Update on My Blog

I’ve been absent on here for a few weeks, and there’s a good reason for that… I’M MOVING TO CHINA! Tomorrow!!

I’m going to teach English in Guangzhou, which is the largest city in the south – it’s pretty near to Hong Kong. Needless to say, I’ve been busy getting my work visa and everything else sorted, so I haven’t been able to keep up with as many new films and albums as I’d like to. What I have caught up with hasn’t inspire me to write about them, either, which is another reason I’ve been silent. I was looking forward to writing about Blade Runner 2049, being a huge fan of the original, but frankly I don’t think it’s good enough. The critical adoration it’s received makes me feel a little uneasy, as it tends to overlook huge problems with the pacing, acting, dialogue, and even some of the basic plot elements. I don’t get, I just plain don’t get, certain critics who have said that it’s a better film than the original – it’s not even better than Logan, which is a far from perfect film, but is still my favourite blockbuster in what’s been a very disappointing year.

Another reason I’ve been quiet lately is that I’ve started writing for The Young Folks, an American reviews website. It’s voluntary, but it’s a lot of fun as I’ve been able to write pieces on older music that I love as well as more recent stuff. Here’s my review of Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP in case you’re interested, and my review of Tricky’s latest (mediocre) album ununiform that I wrote for them. I’ve just finished a piece on Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love which was a joy to revisit and write about, it should be up soon.

The final reason I haven’t been posting on here lately is that I’ve been editing a film that I made with my grandma, interviewing her friends, older people, about their views on Brexit. The results were fascinating, because in my hometown of Lewes most older people actually voted to Remain and were horrified by the outcome of the referendum, unlike the rest of the country where older people were much more likely to vote Leave. That’s because it’s a middle class community full of retired academics from Sussex University and London, what the Daily Mail would describe as ‘elites’ no doubt. But they’ve lived through a lot, most of them through WWII and all of them through the formation of the EU, so I think they’re worthwhile and fascinating to listen to, and you can often feel the weight of history hanging over their carefully chosen words. Here’s the video, in case you’re interested:

I haven’t decided what to do with this blog while I’m in China; censorship and a shortage of cinemas will sadly make reviewing films a lot trickier, and I don’t know how much of my listening time the music reviews for The Young Folks will end up taking. It’s possible I could start writing about my experiences of teaching in China instead. We’ll see.

But I’ll carry on coming over to WordPress to check out what you’re all doing, for sure. And if you don’t hear from me for a while, I wish you all the best in the near future and hope y’all carry on with your excellent blogging work.


Prophets of Rage: Prophets of Rage (2017) – Album Review


Public Enemy + Cypress Hill + Rage Against the Machine = FUCK TRUMP3.

So goes the formula for this group, formed during last year’s appalling US election campaign, which smashes Chuck D and DJ Lord from Public Enemy, B-Real from Cypress Hill, Tom Morello and the rhythm section from Rage Against the Machine, all together in a Hadron Collider of rage.

Don’t use the word ‘supergroup’ though – as Tom Morello told Rolling Stone last year: ‘We’re not a supergroup, we’re an elite force of revolutionary musicians determined to confront this mountain of election year bullshit, and confront it head-on with Marshall stacks blazing.’

Erm, ok then Tom. To be fair, I do understand what he’s trying to say – most supergroups are formed in order to massage their member’s egos and make them feel self-important, whereas Prophets of Rage have a specific purpose that exists outside of themselves, which is to create a ‘revolution’ I guess. Yep, I’m being snide: I don’t believe these chaps are any more capable of starting a genuine revolution than Russell Brand.

But then I like Russell Brand, quite a bit actually, because he’s the rare celebrity who genuinely cares about improving himself and the world around him, even if his confusion and egocentrism often gets in the way of results. What’s more, he talks in a genuinely musical way, with a casual poetry that is quite absorbing on a surface level.

So it is too with Prophets of Rage: they don’t have the discipline to really change the world, but anyone expecting that from them is missing the real satisfaction, which is at the surface level: they’re rock stars and they rock pretty fucking hard. Anyone looking to rock stars to effect genuine change is delusional at best, so just sit back and enjoy the ride. If it gives you an outlet for expressing repressed anger about the current political scene, that’s great, but don’t expect any Trump fans to suddenly jump on board the progress train because a rap-metal album is yelling ‘No hatred! Fuck racists!’ at them (the chorus of ‘Unfuck the World’).

