for adult blockbusters should be booming. The last month saw the release of a rebooted The Equalizer and crime thriller Gone Girl, both bona fide adult blockbusters, but they’re hardly ushering in a cycle of similar studio-backed titles. Hollywood’s focus remains on creating broad sweeps: films that at once target those in the Midwest as well as those in developing countries, thus producing features which abide to strict codification and uniformity.

Hollywood really missed a trick by not approaching Verheoven to direct next year’s adult blockbuster in-waiting, Fifty Shades of Grey. Rather than the corporate, restrained, anodyne soap opera we’ll probably get that’s designed to placate share holders, the studio had a chance to give the film an identity shaped by someone with cinematic personality as opposed to making the movie―one expects, judging by the trailer―imaginatively redundant. Rather than bringing on board people who can elevate the project to loftier heights, the studio has attached personnel to follow lustreless boardroom orders.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Matthew Frost and his Celebrity Pals Poke Fun at Modern Life

A few years ago we learnt that 10% of all the photographs ever taken by humanity were captured within the course of twelve months.  That means a tenth of all images existing in photography’s 215 year history came into being during recent months.
The need to self-celebrate and narcissistically capture personal triviality is obviously concerning many, especially celebrities who find it increasingly harder to compete with a system where people flock from fad to fad, taking little time to genuinely value precious moments. In Matthew Frost’s two-minute short Aspirational, Hollywood star Kirsten Dunst is accosted by a couple of Gen Yers who seize the opportunity to rampantly take selfies of themselves, as if posing with an inhuman object. “Do you want to talk or anything?” beseeches Dunst, “I mean, you can ask me a question, or are you curious about anything?” But the point is to shine a light on the transient attention span of modern times, and hopefully shame ourselves into recognition.
This Matthew Frost fella has a particular knack for roping in celebrities to make funny and succinct vignettes, bemoaning the attention deficit hyperactivity disorder plaguing us. That said, the shorts work best when those famous people participating are willing to make fun of themselves, too.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

-Music Videos on my Mind- Ty Segall’s “Connection Man”

There’s no excuse for artists not putting out music videos in this age. Technology is meant to be cheaper and more accessible than ever, yet the number of times we come across fantastic new material void of moving images to accompany it, is maddeningly inexcusable.
But San Francisco’s Ty Segall seems an analogue soul in a digital world, hence why he names old rock bands from the ‘70s as icons that inspire him. Retro British music has been especially important to Segall, most notably glitter rock figures like T. Rex and Ziggy Stardust, whose psychedelic overtones are very much laced in his own output. (Even turns out that Baby Boomer favourites Hawkwind is Segall’s most esteemed band.)
Man, it’s almost tragic that a pop song as wicked as Connection Man has no music video. It’s equally tragic that an ostensible movie blogger like moi is too technically inept to patch together something that suffices. The shame of it.

Monday, 15 September 2014

-Music Videos on my Mind- The Foreign Resort’s “Alone”

It was thanks to The Cure that alternative rock music went commercial.

Fronted by the aesthetically gloomy Robert Smith and consisting of a line up of gothic outliers, The Cure wasn’t the type of group to appeal to the mainstream, but during the ‘80s they were massive. The Cure had a Midas ability to generate uniquely odd songs that absolutely rocked Top 40 radio. The songs were eerie but drenched in infectious melody, which made the band one of the most successful British groups of all time.
Interpol, The Smashing Pumpkins and Deftones all cite The Cure as primary influences, and it’s obvious that Denmark’s The Foreign Resort owes the same respect. However, The Foreign Resort is so hung-up on immersing itself in the whole UK post-punk/ new wave sound that they’ve failed to acknowledge that a huge part of what made The Cure’s music so brilliant was Smith’s weirdly playful lyricisms. Furthermore, The Cure had legendary music videos, whereas these guys haven’t seemed to have bothered much. Love the sound, though.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

-Music Videos on my Mind- Yann Tiersen’s “Meteorites”

