Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Back with Betty

Posted 17 Mar 2013 — by Jonathan
Category Reviews

Quite pleased to discover that I still think Betty Blue is a pretty great film. I watched it a lot as a teenager, partly because I fancied Beatrice Dalle and partly because I was in a phase of renting art-house films from the library (‘cos I fancied the actresses in them…) and Betty Blue was my favourite. Since then I’ve read a lot of quite scathing reviews of it, writing it off as either pseudo-intellectual soft porn or directionless melodrama. But decided today to give it another try and thought it a lot better than I’ve seen it described. It’s nowhere near as erotic as the easily-pleased teenage me found it – Betty’s actually a lot cuter and sexier when she’s dressed than when she’s not, thank to the cheerful petulance and charm which Beatrice Dalle brings to the role, and Zorg is a lot more appealing than I remember him – muscular, easygoing and devoted.

BB

There are plenty of flaws; both Betty and Zorg are rather idealised, and the final third of the film descends dramatically (the drag scenes? hmmm). But the first 90 minutes are extremely winning – the months they spend drinking and dancing in the Paris hotel with Eddy and Lisa are exactly what I hoped for from my 20s, the pacing is delightful, and there’s a lot to be said for the way Zorg and Betty get (it) on. I liked the way that for all that Zorg is devoted to his unravelling girlfriend, he’s not paternal, macho or aggressive in the way he seeks to protect her – which is what the drag stuff is about, I guess. It’s full of mis-steps and a few shonky attempts at humour, but overall I really enjoyed re-visiting it. It looks, needless to say, absolutely beautiful, too.

Li Lanqing, British Museum

Posted 19 Jan 2013 — by Jonathan
Category Art, Reviews, Share

I called in at the box of delights which is the British Museum on my way to meet some friends in London last week. I like picking a theme when I go, as it’s otherwise impossible to choose where to go, and you end up stumbling from room to room in a kind of nostalgic daze, feeling progressively smaller and smaller as the treasures increase in scale. This time I decided to head to the Americas before anything else, and meandered through the Aztecs, the Arctic and the North American collections.

Before long I found myself predictably off-piste and gazing at a small temporary exhibition in the Far East rooms, 5 or 6 small cabinets containing a collection of of contemporary Chinese seals by Li Lanqing.

photo

Li is an engigmatic figure in modern Chinese politics; he served as Vice Premier of the State Council of China from 1993 to 2003 and played a crucial role in both the opening up of the State economically and the development of national education. Since his retirement from politics he’s turned his energy to the promotion of his two passions – classical music and seal-carving. The latter, one of the four traditional chinese art-forms (along with calligraphy, painting and poetry) is a truly ancient art, and Li’s interest illustrates the dichotomy present in his personal politics; he is a deeply modern man who is simultaneously respectful of tradition. Consequently his seals, which look at first to be deeply conventional, display a great deal of depth – often international in outlook, often witty and wise, always imbued with his passion for life, and very much of the twentieth and twenty first centuries.

His passions shine through; there are stunningly beautifully wrought expressions and aphorisms (the tiny, contained ‘Eat like an ant’ and the wide, spare ‘My heart calm as the water’), and tributes to great figures like Dickens, Goethe and Cervantes. His ‘Opera Disc’ seal, with its use of the English language subverts the geographic specificity of his usual work.

One seal, Baiting Roast Duck Restaurant (Bad Officials are Examined by an Illiterate Person), provides a great example of Li’s playfulness. Featuring some strokes carved to print in red and some in white, the seal mimics a malfunctioning neon sign with half it’s lights out. Moreover, each colour’s message reads differently; the white a traditional advertisement for a famous Beijing restaurant, the white a critique of hapless officials.

It’s a lovely small exhibition, and a little, light-filled window into a big, powerful, slow-changing, subtle China.

‘Where are we now?’; The return of David Bowie

Posted 08 Jan 2013 — by Jonathan
Category Currently Listening, Music, Reviews

I’m a massive Bowie fan, so, transparently, today has been a ridiculously good day for me.

If you missed it – ten years after his last record and seven years after he last performed in public – this morning, entirely without fanfare or forewarning, David Bowie released a brand new song and announced a forthcoming LP. This is, in the world of pop, massive news, and judging by the fact that I heard about it on the Today programme on Radio 4, it’s presumably big news elsewhere too. The Guardian practically devoted their entire Arts team to covering it today (yielding good pieces from Michael Hann and Alexis Petridis), and my twitter feed was a pretty relentless stream of enthusiasm.

I’ve been in a good mood all day.

And amidst all the excitement, there’s a song, and you should listen to it.

It’s far too early for me to pass any real critical judgement, to declare it better than his 90s work or worse than the stuff on ‘Heathen’, and I’m too biased to be truly objective regardless – but the song matters to me because I find it thrilling to think that Bowie still digs making music (I thought he’d retired) and the song itself, regardless of its place in his canon, makes me happy – by chance it recalls much of Bowie’s music that I like best; the sombre, elegiac Bowie of the late ’70s, whose years in Berlin still seem to speak to him more powerfully than any others. To hear him singing in his own distinct, somewhat tremulous voice is, for all that it is aged, a great privilege.

He’s written so many wonderful wonderful songs, but there’s a category that I hold particularly close to my heart, and that’s the smallish number of songs where it sounds like Bowie is singing from deep within his true self – not channeling Anthony Newley, or Lou, or Iggy, or Dylan, or even James Brown (I love it when he channels James Brown). The best example is, I think, ‘Wild Is The Wind‘, which Bowie himself has described as his finest vocal performance. There are shades of that song here – or shades of the truthfulness it evinces. And something very vulnerable too.

What a joy it is to hear, and to have him back.

If you like it too – or, failing that, like David generally – then we can be friends.

Review, Dredd (Pete Travis, 2012).

Posted 07 Jan 2013 — by Jonathan
Category Reviews

When I was a kid I chanced upon 2000AD and, for a short period, I bought it every week. If you’ve not read 2000AD, you might think it’s a nerdy, ultraviolent science fiction comic (and you’d be right) and as such it’s regularly dismissed as an adolescent concern; as a teenager keenly aware of wanting to be cool, I swiftly stopped buying it when I learned this, and began looking for more serious literature to fill the gap (and do a better job of impressing others/girls).