Me, I hate Trump and the way the world is going so much that I’m thankful for any soundtrack to vent my frustrations, and this album does the trick. Even if it never comes close to the subtlety of It Takes a Nation of Millions, the fist-pumping calls to action here make you feel a part of a community who genuinely care, if only for 40 minutes. Then it’s back to watching the news and feeling western democracy’s collective sanity eroding away…

It gets me pissed off and head-banging more than any other metal album I’ve heard this year, which is a good thing, when that anger is channelled into a cause rather than directionless, as is the case with so much heavy metal. And if Tom Morello falls back on his collection of sound effects rather than communicating genuine revolutionary fervour on his solos, the Rage Against the Machine rhythm section is the musical highlight here, particularly Tim Commerford on bass who funks it up to provide the catchiest moments – check him out on ‘Unfuck the World’ and ‘Smashit’.

His funk also allows the band’s roar to accommodate the three rappers, who manage to react with their heavy metal without combusting. Predictably, Chuck D is the most absorbing to listen to, his indomitable bass being one of the most consistent pleasures in musical history. Yet B-Real arguably gets more chances to shine, adding a touch of lightness on the weed-supporting ‘Legalize Me’ and then suddenly getting serious about homelessness on ‘Living on the 110’ to prove he’s not just a Flavor Flav. The difference of their unmistakeable timbres makes for intrinsic interest throughout.

I wish they’d call out Donald Trump more often, and by name. But as a collection of political sloganeering it has the same chant-along power of RATM’s ‘fuck you I won’t do what you tell me!’ It’s far more likely to move drugged-up crowds at a festival than get people marching on Washington, true. But then, ever since the 60s, that tradition has gifted us with a lot of terrific music, and if this doesn’t stand with any of the hippie-era’s greats, it’ll do the trick just fine at this awful moment in time.


The Bob’s Burgers Music Album (2017) – Album Review

The Bob's Burgers Music Album.png

After writing yesterday’s post about The National’s new album I was reminded to revisit this collection, in which the band feature on a bonus EP called ‘Bob’s Buskers’ (along with St. Vincent and Stephin Merritt) singing songs from the show. To hear the perennially humourless Matt Berninger cooing along to ‘Bad Stuff Happens in the Bathroom’ is an unmissable treat, especially for those who take indie-rock’s pretensions with a pinch of bath water salt.

The rest of The Bob Burger’s Music Album is comprised of 107 original songs taken from the acerbic and potty-mouthed American animated sitcom about a family who run a burger joint. The average length of the tracks is just over a minute – they make their point quickly and leave in a rush. As such, for those who aren’t well acquainted with the show, the experience of sitting and listening to them all in order can be an overwhelming experience, an onslaught of silly voices and fart jokes rushing by without subtlety or grace. The first time I listened all the way through it gave me a headache.

But revisiting it has assured me of the quality of the music here. An ace review over on The Skinny describes, better than a non-fanatic such as myself ever could, the importance of music to the show’s overall scheme. Bob’s son is supposed to be some kind of 11 year-old musical genius, a modern-day Mozart obsessed with scatology and cheap pop songs, and as such great care has been taken to make the satirical numbers genuinely musical, in honour of his genius. There are chirpy pastiches of James Brown (‘Funky Finger’), riot grrrl (‘Bad Girls’), musical theatre (‘Work Hard or Die Trying, Girl’), and country (‘I’ll Trade You These Tears/I Won’t Go Solo On You), to name a few. There are covers of pop perennials such as ‘One Way or Another’, ’99 Red Balloons’, and ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ (changed to ‘Don’t You Love Cotton Candy’). All of these homages are, surprisingly, very respectfully done – the satire never descends into being needlessly gloating or cruel. And the production is just wonderful, crisp and clear, and with superb musicianship audible, particularly on the bass guitar and banjo which appear throughout. The ditties all have bounce, and are crafted with care: this is no cash-in hack job.

As for the jokes, they come thick and fast too, so it takes quite a few listens to catch most of them. Again, not being a fanatic of the show, I’m sure I missed a lot more. But there are many that tickle me: ‘The Prince of Persuasia’ is a laugh-a-second riot from the perspective of a douchebag misogynist dating guru (like Tom Cruise in Magnolia), ‘T-I-N-A’ is an acronym that ends with ‘Asthma’, ‘Taffy Butt’ reels Cyndi Lauper in for her best performance since 1983’s She’s So Unusual, and ‘The Spirits of Christmas’ has Kevin Kline repeating ‘bourbon’ until it starts to sound like ‘burping’ in a truly surreal coup.

