Archive for February, 2011

The King Of Limbs

Posted in Music with tags , , on February 18, 2011 by alexlarman

Oh, Radiohead, you teases you!! After the now-obligatory long gestation period between records – at this rate we can expect the next one around 2015, when I shall be 33 or 34, a rather shocking idea given that I was all of 15 when Paranoid Android first insinuated itself into my eardrums – they announced, apparently at random, on Valentine’s Day (of all days) that they had a new album ready and that it’d be released on Saturday. Fast-forward to Friday, after a week of frenzied speculation as to what its contents would or wouldn’t be, and they released it a day early, sending virtually every music critic, blogger or Tweeter into a frenzy. Not for them the usual slow build, they know, the clever swine, that social media will do their job for them. It costs a princely £6 to download the album, with a later ‘newspaper release’ costing a more considerable £30.

So, what of the music? Well it seems pretty clear that the chances of them ever releasing a straightforward Coldplay/Kings Of Leon-esque album of pop songs with big obvious choruses were nil, but after the paranoid twitchings of Amnesiac and Hail To The Thief (and indeed Thom Yorke’s solo offerings with The Eraser), it came as a welcome relief that In Rainbows served up glorious orchestral rock, making it a real contender with OK Computer for the title of ‘Best Radiohead album’. So hopes were high (from me at least) that they’d continue along the same lines for the eagerly awaited follow-up, The King Of Limbs, named after a tree in Wiltshire. And have they?

Well, yes and no. The first thing you realise from the portentous, scattery opener ‘Bloom’ is that this is very much a Radiohead album, but ‘Radiohead’ in terms of most of the things that people associate with the band being present and correct. For the first time since Hail To The Thief, itself arguably their least interesting and original album, there is the sense that the band are playing safe within a comfort zone. Sonically, it’s a fascinatingly offbeat song, melding electronica, some fascinatingly offbeat drumming (compared, quite accurately, by Clash’s Laura Foster to a bumpy train journey) and Yorke’s inimitable vocals, themselves at their most tortured, singing about…what? And there we have the kicker. While In Rainbows had songs about topics that were actually surprisingly straightforward – ‘Jigsaw Falling Into Place’ is, essentially, about a date going well – here we are in cloud cuckoo-land. It’s a stunning sonic achievement, but a song? With a chorus and hummable lyrics? Not so much.

This is, presumably entirely intentionally, a record of two halves. The first is challenging, innovative and questioning, almost like Bjork or PJ Harvey (to name two former Yorke collaborators) if they’d discovered the joys of dubstep. ‘Morning Mr Magpie’ has been kicking around for some time in various forms, which makes it a surprise how much like The Eraser’s ‘Analyse’ it sounds, albeit with a band behind it, and ‘Little By Little’ is not, alas, a cover of the heroically hammy Oasis song, but instead an uneasily half-sexy, half-menacing cousin of Amnesiac’s ‘I Might Be Wrong’. ‘Feral’, the album’s most obviously experimental song, sounds like something off Kid A and functions beautifully as jittery background music. The reaction that many people – myself included – are likely to have at the end of the A-side of the record is ‘Great stuff, but much easier to admire than to love’.

Which is where the second half comes in. Just as it came as a massive but warm surprise on In Rainbows that the experimentation of ’15 Step’ and ‘Bodysnatchers’ was replaced by the languid ‘Nude’, so the apparently cold-edged techno of the first group of songs is replaced by something entirely different. The ‘single’ ‘Lotus Flower’, which had its first video released the same day as the record’s release, offers Yorke at his most straightforward, singing ‘There’s an empty space inside my heart…set me free…set me free’. With music that isn’t a million miles away from ‘Where I End And You Begin’, it’s surprisingly warm and inviting and even quite sexy, in a gloomy, end-of-the-world’s-coming-so-we-might-as-well-bunk-up-together way. It will, of course, be phenomenal live.

And then we have the album’s stand-out centrepiece, Codex, which will become ‘the Radiohead song for people who don’t like Radiohead’, possibly even more so than ‘Karma Police’ or ‘Creep’. It’s very straightforward, and very good. It’s essentially the kind of haunting, beautiful piano ballad that I thought that the band had given up on – imagine ‘Pyramid Song’ with the kinks ironed out and something altogether more human in its place. It seems destined to soundtrack the finales of innumerable TV episodes in which Something Very Bad Has Happened, but as the song progresses, bringing in first mournful trumpet and then the near-obligatory sweeping string section, all the while maintaining its focus, it’s heartstoppingly gorgeous, mournful and amongst the very best things that they’ve ever done.

And this elegiac, almost autumnal mood is maintained in the closing tracks, ‘Give Up The Ghost’ and ‘Separator’. The former uses utterly gorgeous Jonny Greenwood acoustic guitar sounds, with heavenly harmonies, what sounds like a loop of Yorke singing ‘Don’t hurt me’ in the background, the near-obligatory skewed orchestral fuzz and gentle, subtle drumming. It sounds almost like a deconstructed, slowed-down version of something like Blur’s ‘Tender’. And then ‘Separator’ adds to the litany of interesting Radiohead closing songs (‘The Tourist’, ‘Videotape’) by offering something charming, almost optimistic in its sentiments, with the repeated chorus ‘If you think this is over, then you’re wrong’. It’s surprisingly warm, gentle and, again that dread word – sexy – for Radiohead. Even more so than In Rainbows, the closing quartet of songs offer the closest that the band have ever come to writing make-out music.

So, where does it stand in the pantheon? It’s clearly better than Pablo Honey and Hail To The Thief, and probably not as good as In Rainbows or OK Computer. Whereabouts it will eventually find itself residing remains to be seen. But that second half alone is some of the most lovely, touching stuff I’ve heard in anyone, revealing a human heart and a pulse that the band’s detractors might have said was never there.

The Fighter

Posted in Film with tags , , , , on February 11, 2011 by alexlarman

Upon walking into the new David O Russell film, The Fighter, I had a bet with a friend. ‘If Christian Bale doesn’t get an intense speech in the final scene of the film in which he lays down the central tenets of family, honour, integrity etc and says something along the lines of ‘Do it because I never could’, I’ll give you a fiver. If he does, give me a pound.’

‘OK’, said my friend, liking the sound of this bet.

Collecting the quid on the way out, I was struck yet again at how films about boxing are rather like high-end comfort food. You are guaranteed raw emotion, intense dynamics between boxer and trainer and class/family based tension as well. It’s no surprise that the likes of Rocky, Raging Bull and Million Dollar Baby have all cleaned up at awards ceremonies, and even less of a surprise that The Fighter will doubtless do the same. What does surprise is how entertaining the whole blend is.

Although the title might lead one to expect a single-character focus a la The Wrestler, The Fighter (a true story, we are reminded at the end) focuses on two main protagonists, Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), half-brothers in a grim working-class area of Massachusetts. Eklund is a former boxer, a crack addict and a man whose local fame lies on his having knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard in a fight; Ward, his more self-effacing younger sibling, is now being trained by the unreliable Eklund and managed by his fearsome mother Alice (Melissa Leo), as well as dealing with his equally terrifying seven siblings. A relationship with college dropout waitress Charlene (Amy Adams) gives his personal life focus, but the increasingly out-of-control Dicky and his mother mean that his boxing career’s over almost before it’s started. Or is it?

I cordially despised Russell’s previous film, I Heart Huckabees, considering it one of the weirdest and most bizarre wastes of talent and time I’d ever seen. However, his earlier films, Three Kings and Flirting With Disaster, had their moments, and this is a welcome return to form. Some of it’s as broadly comic as you might expect – a running gag about Dicky’s preferred exit from a crack house is an excellent one – but it also makes way for some superb performances (an emaciated, twitchy Bale being the stand-out, naturally, but there isn’t a weak link from any of the four leads) and, as the fighting begins to kick in, the predictably stirring triumph-against-adversity narrative that finds space for some interesting twists on the usual pattern along the way.

At the risk of sounding like a cliché, it’s a knock-out. (Sorry, sorry.)

