27 July 2006

What's a Manifesto?

Simon Reynolds recently wrote a very interesting piece, not on music, but on the state of music writing. It’s something that everyone should read, as I consider him something of the daddy when it comes to people today who write about music.

Some would suggest that mantle should go to Paul Morley, but my only exposure to him has been his incredibly annoying turns on Newsnight Review, where he attempts to romanticise any old tat in that REALLY… EARNEST… WAY that he does. But apparently it’s all about his writing, so I intend to pick up a book before too long. I don’t want to be hating on him for the wrong reasons now.

So anyway, Reynolds. I’ve really noticed him popping up everywhere of late (well, by that I mean the Guardian Film & Music supplement and the Guardian Guide), though I know him primarily from his work with The Wire magazine, wherein he seems to know about every style of music ever.

And I don’t mean that in a facetious manner, either; the man really knows his stuff. In fact, I considered it something of a victory when he remarked on his blog fairly recently that he had never heard of the band Isis. A victory because I know all about them. Small, because his ignorance on the subject is probably a rather damning indictment of the band.

That was about this current series of gigs in London, where bands play their alleged ‘overlooked classic’ albums in their entirety. There are some good choices (Girls Against Boys playing Venus Luxure No. 1 Baby is something I’d like to have been a part of), but stuff like Isis’ Oceanic is a real head-scratcher.

Not only because, as Reynolds pointed out, some of these albums are a tad young to be considered any kind of ‘classic’ (come on, Oceanic came out in late 2002), but also because Isis just aren’t that good.

And that’s not in the sense that Metal bands can’t be making classics, because obviously I am a big fan of what constitutes Metal. My problem there is that the band, along with that other flavour of the month Pelican, are just so damn middle of the road.

It’s one thing for practitioners of Metal to be pushing the boundaries (a good thing), and even to be searching for new audiences (another good thing). It’s just that, according to these bands, this has to be done by reducing Metal to the kind of aural wallpaper bland nothingness that the likes of Explosions in the Sky, Sigur Rós and Mogwai (occasionally, though the latter band’s latest is a return to noisy form) have been known to foist on Indie music since 2001.

It’s a shame, because there are some great Metal bands that are doing new(ish) things with the form, such as the excellent Kayo Dot (really effective uses of dynamics, as the quiet bits really are beautiful), Mouth Of The Architect and Genghis Tron (scintillating mix of Grindcore and electronics, both done well, that never seems to jar).

And besides, if they wanted a token ‘Metal’ band for their ‘overlooked classics’ series, then they should to go the album that started this particular scene (and did it best), Through Silver In Blood, by Neurosis.

But I digress. Simon Reynolds has just written a piece for Frieze in which he discusses the art of music writing, and the sorry state it has apparently fallen into.

I won’t go into it too much here (because you should really read it), but the gist is that, as music itself is devalued and commoditised, losing its social power and anger, so too does the writing on it. The current (and seemingly constant) retro-obsession isn't helping. And I agree. Music nowadays is in something of a bind.

Mainstream music is devoid of anything particularly interesting. The best band who sells a million-plus of each album is likely Tool and, while they have just released a really good album, they have been on a very gradual decline after 1996.

Otherwise, it’s just people making the best of a bad situation and listening to the best pop music that’s doing the rounds. And while I like the best pop music (and some not-so-best), it’s hardly life-changing stuff.

Away from the mainstream (let us not even speak of The Streets/Snow Patrol/Kaiser Chiefs), we have an underground that has become so fragmented as to lose pretty much any unifying power it once had.

In HipHop, there has been a battle, for years now, between what scenesters consider ‘true’ HipHop (Masta Ace, Ghostface, et al) against what they deem ‘backpack’ music, a term I really hate. This seems to stretch from the indie-weirdo likes of Anticon right through to the primarily noisy machismo of the Def Jux label (Cannibal Ox, Mr. Lif). That's all so 2001, anyway...

Elsewhere, there are battles of words about whether Grime is dead, whether it was ever alive, what exactly constitutes Dubstep (which really just sounds to my untrained ears like Tricky’s Pre-Millennium Tension or Massive Attack’s Mezzanine, just not as good), and the discourse just seems to be, to borrow a phrase from Faith No More’s Bill Gould, like a bunch of ants screaming.

I was going to write a post a couple of months ago, inspired by something I read, about the proliferation of broadband and file-sharing networks leading to an almost autistic desire for music fans to collect everything they humanly could, to hear everything (arguably, while actually listening to none of it).

