Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Happiness Project, Years, Do Make Say Think: Live Review

On the back of their 8th record 'Other Truths' (released this week), Toronto jazz-rock ensemble Do Make Say Think bring their accomplished craft to the Scala, one of London's most intimate 'larger' venues. Quite the anti-genre in itself, it could be argued that 'post-rock' has sadly become a parody of itself. There's a horde of bland instrumental guitar bands doing the rounds, each employing string sections and dystopic paranoia to spectacularly dull effect. Do Make Say Think have done well to avoid these trappings over their 15 year career: the band's recent output alluding to our shared warmth of character and community rather than preaching the apocalypse. Musically too, they've discovered and stuck to a sound which is both lifting and dramatic without veering into sinister or mournful overtones.

On any given occasion the band are a formidable proposition, but tonight their core six members are joined by a revolving cast of guests. All ten musicians appear across the evening, providing instrumentation and support for both the support bands here. Charles Spearin's Happiness Project and Ohad Benchitrit's Years; in essence, side-projects from the full time labour of the headliners. However, there's a genuine sense amongst the crowd that this isn't a typical 'headline + support' concert as such, but rather a collective of musicians who happen to perform under various guises, and are doing so tonight.

First, we're treated to The Happiness Project. Not your typical band in any sense, their melodies sourced not from conventional songwriting but from interpretations of recorded interviews with Spearin's neighbours loosely centred on the subject of happiness. Taking the cadence in these sampled voices as a basis, the band weave accompaniments, at times soft, at others more pressing, that synchronise wonderfully with the spoken words. Across the set's music and interview samples, we're given a broad understanding of what happiness is, from the profound (Vanessa, born deaf and after 30 years, undergoing groundbreaking surgery, gives a revelatory account of experiencing sound for the first time) to the seemingly trite (schoolgirl Vittoria, as she bemoans art lessons at school). Despite their early billing, the venue was already packed- some faces clearly knowing what to expect, but others undergoing a kind of conversion during the succinct 30 minute set. By it's end, happiness had seemingly been imbued on the crowd.

After a short break, Ohad Benchitrit appears on the stage and informs us that this is his debut performance. He's clearly a bit nervous as he begins the first of two long acoustic guitar pieces surrounded by the abandoned instruments of hisband-mates. But the jitters are quickly shed as his delicate and quite accomplished finger-picking style lulls the crowd into an attentive trance. Closing his set with accompaniment from the rest of the ensemble, Benchitrit leads with a rousing electric number, seemingly a never-ending crescendo. But it's a set of two halves, as the full-band material becomes gigantic and perhaps a tad indulgent compared with the stripped down austerity of his cyclical acoustic compositions.

After the briefest of interludes, Do Make Say Think emerge, taking up the entire stage, at launch into new-album-opener 'Do', a jovial epic which bounces along nicely on record, but is given a raucous energy in this setting. Elsewhere, the setlist conspires to remind just how strong their back catalogue is. Crowd favourite 'L'auberge de moutin noir' is augmented by performances of lesser tracks from early record 'Goodbye Enemy Airship'- a rawer record than any they've since recorded, and clearly an enjoyable moment for impossibly skinny guitarist Justin Small. Styled more appropriately for a 1980s punk rock band, Small, who cuts his teeth in garage-punk 2-piece Lullabye Arkestra, was the very figure of rock and roll on the night: headbanging through the crescendos of 'The Universe!' and using 'motherfuckers' as a term of endearment. Returning for an encore as the four-piece line-up that started the band, they indulge their own history with a performance of debut album track 'If I Only...'- a rare treat for an audience which enjoyed an evening of very rare treats.

First published in Sound Screen.

Sunday, 25 October 2009


01. Keep smiling it will be worth it in the end
02. Roflmao
03. Evening air
04. I like the water here
05. Dream of swimming

Debut EP: Recorded and mixed at Hawthorne Cottage, Falmouth.
First released March 2004 in a run of 50.

Monday, 19 October 2009

True Blood Season One: Review

With the second series having ended in America and us Brits playing catch-up, the Golden Globe and Emmy awarded first series of HBO's True Blood is released. Based on Charlaine Harris 'The Southern Vampire Mysteries' novel, True Blood details a present-day America where vampires and humans are, reasonably peacefully, co-existing. The introduction of a blood synthentic from which the show derives it's name means that these vampires- hitherto anonymous and hidden can 'come out of the coffin' and reclaim their place in society. It's an interesting premise for vampire fiction, alluding to the notion that a society is best judged by how it treats those on it's margins. Having legislated for change, the show allows for the obvious social tensions to play out.

Opening with one of most well-edited intro sequences you're likely to see, and set against the dreamy country-sleaze of Jace Everett's 'Bad Things'- the desaturated scenes of lustful depravity in the intro promise a hedonistic cocktail of temptation and dark sexual desires. This is a stylistic trope, a 'dirtiness' that the show would have done well to employ throughout but instead, it's impeccably lit and polished.

