27.1.15

Sawdust and Tinsel

The film starts with a near-silent precis of the plot and themes - cuckoldry and the exhaustion of life on the road. But the characters are more interesting than that. Albert is a immature free spirit, whose wife prefers the comfort and stability (and income) of running a tobacconist. In one of the most powerful scenes in the film, she denies her husband the right to come back into her life. She will not compromise her freedom.

Albert is a child. The final scene comes back to the cuckolded clown and introduces the idea of going back to the womb - finding some security with whoever you can, even if they have betrayed you. Albert's voluptuous mistress is enticed away by a fashionable actor, who tricks and rapes her. She is an innocent as well, but Albert mistreats her almost as badly. At the end of the film she has nowhere left to go but back to him.

Bergman has a lot of sympathy for the circus performers and spends some time on the snooty and condescending treatment they receive from the theatre troupe. Interestingly, Bergman started out in the theatre, so I wonder whether he identifies the film-making process to be similar to the circus - cruder, less well-respected, a haven for fools and innocents - and a more noble persuit as a result.

25.1.15

The Eclipse (L'Eclisse)

Antonioni may be inspired by Camus, but the beginning of this film feels more like Beckett. There is a sense of entropy and the absurd in the couple's dialogue and actions that is straight out of Beckett's Endgame.

This is the most accessible part of the trilogy partly due to the straight-talking Alain Delon. A modern man unlike the void that makes Monica Vitti so batty.

Antonioni is rightly considered to be an original stylist rather than an original thinker. The film connects the crisis at the Bourse with the crises of young lovers. But did Italy's boom and the commercialised society it created transform values to the extent where people become alien beings unable to relate to each other? Antonioni posits that our sociability has been eroded, and the only gravitational force still active between human bodies is lust. The end of the film presents harbingers of apocalypse - war and nuclear holocaust. Prophesies that have yet to be fulfilled.

But it's the visual and narrative innovation that has been lauded the most. The title Eclipse suggests spinning bodies only occasionally forming a relationship with each other, and then only from the perspective of a third body - the watching audience. I'd be lying if I said I noticed it, but apparently the film is shot so that compositions at the beginning and end aim to create heavy contrasts between black and white, while the middle is brighter. The final transition seems to nod to this - a dark street cuts to a bright streetlight saturating the screen.

But the more effective effect (bleh) is the the one the film is famous for. We see two lovers arranging to meet. Then we see the familiar street corner - the scene of their appointment. We get shots of the surrounding buildings and people moving through the location. But the actors we have become familiar with are nowhere to be seen, and yet we keep looking for them to turn up. That upending of expectations at the audience's expense feels cruel (Antonioni shines a light in our faces instead), if it wasn't for the air of detachment permeating the entire film. Antonioni shoots people as if he were an extraterrestrial tourist wandering around in 1960s Italy, and that's why his films are worth watching. 

24.1.15

A Most Violent Year

Like a lot of gangster films, this one is really about the American Dream and the myth of the self-made man. Morales wants to grow his business in the "right" way, and finds that working hard and playing by the rules can only get you so far. Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.
Morales is an archetypal American hero, completely self-possessed, fighting fit, a breadwinner. His wife is smart, sexy and an excellent mother to his three girls. Under enormous pressure, they steer their family into the clear. The film sets up a contrast between this power couple and one of Morales's drivers which leads to a confrontation at the very end. The example Morales sets proves to be an impossible standard for his employee. The two men's different fates may be a way of undercutting and critiquing the ideal the film presents.
Perhaps significant that Morales's business concerns fuel, or oil. One of the most memorable shots in the film is Morales stepping over a dead body to plug a leak in a blood-splattered container of the precious fluid. An image that may nod to American compromises abroad (something the recent death of the Saudi king has highlighed).