Yann Tiersen was up until now a name that appeared on movie credits for music by. It turns out he’s actually a French indie pop star with eight studio albums under his belt, and it appears that European directors wholesale lift songs from his albums because his sound is impressively cinematic. For example, the music used on Amélie pretty much consists of tunes pilfered from Tiersen’s first four albums.
Tiersen thinks in cinema. Everything about Meteorites speaks film, from a poetic recitation of what feels like a movie pitch, to the finale of 1950s B-movie theremins that brings it all back to ground. The song lives and breathes through Aidan Moffat’s brogue Scottish narration, who himself is the lead singer in Arab Strap, imbuing the vocals with a baritone dreaminess that takes the listener by the hand and whisks them on an exquisite voyage of ethereal loveliness.
Meteorites is a song of cosmic enchantment: building from small tender beginnings, flourishing into a sensual midpoint, only to then fade into a miasma of spooky exhaustion.
It’s the kind of song that is so epic in scale it seems a poor choice to have commissioned a music video which is so stiff and confined. It’s distracting to have French fashion model Clémence Poésy ineffectively mouth Moffat’s words. It proves distracting, whereas just to close one’s eyes and go on Moffat’s journey suffices.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

-Music Videos on my Mind- Sharon Van Etten’s “Our Love”

The track listings of Sharon Van Etten’s latest album Are We There have a convincing theme of nihilistic romance, for it includes songs titled Your Love Is Killing Me, I Love You But I’m Lost and Our Love.
Our Love is the song that resonates most because of its bleak sensibilities. It’s a song that wallows in minimalist arrangements, consisting of unfortunate metaphors and repeated verses that echo a relationship decaying in the worst ways imaginable. It’s a song that finds beauty in the dying embers of romance, presenting a tale of emotional privation, and discovering that the end of a relationship is as tragically beautiful as its birth. It’s dark and evocative song writing.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

-Music Videos on my Mind- Bronco’s “Class Historian”

Hmm, catchy tune, but there is something missing here: a mid-section tempo change or perhaps a production trick that will add more layers to what becomes a pretty monotonous experience.
Oklahoman garage indie pop band Bronco has composed a song that will be a staple fixture at Fresher's Week in every university this autumn. Kids will love it, play it on repeat, voice along to it, annoy everyone else, eventually most declaring it to have been little more than a novelty tune, and then it will be cast aside like a Harlem Shake or Turn Down for What. Gosh, the ephemerality of pop music.
On a plus note, Fred Savage’s a fan.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Minimalism made this Summer’s Pop Music Special

In an era of over-produced pop music, one has to give credit to artists that are intent on stripping back appearances, spacing out rhythms and hooks with effective silences allowing the music to breathe, registering with listeners because of what they hold back rather than flung at us.

This summer has, therefore, been one of impressive minimalist pop music.
Moonface’s City Wrecker
Canadian singer-songwriter Spencer Krug has been releasing a steady flow of music under his Moonface sobriquet since splitting with a former band I’ve never heard of.
Krug has recently said that the songs featured on his upcoming five-song EP titled City Wrecker is essentially about: “Going in and going out. Regret and hope. The past and the future. Ducking out early from your own farewell party.”
From his remarks we can deduce that Krug seems a pretty listless soul. The sadness of this song, therefore, invokes the emotive pains of a sensitive bloke imbued with restlessness but incapable of helping himself. It’s probably the best piano balled in some time.
Jamie xx’s All under one Roof Raving
UK hardcore rave culture is at once celebrated and pared-down by Jamie xx who balances a tribute to classic British club culture while spacing out his beats with steel drums and buzzing sawtooth basslines; additionally throwing in pleasing nods to 2-step garage flows of the early noughties.
This is the sound of urban London nightclubs winding down in the early hours. The Spartan production of the track deceptively belies the amount of stunning sampling and sonic science that’s at play here. Yet for all its homage, this is entirely Jamie xx’s baby.
FKA twigs’ Two Weeks
When British artist FKA twigs dropped this song at the start of the summer the music press went berserk. Eventually the American press heard the hype and began complimenting FKA twigs’ sound as being both “lush” and “lucid”, even claiming her new album LP1 is an “orgasmic joy”. (Words plucked from this month’s TIME magazine, no less.)
I love this song and remain a fan of twigs’ previous few EPs that birthed the sounds and moods of her latest album. The problem is, however, Two Weeks is such as force of nature that no other track on the album comes close to its brilliance, which renders the whole affair rather slight. The album is very good, but there are other artists out there from Kelela to Fatima Al Qadiri making experimental pop music every bit as good as this―perhaps even better in some instances.
Nevertheless, FKA twigs, who was actually a former stage dancer for Jessie J, Ed Sheeran and Kylie Minogue, has matched her onstage persona with mesmerizing homespun eccentricities. It’s the high-voltage sensuality and raw weirdness of twigs’ performance that has truly captured international attention. The music is intricately layered and spaced, but it’s the singer’s otherworldly qualities that give it life.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch” Tells us so Much About the Crisis of Modern Book Publishing

