Saturday, 31 July 2010

Secret Garden Party Thursday/Friday: Review

Secret Garden Party has come and gone then, for another year. Sound Screen went, saw and conquered all. Forgive us our indiscretions but as Secret Garden Party aspires to be a festival like no other, we felt it appropriate to, rather than give individual reviews of bands or musicians per se, offer a more lucid account of our weekend’s gardening.

We arrived around Thursday lunchtime and after a brief fumble with our tent, began a once-over of the festival site. First impressions left us wide eyed with wonder: rolling hills and sparse woodland clung around a magnificent lake at the site’s epicenter. A tour of the site only perked our curiosity further. At seemingly every turn, it was noticeably that immense care and consideration had gone into transforming this private estate into an alternate reality. In every nook and cranny was tucked some small beauty, from the matchstick house that adorned the inside of one tree, to the cryptic signposts (“you are now entering a reality-testing area”)that were strewn throughout the site. The overall impression was one of immense vibrancy, the glorious July sun providing the perfect foil for this beautiful place to blossom.

Whilst the festival proper would start the next day, our Thursday was not spent in any state of anticipation. Stumbling upon a museum of curiosities aboard a disused train carriage, we were invited by two dashing chaps in Victorian get-up to bear witness to the shocking power of electric cucumbers. We moved around the site, and happened across the Guerilla Science tent where a seminar on lucid dreaming was happening. The lecturer offered insights into how we can raise our awareness during dream-states, and testimonies from the audience of fellow gardeners attested to the power of the human subconscious. It was noticeable that whilst music hadn’t started on the main stages, a lot of the tents and independently –run venues at the festival were putting on music that begun that evening. On a recommendation, we caught a set from one of London’s most interesting outfits. The Boxettes are a five-piece a-capella girl group, ostensibly led by Female World Beatbox Champion Bellatrix Ehresmann. Theirs was a finely honed set, delivered with precision. It was short, but held the audience captive. Boxettes have an unconventional a capella sound, with tight beatbox work set against dreamy, sundrenched harmonics as each of the girls took turns narrating through melody over the top. Lyrically, their work seemed to focus on classic themes of love and lust, but were retold with a omniscient sense of distance. These were yarns to recount, folk tales of love lost and of self-empowerment, made for recital in a soulful hip-hop. By it’s end, the tent was full and bouncing to every beat and scratch.

Friday came, and with it the first full day of music. We started our day, however, with a swim in the lake. A quick hop off the custom-made ‘wibbly-wobbly’ bridge, and the cooling lake waters provided the perfect start to our day. Onto the music , then! It all started with a dreamy set from Leeds’ Submotion Orchestra. A tight mix of dub-influenced bass and live electronics overhead, it was a relaxed and emotive introduction to the day’s bill. Following their set, the six members of Tin Roots took to the stage and the tempo was raised. Vocalist Ruby Taylor gliding soulfully over her bands’ genre mashing, a style that took in reggae, soul and contemporary blues against an everpresent metronome of hip-hop beats. The lively set went down a treat, and was topped by an inspired cover of Miike Snow’s recent hit single ‘Animal’, here reinvented with trumpets and sax as a bouncy ska number.

On the main stage, pop starlet Marina was entertaining the kids with all of her Diamonds, a rabble of tweens forming a pseudo-pit in front of the stage and gleefully singing along with her. Frankly, this reviewer doesn’t see quite what the fuss was about, but the inclusion of a couple of token pop acts on an otherwise musically sound bill shouldn’t detract from what was an altogether fantastic line up. It’s hard to say whether punters attend Secret Garden Party in any way for the music on show, but the line up didn’t relent in providing wonderfully summery tunes, immaculately performed.

Steve Mason followed, performing tracks from recent solo album ‘Boys Outside’. This reviewer has always had a soft spot for Mason’s introspecting crooning, throughout his career with Beta Band and that affection continues. For me, this set could have lasted forever. Mason was warm, conversational, inflicted with the mood of the occasion. Although his songwriting has never been that musically complicated, this simple craft allows for an enormous outpouring of emotional weight. Closing the set with the rare ep track ‘Walk the Earth’, it was a euphoric ending to a set that many people seemed to genuinely appreciate.

And so we made our way back to the Chai Wallah tent, where accomplished Bristol act Yes Sir Boss were preparing for by far the day’s heaviest set. A fine group of musicians, YSB seem able to draw from a multitude of influences whilst rounding these into an impressively cohesive whole. Their five members, including a two piece horn section, gallivanted through a rousing set which opened with the stomping ‘Christian Soldier’- a ska-influenced rock number that had the entire room pogo’ing. The band were clearly in their stride and enjoying every moment; the interplay between guitarist Luke Potter and bassist Josh Stopford was a fine thing to see, and the audience reciprocated with an outpouring of love. Arguably, though, it was vocalist Matt Sellors who captured the hearts of this captive audience; growling in hisses and fits at the microphone, thrashing at a disheveled guitar, at once both coy and brazen. It was an enthralling set, closed with a monster rendition of their eponymous single- it’s juggernaut riff sending the audience into a frenzy.

