Small stakes leave Spoon with the maximum blues.
Some years ago, the Brighton-based band British Sea Power asked, “Do you like rock music?” Responding on an album entitled by the same question, they seemed to suggest that they did, but only when that music was enlarged, grandiose, and Arcade Fire-aping. On Friday, performing at the Kentish Town Forum, the nominally Texan band Spoon presented their own answer, making the case for rock music in a manner enhanced by various tricks, but still definitively in touch with, to use their own phrase, “small stakes”. Continue reading RoarI’lllistentohearit
Among other things, I find the music of Factory Floor to be perfectly suited to exercising on a rowing machine. The relentless, mechanistic rhythms, alloyed to punctilious electronics and disembodied barking, put me in the right frame of mind for regimen, discipline, and the pursuit of excellence. If this makes my response to their work sound emotionless, you’re mistaken. Music that seeks to elevate the sounds of the assembly line from mere repetition to mantra is, in my book, praiseworthy. (See my thoughts on the essential albums of Kraftwerk.) Which goes some way towards explaining why I have hankered to see them in a live setting: music this ritual and kinetic deserves to be united with its creators. Continue reading Ergo sum fabrica
It’s time to talk about Hot Chip‘s perpetually classy live show. Continue reading Still chipper
I was going to suggest I write about Shut Up And Play The Hits, the documentary chronicling LCD Soundsystem‘s final days of existence, from a dispassionate perspective. Then, I realised that was an impossible task. Then, I realised that was a pointless exercise. I don’t know what it would be like to watch this film without even a shred of knowledge about this band, and its big greying human centre James Murphy, and I don’t want to know. You might be able to appreciate it for its cinematography, borne of several celebrated visual artists; you might admire the way it cuts between thrilling in-concert footage and a snarky, nasal interview between Murphy and the critic Chuck Klosterman. But you couldn’t feel the darling buds of tears form in your mind’s eye. At least, I doubt it. In any case, no-one deserves to not have LCD Soundsystem in their lives. If you learn of this film but know nothing about the band behind it, for goodness sake make amends.
Typically, in this age, films about bands and musicians are vanity projects or cash-cows. Shut Up… is not such a film. Its directors, Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace, came to Murphy with an idea and, together, they developed that idea into a better one.
So we get an incredibly human character-study of Murphy, the morning after the night before, trimming his inimitable beard and cleaning out his coffee machine. These subtly deflate the viewer’s perception of him: just as Murphy worshipped David Bowie as an alien from Mars who couldn’t possibly wake up with a pain in his foot, so do fans of LCD Soundsystem believe their hero to be superhuman in his accomplishments and traits.
And in lockstep with this touching portrait come exhilarating chunks of performance from their last ever concert, at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. The songs they play have never sounded better: they have the punkish energy fans loved, but are mixed retrospectively by Murphy, also a distinguished recording engineer, himself. The camera flits between overhead shots of fans partying like they know it’s the last time—one repeated, lingering close-up of a teenager, bawling his eyes out, elicited laughter from the audience—and extended shots of members of the extended live band, fiddling with synthesizers and scraping the guts of electric guitars. Pat Mahoney’s drumming, always metronomic, always spirited, is not foregrounded but plays a crucial role from the sidelines, keeping everyone else from freaking out and imploding. At certain moments, the visuals are so sympathetic to the lyrical content of Murphy’s songs, you realise what an obvious candidate for a film his band is. The clearest example is during “All My Friends”: when Murphy asks, “Where are your friends tonight?”, the camera responds by shifting its gaze from the stage to the adoring crowd, one seething mass of togetherness.
If you thought LCD Soundsystem were all about partying, you haven’t spent much time studying James Murphy. A self-confessed failure till he was thirty, he struggled through suburbia, punk bands, lucrative DJ sets, always yearning to step out from the shadows and do something memorable in his own right. The original incarnation of LCD Soundsystem took the form of “Losing My Edge”, a painfully tragic account of younger people being painfully hip. Soon after, Murphy assembled a band of friends to play his music at parties—the best LCD Soundsystem covers band, if you will.