There are plenty of missteps, but that’s just the nature of these kind of rapid-fire comedy skits, and a remarkable number really do hit the mark. It may be impossible to sit and listen to the whole thing in one sitting, but when you split it up into digestible chunks, it transforms into really top-notch entertainment.

And it proves once and for all that ‘if it ain’t man on elephant love, it ain’t worth singin’ about!’


The National: Sleep Well Beast (2017) – Album Review


The cliché about bands like these is that they’re ‘growers’, i.e. you have to play their albums quite a few times before they begin to make sense. That cliché happens to be true with The National. Put on any of their discs and the first thing you’ll notice is Matt Berninger’s mumbling baritone, which can be quite alienating in how it drolly resists emotional affectations.

But give them a fair chance and the music starts to blossom – including Berninger’s vocals, which like so many rock singer’s gain heft when you start to notice how astutely they pivot on his natural-born limitations. There’s a great moment for instance on Sleep Well Beast where Berninger sings about seeing his wife, Carin Besser (who co-wrote many of the songs), for the first time: ‘I wanted to ask if you could stay’, and he deliberately misses the note on ‘stay’, making him sound just like an immature little boy afraid to ask his crush out on a date. It works; moments like these accrue until you start to become pretty impressed with what you’re hearing.

The other easy entry point for newbies is Bryan Devendorf’s drumming, which is obviously virtuosic without ever being distracting, and conjures up unusual rhythms whilst tricking you by repeating them until they sound obvious. Noticing his distinctive patters can lift The National’s music from being just good background music into your foreground consciousness, and once it’s there you can then begin to notice other excellent things such as Aaron Dessner’s guitar and the subtle musical arrangements. On this album, orchestral flourishes and electronic distortions on the intros and outros subtly comment on the moodscape being created, without ever dipping into fullblown melodrama, as Elbow tend to do, a band with whom they are frequently (for some reason) compared.

I think the first half of Sleep Well Beast is their best work to date. On ‘Day I Die’ they reach the level of genuinely anthemic for the first time, with Berninger’s best-ever vocal searching for an answer to the moving question ‘The day I die/Where will we be?’, his voice projecting the last word harder than he’s ever done before, into the uncertain future that his mind is conjuring up in a weed-induced haze. ‘Walk it Back’ is a rather alarming mumble-rap in which Berninger at last sounds as ancient as Leonard Cohen used to, and where he’s interrupted by a truly bizarre sample of Karl Rove (senior advisor to George W. Bush) talking about ‘creating other new realities’ that proves the concept of ‘alternative facts’ is nothing new (Rove hated the song, which is perhaps its most glowing endorsement). Lead single ‘The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness’ finds space for Aaron Dessner’s stinging guitar solo, lighting up spectacularly in order to contravene the idea of total darkness. And ‘Turtleneck’ is a straight-up garage rocker, wild and unhinged and finished in just 3 minutes, a flash in the pan where the band are normally content to simmer.

These are all career highlights; the pace doesn’t sustain. Although Dessner’s piano playing is real nice throughout, it dominates far too many of the ballads on the album’s second half, undermining the band’s usually spare aesthetic. Most of the tracks towards the end meander onwards way too long. They wander off into the rumbling darkness and tend to get lost, particularly on the title track, and the lyrics aren’t quite interesting enough to save them.

Still, this deserves a promoted place amongst their oeuvre, and the first half of the album (plus ‘Guilty Party’ and ‘Dark Side of the Gym’ on side two) should keep you coming back.


Detroit (2017) – Film Review


Directors often care quite a bit about criticism, more than they let on – take for instance D.W. Griffith, whose The Birth of a Nation was correctly interpreted as a piece of KKK recruitment propaganda, and therefore followed it up with a lament against Intolerance to prove that he wasn’t a racist (the jury’s still out on that one). Or Francis Ford Coppola, who believed that critics and audiences didn’t fully understand that The Godfather was intended as a critique of the mafia, so aimed to make Part II a much less romanticised vision (I’m pretty certain he succeeded – it’s my favourite film).

