Pulp, at their apotheosis, tangled small-town social commentary with cheap-sounding keyboards, to capture the state of a nation. But six years on from Different Class, Jarvis Cocker wanted to tell stories more epic in scope, and the music behind his words expanded to match the widescreen imagery—thanks in part to another auteur who has recently come back into the limelight. Continue reading Right Engel, string theory
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.
At his hoarsest, Dylan Baldi, the mainman of Cloud Nothings, sounds like a pained cross between Anthony Kiedis and Thom Yorke. And there’s a bleak, growling desolation to this cut from their forthcoming third album Attack On Memory which is reminiscent of both the Red Hot Chili Peppers circa Blood Sugar Sex Magik and Radiohead circa The Bends.
“No Future/No Past” is the album’s opener; like the rest of the album it is engineered by Steve Albini, who gives it a bottomless, crisp and emotionally detached vibe that recalls his work on Nirvana’s In Utero. There are woody backing vocals which sound like Tuvan throat singing, and the guitars sound like sandpapered iron filings. I don’t think the rest of the album is identical in mood, but you and I can go and check on this here.
I don’t feel able to construct a properly ranked list of my favourite albums of 2011—principally because I didn’t listen to enough albums of 2011. Instead, I am posting morsels of goodness on a Tumblr, which you can find here.
There are two distinct musical strands to Wild Beasts’ more exploratory recent work, which are combined to dizzying effect: the first is characterised by jaw-dropping, bottomless bass tones (see the backbone of “Lion’s Share”, the serrated “Plaything”, and the foreboding back-end of “Burning”); the second is an emphasis on the ambient and the pastoral (the delicate plucking of “Loop The Loop” and “Deeper”, the bewildering middle section of “End Come Too Soon”). In the past, I’ve mentioned the relationship between this aesthetic and certain trends in electronic music; now, I want to project backwards twenty years or so, to examine the influence had upon the latter aesthetic by Talk Talk.
Like Wild Beasts, Talk Talk picked up more critical acclaim the further they retreated from more boisterous and unsubtle compositions. “It’s My Life” (1984) may have been a hit and spawned a standout final single for No Doubt, but it was once they started burning incense and candles while improvising with orchestras that they produced their best work. 1988’s Spirit of Eden is a fascinating and obtuse entry point to their métier, so let’s start there. Six leisurely paced, disarmingly complex songs which stretch to forty minutes, the album can seem frustrating at first. There might be a few bars you can whistle to, but these moments are fragmentary, and blow away in the slightest breeze before they can be repeated.
The arresting opener, “The Rainbow”, has about three false starts before it gets going for certain. First, we hear a lazily atmospheric passage—a few jazzy notes on a clarinet, some overtone-rich chords struck from an abrasive-sounding electric guitar, both set to an indistinct wash of strings. Then, nothingness. Some moments later, as if telegraphed in from the beginning of the universe, a few groanings and murmurings of primordial soup. And finally, over two minutes in, a wonderfully resonant guitar enters with what you might call the opening credits. The four minutes which follow are similarly abnormal: strange chords begin on piano and are then resolved on organ; Mark Hollis indulges in his trademark disturbed-narcoleptic vocals; occasionally, the clouds break to reveal fragments of the titular rainbow.
As strange an opener as “The Rainbow” is , if anything the songs which follow are even stranger. Few will forget the haunting chorus of “Eden”, in which Hollis unleashes a nauseous wail, which clashes gloriously with the maxed-out Hammond organ. Nor can one fail to notice the tropical percussion breakdown near the end of “Desire”, with its knowing incongruity. At every turn, Spirit of Eden surrounds you with warmth and weirdness: some songs peter out into drifting silence and then cut back in with a radically avantgarde coda or middle-eight; others dare you to question unusual textures and chord progressions. Halfway through “I Believe In You” there is a gloomy passage of filtered organ and jazzy drumming which, thinking laterally, has found its way into everything from Sigur Rós and Tortoise to Doves and Four Tet. It’s like the feeling you get when you listen to those early Can records: here is fundamentally original music which has gone on to inform and predict countless and disparate genres and trends.
At its most nuanced, Spirit of Eden also sets an extremely high bar for orchestral arrangements in post rock. Unique atonal collisions of horns are nowadays the speciality of Radiohead (see “Codex“, “How To Disappear Completely“), but they bear the indelible stamp of authority from a composition like “I Believe In You”. Looking to younger forces, These New Puritans’ grimly beautiful Hidden also bears a great debt to Spirit of Eden—consider the fragile, gently resolving woodwind at the end of “Fire-Power“, and the insistent funeral march of “5“.