Few thought that Donna Tartt’s latest bildungsroman tome will become the kind of idiosyncratic literary sensation the publishing world doesn’t quite know how to achieve any more, especially considering her previous novel The Little Friend underperformed.
The Goldfinch has been on the New York Times bestseller list for almost an entire year, enjoying comparable success in the UK book charts. According to Nielsen BookScan, The Goldfinch has sold over 407,000 copies to date, with sales―print and digital combined―exceeding over 1.5 million; praiseworthily going back to press in recent days for another 150,000 copies. The novel is so popular that even Amazon has declared a temporary ceasefire on its current Amazon-Hachette feud, thus assuring customers that orders for The Goldfinch will not be subject to any imposed delays.

The Goldfinch is a book proposition that seems antithetical of what qualifies as a publishing success story in our modern age of dwindling attention spans and reading-averse culture: being a novel over 850 pages in length that’s riddled with oddball characters. It tells the story of a thirteen-year-old boy called Theo Decker whose life is violently rattled when on a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art a terrorist bomb goes off, killing his mother and other visitors. At the behest of a dying old man who he comforts in his final moments, Theo pilfers Carel Fabritius’ renowned Dutch painting The Goldfinch. For the next fourteen years the painting becomes both Theo’s encumbrance and the only connection to his deceased mother. Young Theo is hurled from New York to Las Vegas to Amsterdam, the novel becoming a picaresque tale of eccentric figures from the art world and Soviet-bloc gangsters trading in everything from hardcore drugs to painterly masterworks.
The Goldfinch sold in huge quantities principally because it’s an extraordinarily entertaining novel. It’s both marvellously plotted and weirdly compelling, liming the story of a youngster evidently reeling from the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder who, as he grows up, also develops a serious dependency on narcotics and proclivity for swindling Park Avenue’s richest and gullible art collectors. Theo Decker is a cynically intelligent antihero, a self-destructive protagonist who understandably has a fatalistic worldview but remains endearingly openhearted and oddly appealing. The story has an almost Dickensian feel of urban grind while also dallying with the rags-to-riches Horatio Alger myth. The book certainly warrants claims concerning it being a new addition to the Great American Novel and, on the whole, commendably avoids didactic trappings.
Nonetheless, The Goldfinch is now courting the type of cynicism that comes with great success. Erudite metropolitan elites have cast doubt on Tartt’s credibility and denounced the book buying public for pursuing populism. New Yorker critic James Wood wrote that The Goldfinch’s “tone, language, and story belong to children’s literature,” and later told Vanity Fair that “the rapture with which this novel has been received is further proof of the infantilization of our literary culture: a world in which adults go around reading Harry Potter.” Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review, argues: “What worries [me] is that people who read only one or two books a year will plunk down their money for The Goldfinch, and read it, and tell themselves they like it, but deep down will be profoundly bored, because they aren’t children, and will quietly give up on the whole enterprise when, in fact, fiction—realistic fiction, old or new—is as alive and gripping as it’s ever been.”
This vitriol spewing out of the literary world vis-à-vis The Goldfinch is skirting around perhaps the biggest debate in contemporary publishing: that of grownups abandoning proper books in favour of nominal bestsellers and Young Adult fare. In fact, a Bowker Market Research study suggested that 55% of YA books are bought by people eighteen and older: adults aged between thirty and forty-four accounted for 28% of all YA sales, and the books are purchased for their own reading the vast majority of the time. All this further aggravates book critics, especially when reading books as a regular activity is haemorrhaging.
But The Goldfinch isn’t a YA book, which renders James Wood’s criticisms unfair by comparing it to a Harry Potter novel (even though constant references are made by Theo’s dodgy Russian best friend, Boris, concerning his resemblance to the famously bespectacled Boy Wizard). Donna Tartt’s novel is a serious story about Millennials coming of age in an America perturbed by terrorism and existential listlessness. But the story is equally farfetched and something of a fairytale in which a youngster lives a rock star existence rife with misadventure and decadence. The story has connected with readers in ways that works of Dan Brown and John Grisham usually do, yet The Goldfinch is far from conventional airport-purchased literature. The Goldfinch is too weird and cerebral to be dismissed as a throwaway bestseller.
Despite all the naysayers and elitists who have abjured The Goldfinch for being a novel that “deals in [clichés]” and is “overwritten,” it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize―the committee praising how Tartt’s story “stimulates the mind and touches the heart.” (Pulitzer judges rather unfairly didn’t praise anything about Tartt’s writing style, which perhaps is why it was ignored by the National Book Award and didn’t make the longlist for the 2014 Man Booker Prize.)
One can argue that the main derision concerning professional book critics’ opining of The Goldfinch perhaps has more to do with their disdain of a particular market that is widely disparaged by them: those with middlebrow tastes. Middlebrow readers have fantastically omnivorous cultural palates, folks that are often university educated but balance everyday tastes with demands for more elevated material. While the focus right now is on lowest common denominator tropes when it comes to finding the next big seller (young girls seeking their place in post-apocalyptic tribal settings, for example), The Goldfinch inhabits a world that is slightly heightened but always grounded. It’s the skills Donna Tartt demonstrates as a superlative storyteller which really hammers home just what a major accomplishment The Goldfinch is; the author spending eleven years constructing the intricate adventures of Theo Decker, devoting as long as eight months on plotlines she ultimately aborted in her determinations to achieve the best story possible.