I think that Detroit similarly aims to redress criticisms levelled at Kathryn Bigelow’s previous effort, Zero Dark Thirty, which controversially included scenes of torture without entirely condemning the practice, hinting that it was necessary in order to find and kill Bin Laden. Detroit, in contrast, unambiguously decries all forms of brutality used in the name of the law. The violence used by the police to extract information from suspected criminals is shown to be excessive and to yield no positive results, tied up as it is with systemic racial prejudice.

Like Intolerance and The Godfather Part II, the urgency imparted by the director’s need for greater moral clarity makes for a better, more powerful and more interesting film. Detroit is at once more gripping and cerebral than Zero Dark Thirty because it communicates a true sense of horror at how humans in a position of power can abuse it, rather than simply showing the good guys hunting bad guys. David Thomson described Zero Dark Thirty as being like a ‘John Wayne movie’, but that’s not a charge that could be levelled at Detroit – unless that movie was The Searchers.

Detroit concerns a real life incident that took place during the city’s race riots of 1967, following the unlawful arrests of African-American partygoers. A man shoots a toy gun out of a hotel in a black neighbourhood, and is mistaken for a sniper, which leads to a violent police raid and a roundup of the usual suspects, a.k.a. all the young black men. These men are threatened, intimidated, beaten, and otherwise physically abused by the bellicose local cops, with the state police quickly backing off, not wanting to get caught up in a ‘civil rights case’.

Bigelow directs these terrible scenes with a real feeling for the unfortunate people caught up in the crisis, and effectively communicates the terror of being young and black and confronted by a hostile government-sanctioned repressive force. There are two white women who also get beaten and stripped by the aggressive cops; they are appalled by the prospect of these women having possibly slept with black men, in a similar way to how John Wayne reacts to Natalie Wood being married off to an Indian chief in The Searchers. Sexual insecurities often play into racism: ‘what’s wrong with us?’ one cop asks the women, self-pityingly, pathetically.

Will Poulter plays the ringleader of the racists, acting the part of a young policeman with an intensity that belies, or perhaps is exacerbated by, the babyish nature of his face. It’s his finest performance to date, and also easily the best in the film, one that intriguingly hints at some of the psychological deficiencies that lead to racist behaviour. He remains entirely engrossing, whilst inviting zero sympathy. Bigelow never quite digs as deep as Poulter does – she generally isn’t as concerned with the roots and causes of racism as with the surface suspense that its deployment creates. Never mind: her acknowledgment of it as an unavoidable element of the American judicial system is progress enough.

Apart from Poulter, the rest of the ensemble cast is solid, but nobody really stands out – the script doesn’t quite allow them to. John Boyega does well enough as a grocery store security guard who works across the street from the hotel, and who gets caught up in the mayhem and tries to de-esculate the tension between the black citizens and the white cops. He winds up being labelled an Uncle Tom figure and made legally culpable for the brutality, the worst of both worlds. Boyega has a star’s aura, but is restrained here, not tussling for the spotlight, perhaps a more impressive feat than his turn in Star Wars. Because it allows Algee Smith to be the film’s heart: he plays Larry, a singer who auditions for Motown and winds up rejecting their offer, after the harrowing events of the film take their toll. It’s a rejection of the company’s (partially) white audience, turning his back on them metaphorically, like Miles Davis used to do in concert.

So far this challenging film’s failed to recoup its $34 million budget, whilst Zero Dark Thirty made a healthy profit of over $90 million. This is a bitter indictment of modern audiences, sadly telling us, as if we needed to be told, that there is a far greater appetite for gung-ho action flicks than for piercing critiques of the justice system in America. But then again, times haven’t really changed: Intolerance and The Godfather Part II made less money than their predecessors too.

So go see Detroit, to show studio execs that there is still an appetite for tough-minded cinema, at least amongst a few of us.


Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie (2017) – Film Review


Yesterday I reviewed the bleakest film I’ve seen in years, today it’s the silliest. Every bit as good in its own way, though. It’s a film so fresh and enjoyable that one critic over at Roger Ebert’s website even overexcitedly compared it to No Country for Old Men (in terms of reference for its source text)!

I like it quite a bit myself, but not that much. Based on Dav Pilkey’s series of potty-humoured novels for kids about a couple of best friends, George and Harold (an interracial bromance akin to JD and Turk in Scrubs), who accidentally turn their headteacher into the titular superhero – it’s not War and Peace, hell it’s not even The Wind in the Willows, but it breezes by with enough charm to whisk you up in its underclothed trail.

