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In praise of The Affair

In Culture on May 18, 2015 at 4:40 PM

Waves move, flickering, on a black backdrop as Fiona Apple sings: “I was screaming, into the canyon, at the moment, of my death”. It’s a suitably dark, brooding title sequence to The Affair, Sky Atlantic’s recent import from Showtime, starring English actors Dominic West (best known as Jimmy McNulty in The Wire) and Ruth Wilson.

It follows the rocky romances between Noah Solloway (West), his paramour Alison Lockhart (Wilson) and their spouses, and a possibly connected murder, as Noah, his wife and four kids spend the summer with Noah’s little-loved in-laws in Montauk, the remote eastern-most point of Long Island. So far, so ‘rom-com’ terrain. But it rises above Jennifer Aniston-movie fare for various reasons.

Firstly, the intelligence of the script. The story is told by the two protagonists as they are interrogated by a policeman for a murder in Montauk – the details of which are teasingly dripfed to the audience. First in each episode (most episodes anyway) you are told ‘Noah’s story’, then ‘Alison’s story’, which makes for a fascinating character study of the nuances of seduction; how the same event can be remembered so differently by both parties. Instead of bashing you over the head with the message, it gives enough space for the viewer to ruminate on the motives and morality of the characters’ actions – and how that might affect the crime being investigated (which is still unresolved, with a second season coming). Among the many, many arguments, I can’t remember one where there was an obvious winner. This is life and love not in black and white, but in all its shades of grey (emotionally speaking, not sexually a la Christian Grey – though the sex scenes are fairly steamy).

Alison and her husband Cole still, a few years on, have the lingering loss of their only child Gabriel hanging over their marriage like a dark cloud, particularly because Alison is grappling with the guilt of not taking him to the doctors before he died of secondary drowning aged four. And Noah is looking for the life he thinks he missed out on by marrying early; the idealistic, freewheeling vision he has of the life of a writer; the chance to be who wants to be instead of who he is or feels he’s supposed to be. In other hands, Noah’s action could smack of ‘mid-life crisis, sleazy fling’, but Dominic West performs the role with so much skill you have some sympathy for Noah, despite months of living a lie. (That said, Noah’s pursual of the affair could have been made more believable and sympathetic – maybe just make all his kids kind of brats rather than just Whitney (arguably), or make his wife a bit of a bitch).

Just as important to the show is Montauk, its small, close-knit, everyone-knows-everyone feel integral to the plot, and the Atlantic sea of course offering much scope for attractive visual metaphor for all manner of plot issues. It is portrayed as a place wrestling with the twin identities of down-to-earth, everyone-knows-everyone fishing community and wealthy playground for the “summer people” (the heart of the infamous ‘Hamptons’ area, where rich New Yorkers escape the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple, is around 20 miles down the road).

So get in on The Affair. That is, unless you’re in an unstable marriage – in which case, it’s so compelling and comprehensive in its examination of marriage breakdown, you could start questioning and doubting things a bit too much…

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Does the world need a third season of Derek?

In Culture on June 12, 2014 at 3:42 PM

Does the world need more of Derek? Nearly a year and a half ago, Ricky Gervais’ unique comic/dramatic creation hit our screens, and prompted a maelstrom of opinion in the news pages as well as the arts pages, as commentators dissected both the ethics and aesthetics of an almost preternaturally nice but socially awkward character (although Gervais insisted Derek has no disability, and that that judgement is his solely his as the writer). Is such a portrayal patronising? Even bigoted? Is it good that it’s raising ‘awareness’? Are you laughing at Derek or with him? And, if the question is any different from the aforementioned, is it actually any good?

I was initially sceptical, but grew into it, warming to the characters and believing that, even if the end result could reasonably be described as schmaltzy and patronising, it’s well-intentioned. I think it took time for me – and others judging by the two season’s respective ratings on Rotten Tomatoes – because it is quite different for today’s comedy. Much American fare is reliant on one-liners and laughter tracks, while British comedy leans heavily on irony. As Gervais says: “The difference with [Derek] and other sitcoms, and certainly other sitcoms that I’ve done, is that there’s no real vein of irony.” With satire, as technically difficult as it can be, those behind it aren’t really advocating anything or opening themselves up emotionally. So, speaking as an occasional writer of satire, I actually think that, contrary to the idea of it as risque and cutting edge, satire is actually a very safe option in a way, providing a comfort blanket of inauthenticity. So it’s actually rather bold of Gervais to eschew cynicism and (faux) arrogance for positivity and sentiment.

It’s intriguing to question whether there would have been such a furore if an unknown actor played Derek and a venerable, right-on writer such as Richard Curtis was behind him. It’s often, as here, very hard to divorce the actor from the character, and it seems a lot of the criticism of the show arose from an idea of Gervais as a bully-boy, taking jabs at different groups to cynically boost his career while using that ‘tired old’ excuse of merely ‘satirising’ prejudice. (In fairness, Gervais hardly helped himself by publically using the word ‘Mong’ on his Twitter not too long before Derek’s first season. But if you look back to his other work, you can see that he has been ahead of many peers in casting disabled actors to play disabled roles, along with working with disability groups.)

The debate between offending and highlighting offence is an important and complex debate within comedy. But to me it’s clear where Gervais’ loyalties lie. Derek is, as the show’s name would suggest, the hero of the show, rewarded for his limitless generosity and selflessness by the friendship of all the people in the home – and his beloved animals. On the other hand, David Brent, with all his questionable and awkward social attitudes, is clearly the butt of the jokes. Granted, the viewer is laughing at/with Derek, but should vulnerable people in society be relentlessly mollycoddled, as if they need to be ‘protected’ from the ‘real world’? Or, as Derek is, shown as people with sometimes amusing failings and nuances like everyone else? I don’t know the answer – and I worded that quite selectively – but I think it’s worth questioning.

Having said all this in favour of Derek, I’m not so sure it should return for a third season. The characters don’t develop too much, especially Derek. That’s kind of the point. There is some scope for developments for the supporting cast: Will Hannah and Tom have more luck with a child? Will Vicky find a nice boyfriend, like the bloke from the zoo? Will Kev become a functioning member of society? Will Geoff stop being such a twat? But changing Derek Noakes himself would be more problematic. Gervais let him venture outside of the bubble of Broadhill a little bit in the final episode of this series, as he went to dinner with someone from a dating website. It was a well-pitched, awkward yet light bit of drama, but I can’t see how a convincing relationship could be made of it.

So while I wouldn’t certainly complain if Derek came back for a new season, the way it’s been left would make a fitting ending, and it could be wise to leave it before it runs out of legs, leaving fans craving more like the odd Christmas special, as Gervais did with The Office and Extras. Not that Derek would agree. I’m sure he would want to carry on spreading the love, in his own humble way: “Kindness is magic because it makes you feel good whether you’re the one handing it out, or the one receiving it. It’s contagious.”

Originally published on Screenrobot

Music I now like as a (semi) grown-up

In Culture on April 23, 2014 at 12:09 PM

I have a confession to make: I have got to that stage where I look at my parents’ record collection and I think you know what, they’ve actually got some taste. The (now occasional) family car journey no longer throws up so many bitter musical conflicts, usually resolved which clever negotiations trade-offs, dad fuming that me and my brother need some ‘musical education’, and the inevitable compromise of Coldplay, or something similarly mediocre. And I can buy well-chosen albums at birthdays and Christmases for my family now, even if I don’t always fully approve. I feel I am not alone in this. But I will leave it up to you, dear reader, to decide, and to judge whether my taste is developing like a fine wine or becoming as stale as old cheese…

Fleetwood Mac When I was younger, Fleetwood Mac were the IKEA, the Tesco ready meal, the Wigan Athletic of music – safe, bland and, most importantly, listened to by my mum. Gradually, though, I came to the love the Mac’s perfectly crafted drivetime pop/rock. And I came to think this was acceptable, due the rock ‘n’ roll way in which their music was made (shitloads of drugs, nearly as many in-house break-ups), and the fact The Chain, which includes one of the greatest riffs ever, soundtracks the resolutely un-mummish F1. A good few friends agree too, along with a girl I know who carries off a Fleetwood Mac t-shirt with the sense of style normally associated with a Ramones t-shirt.

