Archive for the Music Category

The Ship Song Project

Posted in Music with tags , , on July 27, 2011 by alexlarman

I only discovered this the other day, but I think it’s absolutely beautiful – it’s one of those all-star things that could go really badly wrong or actually work surprisingly well, a la the BBC’s Perfect Day. It takes Nick Cave’s seminal The Ship Song and gets a range of artists to do it, mostly but not exclusively Australian, and then ramps up ‘The Epic’ to make it a suitably grand accompaniment to the Sydney Opera House, which it is designed to celebrate. Watch it here:




Pulp at Wireless

Posted in Music with tags , , , on July 7, 2011 by alexlarman

Last week, I was in Hyde Park for two gigs, Arcade Fire on Thursday and Pulp for the final day of the Wireless festival. The usually estimable Arcade Fire, playing to what has to be their largest ever headline audience, were  a bit disappointing – not their fault, it must be said, but the rubbish sound, a strangely aggressive crowd and a grotesquely overlong support slot for Mumford and Sons didn’t make it the most enjoyable of experiences. So I headed down to see Jarvis and co at Wireless with rather low expectations.

However, thankfully these were soon surpassed. Pulp have been on what they somewhat coyly call ‘hiatus’ since 2002, but they have now returned in the time-honoured fashion that bands who have had a few years out of the spotlight soon embrace. Thus they have followed the path of everyone from the sublime (Suede) to the ridiculous (The Darkness) and come back with some high-profile gigs, including this headlining show at Wireless.

They were on fine form it must be said, despite a faintly lacklustre supporting series of acts (Grace Jones, The Hives, etc). Starting with ‘Do You Remember The First Time?’ is a masterstroke, and splitting the set more or less evenly between His ‘n’ Hers and Different Class (with one song apiece from This Is Hardcore and We Love Life) proved a savvy way of keeping a boisterous-without-being-irritating crowd on side. Singalongs aplenty followed, as ever helped by an on-form Jarvis, whose banter and charisma saw the expanded seven-piece version of the band produce a remarkably rich and full sound which, at times, verged on Arcade Fire grandiosity. Passionate performances of Underwear and Something Changed were particular highlights, but it would be hard to fault any of it. They’re playing at Brixton at the end of August; given mutterings that this is but a temporary reunion, it would be a pity not to take full advantage.

Common People (which they didn’t play on their last tour) was a particular highlight, and you can watch it here, thanks to the glories of YouTube:


Roger Waters – The Wall

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on May 13, 2011 by alexlarman

Pink Floyd occupy a curious place in people’s hearts and minds. They were enormously popular in the 1970s, despite a near-complete absence of hit singles and a certain, shall we say, recalcitrant attitude towards the business of fans. They emerged from a university town but weren’t associated themselves with the university, which they retained an ambivalent attitude. After an initial stab at an entirely different kind of genre, they found their niche with a seminal album which is near-obligatory for educated middle class music fans to own. And arguably their most famous music was associated with the lead singer’s self-loathing and insecurity.

Remind you of anyone else?

Be that as it may, the real surprise with The Floyd (as the pretentious call them, and I shan’t) is that the album that sold mega-truckloads, The Wall, is hardly what you’d expect from a big hit, any more than OK Computer is. It has a few obviously accessible and commercial tunes on it, but there are either weird and experimental fragments, odd insights into Roger Waters’ increasingly fractured mind and songs that aren’t really songs at all. It was famously toured in an increasingly acrimonious way in 1981, which more or less directly led to the end of Pink Floyd.

Since then, Waters has occasionally performed it either partially or in its entirety (most notably in Berlin in 1990), but this much-heralded tour is the first time since 1981 that he’s gone on a full-scale tour. Notably it’s billed as ‘Roger Waters – The Wall’, given that it’s the Floyd project that he’s probably most associated with. At the 02, it’s quite a feat of engineering and mastery. The visuals, making use of enormous puppets, projections, video and occasionally quite affecting tableaux, are staggering, even if the central point of what it’s all about (anti-war? An attack on corporate society? An examination of Waters’ disturbed psyche? All three) gets a bit lost.

The songs are variable. The stand-outs (Mother, Nobody Home, Hey You) tend to be antsy, epic ballads driven by outstanding musicianship and lyrical content, but oddly their presentation is comparatively low-key, with the exception of Mother, which, rather movingly, has Waters duetting against a recording of himself from 1981. Another Brick In The Wall is still the most miserable disco song ever recorded, but is performed with verve and brio, especially the choir of local Greenwich kids helping out on the chorus. The weird Act 2 material (The Trial, Waiting For The Worms) is done with tongue in cheek and some judicious use of Gerald Scarfe’s animations for the film, making it an overwhelming sensory experience. The in-between filler ones (Vera, Young Lust, Bring The Boys Back Home etc) are well performed and visually interesting but musically a bit blah. However it’s never anything less than gripping, intelligent and well staged.