10.1.15

"Conventional empires, such as the first Roman Empire, the British Empire, or the current American Empire, typically come into existence when the imperial centre develops such a surplus of demographic and/or economic and/or technological resources that it is in a position to bring large tracts of territory into line either by conquest ('formal empire') or by intimidatory regimes of stick and carrot ('informal empire'). These kinds of empire will generally last only as long as the advantage in resources is maintained, plus maybe a couple extra generations thanks to force of habit, before its disappearance is recognised, and they are overturned. It was precisely because a new equality in levels of development across the European landscape had made the old Roman-type empire impossible by the end of the first millennium, that the new Papal Roman Empire came into existence, and the kinds of advantage that create more normal empires usually are time-limited, not least because the act of imperial projection tends anyway to erode them. This was certainly the case with Europe in the first millennium, and is arguably the case now, where America and the West have encouraged massive economic expansion in Asia for their own purposes, but created in the process what is likely to become the next world superpower."

...

"Limited as it certainly was in political and military terms, the papacy certainly created an empire nonetheless, and in some important ways a much more powerful and oppressive one than the first Romans had ever managed. The projection of their imperial values never got past the landowning elites, where their papal successors targeted the entirety of the population" - Peter Heather, The Restoration of Rome

3.1.15

Favourite Songs of 2014 (Part 2)

I was deprived of an MP3 player for a good chunk of this year, which meant that streaming was my primary mode of listening to music in 2014. I know it's what all the young people do nowadays, but for me it was a pretty new way of getting my fix (and may explain why I've listened to fewer albums this year). Soundcloud was my platform of choice, and many of the songs in the list, plus some other ones, are on this soundcloud playlist.

I remember Small Black as a moderately good landfill chillwave band from a few years ago. This bears the hallmarks of the (reverbed 80s) sound, except it's a proper verse-chorus-verse song. Part of the attraction here is the sorta Death Cabbish arpeggiating guitar line that wavers faintly behind the vocals. It's also a very Death Cabbish title, although the lyrics are a tad disappointing ("slaughtered the palm"??). It's the sorta thing that would turn up on soundtracks for The O.C. – and I miss listening to that sort of thing.

13. LSB feat. Sophie Wardman - If You're Here
This is basically Four Tet's 'Angel Echoes' at 174 bpm. Vocal samples sigh unintelligibly, toybox chimes twinkle, and that inescapable 2-step D&B rhythm relentlessly powers through 6 minutes or more. Do you need anything else?

12. Wayward feat. Beth Aggett - Belize
More longing-infused chill business. This and the last two tunes were often utilised at work as nerve-calming measures while I was about some mindless design task. This one is a sunbeam-pockmarked deep house number with a pining female vocal. Weirdly, Beth Aggett doesn't get a featured artist credit, and I had to do some googling to find out who she was. I've added her name above because she's a big part of what makes this song such a delight.
Back in the day Kano was considered one of the most likely grime MCs to make it "overground".  His flow – silky, adaptable, and always comprehensible (no guarantee with grime) – garnered Jay-Z comparisons, back when this actually meant something. Unlike Dizzee however, Kano couldn't deliver a classic album, and the momentum stalled. By 2011's sad update of 'Pow', he was given more bars than anyone else, and he was appalling. So the fact that we have a halfway decent Kano track in 2014 is a welcome surprise. J.M.E. gives him free reign to show off all the tricks he has (including biting Jay-Z and Dizzee on the third verse). But more than anything, it's the wildly boastful and exuberant hook that makes the song such a keeper.

10. Mr. Mitch - The Lion, The Bitch, and the Bordeaux
Parallel Memories is still sinking in, but I don't think it has anything on it that can match this stark piece of ambient grime. An irregular beat, droney bass, undulating synth, and an echoing female vocal sample stretched over four and a half minutes. Absolutely transporting.

9. Skepta feat. J.M.E. - That's Not Me
Like Kano, Skepta has been a bit of a joke in the last few years. The low point of his career was probably the literally pornographic music video for 2012 single 'All Over The House' (no, I'm not going to link to it). This was a bit of a reboot – beat is full-on grime nostalgia, the bars a strange mix of penance and self-justification. Skepa is a decent rapper, but he's a unparalleled genius when it comes to ad libbing. The first thing we hear on this track – "what'd you mean, what'd you mean?!" – is a classic. If you don't get it, then you just don't get it. Pretty much the attitude grime artists have to adopt in a culture that no longer pays them much attention.