The key to Captain Underpants‘ success is one that Marvel and DC should be paying attention to: it doesn’t take itself remotely seriously, keeping the gag rate coming at a near-Airplane! level. If only Spider-Man: Homecoming had been half as funny as a few critics tried to claim, it still wouldn’t have come close to matching this kiddie’s film in terms of laughs-a-minute. Screenwriter Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek, The Muppets) does a terrific job of distilling the puerile essence of Dav Pilkey’s books. There are many laugh-out-loud moments: George and Harold contemplating life apart as best friends in different classes with ‘long distance relationships never work!’; a supervillain whose full name, get this, is Professor Pee-Pee Diarrheastein Poopypants, Esq.; the moment where one character is told ‘you have no sense of humour, like a chair or a supermodel’; a random excursion into live action sock puppets…

Unlike Marvel, the pace is kept impressively brisk – the film feels like it was made by a 5 year-old going AWOL on sugar. Character development is therefore minimal, which means that this doesn’t have the rich textures of the best Pixar films. And if you have children, bear in mind that taking them to this won’t impart any great moral wisdom beyond ‘laughing is good’.

Still, as a superhero film it never stops laughing at its own ridiculousness the entire way through, so that it can be viewed (and celebrated) as a U-rated cousin to Deadpool. Our film culture, and particularly our comic book film culture, needs to be reminded to lighten up once in a while, or else it risks becoming like a chair or a supermodel.


It Comes at Night (2017) – Film Review


The bleakest film I’ve seen in years, it’s taken me quite a while to digest this one. I’m finally prepared to recommend it. Peter Bradshaw described it as ‘a downbeat cousin to 28 Days Later or The Road’, which is pretty accurate, if a little offputting. Because It Comes at Night actually is worth seeking out, even if you recoil from onscreen nihilism, as I do.

It balances its irredeemably bleak vision of a post-apocalyptic future with a compelling and relentlessly pushing narrative that sweeps away all objections in its path – only afterwards does the despair of everything that you’ve seen wash over you, like the creeping ‘it’ of the title.

What is ‘it’? We are never quite sure, and that vagueness has annoyed some horror aficionados, but it actually serves to increase the lingering sense of dread in my mind. We know that ‘it’ causes black abscesses to appear all over humans, which are highly contagious and eventually cause the one suffering to die. We get the impression that ‘it’ has caused the end of civilised society, leaving families alone in the wilderness to fend for themselves, frightened to get in contact with other people, because who knows whether someone’s infected? We watch in the beginning as ‘it’ claims the life of an old man, whose son-in-law must shoot him. This is a future Wild West in which all sentimentality is banished, a frontier reached at the end of humanity. And our cowboy, the one killing his father-in-law, is Paul, played by the laconic Joel Edgerton, who must protect his family at all costs from the invisible ‘it’. Paul has a wife, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo – they’re a mixed race couple, and interestingly this is never discussed), and a teenage son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). Plus a dog – watch out for the dog.

Later on this family, who live alone in the woods, are compelled to take in another family to their abode. They’re clean, and what’s more bring farm animals for food. I don’t need to tell you that this won’t end well. Trust is a luxury that these future family units can’t afford.

It’s an impressively stark and unrelenting vision from young director Trey Edwards Shults, who never lets the tension dissipate, whilst finding time to explore Travis’ sexual frustrations in a land barren of possible procreation. The ‘it’ that comes at night is never sex, to his disappointment. Meanwhile the camera lingers on haunted faces and ruptured bodies with equal interest, displaying a clear debt to the most underrated of filmmakers, David Cronenberg, in its clear fascination with body horror’s psychological devastation. Nothing is more terrifying than an internal invader, a pernicious disease, one that even a cowboy like Paul can’t shoot at. You can only watch, in horror, as it absorbs all of those around you, even those you love.

So it is with the film: all you can do is watch, passive and exasperated, yet riveted, as bleakness slowly devours the screen.


Hamell on Trial: Tackle Box (2017) – Album Review


Tackle Box’s opening two tracks grab Donald Trump by the pussy that he is and refuse to let go. The first starts off by sampling one of literally hundreds of infamous quotes from the election campaign: ‘I’d like to punch him in the face’ (talking about a protester). The song’s called ‘Safe’. The second worries aboutbringing up a son in a country where the leader and first lady have no ‘spiritual core’. The song’s called ‘The More You Know’.