I’ve never been a huge comic reader, but 2000AD was my gateway drug to a world of fine, artistically challenging, serious “graphic novels”, which I read throughout my 20s, in an attempt to marry my affection for comic books with my pretentiously high-brow attitude towards literature. Consequently, a shelf in my flat groans with expensive, sincere comic books, few of which I ever actually finished.

Later, it occurred to me that the comic I wanted to read wasn’t a hip independent quarterly at all – it was 2000AD, and when I went back to it I immediately recalled that actually, despite it being nerdy and ultraviolent, it was always bloody smart and often highly political and satirical. More importantly, it was great fun, and for all the dazzlingly inventive stuff that would feature in it, by far the best was generally the staple, Judge Dredd, which was and is a work of complete genius. Having spent pretending otherwise, It’s probably fashionable to say this, now, which makes this mea culpa somewhat redundant, but there it is.

Anyway, I watched the recent adaptation of this fine comic strip, the Brit-made ‘Dredd’, starring Karl Urban and Olivia Thirlby this weekend, and I thought it was completely marvellous. Possibly not quite as darkly comic as the strip, nor quite as gruesomely inventive (hard on a very low budget), but it was an absolutely fantastic, lean, aggressive, compulsive bit of action cinema, propelled by all the things that make the comic strip great – a complete lack of misogyny, a vivid and colourful concept and best of all, a central character who is complete in every sense.

Dredd isn’t, if you trace him through the comic, a lot of things he’s described as being (a fascist, an unlearning automaton), but he is consistent, coherent and always convincing, as cleanly defined an action hero as you could wish for. He’s also devilishly hard to play, so I was completely certain that neither Karl Urban nor any actor could convincingly portray Dredd on screen, but after fifteen minutes I was absolutely sold on his performance.

Similarly, my heart sank when I saw that a young and very beautiful actress had been picked to play Anderson, fearing that meant a descent into predictable roles, but her performance (and more important, her characterisation) is almost note perfect. Never once is she shown to be weaker than any male character nor is her meeting with the (also female) villain contextualised in light of their sex. She’s just a brilliant, character, as is Dredd.

And this is a brilliant film. Not flawless, obviously, and some way from being a masterpiece of cinema – but it is a masterpiece of bringing Dredd to life, which is all we could have asked for. There’s some really exciting slo-mo filming in there, too, enough to suggest that given a bigger budget a sequel could go some way to visualising the extraordinary colour and madness of the comic.

In the meantime, your Saturday night needs Dredd.

Review; Clay by Melissa Harrison

Posted 04 Jan 2013 — by Jonathan
Category Books, Reviews, Share

Just finished reading Melissa Harrison’s lovely first novel, ‘Clay’, and wanted to pen a few thoughts while it’s still fresh in my mind. ‘Clay’ is a terrifically beautiful book, a quiet, sensitive portrayal of the lives of a small cast of slightly lonely, slightly constrained protagonists, and their development over the course of a half year in a South London which is by turns familiar and gloriously unfamiliar.

Familiar because Harrison has a good grasp of the plain-sight city – “nail bars, chicken parlours, newsagents, mobile phone unlocking, cheap calls to Africa”, and exotic because she populates the city with a bewildering cast of living things which our eyes are either untrained to see or disposed to miss; dog foxes, bats, sticky goosegrass and evergreen choisya, butterflies, greenflies and stag beetles, swifts, starlings, and plane trees shedding flakes of polluted bark. Harrison’s prose is poetic but hyper-observant, always sensing new movement in the nearby undergrowth, or a pair of eyes watching high in a tree.

All five of the novel’s main characters see more of this hidden city than I (regrettably) do, and are to a smaller or greater extent drawn towards the area’s liminal places – the parts of London in which pockets of extraordinary life are concealed, yet continue to thrive – and in particular to a small park near Tooting Common, which becomes the space in which they meet and interact. At the centre is TC, whose story of neglect is painfully sad but whose resourcefulness and passion for nature is a rebuke to his coddled, careless peers. Around him Harrison conjures a story quite free of sensationalism or sentimentality, but which is quietly gripping and somewhat inspiring.

The clay of the title refers to a phrase recalled from childhood – ‘we are the clay that grew tall’, which resonates through the novel; TC is a child ‘on intimate terms with the earth’. Jozef, an exile from Poland, mourns the physical properties of the farm he grew up on. Sophia, growing old on a council estate her family have left, does her best to disrupt the order which the council wish to impose upon the wedge-shaped park she has watched over for decades, her pockets bulging with papery bulbs.

‘Clay’ is a very satisfying read; a serious book which evokes important topics like innocence, companionship and trust, but which is driven forward by the author’s obvious, intimate connection with nature.

Very pleased that it’s the first thing I read in 2013; it’s a short, brilliant novel that makes me want to rush out into the woods.

Homeland; series two episode one, review

Posted 08 Oct 2012 — by Jonathan
Category Reviews

Don’t think I blogged about Homeland at all during it’s previous run, which is a shame in retrospect as it might have given me an opportunity to segue into the following, which is a largely enthusiastic take on the first episode of the new series. Not having anything to refer to, I have to think back to the various things I liked and disliked about the initial show. But that’s not hard, as series 2 seems, at a first glance, to pick up exactly where it left off – one of the more persuasive, nuanced televisual takes on the fall out from the War on Terror, yet filled with flaws and inconsistencies which, thankfully, are for the most part forgiveable when lined up against what the show does very well.

Quickly; some of the problems – it remains essentially unbelievable that Carrie was ever tolerated at the CIA, just as it seems utterly incredible that Brody, so soon returned from imprisonment in Iraq, should be seriously considered ready for high office. The scenes in the Middle East seem, thus far, less convincing than those at home, and the scenes of high tension draw rather heavily on tropes from too-familiar scenarios (that said, I’m glad the show isn’t much bothered with whizzy technology; in some respects it seems to owe more to Le Carre than CNN).

But what it does best, first and foremost, is create characters you care about. I still don’t know quite where I stand on Brody, who I’m dimly aware is working, reluctantly, towards an event of mass terror but who, mostly courtesy of his powerful back-story and conscience (in this series personified by Morgan Saylor, who plays his 16 year old daughter) remains a fascinating and attractive enigma. He is there, the programme tells us, because circumstance has driven him there, not because he wants to be.