This moment was only topped by what was about to occur. After a short break, they returned, promising a very special guest, and they did not disappoint: R&B singer Joss Stone appearing, clearly beaming, to a rapturous response. Stone and the band (with help from Smerin’s Anti Social Club) whipped through a electric performance o f ’Come Together’, an explosion caught somewhere between the Beatles’ croon and Michael Jackson’s showmanship. This was a fitting end, a euphoric opportunity to ramp guitar amps to eleven- Stone was impeccable, from the moment her mouth opened and that first note resonated around tent. It is a sad irony that in her, we probably have one of a generation’s finest voices, but that too often not been self-evident. Here she was in her element, set against a proper band of rock musicians, making the kind of noise that makes R&B sound like elevator music. This was a ‘festival moment’, there was no doubt about it, the kind of gig that confounded expectations and raised the bar for the rest of the weekend.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Big Boi: Sir Lucious Leftfoot, the son of Chico Dusty: Review

It’s refreshing to encounter such an effortlessly forward thinking hip-hop record as Sir Lucious Leftfoot:The Son of Chico Dusty. Big Boi has made a masterful album of perfectly crafted and hugely inventive pop songs, whilst showing off the full extent of his microphone repertoire. It’s an assured example of what commercial hip-hop should sound like in 2010.

Mm hmmm.

Commercially oriented hip-hop, which is to say- music which embraces the mainstream, has always tread a precarious tightrope of authenticity, from it's knowingly pandering to audience expectation, to confounding it and pushing the culture forward. But whilst the stage has never been better set for rap artists to get their fifteen minutes- too often, the ones that make it have fallen into the former category, only for their original fans to cry "sell out" (read: Dizzy Rascal). Prominent artists have been reduced to bit-part raps on a chart-topping middle-eight (Clipse on Justin Timbalake’s Like I Love You), or the parodic re-performance of nihilistic street-hustling, real or imaginary. That posteuring and game-playing could’ve become an inherent part of the lexicon- of course some swagger is perfectly valid, but not for it’s own sake.

Whilst no serious hip-hop fan could doubt Antwon ‘Big Boi’ Patton’s mic credentials, it’s been a shame that he’s had to live in Outkast compadre Andre 3000’s effervescent shadow. A new audience of casual hip-hop listeners bought the Outkast double album, but only ever spun 'The Love Below', dismissing 'Big Boi's offering as juvenile thug-talk, therein irrelevant to their existences. Rather than comparing the records on merit, Patton was ignored on the basis of an incorrect presumption. But were it not for his bandmate releasing 'Hey Ya!', Big Boi would have been sitting on single of the year for 'I Like The Way u Move'. But with his debut solo album for Def Jam, Big Boi should dispell any of those comparisons. This is his moment, and he knows it.

The record is enamored with the grandiose, but whereas similarly pop-inclined rapper Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III was a triumph of style over substance, watching it's central performer became more fascinating than listening to his records- Sir Lucious Leftfoot is a collection of wonderful songs, delivered with a flawless consistency- it’s central character only a conduit for the craft.

It’s refreshing that whilst he's no philosopher, Big Boi avoids the trappings of gangsta-nostalgia. Yes, he pays it lip service- but only by indulging it with irony. Predomionantely, it's a relentless flow of puns, aphorisms and word-play. Even on songs like Be Still, where after a minute’s music you can’t really fathom how Patton is gonna find space to rap between the avant-garde beat work- it’s an unwarranted fear. As soon as he opens his mouth, the music instantly twists to his voice, as though there isn’t a beat in the world he couldn’t rap over. His is a dextrose and malleable voice, able to shift and turn in a microsecond. On the carnivalesque Night Night, he seems to invent new ways of rhyming in metre, putting syllables where they just didn’t fit before. Pay attention, and your jaw drops. His flow is playful, unpredictable but engrossing, flirting with rhythm- never staying in a groove for too long. One moment arguing against beats, only to then conspire with them.

"Lucious. Loo-shus. Yeah, that's right!"
"Lucious. Loo-shus. Yeah, that's right!"

Over the record’s 57 minutes, there’s a staggering amount of ideas fighting for competition. Rather than establishing a globe-trotting style akin to Mos Def’s fine recent work The Ecstatic, Patton crafts these into a cohesive whole. The first listen might seem daunting- at any single moment there’s just so much happening. On opening track Daddy Fat Sax, dreamy 80s synths compete with military drums, vocoder samples are twisted, and casiotone glitches fly in the stratosphere. The effect is powerful if completely uncategorisable- it’s ability to effect a feeling of both serenity and momentum at once.

Similarly, after Tangerine’s fuzzed guitar has lulled you into a driven haze, a wild electric lead trades places with a reverb-heavy jazz piano- taking turns to enforce a change on the track’s mood. It’s forever inventive, a trick carried over the 16 tracks, employing both respect for loops and full mastery of both studio and songwriting. The results are dynamic, transformative, joyful songs. Patton just makes it sound easy, an impression that betrays the 3 years plus that went into the record’s production.

You put it on for the tunes; numbers like Shutterbugg and Tangerine showing off the grace of quality instrumentation and bright arrangement- but you stick around for the rhymes. Describing the record as his ‘Luke Skywalker becoming a Jedi moment’, it’s the sound of an enormously talented rapper with years of experience on his peers, knowing that when you’re good- go with it.