As you can tell from these examples, irony abounds on Tackle Box. Most ironic of all are four interludes, interspersed across the album, about a Froggy who goes to school and grows up to have a Froggy wife and kids. These cartoonish moments seem wildly incongruous at first. But then it occurs that there’s currently an orange buffoon sitting inside that serious institution we call the White House, so why not have a green frog interrupting the flow of a serious political album? It’s no more or less unlikely. All rules are out of the window in America, and on this album.

Not that Hamell on Trial, a.k.a. middle-aged singer-songwriter Ed Hamell, has been much beholden to rules in the past. He defies easy categorisation, though he’s been classed as ‘anti-folk’ in some quarters; this doesn’t help much because that subgenre is itself defined by difficulty (the description on Wikipedia is ‘artists [who] seem to observe the “rules” of music, but then deliberately break them’). Hamell sure doesn’t sing pretty – in fact he barely sings at all, often preferring the spoken word with dramatic inflections. He ain’t Joan Baez, that’s for sure. So I guess that makes him anti-folk, but to me he feels more rock & roll, because of his no-bullshit voice and often harsh, difficult, and confrontational manner.

Take for instance the standout track ‘Not Aretha’s Respect (Cops)’, an anti-cop diatribe with the wordiest and most powerful chorus of the year: ‘Hey fuck face/I’m trying to teach my kid there’s some authority that needs to be respected/But we have no respect for you/Now I’m trying to teach him to NOT GET SHOT!’ Hamell plays the guitar on top with such force it’s like standing next to a helicopter, being blown backwards by the air surge. It’s the force of righteous anger, and it feels like the spirit of rock & roll to me (check out the video below, and make sure to hang around for the killer punchline at the end).

Yet rock & roll was never just about anger, and neither is Hamell on Trial. So on top of all the froggy numbers, there’s also an ode to dancing and several tributes to his wife. These moments fight Trump and racism in a more subtle way: with love, or as Hamell might put it a ‘spiritual core’. It’s a nice sentiment, one that unfortunately doesn’t quite work due to Hamell’s limited vocal ability and relexive sarcasm (he should perhaps have gone down the Stephin Merritt route, as on 69 Love Songs, of using replacement singers to sweeten the less sarcastic moments). Lana Del Rey played around with the same idea more convincingly on ‘When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing’, which used her softly floating voice to dream away the world’s troubles with a touching naïveté that Hamell is a tad too old and cynical to muster.

Hamell occasionally goes too far with his cynicism, such as on the cruel takedown of an Australian ‘Mouthy B’. The song’s savage verbally but lacks the rapier wit of peak Dylan; it leaves a sour taste. So does the lewd ‘She Ride It’, which is rather like that unfunny Father John Misty line about bedding Taylor Swift in the Oculus Rift dragged out to nearly four minutes.

But Hamell’s guitar never stops, even on these lesser moments, and neither does his eagerness to entertain – which separates him from the likes of Father John Misty. Hence why I’ll always prefer him to Misty, and to most other modern folk/anti-folk singers.


City of Ghosts (2017) – Film Review


I didn’t get on with Channel 4’s recently aired The State, a fictional account of Britons escaping to Syria to join ISIS. It opted for an unlikely, in fact downright offensive, narrative of unbelievably naïve youths going to fight for their religion (like a jihadist All Quiet on the Western Front) and being shocked by the brutality of the regime they find over there. I mean, were we really expected to believe that these youngsters, one of them travelling with a child, were totally unaware of the openly perpetrated acts of violence that ISIS had long been infamous for publishing online? An early scene saw a new recruit turn away when being shown a video of a beheading, as if in disgust to show his innate goodness; it felt entirely disingenuous, a gross simplification for the sake of establishing narrative empathy.

Go and see City of Ghosts instead, if you can. It’s the real deal, or at least as ‘real’ as any film, fictional or non-, could hope to be in depicting the unimaginable horror that is the black heart of ISIS.