The opposite of true of Carrie, who wants with every fibre of her being to be in the field or high in an ivory tower, doing whatever she can to protect her sources, her agents, the public and her country. But circumstance has led her astray, too, so that she begins this series not at the CIA but teaching English and, tending her garden, trying to manage her bipolar disorder. Fresh from literally shocking medical treatment, she’s commended for her success in reinventing herself – and only her father, who shares her condition, recognises the distance she has left to travel.

It’s perhaps a shame, given this fascinating starting point, that the makers of the second series of Homeland could not have waited a little longer to re-introduce Carrie to the action, but it’s a credit to them that the way they do provides a brief valedictory moment which makes up for their impatience; a smile in the backstreets of Beirut is all it takes to reassure us that Carrie’s treatment has not purged her of her self.

I hope this principle, of returning our protagonists immediately to action, does not cause problems; of course it’s great to see Carrie, Brody, Saul and Dana plunged back into the grip of drama, but what sets Homeland so far apart from its contemporaries is the way it rejects the immediacy of 24. It knows that crises unfold more often over weeks and months than over days, and takes the risk of delaying gratification. I hope that the explosive start of series 2 is misleading, and we settle back into a dance of diplomacy, tension and mistrust.

And I wait keenly, while I’m at it, for the return of the jazz – rarely has a show been as well scored as Homeland. Hoping this new run keeps the standard up, and even raises it by a bar or two. In 5/4 time, perhaps.

Parade’s End, BBC; review

Posted 27 Sep 2012 — by Jonathan
Category Books, Reviews

Just finished watching the uneven, enjoyable and often rather brilliant Parade’s End, the latest big-budget costume drama from the BBC, which is adapted from a series of Ford Madox Ford books which no-one has read. It was a nice big, sumptuous production with two of Britain’s most celebrated mouth-actors (Rebecca Hall’s curled lip and Benedict Cumberbatch’s downturned grimace), focusing on that period where a buckling society, faced with the violence of the first world war, finally became Modern.

Cumberbatch, as Christopher Tietjens – a noble, repressed Tory – is the last in the Parade; the last man to whom High Toryism means loyalty, fidelity and permanence, and Hall is his flighty, rather magnificent wife, whose machinations debase his reputation and chip away at his resolve. He stands resolute, absorbing her disgrace, and even resisting love, which arrives in the form of Valentine Wannop, a (disappointingly wet) Suffragette. In the end it’s neither his wife nor his love which dismantles his attachment to the past, but the War – which is of course the great, monstrous wave which sweeps everything away and heralds the arrival of the real 20th Century.

I loved this five-parter, but it was an odd affair. Part society satire, part love story, part treatise on tradition and modernity, and most powerfully a violent war-time farce, it is a drama where the tone ricochets from scene to scene, setting to setting, episode to episode. It has little of the elegance or method of Victorian drama, but showing as it does a period of enormous upheaval, that’s perhaps appropriate.

And the whole thing is carried beautifully by the cast right up until the final episode, which somehow just fails in its final third to voice the transformation effected upon Christopher, or rather to pinpoint with sufficient specificity just what frees him to evolve his principles. I wanted more on the destructive but transformative power of the war, of the levelling and the loosening of society which it provoked. In the end Parade’s End ended as a love story might – movingly, with some success; but shy of the revelation which Tom Stoppard’s script seemed to be building towards.

Still, really enjoyed it. A joyful reminder of how great the BBC is.

Review; Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

Posted 18 Sep 2012 — by Jonathan
Category Books, Reviews, Share

As usual I’m working my way through the Booker Prize shortlist, and while I’ve not read the whole lot yet, I’ve been very much stopped in my tracks by ‘Swimming Home’, the new novel by Deborah Levy, which – while a short read – has resonated at the edge of my thoughts constantly since I finished it a few days ago.

The book is as clean and clear as the ringing of a bell, but quietly and meticulously poetic, full of beautiful language and deeply visual storytelling. Set around a holiday villa in the south of France, where the warm sun seems to stir a mild fever, it conjures up a series of unforgettable images – from the sight of a naked girl swimming resembling a bear, to a boy emerging from a wall, and a centipede examined clambering out of a bucket. A very middle class English family – the Jacobs – holiday abroad with friends and get tangled up with Kitty Finch, a provocative and very cinematic agent of change, who pulls and tears at the delicate conventions of the family. And Levy is a truly superb writer, distracting the reader so with her style that the plot twists, when they come, left me startled, uneasy.

Levy’s characters are on the precipice of self-discovery but numbed, needing the disruptive power of Kitty Finch to shake them up. Of Isabel Jacob, a foreign correspondent unable to reconcile her life as a journalist and a mother, Levy writes, “If she knew that to be forceful was not the same as being powerful and to be gentle was not the same as being fragile, she did not know how to use this knowledge in her own life or what it added up to”. Her husband, Joe, seems at first blithe and unfeeling, but his crime of conscience is deliberate forgetting. Kitty, who shares aspects of his past he tries to ignore, stirs him to action. But as each character attempts to guide proceedings, their lack of control is made apparent, and things spiral out of hand. Levy’s handling of this approaching chaos is masterly. It’s truly a very lovely book.

I raced through this in two or three hours, and knew immediately on finishing that it would merit a re-read. Oddly, I’m impatient to finish the rest of the shortlist so that I might get back to it.

A real winner. Hopefully – in terms of the Booker Prize – literally.

Traams live in Brighton

Posted 30 Aug 2012 — by Jonathan
Category Music, Reviews

Dormant blog in temporary revival warning! I’m spurred to post because I saw a really amazing band last night at the Green Door Store in Brighton. They were Traams, a Chichester (of all places) three-piece of whom I had previously heard nothing, ’til they arrived on stage. Wow. With the exception of Blur they were easily the best group I’ve seen this year, combining the taut rhythmic energy of Big Black or Neu! with the kinetic spontaneity of early Fall or Pavement. They played five or six songs of ever-accelerating brilliance, barely registering the audience, and departed with smiles which suggest they know exactly how good they are. Luckily I happened to have my camera on me, so I was able to document a couple of songs – here are ‘Teeth’ and ‘Klaus’. You can follow the band on twitter here, and check out some of their recordings at their bandcamp page.

