Friday, 26 March 2010

Bonobo - Black Sands

You know Bonobo, right? Even if you think you don’t, you do.

The simian soundsmith’s songs will have seeped into your subconscious via any number of adverts, video games and TV show soundtracks. Three previous albums of lovely, funky, stoner chill out fodder; always playing its part beautifully, always in the background. Black Sands, it seems, is Simon Green’s attempt to force his way into the foreground.

Opening with a prelude can’t help but grab the listener’s attention - this is rather the point of such - especially when it’s a stripped back strings and piano affair. Interesting - where’s he going with this? Just over a minute to hold your breath before the dirty dubby bassline of Kiara melds magnificently with the aforementioned instruments and a grin is allowed to appear. Ok, we’re listening… what else y’got?

A shoo-in as a single is Eyesdown, a warped, hazy, sun shimmer of a song. Something of a mix of styles, it’s as much dubstep as it is Balearic; imagine early Massive Attack holidaying on the white isle and you’re not far off. As with the rest of the record, it’s too down tempo to quite get your dance on, but it will make you want to go out all the same. For the sooner you go out, the sooner you’ll be back at home and sunk into a sofa, enveloped by its warmth, fairly smothered by its subtle, sultry sound.

That sultry sound is provided by Andreya Triana, the darling of the album who is to Black Sands what Sia was to Simple Things. She’s also the voice behind the other prominent pick on the album, The Keeper. Green has chosen his songstress well, her lungs throw it a life ring - inflated with emotional intensity - which saves it from being just another jazz-funk filler.

That said, there is still much that doesn’t stray so far from previous form, providing that heavy atmosphere he’s famous for - even if it is less insistent. Indeed, the cynical listener might look at his prolific guest appearance hit rate and be given pause: hang on, has this been produced for T.V.? It’s use in commercials a teensy bit too commercial? What came first, the instruments or the advert? On balance though it’s hardly surprising that he’s achieved such a tremendous take up by those seeking to flog their gear because whatever else it is, it is very cool; it drips the stuff from every pore. Gladly, Black Sands upholds this fine tradition.

Tracks like 'Kong' and 'El Toro' could easily be atmosphere music for Ironside or some such Sixties cop show - both are reminiscent of a Quincy Jones Blaxploitation era production. Headphones on and you’re the hero, your world a television set on mute; from nowhere you’ll notice a lengthening of your stride and an extra bounce in your step. Driving around the Bay area behind the wheel of a ‘68 Mustang GT looking for bad guys, this is certainly what would be rocking your Stereo 8.

And just when you think you’ve got the measure of the album; is that…why, yes, I do believe that’s a waltz. The arresting title track is served up last, and with good reason; it’d be hard to follow. God damn all those lazy PR wankers who have turned ‘haunting’ into such a horrible cliché because, in that it sends a chill down your spine and follows you around relentlessly, this really is. Every time you think of it a tear will inexplicably form in your eye; perhaps the ghost of some lost love taking you by the hand and turning you slowly around the room. It may not be very Bonobo, but it is very beautiful, and – like much else on his latest long play - begs to be listened to. Please, step up to the front of the room, Mr. Green; you have our undivided attention…

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Do be so Childish...

What is Billy Childish? No attempt at classification would be complete without the ubiquitous list of his prolific achievements as painter, poet, writer, photographer and musician. All branches of art yes, but what truly makes him an artist is his amateurism. As he says himself, “My ambition is to do what I want to do, the way I want to do it, and do it right.” And boy does he do a lot of it. Doing it all for himself, however, means that he doesn’t have much time for the media, and even less for the ‘art world’. It is perhaps not surprising then that this is the first time a public institution has brought together a major solo exhibition all his various outpourings. And if its rarity makes it unique, an appearance – and perhaps an explanation – by the amateurist himself makes it a must…

Reading well...

Ever since a battered copy of Peter and Jane was thrust into our hands and we were told, ‘This is reading, I think you’re going to like it’, who has dared question that glorious gift? Ah, but as much as we adore absorbing words, without knowing why we do, we can never do it better. Blindly buying the next bestseller is bad form indeed, and as Robert Louis Stevenson suggested, “If a man reads very hard…he will have little time for thought.” Maybe reading is just the intellectual equivalent of Wii tennis; much better to get out in the open air and have a proper game, no? Balancing the books can be tricky, but, as ever, the School of Life is on hand to help weigh up our options in a handy ‘How To’ class format; attempting to get to the very heart of our need for narrative, and make sure we are not only well read, but read well too…

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Broadcast 2000 - Broadcast 2000

For Broadcast 2000’s eponymously titled debut album we might stick a flag in an entirely new genre altogether: Glock Rock. Proponents include the aforementioned, as well as Boy Least Likely Two, Fancy Toys and all those others who seemingly have shares in Das Grosse Glokenspiel Kompanie - although Los Campesinos escape classification as such by having balls. For Glock Rock is characterised by soppy sentiments such as love, hope and happiness. You know that Coke advert where the coin goes through the slot and down the rabbit hole, the bottle meandering along all manner of Carrolesque adventures in the ‘Happiness Factory’? It sounds a lot like that.