Beach Boys When I was younger I had only really heard Beach Boys classics Surfin’ USA and I Get Around – well-written pop songs, but a bit naff and annoying to mind (still are now). But – if you will permit me a bit of pretensiousness – I was first introduced to Pet Sounds on a road trip on my Gap Yah in South Africa (South Afrikaaahhh) and loved it instantly – its lush summer vibes perfectly soundtracking the trip. I bought it as soon as I was back and I still haven’t heard anything quite like its blend of symphony and pop sensibility. I now count it as probably my favourite album, and I mark the start of British summer as the day when Pet Sounds can be played without it seeming ironic considering the weather and setting.

Jeff Buckley At first it’s just another name in your folks’ record collection (it’s an old person-sounding name). Then you hear Hallelujah on Shrek – albeit John Cale’s version, which inspired Buckley’s – and think it’s a good song. Then you fall in and out of love for the first time and properly listen to this album after seeing some muso eulogising about the late Jeff Buckley (sadly he drowned during an evening swim aged just 30), and it all suddenly hits a chord, and Grace is one of your all-time favourite albums. Well, that was pretty much the case for me anyway.

The National In a not dissimilar manner, a bunch of bookish Americans droning on about love and loss didn’t really appeal to my teenage self, who was far more interested in 50 Cent, Limp Bizkit, Craig David, Shaggy, and Blink 182. But now that I’ve experienced a bit of life and read a few (a few) books and done a humanities degree, I’ve got a bit of time for these earnest indie rockers. In small doses, mind.

Joanna Newsom I’m still pretty divided on Joanna Newsom – she of the harp and the voice which sounds, variously, like a teething infant, a screechy cat and a weird Monty Python character (I couldn’t think how to describe it so I resorted to Google). Part of me thinks it’s beautifully emotive, inventive music, but part of me think it’s just a mess – often within individuals songs, as they are so long and complex. What I can be sure of, though, is that my 15-year-old self would have heard Newsom’s….’unique’ music and said: “daaaafuq is THIS?!”

Plan B As hinted at, I used to like any old rap, the popular stuff and even the stuff which soon seen languishing in the bargain bins (Chingy, anyone?). And most of my friends were too. Ironic really, as I’m white, from Oxford, and have Guardian-reading parents. Over time, I’ve got tired of this, and grown to like more intelligent rap like Plan B, who has the anger and lyricism of American chart rappers, but more introspection, social conscience and pleasingly Anglo-centric reference points like Arsenal, giros, and the Isle of Wight.

Sigur Ros I remember my mum played me these when I was about 14 and thinking what ‘dull rubbish’ it was, and that them singing in their own language was weird. I still find some of their songs are very navel-gazing, but some songs, including Gobbledigook, Saeglopur and the infamous Hoppipola, I absolutely love. It helped that that, at a time, Hoppipola seemed to soundtrack every other sports montage going. I don’t really care what people think about my musical taste now, but then seeing it soundtracking some England win, kind of made it alright to like that ‘poncy Icelandic’ band (a bit like Harry and Paul’s reluctant philosopher sketch)

Hercules and the Love Affair These are, with the possible exception of the Scissor Sisters, probably the gayest band in the world, comprising as they do a transsexual, a lesbian DJ and a gay man who started his career at a leather bar run by someone called Chocolate Thuder Pussy. There was when pettiness would have turned me off their brand of high-camp disco-house, as a bloke who likes football, Top Gear, beer and women. But, again, now I don’t care – I’ve come out about my affair with the band. And, to be honest, I don’t know why I was in the closet for so long.

Rolling Stones As I said, I didn’t have much taste when I was 15. That said, I’m still a ‘Beatles man’, as the music world basically insists on people choosing.

Damien Rice My reaction to Damien Rice – and people of his ilk – used to resolutely be ‘oh folk off’. But now I think there’s a time and place for this earnest, heart-on-his-sleeve Irishman. Not for a good mood or a sunny day, though. Originally published on Come In To Land

Top 30 albums of 2012

In Culture on December 27, 2012 at 9:17 PM

30. Of Monsters and Men – My Head is an Animal
Following closely in the footsteps of Mumford & Sons (and their checkered-shirted, straw-in-mouthed imitators), came this Icelandic collective, banjoing and harmonising their way into charts and hearts. The whole scene has grown old quickly for some (including me a little, hence why Mumford & Sons’ second, similar to this, didn’t make the cut). But these guys kept it just fresh enough with a lot of energy and some memorable hooks.

29. Cat Power – Sun 
‘That woman you’ve always heard of but never really got into’, Cat Power, real name Chan Marshall, returned this with a career high of no. 10 (on the Billboard chart). And it’s easy to see why, as it keeps her unique voice and personality but allies it to a more toe-tapping blend of vaguely electronic indie-folk.

28. The Maccabees – Given to the Wild
The quintessential indie boys from South London this returned with what was hailed as their career-defining album, it was certainly a step up from their previous two albums which largely seemed to pride themselves on their twee indie sensibility. The change works for the most part, as the usual tremulous vocals and fuller ‘stadium’ sound – and a dalliance, albeit slight, with some electronic touches – seemed to please fans and critics (it charted at number four and got a Mercury nod). Just don’t expect the ‘stadium’ tag to mean Foo Fighters.

27. The Staves – Dead & Born & Grown
These three sisters, the Staveley-Taylors, started off by playing open mics in between pints at their Watford local. But you wouldn’t guess it from their sound; sophisticated folk/country, lifted above the crowd by some superb voices and clever harmonies, that sounds, lyrically and sonically, like it hails from Houston, Texas. Pleasant but not revolutionary; one for mum for Christmas, in other words.

26. Lupe Fiasco – Food & Liquor II – The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1
While by pretty much all but his own estimations, this is not the great American rap album, it is certainly a solid one – ‘backpack hiphop’ that deals smartly with important issues of modern urban America, albeit with a slight tendency to paint Mr Fiasco as a kind of ghetto prophet – a kind of self-righteousness that may grate or alienate.

25. Jack White – Blunderbuss
Say what you like about marital break-up, it can certainly make for some great music. As here, as Mr White dissects the remains of his marriage to model Karen Elson. But this is no mopey break-up album (the two threw a joint, celebratory divorce party, and Elson appears here). It’s more an introspective but a fun post-marriage analysis, if you will, from a Gary Neville-like figure (a compliment, honest…) – potentially biased but not so, and scathingly honest.

24. Lana Del Rey – Born To Die
She came from nowhere, everyone loved her, people found on she was a bit fake, and then people didn’t know what to think. To some, the fact that a boarding school-educated daughter of an dot.com investor called Elizabeth Woolridge Grant from upstate New York was so self-consciously recalling the seedy underbelly of California showed a fundamental lack of authenticity, rendering her schtick shallow melodrama. To others, it was a masterclass in stage persona, pop culture theatre; in the same vein as greats such as Madonna and Bowie. I was somewhere in between, but more inclined to the latter, enjoying the visuals and the catchy, yearning Americana (lite) balladry.

23. Norah Jones – Broken Little Hearts
With this new album and a surprisingly funny turn in TED, in which she joked of fucking a toy bear, the purveyor of quieter-than-thou pop-country went a little bit more edgy this year. OK, given her previous reputation, this may sound like infinitesimally faint praise to be damned with – but the reinvention this album transformed Ms Jones’ music from that which had an apparent sole purpose of being talked over at dinner parties, to smoky, noirish tales of love and loss one can imagine soundtracking the angst of a criminal in a Coen Brothers movie in a down-at-heel motel bar. Far more interesting than smoked salmon in Guildford, I’m sure you’ll agree.

22. Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball
At the ripe old age of 63, Bruce Springsteen returned (if indeed he ever left) for his seventeenth album this year, a massive Hyde Park show, and a lot of campaigning for Obama’s re-election. For a man who almost self-parodically sings of the hard-working heart and soul of America, he could certainly never be accused of not practising what he preaches. This album, released in March, is a typically classy offering of ‘dad rock’, lifted above the perfunctory with some soulful brass and piano flourishes, and one which, on repeat listening, has gained extra poignancy for how Romney and Obama so tirelessly campaigned for the swing vote in the type of everyman, hardscrabble smalltown America Bruce sings of (albeit on almost every song he’s ever written).

21. Jake Bugg – Jake Bugg
Being hailed as ‘the next Dylan’ is enough to set anyone up for a fall. So it’s to this 18-year-old Nottingham lad’s credit that he has almost universally lived up to this billing with this self-titled debut, which manages to both sound authentically bluesy and rootsy and paint a vivid picture lyrically of the drab Clifton council estate of his childhood.

20. Calvin Harris – 18 Months
OK, so it’s hardly going to win any prizes for originality or depth, but Mr Harris has an almost unparalleled consistency for creating – as they say (or at least said) in the trade – bangers, and a seemingly endless contacts book, put very liberally to use here (it’s telling how mediocre the tracks with no featured artists are). 18 Months has dominated dancefloors, gym playlists and dancefloors alike for…well, around 18 months, and surely that’s got to be worth something. And can any other artist regularly create beats so big they are basically the chorus in themselves?

19. Chromatics – Kill For Love
After Ryan Gosling cruised and raced his way around Los Angeles to a soundtrack of moody, electronic-pop ballads in Drive last year, eighties music is officially cool again. Chromatics, with this their fourth album, profited (Tick of the Clock featured on the soundtrack), with probably their most acclaimed album to date – a bumper collection (16 track, 77 minutes) of brilliantly atmospheric, shoegazey synths and washed out vocals. And now you can pretend you’re an uber-cool stunt driver-cum-getaway driver-cum-hearthrob when listening to it, rather than navel-gazing bore.

18. Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs – Trouble

Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs – TEED for short – is one of those acts you probably unknowingly know. Their song Garden soundtracked the advertising campaign for the Nokia Lumia phone – and seemingly managed the feat of still sounding cool and uncompromised by the association. But Orlando Higginbottom is more than a one-hit-wonder, as shown by this collection of electronica that has appealed to many a raver and rocker (Damon Albarn is a big fan). Plus, he has some great hats.

17. Django Django – Django Django 
How to describe the sound of this album?! This Mercury-nominated album seems to have had nearly all the tags under the sun thrown at it – electronic, indie, psychadelica and all manner nu-s, alt-s and proto-s. Unsurprisingly given the kitchen sink approach, it doesn’t all work – but it’s joyously anarchic when it does. And surely, in a world where Adele, Coldplay and co. are proclaimed the death of music, this should be applauded. But perhaps the best description of their sound is offered by VaporizerBrothers as the top comment on Storm: ‘Gonna come back to this when I’m high’.

16. Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls 
Geography teachers, as one critic claimed the lead singer of this unsurprisingly Alabaman band looks like, do not usually make the best rock stars. But she and the rest of Alabama Shakes have a sound right out of the classic stable of blues rock. It might not break the wheel, but it sounds like one of those albums the whole family could listen to and not be ashamed of – not an easy feat by any means, and one I think there’s something to be said for.

15. Santigold – Masters of My Make-Believe
While the Biebers and Rae Jepsens of this world continue to dominate the charts, a lot more interesting pop is being made at pop’s fringes; brilliant weird electronic stuff from Scandinavia courtesy of Lykke Li and Niki and the Dove, newcomers Haim with their sunny Californian Fleetwood Maccy pop; and Ms Santigold. It’s hard to describe exactly what she does, but it’s some sort of scratchy, frenetic blend of R&B, electronic and pop. That the American has here worked with everyone from Mrs Indie, Karen O (of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs fame), to DJ and R&B super-producer Diplo, shows the breadth of this album. Maybe it’s actually for this reason – it’s determined resistance to be pigeonholed – that it’s had relatively little success, peaking at just 33 in the UK chart. Whatever it is, and whatever the reasons for its relative anonymity, it deserves a bigger audience.

14. Plan B – ill Manors 
Say what you like about Mr Ben Drew, and much has been, but he’s certainly a smart cookie. After a no-holds-barred debut which was well-received critically but only mildly so commercially, he went away for four years and decided to make an album that would appeal to Radio 1, even Radio 2, listeners – which it duly did, going to number one and three times platinum and gaining good reviews -all so he had the platform that people would hear this, his unrelenting state-of-the-nation film and album. Some of those newer fans with gentler musical tastes may be turned off by this unrelenting return to his roots, but for those who persist it’s a good marriage of the two.

13. Alt-J – An Awesome Wave 
The year’s customary critics’ darlings were these Mercury Prize winners. The former Leeds Uni students introduced the UK to an esoteric brand of indie being touted as ‘folk-wave’ or ‘folk-tronica’, for their mix of Foals-esque intricate guitar riffs and ‘quiet bits’ with Joe Newman’s haunting/annoying falsetto, a little reminiscent of Wild Beasts’ frontman. It’s sometimes easier to appreciate than love – music for the head rather than the heart – but this listener’s warmed to it.

12. Frank Ocean – Channel Orange
Surprisingly, given the massive hype and the impressive mixtape Nostalgia/Ultra, this is actually Mr Ocean’s debut album. Helped by his controversial (in the rap world at least) declaration of a previous homosexuality relationship, which forms much of this album, Channel Orange garnered huge fanfare (though not to say the move was purely a PR stunt). It debuted at number two both sides of the Atlantic and earned rave reviews (an average of 92 on Metacritic). It’s certainly an accomplished album; a quintessentially modern soul record, with clever touches on all from funk to jazz, even to electronica on the outstanding Pyramids. Also, the album starts with the noise of the old Playstations firing up, which makes any male of my generation very happy (or me at least). Basically, it sounds like the record Marvin Gaye might make if born a few decades later and allowed to indulge his carefree hedonism. Yet for all its considerable merits, some of the tracks, to me at least, do feel a bit average – easier to admire than adore.

11. Lucy Rose – Like I Used To
Ok, so a new demure female twenty-somethings from the Home Counties (Camberley, Surrey) with a nice voice and a guitar is hardly, on paper at least, the most exciting thing in music at the moment. Indeed, Ms Rose is basically a carbon copy of Lucy Marling. Or Alas I Cannot Swim-era Laura Marling, anyway, before she got all mature and grown up (and, frankly, a little over-earnest and dull). Apart from the odd electronic flourish here, and slightly drummy bit there, Lucy Rose seems pretty ordinary – but she’s got a great way with a melody and a voice so lovely and beguiling even Abu Nasir or Voldemort might be won over. Or maybe that’s just this observer, who frankly is just a little besotted with Lucy (creepily so?) – and wants to join her in, just like she does in Scar,skimming stones, driving in an open-top vintage car, climbing in a treehouse and wondering around non-descript parts of London looking all indie ‘n’ that. And indulge in some of her home-made jam and tea she offers at gigs. The soppy twat that he is.

10. Cold Specks – I Predict a Graceful Expulsion
Al Spx actually hails from suburban Toronto – but you would never guess it from her sublime, yearning voice, right out of the heart of the Midwest in the civil rights-era America. In the hands of most others, the songs here could be mediocre indie-folk fare, but thanks to her voice, and some lovely orchestral touches, they never are here.