No Direction Home, festival review

Posted 11 Jun 2012 — by Jonathan
Category Music, Observations, Reviews

Just back from No Direction Home, a lovely three day festival in Sherwood Forest – and feeling oddly invigorated rather than knackered, which is unusual after a festival – and seems particularly counterintuitive when you consider that this festival took place in a weekend during which Britain was so thoroughly soaked that it was almost lost to the sea.

Oddly, however, the Welbeck Estate stayed pretty much dry, and by a miraculous quirk of fortune I managed to pitch our tent on a bit of even ground. Consequently we stayed dry, slept well, drank with something approaching moderation, and ate regularly and expensively at the many excellent food stalls. So I’m not dead, but rather buzzing with excitement after a few utterly idyllic days and a bunch of awesome bands.

A potted set of highlights and observations, then:

- First, what an amazing site. Compared to End of the Road at the Larmer Tree Gardens in Dorset, the festival is significantly more compact and even rather prettier; it’s a less fenced-in site, making it easier and more rewarding to wander off, and the lakeside setting and accompanying wildlife (skylarks, swifts, martins and owls) were so beautiful and rewarding that it was frequently more tempting to grab a pint of Welbeck Abbey Red Feather and sit by the water, than it was to watch another band.

- Second, once again, the on-site amenities were perfect. Three small stages, with the performance times perfectly scheduled, making it almost possible to catch every single band on the bill; a beautiful comedy and literature yurt; and an absolutely charming pop-up cinema (where we watched ‘Some Like It Hot’ in preference to catching Dirty Three, and where Woodpigeon provided a lovely score to Charlie Chaplin’s surprisingly angry ‘Modern Times’ – which made up for a slightly underwhelming solo set from their Mark Hamilton earlier in the day). Besides all that there were bookshops, vintage clothes stores, a branch of Rough Trade and tons of great places to eat. Perfectly judged.

- When buying my ticket a few months back I half-wondered if I hadn’t had my fill of folk-bands; I’ve seen a lot over the last few years and the bands that jumped out at me on the bill were at the rockier end; Mikal Cronin, The Wave Pictures and Veronica Falls. But actually the line-up worked perfectly; folk, a smattering of electronica, a few big guitars, some amazing new bands and a few unique performances (in particular, The Unthanks‘ extraordinary link up with the Brighouse & Rastrick Brass Band, which saw them further mining their interest in northern cultural history and the poetry of the pits).

- Who was good then? New stuff is always most exciting, I think, so I had a brilliant time watching a few bands new to me. Laura J Martin stood out as being incredible playful and adventurous, taking as her starting point some post-Kate Bush warbling but adding clattering drums, mandolin, and layer upon layer of sampled flutes. It was an extraordinary, slightly surreal experience watching her construct explosive little symphonies from the most unlikely of components. She stood cheerfully signing CDs afterwards, clearly delighted at having delighted so many.

Rachael Dadd was similarly great; dangerously close to conforming to twee-folk stereotypes at first glance, but standing out because her interests and approach (which incorporate steel drums played by her husband Ichi) naturally draw even the most sceptical of audience members in. Her abiding interest seems to be Japanese culture, gleefully drawing on a distant society, and, by the end, she was populating an entire song with the recipe for Oni Guri, and beguiling everyone in the process.

Also really liked Seamus Fogarty, who summoned up aspects of traditional folk music, US troubadours like Neil Young and Townes Van Zandt and his label-mates at Fence to provide good-hearted, quiet and sometimes funny ruminations on life. I was very taken with some of his lines, not least “I woke up in Chicago early on Christmas morn / with a woman who worked as a spy”, which is as lovely a set up to a song as you’ll hear.

And best of all the new artists I saw was Nat Johnson & The Figureheads, who played a pitch-perfect set of harmonious indie rock, recalling ‘Stories of the City’ era PJ Harvey and The Long Blondes, while every now and again invoking gloriously fuzzy Pavement-esque guitar riffs. They were poised, energetic, blessed with song after song, and deserve to sell lots of records.

- Saw some great stuff in the literature and comedy yurt too; Jon Ronson gave a characteristically charming reading of his Psychopath Test stuff, as well as casting further comedic light on the (surely unarguable) case for AA Gill’s criminal insanity. Mick Jackson, whose novel ‘The Underground Man’ had a seismic impact on me when I first read it in 1997, talked about the book, which was set at the Welbeck Estate, and he cast light on the network of underground tunnels which snaked through the ground beneath us. The only real disappointment was a very uncomfortable, boorish appearance by a drunk Josie Long (who I normally love) and a humourless friend, who performed an extended karaoke set prior to Robin Ince’s book club, which managed to do the impossible (make a Herman Dune song sound unwelcome) and eventually drive us out into the night, perplexed by the laddishness, excessive volume, affection for Weezer and, most pressingly, her co-host’s inept rape joke, which tipped the balance for us. Very depressing – but out of character, I think.

- More happily, we saw some superb performances from the regular suspects; from The Wave Pictures, Beth Jeans Houghton, Django Django, Spectrals, Martin Carthy and Euros Childs (who lucked out with the first real sun of the weekend setting over his glorious psych-pop). Two performances really stood out; Josh Tillman, playing as Father John Misty, played a ludicrously confident, charismatic set of acoustic country-pop. Slightly camp, very hilarious and deeply handsome, he could have left with anyone in the audience, I suspect. David Thomas Broughton was similarly engaging, if not quite so bloody sexy, but he once again captivated the crowd with a performance as funny as it was gifted, as troubling as it was proficient. Very impressed, as always. He’s one of pop’s more interesting, evocative lyricists.

- Hard not to mention beer. The End of The Road organisers are always scrupulous in sourcing decent ale for their festivals and, despite a tendency to under-order in terms of quantity, they did a great job here. My favourites were the afore-mentioned Red Feather, a very nutty session beer brewed on the premises, and the Bradfield Farmers Blonde, a very pale and floral beer. Of the various bars on site, the Boathouse gets the thumbs-up from me by virtue of their insanely friendly staff and habit of shouting ‘Tip Tip Hooray’ every time they get a tip. Ever eager to please, I think I tipped them about eight quid over the course of the weekend. Lots of hoorays.