The Goldfinch will no doubt become as important to American literature as what The Catcher in the Rye is.  It will endure because of its astonishing understanding of what life is like for young men trying to make sense of their position in the world and the anticlimactic realisation that our sense of entitlement always defeats us. No-one has yet praised Tartt’s canny ability to so fully inhabit the headspace characters that are neither her age and gender, yet she depicts them in a most convincing manner. All the nihilism that is often a part of cultured young personalities who feel like outsiders is beguilingly captured by Tartt. That’s why the novel, one is convinced, will eventually find favour even with its detractors.
At a time when the book charts are riddled with substandard titles and libraries are being closed in masses, the world should celebrate the fact that Donna Tartt has created a completely original novel that’s connected with mainstream readers in ways nobody thought was possible anymore. It is a monumentally significant achievement.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

-Music Videos on my Mind- The Helmholtz Resonators’ “Sunshine”

The Helmholtz Resonators is a five member group from east London who describes themselves as “musical time travellers,” the cohort teaming up while studying acoustic sciences at university. They’re total eccentrics and produce a brand of dance music that sounds expertly arranged yet weirdly off kilter.
The Helmholtz Resonators are part of the indie pop music fraternity that still uses analogue circuits and analogue computer techniques to generate sounds electronically which, thus, creates synthesizer beats that modern recording methodology cannot match. There’s something entirely soothing and penetrating about this type of music that goes back to the lo-fidelity electronic soundscapes popular in Europe during the early ‘80s. In fact, the tradition of analogue production for dance music is still well preserved in Britain, with esteemed acts like Simian Mobile Disco refusing to produce records any other way.
Sunshine is probably the best pop song of summer 2014, no debate. It’s the track that defines a season.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

-Music Videos on my Mind- The New Pornographer’s “War on the East Coast”

"We were going for some mid-Nineties second-tier Britpop attitude," said Carl Newman of The New Pornographers to Rolling Stone magazine, with music video director Thom Glut adding, "We were excited to pay homage to those brilliant [British] Nineties music videos where the artist's personality is prominently featured in one long unbroken shot."
Britain seriously did make some fantastic music videos a generation ago, though one wonders how many of them made a mark in North America to now be inspiring its indie pop bands to honour them. Perhaps Vancouver, Canada (Pornographers’ hometown) was too smitten with Alanis Morissette back then to have noticed the Cool Britannia movement rocking the UK.
This single take video features the band’s recruited fans rioting in a stylised orgy of kitsch and mayhem. It all culminates in total civil disobedience and bargain special-effects.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

-Music Videos on my Mind- Haley Bonar’s “Kill the Fun”

American alternative country singer--songwriter Haley Bonar has produced one of those tracks that record labels adore, in that it’s radio-friendly enough to broadcast on Top 40 pop stations but also independent enough to roster on hipster channels. Seriously, if it was so easy to do stuff like this then everyone will be doing it, but it takes real skill to pull it off.
To me Kill the Fun is tapping into some serious 1980s Jane Wiedlin and The B-52s vibes, which means that it may have sufficed having a totally bitchin' music video styled in the classic MTV way. Instead, Bonar has gone for twee Amelia Earhart nostalgia over big hair and garish design, which sort of makes sense considering the kind of homely (in a good way) image she has.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