8. Tori Amos - 16 Shades of Blue
The best St. Vincent song released this year. Actually, make that in the last five years. A meticulous depiction of a breakdown both particular and universal, the focus of the pre-chorus moving from Amos to a wider we. "There are those who say I am now to old to play", she sings as the machinery of the beat winds down behind her. A song about the twin forces of capitalism and patriarchy bearing down on creative minds everywhere, seething with controlled rage.
This year's preferred summer jam, perhaps because it fuses two of my fave songs from last year into one epic celebratory fist pump. Drum and bass legend Friction keeps the original's carnival atmosphere down to the horn accents weaving between the vocal, just speeding the beat up so that the song feels almost weightless.
Some sympathy with Tom Lea's side-eye at the various purveyors of chart-bound garage/house as he prepared to release DJ Q's debut album. Q is a bassline survivor and garage obsessive well placed to school the likes of Disclosure on how it should be done. The album has three link-ups with Louise Williams, the third of which came out this year and triumphs over all of them – a paean to the dancefloor as a respite from the 9 to 5. In a just world Williams would go on to become the next Katy B, but at the end of the year it looks as if she'll go the way of Ruby Lee Ryder.

When it came out at the beginning of the year, '2 On' signaled both Tinashe and DJ Mustard's ascent to the big leagues. A masterful confection of clicking fingers, strings, twinkles, and warm billows of bass wafting in on the chorus, with Tinashe's vocal poured over the whole thing like melting ice cream. I haven't made time for much else from these two this year, but looking forward to catching up on both their albums.

Turns out I do heart JF forever. The band slipped off my radar last year, but 2014's You Can Do Better reminded me just how much I've missed their noisy indie pop punk. As mentioned previously, JF are for life, increasingly because they themselves have become lifers. After a timeless masterpiece of a debut failed to make them the next Arctic Monkeys, they have been locked in a holding pattern, manning unsteady jobs, recording and playing when they can. Two sprawling albums about the travails of a touring band is followed up with something shorter and more ferocious. There's a song about suicide, about Scotland, and this one about the myths surrounding a capital that sucks the youth out of the rest of the country. They may not be getting better, but they feel more essential than ever.
"See man driving a German whip" makes up four out of the eight lines of the chorus. Not really close to the same level of absurd repetition as 'Versace', but I image the effect is the same, although I like the Migos song a lot less. Part of the reason might just be context. As in, I know that "do I look like a baller" nods to Meridian Dan's now-abandoned football career (grime turned out to be much better for him), while Big H spends a bar continuing a parochial beef with Trim. Or it may be the beat switching to 4x4 mid-way through the verses (like a gear change from cruising to racing speed). Or it may just be that a grime true believer like myself has more invested in the biggest hit the genre has had since P Money came through with 'Slang Like This'

Imogen Heap tied to a James Blake build-up, with the vocal overdub on the final chorus blasting away the hypertension (and hyperventilation) of holding it all in. LP1's spidery songcraft might deter some, but I found most of it utterly compelling. The focus on sex drew a lot of attention (to my mind, it's pretty much the only way Twigs overlaps with R&B), but what grabs me the most is the sense of control imposed over chaotic emotions – something a lot of my favourite music tries to capture (cf. number 8 above). 'Pendulum' does tension and release better than any other track on the album, which is why it's the standout.

1. The Hotelier - Your Deep Rest
Home, Like NoPlace Was There feels to me like the cornerstone of the #emorevival, but then again it's the only album I've really engaged with (apparently Joyce Manor is the other band adding the most fuel to the narrative – still need to check them out). I lost interest in the genre soon after Fall Out Boy's third album came out, but I was super pleased to find out the scene has been going strong (Pitchfork's Ian Cohen has been keeping an eye on it). The Hotelier's music skews towards pop even though the tone and lyrics remain on the precipice of despair. At points, the band almost slip into bathos (cf. the choking noise just before the heavy guitars drop on 'The Introduction to the Album'. Also: the album's ridiculous name). But that's par for the emo course, and your reaction to Home may depend on how embarrassed you get at such fumbles. I find their sincerity charming, and their hooks absolutely killer. 'Your Deep Rest' is the centrepiece of the album, and about as emo as it gets: "I called in sick at your funeral, the sight of your body made me feel responsible". On paper this looks like parody, but on headphones it is like a wrecking ball swinging into your house. It's my favourite long-player of the year, and it proves that emo never went away. It just got better.