- Two more artists who seemed to effortlessly personify the No Direction Home vibe were also on grand form. Liz Green’s talent is palpably natural – she has an effortlessly perfect voice, a wry and arch writing style and can even, it turns out, play a mean trumpet solo without a trumpet (seriously; close your eyes and you’ll hear brass – open them and you’ll see her trying not to laugh while she parps merrily out of the side of her mouth… if you’ll forgive the image). She also works with a band capable of adding texture to her songs with the most glorious instrumentation. The combination of Green’s jazz vocal, a be-turbaned sax player and a double bassist in a tweed jacket and adidias short might put some off; but it would be a hasty judgement. Great stuff. Trembling Bells, meanwhile, are a rather old-fashioned folk group, taking their lead from 60s and 70s British folk-rock, but live they’re forceful, immediate and somehow very modern – this is folk music a very long way from pastiche. Instead they deal in heavy, detailed, free-form visionary music. Unexpectedly they were perhaps the loudest band I saw all weekend.

- …with the exception of Mikal Cronin, who closed the festival. Wow, these guys are good. After lots of ruminative, esoteric folk and pop, the decision to employ Cronin’s band to blow away the cobwebs was masterful. Their music is super-powerful; skewed, loose indie rock twinned with blasts of urgent psych-garage. Watching their delightful, cleansing set was a bit like being placed in front of a massive, nuclear-powered fan. Great great fun. And the joyfulness of their vibrant indie rock seemed to energise a flagging crowd, who yelled jokes and sparred with the band between songs. At one point, while they were tuning up, a moth flew on stage and was briefly illuminated in Cronin’s spotlight. “A moth! A moth!” the crowd gleefully yelled. The band, who had previously boasted of their acid intake, looked bemused.

- Lastly it would be remiss not to share another couple of key ingredients of a super weekend; first off, as always, a festival is a million times better when you’re there with people you love (and I was) and always a winner when every single person you come across, whether staff, performers or audience, seems to share that same expression of delight, good cheer and peacefulness.

So a hearty congratulations to the organisers for putting together a seriously brilliant festival. Will be there next year.

If I’ve missed anything above, do leave a comment below.

 

 

Review; ‘The Marriage Plot’ by Jeffrey Eugenides

Posted 01 May 2012 — by Jonathan
Category Books, Reviews

On holiday in Lisbon last week I read Jeffrey Eugenides’ excellent ‘The Marriage Plot’, a breezy, thoughtful rumination on changing times and destinies; the marriage novel of the 18th and 19th centuries told afresh in the 1980s, with pre-nups, divorces, and post-modernism thrown in. It was a very good read. Despite his being widely admired, I’d not read either of Eugenides previous books, and came to this relatively fresh, without the burden of having read much contemporary US fiction in recent years, either (I’ll come back when they start writing shorter novels again).

A good writer can rarely go wrong with a campus novel, and that’s exactly how ‘The Marriage Plot’ starts out; we observe three young undergraduates who seem to immerse themselves in pretty much the typical university experience, with the exception that their thirst for knowledge (and limitless appetite for semiotics) felt a little romanticised (or perhaps Eugenides really was that boring at university). The Barthes quotes aside, it’s a familiar story; the vacillating relationship between 3 people; the naive, romantic lead (Madeleine Hanna), the brilliant hunk (Leonard Bankhead) and the introverted, love-struck friend (Mitchell Grammaticus).

The novel really takes off, however, when the three graduate and begin to negotiate those notoriously horrible post-university years. It’s a trite and oft-repeated observation that people go to university to ‘find themselves’, but the reverse, is true – university is what one does while putting the revelations off. It’s when you’re out, directionless and removed, that the real self-discovery takes place, and so it is for our uncertain, tentative leads. Leonard is forced to face his severe depression; Mitchell his spiritual yearning. And Madeleine slowly learns to define herself as her own person – as a Victorianist (this is a novel studded with literary references) and as a woman. It’s well observed stuff, and Leonard’s manic depression feels extraordinarily well described.

It’s not without its flaws; Madeleine’s literary heroines were so remarkable not because of the ingenious ways in which they resolved their own marriage plots, but because they drew marvellously detailed, revelatory portraits of their young leads. We never quite get to know Madeleine, and Mitchell’s travels are largely fruitless. Perhaps this is deliberate; Eugenides seems to contend that the modern marriage – and perhaps the modern life – can never mean as much when all is no longer at stake; and so there is drifting, irony and indecisiveness where in Austen there is purpose, razor sharp satire and principle. Mistakes are still painful, but perhaps less decisive.

None of that prevents ‘The Marriage Plot’ from being a great coming of age novel, and very readable indeed. Eugenides employs a largely conventional style, with the exception of a few judicious liberties with the timeline, and he knows how to drive the reader forward. I was, personally, just a little disappointed with the ending, despite it making sense in a literary context. Nevertheless, it was a great read, and had one glorious side effect for which I thank it – it made me want to go back to a few literary classics I’d not really considered re-reading (including some stuff I hated at the time). I won’t be reaching for Roland Barthes any time soon, but love of literature bleeds from the pages of this excellent book, and I feel a bit infected.

Allo Darlin’, live at the Haunt

Posted 06 Mar 2012 — by Jonathan
Category Music, Reviews

Went to see the excellent Allo Darlin’ play at the Haunt this weekend; they’re on the face of it a very simple pleasure – melodic, good-hearted indie pop which draws on the micro-dramas of The Wave Pictures or their mentor, Darren Hayman, and manages to deftly improve dramatically on whatever it is you think a pop group might be able to do do working within the limitations of a ukulele-led sound.

But there’s something a little bit special about them too, which is a combination of the lovely lead guitar playing, their ardent enthusiasm, and the fact that Elizabeth, being an Aussie, seems to have an innate sympathy with the widescreen song-writing genius of The Go Betweens. It’s that last point which provides the route into why I loved the gig so much – they seem to imbue a lot of the greatest qualities of that most wonderful of bands – melodicism, good-heartedness, observation for detail, and a certain Australian thingyness which I’m at a loss to identify but which is evident in the work of Grant McLennan and Robert Forster, in the pop of the Triffids, in Evan Dando’s Oz-penned Lemonheads work.

I’d like to go and write an album in Australia.

Here’s the band playing a gig in San Francisco last year. Check ‘em out if they play near you soon.

Reg D Hunter at the Brighton Dome; review

Posted 19 Feb 2012 — by Jonathan
Category Reviews

As a young teenager I careered from obsession to obsession; football, music, books, and at one point – when I was about twelve or thirteen, I think, stand-up and TV comedy. In reality, the latter was all I could actually access, being far too young to head into London to go to comedy clubs, so I watched everything from dire dross like Birds of A Feather to slightly less dire VHSs of Lenny Henry live. Stand up comics certainly never came to play at the local Arts centre – or at least, they didn’t until Eddie Izzard announced that he was playing the Barnet Old Bull. The Old Bull was a small, scruffy place, way off the comedy circuit – but in those days Eddie Izzard was perhaps six months to a year off being celebrated as the next big thing in comedy.

Of course, I didn’t know that at the time, but I had read something about him in the paper and thus knew that he would be worth watching.

So I tried – increasingly desperately – to persuade my mother to take me to see him… and failed, because she, perhaps understandably, concluded that the difference between the content of TV comedy and live stand-up was rather greater than I appreciated. My request was turned down because, she said, the comedy would likely be ‘blue’.

It strikes me as odd in retrospect that this concerned her greatly (there were no restrictions on swearwords in our house and in fact I have a happy memory of her playing me her vinyl copy of New Boots and Panties by Ian Dury & The Blockheads, in order to each me some new ones), and it’s funny to think that in those pre-internet days I had no way of persuading her of the truth – that Izzard, in fact, never, even in those early days, really strayed into ‘blue’ comedy.

So, I missed the gig and, after a while, pretty much lost my interest in comedy as I turned my attentions elsewhere. But for one reason or another I’ve always remembered the conversation we had and wondered who else from the world of cuddly TV is a foul-mouthed animal when transported to the stage of the local arts centre.

This week we went to see Reginald D Hunter at the Brighton Dome, and my expectations were actually pretty high; both in terms of expecting it to be funny, and expecting it to be blue. In the event, it was certainly incredibly funny, and Reg went to some lengths to explain to his very white, very middle class audience that he had no qualms about using words like ‘nigga’ or ‘faggotry’ (“I’m not that cuddly TV nigga”, he warned us). His set though, was far more thoughtful and nuanced than I was expecting, and although the performance was laced with the odd crude joke, it generally served the purpose of his broader point, even if it almost certainly (inevitably) honed in on cheap laughter.

For the most part, the set was preoccupied with exploring the things we claim to know about ourselves, and the tension between that and the many things we refuse to acknowledge. Key to his thesis is that we’ve become complacent and unable to exercise self-restraint in our lives, whether by refusing to control our lazy desire to watch and consume crap or to resist facing self-examination or honest self-assessment. Key to all this is his reassurance, ‘there’s nothing wrong with you’. This simplistic assertion is not borne of unsympathetic cruelty or withering disdain, but instead an earnest notion that we choose not to look at ugly truths because we’re ‘waiting for something prettier to come along’. Using the age-old technique of audience ridicule, he even provides some graphic (if not particularly insightful) examples. It’s clever, rude stuff.

That said, his show is broadly without structure; anecdotes come and go, not always explicable until later on. This isn’t the result of careful foreshadowing, but rather evidence that, as of yet, Reggie isn’t as disciplined as he might be about constructing his theme. He relies, I think, on his immediate and engaging manner to waltz through complex ideas which could do with a bit of further explanation. But the general tone of his set is both ruminative and ribald, here troubling and there smoothly easy-going. It’s a nice combination of the natural comic instinct which Reg possesses and the semi-urgent discoveries of his own ascent into middle age. Having never seen him before, I don’t know if he is growing up, but his set is a nice mixture of the fast maturing, the puerile, and the naturally charming.

Review, Beth Jeans Houghton LP

Posted 09 Feb 2012 — by Jonathan
Category Music, Reviews

I’ve been a huge fan of Beth Jeans Houghton since seeing her at The Great Escape in 2009, and at times had all but given up on seeing a debut album come out – so I’m hugely pleased that the idiosyncratically named ‘Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose’ came out this week – and more than pleased at discovering it’s not only as good as I hoped, it’s significantly better. Still, I didn’t know that when I played it for the first time on Monday night, and shared my inane thoughts with the twitterverse.

Here, then, is my life-tweet extravaganza of my first listen to the debut LP by Beth Jeans Houghton and the Hooves of Destiny.

Not taken with Sherlock

Posted 21 Jan 2012 — by Jonathan
Category Reviews

Finally, a few weeks after everyone else, I watched the first episode of the new series of Sherlock last night. At first, I was very impressed – the casting is good and the programme is visually amazing, featuring inventive shots, snappy cutaways and neat directional tricks. Given all this and the fact that the premise of Stephen Moffat’s Sherlock remake is smart (the protagonist as a kind of Aspergers suffering techie), it would be understandable should the programme sometimes seems a bit too pleased with itself – but my god it’s only occasionally that humble.

The whole show – 90 minutes of smug, self-regarding tosh – seemed to me to be entirely comprised of set pieces triggered to deliver a 10 second clip for the accompanying advert; a short burst of violence here, a naked arse there, a never ending series of arch one-liners. And no-one in it remotely likeable.

I’m kind of surprised that so many people have been so very complimentary about it, but to me it seemed like event TV where the atmosphere and the gleaming surface was clearly prioritised over not only the plot but the characters too. Sherlock didn’t feel much in it to me, despite the fact that it supposedly dealt with his first stab of emotional attachment towards a woman. He brooded and snapped, and darted his eyes from left to right, right to left. But I got little from it.

There was still stuff to like – Sherlock and Watson’s relationship, the enigmatic Mycroft, the sour police sergeant torn between respect and disdain for a genius whose help he very much needs. But elsewhere – I thought it was very poor.

If you think differently, do put me straight in the comments – I’d be interested to know what you thought.

Purple Rose of Cairo

Posted 09 Jan 2012 — by Jonathan
Category Reviews

Finally got round to watching an absolute gem of a Woody Allen film which I had somehow, ‘til now, neglected – his marvellous, insightful 1985 comedy ‘The Purple Rose of Cairo’. A lovely meditation on cinematic escapism, it sees Mia Farrow seduced by an actor who steps out of the Big Screen and into the drudgery of her Depression era life. Like the best Woody Allen films, it is simultaneously slight and vibrating with unforced, illuminating insights. Similar in tone and mood – though much more completely realised – to last year’s excellent ‘Midnight In Paris’, this has rocketed into my top 5 Woody films, easy. Great stuff – really recommend this one.