Indeed, so happy is opener ‘Rouse Your Bones’, it takes around eight listens to realise it’s about revenge and not winning back lost loved love (“mark my words, I’ll get you back”). It seems much of the album is more about the musicianship than any deeper meaning and, in fairness, the man behind the title, multi-instrumentalist, Joe Steer, is clearly a very fine musician. His stated aim was to go further than last year’s debut EP Building Blocks by creating an album that sounds like he’s crammed a whole orchestra into his bedroom. To that end, he employs a whole host of equally talented friends - including Noah and the Whale violinist - Tom Hobden, and the result is an utterly lovely soundscape, which is nuanced and layered. But one which is sometimes sullied by the foreground.

‘Get Up and Go’ is just one example of a song which is really very beautiful… until the singing starts; thirty seconds of Eon energy advert being better than the album version. It comes as no surprise then that Joe hadn’t originally penned himself in the part of lead performer; “Although I’ve never really thought of myself as a vocalist, I started writing the Broadcast 2000 songs always thinking I’d just put some vocals on as a guide, then get a proper singer to sing them once I was happy with the tune.”

Lyrical content being secondary to the overall sound means it can come across as naïve, such as when Mr.Steer begs not to be weighed down “with things I can’t find out all about”. Not only not clever, it’s sometimes clumsy as well; the three line rhymes in That Sinking Feeling are a bit of a stretch, “I’ll wish you all the best, I’ll give my lungs a rest, and wait until that sinking feeling’s happening in my chest.” The dumb optimism is almost overwhelming in ‘Gonna Move A Mountain’, which is closer to a primary school sing-a-long than a proper pop record; it’s an epic endeavour but, just like that little old ant, he’s got – altogether now - high hopes.

And yet, and yet; it’s not without its charms. Indeed, charming probably gets right to the heart of it. One imagines Joe has many friends who like him very much, for, if his music’s anything to go by, he’s intensely likeable. And for that the record will have its fans; customers who bought Noah and the Whale also bought Broadcast 2000. It may lack the cynical irony which is surely the cornerstone of cool, but finds some salvation in just how sunny it all is; with the coming of warmer weather, it’s just the thing to put the Spring in your step. The video for Don’t Weight Me Down is almost Disneyesque in its denouement – a proper ‘eart warmer – and the overall tone of the album is snappily summed up in the line, “from the beginning of our song, I put my smiling face on.” And if you can find fault with that – heck, if you can even stop yourself la la-ing along – then maybe you’re due a trip to the Happiness Factory…

Human Rights Watch Film Festival London...

Is it cool to care? On one hand cool can be defined by cynicism, its proponents characterised by being detached and aloof. Think of the Fonz and his nihilistic nonchalance, the iciness exuded in his ‘aaaay’ - which is surely a distant relative of our very own ‘whatever’. On the other hand, cool also implies knowing what’s going on, living in the loop (hey, you’re not reading Lecool for nothing, right?). And, for all his ability to start seemingly out of order jukeboxes with the slam of a fist, Fonzarelli sometimes comes off as pretty stupid; and there’s definitely nothing desirable about dumb. The annual Human Rights Watch International Film Festival - your handy one stop shop for all the issues it’s important to be across - is, therefore, a must. For, once you’re hip to what’s happening, you’ll find caring is not only cool but crucial…

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

She, A Chinese - Original Soundtrack by John Parish…

There are surely two types of soundtrack worth talking about. The ‘original motion picture soundtrack’ where the emphasis is on original composition in the John Barry, John Williams mould and the Big Lebowski type, where pre-existing songs are selected as accompaniment to the action! (You already noticed the Coen’s nod to this by having all the songs actually played within the film on various walkmans, car stereos, ghetto blasters etc, right? Thought so…) Leaving musicals aside (right aside) for a moment, the common denominator is that they must always fit the flick, although the truly great ones can sometimes take on a life of their own and be allowed to exist as a separate entity altogether.

The ‘She, A Chinese Soundtrack’ is already interesting because it crosses the streams; the vast majority is bespoke but there’s also some off the rack songs added to the mix. More intrigue comes from the fact that the original music composer is long-term PJ Harvey collaborator, John Parish. Of course, he’s got form, having won the Jury Special Appreciation prize at the Bonn International Film Music Biennale in 1999 for putting the music to Patrice Toye's film Rosie. This is, however, his first soundtrack to get a wide release and it’s, well, y’know, it’s to a Chinese film: can he make the musical translation?

It’s obvious from the off that he absolutely can. The freedom of the form allows him to be highly original, experimental even, and it’s clear that JP enjoys the challenge of placing art next to art – audio next to visual – and creating a new context. Further juxtaposition which allows for further experimentation comes from a musical meeting of East and West (though ostensibly a Chinese film – Chinese director, Chinese leads, Chinese language – half of the action is set in London) and the maestro manages to meld it all together just marvelously.

Where in places it has all the steady rise and fall of an oriental water garden - both plinking and plonking with an understated wooden magnificence – it also almost always has the Western rock guitar backing it up; an ancient sensibility driven along by decadent instrumentation. But it never soars in a Bill Conti, ‘Gonna Fly Now’ way. It’s more aerated, lighter; a gentle breeze through the willows. As such it doesn’t intrude too much on the consciousness - this is after all background music - fitting perfectly with director, Xialou Guo’s cinematography; a sparse telegraphic style which asks the audience to flesh out the details for themselves.

Less subtlety comes from the off the rack rock tracks, where composer becomes compiler and gets a chance to take you by the hand and show off their knowledge (think Reservoir Dogs and K-Billy/Quentin Tarentino’s Super Sounds of the 70's Weekend which just keeps…on... truckin'…). The best movie music moments of this kind will either introduce you to some new gem, or else dust off something old, put it next to pictures and make you fall in love with it all over again. Hang on the Box’s ‘There is a City’ is the former and comes on something like the bastard love child of Joe Strummer and LoveFoxx. I’m still trying to figure out whether it’s hilarious or genius; probably both. It’s definitely slightly ludicrous and for that it can be loved.

Die-hard John Parish fans aside, the soundtrack won’t quite attain an independent existence for most. It is, however, a proper piece of art in its own right; a thinker. Attention to detail in every note, even those that are not his own. I can’t imagine a better way to close the film than the utterly astonishing, Lonely, Lonely, an early album track by Feist, sounding, as it does, like the end of a beautiful relationship. If the greatest challenge to a soundtrack composer is making the music fit, then it has to be hats off in the final account; for there can be a no more fitting a way to say Fin than this…

Monday, 1 March 2010

Finley Quaye @ The Rainbow

‘Can you hear the voice?’ We certainly can Mr. Quaye, and t’is irie indeed. The mouth is moving but the sound comes from somewhere deeper. Finley and his band are so primed these days that when someone shouts for Ultra Stimulation it is met with, ‘yes, Ultra!’ - they launch straight into it and the skankin’ begins. So much for set lists.

The more cynical might fancy this frenzy was due as much to the several spliffs he smoked during his set as any summoning of the spirit. Whilst it’s easy for the crowd to have a good time if those on stage are too, the downside of this excess of enjoyment was some slightly shaky moments, not least forgetting the words to his biggest hit, Sunday Shining.

But then Finley is a bit like Becks; his left foot may be a bit hit or miss these days, he may even have lost a yard or so of pace, but you’d always be happy to have him lead your team out. Just for the heart, which is channelled like a lion…

Beth Jeans Houghton and Stornoway @ The Glee Club

Tonight was the Twisted Folk Tour and presumably by ‘’Twisted the promoters mean not very Folky at all, actually. Beth Jeans Houghton came out first in a wig that put Lady Gaga’s previous night’s Brits barnet to shame, and a super sparkly spandex dress that would have beardy old men tutting into their stout. Still, folk or freak she has an immensely powerful voice – which comes on something like a slightly Geordie Dolores O Riorden - to say nothing of sass by the bucketful. Backed up by her band, ‘The Hooves of Destiny’, we can say it’s cute.

Stornoway are less whiskey in the jar, more a nice cup of tea in the good china; the type of band you’d take home to your mom; who then wouldn’t stop asking for months afterwards, ‘how are those nice Stornoway boys?’ They made BBC’s Pick of 2010 shortlist and I imagine they’ll get lots of airtime - mainly on Radio 2. But the boys clearly have bags of talent which is most obviously manifested when they go unplugged, stand in front of the monitors and sing their little hearts out. Two fingers up to autotune, this is showing your hand and laying your vocal chords on the line with swagger. It certainly has everyone’s attention and, after all, isn’t getting your story across what Folk’s all about?