And that has happened to me; I feel the need to hear everything, and as a result, everything is devalued. Fortunately, I have toned that tendency down quite a bit of late, but it is a very real issue when it comes to personal approaches to music. I have been planning on posting my top 50 albums of last year since February, and it gets delayed as I, Pokémon-style, gotta catch them all!

So yeah, I agree with Simon. The fragmentation of music, as well as its reduction in magazines to shorter, shallower, reviews means that not only is there little to say anymore, but that the places to say it are fewer and farther between.

Even a magazine like Uncut, which as recently as a few years ago ran a very interesting essay on the mixing of what was termed ‘rock’s emotion with electronic music’s intelligence’ (to paraphrase) is now just a glossy home of list-o-mania and icon fetish.

I just feel a tad weird writing this. Out of my depth, maybe. Or self-important (and believe me, I'm not that deluded). The Frieze article just struck a chord with me, as what Reynolds describes needs to happen with music writing is something I have been trying to do. Granted, I’ve not been doing it very well, and with a definite preference of the personal over the social, but I’m still young, and I feel an improvement is gradually being made.

So what’s the point of this post? Aside from being an excuse to rant (this has all been stream-of-consciousness, like you couldn’t tell already from its randomness) I don’t know really, other than this is what throughsilver in blog is attempting to be about. Somewhat intelligent writing on music, even if the only people reading it are myself and crickets. Could it be that I have a manifesto?

Of course, that would mean I have to actually write about music, but I’m getting there…

26 July 2006

Last Night's Lost

The most recent episode has just aired on E4 and, as part of my new ‘get things written’ philosophy, I am commenting on it, though it will be brief.

The main character of this episode is Claire who, let’s be honest here, has not been either the most interesting or charismatic of characters. Indeed, I spent the first season primarily knowing her as the one character whose name I couldn’t remember. I had to think about it just then, and we’re only a few minutes removed from her own episode.

Anyway. This was a quite magnificent episode that ostensibly clarified some of the island’s mysteries but, as per usual, just created more questions for we crazy viewers to ask.

As well as making Claire a more compelling character (you know, rather than merely a breeder who bleats hysterically about her baby in that Australian accent that makes me think a dingo is about to eat it), the flashbacks have also been improved.

This is because Claire’s flashbacks, it transpires, were all of events that took place on the island! No distant past that foreshadows the episode’s tag, nor any transparent excuses to switch the genre of the show for an hour or so. No, we get explanation of what happened to Claire when she got abducted way back in season one, when she was still Preggers McGregors.

Or is it really what happened? We see the body of a doctor talking to Claire in one flashback, which is revealed to be none other than The Other, Ethan. Who was once a monosyllabic and really hard man is now a very pleasant doctor whose bedside manner far outstrips that of Jack.

Or is he?! See, Claire has had all kinds of trauma visited upon her, and starts flashing back once the clinical psychologist whose name escapes me gets her to meditate in an attempt to dig out that which had been repressed.

So was she taken to a ridiculously clean medical centre with a very pleasant pre-furnished room for baby to sleep in, with Ethan (see the pic in my first Lost post for an idea of the leap of faith here) playing Nice Doc? Or is it all a combination of the trauma of Charlie abducting the baby, and the impromptu therapy all combining to colour her memories with other experiences?

Well, it certainly (eventually) leads her, Kate and Rousseau to another Dharma Hatch Of Mystery (and given the issues the team had in opening the last one – it took weeks – this one opens relatively willingly), in the hopes she can find the vaccine for what Rousseau has christened ‘the infection’ that saw off her entire crew. Except she killed them, but anyway…

In short, Claire was apparently taken to the (a) place where The Others are (or were); she was due to have the baby cut out of her on the night she was helped to escape. Turns out the woman who helped her escape from the medical centre (played by Tania Raymonde, who was on Malcolm In The Middle back in the day and has really blossomed into a very attractive woman) is none other than the baby who was stolen from Rousseau all those years ago!

Of course, then Rousseau found Claire, confused, and in the woods, and decided to save her from the advancing Others. And Kate (and everyone else) thought she was evil all this time! How sweet she ended up being. Of course, now Rousseau will be all about getting reunited with her daughter Alex.

The use of the really-fast-edit was really well implemented in this episode, as memories raced through Claire’s head, like that cool bit in Event Horizon, every time a stimulus unearthed a previously lost memory. It offered glimpses into the potential future of the series and used jarring sound (best used in The Exorcist, natch) to great visceral effect.

Also interesting, when the trio finally got to this other hatch, was the discovery of theatre glue and a fake beard. This, combined with a gruff but clean-shaven middle-aged man in the flashback, suggests all is not quite as it seems with The Others. Could it be that this perceived massive threat is nothing more than smoke and mirrors, Wizard Of Oz-style?