It’s a documentary following a group of Syrian rebels called RBSS (Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently), who were at first established to oppose Assad. But when that dictator’s troops were forced to abandon Raqqa and the vicious cancer of ISIS filled the void as ruling power, they suddenly found themselves forced to oppose an even more dangerous enemy. We all know about the nihilistic terror of ISIS and their exceptionally brutal methods of dealing with any perceived threats to their power base or ‘religion’. Most of us quake at the thought of being targeted by ISIS, yet the heroic RBSS actively seek out this very thing, confronting the group openly and risking their lives via protracted online warfare.

The keyboard warriors of RBSS publish the videos that ISIS don’t want the world to see, namely footage of the daily chaos in Raqqa, their home city, as food supplies dwindle and schools and hospitals are forced to close. ISIS want the world’s Muslims to believe that their ‘liberated’ areas are some kind of ‘paradise’, and promote Raqqa as such in their privately made videos. So RBSS are performing a crucial role in undermining the fantasies put forward by the ISIS propaganda machine. ISIS make slick, almost entirely fictional videos inspired by Hollywood action flicks and first-person shooters such as Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto in order to capture young and stupid minds; RBSS release real leaked footage from on the ground showing the daily terrors and endless suffering endured by ordinary people at the hands of ISIS.

One RBSS operative, Hamoud, even goes so far as to claim ‘cameras are more dangerous than weapons’ in this war. That’s a fascinating idea, and he may have a point: whoever controls the footage depicting warfare in Syria also controls the public perception of the ‘truth’. And distortion of the truth is how you harvest new recruits, as ISIS know full well, which is why they soon order all satellite dishes in Raqqa to be torn down.

We are shown many shocking scenes of real life barbarity in City of Ghosts, but I won’t warn you to avoid it, even if you’re weak of stomach, because I believe everyone should see it. ISIS are every bit as heinous as the Nazis, and the freedom fighters in this film, who have been forced to flee their homeland to Turkey and then Germany, are every bit as brave as members of the resistance in the Second World War. Therefore City of Ghosts is a crucial historical document, and ought to be seen. Sadly, it rather skimps over the vast complexities of the Syrian crisis and misinterpretations of the Islamic faith, both of which resulted in the emergence of ISIS. But it works well in trying to understand the men – though not the women, we don’t get a chance to hear from them, which is another significant flaw – fighting against evil on a daily basis. It also serves as a reminder that the no. 1 group in the world to whom ISIS are causing the most harm are Muslims (which is not to ignore the savagery of the acts they’ve perpetrated against the west, of course, just to point out the people currently most at risk from them are in the middle-east).

The last scene shows the deep internal damage that ISIS have wrecked upon their fellow Syrians. A spokesman for RBSS thumbs through photos of his murdered friends and is suddenly brought to a halt, lighting up a cigarette. He begins to shake uncontrollably. We realise he’s having a panic attack, a breakdown all the more shocking considering how composed he’s appeared to be throughout the rest of the documentary. In letting down his guard, he reminds me of Tom Hanks at the end of Captain Phillips, alone and suddenly confronted with the enormity of all that he’s faced.

It’s a revelatory moment, one that puts a human face on the long-term damage caused by ISIS. And that face is a quivering, haunted wreck.


American Epic: The Sessions (2017) – Album Review


American Epic is a four-part documentary series that aired earlier this year on PBS in America and BBC Four in the UK. The first three episodes look at the lives of some of the earliest recorded American folk musicians, all of whom came from rural and very poor backgrounds, went on to make a few songs for $25 per record (more money than they’d ever seen before), and then returned to their hidden corners in the country’s great expanse – Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, even Hawaii. Most were never heard from again (there were exceptions, The Carter Family and Mississippi John Hurt being the most prominent). All of the music endures, particularly given the astonishing remastering done for these films. Meanwhile interviews with family members and contemporary musicians help to illustrate just how important these disparate strands of roots music, from all across America, have been in shaping popular music as we understand it now. Blues, gospel, country, Hawaiian, and Latin styles eventually converged to form rock & roll, in the shape of Elvis Presley, informing virtually everything we listen to today.