9. Polica – Give You the Ghost
You know you’ve done well when you can count among your biggest fans both bedwetters’ fave, Mr Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver) – “the best band I’ve ever heard” – and Mr Hip Hop, Jay-Z. But this seems strangely appropriate for this Minneapolis band, who create a cool, fittingly spectral sound out of auto-tune – like Bon Iver on much of his last album, reclaiming the studio trick from the likes of T-Pain and Cher – and who ally it to some unstoppably foot-tapping electronic/indie grooves which it’s not too outlandish to imagine Mister Zed might lay out a verse or two on.

8. Miguel – Kaleidoscope Dream 
Since Prince, or whatever the hell he calls himself now, has been reduced to anaemic pastiches of his former genius in Mail on Sunday freebies, the mantle of recreating the pint-sized singer’s innovative brilliance has been taken up by Miguel (real name Miguel Pimentel). And this is what the Californian does on Kaleidoscope Dream – a fitting name for an album full of colour and fantasy – with Miguel’s soulful falsetto playing over a mix of piano, funky drum beats, and reverbed guitar. May not be everyone’s cup of tea, but, in short, smoother than Bond in a freshly pressed suited with a Martini in hand.

7. The xx – Coexist
Everyone’s favourite miserablists were back this year – fittingly, in September; heralding the post-Olympics malaise, the rain and the shorter nights. But the silver lining is that this is a fine soundtrack to ennui, successfully negotiating the ever-tricky path between heartbreak and warmth; introspection and connection. Some were slightly disappointed that it was not more of a departure, lyrically or sonically, from their sleeper-hit, self-titled first album, but there was some interesting electronic touches courtesy of uber-producer Jamie XX.

6. The Weeknd – Trilogy
It’s quite an achievement if you can unite self-styled hipsters and musos with the type of people who still buy Chris Brown records and for whom ‘YOLO’ is a regular (and unironic) part of their lexicon. But this is what the enigmatic Canadian Abel Tesfaye has done under his nom de Guerre, The Weeknd. This, as the name suggests, is a bumper collection of three albums, all released as free downloads over the last two years – The Weeknd being of a new brand of musicians confident/generous enough to give music away for free online. Perhaps because of this, though, the album in this physical form didn’t gain much fanfare here, debuting at only 37 in the UK chart, then quickly exiting it. Which is a shame, because for the price of a tenner it’s a very generous – and handsomely-presented – collection of Noir&B, as some have dubbed The Weeknd’s unique style; intoxicating nocturnal tales of love and lust set to a backdrop of atmospheric electronica mixed with R&B. Like Prince on the comedown from a wild, psychadelic night in some underground German techno club, as one observer put it – and if that doesn’t sell it to you, you either need to listen to vintage Prince or you’re never gonna be convinced…

5. Niki & the Dove – Instinct
Sweden has excelled itself of late in a distinctive brand of left-field indie-tronica, if you will, with the likes of Lykke Li, The Knife, Fever Ray, and this year, the latest on the sterling production line, Niki & The Dove. But – beneath all the weird strained vocals, visuals the Mighty Boost may turn down as too ridiculous and talk of being animals or musical instruments – this is, at its heart, just a great pop album, with echoes of everything from Fleetwood Mac to Prince.

4. Hot Chip – In Our Heads
Apparently, Hot Chip are trying to break America. Part of me hopes they make it because they are obviously nice blokes and they sure as hell deserve the success, but part of me hopes they don’t so we can claim the Putney lads as purely our own, free from the clutches of West Coast hipsters and young girls who have just discovered Deadmaus and David Guetta. Because they really are a national treasure, up there with the NHS, stamps, pints, Cornish pasties and John Motson with their quintessentially British warm eccentricity. Their fifth studio album, a tribute to staying young while growing up and getting married, has a few dull syrupy moments, but mostly shows the band at their best; making dance music for the hearts as well as the feet.

3. Bat For Lashes – The Haunted Man
Natasha Khan appeared on the cover of this album, probably the most ambitious cover art of the year, naked, except for an unaware man draped artistically over her shoulder and modesty. The image signalled an album stripped a little of the mystical production and sometimes bizarre lyrical creations of her previous two albums, to reveal some truly great songwriting to orchestral and electronic instrumentation, like a great, modern-day Kate Bush.

2. Jessie Ware – Devotion
Making the strange move from journalism to singing (rather than the other way round), this North Londoner earnt her chops touring with electronic producer, SBTRKT. And it shows, as Ware mixes the best of modern production – synths, piano, guitar riffs and multi-layered vocals – with classic female soul singing, to create something sophisticated, sexy and catchy, and distinctly her own.

1. Bobby Womack – The Bravest Man In The Universe
The age-old adage ‘good things come to those who wait’ certainly holds true here. This is the soul artist’s first original material since 1994, and he’s certainly amassed some stories to tell in that time, with his diabetes and pneumonia, and subsequently getting colon cancer (thankfully since free from), in addition to controversially marrying Sam Cooke’s widow, a son committing suicide, frequent drug abuse and even more. This tells his many tales via is a superb blend of soul and electronic, which manages to combine the heart of the former with the innovation of the latter, produced with the magic touch of a certain Mr Albarn. So, not dissimilar from Jamie XX’s clever reworking of Gil Scott Heron (who features here too) on last year’s We’re New Here. With others such as James Blake and The Weeknd mixing classic soul with innovative modern production, let’s hope the trend doesn’t get old.

2012 in TV

In Culture on December 7, 2012 at 9:15 PM

5. Fresh Meat

Not a groundbreaking start to the list, you may think. But this sitcom has slowly grown into one of real quality. Anyone who’s gone to that awkward first uni night out with strangers – with all the requisite whos? Wheres? and football teams? – will empathise with the unlikely group of friends, and the clever trick here, though at first it seems a glaring omission not to include halls, is to plant them all in a house so they can’t avoid each other and find other circles of friends. It’s all here in some form. There’s mumsy yet petty Josie; professional skag-head Vod; try-hard socialite JP (Jack Whitehall in a star-turn, presumably drawing on his own private school education); head girl-cum-uncaring student-cum-Jane Austen wannabe Oregon aka Melissa; geologist muso Kingsley (Simon from the Inbetweeners playing Simon from the Inbetweeners, basically); and of course weirdo-in-chief Howard, who’s actually often the most sane of the lot. So traces of loads of people you know from uni (or at least, that me and my mate do). Suffice to say, dysfunction and drama abounds – but, like a kind of British Friends, it always seems genuine due to its humour, and the way all their respective fucked-up natures are, weirdly, complementary – Oregon teaching Vod English lit and Vod teaching Oregon drugs; JP giving everyone money and everyone else giving him friendship etc etc. So, children with booze and drugs struggling through to adulthood with a little help, and more than a little hate, from their friends – in a word, uni. And who doesn’t love that…

4. Peep Show

…Another genius creation of the comedic minds of Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, Mark and Jez have returned as brilliantly messed up and misanthropic as ever. Such is the show’s consistent excellence, it’s suffered almost no backlash, even after a might eight seasons, for being the ‘same old thing’, despite being…well, the same old thing (how could it be anything but?!). Mark’s still stuck in an average relationship (back with Dobby now) and in a pretty shit job, now literally as he’s selling toilets; and Jez is still leeching off him and occasionally trying to make something of his life, with therapy his latest ruse. But the point of view camera and thought-track devices still feel fresh and the gags still sharp and painfully, cringingly resonant.