Back in the regular Dharma bunker, our mysterious captive (found by Rousseau, taken back to camp and beaten by Sayid) is turning into quite the fly in the ointment.

There has always been something off about this Armin Shimerman-esque character; something every so slightly unnerving. He protest complete innocence and ignorance as to whom The Others are, but he has that knowing look about him. Even when man-mountain Mr. Eko went into the room to talk to him, I feared what mind games he might play.

As it turns out, my fears were well founded. Drawing comparison with Hemingway’s inferiority complex about Fyodor Dostoyevsky, this nameless man sowed the seed of doubt in the mind of the otherwise very solid Locke. Prying into Locke’s mind, this man asks why he allows Jack to make all decisions.

Locke protests (too much, methinks) and when he leaves the cell, our favourite baldie has a temper tantrum, scattering the crockery everywhere. Now who’s going to clean up that mess?

As the insidious prisoner earlier remarked, the doors are thin, so he hears all of this and wears that self-satisfied smirk that makes me want to kill him.

I’m sure there was something else, but this post is long enough, and I’m sure I’ll remember it when I re-watch the episode. I should also revisit the Sawyer one, as I’m in the middle of writing that one up and have forgotten a story point! Terrible, I know.

24 July 2006

Prince and the Revolution – Parade (1986)



So I listened to this tonight, and am hoping that I can just knock this review out without it having to become a long, drawn-out review of attrition; a battle between my desire for perfection (that should probably read ‘competence’) and my total lack of a killer instinct when it comes to this kind of thing.

At the moment I am embroiled in a poll over at one of the message boards I frequent. It is a poll about the albums of the years 1985-94 inclusive, and therefore I decided it was time to revisit some of my favourite Prince albums. This one had been my favourite, but a listen the other day to the excellent Around The World In A Day raised questions as to which was top.

This album, much like the later Lovesexy, is less a collection of songs than a single song-suite, just divided into twelve different movements; I love that method of album construction. Quick question: when was that first done? The earliest I can think of off-hand is What’s Going On?

As with the previous year’s Around The World In A Day, the opening track here is a strange mishmash wherein Mr. Nelson just throws a ton of sounds into a pot for a few minutes and sees what happens. But while ‘Around The World In A Day’ was an intro for the big-hitting (in terms of quality, rather than commerce) likes of ‘Paisley Park’ and ‘Condition Of The Heart’, this album’s ‘Christopher Tracy's Parade’ is the beginning of a trio of tracks that last a total of just over six minutes.

In that time, we get all kinds of sounds, never settling in until the fourth part of the album, ‘Under The Cherry Moon’ (the title of the film that this album is apparently a soundtrack to. I haven’t seen it because I suck). A slightly off-kilter ballad, it sums up Prince’s approach to pop music: very memorable melodies that are very strange yet still catchy, accompanied by some very individual arrangements.

‘Under The Cherry Moon’ plays like some opiated sex lullaby, and I love it – what else sounded like this in 1986? As good as it was XTC’s Skylarking has nothing on this for pop-psychedelia. The songs are definitely meatier from here on, though each still leads directly onto the next with nary a pause for breath.

Both ‘Girls & Boys’ and ‘Life Can be So Nice’ are the first real tastes of ‘traditional’ Prince (if, indeed, there can be such a term for his mid-80s output), as he goes straight for the romantic in terms of his lyric, and to the hips musically. The former uses the French language to very effective ends, it has to be said. A fine batch of energetic pop with that Prince edge – of course, Blur were miles wide of the mark when they penned a tune on the same topic, nearly a decade later…

From here, the album goes into full-on crazy mode, as hinted by the previous album. ‘Venus de Milo’ is an absolutely gorgeous sub-two-minute interlude that sounds both of its time (the lead melody could be from a sleazy late-night soap opera), yet also something that no pop star should really be doing.

It both acts as an intro to the next stage of the album, but also as something of a breather, in which the listener can unwind between bouts of layered pop orchestration and, Prince himself can stretch his legs before heading back on the road.

The ‘road’ would be the lush pop of ‘Mountains’, continuing the textured not-quite-normality of the two songs just prior to the interval. The strangeness continues with what is, on paper, a familiarly yearning ode to the lover who can’t fully be trusted (‘When I lie awake in my boudoir I think of u dear / Do u think of me, or do u lie, do u lie?’).

Musically, though, it is another story entirely. The vocal melody is as another off-kilter lullaby; paranoia as condescension, perhaps? Maybe Prince is under the impression that kid gloves are the best strategy for unearthing the truth as to what is going on inside the head of his lover. The music, similarly, is almost jaunty in its breezy naïveté.