-Music Videos on my Mind- Pink Mountaintops’ “The Second Summer of Love”

Was 1987 really the Second Summer of Love? In Britain we were always told that it was 1988 or 1989 or possibly 1990, but never 1987. Were the American and Canadian Generation Xers way ahead of comparative European kids, or are they duplicitously trying to trick the world into believing they pioneered a trend of hallucinogenic drug-fuelled rave culture that the rest of the world aped thereafter?
1987 was the year that The Lost Boys was released, it was the year that Guns N' Roses unleashed Appetite for Destruction, it was the year that President Reagan signed a secret order permitting covert sale of arms to Iran, but there is no evidence that one can identify suggesting 1987 had anything to do with heightened levels of love and euphoria in the North American continent. We’re being duped it seems.
Vancouver’s Pink Mountaintops are perpetrating a demented fiction whereby they’re laying claim to a cultural event that doesn’t belong to them and they’re getting their dates all wrong. We’ve caught them out. It’s another example of Young Americas preying on feeble Old Europe. Gosh, the dishonesty.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Fear of a Black Britain: The UK Music Industry is Committed to Supressing Black Culture

British artists of colour are in crisis. The UK music industry is coming under attack because of what can only be described as institutional racism. There is an encroaching sentiment concerning the whitewashing of British black music whereby executive management is progressively eroding specialist music programming on radio stations fronted by black DJs. Instead, it’s being superseded by commercial club DJs in an effort to target broadest listenership. Urban radio stations like 1Xtra and Capital Xtra (formerly known as Choice FM but re-titled when it was taken over by Britain’s largest radio group) are steadily cutting back on black audience programming under the ruse of budget cuts and cost efficiency strategies; but there seems to be something more insidious at play: The taking over of ethnic minority media outlets and making redundant the very thing that they were designed to do.

But how did this happen? Britain for the last fifty years never particularly cared for urban music, choosing instead to remain faithful to generic pop music and white guys with guitars rock ‘n’ roll. Those  growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s will recall a time when radio stations would edit out any cameo rap parts from American pop songs because that kind of stuff didn’t go down well in middle England. As the demographics have shifted in Britain, and the offspring of ethnic minority communities that settled here proliferated, it is only natural that our demands of entertainment will alter too.
Black audiences were traditionally underserved by mainstream media who often didn’t acknowledge their needs and wouldn’t really make the effort to understand them. This meant that black communities in Britain took the initiative to hatch their own media markets. Choice FM was originally a black community radio station in London where black music, religious gospel and minority politics held prime position.  Its popularity sustained.
Suddenly the groundswell of support for black music was booming. British school kids wanted to buy into the urban inflicted coolness being broadcast by black radio stations. It became potent enough that the BBC allotted resources into launching 1Xtra during the early noughties, establishing it as Radio 1’s sister station, meaning that the country’s official national youth radio platform will share assets with a station whose identity was “Love Black Music, Love 1Xtra". That was a major accomplishment; at least for a spell.

Black music is neither here nor there in Britain right now. The purpose of these radio stations was all about reinforcing British black identities. As the popularity of these stations burgeoned, the power players realised that their ethnically specific agenda must be supplanted with broader remits, most notably ditching “black” in favour of “urban”, “hip-hop” and “dance”; titles that hold almost no relevance to identity.
One can argue that the whitewashing of black music identity stems from the actuality that mainstream Britain remains fearful of its minority communities. Our mainstay entertainment hubs are governed by white rich men often coming from privileged society. If national tastes are altering then rather than nurturing it they have tried to take control, steering it towards wider commerciality, in the process robbing it of any sense of purpose. It’s an insidious form of ethnic cleansing, a racist agenda that has affected many aspects of British life. There seems to be gross negligence in accepting that by attempting to transform black music identity into a hamburger that everyone in Britain can consume, you’re actually stripping it of its core essence. It becomes arbitrary and worthless, adjectives that British black communities ought never to be subjected to in this day and age.
Institutional racism is affecting many aspects of British ethnic minority cultural expression. City of London Police called off the Jam Jam event at the Barbican because of fear that the appearance of a grime artist may invoke rioting. Black rappers headhunted by the record labels after their music courted grassroots attention have been forced to embrace more poppy productions as is evidenced by the lamentable recent output from grime acts such as Chipmunk, Tinchy Stryder and Dizzee Rascal. Heck, even the godfather of grime, Wiley, conceded that he neutered his black music identity because "if I didn’t have another hit song the label would've probably shelved me."