And, finally, Talk Talk’s rich pageant is also present on Wild Beasts’ Smother: you can feel it most perceptibly in the leisurely paced “Loop The Loop”, but it also creeps in elsewhere too.It’s a great challenge to weave in microfragments of other people’s defining characteristics, but Wild Beasts pull it off time and time again. Like the luxuriantly stretched-out gurgling sample that runs beneath “Reach A Bit Further”, they take a little morsel of Talk Talk’s heritage and tuck it into the quantum folds of their finest work. There is no other way even a band as daring and non-canon as Wild Beasts would have the balls to do what they do in the centre of “End Come Too Soon”. When all semblance of songiness cuts out, to be replaced by an abstract sonic edifice of yearning and regret which builds to a pulverising akmē, the spirit of Eden is well and truly alive.
“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
I’m not going to spend this review talking about the release of The King of Limbs, the eighth studio album from Radiohead. All I will say on the subject is that the album’s genteel but unanticipated announcement reflects perfectly the content of it.
As with all Radiohead albums, initial impressions may subsequently turn out to be wildly inaccurate, but I would liken The King of Limbs to two forebears, both stylistically and contextually: the quintet’s own Amnesiac (2001), and Blur’s pre-departure farewell, Think Tank (2003). Like the former, The King of Limbs is hype-free, glitchy, and pits the organic against the synthetic in an extremely natural way. Like the latter, this album is limber and light-footed, and betrays a substantial African influence. This is music to listen to while floating above a pastoral idyll – but with the brevity of a Tube journey.
In spite of this overriding sensation of the folksy, the album opens with its least accessible foot forward: “Bloom” does exactly what it says on the tin, but in an unexpected way. From clattering percussion atop a piano loop already called Glass-ian, Thom Yorke moans indefinably, his words practically yawned out. But the secret weapon is the bass – another link to Think Tank, which featured Alex James’s nimble fretwork more prominently than any other instrument. Here, Colin Greenwood’s style recalls that of Dave Holland, who manned the double bass on Miles Davis’s In A Silent Way, or, more recently, a more leisurely Thundercat, as heard on Flying Lotus’s 2010 magnum opus Cosmogramma.
A strong emphasis on groove is borne out on a couple of songs – “Morning Mr Magpie” is hypnotic, as is the 21st century Can of “Lotus Flower” – but always there is elegant counterpoint from (Colin) Greenwood. Brother Jonny is less apparent on the guitar, but his role in the electronics department is probably not to be understated. The King of Limbs is a very modern album in its use of loops and wafting samples, never more so than on quasi-instrumental “Feral”, which rubs ghostly fragments against tribal percussion. Rather than simply paying homage to their dubstep contemporaries, it’s nice to see Radiohead refreshing an already tired genre.
But The King of Limbs has its six-string moments too, and it’s here that the Amnesiac comparisons start to make even more sense. “Little By Little” is a strange mash-up of “Dollars & Cents” and “I Might Be Wrong”, right down to the insistent drumming of Phil Selway. A little later, “Give Up The Ghost” channels campfire songs through a reverb spring, with an army of Thom Yorkes backing up the vocals in bewildering fashion – cooing, barking, resonating like E-Bowed guitar.
Amidst all the skronky jazz and accomplished krautrock, you’d be forgiven for thinking The King of Limbs has no heart. Luckily, “Codex” saves the day. Funereal piano and occasional sub-bass thumps are the soundtrack to the now-expected Yorkeian contemplation on mortality, and it’s true, this is a gut-wrenchingly beautiful composition. Strange chord changes and mournful woodwind only augment the melancholia.
The inclusion of a song like “Codex” speaks volumes about this album. Radiohead may still be able to surprise their fans with a totally unexpected release, but the songs themselves don’t quite beguile the listener like they used to. This is a solid release, building upon the “seduction songs” favoured on 2007’s In Rainbows, and introducing orchestral and electronic textures by turns majestic and occasionally sinister. But there’s no confusing this for a Kid A or an OK Computer – even at their most rural, the Radiohead of 2011 are just too lush and inviting.
Jonny Greenwood likes his music obscure and global; informed by a long-standing respect for other cultures, many of which are not even recognised as legitimate alternatives to Western culture. Thankfully, he’s also started using Spotify – documented in this Dead Air Space post – as a result of which I’ve been made aware of a certain Abdel Halim Hafez, who was apparently one of the four great Egyptians musicians of the last century. Greenwood has in fact shared a small treasure trove of Arabic music, which I would highly recommend for cultural enlightenment.
Anyway, suffice to say that I find it intriguing how certain figureheads of other cultures never make the jump into mainstream success across the globe. So I only know about Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan through Jeff Buckley’s love of him. So I’ve only heard of Gulzar because he wrote the lyrics for Jai Ho in Slumdog Millionaire. Frankly, it’s a bit alarming, and I don’t think it can be explained away under the reasoning that ‘We can’t understand what they’re saying’. Music from China and music from the Arabic world are based on entirely different scales and structures from our own, but that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate it just as much as we do our own cultural icons. I’m gladdened to see the inroads African music is making – witness the comparative success of Toumani Diabaté, Amadou & Mariam, and even Konono N°1 – but we still have so far to go. Let’s hope Jonny Greenwood keeps us updated with his latest office playlists.
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.