Clybourne Park

Posted in Theatre with tags , , , , on February 11, 2011 by alexlarman

‘The most hilarious play you’ll see all year!’ the ads breathlessly proclaim. ‘Essential….unmissable…a once-in-a-lifetime experience.’ If there was an Olivier award for best hyperbole, Bruce Norris’ new play Clybourne Park would be the frontrunner. Ever since its triumphant opening at the Royal Court last summer, it has become a cause celebre, and now its much-heralded transfer to the Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End allows audiences to judge it for themselves. Is it the timeless masterpiece the critics suggest, a triumph of hype over substance, or, as is more usual, something in between?

The play takes place in two time zones. In the first, set in 1959 Chicago, has a traumatised couple, Russ and Bev, preparing to sell their house. Their neighbours, good Rotarians all, are not-so-secretly appalled to find that the potential vendors are a black family. In the second, in 2009 Chicago, the roles are reversed; another couple, Lindsey and Steve want to demolish the house, now in a predominantly black area and build their dream home. Again, they meet with local opposition, this time buried under a thin veneer of liberal sensibility.

Norris’ play asks many interesting questions about issues of race, society and property in both contemporary and recent historic America. (One wonders in passing what the play would have been like if it had been set in 1909 and 2009, or even 2109). It’s certainly as relevant to Britain as it is to America, with countless neighbourhoods changing and gentrifying all over the country. And the already justly infamous scene at the end of the second act, where the couples are goaded into telling ever more outrageous racist jokes against one another, is a hilarious yet horrifying.

The problem, perhaps inevitably, comes in the fact that this is a victim of its own marketing. Calling this ‘the most hilarious comedy of the year’ does it a disservice. Most of the time it’s amusing rather than laugh-out-loud funny, with Stephen Campbell Moore’s oleaginous performance as two not-so-closeted racists getting most of the big chortles. A more serious difficulty with the play is that most of the big points that it makes seem terribly obvious and somewhat mealy-mouthed; racial differences seem hardly the most controversial subject for a 21st century play. Even the most show-stopping moment of invective – you’ll know it when you hear it – is a variation on an old joke that anyone who’s ever hung around a comedy club may well have heard before.

Still, for all this, Dominic Cooke’s vivid and fast-moving production grabs the attention and makes for an enjoyable evening out. Performances across the board are excellent, especially from Campbell Moore, Sophie Thompson in a dual role as a trembly housewife and an ignorant lawyer and Lorna Brown as a ‘yes ma’am, no ma’am’ maid and a cynical contemporary woman. It seems destined to become a talking-point drama so you’d be well advised to see it. Just don’t expect a timeless masterpiece with anything startlingly new to say.

RIP John Barry

Posted in Film, Music with tags , , on February 5, 2011 by alexlarman

So, John Barry ‘passed away’, died, shuffled off this mortal coil or whatever you want to call it earlier this week. It wasn’t a huge surprise – the man was 77, and had been in poor health for several years – but it still marked the end of an era. With the exception of John Williams, Barry marked the last of a golden age of film composition, where Romance and romance could still mesh and where string-soaked melodrama was the perfect accompaniment to cinema, not the latest pop hit or remix.

Barry, a notable Yorkshireman, first became famous for his work with the Bond series, and of course his main themes for the films are enough to ensure his place in film scoring history forever. However – and this is where I might differ from the vast majority of readers – I find that it’s his later work that becomes most interesting. From the early 70s onwards, he became the absolute master of romantic melancholy, with scores to often mediocre and forgotten films (Raise The Titanic? Howard The Duck? High Road To China?) offering sweeping, pensive beauty and scope. And of course, if he scored something that would endure, such as Out Of Africa or Dances With Wolves, his trademark meshing of brass and strings became something quite extraordinary.

One could quibble that Barry was ultimately a one-trick pony, with a trademark sound that came to be almost parodic of itself (and, indeed, was rejected from many of his later films, with his final score being the almost deliberately old-fashioned music to Michael Apted’s WWII romantic thriller Enigma). But this would be to ignore the remarkable scope of his music, which beautifully summons up great vistas of land and space, amazing adventures and the awesome regret of lost love. It’s a shame he never got to score The Great Gatsby in any of its incarnations, because that sense of melancholia and undying, failed romance were so key to so much of his work.

Anyway, here are a few of my favourite pieces by the great man. Enjoy.