His is a band that never set out to start somewhere, but which wrapped up in concrete the place they would end. In one of the more bearable fragments of the Chuck Klosterman interview, Murphy is pressed to suggest what will be remembered as his band’s defining failure. After a few false starts, he delivers his answer: ending the band—maybe. Murphy feared his own justification for drawing the curtains on LCD Soundsystem would objectively be deemed inadequate. After all, he had previously said a purpose of the band was to show young people how live music could still excite, and here he was, in 2011, still showing those upstarts who was boss. In making young listeners bow down to him, Murphy failed to inspire them to ape his own act. In this context, retirement might be seen as failing to take the greatest risks imaginable.
“I was 38 and I decided to make another record. I blinked, and I was 41…if I blink again, I’ll be 50.”
I wish I could remember more of the clever things Murphy says, whether to friends on the phone, or to Klosterman, sat in an Italian restaurant. Maybe this is Klosterman’s fault: he is the kind of pretentious critic who asks questions and then, as if grabbing the microphone from his interviewee, proceeds to answer them himself. This might make for good written interviews, but it makes for pretty aggravating cinema. However, I recognise that, on occasion, Klosterman’s questions prompt Murphy to make a perceptive, insightful remark that perfectly ushers in the next segment of the film. For example, near the end, Murphy says he likes songs “that come from a particular place”—an ideal introduction to the haunting “Someone Great”, which ends with…no, I won’t spoil it.
Another theme close to Murphy’s heart which gets a fair airing during the film is that of family. We see Murphy addressing his brother, sister and nephews from on stage. We see him greet musical acolytes (Arcade Fire join the band to sing backing vocals on “North American Scum”; the comedian and a cappella musician Reggie Watts skits through “45:33 (II)”) like soulmates. During the many songs which are shown almost in entirety, there is much embracing and unity. It’s another sign Lovelace and Southern, who also made No Distance Left To Run, the film about Blur’s fleeting rebirth, have done their homework. In conception, the film’s strands seem irreconcilable—shoehorning a four-hour concert into a documentary about the end of a band. In execution, the way the film pulls back from the humdrum and then lurches us in media res works well.
Prior to watching Shut Up…, the only comparable film I had seen was Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense, which follows Talking Heads at their peak over a three-night residency of the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles. There are numerous similarities, from the chiaroscuro shots of the bands’ frontmen, to the obsessive highlighting of complementary percussion and amp- and keyboard-fiddling. And, of course, Talking Heads are one of the clear antecedents to LCD Soundsystem.
But Shut Up… is its own kind of film, with its nonlinear narrative (the film starts amidst a sheet of gravelly white noise, which, any dedicated fan will know, is the ‘musical’ cover for the transition between two closing-stages songs, “Yeah” and “Someone Great”) and emphasis on the pedestrian parts of so-called rock stars’ lives (making coffee, taking the dog Petunia for walks). The best way of describing it is to say it is a very LCD Soundsystem film, so in keeping with the spirit of the band and the artist that, as I suggested earlier, watching it without having heard any of their music is pointless and indefensible. The fact the music in it is so impeccably mixed and really benefits from being blasted out of a cinema is significant, if only because you will want to get out of your seat and dance.
Shut Up And Play The Hits, by Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace, is produced by Pulse Films and distributed by Oscilloscope Laboratories, and will be released in the summer of 2012.
Picture credits: Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace.
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.
This is one of my all-time YouTube all-stars: TV On The Radio, who once brought experimental noise rock to the indie kids, playing “Love Dog”, live on French TV. The moment at 4:05 when the late Gerard Smith beams in this unearthly, haunting synth patch is just unreal.
The final LCD Soundsystem concert, about which I enthused here, has been filmed for a documentary-cum-rockumentary entitled Shut Up And Play The Hits, après Win Butler. Its first screening will be on 22nd January at the Sundance Film Festival, and now it has a trailer (see below), so you can get extremely jealous about anyone you know who was there/will be there.
Would you look at that? It looks, and sounds, stunning. And I guarantee you’ll see every white balloon popping in super-high-definition somewhere in the film.
And now I must go and wipe away the fresh-sprung tears.
Wild Beasts — Shepherd’s Bush Empire — 23rd November 2011
Can you tell a lot about a band from the fans who show up at their concerts? For a Northern quartet who recently upped sticks for Trendsville, Dalston, and whose stock is on the up even as they trade in lithe funk for pastoral art rock, Wild Beasts‘ assembled crowd pretty much fits the bill. Young, well-dressed professionals interspersed with the occasional gaggle of lairy, not-quite-scary freshers. Yours truly, straight from the office of a third-sector organisation; two pints swiftly imbibed during the forgettable opening set from Braids. Snuggling couples lingering behind the bar, all-too aware of the lush romanticism at the heart of Wild Beasts’ recent offerings.
The band begin on an uncharacteristically sprightly note, all thought of Kate Bush and Talk Talk shoved temporarily to one side for the jaunty, swooping “Bed of Nails”. “O! Ophelia! I feel yer fall,” moan the sparring frontmen Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming—the Hamlet reference surely isn’t lost on such a hyper-literate crowd. The former deals in a seductive falsetto (halfway between Antony Hegarty and Kate Bush) while the latter shows off his bluff, Northern baritone (like a more sultry Guy Garvey). Against such distinctive vocalists whirr shadowy keys and delicately textured guitar-work. And, always, Chris Talbot’s intricate, polyrhythmic sticksmanship, colouring in the gaps with deft bongo fills.
From there, the set takes a more sensual turn, with a decent mix of new and older materials. The high drama of “We Still Got The Taste Dancin’ On Our Tongues” is followed by the sparse, sub-bass-heavy “Albatross”, for which the frontmen face each other across hefty banks of keyboards, like lovers squaring up for a fight. Respite from the relentlessly pattering rhythms comes courtesy of the post-rock suite “Two Dancers”, its two constituent parts reversed in order and shuffled around. We’re also treated to the otherworldly “Loop The Loop” and the gentle, wafting “Deeper” (both from the recent album Smother), with its muted plucking and pinging synths. Even here, they can’t resist their love of earthier stuff, with cavernous bass tones lurking around the song’s middle section.
When the band gets round to playing the hits from their previous album, Two Dancers, the crowd raise their game. In a live setting, you kinda forget the gritty homoeroticism of “Hooting And Howling” and “All The King’s Men”, and end up bouncing along innocently enough to this scrunchy, steely brand of pop.
Then, in the encore, they plumb new depths, with every ounce of disco-noire potential extracted from “Lion’s Share” and distilled into a heady, intoxicating concoction. The bottomless bass pulses combine exquisitely with Thorpe’s plaintive piano and the additional thump of touring helper Katie Harkin on floor tom. As a final hurrah, we get the epic “End Come Too Soon”, that paen to all things premature, whose rousing first section soon tumbles into a rising fog of quasi-ambient noise, simultaneously recalling Oneohtrix Point Never and My Bloody Valentine. As this wall of sound approaches the unbearable, the band return to the stage, bringing back the original melody for a colossal and richly-deserved finale.
There is nothing earth-shattering about this performance; nothing to place it in my pantheon of live music. But it is a glorious display of a group at what seems like the peak of their prowess. On the basis of it, I hope their artistry continues to grow—even more bass! even more ambience!—pari passu with their popular appeal. There’s something extremely wholesome to finding unpretentious lads making pretentious-in-a-good way music, imbued with emotive storytelling and a very particular aesthetic. Do catch them before they end up in a concrete corporate arena-cum-shed.
Battles — Kentish Town Forum — 21st November 2011
All good live music contains within it an element of remixing: if it didn’t, I may as well have stayed at home and listened to the album on a pair of good headphones. The art of performance requires a degree of spontaneity; however, the more complex the music, the harder it is to survive without some grid to which to adhere. And so it is that Battles, reduced to a trio, not only persevere with their most multi-faceted compositions but actually carve them into something altered, goofy yet utterly compelling. Continue reading The right forum for Battles