Monthly Archives: February 2012

Plusgood

There is a dissonance to the doublethink of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four which is reflected beautifully in the occasional musical excursions taken in Tahsin Gemikonaklı and Imogen Lewis’s stage adaptation at the Bloomsbury Theatre. This multimedia-enhanced production, masterminded by the rising star Alex Rodin, is heavy on chilling found footage, but it is the music that lingers in the memory. At times it recalls the delicate orchestral leanings of late-period Radiohead; at others, the haunting woodwind that characterises These New Puritans’ second album, Hidden.

Rodin, an LSE graduate who took the original production How To Catch A Rabbit to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2011, now plies his trade at the more culture-friendly UCL, a fact best demonstrated by the diverse, artsy and sell-out crowd gathered when your correspondent went along to catch Nineteen Eighty-Four last Friday. Three Weeks gave How To Catch A Rabbit, a tale of urban gypsies, a four-star review, and it’s interesting to see how Rodin’s latest creation depicts a more famous urban environment. The London of Airstrip One, Oceania, is a brutal factory of skeletal structures, desensitised factotums, and a looming telescreen which oversees everything on stage.

This adaptation sensibly doesn’t mess too much with the formula: Orwell’s beautiful economy with language is brought to the fore (and then butchered by the paradoxical Newspeak), and the plot is pruned a little, perhaps in order to heighten the audience’s confusion. Orwell’s vision left little room for aural affairs (beyond “Under The Spreading Chestnut Tree“); here, there is a new sonic assault everywhere you look. First, the lessor of Winston and Julia’s squalid love-nest (here transformed into a toothless, Cockney, prole landlady) breaks out into similarly camp fare every time we encounter her. Second, a variety of unusual sound effects pepper the performance, from the French railway announcement jingle which precedes all of Big Brother’s communiqués (prompting Francophiliac me to do a double-take on first hearing), to the mechanised human beatbox which soundtracks the office at the Ministry of Truth.

Third, and most memorably, there is a sparse but effective score by Max Wilson, performed by a small off-stage ensemble and led by first violinist Shou Jie Eng. Shou was the musical director for How To Catch A Rabbit; his score for that play was described as “terrific” by the Scotsman. Here, the music is a more subtle beast, cued to perfection and overwhelming the on-stage drama where necessary, as in the frequently-uncomfortable second half, with its grimly portentous torture scene. Wilson has approached the text like a great proof-reader, adding colour and tempering the occasional mis-step in the staging.

I’m no theatre critic, but this was not a flawless production. Undoubtedly audience-pleasing (in particular the cameo from UCL Provost Malcolm Grant, as Big Brother—a nod to the many similar performances by Sir Howard Davies in LSE Drama Society productions) though it was, there were a few jarring shifts in mood which lessened the impact compared with Orwell’s original. I don’t feel qualified to read too much into this, but what I can tell you is that, stylistically, it was an engaging and thoughtful production which made great use of the cultural capital cleverly predicted by Orwell back in 1948. The movements on stage may not always have been “joined up”, but the intermeshing of direction, sound and vision certainly was.


Nineteen Eighty Four was brought into existence by the UCLU Drama Society and Stage Crew Society, directed by Tahsin Gemikonaklı and Imogen Lewis, and produced by Alex Rodin.

I don’t know why, seven years after the release of Station To Station, David Bowie thought it necessary to team up with Chic’s Nile Rodgers in order to make the disco-centric Let’s Dance.

Back in 1976, he cornered the market all by himself with “Stay”, a six-minute funk odyssey with classily struck chords, a light pattering of tropical percussion, and the meanest bass-line this side of Compass Point Studios (which itself wasn’t built till a year later). Near the end, there’s a brilliant interplay between bass and lead guitar, the latter of which is busy wailing away to the Thin White Duke’s wildest coke-fuelled nightmare.


Taken from Station To Station (RCA Records, 1976).

Field Music — Plumb

Nothing divides opinion like prog. Some lap it up; others despise it; few just “tolerate” it. Field Music, which is a distinctly average name for the partnership of David and Peter Brewis, are often mistaken for prog, but this doesn’t quite hit the mark: prog is dogged, and riffs on the same theme for an extended period of time before veering into a new and sometimes unexciting direction. Field Music may explore a diverse range of instruments and textures and genres in their work but, by contrast, they are restless, skitting from sound to sound like schoolboys let loose in a sweetshop.

The Brewis brothers, who are Sunderland natives and wear their small-town heritage proudly on their sleeves, last released an LP in 2010: Field Music (Measure) was an expansive double album with a second half heavy on bucolic ambience which was sui generis compared with their previous work. The first half was at once more familiar, but also steeped in the shock of the new—more swagger in the guitars on “Each Time Is A New Time”, more seduction in the Princely funk of “Let’s Write A Book”. It was weird, didn’t really work in a live setting, and I loved it.

Seventy minutes versus thirty-five. That’s the first thing that hits you when you look at …Measure’s follow-up, the obtusely titled Plumb. This new release is half the size but bristles with energy, engaging with snippets of moods and scenes across its fifteen songs, which run the gamut between forty-second interludes to three-minute pocket epics. Field Music refuse to settle, as evidenced by their inter-album transformations, and also by the intra-album prevarication which typifies Plumb.

“I want a different idea of what / Better can be that / Doesn’t necessitate having more useless / Shit.”

Lyrically, they’re certainly on more well-worn terrain, exploring the minutiæ of drizzly, transport-laden, indecisive England. There are lyrical sighs on this album which could power entire episodes of Countdown, Antiques Roadshow or Look East. Love is always unrequited, and any anger (“My generation are opting out of choosing sides”, from “Choosing Sides”, is at once fed-up and wistful) quickly dissipates into a wave of deference.