The faux-innocence is dropped as the album reaches its best-known single, ‘Kiss’. Fortunately, the intervening years seem to have blown the sands of time into just enough of a dune to obscure Tom Jones’ ridiculous cover of the song, so this absolute gem of a stripped-down single is left free from besmirchment (I seem to have just invented that word).

Pretty much the definition of what Funk should be in the mid 80s, ‘Kiss’ is a thrilling deconstruction of the genre, as the skeletal essence of the funk is both sexually charged and unstoppable for the duration of the song.

What sounds like xylophone is added for some texture, but that is almost just a canvas on which Prince’s androgynous falsetto paints the picture that he’s not bothered what qualms or weaknesses you have; he just wants that kiss. And as the few minutes come to an end, he froths himself into quite the frenzy as he screams ‘Ain't no particular sign I'm more compatible with / I just want your extra time and your… kiss’.

Obviously, the song is an aural metaphor for Prince’s sexual excitement. As he builds and builds in a linearly-increasing crescendo, he is repeating the aforementioned phrase of his desire, again and again, and louder and louder, until!

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It’s suddenly over, and that equally familiar jaded Prince is back, in a flash. ‘Anotherloverholeinyohead’, aside from being a pain to type, is another compelling single on an album, which really is not a straight-up pop release. And as satisfied as Prince no doubt was all through the 80s, he articulates that dead-eyed, disappointed reaction to the end of a relationship that we are all familiar with:

I gave my love, I gave my life, I gave my body and mind
We were inseparable. I guess I gave u all of my time
And now u plead insanity and u don't even know the score
Why can't u learn 2 play the game?

Of course, Prince being Prince, he is never one to give up, and attempts to present the case for his being the only one this person would actually need:

Sure as there's a sun,
I'm gonna be the 1 and if
u don't understand face to face,
Baby I'll tell u down on my knee, yeah.

It’s the way he tells ‘em. Anyway, the album (and I’m sure the film explains this) is book-ended by songs that concrn themselves with one Cristopher Tracy. Conspicuous though they seem, the content is beyond reproach.

The closer, ‘Sometimes it Snows in April’ is just a beautifully mellow piece. Sounds at the start of the song actually remind me of Sigur Rós (when they were good), in a Slaughterhouse 5 ‘all time is visible at once’ kinda way. The vocal perfoprmance is just magnificent, as it resonates with emotion while never straying over the top.

As the end of the album, it lacks the bombastic, ‘epic’, feel of a ‘Purple Rain’ or ‘Temptation’, but that’s for the best. This is a different kind of album, and it seems somehow fitting that the near-seven minute duration eases the listener out of the emotional intensity and back into the real world.

I say that, but today when the album finished, I just sat motionless for a few minutes, making the most of the serene mood that song had put me in. And, as I experienced one song lead right into the next (apparently, Prince wanted the album to just be one track, upon original release of the CD), it really felt like the end of a very satisfying, if tumultuous, journey.

11 July 2006

Arrested Development, season 1

AD crew

So I just got done watching this on DVD. As with Lost, it was one I decided to just wait for on DVD. Also as with Lost, I had some trepidation about watching it, given how it was supposed to be The Greatest Comedy In Years etc. I saw bits of it, and it seemed funny, but I was a tad sceptical – especially seeing how brilliant Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm has been for the four seasons I’ve seen it (can’t wait for season five to come out).

Seems I just needed to watch A.D. in less isolated fashion. Seinfeld was a comedy that really benefited from seeing wodges of; seeing just one episode here and there is not enough to get a feel for the characters or story arcs, and so it was here. In isolation, it seemed an unusually intelligent US sitcom, but without being especially funny.

Seeing what the characters are actually like, and how certain scenes play into the grand narrative, definitely opened my eyes to the true quality of this show. Hey, I did watch the whole season in essentially a day; and that was with watching the two extremely tense football matches (Brasil! Noooo!).

Err, anyway. I think the first really funny moment for me came about three episodes in. One of the brothers, GOB (magician who rides an ever-present Segway scooter), had “rebelled” against main character Michael (son of George and father of George-Michael) by throwing a letter he’d been told to deliver into the sea. Episode ended when Michael and George-Michael did an insurance job on their banana stand.

When Michael asked GOB if he’d sent off the insurance application, he was met with silence, and the great visual gag of GOB slyly reversing out of picture on the Segway. That seemed to be some sort of comic (not “comedic”, for I hate that word as much as “envision”. It’s “envisage”!) opening of floodgates, as the next nineteen or so episodes had me variously cackling and howling throughout.