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Review; Stephen King, 11.22.63.

Posted 08 Jan 2012 — by Jonathan
Category Books, Reviews

Having been sufficiently intrigued by way of a couple of very complimentary Guardian reviews, I’ve just finished my first Stephen King since I read his ‘Gerald’s Game’ in 1992 (I read his ‘Needful Things’ the year before – that was the last one I really enjoyed).

Catching up on his activity in the press, it seems that over the course of the last few years, King has broadened his palate slightly with long, somewhat portentous concept-novels which serve to satirise and philosophise rather more than they need to thrill. 2009’s ‘Under The Dome’ was a vast tract primarily concerned with ecological trauma and authoritarian government, and had its origins in a novel which King started and abandoned in the 1970s. His latest, ‘11.22.63’, interestingly, comes from the same place. In 1971, eight years after the assassination of JFK, King visualised a time-travel novel which saw a ordinary American travel back and battle with an obdurate, stubborn past to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from carrying out his dreadful actions. He wrote Carrie, instead (good move).

Now he has finally written this book, a vast exercise in time-travel sci-fi, late 1950s nostalgia and historical fiction, and it’s hard to believe that, had he written it 41 years ago, it would have been as self-indulgent and plodding as his 2011 effort. By the same token it’s possible, on the evidence of the first couple of hundred pages here, that a fresher King might have produced something rather great, because for all that much of ‘11.22.63’ is saggy, schmaltzy, slow and oddly unrevealing, King’s ingenious talent for plotting often shines through.

The problem’s with this novel are largely King’s. His recent interest in state-of-the-nation writing means that early in the process of structuring this novel, he clearly made the decision to give over at least 50% of the plot of his grand concept to irrelevant riffing – sentimental nostalgia, a horribly dull love story which nearly breaks the middle of the book, and, somewhat misleadingly, a very decent, Maine-based sub-plot which, placed near the beginning of the book reads like a completely superior practice run for the main section.

The start of the book, you see, really is terrific. Pacy, taut, urgent and playful, the arrival of Jake Epping, through a ‘rabbit-hole’ in time, in a sun-kissed 1958 and his subsequent investigations into the obstinacy of reality reads brilliantly. Where the novel falls apart, sadly, is at the point where Epping heads to Dallas to stop Oswald and then decides, er, not to. Not for a few years anyway. Instead he (or rather King) luxuriates in some sentimentalised nostalgia in the fictional town of ‘Jodie’ and gets laid a bit by a hot librarian. He works on a school play. He works on a crime novel.

I shit you not. For a couple of hundred pages in the middle of this huge book, nothing happens – but maddeningly King, now so deep into his plotless sub-plot, seems to forget that nostalgia must evoke, whether directly or through insinuation, the feeling of a bygone age. But once his protagonist heads South, King stops describing things, people and places and instead meanders through the inner thoughts of his rather dull narrator. The long passages describing high school life in 50s America could be transposed onto a classroom in the 1990s or 2000s with the minimum of effort. There are precious few allusions to race or civil rights – King spends more time bemoaning how inconvenient it was having to rent a motel in the 50s to get a shag. (Incidentally, King was 11 in 1958 – I like to think this section of the book is autobiographical and he was already taking librarians to motel rooms on school nights).

As you’d expect, the book picks up pace towards the story’s dénouement, and King is skilled enough to write in such a way as to drive the reader inexorably forward. With good thrillers I often race through paragraphs, only half-reading, so desperate am I to find out the ending. Such activity is quite possible with ‘11.22.63’, because there’s nothing in the paragraphs towards the end. When King eventually gets us to the sniper’s nest, it’s described so casually it might be any room in any building in any decade of the twentieth century. It seems extraordinary that a location so central to the American Story does not elicit more poetry.

The problem isn’t that King can’t write. There are plenty of great moments in this book, but it’s overlong, desperately uneven and curiously lacking in original thought, given that it’s a concept that has been cooking in King’s brain for over 40 years. One can only assume it got overcooked, dried out like a mistimed turkey – which is, of course, exactly what it is.

Shame, because I really wanted to like this. Grab it from the library and read the first couple of hundred pages, if the concept interests you, and stop when Jake heads down to Dallas.

Bit of advice, there.

Wuthering Heights, review (and a bit on M. Amis)

Posted 25 Nov 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Books, Reviews

Just read an an interesting article by Martin Amis, where he posits that:

When we say that we love a writer’s work, we are always stretching the truth: what we really mean is that we love about half of it. Sometimes rather more than half, sometimes rather less.

He makes some valid points – it’s hard, even for ardent admirers of a particular author, to argue that every work is of equal standing, and there’s something slightly false, I suppose, about insisting that we judge Shakespeare only on the standard of his very greatest plays. But I’m not sure that Amis’s point isn’t somewhat of an oversimplification – granted one cannot love every work equally, but being able to rank them according to their quality does not been cutting the less loved adrift simply because others are more perfect. I think that Amis’s ‘The Rachel Papers’ is a terrific book – the fact that ‘Money’ is much better does not prevent me loving both.

(That said, I decidedy don’t love ‘Night Train’, ‘Yellow Dog’ or ‘The Information’, – few do – so perhaps Amis’ conceit is self-serving. It would certainly provide a happy explanation as to why so few people profess to like only 50% of his backlist – rather than admitting to an observable decline in quality only partially remedied by ‘The Pregnant Widow’. I’m being mean – Amis is wonderful).

Good writing is not a race, anyway, and there are no winners or losers, unless you care who wins the Booker prize. Nevertheless, for me Amis does get a couple of things right – not all Don DeLillo’s stuff is as good as ‘White Noise’ or ‘Libra’ (‘Underworld’ certainly isn’t – bravura opening apart what a chore that book was, for all the hype) and ‘Middlemarch’, despite being Eliot’s only great book, is indeed the central Anglophone novel – certainly the one I judge all others against. We part, however, Martin and I, over Jane Austen; not in the sense that we don’t both love her, but in that he attributes flaws to ‘Persuasion’ – which is madness, and that’s the end of it.