But one mistakes this cosiness for inertia at one’s peril: thematically, there is definite progression from previous Field Music releases. For example, the questioning song-titles (“Who’ll Pay The Bills?”, “Is This The Picture?”, “How Many More Times?”) speak of generational dissatisfaction and a sadness at the age of austerity. It’s not a universal proclamation that “Modern life is rubbish”—in fact, the brothers’ view of society is far more nuanced, and tinged with pleasant anecdotes.

The social commentary may put Plumb in the realm of Gang of Four and XTC, but the scope of styles, tempos, time signatures and textures skated over evades comparison. Compositionally, the album is frequently dazzling and broad. To consider just one exotic pairing, the rousing and punkish final track, “(I Keep Thinking Abou) A New Thing” is preceded by three minutes of bruised krautrock, “Just Like Everyone Else”. Elsewhere, we find homemade found sounds competing against crisp and intricate beats (as in “A New Town”—see top of article) and, in general, there is a great deal more variety than the electric piano fallback of old. The sweetshop analogy rings true, with assiduous selections of stringed instruments, obscure keyboards, and the occasional mournful tuba.

There are also moments of supreme tenderness—as in “A Prelude to Pilgrim Street”, which could have soundtracked one of those awkward scenes in Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and the stately”So Long Then”—which is not an emotion associated with either post-punk or prog. But tenderness does lie at the heart of what Field Music are really about: sweet pop music, refracted into a thousand disparate pieces.

Duffers are harder to ignore in a thirty-five minute song-cycle, compared with the odyssey that was Field Music (Measure): “From Hide And Seek to Heartache” quickly wears on the listener, for one. But this remains an album of understated brilliance; seldom showy, there is always a treat of a three-part vocal harmony or an elegant string arrangement just around the corner. It might be an album that you initially admire, and eventually love. How long that journey takes is probably an English settlement.



Plumb by Field Music was released on 13th February 2012 by Memphis Industries.

Slowed-down, mutant funk, with groaning guitar interludes, and a Super 80 outro running on buzzing synth pads. St. Vincent‘s “Dilettante” is, to paraphrase Ryan Dombal, a playful take on David Bowie’s “Fashion”.


Taken from Strange Mercy (4AD, 2011).

Eight minutes of storm and shadows which takes in 1960s British folk, free-jazz skronks, and a healthy dose of mystical, doomed romance.

The percussion is infrequent and crashing; the vocal harmonies are glowing in reverb; halfway through, an ambient drone collides with plucky banjo strumming, which then leads into atonal saxophone wanderings. Is “The Shrine / An Argument” the apogee of Fleet Foxes’ œuvre?


Taken from Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop / Bella Union, 2011).

Maybe it’s because this song is intimately connected to Lost In Translation, a film I associate with unbearable sadness and purposelessness (in a good way), but I feel myself welling up every time I hear it. Those elegantly plucked, interweaving notes on an acoustic guitar. The delicate pulses and pings that speak of being at one with the natural world. The subtle colouring provided by the wordless vocal backing, which backs into a piano-driven coda of rich timbre, which itself slowly recedes into the sound of lapping waves.

It tugs at me like the sense of “There should be more to life than this” which tugs at Scarlett Johansson’s character in the film.

Lying in bed in the middle of a spring night in 2005, waiting to rise at an insanely early hour for a school-trip to the Rhineland, I plugged into XFM (back when it still stood for something) and heard Jaga Jazzist‘s “Swedenborgske Rom” beamed in, seemingly from a distant galaxy. It was my introduction to the Ninja Tune label, and it was almost nine minutes of delicately paced woodwind, the lightest patter of drumming, and a futuristic amalgam of jazz and post rock. The massed choral voices that threaten to overwhelm the song but never do, instead quelling into moments of bliss. I heard that song and felt ready to face a Trans-Europe (non-express) coach journey. I returned five days later and tracked down the album it came from, What We Must. It was a special moment.

Choosing which side of the plumb-line

My internal jury is still out on Field Music‘s new album, Plumb, but I can confirm it contains at least moments of brilliance. Presenting my first pieces of evidence: “A New Town” and “Choosing Sides“, which come in a third of the way through what is an extremely economical but fidgety LP (preview the whole thing here, thanks to NPR Music).

“A New Town” presents with us the band at its most complex. Following a reedy organ intro which sounds like the less disconsolate brother of Radiohead’s “Motion Picture Soundtrack“, we get two rhythm tracks which are panned to the extreme; periodically, watery bubbles stream between the channels. The guitar-work veers between The Durutti Column-style intricacy and St. Vincent’s chunky shredding. There are so many layers it’s a wonder the song doesn’t implode.

Betraying the Brewis brothers’ love of proggy synth-work, “Choosing Sides” begins with a lilting, hey-nonny-no keyboard-driven passage, which then leads into the song proper. There are acoustic guitars redolent of prime-time Fleetwood Mac, the drums are crisp and intricate, and the vocal harmonies are as distinguished as ever. And then, before you get too comfortable, in the final minute there is a sudden change of time signature and the song does a volte face.

But I have a lingering feeling that the throwback-feel of Plumb, with its numerous shifts in mood and style, might not sit so well with me, in aggregate, as the pastoral-concept double album of Field Music (Measure).


Plumb is released on 13th February 2012 (UK) and 14th February (US), on Memphis Industries.

The most perfect four-minute pop song, distended to include an anticipatory intro which leaves you begging for that minor-to-major chord change.