The fourth episode is a two-hour special called The Sessions, in which modern musicians are seen recording new songs and remakes of early folk songs on a reconstructed 1928 Western Electric machine. That machine was the first electrical recording device, and is the only one of its kind still remaining and in operation. It’s an amazing machine, one that records straight onto disc; it’s operated by a pulley that drops slowly to the ground, and when it reaches the ground, in the space of about 3 minutes, the disc suddenly stops recording. So you have less than 3 minutes to record your song, and in just one take. There’s no overdubbing or any other audio manipulation that can be made to the disc post-recording. So what you play is what you get. It captures live performances, then, attached to a single 360° microphone in the centre of a recording booth, around which the musicians must gather as if round a campfire. The stars brought in by director Bernard MacMahon and executive producers Jack White and T Bone Burnett to record on The Sessions are evidently thrilled to be in the studio, using the exact same recording device as some of their pioneering heroes. The excitement caught on camera is infectious. The film is a joy to watch.

American Epic: The Sessions is the fruit of their labour: a 2-CD, 32-track compendium of those live recordings, and they’re also a joy to listen to. The guests form an impressive variety of modern pros: Elton John, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Beck, Ashley Monroe, Alabama Shakes, Nas, Rhiannon Giddens, Los Lobos, Blind Boy Paxton, Taj Mahal, The Hawaiians… and many others, including the biggest surprise Steve Martin, who ably equips himself on banjo on a slowed-down cover of ‘Coo Coo Bird’. In fact, they all ably equip themselves, showing off their talents within the strict limits brought about by the primitive recording technology. Indeed, the tech caused some challenges: in one moment captured on the documentary, Beck found himself struggling to get his voice across on ‘Fourteen Rivers, Fourteen Floods’ above the powerful din of the gospel choir behind him, so Jack White stepped in to tell the choir that they should sing facing the wall! Fourteen takes later, ironically, they got the job done.

The album’s concept is played pretty fast and loose, with musicians being allowed to play pretty much whatever they want – within the realms of the rootsy and bluesy gestalt, of course. There are triumphs in the pure blues department: Taj Mahal tackles the gravelly groan of blues’ grandaddy Charley Patton on ‘High Water Everywhere’, audibly channeling that man’s protégée Howlin’ Wolf whilst brewing up a suitably apocalyptic storm. Then there’s Petty Lafarge’s take on ‘St. Louis Blues’, which I was biased against from the start because Louis Armstrong’s 1954 version is one of my favourite pieces of music of all time – however Lafarge still managed to blow me away by the end. There’s Alabama Shakes’ version of Memphis Minnie’s ‘Killer Diller Blues’, which is both killer and diller, I think. There’s Rhiannon Giddens’ flat-out hilarious you-gotta-come-inside-me-in-‘One Hour Mama’. There’s…

You get the point, it’s an incredibly strong set of music. All of the artists sound like they’re discovering music for the very first time. And perhaps in some sense they are.

Here’s the best of the best. Firstly: the ubiquitous Jack White, producer and audiophile extraordinaire whose enthusiasm on this project deserves our gratitude; he’s so good on ‘Matrimonial Intentions’ that a dubious lyric is brought to expressive life, as he brings worlds of humour into simple asides (‘hmm’ he sings wistfully and mockingly to himself, it seems). Secondly: Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, old pals working together again – with a touching and overt fondness for each other, they end both of their duets in warm chuckles. Thirdly: Nas, who covers the Memphis Jug Band’s blues ‘On the Road Again’ with great panache, fastforwarding 60 years to the era of gangsta rap as he does so and demonstrating the link between the two genres undeniably. He said of that song in the documentary: ‘as long as there was English and black people, there was rap.’ You better believe it.

The unsung hero of the recordings is Lillie Mae Rische, a session musician who displays prodigious chops on the fiddle and gorgeous Emmylou Harris-esque backup vocals. She regularly soars and pushes the celebrity singers to greater heights.

I won’t poop the party by pointing out the dud moments, because there are a couple. I really don’t want to do anything to prevent you from seeking out either the album or the documentary. They really are worth it. If you care at all about modern music, as you should, then this collection is relentless in its offering up of contemporary pleasures, whilst also looking back to the roots that were formative influences on everything modern generations listen to. You can’t understand the present without looking to the past.

Of course you should seek out the original 1920s and 30s folk recordings too, which are essential to gaining an understanding of 20th century music. To that end, two further soundtracks have also released as part of the American Epic project: the one-disc American Epic: The Soundtrack, and the five-disc box set American Epic: The Collection. I’m still exploring these collections, and I can’t quite vouch as to whether they match up to Harry Smith’s incredible Anthology of American Folk Music.

But I can vouch for American Epic: The Sessions: it’s truly epic, great music, and so much more.