Oh, and the night I went, David Gilmour came on to do Comfortably Numb. And then Nick Mason came on at the end with Gilmour to perform the final song, Outside The Wall, making it a bona fide Floyd reunion, the first of its kind since Live 8. (RIP Richard Wright, naturally.) I run the risk of sounding hyperbolic about this, so let me say that Comfortably Numb sounded as good, if not better, as it was when I saw Gilmour perform it with Bowie at the Albert Hall in 2006, and that it was genuinely moving and affecting to see how people reacted to Gilmour’s surprise guest appearance, playing his guitar 40 feet above the stage. It made what would otherwise have been a very good night a truly unforgettable, cathartic experience.

The Most Incredible Thing

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on March 23, 2011 by alexlarman

Say what you like about Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, aka the Pet Shop Boys, but they’ve never been afraid of innovation. Not only have their live stage shows featured collaborations with figures as diverse as Derek Jarman, Sam Taylor-Wood and Es Devlin, but they’re increasingly involving themselves in extra-curricular projects such as their 2001 musical Closer To Heaven, their 2004 score to Battleship Potemkin (performed live, for free, in a drizzly Trafalgar Square) and their recent scoring of the Young Vic’s Christmas show, My Dad’s A Birdman. (They also came very close to scoring Nicholas Winding Refn’s brilliantly insane Bronson, but in the end restricted their involvement to the use of It’s A Sin in a key scene.) Now, perhaps their most ambitious project to date is a full-length ballet, The Most Incredible Thing, scored by them and choreographed by Javier de Frutos, at Sadler’s Wells. It’s loosely based on a very short Hans Christian Andersen story about a kingdom where the creator of ‘the most incredible thing’ will receive half the kingdom and the hand of the princess in marriage, and features all the pizzazz and style that you would expect.

So is it any good? To be quite frank, yes and no. This is a top-class production in many respects – the designs are great, the small touches (such as an X-Factor-esque panel of judges, sponsored by vodka, who have to rate which of the various hopeless acts really is ‘the most incredible thing) are often witty and the choreography is impeccable. The score (which I’d listened to outside of the production repeatedly) alternates between pop, dance, rock, Sondheim-esque showtunes and, perhaps most bizarrely, a recurring love theme which is a near dead ringer for Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, whether intentionally or not I know not. It’s got echoes of various other Pet Shop Boys classics – some countdowns which recall It’s A Sin, fanfares that sound not unlike the hit that wasn’t quite, All Over The World, and the usual pumping dance beats. It’s a witty and beguiling way to spend two and a half hours.

However what seems rather perplexing is what it gains from being a ballet rather than a musical or a straight opera. The narrative as it stands is confused and often confusing, requiring frequent glances at the programme to explain what’s going on and who the various characters are (apart from Ivan Putrov’s glowering, black-clad baddie). And the single, frustrating use of Tennant’s voice over (intentionally) banal lyrics leaves one wondering what on earth would have happened had this taken the music and turned this into something with a clearer narrative drive. The intentions behind this show are impeccable, and it’s certainly worth seeing. Yet one has to wonder whether this is, rather than being ‘the most incredible thing’, a noble but rather misguided effort that might lead Messrs Tennant and Lowe to pause before the inevitable opera gets underway.

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.

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.

Patrick Wolf – ‘Time Of My Life’

Posted in Music with tags , on December 10, 2010 by alexlarman

Patrick Wolf has been occupying a rather strange position in modern pop for a little while now. His blend of flamboyant orchestral pop with a charismatic stage presence and a fine baritone singing voice has been slightly undercut by a near-complete lack of mainstream success and an unfortunate tendency, mid-gig, to move from Ziggy-era Bowie to blushing schoolboy between songs.

It’s fascinating watching someone so clearly talented who’s been on the verge of greatness for some time achieve it, and finally, in the shape of his new single ‘Time Of My Life’,  Wolf attains it. Allusions to the Dirty Dancing theme song might be half-intentional, but this is an altogether more elegant beast. Beginning with soaring strings that feel like a more complete and stirring revisitation of his earlier song ‘Overture’, it sees Wolf, recently split from his lover, contemplating ‘new days of doubt without you’ and anticipating, Morrissey-like, that he will be ‘a slave to my early grave’.

Yet, unlike Morrissey, the stirring bridge declares, over a quite exquisite arrangement, ‘It won’t be long til I grow through this struggle’, and then, halfway through, it becomes utterly transcendent, as elements of electronica, acoustic melancholy and great, fist-pumping euphoria all come together, as Wolf declaims ‘Thanks for the time…time of my life….happy without you’, beautifully capturing the mixed wistfulness and optimism of a break up. In some respects, it’s a sister song to Beck’s glorious ‘Ramona’ of earlier in the year, but that, for all its brilliance, was never quite as uplifting as this.

The first single that we’ve heard from Wolf’s new album The Conqueror, expected in May 2011, it’s an intriguing trailer for what promises to be his first entry into the mainstream. But don’t just take my word for it, listen to it below: