Arcade Fire didn’t really used to sound like any other band. But 2010’s The Suburbs set them off on a journey of mainstreaming which Reflektor, their fourth album, refashions into a sprawling quest to pay homage to their influences whilst hinting at bigger truths. Like The Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin before it, Reflektor is a concept-album about not having a concept. Continue reading Living with Black Orpheus
It starts with the crowd showing their appreciation. Slowly, a rhythm settles in. Then, a gut-churning bass line and a central instrumental motif guaranteed to make bodies writhe. It’s The Rapture’s “House of Jealous Lovers”—the first DFA single, with James Murphy behind the boards.
And it’s pretty much David Bowie’s “Love Is Lost”, too, albeit spun out over a ten-minute remix masterminded by, yes, James Murphy. Continue reading James Murphy’s Law
Over breakfast, reading Giles Coren and Matthew Parris in The Times, I was forced to conclude that schooling kills creativity, and economists’ predictions are not so much dismal science as abysmal science. I suppose I am doubly screwed, then. Continue reading Unfriends like these
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.
“I love the girl,
But god only knows it’s
Getting harder to see the sun coming through.”
—Gorillaz, “Every Planet We Reach is Dead”
- Explosions in the Sky — Greet Death
- Hot Chip — One Pure Thought
- Beck — Send a Message to Her
- Radiohead — House of Cards
- Wild Beasts — Plaything
- Kanye West — All of the Lights
- Spandau Ballet — Gold
- Dionne Warwick — You’re Gonna Need Me
- These New Puritans — Drum Courts—Where Corals Lie (after Richard Garnett)
- Friendly Fires — Helpless
- Arcade Fire — My Body is a Cage
This time last year, I bored you all to death with my fifteen favourite albums of 2009. At the time, I suggested my list was not very useful because I had spent much of the year catching up on older music thanks to Spotify.
A year on, plus ça change. A friend told me he was surprised to see Fleetwood Mac extremely high on the list of most-listened to music on Spotify. I told him I was probably the reason behind this.
Nevertheless, for (non)completists’ sake, I shall persist with this probably pointless exercise. It might give you some weird insight into my warped tastes, at least.
Because I don’t wish to look like a slacker, you can also expect me to publish a list with albums I will get round to listening to in the near future. Continue reading Under-informed profligacy – Favourite Albums of 2010
Here in the UK a lot of people feel very lucky to still have the BBC. Though I’m aware that they seem to be caught up in a fresh scandal every week, one really can’t doubt the unmatchable quality of a vast quantity of their output. Which other broadcaster has given us such quality creations as Spooks, Hustle, Life On Mars and Bleak House in recent years? Which other channel pumps out consistently entertaining comedy rivalling the likes of Have I Got News For You, Never Mind The Buzzcocks, and Armstrong And Miller? Certainly not ITV, that’s for sure. I would readily admit that I only watch programmes on the BBC, with the exception of Champions’ League football. Whether it’s drama, comedy or factual, the I’m proud to say that the BBC still maintains intellectual standards in an era when other channels are quite content to devote the entirety of their schedules to dumbed-down reality TV with not an ounce of originality or value. Of course the BBC produces its share of trash, but even their reality TV efforts aren’t always bad – The Apprentice, anyone?
On the radio front, again, the BBC is still willing to sacrifice a degree of populist interest in the hope of maintaining standards. Key to this strategy is the output of BBC 6 Music and Radio 4, which is never less than excellent. Yes, all things considered, we have it pretty good over here.
Which is why I’m always encouraged to hear what’s being broadcast across the pond on NPR, which I believe to be America’s closest equivalent to BBC Radio. More specifically, NPR’s music content is thoroughly worthwhile, none more so than the perennial All Songs Considered arm, which covers everything from music news, through reviews, to live concert broadcasts. The latter in particular was how I first came across NPR, and, several years after I first started tuning in, the quality of output is still very present. In Bob Boilen, All Songs Considered has the perfect host: Boilen is witty, erudite and eloquent, and never fails to display his passion for the music.
What is really incredible is the sheer quantity of concerts that are not only aired live, but are then uploaded onto the internet as a downloadable podcast, of the same name, which I cannot recommend enough. A cursory glance at my iTunes lists entire sets from the likes of Radiohead, Tom Waits, Fleet Foxes, Spoon, Low, Iron & Wine, The National and Arcade Fire. These are some of my favourite artists and bands, at the top of their game. The content available is really spectacular. The audio is usually pristine; the songs are all there; crowd noise doesn’t impede on the on-stage performance. It’s like a bootleg, without all the inconvenient problems of a bootleg. These concert recordings really are the next best thing to actually being there, and I can’t encourage you enough to check them out. The Radiohead gig in particular, recorded at their Santa Barbara Bowl performance over the summer, is a true testament to the transformative power of the live experience. Though we cannot relive the excitement of the moment, just hearing a recording of it is enough to evoke considerable emotion and enjoyment.
I’m man enough to admit that the following albums leave me pretty much in tears by the time they finish:
- Amon Tobin – Supermodified (occasionally)
- Arcade Fire – Neon Bible
- Blur – 13
- Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago
- Godspeed You Black Emperor! – Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven
- Interpol – Turn On The Bright Lights
- Jaga Jazzist – What We Must
- Jonny Greenwood – There Will Be Blood
- LCD Soundsystem – Sound of Silver
- Low – Drums And Guns
- M83 – Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts
- Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!
- Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here
- Portishead – Third
- Pulp – We Love Life
- Radiohead – OK Computer
- Radiohead – Kid A
- The Shins – Wincing The Night Away
- TV On The Radio – Return To Cookie Mountain
- Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
What does this tell me? Well, other than that I’m possibly an emotional trainwreck, it also suggests that I’m a real sucker for killer album closers, notably those that are long, protracted, portentous and often outstay their welcome. Sometimes, these final songs are emotionally charged to such a degree that I feel utterly drained. At other times, it’s just the pent-up sadness that eventually emerges from an album full of grief, depression or sadness. When a songwriter lays his soul bare on record, it’s hard for me to not empathise.
This has made me sound like someone close to the brink, which I’m not, so I’ll stop now.
Are there any albums that I would award a score of 10.0, Pitchfork style? Well, being a bit more generous in places than Pitchfork, yes. There is still a little bit of overlap between the two sets of albums (the Pitchfork one used to be a group page on Wikipedia, but I think it’s since disappeared), but there are also some fairly substantial differences. Without further ado:
Amon Tobin – Supermodified
Arcade Fire – Funeral
Arcade Fire – Neon Bible
David Bowie – Low
The Flaming Lips – The Soft Bulletin
Gorillaz – Demon Days
LCD Soundsystem – Sound of Silver
Led Zeppelin – IV
Massive Attack – Mezzanine
Modest Mouse – The Moon And Antarctica
Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon
Queens of the Stone Age – Songs for the Deaf
Radiohead – OK Computer
Radiohead – Kid A
Radiohead – In Rainbows
Sigur Rós – Ágætis Byrjun
Sonic Youth – Daydream Nation
Steely Dan – Aja
Talking Heads – Remain In Light
Tortoise – TNT
Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
The main thing with this list that it overlooks possible faults with individual songs on albums in the pursuit of perfection as a whole. A 10.0 album, in my book, should be cohesive and thematic, without necessarily needing to have every song nailed.