What then of an alternative black music identity? If the powers that be have problems with negotiating their way around established British black culture then how do they deal with artists that create leftfield identities? MIA is a British woman of colour who sells millions in the US but is viewed awkwardly in the UK as not being street enough for the urban market and not Asian enough for the desi crowd. Yousif Al-Karaghouli of the excellent British shoegaze band Kult Country is no doubt viewed as difficult goods due to the fact that he’s the front man of an alternative guitar group making the kind of music white guys do. Perhaps the biggest headache for the British music industry is someone like Kele Okereke, the black lead singer of Bloc Party, a band whose albums always go Top 20 both here and the States.
Okereke is a man who sports dreads and looks as African as they come, but he’s an openly gay bloke coming from a highly-educated family. He’s an English Literature graduate and sings in a style not dissimilar from Robert Smith of The Cure. Okereke poses a conundrum for the British music industry as he cannot fit into any acceptable form of pigeonholing because he falls between too many stools, yet he remains part of one of the few successful British rock bands of modern times, having sold in excess of two-million albums worldwide.
The British music press has often been mean-spirited to Okereke, painting him as arrogant and publishing reports that his band members dislike him. All bands―especially the good ones―have confrontational relationships, but the music press seemed contemptuous towards Okereke in ways that perhaps a Caucasian lead singer may not endure. It seems that when a rock band like Radiohead are caught in internal disputes then it’s labelled as ‘creative passions’, but if an ethnic minority is part of the equation then words like ‘difficult’ and ‘arrogant’ get bandied about.

The worry is not that Britain has a problem with black music identity; it’s more that Britain has a problem with black culture. We have seen in recent years concerted and very successful attempts by the British music industry to hijack black music through commissioning white artists to essentially do the same job. Adele, Sam Smith, John Newman, Plan B, Jessie J, Olly Murrs, Ed Sheeran and Amy Winehouse are examples of this, and don’t even get me started on the ersatz corporate white rappers signed to British labels because that’ll probably call for a separate post.
All this is shameful, especially in the week that official Government statistics signal just 6.7% of all jobs in the UK's 'Music, Performing and Visual Arts Industries' were held by people who could be categorised as black, Asian and minority ethnic.
The ongoing attempts to ghettoise British black culture remains rampant. The British music industry is a place where nineteen out of twenty job positions is filled by white personnel, and that’s why it’s even more disheartening to realise that British black culture is being actively ousted. It actually reduces this country’s overall culture in every conceivable way and makes for a very unpalatable situation. A rethink is needed.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Kult Country makes Britain Interesting

Bilmey, the rolling news channels of Britain are terrifying right now. You switch on and are confronted with news of young British Muslim lads taking up arms and journeying to Syria/ Iraq to become combatants in a jihadist theocracy. Switch over to the other news channel and hyperbolic anchormen inform us that there is a covert Trojan plot by British Muslims to take over state schools in order to propagate fascist curriculums which aim to destroy UK values. These are scary times.
UK values don’t come more quintessential than shoegaze music, and you can’t get a more Islamic name than Yousif Al-Karaghouli. Put them together and you get Kult Country, a Manchester band that is fronted by an enigmatic soul who sings in muffled deliveries while everything around him is drenched in gorgeous reverb sounds. The music is all about feelings and nebulousness. It’s thick with sonic atmosphere and arcane meanderings. Even if the listener can’t decipher Al-Karaghouli’s vocals they still get exactly where he’s coming from. This is the soundtrack of the confused and misunderstood.

Kult Country has only been going a few years and is already one of Manchester’s most exciting new bands. Manchester, an industrial city that has the most violent parts in the country, is changing. Educated and affluent people are relocating there because of its growing portfolio of media enterprises and business opportunities. Locals are already complaining that the Manchester music scene is becoming too gentrified and metropolitan elite. How that affects the range and originality of this rock city remains to be seen, but the downtrodden nature of the place has birthed some of the most startlingly arresting music ever heard. If that is compromised then bands as fascinating as Kult Country may be in shorter supply than currently, and it’s already a pretty dire out there.