Set in deep-south town Bon Temps, True Blood focuses on telepathic barmaid Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin- X-Men: Last Stand, Joan of Arc). Plagued by the constant interruptions of voices in her head, Sookie comes across as a naive but 'good of heart' protagonist. Her life is turned on it's head by the arrival of Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer- 88 Minutes, Empathy) a vampire who has taken up residence nearby. Finding solace that she can't hear his thoughts, Sookie and Bill begin a relationship which is characterised by transgressions and the voices of disapproval from all sides. Sookie in particular is cast excellently- Anna Paquin finding a convincing balance of timidity and strength. Elsewhere, character is evoked to worryingly bad effect.

True Blood employs a large cast and attempts sub-plots in an attempt to construct Bon Temps as a multifaceted and engrossing town. While Bill and Sookie fall in twists and turns, a who-dunnit moves the plot along in the vein of Twin Peaks. So-called 'fang-bangers' (women who sleep with vampires) have been offed by a vigilante: a narrative reminiscent of the racial tensions and prejudices familiar to the history of the region. Throughout the series, the viewer is invited to speculate on possible culprits. But whereas Twin Peaks masterfully posited all it's characters on a level-playing field, like a soap-opera, and genuinely shocked upon it's reveal, True Blood's murder mystery often feels like it's merely going through the motions, without enough ambiguity. In ascribing possible motives without discretion, depth of character is dropped and True Blood forgets to embellish these roles.

Elsewhere, peripheral characters are afforded an equally two-dimensional persona. Sookie's grandmother seems able only to utter long-viewed moralities and wisened summations. One may recognise Detective Bellefleur (Chris Bauer) from The Wire, but whereas Frank Sobotka's character allowed for a virtuoso performance in conflict and internal tension, Bauer's role here merely takes cues from others. Sookie's brother Jason becomes involved in a drug-addled relationship- interesting to note that here, vampire blood is both an aphrodisiac and hallucinogen- but kaleidoscopes of colour and bad CGI are a little embarrassing. The vampires on offer are pop-culture fiends, clad in leathers and capable only of mouthing annoyingly hip vampiric threats, deriving pleasure from their nature, clubbing at vamp-hot spot Fangtasia, posing endlessly.

The most problematic characters are brother and sister Lafayette Reynolds (Nelson Ellis - The Soloist) and Tara Thornton (Rutina Wesley- Numb3rs). True Blood gives these roles huge importance in first series and sets them up with much promise, only to fall back on stereotypes which border on the offensive. In a town populated by hicks, the quick-thinking and witty Lafeyette is presented as the show's most entertaining and subversive character. But as the series develops, his falls back on cliche and convention. Introduced as a chef, he's then a roadie, a drug dealer, and finally- a gay male prostitute. Witticisms are replaced by tired dialogue that almost pertains to write itself- much in the same way Samuel L Jackson is guaranteed to say 'motherfucker' in any given film. The plot involving his sister is of equally bad taste. Tara seeks the approval of her mother, a violent alcoholic who believes that she's possessed by a demon. Mother then undergoes a voodoo exorcism, leading to a patronisingly simplistic mother-daughter reconciliation. The deployment of black stereotypes here, both in Lafeyette's character and in Tara's storyline, seem designed to evoke a kind of unrefined 'Southern Truth'- but are unbelievable as plots and unpalatable as entertainment.

Despite a limited imagination, True Blood has garnered a following both here and in America (where it's been commissioned for a third series) based on it's juxtaposition of vampirism and risque sexuality. Creator Alan Ball has openly admitted that he paid little attention to recent vampire fiction before working on True Blood, and it shows. Comfortable with relying on the progress made by others, True Blood is an entertaining but unremarkable series offering conventional vampires and stereotypes where characters should be.

First published in Sound Screen

Saturday, 10 October 2009


I am bound to this art
like a sprouting plant
from a muddy red flowerpot
perched delicately,

Tendered and treated,
Such ordered clutter.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Lethal Bizzle - Go Hard: Review

Riding a wave of indie acceptance comes the third album from Walthamstow's Lethal Bizzle. Since his last record dropped, Bizzle has enjoyed a high ranking on the NME cool list and acquired a host of mainstream rock buddies, some of whom contribute here. One may forgive him for feeling like he's at the top of his game, but on this evidence, all the swagger is misplaced.

The problem with this album is that it's derivative, both musically and lyrically. From start to finish 'Go Hard' sounds content merely to go where others have led. The opening salvo of 'Money Power Respect Fame' and lead-single/title track 'Go Hard' are anthems to the kind of mafioso gangsta lifestyle usually associated with American hip-hop. The messages, however authentic or not, are all-too familiar. When later in the record, Biz claims that "living in London is like living in the Middle East", there's not the sense that anyone, least of all Bizzle, really believes it. Conventions of the genre, maybe- ego and swagger. But when he famously called out David Cameron out last year for making similar remarks without the authenticity of lived experience to back it up, Bizzle took upon himself a certain responsibility.