3. Derren Brown: The Specials

*contains spoilers*

It’s a great testament to Mr Brown’s ability and versatility that, after a decade in the limelight, he’s still so popular in a field that’s very easy to become apathetic or cynical about – in one of the countries most likely to become so about it. (See how David Blaine is treated quasi-messianically by many Americans, although increasingly less so it seems, and how, over here, he is egged and taunted with a cheeseburger dangled from a remote-control helicopter when starving himself in a hanging perspex box overlooking the Thames.) This year he performed some more incredible feats of human psychology. In Svengali, he took over control of someone’s body solely through a psychic Victorian doll, precluding any sensation of touch. In the two Fear and Faith shows, he successfully gave an atheist a religious experience and proved the power of the placebo effect by curing people of various respective fears and social conditions with nothing but sugar (pills) and suggestion. For my money his most ambitious to date, though, came in the form of Apocalypse – a fascinating, and quite affecting, double-part show in which he successfully managed to convince a bloke a deadly meteor shower was coming, and then actually enact it – in an army base, and with the help of his family…in order to get him to take some responsibility in his life basically. Sure enough, it actually worked. And it’s not just what he’s doing; it’s how he’s doing, with a growing warmth and humour, like when, in Svengali, he correctly guessed out of an audience of around a thousand which person had (initially secretively) confessed that he had once masturbated with a hoover. And if that’s not great TV, I’m not quite sure what is.

2. Homeland
*contains a first season spoiler, and very general second season spoilers*

This was the difficult second season for the high-budget, high-drama Fox 21 intelligence thriller. Brody is still alive, though hardly well, being as he is viewed with suspicion by almost everyone and still divided between the Fate of the Free World and the Big Bad Terrorists. Some have said this season drags on and takes ridiculous plot leaps – but it’s so tense, well acted (many Americans thought Damian Lewis was American until he gave his Emmy acceptance speech), and, ostensibly at least, moves at such a breakneck speed that it’s not until after that you might think ‘hang on, what actually happened there?! Was that really that good’. In the same manner one might do after having gone on a rollercoaster; which isn’t really the point, is it?

1. The Thick of It

The return, after three years and a general election, of Armando Iannucci and Co. to our screens this Autumn seemed more prescient than ever, what with Coalition in-fighting obvious even from the outside and the Leveson Inquiry revealing the toxic inner sanctums of press and politicians. And true to form, it ratcheted up the scandal and skulduggery to levels that would seem contrived were they not so realistic. Indeed, much of the time, it seemed the actual government was copying The Thick of It rather than the other way round, as the show came across more of an all-encompassing government think-tank and sounding board than a mere sitcom. Several times the show broadcast fictional policies which just days later became real-life policy, leading many to suggest the producers had moles in government (they didn’t). Even away from the politics, which is just as much the show’s skill, you had all the hilariously meaningless doublespeak from ersatz Steve Hilton, Stephen Pearson; exquisite grumpiness from the leader of the opposition, Peter Mannion (even better than Chris Langham’s Hugh Abbot for my money); and, of course, the fuck-fucking-tastic Malcolm Tucker – the only TV character for whom an official ‘Swearing Consultant’ is noted in the closing credits. And if there’s ever a reason for best show of the year, I think that might be it…

Joel Durston

Mercury Prize 2012 – Runners & Riders

In Culture on September 12, 2012 at 6:47 PM

So, it’s that time of year again which brings out the inner muso in all of us – the announcement of the Mercury Prize shortlist. And as much as it may be decried it as worthless when the choices are ‘crap’, it’s rarely so when the choices are ‘right’. Never one to miss out throwing around my two cents’ worth on music, despite having nowhere near the requisite talent to make it, here’s my take on this year’s cast of nominees and the likely successes…

 First in the list alphabetically, and in the bookies’ books, is Alt-J (∆), with their album An Awesome Wave. The recently-graduated Leeds Uni students created a storm in critics’ circles in May with this debut – an idiosyncratic mix of indie by way of psychadelica and electronica described by some as “folk-wave” – and have been quickly gaining commercial awareness since. It’s certainly a very accomplished, and gently foot-tapping, but there’s something about it that prevents me loving it; from completely warming to it. Maybe it’s just a little too clever, too abstruse and studenty, as shown by the strange triangle in their name. And Joe Newman’s twee vocals can grate. But nonetheless, it’s an impressive album, which I’d tip for the big gong.

The consensus (judging from unscientific canvassing on Twitter and NME) seems to be that fellow bookish indie stars, The Maccabees, are the other frontrunners. And one can see why, as Given To The Wild is a bold leap from their nice but fairly unremarkable and twee indie to a bigger ‘stadium’ sound, while retaining some of their more personal appeal.

Ben Howard is another strong contender with his debut, Every Kingdom – a brilliant collection of indie folk that’s managed to sound distinct in the hardly sparse genre of sensitive-bloke-with-a-guitar, and succeeded in the even trickier task of sounding both intimate and universal. Poppy enough for Radio 1, yet (evidently) folky enough for the type of person who pays heed to the Mercury. Probably my favourite of the bunch, though not necessarily the one I think should win.

Jessie Ware’s Devotion is another debut gracing the shortlist. Making the strange move from journalism to singing (rather than the other way round, settling for merely writing about one’s passion), she earnt her chops touring with electronic producer, SBTRKT, whose influence is evident on this collection of nu-soul, along with echoes of Adele and Sade (intended as a compliment).

Plan B is an altogether angrier presence on the shortlist, having, since his soul-boy Strickland Banks crooning, been soured by the riots, recession and (supposedly) regressive Coalition politics. But no less worthy of being there for this fine, sign-of-the-times, snapshot of so-called ‘Broken Britain’ (just don’t say that to him). In fact, amidst all the anger, there is also a lot of soul too, just not in the frankly awful lead single and title track, which seems confused as to whether the ‘yobs on a council estate’ is a unfair stereotype or a rightful truth.

Michael Kiwanuka’s and Lianne La Havas’ respective oeuvres are somewhat less state-of-the-nation, despite the former being the son of Ugandan parents who came to London after escaping the brutal Idi Amin regime. No, Michael seems far more at home with his geographical surroundings than Ben Drew; it’s his emotional ones that cause more soul-searching. Similarly, Greek/Jamaican/British Lianne La Havas – the latest in the seemingly endless line of Adele-a-likes, though with more soul, even in places funk, and better songs than many of her peers. While they both possess great voices – La Havas’ a proper belter in the classic soul mould and Kiwanuka’s a rich sound that (to the generous observer) recalls the likes of Bill Withers, Randy Newman and Otis Redding – they should be a tad beige, too coffee table to win the Mercury outright.

Of the other contenders, Richard Hawley is a strong contender to win with his rocky, atmospheric (though arguably ponderous) Standing at the Sky’s Edge; Sam Lee’s some folkie who seems quite interesting; Django Django’s self-titled debut is a typically ‘Mercury’, left-field indie offering that’s easy to like, hard to love; Roller Trio are the obligatory jazz entry; and Field Music are nominated because they’ve made a hummable, pretty creative album (or because they’re, it seems, nice lads, who only earn about £5,000 a year so could do with the sales boost).

The sign of a decent Mercury selection is one that avoids people staring in disbelief at the NME website and thinking ‘how is [certain piece/s of supposed shit] in above [certain supposed musical god/s]?!’ The main offenders in the former category in last year’s selection being Katy B (deservingly, I think) and Tinie Tempah and Adele (undeservingly, I think). Of course, there are still notable absentees this year, notably the xx’s Coexist (a sublime collection of electro-soul), Bombay Bicycle Club’s A Different Kind of Fix (soulful, feel-good indie), and I’d add to the list of unlucky losers Florence & The Machine’s Ceremonials (no need for description) and Hot Chip’s In Our Heads (a glorious electronic/pop ode to staying young while growing up).

Maybe this is due to a tendency of the Mercury Prize to favour breakthrough albums, typically debuts from up-and-coming artists (eight of this year’s shortlist) but often ones that have maybe just taken a significant new direction (Plan B) or could do with a commercial leg-up (Field Music). Broadly speaking, this is a noble aim, as I’m sure the Florence Welchs and Romy Madley-Crofts (of the xx) of this world are happy enough basking in their relatively large sales and love from the fans/critics. But it can have the side effect of leaving out some very good albums, as I feel has happened here.

But this is a minor quibble, for this is a strong line-up in an often much-maligned prize. In a world, where pop music is often said to have lost in soul, with many music collections containing next to nothing actually physical, the Mercury is to be praised for honouring the form of the album and artists who put the effort into creating them, as opposed to mere collections of songs.