Talking of classics, It’s such a long time since I read ‘Wuthering Heights’ that my memories of it are somewhat hazy, and I suspect not entirely to be trusted – I was an ardent admirer as a young teenager of ‘Far From The Madding Crowd’, which gives some indication of my tastes. I remember liking Bronte’s book very much at the time, although I didn’t react as strongly as many of my peers – and like most I felt conflicted about Heathcliff without actually finding it very difficult to hate him.

Andrea Arnold’s new film adaptation of WH, starring Shannon Beer and Solomon Glave, aims to put that right by centring on Heathcliff’s perspective, reframing his behaviour in light of nature vs. nurture, and rendering his actions explicable in that context. It’s beautifully shot in 16mm (and framed in 4:3) and the first half was absolutely bewitching.

For all that Arnold (who previously directed the remarkable Red Road and lovely Fish Tank) is thought of as an art-house director, she has made a very unpretentious Wuthering Heights (far less self conscious than Jane Campion’s Keats flick, Bright Star) which makes full use of the dank, dark Yorkshire moors. It only fails, sadly, when she hands over to adult leads, asking James Howson and Kaya Scodelario to cary the final third having done precious little to establish a sympathetic relationship with the audience (meaning that the empathy which Glave earned as a troubled, far-from-home Heathcliff is largely squandered). It’s a shame that a film so visually arresting and beautifully mapped should fall apart on the back of a very odd decision (to replace two actors in their late teens with two in their early 20s), and instructive to note that even a plot as violently emotional as Wuthering Heights turns mawkish when you don’t have a feel for the characters.

Again, this is strictly a criticism of the last third – the scenes featuring the younger actors were hugely involving, but in Howson and Scodelario’s scenes I was reminded of the interminable yelling-into-the-wind scenes which blighted another recent big screen period drama – Anh Hung Tran’s emo take on Murakami’s Norweigan Wood. A shame – but not one which, ultimately, subtracts too much from the film; by the time the actors hand over you’ve already seen a brilliant production and, seeing as Arnold made the decision to only film 50% of the novel, I see no reason why I can’t draw a veil over a slightly underwhelming ending. If Amis is only taking 50% of Austen, I can take 50% of this.

Arnold is a very special director, and at the very least, she’s made me want to re-read Wuthering Heights, and re-assess Heathcliff, that old and compelling enigma.

The Impossible Dead

Posted 22 Nov 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Books, Reviews

Today I finished reading Ian Rankin’s latest, The Impossible Dead, and rattled through it at a pace I rarely manage with other books – a trend I’ve observed in all of his work since I first came across it a few years back.

The thing with Rankin’s great creation, Rebus, was that he was such an extraordinarily strong character that it became easy to assume that Rankin’s triumph was purely in conjuring him up, rather than writing beautiful prose. And conventionally, he’s not a beautiful writer, in terms of poetics, but his new character, Malcolm Fox, is the opposite of Rebus; quiet, sober, a follower of rules – and yet his exploits in the Edinburgh Complaints division have proved equally superb; evidence that it is dense plotting, razor-sharp exposition and, after all, beautiful writing, that seperates Rankin from his peers.

Because his writing is beautiful – not high-falutin or florid, but beautiful to the extent that it is perfectly judged. Rankin knows exactly when to cover back story, how to handle competing storylines, how much of his central characters to show and how much to conceal. On the face of it, Malcolm Fox is not a fascinating man; but he becomes fascinating in his completeness, by virtue of the plausibility of his actions.

If The Impossible Dead has a weakness – and it does – it’s that in the end Rankin can not resist the urge to tie up the story neatly. But that aside, he manages to make a story which weaves together local police drama, high SNP politics, bureaucracy and seperatist terror seem completely plausible. The stories he tells are grand in scope, but minute in execution – and that makes him a terribly good writer. I don’t think The Impossible Dead is Rankin’s best – Exit Music is his finest, I think – but he’s one of the finest plotters in English fiction and a master at executing a story. Great stuff.

The Good, The Bad & The Queen, Coronet review

Posted 15 Nov 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Music, Reviews

On Friday me and Lyndsey headed up to London to see Damon Albarn, Simon Tong, Paul Simonen and Tony Allen play under their The Good, The Bad & The Queen moniker at a show to celebrate 40 years of Greenpeace. A particularly good fit for the show – indeed Paul Simonen was recently arrested while working as a cook on a Greenpeace boat – their debut (and so far only) LP, released five years ago, is a lovely bucolic protest record, melding pastoral folk with Simonen’s first love, dub reggae.

When I last saw the band, back in 2006, they were – despite the gorgeousness of their songs – a pretty uneven prospect, with an uneasy Damon torn between circus-master and player, unsure if he had left pop music behind or not. Subsequent years have seen him resolve that particular conundrum, concluding that he can operate equally comfortable writing operas and top 40 hits, and further projects with the personnel of TGTB&TQ (the triumphant Gorillaz touring band and the afro-medieval orchestra driving Dr Dee) have brought tighter understanding between the four musicians. The challenge of leading an opera piece seems to have driven Damon to develop his voice, too – he sang more beautifully than ever before on Friday, I thought.

The whole show, really, was a phenomenal success. As ever, Tony Allen stole the show with an exhibition of octopus drummingwhich was all the more astonishing for his passive, restrained posture. I really don’t know how he weaves such complex patterns while barely appearing to move. Out front, Paul prowled the stage as only he can, hoisting his bass guitar high like an automatic machine gun, looping his one, beligerant riff over and over and casually flouting the non-smoking laws. Tong, as ever, gave the songs space to breathe while simultaneously tying them, almost invisibly, together.

Listening to the astonishing ‘Herculean’ or the rapturously received ‘A Soldier’s Tale’ – complete wIth a saw accompaniment so spine-chilling the crowd erupted into applause every time it sounded – it was hard not to wonder if this isn’t Damon Albarn’s most moving, coherent collection of songs; sincere, disbelieving notes on the UK in the 2000s which, despite the intervening years, seem every bit as relevant today as they did five years ago.

Sadly there were no new songs, and Damon received the calls of ‘do another album’ with a genuinely apologetic shrug. However, their entire back catalogue played, the band did produce one more truly special moment, playing a wonderful, stripped down take on Gorillaz’ ‘On Melancholy Hill’, which always sounded, to be honest, like a song out of place and more suited to this project. Accordingly, it fitted perfectly. And as the room emptied out it was impossible not to notice the many hundreds of shared smiles.

A pure and heartfelt celebration and a wonderful night.