I’ve just got season 2, and had promised myself I’d finish this post before I started watching it, but it was too tempting. Anyway, it’s interesting to see where comedies go these days in terms of taboo. Society being the way it is at the moment, there’s not much scope for offending people, or even for testing what is good or bad taste.

Extras managed to push things pretty well in its most toe-curling episode (the one with Les Dennis in it); there was a very strange relationship between closeted choreographer Bunny and is daughter that peaked with their rendition of Bucks Fizz’s ‘Making Your Mind Up’ on her birthday, complete with skirt-ripping. It was a very awkward episode, though not particularly offensive.

Headless doll 1
Larry David flew the flag well with his excellent Curb Your Enthusiasm. Highlights there included a convoluted storyline that ended in a young girl running from the toilet shouting that there’s a man in the bathroom with a bulge in his pants. The ‘bulge’ is actually a doll’s head, but… that’s not really much more wholesome anyway.

Headless doll 2
There was also the episode where Larry accompanied an old friend to an incest survivors’ help group. Not wanting to mention to those present that he was just there with a friend, he then made something up about his uncle. This being Curb, the uncle and the old friend ended up crossing paths, with grim results.

The point of this is that one of my favourite elements of Arrested Development is the inordinately awkward comedy that emanates from George-Michael and his love for cousin Mae ‘Maeby’ Fünke. Thrilled when she suggests they make out to show their parents that the family gets together so little that they don’t recognise each other, George-Michael is a disturbing boy in love from the kiss onwards.

Maeby GM
What’s funniest is the way he deals with this forbidden love. Whenever father Michael suggests they ditch the rest of the Bluths and move away, George-Michael will mention how he loves his ‘family’, or wants to do things with ‘the family’; of course it’s all just code for Maeby.

There was a moment on a similar tack that plays into my next point on the programme. See, Arrested Development is much like Frasier, in that it is a very slick, sophisticated take on a very old-school comedy format. While Frasier was a very traditional sitcom, the quality came in the writing, in just how good the one-liners and especially comic timing were.

A.D. is very similar in that, for all the plaudits about how original it’s supposed to be, the key to most of the jokes lies in the comedy of misunderstanding. It seems as though almost every event stems from someone overhearing someone else say something out of context, or someone missing a phone call that offers crucial information etc. Of course, it’s handled in an expert manner, but it is one of the oldest tricks in the book.

A prime example of this in the first season is when George-Michael falls in love with his teacher. Michael misunderstands and thinks GM wants a new mother figure, and that Michael should go out with her. Michael tells this to sister (George-Michael’s aunt) Lindsay, who gets the hump that she’s not valued as a mother figure.

Lindsay GM
So she has a chat with George-Michael about how she can fill the void that he was thinking of filling with his teacher. Of course, the programme is so well written that her dialogue just makes this misunderstanding that much worse, and George-Michael gets very scared.

In fact, I’ve been watching the second season (perhaps too much – started watching it yesterday afternoon and I’m on the last disc), and I’m quite amazed at how they have managed to stretch this system out. Amazed not because the system is especially stretched at this point, but precisely because it doesn’t seem stretched.

Of course, the system is somewhat masked by the generous heaps of surrealism in the show. Often not really story points, these surrealist moments are decoration, and really help to add depth to both the comedy as a whole and the characters themselves.

Let’s see if I can think of a example off-hand. Right, there is one episode (‘Pier Pressure’) that features numerous flashbacks to when George Sr. would play tricks on his sons, utilising his associate, one J. Walter Weatherman. Weatherman only had one arm, and these tricks were increasingly convoluted scenarios in which Weatherman would pretend to be someone else, and ‘accidentally’ ‘lose’ his ‘arm’ in an accident ostensibly triggered by the sons.

So there’s one where George Sr. wants his sons to stop ‘yelling’ at each other. He sets up a situation where said yelling results in a man’s cries going unheard and losing the arm. As the children freak out, Weatherman confronts them with the moral ‘and that is why you do not yell’. Obviously not as funny when written here on, err, indigo and rose? But trust me, it’s great.

Hot Cops
Especially so, when Michael deigns to teach his own son a lesson, in a method echoing that of his dad. God, this post is getting long. In short, George-Michael is getting some weed for Buster to give to his paramour Lucille II (played by the ever-unsettling Liza Minelli). Michael gets GOB’s stripper ex-colleagues (Hot Cops) to pretend to bust him on the deal, when real dealers turn up.

A gunfight ensues, the Bluths cower in fear, and a man loses an arm in the melee. Then he tells Michael – now terrified after his ‘lesson’ went so disastrously – ‘this is what happens when you teach your son a lesson’.

And that would seem to be as good a time to stop as any.
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