Musically too, it's a slow start to a record which by it's very name should be entitled to open with a bang. Beats are initially tempered and sonically thin throughout, as is much of the production. A study published recently found that teenagers prefer the sound quality of their mp3 players to vinyl, and 'Go Hard' sounds very much like it was produced with this demographic in mind. 'Crazy Nightmare' was recorded with Fruity Loops, the retro beats software. The vocal mixing isn't much better either, sloppy multitracking of takes giving some verses a lack of clarity. Elsewhere, 'Push it' appropriates Salt'n Pepa's standard for what must be it's millionth reuse, slamming it against a sub-Calvin Harris chorus. The electro-octaving of 'Going out tonight' provides ample foil for Lethal B to tell us that he's, yes, going out tonight. It's a euphoric message for a partisan crowd of ravers, or it's meant to be. Rockstar, a Gallows-powered literal foray into the attractive hedonism of guitar rock merely evokes painful memories of the nu-metal era.

Perhaps this is all a reflection of where Lethal Bizzle is at. Clearly aiming to for the 'crossover' market, the album calls in favours from celebrity superproducer de jour Mark Ronson on 'Lost my mind'. Thankfully, there isn't a horn section anywhere to be heard on the track. Ronson instead evokes the kind of harmonica riff reminiscent of so much American hip-hop history. It's one of 'Go Hard's strong points, and is quite telling of the record itself. A sprawling array of derivative music and forgettable lyrics, it's the sound of an artist who has looked back on his MOBO awards, Never Mind the Buzzcocks guest appearances, controversy-baiting newspaper headlines and thought he could rest on his laurels, let the music 'happen' and watch the money roll in.

First published in Sound Screen.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Thirst: Review

The vampire is enjoying something of a renaissance of late. One was beginning to feel sorry for this once terrifying figure of the night, made safe and rendered harmless through parody and misrepresentation. Where once aristocratic counts stalked the night in search of virgin blood, now our vampires come in jeans, smoking cigarettes and wearing shades. They’re borderline camp.

But having endured such indignities, it would seem that Nosferatu is rediscovering his bite. Thirst is the latest in a welcome spate of reimaginings that update the vampire concept with contemporary social evils. A new generation of vampire fictions has emerged, with film of the year contender Let the Right One In doing much to dispel the notion of vampirism as something cool, attractive or anything but a deeply horrible, lonely experience. Thirst is very much in this tradition, exploring not outward expressions of violence but internal conflicts.

As such, it is a film of some considerable modesty. Director Park Chan-wook (Old Boy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, I’m A Cyborg But That’s OK) has crafted a complex exploration of the self, using the vampire as a foil with which to question certain moralities. The film is loosely based on Emile Zola’s novel Therese Raquin, and our protagonist here is Sang Hyun, played by Song Kang-ho (Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, The Host) – a revered priest and a man of immaculate moral standing who becomes infected while doing the Lord’s work (volunteering in medical trials). Who better to corrupt than a man of God?

Thirst enjoys the ambiguity of its opening half hour. Vampires are never mentioned by name, and when it is finally out in the open, the priest’s conversion has already occurred. It’s a retrospective diagnosis that allows the audience to connect emotionally with him before he can be labelled. As the only one in 500 to survive the medical trials, Sang Hyun develops a reputation for miracles and his church is mobbed by encamped devotees.

But he falls from grace into sin, allowing for a discussion of religiosity that doesn’t employ the traditional iconography: there are no references to holy water, fear of the cross, or other conventions of the genre popular in Western films. Korean horror has long operated along more imaginative, psychological arcs. Dismissing certain aspects of vampire mythology allows for a successful reconstruction of what makes this figure so terrifying and yet alluring.

As Sang Hyun retreats into nihilism and an affair with unappreciated housewife Tae Ju (Kim Ok-vin of Desapo Naughty Girls fame and the very image of temptation) his choices are understandable and his internal conflicts unquestionably real. The casting of Kim Ok-Vin is excellent, subverting the image of an actress who made her name winning a beauty pagaent. Chan-wook gives her a feisty role, which she performs with a maturity that never allows her character merely to play second fiddle to the protagonist’s descent into lust and depravity. Both characters undergo transformations of sorts and both speak convincingly of the human condition. Plot and character are evoked intricately, and the film mirrors this level of detail in its composition. An initial palette of pastels gives way, as the plot unfurls, to stark contrasts and bright colours in a move which mirrors the protagonist’s darkening existence.

Despite the odd nod to the gothic, and a generous smattering of crimson towards the film’s end, Thirst is hardly a horror film at all. Conventional scares are few and far between, but raising the hairs on the back of your neck was never this film’s intention: the overriding tone is light and it’s frequently funny.

Thirst is a typically accomplished film from a director and production team from whom we should expect nothing less. Going a long way towards undoing the damage wrought by the pop culture vamps that America so readily churns out, Thirst is an intelligent and imaginative addition to the canon of vampire films that refuses to descend into parody.

First published in Sound Screen.