Joel Durston

Check out War Child’s site for details of forthcoming charity gigs from the nominees.

Why Should Pleasures Be ‘Guilty’?

In Culture, Opinion on August 19, 2012 at 1:38 AM

I like Coldplay, Kylie Minogue, Adele, Harry Potter, Jason Statham movies, R & B music and The Sun (or many examples of their work at least). The typical thing is to qualify declaration such typical yardsticks of ‘bad taste’ with an ‘…and proud!’ (‘I am a Potterer…and proud!) or by describing them as guilty pleasures. I don’t – because why should I feel guilty about any of my tastes if they bring me enjoyment and don’t hurt anyone else?! I’m neither particularly proud nor guilty of reading Harry Potter. It’s just something I like, or at least liked (and in the relationship of creator and consumer, I think it’s fair to say most of the effort was JK Rowling’s). Of course, ‘guilty pleasure’ is just a harmless little phrase, and I recognise I’m reading a lot into this, arguably too much, but the phrase does raise some interesting issues about our appreciation and consumption of art (in the broader sense – music, art, film, photography, theatre etc etc.). Principally, it follows if a pleasure is ‘guilty’, there’s something or things to whom or which people should feel guilty. I don’t know; some kind of existentially depressed cultural muso like High Fidelity’s protagonist up in the sky perhaps? An omnipotent cultural entity which peers down on us disapprovingly every time he sees us reaching for a Scouting for Girls album or a Michael Bay DVD? I jest of course. I understand there’s a set of nebulous understandable binding principles for what critics (with a small ‘c’) consider ‘good art’ – invention, technical skill, wit, lyricism, emotion, intelligence, sincerity, moral/political message, resonance with the audience etc etc. Most, but by no means all, will largely agree on these. But everyone’s view of these is different, as shown by the massive disparity in people’s music tastes, even among critics working for similar media outlets. People need to remember there are a lot of (subjectively) boring arthouse films and a lot of (subjectively) shallow and annoying experimental bands. The inevitable response is: so Girls Aloud are just as good as The Rolling Stones? The Wanted as relevant as Hendrix? Well, in a way, I think yes. Pop – in the narrower, One-Direction-and-Saturdays sense – is not meant to change the world, just be something catchy to brighten the walk to work or dance to. And if does that, then to a large degree it can be called, in a kind of Aristotelian way, successful. Relativism is a philosophically tricky position in any field, not least one which arouses such strong convictions in people. But given the massive difference in tastes and the intrinsically abstract nature of art (it can’t be so easily measured by profit or yield as in business, or scores such as sport), I think a largely relativist, subjective perspective of art is the only plausible one to take. As Roy Sutherland explains in this brilliant speech, reputation and perception are vitally important, often obscuring the true worth or efficiency of things, or the fact that there is no intrinsic value: (of English upper-middle-class people “rebranding” unemployment) “having a son who’s unemployed in Manchester is really quite embarrassing, but having a son who’s unemployed in Thailand is really viewed as quite an accomplishment.” Also, with ‘guilty pleasures’, we have sort of ‘obligated pleasures’. I don’t know if this is necessarily so, but it’s certainly so. The idea, held to different degrees, that we should like certain things – Bob Dylan, world music and Mike Leigh films. Some will even say, to varying extents of sincerity, that it’s blashphemy to criticise, homage or satirise these kind of things. Well, to these – I hate Bob Dylan. Deal with it. I find his music grating, nasally and pretty much devoid of anything so apparently base as a good hook. I also don’t like him as a person, from my albeit limited personal knowledge of him. (Yes, I gather he’s a great lyricist, an acute observer of the human condition – but one can get this from literature…without the nagging voice.) This is not to suggest he shouldn’t be regarded as a legend, because he’s obviously moved and provoked millions with his music, just that I shouldn’t feel obliged to like him. The kind of appreciation and almost universal devotion may not seem a real problem. This trait of Dylan fandom (or lack of it) isn’t really a huge issue, at least on the face of it. No one’s going to really have their world’s changed for me not liking him (not least him as it seems he’s doing pretty well for himself). What is concerning, though, is when all this grand importance we imbue in art makes people close-minded, restrictive and censorious. In music, the trait often comes to fruition when a ‘shit’ artist covers a ‘better one’ (with the former often more successful, commercially at least, than the latter), and all the musos admittedly somewhat in jest decry ‘blashphemy’ against something so ‘sancrosanct’. And even call for the death of the ‘offending artist’, as Mark Ronson found, with numerous death threats from sanctimonious and no doubt crying-because-they-stepped-on-a-slug Smiths fans for having the supposed temerity to, god forbid, produce a cover of one of their songs (which were never real threats and, to his credit, he took in good humour, but it doesn’t change the mindset of these morons). Harmless, you may think, but the same trait of oppressive censorship for critique of art has led to the actual deaths of millions, even in our modern, supposedly advanced world. Salman Rushdie was subject to a fatwa calling for his death merely for writing a novel (and a rather good one according to the Booker Prize), and riots all over the Islamic world caused around 100 deaths on the basis of a fucking cartoon. (Of course, there are similar cases across many belief systems – including a similarly-themed case last week of New York rabbis branding “evil” plans to make them get parental consent for sucking a baby’s bleeding cock – and there are arguably relevant, complex geo-political issues at play, but the most egregious examples do seem to surround Islam). Just last week, a Christian girl of just 14 with Down’s Syndrome has made UK news for being arrested for burning a Koran. Would people get so up in arms if the book had been Harry Potter? I daresay they wouldn’t. Superficially, a ridiculous analogy, yes – but hear me out if you will. All holy books definitively are is art – literature which moves people to great things, awful things; criticism, indifference. But ultimately just art, as evidenced by the fact millions, if not billions, do not consider the truths contained within literal (and increasingly so). Some people choose to think it’s divinely inspired (and it may be), but that’s their interpretation, not brute fact like 2+2=4. In principle, one could just as easily consider the described world and characters in the Harry Potter books to be true, and then take offence and call for restriction of (unharming) freedoms when others ‘disrespect’ their sincerely held view. So, people have no logical reason not to criticise the Bible, Torah or Quran – unless you somehow think, you shouldn’t also critique Harry Potter for the same reason. (There can be a lot of fear of criticising religion for fear of being branded ‘racist’, but this is illogical. To discriminate on the basis of what colour skin one has is nonsensical because they have no choice in the matter and it doesn’t necessarily make them anything, but criticising actions or beliefs is fine as these are chosen so should be stood by.) But wouldn’t it be preferable to engage in the debate? Consider if the actions or words really are so ‘immoral’ or ‘untrue’. And then if it is, spread that message; and if it’s not, have the humility to admit faults and change actions or taste accordingly. Not indulge in this culture of identifying onself vicariously through people in the media, most evident in a load of humourless whingers complaining about new BBC sitcom, Citizen Khan, the Muslim (or ‘Muslim’) protagonists of which have the nerve to (shock horror!) not to read the Quran and to laugh at themselves. To not be offended is not a democratic right, far from it. It’s only a right, in this respect,  not to be physically harmed. The trait is even more nonsensical when applied to real people, such as in the uproar at Rihanna (seemingly) choosing to take Chris Brown back after his domestic abuse. For one, the moral issues are debatable; she wasn’t exactly the person who did the Bad Thing in the first place, and for all we know they could find each other genuinely repentant and forgiving (respectively). If that ‘s the case what’s wrong with that?! But that’s not the point. The point is that it’s a personal, moral (i.e. not legal) choice. She has no fucking duty to do what you want her to do, because she’s a musician, not a member of the clergy, nor a social worker. She makes music – if people like it, they support her and she continues; if they don’t, they don’t and she doesn’t. Simple. Besides, Rock ‘n’ Roll history is filled with many who have actually perpetrated crimes and/or ‘immorality’ and been venerated despite, or probably because, of it. And, I don’t know if you’ve watched any of her videos, but Rihanna hardly markets herself as a paragon of (traditionally held) virtue, to be held up as a moral examplar. We can only be ourselves so let’s just live our own lives, and let others get one with theirs if it doesn’t do us any actual harm, by just changing the channel instead of imposing our own cultural tastes on others to the point of character assassination of strangers, death threats or calls to essentially shut up. Surely, they’re things to feel more guilty about than listening to the odd Katy Perry song?! Joel Durston

The Weird and Wonderful World of Olympic Basketball

In Culture, Sport on August 10, 2012 at 5:07 PM

I, like much of the rest of the UK it seems, have always viewed basketball with a kind of outsider’s indifference to the huge stir it causes on the other side of the pond. So it was curiosity that I hopped onto the Jubilee Line to the O…sorry, North Greenwich Arena for the Women’s Semi-Final of the Olympics between France and Russia.

The first thing to say is that the arena is a spectacular host to such glitzy showcases. The 20,000-capacity arena also plays host to the ATP World Tour Finals, which takes tennis well away from the prim and proper world of Wimbledon whites to a showy American-style spectacle, with lights and monitors littering the stands and the area high above the stage, and the stands rising from the ground precipitously, offering great views and acoustics.

So walking into the stadium to the sounds of Kanye West’s Power, accompanied by a light-show on the floor to which all the players were introduced felt, if you’ll excuse the overused term, epic. The players were all introduced in that stereotypically American-sports-announcer manner as they warmed up with their court sprints and lay-ups. Meanwhile some black Ant and Dec-like figures were trying to whip the 75%-full stadium into a kind of friendly frenzy, designating the four sections of the crowd the ‘Rihanna Stand’, the ‘Oasis Stand’, the ‘Van Morrison Stand’ (us), and the ‘Bob Marley Stand’. For better or for worse, it’s hard to imagine that at Wigan v Bolton.

Then, almost as a surprise due to all the hoop-la, the countdown was sounding for the start of the game and the jump-off. I think France got the first points on the board, but in truth I couldn’t tell you in any kind of certainty. This is partly because of the ridiculous high currency of scoring in basketball, making the only real reaction to any baskets oh, that’s cool , good shot, rather than the hyperbolic reaction that meets, say, goals in football. It’s often said that the reason Americans have high-scoring sports, staged with such razzmatazz, is a cultural thing: that something in the (typically) more polarised, here-and-now, just generally ‘big’ culture precludes the appreciation of a gritty 1-0 win away at Stoke. And, watching this very un-British staging of sport, there’s certainly something in that. For the other reason it’s hard to keep track of the score is the whole atmosphere. It was almost as if the players were peripheral figures to whole thing; hired stooges, paid to entertain at some bizarre, faux urban disco/Butlins hybrid.

The dads’ dance-off

The break after the first period contained a dads’ dance off, for Pete’s sake (a tie breaker for their two families drawing in the family shootout they had…somehow it seems it was always destined for the dance-off).  The only thing that would make the whole thing any more ‘audience interactive’ would be if a searchlight randomly stopped on a crowd member every time there was a free throw (the equivalent of a penalty), and for that lucky lad/lass to COOOOMMMMEEE ON DOOOOOWN! and try their luck. That’s not to condemn the whole shebang – just to point out that dancing dads and kiss cams are probably not quite what the ancient Greeks had in mind when they created the Ancient Olympic Games as a noble and pure pursuit of perfection for mind and body. I, for one, had to consciously remind myself a few times I was watching the best female exponents of a sport in the world, not a circus troupe.

Not a spare second is wasted, unfilled by some hollering from a master of ceremonies, dancers, light trick or burst of music, the latter often reduced to sounding like an aggressive nugget of sound that would greet someone opening a computer. In the sphere of sports, basketball is truly the ADHD kid, let loose on all the toys (to football’s working-class kid done well who now votes Tory, somewhat guiltily). Every stoppage, even the second-long gaps between someone scoring and the defenders collecting the ball, is filled by a blast of music, typically hip-hop or dance. I was sat there, envisaging some hyperactive MDMA-riddled bloke up in the control room, uncontrollable in his excitement at all the gadgetry around, waging his personal vendettas on unadulterated emotion, silence and gravitas.

Britain’s Got Talent semi-finalists, Peridot, entertained the crowds at half-time, and in between the third and fourth quarters there was some guys and gals doing some breakdancing/somersaulting act with skipping ropes (very impressive, it must be said), and some dressed as Games Makers even broke into a little jig when sweeping the court. There was also some points scored in between I think.

All in all, not one for the Daily Mail reader who enjoys his cricket, but (or therefore) pretty good fun. (Oh, and I believe France won. But then I’m still not entirely sure I didn’t pay for the privilege of walking into some super high-tech, virtual reality vision of sport in the future, like a kind of sports version of Woody Allen’s Orgasmatron.)

Joel Durston

Reflections on Latitude

In Culture, Opinion on July 20, 2012 at 5:01 PM

Music festivals are a glorious testament to human ingenuity; the desire to create makeshift replicas of all the bare essential necessities and commodities of modern-day civilisation – running water, sanitation, shelter, beer (yes, it’s essential), and food. Nearly all shit by considered judgement of course; as Marcus Brigstocke quipped, “the only real difference between this [Latitude] and some refugee camp in Southern Sudan is that we’ve got Elbow.”  And it is endearing in its gallant – and largely successful it must be said – attempt to create a microcosm of wider society in some fields in the middle of nowhere (this one, in deepest Suffolk, at least).

For this is where the Big Society is to truly be found – not in the minds of politicians wishing to offset the harsh effects of recession with cheap rhetoric. Where else would one willingly – and so politely – constrain oneself to approximately three centimetres of ‘personal space’ (except the Northern Line, but that’s hardly polite, if even willing), or queue to use muddy, stinking bogs, all for some grander collective purpose?!

The irony of course of all these Jezs so merrily traipsing round fields in wellies is that it is controlled by decidedly more Mark Corrigan-like figures. They’re not actively anti-fun; just that any such fun must be within certain limits and relentlessly fair to all – even more fair to the bottom lines of the companies involved. That’s not to suggest festivals should be organised in any other way. Those of a hippy inclination may have much to recommend them – the egalitarianism, their free-spirited nature, the music and the drugs – but I think it’s fair to say that diligence and organisation are not really their strong points. It’s merely pertinent to point out that, as AA Gill brilliant put it, “the price of freedom, to be a bit of an anarchist and a fire-worshipper, is a lot of razor-wire”.

And for a self-proclaimed liberal arts fest, it’s very capitalist. Watery beer costs £4.20 a pop, and that’s before considering the £3 deposit to be paid every time. Burger vans vie for customers with ‘quality’ Scottish fish huts and vegan outlets, but all sell very basic takeaway fare for, at the cheapest, £6. Don’t even blame them, really – apparently the eateries pay the organisers £50,000-£100,000 at major festivals just to set up stall, so to speak.

The final morning of a festival is a strange experience. The listless grey skies would have represented great pathetic fallacy if the weather was not similar for the most of the weekend. The hangover, literal and metaphorical, is almost palpable, as litter is strewn liberally across the fields and people pack away their tents and belongings. And with it, it seems, their youthful dreams of a life other than tuition fees, sales jobs or unemployment (or all three).

Joel Durston

Latitude 2012

In Culture on July 19, 2012 at 4:56 PM

Latitude, stomping ground of middle class families, 6th form girls with laurel wreaths in their hair and blokes named Hugo, was this year in its seventh year, better (and muddier) than ever.

So jam-packed was the bill, even the midday slots, often the chronological wasteland of festivals, were awash with talent. First up on the main stage on Friday were Givers, an exuberant five-piece hailing from Louisana. Their joyous, chaotic brand of indie-funk-afrobeat, probably the result of putting White Denim and Vampire Weekend in a blender, brought some much needed sunshine to a very drab day (and no doubt won vocalist and percussionist Tiffany Lamson many more admirers than just this one).

Cold Specks, on just after on the sponsored i Arena in the woods, was undoubtedly more sombre but no less impressive. It’s the stage name of Canadian singer-songwriter Al Spx, whose May debut by all rights should have a greater following given the enormity of Adele and all her imitators. Anyone who decries the Croydon singer as soulless and manufactured, would do well advised to check this woman out – as her voice, on great display here, genuinely has echoes of a racially-divided Deep South of the 60s.

Just as good if not better than the music bill was the comedy one. Shappi Khorsandi, with her filthy single mother act, and Holly Walsh, doing a straight-down-the-line act, both fared reasonably well. Newcomers Frisky & Mannish, however, thrilled the crowds with their unique, cabaret pop culture act. They are Laura Corcoran and Matthew Floyd Jones, a pair who met at Oxford and bonded over a shared love of literature, classics and chart pop. Their set, a mix of stand-up and music, is a superbly knowing, inventive melange of pop music melding Rihanna to the Bee Gees, The Carpenters to Grime music, and much more; laced in irony but undoubtedly affectionate – a wonderful ode to pop.

 

There was more musical parody from Doc Brown in the Comedy Tent soon after, this focusing primarily on his dying love for rap. He does a great job poking fun at it by juxtaposing his former love with his current unangry, moderate middle-class life, resulting in raps on how to create a hip-hop hit  from a legal template and how to make a cup of tea.

Polica took an early evening slot on the Lake Stage on Friday. They were very tight and energetic, but, though through no fault of their own, their brand of noir indie-soul – a bit like an autotuned XX – would have worked better at night. Janelle Monae, on the other hand, on just after on the main stage, deserved more sunshine than the grey – but thankfully dry – weather. She performed her soul and funk hits with the boundless energy and enthusiasm of the Duracell Bunny, and the crowd – full of everyone from long-haired hippies to middle-aged couples – duly responded. Makes one question why she’s not bigger here.

Lana Del Rey was far less energetic and enthusiastic, but then to be anything but jaded would be to defeat her very purpose. At least she was singing live. Anyway, predictably, Videogames received some of the biggest cheers of the festival.

Bon Iver, headlining on Friday, has, as here, managed the transition to stadium-filler brilliantly, helped by his more ‘surround sound’ second album, self-titled as if to suggest his mopey (but impressive) first was not truly him – merely a hollow, broken-hearted shell. Still, along with the more widescreen, multi-instrumental newer epics, the man-and-his-guitar sing-alongs of For Emma, Forever Ago worked surprisingly well to the vast crowd. Literally and metaphorically, he seems to be surfacing from his isolated log cabin, and crowds are gladly receiving him.

Saturday in the Comedy Arena started very early (11 am) and cerebrally for the many – yours truly included – feeling a little worse for wear from the night before. The Infinite Monkey Cage is a Radio 4 show debating with equal intellect and wit the big questions, and this debate, recorded for a later broadcast, featured Al Murray (as himself, unusually), Twenty-Twelve actress Sarah Passcoe and comedian Robin Ince arguing for the importance of the arts; against popstar-turned-physics-pin-up Brian Cox, cosmologist Andrew Potzen and Professor Jon Butterworth presenting the case for science. The scientists discussed the implications of the Higgs Boson discovery and argued that the reasoned quest for the origins of existence and humanity are, contrary to what many think, beautiful pursuits; while the artists asserted that this would all be meaningless without the arts, humanities and philosophy to make personal sense of it. But all spoke with such knowledgeable belief yet accessible humour that it was hard not to come away thinking that both disciplines, while undeniably distinct, could not survive independently. If only political discourse were this amiable and witty…

Phil Jupitus followed, and was brilliant in describing boys’ randiness, especially in the story of a friend’s six-year-old’s first dirty internet foray (he’d searched, in order, ‘tits’, ‘bums’, ‘boobs’, ‘legs’… and then ‘sexy Chinese ladies’). Yet given the strange empathy with which he spoke of this, his sketch about wanting to kill his 16-year-old daughter’s horny boyfriend, while amusing enough, felt overlong.

At least he got the right venue. Josie Long, apparently a comedian, seemed to have got lost on her way to the Faraway Forest (literally and figuratively) where all the Occupy wasters were, such was the ranting, socialist nonsense she was preaching. And it was preaching: “the Tories are evil; anyone who disagrees…well, they’re wrong”. Yet there nowhere was any reasoned debate on the economic  background to policy, only an offhand, unevidenced dismissal of recession as “not that bad”. And her more ‘comedic’ material merely seemed like an awkward, annoyingly chatty, excitable girl half her 30 years. If ever there was proof comedy should not be the province of the sincere, this was it.

After this, James Acaster was a breath of fresh air; an awkward, but brilliantly delivered, set on all of life’s most important problems – playing with wax candles in pubs, the best way to roll Blu Tack and a gloriously over-egged dissection of a friend of a friend’s analogy: you wouldn’t bring an apple to an orchard (substitute girlfriend and nightclub).

Lee Nelson– a comic creation of a happy-go-lucky council estate idiot – was anything but awkward, but delivered his filthy and superbly knowing one-liners, often involving the audience, with just as much panache. Irishman David O’Doherty gave a blistering good set on life and all its dark and mundane forms, at once sincere yet ironic enough to be hilarious.

SBTRKT (or Aaron Jerome) is a reclusive fellow; a London musician who wears tribal masks to conceal his identity and says: “the name SBTRKT is me taking myself away from that whole process. I’m not a social person, so having to talk to DJs to make them play a record is not something I want to do.” So it was interesting to see how his brand of minimalist, soulful electronica would transfer to a sub-headline spot in the large Word Arena. Fortunately, he smashed it. The songs were completely transformed from their on-record counterparts, bolstered with some huge synths and drumbeats, bringing a real carnival atmosphere to what is often decried as a very mono-cultural, dry festival. It was weird seeing the big screens focus on just a 16-button electronic sampler – but that’s the point of SBTRKT, I suppose. No ego; just tunes. Huge tunes.

Indie veterans Elbow are as sure a bet as any as festival headliners, and they duly delivered; at times both personal and anthemic, especially on One Day Like This, which brought the set to a lighters-in-the-air finale accompanied by fireworks.

Robin Ince again started the day again at the Comedy Tent, today with The Early Edition with Marcus Brigstocke & Andre Vincent – a gently amusing wander through the day’s papers and events with selected festival-goers who’d wafted through a paper each.

Nick Helm & the Helmettes followed. The character, which mixes stand-up and song, is a wonderful comic creation – a kind of David Brent of the shallow world of 80’s power pop, driven by shallow desperation for his dreams and genitals. Abandoman is a similarly superb pop-comedy cross-over – Ireland’s self-proclaimed 7th best rap outfit (which, they say, officially puts them four behind Jedward and makes them shit). Rob Broderick gets the crowd to get involved in his magnificently innovative freestyle raps – such as What’s In Your Pocket, in which the crowd stick up the weirdest thing in their pocket and he raps them all together, and a rap battle around one of those pub-sized Connect 4s (“we came…we saw…and we connected 4!”).

Reginald D Hunter was his usual caustic self, though perhaps overly intellectualised his usual sex-and-race schtick for it to truly hit home comedically, however clever. Rich Hall had the crowd in stitches with his dark, wry observations.

Alike Bon Iver, Bat For Lashes was another who many perhaps doubted could fill a big stage. But her setlist wisely included her more energetic songs, performed here with suitable vigour, as opposed to her (undeniably beautiful) ballads. She also gave a peak at some songs from her forthcoming album, A Haunted Man, such as Oh Yeah, which hint at a bigger, brassier direction.

Wild Beasts, top billing on the Word Arena, were a suitably esoteric, art-student-emo, but thrilling end to a great festival.

Joel Durston